Toward an Ecological Understanding of Music: The Colorado (Music from the Motion Picture)

CD Review of The Colorado (Music from the Motion Picture)

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Roomful of Teeth, Glenn Kotche, and Jeffrey Zeigler. The Colorado (Music from the Motion Picture). Recorded 2016. VIA Records, 2016. CD.

The “ecology of music,” a concept central to the American composer John Luther Adams, refers to music that incorporates sounds around us – sounds of everyday life and nature – and that contributes to our awareness of the environment and the need to protect the planet. Both understandings of ecological music are at play in this album of music from the documentary film The Colorado. The film, which received its New York premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 18 and will appear at select theaters in the United States, is about the Colorado River’s history and its current ecological situation. The river is no longer able to reach its delta, which up until the 1950s was a thriving wetland. Directed by Murat Eyuboglu, the film is both an educational resource and a call to action to protect the river from climate change and further abuse.

Music plays a central role in this film, which was created to accompany musical works by John Luther Adams, Paola Prestini, William Brittelle, Glenn Kotche, and Shara Nova. All nine works included on the album are performed with great energy and virtuosity by Roomful of Teeth, a Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble that specializes in unconventional types of singing. (See, for example, the ensemble’s 2012 debut album Roomful of Teeth, which incorporates African pygmy yodels, Inuit throat singing, and Appalachian hymns.) Also featured on the Colorado album are the cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and the percussionist Glenn Kotche, the latter of whom also composed two of the works performed here. Each of the pieces depicts a time period of the Colorado River’s history, though not in a literal way. The second track (“A Padre, A Horse, A Telescope”) refers to the 17th-century Jesuit explorer Eusebio Francisco Kino, the third (“An Unknown Distance Yet to Run”) to the Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869, and the seventh (“El Corrido de Joe R.”) to a young track star who turns down an opportunity to participate in the 1936 Berlin Olympics in order to take care of his sick mother.

My favorite part of the CD is the first number, Glenn Kotche’s “Beginnings” (see above). Though primarily known as the drummer of the alternative rock band Wilco, he is also an accomplished composer. Glenn Kotche and John Luther Adams have been collaborating for some time now (see this article on NewMusicBox), and the latter’s influence is evident in this composition. Like Adams, Kotche has an ecological understanding of music, in both of the ways described above. Kotche depicts a prehistoric landscape before the advent of language. The work begins with an a cappella section that has the playful, exuberant quality of a madrigal. Percussion and cello are added (1:27), and the music grows in intensity, leading up to exchanges between the cello and voice. A more rhythmic section follows (3:36) incorporating electronics. The final section (4:43) is more reflective in nature, and the music fades away until only the cello and percussion remain. Kotche’s music captures the energy and playfulness of a primordial scene in which there is no hierarchy between man and nature – the two are in balance. On Kotche’s ecological view of music, see his 2012 essay “The Thunder That Smokes,” which treats rhythm and percussion as sonic landmarks and as a way to keep the music grounded in a setting of place and time (119).

I have not yet seen the film The Colorado. But judging from the project’s early teaser clips, it is influenced by Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, which features the powerful music of Philip Glass. While Reggio’s film had a message about mankind’s destruction of nature – its title means “life out of balance” in the Hopi language – this message is even more pronounced in The Colorado. I sense that Eyuboglu’s film is shaped by John Luther Adams’s ecological view of music, which calls for environmental activism. (See Alex Ross’s excellent article on Adams in the New Yorker.) More importantly, though this message plays an important part in the film and music, the music nonetheless stands apart as an artistic vision of the joy and energy of life and nature in general. In other words, the music cannot be reduced to the political message. In conclusion, I highly recommend this CD and look forward to the future projects alluded to on the team’s website.

Schumann’s Piano Concerto: A Concerto without Piano?

CD Review of Schumann (Jan Lisiecki, Antonio Pappano, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia)

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Lisiecki, Jan. Schumann. Recorded with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, conducted by Antonio Pappano, September 2015. DG Deutsche Grammophon 4795327, 2016. CD.

Franz Liszt once referred to Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto as a “concerto without piano,” drawing attention to Schumann’s unconventional understanding of the concerto as a genre. Schumann – who strongly disapproved of virtuosity as an end in itself – sought to return to the roots of the concerto tradition, when the soloist and orchestra collaborated as equals. In this recording, Jan Lisiecki (pronounced lee-shetz-kee) and Antonio Pappano with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra accomplish exactly what Schumann had in mind with the idea of a concerto as a conversation between equals.

This idea of the concerto as a conversation between equals is nothing new for listeners already familiar with Antonio Pappano’s collaboration with Leif Ove Andsnes on the Rachmaninoff piano concertos (see, for example, their recording of the first movement of the Second Piano Concerto). Normally I associate the Rachmaninoff concertos with virtuosity at its most extreme – the sort that Schumann would have disapproved of – but Andsnes and Pappano manage to make the piano and orchestra equal partners. Pappano brings out the intricate melodic lines in the orchestra, and Andnes explores with great sensitivity those moments when the soloist functions as accompanist. As a result, I had very high expectations for this Schumann album. And, on the whole, I was not disappointed. Lisiecki and Pappano provide a new and fresh reading of Schumann’s works for piano and orchestra that is in keeping with the high level of Pappano’s previous collaborative projects.

This Schumann album was my first experience listening to the 21-year-old pianist Jan Lisiecki, who has already released two CDs on DG. Born in Canada and of Polish ancestry, Lisiecki performed the Schumann concerto with Pappano at the BBC Proms in 2013, and subsequently toured with Pappano as an alternate pianist for Martha Argerich. Not surprisingly, one hears a bit of Argerich’s influence in his playing. Like Argerich, Lisiecki has an energetic and refined sound, and his playing shows great sensitivity to the musicians with whom he is collaborating. Lisiecki’s outstanding talent invites comparison with Daniil Trifonov, another young pianist that has already accomplished so much and promises to become one of the great artists of his generation.

My favorite part of this Schumann album is the first movement of the Piano Concerto. It best exemplifies Schumann’s idea of the concerto as a conversation between equals. The first theme initially appears in the oboe and is then taken up by the piano. Lisiecki captures the delicate, lyrical sound of the woodwinds. When the melody next moves to the first violins, the soloist becomes an accompanist, decorating the strings’ stepwise motion with rippling arpeggios. The most magical moment occurs in the middle of the movement when the piano moves to A-flat major over a pedal tone in the low strings (4:31). The melody passes from the piano to the clarinet, and for a moment the clarinet sounds as if it is an ethereal tone emanating from the piano. I am reminded of the scene in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fairy tale “The Golden Pot” when the protagonist Anselmus dozes by the river and awakens to the sound of magical snakes whispering to him from the bushes. The orchestra plays a loud, abrupt chord (5:54), and suddenly we are back in the everyday reality of life.

Along with the Piano Concerto, the album contains two lesser-known works for piano and orchestra by Schumann: the Introduction and Allegro appassionato, op. 92, and Introduction and Concert-Allegro, op. 134. This is the first time that the latter has been recorded on the DG label. There are moments of great beauty in these works, and it is a shame that they are not performed more frequently. The CD concludes with an encore number, “Träumerei” from Kinderszenen. As a whole, this album is very impressive, and I highly recommend it. Kudos to Lisiecki, Pappano, and the Santa Cecilia Orchestra for providing a fresh reading of Robert Schumann’s works for piano and orchestra.