Shostakovich smiles!

shostakovich and britten

Nearly the only photo in which I’ve seen the great Shostakovich appear cheerful.

Oh to have been a fly on the wall listening to what he and Ben Britten had to say to one another…

I’m currently learning one of the fugues from DS’s stupendous “24 Preludes and Fugues,” Opus 87 (the one in C-sharp minor). And remembering the performance I attended of Alexander Melnikov playing the second half of those at Middlebury College. (I can’t recommend highly enough his recording of the complete set, by the way.)

Michael Stipe on Lou Reed

Also part of the tribute to Lou Reed in Rolling Stone are twenty or so contributions from various people in music and the arts. The one from Michael Stipe is interesting, pointing out something I wasn’t really aware of:

[Lou Reed] was the first queer icon of the 21st century, 30 years before it even began.

As early as the late 1960s, Lou proclaimed with beautifully confusing candidness a much more 21st-century understanding of a fluid, moving sexuality. He saw beyond – and lived outside – a society locked into a simplistic straight/gay binary division. Through his public persona, his art and music, he boldly refused labels, very publicly mixing things up and providing a “Whoa, that’s possible?” avenue of sexual exploration and identity examination, all with whip-smart nonchalance. He was indefinable, he was other, he was outside of society. He spearheaded a new cool, and he did not care if you “got it” or not. Lots of people did get it…

Laurie Anderson’s tribute to Lou Reed

It’s as beautiful and inspiring as can be, and it’s here, in Rolling Stone:

But when the doctor said, “That’s it. We have no more options,” the only part of that Lou heard was “options” – he didn’t give up until the last half-hour of his life, when he suddenly accepted it – all at once and completely. We were at home – I’d gotten him out of the hospital a few days before – and even though he was extremely weak, he insisted on going out into the bright morning light.

As meditators, we had prepared for this – how to move the energy up from the belly and into the heart and out through the head. I have never seen an expression as full of wonder as Lou’s as he died. His hands were doing the water-flowing 21-form of tai chi. His eyes were wide open. I was holding in my arms the person I loved the most in the world, and talking to him as he died. His heart stopped. He wasn’t afraid. I had gotten to walk with him to the end of the world. Life – so beautiful, painful and dazzling – does not get better than that. And death? I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.

At the moment, I have only the greatest happiness and I am so proud of the way he lived and died, of his incredible power and grace.

I’m sure he will come to me in my dreams and will seem to be alive again. And I am suddenly standing here by myself stunned and grateful. How strange, exciting and miraculous that we can change each other so much, love each other so much through our words and music and our real lives.

20131105-loureed-x600-1383682618photo credit: Guido Harari/Contrasto/Redux

the Razumovsky quartets

They have been almost the only thing I’ve felt like listening to over the past week or two. My favorite recording is that of the Takács Quartet, who play them (as all the Beethoven quartets) with exquisite balance and such depth of concentration. Just now I have had on the second of the three, which I hear as being almost in two movements, since the Allegro and Molto Adagio are each such monumental conceptions. The third and galloping fourth movements by contrast – which typically take a little less time to play combined than either of the first two alone – feel somewhat like a prolonged coda, an unwinding from the extraordinary intensity of those first 25 minutes or so.

That Allegro has one of the most mysterious openings of any of the quartets, with its dramatic opening chords followed by startling silence, and then the initial motif with its somehow always surprising repetition a half-step up (the Neapolitan degree, which is all over this piece). It is a movement which is full of surprises, in fact, and one which won’t release its grip on you until the final unexpected whisper of that same motif some dozen minutes later. It’s always hard to imagine what could follow, until … the chorale-like opening of the next breathes in a new world, vast as the starry night sky said to have given Beethoven the conception. Which can be found below, in a live performance by the Alban Berg Quartet (there is no YouTube link for the Takács recording, but information about their complete and, as it happens, multiple-award-winning set of Beethoven quartets dating from 2002-2005 can be found here).

The three Rasumovsky quartets date from those miraculous years of 1804-6, the core of Beethoven’s “middle” period, following on from the stupendous “Eroica,” and roughly contemporaneous with Symphonies 4-6, the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas, the Violin Concerto, and Fidelio. Poorly understood in their day, Beethoven here was writing for the generations to come.

“please stop fightin’ … please, stop … please”

I’ve never been able to figure out why U2 has acquired the degree of “uncool” status it has. Maybe it’s the legacy of the early few albums, which I haven’t connected with. But gradually, beginning with the Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois-produced The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, and especially the ’90s electronica-and-dance-influenced Achtung Baby (Eno and Lanois again) and Zooropa (Eno, Flood, and The Edge), they have created some great songs – a few of them masterpieces – that are holding their own. And I can’t think of another band that’s stayed together for over 30 years and continued to grow musically to the extent they have, either.

One of their very, very best is “Please,” from Pop, the album that followed Zooropa. It is in part about The Troubles of Northern Ireland, and never fails to totally nail me… The extraordinary video (below) was directed by Anton Corbijn.

And here is the official live video, recorded in Rotterdam, musically even more immaculate than the studio version…

Goldie – “Sea of Tears”

A 12 minute drum-n-bass symphonic masterpiece from the CD Timeless that I just listened to again for the first time in awhile.

Here’s a guide for those who’ve never heard it and might think they don’t have 12 minutes to spare. Maybe this will nudge you to make a bit of contemplative space in your day…

So if you click the play button below … you will first hear a purely electronic descending sequence of notes (F-C-F sharp) put through various effects, and have no idea where you are. It’s a mysterious, metallic landscape, a kind of limbo. (But that three note sequence will be shifting around within new contexts throughout the whole piece.) The guitar theme layered on top of this at 0:48 adds to the enigma, and if you are not patient (!) you might decide to hit Stop and find a cat video or something. But of course this would be a big mistake! BECAUSE …

At 1:36 the drums come in (this is d-n-b after all), and they play an unusual pattern of bars that alternate 4 beats, then 3, then 4, then 5. So now we are off… But where are we going?…

Suddenly at 2:48 the beats regularize into 4 as a jazzy, gorgeous theme on guitar enters: spacious and warm. Pure joy. This is the point, when I first heard it way back when, when I realized something quite amazing was taking place…

So we have nearly two minutes of this before just as suddenly the drums stop as a woman’s voice simply says “tears.” And we hear samples of breaking waves and seagulls crying in the distance joining the mix. Gradually, over the next half-minute or so, everything else fades out except for strings playing two notes, the voice repeating “tears,” and the sea and seagulls.

Then we are in another limbo, because at this point even the strings are gone, and we’re listening to sea and seagulls and nothing else. This is at 5:12, smack in the middle of the track: how cool is that? But then, over the continuing samples … the first voice we heard asks a question, and another voice, a child’s, replies:

“What are you doing here?”
“Washing away the tears.”

Thwack to the heart. And it always makes me think of the end of Allen Ginsberg’s poem for his friend Jack Kerouac too – “Memory Gardens”:

Well, while I’m here I’ll
do the work –
and what’s the Work?
To ease the pain of living.
Everything else, drunken

But we are just halfway through! A new guitar line enters of simple plaintiveness. This is all we hear for a minute or so, the guitar over the sea and gulls. And at this point, another miraculous moment. At 6:34 the first voice reenters, saying “wash … away … the tears.” And a wordless vocal line enters too, and strings, with the previous guitar line returning. And then … the drums return, and there is a hint of crying in the mix, while the vocal line acquires words: “sea … of tears.”

But you know what? This track is still not out of new and beautiful ideas. Because at 7:48 we get yet another version of the initial three-note sequence – and the crying returns, and for nearly two minutes it’s almost unbearable…

Until 9:25 … and yet another guitar line, again simple, lovely. The crying now stops, and we just hear the guitar and three-note synth sequence, with drums and bass, a mysterious landscape akin to the opening. We float in this world until 11:00, when the drums stop again, for the last time, the previously crying woman says “sea … of … tears,” and then “wash … away … the tears … tears,” and then “wash … away … my tears.”

And the last 20 seconds are just the sound of the sea…

So – normally I wouldn’t want to try and do that kind of analysis here but I’ve always been in awe of how intricate and organically unfolding this piece is, and thought I would try to convey this in the hope that someone straying onto the site who might otherwise be dubious about the full potential of electronic/dance genres of music might be reminded that genius arises anywhere it likes…

The point, as always, is to listen for yourself. Which, since I will now shut up (!), you now can do.

“The Lady” – Sandy Denny

I’ve always loved this song, both for the expressive beauty of Sandy Denny’s voice and the exceptional elegance of the lyrics.

It’s a song that basically contains a single, simple event: a woman is singing at dawn. That’s it. But out of this comes something really special.

There are three stanzas, with each of the first two introducing two parallel images. We have a silver tongue – whose sole purpose is to sing – and a golden heart – whose sole purpose is to love. And we have the experience of silence descending, and the sun ascending.

the lady she had a silver tongue
for to sing she said, and maybe that’s all
wait for the dawn and we will have that song
when it ends it will seem … that we hear silence fall

the lady she had a golden heart
for to love she said, and she did not lie
wait for the dawn and we’ll watch for the sun
as we turn it will seem … to arise in the sky

My ellipses above don’t indicate gaps in the lyrics. I put them in to indicate both the fact that she stretches out the word “seem” in both cases (“seeeem” would look strange), and also to point to yet another gorgeously economical device of the song: these first two stanzas reference “seeming,” have a mirage-like quality, while the last declares a real-live, luminous event.

So here, in just four further lines, she manages to bring together each of these parallels so brilliantly. The final stanza’s first line references the images of line 3 in each of the first two stanzas, and its third line then references line 4 in each of the others.

Meanwhile, lines 2 and 4 here turn mirage/”seeming” into the blazing warmth of a new day, while the silver of the lady’s capacity to sing and the gold of her capacity to love are transformed into the very essence of that day, the silver and gold of “a beautiful morning.” Isn’t that so great? Very unusual in my experience for a song lyric to be genuinely dazzling like this.

we heard that song while watching the sky
oh the sound it rang so clear through the cold
then silence fell and the sun did arise
on a beautiful morning … of silver and gold

But now, forget all of that, and just listen…

“On a Clear Day” (the Chris Peterman Quintet at Discover Jazz)

Last night the annual Burlington Discover Jazz Festival began. I’d actually somehow forgotten which day it was when I approached Church Street in search of a light dinner and heard a cacophony of sound – at least three different bands playing outdoors within a couple of blocks of each other.

There are the big names over at the Flynn – Branford Marsalis, John Scofield, Bobby McFerrin, among plenty of others – but then there is also jazz everywhere else around the center of town for the next 10 days, much of it outdoors. I sat outside Das Bierhaus the rest of the evening listening to the Chris Peterman Quintet, who were superb. They are (or at least were at this particular gig): Chris Peterman on saxes, John Rivers on bass, Caleb Bronz on drums, Matt Wright on vocals, and Tom Cleary on piano. Chris I’d never properly heard before and he was brilliant: I loved the fluidity of his playing, the long melodic arches to his solos, effortless inventiveness. Matt – also new to me – shone in some adventurous scat singing, and the rhythm section as usual played with spot-on precision and clarity.

As for Tom, I took a jazz improv class with him a few years ago and always look forward to hearing him. His playing is stylistically versatile and virtuosic, above all always immaculately musical whatever he’s playing – in part stemming from a deep study of jazz history (a journal he’s recently begun exploring musical questions within jazz is here). I was hoping to link to some really amazing samples of what he can do from the CD Frame Problem, a release by Fragile Zoe, but haven’t found anything online as of yet (and am unable to upload my own audio files until I upgrade to self-hosting – hopefully soon). Fragile Zoe are a jazz-funk fusion band consisting of several members of the University of Vermont faculty (Tom and John, and Patricia Julien on flute), along with Patricia’s husband Alec on guitar, and Caleb from last night’s group also.

One tune from last night was “On a Clear Day” (written by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner), which I hadn’t heard in a long time. I’d forgotten what a great song it is. The band played it uptempo and its soaring openness really brightened up the overcast Burlington night sky. Afterward I asked Tom for a recommendation of a recording, and one which he mentioned was Oscar Peterson’s (below). As always when I hear this man, I can’t help laughing from time to time at the level of seemingly effortless virtuosity on display – and check out how his left hand joins the party at 2:26 here… Always fiercely swinging too – I dare you to listen to this with stationery feet…

But then I wanted to find a vocal recording of it and there were fewer choices on YouTube than I expected. Most of these are from Barbra Streisand, each a little different, and then there is one from Shirley Bassey too. In general I find a wee bit too much belting out of this song, which doesn’t feel right to me. The lyrics here are kind of stupendous and don’t need exaggerated force to communicate themselves. At the end, sure, some crescendo, though to my taste not as much as I’m mostly hearing in these recordings. The following – the actual 45 single from way back when – builds too quickly I think, and has the usual triumphalist kind of interpretation. But that hushed opening is pure magic.

On a clear day
Rise and look around you
And you’ll see who you are
On a clear day
How it will astound you
That the glow of your being
Outshines every star
You’ll feel part of
Every mountain, sea and shore,
You can hear from far and near
A world you’ve never never heard before

And on a clear day
On a clear day
You can see forever, and ever, and ever more.

Cocteau Twins, Michael Franti, Radiohead

So my journal asked me what I would like for my birthday and I just said: “you know.” And lo, the following post has appeared…

So first up – oh yes, possibly the single most sublime song from one of the sublimest bands ever to have blessed the Earth. I have surely heard this at least 400 times, and somehow … it’s still every bit as heartmeltingly great.

And then there is a lullaby for the world from Michael Franti…

And … a dangerous final choice… Something about this that’s almost too shatteringly perfect for human ears…

love to you, Richie Havens


We lost a beautiful man today, very suddenly.

I first came across him when I saw the movie Woodstock, at which festival he was the (then little-known) opening act. Since there turned out to be a delay of a couple of hours before the next band was able to arrive, he kept being sent out to sing a few more songs, and at a certain point, so the story goes, he had played everything he knew. So then he launched into an improvised version of the old spiritual “Motherless Child,” which became “Freedom” – one of the iconic moments of the festival and perhaps of the ’60s as well.

But it was only some time after seeing the film that I heard a song of his that really touched me. It’s called “You’ll Never Know” and there’s something so perfect and profound about it. I was hoping to link to it but YouTube is turning up nothing, alas, and I’m not able to upload my copy, for now anyway.

In any event, not long after coming across that song I noticed that he was playing my town – this was just a few years ago – and earlier in the day I hung out in the local Borders listening to him sing and chat with people. So many people have spoken about his kindness and gentleness, and I can add my little encounter to this also. I decided to buy a copy of his recent CD, which turns out to have been the last he released, and talked with him for a few minutes. The photo above really captures my memory of him that afternoon and later at the concert. A huge heart, full of love for the world.

I like this photo of him also, seemingly startling Sean Penn at the 61st Cannes Film Festival:
Richie Havens - Sean Penn

And this one, with Michael Wadleigh, the director of Woodstock (who turns out also to be a Harvard professor, with degrees in physics and medicine – who woulda thought?):

So he signed my CD and I took it away, only remembering to look at it after I’d returned home. And think about this: what do people write on occasions like that? It’s usually simply their name, or “to So-and-so,” or something like “all the best,” right? But he chose … really, when I think about it, the most beautiful message possible … to give to people, to these “strangers” coming up to him, and in our cynical age probably most will not believe me when I say: if you’d been there and seen and heard him interact with everyone, he truly meant it, however many hundreds or thousands of times it was written. It was the bodhisattva in him, making a connection. Underneath the lyrics to “The Key” (see below), he’d written: To Paul, a friend forever.

The best of journeys, friend.

(exceptionally) minor revelation – plus Stravinsky conducts!

For some reason I have only just today realized why it is that some car horns sound more unpleasant/aggressive than others. I had this realization upon accidentally pressing my honking lock button (I prefer to manually lock) just before hearing someone else honking on the street.

I’d never really paid attention, always merely stopping at the perception: unpleasant, please stop. (Particularly when directed – unjustly – at me…) It never occurred to me that, of course, somebody has to program those sounds, and when you actually listen to them, some are in fact less harmonious than others.

To wit, my own car sounds a fairly clean major triad, second inversion, trumpet-like and mf to f. Others have more dissonance in the harmonics, sounding like a trio of dyspeptic out-of-tune trombones, perhaps, and ff, at a minimum.

So now I have my answer: certain car companies hire less musical horn programmers than others. (Or am I imagining all this?)

I still want a horn with a cool ring tone.

Not ugly MIDI phone ring tone, but an actual sample. Like how about the horns at the stupendous end of The Firebird (at 6:07 below)? A short honk could include the first 6 chords, but then if you held it down longer you’d get the full 13 chords (with or without concluding timpani!). Why not? Make someone smile/laugh while they get alerted.

And amazingly – where do people find these things? – a video exists of Maestro Stravinsky conducting this himself. And what a performance! (Interesting how very short he took the chords at 6:35 – which I’m not used to. However, he is The Boss so…)

What an ovation too. Not sure I’ve heard one like that before.

Peter Gabriel – San Jacinto (New Blood version), live in London HD

A year or so ago Peter Gabriel released New Blood in which he reworked a group of his songs for orchestra and voice alone. I’d heard the version of Mercy Street awhile back – very beautiful, of course, though I’m just not sure anything could improve on the original (and that link also another exception to the rule that music videos – this one directed by Matt Mahurin – detract from the power of the music).

Then last night I came across the new version of San Jacinto and … well, what to say? It’s one of the greatest vocal performances I’ve seen in quite awhile, spine-chilling, perfect. The orchestra frames his voice in such a way that the rawness and depth of the song can come fully through. And I’m not sure he’s ever sung better, honestly. Well, just watch. And then, when you’ve recovered, you will probably want to rewind…

on “measuring” “sexuality”

May as well try to “measure” music in order to say it’s one “thing” or the “other.”

Music, of course, has multiple layers/dimensions – four major ones: rhythm; melody (to one degree or another); timbre; and (in all but monophonic music) harmony. (Each of these in turn are multi-layered: melody can be contrapuntal to any degree of complexity, timbral possibilities are infinite, and so on.) We can’t simply take and reduce it as a phenomenon to just one of those, then reduce that to a choice of two dots.

Of course, that’s what Stalin’s cultural goons did, according, apparently, to Shostakovich: they at one point started counting the number of major and minor harmonies in a piece, and those whose ratio was too skewed to the minor got their composer condemned for insufficient revolutionary joy!

But of course even harmonies can’t be reduced to two. They exist within larger systems of key. And then, even major and minor keys are only two of seven traditional Western modes. The music of other cultures encompasses a great variety of modes also, including microtonal ones. And then of course there is modulation into other keys, and atonality too: neither major nor minor nor modal in any other way.

Sexuality, like music, is multi-dimensional. Immeasurable.

However, these days we have become so locked within an extraordinary – not to mention extraordinarily dogmatic – paradigm that it is almost impossible even to discuss “sexuality” in the true, vast meaning of the word. For various historical and cultural reasons, our vision has become utterly one-pointed, and grotesquely disfigured, in this regard.

And just how much pounding on square pegs to get them to fit into round holes thus has to go on can be demonstrated every single day with new material. Today, for example, there is this report on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, beginning: “We’re slowly getting a sense of how many TGBQLX people there are in America. I.e. how many homosexuals, lesbians and transgenders there are in the population.”

That “i.e.” is revealing. What comes after an “i.e.” of course is meant to be a definition or exemplification of its antecedent, so here Sullivan is saying the following: 1) transgender identity is practically speaking congruent with “sexual orientation,” like the “L” and “G” categories. He makes this clear by the next sentence: “When I was a newbie gay, the mantra was 10 percent.” But of course when he “was a newbie gay,” that meaningless 10 percent figure was meant to relate just to the categories of “L” and “G.” People weren’t talking about the other ones.

And 2) we can simply ignore the “B’s,” “Q’s,” and “X’s,” because they too are really the same basic “thing” as the “L’s and G’s” (and, of course, “T’s”).

So, all the usual problems apply. Firstly, those who identify as trans have innumerable “sexual orientations,” and these are not possible to map onto the ones we have: if one biological male becomes a woman and then invests her sexual life exclusively (for the sake of simplicity) with men, clearly she is in not the same but the very opposite category of “sexual orientation” as the biological male who becomes a woman and then invests her sexual life exclusively with women. One of those two categories has to be considered – according to the logic we have harnessed ourselves to – as precisely “straight.” In other words, transgender simply can’t be used to bolster figures of “sexual orientation.” At all.

Secondly, the categories “Q” (by which is usually meant “queer,” an explicit rejection of the system as a whole), and “X,” which I’ve never seen before in this context but which can only be referring to something like “none of the above,” actually have nothing logically to do with the idea of “G” and “L.” But if one wishes to think that they (along with “B” of course) are really just variants on “L” and “G,” then of course the former can, and practically speaking are, more or less always ignored.

They’re even mentioned at all, in that case, so that wishful thinking and a desire for hygienic, stable, absolute categories can feel as if it is being true to “diversity,” while at the same time resolutely closing its eyes to it at every turn.

For it is precisely those “B’s,” “Q’s,” and “X’s” – amongst many other phenomena internally contradictory within our constructs of “gay” and “straight” themselves – which reveal the instability of our contemporary regime of “sexuality.”

In a time when the category of race has finally come to be understood – by more and more at least – as ultimately incoherent, that of something we are calling “sexuality” gets more reified, reductionistic, and rigid every year.

And of course there are a number of cultural reasons for this, about which … much more over time!

Ned Rorem on Leonard Bernstein

This likewise from Other Entertainment – “Lenny Is Dead” (October 1990).

During the terrible hours following Lenny’s death last Sunday the phone rang incessantly. Friend after friend called to commiserate, and also the press, with a flood of irrelevant questions: How well did you know him? What made him so American? Did he smoke himself to death? Wasn’t he too young to die? What was he really like? None of this seemed to matter since the world had suddenly grown empty – the most crucial musician of our time had vanished. But next morning it seemed clear that there are no irrelevant questions, and these were as good as any to set off a brief remembrance.

How well did I know him? To “know well” has to do with intensity more than with habit. Everyone in Lenny’s vast entourage felt themselves to be, at one time or another, the sole love of his life, and I was no exception. The fact that he not only championed my music, but conducted it in a manner coinciding with my very heartbeat, was naturally not unrelated to love. Years could pass without our meeting, then for weeks we’d be inseparable. During these periods he would play as hard as he worked, with a power of concentration as acute for orgies as for oratorios. In Milan, in 1954, when he was preparing La Sonnambula for La Scala, I asked him how Callas was to deal with. “Well, she knows what she wants and gets it, but since she’s always right, this wastes no time. She’s never temperamental or unkind during rehearsal – she saves that for parties.” Lenny was the same: socially exasperating, even cruel with his manipulative narcissism (but only with peers, not with unprotected underlings), generous to a fault with his professional sanctioning of what he believed in.

Was he indeed so American? He was the sum of his contradictions. His most significant identity was that of jack-of-all-trades (which the French aptly call l’homme orchestre), surely a European trait; while Americans have always been specialists. … Yes, he was frustrated at forever being “accused” of spreading himself thin, but this very spreading, like the frustration itself, defined his theatrical nature. Had he concentrated on but one of his gifts, that gift would have shriveled.

Was he too young to die? What is too young? Lenny led four lives in one, so he was not 72 years old but 288. Was he, as so many have meanly claimed, paying for the rough life he led? As he lived many lives, so he died many deaths. Smoking may have been one cause, but so was overwork, and especially sorrow at a world he so longed to change but which remained as philistine and foolish as before. Which may ultimately be the brokenhearted reason any artist dies. Or any person.

So what was he really like? Lenny was like everyone else, only more so. But nobody else was like him.

Ned Rorem on Ravel and Debussy

Have been browsing through one of Ned Rorem’s collections, Other Entertainment. This is from a very brief piece on Ravel and Debussy:

Ravel and Debussy, the mother and father of modern French music, were so alike in esthetic and vocabulary that it’s become fashionable to claim how different they were. In fact, the differences are superficial: like Comedy and Tragedy they are two sides of the Impressionist mask. Good musicians of the same generation often come in pairs wherein both speak one language, but with divergent accents – of optimism and pessimism, for instance, or of concert hall versus opera stage. Witness Mozart and Haydn, Mahler and Strauss, Copland and Thomson, Britten and Tippett, Poulenc and Honegger.

In formal matters everyone agrees that Ravel was a classicist, Debussy a free versifier. Yet the orchestral masterpiece of each one proves the reverse. Ravel’s Daphnis is a loose rhapsody, Debussy’s La Mer a tight symphony. Melodically Debussy was short of breath, like Beethoven, while Ravel spun out tunes that were minutes long, like Puccini. Contrapuntally they were, like all the French, unconcerned. Rhythmically they were, like all the French (because of the unstressed national speech from which their music springs), generally amorphous. Harmonically they dealt in the same material of secondary sevenths, except for the whole-tone scale, which Ravel avoided. And coloristically they both excelled, making rainbows from a lean palette. Their game could be called Sound, sound taking precedence over shape, over language.

Toby MacNutt (and Vienna Teng)

I walked past a poster of upcoming events at Flynn Space the other day, stopped, scratched my head, turned back, and then read a familiar name: Toby MacNutt, my old group partner from syntax class a few years ago (super-smart and a lot of fun to work with). Toby was also the most recent recipient of the Vermont Artists’ Space Grant and has been putting together a piece of dance which premiered in work-in-progress form a couple of days ago.

It’s in five parts and explores the idea and experience of being in a sense multiple-bodied: Toby dances both with and without crutches, inhabiting them as an extension of the physical self, as creating a kind of second body with regard to other people and the (both internal and external) world. Throughout the piece different qualities of relationship and connectedness are played with – engagement and touch, disengagement.

The sections contrast inventively, each of the three duets emphasizing different aspects of movement and relationship amongst the dancers. Sometimes the pair are synchronized, at other moments they are responding to each other, still other times they go off in different directions, creating their own individual dialogues with the surrounding space. There is also a solo movement (performed with crutches and, unlike the others, in silence, ie without accompanying music), which brings in certain qualities of gymnastic grace rare to see in dance. The piece concludes with a joyously choreographed section for all of the dancers together.

The Vermont Artists’ Space Grants award 10 weeks of creation time, with the expectation being that the end result will still be a work-in-progress. Toby is looking for further funding in order to bring the project to final completion.

The first section was performed to this song, “Recessional,” by Vienna Teng, whom I’d never heard. I must admit I almost lost it (!) when her utterly gorgeous voice entered as the lights went down and the dancers stepped into the open, bare space. The song has been haunting me since the performance and I’ve listened to it quite a few times. Looking it up I read somewhere that it was written as a love song in reverse – if so it makes perfect and devastatingly beautiful sense.

O Magnum Mysterium – Morten Lauridsen

It seems to be a New Year, and as I suppose music is among other things my form of prayer, I’d like to send this one out into the world today also.

A word of introduction:

So there I was one cold January night, around 3 or 4 am, wondering why the Percocet that had been prescribed, while dulling the fairly astounding quantity of pain my body had decided to start producing several days before, all the same made me feel even worse. As in a good four or five of the apparently not uncommon side effects – nausea, abdominal cramps, headache and more… On top of which – consciousness had entered some murky, sludgy, really undesirable zone… With all of that going on I tossed and turned for a week with very little sleep until the condition passed.

All through the night I would listen to Vermont Public Radio – sort of. The pain and the drug combined to produce a weird kind of hovering, opiate-dream-state of awareness, with little sense of time. I remember that every third or fourth piece seemed to be by Telemann (but isn’t that usually the case?)… And there was a Schumann symphony, no. 4 I think, and other things which failed to engage but served at least to hold out a kind of life-line to the world.

And then, as I say around 3 or 4 in the morning, something began radiating out of the speakers which I actually heard. More to the point, it went through the ears and straight down into the center of my chest – warm, healing spaciousness. And though only about 6 minutes long, that night the piece just went on and on and on. I had no sense of it moving through time, but felt suspended and protected within what I can only call its loving embrace.

And here it is, in a recording I just heard tonight, having previously known only the one by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. All the more spine-chillingly magical for being live and sung in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge.

May wisdom continuously arise. May kindness and compassion prevail.

Ravel Piano Trio, 1st movement

YouTube will never cease to amaze – there is actually a recording of the Ravel Piano Trio with Sviatoslav Richter of all people, here with Oleg Kagan on violin and Natalia Gutman on cello, live at the Moscow Conservatory in 1983. And what a performance, wow. It’s honestly breathtaking.

The only recording I own of the piece is the justly famous one from the Beaux Arts Trio. This performance has the same immaculate taste and tenderness, but also it brings a truly thrilling realization of that climactic moment starting at around 5:25. You really feel Richter’s sheer power as a pianist there.

Ravel began the piece early in 1914 and finished it a month after the start of the War. “I am weeping over my sharps and flats,” he wrote in a letter as he was nearing the end.

It was his only work in the genre, and a masterpiece.

The first movement’s first subject was inspired by a Basque dance rhythm (Ravel’s mother was Basque) – although written in 8, each measure subdivides 3 + 2 + 3.

The remaining three movements also can be found on YouTube.

Brahms Intermezzo Op. 118, No. 2: the extremes…

I learned this recently, Brahms’ most famous piece for piano. It dates from 1893, near the end of his life. Everybody, it seems, plays it, and there are literally many dozens of recordings on YouTube to sample. I’ve been living with the piece for a couple of months now, thinking through it.

In the process I’ll listen to another recording from time to time and have probably heard 20 or more by now. Oddly, the great majority of these I’m just not crazy about. Partly this has to do with the way the piece is heard as a whole – the role the different sections have.

For example, those 8 bars of slow-moving pianissimo chords about halfway through really seem to me to be the fulcrum of the piece, in a sense. The design is more-or-less A B C D C’ B (abbreviated) A. A, B, and C sections flow throughout with eighth notes, but those eight bars right at the center have full quarter-note chords in each hand. They are, again, pianissimo, and also bear the slowest tempo marking of the piece. They really need to be hushed, startling. And often I find this just doesn’t come through.

Quite a few pianists also tend toward an extreme with this piece tempo-wise. They either go for a faster tempo with, I feel, just a bit too much restraint, or else (more usually) they milk every … single … note…

Here’s one recording I love – from Radu Lupu:

I play this at pretty much exactly 6 minutes, which probably isn’t far from the average. But to give an idea of how great a discrepancy there can be in the interpretation of a piece, consider the fact that Wilhelm Kempff plays it at a near-breathless 4:29, while Ivo Pogorelich clocks in at 8:51. Now that’s one vast difference in view between world-class pianists. But it gets even crazier: there’s a live performance of Pogorelich’s that manages to draw the piece out to a truly symphonic 10:45!

I must admit, I don’t connect very well with Pogorelich here. I made it through each of these once, and tried to keep an open mind. But for me the soul of the piece is lost in places – its flow. The live performance especially doesn’t even sound like Brahms to me. It’s just … painful. Pogorelich is famous for unorthodoxies of various kinds, especially tempi, but this feels a little off the charts. At a couple of points I really thought he might actually just … stop for awhile. (I will try again sometime though.) On the other hand it’s quite possible to go the other way and miss a number of moments of pure exquisiteness through trying to avoid excessive rubato of that kind, as I somehow feel Kempff does.

The piece is very delicate and special, extremely beautiful. And hard to get just right. I took to it somehow and learned it quickly – some pieces just lie under the fingers and others really take their time. But for whatever reason I’m more pleased with the way I play this than with anything I’ve learned in quite awhile. I may even see if I can record it at the recital hall and if so will post.

Penderecki’s Threnody with animated score

I’ve been making my way through Britten’s War Requiem with the score. It’s rather amazing… I’d always wanted to get to know it better and now with a little break in my schedule I’m diving right in. Will try and say more about it later.

In the meantime, listening to it reminded me of another approach entirely to music “about” war. So I went back and relistened to Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima – Dionysian to Britten’s Apollonian, as it were. Not something I can do often. It’s a searing ride, for one thing, and I also think of it as a kind of sacred music – even though the piece was written first and the title purely an afterthought. In any event, for anyone who hasn’t heard it and is up for it, there is a really beautifully done animated score of it on Youtube. Very useful for those who haven’t seen an unconventional score before and are curious about how they might work.

So … hold on to your seat …