Friday, November 24, 2017

Trilogy of the Time-Flow and (another?) Resurrection

My low-budget tribute to Storm Thorgerson! Ha!
This is a trilogy of sorts – snapshots of a reluctant modern-life participant, family-preoccupied humanoid and erstwhile classical music listener. I make no apologies for the stream-of-cheese-whiz philosophy contained herein. It’s everything and nothing to do with classical music, as usual………….

The Technology Challenge:

In a fit of supreme irony, I am finding myself exiled from my usual technologically-dependent downtime by the very technology I have come to depend on! A few weeks ago I had another desktop computer meltdown and after several attempts to revive the hard drive I opted to buy a replacement laptop instead. (Of course I was anticipating the meltdown for awhile and backed up all the important files, thank goodness!) Up ‘til now I would describe myself as a reluctant laptop user – never cared for them. Yet I took the plunge to shift gears for a variety of reasons – not the least of which is seeing the computer towers of yore piling up reflective of the general trend towards obsolescence.  Maybe the laptop will leave a smaller “footprint” ? Yet, when I finally make the decision to compose another (long overdue) entry here – the new laptop goes into hyper “update” mode. For the better part of the evening I’ve been watching this nifty little image on my screen while I sketched out this entry on blank paper:
Fun! You know it’s bad when windows tells you “it’s going to be awhile”. Usually the messages are upbeat and overly optimistic. Pessimism does not bode well coming from Microsoft. So, though I am now typing away – last night this part of the entry began life as handwritten notes. How crude! Well, when the ideas hit after months of NOTHING – time to go medieval. It was not Gregorian Chant that prompted the brain-flow, however. Yesterday I found a nice copy of this well-regarded 2CD set of Bartok’s string quartets:
In fact, I’ve had this sitting in my wish list pile on amazon for the longest time – just never “bit” so it all works out (got mine for only $2 yesterday!). Another reason for the wait was the knowledge that:   A)  I’d gone off Bartok for a while – not ready to wrestle with the challenge of listening to more yet   and   B)  I’d reached the conclusion that string quartet music is not my first choice of listening for “serious” music. The latter reason was reached not without a certain amount of reflection. I mean – in theory I ought to like string quartets if only because of the ensemble arrangement. Four musicians can whip up a lot of interest – in blues, rock, folk – all kinds of music. Yet, when it comes to four string instruments – what comes across often sounds kinda samey, if that makes any sense. Not a lot of diversity in the timbre category. Even piano trio music sounds better to me. One different instrument provides enough of a contrast to get me interested. So, string quartets have been relegated to the B-list for me, alas.

Well, being a determined listener – I snagged this set anyway and, while handwriting the notes to this entry, I listened to Bartok’s string quartet #1. Now this is probably not what experts would suggest to do. Though I will say, there have been other examples of challenging music I’ve cracked the code of via casual initial exposure. Ornette Coleman started out for me like that. Yet, by the time I hit the 3rd movement of Bartok’s 1st string quartet I had to stop writing. That’s when my dedicated listening kicked in (right about the 6 minute mark actually). So my first dip into Bartok’s string quartets was successful and, more importantly, enjoyable. There was a lot of cool stuff going on during that 3rd movement – I need to hear it again soon. Yet, I want to move on to the others – maybe one at a time. Perhaps a good approach.

After Bartok, I decided to troll the CD stacks to see what discs I’d forgotten I’d had – to see if there was anything interesting to check out since I was doing the CD thing that night. I pulled off the shelf a Dorati Living Presence disc of Scheherezade by the Minneapolis Symphony.
  I have to say the sonics were quite enjoyable, though there was a pretty obvious tape splice during the first movement (maybe not so evident when listening through speakers but I had headphones on – oh well). Aside from that I quite liked the reading from Dorati, though the fourth movement was about the fastest I’ve ever heard it played! Not sure I liked that tempo, ultimately – but it was an interesting reading. What also sealed the deal to play that CD was the inclusion of “The Moldau” as a separate featured piece. I really love that music – from Smetana’s  Ma Vlast. I actually have a good CD of that whole work (and a few LPs as well) – the entire deal is worth hearing, really. It had been awhile since I listened to that – so good!

By this point I’d written about three pages of notes to get me rolling on what you are reading now, but I was pretty tired. I scrounged around for another CD and found one of those Naxos historic CDs sourced from 78s – in this case early performances by Erich Kleiber conducting the Berlin State Opera Orchestra with none other than a recording of “The Moldau” from 1928. Cool!
 As I was playing this and the rest of the disc – an early recording of Dvorak’s New World Symphony - I must have fallen asleep and was roused by the final movement. I don’t do that often when it comes to listening to any music, but it isn’t a reaction to classical music necessarily. I have fallen asleep listening to Hawkwind too – go figure! It’s the exception for sure.

The Vinyl Thing:
Shostakovich – Quintet for Piano & Strings. Here’s a good example of what I was saying before – add one extra instrument to a string quartet and I’m IN! The quintet format works well for this piece. Lots of variety – shade and light – here. Although there is a Stravinsky section of this LP, the majority of the listening time is taken up by the Shostakovich piece. As it happens, the pressing quality of the disc is better than average when it comes to the Capitol records imprint “Angel”. So many other quality recordings can be found on Angel / Capitol – yet it takes trial and error to find these. As for Shostakovich, he tends to be in the category of composers I feel the need to set time aside for periodically. I’ve been in possession of a couple of well-regarded symphony cycles on CD for awhile now, yet I haven’t made it through all of those pieces. And there’s so much more beyond the symphonies! Even though he is held up as the pre-eminent example of an artist tortured by crappy totalitarian government, he simultaneously represents the resiliency of the human spirit under such barbaric conditions. He managed to transform the reality of his (quite tortured) life into enduring and uplifting art. And beyond all that it’s just good music! So I can’t help getting all excited when I see the odd Shostakovich record out in the wild – especially one with offbeat compositions like this. Usually turns into one of those “can’t press the money into the seller’s hands fast enough” moments. At least for me.

Speaking of Bartok – earlier in the summer I chanced on a nice Westminster LP of piano works performed by Edith Farnadi. I mainly was attracted to the LP cover because it was so cool, but I was blown away by the music too!
 Farnadi seemed to approach the music with a sense of authority I wasn’t used to hearing. Other Bartok piano records sounded kind of tentative by comparison. So I kept my eyes peeled for more from her and I didn’t have to wait too long……….

Late in the summer I hit on a pretty good vinyl cache of early 50s LPs at a thrift store I’ve been cruising for the past few years. It was one of those moments where – there was so MUCH available I couldn’t think straight. There was no way I could bring it all home – so I went for the most unique-looking records with stuff that might appeal to me. In the record cover department, it is hard to beat the early 50s sleeve designs. Just look at these great album covers:

Musically speaking, there were a lot of piano-based records. Fine by me – and as it turns out a number of LPs by Edith Farnadi. Wow! Of course all of those were part of the “to go” order. And some others I hadn’t seen or heard of before – like this Remington LP:
Aside from the low-budget nature of the release and slightly primitive recording – the performances on this record knocked my socks off. This is the kind of experience that keeps me snapping up the odd Remington LP – as long as it isn’t trashed. And there are some worth money though I have no idea really which ones those are. Someday I might have all that sorted out, but I’m mainly trying to hear more of the music.

As much as I’ve had my imagination stimulated by Sir Edward Elgar over the past few years, I’d have to say I prefer the music of another English composer Vaughan Williams a bit more. I have a handful of LPs of his music and a few new ones have come in the door lately, such as these:

My ears tell me Williams’ approach is a bit more adventurous than Elgar’s. One of these days I ought to undertake a bit more study of his output. The most I know is – I have yet to dislike any of Williams music upon first listen. And before I’m done with English composers, I have to mention two new-to-me LPs of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” I’ve listened to lately:
The Stokowski reading is enjoyable enough – and the record itself is in beautiful shape! The Boult reading with the BBC Symphony is a whole other matter!
 This record looked to be clean enough, but upon first listening it was clear the signal was cut quite low to the disc since the groove noise tended to drown out the music! So, I sent it through the wood-glue cleaning method in hopes of improvement. Amazingly, much of the noise got sucked away with the glue-peel, yet the murk of the recording remained. Hmmm. Why on earth would a prominent company bother to release such a sketchy sounding product in the first place? Turns out this recording was made by the BBC Symphony during the latter days of WWII in a makeshift shed (out of bomb range). However crude the sound, the performance has stood the test of time with various reissues having seen the light of day. Historic recordings like this blow my mind. What is especially odd is the connection between the “Nipper” logo – “His Master’s Voice” – and the RCA pressing in the US (pictured here).
Technically, this logo has its roots in Britain where it was mainly used for classical albums produced by EMI. In the US, the logo has long been associated with the RCA record label. The whole confusing history is explained clearly enough in this wiki entry:  
To round off this segment, here is some nice footage of the inaugural opening of Abbey Road Studios (then called HMV Studio) in 1931 featuring none other than Sir Edward Elgar conducting his most famous composition. Notice the prominent display of the Nipper logo on the wall:

The Unapologetic Truth:

The simple fact of what motivates my continued toe-dipping into the classical realm goes something like this:  Sometimes classical music is better than silence – sometimes not! Nearly a decade ago I started noticing how comfortable I was getting spending long stretches of my downtime not listening to any of the music I normally would listen to – the great rock, jazz, blues and folk stuff. And, quite literally, I decided to at least take up some of the silence with some OTHER kind of music that I’d never spent much time with before. Since classical was one of the genres I’d not quite gotten a better grasp of, I just dove in. So, the majority of my listening has been perhaps more informal than what most serious listeners would advocate. Yet, it is all in the name of exposure – hearing the darned stuff first! As the past few years have flown by – my dedicated listening time has been impacted by family stuff – mostly good, but certainly time-consuming. I figure it this way – I may not always be sitting attentively in front of the stereo speakers with a notebook in hand to jot down the minute details of every platter I spin, but I am at least playing the records and giving the music a good hearing. I also reckon, this is good groundwork to do in preparation of a (possible) retirement downtime exit-strategy. I am figuring there will not be much room for being bored if I can latch onto the classical thing a bit more because – I will never live long enough to attain fluency in any one direction of this music. And who cares if I don’t? I’m enjoying myself thoroughly – I’m not hurting anybody and the whole exercise is relatively sane in the grand scheme of things. There are far more destructive ways of spending my time for sure. And as I keep advancing in years the notion of living how I want to live –as best possible – is a recurring theme. My desires are relatively small. My enjoyment from listening to this music and having the chance to write about it is a pretty low-budget way to spend my time. To the point where I would openly advocate similar adventures for the like-minded. In an era of intense interactions and blowhard rhetoric – the world of classical music is like a beautiful refuge of sanity amidst the garbage. Of course I consider myself lucky enough to have these moments in the first place. Yet, I also see it as a healthy alternative to the current habit of mind – reacting to every hideous stimulus laid out like one more current-events version of a coke-line for the bad-news addict. Better to sharpen that BS detector from a safe distance – instead of getting sucked up into the malevolent maelstrom of crapola. Music by itself cannot make the world a better place, but it sure can remind us all of what good to stand up for and what bad to take courage against. As I was finalizing this latest entry, I listened to Mahler's Second Symphony - the Resurrection Symphony - for the first time in a LONG time - on HEADPHONES!! Quite amazing music indeed!

For this inspiration – handed down from mind to ear, generation to generation  - I am thankful. Along with your continued interest in my philosophical adventures here. As always – thanks for stopping by and keep those records spinning in the proper direction.

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!