This week I got to had some fun over at Vinyl Me, Please. I looked at ten crucial classical releases to add to your record collection. With vinyl in the ascendance its vitally important you rep for great (modern) classical music.
Here’s the short list, with handy links to buy any and all:
The vast majority of classical music apps are hot garbage. Every major symphony has one, as do classical radio stations. Most are designed by the same outfit (not going to name them, but I should). It’s a mystery who they’re designed for, or why they bothered in the first place.
I’ve written in the past about early-music composer, conductor and multi-instrumentalist Jordi Savall. The guy is a prolific artist who has helmed an envious number of ensembles like Hespèrion XXI, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, and Les Concert des Nations. It wasn’t until I had a closer look at Savall’s discography this week that I realized just how big his recorded output is.
Negin Khpalwak is a 19-year-old musician and conductor from Afghanistan. She leads the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 women musicians at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul. The fact that Zohra orchestra exists would’ve been miraculous 15 years ago.
Regular readers of the CDA mailer remember the infamous “Classical Music Fails” volumes 1 and 2. They are lowlight reels of classical-music nightmares, the worst things that can happen onstage. The standout among those — and this is saying something — was a shitty, broken-down, unattributed performance of Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra. (Don’t worry, I’ll link to it later.)
The group responsible for the carnage was the Portsmouth Sinfonia. They were founded at the Portsmouth College of Art in 1970 as a conceptual art project. The concept? Nobody in the orchestra knew how to play their instruments. The mistakes were the art, man.
Portsmouth Sinfonia’s founder, Gavin Bryars, demanded an earnest effort from his subjects. They practiced, they improved marginally, and they performed in a way that sounded approximately like what the composer intended. The Portsmouth Sinfonia counted none other than Brian Eno among its members (on clarinet!). Composer Michael Nyman was even more dramatically seduced while attending a Portsmouth Sinfonia performance:
I sat through the first half […] and I was so moved and entertained and excited by the music that I went up to Gavin in the interval and said, ‘Is there a spare instrument? I’d like to join.’ They had a spare cello, so suddenly I was playing ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ in the second half.
When you’ve got that kind of heat it follows that more and more people would start to hear about it. The Portsmouth Sinfonia grew so popular (really?!) they recorded an album which Rolling Stone called 1974’s “Comedy Album of the Year.” They played Royal Albert Hall and other downscale venues while billed as “the world’s worst orchestra.” And then they broke up.
The lesson here is that if you premise your recordings on a certain “authenticity” fans are happy to get behind it (the Wesley Willis / Lil B axiom) even if it sounds… kinda suspect. Some fails are secret successes, we love what we should hate, we’re so random and unpredictable like that. Reach for the stars.
Led Zeppelin found themselves in hot water last week when a lawsuit alleged they ripped off the “Stairway to Heaven” intro from a song by the 1960s hippie band Spirit, with whom they once toured. You might notice some similarities.
I should say at the outset that I’m a ride-or-die Led Zeppelin fan. I owned their posters and t-shirts and a scratchy bootleg of their last show ever. I learned how to play the drums by figuring out the beat to “When the Levee Breaks.” I even like John Paul Jones.
I’m surprised it’s taken so long for Zeppelin to get called out. They’ve covered, ripped off, appropriated and approximated the sounds of many other performers (albeit very well, imo). Like their peers at the time they shamelessly copied from black American blues music. On paper it looks kinda bad.
However, The New Yorker’sAlex Ross thinks the case against “Stairway” is shaky when you consider the influence Baroque & Renaissance music had in pop music at the time, and on bands like Spirit and Zeppelin in particular. Ross further says the “issue” began way before these two bands ever started up (I bolded a few things in here).
Professional orchestras play a lot of shows. As a player the sheer quantity can overwhelm. You get to the tail end of a season and it’s impossible to remember how it started, let alone what you played last concert series. When somebody asks what memorable shows you’ve played you inevitably draw a blank.
Sometimes the web gods gaze upon us with favor. While trawling through r/classicalmusic I saw a link to this seductive little piece by a composer named Trevor Kowalski, sung by Katherine Merwin. It’s pleasant, and you’ll wish it was longer.
Snapchat is a domain ruled by celebrity royalty like DJ Khaled and Kylie Jenner, as well as engagement machines like Buzzfeed and MTV. There’s a reason everybody’s getting on board: Snapchat boasts a jaw-dropping 8 billion video views per day and rising. It’s the messaging app whose 100 million daily users spend an average of 30 minutes a day using it.
So…. question: with all that action, where are the classical musicians?