Album du jour: Tom Jones, “Long Lost Suitcase”

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Yes, that Tom Jones — the one-time hitmaker (“It’s Not Unusual,””Delilah”) turned open-shirted, over-sexed, women’s-undergarment-thrown-at cliche of a Vegas lounge act. Yeah, I wasn’t a big fan either. But you have to admit that even if you faulted his material, even if you faulted his sartorial style, even if you faulted everything else about him, you couldn’t fault his pipes.

And you still can’t. At age 75, he can still bring it. Baritonal in quality, tenorial in range, and with just a hint of the patina of age, Jones’s voice is a wonder, whether at full belt or smooth croon.

What’s changed on this new album and its two predecessors (“Praise & Blame” and “Sprit in the Room”) is the material he lavishes his vocal gifts upon. Working with producer/guitarist Ethan Johns, Jones covers on “Long Lost Suitcase” songs associated with Willie Nelson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Los Lobos, Gillian Welch, the Rolling Stones, Hank Williams, Lavern Baker. et al., and does so with utter aplomb. These Tom Jones/Ethan Johns albums have to consitute one of the most remarkable artistic rehabilitations since Johnny Cash teamed up with producer Rick Rubin for those great “American Recordings.”

Mind you, one still doesn’t listen to Tom Jones to admire his subtlety or restraint (though listen to tracks 6 & 7 to have your opinion adjusted). And those aggrieved by the mere thought of cultural appropriation as presently defined should excercise extreme caution, lest your delicate sensitivities be bruised. Me, I think that a septuagenarian Welsh coal miner’s son singing such a range of Americana (the Stones’ “Factory Girl” not excepted) does credit both to Tom Jones and to our musical culture.

“‘Long Lost Suitcase,'” the cover copy informs us, “is the companion soundtrack album for Sir Tom Jones’ first ever autobiography, ‘Over the Top And Back,’ out now.” Imagine waiting until 75 to put out your first autobiography. Would that others showed similar modesty.

Album du jour: Oneohtrix Point Never, “Garden of Delete”

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Once again, old friends, I invite you to travel with me to the land of Electronica, one of the world’s leading producers per capita of creative new music. Our guide today is 33-year old Brooklynite Daniel Lopatin, late of Winthrop, Mass. and Hampshire College, and producer of very cool sounds under the moniker Oneohtrix Point Never (a play on the frequency of Boston radio station WMJX, aka “Magic 106.7”). With the music just a mouse-click away, further analysis from me would be superfluous. But not my recommendation. Go for it.

How new is your “new music”?

Late last month, Q2 Music, the online new music channel of New York classical radio station WQXR, ran an informal poll asking listeners, in their words, “What Does the ‘New’ in ‘New Music’ Mean to You?” Listeners were asked to vote on whether they would define “new music” (meaning “new classical music”)  as any written in the past 20 years, 40 years, 60 years or 80 years. How would you have voted? Think about your answer before moving on.

As it turned, out of 242 voters, 90 of them (37.2 %) chose the narrowest definition of “new music” as any written in the past 20 years. 68 voters (28.1 %) chose 40 years, 67 (27.7 %) chose 60, and just 17 (7 %) chose 80. Of course, the poll was entirely unscientific, good for provoking discussion and little else. And one could, indeed should, argue that a musical work’s “newness” or lack of same has to do with much more than its chronology. Some works remain edgy, challenging, fresh, etc., for decades; others are stale right out of the box.

But it struck me as odd that in a group of 242 people interested enough in new music to listen to Q2 and to vote in this poll, nearly two-thirds of them (62.8 %) accepted the term “new music” when applied to music produced during or prior to 1976, forty or more years ago. Doesn’t it stike you the same way?

For grins, I looked up the music of 1976 (thank you, Wikipedia) to get a sense of how new it remained. Before clicking on the link, can you name the top two singles of the year? Why of course, they were ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody!” Cool songs, to be sure, but they’re not exactly bumping Adele from today’s charts. Top albums of 1976 included “Wings at the Speed of Sound,” “Frampton Comes Alive!” and Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life.” Oh, and let’s not forget the Eagles’ “Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975). In other words, it was so long ago that the Eagles were already putting out a greatest hits album. As for how “new” any of these records remain, let’s just say that if you actually owned any of them then, you probably own an AARP card now.

“Sure,” you might say, “that’s pop music. How about classical?” All right then, here are some of the classical “hits” of the year, if you’ll pardon the expression: Elliott Carter’s “A Symphony of Three Orchestras,” George Crumb’s “Dream Sequence (Images II),” Henri Dutilleux’s “Ainsi la nuit,” Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Violin Concerto No. 1” and Henryk Górecki’s “Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs).” From the world of opera, 1976 was also the year of the premiere of Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach.” Not a bad crop, including two works (the Górecki and the Glass) that, at least to some extent, transcended classical and opera to take their place in the overall cultural landscape.

But would you still call these pieces “new music?” Reasonable people can reasonably disagree about this, but I say “no.” Rather, I’d say that these are pieces of their time reflecting the mix of styles of their day, from high modernism to neo-romanticism — neither of which is currently in vogue — along with an early milestone of minimalism. Their composers’ names will appear in future music history books in the chapter devoted to the 20th century, not the 21st. They’re part of the soundtrack of the ‘seventies, just like the pop records in the preceding paragraph.

OK, we get that classical music is supposed to have a longer life than pop songs, most of which, compared with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, have the relative life span of a fruit fly. The two musics, classical and pop, operate under different calendars. For listeners to Q2 Music, a piece from 40 years ago could be “new.” On the Top 40 pop stations I grew up listening to (our family favorite was New York’s WABC), any song that had been off the charts for more than six minutes was an “oldie”.

But it used to be the latter way in classical music too. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, when our current idea of a “classical canon” was emerging, the music scene resembled Top 40 radio — current hits and occasional “oldies” from a few years earlier — more closely than it does today’s classical radio, with its emphasis on the music of prior centuries. For instance, when Joseph Haydn was producing one hit symphony after another in the 1780s and ’90s, music from 40-to-60 years earlier would have been that of J.S. Bach, Antonio Vivaldi and their contemporaries. Yet other than the oratorios of Handel (especially “Messiah”), such music was regarded as totally out-of-date and only of interest to antiquarians. An avid concert-goer could go a lifetime and never hear any of it.

So once upon a time, what we call classical music meant new music. And new music meant this year, this month, today. If in their attempts to modernize their appeal, classical music institutions would rather not turn to pop music for emulation and inspiriation, they could at least look to their own music’s past. Once upon a time, classical music was the coolest, hippest, newest thing around. It could be that way again.

Albums du jour: Arca, “Mutant” & Ólafur Arnalds/Nils Frahm: “Collaborative Works”

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Arca: “Mutant.” Alejandro Ghersi, a London-based Venezuelan who produces electronic music under the non de musique Arca, does not do pretty. Gritty, grimy, crunchy, crusty and downright filthy, you bet. Pretty, no. Yet if you can accept the idea of finding a kind of awful beauty in, say, an earthquake, or in a volcanic eruption, then “Mutant” might be for you. And it rocks, in both the geological and musical senses of the word.

 

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Ólafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm: “Collaborative Works.” If your taste for electronica also extends to the gentler, mesmerising sub-genre known as “ambient,” then you’ll find rich pleasure in this 2-CD collaboration between two prolific stalwarts of electronica, Iceland’s Ólafur Arnalds  and Berliner Nils Frahm. The first CD — really three EPs gathered onto one full-length — is a “collage of our studio experiments of the past,”tossed off when Arnalds and Frahm would get together between gigs for rest and relaxation. The second, “Trance Frendz,”consists of improvised duets, both acoustic and electronic, performed last July in a Berlin studio following the sessions for a promotional video for the first CD. They had me by the first note and didn’t let me go until the last; then again, I’m a sucker for such stuff. You? Here’s a playlist of CD1:

Four for Halloween

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George Crumb: “Black Angels.” Any reasonably culitvated list of Halloween music has got to include something by George Crumb, the king of modern classical ooga-booga. Let’s go with the 1970 “Black Angels (Images I),” a thirteen(!)-movement piece for amplified (“to the threshhold of pain”) string quartet, the players also whispering, shouting and variously shaking, striking and bowing percussion instruments and glass goblets to eerie effect. Like all good Halloweenery, it’s both faintly ridiculous and genuinely disturbing. And catch the quote from Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.”

P.J Harvey: “White Chalk.” Dressed on the cover like Dickens’s Miss Havisham just before her wedding day, mercurial English singer-songwriter P.J. Harvey seems to have imbibed of the spirit of 19th century Gothic literature before composing the blood-chilling songs on this great 2007 album. Listen alone and in the dark — I dare you.

William Bolcom: “Black Host.” Pulitzer-winning composer, ragtime revivalist, and half of the American popular song duo Bolcom & Morris (known for their many appearances locally at Mohawk Trail Concerts), William Bolcom turns the creepiness up to eleven in this insane mish-mash of styles, scored for organ, percussion and tape. Remember tape? If the Phantom of the Opera were around today, this is what he’d play.

Momus: “Circus Maximus”  Reissued just in time for Halloween, this 1986 album introduced an unsuspecting world to the dazzling talent and outré preoccupations of Scotsman Nick Currie, a.k.a. Momus. I’ll leave Momus’s later music as an area for personal exploration, though don’t say you weren’t warned. As for this debut, imagine Nick Drake’s voice and songcraft, Scott Walker’s love of the bizarre, Edgar Allan Poe’s sense of the macabre and a dash of Davie Bowie glam, toss in references to Christian martyrs, Doctor Faust, the Marquis de Sade, Bela Lugosi and others — and you still don’t have an idea how cool it is. It all blows by so lightly and swiftly that you’ll need a few listens to catch it all.

A trumpet for all seasons

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Q. What do you call someone who can stand a front of a symphony orchestra to play a famous classical concerto one evening, then return to the same city two weeks later with his jazz chamber ensemble to perform sophisticated originals based on the words and works of a 20th-century French visionary?

A. A musician.

Which description fits Thomas Bergeron like his trumpet and fluegelhorn mouthpieces fit his well-trained embouchure. Read all about Tom in Jerry Noble’s excellent profile for the Republican and MassLive.com. (I especially like the part where Tom says his studies at the UMass school of business gave him “a practical understanding of the capitalist world we live in.” Would that all serious musicians would attempt to attain a similar level of understanding.) Here’s the link to the November 7 Springfield Symphony Orchestra concert on which Tom solos on Joseph Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, and joins English hornist Nancy Dimock in the front line of Aaron Copland’s delicate and moody “Quiet City.” And here’s the link to the Bing Arts Center, the intimate Springfield venue where on November 21, Tom’s jazz chamber ensemble will perform music from his album “Sacred Feast,” featuring new music based on melodies and words of the great French composer Olivier Messiaen (sample his music on Spotify here), as well as jazz interpretations of Debussy, Chopin, Schumann and (according to Tom) “new surprises!”

Jazz Messiaen — what could that possibly sound like? I could gush for paragraphs on its warmth, originality and inventiveness, and how much I loved the unique colors and voicings, but instead, head on over to Tom’s Bandcamp page to sample from and purchase the “Sacred Feast” album. Not too many trumpeters could dream up and play (complete with improvisations) such striking music and also knock the Haydn Concerto outta the park. But Tom Bergeron’s not just a trumpeter, he’s a musician.

(DISCLOSURE: Tom performed Alexander Arutiunian’s Trumpet Concerto with Springfield Symphony maestro Kevin Rhodes at the 88’s on a 2013 concert celebrating my retirement from New England Public Radio. But considering what a cold, ungrateful jerk I can be under such circumstances, accusations of favoritism would be unfair.)

Album du jour: Larry Gus, “I Need New Eyes”

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In “I Need New Eyes,” Milan-based Greek computer engineer Panagiotis Melidis, who produces music under the name Larry Gus, writes and sings lyrics suffused with pain, doubt, love (which encompasses plenty of the first two) and divers other timeless themes, samples widely from the music of those parts of the world that we Westerners hath decreed to be The World, invents attractively exotic tunes containing about as many hooks as a fishing tackle, plays pert near all the instruments (electronic and otherwise) himself, produces it all into a busy and attractive mid-fi soundscape, and comes up with an eminently listenable and/or danceable album very high in entertainment value. Take it from The Wife, who, as she (brave woman) entered my listening lair during playback, immediately got with the beat and flashed a thumbs-up. And you don’t want to disagree with The Wife, do you?

Album du jour: Ursula Oppens & Jerome Lowenthal, “Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated! • Four Hands”

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It’s been twelve hours since my last hearing of the major work on this great new album, and I’m still shaking as I play it back in my head.

One definition of a masterpiece is a piece that both speaks for its time and stands up to the test of time. By that and many other definitions, Westfield, Mass. native Frederic Rzewski‘s  1975 “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” qualifies as a masterpiece. A set of 36 variations on a Chilean protest anthem (read more about the work and download the album and booklet here), “The People United” is practically as rigorous in structure as Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” and as eclectic as a late-night, free-form Pacifica radio show of the ‘seventies, though much more entertaining. Imagine inviting such varied pianists as Oscar Peterson, Cecil Taylor, John Cage, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Charles Ives, Glenn Gould and Ray Charles to take turns with their own variations, and you get the idea.

Now, one might (I would say should) take issue with the work’s obvious political content — it qu0tes, with evident approval, Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler’s “Solidarity Song” and the Italian communist anthem “Bandiera rossa” (“Red Flag”) — but that’s the zeitgeist for you, as anyone who was near a college campus at the time will recall. If that’s what it took to get Rzewski’s juices flowing, then it worked — “The People United”is a tour-de-force of non-stop creativity, and the kind of artwork that leaves one astonished once again at the capacity of human achievement.

That last phrase goes as well for Ursula Oppens, the work’s dedicatee, who gave the premiere and made the first recording (which knocked me and many other listeners on our collective backsides) of “The People United” going on forty years ago. In the meantime, there have been over a dozen other recordings of it, some very fine, and two, by the composer himself (one audio, one video), essential. Yet another new recording by Russian-German pianist Igor Levit (part of a 3-CD set also containing Bach’s “Goldberg” and Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations!!) will be out by the end of the month. Oppens’s remake, beautifully produced and engineered, is vital, deeply felt, and as profound an engagement with the work as I’ve ever heard. It’s the kind of performance Richard Goode would give if he ever played it — and I mean that as a high compliment.

An appealing new piano duet called “Four Hands” follows “The People United”as dessert — or, perhaps, as anti-climax. Never mind. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be so moved and, yes, shaken by the album’s pièce de resistance that you won’t want anything but silence when it’s done. Most urgently recommended.

Album du jour: Max Richter, “from SLEEP”

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Now here’s an original concept for you: Eight hours of music designed to put you to sleep. “It’s my personal lullaby for a frenetic world,” says composer Max Richter of his “SLEEP.” “A manifesto for a slower pace of existence.”

No offense to Mr. Richter, but I do not need someone else’s manifesto to regulate the pace of my existence, anymore than I need yet another pundit to amaze me with the revelation that if you turn off your electronic devices you can actually do cool stuff like talk to other people. Maybe it’s the cynic and libertarian in me and I’m being close-minded about such things, but that’s who I am.

On the other hand, I’m no less susceptible to the soothing powers of music than the next listener, and have been known to nod off occasionally during concerts, especially of the Sunday afternoon (i.e., nap time) persuasion. So, if Mr. Richter has a nice new musical soporific to offer, I’ll snooze to that!

Basic info: Max Richter is a prolific German-born British composer of post-minimalist music for concert, stage, film and electronics. His resourceful and entertaining “recomposition” (his term) of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” was one of the biggest classical hits of 2012-2013, and a favorite of listeners to my NEPR classical show. His latest and longest opus, “SLEEP (received) its world premiere this September in Berlin, in a concert performance lasting from 12 midnight to 8am at which the audience (were) given beds instead of seats and programmes,” to quote from the Deutsche Grammophon record label’s website. No word on whether crackers and juice were served prior to sleepy time.

In its full eight-hour version, “SLEEP” consists of 31 distinct selections scored for various combinations of instruments (played by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, aka ACME), electronics (programmed by Mr. Richter) and wordless voice (the angelic Grace Davidson). I economized in both time and funds, going for the one-hour, seven track single-CD sampler called “from SLEEP.”

And by and large, I found the music to be attractive, appealing and indeed quite restful, if not exceptionally original. In particular, the resemblance of the acoustic (i.e, non-electronic) selections to the music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, especially such Pärt works as “Für Alina” and “Spiegel im Spiegel” (click on titles for Spotify playback) cannot be ignored. But originality and other typical priorities of many modern artists are not prioritized as highly by Mr. Richter. Quite the contrary:

I’m perpetually curious about performance conventions in classical music, our rigid rules that dictate how and what music we can appreciate. Somehow in Europe over the last century, as complexity and inaccessibility in music became equated with intelligence and the avant-garde, we lost something along the way. Modernism gave us so many stunning works but we also lost our lullabies. We lost a shared communion in sound. Audiences have dwindled. All my pieces over the last few years have been exploring this, as does SLEEP. It’s a very deliberate political statement for me.

There’s a bit of straw in that statement, and not just the kind you sleep on. The avant-garde, to the extent one currently exists in classical music, is hardly as devoted to “complexity and inaccessibility” as it once was. Under the influence of the aforementioned Arvo Pärt and others, quite a few younger composers now write in quiet, meditative styles, among them Caleb Burhans, who happens also to be a member of ACME, the ensemble featured on this album.

But once I freed myself of my customary cynicism and put aside my critical judgments, I derived considerable pleasure from this music. And despite Mr. Richter’s admonition that “the short one is meant to be listened to and the long one is meant to be heard while sleeping,” I enjoyed a brief nap during one session with “from SLEEP,” nodding off during the soothing second track, an overdubbed vocal duet with organ called “Path 5 (delta)” and coming to during the very lovely final track, “Dream 8 (late and soon),” featuring Ms. Davidson’s voice tolling like a bell in the middle of (almost) every measure. Nice!

And who in modern times hasn’t ever longed to escape our “frenetic world” for a “slower pace of existence?” A few years ago, the choir I sing in performed a number that ended with (in translation) these words:

Sing, ye birds, your tender ditties, lull the weary past;
haunts of men and busy cities, oh farewell, I rest at last.

In their original German, the words come from a Paul Heyse poem called “Waldesnacht” (“Woodland Night”) published in 1850, and set to music by Johannes Brahms in 1874. Some things never change, however many pundits and artists think that they just discovered them. Now please pass me my pillow…