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Heiner GOEBBELS (b. 1952)
Suite for sample and Orchestra from Surrogate Cities (1996) [30:39]
Frank ZAPPA (1940-1993)
The Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat [5:17]
Dupree’s Paradise [8:19]
The Perfect Stranger [13:01]
G-Spot Tornado [3:41]
Revised Music for Low Budget Orchestra [8:16]
Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Thomas Søndergård
rec. live, 11 February 2010, Rockefeller Concert Hall, Oslo.
LAWO LWC1063 [69:44]

The Suite for sample and Orchestra from Surrogate Cities has already appeared on the ECM CD with the complete Surrogate Cities, ECM 1688 which dates from 2000. Surrogate Cities as a whole concept approaches ‘the city’ as the subject of narratives and observations, the composer’s idea being “to try and read the city as a text and then to translate something of its mechanics and architecture into music.” Steve Reich is another composer who has made the use of samplers a feature of his recent work, and there is a marginal similarity to be felt in the juxtaposition of electronically reproduced sounds and ‘live’ instruments. Heiner Goebbels’ music has plenty of repetitive rhythms as part of this Suite, but it couldn’t really be termed minimalistic.

Linking this Suite to pieces by Frank Zappa is an inspired idea, with the melodic angularity and relative rhythmic unpredictability of both inhabiting a similar ‘vibe’ in terms of genre, if that is the correct term. Zappa’s individualistic identity is that of the street, or at least a strange and often disjointed side-road connected to city life and its mechanics. Power and poetry are strong in Goebbels’ Suite, the movements of which are given historical titles such as Sarabande and Gigue. The latter’s gentle toccata however disproves any real association of character between the antique title and the actual music. With its quirky but non-aggressive edge this is very good-sounding music, and the kind of stuff you can listen to frequently and always find something to thrill and intrigue. The sampled sounds are integral as well as ornamental, sometimes looming out at us like the singing voice in the Chaconne, or creating rhythmic mechanical loops as in the subsequent Menuet. There are ambient sounds from Berlin, New York, Tokyo, Lyon and St Petersburg, and some movements which groove along with a cool back-beat, as in the brief Gavotte, which also treats us to first inversion chord entries, something for which I’ve always had a soft spot.

The Frank Zappa numbers may or may not be familiar to you in their original recordings or forms, but these Norwegian musicians perform them with plenty of pizazz and good humour. There is an intensity of detail in timbre and notation in these scores from which many a composer could learn much, from cheesy Hollywood effects, cinematic changes of atmosphere, and rich invention which doesn’t shy away from influences like Schoenberg, Ives or Varèse. For those looking for alternative Zappa I’ve been known to point people in the direction of Ensemble Ambrosius, whose G-Spot Tornado is great fun, though it was Ensemble Modern who showed the way for most of us. This is a popular virtuoso choice from the electronic Jazz from Hell album and superbly performed in this orchestral version, which has some testing little corners for the brass section. You will know The Perfect Stranger as conducted by Boulez with Ensemble Intercontemporain, and this remains a classic recording. The Norwegians offer a potent version with plenty of life in it, and if Thomas Søndergård arguably misses out on a little of that French refinement and avant-garde stylishness then he at least makes the work more believable as a concert performance rather than a highly polished studio jewel.

With its booklet given added value by the mildly disturbing photographs by Anna-Julia Granberg and Anette L’orange this live recording is superbly produced. The engineers are to be complimented on creating something both enticing and detailed, capturing the concert feel without any sense of loss in content. We are reminded that there is an audience by some enthusiastic applause between pieces but this is kept to a respectable length. It adds to the atmosphere at an event at which, after hearing the recording, we must all wish we had been present. No? Well, you can stick with Grieg, but there are masses of excellent, highly approachable modern music out there as well and this recording is evidence of its healthy reception in Nordic climes.

Dominy Clements