Near and Far

Matthew Guerrieri has a new book out, The Black Archive: Horror of Fang Rock. The Black Archive is a project by Obverse Books to publish a detailed monograph on every episode of Doctor Who.  It’s frankly amazing that this old kid’s show has prompted so much analysis over the years. For whatever it is worth, a direct line can be drawn from my reading of Who criticism — especially the anthology edited by Paul Cornell, Licence Denied: Rumblings from the Doctor Who Underground — to Do the Math and the music articles I publish elsewhere.

Guerrieri is a friend, and our friendship is partly based on liking the same kinds of semi-obscure things. To say that The Black Archive: Horror of Fang Rock is in my wheelhouse actually understates the matter. I felt like Matthew wrote this book just for me. I naturally give it a ringing endorsement!

From his blog entry:

If you have an interest in the show—or in the relative lighting power of oil and electricity, or the scavenging habits of coastal Scots, or the hidden 19th-century history of tentacular monsters, or Leslie Stephen’s anti-materialist philosophy, or the numerology of the tarot, or Guglielmo Marconi’s marital misadventures, or Odysseus consulting with the dead—you will hopefully find something interesting.

Let me add to this impressive list that three of my own favorite parts concerned Virginia Woolf, H. P. Lovecraft, and Peter Maxwell Davies.

I’m no Quentin Tarantino diehard. Like many people my age I was bowled over by Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. but then I thought he became kind of a bad influence on the culture. (At the least, he was way too easy to imitate. I quit watching Breaking Bad because I was turned off by the Tarantino-style beats of absurd comedy and absurd violence.) I didn’t connect with downbeat Jackie Brown or bloated Kill Bill and sort of wrote Tarantino off as something for other people.

However, the mysterious commercials for Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood were intriguing, and yeah, I loved it! I didn’t know anything about the plot in advance and was shocked and delighted. The film moves rather slowly by today’s standards — at times it is almost 1968-era automobile porn — so if you think it might suit, I recommend checking it out on the big screen.

Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood reminded me of two other movies I really enjoyed in recent years, Hail Caesar! by the Coen brothers and The Nice Guys by Shane Black. All are ironic elegies for “the way things used to be” and all give great actors huge parts to bite into. I must say Brad Pitt never made an impression on me before, but after Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood I’m ready to sign on the dotted line as a card-carrying member of the Brad Pitt fan club

I have read criticism to effect that Tarantino makes his movies out of other movies. Everybody does this, of course — there are no new ideas, just new ways of putting together old ideas — but with Tarantino it is unusually explicit, and the director himself is willing to cite his sources chapter and verse. For my generation and social circle, Wes Anderson might have been even more important then Tarantino, and I experienced a full-body chill when I realized part of Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood was a straight-up homage to Anderson (the Italian sequence with voiceover).

Wes Anderson is hardly the only reference in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. It goes on and on. I’m not really a movie buff, but I suspect every scene is lifted from another source. It took 40 years for a Guerrieri to come along and unpack Horror of Fang Rock top to bottom, but I expect the full breakdown of the latest Tarantino to land sooner — like by Christmas, probably — and I’ll be eager to read all about it.


Billy Lester has a record out; the trio From Scratch with Rufus Reid and Matt Wilson. Producer Elan Mehler explains:

Billy studied with the great pianist and educator Sal Mosca for 16 years. These were intense lessons devoted largely to ear training exercises, transcriptions, and endless harmonic configurations. At the age of 32, Billy found himself in a crisis of identity. After delving so deeply for so many of his formative years into the techniques of Sal (and Lennie Tristano, Sal’s mentor), Billy had no idea what his own musical identity was. One morning, Billy sat down at the piano, closed his eyes and focused on his own emotional state. He found, if he concentrated long enough, that the feelings he had in that moment had their own sound. He reached out one hand and found that note on the piano. This experience, of playing one “true” note, flooded him with gratitude. Billy says that that moment, in his early thirties, is the moment he became an artist.

Lester’s playing is definitely “post -Tristano” and there is weight to his phrases. And what a story! It’s so great that Lester finally documented his unusual art. Relevant webpage is here.

I love mid-century American composers, and through casual researches I’ve heard a bit of Robert Palmer over the years. The Toccata Ostinato played by William Kapell is driving and octotonic; even more to my taste is the romantic Second Sonata recorded by Yvar Mikhashoff on a classic LP alongside other excellent mid-century sonatas by Jack Beeson and Hunter Johnson.

Adam Tendler has released Robert Palmer: Piano Music.

Palmer’s unique musical language combined a deeply emotional impulse with complex counterpoint and rhythmic structures, drawing comparisons to Hindemith, Bartók, Lou Harrison, even Brahms. Aaron Copland famously included Palmer on his 1948 list of seven composers whom he considered “the best we have to offer among the new generation,” a list that included Lukas Foss, Leonard Bernstein, and John Cage.

This recording, the first devoted solely to the work of this enigmatic and still-unsung hero of American composition, comprises the bulk of his landmark piano works.

I’m still assessing all of the music on Tendler’s fine disc. As of now, I definitely declare the compact and rather Chopinesque Second Sonata a keeper, something that will be admired by all those with a taste for American classical piano.

Tendler’s mission is eminently worthy; I fervently wish every composer of note had such a devoted and skilled advocate. Further reading: In Search of Robert Palmer.

Jazz iconoclast Benoît Delbecq is an old friend (see DTM interview); virtuoso classical violinist Mandhira de Saram is a more recent associate. I didn’t expect them to put out an album together but it really works. Mandhira leads the Ligeti Quartet but can also improvise in a contemporary style. At this point, the European scene has many proficient musicians trained in old European idioms who can also perform diverse concerts with absolutely no sheet music. It’s an interesting time. As good as things already are, I’m also excited about the limitless prospects for creative music in a space packed with so much potential kinetic energy.

From the Spinneret Bandcamp page:

Mandhira and Benoît met three years ago in Paris and soon discovered that they loved playing together. They recorded Spinneret in Paris a year later, over a day of quiet, meditative, and sustained sonic crafting, at mysterious distance from the animated music they are both usually drawn to in their own projects. Propelled by a spectacular sense of exploration in sound, time, and texture, together they weave a tapestry of sound which blurs the edges of where one instrument begins and the other ends. With Spinneret, these two internationaly acclaimed players have fostered a new imaginary improvised folklore of slowness that’s unique in many ways.

The music of Scott Joplin is still fresh when played entirely straight. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t need wild new arrangements. Of course we do! Nude Piano
by Petite Feet is an engaging surprise. Ted Reichman’s liner notes (from the Bandcamp page) are helpful.

Shane Simpson, Travis Bliss and Jonathan Starks have used their instruments, their laptops, and their ears to guide this musical contraption into a constantly changing, clangorous, kaleidoscopic mishmosh of time and space.

It’s goofy as hell but you can tell that the performers also simply love the music. Listening to Nude Piano took me back to the first time I heard John Zorn’s Naked City 30 years ago, a moment when so many impossibilities became possible.

For all the masterful jazz on record from its greatest era, there is a dearth of exceptional video. Alan Nahigian sent along an episode of the Afro-Centric TV show Soul featuring a extraordinary cast shot by a team unafraid to let the cameras look closely at the musician’s techniques. From the first moments, a spoken intro over a Freddie Waits drum improvisation, it feels like the door of the time machine closed shut and we are transported back to a hipper, and, frankly, blacker time in the music. Wow. Must-watch TV! I particularly enjoy seeing Waits and Mickey Roker in action during their peak as practitioners.  Just too much.

Edwin Fischer and Rosalyn Tureck play Bach

All jazz pianists play some Bach. We always have. The wonderful Evan Shinners is in residence all month at his Bach Store and asked me to guest. On Thursday July 11 (tomorrow) at 6:15 I will be playing a mini-set of Bach (Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, F minor suite BWV 823, Fantasy on a Rondo BWV 918) and a few jazz originals.

It is sometimes said that Glenn Gould “invented” Bach for the modern piano. It’s not true, of course. Two of the most interesting and influential 20th century Bach pianists before Gould were Edwin Fischer and Rosalyn Tureck.

Fischer (1886 – 1960) recorded the the first complete traversal of Well-Tempered Clavier from 1933 to 1936. Despite its age this is still an enjoyable listen, especially in the grand or delicate slow movements.

Fischer’s 1924 edition of the Three-part Inventions name-checks both Busoni and Reger, two other European musicians from the early 20th-century seriously impressed with counterpoint. Fischer advises the student:

You should study (sing) every individual voice (the middle voice too, notwithstanding its division between the two hands), and think with pleasure of those bygone times when empty “filling-voices” were unknown, and every voice had its own melodic life.

It’s a fun stance to have, but many of Fischer’s best records are full of “filling-voices.” His Schubert song accompaniments for Elizabeth Schwarzkopf are wonderful and his last record of Brahms with Gioconda de Vito is an important document. Not a big technician, Fischer was nonetheless a favored soloist of Wilhelm Furtwängler, and their lo-fi collaboration in Furtwängler’s own vast concerto is intriguing, all Berlin gloom and doom.

Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue is a very important piece in the repertoire but also a bit of an odd duck. It’s not “normal” Bach; rather, it’s a improvisatory toccata followed by a large fugue. Perhaps more than any other Bach work, this piece looks forward to 19th century pomp. Mendelssohn played it during his great Bach revival, Liszt admired it, both composers put scraps of it in their own pieces. Many famous editors published a romantic interpretation: the first time I tried to sight-read the Chromatic Fantasy as a kid it was in Von Bülow’s overblown expansion. If the Italian Concerto was the “Bach piano sonata” of that era, then the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue was the “dramatic and dark piano fantasy actually written by Bach (as compared to an organ transcription).”

The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue is still frequently programmed today but there’s usually a hint of playing to the gallery in the presentation.  The Fantasia remains delightfully fresh while the fugue has a few rather uninspired passages. (I doubt Busoni or Reger would have pointed to this fugue as one with exemplary counterpoint.) Still, it’s the only straight fugue of Bach where a pianist can pound out two bars of left hand octaves in the end. The piece will be successful no matter what; even a student performance is exciting.

Fischer’s recording of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue is famous. After auditioning a bevy of other pianists in the last week, I still think his is the best I’ve heard. Fischer is a 19th century musician in love with the lore of Bach and doesn’t need any modern scholarship to build a cathedral of sound. His chops are just up to the task (the Fantasia is easier than it sounds) and the fugal reinforcements in the bass sing bold.

I told Evan Shinners I would play at his Bach Store if he picked some of the repertoire. He suggested the F minor suite BWV 823. What the hell? I thought I knew all the Bach solo works but this piece had never been on my radar. Some of the obscure pieces are justly obscure but BWV 823 is a gem, although definitely unfinished. Not only are the movements incomplete (only three exist) but some of the voice leading in the Sarabande seems incorrect.

When looking for a recording I came across Rosalyn Tureck’s and was immediately impressed. In a few notes she establishes a rarified atmosphere and makes a case for the F minor suite to be played on piano recitals everywhere.

Tureck (1913 – 2003) is now considered one of the most important 20th-century classical instrumentalists born in America. She was famous for her dedication to Bach — Glenn Gould claimed her as “his only influence” — but early on Tureck trained with Leon Theremin (she played a theremin at Carnegie Hall) and worked with modernist composers David Diamond, Luigi Dallapiccola, and William Schuman.

I have valued my CD of Tureck playing Diamond, Dallapiccola, and Schuman for years but somehow I have never really liked her Bach. Her interpretations seemed slow and didactic, with downbeats accented in a rather unswinging fashion. It was rather a relief to come across a Tureck Bach performance that I could love from first contact.

The Tureck BWV 823 can be purchased on Columbia record filled out with Tureck playing student Bach: easy Minuets, Marches, Gavottes and the like, and is now packaged as a double CD with Charles Rosen’s Art of the Fugue (another excellent performance). The whole Tureck recital is delightful and unquestionably swinging. She even pats her foot a bit in the F minor Gigue. I may have found my way in to appreciating the rest of the vast Tureck/Bach discography.

There’s a certain tradition of great pianists changing the score in Bach. Fischer does whatever the hell he wants with the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, that’s a given. It’s more surprising that Tureck ruthlessly discards Bach’s rhythmic notation for the gigue of the F minor suite. Rather than playing it dotted as written, she evens it out. After experimenting, I can see why she does this, the narrative flow is better.

Tureck published various editions of Bach, including three books of An Introduction to the Performance of Bach in 1960. From the introduction:

As long as one remains human there will remain nuances of all sorts, and as long as music remains an art and not a mechanical reproduction, there will always be more than one possibility in details of phrasing, dynamics, tempi, etc., and sometimes possibilities of marked difference in conception, all of them good.

The F minor suite is included in the third volume, and the gigue is dotted there (as it is in every other edition I’ve found). Tureck’s Columbia record is from 1980, so in the intervening 20 years she must have discovered this rhythmic variant and kept it. (I haven’t been able to listen to her first recording of “easy Bach” for EMI from 1960 yet.)

Gigues are notoriously difficult rhythmically. Indeed, all the dances are a bit of a mystery: It would be so helpful to hear Mr. Bach play though one of his suites, for there’s a good chance we have been doing everything wrong for centuries. Still, the gigues are especially confusing. Tureck has a lovely story in David Dubal’s Reflections from the Keyboard:

I remember in my early years, the gigue from the E minor Partita worried me very much. As you know, it’s a most unusual gigue with a very strong character. At the time I was studying with Arnold Schoenberg and I asked him what he thought about it, its characterization and tempo. He looked at it and sang the opening phrase, and I instantly knew I had it. Since I couldn’t ask Bach, I asked Schoenberg; and I’ve always managed in this way.

Shinners also assigned me Fantasy on a Rondo, BWV 918. This is a near miss for Bach.  BWV 918 begins well but goes on and on in two part counterpoint. The master is working out how far he can modulate using self-similar material: Probably he wrote it at top speed, stuck it in a drawer, and forgot about it. BWV 918 is never included in piano recitals and I didn’t find a recording that I found particularly inspiring, especially on piano (honestly, this style of composition works much better on harpsichord). However, I did play it as a kid, so it’s not hard for me to relearn the notes. H’mm. Perhaps there’s room for me to add a bit more of myself to this lesser work? Come by the Bach Store tomorrow and find out…