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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Bach Re-Invented, Kristjan Jarvi, Absolute Ensemble, Bach, Pritsker, Schnyder, Trapp

The art of the collage in the early 20th century and beyond changed the way we are used to seeing reality. In music the variations form has for a long time worked in a collage-like idiom, perhaps seeing its most thorough-going modernist expressions in Cage's "Variations IV" for any number of recordings and any number of other sounds, and perhaps also Lukas Foss's "Geode", which did the same in a more controlled way for a live ensemble.

A more specific form of collage came about through the transformation of Bach and other composers of the baroque era into modern terms. This too has a fairly recent set of precedents. I can think of two compositions from the later '60s that re-thought the music in dramatic terms. One was Lukas Foss's "Baroque Variations", a piece in several movements that took Bach and other baroque composers and forged a completely modern kaleidoscopic work on the themes. It was recorded by Foss and the Buffalo Philharmonic and released in those days on the Nonesuch label. Another was Cage & Hiller's HPSCHD, which involved the simultaneous playing of seven harpsichord works from the era and beyond, thickened further by multi-computer generated sounds. It too enjoyed notoriety as a Nonesuch release.

We fast-forward to today and the adventuresome Absolute Ensemble, a chamber group under the direction of Kristjan Jarvi. They have sponsored three compositions based on Bach's Inventions. Each re-composition situates a particular invention in a very modern contemporary musical world, using the lines contained in the invention as a springboard. We get to enjoy three current-day fantasias that in themselves thrive on inventive personal visions of what can be done when set free of all restrictions save that they be performable by the Absolute Ensemble.

The product of all this is Jarvi and the Absolute Ensemble's recording Bach Re-Invented (Sony 88691941682). For the program the particular Bach Invention that gave rise to the re-invented composition at hand is first played straightforwardly on the piano. So Bach's "Invention No. 1" precedes Gene Pritsker's "Reinventions (Piano Concerto)". The "Invention No. 4" sets things up for Daniel Schnyder's "toopART Reinventions" a "Concerto Grosso for Chamber Orchestra, Two Keyboards and Saxophone". Finally Bach's "Invention No. 8" introduces Tom Trapp's somewhat brief piece, "Headless Snowman". Pritsker and Schnyder are ensemble members in addition to creating their compositions.

All three works weave multi-stylistic components together in rather brilliant ways. Pritsker has the most far-ranging series of juxtapositions, from modern classical through to metal, world elements and a bit of house/hip-hop, jazz and world music. All fit together in a swirling miasma of virtuoso musical thinking. It is music of some definite brilliance.

Daniel Schnyder's "toopART Reinventions" is a brilliantly conceived reworking as well, but perhaps less stylistically "kitchen synked". He works a bit more sustainedly within the jazz-classical nexus, but does so in ways that surprise, too.

Tom Trapp's "Headless Snowman" has the most through-composed feel to it, which makes sense given its brevity. He puts some rock weight into his reinvention and generally leaves us smiling.

There are few ensembles that could pull off the multi-stranded demands of the music here and Absolute Ensemble is not only one of them--they excel at it. It is a testimony to their multi-styled virtuosity that this is so. The compositions are revolutionary in the postmodern sense. In that and any other sense this is music you should hear. It may bend your mind as to what-goes-with-what, but it will do so in a superbly inventive way. What is going on right now? Part of the answer lies in this disk. Hear it. Hear it!

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