Twelve years ago, on one of my first trips to Tanglewood, I discovered the hedge maze that abutted the Lawn next to our usual practice spot, the Chamber Music Hall. Cloaked by twelve foot hedges, the center held a fountain overflowing with flowers. Beyond lay a memorial bench commemorating the donation of the Tanglewood property by the Tappan family. The bench was evocatively ruined. It still had a commanding presence but the cracks that ran through it seemingly threatened to send part of it toppling to the ground. Behind: a fifteen foot hedge. Beyond: the road, then the world.
This year we arrived at CMH to see a temporary fence and a blue sky gap in the hedge. The fence surrounded a batch of new hedges barely eighteen inches tall. Beyond: the bench, rebuilt. Without the overgrowth of hedge, the now-reknitted bench, still awaiting the reapplication of its bronze dedication letters, curved like a oyster, inviting and naked. The dark tangled beauty I remembered from twelve years ago was gone, but another beauty now sits revealed, waiting for its letters.
Haven’t done one of these in a long time, but a partial power outage at work seems like a good reason to start. Here are the first ten tracks that have spun up from my music player today. I will confess to cheating a little by removing that one Johnny Mathis Christmas tune that came up in the middle.
The Flaming Lips, “Goin’ On,” At War with the Mystics (Deluxe Edition)
Jonny Greenwood, “Bode Radio/Glass Light/Broken Hearts,” Bodysong (Music from the Motion Picture)
Nine Inch Nails, “The Downward Spiral,” The Downward Spiral
Bruce Cockburn, “Yanqui Go Home,” Stealing Fire
Donny McCaslin, “Warszawa,” Beyond Now
Prince, “4 the Tears in Your Eyes,” The Hits/The B-Sides
Pink, “Just Give Me a Reason,” The Truth About Love
Zapp, “So Ruff, So Tuff,” Historia de la Musica Rock: Locas
Red Steagall, “Bob Wills Music” (from my friend Catherine’s mix “Texas Radio and the Big Beat”)
I’ve been up to my eyeballs in opera recordings for the past four or five months. I didn’t have many (well, any) opera recordings prior to that, save a fantastic Colin Davis recording of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust that I ordered after we performed it with the BSO last fall (under Charles Dutoit, but that’s a different story). But then the records started arriving…
There’s something pretty fantastic about being a member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus: your fellow musicians are all well connected to people who have been making and living music for a long time. One of my fellow choristers, for instance, is good friends with the former head usher at Tanglewood. And it turns out that he was a rabid collector of opera recordings, and now needs to downsize his collection. So she asked the group at large, Does anyone want some records? Reader, I said yes.
And then the first batch of recordings arrived a few months ago: two cardboard boxes full of opera sets, most only played once. Huge amounts of Massenet and Verdi, some Douglas Moore (The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Ballad of Baby Doe), and Meyerbeer and Richard Strauss and Tschaikovsky and…
Needless to say, I’ve been kept busy digitizing and listening. And in the process I’ve learned that I really like listening to opera. It wasn’t something that my family prepared me for—while classical radio was on all they time in my home when I grew up, it was almost always instrumental or (sometimes) sacred choral. Opera was something that we occasionally would tune into with Saturday afternoon Met broadcasts but wouldn’t seek out. My perspective began to change after I started singing in opera choruses with the TFC, but this immersion is really starting to make me want to listen to more.
Which is good, because two new boxes arrived last week. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me…
My other Hackathon mix is here. This is a true mixed-genre, anything-goes hour of stuff, with everything from Devo to shoegaze to Folkways to the late Philip Levine. I’m really enjoying this format, btw—though it’s hard to edit down to an hour, it feels like these come together much more rapidly than the bigger mixes I’ve been doing before. Enjoy!
Time Out for Fun – Devo (Oh No! It’s Devo)
Do You Like Me – Fugazi (Red Medicine)
Blonde Redhead – DNA (“Fame” (Jon Savage’s Secret History of Post-Punk 1978-81))
Junun – Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood & The Rajasthan Express (Junun)
Exhumed – Zola Jesus (Okovi)
Political World (feat. Keith Richards) – Bettye LaVette (Things Have Changed)
Dry Bones – Delta Rhythm Boys (Historia de la Musica Rock: Locas)
Still catching up from Hackathon. I put together a couple of hour-long radio shows that were a lot of fun to build. The first one is an hour of 1970s and 1970s-adjacent jazz. Lots of fun stuff in this, including some electric Vince Guaraldi, tasty jazz organ, some modern finds (Yussef Kamaal for the win), and a little Digable Planets. Enjoy!
Birth Of A Struggle – Wax Tailor (Tales Of The Forgotten Melodies)
Oaxaca – Vince Guaraldi (Oaxaca)
Red Sails In The Sunset – Jimmy McGriff (Groove Grease)
Everybody Loves the Sunshine – Roy Ayers Ubiquity (The Best of Roy Ayers (The Best of Roy Ayers: Love Fantasy))
Mystic Brew – Ronnie Foster (Jazz Dispensary: Cosmic Stash)
Joint 17 – Yussef Kamaal (Black Focus)
Jettin’ – Digable Planets (Blowout Comb)
Ayo Ayo Nene – Mor Thiam (Spiritual Jazz)
Superfluous (LP Version) – Eddie Harris (Instant Death)
Lady Day and John Coltrane – Gil Scott-Heron (Pieces of a Man)
Early Minor – Miles Davis (The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions)
Black Narcissus – Joe Henderson (The Milestone Years)
Infinite Search – Miroslav Vitous (Infinite Search)
And yet, there’s one important part of what he taught me that my essay didn’t include, which is apparent only in retrospect. Which is this: drilling and refining details of musical performance is important, but so is singing that is fully committed to the purpose and mystery of the music. Full musical commitment cannot be taught, only shown. I’m grateful for all he showed me in my ten years singing with him, and for how I feel I’ve continued to learn after.
Doom & Gloom from the Tomb: “Astral Weeks,” Van Morrison, Aquarius Theater, Boston, Massachusetts, May 19, 1972. With the impending release of Ryan Walsh’s Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, finding a live performance of any of the songs by Van in Boston is an unexpected treat, even if it’s a few years after the event. But this performance is doubly a treat: peak Saint Dominic’s Preview-era Van Morrison, with much of the hazy adventure of the original performance supplemented by a forthrightness and confidence (and horn section) characteristic of the latter record. A fun listen.
There’s a lot to be said for finding bootleg releases of bands you love — they can be great documents of moments in the band’s history that don’t appear in official releases. There’s also a lot to be said for getting records instead of digital downloads, between the tangible artifact and the often warmer sound. But I’m not sure there’s much to be said for getting vinyl of bootleg recordings from the late 1960s.
The Velvet Underground boot pictured above is a two record set recorded in 1968, between The Velvet Underground and Loaded. The Doug Yule version of the band is in full effect here, with John Cale’s drones replaced with the choogling multiple guitar work that characterizes both the official releases from this period (“What Goes On”) and some of the often-anthologized but never-on-official-LP release songs (“I Can’t Stand It”). The band is in good shape here. But the recording isn’t. Our bootlegger was standing too close to some of the speakers for some songs, or Lou’s vocals weren’t high enough in the mix, or something, and it’s hard to listen to the performance from start to finish as a result. I should have just looked for a download of the thing instead.
An especially rich vein has been jazz from London groups. I first stumbled across Ill Considered, by saxophonist Idris Rahman, late last year. Last weekend I went back to the site and discovered Brownswood Recordings and Yussef Kamaal. The latter, a group featuring Kamaal Williams (aka Henry Wu) on keys and Yussef Dayes on drums along with an assortment of session musicians, make experimental groove-based jazz-funk that wouldn’t have been out of place in Herbie Hancock’s early to mid 1970s discography—except for the hip-hop inflected drums, a common thread in the Brownswood recordings I’ve heard, and in fact in most of the really exciting 21st century jazz I’ve found.
The debut album from Yussef Kamaal, Black Focus, is engaging and rewarding, and a fun listen on a snowy day like today. Recommended. I’m also enjoying the live sets by the group on Youtube, including the group’s very first show, the Boiler Room session.
Finding the record on eBay was a heady, exciting moment, tempered by two things: it wasn’t complete, and I wasn’t alone.
I have learned over the years that, while they don’t draw hundreds of bidders, works of history from the University are of enough interest to a small number of collectors that bidding can be competitive. I knew that I could probably win the auction if I paid enough attention—though I’ve lost my fair share of items, I’ve won more than I lost, thanks to a sixteen-year-old paper by one of my grad school professors. I knew that there was at least one other bidder, so I set an alarm for the last day of the auction and waited.
The completeness point was a little more concerning. The available information about the recording indicated that it was a three-record set (not uncommon in the days before 33 1/3 RPM records), but this was only one record. Thankfully, the photo of the label indicated that it was the last movement, easily my favorite of the four. Though Thompson’s setting of Jefferson’s text still plods in places (like any time the word despotism is sung), there is a note of real challenge to the opening words “I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance…”
The day of the auction arrived and I won, despite a flurry of bids earlier in the day. (The odds are good that the other bidder is reading this; sorry and better luck next time!) Now I just had to get the record. And here Fate intervened and made me wait.
The auction ended New Years Eve, one of a series of bitterly cold days with highs in the single digits. The next day the seller contacted me to tell me that he would mail the package a day later, since it was so cold his truck wouldn’t start. I could sympathize, having had to jump-start my own car so that I could take it to the garage to get a new battery. So I waited and watched as the package was shipped—two days before a huge storm that dumped 17 inches of snow on Lexington, Massachusetts.
Perhaps because of the storm, the package took a … circuitous route from New Hampshire to Lexington:
But it finally arrived earlier this week, and to my delight, while the original sleeve was in poor shape (the seller thoughtfully put the record in a new sleeve), the record looked like it was pretty good. Now all I had to do was to listen to it.
Here we had a small snag: my otherwise-wonderful Denon DP-45F turntable has no 78RPM setting. But I was going to digitize the record anyway. So I played it back at 45RPM, and then (as I noted earlier this week) used Amadeus Pro to speed up the playback by 173.3% (78/45). I tried noise reduction but didn’t like what it did to the tone of Thompson’s piano, so I left it alone.
Ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised by the performance. Listening to Thompson’s solo piano introduction to the movement, one is reminded of the historical moment in which the work was written. This was April 1943, more than two years into World War II, and many of the young men singing the work were painfully aware that Jefferson’s words about dying with light and liberty on the advance were not going to be hypothetical for them. The following vocal entrance is appropriately hushed, and the Glee Club declaims Jefferson’s text with clarity and good pitch. The reintroduction of the first-movement “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time” is not strident (as in the 1945 BSO/Harvard Glee Club performance) but nuanced—perhaps because the Virginia men only had to be heard above a piano, not a full orchestra. Only the final chord shows vocal strain in the high tenors.
And here it is! As noted above, the only manipulation was speeding up the playback to restore normal speed, and to join the two halves of the recording into one—which fortunately was pretty straightforward. Enjoy!
Sometime in late 1942 or early 1943, University of Virginia president John Newcomb commissioned a new work from the head of the music division (not yet the McIntire Department of Music), composer and professor Randall Thompson, to commemorate the 200th birthday of Thomas Jefferson, which would be celebrated April 13, 1943. Thompson looked for appropriate texts for the occasion and found them in Jefferson’s own letters.
In January 1943, Thompson had taken over the directorship of the Virginia Glee Club as Harry Rogers Pratt stepped down to focus on the war effort. The Glee Club provided, presumably, a solution to a significant challenge: how to mount the forces for a concert with a student body that was perpetually being shipped off to war. The Glee Club, while reduced greatly by the war effort (the 1942-1943 group officially numbered 45, down from 130 in 1940-1941), at least still performed. And Thompson knew them, having conducted them in his “Tarantella” the preceding spring. Accordingly Thompson composed the new work for men’s chorus and piano.