Ellen Zwilich, Symphony No. 1 /Celebration/Prologue & Variations
Let's say it was 1991 when I first heard this on vinyl in the music library at the University—likely my first New World Records disc. Even then I was aware of the recording's historical and political importance: Zwilich had been awarded the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for her Symphony No. 1, the first woman composer to win the prize. The melancholy brass-heavy orchestration and sharp writing for strings helped me figure out what I liked best about contemporary music: dissonance, rhythm, and timbre, a combination of freedom from pure tonality and formal rigor. Though the music doesn't sound particularly adventurous to me now, I still love the symphony's spectral opening bars, how melodies unfold out of large, awkward intervals, motives that go on to form the basis of the entire symphony—a gesture absolutely classical but in Zwilich's hands also oddly personal, almost obsessive. The richness of her orchestral palette offsets the deliberately limited melodic material, and the constraint produces both a necessity for constant musical invention and an atmosphere of stark formal beauty. Sort of like an old and irreplaceable friend who, if I met them today, I might not become friends with—this disc has been a companion for two decades.
Olivier Messiaen, Quartet for the End of Time
I think it was 1993. I was having a hard time as a flute performance and composition double major: each week I had a piano lesson, a composition lesson, and a flute lesson in addition to music theory, counterpoint class and multiple rehearsals for multiple ensembles. Exasperated by my lack of focus, my composition teacher told me to go read Messiaen's The Technique of My Musical Language. It didn't help me get my shit together, but it did make me fall in love with Messiaen's mind before curiosity lead me to Eduard Brunner's incomparable recording of the Quartet. It's a famous story, of course, how Messiaen composed it during WWII, in Stalag VIII-A, while he was a POW—how he happened to be interned with three other professional musicians (whose expertise determined the instrumentation), and how the four of them premiered the piece in 1941, in the camp itself. But the piece itself is a succinct and attractive introduction to Messiaen's singular musical vocabulary. It opens with his love of birdsong, which his perfect pitch enabled him to transcribe exactly during field studies as an amateur ornithologist—much of his music employs birdsong slowed down to manageable tempi. The Quartet's inspiration stems from a single passage in Revelations, but the titles of almost every movement—such as "Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time"—show his lifelong, devout Catholicism. His reinvention of musical time—dependent on ancient Greek meters and Hindu rhythms—demands extreme ensemble virtuosity from the players. And his synaesthesic tonal system is beautifully on display throughout, though perhaps nowhere more so than in movements 5 ,7 and 8, where violin or cello spin out seemingly endless melodies over the piano's soft, ever-shifting, glittering tone clusters.
Michelle Makarski, Caoine
1998: Indiana University, where I studied not music but poetry. Out of longing I haunted the music store on the square in downtown Bloomington, where I bought this disc of pieces for solo violin. The opening Passacaglia by Heinrich Biber still spreads out black branches against snow: an Indiana winter, spare and stern and beautiful. A year after I began listening to this album, my then-partner Jared died, and Makarski's performance of the Passacaglia especially became fused with the pace and logic of mourning. But the whole disc is hauntingly and impeccably performed and demonstrates Makarski's consistently inventive programming: Biber leads into Caoine (which is Gaelic for "keen") by Stephen Hartke, which leads into a Chaconne by Max Reger, which leads to excerpts from George Rochberg's wild Caprice Variations, and ends with Bach's Partita No. 1. Given that the violin writing of each piece refers to or employs formal tropes characteristic of Baroque music, the album has an intertextual unity so strong that it blurs classical and contemporary into a continuum rather that reifying those distinctions. Despite her relatively low public profile and her commitment largely to chamber music, Makarski remains my favorite contemporary violinist as much for her pure tone, gestural restraint and faultless technique as for her intelligence in rhyming Baroque and contemporary repertoire. And though I'd miss her earlier recording of John Cage's Six Melodies, for Violin and Keyboard, Caoine remains my choice because of the part-to-whole relationship of her programme: as in classical counterpoint, I can hear each musical gesture resonate within the whole structure, each part carefully placed in motion.
Meredith Monk, Dolmen Music
Sometime in the early Oughts, I encountered Meredith Monk when I rented Peter Greenaway's really excellent 1983 documentary about her work—one in a series of four portraits of American composers he made for the BBC. I was already an ardent fan of the Czech violinist and vocalist Iva Bittová, whose experimental blend of avant-garde performance and folk and classical music was predated by Monk's own practice, so I had a little bit of context for Monk's visceral vocalizing. Still, nothing prepared me for a performance like "Biography," which contains no words, and yet whose soundscape tells a story as archetypal and as tragic as a Greek drama. "I don't really have contempt for the word," she says in Greenaway's film, "I have contempt when the word is used as the glue of something, which has happened in theater and a lot in film. I really don't like it, that one has to sit and listen to words all the time when really, all the other faculties aren't being used." Statements like this make me think a lot about what non-semantic elements writers overlook in our focus on semantic meaning: what can linguistic music convey that grammar can't? In some way, I've never stopped envying music for its power to communicate without using denotation; its curious amalgam of math, physics, and acoustics acts upon our minds and bodies in ways more visceral and mysterious to me than language because musical language is (usually) unbounded by representation or conventional referentiality. What I still love about this album is the way her vocal inventions, without recourse to conventional language, reach from the contemporary into the archaic, from the sweet lyricism of "Gotham Lullaby" to the mysterious, sometimes violent collective ritual of Dolmen Music. Without words, she can better make time into its own kind of space—
Charles Ives, Piano Sonata No. 2,
The Concord Sonata
All regular concertgoers remember a handful of concerts that changed the way they hear the world. Two of my first ear-changing concerts contained chamber music by Ives: one summer in high school I sat electrified through a concert of "modern" violin music that began with Ursula Mamlok's delicate solo From My Garden and ended with Ives' Sonata No. 4; years later in college I heard a rip-roaring rendition of his irreverent Piano Trio that left me wired for days. I can still remember the shock of watching so many horsehairs on the cellist's bow snap and go flying during the Trio's wild second movement: "TSIAJ," or, "This Scherzo Is A Joke." From 2003 to 2008 I spent a lot of time reading the Transcendentalists and other 19th century US writers, a project that led me rather circuitously back to the Ives I encountered in my youth. In revisiting his late compositions and in reading his essays for the first time I discovered an artist heroically yoking 19th century idealism with 20th century Modernism, invoking Emerson and abandoning tonality without the slightest idea that the two gestures might be antithetical—in fact, he proves that they aren't. "There may be an analogy," Ives writes in Essays Before a Sonata, "between both the state and power of artistic perceptions and the law of perpetual change, that ever-flowing stream, partly biological, partly cosmic, ever going on in ourselves, in nature, in all life." During 2007 and 2008 when I was mourning my father's death, The Concord Sonata became my constant companion precisely for the ways it both obeys "the law of perpetual change" and finds a musical language to articulate it. In this and in his commitment to a distinctively "American" idiom rooted in the history and philosophies of the US, Ives reminds me very much of Charles Olson: "What does not change/is the will to change."
Kaija Saariaho, Graal Théâtre/Château de l'âme/Amers
Saariaho is my favorite living composer, and this is the disc that introduced me to her work, the disc I can't stop listening to. Despite the other ten or so albums of hers I've enthusiastically collected, I've returned to this one repeatedly over the past couple of years, primarily for Graal Théâtre, a violin concerto whose writing demonstrates her ability to create intricate musical textures equally melodic and noisome. Given her tenure at IRCAM in Paris, it makes sense that Saariaho often derives her musical language from computer technology that helps her analyze the physical properties of how sound is produced. She not only builds a great deal of her harmonic and melodic materials out of the acoustical overtones and noises contained within sound, she also often uses electronics as an integral part of her ensembles, as in the orchestral piece Verblendugen, which begins as an awesome wall of sound. In Graal Théâtre, Saariaho demands from her soloist virtuosity of both classical and extended technique, creating music as much from traditional playing as from the collateral noise the violin itself makes as it is played: she employs harmonics, scratch tones, bowing on the bridge, double stops, trills, and a host of other altered tones often as delicate as they are raucous. What amazes me time and time again is how the orchestral part seems to grow directly out of the violin's tonal palette, and that the concerto itself ends up consisting as much of the choreography of beautiful noise as it does a systematic exploration of musical material through time. I think that's what I like about her work: it suggests that musical texture can be a form of time. I really like hanging out in that thought.
The B-52s, The B-52s
My other life—the one I lived when I wasn't practicing—I don't remember a whole lot about. Both before and after I dropped out of high school I spent a lot of my free time in cars. It was better not to be at home, and there wasn't much else to do in Alabama if you were young, queer and miserable except drive or ride and listen to music—maybe stop somewhere for a drink or smoke, if you were lucky. If it was someone else's car, you didn't have much control over the music, but in my car I had a few tapes. My favorite one for a few years was The B-52s—I had started listening to them because they were, like me, from Athens, GA, and my older sister had gone to high school with most of them. But the lasting attraction was deeper than that: they had a "queer sensibility," though I didn't know that then; they were both fun and very funny; you could dance to their songs; and I could understand everything Fred Schneider said (being new to rock n' roll, I couldn't understand the lyrics to anything). In other words: they made being queer seem potentially fun. I remember my friend Keena Graham and I driving aimlessly and singing along to "Dance This Mess Around": "Why don't you dance with me? I'm not no Limburger!" But Alabama never did ask me to a dance I wanted to go to.
Bongwater, The Power of Pussy
1995? It's miraculous that unto my young feminist consciousness Ann Magnuson was—Goddess Bless!—delivered, but sometimes pop culture has an almost Biblical prescience concerning when iconic persons descend from on high into a life. So there she was on my friend's TV: Making Mr. Right. Was it Lifetime Television for Women? Somehow in my friend's living room in Tuscaloosa the ferocious Ann Magnuson was eating Haagen-Dazs straight from the container, which was so improbable and sophisticated in its odd plastic capsule—not unlike Magnuson herself, front-woman for the short-lived, much-lamented Bongwater. How could I not love The Power of Pussy, which at the time struck me, frankly, as a much more salient, succinct and effective feminist project than the Norton Anthology of Women's Literature? I needed a text about the ambivalence of lived sexual experience; I needed a feminist ideologically uncertain of her position as I was of mine. Of course I didn't immediately understand a lot of her cultural references—Japanese porno, the lead singer from Canned Heat, Nick Cave, Carlos Castaneda—but I understood being ambivalent about my sexuality and sexual power. It wouldn't be until much later that I'd learn Magnuson is from West Virginia, but I wasn't surprised, given the cut "Junior," which articulated my own fears about love and never leaving Alabama:
What if I married Junior,
the VFF parking attendant?
Would it be so bad?
I have nothing to fear
except maybe him,
'cause he was kind of
—what's the word?—
The Pixies, Doolittle
2003: I can't find much music between 1997 and 2002 that I'd want to remember, largely because I wasn't listening to much rock or pop during my years in grad school, years whose intensity of devotion to poetry approached that of the years I spent in practice rooms. It wasn't until I found myself in residence in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania for a semester that I got curious again about rock music—likely because I'd never before had so much time on my hands—and so I'd drive into State College every couple of weeks and browse the used record stores. It was on the ritual drives back down Pennsylvania 45 that I fell in love with music I knew everyone else already knew because the cds had already been owned: PJ Harvey's Dry and Rid of Me, The Talking Heads' Sand in the Vaseline, The Smiths' The Queen is Dead, The Breeders' Last Splash, Babes in Toyland's BBC sessions,and the Pixies' Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. And though I love the rough anarchic sexual energy of Surfer Rosa, there's something deviant and debonair about Doolittle—it's swanky kink, all the more kinky for its being swank, and that paradoxical combination makes the album charm even as it alarms. Frontman Black Francis croons and groans, his falsetto the pose of a postmodern despoiled dandy—songs with titles like "Debaser" and "Wave of Mutilation" employ cheerful hooks to accompany his trademark kamikaze vocals, while a sad song about tearoom trade, "Here Comes Your Man," rocks along gently in a major key, like some lost surf anthem B-side. The downright dastardly songs, like "Tame" and "Gouge Away," make me glad I didn't have the album in high school, but nonetheless conjure up all the retroactive ennui and abjection I care to recall.
Le Tigre, Feminist Sweepstakes
2005: There's a long list of dyke bands and queer women rockers I have loved: Sleater-Kinney most of all, and then Bikini Kill, followed by Two Nice Girls, The Butchies, Indigo Girls, Cadallaca, L-7, Tracy Chapman, The Geraldine Fibbers, Julie Ruin, Ani DiFranco and Team Dresch, to name a few. I loved these musicians as much for themselves as for the vital creativity and vibrant discomfort of late second wave feminism, a time of folk singers and riot grrrl punk, studio slick and DIY, corporate sell-outs and street level activism, group process sincerity and ironic non-profit burn-out. My friend Laura Larson gave me my first copy of Feminist Sweepstakes, which is the way most of this music came to me: as gifts, on mixtapes and ripped discs, through word of mouth and co-op meetings. Though Sleater-Kinney's fierce classic Dig Me Out or The Woods' equally ferocious farewell could easily have been my pick here, Le Tigre has three things they don't: Kathleen Hanna, Johanna Fateman, and JD Samson. They're a committed feminist queer activist project with the conceptual drive of '90s DIY fanzines and a certain puckish sense of humor: "Hey look I'm really sorry /I couldn't make it to your party./ I know it looks like I'm gonna cry./Got a to-do list behind my eyes so / go tell your friends I'm still a feminist./But I won't be coming to your benefit." And if they lack the pure rock power of Sleater-Kinney (who have three things Le Tigre doesn't: Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss), they make up for it with rhetorical power, speaking directly to a community that gets tired from the sometimes divisive and dispiriting demands of activist politics and needs to renew energy through affirmation and identification: "You know, all my friends are fucking bitches/best known for burning bridges./Do you need a character witness?/ I say I'm proud to be associated with you."
Joni Mitchell, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter
2007: There are other, more obvious choices—Blue or Court and Spark—but the songs on the three studio albums Joni made with bassist Jaco Pastorius in the late '70s combine a formal freedom, structural variety and experimental attitude toward orchestration that's unique in her discography. Though most fans rave about Hejira, my favorite of these albums is the second, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, which I would take with me for the epic "Paprika Plains" alone. At sixteen minutes, it's by far the longest song on any of the Mitchell discs I own, and it's also unique for its use of full orchestral accompaniment, which was arranged after Mitchell lay down the improvised piano track. But the loose, associative structure of the song fits the remembered childhood landscape of the song's lyrics: "Back in my hometown/They would have cleared the floor/Just to watch the rain come down!/They're such sky oriented people—/Geared to changing weather..." It's on these albums where the darker, rougher edge of Mitchell's aging voice really begins to flavor her performances, and it particularly suits these songs, which, being less concerned with romance, are both more meditative and more fueled by fantasy. Backed by jazz artists like Pastorius and Afro-Cuban drummer Alex Acuña, the album ranges near world music in a couple of places ("The Tenth World" and "Dreamland"), only to return to songs featuring the tight writing and emotional directness of her more conventional albums—cuts like "Talk To Me," "Otis and Marlena" and "Off Night Backstreet." Though this kind of variety undercuts the kind of narrative coherence and musical unity that characterizes an album like Blue, it makes possible a kind of anti-pop structural dreaminess in which the listener can lose their way for a while.
Kate Bush, Hounds of Love
A brief list of singers I have come to love after hating them passionately: Jane Siberry, Rickie Lee Jones, Michael Stipe, Björk, and Kate Bush. All five have unusual voices and employ idiosyncratic phrasing and enunciation in their songwriting and singing, which means that not only did I at first not quite like their voices, I had no idea what they were saying—only after sitting down with their lyric sheets could I begin to appreciate the music itself. I could have chosen Jane Siberry's Maria or The Walking, Rickie Lee Jones' Traffic in Paradise, REM's Life's Rich Pageant, or Björk's Homogenic or Vespertine,but I've fallen hardest for Kate Bush—probably because I bought Hounds of Love while I was falling for my partner Robert, and he's long been an ardent fan. So though I might now appreciate other of her albums more (I'm partial to The Dreaming and The Sensual World), I always return to this album for its unfalteringly awesome songwriting, its inventive mixing and sampling, its coherent conceptual and narrative arcs (a deal with God, a dark night of the soul/break-up, and a reconciliation), and the traces it retains of my coming to love both Kate Bush and Robert Barber. I admit I still sometimes find Bush a really odd writer—a pop song about Wilhelm Reich?— but every time I have doubts about the lyrics, the music quickly convinces me otherwise. And for every quasi-allegorical narrative based on an extended metaphor she writes, there's a lyric of candor and clarity. I'm particularly fond of the album's last track, "The Morning Fog," which sums up my relationship both to Kate Bush and to Robert Barber: "I am falling
/Like a stone,/Like a storm,/ Being born again
/Into the sweet morning fog./D'you know what?
/I love you better now."