“Well, God is in his heaven, and we all want what’s his…”

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.

It’s twenty-five years since I put that mix tape together, and I’ve spent the last few years feeling as though “this land is condemned.” If the response to the Obama presidency has taught me anything, it’s that slavery was the original sin of this land, and that its repercussions still play out today. So on the heels of writing about the Underground Railroad in my town, about misattribution of black collegiate spirituals by white a cappella performers, about the bureaucracy of slavery, of carefree use of the symbols of the Confederacy a hundred (or 150) years after the end of the Civil War, and of minstrelsy, listening closely to the song again bears dividends.

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.

The Brahms Requiem at 41

Symphony Hall, orchestra rehearsal for the Brahms Requiem.
Symphony Hall, orchestra rehearsal for the Brahms Requiem.

(By which I mean, of course, my age, not the age of the work.)

I last wrote about Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem in 2009, at the end of a run in which we performed the work in Symphony Hall, issued an official recording, and reprised it at Tanglewood. It was a different time: James Levine was at the relative height of his powers and I was singing more regularly with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

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.

Lessons learned?

  1. Stay conscious of the mask and the ceiling of the chamber.
  2. 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.

Symphony Hall, 2014
Symphony Hall, 2014

New mix: something other than regret

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.

  1. Song-SongBrad Mehldau Trio (The Art Of The Trio Volume 3)
  2. Nommo- The Magick SongGary Bartz And NTU Troop (I’ve Known Rivers And Other Bodies)
  3. Is That EnoughYo La Tengo (Fade)
  4. Blue LightMazzy Star (So Tonight That I Might See)
  5. Life & SoulThe Sundays (Blind)
  6. Take The Night OffLaura Marling (Once I Was An Eagle)
  7. I Was An EagleLaura Marling (Once I Was An Eagle)
  8. CrackagenAntony and the Johnsons (Another World)
  9. Everybody’s Heart’s Breaking NowLavender Diamond (Incorruptible Heart)
  10. Variations On The CoocooJohn Fahey (The Dance Of Death & Other Plantation Favorites)
  11. Where Shall I Go?Sister Marie Knight (When the Moon Goes Down in the Valley of Time: African-American Gospel, 1939-51)
  12. Don’t Give UpPeter Gabriel (So (Remastered 2012))
  13. IncinerateSonic Youth (Rather Ripped)
  14. Tiny Cities Made Of AshesSun Kil Moon (Tiny Cities)
  15. We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The MorningGram Parsons (G.P. / Grievous Angel)
  16. BreatheLaura Marling (Once I Was An Eagle)
  17. Turn Your ColorThe Men (Campfire Songs)
  18. I’ll Fly AwaySouthern Sons (When the Moon Goes Down in the Valley of Time: African-American Gospel, 1939-51)

New mix: will you buy me a shaky heart

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.

  1. Burning Of AuchidoonMaddy Prior (Silly Sisters)
  2. Tree (Today is an Important Occasion)David Byrne (The Knee Plays)
  3. Ready to StartArcade Fire (Ready to Start – Single)
  4. Lovers In a Dangerous TimeBruce Cockburn (Stealing Fire (Deluxe Edition))
  5. Wiggle-WaggleHerbie Hancock (Warner Archives)
  6. Everything In Its Right PlaceRadiohead (Kid A)
  7. 24 Hour CharlestonJonny Greenwood (Bodysong (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture))
  8. ConcordeModern Jazz Quartet (Concorde)
  9. Track 4Sigur Rós (( ))
  10. ChemtrailsBeck (Modern Guilt)
  11. SorrowThe National (High Violet)
  12. I Should Watch TV (M. Stine remix)David Byrne & St. Vincent (Brass Tactics EP)
  13. Pattern RecognitionSonic Youth (Live at the Showbox in Seattle (2004))
  14. Milky WayWeather Report (Weather Report)
  15. Alone And ForsakenNeko Case (Live from Austin, Texas)
  16. Hi-Speed SoulNada Surf (Let Go)
  17. After AllChristian Scott (Yesterday You Said Tomorrow)
  18. Bode Radio/Glass Light/Broken HeartsJonny Greenwood (Bodysong (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture))
  19. I Wanna Dance With SomebodyDavid Byrne (David Byrne: Live from Austin, TX)

Careless Love: The Virginia Glee Club in the 1950s

Glee Club 1956 promo acetate

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’sThe 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. 

New mix: my love invented all of you

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…

  1. The Empty PageSonic Youth (Murray Street)
  2. Rock And RollLed Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin Remasters)
  3. Don’t CareKlark Kent (Klark Kent)
  4. What Difference Does It Make?The Smiths (Hatful Of Hollow)
  5. Manta RayPixies (Complete ‘B’ Sides [UK])
  6. Carry Me OhioSun Kil Moon (Ghosts Of The Great Highway)
  7. Vengeance Is SleepingNeko Case (Middle Cyclone (Bonus Track Version))
  8. Back Of A CarBig Star (#1 Record – Radio City)
  9. Just Like HeavenThe Cure (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me)
  10. Space (I Believe In)Pixies (Trompe Le Monde)
  11. Lick the Palm of the Burning HandshakeZola Jesus (Conatus)
  12. Gravity’s AngelLaurie Anderson (Mister Heartbreak)
  13. Water BabiesMiles Davis (The Columbia Years 1955-1985)
  14. Working For The ManPJ Harvey (To Bring You My Love)
  15. Lil Wallet PictureRichard Buckner (Richard Buckner)
  16. In the Devil’s TerritorySufjan Stevens (Seven Swans)
  17. I Don’t RecallLavender Diamond (Incorruptible Heart)
  18. Dawned On MeWilco (The Whole Love)
  19. Morpha TooBig Star (#1 Record – Radio City)
  20. Kiss Me On The BusThe Replacements (Tim [Expanded Edition])
  21. DauðalognSigur Rós (Valtari)
  22. End of the LineSleigh Bells (Reign of Terror)

New mix: My heart’s beating is all the proof you need.

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.

  1. River of Men – Tom Waits/John Lurie (Fishing With John – Original Music From The Series By John L)
  2. Getting BetterThe Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)
  3. Just Like HeavenThe Cure (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me)
  4. Mondo ’77Looper (The Geometrid)
  5. Amen’ BrotherThe Winstons (Color Him Father (Original Masters))
  6. In The StreetBig Star (#1 Record – Radio City)
  7. Happy KidNada Surf (Let Go)
  8. Don’t You Just Know ItHuey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns (Don’t You Just Know It [EP])
  9. Pictures Of YouThe Cure (Disintegration)
  10. Near Wild HeavenR.E.M. (Out Of Time)
  11. Friends Stoning FriendsMclusky (Alan Is A Cowboy Killer)
  12. The Ox (Original Mono Version)The Who (The Who Sings My Generation)
  13. Head OnPixies (Trompe Le Monde)
  14. No Hiding PlaceElvis Costello (Momofuku)
  15. BloodyGolinski Brothers (The John Peel Singles Box)
  16. Do You Wanna Hit It?The Donnas (The Donnas Turn 21)
  17. Yard Of Blonde GirlsJeff Buckley (Sketches for My Sweetheart The Drunk)
  18. CodexRadiohead (The King of Limbs)
  19. Steam EngineMy Morning Jacket (It Still Moves)
  20. Calling My Children HomeEmmylou Harris (Spyboy)
  21. Things behind the SunNick Drake (Pink Moon)

Pacem, pacem, shantih

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.

12 things about me (musically)

When you’re as rusty on the blog as I am, you don’t say no to a meme when it drops into your lap. Thanks to Eileen Huang, fellow TFCer and collaborative pianist, for the tag.

  1. First instrument: piano. Thanks, Mom, for the instruction.
  2. Age at first music lesson: Five, I think.
  3. First piece performed in public: I can’t remember any of the piano ones, so we’ll go with my solo vocal debut, a retrospectively cringe-inducing version of Sting’s “Sister Moon” with saxophone accompaniment at the Virginia Governor’s School for the Sciences talent show in 1989.
  4. Piece most recently performed in public: A slightly odd John Jacob Niles arrangement of “Wayfaring Stranger.”
  5. Band camp: Nope. Not even orchestra camp.
  6. Marching band: With a violin?
  7. College a cappella? Undergrad, no; not for lack of trying. Grad school: yes, though we weren’t very good, not for lack of trying.
  8. Absolute pitch: no.
  9. Movable do or fixed do: Fixed, I suppose, though I never gave it much thought.
  10. Faux pas: At the same Governor’s School talent show, forgot all the words to Weird Al’s “One More Minute.” My collaborator slapped me to try to restore my memory. It only ensured that I could never remember the words ever again.
  11. Favorite conductor hair: Jimmy Levine, of course.
  12. I wish I could play: any instrument these days. Happy I can still sing.

Anyone want a tag to continue the meme?

RIP, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki

One of the great composers of the late 20th century passed away today. Like many others, I discovered Górecki’s music through his Symphony No. 3, and turned quite a few other people on to him the same way. I will always remember an afternoon in late spring 1994, a few weeks before I graduated from the University of Virginia, sitting in the middle of the Lawn across from the open door of my room, listening to Dawn Upshaw’s voice at maximum volume with Craig Fennell and Diane Workman and deciding that this Polish composer had a lot to say.

I went on to sing a few of his works, particularly as part of a concert of 20th century choral music with the Cathedral Choral Society, but also during a program with the Cascadian Chorale. As a singer, it was fascinating how so few notes, so few suspensions, could carry so much emotional content and be so impossibly challenging to sing.

As I write this, Górecki’s “Amen” just came up on my iPhone, as if to say: as with all composers, what’s important is still with us.

Other obituaries: The Rambler.

Grab bag: Seduction of the innocent edition

More MacMillan

There’s a fair bit of chatter about the MacMillan St. John Passion, so I thought I’d do a quick roundup. I’ll lead off with three other TFC bloggers, two of whom I’ve already linked, then include a few other notes.

  • Tenore (Len): Free tickets available. Len writes, “While some of it is tonally challenging and a bitch to sing, most of it is quite melodic and beautiful.” Which of course drew a comment from the composer (seriously).
  • Angelina Calderón: From the depths of Symphony Hall. Angelina writes a little about the rehearsal process.
  • Jeff, aka Just Another Bass, has a set of great articles about the process and the piece.

Then there’s all the other writings, some of which stem from the piece’s first round of performances, others are more contemporary:

  • The Guardian, James MacMillan charts the progress of his latest composition The Passion. Interesting diary in progress of the work. My favorite bit from the article: “The scene where Jesus is brought before Pilate is the work’s biggest movement. It’s pure drama. This is the first point where I’ve wondered if I need more soloists. Instead, I’ve decided to give the role of Pilate to the basses. His music has a particular colour – a desiccated, dry clicking sound, col legno strings, temple blocks with low bassoons and parping trombones. It’s a challenge to write this music for chorus rather than soloists; I’m trying to write what I feel the part needs while making sure it’s still manageable for an amateur chorus. I’ve just written a tricky F sharp up to F natural interval for the basses – the music has to prepare and help them in some way, so I’ve outlined the interval in the timpani which sets up a kind of context so they can feel more relaxed about it. They’ll still scream when they first see it, I’m sure.” (For what it’s worth, the TFC basses are doing just fine with the part.)
  • The Jewish Daily, Forward: MacMillan and strife: a new ‘St. John Passion.’ The article calls out the orchestration and the inclusion of the Reproaches text in leveling a charge of antisemitism against the work.
  • Boston Globe, An act of ‘Passion’. Good introduction to the piece for American audiences, including the perspective of Sir Colin Davis, our conductor for the run.

New mix: september grrls

My latest mix, “september grrls,” did not start out to be (almost) all women artists, but it ended up that way. After strong releases this year from Shannon Worrell, PJ Harvey, Neko Case, and others, plus Kim Gordon’s contributions to the latest Sonic Youth… well, I couldn’t resist. Add to that a few songs that have been kicking around my library forever, waiting for a home, and you’ve got yourself a mix.

  1. This Is What You DoGemma Hayes (Hollow of Morning)
  2. Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)Kate Bush (Hounds of Love)
  3. Black Hearted LovePJ Harvey & John Parish (A Woman a Man Walked By)
  4. IamundernodisguiseSchool of Seven Bells (Alpinisms)
  5. Song To BobbyCat Power (Jukebox)
  6. JerichoGreta Gaines (Greta Gaines)
  7. Lake Charles BoogieNellie Lutcher (Oxford American 2003 Southern Music CD No. 6)
  8. If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me)The Staple Singers (The Stax Story: Finger-Snappin’ Good [Disc 3])
  9. When the Other Foot Drops, UncleSharon Jones & The Dap-Kings (100 Days, 100 Nights)
  10. Diamond HeartMarissa Nadler (Songs III: Bird On the Water)
  11. If I Can Make You CryShannon Worrell (The Honey Guide)
  12. For Today I Am A BoyAntony and the Johnsons (I Am A Bird Now)
  13. Massage the HistorySonic Youth (The Eternal)
  14. Crater LakeLiz Phair (Whip-Smart)
  15. I’m an AnimalNeko Case (Middle Cyclone (Bonus Track Version))
  16. Who Is It (Carry My Joy On the Left, Carry My Pain On the Right)Björk (Medulla)
  17. The Way I Am (Recorded Live on WERS)Ingrid Michaelson (Be OK)
  18. Sweet Like YouShannon Worrell (The Honey Guide)
  19. At Constant SpeedGemma Hayes (Hollow of Morning)
  20. September GurlsBig Star (#1 Record – Radio City)

Friday listen: In My Tribe, 10,000 Maniacs

I wrote a long time ago about getting my Denon DP-45F turntable fixed up, and shortly thereafter hinted that I was about to start ripping my records en masse. Then… well, life intruded. I ripped some Beowulf, early and not-so-early Virginia Glee Club records, and not a whole lot else.

Why? A few reasons. First, time. Where ripping a CD can be done in much less than the time to listen to it, and in the comfort of an armchair, an LP requires at least as much time to rip as to listen to it. Then there’s taking the file, leveling it, splitting the tracks, importing them to iTunes, and then (because of a bug in Amadeus Pro’s lossless AAC files) reimporting them as AAC. So for one record, it takes the evening. And one unsuccessful rip–there was a lot of surface noise on my copy of Peter Gabriel II–put me off the project for a good long while.

And now? I finally got around to ripping my vinyl of 10,000 Maniacs’ early hit In My Tribe, and it was a revelation. The sound from the ripped vinyl was superb, and the music was superb…er. The opening chords of “What’s the Matter Here” were as gripping as the lyrics are depressing; “Hey Jack Kerouac” and “Like the Weather” were similarly moving and dynamic. Listening to the record took me back to when R.E.M. played a lot of 12 string and when indie meant Guadalcanal Diary and the Connells. The second half of the record lags a bit, but the final song, the unpromisingly named “Verdi Cries,” was moving and insightful.

In these recessionary times, there’s something to be said for rediscovering music through vinyl instead of paying to download it again. Even if it takes an evening to get the music on one’s iPod.

The crack in the world

Three things entwine for me this morning: the beginning of the Christmas season, the 100th birthday of Olivier Messiaen, and the crack in the wall of Old South Church.

I spent Monday night and Tuesday morning in rehearsals for the upcoming Boston Pops holiday concerts at Symphony Hall (my performance schedule: 12/12 4 PM and 8 PM; 12/14 7 PM; 12/20 11 AM and 3 PM; 12/23 8 PM; 12/27 8 PM), marinating in the secular version of the holiday. It’s always a colorful but thin broth: reindeer and snowmen, with the occasional “Hallelujah Chorus” bobbing by to provide sustinance. This season we add a new arrangement of music from “Polar Express,” the culmination of which is a pop ballad exhorting us to “believe.” In what, it’s not quite clear: the train? Santa Claus?

Last week, a crack was found in the wall of Old South Church, a long standing Boston institution that is quite clear about what it believes and is growing as it continues to celebrate the inclusion of all God’s children, not just the straight ones, in God’s kingdom. The crack, potentially a disaster for the church, has been made an opportunity for reflection on the potential for cracks in any institution or relationship and for thanksgiving for the wisdom of the church’s leadership in ensuring that the MBTA and their contractor, not the church’s insurance, must pay in the event of damage. And yet, there it stands, an irrefutable proof of movements deep below that may at any moment cause a fundamental shift in our world.

That shift, that crack in time, is what pulses through the best of Messiaen’s work, his pieces for solo organ (Le banquet céleste, Apparition de l’église éternelle, L’Ascension, La Nativité du Seigneur, Livre du Saint Sacrement) and a solitary choral motet O sacrum convivium! For Messiaen Christmas is something entirely different: a meditation, an epiphany, on a fundamental shift in the world. Hearing Messiaen in a candlelit sanctuary awaiting an 11 PM Christmas Eve service, the apparition of the eternal church sinking into my blood and bones as the organ opened the doors to the miracle: a transformation out of history that continues to transform us two thousand years later.

(Update: As always, Nancy Taylor’s sermon the Sunday after the discovery of the crack is insightful, and echoes some of my own thoughts in a more coherent manner.)