A Neurotic Wind Player

A Neurotic Wind Player


As an oboe player, I have always had a chip on my shoulder about string players. Every time a concert “master” would strut onto stage, accepting the applause of the audience, only to turn around and command me to play an A, a wave of resentment would pass over my body. I was responsible for the whole orchestra’s tuning and suffered near panic attacks every time I would enter after 60 measures of rests with an incredibly difficult solo. I had no “section” to fall back on yet the conductor still shook the hands of the second chair violist before me! As I took on a job that had me listening to music more than playing it, I became even more enraged. New works for everything but winds! I became jealous of everyone: the beloved cello and the hip percussion, the quirky viola and, of course, the saintly piano. What was so wrong with my family of instruments? Why did no one love us? And so my sweet inferiority complex bubbled.

Winds, winds, everywhere winds

This month, however, my people, those with lips as agile as their fingers, reign supreme over the newly released recordings. Closest to my heart is an album dedicated to the Bassoon Music of the Americas, featuring talented Floridian bassoonist Jeff Keesecker as well as a multi-cultural array of music for this under-appreciated member of the double reed family. Also, winning points in my book are the woodwind quintets of David Maslanka, a composer whose mastery of timbre and expression has been a breath of fresh air to the chamber music repertoire for winds. Maslanka’s larger scale wind band compositions are also featured on another recording performed by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Wind Ensemble. His Fourth Symphony shares billing with other works by Robert Stern, Joseph Turrin, and Michael Daugherty. The oboe’s orchestral neighbor, the flute, is lavished with attention on a recording of Brian Ferneyhough‘s complex, modernist music for solo flute, piccolo, and bass flute and this instrument also gets a downtown treatment on a re-issue of Phill Niblock‘s music titled YPGPN. The latter is a double CD also featuring solo works for other wind compatriots: saxophone, trombone, sousaphone, and didjeridu. Meanwhile, the Chestnut Brass Company engage in a tribute to the music of Irving Berlin while talented classical saxophonist, Kenneth Tse, presents An American Exhibition that includes new works for saxophone by seven American composers.

Winds Around the World

I have also found that artists who are influenced by various world traditions are also usually wind-friendly and David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness! band is certainly a fine example. Mixing klezmer and rock influences, this energetic music is really all about the clarinet (and the accordion, of course.) Krakauer even busts out the shofar, a traditional horn used to mark the end of Yom Kippur, on one track. For a lighter world music experience, guitarist Eric Tingstand and oboist (yay!) Nancy Rumbel blend Celtic music, church hymns, and various new age sounds into their Acoustic Garden. And although they don’t use any wind instruments (shame, shame!), the Guarneri Underground is a multi-talented, guitar-centric project of Jeffrey Sick’s that blends everything from Middle Eastern music and Irish folk tunes to African drumming and jazz.

Spontaneous Winds

Wind instruments have always figured prominently in the world of improvised music from jazz to experimental. Two important jazz releases this month, the debut CD of the Dave Holland Big Band, anchored by his renowned quintet, and bassist Ben Allison‘s collaboration with Malian kora virtuoso Mamadou Diabate, embrace the role of wind-blown instruments. Ten of 13 members of the Big Band use their breath for more than smoking and the title track Peace Pipe says it all for Ben Allison’s outfit. Meanwhile, legendary trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith is joined by his Golden Quartet on a recording of transcendent tunes called The Year of the Elephant. Coming out of the same tradition, trumpeter/composer Hugh Ragin‘s Feel the Sunshine is full of joyous tracks and fresh ideas. For traditionalists, pop saxophonist and producer Andy Snitzer is joined by a trio of players on conservative arrangements of standards and the wind-less Greg Burk Trio can be spared the heavy-hand of my wind nationalism due to Burk’s rich compositional ideas and the skill with which they are executed.

For truly out-there music check out the experimental, improvisational-based works of composer/singer Lenore Von Stein on I Haven’t Been able to Lie and Tell the Truth, featuring a random assortment of instrumentalists and vocalists, spiced up with some German lyrics. The crux of Obbligato, featuring vocalist Mary La Rose, reed player Jeff Lederer, trombonist Steve Swell, and bassist Dominic Duval, is innovative arrangements of everything from Dolphy and Hendrix to Randy Newman. Two other improvisational recordings abandon wind instruments, but not the pioneering spirit of experimental music. The Focus Quintet, a hodgepodge of electric and acoustic instruments as well as vocals, puts forth a collection of spontaneously created and often stark tracks while Focus Quintet member Chris Forsyth’s noisy guitar and drum project present eight dark, freely improvised pieces. Forsyth was a busy bee this month, also collaborating with Ernesto Diaz-Infante on march, where the concentration was on creating sounds that one would never imagine came from guitars, pianos, or drums alone.

An Upstanding Member of the Community

Of course, composers who take on orchestral music are forced to reconcile with the winds and many of the large-scale works featured on recordings this month feature winds prominently. The Marco Polo label has released a sampler of suites from classic films including the eerie and campy “Look Out! It’s King Kong Coming” by film music guru Max Steiner. A disc of Ferde Grofé‘s geographically inspired oeuvre (not the Grand Canyon Suite…) and a “Super Audio CD” of Roy Harris’ Symphony No. 2 and Morton Gould’s Symphony No. 3 reflect the trends in Americana symphonic music of the mid-century. For newer, more cosmopolitan works, give a listen to new recording from the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra featuring the music of Yannatos, Wyner, and Fussell or if you are craving a little bit of the human voice, hear a live recording of the world-premiere of Kurt Gellersted’s Requiem for chorus and orchestra. Another great recording of choral music, titled Freed From Words, showcases the artful compositions of Mark Winges.

Learning to Accept the “Other”

Although I pride myself on being oboist (perhaps foolishly), in college I put much more of an emphasis on singing. Therefore, I cannot be too bitter against recordings of vocal music and there are certainly plenty of high quality collections of songs available this month. Broadway star Audra McDonald focuses on upbeat show tunes and jazz standards on her newest venture from Nonesuch called Happy Songs, while Peter Buchi‘s An American Voice is loaded with patriotic nostalgia. For those fascinated with poetry set to music, Dreamer: A Portrait of Langston Hughes has tenor Darryl Taylor exploring how 13 different composers were inspired by this American literary giant. Also, lyric composer Jeanne E. Shaffer uses her own words as well as those of poet Christina Rossetti to shape several beautiful songs on a recording of her chamber music titled Sapphire Summer and “the Dean of Northwest Composers” George Frederick McKay‘s songs based on the poetry of Walter De La Mare and Keats, among others, are placed alongside his diverse output for small ensemble.

Other recordings of chamber music that were released this month include the stunning Another Sunrise from Peter Garland performed exquisitely by Essential Music and music for piano and piano-violin duo by Pulitzer-prize winning composer Leslie Bassett. For more solo piano, check out The Complete Piano Works of Stephen Foster played by Sara Davis Buechner. Again, since I associate the piano with my first musical experiences (starting lessons at age 5), I have a rather strong sentimental attachment to it. Not to mention that Stephen Foster’s music is rife with nostalgia…”I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” and “Old Folks at Home” never cease to transport me back several generations. If you’re more interested in the pop music of today rather than of a century and a half ago, Verse from songwriter and vocalist Patricia Barber and Looking for Landmarks by Two Loons for Tea (headed by Jonathan Kochmer and Sarah Scott) both have a pop surface supported by layers of jazz and classical influences.

The Dog House (But we love ’em anyway)

Some people, on the other hand, have just given up on acoustic instruments all together, and I have to give them their due respect. After all, what is new music without new technology? For the math-oriented technophile, David Dunn‘s new recording of electro-acoustic works is right down your alley, mixing complex patterns with philosophically rich concepts. For those that prefer rhythms to algorithms, John McGuire‘s optimistic electronic compositions put the music back in electronic music.

Hmm…now that I have surveyed these 39 new recordings, I am beginning to think that my bitterness is unfounded. Perhaps all grudges melt after enough reflection—a lesson I will try to apply to my daily life. Not to undermine my moralizing, but I also worry that I have some kind of weird psychological problem. Maybe as a child I was beaten with a violin. But all this aside, I have discovered that embracing the diversity of music in 2002 has proven to be the best therapy.

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