18/09/2020: “A Andorinha Da Primavera” by Madredeus

Madredeus could loosely be said to be a Portuguese folk band. They come from a tradition of fado music, which is a distinctive style of mixed guitar/stringed instruments, and depressing/beautiful female vocals. Take your pick.

The style is incredibly old, soaked through with centuries worth of tear-soaked tradition.

This one has a xylophone or marimba of some kind, adding further notes of pleasant but haunting contemplation.

The song has a soothing quality that is reminiscent of Muzak, or elevator music. Which isn’t to say that this song is bland – quite the contrary. It’s a very rich, full and deep song.

The piece was released in 1997 on O Paraiso.

19/11/2019: “Ambre” by Nils Frahm

Incredibly contemplative – somehow Autumnal in its wistfulness, although the album it comes from is called Wintermusik.

Released in 2009, the album is improvisational piano music for his family and friends recorded for a Christmas present in 2007. Nice touch…

15/09/2019: “8 Humoresques, Op. 101, B. 187: No. 7. Poco lento e grazioso in G flat major” by Art Tatum/Antonin Dvorak

I wasn’t entirely clear how to credit this one. The piece was composed by Dvorak in 1894, but Art Tatum’s version is very different in character – much less reverent, for one thing.

For that reason, Tatum’s version was divisive for contemporaneous critics. However, in retrospect, his key role in the creation of Jazz music has been recognised. His innovative style, ripping down the staid structures laid out before him in favour of highly idiosyncratic piano playing.

Art Tatum adds a few nonsensical flourishes in, which brighten the piece up considerably. It’s clear that his technical ability is incredible. He uses the piano like a canvas, painting huge splashes of sonic colour instead of the dainty strokes of the original. It’s bombastic and brilliant!

There’s a great argument to be made that the 1894 original arrangement has miles more class – it’s more magnificent, more serene, more beautiful.

But this version is far more fun…

The Art Tatum version played in the 1930s. It’s hard to pin it down more than that.

06/06/2019: “Ouverture No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068, Second Movement (Air On A G String)” by J.S. Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most important composers of all time, with his Baroque melodies enduring hundreds of years and still as magnificent as ever.

He wrote many pieces for piano, lutes and strings. This is the latter, written for a string quartet.

Strictly speaking, the most popular version is an arrangement by August Wilhelmj, who moved the piece down in pitch.

The song is a very moving one, alternating the shorter melodies of the violins with a longer, more drawn out finish. The way the instruments glide around each other is so masterful.

The piece is the second movement of the Overture number 3 in D major, MWV 1068, part of a suite of 4 overtures composed in the French style. An “Air” is a particular kind of instrumental song related to an aria.

Stunning.

04/03/2019: “Bird’s Lament” by Moondog

Moondog was ahead of his time in the 60s, and to be honest he’s probably still ahead of our time.

The sheer surrealist lunacy of some of his music is breathtaking, but when he makes music with easily recognisable melodies and rhythms, it’s obvious that he was a brilliant composer.

“Bird’s Lament” is a song written to commemorate Charlie Parker, the Jazz musician. It is a chaconne, which means a short, repetitive piece, and in the album is called “Lament 1”.

The piece makes good use of brass to create feeling of mystery, and was in fact covered to great effect by the London Saxophonic Orchestra.

The original is faster and more sonically diverse. It’s a serious sort of song, commemorating a death, but the variation does put you in mind of a bird.

Moondog himself was a notable eccentric, known to many as “The Viking Of Sixth Avenue” because of his habit of walking around New York in a strange Viking costume.

The Viking of 6th Street…

He was also blind from age 16, which makes his achievements all the more impressive.

“Lament 1 (Bird’s Lament)” was released on the 1969 album Moondog.

Utter genius!

02/03/2019: “Canon In D” by Pachelbel

This song is easily one of the most serene and beautiful pieces ever composed.

Written for a string ensemble, it starts with slow melody augmented by some plucking.

The thing which really makes the song so great is the way it builds in complexity, and emotional intensity.

By the climax, the song is a rousing and thoughtful exhortation to feel good and relax.

The origins of the song are in some ways lost to the mists of time, largely because it’s so old. So old in fact, that it was probably written in the late 1600s!

It is truly music of another era, but it will be just as great in another 400 years, I have no doubt of that.

It was relatively obscure, but was re-discovered in 1919 by Gustav Beckmann, and in 1968, Jean-Francois Paillard re-interpreted the piece by making it slower (among other things). This helped to cement the piece’s popularity in the modern era.

So lovely!

15/01/2019: “Vibrations” by Mae Ji-Yoon

I have found it hard to find any information on Mae Ji-Yoon, and my knowledge of that area of the world would lead me to tentatively guess that he or she is South Korean, although the main listeners on Spotify are from Taiwan.

There’s only this song on Spotify as well, with both a guitar version and a piano version, further enhancing the ghost-like nature of the composer.

So this post will have to be constructed mainly on the musical qualities of the song. Luckily, such is the quality of the song, that this isn’t too arduous.

I will be focusing on the guitar rendition of the piece. It’s a slow, peaceful movement, encouraging reflection. The song feels quite warm, and maintains a pretty constant energy level throughout.

The notes ring out and drift like a bird sailing on air currents as the sun sets. Over a desert, just in case the picture I’m painting isn’t vivid enough.

I believe the composition was published in 2017, and the guitar version was put on Spotify on 2018.

An exceedingly fine tune!

 

02/12/2018: “Gymnopédies No. 1” by Erik Satie

The Gymnopedies, of which there are three, can be viewed as being pop songs. Not because they are; they are undoubtedly Classical pieces.

But they are short, not taking more than about 4 minutes each. More than that, they are incredibly simple, especially No. 1. And of course, they are some of the most well known, popular songs ever.

The notes aren’t numerous, but what the composition lacks in the flurry of virtuosity often seen in other piano solo works, it more than makes up for with sheer poignant melody.

It’s a beautifully expressive piece, and the slightly dissonant feel  only serves to increase its effectiveness. The instructions mandate that the first piece be played “painfully”, which is about right…

The word “Gymnopedie” could mean a number of things. It’s not a standard french word, but instead is derived directly from Greek. It’s a sort of ritualised dance that was performed by Spartan kids. Satie could have meant for the songs to be dances.

The first Gymnopedie was published in 1888 alongside a poem by J.P. Contamine, which mentions the Sarabandes, a previous set of dances written by Satie.

Such a cutting piece of music.

30/11/2018: “Electric Counterpoint” by Steve Reich

Minimalist music was a polarising movement at the time of its creation, but has since gained a measure of acceptance in the classical music world. The central credo is essentially to use less of everything. Less notes, less ideas, more experimentation.

This doesn’t mean that the style has nothing going on; it’s not about creating 10 minute songs consisting primarily of silence (although this has been done). It’s just about viewing music in a way that repeats certain themes, much in the manner of Indian classical music (from which a lot of minimalist music takes its inspiration).

For it’s critics, it’s a musical form that has boredom and repetitiveness written into its DNA.

But for all that much of it does indeed sound very similar, there are more than a few pieces created by its luminaries that slot comfortably into place alongside the traditional classical canon.

Steve Reich is probably my favourite out of the main composers associated with the movement such as Terry Riley and Philip Glass. He tends to favour percussion and heavily rhythmic styles.

“Electric Counterpoint” is a song written for guitar. Or more accurately, guitars. Lots and lots of guitars. A full ensemble for this has 11 guitars and two basses!

The first recording, by experimental jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, was made by him overdubbing himself many times, creating a thick mist of sound drifting and swirling, with an airy, diaphanous sheen.

The piece is divided into three parts, called Fast I, Slow II and Fast III. The parts do what they say on the tin…

The song was released first on the album Different Trains/Electric Counterpoint in 1989, with the Kronos Quartet’s rendering of the composition “Different Trains”.

Timeless quality.