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A New Beth Gibbons Song

I generally avoid listening to pop music during Lent, and will hold off until after Easter posting about a couple of pop albums that I've been listening to recently. But I'll mention this, which will be of interest to any fan of Portishead. Possibly that includes, apart from me, only one reader of this blog, but anyway, if you are one, you know that Beth Gibbons is the singer for that singular band, and will be interested in her solo album, Lives Outgrown. It's not due out until May, but one track, "Floating On a Moment," has just been released. Most of the video is a swirling sort of liquid kaleidoscope effect which started to give me a headache after fifteen or twenty seconds. But I looked away and enjoyed the song. 

Here's the Pitchfork article about the new album. This struck me:

The songs address anxieties about ageing, according to a press release. “I realized what life was like with no hope,” [Gibbons] said. “And that was a sadness I’d never felt."

"No hope" presumably means "no earthly hope," and may or may not mean "no hope of any kind ever." Apart from that theological question, it's interesting that she'd never felt that way before. She's 59  years old. I'd say that means she's had a fairly fortunate life. Or that she has a generally positive temperament. Which I wouldn't have supposed from her singing. 

Though this is the first album released under her name alone, the album Out of Season, on which she shared credit with "Rustin Man," the pseudonym of Paul Webb, a former member of Talk Talk, seems to be at least half her work. I have that one and liked it on initial acquaintance but have not really given it a proper listen. Maybe I'll do that between Easter and May. 

She also sang the soprano (?) part in a recording of Henryk Górecki's Symphony #3, the famous "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," which I have never heard (the recording, I mean--like at least a million other people, I have the CD which made the symphony famous thirty years or so ago). I thought it seemed like a gimmick, but this review, also in Pitchfork, makes it sound interesting:

Symphony No. 3 has a nightmarish undertone that tends to get smoothed out in dulcet recordings—one of the texts is meant to be the sound of a woman calling out for her murdered child—and Gibbons brings that squirming danger right to the surface.

Part of the tension comes from hearing her untrained voice scale these rocky heights. Her vibrato, tight and trilling and barely controlled, sounds an awful lot like someone fighting off a panic attack.


Nice to See You Again, Mr. Tchaikovsky

I think perhaps it was your representative at the piano who gave me a bad impression of your first piano concerto. And perhaps it was only the visual distraction of his mannerisms and his gold lamé jacket that got the performance off on a bad footing with me, more or less ruining the first movement, which of course constitutes more than half of the work, from which I only partly recovered before the end of the performance. But I am happy to say that on further acquaintance with the work I have completely recovered.

*

I thought I would wait a while after my less-than-wonderful experience with Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto two weekends ago (see this post) to listen to a recording of it. By "a while" I had in mind, very vaguely, a month or two. But curiosity* got the better of me. Within a week I had listened to no fewer than three recordings of the concerto.

(New paragraph, for emphasis) I am now announcing officially that I love this concerto. I'll go even further: I very much love it.

The first recording I listened to was Van Cliburn's of 1958. Although I was only ten years old when Cliburn won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in that year, I was vaguely aware of the event. It had gotten massive publicity because of the Cold War implications of this  young pianist from Texas beating the Russians at their own game, on their own turf. I heard Cliburn's name, at least, and knew that he played the piano, which was not the sort of information that would typically be found in the head of a country boy in Alabama. Now that I think about it, it occurs to me that I may have heard it from one of my aunts, who was herself a pianist and a music lover. 

The conductor on this recording is Kiril Kondrashin, and there's something bit odd about the packaging: the orchestra is not named. It's not on the cover, which is a little unusual.

CliburnTchaikovskyBut it's not on the back, either. And unless I managed to miss it, it isn't mentioned in the text, which I doubt  you can read. (These are not photos of my copy, but they seem identical. The photos were poached from Discogs.)

CliburnTchaikovskyBackCover

According to Wikipedia, it's the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra. So I speculate that RCA omitted the name because they were not confident that their own orchestra was so highly regarded as to constitute a selling point. 

Anyway: this recording sufficed to get me over my bad experience. I was curious about others, and discovered that I own two more. One is Yevgeny Sudbin with the São Paulo Symphony. Fifteen years or so ago a friend acquainted me with Sudbin's Scarlatti recordings, which I like very much, and I suppose that must be why I bought the Tchaikovsky recording on MP3. But I don't think I had ever gotten around to listening to it. I like it, and I doubt that there's an argument about Sudbin's performance being technically first-rate, but I kept having the feeling that the orchestra didn't quite match the vitality of the piano.  

Then on to the third: Sviatoslav Richter and the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Karel Ančerl. It's a 1960 recording on the Czech Supraphon label, released in this country on the Parliament label. Small print on the jacket says it's 'A Parliament "Cultural Exchange" Presentation.' Which I suppose was another Cold War thing, Czechoslovakia being a Soviet thing, and Supraphon a state-run thing. 

RichterTchaikovsky

I found this one really exciting, and moving, and everything else that one could ask for. Nor is the 1960 sonic quality an obstacle; good recordings of that period may not match the clarity and dynamic range of what has come since, but are still excellent (and sometimes even preferable, but that's another topic). And it made me really appreciate the concerto, which, as I said, I now love.

So the question arises: is this performance really superior, or was it only that, as the third hearing (fourth if you count the concert) it benefited from my increased familiarity with the work? I really don't know, but I can say one thing: it seemed to me that the piano and the orchestra were more evenly matched than in the others. The orchestra seemed a more present and vital part of the performance. 

Also, I suspect now that part of what put me off in the concert performance was that the piano seemed in almost violent competition with the orchestra. I think this was the doing of the soloist, Maxim Lando, who really seemed to be crashing and banging excessively. But perhaps it was relative weakness in the orchestra, which, after all, is not composed of full-time professionals. I'm not a skilled-enough listener to judge definitively, but I do trust my ears enough to say that in the opening bars the beautiful theme played by the orchestra, which should be accompanied, not overpowered, by those powerful chords in the piano, was very much in the background. The overall effect was of bombast instead of the deep passion that I hear in these recordings, especially the Richter/Ančerl one.

 

* Why do we not spell "curiosity" as "curiousity"? I usually type it that way, then notice the red underlining indicating that the software does not approve. What was wrong with adding the "ity" suffix to the word "curious"? 


Some Other Night, Perhaps, Mr. Tchaikovsky

I went to hear the Mobile Symphony last night, and had a very mixed reaction to what I heard. As follows:

Duke Ellington: Suite From The River

I had never heard this piece, a suite from a ballet, before, but I suppose I can say I had some expectations, and that it met them, but that that was not altogether a good thing. My expectations were based on a generally not all that favorable view of jazz-classical mixtures: they tend to suffer from neither-fish-nor-fowl syndrome. The jazzy elements seem stiff, and the classical-y elements limited, and that was more or less my reaction here. I don't want to sound too negative, as it was very enjoyable. But relatively lightweight.

Stravinsky: Suite from The Firebird

The pairing (as they say of food and drink) of this with the Ellington was unfortunate. No doubt it seemed a good idea, but Ellington did not come off well: it was the difference between very enjoyable and magical.

The first Stravinsky I ever heard was The Rite of Spring, most likely when I was a college sophomore taking Dr. Frederick Hyde's music history course at the University of Alabama, ca. 1968. I mention that because Dr. Hyde was a wonderful teacher who deserves to be remembered, and that course was a wonderful experience, which I certainly remember. When I think of him I remember him coming into the classroom struggling with a stack of several dozen LPs, from which he would choose examples to illustrate his lectures. In my perhaps exaggerated memory, there were so many records in the stack that the top ones were always tending to slide off onto the floor. 

I loved The Rite, instantly, and was eager to hear more Stravinsky. The obvious next step was The Firebird. But on one hearing I found it considerably less interesting, almost bland in comparison. And though I've listened to The Rite occasionally over the years, I didn't seek out The Firebird

Well, that's changed now. As of last night, I absolutely love The Firebird. I learned this morning that there are several suites drawn from the score, and this is the 1919 one, apparently the most frequently performed. It is sharp, clear, clean, making use of unusual instrumental techniques--very "modern" in that respect--and yet lyrical, and yet exciting. And I think the Mobile Symphony, whose players are, I assume, not full-time, did it justice. As a recording their performance would no doubt be inferior to the work of big-time orchestras, but last night it had the great advantage of being heard live. And whatever else  might be said about this orchestra, it does not lack energy, which surely has everything to do with its energetic conductor, Scott Speck. I can't recall ever before having the impulse to jump up and yell "Bravo!" at a performance, but I did last night--have the impulse, I mean. I wasn't the only one; there was in fact a standing ovation, which I think is not usual for the second work on the program, especially one without a star soloist. (I didn't actually do it because I didn't want to dump the big coat, hat, and program book in my lap onto the floor.) 

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto #1

Because I'm so thoroughly in touch with pop culture, I know that "It's not you, it's me," spoken by one member of a romantic relationship to the other as part of the announcement that he/she is breaking up with her/him, is a sort of standing joke. I am resorting to it now in relation to this concerto. I did not enjoy it, but it's not the work, it's me--probably. I can't say why I didn't enjoy it--well, I can say, and I will, but I don't really understand the reaction. I like Tchaikovsky. I like big romantic works with heart-tugging melodies. Granted, the piano concerto is not my favorite genre--I don't think there is one that I would place among my very favorite works--but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy it.

I think it was partly, as with the Ellington, an unfortunate pairing. It was as if I'd had a drink of some of the best whiskey in the world, and, still savoring the aftertaste, tried to eat (drink?) one of those gooey fast-food pseudo-milkshakes. Wrong moment. I was not consciously prejudiced, but something in me rebelled with those first thick, crashing piano chords, accompanied by a famous melody (which was used in a popular song, "Tonight We Love," and I can't keep those words out of my head when I hear the melody).

Part of the problem was the pianist, Maxim Lando, and that began before he ever touched the keys. He came out wearing a shiny gold jacket of the Elvis style, though only waist length. And when he did begin to play, his physical mannerisms were distracting to the point of annoyance: he crouched low over the keyboard in the Glenn Gould style. And those chords were so huge, so crashing, so much more like heavy metal (which I like in its proper place) than I was ready to hear, that I couldn't help blaming the pianist for what is probably the composer's doing. 

And so it went for the entire first movement. The pianist, or the composer, couldn't seem to do anything right for my ears. Things got somewhat better in the second and third movements, and I figured out that I needed to keep my eyes closed to avoid being distracted by the gold lamé (if that's the right word) and the mannerisms. Still, I never really got on board. 

Almost certainly it's not Tchaikovsky or Lando. I'm pretty sure it's me, my frame of mind at the moment. Sometime soon I'll find a recording of the concerto to listen to (I'm not even sure whether I own one) and see if we get along better. Or then again maybe that would be a mistake. Maybe better to wait a while.

In the program notes, Scott Speck has a perfectly reasonable explanation for his choice of these three works.

An unlikely trio of composers. What on earth could have possessed us to combine Peter Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky and Duke Ellington into a single concert? Well, the connections are broader than you might think – and Igor Stravinsky is the key. Stravinsky grew up and spent his most formative musical years in the land of Tchaikovsky – and he spent his last three decades in the land of Ellington.

And he goes on to cite several other connections. Fair enough. It just didn't work for me.


Thought I might buy the Kleiber Brahms 4

Maybe even on vinyl, just for fun? However:

BrahmsKleiberApparently it's out of print. Used CDs are available pretty inexpensively. Or I could buy it as an MP3.

But on Discogs there are several LP copies at reasonable ($15-30) prices. Those are used copies, and the only reason I can think of for the discrepancy is that the high priced one is new. 


Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh, conducted by Carlos Kleiber

I can't find it now, but I'm almost certain that it was someone's comment here, probably Rob G's, that made me aware of Kleiber's recording of these two symphonies. I don't think it was all that long ago--five years? surely not ten?--but it was probably before I had most currently available recorded music at my fingertips via streaming, because I bought the CD. But it was only a week ago that I finally got around to listening to it.

This event was set in motion several weeks ago when I heard Beethoven's Sixth performed by the Mobile Symphony. I had really been looking forward to it, and I did enjoy it, but found it a bit of a letdown. Perhaps that had to do with the performance, and the unfair comparison between the perfection of recordings by the world's greatest performers, and the good but not world-class work of a lesser orchestra. On the other hand, any half-decent live performance has something that no recording can provide. So I don't think it was the orchestra's fault. I felt more that it was the work itself, that I just didn't like it as much as I had thought. Perhaps it was just my mood. Or perhaps it's age: I was effusive about the Sixth fifteen years ago.

Discussing this with my friend who's a classical music expert led to her recommending this recording. "Well, actually, I have it, but have never heard it." She assured me that it would knock my socks off, or words to that effect. I attempted to dampen that expectation, reminding her that I'm not all that sensitive to performance. 

But she was right. I suppose I've heard the Fifth a dozen or so times over fifty years, and of course I like it, but it had never electrified me before. If my socks had physically behaved as the metaphor says, they would have landed on the bookshelf across the room. And the Seventh was if anything even better. 

I'm obliged, in honesty and in acknowledgement of my lack of sensitivity to nuance in performance, to say that I think the recording itself, I mean the sonic quality of the production, played a part in my reaction. It is stunningly sharp and clear and its dynamic range is so great that I thought it must be a digital recording. But it was made in the '70s, when digital recording was still in its infancy. The conversion to digital for the CD used "Original-Image Bit-Processing," whatever that means, so maybe that's part of the reason.

And obviously the clarity is primarily the work of the Vienna Philharmonic itself, which seems almost superhumanly precise. 

Kleiber-Beethoven.jpg

I guess it would be superfluous to say that I recommend this recording. Looks like it's on YouTube but I doubt that the sound quality would be as good as the CD.

I didn't know anything about Kleiber beyond his name. I vaguely wondered why, if this recording is considered so great, I had not heard his name more. I found part of the answer in the Wikipedia article; he seems to have been an unusual character, with an unusual career. A conductor who "kept out of the public eye"? That's odd. He didn't make all that many recordings. 

*

By the way, the Mobile Symphony concert included a flute concerto by Lowell Lieberman. I had no more than the vaguest recollection that I might have heard the composer's name before, and figured that this was what someone has referred to as the OOMP of this concert: Obligatory Opening Modern Piece: spiky, slight, not particularly engaging, and, one hopes, not too long. And I didn't expect it to be especially good. But it is. I wanted to hear it again.

Also, it was not the opening piece. That was Beethoven's Creatures of Prometheus overture. As far as I recall I had never heard it before. I don't really care whether I ever hear it again, either. I've mentioned before that I feel some sort of basic temperamental incompatibility with Beethoven. That doesn't matter with his great works, like the two symphonies here, but I don't think this is one of them.


Kids These Days and Their Crazy Music

When I was twenty-ish, and probably for some years afterward, I assumed that the music of my generation would be received by my children and those who came after in the way my generation received the popular music of our parents' generation--Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, and all the other music of the '30s and '40s which began to be pushed aside by rock-and-roll in the 1950s, but persisted into the '60s, to be disdained by young people for many of whom popular music was many things more than music. It was music for old people, meaning middle-aged and older. It was boring, it was corny (what is the contemporary equivalent of that term?), it was a fashion that had had its day and was now deader than the racoons in a racoon coat, deader than twenty-three-skidoo (whatever that meant) and speakeasies. And moreover for those who were really part of the youth culture that produced the music, it was an emblem of the old straight conformist commercialized world against which we had rebelled. 

All that was at least half absurd, of course, as the putatively counter-cultural music of the mid-to-late 1960s was inextricably bound to the corporate music business which sold it to us, profiting very well from it. It still surprises me a little to recall that The Velvet Underground and Nico was available in record stores in the small southern town where I went to college. Granted, it was a college town, but still....

I expected my generation, and the music of my generation, to meet the same fate. Somewhat to my surprise, that didn't happen. My children (for the most part) took to rock music as readily as my generation had. By 1980 or so, when the '60s kids were well into middle age, the music of our late adolescence had become "classic rock," and younger people listened to it as much as we did. Now, forty years later, the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix are still widely liked by people who were young enough to be their children, and even, theoretically at least, young enough to be their grandchildren. On my bookshelf there is an instructional book for guitar called Jimi Hendrix Note-for-Note, which is exactly what the title says, and was left behind by one of my now-forty-something children.

In expecting that rejection, I was of course completely misreading what was going on: the music of the cultural revolution continued to be favored in part because the revolution succeeded. But that's another topic.

On the other side of that division were the old folks whose reaction to rock-and-roll in general and to post-1965 rock in particular ranged from puzzled to outraged. They might acknowledge that the Beatles sometimes had some good tunes, and the radio still played a lot of fairly conventional music, but the whole hippie side of the thing made no sense to them. Why would a band call themselves the Grateful Dead? Or the Jefferson Airplane? Why would anybody want to look like that? Why would anybody want to listen to that stuff?

Now, at last, I have some idea of what they felt. I've noticed for several years now that on the infrequent occasions when I hear current pop music that I have a distinct and sometimes strong--very strong--aversion to it, not just to individual pieces but to the basic sound. A few days ago, deciding that I should take a closer listen, I watched this video in which Rick Beato listens to the Top 10 songs (as measured by Spotify, not Billboard, as of old) and evaluates them. You may know of Beato--his music-related videos are very popular and usually interesting. The title of this one tells you what he thought.

I had that adverse reaction--by which I mean "I hate this"--to at least half the songs he samples. (I've forgotten which ones now.) Beato supports his reaction with rational, music-based specifics. But I don't really care to analyze my reasons. Suffice to say that in those cases I hate the vocals and the instrumentation and, usually, the songs, or "songs." (With that last bit of snark I recall my grandmother, ca. 1966, saying "These songs today don't have any tune to them.") 

A few remarks: (1) I think rap/hip-hop has had a big part to play in all this, especially in the un-song songs which tend to consist of uninteresting complaints. (2) I absolutely cannot stand the "warble" effect produced on vocals with Auto-Tune--the impossible leaps and twists of pitch and tone that don't even sound human, because they aren't. Beato and others say that Auto-Tune, when used for its intended purpose--to make a note absolutely on pitch--takes the life out of music, and I believe it. But that warble is, to my ears, death itself, musically speaking. I suppose to say that a sound is like fingernails on a chalk board may no longer make sense, when chalkboards have probably long since disappeared from classrooms. If so, I guess it's appropriate that I use an obsolete comparison. (3) I was a little surprised at how bland and dull the Taylor Swift track is. I've never heard much of her stuff but I've had the impression that she is pretty gifted.

In general most current commercial pop doesn't register on my ears as music. It seems just a sort of processed sound product--Cheez-Whiz for the ears. I denounce it without shame, embracing my out-of-touch-old-man identity.

I am by the way very aware that there is plenty of good pop music being made, some of it no doubt by people under thirty. But it doesn't seem to make it into the mainstream. 


Shoegaze and Not-Shoegaze

Here are two albums I've been listening to recently: Under the Milkyway...Who Cares? by Seasurfer, and everything is alive by Slowdive. (I'm following the typography used by both bands.) The first can fairly be classified as "shoegaze;" one recognizes the basic sound immediately. I think of the other as "not-shoegaze" because Slowdive helped to define the style, and is always one of the first names mentioned when it's discussed, but this album really doesn't fit the mold. 

Slowdive existed for roughly five years in the early 1990s, then broke up, with three of its four members carrying on as a mostly-acoustic band called Mojave 3. Then Slowdive reformed around 2015 and in 2017 put out a new self-titled album, which is very much in their old style and is one of those fairly rare comebacks which fans generally consider as good as the band's earlier work.

All of which is to say that I expected this new release to continue in that vein.

Well, I was wrong. The first song, "shanty," opens with a synthesizer loop which made me think I was listening to Tangerine Dream, but then moves into something closer to the old sound. The next song, "prayer remembered," is almost ambient; there may or may not be a faint vocal mist in there somewhere. I thought of instrumental post-rock groups like Hammock and Explosions In the Sky. "alife" comes closer to a typical shoegaze sound than most of the album, and it's excellent. "andalucia plays" sounds more like Mojave 3 than Slowdive. And so on. Actually the whole notion of "typical Slowdive" was exploded by Pygmalion, the last album of the band's initial incarnation, so the variety here is not a new thing for them.

Though very varied in texture from one song to the next, the album remains fairly subdued throughout; not much jumps out at you as being brilliant. I was a bit disappointed in it on first listen, but it's continued to grow on me. Set aside categories and expectations: it's subtle, evocative music with a quiet emotional touch, well and carefully produced with a lot of interesting sonic detail. I remain disappointed only with the closing track, "the slab," which is to my taste monotonous without compensatory beauty.

This is possibly the closest track to what one might expect of the band. You might want to look away from the video if you're bothered, as I am, by spacey visual patterns. 

Under the Milkyway opens with a blast of noisy guitars and drums which more than justifies the oft-noted commonality between some shoegaze and some metal. That leads into "It's Too Late," which will do as well as any as a sample track--unlike the Slowdive album, this one is fairly consistent in basic sound. 

It's a curiously habit-forming album. I've listened to it at least five times over the past couple of months, which is unusual for me. And I haven't tired of it; I just keep liking it more. Definitely recommended to anyone who likes the basic sound. 

(p.s. Thanks, Rob)


Night of the Living Deadhead

I copied this from a Facebook post which didn't give the source, and it  was too funny not to share. I have discovered just now that it's by Asher Perlman and appeared in The New Yorker

DeadheadIn case you don't recognize it, the logo on the guy's t-shirt is the Grateful Dead's. Originally it was Phish's, but I think it's much funnier with the Dead's. In my circles Phish does not occupy the same position, either culturally or musically, as the Dead.

After laughing--LOL in fact--I'm moved to reflect on the brevity and fickleness of fame and fashion. In the late '60s and for some time afterward (till punk arrived, maybe?) nothing could have been more hip than the Grateful Dead. Now...well, the cartoon tells the story: the bald head, the unfashionable shorts, the vaguely tentative quality of the figure, suggestive of age and physical fragility, the disdain of the others (the guy vaulting over the bar is a great touch). And Jerry Garcia has been dead for almost thirty years. 

I hesitated about my title, thinking that surely that the pun has been over-used. But a quick search turned up only this instance


A Wild Bach Composition

A friend pointed this out to me a week or two ago: the Chromatic Fantasia/Fantasy in D Minor. It's spectacular. I'm not sure I would have recognized it as Bach if I hadn't known. Or, rather, I would have wondered if it was a Bach piece with which some more modern composer had taken a few liberties. Most of it is very Bach-like, but from time to time it sounds more "modern" to me, by which I must mean that it has harmonies which are more...chromatic, I guess?...than my ear expects from Bach. In any case, it's quite a ride.

Here's the performance she sent me--a live performance by Glenn Gould, which, since it's on video, is not only musically but visually unusual. By which I mean "odd." As she notes, he conducts with his left hand when it's otherwise idle.

And here's a vastly different performance by Wanda Landowska on harpsichord. You'll notice that the title says "Fantasia and Fugue." The work is BWV 903, and it does include both the fantasia and the fugue, but both these performances are of the fantasia only. I don't know why Landowska's is two minutes longer. It doesn't seem that much slower, overall, than Gould's. I haven't attempted a careful comparison but someone with a better ear might be able to point something out.

I love these old Landowska performances and have several of them (not this one) on LP. I think part of the reason I like them is somewhat extra-musical, having to do with the sound of the harpsichord itself, which for me has a slightly mysterious quality. I was going to add "antique," but that's superfluous.

Click here to hear part of it played by Jaco Pastorius (famous jazz bassist)--on electric bass. The track is three minutes long but only the first half or so is Bach, as far as I can tell--perhaps the second part has some relationship that I don't hear. It's an astonishing feat of dexterity. But as Johnson said of a dog walking on its hind legs: "It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." It is of course done "well" in the technical sense, but it's not very musical.

*

Johnson, as you very likely know, made that remark of a woman's preaching. By mentioning it, I may seem to be advertising and agreeing with his jibe. But by not mentioning it, I might seem to be suppressing it to avoid offending feminists and perhaps women in general. I prefer to take the first risk, as the second seems overly timid.

The truth is that I don't know whether I agree with Johnson's general sentiment, shorn of his particular mean-but-funny comparison. I can recall offhand only one instance of hearing a woman preach. It was in a Methodist church, not so very many years ago, and there was something awkward about it, a feeling that the woman was out of her element. But maybe that was only her, or only me, though I think I recall that my mother didn't care much for her either. There certainly are women preachers in plenty in some Protestant denominations, and to that I would apply the tolerant appraisal I heard long ago from one of my mother's friends, who was then probably about the same age that I am now: "If it suits them, it suits me."

I feel that way about many things, and perhaps there should be more of them. It does not injure me if someone drives an ostentatiously expensive automobile. It's not like using "cliche" as an adjective. Or modifying the words of a hymn from "unless the Father calls him" to "unless the Father beckons." The image that puts into my mind is ludicrous and persistent. I am in fact injured by it.


Miles Coverdale, Bob Dylan, and The Foot of Pride

Dylan has a song, released on the first of the outtakes collections falsely called "bootlegs" (it's not a bootleg if it's released by the record company), called "Foot of Pride." It was recorded for the Infidels album but not used, thereby making the album weaker than it might have been. To me Infidels is one of Dylan's many very-mixed-bag albums, half great and half so-so. At least that's the way I recall it--I haven't listened to it for many years. "Foot of Pride" might even have been my choice for best track on the album, had it been there. Or possibly second-best, if another outtake, maybe the most celebrated and lamented of them all, had been kept: "Blind Willie McTell." Here's "Foot of Pride":

Lyrics here.

It's a weird phrase, and I wondered exactly what it meant. The general idea seems clear enough: when the consequences of your actions come to pass. Reading the Coverdale translation of Psalm 36 a while back I was startled by this: "O let not the foot of pride come against me."

Had Dylan read the Coverdale Psalms (the translation done by Miles Coverdale in the early days of English Protestantism)? Surely not, as they are, or for several centuries were, the official liturgical translation for the Church of England and other Anglican bodies, and not much known outside those. But also not impossible, I thought. The mystery was cleared a little when I compared Coverdale to King James: the latter also has "foot of pride," and it would be considerably less surprising that Dylan had encountered it there. Either way, I have to consider it far more likely than not that he got it from the Bible; it's just too odd. And not from a more modern translation, most of which seem to go for the less obscure "foot of the proud."

You'll notice that the fairly clear meaning of either translation seems to be the opposite of what I took Dylan to be saying. He seems to be suggesting that the foot in question is a sort of nemesis of the proud, not a menace to the righteous. Oh well--I've always considered the business of trying to read Dylan as if he were Ezra Pound to be a waste of time.

The Coverdale Psalms, as I've mentioned before, have definitely become my favorite version, overall. I add that last qualifier because the King James version of the 23rd can never be replaced in my mind, if only because "still waters" touches me more than "waters of comfort."

Back to Dylan: "Say one more stupid thing to me before the final nail is driven in" sort of expresses the way I feel when reading the froth of journalism and entertainment on the internet. I wish I could break myself of the habit of reading so much of it.  


A Remark on Jimmy Buffett

He was a smart businessman who made millions telling y'all it's okay to goof off all the time. 

That was my wife's observation, and I thought it was too funny to keep to myself. 

I mean no serious disparagement of Jimmy Buffett. I was oddly saddened when I heard of his death--oddly because I wasn't a great fan of his music, and never even heard much of it apart from the few songs that were played on the radio. 

Maybe it was because I loved "Margaritaville" when it appeared in 1977. My family vacationed on the Florida Panhandle coast when I was growing up, and I always had a sort of romantic relationship with that area. The crush had been dormant for some years, but "Margaritaville" caused it to flare up again. (I think it was the line about the flip-flop and the pop-top. And the shrimp.) It's a good song by any reasonable standard, and an awfully appealing vision of beach life without major responsibility, yet including that offhand serious movement from evasion to responsibility ("It's my own damn fault.")

I'd probably like more of his music if I heard it. The truth is that I was put off his work not long after "Margaritaville" was a hit. He played in Tuscaloosa, where I was living at the time, and I went to see him. It was the only concert I've ever left before it ended. Buffett seemed to be pandering to the dumb college audience, causing them to erupt in frantic cheering by saying the word "beer" or anything else to do with drinking. Or sex. I was hoping for something with more depth than simple-minded party music. The songs may actually have had that, but I didn't know them and of course couldn't hear the lyrics very well, and the atmosphere was brainless college party. (Isn't it sad that "dumb," "brainless," and "college" go so easily together?) It was disappointing and dull and I left early. I'm pretty sure his music, at least some of it, deserves better. "Margaritaville" itself is no shallow celebration of indulgence. 

A White Sport Coat And a Pink Crustacean remains one of my all-time favorite album titles, though as far as I remember I've never heard it. He was very good at that kind of wordplay, though the number of people who get that particular joke must be diminishing rapidly. 

Buffett grew up in Mobile and is thought of as a local  hero, but I have the impression that he didn't much reciprocate the sentiment, in part maybe because Mobile radio was not receptive to his music, especially in his early days. A few years ago I heard a snatch of one of his songs in which he complains about that. His family lived in the Mobile area called Spring Hill, the most affluent neighborhood in the city, and he went to the Catholic high school and reportedly was an altar server at the chapel of Spring Hill College, which in his day was the unofficial parish of the neighborhood. According to this article in Church Life Journal, "Catholicism left an indelible mark on his imagination":

O bless me father yes I have sinned
Given the chance I’ll prob’ly do it again

Yeah, I hear that. And the article continues, making a point similar to my wife's:

Once again there is a contradiction in the telling: in order to show that one can have a successful life by just having fun, Buffett commits himself to work hard...

He might be the world’s most famous beach bum, but he eschews excess in his personal life and is a driven, hands-on entrepreneur. 

You don't create the kind of empire that his Margaritaville restaurants and resorts became without being driven. I've never been to one (there's not one here), and probably wouldn't like it much if I did. But he gave a lot of relatively innocent pleasure to a lot of people, and our deteriorating popular culture is the worse for his loss. RIP.

Local lore says that the cover photo of this 1981 album, which I have never heard, was taken in Point Clear, up the road from where I currently live, which was, in Buffett's youth, where many affluent Mobile families had summer homes. It certainly looks like it could have been, apart from the phone booth. Piers like that are seen all along the shores of Mobile Bay, not at the Gulf.

BuffettCoconutTelegraph

Forty-five years after "Margaritaville," I live an hour away from the Gulf and don't go to the beach very often--once or twice a year, maybe--because of the traffic and the condominiums and the crowds. "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded." When I do go, it's in late fall and winter, when it's still pretty nice. 


Bill Frisell: "Throughout"

Last Christmas someone gave me a biography of Bill Frisell: Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer, by Philip Watson. In case you don't know the name, Frisell is a guitarist, one of the best-known musicians on any instrument in the contemporary jazz world, though "jazz" is not the right word for much of his work: how about small-group mostly-instrumental partially-improvised song-based American music? And substitute "solo" for "small group" on some recordings, including the first album issued under his own name, In Line, on the famous (iconic!) ECM label. Well, that one isn't 100% solo--several tracks include the bass player Arild Andersen. But it's mostly Frisell's guitar, and I think all the compositions are his. And although he's best known, and was first known, as a guitarist, his compositions are a major contributor to the high regard in which he's held.

This is one of them. To my taste, and apparently to the taste of a good many others, including the author of the biography, In Line is not an entirely satisfactory album as a whole. But according to the book, this one track, "Throughout," seems to have a way of getting under people's skin. It definitely got under mine. 

It also got under the skin of Petra Haden. Jazz fans (if there are any who read this blog) will notice her last name, even if they haven't heard of her. Yes, she is the daughter of Charlie Haden, the legendary (iconic!) bass player, whose long career began in the late '50s. Petra is one of a set of triplets, all of whom are musicians. She is quoted in the book:

'When I first heard it, I said, "This is my favourite song, in the world,"' she says, smiling. 'There was a point where I would listen to "Throughout" for  hours--how he layered the sound, like I enjoy doing when I record my vocals. The music reminded me of that feeling of being in a dreamland.'

Several of her musical projects have involved multi-tracked a cappella vocals. Presumably she was pleased to work with Frisell on an album cleverly titled Petra Haden and Bill Frisell. This vocal and guitar arrangement of "Throughout" appears on it.

I have not heard the whole album yet. And although I want to hear it, I have to say that I am even more eager to hear another Petra Haden album: a cover of the entire Who Sell Out album rendered in her multi-tracked vocals. Goodness. 

I will never be able to hear all of Bill Frisell's recorded work. Look at his discography. And it's not a case, as it too often is with jazz and pop musicians who manage not to die young, of brilliant youthful work followed by years of mediocre repetition. When Watson proposed the book to Frisell, the latter's first reaction was "What would you write about?" Apart from decades of making brilliant music, Frisell's life is not very dramatic. He had a stable and happy childhood and youth, met with considerable encouragement and opportunity, including teachers like the guitarist Jim Hall who gave him not only instruction but connections, has never had the drug and/or drinking problems so common among popular musicians, and has been married to the same woman since 1979. Maybe the dissolute artist route is not necessarily a good way to go, if one has a choice. 


Oppenheimer Doom Music

I don't have any idea at all where I got the mp3 of this song, or rather track--it's not exactly a song, but a combination of droning and mechanical sounds and percussion. I found it haunting. And I don't remember how I figured out that the voice might or must be that of Robert Oppenheimer, as it does not include the famous "I am become death" line, but somehow I did.

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed. A few people cried. Most people were silent. 

I haven't seen Oppenheimer, but it strikes me that this would be an effective soundtrack for the credits, if not for Oppenheimer then another on a similar subject. 

After not hearing this for some years, I thought of it a few months ago and went looking for it among my mp3s. It took me a long time to find it, which is not surprising: I have thousands of mp3s, and the name of the artist is Scar Tissue; the name of the track is "Lazsik"; the name of the album is Form/Alkaline

Here is Oppenheimer himself.

 


"No one notices the customs slip away"

That's a line from an Al Stewart song, "On the Border," the second hit single from his very successful 1976 album (and extremely successful single by the same name), Year of the Cat. It's one of the little cultural fragments that are always bouncing around in my head, and it probably shows up once a week or so, usually called forth by some little thing that strikes me as an emblem of the disappearance of the country I grew up in. Here's the context: 

In the village where I grew up
Nothing seems the same
Still you never see the change from day to day
And no-one notices the customs slip away

It's no longer the case for me that "you never see the change from day to day." The place--just a country crossroads, not really a village--where I grew up has mostly been...I started to say "wiped off the map," but it's worse than that: it's being physically wiped away, replaced by factories and warehouses. Some of it is still recognizable. But I'm not sure anyone actually lives there now. And this:

In the islands where I grew up
Nothing seems the same
It's just the patterns that remain, an empty shell
But there's a strangeness in the air you feel too well

I try not to harp excessively on the sense of living in a country that is no longer the one in which I grew up. Something like that is always the case to some degree for old people, though the rapid pace of change over the past hundred and fifty years makes it stronger, often much, much stronger. Some of it is just a species of nostalgia which is really an inevitable effect of time itself, and the changes that produce it are not necessarily for the better or the worse.

But still: has our constitutional republic not become an empty shell, something manipulated by ideologues and oligarchs for purposes of their own (what the leaders of today's Democratic Party refer to as "our democracy") rather than the effective instrument of ordered liberty that it ought to be? How many people now believe that we--all the American people--are really all in this together, sharing a common ideal? How many have an effective understanding of the concept of citizenship, or even an interest in it?

The "century" to which Stewart refers is now twenty-three years in the past; the song is going on fifty years old. But although the details are different the observations are still relevant. 

Anyway, it's a great song, and I think an extremely good album, though I haven't listened to it for many years. The images in this video are apparently from the Spanish Civil War, an event which some fear could be a pattern for our future. I don't really think that will happen, but the levels of partisan hatred make the warning apt. 

 


Catherine Wheel: Ferment and Chrome

I wonder how many hours have been entertainingly wasted in arguments about the nature of certain pop music sub-genres (not to mention sub-sub and so on), and about whether this or that band belongs in this or that category. Shoegaze seems to me one of the more difficult to pin down, in part because it often involves very loud and heavily distorted guitars, which gives it a lot of potential for overlap--with metal, for instance.

Here are a few attempts at a definition. Wikipedia:

...characterized by its ethereal mixture of obscured vocals, guitar distortion and effects, feedback, and overwhelming volume....

Shoegaze combines ethereal, swirling vocals with layers of distorted, bent, or flanged guitars, creating a wash of sound where no instrument is distinguishable from another. The genre was typically "overwhelmingly loud, with long, droning riffs, waves of distortion, and cascades of feedback. Vocals and melodies disappeared into the walls of guitars."

Pitchfork:

It’s a particularly unusual genre in that its name describes neither a sound nor a connection to music history. This music is, above all else, a place to explore the outer limits of guitar texture. And emotionally, shoegaze turns its focus inward. The extreme noise eliminates the possibility of socializing while the music is playing, leaving each member of the audience alone with their thoughts. It’s music for dreaming. 

Me, a few years ago:

I'll just say that in my mind the term implies very thick guitar textures combined with wistful and dreamy melodies and lyrics. Personally I lean toward the overlapping term "dreampop"; that is, the shoegaze I like tends also to fit the "dreampop" category. 

My remarks are from a 2019 post about Pitchfork's list of 50 Greatest Shoegaze albums. I was familiar with maybe ten of them, and in spite of my professed intention to get acquainted with some of the others, I haven't done so. Too much music, too little time. Also too many books to read, too much writing to write, etc.

But wait: I did get acquainted with one, Catherine Wheel's Chrome. I was motivated because another Catherine Wheel album, Ferment, is one of my favorite rock albums of any style, and according to Pitchfork Chrome is even better. Ferment is #23 on their list, while Chrome is #9. If the latter is better than the former, I certainly wanted to hear it, and never mind the sub-genre label. 

Well, according to me, it isn't. I like Ferment a good deal more. I first heard it quite a few years ago, before the turn of the century, on a tape sent to me by a friend who supplied me with a lot of good music over the years.

If I remember correctly, it took several hearings for me to warm up to it, but I soon grew to like it very much. The mixture of loud, noisy (there's a difference) guitars, tunes that took slightly odd turns and stuck firmly in the mind, and Rob Dickinson's unusual throaty and plaintive vocals were different from anything I'd ever heard. I don't think I heard the term "shoegaze" until much later. Here's the opening track from Ferment, "Texture":

On the other hand, according to my personal idea of shoegaze, #9 on Pitchfork's list does not even fit the category--not as a whole, anyway, though several songs do. It's hard rock, though without the bluesy flavor that's typical of the music that falls into that category. Some species of "alternative" or "indie" rock, of a pretty hard-hitting sort, maybe. And if obscured vocals are a defining characteristic of shoegaze, neither of these albums fits.

"Texture" is certainly loud, but it has some of that dreamy quality. The first track on Chrome, however, "Kill Rhythm," is not just loud but aggressive, with an angry edge (at least). "Texture" begins "Safe on the shore I've been sleeping." The first words of "Kill Rhythm" are "I want to fire a gun--show me." 

Chrome is an excellent album, whether or not I think it should be called shoegaze. But apart from that question I still prefer Ferment. To my taste its songs, overall, are better. There are three or four tracks on Chrome that seem pretty lackluster to me. 

The title track of Ferment is one of my favorites. Among other things, it has a very striking, even shocking, dynamic contrast: a pretty little tune that suddenly erupts into crushing noise. I know, that hardly sounds like a pleasant experience, but I like the effect. I kept thinking that the pretty part reminded me of something, some psychedelic thing from the '60s, and I finally realized the something was the live tracks from Pink Floyd's Ummagumma. Not the music alone, but the lyrics and the atmosphere as well. 

There's a very, very brief warning that the noise is coming, a sort of buzzing or squealing, maybe something that happens when some effect is turned on. If you listen to this be a little cautious with the volume.

AllMusic describes Catherine Wheel's music as a "dark, hard-edged brand of noise pop"--not as succinct a description as "shoegaze," but more accurate. Both these albums were released in the first half of the '90s, and were the group's first. By the end of the decade they had released three more proper albums and broken up. I'm familiar with only one of that three, Adam and Eve. It's a rather different thing, more varied than either Chrome or Ferment, and at times going off in a very different direction. I definitely wouldn't call it, on the whole, shoegaze. AMG says it's

...greatly influenced by Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. So it's significant that Talk Talk's Tim Friese-Greene, who'd already produced Ferment and played on Happy Days, was called in again to play keyboards and ended up playing a major role in the album's sound, along with vaunted Pink Floyd producer Bob Ezrin

If you know those two Talk Talk albums, don't seek out this one hoping for something similar. I only heard that at a few points. But the comparison does suggest something serious and worth hearing, which I think it is.

Back in the first paragraph I mentioned the potential overlap between shoegaze and metal. There are in fact several (at least) bands who attempt to blend them, or have wandered back and forth between them. The one I'm most familiar with is a French group--mainly just one person who started out in black metal--called Alcest: "A dynamic Fench post-metal/blackgaze group strongly influenced by the British shoegaze movement." (AMG) How's that for a genre spec?

Don't be uneasy about listening to and watching this video; there is nothing of black metal at all in it.

I really haven't heard that much of them, and I'd like to. Too much music, too little time....


Prelude To A Whole Lot of Preludes and Fugues

I recently decided that I wanted to get to know Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier (Das wohltemperierte Clavier). I have a recording, a two-box set of LPs given to me fifteen years or so ago by a friend who didn't want them. (He's mainly a jazz fan, and I got the impression that he had bought some classical recordings mainly for educational purposes, now either fulfilled or abandoned.) The pianist is Sviatoslav Richter, and the recordings were originally issued by the Russian (Soviet at the time) recording company (if that's the word) Melodiya, and in this country by the Musical Heritage Society in the 1980s. 

I was a little hesitant, and not sure how far I would get in the series. When I first encountered the title many years ago, I thought it must be semi-humorous: the composer taming the savage keyboard, or something along that line. In a college music history class (one of my half-dozen or so favorite courses in all of my schooling) I learned that it is very prosaically, clinically, descriptive. The explanation quickly gets beyond my very limited knowledge and discernment, but the general idea is that in order to get a keyboard instrument to sound in tune in all keys you have to tweak the tuning of each string just a bit away from the mathematically correct frequency. If you want to read all about it, try this

To demonstrate the concept--and incidentally write a classic work--Bach composed a set of forty-eight preludes and fugues, a pair for each of the twenty-four keys (majors and minors).  That was Book I. Nearly twenty years later he published Book II. So: ninety-six compositions. 

I started, sensibly, with side 1 of disc 1 of box 1: the first four pairs, in C major, C minor, C# major, and C# minor. Something about the recording bothered me a little. I think it was mainly the quality of the sound, which though not terrible is somehow a little distant, and there seems to be some dynamic variation from one track to another, more than is accounted for by the character of each piece. So I decided to look for other recordings, and I found Glenn Gould's.

Whenever I talk about classical music, I start with the disclaimer that I don't have much of an ear for variations in interpretation. Often I'm pretty sure that I would not be able to distinguish one performance from another. But in this case.... Here, listen for yourself to the two performances of the first piece in the series, the Prelude in C Major from Book I. Even if you don't know the WTC, you'll probably recognize it. I think it's often performed alone. 

 

You don't have to have a rarefied level of connoisseurship to hear the difference between those. I think I may actually have laughed aloud when I heard Gould's: it's almost mechanical-sounding, with that resolute thumping on the low notes that outline the harmony. With my folk and pop sense of how music works, I think of them as the bass player staking out the chord progression. But I can't help liking the performance. It makes the structure crystal clear, almost reducing the piece to structure. I certainly don't state that as a principle, but in this instance, maybe just because of the immediate contrast with Richter, it seemed delightful.

Someone says in a comment on that video that "Gould doesn't play Bach. He explains Bach." That strikes me as pretty accurate. That first prelude seems a deliberately provocative statement of his intention not to seek out or impart emotion to the music, but to show us how it works. After that statement he relaxes, still cool but not lecturing. And for me he brings a clarity to the music which in fact increases rather than limits the aesthetic-emotional effect. 

That's especially true in the fugues. And it's the fugues that led me into this venture. With a few exceptions, the form has left me cold. It seemed dry, abstract, academic. You get the statement of the subject--which is frequently not all that interesting in itself--three or four times, and at that point I usually lose the thread: the piece just becomes a lot of wandering counterpoint, with the subject emerging from time to time. Yet I've heard people say that this or that fugue moved them to tears, and I'm intrigued by that, and wonder what I'm missing. 

And I find that Gould's performance is opening up the fugues to me. I'm up to E Major now, and am enchanted by most of the preludes, and enjoying the fugues more than I have in the past, though they're still a bit of a struggle. It helps that most of them so far are fairly short. 

It's a lot to absorb, and I don't expect to get through both books anytime soon, especially as I don't intend to give up all other music until this project is completed. But it's a lot of pleasure, too. I had a vague notion that The Well-Tempered Clavier is a somewhat academic, pedagogical work. Wrong. Already I think it's climbing up my ladder of favorite music and approaching Goldberg Variations territory, which is at the top. I'm listening to the Gould recordings on Pandora (Plus), and thinking that I may have to buy the CDs, which I'm supposed to have given up. 

Here's an introduction to the fugue which I found helpful. It helped just to have it pointed out to me that fugues typically have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  

If you know Gould's work and, um, habits, you'll be amused by this customer review at Amazon:

I absolutely love the music itself, but the quality of the discs leaves a little to be desired. Throughout different sections there seems to be some type of strange "other" sounds. Sometimes it sounds like there is background music. Other times, it sounds like the pianist is humming to himself. These are studio recordings and it sounds like someone is talking in the control room during the playing.

P.S. I'm puzzled by the fact that in #8, the prelude is described as being in Eb Minor, while the fugue is described as being in D# minor. It led me to discover the word "enharmonic" ('a note, interval, or key signature that is equivalent to some other note, interval, or key signature but "spelled", or named differently'). But that doesn't explain why these two pieces are named that way. 


Dead Can Dance: The Serpent's Egg

Dead Can Dance is a two-person group comprised of Lisa Gerrard (of the amazing voice) and Brendan Perry. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Gerrard's solo album The Mirror Pool led me to this one. Or, I should say, back to it, because although I have it I had not listened to it for at least twenty years. Judging by it there seems to be a tendency for their joint effort to be clearly separable into Gerrard tracks and Perry tracks (as the work of the Incredible String Band was clearly separable into Robin Williamson and Mike Heron songs). The first one, for instance, "The Host of Seraphim," could have been included on The Mirror Pool, as could several others featuring Gerrard's voice, often multi-tracked: vaguely Middle-Eastern-sounding chants, either in some foreign language or none at all. 

There are two songs on this album that I really love, and they are sung by Brendan Perry, perhaps written by him, with clear and interesting lyrics (in English). This is one of them, "Severance":

The other is "Ullyses" (sic). And I also like a third one which Perry sings, "In the Kingdom of the Blind the One-Eyed Are Kings." I don't dislike the others at all, but neither do I love them. Still, the album as a whole is a rich experience, a stately, often grandiose, mysterious and distant sound-world. The instrumentation is sparse and fairly simple, as in "Severance": droning organ (or something of the sort), a tinkling harpsichord, big slow drums, bells, strings. The credits list only hurdy-gurdy, violin, viola, and cello, but there are many sounds here obviously not produced by any of those (unless they were transmogrified electronically).

The album was released in 1988, during the glory days of 4AD Records. Since that was pre-CD, or at least early in the CD takeover, it's of LP length, meaning that it does not overstay its welcome. I'm sure you can hear the whole thing on most of the streaming services, and if you like "Severance" you probably should.

What about the title? I vaguely thought that it had some proverbial sort of meaning, and the phrase is common enough that it has a Wikipedia page. It's the name of one of Bergman's lesser films, one which I have not seen. But Brendan Perry is quoted as saying

In a lot of aerial photographs of the Earth, if you look upon it as a giant organism—a macrocosmos—you can see that the nature of the life force, water, travels in a serpentine way.

And Shakespeare uses it, though my guess is that this is not what Perry had in mind. From Julius Caesar:

And therefore think him as a serpent's egg,
Which, hatch'd, would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

I mentioned in that Lisa Gerrard post that something of a spiritual nature had put me off this group not long after I first heard them decades ago. This is the only one of their albums that I've heard, and now I don't find anything seriously off-putting in it. So I wonder if it was something I read, or if I'm just less critical. They do in general have that New Age vibe, a sense of interest in or connection with esoteric spirituality-but-not-religion, but not to an annoying or offensive extent. I definitely want to investigate their work further. AMG gives most of their albums 4 to 4 1/2 stars; this one gets 4 1/2. 

I have the album on cassette, almost certainly bought used. And now I have to make a decision: I have a lot of cassettes--should I get rid of them? I rarely listen to them, and they take up a fair amount of space. I have a perfectly good player, so I can't use the excuse of having no way to hear them. Perhaps a third are pre-recorded, i.e. commercial products. Probably very few of those are essential. The rest are mixtapes, compiled with care by friends through the '80s and into the early 2000s. But it seems a shame to throw them out. Maybe I'll just leave that task for my children, who won't have my same scruples. 


Astrud Gilberto, RIP

If you weren't there, it may be difficult for you to grasp the effect that "The Girl From Ipanema" had on a young man of the mid-'60s. You needed only her voice to convince you that she was the girl from Ipanema, and to strike in you the deep chord of longing which the song describes and expresses. This was confirmed when you saw a picture of her. 

The album on which the song appeared, a collaboration between Stan Getz and João Gilberto called simply Getz/Gilberto, is a masterpiece which ought to be in every music lover's collection. The video below is the album version, not the hit single which was edited down to little more than half the five-minutes-plus of the album track, removing João's vocal and shortening Getz's solo.

The song would never have been the hit that it was without Astrud's vocal, which came about half-accidentally. She and João divorced a year or two after the album was recorded. She had a "relationship" with Getz and toured with him. She was mistreated and cheated financially by Getz, who was notoriously something of a monster.

Coincidentally, a little while before I read that story I was listening to Nick Cave's song "People Ain't No Good." There's way too much evidence of that. 

But Astrud Gilberto did go on to have a fairly successful musical career in her own right. I have a solo album of hers, The Shadow of Your Smile, recorded a few years after Getz/Gilberto. It's an LP, picked up at Goodwill or someplace when everybody was dumping their vinyl, and I don't think I've ever played it. 


Lisa Gerrard: The Mirror Pool (speaking of big voices)

Listening to Mary Fahl made me think of this artist, another of those who helped make the name of the 4AD label revered for many years. Lisa Gerrard was one half of the duo Dead Can Dance who released a number of albums on that label in the '80s and into the mid-'90s. I'm familiar with only one of these, The Serpent's Egg (1988), and I haven't heard it for a while. But as I recall--and it's a pretty vague recollection--I had a mixed opinion of it, and that was partly because of a sort of dark quality--not emotionally dark, with which I am usually happy (contradictory though that may be--or not), but spiritually dark. That was and is not something I can easily articulate or explain, but I felt that the band (if that's the right term) was inclined to that often foolish spirituality which involves a sort of non-judgmental syncretism that should in some instances be a bit more judgmental. 

But then maybe I was over-reacting. I think the "while" since I've heard it probably approaches twenty years, and perhaps I was in fact a little overly judgmental. There was a time when I was not only heartily sick of what so many people now call "spirituality" but also wary of it to a degree that I may not be now. If so, it's probably more a function of age and fatigue than of any real softening toward very bad ideas; I'm tired of the fight. And, too, things have gotten much worse, so whatever bothered me about Dead Can Dance may not seem as significant now. 

Well, I probably shouldn't even have said all that, as it's based only on a vague memory. My next close listen will be The Serpent's Egg; I'll find out what I now think about it and report back.

Anyway, about Lisa Gerrard and The Mirror Pool: as with the Mary Fahl album, I have it on CD, and there is enough about it that I like that I intend to keep it. I'd give them both 3 1/2 stars on a five-star scale. But beyond the star count and the fact that both feature very powerful female singers, there's very little in common between them. Mary Fahl is a writer and interpreter of songs, whereas Gerrard, like Elisabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, often sings wordlessly. In fact as far as I can tell there is no English on this album at all. And for that reason (and the 4AD connection) I've sometimes seen the two bands associated. But there, again, there isn't really much similarity.

And this solo project of Gerrard's has even less in common with the work of the Twins. In fact it has very little connection with pop music at all, in any ordinary usage of that term. It would not be unfair to describe it as one long dirge. And by "long" I mean an hour and eight minutes.  The lively moments are few, and not all that lively. Most of it is extremely slow and, perhaps unintentionally, gloomy in tone, or at least somber: minor keys, and a frequent use of what I think are Middle Eastern melodic turns that to my ear always have a somewhat dark quality, as do some of Gerrard's vocal techniques. The arrangements are grandiose and monumental. There's some use of non-Western instruments which adds to the exotic--or, to use a term which is now frowned upon, foreign--atmosphere. More than a few moments strike me as sort of...well, the word that comes to mind is "spooky," and maybe that's what bothered me a little about Dead Can Dance. There is a fair amount of keening and wailing--in fact, I learn from Wikipedia that Gerrard's music has been prominent in the use of the "wailing woman" in movie soundtracks. 

And yet I found myself letting it play over and over while driving. Every time the CD reached the end, instead of ejecting the disk and picking something else I would allow it to start again (which the player in my car does automatically), which I don't think I would or could have done if I'd been sitting quietly at home, as too much of the album is too much the same. It's partly, or mainly, because the first several tracks are pretty much my favorites, so I was always ready to hear them again. 

I haven't actually mentioned the voice yet. It's magnificent. This is my favorite track on the album: "Sanvean: I Am Your Shadow." 

I think the reason the string arrangement seems familiar is that it strongly resembles Pachelbel's famous "Canon in D." It's melodically and harmonically less "exotic" than some of the other tracks. Another such is an aria, "Ombra ma fui," from the Handel opera Serse (Xerxes), here titled "Largo." Whether she is singing the words of the aria or not I do not know. Those two tracks, with others that are somber without that spooky quality, are enough to make me hang on to the CD.  I'd give a five-star rating to an EP composed of my favorite thirty minutes or so of the album. 

I understand the justification for the wordless singing, or rather, as Gerrard might say, singing in the words of an invented language meant to communicate emotion directly. But it seems a bit like cheating, or at least corner-cutting. I don't know much about singing but I would think it would be very convenient to put sounds together as you like, and not have to deal with whatever constraints are involved in singing notes fitted to an actual word made of sounds not devised with singers in mind. 


Mary Fahl: The Other Side of Time

I've been casting a cold eye on my CD shelves with the intention or at least hope of getting rid of a few discs. There isn't enough room for all of them, and there are at least a dozen that just sort of sit around here and there. A certain number aren't even really mine, but were left behind by now-grown children who don't want them anymore. Should be easy to just toss those, right? By "toss" I mean give them to Goodwill, from where they will probably be really tossed but at less cost to my mildly neurotic conscience. And for other mildly neurotic reasons I can't even do that without being certain that I don't want them. That means, in cases where I've never heard them (too many) or maybe heard them once or twice years ago (many more) and never gave them a chance, that I have to give them a fair trial.

So: a week or two ago I pounced on this one. I don't remember buying it, but most likely I did so because it includes "Going Home," a song which I had found rather touching in the Civil War film Gods and Generals. But I'd never given it a serious listen. 

Well, now I have, and unfortunately for my shelf-clearing project I like the album too much to get rid of it. It's not really, speaking broadly, the kind of music I like--it's very slick, very lavishly produced, lavishly emotional, very big. The biggest thing about it is Mary Fahl's voice, which is huge. If you know Lisa Gerrard's voice, you might agree with me that Fahl's is in the same league.  

And yeah, it's a sort of mushy song and a mushy arrangement. I could do without the instrumental bridge, which pretty much screams  SOUNDTRACK! But I find it moving. 

Sometimes her voice threatens to run away with the material. I thought of a Honda Civic with a V8 engine (which, now that I think about it, is an argument in favor of the big production). It's not that she can't sing gently and with nuance, as parts of "Going Home" demonstrate. You just feel like she has so much power that she sometimes has to throttle it back, but doesn't really want to. She cuts loose more on the apparently Middle Eastern love song "Ben Aindi Habibi," the lyrics of which (printed in the CD booklet) are intensely passionate.

I found myself thinking that the guy to whom it's addressed might find himself thinking This woman may be too much for me. But he certainly ought to be flattered to be the object of such passion.

I don't like the whole album by any means. I'd say roughly half the songs aren't much to my taste as songs, never mind the performance. But the other half I like quite a lot. It compares favorably with dramatic female artists like Loreena McKennit and Enya. (But not Kate. Kate is too weird for that comparison.) It stays. 

I always like to see what AllMusic has to say, and in this case I think their review is quite unfair. The reviewer was a fan of October Project, a band in which Fahl was the main vocalist, and apparently doesn't like the direction she takes in this album. Well, okay, I can certainly relate to that. Some people never recovered from Dylan's embrace of rock-and-roll. And I'm pretty sure I will never again listen to Nashville Skyline. But it's unfair and unkind to say that Fahl did it for commercial reasons. I'd be willing to bet she poured her heart very genuinely into it.

I'm now curious about October Project. And even more curious about another Mary Fahl project: a cover of the entire Dark Side of the Moon.


Any Rachmaninoff 3 Fans Out There?

By "fans" I mean fanatics, or near-fanatics--the kind of person who likes the work enough to know all (or at least many) of the most highly-regarded recordings and can discuss in detail the strengths, weaknesses, and nuances of each.

I am not such a person with reference to any piece of music. The number of works which I have in multiple recordings is very small, and in the cases where I have a preference I usually can't say a great deal beyond "I like this one better." 

I'm asking because I have a friend who is such a person, and she recently urged me to listen to this performance of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto by an eighteen-year-old Korean named Yunchan Lim. She described it as "an earth-shaking event in the world of R3 fanatics," adding that the words are not too strong. If you know the work, I'd be interested in hearing your reaction: do you agree that this performance is extraordinary?

As for me: I had never heard the Third. I like the Second, though it's not one of my favorite works, and I have not heard it for many years. Somehow I'd gotten the impression that the Third is inferior, or at least widely considered to be so, which was mistaken. Since I'd never heard it, I was in no position to either concur or dissent with my friend's view of Lim's performance, so I decided to listen to another. Van Cliburn's 1958 recording seemed appropriate, since Lim's performance had won him the award named for Cliburn. And it was in 1958 that Cliburn became famous even among people who never listened to classical music, including the ten-year-old me, for winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition, in which he had played both Tchaikovsky 1 and Rachmaninoff 3. I vaguely recall being aware of his fame as a young star at the time. Apparently it had Cold War ramifications.

So I have now listened to the concerto several times, Cliburn's three and Lim's twice. And I can say two things: one, I like the concerto a lot, a whole lot. It is a wild, over-the-top piece of music, and you don't have to be a pianist to know that it's extremely difficult. The piano concerto is not my favorite genre, but this is one I'll be listening to many times. It must be some kind of acme in romantic fireworks, but it seems to me to have more depth than that description suggests. 

And two, I do prefer Lim's performance, but I can't say much about why. It seems more fluid, more clear. But maybe I'm only reacting to the quality of the recording, not the performance, as Cliburn's has a sort of muffled quality. 

Although the Cliburn recording I listened to was made in 1958, it is not the competition performance that made his name. This video does seem to be that performance.

If you're not very familiar with the way real experts talk about performance, listen to some of them discuss the question "Is Yunchan Lim's Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto the greatest ever?" Two were on the Cliburn Award jury.

I rather think the conductor and orchestra, Marin Alsop and the Houston Symphony, deserve significant credit for the performance. 

Oh, and there's also this question: how in the world does an eighteen-year-old reach not only that level of virtuosity--rare, but not the only example--but the kind of expressive depth that people in the comments on that last video describe. For instance:

I was changed because of his humanity, his ability to transcend the instrument, the music, and connect to something much higher, it almost stopped my heart from beating. I saw God in his playing.

Caroline Shaw: "And the swallow", "Other Song"

This is the piece (and performance) which Craig mentioned in a comment on my recent post about the young composer Caroline Shaw. It's a setting of a few sentences from Psalm 84. I was not able to figure out exactly which translation she uses, but another performance includes the text as:

How beloved is your dwelling place,
o lord of hosts,
my soul yearns, faints,
my heart and my flesh cry out.

The sparrow found a house,
and the swallow her nest,
where she may raise her young.

They pass through the Valley of Bakka,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn also covers it with pools.

I suggest that you listen to the other performance as well. It has a smaller choir and the parts are more distinct. Also it seems to have been assembled from pieces recorded separately during Covidtide. 

And here is a very different sort of work, "Other Song."

Are either of these classical music? We can be literal and say that a genuine classic by definition cannot be very new, because the definition includes having stood the test of time: "instant classic" is just a way of expressing enthusiasm. Obviously Shaw's pieces are not that. Being less literal and referring to a tradition, we have to say that they, the second piece especially, are certainly not Bach or Brahms. And not Schoenberg or Stravinsky or even Copland. The first piece "sounds" more classical: it's performed by a trained choir, and its basic sonority of massed voices is not essentially different from Renaissance church music. "Other Song," on the, um, other hand includes elements associated with pop music--not only the percussion itself, but the rhythms used by it. The composition however takes strange turns not often found in pop music, and I don't think even the better pop singers would be able to handle certain parts of the vocal line with the same precision and clarity. 

So "contemporary classical music" is almost a contradiction in terms by the test-of-time standard, and often decidedly un-classical in composition or instrumentation or both, a tendency that has been going on for some decades now, at least since the Kronos Quartet recorded "Purple Haze" in the 1980s, and no doubt before. I think I vaguely recollect hearing of such things in the late '60s. I was mildly surprised when I read in Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise that Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead was a composition student at some university in California before the Dead got started. And the debate about whether the term still has meaning or not (apart from its historical reference) has been going on for at least as long. 

Let's just say that this is music written and performed by people trained in, and making use of, the techniques of the Western classical tradition, and not be too concerned about categorizing it. I think of the remark made apparently on more than one occasion by Duke Ellington: "If it sounds good, it is good." (Peter Schickele used that as a sort of motto for  his very enjoyable and very eclectic radio program "Schickele Mix.") I always imagined Ellington's words as a response to the listener who might say something like "Well, yes, it sounds nice, it has a certain surface appeal, but is it good?" It's not an unreasonable consideration, really. But in the long run Ellington is right, and in the long run the superficial will be sorted out from the solid. And I think Caroline Shaw's music is very good.

Philosophically, she is apparently in the contemporary mainstream, which is not really a good thing, but hardly a surprise, and her heart is in the right place. A note on that second performance says of "And the Swallow" that it "has to do with finding a home and celebrating the sense of safety."  There's nothing wrong with that, but it leaves out most of the psalm and its most important sense. And the video for "Other Song," according to Nonesuch Records, "was shot at Rise and Root Farm, a five-acre farm in New York’s Hudson Valley that is rooted in social justice and run cooperatively by four owners who are women, intergenerational, multi-racial, and LGBTQ." Well, I salute their willingness to plow and plant, anyway.

"Intergenerational" is an odd thing to be proud of as a social justice accomplishment. In the natural order of things, most groups of people are. Families, for instance. 


Brahms, and Caroline Shaw

I went to hear the Mobile Symphony last weekend, after having argued with myself about whether it was worth the trouble or not. That's no aspersion on the orchestra; it's just that the main attraction was Brahms's Fourth, a work that I love and know pretty well, and I was not sure the pleasure of hearing it performed live, probably not quite as well as on recordings, justified the expense (not that much) and the drive (a little over an hour). Desire to support the orchestra was one of the things that tipped me over to yes, go

It was worth it. In spite of what I just said about knowing the Brahms, it may well be more than thirty years since I last heard it, possibly more. I think I listened to it a fair amount when I was in college and soon afterward, when my ears and my sensibility were young and fresh, and apparently it had really imprinted itself on me. I had forgotten just how much I love it...except for that last movement. I never have been touched by it. It's a passacaglia (a structure similar to a theme and variations, but with the underlying motive a bass or chordal movement, not a melody). And I remember thinking all those years ago that the problem must be that I simply didn't understand it. I don't think I ever made much effort to follow the changes of the form; the music just didn't touch me. 

This time I really made a concerted effort to keep the pattern in mind, actually counting the measures and focusing on trying to keep the foundation in mind as a variety of structures were built atop it. That effort broke down about two-thirds of the way through--I don't know whether the pattern itself varies or I just couldn't keep up.

But that shouldn't matter. One shouldn't have to think about the structure of a piece in order to be affected by it. And, once more after all these years, it still doesn't touch me. That's okay, because the first three movements had me almost ecstatic. I remembered them more accurately than I expected. I remembered it so well, and liked it so much, that I almost feel that I don't need to hear it again, ever. Maybe now I should just listen to the fourth movement several times in a row, and see if anything happens. 

Who, you may ask, is Caroline Shaw? She's a  young composer of whom I had never heard before Saturday, but I'm sure going to hear more of her now. The first piece in the program was a to-me-forgettable overture by Weber. The second was a work for chorus and orchestra by Shaw, "In Common Time." And the third was Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus." 

I was entirely prepared to be bored at best, annoyed at worst, by the Shaw piece. Oh yeah, we know what to expect: some aimless and disconnected sounds, some pleasant and some not, maybe some pretentious notes about how it reflects the anxieties of our times etc. I would not have been at all surprised if it was said to be about climate change.

But it won me over, and then some. Yes, it's...odd to the ears of those who love, for instance, Brahms, but that's hardly a new thing. More deeply,  there's the whole problem of modern music, as with modern poetry and painting, not simply being not very much like but also not really as good, by some semi-objective criteria, as older and more traditional classical music. It does not have either the technical or emotional reach of 19th (and some 20th) century music, just as most contemporary poetry does not come off very well in comparison with, for instance, Tennyson, or even Housman. 

But this mostly wordless piece, which started out as pleasant, went deeper as it progressed, especially when the few bits of words came in: "Years ago...I forget...years to come...let them." 

And what really iced the cake for me was that Shaw's work was followed without a break (this was announced beforehand) by the Mozart. The effect for me was profound, the radiant beauty of the second somehow resolving the restless longing of the first. Afterwards I went to the orchestra's Facebook page solely to offer my thanks to whoever it was who came up with the idea for that combination.

Here's "In Common Time." I did, I should say, find a few things about it a little off-putting: the clattering among the strings, for one, which sounded to me as if it were something more than col legno, striking of the strings with the wood of the bow. It seems gimmicky to me, not to mention ugly. And I could do without some of the vocal effects. Still, I like it. 

Many or most Catholics, and I suppose all Catholics who have an interest in classical music, will recognize "Ave Verum Corpus." 

I can imagine someone saying that the Mozart just proves the deficiencies of the Shaw. Well, what can I say?--I liked it, and I liked the combination. It was a memorable night.

I think there is in fact a good deal of interesting music being made by people trained in classical technique and sensibility. I put it that way because the word "classical" doesn't seem exactly applicable to the music itself. I'll have more to say about that sometime before too long. 


A Couple of Things After the Triduum

(The title is for you, Stu)

For various logistical reasons we didn't go to the Easter Vigil at the cathedral this year, or even to our regular parish, but rather to a very small parish in a very small town a bit further away than our own.

Well, why not be specific? It was St. John the Baptist in Magnolia Springs (Alabama). I'd never been there before and I was impressed. I think it was not so long ago only a mission and a relatively poor parish, and the building is small and plain. But the interior has fairly recently been redecorated, and it's very appealing. Good taste can do a lot without a lot of money. The liturgy can be described as simple but passionate, in a good way. And it included a fair amount of Latin and a great deal of incense. I don't think the church  holds more than a hundred people, and it was packed, so much so that my wife and I felt a little guilty about taking up space that some parishioner might have used. I think we were all accommodated, though.

I got the feeling that it's a very healthy parish. And that is undoubtedly in some large measure due to the young and very dedicated priest, Fr. Nick Napolitano. I've known him slightly for a while. He was a high school classmate of one of our children, and when he in seminary sometimes was an altar server in our Ordinariate Masses. He is fiercely--the word is not too strong--committed to his mission. I hope he can sustain it in the face of all the opposition, from without and within the Church, that will come to him, and from the risk which no doubt faces all priests of simply growing weary and jaded with the passage of time. 

This link will take you to a video at the parish site of Fr. Nick discussing the visual features of the church. I had not noticed the bugs.

The young priests I've encountered in recent years are all similarly committed to the traditional mission of the Church, which makes them "conservative" in the confused mind of our time. And they are very brave. The orthodoxy is not surprising, because, as has been pointed out for decades, who would give up everything a priest has to give up for an ill-defined mission of which he is half ashamed? The bravery is almost true by definition now, because in the minds of many all priests are automatically suspected of child molestation and other crimes. And the accusation obviously gives a lot of pleasure to those who already hate the Church for other reasons. I certainly would have trouble walking around in public if I thought people were looking at me with that in mind. God give them strength. 

*

Post-Lenten drinking update: I had given up my regular evening drink, usually a beer, for Lent. I did, as the questionable practice allows, give myself a Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon break. And I had a few lapses, some for social reasons, but didn't too very badly. 

One thing I did not do during Lent was to sneak a little of this wonderful scotch. One of my children had brought it for the Christmas holidays, and there was a little left, which I have been saving for a special occasion. I thought Saturday night after the vigil was special enough. 

ReallyGoodScotch

Scotch is not my favorite whiskey, but this is something else. People talk about the "peaty" taste of scotch, and I guess it's a marker of its non-favorite-ness for me that I don't think I especially like that quality. And this has much less of it than most. I don't think I would ever have applied the term "fresh" to any other scotch, but it comes to mind here. All that "nose," "palate," etc., stuff on the label, which I have a hard time taking very seriously (which may just mean that I'm a clod) uses comparisons to various fruits, which, again, would never have occurred to me in relation to scotch, but which seemed justified. Not that it tastes fruity, but there's a lightness and brightness to the flavor which I don't associate with scotch. 

I don't want to know how much it costs but I do know that it is not available in the state liquor stores here, which maybe is just as well. Happily, there is still another ounce or two in the bottle.

I also let alone during Lent another holdover from another offspring's visit: a couple of canned cocktails from TipTop Cocktails. Canned cocktails may sound like a terrible idea, but to my unsophisticated taste anyway they are extremely good. My son had brought an assortment, and one that I especially liked was the daquiri. I don't think I'd had a daquiri since I was in college (long ago). I have the impression that it's out of fashion. One of the company's mottos is "never too sweet," which was what made the daquiri better than I expected. 

Unfortunately they are not available in Alabama. You can order them online in an package of eight for $40. I don't want to bother doing that, and shipping cost would probably be pretty high, but that's only $5 for a very good drink. So if store prices are around the same they are very much worth it.

TipTopDaquiri*

As I have often mentioned, I have a peculiar attraction for offbeat and little-known music. One such that I found (at eMusic, of course) fifteen or twenty years ago was Voyager, an album by a group called Space Needle. A week or two ago something reminded me of an odd little track from that album, "Dreams." The lyric consists of one repeated line, which I heard as 

In time you will know that dreams no longer come true.

It spoke to my condition, as they say: I was more melancholy than usual when I heard the album. But I had only heard it in the car. When I listened to it at home the other day I thought Wait--is she saying "that" or is she saying "bad"? I decided it was the latter. I searched for the lyrics online and found only one attempt at transcription, at one of those dodgy lyric sites, and whoever did it agrees. So:

In time you will know bad dreams no longer come true.

Happy thought.

 


Bartok's Quartets; Chesterton and Leisure

One of the composers on that disk of miscellaneous, indeed wildly heterogenous, classical music that I mentioned last week is Bartok. All six of his string quartets are there, and, as I also mentioned, the way the MP3 files are named means that the movements of the quartets are scattered among other pieces of music. The effect can be startling. The first two movements of the first quartet are immediately followed by the first movement of a sinfonia by J.A. Hasse. A more disconcerting sequence would have to involve, say, a bit of Berg's Wozzeck. I had never heard of Hasse before (yes, even though I own the album, Concertos for Two Flutes, on the Tuxedo label)--he was an 18th century composer, one of those well-known in his time but less so afterwards.

The little sinfonia (and I do mean little--it has five movements which all together occupy only a little over twelve minutes) is delightful, simple and very tuneful. Frankly, it was welcome after Bartok. 

I don't really know what to make of Bartok. He's one of those composers whom I think I should like, but have not really warmed to. Back in my college days I acquired this LP of his Piano Concerto #2 and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion:

BartokPiano

I don't remember, but I feel pretty safe in saying that the cover image was at least half-responsible for my buying the disk; surely that's a Marc Chagall painting. The other half was probably a general impression that Bartok was weird and modern and probably something I would like. But though I'm sure I listened to it at least half a dozen times back then, I never warmed up to it. And that's about all I can say about it now, as I don't think I've heard it since. And really: two pianos and percussion? Is that not in itself a description of an unpleasant experience? 

I also recall hearing the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta back then, and liking it, but as far as I remember have not heard it since. And I also remember a middle-aged customer in the record shop where I worked at the time telling me that it gave her children nightmares. 

The thing about the quartets, heard in the hodge-podge context of other music, which includes, at the other end of the scale, Schoenberg's twelve-tone Variations for Orchestra, is that they don't sound completely atonal and recklessly dissonant. At times (and remember this is based on hearing them while driving) they catch hold, so to speak, with me. And then they lose me again. I do want to pick one and listen to it attentively. Looking around for information on them, I ran across one person who ranks them with Beethoven's quartets. That's pretty intriguing. I'd be interested in hearing the opinions of others. 

*

I ran across some remarks from Chesterton the other day in which he responded to a correspondent who advocated communal kitchens:

Would not our women be spared the drudgery of cooking and all its attendant worries, leaving them free for the higher culture?

The Chesterton piece says some things with which any Chesterton reader is familiar, especially the fallacy of supposing that freeing a woman from the drudgery of home so that she can engage in drudgery elsewhere. But what struck me most was the business about freeing her, or anyone, for "higher culture." This is an idea that has long had a great appeal for people who see history as a pretty steady advance in a pretty shallow concept of progress. I don't mean political progressives in particular in the sense of any particular set of political goals, but the utilitarian mindset which sees the advance of technology and personal freedom as good in themselves (which to a large degree they are), but has no concept, indeed actively avoids the question, of what these things are for

I have a vague impression of having encountered those ideas in my youth, probably through science fiction, which in my youth was still dominated, at least as far as I encountered it, by the optimistic Progress Through Science and Reason school. I absorbed a vague picture of masses of people, maybe even all of humanity, freed from drudgery of all sorts, engaged in painting and music and poetry and philosophy, drifting around in a sort of  haze of wise benevolence. (Something like that vision is portrayed in the absurd quasi-hippies of the TV show Moonhaven.)

Well, here we are. In science fiction, dystopia was just around the corner. And in real life the leisure obtained by the reduction of physical labor has given us a toxic sea of anti-culture: pornography, "reality" television, a crazy cult of spectator sports, an inarguable decline in standards of education and culture in general.

It's not all bad by any means, but what is the proportion of good or even not-bad to bad? What is the proportion of people who, having the freedom to do so, have chosen the enlightened life, as pictured in the old dream, over the pursuit of mere entertainment and pleasure? One out of ten? That seems too high. One out of fifty? 

And: communal kitchens, presumably mandated and controlled by the government? I don't see why that would appeal to anyone. Except of course the people who just like mandates and control.


Mostly About Music

I'm not tough enough or self-denying enough to give up listening to music during Lent. But I do usually limit myself to classical music, and within that tend to favor works that are either explicitly religious (like Bach's liturgical music) or at least of a contemplative and reflective cast. 

To that end I swapped the CD of miscellaneous pop music MP3s in my car player for one containing only classical music. All these CDs (dozens of them) were made ten-to-twenty years ago when hard drives were much smaller and I couldn't keep all the MP3 music I was acquiring on my computer, and so had to archive some of them to CD. The music is completely unorganized except that some disks are all popular music and some are all classical. The only thing the music on any one disk has in common is that one broad classification; it's just whatever needed to be archived at the moment.

One of the classical disks is in my car now, and the music on it is a real hodge-podge, including everything from baroque flute concertos to Schoenberg. Moreover, the files are not named in any consistent way (such as album name / track number), so, as the CD player reads them, a movement from a Hummel concerto may be followed by one of Schoenberg's Four Orchestral Songs. It can be startling. 

The biggest surprise was a piece of Indian classical music. In the '60s, as we all know, there was something of a fad for Ravi Shankar's sitar music--he played at the Monterey Pop Festival. I have two or three of his LPs from that time, and I genuinely liked the music and continued to listen to it now and then long after the fashion had faded.  

What came, unexpectedly, out of my car speakers the other day was recognizably the same basic sort of music as those albums, but with the noticeable difference that it included much lower notes than I had ever heard from the sitar. When I got home and looked up the album, I discovered that the instrument was not a sitar at all, but something called the surbahar, which I will very naively say might be to the sitar something like what the cello is to the violin. 

I was immediately captivated. If you've ever listened to any of this kind of music you know that it involves a lot of what guitar players call "bending" notes: varying the pitch of a struck string by pushing or pulling the string sideways, raising its pitch in a sort of slide--I guess "glissando" is the technical term--while the note is sounding. It may be just a sort of twist of the basic note, or a vibrato. Or it may be full notes. Half-step bends are fairly easy, whole-step bends are harder, and a combination of light string and strong hand can even do a step and a half.  (You can also do "pre-bends"--bending the string before it's plucked, so that the note slides down rather than up after it's initially sounded. This is harder because you have to know by sight or feel or habit exactly where to position the string--a difficulty which is the normal playing technique for the violin family, which is why you can't just pick up the violin and play tolerably, as you can with the guitar.) It's a powerful expressive device, pretty much essential for blues playing.

These plucked Indian instruments do the same thing but with immense precision, which I think includes formally defined microtones, and notes sustained for longer than I would have thought possible on a purely acoustic instrument. I've always liked it, but hearing it done on the lower tones of the surbahar makes it, to me at least, even more expressive, with long moaning voice-like glissandos that really tugged at the apparently sympathetic strings of my heart. 

I had no memory of even owning this music, and made the lazy assumption that the album was some cheaply produced thing from the '50s or '60s, licensed by some low-rent American company from an Indian original, re-issued on LP back then with minimal care and documentation, and probably with even less care converted to MP3. Totally wrong. What I was hearing was the first of the two pieces on this album:

AshokPathakCourtRagas

Far from being an old and poor-quality recording carelessly thrown into the electronic market, it was recorded in this century and originally released as a CD by a company, Arbiter Records, which has a very serious commitment to the music. You can read some detailed commentary on it here. And hear the whole album on YouTube.

I admit that by something over halfway through the 36-minute piece I was no longer paying very close attention. That's a long time for a single instrument and a piece which doesn't vary much harmonically or rhythmically. Also, it doesn't speed up to a climax in the way that I recall Shankar's music doing, which may have to do with the bigger instrument being less agile. This eventually made for a certain monotony, but I'll listen to it again soon. 

And I see there are a number YouTube videos providing an overview of Indian musical techniques. I may be about to go down an Indian music rabbit hole. 

*

I had planned to listen to Bruckner's symphonies again during Lent, justifying it partly by his being a Catholic whose music has definite spiritual intentions. So  far I've only gotten through the First. I listened to them all some years ago (ten? not more than fifteen I think?) and didn't immediately recognize this one. But then I got to the third movement, which I very much did recognize. It's intense and loud: heavy. And I thought "that's really metal." 

Afterwards, I wondered about that use of "metal" as an adjective. I was not surprised to learn that it's common enough that it may, if its use continues, get a place in dictionaries. It means, of course, loud, heavy, and intense, but more fundamentally, and not necessarily with respect to music alone, passion,  toughness, honesty, courage, and refusal to surrender. It's almost a warrior sort of mentality. Maybe not even almost.

*

This is not metal:

I loved my husband and was happy with the life we built. But I had to end our marriage when I realized I'm a lesbian

You can read more if you want to, but it's not really worth the bother. I suppose it might get a metal point or two for the attempt to be authentic. But there's no passion in it.  It's more like being bored with chamomile tea and deciding to switch to rose hip for a while. What it says about contemporary ideas of marriage among a certain class of people pretty much goes without saying.

Tristan und Isolde is metal. 

 


Sally Thomas: Works of Mercy (and one or two other things)

I've been meaning to mention this novel, and putting it off because I felt that it deserved a fuller treatment than I had time to give it. But today I'm giving up. I have a busy few days coming up, and rather than put it off again I'm just going to say a little and then direct you to more extensive reviews.

"On Mondays I cleaned the rectory for the good of my soul." The speaker is Kirsty Sain, a widow in her...well, I'm not exactly sure about her age, but let's call it early elderly, as she seems to have been an adult in the early '70s. The next sentence suggests the way the story is going to open out from this simple and even dull routine: "I did it, too, in those days, for the good of Father Schuyler, who was young and untried." As the story goes on she's going to be called upon for the good of several others, including a most unlikely cat (but don't worry, this is not a cutesy cat story).

The rectory belongs to the small Catholic parish in a small North Carolina town in which Kirsty has lived for many years, for most of her adult life, but where she has never entirely fitted in: "stranded on the wrong side of the world," she says of her arrival there as a newlywed. She had grown up in the Shetland Islands, and I have to say I was initially puzzled by that as a fictional choice; it seemed arbitrary. But it works, the stormy, isolated, half-Nordic environment of one of the smaller islands prefiguring the isolation of her life in the U.S.: married, but childless as a result of a disaster in her youth, since her husband's death almost entirely alone, and not uncomfortable that way.

I was happy, or something like it. All my life I had lived among people. Now, although perhaps my days sound dull, I was well enough satisfied with my own company.

There is nothing very dramatic in the way she is slowly drawn out of that somewhat isolated self-sufficiency. Small occasions in which she is needed arise, and she responds, somewhat passively, somewhat resignedly, maybe reluctantly but not unwillingly. One such is her involvement with an anarchic Catholic family with children of such number that Kirsty has difficulty fixing the exact count in her mind. This family encounters great suffering, which Kirsty cannot undo or heal. But she is stalwart in doing what she can. 

Before I turn this over to serious reviewers, I have to say that this is one of those books where the simple act of reading, sentence by sentence, is enjoyable. I cannot say that about, for instance, Dostoevsky (though maybe that would be different if I could read Russian). Kirsty's narration is often wryly funny, often poignant. Her account of being photographed for the parish directory:

On my appointed day, I had shown up in a spirit of grudging resignation, to be jollied intolerably by the photographer and to enter my name and address on the appropriate paper form. In that issue of the directory you can find me still, looking every inch the retired lady berserker, my faded hair standing out in puffs either side of my face. My expression betrays the itchiness of my best moss-green wool dress and the lameness of the photographer's jokes. I am recorded in those pages as the worst species of witch, who eats children for breakfast and enjoys every mouthful.

The "berserker" reference is to her northern ancestors.

And another thing: one of the great pleasures of Sally Thomas's book of poems Motherland is her skill with the visual. (I wrote about it here.) That's very present in the novel:

The October days looked caught in amber. Amber was the color of the land as it rose and fell beneath the high, dry sky. At night the moon rounded and rode above the soft edge of the trees, breathing its calm blue light. The word at this time of the year felt enormous, tall and wide and empty. 

Works of Mercy

It's from Wiseblood Books, by the way, who are doing great work, and if you want to buy it you might want to order it directly from them.

Those more serious reviews:

Joan Bauer in Tiny Molecules

Tessa Carman in Plough

Fr. Dwight Longenecker in The Imaginative Conservative

Aarik Danielson in Fare Forward 

*

I had never heard of the first and last of those two publications. The last one, Fare Forward, is intriguing. The phrase is from the "Four Quartets," and the magazine is 

a Christian review of ideas founded in 2012 by a group of young Ivy League graduates. Trained by our time in the campus journal movement (now known as the Augustine Collective), we set out to start a publication that would be creedally orthodox, intentionally ecumenical, politically unaffiliated, and welcoming to all readers, regardless of faith or lack thereof.

Good for them. I cannot help saying that any group calling itself a "collective" is automatically a little suspect and/or ridiculous in my eyes. But they're young and probably don't have the same associations with the word that I do. 

*

Another note on Big Star: I listened, not very attentively, to Alex Chilton's solo album Like Flies On Sherbet. I'm not sure whether my impulse to give it a fair chance (i.e. several hearings) is strong enough to overcome my wish not to hear it again. Either way, I can't imagine that it could ever be anything but a big disappointment compared to Third / Sister Lovers or for that matter the other two original Big Star albums. AllMusic says it "isn't quite the car wreck it once appeared to be." Praise can't get much fainter than that. 


Big Star

If you don't know that Big Star is a band, you probably don't care. If you do know, you probably have your own opinions, and might or might not be interested in hearing mine. But what's the point of having a blog if you don't opine on what interests  you?

Big Star, by the way, is also the name of a regional grocery store chain. I've always supposed that name of the chain suggested the band name, with the fact that they were a brand new band whom nobody had ever heard of making it funny. (Wikipedia confirms this.)

A capsule history of Big Star: The band was formed in Memphis. In 1967 sixteen-year-old Alex Chilton became, in fact, a big star, but not under his own name. As the singer in The Box Tops, he had a hugely successful Top 40 hit, "The Letter." By 1970 he had left that band. In 1971 he formed Big Star with Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel. They recorded two albums for Stax Records, which were well reviewed but not well promoted or distributed and were commercial flops. By 1974 the band had effectively broken up. Chilton and Stephens recorded a third album in 1975. It was deemed commercially non-viable and not even released until ca. 1978. The band, their three albums, and Chilton himself became legendary, the other members less so.

I never even heard of them till the '80s, when R.E.M. named them as an influence, and it was another twenty years before I heard them. A friend sent me a mixtape (way back when) of the third album, or, more accurately, his selection of eight or ten tracks from an album which contains as many as nineteen, depending on which release it is. Before I say anymore about that I'll back up and mention the other two. 

I figured that the title of the first album,  #1 Record, reflects the same sense of humor that got the band its name. I didn't realize until a few days ago when I read an interview with Jody Stephens that the title of the second one, Radio City, does, too. There was at the time, maybe still is, a common figure of speech in which the word "city" was a sort of emphasis: "It was cop city," i.e., there were a lot of police there. So "radio city" was exactly what the first album had not been, i.e. heard on the radio.

#1 Record / Radio City is the title given to a two-CD set of the first two albums, and combining them was a good idea. They're so similar that only someone who was already familiar with them separately would notice where one ends and the other begins. I guess I've heard the whole set at least five times now, twice within the past couple of months, so my opinion is probably pretty well fixed. And I'm going to have to damn with faint praise.

It is praise, though. It's only damning when compared to the wild enthusiasm with which many people, and most critics, speak of these two albums.  This is very good music; I just don't think it's absolutely great, landmark, essential, desert-island music. I'm perfectly willing to chalk that up to personal taste. I can point to one specific feature of many of the tracks that bothers me: a jerky, stop-and-start quality. The first track of #1 Record, "Feel," is as good an example as any. 

There's a lot of Beatles influence in that song as in many, especially the backing harmonies, and sometimes specific guitar tones, and those horns in the break, which remind me of some particular Beatles song that I can't quite place (I'm not a true Beatlemaniac). It's all extremely well crafted, but I don't love it. And that applies to at least half the tracks on the two albums. The lyrics are so-so, and there aren't a great many memorable tunes among the up-tempo tracks, though the riffs are catchy, as in "Feel." I find that the songs I like most are the simpler ones. And as for tunes, and just for overall appeal, "September Gurls" [sic], which appears near the end of Radio City, is probably my favorite of the whole two albums. 

("I was your Butch"--Butch was a dog.) I should also mention "Try Again," a poignant song about sinning repeatedly but never giving up. I could and may create a playlist of my favorite ten or so tracks from these albums, and that might add up to a desert island choice.

But then there's that third album. I spent some time with it over the past couple of weeks, and now it's definitely on my list of all-time greats. To get straight to the point: it's like Astral Weeks or Nick Drake's best work. The means by which it accomplishes this, as with the others, is a musical and lyrical package that's unlike anything else, and that somehow creates an emotional world of great depth and intensity. And just as with Morrison and Drake, some people just don't react to whatever it is that seems so magical to others and makes fanatical devotees of them.

It turns out, as I mentioned earlier, I had never actually heard the whole thing. My friend had selected the best tracks, certainly, but the inclusion of a few others, and some attentive listening, made me appreciate it all the more. It's not very much like the other Big Star albums, and that's partly because it isn't really a Big Star album at all, but rather an Alex Chilton album, with the participation of Jody Stephens and a host of session musicians and other guests. Chilton and Stephens were all that remained of Big Star by the mid-1970s when the album was recorded. 

Not all that much remains of the Big Star sound, either. There's Chilton's voice, of course. But there's relatively little of the basic guitar-pop sound that characterizes Big Star. Instead, there's a wide array of instruments, including on several songs some lovely and/or strange string arrangements. The lewd-sounding title of "Stroke It, Noel" puzzled me, as it's a pretty and delicate song. Then I noticed in the credits that the violin is played by Noel Gilbert. The title is indicative of a sort of self-subverting spirit that appears now and then on the album. Is "Jesus Christ" really the odd Christmas song it seems to be, or is it a joke? How much of "Thank You, Friends" is sincere, and how much is sarcasm directed at those who "made this all so...probable"? The ellipses are for a distinct pause in which your mind expects "possible," only to hear "probable" in what seems distinctly a sneer.

The album is strange to say the least, the songs veering from celebratory to anguished and almost disoriented--maybe not even almost. One reviewer says it's the sound of a band breaking up, but it had already broken up. Is it the sound of Alex Chilton breaking up? Some of the songs sound that way. But there are also several love songs which are sweet and beautiful and devoid of anger, irony, or bitterness--"Blue Moon," especially, stands out. Part of the answer seems to be that Chilton was in the middle of an intense, stormy, and ultimately failed love affair. Jim Dickinson, the producer, said the album is about deteriorating relationships, and that seems as good a summation as any. 

It's intense, beautiful, and different from anything else I've ever heard. Trying to describe music is frustrating and not all that useful, so I'll include one song here, with the proviso that it shouldn't be taken as typical of the album, which I'm not sure has any "typical."

One of the oddities of the album is that it's been released several times with significant differences in both the selection and the sequencing of tracks. Even the title, which you may have noticed I haven't mentioned, is questionable. The most frequently seen is Third/Sister Lovers. It was released under each and now both of those titles. Third is self-explanatory. Sister Lovers is not, as you might fear, some perversity, but a reference to the fact that Chilton and Stephens were dating sisters.

The double title belongs to what is apparently the definitive edition, in what Dickinson says is the originally intended sequencing. That's important, because putting, for instance, "Thank You, Friends" at the end creates a very different experience from ending with "Take Care," as sweet and sad a goodbye song as you'll ever hear. 

That edition, however, also contains four bonus tracks, only one of which, "Dream Lover" (not the Bobby Darin song from the '50s),  really belongs with the rest of the album. The others may or may not be interesting in themselves but don't fit. So make yourself a playlist, maybe putting "Dream Lover" somewhere in the middle, but put "Take Care" at the end.

There's a very well-done and very interesting documentary called Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me in which someone relates Alex saying "Music is something I can take or leave." It seems significant, because his career after the third Big Star seems to have been somewhat desultory. I haven't come across anyone saying that his later work is desert island material. 


Some Music

This is another trip into the only partially explored territory of music I bought in MP3 format when it was very inexpensive at eMusic.com, and I could experiment in a way that I never could have before. 

His Name Is Alive: Livonia

To some of us, the phrase "4AD in the 1980s" suggests magic. 4AD, in case you don't know, is the name of a record company, and in the 1980s it released some of the most wonderful popular music ever made, including most of the work of the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil. And that continued into the 1990s and beyond. (I'm not dismissing later releases, but I haven't heard many of them.) Most likely it was those associations that were responsible for my having bought no less than seven albums and/or EPs by His Name Is Alive, a band I had not previously heard of. 

I decided to start with their first album, Livonia, released in 1990. Livonia is the name of the town in Michigan where the apparent mastermind of the project, Warren Defever, grew up. From what I've read "project" is a better term than "band," as it seems to involve a constantly shifting cast of musicians with Defever as the only constant. You might expect--at any rate I expected--that an album named for the midwestern home town of the writer would be a rootsy sort of thing, an Americana sort of thing, straightforward light rock or folk-rock with lyrics reflecting on the writer's origins. But it's every bit as other-worldly and mysterious as anything else in the 4AD lineup. 

If you aren't listening closely much of it will seem simpler than it is, and fairly uniform throughout: a single female voice, usually with a noticeable amount of reverb, singing pretty tunes with lyrics that tend to run from the vague to the cryptic, though sometimes evocative. But when you turn it up and listen more closely you hear an elaborate background of mysterious and distant sounds: voices, instruments, noises. 

It's difficult to pick one track as a good example, but this one, "If July," will do.

They follow me here then I know what I have
If I swallowed it whole they'll show me the path
Pretending to pray this is missed once a day
Please allow faith to find what's new is her first name

I look forward to hearing more of their work. According to AllMusic, music meriting at least four stars has continued to be released under this name until at least 2015. Of the more than twenty albums listed, the most recent I have is Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth  (I love the title), from 2001. There are over twenty albums altogether. There's bound to be some great stuff in there. 

One song on Livonia, "How Ghosts Affect Relationships," begins with a line from Yeats, "I dreamed that one had died in a strange place," from "Dream of Death." I wonder if I missed other literary allusions in the lyrics. 

Faith and the Muse: Elyria

This is not a 4AD release. But the second song on the album, "Sparks," certainly sounds like it could have been. Specifically, it sounds remarkably like the Cocteau Twins, so much so that you might mistake it for them if you heard it from across a room. But it's the only track that sounds like that. The rest of the album is as extravagantly varied as Livonia is consistent.

If it fits into any box, it would be the one labelled "Eclectic." It could quite justifiably be called progressive rock, if that term is meant to include complexity of any kind, not just the instrumental virtuosity with which it's often associated. It's big, romantic, dramatic, and ambitious, encompassing some fairly hard rock, the complex artsy work (musical and lyrical) of women like Kate Bush and Loreena McKennit, folk music (including one actual folk song, "The Unquiet Grave") and vaguely medieval-renaissance classical music. Goth and darkwave need to be mentioned in there, too. I've seen some photos of them in which they're seriously, almost comically, goth. 

One remarkable track is a song by the Elizabethan composer-poet Thomas Campion (an old favorite of mine), "When To Her Lute Corrina Sings." The tune, which I think is not Campion's, is straightforward, but the accompaniment is very dissonant piano and cello (I think) that sounds like it could have come from "Pierrot Lunaire" or some other early 20th century work.

Possibly the most effective description of the music is that it sounds like what you might expect of someone who looks and dresses like this (and is an extremely gifted musician).

Monica_Richards

(From Wikimedia Commons)

Why, knowing nothing much about this band, did I buy four albums by them fifteen or more years ago? I suspect it had something to do with their name. That's intriguing, isn't it? Faith and the Muse. Maybe I thought they dealt with Christian themes, especially as one of the albums is called Evidence of Heaven. But there's a simple explanation for the name and it has nothing to do with the noun or the concept "faith": the group is primarily two people, William Faith and Monica Richards, the latter (pictured above) presumably being the muse.

I'm not including a video clip because to pick one would not be truly representative. But there are plenty on YouTube. Some may find the music pretentious and overblown. Personally I like it very much. 

*

Speaking of music, the past couple of weeks have seen the deaths of two well-known figures from the '60s, Jeff Beck and David Crosby. Beck, if you don't already know, and if you don't already know you probably don't care, was one of that trio of flash guitar players who passed through the Yardbirds, and later achieved personal fame as very visible members of much better-known bands (Cream, Led Zeppelin), and later on their own. I strongly suspect that he was, in the end, the best of the three, as the other two (Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page) seemed to more or less rest on their accomplishments, musically speaking, of the '60s and '70s, while Beck continued to be adventurous. (By "best" I mean produced more worthwhile music over a longer span of time.) Much of his work was in the jazz-rock fusion genre, which is definitely not a favorite of mine. But if you fancy electric guitar at all you should hear, really should hear, Live At Ronnie Scott's.

Hear and maybe see, as it's available as both audio and video. The benefit of the latter is that you get to see Beck and a very impressive band at work; the drawback is that Beck has some annoying physical mannerisms. And, as he was 64 at the time, I suspect that black hair is not all his. And why is a guy at retirement age still wearing that sleeveless shirt-vest thing? It's funny, really--as adventurous as he was in his music, he seemed to want to continue to look exactly like he did in 1970 or so. 

Guitarists and guitar fans sometimes talk about the great music Jimi Hendrix might have made if he hadn't died so young. Maybe he would have. Or maybe he would have been one of those '60s stars who faded after the age of 30 or so. That's more or less how I think of David Crosby: for me he is significant mainly as a member of the Byrds. Personally I prefer their work and Buffalo Springfield's to anything I've ever heard by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and/or Young, together or separately, with the exception of some of Young's solo work. CSN and CSN&Y made some undeniably brilliant music, but I never really cared about it in a way I did that of their earlier bands.

This brief obituary of Crosby at The American Conservative contains a strikingly accurate summary of what happened to the hippies: "the counterculture’s collapse into Clintonite politics." I can't think of anyone I knew from those days who isn't now a conventional, often near-fanatical, Democrat.