I was reminded the other day about the music of Nirvana (in a conversation that had nothing to do with Nirvana, but instead was about Sub Pop, the record company that Nirvana was affiliated with before they signed with Geffen). I had some early pre-Nevermind material once, on a Sub-Pop compilation, something that has regrettably been lost over time, and the song was absolutely tremendous, and is now available on the Incesticide disc of b-sides. Of course, great songs don’t always become popular, so how do we explain the whole Nevermind thing? I think it was a combination of great songs, refined by a great producer, that hit at just the right time, when folks were starting to tire of “hair metal” a bit, and the whole “hair metal” sub-genre (in reality, pop metal) was starting to lose some creativity. So they hit it at the right time with the right songs and the right non-conformist attitude. The result was some absolute classics, a few of which we heard: In Bloom, Aneurysm (a b-side that was actually released on the Smells Like Teen Spirit single, and should now also be available on Incesticide, and I’m sure on other compilations as well, as it was a concert staple of theirs), Breed, Territorial Pissings, and Drain You.
Charles Ives has one of the most interesting biographies of any composer that I’ve ever seen. He was a bit of a prodigy, writing church hymns as early as fourteen, largely influenced by his father George Ives, a US Army bandleader during the Civil War. He studied at Yale, where he was quite prominent, playing on the varsity football team and holding membership in a fraternity and several other organizations, while writing a number of songs; his Symphony No. 1 was his senior thesis. He entered the insurance industry in 1899, and eventually revolutionized what would become the modern practice of estate planning, all the while writing music as a hobby on the side (many of his friends in the insurance industry were surprised when they learned that he composed music). He was a prolific composer until he suffered what he termed as a heart attack in 1918. After this point, he found himself having difficulty writing, saying that “nothing sounds right”, although he did continue to revise earlier works (he wrote nothing original after 1927). His music was most interesting and uniquely American, often quoting well-known church hymns or popular songs. In one instance, he quoted another great American composer, John Phillips Sousa‘s The Washington Post.
While he is probably best known now for his orchestral works, he also wrote more than 100 songs, and also wrote quite a bit of chamber music. Tonight we heard a brief sampling of his orchestral work, performed by the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, that gives an excellent representation of some of his greatest influences. The Unanswered Question, written in 1906 as part of a set with another work, Central Park In The Dark (the set was called “Two Contemplations”), originally called for a woodwind quartet, solo trumpet, and an off-stage string quartet. The three groupings each plays in its own key and with its own tempo, with the trumpet asking “questions” and the woodwinds (mainly flutes) becoming more and more agitated in their “answers”. This is one of the works that Ives revised during his late-life writer’s block, making a revision for orchestra in 1930-1935. The work was premiered at Julliard in 1946.
We then heard another Ives composition, Three Places in New England. Ives wrote the piece primarily between 1911 and 1913, with some revisions made in 1929. The piece comes in three movements (The “St. Gaudens” in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment), Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Conneticut, and The Houstatonic at Stockbridge), and contains many of the more common elements of Ives’ writings: layered textures, use of simultaneous, contrasting melodies, quotation of recognizable American songs, tone clusters. Ives’s use of American hymns was intended to give the listener something to identify to, thus making the music accessible in spite of its avant garde aspects. The piece was first performed in 1930 by the Boston Chamber Orchestra under Nicolas Slonimsky, who then performed the piece in Paris, thus making Ives one of the first American composers to have a piece performed outside the US. It was also one of the first of Ives’ compositions to be published, in 1935.
Rashaan Roland Kirk was another musician with a penchant for individuality. The blind saxophonist built his own saxophones, and customized them so that they could be played with one hand. He would then hang multiple horns on his neck, along with other instruments (flutes, whistles, etc.), and would then play dual horns simultaneously, oftentimes in harmony with each other. He was also a noted practitioner of the art of circular breathing, where a saxophonist uses the special breathing technique to allow for extended notes without a breath (sometimes many minutes in length). While he made a number of standard recordings (which is how I became introduced to his legacy), his live recordings do much to introduce us to his wild performance style. From the recent live archival release Brotherman to the Fatherland (a live recording made in Germany in 1972), we heard Seasons/Serenade to a Cuckoo (Seasons was his take on a melody from Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons; we heard him here playing flute, using a technique of singing and humming into the flute while playing, which was later adopted by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, who covered Serenade to a Cuckoo in 1969), Pedal Up, Lush Life and Afro Blue.
The Bad Brains are considered one of the most influential bands of the post-punk, early hardcore era of the ’80s (credited as an influence by bands including the Deftones, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, the Beastie Boys, and more), but they really transcend the hardcore genre in that they were not bound by the limitations that constricted most hardcore bands. For starters, their roots were not in hardcore – they started as a jazz band, and their interest in reggae was obvious, in terms of their song structures, their lyrical subject matter and their inclusion of reggae songs at crucial points in their live sets and on their albums. While the sound quality from some of their recorded output suffered, as was common for recordings produced for indie labels during the time period, their live concerts were incendiary, and in several instances were captured in excellent recordings. One such recording is their The Youth Are Getting Restless: Live At the Paradiso, Amsterdam, 1987. I personally think it may be one of the best hardcore recordings from the ’80s, bar none. From that classic album, we heard I, Rock for Light, Right Brigade, House of Suffering, and Day Tripper/She’s A Rainbow (a reggae medley cover of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones).
We finished tonight’s show with some excellent Mastodon: March of the Fire Ants, Mother Puncher, and Iron Tusk