Yes, it’s hello and goodbye time. I’m going to be shutting down this blog before the end of February, 2021, ending 13 years of, well, not continuous activity, but off and an bursts of activity. Like a lot of blogs, this one was robust at the start and then trailed off over the past few years. That’s not because I stopped writing, but that i have been doing more writing in more places.
My writing has also changed, less of the reactive, in-the-moment style that’s good for a blog and more focussed and in-depth. COVID-19 closed off a lot of opportunities, but I continue to write about music and culture, and since late summer have been producing a weekly newsletter, Kill Yr Idols, on the Substack platform. The weekly structure is far better for my current writing than the irregular bursts of blogging. So if you’d like to follow what I’m up to, I encourage you to subscribe!
As a last hurrah, I’ll be posting my Best Of lists from 2020 (copied over from different issues of the Kill Yr Idols) below, and that will be the last for the Big City, separate post for jazz, classical/new music, and all the beyond/experimental stuff that I love.
If you’ve been reading through the years, thanks for your attention, I always appreciate it. Though this site has been a money-loser for me, imaging you on the other side of the screen there kept it going. I hope to be sending you a regular, fresh, snappy newsletter. Best of luck to us all.
John Lee Hooker was born this day in 1917. The Blues Brothers is not a great movie, but has a nostalgic appeal, and the greatest moment for me was this appearance, which was the first time I ever encountered this great musician. I was 16, and this was a new world that has grown within me ever since.
Claude Debussy (today is his birthday), the last essential composer. Different than great (a subjective judgement) or important (which can be quantified to some extent), essential means that music is unimaginable without him—the current state of music and its history over the previous 130 years would not exist.
The clichéd story of modern music has long placed Stravinsky and Schoenberg as opposed pathways; toward tonality or atonality. The historical context is that music in the late 19th century became increasingly unstable, no longer resolving harmonically or formally. Schoenberg’s view of the future was to surrender to the inevitable and haul his beloved Brahms along with him, while Stravinsky refreshed the models of the past with new language, true modernism.
Debussy (born in 1862, twelve years before Schoenberg and twenty before Stravinsky) bypassed this false dichotomy by following his taste and values. Blessed with astonishing talent, he made music modern in an organic, non-theoretical and un-ideological way. His path was influenced by non-Western music, and with that and his ear, he created forms in which the tools of tonality found new purpose and utility.
The result is music that is enduringly popular with the general public because it is so beautiful. The sheer pleasure Debussy produces masks how revolutionary he was—we have been conditioned to expect the avant-garde to be ugly and difficult, forgetting that Kandinsky was avant-garde, as was Rothko. But so much of the piano music, the ballet Jeaux, andPelléas et Mélisande is avant-garde, especially the latter, which is still so revolutionary as an opera that it has yet to be honored with a satisfactory response.
The legacy of tonality in the 20th and 21st centuries is entirely indebted to Debussy. Stravinsky led the way out of the dead end of serial atonality, but he went through the gate Debussy had built.
His centennial was in 2018, and that brought out a lot of good, new recordings. And this continues. He’s one of the few composers who seems by default renewed on recordings, rather than just retread. Pianist Vikinger Olafsson put out a CD with Claude and Rameau, and it’s absolutely recommended. There’s also a new set of his Preludes from Haybee Schvartz—she brings out the toughness and sinew in his music.
Debussy was also making music at the dawn of recording technology, and there are wonderful examples of his music played by musicians who were contemporaries and colleagues, including the finest—and most French—recording of Pelléas, fantastic recordings of the orchestral music, and some of his own playing.
String Quartet: more impossible choices. Always paired with Ravel’s String Quartet, the recent Jerusalem Quartet version is my current favorite, Quatour Ébène is near the same level (and they add the Fauré String Quartet), and my old standby has always been the Quartetto Italiano (currently out of print).
For ending, David Cole’s book in the Critical Lives series is the ideal first read, and Stephen Walsh’s recent bio is the best single-volume in-depth take.
This August, 2020, is a big month for centennials. A week ago marked 100 years since Charles Bukowski arrived, a week from today will mark the end of the first Century of Charlie Parker. Today, it’s Ray Bradbury.
I know I’m not alone in first reading Bradbury in grade school—4th grade for me IIRC—and in that first read being his story “The Veldt,” followed by the whole of The Martian Chronicles. The next step for many was Fahrenheit 415, and if you play the trailer above, you’ll see that starting at 4:30pm EDT on this day of his birthday, August 22, 2020, there will be a live (in installments) reading of that novel—it runs as a series through September 5.
He was one of the greatest American writers and also one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. He was American in that so much of his work was about growing up and living in America, from idealized small towns to urban brutality to utopian dreamscapes, and he was embedded in the 20th century, the genre century, writing tales that were speculative about the future through a unique fantastic sensibility, and writing horror, and writing crime fiction (check out this newly published collection from Hard Case of his crime stories). In terms of how he affects the reader, what you feel while and after reading his stuff, he’s one of the all-time greats.
(P.S. I recently started reading his Zen in the Art of Writing, and it’s amazing, every other sentence is one you want to repeat to yourself in your mind.)
I’ve been rereading myself through all of Bukowski (also catching up on a lot of the posthumous poetry). He’s been a great companion, again, just as he was when I was in my early 20s and really struggling to make something of myself. His honesty about himself, and his own failings, and his humor and tenderness beneath the surface of everything, are still rare qualities. 100 years of Bukowski, today!
Hunter S. Thompson was born this day in 1937, meaning it’s more than conceivable that he could still be alive today.
We need him. The pusillanimous political media has entirely failed the nation and its citizenry, and Thompson, like Orwell, is (dis)graced by wannabe heirs who style themselves brave truth tellers but only put their courage, what little of it there is, in service of their brand and social media profiles. Lump them altogether and you might get the insight and sense of humour and savage ability to call a spade a goddamn shovel in one of Thompson’s less solid turds. We’re in the shit, folks.
Barzun wrote The Berlioz Century which needs a sequel, something along the lines of The Mahler Epoch. No one in any medium identifies and expresses the glories and dangerous contradictions of Western culture better than Mahler. His symphonies are the story of humanity caught within bourgeois capitalism—the energy needed to stay sane becomes its own drama.