Album du jour: Anna Meredith, “Varmints”

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You may want to fasten your seatbelt before you start in on this album, lest you be blown out of your chair by the irresistible force of its opening track, a skipping, loping fanfare called “Nautilus.” One could well imagine it, rescored for standard symphonic instruments, lifting the lid on a classical concert, not to mention threatening to lift the lid off the concert hall.

And Anna Meredith could do the rescoring too, since she’s a bona fide classical composer, graduate of the Royal College of Music and former composer-in-residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. So, what’s a nice composer like Anna Meredith doing in the world of techno-pop? To quote from Laura Snapes’s profile of Meredith in the Guardian:

Eventually, though, Meredith decided that she wanted to explore an area that few classical composers tiptoe into: the pop world. To be more specific, the avant-synthpop and peak-time howlers of her debut album Varmints. She had grown frustrated by classical’s constraints, where months of work can climax in a single performance – and often to a sneery audience. “I don’t want to write music that people are enduring just to get to the Elgar in the second half,” she says wearily. She repeatedly highlights the snootiness during our gallery walkabout – an awareness that safeguards her own compositions. “I’ve got quite a pretentious-ometer running. If there’s ever a more direct way to say something, I’d rather do that. That’s what I’m asking myself the whole time: can you be braver, can you be bolder, can you be simpler?”

(Ms. Snapes, by the way, also gave “Varmints” a glowing review in the American indie music mag Pitchfork.)

Then again, Anna Meredith doesn’t just compose “nice” classical music, to judge from her best-known works, such as her big hit from the 2012 BBC Proms, a visually and aurally arresting spectacle called “HandsFree”:

Now, if I hadn’t known about Meredith’s background before listening to “Varmints,” would I have guessed that it was the work of a classically-trained composer? Probably not, especially during the approximately half of the album (e.g., “Taken,” “Something Helpful”) with a strong pop orientation, replete with melodic hooks and conventional pop vocals (some by Meredith herself). But on the big instrumentals, such as “R-Type,” “The Vapours” and the aforementioned “Nautilus,” the shaping, shading and invention of the music equals or excedes that of almost any techno artist now active. They also really rock. So for now, at least, classical’s loss is our gain. Check it out below or at Anna Meredith’s
Bandcamp page, where you can purchase “Varmints” on CD or vinyl with complimentary download.

Why choose bad sound when you can do better?

Which would you rather hang on your living room wall: A fine print of your favorite artwork, or a reproduction cut out of a magazine and blown up on a photocopier?

What would you rather dine on: A dish made from whole, fresh ingredients, or one made of processed foods and reconstituted freeze-dried vegetables?

As the late Christopher Hitchens was wont to put it, “to ask these questions is to answer them.”

Then why oh why, fellow music lovers, would you willingly settle for sound-reproducing technologies that strip the sound of its clarity, color, dynamics and beauty — the very qualities the musicians practiced for years to cultivate — when you can do better? In other words, why would you listen to your favorite music via MP3, when you can stream, download or purchase the music in far higher fidelity? Don’t you think that by doing the former you not only do yourself a disservice, but also do a disservice to the music and the musicians?

Yeah I know, I’ve been banging away on this topic (including in this blog post) almost as long and as tiresomely as Bernie Sanders has been blustering about billionaires. But this time, I’m going to put aside the analog vs. digital culture wars. If you really think vinyl records sound better than CDs, I will magnanimously permit you to go with what you prefer. What a guy, huh?

In the spirit of comity, let vinylphiles and digiheads unite against a common foe! MP3s and other “lossy” formats suck. They denude the music of its sound and its soul. While listening to MP3s does not by itself make you a bad person, it certainly arouses suspicion. What other crimes against humanity might you be committing? And where do you think all the digital bits stripped out of the music to make MP3s get dumped? Probably in some depressed minority neighborhood or third-world country. (OK, I made that last thing up.)

So, my non-negotiable demands: When either streaming or purchasing for download, don’t settle for MP3, any more than you would settle for just the “food” you can find at Aldi. Go for FLAC or other “lossless” audio formats. Here’s a good technogeek explanation. Not that its owner Jay-Z needs any more of our money, but I strongly recommend his Tidal service for hi-fi music streaming. I’ve done comparisons between Tidal and MP3-only Spotify — and there’s no comparison. And when purchasing music for download, stay away from iTunes. It only provides lousy alternatives. I’ll do a survey of download sites with better choices later this week.

Two qualifications: I’m not saying you have to buy super-fancy, super-expensive audio toys. You’ll notice the difference even with a decent inexpensive system or even a pretty good pair of headphones. Neither do you have to spring for “audiophile” 24-bit and other fancy download choices when offered. 16-bit FLAC is perfectly OK and costs less too.

The Brits have a wonderful expression that fits perfectly here: “The better is the enemy of the good.” In this case, MP3 and its crappy cousins are the enemy. It’s time to destroy them once and for all.

 

Album du jour: Jeffrey Biegel, Paul Phillips & the Brown University Orchestra, “Manhattan Intermezzo”

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Here’s the concept: Take four classical works for piano and orchestra by noted American and British non-classical musicians, apply first-rate musical talent and production values, and voilà! — as easy an album to recommend as has shot out of my loudspeakers in months.

The album title comes from its first track, composed in 2008 by — wait for it — pop legend Neil Sedaka. Before you roll you eyes, did you know that years before his hits, the young Sedaka earned a scholarship to Juilliard’s prep division as an aspiring virtuoso pianist? As far as subsequent career path is concerned, he made the right choice. I mean, the world has plenty of virtuoso pianists. But it has only one creator of “Calendar Girl,” “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” etc. ad gloriam.

Sedaka describes the work in question, “Manhattan Intermezzo,” as “a journey through the musical diversity of Manhattan. As a lifelong New Yorker, I wanted the audience to feel the spirit of the city, exploring its melting pot of nationalities. I tried to incorporate the sounds of the city where I was born: Latin, Asian, Russian, Broadway, and the New York of today and yesterday.” Playing like a medley of catchy tunes you think you should recognize but don’t, the “Intermezzo” (orchestrated with plenty of pizzazz by veteran all-around musician Lee Holdridge) exudes ingenuousness without ever devolving into kitsch. Just like Neil Sedaka’s great records.

We move then from the world of Brill Building pop to the galaxy of progressive rock — “prog” to its friends and enemies alike — with the 1977 Piano Concerto No. 1 (does anyone know of a Piano Concerto No. 2?) by Keith Emerson. You probably know Emerson best as keyboardist and chief composer for Emerson, Lake & Palmer, perhaps the foremost purveyors of musical excess in prog, a genre rarely celebrated for its restraint. (If you haven’t yet, please read David Weigel’s “Prog Spring,” a superb multi-part history of the genre for Slate.)

Compared with Neil Sedaka’s “Manhattan Intermezzo” which trods the easy path also trodden by such cinematic classics as the “Warsaw Concerto” (played by Valentina Lisitsa here) and the “Cornish Rhapsody” (played by Liberace here), Emerson’s Concerto has far higher aspirations. Why are you not surprised? The piece begins with a bleepin’ 12-tone row, for chrissake, although Emerson, once establishing his avant-garde bona fides, immediately moves on to more congenial Shostaprokofiev territory. The best of the Concertos three movements by far is the zesty and noisy third, “Toccata con fuoco” (“with fire”), where any pretense toward classical propriety is thrown overboard, except for the rather limp and unnecessary middle section. Memo to rockers who want to go classical: Keep it rocking. That’s what you do best, and that’s what classical music needs most from you.

Let me pause here to offer boundless and obsequious praise for the album’s solo pianist, Jeffrey Biegel. He’s got all the technical firepower anyone could want, and has all the tone color and suppleness of phrasing these works demand. What really stands out, however, and what unfortunately cannot be assumed of pianists with similar gifts, is the absolutely impeccable timing with which Jeffrey intereprets the vernacular rhythms when things get jazzy or start to rock. The lack of such timing has ruined many an attempt of classical musicians to “let their hair down,” and end up making fools of themselves in the process. Bravo!

Finally, a pair of rhapsodies from American musical immortals, Duke Ellington’s 1943 “New World A-Coming” (arranged by Maurice Peress) and George Gershwin’s 1924 “Rhapsody in Blue” (as orchestrated by Ferde Grofé). Why has the former never achieved the fame of the latter? Ellington’s is after all the more “significant” of the two, named for journalist Roi Ottley‘s eponymous book calling for racial equality. In his “Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington,” biographer Terry Teachout offers this explanation: “Ellington was fond of the piece and performed it often in later years, but ‘New World A-Coming’ never caught on with the listening public, no doubt because it contained none of the indelible melodies that make it easier to forgive the twenty-five-year old George Gershwin his own youthful ignorance of how to put together a large-scale musical composition.”

Well, hardly any American works have the melodic appeal of “Rhapsody in Blue,” the only classical piece on ASCAP’s 1999 list of the most-performed songs and works of the 20th century (thanks in large part, no doubt, to its use in string of American Airlines commercials, the broadcasts of which count as “performances” in ASCAP’s lingo). On its own terms, “New World A-Coming” has plenty of elegant melodic charm and nostalgic (some might say dated) appeal. In the Ellington, Jeffrey Biegel recreates the cadenza improvised on a 1988 recording by the late jazz pianist Sir Roland Hanna. In the Gershwin, Jeffrey restores more than fifty measures of music deleted without Gershwin’s participation by Harms Music prior to the Rhapsody’s original publication. And he plays the living daylights out of both.

Oodles of kudos also to Paul Phillips, known locally as long-time maestro of the Pioneer Valley Symphony, and the occasionally overtaxed but very game musicians of the Brown University Orchestra. Once you get used to the less-than-fully-professional standard of playing, you can get back to enjoying the music. Score yourself a download here (go for the FLAC 16-bit — that’s an order!). It’s not on the streaming services yet, but Naxos subscribers can stream it here.

 

 

 

What you see and what you hear

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(Photo: The Chiara String Quartet, who don’t need a music stand to know which way the score goes.)

Q: How is classical music different from all other kinds of music?

A (one of many): The audience for classical music is routinely treated to the thrilling spectacle of the musicians having their eyes glued to a sheet of paper as they play.

Of course, there are exceptions, at least in recent tradition. Vocal soloists usually go print-free in song recitals and during most guest appearances with orchestra, though it’s common for singers to use scores when performing extended oratorios (e.g., “Messiah”) and the like. And instrumental soloists, whether in recital or concerto, are expected to play by heart.

Or at least they were expected to play by heart. As New York Times classical critic Anthony Tommasini described in a recent article, this informal ban on soloists “cheating” with printed music has loosened of late, something I have noticed as well. While I don’t celebrate this new tendency as does Tommasini, neither has it really bothered me. As long as the soloist connects with the music — and with the audience — all else matters much less.

But speaking of the audience, where do they fit into this discussion? As usual for Mr. Tommasini, the audience doesn’t fit anywhere but in their seats. “What matters, or should matter,” writes the critic, “is the quality of the music making, not the means by which an artist renders a fine performance.”

Hey, I’m all for fine performances. I used to play fine performances all the time on the radio, and still like to present fine performances to the patrons of my chamber music series (the Miró Quartet plays Beethoven’s Razumovsky’s on Super Sunday, Feb. 7!). Nothing like a fine performance to make a music lover happy.

But isn’t there more to music than meets the ear? You bet. Always has been, and unless the presenters insist that the audience wear blindfolds, always will be. And you don’t have to be an out-and-out synesthesiast to know that in live music shows, what you see influences what you hear.

I’m trying to remember now — where did I read or hear about a study where subjects who only saw the visuals of a classical musical competition without any sound did better at predicting the winners than did other subjects who only heard but did not see? If someone could remind me, I’ll post the link. But this really did happen.

Much as many classical musicians (including some I spoke to recently and who will remain nameless) don’t want to hear it, classical music is not just music, it’s theater. I’d even go so far as to say that classical music is a form of entertainment, though I know that’s goin’ some. This applies both to unusually theatrical musicians such as pianist Lang Lang, who has become a critical bête noir for his enthusiastic stage presence, and to “serious” musicians whose restrained stage manner is more to the critics’ liking. But as musicologist Richard Taruskin opined in his article “Why Do They All Hate Horowitz,” now contained in the anthology “The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays,” even those artists renowned for their priestly communing with the music, performing in concert as if the audience didn’t exist (e.g., the great “serious” pianists Claudio Arrau and Myra Hess), were also putting on a show and, to an extent, pandering to their audiences’ expectations.

I admit that on this score (heh) and others in classicaldom, I see things with an audience-eye view. And from where I sit, classical musicians could do a lot more to make their performances visually as well as aurally engaging. No, I don’t need theatrics or fancy visuals. But that too is just me. Maybe future audiences, the audiences classical music will need to build if it is to survive, will want theatrics and fancy visuals. All the other art forms they enjoy them have them. Should classical music follow along with the times, or continue in its attempt to provide a calm, still refuge from the times? It could of course be a bit of both. But you know who will end up determining this? Not the musicians, not the presenters. It will be determined by the audience. They’re the ones with the money. And in classical music as elsewhere, money talks, buls**t walks.

Getting back to the question of score or no score, one classical sub-genre where this makes a huge difference is chamber music. Is there anything more visually engaging in instrumental classical then a string quartet practically acting their way through some great Beethoven (did I already tell you about the Miró Quartet playing Beethoven’s Razumovsky’s on Super Sunday, Feburary 7)? That may be one reason why chamber music provides me with more satisfacation then any other classical genre.

One oustanding ensemble, not uniquely but most prominently, has decided to take out the safety net and play most of its repertoire by heart. Why did the Chiara String Quartet go there? I asked their cellist Gregory Beaver:

We began playing by heart initially as a way to shake up rehearsal, but it had such a profound impact on our ability to improvise together, shape longer phrasing together, and other benefits, we decided to start playing without printed music or stands in concerts.

To be honest, we didn’t expect that the audience would care as much as we did, but the reaction has been extremely enthusiastic. Apparently, it also enhances the intensity of the connection between us and the audience a great deal. The problem with playing by heart is that it requires much more preparation to be worth the effort, so we cannot do it for every piece, particularly for collaborations, where rehearsals are always close to the concert with our guest.

The first few times playing by heart, anyone’s playing sounds worse, until the initial hump of memorization is overcome. Only then do the benefits kick in. We have to plan our preparation more carefully than before, which we love! As for the debate over whether to play with music or not, like anything abstract and politicized, we couldn’t care less. It’s about the quality of the performance only, so whatever brings that to the fore is what matters.

After I congratulated the quartet on their gutty move and offered a much-shortened version of my above audience-centric screed, Greg replied:

Well we decided to bet the bank on it, by only advertising programs by heart, so I hope our gamble pays off for everyone involved.

Me too. And though it’s easy for me to say — I’m “only” an audience member, after all — I hope more groups like the Chiara would gamble a little, or a lot, more.

 

Beethoven’s best on Super Sunday

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Now that the air has gone out (ouch!) of the Patriots’ run for a fifth NFL championship, here’s a cool way for New England sports fans to soothe their souls on Super Sunday, February 7. At 4:00 p.m., two and a half hours before kickoff, three of Ludwig van Beethoven’s finest plays will be scored — er, finest scores will be played at Sweeney Concert Hall, Sage Hall, Smith College, when Music In Deerfield (soon to be known as Valley Classical Concerts) joins the Smith College Music Department in presenting one of America’s leading chamber music ensembles, the Miró String Quartet. The concert will be preceded at 3:00 by “Concert Conversations,” featuring members of the Miró in conversation with moi, as well as fielding questions from the audience. Click here for info and tix.

Composed in 1806, Beethoven’s three “Razumovsky” Quartets, Op. 59,  are masterworks of what is known in musicological geek-speak as Beethoven’s “middle period,” when he also composed such genre-defining works as the “Eroica,” Fifth and “Pastoral” Symphonies, the “Emperor” Concerto, the “Kreutzer” and “Appassionata” Sonatas and the “Archduke” Trio. One could even analogize these works’ place in Beethoven’s output to that of such great “middle period” Beatles albums as “Rubber Soul”and “Revolver” — not as ingenuous as “With the Beatles” or the Op. 18 Quartets, or as visionary as “Sgt. Pepper” or the last Quartets, but j-u-s-t right. What do you think?

The Quartets’ nickname comes from the music-loving Russian ambassador to Vienna, Count Andrei Razumovsky, who commissioned the works, and in whose honor Beethoven included Russian themes in the first two of the three. This is a program both to astound a chamber music newbie as well as to delight the most discerning chamber music connoisseur — especially in the hands of the Miró Quartet, an absolutely fabulous ensemble which plays with a life-and-death intensity. Now, I can’t guarantee that you’ll get to your TV screen by kickoff. But hey, it’s only Cam vs. Peyton, so who gives a damn? Come on over and party! Beside, we’ve got by far the cooler musical act.

The political lesson of Perry Mason

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Photo: Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) and Della Street (Barbara Hale) inspect the evidence.

My maternal grandfather Andrew Palochick (1891-1978) could reliably be found watching television at his and Grandma’s tiny home in Georgetown, Conn. when not putting in his hours at the nearby Gilbert and Bennett wire mill. His favorites were the news, Yankees baseball, “Wagon Train,” and best of all, “Perry Mason” — a televised diet as hearty as Grandma’s famed stuffed cabbage and babka, all “homemake” in her lexicon. “Put on Mason,” Oppo (as he was known) would command from the back porch from where he watched while sipping warm Schaefer out of quart bottles, getting up only to let out when he had taken in. As to whether Op’ ever poured me some brew before I had attained legal drinking age, not to mention puberty, I plead the fifth.

For those not in the know, Perry Mason, the literary creation of lawyer and writer Erle Stanley Gardner, was a fictional Los Angeles attorney, and in his televised incarnation, the signature role of great Canada-born actor Raymond Burr. In case after case, aided by faithful girl Friday Della Street and rakish detective Paul Drake, Perry would save his client (usually a sweet young thing) from a murder rap while simultaneously pinning the crime on the real perpretator — to the eternal frustration of District Attorney Burger and police Lieutenant Tragg, the Washington Generals of televised drama.

The first five seasons of the original series, which debuted in 1957, are now available on CBS All Access — over a hundred shows in all. The Wife and I have of late made it mandatory daily pre-dinner viewing, lubricated by something a bit more palatable than warm Schaefer. Of course, the plots were formulaic and contrived. So where those of “Mission Impossible,” “Columbo” and countless other hit shows. But the original “Perry Mason” is a veritable time capsule of its time and place. The cars. The clothes. The hair styles. The SoCal exteriors. The social mores. The jazzy theme song and musical underscoring. All in glorious black & white, brought to you by Sweetheart Soap, New Blue Dutch Cleanser and Beads-o’-Bleach. Smart, sexy and with delectable notes of noir, this was and is great adult entertainment.

Does Perry Mason’s geist hold any lessons for our zeit? If one were to keep score, more things have no doubt gotten better since Perry’s time than have gotten worse. Whatever the show’s nostalgic appeal, I certainly don’t regret living in our world rather than Perry’s.  But I will point out one thing that dawned on me after about the twentieth episode — something that made me yearn for at least one aspect of former times.

Part of the show’s fun is interplay between Team Mason and Team Burger/Tragg, the teams treating each other with an ice-cold cordiality that barely conceals their mutual loathing. Each team would do anything within the law, or just outside it, to gain the upper hand on the other. Rather like our current political parties, wouldn’t you say?

But on several episodes, the adversaries put their differences aside in the cause of justice. See for instance season one, episode 18, “The Case of the Cautious Coquette,”at the end of which (spoiler alert) Mason, Burger and Tragg jointly set a trap that snares the real murderer.  Despite the loathing, there is enough respect and trust between the teams to work together for a common goal and higher purpose. Something the aforementioned parties could take a hint from, wouldn’t you also say?

Before we take our leave, I need to single out William Talman, the actor who played District Attorney Hamilton Burger, for the courageous television spot he filmed only weeks before his untimely death in 1968 — the first spot of its kind. The video is grainy and Talman’s speech slurred from pain medication, but the message retains its power.

Album du jour: Kim Kashkashian, Sarah Rothenberg, et al.: “Rothko Chapel”

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Whenever I walk around in an art museum, I find myself inevitably drawn to artworks that inspire a sense of silence and stillness in me — which suspend me, at least temporarily, from the normal rhythms of life. For as long as I’m in contact with these artworks, time ceases to pass, the world falls silent, and I and the artwork are alone in quiet contemplation.

The three composers represented on this new album also sought to create an artistic space for quiet contemplation, though music, whose media are sound and time, can never literally be either silent or still. Even John Cage’s notorious “silent” work, 4’33” (not featured on this album), consists of sound — the ambient noise of the performing space, the listeners’ breathing, etc. — played out over time.

And while there has always been contemplative music in the Western classical music, the works of Erik Satie, John Cage and Morton Feldman are different in their avoidance of the elements that have made Western classical unique among the world’s musics. Of the contrapuntal intricacy of Bach, the formal mastery of Haydn, the conflict of Beethoven, the virtuosity of Liszt, the weltanschauung of Wagner, the emotionalism of Tchaikovsky, the egotism of Strauss,  the profundity of Mahler, the harmonic and rhythmic movement that all composers used to give their works shape and direction, there are little-to-none. The music of this triumvirate is instead purposely undramatic, uneventful, impassive, often repetitive, seemingly (or actually) random, devoid of frill, ornament or excess of any kind. Cage in particular spoke of removing the composer’s ego from his music, and of compelling the listener to focus on the sounds without trying to discern their meaning.

OK, you might have known some of this about Cage, and you can certainly hear it in Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel (see below). But Erik Satie, the eccentric late-19th, early-20th century Frenchman best known for such piano hits as the Gymnopédies and the Gnossiennes? Where does he fit in with Cage, Feldman and the rest of the mid-20th century avant garde?

As an acknowledged and honored precursor. From pianist Sarah Rothenberg’s notes to this new album:

“… Now what happens when something so simple is repeated for such a long time?” asks Cage in regard to Satie’s music. “What happens is the subtle falling away from the norm, a constant flux with regard to such things as speed and accent, all the things in fact which we could connect with rhythm. The most subtle things become evident that would not be evident in a more complex rhythmic situation …” Cage believed that Satie’s contemplative works expressed the spirit of Zen Buddhism, a philosophy that Cage embraced in the 1940’s.

Would you like to hear the connection? Start with the album’s final track, Cage’s In a Landscape (1948,) then go back to the preceding track, Satie’s Gnossienne No. 3 (1890), both gorgeously played by Rothenberg. Don’t analyze and compare the works’ melodies, harmonies or architectures. Consider instead the effect they each have on you. There it is.

Then go back to the album’s opening and longest track.  Composed in1971 to be performed in the Houston landmark of its title, and intended as a tribute to the composer’s friend, painter Mark RothkoRothko Chapel also serves as a relatively accessible initiation into the unique soundworld of Morton Feldman, the composer who took the idea of music for quiet contemplation to the ultimate extent, especially in his almost interminable later works.

Using just a solo viola, a celeste, a very restrained percussionist, two wordless vocal soloists and a wordless choir, Rothko Chapel unfolds slowly and ritualistically, mostly maintaining a low dynamic level, at times hovering just above silence (parts are marked to be performed “barely audibly”), and on only a few occasions raising its voice as if in impassioned lament. The section near the end where the choir divides into twelve different parts, singing densely-clustered chords that practically had light emanating from my loudspeakers, has to be heard to be believed. And throughout, the hauntingly vocal tones of Kim Kashkashian’s viola gave what I heard as a cantorial quality to her part, one consistent with the comments from Feldman quoted in the booklet notes: “The quasi-Hebraic melody played by the viola at the end was written when I was fifteen. Certain intervals throughout the work have the ring of the synagogue.”

As classical albums go, the programming on this one is unusual in alternating between choral and solo piano works. But this sense of variety-within-unity may be closer to how real listeners actually listen to music nowadays — the Pandora model, you might call it. In any case, I give it my strongest recommendation.

Alas, there’s no Spotify playback available for this present album. You can, however, find out more about the album and sample tracks here. You can purchase and download it here. And you can hear the original recording of Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, featuring violist Karen Phillips (a frequent Feldman muse) and the Gregg Smith Singers on Spotify here.