Friday, December 23, 2016

From the US to Korea, by way of Denmark

"I love music in every genre. Seriously, I love Ace Of Base just as much as Bob Dylan. To me it's all the same. The only thing I don't like is music without a point, when you play music just because you can. That's not really interesting."
— Thomas Troelsen, quoted in Sound on Sound

Back in the year 2000, several months later than the hippest of hipsters, I discovered that wondrous collection of tunes, 69 Love Songs, by The Magnetic Fields.  Like so many before and after me I was carried away by the amazing feat pulled off by one Stephin Merritt, of composing and recording three CDs full of songs about love—and actually making it fabulously listenable!    And, in that obsessive way I have of pursuing artists who interest me greatly, I started vacuuming up every bit of Stephin Merritt I could find: The Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, The 6ths, movie soundtracks...and appearances on compilation albums.

Yes, compilation albums.  That's the real starting point of this post, for you see, it is not Stephin (awesome and revered as he is) that I wish to write about today.  No, it is someone else entirely.  Someone from the far off land known as...Denmark.

One of the compilations which I bought, solely for the fact that Stephin Merritt appeared on it not once, not twice, but three times (as himself, with Future Bible Heroes, and with The 6ths—featuring Lloyd Cole, another great favorite of mine) was Reproductions: Songs of the Human League.  I was not a fan of the Human League in the 80s.  I thought of them mainly as the "Don't You Want Me" band, and based upon that song, I didn't.  Oddly enough, I was a fan (and still am) of Heaven 17, but for some reason that never made me think to give the early Human League a try.  More fool me.  Hearing the covers of several early Human League songs on this compilation did make me go back and explore their early albums, and I am glad that I did.  But this still isn't what I want to talk about!

I discovered a few bands through this collection, including Barcelona, Ladytron and Stars.  The band that somehow made the biggest impression on me, though, turned out to be the one that I had the most difficulty tracking down: Superheroes (who covered "The Sound of the Crowd").  Back in the year 2000 I still purchased music mostly in physical record stores, but search as I might I could not find anything by these "Superheroes".  Luckily for me we did, by that time, have this useful thing called the Internet, and I managed to locate a shop in Denmark, Vibrashop (which I think was actually operated by their record label, Crunchy Frog), that I could order Superheroes CDs from.  Order them I did.  Every album and single that was released by this intriguing band made its way to my mailbox.

Superheroes was led by Thomas Troelsen, a versatile singer, keyboardist, songwriter and producer.  I think that it was probably his unusual, reedy voice which first caught my attention, but I soon grew to love his songwriting and production skills.  Superheroes released three albums between 1998 and 2002: Dancing Casanova, Igloo and Superheroes.  Overall, I suppose that the first album is still my favorite, but there are tracks that I love on all three albums.  (And actually, as I review the track lists, the third album really does give the first a run for its money ....)  While not my favorite song by Superheroes (much as I do like it), I think that my favorite video by them is "Ocean Diver":

Now, the same year that Superheroes' last album was released, Thomas Troelsen was also instrumental in one of the very few times that I discovered what ended up being a hit song before it was known.  (I am much more often well behind the curve—see below.)  You see, Vibrashop pointed out to me that he had been producing tracks for a new Crunchy Frog band, Junior Senior, so I ordered their CD as soon as it was available and ended up being one of the first to hear ...

... "Move Your Feet"!  Not only was the song (and, in fact, the whole album D-D-Don't Don't Stop the Beat) produced and engineered by Thomas Troelsen, but he provides some of the memorable vocals (which many listeners believed were sung by a female) on this track.  Junior Senior became great favorites of mine, and I saw them live on more than one occasion (something which, sadly, I was never able to do with Superheroes).

Then I lost track of Troelsen for a few years, until 2007 when I found that he had a new band, Private, with their album My Secret Lover.  This album came as a bit of a surprise to me, though a pleasant one.  I honestly don't know how I would categorize the music of Superheroes, or who I would say it was influenced by, but I would not list primary influences as Prince and Michael Jackson.  Those are, however, two of the influences that I can hear on this album (though by no means would I say that those influences define its sound).  Who influenced the "Crucify My Heart" music video?  That I could not say.

So, Private were great, but nothing more seemed to come of them, besides a remix album the following year.  I once again lost track of Mr. Troelsen.  Then, earlier this year, I started thinking about him again.  I was sure that he couldn't have just stopped being involved in music, so I went searching to find out what he had been up to.  Well, it turns out that he has been writing and/or producing songs for a bunch of different artists, most recently including: Sarah Connor, Justin Bieber, Meghan Trainor, Charlie Puth, and so on.  That doesn't interest me too much.

However, from right around the time of Private, up to just a couple of years ago, it seems that Troelsen was working with S.M. Entertainment artists in that fascinating genre known as K-Pop.  And here is the promised example of me being well behind the curve, for although I had heard of K-Pop before, it was not until Thomas Troelsen led me to it this year that I actually listened to it.

"Love Like Oxygen" (above), "Sherlock" and a bunch of other tracks by SHINee.  Tracks by TVXQ!, BoA, f(x) and Girls' Generation, such as "Run Devil Run":

Several songs for Super Junior, including "Mr. Simple":

And then there was "History", by Exo.

Several of these tracks do, indeed, sound very Thomas Troelsen to me, and this is one of them.  This was the first K-Pop song to get intractably stuck in my head.  And it was also the beginning of my fascination with Exo.  I really don't understand their trousers in this video, or the portion of the choreography which specifically employs the odd feature of said trousers with their hands, but I otherwise find the dancing, and the general look of this video, extremely watchable.  This is the Exo-K version.  There is also an Exo-M version.

Exo-K?  Exo-M?  Turns out, when this group was put together by S.M. Entertainment in 2011 it consisted of 12 members: six members formed Exo-K, who sang in Korean and promoted in Korea, while the other six members formed Exo-M, who sang in Mandarin and promoted in China.  All twelve members appear in the music videos, all of which were shot twice.

That's their very first music video, "Mama" (the Exo-K version).  S.M. clearly had big plans for this group from the get-go, because this 6:13 video is truly epic, starting with a lengthy, animated exposition narrated in English which, along with the music video itself, introduces the mythology of this band of twelve.  Yes, they have their own mythology (and super powers!).  To get the full, cinematic effect, I recommend also watching the Exo-M version.  (Would it be going too far to suggest that this is a bit like whoever your favorite boy band is performing Carmina Burana in the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender with a guest interlude by Orgy?  I don't think so.)

The mythology of Exo continues to pop up in some of their videos to this day, but they have plenty of videos which are less lofty, if no less impressive.  This video, for "Growl", is almost certainly my all-time favorite single-shot, 12-member, synchronized dancing video:

Over the years, Exo has lost three of the members of Exo-M, shrinking the group to a paltry nine members.  They still record all of their songs and videos in both Korean and Mandarin, but all are simply identified as being by Exo (or EXO), now.  Their latest wildly popular music video (88,022,379 views on YouTube as I write this, a little over six months after its release) is "Monster":

That song gets stuck in my head, and I like the dancing, but the rest of the video is both incomprehensible, and rather unpleasant, to me.  I prefer to listen to it on the CD.  For yes, I do not just enjoy these videos, I actually like the music and buy the CDs.  (And not just by Exo.  Got7's mini-album Just Right has been getting a lot of play here lately, for instance.)

The most recent development from the Exoplanet is the "first" official sub-unit, EXO-CBX (what were Exo-K and Exo-M?).  It consists of the Exo members Chen, Baekhyun and Xiumin.  The first single from EXO-CBX is one of the most fun songs and videos I know, "Hey, Mama":

My eternal thanks to Stephin Merritt and Thomas Troelsen for leading me down the path which brought me here.  I think that I was in need of some good pop music, and Korea has done a great job of supplying it.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Surprise invasion of Japanese punk

A strange bit of synchronicity occurred in my life this week, courtesy of Netflix.  I have a two disk at a time plan with them.  (Yes, that's right, I still get actual disks mailed to me by Netflix.  I tried their streaming plan from the time it was introduced as a free add-on until sometime last year, when I decided that I had seen pretty much everything they had to offer that interested me, and that the new things they were adding nearly always failed to appeal to me.)

The first of the two disks that I received this week was Wild Zero (1999).  I have been adding things to my queue for years, at one point reaching about 400 titles.  As I have slowed down in adding—and recently, as Netflix has been deleting—my queue is down to fewer than 200 titles.  Sometimes I add something that I want to watch right away and move it to the top of the queue, but often I receive disks that I added to my queue years ago, which have finally percolated to the top.  Wild Zero was such a film.  I had no recollection of adding it (or, indeed, of ever having heard of it).  My purpose here is not to review the movie, so I will simply say: zombies, flying saucers, a gender confused love story, lots of rock music, Guitar Wolf.

Guitar Wolf is a band, the members of which—Guitar Wolf, Bass Wolf and Drum Wolf—star in Wild Zero.  I do not recall that I had ever heard of Guitar Wolf before.  According to Wikipedia, they are "a Japanese garage rock power trio founded in Nagasaki in 1987. The band is known for songs with piercing vocals and an extremely loud style of noise-influenced punk which emphasizes heavy distortion and feedback."  I would say that is a reasonable description.  Not really the kind of music that I generally listen to, and I am not really feeling inclined to rush out and buy their albums (though for what they do, I would say that they do it well).

But the universe, it seems, wanted to make absolutely certain that I noticed them.  For you see, an entire movie starring them was not enough.  Just to make sure that I did not forget them, I was given a much more subtle reminder....

The second disk that I received from Netflix this week was another one that I don't remember adding, but I know that I did not add it at the same time as Wild Zero, because I moved it up in my queue from a much lower position while reviewing my queue a couple of weeks ago.  This was Times Have Been Better (2006, original title Le ciel sur la tête).  Unlike Wild Zero, this film does not noticeably feature music, save for Plastic Bertrand's wonderful "Ça plane pour moi" in an opening scene.  It is a film about a family's reaction to their adult son's coming out (despite the fact that he and his lover are in the forefront of the poster above, the gay son is hardly in the film at all—the film really is about the rest of the family, primarily).

However, there is one scene in which the son is at his childhood home, and he goes into his old bedroom to make a phone call.  He sits down on the bed, and the wall behind him is filled with posters and album covers from his teen idols: Wham!, The Cure, Culture Club, ... Guitar Wolf?  Can't be.  What would Guitar Wolf be doing in such company?  All I can see of the poster when I notice it is "ar Wolf", as the rest is behind the actor, but I have to know.  I rewind and watch the scene frame-by-frame, and sure enough, there are a couple of frames where the entire poster is visible.  It looks much like this:

I am mystified.  I truly do not see how Guitar Wolf fits in with the rest of the bands on the wall.  Therefore, I conclude that the universe is trying to send a message.  I am not getting the message, so I humbly share it with you, that it might hopefully reach the intended recipient.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Guess I must be having fun

My first awareness of the Talking Heads precisely corresponds to my first awareness of MTV.  In the early 80s I was a young teen who would often come home after school and channel surf.  One day, as I was doing just that, I happened upon something that I found bizarre and fascinating.  Some nerdy looking guy in glasses and a bow tie...dancing, sort front of, alternately, a white background and a wavy, bluish, vaguely watery background.  And singing a catchy tune.

This astonishing display ended, and was followed by commercials, so I went back to channel surfing.  But sometime after dinner that same day I was flipping through the dial once again—pausing from time to time to toggle the A/B switch that doubled the number of channels we could get to a theoretical 24—and happened upon the exact same little bit of wavy weirdness again.  Now I had to know.  Commercials be damned!  I would stick to this channel until I figured out what had gotten into our TV.  And when I did discover what it was, I was smitten.

Talking Heads were the first, but far from the only, wonderful discovery which MTV beamed into my brain.  From straightforward concert videos ("You Better You Bet", The Who), to story telling videos both realistic ("Brass in Pocket", The Pretenders) and imaginative ("Take On Me", a-ha), to the totally goofy ("I Wanna Be a Lifeguard", Blotto; "Feet Don't Fail Me Now", Utopia), to surreal videos for fine songs ("Ashes to Ashes", David Bowie; "Time Heals", Todd Rundgren), to videos that I really appreciated more for their odd visuals than for the song ("Total Eclipse of the Heart", Bonnie Tyler) MTV was my boon companion for many, many hours.

But it is really Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison, Chris Frantz, David Byrne, and their occasional friends and collaborators that I have on my mind today.  It is safe to say that most of the music that I listened to and loved in the 80s originated in the British Isles.  The Talking Heads were perhaps the most notable exception.  An American band producing novel and interesting music, combined with thoughtful and amusing lyrics, was just not something that I, at least, came across much.  This was the beginning of my infatuation with the Talking Heads, but there was plenty of reinforcement to come.

Only a couple of years after this momentous discovery, I got my first job: busboy at The Upstart Crow and Company, in the Pruneyard, Campbell.  (I would continue to work there as waiter, barrista, book clerk, assistant bookstore manager, until the day that I came to work and found the doors locked due to bankruptcy.  A very sad day for both the staff and clients who considered the Crow a home away from home.)  I quickly discovered that the slightly older and cooler staff of the Crow also revered the Talking Heads.  It was while visiting a co-worker, Carrie, who lived over the hill, that I first saw Stop Making Sense at the Capitola Theater—a wonderful, old, single-screen, quonset hut shaped theater.  I think that I actually saw this a little before the first time that I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and therefore running around the theater in tandem with Byrne running around the stage on-screen was my first experience of audience participation in a movie theater.  This film was also my first exposure to the funky, fabulous Tom Tom Club.

And my Upstart Crow co-workers didn't just reinforce my fondness for the Talking Heads, they also introduced me to Byrne's solo work (music for The Knee Plays remaining to this day my favorite) and collaborations with Brian Eno, such as My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.  (I also fell in love with The B-52's around this time, and am perhaps one of the few people who truly loves the David Byrne produced album, Mesopotamia.)

During the time that I was working at the Upstart Crow I saw the film True Stories.  It may be some indication of what a peculiar world view I had as a teenager that I not only adored this movie, I truly believed that everyone else would, too.  I still love it.  It is funny, odd, visually interesting and at times moving.  And, of course, it is full of David Byrne's music (sometimes with Talking Heads).

Talking Heads were my very first MTV band.  I listened to them almost non-stop throughout the 80s.  Stop Making Sense and True Stories were two of my favorite films.  However, my awareness of this fabulous band and the start of my concert-going career came just slightly too late for me to ever see them live.  Their last three or four albums were released after I discovered them, but they were already done with touring.  At least they were kind enough to make the best concert movie ever before they called it quits.

So kids, don't worry about the government.  We may be on a road to nowhere, but  just remain in light and listen to some more songs about buildings and food.

Monday, October 12, 2015

To Apollo and Saraswati

“Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.”
― Ludwig van Beethoven

Today I have been in a Spanish mood.  This morning I enjoyed Bienvenido a la vida by Aleks Syntek y la Gente Normal while preparing and eating my breakfast, and just now, while feeding the cats and then chopping vegetables for the soup pot, I have been listening to Piedras by Duncan Dhu.

This got me thinking about music and learning.  You see, the first few CDs of music in Spanish which I ever purchased, I acquired in the hope that they would help me to learn Spanish.  I had recently begun studying Spanish at City College of San Francisco, with a marvelous instructor named Javier Toruño.  I figured that, since I love music, if I could find some music in Spanish that I liked it might at least help me grow accustomed to the pronunciation and cadence of the language.  This proved to be true, and as I painstakingly translated the songs that got stuck in my head, it also improved my vocabulary.

Back then (early 1990s) I had cable, including MTV Internacional, which was how I discovered a few of the bands whose albums were among my first purchases.  Being a buyer at a record store was also useful.  The first songs that I found helpful, somewhat to my surprise, were pure pop.  Once I thought about it it made perfect sense—the lyrics are fairly simple, usually repetitive, and often enunciated much more clearly than "edgier" music.  So these sorts of songs were great for someone taking Spanish 1.  They just weren't the sorts of songs that I tended to listen to in English in those days.  My favorite guilty pleasure from this category?  Magneto.

As I continued my studies I also continued to listen to music in Spanish, including bands which were more like what I tended to choose in English.  Some of those favorites include Café Tacvba, La Lupita, Babasonicos, Me enveneno de azules, and the above mentioned Duncan Dhu.  I've never lost my love for this music, and still continue to buy it, though I stopped studying Spanish many years ago.

The earliest music/learning associations that I have are with the alphabet song and "One of These Things (Is Not Like the Others)" from Sesame Street, closely followed by various songs from Schoolhouse Rock.  These are all, explicitly, instructional songs—and all highly effective (at least, once I realized that elemenopee was five letters, not one).  This is the most obvious way that music is associated with learning.  It's a tool which has been widely used from time immemorial.  Besides the many songs and rhymes that I learned as a child (I will never forget that a noun is a person, place or thing), I sometimes make up ditties of my own to help me remember things.

But it seems that there is more to the music and learning link than just teaching songs.  The godfather of New Age music, Steven Halpern, has long asserted that, "Using the right music can significantly enhance the effectiveness of the environment for learning."  He creates and sells such music himself, it's true, but he is not alone in making this assertion.  There have been numerous studies which have led, on the one hand, to Mozart CDs being repackaged to appeal to parents wishing to boost their children's IQ, and on the other hand to practical advice for educators on how to use music to enhance the learning environment in the classroom, for instance, Music and Learning: Integrating Music in the Classroom.
Using the right music can significantly enhance the effectiveness of the environment for learning. - See more at:
Using the right music can significantly enhance the effectiveness of the environment for learning. - See more at:
Using the right music can significantly enhance the effectiveness of the environment for learning. - See more at:

So listening to music is good, but what about making it?  A little while ago I read an article titled, "Musical training boosts language and memory skills, says study" on the Positive News site.  This reports on a recent study conducted in the Chicago area which compared the linguistic development of two groups of teenagers.  One group took music instruction classes, and the other group took JROTC classes.  Interestingly, the study found that the students who were studying music experienced both more rapid development of some linguistic skills, and an extended period of mental plasticity during which they could learn things more easily.  And there are other studies showing similar results, including those which were the subject of a Northwestern University research review discussed here.

I think it's great that all this research is being done to prove that music is beneficial in many ways to learning, but you know?  I've never in my life doubted it.  And neither did the ancient Greeks and Hindus—each pantheon having a god who is associated with both music and knowledge/wisdom.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Savoring Hoagy

"Never play anything that don't sound right. You might not make any money, but at least you won't get hostile with yourself."
—Hoagy Carmichael

I strongly suspect that the first time that I heard Hoagy Carmichael's music it was either sung by my grandfather, or was coming from my grandfather's record player.  Hoagy's songs remind me so much of the sort of songs he loved that I can't imagine him not loving them.  But I can't say that I positively recall experiencing any particular Carmichael song with my grandfather.

The first absolute memory that I have of Hoagy Carmichael is of seeing and hearing him in the wonderful To Have and Have Not, which I believe that I first saw in my early teens.  I went through a Bogart phase, and I could never understand why Casablanca was more celebrated than this film.  I like Casablanca, but Bogart and Bacall—plus Carmichael—how could anything top that?  "How Little We Know", from To Have and Have Not, is still one of my favorite Carmichael tracks, and there is no performance of it that I love more than Hoagy casually and quietly playing it on the piano while having a chat.  (As much as I think that my grandfather must have liked Carmichael's music, I also must note that when I saw Hoagy in this film, he reminded me of my grandfather.  So, one way or another Hoagy is inextricably bound to my grandfather in my mind.)

Hoagy Carmichael circa 1953

Another specific memory that I have of Carmichael from my teens is George Harrison's covers of "Baltimore Oriole" and "Hong Kong Blues" on the same LP.  I loved the album (though I gather that it is not a universal favorite) and these were two of my favorite tracks.  Why did Harrison include two songs by the quintessentially American songsmith Carmichael on his album, Somewhere in England?  I have no idea, but it worked for me.

Right now I'm listening to Disk "D" of a remarkable four disk collection, Hoagy Carmichael: The First of the Singer Songwriters, Key Cuts 1924 - 1946.  It contains a terrific assortment of recordings of performances by Hoagy and others (including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Anita Boyer, Paul Whiteman, Ethel Waters, and many more).  One of my fondest discoveries on this collection was the fact that Hoagy wrote music for children, as whimsically represented on this disk by his own performance of "The Whale Song".  I'd have considered this purchase worth it just for that song, but happily I love the rest of it, too.

Can I imagine trying to introduce some of my younger acquaintances to Hoagy?  Probably not.  Some of these tracks are 90 years old, and certainly sound (exquisitely) dated, sometimes (charmingly) hokey, and at times not particularly PC by today's standards (though never mean).  I'm sure that there are some younger folks out there these days who could appreciate these going-on-a-century old tracks as much as I loved them when they were already half-a-century-or-more old, I just don't know if I'm acquainted with any of them.

Of course, there will always be covers of some of his better known standards—"Star Dust", "Georgia On My Mind", etc.—which will capture new hearts.  For me, though, no one will ever do Hoagy better than Hoagy, himself.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Oro supplex et acclinis

" It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience."
— Gabriel Fauré

My interest in vocal music has always been more on the pop side than classical.  It is only fairly recently that I have taken any interest in opera.  Although I have loved classical music since I was a child—of many eras and many styles—vocal music was excepted.  But, as is sometimes the way with such things, there was an exception to the exception: masses of requiem.

I can recall quite clearly the first Requiem which I consciously fell in love with.  It was Mozart's Requiem Mass in D, performed by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and heard in the film Amadeus, which I saw at the Cinema 150 in Santa Clara, California in 1985.  I liked the movie, but I was overwhelmed by the Requiem.  I did not purchase the movie soundtrack, I rather purchased a full recording of the Requiem, and listened to it compulsively.  (I am not too compulsive, though.  I only own three different recordings of this particular work, to date.)

I was not, and am not, religious.  Neither do I have any particular interest in death.  Nonetheless, as the years went by I added more and more requiem masses to my collection.

As I write this, I am listening to Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber's Requiem à 15 performed by Koor & Barokorkest van de Nederlandse Bachvereniging, directed by Gustav Leonhardt.  I find it calmly stimulating (if that makes sense), somewhat uplifting, somewhat melancholy.  It has interesting orchestration.

Another beautiful requiem, which I find even more calming, is the Messe de Requiem by Gabriel Fauré.  I am almost tempted to describe it as "austere", yet if that fits, then it must be said that it is lovely in its austerity.

The Requiem that I find perhaps most peaceful is that of Johannes Ockeghem.  As similar as it sounds to Gregorian chant (at least to my modern ears) it is apparently the earliest surviving polyphonic setting of the requiem mass, though some passages are, in fact, plainchant.

Requiem masses do not all have a calming effect on me.  Indeed, that first Mozart Requiem that I fell in love with is dynamic, rousing, sometimes frightening.  I am not certain what it is about requiems, in general, which appeal to me.  Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that requiems are not generally written as show pieces for one voice.  While I have, of late, come to appreciate certain opera arias, there are far more that I find to be...too much.  Requiems have their solos, yes, but they are more dominated by choral passages—and even the solos have more of a tendency to...serve the whole, I suppose...than does your typical opera aria.

Of the requiems with which I am familiar—including those by Cherubini, Brahms, Delius and Penderecki, among others—there is only one that I can think of which did not appeal to me at all.  Then again, I cannot think of any work by Andrew Lloyd Webber which does appeal to me.

Whatever the reason may be for my love of this form, I suppose that it is one thing for which I must thank the Catholic church.*

* Having said that, I feel that I should note that Pope Francis seems intent on convincing me to be grateful to the Catholic church (or at least to he, himself) for other things, as well.  First there was his suggestion that, basically, there were better things to worry about than homosexuality—tepid, yes, but light years ahead of his predecessor.  And now, as I write this, he has just released an encyclical on the environment and climate change.  It is the first papal encyclical I have ever sought out, and though I have read, so far, only a portion of it, I must say that I am most impressed.  Long may he lead that institution, and may his influence be broad and lasting.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Scriabin and Symbolism

I am a winged caress, I flutter bird-like,
And I come to life as a savage lacerating beast.
As a writhing, crawling snake I have awakened,
I, voluptuous one, as the darling of the moist elements.
— Alexander Scriabin, from the Prefatory Action (trans. George Reavey)

My interests are, sometimes, a very long time brewing.  Hard as it is for me to believe, I realize that it was somewhere in the vicinity of twenty-five years ago when the seed of my current fascination with the music of Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin was planted.

At the time, I was product manager of the Wherehouse store on the corner of Kearny and Sutter in San Francisco.  It was a marvelous store, situated as it was between the City's financial and theater districts.  Our clientele had divers tastes and, generally, the money to indulge them.  I would order the oddest imports, the most obscure jazz recordings, confident that they would sell.

The top floor was devoted entirely to Classical, and it was the domain of Mr John Fugazzi.  He, I know, enjoyed the opportunity to order and sell worthy but obscure items in his department as much as I did elsewhere.  It would never have occurred to me to try to second guess or gainsay John's decisions in the Classical department, and I valued his judgment on a personal as well as professional level.  My favorite lutenist, Jakob Lindberg, was first recommended to me by him, for example.

At one point, John was asked to select a few album covers to have blown up and hung on the walls of the Classical section of a new Wherehouse store opening in our area.  With impish glee he showed me what one of his selections was: the cover of the Hyperion recording of Scriabin's Complete Etudes, performed by Piers Lane.

Intrigued, I asked him if it was merely the cover which was noteworthy, or if the music was, as well.  He responded favorably, and I purchased a copy for my collection.  I enjoyed the CD from the first listen, and continued to listen to it from time to time.  Around five years later, I believe, I decided to try some more Scriabin piano music, and picked up the Harmonia Mundi CD of Sonatas 3, 4, 5 & 10, performed by Robert Taub.  It also pleased me, and has remained in occasional rotation in my CD player ever since.

Now, I enjoyed both of these recordings, yes, but neither became anything close to an obsession with me.  I would listen to each every so often, and when I wasn't listening to them, I didn't give them much thought.

About ten years ago I was listening to the Etudes, and I wondered about that striking cover image.  It was, after all, the first thing that had caught my attention about the album.  The album notes credit it as Depression and Ideal (1907) by Carlos Schwabe.  (I was interested to learn that it is alternately known as Spleen and Ideal, a title which also adorns a Dead Can Dance album which I listened to often in my youth.)  I started looking for other examples of his work, first online, then at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library in San Jose.  This mainly meant perusing collections of Symbolist art, a movement I had been previously unfamiliar with, as such.  I discovered that I very much appreciated a great deal of Symbolist art.  It became quite a passion of mine for the better part of a year, and I still pick up new volumes on Symbolism to this day.

Le Faune (1923) by Carlos Schwabe

So, okay.  Two and a half decades after buying my first Scriabin recording, I retain a casual, low-level fondness for his music, and a more passionate fondness for the art movement which that CD led me to.  Then one day, a few months ago, I listen to this collection of etudes again.  For some reason, that day, it really reaches me.  I follow it immediately with a playing of the Sonatas CD.  This affects me even more.  I play it again.  Marvelous.  Over the next week or so I listen to almost nothing but these two CDs.  I've been listening to them for years, and suddenly I am hearing them as if I had never heard them before.  They amaze me.

I want to hear more of Scriabin's sonatas.  I order the two volumes of Bernd Glemser's performances on Naxos.  I love volume one: Sonatas 2, 5, 6, 7, 9, plus Fantasy in B Minor.  I love volume two, if anything, even more: Sonatas 3 and 10, plus the Sonata in E flat minor, Poème-Nocturne, and Vers la flamme.  This music is amazing.  It is also—particularly the later works—weird.  Who was this guy?  Why did he write such odd, but gorgeous, works for piano?  What else did he compose?

As I was looking into that last question, I discovered that, about a month from the date that I found out about it, Decca would be releasing an eighteen CD collection of Scriabin's complete works.  I pre-ordered it eagerly.  I also purchased Faubion Bowers' biography of Scriabin (two volumes combined in a single Dover edition).  This became the first biography of a composer that I ever read (the first that I ever acquired was of Mozart, in my teens, but I never read it).

I started in on the biography as soon as it arrived.  I just finished reading it last weekend.  I never know quite how to evaluate a biography—particularly one of someone who I previously knew nothing about.  It was mostly an interesting read.  It contained many letters from Scriabin to his friends, patrons, and most especially his wives.  Scriabin had two wives in fact, though only one in law.  When he separated from the first, she refused to grant a divorce.  So although Scriabin considered the woman that he left his first wife for to be his wife, and lived with her as such, he was never able to make it official.  He had children with both women, and it seems that he doted on his offspring, though distantly.  This biography also contains excerpts from Scriabin's notebooks.  I suppose the best praise that I can give the book is that it describes a man who I can definitely see composing the music in which I've been steeping myself these past few months.

I adore Scriabin's works for solo piano, nearly without exception.  His orchestral works I am, at present, more diffident towards.  Some, such as the Piano Concerto, I am decidedly fond of.  Others, such as the Poem of Ecstasy, I find more difficult.  It is generally true—not just for Scriabin—that I tend to prefer works for solo instrument, or small ensemble, to works for full orchestra. Yet it will be interesting to see if, sometime in the next quarter century or so, Scriabin's works for orchestra grow on me—either gradually, or all of a sudden.  As remarkable as this man's music is, nothing would surprise me.