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Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise

The "About" page on this blog says that it's "Books and music, mostly." So what could be more appropriate here than a book about music? I don't actually read very many of those, and maybe I should. This one was certainly worthwhile, to say the least. Only the fact that I don't have anything to compare it to keeps me from saying that it's essential for anyone interested in modern classical music. On second thought, I'll say that anyway, with the proviso that I'm not saying it's the only essential.

Subtitled "Listening to the Twentieth Century," and published early in this century, it's a comprehensive and judicious account of the wild journey of music over the past hundred-and-some years. It's the story of both the music itself and those who composed it, in roughly equal parts history and musicology (or, as Peter Schickele used to say "musicalology"). It begins with Richard Strauss conducting Salome in 1906. Not the premiere, which had happened some months earlier, but a performance in Graz (Austria) which was attended by Mahler (and his wife, who certainly had some significance in music), Schoenberg, Berg--and, surprisingly, Puccini. 

Within a few pages Ross has sketched the scene, the personalities, and the cultural situation, then delved into the work itself, from overview to musical details. It's done with great skill and clarity. The two paragraphs of musical exposition take you very quickly from a couple of fundamental concepts (the octave, the fifth, the fourth, the third) to something fairly subtle:

The first notes on the clarinet are simply a rising scale, but it is split down the middle: the first half belongs to C-sharp major, the second to G major. This is an unsettling opening for several reasons. First, the notes C-sharp and G are separated by the interval known as the tritone, a half-step narrower than the perfect fifth.... This interval has long caused uneasy vibrations in human ears....

And if you don't have the ear and the training to grasp that, and don't have a recording of Salome handy, there's a web site accompanying the book which has audio excerpts illustrating many (or all?) of the musical examples considered in detail in the text. (Click here to hear the music described above.)

Ross is a vivid, clear, and personable writer--qualities which are by no means inextricably associated with music criticism. You feel like you're listening to a very good teacher, the sort who knows his subject deeply and can communicate it effectively.

And he has another quality which I value in anyone who opines about music: openness. He seems to have no strong stake in the argument between modernist and anti-modernist camps about the viability of the traditional system of Western music, taking the music on its own terms.

Sometimes I suspect the reality of the music under discussion may not have very good terms of its own--as, for instance, the apparently respectful reference to "R. Murray Schafer's radical music-theater cycle Patria, which can only be performed in the forests and lakes of the Canadian north." I admit to being slightly curious about that. But better to err in the direction of openness than the opposite.

My acquaintance with 20th century music is scattershot (well, so is my acquaintance with almost everything). This book has given me some helpful guidance as to where I might want to direct my attention. 


Laika: "Badtimes"

If you were on the net in the mid-to-late 1990s, you probably encountered an email with the subject "Goodtimes" or "Good Times" which contained dire warnings about an email with the subject "Goodtimes" or "Good Times" which, if opened, would release a virus that would do all sorts of harm to your computer. It was a hoax which was so widespread and got so much attention that it has its own Wikipedia entry.

It was followed by a parody called "Bad Times," which I did not know about until today. The parody came to my attention because I was listening to the album Good Looking Blues by a group called Laika in which the lyrics are the text of "Bad Times." I think it's pretty funny. Some of the references are quite dated now but still amusing.

Laika, as you may know, was the name of the dog sent into orbit by the Soviets in 1959. She did not survive the experience (she also has a Wikipedia entry), which suggests that the band named after her has a somewhat dark view of things. The album bears that out. I like it (not particularly for that reason). I'd describe it as a sort of high-speed trip-hop, which is almost a contradiction in terms. It has a lot of intricate and very fast percussion, and mostly spoken rather than sung lyrics. This song is slower than most. The intensity makes listening to the whole album at once a little much, but two or three tracks at a time are fascinating. 

Dea Matrona / Fleetwood Mac: "Oh Well"

On one of my very very few ventures outside the US, I was in Belfast in 2018. In the middle of the city I heard a familiar riff and realized it was Black Sabbath's "Paranoid." It came from two girls busking--guitar, bass, and a drum machine. They looked like they were having the most fun in the world, and their vocals sounded better than Ozzie's. (I mentioned them in this post at the time).

A few days ago I was looking for early (when they were good) Fleetwood Mac on YouTube and this popped up. They are now officially a band called Dea Matrona, with a drummer who is the younger sister of one of them. I love this. And I love the line about God in the song (be careful what you ask for).

At first I wasn't certain that it was the same girls I'd seen, because I was pretty sure that one of them, the one with the more abundant hair, had been blonde. But that, as my wife remarked, is easily changed. Also, I thought the blonde had been the guitarist.  But watching a few more of their videos shows that they swap around and are equally adept on both instruments and vocals. 

It sounds to me like little sister is maybe trying to keep up with them rather than vice-versa, but she's probably come a long way in a short time. I think a note on one of the videos says she's only fifteen. 

Beethoven: Septet in Eb Op. 20

An admission: I admit that I don't love Beethoven as I should. "Should" is a questionable term, I know: why should one love this or that artist? Well, in this case, he is such a giant that to feel a little standoffish from his work seems to be a fault in oneself rather than the artist. It probably is. 

Before I go any further, I have to say that this is most certainly not any sort of denial or even diminishment of his universally acknowledged greatness. And I love some of his music as much as I love any. I think it's a matter of personality: there is something in his which I don't warm to. I don't, for instance, think that I would have enjoyed his company (which would no doubt be true of many composers, Wagner coming first to mind). I mean his musical personality, or his personality as it comes through in his music--I probably know about as little of him as a person as someone who's been listening to him for over fifty years possibly could.

How to describe it, that something which I seem to hear sometimes in the music? Irritable. Impatient. A bit ponderous: I can imagine Beethoven fulfilling the stereotypes about Germans and humor. Perhaps somewhat egotistical. Unsympathetic. The opposite of genial.

But never mind all that. It's my idiosyncrasy, and I certainly don't proffer it as an accurate remark about Beethoven. 

It's all a preface to, and maybe sort of a justification for, my reaction to this recording: lukewarm. The septet is a relatively youthful work, written in 1799. Beethoven was twenty-nine, not exactly a youngster by comparison with, say, Mozart, or Schubert, neither of whom made it very far past thirty. It's not the brilliant and profound Beethoven who would appear just a few years later. 

By any reasonable standard it is a good piece of music, but I have no enthusiasm for it. I was mulling over exactly how to explain that when I remembered that in the earlier days of this blog I had written about the symphonies. Here's what I said about the First (you can read the whole post here): 

I admire it, but I do not love it. There is obviously a great gift at work here, and the symphony is interesting, but little of it moves me. It’s of course very much more of the 18th century than Beethoven’s later work, but it seems a heavier Mozart, and a less orderly Haydn. I have the sense that he’s gotten hold of a powerful force but isn’t yet quite in control of it. And I hear some of the things that have always bothered me: the spasmodic leaping rhythms, the repeated quasi-climaxes, and a quality I can only describe, not very informatively, as “dryness.”

That's more or less the way I reacted to this piece. I gave it my obligatory three hearings, and I did warm up to it, but it isn't going to be a favorite. Here's a performance, the first one that popped up when I looked for the piece on YouTube.

The recording is another from the Fr. Dorrel trove: London CM9129, released in 1960. It doesn't seem to me to have any special merit as a recording. And I wonder if, and how much, the ugly cover may have influenced me. That portrait of Beethoven might have been done by someone who disliked him. 


Chausson: Symphony in Bb, Op. 20

If you read the comments on the recent Delius post, you read me verbally scratching my head about this symphony, in response to Rob G's recommendation of the composer:

I'm puzzled and slightly disturbed. A Chausson symphony was one of the first things I listened to out of the Fr. Dorrel trove, and I could have sworn I wrote about it here. I do remember what I was going to say about it, which was that I wasn't extremely keen on it, that it was in the "ok" class. And that the part (a movement I guess) that I liked the best was one that most resembled his more well-known work, the Poeme for violin (and orchestra?). But I can't find any mention of his name on the blog. It's not among the unpublished posts, either (of which I see there are more than I realized). So apparently I never actually wrote about it...wonder if I started it on paper, which I do sometimes....?... Anyway, that's my Chausson opinion.

To my relief, the mystery is solved, and my memory is not totally delusional. On my computer I found a text file with the same title as this post, containing a few notes for the intended post. Obviously I never got around to actually writing it. It says, in a few sentence fragments, what I said in that comment. Admitting that I would be damning it with faint praise, I said that it was good, but that I couldn't help comparing to to Mahler's Fifth.

I don't remember now exactly what in the music prompted the comparison, which is quite unfair, but the Mahler was very much on my mind because a good friend had just been recommending it to me. No, that's not strong enough: she had been strongly urging me to get better acquainted with it, going to the length of mailing me a DVD of a performance by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons. My friend's right about the symphony.  Of course. And I really liked that performance, better than the late '70s one with James Levine and the Philadelphia Orchestra that I have on CD. Maybe it was the quality of the digitally remastered sound but the Levine one seemed too aggressive somehow.

And I really shouldn't have listened to anything composed in the late 19th or early 20th centuries for at least two weeks afterward. 

There are several performances of the Chausson symphony on YouTube.

Some Delius

When I first encountered the music of Frederick Delius way back when I was in college, the label "the English Debussy" was attached to him. That kind of thing always sounds like a bit of a putdown to me: you know, "sort of like, but not as good as the original." And that unfortunately is not a totally mistaken label. But it's not very useful, either. I suppose it arises from the small number of small orchestral pieces which are all most people, including me, ever hear of his music. 

In any case, I like him. Some years ago now I posted a few remarks about his music here, along with a YouTube video of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. I recall Janet saying that it sounded like 1940s film music--which it does, and to my mind that's not necessarily a bad thing, though if there was an influence it probably began with Delius, who died in 1934, and "Cuckoo" was written in 1912. The music of his that I know can fairly be described as dreamy: slow, sweet, quiet, rhapsodic, impressionistic (whatever that means, but if it's true of some of Debussy it's true of Delius), loosely structured (or so it seems to me).

Continue reading "Some Delius" »

Aimee Mann: Bachelor Number 2

After this first paragraph, this is something I posted on Facebook a week or so ago. Before hard disk space became so cheap, I backed up a lot of mp3 files to cd. I've kept them and there are dozens of them, each with typically at least 100 tracks, if it's pop music. Sometimes I pick one at random and put in the cd player in the car and leave it there for a while. I get a lot of surprises, some good and some bad. This was one of the good ones. I thought I had written about this album here at one time, ten or more years ago, but apparently I did not. I remember saying to someone at the time that it was extremely good although a little on the too cool and polished side for my taste. I am hereby raising my opinion from"extremely good" to "outstanding."
All you old folks who tend to think pop music doesn't have all that much to offer past 1975 or so, listen to Aimee Mann's Bachelor Number 2 (or The Last Remains of the Dodo). This is some of the most brilliant songwriting of the last 50 years, with performances to match. It came out in 2000, so not exactly of the moment, but it's timeless, within the pop frame of reference. Musically there are a lot of Beatles-y and Bacharach-y touches.
My only reservation is that in subject matter and general effect the songs don't really touch the depths for me, tending toward rather cool and sharp personal complaints about what seem to be specific people. But dang, she's good. Here's one song, with lyrics, so you can see how well-crafted they are.

Some Copland

I have a prejudice against ballet music. It's probably not uncommon: I call it a prejudice, but I could fairly maintain that it's a rational judgment. By its nature the music is episodic and tied to a story, or at least a series of scenes or tableaux, which are meant to be seen in conjunction with the music, and in fact are meant to be the main attraction. So if you're listening to the music alone you tend to get a group of little pieces that don't necessarily seem to be that well connected, and whose tie to the story is either limiting or vague or both. In any case it has to be supplied from outside.

I love The Rite of Spring and it's so intrinsically tied to its program that I can't imagine it being other than it is. But I wonder what I, and for that matter listeners in general, would think of it if it had just appeared as pure music with a neutral title like Concerto for Orchestra. I'm sure it would have still made a splash, but would  it have made the splash that it did, with the intentionally shocking primitivism of the ballet? Would it have been criticized as lacking unity? Impossible to know, obviously. I haven't heard it for some time, so I think I'll listen to it with that in mind.

But then if we're talking about a suite chosen from the ballet it's not really a fair criticism. A suite is by definition a set of distinct pieces, not a single coherent composition. I hear The Nutcracker Suite as a set of wonderful small works, and I love it. (I'm never sure about the officially correct name of the thing, and even less sure about how it should be italicized or quoted, but that's the way Wikipedia does it, so I'll go with that.)

Anyway: the next two LPs in the Fr. Dorrel collection, in the order in which they happen to sit on the shelf, are two volumes of Aaron Copland's music, three of them ballet scores, or suites taken from them.

Billy the Kid and Rodeo (The Utah Symphony conducted by Maurice Abravanel, Westminster WST 14059, 1959)

Both these pretty much fit, and are limited by, the remarks I made above. Both are pretty "sectioned" and I really like some of the sections, others not so much. The opening of Billy the Kid is great, that Copland wide-open-spaces sound which somehow has come to say "America." And the gunfight, which is mostly percussion, is certainly interesting. And I wonder how it would be taken if, as I suggested re The Rite above, it were extracted and presented with a bland title. In this case people might actually say that it sounds like a gunfight.

This recording also includes a bit from the ballet which apparently is not officially part of the suite. It's called "Billy's Waltz" and it's a simple, unpretentious, and lovely piece which deserves to be heard.

Rodeo...well, broadly speaking my view of it is much the same. I like some of it, mainly the quieter parts. It strikes me as a bit ersatz, maybe a touch patronizing, when it ventures into barn-dance territory, as is true of certain portions of the other ballet.

The recording doesn't strike me as great, either sonically or as a performance. But it certainly isn't bad, either. The sound really is pretty impressive for its time.

Appalachian Spring, El Salon Mexico, and Dance from Music for the Theatre (Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, Columbia MS 6355)

I love Appalachian Spring. If you don't know it, you should. It's my favorite Copland, which really isn't definitive because I don't know a lot of his work. But if I were to hear every note of it, I have a feeling that Appalachian Spring would retain its position.

About this recording I'm somewhat ambivalent. The sound is terrific, noticeably better than that of the Westminster disk, even though it was recorded only a few years later, in 1962. I can't fault the performance, which is crisp and precise and energetic, flawless but not slick, with striking dynamics. But those dynamics are a bit too striking for my taste and the level of energy borders on the aggressive. The loud entry of the strings in the second section, after the gentle introduction, is jarring to me.

But my reservation is at least in part the result of prejudice in favor of another recording: the full ballet in the original instrumentation, conducted by the composer.

CoplandAppalachianSpringFullBalletOriginalInstrumentationBernstein's recording is a beauty, but this one is the sweet shy quietly pretty girl whom you didn't notice at first but who steals your heart when you do. The original instrumentation is only thirteen instruments: flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, and a set of strings--that was all the theater had room for. This is also the original score, roughly a third longer than the suite. Copland says that the only change he made for the suite "was to cut a few spots that were needed only for choreographic purposes." I haven't tried to figure out what was cut, but I think the extra length is part of the reason that this recording has a more leisurely quality. But aside from that, the chamber orchestra makes it an altogether gentler, sweeter, more intimate piece of music, and for me more moving. And I think it's more appropriate to the low-key story line of the ballet, which depicts a wedding. 

I hadn't heard this LP for many years, so I got it out to see if my old affection still held. It does. Maybe it's only because this is the recording by which I first got acquainted with the piece, but in any case I prefer it. Looking around the web I get the impression that it isn't in print as I originally bought it in the 1970s (Columbia M32736, pictured above). But I'm pretty sure it's available in some form, as I see several "Copland Conducts Copland" collections. The same no doubt is true of the Bernstein recording. 

The most well-known part of the ballet is the use of the tune "Simple Gifts," which Catholics and others are accustomed to hearing as "The Lord of the Dance." I have always disliked that song for some reason and am relieved to find that it hasn't hurt my enjoyment of Copland's music. 

Copland says that El Salon Mexico is "the Mexico of the tourists," not "the more profound side of Mexico," which "would have been foolish for me to attempt to translate into musical sounds." Fair enough. It's a short (under eleven minutes), lively, colorful piece: nothing deep, but I find it hard to imagine anyone not enjoying it.

The Dance from Music for the Theatre is only a few minutes long and ends with a sort of near-iambic pair of beats--'DaDUM"--which in my mind immediately turned into "So what?" I had no reaction worth remarking upon to the piece. The liner notes say that the work as a whole "was not intended for the theatre, but rather as a commentary upon it." I'll give it another chance some time.

As you probably know, while Copland's music is thought of as being deeply connected to the American landscape, especially of the West, and to rural or rustic life, he was a Jewish homosexual from New York.

I've known that for a long time. What I did not know until I looked him up on Wikipedia a few days ago was that William "Billy the Kid" Bonney, whose real name was actually not William or Billy but Henry McCarty, was also a native of New York City. Ain't that America?

Elton John: Elton John

Here's another LP from the closet (not from the Fr. Dorrill collection, most of which is still sitting around in boxes), in response to a conversation I had some weeks ago in which I promised to give it a listen.

Elton John's name has come up here once or twice, and I was pretty dismissive. I'm sorry, but there's something about the guy's music, especially his voice, that doesn't appeal to me, even though I recognize that if I look at it with some detachment I see that the work he did in his prime was really good. Somehow his music always seemed not quite real to me. And I just don't care for his voice. And I never have been fond of the piano as a rock instrument.

Continue reading "Elton John: Elton John" »

Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways

This piece is actually what I was writing when I started thinking about the so-called baby boomer generation, and the whole generations scheme, which led to a separate post on that theme. More about that further down.

A month or two or three ago when this album came out there was a promotional video for it using the first track, "I Contain Multitudes." I listened to it and thought "Well, this is an album I can skip." I mean, Dylan's recent work has been pretty good, but there wasn't all that much that I felt like I couldn't do without. There's so much music I want to hear that I wasn't going to bother with this one. But my friend Stu told me I really should give it a listen. So I did: thanks, Stu.

I do think it's a mixed bag. But the good stuff...well, I'll take it track by track.

"I Contain Multitudes"
(The phrase is from Whitman, as you probably know.) I just don't care much for this. It's not so much a song as a recitation over some not especially effective music. There are some good lines but overall the lyrics are not so great. "I drive fast cars and I eat fast foods / I contain multitudes." It's a good thing that it's not that long.

"False Prophet"
Now the album really gets started: blues riff, words somewhat on the dark side. I would quote some of it but you really have to hear it in his voice. At six minutes it doesn't seem too long. His vocals are impossible, by which I mean that it seems impossible that they are as effective as they are. As has been the case for some time, it's often a stretch to call what he does singing. But it really works.

"My Own Version of You"

All through the summers and into January
I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers and brains and hearts

I want to bring someone to life - is what I want to do
I want to create my own version of you

Over a descending spooky-movie line the song goes on like that. Is he creating a Frankenstein's monster, or an ideal lover, or maybe even creating God in his own image? I'm not sure--making linear sense is not what Dylan does--but this is a strong track. Everybody knows Dylan traffics in allusion, but I suspect he does it even more than most of us recognize. Like this line: "You can bring it to St. Peter - you can bring it to Jerome."

Because I've had a copy of Bo Diddley's 16 Greatest Hits since I was 18 or so, I happen to know that the second sentence refers to one of his lesser-known songs. I don't know how many people who listen to this album would catch that. Or how many such references I miss.

"I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You"
A love song that, like all love songs, could be addressed either to a person or to God. Every now and then Dylan writes what seems to be a conventional love song, and I tend not to like them. I didn't like "To Make You Feel My Love" on Time Out of Mind and moreover thought it was totally out of place on that album. Not surprisingly, it was covered by some other artists. Anyway, this is good, but not one of my favorites.

"Black Rider"
I'd call this "pretty good": an interesting lyric, not much musically. As with "Multitudes," it isn't overly long, which is good.

"Goodbye Jimmy Reed"
I love this one. It sounds like Jimmy Reed and the lyrics are sharp. It's a tribute to Reed, with musical and lyrical allusions to some of his songs, and weighted with a sense that he had something that we still need.

"Mother of Muses"
Slow, kind of pretty, a sort of prayer. But I'm afraid I don't care much for it.

"Crossing the Rubicon"
Now this is a killer. There's a pattern in my reactions here: a preference for the more rock-oriented and sharp-tongued songs. This one is both. The more I hear it the more I like it, and want to say it's up there with some of his classics. As the title suggests, it's about a moment of decision and determination in the face of long odds, and it's very powerful:

Three miles north of purgatory, one step from the great beyond:
I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls
and I crossed the Rubicon

"Key West"
I really wanted to like this one. I've never been to Key West but from what I've seen and heard it must be an enchanting place. This song should enchant, but for me at any rate it does not. And at nine and a half minutes it goes on too long to suit me.

"Murder Most Foul"
Now I will contradict what I said about the pattern of my reactions. ("Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.") Superficially this song is like "Multitudes"--really just a recitation over a musical background. And I did not expect to like a 17-minute Dylan song. I expected it to go off the rails, like the long closing song on Time Out of Mind, which spends too much time on a silly episode apparently sparked by rhyming "legs" and "eggs."

This is where the "generations" stuff comes in. In the post I mentioned earlier I argued that if we're going to classify people in that way one of the groups should include those born between roughly 1940 and 1960--which is to say those who had the experience of growing up in the 25 years or so following the end of World War II. 

For better or worse, it's a feature of the constantly changing modern world that if you live a normal three-score-and-ten or more you're going to see the world you grew up in disappear. I've seen it happen to my parents and their parents and now it's happening to me. Naturally it often seems to the passing generation that the changes are for the worse, but whether that's actually the case or not, it's a sad thing.

This song is Dylan's farewell to the world he and I grew up in. Or rather to the America we grew up in. And it's a lament, which he hangs on the myth of the Kennedy assassination. I call it a myth because that event became almost immediately a symbol that was at least half-detached from the reality. I was never caught up in the Kennedy mystique--it wasn't a political thing, I guess I just don't care much for Glorious Leader cults. And I never thought much of the idea that the nation lost its innocence at his assassination, and so forth. (America innocent? Oh, come on.) But there is a kernel of truth there: there really was a sense of hope and expectation abroad in the land in the late '50s and early-to-mid '60s, and the assassination was a blow to it, and a symbol of its waning.

Over a quiet and somber background of piano and bowed bass, the song begins with the assassination and then begins branching out into cultural references. A little more than halfway through, it becomes a litany.

Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues
He’s going on and on at the top of his lungs
Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack
Play it for me in my long Cadillac

Wolfman is requested to "play" one after another mid-century image: songs, movies, people.

Play Oscar Peterson and play Stan Getz
Play Blue Sky, play Dickie Betts
Play Art Pepper, play Thelonious Monk
Charlie Parker and all that junk
All that junk and All That Jazz
Play something for The Birdman of Alcatraz
Play Buster Keaton play Harold Lloyd
Play Bugsy Siegel play Pretty Boy Floyd

The instrumentation grows slightly as it goes on, including a bass drum that sounds as big as a room. It's funeral music for a funeral song or poem, and I find it very moving. The thing about the times is, they never stop changing.