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December 2014

52 Guitars: Week 52

Andrés Segovia

I wanted to close out this series with a really important guitarist, and it would be hard to find a more suitable candidate than Segovia, who did so much to bring the guitar into the mainstream of classical music. In a career that spanned the greater part of the 20th century, he advanced the repertoire of the instrument and made technical contributions that assisted its spread, notably the use of nylon strings, which stay in tune much better than the old gut strings. And of course his career coincided with an enormous surge of interest in the guitar in all kinds of music, so that people who might otherwise have had little interest in classical music were interested in classical guitar.

I'm not at home and have limited internet connectivity; worse, I've been pretty sick for the past several days, sicker than I can remember being for at least the past decade or more, and am still feeling pretty bad. So I'm not going to spend as much time searching out Segovia gems on YouTube as I would like. Instead, I give you the complete Guitar Concerto #1 by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, which was inspired by Segovia. I think this is the same performance I have on some no-name LP, probably sort of semi-bootleg. The original recording is none too great, and this is just a recording of the vinyl, with a lot of surface noise. You'll need to turn the sound up some. But I think it's worth it--it's a simple and charming piece.

Moreover, for some reason the person who posted it on YouTube has disabled embedding on the first movement, so click here for it, and then proceed with the next two:



And so ends the year of guitar music. I hope you've enjoyed it. It crossed my mind the other day to wonder whether I could come up with another 52 guitarists. So I started writing down names as fast as I could think of them, and in ten minutes or so had come up with 40 or so. But I don't plan to do another year.

52 Guitars: Week 51

Mississippi Fred McDowell

I wish I could say that when I was growing up in rural Alabama I heard this kind of music alive in its native culture. But I didn't; I heard it on records in the living room of an aunt and uncle who had a great interest, very unusual for white people in that time and place, in the country blues. I was fifteen or so, and the love I soon felt for this music has never slackened. If I remember correctly, the first slide player I heard was Furry Lewis. I do remember feeling the same thing that B.B. King described on hearing the slide guitar of Bukka White: the sound "just went all through me." And beyond that immediate sonic appeal, I recognized the voice and the heart of people I knew, and was beginning to realize that I loved. 

I believe this was the first thing I ever heard by Mississippi Fred McDowell. It's among the many field recordings made by Alan Lomax. I think the woman singing with him is his wife.

"Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning": 


"You Got To Move": 


Don't be misled by the religious themes into thinking that McDowell was a purely religious writer; his work contains the mix of deep religiosity and profligate sexuality that was typical of rural black culture.

I don't know if Dylan had heard this before he wrote his famous song, but if it wasn't this, it was probably another version; it often seems that there are no original songs in the blues. "Highway 61": 


Here's more information about that highway.

The Moment

Then came, at a predetermined moment, a moment in time
    and of time,
A moment not out of time, but in time, in what we call history:
    transecting, bisecting the world of time,
     a moment in time but not like a moment of time,
A moment in time but time was made through that moment:
    for without the meaning there is no time,
     and that moment of time gave the meaning.

--Eliot, Choruses from "The Rock"


52 Guitars: Week 50

John McLaughlin

McLaughlin is very well known in jazz circles, but I've never really listened to him very much. I heard him back in 1970 or so when he appeared on Miles Davis's Bitches Brew, which I did not really get then and still don't, although it's considered a masterpiece by many. 

But as with a couple of other people I've posted about in this series, my interest in McLaughlin was piqued by his appearance on one of the Crossroads Festival DVDs. I thought this was dull at first hearing, despite the virtuosity, but it grew on me. "Maharina": 


McLaughlin is probably most widely known for his 1970s work in the Mahavishnu Orchestra. As with Bitches Brew, I didn't care much for what I heard of them at the time. I remember finding it almost shocking, because I had for some reason expected a serene meditative sound, but it was fiery. Eight or ten years ago, in a period of re-considering progressive rock and other types of music that I hadn't cared for at the time, I heard the M.O.'s Inner Mounting Flame and really liked it. It's generally classified as jazz-rock fusion, and unlike much of that genre really merits that description. This is the first track, "Meeting of the Spirits": 


About twenty years ago McLaughlin had a trio of which the other two members were Joey De Francesco on organ and Elvin Jones on drums. Appropriately for the presence of Jones, the drummer on many of John Coltrane's greatest recordings, they released a CD which included several compositions either by Coltrane or forever associated with him, including "My Favorite Things." I don't see the album track on YouTube, but here's a live performance of it, not without flaws--the guitar actually sounds out of tune in places, though I think that may be due to a slightly misused or badly-adjusted chorus effect--but still worth hearing. The drummer here is not Jones, however.



Roger Scruton on Fakery in Art

Everyone, I think, including on some suppressed level the participants, recognizes that there is a great deal in the art of the past 70 years or so that is meretricious if not actually fraudulent. Any number of people have pointed this out, but I don't think I've seen a better analysis of the phenomenon than a recent piece in the BBC News by Roger Scruton.

After defining the faker as one who doesn't just tell a lie but inhabits it (I thought of Bill Clinton), Scruton describes the process by which fakery became normal in the art establishment:

Originality requires learning, hard work, the mastery of a medium and - most of all - the refined sensibility and openness to experience that have suffering and solitude as their normal cost.

To gain the status of an original artist is therefore not easy. But in a society where art is revered as the highest cultural achievement, the rewards are enormous. Hence there is a motive to fake it. Artists and critics get together in order to take themselves in, the artists posing as the originators of astonishing breakthroughs, the critics posing as the penetrating judges of the true avant-garde.

That's only the beginning, so by all means read the whole thing.

52 Guitars: Week 49

Frank Zappa

I want to say more or less the same thing about Frank Zappa now that I did in a 2007 review of Hot Rats, so I may as well not bother rephrasing it, and just quote:

I must say right off that I had never taken very seriously Zappa’s ambition to be taken very seriously as a musician. Maybe “ambition” is the wrong word, since the general air of dadaist clownishness with which he invested his work certainly encouraged one to treat it as a joke. That was my original difficulty. Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were essentially a musical comedy act, and when albums like Lumpy Gravyand Hot Rats came out, people didn’t know what to make of them. I think I heard each of them approximately once. I have a faint memory of hearing them in the company of friends, all of us waiting for the jokes to start, puzzled and bored when they never arrived.

Subsequently I heard Zappa’s music praised often enough, but usually by the sort of people who think songs like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” are tremendously funny, so that the commendation of the music came across as an unpersuasive afterthought, a bit reminiscent of an old-timePlayboy reader praising the magazine’s journalism. Nor did Zappa’s general air of angry cynicism—which seemed, on the basis of occasional media reports, to harden over the years, along with his liking for crudeness and obscenity—suggest that I should reconsider his music. 

I went on to be pretty positive about Hot Rats (I'm not linking to the review because it seems somehow not to have made it over to this blog and is still on the old one, which is going to be taken down Any Day Now).

Zappa's more dedicated fans remind me a little of dogmatic libertarians: intelligent in a constricted, rationalistic sort of way, a little deficient in understanding of the totality of the human. (Dogmatic Thomists can be somewhat the same way.) And Zappa's music seems similar: in the realm of pop music you couldn't get much further away from the emotional power of, say, Van Morrison. 

One thing the fans always insist upon is that he was a great guitarist. Other than "Willie the Pimp" on Hot Rats, I had never encountered much evidence of that. But it's true. I don't hear anything in any of the three clips that follow that reaches down into the emotions the way, for instance, a much more technically limited blues guitarist can do. But his playing is certainly interesting

"Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar": 


"Chunga's Revenge": This is one of the best Zappa solos I found on YouTube, but embedding is disabled, so click here.  This is a live performance, and there are embeddable copies of the album version, but it's not nearly as guitar-centric and generally as appealing as this one. 

And here's an interesting case study of what I said above about the head-vs.-heart contrast. I was very surprised to find Zappa playing the Allman Brothers' intense classic "Whipping Post". Zappa's solo (a couple of minutes in) is not very bluesy, and is very--here's that word I can't seem to avoid--interesting, but overall, in spite of the singer's earnest effort, this just doesn't touch the emotions in the way the Allmans' original does (click here if you don't know it).


More than twenty-five years ago I lent someone my original 1967 copy of the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out album, and never got it back. I wish I had. What a fascinating curio from that time it is.


Broadchurch is a really fine British murder mystery, which I strongly recommend. This post is mainly just a place-holder for a discussion which includes TOTAL SPOILERS, because it's really hard to discuss the show without that. I'm moving several comments here from the Movies for the Ages post so that people won't stumble across them  by accident.

Seriously, don't read this discussion unless you've seen the show. It is very, very good, and it does a really good job of making the murder mystery a real mystery, so you'll be, as the term says, SPOILing it to some degree for a first viewing.

One thing I can say, without giving away anything, is that although there are very dark things involved in the story, it has a fundamentally healthy quality that's somewhat rare in movies and television these days (well, to the extent that I'm aware of those, which actually isn't very). In the past year or so my wife and I have watched several lengthy TV series in which at some point I realized that there was not a single character for whom I had much liking or admiration or respect. Breaking Bad is the prime example of that. Others are The Americans and Peaky Blinders

Movies for the Ages(?)

Or should I say "Films", since I'm talking about Art? 

A discussion has been going on under the unlikely auspices of one of the 52 Guitars posts, and it's such an interesting topic that I thought I'd give it a post of its own. 

Imagine that you're living 400 years from now, in what will presumably be a very different culture. Do you think any movies from our time would still be rewarding enough to watch and study the way we study the great poets of 400 years ago? If so, which ones? I mean, of course, interest in them as works of art, not historical artifacts.  To put it another way, will movies (and television) become part of the artistic canon? 

I'm not sure what my answer will be. I'll have to think about it some more. It seems a more difficult question to me than it did initially. I'm assuming, of course, that the technology for viewing them still exists in 2414. Still, many ancillary questions come to mind: for instance, is it possible that the culture will not be so very different as all that, that our current level of technology and material well-being is actually a plateau, not a point on an upward slope?

New Blog On the Block

Toby D'Anna, who is among the people planning to contribute to the 52 Authors project, and in fact will lead it off with a piece about Flannery O'Connor, has started blogging (again, actually, but the other one was some time ago). It is excellent, and although I've gotten to a point where there aren't really very many blogs that I read regularly--half a dozen, maybe--this has become one of them. It's called Onto the Search, and here is his introductory post, published the day after Thanksgiving.