Highlights of John Cage and Morton Feldman – Exquisite Examples of Dynamic Range

This weekend’s research proved to be incredibly valuable, resulting in two wonderful musical discoveries.  And it began with The S.E.M. Ensemble.

From semensemble.org:

The S.E.M. Ensemble was founded in 1970 when Petr Kotik organized a group of musicians of the fellows at the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts, SUNY/Buffalo. The first S.E.M. Ensemble concert was presented in Buffalo at the Domus Theater and included works by Cornelius Cardew, John Cage, Petr Kotik and Rudolf Komorous.

In 1992, the SEM chamber ensemble was expanded into The Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble with a debut concert at Carnegie Hall, presenting the first complete performance of Atlas Eclipticalis by John Cage (all 86 instruments).  The concert was an internationally celebrated event, lauded by audiences and critics from across the United States, Europe and Japan.

S.E.M. Ensemble

But another property unique to this performance makes it a must-own for all lovers of exceptional music.

For the last several years, DR-loudness-war.info has been crowd-sourcing a massive database mapping the dynamic range, (that is, the range from the quietest to the loudest sounds occurring in piece of music) for over 77,000 albums.  This database was created as a reaction to the Loudness War – the trend of record labels cutting off all the “highs” and “lows” of an album so that the entire album can be as loud as possible.

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Skrillex’s “Kyoto” – This is what the loudness war looks like.

It is this very recording – the S.E.M. Ensemble’s Concert for Piano & Orchestra, which tops the chart for dynamic range. In fact, the album holds both the #1 and #2 positions among all 77,522 recordings presently cataloged – one for the original CD release and the other for the subsequent digital download.

The recording is unlike any other musical experience I’ve had with my listening equipment.  The sound stage is open and well-defined and really gives the listener the feeling of a live modern classical performance.  My setup has a very neutral or transparent delivery which is well-suited to the more “academic” recordings I enjoy such as Berlin School electronic, drone and ambient musics.  I can say with certainty that this recording is a brilliant match for my setup and makes for a thrilling experience, both for its critical acoustic properties as well as for the cerebral pleasures it arouses in the listener.

While reviewing the Dynamic Range Database’s other highest-ranked recordings, I took note of Morton Feldman’s Late Piano Works Vol.3 performed by Steffen Schleiermacher.  AllMusic contributor, Blair Sanderson called the album “sublime”, speaking of the spaciousness and quietude of Feldman’s composition and of the incredible sensitivity and control with which Schleiermacher presents the featured selections.

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Feldman’s later piano works make for excellent study music, or simply a soundtrack for an evening of quiet reflection.  The Database is certainly correct – this is a wonderfully pensive and subtle recording which is sadly (and quite literally) drowned out by more modern victims of the Loudness War.  Put this on, turn down the lights, and awaken your senses to the subtle nuances of audiophilic delight.

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