Tag Archives: Euro-Classical

Мария Юдина [Maria Yudina] – Historical Russian Archives: Maria Yudina Edition

Historical Russian Archives: Maria Yudina Edition

Мария Юдина [Maria Yudina]Historical Russian Archives: Maria Yudina Edition Brilliant Classics 8909 (2009)

Maria Yudina was arguable the most highly regarded Soviet pianist.  There are tons of great anecdotes about her.  One of the most famous is that, as a devoted christian in the militantly atheistic Soviet Union, she wrote to Josef Stalin to say she would pray for him!  Her religious beliefs did hinder her musical career, though it was actually normal for people to criticize Stalin and her music was not a political threat to him; hence, she was spared from the great purges.  David King‘s book Red Star Over Russia details another anecdote in which he was attempting to return to the West from a research trip to the Soviet Union and was stopped at the border where photographic film he carried was discovered.  Exporting exposed film was, at that time, something subject to extreme scrutiny.  He was referred to a more senior interrogator, and he told her was researching Yudina.  The official immediately said that Yudina was her favorite musician, and ordered the border guards to let King pass, film and all, because he was researching Yudina.  Yet another notable episode, also described in King’s book, is that during the Siege of Leningrad, “the 900 Days” during which the Axis military, as part of Operation Barbarossa (the largest military offensive in human history), blockaded the city.  Isolated by the siege, and supplied only by a dangerous ice road, underwater pipeline, and occasional, dangerous flights, civilian deaths were astonishing.  Tanya Savicheva’s diary, which recorded how each of her family members starved and froze to death one by one around her, is kind of the “Diary of Anne Frank” of the siege.  Yudina was flown into Leningrad during the siege, in order to perform music so as to boost morale.  This speaks to what she meant to listeners; it was important that she be flown in (taking up space on the plane that could have been used for more supplies).  She of course suffered the deprivations of the local inhabitants while in the city.

Yudina’s playing was highly emotive and conveyed a sense of strength.  She never played to exhibit finesse for its own sake.  What is most remarkable was her versatility and her unique interpretations.  One way to describe her is as a gregarious and strong-willed counterpart to Glenn Gould.  The anecdotes recounted above each convey something about Yudina that shines right through her recordings.  She performed music by a wide variety of composers, including some notably modern compositions.  She was even in contact with Darmstadt school composers like Boulez and Stockhausen.  Recordings of her music are, unfortunately, somewhat hard to find in the West even after the overthrow of the USSR.  But this collection, for a time (it is out of print now), chipped away at that problem.

This box set encompasses many composers.  Listeners will likely favor some composers over others.  I happen to like disc 8 with Hindemith, Honegger, Shaporin, Martinů and Jolivet the best (all pieces, unsurprisingly, recorded during the Khrushchev Thaw), as well as the first disc of Bach.  There is also an intriguing disc of Prokofiev and Debussy pieces, in which the Prokofiev is played in the atmospheric, hazy style of Debussy and the Debussy is played with sharp, harsh modernist flourishes.  And all this is to fail to mention the wonderful Taneyev disc.  My least favorite here is probably the second disc of Haydn, Mozart and Mussorgsky.  She performs with string players on numerous tracks, and they are uniformly strong, often playing with a scrappy, weary tone.

It is difficult to summarize this collection, because it is so varied.  But that is really its strength.  It also is music that reveals itself more and more with repeated listening.  I previously had obtained a collection of Toscanini recordings (once it was budget priced), because a favorite high school teacher of mine used to play us Toscanini videos as part of his “culture for clods” series, and also because a stuffy old Euro-classical encyclopedia I once bought at a used book sale listed Toscanini as the “reference recording” for just about every major composition.  While much of it is good, it lacks the range and memorable performances of this Yudina collection.  Though that is partly a personal preference.  Yudina was much more of a modernist than Toscanini.  If this collection has a significant fault it is that it lacks detailed information about the the format and date of prior release for the included recordings — something that is difficult to ascertain without reading Russian — although recording dates and personnel is listed for everything.

Ornette Coleman – Prime Design / Time Design

Prime Design / Time Design

Ornette ColemanPrime Design / Time Design Caravan of Dreams CDP 85002 (1986)

Ornette Coleman met futurist/architect/inventor R. Buckminster Fuller in 1982, after first attending one of his lectures in Los Angeles back in 1954.  In an interview included in the film Ornette: Made in America, Ornette calls Fuller his “number one hero.”  After the 1982 meeting, Ornette told Kathelin Hoffman Gray, the artistic director of the Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth, Texas, that he had to write something for Fuller.  That composition ended up being Prime Design / Time Design.  Ornette also wrote another tribute to Fuller that appears on the bootleg Reunion 1990.

Fuller is perhaps most widely known as the popularizer of geodesic domes.  But he also invented the Fuller Projection map (the most visually accurate flat representation of the Earth) and “tensegrity” structures used in bridge design, coined the phrase “Spaceship Earth”, developed the “World Game” simulation, participated in the “Dartmouth Conferences”, designed an experimental city (never constructed) called “Old Man River’s City” and (never constructed) floating-in-water apartment complexes, and advocated for a global electricity grid (something slowly inching toward realization).  He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.  In his book Critical Path, he claimed, “I am apolitical and an ardent advocate of an omnihumanity-advantaging freedom of individual initiative . . . .” and described one of his early life goals as to be a kind of Robin Hood armed with scientific textbooks, microscopes and calculators instead of a longbow and staff.  One of Fuller’s famous quotes is, “If success or failure of this planet and of human beings depended on how I am and what I do… HOW WOULD I BE? WHAT WOULD I DO?”  Fuller operated in a way often parallel to Technocracy Incorporated, the radical era of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and Veblen‘s essays collected in The Engineers and the Price System, though Fuller wasn’t ever a part of those organizations or directly linked to Veblen.  He did, however, explicitly subscribe to Count Alfred Korzybski‘s “General Semantics”, documented in a 1933 book Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics but mostly promoted through lectures (which Fuller attended, as did beat writer and Coleman acquaintance William S. Burroughs).

General Semantics was intended to offer a synthesis of all human knowledge.  Mostly, though, the focus was on the imprecision of language, and a rejection of dualistic essentialism and extrovert bias.  Korzybski’s most famous saying was that “the map is not the territory”, which is similar to Saussure‘s formulation in semiotics that the signifier is not the signified.  Something like this is also involved in the analysis of chains of signifiers in psychoanalysis.  William S. Burroughs (a strong adherent to psychoanalysis) often recalled to interviewers how Korzybski would start his lectures by banging his hand on a table and saying, “Whatever this is, it is not a table.”  What he meant was that the word “table” referred to the thing he had just banged his hand on, but the word was not the thing itself.  A funny aspect of this is that in a later-life interview included in the book The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music, Ornette spoke in strikingly similar terms.  He said, “Do you think ‘the brain’ is a good title for the brain?  Well whatever you think your brain is, is that all there is?  I doubt it.”  In another interview he said, “Is life different than if the title wasn’t called that?” All this also happens to be a crucially important concept in terms of how Ornette wrote music and wanted that music performed: performers were meant to “transpose” the notes by their own discretion.  He talked about this transposition constantly in interviews.

It also bears mentioning here that Buckminster Fuller and Ornette Coleman are arguably two of the most famous autodidacts of the Twentieth Century — meaning they learned through self-directed education rather than through institutions or a master-apprentice type situation.  Fuller went so far as to refer to himself as “Guinea Pig B”.  The two even used similarly offbeat language and crafted their own esoteric lexicons of terminology.  For instance, Fuller used portmanteau terms like “Dymaxion” (derived from the words dynamic, maximum, and tension) just as Ornette used the term “Harmolodic” (derived from the words harmonic and melodic…or perhaps also rhythmic).

Prime Design / Time Design follows a somewhat similar approach to The Music of Ornette Coleman, particularly “Forms and Sounds” and “Saints and Soldiers,” and also “Dedication to Poets and Writers” from Town Hall, 1962.  That is to say this resembles the music of the serialists of the Second Viennese School (Schönberg, Webern, Berg).  Of course, in addition to that Ornette’s son Denardo plays free jazz drums, more like with Skies of America.  Ornette composed the music, but does not perform on the recording.  Aside from Denardo, the other performers are Gregory Gelman (1st violin; later sent to prison for arson), Larissa Blitz (2nd violin), Alex Deych (viola) and Matthew Meister (cello).  Meister is American, while the other three string players are Soviet emigrants.

The album was, appropriately, recorded live in 1985 inside the 32-foot tall, neon lighted Fullerian Desert Dome on the rooftop of the Caravan of Dreams club in Fort Worth, Texas.  The club was the project of Ed Bass, a billionaire entrepreneur born into oil wealth.  It featured a lot of avant-garde artistic endeavors, and was part of an urban renewal venture of sorts, but was an entirely private development intended to be commercially profitable.  The club also ran a record label of the same name, and this album appeared on that label.  That proved to be something of a handicap, as the independent label had limited distribution and promotion, and, frankly, didn’t last that long or release much.  This album has never be reissued — of Ornette’s few albums on the label, only In All Languages has been reissued.

Paul Bley has spoken about how when he attended Julliard in the early 1950s, he was taught a line of thinking prominent among “Third Stream” theoreticians that said jazz was developing along a similar path as Euro-classical music.  He said:

“We learned something about the evolution of classical music, which had gone through a parallel sequence of development seventy-five years earlier than jazz.  Once you realized that, you could look at the history of this European art music to see what was coming next in jazz.  It was easy in 1950 to see that the music was about to become very impressionistic, and so it did. . . .  After impressionism, atonality was next.  The big mystery wasn’t whether atonal music was coming; it was why it wasn’t already here.  European music had been atonal since the twenties — what was taking jazz so long?”

Stopping Time: Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz (1999), p. 24.

While it is possible to question the kind of historical determinism present in this view — perhaps along lines similar to Leon Trotsky‘s theory in political economics of uneven and combined development, asking why jazz couldn’t leapfrog development paths in the Euro-classical field — there is nonetheless a certain hindsight accuracy to it, in Ornette’s case at least.  And when Bley refers to atonality in Euro-classical music, that is a reference, principally, to the Second Viennese School.

A useful supplement to Bley’s invocation of the Second Viennese School is to look at Theodor Adorno‘s Philosophy of Modern Music.  Adorno compared and contrasted the composers Arnold Schönberg and Igor Stravinsky.  He concluded that Stravinsky “restored” a traditional/conservative perspective in the face of crisis, whereas Schönberg offered a more genuinely progressive and new approach via atonality.  Adorno still saw limits in Schönberg’s twelve-tone system.  Famously, Adorno was very disparaging of jazz, though many have pointed out that his reference to “jazz” was likely more a kind of popular society music and not the genuine article.  It is here that Ornette fits in, as someone who carried the torch for what Schönberg suggested, adding his own novel contributions and his own unique formulations.  Schönberg, after all, composed from a systems perspective involving the relationships between notes (i.e., syntax).  Ornette, in contrast, tended to emphasize paradigmatic improvisational choices and the independence of performers.  Adorno did critique Schönberg for applying universalist rationalism in a way that suppressed the individual, the flip side of which just so happens to be one of Ornette’s unique and lasting contributions to music!

In the album’s sleeve notes, Ornette described Prime Design / Time Design this way:

“This piece is designed for five soloists. At different points in the piece, each musician plays in different time signatures: 2/4, 1/4, 2/3, 4/4, 7/4, 9/4 and 12/4.

“The second violin introduces the theme which is then played by viola, the cello, and the first violin. After completing the theme, each musician plays his part as a solo, performed “ensemble.” Each soloist will end at a different place. Second violin finishes first, then the viola, the cello and lastly the first violin.”

Not mentioned by Ornette is the fact that the ensemble comes together for a final collective statement after all the performers finishes their ensemble-performed solos.

In this piece, it is indeed remarkable how Ornette manages to create some of the same “sourness” of tone that he achieves in his alto saxophone playing through written notation for a string quartet.  And yet there is a grim, determined hopefulness to the music.  The piece is also curious in how it delegates spheres of latitude to different performers, giving the drums apparent free-range in all aspects, while the string players seem to have extensive time-duration freedom even as they tend to follow certain notated melodic statements.  This works well for this piece.  Ornette had perhaps learned from his experience with Skies of America etc. that Euro-classical players were not as comfortable with improvisation as jazz musicians.  It also helps that he rehearsed with the string quartet for a full month leading up to the performance on the recording.

I’ve long been an admirer of Fuller, Coleman, Korzybski, Schönberg, and pretty much all the other names mentioned above.  Prime Design / Time Design doesn’t strike me as particularly evocative of Buckminster Fuller.  In other words, this isn’t the sort of music that enters my mind when I think about Fuller — I’m more inclined to think of something like “Focus on Sanity” from The Shape of Jazz to Come or the “Buckminster Fuller” song on the Reunion 1990 bootleg.  And yet, Fuller and Ornette were most definitely two people of similar minds.  Both were futurists, trying to construct a different and better world, be that through music, architecture or whatever, and both being profoundly optimistic about other people having the capacity to similarly contribute in their own ways.  In that more general sense, Prime Design / Time Design is a very worthy effort.  Granted, this album is much derided.  But I find that it holds up admirably, and even more favorably than some Second Viennese School works/performances (e.g., Neue Wiener Schule: Die Streichquartette).  I think listeners are mostly likely to enjoy this if you take Ornette’s repeated assertions that his “Harmolodics” theory was applicable to any art form, not just jazz theory, and understand that as an assertion of how he developed musical techniques reflective of certain political philosophies attuned toward freedom principles.  Looked at as jazz music, this is going to seem incomprehensible and just plain difficult.  Looked at a Euro-classical music, this might seem dilettantish and muddled.  But a key point of General Semantics is that there are many ways to look at things and dualistic extremes are rarely helpful.  I like to see this as being in service of an agenda completely independent of genre categories like jazz/classical, though I also must admit to thinking this expands and improves upon formulations earlier identified by the Second Viennese School, overcoming some of the limits of their solutions to underlying challenges of musical theory and practice in a way that draws from blues/R&B and — especially — jazz.

Ornette Coleman – The Music of Ornette Coleman

The Music of Ornette Coleman

Ornette ColemanThe Music of Ornette Coleman RCA Victor LM-2982 (1967)

Ornette frequently stated that he considered himself a composer who performed.  Among his greatest achievements in recording compositions for a Euro-classical ensemble is certainly The Music of Ornette Coleman (AKA Forms and Sounds). This live recording is much superior to the 1972 release of Skies of America, perhaps the best-known of Coleman’s “classical” compositions and recordings.  It builds on “Sadness” and “Dedication to Poets and Writers” from his self-produced Town Hall, 1962 concert (and accompanying album).

The opening “Forms & Sounds” is an astounding piece — comparable in some regards to stuff like Stockhausen‘s “Zeitmaße” (1956) or “Kontra-Punkte” (1953).  It is performed entirely on wind instruments.  A density is achieved through having woodwinds players (The Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet) perform almost independently, which is to say that the notes played by each of the performers seem built from independent lines and notations rather than through overarching themes or motives.  Passages with the woodwind players are interspersed with (and separated by) Coleman playing trumpet solo.  Much of what he does would be classified as “extended technique” in the Euro-classical realm.  His performances are stunning — as much or more captivating than what the whole woodwind quintet achieves (and they perform excellently, by the way).  What really distinguishes this from European avant-garde music (Stockhausen, etc.) is the way the music shifts back and forth between the chamber ensemble and Ornette playing solo, with Ornette’s own playing being organized differently than the ensemble parts, with the occasional R&B/blues riff and offhand jazz phrasing.  There are differences between the two types of playing, but they are complementary.  This juxtaposition of differences without the two ever really meeting, and without one dissolving into the other, is the innovative contribution Ornette makes.  Of course, the parts that resemble prior avant-garde music are simply excellently conceived and executed.

The piece “Forms and Sounds” here was recorded live.  An earlier live version recorded in England appeared on An Evening With Ornette Coleman.  Ornette used the money he received to record a soundtrack to the film Chappaqua (a soundtrack ultimately not used in the film, but released on an album) to finance a European tour.  However, protectionist British Ministry of Labour quotas required that as a “jazz musician” certain British musicians must be engaged to play in the United States in order for Ornette’s band to be permitted to play in England.  That reciprocity didn’t happen.  These policies were notoriously discriminatory against pop and rock and roll music.  However, the country quota regulations had a loophole for “concert artists”, a category that included Euro-classical musicians and Asian improvising musicians.  So Ornette wrote “Forms and Sounds” in mid-August 1965, two weeks before the scheduled concert, and because of those efforts was successfully reclassified as a “concert artist” to enable the concert to proceed.  In spite of all this, the British union still retaliated by demanding different performers for the opening act and then later blacklisted the people who helped Ornette organize the concert.  The British musicians union pulled the same stunt when he returned years later, forcing him to compose “Emotion Modulation” (a backstage rehearsal of the “Aos” section of that piece appears on Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band).  In spite of its unusual origins, “Forms and Sounds” is still a notable composition, and the version here is superior to the earlier recording, which lacked the trumpet interludes performed by Ornette himself.

“Saints and Soldiers” is Ornette’s reflection on how the remains of both revered saints and lowly soldiers end up in jars after their deaths.  Strings (The Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia Quartet) are used instead of wind instruments — Ornette does not perform on the track.  It is yet another instance of Ornette’s politics influencing the way he writes music, with a dogged interest in radical egalitarianism showing through.  From a technical perspective, it is less innovative than “Forms & Sounds.”  In a way, this piece might be one of the first to highlight a question that would take on increasing relevance in Coleman’s music, especially in the 1970s and 80s with his fusion band Prime Time.  That question might be framed as one of federalismFredric Jameson wrote about Thomas More‘s book Utopia (1516):

“More’s solution — to make all the subdivisions of his utopia equal in all respects — is a mechanical one, which casts some doubt on the equally mechanical uniformity of its citizens.  Federalism is the central political problem of any utopia…”  Fredric Jameson, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army (2016), p. 79.

This echoes a criticism that can be leveled at Ornette and his “Harmolodics” system of musical performance.  He organizes the music very mechanically sometimes.  Here on “Saints and Soldiers,” he locks some of the woodwind players into rather rigid roles to hold them all equal.  The piece, on the whole, is still moody and effective.

“Space Flight” is the closer, and the shortest piece on the album.  It is played very staccato, again all on strings.  It has a punchiness or fire not found on “Saints and Soldiers.”  While hinting at afro-futurism, this might be seen more generally as part of Ornette’s ongoing fascination with space exploration — he later composed for NASA — and technocracy — in a later interview he described techno futurist R. Buckminster Fuller as his number one hero.  The song makes a fitting closer to the album, looking forward to the “space age” with hope and determination.

Today Ornette’s recorded work from the later 1960s is less known than what came before or after, partly due to fewer reissues, but The Music of Ornette Coleman is a crucial recording in his catalog.  It presents a unique and important facet of his career.  Even if less widely available than many other Coleman recordings, this one is worth seeking out.

The Best of Johann Sebastian Bach

The Best of Johann Sebastian Bach

Various ArtistsThe Best of Johann Sebastian Bach Excelsior EXL-2-4217 (1993)

Some of the individual recordings here can be sloppy at times and the sound quality is only fair, but I think this budget-priced Bach “sampler” album maintains a more authentic Baroque feel than many others.  That said, even while this may not be an ideal collection of Bach recordings, I find myself listening to it quite regularly.  The performance of Italian Concerto in F Major BWV 971 by Christiane Jaccottet on harpsichord is the highlight for me.

Thomas Larcher – Klavierstücke


Thomas Larcher / Arnold Schönberg / Franz SchubertKlavierstücke ECM New Series ECM 1667 (1999)

I attend a fair number of classical music performances.  It is common for the organizers to program these concerts with an assortment of pieces from different composers.  At worst, these present the thinnest possible justification to insert the personality of the organizers into the proceedings.  Rather than performances that simply draw out something from the compositions and the individual performances, there is an incessant focus on the reasons put forward for the juxtapositions.  This can go as far as performing only brief excerpts of pieces and alternating back and forth between two composers.

Pianist Thomas Larcher’s Klavierstücke follows the format of alternating between two composers: Arnold Schönberg and Franz Schubert.  These are not composers of the same school.  So obviously there is something inteded by the juxtaposition.  Surprisingly, the effect is quite wonderful.  Schönberg’s 12-tone compositions are the arch-modern radical music of the early 20th Century.  Schubert worked a century earlier, and is sometimes thought of a composer of pleasing tunes of a more undistinguished nature.  Larcher uses the stereotypical ECM records sound: somber, delicate, austere, with pervasive echo and minimalist self-reverence; and he ties together aspects of the two composers that way.  Alternating between older and newer compositions relieves some of the demands of a straight program of modern abstraction, but also demonstrates how Schubert’s compositions have substance too — and how Schönberg’s are more approachable than might be assumed.  There is an eeriness to the juxtaposition that seems credited to more to the composers than the performer, which is perhaps the greatest praise to be bestowed here.

I picked this up as (sadly) one of the only Schönberg albums available at my local public library, not realizing that it featured Schubert compositions too.  While the Schönberg performances on their own don’t rival Maurizio Pollini‘s definitive recordings, the juxtaposition offers a kind of sonic essay that is about contextualizing the music in degrees, or a continuum, of alienation and embrace.

Richard Strauss / Herbert von Karajan – Death and Transfiguration

Death and Transfiguration (Op. 24), Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks (Op. 28), Dance of the Seven Veils (Salome)

Richard Strauss / Herbert von Karajan (Vienna Philharmonic)Death and Transfiguration (Op. 24), Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (Op. 28), Dance of the Seven Veils (Salome) London CS 6211 (196?)

I’ve never had any particular affinity for Richard Strauss, but these are decent performances.  “Death and Transfiguration” is my favorite here, the rest can be a bit too melodramatic for my tastes.