The station ID of the local mersh classical radio station in the Bay Area, KDFC, runs so: “Casual. Comfortable. Classical.” The tagline happens to be a good capsule argument against the enduring relevance of classical music, and its ambivalence is seriously backed up by the station’s daffy programming blocks – few things reek of work-day malaise or inspire simple mortal terror like their breezy “Island of Sanity.”
Baritone and New Yorker Thomas Buckner got his start in Berkeley, a city rife with its own brand of orthodoxy, which hasn't ever been as anti-mersh as alterna-mersh. So that town’s more representative residents would disdain KDFC because the station embodies the disconcerting consumer preference for pastel washes, middlebrow counterpoint, technical spectacle and beefcake romanticism--music for air-conditioned, noise-suppressing waiting rooms, not the heady, culture-melding city they imagine they live in. Identifying with that music, and its easy association with class and sophistication, would appear not a little misguided to the yoga-sinewy, salt-and-pepper haired types savvy enough to know that Mills, just a few minutes down I-580, incubated a modest thing called minimalism. Consuming Terry Riley not only provides more fiber, but, being locally produced, helps cut down on carbon emissions; Ralph Vaughan Williams is an unsustainable alternative.
Despite his extensive bona fides, Buckner's work doesn't fall clearly on one side or the other of this divide. That is, he's using his voice in way that's in continuity with some slightly corny bits of classical tradition (no yelps, moans, or shrieks, but plenty of rich vibrato and gravitas) while avoiding the standard repertoire in favor of new music--more specifically, the kind of new music that can't quite be pinned down to any genre, emergent or existing. It may be the privilege and burden of the classically-trained vocalist to be so dependent on collaborations, but Buckner’s work is dynamic and restless, perhaps by necessity. New Music for Baritone and Chamber Ensemble is not an entirely comfortable listen, lacking both classical platitudes and the familiar quirks of the extended technique-heavy New Music ghetto. So while Buckner’s voice is the center of attention and meaning here, the album’s success hinges on general competence that occasionally crosses over into brilliance.
Three distinct but linked pieces make up Buckner’s New Music. Buckner commissioned Annea Lockwood to compose the first, “Luminescence,” based on eight poems from Lebanese author Etel Adnan’s Sea. The second, “Canto,” is a song cycle by Tania León based on five poems by Cuban poets and sung in Spanish. The CD’s final and longest piece is “Conceptuality/Life,” in which Petr Kotik repurposes his 1982 piece “Chamber Music” following the directives of its namesake text by R. Buckminster Fuller. After listening to the curious electronic processing that made Buckner’s singing in Robert Ashley’s Now Eleanor’s Idea sound as if it were squished out of the sides of each word (rather than present in the word itself, where one tends to look for singing) like the excess filling from a generous peanut butter and jelly sandwich, his untreated voice here carries an unexpected potency of gesture. Buckner’s voice is foregrounded in these shorter pieces in a way that it couldn’t be, for structural and stylistic reasons, in his collaborator’s opera. What it conveys is also a far cry from Ashley’s plainspoken metaphysics: the poems that make up Lockwood’s three-part “Luminescence” begins in darkness and near-silence (“Primordial chaos yearns to fade away in colloquial invisibility”), but the speaker proceeds in the imperative (“ See the sea”, says a female voice I take to be Adnan’s), bolstered by sparkling, birdsong-like trumpet lines, and finishes in a sustained mood of anticipation, set against foghorn-like groans. León’s “Canto” is, in comparison, a lively set: short, brisk compositions that are as gnomic as they are visceral. Tom Kolor’s marimba playing and David Gresham’s clarinet, particularly on “Canto XXIV” spell out oblong rhythms that suggest an array of Caribbean and Latin American music without overselling the performance.
Although all of the pieces presented on New Music hold their own, “Conceptuality/Life” is in particular a feat of orchestral architecture. It builds in a desultory-yet-sensuous wander over its first 20 minutes, then locks into something like a miniaturized variation on Morton Feldman’s long-winded orchestral grind. That’s a lot of territory to cover in an hour. If factionalism in classical music is your thing, this may not be the album for you.
By Brandon Bussolini