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Tchaikovsky: Symphonies #4 and #5

Having had such a great experience with #6 a couple of weeks ago, I was eager to hear these. As with the Pathetique, I had not, as far as I can recall, heard them since I was in my early 20s. So I did, and it was a mistake.

It was too soon. It was almost impossible that these two works would come up to the level that had just been set by their younger sibling. There is nothing at all wrong with them. They are both good, maybe great, works, and maybe at the right time I would have found, or in the future will find, them as moving as I did the 6th. But as it was they just struck me as being similar but not as good. 

It was like falling desperately in love with someone you met only briefly in another town or another country, with which you have also fallen in love, then going home and expecting the next attractive girl you meet to bowl you over in the same way. It's not likely to happen that way.  

For what it's worth, though, here are a few impressions:

I must have listened to the Fourth a good many times in my youth, because it was instantly and deeply familiar. So familiar, in fact, that I wonder if the opening fanfare has been used in some movie or TV show. And I liked it a lot, particularly that mostly-pizzicato third movement. But under the circumstances it seemed like a lesser foreshadowing of the 6th. As someone noted in a comment on the post about the 6th, the 4th, in contrast, ends on a note of triumph rather than despair. At the moment that comes across to me as...well, it wouldn't be at all fair to call it a defect, but less powerful, anyway. It does not speak to my condition. Or not as powerfully.

The Fifth, on the other hand, I didn't recognize at all. I listened to it once, fairly attentively, and thought "This is objectively good. I recognize that these are beautiful melodies, potent crescendos. Why am I not responding?" A few days later I gave it another try: put the LP on, listened to the first side (first two movements), and decided I had to let it go. This girl is lovely and sweet and intelligent, but she can't replace my lost love. It's not her, it's me. I must not lead her on. So I put the record back in its sleeve. Someday, at least several months from now, I'll take it out again, 

One odd thing: at points during both symphonies I found myself thinking "this sounds like ballet music." I guess what I meant was that it sounds like Tchaikovsky. But I don't remember having that thought during the Sixth.

The performances, by the way, are by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. I can't find a date on the box (it's a set of Tchaikovsky's last three symphonies) but the packaging says mid-'60s to me.


Should: "Sarah Missing"

Here's another recent discovery from the embarrassingly large number of recordings I acquired some time ago and never really listened to. Once again I put a CD full of MP3 files (over a hundred tracks) in my car player and listened to them one or two at a time as I ran little errands around town. Since I don't commute anymore it takes a while to get through one of these discs, and they usually have some surprises, if only due to the odd juxtapositions: they were originally made as backups, and I just threw whatever I hadn't yet backed up onto them (this was at least fifteen years ago). This disc, for instance, includes some black metal, some indie rock, some electronica--and some shoegaze, including this band, Should.

I had no memory of ever having heard this music before. There are four tracks from them on this disc, and this is my favorite. Yes, it sounds very much like Slowdive--very good Slowdive--but the other three tracks don't; i.e. they aren't copycats. I immediately went to Bandcamp and bought the entire album.

But I haven't listened to it yet.

They've only put out four albums over a period of twenty-five years or so. Judging by what I've heard they're definitely worth further listening. The title of this song, "The Great Pretend," from their 2011 album Like A Fire Without Sound, is also the title of their most recent (2014) album.


Tchaikovsky: Symphony #6 ("Pathetique")

I liked this symphony a lot when I was young, late teens and early twenties. But as far as I can remember I never heard it after that. There was no particular reason for that, though for various reasons with which I won't bore you I'm not sure I had a recording of it after that period of my life. At any rate--again, as far as I can remember--I had not heard it for well over forty years when, a week or so ago, I had a sudden desire to hear it again. 

Oh my goodness. It immediately shot up into the highest levels of my personal favorites among the 19th century symphonies. I won't say it's at the top, but it's certainly way up there. I think it's a greater work than I thought back in my youth. I've always tended to think of Tchaikovsky as a bit of a softy, the writer of great melodies and producer of spectacles, but maybe not the most profound of composers. Well, whatever justification, if any, that general view might have, it certainly doesn't apply here. 

Is it wrong to equate profundity with gloom? Yes, if you put it that simply. But life produces an undeniable bias in that direction. Is it an error to maintain that tragedy is more profound than comedy? No, not if you stipulate that you're thinking of earthly life in itself, absent the promises of revelation.

This symphony certainly gives us a tragic view of life. It begins in sadness and ends with what I can only interpret as death, with the only consistently somewhat upbeat movement being the third, and that one is certainly not without its stresses, more agitated than happy. And the finale: "Adagio lamentoso," indeed. Tchaikovsky died a week or so after its premier. There was a lot of speculation about his death, with some claiming that it was suicide. You can read about that at Wikipedia, but I'm not sure it's worth your trouble. Better to read about the symphony itself.

The recording I now have is not the one I recall from college. That one was by Toscanini, and had a picture of the conductor on the cover, which was responsible for the fact that I have a tendency to imagine Tchaikovsky as looking like Toscanini. The one I have now may have been part of the Fr. Dorrell trove. If not, I must have picked it up for little or nothing at Goodwill or some other place where a lot of LPs ended up when CDs took over. It's a 1958 RCA Living Stereo recording, with Pierre Monteux conducting the Boston Symphony. And as far as I'm concerned there's no need for another one. I don't know what connoisseurs think of it, but I can't imagine a better performance or recording. I can't think of a better word for the performance than "taut," which such an emotionally extravagant work needs. Let's add "precise," as well, which it also needs. The sound quality is limited by the technology of the times, but within those limits it's spectacular, and I don't think any improvement in clarity in a digital recording could improve its electric quality. 

Pathetique

Good thing Anglophone musicians and critics never decided to translate that semi-official title. "Pathetic Symphony" just doesn't work.


Club 8 (self-titled)

This is my latest find from the music I acquired years ago and never really listened to. The name led me to expect, well, club music. I'm not sure what I mean by that--something in the general direction of electronic dance music, I guess, with heavy beats and probably no great endowment of melody and lyrical depth; maybe something in the trip-hop line, but less interesting. And at first I thought that's what I was going to hear: the first thirty seconds are so like Portishead as to seem a copy or even a quotation. The whole song, "Love In December," could be described as a less dramatic, less quirky, less elaborate, and brighter Portishead-sort-of-thing.

But overall it's something different. The next song has a breezy, vaguely 60s-ish vibe, and the album as a whole is what I think of, unpejoratively, as a girl album: pretty, dreamy, subdued, reflective, introspective, wistful, with lyrics mostly about love, lost or found or unhappy. The tunes are memorable--I can't listen to it without having one song playing in my head for a while afterward, and it's not always the same one. The trip-hop instrumental atmosphere returns on "Say A Prayer," but for the most part the sound is more conventional. And that, again, is not a pejorative, because the straightforward unobtrusive arrangements are perfect for the material. It occurs to me as I write this to compare the album to some of The Innocence Mission's work, though the sensibility is very different. 

It's a brief album, only thirty-one minutes, and there's not a wasted moment on it, not a second that isn't enjoyable. I do wish they had written more of the 51-second "London."

Here's "Hope For Winter," a representative track:

The band is/are a duo from Sweden. This album, their third, came out in 2001, and they have continued to put out albums regularly since then, for a total of ten, and eight of them have four-star reviews from AllMusic. The singer, who I assume is also the main lyricist, at least, if not the songwriter, is no longer a girl. I'll be interested in hearing how they've developed. 


Auden (et. al): Night Mail

Some months ago I picked up Humphrey Carpenter's biography of W.H. Auden from the discard shelf at the local library. That it was there is a sad state of affairs, and I almost made it sadder when, after a few months of seeing it on the shelf and leaving it alone, and under a self-imposed mandate to get rid of books that I'm pretty sure I will never read, I decided that I probably didn't really want to read five hundred or so pages about Auden's life. I'm generally unenthusiastic about biographies of artists, and Auden is not my at the top of my list of favorite poets (high, but not at the top), though several of his poems are near the top of that list. So I decided to throw it back into the library's giveaway pile and hope someone else would give it a good home.

But before doing that I leafed through it, read a few bits and pieces here and there, and decided it seemed interesting after all, and that if nothing else I'd like to read about Auden's conversion to Christianity. That required getting some of the background, so in the end I decided to keep the book at least long enough to read the whole thing. 

I'm glad I did. I'm less than halfway through it, and am finding it quite interesting for the most part, though like most biographies it occasionally frequently goes into more detail than I care to follow. 

For six months or so in 1935-36, when Auden was in his late twenties, he worked in the Film Unit of England's postal service. I know, that sounds very strange--why did the post office have a film unit? But it did, and it made a documentary called Night Mail about the train that made a nightly mail run from London to several cities in Scotland. Auden wrote some verse for part of it, and Benjamin Britten provided music.

On YouTube there are several clips of the few minutes that include Auden's poem:

Several of the YouTube commenters say that it's an early form of rap. They sort of have a point.

I'd really like to see the whole film, which is less than half an hour long and which, on the basis of that clip, is very poetic in a very 20th century inter-war period way. But the only place I can find it is at the British Film Institute's streaming service, and I don't want to see it badly enough to subscribe. 

"Inter-war period." What a ghastly thing to say, but it really is a reasonable way to describe the 1920s and '30s. 


Trainwreck: Woodstock '99

I'm about two thirds of the way through this three-part Netflix documentary on the 1999 attempt by some of the original Woodstock promoters to revive, twenty-five years later, the glory that was Woodstock in 1969. I was vaguely aware of the 1999 festival, saw news reports that it had not gone very well, and that was about the extent of my notice of it. But apparently it was much worse than I had realized. 

I have a pretty jaundiced view of the original, and am of the opinion that Woodstock was not really Woodstock until the movie and the soundtrack album came out. My college roommate at the time had attended, and had no particular illusions about it: "A lot of people doing drugs in the mud and listening to music coming from a distant stage." According to him, it was not the hippie bands that got the most enthusiastic reception, but the good-time funk of Sly and the Family Stone. The movie made the myth. But though it may not have been the dawning of the Age of Aquarius (or maybe it was, and maybe that's not necessarily a great thing) it was not a trainwreck. 

The further I get from the '60s counter-culture, the more negative my view of it has become. How dense did one have to be to believe that peace and love are the natural and probably inevitable result of  turning people loose to do what they really feel like doing? The film features interviews with promoters, employees, and attendees who emphasize that the whole thing was badly planned from the beginning. And I have no doubt that it was. But the explanation for the fact that things turned so dark has to take into account the change in American culture, particularly in pop music, over the thirty years between the two Woodstocks. 

It seems to me that this is a much meaner country than it was in the late '60s. I won't explore that question in detail at the moment, but I think it's a valid generalization to say that although there was certainly plenty of meanness prior to 1970, it was not as generally diffused and intense as it is now. The political and cultural polarization which are so much a part of life now was just taking shape at the end of the '60s. And there is no question that by 1999 there was a whole lot of violent rage in popular music that was not there in 1969. 

In 1999 various forms of extremely angry metal or metal-influenced music were quite popular--nu-metal bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit. If you've never heard these bands, or, even more convincing, seen them perform, watch this clip of Limp Bizkit's Woodstock '99 performance. You won't be the least bit surprised that the festival ended in violence. This was the only the second day. Things would get worse. 

There is no pleasure to be had from watching this documentary, but as a cultural artifact it's fascinating. I don't think the particular kind of rage on exhibit here is still as much a part of pop music as it was then, but from what I occasionally hear it doesn't look as though the change represents anything I would call progress.


It was not the best of times; it was arguably the worst of times.

I mean the 1970s, especially the mid-to-late '70s, for pop music. Of course there was a great deal of excellent music being made at the time, but most of it didn't make it onto top-40 radio. Because of my circumstances at the time, I didn't hear much else, and for the most part it was pretty grim.

I hated every song in this list, with the partial exception of Ringo's "You're Sixteen." Ringo did not, as the video seems to assume, write the song. It was a hit for somebody or other in the '50s, and it was not the only song of the time that saw nothing wrong with the singer being in love with a sixteen-year-old girl. (See the sweet "Sixteen Candles.") Many or most people got married before they were out of their teens back then. I agree that it's creepy for a middle-aged man to be singing it, but the song itself is not intrinsically awful. 

I may have miscounted but I think there are only nine songs here. 

Here's the Billboard Top 100 of 1976. Without going through it and counting, I'll guess that for me it would be a roughly 50-25-25 split: "strongly dislike," "not bad," and "I like it." Looking ahead to 1978, it might be more like 80-10-10.

I strongly suspect that today's radio pop is worse than ever, but I don't hear enough of it to be confident in that judgment. 

(I was working on a more substantial post, but haven't finished it yet. Later....)


Two Albums by Beach House

Although I liked what I had heard of this band, I hadn't really given them a close listen until recently, when I finally followed up on Rob G's praise of them here. I had heard some of their self-titled first album back when it was released in 2006. Those were the glory days of cheap MP3s, and the two tracks I have, "Auburn and Ivory," and "Master of None," were probably free. I liked them well enough but, apparently, not enough to buy the album. Here's "Master of None":

A few years later I heard a track, "Norway," from their second album, Teen Dream, and it was similar. Apparently I liked it better, because I flagged it with four stars. Still, I didn't  buy the album. I may have intended to, but I was trying to drink from a firehouse of music, and didn't follow up on everything that I liked.

I mention this history because one of the interesting things about the band is that they are still working in recognizably the same basic style, and it only got better, at least up to the point where I've listened to them: Bloom from 2012 and Thank Your Lucky Stars from 2015. I've had these for a while, but, as I mentioned, had not given them a serious listen. The production has grown more lush, melodies more sweeping and memorable, the instrumentation more varied, the vocals more powerful, assured, and versatile. But it's recognizably the same band, working in the same slow, dreamy style. Here's "Myth," the opening track of Bloom:

And "Majorette," the opener of Thank Your Lucky Stars:

Well, I'm sold. I like these two albums immensely. There is not much to be said for ranking one over the other in any sort of detached critical way. My personal preference is for Lucky Stars, but I think it's a matter of personal taste, and I might well change my mind, depending on which one I'm listening to. 

It's a rich, spacious sound, dreamy but grounded. Tempos are rarely quicker than a sort of andante. I've heard it described as ethereal but I think it's more earthy than that. It's a very electronic sound, but without being, on the the one hand, cold, as in the effects seemingly deliberately sought by synth-pop bands, or, on the other hand, simply canned, the way the bits of contemporary pop I hear tend to sound--calculated, like canned laughter. The presence of electric guitars that sound like guitars helps.

It's basically a two-person band consisting of Victoria LeGrand, the vocalist, and Alex Scally. Apart from the vocals, I don't have any idea who's responsible for what, though my guess is that LeGrand is the main lyricist, as they're somehow very feminine-sounding. I don't know who's responsible for the big heart-grabbing melodies. I do know that LeGrand's rich warm voice, which can be soft and pretty or big and strong, is the centerpiece of the sound, and a lesser or different vocalist would make for lesser or different work. Probably lesser, I would guess.

The lyrics are, to my taste, a little on the weak side, mostly somewhat vague if not cryptic references to (presumably) private situations. However, they don't suffer from a defect which I noticed in another album I was listening to recently (more about that one later): they remain fairly concrete, even if their apparent connection to personal relationships is obscure; they don't discuss, but feel via concrete images--in the best 20th century style, I suppose you could say.

There have been two more albums since Lucky Stars7 and Once Twice Melody. As a reviewer of the most recent album at AllMusic says

Beach House's style is so distinctive that it's a small miracle Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally continue to find ways to keep their music fresh.

They do indeed, and I'm looking forward to hearing their more recent work.

The image in the "Majorette" video is cropped way down for some reason. It's the cover of Lucky Stars, and here's the full cover, which I'm including mainly because I find it so charming:

BeachHouse-ThankYourLuckyStars

When I first saw it, I thought Oh, a picture of Victoria LeGrand as a child--that's sweet. That was immediately followed by You dummy, that looks to be from the '50s. You're in your boomer time trap again: LeGrand of course is of my children's generation. Turns out the picture is of her mother. And turns out that they're a distinguished French musical family: Michel Legrand is Victoria's uncle, and her aunt, Christina, was a part of the Swingle Singers, who made a name for themselves in the '60s with jazzy a capella arrangements of classical works. I had not thought about them for quite a long time, but discovering this relationship caused me to give them another listen. And they're still good. (Contrary to my initial supposition, the name "Swingle" does not refer to the swing in their arrangements, but, by happy chance, was the surname of the man, Ward Swingle, who, so to speak, invented them.)

One of the tags which both AllMusic and Wikipedia attach to the group is is "dream pop," which is also the description applied to the Lynch/Cruise/Badalamenti sound, of which I have often spoken here. In a fairly broad way Beach House is similar, but much less dark and weird. But the last track on Lucky Stars, "Somewhere Tonight," would fit right in. I mean, the title alone suggests it.


Weirdest Thing I've Ever Heard A Music Critic Say

Kyle Smith of National Review on Radiohead's OK Computer:

[Radiohead] don’t seem to grasp that music has to fit in someplace, to play some purpose. It goes with walking (the Beatles), working (Bach), shirking (Yacht rock), driving (the Eighties station), imbibing (country), getting up (pop), getting down (R & B), working out (hard rock, rap), and possibly even dancing (I wouldn’t know).

If I were an under-forty online female, I would say something like "I can't even." (Or maybe that would be an under-forty female of five years ago, as the fashionable slang may have changed by now. I don't recall having heard that recently.) The jewel in that list is that Bach is for "working." No, Bach is either for listening with the deepest attention you can manage to beauty whose very existence brings tears to your eyes, or, in the devotional works, for a prayer-like state of meditation on Christian themes. Or sometimes both.

Smith is listed as "critic at large" for National Review, and is the theater critic for The New Criterion. He's an entertaining writer, and his theater criticism always sounds intelligent and plausible to me, though I have not seen and never will see any of the productions he reviews. But I certainly won't take what he says about music very seriously from now on.

He really hates OK Computer, and goes on for several hundred words explaining in detail how much he hates it, and why. Fair enough; it's not to everyone's taste. But his opening premise ought to make the reader wary of trusting his opinion. I'll include a link to it, though it may be available only to subscribers: "Against Suicide Rock." 

I think the album is getting this attention because this year is its 25th anniversary, which I will say quickly and predictably is hard to believe, time flies, etc. Another NR writer, Jack Butler, published a completely different view of it a few weeks ago: "A Pig In A Cage On Antibiotics"; you wouldn't know from that title that it's wildly enthusiastic.

All this caused me to listen to the album again for the first time at least since I stopped commuting to work six years ago. I think I only heard it back in its day because one of my then-teenaged children had it. In fact I think the CD I have may have been borrowed or inherited from her. And as far as I can remember I never heard it anywhere but in my car, and had never actually sat and listened to it at home on good equipment. Now I have, and while I liked it before I didn't quite get why so many people think it's a great work. Now I do. I'm not widely knowledgeable about the pop music of the last few decades, but I'm pretty sure this is one of the outstanding albums of the time.

It is indeed, as Smith complains and Butler enthuses, a fragmented, seemingly disorganized work.  In that respect it made me think of "The Waste Land," though in saying so I don't mean that I think it's on the same artistic level. But as a piece of popular music, including not only composition and performance but arrangement and recording, it is brilliant, deserving to be compared with other landmarks in the genre. I thought specifically of Dark Side of the Moon: you might say this is a Dark Side for a more anxious, uneasy, disoriented, technologically oppressive time. And Dark Side was not exactly cheerful or comforting.

The songs are not so much songs in the usual sense as complex compositions for voice and instruments. I doubt there have been many covers of any of them. And I doubt that any but the most zealous and gifted teenage guitarists sit around trying to play them. The music is worlds away from the bluesy foundations of most rock. Plaintive melodies are embedded in, or give way suddenly to, instrumental work going off in sometimes very different directions. Rhythms shift and jerk. Lyrics are sparse and fragmented, though not so much so that they fail to do useful work. It's all very complex and carefully assembled, or at any rate it really does sound assembled, not at all spontaneous. 

My only small reservation about the album is that it sags a bit toward the end. Something more than halfway through there's a very weird little interlude in which a synthetic voice recites a string of self-help counsels: "Fitter, happier, more productive...." The voice, if I remember correctly, is that of the text-to-speech reader of the then-current Macintosh. It always sounded somewhere between ludicrous and disconcerting and it's a perfect touch here. This leads into a sequence of three songs that end with the sweetest moment of the album, "No Surprises," which to my taste would be the perfect closer. But there are two more songs which, though they're excellent on their own, seem to me in context a bit of a falling-off. 

In case you haven't heard the album, here's a taste--the first song, "Airbag":

And thank you to Kyle Smith, who caused me to hear it in its full glory.


Julee Cruise, RIP

I first heard her on Peter Schickele's radio program, Schickele Mix. I'll guess the year was about 1991. It was a wonderfully eclectic hour of music and talk about music and I sometimes recorded it to cassette.

One night he played this song. As far as I recall he didn't say anything by way of introduction beyond the singer's name. I had never heard of her. I had never seen Twin Peaks and knew little about David Lynch beyond the fact that he was the director of a movie called Blue Velvet which I had stopped watching part way through because I found it too disturbing. I can only describe my reaction to the song as some weird combination of mesmerized and electrified. And touched by a deep sadness. I kept the tape of that program for a long time, mainly for this song.

This was before the web, and I had no way of learning more about the artist or the music. Of course I had no idea that I would eventually become a big fan of Twin Peaks and some of Lynch's other work. I don't know how much time went by before I got the album, Floating Into the Night, but it was before I ever saw Twin Peaks. That had to wait for Netflix. I liked the album as much as I liked the one song. 

Here's what I wrote about the album in the 52 Albums series. I don't see anything there that I would disagree with now, five years later.

Julee Cruise died within the past day or two. According to this obituary in The Guardian, she had lupus. And the comment from her husband--"she left this realm on her own terms"--makes it sound like she might have taken her own life rather than wait for the disease to take it. I would not judge harshly anyone who takes that step under those conditions, but I hope it's not true. 

Here's the song which was the foundation of the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Of the Twin Peaks sound.