thu, 14-feb-2008, 15:27

Bryars, The Sinking of the Titanic

byars, the sinking of the titanic (jeck, alter ego)

Yesterday was a refresh day for me on eMusic, and I focused on modern classical recordings; I downloaded records by composers Gavin Bryars, Brian Eno and Joan Tower.

The Sinking of the Titanic, composed by Gavin Bryars and performed here by Philip Jeck and Alter Ego is a 1969 piece he wrote based on speculations about the sinking of the ship. The music is centered by an Episcopal hymn, Autumn which was played on the deck of the Titanic as the ship was going down (although many passengers reported the band was playing Nearer, My God, to Thee, more traditionally associated with the Titanic sinking). According to Harold Bride, the junior wireless operator:
…from aft came the tunes of the band…The ship was gradually turning on her nose—just like a duck that goes down for a dive. I had only one thing on my mind—to get away from the suction. The band was still playing. I guess all of the band went down. They were playing Autumn then. I swam with all my might. I suppose I was 150 feet away when the Titanic, on her nose, with her afterquarter sticking straight up in the air, began to settle slowly…The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. I heard it first while we were still working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us, and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, it was still on deck playing Autumn. How they ever did it I cannot imagine.

I haven’t heard any other versions of the work, so I have nothing to compare it with, but Alter Ego’s version is ethereal and flowing. There’s no melody or rhythm to catch, but it has a dark feeling and constant slow movement from one soundscape to another that makes it really interesting. At one point, crowd noise enters the mix, rising and falling to sound just like waves while at the same time, a subtle Morse code tapping of S–O–S is heard. I didn’t notice either feature on the first two listens, so I’m sure there’s a lot more to hear and pick up.

Eno, Music for Airports

eno, music for airports (bang on a can all-stars)

Brian Eno’s Music for Airports is a classic of ambient electronic music, built from tape loops of all sorts of sounds. I had a cassette of Eno’s recording in high school and listened to it a lot. Surprisingly, the live version I downloaded by the Bang on a Can All-Stars is quite recognizable to me as the same work, even though I probably haven’t listened to the original recording in more than twenty years. In the eMusic review of this version, John Schaefer writes:

Eno wanted his “ambient music” (his term) to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” Music for Airports is both. With a stillness that belies the fact that its minimal musical materials are constantly cycling through, the piece serves to tint the sonic atmosphere but also reveals unexpected juxtapositions of sounds—especially in the Bang on a Can arrangements. A studio recording by the All-Stars was released 10 years ago. This is a live performance from 1998, and demonstrates that even with humans playing it, Music for Airports still does what Eno originally wanted it to: it challenges our most basic notions about what is or isn’t music, and it creates a spare, contemplative inner space.

I also have Bang on a Can’s version of Terry Riley’s In C. Very enjoyable. Given how much I like these two BoaC records, I’m looking forward to hearing their version of Philip Glass’s Music in Fifths, which eMusic also has.

Tower, Made in America

tower, made in america (slatkin)

The final album I downloaded is Joan Tower’s composition Made in America with Leonard Slatkin and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra (?!) on Naxos which won three classical Grammy Awards this year (Best Classical Album, Best Orchestral Performance, Best Contemporary Classical Composition). It was also one of the better reviewed contemporary classical orchestral recordings last year (according to eMusic classical expert nereffid) so I was eager to check it out.

The title piece was commissioned by 65 smaller orchestras in the United States, set to America, the Beautiful, and designed to be playable by any regional orchestra. Between 2005 and 2007 it was performed in all 50 states, culminating with a performance by the Juneau Symphony in Alaska. According to Tower, “The theme is challenged by other aggressive and dissonant ideas that keep interrupting, interjecting, and unsettling it.” I like the dynamic nature of it, carrying the listener along.

The other tracks on the album are equally impressive. Tambor focuses on orchestral percussion and is a driving, rhythmic work that is still very “classical,” (as opposed to something like Steve Reich’s Drumming, which is percussive, rhythmic, but much more “contemporary” sounding). The final two tracks are her Concerto for Orchestra, which I like, but haven’t had a chance to absorb yet. One of the reviews I read mentioned there’s a tuba solo and duelling duets of trumpets in the work, so I need to look out for that.

All in all, a great set of downloads. There’s just so much variety and creativity in contemporary classical music that it’s hard to decide what to download, even as all the other categories of classical music (and indie rock, for that matter!) compete for my time. Maybe next week I’ll go back to some of Bach’s cantatas.

thu, 31-jan-2008, 17:32

Steve in a boxcar doorway

from the book, a photo of Steve

Riding Toward Everywhere is a meandering memoir of William T. Vollmann’s experiences “catching out” (stealing rides) on freight trains across America. There’s almost no chronology here, and in total, the book seems more like a series of digressions than the subject of riding the rails. But no matter: it’s Vollmann. There’s always something interesting going on.

From pages 97-98:

Every time I surrender, even necessarily, to authority which disregardingly or contemptuously violates me, so I violate myself. Every time I break an unnecessary law, doing so for my own joy and to the detriment of no other human being, so I regain myself, and become strong in the parts of me that the security man can never see.

I’m not one to break laws, but having passed through TSA’s “security” checkpoints at the Fairbanks and Chicago airports recently, I certainly understand the notion of violation that’s a big part of the process.

tue, 29-jan-2008, 16:33

spook tag

photo by orin optiglot

The first book I finished in 2008 is William Gibson’s Spook Country, which is quite different from the other Gibson books I’ve read (Neromancer, The Difference Engine). Not only does this one take place in the present, but all of the technology seems perfectly reasonable. The book is a mystery of sorts, told from three slowly intersecting perspectives, and Gibson did a great job of maintaining my interest in the story by slowly revealing just enough details to keep me guessing what was really going on. Since the three characters that tell the story are also largely in the dark throughout, we find out what is happening as they do. Gibson has always been about ideas, and predictions about what the future holds, and this book is no exception. But because it’s contemporary, it seems as though the future he’s discussing is possibly happening right now, hidden behind the secret veil of our now opaque government.

An excellent book.

tue, 29-jan-2008, 16:21

Bush, American Psycho

photo by Mayu ;P

Another speedy review to catch up on the books I’ve read.

At the same time I was reading this book, we started watching the first season of Dexter via Netflix. Dexter is interesting because it’s main character is completely unable to feel emotion in the way most of us do, but despite this, we’re rooting for him. Dexter also has a compulsion to kill, which has been channelled into killing guilty people who have escaped legal justice. The show provides a contrast to African Pyscho, which is a book about a potential murderer who feels too much emotion. He’s a bit like the unnamed narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, obsessing over every slight, dreaming about exacting his vengeance, but never quite living up to his heroic vision of himself.

It’s an interesting character, writing from a different place than most of the fiction I read, and was just short enough that the subject didn’t grow tiresome.

mon, 28-jan-2008, 17:50

war and peace in iraq

photo by jayel aheram in iraq

I seem to have gotten myself way behind on my blogging; I’m five books behind, and way behind on my classical music postings. Traveling to Chicago for a funeral last week didn’t help any, but the real problem is just laziness. Why spend time posting about a book when I could pick up another? Why struggle to understand a Bach cantata when I can let the music speak for itself and move on? Why? Mostly it’s because I don’t get as much out of a book or a piece of music if I don’t think about it and blogging helps me to do that.

So, War and Peace. This is the third time I’ve read it, and I doubt if I’ll ever read it again. I enjoyed it this time around, and I believe that this is the best translation I’ve read (previously I read Garnett and then Maude’s translation), but it just wasn’t that interesting. Sure, it’s one of the greatest books ever written, and I think anyone interested in great writing should read it, but I don’t know that it has much more to say to me.

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