07 March 2009

Fifteen albums in 15 minutes (with bonuses!)

My friend John McDaid tagged me with this challenge, which really underestimates the amount of time needed for completing it. And when I finished, I realized I'd left a couple out!
Saturday 07 March 2009 2:40 PM
Think of 15 albums that had such a profound effect on you they changed your life or the way you looked at it. They sucked you in and took you over for days, weeks, months, years. These are the albums that you can use to identify time, places, people, emotions. These are the albums that no matter what they were thought of musically shaped your world. When you finish, tag 15 others, including me. Make sure you copy and paste this part so they know the drill. Get the idea now? Good. Tag, you're it!
(semi-chron order)
  1. George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, with the New York Philharmonic (I think) and Oscar Levant at the piano (I'm sure). On two 78-rpm disks that you stacked on record changer (remember those?) and flipped over when it was half-way done. When I was three I could identify it if I heard it anywhere: "That's George Gershin's Rapiddy in Boo!" Later, I got my own 33-rpm LP of the Los Angeles Symphony that I wore out learning how to conduct in the basement.
  2. I loved Henry Mancini in high school, when I first heard his music to the TV shows Peter Gunn and later Mr. Lucky. But the album that blew my mind was Quincy Jones Plays Henry Mancini. So cool and weird at the same time it made my teeth hurt (well, the orthodontia contributed).
  3. Well, duh, Meet the Beatles. I don't remember which Xmas my sister and I got this album (1 for both of us), but we wore it out and two copies after that. For me, it was the first time I actually paid attention to what each person was playing and singing, and I learned ALL the parts; it's also when I learned to play air guitar.
  4. Peter Paul & Mary: I can't remember which one I heard first — their eponymous debut, In the Wind, or Moving — but *that's* when I learned to play real guitar, so I could play in my first group: Bill, Phil, and Penny Ann. (We even had a secret name change, just like Noel Stookey: Phil's name was really Howie.)
  5. Simon & Garfunkel: Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme. S&G's first album after the triumph of the soundtrack for The Graduate, it contained lots of tasty finger-picking for me to learn, the better to lever my playing from OK to pretty good.
  6. Judy Collins: In My Life. This is Judy crossing over, after years as a luminary in the folk scene, and what's best about this anthology is the writers she brings into the same room: Dylan, Richard Fariña, Kurt Weill, Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel, Randy Newman, Richard Peaslee, Donovan, John Lennon. Every song is a knockout, but the range is astonishing. And then there's the American George Martin, Joshua Rifkin, in charge of producing....
  7. Burt Jansch. His debut album, before he teamed up with John Renbourn. Paul Simon had erroneously (I think) attributed "Angie" to Burt, so when I saw the album in a leftover bin I snatched it up. His version of the definitive finger-picking solo is a lot more raw — lots of string snapping and no muffled bass line. Plus I learned how to pop in a harmonic every once in a while whilst picking like mad — I had arrived.
  8. Buffalo Springfield: Again, the second of their three albums. I'd bopped along with "For What It's Worth" and "Do I Have to Come Right Out & Say It" from their first album, and even worked a version of "Hot Dusty Roads" for my new group, Bill Bly, a Boy, & a Girl (don't ask), but when I heard Neil Young's "Expecting to Fly" and "Mr. Soul" they stoned me totally without need for chemical enhancement. And Steven Still's "Bluebird" is in my Top Ten Tewns of all time, and I'm um, still working on that acoustic riff in the middle.
  9. Beatles again: this time Abbey Road. It's hard to think of a thing to say that hasn't already been said better by others about this work, but, apart from the utter coolitude of "Come Together," I'd have to say my favorite part is the inverted fade-out of "I Want You/She's So Heavy" — keeps getting louder and louder until it breaks the sound barrier (or your eardrums) and you can't hear it anymore. I wonder if the Singularity of Ray Kurzweil's techno-rapture's gonna be like that...
  10. Laurie Anderson: Big Science. Hallelujah. After more than a decade of lyrics to make you gag, finally some to make you think. Very sexy.
  11. Don Henley: The End of the Innocence. I listen to this with utter delight at least once a year — an absolute masterpiece. For someone who doesn't have much of a voice, Don sure wails the crap out of these dark, dark songs of modern-day disillusionment, and the man's got a man's heart. "The Last Worthless Evening" and "The Heart of the Matter" still just kill me.Randy Newman: Man, this is hard, but I think I have to go with Land of Dreams. Everything before that's just (only) brilliant, but "Four Eyes," "Follow the Flag," and "I Want You to Hurt Like I Do" simply change the rules about what a song can be and do to a person.
  12. The Rutles: Archaeology. Yeah, I know it's a joke band, but have you ever listened to these so-called parodies? "Eine Kleine Middle Classe Musik" is pure genius, all the arrangements are tight as ticks, and the playing's clean but relaxed, just like you want a good band to be. And, well, they're funny.
  13. Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Matapedia. As with Elvis Costello, I always found the McGarrigles' singing rather trying — though the songs were great, and I learned several to perform. But then I heard "Why Must We Die?" and I gave up being such a snob.
  14. Warren Zevon: Life'll Kill Ya. My buddy John McDaid had only introduced me to selected Zevon songs a short time before, so the first full album I got ahold of was a revelation. I immediately learned "Don't Let Us Get Sick" and "My Shit's Fucked Up" for breaking the ice at parties, and I'm working on "You're a Whole Different Person When You're Scared" for the next Midnight Ramble....
The two I can't believe I left out? My sister Lynn reminded me of these when she tagged me back —
  1. Soundtrack from the movie version of West Side Story. I loved the movie, of course, and have since tormented my Intro Theatre stoodies with it so I could watch it over and over, but the singing taught me how to sing. Whilst crooning along to "Maria" in the living room back home, I learned how to use vibrato, which didn't come naturally. Ditto singing with feeling. Shy boy learns to cope.
  2. Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, recorded by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Janice Harshanyi and Harve Presnell, soprano & baritone respectively. I first heard this in the mid-60s, and a couple years later my college choir sang it, with yours truly doing the countertenor solo, "Olim lacus colueram," the Song of the Roasted Swan. Since then its opening chorus "O Fortuna" has become a total cliché of satanic rituals in the movies, but the whole piece is still amazing. Turn the headphones up!

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15 December 2008

Dispersit superbos mente cordis sui

This past weekend the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, of which I am a whisky tenor, performed the Vivaldi Gloria and Bach's Magnificat (the one in D). Both are magnificent, dancing works to sing, and I love the Magnificat especially, it being the first major work of his that I performed in my half century of choristing.

The tenor aria in that work, "Deposuit," is one of the most exciting, testosterone-fired solos in the repertoire, with its heroic text, "He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek." One o' these days, I'm gonna get up the nerve to try it in public.

But the best alternative for a choral tenor is the "Fecit potentiam," with its extended fireworks in the opening lines, which then spreads its contagious enthusiasm to the other sections of the choir. Again the text is not what you'd call reassuring: "He hath showed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts."

It's that last line that has been haunting me in the past weeks: at first, it was part of the refrain of my rejoicing at the "decisive victory" (love the sound of that!) my team enjoyed in last month's elections (along with the well-known parody of "Fascination" — It was schadenfreude, I know...).

Some weeks on, the giddiness has evaporated as abyss beneath abyss opens its maw our under economy, the days get shorter, the moon gets closer, the weather weirder, and somehow the idea that this one reversal in the political climate of my mother country will heal the world of hurt we're in right now seems remote.

Back in September, I read James Woods's bracing review of my idol Marilynne Robinson's new novel Home in the New Yorker, in which she diagnoses our peculiar malady: "Americans never think of themselves as sharing fully in the human condition, and therefore beset as all humankind is beset." For good or ill, that imagining of our hearts is in for a bumpy ride, and I doubt if negativity will pull us through.

My only consolation these days is poetry. As Octavio Paz reminds us in his magisterial book of poetics, The Bow and the Lyre, "Poetry changes, but it does not decay. Societies decay." Last week, as I read the chapter on Rhythm, I came across this prescient passage (the book was published in 1973):

[T]he real tradition of the United States, as is manifested by Whitman, was the future: the free society of comrades, the democratic new Jerusalem. The United States has not lost a past; it has lost its future. The great historical plan of that nation's founders was thwarted by the financial monopolies, imperialism, the cult of action of action's sake, the abhorrence of ideas. [67]

Puts things in perspective: sure sounds like the place I'm still living in. Maybe we can change (yes we can), but in the meantime, I'm signing up for Hugh McLeod's less Romantic take on the subject, "You are either a poet or a corpse."

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