Skimmed Cream

Since almost two years have elapsed since my last guide, there's no way to encompass the stacks of new discs rising like diminutive office buildings around my desk. I can offer someof the cream I skimmed, and note that, more and more, the most interesting music is on tiny little labels available from thecomposersbasement.com (a metaphor, not a real Web site). The traditional new-music labels should be ashamed at the amount of great stuff they turn down.


ELLEN BAND
90% Post Consumer Sound (XI)
Band's wonderfully tactile work could be disposed of as a pleasant exercise in natural sounds, but if you'll keep your ears open until the end of each piece, her layerings of locomotives, violin squeaks, canaries, and radiators accumulate until the sound is quite something else; she makes process pieces, not found objects, though the distinction gets blurred. The final track, Minimally Tough, is a binaural recording to be heard on headphones, and worth the trouble: Its multitudinous creaking of leather jackets will convince you that you're being slowly smothered in bubble wrap. B

MARTIN BRESNICK
Opere della Musica Povera (CRI)
Bresnick's music is tough, thorny, clear, elegant, thoughtful, and difficult to pin down. So it's an overdue luxury to have such a sumptuous two-disc set devoted to 12 different works of his for different ensembles, though the pieces are unified and linked by cross-referenced pitch relationships. His gestures can be murky at the same time that his pitch logic, often couched Brahmslike in hovering thirds and sixths, can be luminously transparent. Some timbres suit him better than others: The Coplandy piano sonorities of The Dream of the Lost Traveller(played by Lisa Moore) and the massed winds of "Follow Your Leader" are strikingly unusual, the orchestra pieces more modernistically conventional. In short, this is music not to sum up in a few words, but to sink your teeth into and reflect upon at length. A MINUS

MICHAEL BYRON
Music of Nights Without Moon or Pearl (Cold Blue)
A blast out of the past in more ways than one. Byron was a West Coast minimalist fixture in the '70s, but dropped out of the music scene for many years, and here's his long-awaited re-debut. The pieces are half-ambient, half-minimalist process pieces lovely in their cloudy string textures and abrupt piano riffs, but changing cumulatively without going anywhere. The third cut, "Entrances," is less soothing, a dense continuum of growly piano interlockings, but it all breathes the air of pre-Silicon Valley California. B

NIC COLLINS
Sound Without Picture (Periplum)
Of all the post-Lucier, tech-subversive conceptualists, only Collins has a knack for making electronics poignant. The seven well-contrasted works here are all stories about sensory experience or the lack of it—a man who lost and regained his sight by separate strokes of lightning, a blind woman describing knowing her baby by touch. As Collins narrates, his voice triggers electronics, and it's an odd touch that, although there are hardly any pleasant or pretty sounds on the disc, the static, buzzes, and CD skip-repeats nevertheless create a bittersweet atmosphere of sadness. Fuzzy noises have never seemed so moving. A MINUS

D'DIVAZ
D'Divaz (Bruka)
You'll think you're hearing Baltic folksinging until the twangy electronics burst in. The divas of D'Divaz—Milica Paranosic, Danijela Popovic, and Aleksandra Vojcic—are powerful singers and energetic keyboardists, and they fuse their diverse elements with a highly original sense of folk-influenced noise. Slavic dances and quiet dirges mix with minimalist patterns, birdsongs, electronic continua, and rampages of virtuoso piano drumming. Here, the Divaz play down the political overtones that electrify their live performances and make only minimal use of those stunning voices. The remainder, still, is darkly atmospheric and unsettling. B

MARIA DE ALVEAR
World (World Edition)
New York heard De Alvear's mammoth double piano concerto—surely one of the longest, largest single-movement works ever written—in Merkin Hall in 1997 (not '91 as per the liner notes), and here's that performance closely captured on disc. It seems more than a planet: a cosmos of rhythmic layers, pulsing chords, clouds of string harmonics, tonal piano chorales punctuated by percussion, philosophical woodwind melodies, with truly Ivesian panoramic variety, some vulnerably thin textures amid the uproar, and a sure-footed intuitive sense of progression. Hildegard Kleeb and Joseph Kubera are the well-mic'd pianists, Petr Kotik the conductor of the S.E.M. Orchestra, moving heaven and earth to make De Alvear look very much like Europe's best young composer. A

PETER GARLAND
The Days Run Away (Tzadik)
Enjoying the underfunded expatriate's life down in Mexico, Garland has written a ton o' piano music, and the superb Aki Takahashi, who plays seven pieces here, is devoted to it. It's such simple stuff: a bass motive, a chord, the motive again, the chord again, a different chord . . . but it's so exquisitely right, as ecstatic as Messiaen without all the baggage about birdsongs and the baby Jesus. The most translucent piece is the recent one, Bright Angel-Hermetic Bird; most of the others, including two gently repetitive 20-minute works, date from the early '70s, and it's amazing how little his style has changed. Garland is our own desert mystic saint, and an agnostic to boot. A

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