And why not Bernstein, this greatest of American musicians, great exemplar of what culture could be in a mass, relatively egalitarian, supposedly classless and free society. If you can afford the tickets, that is . . .
. . . it’s time to break out the Scotch bottle, and not just because the air is soft and the morning and evenings are cool. It’s because it made it easier to lie on the couch and leaf through my new issue of New York magazine.
So, as we all prepare for the biggest class-warfare ass-raping of the American public yet devised, you may be wondering, “hey, composer, what do you think I should listen to that will, you know, get me in the mood?” Well, my friends, as we face these anxious times, likely again to be betrayed by both our supposed representatives and our fellow ‘citizens,’ it’s time to prepare mind and soul with generous doses of Art Pepper and Gustav Mahler.
Why these two? Mahler I’ve written about before, and inevitably will again; in this context his music is the foremost expression of whipsawing turmoil, anxiety, hope and despair. As much as I know this is historically untrue, today I like to think that Romantic times such as ours – times when the best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity – were not possible before the early 19th century but that, once Romanticism was invented, we since have been cursed to suffer the derangement of it all. Perhaps some new way to think and be will come around. Chissa?
By now you’re probably wanting to ask, “composer, when I’m feeling so anxious, why would I want to listen to music that itself is an expression of that anxiety? Why wouldn’t I rather turn to something that will allow me to escape from such feeling?” That’s a very good question. My answer is that, personally, hearing music that takes anxiety and turns it into something expressive, moving, even glorious or spectacular, is more satisfying. Mahler certainly does this, it is one of the things that makes him “Mahlerian.” This is especially true of his symphonies from No. 5 on. At that point in his career, Mahler began to compose directly onto orchestral score layouts, rather than composing for the keyboard first and then orchestrating the short score. To my ears, this gives his music a new sense of freedom in both the large-scale sweep of the music to the smallest expressive detail, and of course he was a master of each. I frequently imagine his arm moving across the table and paper in large gestures as he has to extend his reach across such large canvass, and that physicality in the process of composition is apparent in the sound of the music. Certainly the great anxiety-riven symphonies 5 through 7 demonstrate this. Along with Gergiev’s recording of the 6th that I previously reviewed, I have a new (to me) recording from Günther Herbig leading the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra in a single performance, live recording. This is spectacularly good – a superior musician leading a superior orchestra. They command every detail of the music and play with impressive, confident expression. Herbig takes fast tempos throughout, especially so for the opening movement and the Scherzo, which he places second in order in the traditional manner. He also shows some of the most well-defined, managed and thought-through metrical modulation I’ve heard in a Mahler performance – the aggressive relentlessness of the first movement is beautifully balanced by exact shifts to slow and quiet music in the moments of repose. The entire performance flows but never feels rushed, Herbig indicates mood without underlining it, allowing the listener to find their own expression in the music, and the recording has superior sound. This is one I’ll be turning to often.
Gergiev himself has two more recording out in his Mahler cycle, symphonies 1 and 7. This is rapidly turning out to be an exciting cycle. His interpretation of the first is both direct and sparkling. It may be early in the game, but his general approach seems to be a focus on a particular idea and style, and to convey that throughout the work. There are many ways to get at Mahler, and this is absolutely valid and produces just as good a level of music making as Bernstein’s all encompassing, neurotically charged approach – Mahler is that vast of a subject that there is always a “new” way to present him. This 1st stands out in both the grace and wit of the early movements and the astonishing violence of the finale.
The 7th is the mystery work, fascinating musically, intensely beguiling to the ear and, unlike the rest of the composer’s work, completely elusive, both narratively and emotionally. It is nachtmusik, colorful and evocative and defying meaning. More than the other works, this is the test of a conductor’s understanding of Mahler, the challenge is to present a coherent idea and make it sound like Mahler’s. Gergiev does this in spades, he takes a dramatic, almost episodic approach, breaking down the movements internally into segments that he presents as fragments of a larger structure, and lets us piece together what it means for ourselves. This sets him apart in concept from the other great recordings of this work, MTT, Bernstein, Rattle, and also puts him on equal footing. It’s superb, exciting. All these recordings are live, played extremely well, in SACD format, hindered only by the dry, shallow acoustic of the Barbican.
And there’s even more! This has been a pretty pregnant year for Mahler recording, and I’ve myself only added a partial number from the total releases. There’s a wild, emotionally raw performance of the 9th symphony out of the BBC archives, a beautiful, refined concert of Mahler songs with exquisite singing from Thomas Quasthoff, a recording that is an unofficial conclusion to conductor Gary Bertini’s superior cycle, and a fine, straight-forward performance of the massive 3rd symphony from the typical excellent regional German orchestra. On it’s way, the MTT recording of Das Lied von der Erde, and Gergiev’s own 3rd. Who has the time?!
As I’ve implied, there’s more than one way to tackle anxiety in music, and beyond Mahler. Anxiety is the key feature of Art Pepper’s musicianship. He’s actually one of the more astonishing figures in the history of jazz, for both musical and non-musical reasons. Musically, at his best he produced an incredible, fecund flow of ideas, probing with some sense of desperation at the limits of what he could think, feel and express. Pepper’s playing is not “edgy,” it is nothing but edges, abrading and excoriating both, most frequently to himself. If you hit the link above and heard his take on “Here’s That Rainy Day,” you’ll know exactly what I mean. No one has ever made ballad playing such a harrowing experience as Pepper. And why shouldn’t he? After long-term heroin addiction and four stints in prison, the last two in San Quentin, and then time spent with the bizarre cult Synanon, he had a lot of questions and doubt about life, and himself. Especially himself. Pepper is unarguably one of the great post-Parker alto players, yet he lived his entire life plagued with doubts about his abilities as a musician. He especially felt intimidated as a white musician working in a primarily black art form, wondering if he could measure up. Astonishingly, he played New York City exactly once, and engagement documented in the “Complete Live at the Village Vanguard” set. It’s fantastic music, and fascinating to hear his neurotic patter with the audience. We seem to be witnessing him convincing himself that he belongs in New York, on stage with his compatriots. And then when he puts the horn to his lips, he proves it beyond a reasonable doubt.
For the non-musical reasons, consider after having heard him play that he didn’t consider himself a musician. He considered himself primarily a a junkie and a convict. For these stories, look no further than his incredible autobiography, “Straight Life”. This is a must-read for anyone interested in jazz, biography and/or especially noir of any kind – Pepper’s story is beyond noir, beyond any conglomeration of Burroughs, Buckowski, Celine, Crumley, et. al. It is an important book about an artist, about the disconnect between personal story and qualities and the art a person creates. Because Pepper is not shy about telling you, bluntly, that he far from being even an acceptable member of society. But he was eventually able to almost fit in, to love and be loved. And of course, to play and make incredible music before he killed himself with cocaine.
This is no exaggeration, Pepper made incredible music. The edge the he produced pushed sharply at the edge of coherent thought and articulation. There is a quality often heard in avant-garde jazz where a player rapidly blurs notes together, often overblown, produce an almost incoherent sound. This is frequently done for effect and just as frequently has no actual meaning. Pepper can produce the same sound, but he gets there by trying to express something at the very limit of his artistic ability, and breaks down in the attempt. It is complex and thrilling, and is as laudable as the creation of art gets. You can hear it in his huge body of recorded work and archives. Especially fine are his 2nd and 3rd volumes of recording for the Aladdin lable, available on Blue Note, and his long run on the Fantasy label, particularly “Meets the Rhythm Section,” “Smack Up,” “Intensity” and a personal favorite, “Living Legend,” with the blunt, telling photograph on the cover.
I also love the set of live recordings put out recently by his widow, Laurie. The playing is just wonderful; intense, involving, funky, beautiful. At this stage of his career, every note was an attempt to prove his own self-worth as a musician. What could possibly be more fraught with anxiety for an artist? And what better way to transform that anxiety into art? As we are slowly dragged into a wreck, helpless before decisions made by people who don’t think we matter, we must find away to triumph in some small ways, to produce something beneficial for the society around us. What better example, both artistic and moral, than these two great geniuses?