Classical: Stretch your Ears

John L Walters on New Music
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The Independent Culture
NIXON IN China, the opera by the American composer John Adams, has never had a proper performance in this country (though English National Opera will give its British premiere next year), but some of the music has become familiar through a snappy concert version, The Chairman Dances, a boxed set and now a mid-price CD of highlights - released by Warner Classics as part of its "Opera Collection" - which unblinkingly takes in Einstein on the Beach, Fidelio and The Threepenny Opera.

It's ironic that for ambitious music theatre such as Nixon, recordings are cheaper to realise than full-blown productions.

In an interview in The Stage, Adam Guettel pointed out that the recent London production of Floyd Collins (which he wrote with Tina Landau) would never have happened without the Nonesuch album version, which was released a couple of years ago to widespread indifference.

At the tiny Bridewell Theatre, audiences were stunned by the storytelling, the intensity of the cast's performance and the breadth of Guettel's music for the eight-piece "orchestra", which underlined an affecting, almost unbearably tragic story that left us full of hope.

Anyone who rushed out afterwards to the foyer to buy the CD was disappointed, however; the Bridewell's small stock had been snapped up after a few days.

Operating on a shoestring budget, but with triumphs such as Floyd Collins and the recent "Gobbledygook" show by the Gogmagogs, the Bridewell is working fertile, creative ground that the bigger arts institutions perennially ignore.

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THE IRISH composer Roger Doyle has worked for the last 10 years on a vast Gesamtkunstwerk based on the idea of the Tower of Babel, where each room, lobby and stairwell has its own distinct type of music. There is even a radio station KBBL on the roof of the Tower, which enables Doyle to indulge his skill for pop and advertising pastiche.

Parts of the project have been released in instalments, like a Dickens novel, but to celebrate the composer's 50th birthday, the entire five- CD masterwork, entitled Babel (Silverdoor) is finally being released, and will be distributed by World Serpent from September. Composers Ink have all the details: www.com posersink.ie.

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PALM DESERT is a perplexing but beautiful artefact by Rudy VanderLans, head honcho of Emigre, the Californian magazine, type foundry and record label. You could view it as a 96-page song sheet, for Parks's poetic lyrics are stretched across a frame of beautiful, empty photographs, baffling essays and doggerel loosely based on the composer's early work.

Inserted at the back is a four-track CD with the original "Palm Desert" track from the album Song Cycle, plus three more "versions" (which in fact are just new settings of the lyrics) by Itchy Pet, Honey Barbara and Elliot Peter Earls. It's a slightly mad enterprise, but VanderLans has the knack of making a desirable object that is greater than the sum of its parts. He is also a Captain Beefheart fan - the latest Emigre features a photo essay about the Mojave desert with an accompanying poem by Don Van Vliet (the Captain), which may in time develop into another book/ CD.

"Palm Desert," says VanderLans, "brings together all that I enjoy; graphic design, writing, photography, critique, documentary, type design and self- publishing."

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