Streaming Me

Bloomsbury and Spotify have set up new arrangement new stream 33-1/3 books, starting with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew

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Now that there’s an official announcement, I can pass this along: Bloomsbury and Spotify have set up new arrangement where the service is going to stream selected 33-1/3 (audio) books, and first up will be yours truly’s Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.

(Now is a perfect time to read it if you haven’t yet!)

No specific launch date yet, and there are some details in the works which I can’t yet share. But when it’s up, remember to stream early and often.

And stay tuned for an announcement about a summer talk/reading at one of the more famous NYC bookstores.

A Good Gig

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Something to check out now that we’re halfway out of the week: venerable ESP records is 55 years old now, and has one of a series of celebratory concerts coming up this Saturday, April 28, 7:30 p.m., at Michiko Studios (149 West 46th St. in Manhattan).

Tickets are $15, a bargain in today’s world, that gets you sets from pianist Thollem, playing solo, and Fay Victor’s SoundNoiseFunk. Tholem is one of those improvisers who are at the edge of jazz and new music, in his own way along the lines of Paul Bley and Cecil Taylor. His language tends towards a rich sonic density, full of details and motion. His new CD, Live in Our Time, with bassist André St. James and drummer Tim Duroche, builds a beautiful, complex world that draws you in, highly recommended.

I caught a partial set from Victor’s new band at the Winter Jazziest—she sings, Sam Newsome plays soprano sax, Joe Morris plays guitar, and Reggie Nicholson is at the drum kit. This is truly an all-star group, superb musicians who are also superbly creative. These are some of the strongest and most individual voices in jazz and improvised music, and Victor is one-of-a-kind as a singer; she can improvise, lyrics included, on the spot, and also get down. Call this band avant-garde funk, that’s a special style.

The Whole Salonen

Salonen is of course one of the major figure in contemporary classical music.

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To be exact, the whole Salonen on Sony (Columbia Records): 61 CDs, all the recordings he made for that label before moving on to Deutsche Gramophon and elsewhere.

I confess, I hadn’t realized he had been that prolific, but after scrolling through the contents, I realized I was already familiar witth a great deal of what’s inside the box, and already have a substantial amount of these recordings in my collection.

Salonen is of course one of the major figure in contemporary classical music. As a conductor he was instrumental in turning the LA Philharmonic into a notable ensemble before he handed over the baton to Gustavo Dudamel, and as a composer he has produced a number of scores that give pleasure, though at least for me they don’t stick in the mind.

But what if you’re reading this and wondering if it’s worth spending $149.98 on (the pre-order price at Amazon as of this writing, though most likely this will drop)? That is a tough question to answer, perhaps more with this than any other of the recent boxed sets from the Columbia back catalog.

If you already have all the Stravinsky, Debussy, and Bartók in your library that you need, then you don’t need this. Same with Nielsen—those composers make up about a quarter of the set, and the recordings here are all good to very good, but there’s not one that is among the finest (IMO). If you don’t have this music, you’ll be satisfied with what is in here. But if you do, you will probably find this superfluous.

However, there is still a lot in here that’s the best you can get. In the standard repertory, the Mahler 4 recording, is about the best there is, as is Messiaen’s Turangalila and Des canyons lux etoiles. The CD with both the Sibelius and Nielsen violin concertos is spectacular.

What is invaluable here is the musical that Salonen was committed to recording and bringing to the public—Ligeti (this is where you will find Le Grand Macabre), Saariaho, Takemitsu, Lindberg. This is as good as it gets. The two Lutoslawski CDs, which include a complete symphony cycle, are essential. The collection of Bernard Herrmann film music is unique and superb.

In the end, this is for fans, I think, of specific composers or the artist himself. To fandom, money is usually no object, but again, this makes for an excellent first step into modern classical music.

Preorder Esa-Pekka Salonen: The Complete Sony Recordings, at Amazon. Release date is May 4.

Things to Do

Good stuff over the next few days:

  • Tonight at the DiMenna Center you can hear Ghost Ensemble, which is made up of smart, cool, and curious musicians and composers like Sky Macklay and Ben Richter, with something of a release show for their upcoming album We Who Walk Again—they’ll be playing music off that album.

 

  • Saturday, the concert series Ambient Church has a unique headliner, Malcolm Cecil. As Tonto’s Expanding Headband, Cecil and Bob Margouleff made the classic electronic music album, Zero Time. Not coincidentally, Cecil built the TONOT synthesizer. This all so impressed Stevie Wonder, who was on the cutting edge of music technology, that he hired Cecil to producer the amazing string of Talking Book, Music of My Mind, Innervisions, and Fullfillingness’ First Finale. So, an interesting guy, and an interesting show.

  • Sunday, check out the new group Caterpillar Quartet, at Branded Saloon (603 Vanderbilt at Bergen, Brooklyn—Free admission). The band is drummer Ken Kobayashi (you can hear him on an excellent recent ESP release, Boundary, with Magumi Yonezawa and Masa Kamaguchi), bass guitarist Jochem van Dijk, alto sax player Henry Raker, and keyboardist Steve Holtje, founder of Theoretical Mustache and some times accompanist to the esteemed Steve Dalachinsky. Note the 6 p.m. start.
  • Monday, April 23, cellist Thomas Demenga plays a solo recital at Weill Recital Hall (7:30 p.m.). He’ll be playing Bach, Carter, and B.A. Zimmermann, and his recent ECM release of the Bach Cello Suites is simply outstanding, sinewy and full of ideas.

At The Movies

They don’t make movie soundtracks like they used to…

I’m not sure why, although certainly there is more than a single reason. I suspect some contributing causes are producers’ business decisions to put together a soundtrack that will also serve as a pop music compilation they can package and sell. This goes all the way back to Tim Burton’s Batman movie, which had Danny Elfman’s score and diegetic songs from Prince- easily the worst music of his career but commercially successful. There has been a turn towards the “indie” sound in pop music for soundtrack material, a normal reflection of the zeitgeist, but as that music can be bland and faceless, so are the soundtracks.

From the inside there has been a homogenization of tools that have come out of the use of samplers—I regularly get notices for new packages of sounds that promise things like “cinematic effects,” and “cinematic strings.” A lot of composers use these and a lot of what they produce has the same occluded sound, which is thick, mostly uses the bass register, with ersatz timbres.

Even in this context there still have been excellent soundtracks from Cliff Martinez—his electro-acoustic music for the remake of Solaris—and Tindersticks’ music for Claire Denis’ movies. But the practice has been a lot of dull, lazy music, that works with a handful of dull, lazy, new clichés, like pounding tribal drums and a repeated theme with, if you’re lucky, an occasional meter change to make it sound like someone is thinking (see Ramin Djawadi’s tedious theme for Game of Thrones).

What you hear in Game of Thrones is far less than a score, it’s more of a sonic brand. Are there any actual cues in the show, bits of music that enhance what’s on screen? That I can’t remember any tells me that if there are, they’re forgettable.

I didn’t like The Last Jedi much, and John William’s score is over-written, but man at least it was written. It has a theme, it has different cues for different moments, it’s orchestrated for actual instruments and things that they can do. That last is probably more important in film music than in classical, and can only be learned through study, not samples.

Scores by composers who wield the craft of notated composition still hold up, like John Corigliano’s for Altered States, and especially Jerry Goldsmith, in my opinion the last great film composer who could craft excellent and dramatically different music depending on the film, and whose work has been quietly but pervasively influential. Compare the scores for Chinatown and Alien, and you’ll hear what I mean (The Burton/Elfman partnership also ushered in this era where a composer’s current soundtrack is essentially a repeat of his previous one, no matter how different the movies might be. Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock and a long partnership, and Herrmann’s music was always full of variety and supported the specific needs of each film and scene).

Of the movies I’ve seen over the last eighteen months, these soundtracks have impressed me:

Arrival: From the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, the music stands on its own as an evocative and satisfying listen. As a soundtrack, it captures the mysterious feeling of the movie, the sense of putting together a fascinating, and slightly frightening, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

Annihilation: This movie is a stunning, and at times terrifying, adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, a kind of ecologically based weird fiction. The soundtrack is extremely effective in creating an involving experience, and then in the climatic scene, the track “The Alien” reaches out and takes control of the listener. In the theater it was one of the most visceral movie experiences I’ve had, and the tremendous sound design takes the simplest descending bass line—that sounds descended from Atoms For Peace—and turns it into a complex listen. What this clip doesn’t convey is how for most of the movie the score is at a gentle volume, then it this scene it turns up to 11.

Isle of Dogs: I’m impressed with Desplat’s work on this movie. The soundtrack combines needle-drops from the soundtrack to The Seven Samurai, a couple fascinating songs from the obscure West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, an arrangement of music from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kija Suite, by the old Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, and Desplat’s original composing. He succeeds two-fold, in making good, effective music for the film and integrating with the Seven Samurai music via adapting some of that older music’s instrumentation and ideas.

And here’s a playlist with selections from 80 years of Oscar winning soundtracks in two hours. There’s an interesting change right around Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where pop music becomes more common, then it really explodes, for good and ill, after Giorgio Moroder was awarded for his Midnight Express music. Enjoy.

“I ate your book.”

Bernhard Lang

“I dig the jacket!”

Kurt Elling

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Budapest String Quartet, Beethoven: Complete String Quartets

Archives like those for the old Columbia Records are the gift that keeps giving, not just in easy money for Sony but in new opportunities for music consumers. And now, finally, they’ve reissued one of the absolutely essential recordings in the classical repertory, the Budapest String Quartet’s 1951-52 complete Beethoven Quartets.

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This is arguably the finest cycle of the Beethoven Quartets ever recorded, certainly it’s the most important. At this level of playing and interpretation, it’s only peers are the cycle from the Hungarian Quartet, and Budapest’s live recordings from the Library of Congress—the Hungarian set is less famous though to some just as good, while the live recordings are truly amazing, objectively they are better, but the complete set is more than three times the cost of this reissue, and that’s if you can find them (there is also a stereo set that the Budapest Quartet recorded in the 1960s—it is excellent, but the earlier recordings are just a bit better all around).

If the LoC recordings are Babe Ruth, the 1951-52 box is Willie Mays, and the Hungarian Quartet is Mickey Mantle. Now, Willie Mays is one of the greatest ballplayers of all time, he just never won 100 games as a pitcher, like Ruth did. Buy this, you will regret nothing, and you will have one of the cornerstones of the Western classical tradition and of a good music library.

“I ate your book.”

Bernhard Lang

“I dig the jacket!”

Kurt Elling

Like what you read? Subscribe for 2018 to have access to all content. Only $20 for the calendar year!

Culture, Meet Revolver

What makes someone a composer? What makes something a musical composition?

A composer makes music, obviously, the common method being notating symbolic language on staff paper. But we have long ago accepted written language (text pieces) and images (graphic scores) as compositions.

What is a composition? It’s a set of instructions by which a musician-or more than one-produces a piece of music in real time. Crucially, those instructions can be distributed, and their realization can be repeated.

Does that make a recording a composition? The answer to that has been “Yes” since Pierre Schaeffer made Etude aux chemins de fer out of magnetic tape. Music made for electronic media usually doesn’t have a score, but in that media the listener takes the place of the musician, and putting the record on the stereo is the performance.

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Even more true to the idea is a pop record, because that music can be heard and recreated by other musicians. The oral tradition of composing and spreading music is just as valid as the written one—though academic and composer culture is heavily biased toward paper—and recordings are the way to preserve an oral document.

And so Kendrick Lamarr’s DAMN is indisputably a music composition, one that is excellent on its own terms, and one that is deserving of the Pulitzer Prize. There are other compositions from 2017 that are also deserving, but this is the choice that reflects best on American culture as it actually exist, in people, rather than what is documented and secreted away in research libraries.

In what was a beautiful coincidence, my promo CDs for Henry Threadgill’s two upcoming releases came the same day that the Pulitzer was given to Lamarr.

This award, and Threadgill’s from 2016, are the fruits of the Pulitzer Committee opening up the field by simplifying their criteria from requirements that demanded a composition within the western classical tradition to one that simply asks for a music composition performed or recorded in the past year, by an American musician. That change was pointed out to me by musician David Leisner in the midst of a heated, serious Facebook thread. The conversation was generally the same as had been arching across the internet, much like the ones hilariously and painfully archived by the @NewMusicDrama Twitter account—although in this case not one sided.

I feel it’s unfortunate, even a little sad, that anyone objects to the choice for any reason than personal taste, in particular with the Pulitzer, because before the criteria opened up and the boards changed, they lionized a lot of mediocre music. It’s a repeat of the same old shit we’ve been hearing since the early 1980s-hip hop isn’t music, it’s too vulgar (that never stopped Mozart), that it’s a diminishment of classical music, which is the culture we (
meaning educated, upper middle class white people, a big demographic for Trump in 2016) need (meaning that it sets us apart as a cohort with superior intelligence and taste), and another sign of the decline of white, Eurocentric civilization.

That’s all nonsense, built on some real, atavistic, class and race bigotry. But one thing is true, it is a diminishment of classical music. And as a composer working in the classical tradition, and a working classical music critic, I say that’s a good thing. For decades the Pulitzer was by design an award for classical composers, which is ridiculous for an award that is supposed to be for American music. Duke Ellington, along with Charles Ives the greatest American composer, never got a Pulitzer—he was just a jazz composer. That arbitrary prejudice in the only changed in the late ’90s, the immediate result being Wynton Marsalis’ award for Blood On The Fields.

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What the committee has to their credit done, and what the chauvinists clinging to their miserly, defensive idea of culture should learn, is that there is nothing inherently superior about being a classical composer, and nothing inherently inferior about being a jazz musician or a hip hop artist. Christ, give me Kendrick Lamarr saying “fuck” and “pussy”—which has really twisted some knickers—over Puccini’s suicide porn any day, give me the intelligence and insight of his lyrics over the condescending smugness of Michael Daugherty.

And give me the harmonic rhythm and sophisticated structure of Threadgill, his vision of a present and future built on the giants who came before him, over yet another dreary, anachronistic example of academic atonality. These two new releases are excellent, another step along a path that gets more refined the further Threadgill follows it. He’s brought back some of his harmonic experiments and tethered them tightly to his inimitable afro-futurist march rhythms.

America is a big place with a vast and fecund culture, and like a lot of things in this country, that culture would be impossible without African-Americans. That educated people who claim to care about culture are so discomfited by a prestigious institution (the currency of establishment culture) rewarding a young, black hip hop artist who uses samples, drum machines, and swears, shows how deep unearned privilege runs; elevating someone unlike them is somehow seen as a loss, when it’s a gain for all of us who care about America.

P.S. This index that Molly Sheridan put together over at NewMusicBox is worth checking out, especially the article on how runners-up Michael Sheridan and Ted Hearne were thrilled about the award, which undercuts anyone taking offense as anything other than snit.