Music Feed

William Grant Still: "Out of the Silence"

I went to hear the Mobile Symphony Saturday night. It was a peculiar concert, and I'm not sure I would have gone if I'd realized how peculiar it would be. But they've had a very difficult year-plus, of course, and I wanted to support them. And although it was not the most exciting program conceivable, it included Dvorak's Serenade for Strings in E, which I like (and which I wrote about here), and which I knew I would enjoy hearing live. 

The peculiarity had to do with the fact that the concert was apparently planned before the pandemic restrictions had been mostly lifted. I think this picture, lifted from the orchestra's Facebook page, tells the story more effectively than I could.


When I walked in to take my seat in the otherwise empty center section of the balcony, and saw the sparsely populated stage, I just thought vaguely that most of the orchestra had not shown up yet. That would have been pretty strange, since it was only ten minutes or so before the concert was to start. Then it sank in on me that this it, this was all there was going to be. You might have to click on the picture to see that the musicians are masked. And "social distancing" was in force for the audience as well, though it didn't really matter because there were very few people in the audience. I'd guess a few hundred at most, scattered around a hall that seats almost 2,000.

As you can see, it's only the strings, and not quite all of them. Then I looked at the program and saw that it would only be a little under forty-five minutes long. Another thing that hadn't sunk in on me was that they are presenting it four times over the weekend, obviously in an effort to compensate for the extremely limited seating. 

But I enjoyed it anyway. The concert began with this little piece, which I regard as a real find. As far as I recall I'd never heard anything by William Grant Still before. If I'd heard it without knowing who the composer was I'd have guessed Delius. The strings were joined for it by a piano and a single flute.

In addition to the Dvorak, there was a Mendelssohn sinfonia for strings, a light and pretty early work which was enjoyable enough but which I'm not likely to seek out again.

The Hollies: "Look Through Any Window"

Coming home tonight just before dark and seeing into the living rooms and kitchens of houses where the lights had just been turned on but the curtains were open, I started thinking about this song.

I never heard any of The Hollies' music apart from their hit singles, but those from the mid-'60s still sound fresh and first-rate to me. 

Neko Case: "Deep Red Bells"

Blacklisted, the album from which this song is taken, is on a CD full of miscellaneous MP3 files (117 of them, to be exact) that's been in my car player for a week or so. I'd forgotten how good it is. To tell you the truth, I'd pretty much forgotten about it, period, though I wrote about it here, almost exactly fifteen years ago. "Deep Red Bells" is the opening track, and one of my favorites.

I just learned, to my mild horror, that it's about a woman murdered by the Green River serial killer.

Dylan is 80 Today

And in the course of reading various tributes to him I've been reminded that I may be the only person in the world, or at least the only Dylan fan in the world, who doesn't think Blood on the Tracks is a masterpiece, possibly the best of his many albums. Not that I don't think it's good, just not that good. 

Also, I seem to be one of the few who are skeptical about that Nobel prize. Perhaps a bit more skeptical because I've been reading Kristin Lavransdatter, a truly great work of literature. 

Elgar: Symphony No. 1 in Ab

I listened to this a couple of times back in January, and didn't quite know what to make of it. The note I made as a start to this post said "starts off with a noble, English-elegiac melody, and then a fight breaks out." The agitation of the first movement gives way to much quieter second and third movements, and then returns to a great degree in the fourth. That noble theme with which the symphony begins returns, too, and I thought it was going to be in triumph, but it seems to me a much more limited victory than that, unvanquished but perhaps weakened, not nearly as majestic as in the opening. 

I didn't dislike the symphony, but that's not to say that my reaction simply fell in the lukewarm middle: I genuinely didn't know whether I liked it or not. I put it aside for a time, then Lent came, and I didn't listen to any secular music then. Last week I finally got back to it. And now I can say that I do indeed like it, and will probably learn to love it. Those two inner movements are quite beautiful; they just needed a few hearings to sink in on me, as is often the case. Much of it is not exactly what I expect of Elgar--there's more Romantic storminess--but that says more about my limited acquaintance with his work, and maybe with some vague notion on my part that English music is supposed to be pastoral, than about the work. 

This is another LP from the Fr. Dorrell trove. It's a Seraphim recording (S-60068), but I'm pretty sure that's not the original issue, which according to Discogs was probably British and appeared in the early '60s. Seraphim, as old classical music fans may know, was the "budget" imprint of the more prestigious Angel label. I'm pretty sure my copy was produced sometime in the '60s. The cover of mine is not nearly as bright orange as this one.


The performance is perfectly fine as far as I'm concerned. I have nothing to compare it to. The sound is pretty much the norm for its time, not strikingly good as some of these older recordings can be, but not bad.

This YouTube video seems to be the same performance.

It's Always Time For a Dylan Argument

Not really. But it is a pastime that usually appeals to Dylan fans. Here, at The American Conservative, is a somewhat defiant, probably none-too-popular, assertion about Dylan's best work, with proper reservations about the basic silliness of the effort:

The problem with picking a favorite Dylan is that there are so many strong contenders. You could even make a case for the New Morning Dylan of the late ’60s or the born-again Christian Dylan, a totally underrated phase of his career. Obviously, no answer is final and the game itself is kind of a moronic trap. But this is what fans do. We love coming up with hypotheticals and arbitrary rankings, anything that lets the analytical parts of our minds engage with the art that throws its colors on our soul. And so, in the spirit of playful analysis, I’d like to make a controversial claim: the best Dylan was the Dylan of 1997 to 2001.

As the writer says, people are apt to pick the Dylan that they first heard as the best. That's more or less true of me. I think the very first Dylan I heard was something from his folkie period, but I was a teenager in the mid-'60s, when he did the brilliant work of those years, and that was the stuff that I listened to most. And I still think he never again matched the sheer brilliance of those years. But I'm certainly willing to go as far as saying that the albums commended by the writer, mainly Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, are extremely good.

One thing that Dylan did in the '60s, though, and has for the most part not done since then, was to write songs that had a robust life apart from him. There aren't many covers of his post-'60s work. Except maybe for a few songs from Blood on the Tracks, it wasn't possible, or at least wasn't rewarding, to separate the songs from Dylan's performance of them. 

But Dylan covers Dylan right well. "Cold Irons Bound" is one of my favorites from Time Out of Mind, but this performance is quite different from the one heard on the album.


Miserere: Music For the Holy Week Liturgy...

...performed by the Westminster Abbey Choir and the Abbey Consort, under the direction of Martin Neary.

I received this CD as a gift a few years ago, a fact which I mention because the cover photograph would probably have kept me from buying it for myself.


This picture of a rather malevolent-looking young man struck me as the sort of thing a record company might do to get the attention of a browser (this was 1994) for what I presumed to be a sort of anthology of liturgical music on the themes of Holy Week, with Allegri's well-known Miserere as the selling point. I say well-known because even if you don't recognize the description you may well have heard it, as its striking long high ornamental melody has been heard in sound tracks.

I was wrong on both counts--about the photo and about the music, I mean. More about the photo shortly, but the music is by no means a casual miscellany, as the number of different composers included had led me to suppose. It is instead a carefully constructed program of first-rate music beautifully performed. I've listened to it five or six times in recent weeks, and it's become a favorite. 

The centerpieces, so to speak--more accurately, bookends--are two settings of the Miserere, or Psalm 51. In addition to Allegri's, there is one by Bai. Here is what the very extensive liner notes say:

It was a desire to set this remarkable pair of Miserere settings in some kind of fruitful apposition that was the point of departure for the present recording. This gradually assembled itself around their twin poles to form a near-palindrome of chant and polyphony for Holy Week: a musical meditation on the Passion and Death of Christ that revolves slowly on itself like a solemn ring-dance of penitence and mourning. 

Plainchant and polyphony alternate. The first track is a plainchant hymn, "Vexilla Regis" ("The King's banners"). Next is Allegri's Miserere, then the plainchant antiphon "Christus factus est" ("Christ was made obedient"). And so on. Next to last is the Bai Miserere, (credited to Bai and Allegri, for reasons discussed in the notes), and then a closing plainchant hymn with a refrain (I think) composed by King John IV of Portugal.

The polyphonic works were all written in, roughly, the late 16th and early 17th centuries, except Bai's, which is a bit later. The other composers are, in order of appearance, Lotti, Gesualdo, Gabrieli, and Monteverdi. Of their works included here, I like Gesualdo's best, which is not surprising. Church polyphony is in general a kind of music for which I have more respect than genuine love. I usually feel like I don't entirely get what's going on; I suppose I'm not sensitive enough to harmony, and the kind of instantly affecting melody that one hears in the Allegri Miserere doesn't appear very often, at least to my ears. But there's something about Gesualdo's music that appeals to me, something that seems a bit strange and a bit dark, though that latter perception may be partly a result of the fact that the only music of his that I've heard is for the Tenebrae service. And perhaps even something to do with the fact that Gesualdo is, as far as I know, the only composer of note to have murdered his wife and her lover.

Which brings me to that photo. As I mentioned, the liner notes for this recording are extensive, including a very detailed essay which focuses on the performance history, both technical and historical, of the Allegri, as well as the Latin texts and their English translations. (The two Miserere settings were for more than a century heard only in the Vatican during Holy Week, and were a very big deal. Dickens tried to get in, but couldn't; Mendelssohn did, and made a transcription of the Allegri. The fourteen-year-old Mozart had done the same, only he didn't bother to actually write it down till afterward.) By the time I got to the acknowledgments at the end of the booklet, I didn't pay much attention: thanks to "the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, all at Sony Classical," etc. etc. But later, trying to find out who was responsible for the cover, I read them more carefully, and discovered this credit: "Roberto Valeri (Prince of Venosa)". 

Then it dawned on me, and I checked Wikipedia: yes, Prince of Venosa was Gesualdo's formal title. And the back cover of the booklet shows the prince in an attitude of devotion, touching a crucifix to his forehead, and looking troubled. 

So that cover which I found off-putting is actually a subtle comment on sin and repentance, most appropriate for the project. According to Wikipedia: "The evidence that Gesualdo was tortured by guilt for the remainder of his life is considerable...."

Not surprisingly, this recording of Allegri's Miserere is one of many to be found on YouTube:


Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Laika: "Badtimes"

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

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

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