Johnny Gandelsman - This Is America Music Album Reviews

Johnny Gandelsman - This Is America Music Album Reviews
On an ambitious three-disc project, the violinist collaborates with a wide array of bright, younger composers, crystallizing a new vision for American classical music.

What is American classical music? Long before there was a United States of America, classical music took shape in the courts and cathedrals of Europe, where its role became like that of religion: setting the weave of history and myth that bound a people together and stirred their highest feelings. This was as strange a fit for a 17th century land with no perimeter and no past as it is for a 21st century one with no center and, we fear, no future. We might as well ask what America is. Yet the new album by Brooklyn Rider violinist Johnny Gandelsman, with original music by a cornucopia of younger composers in the United States, sounds like one clarion answer to both riddles.

Set in the European mold, American classical came into its own by the 19th century, mineralized by folk. In the 20th, as the U.S. became a more cosmopolitan haven for modernists fleeing fascism—imagine that—American classical fatted itself on homegrown vernaculars like blues, jazz, and rock, producing innovations like minimalism and its long postmodern tail. Meanwhile, technology was changing it, filling it with electronic sounds and global influences and shattering it through electronic conduits. Culture was also changing it, exposing its colonial underpinnings and sapping its white male ramparts. This, circa 2008, is where Brooklyn Rider entered the scene. The 21st-century inheritors of Kronos Quartet, they’re celebrated for commissioning and collaborating almost rampantly, around the world, with classical, jazz, folk, and pop musicians. The string quartet’s internationalist perspective also shines in Gandelsman’s American saga.

For the three-disc album This Is America, Gandelsman sought new works from more than two dozen composers, most of whom picked up institutional funding in their regions. While all of them live in the U.S., they represent a global commonwealth of trained but unbound traditions. The marquee name is Terry Riley, the soul of American minimalism, whose piece for five-string violin is playful and chatty, as is his priceless composer’s note. (“Having nothing particular in mind I began.”) But, surprisingly for a record from this milieu, the churning minimalism of Riley and Philip Glass is hardly the default mode. Instead, a sterner, more sculptural modernism is the baseline, though much of the standout fare departs from it.

The opening disc is bookended by its most striking moments. The first, by the Brazilian American composer-pianist Clarice Assad, is called “O,” which stands for “oxygen.” The music was composed in response to the early pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, events that lend many of the pieces tones of mourning or healing. The titular vowel hangs in gauzy swags of reverb and delay as Gandelsman’s tremolos burrow up, his bow darting and scurrying in the dark. Compare that to the clear, sorrowing style of Rhiannon Giddens, the classical-folk crossover star who revived Black string band music with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Her “New to the Session” closes the disc, which has traversed a sort of experimental operetta by Rhea Fowler and Micaela Tobin and an atonal noise piece by Nick Dunston, with a hint of Irish fiddling.

The second disc includes two songs—one by the storied New York cellist and singer Marika Hughes, and one by the Diné poet and scholar Bojan Louis—in which Gandelsman sings and plays tenor guitar, and he’s got a solid Andrew Bird thing going on, including whistling. This clears the way for the likes of Tomeka Reid, a cellist-composer who’s deep in the Chicago scene, who wrote an arresting one-sided conversation in “Rhapsody.” And Angélica Negrón’s “A través del manto luminoso” is the most ravishing piece in the project. A Puerto Rican-born electro-acoustic composer who also fuses dream pop and dembow in the Brooklyn indie band Balún, Negrón set out to sonically translate a certain photo of stars reflected on the ocean; Gandelsman’s violin and her brilliant, beating electronic tones seem to meld into one resonant body, like an inky, starry singing bowl.

There are more peaks on the third disc, especially Tyshawn Sorey’s crumbling harmonic corridors and the four blissful movements of Anjna Swaminathan’s “Surrender to the Adventure,” which warms the violin with tape manipulation and cozy narration, and would make a fine standalone EP. While This Is America’s extreme variety might outstrip even the most adventurous taste, the coexistence of all these points of view seems like part of the point. So does the fact that the artistry of Gandelsman, a guide through this sprawling labyrinth of tonal systems and difficult techniques, almost washes away in the collective clamor.

The 21st-century canon, unwritten and maybe unwritable, already seems characterized by its multiplicity, its razing of toxic roots, and its anxieties about whether they run too deep for anything but technique to be saved. Yet a new paradigm, at once productively modern and elementally historical, may be coming into view. In Brooklyn Rider’s times, classical music would still look to America’s past for inspiration, but with a more critical eye and a fuller chorus of voices, revealing what others had missed or ignored, seeking unity in individuality. This is the insight and vision that Gandelsman crystallizes, and This Is America stirs feelings about our country that are almost hard to recognize: pride, hope, and the simple relief of consensus reality. The violin strings can never touch, but the drawn bow makes them vibrate as one.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Johnny Gandelsman - This Is America Music Album Reviews Johnny Gandelsman - This Is America Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Tuesday, July 19, 2022 Rating: 5

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