Archives

In pursuit of George Michael

[George Michael - Faith]

George Michael has had a confounding influence on my life.

I remember watching videos for “Careless Whisper” and “I Want Your Sex” and recognizing that, yes, I find him desirable. But I was at an age where I didn’t know what desire was, and in an age where that kind of desire would imperil my life.

When his arrest forced him out of the closet in 1998, I was surprised on the level of “How the hell did I not pick up he was gay?” It was the kind of realization that put the past in perspective — of course, I found him desirable! He was signaling all this time!

But my brother called dibs on George Michael in our Sibling Rivalry Collection Race. At first, we were competing over who would get Make It Big by Wham! till radio played all the singles to death and gave neither of us much incentive.

My brother scooped up Faith, but Michael’s popularity was so ubiquitous, I became ambivalent. “Kissing a Fool” was great the first few times. Hearing every five minutes for weeks on end failed to entertain.

When Michael released Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, I was on my way to exploring music further outside the mainstream. The revelation of his sexuality wasn’t enough for me to become a fan, but I did pay attention when he created new music.

Three decades had to pass before I was receptive to examining his music. That ubiquitousness gives Faith a familiarity that feels comfortable. The non-single tracks don’t stand out as much.

Listen Without Prejudice got a lukewarm reception in the US, but it’s the album that shows a lot more maturity and craft. It’s not the hookfest of Make It Big or Faith, but it has a lot more heart and a greater sense of adventure.

It also demonstrated how far Michael had come since Make It Big. The optimism of Wham!’s second album captures the early half of the ’80s well, but it also sealed its fate as a sonic time capsule.

George Michael’s passing epitomizes that Joni Mitchell lyric: “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” In my case, it’s literal. It took his death for me to overcome an ambivalence formed at a time when other’s people opinions mattered.

 

Tags: ,

In pursuit of Ty Herndon

[Ty Herndon - Lies I Told Myself]

I admit, there’s a bit of a halo affect influencing my interest in Ty Herndon. I didn’t even know who he was till he came out in 2014, and when I did the requisite web search, I thought, “Oh, he’s quite hot.”

But I had low expectations when it came to his music. Herndon released his debut album in 1995, around the time producer Mutt Lange brought his experience with Def Leppard to the albums of his ex-wife, Shania Twain. Country music’s biggest star at the time was Garth Brooks.

1995 was also the year Emmylou Harris introduced me to the genre with Wrecking Ball. I learned quickly that country music had an alternative streak populated by punk progeny on one end and traditionalists on the other.

So I started with This Is Ty Herndon, his greatest hits compilation. I asked a friend more familiar with country than I was to confirm my suspicion — it wasn’t really that bad. She did confirm it, and she too isn’t into country radio either.

Herndon has a smooth voice he puts to best effect when mining the broken heart vein of the country tradition. For the first few minutes, it’s tough resolving his real life (gay) with the themes of his songs (straight). But Herndon eventually sells the emotion behind “Heart Half Empty” and “What Mattered Most”. Maybe less so with raunchier songs like “You Can Keep Your Hat On”.

I found myself listening to This Is Ty Herndon day after day, and eventually, I got curious about his career after the hits stopped coming. That’s when Herndon gets really interesting.

Lies I Told Myself was released a year before Herndon came out, but the music on the album certainly felt like he was ready to unleash. A chugging pulse on electric guitar opens the album with a toughness nowhere to be found on his greatest hits compilation. He still excels on the love songs, particularly “I Can’t”, but even the socially conscious closing track, “Love Wins”, doesn’t feel forced.

In hindsight, Herndon was saying much more through his song titles. The Internet would like you to think President Obama was the first person to use the hashtag #LoveWins in 2015, so how did Herndon have the presence of mind to use that as a song title in 2013? Here’s a hint: the album was released in October, four months after the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the Supreme Court in June.

The title track itself deals with overcoming adversity, but Herndon was hinting he told a lot of other lies before then.

His 2007 album, Right About Now, is no slouch either. Free from the strictures of country radio, Herndon’s post-major label work shows some real maturity. That’s not to say his major label albums were bad.

Steam and Living in a Moment are probably too tightly coupled with country radio fashion of the late-1990s, but What Mattered Most and Big Hopes have the strongest material. A big portion of This Is Ty Herndon was compiled from those two albums.

On social media, Herndon comes across as humble, likable and a bit of a goofball, adding to the halo effect. Would I be as interested in a gay country singer if he looked more like Garth Brooks? He’d probably have to write songs as good as Jason Isbell or Sturgill Simpson.

And if Ty Herndon weren’t gay, would I still listen to his music? I’ve been subjected to the kind of country radio that had me running and screaming back to my Lucinda Williams and Uncle Tupelo albums. I would easily choose Herndon’s “Hands of a Working Man” over Brad Paisley’s “Letter to Me”.

Tags: ,

In pusuit of Prince

[Prince - Parade]

In the two years since writing about Purple Rain, my interest in Prince had actually grown so gradually, I scarcely noticed I had become a fan. His untimely death affected me a lot more than I anticipated.

I bought up a whole bunch of his albums after hearing the news, partly to get ahead of everyone else buying Prince albums after hearing the news. I didn’t do that for David Bowie, and Bowie had far more influence on my favorite artists than Prince. But through my brother, Prince had a definitive presence in the household of my family.

My first pivot from ambivalence to appreciation dates back to 2013, when I picked up a vinyl copy of The Family for $0.50. I made an offhand remark on Facebook that The Family was the album Prince should have released instead of Around the World in a Day, to which a friend replied, “WRONG!” I enjoyed The Family, and it made me wonder what it would have sounded like had Prince recorded it.

But in the interest of balance, I picked up Around the World in a Day. I heard it once in 1985 when my brother played it on the family stereo, and I decided it was one too many. Nearly three decades later, I could see how my friend could declare my opinion “WRONG!”, but I’m still hoping a future reissue campaign brings The Family back from obscurity.

The next pivot was The Black Album. I was browsing the “P” section of Sonic Boom’s used CD bins, looking for John Zorn’s Painkiller. Instead, I found a bootlegged copy of The Black Album. I picked it up, familiar with the mythology of the album. Back in 1994, I almost considered getting a copy of the album myself.

The bootleg turned out to be a decent if flawed transfer from vinyl, so I bought a used copy of the official pressing from Discogs. Critical consensus indicates The Black Album would have been groundbreaking had it been released in 1987 instead of 1994. Decades removed from that context, The Black Album is still an odd duck in Prince’s output, which probably lends its appeal for me.

In the days following Prince’s death, I filled the gaps in my collection between 1999 and The Love Symbol Album. I haven’t reached a point where I want to explore anything before or beyond that fertile period, with the exception of HITnRUN Phase Two. That’s more than enough music to keep me occupied for a while.

2016 has been pretty brutal for rock heroes, and I must confess an ambivalence for most of the figures who have shuffled off this mortal coil. But something broke with Prince. For many  years, I dismissed him out of habit because of a silly, sibling rivalry turf war. When I started to appreciate him, it was in a cool, intellectual way. I admired the craft that went into his albums, but I didn’t let myself love them the way long-time fans do.

That ambivalence finally melted into fondness, but it took his death to make that happen.

Tags: ,

In pursuit of Henryk Górecki

[Henryk Górecki - Already It Is Dusk / Lerchenmusik]

Back in 2015, Nonesuch Records announced a huge reissue campaign for Henryk Górecki to tie in with the premiere release of his posthumous Symphony No. 4.

The reissues included a seven-disc box set of Nonesuch’s Górecki catalog and the vinyl release of his popular Symphony No. 3 featuring Dawn Upshaw. At first, these releases were set for September 2015, but they got pushed back to January 2016.

I fell for Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 like the millions of others who bolstered the album to the top of the classical charts. In the UK, it became a top 10 hit on the pop chart.

The Third Symphony was such a moving work that I was hesitant to explore his other pieces. Kronos Quartet introduced me to Górecki with its recordings of his string quartets, so I already knew the Third Symphony was a stylistic anomaly.

The intensity of Górecki’s work makes them intimidating to approach. When his compositions get quiet, they practically disappear. Then out of nowhere, a cluster of notes fly off the score.

The first movement of the Symphony No. 4 demonstrates this trait well. After three minutes of pounding a single idea, the orchestra gets quiet, almost silent. It’s a brief reprieve because the pounding continues just seconds later. Fiddling with the volume knob is useless.

As such, Górecki became one of those composers about whom I would genuinely be curious but not enough of a fan to get every recording.

The reissue campaign set me on course to change that.

Of the six albums previously released by Nonesuch, I owned half of them: the Third Symphony, and all three string quartets recorded by Kronos. The two albums I never owned were available on streaming services, but the one that wasn’t has the distinction of being the first Górecki album I ever bought: Lerchenmusik.

Lerchenmusik was paired with Kronos’ recording of his first string quartet. When Kronos reissued the first quartet to go along with a new recording his second quartet, I didn’t feel enough of an attachment to Lerchenmusik to hold onto it.

So I tracked a used copy of the album down to remind myself why. The first movement of the piece hugs the noise floor so tightly, you might think the CD was defective. It’s a lengthy work that doesn’t have the staying power of Three Pieces in the Old Style or the Harpsichord Concerto.

Reviews of the Fourth Symphony compared the work to the symphonies preceding the Third. Symphony No. 2 was easy to find, thanks to Naxos’ pervasive presence online and in retail. Symphony No. 1 was more of a challenge.

Koch Schwann released a recording of the First Symphony on the tail Symphony No. 3’s success, but after a series of acquisitions, the label’s catalog remains untapped.

Symphony No. 1 is steeped in modernism, and it establishes the harmonic language that would be the basis of his subsequent symphonies. But the work has few of his trademarks: the dynamic extremes, the folk melodies.

Symphony No. 2 actually hints at what would come in Symphony No. 3, but it employs a more extreme version of the harmonies explored by its predecessor. It starts off brutally but ends beautifully.

As tuneful as the Third may be, the symphonies surrounding it are actually a lot more interesting. They show off how skillfully Górecki could balance the past with the future.

It’s Górecki’s more tonal works, however, that listeners will flock to. When he eases up on the intensity, he can spin a melody. Three Pieces in the Old Style probably rivals the Third Symphony in terms of available recordings.

Tags: ,

In pursuit of Nonesuch Records

[Nonesuch Records]

Vinyl collectors tend to specialize. I have a particular weakness for anything on Nonesuch Records from 1985 till the rise of the CD, which is about 1990.

Why these dates? Robert Hurwitz, the president of the label, began his tenure in 1984. He overhauled the label’s roster, bringing in Steve Reich, John Adams, Philip Glass and Kronos Quartet.

The label was most famous at the time for championing modern classical music by the likes of Elliott Carter and John Cage, and Hurwitz started to refashion the label gradually.

Downtown New York jazz artists such as Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz and John Zorn came aboard. The Explorer Series paved the way for Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares.

And this transformation happened at the most vulnerable time in my life — adolescence.

If my allowance could have accommodated it, I would have bought every Nonesuch recording on the market at the time. Till then, I snatched up every Kronos Quartet recording I could. I overplayed Adams’ The Chairman Dances and Zorn’s Naked City. Robin Holcomb’s self-titled debut was the soundtrack to my high school graduation.

As of this writing, there are 152 items from Nonesuch in my collection. It outstrips the next ranked label, EMI, by 48 percent.

Would my loyalty to the Nonesuch brand be as strong if I discovered the label later or earlier in life? I think I’d arrive at the same place eventually.

My discovery of Nonesuch also happened at a time when I was not sufficiently funded to pursue it. So a lot of albums slipped through my fingers.

Whenever I flip through used bins of vinyl or CDs, I watch out for Nonesuch titles from the latter half of the 1980s. Before the minimalists and Kronos dominated in the roster, the label put out modern music by American composers.

Adams inaugurated the Meet the Composers series, which would release works by John Harbison, William Kraft, Stephen Paulus, Libby Larsen, Joan Tower, Tobias Picker and Joseph Schwantner. Stephen Albert, George Perle, Ingram Marshall and Scott Johnson released albums as well.

Browse the Nonesuch web site today, and you might run into some of these old titles. But they’re de-emphasized, almost treated as footnotes in the label’s march to be an eclectic curate. The Albert album hasn’t been made available as a digital release. Nor the only album recorded by Ani and Ida Kavafian.

So it’s these un-reissued albums that catch my eye. I have my fill of Reich, Adams and Kronos. Now I want to hear what else I missed during that influential time.

Tags: ,

In pursuit of Samuel Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11

[Concord String Quartet - Rochberg: Quartet No. 7 / Barber: String Quartet, Op. 11; Dover Beach]

Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is one of those classical music one-hit wonders people may recognize without knowing they recognize it.

It’s the piece American media whips out for occasions of national mourning. Oliver Stone used the piece prominently for the film Platoon. It was played at the funeral of Grace Kelley, and I’m sure if I perform my due diligence, a Google search would confirm my suspicion that the piece was performed around the time of 9/11. I won’t do that due diligence because if I were a music director at that time, I would have had an orchestra rehearsing it.

An entire book, The Saddest Music Ever Written by Thomas Larson, focuses entirely on the piece.

What people may not know is the Adagio is actually part of a larger work, the String Quartet, Op. 11. Barber would not write another piece labeled as a “string quartet”.

My introduction to the Adagio was on the Kronos Quartet album, Winter Was Hard.  The piece concludes the album, offering a sonic cleanse after the intensity of the Schnittke Third Quartet which precedes it.

Needless to say, I fell in love with the piece, and in my teenaged precociousness, I sought out the original work from which the Adagio was extracted. The only available recording at the time — we’re talking 1988, here — was by the Concord String Quartet, which paired the String Quartet, Op. 11 with one of Barber’s vocal work, Dover Beach, alongside George Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 7.

So I special ordered the cassette, listened to it and … wondered how the two halves of the piece relate to each other.

The fast, first movement, which is also reprised as a coda to its more popular second movement, isn’t really memorable. Where the second movement has that floating, off-kilter elegiac melody, the first movement seems to be just an intellectual exercise.

The second movement feels like a dialogue between the individual parts, where the first movement seems like the players are parroting each other, if not downright all saying the same thing. (I’m not entirely wrong — the quartet opens with a melody played in unison.)

I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but Barber didn’t seem to know what he was doing with that first movement, all the more evidenced by its return at the end of the piece.

In a way, it’s understandable how the Adagio has eclipsed its parent work. The rest of the quartet feels like an after-thought.

And it’s probably this underdog status that makes me seek out whatever recordings I can of the entire work, of which there aren’t many.

Currently, Emerson Quartet’s excellent American Originals album is the most readily available to contain the entire quartet. In my crate digging, I’ve run across vinyl LPs of Beaux Arts Quartet (paired with David Diamond’s String Quartet No. 4), the Cleveland Quartet (like the Emerson, paired with some quartets by Charles Ives) and that original cassette, the Concord.

Wikipedia alerts me to some others. That reissue by the Endellion Quartet wasn’t around when I was trying to find the work on CD.

I did take the score for the entire Op. 11 and program it into my digital audio work station, which you can listen to at the Empty Ensemble web site.

What I discovered is the first movement is in a very traditional sonata form, complete with modulation in the exposition and a recapitulation. Now that I can pinpoint the parts of the quartet, I’ve developed a better understanding of it.

That doesn’t stop the work from being unwieldy, but I can empathize with what Barber was trying to achieve. Portions of the quartet can get pretty thorny, and while Barber works in a tonal framework, he’s not beholden to it.

It’s those moments of discord arising from its spirited pace that makes me like the first movement just a bit more, and it certainly makes the second stand out.

You probably won’t fall in love with the entirety of the Op. 11, but at the very least, it’s a fascinating study on how a piece of music can exert its identity at the cost of others.

 

Tags: ,

In pursuit of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

[Ellen Taaffe Zwilich - Passages / String Trio]

I’m not sure how to explain my fascination with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.

It’s not fandom. I’ve reviewed her work before, but I don’t follow her the way I do Steve Reich or John Adams. Nor have I internalized any of her pieces the way I have Lou Harrison or Meredith Monk.

But in the last six months, every time I run into a Zwilich album, I end up buying it. Tonight, it was a CRI vinyl album of her Chamber Symphony, String Quartet and Sonatina for violin and piano. During the winter, it was a New World CD of Symphony No. 1, and at the Austin Record Convention back in October 2013, I bought a sealed vinyl album of a vocal work, Passages, and a String Trio.

I first learned about Zwilich back in high school. My piano teacher introduced me to modern classical music, hoping to capitalize on my 10-key finger span. I also began relying on the rock music press than pop music radio to find new artists.

On my way to campus one morning, I tuned the car radio to the local public station. A piece was playing that was vaguely melodic but not entirely atonal. It ended, and the announcers piped up to talk about the piece. I couldn’t really stop the car to jot down the name of the composer, but I made sure to note the composer was a woman.

A few weeks later, I ran across a magazine article about Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and I realized she created that piece I heard on that drive.

Today, I can point my phone at some music playing in the air and have it tell me what it is. If streaming services were available in my high school days, I would have looked up Zwilich’s music and given it a go.

But as the final decade of the 20th Century began to unfold, my resources were thin. I had a name. I had a text description of some music. And I had a fleeting encounter with said music in the terrestrial air. But I had little to no cash, and shops in Honolulu weren’t clamoring to stock modern classical music.

Zwilich’s name would pop up now and again as time passed, but my priorities always seemed to be stationed elsewhere.

So it’s a quarter of a century later, and I find myself chasing Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. But what am I really pursuing?

A resolution to a thwarted discovery, that’s what. I heard something I wanted to pursue, but circumstances stood in the way. Time eventually blunted the urgency.

I wonder now what would have happened had I delved into Zwilich’s work when my tastes were most malleable.

Would her Chamber Symphony occupy my listening memory the way Lou Harrison’s gamelan works do? Would I have sought the score for her String Quartet the way I did with George Crumb’s Black Angels?

It’s a far different experience listening to a piece of music as an adult than as a teenager. I wouldn’t have known how to listen to her music, and I would have used my instinct to make a judgment.

Conversely, I may have ended up missing something I could have only caught with a better grasp of the Western music canon.

In a way, Zwilich remains elusive. Search for her music on the streaming services, and a you get those same recordings I pursued two decades ago. Not much has been recorded since.

 

Tags: ,