Thursday, July 13, 2017

20th Century / Czech Composers / Musique concrète / Pierre Henry

Greetings for 2017! What? The year's more than halfway over you say? Indeed it is. Wherefore has the author been? Doing my best to duck the muck, dear readers. If you don't know what I'm talking about good for you! I won't bother trying to explain if someone doesn't know what I'm talking about. Life. That's what. Full of questions, questions, questions. And answers! Everybody's got answers - especially for questions that you'd think we'd have the answers to already, but no. You know what I mean. How can I put this in musical terms? Willhelm Furtwangler and Tuli Kupferberg. Those two have been arguing back and forth in my head for a few years at least. If you don't recognize those names, that's okay - we have google now. It's more about what those two represent. The ideas about the function of art and music. One will say - music is the force that can transform and beautify the world. This is not a new idea, certainly. The other will say - music is the force for change. Art for art's sake / art for good's sake. What is art? What is good? Oh, questions, questions. Didn't the Greeks psych this out a long time ago? Somewhere along the path of my extended liberal arts education the John Keats poem "Ode On A Grecian Urn" passed along my consciousness and lodged itself in the grey matter between my ears as a red flag of relevance, hence its inclusion here:

The best part is the punchline couplet at the end. Truth. Beauty. Yeah, yeah. 1819, right? Only a few years before Beethoven's 9th was composed and performed for the first time. "Ode to Joy" and all that. Furtwangler, etc......Long before 1848 and Marx. Or Shostakovich and 1917. And its now a long time after all that. Does anybody even speak of post-war anything anymore? We must be post-post-war now at least. Post Cold War. Still, the function of art continues to be called on the carpet. It all depends on where you are, as usual.

Where I happen to be is actually close enough to a number of different quality orchestras, yet it's been a long time since I went to see that Varese show at Lincoln Center conducted by Alan Gilbert. How out of the loop have I been? I didn't even know about Gilbert's leaving the NY Philharmonic until a few weeks ago. I enjoyed the performance I heard though some were claiming his career never quite took off in New York as had been anticipated. This kind of critique reminds me of baseball players. Are conductors supposed to hit "home runs" too? What could that mean? So there you have it - what do I know? No accounting for taste at this blog.............speaking of which...........

Lately I've found myself returning to more 20th century music. I think this is partly due to a general desire to launch myself from the planet Earth as quickly as possible. If only transcendentally. Anything modern is fair game. Varese, of course. Elliott Carter like this:
 Some fun electronic music:
  And this diabolical thing I keep returning to:
And I already have a pantload MORE of this kind of abrasive wallop that I haven't even gotten to yet.

Yet for some reason when I'm down at Princeton Record Exchange (only seems about twice a year now) I find myself buying a lot of modern Czech music albums. I've found myself enjoying composers from that region for quite some time (Bartok, etc...) though there's been a curious pattern whenever I'm trolling for albums. My brain does something like this:
"Hmmm......import pressing.......Vaclav Somethingoranother with lots of punctuation thingies... 1970-what? Okay......Supraphon... $1.99? SOLD!"
Here are a few examples from recent purchases. 

I don't know what it is about where I shop or what it says about the music - it's ubiquity, cheapness, whatever......but I really get the impression that old 20th century Czechoslovakia (and the neighboring countries) put modern music production in the upper priority bin of the national agenda! To imagine this being a matter of POLICY is not out of the question. Yet, for me it is more of a question at the moment. No matter, really. There's a lot of great music to be found from this era / region that I'm still plonking through. The variety of sounds and commitment to unique music provides an enjoyable contrast to the other strains of music from the time period - the 12 tone German school, the American electronic school, etc.......

And before we leave the Germans's a recent Stockhausen acquisition:
 Now, I'm somewhat aware of the fact that this is one of the more ubiquitous slices of Stockhausen to be found. Not surprisingly since it was put out on Chrysalis Records in 1975. Right alongside of Jethro Tull and Robin Trower! I have also gleaned enough info about Stockhausen to know these pieces are only two parts of a larger series of works that would take several albums to fill up the whole cycle of. In fact, I have long ago made peace with the idea that - no matter how brilliant and fascinating his work may be, I am NOT going to attempt to digest the whole Stockhausen kaboodle because.......I'll never live that long! All of this rationale (isn't it fun how my mind works??) leads to the more sane conclusion to sample some pieces as time allows. Vinyl would be the preferred way to do this, yet a lot of Stockhausen vinyl is scarce and expensive. Not the above LP, however!

Ah, but what's the music like? Now I realize what I'm about to describe here makes me sound way more intuitive than I actually am, so just to qualify for a second - when I get ideas like this I put it down to "random luck". Contemplating the pretty enormous output of Stockhausen I couldn't help wondering "Did this guy really write everything out in notation? Or even SOME kind of notated organization?" Well, the answer for the Ceylon / Bird of Passage album is apparently "no"! The musicians here were given a loose set of instructions based on some philosophical ideas. Then the "score" calls for improvisation. Now, of course this saves the composer a lot of time, though I will still err on the side of Stockhausen's desire to innovate rather than shirk tedious composer duties of notation. So, what the music sounds like is improvised group interaction.

This of course is innovative in the 20th century mold of modern music. Yet, the sticking point for not a few listeners is the lack of repeated ideas or linearly constructed ideas such as melodies. One could certainly pick out melodic moments amidst the proceedings. Perhaps music like this calls for a different way to listen. I found myself appreciating textures most of all here. The combinations of instruments were unusual enough to capture my attention and especially how they were used. Can semi-improvised collective musical interaction be considered "composed"? Why not? If Stockhausen was the catalyst for the project - he is still the "sound organizer". Isn't that what a composer ultimately is? Speaking of which...........

The recent passage of Pierre Henry caught my attention since his name was somewhat familiar, yet I couldn't place it. Aha! Yes - I'd picked up an album he was involved with awhile ago - and perhaps this was his most well-known collaboration. Unfortunately for his collaborators, the LP did more damage to their career than good, alas...........
 Most rock fans know this as Spooky Tooth's 3rd LP release - CEREMONY. The collaboration was not intended to represent the band's "direction" - especially as it happened right after their successful 2nd LP "Spooky Two". Rock fans know and love "Spooky Two" well. It shows the group at its peak with great songs and production by the talented Jimmy Miller (Traffic, Rolling Stones - classic rock LPs were produced by this guy). This was NOT the case with CEREMONY. The collaboration was more like Spooky Tooth recorded at a live show - a bit in the distance - with Pierre Henry's electronic sounds up to the fore. And the "songs" were based on the Christian Liturgy (perhaps a somewhat popular theme of the time, but not really commercially viable to a rock band's career). This was not a commercial Jimmy Miller production and, as correctly surmised by singer Gary Wright, the decisison of the record company to release it as a Spooky Tooth record killed the band's career / momentum . There could be a whole series of lessons to be learned from this fateful story. However, it is a bit sad that Pierre Henry winds up in an indefensible position. He did not seek a career in rock music. The collaboration is interesting and totally in line with the aesthetic of his art - musique concrète. To save time, I will refer the reader to this article for a fine explanation of this genre:

And to give Pierre Henry a bit more of a fair shake, here is a fascinating glimpse into his life and work:

What I got most out of watching this film was the idea of how to adjust to listening in new ways. Rock fans had certain expectations from Spooky Tooth's music. They were not prepared to have to adjust their listening to be able to appreciate the collaboration between the rock band they loved and this relatively unknown composer, brilliant as he was. Using this famous pop music debacle as a litmus test of sorts - consider that CEREMONY was released in 1969. The 20th century only had another 30 years left to go and yet the experimental nature of the music was perhaps too much for even the average rock fan to take in. It was bad for business, certainly. Was it bad art? What was the point behind it? That, dear listeners, is what is left for future generations to decide. Until next time - hopefully not too long - happy listening!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Positive Vibrations of Gratitude and Thanks

 I have to admit - the last few years of posting here have not been as frequent or productive for me - many family obligations and professional distractions have gotten in the way. Yet, I have been quite amazed by some of the positive comments from folks who have stopped by to read and share their own reflections with me. All signs point to this being a "golden age" of sorts for classical listeners - especially those who still find enjoyment from home stereo systems. Quite consistently from the first year I started this blog - concurrent with my classical listening journey - I have managed to chance upon a lot of wonderful music for very reasonable prices without even being that obsessive about it! At this point I've had to pass over more of what's out there in the bins simply due to the fact that I can't lug everything home - I'm literally running out of space! Of course, this leads to being more selective which is tough going for the omnivorous listener (me!).

Now I find myself responding to certain themes and interests when it comes down to what comes in the door. For instance, although I have more than enough Stravinsky - and way too many copies of The Firebird - I couldn't say no to this, even though the cover was suffering from a split spine. The record itself was pretty minty, amazingly enough and that kinda sealed the deal (along with the outrageous cover art and, well, it being a nice old London mono too).
It is always a trip to spin such an old record that is in great shape, especially when the performance is top notch too. Speaking of old records, I still have to drag home any Remington LP I don't have that's in halfway decent shape - such as the two below:
Still haven't spun these - need a good cleaning and possibly a wood-glue treatment, but they should clean up nice. Again, do I already have great recordings of Debussy's Preludes and Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata? Yeah, but......but......oh, nevermind. Just another way to hear a familiar favorite, like these:
Who could possibly need another Scheherazade or Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2? Well, these are QUADRAPHONIC albums and, yeah - I have the right equipment to decode these records properly. And for that process to work, very clean records are essential and these fit the bill. There was a third out of this batch I'd already played........ah, here it is:
Yep - La Mer again. This time in QUAD and it was pretty darn cool! Quadradisc was a pesky format, but it did pay off when working right.Which it did the night I played this LP.

Then, there is the modern thing.......
Berg, Webern, Koechlin, Martino and Babbitt - quite a wide variety there and it's just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, the Webern LP was still sealed when I got it - compelled to break it free after seeing an internet friend spinning their copy! Always fun to be a joiner-inner with an obscure record once in awhile.

And of course, I continue to give Elgar a chance when I can - a process that has been going much better than expected due to a couple of nice scores this year.
I picked up this Elgar Symphony No. 1 disc (along with a No.2 disc also) and in this case the Solti / London Phil combo has made a difference! Can't say I'm head over heels about these pieces, yet I am enjoying the drama and light and dark shades much more than previously.
 Maybe the thing with Elgar has to do with Being Here Now. Kinda like that great book by Ram Dass. This one:

The whole hippie shebang is available to see / read at the link above. Actually not necessary to be burning any Nag Champa whilst reading, but then again - it might help!

Now, before I go all Rudyard Kipling on you here - consider the possibility of the influence of the East in both cases. Western thought and Western Music being so derived from the Roman / Legal / Latin habit of mind (which Elgar even as an Englishman was part of), yet as we all know the British Empire as it was in Elgar's time would be bound up in its connection to India and the surrounding region. I honestly don't know if Elgar was ever inspired directly by the mystics of Asia, but one cannot doubt his awareness of what his own British Empire was up to (as much as any average subject of the Empire could be).

This is all a roundabout way of getting to the salient point / eureka moment I had about Elgar. His music seems to evoke a sense of adventure, the unknown and mysterious along with a fair bit of "triumphant" thrown into the mix now and then. He takes you on a journey and lands you back in time for scones and tea. Jolly good!
This whole turn of events was actually inspired by the above CD from 1997 that I rescued from a thrift store a few months ago. Of course I picked it up with a snicker or two - "Ha ha! Ultimate ELGAR, eh? Heh heh." And my usual avoidance of any such "excerpts discs" was in reverse here - Yes! Yes! Just what ARE Elgar's Greatest Hits? I do want to know! Well, my own snarkiness got the better of me this time because once I popped the thing in the player - I was won over. Enjoyed the heck out of this disc. Go figure. I didn't give a hoot about what pieces were from what larger work. Just let it roll........and it was alright. Though I have to say that portrait of the Old Boy with that rather large badger of a moustache really evokes that Victorian Era to a "t". Speaking of which.............

If your brain hasn't turned to patchouli from over-exposure to Ram Dass, check out this fascinating article from Smithsonian Magazine on the topic of Dr. Livingstone's rescuer: Henry Morton Stanley. The famed men of Elgar's time may have fallen out of favor, but perhaps history might do well to re-investigate what we think we know about those stuffy Victorians. See here:  

Rounding out the entry - I just wanted to pass the word along on this excellent Hovhaness CD. Two symphonies - the first of which inspired by the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Certainly, mountains are good topically for Hovhaness, mysterious or otherwise. Yet, the music itself is fun in a modern-but-not-obnoxious kind of way. When I was a wee lad and interested in things like rocks and volcanoes I once had a little plastic bottle of ash with a label and a certificate of authenticity that the contents came from Mount St. Helens eruption. I would like to think it was true and not the ash from somebody's dead dog remains, but who would know? It's important to keep that sense of wonder going at all costs. Before I leave this disc I have to also report that the City of Light Symphony has a brilliant Finale to it - very memorable and distinctive. Worth checking out for sure!

Well, dear readers / listeners - I hope to connect more with the "serious music" realm in the New Year. Aside from my considerable responsibilities, I am looking forward to some good and healthy life changes. It's never too late to do one's best to take good care - and by all means let us all fill our ears with good music as often as we can. It may help us all down the road apiece............thanks again for stopping by! Bright Moments!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Holy Grails and Exciting New Horizons in Sound...........

      One of these days I may get to do something else with my leisure time besides listen to music. When that happens, I am considering all the great old movies I never got to see - or old favorites I'd like to see again. There are entire genres of film I'd love to explore in greater depth. I know my cousin was an Alfred Hitchcock fanatic. I ended up inheriting his collection of Hitchcock movies that I have yet to check out. As it is - unless the topic is of particular interest I just can't bring myself to watch movies or even TV for that matter. The last thing I watched was the new Jaco Pastorious documentary and it was excellent - yet I waited a pretty long time to unseal the DVD I bought months ago to finally sit down and watch. There are plenty of other kinds of films I like - especially old, low-budget Sci-Fi stuff like the old black and white Flash Gordon films. I remember seeing these things as a kid and it was obvious to me how kooky the ideas of "the world of the future" looked in those films. Even the TV shows like the original Star Trek were so bizarre - that was part of the fun!

     Modern classical - or perhaps I should say 20th Century music - can sometimes display the same aesthetic - wacky modernism. Kind of like "futuristic fins" on the backs of cars from the 50s and 60s. Elements serving no real purpose except to create an illusion of  "the future"  in the present. Yet, ideas about the future are always grounded in the realities of the present - until subtle forces beyond the control of anyone push us all ahead into the reality of new times. Who could have imagined the sweeping influence of Henry Ford on the landscape - geographically, economically and even politically - at the dawn of the 20th Century? Certainly not the artist who rendered his idea of what New York City would look like in 1999 from a 1909 perspective. I love this crazy drawing - see here:
      Notice how the artist makes every bridge look like the Brooklyn Bridge and all the tall buildings are rendered in that heavy, gothic-like architectural style. Interesting to note that the sprawling, congested qualities evident in the drawing are not so far off the mark - though Central Park does a good job of breaking up the urban madness in reality (did this artist figure progress would triumph over vegetation?). In some ways, the artist over-dramatized humanity's gallop into the urban experience. Yet, the drawing captures important elements that have come to pass - airships flying high above the metropolis and the continued importance of the New York harbor (along with the increasing need for bridges to connect the different boroughs). However, the influence of the automobile is totally missing from this image - as 1909 would have been just a tad early to predict the rise of car culture in the United States (or anywhere for that matter).

Music of the early 20th Century was also rooted firmly in the forms and traditions of the 19th Century. Even some of the wildest music was only as wild as the available instruments could allow it to be (which is not to understate the bravery of the art - catch an earful of Charles Ives if in doubt). I do wonder though how confident the composers may have been that humans would be immersed in, say, 12-tone styled music by the late 20th Century (if we are talking about Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Vienna School composers). Perhaps that was not an accurate prediction of future music, yet I think the concept of strict tonality has been circumvented by enough current pop music of today to argue for a non-academic though still fundamental shift away from rigid tonal structures. Tambre and "vibe" seem to resonate more with modern music people than the 88 notes on the piano. Composition is no longer limited to the bass and treble clef regions on staff paper. Digital pastiche is far more common and accessible. Virtual is in  -  acoustical is out (or can be replicated so closely as to render the human input moot - keeping overhead costs down in the process). 

This entry will have its share of "modern" sounds, though I want to share some recent finds I've been exited about for a while now. A few years ago I found this Nonesuch LP with a composition by the composer Faure titled "Ballade for Piano and Orchestra".
I really enjoyed this piece, but the LP was not in the best of shape and proved to be a tough item to find a replacement copy of. So I kept my eyes peeled for a better one - to no avail for a few years. Not only is this particular record a tough score in my neck of the woods - this particular piece does not seem to be too popular either. I looked for CDs containing this piece and came up pretty dry. So imagine my relief to discover a performance of Faure's "Ballade" by Earl Wild on this nifty reissue LP:
I find Earl Wild's playing very enjoyable - his recording of "Rhapsody in Blue" for RCA is a benchmark / landmark recording that belongs in any music fan's collection.So I knew well enough to scoop up this LP and the results are fine indeed! Yet, that Nonesuch LP still has a kind of “magic mojo” missing from the Earl Wild record. Both performances are quality stuff, but there are enough differences in style, approach and recording values to distinguish the two versions from each other significantly. So I will keep an eye out for a replacement copy of the Nonesuch record. In the meantime, I recently came across these two solo piano records featuring works by Faure performed by pianist Albert Ferber.

  Now this is a name I have never come across and the the discs were pressed in West Germany (such as it was in 1979). These are re-pressings of previously released material and some interesting ephemera found within the covers suggested these issues were an improvement over the originals. In fact, the previous owner had written a letter to a UK publication – Classics Magazine – in the early 90s pleading for a CD reissue of these recordings and placed his letter in the record jacket (a response letter was placed inside LP Volume 2). The previous owner must have had quite an ear since the music found on these records is spectacular – and I'm not easily won over (or even mildly entertained) by solo piano music usually. Were these recordings ever issued on CD? If so I would probably pick them up if I found them – not that the records I found were in bad shape, but sometimes CDs are a great way to hear solo piano music due to quiet parts that vinyl isn't always kind to (if surface noise is too intrusive). No matter what the format, I will heartily recommend these discs to anyone regardless if you've heard of Faure or not.

That really is the best kind of listening experience – when a recording / performance can win you over and transcend expectations. The same was true of this RCA 70s reissue LP of a Reiner / Chicago album titled “Great Music of Spain”.
I knew I didn't have this material on CD or on the older LP pressing and just added it to whatever pile of other classical LPs I was rescuing that day, not really giving it much thought. When I finally got around to taking it out for a spin – WOW! Maybe I'm not much of an audiophile, but this reissue made me sit up and take notice of the sound. The music is excellent too, of course. All this reminds me of a rather long, but thorough article I read awhile ago and recently rediscovered about some patterns relating to record labels, sound quality and the whole “original pressing versus reissue” debate. This article pretty much sums up – in so many, many words – quite a few of my own findings though my research has been fairly limited by comparison. The Reiner reissue is a simple illustration that great sound can be found on reissues – and even on jazz and rock reissues (somewhat contrary to the article posted). I deal with those genres more on my other blog here:
As it happens, I recently stumbled into a nice pile of vintage RCA stereo LPs – quite a few Living Stereos here:
These all were marked by their previous owner with a stamp presumably designed for his local photography business. I'm a bit loathe to provide a picture to reveal his full name, etc......even though I reckon he has since passed on. At any rate, he kept his LPs clean and had great taste! Probably the crown jewel was the famous Reiner / Bartok LP:
 There was another Bartok album as well along with some of the more popular titles – some “shaded dogs”, some “white dogs”.

 All of the records from this collection appear to have been purchased in the mid-60s (confirmed by some dates from the owner's business stamps). I am still plowing through these and have yet to be disappointed by any that have graced the turntable so far.
 Speaking of Bartok, I also found this curious red vinyl pressing of a Concerto for Orchestra recording conducted by Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra for RCA in the early 80s. Overall the performance is enjoyable and the liner notes are fun to read since the focus is on how great the “new” digital recording techniques are. One of the interesting byproducts of the digital revolution was the return of some pretty dynamic recordings. Indeed, I have some LPs and CDs from the early 80s where the dynamic range is quite pronounced to fairly dramatic effect. Of course, this aesthetic was possible during the golden age of analog, but the trend moved away from truly hi-fi to compromised, “normalized” sound (see the above link for way more on this topic – if you don't know already).

Of course, part of my fascination with the “serious” music world runs in tandem to the topic of sound quality and the various recording techniques and media offered – discs, tapes, et al. In fact, I've realized my “surround / quad” listening has taken a bit of a backseat (mainly due to lifestyle rather than technology deficiencies). That doesn't stop me from dragging home the odd quadraphonic LP (or 12......) here and there. Perhaps a return to quad will be next year's theme. I could do quite a few months of straight quad listening with just the classical titles I've put together.........eeesh! And I'd sure love to get an earful of the quad version of this late 20th Century classic:
 I have Switched - On Bach with the original, “constipated Bach” cover too! Ha!
 What I didn't know was the existence of a “human” counterpart LP – the selections from the famous Moog album played by human performers – same pieces in the same order as the electronic “hit” - this time titled, what else? Switched-OFF Bach.
 This cover is merely a closeup of the “staid” Bach cover image used for the Switched-On Bach LP we all know and love. The human performers here include the likes of Glenn Gould and other contemporaries. I wonder if there will ever be another surprise “hit” classical release again?

Moving a bit backwards in time technology-wise, I was very excited to find a nice copy of one of my “holy grail” albums – in fact THE FIRST long-playing, 33&1/3 album released by Columbia: ML 4001 !!

 I found this along with a few other records from the first batch released by Columbia in 1948 as part of the ushering-in of the new vinyl LP format. From a sound quality standpoint, these records are far from audiophile, but they are historically interesting. In fact, it would be really interesting to hear what these same recordings sound like on their 78 RPM counterparts. Which I am also capable of doing more frequently now that I rigged this Pro-Ject Debut turntable to play 78s. I also outfitted the Ortofon cart with the appropriate needle which sounds great!

I haven't gotten to this version of the Grand Canyon Suite yet. At the moment I'm playing this recording by the Oslo Philharmonic (which I also have on open reel tape) – which is such a spirited performance it is the benchmark for me (and sounds great too). Highly recommended!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

And the hits just keep on coming.........the continuing adventures of Classical vinyl....

 Reflecting on my last post here, I re-read the lines “a literal avalanche of new music” and considered what the thrift stores have been coughing up lately – indeed an avalanche of new LPs! Here is a quick look at the spines of about 80 new records that have come in the door over the past few months:
  The vast majority of what's here is music I've never heard before – a good deal of modern, 20th Century stuff in fact! Seems like a whole collection of this Vox Turnabout series got dumped at one of my local thrift stores.

 I didn't bring home everything of course – left most of the vocal-oriented records there (a tougher nut to crack for me, alas.......). As usual – the going rate is still about $1 per LP. At that price point, a person could walk away with a few months worth of engaging listening material for $20 - especially with this genre of music. There are a number of different ways to use whatever downtime life affords us if we are lucky enough to have that luxury. It wasn't always the case for the vast majority of humanity. Once again, all this outpouring of creativity in the 20th century gets me thinking...........

Although there have been some significant changes to the socio-economic landscape of the US in the past 30 years, the leisure time factor remains a reality for a fair percentage of the population. Out of this percentage, it would be interesting to consider how many of those people are likely to be “music listeners” as opposed to “movie watchers” or “video game players” or even “readers”. Now, out of those “music listeners” (already a pretty esoteric group) how many are listening to “popular” vs. “classical” or “jazz” music? How many of THOSE people are listening via youtube, spotify, streaming services or CDs and vinyl LPs? The “classical vinyl listener” group would most certainly seem to narrow down to a very elite percentage of the population I am sure. Yet, like me, there could easily be those who listen to a variety of genres, of which classical makes up a certain percentage. 
For the past couple years, I've had a little extra competition to my “serious music” listening time. For the first time in a long time I've heard some new releases in the popular field that I actually like - a lot! Yet, as in the case with the “classical” music – the new popular music in my collection is mainly vinyl. Here's what I'm coming to understand about my listening patterns in both cases: portion control. Vinyl LPs are a good way for me to portion control my intake of new sounds. There is a limited amount of information that can be squeezed onto a vinyl record. Although hearing Mahler's 3rd Symphony via LPs means flipping sides 3 times, those natural breaks are important. Listening to the whole shebang on 80-minute-long CDs can be sensory overload unless one makes a concerted effort to “pause” on purpose. Back in the early 90s, I remember checking out a compact disc of a band I'd never heard before. For the first 20 minutes of the disc I remember thinking, “Wow! What a great band! I really like these guys.” Then, over the course of the remaining 40 minutes of the disc my enthusiasm gradually wore to the point that (I am not kidding) I never returned to that CD or group ever again! That band said all they needed to say in the first 20 minutes of their album. The rest of it was overkill – it seemed like the same song with different lyrics over and over. What started as enjoyment ended in tedium. And, no – this group did not become a mainstream success, as talented as they were. Sometimes too much is just TOO MUCH. 
Vinyl LPs force a group to get down to the essence of who they are quickly. Prior to the ascent of the LP in popular music, 7” singles (45s) were the main currency. Before that, 78 rpm discs. With the amount of competition for attention from audiences, if it takes you too long to get it together in popular music, you'll be left out in the cold. People were busy in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Are they less busy now? Ah, but maybe that's why portable devices are so popular now. Consuming some vibrations in between the various responsibilities modern folks face is the new way to roll. Anyone with the time to actually sit down isn't likely to be whipping out the Stockhausen for a few good hours of bewilderment in front of the stereo. Or so it would seem.

Taking into account the socio-economic landscape can tell us a lot – not only about the format(s) of the media people use to access their entertainment vibrations, but perhaps even the content itself. The great dichotomy of the 20th century, from a political standpoint, was the tension between the ideologies of capitalism and communism (in their most extreme forms). On the one hand, the nightmare of the Soviet totalitarian state did little to foster artistic freedom in the arts. Witness the tortured life and work of Shostakovich, for example. 

Yet, somehow the music of Shostakovich does have merit despite the climate of oppression in which it was created. Perhaps he is the exception to the rule. On the other hand, the performance of “serious music” in the capitalist marketplace could be considered even more grim. Where would the modern orchestras be today were it not for government grants as well as corporate funding? And what do many of those orchestras have to do to survive? Please an ever-fickle public (same as the popular artists). Anyone who wants to devote their life to composing cutting edge new music (living in a capitalist-oriented society) might consider Charles Ives' approach – insurance is a better commodity than weird vibrations. Tyranny can come in many forms!
Whether escaping the tyranny of an oppressive government or the “bottom line” of supply and demand, musicians are usually at a disadvantage in some way or another (though the best conditions are when extreme tyranny is held in check, mainly through governments supportive of human rights as well as private property). If a system only favors the vision of a monolithic government, progress is impeded since the dialog created by progressive art is stifled. If a system only favors the advancement of a super-elite class, there is no middle class to support a culture of music that includes progressive goals and again – progress is impeded.

Although the consumption of music via vinyl records is now an elite activity, it wasn't intended as such. In fact, for the latter part of the 20th century, the proliferation of vinyl records ushered in a more widespread appreciation of all genres of music – from medieval to modern – from European to Asian and beyond. One could argue that the internet has only further democratized the music creation / appreciation process. Now, more than ever – the availability of serious music to the masses (for free!) is at an unprecedented level. So much music at our fingertips just begging to be experienced. Case in point – I recently read an enthusiastic review of a Pierre Boulez composition I'd never heard before and I was pleased to find a nice version in decent quality uploaded to u-toob. Check it out here: 
Yet – the original recording of this piece was professionally performed, recorded and distributed through a large and well-respected record label. A business – where monetary gain was the concern of all interested parties on some level. Nobody rides for free, really. Now, I am personally not satisfied with the quality of the free u-toob video so this will inspire me to purchase a legitimate copy. Yet, I am sure not all those who sampled the music for free had the same reaction. So what happens when composers and performers are not compensated for their recorded works? At the very least, the desire to expend time and resources on recording on such a professional level will evaporate over time. This kind of environment can't sustain professional music people - at least in the ways the industry used to do that (even if for a small percentage of professional musicians and composers back in those days). This reality has forced artists to find other ways to get their music known – even if it takes giving it away “for free” over the internet, though in a decidedly less polished form. Yet, if nearly every artist is playing the same game – the potential listening public is drowned in free options. And ironically enough – even with so much great and diverse music available “for free”, what does the general public clamor for? Overexposed Top-40 radio? Why? Because that is what is given the mass exposure and advertising. So where are the advocates for “serious” music? Where is the mass advertising now? What kind of a chance does any new “serious” music have in the current climate of “give it away”?

What is missing is a filtration system. These days, almost anybody can create “music” through computer programs and publish it themselves directly to the internet via youtube. But without some kind of advertising push – nobody will care! Vinyl records – being tangible products – were subjected to advertising even in the most basic ways since the company behind the music wanted to SELL PRODUCT – period! No matter what it was. Vinyl records, as a final end product of a long chain of artistic events, took time to create – and lots of resources and human-power! From the musicians to the recording engineers to the mastering process to the manufacturing process and distribution of the final plastic waffles – the whole chain was labor intensive. Consequently, if music wound up as the featured art in this process it was a BIG DEAL. If the wheels of industry were going to turn for your art, you had to prove yourself worthy of the bother in some way or another. In other words – you had serious competition! 
Of course, the big record companies (and the small ones) were akin to working for banks, really. Depending on the budget, the debt you might incur would be offset by sales based on a percentage that always favored the “bank”. That's how the risk was minimized for the company. What the artist got out of the deal was exposure (at the least) and – if the product was a “hit” - a percentage of the sales against the costs incurred to manufacture the damn things in the first place. Stories are legendary about the horrifically bad deals artists signed in desperate attempts to have their art mass produced and distributed to expand the fan base. Add radio and (if by some bizarre stroke of luck) television exposure (film was an even better option – witness the Elvis movie phenomenon) and there's your career! If you even get that far. Yet, even the “name” composers had to hustle. How about that wacky, yet true, story of Philip Glass and Steve Reich and their furniture MOVING COMPANY based in New York City! Say what!??!? And these are the guys that SOLD records, man! Maybe schlepping couches is ultimately better than quaking in fear every time a knock comes at the door (like poor Shostakovich).  Glass and Reich article
Despite the harsh realities of the “grim science” of economics – lots of interesting music (from both sides of the Iron Curtain) got pressed up on vinyl and literally scattered across the world due to the industry of record production. It is possible that the time to appreciate, evaluate and dig into this fantastic outpouring of creativity is RIGHT NOW. The might of industry in the latter part of the 20th century produced such an unprecedented explosion of culture, it could easily take a few lifetimes to gain a reasonable handle on a mere fraction of what was produced. In a sense, it is much to the detriment of current artists – musicians and composers alike – that their art has less of a chance at being manufactured on such a durable format as vinyl these days. 
 Well, perhaps in recent years this has become an option again, but not like it was at the height of the golden era of the LP. Perhaps portable music players are here to stay. Perhaps they can hold the entire output of Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Stockhausen, Bach and Varese right alongside of neighbor Bob Jones's “Concerto for Ipad in Q-minor”. After a long day of interfacing with digital devices, with that precious 2 hours of leisure time before passing out – are the music listeners going to reach for that other digital device to scroll the list of endless files in search of some invisible vibration source to get their musical rocks off? Maybe so. However, I don't think digital devices are going to produce MORE listening time, necessarily. Decent wages is what creates leisure time (and we all know what the trend has been in that direction for the past 30 years). 
Perhaps the era of the big music industry, driven by the proliferation of the ubiquitous plastic waffle, wasn't perfect. Yet, it seems that despite a trend toward more choices today, there is a lot of new music slipping through the cracks (with the very real potential to be permanently deleted from history). Is any of it worth preserving beyond the 1's and 0's of binary code? I hope to find out sometime before my own clock runs out! In the meantime, here are a few examples of things I've been listening to courtesy of the record stamping businesses of the past and present!

Nils Frahm - Felt
        Now here's a record that came out only a few years ago and I'm glad it was pressed on vinyl otherwise I might not have heard the music. This record is made up of piano compositions resulting from sampling and looping repeating phrases - with wonderfully musical results. So, I consider this composed and certainly more engaging than Conlon Nancarrow's bionic piano madness (much as I like that stuff too on the right day!). 

Emerson, Lake and Palmer - Pictures at an Exhibition
       Yes, I am including this record because I was reminded of how much Keith Emerson particularly contributed to the general appreciation of the classical cannon through his life's work. Rest easy, Maestro!

We also lost Pierre Boulez since my last post here. Above is his groundbreaking recording of Debussy's La Mer for CBS. This was the first classical recording I went out of my way to buy as a result of hearing the piece in a music appreciation class in high school. This is still the definitive version for me!

Scored another Hovhaness Poseidon Society LP! This time the spelling is correct - the other LP I found was actually the first pressing of the first release (!). I love this stuff!
This Finn Mortensen symphony was very enjoyable, but more importantly it represented a watershed experience for me. In the past five years of diving into classical, I hadn't quite managed to divine a composer's influence (from an earlier composer) in quite the way I am able to do so with jazz or rock music. However, when I was spinning this Mortensen piece for the first time I actually thought "Man, this guy must have really been into BRUCKNER!" When I read the liner notes - my suspicions were confirmed! Hot dang! FINALLY! I was all ready to high five someone, but nobody in my house would have the slightest inkling what I was all worked up about. Such is life......
Same was true of this nifty 10" disc featuring the Charles Griffes piece "Poem for Flute and Orchestra". I posted this picture on a facebook "classical vinyl" appreciation group (see above pie chart) and outta NOWHERE I'm getting comments (and engaging in a very fun online chat) with a one Mr. Barret Hansen - a/k/a Dr. Demento himself! I didn't even know he was a member of this group - never saw him comment before. Cool beans! The music is great stuff as well.
Very interesting album from Polish composer Lutosławski. I think I found this sealed. I quite enjoy his Concerto for Orchestra - inspired by, but not a retelling of Bartok's famed composition with the same title. Once again - excellent music composed East of the Iron Curtain. He lived through the bulk of the 20th century which was not particularly kind to the Polish people. His support of the Solidarity movement in the latter part of the century cemented his reputation as Poland's premier composer of the age. I look forward to hearing more of his music in the future! Here he is:
And what blog post would be complete without the latest Elgar report? So, although I have heard Elgar's Cello Concerto before, I hadn't heard it performed by Jacqueline Du Pre. Of course, I was totally ignorant about her tragic life (MS cut her down too early - a tragic loss)! Thank goodness for modern technology which captured her brilliance for future generations to marvel at. She breathes FIRE into this Elgar piece in a way that is causing me to re-evaluate his status as a composer (am I wrong to append his name with "the reviled" any longer?).

And finishing off with the record pictured above from the daring Vox Turnabout 20th century American composers series - this record features lots of cool electronic music sometimes including live musicians along with the electronic tapes! Although I am at a loss to comprehend the sonic architecture behind this music it is ultimately enjoyable to listen to. Ditto the Beethoven Piano Sonatas LP on Decca. Found a beaut of a mono LP pressed on STYRENE here and could not say no. Remember kids - styrene was used for mono LPs since the surface was deemed to be quieter than vinyl! This record illustrates this concept very well. If you spot some of these, give them a whirl. Just make sure you've got a clean specimen to examine. Abused records pressed on anything will sound bad no matter what.

And that is just a small percentage of the haul..........more to come soon! Cheers!