NYNDK / Steffen Schleiermacher: Two-Way Jazz-Classical Traffic

Chris May By

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The interface between jazz and classical music is long, diverse, sometimes overblown and sometimes rewarding. Here are three albums in the rewarding category. The fall 2009 release of NYNDK's The Hunting Of The Snark, putting into a jazz context compositions by Charles Ives, Arne Nordham, Edvard Grieg, George Perle, Carl Neilsen and Per Norgard, is complemented by two less recent discs trafficking in the reverse direction: pianist Steffen Schleiermacher's Czech Avant-Garde Piano Music 1918-1938 and John Cage: Complete Piano Music Vol. 1: The Prepared Piano 1940-1952.

The Hunting Of The Snark

NYNDK formed in 2003 to bring together musicians from New York (NY), Norway (N) and Denmark (DK). It describes itself as a collective but also names NYC trombonist Chris Washburne as leader. In any case, the founding members are Washburne, Norwegian saxophonist Ole Mathisen and Danish pianist Soren Moller. They're joined on The Hunting Of The Snark by bassist Per Mathisen and drummer Tony Moreno, who deliver a rhythmic vitality too often absent from classical recalibrations like this.

The album grew out of a 2007 DaNY Arts Grant awarded to NYNDK by the Danish Cultural Ministry, as part of a program to forge collaboration between artists in New York and Denmark. With the grant, the band researched and arranged a body of contemporary classical music by American, Danish and Norwegian composers, some of which was recorded in New York in fall 2008.

The arrangements mix through composition with improvisation and Scandinavian cool with East Coast assertiveness. The three Charles Ives pieces which begin the album work well, with the opening "The Cage" establishing a muscular but sinuous groove which is frequently revisited, but it's not until halfway through the set that the music really lifts off. Ole Mathisen's soprano feature, "Adagio," from Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor, is as delicate and detailed as a flower. Washburne gets to tailgate exuberantly on "Scherzo No. 2," from George Perie's Sinfonietta No. 2. And Mathisen's clarinet is expressive on the melancholic "Movement 2," from Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 2, and digs deep on Per Norgard's turbulent "Voyage Into The Golden Screen."

Would all the assembled composers enjoy NYNDK's reinterpretations? Probably not Carl Nielsen. He once described jazz as "bone rattling and disgusting." The bluesy edge the band give to Nielsen's "Movement 2" is an effective riposte.

Visit NYNDK on the web.

Steffen Schleiermacher
Czech Avant-Garde Piano Music 1918-1938

Steffen Schleiermacher is a German virtuoso who in appearance resembles a hard rock guitarist but is actually a pianist specializing in modern classical music. Among his considerable catalogue of work for the MDG label is a performance of perhaps the most structurally rigorous piece of American minimalism of the 20th century, Terry Riley's "Keyboard Studies No. 1"—a serpentine and relentless onslaught of cross rhythms and randomly generated motifs lasting some 22 minutes—on Terry Riley: Keyboard Studies (MDG, 2002).

Czech Avant-Garde Piano Music 1918-1938 is another gem in Schleiermacher's discography. It focuses on the work of composers associated with the cross-art form artists' group, Devetsil, founded in Prague in 1919. Jaroslav Jezek, Erwin Schulhoff and Bohuslav Martinu, the trio of composers who dominate the album, wrote for theatre and cabaret as much as the conservatoire and, partly to infuriate the Czech music establishment and partly to celebrate the spirit of optimism that followed independence in 1918, infused their work with American ragtime and jazz and popular dance forms like the tango.

Jezek's "Bugatti-Step," "Bagatelles" (a suite of six tunes) and "Equatorial Rag" are wonderfully and irresistibly joyful. Schulhoff's pieces have a more absurdist, Dadaist character. His five-part "Funf Pittoresken," written in 1919, includes a 3:03 minutes long third movement which is composed entirely of rests (that is, it is played in silence)—preceding John Cage's "4'33," composed in 1952, by over three decades.

The Prague spring which followed the founding of the Czech Republic lasted until the Nazi invasion of the country in 1939. Members of the Devetsil group then still resident in Prague were among the many intellectuals rounded up and murdered in concentration camps. Pavel Haas, whose "Suite Op. 13" opens Czech Avant-Garde Piano Music 1918-1938, was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944, and Frantisek E. Burian, who somehow survived five years in concentration camps, had almost all of his scores destroyed by the Gestapo in front of his eyes. His "Waltz" was one of the few pieces to survive.

Footnotes in history have a fascination which grows with the years, and Czech Avant-Garde Piano Music 1918-1938 is an ear-popping, quirky delight.

Steffen Schleiermacher
John Cage: Complete Piano Music Vol. 1: The Prepared Piano 1940-1952

The three-disc box set John Cage: Complete Piano Music Vol. 1: The Prepared Piano 1940-1952 is but the first volume of Schleiermacher's heroic 10-volume collection of Cage's piano music. It is, perhaps, the volume which will resonate most readily with a jazz audience.

Written early in Cage's career, most of the music on the first two discs was composed for dance, in particular for the choreographer Merce Cunningham, the godfather of American modern dance. Though Cunningham would later avoid explicit links between music and movement—the two co-existed rather than converged in his productions—Cage's work here suggests the rhythmic root of all dance, and many of the tunes have a jazz ambiance. Partly this derives from the percussive nature of the prepared piano (for which various pieces of metal or wood are positioned between the hammers and strings), partly from the ostinatos and repeated, riff-like motifs Cage gives the tunes, partly from the Thelonious Monk-like use of silence and unexpected intervals.

Schleiermacher's performance vividly captures the trippy, playful quality of Cage's work of the period, and John Cage: Complete Piano Music Vol. 1: The Prepared Piano 1940-1952 is an album that's easy, and delightful, to get lost in.

Visit Steffen Schleiermacher on the web.

Tracks and Personnel

The Hunting Of The Snark

Tracks: The Cage; 1, 2, 3; Remembrance; Arne; The Hunting Of The Snark; Edvard; Adagio from Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor; George; Scherzo No. 2 from Perie's Sinfonietta No. 2; Carl; Movement 2 from Nielsen's Symphony No. 2; Per; Voyage Into The Golden Screen; Charles.

Personnel: Ole Mathisen: saxophones, clarinet; Chris Washburne: trombone; Soren Moller: piano; Per Mathisen: bass; Tony Moreno: drums.

Czech Avant-Garde Piano Music 1918-1938

Tracks: Pavel Haas: Suite op. 3; Jaroslav Jezek: Bugatti-Step; Erwin Schulhoff: Funf Pittoresken op. 31; Frantisek E. Burian: Waltz; Jaroslav Jezek: Bagatelles; Leos Janacek: Piano Music 1923-1928; Bohuslav Martinu: Piano Music 1924-1925; Jaroslav Jezek: Equatorial Rag.

Personnel: Steffen Schleiermacher: piano.

John Cage: Complete Piano Music Vol. 1

Tracks: CD1: Bacchanale; Totem Ancestor; And The Earth Shall Bear Again; Primitive; In The Name Of The Holocaust; Our Spring Will Come; A Room; Tossed As It Is Untroubled; The Perilous Night; Root Of An Unfocus. CD2: The Unavailable Memory Of; Spontaneous Earth; Triple Paced; A Valentine Out Of Season; Prelude For Meditation; Mysterious Adventure; Daughters Of The Lonesome Isle; Music For Marcel Duchamp; Two Pastorales. CD3: Sonatas And Interludes For Prepared Piano.

Personnel: Steffen Schleiermacher: prepared piano.



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