National Sawdust
Photograph: Steve Smith

Best of 2016: In Praise of National Sawdust

For all the manifold benefits that come with being a music journalist and critic embedded at a performing-arts incubator and presenter – and they are substantial – one meaningful constraint is that it feels inappropriate now to include my employer’s projects and products among my year-end best-of listings. Obviously that presents a bit of a quandary, because National Sawdust regularly fashions and/or facilitates work that appeals strongly to my aesthetic inclinations. What follows is by no means a comprehensive listing of the fine things that National Sawdust achieved in 2016, but rather a concise tally of NS-related events and releases that under other circumstances absolutely would have figured into my own personal summaries of the year’s most vital art.

Ultimate Bagatelles Marathon curtain call
(John Zorn, center)
Photograph: Steve Smith

John Zorn Ultimate Bagatelles Marathon
Oct. 22

Even for John Zorn, a composer, performer, and community catalyst renowned for making the superhuman look easy, this was an extraordinary feat. Nestled between two other noteworthy concerts – a “Composer Portrait” filled with rewarding premieres at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, and a richly satisfying account of Zorn’s enchanting Commedia dell’arte cycle at the Guggenheim Museum – the Ultimate Bagatelles Marathon united nearly 50 outstanding musicians for a 10-hour concert devoted entirely to Zorn’s latest book of compositions. Of the 300 bagatelles Zorn composed between March and May of 2015, just over 100 were played here by one of the most diverse casts of collaborators Zorn had ever assembled for a single occasion: classical performers, jazz improvisers, blurt-metal specialists, and artists who defied any neat categorization. It was impressive that so extensive an event flowed seamlessly, still more so that such a volume of new music could sound so consistently fresh and invigorating. Even happier: This event set the stage for a new ongoing monthly collaboration between Zorn and National Sawdust: the Stone Commissioning Series, which starts on January 25 with a performance by Zorn himself.

David T. Little and Royce Vavrek – Dog Days
VIA Records, released Sept. 9

Having championed Dog Days from opening night forward – for evidence, read my New York Times review, this follow-up appreciation, and this one, too – I was glad to see this pithy, poetic hand grenade of an opera by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek finally documented on disc, and deeply honored to participate as a guest speaker during a album-release celebration at National Sawdust. The recording, captured live during a 2015 run produced by Beth Morrison Projects for LA Opera, shows the impact of three years’ concentrated work: phenomenally sharp interpretations from the original cast, peerless assurance from the Newspeak instrumentalists. Producers Little and Alan Pierson, recording engineer Nick Tipp, and editor Andrew McKenna Lee deserve kudos for capturing the myriad sonic details and nuances that helped to make Dog Days so overpowering in the theater.

Matt Barbier performing with wild Up
Photograph: Steve Smith

wild Up with Ellen Reid, Ted Hearne, and Jodie Landau
Nov. 18-19

After grappling long and hard with the implications of reviewing a National Sawdust presentation – even one chiefly produced by an outside partner, in this case Beth Morrison Projects (them again!) – I relented this week and published my lengthy response to this audacious three-concert sequence. Partly this was a reaction to a startling lack of media response to this fruitful confluence of three National Sawdust residencies – wild Up, BMP, and the gifted composer Ellen Reid. But honestly, it also happened because I’d found the programs so fascinating, engaging, and satisfying that I just had to share something of what I’d seen and heard – not least because weeks later, Jodie Landau’s singular voice continues to linger in my inner ear.

The Colorado (Original Soundtrack)
VIA Records/New Amsterdam Records, released May 13

A sublime anthology of new pieces by John Luther Adams, William Brittelle, Glenn Kotche, Paola Prestini, and Shara Nova, invested with insightful, sympathetic performance by percussionist Kotche, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, and the ever-astonishing vocal consort Roomful of Teeth. Had I not been swept (gratefully!) into the ever-widening span of Prestini’s vision, this gorgeous collection of simultaneously timely and timeless compositions surely would have held a spot on my tally of the year’s best albums.

Musica Elettronica Viva
(L-R Richard Teitelbaum, Frederic Rzewski, Alvin Curran)
Photograph: Steve Smith

Musica Elettronica Viva
Nov. 13

Marking its 50th anniversary as a radical improvising collective, this triumvirate of mavericks – Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum on electronics, Frederic Rzewski at the piano – proved that restlessness, vigor, and invention needn’t necessarily fade with the passage of time. Few performances I witnessed in 2016 were as animated, whimsical, and involving as this valedictory set, few moments as deeply moving as when Rzewski solemnly proclaimed, “Please, God, please, Lord, let me not become a robot,” or when Curran conjured both human fragility and ineffable dignity with his shofar.

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  1. […] For anyone expecting a painstakingly winnowed-down, tightly focused tabulation of the most significant events to take place in the musical world circa 2016: I apologize, but you’ll have to look elsewhere. I’m not in any position to judge, having spent the first half of the year effectively serving as the staff pop music critic (in fact if not in title) for the Boston Globe, and then returning to New York City at summer’s end for the next phase of my journey. Even so, it’s not at all difficult to name 10 meaningful and affecting musical performances I witnessed this year… and I’ve intentionally omitted events presented by National Sawdust, covered in a previous post. […]

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