The first time I heard Tortoise’s Standards, it made me angry.
Admittedly, the disc is not a particularly egregious example of today’s recycling ethic. Tortoise’s lounge-revival/fake-jazz/neo-minimalism pastiche doesn’t spit back its borrowings as utterly undigested as the work of such sampler simpletons as P. Diddy and Jay-Z. Still, whenever Standards locks into a marimba groove that is obviously derived from pre-orchestral Steve Reich, it sounds less like a musical homage than a legal matter.
I have since come to a grudging acceptance of the albumwhich, after all, isn’t any more larcenous than the music of other members of the Stereolab/Sea and Cake axisbut that doesn’t mean my concern has disappeared. It’s just diffused over a broader landscape. Because today’s electronic-art-music not-rockers aren’t merely pilfering from the music of conservatory-trained ex-minimalists and their descendants. They’re also driving it out of the marketplace.
This doesn’t make much sense. After all, there’s much crossover between these worlds, via musicians such as John Cale, Glenn Branca, and Philip Glass. At this point, though, the two are split into separate camps, with the lesser-known “new-music” types banished to the periphery.
It wasn’t always like this. The better-known minimalistsReich, Glass, Terry Riley, John Adamsconnected with the classical divisions of various major labels early in their careers. But such new-music stars as Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman were initially recorded by Obscure, a label founded by “nonmusician” Brian Eno, who has a conceptual-art background but made his reputation as a rocker. Alt-rock labels released early recordings by Branca, Rhys Chatham, and others, but today the only imprints that work both sides of this street are more obscure than Obscure was.
Of course, the market for either form of music is limited. The members of Staind, Slipknot, and System of a Down aren’t looking over their shoulders nervously at either Appliance (a British drone-rock band) or Maria de Alvear (a European composer). De Alvear records for World Edition, a label that might as well not exist, and Appliance’s label is Mute, which at least gets its releases to the hipper music retailers.
I should note that I don’t know if I like de Alvear’s music. Her World was one of 15 albums recommended by Village Voice critic Kyle Gann several months ago in one of his very occasional roundups of new-music CDs. My original plan was to compare the best of these albums with a flock of arty electronica releasesto the detriment of the latter, I supposed. That didn’t work out. I attempted to purchase a half-dozen of Gann’s recommended discs, but I ended up with only two. The rest were simply unavailable or officially available but somehow unorderable. (One Internet merchant sold me a copy of Martin Bresnick’s Opere della Musica Povera and then shipped a different record by an entirely different composer. But that’s another column.)
Meanwhile, examples of “serious” electronica continued to arrive at my P.O. box. Because it’s defined mostly by what it aspires not to be, I call rock-rooted music that purposely stifles noise and backbeat “not-rock.” This stuff could be dubbed “not-dance.” It employs the same technology used to make the rib-cage-rattling grooves heard at Buzz, but it soothes the savage beat. Of course, just a few years ago, there were piles of similar music, most of it called “ambient house.” But the chill-out subgenre bored everyone save a handful of boosters. Today’s variation is more thoughtful, more rigorousor at least it means to be.
Some of the more successful examples come from London’s Sulphur Records, which has released a few of its Meld Series CDs through Beggars Banquet in the United States. Beggars Banquet, of course, was forged in Britain’s punk era but outlived that moment by coming to specialize in a new generation of leather-clad art rock. The Meld Series is artier, however, than such former Beggars acts as Southern Death Cult or Fields of the Nephilim. The albums juxtapose the work of two composers, most of them high-end electronicists: One disc features the slo-mo work of David Abir and Ashley Wales (of the briefly hailed drum ‘n’ bass duo Spring Heel Jack); another is a sometimes clattering collaboration between D.C.-bred art-hopper DJ Spooky and British sonic eavesdropper Scanner.
Both discs are considerably sharper than Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle, an instrumental suite by synth-pop refugees Vincent Clarke (Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure) and Martyn Ware (Human League, British Electrical Foundation, Heaven 17). This album’s six drippy tracks associate colors with experiences”White: you are in heaven,” “Red: you are in the womb,” “Blue: you are underwater”in a manner that is pure New Age bookshop. But the best of the bunch is Abir’s ambient but richly textured “Movement A, Study 33,” which clearly benefits from the composer’s classical training. It’s almost as good as one of the two Gann picks I managed to acquire: American expat composer Peter Garland’s The Days Run Away, a collection of austere but moving solo-piano music played by Japanese pianist Aki Takahashi. No overbearing phony-harp glissandi here; you can decide for yourself if you’re in heaven.
New music from the conservatory’s side of the tracks is not always ethereal, however. Gann’s top selection is Bang on a Can’s Renegade Heaven, five pieces (including one by Branca) that could teach most electro-dance music-makers something about how to move. The members of this New York ensemble are classically trained, but their stylesometimes called totalismdraws on rock, minimalism, non-Western music, and other nonacademic sources. Bang on a Can is not immune from mimicry, however; another of the troupe’s recent releases, Lost Objects, too often redeploys the gambits of Reich’s ’80s large-ensemble works. Or perhaps the composers simply fell into the same traps as their predecessor when trying to merge new-tech music with orchestra and chorus.
There’s no orchestra on Renegade Heaven, which often surges on the tension between cello and electric guitar but also includes Beatlesque backward tapes (on “I Buried Paul,” Michael Gordon’s tribute to “Strawberry Fields Forever”). Tracks such as Branca’s “Movement Within,” Julia Wolfe’s “Believing,” and Arnold Dreyblatt’s “Escalator” have both Juilliard smarts and Feelies locomotion. That’s a combination that ought to be making a stir on both sides of the great divide between art-rock and art music. Mark Jenkins
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