The phrase "the mystic chords of memory" comes from Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address. Of course, larger issues than those addressed in this column occupied most peoples' minds just then. But it is nonetheless worthwhile for us to spend a moment or two thinking about how differently people experienced music in 1861, compared to how things are today.
There's a fantastic new two-SACD/CD set of a demonstration-quality live recording of a rather obscure work you really should get to know, not only for its own merits, but also for what I believe is its underappreciated but major influence on music and on popular culture. The piece is by 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg, but trust meit's more than "listenable." It (or, at least, the music on the first disc) is beyond engaging; it is compellinga revelation, even. The work is Gurrelieder (Songs of Gurre), Gurre being a castle in medieval Denmark that was the setting of a real-life doomed love triangle, the story of which has since loomed large in the moodily brooding artistic consciousness of Danes. The 19th-century Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen wrote a collection of poems based on medieval legends, including this one, and a German translation by Robert Franz Arnold provided Schoenberg's dramatic texts.
As a musician who has studied of all forms of acoustic and electric keyboard instruments, I have played the gamut of keyboards, from gems to disasters. I think the most significant keyboard developments of the 20th century were the Hammond organ, the Fender Rhodes electric piano, and the Moog synthesizer. These instruments were notable not for their ability to replicate the sound of acoustic instruments, but for the new timbres and textures possible with them, which have since become permanent parts of our musical vocabulary. I have now played an instrument that may prove one of the most significant keyboard designs of the 21st century: the Yamaha AvantGrand N3.
Back when there was still something called the "classical music industry," one of Stereophile's favorite small labels was John Marks Records, masterminded by the magazine's "The Fifth Element" columnist, John Marks. In fact, it was his recordings that first brought John to the magazine's attention. JMR had a phenomenal run of releases, among them Arturo Delmoni and Meg Bachman Vas's Songs My Mother Taught Me, Nathaniel Rosen's cycle of J.S. Bach's Suites for Solo Cello, Delmoni and Rosen's Music for a Glass Bead Game, and the three Rejoice recordings of Christmas music for string quartet (also featuring Delmoni and Rosen). That's a pretty solid run for a label that released fewer than 20 recordings.
For an artform in which sound is everything, popular music has been blessed with strangely little poetry: There may be no other genre where high-mindedness falls with such a thud. Leonard Cohen remains the most striking exception, not just for the genuine seriousness of his music or the adulation of his audience, but for the ability of the former to survive the latter.
Released in July, Live at Otto's Shrunken Head (STPH020-2) is the latest Stereophile CD from reviewer Bob Reina's jazz quartet, Attention Screen. Unlike the group's first CD, Live at Merkin Hall (STPH018-2, released in 2007), which was recorded with multiple microphones, I captured the eight improvisations on Live at Otto's using a single pair of mikes.
Back when there were bricks-and-mortar retail record stores to speak of in tenses other than past, I used to participate in new-release conferences. Retail-store buyersthe people who decided whether consumers would see your CDs as they browsed in the storeswould gather at a nice destination, such as Lake George, New York. The various labels would then make presentations about their upcoming new releases.
Frank Zappa was well known for a lot of thingshis sharp satiric wit, his virtuoso guitar improvisations, his excellence as a bandleader, his fearlessness in combating hostile political forces and crooked record-industry executives. But Zappa is all too rarely given credit for his status as one of the most creative musical imaginations of the 20th century, regardless of genre.
Stereo Review, the world's most popular audio magazine during most of its time on Earth, was a common target of derision from the hobby's so-called high-end press, not least of all from me. We criticized its nerdy, boring prose, its uniformly positive reviews, and, most of all, its shameless pimping of the notions that measurements reveal all there is to know about a component, and that all competently engineered components sound equally fine.
In June 2007, I again recorded Minnesotan male choir Cantus live on location, this time in the glorious acoustic of Sauder Concert Hall at Goshen College, in Goshen, Indiana. The resultant CD, While You Are Alive (Cantus CTS-1208), is the eighth I have engineered of the group; it is a collection of 20th- and 21st-century works that explores, illuminates, and celebrates all stages of life, from birth to death.
US composer Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna is one of the indisputable masterpieces of the 20th century. John Atkinson has recorded the male vocal group Cantus's performances of Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium (on Comfort and Joy: Volume One, Cantus CTS-1204) and Ave Maria Dulcissima (on Cantus, Cantus CTS-1207). (And great recordings they are—one engineer chum thinks JA's Cantus recording of OMM is the single best-engineered choral recording he's ever heard.)
It starts quietly enough, with a simple falling-fifth motif, but the first movement of Sergei Rachmaninoff's neglected Piano Sonata 1 develops into a work of epic proportions nearly 40 minutes in length, with haunting melodies, massive dynamic contrasts, and lush, sensual harmonies.