Album du jour: Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld: “Never were the way she was”

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My, my, what fabulous sounds can be found in the seams, edges and cracks of and betweeen musical genres. Today, for instance, we have a pair of instrumentalists associated with such major indie acts as Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, one a violinist, the other a specialist in low reeds (tenor & bass saxophone, contrabass clarinet), inventing and performing, without looping or overdubbing, original music combining elements of minimalism, free jazz, ambient, electronica, and noise, just to cite a few of their many influences. By turns ethereal, ecstatic and haunting, “Never were the way she was” (click to purchase and download) is the kind of album that keeps this old classical coot engaged with what those smart and talented young people are doing today. Check it out.

Album du jour: Grimes, “Art Angels”

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“A lot of people have been really excited about this,” the young lady at the check-out counter informed me when I picked up this new CD at Newbury Comics in Northampton last Saturday. Make that a lot of people plus me. And add Grimes (the nom de musique of Vancouver, BC native Claire Boucher) to the list of fabulous femmes who make the widely disparate conglomeration of musical styles inadequately but inevitably grouped together under the banner of “indie” my current favorite source for unique and stimulating new sounds.

Hardly any of which have been more stimulating than “Art Angels.” What non-stop energy and invention! With a voice like a superannuated Powerpuff girl, multi-dubbed and multi-layered to a fair-thee-well, placed over, under, and inside of a minutely detailed, constantly shifting instrumental soundtrack, propelled by beasts infectious enough to raise the recently deceased, “Art Angels” plays like the coolest Pandora station you’ve ever heard, all in one handy package. As is often the case with similar artists, the bubbling optimism of Grimes’s music is somewhat at odds with her lyrics (sample here) — thank goodness. Even if you overlook all the other non-classical stuff I post about on this site, don’t overlook this one.

Album du jour: Lubomyr Melnyk, “Rivers and Streams”

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“first came FRANZ LISZT….then came LUBOMYR.”

The above history of the great pianists came to you courtesy of the website of Lubomyr Melnyk, which also describes him as “one of the truly great innovators of the piano — an explorer whose remarkable technical capacities and his poetic mastery has enthralled audiences wherever he plays !”

But wait — there’s more where this came from.

LUBOMYR MELNYK is one of the most innovative and fascinating pianists/composers of this century. During the 1970’s he developed a totally new “language” for the piano, called Continuous Music,and with it, a stupendous physical and mental technique that is totally unprecedented in the history of the piano.
Using thi remarkable technique, ,Lubomyr Melnyk has set 2 world records for pianistic achievements:

  1. the FASTEST pianist in the world — sustaining speeds of over 19.5 notes per second in each hand, simultaneously, and
  2. the MOST NUMBER of NOTES in ONE HOUR — in exactly 60 minutes, Melnyk sustained an average speed of over 13 notes per second in each hand, yielding a remarkable total of 93,650 INDIVIDUAL notes.

With such agile fingers, one would perhaps expect more accurate orthography, not that I have anything to brag about on that score. One might also ask which governing body certified Melnyk’s two alleged world records. Was there a Pianolympics I didn’t hear about? Who came in second?

But all right, let’s put aside the spectacular claims for now and concentrate on the music, specifically on Melnyk’s “continuous music” technique. To spare you the chore of wading through his website’s verbiage, I’ll summarize it as the two hands independently playing intricate, gradually shifting patterns at great speed and over extended time spans while the damper pedal remains depressed, creating a ringing, shimmering sound capable of considerable beauty and euphoric effect. Not totally without precedent, Melnyk’s music triggers reminiscences of pianists/composers as dissimilar as Sergei Rachmanin0ff, Phillip Glass, George Winston and the other New Age tinklers and, for you avant-garde folks, Charlemagne Palestine and his incredible “Strumming Music” (click to listen). But having heard Melnyk once, you would never again confuse him for anyone else, or vice versa.

On “Rivers and Streams,” my first encounter with Melnyk, he is joined on a couple of tracks by either the subtle guitar accompaniment of Jamie Perera or the squalling, tropical bird-like Korean flute of Hyelim Kim. But even in the duos, the focus is on Melnyk’s keyboard prowess, one which, for all its multi-noted wizardry, tends toward the one-note in expressive range. In other words, whether his pieces are titled “Parasol,” “Sunshimmers”or “The Amazon,” Melnyk brings to each more-or-less the same onslaught of notes and a rather similar expressive arc. It’s dazzling, no question about it. But by the sixth track, few surprises are left.

Still, full credit goes to Lubomyr Melnyk for developing his style and sticking with it. It adds something unique and occasionally beautiful to the world of music, and to our lives. That’s not something to sneer at.

No Spotify playlist, alas, but you may sample each track and download the album here.

 

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.