Julian Bream (who died today, age 87, in Wiltshire, England) grew up in a musical household, and certainly made the most of it. His father, a commercial artist, was a jazz guitarist who also played the piano. As a child, the young Julian would sit by the radio, trying to strum along on his father’s guitar. Lessons followed on both guitar and piano. Winning a piano competition at age 12 gave Julian entry into the Royal College of Music. He made his début recital on the guitar at age 13, and made his Wigmore Hall début at age 17. His father bought him a lute, which he taught himself to play. In 1960, he founded an original-instruments group with himself as lutenist, bringing Elizabethan music to widespread public awareness. England’s most important composers, Benjamin Britten, Sir William Walton, and Sir Michael Tippett wrote pieces for him, as did dozens of other composers.
Here he is in a video from 2003 (I believe), playing the penultimate and final movements of Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland. Britten’s Nocturnal is not so much a set of variations as an 18-minute reconstruction of a deconstructed “Come, Heavy Sleep,” by John Dowland.
In sharp contrast to the usual variation sets that start with the melody and get more complicated as they go on, Britten inverted that agenda. The piece starts with the variation most remote in character; each successive variation is closer to the original tune, and the work ends with Dowland’s original lute song (which was published in 1597). So, here we have the final variation, and then the statement of the melody.
There were giants in the earth in those days…
# # #
“Well, the Welsh do sing, do they not?” I murmured to myself, upon starting to listen to this rather astonishing performance. And when he got to the embellished repeats… I was not speechless!
The YouTube identifies the young “treble” (here in the US, we say “boy soprano”) Cai Thomas as Welsh; and, as far as I know, Cai is a very Welsh given name; but he appears to live in Surrey. He started singing in a local church choir at age seven; at age 12, a Kickstarter campaign made Cai’s début CD possible.
I first learned of Cai from classical-music publicist Sarah Folger, who sent me an email about an Arvo Pärt single-track release (“Vater unser,” Arvo Pärt’s setting of the “Our Father”) that was recorded under pandemic lockdown conditions, with Cai in the UK, and pianist Julien Brocal in Brussels.
More on the Handel aria, and on the Pärt piece, after the jump. Continue Reading →
Clark Johnsen (who recently died; I am preparing a memorial post) was an optical physicist whose career included working on the Apollo Moon Mapper, the Viking Mars-Lander camera, and the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory. Clark also worked on a Rube-Goldberg-ish ultra-secret project that launched an earth-orbit satellite with a huge analog-film camera. That project took on added importance after the 1960 U-2 incident in which the Soviet Union shot down a US CIA spy plane. (The analog-film satellite project went by the now-timely name of Project Corona.) The Rube Goldberg aspect was that the spy satellite would eject a “lifeboat” re-entry capsule of exposed film. Which of course had to be recovered.
Clark’s passion, however, was classical music. First as a disc jockey on Harvard University’s radio station WHRB, and later as a high-end audio dealer, but always as a record collector. I have yet to meet a musician, engineer, or musicologist who had Clark’s depth of knowledge of the history of recorded classical music. His collection included more than 20,000 78 rpm records, which he actually would listen to. And perhaps 30,000 LPs.
Clark once told me that he had five favorite Beethoven “Waldstein” piano-sonata recordings, and that one of them was Hyperion Knight’s debut recording on Wilson Audio LPs. (Now available as hi-res downloads.) Dave Wilson recorded that LP in 1983, when Hyperion was a newly-minted Doctor of Musical Arts. And, no surprise, Hyperion’s DMA dissertation was on the Waldstein Sonata. That LP earned a place on Harry Pearson’s The Absolute Sound “Super LP” list.
Not content to rest on such laurels, Hyperion (and his significant other) have just published a novel in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. (Available printed or for Kindle, here.) The jacket image and publisher’s blurb are after the jump, as well as the first part of the Waldstein sonata from that Wilson Audio LP of long ago. Continue Reading →
Courtesy Stereophile magazine.
If anyone is interested, here are more groovy things to explore. Feel free to consider this your Suggested Voluntary Summer Reading and Listening List.
In 1965, the Soviet composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Rodion Shchedrin were both vacationing in Armenia. Shostakovich asked Shchedrin the Desert Island Score question: Were Shchedrin to be exiled to a deserted island and could bring only one score with him, which would it be? Shchedrin’s answer was prompt: J.S. Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of the Fugue).
When Shchedrin then turned the question on him, Shostakovich answered, “Das Lied von der Erde, by Mahler.” (Tr.: The Song of the Earth.) Which is not surprising, given that Shostakovich was a founding member (one of two, if I recall correctly) of the Gustav Mahler Society of the Soviet Union, and that Shostakovich later entertained (but decided against) the idea of completing the orchestration of Mahler’s unfinished Symphony 10. (BTW, the only books in Mahler’s composing hut were Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s major survey of Bach’s works.)
The same topic arose in another conversation that took place between Shostakovich and Shchedrin in 1975, two months before Shostakovich died (so I assume that they were in Moscow). Shchedrin asked, “Do you remember our conversation in Armenia? Did you change your opinion about Mahler?” “No,” Shostakovich replied. “And did you change your opinion about Bach?” To which Shchedrin answered, “No.” Continue Reading →
The Voyager, showing the container for the Golden Records.
Almost on a whim, more than 40 years ago, a bunch of scientists decided that seeing as we were launching two robotic probe vehicles which, once they left our solar system, would drift in space for about 40,000 years before getting close to another planetary system, we might as well send along a couple of phonograph records containing, among other things, a wide variety of pieces of music from Earth.
The amazing things about that are legion; but the two that stick out farthest for me are that (1) the aforementioned scientists actually convinced otherwise sane and sober bureaucrats to go for it; and (2) the aforementioned scientists were able, in a rather short time frame, to kludge together bits and pieces that, in theory at least, might, 40,000+ years from now, enable The Good Lord Knows Who? to play the aforementioned phonograph records. Which are known to that segment of humankind that cares about such things as “The Voyager Golden Records.” (And not all such persons have closets full of Star Trek Original Television Series uniforms. Or so I have been assured.)
Obviously, bundling up for long-distance shipment a state-of-the-art-for-1977 phonograph turntable, tone arm, cartridge, amplifier, and speakers or headphones was out of the question. How the Voyager Golden Records team attempted to finesse that difficulty, as well as information on the music tracks, comes after the jump.
Artist’s conception courtesy NASA JPL.
The above image is of a Voyager space probe. There is a fascinating connection between the Voyager program and Cultural Literacy in Music, and we will get to that soon.
But because my guest lectures will be Zoomed, I am concerned that if I sing or play musical examples, they might not come through well enough. Therefore, I want first to get some of the “Wires and Pliers” aspects of the physics of sound and music out of the way via uploads that you can look at and listen to. Here goes:
When I was a boy singer (I was a boy soprano, in fact) I had a music teacher who used to tell the story of a young musician or composer of the classical era (by which I mean circa 1775) who used to come home late after a night of carousing, and torment his musician or composer father (who was already in bed upstairs) by loudly playing all but the last note of a major-key octave scale. Continue Reading →
If you had been wondering why I asked you to watch a live music video of Jamiroquai’s 1999 funk/dance song “Canned Heat,” the answer is found in the audio-only YouTube clip immediately above, a remastering of the original “Canned Heat Blues” from 1928.
In the US between 1920 and 1933, the sale of alcoholic beverages was banned. People who could not afford to pay the prices demanded by bootleggers for alcohol that was illegal (but which was intended for human consumption, and therefore as safe as the alcohol that previously had been legal) sometimes drank wood alcohol, which could easily blind you, and over the course of time, would kill you. Squeezing the alcohol out of jellied cooking fuel and drinking it surely would give you the “Canned Heat Blues.” This performance is quite a harrowing document. More information, including lyrics, here and here. Continue Reading →
An obscure poem by the English Decadent poet Ernest Dowson provided the title for a famous novel (and its classic film version) as well as a punchy line from one of Cole Porter’s most innuendo-laden show tunes. The backstory is long but fascinating, so please bear with me. And there will be a little surprise for you at the end.
Courtesy of Renaissance Man (and credentialed amateur opera singer) Jack Baruth (who was pointed to this by the estimable Sajeev Mehta), we have a “mix tape” of Japanese Jazz/Fusion music. Which I decided to let my readers know about because… times are tough, and we all need a little undemanding escapism. Rilly.
(Yeah, the YT title and header image include a lame pun: “track” as in auto-race track vs. track as in recorded music track. OK, I get it.
Not to over-share, but the most memorably difficult St. Valentine’s Day date ever, at least in my personal history, was when I asked a lovely young lady to accompany me to the symphony, myself having only glanced at the program. Continue Reading →
Courtesy Stereophile magazine.
Preparation for Participation, Part One
A recent article (Mehr, et al., 2019) posits that across all cultures, song (meaning music with words) is a “cultural constant.”
To put it as simply as possible, “Everybody sings.” (Or, at least: Most people, in all cultures, sing.)
This, in and of itself, should not be surprising. People in most (if not all) cultures have since earliest times always heard birds singing (although admittedly, on a spectrum from the most simple to the most complex bird songs). If you do a web search with the query: “relationship between birdsong and human song” you will be presented with an engrossing salmagundi of results, with this one at the top (“Birdsong and Human Language”).
(Note, read that article in full only if it interests you; I just wanted you to be aware of the concept of a relationship between birdsong, and human song and language.)
What I found remarkable in the Mehr 2019 study is that study’s mention of a previous paper by the same team, reporting the experimental finding that:
[U]ntrained listeners in 60 countries could on average discern the human behavior associated with culturally unfamiliar musical forms. These behaviors included dancing, soothing a baby, seeking to heal illness, or expressing love to another person.
In other words, ordinary listeners could tell what kinds of songs they were listening to, even when those songs came from far-away places and radically different cultures. Continue Reading →