If there’s one thing that almost universally unites most experimental musicians and fans, it’s the work of late Renaissance composer/murderer/nobleman Carlo Gesualdo. Most people who have had to sit through a music history course just remember this guy as that royal composer dude who brutally murdered his wife and her lover and then got away with it because of his elevated social/political status. However, an equal number of people (especially the more experimentally inclined) often get fascinated with how forward-looking and beautiful his compositions were. In addition to breaking actual moral laws, Gesualdo broke all sorts of tonal/contrapuntal rules characteristic of the Renaissance as well. As a result, he created a highly expressive style that used tonal harmonies in non-functional ways. Gesualdo’s use of harmony was so radical that it would take everybody else until the late 19th century to fully catch up.
In many ways, Gesualdo’s tonal language has a lot in common with the work of David Grubbs and Noël Akchoté. In both cases, these modern artists revel in the possibilities for dissonant movement while working within traditional song-like structures akin to the madrigal forms that Gesualdo subverted. It’s clear that Akchoté realized this when arranging these pieces for five guitars, and consequently the highly idiomatic results sound like they could fit in on any of Grubbs’ solo releases or on a number of his chamber pop-leaning label mates’ albums. It’s a humbling reminder that, despite experimental pop’s often radical sound sources, we often aren’t too far tonally removed from the music of bygone eras.
You can stream the excellently recorded performance of these works courtesy Radio France right here (the music begins around 12 minutes in). David Grubbs has a new non-Gesualdo album coming out via Drag City on April 16.