Don’t Stop Enthusin’

Before we begin today’s discussion, I have to get something off my chest. Long-time readers of this blog will recall my personal fascination with New Orleans, pursued through various visits and acquisitions. They may also recall my fondness for the David Simon show “Treme”. I’m not sure there is much, if anything, to improve about that show, but there’s one scene that really grinds my proverbial gears. It comes from Season One, Episode Five:

Producer: “Do you want to cut bass and drums first?”
Davis: “What is this band, Journey? Everyone in the big room, all at once, classic New Orleans R&B”
Producer: “Gonna have to call me Cosmo”

Why does that piss me off? Because Journey’s best-selling (and, frankly, just plain best) album, Escape, was recorded live in the studio. They didn’t split the musicians up and record them individually, the way Page did with Zeppelin or… well, pretty much every other arena-filling rock band did. Journey albums have a diamond-hard polish to them, but it’s mostly because the musicians involved are Just. That. Good. Even if their musical instruments are worthless.

Now you can argue that Steve Zahn’s character in “Treme” is meant to be an idiot, so perhaps that line in the script is meant to point out how stupid he is. ‘Twould be nice, but I doubt it. I think that David Simon just assumed that Journey did everything the way Steely Dan or the Doobie Brothers did, crafting pop confections one subtle ingredient at a time. He probably has no idea that Escape was recorded in six weeks, while Aja took ten times as long and cost about twenty times as much.

Which isn’t to say that Escape was not carefully produced, or that you can’t find a tremendous amount of tradecraft in it. Which brings us to the above video.

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Weekend Music: One Of These Two Albums Is Not Really A Seventies Reissue

Long-time TTAC readers might be aware of my affection for Gil Scott-Heron and his early work with keyboardist Brian Jackson. Their album Winter In America is one of the all-time greats, written and recorded without a single misstep to convey a message at once deeply nostalgic and radically political. His talent was so incomprehensibly massive that it swallowed him whole, turned him into a self-destructive crackhead who ended up dying of AIDS just as the hipsters had taken notice of his swan-song album, I’m New Here.

Progressive white America never really took to “GSH”. I suspect it was because your “woke” types get off on feeling superior to the objects of their putative compassion and admiration. It’s no great trick to feel superior to Drake or Tyga or Kendrick Lamar; they’re drooling morons babbling into a microphone, the African-American equivalent of Nikki Sixx or Justin Bieber. Artists like John Coltrane and Miles Davis might have been major talents but their primary allegiances were to the church and/or the female body, which made them safe and comfortable for a white audience. Scott-Heron, by contrast, was a nightmare fusion of Promethean IQ and keen insight, delivering lyrics with a pace and panache somewhere between laconic and surgical, unflinchingly focused on politics and race in a manner that couldn’t be bought off with a Bentley or a promise of reparations. You’d need a pretty stout sense of self-image to feel equal to the man, much less superior to him. It doesn’t help that he never really saw anything wrong with his cocaine use or his voracious sexuality; our modern progressive catechism demands that you either do penance for your perversions or take a defiant, self-conscious pride in them. Scott-Heron didn’t apologize for his life and he didn’t demand that we have a special month for crackheads. He simply liked drugs and he respected your right to not like them.

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When Sofie Sings

von otter good

I chose to kick off the Music-Video Fridays series on my site, The Tannhauser Gate, with Anne Sofie von Otter, from her live-in-Paris 2004 DVD Voices of Our Time—a Tribute to Korngold.

The daughter of the Swedish diplomat Baron Göran Fredrik von Otter, Anne Sofie von Otter studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and made her début as Alcina in Haydn’s Orlando paladino in Basel in 1983.

In addition to her notable successes in the oratorio and opera music of Bach, Bartok, Elgar, Handel, Monteverdi, and Mozart, von Otter’s art-song repertory encompasses Brahms, Grieg, Korngold, Mahler, and Sibelius. In 1993, her Grieg song-recital CD (with Bengt Forsberg) became the first song recording ever to win Gramophone magazine’s “Record of the Year” award. Were that not enough, she has also collaborated with Elvis Costello, and with Brad Mehldau.

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An Evening of Roses

In 1957, Israeli composer Yoseph Hadar put music to the words of poet Moshe Dor and created one of the great modern love songs, Erev Shel Shoshanim, Evening of Roses. It was first recorded by Yafa Yarkoni the same year. A year later it was a local hit in Israel for the Dudaim folk duo and as they toured around the world it was popularized internationally in the folk music craze of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

It’s been recorded by a truly diverse group of artists including Harry Belefonte, Miriam Makeba, and Nana Mouskouri, all in Hebrew, with Mouskouri doing an original Greek version. Yarkoni even rerecorded it in Spanish, with a Mexican orchestra. In 1974, Yugoslav prog-rockers Dah recorded Šošana, featuring a melody based on Hadar’s tune. A year later, the band moved to Belgium, changed their name to Land, and they recorded an English version titled Shoshana, which became enough of an international hit that, according to Wikipedia, became a popular soccer chant in Europe. Continue Reading →

Auner Quartet: Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, String Quartet No. 2 in a, Op. 13

The musical form I had the most commercial success in (as a classical-music record producer and label owner), was the string quartet. Granted, my remarkably successful string-quartet recordings consisted of quartet arrangements of sacred and traditional Christmas music. But those recordings are a lot more “classical” in character than “crossover” in character. In other words, no Frosty and no Rudolph. My three original JMR Arturo Delmoni & Friends Rejoice! A String Quartet Christmas CDs have been reissued by Steinway & Sons Recordings as a 3-CD set.

Whatever happens to me from here on out, evidence of my devotion to the string-quartet form will live on. That’s because I am the dedicatee of Morten Lauridsen’s (to-date) sole work in that genre, a transcription for string quartet of his chamber-choir chanson “Contre Qui, Rose.” “Contre Qui, Rose” is one of Lauridsen’s settings of Rainer Maria Rilke’s French-language poems. Lauridsen chose among the Rilke poems that mentioned roses for his 1993 cycle Les Chansons des Roses. The story continues after the jump link.

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The Power Of Production

File this under Yet Another Candidate For A Saying To Be Known As “Baruth’s Law” After My Death: Enthusiasm for the accoutrements of a particular practice or discipline burns brightest in the third-rate practitioner. Consider, if you will, auto racing. I have never met a front-running talent who truly cared in any way whatsoever about the brand, layout, “DNA”, or “heritage” of the car he was driving. Nor are these people historians of their sport. The people who make history rarely read it. Conversely, any time I meet someone who blabs on and on about their intimate connection with Porsche or Ferrari or Shelby, they are absolutely garbage behind the wheel. To some degree, I can personally attest to the way this process works; I started off as a Volkswagen fanatic ham-handing my way around Ohio roads, obsessed with the difference between 8-valve and 16-valve GTIs, but I ended it as a fellow who can match data with any but the very best racers and who is also entirely indifferent to the particulars of what I’m driving or where I drive it. Achievement in a subject is the mortal enemy of contentment within it.

Music is not an exception to Baruth’s Law — in fact, it aligns with the Law so closely that we can use it to detect a flagging of ability in musicians. It is no coincidence that men like Slash and Jimmy Page become progressively more obsessed with their guitars as their musical drive and creativity gradually fades. The Jimmy Page who recorded the “Stairway” solo with a beat-up Telecaster in a hallway is not the same fellow as the Jimmy Page who used a TransPerformance-equipped Gibson Custom Shop R7 Goldtop to play the Zep reunion show thirty-four years later. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. John Mayer was obsessive about his gear from the beginning, featuring a Novax Expression on the cover of “Room For Squares” and then moving to an intimate relationship with the Fender Custom Shop before developing the love-it-or-hate-it Silver Sky with Paul Reed Smith. Those exceptions, however, are few and far between.

What causes the death of enthusiasm as proficiency increases? I suspect that it is a variant of the old “familiarity breeds contempt” trope. As kids, we want to believe in the superiority of a particular car, bike, or guitar; as we actually learn to operate these devices we begin to see them as tools with limitations to be overcome. You start by pulling Excalibur from a stone, but after ten years of close-quarters combat you find yourself cursing the thing for having too shallow of a blood groove. About twelve years ago I caught the gig of a very talented seventy-something bluesman who had made his name playing Les Pauls but who on this particular evening was sporting a beat-up PRS CE bolt-neck. “Why aren’t you playing the Les Paul?” I asked him. “Don’t you miss the tone?”

“Ah, fuck tone,” he spat, “the Gibson is too damn heavy for my old shoulder. And it never did sound that good anyway.” Which made me wonder: If equipment doesn’t matter, and tone doesn’t matter, what’s left? The answer, of course, is production.

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Christmas Music (Part 4): ORA Singers: “The Mystery of Christmas”

ORA Singers: The Mystery of Christmas
Music of Allain, Anonymous, Byrd, Hall, Hyde, Lauridsen, Macmillan,
McDowall, Peacock, Rowarth, Rutter, Samitz, Sixten, Tallis, Williams, and Weir.
CD Harmonia Mundi HMM 905303
Downloads (24-bit/96kHz stereo AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, and WAV) available from HDTracks.
Streaming available from Tidal.

Recorded at St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London, January 23-28 and August 7-12, 2017. Nicholas Parker (all tracks except track 5) and Tim Handley (track 5 only), producers; Mike Hatch, engineer. Support for the arts from the Pureland Foundation. Total time 76’37.

My previous Christmas-music recommendations can be found here: Part 1; Part 2; and Part 3.

Here’s a fantastic new recording from a group new to me, Suzi Digby’s ORA Singers. They are as good as any handpicked professional choral ensemble out there. (I have heard most of the top ones live.) This collection showcases ORA’s “Unique Selling Proposition,” which is to prove that today, we are in a Golden Age not only of choral singing, but also of composing works for vocal ensembles. (Funny; I have long said the exact same thing about the art of the string quartet. We live in a golden age of the string quartet—both for playing and for new works.)

Therefore, ORA’s (for lack of a better phrase) business plan is to commission 100 new works for chorus over the course of ten years. (They are well on their way to achieving that goal, having commissioned 40 works in three years.) To make it even more interesting, Ms. Digby’s approach is to ask today’s composers to create works that are personal reflections upon the choral glories of the past, especially the masterworks of the Renaissance. Ambitious, yes. But several of the new works on this disc should find their ways into the standard repertory fairly quickly.

As a producer of classical recordings, one of my favorite Shibboleths (or, rubrics or axioms) long has been that, once your CD has started playing in the CD player of the reviewer, radio programmer, or record-store buyer, you have only ten seconds to make the sale. Furthermore, I believe that you make the sale only by giving the listener that “You are in good hands with Allstate” feeling. If the listener gets the feeling that your performance is for you a nerve-racking tightrope walk, no sale. (Obviously, there are exceptions to my little rule. Not much at all happens in the first ten seconds of Mahler’s Symphony 1; at least, not much by which you can distinguish a great performance from one that is merely unobjectionable.) In the case of the ORA Singers’ The Mystery of Christmas, convincing me took only the first four to eight seconds of the first track.

More information, a performance video, and sound bytes from The Mystery of Christmas after the jump. Continue Reading →

Guest Post: Light Eternal—The Choral Music of Morten Lauridsen (Trailer)

Last Friday, Deutsche Grammophon released the CD Light Eternal—The Choral Music of Morten Lauridsen. Amazon’s pre-order price for the CD is $12.59, which is a truly excellent price. But this CD would be a bargain at full list. There is also a 24/88 hi-res PCM download from HDTracks, reasonably priced at nearly 90 minutes of music for $20.98 (There are two bonus tracks with the download). The album will also be streaming from Apple Music, Spotify, and Tidal. And if you don’t mind reduced sound quality and the occasional advertisement, the album appears as an authorized playlist on YouTube. That’s right! You can hear the whole thing before you buy it!

My experience in producing and selling classical-music recordings is that most people don’t have formal training in music history or music theory, but they do want beauty in their lives, and they recognize it when they hear it. This is one of those recordings. If you care about choral music, especially contemporary American choral music, or if you simply want to add some beauty to your life, please vote with your wallet and buy this CD (or download), and also please consider buying half a dozen, a dozen, or more, as stocking stuffers (or, as “holiday,” or even non-holiday gifts). Lauridsen’s music is contemporary music that honors the entire tradition of choral singing, from O magnum mysterium‘s soundworld, which to me calls to mind the soundworld of Allegri, to Madrigali—Six FireSongs on Italian Renaissance Poems, which is perhaps best described as modernism—but with a heart and a soul.

Trailer embed and track listing after the jump. Continue Reading →

Indianapolis International Violin Competition Semi-Final Video and Results

One of the most important international competitions for young (ages 16 to 29) violinists takes place in the United States every four years. (The other top-tier classical-music competitions that include violinists, Moscow’s International Tchaikovsky and Belgium’s Queen Elizabeth, also run on four-year cycles.) While one might expect the US entry on that list to be hosted in California or New York, the venue is: Indianapolis, of 500-mile auto-race fame—and for excellent reasons.

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Guest Post: The Saddest Song

This article originally appeared at The Tannhauser Gate — JB

Open Goldberg Variations, Werner Schweer, editor.

Listening to “happy” music can make one feel happier. However, instead of always making people feel worse, listening to sad music often brings on a state of “paradoxical pleasure.”

I am not saying that listening to sad music in and of itself makes people happier. What I am saying is that listening to sad music can evoke a sequence of very complex emotions. Furthermore, many people regard experiencing that kind of a cascade of metamorphosing emotions as “pleasurable.” (Or perhaps, just as a relief.)

The somewhat waffle-like language employed above is in recognition of the fact that many people experience the same music in different ways. By the way, the sequence of emotions Shock/Disbelief/Anger/Despair formerly was called The Four Stages of Saab Ownership. “What do you mean, my engine’s harmonic balancer was held on with glue?”

I think whether the precise emotional mechanism (and what a silly word “mechanism” is to use, in this context) is transference or catharsis or a feeling of empathy will just have to remain a mystery of the human soul. But from the earliest times, serious thinkers (from Aristotle to Schopenhauer) have always recognized that the power of sad music (and also of literature and drama) does not lie in its merely making people feel sadder than they had been.

A recent BBC Culture article asks whether data diving can “reveal” the “Saddest Number One Song Ever.” I think that that article itself reveals the multiple, perhaps even fatal, limitations of such an approach.

If I had to pick one song known to me as the saddest ever (which avoids the major problems associated with judging the quality and the qualities of songs by things like Billboard charts or Grammys), that would be the “Aria” from the Goldberg Variations. The Goldberg Variations might not have words, but right at the top of the score it says “Song” (albeit in Italian).

Song samples and more pondering, after the jump. Continue Reading →