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Fifty Year Friday: Joan Baez, Baptism: A Journey Through Our Time, Randy Newman

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From 1967 continuing into 1968 and forward, popular music continues to become more serious, stimulating, and consequential at the same time that modern concert hall music (commonly called twentieth century classical music, modern classical music or avant-garde classical music) continues to struggle to appeal to sizable audiences, with most classical music concerts programming music from the 19th and 18th centuries with a few early, relatively accessible twentieth century works, like Debussy’s orchestral works or Stravinsky’s Firebird included now and then.

In the late sixties many of the best artists and bands in popular music became just as intent on creating works of artistic value as anyone in the more traditional and established areas of the fine arts.  When such artists or bands were lacking in a given area, they would either extend their own skills or reach out to others to assist them in completing a given objective or vision.  More and more this meant including orchestration in their albums.  At first this may have been more driven by producers and the commercial interests of the record companies, and in many of these cases the orchestration was added as something appended to the original product, as in the case with Stanley Turrentine’s “Look of Love” where strings are overdubbed on top of previously  recorded tracks.  But there were also many cases where the orchestration was part of the fabric of the music — or where electronic keyboards and more sophisticated usage of electric guitars, electric bass guitars and percussion replace the instruments of the traditional orchestra, further empowering the artistic determination of the artist or band.

Before the prevalence of electronic keyboards, either the artist or someone in the band had to be a skilled orchestrator or be able to effectively collaborate with a skilled arranger and orchestrator.  In Joan Baez’s case, she was able to partner with Peter Schickle on three of her albums.  Schickle, the mastermind behind PDQ Bach, with three PDQ Bach albums already to his credit on Vanguard, was also composing for film when he partnered with her for the third time on Joan’s 1968 concept album, Baptism. Though neither a commercial nor critical success, Baptism is a strong political statement against war and the ongoing inhumanity characteristic of “civilized” societies.  No doubt, some who had purchased this album were disappointed at the ratio of spoken word to singing, and I suspect this is not an album many will care to listen to more than once or twice, but as a document of the times, this remains an effective artistic statement with a well-selected mix of readings. some excellent orchestration, and Baez’s beautiful vocals.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

  1. “Old Welsh Song” (Henry Treece)
  2. “I Saw the Vision of Armies” (Walt Whitman)
  3. “Minister of War” (Arthur Waley)
  4. “Song In the Blood” (Lawrence FerlinghettiJacques Prévert)
  5. “Casida of the Lament” (J.L. Gili, Federico García Lorca)
  6. “Of the Dark Past” (James Joyce)
  7. London” (William Blake)
  8. “In Guernica” (Norman Rosten)
  9. “Who Murdered the Minutes” (Henry Treece)
  10. “Oh, Little Child” (Henry Treece)
  11. “No Man Is an Island” (John Donne)
  12. “Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man” (James Joyce)
  13. “All the Pretty Little Horses” (Traditional)
  14. “Childhood III” (Arthur Rimbaud, Louis Varese)
  15. “The Magic Wood” (Henry Treece)
  16. “Poems from the Japanese” (Kenneth Rexroth)
  17. “Colours” (Peter LeviRobin Milner-GullandYevgeny Yevtushenko)
  18. All in green went my love riding” (E. E. Cummings)
  19. “Gacela of the Dark Death” (Federico García LorcaStephen Spender)
  20. “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” (Wilfred Owen)
  21. “Evil” (N. Cameron, Arthur Rimbaud)
  22. “Epitaph for a Poet” (Countee Cullen)
  23. “Mystic Numbers- 36”
  24. “When The Shy Star Goes Forth In Heaven” (James Joyce)
  25. “The Angel” (William Blake)
  26. “Old Welsh Song” (Henry Treece)

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It’s certainly not a mystery why talented composers would choose to pursue the popular music of their times — music that they listen to, their friends listen to, and reflect the time they live in — as opposed to less popular music of academia, which can only unconvincingly assert its lineage to the great music of  Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.  One should expect that the most engaging, commercially viable, and prevalent music would attract a substantial proportion of able and talented musicians and composers: it was the case during the jazz era, the swing era, the be-bop era, and in the late sixties, during some of the most exciting days of rock music.

Randy Newman’s father and mother were not professional composers, but three of his uncles were:  Alfred NewmanLionel Newman and Emil Newman  — all noted Hollywood film-score composers, with the most famous, Alfred Newman, conducting, arranging and composing about two-hundred film scores, nine of which won Academy Awards.  Randy already had written a number of songs including a B-side (“They Tell Me It’s Summer”) for a hit single of the Fleetwoods (“Lovers by Night, Strangers by Day”), the song lyrics for Bobby Darin’s “Look at Me” (the title song of the 1964 movie, “The Lively Set”), and songs recorded by Dusty SpringfieldPetula ClarkJackie DeShannon, and the O’Jays, when he dropped out of UCLA, only one semester short of a music degree. By then, he had taken courses in music theory, music history and probably one or more orchestration classes, though clearly he had already learned the basics before his UCLA studies having written background music for a 1962 episode of TV’s The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and then eventually providing music for other TV shows including  Lost in SpacePeyton Place,  Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea and one of my favorites as kid, Judd For The Defense.

With several years of experience in songwriting and orchestra scoring, Randy Newman released his first album, Randy Newman, in June of 1968.  The album did not sell well, and Warner Brothers provided any dissatisfied buyers the opportunity to exchange the album for any other album in their catalog.

But this album is a keeper.  From the beginning we see a thoughtful approach to songwriting.  The first song, “Love Song” immediately makes an impact with its dry, wry humor, its shrewdly crafted orchestration, and its structure: Newman’s ending to the song eschews the standard return of the chorus and ends with a bridge section that is followed by a final, modified verse with a simple brief coda, creating not a climax, but an ending that aligns well with the sober, yet tongue-in-cheek message: “When our kids are grown with kids of their own, they’ll send us away to a little home in Florida; we’ll play checkers all day ’til we pass away.”

Newman’s unique delivery, the reflective piano accompaniment, the excellent orchestration, often veering intentionally away from the core song material, make their mark on each and every track.  Repeatedly Newman is taking up the voice of the underdog, the rejected, or the trodden-down, forgotten citizen, even when reflecting on the status of God as in “I Think He’s Hiding.”  Songs like “Bet No One Every Hurt So Bad”, “Living Without You”, and “Linda” not only reflect on the sadness and angst of the persona of the lyrics (the point of view, narrator, speaker) but provide commentary on the character of that persona such that we may feel some sympathy but would sometimes also wish to distance ourselves a little from some of these characters if they came into our vicinity.

On the song “Cowboy”, perhaps the best song on the album, we feel genuine empathy and compassion for the persona. This is a song from the heart without any clever commentary or cloaked irony.  Newman raises this to an art song with his orchestration.  The work starts off with the images of the prairie, the orchestration developing and sculpting the mood, supporting the lyrics and evoking some of the characteristics of the music of Aaron Copland. Following “Cowboy”, “Beehive” is an interesting variant on the well-known “St. James Infirmary Blues”, followed by the classic “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”, recorded by Judy Collins in 1966.  Ending this excellent album is “Davy The Fat Boy” — a track that might be considered politically incorrect today, but it is not a portrait about Davy but about the scoundrel exploiting him.  The orchestration/arrangement is again the star here, and it is every bit of an art song as anything turned out by the Beatles or Beach Boys.

In an act of full disclosure here, I once saw Newman perform “Love Story” on network television a very long time ago — perhaps this was in 1970 on an “In Concert” program — or perhaps on late night TV — and at that time, hearing him accompanied only by his piano, I was not impressed enough to follow-up further by purchasing an album or requesting it as a possible present for the next birthday or Christmas.  It turned out that for me, Randy Newman was an acquired taste, cemented by taking a music history course at my local college during my senior year in high school, in which course, the cellist, and course instructor, Terry King, played part of Newman’s “Sail Away” album. King had played on that album and reminisced about the experience.  Later that same week, Mr. King played, with great pride, a recording of Schubert’s Erlkönig.  At the end, one of the students asked “what was so special about that?  It’s just a song.”  King, unflustered, replied that no, Erlkönig was not an ordinary song, it was truly something extraordinarily special, but didn’t go into any details to support that conclusion.  At that point, I thought, yes, Schubert’s Erlkönig is quite dramatic and special — and even catchy, in an early-nineteenth-century-equivalency-of-hard-rock sort of way — but it is a song — and I thought back to that earlier class in which King had played Randy Newman — someone who also wrote songs, but one hundred and fifty years later. Yes, a song is a song, but there is no particular boundary to how good (or bad) it can be.  It’s up to the listener to make that evaluation, and if enough listeners have a favorable opinion over time, that song may have some longevity.

So possibly, the songs of Randy Newman will be around in the 22nd century.  If so, this album, out of print for fifteen years before being released on CD, and generally ignored by the rock critics of 1968, provides more than just an interesting assortment of early Randy Newman tunes, but a complete, and rewarding, musical experience.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All songs written and arranged by Randy Newman.

  1. “Love Story (You and Me)” – 3:20
  2. “Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad” – 2:00
  3. “Living Without You” – 2:25
  4. “So Long Dad” – 2:02
  5. “I Think He’s Hiding” – 3:04
  6. “Linda” – 2:27
  7. “Laughing Boy” – 1:55
  8. “Cowboy” – 2:36
  9. “Beehive State” – 1:50
  10. I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” – 2:55
  11. “Davy the Fat Boy” – 2:50
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Century Sunday: 1917 Part 2

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First off, HAPPY NEW YEAR, everyone. Hope your 2018 is filled with discovery and joy!

Going back 100 years, 1917 approximately marks the end of the ragtime era and the beginning of the jazz era.  On April, 1, 1917, Scott Joplin, the “King of Ragtime”, died at the age of 48, having written dozens of published ragtime piano pieces, a ragtime ballet, and two operas, “A Guest of Honor”, confiscated in 1903 as collateral for non-payment of bills and lost forever, and “Treemonisha”, praised as, “…an entirely new form of operatic art” by  American Musician and Art Journal in 1911, then neglected for decades, and then finally receiving a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976.

It’s hard to accurately assess Joplin’s influence on music, but one could make the case he was the most influential single composer of the last 150 years.  Stride, Jazz, Swing, Boogie Woogie, Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, Rock, Progressive Rock, and Hip Hop all have the equivalent of genetic markers that go back to ragtime, of which, Joplin was the most important voice.  It’s not clear that without Joplin, serious ragtime composers like James Scott and Joseph Lamb would have ever had a voice, or if ragtime would have achieved enough momentum to have any popularity or influence.

In other classical music, we have new operas from Sergei Prokofiev   (The Gambler) , Giacomo Puccini (La rondine), and Richard Strauss (Die Frau ohne Schatten [Woman Without a Shadow].Carlos Chávez  composes his first Piano Sonata (Sonata fantasia), Claude Debussy his Violin Sonata in G minor, Alexander Glazunov his second Piano Concerto in B, Op. 100, Charles Ives his Three Places in New England , Maurice Ravel  the often played piano work, Le tombeau de CouperinOttorino Respighi his Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 1  , Igor Stravinsky his symphonic poem, Le chant du rossignol  and his “etude” for pianola, Karol Szymanowski his third piano sonata and his String Quartet No. 1 in C majorHeitor Villa-Lobos starts on his second symphony and completes his 4th String Quartet,  and Sergei Prokofiev  his Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 19, Visions fugitives),  two piano sonatas (Piano Sonata No. 3  and Piano Sonata No. 4) and his landmark neo-classical Symphony No. 1

Musicians born in 1917 include:

Ella Fitzgerald, jazz vocalist (d. 1996)

Lou Harrison, composer (d. 2003)

John Lee Hooker, blues singer, songwriter and guitarist (d. 2001)

Buddy Rich, jazz drummer (d. 1987)

Thelonious Monk, composer and jazz pianist (d. 1982)

Dizzy Gillespie, composer and jazz trumpeter (d. 1993)

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Century Sunday: 1917 Part 1: Sweatman, OJDB, Kreisler, and Heifitz

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Son of a barber in Brunswick, Missouri, Wilbur Coleman Sweatman learned piano as a child from his older sister and soon started playing the violin, perhaps having taught himself on the instrument.  Later he also learned clarinet and made this his primary instrument touring with circus bands, eventually leading dance and jazz bands, and developing the unusual skill of playing two, and then later, three clarinets at once.

He recorded several cylinders and records as bandleader, one of the being possibly the very first recording of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag.  In 1911, he published “Down Home Rag” a work in 4/4 time (as opposed to the usual 2/4 time of ragtime works) that shares elements of the contemporary fox trots and turkey trots of the time.

In  December 1916, in a New York recording studio, Sweatman recorded two takes of “Down Home Rag”, each with notable melodic variations, arguably establishing him as the first band leader to have recorded jazz and these recordings as the very first recorded jazz records.  This was two months earlier than the Original Dixie Jazz Band recorded “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixeland Jass Band One Step”, the latter based on Joe Jordon’s “That Teasin’ Rag” and being the first record to ever contain the word “jass”.  Later in 1917, Wilbur Sweatman would record additional tracks, several of which contained the word “jass” or “jazz” in their titles.  For additional information on Wilbur Sweatman, please refer to the excellent and well-researched biography, “That’s Got ’em: The Life and Music of Wilbur C. Sweatman” By Mark Berresford

Though Wilbur Sweatman recorded the first jazz record, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) recorded the first record with the work “jass” or “jazz” in the title, when they recorded “Dixeland Jass Band One Step” in February 1917. More importantly, their record label, Victor, effectively promoted their material, even if as novelty, providing the sound of something akin to jazz to record buyers all over the country.  Already successful as a dance band, first in Chicago, then in New York, the fame brought by these recordings, and their next set on Columbia, further increased not only the popularity of the ODJB, but was a catalyst for jazz in general. Soon bands all over the country included the word “jazz” in their name or the titles of the records and soon true improvisational jazz music was available live and through records to a diverse audience across the United States.

Though jazz predates the recordings of Wilbur Sweatman and the Original Dixieland Jazz band by several years, records and the phonograph were the primary reason for the rapid spread and adoption of jazz as not only trendy, but popular and indispensable music.

Composer, and the greatest violinist of his generation (born in 1875, died in 1962). Fritz Kreisler recorded several times in 1917 for the Victor label. Taken with earlier recordings on Victor, going back to 1910, we are left with a diverse set of miniatures, some of which are Kreisler’s own compositions, some of which were even credited to other composers, long dead, until Kreisler revealed they were his own compositions in the style of those composers.

These are acoustic recordings, as were all recordings in 1917 and up until about 1925, which means that instead of using microphones to capture sound, large horns were used that generated vibrations to etch the groves in the mastering cylinder (very early on) or platter. In addition, the rotation of the platter was mechanical and not electrical. The performer or performers had to position themselves near the horn and the resulting recording had a limited frequency range between 250 to 2500 Hz (Hertz or cycles per second: vibrations per seconds, known as the frequency, determining musical pitch and the nature of the sound since a given instrument produces a set of vibrations for any given note.)  The human hearing range is around 20 Hz to 2000 Hz and the notes on the piano range from 27.5 Hz to 4186 Hz.  250 Hz is not very low: for example, the highest of the four open strings on the cello sounds at 220 Hz and middle C on the piano is around 262 Hz. The B natural, only a semitone below, is around 247 Hz, meaning that the left hand accompaniment of a piano piece like “Maple Leaf Rag”, disregarding “overtones” or the additional upper frequencies that the piano or any instrument produces for each given note, is almost entirely below the lower limit of the range available to recordings in 1917.  Thus, while one could record piano pieces on this technology, or in the case of many of the Kreisler recordings, violin with piano accompaniment, it sounds very thin and strange.  The amazing thing, psychologically, is how the listener adjusts and soon gets comfortable with the recorded sound, as unfaithful as it is to the original performance.

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Shortly after his Carnegie Hall debut on November 7, 1917 RCA started recording Jascha Heifitz, only a couple of months away from his 17th birthday.  Just as Kreisler was the most notable and celebrated  violinist of his generation, Heifitz (1901-1987) was the most prominent and acclaimed violinist of his generation.

These 1917 recordings of Heifitz available on CD are compelling and vital.  The transfers are good, and once one puts in some time listening to recordings of this era, the significant sonic limitations of the acoustic recording process don’t pose any serious barrier to enjoying the music. We are very fortunate that Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, allowing it to develop, although slowly from a 21st Century person’s perspective. so that by 1917 we start having some real treasures of music captured forever on these ten and twelve inch shellac disks.

 

Fifty Year Friday: Far Out 1967, Part Two

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If one is looking to highlight the best representation of “Far Out” in jazz music, one may very well settle with placing the spotlight on musician and philosopher Sun Ra, more formally known as Le Sony’r Ra.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama in May 1914 with the more mundane name of “Herman Poole Blount”, and early on nicknamed “Sonny”, Sun Ra was a precocious and highly intelligent child soon writing his own compositions at the age of twelve as well as exhibiting good sight reading skills and piano technique.  Living in Birmingham,  he was able to hear many famous bands and jazz artists including Fletcher HendersonDuke Ellington, and Fats Waller.  It is said that Sun Ra, much like other gifted musicians like Wolfgang Mozart, had the ability to hear a single performance (in this case a big band performance) and then later accurately transcribe the music that had played.  He attended college for a year on a scholarship as a music education major, but dropped out: according to Sun Ra this being due to an extra-terrestrial  experience as initiated by aliens.

In Sun Ra’s own words: “They wanted me to go to outer space with them. They were looking for somebody who had that type of mind. They said it was quite dangerous because you had to have the perfect discipline. I’d have to go up with no part of my body touching outside of the beam….It looked like a giant spotlight shining down on me, and I call it ‘transmolecularization’ — my whole body was changed into something else…. I call that an energy transformation because I wasn’t in human form. I thought I was there, but I could see through myself.

“Then I landed on a planet I identified as Saturn. First thing I saw was something like … a long rail of a railroad track coming out of the sky, … then I  found myself in a huge stadium, and I was sitting up in the last row, in the dark… They called my name, and I didn’t move. They called me name again, and I still didn’t answer. Then all at once they teleported me, and I was down on that stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop [my college music teacher training] because there was going to be great trouble in schools. There was going to be trouble in every part of life….”

After leaving college, Sun Ra formed his own band, “The Sonny Blount Orchestra”, with intense rehearsals only surpassed by Sun Ra’s own committment to music. When drafted in 1942, Sun Ra declared himself a conscientious objector, ultimately ending up performing alternative civilian service, assigned to forestry work during the day and played the piano at night.

In 1945 he moved to Chicago, part of the wave of migration of American slave descendants from the south to the north and got a job arranging for Fletcher Henderson in 1946. He also had work accompanying Billie Holiday and played in a trio with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and violinist Stuff Smith.

In 1952, Sun Ra forms a “space trio” and changes his name to “Le Sony’r Ra” — the trio later becoming an orchestra, the Sun Ra Arkestra, as he starts to simply refers to himself as Sun Ra.  In 1957, he and his friend and business manager, Alton Abraham, establish the “Le Saturn Records” label, perhaps the first African-American record label. From 1957-1966, album after album is released, with well over one hundred albums recorded during Sun Ra’s career.  Sun Ra’s catalog displays a wide range of musical styles.  Some notable titles include the 1957 release, “Super-Sonic Jazz” with some particularly unusual albums in the mid-sixties, including not only his free-jazz or more exotic material, but even more accessible albums like  “Impressions Of a Patch Of Blue” with Walt Dickerson, and the Sun Ra Blues Project’s “Batman and Robin”, both from 1966.

Less accessible, and one of his furthest-out albums, is his LP, “Strange Strings”, recorded in 1966 and released in 1967.

The first track “Worlds Approaching”, is brilliant — one of those original works that defy categorization: structured, somewhat tonal, dramatic, and ablaze with intensity and energy. This is music that might have really come from Outer Space!

The second track of the first side “Strings Strage, and the entire second side, “Strange Strings”,  share common ground with some of the “concert hall” aleatoric music (music that incorporates elements of chance) of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Basically, after assembling the widest and wildest variety of string instruments  including UkulelesMandolinsKotosKoras, Pipas and any other string instruments that could be located, supplemented by a sheet of metal, and miked “sun columns” (golden metal tubes with rubber bottoms), Sun Ra assembled his orchestra, the Sun Ra Arkestra, distributed the instruments, and told his musicians: “You’re playing from ignorance–it’s an exercise in ignorance. We’re going to play what you don’t know and what you don’t know is huge”, both acknowledging their lack of training and experience in playing these instruments and instructing them to perform music representing their general metaphysical ignorance.

It’s clearly music that would be more interesting to experience live than on an LP or CD.  It’s noteworthy that these are talented musicians, experienced in free jazz expression, and guided during the performance by some direction from their leader. It’s also particularly interesting that no effort was made to tune these instruments and so the result is extreme microtonal free jazz.

From a historical perspective, it’s important to acknowledge Sun Ra’s role in Afrofuturism and in asserting his own and others’ civil rights.   Groundbreaking individuals like Sun Ra and George Russell extended the role of the African-American jazz musician from on-demand performers to innovators, thought leaders and philosophy- artists.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

12″ Vinyl

All songs by Sun Ra
Side A:

  1. “Worlds Approaching”
  2. “Strings Strange”

Side B:

  1. “Strange Strings”

Musicians

  • Sun Ra – electric piano, lightning drum, timpani, squeaky door, strings
  • Marshall Allen – oboe, alto saxophone, strings
  • John Gilmore – tenor saxophone, strings
  • Danny Davis – flute, alto saxophone, strings
  • Pat Patrick – flute, baritone saxophone, strings
  • Robert Cummings – bass clarinet, strings
  • Ali Hassan – trombone, strings
  • Ronnie Boykins: bass viol
  • Clifford Jarvis – timpani, percussion
  • James Jacson – log drums, strings
  • Carl Nimrod – strings
  • Art Jenkins – space voice, strings

One of the leading modern composers during the 1960s and 1970s, Karlheinz Stockhausen is one of the fifty-plus people displayed on the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s cover, and the only musician or composer on the landmark cover besides the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

One of his most notable works, is “Hymnen”, a nod to various national anthems (it is divided into four “Regions” each corresponding to a national anthem) and was first performed on November 30, 1967. It must be a challenging work to listen to live; it is long and comes across as somewhat random: it is particularly challenging to listen to a recorded version.  The work consists of a recorded backdrop (tape) which the musicians interact with by improvising and following scored cues provided by the composer.  It is claimed to be a masterpiece by some, but like many of the products of this period created by Stockhausen and his fellow composers, it relies heavily on what the listener brings to the experience.  In a concert hall, with one being part of a seated (captive) audience, one is much more likely to engage with the music than if one puts on an LP or CD of this work.  For me, it’s hard to listen to more than twenty or thirty minutes without feeling compelled to switch to something else, particularly when having a fairly large music library of more accessible music.

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Hymnen Recordings

  • youtube (Hymnen Elektronische und Konkrete Musik. Deutsche Grammophon DG 2707039 (2LPs). Reissued on CD as part of Stockhausen Complete Edition 10)
  • BBC Broadcast 2009  and 2016
  • Ausstrahlungen: Andere Welten: 50 Jahre Neue Musik in NRW. Koch / Schwann 2-5037-0 (2 CDs). Includes Hymnen: Dritte Region mit Orchester Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Köln conducted by Peter Eötvös (recorded 1979)
  • Hymnen Elektronische und Konkrete Musik; Hymnen Elektronische und Konkrete Musik mit SolistenAloys Kontarsky (piano), Alfred Ailings and Rolf Gehlhaar (amplified tamtam), Johannes G. Fritsch (electric viola), Harald Bojé (electronium). Stockhausen Complete Edition: Compact Disc 10 A-B-C-D (4 CDs)
  • Hymnen Elektronische Musik mit Orchester. Gürzenich-Orchester der Stadt Köln, conducted by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Stockhausen Complete Edition: Compact Disc 47.

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There’s no shortage of far-out pop/rock albums in 1967.  In May 1967, Elektra records releases this narrative concept album (poems read over and integrated into a musical background) of twelve tracks — one for each of the signs of the Zodiac.  Like the the Sun Ra album and Stockhausen’s “Hymnen”, this work benefits from being played in a dark room or with one’s eye’s closed, however, in this case, the producers of this work made sure to include the instructions “Must be Played in the Dark” on the back of the album — and one is well advised to follow such instructions.

From its air-raid like opening to its tranquil conclusion, this album is exploration of 1967 psychedelia, far out, but within convenient reach of most listeners. Notable is the presence of the moog synthesizer, electronic keyboards, sitar, and jazz musician Bud Shank  on bass flute, all in support sixties-styled melodiously cool lyrics read in the most mellow delivery possible. The tracks vary in tone and style and are generally quite interesting  including the more progressive sections of music found in tracks like “Scorpio” with its heavy percussion, dark suspenseful bass line and mixed meter passages and the adventurous “Sagittarius” (also laden with interesting percussion work and a playful mixed meter riff.) One can make the case for this as being both the first rock concept album (it precedes Nirvana “The Story of Simon Simopath by a couple of months) and the first progressive rock album (coming out several months before “Days of Future Passed” and apparently a few days before “Sgt. Peppers.”)  To what degree this adventurous “Zodiac Cosmic Sounds” influences later concept albums, such as The Moody Blues’ “Days of Future Passed” which covers times of the day as opposed to Zodiac signs, is something I invite speculation on. Feel free to muse about this on your own time or in the comments section of this post.

Anyone who prides themselves on understanding the history of progressive rock should consider this album to be required listening. Lyrics are available here.  Album currently not in print, but available used from multiple sources and youtube.

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Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All lyrics written by Jacques Wilson

  1. “Aries – The Fire-Fighter” – 3:17
  2. “Taurus – The Voluptuary” – 3:38
  3. “Gemini – The Cool Eye” – 2:50
  4. “Cancer – The Moon Child” – 3:27
  5. “Leo – The Lord of Lights” – 2:30
  6. “Virgo – The Perpetual Perfectionist” – 3:05
  7. “Libra – The Flower Child” – 3:28
  8. “Scorpio – The Passionate Hero” – 2:51
  9. “Sagittarius – The Versatile Daredevil” – 2:06
  10. “Capricorn – The Uncapricious Climber” – 3:30
  11. “Aquarius – The Lover of Life” – 3:45
  12. “Pisces – The Peace Piper” – 3:19

Personnel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When drafted

Fifty Year Friday: Far Out 1967, Part One

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Morton Subotnick, “Silver Apples of the Moon”

Morton Subotnick, one of the founders of California Institute of the Arts, co-founded San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1962 , left his teaching post a Mills College and moved to New York City  and accepted an artist-in-residence position at the newly formed Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.  His previous works and performances attracted the attention of the New York City based Nonesuch  label, which provided Subotnick the opportunity to compose the very first electronic work commissioned by a record company.  “Silver Apples of the Moon” was the result and quickly became a best selling “classical music” album and a staple of most university music libraries.

Classical music of that time, and electronic music in particular, generally was inaccessible and avoided traditional use of melody, harmony and rhythms to produce works that seemed more composed by chance, process or mathematical rules than to be products of the heart and soul.  Subotnick breaks with this general trend, balancing the non-traditional sounds with an overall lightheartedness and whimsy, with the first side being more varied and the second side simpler, and somewhat less captivating, with use of rhythmic motifs and a less complex, varied texture and range of sound elements.

Track listing[from Wikipedia]

  1. “Part A” – 16:33
  2. “Part B” – 14:52

Personnel

  • Morton Subotnick – Buchla synthesizer, Liner Notes, Primary Artist
  • Bradford Ellis – Digital Restoration, Mastering, Remixing
  • Michael Hoenig – Mastering, Remixing
  • H.J. Kropp – Cover Design
  • Tony Martin – Illustrations

 

Mesmerizing-Eye_Psychedelia-A-Musical-Lightshow

The Mesmerizing Eye,  “Psychedelia, a Musical Light Show”

As often the case in the sixties (1960’s rather than a reference to my age), the music produced by the “established” academic artists was often less compelling and relevant than than what was being done elsewhere.   Here we have an album by the obscure band, The Mesmerizing Eye, that in my view has much more to say to the listener than Subotnick’s “Silver Apples of the Moon.”  This is the only album released by The Mesmerizing Eye, and not clear to me if this was really a band, or if this album was a work of one or two people.

Musique concrète is a classification applied to music constructed by mixing various recorded sounds, sometimes environmental and urban sounds, sometimes such sounds with instruments added, but generally with the intent of creating an auditory experience that is produced from a mixture of disparate sounds, that have disparate associations, and that we traditionally hear in various and disparate contexts.   This album draws heavily on that tradition, relying on the medium of tape for the assembly of the final product, yet unlike so many of these type of excursions layered onto tape, there is a general sense of order, meaning, and intent. The album is not only interesting and engaging, but the titles and back-cover liner notes provide additional context and clarity into the music’s relevance and purpose.  For example, from the notes for the third track on side two, “The War for My Mind”: “Too many commercials on TV, too much telling us what to do — go to school, wear a tie, cut our hair.  They want to control our mind.” Right on! This is classic 1967 anti-establishment philosophy!  And, in terms of too many commercials and conformity to the onslaught of commercial messages, more relevant to us today than ever.

The tracks dissolve into each other, with a variety of instruments that varies from track to track.  Instruments include church choir, church organ, church bells, piano, acoustic and electric guitar, trumpet, flute, bagpipes, calliope and additional instruments mixed with various background sounds (including the mandatory crying baby) on other tracks. Under twenty-five minutes, always moving forward with a sense of purpose, and making good use of it’s stereophonic capabilities, this little album leaves many of the works by established academia-blessed composers of the 1950’s and 1960’s in its dust. Difficult to find on LP, impossible to find on CD, this  album is available on YouTube for those that don’t require lossless audio quality:

 

Tracklist (from discogs.com)

A1 Birth Of A Nation 2:42
A2 Rain Of Terror 2:26
A3 Tempus Fugit 2:09
A4 Opus 71 2:24
A5 Twenty-First Century Express 2:32
B1 May The Bird Of Paradise Fly Up Your Flute 2:10
B2 Requiem For Suzy Creamcheese 2:15
B3 The War For My Mind 1:54
B4 Dear Mom, Send Money 2:08
B5 Exercise In Frustration 2:07

Companies, etc.

Credits

 

George Russell’s Othello Ballet Suite was recorded in Stockholm in one of the Radio Sweden studios on November 3rd and 4th 1967.  At a little under 30 minutes, this work for orchestra and jazz musicians is performed by 23 musicians including several noteworthy Swedish jazz musicians and the Norwegians Jon Christensen on drums and Jan Garbarek on tenor sax.  Sometimes majestic and beautiful, sometimes wild and exuberantly chaotic, sometimes showcasing individual soloing brilliance, sometimes a collective of orchestral anonymity, this work is adventurous, forward, and bordering on uncivilized, yet alluringly riveting, and mostly coherent.

Even further out is the companion work, “Electronic Organ Sonata No. 1” which was recorded in 1968.  The piece is full of interesting textures and includes many interesting moments, but for me, falls short of the appeal of the ballet suite.

A digital version of the material on this LP is available as part of a 9 CD set, “George Russell ‎– The Complete Remastered Recordings On Black Saint & Soul Note.”

Tracklist (from www.discogs.com)

1 Othello Ballet Suite (Part I)
2 Othello Ballet Suite (Part II)
3 Electronic Organ Sonata No. 1

Credits

Fifty Year Friday: Marta Argerich and Carlos Paredes

argerich-cover-zoom

This 1967 recording contains two of the most popular Twentieth Century piano concertos, full of energy from one of the brightest classical music stars of the 1960’s, the twenty-six year old Argentine, Marta Argerich.  An impressive pianist since her early teens, winning both the Geneva International Music Competition and the Ferruccio Busoni International Competition at the age of 18 within three weeks of each other, Marta teams up with conductor Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic to provide a stunning, wild-ride performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto.  This LP also contains the Ravel G Major Piano Concerto, a work influenced by George Gershwin and the jazz music of the 1920s.  What sounds like an inspired, spontaneous work, was a work of intense labor and craftsmanship. Writing music”, noted Ravel, “is seventy-five percent an intellectual activity.”

TRACKS
Serge Prokofieff (1891-1953) Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26

1. Andante – Allegro

2. Theme and Variations

3. Allegro ma non troppo

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) Piano Concerto in G Major

1. Allegramente

2. Adagio assai

3. Presto

 

This is Carlos Paredes first album, yet is is an unquestionable masterpiece.  Paredes plays an instrument called the Portuguese guitar, a twelve steel-stringed instrument, popularly used in Fado music (Portuguese folk music) known for its expressive and often wistful qualities.  In this album we are treated to both Paredes’ amazing virtuosity as well as his gift for serious composition.  Each work displays an individual character and identity and invites repeated listenings. If you don’t usually sample the youtube videos sometimes provided, its worth making an exception here:

Tracks for “Guitarra portuguesa”

Variações em Ré maior
Porto Santo
Fantasia
Melodia N.2
Dança
Canção verdes anos
Divertimento
Romance N.1
Romance N.2
Pantomima
Melodia N.1

Fifty Year Friday: Arthur Rubinstein “Chopin: The Nocturnes, Pink Floyd “Pipers at the Gates of Dawn”

nocturnes.jpg

It’s not very difficult to make the case for Chopin being the greatest composer for the piano of the last 190 years.  I chose 190 years, since Beethoven was around until 1827, and its irrelevant, and even irreverent, to compare Beethoven and Chopin. One can even make a good case for Chopin being the greatest Western composer of the last 190 years despite weaknesses and/or apparent lack of interest in mastering orchestration and writing pieces for full orchestras that go beyond providing general accompaniment for the piano.

One can also make a good case for Arthur Rubinstein being the greatest Chopin performer of the Twentieth Century.  In 1967, RCA released a 2 LP set of Rubinstein playing all the Chopin Nocturnes.  All of these were recorded in 1965, except for Opus 55, No. 2 which was recorded in 1967. (Interesting, that is the only track that has notable distortion or harshness. For all the other nocturnes, the recording sound is quite good and provides an intimate, warm listening experience.)

What makes Rubinstein such a welcome interpreter of Chopin is that he doesn’t overemphasize the emotional nature of the music.  Some performers go a bit to far in slowing down, speeding up, playing too loudly here, playing too softly there — trying to eke out as much emotion as possible.  “Rubato” is the performing technique of slightly changing the notated rhythmic duration of notes, thus deviating from notes strictly aligning with their written place within the pulse of the rhythm.  When done right the overall pace is not violated so that if a given note is made shorter, another note or other notes are then made longer so the one doesn’t lose the overall beat of the music. When overdone, rubato, along with accelerando (speeding up),   rallentando (slowing down) and tenuto (holding on to notes for additional time) becomes a violation of the original spirit of the music, effectively remaking it into something akin to over-dramatic acting. Many performers, particularly in the first seventy years of the twentieth century, took extreme liberty with the music, stamping it with their own mark or as a means of pulling out inherent meaning in the music they felt was implied but not notated.

Rubinstein, who takes a relatively sober approach with Chopin, has so much control over which notes within chords or concurrent groups of notes get emphasized (and the general loudness or softness of each and every note he plays) that he can get a full range of emotions within even a strict tempo.  His tempo, of course, is far from strict or mechanical, but he never allows it to escape into regions of extreme excess. Instead of taking unacceptable liberty with the tempo or individual note values, he makes the music sing and sparkle, providing a window into the inherent expression and delicate craft of each of these nocturnes: each one providing their own world of night-like expressiveness with subtle emotional twists and turns sometimes exploring sadness, loss, longing, darkness, tenderness, patience, determination, reflection, wistfulness, sympathy, sensitivity, sentimentality, loneliness, isolation, discovery, thoughtfulness, triumph, confusion or other emotions and aspects of the human psyche.

This recording is currently available as a 2 CD set, remastered and either in 16-bit or 24-bit (SACD) versions.  Value-conscious consumers will be wise to opt for “The Chopin Collection” box set which is an 11 CD set with all these nocturnes, and all the mazurkas, waltzes, preludes, other solo piano music (minus the etudes), and as a bonus, the piano concertos — this entire set currently selling at under $24.  Those with a larger budget and more available listening time may choose to get the much more expensive 142 CD “Arthur Rubinstein Complete Album Collection” set (with 2 DVDs and a 164 page booklet.)

61jonfonltl

Tracklist [from discorgs.org]

A1 Opus 9, No. 1 In B-flat Minor
A2 Opus 9, No. 2 In E-flat
A3 Opus 9, No. 3 In B
A4 Opus 15, No. 1 In F
A5 Opus 15, No. 2 In F-sharp
B1 Opus 15, No. 3 In G Minor
B2 Opus 27, No. 1 In C-sharp Minor
B3 Opus 27, No. 2 In D-flat
B4 Opus 32, No. 1 In B
B5 Opus 32, No. 2 In A-flat
C1 Opus 37, No. 1 In G Minor
C2 Opus 37, No. 2 In G
C3 Opus 48, No. 1 In C Minor
C4 Opus 48, No. 2 In F-sharp Minor
D1 Opus 55, No. 1 In F Minor
D2 Opus 55, No. 2 In E-flat
D3 Opus 62, No. 1 In B
D4 Opus 62, No. 2 In E
D5 Opus 72, Op. 72, No. 1 In E Minor

Credits

 

In my junior year of high school, with summer not too far off, one of my favorite people of all time, who I will just refer to with the initial “P”, and I were discussing music in the back of trig class and P. mentioned how good Pink Floyd was.  The year was 1972 and I was probably talking about King Crimson, Yes, Jethro Tull, or ELP when P. started expressing his approval of Pink Floyd.  I was interested and accepted his offer to lend me three of his albums, Ummagumma (1969), Atom Heart Mother (1970) and A Saucerful of Secrets (1968), finding many things I liked, but also finding several detours from what I considered the general flow of music.  P. also, perhaps at a later point in time, lent me the first album, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (1967).  I was more pleased with that album then the others, and puzzled that this was the first album as it seemed the strongest to me, which was not the usual pattern that I saw for most groups where the first album was the weakest, the second better and the third or fourth finally being the break-out album.  This first album, though sounding dated to my early 1970’s sensitivities, seemed stronger and more consistent than the other three I had previously heard.  I am not sure if I had noticed that one musician, “Syd Barett”, was the composer of most of the music for the first album but was absent on the others.  I think its possible I did realize this and was probably why I didn’t pay much attention to any new releases by Pink Floyd until I saw the movie “Pink Floyd at Pompeii” , at our local art-house theater, The Wilshire theater.  This film captures Pink Floyd performing several selections of their music in an empty Pompeii amphitheater, the music completely enveloping and engaging. After seeing this, I was sold on Pink Floyd, and had I seen this a couple of years earlier, I would have listened much more intently to those albums my trigonometry classmate had lent me.

Looking back now with thousands of additional hours of listening to lots of different music, I can better appreciate this album much more than I ever could have at age sixteen. It doesn’t matter whether this is labeled art-rock, space-rock, psychedelic rock or something else: it is bold, original and relevant for 1967 and is still fun to listen to today.

The album borrows its title from a title of the seventh chapter of  Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows  a cool title, indeed, but also a chapter that contains an interesting reference for a musical group that started out primarily as a psychedelic dance band:

“(Rat:) ‘…And hark to the wind playing in the reeds!’

`It’s like music–far away music,’ said the Mole nodding drowsily.

`So I was thinking,’ murmured the Rat, dreamful and languid. `Dance-music — the lilting sort that runs on without a stop — but with words in it, too — it passes into words and out of them again — I catch them at intervals — then it is dance-music once more, and then nothing but the reeds’ soft thin whispering.'”

And we have dance music with words and far-away lilting non-stop psychedelia-based tunes with their first two singles, written by Syd Barret, “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play” and their less dance-able, more exploratory, third single, “Apples and Oranges” also written by Syd Barrett.

And this album is filled with easily accessible dreamy, languid, melodic gems: these all written by Syd Barrett.  The UK version (import version for us Americans) is different from a somewhat messed-up U.S. version (the version I will reference below is the superior UK version.)

“Astronomy Domine” is a masterpiece of space rock – vast, unfolding, hints of the infinite and timeless, paced with a relentless, cosmic inevitability, modal and chromatic.

“Lucifer Sam”, about a Siamese cat, is more whimsical but still edged with an embrace of psychedelia and a chromatic passage reminiscent of the James Bond theme.

“Matilda Mother” opens slow-paced, relaxed, and dreamy, shifting to a more rhythmic passage and then back to the dreamy opening before its short Indian-like instrumental — providing but short contrast to the returning dreamy theme and a brief instrumental coda.

While other groups at this time are starting to augment their music with strings, woodwinds, and exotic instruments, Pink Floyd achieves equally impressive results with a traditional line-up of vocals, guitar, bass, organ/piano and drums.  Syd Barrett’s guitar, though not textbook virtuosic, is expressive, flexible and effective.  Vocals include wind effects and bird calls, “oohs” and “aaahs”.  The organ provides drones and other relatively simple effects.  “Flaming” and the more free-form “Pow R. Toc H.” shows off the ability of the band to create very different soundscapes, the former showcasing guitar and organ, the latter, nicely showcasing piano, bass drums, guitar, simple vocal effects, and organ in various moods and attitudes with an almost jazz-like piano and drum interlude providing welcome contrast.

Roger Waters provides a very sixties contribution in the opening of “Take up Thy Stethoscope and Walk” which then dissolves into a group jam.

We get back to great music on side two with the opening of “Interstellar Overdrive”, though it does soon meander, losing focus — but better uncompromising and adventurous, than bland and commonplace: perhaps the band assumes the listener will have some assistance with illicit substances.  Pretentious, often a term overused as an invective against progressive rock much more than psychedelic rock, is a term I am loathe to use — but I will concede that the ending is a bit over the top.

We get back to Barrett mini-masterpieces for the last four tracks.  The music is unassuming, natural and foundationally simple.  “Gnome” is pure pop, but with a Barrett twist.  “Chapter 24” is spacey and reflective with lyrics apparently based on the 24th chapter of I Ching “The Return” (or “Turning Point”) as translated below by Richard Wilhelm:

“Everything comes of itself at the appointed time. This is the meaning of heaven and earth. All movements are accomplished in six stages, and the seventh brings return. Thus the winter solstice, with which the decline of the year begins, comes in the seventh month after the summer solstice; so too sunrise comes in the seventh double hour after sunset. Therefore seven is the number of the young light, and it arises when six, the number of the great darkness, is increased by one. In this way the state of rest gives place to movement”

Compare this to the Barrett lyrics:

“A movement is accomplished in six stages
And the seventh brings return.
The seven is the number of the young light.
It forms when darkness is increased by one.
Change returns success,
Going and coming without error.
Action brings good fortune:
Sunset.

“The time is with the month of winter solstice
When the change is due to come.
Thunder in the other course of heaven;
Things cannot be destroyed once and for all.
Change returns success,
Going and coming without error.
Action brings good fortune:
Sunset, sunrise.

“Scarecrow” opens up with some nifty percussive syncopation upon which the melody is overlaid, giving us a short song that’s simple and complex simultaneously.

“Bike” magnificently ends this album with more hazy, dreaming psychedelia based on simple melody and chords effectively arranged and presented.  This is a perfect conclusion to a very different album than anything else in 1967 popular music.

After listening to this album, and looking at the song credits, one might very well conclude that Syd Barrett was the key member of Pink Floyd and without them they would either struggle as a band or be very different and probably not nearly as good. Without getting into the tragedy of Barrett’s behavioral disorders, likely an after-effect of repeated LSD usage, which is covered by numerous resources on the web including Wikipedia and several WordPress blogs (most of which are generally much better written than this one), the band soon dropped an unreliable and unpredictable Syd Barrett from their line-up.  Barrett continued to struggle from the aftermath of chemically-caused neurological damage, subsequently recording two solo albums in 1969, and then more or less becoming a recluse until his death in 2006 at the age of 60. From such a promising first album ensues an heart-sickening tragedy; just another instance of a unconventional, creative genius taken away from us in the turbulent, unpredictable, ever-changing 1960s.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

UK release

Side one
No. Title Writer(s) Lead vocals Length
1. Astronomy Domine Syd Barrett Syd Barrett and Richard Wright 4:12
2. Lucifer Sam Barrett Barrett 3:07
3. Matilda Mother Barrett Barrett and Wright 3:08
4. Flaming Barrett Barrett 2:46
5. Pow R. Toc H. instrumental 4:26
6. Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk Waters Roger Waters 3:05
Total length: 20:44
Side two
No. Title Writer(s) Lead vocals Length
1. Interstellar Overdrive
  • Barrett
  • Waters
  • Wright
  • Mason
instrumental 9:41
2. The Gnome Barrett Barrett 2:13
3. Chapter 24 Barrett Barrett 3:42
4. The Scarecrow Barrett Barrett 2:11
5. Bike Barrett Barrett 3:21
Total length: 21:08

US release

Side one
No. Title Writer(s) Lead vocals Length
1. See Emily Play Barrett Barrett 2:53
2. “Pow R. Toc H.”
  • Barrett
  • Waters
  • Wright
  • Mason
instrumental 4:26
3. “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk” Waters Waters 3:05
4. “Lucifer Sam” Barrett Barrett 3:07
5. “Matilda Mother” Barrett Barrett and Wright 3:08
Side two
No. Title Writer(s) Lead vocals Length
1. “The Scarecrow” Barrett Barrett 2:11
2. “The Gnome” Barrett Barrett 2:13
3. “Chapter 24” Barrett Barrett 3:42
4. “Interstellar Overdrive”
  • Barrett
  • Waters
  • Wright
  • Mason
instrumental 9:41

Personnel

Pink Floyd

Production

  • Syd Barrett – rear cover design
  • Peter Bown – engineering
  • Peter Jenner – intro vocalisations on “Astronomy Domine” (uncredited)
  • Vic Singh – front cover photography
  • Norman Smith – production, vocal and instrumental arrangements, drum roll on “Interstellar Overdrive”[125]

BC.jpg (1181×1200)

Previous Fifty Year Friday Posts:

The Beatles

Jimi Hendrix

John Coltrane/Jefferson Airplane

Thelonious Monk/McCoy Tyner

The Doors

The Velvet Underground

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