Earle Brown

Earle Brown Contemporary Sound Series, Vol. 2

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One little-known aspect of the career of composer Earle Brown is that he was also a leading engineer in the recording industry who worked his way from being a lowly tape cutter to a technician who helped make the recordings of artists such as Ray Charles, John Lewis, and Art Blakey sparkle. Ultimately, he realized that if he were going to devote himself more fully to the discipline of composition -- in which Brown was already an acknowledged innovator -- he would have to give up his career as an engineer. However, while still gainfully employed in that realm Brown took the initiative to combine business with pleasure through producing and engineering 18 highly quality albums of contemporary music between 1961 and 1973. Referred to collectively as the "Contemporary Sound Series," these releases were issued on Time Records, and later Time Mainstream LPs. In this period, many contemporary music LPs were catch-as-catch-can affairs, performed frequently by artists who didn't understand the music well and captured in sub-standard sound. Brown's LPs were always beautifully engineered and featured some of the best performers in new music, if not the composers themselves as interpreters, which was often the case. Unavailable for decades and long desired by twentieth-century music aficionados, Wergo has finally arranged to reissue the entire series in six volumes' worth of three-CD boxed sets, of which A Life in Music: Earle Brown Contemporary Sound Series, Vol. 2, is an individual entry.

This box contains three original albums with original covers; no extras are included, nor are the contents reshuffled in any way to facilitate more bang for one's buck. A 26-page booklet is added to the set in order to provide an update on the original notes and some additional photographs. Of the albums in question, Feldman/Brown -- with its original cover art by abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline -- was an early and exceptionally famous entry in the series and was, for a lot of listeners, their first contact with Feldman. Every scrape, whisper, and pluck played by the expert ensemble here -- assembled for purposes of making the recording and including such luminaries as David Tudor, Matthew Raimondi, and tuba player Don Butterfield -- is captured in pinpoint accuracy. The stereo imaging in these 1962 recordings is beautifully preserved and will be a revelation to those who owned them in mono LP copies only; much the same is true of Nono/Maderna/Berio, a 1961 LP that represented the first encounter for many American listeners with Italian neo-avant-garde. Featuring the English Chamber Orchestra led by Maderna in his own Serenata No. 2 and Nono's Polifonica -- Monodia -- Ritmica and Berio conducting his own Differences, these are unusually crisp and electrifying performances. Nono's music is even slightly jazzy and one can sense his influence over the Italian film composers of his day. Maderna's work is gentle, almost Mozartian and certainly a "serenade," while Berio raises a bold and truly terrifying ruckus that cements his reputation as an enfant terrible, even as some critics in posterity have credited him with the turn back toward tonality.

Perhaps the weakest disc of the three is New Music from London, recorded in 1970. Otherwise blessed by the powerful soprano voices of Mary Thomas and Jane Manning, the works of Harrison Birtwistle, David Bedford, and Richard Orton wear the least well of the compositions contained within this box, though the Pierrot Players' performance of Peter Maxwell Davies' wild Antechrist -- a sort of noisy overture for period instruments -- is appropriately over the top; a classic rendering of Maxwell Davies' youthful, anti-establishmentarian style. This project reflected the academic side of the avant-garde of the age of Swinging London, whereas Brown's inclusion of part of an AMM performance on the album Live Electronic Music Improvised, included in Volume 1 of Wergo's edition, accorded room to the anti-academic style that ultimately led to British experimental music and minimalism; that Brown could grasp the value of both was a rare commodity among record producers of that era. The Contemporary Sound Series as a whole serves as a tribute to Brown's capability in that regard, though of the six three-CD volumes issued by Wergo, this second volume might be the best one for the general listener.

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