Thursday, March 19, 2015

Three Very Different Blasts from the Past: Takemitsu, 2001, and Tull

These three reviews which I wrote about 1970's vinyl records were originally published by SitDownListenUp on

Solar Flairs and Silence: Takemitsu Piano

The music of Toru Takemitsu (as “realized,” not “played,” by Roger Woodward) is, at fist listen, a far cry from Bach and Mozart – but it is a continuation of that tradition into uncharted territory. Or, it was uncharted then. In retrospect, there’s a lot of Debussy in this experimentalism. I couldn’t stop listening to it in the 1970’s because of its brash, in-your-face weirdness (and because it annoyed some of my friends) but now, I hear the mellowness and beauty of its explorations of sound (and silence).

The album is Roger Woodward Plays Takemitsu, first released in 1974 on the Decca label. This was not the first album of the “classical avant-garde” genre that I heard; I’d been raised on classical music and was familiar with its “modern” offshoot. However, this was the record that taught me everything that I’d failed to learn about music in my fourteen years previously. It taught me that sound itself was interesting; that silence can be a necessary part of sound; that the piano was not an instrument with a single, monolithic timbre but was a malleable device capable of a myriad subtle sounds; that music could be exciting, relaxing, soulful and intellectually challenging all at the same time. These same comments still hold, forty years later.

I first heard it in 1975, late one night on the KING FM avant-garde hour. Presently I’m listening to the CD re-release; my LP copy disappeared while I was living in Japan in the late 1980’s. The digitalization has rendered portions of it a little characterless. However, the reduction in surface noise possibly makes up for this because of the extreme quietness of some of the music.

Side A: Corona (London Version)

This is music about the sun, a “realization” of a sunburst-like graphic score for one or more keyboardists. Mr. Woodward’s version features piano, harpsichord (unrecognizable), and electric organ.

The album begins with an enigma wrapped in silence. That three-note motive, the idée-fixe for Corona, is stated by muted notes from the piano. The sound rings over nothingness like sharply delineated outlines of meteors in space, repeating, and adding more sounds. Deep, quiet rumbles from the piano’s bass appear, with cascades of quick high notes and glissandi, then menacing scrapes and thuds. Perhaps the growing density signals the coalescing of the sun from a primordial nebula.

The organ enters. A Leslie speaker creates a pulsating energy field (the sun’s corona) against which the piano sounds continue to evolve. There are sonic solar flares. Two of them are massive: the second, a grand attack from the guts of the piano, introduces a major chord on the organ – perhaps the sun has just ignited its nuclear fires.

This was way-out, far-out, tripped-out music in 1974. In retrospect it’s not as much typical Takemitsu as a cousin of Pink Floyd (other bloggers have noted this).

The piano’s resonances begin to change. There are more echoes now, more reverb, haloes of harmonics. Phantom vibraphones emerge and are lost. More and more tones gather. None are played in the conventional piano manner with fingers on keys and the strings unmodified.

This part is the sound of the sun as we can conventionally see it, pasted in the sky and radiating on a hot day. We can also imagine sailing close to it, seeing its gasses seethe, passing over and under vast electrified tendrils and arcs of gas.

Density continues to increase. A resonant scrape along the bass strings introduces the climax. The music becomes atomic; energy and color burst into view and are subsumed back into the vibratory hum of the organ.

The climax fades. The music settles into a long coda. The three-note motive is now hollow and thudding. Is this music the entire life history of the sun? Is it now going to fade slowly and burn out? The music provides no answer, only a prosaic fade-out – but with neither a resolve nor a sense of loss about this final fate. This is another version of “The Unanswered Question” by Charles Ives.

Side B: Piano Solos

“For Away” – This consists of dulcet currents and eddies of notes, whispers of waters in the darkness, or maybe clusters of stars in a deep night sky. Again, there is an idée-fixe, though now it is developed in a conventional “classical” manner with a sense of organic growth. Briefly the flows converge in a downward spiral, then (after silence) an upward arc (a wave, or a bright constellation) – and they converge again later, rendering the repeated motive as an arpeggio. Despite the consistent use of the infamous “flat fourth”, the entire effect is not different from Debussy.

“Piano Distance” – the first note sounds a continuation of “For Away” – it is a distant, ringing, single sound – then the second (a fortissimo “wrong note”) jarringly interrupts. Now there is a fight between loud dissonances and distant echoes. It sounds exactly the same as it did in the 1970’s. It recalls Stockhausen. It ends quickly, leading into:

“Undisturbed Rests” – I was less impressed with this in the 1970’s than I am now. Back then it was (to me) just a copy of other music; now I hear it as an extension of the Impressionist piano style. “Slowly and sadly, as if to converse” is the first movement. This is the sound-world of Scriabin, with pungent chords. They quickly gather for a dissonant climax, then disappear. “Quietly and with cruel reverberation” is similar to “Piano Distance”, only more refined and impressionistic; the resonances of the piano are explored in individual louder sounds clanging in a mist. “A song of love” is close to jazz, but jazz viewed from far away or through a microfying lens. The sounds are tiny, indistinct; yet they are also sensual. Perhaps this is a memory of love. The piece ends in nothingness; again, an enigma wrapped in silence; a fitting conclusion to an album that was mostly “about” silence and is as intriguing now as it was forty years ago.

How the Future Used to Sound: Ormandy/Bernstein “2001” Music

This is how electronic music sounded forty years ago, when it was still far-out and futuristic and before it picked up a beat and an “A” on the end, and stepped into the dance clubs.

Now, this music sounds several different ways. I’ll discuss what I can because my old vinyl copy has an extraordinary amount of surface noise and this was never rereleased on CD. The album is Ormandy and Bernstein conduct selections from “2001: A Space Odyssey”. (Yes, despite the title, there is a lot of “electronic music”.)

First impression: it’s dated. The electronic intro (by Morton Subotnik) is a series of humming, wobbling noises without a general pattern – aleatoric, but too jumbled to make much of an impression. It sounds like the theme to “Forbidden Planet”; at the time, the sound of the future, but now, a forlorn moan from a future that might have been.

A trumpet appears under the vibrations, and the famous “2001” theme starts. (Actually it’s the “Sunrise” prelude to a tone-poem by Richard Strauss). The orchestra explodes into full color. Again, this is a future that might have been, but in some inexplicable way the music has shifted from being dated to being iconic. (Remember how this is referenced in “Wall-E”?)

The last chord leads directly into “Atmospheres”, the first of two compositions by Ligeti. Adjectives shift yet again: neither dated nor iconic; but still the sound of space. This is another full orchestral piece, though it is nothing like “orchestral music”. Written on sixty-three staff lines (all the strings have separate parts), it takes the listener through a series of rich chords, a piercing high screech that cuts to a deep rumble, a swarm of bees, a menacing brass growl, and a violin “shimble” (shimmer/tremble) into a star-cluster of transparent sounds. All of this is what one hears on the surface; underneath, there is a daunting complexity of contrapuntal, interlocking details.

This is played during the kaleidoscopic voyage leading to the final scene in the movie (where it doesn’t end, but loops back around to the beginning) – here, it fades into white noise and the second of the Subotnik interludes.

Again, dated (though not quite as kitschy as the first one). Bells and bird-like screeches, disappearing into the first atmospheric chords of “The Beautiful Blue Danube”. My mind is so colored by the movie that I picture the round space station spinning, more than Viennese dancers. But now I have a question – what does this music really have to do with space?

The most unintentionally hilarious part of the album occurs at the end of the waltz: big orchestral finish, suddenly transformed into the electronic snarl, jackhammer, and boinging noises of the next Subotnik interlude. At the time this was a hip, cool transition; now, I just shake my head and wonder what “totally awesome” music of the present era will result in a guffaw forty years on.

Ligeti’s chorale “Lux Aeterna” begins out of the sonic wreckage. We’re in iconic space music again (John Williams copied the sound of this music in some of the soundtrack to “Close Encounters”). Strange, dissonant vocal chords echo in the void, building to two large climaxes (the movie, and this album, both omit the third). One can imagine infinite distances…

Another Subotnik interlude; like the intro but quieter, and Katchaturian’s “Adagio” begins. Another icon of “space music” that originally had nothing to do with space, this lonely, lovely, chamber music recalls, again, infinite distances. It was notably re-scored in the soundtrack to “Aliens”.

The rest of Side A is simply a repeat of the opening two minutes, and concludes the “2001” Odyssey.

Side B is where things get interesting. Karl Birger Blomdahl’s “Aniara” was another big project about the future in space, but for the operatic stage rather than the movie theatre. In an opera, the music leads the action, not vice-versa, so this suite unfolds unhindered by conforming to the images on the screen. For operaphobes, no worry: there is no operatic singing in these instrumental excerpts. Again, infinite distances are suggested (either the recording engineers added a lot of reverb, or the concert hall was enormous). First, there is a slow build-up of atonal brass. This is technically “serial” music, a manner of composition used mostly in the 1950’s and 1960’s; its atonality is perfectly suited for the music of outer space. Then there’s a jazzy bit, leading to: Electronics.

This is of course the same electronics as the Subotnik pieces on Side A: rudimentary analogue synthesizers and prerecorded sounds altered by tape speed and distortion. There are whooshes, bells, moaning (and increasingly frantic) voices, a celestial chorus recalling Lux Aeterna, a cluster of accelerating beeps, more voices, and a climax of roars and a deep baritone proclaiming “See-NOHN-der-ond!” like the stroke of doom (I spelled that phonetically; if anyone reading this speaks Swedish, I’d like to how what it means and how to spell it correctly). When I first heard this it terrified me. This was music that had nothing to do with our comfortable little home here on planet Earth. It was the music of the beyond, of infinity of time as much as of space. In retrospect it loses none of its impact. Yes, the electronics are a bit primitive; but one thinks of the electronics on the Voyager spaceship heading into interstellar space. And, probably helped by the continued reverb (it seems that the recordists simply played the electronics into the same hall as the orchestra and recorded the result), the vastness of the universe comes through. The concluding violin solo with the orchestra does not return the music to familiar territory because it is still in the “serial” atonal style, and the listener is left somewhere in the vacuum out by the Orion Nebula.

In conclusion, Side A (“2001”) is the sound of the outer space future that might have been. Side B is the sounds of the undiscovered cosmos. Both represent how the twenty-first century used to sound, seen from back in the mid-twentieth.

Jethro Tull's Forgotten Storm

The band is well-known enough but the albums isn’t. For some reason, Jetrho Tull’s Stormwatch is off the radar for most music fans. This is an anomaly; it certainly isn’t one of those “pantheon” albums, but it’s not bad.

The album continues Tull’s tradition of mixing prog and Celtic rock. Jigs and piping mingle freely with odd meters (used in Celtic music anyway), jazz flute, “classical” influences, and quasi-metal guitar solos. There is even a Baroque composition at the end.

“North Sea Oil” is a political rocker, not particularly notable musically except for the several key changes and psycho-sounding vocals on the word “oil”.

“Orion” is a catchy melody (hints of both blues and British Isles folk music) with a refrain in fifths and a nearly country-music piano.

“Home” is a guitar-heavy 80’s power-ballad, probably the most forgettable song on the album. Ian Anderson’s voice isn’t particularly suitable for this kind of thing.

Prog rock begins in earnest with “Dark Ages“, a song I called “Theme and Variations in Metal” (early metal) the first time I heard it. (Prog rock and Metal were not mutually exclusive sub-genres back then.) Over atmospheric overtones, guitars and piano alternately proclaim the Beethoven-esque da-da-da-daaaaaa! (slower and one note off from the Beethoven, but screaming instrumentally “Pay attention! This is important!” in the same way.) The words ominously begin, “Are you ready for the long winter’s fall…?” A sudden shift to 6/8 meter brings the listener out of the intro. Apocalyptic lyrics alternate with fearsome guitar and bass. At times it sounds like Iron Maiden, a band I've only listened to once on purpose. The refrain occurs with a different accompaniment each time (hence the “theme and variations”); at first it’s light and airy in contrast to the “metal” elsewhere. The obligatory guitar solo causes the meter to stutter repeatedly, recalling similar passages by Rush. There’s a momentary respite just before the last refrain, though the clock chimes –

“Warm Sporran” is a cute Scottish march with a funky bassline. I imagine it as a March of the Ents, if they could dance while marching.

“Stormwatch” picks up where “Dark Ages” left off, though now there’s nothing to interrupt the inexorable advance of the “Lady of the Ice”, while “the weatherman says something’s on the move”. Was this a memory of the Winter Witch in Narnia, or a premonition of Disney’s “Frozen”?

With “Old Ghosts”, we enter another sound-world. Flute, piano, and orchestra weave a rhythmic, polyphonic web, over which the strange lyrics continue the storm imagery but infuse it with a strange spookiness. Some old ghost is returning in a hurricane, down to the old stones…

“Dun Ringill” is a Celtic mystery. Musically it recalls Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore” (but with twelve-string guitars instead of mandolins); the lyrics, with references to stone circles and old gods, are half-forgotten wisps of stone-age mythology.

“Flying Dutchman” begins with soft piano and loud guitar outbursts, in classic prog-rock manner. This is a retelling of the traditional ghost story, though with a warning to those who love “the good life” at the expense of others: Beware! All the imagery of storms and violence occurring previously in this album are for you; you will become the ghost wandering endlessly in the tempest. If this sounds uncharacteristically moralizing for Tull, it is couched in (rather obscure) rhymes on a beautiful melodic line and thus, to the listener, is more of a prog-rock anthem than a lecture. Musically, this song has extended verses and a chorus that uses the ambiguity of open fifths, resolving up a whole step to major (as in the Moody Blues’ “Knights in White Satin” and “Take a Pebble” by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer). The instrumental solo between the verses is on flute, rather than guitar (fitting for the “classical” atmosphere), and is introduced by an Irish jig. The ending, fitting for a ghost story, simply fades into the ether.

Then there’s that Baroque postscript. “Elegy” is an instrumental; a sad, contrapuntal melody recalling nothing so much as an instrumental lament that could theoretically appear in a Bach cantata. Rock music in a melancholy mood and infused with “classical” timbres can tend to slip awfully close to easy-listening elevator music (and – horrors! – I did actually hear this track playing in a supermarket once) but on this album, it continues the sadness from the end of “Flying Dutchman” and forms a welcome respite from the Sturm und Drang that came earlier.

Conclusion? Though one of Jethro Tull’s lesser-known opuses, and certainly not as classic (or as “prog”) as Thick as a Brick, this album is nonetheless worth another listen or two. I’ve certainly enjoyed it over the years.

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