VA: Messiah Remix
Composed in 1741-2, Handel's “Sacred Oratorio” overshadows the composer's other works (with the exception of the Water Music and Fireworks Music) and, like its sister chestnut Capra's It's A Wonderful Life, gets dutifully dusted off and hauled out every Christmas season. Handel's collaborator, literary scholar Charles Jennens (1700-73), organized the libretto's New and Old Testament content into three Acts (the prophecy and birth of the Messiah; Christ's crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension; the Day of Judgment and general Resurrection) and subdivided scenes. The first performances of the work transpired at a Dublin theatre in 1742 as a way to raise money for a foundlings' home and thereby anticipated the eventual migration of Christmas music from the church to less sanctified settings like the street and the shopping mall.
All of which, frankly, one hardly need know before broaching Messiah Remix, as the work is so thoroughly overhauled little remains of the original. Classical purists might be mortified by the album's provocative mash-ups but the target audience for the project is clearly aficionados of an experimental music stripe, not Baroque scholars; after all, the project appears on Cantaloupe, the label associated with composers Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and David Lang as well as the Bang On A Can ensemble, champions of works by Louis Andriessen, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich among others (the group's rendering of Eno's Music For Airports deserves particular mention). Surprisingly, none of those Cantaloupe associates appears on the project, though an impressive cast of electronic artists and contemporary composers do: Scanner, Tod Machover, John Oswald, Nobukazu Takemura, Laetitia Sonami, and even dälek.
Interestingly, those whose pieces retain most recognizably elements of Handel's work are the least successful. Opening with a nanosecond “Hallelujah” blast, Tod Machover's “Mixed Messiah” seemingly conflates the entire work into a hallucinatory six minutes, an interesting though not necessarily musically satisfying approach. Phil Kline is well-known for his Unsilent Night holiday event (hundreds of boomboxes are paraded through the streets of cities during the Christmas season), so he's a natural participant for this project. Unfortunately, the eviscerated shredding he applies in “Hallelujah!” engages initially for its novelty, but grows tiresome over repeated listenings. More convincing is Charles Amirkhanian's “Mqsical Lou” which presents its singing voices in seemingly untreated manner until you notice the music blurring into a distorted mass, and the exuberant chorus stretched in similar fashion. Even better is Scanner's “Insulation Mix” which layers his trademark elements (layered voice samples, ringing electronics) over a poignant hymnal base of strings.
Less gimmicky are the pieces that deviate dramatically from the original work. Ghostly drones dominate R. Luke DuBois's (NY-based member of the Freight Elevator Quartet and co-author of Jitter, the software suite developed by Cycling '74) “Convolution,” while Eve Beglarian creates a similarly haunted ambiance of haunted voices and electronic glissandi in “Be/Hold.” Drone-like too is Laetitia Sonami's “Overture On Ice” (she's perhaps best known for her unique instrument, the elbow-length “lady's glove” which is fitted with pressure and motion sensors to control electronic sounds). In the album's longest piece, Handel's music gradually pierces through an upper layer of droning whirrs, and tension slowly builds as electronics transmute the orchestral sounds into scurrying networks of abstract sound.
Stylistic contrasts abound too. On the one hand, there's Paul Lansky's “Post-Pastoral,” a sweetly sparkling oasis that merges synths with the original's harpsichord and strings; on the other, there's dälek's hip-hop bomb “Messiah (deadverse remix)” where ringing cymbals and the MCs' flow almost bury the deep strings swelling in the background. Is Messiah Remix a novelty? Perhaps, yet still an adventurous one that boasts a reasonable share of worthwhile moments. And what's not to like about the idea of injecting new life into tired warhorses? If Handel's work is, after all, about spiritual rebirth, Messiah Remix attempts a rebirth too, if not always successfully then still irreverently and audaciously.