It’s taken 29 years for Michael Nyman’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat to enter my music collection.
I first encountered the chamber opera when it was first released in 1988. I read an article about it in Pulse! magazine (of course), and the main branch of the Hawaii Public Library acquired it for its new-fangled CD collection.
There was just one problem — my brother owned the only CD player in the house at the time, and he was loathe to let me use it.
So I listened to the work exactly once (when my brother was out of the house.) I had an inkling at the time it would be a work in which I could take interest, but after I returned the disc to the library, I never followed up.
It would be many years before I learned the source material was an Oliver Sacks book, and it would be longer still till I spotted that original recording at Everyday Music.
I’m glad I waited to listen to the work again.
I’ll be honest — I had no idea to what I was listening back in 1988. I was still a classical music neophyte, and my experience with modern classical music hadn’t yet expanded beyond Kronos Quartet.
I probably would have pretended to find it profound, only to neglect it years later.
But after a thorough college training, I can understand why I had that original inkling nearly three decades ago.
First, it’s a compelling story with a tight focus on its three characters — a renowned music professor, his wife and the doctor diagnosing him. As the doctor moves from one exam to another, the score evolves.
It helps Nyman is a tonal composer. I’m not sure this story would have been serviced well with a thornier score. The chamber instrumentation also suits the mostly internal dialog of the characters.
I remember following along with the libretto and getting engaged with the score. I did the same when I brought the album home again 29 years later.
I’m ambivalent about opera, but The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is one of the few works in the genre I can revisit.
Tags: catching up, michael nyman
I worked at Waterloo Records from 2002 to 2005, and while it wasn’t the most lucrative job, it was one of the most influential.
It also taught me the quickest way to kill enthusiasm about music is to work at a record store.
For the most part, everyone on staff got along. We all shared different aspects of the same sense of humor, fueled by skepticism of the world in general and customers’ tastes in particular.
None of us could fathom why Bob Schneider or Norah Jones sold tons of discs, but we rang up those purchases anyway because, hey, paycheck!
The one point of contention that threatened this egalitarian ideal was the in-store player. We could play six tracks of anything we sold in the store. Some staffers were more aggressive about queueing items up, and a large portion of the staff preferred those items to be garage rock.
I would make some controversial picks myself — Duran Duran being a natural choice. Enya was one that caused a miniature staff meeting.
Thought For Food by the Books was one of those rare instances where I would stop what I was doing and see what was playing. It was a fleeting experience, though — something else would come on the player that would erase my desire to see what was queued up next.
I didn’t actually listen to the album all the way through till I found it at a book sale for the Seattle Public Library. I picked it up knowing I vaguely liked what I heard.
I can now say I concretely liked what I heard. It’s equal parts Slint and Scott Johnson, the sampled voices contributing musically to the laid back post-rock.
As much as I like the album now, I’m not sure I would have liked it as much then. I was still deep into Japanese indie rock, and it would be another five years before I dove deeper into the Temporary Residence catalog.
I may not have meshed with my coworkers taste-wise, but they did help strengthen my opinion on what I liked while also showing me how to expand those tastes.
Tags: catching up, the books
One of my favorite albums of the late ’80s is The Long Acre by In Tua Nua. At the time, I was frustrated by the band’s lack of press in the U.S. If they were mentioned at all, it was in passing.
U2 starts a vanity label! (Oh, and there’s In Tua Nua on the roster.) Sinéad O’Connor wrote her first songs as a teenager! (Oh, and there’s In Tua Nua who co-wrote the single.)
So in 1988, I read an article about the Waterboys in Pulse magazine, and it mentioned In Tua Nua’s former violinist Steve Wickham had joined the band. That alone got me interested in Fisherman’s Blues, but since these were the days when radio or record store listening stations were the only way to preview music, I had to calculate how badly I wanted to hear this music.
And it turns out … not that much, really.
I left the album on the shelf and thought little about it till recently.
Much like Tracy Chapman’s Crossroads, I would encounter Fisherman’s Blues as I hunted the used vinyl bins for other albums. Each encounter would scratch that decade’s old itch of curiosity. I eventually bought the album on CD before becoming enamored enough to grab an old vinyl copy.
I do know one thing — I wouldn’t have appreciated the album had I bought it when it first came out.
I hadn’t yet gotten my schooling in traditional Celtic music, and I would have found Mike Scott’s voice grating. And I don’t know if I would have found may way back to the album if it confounded me on first impression.
Bands such as Clannad and Capercaillie skew closer to the traditional side of their Celtic/popular fusion. The Waterboys are a rock band first. Wickham’s violin lines pull the band’s songs toward the past, but they never lose their footing in the present.
Teenaged me would have lost patience with the album’s longer tracks, but older me appreciates their length. The cover of Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” quotes the Beatles’ “Blackbird”, a spontaneous moment that works well. “And Bang on the Ear” needs all seven minutes to get through its story.
The bonus tracks on the CD expand on the Celtic influence, but the fewer tracks on the original vinyl pressing give it clarity.
Upon its release, reaction to the album was divided — the Celtic direction confused some listeners and pleased others. I fall into the latter camp, but I had a lot of help to get me there.
Tags: catching up, the waterboys