Classical Reissue Reviews

MICHAEL SAHL & ERIC SALZMAN: Civilization and Its Discontents – soloists and ens. – Labor Records

Quite the “happening” thirty years ago but does it translate to modern audiences?

Published on August 20, 2012

MICHAEL SAHL & ERIC SALZMAN: Civilization and Its Discontents – soloists and ens. – Labor Records

MICHAEL SAHL & ERIC SALZMAN: Civilization and Its Discontents – soloists and ensemble – Labor Records LAB7089 (Distr. by Nonesuch), 44: 18 ***:

Michael Sahl and Eric Salzman wrote six music theater pieces between the 1960s and the mid 1980s. Civilization and Its Discontents was the third of these, written in 1978 and given a premiere recording on Nonesuch in 1980. I am really not too familiar with these, although I have certainly heard of the present work. I am somewhat familiar with Salzman’s work through his Nude Paper Sermon, a bizarre amalgam of electronic music, opera, serialism and so forth.

Both Sahl and Salzman are well-trained and well experienced, having worked with everyone from Milton Babbitt, Sal Martirano, John Cage and certain pop artists such as Blondie and the like. Of the two it is a slight simplification to say that Salzman’s work was clearly in the eclectic, campy “anything goes” category and that Sahl has written more mainstream works. However, there is a reputation or renown that goes with the work of Eric Salzman, typified by works like Civilization and Its Discontents.

There really are two ways to approach a piece like this, in what is a very clean and sonically clear reissue of the vinyl original. One is just to listen without historic framework and without trying to figure out what the composers were trying to do. Just listen.

In so doing, you will discover quite a potpourri of styles from jazz to bebop to madrigal to rock to pop to easy listening.  Billed as a “musical theater comedy”, the text is based on a famous essay by Sigmund Freud about the ills of society and the work’s frantic and disconnected style is intended as dry humor, very “tongue in cheek.”   It is not at all unpleasant to listen to, but the entertainment is in large part listening to the irreverent dialogue and the crazily catchy music that – at times – borders on kitsch (probably on purpose.)

The other way to approach this work and—most likely—most of the Sahl & Salzman oeuvre, is to try to get into the outrageous, unpredictable and cheeky nature of the music as its own social commentary which pokes fun at many different societal and ethical stereotypes and musical ones along the way.

Here then is the big question: Does a piece of intentionally outrageous music theater written in its “anything goes” style still resonate with today’s audience?

My answer is: perhaps.. In a retro ‘60s “occupy” sort of way. This music was popular with a niche audience even thirty or forty years ago. Today’s listener may not be able to relate to the heady days of the 70s when the cognoscenti questioned convention, distrusted anything that could be categorized and relished in the really, really unusual.

Nonesuch does its usual fine job remastering the original and the performances were – and are – exuberant and dedicated. As a bit of a footnote in the history of American music this was interesting at least. Historians may like it for what it is; some may even like the irreverence. For the “serious” classical listener or even fans of “off, off Broadway” it may come across as just so….. 70s.

—Daniel Coombs

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