Czech, Please

I think it was the late great Alan Rich who wrote something about the unique harmonic flavor of Czech music—the closest I can find in his archives is this reference, in a piece about the tragically short-lived Erwin Schulhoff, to "that peculiarly Slavic harmonic eagerness that won't let you escape even if you want to." I don't remember his praise being quote so double-edged, nor his broadening this observation to the peoples beyond Bohemia and/or Moravia. Either way I know exactly what he's talking about and will only add: There is indeed something about the harmonic sound of Czech composers, particularly of the 20th century. I've written before about my love for Czech composers' string writing in particular, above them all Janáček, and I don't think this convergence is a coincidence. Pieces written exclusively for strings have often served as laboratories, test kitchens, proving grounds where composers explored the inner and outer limits of their musical language, from Beethoven to Herrmann, Ravel to Crumb.

So it is that I cherish not only those seminal Janá
ček quartets but also Dvořák's famous "American" quartet, especially the tuneful sweep of its third movement. You can hear many Czech signatures here: a brightly singing quality even over minor-key undercurrents, a dancing spirit with a spiny poise—vigor but also rigor:
Another warhorse, Smetana's "From My Life" quartet, is almost as dear to me in its entirety as Janáček's "Intimate Letters," and if I had to pick a favorite moment it's the stretchy dissonance the second movement, the Allegro moderato a la Polka, shoehorns into an otherwise rolling dance tune—a little fly in the ointment that gives it an extra buzz for me. You can see it here (see the C# poking out of an otherwise consonant F major chord):
And you can hear it crop up around 1:03 below, throwing tiny, delicious speed bumps into the tempo around 1:13:
Likewise the great violinist Josef Suk, whose namesake quartet I was fortunate enough to hear when I visited Prague a quarter century ago. This intermezzo from his first string quartet is similarly idiomatic, purportedly "alla marcia" but more tango-like in its feel and folklike in its melodic contours, and no less insistently vinegary in its harmonic flavors, its anxious flurries whipped up into a sweet, stiff froth like a meringue:

Fine and well, but what if you added two extra strings to that? That was the proposition offered to me by a cherished collection of string sextets by Martinů and Schulhoff. Adding a viola and a cello to the traditional quartet (two violins, one viola, one cello), this beefing up of the middle and bottom voices has the unmistakeable effect of added gravity, a new sonic equilibrium that can sound alternately grounded and a little seasick. Schulhoff's sextet is more straight-up 20th-century dissonant than most of his compatriots' work, but it shares their sense of restless spirit amid an overhanging gloom, of crying that is also singing (and vice versa). He called his third moment "Burlesca," but this is not so much a dance as a chase:

The more tuneful Martinů sextet on that collection is eminently worth your time, but the record's real find may be three of his "madrigals"—an odd name for a series of violin-and-viola duets, but it was his way of nodding to a favorite medieval influence. They do have a prim, angular neo-baroque feel to them, which somehow rhymes with that clear, astringent Czech harmonic language. It's remarkable how rich and thick a sound two instruments can make; literally the minimum requirement to make harmony, it here provides maximal joy.

The Man Who Wouldn't Clap

Before I discovered Alex Ross, my favorite classical music writer was another AR, Alan Rich, whom I not only enjoyed reading but had the good fortune to meet and get to know a bit. This post upon his death in 2010 first appeared on my theatre blog but seems worth reposting here.


Photo by Alex Ross

Critic Alan Rich was from the old school. The sad news of his death on Monday brought back a few warm memories: of his gracious befriending of me at the Ojai Music Festival (I think it was this extraordinary year), even though I was more general arts critic than music specialist (many forget he also wrote some theater criticism, alongside his prodigious output on music); of his kindly indulging a hearing of some of my compositions at his piano, and later his giving a once-over of some of my critical clips (he was polite about the former, encouraging of the latter); of his avuncular disapproval of my then-regular intermission cigarette ("Ah, the last of the red hot smokers," he once bellowed at me).

What I remember that's worth reporting here, though, is that Alan had a rule about not applauding. I don't recall him explaining why for me, but I understood it implicitly: People could wait for his applause, or his boo, in the form of his review; he wasn't going to tip his hand. Myself, I still avoid joining a standing ovation when I review a show, but I'm not averse to applauding, laughing, and otherwise expressing my apprecation. Alan, though, was a purist--so much so that when I took him to see L.A. Opera mezzo Stephanie Vlahos do one of her simmering Weill cabarets at the tiny Gardenia club in Hollywood, he not only abstained from clapping, he studiously avoided returning her eye contact when she sidled up to him seductively. I can still see Alan sitting there in the booth, looking stone-faced at me, while Stephanie, in fishnets and some kind of bustier, attempted to draw him out (and I still can hear her purring "J'attends un navire" inches from my ear). It turns out that Alan liked her interpretations of Weill plenty, but I guess he figured we'd all have to wait to read that in the LA Weekly the next week, not on his face.

For that combination of graciousness and stubbornness (some might say cussedness), he will be missed. Obits from those who knew him far better than I herehere, and here, and a blog/aggregator of Rich's writing is here.

Out of Sight and Out of Sounds

Formative-album replay: David Bowie Diamond Dogs. There's a special thrill in discovering and learning to love music that doesn't just unsettle or upset your elders but actually disturbs you. I don't just mean music you don't cotton to on first hearing (Elvis Costello, for one), but stuff that actively repels or shocks you, sometimes even after you've embraced it.

For a white suburban teen in the 1980s, punk, metal, and hip-hop all offered different flavors of transgressive frisson. But it was David Bowie who really burrowed under my skin and haunted my imagination. Mind you, not the Bowie recording in the 1980s; I've written before about how the live album from the Ziggy Stardust film was my original gateway, and I've hailed both the breakthrough of Hunky Dory and the breakdown of Low in this space.

While I found plenty to bend my brain on all his canonical records, there remains nothing quite as creepy-crawly, attractive-repulsive, as the mesmeric, nightmarish 1974 quasi-concept album Diamond Dogs, starting with its startling chimerical cover art and its dystopian framing. The unearthly howls, low synth, and distorted narration that open "Future Legend" ("And in the death...") still never fail to set my teeth on edge; amid the gloom it took me years to notice that Mick Ronson's guitar quotes "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered."

Oh, but wait: It's not Ronson at all. And this offers one clue to the album's grungy, off-kilter sound and fury: Bowie himself is on lead guitar through most of the record, Ronson—his reliable axeman and co-architect of his vaunted glam-rock sound—having departed after the Ziggy tour ("the last show we'll ever play" indeed). So that's Bowie vamping through the distorted boogie of the title track, which as song biographer Chris O'Leary aptly notes, is exhaustingly overlong and has a muddy sound, as if Bowie had "found a discarded tape and overdubbed various slurs and noises onto it." With its dirty sax and tortured vocals, it's the sound of an end-of-the-world party starting, but unlike "Five Years," say, or "Suffragette City," not one you'd want to attend.

The grim scene-setting continues through the stunning "Sweet Thing/Candidate," a William Burroughs/John Rechy-inspired gay hustler mini-suite that has always had a vague whiff of Chappaquiddick for me—i.e., decadence and political scandal with death in the headlights, to a score that is equal parts piano cabaret and glam-rock moping. Bowie manipulates his vocals to sound like a whole cast of characters here, and surrounds them with sax squeals and a positively wrenching guitar solo, one you might call Ronson-esque but much weirder, in which Bowie pushes through his limitations as a player to make something nakedly, jaggedly beautiful. It starts at 3:03:

After that miasma of need and pain, which ends with a distorted-guitar buzz groove that feels inescapably cynical, the clarion riff of "Rebel Rebel" is sweet relief. A sunny headbanger, this celebration of a young androgyne has a distinct passing-of-the-torch feel, as if Bowie sees himself in the generation coming up behind him and is tipping his bippity-bobbity hat. I especially relish the way the two-chord jam eventually locks in place and he essentially starts rapping, Jagger-like, over it, in a way that evokes other two-chord jams from his catalogue ("Aladdin Sane," "Golden Years," "Fashion").

That and the anthemic yet somehow pathetic "Rock 'n' Roll With Me" (ever wonder why the chorus of this ostensible love song goes, "No one else I'd rather be," not "be with"?) are the only respite from the apocalyptic hellscape, which returns in force with the album's last four songs, all of them outtakes from a planned stage adaptation of 1984 nixed by Orwell's widow: the spectral, sidelong gloom of "We Are the Dead," the cop-chase disco of "1984," the haunted, tormented "Big Brother," and the thrillingly chilling grind of "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family" (the last one is purportedly an extrapolation of Orwell's "two minutes hate," with the word "brother" bleated over and over in a disquieting falsetto chorale). If I had to call up one signature sound from this record, it is the fiery baritone growl Bowie musters on the chorus of "Big Brother": "Someone to save us/Someone to follow..." It has the ring of utter conviction, an exaltation of total surrender, albeit not gently but in a way that suggests a patient somehow tying himself into a straitjacket.

Though these last songs have only a passing relationship to the novel that sparked them, together with most of the first side they create their own bleak future legend, not only in their phantasmagoric cut-up lyrics but in the greasy, used aural quality of it all. It is as if you can hear the sweat and spit (and other fluids) sloshing around and seeping into the record's very sound. O'Leary aptly called this "rotten music." I would second that impression, and only add that that is precisely what makes Diamond Dogs so compelling and freshly unnerving even after all these years.

If this descent into the sewer of his imagination was meant to be purgative, it apparently worked: Bowie's next effort was the sleek, invigorating Philly soul of Young Americans.

Seven Song Spin: A Weekly Playlist

One of the missions, if not the prime directive, of this blog is to direct you, dear reader, to music I love that you may be unfamiliar with or have forgotten about. That's certainly the brief behind my Private Canon series. But I have so much more music I want to share than I can cover in depth, so I'm planning to drop a weekly playlist for you every Monday of songs I recommend, with a short precis for each rather than an extensive analysis. The more the merrier, I say.

The full playlist below can be found here.

Folk Lounge Fix: I discovered this Claudio Villa gem on the soundtrack of the masterful Stanley Tucci joint Big Night, in which the Italian singer takes a sunny folk tune, "Tic Ti Tic Ta," and gives it an almost suspenseful rockabilly/Big Band spin—listen for the stab of trombone at the top of each chorus.
Classical Banger: Everyone knows Carmina Burana for its ubiquitous dramatic opener "O Fortuna," but "Uf Dem Anger, Tanz" was probably the first piece I heard from it—this headlong instrumental interlude was a sort of theme for the classical radio station in Phoenix, KHEP, when I was a kid. I still get a rush from it.
Sneaky Soul Cut: I have to thank my friend Cinco Paul for turning me onto the shape-shifting pop polymath Richard Swift, who on many of his other tracks sounds a bit like a groovier version of Badly Drawn Boy, but on this amazing track sounds uncannily like a '60s soul singer. Actually, he sounds like two different singers: Listen for the change in vocal register from angelic falsetto to a kind of Dylanesque growl. It's a song as weird as it is smooth—a pretty unusual combo. (It's not Swift himself in the official video below, by the way; here he is performing the song live.)
Guitar Power Pop: Another artist Cinco turned me onto, who deserves her own post, is Britpop six-string genius Charlotte Hatherley, who until her recent turn to electronica turned out three great records of electric guitar-based rock/pop. Honestly there's not a bad track on Grey Will Fade, New Worlds, or The Deep Blue, and while she's best known for the slipped-time-signature rocker "Bastardo" (the one Cinco shared with me), "White," from New Worlds, is also a fine intro to her characteristic mix of sleek and gritty, pop and rock. Honestly, if you were to cook up a sound in a lab to align perfectly with a large portion of my taste, you could hardly do better. (Also, how great is this video?)
Guitar Power Pop II: A friend told me I might like Adia Victoria because she reminded him a bit of Kurt Weill. Sort of? What I hear, especially on her album Beyond the Bloodhounds, is another mix of tuneful vocal pop over electric guitar crunch—this really is a sweet spot for me. (Her more recent album, Silences, mostly abandons the guitar sound, except for this magnificent single.) The alternately angry and plaintive "Sea of Sand" is one I keep returning to.
Sweet-and-Sour Showtune: "The Road You Didn't Take" from Sondheim's Follies has always moved me, even if it does increasingly sound like a young man's idea of old age—he wrote it when he was 41, and I grew to love it in my 20s. It's not that he got anything wrong exactly, especially the part about the "blessed peace" that comes with waning ambition; it's that the song's bitter, protest-too-much dismissal of regret feels less like breaking news to me now. And of course there are other conflicts and strivings, as well as compensations, that arise as middle age encroaches that this song doesn't pretend to touch. Still, the glinting dissonances over the whirling arpeggios, the tender orchestration, and the wizened edge in John McMartin's voice—it still gets me, in more ways than one.
Haunted Lullaby: Elvis Costello's forays into the classical realm didn't just include his underrated string quartet album and his slightly awkward ballet; he also made For the Stars, an alternately stiff and inspired "crossover" album with Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Apart from a cracking mash-up of Tom Waits's "Broken Bicycles" and Paul McCartney's "Junk," and Otter's languid take on "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)", it's mostly not a must album...except for von Otter's simple, transcendent cover of a late Abba track, "Like an Angel Passing Through My Room." Honestly, this song is so painfully beautiful in its marriage of words and music, voice and piano, that I find it best to save it for the end of a listening day. It really does stir something in me, and I hope it does in you too.

The Avenue of Least Despair

It hadn't occurred me till recently that I should give this blog its proper theme song with a tune I wrote a quarter century ago and recorded with my band Millhouse. Obviously in this case "Train my ear" is something more than a musical reference—I think I'm punning a bit on the other meaning of "train" (as in "train your attention on"). For some reason I also think of the old Western trope of putting your ear to the railroad tracks to hear if a train is coming.

I bow to the expert producing/engineering of Jimb Fisher and Tommy Norton, to my Millhouse bandmates Mark Baker, David Ellis, and Steve Harris, and to guest steel player Danny Dugan. I must also acknowledge the verse melody's debt to an obscure Elvis Costello song, "Battered Old Bird," right down to the phrasing of the word "ministry." What can I say? I only steal from the best.

The rest is mine, as are the words:

Train My Ear

I’m threatening the revenue of a promising career
I’m settling on the avenue of least despair
And I hope I seize that day when that day draws near
But to hear the call, I’ll have to train my ear
Yes, to hear the call, I’ll have to train my ear

I’m counting on redemption while redemption counts on me
My mother always warned me off the ministry
Now I try to keep the faith my father holds so dear
But to hear the call, I’ll have to train my ear
Yes, to hear the call, I’ll have to train my ear

I worship at the altar of my shame
It’s a kind of pride by a different name

Drive the bloodhounds from the door and let me count my sheep
I’ve always had the gift of unencumbered sleep
But tonight I can’t shut the light, there’s something in the mirror
But to hear the call, I’ll have to train my ear
Yes, to hear the call, I’ll have to train my ear

Today I heard my best friend checked himself in to dry out
His wife has filed, she’ll get the house and child, no doubt
What kind of friend am I? When he reached out I wasn’t here
But to hear the call, I’ll have to train my ear
Yes, to hear the call, I’ll have to train my ear

I fall upon the sword of my regrets
Now they come upfront, like a veil of threats

I’m compromising things to come for things that went before
I know apathy is evil’s co-conspirator
The road that leads from passion to a shrug I must steer clear
But to hear the call, I’ll have to train my ear
Yes, to hear the call, I’ll have to train my ear

The Private Canon: The Mind Meld of "Streets of Calcutta"

Sam Zaman (a.k.a. State of Bengal) and Ananda Shankar
Among her many talents, film director Mira Nair has proven to be a great music curator—or at least, she's had the taste to hire good music supervisors and composers. To wit: I wore out the soundtracks of two of her best films, Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding, both of which featured a mix of original score cues and lovingly curated source music. The former introduced me to the lilting Central African pop of Papy Tex Group's "Kanda Ya Nini" as well as to the unofficial anthem of cosmopolitan modern India, Mukesh's "Mera joota hai japani" (its famous chorus translates as, "My shoes are Japanese, these trousers are English/The red cap on my head is Russian, but still my heart is Indian"), and the latter overflows with riches, from Mychael Danna's main theme "Baraat" (my ringtone for a while) to Sukhwinder Singh's sweeping "Aaj Mera Jee Kardaa (Today My Heart Desires)," from the '90s Bollywood earworm "Chunari Chunari" to the '70s Bollywood classic "Aaj Mausam Bada Beimann Hai."

My appetite whetted, I found myself in the "world music" stacks at Amoeba Records at some point in the early aughts looking for more—this was still a time when, while the Internet could help you gather information about music, it couldn't easily deliver your music unless you were Napster-proficient. So there I was, amid the Shankars and the Bollywood collections, and the urban tiger on the cover of Indestructible Asian Beats called out to me. I think I clocked that the use of "Asian" in this context marked this as a British collection, but I was not prepared for its meaty, beaty delights, which start at the needle drop with the Tala Quintet's infectiously tense "Na-Da"...

...and rollicks through essential hip-hop/bhangra/electronica mashups by Asian Dub Foundation, Juttla, Jolly Mukherjee, and Los Chicharrons before concluding with the coup de grace: a callback to a 1975 classic I have to imagine was included on this otherwise up-to-the-minute collection because its groovy meld of Western funk and Bengali folk was seen as a kind of inspiration for the genre- and culture-hopping DJ-based music elsewhere on the album.*

I'm speaking, of course, of Ananda Shankar's explosive "Streets of Calcutta." I think you need to hear it before we proceed further.
Maybe it's just me, but I find that blend of so-called East and West utterly captivating—the way the inky Moog synth and dirty funk guitars and clattery '60s drums are made to sound somehow Indian, and conversely the sitar and violin and flute and tabla are used like rock instruments. It's more than cross-pollination; to my ears it's a totally convincing musical mind meld. Listen for the break at 2:30, when Shankar's sitar plays a fast lick while the band stops—the man has clearly listened to Hendrix (with whom he jammed for a momentous, and tragically unrecorded, week) and the Who, the Yardbirds. The result has been dismissed by some as a kind of Indian Austin Powers, but I simply can't hear this surging musical fusion as kitsch, or at least not as mere kitsch.

I found plenty of that on his other records, which I then sought out voraciously: his covers of "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Light My Fire," for instance (from his eminently worthwhile debut record), or his whimsical takes on "Teddy Bear" or "Marie (His Latest Flame)" (for a 1978 collection called India Remembers Elvis). And there was arguably an element of shtick or gimmick to his lifelong East/West fusion project, as heartfelt as it seems to have been—for one thing, as a sitar player, he is not close to the same league as his famous uncle or even his talented cousin. Still, virtuosity comes in many dispensations, and as a bandleader, composer, and frontman, Shankar was clearly the real deal. "Streets of Calcutta" joins a clutch of must-have cuts from his catalogue. At the top are a few are groovy blues bangers in the vein of "Streets," like "Back Home"...

...and "Dancing Drums"...
And another two keepers are sweet, meditative jams, one in a distinctly Indian vein, "Vidai (Parting)"...
...and the other, "Mamata (Affection)," more in a Western pop mode...
I ended up miles away, in other words, from the film soundtracks of Mira Nair. But then, Indian music and cinema are so intertwined that they are very often excellent gateways, one to the other: I was later so taken with a song performed in full by an actor in Satyajit Ray's final film, Agantuk (The Stranger), that I recorded it off the rental video and still have the MP3. The singer? Mamata Shankar, Ananda's sister, after whom he presumably named the above song. (Her performance begins at 1:15:37 below.)
*My cursory research bears this out, and the album Shankar later made with State of Bengal, Walking On, is the inevitable meeting of these two eras.

Morning Bright Good Night Shadow Machine

If this blog has one overarching thesis it is that the music tells the story, even when there's not a story per se. Music is the atmosphere, the architecture, the ground. The great acting teacher Sandy Meisner often used the analogy that a play's text, its dialogue, was a boat on the surface of a huge body of water, and that lake or ocean was what the scene or play was really about; what the characters say is just the little they choose to, or are able to, express about what's really going on. "Subtext" is too weak-sounding a word, "context" too vague. Like this ineffable pre-verbal drama, music is always the central content of a song, even one with lyrics.

This is all preamble to my understanding why Big Thief's sadly soaring "Paul" works so unsettlingly well. (I must credit an interview with Eleni Mandell for cluing me in to this stunning track.) Essentially a not-quite-breakup song with a possibly troubled ex, sung by an apparently similarly troubled narrator, it has a yin-yang, back-and-forth, are-we-or-aren't-we suspense to it, and it's not just in the lyrics—it's in the chords. The off-balance feeling starts at the top. We're in the key of B*, but we open with an uncomfortable G-augmented chord:

We don't land on the home key of B until the leaping melody hits an A#, creating a smudgy major-seventh, before that A# snags on a yearning appoggiatura over a G#-minor chord:
From the jump the lyrics are also signaling conflict and contradiction: The line "I was horrible and almost let him in," is like a short fuse with a small explosion at the end. In what world does being "horrible" entail letting someone in? Are we talking about a restraining-order situation here? The next line is even stranger: "But I stopped and caught the wall/And my mouth got dry/So all I did was take him for a spin." There's a suggestion of physical violence and discomfort here, but also some resolution. For letting Paul take her out rather than letting him in leads us to the sunny side of that same melody, in a sunburst of reharmonization that gives us a major-third lift along the lines of "Creep" or "Air That I Breathe," from a B to a D# chord. Listen how that high A# sounds almost triumphant rather than tentative this time:
The surge of feeling there is quickly extinguished, though, as the melody droops back down to the loneliness of a "freight train yard." And that burst of joy is short-lived, as the last line returns to the tense G-aug progression, under lyrics that give us a somewhat hair-raising denouement vaguely reminiscent of the non-consensual climax of Brecht/Weill's "Barbara-Song": "And he turned the headlights off/Then he pulled the bottle out/And then he showed me what is love." Oh dear.

The chorus that follows is an incantatory monotone vow over oscillating IV and I chords, and it is as sadly resigned as a major-chord harmony can be:
I'll be your morning bright good night shadow machine
I'll be your record player baby, if you know what I mean
I'll be a real tough cookie with the whisky breath
I'll be a killer and a thriller and the cause of our death
That's almost charming, but it's also obviously extremely foreboding, along the lines of Cowboy Junkies' ode to an abusive boyfriend "Misguided Angel." Again, that last line has a sharp snap at the end. Lead singer and presumably lyricist Adrianne Lenker clearly has a knack for this kind of stealth attack; there's another vivid one in the next verse: "I realized there was no one who could kiss away my shit."

As the song goes on, it seems more and more clear that as scary as Paul sounds, our narrator feels that she's as much or more the problem—a common pathology, no doubt, though she even describes him, in a final verse that subtly alters the chord progression, as "gentle." Here we have the surge of feeling that comes with the B-to-D# progression, but this time it conveys not the joyful abandon of a car ride, as it did the last time, but a sort of screwing-up her courage to finally let Paul go:
The optimism even seems to hold, which is how I'd explain the change of the third chord from the usual G#-minor to a B major here.

So it's farewell then? Maybe not: The last line, which abruptly ends the song on the last slumping cadence of its final chorus, is, "And I've been burning for you baby since the moment I left." This probably won't be the last time she sees Paul after all.

In this spectacular Tiny Desk concert, they do "Paul" at 4:01, though the chords are a little different (they do the sunnier B-to-D# harmonization sooner and more often), and Buck Meek's guitar solo lacks the hauntingly inchoate wounded-elephant wail of the studio version. This excellent live rendition is closer to the album. In all of them, it's the music that illustrates the querulous equivocation and conditional surrender of the relationship described in the lyrics—a relationship that probably shouldn't be but very much undeniably is, like chords that clash and resolve, then go silent.

*Actually Adrianne Lenker plays the song in G, with the capo on the fourth fret; I'm writing about what we hear.