CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN (b. 1945) can be regarded as a central figure in American music, and on several fronts. As a composer, he’s been pervasively innovative in two genres: text-sound pieces, in which he can draw engaging rhythmic processes from wacky word assemblages, andnatural-sound electronic pieces which go far beyond the usual confines of musique concrète to create long, poetic sound narratives poised between collage and sonic landscape.
Several of his earlier commercial recordings have showcased the text-sound pieces; the present two-disc set is a welcome compendium of his sound landscapes. We might characterize the whole as three tone poems preceded by a set of ten etudes.
The set of ten pieces, Pianola (Pas de mains) (1997–2000)—the subtitle is French for “no hands”) —stems from Amirkhanian’s long fascination with the player piano, or pianola—the self-playing piano. Amirkhanian’s Pianola, then, is a whimsical set of essays based on the sound and techniques of the player piano. Early in the instrument’s history a number of famous composers —Stravinsky, Hindemith, Antheil, Ernst Toch, and others—were persuaded to write for it, and several of their pieces end up quoted and transformed in Pianola.
The remaining three works might be characterized as extended love poems, so affectionately do they portray their respective subjects: spring, San Francisco, and the composer Morton Feldman.
Im Frühling (“In Spring”) might be called a tone poem in reverse: Amirkhanian notes that 19th-century composers often used the orchestra toimitate nature in pieces about spring, but here he starts with sounds of nature and sometimes electronically transforms them to sound like instruments.
The most affectionate homage is Amirkhanian’s hymn to his adopted hometown, San Francisco. In 1985–86 he spent a year recording sounds from the environs of the Bay Area, and produced a 55-minute sound collage called Metropolis San Francisco. Then in 1997, finding its lengthinconvenient for some presentation purposes, he produced a more condensed version called Son of Metropolis San Francisco. It works beautifully as an ambient soundscape even if one pays no attention to the provenance of the sounds. Still, the sounds are curated to create a sense of place, not just via the exoticism of nature but also taking social and mass culture phenomena into effect.
The disc’s title piece, Loudspeakers, is a vocal portrait of Morton Feldman (1926–1987), who was probably the most influential composer of the late 20th century. He was also, to those who knew him, an unforgettably picturesque personality, with his curvilinear Queens accent, his long black hair greased back, and his Oscar Wilde-like ability to spin off paradoxes and epigrams by the yard as he held court among musicians.
What links all these pieces is a creative ambiguity of genre, a delight in shifting back and forth between elements whose sources can be recognized and those whose can’t. The pacing, at least in the latter three works, is leisurely, and somewhere between ambient and symphonic: One can listen to them as atmosphere, yet a sense of overall dramatic shaping is not absent. Though we listen to them through loudspeakers, it seemsproblematic to pigeonhole Amirkhanian as an “electronic” composer. The music, restful and noisy at once, is too playful for that, and too natural—and elicits a listening mode that brings no other composer to mind. —Kyle Gann
New World Records, 2019