Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a huge amount of astoundingly beautiful music, from solo keyboard works to cantatas; from small-scale chamber works, to large passions; from music for organ to works for solo violin or cello. But if there’s one work that stands out as a summation of his music it is the Goldberg Variations, a work written for a two-manual (two keyboard) harpsichord.
This work contains an opening aria, or a melodic sarabande, followed by 30 variations, then a repeat of the aria closes the piece. Collections of variations were relatively common in Bach’s time; in fact, it is possible that Bach was inspired by a set of variations written by Dietrich Buxtehude, called La Capricciosa. But in Bach’s work, the variations do not vary the them of the aria. Rather, they riff on the bass line and chord progression of the aria, which, while not unheard of (other types of works, such as the passacaglia, are based on a similar principle), is unique, given the extent of Bach’s variations.
I have some 25 versions of this work, played on harpsichord, piano, organ, clavichord and guitar, and I never tire of hearing it. The Goldberg Variations is a work that contains a wide variety of forms: from the opening aria, with its sinuous, infective melody, through the many canons in the work, to the wonderful variation 25, which Wanda Landowska called the “black pearl” of the Goldberg Variations (the longest variation, and the most moving), on to the final reprise of the aria.
Many people will be familiar with this work through the recordings of Glenn Gould. He recorded it twice, once in 1955 and again in 1981. These were to be his first and last recordings, and they are available in a budget set called A State of Wonder. Gould’s first recording was a gamble at the time, because this was a work that had been rarely recorded, but it became an immediate best-seller. He later revisited the work, at the end of his life, with more gravitas and less impetuosity, but both versions are wonderful. Gould seems to rush through the first recording, in part because of the limit of the amount of music that could be put on an LP at the time; his 1955 recording is just over 38 minutes. In 1981, he played the work in around 51 minutes, but his tempi only changed slightly; much of the difference in time was his playing more of the repeats. (In the score, Bach has the performer play each variation twice, which was common for baroque music. Few performers play all the repeats.)
There are many, many other fine performances of this work though. A few that I especially appreciate are:
There are many others to explore, including a recording for harp by Catrin Finch (a bit too spacy for me), and several versions for string trio, recordings for organ, and many other instruments. Whichever way your pleasure tends, you’ll find one that fits your taste.
If you want to try out this work, any of the above versions would be a good place to start, but I firmly believe that Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording is the most moving of all for piano, followed closely by Schiff and Perahia. On the harpsichord, Richard Egarr has a beautiful sound, and his recording is the longest in my collection at over 90 minutes for the Goldbergs (there are some other brief works on the two-disc set). Scott Ross’s more concise reading of the work has a bit more bounce, and Masaaki Suzuki is delicate and masterful. So if you don’t know the Goldbergs, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of it and discover this masterpiece of Bach’s keyboard music.
One more thing: for an enigmatic read that is somewhat based on the Goldberg Variations, do check out Richard Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations. “Once more with feeling.”
Posted: 3/5/2011 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: Bach, classical music, essential music | 2 Comments »
There are some kinds of music that, when you first hear them, sound like they are music that you’ve always heard in your head, but never on a record. That’s how I felt when I first heard Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports shortly after it was first released. The self-effacing title of this 1978 album suggests that it might be a form of muzak, or taffelmusik. In fact, that was, in some ways, the goal of the work. It was designed to be played as background music, but the kind that you could focus on at any time and appreciate the qualities of the music. Eno, according to Wikipedia,
conceived this idea while being stuck at Cologne Bonn Airport in Germany in the mid 70s. He had to spend several hours there and was extremely annoyed by the uninspired sound atmosphere.
This four-part, 48-minute work, was the first album to bear the moniker “ambient,” though it was not Eno’s first truly ambient work. While other albums featuring a similar tone were made prior to Music for Airports, this was the first one consciously designed with what would become the ambient ethos.
Eno’s Discreet Music predated Music for Airports by three years, and, featuring the eponymous 30-minute track, as well as three experimental “remixes” of Pachelbel’s Canon, was the first true ambient work, designed as a background track for Robert Fripp to play over in concert.
Eno would go on to create other album-length ambient works, such as the 61-minute Thursday Afternoon, in 1985 (perhaps his best long work), the 58-minute Neroli (as of this writing, just 99 cents in MP3 format on Amazon) in 1993, and the 1999 I Dormienti, a 40-minute soundtrack for an installation.
Much of Eno’s music is ambient in nature, and he has recorded many other albums with the same tone, but others are more collections of shorter tracks, or collaborations, such as those with Harold Budd or Robert Fripp. But the five long ambient albums remain the most successful approaches to ambient music. While there are now thousands of people composing “ambient” music – after Eno, it became a genre of its own – Brian Eno’s albums are the pillars of this type of music. If you’re unfamiliar with this music, go for Music for Airports and Thursday Afternoon first. The title track of Discreet Music is excellent (though I don’t like the remixes of Pachelbel’s Canon). And Neroli is a dark, yet moving piece as well. No matter what, you owe yourself to discover this moving, meditative music.
Posted: 2/18/2011 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: ambient music, Brian Eno, essential music, music | 7 Comments »
Okay, I’m in a 70s music mood these days. Recent posts have been about Genesis and Fela Kuti, both of whom I discovered in the mid to late 70s, as well as Jerry Garcia, whose music has been with me since around 1976 and who, together with The Grateful Dead, is one of the staples of my iTunes library.
Today’s listen is Ultravox!, a sui generis group that flourished in the 70s, before changing drastically after founding singer-songwriter John Foxx left the band. The band’s first album, Ultravox!, was released in 1977. It was a combination of pre-punk, glam rock, and pre-new wave. (Ultravox would later become a popular new wave band, but I’ll get to that.) The quality of John Foxx’s songwriting, and singing, make it easy to put this album side-by-side with early Roxy Music and David Bowie, one of their influences, but the music is not at all derivative. Foxx is very sincere: In I Want to Be a Machine, Foxx sings like he really means it. The Wild, The Beautiful & The Damned is a powerful rock ballad. And My Sex, with its combination of 70s Euro-drab-chic and Pink Floyd-esque sounds. Produced by Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite, this album is a snapshot of a transitional period between early 70s rock and the nascent punk rock.
Released later the same year, the band’s second album, Ha!-Ha!-Ha!, takes the same moody music but pumps up the energy. From the punky Rockwrok and Fear in the Western World to the Euro-gray Hiroshima Mon Amour, through the introspective The Man Who Dies Every Day, Ultravox honed their sound, with catchy songs that nevertheless depict the monochromic urban world of 1970s England.
For their third album, released in 1978, Systems of Romance, Foxx is at his peak in songwriting, and Quiet Men would become his signature song, even after he left the band. The music becomes smoother and grayer, using synthesizers, and suggests what would soon be heard from Joy Division and other groups. Produced by Conny Plank, the producer of Kraftwerk, the influences of krautrock are clear. But this would be the last of the group’s albums with John Foxx, leaving this trilogy of excellent songs that depict the heart of a decade.
After Foxx left, Midge Ure came in as singer, and the group changed to a more new wave sound. In fact, listening to their 1980 Vienna, one would be hard pressed to find much of a link between the two periods. I saw Ultravox! live in a small club in New York in 1980, and they performed a combination of older songs along with those from Vienna (there were several hit singles from that album), and I recall the band all wearing those early-80s new wave coats while performing. (If you ever see any old new wave music videos, you’ll know what I mean.) It was a good performance, but I regret never seeing John Foxx perform live.
Foxx released Metamatic in 1980, which could be seen as the first real electro-pop album of the new wave era. Hugely influential, it was followed in 1981 by The Garden, and Foxx set out on a career of electronic and ambient music, and has been an important composer in this area.
But when I listen to those three early Ultravox! albums, I’m reminded of a wonderful period of music before MTV, on the cusp of punk, and before New Wave would bring a lot of bland, formatted music to the airwaves.
Posted: 12/30/2010 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: essential music, Ultravox! | 3 Comments »
Back in the 1970s, as a teenager in New York City, I had amazing opportunities to see concerts by the world’s most popular bands. In the mid-70s, I became a fan of Genesis, the group formed by Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks back in 1967. Around 1976, I discovered their music through their album Trick of the Tail, the first album after Gabriel left the band. This led me to get their older albums – those with Gabriel – and their follow-up, Wind & Wuthering. These two mid-70s albums were excellent, but the music was different from the Gabriel era.
From the touring for these two albums, Genesis compiled a double-album called Seconds Out. It includes one of the great Peter Gabriel songs, Supper’s Ready, which is over 24 minutes in this live recording, along with many other songs from the 76-77 albums, and a few older songs (The Musical Box, Cinema Show, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway).
But as a live album, Seconds Out is one of the highlights of the late 70s. It is consistent, well recorded, and well performed. Yes, it was the period after Gabriel left the band, and his unique voice and performance style were missing. But it wasn’t the descent into cloying pop music that would follow after 1980. Collins is a strong singer and drummer, and the album, in fact, has a strong presence of drums, with both Collins and Chester Thompson, who played with the band when touring, being central to the sound (especially in the closing Dance on a Volcano > Los Endos, two very drum-heavy songs).
I was able to see Genesis live just once, at Madison Square Garden, on July 29, 1978. This was a special performance, as there was an unannounced guest for an encore: Peter Gabriel came out and sang I Know What I Like with Phil Collins to close the show.
Genesis was a powerful performing band, with what was, for the time, an adventurous light show and excellent sound. I listen to Seconds Out from time to time and feel a bit younger. If you’re not familiar with Genesis back before they became a staple of MTV, this is a good place to start.
Posted: 12/29/2010 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: essential music, Genesis | 5 Comments »
As any Grateful Dead fan (aka Deadhead) will tell you, “Dark Star” is the ultimate Dead song. This cosmic symphony of rock was the optimal vehicle for the group’s improvisations, a template for the moods and feelings that the various musicians wanted to express in their music. Jerry Garcia said, “Dark Star has meant, while I was playing it, almost as many things as I can sit here and imagine,” and Phil Lesh called it “the one we tacitly agreed on where anything was okay.”
While the Dead jammed many of their songs, Dark Star has a special place. It stands aside several other classic tunes that often stretched on for 30 minutes or more–That’s It for the Other One, Turn on Your Lovelight, Playin’ In the Band–but always offered a less structured environment for improvisation. The Grateful Dead performed Dark Star at least 232 times, according to Deadbase.On an absolute level, there are no Dark Stars, but there is one long, discontinuous Dark Star, which was proven so adeptly by John Oswald in his Grayfolded, a melding and morphing of dozens of Dark Stars into a long, single piece that embodies the essence of Dark Star.
The ur-Dark Star must remain the 2/27/69 version, immortalized on the Live Dead album, which was released later the same year. This version has almost chamber-music perfection and subtlety, and its inclusion on the Dead’s first live release raised it to a special place in the Pantheon of Dead songs. It was the Dark Star that Deadheads (other than those who traded tapes) listened to over and over.
Every other Dark Star flows from that version. Whether it be the raucous 8/27/72 performance, recorded in the scorching Oregon heat, where Jerry Garcia’s notes spit from his amps like fire bolts; the sinuous 9/21/72 version (at over 37 minutes), with its long, mellow noodling; or the jazzy Halloween 1971 version, every Dark Star has its own character and mood. Other classic Dark Stars include the 2/13/70 Fillmore East recording, which is part of one of the Dead’s greatest concerts ever, and the 48-minute 5/11/72 version played in Rotterdam.
Dark Star will remain, for aficionados of the Grateful Dead, the hallmark of their work. While the Dead performed hundreds of different songs, the scope and breadth–and length–of Dark Star makes it the highlight of almost every live Grateful Dead recording.
Posted: 12/25/2008 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: essential music, Grateful Dead | 3 Comments »
Synchronicity is such that I just received the latest issue of the New Yorker, which contains a very interesting article about Morton Feldman, who is now considered to be one of the greatest American composers of the twentieth century. I say synchronicity because it was only a few weeks ago that I discovered Feldman’s music, by browsing through the iTunes Music Store. I purchased his Triadic Memories, an astoundingly simple yet profound piano work, and his Piano and String Quartet, which pulses to the rhythm of human breath and is full of understated surprises.These later works by Feldman should be called minimalist, but they aren’t the same type of repetitive minimalism of Steve Reich or Philip Glass, two of my favorite composers. It’s more a minimalism of reduction, of stripping away the arabesques of music to leave only the salient parts that provide feeling and emotion. In Feldman’s music, the silence is as important as the notes.
Feldman also wrote some very long pieces in his later years: For Philip Guston, which is over four hours long, and his String Quartet 2, that clocks in at around six hours. (At the time of this update, in June, 2011, the String Quartet 2 is only $20 from Amazon in MP3 format.)
And while I’m rambling about minimalism, one of the most astounding recordings I’ve heard in recent years is Harold Budd’s As Long As I Can Hold My Breath (By Night), a 69-minute remix of a song on the Avalon Sutra album, which has great similarities to Feldman’s music…
There’s a lot of music to listen to here, but I felt the need to share this discovery. I just wonder why it took me so long to learn about Morton Feldman. Perhaps part of the reason is the scope of many of his works; you won’t hear hour-long works on the radio very often, or even in performance. But finally I have discovered his work, and it’s a very good thing.
Update: Since I first wrote this article in 2008, I have collected a great deal of Feldman’s works. Many of them are very long, but once you appreciate Feldman’s musical language, you are more than happy to take the time to listen to them.
Posted: 12/22/2008 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: essential music, minimalism, Morton Feldman | No Comments »
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For the first live recording of his trio, Bill Evans accepted to be taped at the Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961, playing with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. This was a Sunday, and the trio played five brief sets, all of which were recorded by Orin Keepnews, a producer Evans had worked with in the past and would do so again many times. The recordings were released on several albums: First, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, then Waltz for Debby showed the full range of songs from that day, and later More from the Vanguard was a collection of alternate takes. In 2003, a definitive set, The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard 1961, was released, which contains all the music from these three albums, including one interrupted track that had not been released.
It’s easy to look back and judge history through hindsight, but the patrons of the triangular basement room at the Village Vanguard probably had no idea that they were witnesses to a historical recording. From the very first notes of Gloria’s Step, a piece composed by LaFaro, you can hear the perfection that Bill Evans and his various trios would bring to jazz over the next two decades, and the magical rapport that these three musicians had on stage. But the recording equipment lost power during this first song, leaving a partial take with a dropout in the middle. Those who read symbolism into the vagaries of life might see this as a premonition of Scott LaFaro’s death only ten days later in a car accident.But the recording remains one of the most powerful live recordings of any jazz music. Evans plays with the detachment and subtlety that made him such a great artist, allowing the other members of his trio to be creative performers and not mere accompanists. Evans would record many albums throughout his career in this lineup, which became his preferred way of playing, but the one to return to is this sacred 1961 recording.
It’s almost a shame to hear the crowd mingling and talking behind the musicians, as though they were impervious to the beauty of the music; Evans would say, “I just blocked out the noise and got a little deeper into the music,” but Paul Motian claims that the crowd is what he likes best about the recording: “The sounds of all those people, glasses and chatter; I mean, I know you’re supposed to be very offended and all, but I like it.”
Each of the pieces played that day is a masterpiece, from the jaunty Gloria’s Step’ to the heart-rending My Foolish Heart, to the delicate Waltz for Debby, one of Evans’ most beautiful pieces. When they finished their last set, with only a handful of people still listening, playing LaFaro’s Jade Visions? twice, they all went home leaving history behind them.
(You can read a moving article about this famous performance, by Adam Gopnik, from The New Yorker.)
Posted: 7/2/2008 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: Bill Evans, essential music, jazz | No Comments »
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For those who weren’t around or listening to music in 1979, it’s hard to imagine how different the world of “popular” music was. Critics and retailers hadn’t fragmented music into the many genres you see today in stores, and many of today’s genres didn’t even exist. Rap was taking its first steps, ambient and electronic music were considered avant-garde, new age was just budding, and punk and disco were battling it out in the record bins. New wave was just following in the footsteps of punk, as progressive rock was in its final death throes.
Amidst the punk and new-wave music that came out of England, as part of the late-’70s independent music scene, was a now-legendary record label based in Manchester: Factory Records. Its first two groups were Joy Division (which, after the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis, morphed into New Order) and The Durutti Column, but Factory released many other records by little-known groups, and the Factory concept, together with other independent labels in the UK, such as Rough Trade, revitalized a moribund music scene.In January 1980, when The Return of the Durutti Column, the first album by The Durutti Column, was released, it was not only a breakthrough record but a surprising sound amidst the angst and anger of the punk years. This 33-minute record, a collection of instrumental songs by Vini Reilly (credited on the album as The Guitarist; Martin Hannet is credited as The Producer, though there are also some bass and drum parts on the record), had such a unique sound that I was instantly smitten, as were thousands of other listeners.
Vini Reilly has one of the most original styles of playing the guitar, with a pulsing, crystalline sound that weaves layers of guitar chords, riffs, and arpeggios throughout his music. On this record, full of overdubbed guitar parts showing off Reilly’s understated virtuosity, Reilly set down the foundation for the music that he would play over the coming decades, but also put a nail in the coffin of punk rock. With a record as brash as this”â€such mellow, melodic music, confronting the ambience of punk and angst”â€Vini Reilly forever marked popular music.
Vini Reilly later talked about recording this album. “The idea of doing very personal guitar pieces, pre-1977, would be a joke really; you’d be a big old fart and generally be stale and boring, consigned to the folk/rock thing or whatever. But post-punk, it was something else, it became something other, and so it fits in to a degree with all the other mishmash of strange things that were going on.”?
While The Durutti Column is not very well known, the band quickly developed a cult following. As critic Mark Prendergrast wrote, “The Durutti Column remain very much a mystery. Discs become immediate collectors’ items on release, rare concert appearances are always packed to capacity.” Performing sporadically, The Durutti Column (the group is basically Reilly and whoever he works with on a given album or gig, with the exception of drummer Bruce Mitchell, who has long been a part of The Durutti Column both in the studio and on stage) has regularly released albums over the past 25 years, and is still producing fine, distinctive music for a limited coterie of dedicated fans.
Vini Reilly is a craftsman, often recording his work on small, portable multitrack recording devices, building his songs layer by layer into one-of-a-kind creations. A photo used on the cover of a special album for fans who are members of the Durutti Column Subscription Group shows Vini in a large living room, sitting on the floor, a guitar in his lap, listening to something he’s just recorded on a small recording device. This photo sums up The Durutti Column: one man who writes the music he wants to, plays it his way, and releases it without the music industry getting in the way.
Find out more about The Durutti Column at the Durutti Column web site.
Posted: 5/6/2008 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: Durutti Column, essential music, music | No Comments »