Sampling the avant-garde

Glass Box
Philip Glass

Next week, Nonesuch Records will release Glass Box, an elegantly designed showcase for the career of Philip Glass. On 10 CDs, the set presents highlights of a groundbreaking career that has had a profound impact not only concert halls but on popular music and film scores.

Drawing on everything from piano etudes to symphonies, operas to movie music, in many cases the set is necessarily limited to excerpts instead of full works. While that makes it a fine point of entry for newcomers — fans might quibble over the set’s omissions — there’s little here to convince longtime devotees to buy it, save for a book full of tributes by artists such as Errol Morris and Chuck Close. A different kind of celebration is had on Music in Twelve Parts, a new recording of the composer’s seminal “minimalist” work just released by his own label, Orange Mountain Music. On four discs, it captures an excellent 2006 performance in which Glass’s ensemble performs the legendarily demanding four-hour work.

The Two Worlds
Foday Musa Suso
(Orange Mountain)

Orange Mountain also is about to release one of its most atypical titles yet: The Two Worlds, a lovely album of solo performances by West African kora player Foday Musa Suso. Two Worlds is straightforward and part of the griot tradition, and only makes sense for the label thanks to the artist’s history of hybrid collaborations with Westerners like Glass and the Kronos Quartet. Another East/West effort, Penumbra (Canadian Rational), pairs Armenian duduk master Djivan Gasparyan with Canadian guitarist Michael Brook. Not their first record together, Penumbra is the kind of atmospheric, pan-ethnic loveliness that New Age would be if it were interested in real musicality instead of babbling-brook sonic wallpaper.

Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution
(Sexy Intellectual)

Philip Glass himself goes unmentioned, but peers such as Steve Reich get a shout-out or two in Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution (Sexy Intellectual), a bone-dry but informative new documentary about Germany’s discovery of the avant-garde. The movie was made without the help of core members Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter, and it shows: The three-hour film gets an hour and a half in before discussing Autobahn, the LP Schneider and Hütter consider the start of their career.

Up to that point, the movie is mainly concerned with the other groups that made the scene lively, like Amon Düül, Kluster, and, best of all, Can (whose Irmin Schmidt recently put out Axolotl Eyes, a duet with Kumo, aka Jono Podmore, that furthers the band’s legacy nicely into this century — its opening track is made up of tiny samples of a month’s worth of records Kumo was sent to review for a magazine). And after it provides an album-by-album account of Kraftwerk’s career, it spends some fruitful time investigating their influence on groups in England and elsewhere.

BIPPP: French
Synthwave 1979-1985


The doc says nothing, though, about France. Fortunately, we have BIPPP: French Synthwave 1979-1985 (EverLoving), a comp that picks up right after the release of Kraftwerk’s mainstream breakthrough The Man-Machine, and shows their influence often. Tracks range from borderline-annoyingly abrasive (“WC Contagion”) to the nostalgia-inducing (“Je T’Ecris D’Un Pays”) and often make you wonder how none of these bands — like Vox Dei, a Gallic Joy Division — have come to light in years of New Wave and Post Punk revivalism. Sadly, there are practically no notes in the package, not even indications of when each track was recorded or who was in each group.

Monstre Cosmic
(Too Pure)

Shortly after the end of BIPPP’’s time frame, the core members of Stereolab started making music together. That band’s latest, Chemical Chords, was reviewed in these pages not long ago, but less exposure has been given to Monstre Cosmic (Too Pure) by Monade, which to my mind might just as well be considered an official outing by the Groop. The music is all written by Laetitia Sadier. Her ‘Lab partner Tim Gane is nowhere to be found, but try getting a casual fan to tell the difference: Sadier’s distinctive voice (singing mostly in French), the throbbing rhythms, and a lot of familiar-sounding keyboards make the side project a dead-ringer for its parent; only when Marie Merlet’s back-up vocals sneak forward, as on “Change of Destination,” do you suspect otherwise.

Which is A-OK with me. Three Stereolab records a year wouldn’t be too many. •

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