From Kenneth Branagh's movie version of The Magic Flute with Stephen Fry doing the translations. There's actually a lot in this movie that is genuinely fantastic, but that cannot change the fact that Papageno is running toward a giant pair of lips.
Just one week ago tonight, Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra gave a performance of Mahler 1 that is already being discussed in legendary terms. Thanks to the endless miracle of youtube, we can already watch it in full and see Abbado's new batonless appearance, Natalia Gutman's reappearance at the front of the LFO cello section and Wolfram Christ's reappearance at the front of the LFO violas, somebody moving their chair in the brass section and causing an embarrassing squeak between the first and second movements. Abbado's near-breakdown the moment the music ends, his eyeroll the moment he turns around to face a wall of bravos...the Mahler ain't bad either. Both Simon Rattle, his successor at the Berlin Philharmonic and Pierce Brosnan, his successor as James Bond, are shown as being in the audience.
One year after the first appearance. The best thing in this is not in fact Zappa (though he is both hilarious and prescient) nor is it the omnipresent borderline fascism of the censors that were in the mainstream of discourse 20 years ago. No, the best thing about this is the obvious titillation Michael Kinsley gets out of quoting dirty song lyrics on CNN.
It's amazing how far we've come in 23 years. Truly amazing. Bob Novak (of blessed memory?) comes across as the centrist on this panel and the liberal, Tom Braden, says that Zappa's music makes him physically ill.
We're living in Zappa's world now, and thank god for that.
God I really hate this piece. And it of course becomes even more hilarious with heavy Latvian accents as this is done by the Latvian State Choir.
Bernstein's Mass is currently undergoing its largest revival of interest in its 37 year history thanks to my hometown Baltimore Symphony and its director, Marin Alsop. I was at their headline-making performance last year and the audience went insane over it. All I could do was hide my cringing for the entire performance (I was in the third row).
Let's be clear here. Leonard Bernstein has been my biggest hero since I was three years old. I think it's shameful that he was ever considered anything but a great composer, conductor, teacher, pianist, whatever else. But wow, when he fell off the ladder he fell off the highest of high rungs. That alone is enough reason to idolize him, and it's hard to imagine a bigger compositional turkey than Mass.
Hell,...a little more.
Where do you even begin with this piece? The fact that the chorus is made to sound like they're singing an opera written by Lyndon LaRouche? The fact that the role of the celebrant seems by its very nature to be a cult leader? The fact that Bernstein took the most banal parts of every genre of American music and transformed them into the type of melange that makes American music itself sound like a cliche? There is no end of complaints to make about this piece. The only good thing about it was its politics, and of course Bernstein took that too far as well. To the way of thinking espoused by Mass, all who make war are equally terrible. So we're supposed to believe that there is no humanitarian difference between the Nixons of this world and the Harry Trumans.
I have no idea what I'm saying with all this, maybe I'm just ranting after a long day.
It's all posted at the New Yorker right now. And oh my god it's enormous.
From Alex Ross:
J. Edgar Hoover corresponds with a Communist-hunting, Philharmonic-listening Wisconsin nun; Pat Buchanan, John McLaughlin, and G. Gordon Liddy analyze Mass; and, live on tape, President Richard M. Nixon calls the composer of West Side Story a "son of a bitch." These and other highlights from the United States Government's files on Leonard Bernstein, now at the New Yorker website.
My personal favorite part is in Tape excerpt #3 in which Ehrlichman decribes Bernstein's Mass as a combination between West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair.
*I misremembered. In another spot, it was described as akin to West Side Story. Here it's described as combination "Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair with clothes on"
Kind of Blue Why the best-selling jazz album of all time is so great. By Fred Kaplan Posted Monday, Aug. 17, 2009, at 6:46 AM ET
(So What: Kind of Blue's signature track)
Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, which was released 50 years ago today, is a nearly unique thing in music or any other creative realm: a huge hit—the best-selling jazz album of all time—and the spearhead of an artistic revolution. Everyone, even people who say they don't like jazz, likes Kind of Blue. It's cool, romantic, melancholic, and gorgeously melodic. But why do critics regard it as one of the best jazz albums ever made? What is it about Kind of Blue that makes it not just pleasant but important?
On March 2, 1959, when its first tracks were laid down at Columbia Records' 30th Street Studio (the album would be released on Aug. 17), Charlie Parker, the exemplar of modern jazz, the greatest alto saxophonist ever, had been dead for four years, almost to the day. The jazz world was still waiting, longing, for "the next Charlie Parker" and wondering where he'd take the music.
(Bird and Diz play Hot House)
Parker and his trumpeter sidekick, Dizzy Gillespie—Bird and Diz, as they were called—had launched the jazz revolution of the 1940s, known as bebop. Their concept was to take a standard blues or ballad and to improvise a whole new melody built on its chord changes. This in itself was nothing new. But they took it to a new level, extending the chords to more intricate patterns, playing them in darting, syncopated phrases, usually at breakneck tempos.
(Charlie Parker: Groovin' High)
The problem was, Parker not only invented bebop, he perfected it. There were only so many chords you could lay down in a 12-bar blues or a 32-bar song, only so many variations you could play on those chords. By the time he died, even Parker was running out of steam.
When Miles Davis came to New York in 1945, at the age of 19, he replaced Gillespie as Parker's trumpeter for a few years and played very much in their style. A decade later, he, too, was wondering what to do next.
The answer came from a friend of his named George Russell (who died just last month at the age of 86). A brilliant composer and scholar in his own right, Russell spent the better part of the '50s devising a new theory of jazz improvisation based not on chord changes but on scales or "modes." The kind of music that resulted was often called "modal" jazz. (A scale consists of the 12 notes from one octave to the next. A chord consists of three or four specific notes in that scale, played together or in sequence: For instance, a C chord is C-E-G.)
(Statusphunk: A modal composition by George Russell)
This distinction may seem slight, but its implications were enormous. In a bebop improvisation, the chord changes (which occur when, usually, the pianist changes the harmony from one chord to another) serve as a compass; they point the direction to the next bar or the next phrase. Chords follow a particular pattern (that's why it's easy to hum along with most blues and ballads); you know what the next chord will be; you know that the notes you play will consist of the notes that comprise that chord or some variation on them. Playing blues, you know that the sequence of chord changes will be finished in 12 bars (or, if it's a song, 32 bars), and then you'll either end your solo or start the sequence again.
Russell threw the compass out the window. You could play all the notes of a scale, which is to say any and all notes. "It is for the musician to sing his own song really," Russell wrote, "without having to meet the deadline of a particular chord." In other words, he continued, "you are free to do anything" (the italics were his), "as long as you know where home is"—as long as you know where you're going to wind up.
One night in 1958, Russell sat down with Davis at a piano and laid out his theory's possibilities—how to link chords, scales, and melodies in almost unlimited combinations. Miles realized this was a way out of bebop's cul-de-sac. "Man," he told Russell, "if Bird was alive, this would kill him."
In an interview that year with critic Nat Hentoff, Miles explained the new approach. "When you go this way," he said, "you can go on forever. You don't have to worry about changes, and you can do more with time. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically inventive you are. … I think a movement in jazz is beginning, away from the conventional string of chords and a return to emphasis on melodic rather than harmonic variations. There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them."
(Bill Evan: Turn Out The Stars)
Davis needed one more thing before he could go this route: a pianist who knew how to accompany without playing chords. This was a radical notion. Laying down the chords—supplying the frontline horn players with the compass that kept their improvisations on the right path—was what modern jazz pianists did. Russell recommended someone he'd hired for a few of his own sessions, an intense young white man named Bill Evans. Evans was conservatory-trained with a penchant for the French Impressionist composers, like Ravel and Debussy, whose harmonies floated airily above the melody line. When Evans started playing jazz, he tended not to play the root of a chord; for instance, when playing a C chord, he'd avoid playing a C note. Instead, he'd play some other note in, or hovering around, the chord, suggesting the chord without locking himself into its restraints.
Davis hired Evans for his next recording date, the session that became Kind of Blue, which would be the perfect expression of this new approach to playing. The clearest example of its novelty is a piece, composed (without credit) by Evans, called "Flamenco Sketches." At most jazz sessions, the sheet music that the leader passes around to the band consists of "heads"—the first 12 or so bars of a tune, with the chords notated above. The band plays the head, then each player improvises on the chords. But for "Flamenco Sketches," Evans had jotted down the notes of five scales, each of which expressed a slightly different mood. At the top of the sheet, he wrote, "Play in the sound of these scales."
For the band's two saxophone players, John Coltrane on tenor and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley on alto, it was a particularly bizarre instruction. Both were astonishingly adept improvisers, but they built their creations strictly on chords, Adderley as an acolyte of Charlie Parker (with a gospel-infused tone), Coltrane as an almost spiritual explorer, searching for the right sound, the right note, mapping out his voyage on charts of chords, piling and inverting chords on top of chords, expanding each note of a chord to a new chord, not knowing which combinations might work and therefore trying them all.
A few months after the Kind of Blue sessions, Coltrane led his own band on an album called Giant Steps, which pressed this quest to its ultimate degree—literally:
Giant Steps marked the end of the bebop frontier; Coltrane knew this, and, afterward, would go in a whole new direction, less tethered to structure, more "free," than even Russell's concept envisioned. But on Kind of Blue, especially "Flamenco Sketches," he took his first—and most lyrical—step out on that brink:
The departure from bebop is clear from the album's opening tune, "So What," which would emerge as this new sound's anthem. Evans describes it on the album's liner notes as "a simple figure based on 16 measures of one scale, 8 of another and 8 more of the first … in free rhythmic style." (Loose as it is, this was more structured than some of the pieces. Evans writes that, for "Flamenco Sketches," the improvisations on each scale can last "as long as the soloist wishes.") In this 30-second clip from "So What," Davis improvises on a single scale for all but the last few seconds, when Evans signals a shift to a different scale:
Compare this with "Freddie Freeloader," the album's only conventional blues. (For this track alone, Miles let his usual pianist, Wynton Kelly, a straight blues-and-bebop keyboardist, sit in for Evans):
Structurally, it's similar to the early bebop tunes that Davis played with Parker in the mid-1940s, the melody latched to the pianist's chord changes, which occur nearly every bar, as in this 1946 Parker recording of "Ornithology" with Davis as sideman:
Now contrast these conventional bop pieces with the most fully developed piece of "modal" jazz" on Kind of Blue, called "All Blues":
It has the same feel as the other blues tunes, but listen closely: The horns, blowing harmony in the background, are playing the same notes in each bar; they're not shifting them to follow the chord changes; there are no chord changes. It sounds (hence the album's title) kind of blue.
So Kind of Blue sounded different from the jazz that came before it. But what made it so great? The answer here is simple: the musicians. Throughout his career, certainly through the 1950s and '60s, Miles Davis was an instinctively brilliant recruiter; a large percentage of his sidemen went on to be great leaders, and these sidemen—especially Evans, Coltrane, and Adderley—were among his greatest. They came to the date, were handed music that allowed them unprecedented freedom (to sing their "own song," as Russell put it), and they lived up to the challenge, usually on the first take; they had a lot of their own song to sing.
(Ornette Coleman - Free Jazz)
The album's legacy is mixed, precisely for this reason. It opened up a whole new path of freedom to jazz musicians: Those who had something to say thrived; those who didn't, noodled. That's the dark side of what Miles Davis and George Russell (and, a few months later, Ornette Coleman, in his own even-freer style of jazz) wrought: a lot of noodling—New Age noodling, jazz-rock-fusion noodling, blaring-and-squealing noodling—all of it baleful, boring, and deadly (literally deadly, given the rise of tight and riveting rock 'n' roll). Some of their successors confused freedom with just blowing whatever came into their heads, and it turned out there wasn't much there.
Another appealing thing about Kind of Blue, though it's also a heartbreaking thing: There was no sequel. Soon after the recording date, the band broke up. Evans formed his own piano trio; Adderley went back to playing gospel-tinged bop; Coltrane (after making Giant Steps) took his own road to freedom; Davis, too, retreated to earlier forms for the next few years, until he formed his next great band, in the mid-'60s, with younger musicians who pushed him on to more adventurous experiments. Kind of Blue is a one-shot deal, so dreamily perfect you can hardly believe someone created it. Which is why it remains so deeply satisfying, on whatever level you experience it, as moody background music or as the center of your existence. Listen to it 100 times or so, and you still marvel at its spontaneous inventions; now and then, you'll even hear something new.
We are so lucky that at least black and white film existed in the early eighteenth century to capture Bach leading the world premiere of the St. Matthew Passion on Good Friday 1727.
Actually this is famed Dutch Baroque specialist Gustav Leonhardt leading the Leonhardt Consort in the St Matthew Passion's opening chorus, Kommt Ihr Tochter (with weird technical gliches in the middle). But still, this is just plain eerie.
The Band's last concert. November 25th, 1976 in the Winterland Ballroom of San Francisco. Filmed by Martin Scorsese. With guest stars: Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood and Neil Young.
(Gulda conducts the Munich Philharmonic from the keyboard in Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. Gulda spends most of his conducting time fumbling around the score for the right page, but it does not change that he plays like an angel.)
Friedrich Gulda, arguably the greatest Beethoven pianist in the second half of the 20th century, plays his variations on The Doors' Light My Fire. This giant of the keyboard was given the moniker 'Terrorist Pianist' for his propensity to include jazz and rock standards in his classical recitals. Gulda himself attributed his passion for performing jazz to an encounter he had with Dizzy Gillespie in early 50's Chicago. Fairly soon thereafter, he was as likely to be heard at Newport as he was at Carnegie Hall. Like his contemporary, Glenn Gould, his clashes with noted authorities in classical music were notorious. When his alma mater, the Vienna Academy elected to confer on him the prestigious Beethoven Ring, Gulda became the first musician in history to return it in protest of what he regarded as their constricting educational practices. Gulda was also forced to cancel a concert at the famous Salzburg Festival because the festival objected to his inclusion of jazz musician Joe Zawinul on the program. In the late 70's, Gulda sharply curtailed his activities on the classical circuit and thereafter rarely performed any concerts in which he could not freely combine his dual pursuits. In this vein, he founded the Eurojazz Orchestra, a big-band combo whose concerts freely intermingled jazz compositions with classical.
Two genii of the keyboard meet over a third in the final movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 10 for two pianos. This performance is at a level of understanding at which most classical pianists never arrive.
A perfect piece of music. Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang by Johannes Brahms. The women of the Swedish Radio Choir sing, under the direction of the legendary Claudio Abbado. The great Stefan Dohr plays the horn part.
So much information became known about the major scandals of the Nixon administration during the release of the Oval Office recordings, many fascinating sub-plots got overlooked. Today is an appropriate day to draw attention to Nixon's long-term obsession with Olivier Messiaen. Nixon consistently loathed and distrusted the French musical avant garde as personified by Pierre Boulez, but his relationship with Messiaen was more complicated. Privately, he found Messiaen's music bewildering and decadent, but Messiaen's traditionalist religious outlook encouraged Nixon to view Messiaen as a "wedge" who could be used to divide and confuse his enemies. The following are key excerpts from the Nixon recordings:
-- On July 1, 1971, Nixon instructs Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to have someone break into the Darmstadt School, which refers to a group of like-minded European composers (e.g., Boulez, Stockhausen). Apparently Nixon believed the Darmstadt School had a physical location; the school was named for a series of summer courses that ended in the early 1960s:
NIXON: "I can't have a high-minded church organist ... I want a son-of-a-b----. I want someone just as tough as I am. ... We're up against an enemy, a conspiracy that will use any means. We are going to use any means.... Get it done. I want it done. I want the Darmstadt School cleaned out and have it cleaned out in a way that has somebody else take the blame."
-- On April 4, 1972, Nixon discusses Messiaen with Haldeman:
NIXON: "Return the calls to that poor dumb bastard ... who I know is our friend. Now do it ... We made the same mistake [Dwight] Eisenhower made, but not as bad as Eisenhower made, because he sucked the American Guild of Organists too much ... G-d damn it, don't talk to them for a while. Will you enforce that now?"
HALDEMAN: "I'll try."
-- On May 18, 1972, Nixon talks to Henry Kissinger about the National Security Adviser's meeting with Ivy League composers regarding Messiaen's oratorio La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ:
NIXON: "The Ivy League composers? Why, I'll never let those sons-of-b------ in the White House again. Never, never, never. They're finished. The Ivy League schools are finished ... Henry, I would never have had them in. Don't do that again ... They came out against La Transfiguration when it was tough ... Don't ever go to an Ivy League school again, ever. Never, never, never."
-- On Nov. 14, 1972, Nixon talks with his aide Charles Colson about his successful attempt to prevent Pierre Boulez from becoming President of France:
NIXON: "What in the hell did you think of Boulez's statement on the election? Wasn't that the sour grapes crap again?"
COLSON: "Well, it's unbelievable, the arrogance of the guy ... God, what a bad man. Just awfully glad we got him buried and put away for good. I think he is."
NIXON: "Oh, he's buried. He's buried."
Nerds across America recite Monty Python by rote, yet whole British comedy troupes of equal quality have been swallowed up by obscurity.
The names Dudley Moore and Peter Cook will still ring an enormous bell today to Baby Boomer movie lovers (to say nothing of famed playwright Alan Bennett or theater director Jonathan Miller), but the troupe they belonged to: Beyond the Fringe, has been consigned to the dustbin of comic obscurity. The reason is not hard to see - Beyond the Fringe played upon the assumption that its average audience member was literate beyond today's average Ivy Leaguer. Watching them today, it is rather difficult to believe that they thought their audience was anything but Oxford Dons. And yet they were the comic stars of early-60's Britain.
Consider the infamous above clip, in which a piano-playing Dudley Moore is stopped by Peter Cook in a Bobbie hat, who proceeds to discuss Moore's piano playing as if it were drunk driving, and all the while using 400-year-old Italian musical terminology to describe it. It is utterly brilliant in an utterly obscure way.
Or consider the below clip, in which Dudley Moore not plays the piano in pitch-perfect imitations of Benjamin Britten and Kurt Weill, but also sings in pitch-perfect imitations of Peter Pears and Lotte Lenya. Clips like this made Dudley Moore the biggest name in England for a time, and yet how many people even know who Peter Pears is today?
So what can we do today to make Dudley Moore funny again?