Notes From Underground

Then I should have chosen a career for myself, I should have been a sluggard and a glutton, not a simple one, but, for instance, one with sympathies for everything sublime and beautiful.

The new disc from Henry Threadgill and Zooid is out this week, give it a first listen at NPR. Call it jazz, blues, rock, R&B, it’s great, modern music.

Destination: OUT, one of the most important jazz sites on the inter-tubes, is six years old, and they’ve refreshed their raison d’être, their “Beginner’s Guide to Free Jazz.” Words and music and ideas, check them out.

The big show this week is the New York Philharmonic in a 360 degree setting at the Park Avenue Armory, where they will be playing music that makes use of space: Mozart, Ives, Boulez and Stockhausen’s fearsome Grüppen. If you want to experience it but can’t attend, Q2 Music will stream the audio on selected dates in July, and my friends at will offer a free webcast of the event, starting July 6.

The great contemporary composer, Henri Dutilleaux, won the inaugural Kravis Prize from the NY Phil, and has done a great thing by sharing the proceeds with Franck Krawcyz, Peter Eötös and the Talea Ensemble’s Anthony Cheung, asking each to write a new work. And Sean Shepherd, with whom I share an enthusiasm for Lutoslawski, is the deserving Emerging Composer for the new season. The Philharmonic currently has an emotionally committed but intellectually ambivalent relationship with new music, and this moves the head closer to the heart.

And speaking of the Talea Ensemble, their recording of music by Fausto Romitelli is out next month, and I’m anticipating this as one of the best releases this year. Save your pennies for it, especially by skipping the Fiona Apple’s over-hyped and disappointing new record.

John Zorn frequently frustrates me, but I do dig his Moonchild band, and Phil Freeman’s review has me wanting the new one, and may have you wanting it too. Bill Britelle’s Loving the Chambered Nautilus is out on disc copy, dig the title track here (free download), and dig him, Tune-Yards and The Yehudim this Saturday, for free, at the World Financial Center.

Last year, the Dallas Symphony premiered Steven Stucky’s Aufust 4, 1964, and their recording is out now.

As an addendum to my posting on Debussy, Onyx is releasing Pascal Rogé’s collected recordings on July 10.

Debussy Forever

In his interview for the Invisible Jukebox feature in Wire magazine, Steve Reich casually and knowingly dropped the notion that the history of music in the 20th century was an argument between Schoenberg and Debussy, and Debussy won. The results may seem obvious in the growing (and now dominant) prevalence of tonality in new composed music over the last fifty years or so, but the underlying meaning is important. And if the two names strike you as representing opposite ends of an aesthetic continuum, one seeking, like a Republican running for President, to turn back the clock to a reactionary condition veiled in the language of progress, and the other, almost dilettantish, following an intuitive and seemingly sybaritic path, producing truly new concepts that still strike many as as representing a decadent stew of absinthe and syphilis, then you will recognize that victory meant the championing of creative possibilities far more fruitful, and requiring far more discipline and rigor, than the systematization of everything.

Atonal music is like every other endeavor, it can be done well or badly. And, done well, it is as beautiful and expressive as any other. It’s possible to acquire a taste for the style as a whole — a motivated and attentive ear can learn to hear a lot very quickly — but it’s not a compliment to qualify a piece of music or a style by saying that it can be appreciated once one gains a certain amount of knowledge. Great music works on many levels, and the primary one is that it sounds great, it’s immediately and powerfully appealing and attractive, and the underlying intellectual and emotional content keeps you coming back for more. There’s a reason why La Mer is so common on orchestral programs: it sounds brilliant.

It also is brilliant. Beneath the gorgeous sound, the colors, the luscious phrasing, the pictorial and expressive luster, the piece is put together in a manner that is both rigorous — we know this by how gripping it is to hear — and so new that there was no model for it at the time, and scarcely any since. Read this blog, and any other serious and learned writer on music history and composition, and you’ll frequently be reading about architectural ideas, about how composer’s build structures that hold together their sections of ideas, the framework of their harmonies and rhythms, that provide a place in time for melodies and their variations and restatements. Debussy was a master architect, but one working with schema unlike any that had come before. Where Schoenberg devised his twelve-tone system to fight a rearguard action against Modernism and preserve the structural integrity of the ideas of his beloved Brahms, Debussy, as part of a generation that sought to free itself from the influence of German music in general and Wagner in particular, followed what boiled down to writing what he wished, creating and working with his materials in a way that followed the needs of his mind and heart, and applying the craft and hard work to find the form that fit each and every piece. His form followed its function.

A rough but useful way to hear this is to listen to the first movement of something by Haydn (symphony, string quartet, piano sonata). Count the bars, and you’ll hear how the structure fits into a regular pattern, e.g. an eight bar statement, often repeated, then eight bars of a counter phrase in another key, another eight bars of a variation on that counter phrase, then a return to the original statement, again often repeated. From there, Haydn will vary his structure, but it will still be built out of regular units, two-by-fours of musical information out of which he builds larger scale pieces. Fundamentally, what makes him great is how he defined symphonic and string quartet structures for the future (they are still with us) and created a formula while still constantly making it sound new and refreshing. Mozart also builds structures that are easy to hear, as does Beethoven, although his particular genius was to reduce his units down to very small and simple forms and build and even greater and more powerful set of structures from them.

Now listen to Debussy. What do you hear?

There is the pictorial color, of course, for which he’s famous and from which came the label of “Impressionist” for himself and Ravel, though Debussy loathed that term. Aesthetically, this is not out of line with the tone poem tradition of Romantic music which begins with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 and extends through Berlioz, Liszt and a great deal of Mahler (Mahler is, literally, more of an Impressionist than Debussy). But in terms of the Haydn what you hear is an indescribable sense of form. The piece has a powerful structure, it’s what keeps it moving forward and, despite the repetitive phrases and colors, makes it fascinating to follow. But that structure cannot be described in terms of bar length and sections of keys, the means by which, looking backwards, it’s been possible to analyze music from the Baroque. With Debussy, musicology had to create a whole new concept of study, the idea of pitch sets. His music is clearly tonal, and it can be described as being organized around groups of related pitches, where a stretch of music will emphasize one set, another stretch will emphasize another. Other than that, the forms are unique to each work, especially the great ballet Jeux which has no form, other than its own, which it seems to make up as it goes along.

And that’s how Debussy won the argument, and what makes him one of most important composers, along with one of the greatest in terms of sheer pleasure, in the Western classical tradition. He won by creating a path for music to both remain tonal and to be fully organized while breaking free of forms and structures that, while always useful, where no longer necessary. Unlike Schoenberg, he made the future possible. He made Steve Reich possible (music organized organically to a point where the composer found an end) and even Boulez who removed himself from his own Schoenberg-ian trap of total organization into a style more tonal, more free and fully organized.
2012 is the sesquicentennial of his birth (the centennial of his death is in 2018) and so what better time for boxed sets? A happy result of his popularity is that there have been many great recordings of his work, and the competition is between collections from Sony and Deutsche Grammophon (the former consolidating the RCA catalogue, the latter those from Decca and Phillips). Both these sets are excellent and mostly comprehensive, yet there are differences. Each has all the orchestral works, the piano music and chamber music, as well as the opera Pelléas et Melisande. Where they differ is in the vocal music and some extras. Sony’s The Claude Debussy Collection includes the early “Premier Trio en sol majeur,” not in DG’s The Debussy Edition, while on DG you get more songs, including Trois poèmes de Stéohane Mallarmé, Trois Mélodies de Verlaine and Prose lyriques. That’s the equivalent of about two CDs, on with Sony that is filled out with a disc of “Encores” and one of music transcribed for the harp. These may seem less than essential, and in fact a lot of this music is the kind of thing you might hear on one of those awful, Top-40 ‘relaxing’ classical radio stations. But these selections are also supremely beautiful, involving rather than soporific, and James Galway’s arrangements of “Clair de lune” and others are skillful and sincere.
Boulez the conductor is one of the Debussy’s premiere interpreters, so you get him on both, his early New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra of Nocturnes, Printemps, Jeux, Images and Deux Danses and Pelléas on Sony, his later recordings of the major orchestral works with Cleveland in the DG box. Sony fills the rest out with Charles Munch’s classic La Mer and Prélude à l’apréd-midi d’un faune (they could have also gone for MTT’s recordings, which are arguably the best), and DG gives you Claudio Abbado’s Pelléas with Maria  Ewing, which is an excellent recording. Call it a draw, they say complementary and valuable things about the composer. I personally prefer the piano works on the DG set, which has the all-time all-stars Mitsuko Uchida, Zoltán Kocsis, Krystian Zimmerman and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, but Sony has most of Paul Crossley’s terrific recordings, seasoned with Robert Casadesus and others. In the land of milk and honey, you would buy both of these, but if you would like one great Debussy collection, the choice boils down to how hard-core you feel about him: for simple listening pleasure, it’s Sony, for knowing the man intimately, it’s DG.

It’s a little surprising that there is no competition here from EMI, who also have a great back list of this music. Instead, they are remastering and reissuing famous recordings, including Walter Gieseking’s collection of the piano music, the single best of it’s kind, and three CDs of piano music from the important French pianist Samson Francois. The label also has a valuable box of Debussy and Ravel orchestral music under Simon Rattle, the most important historical recording of Pelléas and the mesmerizing, powerful CD of Debussy and Ravel under Carlo Maria Giulini. Taken all together, this is a wonderful recorded legacy, and any and all of these CDs would give you great joy and satisfaction.

Debussy: Orchestral Works Vols. 5 and 6

Debussy, not only one of the greatest but one of the very most important composers in the history of Western classical music, wrote a relatively small number of orchestral works. Of those, the most famous ones like La Mer and Prelude d’apres-midi d’une faune, are programmed and recorded so frequently that they drown out consciousness of masterpieces like Jeux and the entirety of Printemps. Naxos is recording his entire orchestral catalogue, which now runs to seven volumes.

In point of fact, Debussy did not produce all this music, and these two discs comprise music that Debussy either wrote for the keyboard or sketched and left unfinished, orchestrated by Ansermet, Robin Holloway and other musicians. This ranges from the wonderful Suite bergamasque to a Symphony in B minor that the composer wrote out in piano score when he was eighteen, now presented as another orchestral work. So the content is a mixed bag, and the results are, understandably, mixed. Markl and the Lyon National Orchestra play everything with skill and sensitivity, but much of this music sounds like novelties, curiosities, exercises. The results also vary with the skill and intelligence of the orchestration, from sounding like the work of students trying to imitate Debussy, to accurately representing his musical values. In that regard, the later volume is more consistently successful, and even enjoyable. These are generally non-essential recordings, although for those who love Debussy, there will be satisfaction in have a complete body of work.

Hotter Than July
Grant Green, Idle Moments

Robert Rich, Below Zero

Orchestra Baobab, Specialists In All Styles

Weather Report, Domino Theory

Pierre Boulez, Anne Sofie von Otter, The Cleveland Orchestra, Ravel: Shéhérazade, Le Tombeau de Couperin, Debussy; Ballades de Villon

Mark Johnson, The Sound of Summer Running

Stevie Wonder, Hotter Than July


The Week in Concerts, Day 4

Final day, and a real indulgence for me – the Vienna Philharmonic led by Valery Gergiev in music form Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette, the Prelude und Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and La Mer.

What can I say? It was glorious in all the expected ways, and in some unexpected ways too. That Vienna sound is something to behold in person, the musicians wonderfully organized around pulse and phrasing rather than a strict beat, and the strings at the front of everything. And the them so warm, creating sound out of slight differences in intonation. The orchestra is like a jazz group in this way, pushing the boundaries of intonation and the beat, but never breaking them.

The Berlioz was great, tremendously energetic. The Wagner was not promising at first; Gergiev took long pauses between each of the opening phrases which let tension escape from the unstable harmonies – the pauses allowed the ear to settle into some equilibrium, rather than hunger for some offering of stability from the musicians. But then he built the music to a peak of tremendous, spine-tingling intensity beyond anything I’ve heard, even the feverish Kleiber recording.

FInally, La Mer. I was expecting a comforting, satisfying and routine performance, but Gergiev had a lot to say. Rather then open up the orchestration, he indulged in the warm blend of the orchestra and let Debussy’s instrumentation speak for itself, which it did brightly. And he allowed the sections of the orchestra to play at tempos a little off from their colleagues, which had the powerful effect of painting the music, the rocks and the waves and the air and the water into a very real picture. I’ve heard this piece in concert more than any other over the past 20 years, and this was something that stood out from the standard, as high as that is.

Now, I’ll take a little break.