About all this: I started this blog (not my first) in 2008, during one national emergency, and am back at it in earnest in the midst of a new one.
In the intervening years I was fortunate to move from writing about music and culture to keep myself from going insane to writing about music and culture as a freelance professional. Not that the work was enough to support my life on my own, but it was something.
Now, there’s no more work. That’s what happens when live music shuts down. So this post sits at the top, asking for help, because there’s nothing left to do.
You can hit the button below and place a modest monthly contribution, or even hit another button for a one time tip. No amount too small, my thanks great to all.
Be an angel and toss something in the hat, fill in the number that works for you. Donations of $15 and above get a random CD plucked from my collection, sent to you via media mail at no additional cost.
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.
Obituaries are going to be easy to find because when someone like Morricone passes, everyone has an opinion. Mine is that as much as he is loved he is unappreciated.
Think about it this way: By the time Morricone began scoring films, the art had been established and there had already been several great film composers, especially Bernard Herrmann, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Max Steiner. What set Morricone apart is that film music before him, no matter how fine or inventive (like Herrmann’s score for The Day The Earth Stood Still), was still based on the standard, old model of late-romantic era Western art music of the orchestral and operatic variety.
What Morricone did was invent an entirely new way of composing for films. The concept may have been “operatic” in the sense of using different themes for different characters and situations (Once Upon a Time in the West), but what that meant was Morricone had to keep creating new melodic ideas from scratch, with no preceding models. And his genius was that he was one of the great melodists in music history, bar none. Yes, the Spaghetti Westerns, yes Cinema Paradiso and The Mission. But especially, “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears,” “Come Maddalena,” music for the Gialli films that never came to America, the disco tunes, the ballads for Sacco and Vanzetti. He did everything, and he also did so much with so few orchestral resources for so long, that his genius was clothed in the workingman’s garb of practicality. Other fine composers can be imitators, like John Williams, but no one can imitate Morricone.