Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Ennio Morricone 2

Going in no particular order, next up is the album Veruschka (soundtrack to Veruschka-Poetry of a Woman, AKA Veruschka-poesia di una donna), 1971 (original film release). 2LP.

There's little in the way of a description of this film on the IMDB page: "Fashion photographer Franco Rubartelli's visually lush and moody head film about European supermodel Veruschka."

I can't say whether this is a documentary in any true sense of the word. The music must have been important for the film, considering there's as much of it as there is. The instrumentation, as best as I can tell, is piano, strings (possibly string quartet, maybe more, probably not full string orchestra), harp, flute, electric bass, guitar, drums plus various percussion and mallets. Late in the score there's a clearly improvised track including trumpet. That is most likely Ennio himself.

The only thing I can glean from the content of the film is that Veruschka appears in no fewer than four different body paints, based on the front and back covers and B and D side labels.

The back cover sees her in a bird-inspired face paint, which is also the image used for the front cover of the Morricone collection Crime and Dissonance. I highly recommend this double CD. Released on Mike Patton's Ipecac Records, it focused on Morricone's strangest works, rather than his more famous or crowd-pleasing compositions. Actually, not all of it is particularly weird; there's a little (an easy go-to comparison) Phantom of the Opera organ, and a short track of furious Roma-inspired solo violin. The strangeness is emphasized when juxtaposed with some of the more improvisational or atonal tracks. Two tracks from Veruschka are included.

For a film focused on a supermodel, it probably wouldn't surprise anyone the sweetness of some of the score. There's the wordless vocalise again, or lyrics sung in a highly breathy, eroticized voice. The only credits given on the cover go to the producer (Gianni Dell'Orso) and the vocalist (Edda Dell'Orso). I suspect that Ms. Dell'Orso did many vocals for the composer, based on hearing other recordings. I'll have to watch for her name again.

Back when I was working at CAPA High School (Pittsburgh's school for the creative and performing arts), I'd play various CDs before classes began. I'd had on some Morricone, either Crime and Dissonance or Giornata nera per l'ariete, and there was that breathy voice. No notes or lyrics, just a vocalization that could have been interpreted as either sexual arousal or gasping in fear. Another teacher commented that he thought maybe it was good there weren't any students around at the time.

Being a soundtrack, you get to hear the main title theme (as well as several secondary themes) worked over a few times. There's a little of that 70s Morricone atonalism, and even some improvisational phaux-exotica. There's also at times a prominent harp run through a delay. It adds to the spaciness of this "head film," but also dates it. I was thinking of the delay used on portions of Fantastic Voyage, with the same results. The voice is also run through delay a few times.

I looked up Wikipedia-level information on Veruschka, and I'm happy to inform that at 81, she is still alive. I expect another tragic fall-from-grace story after her modeling stardom, but that doesn't appear to be the case. Her young life is interesting and did see tragedy, so I encourage you to look her up yourself.

I've listened to this entire OST. As with many soundtracks, it's all good but as a listening experience could have been pared down to a single LP. No complaints otherwise.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Ennio Morricone 1

Ennio Morricone died yesterday at the age of 91. To say he packed a lot of music into those years is an understatement. Approximately 500 film scores? Plus he did some composing of concert music and conducted his works.

So why not follow up my big Messiaen project with a few words about some Morricone recordings? I count that I have twelve albums on vinyl (one a collection) and also have a few CDs somewhere around here.

Like my Messiaen posts, I'm not offering anything resembling serious musicology or even critical review. Just one person's thoughts as he listens to these things, an excuse to dig into a particular artist's work more deeply and write some thoughts along the way.

As a composer, these is no one Morricone. There are of course those wonderfully colorful scores to the Leone westerns. There's the lushness of The Mission and Cinema Paradiso. There are the crime and horror scores of the 70s, employing grooves, improvisation, and often atonal strings. Yet, if you listen to enough, you can hear his hand on much of it.

I recognize the phenomenon of listening to soundtracks as a separate experience from the visuals of a film. It's how the music stands up that interests me. I know of scores that work beautifully with the film but are not especially interesting when heard separately. I'd put Silence of the Lambs in that category. There are probably scores that outshine the films, or at the very least are at a much higher caliber than the rest of the film. Ronald Stein comes to mind, whose scores for Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and It Conquered the World are quite good work.

So I'll dig on some Ennio. First up: The Chosen (AKA Holocaust 2000 AKA Rain of Fire). It's a 1977 film starring Kirk Douglas, an engineer building a nuclear power plant in the Middle East, who discovers his son is the Antichrist. (!!!) It's what I read, folks.

I hate to continually use the words "weird" or "odd" when describing the music. His scores are an odd mix sometimes though. A lush, sweet theme, some atonalism, often quite a bit of vocalise. There's some wordless, female voices a few times here ("Visions of the Holocaust [Main title]") that recall the voices on "Magic and Ecstasy" on the Exorcist II soundtrack. At other moments I find it similar to the score to Brian DePalma's The Untouchables, in my estimation a just-okay film with a lesser Morricone contribution. (The use of synthesizers in that work seems very out of place, and ultimately dated now.)

By the way, I surely can't be alone in considering DePalma one of the most overrated film directors. That will ruffle some people I'm sure, and discussion for another time maybe.

Back to The Chosen, it's very good but is not one of the more interesting things I've heard from the composer that stands up to listening apart from the visual experience. With around 500 scores, many of them are going to sound soundtracky, right? This work was never reissued on CD, and the vinyl cover comes in two colors. It was released on Cerberus Records, with a noting that it's an Ennio Morricone Film Score Society release. I'm not going to bother checking whether it's on anything like Spotify, but my guess would be not.

How many scores did they help release? About twenty of is any true indication, a few of which have since been reissued.

And how many of his scores have seen audio release? Definitely not all of them. And is that such a bad thing?

I might have to hunt down a few more at Jerry's Records, where I bought this.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Messiaen disc 32

Visions de l'Amen (1943); Chants de Terre at de Ciel (1938)

Final disc. Here we are.

I've affirmed my preference for Messiaen's music in the 1940s, so I was unquestionably looking forward to Visions de l'Amen. I know I've listened to this work before, but not after having immersed myself in the composer's works previously.

It's scored for two pianos. Considering what he expects a single pianist to do in pieces such was Vingt Regards, it would be reasonable to question the need for two. It's a very busy work at times. Unlike any other recording in the set so far, I definitely detected an edit in the recording. There's no shame in that, I'm just a little surprised it was as obvious as it was.

I looked at the credits, and I see this recording is played by the composer and his wife. I'm assuming if there's a more difficult part, it's Yvonne playing it.

Listening to this after 31 other CDs of Messiaen's music, it clearly sounds like it's a 1940s work. Vingt Regards comes to mind, especially on the first movement here. The first movement in each sets up in a similar way, and that same material pops up again in subsequent movements. This is a few years before Messiaen would compose what is considered to be the first completely serialized work, abstracting all materials from the very idea of themes, thematic development and repetition, variations, and harmonic progressions.

Again, I'll emphasize, those things are necessarily important. I love much of Xenakis' orchestral music, but you're not going to hear much in the way of thematic material in those. He's in a different category altogether though, in many ways.

Messiaen doesn't do sound-mass the way Xenakis does. And I don't expect him too. Olivier tried his hand at musique-concréte, but ultimately rejected the results. (I still want to hear it!) He'd never create anything like Stockhausen's Hymnen. I love them all for who they are.

It's strictly alliterative, but my opinion is that every jazz musician needs to study the 4Ms: Monk, Miles, Mingus, and Messiaen. The first three make up several of the very pillars of jazz innovation, along with many other names: Armstrong, Ellington, Ornette, Sun Ra, Braxton, Ayler, I could go on. But Messiaen?

Definitely. I know he's so very European. But he has ideas about rhythms, scales, modes, forms, worth considering. I also consider the writings and/or interviews of Cage and Stockhausen to be essential, even if you disagree with every word. Consider the alternatives.

While we're at it, there's a book I recommend everyone read: Improvisation; Its nature and practice in music. It's written/compiled by Derek Bailey. He interviewed improvisors in various idioms, including flamenco guitar, jazz, rock, Baroque organ. He even interviewed Earle Brown, a so-called classical/avant-garde composer who allowed for improvisation, and Gavin Bryars, an improvisor who turned to through-composing.

It's been a while for me, I should return to it.

I'll return to this blog, maybe I'll even write about more box sets. I have the 10-CD (pre-Rahsaan) Roland Kirk box, for example, or Xenakis, or several Miles box sets, or maybe not.

Chants de Terre at de Ciel. I haven't heard this before. I mark off 1940 as the "golden period" of his work, but this is pretty great, I have to admit. It dodges around tonality/atonality, periodicity/irregularity.

I know I love the 1940s works. If I revisit anything, it's his works from the 1930s I should reconsider. I think listening to them in chronological order would definitely color my opinion. The 1940s didn't just happen for him, there was a development along the way.

I'm going to be spending more time with the vinyl I've recently bought, I know that much. Duquesne University sold its vinyl collection to Jerry's Records. It's a lot of standard classical recordings, but I have been buying up the avant-garde vinyl when possible. Stockhausen, Zimmermann, Kagel, Eaton, Nancarrow, etc.

Disc's over. I'm done. Thanks, OM.

I read that Messiaen liked brightly-colored shirts. I'm on board, man.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Messiaen disc 31

Thème et variations (1932); L'Ascension (1935); Poèmes pour Mi (1937); Un Vitrail et des oiseaux (1988); Vocalise-Etude (1935)

I took a few days off from Messiaen listening. I love much of the music but I needed to break from it a bit. There's only a single disc after this one, so I should have this completed tomorrow.

I was thinking of Gunther Schuller today. Gunther was not only a pretty fine composer in his own right, but a true scholar as well. I'm sure it was more than just a summer project like this venture is, but he'd listen to the complete recordings of particular jazz artists. As in, everything, including outtakes. That must have gotten tedious at times. His observation was that even among the very greats, you'd be hard pressed to find many who don't repeat ideas, rely on some stock riffs now and then. He said a notable exception was Charlie Parker. He could blow on the same tune three times and it could sound radically different each time.

I have a partial response to that, because I know what he says can be true. When Thoth Trio recorded our second album, we were comparing the two takes of "Nocturnal" we played. The version on the CD is a composite of the two; it's mostly take one with the second spliced onto the end, because the end was more accurate on the second take. Paul Thompson observed that he will use different takes to try to work out ideas, develop improvisations. He said my solos on each take sounded very different.

I don't write that because I'm comparing myself favorably with Bird. I'm at least as prone to riffage and licks as any other saxophonist. But it says something about how we each approach these things. I see every performance, including recordings and rehearsals, as an opportunity to attempt to explore. Paul is very methodical, and his logic of trying to develop ideas take-to-take is a sound one. (That said, he still preferred his first solo over the second.) So I question, when Mr. Schuller was listening to all of those alternate takes, if that was an attitude that some of those players had. If the ultimate result was to produce the best possible side or take, then maybe you need to work a few things out along the way.


This CD is also a grab-bag, including several alternate versions.

The early Theme and Variations for violin and piano is a brisk work, rather pretty, some of those Messiaen harmonies, there it is.

The Ascension. It was originally for organ. As I recall, three of the four original movements were orchestrated,  with a new piece replacing one movement. In an orchestral setting, it sounds more Debussy-like than almost anything else on this collection. He's an excellent orchestrator, even when not doing his more idiomatic writing for gongs, parallel-voiced woodwinds, ondes Martenot.

Poèmes pour Mi. I wasn't too enthusiastic about this when I listened to the orchestrated version. Here's the original setting for voice and piano.

I won't say I'm still especially excited by this work, but I think I feel more drawn to the sparer voice-with-piano setting. Bigger is not always better. I'd almost always rather listen to a jazz quartet than a big band.

Un Vitrail et des oiseaux (A Stained-Glass Window and Birds) is the oddball work here, a late piece packed onto a collection with pieces written more than fifty years earlier. It's more piano with (small) orchestra, no doubt written for his wife Yvonne. I always like these pieces, but there are similar works scattered through this collection.

Vocalise-Etude. Another very French-sounding piece, just a touch of that biting early 20th century harmony, but very clearly in the tradition of Debussy or Dukas. It is, I admit, a very pretty piece.

One disc to go. One long work from the 1940s on it, so I look forward to that one. 

I'm attaching a picture of a grey catbird I scooped off of Wikipedia. I'm not a serious birder but I like to keep track of what's in my yard (and I try not to bore my friends with it). I identified one of these in my front yard for the first time yesterday. Its call does sound eerily like a young kitten mewling. I hope it returns.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Messiaen disc 30

Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine (1944); Couleurs de la Cité Céleste (1963); Hymne (1932); Fantasie pour violin et piano (1933)

Two discs to go after this. These and the previous few of been mixed bags of content, though there's great content contained therein.

If I've learned anything from this listening exercise, it's that I definitely favor Messiaen's music of the 1940s above all else. Trois petites liturgies finds him in his prime. Yes, it's Messiaen at his churchiest, but as I've written before: if more church music sounded like this, I might actually attend once in a while.

It's a relatively modest work compared to the size and length of Turangalîla, or the length of Vingt Regards or even Harawi, the composer packs a lot into its 34-minute length. It is scored for, in the composer's listed order: piano solo, ondes Martenot, celesta, vibraphone, percussion, women's choir, and string orchestra. That's not a simple assemblage of musicians to gather.

It's another example of wishing I could be in the room when this is performed. I guess that could be said of anything; I'd love to be in the hall again to see Turangalîla. 

And to think, this was music being made at the tail end of WWII. Things are twisted and fucked up now, but I can hardly imagine living in France, even at the tail end of the war.

Colors of the Heavenly City. I am on board for these 50s and 60s works. I don't mind that they're more strident than the the earlier works, but I find the 1940s pieces to be Messiaen at his prime and....most natural. His voice, most directly.

But is that fair for me to write? I don't know. Couleurs has the colors one might expect from a Messiaen piece: virtuosic piano, gongs and mallets, atonal brass chorales. But he's determinately avoiding anything resembling triadic harmony. Maybe that's what he wanted, or maybe it's what he did to stay current.

Hymne sounds quite a bit like Bernard Herrmann at the beginning, though there's a chord sequence that looks forward to Turangalîla. 

Has it taken 30 CDs of Messiaen's music to say I've had enough?

I'll say no, because I know there's one classic work left. Visions de l'Amen. I'll push on, even though I find this particular work uninteresting. And I love both Messiaen's and Herrmann's music.

Fantasie...very "classical". Structured. Even-tempered. Next.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Messiaen disc 29

Harawi (1945); Trois Mélodies (1930); La mort du Nombre (1930)

In keeping this blog, I'm reminded of a few basic facts.

I'll get to the music eventually.

First, I'm a sloppy proofreader. I write these blog postings rather quickly, and I've found that I've had to go back and correct grammar or clarify diction.

I'm not a great writer either. It just wasn't my calling, nor did I get involved with serious writing early enough in my career to really flex my chops. I am catching myself removing unnecessary words sometimes; I just removed the word "some" in the prior sentence before both "grammar" and "diction". It's an extraneous word. I also have been trying to avoid using the same descriptors often.

I have a friend, someone I know mostly from online interactions, but I have been around face-to-face. He's an excellent writer, and creates cogent and articulate statements, whether it's on a blog or even Facebook. He let on that he had been reading my blog posts. I thought, "What am I doing?"

Indeed, I can once again question this entire venture, modest as it may be. So what, I bought a big collection of Messiaen CDs, why write about them? Who even cares about my opinion? It's not as if I'm writing a serious review, or approaching anything resembling dedicated musicology.

I am concerned with digital noise. When I consider the internet, I sometimes think of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. The setting of the film is a society which is being crushed under the weight of its own bureaucracy. (My favorite scene is when Robert DeNiro shows up as the renegade plumber.)

I sometimes think of this when I find myself responding to Facebook postings. I stop and think, "Who cares? Why add to the blur of digital garbage? Who cares what you think?" That thought thankfully stops me, in some cases.

I guess I'm doing this for myself. I've touched on this before. I want to keep productive, keep a regular schedule during not only the summer but this pandemic. I pull weeds in our garden every day, for example.

I also want to experience something positive and express a few thoughts about it, even if they are not particularly deep. One could do the same for any great artist, find a large collection of his/her works, listen to those pieces on a regular schedule, write about it. I'd like to think it's a positive activity, and it seems to me we need more of that.

So if you've been following this, actually reading through my ramblings, have enjoyed or inspired by them in any way, wonderful. And thanks.

Which brings me to this CD! Harawi is subtitled "Song of Love and Death". I haven't done this before, but the Wikipedia page is informative, so why should I copy it?

I've gone on about my general dislike of vocalists and preference for instrumentalists. I have to say though, I find this piece to be beautiful. Listening to the majority of these discs confirms my preference for the composer's work in the 1940s. The majority of my favorite works of his were written between 1940-1951. He's sitting in an area that hasn't given up entirely on triads, but is broader and more modern sounding than his earlier, more blatantly post-Romantic composing style. What big, broad statements, too: this is about an hour's worth of music. And this is the period when he's composing the massive Turnangalîla, and the two-hour piano cycle Vingt Regards.

Unsurprisingly, it sounds like a demanding work for both pianist and especially soprano. There's a point near the end of the eighth movement where I don't know how a vocalist can deliver such a long, percussive line without breathing in the middle. It's the more still moments though, long notes in the voice, simple chords with bird-like melodies (mvmt. ten) I find the most striking.

The Trois Mélodies, an early work, has a touch of what turns up in the later Harawi. What might that be? I'm not doing anything in the way of serious analysis, but the first chords in the piece sound like the composer's hand. It's just an intuitive sense from having listened to so much at this point.

La mort also dates from 1930, this time set for soprano, tenor, violin, and piano. Death of the Number? I have no idea of its meaning, and I've decided not to look it up. There's still that touch of Messiaen harmonies, but this one really sounds like 19th century Romanticism to me. That's not so much for me.

Three more discs to go.

This is a blue jay fledgling we found in our yard two days ago we named Baby Blue. I heard it this morning in a neighbor's yard. I hope it survives.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Messiaen disc 28

O sacrum convivium, motet pour le Saint-Sacrement (1937); Quartour pour la fin du Temps (1940); Pièce pour piano et quartour à cordes (1991); Oiseaux exotiques (1956)

Another grab-bag of works from different times in the composer's life.

O sacrum is a lovely little work. It's vaguely tonal with some nice harmonic tensions and combinations. It's also quite short, clocking in at about four minutes. In a way it's an interesting pairing with what follows, even though the works are quite dissimilar.

That brings us to Messiaen's most famous composition, Quartet for the End of Time. It's better known for the circumstances of its creation than the music itself. It was written during the composer's internment in a German POW camp (NOT concentration camp) early in World War II. He had four instruments available: violin (with three strings), cello, clarinet, and piano.

That sounds great to me! I can hardly imagine a better chamber music combination, but then I'm partial to the clarinet.

I've read that the guards at the camp gave Messiaen some latitude in working on the piece, but he still had to sneak around to create it. This would have qualified as entartete musik, after all.

I've seen the Quartet performed live only a single time, by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. The program started with a piece by Fred Rzewski for a vocalist also playing flower pots as semi-tuned percussion. Then came Quartet, followed by John Cage's 4'33", and ending with a piece by George Crumb for flute and three percussionists.

It was an absolutely beautiful program, even though I wouldn't qualify any of it was "new music". I took my wife to that one, and she said she really enjoyed it as well.

I did have a comment about following the Messiaen with the Cage. Are there still debates whether 4'33" is actually music? Probably not so much as, we've each made up our minds. In this program, it was used as an extend silence after the Messiaen. The four players walked off stage one by one, each extinguishing a candle when leaving.

I question if this was an appropriate interpretation of Cage's work. The piece is meant to be filled with the sound of the ambient world. When the players walked off the stage, their steps seemed thunderous in the middle of this huge silence. It seemed too....intentional. Active.

On the other hand, I can hardly imagine a better work (Quartet) to be followed by a long meditative silence. Sit and contemplate what you've just experienced. In that respect it was truly great, almost religious. Perhaps performances of Quartet should have instructions to the audience to sit in silent meditation for four minutes.

I wrote that I've only heard the piece performed in completion a single time. One movement of this piece is in unison. My former classroom at Carnegie Mellon University was next to the Eurhythmics studio. Every few semesters, I'd hear that melody being played during the final week of classes. I thought curiously once, "There isn't a flute in that piece!" (Just a final going on.)

As for the music? It's not fair to compare it to the motet mentioned above, though only three years separates them. By the time of this work, he's started to leave behind much of his post-19th century tendencies. There's more irregularity of rhythm, it's generally less rooted in tonality (with exceptions), and he's exercising many of the techniques he would later describe in The Technique of My Musical Language. The first publishing date I've found on that work is 1944, so it wouldn't be surprising to find he had started to organize those materials this far back.

What time in his creative life. The 1940s saw this work, Turangalîla, Vingt Regards, Visions de l'Amen, Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine (the last two I've heard before but are on subsequent discs in this set), his first book, among other works. What a time. It's fair to say that this, going into the 1950s, is my favorite period in this composer's body of work.

The eight movements of Quartet include two duets for cello and piano (one being a reworked earlier work for ensemble of ondes Martenot), a duet for violin and piano (a reworked earlier work for organ), a trio for violin, cello and clarinet, and a clarinet solo. I don't hear any direct bird quotations, but the clarinet solo movement is entitled "The Abyss of the Birds".

There are some fireworks along the way through the work, but the quieter movements really stand out. The piece ends on a very high note on the violin, fading away. A silence would indeed be appropriate.

Pièce would be one of Messiaen's final works. It's a short work that I'd never heard before. Not essential, but there are echoes of Quartet in the unison rhythmic writing for the strings. There's surprisingly little chamber music in Messiaen's oeuvre, and no string quartet music at all. Not his voice, I suppose.

Oiseaux exotiques is set for solo piano and chamber wind and percussion ensemble. It's another mostly (but I'd say not entirely) birdsong transcription and interpretation work. As I've written before, I used to be hired as a baritone saxophone ringer for the Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble. One year this piece was programmed, but of course Messiaen never wrote anything involving the saxophone. I still greatly looked forward to seeing the work, especially with my friend Donna Amato playing the difficult piano solo. What I recall is that I had a bad cough that night, barely got through whatever it is I played, and had to leave during this piece because my hacking would have disturbed anyone near me. At least I can listen to the recording.

Three discs to go, and there's a lot of music featuring the voice on those. I'll stay on the project though.