What I Did on My Summer Vacation

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

SoundTracksAs the summer melds into fall with thunderstorms, Labor Day picnics, and Back-to-School sales, people are returning from their various vacation hideouts, situating themselves at their desks, taking a deep, “here-we-go” breath, and hoping that their supply of great summer memories will hold them over until the next chance for escape. The mountain lake where they fished, the sounds of the waves pushing their way onto the shore, kissing their lover on a bridge that straddles some European river and a variety of other venues that are remarkable because of their water…

When I think about my summer, the only water that comes to mind is the American Music Center’s water cooler and the mysterious floods that seem to deluge my apartment overnight. For those of us living the dot-org lifestyle, vacations require oodles of imagination. I realized this summer that simply listening to music can transport me all over the globe and through time as well! It’s like having your own personal Dolorean from Back to the Future! Instead of snap shots, I grabbed some sound samples along the way and will share with you my August memories, as sad as that may seem…

Around the World in Many CDs!

The amount of music attempting to capture the culture of a specific geographical region is quite remarkable. This August, I embarked on a sonic road trip, as several American composers led me across this great American soundscape.

Little Women: An Opera In Two Acts

My adventure begins with Mark Adamo driving me through a magical covered bridge and finding myself in transcendental New England as he uses Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women as the libretto for his new opera. Bidding Mr. Adamo adieu, I meander down a woodland trail, guided by Douglas Hill and his Thoughtful Wanderings, listening to the songs of the birds and haunted by Native American drumbeats and a horn played so purely that it mimics the human voice. I imagine all the sounds that once perturbed the quiet rustling of the forest. Soon I find myself in a small Carolina town, listening to the tragic tale of “Naomi Wise” who was “deluded by Jon Lewis’ lies,” set to music by Kenneth Frazelle, one of many composers included on the disc Art Songs from Carolina.

Bullfrog Devildog President

As engrossed as I am in the stories, I am soon whisked away by Missouri-native Dwight Frizzell’s recording entitled Bullfrog Devildog President, in which he uses a “séance-in-sound” to bring back the musical stylings of President Harry S Truman (on upright piano), combined with the diverse soundscapes of the Ozarks. After paying tribute to President Truman, I board my raft and head down Gustavo Aguilar’s “River” carried on a current of persistent tribal drumbeats, all the time Looking for Aztlan, which happens to be the name of the album. When I finally tumble off the Wonka raft, wishing him luck in his search, I discover that I have arrived in the Deep South, captured in brilliant Dixieland Technicolor by Henry Kimball Hadley’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor, which explores all four cardinal directions across its four movements. The last movement being titled “West,” I decide that it is time to cross the “fruited plain” and seek out The Land of the Farther Suns, as depicted by David Alpher on Flute Force’s new disc, which features narration by American radio icon Garrison Keilor.

Oliveira – Rankovich – Amos

After my brief stint in the Midwest, I am back on the road, this time contemplating the void, as Jack Kerouac would say; Nicolas Flagello’s neo-romantic Credendum for Violin and Orchestra, piano concerti, and overtures reflecting the varying landscape as we zip past the homes of thousands of people, each playing out their own drama. With so much of the sonic highway behind me, I pause to take in the sounds of a nocturnal dreamscape, visions of the desert night sky in the back of my mind as David Felder carries me along with his own stream of consciousness in his piece in between. Finally, I have made it to the forests of the Northwest, as Eric Ewazen and the Juilliard Wind Ensemble help me to find small communities nestled in the rhythmic layers of the Shadowcatcher.

In Concert From There To Hear

With Manifest Destiny successfully reenacted through sound, Jerome Cooper, a one-man gamelan band, enchants me with the sounds of Indonesia on From There to Hearand carries my ears across the Pacific and into a world of polyrhythms and jazz standards. Soon I am beckoned into the Middle East and North Africa as Sam Newsome reclaims the soprano saxophone from Kenny G and enters Into-Nation of Islam, accessing Islamic musical traditions through a bass, drum, and horn combo. Newsome’s disc Global Unity also explores various Asian, Pacific Island, and African musical ideas. My time in the Middle East would not be complete without hearing some songs set to Hebrew texts, which is exactly what Gerald Cohen has provided on Generations. His songs for soprano and piano and for children’s choir as well as his music for string quartet and piano trio are a sentimental tribute to his Jewish heritage.

La Luce Eterna

Francis Thorne pays his own tribute to La Luce Eterna from Dante’s Paradiso, which draws me westward across the Mediterranean and leaves me hovering between Italy and the heavens, as a soprano soars above the rumblings of the orchestra and leads me through text describing the eternal light. As we ascend into the heavens, the space music of Ray’s Ethereal Journey takes me outside the atmosphere into new realms of ambience and peace. This music keeps me airborne for a while until finally I float down into Sylvia Glickman’s melodious portraits of the Danish people who helped the Danish Jews escape to safety during the Holocaust contained within her piece Carved in Courage. After peaking in, I begin my flight again and get lost in some genre bending music such as guitarist/singer Jindra’s song Summer, which wraps microtonal slides around his plaintive voice. The three competing electric guitars of Djam Karet create New Dark Age, which is actually the name of their album, not my own feelings about this experimental band that blends metal, goth, and jazz into an electric smoothie! Electric guitars morph into sequencers and turntables and soon I find myself so lost in the beats and breaks of Future Perfect’s The Nature of Time that I am no longer aware of what time it is, or where I am. That is until I am jarred awake by layer upon layer of hilarious rants included on the new album by rev. 99, appropriately titled Turn a Deaf Ear. Now I remember. I never really left this crowded metropolis. At first, I am discouraged and aurally overwhelmed, but then all of the complaints seem to run together into white noise and I am at peace…

She’s a Day Tripper!

When I had recovered from my grand world tour this summer, I decided to take a few day trips to various sonic realms such as the Keyboard Museum and the New Music Funhouse.

Daniel Pinkham: Piano Music

I spend my day at the Keyboard Museum hearing a variety of different keyboard instruments and styles of music. The first room presents the typical modern piano and The Piano Music of Daniel Pinkham, which includes waltzes for two pianos, music for solo piano, duets for young pianists, and a piece for piano four-hands and range from simple melodies to complex and intense labyrinths of sound, tumbling down chromatic scales and then fighting back up them. The next room is dark, lit only with candles and the light on the pipe organ whose appendages spread above it. The exhibition is entitled Music She Wrote: Organ Compositions by Women, highlighting the many moods of the organ from joyous to spooky, but always spiritual. Leaving behind the mass of metallic vibrations, I happen upon a more manageable instrument: the harpsichord. The early music revolution is in full swing here as composers such as Gardner Read, Lou Harrison, Walter Piston, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich breathe new life into this old instrument and celebrate the avant-garde of the antiquated on the disc American Harpsichord Music of the 20th Century. Herbert Hencke punctuates my final stop at the museum playing the piano as fast as he can in order to imitate a player piano and the mechanical sounds of George Antheil’s piano music. Thoroughly worn out, I return home, crawl into bed and dream of piano music, particularly Sotireos Vlahopoulos’ piece for piano and orchestra, The Dream Wanderer , which moves through lilting, nebulous dream sequences to intense zeniths of consciousness.

Songs, Hymns, & Portraits

Another August afternoon, I decide to venture to the New Music Funhouse where everything is slightly different than what it should be and also slightly more fun. The Hall of Mirrors distorts the music of dead composers into modern compositions. Steven Stucky’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary (After Purcell) colors traditional cadences with layers of piano, oboe, and trumpet, creating a strange hybrid between formal British music of another era and a horror movie score. This maverick piece is included on a disc with songs inspired by the United States of America. Under the Tafelmusik by Jonathan Dawe, included on the disc of twentieth-century chamber music Hausmusik and featuring guitarist William Anderson, uses Telemann’s Tafelmusik as a point of departure and then turns it into a serial extravaganza. My attention is drawn away form his tone rows by a strange sound I hear coming from behind a door past the Hall of Mirrors, so I put my ear to it and hear the free vocalizations, throat singing, and percussive musings of Roscoe Mitchell and Thomas Buckner’s Improvisation 2. Weaving through the halls with uneven floors, I find myself hypnotized by a new recording of Terry Riley’s In C performed by the Bang On A Can All-Stars. Just as I become one with the tone of C, David Borden’s track All Set pops up on the new Mother Mallard disc and I find myself lost in a world of cells that are undergoing a slow, careful metamorphosis. Dazed, it is a miracle that I find my way home.

Band Days


My next excursion is through the memories of my band geek days. For some reason, although I am an oboist and saxophonist, I never played in a true “band” after high school. I must have gotten funneled into the orchestra and chamber music tract. However, there were several composers who brought back misty water colored memories of the way I was. First of all, James Swearingen, guru of band music, has released a disc of pieces he wrote for wind band that were requested by his fans, with the all-too-perfect band title Exaltation. Breaking it down into its component parts, Jo Dee Davis put out a recording of works for trombone, including the warmly syncopated Suite for Alto Trombone by John Prescott. I was brought back to my own band days when I used to sneak looks at that cute trombone player, although Ms. Davis plays much better than my former band crush. Soon the sound of the sweet trombone deepens into that of Tom Heasley’s tuba on Where the Earth Meets the Sky, which takes tuba music into wonderful new arenas with the help of voice and digital technology. Heasley’s rich melodies ease the tuba out of its oom-pah role into a truly expressive instrument.

Visions in Metaphor

I was not lost in these sound ventures for long, as Marilyn Shrude’s Visions in Metaphor bursts in, jumping around the full range of the saxophone. In addition this recording includes duets for saxophone and piano by such big names as John Adams, Milton Babbitt, Karel Husa, and Pauline Oliveros; composers I never played during my band days. The saxophone regime continues with microtonal madness on Karl Korte’s Symmetrics, a piece contained on a disc featuring a retrospective of his works that is a smorgasbord of tonal, atonal, blues, jazz, minimalist, and serialist influences. Sticking to the saxophone theme, tenor sax player Charles Lloyd creates a dialogue between the tender and the funky on the track The Monk and the Mermaid, with a nod given to Thelonious and the tide. Gregory Tardy moves away from the water and climbs a mountain of tones on Abundance, featuring nine smooth tracks. Finally, a rendition of Dave Clark’s Flypaper by the ensemble Orange Then Blue, brings me back to the funkiness that I strived so hard to achieve in jazz ensemble every Thursday and Friday afternoon. The kickin’ bass and tight grooves make this album a great way to pay tribute to the band days of old.

Whew! I snap out of my daydream and find myself back at the American Music Center. I think to myself, “What a trip!” I hope that all of you had great vacations too! Next time pack your tape recorder instead of your camera and hear what happens. Happy Fall!

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