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January 17, 1996

Into the Stratosphere

StratosStratos, Stratos (Warner 1995) - Chalk this up as a mystery find. Stratos are 16 classical musicians (violin, viola, cello, string bass, and organ) who rotate positions and perform without a conductor. For this 70-minute disc, which features music spanning more than 300 years, the group "hopes to connect people with its living passionate music that has touched us in our lives." And it works.

According to founding members, Wieslaw Pogorzelski and Miriam Perkoff, "a few years ago, we came to realize that we wanted to play classical music in a less conventional way. The composers of classical music were passionate, vital, and emotionally-driven people. On this album, we wanted to bring their work, their intent, and their passion to life."

Stratos also has a local connection. According to Pogorzelski and Perkoff, "in December, 1993, Michael M. Miller, president of the Original 16 to 1 Mine, invited the two of us to participate in an underground concert, 2200 feet below the town of Allegheny, in California gold country.

"Miners led us through miles of tunnels to a large cavern where we were joined by a wide range of musicians for an unforgettable performance. This is where we met Roberta Petersen who, at the time, was A & R for Warner Bros. Records. She shares our passion for music, and this album is dedicated to her.

"P.S. A short time after the gold mine event, the miners discovered over $1 million worth of gold in the same cavern!"

StratosThe 22 tracks on this album (over 70 minutes of music) feature two Italian Baroque pieces: the "Christmas Concerto" by Corelli (1653-1713), and the "Summer" concerto from Vivaldi's (1678-1741) The Four Seasons. The album also includes the modern "Adagio for Strings, Op. 11" by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), and one movement from Swiss composer Frank Martin's (1890-1974) "Etudes for String Orchestra" (written in 1956).

In addition, two compositions share history with the City of Dresden; Shostakovich's (1906-1975) "Chamber Symphony for Stringed Orchestra, Op. 110a," and Tomaso Albinoni's (1671-1750) haunting "Adagio" (pop fans may recall the latter piece from the conclusion of the Doors' American Prayer).

When the "Adagio" was discovered at the end of World War II in the bombed ruins of the State Library of Dresden, only two first violin fragments (six measures out of 116) and the baseline survived. It was then reconstructed by Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto.

Pogorzelski and Perkoff continue. "Stratos plays without a conductor, giving each musician in the orchestra more input into the creative process. We sought out 14 other players who are not concerned with the norm - people who cared about music itself. Before the four-day recording session, we lived together for two weeks on a ranch in the California hills, playing and learning to think together.

"In addition to our rehearsals, we had great times cooking, watching gorgeous sunsets, and enjoying the beauty of the California coast. Thus, we forged the essential collective focus that amplifies the intensity of feeling on this album. In the recording session, our vision was clear and powerful and articulated by 16 distinct voices all in unison, all of us playing to our full potential, no one holding back."

I don't listen to many classical recordings, but Stratos is extraordinary. This isn't sleepy-time music; rather, the recordings are strong and vibrant. In addition, because the orchestra is limited to 16 pieces, the recording isn't muddy or busy. Stratos is a special release, and worth finding.

Barry BlackBarry Black, Barry Black (Alias Records 1995) - Alias Records is a small label from Los Angeles with a big band - Archers of Loaf. Many people predict stardom for the punk/alternative Archers of Loaf (who appeared at Bisla's Nightclub earlier this year), although I'm not crazy about their new album, Vee Vee.

However, Barry Black, which is the creation of Archers of Loaf frontman, Eric Bachmann, is an exhilarating and offbeat collection of 14 instrumentals. Recorded in Hillsborough, North Carolina in the spring of 1995, the album also includes Ben Folds (from the Ben Folds Five) on piano and drums, Bill Hicks on violin, and the Clodfelter boys, Chris and Jim, on trumpet for two tracks ("Cockroaches" and "Boo Barry Blip").

But the real star of the show is Bachmann, who contributes guitars, banjo, bass, alto sax, waterpot, train whistle, clarinet, and "noisy keyboard" to the album. As you might imagine, Barry Black (and there is no one by that name in the band) is a quirky, offbeat production.

With songs such as "Sandvikin Stomp," "Fisherman Fugs," and "Cowboys and Thieves," Barry Black veers all over the musical landscape. My favorite track is "Animals are for Eating," which starts like a 30s casbah number before building to a whirling conclusion, all in the space of 2:22.

Barry Black is an offbeat album that will lighten your day. With influences ranging from punk to rock to industrial to Middle Eastern, there's no easy way to describe this delirious 42-minute collection. Like Nike says, just try it.

-- Randy Krbechek

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