The Galaxy – I’d have a cigar, but I don’t smoke

Cover of "Miscellaneous Debris"

Cover of Primus’ Miscellaneous Debris

We began the show with some Primus.  I find it interesting when a band chooses to do an album of covers.  They display their influences, while at the same time giving us what can be interesting interpretations of the material in question.  Such is the case with this Primus covers album, Miscellaneous Debris, from 1992.  While we usually hear their great bassist Les Claypool playing with a four string bass, here we hear Claypool playing on a six-string fretless bass, with allows for a excellent, full, and chunky bass sound.  We heard their cover of Pink Floyd’s Have a Cigar, XTC’s Making Plans for Nigel, and Peter Gabriel‘s Intruder.

English: Arnold Schoenberg seated, painted in ...

English: Arnold Schoenberg seated, painted in 1906 by Richard Gerstl (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Arnold Schoenberg wrote Verklärte Nacht (trans: Transfigured Night), Op. 4, in 1899, at the age of 25.  He was inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel, which tells the story of a distraught young woman who confesses to her lover that she carries another man’s child.  The man’s response is that the child will be transformed by their love into his.  The emotions are expressed in the form of a tone poem, written for a string sextet.  His abandonment of classical tonality was still a thing of the future when this was written, but this is far from a standard Romantic-era piece – even if his 12-tone method did not yet exist, he was even then quite the harmonic adventurer, at one point calling for an inverted ninth chord (which caused the piece to be rejected by the Vienna Music Society).  The piece, with its frank treatment of sexual themes, was controversial when it was published in 1902Schoenberg wrote an arrangement for string orchestra, which is performed and recorded frequently.  Tonight’s recording is of the original version for string sextet, a 2000 recording by the Concertante Players.

English: James Brown, February 1973, Musikhall...

James Brown, February 1973, Musikhalle, Hamburg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We next heard some classic James Brown, music that helped define what we would come to call “funk”, music that would set the stage for 30 years of funk, soul, r&b and rap, and which brought a social consciousness into play.  Much of this influence was due to Brown’s business and musical acumen.  His attention to detail in the musical arrangements were a major part of his success.  We have this testimonial from long-time Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker:

You gotta be on time. You gotta have your uniform. Your stuff’s got to be intact. You gotta have the bow tie. You got to have it. You can’t come up without the bow tie. You cannot come up without a cummerbund … [The] patent leather shoes we were wearing at the time gotta be greased. You just gotta have this stuff. This is what [Brown expected] … [Brown] bought the costumes. He bought the shoes. And if for some reason [the band member decided] to leave the group, [Brown told the person to] please leave my uniforms ….

We heard Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, from 1965, Cold Sweat (Parts 1 and 2), and I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door I’ll Get It Myself).

Cover of "Telephone Free Landslide Victor...

Cover of Telephone Free Landslide Victory

One of the more musically interesting bands of the mid to late 1980s was Camper Van Beethoven.  The band was one of the key parts of the indie rock movement, and their songs blended aspects of country, ska and punk, often injecting humor into the lyrics.  While they broke up in 1990, they reformed in the early 2000’s, and have since then put out two albums (which I have regrettably been unable to acquire).  Inconvenient, but not a bother, as there are plenty of classics for us to enjoy.  We heard Where the Hell is Bill and Mao Reminisces About His Days in Southern China, both from their 1985 album, Telephone Free Landslide Victory.  We then heard Sad Lovers Waltz and I Love Her All The Time, from their second album, II & III.  We also heard a selection, One Of These Days, from their 1988 album, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, before finishing with Take The Skinheads Bowling, also from Telephone Free Landslide Victory.

We finished the show with some classic Metallica: Creeping Death, from Ride The Lightning; The Thing That Should Not Be, from Master of Puppets; and Harvester of Sorrow and …And Justice for All, both from 1988’s …And Justice for All


WDBX Opera Overnight – Debussy, Puccini, Schoenberg

English: Photograph of Act 5 of the original 1...

Photograph of Act 5 of the original 1902 production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, published in Le Théâte, June 1902 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We start tonight’s show with Claude Debussy‘s Pelléas et Mélisande. Debussy began Pelléas et Mélisande in 1893, although he had wanted to write an opera for at least a decade prior.  He wanted to do something completed different from what was then available – he had his own vision of “musical theater”.  He was also tiring of the Wagnerian influence, and wanted to go in a different direction than that.  With this opera, he succeeded.

Tonight’s recording is a 2000 recording that features Anne Sophie von Otter, Wolfgang Holzmair, Laurent Laouri, with Orchestre National De France and the Choeur de Radio De France, under the baton of Bernard Haitink.

For more info on the opera, check out my previous blog on the piece.  (This way, I don’t have to be repetitive, since I wrote quite a bit that day).

Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon in La Boheme

Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón in La Boheme, in a production filmed for PBS’ Great Performances in 2008-2009

For our next opera, we are going to hear a fairly recent recording of a great work by Giacomo Puccini, La Bohème.  Puccini used a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa which was in turn based on a set of stories by Henri Murger.  It was premiered in 1896, and is ranked as the fourth most frequently performed opera in the repertoire, with numerous great recordings available.  Tonight’s recording is from 2008, and features the great combo of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón, with Bertrand De Billy conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra & Chorus.

Arnold Schoenberg

Arnold Schoenberg

Our final piece of music is a four scene “drama with music” by Arnold SchoenbergDie glückliche Hand (The Hand of Fate) was written by Schoenberg between 1910 and 1913, and was premiered in Vienna on October 24, 1924.  Schoenberg was influenced in his writing by events that had occurred over the previous few years, and the underlying theme of the work is that man continues to repeatedly make the same mistakes.

The work is scored for one singing role, a baritone, along with two mimed characters and a six person chorus.  Tonight’s recording is from 1981, and features Siegmund Nimsgern, with Pierre Boulez directing the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

WDBX Opera Overnight – Mozart, Verdi, Schoenberg



English: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (center) atte...

English: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (center) attending a performance of his own opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail in Berlin in 1789. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


We start the evening with a pirated work.  Not the sort of pirated music that would get us in trouble, but rather an opera that was famously successful in spite of its pirated libretto.  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), while not his first success, was the opera that established his reputation as a composer.  It is also interesting in that it was an early example of an opera sung in German, as part of a project sponsored by the Austrian emperor Joseph II to have works performed in the German language.  The libretto was originally written by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner, with numerous alterations by Gottlieb Stephanie, the director of the company which would be producing the opera, who had been tasked with finding Mozart a suitable libretto.  Of course, Stephanie made all of these alterations without Bretzner’s permission, and Bretzner was very public in airing his grievances.  The opera was hugely successful, although Mozart was paid a flat fee up front, and received no profits from subsequent performances.


English: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera Die E...

English: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the seraglio), Vienna theatre announcement of premiere on 16 July 1782 at the Burgtheater. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


It is interesting to note the manner in which Mozart augmented the orchestra, with bass drum, cymbals, a triangle, and a piccolo.  These instruments play a notable part in the piece, starting with the opening overture.  This is only natural, as the opera takes place in what we now know as Turkey, and “orientalism” was quite in vogue at the time.  Hints of this can be found in representations of Masonic rituals, and a few months ago we heard another opera that was influenced by “orientalism”, Jean-Phillipe Rameau’s Zoroastre.

Outside of the instrumentation, the opera is quite challenging for the singers, as Mozart wrote the opera with some excellent talent in mind to sing the parts.  The roles of Osmin (a bass part, which in one instance is required to sing low D, one of the lowest notes ever required of a singer in opera)  and Konstance in particular are considered among the most challenging roles in Mozart’s catalog. Indeed, the role of Osmin was originated by Ludwig Fischer, one of the more notable basses of his day.

Tonight’s recording is from 1985, and features Matti Salminen, Peter Schreier, Yvonne Kenny, Wilfried Gamlich, Lillian Watson, and Wolfgang Reichmann.  Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conducts the Mozartorchester und Choir of the  Zurich Opera Houses.


Verdi Giuseppe

Verdi Giuseppe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Our second opera was extremely controversial in its day.  Giuseppe Verdi was commissioned in 1850 by the La Fenice opera house in Venice to write an opera, and he eventually chose to base his work on a play by Victor Hugo, Le roi s’amuseHugo’s play had been banned in France, and the local authorities (Venice was under Austrian control at the time) did not take too kindly to the play’s depiction of a immoral and cynical king.  After extensive negotiation between Verdi, Francesco Maria Piave (Verdi’s librettist) and the censors, they eventually agreed to move the action to the Dukedom of Mantua and to make the immoral king into a duke, so as not to risk offending anyone.  With these and other changes, the work became known as Rigoletto.  It was premiered on March 11, 1851, and was a major success.   It currently ranks as the 10th most performed opera in the repertoire.


Tonight’s performance is from 1971, and features Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes, Joan Sutherland, Martti Talvela, and Kiri te Kanawa.  Richard Bonynge directs the London Symphony Orchestra.


Photo of Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, bel...

Photo of Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, believed to be taken in 1948. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


We complete the evening with a 1923 work by Arnold Schoenberg.  Schoenberg’s Serenade, Opus 24, is a twelve-tone piece written for seven instrumentalists and bass vocal.  Schoenberg wrote the piece in seven sections, each of which explores a traditional musical form (march, minuet, a variation, a sonnet, a dance, and a lied) while using the experimental twelve-tone compositional technique.  Tonight’s recording is a 1979 recording that features bass John Shirley-Quirk, with Pierre Boulez leading the Ensemble Intercontemporain.


WDBX Opera Overnight: Strauss, Verdi, Schoenberg

Ariadne vor Beginn der Oper (Boston Public Lib...

A drawing of Ariadne’s costume from the original 1912 production of Ariadne auf Naxos (Boston Public Library) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our first opera of the evening is a singular composition by Richard StraussAriadne auf Naxos uses the ancient literary device of a story within a story, a concept used in Homer’s Odyssey, One Thousand and One Nights, numerous epics of ancient Indian literature, and multiple works by Shakespeare, among others.  It was first presented as a thirty minute divertissement tacked on to the end of a play by Strauss’ regular librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1912.  But the overall production took over 6 hours, and audiences were unsatisfied.  So Hofmansthall suggested that they replace the play with a prologue.  This revision, which only retains one aria from the incidental music that Strauss wrote for the play, was premiered in 1916 in Vienna.  This is the version that is normally performed today, although the original play-plus-opera has been performed as recently as 1997.  In fact, I’ve discovered, as I was writing tonight’s blog, that there is currently a revival of the 1912 version being done at the Salzberg Festival (sung in German with English subtitles being provided, just in case you want to go).  Everything I can find suggests that the production should run through early September.  A great deal for folks who can afford to jet off to Austria for a show.

The music, however, completely transcends the story of its origins.  Foward-looking and mildly abstract in its vocal lines, Ariadne auf Naxos contains some of Strauss’ most exquisite musical writing, both in terms of his vocal arrangements and in terms of his framing and orchestration.  The opera has long attracted numerous great sopranos, as there are several notable soprano roles (Strauss had a thing for emphasizing strong female roles, and did so in all of his operas).

Tonight’s performance is from 1988, and features Jessye Norman, Edita Gruberová, Julia Varady, Paul Frey, Olaf Bär, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Eva Lind, and Rudolf Asmus.  Kurt Masur directs the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (one of the oldest orchestral organizations in existence today).

Giacomo Brogi (1822-1881), Portrait of Giusepp...

Giacomo Brogi (1822-1881), Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi (cropped) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our second opera of the evening is a late work of Giuseppe Verdi’s.  Verdi had essentially retired after the premiere of Aida in 1871, but his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, wanted to convince Verdi to write another opera.  Verdi had always wanted to do an adaptation of a Shakespearian play, especially after his rendition of Macbeth was not well received.  So Verdi was presented with a libretto for Othello by librettist Arrigo Boito, and Verdi’s opera Otello was eventually premiered on February 3rd, 1887, to great success.

Tonight’s performance is from 1960, and features Jon Vickers, Leonie Rysanek, and Tito GobbiTullio Serafin conducted the Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

Photo of Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, bel...

Photo of Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, believed to be taken in 1948. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our final piece of music is a four scene “drama with music” by Arnold SchoenbergDie glückliche Hand (The Hand of Fate) was written by Schoenberg between 1910 and 1913, and was premiered in Vienna on October 24, 1924.  Schoenberg was influenced in his writing by events that had occurred over the previous few years, and the underlying theme of the work is that man continues to repeatedly make the same mistakes.

The work is scored for one singing role, a baritone, along with two mimed characters and a six person chorus.  Tonight’s recording is from 1981, and features Siegmund Nimsgern, with Pierre Boulez directing the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

The Galaxy – You’re the Kind of Girl That Fits In With My World

Cover of "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn&...

Cover of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

I take a great deal of pleasure in placing focus on those artists who push the musical envelope, those whose willingness to take risks and experiment with their sound resulted in a positive change in our musical environment.  Sometimes such efforts resulted in great fame and profit, but this is not always the case with great art – in fact, I’d say that such is seldom the case.

But it certainly was the case with Pink Floyd.  We started off with a few songs from their early days, when Syd Barrett was singing, playing guitar and doing much of the writing.  An interesting album cut, Bike, from Piper at the Gates of Dawn began the set, then we heard two non-album singles from that same era, Arnold Layne and Apples and Oranges.  After this, we proceeded to the full Dark Side of the Moon album, uninterrupted and uncut.

Sometimes progress comes from the sort of constant experimentation that Pink Floyd built their entire catalog upon.  Other times it comes courtesy of a happy accident.  Such was the story behind Marty RobbinsDon’t Worry, from 1960.  A studio pre-amp malfunctioned during the recording of Grady Martin‘s guitar solo, but Robbins and producer Don Law liked what they heard and left it intact.  The result is an early example of “fuzztone”, harnessed distortion, although various guitarists had been experimenting with ways to harness distortion.  But this incident caught the attention of other performers – the Ventures, in particular, worked to recreate the very sound that Martin achieved here, and these efforts directly led to the invention of commercially-available fuzz-boxes (where would Jimi Hendrix be without that?).  Also from Marty Robbins, we heard Smoking Cigarettes and Drinking Coffee Blues, Singing The Blues, and A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation).

We then took a trip out to the Harlem Square Club for a January 1963 date featuring Sam Cooke.  We don’t hear the silky Sam Cooke here – he is passionate and sweaty, maybe just a bit hoarse, traveling with his normal guitarist and drummer, and playing with a band led by r&b saxophonist King Curtis.  He is obviously feeling right at home, inciting the crowd before ripping into Feel It (Don’t Fight It), Chain Gang and Cupid.

Next, we heard a set of three piano pieces from Arnold Schoenberg, his Drei Klavierstücke, Op. 11.  Written in 1909, it is generally recognized as the first attempt at a completely atonal composition, either by Schoenberg or anyone else, and is considered to be a major milestone in Schoenberg’s writing career.  It really was a logical extension of a trend of composers stretching the rules of tonality to the bursting point, given the work of contemporaries such as Richard Wagner (consider Die Walkyrie), Richard Strauss (Ariadne auf Naxos), Gustav Mahler, or even Schoenberg’s own previous works (i.e. Verklärte Nacht).  But even though we can say that Schoenberg was only doing the inevitable, music such as this really sets the stage for the interesting points of musical experimentation that was to come much later in the 20th century, be it jazz (Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, etc) or rock (Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, etc.).

We finished the show with a song that, in my opinion, owes a debt to the advancements of Schoenberg et al – Directions, from Miles Davis Live at the Fillmore East, from March 1970.

November 22, 2010 – Walking through a bare, cold wood….

Photo of Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, bel...

Arnold Schoenberg (Image via Wikipedia)

Beauty in music comes in many colors, just as beauty does in nature.  Sometimes we can find beauty in that which is fast-paced and loud.  Other times we find it in the delicate strains of a violin.  It is easy and common enough to find beauty in the work of American or English musicians, but sometimes an excursion to a far-away land can have worthwhile results.  While everyone loves a love song, upon occasion we can find beauty in a song memorializing a Massey Ferguson tractor.  Sometimes there is just as much beauty to be found in the journey as there is in the eventual destination.  So it pays us to keep our eyes open to the various sights and experiences as they present themselves.

We begun tonight’s show with a sampling of both studio and live recordings from the great Led Zeppelin.    It had been a while since I’ve been able to touch on some Zeppelin, so it was quite a joy to hear some this evening, with a blend of material from the mid-point of the band’s tenure, and from two of their later albums (Physical Graffiti and Presence).  Of course, there is some controversy involved with their live material, as there are accusations that Jimmy Page stitched together recordings of various individual songs from various concert sources.  With that said, the recordings as they now stand represent one of the better live bands in rock history, a rare band that could make a song live and breathe onstage.  It is unfortunate that the band has not released any of their post-1973 concerts outside of the 2003 DVD release, from which the following live clip of Achilles Last Stand comes.

The piece that I consider to be the centerpiece of tonight’s show is one that I had intended to play a few weeks ago, upon the occasion of Arnold Schoenberg‘s birthday.  Verklärte Nacht is an early work of his, written when he was 25, and was inspired by Richard Dehmel‘s poem of the same name, as well by the feelings felt by Schoenberg when he first met Mathilde von Zeminsky, his teacher’s sister, whom would eventually become his wife.  Dehmel’s poem tells an exquisite story of two people, a man and a woman involved in a relationship, walking through a cold, bare wood.  The woman tells the man that she is pregnant with a child that is not his, and expresses the remorse that the child was conceived before they had begun their relationship.  The man responds thusly:

“Do not let the child you have conceived
be a burden on your soul.
Look, how brightly the universe shines!
Splendour falls on everything around,
you are voyaging with me on a cold sea,
but there is the glow of an inner warmth
from you in me, from me in you.

That warmth will transfigure the stranger’s child,
and you bear it me, begot by me.
You have transfused me with splendour,
you have made a child of me.”
He puts an arm about her strong hips.
Their breath embraces in the air.
Two people walk on through the high, bright night.”

In this manner, the poem speaks of love that reaches beyond circumstance and transfigures two souls in its warmth.  I could not think of a more beautiful concept.  (Note: the link found in the playlist below takes you to the Wikipedia page, where the full poem, both in the original German and translated into English, is shown.)

Miles Davis had a most interesting musical career, taking major roles in the development of multiple sub-genres within the jazz music idiom.  His drive to try new things led him to be among the first artists to incorporate electronic instruments into jazz music, and almost single-handedly established the format that would eventually be called “jazz fusion” into a formidable force.  Yet his initial vision of this fusion of jazz and rock was quite a bit different than what fusion would become.  His fusion, at least initially, was far more avant garde, with dense layers of often chaotic sound.  He took his recordings, cut them up and restitched them together in the studio in a manner that was often vastly different from how they were originally recorded.  He had envisioned working with Jimi Hendrix, and might have done so if not for the guitarist’s untimely death, and he did at least a portion of his tour supporting the Bitches Brew album as an opening act for Neil Young and Steve Miller (concerts which are happily documented in recent live releases, some of which we play on the show from time to time).  While we might weep at the loss of what such a collaboration might have produced, we are still blessed with this revolutionary music.

We closed tonight’s show with a lovely set of songs from Takk, the 2005 release from the fine Icelandic band Sigur Rós.  Sigur Rós has, over the years, sung many of their songs in “Hopelandic”, which is essentially their form of scat singing (at least, that is how I define it; the titles, however, are in Icelandic).  They have a unique, otherworldly sound which can alternate between delicate, ethereal and wispy, and grand, glacial slabs that sound as big as the glaciers that dominate their homeland.  Several of these songs were also featured in Hvarf/Heim, their 2 cd EP from a few years ago, including Heysátan, an ode to a Massey Ferguson tractor.  Much of their at-times massive sound is achieved by lead singer’s Jonsi’s use of violin bow on the guitar, a technique notably used by Jimmy Page, but with vastly different results.  In the end, they have created some of the most beautiful music that I’ve ever heard.

Sigur Rós is one of those bands for whom a simple aural presentation doesn’t really do them justice.  Their live performance is something to behold.  Below you find clips of several of their songs that we have featured this evening.  Gong and Andvari are from the same Reykjavik show, while Svo Hljótt and Heysátan are from a wonderful sounding clip recorded in Italy.  Sadly enough, I was forced to miss a recent performance of singer/guitarist Jonsi in St. Louis, of which I have had excellent reports.

Composer Performer Title Genre Label
Led Zeppelin
Rock, Classic, Blues-rock
Swan Song/Atlantic, 1975
Achilles Last Stand
Swan Song/Atlantic, 1976
Black Dog
Atlantic, 2003
Since I’ve Been Loving You
Arnold Schoenberg
Concertante Chamber Players
Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night)
Classical, post-Romantic Era
Helicon, 2000
Spanish Key
Jazz, fusion, avant garde
Columbia, 1970
Sigur Rós
Rock, Indie, Ambient, Experimental, Icelandic
Geffen, 2005
Svo Hljótt