American Record Guide
September 1, 2014

MacArthur Fellow Anthony Davis (b. 1951) is probably best known for his explosive political operas (X: The Life and Times of Malcom X is the most notorious). His music has as its formative influences 60s avant-grade jazz figures like Charlie Haden (his Liberation Orchestra with Carla Bley) and Sun Ra, updated with more contemporary characteristics like minimalist repetition and non-Western ethnic techniques.

Notes from the Underground (1988) is essentially an introduction and allegro for orchestra. The introduction briefly presents the harmonic material: the movement then dismantles that material into angular fragments used as quasi-minimalist ostinatos unfolding with various speeds and textures, often simultaneously ("polyrhythmically"), chugging along in exotic meters derived from Davis's interests in non-Western music. The result is hypnotic and somewhat ear-bending. At 10 minutes, it doesn't overstay its welcome.

The larger You Have the Right to Remain Silent (2007), for clarinet, Kurzweil synthesizer, and chamber ensemble, does overstay its welcome. It's an old-fashioned protest piece, using the Miranda rights as an angrily chanted refrain, with a 60s-avant-grade-ish clarinet concerto, with electronic colorings and assorted flatulence from the contra-alto clarinet (also played by the soloist) running concurrently. Since contemporary insults like the "stop and frisk" options given to the police in some areas continue to unpleasantly resonate in the culture, the work is meant to "raise consciousness", though I doubt its target audience will be found anywhere near its presentations. A smoke homage to Davis hero Charles Mingus is well-meaning, but finally embarrassing.

Wayang V (1984) is the earliest work on the program. The four-movement piece for piano and orchestra is played by the composer. Purportedly based on Balinese gamelan music, it's filled with improvisation by pianist and drums and continues to circulate and juxtapose atonal minimalist bits (more accurately "riffs"). Densely dreamlike and strangely engaging, it might impress adventurous listeners unaware of the more archaic aspects of the style.

The ensemble is impressive as always, though the Miranda rights changing seems dutiful at best.