Though it’s true that no two performers will play a piece of music in the same way, the classical music industry’s habit of releasing new recordings of the same handful of pieces over and over again must surely be a sign of either an extremely short memory or of rigor mortis. A search of the venerable classical music retailer Presto’s website reveals 361 recordings of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” and 271 of Gustav Mahler’s fifth symphony currently available for purchase (although to be fair some of these appear to be re-boxings of previous recordings). Who has the time to listen to and compare 300+ versions of the same piece? And how many of those recordings shed genuinely new light on the work? Meanwhile, living composers are grateful for even a single recording of their music, despite the fact that it often consciously opens itself to variations in performer choices, ambient environment, or the outcome of chance procedures in ways that previous generations of composers never imagined.
d’incise’s ‘Appalachian Anatolia’ is one recently-composed piece of music that has been recorded twice by different performers, and the differences between the two recordings tell much about its score. The work’s unusual title points to the different influences that the composer wanted to explore, using them as a challenge to the commissioning artist, Chilean guitarist Cristián Alvear. The piece’s rhythmic structure is shaped by the rhythms of Appalachian folk music, while the harmonic structure is loosely based on that of Anatolian music, which makes use of many more intervals between whole tones than Western music does.
Alvear’s recording of the piece demonstrates his trademark precise, even style, and also his willingness to follow d’incise’s lead away from the austere sparseness and simplicity that his recordings of music by the likes of Michael Pisaro, Ryoko Akama, and Radu Malfatti are known for. Notes of slightly different pitches (‘slightly’ to unsubtle Western ears) are played in quick succession, creating a beating that generates movement; as more pitches are added, the music begins to take on a subtle Appalachian twang and shuffle. After series of stark, ringing chords, the repeated notes return at a measured trot, followed by a faint, irregular skittering that closes the recording.
The second recording of ‘Appalachian Anatolia’ comes from Clara de Asís, whose electric guitar immediately lends a sharper, more metallic timbre to the piece compared with Alvear’s acoustic instrument. De Asís’ take on the score demonstrates a different approach to the tuning variations and also to the time relations between the notes, with regularity and precision giving way to fluidity and flexibility. Alvear’s version lays every note out to hear, but de Asís chooses to hide some notes in the decay trails of previous ones, making use of greater variation of dynamics and attack. This creates a more tentative, ambiguous feel, though when the attack is quick the sound can be enticingly brittle and spiky.
Comparing the two versions hints at the great openness and freedom built into d’incise’s score: where Alvear chooses to use ringing plucked chords, for example, de Asís uses quiet, rapid bowing to create a buzzing or humming like a distant swarm of bees. Alvear probably does a better job of bringing out the Appalachian-inspired rhythms intended by the composer, while de Asís’ take has a dynamic, crackling energy and a broader range of timbres. It’s hence not a matter of judging which version of the piece is the ‘best’, or even picking a personal preference, but rather of enjoying and learning from the contrasting possibilities made audible by the two performers. If the classical music industry is mired in self-parody, the independent experimental music scene can sometimes seem obsessed with the new and of short attention span; while 300 versions of ‘Appalachian Anatolia’ would probably be overdoing it, maybe more second and third recordings of existing experimental compositions would be a good and ear-opening thing.