290: Charles Ives, ‘The Unanswered Question’

Posted by jeff on Mar 16, 2018 in Classical, Song Of the week

Charles Ives, ‘The Unanswered Question’ (Bernstein/NYPO)

Charles Ives, ‘Central Park in the Dark’ (Bernstein/NYPO)

Charles Ives, ‘Concord Sonata’ Movement 2 (The Alcotts)

I have a self-imposed rule: Write about music you love with a passion. This week I’m breaking that rule.

I do not love the music of Charles Ives, but I admire the man passionately. He’s my new role model – despite (or probably because of) the fact that his life was a paragon of a trait I painfully lack.

Charles and Melody

During the work week, Charles Ives (no relation to Burl) founded one of the most successful insurance companies in the US, invented the concept of estate planning, and wrote crazy, impossible music on the commuter train and on weekends. His music was largely ignored during his lifetime—and he didn’t give a flying hoot.

Me? I dabble in quasi-creative enterprises and when the world doesn’t collectively lie down on its back in reverence I run home crying. This is a guy I have to learn from.

Charles Ives Ives (1874 – 1954) was an American modernist composer, experimenting in atonality before Schoenberg and in free dissonance before Stravinsky. His roots were the church and band and popular and folk music of Danbury, Connecticut. His musical education (at Yale) was in the classical European tradition.

His mentor, inspiration and guiding light was his father, George, who led ‘the best band in the Union army’ during the Civil War. When he caught his 5-year old son banging out the rhythm part of a band piece on the piano with his fists, he patted the boy on the head and sent him for drum lessons. Charles later became one of the first proponents of cluster chords, instructing the pianist in one of his most famous compositions, the Concord Sonata, to use a board 14 3/4 “ long to play them.

George Ives would have his son sing in one key while he accompanied in another; he built instruments to play quarter-tones; he played his cornet over a pond so Charlie could gauge the effect of space; he set two bands marching around a park blaring different tunes, to see what it sounded like when they approached and passed. Of a man singing off-key in church: “Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds–for if you do, you may miss the music. You won’t get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds.”

Charles was a professional church organist at the age of 14, already composing pieces considered difficult to play even today, which Charlie called “as much fun as playing baseball”.  He moved to New Haven, captained his high school baseball team, was touted as a potential champion sprinter, joined the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, and learned all the rules he was determined to flaunt under the leading teacher of the European classical tradition in America.

He left Yale in 1898 to work in the insurance business in New York. As he put it, if a composer “has a nice wife and some nice children, how can he let them starve on his dissonances?”

From 1906-08 his various lives climaxed.
He founded the insurance company which he would build into an empire until his retirement in 1930.
He suffered his first breakdown.
He married Harmony Twitchell, a fellow Transcendentalist (followers of the thoughts of Emerson and Thoreau).
And he composed prolifically (on the commuter train and on Sundays), including “Two Contemplations”: “Central Park in the Dark” and our SoTW, “The Unanswered Question”. Both pieces would wait until 1946 for their first performance.

“Central Park in the Dark” was originally titled “A Contemplation of Nothing Serious or Central Park in the Dark in ‘The Good Old Summer Time’”.  He described it thus: “This piece purports to be a picture-in-sounds of the sounds of nature and of happenings that men would hear some thirty or so years ago (before the combustion engine and radio monopolized the earth and air), when sitting on a bench in Central Park on a hot summer night.”

“The Unanswered Question” is scored for 3 voices playing in independent tempos. A string quartet placed offstage! sustains slow tonal triads that according to Ives represent “The Silence of the Druids—who Know, See and Hear Nothing”. The solo trumpet presents a nontonal phrase seven times—”The Perennial Question of Existence”, which a quartet of flutes answers in increasing frustration six times. They are “Fighting Answerers” who, after a time, “realize a futility and begin to mock ‘The Question'” before finally disappearing, leaving “The Question” to be asked once more before “The Silences” are left to their “Undisturbed Solitude”. The seventh ‘question’ of the trumpet is left unanswered by the flutes.

Leonard Bernstein called these “the beginning of American music”.

Ives fan

Over the next decade, Ives composed furiously, including his major works. In 1918, the same year he published his groundbreaking “Life Insurance with Relation to Inheritance Tax”, he suffered his second breakdown, after which he composed very little, although he continued to revise earlier works. One day in early 1927 Ives came downstairs with tears in his eyes. He could compose no more, he said, “nothing sounds right.”

He would spend the rest of his life revising, organizing and self-publishing his own compositions, as well as anonymously supporting other modernist composers. But his music went unperformed until 1939, when a recital of the “Concord Sonata” garnered rave reviews. In 1947 Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music for his Symphony No. 3, completed nearly 40 years earlier.

Ives fan

In 1951, Leonard Bernstein and his New York Philharmonic premiered Ives’ “Second Symphony”.  Although he offered Ives to conduct a private performance for him in a darkened hall, Ives refused to attend. A few days later, when the symphony was broadcast, he went into the kitchen to listen to it on the maid’s radio. From the liner notes of the LP: “He emerged from the kitchen doing an awkward little jig of pleasure and vindication. This seems to have been the only unqualified pleasure in an orchestra performance that Ives ever had.”

His reputation has since grown exponentially, his works being canonized as those of a “true primitive”, an “authentic American saint” (Bernstein). “Americans found Mark Twain, Emerson and Abraham Lincoln all rolled into one.” His proponents eventually included Mahler, Stokowski, Tilson Thomas, Frank Zappa, and Phil Lesh, bassist of the Grateful Dead (“One of my two musical heroes”).

He responds to negligence with contempt.

Arnold Schoenberg: “There is a great Man living in this Country – a composer. He has solved the problem how to preserve one’s self-esteem and to learn. He responds to negligence by contempt. He is not forced to accept praise or blame. His name is Ives.”

“He responds to negligence with contempt.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. When people ask me “What do you do?” I mumble something about my history of day jobs, and add “but mostly I am involved with music.” “Oh, you have a hobby?” they respond, smiling condescendingly.

After Wallace Stevens won the Pulitzer Prize for his poetry in 1955, he was offered a faculty position at Harvard but declined since it would have required him to give up his vice-presidency of The Hartford. Was his poetry a ‘hobby’?

In his twenties, Tenessee Williams worked at the International Shoe Company factory, then later as a caretaker on a chicken ranch. His mother:”Tom would go to his room with black coffee and cigarettes and I would hear the typewriter clicking away at night in the silent house. Some mornings when I walked in to wake him for work, I would find him sprawled fully dressed across the bed, too tired to remove his clothes.” Were his plays a ‘hobby’?

Jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin (b. 1938) has 35 albums and piles of awards to his credit. He was also clinical professor of psychiatry the University of San Francisco. Was his music a ‘hobby’?

Minimalist composer Philip Glass worked as a plumber and a taxi driver. Glass was called to the house of art critic Robert Hughes to install a dishwasher. Hughes recognized him and complained that Glass was an artist, and therefore shouldn’t be installing a dishwasher. Glass replied that yes, he was an artist, but he was sometimes a plumber as well, and Hughes should go away and let him finish the job. Were his compositions a ‘hobby’?

These gents achieved recognition in their lifetimes. So we retrospectively minimize their day jobs, right? Charles Ives only began to taste acknowledgement at the very end of his life, but is today canonized, and good for him.

Is that what makes these people ‘artists’, their belated public recognition?  What about the forgotten Franz Kafkas and Emily Dickinsons? – the uncountable, unrecognized, potentially great artists who labored at their crafts nights and weekends and train rides, year after year, decade after decade, only to have their executors eventually dump the contents of their desk drawers into the garbage bin? What about the myriads of honest, dedicated pedestrian practitioners who supported their families by day and toiled in their chosen medium with passion at night as “amateurs”–literally, ‘lovers’?

To all the honest, unrecognized or insufficiently appreciated practitioners of creative endeavors, myself included, I wish you a modicum of Charles Ives’ dignity. May you–correct that, may we–respond to negligence by contempt. Well, we’re not all Charles Ives, so may we at least temper the lack of appreciation with the knowledge that we had the passion and conviction of our creation. Charlie Ives knew that that’s what really matters.

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170: Laura Nyro, ‘Luckie’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)

Posted by jeff on Mar 8, 2018 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Laura Nyro

Today we’re going to track the evolution of the first two measures of ‘Luckie’, the ebullient opening track on Laura Nyro’s masterpiece. “Eli & the 13th Confession”. I can’t promise that next week we’ll track the next two bars, although the entire album does deserve such reverential attention.

Once upon a time, there was a gospel singer named Curtis Mayfield, who snuck out the back door of his Chicago church and formed The Impressions (‘People Get Ready’, ‘It’s All Right’). Curtis wrote and arranged all the songs, a veritable one-man Motown. He had such a surplus of talent that he wrote and produced hits for his Impressions bandmate Jerry Butler, (‘For Your Precious Love’, ‘He Will Break Your Heart’) and for a two-hit wonder, Major Lance. ‘Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um’ (1964) was a charmer, but it was ‘The Monkey Time’ (1963) that made Major’s name and Curtis a pile of dough. I can’t think of a more infectious Top 40 song.

Curtis Mayfield

Here’s an instructional video about how to do The Monkey (as opposed to The Jerk), should you be so moved. (After locking the door) I just tried it together with Major Lance and the Shindig dancers, and it went pretty well. Maybe not as well as in this gambol of that other great Monkey hit, ‘Mickey’s Monkey’ by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Chalk it up to my pigmental predilections. At least the Monkey’s off my back.

Listen again to the end of each verse of ‘The Monkey Time’: ‘…and then the music begins to play/You’re automatically on your way./Are you ready? (Are you ready?)/Well, you get yours, ‘cause I’ve got mine/It’s the Monkey Time!’Stop dancing for a minute, and bookmark that phrase!

Now let’s hop ahead to 1965 to Barbara Mason, a lass of 18 from Philadelphia: “I was a huge Curtis Mayfield fan, and I heard a record he had produced, Major Lance’s ‘The Monkey Time’ and he sings, ‘Are you ready?’ and I just thought, there’s my record. It only took me 10 minutes to write, and then we recorded it live in one take.”

Barbara Mason

Yes, I’m Ready’ was a giant hit, a harbinger of the Philly Soul sound which would achieve fruition in the 1970s. Her song was covered numerous times (Gladys Knight & the Pips, Carla Thomas), and became a hit again in 1979 for Teri DeSario & K.C. Interestingly, the only significant cover of ‘The Monkey Time’ was by Laura Nyro herself, backed by Labelle, on her knockout 1971 cover album, ‘Gonna Take a Miracle’. Here’s a live performance from the 1971 Carnegie Hall bootleg. I guess The Monkey beat was pretty daunting. But check out the opening cut, ‘I Met Him on a Sunday’. Here’s the original, by The Shirelles. 1:0 for the white girl!

That brings us up to March, 1968, the release of Laura Nyro’s “Eli & the 13th Confession”. Listen again to how ‘Luckie’ starts.

Bum-bum-bum, “Yes, I’m ready!!” Recognize that phrase?

Laura Nyro

Whoa, Laura! Not too much ambiguity there, is there folks? Ready for what? Well, mister, you just name it. You have to remember this was written in 1968. Girls didn’t talk like that in 1968. They certainly didn’t shout such things.

And that’s just the first two measures. In the rest of the song, she wrestled with the Devil and won. Jacob did that and got appointed a forefather! Here, let me show you.

Yes, I’m ready, so come on, Luckie
Well, there’s an avenue of Devil who believe in stone
You can meet the captain at the dead-end zone
What Devil doesn’t know is that Devil can’t stay
Doesn’t know he’s seen his day

Oh, Luckie’s taking over and his clover shows
Devil can’t get out of hand
‘Cause Luckie’s taking over
And what Luckie says goes

Laura Nyro Fighting the Devil

Dig them potatoes
If you’ve never dug your girl before
Poor little Devil, he’s a backseat man
To Luckie forever more

It’s a wrestling match, Good Vibrations vs Sympathy for the Devil. And this 21-year old banshee takes her grand piano and bashes old Lucifer on the noggin. You ain’t bringing me down, mister! It’s not luck, it’s an act of will. My friend MB from Back Then: “I took my first LSD trip alone in my parents’ house in the middle of the night, and was scared shitless. I put on “Eli & the 13th Confession”. Laura walked me through that night, and I’ve never let go of her hand since.” Laura got me through a missile attack with a similar act of no-holds-barred optimism. You gonna get in my face? Yes, I’m ready.

Laura Nyro Fan

I’m starting to feel like The Ancient Mariner – accosting unsuspecting revelers, grabbing them by the lapel, sticking my nose right up in their face, my feverish eyes gaping unblinking into theirs, to force upon them The Question: “Do you adequately appreciate Laura Nyro’s musical accomplishments?” I have no idea why, but I sometimes feel people shrinking back from this sort of engagement. With Laura, I mean. If she’s that good, why isn’t she famous?

One reason is that she effectively removed herself from the music business at 24. Others? She was quirky, personally and musically. She was seriously intense, intensely joyous. Demanding, over-the-top. She was divine, spiritual, fearless, unblinking in the face of any and every passion. An ancient mariner for our times.

I really am getting tired of quoting the litany of her praises, of quoting how Elton John and Elvis Costello and Bette Midler and Bonnie Raitt and Rickie Lee Jones and Susan Vega all recognize her as a major voice in the days when rock music was asserting itself as the torchbearer of popular culture. Even Joni Mitchell, a person known to be stingy in crediting her peers, said “Laura Nyro you can lump me in with, because Laura exerted an influence on me. I looked to her and took some direction from her.”

Joni Mitchell (l), Laura Nyro

A revolution in women’s self-image began in the 1960s. Today it’s easy to relegate The Music to the status of soundtrack. Those of us who were there know it was the inspiration. With all due credit to Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and even Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, there were two women who forged this new awareness – Laura and Joni. Carol King came along a few years later.

Laura Nyro

I grant that Joni is the more compleat artist. She had a long, variegated, accomplished career. She was a mistress of craft par excellence, a singularly soulful voice, musically courageous, a trailblazer of unparalleled achievement. It diminishes her not one whit to point out that where Joni was an artisan, Laura was wild. Joni was analytical, Laura was spontaneous. Joni was in control of her material, her voice, her compositions. Laura was an unfettered inspiration in all. Joni dismounted walls brick by brick. Laura detonated them. It was she who inspired rock musicians, male and female, to heed no boundaries of tempo, genre, or superego. She was the natural snow, the unstudied sea, a cameo, born for the loom’s desire. She still ornaments the earth. For me.


Yes, I’m ready, so come on, Luckie

 Well, there’s an avenue of Devil who believe in stone
You can meet the captain at the dead-end zone
What Devil doesn’t know is that Devil can’t stay
Doesn’t know he’s seen his day

Oh, Luckie’s taking over and his clover shows
Devil can’t get out of hand
‘Cause Luckie’s taking over
And what Luckie says goes

Dig them potatoes
If you’ve never dug your girl before
Poor little Devil, he’s a backseat man
To Luckie forever more

Yes, I’m ready, so come on, Luckie
Luckie inside of me, inside of my mind, inside of my mind

Don’t go falling for Naughty
Don’t go falling for Naughty
He’s a dragon with his double bite
Sure can do his shortchanging out of sight
An artist of a sort but a little bit short of luck, this lucky night

Oh, Luckie’s taking over and his clover shows
Devil can’t get out of hand
‘Cause Luckie’s taking over
And what Luckie says goes

Dig them potatoes
If you’ve never dug your girl before
Poor little Naughty, he’s a backseat man
To Luckie forever, a backseat man
To Luckie, hey, hey, hey
It’s a real good day to go get Luckie, go get Luckie

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

036: Laura Nyro, ‘Sweet Blindness’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)
154: Laura Nyro, ‘Save the Country’
202: Laura Nyro, ‘The Confession’
233: Laura Nyro, ‘And When I Die’
270: Laura Nyro, ‘Stoney End’ (Seattle Bootleg, 1971)

Songs of The Week: Joni Mitchell
Songs of The Week: Smokey Robinson & the Miracles


279: Ásgeir, ‘Torrent’

Posted by jeff on Mar 2, 2018 in Nordic, Rock


Ásgeir – ‘Torrent’

Ásgeir – ‘King and Cross’

Ásgeir – ‘Higher’

Ásgeir – ‘In Harmony’

Ásgeir – ‘Going Home’

Ásgeir – ‘In the Silence’

Ásgeir – ‘On That Day’ 

Ásgeir Trausti (b. 1992) grew up in Laugarbakki, a hamlet of 40 residents (mostly retirees) in northwest Iceland. There weren’t any other kids, so he grew up playing guitar. By 12 he had formed a garage band in the nearby metropolis of Hvammstangi (pop. 580).

He’s now an ultra-cool, fully tattooed indie acoustic cum electronica singer/songwriter whose  international career is taking off. But he spends every summer in Laugarbakki planting trees. “I like to go back home as often as possible,” he says. “I don’t like being in a series of big cities that I don’t know. There’s too much stress. I need the open air and the quiet.”

Ásgeir makes low-key, ghostly, introspective music with an expressive, tremelo falsetto. Think Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, think Jonsi of fellow Icelandic band Sigur Rós, think James Blake; think Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. (I see s/he has changed hir name, and presumably some other identifying features, and is now called Anhoni.)

Ásgeir debut album has been bought by some 10% of the Icelandic public (that’s about 30,000 copies), and has charted around the world (#8 in Australia, #40 in the UK). It was nominated for Best Nordic Album of the Year. And there’s a lot of fine music coming out of Scandinavia.

For about a year now, I’ve found “In the Silence” (the English version) to be really fine music. The vocals are heart-rending. The songs are full of entrancing, mystical landscapes and trolls, buoyed by pop hooks that just don’t let go. And the production, the sound palette? Worth the price of admission.

His original career choice was the javelin, but when he hurt his back he started to spend more time on his hobby. He made a demo EP at home, and at 19 took it to a respected young musician/producer, Guðm. Kristinn Jónsson (aka Kiddi – unless I missed something in translation; it’s Icelandic, after all). The next day they started recording what would eventually become the album “Dýrð í dauðaþögn”. It was the first time Ásgeir was in a recording studio.

They didn’t set out to record an entire album. They were just re-recording songs from the demo. Ásgeir was fooling around, playing with new instruments and recording techniques. At one point, Kiddi brought in a dozen studio musicians. When he found out that Ásgeir plays all the instruments himself, he let them go.

So while Kiddi was mixing, Ásgeir would go into another room and write new songs. He’s not much into words. If you look at an interview (or acoustic performance) with him, you’ll see what an extreme introvert he is. Talking for him is akin to throwing a javelin for the rest of us (the Olympic ones are over 2.5 meters long). He likes quiet.

Son and Father

But his father is a respected poet and lyricist. So he has his father write his lyrics. “I like to have my father involved, like a family thing. I know that I won’t do as good a job. I trust him, and he’s really into it…I’ve always admired my father’s work, ever since I was a kid.”

Think about that. Do you know anyone who would talk about his father like that? Do you personally know any 21st century human being who would say “I’ve always admired my father’s work”? Can you imagine any budding rock star anywhere in the world who would prefer to spend his summers in a village of 40 old people, in the middle of a bleak and grey landscape, planting trees, rather than touring California with his band?

Ásgeir’s music reflects that kind of organic, peaceful, rooted mindset. While being totally young, cool, hip, relevant, au courant. Welcome to the internet, folks.

So Ásgeir came to Kiddi with these passionate, acoustic songs about Air and Home and Silence and Birds Singing. And together they produced a wonderful, engaging, beautiful album I’ve listened to many dozens of time. It was such a hit in Iceland that they rerecorded the vocals in English, the translation a collaboration of Ásgeir, his dad, Kiddi, and indie stalwart John Grant, who just happened to be living in Reykjavik and speaks Icelandic.

The musician and the producer generously provide a fascinating (for me at least) track by track commentary on how this wonderful sound picture was composed. It’s a riveting (for us music nerds) peek into the collaborative work of an incredibly talented young songwriter from ‘out there’ and a gifted, sophisticated producer.

‘Higher’ – Based on an electronic loop, doubled with a grand piano. “I lift my mind to the sky/and I let it take flight./The wind carries to my ears/precious sounds of life./Soon I break all ties which bind me to this earth…/Higher, higher/Far away/And the glare of this world/is small and humbled.”

‘In the Silence’, the title track. Like the entire album, it began acoustically, and they consciously set out to add electronics “to make it cool.” They used three different bass players till they found the groove they wanted.

‘Torrent’ is for me the most intriguing cut on the album, hence our Song of The Week. I literally lost sleep trying to figure out the time signature of the verse. Ásgeir: “It’s kind of 7/8, but also 4/4. It’s kind of…all over the place.” Listen to the song. He’s a whole lot more eloquent playing it than describing it. He calls it “a drum song”. To my mind, it’s a whole lot more than that. It’s a rhythmic trip. Kiddi says they recorded the drum track in a stairwell, using “4 or 5 drum kits, to achieve that ‘wall of sound’ effect.” Phil Spector’s legacy popping up in Reykjavik. Phil should be smiling from his California cell.

‘Going Home’ – It’s a true story. We all know that you can’t go home again after you’ve left. But apparently there are still places in the world where one never really leaves home. “Long is the path ahead,/and though my body tires/and I have far to go,/ I know I’m going home,/know I’m going home.” The lyrics may not carry much weight alone. But they’re not meant to – they’re there to serve the whole. And the whole carries tremendous emotional weight.

‘On That Day’ is in a similar vein. What reached out and grabbed me so strongly is the repeated hook at the end, “You don’t get to call the shots that way.” It was an ear-worm for weeks, warm and affective and welcome. Yeah, just that phrase. “It’s so true.” All over life. You don’t get to call the shots that way. Ouch.


‘In Harmony’ faithful to the acoustic demo, embellished with a stunning, grandiose production.

‘King and Cross’, the closest thing to a hit, with a video full of authentic Norse elves and trolls.

Ásgeir’s second album, “Afterglow”, is quite a different trip. He’s following very much the same path as Bon Iver and James Blake, experimenting in distortion, testing the boundaries of sound. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Check out “In the Silence”. Take a couple of hours. Or days. Or weeks. I’ve found that Laugarbakki music to be both pastoral and hip, genuinely organic and convincingly innovative.

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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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