Sunday, April 26, 2020


I posted this message onto my feed on Facebook: "Immersing myself in Messiaen, and I recommend you do the same."

I am an irreligious person. I don't believe in a hereafter, there's no life after this one. Feel free to disagree if you wish.

Messiaen's music is the closest I can come to an argument in favor of an almighty being. It's true, he was a mystical Catholic. Many of the titles of his works are drawn from Christianity.

But it's more than that. There's something about his music that I find at times to be almost overwhelming. I want to drown in the sound. I revel in the beauty. And I love his expansive ideas of what beautiful sound can be.

We know Messiaen the composer (I hope. If not, get hip immediately). Then there's Messiaen the teacher, whose students included Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, and Iannis Xenakis.

But what of Messiaen the improvisor? Unless there are tapes out there that I don't know, this is as lost to time as Beethoven or Bach the improvisor.

I'm recalling this from a book of interviews I read a long time ago, but...Olivier was the organist at a Paris church for decades. On a given Sunday, there would be three services.  He said something about how, for the first service, he'd improvise something in the style of Bach. For the second service he'd improvise something in the style of Mozart or Debussy. (This is where the details of my memory fail.) For the third service, he'd improvise something in the style of Messiaen.

This is where I say, DAMN. Can you imagine? Sitting in a cathedral, the master sitting at the console, improvising something. A classical style, his style, whatever. He said that the priests were more accepting of his music than the parishioners. Think about it: Olivier Messiaen: The Basement Tapes. I'd pay for that.

Addendum: I've been informed that there is film footage of Messiaen improvising at the organ. I stand corrected on that point. Which leads me to wonder: did he intentionally want less of his improvising documented, because it would draw attention away from his compositions? Maybe that's not quite the correct way to word it, just that in general he wanted his reputation to be as a composer first and foremost.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

2020 in memoriam as of April 18

It seems to be pretty self-evident that 2020 is going to be a tough year for everyone. I wanted to take stock of the musicians that have passed away so far this year. It's rough. In no particular order, and those marked * are confirmed or believed to have died from covid-19-related symptoms.

Charles Wuorinen, John Prine*, Henry Grimes*, Hal Willner*, Ellis Marsalis*, Wallace Roney*, Adam Schlesinger*, Bill Withers, Krzysztof Penderecki, Kenny Rogers, David Olney, Neil Peart, Lee Konitz*, Eddy Davis*, Bucky Pizzarelli*, Joe Diffie*, Alan Merrill*, Manu Dibango*, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Keith Olsen, Dan Burrows, McCoy Tyner, Lyle Mays, Andy Gill, Jimmy Heath, Giuseppi Logan*.

That list isn't even complete, I'm sure someone reading this might include more people. I don't know who some of those people are, and I'm sure I am not particularly interested in some of their music. Nonetheless, I mourn the loss of any truly creative person.

This list will by nature grow in the coming months, and we have to prepare ourselves that more musicians will pass specifically due to the pandemic.

Sorry to be so gloomy. I wanted to acknowledge those people, but I also want to use it as an opportunity to encourage you to support those who are still with us. Quite a few of my friends rely on playing music live as their primary source of income. This is a particularly tough time for them.

If you have the resources to do so, buying a CD/digital download or band t-shirt has never meant more. This listing of a virtual Pittsburgh musician tip jar has been set up:

We're in a time when a lot of people are asking you for money, and some of you simply don't have it to begin with. Don't feel pressured.

I also don't want you to think that this is self-serving. I would never discourage anyone from buying any of my recordings, but otherwise, I don't want your money. I'm doing fine and still have a steady income from teaching. If you were inclined to "tip" me, think of someone else instead and give them something. $5 can mean a meal.

I've never been certain if I'm more of an optimist or pessimist by nature. Certainly some of both, and probably a frustrated optimist more than anything. For as frightening and depressing as the world can be right now, I remain hopeful that some good will come from all of this. Without minimizing how terrible things have been for some people, maybe it's a good thing that some of us have been forced to slow down and reflect in recent weeks.

To those who have passed, I salute you and celebrate your work. For those still with us, I support you and recognize your work.