Monday, April 27, 2009

Don Ellis - Tears Of Joy (1971)

This is for the comments in the previous post. Great record anyway. Was thinking about posting Don Ellis' soundtracks to the French Connection movies sometime soon, so the post actually works. Outstanding album (double album!) from crazy ass Don Ellis. Haven't actually listened to this for awhile, so I'm gonna bow out to an AMG review:

Recorded in 1971, Tears of Joy is a Don Ellis classic. The sheer musical strength of this ensemble is pretty much unparalleled in his career. The trumpeter/leader had backed off -- a bit -- from some of his outlandish and beautifully excessive use of strange and unconventional time signatures, though there is no lack of pioneering experimentalism in tone, color, arrangement, or style. This double LP/CD features a string quartet, a brass octet (four trumpets, tuba, bass trombone, trombone, and French horn), four winds, and a rhythm section boasting two drummers, a percussionist, a bassist, and the Bulgarian jazz piano wizard Milcho Leviev. This is a sprawling album. Disc one is made up of short- to mid-length pieces, the most notable of which are the intense adrenaline surge of "5/4 Getaway" (with a killer string arrangement by Hank Levy, one of three arrangers on this set) and the blazing Eastern European klezmer meets Bulgarian wedding music meets hard bop blues of "Bulgarian Bulge." Leviev's solo on the latter comes right out of the knotty, full-on bore of the tune's melody (written by Ellis, who scored all but three selections), and cites everyone from Wynton Kelly to Scott Joplin to Mal Waldron. Elsewhere, such as on "Quiet Longing," the strings are utilized as the base and texture of color. One can hear Gil Evans' influence here, and in the restrained tenderness of this short work one can also hear Ellis' profound lyricism in his flügelhorn solo. The second disc's first moment, "How's This for Openers?," is a knotty composition that touches on bolero, Aaron Copland, and operatic overture. Levy's "Samba Bajada" is a swinging opus that uses tropes from early Deodato in his bossa years, Sergio Mendes, and Jobim, and weaves them through with an elegant, punchy sense of hard bop and the American theater. On the 17-plus minute "Strawberry Soup" (with a vocal quartet in the background), Ellis gets to show what his band is capable of in its different formations. Full of both subtle and garish colors, timbral grace and vulgarity, elegant and roughly hewn textures, and a controlled yet wildly divergent set of dynamics, this tune is one of the most adventurous and most brilliantly composed, arranged, and executed works to come out of the modern big band literature. It is virtually a big-band concerto. Ultimately, Tears of Joy stands as a singular achievement in a career full of them by a musical auteur whose creativity seemingly knew few if any bounds.
-Thom Jurek (as always, christ)

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Eddie Hazel - Games, Dames & Guitar Thangs (1977)

This album is a fucking monster.

You know Eddie Hazel as the guitarist from P-Funk. The dude responsible for the killer shredding on "Maggot Brain" that basically revolutionized music from being "good" to a whole different playing field. This is his only legitimately good solo release, and it just shreds. Imagine Hendrix with less feedback, and the funkiness turned up. Imagine alien soul sisters singing floating around a studio singing backup. Imagine plenty amounts of coke and LSD and whatever else is available, only being available for short increments of time due to rapid ingestion.

Ok so I basically just described every good P-Funk album. But with the focus primarily on the guitar on this record (and guys, Eddie Hazel rips), it is P-Funk in a different light. Opening track is "California Dreamin" which apparently seems to maintain it's quality no matter who is covering it. Hazel gives the record a real soulful vibe and his guitar is evident throughout. A real jam in the vein of the Baby Huey cover, but where that one was drenched in heart-wrenching soul, Hazel kicks up the psychedelics. Another obvious highlight is his cover of the Beatles "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" which is a monster of a track in the first place. Hazel takes it and makes it his own. Adding about 2 minute of guitar freakouts (this is a 9 and a half minute song) and it just kills.

Listen, I'm gushing, the album is killer. California Dreamin' is reprised at the end of the album to really tie the actual album tracks together, cementing the idea that this album is one for southern California road trips.

After that, included in the zip, there are like 5 bonus tracks. And while none of them are essential, they all feature killer guitar work. If you really wanna jam for the afternoon, listen to all 12 tracks, if you just want to hear an awesome psychedelic funk album, you can just stick to the first 7 tracks.

You'll probably want to listen a few times more after that.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Steve Reich - Different Trains / Electric Counterpoint (1989)

Two Steve Reich compositions on this disc. The first three tracks belong to "Different Trains" and are performed by the Kronos Quartet, whereas the latter 3 constitute "Electric Counterpoint" and is primarily performed by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny.

Different Trains
(1988) For string quartet and tape begins a new way of composing that has its roots in my early taped speech pieces It's Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966). The basic idea is that speech recordings generate the musical material for musical instruments.

The concept for the piece comes from my childhood. When I was one year old, my parents separated. My mother moved to Los Angeles and my father stayed in New York. Since they arranged divine custody, I traveled back and forth by train frequently between New York and Los Angeles from 1939 to 1945 accompanied by my governess. While these trips were exciting and romantic at the time, I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe durin this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride very different trains. With this in mind I wanted to make a piece that would accurately reflect the whole situation. In order to prepare the tape, I had to do the following:
1 - Record my governess Virginia, now in her seventies, reminiscing about our train trips together.
2 - Record a retired Pullman porter, Lawrence Davis, now in his eighties, who used to ride lines between New York and Los Angeles, reminiscing about his life.
3 - Collect recordings of Holocaust survivors Rachella, Paul and Rachel - all about my age and now living in America - speaking of their experiences.
4 - Collected recorded American and European train sounds of the 1930s and 40s.

In order to combine the taped speech with the string instruments I selected small speech samples that are more or less clearly pitched and then notated them as accurately as possible in musical notation.

The strings then literally imitate that speech melody. The speech samples as well as the train sounds were transferred to tape with the use of sampling keyboards and a computer. Kronos then made four separate string quartet recordings which were combined with the speech and train sounds to create the finished work.

Different Trains is in three movements, though that term is stretched here since tempos change frequently in each movement. They are: America-Before the war, Europe-During the war, After the war.

The piece thus presents both a documentary and a musical reality, and begins a new musical direction. It is a direction that I expect will lead to a new kind of documentary music video theater in the not too distant future.
-Steve Reich, August 1988.

Electric Counterpoint
The soloist pre-records as many as ten guitars and two electric bass parts and then plays the 11th guitar part live against the tape. I would like to thank Pat Metheny for showing me how to improve the piece by making it more idiomatic for the guitar.

Electric Counterpoint is in three movements - fast, slow, fast - played one after the other without pause. The first movement, after and introductory pulsing section where the harmonies of the movement are stated uses a theme derived fro Central African horn music that I became aware of through ethnomusicologist Simha Arom. That theme builds to an eight-voice canon; while the remaining two guitars and bass play pulsing harmonies, the soloist plays melodic patterns that result from the contrapuntal interlocking of those eight pre-recorded guitars.

The second movement cuts the tempo in half, changes key and introduces a new thee which is then slowly built up to nine guitars in canon. Once again, two other guitars and bass supply harmony while the soloist brings out melodic patterns that result from the overall contrapuntal web.

The third movement returns to the original tempo and key and introduces a new pattern in triple meter. After the establishment of a four-guitar canon, two bass guitars enter suddenly to further stress the triple meter. The soloist then introduces a new series of strummed chords that are then built up in three-guitar canon. When these are complete, the soloist returns to melodic patterns that result from the overall counterpoint. Suddenly the bases begin to change both key and meter back and forth between E minor and C minor and between 3/2 and 12/8 so that one hears the first three groups of four eighth-notes and then four groups of three eighth-notes. These rhythmic and tonal changes occur more and more rapidly until, at the end, the basses slowly fade out and the ambiguities are finally resolved in 12/8 and E minor.
-Steve Reich, September 1987

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Friday, April 17, 2009

The Mamas & The Papas First 4 Albums!

I might catch some flack for this, but whatever. It was a pretty nice day today and I wanted to listen to The Mamas and Papas. Sure they can be considered cheesy or uncool or whatever, but their first 4 albums are all great. I'll stand behind that statement for sure. Great vocals, great song selection, etc. Just have some fun, guys.

If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (1966)
Their only bonafide "classic" album. Features the hits "Monday Monday" and "California Dreamin" but is a great vocal pop album regardless. You'll know the songs before you hear them and be able to sing along by your second spin.
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The Mamas & The Paps (1966)
This has their rendition of "Dancing in the Street" as well as one of their absolute best songs "I Saw Her Again" which could be an early Beatles classic. More of the same, great 60s pop with a slightly more garage sound.
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Deliver (1967)
This one sounds like an album that would've come out in 1967. Features some pretty fun covers and expands their sound slightly to incorporate a little more psychedelic influence. Another great one, maybe my favorite.
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The Papas & The Mamas (1968)
This was the last album during their first run. Definitely more experimental and sounds like a complete album. Slightly darker (though still very much pop), more sophisticated feel to the record, but features more great vocals as always.
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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Valentin Silvestrov - Symphony No. 6 (2007)

I don't know if anyone actually downloaded the Silvestrov I posted a few days ago, but if not, here's another. This one is a bit more traditional, yet still totally original and wholly beautiful. It's a symphony piece, so no baritone singing, just great mood music. I don't know much about it and don't have the cd to type the liner notes, but I'll post a BBC review for those interested. It's really nice. Dark, but done in a really great way. Just wonderful modern classical music, I suppose. Whatever.

If you haven’t yet encountered the music of Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, then it’s time you did; he seems to have been writing his ‘postludes’ for symphonic musical history for a good twenty years. Silvestrov calls his orchestral works ‘symphonic poetry’, or sometimes ‘metasymphonies’ where time flows in a wholly different way. He’s not alone in this, of course: other contemporary composers such as Pärt, Gorecki, Tavener, Vasks and Rautavaara are capable of warping the passage of time, yet Silvestrov has his own fully-saturated musical language, plus a post-Mahlerian sense of scale and all-encompassing humanity.

Silvestrov’s Fifth Symphony has already been recorded several times, becoming something of a cult hit in the East thanks to a now-deleted Melodiya recording. There was a fourteen year gap before the Sixth Symphony was finished in 2000: a five movement work described in the notes as ‘a living tissue of sounds, charged with deep dynamic forces, [which] sparkles and breathes as if bathed in sunlight or caressed by gusts of wind.’ I like that…except that it gives you no real idea of the yawning chasm from which the work seems to drag itself, shuddering and groaning towards that light.

So…is the Sixth Symphony about anything? The composer talked in an interview about its ‘atmosphere of imminent disaster’, and with hindsight that seems prescient: Silvestrov’s musicologist wife Larissa died unexpectedly just after he’d finished the first draft in 1996, and he included a coded cipher of his wife’s name in the final bars.
The notes refer to the opening of the symphony as ‘primordial chaos’…churning, bass-heavy chords that rumble ominously as piano notes and vibrato-less strings pierce the gloom like shards of shattered glass. Threads begin to appear, strands of melodic DNA being pulled from the slime to shimmer on the surface of this dark pool…until droplets of pizzicato at the start of the second movement send ripples to rouse the grumbling monster in the depths. The brass becomes dominant, until a dense string chord insists on silence, and the melodic material emerges on the violins, intact for the first time. The multi-stranded layers of constantly shifting sound dwindle to a roll of timpani and a single, hushed cello.

Then comes the massive middle movement, 25 minutes long, dwarfing those around it, evoking (and quoting) the famous Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Silvestrov constructs a breathtakingly beautiful centrepiece for his symphony, extrapolating on the sighing strings and the sense of timelessness that were already there in Mahler’s original, with a cascading string sound that would have Mantovani doffing his hat in respect. Then there’s stillness; an Intermezzo that’s all shimmering surface, glistening with harp, piano, celesta, and harmonics from the upper strings…a ghostly vision, slowly fading as tendrils of mist envelope the concluding chord. But all the time we’ve been making a slow, delicate descent…and when the brass growls and woodwind shrieks assail us at the start of the finale, the music is overpowered by a sense of horror, and desperate loss. We end where we began, with the last melodic remnants dissolving into infinite blackness.

Given Silvestrov’s personal history, his Sixth Symphony could feel as though it’s all about him, yet he transcends the autobiographical in a work that encompasses us all. The playing is superb, capturing the most delicate hues and gentlest whispers of the score, and the immaculate recording provides the inky blackness from which the music emerges and into which, at the end, it decays. Like so much Silverstov, you don’t have to know how or why it works to be deeply affected by it. It feels simple, yet it obviously isn’t; it’s profoundly beautiful, timeless, and unforgettable.

-Andrew McGregor, BBC Radio 3 Review

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Valentin Silvestrov - Silent Songs (2004)

I don't know much about Valentin Silvestrov, the 20th century composer. But based on this incredible collection and his Symphony No. 6, he is really something else. I'm horrible at writing about classical music, you know that. I'll try. What is presented here is 2 discs of music that took place in 1985. Spanning the 2 discs is primarily his four-part song cycle "Silent Songs" in which he composes beautiful music from the texts of famous poets (Keats, Pushkin, etc.). 24 songs in 4 parts for baritone and piano. It's haunting music. The last 4 songs on disc 2 is another single for the same setup. The music drifts, the singer Sergey Yakovenko has this really ethereal voice. It's singing, but not like any singing I've heard. AMG calls it the "closest thing to ambient vocal music there is" and I would have to agree. It's a very interesting concept. Best part of classical cds are the liner notes and explanations that are included, and ECM's New Series is part of this greatness, so I'll just type those out to help explain.

Ilya Scheps (Piano) Writes:
In Moscow on March 9, 1985, a special concert took place. Together with Sergey Yakovenko, the outstanding singer and musician, I gave the premiere of Valentin Silvestrov's Silent Songs. Some fragments from the cycle had been presented previously in concerts, but the complete version received its first hearing only on that day.

When performing this cycle, the singer and pianist face a challenge that has perhaps never existed on the concert stage. For two hours of very quiet music, without any outward effects or easy "fodder" for the listeners or performers, they not only have to capture the attention of the audience, but to lend expression to the incredible tension of the music, the electrifying contrasts between the very delicate and inwardly trembling and the eruptively explosive episodes of this invariably quiet work.

The music itself comes to our aid, allowing the listener to experience the world of the poems as if by magic. I have often read the poems of Silent Songs without the music and discovered, to my astonishment, that for each line of verse the composer has found the only "right" melodic phrase and inflection to express the meaning and mod of the words. As a result, a new substance, a new fuel, infuses the entire piece. The artist's task is to learn to work with this energy, to try to do justice to the music both technically and artistically.

The time spent preparing for this recital, the months of intensive and exhausting labour, as well as the concert itself, remains in my memory as one of the happy moments of my artistic life.

Paul Griffiths Writes:
We may feel we have always known these songs, and in a sense we have. The first hearing will not seem the first, though we will remember it for that slow shock of familiarity, how it awakens memories-those we knew we had, and those we did not. This is part of these songs' silence, that they make no noise of intrusion.

We feel we have always known these songs, in part because their musical language is immediately recognizable. It is the language of major-minor harmony (mostly minor) and, more particularly, of the nineteenth-century song with piano. It is a language that belongs, indeed, to former times. Here is what sounds like a folksong arrangement (No. 5). Here are turns of phrase (in No. 8, for example) that Tchaikovsky might have been proud of. Here, in so many piano arpeggios ad even in direct harmonic correspondences, are recollections of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, trailing with them the whole history of the nocturne. Here, reappearing again and again, from the third song onwards, is the gently rocking 6/8 rhythm of the berceuse. We are being sung to as we have been sung to before. We are being offered music that will go with us into the darkening. We are being comforted with lullabies.

Russian speakers will feel they have always known these songs for the special reason that the poems are among the most familiar in the language. For all of us, what we have always known, beyond the songs, is this voice. Singing almost always at a pianissimo-the marking on each song is sotto voce, and only in the Chorale (No. 21) does the dynamic level rise above the occasional mp-it is a voice that is not declaiming to an audience but singing into our ear. It is the voice of a grandfather, passing on the songs of generations.

With it is the piano, its close companion, now slowing a little, now pressing forward, breathing with the voice. "The singing voice should not be at a remove from the piano," the composer notes, "but must proceed as it were from the depth of the piano sound, now emerging, now sinking. It is as if one were hearing singing that is inside itself."

And again: "All the songs must be sung very calmly, with a light, transparent, bright sound, restrained in expression, without psychological exaggeration." The singer is not an actor, projecting the balm of Baratynsky or Lermontov, a legend from Keats or Shelley, Pushkin's solitariness or Shevchenko's farewell, the bitterness of Mandelstam or the delight of Tyutchev, the troubled aftermath in Yesenin or the assurance of Zhukovsky. The singer is here not to display emotion but to remind us of these songs we have always known, and of how melancholy and consolation go hand in hand.

Yet though we may feel we have always known these songs, we have not. They are new-startlingly new for 1974-1977, when composers in the Soviet Union were stretching boundaries. Heard in the context of other music from this period of official constraint's exhaustion-Sofia Gubaidulina's Offertorium, Alfred Schnittke's First Concerto Grosso, Galina Ustvolskaya's Composition No. 3, Arvo Part's Fratres - these songs make no claims of innovation (another aspect of their silence), in which respect they are indeed innovatory. Just when the stylistic features of Russian Romanticism were no longer being forcibly imposed, here they were, redoubled - and not by a stalwart of state music but by a young avantgardist. Just when composers could at last make big personal statements in public, here was one letting the past express itself, in the private dimensions of whispered song.

If we feel we have always known these songs, that is because they speak so much from long ago, because the singer is imparting nothing new. In his quiet retrieval, though, he is making everything new, for what we hear is his remembering. All the songs are slow; they have the pace of reflection and reverberation. They also have the space, the sense of cavernous chamber, be it only the body of the piano, within which we hear as harmony and melody the upper resonances of the extreme bass that is almost always in play. Just as the singer is asked to perform each song sotto voce, so the pianist is requested to keep the una corda pedal down through nearly every number - the single exception being, once more, the Chorale - but the fluctuating use of the sustaining pedal, also marked, keeps the resonances clear and fresh. Each song is the echo of a song, the memory.

Do we still feel we have always known these songs? The sotto voce delivery not only gives them an aura of intimacy and inheriting, it also leaves the singer naked, without the support of his training. And with this naked voice he has to cover a range of two octaves - to venture, even if the centre is solidly in a baritone's middle register, into both lower and, in particular, high regions, where the sound is bound to be impure. The resulting hazardous, tenuous communication is there by design. This is fragile music, requiring the utmost delicacy and candour from its performers.

How can we then feel we have always known these songs? The singer is placed under strain - freely places himself under strain, to search. Only one melody is immediately found: that of the "Ukrainian folksong". No. 5, a regular tune in a straightforward tonality, D natural minor. (Twenty years later the composer adapted this piece to make the middle movement of his Requiem.) Otherwise melodies stray, and end without finding their way back to the keynote, leaving the piano to complete the return or, more likely, continue the straying, until the music is overtaken by deceleration. For a while the piano rarely provides more than the briefest possible introduction, almost always there is a postlude.

So it cannot be that we have always known these songs, for most of them are still emerging, through seemingly improvised delays and changes. Often there are subtle adjustments from verse to verse - and strophic form is the norm. Even No. 5 has this feeling of tentativeness despite certainty, trying different treatments of the same basic motifs. In the postludes such self-exploration is continued to the point of self-dissolve, out of which the next song can begin. And the cycle as a whole has its postlude in the five concluding songs, among which the Chorale - almost symmetrically balancing No. 5 - presents the essential harmonies in crystalline form. For, magically distinct as many of the melodies are, they share fundamental traits, almost as if all were versions of one song.

If we have always known these songs, this may be the reason, that we know their source. It is that one song, the song we thought had been lost.

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