Often I am given to alternate between periods of composing and listening, for some reason my brain has to shift gears to do one thing or the other and be successful in doing so. Lately, I have been firmly in listening mode, what compositional efforts have been made in this time amounting to braindead mediocrity (of a sort more acutely felt than in the things I actually publish) and off-cuts that would not be fit even for the vertical spit at the most scummy kebab shop on Middlewood Road. However, actually listening to things lately has been a pleasant experience, with some surprises not only in classical music but in modern pop as well.
No one could be more surprised than I am that Paramore’s recent song “Hard Times” would be on a list of things that I have enjoyed listening to recently. Looking back, like seemingly everyone of a certain generation (mine) today, to the 1980s, the song begins with xylophones and drum machines, before breaking out with a full drum kit, accented staccato bass, and a warm and wetly befuzzed rhythm guitar. The general sound profile is indebted to Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (no complaints here), with the occasional shouty outburst replete with dissonant vocal filter reminding you that it’s self-aware retro pop, not primary history. Unlike their other recent single “Told You So”, which has a more stripped down and less characterful sound, “Hard Times” has charm bursting out of its fluffy three-minute walls.
Elsewhere on the pop(ular Western music) scene, I’m delighted to talk about 100 Flowers, a California punk band originally known as The Urinals, members of which would later go on to form the much-maligned, possibly with good reason (I, having not heard this band, cannot comment), Trotsky Icepick. The compilation 100 Years of Pulchritude, which brings together their self-titled debut LP, as well as EPs, singles, and unreleased work from the early to mid 1980s, is one hour long and full of truly original material. Sarcastic lyrics, which attack the establishment and seem to lampoon the usual punk anti-establishment sentiment at the same time, play off of dissonant riffs while maintaining a light, yet somehow rough sound, while tracks like “Mop Dub” show a side of the band’s character which delights in stripping itself of convention totally. That’s not to say these guys are beyond comparison to anyone else, they have a sound all their own, yet they are a product of their times, and share some qualities with their contemporaries MX-80 Sound (before Rich Stim and friends became purveyors of depressingly monotone soft rock around the late ’80s) and the funky, furious Minutemen.
On the classical front, I have been greatly impressed recently by Samuel Barber. Yes, that’s right, the man most people know, if they’re aware of its composer at all, for the ubiquitous funereal strains of the Adagio for Strings, which to my dismay is apparently popular enough that it may suffice to take up an entire CD. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, I was quite moved when it was played at my grandfather’s funeral in January (though likely it had more to do with the impossibly small coffin, which contained the to-be-cremated remains of a man I was not close to but had known all my life, whose voice I would never hear again, sitting in one corner of a room, resting upon a conveyor belt before a small wooden double door into which it would disappear just before the gathering dispersed), but I can only imagine Barber himself would have been quite irritated that of all his works it should be this and this alone that bears him forward into all the futures he cannot live.
To begin with, how about that vigorous, even violent Piano Sonata, Op. 26, coupled on the disc I have by Marc-André Hamelin, and rather more appropriately than you might think, with Ives’s powerhouse Concord Sonata. It would be quite enough to even take the finale, the colourful and leaping Fuga which impresses upon the ear with forceful moto perpetuo, runs to a tense breaking point fortissimo, then eases back into a mysterious dance, calming down just enough to make room for anticipation of the original motif’s big splashy return. But this comes as the exclamation point at the end of three movements of, if not equal ear-grabbiness then something close.
Less brash, more mysterious, shaded, but still retaining a contrapuntal edge, Barber’s compact Summer Music, a wind quintet which plays multiple short repeated sections off against each other, was my gateway back into this composer of which I had previously enjoyed at least a concerto, though I remember not which one, and some miscellany. I owe my friend Zoe a thank you, though she is presently without an internet connection and so cannot see this post, as she was the one to recommend this piece to me in the first place. It is rather a fine light work, nothing spectacular, but in its understated eleven minutes there is plenty to enjoy, including some moments that seem like a modern take on certain elements of the music of Anton Bruckner, strange as it may seem to say so.
Some months ago, I promised my friend Ben that I would proselytise in favour of Stravinsky’s late masterpiece Threni, a choral work setting passages from the Vulgate’s Book of Lamentations. I hadn’t forgotten about my promise exactly, but time seemed to slip away. Between composing Pints of Brine and working on the soundtrack for a game, in addition to trying to get other as yet embryonic projects off the ground, not to mention my ability to write, which comes and goes as inevitably as the Sun rises and sets, yet as unpredictably as the weather shifts from sunshine to storms over the British Isles, had seemingly disintegrated and scattered in the wind — the whole thing was destined to be delayed.
Threni has, I am told, long suffered from poor recordings resulting from lack of rehearsals and a general misunderstanding of the 12-tone technique, not to mention Stravinsky’s idiosyncratic (as in all things) application of it. Yet it’s not only the difficult melodic language which must have foxed musicians in the past, and likely still to this day, but Stravinsky’s return to vocal music of the past, particularly of the Renaissance and of composers like Schütz. His signature punchy, odd-meter rhythms, and the eccentricity of his instrumentation, which exhibits in places a Webern-like sparsity, are couched here in a looking-backwardness that seems better suited to the sort of folks who would ordinarily be performing Bach on period instruments. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that the best recording I know of should be made by Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale Gent.
Herreweghe and the Collegium bring the work’s balance of modern and ancient elements to the fore, the clear anchorage of the canon form giving rise to the most dissonant harmonies and textures. When I first heard the piece in 2010, part of the BBC Proms concert season that year, I could make nothing of it but an unpleasant mess, full of aggressively ugly sounds, shrieks and squawks that seemed interminable. Whether it is that Herreweghe’s take on the piece is more approachable, or simply that my ear has expanded its capacity for strong dissonances, more than likely not an either/or choice but both, probably with a heavy slant toward my own shortcomings. After all, since acquainting myself with works such as Agon (1957), Requiem Canticles (1966), and Variations (1964), I could not have been better prepared to hear the work then than I am now. These days the airy, distant, mysterious harmonies intoning the Hebrew letters ALEPH, BETH, VAU etc. seem to my ear like grand anchorages from which the many canons within the piece set sail, and where I can get attain a good vantage point to “watch” the action.
I recognise that, as usual, I’m talking more about myself than the music, but it would not serve me or my alleged subject well were I to launch into guesswork and start talking of things I know very little about, like Schütz, the great Renaissance polyphonists, worse still the Vulgate and the Hebrew alphabet. Sure it might seem okay if I write my way around those topics so that only a close read will reveal (gulp!) that I have about as solid a handle on any of them as I do quantum mechanics, but good Christ, lads and lasses, what are we about?