Praise of Michael Sahl's Work

Buffalo News, March 19, 2006:

Michael Sahl - In Fashion at Last" - "Serenades" and "Jungles" performed by pianist Joseph Kubera and electric quintet led by violinist Mary Rowell (Albany/Troy). There is absolutely nothing cutesy or ironic about the title of this disc. By day, composer Michael Sahl made ends meet almost 40 years ago as a pianist and arranger for Judy Collins. By night, he began writing defiantly unclassifiable music full of melody, folk influence, jazz harmony and largely barren of the "necessary astringency" that would have vaunted his reputation among classical peers. He had to wait for postmodernism to efface the old high/low polarities to be heard for the figure he is. Think of him as the next generation's Virgil Thomson only upside down. Listen to his absolutely brilliant 35-minute piano piece "Serenades" here in wonderful performance by Joseph Kubera. It is haunting music - beautiful, lyrical, surprising and, while clearly "classical" even more seamlessly colloquial than anything by his contemporaries Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley. Written in 1994, its compositional poise is perfect. The world has, indeed, caught up with him - all praise. Review: 4 stars (J.S.)
Teresa Stratas, opera singer:
Michael Sahl's opera John Grace Ranter is original, provocative, sometimes disturbing, sometimes maddening, and always communicative. Sahl, to my knowledge, is the only composer since Kurt Weill who demands that the human voice stretch stylistically and vocally to its fullest possibilities, not just classical or pop or broadway belty or jazz/rock or sprechgesang. He asks of the singer not just to "sing like this" but to "sing like all of this." Both in instrumental pieces like Doina (for violin and jazz trio) and vocal pieces like Ranter he is an American poet of sound and communication who goes beyond limits and breaks boundaries.
Boudewijn Buckinx, Programma De Toonzaal, VRT radio 3:
The fascination for a newly defined music, whether we call it postmodernism or not, is at last widely breaking through. We see many signs of it, not only in the growing number of listeners to this programme (so much indeed that it has to be checked again because one could not believe it), but also in the last issues of a magazine like "Musiktexte" or in the bastion of modernism, the MusikKonzepte, or in a country like France were the old Boulez centralizes the power on the music scene and where nevertheless composers as Dusapin or Rabinowitsch or more and more performed, or in a dangerously organized country as the Netherlands where an opera following the new cultural views had attracted not less as 7,000 people. European musicologists and music lovers are aware that the most convincing impetus to this new culture came from the United States. Michael Sahl is more and more considered as one of those composers who influenced the culture of today. At the end of the seventies, where we place the breakthrough of Michael Sahl, it could have given a first impression of just something new. But even then it managed to give a wonderful synthesis of that period, including the ideas and techniques of seemingly every important artistic tradition, be it avant-garde or jazz or mixtures derived from folk or light or even film music. What was not at once clear (at least to myself), was the important fact of this stylistic pluralism, in which the old polarisation between High and Low Art, between Elitism and Populism, had vanished. The pluralism and the non-hierarchic aesthetic foundation have since then become the markstones of the new culture, and this is worldwide. Many people who are still thinking in the outgrown categories, are afraid of an art which could be too easy, or from the other side, too conceptual. That has been the reason why Michael Sahl and his likes, had to meet too much mistrust. We are so lucky to witness the last months an increasing interest and profound appreciation for his art. Indeed, it is very pleasing music for those who only want to give a glimpse of attention. But for those with subtle ears, it is very subtle music. It possesses not only the subtleness of the most subtle classical music, it is also deep in feeling and profound in its concept. As a matter of fact, thanks to the broadening awareness of postmodern theories, people realize the multi-layered art like Michael Sahl's. We are happy to have reached this stage in cultural evolution, in which an art of this importance is both for cultivated as for other listeners at the same time. It is attractive, but good too. But that could be applied to Mozart's period also. Moreover, and this is fascinating, in Michael Sahl and his music we meet a composer which is at the same time of classified historical value, a monument of the late seventies at the roots of our new culture; and at the same time more lively as whoever you could mention among young composers. It is a strong encouragement for optimism and belief in our culture, that Michael Sahl's free and open mind has been rewarded by general appreciation.
Tom O'Horgan:
We have just produced the opera JOHN GRACE RANTER, with music by Michael Sahl, book by Michael Sahl & Margaret Yard, and lyrics by Margaret Yard. I was the director. I think this piece is a breakthrough for the form, and that it has to be seen and evolve. The production was modest, and the instrumentation was slight, which is not the ultimate intention, but even so, the strength and beauty of the piece spoke. It represents an interesting cut between the legitimate opera style and the musical theatre world, requiring voices of great musicality, range, and control, but which also are asked to function in a modern American theatrical idiom. It seems to me that this piece is moving in the direction in which opera is going; It makes an evening that has the satisfaction of good traditional opera, but it deals with subjects that are contemporary, exciting, and relevant. This is a dark, and even tragic story, but beautiful and poetic, and sometimes very funny. It needs to be on stage again.
Robert Roth, co-editor of AND THEN magazine, poet and writer:
There is a moment in John Grace Ranter the opera that has stayed with me all this time. John Grace Ranter, part preacher. part squatter, part anarchist, part religious fanatic, goes to his fellow patient/inmates and reaches through walls of pain, repression, drug-induced fog to touch a place in each that is still alive, vibrant and free. The hospital is transformed into a space of liberation. My God, is that rendered with overwhelming beauty and power, but then Freedom is always feared and despised. There is a struggle over the control of the patients, bureaucratic, technocratic doctors on one hand and a wacked-out charismatic lunatic on the other. Horrible forces released through people who in some ways actually care about the patients and are concerned about their well-being. Freedom unleashed is menacing and beautiful. The ending of the opera is tragic. Yet it is the immense possibilities of that freedom, so powerfully depicted in the opera, that remain with me today.
Howard Pflanzer, playwright and poet:
John Grace Ranter by Michael Sahl and Margaret Yard is contemporary grand opera. With a larger-than-life hero, the chrismatic cult leader Ranter, the opera musically and dramatically grapples with the issues of power and insanity. In a sinuous vocal style, operatic with masterly popular interpolations, Ranter seduces the patients, Nurse Mercy, and finally the audience to join his revolt against the authority of the mental hospital. A chorus of patients as well as news media people comment on the action which moves swiftly forwards towards a confrontation between an independent spirit and crushing power of society. This is not an opera that soothes the soul. The music is lyrical and words are biting. It is a work that makes us examine our most cherished beliefs and contemplate our institutions on the eve of the millenium.
John Dominic Crossan, author of "Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography":
Thank you very much for letting me read and see this beautiful work. I loved the lyrics, the music, and the plot, and all of them as put together. I emphasize the poetry of the dialogue because that is not usually what I think about in opera scripts. I read the script first, before watching the opera along with it, and I did not expect to find an opera "script" with such poetic and dynamic charge already in it, apart even from the music or the drama. Congratulations!
Barry Drogin, composer:
Michael has struggled to find words to describe his music, but one just needs to hear it once to understand. His voice is clear and unmistakeable. The pleasure he gives to an audience goes so far beyond any of my other concert-going that itís practically narcotic. I require a periodic fix of Sahlís music, and will do anything to ensure that dealers/performers give it to me.
Beth Anderson, composer:
There are several things that I like about Michael Sahl's music.
His music takes aesthetic risks. He was taught to compose at Princeton, but got bored and changed. And he keeps on changing. He has not found a comfortable niche and installed himself in it. Despite this, his music always sounds like his music. He listens inwardly and outwardly and his music lives and grows.
His music is a great bath of influences and experiences from the avant-garde to zydeco, each enriching the other. My favorite music of his is folk influenced. He was a banjo player and it shows. This music is beautifully melodic and modal and often has an obligato draped around it or a motoric ostinato running it. Like Mahler, these melodic sections usually alternate with something one might call "off to the war", "off to the dance" or "men banging". The jazz influenced sections with heavy percussion, do not attract me as much. But the alternation is exciting.
He arranges his music so beautifully for the instruments involved. His violin parts are so idiosyncratically violinistic. His clarinet parts are so clari-netti. If there is an instrument that he doesn't care for, he just doesn't write for it--or rarely...
He is a great musical artist, as well as a craftsman. Generous with his ideas and rambunctious in his delivery of them, he is a gifted harmony teacher, vocal coach, and tango pianist.. And, he can deliver the best acoustic product for the least money to a commercial client in the shortest period of time of anyone.
Frank Nuyts, composer:
I think Michael shows definitely signs of eternal youthfulness in his music as well as in his other writings. He's maybe not considered universally as the nestor (in the boring Elliott Carter-like meaning) of American Music, but for me he's its angel. And, mind, not its Archangel, swaying his sword, preaching thunder and damning everyone and everything by blinding lightning. No he's an angel bringing the gentlest music of the spheres to our agonizing planet. He's made some tough choices in his life. Angels and devils alike have laughed a lot, condemned him perhaps to some musician's purgatorio, but time has proved him right. Michael's ideas have proven to be of utmost importance! Many poor souls have lost their ears while leaving our mother's womb (too narrow a passage!), but the hole in our skull is still intact. This hole is regularly beleagered by sounds and opinions of the rulers of the acoustic world. The hole is bombed, scorched, infected, and many times we lose our mind through this constant war of acoustic reality. But on the other hand, there's a Michael Sahl, himself all one ear, pouring, drop by drop, like honey in the muzzle of a tamed bear, the nicest musical consciousness into our dizzied heads. Mostly, it gets lost in the caverns of the brain, but it's there. Waiting to be released. And it doesn't take much to get its splendor released. Just listen to one of his CD's. Or best of all, try to attend a concert where his music is performed. Honestly of course. In fact we all have a duty now. The world is on the verge of total collapse. But by playing the music of Michael and the people he loves, maybe there's still some hope of survival.

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Last Updated: August 14, 2006