Sunday, July 19, 2020

Ennio Morricone 11

Una lucertola con la pelle di donna (AKA Lizard in a Woman's Skin AKA Schizo) 1971, double LP reissue on Death Waltz Recording Company

I kept this for later in this mini-project because I knew it was one of my favorites. Of my vinyl Morricone, I only have a double LP collection left.

Unlike most of the film scores I've described so far, this one I have seen. Well, sort of. I have a DVD copy. In my old college classroom, I had a TV monitor with a blu ray player attached. I'd run DVDs when I had to sit for hours grading. It slowed down my work to be sure, but it made the time less tedious. I've put this movie on twice, but both times I really only half-watched it. I'll give it my full attention some time soon.

And well...Ennio Morricone meets Lucio Fulci. This wasn't their first film working together, which would be the 1964 film I due evasi di Sing Sing (Two Escape from Sing Sing). Fulci is now best remembered for his extremely bloody and (literally) visceral horror films: Zombie, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, House by the Cemetery, A Cat in the Brain. Those all came later than this film. Prior to this, he was usually directing comedies and westerns.

I'll confess that Fulci is a bit of a guilty pleasure that's grown for me over the years. His films often don't make a great deal of sense (which he would defend). And even a superfan would have to get a laugh out of the shark vs. zombie scene in Zombie.

The liner notes read that Fulci specifically asked for Morricone for this film, based on his work on Argento's original "animal" giallo trilogy (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O'Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet). The producers wanted the word "lizard" in an attempt to exploit the success of the Argento films.

Morricone is in full-out weirdo freak out mode here, befitting the "is it real" nature of the film. Well, with the variety I've described before: some space lounge (though uncredited, it's doubtlessly Edda Dell'Orso again), groove bass and drums with wah wah/fuzz guitar, as well as some sound that I can't identify. A squirrel call or squeaky toy? Percussion? Also cluster strings, whistling, a couple of pipe organ breaks, improvisation, duo flutes.

There's a harmonic device he uses on a track that I identified while listening to his score for Giornata nera per l'ariete (The Fifth Cord), also of 1971. All the chords have the minor seventh in the bass. The first four chords in that score are C/B, D/C, E/D, B/A. I couldn't put my finger on it the first couple of times, because the harmony that results isn't jarring but it is constantly unsettled. He's permitted to recycle ideas (Jeez, with something like 500 soundtracks under his belt, how could you not?), and I'm sure he didn't consider the possibility that someone would be listening to a big chunk of this work separately from the films as I have.

I wonder if any, or how many, Morricone scores have never been issued on vinyl or digitally? And if so, are they any good? I really like this score, and Autopsy and Veruschka, but there's no question he's mining similar ideas in all three.

I should mention that the liner notes indicate that Morricone refused the chance to score A Clockwork Orange. Can you imagine? But then, that reminds me of how Alex North composed an original score for 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Kubrick replaced but didn't tell North, even when he attended the film.

I've written before that I don't like when film directors rely too heavily on pre-existing music. I'll admit it's hard to argue with Kubrick's use of music in 2001. But what of The Shining? Was it really necessary there? Hearing "Koyaanisqatsi" in the middle of Watchmen was entirely too easy to set a particular mood. Scorsese does this sometimes (Taxi Driver beings a notable and excellent exception) and Tarantino is among the worst offenders in this case. And wouldn't you know, the one original score to a film by Tarrantino is by Morricone, he himself borrowing ideas from The Thing and Exorcist II.

I'd like to see Morricone's "The Ecstasy of Gold" permanently retired from all future films and especially commercials.




Saturday, July 18, 2020

Not Morricone 2

Steve Moore, The Guest 2014 on Death Waltz Recording Company

Another soundtrack tonight, but a break from the Morricone. One of my favorites is coming, possibly tomorrow.

I remember this popping up on the Death Waltz/Mondo site, and selling out pretty quickly. I can't recall where, but I later found a used copy of it and snagged it.

I don't think I had noticed at the time that this work is by Pittsburgher Steve Moore, also of the band Zombi. I don't know Steve myself but we have mutual friends. I've seen Zombi just once, as the headliner at an old Flux event. They have a way of making a big sound for two guys.

It's my understanding that the name Zombi, and their initial musical inspiration, comes from Italian horror movie soundtrack music. So there is a through-line from some of these films to this band, and this particular work. The film Zombi was scored by Fabio Frizzi, as was several other Lucio Fulci films. I like Frizzi's work and I'll have to put one on again soon. Steve and Zombi's music comes much closer in spirit and sound to Frizzi's music than to Morricone's, to be certain.

With that information in hand, this soundtrack is along the lines of what I'd expect. Lush synth soundscapes, musical minimalism. You can make an argument that sometimes Morricone and Bernard Herrmann wrote film music that could sometimes compete for your attention from the film, rather than complement it. They certain push that line at times, but it also makes for a more interesting listening experience separately from the film. Based on listening to this (without, again, having seen the film) I'd say Steve possibly wants to sit in the background a little more, be more like atmosphere.

It's all synthesized sounds in some way, and he puts energy into choosing his sounds carefully. A list of his gear is on the back of the LP, which I assume is some sort of home studio setup: Arp Axxe. Korg M1, Korg Mono//Poly, Korg Polysix, Korg Wavestation SR, Moog Minitaur, Moog Slim Phatty, Moog Opus 3, Moog the Rogue, Moog the Source, Oberheim Matrix 1000, Roland Compurhythm CR-78, Roland D-50, Roldand Juno-60, Sequential Circuits Drumtracks, Sequential Circuits Pro-One, Sequential Circuits Prophet 600, Yamaha DX7II-FD. Whew!

This would be lazy record reviewing, but I'm not a serious reviewer, so here goes. The music sounds less like Fabio Frizzi than maybe Phaedra-era Tangerine Dream. Even that's not fair to write, as TD could be kind of wooly and even a bit sloppy at times. TD of course has done many soundtracks, but the lineup has changed so many times, it's almost not fair to consider it to be the same band. I've never heard it but I'd be most interested in their work on William Friedkin's Sorcerer, with the classic Frose/Franke/Baumann lineup.

Another soundtrack I liked on Death Waltz that's vaguely similar is Sinoia Caves' Beyond the Black Rainbow. I have seen that film, and the soundtrack works not only as supporting mood, but also as literally the soundtrack in a promotional film that appears within the film.




Friday, July 17, 2020

Ennio Morricone 10

Tonight! Exorcist II: The Heretic 1977

Full and not particularly interesting disclosure: I have a vinyl copy of this. I was thrilled to find a $5 copy, and I should have known better. It's warped to the point where, for some reason, only the second side is playable. I'm streaming this through the Hoopla app (which I recommend) but looking at the cover of my physical copy.

I admit it, I love vinyl. I love the physicality of it. I love the graphical presentation, the size of the image on the cover. I love how the medium has been manipulated: colored vinyl, concentric groove records (I was watching a documentary series today on Monty Python, and this came up regarding Matching Tie and Handkerchief), grooves that play from the outside in, or one of the most extreme examples being my friend tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE's "Audio Obstacle Course", which is the audio cut to play outer edge in, AND inner edge out, superimposed. Wow! I had never thought of that. We all know the rpms: 33&1/3, 45, 78; how about 16 rpm? 8rpm? I have at least one of each of those too.

I know I haven't said anything about the music on this record yet. It's coming.

If you want more examples of vinyl and cassette extremes, check out this article on the Conglomerate Records collection I bought. The first item was a composite record glued together from multiple cut-up records. https://anomalyindex.com/2020/07/17/unsolved-mysteries-conglomerate-records/

So....Exorcist II. Among the most maligned of all sequels. I listened to a podcast by The Projection Booth about this film, with several people defending it passionately. I later watched it, and, well...I don't think it's as terrible as its reputation would indicate, but it's definitely not as great as the superfans might have you believe, in my opinion.

What is very clear is that nobody counted on director John Boorman making a film that was so markedly different from its origin work. The superfans speaking in defense of the film in that podcast do make a good point though: Exorcist II is a very controlled film, it's not a train wreck. The color scheme is very limited. The filmmaker knew what he was doing.

I think part of the break from the original film also involved hiring Morricone to score this. I wonder what he thought of it all, but he'd scored trashier films than this before.

There's no sign, as far as I can tell, of Edda Dell'Soro here. There are prominent female vocals a few times, particularly in the strangely-titled "Little Afro-Flemish Mass" and "Night Flight."

There are two primary themes throughout the score: the Regan theme (pretty, minor melody) and the Pazuzu theme (nasally vocals, stranger). The latter theme plays into "Magic and Ecstacy", which was covered by Snakefinger on his debut LP Chewing Hides the Sound.  That's where I heard it first.

You know what's not part of this score? Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. That's the primary theme of The Exorcist. It's an eerie and affecting theme to be sure. But it's not original music, and sometimes I find that to be cheating. I'm looking at you, Quentin Tarrantino! For that matter, Martin Scorsese relies on pre-existing music too often.

From a listening standpoint, the ending of this record is no less of a head scratcher than anything else on this project. The final three tracks: "Night Flight", an intense work for orchestra and voices. Follow that with "Interrupted Melody", possibly the sweetest moment on the soundtrack, and then "Exorcism", orchestra clusters and voice, percussion, almost recalls the Pazuzu theme. It's under a minute and then it's gone. What?

I've just re-ordered an interview book of Morricone, and I wonder if he has anything to say about this one.



Thursday, July 16, 2020

Ennio Morricone 9

Even if it's late as I write this, still staying with the daily Morricone theme. Today's vinyl: Moses the Lawgiver, 1974, on RCA Victor. 

I bought this from Jerry's Records on one of his auctions, and no doubt bid the minimum. The score was written for a 1973-74 Italian/British TV miniseries, starring of all people Burt Lancaster in the title role! No weirder than Charlton Heston, I suppose.

My wife is open about her Hollywood crushes, and Burt Lancaster is close to the top of the list. And I can't say I blame her. We tool a vacation in Vancouver once, and the local arthouse theater had a film noir series. We saw two Burt Lancaster films, The Killers and (I think) Desert Fury. The second was shot first but released later. In both cases, the beautiful dame chooses a schlub over Burt, and you have to wonder, why? Hell, I would have chosen him. 

I don't recognize any other actors' names on this project, though Burt's son appears as a young Moses. Notable is that Anthony Burgess co-wrote the screenplay, and once again Bruno Nicolai conducts. No vocals by Edda Dell'Orso this time though. I guess there wasn't any call for panicked or erotic breathy vocals on this score. There is credit given each to a lead female voice, violist, and flutist. Morricone's in orchestra and chorus mode here, little of his unique instrument choices are to be found this time.

So I have to wonder, who would buy and listen to this record? Why would they press it into the vinyl format in the first place? How many copies are sitting in a landfill?

The first two pieces on this album are solid but common-sounding soundtrack cues. Folk-like unison chorus and orchestra, etc. Those are followed by a particularly brutal tone-clustery piece that almost recalls Xenakis. Follow that with a piece of multiple (multitracked?) recorders, and then again a lamentation piece for solo voice and chorus. "In God's Voice", ending side one, recalls Ligeti to me. Is it processed with delays and reverbs or not? I'm not entirely certain. The beginning of side two, "Israel", in a way recalls that Bernstein Mass. Both compelling and dated. I wonder if the conductor's score still exists.

It's all to the service of the visuals. And yet, this is its own separate record album, and as a discrete listening experience, it's disconcerting. I can picture a Jewish person coming across this album, thinking, "Moses! He's our man!" Taking it home, listening, and thinking, "What the fuck is this?"

Maybe. Don't let me put words in anyone's mouth or head.

And that got me thinking, this is some Old Testament shit. Vengeful God. It should sound harsh at times.






Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Not Morricone 1

Today's soundtrack listening: Bruno Nicolai, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (AKA La notte che Evelyn uschì dalla tomba) 1971, 2X LP reissue, Death Waltz Recording Company

Bruno Nicolai's name came up on two of my Morricone albums, and I'd noticed it before then, for conducting credits. I realized I had a Nicolai soundtrack in my collection, so I thought I'd give it a spin instead of Morricone today. I know I've listened to this before but couldn't recall the music specifically.

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave is without doubt one of my favorite film titles. How can you not want to see that? The American promotional poster is no less enticing. A woman dressed in a negligee, with a skull for a head (with full hair) holding up a man's decapitated head. Hell yeah!

Unlike the films for the Morricone soundtracks I've been describing, I have seen this one start to finish. It's not terribly memorable, just okay but not as great as either the title or the soundtrack. As trash producer David F. Friedman would say, "Sell the sizzle, not the steak." That title and poster is definitely the sizzle.

The real question when re-listening to this album, how does it differ from a Morricone score from the same time? I don't have a solid answer to that question. It sounds a lot like a Morricone score of the same period. At any given moment, drop the needle, I'd say it sounds like a Morricone giallo film score.

If this was Morricone, I'd expect the opening title them to be one of those Serge Gainsbourg-like lounge/pop tunes. It's not. We have to wait until the second cut for that to happen.

There are so many Morricone-like touches, to the orchestration alone. Harp run through delay. Sopranino recorder. Swinging/grooving bass and drums rhythm section with atonal strings. Even an occasional post-60s rock-n-roll instrumental. I was thinking it's probably a lot of the same studio musicians, and wouldn't you know it, Edda Dell'Orso does vocals on this. For all I know, this could have been recorded in the same sessions as The Black Belly of the Tarantula (see my previous post).

I work under the assumption that Morricone was the leader, the innovator, and Nicolai followed in Ennio's footsteps. Truth is, I don't really know. I can speculate that film directors and producers wanted scores that sounded a certain way. I have a general sense from comparing this to Black Belly that Morricone was possibly more open to improvisation in his soundtrack scores of this time. He was an improvisor in addition to being a composer, on trumpet. He was a member of Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuovo Consonanzo, founded by composer Franco Evangelisti. I'd love to track down a copy of their album on Cramps Records. Il Gruppo found its way onto a few soundtracks too.

And what of influence? Would Strayhorn would have been the Strayhorn we know without Ellington? Probably not, but that doesn't mean Strayhorn wasn't a great and original artist in his own right.

I like this record, but it suffers from the same fatigue as other soundtrack albums I've listened to. A single LP would have been tight, a great read on the score, but it wouldn't be complete.



Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Ennio Morricone 8

Tonight's Morricone listening: Black Belly of the Tarantula (AKA La tarantola del ventre nero) 1971, double LP reissue on Death Waltz Recording Company

I've previously mentioned the Crime and Dissonance double-CD collection. (I will at least one more time before I'm done with this series of posts.) To recap, it's all generally the strangest cues from Morricone soundtracks. Most of it is 1970s, and many from giallo films.

This film soundtrack is not represented on that collection, but I knew it would be somewhat similar. 1971, giallo, no question. And to add to the weirdness, the opening title theme is a pop/lounge sounding piece that the text on the obi compares to Serge Gainsbourg. Edda Dell'Orso is back on her breathy, sometimes wordless vocals. Just how many of these projects did she do with Morricone? I was looking at her credits on discogs.com, and after twenty original soundtrack listings, I stopped counting. Bruno Nicolai is also back conducting, similar to Autopsy. I have one of his soundtracks, I'll have to pull that out soon.

This soundtrack has a lot of what I love about 1970s Morricone. It's thick with atmosphere. While much of it is clearly through-composed, I suspect there are times when there's structured improvisation as well. There's a looseness to some of it that just doesn't sound tightly composed and performed. I would have loved to have asked him about that. I'll have to get his book out from the library.

What are some of the components this time? Harpsichord, muted or prepared piano, out of tune piano, high string clusters, grooving bass/drums rhythm section, pitch-unstable keyboard, fuzz bass, vibes. Sounds like something I'd listen to even if it wasn't an eerie Morricone giallo soundtrack. And then he pulls it back to that poppy opening theme a few times.

I really like the Death Waltz/Mondo label, but it's an expensive habit. Single LPs sometimes go for $30. Waxworks is another similar boutique-level soundtrack vinyl label, and there are a few others. They're beautifully packaged, often with attractive colored vinyl (disc one on this one is yellow splatter, disc two red splatter), heavy (and sometimes gatefold) covers. Some editions sell out quickly, but you never know which ones. I haven't bought anything from them in a while but some of those other Morricone releases look tempting.

I'll admit there are a lot of period Morricone scores that sound similar to this one. But it's a good one nonetheless.



Monday, July 13, 2020

Ennio Morricone 7

Morricone vinyl for today: Two Mules for Sister Sara 1970, Kapp Records

I think there's a chance I saw a few minutes of this film once, but that's at most. In 1970 Clint Eastwood was still making westerns, only it's an American production this time. He turned down a role in Giú la Testa, not wanting to be in more Italian westerns. He's second billing this time, with the top billing going to Shirley MacLaine. IMDB notes that it would be the last time he'd receive second billing for over two decades, and likewise appear opposite a bona fide female star even longer.

Knowing a little bit about his history with women, and particularly Sandra Locke, I'll leave that where it is.

The opening theme is signature Morricone. There's a mule braying represented by (what it think is) a piccolo note followed by a bass harmonica. (Later the same idea is played out with a piccolo followed by marimba.) There's some recorder, and it leads also to a church-like choir. He's already telling you something about the film by these various musical events built into the mail title theme.

The score overall is a bit conventional, which is not to say bad. It's acoustic guitar-heavy. There's something about those Leone westerns, and Morricone's contribution to them, that really stands apart from any supposedly similar films/scores.




Sunday, July 12, 2020

Ennio Morricone 6

On the turntable this evening: Sacco & Vanzetti 1971 on RCA Victor

This was a recent purchase at Jerry's Records. I noticed it in the racks. My internal monologue: "Hmm, Sacco & Vanzetti? Maybe. 'Lyrics by Joan Baez, Miss Baez sings 'The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti'? I don't know. Credits include Sinket? Sold!"

What's a Sinket? More properly it would be Synket or Syn-ket. It's an early (designed around 1961) voltage-controlled synthesizer. It was never intended for commercial production, and only a limited number of models were produced. To see pictures of the instrument, it's amazingly compact, much more than the later Moog Modular systems. The name most closely associated with the instrument is that of John Eaton, an American composer who composed for it. Walter Bianchi is credited as playing it here. On one track, he's credited with playing "electronic keyboard", which might mean it's more of the same. After buying this LP, I learned the instrument appears on several other period Morricone scores.

https://120years.net/tag/synket/

I admit that I don't particularly want to listen to Joan Baez. But it's more than that. I don't think they make for a particularly good mix. Morricone's unusual orchestrations, his arranging, doesn't lend itself well to Baez' warbling folk voice. "The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti-Part 3" is a strange and interesting reworking of the song that's already appeared twice in the score. It's beautiful but when Baez enter, she sounds out of place on it. Maybe I miss Edda Dell-Orso's wordless, breathy, erotic or panicked voice.

Ah well, beyond anything else, I'm certain the producers of the film thought Joan Baez' name would help sell more tickets. I can't blame them for that. Nobody's going to rush to the theater because there's a Sinket [sic] on the soundtrack, and few people besides me are going to buy the LP for that reason alone. There's a menacing Synket sound that arises in the middle of "To Die is Duty" that sounds great without being too distracting.

There's a single track, "The Electric Chair", that's all Synket.

I previously mentioned The Untouchables. I'm not a big fan of Morricone's score on that one. He relies a great deal on (I assume FM) synthesizers for much of the content of that movie, which is set during the Prohibition. That is a conflict that grates on me. They go to great lengths to try to recreate the period in costume and setting, but the score relies on far more current technology for the music. Technology that now sounds dated. I bring this up again because, well, I like that there's Synket on this soundtrack, but I wonder if it sounds out of place with respect to this period piece film. I guess it makes sense that it would represent the electric chair, though.

I find things to enjoy on this LP, but unfortunately more than half of the content involved Joan Baez in some way. Another one for the mix tape I guess.


Saturday, July 11, 2020

Ennio Morricone 5

Slab of wax tonight: Bluebeard (1972)

I started this last night but didn't get to the second half until today.

I'm sure this movie is garbage. It's an updated telling of the story of Bluebeard, who marries and kills. And who has he killed? Virni Lisi, Marilú Tolo, Agostina Belli, Karin Schubert, Nathalie Delon, Sybil Danning, Raquel Welch, and...next is Joey Heatherton! Whatever what will she do?

If you do a web search on this film, you'd probably come across Roger Ebert's bizarre review of it. It probably wasn't enough for him to say the film was a piece of shit, or that Richard Burton is terrible in it. (He says something about Burton's decline as an actor, even in 1972). He focused on Joey Heatherton's mouth, how it almost never closes. I suspect Pauline Kael's influence, for better or worse.

Richard Burton is a complete ham. I don't care about his pedigree. I really liked him in 1984, his final role, for the same reason a friend didn't like him. I found him understated and menacing, he thought Richard was boring.

In a previous post I mentioned Ronald Stein, how his scores were sometimes of a higher caliber than the films they supported. We're probably in that territory here with Ennio. It's nicely creepy at times, somewhat recalling some early 20th century composers.

Morricone soldiers through on this project. Do I hear some version of a hammered dulcimer in there? Or hammered open piano strings? He's in a more "classical" mode through much of this, even if he still demonstrates his love for unusual instruments. From the standpoint of listening to this album as a discrete work apart from the film it underscores, there's a jarring moment when it goes from moody, somewhat clustery string with minimal piano...to a ridiculously upbeat studio orchestra march. I have to wonder about the context.

This is another release by Cerberus Records, in their Ennio Morricone Film Score Society series. It looks as though most, but possibly not all, of the releases in that series have been reissued on CD, and in some cases deluxe new vinyl. Now I wouldn't mind finding copies of the ones that apparently haven't been reissued.

https://www.discogs.com/label/71553-Cerberus-Records-2


Friday, July 10, 2020

Ennio Morricone 4

Tonight's Morricone vinyl: Autopsy (AKA Macchie Solari) Original film release: 1975. 2018 2LP vinyl reissue, Arrow Records.

There's quite a bit of Morricone that sounds like this score, and I love it all. Dark, atmospheric, atonal strings and winds with a groove bass. This one's especially dark.  There's an opening theme, minor but sweet, lovely oboe melody with wordless vocals (surprise). Closing theme is the same, and then it's entirely horror mood music in between. I have several that are somewhat similar so I'm spacing them out. A good deal of the Crime and Dissonance collection is of the same vein, though this one might be even more extreme in general. There's a cue featuring whistling with high cluster strings that's almost Xenakis-like.

Edda Dell'Orso is once again credited with vocals, as with Veruschka. I suspect this won't be the last time before I'm through with my Morricone collection. Credit is also given to whistler Alessandro Alessandroni, and conductor Bruno Nicolai. Nicolai is a composer in his own right, but I think I've seen his name on other Morricone projects as conductor. I guess Ennio was too busy scoring five other films at the time to conduct this himself.

It's not that important, but I remember specifically where I bought this. Dave's Music Mine on the Southside was going out of business, and I wanted to visit one last time. They were offering a BOGO. I was struggling to choose anything that I wanted. I found this in the RSD section, added a Merzbow record (because I could), and that was my final purchase there.

It's pressed in snazzy orange marbled vinyl. So many things are pressed in colored vinyl now that I try not to be impressed by that, but I still like it.

I'm usually not super-fussy about these things, but the pressing and mastering sound really fine. It probably helps that, as a discogs.com reviewer wrote, the longest side is just over thirteen and a half minutes in length.

I've been reading that the film is an excellent and very creepy horror/giallo. I hope it's available for streaming.







Thursday, July 9, 2020

Morricone 3

Today's platter spin: Giù la testa, AKA Duck, You Sucker! AKA A Fistful of Dynamite AKA Once Upon a Time...The Revolution

One of two Morricone western movie soundtracks in my vinyl collection. I've come to realize that I've seen few of the films associated with the Morricone soundtracks in my personal collection. I haven't seen The Chosen; my friend hipped me to Veruschka-poesia di una donna being on Youtube, but I haven't watched it entirely yet; I've seen just a few minutes of this film. I'm going to have to do better in this case. I know there's more soundtracks coming of which I've not seen the original film.

This one's from another Sergio Leone western. I think like many people, I'm not generally a fan of westerns, but I like those by Leone I've seen. Specifically, the so-called "Man with No Name" trilogy with Clint Eastwood.

Let me make an aside here, since it's only slightly off-topic. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is the most epic and lauded of those three films. And it's a great film. But I love how the plot and soundtrack music intermingle in For a Few Dollars More. The character El Indio has a pocketwatch that plays a music box melody. It's a beautiful, simple melody, clearly played on celesta. He gives another character the point when the music stops to draw his gun. Eyes lock, Leone-style. The celesta gives way classical guitar...then organ...than full orchestra with a prominent trumpet solo...then back to the celesta. It's one of the most effective convergences of music and plot I know in cinema.

This is supposed to be part of a trilogy that includes Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America. Well, I question that, considering the latter was made thirteen years after this film.

Morricone is Morricone for sure here. Musical cues vary between lush orchestrations, weird cuteness, and outright bizarreness. Take the "Marcia Degli Accatoni" (I think). It starts with contrabassoon and a male voice uttering "mwah" in a frog-like tone. Enter, a bass recorder or ocarina of some sort. Add some strings and guitar, some sopranino (I'm guessing) recorder, and he even quotes Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik along the way. It would be disappointing if he composed a Leone western score in 1971 without having something this strange in it. Elsewhere in the cues there are also whistling, wordless or other nonsense syllables ("shum, shum, shum"), and some sort of electric or electronic keyboard (wasn't certain if it was a clavinet).

One of my unrealized projects, specifically for OPEK, was a performance of music entirely drawn from film soundtracks. I already had arrangements of cues or themes from Taking of Pelham 123, Last Tango in Paris, Godzilla vs. Mothra. As I'm listening, there's a long track in the second half of the score, "Invenzione per John," that might have made an interesting arrangement for that band. It wouldn't exactly be a representative Morricone work, but then, I'm not sure any other piece is either.

Just after writing that, I read on the Wikipedia page for this film that Elvis Mitchell loved this score and made special mention of that particular cue as well. It is quite beautiful, so of course the next track on the album is the most jarring.

I bought my copy at Jerry's Records, to the surprise of nobody who knows Jerry's. I think it was an unsold auction item that he let me pick out his bins before putting it out on the racks. I could be wrong about that. I remember fewer and fewer circumstances where I bought my records. I still love Jerry's Records but I miss having Jerry himself there!

If I was making my mixtape of Morricone favorites, I'd definitely pull a few selections off of this one.


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 discogs.com 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?
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harawi_(Messiaen)

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.


Thursday, June 18, 2020

Messiaen disc 27

Fête des belles aux (1937); 4 Inédits pour piano et ondes Martenot (no year provided); Chant dans le style de Mozart (1986); Le Merle Noir (1951); Cinq Rechants (1948); Chants des déportés (1945)

And so, through the course of this 32-CD collection, we come to this odd grab-bag of works. 

And oddest of all would have to be the works for ondes Martenot. Assuming anyone reading this doesn't know anything about this instrument, it is an electronic keyboard instrument invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot. In some ways it's a bit like a tamed and cultured theremin. I understand both rely on a heterodyne (different tone) for basic sound production, though the ondes Martenot has a much wider timbral range. I read that Leon Theremin himself felt ripped off by Martenot. The keyboard permits for much greater pitch accuracy, but there's also a wire with a ring that gives you the possibility of long glissandi. Like the standard theremin, pitches are controlled with the right hand, attacks and volume the left. Oh, just look at an image of one being played, taken from Wikipedia:


Most of the literature for the instrument is by French composers: Jolivet, Milhaud, Charpentier, etc. I was thrilled to find a copy of this LP at a Goodwill two years ago for $1.29:


And of course Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead has been playing one, or a more recent knock-off (I can't say which) since the time of Hail to the Thief, I believe. 

As for the piece, it is such a curiosity. The ondes Martenot is monophonic, so this piece collects six of them at once. From what I can tell, there's a lead voice with five to accompany. The first impression I had on initially listening to this work was that it sounds like an underwater soap opera organ. Not kind, I know. The piece is divided into eight (I think, there's a typo in the notes) movements which are more-or-less played continuously. Each movement refers to either water or fireworks, so he's in full programmatic mode here. 

The fourth movement, "Water", I've heard separately under the title "Oraison" ("Prayer"). It is a standout to be certain, and sounds most natural in the setting of multiple ondes Martenot. (What is the plural of ondes Martenot, anyway?) It's such a standout that he recycled the movement note-for-note as the cello and piano duet in Quartet for the End of Time. 

I'm previously unfamiliar with the Inédits (unpublished) works for ondes Martenot and piano. There's no year give but it unquestionably has the sound of a youthful work. It's performed by his wife Yvonne Loriod and her sister Jeanne. 

I don't mean to gloss over the topic, but there was some conflicts and unpleasantness in Messiaen's personal history. Yvonne was his second wife; his first wife was a violinist. Being Catholic, he couldn't divorce his first wife to be with his second, and there's something about the first being institutionalized. I don't want to write more than that because I haven't read about it in detail. He did wind up coupling with an extraordinarily talented musician and interpreter, and by all accounts they loved each other deeply. 

Chants indeed sounds rather like Mozart, perhaps just a bit more chromatic, but hardly idiomatically Messiaen.

Le Merle noir was one of the first Messiaen pieces I heard, the flute in that recording played by Severino Gazzelloni. I liked dropping that name because Eric Dolphy composed a piece entitled "Gazzelloni". Merle is a great little piece, a showcase for the flutist in particular. 

As if these pieces weren't all different enough from each other, this is followed by the Five Refrains for a capella mixed choir. It might be interesting to play movements of this next to movements of his orchestra music, because I hear strong similarities. The use of parallel moving harmonies for example, or the percussive syllables in the first movement that sound like a substitute for wood blocks in the orchestra. I guess I like hearing that this is, unlike the Chant, unquestionably idiomatically Messiaen. 

The disc ends with another oddity, a work for full choir and large orchestra, that clocks in at a little over 3.5 minutes. Ummmm, is that all? He goes on for so long sometimes, and here I say, more, more!

Next disc is more odds and ends, if you can count his most famous composition as an odd or an end.

Below is a screen shot of recent viewing stats of this blog. Turkmenistan???

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Messiaen disc 26

Poèmes pour Mi (1937); Réveil des oiseaux (1953); Sept Haïkaï (1962)

Pierre Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra; Françoise Pollet, soprano on Poèmes; Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano on Réveil; Joela Jones, piano on Sept Haïkaï. 

I don't hate singers/vocalists, but I'm largely not attracted to them. Why is that?

I guess I've always been more a drawn to the instrumental sounds. When it comes to rock and pop groups, the vocalist is usually the "front man" (or woman, as it may be) but is frequently the least interesting person in the ensemble.

It probably doesn't help that I have a poor ear for lyrics, both appreciating them and frankly understanding them. And of course, everything here is in French.

Poèmes is youthful Messiaen, still working in a post-Romantic style. It's accomplished, perfectly nice, but not something that interests me personally.

Then was move on to Awakening of the Birds, which as far as I can tell is the first all-birdsong composition. The degree to which the composer takes liberties in his transcriptions and recreations of birdsongs is musicological question well beyond the scope of this modest blog. This predates the massive piano cycle Catalogue d'oiseaux, which in itself is not entirely birdsong representations, but birdsongs mixed with original musical statements.

I wonder, how much does it matter? I like the birdsong pieces. It's not possible, no matter how accurate his transcription skills might be, to recreate these sounds from nature in any way directly. It's interpretive. He's acting as composer when he assembles all of these materials.

It's no surprise that birdsongs pop up again in his Seven Haiku (Japanese Sketches). I've mentioned before that the 1960s was the composer's most "modernist" period, a time when he was working hard to not seem old-fashioned. These pieces sound only very vaguely Japanese. I think there's a clear indication that his preferences in percussion: bells, gongs, cymbals, mallets, may be inspired partially in Asian music.

The fourth movement, "Gagaku", is inspired by Japanese imperial court orchestral music. I know a little bit about gagaku and have collected various recordings of it. There's a touch of it here, the strings acting in place of the mouth organs (sho) that fill gagaku with its distinctive cluster-chord haze. But he's definitely not trying to recreate that music.

It sounds like a really tough ensemble piece to play, in addition to his usual piano gymnastics.



Monday, June 15, 2020

Messiaen disc 25

Eclairs sur l'Au-Delà (1991)

Disc 25, seven more to go. There are a few more orchestral recordings after this one, and then it's into the chamber music.

Keeping this blog going on a daily basis, listening to Messiaen and writing my thoughts, I don't know know how much more I can say to describe his music. I'll write a few things about this work later, but I'll go on a semi-related tangent first.

My daughter Jeannine has been staying with us for almost three months. She has been living in Brooklyn for years. When the pandemic hit and New York in particular was crushed by it, we urged her to get back to Pittsburgh and chill. None of us knew for how long, and thankfully she's able to work remotely.

We've done something in the city most Saturdays since her return. Sometimes it's walking those long Pittsburgh stairs, the longest of which is in Fineview (a neighborhood I don't think I've ever visited). Something that came up on her radar was St. Anthony Chapel in Troy Hill. The chapel boasts the largest collection of religious relics, over 5,000, in North America. I knew nothing about it, but, I was game to look.

Yesterday we we able to walk in, our third attempt to go. The first time, everything was locked up. There were four women in the parking lot, playing a game of bingo, as they might have any other Sunday. The second time, the chapel was closed because the wife of a worker had contracted covid-19.

Third time, we're in. It's a small church and it's pretty amazing inside. Before you come to any relics, you're flanked on each side by life-sized depictions of the Stations of the Cross. Above those is some wonderful stained glass depictions of various saints.

The room narrows, and that's where some of the relics are. Most of them are bone chips not even the size of a grain of rice. There's an occasional knuckle, and even a full skull. That's what's on display along the left and right aisles; there is much more behind the altar, many housed in beautifully constructed and decorated German casings. Supposedly there's a splinter from the cross of Christ, and a single thorn from the crown of thorns.

Well, without meaning disrespect to Catholics in general, I call bullshit on those two.

Can objects be imbued with magical power? When a significant person touches or uses a tool, does he or she leave some sort of energy behind on it? I had to wonder that when I visited the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, seeing row after row of guitars played by various people.

Truth told, I thought those could be given to some poor struggling kid to continue the legacy. There's no magic there.

My friend Reggie Watkins befriended Jimmy Knepper late in Jimmy's life, and the family gave him Jimmy's trombone. The one trombone he used since the 50s. Okay, that impresses me. It's the trombone on Mingus Ah Um. Damn.

What would I do if I could play Ornette Coleman's plastic Grafton saxophone? (Assuming it still exists.) I'd hesitate, but ultimately, yes I'd play it.

Returning to the RNR Hall of Fame: the most memorable (and chilling) objects in the collection were the pieces of the airplane fished out of Lake Monona. One piece had the name Otis, the second the name Redding. If you do believe in magic, those are certainly cursed.

As for Catholics and their relics...were it not for the fact that Catholicism is old and established, people might find this collecting of body parts of religious leaders and martyrs to be insane. And suppose that splinter from The Cross was real. If I came into physical contact with it, would I suddenly be filled with faith? Or, struck down dead due to my lack thereof?

No, I don't think so.

None this commentary is meant to cast aspersions on Messiaen's faith. If it is something that inspired him, drove his creativity, then I'm grateful. Well, I'm grateful for the inspirational and mystical side of Catholicism. Let's leave the less pleasant history of the Catholic Church aside for the time being.

And what of Eclairs sur l'Au-Delà? It's nice. It's a good piece. It's nothing you haven't heard from this composer before, but it's a worthy listen being the composer's last fully completed orchestral work. At this time in his life, he has (as I put it in an earlier post) earned the right to sound like Messiaen.

It's not for me to say that this work should have been shorter. BUT...if it was half its length, I'm certain it would be played far more often. I'll take it as is, though.

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/st-anthony-s-chapel

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Messiaen disc 24

Concert à quatre (1992); Les Offrandres oubliées (1930); Un sourire (1989); Le Tombeau resplendissant (1931)

I took a day off from my Messiaen listening and posting, in case anyone noticed.

I excitedly bought this CD when it was released, particularly for the first work. I remember finding it to be disappointing. I didn't dislike it, but wasn't especially moved by it. I knew it was the composer's final work, and even then it was neither completed nor performed while he was alive. It's four movements, with a fifth never completed, and some of the orchestrations completed by others. I've also read that the second movement is a recycled version of an early work, a topic that will come up again before I've completed this box set.

Portions of the Concert sound especially late 19th-century, more than any of his works that I've heard dating past the 1930s. It's true of brief moments in the first and fourth movements, and essentially all of the second. It feels like an odd fitting with some of the composer's thornier piano writing in particular throughout the piece, which is more reminiscent of his composing in the 40 and 50s.

There is, as one might expect, dazzlingly virtuosic passages, particularly for the flute. It is played in this recording by Catherine Catlan, whose name I am unfamiliar. The other soloists are Heinz Holliger, Yvonne Loriod, and Mstislav Rostopovich, a great pedigree to be certain.

I'd rather have lesser Messiaen than none at all, but I don't see myself revisiting this work much more in the future.

All four works on this album, his two earliest extant compositions for orchestra and two of his last, all have a shadow of turn of the 20th century late Romanticism. It's not just that he's working with stretched but still present tonalism, but the broadness of expression is especially true of the early works. There's something of his melodic touch that comes through in particular on Offrandes.

Every composer has to start somewhere. The early works aren't bad, just not necessarily what I want out of this particular composer. If I'm going to dig through the majority of his work, then these pieces are essential for the continuity if not the originality. I understand the packaging of this collection; it's all individual CDs collected into a single box. They're organized more by instrumentation than chronologically. It would have been interesting to hear them in order of composition, though.

One more big orchestral suite on disc 25: Eclairs sur l'Au-Delà. And generally unlike this disc, back to Catholicism.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Messiaen disc 23

Chronochromie (1960); La Ville d'en Haut (1987); Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964)

Why am I doing this? Listening to this music, writing thoughts in a blog? Is this a constructive use of my time? Shouldn't I be writing about current events, or doing something about them?

Of course those things concern me. It's all too much sometimes: Covid-19, high unemployment, police brutality, a supposed president who still commands the adulation of about a third of this country, despite being a snide, bigoted, ugly, cheating, corrupt man-child.

For my own mental health, I need to leave those things behind sometimes. I have been trying to consistently get composing done (with some positive results), pick up an instrument now and then, stay on a more disciplined schedule. This listening and writing project is part of that schedule.

If there's a music that helps me leave the world behind, it's Messiaen's work. I know I can leave behind this Earthly plane for an hour a day. (But then I've chosen to write after each disc, and I'm back again.)

Maybe it's all self-serving, maybe I have no new insights into this music. So be it. I make this blog available to read, but I don't really expect anyone to follow it.

This particular disc has three large ensemble compositions, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez. That's a great pedigree, and the results prove it.

If Turangalîla is the composer at his more Romantic, Canyons his more impressionistic side, then Chronochromie is certainly Messiaen at his most classical. That is, structural and coolest. It is, for some movements though, very heavy on the birdsongs.

I've discussed this era of his music, mid-50s into the 60s, with an expert in his music. Part of that conversation came down to this: Messiaen was getting to be more old-guard at this point, and his students had taken over as the vanguard. His Catholicism and post-Romantic leanings seemed like they were old-fashioned. In response, or perhaps under the influence of the proceeding generation, Messiaen's music became more atonal and arguably more strident. There are no resolutions on major chords here.

 La Ville, a late work, feels like a compressed single-movement summation of elements of Chronochromie, Canyons, and other works in that time that haven't come up in the box set yet. There's a virtuosic piano solo in the middle, group voicings in woodwinds and strings, prominent mallet parts, more birdsongs.

Et exspecto is a work I've heard live, played by the Duquesne University Wind Ensemble. I'm certain I heard it on a program with Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments. And here's why this particular work gets some play: it can be played by a good-level university wind ensemble. I've just looked up that La Ville  for wind ensemble and piano, as are several other works.

For a number of years, I was hired as a ringer to play baritone saxophone in the Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble. They didn't have the majors to cover the part. I enjoyed doing it, and the money wasn't bad either.

Towards the end of those years, one of the directors (the job was split between several faculty members) programmed two Messiaen works for wind ensemble and solo piano. Great, I thought! Music I would love to play! Well, not so much. No saxophones in Messiaen's sound world. Darn it.


Pencilled price on the Chronochromie score: $120. Yikes.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Messiaen disc 22

Des canyons aux étoiles, part three

Disc 22 seems to be corrupted or misprinted. Thanks a lot, DG! Some high standards there. I have a physical copy of this work, but I can't find that either (it might be at school, inaccessible). I've done a checkout and streaming from the phone app hoopla. It's a sort of virtual library. I signed on with my Carnegie Library account. Ebooks, CDs, movies, audiobooks. I'll have to check more thoroughly, but there might be a recording or two of some Messiaen not included in this set. If I've gone this far, might as well take it all in.

Canyons continues similarly as before: generally sparer and less dense ensemble passages than Turangalîla, more time devoted to solo piano, focus on birdsongs. There is subtext, quoted inspirations, for some of the movements. Some sacred, some secular, all having to do with stars, deserts, stones.

I'll write again that I love his orchestrations. Those beautiful flute and clarinet lines (there's some virtuosic piccolo playing in this), the lush, deep brass chords, his use of mallets and gongs.

I didn't mention the wind sound he brings in now and then. One of those radio effects devices that you turn to simulate wind? I'm hearing several things at once, including possibly a brass mouthpiece (presumably the horn soloist). He's not just trying to evoke the wind blowing through the valleys of the canyons, he's raising it almost literally.

I suggested in my previous post that this was Messiaen's post-Impressionist work. I recalled a story that I read. Erik Satie attended the premiere of Claude Debussy's Le Mer (The Sea). Despite Debussy's disdain for the term, it's arguably quite Impressionistic. The first movement is "From Dawn to Midday on the Sea". Satie saw the composer afterwards and commented (and I'm not writing this verbatim), "I liked that section that was half-past 10."

I'd like to think this really happened. It's funny anecdote but it's a good reflection of my feelings about trying to "express" things in music too literally. I don't mean being expressive, that's something different. I mean programmatic characteristics, literally trying to tell a story in sound. I love Messiaen's music but he does engage in that sometimes.

I'm currently composed a set of pieces under the general title Meditations on Quarantine. There's one piece that is, appropriately enough, dedicated to the birds that seemed to have kept us company during the self-quarantine. But it sounds absolutely nothing like birds.

On the other hand, John Cage came to believe it was pointless trying to express anything in music. I understand his viewpoint but don't entirely agree with that attitude either. I like being thrilled or moved by music. What music, is a matter of my personal taste.

More large ensemble pieces on the next disc. Let's hope the CD works.