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Elodie Lauten - Piano Works Revisited

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Artist: Elodie Lauten

Album: Piano Works Revisited

Label: Unseen Worlds

Review date: Mar. 18, 2010

New York City in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s… what a time and place to be. In the face of a collapsing city infrastructure, the explosion of AIDS and the dawn of the crack epidemic, the city produced one of the most vibrant creative eras of the past century, a teeming ecosystem that would mark a decisive changing-of-the-guard across a whole slew of genres and mediums. Punk’s nervous, poppy aggression was a jumping-off point for no wave’s new, much harsher art-based anti-rock. While disco suffered from some serious post-Saturday Night Fever overexposure and backlash, it was simultaneously being reconfigured off the grid into a new music called hip hop. And minimalism’s formal clarity gave way as a fresh generation of composers, performance artists, and dancers came up its wake, untethered from the classical establishment. Sounds like fun.

Elodie Lauten was one such composer/performer type, and Piano Works Revisited collects some of her early pieces from those heady days. The bulk of these two CDs draws from releases and live recordings put to tape between 1983-85, as well as one solo piano performance recorded in 1991, and the vibe here perfectly suits the era; as with first-wave lions Steve Reich and Philip Glass, there’s a tension between shimmering beauty and stark austerity. Unlike them, Lauten is clearly of the second wave, and a low-budget tangle of experimentation was the order of the day. After 1976’s Music For 18 Musicians and Einstein on the Beach double hitter, there would be no going back.

The first disc kicks off with Lauten’s debut album Piano Works, a collection of pieces for solo piano with added layers of tape collage and quite a lot of bubbling synth. Two things are immediately apparent: First, Meredith Monk was clearly an influence, especially her solo work on Dolmen Music. Lauten crafts moody, modal melodies that work the space between windswept emotionalism and modern experimentalism. Second, she eerily prefigures a new millennium archetype: Lauten worked at a gallery, jammed at home with whatever inexpensive gear she could get her hands on, and self-released records. Sound familiar? Were she just getting her start today, she’d probably be assembling her next tape release, have a bunch of Boss pedals and be playing warehouse shows.

My major criticism of Piano Works is that it’s not enough of the artistic mastery that calls forth Monk, and feels too much like the sketches of the bedroom jammer. Rather than groundbreaking art, it feels like stopping by your cool friend’s house and hearing some of the stuff she’s been working on recently. That’s fine, especially considering the cultural wave she was riding on, but it doesn’t offer up any "a-ha" moments, either.

The material that follows is markedly more developed, although at the same time still developing. Concerto for Piano and Orchestral Memory features some intriguing collaborators: Arthur Russell and his frequent cohort Peter Zummo, on cello and trombone, respectively. Considering the staggering power of Russell’s own compositional work, I had high hopes. Unfortunately, as the title might suggest, this one’s marred by some serious music school damage. Although some ideas are more fleshed out here than in Piano Works, you also have her unfortunately blooming neoclassical vibe to deal with, as well as some bland stretches of aimless avant-gardeisms. Lauten’s tastes are clear enough, but so far we haven’t clearly heard her voice.

Luckily, the material on the second disc redeems this earlier work. 1991’s Variations on the Orange Cycle has some grandiose (and a little bit funny) conceptual parameters to unpack — apparently it "translates brain activity into music in real time," something I thought all music does, anyway — but it definitely soars where the earlier stuff just churned. Ditto for 1985’s previously-unreleased live recording of “Sonate Modale,” which dwarfs the other material from the same era. It makes sense, as these two discs chart the development of a composer from awkward beginnings to a confident career and artistic voice. A lot can happen in the two years after your first record comes out, and a lot more still can happen in the years following that.

If hardly essential, the compendium of Piano Works Revisited nonetheless offers up something worthwhile. A lost (now found) transmission from an era of blinding vitality, it reflects a glimmer of that light, and that light is good. And, being essentially a collection of baby photos, it exudes a certain beginner’s luck charm.

By Daniel Martin-McCormick

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