Category Archives: Classical Moosic

Gay Music Revolution Saturday, August 29!

If you don’t enjoy seeing giant cocks explain to you why the Screamers and Buzzcocks are in the same sticky stream of history as Ma Rainey and Lesley Gore and Schubert and Little Richard and ancient cross-dressing shamanic rituals of our pagan past, then you are not fucking punk rock. And you probably deserve to be smothered to death by Donald Trump’s wig.

Ian MacKinnon Gay

And so you better stay far fucking away from Spirit Studio tomorrow night, Saturday August 29th, at 8:30 p.m.

Wait, actually you should come. COME!

Ian MacKinnon is a theatrical genius who can play Jobriath songs on piano as good as the original (practically in the middle of a costume change), and he performs an incredible, video-heavy multi-media one man play that I co-wrote TOMORROW night (Saturday, August 29).

Unless you are doing something CRUCIAL, like playing your own show or experimenting with knives, I better see you there, you fucking cads! Or else I will evoke the disco spirit of Sylvester and have him pump jism into your prudish, homophobic hearts.

You don’t own me.

-D. M. Collins

P.S. Here are the details, darlings:

The Gay Music Revolution is back for one night only!
Saturday night
August 29th, 2015
8:30 PM
$20 / $15 students & seniors
Spirit Studio
3711 Evans Street
Los Angeles, California 90027

P.P.S. Full disclosure: I co-wrote the script. I realized my friend’s play had a small but prominent hole in the backstory, and I stuffed a meaty chunk of the Germs and Buzzcocks and Screamers into it.

P.P.P.S. I have sex with men.

Philip Glass review up at L.A. RECORD

Disney Hall

My review of Philip Glass’ and Robert Wilson’s the CIVIL warS is up on the L.A. RECORD site.

When talking about classical music, and a composer of Glass’ caliber, of course I wanted to keep the focus on the positive. People should support music like this. And though the house was relatively packed, the trend on the horizon, around the country, is one of slumping sales even for Mozart!

But that’s why I couldn’t help but notice some of the problems with this particular production. In general, the singing and playing was great, but certain parts of the staging left something to be desired…

LA PHIL, if you must mic an operatic performance, can you at least test that the microphones and cords aren’t static-y, or have a backup, or just… just don’t fuck it up? We’re paying dozens of dollars here—which is clearly more than you paid your temps to type out the translations onto the big opera scoreboard, where “lose” was spelled “loose” throughout the evening, and other snippets of text and capitalization and punctuation seemed strangely wrong, even for a piece where everything’s up for grabs. I know this was supposed to be a “cantata-like concert performance lacking the hallucinatory visuals that originally accompanied the full staged version,” as the program so honestly described it, but doesn’t that mean it’s even more important that the few remaining moving parts stay in sync?

Still, the overall effect was rather amazing, and my brain left the hall far later than my body did.

-D. M. Collins

Goodbye gay marriage!

I am ashamed to be Californian today, and perhaps even more so to be an Angeleno.  Our people are a mix of economic moderates and social liberals, or so I had thought.  Live and let live seems to be the motto for many in Los Angeles, where gays and straights and people of all walks of life, all colors, all inclinations, mingle in front of Pink’s to get a hotdog and look forward to the Gold Line extension that’s coming in 2009.

So WHY THE FUCK did you people vote to take away the marital rights of gays and lesbians to enjoy the same benefits as everybody else?  Why is it that if I get in a long-term relationship with a man, our state government will no longer recognize us as family?  What happens if I’m in a medical accident–do my parents or cousins get to make the decision for me as to whether to pull the plug, and not my husband-not-husband?  And what happens regarding kids I might have with a partner who is less than a spouse?

This decision by the voters is absolutely no better in spirit than the ruling of Plessy vs. Ferguson, a legacy that shamed the Deep South, and shamed the hell out of me when I lived in Oklahoma (even though it was never really that southern, or that deep).  Separate but equal is never equal, and the 52% or so of voters who voted for Proposition 8 showed themselves to be selfish bigots.  Their mild distaste for seeing homos kiss made them feel justified in trivializing the real need hard-working Californians who just happen to be attached to someone of the same sex have for the protections only marriage provides.  Worse, they allowed themselves to be fooled by the Yes on 8 folks’ lies about churches and schools being forced to promote a gay agenda, when we ALREADY have had gay marriage and NONE of that shit has happened because of it.

As I drove home last night from watching the election at a friend’s house, the joy I should have felt at Obama’s victory was drowned in the sorrow I felt at the step backwards my state has taken.  My car’s stereo was playing my newly purchased copy of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, his sorrowful symphonic masterpiece composed at a time in his life when he’d discovered himself to be deathly ill and had just lost a daughter to Scarlet Fever.  Mahler’s masterpiece really overcame me, matching my mood perfectly.  I nearly wept with sadness at how close we had come to true equality, and how stupid fucks took it away just because they think butt sex is nasty and against Jesus.

Das Lied von der Erda has warm and hopeful parts as well, and so does the current state of gay marriage–though our own state is still bigoted and full of hulking moralistic dinosaurs, other states such as New York and New Jersey are gearing up for a real solid state of equality.  But I mourn the state we were for just a few months.

Glenn Gould plays some Bach

My god, is this man good.

Here’s a great recording of Gould, doing a little Bach.  The one thing about Gould that’s slightly endearing but mostly annoying is that he would sing, often audibly, during his pivotal recordings.  Though his lips move in this one, all you hear is pure genius.

Gould actually makes me pissed off, he’s such a genius.  You can feel the brain energy in his hands, the control, the mastery, the “this part is bold, this part is shy” delivery that lets you know every part is thought out and expressive.  Jesus, if I’m ever this good at anything, kill me while I can still do it.

Luigi Russolo’s intonarumori

Another great purchase I got at Amoeba this weekend was Musica Futurista: The Art of Noises, a compilation of Futurist speeches, original recordings, and recreations of music and noise composed by the Italian Futurist ringleader F.T. Marinetti, as well as Silvio Mix, Franco Casavola, Francesco Balilla Pratella, and a bunch of other crazy Italian artist types. These guys dominated the avant-garde there from 1909 until the twenties, leaving Russian Futurism, Dadaism, Fascism, and a host of other more famous isms sprouting up in the fields they first sowed.

The spoken word portions of this CD are fascinating (Marinetti sounds like a mad scientist, even in Italian!), and the Futurism scholar and musical enthusiast Daniele Lombardi did a good job of playing a variety of pieces from different composers, including Marinetti’s fantastic “Five Radio Sintesi,” a pioneering sound collage that included random radio sounds, water sploshing, babies crying, drilling noises, and several large portions of pure silence, preempting John Cage by 20 years.

But the best stuff on here by far is something we only get a snippet of: the works of Luigi Russolo and the acoustic sound generators he constructed, called “intonarumori” or noise-intoners, that you see there on the CD cover.  These were playable noise instruments with adjustable pitch, created to perform the new vocabulary of sounds that Russolo mapped out in his “Art of Noises” manifesto.

Here are the 6 families of noises of the Futurist orchestra which we will soon set in motion mechanically:

1 2 3 4 5 6
Rumbles Whistles Whispers Screeches Noises obtained by percussion on metal, wood, skin, stone, tarracotta, etc. Voices of animals and men:
Roars Hisses Murmurs Creaks   Shouts
Explosions Snorts Mumbles Rustles   Screams
Crashes   Grumbles Buzzes   Groans
Splashes   Gurgles Crackles   Shrieks
Booms     Scrapes   Howls
          Wheezes Sobs


This chart was only a small-scale model of the thousands of sounds produced by animals, men, and machine, but Russolo was able to create sound boxes for most of them, with names like “gurgler,” “buzzer,” “howler,” “crackler,” et cetera that described exactly what the boxes sounded like.  Despite several performances in Italy and London, all Russolo’s own compositions’ recordings and even full sheet music are lost, and gramophone recordings of orchestral music composed by his brother Antonio use the intonarumori only as sound effects, like the sound of thunder and rain punctuating an overture, rather than as intruments of their own.  But Daniele Lombardi reconstructs one original fragment that has survived of Luigi Russolo’s “Awakening of a City” on this CD, as well as plays samples of recreations of some intonarumori, including an “enharmonic bow” that sounds like a wiggly saw meets a washtub bass!

“Awakening of a City” as a fragment is short but profound.  Not only does it perfectly capture the soundscape of man-produced machinery (truly industrial music if there ever was), but the pitch-bending of these sound boxes and the rasps and clangs and catgut and buzzes predict everything from Silver Apples to Sonic Youth, LaMonte Young to Led Zeppelin to just plain old zeppelins.  This was music truly ahead of its time, which perhaps explains why the Fascists condemned it so vehemently when they rose to power.

The fantastic site Theremin Vox has a great article on Russolo’s intonarumori, and in fact has some sound samples to rival the performances on “The Art of Noises” CD.  Whereas the CD sounds more abrasive, like how they described early early Stooges live music, the MP3’s here show the sonorous beauty that this new style of music could have brought to the world, had its musicians not been destroyed by war (almost literally, in the case of Russolo’s WWI headwound) and by the Mussolini minions that followed.  Take a listen and you’ll see how incredible this lost early noise music really was.

Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes

I went with my girlfriend to Amoeba Records this weekend–and of course, we both easily spent over a hundred dollars on records we previously never knew existed, yet could not afford to pass up. 

But one of my purchases was a premeditated conquest.  For a few years now, I’ve been selectively collecting the works of Gyorgy Ligeti, the Hungarian composer whose works have moved me like no other.  As experimental as John Cage, yet as accessible as Ravel or sometimes even Bach, he’s perhaps one of the most enjoyable and moving of the near-modern day composers (he died just a few years ago, still in his prime).   And this time around, I got Gyorgy Ligeti Edition Volume V: Mechanical Music.

Note that it’s “mechanical” music, not electronic music.  Though Ligeti made great strides in electronic music early in his career, these pieces are mostly mechanical in that they are performed on somewhat traditional analog instruments that play themselves, based on instructions fed to them by reams of notched paper or MIDI controllers. 

The first section of the CD is dedicated to the barrel organ, and while the calliope-like tone of this tiny organ takes some getting used to, it’s fantastic to hear some of Ligeti’s works composed for keyboards (performed elsewhere on piano) done by a machine that sounds childlike yet ghost-like in its lack of a true human touch.  The piece “musica ricercata” is particulary disturbing because it recreates Ligeti’s famous minimal piano line from Eyes Wide Shut–but because it’s a barrel organ, the tones don’t decay or sustain at once, but rather pipe individually, long or short but not really soft or loud.  And as things get more complicated and staccato, the pace moves impressively fast, faster than I’ve ever heard a pipe organ of any type play.

Same goes for the latter half of the CD, which is dedicated to the player piano.  Here Ligeti and his henchmen tackle his Etudes, pieces which in their original human form were composed based largely on Ligeti’s exposure to Conlon Nancarrow, a composer who wrote player piano pieces of inhuman complexity.  This CD allows Ligeti to return his own Etudes to a form more in line with their inspiration.  In fact, we get to hear Etude XIVa, the original version, which was always meant for Player Piano and is blisteringly fast, yet somehow sounds organic despite being mechanically produced.

However, the reason most people bought this CD is probably because it chronicles a great performance of the “Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes.”  This was first performed for television while Ligeti was part of the Fluxus Art movement (sort of an honorary degree of artistry, since they added him to their number without his asking), but don’t think of it as merely a conceptual piece or music for shock value.  Because the Metronomes are mechanical and are wound so that they eventually run out of clicking power at different times, it’s a musical exercise quite similar to his Atmospheres (which starts with every note in the scale played at once). 

Here, we start with every possible tempo playing at once.  We begin in utter confusion, like popcorn going everywhere, or the chirping of a thousand crickets.  Then the anarchy and chaos slowly condenses and morphs into something a bit more calm and familiar.  Individual pockets of action and interest constantly bubble to the surface, speak their peace, then change into other things or fade into the background as new ticks and tocks emerge to distinguish themselves. 

It’s a really gradual, almost glacial process, but eventually one metronome after another drops off, until we’re left with just a few tocking metronomes almost aligning themselves, then becoming dissonant again.  Finally there’s just one metronome left.  Tock…tock…tock. 

In Ligeti’s mind, this is where the piece goes from the “maximal entropy” of its beginning and returns back to a simple maximal entropy of one beat.  To me, I was surprised at how after nearly twenty minutes of hearing irregular rhythms, the return to a singular rhythm made me shudder a bit.  I actually had visions of Poe’s “Mask of the Red Death,” and my feeling about the piece turned very ominous, very “for whom the bell tolls.”

It’s quite a different experience to hear this piece as pure music with your “eyes wide shut” than to sit and watch the metronomes as it plays out, so I suggest you try it both ways.  The CD version is perhaps better, though longer, than the one performed here, but I guess there are no right or wrong ways to wind your metronomes!

The Goldbug Variations, Glenn Gould, and William Gillespie

I was supposed to be writing a blog about Richard Powers’s The Goldbug Variations, and how I finished the book while on a plane to Mexico, with Glenn Gould’s 50’s and 80’s recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations tinkling in my ears via the power of my new iPod, and how once again I was overwhelmed by Powers’s genius, in his ability to weave science and literature and music into a book that actually teaches you about fields you are unfamiliar with, and then compares bits from the knowledge you just learned to bits of things you already know about, making new metaphors that you now desperately need to resolve puzzles you never even knew existed before.  It’s not my first Powers novel nor my favorite (that would be Gain), but it’s the only one with such a direct link to music, with a pattern roughly based on that of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and which basically is a companion piece to Bach and specifically to Glenn Gould’s recordings (really, one cannot enjoy this book to its fullest without being familiar with and possibly simultaneously listening to Gould’s Goldberg Variations, as both works inform the reader/viewer about the other to a great degree).

But in researching the blog I wanted to write about, I got distracted and wound up being mesmerised by another author I’m sure will soon become a favorite of mine–William Gillespie, whose essay “Mapping The Gold Bug Variations” did a great job of covering all the bases I wanted to but also involved more research than I’d cared to do, including two interviews with Richard Powers that, like a smart-aleck, he only used a one-sentence quote from.  I briefly checked out some works Gillespie had been involved with (including a book called 2002: A Palindrome Story in 2002 Words that is one giant palindrome), as well as his publishing company over at Spineless Books, and I’m going to be doing a lot of reading over at this site in the next week or two.

Gyorgy Ligeti – Vocal Works

I am not sure how I became aware of Gyorgy Ligeti’s music.  It certainly wasn’t through his work on the Eyes Wide Shut soundtrack, or because of his electronic compositions.  However, I’m now a raving, lunatic fan who can’t decide whether Ligeti’s oeuvre is a stone tablet of musical law that all people must obey, or a set of golden earrings that no other lobes but mine mayest wear. 

But for a long time, I was scared to check out his works for the human voice.  As a rule, I much prefer rock, country, and jazz singers (Mel Torme!) to operatic singers, who (aside from the grand Caruso types) tend to sound to me like Sir Hiss from Disney’s Robin Hood, or more than a bit like Miss Piggy.

However, as with everything Ligeti does, he was able to make most of the works on this CD sound bigger and better than the notes that construct them, pushing the boundaries of what vocal music can and should be.   He picked out some pretty decent singers, wrangled the great Pierre-Laurent Aimard into playing the pianer, and got ’em all in a studio or two to hash out his greatest vocal pieces.  It’s hard to describe music like this, so I’ll just talk about my favorite tracks.

The first couple tracks on here are poems, mostly from Lewis Carroll, set to music.  Though I was really really hoping he’d do a version of “Jam Tomorrow, Jam Yesterday…”, there’s still some killer stuff here, including a version of just the alphabet itself on track three.  When track six starts with a fey “Off with her head!” then proceeds with Fury itself condemning a mouse to death, you know you’re in for a good time.

Track number seven, “Mysteries of the Macabre,” is probably my favorite track from the CD.  In this section from Ligeti’s opera, a female soloist sings her heart out telling a story in god knows what language, while rhythmic jabs from a xylophone, loud banging whatsits, hissy rattling percussive chimes of some sort, and several smarmy-sounding male shouts occasionally stab against the space her voice is filling. 

She ends the piece by repetitiously singing “ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka” over and over again, a cadenza with no melody but a lot of humanly, womanly and almost sexual breathiness on some of the notes, that finally culminate in a bombastic and pure and LOUD “KAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!” that knocks you flat with pain and triumph.

Track 8, “Aventures,”  begins with males and females literally hyperventilating.  Then things go relatively quiet, until after a pause suddenly there is whispering and hissing, the singers mouthing out phonemes of Ligeti’s own creation that have no literal meaning.  To my ears, it at first sounds like samurai from a Kurosawa film yelling at each other, then like the “shika-shika” sound the dude from Yello makes, then like donkeys braying, then like the Kipper Kids.  Every once in a while a drum snaps BANG, a little horn and plucked string comes in,  and a vocalist will hold a grand note, or the group will make a cacophony of noises that perfectly match the seemingly random plinking of a piano.   Then there are the sounds of laughing, of spitting, of shivering.  Then the singers hold grand notes some more, pausing for breaths at different times so that the notes are not all sustained at the same time or for the same length by any one singer. 
The background noises are not boring either–besides the brash punctuation we’ve come to expect from avant-garde composers ever since Stravinsky, we also get some interesting “what-the-hell-is-that?” vibrations in the low and high registers from piano and god-knows-what brushes or bells the percussion team for the Philharmonia orchestra is pulling up.  A couple times in the song, the singing subsides except for maybe a bit of beneath-the-surface chatter (god, this must have been fun to record) and you can still tell that, yes, this is a Ligeti piece. 

Tracks 9 and 10, “Nouvelle Aventures,” have more of the same, this time with an emphasis on repetitious phonemes that spin by so fast they sound like insects buzzing.  There’s also some panting, more punctuation with xylophone, and great male vocals.  Ligeti is great at hitting you with a flurry of notes all over the scale (e.g. his “atmospheres” piece for orchestra starts with literally every note in like a three octave scale being played at once but no two notes being repeated), coming at you so fast that you lose perspective of the individual notes and see the grand scheme, a bit like Pointillism in painting, and it’s interesting to see how he tackles this with the human voice.

 The final tracks on the CD are basically early stuff he did in Hungary, prior to his escape from the commies there in the fifties.  To mask the experimental music he was doing (seriously, the communists hated Stravinsky and even Liszt), he used nationalist Hungarian poets or traditional folk songs and scored those vocals with his out-there keyboards and orchestration.  It didn’t work–the commies made him shelve a lot of his compositions and never allowed many of them ever to be performed, except for a group of his peers–but it is interesting to hear this starting point in his career.  A lot of these tunes show up in Ligeti’s sixth CD in the series (the works for keyboards) but they sound rather nicer here, with vocals to accompany and flesh them out.

All in all, this is not a great CD to introduce someone to Ligeti–it’s just way too weird for someone not accustomed to his works.  I would probably advise a newbie to start with the aforementioned Ligeti VI or with his piano etudes.  But for someone looking to see where vocal music can be pushed, this will not be a letdown.

Pictures at an Exhibition – the Oliver Knussen/Cleveland Orchestra version

Over the holidays, I needed something good to play in the car while my family and I drove around wine country in Paso Robles, so I busted out this Cleveland Orchestra version of Stokowski’s arrangement of Mussorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition I got a couple years ago. 

For those who really want to embrace classical music, or specifically Romantic music, but need to hear some vital and accessible tunes to lead the way, I can’t recommend Pictures at an Exhibition enough.  It’s a series of ten little ditties, each one a musical landscape or miniature based on a picture the listener would be seeing if they walked through a specific gallery.  The songs go from light to dark to heroic as the pictures progress, with a “promenade” theme helping to ease the listener in and leading from one section of paintings to the next.

The reason for this version’s greatness is the clarity of the gloom and light that permeates the various paintings.  Picture #8, “the Catacombs,” and Picture #9, “The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga),” are quite dark and not a little bit witchy.  And I’ve never heard a bettter version of Picture #5, “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks.”  Oliver Knussen gets the his string section to sound soooo much like little baby chicks chirping!  This portion of the recording is so clear and evocative that I doubt it will ever be bested (at least to my tastes).

The only problem with this CD is that in its bonus tracks, it’s a little more restrained than it needs to be.  For example, Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” perhaps his most famous and witchy song of all (completed for him sorta by Rimsky-Korsakov after his death), here lacks a little of the rattle of doom that the kettle drums can provide in a more nearly over-the-top version.  Ditto for the sinewy strings and bone-dry cymbal crashes.  But still, this remains a very powerful CD to get one into Mussorgsky and into Romantic sound paintings.

If that doesn’t work for you, of course, there’s always Disney’s satanic approach:

Goodbye Stubby

I just learned that an old friend, an amazing young guy who had a lust for life and a rapacious love for music, died a few days ago, brutally.  I haven’t seen him in years and never got to know him better, but it’s quite a shock.  He was such a wonderful soul, I can’t imagine what those who were closest to him are feeling now.  Fuck death, and fuck the bony fingers he uses to take away the shining, glorious people among us, who cast such a love light on the rest of us in our dour ways. 

I don’t know what Stubby would want played at his funeral, but for my own solace, for some reason I’m feeling that he’d like this tune.  It’s mournful but also transcendant. 

I really feel that the spirits of the departed live on when people get together and make merry and dance to music.  I’m pretty much an atheist, but I don’t think that our feelings of connection with the dead are just a bunch of phantom limbs tickling the nerve endings of our lost love.  There are glimmers of their personalities, and perhaps even a connection to the celestial, in art and in music especially.  And I think that the reason I love ambient noise music is that somewhere in the hiss and hum of amps being plugged in or feeding back, of loose wiring humming, of John Cale’s viola shreeking, there is a strong connection to that other world.  Anyway, I’m feeling that connection in Clara Rockmore’s theremin playing tonight.