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.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Was I born to synthesize?

"Music makes one feel so romantic—at least it always gets on one's nerves—which is the same thing nowadays."
Oscar Wilde

Sometime over a year ago I somewhere read about a thing called a microKORG.  I do not remember where I came across it.  An ad in a magazine?  A reference in a music review?  A suggestion from Amazon?  I truly do not know.  What I do know is that I saw the word vocoder, and I thought, "ELO!".

So, of course, I bought one.

Now, I had nothing to connect it to (aside from a pair of headphones).  I had no songs brewing in my head that might be in need of vocoder-treated vocals.  And, perhaps most significantly, I had no knowledge whatsoever of what to do with a synthesizer.

I still don't.  Sure, I noodle around with it every now and then, enjoy the surprising results of turning this knob and pushing that button, but for the most part, all of the various controls and myriad possibilities of the thing remain a mystery to me.  I finally decided that I should do something about that.  Being me, the thing that I decided to do was read a book.  Since synthesizers are kind of old, I decided to read a kind of old book, and I ultimately arrived at Synthesizer Basics as a place to start.

The initial entries, with a bit of history and basic "what is synthesis?" stuff, were interesting.  I'm getting into the more technical articles now, and so far they, too, seem worthwhile.  And articles they are, for this book is "Compiled from the pages of Keyboard Magazine", as the cover tells me.  Looking at that phrase every time that I pick it up, enjoying the articles that I'm reading, I started to wonder if Keyboard Magazine was still around.

Turning to the Web, I found that, indeed, Keyboard Magazine is still around—and the current issue?  It's the Synth Issue!

So, synthesizers.  What do they mean to me?  They have been so much of a presence in my life that I'm not sure that I gave them a whole lot of thought until recently.  I've been a fan of science fiction movies and TV all my life, so I've never been a stranger to some of the more unusual sounds that synthesizers can produce.  In the 80s I was very much a musical Anglophile, so I'm well acquainted with some of the smoother, more pop aspects of synths, as well as some more experimental musical uses.

Roxy Music, Electric Light Orchestra, Gary Numan, Cabaret Voltaire, Heaven 17, Front 242, Orgy, Sigur Ros, Owen Pallett...when am I not listening to synthesizers?  In fact, synthesizers are so much a part of the musical world these days that I mostly don't notice them, specifically as such.  And that's okay.  Some of the more extreme "wow listen to what I can do with this thing!" sorts of tracks are fun, but so are pieces where the synth is just another instrument adding its voice(s) to the beautiful whole.

Reading about waveforms and filters and envelops is exciting my desire to experiment with my microKORG.  I'm sure that I'll make some exquisitely strange sounds with it.  The thing that will make me really happy, though, is when I manage to make music with it.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Power of Words Plus Music

"Everyone deserves music, sweet music."
—Michael Franti

One of the ways that "music" tends to be defined is as something like: intentionally organized sound that affects the emotions. I think that is a reasonable way to define it, as far as it goes. There can be no doubt that music affects the emotions—this is largely the reason that movie scores exist.

I seem to have particularly strong emotional reactions to music, at times. It is not uncommon, for instance, for the beauty of a Mozart piano concerto to move me to tears. Or for a Django Reinhardt tune to lift my spirits remarkably. And the first time that I listened to the three CDs of David Bowie's Sound + Vision collection—his first releases on CD—on the day that they were released...well, that was a day that I really could have related to the title of the Hidden Cameras song "Music is My Boyfriend", were it not for the fact that I would need to wait nearly two decades for that song to be released.

What music doesn't really do is convey any explicit meaning. Sure, if someone tells us that a certain piece of instrumental music tells the story of a doe lapping at a gentle brook, then hearing a sound and becoming tense, then fleeing for her life from some predator, we may agree that we can hear that in the music. We may be able to picture it perfectly in our mind, and that may be what that piece of music means to us from then on. But the music doesn't actually tell us that story, it just fits that story well, like a movie score may fit the scenes and moods of the film that it accompanies, well.

Words do convey explicit meaning, at least they try to. Sometimes they do a very good job of doing so. Sometimes the meaning that words convey evokes a strong emotional response. That's good, because as human beings we seem to find it very important to share our emotions with each other.

So what happens when emotive words are combined with emotive music? Well, you can get something very powerful. Very powerful indeed. Things like national anthems will generally aim for majestic and/or martial sounding music, and lyrics to match. If done well, they will evoke in the listener feelings of awe, pride, patriotism. The best love songs have music that, in and of itself, makes the heart swell, combined with lyrics that truly remind us of what it feels like to be in love. There are songs that have (to me) ugly music. Music of rage. Music of despair. When these tunes are combined with powerful lyrics, they can be devastating.

And some songs are beautiful and sad. I used to live with a guy named Joey—he's a wonderful person and a wonderful singer. He sings plenty of lead, but he likes to sing harmony. There was one song that we tried to sing together a couple of times—me on lead, him on harmony—that I really just couldn't ever get through without literally getting choked up. "Cranes Over Hiroshima" by Fred Small. The (true) lyrics are sad, and also hopeful. The music is melancholy, but also rousing. It still really affects me.

I'm grateful that people like Fred Small (and Phil Ochs, Joni Mitchell, Michael Franti, and many more) write songs that are instructive, inspiring, important. Even if I can't always manage to sing them myself.

I'm glad that music can move me so. I hope it moves other people as much, or more, and I hope that it does so in positive ways.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

An obscure road

“I haven't understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it.”
― Igor Stravinsky

My friends sometimes ask me where I first heard or learned about a particular song or musical artist. The answer can be quite straightforward: from a friend, in a club, etc. But sometimes I don't remember, or at least cannot quite trace all of the steps that led to the discovery.


One such discovery is the album Ragnarök (1976, Silence Records) by the band Ragnarök. This is an album that I have not been able to stop listening to since I found it. Swedish instrumental folk prog rock jazz fusion. It is so good that I am actually afraid to listen to any of the band's later releases, which I've seen characterized as “harder”. This album is remarkable. The liner notes list the following line-up:
Lars-Peter SörenssonDrums
Stefan OhlssonDrums, Guitar
Peder NaboFlute, Guitar
Staffan StrindbergElectric Bass
Peter BryngelssonGuitars
Henrik StrindbergEl. Guitar, Flute, Sopraninoflute, Sopranosaxophone
Four guitarists—but note that only one is specifically listed as playing electric guitar. Guitars do dominate most of the tracks on the album, but not with any one sound. Some tracks sound almost classical, some sort of fingerstyle folk, some jazz fusion and some more progressive rock. Actually, there are few tracks on this album which I could easily characterize with any one of those styles, exclusively, but they all make their presence known, more or less. There are also two flutists, who likewise lend their talents in various moods.
There is little on this album which reminds me directly of any other band—maybe a couple of tracks could be cousins of some of the mellower early Genesis tracks, another might once have shared a drink with Gentle Giant, and one or two remind me a wee bit of Kamæleon, another band whose self-titled album rarely left my CD player when I first found it.

And in fact, Kamæleon is the first step back along the path that eventually led me to Ragnarök. Kamæleon are a Danish jazz fusion band from the late 70s. The only way that I was able to find the album was to download it from iTunes, unfortunately, and this included a cover image, but no liner notes. Discogs lists the band's members as being: Fini Høstrup, Jens Jefsen, Poul Poulsen, Steen Råhauge, Uffe Steen Jensen. I don't really know anything more about the band. The album is decidedly jazz fusion, sometimes edging over more towards rock than jazz, but mostly tilting jazzwards. How Kamæleon led me to Ragnarök is that I was searching online for more late 70s to early 80s-ish European jazz fusion, and that somehow led me to my new Swedish friends.
But how did I learn about Kamæleon? Well, that was the result of another web search, specifically for Danish jazz fusion. See, there was this album that had lodged itself in my CD player a couple of years ago: 20:33 (1981, Pick Up Records) by Alpha Centauri. Alpha Centauri were also a Danish jazz fusion band. Personnel:

Jorgen Emborgpiano, el piano
Bo Stiefel bass, piccolo bass
Bjarne Roupéacoustic guitar, el guitar
Ole Theilldrums
Palle Mikkelborgtrumpet
This is the most “jazz” of the three albums that I've mentioned, but definitely fusion. An album that I still always enjoy when I pop it in to play.

And how did I find Alpha Centauri? This is where the trail gets a bit murky. The beginning is clear, but I don't remember quite exactly how it led to Alpha Centauri. It started with a Danish coming of age film, Venner for altid (1987). There is a scene in which the main character is hanging out with one of his new friends, a rather pretentious boy who—while talking about astronomy, astrology, near death experiences and Chinese martial arts—puts on an LP and comments that he and a friend are going to a concert on the weekend. The track that plays is somewhere along the continuum from art rock to space music. It is instrumental and very repetitive, and for some reason I became immediately obsessed with it.

Now, I always read the credits of movies (and of TV shows, if they are large enough and move slowly enough that I can do so). But I examined the music and song credits for this movie in particular detail. As far as I could tell, the credits did not mention this specific track. Here's where the murk comes in. I never did identify that track, but I somehow came to believe that one of the artists in Alpha Centauri (Ole Theill, I think, but I don't even remember that for sure) might have been involved in its creation. And thus, by a process that I no longer recall the details of, I came to know 20:33, and ultimately Ragnarök.

So thank you, odd little Danish feel good coming of age film, for leading me—however it happened—to three instrumental albums which give me much joy.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

What am I doing here?

“Music is a whole oasis in my head. The creation process is so personal and fulfilling.”
— River Phoenix

I guess that I want to write about music. Or maybe it would be better to say that I want to write about my relationship with music. I am not in any way professionally involved in music these days, though I did work at music stores for a number of years in the 1980s and 1990s—variously as sales clerk, singles buyer, shipping and receiving clerk and product manager/buyer. Those days will probably crop up here from time to time, but they will not be the focus. What I want to make the space to explore here is all aspects of my lifelong fascination with music.
There were two main impetuses which have led to the creation of this blog. I was reading Confessions of ignorance, one of the blogs maintained by my friend Seana (who I worked with not at a music store, but at a book store), and I wondered, “how does one leave a comment on this blogspot thing?”. I glanced at the top of the page, looking for a “Create Account” link, and instead found a “Create Blog” link. “Huh...” thought I.
The other impetus came from a book that I was reading. A book which is about neither music nor blogs, but rather is about—well the title itself says it most thoroughly: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing by Marie Kondo. I bought the Kindle version on a whim. I was not consciously feeling that I needed to tidy, but the book has inspired me to do so. The other thing that it inspired me to do (explicitly—this is an oddly wide-ranging book) was to look at what has been most important to me throughout my life.
When I pondered this question it became very clear to me that, apart from my family, the thing that I have always treasured and made a part of my life in some way is music. Here are some of the memories that came up:
- One of the earliest toys that I can remember having was a “record player”, which was actually a sort of music box. The records were plastic disks with raised nubs which plucked tuned metal strips in the cartridge at the end of the tone arm.

- The only specific memory that I retain of pre-school involves the class sitting on the floor around a piano being played by the teacher, singing a song about a frog on a log.

- The best part of going to Shakey's Pizza when I was a child was not the pizza itself, but was rather the fact that there was a live band. (Or was it just a duo? I definitely remember piano and banjo.) Best of all, I could go up and play the washboard with them. “Shave and a haircut, two bits!”

And the music-related memories come more fast and furious as I move closer to the present in my recollections. Some of those will probably end up here. But memories aside, there can be no doubt that at the current time I am in a period of increased fascination with music. In recent years I have purchased (and sometimes I even play) several musical instruments. I listen to music nearly every waking hour, and as I fall asleep. I am, for the first time that I can recall, reading a biography of a composer (I seldom read biographies at all).

So here I will put down some of my thoughts on music. Will they interest anyone else? That I cannot say, but I look forward to seeing where this takes me.