Recent Reading and Listening

The River of Consciousness – Oliver Sacks. Described on the jacket flap as the “last book he would oversee”, this volume collects 10 essays, mostly about science rather than the unusual case histories for which Sacks is best known. But his elegant prose and fascinating insights are no less compelling.


Live-Evil – Miles Davis. I actually prefer this 1975 electro-funk outing to the more famous Bitches Brew. Astonishing energy, and a spaciousness in the calmer moments that I wish I could find a place for in my own music. What were my parents thinking when I brought this home from the public library in about 1977 and put it on the family Magnavox?


Recent Listening

Roy Harris: Symphony No. 3; Randall Thompson: Symphony No. 2; David Diamond: Symphony No. 4. New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein.
I think most of my students these days don’t know the name Roy Harris. Yet in my own undergraduate days, the Harris Symphony No. 3 was on the syllabus in my 20th century music history class as an example of American symphonic writing. (I think Appalachian Spring was on the list as well, but if you wanted an American symphony, the Harris was the go-to piece, unless you substituted the Copland Third for Appalachian Spring.) The Harris remains convincing, with vivid gestures and an unusual single-movement formal plan. The Thompson is more neo-classical; a little predictable at times, but charming. (Did it really get the enormous number of performances mentioned in the letter to Bernstein I cited here? Bernstein’s advocacy probably helped.) I found the melodic material in the Diamond Fourth to be more compelling than in other works of his that I have heard, with less of the aimless contrapuntal bustle that he can fall into.

Miles Davis Quintet: Live at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival. This is a very strong set offering tunes associated with earlier Davis recordings – Autumn Leaves, So What, Stella by Starlight, and Walkin’ – but from the perspective of a later ensemble, including George Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, that treats the material much more freely than Davis’s groups of a few years earlier. It’s certainly trickier to follow the form on this version of Autumn Leaves as compared with the one on the Cannonball Adderly album Somethin’ Else. There’s gorgeous low register open horn playing from Miles on Stella, and a couple of bowed Ron Carter solos, not something I associate with that master. Do I hear passing references to the original version of So What in Coleman’s solo on this piece?

Let’s All Sing Like The Birdies Sing

Well, I did it, I gave in, I am giving Twitter a try, with the wildly imaginative handle of @james_primosch. For years I have restricted myself to just blogging, feeling that’s quite enough to keep up with when I really should be composing and practicing, but my friend Matt Levy of the Prism Quartet urged me to try it. Of course, it might help if I actually had some followers, so have pity on me and sign up. In the meantime, a few avian videos:

Oh, yes, the post title is explained by this.

Spring-like Miscellany

Amid the mild temperatures here In Philly, I offer a few miscellaneous links:

– Fanfare has a substantial interview with my Penn colleague Jay Reise, as well as reviews of some of his CDs.

– two views of Measha Bruggergosman: astonishing performances of  Chausson and Joni Mitchell.

– recent listening:

– Miles Davis Quintet: The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions. Three discs encompassing the albums Miles, John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones made quickly to finish out a Prestige contract as the group was switching to Columbia. Fascinating to hear so much material dating from a relatively short period of time. A fourth disc includes live recordings from the same period as well as some transcriptions of Miles’s solos.

– Sofia Gubaidulina: Offertorium (Gidon Kremer, Boston Symphony, Charles Dutoit); Hommage to T. S. Eliot (Christine Whittlesey, soprano, Music from Lockenhaus ensemble). I know there are some folks who value this music very highly, and I want to like Gubaidulina’s music. After all, the premise of passionate expression conveyed by a wide-range of musical materials is sympathetic. But in the end the thinness of the musical discourse frustrates me, particularly in the Eliot piece. I’m not saying you have to have counterpoint all the time – there are composers like Debussy and Crumb who can make the non-contrapuntal passages in their music work, but that takes finer musical ideas than are in evidence here. The performances are intense, often hyper-intense, as one would expect with Kremer. But given the poverty of the music, the intensity seems incongruous, a strenuous effort to sell what is not first-rate merchandise.


Recent listening – quick takes

A few items, new and old, that I have enjoyed recently:

Thomas Adès: Tevot, Violin Concerto, Three Studies from Couperin, Dances from Powder Her Face. The first two pieces are major statements. Tevot – the name means “ark” or a musical measure – is a big single movement orchestra piece, thickly layered, recalling Ligeti in its density; the concerto is of necessity more lightly scored. Both pieces share some of the same interests in repeated, layered cycles – both have memorable slowly descending quasi-tonal chord progressions – not unlike the infinitely unfolding slow music in Adès’ Asyla. The “non-tonal” or “quasi-tonal” successions of tonal chords recall some of the modal effects of Vaughan Williams, of all people, as well as some of John Adams’s preferred harmonies. Probably the neo-Riemannian harmonic analysis that has been in vogue for a bit (identifying compositional strategies that change just a note or two when moving from chord to chord) would work well on these passages in Adès.

Miles Davis: “Four” and More. Classic live material from 1964, with George Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams (only 18 at the time). Davis and his colleagues were done a disservice by whoever compiled so many insanely fast pieces into a single album. It is pretty hard to take straight through, but in smaller doses it is astonishing. I especially liked the energetic and constantly varied work of Williams. He is a very active player, but there is an airborne quality to the sound he gets from his set that keeps his playing from being overwhelming.

George Crumb: The Ghosts of the Alhambra, Voices From a Forgotten World. Volume 15 in the Complete Crumb Edition being issued by Bridge Records offers two vocal pieces. Alhambra returns to Crumb’s beloved Lorca, in settings for baritone, guitar and percussion, while Forgotten World is the fifth in Crumb’s cycle of American Songbooks, arrangements of traditional American tunes for voice (in this case, baritone Patrick Mason and mezzo Jamie Van Eyck) and a percussion orchestra manned by four players, plus amplified piano. Members of Orchestra 2001, led by James Freeman, are old hands at Crumb’s music, and the performances are superb. In the last stanza of the last song, “The Demon Lover”, the mezzo sings “And what hills, what hills are those, my love, Those hills so dark and low? and the baritone replies, “Those are the hills of Hell my love, Where you and I must go.” Crumb’s setting is appropriately disturbing and profoundly creepy.

1958 at Newport

Miles Davis at Newport 1958 might be called the “anti-Kind of Blue“. The two discs share personnel – Davis, Adderly, Coltrane, Evans and Chambers play on both records, Cobb on Newport, Philly Joe Jones on Kind of Blue. But apart from personnel the records are remarkably dissimilar. Kind of Blue was made in the studio and, even apart from being hallowed by time and hype, seems “perfect”: beautifully recorded; stocked with eloquent solos without dead spots or clams; impeccably swinging and profoundly moody. Newport 1958 is live, and not especially well recorded (the bass and piano are nearly lost at times.) The front line sounds a bit confused given the crazily fast tempo of the opening Ah-Leu-Cha. Coltrane’s solos seem far more exploratory and willful on this record than on Kind of Blue, despite the latter record coming after the Newport performance. I like the relaxed swing of Straight, No Chaser and appreciate a chance to hear a second version of Bye Bye Blackbird, one that is less tightly bound to the melody compared with the Round About Midnight version. There is a rough and ready quality to the Newport set that is very different from the melancholy haze of much of Kind of Blue. I value both records, but for very different reasons.