Tristan und Isolde: A synopsis

Nina Stemme1865In anticipation of seeing Tristan this September at the Met – with Nina Stemme singing and Simon Rattle conducting! – I’ve been studying the work, thoroughly, for the first time. I like to take different approaches to this, not just analytical, but also singing some of the vocal parts, playing it on piano (very haltingly, but nonetheless), listening to various recordings, and writing the following. I don’t claim that it is all that original or funny, but at least I finally know what they’re singing about.

Tristan und Isolde, boiled down.


Scene One:

Sailor: La-la-la.

Isolde: Where am I?

Brangane: You’re in the hold of a ship, being taken to England.

I: What?!? No, no!

B: Now you’re upset?! Why didn’t you say so before we left?!

Continue reading

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Village Person

Sometimes you get lucky, and it comes together: I am staying in a beautiful apartment in the far West Village in New York, seeing friends, hearing friends, and walking, walking, walking. Everything I’ve seen has been wonderful: Zorn and friends at the Stone, Anthony Coleman and Tyshawn Sorey also at the Stone, Sex Mob at Lunatico, Steve Cardenas at Bar Next Door, the Klezmer Series at Jalopy (curated by Aaron Alexander) and J Granelli at the IBeam. Now I have three trio gigs my own damn self in Brooklyn, courtesy of my friend and former student Nico Soffiato, at Robert, a swell neighborhood bar in Boerum Hill.

What I’m dying to do is get some gigs for the Actual Trio in October, but so far that has been like trying to crack an iPhone. But I haven’t given up yet.

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New translations of Karl Kraus


After decades of dribs and drabs, we are suddenly awash in English translations of Karl Kraus, the Viennese writer who’s been an on and off obsession of mine since I was a teenager. I became aware of Kraus through reading Schoenberg’s letters, Style and Idea, and Webern’s lectures published as The Path To The New Music. Reading things associated with Wittgenstein, Ernst Krenek, Freud – Kraus’s name seemed to come up a lot.

Sometime in college I read, in quick succession, Elias Canetti’s memoir trilogy, Carl Continue reading

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Take good care, Joey Baron and Harrison Birtwistle!

My favorite Boulez encomium so far is Gerald McBurney’s in The Guardian.

Featuring this priceless bit:

“Someone had told me on no account to mention Messiaen. So I did, and he immediately laughed, stopped and looked at me like a schoolboy preparing a whoopee cushion for a grownup.

“Ah, Messiaen, he is for me a big problem … [dramatic pause] The religion … [another pause, shrugged shoulders, and louder] The birds … [louder still, hands raised and in tones of pantomimic horror] Aand … my God … the ORGAN!” There was no doubt which of these three shockers was the worst.”

Now I will always have this anecdote at hand when someone expresses astonishment at my lack of enthusiasm for Messiaen!

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Play Blue for Paul Bley

There’s a photo of Paul playing with Lester Young, and then of course the sessions with Bird in Montreal 1953, released on the Uptown label. The trio record with Mingus and Blakey.

And then:

The Hillcrest Club. “Fire Dave Pike!”
Sonny Rollins. That solo.
Footloose. Ramblin’.
Turning Point, with John Gilmore.
The Guiffre trio.
“The October Revolution”, Jazz Composers Guild.
ESP records: Barrage, Closer.
Carla Bley.
Annette Peacock.
Among the first Jazz musicians to start their own label.
The first ECM records, Ballads and With Gary Peacock.
Japan Suite.
Open, To Love.
The invention of the synthesizer.
The never-ending tour: show up, play, record, get paid, split, for decades and decades. Like Chuck Berry in an alternate universe.
The many, many, many fine records on Steeplechase, CrissCross, Owl, Hat Art, Soul Note, etc. (Including Diane with Chet Baker, Plays Carla Bley, Annette with Peacock and Franz Kogelman, Notes on Ornette, Bebop, Memoirs with Haden and Motian, Tango Palace, and that’s just off the top of my head. I probably own 25 Paul Bley records.)
The later ECM records.
“Stopping Time”: a surprising, compulsively readable late-in-life memoir.
The New England Conservatory sage, the macrobiotic advocate, and the endlessly quotable, cranky contrarian, mind-games loving, mad genius.
Musicians covet and trade stories about Paul Bley the way that squirrels hoard nuts.

What a resume!
What a life. What a singular voice.

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Inside the mind of a record collector (it ain’t pretty!)

I didn’t realize that the recent Verve release The Complete Charlie Parker with Strings includes newly discovered alternate takes, that were not included in the big 10-CD Complete on Verve box! Why wasn’t I informed? How come when new Charlie Parker alternates are discovered it isn’t front page news? It’s at Ameoba right now. It’s $30. I must have every note Parker recorded, so I must have these. Besides: this isn’t just another date recorded from the basement at Birdland in 1953 – the sides with strings feature some of the most beautiful Parker on record.

On the other hand, I own a fair amount of these two CDs already. Can’t I just wait until I get it at the library, or find it used, or even, gasp, download it illegally? I should be saving to make my own records! To hell with Charlie Parker! Is having every Charlie Parker recording really relevant to my life right now? I already own at least forty CDs and ten LPs of Parker. How about spending some time composing?

But I really love the Bird with Strings sides, and the sound is said to be improved. And Schaap’s liner notes are always entertaining. Do I have anything I can trade in?

[This thought process repeats itself obsessively every two hours, for days…]

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We played here, we played there.

Actual Trio West Coast Tour poster

Thank you to all the wonderful people and venues that hosted the Actual Trio on tour: the Bakersfield Jazz Workshop, Alex Cline and Steuert Liebig at the Open Gate series in L.A., Gregg Moore in Arcata, SOhO Music Club in Santa Barbara, Sam Bond’s in Eugene, and the Royal Room in Seattle. This group thrives on the road, and my number one priority is to get us out again in 2016. Thanks also to Randy Hussong, who designed the poster linked to above, and Shane MacKay, who makes amps that work even after being dropped down a flight of stairs!

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John Schotts are like bees: Pester one of us, the whole hive turns on you.

Thanks to Google Alerts, I have been summoned to the cause. Lenny & Larry – you have awakened a sleeping giant. True, having just been awakened, it’s somewhat groggy and only dimly aware of what’s going on, but after a couple cups of coffee, John Schotts every where shall stand as one!

“In a lawsuit filed in Miami-Dade County, lead plaintiff John Schott says that Lenny & Larry’s misleadingly advertises its baked products [cookies!] as “all natural” and healthier than other brands, in order to induce consumers to purchase them. […] Schott seeks compensatory damages on claims of unjust enrichment.”

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Roberto Gastelumendi is making a guitar

 I met Roberto Gastelumendi through Dan Seamans. Robert is an innovative and virtuoso woodworker and builder; his furniture pieces, surfboards, skateboards, iPhone cases are like Hundertwasser designs in wood. This amazing creation is his first guitar, awaiting sanding, routing, and everything else (the neck is from Warmoth).

The woods include Walnut, Rosewood, Ash, White Oak, Cherry, Basswood, Purpleheart, Padauk, Wenge, and even Douglas Fir. 

I’m thinking a hardtail Strat bridge and two humbuckers, but it’s all still up in the air. “Half the fun is getting there”, as the ad slogan in my youth had it. I’ll post more pictures when it gets to the next stage.close up detail guitar body

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A little thought of no importance about Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet

(from my listening diary, and not fact-checked)

December 31, 1936 (“I was hoping we could finish by 10:00 PM…”)

Hollywood, CA; private recording produced by Alfred Newman

Kolisch String Quartet: Schoenberg – Second String Quartet in F# minor, Op. 10

Tonight it strikes me that this is by a wide margin the most accessible piece Schoenberg ever wrote. The runner-ups would be Verklarte Nacht and Gurrelieder, which is kind of cheating as they are among his earliest published compositions. Speaking of the latter, as of August 2015, I have still neither heard nor looked at Gurrelieder!!! I know, shocking. I guess it’s like Mahler 2,3, or 8, Missa Solemnis, Deutsches Requiem, opera – just not the kind of thing I listen to at home.

The whole piece goes down so easy. The tunes of the 2nd Quartet are memorable, there’s vamps, pedal tones, hooks galore, vivid episodes. It has that clumsy, eye-rolling “joke” in the second moment, the ach du lieber augstine or whatever. People should like that, right? It never gets really dense and strident, like some of Op. 16. It’s not as introverted and hermetic as Op, 11 or The Book of the Hanging Garden. It’s not shrieky, and not super difficult to play. The movements are short, and it has at least a likeness to the classical four-movement, sonata-informed quartet. You get a bonus lyric soprano, the novelty factor, if not quite on par with the chorus in the 9th Symphony. There’s a non-morbid text that could help the listener take that step into non-hierarchic tonality, or whatever you want to call it – atonality, pantonality. I know, let’s call it Schoenberg tonality.

It seems apart from S’s other string quartets, as well as the 2nd Quartet’s equally path-breaking contemporaries: Op. 11, 16, and the George lieder. Although I admit, all of these pieces have a many elements that reach out to the listener, that announce themselves, that have dramatic flourishes, rhetorical gestures, what have you. He really knew how to write a piece of music! But much as I love Das obligatto recitative, I don’t see people whistling it on the street. In the 2nd Quartet, all of the movements are listener-friendly, and diverse but unified.

The Second Quartet should have been Schoenberg’s big hit. It should have made him a living. It should have caught on, been the piece that soft-pedaled atonality. It should have become a cliché, like Le Sacre, or The Waste Land. After Monteux repeated Le Sacre, it might have still ruffled feathers here and there, and it was a long time before orchestras were basically comfortable with it, but in general it was an acknowledged success. After Verklarte Nacht, I don’t think S ever had another hit. Gurrelieder had a big success at its belated premiere, but it’s never been much performed or recorded. He was performed and talked about, championed and derided, but there wasn’t a hit, like Prelude après midi d’un faun, Strauss’s tone poems, or Wozzeck. Pierrot Lunaire was more of a success d’estime, and remains so to this day.

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