Our final pairing this week: these songs don’t have a lot in common, but each makes us smile.
Meredith Monk: The Tale
I adore this video and watch it when i need a mood lifter. It’s short and totally charming. The performance captures Meredith’s great spirit—her purity, humor, uniqueness.
And it’s a rare example of Meredith with her hair loose (well, in a ponytail) and singing using standard English words. Enjoy!
Rufus Wainwright: Oh, What a World
In 1975, the folkie singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III recorded a song about his newborn son being nursed by his mother, called “Rufus is a Tit Man.” Little did we know. While Rufus would inherit some of his dad’s sardonic humor, he’s more in the mold of his idol Judy Garland–fabulous, dramatic, prone to both excess and dreamy tenderness. “Oh What a World,” from his 2003 magnum opus Want is almost ridiculously busy, but that’s the fun of it. In a song ostensibly about feeling lonely on a train, we begin with a slow-march oom-pah tuba and Rufus intoning “men reading fashion magazines.” Then, one by one, come choruses, strings, and, as one critic said, “horns, harmony and hope.” There are numerous allusions to Ravel’s Bolero, and of course there’s Judy. The title refers to the Wicked Witch’s dying words in The Wizard of Oz, and as everything is fading away, listen for the “dreams really do come true” quote from “Over the Rainbow.”
Day 4’s pairing: Today we go all Russian!
Mussorgsky Songs and Dances of Death: Trepak
Mussorgsky’s last great work is the four-song cycle Songs and Dances of Death, written in the years 1875-77, when he was in serious decline. He would be able to write only a few more songs (one of them the Chaliapin favorite “Song of the Flea”) before his death in 1881. Songs and Dances, like his other great cycle Sunless, were written to poems of Mussorgsky’s friend and distant cousin Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov. Each of the poems presents us with a realistic situation of individuals in extremis–an infant, a young woman, an old drunk lost in a snowstorm, soldiers on the battlefield–and adds death in human form as a charismatic and seductive catalyst.
While tempted to choose the ghastly Serenade, where Mr. D addresses a dying young lady as if “he” were her lover, I went for the Trepak. Here as a snow squall howls in the night, we discover an old drunk, hopelessly lost on his way home. Now, “she” caresses him and they dance a sprightly trepak. Finally, she lies him down in the snow and utters the coldest parting words: “Sleep, my little one, you happy wretch. Summer has come.”
Two things about this recording. This orchestration was made by Shostakovich in 1962, and seems to have inspired him to write his 14th Symphony, which is more or less a continuation of Mussorgsky’s theme. And while this is normally Russophone turf, Brigitte Fassbaender is amazing here, creating a delirious blend of passion, terror and tenderness.
Shostakovich: Ophelia’s Song from Seven Romances to Poems by Alexander Blok (1967)
Gloom! In college I discovered this beautiful, seldom-performed late song cycle by Shostakovich based on poems by Russia’s turn-of-the-century Symbolist poet Alexander Blok. Blok’s poetry is known for its foreboding and apocalyptic tone, and Shostakovich’s music is the ideal match. I was taking a Russian music history class with the great Richard Taruskin (funny enough, Phil took a class with him at Columbia). His lectures were full of rare unpublished music samples and hilarious stories, and my classmates and I would often scribble down memorable Taruskin quotes. In contrast with his intimidating demeanor, Taruskin was the most supportive and generous teacher, always there to help, to answer questions. I wrote a paper dissecting this Shostakovich/Blok cycle, and Taruskin told me he wasn’t sure if he should give me an A or an F! I think it was a bit too expressionist for academia. But I was swept away by Shostakovich’s music and Blok’s words that foretold Russia’s troubles. The cycle has seven songs; each tells a story, and every note has meaning. Shostakovich’s friend Isaak Glikman wrote that “the Blok cycle reveals the anguish of Shostakovich’s soul with unique clarity and poignancy.” The recording I listened to over and over was on Melodiya and featured a live performance by soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (Shostakovich dedicated the cycle to her), her husband Rostropovich on cello, Moisei Vainberg on piano, and David Oistrakh on violin. This was the very first performance of the work. Here is the opening song from that world premiere, Ophelia’s Song, a spare beginning to what will soon become quite stormy. This song is just Vishnevskaya accompanied by Rostropovich. The piano and violin join later in the cycle. Blok’s poem with translation:
1. Ophelia’s Song
1. Песня Офелии
[Based on Hamlet, Act IV, scene v]
Parting from your sweet maiden, friend,
Parting from maiden sweet friend
Разлучаясь с девой милой, друг,
Razluchajas s d’evoi miloi, drug,
You swore to love me!
You swore me to love
Ты клялся мне любить!…
Ti kl’alsa mne l’ubit’!
Parting for that dreary land,
Parting for land dreary
Уезжая в край постылый,
Uyezhaja v krai postyly,
To keep the vows you made!
Vows given to keep
Клятву данную хранить!…
Kl’atvu dannuyu khranit’!
There, far from happy Denmark,
There, from Denmark happy,
Там, за Данией счастливой,
Tam, za Daniei schastlivoi,
Your shores are shrouded in mist . . .
Shores your in mist
Берега твои во мгле…
Byerega tvoi vo mgl’e …
The waves, murmuring angrily,
Wave angry murmuring
Вал сердитый, говорливый
Val s’erdityj, govorlivyj
Wash up tears on the rock . . .
Wash tears on rock
Моет слёзы на скале…
Mo’et sl’ozy na skal’e . . .
The sweet warrior will never return,
Sweet warrior not will return,
Милый воин не вернётся,
Mylyj voin ne vern’otca,
All dressed in silver . . .
All dressed in silver
Весь одетый в серебро…
Ves’ od’etyj v serebro . . .
In the grave will wave in heavy agitation
In grave heavy will rock (become agitated)
В гробе тяжко всколыхнётся
V grobe t’azhko vskolykhn’otca
The ribbon and the black feather . . .
Ribbon and black feather
Бант и чёрное перо…
Bant i chornoe pero . . .
Today’s pairing: two lullabies.
Sinead O’Connor: My Darling Child
All the dark and stormy Sinead stories aside, her voice is something exquisite—and I think never more so than on the album Universal Mother. This was her fourth album, and she dedicated it to her son who was 6 or 7 at the time. The album as a whole hit me hard when it came out more than 20 years ago—it’s an almost painfully beautiful account of motherhood (I remember giving it to my own mother, who had it on rotation in her car for years). Sinead’s voice is at its most bare and exposed, her Irish accent on display with those breathy t’s and r’s (how can a “t” be breathy? with Sinead they are). Rolling Stone described her voice on this album as “tissue-fragile.” Some songs have the famous Sinead rage, but most of all she whisper-sings her love for her child, and really for all children as they face growing up. The song “My Darling Child” is the most tender lullaby I’ve heard.
Traditional: El cant dels ocells
When I was a kid there were big FM radio stations that basically played rock, but gave their hosts a free rein to play long album cuts, obscurities, and even things that were definitely not rock. My local outlet was WMMS in Cleveland. One night, among the crickets of Cuyahoga Falls, I heard the strangest song, sung by the most beautiful voice. Full of mystery and longing, it spoke a language I did not know, and while I could not make out a word of it, it lingered in the memory. Then I heard the same tune sung by Joan Baez in a different, less alluring arrangement. Searches of record store bins yielded nothing, and eventually I gave up hope of ever finding the song.
Years later, I picked up a box set of CDs called The Fabulous Victoria de los Angeles, primarily for the exquisite Ravel and Debussy selections. I wasn’t so much interested in the Montsalvatge and Mompou, but on disk 2, among Three Traditional Folksongs, I found my treasure: “El cant dels ocells”. Little did I know this was a famous song, beloved of Pablo Casals, who played his version of it at the beginning of every recital after his exile. I had no idea that it was known by every Catalan or, for that matter, that it was a Christmas lullaby (otherwise I might have checked out the Joan Baez Christmas album!) But there it was, every bit as wonderful as I had remembered. One mystery remained: whose gorgeous arrangement was this? It is the work of Antonio Ros-Marba, who on this recording conducts the Patronato Orquestra Ciudad de Barcelona.
Today’s pairing: strange crooners.
Scott Walker – Farmer in the City
Scott Walker became famous in the 1960s as the front man of the English pop band The Walker Brothers (biggest hit “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,”) none of whom were English, brothers, or named Walker. So it’s fitting that, long after the band’s demise, this relatively vanilla baritone crooner should reemerge as something more enigmatic, dark, and disturbing. As one critic said it was like “Andy Williams reinventing himself as Stockhausen.” Reinvention didn’t come easy, though. After a few hit solo albums, a Jacques Brel phase, some “dark years,” and some memorable solo albums that didn’t sell at all, he totally unleashed his avant-garde self with the album Tilt in 1995. The opening track, “Farmer in the City,” has a mysterious opening, a low drone, a bell, a mournful voice crooning “Do I hear 21…21…21?” What is this? It’s a chilling vision of the murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was killed by a 17 year old male prostitute on the beach at Ostia in 1975. Some of the lyrics are taken from a poem Pasolini wrote to his young lover Ninetto Davoli. Whether or not it’s a pop song, it’s one of the most haunted things I’ve ever heard.
Pere Ubu: Humor Me (live)
OK maybe crooner isn’t the right word for David Thomas of Pere Ubu, but strange in the very best sense is. I discovered Pere Ubu as a student at Berkeley while randomly searching the cd bins at Tower on Telegraph Ave. I liked the name of the band so I bought it (I must have just read Ubu Roi or something). The album, Terminal Tower, didn’t disappoint, and in fact I became a bit obsessed and bought all the other Pere Ubu records i could find. Pere Ubu was from Cleveland and fronted by David Thomas, a larger than life (in every way) presence who prattled on in what seemed like nonsense when in fact it made great sense. You had to listen closely and roll with the absurdity. Greil Marcus wrote, “Mr Thomas’s voice is that of a man muttering in a crowd. You think he’s talking to himself until you realize he’s talking to you.” The first time I saw Pere Ubu live, I found it supremely entertaining and even moving to watch this huge round man with the flask in hand, stumbling around the stage while singing in this high voice that sounded like he was losing it, all while catching pieces of imaginary dust. The theremin and synthesizers added to the insanity. But throughout it all was a sweetness emanating from David Thomas, like a little boy trying to make sense of the world. From the song Humor Me: “It was the world / A big world / Oh, what a world to be drowned in” and then the chorus on repeat: “It’s just a joke, man! Ha Ha Ha!”
In our musical household, there’s often a race to see who gets to the “turntable” first. So rather than argue over who got to do which day and which song to pick, we decided to offer song pairings, some linked by theme, time, or place, others by whim. Today it’s Baroque opera favorites.
Phil’s pick – Purcell, King Arthur: What power art thou
For me, the music of Henry Purcell was pretty much love at first hearing. “Dido’s Lament” can do that to you, but the further I explored, the more I loved. As evidenced by the “Lament”, the song “Music for a While”, or the stately and haunting “Chacony” for viol consort, few composers could do so much with a repeated bass line. “What power art thou”, from the semi-opera King Arthur, is an almost one-note song with a repeated progression and an inexorable tread. Part of a masque known as the Frost Scene in Act III, this air is sung by the Cold Genius, who grumpily awakes to Cupid’s call and asks to be allowed to go back underground to sleep and freeze to death. The shivering effects in both voice and strings grab your attention, but it is Purcell’s grave and gorgeous chromatic harmony that holds it.
Aleba’s pick – Handel, Orlando: Amor e qual vento
This week is the two-year anniversary of director R.B. Schlather’s radical staging of Handel’s opera seria masterpiece Orlando, which I had the good fortune to promote. For weeks, RB, his cast and musicians inhabited the very plain storefront Whitebox Gallery on Broome Street. Everything was open to the public. Throughout the afternoons a wide variety of people—music lovers, friends, and strangers who happened to pass by—dropped in, stayed for a while, and then went back to whatever they were doing. It was all quite low key, but as the days progressed the line between rehearsal and performance, and even the line between life and art began to disappear. It was magical. One of the regular onlookers was our daughter Clementine, who was seven at the time. She showed her emerging baroque soul by choosing this aria as her favorite. It’s mine, too.
I’m including a Zippo Song for sentimental reasons—Phil Kline and I met via this album in 2004, when I was publicizing Bang on a Can and its record label Cantaloupe, which put out a lot of Phil’s music. We married a year later. Zippo Songs simply blew my mind. A poet at heart and by training, Phil spliced together by theme real slogans that American soldiers engraved on their Zippo lighters in Vietnam. Phil says there were hundreds of poems to work with, since military issue Zippos are highly collectible and easy to find. He culled them to create seven Zippo Songs, from the very moving to the raunchy. Throughout is Theo Bleckmann’s spare vibrato-less voice, like a ghost, or an angel. WNYC’s John Schaefer wrote that in these songs, “Kline channels both Franz Schubert and Jim Morrison” in “a psychedelic haze of love, loss, lust, drugs, war and more drugs.”
The songs speak for themselves. They don’t bash one over the head with their anti-war message. One of my favorite lines:
WE ARE THE UNWILLING
LED BY THE UNQUALIFIED
Here is his Zippo Song “Been to Hell” (for the text, see below):
BEEN TO HELL
LIVED TO TELL
YEA THOUGH I WALK
THROUGH THE VALLEY OF
THE SHADOW OF DEATH
I FEAR NO EVIL FOR
I¹M THE EVILEST SON OF
A BITCH IN THE VALLEY
DEATH IS MY
HAS BEEN GOOD
IF YOU DON¹T
HELL IS LIKE
ME AND YOU¹LL
LET ME WIN YOUR
HEART AND MIND
OR I¹LL BURN
YOUR HUT DOWN
Phil Kline‘s final Song of the Day this week. Thanks, Phil!
“Waterloo Sunset,” Ray Davies, The Kinks
Of all the amazing songs that came with the creative expansion of rock and pop music in the late sixties, I can think of none that I love more than Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks. It’s not psychedelic or wild, in fact it sort of tiptoes into the consciousness, and the emotions aren’t exuberant or extreme. But Ray Davies at his best excelled in vignettes about ordinary people. We get what the title implies, a picture of a certain place at a certain time. Not much happens. The river flows, people get out of the tube station and cross the bridge. The singer studies all that is going on around him, shy and overwhelmed but happy to be there, watching the sunset and going home. It’s hardly the young swinger’s London, in fact it’s more like the lonely old man’s. But it’s also exalting, in the way that certain 8th century Chinese poems are exalting.
Some years ago I was visiting London and found myself on the Victoria Embankment near Cleopatra’s Needle. I was looking out at the garbage on the Thames when my English friend softly said “dirty old river” and I was jolted by a sudden realization: we were standing in the song. There was the dirty old river, there was the bridge, there was the Underground station. God knows, Terry and Julie were out there, too. And I sang softly to myself “long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset I am in paradise.”
*Some of the images in this video are silly or overly literal, but I appreciate the attempt to give us a literal map of the song, albeit a few decades later.
(Curator: Phil Kline)
“Mysteries of the Macabre” – Gyorgi Ligeti – sung and conducted by Barbara Hannigan
My ears perked up when this person I’d never heard of, Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, did a sparkling turn in the song “Das Himmlische Leben” which concludes Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. I soon learned that she sang a lot of contemporary music, is perhaps the only singer out there who has starred in both The Mikado and Lulu, and that she also conducts. But I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for this.
(Curator: Phil Kline)
“Al Atlal” (The Ruins) – poem Ibrahim Nagi, music Riad El-Sonbati – sung by Kalthoum
When I was a kid I saw TV footage of four million people crowding the streets of Cairo for the funeral of Oum Kalthoum. I wondered who she was. When I first heard her voice I was surprised. It wasn’t high, it wasn’t coloratura, in fact I’m not sure you would call it pretty. What I heard was an irresistible force, intense and focused. She was born in a humble village in the Nile Delta in 1904. Her father was an imam at the local mosque which made him something of an authority figure, and he taught his daughter to recite the Koran as a toddler. Oum had an unusually strong voice, prodigious memory, and perfect diction. It is said that in 50 years of her recordings there is not one unclear word. To me it sounds as if she is sculpting the text, as befits one who learned her craft by singing scriptures.
While her vocal peak came in the 1940s and early 50s, her greatest collaborations with poets and composers occurred in the late 50s and 60s. At this point in her career she gave a concert, broadcast throughout Egypt, on the first Thursday of each month. It is said that nobody in the Arab world went out on those nights. The songs she made with Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Riad El-Sombati were epic, anywhere between an hour and three hours long. In the context of Arab music, they were both traditional and experimental. But what gave a song like Al Atlal its greatest impact is the way the poetry, ostensibly romantic and sensual, offered subtle double meanings to its audience, lending political and sociological urgency to a lover’s complaint. Only Oum Kalthoum could make her audience think that her passion was an affair of state. And over the long span of Al Atlal that passion, at first restrained, is meted out in increments, like the slowly rising, inexorable flood tide of the Nile.
*If you’re not up for an hour’s worth, I would suggest tuning in around 18:30 and giving it 3 or 4 minutes. There are extended cycles of repeats with varied improvised ornaments. If you can get into it, long term listening will prove rewarding.
(Curator: Phil Kline)
“To Gratiana Dancing and Singing” – William Denis Browne, sung by Ian Bostridge, with Julius Drake, piano.
This one always gets me. The poem is by Richard Lovelace and the song alludes to an anonymous allmayne in the Elizabeth Rogers Virginal Book. The composer, William Denis Browne (Denis Browne is his surname) attended Cambridge, impressed Ralph Vaughan Williams, and became close friends with the poet Rupert Brooke. They both shipped off to Gallipoli together in 1915 and never returned. The fact that the poem is an ecstatic snapshot of youth’s fleeting grace and that this meltingly lovely song is about all we have to listen to by young Denis Browne provides a haunting consonance.
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