Berlin Philharmonic & Herbert von Karajan: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (pt. 2)

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Dear Matthew:

I’m not sure I’m sold on recordings of classical music.

Don’t get me wrong — this is a heck of a piece of music. The last movement is particularly striking. Everyone knows ‘Ode to Joy’, but we’re really only familiar with the main hook of it, and the final fifth of this piece is spent doing all kinds of interesting things to that hook — and, as you’ll recall, I love musical recontextualizations.

But the problem I was having while listening to this was this: I kept losing focus. Maybe the problem was, as previously discussed, that I’m doing it wrong — I was doing more mindless data entry as I listened. Even so, my mind kept wandering in the quiet parts.

Maybe it’s a function of the way music is recorded. I’m sure you’ll agree that dynamics make music interesting — a song that does the same thing at the same volume all the way through is probably going to get boring after a while. In my experience, classical recordings feature pretty huge dynamic range. I don’t want to get into a whole debate about sampling rates and bit depth, but the salient point is this: I listened to this recording on a set of studio monitors in a soundproof radio studio, and I found myself constantly adjusting the monitor volume. I had to turn it up to hear the quiet bits, but I’d have to turn it back down for the loud bits to keep things at a comfortable volume. It’s like that thing when you’re trying to watch an action movie and you have to crank it to hear the dialogue, but then something explodes and your neighbours call in a noise complaint.

So maybe the problem is that I should be using headphones? You’re a headphone guy — do you find you have this problem? Don’t get me wrong, I love a good pair of headphones, but it seems pretty limiting to have an entire genre of music that you can’t listen to on speakers without deafening yourself. Say what you will about the loudness war, but at least I can listen to (most) modern albums without riding the volume knob the entire time.

It’s a bit of a copout to write off an entire segment of the Western musical canon for something like that, but the fact remains that most of the rest of the symphony still didn’t really grab me. Has pop music ruined my attention span? Am I still having that kneejerk ‘ew, classical’ reaction that young people have to most things their parents like?

I would really like to think it’s not either of those, so the only thing I’m left with is that maybe recordings just aren’t the best way to experience a symphony. I can’t help but think how much more impressive this sort of music would be in a giant concert hall directly in front of the 50+ people performing it. It’s the same problem I have with live albums in general: it’s a losing battle to try and capture the live experience in a recording, especially if sonically superior studio versions already exist. With a few exceptions, I really don’t like live albums.

You pointed out in a real-life discussion that a major problem with live classical music is that quality can be hugely inconsistent, and having a good experience hinges entirely on living near a good orchestra. That may be true, but isn’t that true of any live music experience? You’ll only see big international rock shows if you live near/visit a city big enough to warrant a tour stop. The sound guy might have an off night and ruin the entire show with awful mixing.

I don’t know. Again, this symphony is full of some seriously impressive music. But the entire idea of a symphony — of getting 50+ people to play an hour-long song in a giant concert hall on, let’s face it, some totally ludicrous instruments — it’s insane. It’s a spectacle. It seems like some of that spectacle is lost when all you have is an audio recording.

But hey, this piece did stir something in me that I had completely forgotten until this week: when I was a kid, I’m almost positive I had Beethoven Lives Upstairs on VHS. Only 90s Kids Will Remember Beethoven Lives Upstairs.

— Matt

Berlin Philharmonic & Herbert von Karajan: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (pt. 1)

Karajan_Beethoven_Symphonies_1963

Dear Matt:

I have been looking through my past assignments to you and I’ve discovered a flaw in my approach.

From the start of this project, each of us has been trying to guide the other into unfamiliar musical territory. As you’ve pointed out a couple of times, we’ve generally been providing fairly non-standard entry points. That’s to be expected given how nerdy we both are, and it’s part of what keeps this so interesting.

But as I scanned our oeuvre thus far, I couldn’t help but think that my assignments have been borderline perverse. Nobody has ever suggested Van Der Graaf Generator as a possible ‘in’ to prog — let alone Magma. And, even my assignments drawn from the pool of ‘standards in their genre’ — Red and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady come to mind — have tended to be the sort of music that’s become standard specifically because of how it plays against the conventions of its genre.

This all goes double for my approach to classical music, so far. Come to think of it, I haven’t assigned you anything that can even be called ‘classical’ without some heavy qualifications. (Bartok, maybe. But even that’s a stretch.) Perhaps I ought to defer a bit more to the broader public’s notions of ‘the essentials.’

Yes, I like the sound of that. You need a firm grounding in the basics, Matt. You need ‘core repertoire.’ You need something that is, for us classical concert hall types, utterly standard to the point of monotony.

You need Beethoven 9.

(You can tell a real classical type by whether they refer to symphonies by cardinal or ordinal numbers, i.e. ‘Beethoven’s Ninth’ vs. ‘Beethoven 9.’ Incidentally, that’s the same way you can tell an old-school Doctor Who nerd from a Nu-Who fan: ‘the Ninth Doctor’ vs. ‘Nine.’ In either case, both options are acceptable nomenclature.)

What shall I say about Beethoven 9? Well, I suppose the most important point to bring up is that there’s more to it than ‘Ode to Joy.’ That may seem obvious. But then, that melody is so synonymous with the phrase ‘Beethoven’s ninth symphony’ that it may indeed come as a surprise for some that the ‘Ode to Joy’ doesn’t even crop up until over 45 minutes into the piece.

And when it does, it’s one of the most gratifying moments in all of music.

To my ears, even the most familiar parts of Beethoven 9 don’t have the whiff of mould about them that, say, Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’ does. Or Beethoven 5, even. I can’t begin to speculate as to why that is, or if it’s true for anybody except me. But for all of my bluster about how the classical repertory is strangling the modern concert hall and silencing living composers, I would never question the common wisdom that this symphony is one of the best things ever accomplished by a human.

A colleague of mine, who isn’t really that much of a classical music person, once opined that Beethoven 9 is the best piece of music ever written because anybody can listen to it and enjoy every part of it. It isn’t my personal favourite piece, nor even necessarily in my top ten. But I find it hard to disagree with my colleague’s assessment. In modern parlance, Beethoven 9 is chock full of hooks.

Okay, enough eulogizing. You need context. This is Beethoven’s final symphony. It is the only one that he wrote during what’s thought of as his late period, premiering a full decade after his eighth. It was the first symphony of note to use voices and text — the ‘Ode to Joy’ is a setting of a poem by Schiller. There’s no overstating what a massive deal that was. Wagner would later interpret this as Beethoven proclaiming that instrumental music had run its course, and he used that interpretation to justify his decision to only write operas (or Gesamtkunstwerken, if you insist).

A quick word about the recording I’ve chosen: it’s a classic performance from 1962, by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Herbert von Karajan. Karajan was an old Nazi (no, an actual Nazi — though his sincerity has been questioned) who led the Berliners with an iron fist and a contemptful scowl for over three decades. By the end of his career, he’d shaped the orchestra into a slick monolith that sounded the same in Debussy as in Wagner. But early on, he made some recordings that are still considered the gold standard. This is one. (And for what it’s worth, it has sold massively well, over the years.)

Beethoven and Karajan were both angry, serious and unpleasant men, but this music is none of those things. It is effervescent and powerful, and has no desire to alienate anybody but rather to reach everybody. I hope it reaches you.

— Matthew

Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (pt. 2)

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Dear Matthew:

We’ve been pussyfooting around this conversation for a long time, but I don’t think we can avoid it any longer. Since you brought it up, I think we have to talk about the race politics of the last century of American popular music.

The history of the music industry is fascinating, and there’s a constant theme that has run through it since the days of Tin Pan Alley: the exploitation of black people by white people. The American music industry is, essentially, a cycle of black people inventing something new and interesting — and uniquely black — which is then discovered by white people, who proceed to sanitize it, whitewash it, and sell it to the (predominantly white) masses — often with little or no compensation to or real acknowledgement of the creators. It happened with roots music (gospel, etc.) after the Civil War; it happened with rock and roll after the Second World War; it’s happening right now with hip hop; and of course, it happened with jazz.

This is, I assume, what you’re hinting at when you talk about the ‘gentrification’ of jazz: you’re talking about white people taking a distinctly black art form and, over the last few decades, turning it into an institution of whiteness that, at this point, is rivaled maybe only by golf in terms of sheer albedo. (The 1970 Walt Disney film The Aristocats is a very good example of this process at work.) This once vibrant, provocative, iconoclastic art form now oozes cloyingly from the speakers in elevators, and sits conveniently packaged on compact disc for you to impulse-buy at Starbucks so you can feel more cultured.

In fact, that last bit — the weird inexplicable obligation white people feel to be into jazz, and the resulting guilt over not being into jazz even a little bit — is the giveaway that jazz is part of the institution, now. It’s the same way you’re supposed to feel about other middlebrow art forms, like Shakespeare, or Romantic poetry, or the Classical music canon (sorry). What did it take, 50 years? Probably less, even.

But we, as a society, have very short collective cultural memories for this sort of thing. Teenagers are the primary target of the American pop music machine, and I’m willing to bet the average teenager these days (what is that, Generation Z? do they have a horrible buzzword yet?) has little to no context for the history of the music they are being assaulted with on a daily basis. For them, Iggy Azealia isn’t the latest incarnation of the endless parade of white people fetishizing the art of cool black people — she’s just a pop star with a very large ass. Like Elvis before her, the (white) kids love her, the (white) parents are afraid of her, and it’s only the (predominantly white) armchair academics who notice the cycle repeating, who recognize her role in the project of hegemonic American whiteness. In 30 years, those elevator speakers will be pumping A Tribe Called Quest, and the Starbucks compact discs will have titles like The Golden Era of New York Hip Hop and Classic Dirty South, Vol. III. Time is a flat circle.

Is that sort of what you’re getting at when you talk about the gentrification of jazz?

Anyway, Mingus. The main reason I bring up the whole whitewashing-of-jazz thing is because my first coherent thought after the first few minutes of Black Saint was: ‘This isn’t what jazz is supposed to sound like.’ With all of these decades of context in mind, what an absurd thought to have! To a relative jazz novice / young white guy like myself, jazz is a bunch of guys soloing one after the other, Benny Goodman- or Glenn Miller-style. My experience with instrumental jazz is largely limited to the greatest hits collections my parents would listen to when I was a kid. So this unified, sprawling, almost orchestral style of New Orleans-inspired jazz is a total eyeopener. The ebb and flow of the arrangement, combined with the callbacks and leitmotifs, make this feel almost symphonic. There are, as you suggest, still entire worlds of jazz untouched by that gentrification.

In a morbid sort of way, I’m very curious to see what happens to hip hop as the cycle of white appropriation continues. What will the gentrification of rap music look like? Which elements will the white institution canonize, and which will it leave by the wayside? Fifty years from now, who will the modern Mingus equivalents have turned out to be?

Jazz!

You’re right — it’s a pretty great word to look at.

— Matt

Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (pt. 1)

black-saint-sinner-lady

Dear Matt:

Jazz!

Isn’t that word just fun to look at? Especially with an exclamation mark. Here, let’s see it again:

Jazz!

Nice. Anyway, I’ve given you ten assignments in the course of this project, and none of them has had anything much to do with jazz. There’s a good reason for that: I really don’t listen to that much jazz, these days. People tend to assume that I enjoy jazz more than I do, because I’m a classical listener who listens to things other than classical. And when classical people like ‘things other than classical,’ people tend to assume we mean jazz.

Actually, my jazz fandom reached a peak in high school, and I haven’t continued my exploration of it that doggedly since then. But, I still like to revisit some old favourites from those days. So, here’s one that has more staying power than just about any other jazz album, for me.

Jazz as an idiom was never more interesting or vital as it was in the early 60s, around the time this album was released. It had long since matured to the point where people were making self-conscious artistic statements with it, but it hadn’t yet ascended to the bland legitimacy that has characterized so much of it for the past few decades. (Jazz might be the only music to which the word ‘gentrification’ meaningfully applies.)

In 1963, bassist Charles Mingus was perfectly situated to make the album that summed up jazz thus far. He’d played with Louis Armstrong’s touring swing band. He was briefly a member of Duke Ellington’s orchestra, who boasted the most complex and elegant jazz arrangements of anybody before or since. And he’d played in bebop combos with Charlie Parker, who redefined jazz harmony and set new standards for speed and complexity in solos. Throw all of those influences together with a big dollop of gospel and some conceptual notions inspired by Mingus’s psychoanalysis sessions, and you get The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

(It’s worth checking out the back half of the album’s liner notes, which were actually written by Mingus’s therapist. The first half was written by Mingus himself and is almost entirely inscrutable.)

The album consists of a single sprawling composition (hmm, this seems to be a theme, lately) written for a ten-piece band with occasional interjections by Jay Berliner on classical guitar. That format is the source of a lot of Black Saint’s appeal. For all of Mingus’s effusive rhapsodizing about how wonderful Charlie Parker was, he remained loyal to the elaborate structures and complex timbral effects of the Ellington band. I think that has a lot to do with why this is a jazz album that I still love, even having largely dropped out of jazz: it doesn’t conform to the standard jazz format of one solo after another.

Long before this album, Mingus appeared as a member of ‘The Quintet:’ a sort of jazz supergroup assembled for a single concert at Massey Hall, which also included Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Max Roach. Frankly, Mingus was the weak link at that gig. But that’s because he isn’t the kind of jazz musician where the joy lies in listening to him play his instrument. He’s a bandleader. He’s kind of like Miles Davis that way, except one suspects he was at least marginally more fun to be around. (He published a pamphlet on how to toilet train cats. Tell me you don’t want to hang out with this guy.)

There are plenty of solos on Black Saint, and they’re good solos. But, for me, the appeal lies more in the arrangements, which are enormously complex but manage to still feel intuitive. Jazz solos are best appreciated with a bit of insider knowledge — knowledge that I mostly lack. On the other hand, anybody can appreciate a band making a big, soulful sound. This band makes a huge sound, and I imagine they’ve done a pretty good job here of emulating what it was like inside Charles Mingus’s fascinating mind. What more can you ask for?

— Matthew

P.S. Since we’re giving bonus tracks now, you might like to check out Mingus’s most famous cut, which brings his gospel influences front and centre — and is probably the catchiest instrumental jazz tune ever recorded.

The Zombies: Odessey and Oracle (pt. 2)

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Dear Matthew:

A few short hours after the Magma show, I left Vancouver for a few days. (Not related. Honest.) I returned yesterday evening, and made my way almost immediately to the Vogue Theatre downtown to see my favourite sad-guy band, Belle and Sebastian. It was an excellent show. I woke up this morning, loaded up Odessey and Oracle onto my phone and went out for a walk down toward the beach — and when I pressed play, I was hit with one of the most intense feelings of déjà vu I have experienced in recent memory.

Seriously, the resemblance is uncanny. I mean, I knew Belle and Sebastian had a certain wistful nostalgia, but I didn’t realize just how deep it ran. I expect you could probably take someone who hadn’t heard anything by either band and play them a selection of either band’s work and they wouldn’t be much better than random chance at guessing which band it is. In fact, I’m still grappling with the possibility that Stuart Murdoch is actually some sort of Dorian Grey-esque being who just hasn’t stopped making pop music since the ’60s. (Seriously, tell me ‘I’m a Cuckoo‘ doesn’t sound like a b-side from Odessey.)

I am exaggerating for comedic effect, of course. The Zombies are much more blissed out than Murdoch and company, which is the main reason I don’t think I’ll ever like them as much. The sense of wisftulness that permeates even the peppiest B&S tunes is the secret sauce, as is the case with most of their sad-guy contemporaries — Rilo Kiley, Bloc Party, LCD Soundsystem, and all of those other bands mopey college kids were listening to in the mid 2000s. To make a lazy comparison, this is Belle and Sebastian on Prozac. You’re right, though — this is music scientifically designed to release endorphins. It was perfect for a sunny walk along the bay. (Of course, mere hours beforehand, a tanker had spilled a bunch of oil into it. I’m reaching for The Boy With the Arab Strap already…)

What is it about the British that made them so good at this particular brand of pop music? Was it the climate? Was it the lingering cultural and socioeconomic shadow of the Second World War? Was it just that they were the first to do it? Either way, they’re codifiers of the genre, and they continue to excel at it. (Calling a band as Scottish as Belle and Sebastian British is probably borderline offensive, but humour me, it’s the same landmass, and it’s not like I’m calling them English.)

When all is said and done, though, it’s like any sort of immediate endorphin release — too much can’t be good for you. Maybe it’s because I’m so used to their modern-day sad-guy doppelgangers, but Odessey feels like musical candy: sweet and very satisfying if you’re in the mood for it, but I wouldn’t want it for every meal.

Still, sometimes it’s just the thing you’re after.

— Matt

The Zombies: Odessey and Oracle (pt. 1)

zombiesodyssey

Dear Matt:

Yeah, I wasn’t expecting overwhelming enthusiasm towards Magma, frankly. But, be content that you have now experienced the proggiest of the prog, and that it’s all smooth sailing from here.

I’m thinking that you’ll need a palate cleanser after a two-hour concert of ‘the least accessible music you’ve ever heard.’ So, this week you’ll be listening to a jaunty little trifle from 1966: The Zombies’ Odessey [sic] and Oracle. (The guy who painted the album cover couldn’t spell, and by the time he turned in his work, it was too late to fix it. The album has been known by its misspelled name ever since. Oh, the 60s.)

The Zombies were a late vestige of the British Invasion. They had two fantastic songwriters in keyboardist Rod Argent (who went on to have a successful career with his solo project, Argent), and bassist Chris White (who went on to have almost no subsequent career, save for co-writing a few hits for Rod Argent’s successful solo project, Argent).

In their day, they were probably best known for their 1964 hit “She’s Not There.” Nowadays, they’re almost entirely remembered for this album, which is just wall-to-wall joy, even by psychedelic standards. I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered another album so straightforwardly focussed on coaxing endorphins out of the pituitary. Even the sad, disturbing songs like “A Rose for Emily” or “Butcher’s Tale” are cathartically sad and disturbing.

60s psychedelia was a complex and unruly beast. But, I find that most psychedelic albums fit into one of two broad categories that I refer to as Peppers and Pipers. (This is clever. Stay with me on this.)

See, in early 1967, the Beatles were at Abbey Road studios, recording their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which I think is tied with Hamlet for the title of Most Acclaimed Thing Ever. Sgt. Pepper is meticulous, crafted, layered, and ornate. The songs have a sort of British restraint to them, in spite of their lush orchestrations and the colourful album art.

Meanwhile, literally just down the hall from the Beatles, in the same studio, Pink Floyd was recording their debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which foregrounds all of the chaotic, improvisatory, stream-of-consciousness tendencies in late 60s pop music.

These two albums are both undeniably psychedelic, but they represent two entirely different strands of psychedelia. Other Peppers include Forever ChangesPet Sounds, and Days of Future Passed. Other Pipers include Electric Ladyland, Their Satanic Majesties Request, and The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators.

The Zombies recorded Odessey and Oracle a few months later, in that same studio. It’s much more of a Pepper than a Piper. And, I suspect that’s why it’s aged so well, in spite of being so thoroughly of its time. Really good songwriting never stops being awesome. Loose, garage band jamming kind of does.

Side note: I am absurdly certain that “Care of Cell 44” will at some point be featured on Orange is the New Black. Just wait.

I really hope you like this. I hope that, because I feel like you’re winning this blog in terms of assigning music that I’ll like. I’ve revisited Deltron 3030 and Wrong frequently since those initial assignments, and they’ve improved with multiple listens. One of these weeks, I’m hoping to find something that’ll work that well for you.

Maybe this is it? In any case, it’s about as far from Magma as you can get. I expect there’s virtue in that.

— Matthew