With Strings Attached

April 28, 2007 | By | 7 Replies More

Not nearly enough, I think, has been posted on DI about things which I consider just as important as politics, economics, and social issues.  That’s all well and good–DI offers a necessary forum for viewpoints which, while becoming more available in the public discourse, nevertheless need all the voices it can find.  But if we’re talking about the “human animal” then some attention ought to be paid to the things that feed into the soul, if you will, of human beings.  And they can be just as political, just as inflammatory, just as controversial as stem cell research or new taxes or who the A.G. fired this week.  We need to remember occasionally why we even have something called Civilization.  So I want to talk about something important.

Music.  Specifically some discs I’ve acquired in last year or so that I think need some attention.

I live inside music. Sometimes I have a soundtrack playing inside my skull during the day. Growing up going to movies as a weekly ritual with my parents, it always seemed sad to me that “real life” didn’t have a score–things would be so much sweeter, you would know when the momentous event was imminent by the way the string section swelled ominously, or when you were about to get kissed…

Anyway, I sometimes joke that if I had it do all over again, I’d be a jazz pianist. I stumbled on jazz rather late in life, after having first gone through rock’n’roll and classical. I don’t play well enough to actually make money as a musician, but I’ve been gigging once a month at a church open-mic for the past year (I know, I know, I’m an atheist, what am I doing at a church?  Well, there are friends involved and it’s music and…never mind), and it’s been pure joy. So who knows? I may yet find myself with a third career.

But what I wanted to talk about here is some newer music that most folks, I’ll wager, don’t even know about.


Probably like most people, I used to think of classical (which includes Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Neoclassical, and so forth) as just “old music” written by dead guys with no amps. The three Bs–Bach, Beethoven, Brahms–and all their musical progeny. I always believed it was sacrosanct–that if, for instance, you didn’t like something, the problem was yours, that you didn’t understand it, not the music’s. It never occurred to me as a teenager that this kind of music had continued to be written and performed, continuously, even up to the present day, even with one example hitting me in the ear every time I saw a movie.

Some of the best 20th Century classical music is locked up in soundtracks. We all know about Korngold and those glorious Robin Hood-type excursions. John Williams is an heir to Korngold. As pure music, some of that material is incredible, and some very heavy composers wrote some of it. Vaughan Williams did a few soundtracks, and Leonard Bernstein did the soundtrack to “On The Waterfront.” It’s snobbery that implies “serious” composers never did movies–Stravinsky did stage plays, as did Prokofiev, so what’s the difference?

That said, however, as pure music, the form has suffered a bit of neglect on the part of audiences. I’ve been to symphony premiers of new pieces and seen empty seats in the hall. It’s a shame and we should be ashamed. This is the fountain from which musical aesthetics flow to all forms, whether we recognize it or not, and it deserves attention.

I have in front of me three CDs I’ve acquired in the last couple of years, one I just bought this weekend, and I want to recommend them.

I have little patience with those “orchestral” versions of rock band oeuvres. The first one I heard, decades ago, was an Andre Kostelanetz album of Chicago’s music. Chicago only had three studio albums out at the time. Mr. Kostelanetz, like so many of his generation, really didn’t “get” rock music, and it showed. He sensed there was meat there, something substantial, that had things to offer the musical connoisseur, but he failed to capture it, and the album was awful. I’ve never heard much improvement.

Until. Youth and Jaz Coleman got together and produced an orchestral album of Pink Floyd. The London Philharmonic plays it. The thing that makes this light years ahead of all the other orchestralizations is that these two gentlemen Got It. They did not do transcriptions of the Pink Floyd originals and then arrange them for orchestra–they took the music apart and rewrote it as if it had been intended for orchestra in the first place. They caught the soul. It is a glorious album. (An example of this reimagining is demonstrated on the album itself by the presence of two versions of Time, and while both are the same melody and theme, they are very different renderings.) All the tracks are taken from Dark Side Of The Moon and The Wall. The breadth of what orchestral music can do is there, to be turned up and immersed in.

The second album is by another rock artist, guitarist Steve Hackett formerly of Genesis. Hackett is an incredible guitarist. His solo work has transcended most of what he did with Genesis, and when he was with Genesis the band was at a creative peak. I would argue that Genesis in the 70s was the quintessential bridge band, between rock and classical/romantic. Live they were superb. Most of Hackett’s solo work has been in electric guitar, rock format, but I found this one offered through a Classical Music club–A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Acoustic guitar with the Royal Philharmonic. They are tone poems and program pieces set to the Shakespeare, Hackett’s impression of the play. He proves here to be a composer of the first water. It’s sort of a concerto format, the orchestra counterpointing his solo guitar work, but it’s not composed in traditional concerto style. Eighteen tracks, blending together artfully, more like a motion picture soundtrack, but without the obvious predetermined aspects–you know, the love theme, the chase, the revelation, etc.

Now we come to the reason I decided to write this. The newest one. Not quite so new, it was released in 1997, but new enough.

Conversations In Silence, conducted by Paul Gambill leading the Nashville Chamber Orchestra.

There are six pieces on this album, two of them compositions by a woman who has clearly drunk deep of Aaron Copland–Conni Ellisor. She wrote the two pieces under commission for the NCO, and the one that caused me to buy the disc is called Blackberry Winter. This is a remarkable piece. First, it’s a concerto. A dulcimer concerto. Right, I thought, a dulcimer…but the range she manages to draw out of it is stunning, and the string sections are redolent of autumn mountains, cold springs, and the possibilities of–

Well, everyone has their own response. I lie listening this music and am continually amazed at the emotions that rise to the surface, drawn by the deep confluence of motif and theme, and the complexity of sounds possible only through the vision of someone who really understands what music can do.

She has another piece on here, Conversations In Silence, which seems based on a different American composer’s template (I’ll let you guess who), and there are four other pieces by different composers.

One of these composers is Samuel Barber, who died in 1981. I was surprised he was still alive then myself. Barber was one of the best American composers of the 20th Century, but also one of the most neglected and underappreciated. His Adagio For Strings has become a movie soundtrack staple–almost a cliche–but a good deal of the rest of his body of work is considerably less well known, which is tragic. He was truly great. He had the range of the finest European composers of the day–like Benjamin Britten and William Walton–but with that uniquely American voice throughout. I have read that Barber was a bitter man in his later years. The piece included here is one of his last.

I have a reasonably good classical collection–not nearly as comprehensive as I’d like, but not bad–and one of the sections in it that has grown is the 20th Century section. I do not believe that, outside of a self-selected group, most of the American composers of that century are known. One of my favorite composers is Howard Hanson. He was a self-defined romantic composer and he can take his place beside Dvorak and Saint-Saen easily. Another American composer I admire greatly is Walter Piston–again, relatively unknown. Both these men should be in the libraries of any serious collector.

Sometime in the 50s, I think, an unfortunate event took place–the splitting of American culture into “popular” and “high”. Radio, 45 rpm records, the juke box, and, finally, television all contributed to divide the public. Now, people chose their taste all on their own, since no one forced them to stop listening to “serious” music. Many stations then played a great deal of the stuff, with educational commentary, some of it live performance by the best orchestras and conductors on the planet. But taste is something that all too often needs time and patience to acquire, and the advent of the “hit” record worked against that patience. The last truly serious music that had broad popular appeal in this country was jazz, and it very nearly died of neglect by the end of the Sixties.

You could argue that rock became serious. Much of it did. But it was not serious music when it drove jazz out of the marketplace, it was largely two-minute hit wonders with a catchy tune and a cute hook. Later, when serious musicians entered the rock idiom and tried to make substantial music with the form, another division occurred and the spectacle of people fighting about what was “good music” in rock centered on the difference between “danceable” and “listenable”. What the argument really was about had to do with whether one could assimilate all the nuance of a given tune on the first listen–popular–versus music that required–huh–patience and attention and maybe several listens.

So contemporary orchestras struggle for funding and societies are established for the express purpose of “preserving” great music. Static art–paintings and sculpture–have it a bit easier with museums. Music needs musicians to live and breathe and that requires more than a building in which to house the work.

I went through what may be a typical cycle for someone like me. Pop tunes led to hard rock led to a rediscovery of some of the classical underpinnings of progressive rock led to jazz led to…

Led to what? Led to a place where I can perceive music as a pure abstraction and hear it on its own terms, whatever the idiom. I listen for depth and richness and intent. The three combine in most of what we think of as “classical” music, and a lot can be found in jazz. It’s a mistake not to learn how to hear it, but once you do find your way into that level of soundscape, a lot that passes for “good” music just isn’t. The trouble is, it can take a long time to learn how to hear it.

In school, we may be exposed to compressed courses of classical music, which more often than not does to our music taste what lit classes do to our reading tastes–leach the joy out of the music (the books) and leave us feeling that if it was written by dead white males, it’s stale and useless.

Do yourself a favor and check out the three discs I’ve mentioned here. Between the three, you may discover that joy you thought this music lacked, and come to find that it’s not so dead after all.


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Category: American Culture, Communication, Consumerism, Culture, Entertainment, music, Recommended Reading/Films/Sites, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (7)

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  1. Ben says:

    Thanks, I will check out that Pink Floyd, and then take it from there.

  2. Petrucio says:

    That Pink Floyd one is just awesome. Totally underdog, no one really knows about it. I found it on top of a huge pile of CDs under sale for 5 bucks.

    I'd pay $30 for it, and it would still be the best deal on any CD i'd have. In my opinion, simply the best album EVER.

    Important question: are the other two underdogs too? I sure don't expect to see them in stores anywhere here in Brazil. Where would one expect to find those?

  3. Jason Rayl says:


    I got the Steve Hackett from the BMG classical music club, the NCO from Amazon.

    Five bucks for the Floyd? Incredible.

  4. Ben says:

    Yup, I just ordered the Pink Floyd, it was 3.50 plus shipping (2.50). Also ordered Led Zeppelin philharmonic, it had superb reviews too. I will let you know which one I like more.

    Also ordered a book on memory. Here is the link, the guy won the US memory championship competition this year…
    "His main memory feat is to have recited Pi (3.14159…) to 22,500 digits without error."

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Jason, you’ve exploded a prejudice I’ve been harboring. As you know, I play the guitar. I was inspired by Wes Montgomery when I a teenager, and I can’t think of a better musician than Wes, based upon many things he excelled at, including his use of dynamics, his terrific ear for chording, his special tone (which he achieved by playing with his thumb rather than a pick), his exquisite use of octaves, but especially his use of silence between the notes. Here’s a good example of his soloing, an album called “Smokin at the Half Note.”  Go to this link on Amazon and click on the tune “Four on Six” for a minute of sublime jazz (better yet, obtain this CD and see if it’s possible to not listen to it 100 times.

    But guess what? In order to “improve Wes Montgomery,” (i.e., to sell more records), record producers inserted orchestras into many of his later recordings. For a taste of the result, check out the album called “Bumpin,” especially the tracks “The Shadow of your Smile” and “Here’s that Rainy Day.” Wes is still superb, but that damned orchestra just shouldn’t be there. It’s like someone thought that the music would be more “respectable” with all those violins. Arrrghhh. Add to this travesty the recordings of the “101 Strings” that my father brought into the house. There was no jazz or rock tune that they couldn’t over-sanitize.

    This orchestral sanitizing happened to many good jazz players in the 60’s, mostly with similar results. It was a learning process, because orchestra instruments eventually started enhancing some jazz (and rock), rather than covering up its unique character. One example would be the Moody Blues. Also, consider the solid marriage between rock and classical as evidenced by Emerson Lake and Palmer, a good example being Trilogy (listen to the track named Fugue).

    But, generally, I have a bad feeling for orchestras meddling with jazz (or rock) and it’s time for me to reconsider. Therefore, I have just purchased a used copy of Conversations In Silence and I look forward to hearing how a full orchestration is done when it is done right.

  6. Ben says:

    Jason, I listened to both albums, Floyd and Zepelin. The Floyd gave me goosebumps, when that first blast of the orchestra hit my core. After that, I was "comfortably numb". The Led Zeppelin is equally haunting, I bet my *soul* that you will love parts of it, even if you find that it may not be a complete masterpiece to your trained ear. For some reason it costs (cost) twice as much as the Floyd but is still a steal for 9 bucks (used).


    *(of course I also plan to sell my soul on Ebay like the friendly atheist)

  7. Ben says:

    Jason, you recently spoke of our mundane lives, yet you STILL haven't gotten the Led Zeppelin symphony?

    I want to know if you like it as much as the Floyd. I can't fathom only having the Floyd at this point, as good as it may be.


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