I was a sixth grader in 1983 from a very white part of town. I went from going to school less than two miles from my home to getting on a bus and riding 40 minutes every day to my middle school, one of two sitting next to each other on the edge of downtown. (Kind of reverse-busing.) The bus was loud, the older kids were scary. But… someone always had a radio.
Technically, they had a boom box. But no one ever seemed to be playing a cassette; it was almost always tuned to one of the local stations, often Z-104. I had grown up in a house that played classical radio, and when not that, easy listening (WFOG!), so the top-40 stuff that was being played was new to me.
So was the other stuff that was sometimes played. I don’t remember the station identifications, but a fair amount of what I remember wouldn’t have been played on Top-40 radio — think “Roxanne, Roxanne” or “Electric Kingdom.” So part of my memory from this time comes with no liner notes and I’m still finding some of the songs.
But the stuff that stuck the longest, earwormed the most thoroughly, was probably the adult contemporary balladry of the time. Many of them aren’t great songs! But they’re really easy to get into, even for a pop music neophyte — the “quiet storm” jazz crossover stuff like Sade’s “Sweetest Taboo” flavored some of what was going on (there’s a common thread between this stuff and Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtles that also touched the Pointer Sisters; listen to “Automatic”).
And then there were the really goopy ballads. Anita Baker need have felt no shame for “Sweet Love,” but oh man, “On My Own.” And “All Cried Out.” I banished them so far from my memory, I never even touched them when going through 1980s music in a series of ten mixes starting in 2003. But they’re there, and some of them might be worth more than you think.
Just maybe not Gregory Abbott. (Oh well well.)
One last note: I was reminded about more than a few of these songs courtesy of Stereogum’s The Number Ones column, which is essential reading. I’ve linked a few articles below for further reading on some of the tracks, but you should really read the whole thing.
Rumors – Timex Social Club – Timex Social Club (Un, Dos, Tres…Playa Del Sol (12 Magic Summer Hits))
Radio People – Zapp (The New Zapp IV U)
Fresh – Kool & The Gang (The Very Best of Kool & The Gang)
In My House – Mary Jane Girls (20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection: The Best of Mary Jane Girls)
Juicy Fruit – Mtume (Juicy Fruit)
Mr. Wrong – Sade (Promise)
Automatic – The Pointer Sisters (Break Out)
Sweet Love – Anita Baker (Rapture)
Love Zone – Billy Ocean (The Very Best of Billy Ocean)
I’ve been listening to a lot of classic Blue Note recordings recently—thanks to a bad HDTracks habit—and what struck me the other day is how the composition of the recordings changes the further back you go. What had become a jazz-funk fusion label by the 1970s was principally a hard-bop label in the 1960s with an incredible stable of performers (even if you could expect to find some of them, like Bobby Hutcherson or Grant Green, on recording after recording during the period). But if you look even further back, the label was unearthing and recording new artists in the early to mid-1950s, like Jutta Hipp, Horace Silver, Gil Mellé, Kenny Drew, and others, on albums that bore the common title New Faces, New Sounds.
So this session of Exfiltration Radio digs into our current crop of new faces and new sounds, with a setlist that is heavy on the current crop of London jazz geniuses (Theon Cross, Nubya Garcia, Sarah Tandy), a few new faces from around the edges of Bandcamp (Joe Fiedler’s nutso take on Sesame Street, Chip Wickham’s meditative cuts from Qatar, the absolutely intense Damon Locks, the Lewis Express), the intense hard bop of Connie Han, the stretch music of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah—and a few old souls, including the drum-led trio of Jerry Granelli playing the music of his colleague Mose Allison, and the Afrofuturist spiritual excursions of Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids.
Do not attempt to adjust your set!
X. Adjuah [I Own the Night] – Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah (Axiom)
For the O.G. – Connie Han (Iron Starlet)
The Colors That You Bring – Damon Locks – Black Monument Ensemble (Where Future Unfolds)
Activate – Theon Cross (Fyah)
Tico Tico – The Lewis Express (Clap Your Hands)
People In Your Neighborhood – Joe Fiedler (Open Sesame)
Baby Please Don’t Go – The Jerry Granelli Trio (The Jerry Granelli Trio Plays Vince Guaraldi and Mose Allison)
Timelord – Sarah Tandy (Infection In The Sentence)
Dogon Mysteries – Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids (Shaman!)
La cumbia me está llamando (featuring La Perla) – Nubya Garcia (SOURCE)
There have been such a lot of mixes this year! It’s almost as if we’ve doubled down on music making to compensate for the otherwise almost complete lack of normalcy.
This time I revisited an old mix in progress that had been kicking around my iTunes—er, Apple Music—library for at least seven or eight years. Originally titled “Unrepentant Throwbacks,” this one went after a certain strain of college rock that emphasized guitars, odd lyrics, borderline competent vocals, and weird band names. You know, like R.E.M..
Only there were probably hundreds of bands that mined the same lode that they did, who never looked beyond their original sound and never got the major league deal. I asked some friends on Facebook and got over 100 great suggestions, which I couldn’t fit into this sixty-minute slot. I’ll post the full list later; it was awesome.
Anyway, hope you enjoy this sixty minute blast of nostalgia, which for some of you will take you back to before you were born. And see you again, sooner than you think.
Fun & Games – The Connells (Fun & Games)
Do It Clean – Echo & The Bunnymen (Songs To Learn & Sing)
I Want You Back – Hoodoo Gurus (Stoneage Romeo)
Watusi Rodeo – Guadalcanal Diary (Walking In The Shadow Of The Big Man)
Talking In My Sleep – The Rain Parade (Emergency Third Rail Power Trip: Explosions In The Glass Palace)
With Cantaloupe Girlfriend – Three O’Clock (Sixteen Tambourines/Baroque Hoedown)
Kiss Me On The Bus – The Replacements (Tim [Expanded Edition])
I Held Her In My Arms – Violent Femmes (Add It Up (1981-1993))
Voice Of Harold – R.E.M. (Dead Letter Office)
Writing the Book of Last Pages – Let’s Active (Big Plans for Everybody)
Think Too Hard – The dB’s (The Sound of Music)
Spark – The Church (Starfish)
My Favorite Dress – The Wedding Present (George Best Plus)
Muscoviet Musquito – Clan of Xymox – Clan of Xymox (Lonely Is an Eyesore)
Tripped Over My Boot – Storm Orphans (Promise No Parade)
This is the second of two recent Hackathon playlists, and where The Holy Ghost was all about the Spirit, this one’s all about the body.
I have trouble believing that 1988 was thirty years ago, but then I also have trouble believing that my being old enough to drink happened before some of my youngest coworkers were born.
Lots of material that I omitted that might have made a volume II, in favor of more recognizable (though still oblique) corners of 1988. But it’s worth recognizing that the iconic rubbery shredding guitar on that iconic early Morrissey solo number is by none other than Durutti Column frontman Vini Reilly. And that Janet Jackson wouldn’t do anything as innovative as Rhythm Nation for basically the rest of her career (though she’d have bigger hits). And that Madonna would ultimately prove more transgressive than what Thurston did to “Into the Groove,” but that the combination of the two would be as dark and unsettling as Leonard Cohen. And… Well, you get the picture. There was a lot of darkness around the corner everywhere in the late 1980s.
Eye of Fatima, Pt. 1 – Camper Van Beethoven (Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart)
Birth, School, Work, Death – The Godfathers (Big Hits, Skinny Ties:New Wave)
In Your Room – The Bangles (Everything)
I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me – Morrissey (Viva Hate)
Peek-A-Boo (Single) – Siouxsie and The Banshees (Peep Show)
Cupid Come – My Bloody Valentine (Isn’t Anything)
Everybody Knows – Leonard Cohen (I’m Your Man)
Into The Groovey – Ciccone Youth (The Whitey Album)
Miss You Much – Janet Jackson (Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814)
Silver Rocket – Sonic Youth (Daydream Nation)
Coldsweat – The Sugarcubes (Life’s Too Good)
Dad I’m in Jail – Was (Not Was) (What Up, Dog?)
Don’t Believe the Hype – Public Enemy (It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back)
Christine – The House of Love (The House of Love)
Carolyn’s Fingers – Cocteau Twins (Blue Bell Knoll (Remastered) [Remastered])
It’s been a hard day for many folks, after a hard year and 259 days. But in these days you have to do what you can, and not worry about what you can’t.
For me that translates to seeking out what’s important in music. Which is why the fifth volume in my series of one-hour Exfiltration Radio shows is about spiritual jazz.
(Why that name? The music takes some of the techniques of free jazz and infuses it with the searching, looking beyond that Coltrane brought to the table with A Love Supreme. It’s a broad banner, as the multiple volumes of the Spiritual Jazz compilation series show.)
This one mixes up a track from one of my favorite McCoy Tyner albums, his Extensions, with other tracks from Alice Coltrane, Donald Byrd, Wayne Shorter, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the redoubtable Pharoah Sanders, and a few other goodies that I’ve found over the years on Bandcamp or other spots. It’s a good one-hour introduction if you’re feeling sinister—and it’s a good reminder that not everything that is in the world is of the world.
Rainbow Warriors – Alan Braufman (Valley of Search (Reissue))
Journey In Satchidananda – Alice Coltrane (The Impulse Story: Alice Coltrane)
Message From The Nile – McCoy Tyner (Extensions)
Dance! Dance, Eternal Spirits – Joe Bonner with David Friesen, Billy Harper, Virgil Jones, M (Black Saint)
Elijah – Donald Byrd (A New Perspective)
Ja Mil – Hastings Street Jazz Experience (Spiritual Jazz)
JuJu – Wayne Shorter (JuJu (Rudy Van Gelder Edition))
Spirits Up Above – Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Volunteered Slavery)
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)
Somehow in the past fifteen years I’ve been blogging (!), I missed writing about “Blind Willie McTell.” Ever. This despite the fact that the song made the playlist of one of the first mixtapes I ever made back in 1991. And I don’t know that I ever connected the dots on the song’s meaning, in all that time, beyond the vague sense of prophetic dread conveyed by the slowly more intense vocal and piano performance.
And I am left feeling that amid revival tents, amid the attempts to dress up the past betrayed by cheap hooch, and despite the otherwise redemptive charge of the blues, we are left with this: an arrow in the doorpost, the ghosts of slavery ships, and the promise of our life in these United States undercut by power, greed, and the inevitable corruption and decay of our descendants.
We reprised the work a few years later under Christoph von Dohnányi, in a totally different performance. By that time I wasn’t blogging as regularly so I don’t have any notes from that run. I remember a few things, though: his tempi were brisk, his interpretation totally unsentimental, and his demands on the chorus’s diction were fierce.
This run, which concluded a week ago, was to have been conducted by the great Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, with whom I was fortunate to sing a few times. But he passed away this summer, and the task of filling his shoes went to Bramwell Tovey. The chorus had sung with him before, but I had not, and had heard about his affability but not much about his musicianship. He turns out to be, at least with the Requiem, a conductor concerned not so much with putting an individual stamp on the work than with seeking how the text determines the flow of the piece. To that end he, like Dohnányi, asked the highest level of diction and pitch precision from the chorus. Our chorus conductor, Bill Cutter, helped with that, pitilessly letting us know when we could be doing better.
For this performance, my third time through the work, I had a pretty good idea of what some of the major challenges would be for me. I wrote about some of them in the post from Tanglewood:
I found what may be the real culprit of the sixth movement, for me at least. It’s not just the overall arc of the piece, but specifically the tenor part immediately preceding the fugue, where all choral voices respond… And the text is sung at absolutely full volume over some of the thickest orchestration in the work, and in the high part of the tenor range.
This is the rub, at least for me. The need to support the voice is strong, but at that volume and emotional fervor it’s very easy to tip over from supporting to tightening, and then the battle is lost and the voice closes progressively until it is difficult to get any sound out at all. Once that happens the following fugue is unsingable.
Well, friends, I’m here to tell you that I had the right problem area, but the solution was both easier and harder than I thought.
The hard part was in placing my voice properly. I have never had more than a few hours of formal voice instruction since I got my full instrument, and so it takes me a while to learn things that I suppose most voice majors know inherently. (The hazards of being a sciences major and not taking advantage of the meager vocal instruction offerings at my undergrad, among other things.) Sometime over the past few years, though, I managed to learn about two important concepts in voice placement: singing toward and through the mask, and keeping the ceiling of the vocal chamber high. What follows is an embarrassing amateur’s assessment of how this works; I welcome correction.
The “mask,” or the frontal bones of the face, is where a good portion of the resonant overtones of the voice develop, due in no small part to vibrations through the sinus cavities (yes, they’re good for something besides infections). But the voice must be directed through this part rather than being allowed to linger in the back of the vocal chamber for the resonance to take effect. Once it does, the difference is startling: a brightness and sharpness to the sound that cuts through surrounding noise for far less vocal effort. The challenges are in keeping the sinuses clear (no small task thanks to the common cold) and managing the position of the facial muscles that support singing so that the placement happens properly.
The full vocal chamber, otherwise known as the front of the face, the cavity of the mouth, and the back of the throat, is important in developing the fullness of the sound. Again, my amateur guess is that this has something to do with developing the right resonant frequencies. It turns out that for me, one of the most important parts of this process, in addition to the mask, is keeping the soft palate, which forms the ceiling of the vocal chamber, high and out of the way. If it comes down, producing sound on pitch is much harder, the sound is muddied, and if you’re singing through the mask and not taking advantage of the full chamber you get a sharp thin sound rather than a penetrating fuller sound.
This leads me to the other thing that was much easier in solving the problem. One of the things that makes keeping the soft palate in the proper place extremely hard is not being prepared for the next vowel sound that is being produced. If you are unsure about whether an e or an ah is coming next, the palate doesn’t know where to go, and producing any sort of sound at all becomes a challenge of brute force.
In this context, my prior problem about my voice “tightening” had a simple diagnosis: I was not comfortable with the text. By that point in movement six my memory was generally unreliable so I couldn’t anchor the Den es wird die Pasaune schallen. I finally figured out what was going on in one of our rehearsals when we started on the second repetition, Der Tod is verschlungen in den Sieg, sung on virtually the same tune, and I had no difficulty in keeping the voice from tightening. Why? I knew the words better! I didn’t have to force the sound, and that meant I could keep the palate high and the muscles in the proper place! All I had to do to make this a general solution was focus on ensuring that I had the right words!
So for this run I managed, most of the time, to keep the apparatus such that I was producing the right sort of sound throughout, and it made all the difference in the world. I even sang in my church choir the following morning; usually after a Brahms Requiem run I’m a ragged baritone for at least a week.
Stay conscious of the mask and the ceiling of the chamber.
Learn the damned text. First, if possible.
This should be fun as we head into the Rachmaninoff that we’ll sing next. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to learn that much Russian.
Starting to have the energy again to think about posting here, which is nice. I’ve been down the grindstone for a very very long time, and now, faced with some unexpected downtime, I’m going to use the opportunity to catch up on a few things.
Starting with this. I completed something other than regret, my 33rd mix in the modern era, on the 10th of November, and it’s all over the map, but with some pretty strong thematic material running through as well. I especially love the way that Laura Marling excavates on the three tracks from Once I Was an Eagle, which is my favorite album of 2013; the woozy, witchy, R&B-driven silliness of “Nommo (The Magick Song)” (“All praises due to the Black man,” indeed); the light touch of Antony’s “Crackagen”, and the way that John Fahey’s riff on Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo Coo Bird” fits so seamlessly with gospel. I’ve definitely got something other than regret.
Song-Song – Brad Mehldau Trio (The Art Of The Trio Volume 3)
Nommo- The Magick Song – Gary Bartz And NTU Troop (I’ve Known Rivers And Other Bodies)
Is That Enough – Yo La Tengo (Fade)
Blue Light – Mazzy Star (So Tonight That I Might See)
Life & Soul – The Sundays (Blind)
Take The Night Off – Laura Marling (Once I Was An Eagle)
I Was An Eagle – Laura Marling (Once I Was An Eagle)
Crackagen – Antony and the Johnsons (Another World)
Everybody’s Heart’s Breaking Now – Lavender Diamond (Incorruptible Heart)
Variations On The Coocoo – John Fahey (The Dance Of Death & Other Plantation Favorites)
Where Shall I Go? – Sister Marie Knight (When the Moon Goes Down in the Valley of Time: African-American Gospel, 1939-51)
Don’t Give Up – Peter Gabriel (So (Remastered 2012))
Incinerate – Sonic Youth (Rather Ripped)
Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes – Sun Kil Moon (Tiny Cities)
We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning – Gram Parsons (G.P. / Grievous Angel)
Breathe – Laura Marling (Once I Was An Eagle)
Turn Your Color – The Men (Campfire Songs)
I’ll Fly Away – Southern Sons (When the Moon Goes Down in the Valley of Time: African-American Gospel, 1939-51)
As I grow … well, older isn’t right, and neither is more mature, so let’s just go with “as I grow,” I find that what I listen to is less about lyrics and singing along and more about just listening. So, of the 19 tracks on this mix, six have no words at all, and a few more are mostly nonsense.
No real notes here, except to note that Jonny Greenwood’s Bodysong, from 2003, is an unlikely sleeper album. There are bits that remind me of Ravel, and Berg, and glitchy techno, and sometimes they come in the same song.
Also: why did it take me so long to listen to Bruce Cockburn? He would have been right up my alley in 1988 or 1989.
Also also: I’m in the crowd for that 2004 Sonic Youth performance at the Showbox. This one.
Burning Of Auchidoon – Maddy Prior (Silly Sisters)
Tree (Today is an Important Occasion) – David Byrne (The Knee Plays)
Ready to Start – Arcade Fire (Ready to Start – Single)
Lovers In a Dangerous Time – Bruce Cockburn (Stealing Fire (Deluxe Edition))
Wiggle-Waggle – Herbie Hancock (Warner Archives)
Everything In Its Right Place – Radiohead (Kid A)
24 Hour Charleston – Jonny Greenwood (Bodysong (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture))
Concorde – Modern Jazz Quartet (Concorde)
Track 4 – Sigur Rós (( ))
Chemtrails – Beck (Modern Guilt)
Sorrow – The National (High Violet)
I Should Watch TV (M. Stine remix) – David Byrne & St. Vincent (Brass Tactics EP)
Pattern Recognition – Sonic Youth (Live at the Showbox in Seattle (2004))
Milky Way – Weather Report (Weather Report)
Alone And Forsaken – Neko Case (Live from Austin, Texas)
Hi-Speed Soul – Nada Surf (Let Go)
After All – Christian Scott (Yesterday You Said Tomorrow)
Bode Radio/Glass Light/Broken Hearts – Jonny Greenwood (Bodysong (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture))
I Wanna Dance With Somebody – David Byrne (David Byrne: Live from Austin, TX)
There’s not a lot to say about the Virginia Glee Club in the later 1950s, seemingly. The group lost one of its more influential directors, Stephen Tuttle, to Harvard in 1952, and saw two directors alternate during the remaining years. There were tours, sure; legend has it there were even panty raids on other campuses. But no LP survives from the period between 1952 for almost 20 years; no big commissioned work exists; nothing remains but a bunch of concert programs.
Except this. The image above is of an acetate recording that was made as a promo record and sent to radio stations. Seems that Donald MacInnis didn’t spend much time with his group recording because they spent time trying to get on live radio. We know they were broadcast on WTVR radio, probably as a result of this acetate.
(Aside: an “acetate” is actually made of aluminum—or, in the WWII years, glass—coated with a thin layer of lacquer. You could cut one live, and some did, but you could also copy prerecorded music onto it. It was common to use acetates for promotional recordings when the number of playbacks was unlikely to be high. You can see the aluminum under the black lacquer of this disk around the hole of the record.)
The repertoire on the disk is interesting, too. The Bach is pretty straightforward, but it’s followed up by a downright woozy version of “Careless Love,” and then by MacInnis’s own version of Tom Lehrer’s “The Hunting Song.” I’m trying to imagine that on a Glee Club program today. In fact, I’d pay money to see this paean to hunting, in which the protagonist bags 7 hunters, two game wardens, and a cow, on a modern day program.
It’s a fun recording, albeit short, at around 6 and a half minutes.
This has been building for a bit. I had more work to do on it, then I thought it was done. Then I heard the last two songs side by side and realized they were the perfect coda. So it’s a little longer than CD length. Oh well…
The Empty Page – Sonic Youth (Murray Street)
Rock And Roll – Led Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin Remasters)
Don’t Care – Klark Kent (Klark Kent)
What Difference Does It Make? – The Smiths (Hatful Of Hollow)
Manta Ray – Pixies (Complete ‘B’ Sides [UK])
Carry Me Ohio – Sun Kil Moon (Ghosts Of The Great Highway)
Vengeance Is Sleeping – Neko Case (Middle Cyclone (Bonus Track Version))
Back Of A Car – Big Star (#1 Record – Radio City)
Just Like Heaven – The Cure (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me)
Space (I Believe In) – Pixies (Trompe Le Monde)
Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake – Zola Jesus (Conatus)
Gravity’s Angel – Laurie Anderson (Mister Heartbreak)
Water Babies – Miles Davis (The Columbia Years 1955-1985)
Working For The Man – PJ Harvey (To Bring You My Love)
Lil Wallet Picture – Richard Buckner (Richard Buckner)
In the Devil’s Territory – Sufjan Stevens (Seven Swans)
I Don’t Recall – Lavender Diamond (Incorruptible Heart)
Dawned On Me – Wilco (The Whole Love)
Morpha Too – Big Star (#1 Record – Radio City)
Kiss Me On The Bus – The Replacements (Tim [Expanded Edition])
It’s been a while since I’ve done a new mix. This one, My heart’s beating is all the proof you need (Art of the Mix), has been interesting–a little more upbeat than some of my past efforts, a few songs that have been kicking around my library for many years. I think the subtheme of this mix is in the second song: “It’s getting better all the time (can’t get no worse!).”
So there’s some party time stuff, both benign and wild; some funny tracks (I dare you to listen to “Bloody” with a straight face); and some contemplative stuff. There’s not a lot of deep digging (outside of the Tom Waits/John Lurie track and maybe “Amen Brother,” which features what must be the most sampled drum break in the prehistory of hiphop), just some really fun listening. Just right for early spring.
River of Men – Tom Waits/John Lurie (Fishing With John – Original Music From The Series By John L)
Getting Better – The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)
Just Like Heaven – The Cure (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me)
Mondo ’77 – Looper (The Geometrid)
Amen’ Brother – The Winstons (Color Him Father (Original Masters))
In The Street – Big Star (#1 Record – Radio City)
Happy Kid – Nada Surf (Let Go)
Don’t You Just Know It – Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns (Don’t You Just Know It [EP])
Pictures Of You – The Cure (Disintegration)
Near Wild Heaven – R.E.M. (Out Of Time)
Friends Stoning Friends – Mclusky (Alan Is A Cowboy Killer)
The Ox (Original Mono Version) – The Who (The Who Sings My Generation)
Head On – Pixies (Trompe Le Monde)
No Hiding Place – Elvis Costello (Momofuku)
Bloody – Golinski Brothers (The John Peel Singles Box)
Do You Wanna Hit It? – The Donnas (The Donnas Turn 21)
Yard Of Blonde Girls – Jeff Buckley (Sketches for My Sweetheart The Drunk)
Codex – Radiohead (The King of Limbs)
Steam Engine – My Morning Jacket (It Still Moves)
Calling My Children Home – Emmylou Harris (Spyboy)
It’s been four years since I last sang at Carnegie Hall, and Tuesday I’ll be there again, performing the Beethoven Missa Solemnis with the Boston Symphony, under the direction of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus’s John Oliver. It’s been an interesting run, for a host of reasons that have little to do with the music and everything to do with the musicians.
But one thing about it that’s particularly interesting to me is that I find myself still trying to figure out this work. Even though it was the first major work I sang with a symphonic chorus, eighteen years ago. Even though I sang it once more with Robert Shaw fourteen years ago.
It shouldn’t surprise me how much there is to learn about this work. Beethoven wrote it at the height of his powers, and close to the end of his life, at the same time he was composing the Ninth Symphony. I think it’s equally as great a work as the Ninth, but more difficult to approach. Because where the Ninth resolves eternal conflict through the relatively accessible lens of joy and brotherhood, the Missa doesn’t really resolve the conflict at all, and uses religion as the lens through which the conflict is examined.
The movement I’ve been fixated on is the “Agnus Dei.” It’s the last movement of the piece, and as Maestro Oliver points out, it’s unique in that it’s a classical composition–as in, big C classical, partaking much more of Mozart or Haydn than does the rest of the work. It’s very structured, relatively formal, and can seem either light hearted or too mannered if you approach it in the wrong way.
I’m coming at the piece through a gout attack–the first one I’ve had in several years, only the second major one I’ve had–and I think I understand it a little better. I see the “Agnus Dei” as Beethoven trying to come to terms with what was happening to him at the end of his life–his total deafness, his approaching mortality. There are shifting tones in it of fear and of utter desolation. (Which also became clear to me for the first time on this concert run, when we sang the “Miserere” section after hearing Maestro Kurt Masur’s announcement that he could not conduct and his quiet confession that the Missa was too much and that he would never conduct it again.) And I certainly feel an echo of that in my frustration in being unable to stand without pain, or at the worst even to have something touch my foot.
But then comes the “Dona Nobis Pacem.” And where in Berlioz or other masses it’s a cry for help, there’s something quietly assured about the way Beethoven sets this text. It’s a fugue in a major key that keeps returning even over outbreaks of “Miserere.” Done lightly or thoughtlessly, the contrast is jarring. Done in the spirit of the thing, it is meditation, a plea for self control.
It reminds me of The Waste Land, actually. As Eliot’s associative madness pulls in imagery from Hieronymo to bats to women fiddling on their hair, the poet reaches for “Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata.”–“give, sympathize, control”–and then “Shantih, shantih, shantih.” A mantra in the strictly correct sense of the word. And while it’s debatable whether Eliot truly achieves “the peace that passeth all understanding” even by the end of the work, it’s pretty clear that Beethoven’s “pacem, pacem” performs the same function for him. It’s a reaching of acceptance of all that is in life, an acknowledgement of peace and its power.
And it will be very hard to convey that in performance. But now that I know that it’s there, maybe I can try to make it happen.