Sitting in a hot Adriatic Italian town with roosters and hunting dogs making their presence known out the window, a time of capturing a closed neighboring country’s music came to mind. The heat obliges me to ask In a gentlemanly way if you believe that classical music is more important or substantial than all other formats for content and expression. And if you feel so and snub what’s usually served up as Ethnic or World music, you might be right in some way but certainly not here so if this isn’t in your interest, your exit is but a click away
Unbeknownst to most classical musicians, a parallel universe exists by its side, inspiring and denoting profound historic and stylistic shifts, and if you play with them, they will tell you things that no goddamn printed page can ever hope to imply.
So. . . just how far back in time can we reach via sound? There is the onion of Albanian music. Their dictatorship froze an isolated group of cultures after the 1940s that are identical to the earliest recordings from the 1920s.
Obsessively glued to a radio in Italy’s Marche region, I intercepted Radio Tirana’s local programming beamed across the Adriatic. With a cassette ever ready throughout the 1980s, some hypnotic moments wafted over:
Unlike the even steadiness next door, Albanians shape their rhythm into a wild Balkan structure that sounds disjointed, yet is remarkably precise, elusive and unsettling to anyone lackng a rock-solid sense of beat.
An unexpected visit from Chinese and Mongols still echoes a thousand years or so onward in a dance requiring at least three legs as four beats morph into a group of nine, then ten before hugging onto a prominent four beat pattern:
We have no sonic evidence of how Greek tragedy choruses were chanted out but this may bring us up ever so close as their neighbors use prosody and multiple voices in a far earlier practice than the pile-up of sounds we recently peeled through.
But within hearing range is an example by the master-mind Bartók, who aside from having been one of our greatest composers and pianists, also invented the deep science of Ethnomusicology. One of his rare discs was released by the Hungarians, a performance of excerpts from his Hungarian Peasant Dances for solo piano. My recent discovery of the original recording brought forth sounds that the dull dubs accessed by the Budapest scholars failed to reveal. An excerpt, recorded on a Pleyel piano by Bartók himself in Paris, 1936:
Bartók crossed class lines to live, eat, breathe, and record the folk, the happiest days of his life, he always said. City dwellers wouldn’t dare venture beyond a trade of money for peasants’ goods at a market, whereas Bartók’s frightening entrance into their remote villages, a city dweller probably out to collect taxes or make their lives worse, soon evaporated as he set up an Edison cylinder recorder and cajoled them into offering their song. Note the shy ones peering over the fence:
Ligeti, a fellow Transylvanian, loved to admit how he composed elements from African music into his piano etudes, daring anyone to find them. Bartók left a smoking gun in the case of a section in his Improvisations for piano. Here we have a unique performance he gave after a radio program that was preserved, a work otherwise unrecorded by its composer:
One inadvertently eavesdrops on conversations, eyes discarded leaflets, witnesses unexpected scenes. A pile-up of transitory collisions somehow etch themselves to reside within you, shaping one’s destiny. Some people manage to ignore it all. I hold on, to everything possible – written out, placed in a notebook. With time’s scalpel, here is a sliced cross-section of what the breezes blew by.
Chapter One: Richman and Louie, employees at Newsweek Magazine
This conversation took place at a time when Philip Glass and Steve Reich actively began composing what became known as Minimalist Music.
scene one: men’s room, during urination:
R: Yessir, [in a sermonizing tone] Old Man Mahood’s gone! He found somethin’ better. He’s goin’. Yessir.
L: Hey Richman, Andy’s leaving too!
R: Yah, Old Man Mahood’s leavin; for good. Been a long time, he mus’ave found somethin’ better, real good.
L: Andy’s leaving too.
R: Yessir, Old Man Mahood’s going. Found something better.
[anonymous voice from a stall]: How can you get any better than this?
scene two: a discussion that occurred two-to-four times weekly:
[Louis often brought in generous quantities of lunch to share.]
R: Yessir, I use to have thirty-nine cars. . . I’m sixty eight years old. . .Um-hmm! Use’ to cook for Gen’l Patton. I cooked right out of his helmet. . .Yah (leaning to Andy), you’ young ‘n’ hansom, you get to sing and you get all the women, like Pavarotty, he sings real good. Bel Canto don’t come overnight. It takes years. . .Uh-humm.
R: Yessir, , , I see GHOSTS!
R: I see SPIRITS!!
L: You’re a LIAR! You see you’ GOD! You see the Devil. You don’ see nothin’. Shut up, I hate you! I don’ believe in you’ God!
R: I’m seventy-two-years old. Yessir.
Chapter Two: Graffiti and words of wisdom caught on the run.
December 1981, First Avenue @ 14th Street, L train eastbound platform:
is fuckin late
The fuckin food
is fuckin old
are Fuckin cold
Chapter Three: New York’s ethnic diversity in 1986. A Polish craftsman opines:
Ach, I love the Irish! Jimmy, vy don’t you sink? The Irish they love singink. I remember a fellow Mike used to verk heeah. He vould be singink all the time. Ach vat a man he was, a real man! He loved all the ladies and the ladies loved him! And his vife would somehow find aht vere he vas and give it to him on the head on his vay aht of a voman’s apahtment! I remember the parade, you know viz everyting and he was densing! How he could dense!!
Mike’s destiny recalled a passage in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a rare moment wafting out of this otherwise swamp of sentimentality that seemed to hint at a karmic retribution on its way, :
About a year after Johnny’s marriage, Frankie, whom many thought even handsomer than Andy, wavered home after a drinking party one night and stumbled over some taut wire that a bucolic Brooklynite had strung around a square foot of grass before his home stoop. The wire was held up by three sharp little sticks. As Frankie stumbled, one of the sticks pierced his stomach. He got up somehow and went home. He died during the night.
a few weeks later:
Rush hour on the F train. Seated nearby, a 30-ish man held a tattered briefcase littered with decals, bearing in large letters: Duke Rotnac. He began singing aloud
After four repetitions of this hymn to his alter-ego, he pulled out from his briefcase a tome of Heine’s poetry and lectured to all within hearing that “Heine was too insecure to be an atheist, unlike Spinoza. . .”
. . .at which point my stop arrived and deprived me of his wisdom.
Chapter Four: A close encounter with Enlightenment
At a time when I was interviewing musicians and ever so slowly writing their testimony into a biography on Ignaz Friedman came an encounter that still shakes me by the way it represents a search for the unknown, the lost, the intangible. A trip to Chicago to meet a pupil of Friedman’s was preceded by dinner at an aunt’s home. Their guest. . . a rare species he was! A pre-Soviet Russian who went West after the Revolution. For some reason he had to subvert the ongoing conversation to a memory that suddenly gripped him. As a youth, he lolled about a grandiose, daunting bookshelf kept in order by his father. He randomly reached up and pulled out a volume:
From the first sentence it felt as though I was discovering myself through this author. He seemed to understand me more than anyone else had in my life, even more than my own self and I couldn’t put the book down. I read on and found it was revealing everything I should know. My father unexpectedly entered and saw the book I had found, grabbed it out of my hands and said ‘You are too young to read this.’ I never saw it again, never found any trace of who might have been the author. To this day, I feel that my entire life has been incomplete for not having read it.
Decades later, I reconnected with an older cousin, their son, and asked him about this mysterious being:
His name was Gregory Lotsman, a real character. And, he ran the Soviet bookstore in Chicago for many years. I worked there for him for a while. He ran away from home when he was about 16 years old, so if that incident with the book ever really occurred, it must have been when he was in his early teens. He died around 1995, I think. I remember how he used to recite poetry, play the guitar. He also played a decent game of chess, and I still have an old chess set which he gave me which he said was carved by a prisoner in a tsarist prison. He was a colorful and bombastic character, debonair and a gentleman, though he could be quite abrasive on occasion.
One day at Beate Gordon’s home in New York, she noticed a series of recordings on her shelf while we were examining photos for a new CD of the pianist Leo Sirota, her father.
She asked whether these discs might be of interest.
This unfamiliar set of sixty ten-inch shellac discs seemed to cover the full range of Japan’s traditions, the first volume containing the ancient shamanic court Gagaku music played by the Imperial Household ensemble, and Buddhist chant. While familiar with koto and shamisen music, I had only heard live performances and recent recordings and like the gagaku it sounded so elegant and fragile, as if it could be easily shattered, barely glued together to keep an ancient tradition alive.
How would these older recordings compare, as they claim that their tradition is unbroken?
Right away the presence of fewer musicians and a gripping weight, an idea of permanence leapt out of the old grooves. It sounded as if the players and their culture were part of an ancient ongoing practice that gazed into eternity, before any need to be reassembled from shards after Japan’s defeat. Every other genre, of the Noh theater, Kabuki, koto and shamisen music, folksongs, all carried a comfort and ease, a swaying rhythm hat became stratified after the country’s dismantling. Many of the performers not only represented the pre-War spirit but some were born before and trained by musicians pre-dating 1868, the moment when Japan ceased to be hermetic and foreign visitors and influences entered.
I located an extraordinary scholar, Dr. Naoko Terauchi of Kobe University who had written a comparison between the earliest (1903) gagaku and its present state. She proved to be unique in her field and amongst most ethnomusicologists who prefer writing to listening. Dr. Terauchi discovered that two known complete sets are extant; one in a library, the other Beate Gordon’s.
Beate received the discs on a military mission in Japan during her 22nd year. A fellow officer, Donald Richie, who became a leading authority on Japanese cinema, stumbled upon the set and gave it to her for safe keeping. Beate played a decisive role with the US military as they wrote in secret Japan’s postwar constitution. A native Viennese who grew up in Japan, she demanded that there be a section on women’s rights. Arguing with the military staff, she prevailed but as a young dancer, had little experience in writing a legal document. Procuring an army jeep and driver, she scoured Tokyo in search of libraries that had not been bombed. At each one she borrowed one copy of a foreign constitution along with several popular novels, doing so to avoid suspicion. Beate studied about seven documents, in seven languages, and through her work the women of Japan have a unique legal status, something that the United States and many other countries still lack. Here is Beate describing her mission (filmed in 2011).
Beate lectures on her mission and was the guiding force at the Asia Society’s arts programming for decades. She recently appeared at the Japan Society, wearing a designer dress from c. 1910 that surpassed everyone’s attire, perhaps in the entire metropolis as well that night:
Her indirect rescue of a full cross-section of traditional music, which never saw the light due to the War (possibly their warehouse was bombed), has resulted in three of a five cd series that Dr. Terauchi and I are publishing. Here is a song appearing along with its text, a sultry Geisha ballad recorded in 1940, sung by Kaneko Chieko, accompanied by Tamura Taiko, Sahashi Shôko on their shaminsen which is now in preparation for volume 4: Geisha, theater songs, children’s songs and games.
[I] Wan’t somebody to tell me, answer if you can!
I Want somebody to tell me, just what is the soul of a man
I’m going to ask the question, please answer if you can
If anybody surely can tell me, just what is the soul of a man?
I’ve traveled different countries, I’ve traveled in furthest lands
I’ve found nobody could tell me, just what about the soul of a man.
I saw a crowd stand talking, I just came up in time
Was teaching the lawyer, the doctors: well a man ain’t nothing but his mind.
I read the bible often, I tries to read it right
And far as I could understand, [don’t you go to burning light? ]
When Christ sat in on the temple, the people, Lord, stood amazed
Was teaching the lawyers and doctors, how to raise a man from the grave
*n.b. The text provided by the YouTube poster has been corrected here.
Meanwhile, around 500 B.C. in China, Confucius and his disciples used a string instrument the gu qin for spiritual purification.
Ideally it was to be played by Taoist amateurs outdoors, in harmony with trees and birds. The left hand’s movement along its silk strings excited a scratchy sound they considered to be the instrument’s breathing. In Chinese society, few ever gained access to this discipline and art. Barely surviving Mao’s cultural revolution, a few practitioners kept the ancient practice alive. One player was aviator Zha Fuxi, who stopped in the United States around 1946, sent over as the head of China’s airforce by Chiang Kai Shek. He carried one on board and was recorded in Washington. When the Revolution came, he sided with Mao and was honored by the red emperor who granted him free pursuit of his great love, the gu qin. Here is an unpublished fragment of his playing:
This snippet offers a work presented in a metrically recited delivery, supported by the instrument’s heavy breathing. It is not different from his other glacially slow half-hour pieces, all elaborated by carefully placing each note into a designated pattern, like an assembly line.
Going back and forth to the twentieth century, a cultural nexus entered and emanated from Teresa Sterne, a child prodigy pianist who guided the life behind hundreds of recordings of early music, the newest of the new, and world music for Nonesuch Records.
Tracey’s erudition was revelatory to our lives and nourished our development. The privilege of knowing her during her final years came to an end when she was devastated by illness. Asked to aid in organizing her massive archive, I espied a 1930s Depression era economic edition of Mark Twain, one that she spoke fondly of as having been a catalyst for cultural development and philosophical investigation, a lifelong companion. The books arrived periodically at her local Boro Park Brooklyn’s newsstand and as she and her family dwelled in what she termed “genteel poverty”, they were attainable treasures. It seemed that their role in her life inspired her to guide a recording company that would offer the same affordability for great music.
One shelf held a dormant pile of desultorily filed audition tapes that she had turned down for publication. Opening one tiny reel-to-reel tape box yielded an intriguing photo of an elegant, refined older gentleman playing the gu qin. Knowing how Chinese classical music encompassed a range of vocalized theatrical cat fights to dull square-peg-into-square-hole meditative music, I was curious how this vigorous man would play the classic Teals descending on the sand:
Tucked into the tiny box was a letter written to Tracey in 1970 by an American who lived in Hong Kong and had become a pupil of this Lo Ka Ping, a seventy-five year old native of Guangdong, China, self taught Taoist priest who taught English in the New Territories inside a house filled with instruments dating back one thousand years. The note requested that she return his photo and recording if the project would not take off. Over thirty years later, I traced Dr. Dale Craig and we published Lost Sounds of the Tao with Craig’s enigmatic photo on the cover. Our rescue of Lo’s art is documented here.
Lo Ka Ping’s playing conveyed a spirit missing in the sterile rote-playing of the scholars, a surprising observation reached after hearing as many other gu qin players as possible, With Lo’s first sounds, Blind Willie Johnson immediately came to mind, with one specific piece connecting them.
In Dark was the night, Johnson transcends his proselytizing framework, as the title and visionary mood suggest a metaphor of blindness illuminating a departure into an inner world of transcendence, as Lo and his forbears would purify themselves with their music.
The silk-stringed zither was remote to generations of an immense Chinese population who still are unaware of its sounds and role in their tradition. The fragments that survived in near isolation never developed beyond its closed circle, although Lo’s discovery and mastery of his ancestral music led him to compose new works for his cherished instrument. Musical spirituality in Blind Willie Johnson’s world was far from being restricted to any circle of philosophers but openly shared as an integrative force in his society’s lives. Its development into jazz and resonances into other genres keep it as a perpetually re-emerging marvel in American music. Behind it all is the act of approaching a sacred human essence, portrayed as divine by organized religions, yet experienced weekly, such as its emergence in the Chicago-based Rev. Amos Waller’s sung sermon on stormy weather:
Everything eventually crosses your path. Last week two momentous events took place, restoring a raw nature of change and transformation that shakes up life’s complacency, movingly depicted in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali.
The first stirrings in a chain of events began over thirty years ago, stirred up by a recording of Wanda Landowska playing Bach (1685-1750). This composer is so often understood and played as an entity spouting masterpieces in a cohesive style of endless imaginative explorations. But this Toccata in D major breathed its life as a young composer’s creation, sounding as if it still needed to ripen, unlike his later works that impress as received rather than assembled.
Each of the Toccata’s several parts vividly flit with distinct rhythms and phrasing, a melange that somehow falls into place. The young Bach copied music for his own use, to be close with its art and his. One composer he doted on was Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643),
active a century earlier. Bach owned a copy of his Fiori Musicali for organ, not easily found in Germany in the early 1700’s. Listening to Frescobaldi came as a shock, for it exposed an avant-garde composer who was active in the Renaissance’s move towards the Baroque. In his native Ferrara, the ruling Este family had their Palazzo Schifanoia (“palace for ridding oneself of boredom”) with a chamber of frescoes depicting zodiacal and alchemic symbols:
The Este family could have invited the young townsman into this space to relieve their tedium. We are not certain of their contact, but this fresco’s spirit and adventurous nature guided his musical creation.
Frescobaldi moved to Rome and was appointed organist at the nearly complete San Pietro church. At that time, its plan and details were carried out by Bernini and his rival architect Borromini. The Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona has a figure that Bernini shaped with an outstretched mocking gesture of defiance in order to block the horrid view of a church designed by Borromini: in their action dwells Frescobaldi’s art, as they were contemporaries who might have known one another in passing.
Michelangelo disdained Flemish painting:
this art is without power and without distinction; it aims at rendering minutely many things at the same time, of which a single one would have sufficed to call forth a man’s whole application.
Michelangelo introduced the spark of life as a way of burying the Middle Ages’ depersonalized rigidity, and in Frescobaldi this spirit surfaces in sound, a rarity in his time, one leading to Bach and the tradition that followed.
Curious about his presence in Bach’s growth, I began listening and playing his works, finding them enticing in their erratic, odd fragmented confusion and surprising rapid-fire salvos. Frescobaldi left instructions on how to play his music. The composer grants you liberty to stop early if needed, even before finishing a work, to impose or shape any mood, tempo, or expression according to your will and good taste. And yet one heard him played smoothly, sounding straight-jacketed. . . until a recording appeared by Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini. The Fifth toccata with and without pedal is played on a 17th century organ at the church of San Bernardino di Carpi in Modena, Italy:
Frescobaldi’s harpsichord works also incorporated popular and folk melodies into dance rhythms, an example noted by Bach. It was a revelation to hear Tagliavini play a recital in Civitanova Alta (Macerata), Italy some twenty-two years ago and last week he returned here to New York after an absence of twenty-five years. His program focused on Frescobaldi and its influence on Bach and beyond, at the Church of the Ascension on it’s newly built organ, freshly in place after arriving from France.
The accuracy of Tagliavini’s playing and conception proved exemplary in illuminating and bringing to life older practices, restoring an audacity and freshness. He is one of the few to have made sense of Frescobaldi and a path leading to Bach. I had to thank him and ask if he would explain the steps and approaches he took in decoding Frescobaldi. He kindly conceded an interview the following Sunday. Tagliavini at once mentioned that discovering the music was aided by playing on antique harpsichords:
. . .yes, in a certain way, because the way modern instruments which we have available at music conservatories aren’t the ideal instruments for Frescobaldi, and instead it was Frescobaldi that I discovered on these old instruments. It’s not only the sound, it’s a laborious way, above all in the works, in the most ingenious works by Frescobaldi, the Toccatas, that are beyond what the music that came after it conditioned us to expect. For example, when we listen to Mozart, not that we know, but we think we might be able to predict how he will continue his discourse, quite often it’s not true because he’s too ingenious as a composer, but what I’d like to say is that the music has this side of predictability, you can predict or imagine. In Frescobaldi, no! you can’t predict it. It’s not a casual improvisation, it’s quite a profound imagination and a structural law which is extremely free.
Tagliavini has extensively examined tablature and manuscripts to further his decoding of touch and ornaments, tempi, all tacit elements embedded within threadbare intimations of notation. For decades he has studied harpsichord construction and amassed a collection of over seventy instruments that have been recently loaned to a museum in Bologna, Italy with the proviso that they are kept in use rather than be displayed in silence:
Research never ends as Taglaivini now prepares his new edition of the Fiori Musicali. His decoding of Frescobaldi by accessing elements from his time based on studies and a remarkable ear and judgment lead the once-unfathomable music into a renewed existence.
As Sunday’s interview morphed into a conversation, violinists were rushing over to Newton outside of Boston as Roman Totenberg lay on his deathbed. In a diary from 1943, Mieczyslaw Horszowski noted a radio performance of Beethoven’s first violin sonata with Totenberg. Checking his name in 2010, his birth year of 1911 was followed only by a dash.
I located a radio program produced by his daughter Nina Totenberg for his 96th birthday:
On the side was a link to a Totenberg recording of Beethoven’s violin concerto. How did Totenberg play? There were no available recordings at this time. Usually this Beethoven is served up grandiose, overblown, a technical tour-de-force underlined with elemental struggle. Totenberg approached it from a height, an Olympian gaze onto its emotional terrain, inner being, all played in an assured resolute calm, as one sensed how in every phrase and tone he was more involved in listening than merely playing an instrument. Nina Totenberg immediately responded and mentioned that her father was still quite busy, teaching, and would be delighted to get a call. I phoned him at once and we began to examine and explore his art and life for the next two years, publishing a CD edition based on remarkable recordings that had lain in the shadows of his basement for nearly a half century.
A stunning abundance of extraordinary recorded performances appeared on each and every bookshelf, in desk drawers, enough repertoire to cover a good dozen essential CDs. We began to finalize a second project, sonatas with Jorg Demus and Philippe Entremont. When mentioning Roman to these pianists, they sighed and expressed gratitude for the rare experience he provided them, retaining vivid epiphanies decades later. In the basement was a broken disc, partially playable, offering a rare glimpse captured in Warsaw around 1928, in his seventeenth year. Novacek’s Perpetuum mobile was a technically daunting virtuosic display, quite evident here, yet the main focus is on an exquisite tone and energetic heat:
We have few traces until 1939, when a performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto no.3 was caught on deteriorating homemade lacquer discs that had peeled, surviving its final playback.
Here is the lead into its first movement’s cadenza, projected with a refined style and warm expression. When playing it for Roman, he didn’t recognize the cadenza, guessing that it was something he improvised on the spot:
One can hear a remarkable development in his art via the third movement of Brahms’s Third Sonata for Violin and Piano on the Arbiter CD, its informal poise masking a remarkable precision that makes this tossed-off movement offer profundity and sound definitive in his hands:
After his one hundredth birthday, Roman tended to repeat favored anecdotes, yet when we once switched to French a new trove opened onto unfamiliar episodes emerging from storage within another language vault.
His art made a profound change in my perception of using the violin for music. Aside from him, Huberman, and Erica Morini, many legends and grand names of past and present seemed limited by their superficiality, ego, tonal fetishism, maudlin asides, good moments followed by dubious voids. Totenberg fitted all into a natural balance, illuminating the music. Of the hundreds of students he shaped into artistic maturity, news of his end reached many. The scene developed during his final hours found dear and devoted students rushed over, one driving for six hours, all with violin in hand, to serenade him in the last moments. Hardly able to speak, he beat time with his foot and arm, even whispering corrections:
Bronislaw Huberman heard the eighteen-year old Totenberg in 1929 and provided him a scholarship to leave Warsaw for studies in Berlin. On our last meeting I played Roman a performance by Huberman in Brahms’s violin concerto, captured in New York, 1944. He sat in rapt attention throughout, stunned, nearly speechless afterwards.
While Totenberg’s physical passing leaves us a void, his art remains and so much is awaiting recovery from archives throughout the world, and his legacy lives in pupils who are teaching and performing, passing on his knowledge. Its depth grew out of a grand culture, a century of contacts with great artists, guided by the originality he possessed. When asked about his Bach, if Casals or anyone else had influenced it, he replied “No. I spent a few weeks on it in Rome in the 1930’s and worked it all out.” Bach’s Presto in G minor (1971):
Such a strikingly autochthonous and mysterious American Art music, allegedly risen up from unknown and lost origins, abounding in myths spouted by latter-day aficionados. For many, our earliest exposure to primal Blues came through Robert Johnson.
Until recently there were no images of Johnson, depicted here as a generic rural guitarist. One could only fantasize over his missing features, attire, and character. The stereotype pose foisted onto his sole record-jacket didn’t help clear the fog until a recently discovered photo reveals him to have been dapper, possessing endlessly long, slender fingers that drew out a distinct lonesome sound, moaning, harsh, a repressed violence behind virtuosity too big for a rural genre in which he seemed stuck. Had he lived longer, Johnson would have moved out of the Mississippi Delta to Chicago and plugged in but being poisoned at age 27 shifted music’s destiny. Instead he has been represented as an icon that presumably attained musical mastery overnight by having sold his soul to the devil at a cross roads, filling up on supernatural fuel and paying for it with a deadly bargain. This popular myth was the brainchild of Blues fans who failed to acknowledge or grasp how hard work, talent, and musical perception shaped his artistry. Their puerile view deforms a distinct individuality into the role of a puppet in a Faustian encounter viewed from above by gawkers at a circus side-show: although the Johnson-Devil myth mirrors their own limits, it rained gold onto tribute bands such as the Rolling Stones.
Johnson’s art developed from hanging with Son House and copying recordings by other artists. Son House takes us one step back into early Blues and the hard-core gets harder:
Until these recordings were discovered by outsiders, there was a veil drawn over Afro-American society and the technology of shellac discs captured a vast window onto nascent, prevalent, and passing styles, with each protagonist projecting a staggering individuality. Son House veered between alcohol, debauched living, and serving as a preacher, mixing all into a difficult but ferociously expressive art. Johnson copied his singing and extended his playing.
Some were untraceable figures whose entire existence remains in a few minutes of surviving sound and glimpses dwelling in testimony of older Delta denizens who stayed on or turned up in the North. Each musician enters into your hearing through their rhythm, a calling card bearing their identity. One step earlier than Son House is Charley Patton, whose wondrous gaze exists in one surviving photo:
Patton’s rhythm emerged in Son House and Johnson and sounds like their source. The poetics and narrative in Mississippi Boll Weevil were transcribed with much effort. Note how the commentator weaves a flurry of asides and observations while questioning Boll Weevil & wife with a farmer and reporting their conversation as well:
It’s a little boll weevil he’s moving it-a in the [air,] Lordy,
You can plant your cotton and you won’t get a half-a cent, Lordy.
“Boll weevil, boll weevil, where’s your little home?” Lordy,
“A Louisiana raised in Texas is-a where I’s bred and born,” Lordy.
Well I saw the boll weevil Lord-a circle, Lord-a in the air, Lordy.
The next time I seen him Lord he had his family there, Lordy.
Boll weevil left Texas, Lord he bid me “Fare ye well,” Lordy,
Where you going now?
“I’m going down to Mississippi, going to give Louisiana hell,” Lordy.
Boll weevil tell the (farmer?), “Think I treat you fair?” Lordy,
How is that, Boy?
“Suck all the blossom and leave your hedges square,” Lordy.
The next time I seen you, you [‘d]-a had your family there, Lordy.
Boll weevil (and his-a) wife “We’ll sit down on the hay,” Lordy,
Boll weevil told the wife “Let’s take this forty a[cres]*,” Lordy.
Boll weevil told his wife, said “I believe I may go North,” Lordy,
Lord I won’t tell nobody,
Let’s a leave-a Louisiana, raise and go to Arkansas, Lordy.
Well I saw the boll weevil Lord-a circle, Lord-a in the air, Lordy.
Next time I seen him Lord he had his family there, Lordy.
Boll weevil told his wife, “Lord I think I treat you fair,” Lordy,
Sucks all the blossom and leaves your hedges square, Lordy.
“Boll weevil, Boll weevil, where’s your little home?” Lordy,
“Most anywhere they’re raisin’ cotton and corn,” Lordy.
“Boll weevil, Boll weevil, thought I [was] treatin’ you fair,” Lordy,
The next time I (n)eed you, you had your family there, Lordy.
*This expression, like many others, had been erroneously transcribed. A new restoration I made helped me retrieve Patton’s reference to the severance pay of forty acres and a mule allotted to ex-slaves during Reconstruction, once a well-known fact but now an obscured memory.
Johnson is confined to personal anguish and busily copies other songsters’ works while House desultorily bombinates between holiness and personal abandon. Inside Patton is a vast panorama like Mark Twain’s world, narrating floods, arrests, agricultural blight, news, estranged lovers, introspection of someone’s (his?) inner life, formal presentation of religion within an entertainer’s guise and a voice unlike anyone heard since. Since drumming was prohibited under Slavery, communicating rhythms were smuggled onto the guitar and Delta musicians embodied a style deriving from African polyrhythms which their DNA reproduced, one they possessed but never directly encountered.
Patton, House, and Johnson created art music heard only in remote socially segregated roadhouses and cafes in the pre-War Delta region. One 1966 film captures a surviving Delta master, Booker T. Washington (Bukka) White placed within a recreated juke-joint ambience singing Baby, you’re killing me.
White knew Patton and House and he fleshes out our picture through another rhythmically distinct African pattern that gets his guitar into communicating a message of seduction, transmitted to a receptive curvaceous dancer who can’t resist. Son House reappears, jumping and inebriated, falling into a glimpse of his earlier life. We find them reinhabiting a lost world that gave birth to the core of Rock music, usually simplified into tributes that led the curious further to come upon America’s earliest living and documented musical treasures.
One day in 1997, I found a Bach recording by organist André Marchal (1894-1980).
Earlier French organists, such as Louis Vierne (1870-1938) and Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) played their Bach like a heavy tapestry. Here is Vierne in a Bach Choral Prelude: Durch Adams Fallist ganz verderbt, BWV637, recorded in 1929 at Notre-Dame, Paris, where he officiated. Vierne is in love with the space and shapes his phrasing and colors to fill it:
Marcel Dupré and Vierne were composers who explored the miraculous organs that Cavaille-Coll built in France during the 19th century. Even the Russians, who tried to be as French as possible then, just had to have one so the Tsar ordered one for Moscow, a unique example outside of France.
Dupré took the Gothic weight in Vierne and hung even heavier sonic drapery onto Bach’s contrapuntal shoulders. Here is an excerpt of Bach’s Kyrie: Gott Heiliger Geist 671, made late in life, from Rouen, only a few years before Dupré’s death.
Marchal is often overlooked and many of his recordings had lapsed into Out of Print terrain. Once the Bach recital was playing, our son Stefan abandoned his drawing and ran into the living room to sit and listen. On first hearing he demanded that we repeat a sequence of the Fantasia in G and three Preludes and Fugues and could not get enough of it, for he sat in rapt attention throughout the half hour of music each day for at least six months. Our guest Anssi Blomstedt, an auteur from Helsinki, captured our four-year old in action:
I was as stunned by the music as by Stefan’s way of putting the breaks on our existences to enter into a new sound world. Whereas the French organ masters had built Bach as a sonic cathedral, Marchal cast light on the rose windows, exposing densities and colors, unsuspected narrative and nuances in the music that had become a congestion of counterpoint in other hands. Like Wanda Landowska, he articulated the notes so that they spoke instead of being phrased as chant.
After a few calls, I traced Marchal’s daughter in Paris. Having mastered English, she mentioned that she helped along her father’s British and American pupils. One was Lee Erwin, a theater organist, Marchal’s first American pupil. Around 1930 he moved to Paris for lessons. Erwin told me about breathless weekly Sundays: as soon as Marchal finished playing and improvising mass at St. Eustache, he would bolt to the metro to get to Trinité in time for Messiaen’s moment. Other options included Vierne at Notre Dame, and Tournemire at Ste. Clotilde. Erwin recorded Marchal at home on a neo-Baroque organ installed at rue Duroc by the builder Gutschenritter. As Marchal envisioned a Bach with more transparency, he aided in the design of the instrument to initiate a new approach to Bach. Landowska was pioneering a revival through the harpsichord and captured his spirit, although some kitsch elements in her art tire at times.
Jacqueline Marchal-Englert sent a letter with a family photo destined for Stefan, seated by her father with a guest in his lap while touring the US in 1974:
Erwin published two LPs of Marchal at home on his Zodiac label, a tax write-off that had the astonishing Irén Marik on its roster. Jacqueline had the master tapes and we prepared an edition. In Paris, I visited her frequently during a stay and interviewed her. She remarked that her father knew only two words in English and used them with his pupils:
The dry acoustics of Marchal’s living room inspired a sparse but acutely focused combination of stops to shape distinct color, especially in Bach’s Adagio from the Toccata Adagio and Fugue in C which I published through Arbiter.
The Italian accompanied melody is transformed by a sudden shift of stops ending with a suspension of pulse and time. Marchal fearlessly prolongs the harsh dissonance, dragging the piece into a new dimension. He was touched with the ability to receive and transmit a force of energy in sound that to call it “divine” would be far too inadequate for the gift he and others possessed as individuals who acted as intermediaries between the mundane reality and a heightened existence. Jacqueline compared Dupré to her father, finding the older master to be an architect whereas Marchal was the poet.
Marchal had instruction from three pupils of César Franck and mentioned that they all gave varying advice on organ registration, so he combined it and added his own way into the mix. Let’s compare how both Dupré and Marchal play the beginning of Franck’s Prelude Fugue and Variation with Dupré in 1927 at Queens Hall, London:
The French composer Poulenc, a few years younger than Marchal, said that he had the best ear in Paris. Marchal was born blind and said that it did not trouble him too much, as he had no idea of what was missing and everyone was so kind to him and loved his art.
I write these lines this morning on learning of Jacqueline’s death this past Saturday, April 21, 2012.
Stanford University’s music department became an oasis in academia when it hosted a third symposium on historic recordings (April 12-14, 2012), covering what obsesses many of us and playfully dominates our lives and actions: reacting to discs that lure one by their staggering expressivity and culture, draped in the flirtatious je ne sais quoi of an authenticity, either a miracle or mirage. So we all landed and began to play and discuss traces of this elusive element.
I always begin a new music class by dragging them inside the sound world. Imagine taking an Art History course where your professor hands out black and white photocopies of great artworks bearing numbers on their visual components. You are advised to look at an inset that defines the numbers as colors and told that it’s all here, no need to schlep to a museum and bother with the original. Music too often gets taught this way, as many seek to avoid studying and listening to recordings, especially from long ago, as forgotten masters are deemed to be out of style, even by people who never heard their playing. Better restoration has changed the torture of bacon frying into a living sound.
So in the face of this challenge to music, it’s a sizzling soothing scene to find international like-minded profs assembled by George Barth and Kumaran Arul who both contributed to and provided a forum for ideas and approaches. One case surrounded an attempt to rescue Scriabin’s music.
A visionary, he imagined that global transformation would be realized through a performance of his final but incomplete Mysterium, meant to be simultaneously unfolded throughout the world, including Tibet. When I met Kyriena Siloti, Rachmaninoff’s cousin, she recalled visiting Tibetan lamas in St. Petersburg before the Revolution and how their breathing exercises helped her tackle the rough climate while fleeing the Bolsheviks, stuck in Yekaterinberg where the Romanoff’s were murdered, heading to Harbin, China. Scriabin also tapped into what we now consider our newly found alternative life styles, getting inside this wildness over a century ago.
As much as Scriabin gazed ahead, he avoided crucial contact with the recording horn. We will never hear how his piano sounded. Kyriena and two other ladies from her time all concurred that Scriabin’s playing was inimitable in its nuances, sfumature as the Italian-speaking Maria Safonoff would say. Maria had lived in Varese, Italy for nearly a year after fleeing the Revolution yet sixty years in New York didn’t help her master English. All singled out Vladimir Sofronitsky as one closest to the composer’s own playing, albeit having more strength in his dynamics.
Scriabin allowed himself to play on an instrument punching holes in a paper roll to capture the exact notes and their spaces, playable on a mechanical piano. He left many works in this state, lacking contrasts in touch, balance, degrees of soft/loud, but one can isolate details and step a little closer to how he may have played in a way that departs from his own notation. One remarkable investigator, Anatole Leikin, a professor at UC Santa Cruz, sat down to play Scriabin’s Désir, using the piano roll as a base for recreating parts of the composer’s lost art. Leikin recorded a generous and intriguing CD of reconstructed Scriabin. Hear the Etude, op. 42, no. 5, one usually projected as a wild virtuosic foray. Leikin summons it forth as internal sonic magma:
A thorny Scriabin assessment came later via a grad student who appropriated Scriabin’s own piano roll of an early Prelude into software that logged rhythmic irregularities, creating printed data of all his shifts, coloring notes to show speeding up or being slowed, and how the composer altered them from straight-forward into swing rhythms.
But what is one to do with data? I asked if analyzing the music would better explain the motives behind internal and structural changes. One needs to use ear and eye to fathom underlying reasons, and they emerge without troubling oneself over taking, let’s say, the following three notes 2% faster. Why is more important than How and When. I mentioned this approach of graphing music to Miriam Kartch, a pianist at Mannes College who first arrived there in 1941 and studied with pupils of Schenker. Waking her with an early morning phone call, she huffed in alarm: “That’s not music. It’s autism!”
I was asked at the symposium if Vladimir Sofronitsky had ever heard Scriabin play.
Somewhere in print you find that he did not experience this rare encounter. Many pore over his work in writing, like viewing a house from outside. I like to walk in before anything else starts up. Over the years I had been in touch with Sofronitsky’s daughter Roxanne, seen here with her son Alexei, who resembles his great-grandfather, snapped in their California home during a symposium break:
Sofronitsky held a ticket to Scriabin’s 1915 solo piano recital in Moscow. They mentioned that the fourteen-year-old had a high fever that evening and was forcibly kept home by his parents amidst his incessant protests. Days later, Scriabin developed a pimple on his lip which led to septicemia and sudden death. A photo of the composer hung over Sofronitsky’s piano, and he married the composer’s daughter Elena, whom I met in 1987 (at home in Moscow) and 1988 (in California, her first and only USA trip):
Scriabin’s death was shocking, leaving a void in music and depriving us of a striking dimension that he was eagerly exploring. Elena hardly new her father as her parents divorced early on. Rachmaninoff gave a memorial concert in Moscow.
Several attendees told me that while they appreciated Rachmaninoff’s gesture, he lacked a grasp of Scriabin’s style. This is evident on his one surviving example, playing Scriabin’s Prelude, op. 11, no. 8 in a way that shapes the music into a Chopinesque melody with a focus on the right hand. The left hand has an equally important part and Rachmaninoff coolly doesn’t grasp its proportioning and role, a rare lapse of judgment:
It’s delightful to hear scholars agree and expound on your preferences but you learn absolutely nothing from this pleasure. However those who assault you with unexpected successes and glaring misjudgments end up providing a greater favor as catalysts to thought. This symposium veered into a Trimalcionian banquet (here in Fellini’s interpretation of Petronius) spanning the enlightened and the bizarre.
What on earth does the Frenchman Debussy have to do with Asian music? It sure effected his music and once you hear what lies there, it will change your own listening! The barrier begins when most pianists struggle to drag their familiar Debussy into his late works, where he reinvented himself in a Modernism leaning towards Mondrian rather than remaining shut into the sonic Monet he was made to represent. Debussy’s old clothes no longer fit and their efforts fall flat.
Let’s sample a bona-fide critically-acclaimed Debussy expert, Walter Gieseking,
playing an excerpt from Etude no.7. The studio mike is usually placed at a distance to reduce the snorting from his adenoids, giving the sound more Impressionism as his producers sought to shape and sell it while lessening his nose tones:
It’s played like an Etude, a gymnastic feat deftly tamed. But Debussy’s underground use of harmony and motivic narrative was left lying unsuspected and ignored. Yvonne Loriod, a couple of decades younger, married Messiaen
One outside culture that unexpectedly hit Debussy was his encounter with Indonesian music at a Paris Exposition. We can only guess which gamelan genre he heard but I offer this alluring private gamelan playing Babar Layar, owned by a Chinese merchant in Java who allowed them to be recorded around 1928 by visiting Germans. The European engineers left out its deep bass gongs so use your imagination to fill them in:
Debussy spent time with Stravinsky who came to Paris for his new works presented by the Ballets Russes with Nijinsky and Diaghilev. At Debussy’s they played through the Rite of Spring on two pianos and became well acquainted musically and socially. One striking detail in this shot of the emergent Stravinsky with a moribund Debussy is the artwork in Debussy’s apartment: Japanese prints.
Just as Debussy’s idea of Asian music is presented as if emanating from a Renoir parlor, we hear Pagodes given in the way a Parisian would browse postcards. Gieseking was born in Lyon, France and grew up bi-lingual. He loved collecting butterflies more than playing the piano but here in 1938 he is sensitive to its expressive shapes:
Unlike Gieseking, the German-trained Percy Grainger collected folk music, trekking to Nordic villages, covering the Celtic cultures of the British Isles.
He and Béla Bartók owned copies of Music of the Orient, a pioneering set of discs spanning from Japan to Persia.
Grainger gave an evening in Austin, Texas’s university, playing solo, with wind ensemble and addressing listeners. Obsessed with Pagodes, he once arranged the piece for multiple pianos and percussion. Here are some remarks by Grainger in a thick Australian accent:
Now hear Grainger keeping his word by pedaling heavily to keep the gong tones ringing. What you’ll experience is a boundary between Western and Asian music being shattered as a new form emerges. Grainger was twenty-two years younger than Debussy and thirteen years older than Gieseking:
While Debussy was dying from cancer and hardly able to compose, he received visits from an Indian guest:
Inayat Khan, a Sufi philosopher, brought a veena along for his European lecture tour. He met often with Debussy, playing the instrument and singing. Debussy asked to borrow the veena while Khan covered the continent. Khan may have given Debussy some lessons and perhaps he picked it up on occasion but died before Khan’s return and the instrument was lost. A greater loss was the style it could have influenced, but traces of Asia in Debussy still emerge, one as recently as 2011.
On a visit to violinist Roman Totenberg, who at age 101 still teaches and can recall plenty from ninety-four years of music-making, I played for him a recording of his early idol and mentor, Bronislaw Huberman. It was Brahms’s violin concerto and I snapped a photo of his enrapt listening, putting aside body and environs to enter deeply into the sounds, which amazed him now as they did then:
On an earlier visit, I searched through his archives at his request and found many hours of concert recordings he had gathered throughout some sixty years. One tape from 1960 had Debussy’s violin and piano sonata. It was a difficult piece even for most renowned players to capture as violinists high and mighty lapsed into scales and occasional maudlin phrasing but seemed incomplete. Totenberg’s had a grasp that eluded the others. I had to ask him what was behind it all:
“When I came to Paris in 1933 I studied with Enesco and was eager to learn the Debussy sonata. After a year there I noticed that no one had ever programmed it in concert.”
Was it too difficult musically, or ignored for being passé?
“So I found two pupils of Debussy, one was Marcel Ciampi, and they coached me in it. Ciampi mentioned its being influenced by Asian music.”
And so it was, and I published it shortly after its discovery.
Keeping Grainger and the gamelan in mind, hear Roman Totenberg in an excerpt. A deep listening occurs as he plays:
One of the wondrous mythical beings in childhood was the infrequently appearing Stinky of vintage Abbott & Costello films. In no way was he dated: his dress and manner were as contemporary and vivid as the avatars we bombinated with in school hallways.
Just as Stinky is obsessed and possessive of his cards, Raoul von Koczalski, a look-alike, acted this way with Chopin.
From the very first sight of him, another personality came to mind at once: King Farouk of Egypt, an indolent, corrupt, but colorful defrocked monarch.
Child prodigies rarely had time for any formal education, and Koczalski, pardon me, von Koczalski was pushed into a career at a tender age. One period found him having lessons with Karol Mikuli, Chopin’s assistant.
It must have been remarkable to have had access to such a contact, Chopin’s star pupil and the first to edit his mentor’s notes with descriptions of how the composer himself used strategic fingerings and subtle pedaling to project his avant-garde creations. But Milkuli was quite old when Koczalski came to him.
Koczalski made a lifelong fetish of his contact with Mikuli, including secrets allegedly gleaned from him on how Chopin embellished his music, causing scholars to wonder and marvel over the recordings Koczalski left behind, several hours of Chopin.
One recently discovered program came from 1948, the year of the pianist’s death. He sits at Chopin’s own piano (an instrument he played when living in Poland, tuned to a lower pitch) and offers us a mazurka:
Wait a moment!! In one passage, Chopin composed a hemiola: a rhythmic creature that exhibits a boisterous math game: instead of the rocking one-two-three, one-two-three (a total of six beats), the clever composer made it into left hand groupings of one-two-one-two-one-two (three times two) against the feeling of three in the right hand. Chopin doesn’t often resort to this game. As Koczalski self-proclaimed himself to be Mikuli’s heir and Chopin’s musical grandson, enjoy the way he counts this rhythm:
Let’s step aside for a moment and check some dates. Koczalski was born in 1884, Mikuli died in 1897, so our prize-winner was thirteen when his mentor left the planet.
Another boy, some two years older, never met Mikuli and never claimed to be Chopin’s one and only heir, but many listeners found Ignaz Friedman to have understood Chopin better than anyone in their time.
Here is Friedman playing Chopin’s rhythmic jest as written :
Once when I was about to lecture on Friedman at a symposium, the presenter ahead happened to select Koczalski as a significant historic link to Chopin, singling out Friedman as a musician whose Chopin should be reviled. Readings from Koczalski’s effusive paeans to his master and how the tradition flowed in his veins were supplemented by a recording of Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat, offered as an exemplary correction to Friedman’s excesses (which weren’t heard during her spot). Here is one telling moment in the dance. Usually a martial rhythm dominates but in one unique episode, Chopin sets aside its rhythms and lazes into a rhapsodic improv:
I sat stunned, as if Friedman had come to me in a dream days earlier, guiding me to isolate the exact same example and illustrate how overblown egotistic automatons like Koczalski overlooked Chopin’s subtleties written into the music, like Stinky coveting his cards on stage. I included Friedman’s disc to show the music coming to life when an interpreter provides a sonic close-up (note the left hand’s prominent bass tones and then the attention to chords,) sweeping into a momentous arrival of the main theme:
If I haven’t caused every reader to experience discomfort by listening to Koczalski, then I sincerely hope this example will bring about a full-bodied revulsion. As Stinky hoarded his cards, Koczalski made public some hidden ornaments that Chopin dusted into a Nocturne. This was permitted as the music derived from Italian bel canto singing and he was obsessed with Bellini’s operas and their embellished arias. Moriz Rosenthal, born well before Koczalski in 1862, also studied with Mikuli and was mature when the master died.
He once stated that Mikuli understood Chopin in the way a talent understands a genius: Mikuli was practical in teaching how to create a singing legato line, a genuine link to the composer’s touch. Rosenthal provides an example:
Chopin wrote a friend of hearing the opera that night with vocalists who seemed to be digesting their dinner on stage. Koczalski’s kitschy inclusions, a la Liberace, add extra padding to phrases that bloat its rhythm, reminding one of an Italian adage:
To be accepted, lies and meatballs have to be large.
The aftershock of this alleged authentic and unchallenged playing leads to a photo of his doppelgänger, King Farouk, doing his best to stay awake during a serenade, similar to Koczalski’s struggle with what he perceived and projected as boredom in Chopin.
My sincerest apologies to the dethroned king:
his cousin Prince Hassan Aziz Hassan sat by Ignace Tiegerman’s bedside as he lay dying in Cairo and helped save his legacy, keeping Chopin’s spirit alive more than anyone else had, and on the Nile.