Hot Weather Music

No songs-of-summer-commercial-pap-to-get-you-to-buy-beer here, but Summer music, music old and new that I listen to in the hot weather. This is a pretty personal list, it comes out of how I want music to make my mind feel in the middle of a heat wave like we just had, and it’s inseparable from my NY City days of early summer manhood, when summer was also a time to discover new things because I wanted to spend as little time as possible in my hot, horrible, SRO room. Music that offers cool clarity or the galvanizing energy and hope of youth.

  • Don Cherry, Home Boy. I can’t say this enough, avant-garde jazz musicians make the best funky music, and this is one of Cherry’s finest recordings. “Avenue A Avenue B Avenue C Avenue D / Ain’t no E now.”
  • Max Goberman conducting the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, The Symphonies of Haydn. This is an excellent set from a conductor who is now essentially forgotten, but was instrumental in bringing more life and attention to these great works. He died before he could record all of the symphonies, but this is a substantial selection, and the thinking and playing exceeds the famous Dorati set.
  • Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue, The Complete Sessions. A fundamental component in a good music library.
  • Grant Green, Idle Moments. Cooler than cool, hipper than hip. Beautiful and soulful.
  • Wes Montgomery, In the Beginning. A terrific find. A set of recordings from live dates with various musicians lost to time, but the music is swinging and strong. Montgomery is undervalued in our era, and these dates catch him in his youth (1949-58), and his playing is terrific, exciting and pleasing. Sound quality is a little stuffy but the music exceeds that.

  • Jordi Savall conducting La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Monteverdi: L’Orfeo
  • Helmut Koch conducting the Kammerorchester Berlin, Monteverdi: L’Orfeo
  • August Wenzinger conducting Orchester der “Sommerlichen Musiktage Hitzacker 1955”, Monteverdi: L’Orfeo
    • A Monteverdi kick? Not really. I have been thinking a lot about opera, trying to finish writing something, but I listen to L’Orfeo every month, and everyone who claims a love for opera and/or a desire to write operas should be doing the same. L’Orfeo does everything that operas do, from the beginning of the form, and does these things better than everything but a small handful of other operas. The piece is also open to important interpretation, and so it is rewarding to have multiple versions on hand. Of these, Savall’s is newly released, though was recorded several years ago, and is terrific. Even better, in my opinion, are the two historic recordings. The playing and singing don’t have the same knowledge and skill that you’ll hear today, but in the 1950s Monteverdi was essentially unknown, and Koch and Wenzinger’s recordings have the fulfilling sensation of discovery, and are just fascinating and moving to hear.
  • Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation. The real last word on the Tompkins Park riot, and the death of an era.
  • Nordic Affect, Clockworking. Brand new, cool and brilliant. A fascinating and involving set of new chamber music with that particular, contemporary Nordic touch: ineffable yet steely.

  • Egberto Gismonti and Nana Vasconcelos, Duas Vozes. A special record from two unique musicians, a series of duets, loosely formed, that are soothing and dream-like, then coalesce into substantial song. One of my all-time favorites.

Never Say No to Rameau

In the There’s Always An Anniversary For Something department, this coming Friday makrs the 250th year since the death of the great composer of the French baroque, Jean-Philippe Rameau. He was a masterful, stylish opera composer and also wrote Treatise on Harmony, which is still informative and relevant.

The classical music business being what it is, this is also a great excuse to exploit the back catalogue for new money! Just out last week, there is a 22 CD box from Erato that collects the recordings the label made of Rameau’s operas. This series returned the composer to prominence, and is a benchmark, with superb versions of Hippolyte et Aricie, Les Indes Galantes, Platée, Zoroastre, and more led by William Christie, Marc Minkowski, Nicholas McGegan, and others.

Christie also recorded some of this music on the Harmonia Mundi lable, and coming this week is a 10 CD box of all of those, which gives a decent sample of Rameau’s operatic work and his excellent harpsichord pieces.

Amazon is the best place to order the Erato box (though the price may drop at ImportCDs), while ImportCDs has the Harmonia Mundi collection for $20 less if you pre-order.

There are other pre-order bargains at ImportCDs on upcoming, worthwhile collections:

Cedille has boxed the Pacifica Quartet’s Shostakovich cycle, which is not only one of the best on disc but is augmented by selected String Quartets from the composer’s peers. It’s currently $22 at ImportCDs, an amazing value, but order it quickly, the release date is September 9.

Expected at the end of the month is a box from the vocal ensemble La Venexiana, collecting their recordings of Monteverdi’s complete Madrigal Books. A giant name whose music is actually heard infrequently, Monteverdi tends to be obscured by the shadow of Bach and the baroque, which makes it difficult to see deeper into the past. But he is one of the foundational figures in the Western classical tradition, and the Madrigals are at the core of classical music, no less so than the Well Tempered Clavier or Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. The expressive and intellectual style of the music—and the notation—gives it an inherent freedom that is so lacking from contemporary classical music and performances. Again, pre-order price is best at ImportCDs, where you’ll save about $100 from Amazon.


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The Uses Of History

The way we have come to hear this style of playing by 2010 is to expect lean, light textures, fast tempos, lively rhythmic playing, and there’s an inherent prejudice on the side of the illusion of accumulated knowledge, that we know more about how to play this music today than we did seventy years ago, as if it was a matter of technology; we have it today, they couldn’t know about it so long ago. … If a story is good enough to be seen and heard through the centuries, that it can survive contemporary stagings, and, though audiences grumble when Mozart, Verdi and Wagner are made more familiar to them (grumble out of some atavistic attachment to an imagined tradition), Early Music productions commonly present works in contemporary dress with witty, self-conscious gestures towards the artificiality of the Baroque tradition (four hundred years ago, audiences understood that the wires meant the characters were not actually flying, as they do today, and there’s delight in that).

One of the new things in classical music in the twentieth century was musicians playing ye olde musicke on ancient instruments (or recreations thereof) and in the manner and style of epochs long past. Call it Early Music, Period Performance Practice, Historically Informed Performance, Authentic Performance or anything else, it was and remains a point of contention among classical musicians and listeners. The arguments, while interesting, are better explored in depth elsewhere at the moment. My personal view is that it’s the results that matter, that is, if playing Mozart on instruments and in a style seemingly appropriate to his own era produces successful, satisfying performances, then all the better, but if the result is a dogmatic lecture without musical interest, then no matter what ideas and instruments are used, it’s a failure. There have been a lot of excellent performances and recordings in Period style, and the innovations of the thinking and especially research have both recovered a great deal of fine music and added a new and beneficial way of thinking about the details, especially in terms of tempo, color and phrasing. Like it or not, Early Music ideas are here to stay, wether the strings are strung with gut or steel.

The philosophical oddity of the movement is that the new thing is about bringing old ideas in front of the public, while the old thing was whatever musicians were doing with older music in their own, contemporary style. It’s a paradox. Of course, a lot of the “old” thinking leads to good music-making as well. And it’s important to note that it wasn’t the Early Music people who did all the research and recovered all the music. The impetus, arguably, began with the old fashioned long hairs, even people like Stravinsky and Robert Craft, who began their own archeology of the past. Of all the works that have been rediscovered, the most important by far has been that of Claudio Monteverdi, the first opera composer and one of the greatest composers in music history, and one of the most important contributions to his recovery was made by the quintessentially academic, long hair (although bald) composer Paul Hindemith, who on June 3, 1954 gave a public performance of his own attempt to reconstruct the premiere of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Four hundred years after the first performance of the opera, we can hear Hindemith’s realization on a fascinating and musically involving recording from the Music & Arts label.

Monteverdi’s three known operas have survived in varied record-keeping quality. L’Orfeo has always required some level of editorial intervention for a complete performance, and so there are arguments about scholarship and style. Hindemith seems to have set this all in motion by making a reconstruction in 1943 that attempted to re-create the original production, free of the aesthetic desires of contemporary music. Blame him or praise him as you must, but it seems Early Music owes it all to him. The recording is of this 1943 version, made at it’s European premiere, with members of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, a cast that included Gino Sinimberghi as the title character, Patricia Binton as La Musica and Uta Graf as Euridice. Hindemith himself conducts, and offers a four minute introductory speech (in German), followed by three short pieces from Gabrieli, seemingly to set the contemporary context of the opera.

The way we have come to hear this style of playing by 2010 is to expect lean, light textures, fast tempos, lively rhythmic playing, and there’s an inherent prejudice on the side of the illusion of accumulated knowledge, that we know more about how to play this music today than we did seventy years ago, as if it was a matter of technology; we have it today, they couldn’t know about it so long ago. This recording demolishes that altogether. The instrumental textures are in fact more delicate than the other leading recordings of the opera. Hindemith scored his version with an emphasis on keyboard instruments, including two harpsichords and an organ. He filled out the orchestra with lutes, strings (including the young Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who went on to become one of the most important Early Music conductors) and winds, with no brass. The delicacy of this sounds like it could be performed in a large salon, with audience and performers all at floor level.

Hindemith does an excellent job of judging tempos. He’s non-ideological, committed only to making each individual chorus and aria speak at what seems the proper speed, not making an argument but making music. There is a sense that all the musicians involved are figuring out what this music is and what it means, personally re-discovering Monteverdi. While the musical ideas may not be the last word on the subject, the playing is committed and lovely, and the singing is excellent. L’Orfeo is one of those pieces where it’s possible to dip into key areas to get a sense of what the recording is all about, and for this opera that track is always Orfeo’s hypnotic aria, “Possente Spirto.” The musical and idiomatic idea behind the character mesmerizing Charon means that, properly, the tenor must improvise a great deal. It is this that is truly exciting to hear on the Music & Arts CD, as Sinimberghi adds impressive figurations and decorations that are gorgeous musically and also thrill with the sense that the past is telling us in the present that it, too, understands meaning and value. The recording has good sound restoration by Albert Frantz, although with stuffiness to the overall quality. But this is more than just an interesting curiosity for Monteverdi fans, it’s an excellent musical achievement, and recommended for anyone who wants to hear and know this opera. An incredibly important document and a satisfying listen in its own right.

While the Hindemith recording demonstrates that past eras had greater knowledge than we realized, another newly released historical document demonstrates that the “old” ways of doing things were as fine as the “new” ways are. On November 27, 1971, Dame Janet Baker took to the stage of the London Coliseum to sing Poppea in The Coronation of Poppea , accompanied by the Sadler’s Wells Opera Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Raymond Leppard. The production was Leppard’s own preparation of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, presented in an English translation, by Geoffrey Dunn, of the libretto, in the rule if Sadler’s Wells productions. The performance was broadcast on the BBC, and the release is of that live recording (there are stage noises, but the sound is fine, with spaciousness, resonance and a softly rounded acoustic).

The singing and playing represent a fascinating view of how musicians saw the past, forty years ago. Leppard’s orchestra has a bigger sound than what we are used to know, the phrasing, articulation and rhythms are more “modern” in the “old” manner; the musicians could be playing Vaughan Williams, and this is not bad or wrong, it’s a different way of thinking. If Early Music practice is about attempting to recreate the past, this Poppea is about reinterpreting the past. After this, and the English translation, which is clear and musical, the other obvious difference is that the edition Leppard prepared was a two act one, rather than the more common, three act version, itself the result of scholarship that furthered our knowledge of the opera after the fact of the BBC broadcast. This is all secondary and vaguely academic, though, to the primary reason this set exists, which is the presence of the great Dame Janet, one of the profound singers of the twentieth century. She is most known for her singing of Romantic music, like Mahler, and for her portrayals of the tragic heroine Dido in both Purcell’s and Berlioz’s operas, and it is a little disorienting to hear her as the calculating concupiscent Poppea. Disorienting, but worthwhile; she artfully shades the inherent richness of her voice into something a little lighter, a sonic cognate of the character, and her extraordinary talent to convey personality and meaning through singing makes the great success of her performance unsurprising in the end, as a great character singer will be great in any character. The style of Leppard’s conducting suits her musicality perfectly, and without dramatics or overplaying she dominates the set, her vibrancy is riveting.

The rest of the cast cannot, of course, match her, and it is here what little weakness there is in the recording lies. Barbara Walker and Elizabeth Gale are fine as Fortune and Love, but Shirley Chapman’s quasi-contralto is an odd blend as Virtue; Tom McDonnell has a good baritone, but the part of Ottone seems challenge his breath control; the remaining cast is strong, including Robert Ferguson as Nero and the excellent Katherine King as Ottavia. Overall, with Dame Janet and Leppard leading the way, this is an effective and moving recording, beautiful for the music-making and also the committed ideas that stand bravely against the tide of Early Music and show the important truth that great music can be interpreted in many ways.

And that is one of the great boons of the revivification of Baroque opera via the Early Music movement, the opening of an interpretive debate. Cultural memory in time means that which is most recent dominates our knowledge and sensibilities, seems to be the way things are, but in the case of opera, the older works have a natural quality of expression that became more abstracted through the Romantic era. The artificiality of someone singing to us in a dramatic work is easier to accept in the formal, transparent vocal structures in works like the operas of Handel. Handel’s music is marvelous, where his works might disappoint is in the staged drama. It’s a matter of knowledge, and the integration of libretto, music, acting and staging was something that developed through time, especially into and through the Classical era. For Handel, opera is a form where characters stop and sing to us, and each other, for long stretches of time.

The Early Music movement put more of these works on stage, and directors, seeing the open-ended possibilities, made them exciting and relevant. This is where the triumph of the concept is most apparent, in the combination of a specific kind of music-making, especially the light, clear singing styles, the aggressively exciting instrumental playing, and the creative opportunities to stage the stories, most of them out of Greek and Roman mythology, completely from scratch. For those familiar with the musical ideas, stagings like the Wooster Group’s La Didone, that combined Cavalli’s opera with a realization of Mario Bava’s darkly cheesy “Planet Of The Vampires” end up working easily and feeling slightly hum-drum.

The possibilities of Baroque opera can be seen in two recent DVD releases, one of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and the other a performance of Handel’s Admeto . Behind The Fairy Queen, and much of the best Purcell heard today, is the conductor William Christie, who has been a champion and leader staging and recording great Baroque operas in a style that is both rigorously researched and musically satisfying. The Fairy Queen is, originally, something called a semi-opera, but this Glyndebourne production, directed by Jonathan Kent, designed by Paul Brown and choreographed by Kim Brandstrup, turns the composers adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a fully integrated drama. Bottom and his fellow mortals are the cleaning crew in a mansion, the Fairies it’s secret inhabitants, contemporary dress so prevalent that figures who show up on stage in older style costumes are deliberately stripped. Of all the possible ways to stage any opera, contemporary dress is one of the most effective and, strangely, controversial. If a story is good enough to be seen and heard through the centuries, that it can survive contemporary stagings, and, though audiences grumble when Mozart, Verdi and Wagner are made more familiar to them (grumble out of some atavistic attachment to an imagined tradition), Early Music productions commonly present works in contemporary dress with witty, self-conscious gestures towards the artificiality of the Baroque tradition (four hundred years ago, audiences understood that the wires meant the characters were not actually flying, as they do today, and there’s delight in that). The music and singing, with Joseph Millson as Oberon, Sally Dexter as Titania, Jotham Anna as Puck and Desmond Barrit as Bottom, is as fine as one would expect from Christie, which means it’s gorgeous, clear, musical, direct and natural, and the production is beautiful, with skillful transformations between our world and that of the Fairies and a sophisticated, artful balance of contemporary ideas and specific gestures to how audiences in 1692 enjoyed the work. It’s not uncommon to see a semi-staged performance of The Fairy Queen, and this DVD represents as good a staged one as I have seen.

Purcell had the inherent advantage of working with Shakespeare’s story. Handel, one of the greatest of all vocal composers, wrote gorgeous music but didn’t give much thought to staged drama, or much more than was common for his time, which was, in retrospect, not much. As a result, his operas are great raw material for musicians and imaginative directors. One of those is filmmaker Doris Dörrie, who staged the tale of Admeto, king of Thessaly, love, confusion, betrayal and the meddling of the gods as a samurai story set in feudal Japan, with the contemporary touch of Butoh style movement that parallels and fills in the details of what the singers sing. It’s a brilliant and entirely appropriate idea, easily connected by two sympathetic ideas of structure, the vertical, formalized social structure of Japan and the vertical, formalized structure of Baroque operatic music. The costumes and design, including outfitting Ercole (William Berger) with a sumo-style body suit add complementary features to Handel’s score, expanding Admeto into a fully realized synthetic drama of song, acting, movement and stage craft. The cultures of the opera and the setting are mostly alien to us, but the combination of the two, accompanied by excellent music from the Festspielorchester Göttingen and conductor Nicholas McGegan, and with dynamic performing by Tim Mead in the title role, Marie Arnet as Alcest, David Bates as Tasimede and Kirsten Blaise as Antigona, is riveting and fully enjoyable.

Regardless of the results of the performances, a constant positive of the Early Music movement has been that the ages of the works are irrelevant, that they are as alive and matter as much today as they did in the 17th and 18th Centuries. That is fundamental to the work of Salvatore Sciarrino, autodidactic contemporary master whose music, though sonically avant-garde, is based in elements that live with us still from the past. His operatic and vocal writing, especially, would be impossible without the lessons that Monteverdi left us in his own operas and madrigals. This year’s Lincoln Center Festival presented the North American premiere of Sciarrino’s opera La Porta Della Legge, a short work for three characters based on a story by Kafka that later become a part of The Trial. Two different men try to pass the bureaucratic Gatekeeper at a nameless institution, but, more paralyzed by their own sense of powerlessness than any action by the Gatekeeper, they are unable to proceed, and die at the entrance. The music, wonderfully played by the Sinfonieorchester Wuppertal led by Hilary Griffiths, is made up of few discrete pitches and many sonic effects, like overblown flute, muffled violin glissando. The sounds are exact in time and dynamics, but their own quality is amorphous and abstract. The singers have more common lines, especially the Gatekeeper (the charismatic Michael Tews), who’s part is precise, declamatory and confident, like the character. The two men (Ekkehard Abele and Gerson Sales, both excellent acting singers) have different material, at once experimental and natural. They frequently mumble and whisper their lines, the music caught in their throats, just able to find enough volume to make its way to the audience, starting with speech and becoming song for a bit before collapsing and disintegrating. Unlike the Gatekeeper, they are unsure and can’t think with enough strength and clarity to say what they want and mean, they can’t ask or decide to pass through the gate. In it’s own way, this music has the fundamental emotional directness and urgency of L’Orfeo or Poppea, the artifice is that it is music, not that the expression has been abstracted.

The staging, by Johannes Weigand, made a virtue of this same basic directness and simplicity. Other than the curtain, a backdrop, a chair and, at the conclusion, some video, there were no other means. Subtle and slow movements of the curtain and changes in the lighting, by Sebastien Ahrens, made the stage time flow as effectively as the musical time. The climax, where Man 2 dies, had an astonishing presentation; as the character lay on the stage, the black curtain slowly descended and moved in from each side, forming an ever diminishing box of light that framed his head and then, finally, snuffed out all the light. This freedom to express just what the music and drama is about, without the burden of fusty tradition, is directly related to the creative freedom in contemporary staging of Baroque operas, and Sciarrino’s fascinating, mysterious work and the excellent production by all involved is a direct extension of that body of ideas, that sense of treating music as a living, meaningful and involving thing, of taking it out of the museum of history and making it part of lived experience.


How Composers Learn, Part 1

In the process of applying for PhD programs in the fall, I exchanged email with a former teacher of mine at the San Francisco Conservatory. At one point he wrote something, in the prospect of possible future consolation, that struck me as intuitively true:

I don’t think I learned anything from my alleged composition teachers. . . The history of music — now so neatly archived (I think it’s nice that there’s a way for music historians to earn a regular salary too) — is a superb educational resource, non pareil. If I were to undertake to teach a young composer, it would largely involve looking at music by others rather
than the student himself.

This has probably always been (largely) true. A good composer teacher is really more of a critic, I think, someone who can take a piece of music on its own terms and discern what makes it work, and what makes it fail. Being a good composer can’t be taught, but a young composer can be guided towards resources, examples, and also, ideally, shown to a clear way of thinking about their own work, taught how to listen to what they are doing.

But this body of music is the true teacher. Since the Beethoven Piano Sonatas have been published, they’ve been the guidebook for teaching so much of composition and harmony. How can I perform this modulation, make this structure? Well, let’s look at Beethoven and see how he did it. It’s no different, in essence from how writers learn to write (by reading), and jazz musicians learn what their music is (by listening).

In looking at schools, I found out that Princeton has a particular requirement for their fellows (one of a very few) that I found intriguing and exciting – each student writes a piece in response to another piece. How simple, and how great. No complicated lesson, just do the thing that composers do in order to learn their craft and explore their ideas.

So, if I’m not at Princeton next fall, I still have this enormous body of work available to me to learn from. And in truth I’ve already started. I’ve already written music in response (some would say imitation) to other pieces that involve me. Most have not been successful and are pretty much forgotten, like my own version of Barber’s Symphony No. 1. Still, it’s the way. And it’s a way for me to maintain the California focus, the look off the edge of the world into the future, that developed so strongly in me and is so important to maintain now that I’m back in New York.

In the scheme of things, it’s unconventional but appropriate. There is so much music available nowadays, so many styles and such a pervasive effect of non-classical music on my generation of composers, and those that come behind us. So for me, a point of influence in a lasting work of mine, a chamber piece called Big City from whence this blog is titled, is the work of Ingram Marshall, especially his Fog Tropes. There’s a guy who probably would not get into a lot of PhD programs, but he’s made a lot of good music that is firmly in the California aesthetic. Which means it’s evocative, slightly abstract, a little dark. Those are all good things.

Marshall’s work is an evocation of San Francisco Bay and the fog that can completely shroud it, leaving one in an undifferentiated greyscape. It blends electronic sounds with a brass choir, ideally seamlessly:

My own piece has a first movement meant to evoke an equally physical experience of living in San Francisco – there is a recorded part that plays along with the instruments, but their voices and musical purpose are different than Marshall’s:

I wanted a background that suggested a physical location, but not the emulsification of sound that Marshall achieves. Also, in peformance, the soprano sax and bass clarinet were spaced as far apart as possible to give the sense the horns were calling to each other, albeit in an uncoordinated way, across a distance.

I revised the piece this fall, and also made a brand new audio file (party because it’s a hassle to get the one off DAT, partly as a learning exercise in some new software tools I have). The result, built from environmental sounds, is hopefully both more specific to SF Bay and also more mysterious. Here’s a sample

I kinda’ like it . . .

. . . and nicely enough, I can catch a performance of Fog Tropes at Zankel Hall tomorrow evening.

And I have a lot more learning to do. The study of Beethoven for harmony and Bach for counterpoint never tires, and in the fall I added a lot of excellent books to the music library. But as for pieces to respond too, well, those pop in and out of my head all the time. Some are more challenging others, more ambitious, more complex. A short list would be something like this:

. . . and that’s just what I’m thinking of today. There’ll be many more installments on this topic. Now, it’s time to see just what can be done, editing samples and mixing audio files.