3:17pm

Sat July 23, 2011
Deceptive Cadence

Poulenc, Palestrina And Two-By-Fours: New Classical Albums

The news may bring us stories of bankrupt symphony orchestras, floundering opera companies and shuttered record stores, but musicians keep making excellent recordings, often releasing them on small labels. That's the thread running through the broad range of classical albums that NPR Music's Tom Huizenga spins for Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz. The independent, Paris-based Zig Zag Territories label has released a sparkling new recording of Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos with the innovative original instruments band Anima Eterna. The acclaimed British choir called The Sixteen has started up its own label and an ambitious Palestrina project. And then there's the packaging (by the Cantaloupe label) for Michael Gordon's new work Timber. The music is nothing more than six guys pounding on two-by-fours (it sounds surprisingly sublime), and the CD comes in a stunning wooden box. Hats off to the small labels who continue to keep music vibrantly alive.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Time now for music. Today, NPR classical producer Tom Huizenga is back with some of his favorite brand new recordings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Kind of feels like we should be having this conversation at church, Tom. By the way, it's great to see you again.

TOM HUIZENGA: Thanks, Guy. Good to be back.

RAZ: And I actually should say I don't see you around the building very often, so come down to the second floor now again.

HUIZENGA: OK. Promise, I will.

RAZ: OK.

HUIZENGA: All right.

RAZ: Well, what can you tell me about this first piece?

HUIZENGA: This is a new recording by the 16th century composer Giovanni Palestrina from a mass called Assumpta est Maria, and the singers are a terrific group called The Sixteen. And there's one story that everyone tells about Palestrina, but it's pretty cool, and that it's a story about how he saved church music.

RAZ: Saved it. He actually saved it. How'd he do that?

HUIZENGA: Well, you got your history book out?

RAZ: Hold on.

HUIZENGA: OK.

RAZ: Go ahead.

HUIZENGA: Turn to the Council of Trent. There's some, you know, Roman Catholic bigwigs on the Council of Trent, and they decided, you know, we should revert to the old Gregorian chant because with Gregorian chant you can understand every single word. It's a single line of music. And they were worried that this new style of polyphonic music, multiple melodic lines interweaving, like we're hearing now, that you couldn't understand the words and that would be a no-no. So on April 28, 1565, some of Palestrina's music was performed for these old school dudes and essentially they were convinced that you can hear all the words even with polyphony.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Beautiful singing from a group called The Sixteen. It's a new record of music by Giovanni Palestrina, and it's one of the albums NPR Music's classical editor Tom Huizenga is introducing us to today. Tom, you have a - let me see that - is it a wooden box, a wooden seed box.

HUIZENGA: Yeah.

RAZ: It looks very cool, just two big pieces of wood.

HUIZENGA: The piece is called "Timber," appropriately, and the CD comes in this wooden box with, like, images of two-by-fours etched into it like, you know, from one of those wood-burning sets you had as a kid.

RAZ: Presumably, there's a reason why the two-by-fours are on there.

HUIZENGA: Well, yes, because two-by-fours are exactly what these six percussionists in this group are playing, nothing else. Just...

RAZ: Two-by-fours. Guys banging on two-by-fours?

HUIZENGA: Just two-by-fours. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIMBER")

HUIZENGA: Guy, this is music by Michael Gordon. He's one of the founders of Bang on a Can, that collective of musicians and composers, and this is performed by the Dutch group called Slagwerk Den Haag. These two-by-fours are exactly the type you can pick up at Home Depot, except you need to let them dry out first before you play them.

RAZ: Right, because when you buy lumber at a store, oftentimes, it's waterlogged. You got to just let it kind of dry out and...

HUIZENGA: I didn't know any of that. I didn't know that. But there's...

RAZ: You should hang out at Home Depot more.

HUIZENGA: I guess they're loaded with chemicals and they need to dry out. So then, you know, what happens is they cut them to specific lengths and they produce different tones. And the cool thing is that they produce this very rich shifting field of overtones that in and of itself produces a kind of melody. It's the craziest thing, magical, I think. And you got to listen closely, but here's a part of section three where you can hear a three-note melody in the overtones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIMBER")

RAZ: I must admit. I didn't hear it. But it's still cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUMMING)

RAZ: Oh, yeah. I got you. It's cool.

HUIZENGA: It's when it comes up...

RAZ: Yeah.

HUIZENGA: ...right?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIMBER")

RAZ: Oh, yeah. Oh yeah. I got that.

HUIZENGA: All overtones.

RAZ: That's wild. All two-by-fours. Who knew, right? You can - who knew? It's a new piece of music. It's called "Timber" by Michael Gordon. Tom, we have time for just one more piece. What you got?

HUIZENGA: OK. Again, something - you know, anything we're going to play now is different from what we just heard.

RAZ: I think that's safe to say.

HUIZENGA: It's by a man named Hans Gal. He's way off the radar screen. He's totally forgotten today, a musicologist and composer born near Vienna. This is from his symphony No. 3, which he wrote in 1952. It had to wait a couple years for a premiere, and then it just sat around neglected for 55 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So, why'd it take so long for people to kind of acknowledge it? What was going on for 55 years?

HUIZENGA: Well, I don't know. It's a good question, because it's 35 minutes of superbly built music. Maybe folks thought it was just too old-fashioned. You know, he wrote it in the early '50s at a time when the atonal style of music was in vogue. But, I mean, Hans Gal himself was in vogue for a short period of time in Austria and Germany, and then, like a lot of other composers, he fled the Nazis, landed in the U.K., and he was active in the musical life of the city of Edinburgh. He co-founded the famous Edinburgh Festival there.

RAZ: Oh, really? He co-founded that?

HUIZENGA: He spent time as a conductor, a pianist, a lecturer and composed about 50 or so pieces, you know, kind of quietly on the side. And people didn't pay any attention to them until now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's music by the little-known Hans Gal from his third Symphony. It's a new recording. Tom, who is this, by the way?

HUIZENGA: The conductor is Kenneth Woods, and his orchestra is called the Orchestra of the Swan. There's about 100 Gal works and, you know, based on the couple of recordings that this band's put out, I'm anxious to hear more.

RAZ: That's Tom Huizenga. He's a classical editor here at NPR Music. You can hear more from these selections at his blog, Deceptive Cadence. And you can find it at nprmusic.org. Tom, thanks for coming.

HUIZENGA: My pleasure, Guy.

RAZ: And don't be a stranger.

HUIZENGA: OK. Promise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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