Music of Thanksgiving — please add your own!

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Here’s some music of thanks for your Thanksgiving enjoyment.  Would you like to share other selections in the same spirit, in any language and genre, with fellow readers?  Great!  Send me links or other information, and if the selections meet my exasperating — er, exacting standards, I’ll add them to the playlist.

Happy Thanksgiving to all, from a grateful blogger.

– John

 

Album du jour: Elena Ruehr, “O’Keeffe Images” (Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose)

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Elena Ruehr‘s music has it all going — life, line, color, pulse, depth, shade, shape.  It’s inviting and welcoming, then once you’re inside, stimulates and entertains (what a concept!) to the last note, at which point, like a child after an amusement park ride, you want to go right back and do it again.  She was one of my favorite “go to” living composers for my public radio classical show, and hers is some of the music from my radio days that I’ll continue to track down and enjoy — something that, to say the least, is not true of everything I played on the radio.

A graduate of the University of Michigan and Juilliard, a faculty member at MIT since 1991, recipient of prominent fellowships, “Dr. Ruehr” (as she’s referred to in her biography) may be an academic, but certainly does not compose like one, or at least like the composers who give the adjective “academic” its musty odor.  Heck, some of my best friends are composing academics who write really good stuff; kudos to them and to her for helping to move classical composition in a positive direction.

The four works on this fabulous new album by the invaluable Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project cover the years 1991 to 2013, yet remain fairly consistent in voice and quality.  Of the virtues I gushed over in this blog entry’s first sentence, the first to grab me in her music is its pulse, and the way a constant underlying pulse becomes the foundation for delightfully complex interplay and counterpoint of small, easily graspable rhythmic ideas.

You hear this right at the start of “Shimmer” (1995), a work for string orchestra that according to Ruehr, and easily confirmed by listening, has precedent in the music of Antonio Vivaldi.  Exhilarating and inventive, “Shimmer” was previously recorded by Scott Yoo and the Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra, the no-longer-extant group for whom it was composed.  It may be a case of first love, but I’ll admit to enjoying the leaner, more rhythmically incisive original recording (Spotify link here) more than the smoother, more opulent BMOP version.  Your results, however, may vary, the work stands up to multiple approaches, and here and throughout, Maestro Rose and BMOP outdo themselves in their preparation and execution of extremely demanding music.  If you haven’t gotten into their amazing and fast-growing discography yet, you’re missing an awful lot of great music.

In moving to track 2, we move back to 1991, and the earliest work on the album, “Vocalissimus.”  As in “Shimmer,” a steady pulse bubbles throughout, but this time, one’s attention is drawn to the melodic ideas that emerge, develop and coalesce, singly or simultaneously, and which propel the piece forward to a (spoiler alert!) subtle, far-from-obvious conclusion.  Much of the fun comes from the interplay of the instruments of the full orchestra, both solo and in sections, another reminder of what a glorious creation the orchestra is.

Next on the album, “Cloud Atlas” takes its name from David Mitchell’s fantasy novel, one of whose characters, a goddess of the post-apocalyptic future, is given voice by a solo cello, much as the biblical King Solomon was in Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo.”   With its rhapsodic and ruminative cello melodies, frequent use of odd meters, and liberal sprinklings of harp, the piece gives off a mild and sweet but somewhat generic Asiatic fragrance.  Pleasant as it is, a little more eventfulness and virtuosity might have made “Cloud Atlas” into something more.  Then again, if you had as rich and sleek a cello tone as that of Jennifer Kloetzel (for whom “Cloud Atlas” was composed), you’d also want little to get in the way of showing it off.

With the 33-minute long “O’Keeffe Images,” we get into Major Orchestral Work territory, one which decreasingly and depressingly few composers have access to in current times.  The work’s eponym would of course be American artist Georgia O’Keeffe, three of whose starkest paintings were set to music by Elena Ruehr at separate times over the years 1993-2013.  Of course, just how one can “set” a painting to music, and how much attention one should play to the visual image when listening to the music, remain open questions.  I’ve linked on-line reproductions of the O’Keeffe paintings to the movements’ titles below; as always, I suggest listening at least once before seeing the artwork, reading the program notes, etc.

First in the triptych but most recent in composition, “Summer Days” is no day at the beach; rather, it’s a non-stop ride through hot, dry, dangerous country — and if that image strikes you as cinematic, well, so will the music, in a good way.  Taut and thrilling, it would likely have become a hit back in the days when thrilling new orchestral works actually became hits.

The first of the “O’Keeffe Images” in order of composition, “Sky Above Clouds” exhibits many of the same qualities and employs many of the same processes as “Summer Days” — too much of the same, unfortunately, to provide sufficient contrast.  Somewhat brighter and wider-ranging in color and more complex in its interplay of line and rhythm, “Sky” may actually be a more interesting piece than “Summer Days,” if less immediately graspable than its predecessor in the triptych.

For the wild and exuberant finale of the set, “Ladder to the Moon” (2003) brings on the hand percussion, brings out the polyrhythms and melodic intervals of the East — echoes of earlier Eastern-inspired composers like Colin McPhee and Lou Harrison abound — and engages mind and body to its whirlwind conclusion.  At which point, like the kid on the amusement park ride, you’ll want to go back to the beginning and hear the whole album again.  Here you go:

Album du jour: Deerhoof, “La Isla Bonita”

 

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Some day, hopefully not soon, this old orb or ours will stop spinning.  Then and perhaps only then will Deerhoof no longer keep putting out some of the most stimulating sounds in all of American music.  Come to think of it, maybe the two events wouldn’t be a coincidence…

In twenty years since their founding in San Francisco, with a few shifts in personnel and musical focus along the way, Deerhoof have self-produced and issued a baker’s dozen albums, finding their stride about half-way through.  Haven’t heard ‘em?  Well, imagine the piledriver beat of The Ramones, the skittery melodies of Frank Zappa, the infernal din of Sonic Youth, the rusty-knife guitars of Dinosaur, Jr., the polyrhythms or Stravinsky, the razor-sharpness of your favorite string quartet, mash ‘em all together — and you’re still missing the secret ingredients.

What gives Deerhoof their Deerhoofness comes right at you as soon as you hit “play” on their new album:  A bright beat is established by percussive, pitchless plucks from the guitarist on the right, then following an ultra-brief suspenseful silence, vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki introduces the first melodic and lyrical idea, a descending perfect fourth melisma on the word “girls.”  That’s the drummer’s cue to get into the action, adding an infectious beat to the guitar plucks.  But what about those girls?  Be patient.  After a few iterations of the rhythmic cycle, Matsuzaki is back to tell us more: “Girls,” this time on an extended melisma, “who are smart.”  She repeats the phrase with altered lyric and added cowbell (somewhere Christopher Walken is smiling): “Girls…who will test.”  Enter the left guitar and bass with their respective licks, enriching the rhythmic complexity, then once more with those girls and their tests…

At which point I will mercifully break off this potted analysis of “Paradise Girls,” the first track on the album “La Isla Bonita,” and leave the rest to you.  The point is not that we should always listen to this or any music this way  — what a dreadful thought.  The point is that behind the thudding drums, crunching guitars and Matsuzaki’s delightfully odd and childlike vocals, there’s lots of smart stuff going on.  These aren’t just songs, they’re compositions.

Can Deerhoof be too clever for their own good?  That’s the risk, one that they mitigate by keeping things brief, unpredictable and, best of all, rocking.  And the symbiosis of their visceral appeal and their intelligence — of brain and brawn — is why I love them.

As Deerhoof albums go, “La Isla Bonita” is pretty straightforward in its bare-bones instrumentation, moderately lo-fi production and (relatively) cogent compositions. While it’s a quality one normally wouldn’t associate with Deerhoof, a stream of lyricism runs through several numbers, though it’s only drawn from for occasional telling moments (e.g., the conclusion of “Black Pitch”).  If you have to start somewhere with Deerhoof, and please do, it might as well be here.

Album du jour: Mary Dullea, “Eric Craven: Piano Sonatas 7 • 8 • 9″

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In America, we have our “maverick” composers, such as those profiled by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas in a concert series that also spawned one of the best music programs ever done in public radio.  For the English, the equivalent composers fit in among their prized eccentrics, the dafter and dottier the better.  On either side of the ocean, these maverick eccentric composers are the classical cousins of the oddballs and misfits known in pop-music taxonomy as “outsider” musicians.

Whatever we call them, we love them, or at least some of them, in occasional doses and at arm’s length.  Who among us has not proudly touted our appreciation for some really weird stuff, and felt really good about ourselves for doing so?  I’m sure that’s how the late Frank Zappa felt when he (allegedly) said that the pathetically incompetent “outsider” pop band The Shaggs were “better than the Beatles,” while knowing that (if he really said it) to be absolute nonsense.

So who are these classical classical mavericks/eccentrics/outsiders?  They’re the ones who hand-punch holes in piano rolls to compose music no hands could play.  They invent their own tuning systems and the instruments to play them.  They craft dozens of miniatures rarely exceeding two minutes’ duration, build their own American gamelans,  and turn out symphony after dense, impenetrable symphony,  14 of them after the age of 80 , with scant hope of performance .  Each uniquely, none like the other, they eschew the classical mainstream to create something the world has never heard before, whether the world wants it or not.

To be frank, sometimes the romantic ideal of these maverick composers is more appealing than their music.  One’s favorite maverick can be another’s nutcake, and vice versa.  And you know, there’s something to be said for such boring mainstream values as craft, balance, and knowing what you’re doing.  Am I being an old fuddy-duddy when I notice that these things are sometimes insufficiently present, to its detriment, in the music of the mavericks?

But I have my favorite maverick eccentric outsiders in classical music (Lou Harrison), pop (Kevin Barnes of “of Montreal”), jazz (Thelonious Monk, an outsider who became an insider) and other genres.  I bet you do too.  Here’s a new one for you to discover, as have I just this month.  And though I’m only beginning to get a handle on his music,  and perhaps never will, I’m glad to have made his acquaintance, and hope to hear more.

Eric Craven is a former math teacher in his native Manchester, England who, after surviving cancer, turned to music full-time.  A composer since his teens, he seldom sought or received performances until recent years.  As the brief bio in the notes to this new album puts it, “(Craven’s) preference is to work in isolation without reference to or connection with any other musicians.”  Spoken like a good maverick, or since he’s British, a good eccentric.

And of course, to be a good eccentric composer, you have to have your very own personal composing method.  From Craven’s blog:

I have over the last 15 years or so become increasingly focused on developing an experimental compositional technique which I refer to as Non-Prescriptive.

This, essentially, is a method of writing music which permits the performer to determine some or most of the musical parameters which normally constitute the bricks and mortar of a piece of music. Furthermore, the performer may opt to alter these parameters, the consequences of which result in the particular piece being open to any number of different interpretations. The performer thus becomes involved in the compositional process and, as a consequence, the historical relationship of the composer, the performer and the performance are realigned.

Maverick music fans will recognize Craven’s “non-prescriptive” technique (actually a set of techniques, as the dense album notes point out in exhaustive detail) as a descendant of the indeterminacy of John Cage, Earle Brown, et al., though to judge from what I hear, Craven’s music is usually nowhere near as random as his description makes it sound.  In two out of the three sonatas on the new album, “realized and performed” by Irish pianist Mary Dullea, there’s no missing the small melodic motives and other gestures that bind each work together and give each its own character.  You might describe the sonatas as — and I mean this as a compliment — modernism-lite.  Yes, they’re abstract, angular and dissonant.  But unlike in more severe modernism (e.g., Carter, Boulez), you can actually hear what the hell is going on.  There’s no way to predict what will happen next, but when it happens, you understand why it did.

Of the three sonatas presented on the new album under review, No. 7 is my favorite.  In five related but well-differentiated movements, arranged symmetrically, their moods ranging from jazzy to spectral, it’s a cogent, concise and worthy addition to the latter-day piano sonatas of Prokofiev, Copland, Tippett and Carter.  I could imagine other pianists taking it up, though according to “non-prescriptive” theory,  each would make a different work out of it.  How different?  It would be fun to know.

For reasons of timing, Sonata No. 7 is followed on the first of the album’s two CDs by Sonata No. 9, described in the notes (and plainly audible) as a “clear development of Sonata no.7.”  In three movements, the lyrical first (almost as long as the entire 7th Sonata) and probing, unsettled third movements surrounding a spiky and violent second, No. 9 casts material resembling No. 7’s in a dark, even tragic light.  Though the two composers in no way resemble each other, I got something of the same emotional tug from Craven’s 9th Sonata as I get from Franz Schubert’s final three works in the same genre.

Most problematic for me is Sonata No. 8, which comes in one movement of almost fifty-minutes’ duration.  Here, we have at least one foot (one hand?) in the world of Morton Feldman, the late American composer of pointillistic, half-silent works that  can go on literally for hours.  Isolated ideas pop up, are played with for a while, then disappear.  Perhaps, said I to myself while listening, there is some overall pattern or shape that I’m incapable of apprehending, or which will appear to me after maybe a dozen more hearings.  For now, while I don’t really mind the ride, I have no idea where I am most of the time.

Then by reading the program notes after a few listens, as is my usual procedure, I found that my disorientation was the intended effect, and that the works’s seeming randomness was built into its compositional method.  “Hints of Craven’s other works are always just below the surface,” writes annotator Scott McLaughlin of the 8th Sonata, “blending with Dullea’s inspiration into a Proustian journey that takes the listener everywhere and nowhere.”  Does knowing that make listening a more interesting or aesthetically pleasing experience?  I’m not so sure, but in general, prefer my music to take me not everywhere, not nowhere, but somewhere.

Speaking of pianist Mary Dullea, full marks to her for her advocacy and sympathy for Craven’s unique muse, as well as for complete keyboard mastery.  Would that every composer, mainstream or maverick, had such a friend.

So, if you have a quiet half-hour or so, and are intrigued by the idea of using the same notes and piano keys all the other composers have in a very personal, if not utterly new, way, I recommend you give Eric Craven’s Sonatas a try, starting with No. 7.  The Spotify playlist is below; you can also download the Sonatas, either piecemeal or all three, in high quality sound here.  Happy discovery!

 

Album du jour: Marianne Faithfull’s “Give My Love to London”

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“That was the worst NPR story I have heard in a long while. Hearing Faithfull’s music, especially her newer creations, made me want to jam a pair of rusty scissors into my eardrum. I have always appreciated NPR’s consideration for culture and artistic expression… but this story demonstrated negligence of discretion. Ugh. Terrible terrible music, weak story.”

So commented listener “Heather D” on NPR’s 2009 interview with singer-songwriter Marianne Faithfull, conducted just after the release of Faithfull’s album “Easy Come, Easy Go: 12 Songs for Music Lovers.”  And Heather wasn’t the only one.  Other comments: “I am completely at a loss with this story.”  “Truly, it was almost cruel to air this story.”  “Like many others – no doubt – I was shocked to hear the dreadful caterwauling of Marianne Faithful on my beloved Weekend Edition Sunday.”  “OMG!”

The on-line verdict on the interview:  Yes 1, No 10.  A decisive defeat for NPR and Marianne Faithfull, yes?

No, or at least not necessarily.  As anyone in the public media should be able to tell you, haters are far more likely to respond to something — a program segment, a piece of music, a schedule change — than lovers or agnostics.  It’s human nature, and media pros have to learn to shrug it off.  If you can’t, the media isn’t the career to you.

But no doubt about it, Marianne Faithfull’s voice does not please everyone.  Dry, baritonal, the consistency of aged, cracked leather, it’s the voice of too much cocaine, too much booze and too many cigarettes, such as the one whose smoke encircles her face on the cover of her latest album, “Give My Love to London.”

And it’s the  voice which, for going on 35 years, Marianne Faithfull has employed to remake herself from the ingenue of 1964 who scored a hit with (ex-boyfriend) Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’s “As Time Goes By” into a wise, world-weary chanteuse, half-talking, half-singing her way through songs of love, loss, regret, deception, despair and other adult themes.  If you hear latter-day Lotte Lenya in Faithfull’s voice, it’s not a coincidence, given Faithfull’s oft-expressed admiration for her legendary predecessor, and her occasional forays into the Lenya-Kurt Weill songbook (one celebrated item from which, “Pirate Jenny” from “The Threepenny Opera” is referenced in the new album’s title song.)

As smart and sophisticated as it would make me sound, I’m not going to tell you that I love Marianne Faithfull’s music.  Even at it’s best, it’s not very lovable, nor it it suitable for everyday listening.  But I like and admire it very much, and think her new album is terrific.

Released to coincide with Faithfull’s 50th anniversary in the music business, “Give My Love to London” consists of nine good-to-excellent new songs by Steve Earle, Roger Waters, Nick Cave, Ed Harcourt, Tom McRae, Anna Calvi, Patrick Leonard and Faithfull herself, along with covers of the Everly Brothers, Leonard Cohen and Hoagy Carmichael.  No question, the songs primarily explore the darker hues of the emotional spectrum.  But this is no dispiriting wallow in monochrome misery.  And while Faithfull’s voice is by no means pretty, some of the tracks here, such as Cohen’s “Going Home,” achieve at least a fair level of beauty.

Unfortunately, the album saves its worst for last.  In a misguided version of Carmichael’s heartbreaking ballad “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” the arrangement changes the song’s mode from major to minor and backs Faithfull’s vocals with eerie guitar wails and harp plinks. Thus, the balance between the melody’s sweet uplift and the lyrics’ poignance is destroyed, turning an extremely moving song into a merely gloomy one.  This is not the first time in pop music that darkness and ugliness have been falsely equated with emotional depth (listen to Sonic Youth’s disastrous version of “Superstar” on the anthology album “If I Were a Carpenter“), but I wish that artists would knock it off.

Hey, no one or nothing’s perfect, and if you can overlook some flaws, as well as your own prejudices, there some very good music here.  Give a listen:

Album du jour: Vashti Bunyan’s “Heartleap”

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About a year apart, close to a half-century ago, two young women entered London studios to record their interpretations of words and music by one of the hot young songwriting teams of the day, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.  Here’s what came out:

In the last few months, the two women, Vashti Bunyan and Marianne Faithfull, both now in their late sixties, issued new albums — Bunyan’s fourth and last (or so she says), Faithfull’s twentieth.  How did they come out?  And what do they tell us about what the two women have been up to for the past fifty years?  Over the next two blog posts, we’ll have a chance to listen; first a little background on today’s album.

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If you don’t know Vashti Bunyan‘s name or music yet, don’t feel guilty.  Hers is the quintessential real-life fable of unappreciated brilliance, years of obscurity, an emerging cult following and belated recognition, similar to that I chronicled earlier of Californian singer-songwriter Linda Perhacs  (of whom I new nothing until I discovered her on the Vashti Bunyan channel on Pandora — score one for streaming!).  Each, in fact, issued her beautiful but neglected masterpiece of an album in 1970, Perhacs’s “Parallelograms” and Bunyan’s “Just Another Diamond Day.”

Ingenuous, whimsical, filled with cute critters (human and otherwise) and benevolent nature, “Diamond Day” speaks of the time and scene that also gave us Pentangle, Fairport Convention (whose Simon Nicol and Dave Swarbrick played on several tracks), the Incredible String Band (ditto Robin Williamson) and Nick Drake. With Bunyan’s breathy, soothing voice and catchy, compulsively sing-alongable songs, one might have predicted, if not a smash hit, then at least a middling success.

But it wasn’t even that.  Disillusioned, Bunyan quit the music business and, basically, spent the rest of the century in Ireland and Scotland, raising kids and animals.  Then, to complete the fable, came the reissue of “Diamond Day” in 2000, discovery by such young admirers as Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart, a second album (“Lookaftering”) in 2005, tours, guest appearances, a documentary a new generation of fans…and they all lived happily ever after.

Judging from her new album, “Heartleap,” the years have treated Vashti Bunyan very well, both vocally and psychically.  Her singing retains its sweet softness, her melodies are as catchy as ever, and her lyrics, wise and mature, express not the slightest cynicism or bitterness.  It’s an intimate affair, with light and lovely string arrangements, discrete synth (mostly simulating harp and celeste) and, at the center, Bunyan’s piano and guitar.  Even if you normally find such music twee and overly precious, listen to the third track, “Mother.”  If you’re not drawn in, beguiled and finally, moved, let down your guard and try again.

 

Thirty years of Jazz à la Mode

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Tom Reney no doubt remembers to the second how long it took me to respond to his letter of introduction in 1983.  OK, so I dawdled — er, deliberated a little.  In retrospect, it was time well invested in probably the best decision I ever made during my 35 year radio tenure.

I was Music Director of WFCR (now part of the New England Public Radio media empire), while also programming and hosting classical and jazz shows.  Though my jazz radio chops were pretty solid, if I say so myself, it wasn’t as if I couldn’t have been improved upon.  So, when I received a letter offering services from someone with both abiding love of jazz and a decent amount of radio experience, I was intrigued.  A bit of flattery for my own work, indicating a potential kindred spirit who had done his homework, added to his attractions.  And hey, a little ego-stroking never hurts.

Long story short, we at WFCR got more, much more, than we bargained for when Tom joined the roster in 1984.  Three decades and thousands of swinging tunes later, Tom’s “Jazz à la Mode” remains not only essential listening for New England jazz lovers but a model program for How to Do Jazz Radio.

Would that all radio hosts brought Tom’s mix of impeccably high standards and joie de swing to their shows.  You can listen to JALM with complete confidence, knowing that if the music is great, Tom will play it, and if Tom plays it, the music is great.

That Tom knows whereof he speaks when it comes to jazz (and blues, I should add) hardly need be mentioned.  But his knowledge extends well beyond record dates and personnel.  Like all art forms, jazz emerged not from a vacuum but from a confluence of cultures.  You can’t really know the music unless you know where it came from.

And maybe that’s what separates Tom from other equally knowledgeable jazz hosts — the breadth and depth of literary, artistic and sociological understanding he can draw from, not for on-air disquisitions, but as a moral and ethical foundation for what he does and why it matters.  These aren’t just notes, folks — these are people’s lives.  And for the Tom Reneys among us, radio is not just a career, it’s a calling.  If you haven’t added Tom’s brilliant blog to your subscription feed, please do.

This Sunday afternoon from 3-6 at the Community Music School of Springfield, NEPR will throw Tom a “Jazz à la Mode” a 30th anniversary bash (click for tickets and other information).  One way to gauge the respect in which Tom is held by musicians is to take a gander at the roster of performers who’ll be “on the band,” as Tom would put it: Charles Neville, Karrin Allyson, Steve Davis, Avery Sharpe, Grant Stewart, Nat Reeves, Paul Arslanian, George Kaye and Jon Fisher.  That’s about as solid a lineup as will be making jazz anywhere in the world this Sunday — and they’re right here, contributing to a good cause.

So congrats, old colleague and friend.  And here’s to thirty more years of swinging that gone music!