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Vladimir Ussachevsky - Electronic and Acoustic Works: 1957-1972

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Artist: Vladimir Ussachevsky

Album: Electronic and Acoustic Works: 1957-1972

Label: New World

Review date: Jun. 11, 2007

The indispensable New World label continues its documentation of innovative American music with a further disc’s worth of Ussachevsky material. A reissue really, this material spans much of the composer’s 20-year term as director of the Columbia Tape Music Studio, later the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center; he co-founded the institution, and it was his task to guard the first tape recorder acquired by Columbia in 1951.

Born somewhere near the Russian/Chinese border, Ussachevsky (1911-1990) immigrated to the US sometime in his teenage years, having enjoyed a complete emersion in all manner of music during his childhood. He brings his wide experience to these pithy miniatures, being one of the few composers able to work convincingly in both traditional and electro-acoustic modes of orchestration and rhetoric. His Missa Brevis, from 1972, is beautifully lush and yet somehow spare, simultaneously evoking the energy and choppy phrasing of neoclassical Stravinsky and the more superficially triadic language I’d always associated with 20th century British composers, such as Arnold Bax.

Even more impressive are the three scenes from The Creation, first written in 1960 for voices and tape. Here, choral singing is electro-acoustically transformed, Concrete-fashion, but never beyond recognition; in fact, the tape manipulations can be quite subtle, at times giving the illusion of a multi-chorus rendering. The electronic sounds match the vocal timbres exquisitely, also approximating certain instruments while never falling into the trap of needless simulation.

Ussachevsky’s tape pieces are extremely diverse. From the droney sound fabrics of 1957’s “Metamorphosis” to the historically charged Morse-code and simulated short-wave juxtapositions of “Wireless Fantasy,” no one compositional aesthetic predominates, Ussachevsky’s work sounding refreshingly void of system and dogma. Even a collage work such as “Of Wood and Brass” (1965), follows a unique logic, the sound sources drastically altered to fit a vision still in union with the earlier pieces presented here. Somewhere between Varese’s “Poeme Electronique” and Stockhausen’s moment-form pieces, it is absolutely enthralling.

Only the two computer sketches of 1971 sound a bit dated, but even those hold interest as an attempt to merge electronic sound with a quasi-tonal compositional language. This is a fantastic collection, and New World is to be commended, both for this compendium and for its continued reissuing of the CRI catalog.

By Marc Medwin

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