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Essential Music: Transmission, by Joy Division

Transmission Joy Division2In the late 1970s, amidst the rubble of punk rock, a group of angry young men came onto the scene in Manchester, UK. Joy Division, whose name I’ll let the reader research on the Web, was fronted by deep-voiced singer Ian Curtis, and their music was, at best, gloomy, dark, and depressing, like the city they lived in. Yet it was a different kind of depression than the “no future” of the punk rockers; this was the depression of absolute despair and ultimate nothingness, rather than unemployment and the dole.

Originally called Warsaw, the group changed its name in 1978, and during that year recorded what would be their first LP: Unknown Pleasures . This album was released in June 1979 and quickly helped develop the cult following that the group would have throughout its short life. A second album, Closer, soon followed, which would be their last.Ian Curtis suffered from epilepsy, but also from depression and stress. The group had to deal with high expectations from the public and from critics – high for an independent band – and wasn’t a typical pop band. On top of that, Factory Records, while a discoverer of talent, was not a marketing powerhouse, and Joy Division’s records sold far less than they could have.

In May, 1980, Ian Curtis committed suicide, shortly after the release of what would come to be Joy Division’s most popular song: “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” The group went on to popularity after changing their name to New Order and becoming a new-wave band.

But what remains of Joy Division’s original works, limited though they may be, are a couple dozen intensely powerful songs that are not to be listened to during lonely, dark nights. Curtis’s lyrics are morose and, at times, overwhelming. Combined with his deep, rough voice, which sounds as if it comes from beyond the grave, this is the kind of music that parents don’t want to discover their teenage kids listening to.

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” is not a good example of Joy Division’s music, though it is arguably the most popular song they recorded;if one can call any of their music “popular.” What stands out as perhaps the vintage Joy Division song is “Transmission,” the A-side of the band’s first single. This song sounds as though it was written and performed by a group of boys who barely knew how to play their instruments: the dominant music in the song is a bass riff that could be played with one finger and a guitar riff of about five notes played repeatedly. As Curtis begins singing, he sounds as though he’s pushing his voice to the bottom of its range:

Listen to the silence, let it ring on
Eyes dark grey lenses frightened of the sun

But as the song goes on and the energy builds, his voice moves up to higher climes:

Well I could call out when the going gets tough
The things that we’ve learnt are no longer enough
No language, just sound, that’s all we need know
To synchronize love to the beat of the show

Curtis reaches a summit of both range and emotion as he screams, in the final verse, the approaching cataclysm:

And we could dance
Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio

I’ve put the word “dance” in bold, on the first line; that’s where the scream comes. This is one of those screams that you never forget, one of the great rock-and-roll screams, almost as good as Roger Daltry screaming in “We Won’t Get Fooled Again,” but of a different tone. Daltry screams in ecstasy, but Curtis is a man reaching his limits, howling at himself, his life, his situation, at anything but the moon. The essence of Joy Division is contained in this one word, this cry for help, understanding and relief.

Curtis was no Dylan, but some people listened to Joy Division for the lyrics; I suspect this was similar to buying Playboy for the articles. Yet these lyrics sounded the way his life would end: lonely, painful, with shards of words that gouge your skin. You don’t need to listen to the lyrics, though, to understand the tone; some of the song titles are enough to give you an idea of where Curtis was coming from: “Atrocity Exhibition,” “She’s Lost Control,” “I Remember Nothing,” “Isolation,” “Something Must Break,” “Dead Souls.”

While Joy Division’s music was gloomy, Ian Curtis definitely entered rock-and-roll history with “Transmission,” one of the rare songs where the singer’s tone mimics the story being told in that song. Where a primal scream is the ultimate crescendo. Where life is all about dancing to the radio.

Watch a live performance of Transmission:



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Essential Music: Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2

Charles Ives was one of America’s most singular composers, and arguably the first truly American voice in classical music. However, his music was hardly known beyond a small circle of outsiders until the early 1950s. By then, Ives had long since stopped composing, having created a body of work that includes four symphonies, two piano sonatas, three string quartets, 114 songs, and a number of other works.

Ives studied music at Yale, following a musical education with his father, who was a band leader for the Union Army in the Civil War. After graduating from Yale, he took a job with an insurance company, and eventually made millions from the insurance industry, composing in his spare time.

Much of Ives’ music is dissonant and polyrhythmic – he famously witnessed an experiment by his father, where two marching bands, playing different tunes, converging in cacophony in a town square. His Concord Sonata – his second piano sonata – is a gnarly programmatic piece about four American thinkers, full of dissonance and chromaticism. Some of his music was performed during his lifetime; he wasn’t unknown, but he was only known among the musical avant-garde, composers such as Henry Cowell, Elliott Carter, Carl Ruggles and Aaron Copland.

Ives’ second symphony is one of his most accessible works. While his first symphony, a student work composed at Yale, is fairly standard for the time, the second symphony shows Ives using many of the motifs that figure in the rest of his work. He notably weaves American popular songs into the symphony, such as Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean, Camptown Races, Long, Long Ago, and America the Beautiful, as well as riffs on Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. But the result is one of the most charmingly American symphonic works, and one that gives me a frisson every time I get to the finale.

51EGZRXZX1L._SX300_.jpgWhen the symphony was premiered in 1951, by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic – who would later champion Ives’ music – the composer heard it on a radio, and wasn’t impressed. He had long since turned the page on composing, stopping in 1927, when he told his wife, “nothing sounds right.” But Bernstein’s premiere was a triumph, bringing Ives into the pantheon of great composers. Bernstein recorded the work in 1958 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store), and again in 1990 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store). The latter recording has wonderful sound, and is coupled with some other great, shorter works, such as Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question.

513PFa12cML._SY300_.jpgThere was a fair amount of controversy around Bernstein’s approach to Ives, having taken liberties with the score, notably in the final chord, a “raspberry,” that Bernstein extended (to much great effect). But Bernstein made this work come alive, and I find that his interpretation of this work is the benchmark. A new, corrected edition of the score was made in 2000, and Kenneth Schemmerhorn recorded this with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) His reading lacks the punch of Bernstein’s, but is certainly closer to Ives’ intentions.

71Oxlj2XELL._SY300_.jpgOther conductors have recorded this work, including Michael Tilson Thomas (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store), today’s most prominent supporter of Ives’ music. Tilson-Thomas’s recording dates from 1991, and I would love to hear an updated version, with the San Francisco Symphony that he directs.

Ives’ second symphony is one of the great American works of classical music. It was way ahead of its time when composed, and, while parts of it sound a bit standard, other parts, such as the final movement, remain unique. It’s a great introduction to the work of this composer who followed no school and trod his own path.

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Essential Music: Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way

220px-Miles-davis-in-a-silent-way.jpgMiles Davis’ career spanned nearly five decades, and he was the engine for much change in jazz. From the early be-bop days through his later fusion, Miles covered just about every type of jazz (with the exception of that abomination called “smooth jazz”). From the early records on Prestige, through the seminal Kind of Blue (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), to later albums like Tutu (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), Miles embraced change.

The year 1969 was exceptionally fecund, with the recording of two radically different albums: In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. The former is a collection of slow, almost ambient improvisations; the latter uses a similar approach, but with a powerful rhythm section. Both feature electric instruments and develop Miles’ version of jazz fusion.

In a Silent Way (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) is just over 38 minutes and consists of two songs: Shhh/Peaceful and In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time. Recorded in one day, on February 18, 1969, about three hours of music was used to create these two tracks. With Teo Macero producing Miles for the first time, this record is partly the result of improvisations, partly the result of Macero’s work editing different sections together. For example, on Shhh/Peaceful, Macero took the first six minutes of the track and repeated them at the end, making a piece in three sections which, with this odd edit, works quite well.

While this record could be called fusion, it’s much more. There are electric keyboards, there’s a pulsing beat, but it doesn’t have the rhythmic drive that Bitches Brew shows. Shhh/Peaceful is more rhythmic; In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time shifts between sections that are almost ambient and parts that are more rhythmic. The music is simple, beautiful, and flows like waves.

The list of musicians on this album is one that looks like a hall of fame roster:

Miles Davis – trumpet
Wayne Shorter – soprano saxophone
John McLaughlin – electric guitar
Chick Corea – electric piano
Herbie Hancock – electric piano
Joe Zawinul – organ
Dave Holland – double bass
Tony Williams – drums

This was the first album that John McLaughlin recorded with Miles, and his contributions are excellent, especially in the second section of Shhh/Peaceful. Wayne Shorter has a great sound and his solos are beautiful. The combination of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock on electric piano, and Joe Zawinul on organ, gives a lush background to the soloists. And the rhythm section is tight.

This is one of Miles Davis’ finest albums, yet it seems that, these days, not too many people know about it. It’s a very accessible album, especially now that this type of long, spacy jamming has become a part of the musical landscape. In many ways, this is similar to the way the Grateful Dead would jam around Dark Star or Playing in the Band.

So if you don’t have this album, I strongly recommend it. If you do own it, then you may need to get The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store). This 3 1/2 hour set includes all the music recorded during this famous day, as well as the final album versions of the two tracks. If you like the music on the album, you’ll love the rest of the jamming from that day.

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Music Review: November, by Dennis Johnson

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Buy from: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | iTunes

Update: I’ve added a recent radio show about November at the bottom of this article. You should really hear November; it’s one of my favorite recordings of the year.

The musical avant-garde has created a number of very long pieces of music. Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2, for example, runs for around six hours; other works by the same composer last from one to four hours. La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano runs around five to six hours. John Cage’s As SLow aS Possible runs from 20 to 70 minutes, but a performance underway in St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, began in 2001 and should take about 639 years. Other long works include Erik Satie’s Vexations, which runs somewhere around 28 hours. But the latter two works are more gimmicks than anything else; Satie’s piece is merely one minute-and-a-half piece played 840 times.

Length does not equal quality, but in the area of minimalist music – this is the minimalism of sparseness, not that of repetition, such as the music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass – the listener enters a sound world that moves at a different pace from the world around them. Listening to such works – Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet is an excellent example of this – forces the listener to rethink what music is and how it is heard and experienced. I like music of this type which slows me down and makes me listen differently. In many ways, November, as with many of Morton Feldman’s works, is as much like looking at a painting as it is like listening to a work for piano. It’s beautiful music that moves in slow motion.

Dennis Johnson’s November is one such piece. It was composed in 1959, and, as Kyle Gann says in the liner notes to this new recording, “was glacially calm and meditative in the extreme.” Gann obtained a cassette tape from La Monte Young; “It was one of those thin, unreliable 120- minute cassettes, and the pitch wobbled badly.” He set out to transcribe the work, and eventually obtained a copy of the manuscript from the composer. But this score was far from perfect:

The manuscript score of November is a puzzle. It contains two pages of “motifs,” numbered first with Roman numerals and then switching to Arabic ones, often out of order, with many cross- outs, alternative possibilities, and self-questionings by the composer. These are followed by three further pages on which Johnson tried, with only partial success, to analyze his improvisation and arrive at a more exact notation. Little annotations among the notes, in the same handwriting of Johnson‟s letter in An Anthology, show him cogitating on paper and rather humorously arguing with himself: “maybe replace IVb with this”; “sounds better to enter with low A#”; “maybe add low E# in first chord – NO!”

Pianist R. Andrew Lee found himself interested by the piece. “My interest was first prompted by an Everest Complex, if you will. I attended Kyle Gann and Sarah Cahill’s landmark performance in 2009, and I really enjoyed the piece. I had also heard Kyle talk about November’s importance and read his posts on the subject. I’d like to think these factors influenced my decision to try it in the first place, but, if I’m being really honest with myself, I just wanted to see if I could do it.”

This recording, just shy of five hours, takes up that gauntlet and offers to the listener a unique work of subtle music, built around recurring motifs that become familiar, similar to the work of Morton Feldman, yet with its own style.

You can listen to this work in many ways. Few are those who would sit in front of their stereos for five hours; you can listen to one disc at a time (it’s on four discs, or four files if you purchase it by download), you can listen to a half-hour or so, then move on, or you can put it on as you work, and shift from paying close attention to having it flow by in the background. I think all these options are fine, but the longer you listen to the music actively, the more it becomes a meditation.

Pianist Lee sums up his feelings about this work:

I do not play this piece because of an Everest Complex, nor do I play it even because of its incredible historical significance.

I play it because I love it.

And that’s as good a reason as any to listen to it.

Update: Listen to Kyle Gann discussing November, and hear excerpts, on this WNYC Spinning on Air show:

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Can You Really Tell the Difference Between Music at Different Bit Rates?

(Note: this article is written for Mac users. If you have Windows tools to recommend, please mention them in the comments.)

The bit rate debate regarding compressed music is one that will be around for a long time. Some people think that any compression of music files is anathema. Take Neil Young. He complained about the poor quality of digital music files, while greatly misunderstanding much of what is involved in compression. He claimed that only “5 percent of the data present in the original recording” is present in MP3 files, without specifying the bit rate used or the original sources, and without understanding that compression is more than just lopping off bits of the music. (Andy Doe, writing on the Naxos Blog last year, published an article, All About Bitrates, explaining how compression works. You should read this to understand some points that most people overlook.)

When you start ripping music, and decide what bit rate to use, you have several options. You could go for lossless, which compresses music around 40-60%. One advantage to this is that you can then re-convert the lossless files to a lower bit rate if you want, keeping the originals as archival copies. But lossless files take up much more space. While this isn’t an issue on computers – hard drives are huge these days – it is for portable devices like iPods or iPhones.

If you don’t use a lossless format, you have to decide which format to use (AAC or MP3), and what bit rate. For a long time, Apple sold music at 128 kbps at the iTunes Store. It is now 256k, which is roughly what Amazon uses in their MP3 store (their music is in VBR, or variable bit rate, so it is not exactly 256k). This is an excellent compromise between space and quality. But you might want to go even lower. What’s important is to find the point at which you cannot hear the difference between an original file and a compressed file, and stay above that bit rate.

To do this, you need to perform what is called blind ABX testing. You are presented with music and don’t know which bit rate you are hearing, and you must choose whether you think it is compressed or not. While this test takes a bit of time – you need to rip tracks at different bit rates, then test yourself, one pair of tracks at a time – the results can be interesting.

To start with, find several songs or tracks that you know very well. It’s best to use familiar music, because you will be able to hear more of the differences (if any) because of your familiarity with the melodies, arrangements, etc. I’d recommend not ripping full albums for this test, but rather individual songs or tracks from different albums.

Rip these tracks from CD in lossless format. In iTunes, go to Preferences > General, then click on Import Settings. Choose Lossless Encoder from the Import Using menu.



Next, add the tracks you have ripped in lossless format and to a playlist. Select them all and press Command-I, then enter an album name, such as Lossless Tracks. You’ll want this later to be able to find them.

Read more

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Essential Music: Music for 18 Musicians, by Steve Reich

Among the composers whose music I’ve been following for more than 30 years, Steve Reich is at the top of the list. I own all of the recordings he has made, and most of the other recordings of his works. (Fortunately, his music is not recorded very often.)

I still remember the very first time I heard Reich’s music. I was at a friend’s house, and my friend pulled out a three-LP box set from Deutsche Grammophon, which contained several early works by Reich: Drumming, which took up four sides; Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ; and Six Pianos. We listened to Six Pianos, with its hypnotic rhythms and shifting phase effects, and when it got to the end, I was a changed person. I had been listening intently to this music, perhaps with some chemical enhancement, and little happened; but over time, the changes became apparent, bolstered by the compelling rhythm of the work, and I realized just how powerful such subtle changes could be over time. From that moment on, I was hooked on minimalist music, and Steve Reich in particular.

The Deutsche Grammophon set was released in 1974, and following that, Reich went to ECM records, where he recorded a number of albums that made him a familiar name among those interested in new music. The most important of these was the nearly hour-long Music for 18 Musicians, composed from 1974-76, which is one of the seminal works of minimalism. In this work scored for percussion instruments, pianos, strings, clarinets and voices, Reich explores pulses, phasing and the relationships among short melodic patterns, and, while that may sound academic, the melodies of the work are memorable, and even get me tapping my foot and humming along. In the liner notes to the work, Reich says, “There is more harmonic movement in the first 5 minutes of ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ than in any other complete work of mine to date.”

This is a difficult work to perform – in part because of the length – and while Reich’s ECM recording is probably the gold standard, a recent recording by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble is also excellent. It’s worth noting that the original LP of Reich’s recording was flawed, because it broke the work into two parts; this work simply cannot be listened to with a break, because, unlike most symphonies, there is no pause between sections. Fortunately, the CD came along, and it became possible to play works of that length without a gap.

I was fortunate to see Reich in concert a number of times over the years. The first was a show at the Bottom Line, a “cabaret” in New York, where the classical instruments were slightly out-of-place on the small stage, and where the “large ensemble” playing one of the works on Reich’s second ECM album barely fit. Both Music for a Large Ensemble and Octet are classic works as well, and the ECM period was very rich for Reich’s music. I later saw Reich’s ensemble perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a 1983 retrospective, where most of Reich’s works were performed in a number of concerts. Seeing Drumming performed live was very impressive, as the musicians move around from instrument to instrument, and there is an element of dance in the process.

Reich has written dozens of compositions over the years, but Music for 18 Musicians remains the ur-Reich work for me, together with Six Pianos, the first work that converted me. If you’re not familiar with Reich’s music, you couldn’t go wrong with any of these pieces, but Music for 18 Musicians is probably the best place to start.

Listen to a 12-minute excerpt of Music for 18 Musicians on Steve Reich’s website.

Bonus trivia tidbit: Steve Reich attended composition classes given by Luciano Berio at Mills College in Oakland, California, and one of his classmates was Phil Lesh, who would shortly thereafter become the bass player for the Grateful Dead.

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Essential Music: Bill Evans Live in 1980

Bill Evans may have been the greatest jazz pianist ever, but his life was, unfortunately, too short. Born in 1929, he died on September 15, 1980, of a bleeding ulcer, cirrhosis and pneumonia. A drug addict for much of his career – he had periods where he was hooked on heroin, and others on cocaine – his death was what a friend called “the longest suicide in history.”

Yet when Bill Evans sat down at the piano, magic come from his fingers. From playing piano as a sideman, such as on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, widely considered to be the best jazz album of all time, to his first live recordings, Live at the Village Vanguard, made in 1961, and through dozens of solo and trio recordings over the following two decades.

In 1980, Evans didn’t know he was at the end, but there is a feeling of wistful nostalgia in his live performances of those last months. Fortunately, many of them were recorded, and there are three essential box sets of music from this period.

In June 1980, Evans played several dates at the Village Vanguard, and a six-disc set of these performances, Turn Out the Stars, was released in 1996. Recorded from June 4 to June 8, with bass player Marc Johnson, and drummer Joe LaBarbera, there is just over six and a half hours of music on this set, with notably a number of very long performances of Miles Davis’ Nardis, which was Evans’ signature jamming song. (It allowed both the bass player and drummer to take extensive solos.)

From August 31 to September 8, 1980, Evans played a series of dates at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco. Again, there are extensive recordings of these shows, with two 8-CD box sets available: The Last Waltz contains music from the first sets, and Consecration has tracks from the second sets. Just a week before his death, Evans was playing some of his finest performances. These were recorded on the sly, but the quality of the sound is excellent.

Evans played a combination of standards and his own compositions, and his improvisational ability is such that you barely notice it at times; it often sounds like the songs were written exactly as he played them, but as you listen to different versions, you can hear the changes.

I have long loved Evans’ music, and particularly these recordings from the end of his life. I first bought Turn Out the Stars in 1996, after listening to bits of it at a record store. My knowledge of jazz was quite limited then (and isn’t a whole lot more extensive now), but I immediately heard Evans’ masterful playing. When the other two box sets came out in 2000 and 2002, I bought them immediately. I have many Bill Evans recordings – I bought a couple of box sets of his complete recordings on different labels – but these are the ones I return to most, along with the 1961 Village Vanguard recordings. If you like jazz piano, these are essential recordings to own. If you just want one of the sets, I’d recommend Turn Out the Stars, which, with six discs, covers a wide variety of the songs Evans played.

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Essential Music: Toru Takemitsu

Way back when, I discovered Toru Takemitsu’s music. I think the first I heard was a few pieces for guitar on an album with a number of twentieth-century guitar works, including one of my favorites, Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal. Something about Takemitsu’s music prompted me to search out other records with his work (this was back in the early 80s, still the LP era), and I found a couple. Listening to his orchestral music hooked me immediately.

I like a wide variety of music, but much “modern” music leaves me cold. I like much minimalism, including Steve Reich and some early Philip Glass; I love Morton Feldman; and I like a variety of other 20th century composers, some, like Sibelius, who are still anchored in melody, and others, like Bartok, whose music is more difficult. I like much of Messiaen’s strange music, and some of the Scandinavian composers. But I’m not a big fan of serialism, or any of the other -isms that turned twentieth-century music into a mass of unlistenable works. (Sure, there are some good things, but much is not to my taste.)

While Takemitsu’s early music was firmly rooted in western avant-garde techniques, around 1977, his style shifted, and this later music is different from most 20th century music. These works are about textures, sound sculptures; when you begin listening to one of his works you enter a landscape, you start moving along a path of sound that takes you through a series of musical moments. None of his works are “big”, in the sense of symphonies, but none are small either, like miniatures. Most of Takemitsu’s best music is orchestral works that range from about ten to twenty minutes long; most have evocative names like A String Around Autumn, Spirit Garden, Tree Line, How Slow the Wind. While he composed some piano music and some chamber music, only one CD is needed to contain all of one or the other. He uses the flute and guitar in many works, and his orchestrations are uniquely subtle; while he may use an entire orchestra, he does so parsimoniously, never adding too many layers of music. He creates sonorous melanges of emotion and feeling, rather than melodic structures. His music sounds like that of no other composer. Much of Takemitsu’s music is recorded, by labels such as DG, Bis and Naxos, and many discs contain one or two of his works. The best ones, the DG and Bis recordings, are “programmed”, in the sense that they contain a full CD’s worth of music that flows from work to work. It would make no sense to issue a CD with, say, his first ten works, because nothing is numbered, there are no links among them. The most accessible discs bear names that suggest the tone of the music: I Hear the Water Dreaming, Garden Rain, How Slow the Wind, Quotation of Dream, A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden… All these discs contain wonderful selections of Takemitsu’s music organized into 60-70 minute programs.

If you’re curious, take a chance on one of his albums, either on CD, or from iTunes or Amazon as download. If you’re interested in music that takes you to new places, you may like this music very much. And you may, like me, become a convert, and seek out all the albums you can find…

For more info about Takemitsu, Alex Ross’s article in the New Yorker gives a good overview of Takemitsu’s life. And the Wikipedia article about Takemitsu has a great deal of detail about his compositional career.

(A brief aside. Some twenty-odd years ago, when I was living in Paris and making a living teaching English, I met a fellow American, of Japanese origin, who was taking some teacher training classes with me. For some reason, we got onto the subject of music, and I mentioned Takemitsu. He replied, “Ah, uncle Toru!” He was, indeed, the nephew of the composer. It was in interesting coincidence.)

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