Fanfare Mag: Kepler Str Qrt: JOHNSTON String Quartets on NEW WORLD

By Robert Carl

No one will be surprised if new music occupies the totality of my list, but this year I’m happy to discover that it’s all-American as well (no chauvinism here, just a nice surprise). Pride of place goes to Vol. 2 of the Kepler Quartet’s continuing cycle of the Ben Johnston string quartets, works that, through their deep conception and comprehensive musicality, open us up to a new world of harmony based on microtonality as an expressive tool, not just an avant-garde experiment.

John Musto’s and William Bolcom’s chamber operas for the same quintet of singers, backed by the formidable piano duo of Michael Barrett and Steven Blier, are witty, charming, and in Musto’s case, quite poignant. They give hope that a comic American opera really can flourish. Harold Meltzer is a younger composer who has a scrupulous ear that leads him to clearly defined gestures and sonorities, but the music is never dry or an illustration of some extramusical principle. Rather, it’s always sonically fresh, timbrally seductive. One thinks a little of Stravinsky in its freshness, though that may be too big a monkey to place on his back. But the music definitely projects both rigor and sensuality, not a bad combo.

The last two on the list are each deep plunges into experimentalism. The New World collection is a 10-disc set of music created for a half century of dance by Merce Cunningham. It could also be titled Cage and His School , though there are lots of pieces here that, because of the “occasional” origins, are less well known than the concert hits of the movement. And the great revelation, worth the price of admission, is David Tudor, who comes across as one of the most important pioneers of live interactive computer electronic music. His music has extraordinary power—a force of nature, of essences.

And Robert Moran—a composer on whom I’ve never had a strong fix, in part because he’s all over the map stylistically and technically—is represented by an amazing recital of percussion music that uses graphic notation. Dan Moore is in many ways the co-composer here, but that’s no problem, as the music is so rich and enticing, a sonic feast that never lets up in its beauty for the entire disc. Salagrama is one of the most pleasurable and moving pieces of nonlinear (i.e., “going nowhere”) music I’ve ever heard.

One thing these releases teach us is that beauty can come from any angle, from the craziest, noisiest experimentalism to the most tonal lyricism. All it needs is for the composer to be open, honest, curious, and adventurous. And all these discs fulfill that mandate.