James Gurley’s unchained guitar

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Janis Joplin abandoned Port Arthur, Texas and first emerged in San Francisco. Her singing came as a shock but also one feared that her straining would permanently tear up her vocalizing. A sword of Damocles at her throat. More exciting than her presence were the rare and unchained guitar solos offered by James Gurley.

 

Rare interview with James Gurley

The guitar’s  lines fight and soar over a steady pulse, creating remarkable tension, a liberation from being earth-bound, unpredictable, nuanced.

 

Outside the condensing studio limitations their band played for dances with light shows adding to the stimulation. Many of their early concerts were recorded at both Fillmore auditoriums (San Francisco & New York) in 1968. The following year Joplin dropped the band to get a more commerical and arranged sound, gaining popularity but losing her edge. A great part of her early bravura was due to Gurley’s presence as an sonic provocateur. Minus his shrill distortion her voice settled into a caricature of her former glory as the career propelled her into gaining greater recognition.

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Gurley had a more extended Summertime solo when his duet finished in one concert at 0:33:

 

One work that had a raw foray was omitted from their stunning debut album. Most groups tank with their second, the third being a live compilation and dissolution. Big Brother with Janis lasted for only one project. Their iconic cover by R. Crumb opened up endless suggestions and speculation.

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His career was sustained with a role by part in revival bands. A few years before he died days before his 70th birthday in 2009, Gurley offered these words about the role of creation in life and art.

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Gurley was a rare example of free forms emerging in a progressive experimental music that had a short lifespan yet profoundly influenced and infected anyone within listening range. The support and expression of each and every note bring to mind the sound heard by masters of the raga. Whereas the Beatles and others added sitars like seasoning to their music, Gurley grabbed pitches by the jugular and brought them in as the music’s blood .

Allan Evans ©2014

update: extended solo with Big Brother, 1967 (h/t Stefano!)

Rev. Gary Davis: the sightless visionary guide to a beautiful city.

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Keep listening to Rev. Davis and you’ll wind up with observing emerging architectonic details with each encounter. Meditate or think about it all and you  will be drawn into his thinking on a structural level. For example, in the mere opening of Twelve Gates to the City that he played at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival we find that each and every gesture introduces itself and will be worked out in time, as did Mozart and Haydn with a gambit readied in their opening themes (string quartets, sonatas, symphonies).

His melodic notes pop out in the mid range, a high voice, and some rhythmic action develops in the bass. Beyond notes, every piece he played bears rhythmic identity, actually two: the work’s, and his own.

The luscious A chord arrives after an open E string serves as its diving board.

 

He voices the chord polyphonically to bring two registers in with a rich baritone ‘C-sharp’ below a higher  ‘A’. When I played it with my fingers crushed on the second fret, he corrected my position with this spread he developed to play the chord with a unique voicing. His deliberate tonal balance of an A chord employs a resonant open E (6th string) leading to a a tightened A formed with the pinkie as the gang leader when it follows the E, resulting in a taut chord that he strokes.

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Next he swings the A chord and places an open D string before playing a very cool bent C with the open G string leading to more chromatic adventures via a G-sharp to E close, drawing attention to the ‘blue’ note that is bent between C and C-sharp: the modal role of the open D and inflected C shape the piece’s identity. To get that open D, the sprawled A chord’s hand position gets uplifted for a sec into space and lands with the index + middle fingers squatting on the second fret.

Moving to a D chord, he has an open A  grace note that not only carries on the presence of the earlier A triad but blends into a new harmony that maintains his rhythm.

With all the implications of higher notes itching to appear, Davis instead has the bass intrude with a lively bounce that resolves with a high-voiced E /E7 chord:

The E7 chord finds the melody continuing in a lower register and again, as the piece began, he punctuates the action with the lowest pitch on the guitar, its open E string that rings as he positions above another unique position at the 4th fret, an F-sharp-diminished -7th chord:

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With one motion he invokes the lowest frequency to cushion a flash of  the highest pitch so far atop an ornamented diminished chord  that rapidly returns to the fundamental A harmony that again, after a reply from the grumbling bass tones, he closes with a syncopated arpeggiation of the tonic chord in the bass to end the intro without making it feel stable as it lacks a full cadence, creating expectation that he will soon start singing :

These are but mere details, child’s play for Rev. Davis, but under our microscope we observe a strategy and nuance guided by his refined taste and style that lead right into the highest spheres.

After hearing these details, try listening again to the unbroken intro and notice  how you hear it now:

Learning his way of playing has remained a lifelong addiction and act of purification that I just can’t quit!

Allan Evans ©2014

Brahms meets Sitting Bull and Queen Victoria

How close can we ever get to Brahms? Trawling through an immense bibliography of research, one entry stopped me in my tracks. I had grown up loathing and despising his music, reeking of sanctimony and any professions of discomfort were quashed with implications of your having emotional or cultural deficiencies. Their smug piety didn’t offer an escape for my migraines. But here, an obscure author, one Arthur Abell, had produced a book probing the internal landscape of the elusive taciturn composer. It contained lengthy passages that assaulted the eye with their detailed discourses on spirituality, inspiration, the act of creation. Not only did Brahms quote from the Bible, but he backed his quotes with chapter and verse the way measure numbers are bandied about in rehearsal. And so did his colleague Joseph Joachim who was in the room with him, bantering away as they rounded out a double perspective that often found them in harmony, as sympathetic as their lifelong musical synchronistic collaborations.

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Brahms credited divine intervention for inducing sounds that were channeled through his being and fashioned into pieces. Perhaps this was a clue to his inner creativity. He turned to Joachim as said: “Of course, to the disciples it appeared that Jesus was walking on the water, but in reality, He was walking in the air. His spiritual power was so great that He could, by drawing on Omnipotence, rise superior to the Law of Gravitation. We call that a supernatural power but supernormal would be a better term. Jesus was utilizing a higher law of which his disciples in the boat were all ignorant, and their only explanation was that He had supernatural powers, being God Himself personified. Nevertheless, their terror was very great for we read in Matthew 14:26, ‘And they cried out for fear.’”

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Joachim instantly replies: “I am convinced of it and also that He knew that others could have the powers of levitation if they could operate that higher law as He did; otherwise how do you explain John 14:12?”

I was left speechless at this unexpected entanglement in their quest to explain how the creative process serves as a part of mystical contact with forces that could only be accessed by pure souls who kept themselves open for divine visitation. Their command of and familiarity with biblical passages and shared vision was unlike anything I had ever encountered or expected to find in a musician’s memoirs other than Messiaen. And how did this unique document come into being? Abell, the author, had served as a music correspondent in Berlin starting in 1890 and, although fluent in German, secured the services of a “bi-lingual stenographer” from the American Embassy in Vienna, who accompanied him to accurately notate a conversation with Brahms and Joachim that lasted for three hours. One could understand how the uniqueness of such an occasion couldn’t be compromised through any imprecision or loss of their precious comments, so an accurate transcription was carried out.

The resulting book, Talks with Great Composers, appeared in 1955: Abell’s preface reveals a promise given to Brahms that his innermost comments would not be made public until half a century after his passing, and Abell honored his request.

As my ears withered under the torture of Brahms performances, so did my eyes and focus as the text meandered into its esoterica, with both voices echoing similar perceptions, until they mentioned one Haekel as a source of ideas and opinions. The sound of this name shook away the torpor by evoking an unwholesome vision of this pair, a most inappropriate and vulgar digression from their charting a path to enlightenment:

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After the Bible had been parsed by the two masters, they turned their attentions to a contemporary British writer Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose passages were as endearing to them as the New Testament. For some reason I just could not shake off this Haekel, which must have intended another Heckel:

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And with a stenographer on hand, how could this error slip by an author who interspersed his work with German quotes to demonstrate his acumen in capturing whiffs of flavor from a revelatory spiritual banquet he fully translated into English?

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Admittedly I had heard piano recordings in 1979 by Etelka Freund (1879-1977), a Hungarian musician who became Brahms’s pupil when she left Budapest to study in Vienna at age fifteen. Although she lived in New York after 1946, no one had interviewed her. Many considered her playing to be eccentric, in its cavalier disregard of the strictly notated rhythms and her shifting around a singing tone and phrasing it to trash any suggestion that bar lines had even existed or were necessary. Such nerve!

Scherzo from Brahms’s Sonata op. 5

It was contrary to Brahms, Brahms and his interpreters, the thousands of pages of his music pouring forth from printing presses, the deluge of large and small works in concert halls throughout the globe, the thousands of recordings kept at home and aired on media, the writings, the scholarship, theoreticians slaving over the hidden structure of his constructions, and people singing in the shower!

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Her son Nicholas Milroy (seated on right) pulled out an unpublished manuscript written by his uncle Robert, who had been a close friend of the composer. Robert Freund also was close to Friedrich Hegar and Gottfried Keller, Swiss writers whom Brahms highly esteemed, as well as Nietzsche, so one could surmise that weighty and insightful conversations would have transpired during nearly two decades of their friendship. Freund writes of his friend’s visits to Budapest in the 1880’s:

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“I called for [Brahms] daily at 2 p.m. at the Cafe Hungaria, and once, when I was late, he appeared immediately at my door after two. We went on walks, ate dinner together, and wandered up and down the Danube until near midnight. I was of course completely taken with the [second] piano concerto (then still unpublished), especially its last movement, and even though I didn’t say much, Brahms knew exactly how I felt. For hours we walked side by side without uttering a word. At times, however, he became talkative and reminisced, mostly of his younger years.”

While there wasn’t time to discuss philosophy with Freund, Abell mentions how he evoked Brahms’s memories of Sitting Bull: “I first saw Sitting Bull’s name in print in the account of the Custer massacre in June 1876. I well remember that year because I was putting the finishing touches on my first symphony.” Abell regailed Brahms with tales of the chief being presented at court to Queen Victoria, with Brahms’s urging the writer on: “That is a capital story and I insist on your telling it in your book!”

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A day after picking up the book, stumbling over the magpies and comparing Freund’s description to the ongoing banter of the text, a recording arrived of a BBC radio talk given in 1949 by Edith Heymann, a pianist who knew Brahms through her teacher Clara Schumann. Keeping in mind Brahms’s stinging wit and thorny character, I was surprised to hear this about someone whom Abell presented as an expert on Tennyson and other British writers:

As much of Brahms Inc. shunned Freund and anyone else who played in her remote style, I wondered how academics covered Abell’s revelations.

A British critic reviewing for an Oxford University journal in 1965 seems to equivocate between admiration and hinting at an underlying peculiarity:

“As for the remaining talks with Strauss, Puccini, Humperdinck, Bruch and Grieg, the author claims that their remarks are preserved word for word in his English translation, and occasionally (for verisimilitude?) he throws in a handful of words in the original language. It is no doubt the process of translation or perhaps the elevated tone of the discussions as a whole that gives a certain similarity of style to the various utterances recorded here. Occasionally we meet identical turns of phrase: Joachim speaks of Beethoven as ‘a crescendo of Mozart’, and Strauss refers to Brahms as ‘a crescendo of Beethoven.’ Brahms declares ‘No atheist has ever been or ever will be a great composer’, and later in the book Richard, I mean Wagner, tells Engelbert, I mean Professor Humperdinck: ‘No atheist has ever created anything of great and lasting value.’ The book abounds in misprints, but these and the misquotations are small blemishes on a unique work. No reader attracted to the book for whatever reason is likely to be deterred by minor details of this sort, though there may be some who will feel that at 25s, this is rather an expensive entertainment.”

Decades later a California-based Brahms specialist surmises in a Cambridge University reader: “Although Abell might well have take some liberty with Bruch’s remarks there is no reason to doubt the general accuracy of the composer’s ideas. (Abell’s recollections of Brahms himself have always been treated with some reserve by Brahms scholars, since he provides information of a kind Brahms hardly ever vouchsafed even to his intimate circle, and because of the ‘psychic’ orientation of the writer.)”

And another sighting of Abell came as recent 2000, courtesy of a Cambridge review:

“Curiously, there is no discussion of the work of Arthur Abell who directly asked composers about their inspirations and recorded their replies in his book, Talks with the Great Composers (1955).”

Nicholas Milroy was ten years old when he snapped a photo of Fanny Davies while he and his family bumped into her by the Rigi in the Swiss alps. She had been very close to Clara Schumann and Brahms, a proponent of his music as a new experience and an eager champion of Janacek and other composers who followed. Davies immediately recognized Freund after decades had passed and addressed her: “You are a true member of our inner circle.” (photo: l. Davies. ?, janacek, Adila Fachiri).

Davies, Newmarch, Janacek and Fachiri

After Abell’s decease in 1958 at age 90 his archive was bequeathed to the New York Public Library. Checking through the documents and finding aid for the stenographer’s transcription of three hours with Brahms and Joachim the librarian and myself noted that not one item pertained to Brahms, except for a Florida newspaper clipping that Abell had filed thirty years after the composer’s death that was expanded and regurgitated into a final salvo.

Allan Evans ©2014

 

 

 

 

Country & Eastern, or The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices Gets Solved

Until recently [1991, when this article was penned], few listeners in the prosperous and relatively safe West knew that an otherworldly singing was thriving over in Bulgaria. I first caught the Balkan blues six years ago [1985] in Berlin, close to the wall in the communist Eastern sector on a drab rainy day. Each Socialist Republic maintained a flagship store for hawking their worst nationalistic artifacts: kitsch, cutesy figurines and other alleged items of “culture”. Poland, Russia, Hungary and Bulgaria were in on this racket. A Bulgarian shop carried a few LP’s hard to find west of the wall. While you paid up with Monopoly money East Deutschmarks, a clerk hand-wrapped the record with straw paper. Tucked into my raincoat was a Balkanton LP of the Philip Koutev Ensemble’s arrangements. After a facelift, this same disc was packaged as Mysteries of the Bulgarian Voice, The Mystery on tour, well-known even to Madonna and George Harrison. Yet the lush and succulent singing was far from genuine. Where and what was the real music behind these adaptations?

In 1987 I arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria to play the blues and lecture on the minimalist music scene which swept away New York in the late 70’s, all very new to Bulgarians. Their government put me up in the swanky Grand Hotel, facing the parliament with the Ivan Nevsky cathedral just behind. Its doorman had a sailors cap and walrus mustache and at night some ladies would ask if I wanted “tak see”. Rising at six a.m. when all was still, the calm allowed notable buildings to shed their daily role as scenery and take on imposing airs:

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On breaks between lectures at the National Conservatory it was tempting to venture beyond the center and dive into outlying neighborhoods. Heading downtown on the main street one passed by a prominent mosque:

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and a side street led to a synagogue tacitly wedged in where its caretakers spoke the Ladino from their origins as Jewish citizens who left Spain after 1492. Its dome and façade are hinted at on the left:

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Arriving at the farmers’ market I checked to see what was still available in late February:

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At the market’s edge sat a khancho-mekhana (tavern) serving the restorative shkembe chorba (tripe soup) that resolved debilitating hangovers.

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As everyone was heavily smoking, it was impossible to breathe so I wandered off to a sleepy Tsar Simeon street, closely watched by a feline operative:

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It was a step into time travel, Ottoman splendor, and one solitary man returning from work looked aghast at a foreigner snapping pictures of many decrepit but intriguing homes.

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Once we found that German could get us through a conversation he advised caution as this suspicious activity might imply a later use for negative propaganda. My desire for tripe soup hadn’t abated after the khancho and we began discussing this new-found delicacy. Invited to his nearby home for a drink, he kindly wrote out his very own way of preparing the broth.

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The same kindness was returned by students and teachers at the Conservatory who reciprocated with a surprise for their first American, one lusting after their folk music. At days’ end a group of us set out for Bistritsa. a mountain village overlooking Sofia. Accompanying us was a folklorist mischievously smiling through his pointed oriental goatee, informing us that seven elderly women would receive us in their village’s community center where the dinner table had been set. Tiny bird-like Baba Menka, over eighty and resembling an ancient Roman matron depicted on frescoes. entered the rec-room with a home-made bread wider than her heaviest singing partner’s waist. At the table the Babas (grannies) still wore their blue day work smocks and demonstrated to their foreign visitor the right way to rub bread with chubritsa, a powdered blend of cayenne, fenugreek, wild thyme and summer savory which finds its way everywhere in Bulgarian cuisine. It later occurred to me that it resembled Georgian khmeli-tsuneli a spice blend, both possibly drawing on Central Asian traditions from where the Proto-Bulgars also originated.

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With it came tangy feta cheese shredded over tomato and cucumber salad, washed down with Rakia, their own potent anisette liqueur packed with more than 60% alcohol. As our heads started spinning, the Babas excused themselves, reappearing minutes later in traditional village costumes, singing antiphonally and dancing in a circle.

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It was soon clear why Orpheus was said to have come from Bulgaria. Their voices dovetailed each other above a droning tone. Such full-bodied and powerful harmonies were only hinted at by the Mysterious Voices, who now seemed too polished and sleek, their sparklingly clear tones caged within diluted rhythms. The Bistritsa Babas sang the way Aristotle described the Phrygian modal scale, which the Babas often used; “it makes men enthusiastic.”

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What was behind this, the authentic Bulgarian singing?

The mystery was probed the next day when I met Dr. Stoijan Djudjev, then 86 years old.

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The Bartók of Bulgarian folk music, he had devoted his life to its singing, instruments and their dances. “I studied linguistics in Paris during the 20’s. If modern Bulgarian has traces of ancient Greek languages, then why shouldn’t our folk music have retained it as well? This was my method for studying our music.” With all the shortages. it was hard to find LPs in Sofia of the real folk music, but some four or five were rounded up, including one with the old ladies of Bistritsa. Soon the Mystere des voix Bulgares was released in Switzerland and the US.

Summer of 1991: While the Bulgarian TV Ensemble and Balkana are touring abroad, thousands of villages throughout Bulgaria selected their best singers, musicians and dancers for their descent on a little mountain village east of Sofia: Koprivshtitsa. Every five years, this Balkan Woodstock explodes for three days on the second weekend of August. Baba Menka died a few years ago: worried over the Babas becoming a vanishing species, I grabbed a flight which stopped in Vienna for the Sofia connection. At the departure gate sat a man busily engaged in looking inconspicuous. Small headed, rat-faced, he wore dark: sunglasses, headphones, a sharply cut polyester suit, while a walk man rested on his locked briefcase as a prop: Bulgarian diplomatic ingenuity personified. Nearby a dozen freshly scrubbed blonde boys and girls wore “Elder” and “Sister” nametags in Cyrillic: Mormons from Utah! “We’re going over for a two year mission.” One Elder boasted of their grueling language seminar: “It was rough going, but we had Bulgarian classes 14 hours a day, 6 days a week for two months.” Maybe they needed three months as most couldn’t even begin to pronounce Koprivshtitsa which sounded like something you’d follow with gesundheit, but such meetings are normal now when heading towards the East. On any given trip chances are that you’ll rub shoulders with Bible salesmen or missionaries itching to hawk God’s aspirin to soothe the hangover when Atheism was dropped as the obligatory religion.

Four years earlier, the streets of Sofia were quiet. Those brave enough to speak openly looked over their shoulders while whispering about their run-ins with the secret police, schemes to marry foreigners or defect. The Communist Party building had been torched last winter. Like Lenin in Moscow, the embalmed corpse of their hero Dimitrov resided in a mausoleum across from the royal palace on a yellow brick road which runs along downtown Sofia. Now Dimitrov has joined contented worms underground while his old refrigerator is splattered with graffiti, the goosestepping honor guard gone. People seemed nervous but animated; makeshift stands of books, jewelry, stamps and objects were everywhere. One saw the Indian erotic manual, the Kama Sutra, being sold in a Bulgarian translation. Behind a roped-off area in a park, a group of homeless Bulgarians were on a hunger strike. “Break dance” was spray-painted onto a nearby wall. Many once-nerdy students now seemed to be trying their best to dress punk or hippie. New icons hung on the walls in a friend’s kid sister’s bedroom: Jim Morrison and Pink Floyd.

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Koprivshtitsa was slowly coming to life as people began flocking to this village.

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The first musician was sighted: a dark Gypsy led his chained muzzled bear across a stone bridge into the town’s square: the bear stood at full height on his hind legs whenever his mustachioed master played on the gadulka, a thin Balkan fiddle which hung on his waist. Any pleasure in watching the bear dance vanished when realizing the measures taken by the Gypsy to train his better half. The village houses were a few hundred years old, having massive barn doors leading to courtyards surrounded by high stone walls. These anti-Turk measures were once a necessity: the Ottomans held Bulgaria for 500 years and enjoyed collecting outrageously high taxes while arranging one-way trips to Istanbul for the town’s prettiest daughters to enter harem servitude. The festival is more like a fair, a gathering for Bulgarians with some foreigners straying about: above the town on the mountain-top eight stages go non-stop for twelve hours from Friday to Sunday. It all started in the 1940’s when two soldiers who began searching villages for old music and rituals wanted to assemble their finds. Many ancient Bulgarian traditions were being gradually destroyed when a heavy migration to the cities began in the 1950’s. While Bulgarian religion had always allowed pagan rites to continue for centuries by incorporating them, a tiny dose of sterile city life was enough to snuff them out since country living was less gloomy.

The government, always ready to manipulate nationalistic tendencies and distract the people from their oppression, gave the go-ahead for song festivals in the 1960’s, deeming them politically correct. Villagers once again took up their bagpipes and gadulkas while the Babas slipped on embroidered two-hundred year old costumes to sing out their village’s soul. Folklorists chose Koprivshtitsa in 196 5 for their first national happening, and since 1971 it has followed a five-year plan.

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It takes a good twenty minute uphill hike on the town’s stone streets to reach a paved road leading past grazing goats and horses into the fir and pine-ringed meadows with its scattered stages and narrow paths. Vendors set up tents or operated out of vans and East-block autos. Behind the tents are wooden sheds housing the famed Turkish toilets, where you plant yourself firmly on stone footprints and aim. The smell of grilling shish-kebab mixed with blaring cassettes of Yugoslavian pop, the Balkan version of Nashville which truck drivers feed on during their long hauls. In the roving crowd were Gypsies leading their begging bears, flocks of costumed Babas, folk-dance fanatics, Westerners – easily spotted in T -shirts with Cyrillic writing, Bulgarians -in Western T -shirts, mummers lugging their three-foot high animal masks with huge cowbells strapped onto their waists: 17,000 performers, 5,000 spectators.

There were problems this year. The government is now led by the opposition, yet the deposed dictator’s bureaucrats are still entrenched. No money was appropriated for the group of experts and folklorists who have planned the festival since its inception, and the little that was coughed up at the last minute couldn’t pay for the most famous groups. Villagers from the Yambol region didn’t seem to care, as they sent over a thousand musicians and occupied a stage throughout the event. The festival started up at nine a.m Friday. Each village was given a few minutes to sing two or three pieces. Eight ladies from the mountains near Dimitrovgrad wearing hortensia in the hair belted out their raw harmonies and whoops. They faced the crowd with hands on hips, a peasant’s stance, in two groups. I followed them as they left the stage to sit away from the blaring sun. Their costumes were bewilderingly ornate, hand embroidered in heavy wool: “This was my great grandmother’s- two hundred years old.” One Baba sized me up right away as a foreigner: ‘You’re from America?l” she smiled. “My husband left for America thirty-two years ago when I was pregnant. I tried to have the Red Cross search for him, but nothing ever came of it.” She sighed, but smilingly invited me to her village.

Koukeri: Mummers

A shamanic ritual with mummers known as Koukeri, said to have its origins in the Dionysiac rites, was revving up on the next stage. While a bagpiper bleated away, his drummer thundered out eleven beat rhythms on his waist-drum. The village’s men wore painted masks with protruding phallic noses, leading a wooden horse whose mouth gaped open and snapped shut. It was the Hunt of the Spirit, which represented the movement of the world. Circling and dancing around the beast, the sound of their cowbells nearly obliterated the music. The dance became more frenzied as they stomped in time to the drummer and began raining heavy blows with cut staffs on their neighbor’s padded backs.

Many villagers went barefoot in order to save their shoes for the performance. A group of mummers from Bourgas, by the Black Sea, readied themselves. Dressed in black vests, cowbells, wool legging on their shins, they mounted three foot high glittering headdresses and adjusted fake wool beards. Some of the masks were made from the heads of animals once slaughtered for village feasts, exaggerated in their grotesqueness by being mounted with fur and enormous horns. A goat mask symbolizing Satan: the Mummers encircled the Devil, rendering him powerless with their White

Soon after a helicopter descended and out onto the television’s stage stepped Zhelo Zhelev the Prime Minister. The crowd cheered wildly at his arrival as he is from the opposition party. Zhelev began by addressing them as “Brothers and sisters … “. Afterwards Dimo Dimov, the new Minister of Culture came up to the mike with a written-out speech which he drily delivered. Dimov, a top notch violinist himself, prefers to spend government money on classical music and is not very concerned with folk music. Many are worried about his attitude, as it threatens the survival of Koprivshtitsa and other festivals.

Noise came from the far-off Yambol stage where their mummers were off on a demon hunt, led by a rider on a wooden horse who was whipped constantly on its rump. A ‘bear’ came on the stage, symbolizing the forces of health, proved that the hunt succeeded by removing the demons away from a mother (a man dressed as a woman) holding her sick child. Afterwards, an unending stream of singers and instrumentalists took hold of most stages, with less mummery going on.

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The sun sank behind a far-off mountain and we headed down for another ritual: pleading with the town hotel’s headwaiter for a table and a meal. He was very sorry, but no tables were available. After keeping us in suspense for awhile, he did us a great favor by finding one. While we ate, several neighboring tables remianed empty. The bill seemed reasonable but shocked our Bulgarian friends; as there is no menu nor prices posted, you take what you get and pay what they demand. While chewing on kebab, a folklorist came by with the news that tonight the Yambol groups were going to dance and play all over the streets. Down the river’s road away from the center of town, the performers were put up in tents cordoned off in a muddy field segregated by their regions. “They don’t mix much, because one district wouldn’t know the dances or songs from another.” We searched in vain for the Yambolers. Sounds mysteriously emanated: ahead in a large tent packed with Babas who, lying side by side on their backs, sang one piece after another in the dark. Back on the road, we hit a crowd drinking beer, dancing wildly and singing all night long. If any doubt lingered as to the festival being a staged spectacle by people mechanically aping their ancestors way of life, their joyously frantic dancing and the Babas soaring above their tent in song hit me with the importance and meaning it has for them. They rarely have the chance to leave their villages, and this trip to show their most cherished possession – their music – to everyone is a great event in their lives. All throughout the festival, most of the listeners at each stage were the performers themselves.

On Saturday as the crowd swelled even further. an unimaginable apparition materialized: Turkish Women were openly strolling in harem pants with kerchiefed heads. Until the opposition took over, it was illegal to dress, speak or live as Turks. The secret police kept tabs on the few Mosques which were allowed to function. In the 1980’s the government sent goon squads to villages having Turkish minorities. The Turks were lined up before tables in the main squares where officials doled out new Bulgarian names: those refusing to abandon their Turkish names were shot dead on the spot. Nowt hey have their own newspaper. At this festival of Bulgarian-only music, a few dozen Turks were sprawled out on a slope behind a kebab tent, dancing away to their hypnotic rhythms while thrusting their hips and bellies at one another holding their outstretched arms high in the air, the women wriggling their huge breasts at their Elvises.

It was a big comedown to cross paths with hairy-legged vegetarians from the US who perfectly copy the choral singing. Many of them are fluent in Bulgarian, as were the japanese members of Koga, a Tokyo-based Bulgarian dance association, who content themselves with knowing and reveling in the many dances. These Bostonian wanna-be babas sing faithful renditions, but as pseudo-Bulgarians their tone is nowhere as full or convincing as the Babas. Chalk it up to their city-bred ideologies or never having needed to kill chickens for dinner, it showed the cult-like following which any great art inevitably draws.

One of the main events came on Sunday morning. Minus Baba Menka, the Bistritsa singers stepped out and proved themselves to be one of the festival’s high points. They sang for only fifteen minutes yet left everyone Koprivshtitsa began winding down as the performers headed back home on a caravan of government buses. The train to Sofia was crowded: an adjacent row of seats had a big card game going. One of the players left his bottle of moonshine on the floor and it overturned, filling the car with a pungent herbal fragrance. Ladies were dragging bags filled with preserves and vegetables back to Sofia from the garden plots at their country bungalows and dachas. The city seemed hectic after Koprivshtitsa but a bit soulless. I longed for the three day immersion which ended too soon, the ceremonies in which roasted goat meat was offered by ravishing young women who sat sewing, the mummers, and above all, the Babas, who seemed to have the best sense of what really mattered in life and could size up whatever happened before their shrewd eyes. Their honest work and living with their customs allowed them to see the West as but a source of both good and bad, unlike many Bulgarians who delude themselves into believing that all their problems will be solved by Western money and technology but not from within.

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I grabbed a taxi and reached Bistritsa in twenty minutes. Little private hotels now dot the hills along the Vitusha mountains. In the community center, just as it was four years ago, the Babas come in every night after a hard day of working to rehearse. Foreign guests are no longer a novelty: this night several English singers came to videotape their practice session and sing for them. Unlike four years ago, the old ladies were now joined by young women from the village who were foxy as hell and eager for some disco, yet loving their music as much as any other. Standing side by side with the old ladies they are slowly absorbing the Babas’ timeless art and a humanity which the last forty years of oppression failed to degrade.

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While some of Koprivshtitsa is pure but good theater, it is comforting to see that there are still some Babas to go around and new ones in the making.

And the mystery? Composers unable to write freely due to the regime’s prohibition of unofficial musical styles still had to produce in order to get paid: they arranged folksongs that the Koutev Ensemble and others introduced and the rest is history. But at the last moment of the 1991 festival, an ethnomusicologist explained that the National Academy of Sciences housed thousands of pre-war field recordings and most were deteriorating. It still needs to be addressed before Bulgaria loses even more of its remarkable heritage.

–©Allan Evans 1991, revised 2014

A Labor of Hate: Sonic Depth Technology

“You must be doing this all as a labor of love.” It’s an oft-heard comment that has to be politely stomached. The truth lies somewhere else. I utterly hate, loathe, and despise all who trash Music by dragging it into an inoffensive state of near-death, of their dousing perfume onto a putrefaction they produce in the name of culture by eliminating noise. Noise is as beatific as silence.

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Ossip Mandelstam referred to a  shum vremeni – the noise of Time. I object to Time getting formaldehyded in the way  a noble animal is neutered so as to behave more docilely and blend into living room politeness: a metaphoric reminder of the repressed pathologies at large being masked in alleged civility.

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For far too long, and with far too few signs of improvement on the horizon, the teeming masses containing the sounds of time are deprived of their noise, a brutal violation that destroys their higher regions where  colors of overtones and their refractions ecstatically dance in an ether that purveys music into selected souls who channel it through their bodies by touching something or releasing it from their mouths.

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We have a body of beings captured alive in their sounds, lives fully lived, usually more so than most of us indigenes. What their legacies offer to anyone caring for music-making is as indispensable as it is proscribed by larded lairds who limit themselves to paper when attempting to come to terms with something that cannot be expressed outside of itself through any other media. Think of how Delacroix described his friend Chopin:

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“The master knows well what he is doing. He laughs at those who pretentiously speak of people and things by means of imitative agreement. He does not know this puerility. He knows that music is a human feeling and human manifestation. It is a human soul that thinks, it’s a human voice that expresses itself, when “surrounded”, attacked so to speak by his emotions, conveys and expresses them through his feelings. He does not have to define what causes him to feel, for music is beyond that. Therefore, music cannot specify them, it does not pretend to. Here is his greatness: in no way could it ever speak in prose.”

Imagine being told in your eagerness that in order to learn the history of Art,  all one needed would be a smeary photocopy of any old painting, even better if it’s a black and white run-off, ’cause you can get a color code with numbers superimposed over the picture: just hover over it with your finger and head downward to the inset.  And please do not under any circumstances ever visit any museums to view the originals. All you need is included on your handout. And this is what happens to Music when recordings are omitted as a resource during professional training, leaving one  a prisoner of the page and locked into a dullness of present-day mindsets. But there were damn good reasons for  shellac’s banishment. Before the newly rediscovered an adored vinyl, this form of bakelite was the media for containing sound.

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Early pioneering attempts to elevate an obsolete media to  resemble clean vinyl playback bore muffled mouthfuls stripped of any bacon frying background noise that ended up leaving the poor music reduced to cultural roadkill: a body that once no longer displays signs of life. So many musicians whose artistry  built cultures and changed lives were being bound and gagged out of the fear that an imaginary multitude would experience extreme discomfort in hearing the hoary sounds that contained the genuine moment captured in the only possible way.

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Take Rachmaninoff for example. A musical God who acted on a whim to become a concert pianist after having fled the Soviets for safety in the United States. Turning down an invite to conduct the Boston Symphony, Rachmaninoff put together recital programs and was asked to record his works and others, such as Chopin, Schumann,  and Liszt’s.

When you hear how the Golliwog’s Cakewalk by Debussy sounds in the hands of the status quo, you confront thoughtless gusto that carelessly smudges chords into gestures and boasts a tasteless unbalanced tone quality, all carried out with the best of intentions. Oh, but Rachmaninoff’s remarkable relic was submerged for decades: it was recorded by a horn as the mic hadn’t been invented yet! So one had to struggle and mentally replace what was lacking in the gagged transfers. Decades of disgust with these sonic Rachmaninoff restorations came alongside ongoing forays in which we tried as best as possible to capture the sound’s life. A happy accident one day opened up a new path, exposing obscure groove walls that were otherwise neglected, yielding up the fullest tones imaginable, transcending any alleged limits of the recording horn. We loaded Rachmaninoff’s Debussy onto our Sonic Depth turntable and this performance announced itself:

 

One inspiring clue lay safely outside the narrow precincts of classical music. The late Nick Perls, son of a noted art dealer, had amassed a collection of pre-War acoustic Country Blues 78s, marketed as Race Records to be sold exclusively within the Black community. His worship of their music led him to create the Yazoo label, a role model for all those who needed a way to keep the music alive and healthy, even on the worse possible worn and damaged specimens.

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My ongoing lifelong adventure to lure the music out of obsolete groove walls  and into sunlight touched upon the earliest Chopin specialist to have been recorded. Vladmir de Pachmann (1848-1933) is all over our website and we published two CDs of a man who privately studied with Chopin’s assistant and outdid Victor Borge with his antics on and off stage. A connoisseur of jewels and piano colors, Pachmann released the bel canto singing that obsessed Chopin and made its way into his music and style. Kept in the hands of well-intentioned but obsessive collectors, his legacy languished and when appearing, it arrives wrapped in tritely drab sonic attire, an affront to someone who astonished his admirers and listeners through his unique palate of tone color. Their obsessive stranglehold over Pachmann was buttressed by opinions deriving from faulty restorations that fueled their remarkable and inaccurate flights of fancy. Here is a moment of Liszt’s paraphrase from Verdi’s Rigoletto served properly with hardly any intrusive  background noise:

 

Could this purling muffled mess have driven listeners wild? We got a hold of the original 1911 one-sided disc and subjugated it to a new phase that was explored today for the first time:

 

This new approach opens up a Pandora’s box of possibilities for the piano and beyond and Arbiter will begin have to get engaged by revisiting all of our early projects and give them a new life they deserve in the guise of future downloads. A thin separation of Love and Hate will be mingling on our blog and website. Others have made headway. Anonymous souls sometimes get the right software and use it tastefully: here’s one who brings forth James Joyce, alive and well:

Joyce reading from his Finnegan’s Wake

Stay tuned for more.

Allan Evans, the eighth of April, 2014.

 

Eyes and ears at Santa Maria in Trastevere

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Each time you approach Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, Roma, its sultry light, shadows, pontifically gesturing statues and earthen tones strike you differently. All change according to mood: yours and its.

The basilica gained a new portico in 1702 when architect Carlo Fontana studded the entrance walls with stele bearing ancient inscriptions. Above the entrance’s balustrade are four figures rudely frozen by a sculptor during the dance of their oration: Saints Callisto, Cornelio, Giulio, and Calepodio, attracting attention of all flocking through their piazza.

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Stepping inside for the first time a mosaic from the Byzantine era confirms your suspicion of having left Rome’s baroque façade for another existence, one no longer capable of imposing any chronological disparity. Our tendency to believe in a myth of progress is dispelled as time flows here as a presence uniting images and forms covering half a millennia.

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Pietro Cavallini, a contemporary of Giotto’s, avoided the style that his Tuscan based colleague would develop by lessening an unnatural divinity in his subjects’ representation through gestures and spatial perspective. Cavallini’s Christ captures a late Byzantine expression that implicates mystical transcendence.

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I first arrived in Roma armed with a folio of blank music paper to fill with new compositions during the summer of 1979. It lay untouched as the piazza drew me into its fold and one day, a spontaneous music overcame me at 6:15 pm as nearby bells became unchained and found me rushing down from the attic on via della Cisterna to a full immersion into their sound. A forceful insistent rhythm excited a layer of overtones that embraced every square inch of the entire piazza’s acoustic space, etching itself into body and being. I sought to arrive daily at that hour as a purification rite and returned a year later armed with a cassette recorder to capture a force that my musical sketches hadn’t a chance in Hell of approaching.

Following three cycles, a single melancholy tone dissipated the accumulated din, to emerge as a fading tender nothingness, soothing in its ebb. An entranced state switched as one’s consciousness was dragged into an undesired reality.

 

On a return visit in 2011 one crucial bell was missing: the former celestial havoc was now reduced to a cheapened impotence. After searching for the cassette recording, it turned up on a few leftover minutes following a 1980 visit I taped with the 79-year-old pianist Aldo Mantia who described significant secrets about his teacher Vladimir de Pachmann that he discovered in the 1920s.

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Other sounds unique to Roma caught Franz Liszt’s ear.

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Liszt experienced the city by living in its center, atop Monte Mario, and in Tivoli at the Villa d’Este. Aside from courting the Vatican to obtain a divorce for his mistress, he heard the zampognari (bagpipers) who annually descended at Christmas from their mountain towns, walking all the way into Roma’s historic center, playing novenas and holiday airs.

Zampognari

Liszt was so taken by the music that he orchestrated selections into his Christus Oratorio, a work considered  by Busoni to have been Liszt’s masterpiece (so claimed his pupil Edward Weiss in a conversation we once had).

 

Soon after Liszt’s passing in 1886, a pre-mic recording horn captured the festive music in a 1916 studio session by unnamed performers who play a Pastorale. One imagines that they very well could have been in their thirties or older at the time of the recording and had learned this musical tradition from their shepherd fathers. The striking resemblance may very well represent the playing that attracted Liszt. But take it with a grain of salt: miracles often risk being unmasked as mirages.

 

–Allan Evans ©2013

Happy 200th Birthday to Joe Green (a.k.a. Giuseppe Verdi)!

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The great Italian opera traditions that exploded in the 19th century are primarily due to Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). Not only were singers and their public smitten by his new approach and the association of his name with the Risorgimento’s nationalistic purposes but composers such as Franz Liszt were arranging complex and layered operatic scenes for virtuosic piano solos. One enigmatic master, Vladimir de Pachmann, recorded the Rigoletto paraphrase three times: here’s his second version, recorded in 1911 across the river from Philadelphia in Camden, New Jersey, playing into a horn that engraved his sounds into a wax master that later was plated to stamp out shellac 78rpms.

 

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Pachmann’s dates (1848-1933) overlap a sizable part of Verdi’s maturity. His deft capturing of Liszt’s translation of the excerpt into a solo performance attests to an informed and and lyrical sense guided by a taste that understood his opera genre, possibly familiar through performances in the late 19th century.

1901 may seem like a distant time, unattainable to go directly to Verdi himself, but one of his great creators and champions, Francesco Tamagno (1850-1905) was recorded two years after the composer’s death. Born in Torino (Turin) to an innkeeper, a vivid description is in Mario Corsi’s biography of the singer:

“Once there were many trattorias around the lower class Porta Palazzo section, but  one run by Carlo Tamagno, under the insignia proclaiming it as The Centaur along the edge of the Dora, enjoyed a certain fame: above all due to the culinary connoisseurs who appeared at any hour of the day for an excellent fish fry, which was caught at the moment, in a net, always available, just steps away on the river bank, for which the trattoria became commonly known as pesci vivi (“live fish”), and also because the host was a simpatico giant of a man, a bit coarse in his manners but reserved and good-hearted just like the wine in his barrels, a great gentleman.

“The clients knew his weak spot: they knew he was proud to possess a beautiful tenor voice – and therefore there was nothing lacking in his singing, not even lacking the passion of singing, so when in the mood and finding the right moment, he was able to offer a taste of  his voice, which gave him the same pride as his fish and wine.”

Not long after the birth of his son Francesco:

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Italy became embroiled in a movement to gain independence and unity, spearheaded by Garibaldi and Verdi on the musical front. Francesco Tamagno’s talent was noted at once in such an environment and his art and career developed rapidly, leading to North and South American tours. Verdi created his role Otello for Tamagno, and his interpretation became a startling emblem of Verdi’s new music.

Many recordings by Italian singers began to proliferate as soon as the Gramophone & Typewriter Co. set up their studio inside a Milanese hotel room in 1901, nabbing Enrico Caruso and other current stars. Tamagno was ill, in retirement, and could not venture to the studio, so two years after Verdi’s death, the G&T crew carted their gear to his holiday villa and in 1904 another session took place in Roma. These examples of his art reveal the depth of Verdian drama and style in a way that later singers rarely experience or approach: a few excerpts are from Otello – recorded within two years of the composer’s passing. Our newly created restoration technology makes his voice so present that the demands it inflicted on the fragile recording horn are palpable. Listeners are advised to pretend the background shellac noise is a rainfall outside the Villa.

An aria in Il Trovatore, Di quella pira, serves as an introduction to his voice’s body, control, projection, and drama:

The surface of this aria’s message and style would deepen as Verdi worked with Tamagno and developed their Otello. Hear its creator sing the Death of Otello: Verdi is above Tamagno, who would otherwise tower over him.

A very expressive photo of the elderly composer with his dynamo interpreter reveals their affinity for one another’s art and character.

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The demand for remarkable tenors grew and is still exemplified by Caruso, who hailed from Napoli which had  existed for centuries as  a Bourbon colony under the Spanish, ruled as their Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

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His songful Neapolitan dialect is far from Northern Italy’s and a 1915 recording of the pop song O Sole Mio displays a Spanish holdover by moving to a habanera rhythm. Caruso’s tenor is caught in a new restoration:

Caruso was dragged through a commercialization process, one that neglected to fully document his roles or go beyond popular kitsch yet he remains as a cultural icon, as does the later and lesser Pavarotti but Tamagno’s art outlasts the limits of their style and musicianship, a singer who probably sang himself to death by stressing his body for Art, dying at age 55. Here we close by offering Otello’s entrance: Esultate (recorded one hundred ten years ago, in 1903), a direct opening into Verdi’s surroundings:

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©Allan Evans 2013

Roots of Shreds: Italian pop does the Beatles.

 

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Teresa Sterne: guiding genius of Nonesuch Records when it took flight entered my life when Arbiter first started, around 1995. She was a mentor who adamantly did her utmost to help me become civilized and insisted I tune in to Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger. Twain had been a mentor to her since she grew up during the Depression in Borough Park, Brooklyn and found affordable editions of his works at a nearby grocery store. This precedent followed her as she developed an inexpensive and extraordinary record label to document the finest new music of all times, remarkble pre-20th century repertoire, revive Scott Joplin (looming behind her in the photo); she elevated World Music out of its  shlock status of the International bin.

Our friendship continued until her life’s premature end. Some time before she took ill, Tracey handed over a cassette  from an Italian radio program, saying it was just too much for words. A first listening found  an accented dissecting of the Lennon-McCartney song Dear Prudence abetted by a pianist:

It  struck me that something sublimely ironic was at play and perhaps more would emerge, but  anyway I kept quiet, sitting back and enjoying time’s passing, eventually seeing the flow of this genre morph into shreds:

One wondered, just who was this mysterious singer?

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Italianizing Liverpudlians just like her Roman ancestors spread their architecture, law, and style throughout an expanding empire, her bio depicts a champion of avant-garde music, opera, one whose life was cut short in 1991 at age  forty-nine: Alide Maria Salvetta. And her pianist  was Antonio Ballista, noted colleague of Ennio Morricone and an accomplished musician of many genres.

Tracey may have cried Uncle by the time this cassette hit  mid-point but taking it home, a surprise came up in the last minutes when an RAI announcer stated that Ms. Salvetta, in the shoes of a singer, would now put on a pianist’s shoes to play a duo version of Back in the USSR.

 

My deep regret is that Robert Ashley didn’t get his hands on Salvetta to sing his texts and collide with his keyboard wizard Blue Gene Tyranny.

 ©Allan Evans 2013

 

 

 

Ludwig’s Gnome

What a dizzying array of history swarms around the legendary pianist Frederic Lamond (1868-1948). Like his older colleague Eugen D’ Albert, he was a Scots who made Germany his primary home. This little bio fleshes out the pile up of historic figures he bombinated with. Cosy in Berlin, Lamond reigned as a leading interpreter of Beethoven’s music from the end of the 19th century up until the 1930s.

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Shortly before he passed, Lamond was featured on the BBC, reading from a script, in which he recalled the youthful emotion of meeting Liszt and becoming his pupil. Whether he heard Liszt play is another matter and neither is there any recollection of private lessons received, so like many others, the atmosphere of contact was one finding the young pianist being coached by Liszt to be more expressive, urging from by a director for a film or theater. Liszt’s final visit to London coincided with Lamond’s debut and his master’s attendance added allure to the event. Lamond’s moving account seems to aim at transmitting through osmosis the mythic kiss Beethoven bestowed on the young Liszt into Lamond’s psyche. His delivery, instead, immediately raises suspicions about just how well he ingested Beethoven’s art.

Like may Scots for whom English is a second language, Lamond acquired proficiency in German and knew a bit of Russian. His Masters Voice grabbed him early on to document his Beethoven. What really strikes is how he clarifies all the melodic moments, their appearances in all registers, and deftly calculated accents. Here is an  example of his Beethoven, a work entitled Scherzo, implying wit, humor, lightness, surprises, a Beethovenian jest:

Beethoven Sonata 31.3.2 

When did the joke start? Did Lamond have any idea that something could be amusing, tritefully witty, that there was a tossed-off barb in the middle?  How about Edouard Risler, born five years later?

Luckily he was Alsatian, which made it easy for him to co-exist in Germanic and French cultures. He played the Beethoven sonatas as a cycle and is ignored as his recordings came too early, on an obsolete format. His Beethoven chases its tail; Lamond chases his reputation:

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Lamond tries hard to show off how serious and important Beethoven can be, but unlike the healthier mental and cultural diet of Risler, Lamond’s proper constipation prevents Beethoven from reaching beyond his own pedantry. Lamond’s rolled bass notes sound clumsily timed, visceral returns after chugging down beer.

But this is Beethoven’s lighter side and we chart the depths he aimed for and reached, even entirely bypassing the 19th century in his late works. Chopin spoke of having disliked Beethoven’s music but made a strong exception for the Twelfth sonata, which seems to have inspired the design of his own Second. Its final movement has to resolve the emotional darkness of a funeral march and a set of variations into a flurry of setting everything down, reshaping the dramatic chaos into a cosmic release. One pianist who captured this effort was the Russian-English Mark Hambourg,

who divined what Beethoven omitted in words:

op. 26.4

Lamond recorded the sonata nearly at the same time as Hambourg:

Lamond plays Beethoven op. 28 IV

Artur Schnabel soon eclipsed Lamond, starting in Berlin and spreading his newly revived Beethoven globally through concerts and recording all the sonatas. Recently a Beethoven Third Concerto with Lamond in concert was published  by Marston Records and it most likely will represent a better idea of his art, as his stodgy studio playing only offers the sterile mic any musical tributes.

As a teacher, one pupil returned in anguish for his second lesson. Earlier, the young Dane Borge Rosenbaum

 

was stopped every bar being told that all was wrong! He felt acute intestinal pains each time he returned to ring the master’s bell and had to stop torturing himself. Returning to Copenhagen, he reinvented himself as Victor Borge, who had heard Ignaz Friedman in Berlin and found him to be the very model of a musician and person.

But as Frederic Lamond was an important Beethoven performer we can learn a great deal from his playing in what not to do,  as many mannerisms may have been aped from the luminaries he heard such as von Bülow and others. Surely this Beethoven expert, teacher, editor, recording artist and international celebrity knew well Schiller’s text in Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, mentioning that all men should be brothers? It may not have been on his front burner whilst writing the following to his British manager Ibbs & Tillett:

 

If you could arrange some engagcments, say 4 or 5, to fit in with the Historical Series in London I would now book dates definitely at the Wigmore Hall. The engagements would have to be booked on the understanding that I do not play for less than 40 guineas. The difficulty is that my business arrangements would have to be handled individually, and my name not sent out with a crowd of Jew pianists, Jew violinists and Jcw singers, but lbbs & Tillett have always steadily refused to accept my suggestions and here I am, dissatisfied with my work in England, which is not worthy of my reputation as an artist. Are you waiting for me to become circumcised, because it is rather late in the day and I am afraid I cannot oblige you? I don’t wish ln anyway to irritate you, but you must try and see my point of view. That old conservatoire ideas of waiting for engagements have gone to the wall, and at the present day you have got to hunt for them, otherwise there is nothing doing. What about the Mosel tour or the successors of Mosel? What about the Beecham Concerts in London? I read about a series of subscription pianoforte recitals in GIasgow, which you seem to be unaware’ of. I am going to South America in the course of the next few weeks, and would like to have your
answer before setting out on my journey. (22 April 1935)

A few years later, Germany became a bit uncomfortable for Lamond and he returned to England, a sacred cow at pasture.

Allan Evans © 2013

 

Czech modernism

Beethoven exhausted the string quartet. Thoroughly. It took nearly a century for Bartók to stand up and continue its destiny. In the interim, Brahms burned untold numbers of his manuscripts to allow three to appear, each with characteristic slight-of -hand harmonic gear-shifts yet padded with lumbering rhythms, sounding a bit bloated despite all his efforts. Brahms did far better when he had more than four players to contend with.

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Brahms was attracted to Hungary but the Czech composer Dvořák was attracted to Brahms’s music and did wonders with its shape. His Hungary turned out to be the United States, where he resided for about four years in New York and out in a Czech community in Iowa.

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Dvořák heard Black music and was smitten by gospel singing and their rhythms, harnessing a bit into his language. One quartet, whose name became sanitized from the N word into American, was recorded by his son-in-law Josef Suk and the Bohemian String Quartet he founded and led. While Vienna sailed on as the cultural light of the late 19th century, its outsiders were the ones innovating and avoiding being boxed up in the status quo. Here is a taste of the quartet’s 1928 recording:

Dvorak String Quartet op. 96, first movement, by the Bohemian String Quartet

It sounds episodic, like late Beethoven, and springs out from the Brahmsian three-piece suit to move more freely, flirting with folk music while carrying on the classical principles. The Bohemians are the closest we can get to a composer they championed in concerts throughout non-Czech Europe.

A Scottish-Italian composer and pianist, Giovanni Sgambati, was a Roman pupil of Liszt and was recorded in a movement from Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in 1908 (announced by Sgambati: uno…due.) Italian musical life was dominated by the voice so it took a Sgambati to wake them up to Beethoven and German music. He and his band are showing us the gulf of a modern thinker at the keyboard stuck with slippery sliding string players whose practice was soon to end.

Sgambati and his quartet play Dvorak

 

Sgambati quintet

As old string playing and its 19th century were moribund and finally put down in World War I, another  composer arose: Janacek the Moravian. He transformed speech and content into sound, no longer enslaved by themes and their past as expressive narrative. By endowing pitches into wordless speech, Janacek could evoke states of mind and emotions. Milan Kundera, the son of a pupil, mentions Janacek’s role in his Testaments Betrayed (p. 186):

The permanent coexistence of contradictory emotions gives Janacek’s music its dramatic quality; dramatic in the most literal sense of the term: this music does not evoke a narrator telling a tale, rather, it evokes a stage set on which many different characters are simultaneously present, speaking, confronting each other; the seed of this dramatic space is quite often found within a single melody itself.

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Kundera once had to choose between following his creativity into music composition or literature and while we appreciate the outcome, his writings on music elevate his ideas far above scholars and pen-pushers through an insight not only sharpened by an innate understanding of art in relation to socio-aesthetics, but from the presence of a pianist father who had studied with the composer.

When I asked Kundera about his father, he tersely offered that all he had to say was in his Testaments and that he owned no recordings by him. Was he was planning to eventually cover the music of his early life and family, or mounting a defense to keep everyone away? Perhaps some day we will find out and hopefully before it is too late.

After a search, the only known recording of Kundera playing solo piano music was retrieved: a pair of polkas by Smetana, from Prague circa 1949, one year into their Communist puppet regime controlled by Moscow. Kundera’s playing stands apart from prevalent styles through its informed structure, wit, taste, and appreciation of  a thorny modernity that would be manipulated by Janacek and others yet to arrive:

Smetana Polka 1

Evolving out of Smetana’s segments and articulated themes came Janacek’s argumentative and reacting language. While his music is now broadly accessible, in the late 1940s it was rather a confined local affair. Before their regime worsened, Kundera and Bretislav Bakala, a fellow pupil of Janacek’s, made it into the studio just in time: one of their projects displays the pianist and conductor in Defiance, a late work by Janacek, a capriccio for piano (left hand alone) and chamber ensemble, its first recording:

Bakala Kundera

Their playing projects the ingenuity of Janacek’s microcosm, in part from their direct contact with him at the time it was composed. It reaches beyond our present’s cosiness to peer inside his vast personal music world, one that evokes enigmas like Bartók.

Janacek Capriccio excerpt

The world awaits more information and sounds from these people. One path that opened at this time led to Hašek’s The Good Soldier Schweik and Kurt Weill’s Three-Penny Opera, which will take on new dimensions after you experience Janacek. Writers such as Gombrowicz

Gombrowicz Witold Fot. Paczowski Bohdan

picked up the thread, leading into Existentialism, the kingdom later claimed by Sartre, who became yet another dull conventional disputant.

Weill: The Cannon Song

©Allan Evans 2013

 

 

 

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