Monthly Archives: February 2010

A musical recommendation: Six Concerts a plusieurs instruments 

Six Concerts Avec plusieurs Instruments (1721)
(common English title: Brandenburg Concertos)

composed by Johann Sebastian Bach
performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (1989)
produced by Nicholas Parker (1989)
directed by Monica Huggett with Catherine Mackintosh, Alison Bury and Elizabeth Wallfisch (1989)
violin performed by Monica Hugget, Alison Bury and Elizabeth Wallfisch (1989)
violino piccolo performed by Catherine Mackintosh (1989)
viola performed by Pavlo Beznosiuk (1989)
violone performed by William Hunt (1989)
viola da gamba performed by Sarah Cunningham and Richard Campbell (1989)
cello performed by Richard Tunnicliffe (1989)
oboe performed by Paul Goodwin (1989)
horn performed by Timothy Brown and Susan Dent (1989)
recorder performed by Rachel Beckett and Marion Scott (1989)
trumpet performed by Mark Bennett (1989)
flute performed by Lisa Beznosiuk (1989)
harpsichord performed by Malcolm Proud and John Toll (1989)

Brandenburg Title

In 1721, Johann Sebastian Bach presented six concertos, entitled Six Concerts Avec plusieurs Instruments,  to the Duke of Brandenburg, probably hoping for some kind of patronage, as money was leaner than Bach would have liked.  Of course, if he could have worn a damn condom he wouldn’t have had over a DOZEN mouths to feed at home.  It appears the concertos went unappreciated/unnoticed by the Duke and they languished for years and years before being rediscovered.

Today referred to as the Brandenburg Concertos, the six works form a cohesive body that compares to a contemporary musical album.  Each of the concertos consists of 2 to 4 movements, usually about 5 minutes each, similar in length to a pop and rock songs of recent times.  Listening to the Brandenburgs straight through from beginning to end is quite similar to listening to an epic, cohesive album like The Beatles (aka “the White Album”) or Pet Sounds or …and Justice For All or (insert your favorite epic, cohesive album here).

By epic I mean ambitious and breathtaking, not gigantic and overblown.  Compared to the symphonic monstrosities that later composers are known for, almost all Bach music is relatively intimate and personal, written to be performed in churches or small music halls.  The Brandenburgs were written for smallish ensembles of about 12 performers, give or take.  Most of the movements are highly melodic and can be powerfully emotional.  There is a section in the 1st movement of the 5th concerto that I have designated as my official deathbed music, with the stringed instruments and woodwinds calmly trading off every few notes in a descending melody pattern while the harpsichord chugs away quickly but serenely before everything explodes in a refrain of the movement’s theme.  Many of the melodies are joyous, with horns trilling away triumphantly.

Brandenburgs

The Brandenburgs recording that I chose to purchase is performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.  This unfortunately named ensemble performs “historically informed” interpretations of baroque-era music, using historically accurate instruments.  This entails use of recorders and currently obscure stringed instruments like violone and viola da gamba.  Admittedly, I don’t think I’m well enough educated to distinguish between a cello and a violone upon hearing but still, I appreciate the effort.  Despite that, I can say with authority that the performances are awesome and do justice to this sublime collection of concertos.

I would highly recommend the Brandenburg Concertos to fans of ambitious psychedelic pop of the 1960s.  I can certainly see why some critics labeled albums like Pet Sounds as “California baroque” as there is certainly a kinship in musical feeling.  Fans of Beatles albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour, with their sometimes traditional, Euro-style orchestrations and strong, strong melodies will probably find a lot to like in the Brandenburgs as well.

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A musical recommendation: The Who Sell Out (Expanded Version)

The Who Sell Out (1967)
produced by Kit Lambert
written (mostly) and composed (mostly) by Pete Townshend with John Entwistle
sung by Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, and John Entwistle
guitar performed by Pete Townshend
bass guitar performed by John Entwistle
drum kit performed by Keith Moon

The Who Sell Out

The Who Sell Out ranks up there alongside psychedelic pop classics like Revolver and Pet Sounds.  It may not be quite as awesome as those albums, top to bottom, but it’s a rather cohesive and well-written effort.  Unlike most of the other great psych-pop classics, The Who Sell Out is not stuffed with accordions, bass harmonicas, and orchestrations.  Except for a few keyboard lines or a backwards horn loop here and there, it’s pretty much just good, old-fashioned guitar, bass and drums.  I suppose this indicates that psychedelia is more of a recording style and attitude than a strictly overblown raaaaiiinnnnbow of sounds.

If my referring to this album as psychedelia offends, especially if you generally associate The Who with mod R&B or classic rock anthems, this album is the exception.  On this collection the group sings about goofy things like cities in the sky, young boys getting tattoos, young ladies with shaky hands, and commercial products.  Yes, commercial as in advertisements.  See, that’s the theme of the album, get it?  After every song or two a silly, sometimes clever, ad is played, just as you might hear while listening to the radio.  Much, much funnier are the occasions when a fully realized song degenerates into an advertisement by its conclusion, as in the case of “Odorono”.

“Armenia City in the Sky” and “I Can See For Miles” stand somewhat apart as the big, noisy anthems  standing as pillars at the beginning and middle of the album while “Rael” – one of those psychedelic-era ambitious-for-the-sake-of-being-ambitious numbers – holds up the end.  In the case of the much-expanded, remastered 1995 re-release, the fun has only started, offering up another 11 tracks from the same recording period, complete with more commercial interludes.  These tracks are generally of the same quality as those from the album proper and do not feel tacked on.  Rather, the extended program feels quite natural, with more of the same quiky, catchy pop tunes and a driving rendition of “Hall of the Mountain King/Peer Gynt Suite”.

Like many of the great pop rock albums from this era, there is no dominant lead singer, as the band splits these duties up fairly evenly.  Thank Satan for that – who wants to listen to Roger Daltrey for an entire album?  Just look at the little shit on the cover image.  God, what a cunt.

I wish The Who had continued in the direction found on The Who Sell Out.  However, poor sales drove the group in the concept-album, teen anthem direction for which they became quite famous.  And then Pete Townshend looked at child porn and played at the Super Bowl.  Amen.

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A musical recommendation: Controversy

Controversy (1981)
written, composed, produced, sung, guitar/bass guitar/drum kit/keyboard performed by Prince

Controversy

Early 1980s Prince is my kind of bitch. For one thing, he don’t need no band. He’ll play it all himself and do it well, no thanks to you. Second, he’s perfectly willing to spend three minutes making feminine/gay sex noises over a slow jam. He knows no shame and he’d fuck you just as soon as play drums at you.

The instrumental performances are strong, quite impressive considering Prince played almost every part on the album (a practice he would soon abandon). The arrangements and performances have a lot of personality, in contrast to Michael Jackson’s Bad, which I reviewed (a few hours ago el oh el). While there aren’t as many lead guitar antics as on later Prince albums there are just enough to let you know he can shred, an impressive level of restraint. The singing is typical Prince, with a priority on expression over pitch (not that it’s ever out of tune or anything).

There are basically three kinds of tracks on the album: funk jams, slow fuck jams, and uptempo party romps. The latter category features weird, chirpy organ work that reminds me of John Cougar or something. None of the album’s tracks were big hits, at least as far as I know (what, me research?!) but a handful of tracks are pretty catchy. The others are more concerned with creating gritty, funky jams, replete with slap bass, handclaps, and staccato synths.

The standout track for me is “Annie Christian” (like anti-Christian, get it?), as it presents a dreamlike atmosphere that almost suggests a drum n’ bass feel, years ahead of its time. Unfortunately, Prince just chants on this track but there is a very catchy melody suggested by the synth lines, complimented by clever guitar interjections.

To date, this is the earliest Prince album I’ve heard, although I’ve heard the singles from his earlier albums. I would say Controversy presents a transition between his gritty funkcentric beginnings and his more mainstream but relatively bloated mid-80s efforts.  This album is actually stronger than the much more famous 1999, largely due to an element of discipline largely absent from that later work.

On a final note, the final track is entitled Jack U Off.  Prince spends the entire song attempted to convince some poor sap to submit to Prince’s jacking-off advancements.  In my vernacular, “jacking off” refers to the act of gripping a penis and stroking it repeatedly.  Is Prince begging to give some dude a handjob or can jacking off apply to the ladies’ unmentionables, as well?

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RIP reviews, long live recommendations

As you may have noticed, I’ve been writing a lot of reviews lately. I now realize that it’s not that fun, in general. It’s really only enjoyable to write about things that I really like or dislike, and that cuts down quite a bit on the things I can write about. So, say hello to my new recommendations (and occasional non-recommendation) series. -Kicknz

A musical recommendation: Bad

Bad (1987)
written, composed and sung by Michael Jackson
produced by Quincy Jones

Bad

Somehow, Michael Jackson managed to be the most commercially successful music artist of the 1980s in spite of releasing only two albums during that decade.  The second, Bad, is something of a turning point, for several reasons.  It was his first album after suffering major burn injuries, it was his first album since his skin began to appear more white than black, and it was his first album released after he became the most famous performer in the world.

Getting right to the point, it’s a pretty good album.  It’s certainly a very catchy collection of tunes and doesn’t suffer very heavily from the self-importance that would plague his later works.  “Man in the Mirror” is the only track that really gives a glimpse into the future messianic madness, but the large choir combined with cheesy, 80s-style synth bass make it an enjoyable listen in spite of itself.

A lot of the album is actually dedicated to seedy sides of life, which is simultaneously laughable and attractive.  Instead of singing about his mission to save and then rape every child in the world, Jackson sings about “Speed Demon”s and people with names like “Dirty Diana”.  “Bad” is an exercise in opposing extremes; on the one hand, Jackson sings about what a motherfuggin’ badass he is while accompanying his lines with almost vaudeville-esque harmonies that seem to demand jazz hands choreography.  According to Quincy Jones, this was supposed to be a duet with Prince, but it’s easy to see why he declined – it’s just not his style at all.

Overall, the singing is expressive and uniquely Jackson.  Unfortunately, the production is rather plastic and common.  The tones and arrangements are always as crisp as can be, without many hints of personality.  Perhaps the one distinct aspect of the production is the preference of synth basslines over bass guitar, which has its ups and downs.  The superslick production doesn’t come anywhere close to ruining the album and manages to make Bad, like all Jackson albums, a snapshot of trends and styles of the time.

Apparently, only one song on this album was not released as a single in one market or another, that track being “Just Good Friends”, which I find to be as catchy as anything else on the album, with a minor key progression that might represent the feel of the album more efficiently than any other track.

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A condemnation of the novels “A Wrinkle in Time” and “The Phantom Tollbooth”

A Wrinkle in Time (1962)
written by Madeleine L’Engle

The Phantom Tollbooth (1961)
written by Norton Juster
illustrated by Jules Feiffer

edit (7/12/13): I removed the naughty language and personal attacks that were originally present in this critique.

Last semester I had to create a “text set” for my Teaching Reading in the Intermediate Grades class.  This entailed assembling a collection of books and other media that have something in common, such as theme, style, topic, whatever.  I built my text set around the theme of kid(s) from the real world traveling to fantasy worlds. I included personal childhood favorites like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.  I later added the old favorite Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which I think fits the theme, with the factory being the fantasy world.  Additionally I included films like Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, Neil Gaiman’s and Dave McKean’s Mirrormask, and Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away.

However, there were other famous books that fit the theme that I had not read, so I checked out Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and loved them, throwing them into my text set.  Then I handed in the assignment and haven’t done much with it since, until recently.  Here are the results of my later explorations . . .

wrinkle

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was released in 1962 and won the Newbery Award.  Okay, so my first question is WHY?! When the Newbery committee read this book, were they taken in by the flat, cardboard characters?  The fusion of science, magic and religion presented as fact?  Perhaps it was the weak pacing?  Or it might have been the incredible arrogance found in the writing that earned the award.  One can only guess!

The story revolves around a family of superior people.  Each family member is quite intelligent, perhaps genius.  At least one of the children is a telepath but his mother, supposedly a scientist, seems totally uninterested in understanding his ability.  Not only is the family superior in intellect but also in manners and wisdom.  The rest of the town gossips, while these wunderkinds are content to let people think they are stupid or freakish.  The youngest child, although only five, has the vocabulary of a college student even though he can’t read.  His insights are incredibly mature, as well – in fact, there is practically nothing about him that is believable in any way.

Eventually, some angels, which are apparently dead stars but disguised as witches, come along and give the children a chance to save their father, who is imprisoned on a distant planet.  The party may reach this planet by using a tesseract, an underdeveloped and poorly explained technology that apparently requires nothing more than thought (as evidenced by the father’s tessering late in the book).  The kids learn that there is a DARKNESS (scary!) that threatens every inhabited planet.  Our planet is struggling with it as we speak!  It turns out the father is trapped on a planet that is IDENTICAL to earth but which has given into the DARKNESS.  The people even speak English!  I can buy this in a dumb fantasy story like the Ninja Turtles comics I love so much but this book takes itself very, very, very seriously.  The kids save the father in some illogical and poorly explained way but the toddler genius is left behind.

*sigh* Let’s get through this.  After the family messes around with some hairy, blind aliens, the dumbest member of the party, who is apparently most qualified because she’s so relatively dumb, goes back to the dark version of Earth and saves the psychic rugrat by loving him (Care Bear Stare, anyone?) and they go back home.  Hurray.

I would let many of these things slide in a farcical fantasy but this book is kind of like Scientology, presenting itself seriously and arrogantly but without a shred of substance.  In truth, the story isn’t really that bad, but the unrelatable superhuman family and cold, conceited writing ruin it all.  L’Engle reminds me of that person you work with that explains things poorly and then thinks you’re stupid for not understanding.

phantom

On the other hand, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth is lighthearted and fancy free, but it’s still poor.  It disturbs me that both of the books in this review are widely assigned as required reading in elementary schools.  Tollbooth is basically a book for people that can’t get enough of cheesy puns and allegories so naked they might as well be in Playboy.

This is a book aimed at people that think it’s very clever to slap a clock on a dog and call him a watchdog.  Oh!  El oh el!  How fun!  To enjoy this book, you have to be so thick that you like the idea of a “spelling bee” that is actually a bee . . . that spells! *guffaw* You will love this tome if you’re partial to the idea of people literally jumping to an island called Conclusions whenever they jump to conclusions.  Oh, how clever!

It’s depressing that there are adults that are amused by this pile, and insulting that it is mentioned in the same breath as Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland.  This whole book is just a never ending series of puns.  I can just imagine Norton Juster walking around, living life to the emptiest, always pulling out a little notepad to record his awesome pun ideas.

In other words, these bricks will not be added to the text set.

A literary recommendation: Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens & Peter and Wendy

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1902)
written by J.M. Barrie
illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1906)

Peter and Wendy (1911)
written by J.M. Barrie
illustrated by F.D. Bedford

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

J.M. Barrie introduced his famous Peter Pan character in a story called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens in 1902.  It was originally published part of a larger work, The Little White Bird, and then released on its own, accompanied by gorgeous Arthur Rackham illustrations, in 1906.

The story begins with Peter in infancy, a physical state that he never leaves, at least within this story.  There is no pixie dust – rather, Peter can initially fly simply because he isn’t old enough to know that he cannot.  He flies away to Kensington Gardens, a real life public park, and lives a carefree life among the birds and fairies that reside there.  The story is largely episodic and there isn’t really an overarching plot.  However, there is a concentration on character development, particularly on Peter’s fickle attitude regarding returning to his home and his mother.  He does return home at one point and peers through an open window into his nursery, where his heartbroken mother is sleeping on what would have been his bed.  Still, Peter decides not to enter at the point and doesn’t return for good until some months (maybe years) later.  When he does he receives a shock that is really quite heartbreaking, at least in the context of the book:

He went in a hurry in the end, because he had dreamt that his mother was crying, and he knew what was the great thing she cried for, and that a hug from her splendid Peter would quickly make her to smile. Oh! he felt sure of it, and so eager was he to be nestling in her arms that this time he flew straight to the window, which was always to be open for him. But the window was closed, and there were iron bars on it, and peering inside he saw his mother sleeping peacefully with her arm around another little boy.

Peter called, ‘Mother! mother!’ but she heard him not; in vain he beat his little limbs against the iron bars. He had to fly back, sobbing, to the Gardens, and he never saw his dear again. What a glorious boy he had meant to be to her! Ah, Peter! we who have made the great mistake, how differently we should all act at the second chance.

Peter and Wendy

In 1904, Barrie introduced his much, much, much more famous sequel, the play known simply as Peter Pan.  In 1911, Barrie adapted the play into the novel Peter and Wendy, illustrated by F.D. Bedford.  Some things have changed – Peter is no longer an infant, for example.  Kensington Gardens is no longer mentioned, replaced by the distant Neverland.  The sidekick Tinkerbell and the rival Captain Hook are introduced.  Those familiar with the Disney movie are more or less familiar with the general plot.  Peter whisks three middle class, urban youth from their English home and takes them to his adopted homeland, the fantastic Neverland, for wild adventures with the Lost Boys, redskins, pirates, and mermaids.

However, the tone is quite different from what most people associate with the Peter Pan mythos.  For one thing, the characters in Neverland are not simply playing a game.  They play for keeps.  The entire redskin tribe is massacred.  Captain Hook “tears” his insubordinate lackeys with his prosthetic.  Captain Hook isn’t whimsically chased into exile by the crocodile.  No, he’s run through by a sword and devoured, for good.  There are many poignant, even sad moments.  Peter might have some fear of death but he views it differently from most of us.  In this scene, he faces imminent destruction by drowning, trapped on an island rock during high tide:

Peter was not quite like other boys; but he was afraid at last. A tremour ran through him, like a shudder passing over the sea; but on the sea one shudder follows another till there are hundreds of them, and Peter felt just the one. Next moment he was standing erect on the rock again, with that smile on his face and a drum beating within him. It was saying, “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”

dying rules

Shockingly (to me, anyway), Captain Hook is not presented as Peter’s mortal enemy and Tinkerbell is not his constant, eternal companion.  In fact, when asked about them only a year after the adventures he doesn’t even remember them!

“Who is Captain Hook?” he asked with interest when she spoke of the arch enemy.

“Don’t you remember,” she asked, amazed, “how you killed him and saved all our lives?”

“I forget them after I kill them,” he replied carelessly.

When she expressed a doubtful hope that Tinker Bell would be glad to see her he said, “Who is Tinker Bell?”

“O Peter,” she said, shocked; but even when she explained he could not remember.

“There are such a lot of them,” he said. “I expect she is no more.”

I expect he was right, for fairies don’t live long, but they are so little that a short time seems a good while to them.

Jesus.  This whole passage struck me as devastating.  Also of note is that the Lost Boys return to England with Wendy, Michael and John and move in with the family.  Hilariously, they all grow up to be rather boring, working in banks and the like.

If there is a theme or intent to this book, I would say that Peter and Wendy is some sort of manifesto condemning children, and the arguments are hard to argue with:

Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and we have an entirely selfish time, and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be rewarded instead of smacked.

Throughout both books, parents feel a genuine, excruciating, but almost bittersweet pain at the loss of their children, a feeling that is certainly transmitted to the reader.  In other words, a story that is often portrayed as an ode to eternal youth (Michael Jackson) is in truth a sometimes painful tale of the heartlessness of children and the mothers that can’t help but love them.

On a completely separate and unemotional note, Barrie interestingly jumps around in tenses rather frequently.  He jumps from the past to the present to the future and back again, which is really engaging.  The present tense sequences usually describe a setting in a picturesque manner, reminiscent (I imagine) of the original play that inspired the novel.

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