Don’t believe the opening notes of Lama‘sOneiros… they’re a lie and they’ll steer you the wrong way. The pronounced bounce and charge of trumpet and bass is like a doorway into a confused Ringling Bros. tent. It’s the opening statement to both song and album. It says, hey, this is what it’s all about. But it’s a lie. Because after the first 30 seconds, the carnival packs up and leaves town, and all that remains are long beautiful trumpet calls, low and serene, over a sea of electronics and gentle rhythms. It’s a dramatic moment on a dramatic album.
Christina Pluhar & L’Arpeggiata (Photo by Marco Borggreve)
Such a scenario suggests chaos, the very antithesis to the highly structured form which defines baroque music. Yet the early music group, L’Arpeggiata, manages to turn the baroque world on its head without disintegrating into a chaotic clamor. On the contrary. This Parisian-based group of highly skilled musicians and their director, lutenist and harpist Christina Pluhar, intimately know the music they perform and when they blend their specialty of 17th century early baroque music with characteristic forms of ground bass patterns inherent in ancient folk traditionals (the ciacconia, tarantella, folia, passacaglia, bergamasca, jácaras, fandango, etc.), magic happens. To understand L’Arpeggiata’s repertoire, a little background on some of these forms is in order:
A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 2
Hildegard of Bingen: “A feather on the breath of God”. Gothic Voices/Christopher Page. Hyperion (link)
It’s ironic that the first featured composer in this history should be a woman, given the regrettable absence of women from the ranks of the “great”, or even the “reasonably well known”, composers. Hildegard (1098-1179) was a remarkable woman of her time: an abbess and visionary who corresponded with rulers and popes, toured Germany as a preacher, and produced numerous literary works on religion, medicine, and natural history. She has been an inspiration for feminists and the New Age movement, as well as the subject of four attempts at canonization in the two centuries after her death. In the 1150s, Hildegard collected several dozen of her poems in the work Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the harmony of celestial revelations), which survives today in two manuscripts that also provide monophonic musical notation. The compositions are mostly antiphons and responsories for the office, as well as some sequences for the mass and a few hymns. Hildegard’s music isn’t based on plainchant and makes use of a small number of melodic patterns that show up in many pieces; it also tends to have a high ambitus (the range of notes in a given piece), which gives it a soaring quality that matches well with the visionary nature of the poems. Hildegard’s fame as a composer is only a recent phenomenon: Gothic Voices’ hugely successful 1982 release was one of the first recordings of her music, though there have been many more since then. Her popularity may give the wrong impression that Hildegard was the only significant composer of her day; the reality of course is that she was just one among many others who weren’t so fortunate as to have their names and biographies preserved for future centuries.
After gathering a selection of music that survived Christmas recently, I found myself wondering what a good ambient/drone Christmas album would sound like. That thought immediately requires clarification. Just about every kind of Christmas music takes on the ambient mantle at this time of year in the thin sense that it burbles away in the background and submits to being ignored. Even narrowing the notion down to music likely to get tagged as “ambient” at the online store, unappealing possibilities lurk: it’s not hard to imagine Christmas standards invoked in a syrupy, sentimental wash of insipidly cheerful chimes – Santa goes New Age, as it were. But what would a Christmas album sound like that was also serious ambient/drone music? Could it stay recognizably tethered both to Christmas and to the grainy soundscapes generated by the likes of Tim Hecker or Kyle Bobby Dunn? Well, no sooner had I begun to ponder than an answer arrived in the form of a Christmas release from the Hibernate and Home Normal labels titled Festive Greetings.
This is part of a series on music that has influenced contributors to Music is Good.
I was a bona-fide “grown-up” before I realized there were all kinds of good music hidden away in a vast array of genres I never took the time to investigate. I suppose I am not unique. During our teen years, while some adventurous listeners may follow the beat of their own individual drum, most of us at this stage of life are typically influenced by what the airwaves are playing from the latest top-40 charts. None of the music from that early part of my life was, however, what I would call influential in defining my lasting musical preferences. It was only much later that some albums began to seep into my ears and, in hindsight, I see how they proved to be landmark albums for me – albums which encouraged me to branch out into other genres, and once on that unbeaten path, find all those undiscovered treasures that awaited me. Here’s the ones that did it for me:
I received this CD as a gift from a friend many years ago and, while I had vaguely heard of The Waterboys, I was not at all familiar with their music. From the moment I popped this CD into my player and heard those riotously glorious fiddle notes that open the first song, “Fisherman’s Blues,” I was hooked. This was a sound very different from anything I had been musically exposed to previously. It was my springboard to the discovery of a whole new world of folk-rock with touches of traditional-sounding material by performers outside the U.S., which in turn, led me to more traditional folk tunes recorded by the likes of Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, Steeleye Span, etc. Fisherman’s Blues is still a CD I play often.
My compatriots have done an excellent job highlighting music that restores the seriousness of Christmas. As a Jew (a Reconstructionist, the lit-crit version of Judaism), I don’t feel like I have a stake in this game. Outside of a few songs, there aren’t any great Hanukkah albums. My holiday music tends be Klezmer, which can be played any time of the year.
There are a handful of Christmas songs I do enjoy. Wassails and winter songs aren’t necessarily Christmas songs: they are seasonal, coinciding with the Holidays. Indeed, “Jingle Bells” was written for Thanksgiving. There are carols that are based on excellent folk tunes that can get me moving (I will play “We Three Kings” and “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” as jigs). What tends to bother me about some Christmas songs is the repeated use of the same chord progressions, composed of I-ii-Vs and IV-iii-ii-I turnarounds (see “Jingle Bell Rock”, “Frosty the Snowman”, and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”). Popular Christmas tunes tend to sound alike, which in my opinion reflects the composers’ laziness.
Among my favorite Christmas songs is The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” which could either be seen as deep and dark or over-the-top, the alternative version of It’s a Wonderful Life or the Christmas version of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. From the production standpoint, the song is impeccable: soaring strings, perfectly timed transitions, even a big dropout to give power to “the bells were ringing out on Christmas day.” From a more cynical standpoint, the song is a crass attempt at a big commercial hit: the duet with Kirsty MacColl could be construed to be a gimmick, and the New York theme and the stadium sound are things a band might employ to try to crack the American market. It’s everything to be expected and dreaded from a Christmas song.
Snippets from the latest issue of Fanfare. These are the best-reviewed discs for November/December, in the order in which they appear in the magazine.
Liszt: Piano sonata; Fantasy and fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem”. Garrick Ohlsson (p). Bridge 9337
“As skillful as Busoni’s 1897 transcription is, Ad nos is not an easy piece to pull off on the piano. Ohlsson does it brilliantly, using a dynamic palette with huge fortissimos that never sound forced and a pianissimo spectrum of infinite gradation. … This B-Minor Sonata is so unlike any other I can think of, it comes dangerously close to beggaring description. … an interpretation of profound wisdom and almost excruciating beauty” – Patrick Rucker
2011 has been another good year for music, with a deep list of very good albums released. This depth has allowed me to extend my usual Top Ten list to a Top Twenty that could easily have gone to 25 or 30 without me breaking a sweat. That said, ordering the below albums was a little harder than usual because for me there weren’t any truly mind blowing albums released this year. Ordinarily there is at least one album, if not two or three, that stand head and shoulders above the rest and demand the top spot(s), but that did not happen for me in 2011. In fact, had this year’s #1 album been released in 2010 it would have been at most #5 on that list (behind Titus Andronicus, Kanye West, Owen Pallett, and Dessa).
I think a big part of my not seeing a true #1 album this year is simply a matter of taste. A whole lot of lists are putting Bon Iver, Bon Iver at the top but that album simply does not work for me. While I loved For Emma, its follow-up feels like it is trying too hard (although it would appear successfully) to cross over into the pop realm and sanded off the rough edges that made For Emma so fantastic. I was even more disappointed in Watch the Throne, which comes off as nothing more than self-indulgent ego stroking. Add to these disappointments the fact that I’ve never been a fan of Fleet Foxes or My Morning Jacket and some of the years best reviewed albums are off the table for me.
This is the first article in a series where Music is Good contributors discuss the albums that have most influenced them musically. They will include some favourites that they play regularly now, but other choices will be music that they rarely listen to anymore, but had a major influence on their musical development at the time.
My selection begins with the Beatles:
The Beatles inevitably had a major influence upon me musically as I was teenager in their early days. For me this is a turning point album moving from the early fairly straight forward recordings that could be replicated on stage to the later studio based albums like Sgt Pepper. To some extent it reflects my growing up as a person alongside the Beatles ‘growing up’ musically. It is still an album I play regularly with many standout tracks for me such as “Dr Robert” and “Got to Get You Into My Life”.
The last time Bill Frisell recorded an album with the 858 ensemble, things were a bit noisier. The 2002 recording Richter 858 had Frisell substituting jet engines for amps, and let the compositions not so much speak for themselves as growl and roar. Sign of Life shows that there was a heartbeat just behind all the fury and fuel of Richter 858.
Different sound; same ensemble. Bill brings his incomparable voice on guitar, and long-time collaborators Jenny Scheinman on violin, Hank Roberts on cello, and Eyvind Kang on viola.
As with any inventive musician, Frisell’s sound has evolved over the years. His current phase is often referred to as Americana Jazz, a blending of jazz aspirations and conventions within a folk framework. Sign of Life fits snugly into that label, comparable to other recent releases like the excellent Disfarmer, the perfectly acceptable Beautiful Dreamer, and the under-the-radar All Hat. It’s an album of languid back porch tunes, of foreboding compositions echoing over desolate Appalachian trails, of lush stringed instruments that is alternatingly soothing, threatening, and transcendent.