The Galaxy – What do a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, and a libido have in common?

1991: Spencer Elden at three months old on the...

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There are occasions where, from the moment you first put a new album on and give it the first spin, you know that you have something special that you’re listening to.  This is especially nice when the band in question is one that you’re not all that familiar with.  Maybe you heard something of theirs on the radio, you said “oh! cool” and bought the album, only to find that the album just gets better and better as you hear song after song.

Such is the case with Nirvana’s Nevermind, a brilliantly written and assembled collection of songs.  It was issued 20 years ago this week, so I figured that this would be an appropriate occasion to give the entire album a good listen, from start to finish, especially given that we are about to see a new Legacy Edition come out this coming week along with a video of an excellent performance of theirs from 1991 in Seattle.  I have to admit that, upon hearing the album again, I am reminded of exactly how strong this set of songs is.  From top to bottom, great songs all.  Certainly one of the classic albums of the ’90s.  Certainly worth listening to.  We actually started the set with a b-side from the Smells Like Teen Spirit single, Aneurysm (another great song).

I had a request last week for some Gregorian chants, which I was unable to fulfill at the time because I didn’t have the material with me.  But I promised to do something this week, and the result is a two-part set of music that goes a bit beyond what is actually considered “Gregorian chants”.  The first part is an Alleluia believed to have been written by a gentleman by the name of Magister Leoninus.  Leoninus (also known as Léonin; both names are forms of the French name Léo) is considered the earliest member of the Notre Dame school of polyphony, a group of composers that worked in the Notre Dame cathedral from about 1160 to 1250.  Leoninus, along with another composer, Perotin (who is believed to have revised quite a bit of Leoninus’ music), are the only members of this group whose names are known, and Leoninus may be one of the first composers who can be associated with a specific piece of music.  Leoninus’ major achievement was in the refinement of polyphonic organum (organum being a plainchant melody with an additional voice to supplement the harmony; polyphony being the use of independent melodic voices, as opposed to just one voice – common with Gregorian chants – or a voice supplemented by harmonic chords).  The addition of polyphony to the already existing organum can be considered to be the source of all future development in Western music.  Leoninus and Perotin are notable in that they are the first to write these advancements down in compositional form (although there are music theorists from a somewhat earlier time period who also wrote about these things, notably Johannes Cotto), thus capturing the spirit of intellectual advancement and preserving it for the generations that followed.

Following the work by Leoninus, we heard a mass by Johannes Ockeghem.  Born sometime between 1410 and 1430, he is considered to be possibly one of the more influential composers of the time period between that of Guillaume Dufay and Josquin Des Prez (as an indication of his fame and influence, when Ockeghem died in 1497, there was a great number of eulogies and memorial compositions, including a rather well-known lamentation written by Des Prez).  We heard his Missa L’homme armé, a mass that uses the French secular song l’homme armé as a cantus firmus.  Ockeghem was not alone in using the popular tune – there are more than 40 settings of the song for mass, written by many of the major composers of the day, including Dufay and Des Prez.  Even Palestrina wrote multiple settings of the song, roughly 100 years later.  Ockeghem’s rendition is notable because, as it dates from roughly the 1450s, it is probably one of the earlier settings of the song.

We finished up the night with some live material from John Coltrane, in celebration of his birthday on September 23rd.  His Live at the Village Vanguard box set, recorded over several days in November 1961, is a true milestone jazz recording, capturing Coltrane in truly spectacular form, with Eric Dolphy joining on alto sax, bass clarinet and flute.   This particular appearance was quite controversial back in the day, sparking a great deal of criticism from a number of reviewers, including some Downbeat Magazine writers (one of the more influential of jazz trade publications).  Indeed, we hear Coltrane delving into more atonal, more experimental techniques, and in retrospect we should not be that surprised at all, given that he had recorded with Ornette Coleman sidemen just the previous year, had played with Miles Davis on the So What sessions in the year prior to that, and in ’58 had been gigging with Thelonious Monk.  The reality is that this was simply a natural progression for Coltrane, whose attention to technical detail bordered on the obsessive.  We heard two songs from the first disc of the 4 disc box set, India and Naima.

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