Category Archives: Music

🎻♫♪ – Salome by Richard Strauss

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 49/501Title: Salome
Composer: Richard Strauss
Nationality: German
Year:
1905

I posted a near identical picture to today way back in December for my post about the ballet Sleeping Beauty. That was an evening that was enjoyed so much, to the point of immediately looking on the website of the English National Opera to see if there was another production that caught our eye – which is how we ended up with tickets to see their version of Salome. 

This is being posted nearly half a year since that production ended, so review of this particular version are easily Googleable. I think that a lot of what I saw can be easily summarised by Tatianna from RuPaul’s Drag Race“choices”.

What unfolded over an hour and fifty minutes was a baffling series of choices in an effort to modernise this opera. The fact that Salome is a story of necrophilia and incest means that there is no real need to bring the subject matter up to date in order to facilitate a reaction. Still, this did make for a different form of entertainment than I expected (such as marvelling at the gigantic purple headless horse having it’s knitted entrails pulled out) there were some things that I felt cheated out of – such as a good interpretation of the infamous ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ (because twerking has no place in opera!).

Anyway, let’s divorce this interpretation from the music. The orchestra were fantastic and most of the vocal performances were excellent – which means I can actually talk about this on a purely musical level as I have done with the likes of Porgy & Bess and The Nutcracker.

The orchestra required to pull off Salome is huge and has provided me with an opportunity to see the triangle in action. There are a large number of recurring motifs throughout the opera, but for the most part the music really helps to heighten the feelings of discomfort at what you are seeing unfold.

A lot of the music that what we hear is dissonant and, at times, unnerving. Even the Arabesque ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ is ominous and brought to mind The Rite of Spring (despite the twerking). It’s a brilliant score and, on the night, was well executed.

The story of Salome itself is utterly bizarre and I wish that the staging had allowed me to appreciate it all the more. I mean is it too much to ask for a model head to be used for the severed head of the prophet Jochanaan instead of a plastic bag filled with (what I assume is) pink slime.

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Acclaimed Albums – Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 172/250Title: Nebraska
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Year: 1982
Position: #131

Between the increasingly packed trains cutting down on my reading time and a new subscription to Stitcher Premium (where I have been devouring the archive episodes of Dr Gameshow) there has been little time left for list albums. Doesn’t help that I am very particular about the types of albums that I like to listen to when I work, which is a long way of saying that my album listening has really begun to slow down.

The main thing on the work menu today was writing documentation, which means podcasts are completely out the window and I could pick something bloggy to listen to. Rather than continue my run of listening to the oldest thing left, I thought it would be good to listen to something relatively more recent – and so I’ve ended up with Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen.

This is the third of four Springsteen albums for the Top 250 and I’ll wager it is the most depressing (and possibly most evocative) of the albums. This doesn’t have a big single like ‘Born To Run’ or ‘Dancing In The Dark’, but that’s kinda the point of Nebraska.

This album is predicated on telling the stories of ordinary people who live humdrum lives or are in less than ideal circumstances. Focuses of the songs include a man about to face the electric chair (‘Nebraska’, a man facing 99 years in prison (‘Johnny 99’) and someone driving through the night to see his sweetheart (‘Open All Night’).

The whole album is mostly a sombre affair, even the jaunty tiffs on ‘Johnny 99’ hide something fairly macabre. Considering the music that Springsteen is famous for producing, Nebraska is a pretty severe left turn. It’s also an incredibly admirable one.

I don’t know if it’s my own maturation since starting this blog, my growing familiarity with Springsteen’s music or this album in particular – but I think Nebraska would be my favourite Bruce Springsteen album so far. The change in direction and mood work so well as does the sparseness of the arrangements (which is typically just a vocal track, a guitar and maybe a harmonica). Whilst I do love some lush production values, this album really is an example of how to do more with less.

His final album on the list (Born in the USA) will be back to Springsteen giving me the music that his is most famous for. It’s also the album that I am going into with the most prior knowledge… so it’ll be interesting to see how it stacks up against Nebraska.

🎻♫♪ – Symphonies nos. 6-8 by Joseph Haydn

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 48/501Title: Symphonies nos. 6-8
Composer: Joseph Haydn
Nationality: Austrian
Year:
1761

On the commute to work today I finally got around to listening to an episode of the Classic FM podcast Case Notes. It’s a limited run series where the worlds of classical music and true crime combine – with the first episode being about the missing head of Joseph Haydn. During the episode they played excerpts from a number of his pieces and, therefore, it only made sense to listen to something of his in full for my next classical piece.

Symphonies nos. 6-8 are the first piece on the list when going chronologically and were all composed in 1761. They were given the nicknames of Le matin, le midi and le soir because of the beginning of Symphony No. 6 having a slow sunrise feel… and since these three pieces belong together the remaining nicknames followed suit.

The interesting thing about these three pieces is the number of solos for a variety of instruments that pepper the piece, apparently a way for him to showcase the talents of the original members of the orchestra and curry favour with them.

It’s interesting historically but, at least for me, these weren’t the most engaging pieces that I have listened to for the list. I think more for me will come in later pieces, such as the Surprise symphony but that’ll just have to be something for a later date.

Acclaimed Albums – Cosmo’s Factory by Creedence Clearwater Revival

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 171/250Title: Cosmo’s Factory
Artist: Creedence Clearwater Revival
Year: 1970
Position: #191

With this album not only have I crossed off the last one from 1970, but also listened to the band that Lily Allen makes reference to as being God’s favourite. I guess I’m going to have to disagree on that one as, to be honest, there was nothing in this album that made a lasting impression on me.

It’s incredibly impressive that CCR were able to release five albums in the space of two years and have their fifth be the most critically beloved. It’s equally impressive that on this album they serve a taste of a number of genres. Just to give the first three that come to the top of my head:

  1. There’s an obvious soul inspiration with their cover of Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ which really should not have been over 11 minutes long.
  2. There’s country rock in tracks like ‘Lookin’ Out My Back Door’
  3. Closing track ‘Long As I See The Light’ really makes me think of the psychedelic rock of Procal Harum.

So what this album actually feels like is an interesting catalogue of the different musical styles that had hit the white mainstream at the end of the 1960s and would still be felt into the early 1970s. However, I heard better versions of all these things as I have been traversing the albums and songs lists.

There is no question that, in making Cosmo’s Factory, Creedence Clearwater Revival really showed their competency in a bunch of genres. However, at least for me, that’s pretty much where it ends. It’s an interesting and varied album, but there isn’t enough to keep me interested enough to go in for multiple listens.

🎻♫♪ – Venus and Adonis by John Blow

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 47/501Title: Venus and Adonis
Composer: John Blow
Nationality: English
Year:
1683

Kinda wish I had the wherewithal to craft a really cool and believable April Fool’s post and then cross that off my bucket list, but I don’t think that a damp evening in September is the optimum time to write that. Instead today’s post will be about, what is touted as, the first English opera. I use the word ‘touted’ because I agree with the other side of the debate that this is close to being an opera, but not quite.

The term that best fits this piece is a ‘masque’, although there are certainly some operatic leanings in the vocals. However the lead in this piece is the music and the singing is a good supplement to a rather beautiful backdrop of music that brings to mind European royal courts in the times of the Tudor monarchs.

Whilst I have listened to operas in English (more recently, Porgy and Bess) but it was novel to hear this sort of musical backing having discernible English language lyrics. I am so used to music from this period, if it has any lyrical content, to be in Latin or Italian – which made this an excellent change of pace. It was thanks to this accessibility that I was able to follow the story (even though I knew it from Greek mythology) and enjoy it more fully.

Whether or not this counts as the first English opera, Venus and Adonis is an interesting piece that has a place in classical music history. So popular was it that Shakespeare wrote a substantial poem on the mythological story.

Acclaimed Albums – Abraxas by Santana

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 170/250Title: Abraxas
Artist: Santana
Year: 1970
Position: #209

I really was making some decent progress on this list… and then went on a long podcast catch up binge. On the plus side, I’m nearly completely caught up with You Must Remember This and have made real headway with Doughboys and Radiolab. On the minus side, it’s taken me three weeks to get around to another album.

The first time I’d heard of Abraxas by Santana was during a scene in A Serious Man (one of my favourite films) where the lead character has an angry with the Columbia Record Club because of his son’s subscription. That was nearly 10 years ago and I have finally listened to this album for the first time and then a second time… with a chance that I’ll probably be playing again on the train tomorrow morning as I continue reading Dune.

While I do like Santana’s record-breaking song ‘Smooth’, I think I like the style of music on Abraxas a lot more. This really is unlike anything else on the album list in that it is almost completely instrumental as well as being a cool mix of Latin and psychedelic rock. As a whole it is an interesting experiment in fusing genres and trying out a lot of different styles, but at no point does it lack cohesion.

The guitar work of Carlos Santana is, as always, exceptional and ‘Black Magic Woman’ really is the standout of the bunch. It’s also nice to have an album that I can appreciate for being complex and yet it doesn’t warrant a whole heap of attention to access it. For a bunch of albums on this list it feels like they really need to be listened to in isolation to get what they were going for, but there is so much going on in Abraxas that I can enjoy the many variations as I read science fiction novels. Weird yardstick, yes, but there are multiple ways to get into an album and this is what worked for this particular one.

Acclaimed Albums – Kick Out The Jams by MC5

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 169/250Title: Kick Out The Jams
Artist: MC5
Year: 1969
Position: #215

This is it! The final album from the 1960s that is in the Top 250 albums list. It’s taken me years (and a lot of false starts) to get to this point, but this feels like a real landmark to reach on a list that so heavily features the Beatles, Stones and psychedelic rock albums. I was meant to have listened to this a few days ago, but I became addicted to a track from Mitski’s Be The Cowboy album (and recently discovered the Doughboys podcast)… but that’s how life goes.

Kick Out The Jams is one of those rarities on this list: a live album. Being a live album of some note there is already that sense that this recording is the capturing of lightning in a bottle. This album in particular is a unique document as it really shows a genre of music in development: punk.

In a lot of my music posts I have been charting the path that rock music has taken towards punk, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols – with Kick Out The Jams it feels like I have listened to another really important part of the journey. Since this is live you really get the idea of the sonic anger that punk music would later distil into the genre, but on the whole this is a hard rock album with proto-punk elements.

It’s interesting to listen to as part of my musical education but, on the whole, isn’t one I’ll picking up again for a while. This isn’t my sort of music, but I can at least appreciate how this fits into music history as a whole.

I still have some ways to go before I have completely caught-up to the where I’m currently at with the 1001 songs list, but progress is happening and that’s incredibly gratifying. I guess it’s time to see what things are like with albums from the early seventies.

🎻♫♪ – Octet by Felix Mendelssohn

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 46/501Title: Octet
Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
Nationality: German
Year:
1825

What were you doing at the age of 16? Me, I was keeping a diary and trying my hand at being an internet DJ (and that’s all I’ll be saying on that). Mendelssohn, well he composed this piece of classical music for his friend that is beautiful and complex. Some people truly have talent (and the drive towards perfection).

There are two reasons why I opted for Mendelssohn’s Octet as the next classical piece I was going to listen to. Firstly, it is the earliest piece of music by Mendelssohn on this list (now I understand why) and he is a composer that I feel I should have covered by now. Secondly, a string octet isn’t a piece that you see every day and it really made me wonder what that could sound like.

Octet is an interesting piece as it is written for two string quartets to play together. This was a time where string quartets were incredibly fashionable, so there was a real demand for music for them to play – so what Mendelssohn did by making this piece was undeniably clever as a way to not just keep up with the current trend but find a way to play with it. Again, this is someone who wrote this at 16.

When listening to the first of the four movements it was difficult to not see some kinship with the first movement of Beethoven’s Kreutzer. There was something in the forceful and exuberant nature of the violins that really made me think of it. Apparently Faust by Goethe was a big influence on this, but since I have only ever seen a production of it on the Edinburgh Fringe, rather than properly study it, I was unable to make that connection.

Octet is a beautiful and jubilant piece of work. Over the course of this list I will be listening to many more works by Mendelssohn, which makes me wonder where he goes from here.

🎻♫♪ – Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 45/501Title: Porgy and Bess
Composer: George Gerswin
Nationality: American
Year:
1935

Whilst I do understand their place on the 1001 Classical Works list, operas and ballets are so much a visual art form that listening to their soundtracks in isolation cannot give you the complete experience. Still though, imagine me sitting at work listening to 3 hours of opera as I am running statistics. Really lends a tinge of grand drama to writing a few lines of Python.

Going into this I already knew a number of the songs. Most of them I heard as Nina Simone covers; more recently I heard a cover version of ‘Summertime’ the Big Brother & the Holding Company album Cheap ThrillsI have become so used to hearing rocky and soulful covers that hearing them sung as part of an opera really gave them a whole new context. Although that context is somewhat troubling.

There is no denying what Porgy & Bess (and other works by George and Ira Gerswin that have also found their way onto this list) were significant in the progression from opera to what we now know as musical theatre. The way that they fused jazz with opera to make something completely different – well it was pretty much a unique venture and it really works.

However, there are some issues with this opera in terms of racial sensitivity. In some ways Porgy & Bess became very much a means to an end as there were few mainstream large-scale musical productions that feature a majority non-white cast, which is a great thing. On the other hand, these character negotiate a world of drugs and violence and speak with a slightly exaggerated cadence.

Stepping away form the politics of the piece and looking more at the music itself – this really is unlike any sort of opera that I have ever heard before. Would it have benefited on my actually watching it so that I was able to better understand the story? Maybe, but the beauty of it being an English language opera is that I could make enough of it out as I was listening to it at work.

One day I’ll watch the Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier film version to get the better context. But until then let’s see where the classical list takes me next.

Acclaimed Albums – Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and The Holding Company

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 168/250Title: Cheap Thrills
Artist: Big Brother and The Holding Company
Year: 1968
Position: #241

When you listen to Cheap Thrills you may, if you’re anything like me, have been tricked into believing this was a live album. It’s not just the audience noise that they put into the mix,  although that does put the thought into your head, but there is also the energy that is injected into many of the songs.

The centrepiece of the album is, undoubtedly, ‘Piece of My Heart‘. Janis Joplin’s amazing set of pipes gives so much emotion and attitude to this song that it forces you to pay attention to it. There’s also a fantastic rocky interpretation of ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess.

I don’t know if it’s Joplin’s raw power or because of her untimely demise at the age of 27, but it really does feel that Cheap Thrills is as good as it is because of her. Sure, it makes for an interesting time capsule of where psychedelic and blues rock was before the heavier stuff started to kick in a few years later – but what carries it up the rankings and keeps it noteworthy is the personality. Also, the excellent (if slightly racist) album artwork helps.

One more album after this and I will be able to (temporarily) say sayonara to the 1960s. Sure, a future update might kick this, and the other remaining album from the sixties, off the list. Then again, I want to extend this list at some point so it’s not as if listening to these albums will go to waste. Especially not when I end up actually enjoying them.