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095: Derek & The Dominos, ‘Little Wing’ (Jimi Hendrix)

Posted by jeff on Aug 23, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week

Derek & The Dominos, ‘Little Wing’:

Jimi Hendrix, ‘Little Wing’:

Off the top of my head, I can think of three cases in which a composer puts out his version of a song, only to have it quickly co-opted by someone else. I’m not talking about Pat Boone’s version of Fats Domino’s ‘Blueberry Hill’ or Bobby Darin’s version of Tim Hardin’s ‘If I Were a Carpenter’. Those are embarrassing covers. I’m also not talking about Rod Stewart’s cover of Tom Waits’ ‘Downtown Train’. There are kazillions of examples of respectable singers making respectable, respectful covers of worthwhile songs.

I’m talking about the rare case where an original version is eclipsed by a cover, where the subsequent version discovered qualities the author himself didn’t grasp.

Burt Bacharach wrote and arranged ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ for his vocal model, Dionne Warwick. Mr Bachrach: Aretha’s “was a better record than the one I produced.”

Jimi Hendrix (1942-70) kidnapped ‘All Along the Watchtower’ from Bob Dylan. Well, most people think so, including Mr Zimmerman himself. Yours truly is, of course, in the minority dissenting opinion. Dylan, on how he felt when first hearing Hendrix’s version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’: “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such a talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”

Clapton (l), Duane Allman (r)

But then Jimi had the tables turned on him with the song ‘Little Wing’, from “Axis: Bold as Love” (1967). Although the album captivated the collective imagination of the entire Freak Nation, ‘Little Wing’ itself went largely unnoticed. In 1970, Eric Clapton recorded it with Derek & the Dominoes (on the same day he recorded ‘Layla’). Hendrix died 9 days later, so we’ll never get to hear his opinion of Clapton’s version. But it was Slowhand’s version that catapaulted the song into the status it now holds, both as a rite-of-passage for wannabe guitarists and as an inspiration for other explorations.

The song itself is a masterpiece of enigma. Here’s Hendrix’ own very elucidating description: “Well, that was one song on there we did a lot of sound on, you know. We put the guitar through the Leslie speaker of an organ, and it sounds like jelly bread, you know….It’s based on a very, very simple American Indian style, you know, very simple. I got the idea like, when we was in Monterey, and I just happened to…just looking at everything around. So I figured that I take everything I see around and put it maybe in the form of a girl maybe, something like that, you know, and call it ‘Little Wing’, in other words, just fly away. Everybody really flying and they’s really in a nice mood, like the police and everybody was really great out there. So I just took all these things an put them in one very, very small little matchbox, you know, into a girl and then do it. It was very simple, you know. That’s one of the very few ones I like.”

Well, okay, Jimi, thanks for that. Jelly bread???

Guitarist (l), Glockenspeil (r)

Hendrix’ recorded version showcases his (right-handed) guitar (flipped over to be played upside down by left-handed Jimi) being run through a Leslie speaker, usually used with Hammond organs, together with a distortion effect giving it a unique tone. Mitch Mitchell’s explosive drums cut the dream with speed; Noel Redding’s bass serves as both a floor and a ceiling, without which they’d probably just float away into the sky; a pinch of glockenspiel provides the celestial. Two and a half minutes. It was one of Hendrix’ performance favorites. I found one collection of 14 bootlegged live performances. Here’s one for you, from the Royal Albert Hall, London, England, February 24, 1969.

Derek & the Dominos’ version is indeed inspired, from the majesty of the very opening guitar riff.  Listen for example to this performance by the Allman Brothers, guest-starring Clapton, 2009. The vocals are fine, Clapton’s guitar is fine, Derek Trucks’ solo is really exciting. But it isn’t in the same stratosphere with the Carl Radle (b)/Jim Gordon (d)/Bobby Whitlock (p) rhythm section, not to mention the second lead guitar of Duane Allman. Or the production of Tom Dowd, who is credited by all involved to have been the key moving force in making the legendary “Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs”.

Dowd’s production is genius, pure genius. I don’t need to walk you through ‘Little Wing’ or ‘Layla’ or ‘I Looked Away’ or ‘Bell Bottom Blues’, you’ve listened to them as often as I have. The expansive tapestry of the two guitars, the organ, the drums, the two voices and the bass (that’s all there is), sounding richer and certainly more complex than Phil Spector’s 27 kettle drums on ‘Da Doo Run Run’. You don’t need me to tell you how thrilling and uplifting this music is.

It was D&tD’s version that has inspired the many and varied covers of ‘Little Wing’. There are oodles of virtuoso guitar homages to Clapton/Allman by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Steve Vai. There are stripped-down melodic versions by the Irish band The Corrs and Tuck & Patti, a knock-out husband (guitar) and wife (vocals) team who perform it as the second half of a medley with another song from “Axis: Bold as Love”, ‘Castles Made of Sand’. If you don’t know Tuck & Patti, give them a listen. They’re not as well-known as they should be, but they are infallibly musically tasteful and technically impressive.

Sting (l), Gil Evans (r)

One of the great arrangers of the 20th century, Gil Evans (here’s a posting I wrote about his work with Miles Davis) was planning a collaboration with Hendrix before the latter died. The pairing is surprising, seemingly disparate beyond fusion. Evans later recorded with his orchestra a CD of Hendrix music, including a version of ‘Little Wing’. It’s so embarrassingly bad, and I have so much respect for Gil Evans, that I won’t even give you the link to it. But Evans did help out Sting with his version of the song, which has gained a well-deserved stature in its own right. It’s an impressive amalgam of other treatments, incorporating both the melodic and personal side of the song as well as the complex, energetic, symphonic orchestration.

So what are we left with here? I think I usually know what subject I’m addressing–a song, an artist, a song as representing an artist, or an artist as expressing himself in a song. But here it’s an unusual aggregate of a song, various artists, a range of approaches. In the end, I don’t go to Hendrix for songs, but for his disassembly of world order. But he has inspired this one jelly bread of a song, haunting, the rare meeting of psychedelia and reality, a most electric and eclectic homage to the ephemeral bliss of the carnal, Derek & The Dominos’ rapturous recording of ‘Little Wing’.

Well she’s walking through the clouds
With a circus mind that’s running round
Butterflies and zebras
And moonbeams and fairy tales
That’s all she ever thinks about
Riding with the wind.

When I’m sad, she comes to me
With a thousand smiles, she gives to me free
It’s alright she says it’s alright
Take anything you want from me,
Anything.

Fly on little wing,
Yeah yeah, yeah, little wing.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

064: Janis Joplin & Tom Jones, ‘Raise Your Hand’
072: Stephen Stills, ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ (“Just Roll Tape”)
074: Donovan, ‘House of Jansch’

 

 

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269: Brian Wilson, ‘Sandy’/’Sherri She Needs Me’/’She Says That She Needs Me’

Posted by jeff on Aug 18, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week

1965, ‘Sandy’

1975, ‘Sherri, She Needs Me’

1998, ‘She Says That She Needs Me’

My neck of the woods isn’t on the main drag of A-level musicians’ tours. We’re a pretty small market. And there are a lot of nasty or misled folks who try to convince artists that this is a black-and-white world, and we’re the bad guys, so they shouldn’t come here to play. So when a legend does make it here, it’s a big deal.

I didn’t go to see Elton John’s performance recently, or Rod Stewart’s. I didn’t go to see Donovan or Leonard Cohen or even Paul Simon or The Stones. I didn’t even go to see Paul McCartney.

“Jeff, you aren’t going to see Paul???”
“I saw him with his original band.”
“You saw Wings in person???”

These old-guy tours, I call them dinosaurs, and I have always studiously avoided dinosaur concerts. I have a theory about Dinosaur Tours. I know why Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger still don their tights and prance around the stage – they don’t want to grow old. Well, I don’t want to grow old either, but I don’t go shaking my tush on a stage with 100,000 people watching. But then again, my opportunities for making such an ass of myself are significantly scarcer than theirs.

The question that grabs me is why young ‘uns run to see these old guys. Clearly, it’s so they can go to their graves saying “I brushed up against greatness” – at least from the $150 bleacher seats about a mile and a half from the stage. Now for me, I just don’t feel a sense of accomplishment in that.

I have plenty of fond memories. I saw The Beatles their holy Selves in 1965, saw The Stones on their first tour of the US in 1964, and saw and interviewed Simon and Garfunkel in 1967. I prefer to remember them in their active, vital prime, making the music that makes them worth remembering.

But when they announced Brian Wilson’s 50th anniversary world tour of “Pet Sounds”, I broke. My heart bought tickets before my head had a chance to set up its defenses.

“Jeff,” I said to myself in that patronizing voice I use when I’m being particularly obtuse, “You’re not going to enjoy the show, you’re not even going to hear Brian. You’re going as an homage.”

Brian had a fine band backing him, one of the best money can buy. The medley of hits, from ‘Surfin’ Safari’ through recent stuff, all held up to one degree or another. In the first half of the show, Brian handled a lot of the vocals (supported and relieved by Al Jardine); but in the second half, as they felt the strain of the decades on their chops, they let Al’s son take over the high notes and eventually entire songs.

But my strongest impression was of an aide leading Brian to his chair, propping him up as this decrepit old guy in a Hawaii shirt went shuffling blindly across the stage. As the show progressed, he sat out entire songs. He could hardly compose coherent sentences (well, nothing new there), and I tried to appreciate it all as an abstract gesture of respect, rather than a pathetic attempt to stay young and relevant – on both our parts.

My respect for Brian is immense. As I’ve often said, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who get Brian and those who don’t.” In purely musical terms, he’s The Genius of our times. I’ve sung his praises repeatedly in these annals (gosh, I’ve always wanted to use that word):
SoTW 004: ‘Kiss Me, Baby’, a masterpiece of fog and enigma and adolescent angst.

SoTW 118: ‘Surf’s Up’, celebrating (with great reservations) the release of the apocryphal, unreleased maybe/maybe not masterpiece.

SoTW 230: The Beach Boys, ‘Here Today’, an homage sans reservations to The Masterpiece of post-war popular music, “Pet Sounds”, including a look at the building of the tracks, based on the “Unsurpassed Masters”, an exhaustive catalog of the Beach Boys’ studio work.

SoTW 158: ‘Surfer Girl’ as sung live by Paul Simon, revealing in his oblique rendering the divine beauty within the brainless shlock.

SoTW 031: ‘Little Saint Nick’. No cracks from the peanut gallery, please.

So if at the concert I felt a bit like a pilgrim who took a wrong turn, and if most of what I’ve written about Brian in the past is unrepentant proselytization, this week we’re going to share with you a set of gems that only we fanatics care about. The rest of you are excused. Try not to make too much noise out in the hallway.

‘Sandy’, 1965, outtake from the “Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)” album

If the previous effort, “Today!”, contained the uncut diamonds that would be brought to fruition in “Pet Sounds”, “Summer Days” was a mix of the BB’s admirable but limited Top 40 grist (‘Help Me, Rhonda’), Beatles imitation (‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’), and early experimentation towards “Pet Sounds” (‘Let Him Run Wild’ and especially  the intro to ‘California Girls’ [my ringtone]).

But the Complete “Unsurpassed” Beach Boys set, Volume 9, includes 4 CDs, 74 tracks of studio work on the album, including 8 working tracks of a song called ‘Sandy’. The final, incomplete draft (‘Second Vocal Overdub’) is mostly instrumental, with just a bit of vocal overdubbing (“Sandy, baby, it’s time we said goodbye.”). It’s a teaser, the dance of the seven veils. The instrumentation is a bridge between the best of “Today!” and “Pet Sounds”—synthesizer, a chunky harpsichord-ish keyboard, a prominent bass (all reputedly played by The Wrecking Crew, who went on to make “Pet Sounds” with Brian). A chord progression, melody, and a mood that just won’t let go.

‘Sherri, She Needs Me’, 1975, unreleased track

Ten years later, Brian revised the song, entitling it ‘Sherri, She Needs Me’. It’s a uniquely successful cut from Brian’s long fallow period. The instrumental track is from 1965, a much more finished version than those included in “Unsurpassed”, with 1975 vocals overdubbed by Brian. Russ Titelman, one of the best producers of the times, contributed to the lyrics. Heaven only knows how bad they were before he got his hands on them. If you really must know, this cut was originally released on the “Lei’d in Hawaii” bootleg, then in 2013 on CD6 of the ‘oddities and outtakes’ box “Made in California.” The result is a crazy amalgam of the divine and the brain-dead:

Sherri, she needs me and there’s nothing I can do.
Sherri, she needs me and I think I need her, too.
Sherri, if you start crying it’ll break my heart
So before we both start crying I’ll just walk away. (sic, groan)

Sherri baby, I just can’t stand it, it didn’t work out the way we planned it.
Sherri baby, it’s time we said good-bye.

Sherri believe me, it’s so hard to say we’re through.
Please keep your cool, dear, and I’ll still be friends with you.
Sherri, don’t hate her guts ‘cause she took me away–
And maybe you wanna make friends with her someday.(sic, sick)

‘She Says That She Needs Me’, 1998, the “Imagination” CD

But the song just wouldn’t let go of Brian. He returns to it, 20 years later, with a more polished but somewhat less convincing treatment, admirable, with flashes of brilliance, but overall lacking that Brian Wilson magic. The lyrics were revised by none other than Carole Bayer Sager, Oscar and Grammy-winning lyricist (‘Arthur’s Theme’, ‘That’s What Friends are For’):

‘Sherri, Baby’ has morphed into ‘Sorry, Baby…’, and some of the potholes from the previous lyric set have been smoothed over, but even Ms Sager couldn’t save it:

Baby, if you don’t stop crying I’ll just want to die,
But it’s too late and you know there’s nothing here for you and I.

Still, there’s something about this song. Brian worked on it for over 30 years, and I’ve been listening to it for about that long. Me and at least 30 other misfits around the world. Like all of Brian’s greatest work, it suffers from clunky lyrics, and the sentiments are all too frequently acne-ridden.

She says that she’s sorry and I guess I’m sorry too.
But baby I’m wonderin’ when I was lonely, where were you.

She says that she loves me and I’m not sure that’s really true
Because if she loves me I wouldn’t feel the way I do.

Embarrassing, but true. Somehow, those 16-year old emotions never pass, do they? The pain of your first girlfriend leaving you—that ouch stays with us forever. It’s the template of all the romantic and romanticized tears we’ll shed for the rest of our born days, isn’t it? It has none of the complications and obfuscations of our ‘real’ adult life. ‘I loved her, she left me, and I’m crying.’ Simple and to the point.

Brian Wilson composed 3’30” musical masterpieces that grabbed our hearts and our souls and still, 50 years on, won’t let go.

Watching Brian in concert was one sad experience. I’m sorry I went. I should have stayed In My Room and contemplated the days when I watched those noble giants walk the earth.

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268: Damien Rice, ‘The Blower’s Daughter’ (Natalie Portman’s Aunt)

Posted by jeff on Aug 11, 2017 in Personal, Song Of the week

 

Irish singer

Damien Rice — ‘The Blower’s Daughter’

Damien Rice is an Irish singer-songwriter, a former busker with three commercially successful, aesthetically appealing albums under his belt featuring close-miked, acoustic, naked songs, including ‘The Blower’s Daughter’, the haunting theme song for Mike Nichols’ 2004 film “Closer”.

Mike Nichols (ne Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky) was sent alone to America at seven with his three-year old brother to escape the Nazis. He’s the auteur not only of “Virginia Woolf”, “The Graduate”, but also of the disquieting film “Closer” starring (and they really are all stellar) Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Clive Owens and Natalie Portman, the latter two nominated for Oscars for their roles.

It’s an elegant, unsettling film I found more even more evocative, distasteful, and memorable in the second viewing (Law: “You kissed me!” Roberts: “What are you, twelve?”). Four beautiful actors portraying serially shifting couples, a morally repugnant ménage à quatre driven by three self-satisfied professionals and one enigmatic waif of a stripper. I just might suffer through the film a third time.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is all we have to say about music this week. Full disclosure: ‘The Blower’s Daughter’ was nothing more than a tenuous (at best) excuse to talk about Natalie Portman’s aunt.

Buckeye princess

I went through high school with Leslie Stevens.
That’s a misrepresentation.
Leslie Stevens graced Woodward HS with her regal presence during the years I happened to be registered there.
Leslie will be remembered till eternity by everyone who was there as the epitome of beauty and grace.
(For the record, if anyone remembers me, it’s as “that loud kid who was always making bad jokes, all the teachers’ most unfavorite burden.”)

I don’t remember ever speaking to Leslie, even though we participated in a goodly number of stage productions together. Or rather, I somehow snuck onto the stage which existed solely for her to stand spotlighted in its center. I suppose we also took classes together, but those data cells have long since faded. Not so her face, her smile, her body in mid-dance, her aura. Those memories I’ll take to the grave.

What could a mere commoner (a coarse one at that) say to such an aristocratic presence?
“Did you do your geometry homework?”
“Your scene was stunning”?
“Your dance was breathtaking”?
“Your beauty is proof of God’s existence”?

Aaron sent me some clippings from the Bulldog Barks, including my review of “Rubber Soul” the month it was released, my first venture into the non-existent (1965) field of rock journalism. That means I’ve been writing about music for 52 years. I suppose I deserve some points at least for stamina.

In one of the pictures, I’m standing next to Leslie Stevens. If asked, I would deny ever having stood next to her. I suppose I went catatonic, so the event was never recorded in my adolescent ‘brain’. But the picture is there, proof of just how reliable my memory is.

Aaron played George to Leslie’s Emily in Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece “Our Town”. I played George’s father, Dr. Gibbs. I of course had no scenes with Leslie. Fathers-in-law in Grover’s Corner didn’t talk to their perspective DiL. (I’m fortunate enough to have a lovely one with whom I speak frequently and warmly.) Of course, Mr Webb has that great scene with his son-in-law-to-be; but, alas, such was not the fate of the lad that was me.

In the play, George kisses Emily. In other words, Aaron kissed Leslie. Aaron, full disclosure: I’ve never really gotten over that.

Skip forward some 15 years, to the early 1980s. I’m doing reserve duty as a medic in the Israeli Defense Forces in a clinic in an old British Mandate army camp in Jerusalem, right in the middle of Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox bastion. It’s late, it’s boring, and I’m playing Jewish Geography with the army physician on duty, a Dr Hershlag.

“Do you have kids?” he asks.
“Yeah, a daughter and a son. You?”
“A baby daughter, Neta-Li (נטע-לי). So where are you from originally?”
“Ah, Cincinnati.”
“Cincinnati? My wife’s from Cincinnati!”
“Really? What’s her name?”
“Shelley. Shelley Stevens.”
“Nope, didn’t know her. I knew a Leslie Stevens in high school.”
“That’s her sister! Hey, soldier, are you okay?”

Skip forward another dozen or so years, still BI (Before Internet). My high school friend Marc is sitting in my living room in Israel.
“Did you know that Leslie Stevens’ daughter got into the movies?” he asks.
“Not too shocking,” I reply. If she’s anything like her aunt, it’s no surprise, we concurred.
“Her name is Natalie something.”
I guess I had read about the child star of “Léon”, that she was Israeli-born. I processed this for a moment and responded:
“Not her daughter. Her niece.”

I’ve been probably more enthralled by Natalie Portman over the years than most humans, and that’s saying a lot.
It’s not just because I find her to be Beauty Incarnate. Everyone knows that.
It’s because she’s a dead ringer for Aunt Leslie. Not just those cheekbones. Not just the shape of her smile.
It’s the deportment. The regality. The perfection.

I’ve seen pictures of her parents. I’m sure they’re both very nice people, but her genes are those of her aunt.
This I know.

I was recently watching the opening shot of “Jackie”. I see that face and I say casually to myself, “Oh, there’s Leslie! My God, she’s beautiful.” And then I catch myself. It’s not Leslie, it’s the niece.

“They” often say that a man often resembles his maternal uncle. I know it’s true in my case. I saw him rarely during my life, but I always felt an mystic genetic bond with him. The coloring, the posture, the teeth, the penchant for telling shaggy dog stories. How often I would make some remark or gesture, and my mother would turn to my father and say “It’s Shim.”

Sister, niece

That uncle-aunt/nephew-niece relationship can be a landmine. Almost Parents, but who really cares? I know I always expected my uncle to understand me and care about me a lot more than he did, and it caused me no little disappointment at various crossroads throughout my life. But at least our relationship wasn’t as pathological as that of Uncle Charlie and Niece Charlie in Hitchcock’s masterful “Shadow of a Doubt”.

I have no idea what the relationship is between Leslie and Neta-Li, if there is one. I have no idea if the rest of the family is as acutely aware of the dopplegangery going on there as I am.

I do know one thing. That no matter how much the entire world thinks that Natalie Portman is The Most Beautiful Woman in the Universe – and I don’t disagree – I know she’s a copy. A divine copy.

But I know that you, Leslie, wherever you are, however you are, even if you weigh 350 pounds, have more wrinkles than a sea anemone, are drying out from multiple addictions and personality disorders, whatever ravages Father Time has wrought upon you—for me you will always be the most beautiful girl in the world.

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

Posted by jeff on Aug 1, 2017 in Classical, Other, Song Of the week

Different Trains (Parts I, II, III)

Need one apologize for listening tastes? You can listen to Justin Bieber or ‘Lawrence Welk Plays Your Polka Favorites’ all you want, I don’t care. I wish you wouldn’t tell me about it, but I don’t deny your democratic or aesthetic right to do so.

So I’m not going to apologize for the fact that in recent months I’ve become quite engrossed in Minimalist music. I realize this may not do much for my popularity at school or for the ratings of this blog, so maybe next week I’ll write about a Motown song, like The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself”, just to keep the Hit-o-meter popping.

Aware of the dangers, this week I’m going to share with you the unique experience I’ve been having with Minimalist music, specifically that of Steve Reich, specifically his composition “Different Trains”.

I admit that my tastes can run at times to the arcane, the rarified, the–well, let’s call a spade a spade–the weird. I try to mix up SoTW, but I’m aware that I’ve been on a run of crowd-displeasers recently, such as Shostakovich and Randy Newman (though I sure do believe that if people of taste made the effort to break through the unprettiness of the veneer, they could get to appreciate and love them as I do. This week we’re going even further. I really don’t think that Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” is for everyone. But it has been speaking very loudly, clearly, and affectively to me, so I want to share it with you. Here come some boring definitions:

Interior, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

‘Minimalism‘ is often applied to designate anything which is spare or stripped to its essentials. Minimalism began as a post-WWII movement in visual arts where the work is stripped down to its most fundamental features; it expanded to encompass a movement in music which features repetition and iteration. The term has been used to describe a trend in design and architecture (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “Less is more”) wherein the subject is reduced to its necessary elements, often employing functional elements for aesthetic purposes (Buckminster Fuller). It has also been associated with Japanese traditional design and architecture; with the plays of Samuel Beckett, the films of Robert Bresson, the writing of Ernest Hemingway, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Raymond Carver, with poet William Carlos Williams; and even with the automobile designs of Colin Chapman.

Agnes Martin, oil

Hey, I know almost all of those! (Well, I picked mostly ones I know, and I’m sure going to check out that Colin Chapman guy.)

‘Minimalist music‘ began in the 1960s as an underground contemporary classical scene in New York and San Francisco, based mostly on “consonant harmony, steady pulse (if not immobile drones), stasis or gradual transformation, and often reiteration of musical phrases or smaller units such as figures, motifs, and cells. It may include features such as additive process and phase shifting.” [We may not know all of those terms, but we get the gist, don’t we?] The composers associated with it are John Cage, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. Strong Minimalist elements can also be found in contemporary classical music employing traditional stylistic elements, such as that of Arvo Pärt (‘Holy Minimalism’) and John Tavener (‘Mystic Minimalism’), and even reaching back to composers such as Eric Satie, Carl Orff and Anton Webern.

 

Donald Judd, sculpture

New Age and much World music certainly huddle under the Minimalist umbrella. In jazz this aesthetic is rife; there’s even an entire label, EMC, dedicated to minimalist music.

[Here comes the neat part!] Minimal music is also present in pop music. Psychedelic rock acts of the 1960s and 1970s used repetitive structures and droning techniques to express the hallucinations of LSD and other drugs in a musical language. The Velvet Underground’s John Cale had an especially close working connection with La Monte Young. Minimalism also impacted Progressive Rock [a genre I’ve studiously avoided over the years], in artists such as Soft Machine, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Mike Oldfield and Tangerine Dream.

[Here comes the REALLY neat part!] In the 1990s Trance dance music was largely influenced by minimalism, based on repetitive instrumental structures. A recent favorite of mine, the ultra-bizarre Antony and The Johnsons, exhibit a completely original style of art songs, what I’d call ‘tone poems’. I’ll introduce you to “him” sometime soon, I promise.

Meanwhile, back to Steve Reich (b. 1936). He studied at Cornell (thesis on Wittgenstein, whom he of course later set to music) and Julliard. While driving a cab for a living, jazz drumming for fun, and living with Phil Glass for company, he began composing experimental music in a variety of contexts in the 1960s. A lot of it employed sampling (which anticipated the emergence of hip-hop by decades) and ‘phasing’, a process whereby two tape loops lined up in unison gradually move out of phase with each other, ultimately coming back into sync. Here are some of his notable early works:

  • ‘It’s Gonna Rain’, a phased piece constructed out of a 13-second sample of a sermon by the minister Brother Walter.
  • ‘Drumming’ (inspired by a journey to Ghana) was scored for four pairs of bongos, three marimbas, three glockenspiels, and voice.
  • ‘Pendulum Music’ which consists of the sound of several microphones swinging over the loudspeakers to which they are attached, producing feedback as they do so.

Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s “Point Blank” (1967)

But it’s not all just weird, I promise you. Well, it is weird, but it’s not just weird.

  • ‘Music for 18 Musicians’, one of his seminal works, in a very fine live rendition
  • ‘Clapping Music’ – one performer keeps a line of a 12-quaver-long (12-eighth-note-long) phrase and the other performer shifts by one quaver beat every 12 bars, until both performers are back in unison 144 bars later; here’s a live performance; and here’s a TOTALLY mind-boggling version using a loop from one of the great B-movies of all time, John Boorman’s 1968 “Point Blank”, with the incredible Lee Marvin and the even incredibler Angie Dickinson

In later years, Reich began to draw materials from his Jewish background, such as ‘Tehillim’ (Psalms).

And for our Song of The Week, we’re bringing to you ‘Different Trains’, a three-movement piece for string quartet and tape (1988), which actually won the Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Snippets of recorded speech are used here as a melodic (rather than rhythmic) theme.

The piece is Reich’s attempt, as an American Jew, to explore the legacy for him of the European Holocaust – a theme that has occupied me greatly throughout my life.

Recorded spoken phrases of his governess, a retired Pullman porter, and various Holocaust survivors are interlaid with the playing of the astounding Kronos Quartet. Reich compares and contrasts (“America-Before the War – Movement 1”) his childhood memories of his train journeys between New York and California in 1939–1941 (he traveled between his parents, who were separated) with the very different trains (“Europe-During the War – Movement 2”) being used to transport contemporaneous European children to their deaths under Nazi rule, and then (“After the War – Movement 3”) with the Holocaust survivors talking about the years immediately following World War II.

Kronos Quartet

A leading professor of musicology, Richard Taruskin, called it “the only adequate musical response—one of the few adequate artistic responses in any medium—to the Holocaust”, and credited the piece with earning Reich a place among the great composers of the 20th century. Reich has been described by The Guardian as one of “a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history”, and critic Kyle Gann has said Reich “may be considered, by general acclamation, America’s greatest living composer.”

You can find the definitive version of ‘Different Trains’ by The Kronos Quartet at the top of this page. You might also want to check out this striking rendition of Part 2 by The Smith Quartet from a BBC broadcast, a much more straightforward explication of the Holocaust elements in the piece.

I understand that Steve Reich sells fewer albums than Arrowsmith, and that The Kronos Quartet won’t sell out Madison Square Gardens performing this piece. Nobody’s going to put them on the bill with Justin Bieber, probably not even with Wayne Newton.

But I’m not alone in finding this work riveting, profound and moving.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:

012: Arvo Pärt, ‘Cantate Domino’

073: Erik Satie, ‘Gymnopédie No. 1′

084: Dmitri Shostakovich, Prelude & Fugue No 16 in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolaeva)

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