Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Vinyl Gems

I recently got my turntable out of storage, refurbished it, and found my old collection of vinyl LPs. True to my early life as a classical music nerd, the vast majority of them are large-scale symphonic works by Mahler, Stravinsky and the like, with occasional nods to jazz and world music (I was actually collecting a fair amount of the latter before I put them all in storage and headed off the Japan in the late 1980’s). Most of my favorites, of course, I’ve re-collected on CDs, including more recent recordings of the better-known classical works. However, a few seem to still be more interesting on vinyl (including possessing that indefinable retro-coolness factor). Here’s a selection, in no particular order.

Jan Kapr: String Quartet, Dialogues, Rotazione
A Czech composer whom I’ve never heard of before or since. Too bad. This music is fascinating and starkly, dramatically, beautiful. Mostly it reminds me of Schoenberg (though “beautiful” is an adjective too seldom applied to that composer’s work, despite the literal meaning of his surname); to this aesthetic, Kapr adds a sense of stability enhanced by passages in moto perpetuo (!), and, in the quieter moments of the “Dialogues”, strange glimpses of the possibility of atonal folk music.

Pallavi: South Indian Flute Music (T. Viswanathan)
A pivotal “world music” record for me, that I first heard on KRAB. The single repeated melody of the raga is obvious as it goes through various manipulations in rhythm and speed (against an unchanging rhythmic base) and is interspersed with improvisations. This kind of flexibility over stasis is found mostly (in American music) in the minimalists such as Steve Reich, though I’ve heard hints of it in more “popular” genres: prog rock (the changes of speed in the base line of “Portrait: He Knew” by Kansas) and electronica (the climax of “Entropy” by Prophetica has one theme played over itself in two tempi). I might also mention some of Miles Davis’ experiments with expanding meters. One oddity is that one of the various sounds of the mrdangam drum sounds exactly like a “scratch” from the turntable; could this be an old precursor to the hip-hop aesthetic…?

Stokowski conducts Ives and Messiaen
Yeah, I know, both of these works have much better, more recent recordings; this version of the Ives is too heavy and ponderous, completely lacking in subtlety, and basically just sounds like a bad dream; and the slow movements of the Messiaen are rushed to the point of absurdity (the “suspended” sixth at the end of the last movement sounds completely unfinished at this breakneck tempo)… But, this is still one of my favorite recordings of “modern” orchestral repertoire. This is the record that introduced me to Messiaen, after all, and I have yet to find a performance of the third movement that reaches the ecstatic joy of this one.

Ron Carter: Pastels
One of the rare, happy instances where adding a string section to a set of jazz compositions did not result in schlock. Mr. Carter’s bass solos are that indefinable and superb combination of dexterity, inspiration and beauty that the improvising jazz artist strives for.

Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker: Carnegie Hall Concert
Jazz at its smoothest, without being “smooth jazz” (which happily didn’t exist then).

1980’s jazz/funk with a Gospel twist. This band was popular with students at Seattle Pacific University when I was an undergrad there; one reason may be because there were a number of students there from Hawaii who liked to promote “their” local band. At any rate, the general sound is rather like Earth Wind and Fire but with only one, very flexible vocalist (she’s too skillful and expressive for me to just call her a “singer”). The instrumental pieces are worth noting: somewhat “prog” brass-laden jazz compositions with some hot improvisations and cross-cuts of interesting off-meters (this would climax in their second album, “Light the Light”, which has a song partially in the meter of 15/16).

Stockhasuen: Prozession
Another reference to my undergrad days at Seattle Pacific – I used to play music like this, as loudly as possible, to annoy the many other students who listened to only Contemporary Christian Music (which at the time was really, to my ear, none of the above). This is “classic” Stockhausen, with spacey avant-jazz/serialist piano riffs, edge-or-your-seat amplified gong scrapes, and punctuations of silence. The whole 50-minute piece is figuratively a gargantuan diminuendo, gradually loosening up from the horrific opening ten minutes (which at times sound like effects in “Alien”) through a number of episodes to quiet meditations on single unstable pitches near the end. In space, nobody can hear you slowly slip into hibernation.
By the way, my attitude has lightened up about CCM – though the writers and musicians in the genre have also greatly improved since the early 1980’s.

Claude Ballif: Un Coup de Dés
When I first heard this, I didn’t know what to make of it. It defied any attempts to analyze or hear “where it was going”; yet the atonal aesthetic was clearly of the mid-20th century classical avant-garde, and thus “should” be a highly mathematical and teleological piece. What I know now, of course, is that this in one of those transitional pieces, like works of Cage and Feldman – leading into the more expansive, meditative musics of the “contemporary” (as opposed to “modern”) period.

Bernstein and Ormandy: “2001” Music / Blomdahl: Aniara
Seen with nearly fifty years’ hindsight, this “remix” of Ligeti’s music used for “2001: A Space Odyssey” (along with the Kachaturian and music by two Strausses used in the same film) seems a little on the kitschy side. The Morton Subotnik interludes in particular conjure up images from bad 1960’s space operas. This was, however, the album that introduced me, as a kid, to the avant-garde, when my Dad gave it (this album) to me as a birthday present. At the time I thought that Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” was entirely electronic, and was surprised by the obvious appearance of “live” violins near the end. At any rate, from today’s perspective, it’s the “B-side” that’s more interesting: Blohmdahl’s “Aniara” suite is a crystalline encapsulation of the state of classical music right at end of the “modern” period.
Unfortunately, my copy of this didn’t survive the storage well – it’s like trying to listen to the music from behind a wall of static.

Ormandy conducts Mahler: Symphony no. 10
Of course this exists on CD’s, with newer digital recordings and better stereo fidelity. However, CD’s don’t seem to capture the deep fundamentals of the all-important bass drum in the finale, and so this is still my favorite version of this piece. The performance isn’t bad either.

Carl Orff: Streetsong
The more recent CD version of the Orff-Schulwerk music on Celestial Harmonies adds a lot of classical finesse (and a lot of compression) and completely loses the point. This is music for (and usually played by) children. That said, this 1970’s LP version was probably not played by children (though no instrumentalists are credited), but it has that necessary edge of rough and untamed enthusiasm. Each piece is in itself a tiny, perfectly-cut gem, by turns reminiscent of Javanese gamelan, European Renaissance music, marching bands, Latin American folk music, or fusions thereof.

Koto Vivaldi
The “Four Seasons” played on six kotos – a novelty album, but an interesting one. Somehow it sounds more like a giant flamenco guitar than either baroque or koto music.

Cleo Laine sings Schoenberg
The legendary jazz vocalist tackles Pierot Lunaire, with startling expressions and only subliminal hints of jazz. Changing the words to English renders the music a stream of consciousness monologue in what could be a slightly twisted Broadway musical – and has the unsettling effect that it probably had on its original German listeners.

Missing in Action

The following were favorites that seem to have been sucked into a black hole sometime between 1987 and now. If anybody’s seen them (perhaps beamed down from a passing UFO), please let me know.

The World of Harry Partch
Columbia Records should be charged with a felony for never releasing this as a CD (at the least, grand theft for stealing people’s chance to hear this brilliant music).

Sumire Yoshihara: Percussions in Colors (works by Takemitsu and Ichiyanagi)
Percussion becomes spacey arrhythmic ambience, then a complete about-face with aggressive taiko-flavored polyrhythms.

Javanese Court Gamelan vol. 1
The “original” recording that brought the mellifluous "gong-chimes" (as they were then known) to an American audience. It’s been reissued on CD, but the vinyl somehow feels more “authentic”.

Shivkumar Sharma
The first recording I heard by the Indian santur (hammered dulcimer) master. These are shorter, more concise versions of ragas than those that appeared later on CDs.

A true experiment (and fun!) – a band that fused bluegrass with repetitive minimalism. This could have been an exciting new genre (a variation on “newgrass”), had there been any follow-up.