- Ashley Bathgate & Kate Moore: “Stories for Ocean Shells” (Cantaloupe)
- Genova & Dimitrov Piano Duo: “Amy Beach: Complete Works for Piano Duo” (CPO)
- Anna von Hausswolff: “All Thoughts Fly” (Southern Lord)
- Kali Malone: “Pipe Inversions (for Kimberger III)” (Important Records)
There’s a building near the Tiergarten in Berlin, just behind a section of the Zoological Garden where kangaroos and emus are visible from the sidewalk, that I pass by most afternoons. It has always struck me as otherworldly—to the point where, if someone told me I was hallucinating and there was no building there, I’d probably believe it. If you approach it from the zoo, you first encounter the side of the building, which seems caught between eras. The facade is all brutalist angles, steel window shades slatted shut, and crumbling concrete. But then you notice that there’s a parapet that looks more like something out of fin-de-siècle Vienna, a set piece foraged from a production of “The Merry Widow.”
As it turns out, the site of this building is ghosts on top of ghosts on top of ghosts. Now home to the German Council on Foreign Relations, the building has monument status as the former Embassy of Yugoslavia—an address the diplomatic mission inhabited for six months between 1940 and 1941 before the Wehrmacht invaded Belgrade. In the late 1800s, it had been the site of the Villa Kabrun, which one of Goethe’s grandnieces occupied alongside her husband. In 1925, Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy—Felix’s grandson and Fanny’s grandnephew — took over the deed and built Villa Mendelssohn, which was expropriated 13 years later by the Third Reich with a building designed by Werner March (who also designed Berlin’s Olympic Stadium for the 1936 games).
“I am half inclined to think we are all ghosts,” says one of the characters in Ibsen’s 1882 drama, “Ghosts.” “It is not only what we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that exists again in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and all kinds of old dead beliefs and things of that kind.” It’s a line that’s easy to be reminded of living in Berlin, a city of ghosts. It’s also comes to mind in remembering the composer George Crumb, whose compositions were built on inheritances that cut across continents and chronologies. In specific instances, Crumb took Ibsen’s idea even more literally, such as the triptych of threnodies that form his 1971 quartet “Black Angels.” Its second movement moves like a cortege, walking the same ground as Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” and burning incandescent with loss and fury over the atrocities of a history repeating itself (it’s not accidental that the second movement, “Absence,” involves a series of recited numbers that, at one point, veer into German, but then nothing about “Black Angels” is accidental).
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I pulled out my copy of the Kronos Quartet’s recording of “Black Angels” the morning after Crumb’s death on February 6 at the age of 92. Like all ghosts, it exists in conversation with the present, creeping between the lines of works like Kate Moore’s “Broken Rosary.” Like Crumb’s work, Moore’s closing track on the album-length “Stories for Ocean Shells” walks in Schubertian slippers. Cellist and Bang on a Can All-Star Ashley Bathgate traces a ritualistic path on a repeated bassline, the sonic Stations of the Cross, as haunting electronics seep in, haunting, jagged, sounding at times like air sirens.
Moore moves from works inspired by the spiritual—“Broken Rosary,” “Dolorosa”; the physical— “Velvet,” which blends the lush sensation of running your hand over a threadbare fainting couch with pointillistic minimalism”; and the experiential—the title track, and the opening “The Open Road No. 5.” Along the way, she finds the threads that connect the three categories. “Broken Rosary” was inspired by the time Moore broke a rosary that had belonged to her dead grandmother. Bathgate’s solo performance, executed in loops and layers, is as much a musical force as the compositions themselves. While this album was released in 2016 (which was, what, last year? A decade ago? Next month?), listening to it after two years spent in isolation—accompanied by senses of loss and fury—is an object lesson in finding the right work at the right time.
The Romantic era is even more at play in Amy Beach’s piano works. So much so that an early-20th-century review for the Berliner Volkszeitung criticized the composer for her “unmistakable…dependence upon Schumann and Brahms,” calling it “a weakness, for which the feminine character furnishes ground and excuse.” There’s certainly a whiff of Brahms in Beach’s “Variations on Balkan Themes,” the familiar tones of late Romanticism mingling with traditional folk music à la the composer’s “Hungarian Dances.” Beach had mined her own heritage in her settings of and variations on old Irish and Gaelic melodies—some of which appear alongside “Balkan Themes” on Bulgarian-born German pianists Aglika Genova and Liuben Dimitrov’s recording of the composer’s complete works for piano duo.
Initially composed for piano solo in 1904, Beach was attracted to the “haunting melodies, reflecting, mirror-like, the rare beauty and pathos of mountain legend” at a time when the territory that would later be known as Yugoslavia was fighting for independence from the Ottoman Empire. The authenticity of these folk tunes is debatable; Beach learned them from a Protestant missionary who had worked in the region before returning home to New England, and one anthropologist later found that poetic license was taken with impunity. Much like Crumb, listening to Beach’s “Variations on Balkan Themes” is an exercise in duality: Celebrating the often underperformed works of a composer sidelined on the basis of her gender, we’re also left to contend with how certain privileges, including her nationality and class, made their way into her work.
Was it at the expense of authenticity? Much like William Dougherty’s assessment of George Crumb’s magpie-like tendencies, Beach’s variations hum with a “fascination with the sounds themselves,” one which, combined with Beach’s sympathy for the Balkan cause, “seems nothing but honest and good-willed.” It’s hard not to hear the Romantic longing, inherent to Beach’s style, augment themes of loss and rupture; Kate Moore’s depth of feeling over breaking her grandmother’s rosary writ on a national scale. Genova and Dimitrov’s performance highlights this. Adapted by Beach for four hands in 1942, the timing suggests a conversation between historical eras. History as its own set of themes and variations.
I feel a sense of Beach’s wonder in composer Anna von Hausswolff. The release of her latest album, a live performance from the 2018 Montreux Jazz Festival, prompted me to go back to her pandemic-eclipsed 2020 release, “All Thoughts Fly.” A spiritual inheritor to Crumb’s strain of musical mysticism, von Hausswolff’s starting point for the 45-minute piece for solo organ came from Sacro Bosco, a “sacred grove” that sits just north of Rome. Initially commissioned by Pier Francesco Orsini in the 16th century following the death of his wife, the gardens are full of larger-than-life sculptures that seem more of Salvador Dalí’s surreal, at times primitive style than they do of Rome’s Renaissance mannerisms. (Dali himself created both a film and painting based on the park.) Yet that blend of what von Hausswolff calls “sadness and wilderness,” was, for her, precisely the point. Grief defies time and style, and is one of the most primal emotions we can experience.
The spectral (both in the musical and supernatural sense) shimmers of the opening “Theatre of Nature” sink into the second movement, “Dolore di Orsini,” like a Philip Glass dance crashing into a pensive Bach prelude. These shifts are where von Hausswolff is most effective: It’s easy to get coaxed in by the elegant repetitions of her central themes, not realizing how insidiously they work themselves into your central nervous system, until the rug is pulled out from under your feet. It’s a sensation akin to the latest single from fellow organist and composer Kali Malone—whose new releases always lead me to drop everything I’m doing and rush to Bandcamp.
If, for von Hausswolff, all thoughts fly, Malone’s latest single, “Pipe Inversions,” suggests that there is one thought, and it moves at a glacial pace. Malone layers harmonics on harmonics, stretching out the first few seconds of dawn breaking in Strauss’s “Zarathustra” into 15 minutes, rendered with an eye for each individual shade of the sunrise. Where von Hausswolff plays with time, Malone obliterates it completely. The ghost of the piece hovers over you for the rest of the day. ¶