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SOUNDTRACK: MAHAN ESFAHANI-Tiny Desk Concert #970 (April 27, 2020).

I love the sound of the harpsichord but always assumed that one played the harpsichord in addition to the piano, like for extra flavor.  That may be true, but Mahan Esfahani is not only “the instrument’s most ardent advocate,” he is also hilariously cocky about it.

For this Tiny Desk,

Esfahani, who grew up near Washington, D.C., but is now based in Prague, chose a double manual harpsichord — meaning two keyboards. This one was built by specialists Barbara and Thomas Wolf in 1991, but is based on a famous French instrument from 1770.

The harpsichord is a beautiful but notoriously fussy instrument. After we wheeled one behind Bob Boilen’s desk, it took the bulk of an hour to get the tuning just perfect for the very first Tiny Desk harpsichord recital. Given that our guest was Mahan Esfahani we were willing to wait.

His set began with classics: a pair of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, which share the same key but couldn’t be more opposite in personality. With elaborate curlicue ornaments in both hands, the opening sonata “Sonata in D, K. 534,” presents a sober, regal outlook. Its partner “Sonata in D, K. 535” is a flamboyant rocker, with the hands chasing each other across the two keyboards like a cat and mouse.

Before the next song Esfahani makes some wonderfully funny comments about the superiority of harpsichord players.

He says people thing harpsichordists take piano pieces and transcribe them for the harpsichord.  No, pianists take enough of our music; we’re a much classier bunch than them.  We have our own music.

He also tells us that there are many modern composers making harpsichord music.

But he also tells us that there modern composers making harpsichord music.  Composers are the best people as we all know.  It goes composers then harpsichordists, I think, then everyone else.

Mel Powell was a jazz pianist who worked with Benny Goodman. he then became a composer of “proper music” (as it was called in the 1950s).  he studied with Hindemith but unlike Hindemith, he’s not boring.

Angular and slightly jazzy “Recitative and Toccata Percossa,” from 1951, is a tour de force in this artist’s hands. It drives home a point he likes to make — that while the harpsichord had its heyday in the 18th century, it’s still a vibrant instrument and very much alive. “There are over 50 modern concertos for the harpsichord,” he told the audience.

He closes with a lesser known piece by a famous composer.  After giving the proper pronunciation of Pachelbel, he tells that Pachelbel was good enough to teach Bach’s brothers.

Esfahani closed with a little-known chaconne by Johann Pachelbel. Its steady bassline and colorful variations were a pleasant reminder of the composer’s one-hit claim to fame, “Pachelbel’s Canon.”

I’ve never seen a harpsichord that looked like this before.  It sounded great.  I love that there are muted passages in the Pachebel piece–I’ve nevee heard a muted harpsichord before.  This was another great Tiny Desk.

[READ: May 3, 2020] “What to Watch During the Lockdown: Month 38”

I used to really look forward to Nick Hornby’s (mostly) monthly columns in The Believer. I’m not really sure what he’s been up to since, but it’s great to see a new column from him.

This one features his delightfully obscure references to entertainment and football.

My wife and I are apparently the only people who will come out of this quarantine with even more shows to watch than we started with.  We have so much to do during the day–house fixing, yard prepping, reading–that we barely watch an hour of TV a night.  And there’s about 35 shows that I would like to binge.

So, I appreciate this essay intellectually, but not on a practical level (even if it is hilariously absurd). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: CHRISTMAS AT DOWNTON ABBEY (2014).

We enjoyed Downton Abbey quite a lot, so it seemed natural to get the Christmas CD collection.  Well, it turns out you don’t need to have any appreciation of the TV show to enjoy this CD.

Aside from the opening Downton theme, everything else on the disc is a traditional British Christmas carol–secular and non-secular.

But it’s not an awkward cast recording.  There are a couple of cast members who sing, but they were known for the singing already:

Julian Ovenden who played Charles Blake sings a lot of songs.  Ovenden has sung musical theater with many orchestras.  His voice is great.  Elizabeth McGovern, who played Cora, has also had a singing career.  Between them, they sing six songs–all classic carols.

The rest of the album features The King’s College Choir Of Cambridge on fourteen songs and Kiri Te Kanawa who sings 6 songs.  There is more classical instrumental (and not) music that fills out this 2 CD set (45 tracks in all).

It’s not to say that there is no connection to the show.  Jim Carter (Mr Carson) recites ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas over some music.  It’s quite lovely and he has a great voice for recitation.

As far as tie-ins to TV shows go, this one is fantastic.

But if you like old-fashioned Christmas carols, this is a great album for Christmas.

[READ: December 18, 2018] “Strategies Against Sleeping”

Once again, I have ordered The Short Story Advent Calendar.  This is my third time reading the Calendar (thanks S.).  I never knew about the first one until it was long out of print (sigh).  Here’s what they say this year

Fourth time’s the charm.

After a restful spring, rowdy summer, and pretty reasonable fall, we are officially back at it again with another deluxe box set of 24 individually bound short stories to get you into the yuletide spirit.

The fourth annual Short Story Advent Calendar might be our most ambitious yet, with a range of stories hailing from eight different countries and three different originating languages (don’t worry, we got the English versions). This year’s edition features a special diecut lid and textured case. We also set a new personal best for material that has never before appeared in print.

Want a copy?  Order one here.

Like last year I’m pairing each story with a holiday disc from our personal collection.

I loved the way that this story (translated from the Spanish by Miranda France) started as one thing and slowly turned into something else entirely.

Señora Eloísa was in a car getting driven back home.  She was very tired from her travels and wished to just close her eyes and let the soothing engine noise take her away.  She was on the verge of sleep several times, but the driver of the car kept pressing her to stay awake.

She felt compelled to make small talk with the driver, but regretted it instantly.  She felt she had given away too much information.  So when he asked if he could smoke, she allowed allowed it as an act of consiliation.  She regretted not taking the coach.

The driver kept saying how happy he was to have someone to talk to.  He himself was quite tired having not slept very well the night before and he felt that she was keeping him awake.  “Please talk to me” he said.

She talked about the rain and then about an essay she wrote once.  It had to do with beggars–about which she clearly knew very little.  She wrote in her essay that rain was a blessing for beggars–since they live under a blazing sun all day long, they must love the rain.

Even with this, whenever she paused she heard “Please talk to me.”  Annoyed, she pressed on.

She told the story of a woman, possibly a beggar but possibly not–she did have on nice clothes, anyone could see.  The woman was standing in the middle of a traffic jam in the heat.  Señora Eloísa’s husband didn’t see the woman but Señora Eloísa couldn’t take her eyes off of her standing in the street with that heavy baby .

She hadn’t mention the baby at first and the driver was puzzled. She snapped that of course she had mentioned the baby.  She then proceeded to admonish the driver and her (absent) husband for not understanding how hard it is to carry a heavy baby in the heat.

As the driver trues to change the subject, she quickly pulls it back to the heavy baby and the story suddenly changes into something else entirely.

This was a strange story to be sure, and there’s a lot there for one to unpack.

To learn more about this piece, here’s a Q&A with Liliana Heker.

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earnestSOUNDTRACK: THE SILVER MT. ZION MEMORIAL ORCHESTRA & TRA-LA-LA BAND-Born into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward [CST018] (2001).

Born_into_Trouble_as_the_Sparks_Fly_UpwardNotice that the band’s name has gotten longer.  That could be because they have added three new members (which means they are slowly growing to be the size of GYBE anyway). In addition to Efrim, Thierry and Sophie, there is now Becky Foon on cello, Ian Ilavsky on guitar and organ and Jessica Moss on violin (all Constellation stalwarts).

The first song is the nine minute “Sisters! Brothers! Small Boats of Fire Are Falling From the Sky!”  Echoed drum sounds slowly grow louder before a slow violin plays a mournful melody.  But with the new members, there is now a cello to accompany the violin, making this album sound even more classical.  Three minutes in, the piano takes over (and the strings slowly fade).  The piano is a bit prettier and more accomplished sounding (even if it has only been a year since the last album).  Despite the addition of all of the extra instruments, the song still veers pretty far from GYBE territory.  It feels very acoustic (what with the piano), and while the song is repetitive it never feels like it is epic or building towards something–it just grows bigger and more beautiful as more instruments enter the mix.

“This Gentle Hearts Like Shot Bird’s Fallen” opens with what sounds like bird noises, but may actually be a child.  The song is primarily echoed guitars which lay a foundation over which the violins and cellos play slow mournful notes.  The song grows as more instruments  play along, including some gentle percussion, and it all seems to end too soon.

“Built Then Burnt [Hurrah! Hurrah!]” is a spoken piece.  Efrim doesn’t recite the words–it sounds like a child (but may be a young woman).  The reading is dramatic and works very well with the slowly building strings that comprise the bulk of this song.

some lines:

Why are we all so alone here
All we need is a little more hope, a little more joy
All we need is a little more light, a little less weight, a little more freedom.
….
Good words, strong words, words that could’ve moved mountains
Words that no one ever said
We were all waiting to hear those words and no one ever said them
And the tactics never hatched
And the plans were never mapped
And we all learned not to believe
And strange lonesome monsters loafed through the hills wondering why
And it is best to never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever wonder why

As that song fades, the aggressive strings of “Take These Hands and Throw Them in the River” take over. This song features Efrim singing in full voice–the recognizable voice of SMtZ.  On this song his voice is processed and echoed and so the strange timbre of his voice doesn’t quite register because it sounds so…unusual anyway.  I really enjoy the way this song sounds so much bigger than the rest.  At around 4 minutes, while the song begins to build –both instrumentally and vocally, new strings bring more intensity until the whole thing just fades away to the sounds of actual birds which chirp for about 2 minutes.

“Could’ve Moved Mountains…”is eleven minutes long and shows incredible restraint, especially in the vocals.  It opens with slow bass notes.  The whispered spoken vocals return and the song is kind of ominous..  About three minutes in quiet harmony vocals accompany him and soon after, strings are added and continue to grow louder.  The instrumental section is quite pretty although still melancholy.  Around 8 minutes in, a guitar riff begins playing a similar melody to the strings. It plays for a bit and then the strings rejoin the song, playing a more hopeful melody.  The song ends with some kids talking and singing as the song melds into….

“Tho You Are Gone I Still Often Walk W/You”  This song opens with piano and cello, a sad intro indeed.  I like that after a minute the song jumps keys unexpectedly while keeping the rhythm otherwise the same.  The song doesn’t vary much from this simple piano and strings feel although it ebbs and flows in intensity.

“C’monCOMEON (Loose An Endless Longing)” breaks the melancholy of the previous son with a big buzzy electric guitar chord.  Strings eventually come in and the song builds and builds, complete with interesting percussion.  This song is probably the closest to a GYBE song with a dramatic build and very satisfying chord progressions.  When the fast bass notes kick in around 3 minutes it seems like the song is going to grow even faster, but instead, it fades away to some ringing chimes–what sounds like a giant echo chamber (a really neat effect).  That calm is broken by a series of horns playing one note at a time, louder and louder (this whole middle section reminds me of the middle of “Atom Heart Mother” by Pink Floyd–in fact I have found a number of comparisons to some of Floyd’s trippier moments on this and other albums).  And then the drums come crashing back in.  It’s a very different song that resumes–loud bass, lots of drums and everything mixed loud enough to distort the sound.

The final song is “The Triumph of Our Tired Eyes.”  It opens with guitar harmonics and Efrim’s disatnat voice.  It’s a pretty and delicate song, joined by strings and a genuinely pretty vocal melody: “There’s beauty in this land, but I don’t often feel it.”  And as the strings swell and swell, the voices sing the refrain: “musicians are cowards” over and over.  The song and disc end on a surprisingly quiet and beautiful note.

When the songs ends, there’s a few seconds of children singing lyrics to the “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” melody although the words don’t fit like: “when we finally cross the barricade…”

I really like the way this album plays with the new style of music the band has embraced but also admits some of the strengths from pretty much everyone else’s other band.

[READ: April 4, 2016] The Importance of Being Earnest–The Graphic Novel

This play is one of the great plays in English literature.  Oscar Wilde is at his best, writing witticism upon witticism–each line is a funny rejoinder to the previous one and the wit is infectious.

The story is fairly simple, but he adds so many twists that it’s almost easy to get lost in the story.  In fact, it’s entirely possible that reading the play is a sure way to get lost in the deceptions.  And that’s why this graphic novel is so excellent.

I’ve always maintained that it is difficult to “read” a play, especially if there are dozens of characters.  The short, one act plays that I’ve been reading over the last years are fairly easy to follow, but when you have 20 named characters in three acts, it’s not always easy to keep people straight.  And that’s why to really appreciate Shakespeare you need to see it.  Well, this graphic novel effectively performs the play for us.  The dialogue is exact and there are no changes from the original (except for any stage directions, which are left out of the text, but are presumably addressed in the art).

What’s (intentionally) confusing about this play is that the two main characters are trying to deceive other people about their identity.  Algernon Moncrieff and John Worthing are two gentlemen–well off, single, clever.  Algy talks about how he likes to go Bunburying.  Which means he has “invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down unto the country whenever I choose.  …If it wasn’t for Bunbury’s extraordinarily bad health, I wouldn’t be able to dine with you.”  This comes up because John has informed Algy that he “has always pretended to have a  younger brother of the name Ernest, who lives in the [city] and who gets into the most dreadful scrapes.”

They have lies in common: each man lies to a group about a phony other person whom they use as an excuse for bad behavior. (they are old friends as well, of course). (more…)

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harp marchSOUNDTRACK: RHEOSTATICS-Harbourfront Toronto, Canada Day (July 1, 2000).

harbourThis recording comes from an outdoor venue in honor of Canada Day.

As I understand it, the band was asked to write a new song for the Canada Day celebration and they came up with “When Monkeys Comes.”  It opens with a kind of disco version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and then morphs into a jamming Rheos song.  It doesn’t sound awesome on this mix (although the rest of the disc does), so it’s hard to get a real sense of what’s happening.  It feels a little meandering.  And since it doesn’t really appear anywhere else (except for an upcoming show), it’s hard to really parse it.

This show is interesting in that the band doesn’t talk very much–usually they’re very chatty.  Dave Bidini says that since their set is short (barely over an hour), they didn’t want to talk to much, so it’s all about the music.  They play the first seven songs without saying a word in between songs.  Also interesting is that those first seven songs are all new–not yet recorded for the Night of the Shooting Stars album.

There is a drum machine or at least a lot of electronic drumming on a couple of songs, which I believe are supplied by Michael Phillip Wojewoda, erstwhile extra member of the band for years, and official drummer in a few months.

After playing the new songs, the band does play some older songs.

They are still doing songs from Harmelodia (“I Fab Thee” and “Song of the Garden”) and this crowd, which I assume is all ages, is probably a good place for them.  They also play “The Ballad of Wendel Clark” which is super fun (and not played that often).  There’s some great versions of “Stolen Car” and “Self Serve Gas Station.”

It’s a good set (with good sound quality), especially if you like NotSS.

[READ: March 6, 2015] new movies

I rarely talk about movie or movie reviews here.  But since I like Galchen, and I’ve mentioned most of her writings so far, it seemed like a worthwhile inclusion.  And she’s talking about Paddingon, a movie I’d like to see

What I liked about Galchen’s review was that it’s not so much about the movie (which she likes and says is silly and smart and witty and pretty) as it is about the story of Paddington.

I don’t know the plot of the movie (or the books, actually, although I do know the premise of who Paddington is), but it sounds like a fun farce, with Hugh Bonneville (Mr Crawley on Downton Abbey) dressing as a cleaning lady to aid Paddington on “an essential fact-finding mission.”

But Galchen talks about how the movie (like the book by Michael Bond) pays attention to money (the cost of marmalade for instance) and to the African-Caribbean immigration to London in the 1950s.  Paddington is from darkest Peru (evidently Bond was going to have him be from Darkest Africa but there are no bears there).  And its this immigrant story which the movie focuses on.

Galchen also talks about how characters like Paddington (or Curious George or Pinocchio) are stand ins for children. But if they were actual children in the stories we would be repelled by them.

It turns out that Galchen has visited darkest Peru on a research mission.   They were checking fecal samples of the native chickens–looking for antibiotics.  They also conducted a kind of socioeconomic census of the region, which was, of course, ridiculous as none of the natives had much of anything.  Although she notes that the most common name for boys was Israel and the most common among girls was LadyDi.

This article didn’t make me want to see the movie any more than I do (because I am looking forward to it already), but it was certainly an interesting perspective and certainly one I wouldn’t be reading in Entertainment Weekly.

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wwiSOUNDTRACK: LAIBACH-Let It Be (1988).

220px-LaibachletitbeBecause Let It Be doesn’t end with The Beatles.  In 1988, Laibach, the Slovenian industrial band covered the entire Let It Be album (except for the title song).  Laibach are something of a proto-Rammstein, full of bombast and loud voices, stomping beats and despite the Slovakian heritage, a very Teutonic feel.

Opening with “Get Back,” the song is a stomping industrial march.  The lead singer (I have no idea who the members even are, as they don’t say much about themselves on the record).  I’ve always enjoyed this version, and I kind of assumed that the whole album would be similarly bombastic.

However, after the bombast of the first song, “Two of Us” opens with a crooning voice singing a long.  It’s a nice change.  The music is industrial and loud–but the keyboard riff is also cool. and different.  Most of the songs are unrecognizable as the original, but I think “Dig a Pony” may be the most unlike the original.  The chorus melody is very different and I barely recognized it.  The high notes of “because” are done in a low bass spoken word.  It’s quite a change.

“Across the Universe” is genuinely pretty with two female singers and a harpsichord.  “I Me Mine” has very similar vocals although the music is very different–with strings and stomping drums.  “Dig It” is a nonsense song on the original, but Laibach have a fun (if that’s the word) making it more of a real song with lots of shouting.  “Maggie Mae” is a folks song that The Beatles recorded.  Laibach call it “Maggie Mae” but instead record tradition German songs “Auf der Lüneburger Heide” & “Was gleicht wohl auf Erden.”

“I’ve got a Feeling” is done like a rally.  There is cheering and shouting and the lyrics are delivered in a dramatic spoken word (complete with Oh Yeahs).  The audience cheers and responds.  After nearly 4 minutes, the cheering continues, but they throw in a steel drum melody of “The Long and Winding Road” (I wondered how they would handle that pretty song).

I don’t really like the original of “1 after 909” but I like the way this one is done.  It’s very heavy and rocking with some crazy guitar solos and a refrain of “Smoke on the Water.”  “For You Blue” is transformed into an stomping synth version with the vocal melody popping up during the synth line.  After 4 minutes of the song, there’s a circus-like rendition of the melody to end the disc.

This is a vastly different rendition of the Beatles album, one that many people will find unpleasant, but I actually knew this version before the original and it will always be fun to me.  It’s also interesting how 20 years later, Rammstein would become very successful performing a very similar style of music.

[READ: February 10, 2015] The First World War A|Z

Sarah and I had recently begin watching Downton Abbey (I know, only four years late).  During the season that focuses on World War I, I realized that I was woefully ignorant about details of this war.  I’m also surprised there hasn’t been more made of its centennial–I’m sure a bigger deal was made in Britain.  At the same time, I saw this book at work and it seemed like a good way for me to fill in the gaps.

I am amused and confused that the subtitle says “from assassination to zeppelin” when in fact it is actually from “ace to zeppelin” but I guess assassination is more catchy?

Anyhow, this book was put together by the Imperial War Museum, the British Museum which was founded while the war was underway–such was the significance and unprecedented nature of the war that it was deemed worthy of having a museum while it was still going on.

This book is basically a tiny encyclopedia about the war written in a imaginable digest sized book.  It’s only 178 pages, so it is perfect for people who want to learn some details without getting terribly bogged down in the trenches (sorry) of the detail. (more…)

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