Johnny Gandelsman: This Is America Album Review

What is American Classical Music? Long before there was a United States of America, classical music took shape in the courts and cathedrals of Europe, where its role became like that of religion: establishing the fabric of history and of the myth that united a people and aroused their highest feelings. It was as strange for a 17th century land with no perimeter and no past as it was for a 21st century land with no center and, we fear, no future. You might as well wonder what America is. Yet Brooklyn Rider violinist Johnny Gandelsman’s new album, with original music from a cornucopia of young composers in the United States, sounds like a clear answer to both conundrums.

Inscribed in the European mould, American classical music took on its full meaning in the 19th century, mineralized by folk. In the 20th century, as the United States became a more cosmopolitan haven for modernists fleeing fascism – imagine that – American classical music fed on local vernaculars like blues, jazz and rock, producing innovations like minimalism and its long postmodern tail. Meanwhile, technology was changing him, filling him with electronic sounds and world influences and breaking him through electronic conduits. Culture was changing him too, exposing his colonial underpinnings and undermining his white male bulwarks. It was around 2008 that Brooklyn Rider entered the scene. The 21st century heirs of the Kronos Quartet, they are celebrated for having commissioned and collaborated almost universally, all over the world, with classical, jazz, folk and pop musicians. The internationalist perspective of the string quartet also shines in the American saga of Gandelsman.

For the three-disc album This is America, Gandelsman sought new works from more than two dozen composers, most of whom obtained institutional funding in their region. Although they all live in the United States, they represent a global heritage of formed but unrelated traditions. The star name is Terry Riley, the soul of American minimalism, whose five-string violin piece is playful and talkative, just like his invaluable note from the composer. (“Having nothing special in mind, I started.”) But, surprisingly for a record of this medium, the bubbling minimalism of Riley and Philip Glass isn’t the default mode. Instead, a harsher, more sculptural modernism is the basis, though much of the standout fare departs from this.

The opening disc is surrounded by its most defining moments. The first, by Brazilian composer-pianist Clarice Assad, is called “O”, which means “oxygen”. The music was composed in response to the first pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, events that give many pieces overtones of mourning or healing. The titular vowel hangs in wispy garlands of reverb and delay as Gandelsman’s tremolos burrow, his arc surging and rushing through the darkness. Compare that to the clear, aching style of Rhiannon Giddens, the classic folk crossover star who revived black string band music with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. His “New to the Session” closes the disc, which went through a kind of experimental operetta by Rhea Fowler and Micaela Tobin and an atonal noise piece by Nick Dunston, with a touch of Irish fiddle.

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