A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 9
“Joye: Les plaintes de Gilles de Bins dit Binchois”. Graindelavoix/Björn Schmelzer. Glossa (link)
Although the dukes of Burgundy were nominally vassals of the French king, in the late 14th and 15th centuries they grew in power thanks to useful marriages and land acquisitions, taking advantage also of France’s difficulties during the Hundred Years War. When Philip the Good became duke in 1419 he inherited not just part of northeastern France but also Flanders and its important commercial centers; over the course of his reign, he added much of the rest of the Low Countries and brought Burgundy to the height of its power. Philip was a great patron of the arts: he appointed the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck to his court, and his chapel of musicians was among the finest in Europe. Because Philip lived mostly in his northern possessions rather than in Dijon, most of his musicians came from Flanders and the Low Countries. One such musician was Gilles de Bins, known as Gilles Binchois, born probably in Mons around 1400, who joined Philip’s chapel in the 1420s, remaining there until 1453 (he died in 1460). He’s best known today for his secular French chansons; the dukes of Burgundy were carrying on the medieval courtly tradition, and Binchois’s chansons are on the continuum stretching back through Machaut to the trouvères. Binchois seems to have been particularly keen on composing by conventional rules: most of his chansons are in rondeau form, with four- or five-line stanzas and two-line refrains, most have lines of eight syllables, and almost all are in triple metre. What made Binchois stand out among his contemporaries were his graceful melodies, combined with a lack of rhythmic complexity. This simple and elegant music seems to lend itself to melancholic expression, as exemplified by Graindelavoix’s collection of plaintes, or laments. It seems odd to title such an album “Joye”—which comes from Johannes Ockeghem’s description of Binchois as “the father of joy” in his lament on the death of Binchois, included on the disc—but Björn Schmelzer explains that the “joy” in question is a more profound emotion that relates to “singing out one’s sadness”: a 15th-century form of the blues, if you like.
It might shock you to learn that the authors at Music is Good love music and listen to a lot of it, and we’re guessing you do too. One of the great things about music, are those occasions when we are struck by a particular song that resonates with us in a special way. Maybe a catchy beat simply caught our ear. Maybe it’s a particularly beautiful voice. Maybe it was a particular way the lyrics blended with the melody and the musical accompaniment, or perhaps the lyrics were especially apropos to a current experience or feeling we had at the time. Whatever the reason, that particular song had us hitting the ‘replay’ button over and over. This series spotlights some of the songs that did it for us. They will vary in genre but all will have one thing in common – that special ‘something.’
My Song of the Week is “Psalm of Life”. It is on the album Gift, the first collaborative recording by the mother-and-daughter team, Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson, who make up part of British folk’s great dynasty.
In SYDLHH: Part 1, we looked at some of hip hop’s earliest influential tracks. As mentioned therein, the DJs ruled the roost in early hip hop, and most artists got their start wanting to be DJs. In fact, even Jay-Z notes in his memoir/book of annotated lyrics Decoded that he first wanted to be a DJ. It didn’t take long, however, for MCs to take the hip hop crown, and with just a few exceptions (e.g. J Dilla, DJ Screw, the RZA, DJ Premier) they’ve never given it back. In SYDLHH: Part 2 we will look at some of the earliest MCs and how they furthered the growth of the genre. I intended initially to limit this overview to just one post, but there is simply too much to say about the 8 MCs I want to cover, so Part 2 will go up in two posts (and even limiting it to two posts requires me to repeatedly remind myself that this series is just an overview).
I reviewed here the most recent album by Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat. Following that review, Stakula, the band’s leader, kindly agreed to an interview, offering some insights into the processes behind the music.
Valta is an addition to what by now is a substantial body of work, and Alamaailman Vasarat has established a distinctive sound. Has anything changed on this album compared to previous releases?
The most obvious changes were in the lineup. Before the Valta sessions, our new drummer Santeri Saksala had already performed with the band for a year, much to our enjoyment. The live performances really tightened up and had a whole new level of energy. In the Valta sessions, his knowledge and passion for the drums as instruments made a huge difference to album sound, not forgetting some of the most memorable improvised moments, like in the opening track “Riistomaasiirtäjä”. His contribution has made a huge impact in the overall sound of the band and we’re very happy to have him on board.
A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 8
“Worcester Fragments”. Orlando Consort. Amon Ra
There’s not much extant music from the 14th century or earlier that’s specifically English. Under the Anglo-Saxons in the 10th and 11th centuries, a repertory of tropes for Gregorian chants was developed, with examples surviving today in manuscripts from Winchester and Canterbury. Among the changes brought by the Norman conquest of 1066 was the replacement of senior clergy by Normans, who imported their own liturgical traditions and introduced what is now called the Sarum rite. This rite was melodically similar (though not identical) to the Roman rite and included certain unique prayers as well as locally significant additions to the calendar. Thanks to the Normans and their successors the Plantagenets (who came to power in 1154 with the accession of Henry II), England was now closely linked to France, politically and culturally. We saw in Chapter 2 that Anonymous IV, the key source of information on Léonin and Pérotin, was an Englishman, and in fact the earliest surviving version of the Magnus liber organi of Notre Dame is one produced for the Augustinians of St. Andrews, Scotland. English composers seem not to have been especially interested in abstract theories of music compared with their French counterparts, however, and a distinctive English musical voice began to develop during the 13th century, one significant feature of which was a preference for thirds and sixths that may reflect an earlier Scandinavian influence. Unfortunately, the Reformation of the 16th century resulted in the destruction of many manuscripts, and the only records of English polyphony in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries survive in fragments. The “Worcester fragments” are individual leaves from manuscripts used in Worcester Cathedral; they survived only because they had been recycled for book-binding, and in the 20th century they were gathered together to represent what scholars believe to have been a very rich repertoire of polyphony.
Some facts about me: I’m white (a full fledged WASP actually); I’m middle class; I’m in my 30s; I’m a father; I live in the midwest; and I love hip hop. It’s that last one that surprises people. Due to the first five things listed I’m not supposed to like hip hop, even though I’m a huge music fan. Nonetheless, whether it’s Golden Era East Coast, hardcore West Coast, southern, indie, or otherwise, if it falls under the hip hop umbrella there’s a good chance I listen to it.
The simple reason people are surprised by my hip hop fandom is it’s not ‘my’ music. Hip hop, rose from the streets to tell the stories of the street. Meanwhile, I’m about as ‘street’ as a labradoodle, and can’t pretend to relate to hip hop’s stories through personal experience. Those stories, or at least the ones many people identify as wholly representative of hip hop, are largely made up of hustling, gang banging, and the like, and involve violence, drug dealing, misogyny, and other things utterly alien to my suburban, midwestern upbringing. Obviously songs of this type are a subcategory of the broader hip hop spectrum, but the real problem with the assumption that I wouldn’t be a hip hop fan is the underlying presumption that just because I haven’t personally experienced these things I have no interest in the art that is being created as a result. Good art should challenge its audience in some way and hip hop often does so by confronting its listeners with hard truths.
This is the first time I’ve compiled a personal best of the year, and I realise the resulting list says as much about my buying habits as about my taste in classical music. There’s little you might call the mainstream classical repertoire, because I don’t often look for more than one recording of a work, and a tight budget has meant some higher-profile releases never reached my ears; moreover, I’ve also been filling gaps in my collection with older recordings rather than buying new ones. So, give me a month and a couple of hundred euros and it might be a very different list. But let’s stick with the excellence at hand. The order of the list has changed repeatedly during the compiling, and would presumably continue to do so if I didn’t stop now.
1 John Adams: Harmonielehre– Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media). In the early 90s, I discovered the music of Gustav Mahler and Philip Glass at roughly the same time. What I didn’t know then was that a few years earlier John Adams had combined the two (and plenty more besides) in Harmonielehre. The title comes from the treatise of the same name by Schoenberg, but Adams’s music is a gleeful rejection of Schoenberg’s aesthetic, a grand mix of influences and references that constantly surprises.
As Atmosphere noted in their song “Shhh”, there isn’t a lot to brag about in Minnesota. It’s cold, there aren’t really any tourist destinations (sorry Mary Tyler Moore statue) and the popular sports teams are varying levels of terrible. One thing we do have, though, is the Purple Yoda himself: Prince. Prince Rogers Nelson was born in Minneapolis and while he has lived outside the state, Minnesota has always been his home. That said, Prince hasn’t performed in Minnesota since a run of three shows at various venues in 2007.
I will admit it. At the end of each year, I attempt to come up with a “best-of” list of my own but struggle to identify even a handful. This is partly due to the fact that I am so bad about paying attention to the actual release dates of albums that I will invariably include several recordings that are older than I thought. This time, however, I had no trouble at all. 2012 proved to be a stellar year for releasing good music. Here are my picks for the best of the best, in no particular order:
O’ Be Joyfulby Shovels & Rope (Dualtone Music Group). (AMERICANA) Shovels & Rope is Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, a husband-and-wife duo. Their website says they “sing harmony driven folk, rock and country songs using two old guitars, a kick drum, a snare, a few tambourines, harmonicas, and maybe a little keyboard sometimes.” There’s plenty of that on O’ Be Joyful, plusfiddles, banjos, and some wonderful, slightly off-kilter horns that take the genre to a new level (“Hail, Hail,” and “Tickin’ Bomb”). Clanky percussion is prominent on most of the tracks. Songs like “Carnival” demonstrate the duo can dazzle with slow-tempo ballads, too. It’s just quirky enough that it may not be for everyone, but if you like an old-timey country sound with a rockin’ edge to it, this album just might be right up your alley. ( Listen to samples here.)
Here it is finally, my list of the best of what I found among 2012’s new releases. (I found a lot of great jazz from before I was born too, but that’s another story.) I no more listened to everything out there than anyone else did, but these are releases from 2012 that I listened to repeatedly and expect to be returning to in 2013 and beyond. The exact order is arbitrary and could change on any given day, though albums are probably roughly in the right quarter of the list. I’ve included at the end an honor roll of another 20 that did not quite make my list but were also greatly enjoyed. After all, I think the main function of lists like this is help folk find things (at least that’s how I use all the other lists out there).
#1 Pjusk – Tele
Norway’s Pjusk have become one my favorite ambient/electronic artists on the strength of three stellar releases. Tele (full review here) takes us deep into the glacial cold of northern Norwegian landscapes – the tracks are themed around layers of rock and ice. Deep in the earth, we are taken on a dark and resonant atmospheric journey that ends in light and life. Creation is not all sunlit beaches, and this release gives us a masterful aural tour of its frozen recesses.