Music Feed

Bruch: Violin Concerto #1 in G Minor

I have underrated this concerto. I've listened to it three times over the past week or so, as part of my little project involving Joseph Joachim's view of the greatest violin concertos:

The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's.

I had not heard it for many years, and though I remembered liking it I thought of it as above all a technical showpiece, impressive but not necessarily deeply affecting. And on the first of these three hearings that expectation was, if not fulfilled exactly, then not contradicted, either. 

As far as I could recall, I did not own a recording, so I went to Idagio and settled on one, one of very many: Arthur Grumiaux and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw conducted by Bernard Haitink. I enjoyed it, of course, but in a casual sort of way. Very impressive. Oh, that's lovely. I like that tune. Great finale. But I was pretty sure it was not going to end up at the top of my Joachim ranking. 

Thinking I would try a different recording, just out of curiosity, I went to Classics Today and found a recommendation for another Grumiaux recording, this one with Heinz Wallberg conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra. (The recommendation, by the way, is from David Hurwitz, whose reviews on YouTube I've mentioned before. I've also mentioned that I found him a little annoying to watch and listen to, but he's grown on me. I've begun to enjoy his quirks, his humor, and his generally unpretentious style.)

My reaction to the second Grumiaux recording one was pretty similar: beautiful, not a rival to Mendelssohn's. 

Then I discovered, while looking for something else, that I have an LP that includes this concerto. How did I not know that I have it? Well, two reasons: one, it has both the Bruch and Mendelssohn concertos, and I never know how to shelve multi-composer recordings. I have a good many of these, probably between fifty and a hundred, and they're shelved in very rough chronological order, since such albums usually include works of more or less the same period. That doesn't work very well, though it's better than nothing. And two: several years ago I came into possession of several hundred LPs that were going to go to Goodwill if I didn't take them (see this post). And most of those have hardly been organized at all. Or played. This was one of them: 

Milstein-Mendelssohn-Bruch(Image from Discogs; my copy is STEREO, to be played only with a stereo cartridge and needle to avoid damage)

The New Philharmonia Orchestra is not the same as the Philharmonia Orchestra though they are related (seems to be a long story). I don't know whether it was just the fact that this was my third hearing of the concerto within a week or so, or the nature of the performance, or my state of mind at the moment, but this time I was bowled over. It's a great concerto, fully worthy of Joachim's placement of it among the greatest. "Richest, most seductive"? Not the adjectives I would choose, but very powerful in any case and certainly among the greats.

This is a 1961 recording, and as I mentioned, it's an LP: analog all the way. The other two I heard were digital, though they're old enough that they were probably recorded in analog. And they weren't at the highest possible resolution. Whether any of that had to do with my reaction I can't say. Maybe it was Milstein himself. 

Now on to Brahms. I've heard that one fairly recently, and really thought that there had been a discussion about it here, but I can't find it. I already know that I love it. I think it's going to be hard to say that I prize any one of these over the others. 

Also, I'm adding Sibelius to this project, which at that point will put me outside of Joachim's list by nationality--he did say "the Germans"--and although the composition of the Sibelius concerto just barely falls within Joachim's lifetime, we can assume he never heard it. I've heard it, but only once or twice, and I didn't feel like I had really gotten it. Maybe I should add Tchaikovsky, too?


King Crimson in the '80s

I was not always a fan of prog ("progressive") rock. In its early-to-mid 1970s heyday I was in fact dismissive of it: pretentious, over-complicated, sacrificing good songwriting for an emphasis on virtuosity not really suited for rock music. In short, it seemed to be trying to be something that rock music isn't and shouldn't be: of interest on purely musical grounds, where it was never going to be able to compete with jazz and classical. It was twenty years later that I gave it a second look, for a non-musical reason: my then-adolescent children had gotten interested in popular music (i.e. rock) and I was trying to steer them away from the uglier stuff. 

That didn't work, but it did change my mind. That is, my basic criticisms were justifiable and remained intact, but I enjoyed the music anyway, which led me to listen, in most cases for the first time, to Yes and King Crimson, and to develop quite a liking for them. There were a few others, but I only made a point of hearing most of the 1970s work of those two. And of them, KC seemed to have had the most interesting post-'70s career. 

But that's not really fair. Yes was a band with a fairly consistent lineup and a very consistent sound, at least through their first decade, and seem to have faded away after that, with the exception of one commercially successful and reportedly very atypical album in the early '80s. King Crimson, on the other hand, has not been a proper band at all through much of its fifty-plus years, but rather the ever-changing musical project of Robert Fripp, in which he has included various other musicians as suits his interests and purposes. It's been the exact opposite of consistent lineup and sound--Fripp tended to disband the group, at least partially, after every album or two, and reassemble it, at least partially, and go off in a somewhat different musical direction.

As a band, King Crimson was officially dead as of about 1975. But after half a decade or so Fripp revived the name for a group  of instrumental virtuosos consisting of himself, guitarist Adrian Belew, bass player Tony Levin, and drummer Bill Bruford (formerly of Yes). This band recorded three albums, Discipline (1981), Beat (1982), and Three of A Perfect Pair (1984). 

I would suppose that fans of progressive rock in general and King Crimson in particular were disappointed in these. One of the hallmarks of prog is long compositions with a lot of virtuoso instrumental work, and, despite the very high level of technical skill of all four players, that's not what these albums are. Most of the songs are in fact songs, of fairly typical pop song length, of a piece, with little instrumental stretching out. But that doesn't mean they're simple. They're not great songs as such--you don't come away humming them, or moved by the combination of words and music. But they're interesting. Rather than the complex twists and turns more typical of prog, or the basically simple and repetitive chord changes and beat of most pop, these songs have a static sort of quality--complex, and shifting slowly rather than driving forward. If I felt more confident of my technical understanding of music I would try to describe that more precisely. 

But I can say with confidence that one fairly constant feature is the use of complex repetitive hyperactive guitar figures that slowly shift rhythmically. I find it very hard to follow them for very long. I think I've got it and then suddenly it's wait, where did the accent go? "Frame by Frame," from Discipline, is a good example.

The bass and drums are also doing a lot of complicated things with rhythm there. It's as if the whole emphasis on complexity which characterizes the progressive rock concept is focused on rhythm. Basically, this band invented "math rock" (from Wikipedia) : "a style of alternative and indie rock with roots in bands such as King Crimson and Rush. It is characterized by complex, atypical rhythmic structures (including irregular stopping and starting), counterpoint, odd time signatures, and extended chords. " A week or so ago I found a YouTube video in which Adrian Belew explains this sort of thing, the way the guitar parts shift in and out of phase, so to speak, with one player starting one of these figures, the other playing it but with one note left out, and so on, so that the beat begins to float. But I just spent thirty minutes looking and can't find the video now. 

All this may seem a long way from the long and elaborate suites so often found in '70s prog. But if you listen to "21st Century Schizoid Man," the very first track on the very first KC album, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969), you find that the connecting thread is very clear. 

To call a work of art "interesting" is sometimes to damn with faint praise, at least on my part. And the word does pretty well summarize my opinion of these three albums. But I mean it quite literally. This is not my favorite music, but it is in fact interesting, interesting enough to return to now and then. There seems to be a consensus among critics and fans that the chronological sequence of the three albums is also the sequence of their quality, the first (Discipline) being the best. I agree with that. But if one likes the style at all, they're all worth hearing. 

A group consisting of Belew, Levin, Steve Vai (a name known to anyone interested in rock guitar), and Danny Carey, drummer of the band Tool, is doing a tour under the name BEAT performing this music. They're not coming anywhere very near me, but if they did I'd go. 


Andrea Schroeder Sings David Bowie's "Heroes"

In German: "Helden."

I never heard of Andrea Schroeder until a few weeks ago when I was looking for cover versions of this famous song. You know it, right? If not, click here.

I was never much of a David Bowie fan. I didn't care for the whole glam rock, sexually androgynous thing, but, more importantly, I just didn't care that much for most of his music. I had a slightly annoying conversation about this on Facebook around the time of Bowie's death. I said more or less what I just said, and several younger people explained to me that it was a generational thing, and I Just Didn't Understand. 

Nonsense. Look, y'all (I said): David Bowie was a bit older than me. It had nothing to with age and everything to do with musical taste. I heard Ziggy Stardust several dozen times while I was working in a record store, and never cared much for it, though I had liked his earlier album, Hunky Dory, quite well. And I never listened to him much after that.

But somehow or other I did hear "Heroes," a basically very simple song which seems to have a mildly addictive effect on a lot of people. And, maybe in part because it's basically simple, yet deeply appealing, it seems to lend itself to some very varied ways of performing it. And maybe also because of the lyric, with its odd combination of defiance and despair. "Yes we're lovers" but "nothing can keep us together." And:

Though nothing will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be heroes, just for one day

You can read the English lyrics here.

I like covers of well-known songs which rework them substantially. Or rather I should say they interest me, as of course they're not always successful. This one, I think, works spectacularly well. I like it just as much when I'm not looking at the screen with the beautiful Andrea Schroeder gazing deeply into my soul eyes.

I must definitely hear more of her music. She's German, obviously, and AllMusic doesn't say a word about her, nor does Wikipedia, but her own website has some impressive recommendations. 

My next-favorite cover of "Heroes" is by the metal-ish band Motörhead, and as you might suppose it is night-and-day different. I don't recommend listening to this one immediately after Andrea Schroeder's. If at all. It's hard rock.

Lemmy Kilmister, 1945-2015, RIP. One wonders, if one is a Christian, where such an apparently purely heathen soul goes.


Beethoven's Violin Concerto

I've started to follow through on my idea of listening to the four violin concertos praised by Joseph Joachim, one of the great violinists of the 19th century:

The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's.

To these four I plan to add the Sibelius concerto, which of course came after Joachim's time. I've heard them all at least once,  but I want to get to know them better. And also to see whether I agree with Joachim. 

Mendelssohn I just recently heard (see this post), and that was what led me to this little listening project. I'm taking them in chronological order, so Beethoven is first. My usual procedure in getting to know any piece of music, classical or other, is to listen to it three times within some relatively small span of time--a week or so. In this case I listened to three different recordings: Heifetz and Munch, ca 1960; Christian Ferras and Karajan, 1967; Perlman and Guilini, 1981 (in that order).

In the past I have been less than enthusiastic about this concerto. On the basis of one or two inattentive hearings, I just didn't think it was, for Beethoven, an especially remarkable piece. (I said so to my violinist son, and he was horrified.) Well, that's...in the past. I now consider the first movement to be among my very favorite Beethoven works. As far as I'm concerned it could be a standalone work. It's substantially longer than the other two movements combined, and seems to me complete and satisfying in itself.

The second movement, though comparatively brief, stands with it in quality, and leads directly into the third without a pause. It's there that the concerto as a whole falls down a bit. It's a vigorous "happy ending" to a work which has had a distinctly reflective, if not melancholy, spirit. And to me it's a bit of a letdown, the opposite of its intended effect. This is no doubt in part a result of a sense, which I've mentioned before, of temperamental incompatibility between me and the great composer. It's the energetic Beethoven, who sometimes seems to me a bit unconvincing, a bit overemphatic. For that reason, when (or if) I decide to rank these concertos, I don't think Beethoven's will be at the top.

About the recordings: I don't think anyone could criticize Heifetz's performance except on the grounds that it's too perfect. It seems effortlessly perfect, and for that reason a bit chilly in comparison to others. I didn't think that until I heard Ferras, and was struck by a sense of emotional warmth and depth which I didn't feel in the Heifetz. 

Those two were on LPs that I own. For the third listening, I decided to look for recommendations. A while back my friend who's a classical music expert had brought to my attention to the YouTube channel of Dave Hurwitz of Classics Today. He has roughly 1,000,000 videos on YouTube, including a long series on reference recordings: the one, or maybe the few, recordings of some work that he considers to have set the standard. His choice for the Beethoven violin concerto is the 1981 recording by Itzhak Perlman and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Carlo Giulini. So that's the third one I listened to (via the IDAGIO streaming service), and, "reference" or not, I definitely prefer it to the others. 

I find Hurwitz a little annoying to watch and listen to, but his opinions are worth hearing. Here's the one where he names the Perlman/Guilini performance as his top choice. (There is a grotesque figure of speech at about 6:10. What was he thinking?)

 


Quicksilver Messenger Service: "Pride of Man"

Though I only heard this song a few times fifty years ago, it's come back to my mind now and then over the years, and often over the past weeks and months, for reasons which will not be mysterious when you hear the lyrics.  

I heard this version by Quicksilver Messenger Service, one of the original San Francisco hippie-psychedelic bands, around 1970 or so, and not since until today. The band was fairly well-known at the time, mentioned along with the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, but never achieved the kind of fame that some of the others did.

They didn't write "Pride of Man." That was a guy named Hamilton Camp, who had some modest success as a folk, or perhaps I should say "folk," artist in the mid-'60s (and after). I have just learned, thanks to Wikipedia, that the song was connected with Camp's involvement in a religious movement called Subud

I was aware of him because when I was in high school I owned this album, a sampler from the then-new and innovative Elektra label:

Folksong65There's a wonderful range of music on it, and I listened to it many, many times. Some of the artists had long and successful careers, others pretty much disappeared, or just remained obscure. Some died fairly young. The duo called Kathy and Carol is among those who remained obscure, releasing one album and going their separate ways. Their track on the album was one of my favorites.

Coincidentally, my girlfriend at the time was named Kathy. Or rather Cathy.

My copy of the album disappeared many years ago. Someone has compiled a YouTube playlist which replicates the album, and that's nice. But I really would like to hear, and handle, and read the back cover of, the LP, and I see that it can be had very inexpensively from sellers on Discogs. I guess there's no harm in adding one more to my hoard.

(Cathy dumped me, by the way.) 


Bach: Christ Lag in Todesbanden

I've never ventured very far into the Bach cantatas, having heard mostly the "greatest hits," such as BWV 140, "Wachet Auf" (which my mental ear insists on hearing as "Watch Out!"). There are just so many of them, and--I hope you will excuse me if this sounds blasphemous or at least disrespectful--there seems to be a fair amount of music in them that is less than great. I mean, for instance, chorales that don't seem particularly distinctive. 

But thanks to an article by Ken Myers in the most recent issue of Touchstone (the article is not available to non-subscribers), I sought out a recording of this one: "Christ Lay In the Bonds of Death," based on a hymn by Luther. I recognized the title but am not sure I'd ever heard it before. It seems to me a standout. I'm posting it as the one acknowledgement of Holy Week that I plan to make here--I won't be online very much for the next week or so. I would say that I hope you enjoy this but I feel fairly confident in saying that you will enjoy it, if you listen to it and you don't have an aversion to classical music, or classical choral music. 

From Myers's article, here's an interesting bit of musical analysis that even I can grasp:

And the musical device Bach introduces here—a succinct motif that pervades the entire work—is the simplest of melodic gestures: a descending half step. Play an A on a keyboard, followed by a G-sharp. It’s the tightest of intervals possible in Western music, but that short descending sigh becomes, in Bach’s development of Luther’s hymn, an emblem of death.

In the melody of Luther’s hymn, the first two notes are a descending whole step, from A down to G. That’s how generations of Lutherans had heard and sung the opening notes of this hymn. It’s the interval borrowed from the chant on which the melody is based, and then heard in dozens of compositions for choir and for organ based on this tune. Bach had the musical-theological shrewdness to recognize in this slight (but radical) alteration in the melody a musical resource that would enable him to more powerfully convey both Passion and Resurrection.

As the BWV number suggests, this is thought to be an early work, written around 1707, when Bach was in his early twenties. You can read a great deal about it on the Wikipedia page. But you'd be better off listening to it first. The performance is by those baroque workhorses, Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists, and the Monteverdi Choir.

I don't as a rule especially like watching musicians up close, or for that matter at all, when they're performing, but I did enjoy watching these. 


Another Night (to Remember) at the Symphony

It occurred to me after I typed that title that A Night to Remember was a book about the sinking of the Titanic. Book and film, I find on checking.

But I didn't change the title, because it is perfectly accurate. You can be assured that this night with the Mobile Symphony was not a disaster. On the contrary, it gave me, by means of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, one of those rare almost-ecstatic musical experiences. This was of course the E Minor concerto--I didn't know until today that it was actually his second, the first having been written when he was thirteen (!). The violinist was Simone Porter, of whom I had never heard, though that doesn't mean anything much. Here's the bio from her web site

I've heard the concerto on record several times, and may have heard a live performance twenty or more years ago, but I'm not sure. I've always liked it but have never been affected by it as I was this past Saturday night. I can't discuss the performance intelligently in the sort of detail that real music reviewers do; all I can say is that I was swept away from the very beginning, and didn't come back until the final notes had faded. I'm often critical of what seems to me the ovation-inflation in which audiences give a standing ovation to almost every performance, and am hesitant to join in if I don't feel that degree of enthusiasm. But in this case I was one of the first out of my seat.

I used to think those too-easy ovations were a reflection of the gratitude felt by our our local audiences for the infrequent opportunity of hearing live classical music and especially of hearing top-notch soloists. But according to this article in The Guardian it's a widespread phenomenon. (Note: I used the term ovation-inflation above before I read the Guardian article. Really, I did.)

The concerto was the second piece. The first was a somewhat peculiar work by Arvo Pärt, "If Bach Had Been a Beekeeper." I had never heard it before and was not especially taken with it, though I consider myself a fan of the composer. Perhaps if I listened to it again I'd like it better. The conductor gave an elaborate explanation of the title which I didn't entirely catch. And the piece also incorporates an elaborate game or puzzle or exercise based on Bach's name, but that sort of thing is over my head. Here's what the program notes say:

Borrowing an old form of musical tribute, Pärt created a cipher on the word “Bach” by spelling the Baroque composer’s name using the German musical alphabet: B (equals B-flat in the German musical alphabet) - A - C - H (B-natural in the German musical alphabet). He then created a formula based on this cipher that results in the close intervals that he desired for Tintinnabuli. The violas play “Bach” (B-flat - A - C - B-natural), while the cellos simultaneously start on A, the f irst violins on C, and the second violins on B-natural (H), each following with the same melodic intervals as the violas. The effect of these closely stacked, dissonant intervals is a harmonic ringing tone, that buzzes like a bee. To further evoke the buzzing insects, the string players perform tremolo, rapidly moving their bows up and down (literally trembling) against the string. The result is truly the sound of a swarm of bees.

I'm like, whatever. Being literal-minded, I object to that last sentence, but there is certainly some buzzing involved.

The after-intermission work was Schumann's Symphony #3, the "Rhenish." As far as I recall I had only heard this work once, and that was about two weeks ago in preparation for this concert: I put it on while I was doing something else, just to get some idea of what it's like. It didn't reach out and grab me, though I didn't dislike it, either. That was repeated in the concert: listening reasonably closely, I enjoyed it, but it didn't rouse any great enthusiasm in me. A little sunny and major-y for my taste, perhaps.


IDAGIO, and A Sweet Little Bach Piece

No pun on the word "sweet" intended, though the piece is classifiable as a suite, though not called such. 

I'm a little embarrassed to say that I've subscribed to yet another online streaming service, this one for classical music only. I already had Pandora Plus, the paid version of Pandora, which, unlike the free Pandora service, is like Spotify and all the rest, allowing you to pick what you want to hear out of an enormous range of music. But also like those others, it doesn't handle classical music very well. Cataloging classical recordings like pop songs makes finding what you want anywhere from cumbersome to really pretty frustrating. And I find it mildly annoying to see a classical composition or section of a composition--any one track from a recording--referred to as a "song," as in this Pandora listing:

Beethoven: Symphony 9 ("Choral")
Album by Fritz Reiner
4 songs - 1994

This new service (new to me anyway) is called IDAGIO (they seem to like to capitalize it that way), and it's really good. It approaches perfection as a classical music application. Just to state the most obvious advantage, recordings are organized by composer, performer, instruments, and genre. There is no separate listing of recordings by name, but the general search tool will usually find specific recordings if that's what I'm after. 

There is a standalone Windows app, but the web app seems to be pretty much identical. And there's an iPhone app. They do have a free service, which is very much worth checking out if you're at all interested. I assume it intersperses ads with the music. I hope it doesn't interrupt the music with ads, which would be intolerable. That actually happened to me the other day when I was listening to something on  YouTube, and I think I actually yelled in shock, because of course the advertisement was significantly louder than the classical piece I was trying to hear. The yell may have been a curse. (I was listening to YouTube, through the TV, because my stereo is broken!! This is pretty awful but I'm coping.)

I started this post with the intention only of discussing a Bach piece which I had just heard for the first time. But I thought I ought to mention IDAGIO because that was where I discovered the piece. Prominently displayed among the New Releases is this one from ECM New Series:

Schiff-Clavichord

I will generally listen to anything on ECM at least once, and this was intriguing. 

An entire album of Bach keyboard pieces played on the clavichord seemed at first an odd thing, as it's a fairly limited instrument. But, well, why not? Historically it is, I assume, more correct than Bach on the piano. And Bach himself played it, though we (or at least I) think of his keyboard music (apart from organ works) as being composed for the harpsichord. All I can tell  you about the difference is that the clavichord mechanism strikes the strings, while the harpsichord plucks them, and that the clavichord is quieter and more delicate. The sound is fairly similar: if I'd heard this album without knowing what it was, and without listening  very closely, I would have assumed I was hearing a harpsichord. 

The first piece on the album is the suite I mentioned, "Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother" in B flat major, BWV 992. I thought on first hearing that it's a delightful, fairly simple, pretty piece, and that if I hadn't know it's Bach he would not have been my first guess. Rameau or Couperin, maybe. "Simple" is not usually a word brought to mind by Bach's music. This is the earliest known piece by him, written when he was nineteen, on the occasion of his brother Johann Jacob's departure to join the army, and its six sections have a program meant to portray the departure. You can read all about it here. Wikipedia says that the story attached to the piece is "questionable," but if Bach himself wrote the explanations of the movements, there must be something to the story. 

Andras Schiff's clavichord recording is not on  YouTube, but this one on piano is. 


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.