The New Yorker - April 1, 2013 - Russell Platt
John Zorn’s Tzadik label has never courted celebrity. Its catalogue consists largely of albums by talented avant-garde composers who don’t naturally seek the limelight, and that’s a welcome philosophy. A great example is Annie Gosfield, whose fourth disk for the label, “Almost Truths and Open Deceptions,” underscores the wisdom of Zorn’s long-term investment. Gosfield has a deep heritage in the Lower East Side, where her immigrant grandparents toiled in low-wage jobs decades ago. She claims a “junk dealer’s ingenuity” in making music from unlikely combinations of sound sources; her album is a feisty family argument of rhythm and timbre. In the opening selection, “Wild Pitch,” the gnarled textures of Felix Fan’s cello solos go up against hard-driving piano and percussion, while the album’s title track is a kind of chamber concerto in which Fan makes his plangent case amid a more expansive instrumental context that includes his string-playing colleagues in the Flux Quartet and Blair McMillen’s microtonal piano. The relentless pacing of both works is driven by an insistent rock beat. (Gosfield left New York long enough to enjoy a stint in the punk clubs of Los Angeles in the eighties.) In “phantom Shakedown,” Gosfield’s mechanistic piano playing—John Cage by way of Danny Elfman—competes excitedly with processed sounds of a grinding cement mixer and a broken-down shortwave radio.
Gosfield’s pieces, driven by strong instrumental protagonists, stake their claim to a unique world—she’s a glorious provincial, the Carl Nielsen of Second Avenue. In contrast, Lee Hyla, a distinguished veteran academic, seems to yearn for a world not of his own making—the suburbs of Vienna, where the ghosts of Berg and Webern still lurk. It’s a classic predicament for a postwar American composer to have, one that Hyla, on his new album, “My Life on the Plains” (also on Tzadik), solves by forcing his post-Expressionist paradise to interface with sounds derived from personal experience, such as the Niagara Falls of his childhood (“Polish Folk Songs”), the treasury of North American birdsong (“Field Guide”), and the vast empty stretches of Wyoming (the title composition). These intense chamber symphonies sometimes have a hard jazz swing to them, but the most abiding impression is that of lustrous, lyrical melancholy; the Firebird Ensemble performs them not only with expertise but with the sympathy of devoted colleagues.