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.)
Yesterday was our “day off” between the Mass in C performance on Friday night and today’s 9th Symphony performance. Of course, the “day off” included the morning’s orchestra dress rehearsal of the 9th, which was a treat to be a part of. We had the best seat in the house to watch guest conductor Christoph von Dohnányi (with whom I previously sang Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex) rehearse the first three movements. He’s a painstaking conductor, stopping in the middle of an open dress rehearsal to synchronize presto string entrances in several places.
The fourth movement was a lot of fun to sing. It was sometime around 12:30 when we hit the big fugue in which the tenors enter on a fortissimo high A, so I was finally in voice (when the rehearsal began with warmups at 9:30, I didn’t have much above an E), and I saw quite a few heads in the crowd bounce in shock when we nailed the note. It should be fun this afternoon.
I was two or three years out of college when I first listened to Isaac Hayes seriously. I had picked up Shaft in college but, aside from the title track, it didn’t speak to me. I mean, flutes? Really? I just couldn’t get past the instrumentation. I knew there was something funky there but it wasn’t finding me.
And then I picked up, for some unknown reason, the soundtrack to Stealing Beauty, which leads off with Hoover’s (later Hooverphonic’s) “2 Wicky.” I was never a big Hooverphonic fan, but “2 Wicky” set off all kinds of bells in my head, primarily because of the opening, which I knew had to be sampled from somewhere. I did some digging and found it had come from the lead off track on Isaac Hayes’s Hot Buttered Soul, an album I had always assumed was a goof like Shaft. But I was hooked on that opening guitar + backing vox riff, so I picked up Hot Buttered Soul.
And I couldn’t put it down.
That weekend I was driving around Raleigh, North Carolina, with some college friends–we were there for a wedding–and I couldn’t pull the disc out of my car player. I must have played “Walk On By” and “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” about a hundred times that weekend. The album was so over the top, so drenched in drama and sound, but somehow it touched the same funky center, breathed the same groove, as the Parliament and James Brown that I had been marinating in for the previous four or five years. And it reached deeper than those cuts in some ways–Hayes projected a pain and vulnerability that you’d never hear from the Godfather of Soul.
I was smacked sideways when I heard yesterday about Isaac Hayes’s death. It seems like someone who touched the human condition so deeply shouldn’t be allowed to go so quickly.
Courtesy the Boston Globe, here’s Amanda Palmer’s opening number from her performance at last night’s EdgeFest. I’m very envious of the TFC members who sang behind her for one of the numbers, though I am curious if she had them wear makeup…
… are the fun weeks, aren’t they? I feel like I’m up to my eyeballs in work and yet the week just started.
- I’m within striking distance of reaching zero unlistened to tracks in my iTunes library, after almost two years of dedicated listening to ensure that I listened to every track in the library at least once. As of the end of the Great CD Ripping Project that was around 20,000 tracks; it’s a bit more now. I’ve got it down to fewer than 500 tracks that haven’t been listened to at least once.
- I’m starting to like this theme; think I’ll stick with it a while longer. If I get bored I’ll always switch it to Stripped.
Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld Studios have teamed up with Bowers & Wilkins (B&W speakers) to bring an online music club targeted at audiophiles. It’s not really a store, because the service offers only subscription pricing and the content is exclusive–up and coming musicians recording at RealWorld. The B&W Music Club is part of a set of B&W content offerings, including a blog and an article series on the industry. The intention appears to be to start conversations about bringing high fidelity audio back into the picture, after “audiophile” concerns have been pushed to the side for a few years by the prominence of MP3. It’s a smart marketing strategy for B&W, of course, who have their fingers in both the traditional high-end speaker market and the iPod accessory field; they have a strong interest in making sure that music listeners find out that uncompressed audio through premium speakers sounds much, much better than MP3s through earbuds. This is a classic market education play, in other words, and one that (presumably) has the benefit of sounding really good.
I would appear to be in the target market for this announcement; my primary home listening speakers are B&W bookshelf units (Series DM602s), and when I rip audio rather than purchasing it online, I rip losslessly to Apple Lossless Audio, the same format as the new B&W service. I think I need to check out the free trial of the service to give a better opinion on what it can provide.
Inaugurating the new blog in style, here’s my latest mix, which started as a party and ended as a lullaby. Of course, the Art of the Mix service is down right now, but here’s a quick tracklist:
- Italian men, “Su Tenore A Ballu” (field recording)
- M.I.A., “Bamboo Banga”
- The Beatles, “She Said She Said”
- The Arcade Fire, “Neighborhood #2 (Laïka)”
- Vampire Weekend, “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”
- Beirut, “Elephant Gun”
- Guided by Voices, “As We Go Up, We Go Down”
- Elvis Costello, “Clown Strike”
- Talking Heads, “Stay Up Late”
- Grandpaboy, “Psychopharmacology”
- Elvis Presley, “Crawfish”
- Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, “100 Days, 100 Nights”
- Bob Dylan, “Call Letter Blues”
- Sonic Youth, “Shoot”
- Black Angels, “You in Color”
- Mission of Burma, “Dead Pool”
- Radiohead, “House of Cards”
- Frank Sinatra, “Last Night When We Were Young”
- Duke Ellington, “The Controversial Suite (Later)”
- Low, “In Metal”
- Big Star, “I’m In Love With a Girl”
Copies to the usual suspects on request; just leave a comment. (Man, it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to say that!)
Update: Art of the Mix came back online sometime since I wrote this, so the mix is linked now.