The Albums that Changed My Life: #6, Songs of Travel & On Wenlock Edge by Ralph Vaughan Williams

by Rick Krueger

In our casually audiophile age of 96 kHz/24 bit BluRays and 180-gram virgin vinyl, it may be hard to comprehend what a difference digital recording made when it came of age in the late 1970s.   I remember cueing up Keith Jarrett’s Concerts: Bregenz, München and being blown away as much by the background silence, the clarity and depth of the piano sound, and the extended dynamic range as by Jarrett’s freewheeling improvisations.  The compact disc was still in the future — but at that point, after suffering through muddy, distorted mass-produced pressings of way too many albums, it seemed like that future was all upside.

Classical record companies were the most fervent backers of digital recording from the beginning; the prospect of “perfect sound forever” made both corporate executives and their target demographic (single men with money or credit to burn — surprise!) salivate in anticipated ecstasy.  Certainly, as I built a classical collection during graduate school, the word “Digital” on the front cover of a record always counted in its favor.

That’s one reason I picked up the album pictured above.  Another reason: I’d already heard some fine Mahler recordings by the young conductor Simon Rattle, precociously helming the scrappy City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.  And there was one more burning question: was Benjamin Britten right about Ralph Vaughan Williams?

Continue reading “The Albums that Changed My Life: #6, Songs of Travel & On Wenlock Edge by Ralph Vaughan Williams”

The Albums that Changed My Life: #5, War Requiem by Benjamin Britten

by Rick Krueger

“My subject is War, and the pity of War.  The Poetry is in the pity … All a poet can do today is warn.” — Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

I took an orchestration class in early 1982.  The final project sounded simple: listen to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem and write a report.  While I knew of Britten, and had heard his music — The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was still standard music appreciation class material  — this piece was new to me.  I figured I’d borrow the record (conducted by the composer) from the college library, hear it once, and have what I needed to bang out an analysis.  Then I dropped the needle:

This piece demanded full attention — ears, head, heart and guts.  90 minutes later, I sat in my dorm room, drained and amazed.  35 years (and one long lost paper) later, I’m still completely engaged every time I hear the War Requiem, and singing it with the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus in 2008 was a highlight of my life in performance.  It’s always commanded my wholehearted admiration, and it set me off on a deeper exploration of classical music (and 20th century music in particular) that’s endured to this day.  Why?

Continue reading “The Albums that Changed My Life: #5, War Requiem by Benjamin Britten”

soundstreamsunday: “Cowboy” by Randy Newman

randynewman1.jpegRandy Newman makes diamonds.  You can feel the pressure and time and heat that go into his songs, creating the effect of lush spaciousness in tunes typically clocking in under three minutes.  His eagerness towards satire is a product of his style, immersive first-person character sketches delivering broad social commentary and comedy in lines simply phrased, acidic, and wrought with compassion.  His skill at delivering his own songs is often eclipsed by his influence as a songwriter and his work as a hired gun — “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” from his 1968 self-titled debut has been covered something like 75 times, and his scores and songs for films are in themselves a major achievement — and yet his unmistakable voice, coupled with arrangements measured to plumb the intellectual and emotional depths, carry such weight that as a performer of his own music he’s peerless.

“Cowboy” is from the ’68 debut, and in its brief stay conjures Dvorak and Copland, the film music of Newman’s uncles Alfred and Lionel and Emil, and a particularly nuanced form of American songwriting that was then just taking shape and was particular to Los Angeles.  It leans heavily on cinematic structure and the idea of music as a vehicle for a script’s emotional power.  Consider the slightness of the lyrics:

Cold gray buildings where a hill should be
Steel and concrete closing in on me
City faces haunt the places
I used to roam
Cowboy, cowboy – can’t run, can’t hide
Too late to fight now – too tired to try
Wind that once blew free
Now scatters dust to the sky
Cowboy, cowboy – can’t run, can’t hide
Too late to fight now – too tired to try

In contrast to much of Newman’s work, “Cowboy” doesn’t contain the erudite wordplay and swing he shared with Mose Allison and it doesn’t betray his deep roots in New Orleans.  It’s instead a kind of beautiful dirge of disillusion, a Brave New World Symphony where the fantasy of open spaces bumps up hard against the darker angels of human nature.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “Vier Stücke für Xylophon” by Gunild Keetman

kettmann_trommelOn Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen rode the violent edge of Americanness that coursed through rock and roll, consciously plugging into Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and the legacy of Charlie Starkweather’s and Caril Fugate’s 1958 killing spree across the midwest.  Springsteen was inspired towards Misfit-style murder ballad by Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands, a thinly-veiled fiction of the Starkweather/Fugate rampage, and went so far as to write a song called “Badlands” for Darkness on the Edge of Town before going all in with the spare Nebraska.  As a source of influence on Springsteen’s work and, by association, those of Springsteen’s acolytes, Malick’s film is profound, and yet it achieves its own dark power partly through a music almost entirely unrelated to its subject matter.

Music für Kinder.  Music for children.  Given the youth of Starkweather and Fugate, this may have been the connecting tissue Malick was looking for when he used the work of Gunild Keetman in his film.  Keetman and her collaborator Carl Orff created volume upon volume of educational texts and compositions from the 1930s into the 1960s under the name “Schulwerk” and “Music für Kinder.”  While Orff, as the composer of “Carmina Burana,” was the high-profile name attached to the project, Keetman did the heavy lifting.  At times interpretations — as in the first of the four pieces presented here, “Gassenhauer” (which Malick used throughout Badlands), composed by Hans Neusidler in 1536 and recast by Keetman in 1952 — the work tends towards the percussive and rhythmic, with simple starts building progressively in complexity.  The results are lovely, spritely even, but, as in this performance by the Karl Peinkofer Percussion Ensemble in 1995, maintain a meditative quality lending a potential for darkness, not of childhood but of perhaps lost childhood.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

Let me bring you strings from the crypt


Jethro Tull: The String Quartets


No stranger to classical arrangements and the fuller sound that an orchestra or string quartet can bring to his music, former Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson and long term collaborator John O’Hara having seen the Carducci Quartet decided to get together with them and rearrange a selection of classic Tull songs for string quartet, with Ian Andersons instantly recognisable flute weaving through some of the tracks, and John O’Hara playing piano on a couple of them, Ian even adds his distinctive vocals to a few of the tracks as well.

JT2With the striking artwork this splendid addition to the canon is released on 24th March.

Some of you out there might think that releasing an album of old material slightly rearranged is a holding exercise (or a cynical exploitation exercise), after all Ian’s last album Homo Erraticus was released in 2014, and whilst he’s taken his Ian Anderson/ Jethro Tull live show on the road, there’s been no new material since then.

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Vangelis Delectus

Delectus: A book of passages from Greek or Latin authors used for study.

When you hear the name Vangelis, depending on your age and musical affinity, you think of different things.

You think of the keyboard player of Aphrodite’s Child whose astonishing album 666 has to be heard to be believed, you think of the pioneer of electronic music whose albums were all groundbreaking in their own way, you think of the soundtrack king, in particular the unforgettable Chariots of Fire, or you think of the fact he was once invited to join Yes, and then produced three fantastic albums with Jon Anderson.

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soundstreamsunday: “Boléro” by Maurice Ravel

1280px-valentin_serov_-_ida_rubenstein_-_google_art_projectMaurice Ravel’s Boléro has a long, complex relationship with rock and roll, sometimes quoted explicitly (Jeff Beck’s “Beck’s Bolero”) other times through suggestion (Rush’s “Jacob’s Ladder”).  In its thematic and rhythmic repetition and building orchestration there is a tension and release, an erotic energy inseparable from rock’s spark.  This has often been perceived as a weakness of the work, even signaling cultural dissolution, to its detractors.*  Ravel himself had misgivings about the piece, and almost immediately following its first performance equivocated on what exactly he had created.

I am particularly desirous that there should be no misunderstanding about this work. It constitutes an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything different from, or anything more than, it actually does achieve… The themes are altogether impersonal – folk-tunes of the usual Spanish-Arabian kind, and (whatever may have been said to the contrary) the orchestral writing is simple and straightforward throughout, without the slightest attempt at virtuosity… It is perhaps because of these peculiarities that no single composer likes the Boléro – and from their point of view they are quite right. I have carried out exactly what I intended, and it is for the listeners to take it or leave it. — Maurice Ravel, London Daily Telegraph, July 1931.

This is a primordial punk/art statement, the “take it or leave it” a rejection of the academy, rock and roll’s essence, defying established thought but not without some churning within.  It takes some mastery of a form to be able to do this, and so the statement is no easy out for the composer.  His qualifications are not rationalizations or apologies, but a struggle with what he’s wrought.  Boléro is a masterpiece, and like many orchestral works it is a shapeshifter.  It tends towards 10 minutes in length or 19 — although Ravel preferred it to be in the 15- to 16-minute range.  It is an arabesque, a sketch of Spain, a jazz age jewel, a childhood memory, a factory rhythm, an experiment, a riff monster, an impulse, an excercise, a piece of wizardly power.  It is very occasionally, as it was originally, the score to a ballet.  It is in its essence enigmatic.  Even the better recorded version, and there are many out there, is a topic of fierce debate among aficionados.  Many prefer Charles Munch’s RCA Living Stereo version from the 1950s, but at 13 minutes it quick-times the proceedings, undoubtedly for the consideration of the LP and perhaps influenced by the Toscanini performance that popularized the work in America, at a tempo that set the composer and conductor at odds.  If it’s true, the story is great:

Ravel:  That’s not my tempo.
Toscanini:  When I play it at your tempo, it is not effective.
Ravel:  Then do not play it.

Many longer versions are out there, however, and it’s probably hard to find one, fast or slow, that isn’t at least a little great, as it is apparently quite difficult not to knock this one out of the park if the conductor can keep the pace steady.  For the sake of authenticity here is presented the 1930 version conducted by Ravel himself, or perhaps by Albert Wolff with Ravel present (this too is a topic of some debate) and approving.  The provenance is sketchy, lost in the murk and mire of Ravel’s looming madness, the carelessness of record companies, and the vagaries of YouTube; however, this performance is most likely from 1930 with the Orchestre De L’Association Des Concerts Lamoureux.

* Allan Bloom famously called it the only classical piece of music young people liked, as puzzling “proof” — for who knows what that survey must have looked like  — that everything was going to hell in the 1980s.

** Above painting of dancer/actress Ida Rubinstein, who commissioned Ravel to write the piece, by Valentin Serov (Wikipedia).

soundstreamsunday archive and playlist