Switched on – Bruce Brubaker & Max Cooper – Glassforms (Infiné Music)

What’s the story?

The music of the so-called ‘minimalists’, led by Philip Glass and Steve Reich, has always provided a strong link between classical and electronic music, and has naturally inspired a number of artists positioned at that junction.

Reinterpretations of Glass and Reich have varied considerably though, from those who like to perform the music straight with no added frills to those who have added drum tracks and remixed them beyond almost all recognition. In that sense the music has been an inspiration, but it has on occasion proved difficult to get the balance right.

Pianist Bruce Brubaker and scientist / electronic music producer Max Cooper have teamed up for their own reinterpretation of the music of Philip Glass, approaching it with a view to adding subtle enhancements rather than radically changing its essence. Cooper has developed his own system for musical expression with Alexander Randon, taking live feeds from the piano to drive his own systems.

What’s the music like?

Brubaker performs well-known Glass piano pieces such as Mad Rush, Two Pages and Metamorphosis 2 with great sensitivity, to which Cooper adds the expressive studio touches and atmospherics. That may seem like straightforward solution, but both performers have to be careful to avoid over-egging what Glass has already done.

The pair link the originals with improvised music of their own. This is through a series of five preludes where Brubaker channels the spirit of Glass but brings in external influences from the likes of Liszt and Bach to galvanizing effect.

There are so many notes in the busy keyboard pieces such as Mad Rush that to do too much would not work – but here the judgement of both performers is right on the money. The piano parts are essentially the same, but Cooper cleverly highlights elements of the busy lines with his own spotlit textures, putting shards of white noise on the top of the likes of Mad Rush and opening out the sound with long bass notes, taking us from intimate beginnings to cinematic, big-venue textures. He does this without compromising the solitary world of a piece like Metamorphosis 2, and each one makes an unexpectedly weighty emotional impact.

While the reinterpretations of pieces like Tirol Concerto are excellent, Brubaker and Cooper’s interpretation of Two Pages is outstanding. It is ideally paced, the tracer lights of the keyboard operating over great waves of synthesizer pads, the chords shifting simply but with a devastatingly effective emotional payoff. So far each listen to this particular track has left a tear in the eye!

Does it all work?

Yes. It is immediately clear that Brubaker and Cooper hold the music of Glass in the utmost respect, but also that they know how to bring it forward and point it towards a slightly more club-orientated audience. There are no beats at any point, but the electronic sounds and textures bring them much closer – and Glass’s own rhythmic impetus is enough in any case. Each track is carefully woven and lovingly produced, and sounds great on headphones.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Glass and Reich have had some excellent remix treatment in the last 25 years or so, but Bruce Brubaker and Max Cooper have really raised the game with this album, which is both wholly complimentary to Glass but offers something new in its own right. It is a really fine  achievement.

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Sound of Mind 10 – May Blossoms

As we move halfway through the eighth week of lockdown here in the UK, I thought it a good time to round up some of the best sounds I’ve been enjoying in the last week or two.

The arrival of spring is hopefully in full swing, and there are good signs of creativity throughout the electronic music community.

This playlist begins with the first track of the Conference Of Trees album from Pantha du Prince, before enjoying some rather wonderful pictures brought to us by Peter Broderick, Erland Cooper, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and brothers Brian and Roger Eno.

There is brand new music from Bibio, one of the standout tracks from Nathan Fake‘s Blizzards album and to wrap things up a remix of Philip Glass‘s Two Pages by none other than Max Cooper.

Enjoy an hour of escapism!

Ben Hogwood

Playlist – Sound of Mind 7: Strings and things

Here is another playlist for your delectation, in the new age of ‘staying in’.

This one features works for strings of very different character, from the energetic works by John Adams and Tchaikovsky to a more reflective, serene approach from Philip Glass and Sir Edward Elgar. You get an idea here of the versatility of the string orchestra, which can be by turns sombre and bracing.

Enjoy the music!

Ben Hogwood

Playlist – Sound of Mind

With the world in such a weird place at the moment, now seems like a good time to share a playlist of ambient music to ease the mind.

This one, homemade on the hoof, includes some personal favourites from Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Brian Eno, The Orb and a whole lot more:

I hope you enjoy it – and if you have any suggestions for future playlists please get in touch. Happy to do a whole load more!

Ben Hogwood

Wigmore Mondays – Joanna MacGregor: Birds, Grounds, Chaconnes

Joanna MacGregor (above)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 11 November 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Joanna MacGregor is a remarkably versatile pianist – and from this evidence at the Wigmore Hall, she is an artist who enjoys her music making as much as ever.

It would seem she was given free rein for this hour of music – and was certainly free as a bird in the opening selection of wing-themed pieces. Returning to earth for ‘Grounds’ – pieces of music with set, short structures in the bass – she was equally effusive, as well as ‘Chaconnes’, which are similar to ‘Grounds’ but based more on chord sequences than explicit basslines.

The 400 years or so of music started with a flourish. Rameau had a great ability to portray nature in music, and his Le rappel des oiseaux (The call of the birds) was a delight in its interaction between the hands. His contemporary, François Couperin, was represented by a strongly characterised Les fauvétes plaintives (The plaintive warblers), where MacGregor enjoyed the ornamentation of the right hand. That led to an arrangement of fellow countryman Messiaen’s Le merle noir (The black robin), originally for flute and piano but responding well here to its reduction, with quick fire block chords. Rameau’s portrait of La poule (The Hen) was brilliant, the clucking and strutting of the bird all too enjoyably evident.

Janáček’s piano music has an otherworldly quality of stark intimacy, and it does not get anywhere near the amount of recognition it deserves in the concert hall these days. Joanna MacGregor started her next segment of bird-themed pieces with the evocative piece The barn owl has not flown away. Taken from the first book of the Czech composer’s collection On an Overgrown Path, its haunting motifs fixed the listener in a gaze rather like the owl itself.

Birtwistle’s brief Oockooing Bird was next, a slightly mysterious creature in this performance, before a piano arrangement of Hossein Alizadeh’s Call of the Birds, normally heard in its original version for the duduk (an Armenian woodwind instrument) and the shurangiz (an Iranian member of the lute family). MacGregor is so good at inhabiting the authentic language of these pieces, and she did so here in concentrated fasion.

For the ‘Grounds’ section, who better to start with than Purcell? He was a natural with supposedly constricted forms like this, and the Ground in C minor teemed with activity in MacGregor’s hands, the right hand figures dancing attractively, The piece prepared the way nicely for Philip Glass’s repetitive but meditative Prophecies, arranged from his music to Koyaanisqatsi. This film soundtrack contains some of the composer’s finest music, and MacGregor showed how well it transcribes for piano, building to a bold and emphatic finish.

For the final section we moved onto ‘Chaconnes’, and looked back to the 16th century for the earliest piece in the program. Yet Byrd’s First Pavane still sounds modern in piano guise – Glenn Gould certainly thought so – and Joanna MacGregor gave an extremely spirited and buoyant account. Glass appeared once more – this time the interlude Knee Play no.4 from his opera Einstein on the Beach – before the substantial Chaconne in F minor from Pachelbel, heard here on the piano instead of its ‘home’ instrument, the organ.

How refreshing not to hear the composer’s Canon, much-loved as it is – for Pachelbel is much more than merely a composer of that particular piece. MacGregor found the profound emotional centre, darkly coloured in the minor key – and with that came an impressive inner resolve.

For an encore we were introduced to the eleventh composer of the day through a spirited account of the Passacaglia from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor. It contained all the enthusiasm and melodic definition that made this hour in the company of Joanna MacGregor such a joy.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Rameau Le rappel des osieaux (pub. 1724) (2:21)
François Couperin Les fauvétes plaintives (pub. 1722) (5:27)
Messiaen Le merle noir (1951/1985) (9:05)
Rameau La poule (pub. 1729) (11:02)
Janáček The barn owl has not flown away (from On an Overgrown Path, Book 1) (1900-11) (15:36)
Birtwistle Oockooing Bird (2000) (19:39)
Hossein Alizadeh Call of the Birds (2003) (22:08)
Purcell (1659-1695) Ground in C minor Z221 (unknown) (27:31)
Glass Prophecies (from Koyaanisqatsi) (1982) (30:34)
Byrd First Pavane (from My Ladye Nevells Booke) (pub. 1591) (36:25)
Glass arr. Paul Barnes Knee Play No 4 (from Einstein on the Beach, from Trilogy Sonata) (1976) (40:44)
Pachelbel (1653-1706) Chaconne in F minor (unknown) (44:19)
Encore
Handel Passacaglia from Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor (52:33)

Further listening

Joanna MacGregor has yet to record most of the music in this concert, but the following playlist contains most of the music listed above:

Portrayals of birds in classical music are far reaching, but few managed them better than Haydn in the 18th century. His Symphony no.83 in G minor, La Poule (The Hen) begins this playlist containing 100 minutes of bird-themed music. It includes Respighi’s exotic suite The Birds, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and – perhaps inevitably – Vaughan Williams’ timeless The Lark Ascending:

For the most recommendable version of Janáček’s complete piano music, here is Rudolf Firkušný in both books of the evocative pieces On An Overgrown Path, ideal listening for this time of year:

For a good onward example of Joanna MacGregor’s art on the solo piano, her 2003 album Play is highly recommended, taking an open approach similar to this concert: