An ode to joy

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How did I love last night’s Tanglewood concert by Apollo’s Fire? Let me count a few of the ways:

I loved the way the seventeen musicians interacted, as if they really liked each other and loved making music together. In particular, the looks on the faces of the backup players while they laid out during solos made for quite a contrast with the dour visages one sees too often from orchestras.

I loved the way the players used their whole bodies to express the music, especially in the final selection, Vivaldi’s “La Folia.” That this and the encore (a medley of reels from their new “Sugarloaf Mountain” CD) were the only selection performed from memory rather than read off music stands made me wish that they had also done so on the other selections. I know, easy for me to say. But isn’t it more fun to watch performers make eye contact with each other and with us than with a sheet of paper? Add this to the things that make classical music different but not better.

I loved the fluidity of the performances, in which tempo, dynamics, articulation and all the other interpretive elements never, but never, rigidified. I’ve rarely heard Baroque orchestral playing — or any orchestral playing — that was so free and alive.

Most of all, I loved the joyousness that pervaded every element of this concert. You would almost have guessed last night that the works on the program weren’t Great Classical Pieces by Immortal Masters but were actually, you know, really cool pieces that were played for our enjoyment.

Why can’t more classical concerts be like this? I know, I know, some works are much more serious, and it just wouldn’t do to treat them so joyously. I love some of those pieces too.

But I have to say, I’ve taken more pleasure of late in performances by artists like Apollo’s Fire, Brooklyn Rider, A Far Cry, Roomful of Teeth and Chanticleer — artists who perform varied and diverse programs with both great musicianship and a decidedly unclassical informality — than in most (by no means all) of the traditional classical concerts I’ve heard over the same span. I could be wrong, but something tells me that over the long run, due to a combination of cultural and economic factors, concerts like last night’s by Apollo’s Fire have a brighter future in American classical music than much of what will take place at the Tanglewood shed later this summer. Let’s get together in 25 years or so and compare notes.

Album du jour: Richard Thompson, “Still”

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I read the news today, oh boy: “James Taylor earns his first-even No. 1 album.” Good for Sweet Baby James, his many New England fans, and to singing-songwriting senior citizens everywhere.

Such as Richard Thompson. Especially Richard Thompson. Now that Dylan has taken to rasping out old Sinatra songs, does anyone deserve the title “Bard of Anglophonia” more than the 66-year old Thompson? Name me someone who has traversed more musical territory, told more compelling tales in song, and remained as vital for as long a time, while also playing some of the best guitar in the business. (You’ll get a kick out of Thompson’s tribute to some of his “Guitar Heroes” on the last track of the new album.)

Not that a No. 1 album is in the works for Thompson. His lead characters, most often female, are too forlorn, their lovers’ affections insufficiently requited for commercial success. We meet several of these sad ladies on the new album “Still,” including she who could never resist a winding road, Patty whom the singer asks not to put him down, a broken doll whom all the tears in the world won’t mend, Josephine into whose hall all the leaves blow in — and that’s just the first half of the album.

But for listeners of certain tendencies, these tales of woe produce emotional uplift, not whatever the antonym to uplift is, thanks in large part to Thompson’s musical craft. Every song has a mood, a style, an interesting harmonic path and an honest-to-goodness melody. Lots of songwriters can fill up a CD booklet with lyrics, few can make those lyrics come alive in music. And of course, there’s that soulful voice, captured with great immediacy by producer Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. Listen.

Article du jour: Barbara Jepson on Alexander Scriabin

From today’s review by Barbara Jepson in the Wall Street Journal of Decca’s complete recorded edition of the works of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin:

Raiding one’s catalog to reissue discs from the past—particularly in tandem with major composer or performer anniversaries—is common practice, for obvious economic reasons, but Decca spent money on new performances. I only wish they had spent more.

I am reminded of the callers to sportstalk radio who demand that their team sign or trade for this or that high-priced veteran. Easy for them to say, since it’s not their money. Given the economic realities of classical recordings, Decca’s release of a complete recorded edition of a composer as marginal as Alexander Scriabin deserves a new Grammy award: “Best Classical Recording Devoted to a Lost Cause.”

Later:

According to annual repertoire surveys by the League of American Orchestras from 2000 to 2011, Scriabin’s symphonic compositions are vastly underplayed compared with those by contemporaries like Debussy, Ravel and Rachmaninoff. (That’s unlikely to change in the future, despite the boomlet at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the estimable Riccardo Muti.) Perhaps it’s because Scriabin’s works need conductors with a strong sense of structure and the ability to convey unfettered passion.

Or perhaps it’s because Scriabin’s symphonic compositions are vastly inferior to those by contemporaries like Debussy, Ravel and Rachmaninoff. You think?

True, the classical repertoire desperately needs renewal. But it’s not going to be renewed by unearthing the century-old bones of a corpse like Scriabin’s, eccentric and colorful as he was. How ’bout we find the Scriabins in our midst, not to mention our Debussys, Ravels and (even) Rachmaninoffs, and invest our funds and attention spans to them? If record labels and other classical institutions are going to take risks, they might as well help advance the art form at the same time.

Album du jour: “ZOFO Plays Terry Riley”

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Of the three avatars of American classical music minimalism, Philip Glass is the most notorious and Steve Reich the most respected. But it was Terry Riley who made the first and biggest splash of the trio with his 1964 “In C,” an ear-opening and epoch-making work now in the repertoire of hundreds of new music ensembles. You can listen to, and read my review of, its 32nd (!) and most recent recording here — a nice way to wish a happy birthday to Riley, who celebrated his 80th yesterday.

Then listen to the CD under review today and you’ll realize that the “minimalism” covers only a minimal aspect of Riley’s style, one also enriched by Hindustani, jazz, Latin, western classical and numerous other influences. In both the ecleticism and appeal of his music, Riley strikes me as the heir of my favorite among the “American Maverick” composers and forefathers of minimalism, the late great Lou Harrison, for whom music, no matter how high, low, complex or simple, was basically “a song and a dance.”

In today’s album, the superb piano duo ZOFO (shorthand for “20 Finger Orchestra”)  performs all of Riley’s works for four hands, as well as their own arrangements of his works for other performing forces. With long romantic melodies (which Harrison referred to as “the audience’s take home pay”) spun out contrapuntally over lush repeating harmonies, much of the music is like a hypothetical collaboration of Bill Evans and J.S. Bach — what a jam session that would be!. Other more varied selections, such as the concluding “Cinco de Mayo,” are like miniature tone poems. Mind you, I would not criticize any of the selections for excessive brevity. But if you can extend the short attention span we Americans are frequently dis-credited with (though no one I’m aware of has ever proven any such thing) and get in the groove, you’ll find much to enjoy here. Happy 80th to an American original.

Stream below; better yet, purchase and download here.

Album du jour: DJ Koze, “DJ-Kicks 50th Anniversary”

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Back in my radio hosting days at NEPR (you haven’t forgotten already, have you?), I blogged a blog titled “Arrangements, transcriptions and covers.” Neither totally the same nor totally different, these three terms refer to various ways one piece of music can be transformed into another that bears some recognizable relationship to the first. Do give it a quick read before proceeding, taking care not to miss the video at the end by the late great Leonard Nimoy.

Now we come to another method of musical transformation, one that has characterized much of the dance music of the last generation: the remix, or simply mix. To quote (i.e, copy & paste) from that endless source of knowledge and wisdom, Wikipedia, a remix “is a piece of media which has been altered from its original state by adding, removing, and/or changing pieces of the item. A song, piece of artwork, book, video, or photograph can all be remixes. The only characteristic of a remix is that it appropriates and changes other materials to create something new.”

How is that different from the techniques I blogged about earlier? Here’s one way to think about it: While transcriptions, arrangements and covers start with a piece of music, or even just a melody, in its abstract state, not necessarily in any particular performance, and create new scores (whether notated or not) for performance, a remix starts with an audio realization of the original music, which it then transforms through electronic manipulation. In other words, a remix remixes sounds, not notes.

Still unclear? Well then, check out the music Stefan Kozalla, the veteran German music producer better known as DJ Koze. In his latest CD, the 50th (!) in a long-running series called “DJ-Kicks,” Kozalla and a couple of guest mixmasters take nineteen original tracks by as many different artists, then variously strip away vocals or instruments (after obtaining the original master tracks), add new sounds, combine two tracks into one, create interesting segues (much appreciated by this old radio guy) and sometimes even leave the original music alone. It’s a more intentional version of what dance club DJs (which DJ Koze once was) do spontaneously in live action. And it also reminds me of the cassettes of favorite tracks I used to make for friends, complete with interspersed commentary and tricky edits. (Pardon me if you already know this and a lot more about remixes;  I suspect that some of my readers are just catching up.)

Oh, and I almost forgot — the album sounds really cool, and is highly recommended for light summer listening. Below, you’ll find one playlist containing the complete “DJ-Kicks 50th Anniversary,” and another containing every original un-remixed track I could find. I even stuck videos of a couple I couldn’t find at the bottom. Yeah, this is the kind of thing nerdy retirees do to fill their time. And a hearty “live long and prosper” to the first person to notice what this new album has in common with my old NEPR blog post on transcriptions, etc.

Article du jour: Marc Myers on Ornette Coleman

From critic Marc Myers‘s June 15 appreciation of the late avant-garde jazz musician Ornette Coleman in the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Coleman’s enduring relevance and legacy are all the more remarkable in a culture that tends to recognize and reward musicians who appeal to the mass market.

Mr. Myers is spot on in his description of our culture — our human culture. That we humans recognize and reward the musicians who appeal to the most people should be obvious to the point of tautology. Myers may refer in Adorno-esque fashion to those who like such popular music as the “mass market,” but really, they’re just folks like you ‘n’ me, listening to what they like and not to what they don’t like.

And what’s not to like about Ornette Coleman? Nothing, says Marc Myers, according to whom Coleman…

…reach(ed) a position of eminence on par with jazz innovators like (Charlie) Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

Which would be like saying that John Cage reached a position of eminence on par with classical innovators like Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Bartók. In other words: He. Did. Not.

True, Coleman’s “free” style created quite a ruckus in the jazz scene of the late ‘fifties and early ‘sixties, and left an impression on a significant number of subsequent musicians. But looking back, Coleman’s period of greatest notoriety (and by far best music) seems just a moment in time, followed by decades of intermittently interesting but more often negligible music, much of which, I have to admit, provides me with little or no pleasure. Like Myers, I went back to Coleman’s discography to update my opinion. It remains decidedly mixed.

I could go on citing the myriad straw men and exaggerations of Myers’s article, from the “mainstream jazz fans, who tend to be most comfortable with swing and bebop interpretations of songs they already know” to the “jazz fans (who) may be surprised to find themselves actually enjoying Mr. Coleman’s music, which does still require us to think while we listen.” You see, in Marc Myers’s view, not to like Ornette Coleman is testament to one’s lack of sophistication, adventurousness and even intelligence. Couldn’t it be as simple as lots of people thinking that Coleman’s music sounds bad? Isn’t that a perfectly reasonable reaction to, say, the vaunted “Skies of America?” It’s certainly my reaction, and I’d like to think I’m a fairly smart and open-minded listener.

If Marc Myers wants to praise Ornette Coleman, fine. Coleman was a dedicated artist and American original. It undermines Myers’s cause, however, when he places Coleman on par with artists who tower over him, and when he insults those who have a lower estimation of Coleman. You have a right to like and not like whatever music you choose, and no one has a right to tell you your choices are wrong.

Listen for yourself:

That Tingling Sensation

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Soft speaking and whispering. The crackle of a wood fire. Fingers tapping on a keyboard. The crinkle of turning pages. Bob Ross cooing about happy little trees, accompanied by the ch-ch-ch of his brush on a canvas.

Do any of these sounds, or even thinking about these sounds, give you a tingle across your scalp, down your neck and along your extremities? If yes, then you, as am I, are susceptible to ASMR.

That’s Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, for those who haven’t discovered the burgeoning subculture of ASMR audio, video, radio, and who knows what else. I’ve felt ASMR all my life without knowing it was, as they say, “a thing,” or that others reacted to the same triggers as I did. I came across the ASMR subculture only a few weeks ago, while seeking further information on “Lonely at the Top,” a track off of Holly Herndon‘s recent “Platform” album.

As you can hear by clicking on its title, “Lonely at the Top” presents the soft, intimate voice of a woman welcoming a client to an appointment for a massage, and for whatever else your perfervid imagination may picture, while in the background, crinkling paper, fingers tapping on a keyboard, pouring water and other quotidian sounds add to the atmosphere. Turns out that the voice belongs to one Claire Tolan, an ASMR sound artist and radio host, and that this track was meant, in a small way, to do for ASMR what Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” did for Freemasonry: introduce a hidden subculture to outsiders.

But don’t get the wrong idea about ASMR from “Lonely at the Top.” ASMR is not meant as a turn-on. Indeed, most of us tingle junkies go for a fix not when we need arousal, but when we need to be calmed down. To erase the cares of the day and aid relaxation and sleep, there’s nothing better.

OK then, “Lonely at the Top” aside, what other musical sounds trigger my tingles? Most of my musical triggers involve the intimate contact of natural elements: Fingers on strings. Soft mallets on wood or metal. The brushwork jazz drummers perform when they “lay a carpet” behind a slow ballad. The celeste on Chet Baker’s early vocal recordings. Harpo’s solos in the Marx Brothers movies. A master of the balafon. Guitarist Joe Pass, up close and personal.

Or they could be warm, intimate vocals, the kind that feel as if they were whispered right into your ear: A great mezzo singing “Premiers transports” in Hector Berlioz’s “Roméo et Juliette.” The Fleetwoods a cappella. Something off Grouper’s last album. Just compiling this list makes me all tingly.

Why do these sounds trigger my ASMR and not others? According to the limited research on the subject, one not fully embraced by the scientific or medical communities, all of us in the ASMR camp have our unique trigger set, though some stimuli are fairly consistent. Many of mine are typical. But one thing that many of my triggers have in common is the audible and/or visual sensation of a craftsperson focusing intensely on his/her work.

Consider, from the above lists, Harpo Marx’s harp solos in the Marx Brothers comedies. Vestiges from the Marx’s vaudeville routines, the harp solos have struck some viewers and (especially) critics as hokey intrusions into the films’ anarchic scenarios. And Harpo’s technique, while deft, was distinctly homemade. But these scenes always get to me, in no small part because of the look of rapt concentration that emanates from the great clown’s face as he gently strokes his strings. The effect is magical.

Perhaps this feeling goes some way to describing my lifelong “musicophilia,” to borrow Oliver Saks’s term. For both beauty of sound and focused mastery, what can beat music? If you have some favorite musical AMSR triggers, please share. We’re always on the lookout for new ones.

(Illustration: Harpo Marx in the 1929 film “The Cocoanuts”)