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Mostly About Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


This is not metal:

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

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

Tristan und Isolde is metal. 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The "berserker" reference is to her northern ancestors.

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

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

Works of Mercy

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

Those more serious reviews:

Joan Bauer in Tiny Molecules

Tessa Carman in Plough

Fr. Dwight Longenecker in The Imaginative Conservative

Aarik Danielson in Fare Forward 


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

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

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


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

Big Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Music

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

His Name Is Alive: Livonia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith and the Muse: Elyria

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

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

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

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


(From Wikimedia Commons)

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

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


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

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

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

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


I was working on a post earlier today but didn't have time to finish it, and may not tomorrow, so, briefly:

A remark from a priest seen on Facebook on Thursday: "I thought I was having an epiphany this morning but it was transferred to Sunday."

This evening my wife and I were shamefully late for Mass. We deserved to be escorted to the front pew and mocked, but fortunately that's not done. We sat on a bench in the lobby with a woman and a girl, presumably mother and daughter and presumably also having been quite late to Mass, though not as late as we were. (I know "lobby" is not the right word, but this is a fairly modern building and that's what it feels like. Fortunately, for the kind of architecture it is, the building is not unpleasant.) The doors were closed but there's a speaker in the lobby which is wired to the priest's microphone. That made for a slightly odd effect, since we could hear the priest very well, and during the hymns a few voices from people who were especially close to the priest or especially loud, including one especially loud but not very tune-capable one, and not much else. The choir was audible but muffled.

Feeling that we really ought not to receive, we remained where we were during communion. During that ten minutes or so I couldn't hear anything much except the soft near-whisper of the priest: Body of Christ. Body of Christ. Body of Christ. I could see people leaving and returning to the pews, including a little boy who looked no more than eight and is in a wheel chair and seemed eager. So many people, so many unique little worlds full of unique and yet universal thoughts and cares and hopes and pleasures. 

It was quite beautiful to kneel there while that was going on, to watch the people, to hear Body of Christ. Body of Christ. Body of Christ, on and on, like little waves splashing quietly on a shore. 

The choir sang "What Child Is This?" As you probably know, the tune is an old English folk one called "Greensleeves," and no words of mine can do justice to its beauty, which will last as long as music does. But I had never given any thought to the English words written for it. I had unthinkingly supposed that they were traditional, too, or at any rate anonymous. But they were written in the 19th century by William Chatterton Dix, and they are extremely well-wrought. Since I was old enough to notice and understand them I've loved these two lines:

Good Christian, fear, for sinners here
The silent word is pleading.

I think it's that paradox of the silent word that gives me such a sense of reverence bordering on awe. "Fear"? Isn't that out of place? No, not if we really grasp what's going on. And I always notice that it's "Christian," singular. Not a collective but you, me. 

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. 


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:


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.


Alvvays: Antisocialites

Let's get this out of the way: it's pronounced "always." Or so says AllMusic.

Every time I think all the life is gone from pop music, something like this band comes along to prove that it isn't dead yet. I don't mean something that sounds like this, but anything that I can be enthusiastic about, even if it's the kind of dark enthusiasm that I got some years ago when I first heard The Cure's Disintegration: something that's really a fresh achievement, something so good that I want to tell people about it. Antisocialites is not especially innovative, just very very good. Rob G introduced me to it, for which I thank him. 

In a better world this song would be a hit single:

This is the first track, and my favorite, but only by a very narrow margin. Naturally, I like some of the songs better than others, but I like at least half of them about as much as I do "In Undertow," and the others are quite good. Most are irresistibly catchy, to my ears at least. 

I usually try to give any new album three reasonably attentive and open-minded hearings before committing myself to a positive or negative opinion--especially a negative one, because often something that doesn't do much for me at first gets better with more listening. But I liked this one instantly, and have now heard it at least five times with no less pleasure. It's almost hard to believe that guitar-based pop-rock can still sound as fresh as this does.

The singer's voice is a big part of the freshness: it's not spectacular or dramatically emotive or strikingly distinctive, just young and clear and accurate and, well, fresh. It's almost a bonus that the lyrics are intelligible and often clever. In "In Undertow" the speaker says

"What's left for you and me?"
I ask that question rhetorically

and then a bit later

"What's left for you and me?"
You respond to my question metaphorically

Sounds like Aimee Mann, and that's a big compliment.

The album is a bit old-fashioned in that it's short: ten songs of what used to be the typical length of three minutes or so. It occurs to me to wonder whether it was deliberately kept short to be more LP-compatible: at not much over thirty minutes it's comparable to many of the great albums of the pre-CD era. Or maybe they just didn't want to include anything that was less than first-rate. Good decision either way. There aren't that many pop musicians who can keep me interested for the 60-plus minutes that CDs made possible. 

Here's a live performance of "In Undertow." I don't know about you but it's somewhat rare for me to watch a band performing without being annoyed by a lot of stagey forced-looking posturing. They don't do any of that, and it's refreshing. 


Haydn: Symphony #92, "Oxford"

I think I mentioned in a comment on some other post that I sort of stumbled across this symphony. Unusually for me, I had tuned in to the local public radio station in my car (because I was tired of the CD that was in the player), and the second movement of this symphony was playing. I ended up sitting in the car (the weather was still tolerably cool) and listening through to the end, and really enjoyed it. 

Since then I've heard it several more times, in two different recordings. First was a 1972 version, Klemperer conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Then I tried a newer one, Franz Brüggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century, which, as the name suggests, is more of a period-performance outfit. I liked the Klemperer better. A good bit better, really. I've wondered if perhaps my preference in recordings of a given piece is simply that the first one I hear gets fixed in my mind as the way it should be. But in any case the older recording touches me in a way that the newer one does not. One obvious difference is that Brüggen speeds it up. Look at these times:

Adagio – Allegro Spiritoso 8:55
Adagio 10:00
Menuetto: Allegretto 6:12
Presto 6:04

Adagio Allegro Spritoso 7:27
Adagio 6:09
Menuetto: Allegretto 5:08
Presto 5:23

The difference in the Adagio must surely include some cuts. The tempos are not that different. But I think Brüggen's speed makes the music less rich, which is probably also an effect of the period instruments.

It's called "Oxford" because it was said to have been played at the ceremony in which Oxford awarded Haydn a Doctor of Music degree. The Wikipedia article suggests that was not actually the case. But it was apparently written and first performed while Haydn was in England.

I tend to think of Haydn as somewhat on the dull side, and I think I'm far from alone in that. But I'm pretty sure I'd like a lot of his music if I gave it a chance. I'm embarrassed to say that I actually have a CD of his oratorio The Creation and have never seriously listened to it. The only piece I've listened to repeatedly is the string quartet version of The Seven Last Words of Christ, and I like it quite a lot. 

Here's the last movement of the "Oxford." It puts a smile on my face, and perhaps will do so on yours, too. It makes me think of Mozart, but with less razzle-dazzle. Haydn is a very solid composer.

Richard Strauss: Salome

Well, that was something. 

A couple of years ago I read Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise, a history of 20th century classical music. (I wrote about the book last year, in this post.) I recall being a bit surprised that the book opened not with that usual-for-this-subject anecdote about the 1913 premier of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, but with a 1906 performance of Salome. I've never listened to much of Strauss's music and did not think of him as a modernist bomb-thrower. But Salome preceded The Rite by seven years. And, as I just discovered, it is explosive. 

I had thought, on finishing the Ross book, that I would try to work my way through at least some of the major works that he discusses and I had not heard, or not really heard. I'm just now getting around to following up on that. Conveniently, I had come into a recording of Salome not long before, in what I have been calling the Fr. Dorrell trove--several hundred classical LPs left behind when an elderly priest died a few years ago. It's an RCA Red Seal recording from the late '60s, with Montserrat Caballé as Salome and Erich Leinsdorf conducting, and it's one of those wonderful boxed sets of the great age of the LP, with a big handsome booklet containing the libretto and various other material. I put the first disk on and settled into a chair with the libretto.

Never mind the dates: Alex Ross was right to put this opera at the head of the "let's shake things up" line of early 20th century works. It is a far more sensational composition than the Rite, both musically and thematically. A hundred and twenty years later, it still has some power to shock (which I suppose means I am not as thoroughly jaded as I thought).

I had not gotten very far before I thought This libretto was written by a gay man. And sure enough: it's from a play by Oscar Wilde, written before his fall.

He takes quite a few liberties with the biblical text. In the New Testament story, the young and beautiful Salome is the stepdaughter of Herod and daughter of Herod's wife Herodias, and is used by the latter to get rid of John the Baptist. In his eyes the marriage is illicit and immoral, and, being John the Baptist, he says so much too forthrightly for Herodias's liking. Salome dances for Herod, reducing him, apparently, to a state of lustful helplessness such that he swears to give her anything she asks. I can't help figuring he had something more in mind, the dance being over at that point. Herodias prompts Salome to ask for the head of the Baptist, and Herod, trapped by his promise, has to give it to her. 

Not so as Wilde tells the story. In his version, it is Salome who is consumed with lust, and lust with an edge of perversion. She  first appears without the other two, demanding of the jailer that she be allowed to see the prophet, and, when the jailer reluctantly obeys her, begins to slaver over the Baptist in very lurid terms:  

I am amorous of thy body!
Thy body is white like the lilies of a field
that the mower hath never mowed.
Thy body is like the snows of Judea...
...[eight or ten more lines in this vein]...
Suffer me to touch thy body.

See what I mean? John of course rebuffs and denounces her vigorously, which only adds the spice of anger to her weird eroticism. She disparages his body and has a rhapsody over his hair. Eventually she settles, obsessively, on his mouth, determined to kiss him, and then, when he will have nothing to do with her (beyond telling her to repent), to take revenge on him .

As Wilde retells the story, Herod is Salome's tool, very deliberately led into a trap by her, and while Herodias approves of what her daughter is doing, she's really just a bystander. And in the end Salome gets her wish, after a fashion. Whatever one may think of Wilde's version, it is dramatically effective.

But this is an opera. What about the music? I'm afraid I was too busy following the libretto word for word to really get the music. The opera is in German, and the libretto in this package includes the German and a line-by-line English translation. I have just enough of a feel for German to pay attention to it, but not to understand much of it, and so was constantly switching back and forth between the two texts, trying to keep up with both. I only have a general impression of the music: vivid, discordant, colorful, wildly varied. A few passages did jump out at me: for instance, the moments when Herod has a sense of foreboding, imagining a great wind and "the beating of vast wings." I think I'll like it when I listen to it again. If "like" is the right word.


I think the recording is great, by the way. Sonically it's wonderful, and I see a lot of five-star reviews on Amazon.

Johanna's House of Glamour: Farewell Street

I have a soft spot, a very soft spot, for minor and neglected artists. There is a great deal of overlap in the two categories. The minor artist--meaning one who has some significant accomplishments, but smaller in number and/or scope than those of the artist acknowledged to be "great" or "major"--is often neglected. And the neglected artist is almost by definition minor, as I don't think it very likely that there are any great artists who are little known. For some reason these lesser lights are very appealing to me; I'm excited when I find them, and enjoy telling people about them. Perhaps it's just a certain sympathy for the underdog, for the person who's good at something but always in the shadow of those who are better, and who strikes me as deserving more. Perhaps it's in part because the genius of really great artists, the ones on the level of Bach, Shakespeare, and a fairly limited number of others, seems beyond human, beyond anything that I at least can really imagine being able to do. The minor artist seems more like the rest of us; or, more pertinently, like me. I can't imagine being able to write Shakespeare's plays. I can imagine writing a handful of poems worth preserving.

This album is one of those minor but exciting finds. I came across it in the cutout bin of a record store quite a few years ago, most likely before the turn of the century. It had been released in 1990 and presumably run whatever commercial course it achieved when I discovered it. The name of the band, the title of the album, and the cover intrigued me. I may also have noticed and been intrigued by the name of the record company, C'est La Mort.  It seemed nice and gloomy and was cheap enough to be worth a try. I may have paid a dollar for it, probably not more than two. And I liked it right off. As it turned out, the first track, "Losing Ground," is my favorite:

I love that desperate, anxious vocal. As this track suggests, if you want to label the band and the album, "goth" would be the appropriate tag But really no more than about half the songs fit there. The second track, "Now," is strikingly different:

"When I Loved You" sounds like it fell off some album of the late '60s, perhaps a pretty little song inserted between the long jams of a prog band. It reminds me of something but I can't quite place it. And one track, "Blue U," is not a song at all, but an aimless sort of jam with some chatter in the background. I speculate that the range of styles might have hurt the album's commercial potential.

The band may never have become really famous, but it hasn't been totally ignored, either. As you can see some of this album at least is on YouTube, and AllMusic has an entry for them, and rates this album and its follow-up, Style Monsters, very highly (four-and-a-half and four stars, respectively). The AllMusic reviewer compares the group and this album to the work of This Mortal Coil. That is very high praise, and apt. It doesn't sound like any particular TMC track, but the general vibe and aesthetic are similar. But TMC, which was basically a studio project run by a record label, 4AD in its heyday, had the benefit of a wide area of brilliant songs to cover, or rather rework, and brilliant singers to sing them. So while Farewell Street is more limited and not as good as, say, Filigree and Shadow, it does have several five-star tracks, and a number of very good ones.

Here is AMG's review of Farewell Street, and here the review of Style Monsters. I have not heard the latter but I plan to do so in the near future. Both appear to be out of print, but are readily and reasonably available (see Discogs). And you can buy it on MP3 from Bandcamp. I just bought Farewell Street from there, in fact, and paid more than the listed price in appreciation of the pleasure I've received from my $1-2 purchase, which got the band nothing. Apparently there are two more albums, but I can't find any information on them. 

Because it has fifteen tracks that run almost seventy minutes, I assumed that Farewell Street was only issued on CD. So I was surprised to see on Discogs that it was issued on vinyl. Those were the dying days of vinyl, or so it seemed at the time, and I think it was still pretty frequent for new music to appear in both formats (and cassette as well). The LP is four tracks shorter. Its cover is monochrome, not having that purple-pink overlay that the CD cover does, and I think it's better that way.

Johanna's House of Glamour-Farewell Street-LP

A Note on Period Performance

The struggle between those who think baroque and earlier music should only be performed with period instruments and style (as best the latter can be surmised) and those who think that's faddish nonsense producing dry, thin (or worse) performances can be somewhat bitter. I don't take a definite position, as I think there's something to be said for both. I have two recordings of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, one more in the "modern" period style (Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan) and one in the "traditional" modern style (Klemperer I hope that way of putting it makes the controversy seem a bit ridiculous: the two recordings are very different from each other, and I love both of them. 

That aria from the St. John Passion sung by Krista Ludwig (see previous post) obviously comes from a recording which is in that second camp--lush, rich, expressive, maybe even "romantic." Not owning a copy of the oratorio, I thought I might buy the, or a, recording which includes Ludwig. As far as I can tell there is only one, recorded sometime in the '60s with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Karl Forster with the choir of St. Hedwig's Cathedral. It's apparently out of print but I was able to locate it on Discogs and Amazon. Used copies can be had, both CD and vinyl, at reasonable prices. 


Trying to decide whether the overall performance is well-regarded enough to warrant buying it, I looked at the user reviews on Amazon. And I found a lengthy note from a Bernard Michael O'Hanlon which makes the anti-period argument very amusingly. 

"Goodbye to all that!" I muttered as I broke open the top of the tunnel. As far as I could tell, I was twenty metres beyond the barbed wire. Behind me lay Stalag Jeggy. For the past twenty five years I had been incarcerated inside this hellhole. The facility itself was owned and operated by SPECTRE (Sinister Period-Practice Enacted to Counter Traditional Readings Everlastingly). The Kommandant, whose hauteur was legendary, had tormented us incessantly by playing his speedy, dry-as-dust performance of the John Passion over the loudspeakers, punctuated by the occasional sea-shanty from Percy Grainger. Nor was he averse to reading out favourable reviews of his recordings from the Gramophone. Adding to our anguish, the chaplain of the Stalag was Father Melchizedek (O.P.), who also served concurrently as the High Priest of HIP. There had been tension between this cleric and the Kommandant as the latter had used a choir to scratch out his bloodless rendition of the John Passion whereas Father Melchizedek dogmatically insisted upon one-voice-per-part. In consequence, both parties took out their frustrations on the inmates. Devil's Island was Club Med in comparison.

The escapee goes on to discover a copy of the Forster recording. I take "Jeggy" to be a reference to John Eliot Gardiner. "HIP" seems to be meant to be an acronym but I don't know what the letters stand for. You can read the rest of the story here

"Es ist vollbracht" -- "It is finished" (Bach, St. John Passion)

I know I said I wasn't going to post till Monday, but I've been listening, for the first time, to Bach's St. John Passion, and this aria seems perfect for Holy Saturday, containing both the sorrow and the triumph of the Crucifixion. (Regarding the title of the post: I still prefer the traditional "It is finished" to other English versions of those words.)

Es ist vollbracht!
It is accomplished !
O Trost vor die gekränkten Seelen!
What comfort for all suffering souls!
Die Trauernacht
The night of sorrow
Läßt nun die letzte Stunde zählen.
now reaches its final hours.
Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht
The hero from Judah triumphs in his might
Und schließt den Kampf.
and brings the strife to an end.
Es ist vollbracht!
It is accomplished!

(Text and translation from, which seems to be one of those wonderful group labors of love that are found on the web. It started in 1999 and the web site still looks that way, but don't let that bother you.)

This performance by Christa Ludwig is not from the Passion I've been listening to, which is a more recent one (i.e. 1986!) conducted by John Eliot Gardiner and more in the favored style of recent years, said to be more authentic. But I saw this one on YouTube and I find it more moving. It's almost a full minute longer than the Gardiner version. 

The St. John is not nearly as well-known as the monumental St. Matthew, but it has many, many virtues which I'm happy to have discovered better late than never. 

Mozart: Fantasia in C minor, K 475

I was listening to a CD which includes this work along with three of Mozart's piano sonatas. When this piece started I was confused for a bit because I thought it was Beethoven. Mozart can be surprising in that way. I had an aunt who loved classical music, and like many, especially of her generation, she tended to see the 19th century as the major event in the history of music, the Big Show. She said to me once that "you can hear Mozart trying to break out of his cage." I was a little annoyed by that at the time (I was in my early or maybe mid-twenties), because I was enchanted by Mozart's concerto for flute and harp. But as I heard more of his music I started to see what she might have meant. She died in the mid-'80s and I've often wished she were still here to discuss music with me. (Naturally, none of her own children inherited her interest and aptitude, and she was delighted when I developed an interest. I was the only one in the extended family who did, and she and I had no blood relationship at all--she was my father's sister-in-law.)

At any rate, though I do love a lot of Mozart, he does often seem rather too light. There's plenty of the lightness in this piece, but much more, as that opening shows.

I wonder if anyone has ever written an alternative history in which Mozart lives into old age and becomes one the most sheerly astonishing artists of all time in any medium. Well, he already is, of course, but just think...


Laudamus anyway

The "Laudamus" from Mozart's Great Mass in C minor, K 427. (The "anyway" is because I've been in pretty low spirits, and listening to this Mass, especially this section, was beneficial.)

This is not the performance I listened to last night, which was a 1982 performance conducted by von Karajan with Barbara Hendricks. But I just found this one on YouTube and really like it. I think I'll try to find the whole recording.

Interpol: "NYC"

I heard this song a couple of days ago as one of those semi-random occurrences when I've put a CD full of MP3 files in the car player, not entirely sure what's on it. I'd forgotten how much I like it.

This is by far my favorite song from the album, which is called Turn On the Bright Lights. It came out in 2002 and I think attracted a fair amount of attention. AllMusic gives it 5 stars (!). I'm afraid I can't concur with that rating, as I'm really not that enthusiastic about most of it. The band has put out more albums since then but I haven't heard any of them. Probably worth investigating.

Portishead: Portishead

There are not all that many pop albums that enchant me on first hearing. Portishead's first album, Dummy was one. It conditioned me to have an immediately positive response to any music described as trip-hop.

I didn't hear this second album until some years later--this was pre-streaming and I had to buy the CD. When I did, I didn't like it as much and thought of it as like Dummy but not quite as good, and really didn't give it much of a chance. I listened to it again recently though and now I think that my preference for Dummy may just be a matter of which one I heard first. At any rate this one is really good. 

One mild negative that crossed my mind while listening to Portishead is that Beth Gibbons's vocal mannerisms sometimes seem to be excessive. And perhaps the songs are by a very small margin not quite as good. Or maybe it's that one or two of my favorites on Dummy (like "Wandering Star") appeal to me more than anything here. Anyway, I see that AllMusic gives Dummy five stars, and Portishead four and a half. I haven't heard Dummy for a while but I think I would concur. I haven't heard their only other studio album, Third, at all. 

This song, "Only You," is as good a representative of the album as any. The scratching was the one thing about the Portishead sound that I didn't like when I first heard it, but now it seems, weirdly, to be an effective part of the atmosphere. You could say that atmosphere is what Portishead is all about, but that would miss their brilliance.

About scratching, by the way: it took me a long time to get over being appalled by the mistreatment of the records and equipment involved. If you don't know what I'm talking about, see this Wikipedia article

Jumping Into the Deep End

Jack Butler, submissions editor for National Review Online, is a big fan of pop music but, is to use his own word, "embarrassingly" unacquainted with classical music. Deciding to fix that, he has taken an extremely odd measure:

I have set about remedying this deficiency in classic amateur fashion: i.e., haphazardly, guided by what little knowledge I do have. Which is why, not long into my [New Year's] resolution, I decided to jump into the deep end and listen to all of Richard Wagner’s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen.

If you asked me how to approach classical music in the way most likely to result in disappointment and dislike, I might come up with this. Sure, listen to the entire Ring, in just a few days, on Spotify, with no libretto. That will surely work. Similarly, someone might introduce himself to the pleasures of bourbon by chugging a coffee mug full of 101 proof Wild Turkey.

At least it can be said of the Wagner cure that the subject would probably not require medical attention. But I can't imagine getting much out of it. Wagner's music is not exactly accessible--you can listen to him for a long time without encountering anything recognizable as a tune. The well-known popular bits, like the Ride of the Valkyries, are few and far between. And, most of all: these are operas which tell a long and complex story. So listening to them with the story unavailable bears some resemblance to listening to a novel read in a language you don't know. But Butler says he did enjoy it, though I think I detect a certain clenching of the jaw in his account

After this, he has recourse to Jay Nordlinger, also of National Review, and a music critic. You can read Nordlinger's recommendations here, and they're fine, but this is the important part:

I suggest that people listen to some things — an assortment of music. Just dip in. If you like something, seek out more from that composer — listen to him, read about him, etc. Feel your way along. Embark on discovery.

If someone asked me for similar advice, I think it would be even simpler: just listen. (I certainly wouldn't decide that my tastes should guide him, and neither does Nordlinger.) That's really all it takes. Sometimes I hear people say, hesitatingly, "I don't know anything about classical music," and seeming hesitant even to approach it without some kind of instruction. That's a mistake, and a bad one if it keeps someone away from the music. When I was a college freshman I took an introductory music course for non-music majors, and it was my first step into the classical music world. So it may sound as if I'm contradicting myself in saying "just listen," but that was precisely the opportunity that the course gave me: to hear a wide range of music and get some sort of sense of what I would like. If I remember correctly, at the end of the course there were two pieces that I especially liked: Smetana's The Moldau and Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. If you know those you can see that my taste was already eclectic to say the least: the former is a very straightforward, pretty and melodic piece, the latter a crazed-sounding quasi-recitation of mysterious German poems and atonal music. And I just kept going from there.

Not to say that there is not a very great deal to know usefully about music, both technically and historically. I know next to nothing technically, and would like to know more. And my ear is not that sensitive. I know that I miss a lot because I usually don't grasp the formal structure of a piece. I most likely miss it when, for instance, a composer uses the inversion of a theme from the first movement of his symphony in the fourth movement. That  kind of thing may limit, but certainly doesn't prevent, my enjoyment and appreciation.

This made me want to revisit The Moldau. I haven't heard it for decades. It's still great. It's meant to paint a tonal picture of the course of a river from mountain brooks to the sea. 

And here's just a taste of Pierrot. Don't be alarmed, it's less than two minutes long. I still love it, too.

Get Back (Peter Jackson's Beatles Documentary)

If I didn't have, um, access to someone's Disney+ account, I wouldn't have paid much attention to this. Who needs another Beatles documentary? But I do have access, so I have watched part of it...and now I think, more or less, who needs another Beatles documentary? Or book, or re-master re-issue re-organization of their recordings, or collection of outtakes and scraps? 

If that sounds like I'm not really that much of a Beatles fan, I'd have to say "you're right." I admitted as much to a couple of people who said they had been glued to their TVs for the entire six (!) hours of the thing. Not me. I was bored after 45 minutes or so and stopped. then a day or two later went back and watched another hour. That still didn't finish the first of the three two-hour episodes. I will most likely eventually watch the rest, because it's somewhat interesting, and after all it is the Beatles. But it's not at the top of my to-do list.

When I say "not much of a fan," I mean "fan" in the sense of "fanatic." I do like the Beatles, and I do think their work is is one of the greatest achievements in popular music. But I don't revere them. Even back when they were an active band putting out new records, and I was young, I didn't hang on their every word or take them as gurus. If anyone had that kind of effect on me then, it was Dylan. And I had gotten over that by the mid-1970s. 

The movie does have a nice humanizing and demythologizing effect. If you've ever been in a band, or just in a group of people casually trying to play together, that first 45 minutes is pretty much the same thing: a bunch of guys sitting around playing bits and pieces of stuff, getting irritated, getting bored, trying to be funny, and so forth. It's just not very interesting to watch, even when I remind myself that they are going to end up with at least a few brilliant songs.

I guess I should back up a bit: this is basically a revisiting, at great length, of the Beatles' Let It Be documentary, released in 1970, covering the sessions that led to the recording of the album of the same name and to a rooftop concert. I saw it when it was originally released, and did not realize that it has mostly been unobtainable since then. It was, to me at least, not exactly an enchanting film. The group was falling apart--I think they had already broken up when the film was released--and the album was a mixed bag at best. Apparently a whole body of belief about the last days of the band grew up around that documentary: it was Yoko's fault, it was McCartney's fault, and so forth. The new one claims to provide a fuller and more accurate picture. Here's the trailer:

I will leave it to those who are more interested and knowledgeable to pick over what this film does or doesn't tell us about the breakup, the personalities, the relationships, the relative importance of musical contributions, and so forth. For what it's worth, my long-standing belief that McCartney was by far the most musically gifted of the group is confirmed. He also seems to be, at this point, the only one of the four who really wants to work, and to keep the band going. Watching him work out the title song is striking: he does it with just his bass, and if I'm not mistaken he's using the bass as a 4-string guitar--which of course it is, but typically it's only played one note at a time. McCartney seems to be strumming chords on it. I'm not a musician but I think that's pretty unusual. And of course he does it with perfect ease.

It also brings out something which I guess has been pretty obvious for a long time: by this point in their career, the songwriting had really declined. Both McCartney and Lennon sometimes seemed not to want to spend much time with lyrics. "Get Back" is great musically, and it has a great chorus, but the verses are throwaway. I'd say something similar about several of the other songs on Let It Be. "You can syndicate any boat you row". Whatever.

But if you are a real Beatles fan, you'll want to see it.

Surprise Symphony

I went to hear the Mobile Symphony on Saturday. There were three works on the fairly short program: Rossini's overture to The Thieving Magpie, Saint-Seans's Violin Concerto #3, and Mendelssohn's Symphony #4, known as "The Italian." I was slightly surprised to find that I recognized the overture--just slightly, not very. I knew it was one of those that gets played fairly often, and figured I had probably heard it on the radio somewhere along the way.

I did not recognize the violin concerto, and I quite enjoyed it. I will no doubt seek it out again. The violinist was Bella Hristova, and all I can say about her performance was that I enjoyed and admired it--there's some tricky stuff in there, as in most 19th century violin concertos, though something I read, maybe in the program notes, said that it's not as difficult as his other violin concertos. As an encore she played what I think was a movement from one of Bach's unaccompanied violin works, and I liked it as much as the concerto.

The surprise was the Mendelssohn. I've never gone out of my way to listen to Mendelssohn very much, though as the parent of a violinist I became very aware of the violin concerto. I figured I had heard the Italian at some point or other, perhaps a broadcast concert or something, but can't remember ever having actively listened to it. So I was very surprised when they struck it up and heard something very, very familiar. If I'd heard it without knowing what it was, I would have thought now which Beethoven symphony is that? I would have bet money that it was Beethoven, and I don't bet. Or perhaps I would have refused to bet, on the grounds that it wouldn't be sporting to bet on something where I was sure I was right.

So I'm puzzled. The rest of the symphony was as unfamiliar as the first movement was familiar. I'm wondering if the opening measures have been used as the theme of some movie or tv show. If anyone has any idea why it might be so familiar, I'd like to hear it.

Here's a performance of the entire symphony:

To tell you the truth, I didn't really listen very well to the rest of it, because I was so preoccupied with wondering about that opening.

Kompakt's Pop Ambient Series

Kompakt is a German electronica label which I think is mainly oriented toward the types of music that those of us who aren't into them lump together as "techno."  EDM, for "electronic dance music," is the preferred term, I think. Whatever you call it there are actually quite a number of sub-genres; see this Wikipedia article if you want to know more, and note that it includes links to information on sub-sub-genres. Do you know the difference between house and trance? I don't, even though I once read a few paragraphs of a music producer complaining, and illustrating his complaint with technical observations, that trance is boring in comparison to...I don't remember now, some other variety of EDM. But it was amusing because he spoke as if the two were as different as peanut butter and jelly.

Kompakt also produces some ambient electronica, which at first struck me as odd, since ambient music is typically tranquil, and the polar opposite of the frenetic hard-driving beat of dance music. But it actually makes sense. I think (I have no personal experience!) ambient music has some kind of place in the dance club world as a respite from the pounding music, reportedly played at industrial volume levels. A few years ago there was a controversy about a techno club in downtown Mobile. Although that area is described as an "entertainment district," there are also some apartments and condominiums, and if I remember correctly some of the residents got it shut down because of the very loud music. This was notable because there same area contains half a dozen or so clubs where rock bands play every weekend.

Anyway, since 2001 Kompakt has issued an annual anthology called Pop Ambient. Back when was the principal way I heard about and purchased (old-fashioned notion!) new music, I acquired a number of these: 2002 through 2016, to be exact. Every one is excellent, if you like this sort of thing. It's very static--there's no forward movement, as in normal music. It's all repetition and addition and slight variation. I was thinking about how to describe it and remembered Rob G's description of a trance (I think it's trance) track in one of the 52 Albums posts.

the musical development all happens vertically above the basic axis and not along it, so to speak. Sounds, instruments, and voices are added and subtracted in such a way as to propel the song to the next one, rather than to bring closure. 

That's really pretty accurate for Kompakt's ambient music, too. I haven't attempted to analyze any of this music in the way that Rob does, but it wouldn't surprise me if they aren't constructed with similar consistency (as opposed to the loose, drifting nature of much ambient).

Here's a track from the 2002 edition, the earliest one I have. Triola is the name of the artist, "Ag Penthouse" the title of the track (I don't know what the "Ag" means).

And here's one from 2020, "Urquell" by Thore Pfeiffer:

Without some indication one--well, at least most ones--would not be able to tell any basic stylistic difference over the 20-year interval. Which is a little bit amusing, since EDM seems to be a very trendy scene. At least a couple of the artists from the 2001 edition also appear on 2021. 

The graphics accompanying those tracks are the album covers. Every edition features a photograph of flowers somewhat like these, and that's very appropriate: I think of these pieces as being like pictures. The experience of listening to them is more similar to the experience of looking at a painting than is the narrative sort of movement that most music provides. Moreover, the flowers are a good visual analog of most of the pieces: gentle, delicate, graceful, beautifully colored. Also fitting is the fact that twenty such pictures are all obviously very different from each other and yet obviously very similar.

While looking for the post-2016 (post-eMusic) releases in this series, I discovered that Kompakt also puts out an annual anthology of their dance music. I listened to one--not very closely, just let it play while I was doing miscellaneous little tasks around the house--and rather liked it. That series is called Total, with a two-digit year: Total 21 and so forth. I think it's been running at least as long as Pop Ambient