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115: Astor Piazzolla, “Tango: Zero Hour”

Posted by jeff on Jun 14, 2018 in Other, Song Of the week

Quiz: For which artist do you need to ask the salesperson, “Where do I find CDs by this guy, in Jazz, Pop or Classical?”

The answer, of course, is Astor Piazzolla, inventor of the New Tango. Most music salespeople won’t have heard of him, especially those in América del Norte. But there are legions of listeners around the globe, not just in his native Argentina, who recognize him as one of the most original and outstanding musical voices of the last hundred years.

Piazzolla reinvented a folk genre (traditional tango) as an art form, not dissimilar from what Duke Ellington did to jazz, what the Beatles did to rock and roll, what Bob Dylan did to folk music. He was a consummate musician on an instrument no one’s heard of (the bandoneon, a clunky accordion with buttons instead of keys), a courageous and stubborn artist of absolute integrity. He managed a long and prolific career, fighting artistic and political criticism from his homeland, constantly experimenting and growing artistically.

He began his musical career playing for disreputable tango bands in chintzy dance joints, then sojourned to American and France and Italy to study jazz and classical composition. He returned to his Argentinean tango roots and invented the Tango Nuevo, a remarkable style of a popular art music demanding the precision of a fugue, the inventiveness of jazz, the courage of 12-tone composition, the passion of the kitschiest of matinee singing, the dexterity of Argentinean football, and the heat of a chili pepper (aka aji puta pario).

Piazolla (1921-1992) was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina to Italian parents. From ages 3-16 he lived in New York City, where he was exposed to Bach and Rachmaninoff (from his Hungarian piano teacher), traditional tango and Gershwin (from his bandoneon teacher, with whom he began studying at nine), and Ellington and Calloway (from the ‘hood).  At 13 he met sex symbol Carlos Gardel, who had made tango into a craze in the US. Astor was so proficient on the bandoneon that Gardel invited him to join his band, but father Ninio deemed the boy too young. Gardel and his band died in a plane crash. “If my father hadn’t been so careful, I’d have been playing the harp instead of the bandoneon.”

For those of you who need reality to be confirmed by Hollywood, here’s Al Pacino dancing to music by Carlos Gardel in “Scent of a Woman”. Here are a couple of professionals in a very, very steamy tango. Here’s Carlos Gardel himself dancing in 1922.

At 16, he returned to Argentina with the family, then two years later moved to Buenos Aires where he began making his mark in a series of traditional tango bands and orchestras. All the while he continued to study American jazz as well as classical music (especially Bartok, Stravinsky and Ravel), piano, theory and (at the urging of pianist Arturo Rubenstein who was living in Buenos Aires) composition with the best teachers Argentina had to offer. His controversial concerto for bandeon and orchestra won him a grant to study in France in 1954, where he studied composition with the legendary Nadia Boulanger (teacher of Aaron Copland and Philip Glass). She read through his ‘kilos’ of symphonies and sonatas and said, “It’s very well written. But I can’t find Piazzolla in this.”

He returned to Argentina, formed an octet that treated the sleazy tango as chamber music rather than dance accompaniment. I can’t help but think of other major 20th century artists who left their provincial home, traveled afar to learn High Culture, and returned to their roots to make a career out of reevaluating those folk materials they knew so well – artists such as Marc Chagall, S.Y. Agnon and I.B. Singer, Federico García Lorca, Béla Bartók, a myriad of others.

There’s a saying, “In Argentina everything may change – except the tango.” Well, Astor succeeded in pissing off the public as well as appearing to the politicians as an independent-thinking troublemaker—not a healthy image in Argentina. In 1958 he returned to New York, then later back to Argentina where he formed his first Tango Nuevo quintet. With them and in other formats he collaborated with Borges, Gerry Mulligan and others, wrote symphonies and film scores and electronic music and songs, achieving some commercial success. In the early 1970s, during the reign of Los Generales, he felt it safer to live in Italy. He toured the world and his reputation grew. Back in New York in the 1980s he formed his definitive second Tango Nuevo quintet and made his best recordings, including his favorite, “Tango: Zero Hour.”

Piazzolla imagined la hora cero as the time after midnight, “an hour of absolute end and absolute beginning.” The entire CD is a work of wonder, “cosmopolitan and streetwise, erudite but also passionate, elegant yet tough’. It’s a sound palette you’re unaccustomed to – bandoneon, violin, piano, guitar and bass. Turn off your prejudices for a moment. Listen to this mind-popping marriage of passion, virtuosity and technical precision. Something like the tango itself.  It’s a world unto itself, a unique personal vision that I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I do.

Our Song of The Week is the opening cut, Tanguedia III. It begins with the guys chanting Piazzolla’s formula for Tango Nueva: Tango, tragedia, comedia, kilombo (kilombo means both whorehouse and mess, just like the Arabic ‘bardak’).

For additional listening/viewing edification:

Adios Noninio, his famous elegy for his father

Libertango, live, with Yo Yo Ma sitting in on cello

Oblivion, performed by violinist Gidon Kremer

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

044: Paul Robeson, ‘Go Down, Moses’

068: Hermeto Pascoal, ‘Santa Catarina’

088: Lizz Wright, ‘Old Man’

 

 

 

 

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284: Owen Pallett, ‘Oh Heartland, Up Yours!’

Posted by jeff on Jun 1, 2018 in Other, Rock, Song Of the week

Owen Pallett, ‘Oh Heartland, Up Yours!’

Owen Pallett, ‘E is for Estranged’

Owen Pallett, ‘Lewis Takes Off His Shirt’

Owen Pallett, ‘He Poos Clouds’

Owen Pallett, ‘The Great Elsewhere’

I know many of my subscribers decide whether to read a post or not based on the song/musician being discussed. Which is cool, because we all love our favorites. Me, too.

So I’m often tempted to write about well-known music in order to boost my stats. But back when I conceived of this blog some 10 years ago, I promised myself to follow the music rather than the numbers, and I try really hard to keep promises. So no Taylor Swift this week, darlings. I’m taking you with me instead to yet another road less travelled, one which has brought me great edification and no little puzzlement over the past few weeks.

And now we’re talking about Owen Pallett, born 1979 near Toronto, and he’s the most dazzling artist I’ve encountered in years. Think of Jacob Collier, Sufjan Stevens, Van Dyke Parks and perhaps even a pinch of Nilsson, if those names ring your bells. If not—take a little walk with me.

Jacob Collier because Owen is young, loves to loop, and is endowed with a rare, prodigious musicianship. Sufjan Stevens because he’s young, fun, weird, melodic, and is creating new sounds and ideas often within a pop framework. Nilsson for the beauty of his melodic lines and the virtuoso expressiveness of his voice. Van Dyke Parks (most famous for collaborating with Brian Wilson on “Smile”) because—well, that’s a whole ‘nother story, but here’s Owen’s cover (with symphony orchestra) of Van Dyke’s ‘Palm Desert’ from the legendary 1968 “Song Cycle”.

I hope Van Dyke feels a lot of validation from having so much influence over a brilliant young composer/performer half a century after “Song Cycle” aroused such a deafening silence. I promise a posting in the near future about VDP.

The best label I’ve found for Owen is ‘baroque indie’, but I have only the most tenuous sense of what that means. And that label – a sub-category of a nebulous style – seems to me to diminish Owen’s music, which is grand and fine. I’ll tell you what I am hearing—a brilliant young musician whose deepest roots are classical violin, but who is equally comfortable in composing a quartet for four digital somethings with a rippling drum line and hooks that make my heart skip a beat.

Dazzling. It’s Owen’s own word. I’ve been listening to it in a loop for weeks, and my strongest impression is that wherever you drop the needle (antiquated reference, you kids can ask your grandparents) on any of the four LPs, you’re hearing a rich, fascinating, beautiful mélange of new sounds.

Owen began violin at three, wrote his first modern classical piece at 13, and began solo violin performances at 15. He soon moved to composing for video games, and from there to operas, movie scores, and currently to being the go-to session violinist for lots of indie bands, especially Arcade Fire.

His first two albums, under the name Final Fantasy (“Not one of my top twenty favorite video games”–OP) are almost all violins and vocals. But if you’re thinking Frank Sinatra/Gordon Jenkins, you’re way off base. Eight of the ten songs are said to refer to the schools of magic in Dungeons & Dragons.

Clouds

Check out for example the title cut from the album “He Poos Clouds”, which won the Polaris (Canadian Grammy) for best album of 2006. Or ‘This Lamb Sells Condos’.

My favorite is the album “Heartland” (2010, also a Polaris winner), where the strings join in a symphonic circustry of sounds.

Check out for example ‘E is for Estranged’. Much of Owen’s music is based on looping the violin. Here’s a pretty amazing video of how he does that.  And here’s the studio version.

It begins with a piano-ized keyboard with electronic haze behind. Then there’s a dialog between a pianoish instrument and a violinish one. Is it a processed violin? A violinized synthetizer? Who knows? Who cares? Well, I care because the sound is so damned interesting. But by the accompaniment in the third verse, you all that wrist action, and you know its Owen multitracked on the old cat gut. I think.

And then it grows into a symphony, an organic symphonic instrumentation, the strings written not by George Martin but by The Boys themselves, if you know what I mean. And it’s a really cool song. You can dance to it (well, waltz—it’s in ¾). I’ll give it a 12.

There’s got to be a difference between an outside (older) producer/arranger adding strings to the song of a scruffy young artist who grew up on Chuck Berry on the one hand, and instrumentation including strings written by a scruffy young artist who grew up on Brahms, Gershwin and Phillip Glass.

I don’t want to call it baroque indie. I want to call it symphonic rock.

Check out ‘The Great Elsewhere’. Check out ‘Lewis Takes Action’. Check out ‘Lewis Takes Off His Shirt’.  Check out our Song of The Week ‘Oh Heartland, Up Yours!’.

Owen Pallett’s music enthralls me. No ifsandsorbuts. But.

Owen is gay. “As far as whether the music I make is gay or queer, yeah, it comes from the fact that I’m gay, but that doesn’t mean I’m making music about it.” Well, just mildly disingenuous there, Owen. Most of the content of Owen’s music and the visuals of his videos revolve around homoeroticism. It’s not just his predilection, it’s his agenda.

I personally believe that sexual freedom and good taste can sometimes clash. I believe in people practicing whatever floats their boats–behind closed doors. Sex can be a slippery slope in art. It’s really hard to make it interesting. There just aren’t that many variables. Not desire—that’s a staple, bring it on! But the physical implications of said desire are often better left behind those closed doors.

His lyrics are no less striking than his compositions or his instrumentations or his performances.  It seems to me—and I would have liked a couple of weeks more work on this to solidify this impression–that his words work better as poetry than as lyrics.

This is something very unusual. Dylan is a lyricist, not a poet. Leonard Cohen straddled the fence in the beginning, but eventually cast his lot with songwriting.  Owen Pallett’s words are the intelligent, challenging, focused constructs of heightened language that distinguish (in my mind) lyrics from poetry. Let’s put it this way: I can’t think of a single other songwriter about whom I would say ‘his lyrics are really poems’. I’ll go further. I think they work better as poems than as lyrics.

I did my homework on the words below, references supplied for your reading edification. Don’t mean I understand the text now. But I recognize that they’re strong words, fashioned with intelligence and wit and craftsmanship. As I said, I wish he’d expand his concerns beyond his own private sexual issues, which also here seem to be at the center of things, albeit less blatantly than in other songs.

But the music? Gosh, what dazzlement. As he writes in ‘Lewis Takes Off His Shirt’ (I wouldn’t have minded if he left it on), “My senses are bedazzled by the parallax of the road”. ‘Parallax’ means the change in appearance of an object when viewed from different perspectives. It’s also commonly known (among millennial geeks) as the method of scrolling in which the background of a web page moves at a slower rate to the foreground, creating a 3D effect.

But as I freely admitted in last week’s SoTW, when it comes to understanding video gaming and 21st century sexualism, I’m Dylan’s Mr Jones. But the music? I sure do get that music.

The stars collected
Each world accounted for
Freed all the children
Seems there is nothing more

If I only had a rowboat I would row it up to heaven
And if heaven will not have me I would take the other option
I will seek out my own satisfaction

From the wight1 lying in the barrow
To the priest with his broken arrows
There’s a method to the madness
They will feign an expression of sadness
A concatenation2 of locusts
And the farmers are losing their focus
On the pitch of the Avenroe3 grasses
I will sing, sing, sing to the masses
Oh Heartland, up yours!

The hollow voice of the 14th century
Too much assumption to be taken seriously

Oh, you wrote me like a Disney kid, in cut-offs and a beater4
With a feathered fringe it doesn’t suit a simoniac5 breeder
Doesn’t work, doesn’t fly, doesn’t handle

From the wight lying in the barrow…

My homeland
I will not sing your praises here

1A fellow

2A series of connected events

3A fictional place name

4A tight tank top worn by men showing off their body, à la Stanley Kowalski, apparently from ‘wife-beater’

5Buying privilege or pardon from the church

 

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044: Paul Robeson, ‘Go Down, Moses’

Posted by jeff on Mar 25, 2018 in Other, Song Of the week

Paul Robeson, ‘Go Down, Moses’

Slaves in Mea Shearim

Well, Passover is just around the corner, and She Who Must Be Obeyed is busy polishing the wine cups and sterilizing the corkscrew. She’s given me a few minutes off from helping for good behavior (actually, for gross incompetence), so I’ll try to squeeze in a few appropriate words on the music of the season.

Pharoah

I can’t complain about the spring cleaning tasks. Well, I can, but I shouldn’t. Not when I think back to my forefathers, and the travails they underwent at the hands of Ol’ Pharoah. I know just how bad they had it, thanks to the moving description of those hardships by our soul brethren, the African-Americans who created the spirituals. Slaves were forced to go to church and sit on benches, to quell any ecstatic impulses they might still have from their native African worship. Shackled spiritually as well as physically, they were resourceful enough to create a lasting body of music which jumbled up their old religion and music with the new ones their European masters were imposing on them, resulting in songs of faith which expressed all the suffering and indignity they were living, albeit couched in thinly veiled Bible stories.

Paul Robeson’s (1898-1976) is a remarkable story by any standards. His mother died when he was six, so he was raised by his father, an escaped slave who graduated college and served as minister of a Presbytarian church in Princeton, NJ until his politics got him fired. Robeson was the only black at Rutgers University, class valedictorian, and All-American football player. He put himself through Columbia law school by playing professional football and basketball. In his spare time, he starred in a play which played in New York and London.

Slaves in America

He married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, a descendent of slaves and Sephardic Jews, a graduate of Columbia in chemistry. She passed on medical school to manage her husband’s business affairs. His other affairs she also learned to manage to live with, as they practiced an ‘open marriage’ until her death in 1965.

After Robeson quit his NY law firm (because a secretary refused to take dictation from a black man), his interests turned to the stage. He was the first to bring spirituals to the concert stage, starred in a play by Eugene O’Neil and was cast to star in the movie version of Porgy and Bess (till he argued politics with the director). In 1930 he went to London to play Othello (because no American stage company would employ him–although later, from 1943-45, his Othello became the longest running Shakespeare production on Broadway to this day).

He also sang ‘Ol’ Man River‘ in the immensely popular Broadway musical and movie “Showboat”. It was written for him by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein (neither of whom were particularly black, but both of whom had slavery hard-wired in their cultural heritage). The song has become one of the definitive expressions of black suffering. Robeson later changed the lyrics to transform the song from a lament to an expression of defiance.

Paul Robeson

In the 1930s and 1940s he was a star, performing spirituals in concerts throughout the world. But he also became radicalized politically, actively supported causes as wide-ranging as labor unions, the fight of the Republicans against Franco, the plight of Jewish refugees from Hitler, Welsh coal miners, the independence of African countries from colonial rule, the civil rights of blacks in the US, the integration of blacks into professional sports, (gee, just typing the list is getting me tired), and most notably empathy with the Soviet Union. Testifying before HUAC regarding his pro-Stalinist proclamations, he said: “You are responsible, and your forebears, for sixty million to one hundred million black people dying in the slave ships and on the plantations, and don’t ask me about [Stalin], please.”

His passport was revoked for a number of years, and when it was restored in 1958 he traveled to Moscow to accept the Stalin Peace Prize. His later years included self-imposed exile to the Soviet Union, mental and physical health problems caused at least in part by constant surveillance. He attempted suicide, was probably slipped LSD by the KGB, underwent shock treatment in East Germany, was hounded by the FBI (he reportedly owns the largest file in their archives), and finally retired to his sister’s house in Philadelphia. Whew. And that’s leaving out a lot.

L to R: Desdemona, Othello

But we stray. The Wife is calling me back into the kitchen. So let’s put on the soundtrack of our festival of freedom, and get back to work. I’m not quite clear how Yoshke slipped into the last line of the song. If you sing it at the table seder night, I suggest you improvise some other lyrics.

When Israel was in Egypt’s land (let my people go)
Oppressed so hard they could not stand.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land;
Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.

The Lord told Moses what to do,
To lead the children of Israel through.

They journeyed on at his command,
And came at length to Canaan’s land.

Oh, let us all from bondage flee,
And let us all in Christ be free.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

039: Blind Willie Johnson, ‘Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time’
058: Dave Frishberg, ‘Van Lingle Mungo’
102: Netanela, ‘Shir HaYona’ (Matti Caspi)

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102: Netanela, ‘Shir HaYona’ (Matti Caspi)

Posted by jeff on Feb 21, 2018 in Israeli, Other, Personal, Song Of the week, Vocalists

I landed in Israel in 1970, twenty-two years old, carrying a passport from the Woodstock nation, Uncle Sam in hot pursuit to conscript me to Viet Nam. I was carrying one suitcase of clothes (no winter coat) and one box of records without which I wasn’t going anywhere.

The music scene in my adopted country was as foreign to me as the backwards alphabet, the Bolshevik political climate and the Levantine cultural assumptions. The Big Deal in popular music back then in the interbellum years (1967–1973) was the army troupes.

The IDF (Israel Defense Force) was a civilian army. Everyone joined at eighteen, boys for three years, girls for two. They still do, actually. In those days, the IDF (Zahal in Hebrew) was at the center of the country’s mind, pocketbook, and Top 40. The dream of every young musician was to be accepted to an army entertainment troupe (lahaka tzvait), of which there were more than a dozen, and most of the future stars ascended through this farm system. Each comprised a dozen or more conscripts. They would develop a program of songs composed and directed by the leading lights of Israel’s popular culture, and spent their service performing for the troops.

These programs were the heart and soul of Israel’s popular culture. The music was innocent, the frame of reference communal rather than personal. Here are a couple of clips from Lahakat HaNahal, “The Officer Forgave” (with very telling photos) and “Comradeship” (an archetypical expression of the Zahal ethos).

Musically, I felt like I had been exiled to Goth from Medici Florence – Dylan, The Band, Joni Mitchell, CSN&Y, Janis, Hendrix at the height of their creativity. So I bought myself a little Phillips record player (paying 120% tax) and spent a number of years avoiding the native music by hiding my head in my box of 40 albums.

But then came the Yom Kippur War, with my new country tottering on the brink of extinction. In its wake, everything changed, including the music. The idealism of youth was shattered, and Israel began to awaken to the big world outside. Two new artists spoke to my ears in aesthetically mature and culturally engaging voices – Kaveret (Beehive) and Matti Caspi (b. 1949). His first two solo albums (1974, 1976) are still among my very favorites today.

Matti has travelled a long and bumpy road, musically and personally – an acrimonious divorce, self-imposed exile to Los Angeles, never reaching the same creative heights of those early albums. What has remained a constant is his sinuous, challenging, beautiful melodic and harmonic voice. You can invariably recognize a Caspi composition within a couple of bars. He’s primarily a composer (always using collaborators for lyrics). He’s a knock-out arranger (as our SoTW will show), a very honest and touching singer, an almost virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, and a terrific performer. He also has the driest sense of humor this side of the Sahara (actually, we’re pretty close).

I really can’t do justice to the entirety of Matti Caspi’s large and varied corpus. Here’s one of my favorites, ‘How Dares the Star?‘ And another, ‘Here, Here’, using musical terminology to describe a song about a relationship. Here’s one of his most moving love songs, ‘Brit Olam‘ (Eternal Covenant). And here’s one of the funniest clips I’ve ever seen, ‘A Man Should Not Be Alone‘ (which also got its very own SoTW 150 all to itself, together with the Adam and Eve story). The text is from Gen 2:18. Matti was born and raised on a kibbutz, so he’s no stranger to the cowshed. Note the footwear. Towards the end, he says, ‘Kulam!’ (Everyone join in singing!).

In 1973 he was doing his reserve duty writing a program for the Air Force Troupe (my reserve duty, in contrast, usually consisted of planting mine fields—do you know how heavy anti-tank mines are?). There Matti (25) met Netanela (19), with the blackest hair on God’s earth, Uzbeki cheekbones and a timbre thicker than Nina Simone’s. Over the years he employed her voice as a unique color in his musical palette. Back then, a year before his first solo album, he composed a song based on lyrics by Shimrit Orr, ‘Shir HaYona’ (The Dove’s Song):

Way up above the towers
The dove spreads her wing, gliding afar, her eyes longing.

High above like bell-clappers (sic!),
At daybreak she coos, and at nightfall is dumb, her wings alight.

Onwards, onwards, above the water she hovers, still waiting.
Way up above the Hills of Gilboa, above the clouds, the road is long.

The allusion, of course, is to Noah’s dove, searching for dry land. The dove holding the olive leaf in its beak is Biblical. In early Christianity, the Hebrew ‘aleh’ was mistranslated as a branch. As a symbol of the peace of the soul, the dove appears in 4th century Christian art.  It referred to political peace as early as the 5th century, but was popularized by Picasso’s drawing La Colombe for the UN in 1949.

Matti orchestrated the song for a popular musical festival (when you watch the clip, remember that ‘music festival’ for me meant Woodstock), gave it to Netanela to sing, and the result was indelible. Here’s the memorable live performance; here’s the original recording (pay special attention to the beautiful orchestration).  Here’s a lesser, later version of Matti and Netanela dueting on it.

Netanela also had her ups and downs personally and musically. She had several very fine hits (‘We Haven’t Discussed Love Yet’, ‘White Days’), mostly penned by Matti. Then she married a Swede and split her life between the North and the Near East. Her career went off track, even though her version of  ‘Eli, Eli’ was used in the final scene of the Israeli version of Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (‘Jerusalem of Gold’ was used elsewhere, but was too maudlin for the local audience). The words (original title ‘Walking to Ceasarea’) were written by 21-year old Hannah Senesh before she was parachuted as a Palestinian soldier by the British behind Nazi lines to try to save the Jews of her native Hungary. She was caught, tortured and killed. ‘Eli, Eli’ has become a secular Zionist prayer, obliquely pleading for the fundamental right to live freely. (My God, my God, may it never end, the sand and the water, the sound of the sea, the lightening in the sky, the prayer of man.)

‘Shir HaYona’ expresses a similar sentiment, a wish for transcendence, also a secular prayer. It struck a most responsive chord in the hearts of a people reeling from a national trauma, and gave voice to its deepest wish – to simply be left to lead a normal life in peace. In 1974, even though much of my musical tastes lay elsewhere, my heart was in Israel, recovering with everyone else from that national post-war shock, and this very beautiful song gave voice to that longing. I think the sentiment, and the song, are still very beautiful and truthful today.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTW 14: Woodstock, the event (Hebrew); Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’ (in English)

SoTW 044: Paul Robeson, ‘Go Down, Moses’

SoTW 086: ‘Different Trains’, Steve Reich (Kronos Quartet)

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