A wistful coda, a cheerful prelude

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Farewell to a great pianist:  Family, friends and admirers gathered at the Federated Church in Charlemont, Mass., last Saturday morning to pay respects to the late Anne Koscielny, a western Mass. resident who died earlier this month.  A charming lady who maintained her southern graciousness throughout her life, Anne was an admired teacher, an inspiring lecturer — and one of the finest classical pianists I have ever heard, in person or from recordings.

That’s the unanimous verdict among those I’ve spoken to about Anne.  During the service, a recording Anne made of a Chopin Nocturne (Op. 27, N0. 2) played into the sanctuary where she had concertized on a few occasions.  I could only agree the verdict that Estela Olevsky, herself a wonderful Chopin pianist, delivered at the post-service reception:  “Perfect.”

Yet I dare say that most classical fans have never heard of her.  Nor did Anne leave behind a vast discography, though I wonder what else one might find where that Chopin Nocturne came from.  In a column for WNPR radio, Steve Metcalf, a long-time presence on the Connecticut classical scene, speculates as to why that was, and to why classical music has so few superstars at present.  Highly recommended reading.

 

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Guitar Nouveau:  Joseph Ricker and Jamie Balmer, better known as Duo Orfeo, plug in to chill out.  Playing classical music on  vintage electric guitars and tube amplifiers, Joe and Jamie use the juice not for volume, but for myriad shades of quiet.

Their previous album, “I Sing the Body Electric,” explored the tradition of classical spareness from Erik Satie to John Cage to Frederic Mompou to the inevitable and most welcome Arvo Pärt.  On Duo Orfeo’s latest, “Guitar Nouveau,” the range expands, both in terms of repertoire and dynamics.  Arranged into two “Books,” “Morning into Evening” and “Night into Dawn,” the nineteen selections come from almost every century from the 14th to the 21st (the 15th gets left out), though their ordering is shaped by emotional affect, not chronology — smart programming.

One of the best comes first, Joe Ricker’s “Variations on a Theme from the Sacred Harp,” to which a panoply of Duane Eddy/Bill Frisell-esque twangs and bends lend a rustic coloration, much like the sepia on old photographs.  Three selections from Leoš Janáček’s introspective piano cycle “On an Overgrown Path” surprised me with how well the transfer from keyboard to fretboards was made.  The last of the three, “The Barn Owl has not flown away!” features the deftest and most delicate interplay on the album.  And William Byrd’s “The Bells,” a classic of Elizabethan keyboard, positively jumps out of the speakers with joyous and playful energy — a delightful way to welcome dawn and conclude the album.

Having made the goal on their just-completed Kickstarter campaign, it looks like Duo Orfeo will be releasing “Guitar Nouveau” sometime in the near future.  As the blog’s title says, “stay tuned…”

Breaking news:  “Guitar Nouveau” will be released on March 21 at the Duo Orfeo website and the iTunes Store.  There will be an album release concert on March 21st at the Thread Arts Collective, 64 Cottage St., Easthampton (7:00 p.m., $15 a the door) and May 30th at the Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham (details tba).

Album du jour: José González, “Vestiges & Claws”

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Imagine the spare, inward Nick Drake of the “Pink Moon” album, but with a stronger, often Latin-tinged rhythmic impetus, and you’ve approximated the music of José González.  The Gothenburg, Sweden-based González makes the most out of very little:  Intricate finger-picked acoustic guitar patterns, an extremely discrete sprinkling of percussion, and light, clipped vocal phrases of as much rhythmic as melodic or lyrical interest.  Like musical minimalism of other persuasions, González’s songs don’t so much build or develop as they start, play along and stop. But while they’re going, they do exactly as one of his lyrics says:  “Let it carry you, let it carry your weight.  Let it carry you, let it carry you away.”

Album du jour: “Africa Express Presents…Terry Riley’s In C Mali”

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Now this is cool:  Terry Riley’s minimalist classic “In C,” interpreted by an international crew of musicians primarily playing on African instruments.  Talk about shedding new light on a familiar masterwork — wow!

Have you ever heard “In C?”  My first encounter was during a field trip my Ridgefield (Conn.) High School band took in 1972 to Western Connecticut State College (now University) in nearby Danbury, for a special afternoon performance by New England Contemporary Music Ensemble, Richard Moryl, director.  Elsewhere on the program in Ives (as in Charles) Hall, our band’s conductor, Joseph Celli, by then an emerging figure in the musical avant-garde, played an improvised piece for unaccompanied English horn reed, detached from its horn,  while standing in front of a screen upon which abstract red blobs were projected.  Yes, those were heady times on the modern music scene.

But then, the pièce de resistance.  I knew something was up when on stage, in view of musicians and audience, a large display board was set up on which were affixed a series of short melodic fragments — 53 fragments, I came to learn.  So, the musicians came out (I don’t recall exactly, but they may have numbered a dozen or so), the lights dimmed, the conductor lowered the down beat, and the pianist began bonking out repeated octaves at a pretty good clip.  While he continued, the conductor pointed to the first melodic fragment.  Gradually, even tentatively, the other musicians started to play the fragment.

Then, the conductor pointed to the second fragment.  Again gradually, some of the musicians moved on to that fragment, while others stuck with the first.  The conductor pointed to the third fragment; again some but not all of the musicians moved on to it, others sticking with the second, still others moving back to the first…and so on and so forth through all 53 fragments, while all the while, for about half-hour the pianist kept the insistent octaves going — until, as suddenly as he started, he stopped.

This was “In C,” a piece I had heard of, but never heard.  In fact, this was my first direct encounter with musical minimalism –and I was hooked.  Something in my DNA made me respond to this music with an inner ecstasy, and with the feeling that I could crawl into the music and hear it from the inside.  I had never had the feeling before — and to this day, I get the same feeling from good minimalism.

I certainly get the feeling from this new album, the 33rd recording of “In C” according to Wikipedia.  What distinguishes this “In C” from all the others?  Start with the combined sonic texture of the instruments, whether struck, shaken, plucked, bowed or blown, so immediate and tactile that you can practically chew on it.  The substantial deployment of non-pitched percussion (drums, shakers, etc.) gives the piece a celebratory quality (not to mention a fabulous beat), as if the musicians and listeners were joined in some joyous ritual.  And rather than stick with the script throughout, the performers have added a slower, softer interlude, including voices, into the middle of the piece, a nice respite from the norm.  Does that make this recording “inauthentic?”  I’m going to assume that composer Terry Riley was cool with it.  So am I.  Check it out, either in video or audio.

(Disclosure:  I reviewed this album from listening to it on Spotify, not from CD, a copy of which should arrive from England in about a month.  If what I hear then makes me change my mind, I’ll revise and repost this review)

More on “Beyoncé”

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Following up on my recent post about the musical argument encapsulated in the viral social media photo above:

I picked up a copy of “Beyoncé,” gave it a couple of close listens, and can now confidently opine that anyone who would assume it to be the overproduced diva turn implied in the photo should perhaps hold off on further disparagement until you’ve heard it.  That should go without saying, of course, but unfortunately, still needs to be said.  And by the way, I’m no saint when it comes to hating on music I haven’t heard, so I know whereof I speak.

‘Cause the darned thing is absolutely fabulous.  The songs, of course jam-packed with catchy hooks and grooves (please pardon me if I sound a little out of my comfort zone describing a genre I don’t spend much time with), are wide-ranging in tone and mood, rich in detail, and filled with surprising twists and turns.  I was mesmerized from first note to last.

And at no time, not a single moment, did I find reason to give Beyoncé less than full credit for the music’s success.  Yeah, she brought in plenty of collaborators — so what?  In this case, a dozen or more cooks made for a very tasty and harmonious broth.  But there’s no question who’s boss.  Beyoncé is 100% front and center, sometimes while also simultaneously in midground, background, soaring over and underpinning the proceedings.  Her vocal range is astonishing, and when I say “range,” I mean high-low, soft-loud, warm-cold, happy-sad and every-which-way.  Here is a diva who’s got the goods, and deserves (I should say “has earned”) every bit of her acclaim.

One’s individual reaction to the highly (to say the least) sexual lyrics may vary, and even I had to detach a little at times to avoid blushing.  But I’m not the album’s target audience; presumably more typical listeners would take them more in stride.  I can say, however, that the character Beyoncé plays on the album (how much is really she I couldn’t say) is strong, aware, and in charge of herself.  That’s a positive way for a young woman to portray herself, isn’t it?

So, here’s your chance to listen.  If you don’t avail yourself of it, could I ask at least for a modicum of circumspection before offering your critical opprobrium (a nice way of saying “either listen or stfu”)?

Laissez les Gottschalk rouler!

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Before Harry Connick, Jr., before Dr. John, before Ellis Marsalis, before Allen Toussaint, before Fats Domino, before Professor Longhair — hell, even a generation before Jelly Roll Morton, a young piano virtuoso from New Orleans amazed the world with original music steeped in the rich gumbo of the Crescent City’s unique cultural mix.  In a short but eventful life of forty years, he traveled incessantly through the United States, Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America.  His enormous list of piano works includes virtuoso showstoppers, sentimental ballads, rousing mash-ups of patriotic songs and, best of all, the first prominent classical works to incorporate the racial and ethnic diversity of the Americas.  Add an outsized personality, several affairs — even a scandal or two — and you have a suitable subject for a thrilling biopic, if anyone would care to do one.  As for today, I can’t think of any better music for Mardi Gras than a half-dozen of the most flavorful piano works of the one, the only, Louis Moreau Gottschalk!

Beck, Beyoncé, and the battle for the soul of contemporary pop

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If you haven’t heard, rap music star Kanye West made a minor ass of himself at last Sunday’s Grammy presentation.  You can get the gist of what he did and said here.  In very short, Mr. West — may I call him “Kanye?” — was disappointed that the Album of the Year Grammy went to Beck for his “Morning Phase” rather than to Beyoncé for her self-titled album.  Here are Kanye’s post-presentation comments:

The Grammys, if they want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us. We ain’t gonna play with them no more. ‘Flawless,’ Beyoncé video. Beck needs to respect artistry and he should have given his award to Beyoncé, and at this point, we tired of it. Because what happens is, when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in their face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration.

I’m not going to get into the spat over Kanye’s “dis” of Beck, or weigh in on which album is better — mostly because I haven’t yet spent serious time with “Beyoncé,” though even a cursory run-through reveals it to be an album of scope and ambition, one that touches on many styles and timely concerns.  (I have listened to “Morning Phase” several times, and think that it’s excellent, for what that’s worth.)

But I’m intrigued by one line of debate that has ensued, one summarized by the viral photo at the top of this blog entry.  Beck’s album, you see, was a mostly do-it-yourself (DIY) affair, whereas Beyoncé’s involved several producers, songwriters and other participants.  Does that necessarily make Beck’s album the superior work of art, as the text of the photo implies?  And is an artist who does more than just sing more worthy of admiration than a “mere” vocalist?

Welcome to one of the mini-culture wars of pop music (classical is a whole separate issue), one to which you may not have given much thought, but which has simmered for decades.  On one side are those who claim that pop has gone downhill since the songs have no longer been written by professional craftsman and sung by well-trained singers.  On the other side are those who regard the singer-songwriter (possibly also instrumentalist and producer) as a finer, more complete artist than one who can only do one thing.

These hostilities commenced around 1964, with the advent of the Beatles and Bob Dylan.  Though it’s now the norm, for a big-time pop group to write its own songs and play its own instruments, we should recall,  was a novelty before the Fab Four.  As for Dylan, we have him to thank (or blame) for the proliferation of singer-songwriters that have produced some of the most glorious, and most banal, music of the last generation.

In this culture war’s present state, the battle lines cut many ways.  There’s 0ld school vs. new school.  There’s divas and divos vs. hipsters.  There are certain genres, e.g., country and r & b, vs. other genres, e.g., the various indies- and alts-.  There may to an extent be black vs.white, though I’m not certain how much of an extent that is.

So where do I stand — or do I even take a stand?  Based much more on my own listening preferences than any attempt at Solomonic wisdom, I find that there’s something to be said for both approaches, depending on the style of the music as well as the priorities of the listener.

If, for instance, you want to hear American popular music at its artistic apogee, I direct you to interpretations of the “Great American Songbook” (the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, et al.) by such immortal vocalists as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, Mel Tormé, Mabel Mercer — the melody goes on an on.  In other words, songwriters who didn’t sing writing songs for singers who didn’t write songs.  With few exceptions, nothing in the last generation of American pop can match these peerless artists for sheer mastery of singing or songwriting.

Yes, some beautiful songs still come out of pop bands and singer-songwriters, but after listening very extensively for years, I can name few in these categories who match the great composers and lyricists named above for professional craft.  Oh, the proliferation of half-formed ideas, lazy construction, bum rhymes and careless text setting!  That’s why when I come across contemporary songwriters who take their craft seriously, I am unstinting in praise.

As to the singers, those who can get by as “mere” vocalists nowadays are those whose talent and polish approximate their great predecessors, such as Michael Bublé and, in fact, Beyoncé.  How many lead singers or singer-songwriters share their vocal gifts or technical polish?  They remain very fine, even essential artists, even if their art is of the re-creative sort.  Would you disparage such fine actors as Meryl Streep or the late Philip Seymour Hoffman because they didn’t write their own scripts or direct their own films?  Maybe if  you’re a French film critic you would, but then, you would worship Jerry Lewis for doing it all himself — case closed.  As for the rest of our current vocalists — you know, a singing lesson or two wouldn’t hurt.

On the other hand, nothing gives me more satisfaction now than the artists who create their own songs, their own albums, their own musical worlds.  You’ll see their albums praised in this space, right up to one I gushed over earlier this week — and have listened to in continued amazement several times since.  These are the musical artists I would put up against any in their generation, in any genre, very much including classical.

Getting back to the viral photo at the top, let’s do a thought experiment.  Suppose instead of Beyoncé, the artist pictured on the bottom was another very talented African-American female, Rhiannon Giddens.  Ms. Giddens, best-known as lead singer of the old-timey Carolina Chocolate Drops, has just released her debut solo album, “Tomorrow is My Turn.”  From her website: “The album, produced by T Bone Burnett, features a broad range of songs from genres as diverse as gospel, jazz, blues, and country, including works made famous by Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Odetta, and Nina Simone.”

So, no originals, just covers.  Would Ms. Giddens earn the sneering disapproval aimed at Beyoncé?  Considering that the former’s album was issued by Nonesuch, the NPR of record labels, produced by T Bone Burnett, a certified very cool person, consists of songs by much honored musical and feminist icons, and that Ms. Giddens’s image is more serious artist with retro-hip cred than megawatt diva, I doubt it very much.  No, something else is in play here, something that has as much or more to do with the type of person who would listen to Rhiannon Giddens, or to Beck, as opposed to the kind of person who would listen to Beyoncé.  Now there’s a culture war I wish would go away.

Now that I’ve mentioned it, check out “Tomorrow is My Turn.”

 

Album du jour: Father John Misty, “I Love You, Honeybear”

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Josh Tillman, who does music under the moniker Father John Misty, is not an artist to underplay his hand, that’s for sure.  He’s got a lot to say, and will be damned if he isn’t going to put everything he has into saying it.

Fortunately, he has talent to just about match his ambition.  Start with a warm, expressive high baritone, which blends beautifully with itself in the many multi-voice passages.  Then, there’s a generous gift for original melodies and harmonies that delight the ear and tug on the heart.  The scoring and production (done in conjunction with Jonathan Wilson) luxuriate in richness and resonance, laying on the strings heedless of the calorie count.

And it’s a good thing it all sounds so good, because it’s in service of some of the most despairing lyrics this side of Nick Cave.  Nothing escapes Tillman’s dark vision, not his lovers, his country, his generation or himself.  Really, this album would be impossible to get through if not for the way the soaring uplift of the music makes us connect and empathize with the artist rather than feel ranted at.  Perhaps a better comparison would be with the late, great Elliott Smith, another artist whose bleak words of doubt and loathing (especially of self) were buoyed by sweet melodies and a tender voice, though Tillman’s rambling stream-of-consciousness lyrics and occasionally clunky, against-the-grain word setting is miles away from Smith’s impeccable songcraft.

But as I said, Tillman/Misty has a lot to say, and put everything he had into saying it.  Please at least listen to the extraordinary title song.  Maybe you can then hear why I found this album, despite/because of its flaws and excesses, so deeply affecting.