Sunday, November 8, 2009

In C Remixed: Too Much Remixed, Not Enough In C

That is the short version of my review. Glib, yeah, but it's true! The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble's interpretation of Terry Riley's masterpiece (I hate people who throw around "masterpiece" but, look, it just is, let's move on) leaves me wanting more, more, more. I hope you've heard of GVSUNME before; their performance of Music for 18 Musicians got a lot of press, partly because they work that piece, and partly because GVSUNME's backstory is a reporter's dream—did you know they have avant-garde music in places that aren't New York?? in STATE schools???—but that's a little condescending, and not entirely relevant to the enjoyment of their music.

Okay, this part is relevant: they're young, which gives them at least two advantages. One is that for classical musicians born after 1980 or so, the aesthetic code of minimalism is a first language. Not that they grew up humming Violin Phase, but they are too young to have known a world in which, say, Koyaanisqatsi had not inspired a whole world of imitators.

The other advantage is that young musicians don't take shit for granted. An ace professional ensemble could sleepwalk through a score like In C, and I'm sure many of them do. But every note counts on this recording; there are no throwaway gestures. Check out those string players! Their Bartok pizzicati, their sixteenth notes bowed heavily and close to the bridge, tell us that they are in this for keeps. (When the clarinets go for the same grit, wailin' in their high registers, it seems a little more affected, but I can deal with that.) They sound excited to dig into even the most superficially unglamorous phrase.

But it's over too soon! This is a speedy performance, just twenty minutes or so, which would make sense if they were trying to fit it on one side of a record; as part of a two disc set, it just seems ungenerous. I could listen to these guys play this for eighty minutes, easy. Why not make this a set with one disc of In C and one disc of remixes, instead of hurrying along from section to section quite so zippily?

If I thought there were two discs of absolutely essential remixes here, I'd be more forgiving, but really, two discs of remixes would be too many remixes of any one tune. Maybe I am getting all old and bitter? I used to LOVE the remix album, as a thing. Now I feel as if we can be finickier, when there's the possibility of releasing a track "download only," because while I can happily wander through the architecture of Terry Riley's funky cathedral for an hour and a half, one hour spent listening to five-minute chunks of In C with breakbeats under them is not an experience I will want to repeat very often. Crank the last track on your stereo, then feed the rest to your iPod to shuffle through at your leisure.

But I've skipped over the big question hanging over In C Remixed. Should In C even be remixed? I've kvetched in this space before about the delicacy of taking liberties with scores that already offer a great deal of leeway to the performer. In some ways, a piece with this added dimension of Conceptual beauty is that much more fragile; a bad-faith performance of John Cage is going to be yet far more unsatisfying than bad-faith Beethoven. On the other hand, one of the great things about screwing around with an open-instrumentation, open-form piece like In C is that every performance is, in a sense, a remix: you've got a page of stems, you loop them to make a groove. It's a short step from "open instrumentation" and "open form" to "open source." Was Terry Riley the first IDM artist??

No. Well, okay, maybe. Actually, one of the things that's so exciting about In C is that you can't really say what it is. I mean, yes, it's a piece of "Western concert music" in terms of context and construction, but on the other hand the cycling form and limited pitch materials push it, and so much minimalist music, into an in-between territory that could be something out of the vernacular. On a superficial level, anyway, it has a lot more in common with a rock jam than anything out of the European concert-hall tradition, and so it doesn't really come down as one thing or the other; it's content just to float there.

Which makes some of the remixes on this disc seem a little unimaginative by comparison. Yes, you could just tag a drum track onto In C, lay a bassline & synths under it, and it would become a piece of tonal pop music. But that would be pinning the butterfly down. Something is lost. Granted, something is lost in any interpretation of any piece of music, but with many of these remixes not much is added, either.

Herewith, a lumpy review of each and every remix, not quite in order.

Track 1: Jack "Meat Beat Manifesto" Dangers' "Semi-Detached" mix; I'm a fan of Jack Dangers, and this mix would be a credit to any chillout compilation, but it's hard not to suspect that he could've made essentially the same piece of music out of any source material. (Ditto, to a lesser extent, bass clarinetist Michael Lowenstern's "Bints" (Track 4) and "Foster Grant" mixes (Disc 2, Track 3), and Dangers' own "Extension" mix on track 1 of disc 2. Dennis DeSantis makes an appearance here as well (Track 10), as the world's most in-demand remixer of new music into undistinguished dance music.)

But the other 90s electronica star here, DJ Spooky, fares far worse. What's going on here? Track 8 sounds, without exaggeration, exactly like what I've described above: tag on a drum track, lay down a bassline & synths, and call it a day. Isn't this just a lazy run-through of pop clichés, slapped onto In C? And this is critical darling DJ Spooky we're talking about, here! Shouldn't he, of all people, know that the unexamined breakbeat is not worth banging?

Track 2: Mason Bates. Not an unconventional piece of electronica, but quite charming to the ear, and springing naturally from the source material. I especially like those moments of tension and release ("PONGGG!" goes the sampled chorus) that derive out of a certain self-conciousness this project could have used more of. But even better in this vain is the collage-like, sample-heavy Jad Abumrad remix (track 6), which I was poised to dislike (he's the RadioLab guy! They can be so freaking smug and simplistic) but actually it's awesome, one of the highlights of the set, for that same reason, self-consciousness generating musical drama.

Track 3: Glenn Kotche. Glenn Kotche, you are great! Why did I file you under "indie rocker with high-art pretensions"? This is formally surprising, dramatic and intense, with real rhythmic sophistication. Class, Glenn Kotche gets the gold star. Be more like Glenn Kotche.

Track 5: Zoë Keating, cellist, kicks off the performer-driven remixes on the disc, which are largely mediocre. Actually, violinist Todd Reynolds brings his remix to a nice climax (Disc 2, Track 5), but fellow fiddler DBR cannot help but drape those signature hair-metal violin stylings all over the mix on his own track (Track 11) and that's just embarrassing.

Track 7: Nico Muhly. Okay you know I'm IN THE TANK for homeboy so if you want objectivity skip to the next paragraph. I like this remix because it makes me genuinely uncomfortable—does that oboe REALLY have to do that? Why does this all sound so naked?—and then warms up so subtly.

Track 9: Phil Kline. Another one for the win column—seems simple without seeming lazy, a high-concept tribute to a high-concept piece.

Disc 2, Track 2: Mikael Karlsson and Rob Stephenson actually rock this. Glitchily delicious; disorienting and gnarly.

Disc 2, Track 4: "Is In C in F?" is the title of R Luke DuBois's remix; the short answer is "No." A pleasant sheen over it, but not much to hold onto here.

Disc 2, Track 6: Kleerup. I have no intellectual or theoretical justification for enjoying this track so immensely, I'm just a sucker for a stiff electro beat and that giddy backbeat clarinet.

Disc 2, Track 7: Leave it to David Lang to whip up a remix—of the world's shaggiest, warmest piece of new music—that is VINEGAR TO THE EAR. Fortunately, I love vinegar, I pour it on everything, and so this dissonant scraping is a treat for me. If my ear had lips, it would be licking them. It sounds a little like software, if you know what I mean, but it's so much more daring than every other remix on this compilation, and digs so close to the heart of the source material, that it stands out in a crowded field.

In conclusion: Should you buy this? If you're an audiophile, or if you collect recordings of In C you should probably pick up the disc. If you consume electronic music in large quantities, you should probably download the album. The download isn't even a bad buy even if you don't like most of the remixes, although it's frustrating that iTunes and Amazon won't let you grab the excellent title track on its own, then cherry-pick the most interesting cuts from the rest of the set.

If you prefer to insert some live music into your ears, here's going to be some kind of crazy In C Remixed party at Le Poisson Rouge tonight at 6:30; Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble will be there, as well as DeSantis, DuBois, Reynolds, Lowenstern, and most exciting of all, Jad "MC Jad" Abumrad will be MC-ing. It's $15 to get in which isn't bad and since it's LPR you can get fully drunk on Rolling Rock and ask MC Jad to sign his podcast for you. Hooray!

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Blogger Mafoo said...

the world's most in-demand remixer of new music into undistinguished dance music

Aw, c'mon.. Just because he keeps it techno doesn't mean it's not extremely well-crafted and funky as hell. IMO most composers-as-remixers should focus more on making it funky than on distinguishing themselves.

November 8, 2009 at 10:42 AM  
Anonymous squirrel said...

oh NOW I KNOW who dan s johnson is! used to chat occasionally at Cutlers back in the 'Have! (You wouldn't remember me, I don't think....

btw Cutlers has seen better days, I hear?

November 9, 2009 at 6:15 PM  
Blogger Grrg said...

Radiolab bites a big vagina.

And OMG is Squirrel a Yalie?!

November 10, 2009 at 12:44 AM  
Anonymous squirrel said...

not really, well kinda.
wait, no.

November 10, 2009 at 3:13 PM  

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