08-12: Giovanni Gabrieli - Janáček Glagolitic Mass Ančerl - John Cage Meets Sun Ra - Les Paul The New Sound

Ordered chronologically. Trouble identifying them? Click here for a somewhat tagged image.
1588 – Alfonso Ferrabosco the elder (Italian composer, active in England)
1612 – Giovanni Gabrieli (Italian composer & organist)
1633 – Jacopo Peri (Italian composer & singer, wrote 1st operas)
1797 – Ignaz Franz Xaver Kürzinger (German composer & music scholar)
1812 – Jean-Joseph Rodolphe (Alsatian hornist, violinist & composer)
1830 – Franz de Paula Roser (Austrian composer & music director)
1918 – Anna Held (Polish-born American actress & singer)
1928 – Leoš Janáček (Czech composer)
1943 – Georges Martin Witkowski (Algerian-born French conductor & composer)
1982 – Helvi Leiviskä (Finnish composer, writer & teacher)
1984 – Lenny Breau (American jazz guitarist)
1985 – Marcel Mihalovici (Romanian-born French composer)
1985 – Kyu Sakamoto (Japanese singer & actor, "Ue o muite arukō")
1992 – John Cage (American experimental composer)
1994 – Gene Cherico (American jazz bassist)
1997 – Luther Allison (American blues guitarist & singer)
2005 – John Loder (English audio engineer & record producer)
2008 – Christie Allen (English-born Australian pop singer)
2009 – Les Paul (American guitarist, solid-body guitar inventor & studio pioneer)
2010 – Richie Hayward (American rock drummer, Little Feat)

Welcome to my blog. The text at right explains pretty well what it's all about, I think, so let's jump right in, shall we? Before I get to yesterday's most prominent figures, I'll address some of the others.

Alfonso Ferrabosco the elder (father of, you guessed it, Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger) was a composer who settled in London as a teenager in 1562, finding work at the court of Elizabeth I. In addition to writing much sacred music, he was for virtually the remainder of his life the sole composer of madrigals living in England. The same year he died - following the publication by Nicholas Yonge of the collection Musica Transalpina - the madrigal became an overnight sensation in England. Ferrabosco didn't live to see most of the craze, but his prior work had proved to be formative. While in England, Ferrabosco (who was very well-paid for a court musician) made a number of trips to Italy. Some have speculated that his business there was more than just musical - that Betty I was using him to spy on the Papal Court, at a time when England was at war with Roman Catholic countries. The Spying Madrigalist. There's a really awful novel (and an even worse film adaptation) in there somewhere.

Jacopo Peri was the first composer ever to write a work we now think of as an opera. This was Dafne (1597), a pastoral work with libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini. The work is now lost, but an illustration of Peri himself in costume for the role of Apollo in it does survive (see above). Peri also wrote the first opera which does still survive, Euridice (1600). The subject of Eurydice, and her hubby Orpheus, was very popular fodder in early opera; during the 17th century alone, at least 20 such operas were composed. After Peri's work, Giulio Caccini wrote his own Euridice in 1602, to the very same Rinuccini libretto Peri had used. Then Caccini rushed out to get his opera published before Peri's could hit the presses. That certainly wasn't the source of any bad blood. But the most famous of the early Orphean operas was L'Orfeo (1607) by Claudio Monteverdi. This was the first true masterpiece of opera, and we are unanimous in that.

Jean-Joseph Rodolphe helped to popularize the horn (when we say "the horn" we mean what most people call "the French horn") as a solo instrument. He's also thought to be the first hornist, in Paris at least, to use the technique of hand-stopping on the instrument. Horn players, even today, routinely keep their right hand inside the bell of the instrument, to help control pitch. The farther you put your hand in, the sharper the pitch is, so you can put it in a bit if you find you're a bit flat. But if you put your hand all the way in, you can raise the pitch an entire semitone. When Rodolphe used stopping, it was on the natural horn - the valve horn hadn't yet been invented - and so he was using the technique to get notes he couldn't get any other way. Unlike on a valved instrument, a natural brass instrument can play only the notes of the harmonic series, and thus has many gaps in the scale of notes it can play. With stopping you can get all those notes, plus all the notes a semitone higher as well. Hand-stopping on the horn has another effect, aside from raising the pitch: it gives the instrument a nasal, muted timbre. Even after the valve horn had become standard, and there was really no need for players to use full hand-stopping anymore, composers (especially Richard Wagner and all the many who fell under his sway) specified stopped horns purely for their uniquely distant, menacing effect.

Let's see... Anna Held was the common-law wife of Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, of Follies fame. Helvi Leiviskä was a Finnish composer of three symphonies, and other works. I love her old-style upright piano with its set-up of candles! Brilliant idea... at least until someone has one viina too many and sets the Chopin Mazurkas on fire. Lenny Breau was a fingerstyle guitarist who was very influenced by Chet Atkins, and like Chet he could play in just about any style. Kyu Sakamoto was the singer who had a huge international hit with "Ue o muite arukō" in 1963. What, never heard of it? That's because Pye Records in England (and later His Master's Voice, and Capitol in America) released it under a different title. They called it "Sukiyaki." Drummer Richie Hayward left us just last year, leaving Bill Payne as the only founding member of Little Feat still in the band (frontman Lowell George pooped in 1979, and bassist Roy Estrada left Little Feat to play with Captain Beefheart in 1971). And now for our four featured euphonious stiffs... 

Giovanni Gabrieli (along with his uncle Andrea Gabrieli, Adrian Willaert, Cipriano de Rore, and Claudio Monteverdi) is one of the foremost representatives of the Venetian School of the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras. The school centered around the Byzantine-style basilica of St. Mark's in Venice, with its remarkably open and resonant spaces. This aspect of the cathedral became the inspiration for the polychoral style of the Venetians, in which two or more choirs, separated by some distance, answer one another in a kind of call-and-response fashion - the technical term for it is antiphony. The Venetian polychoral style was used not just with human voices, but with instrumental groups as well, or with a combination of the two. The canzonas and sonatas from Giovanni Gabrieli's Sacrae Symphoniae (1597) are good examples of the style being used purely for instrumental groups... (Read more below)

I have my digital classical collection divided into seven different genres: Early Music, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern, Avant-garde & Experimental, and Opera. Of all the composers whose music I've collected, Leoš Janáček is the earliest-born (1854) whose works (aside from his operas) I tag with "Modern" in the genre field. Make no mistake, there's a certain Romantic lushness and emotionalism to all of Janáček's music. But as his style progressed continually throughout the course of his career, it eventually came to possess a unique melodic angularity (derived from ordinary Czech speech patterns), an expanded approach to tonality, and a kind of proto-minimalist motivic repetition and rhythmic drive that simply sounds modern. Further, most of his best-known works (e.g., Taras Bulba, the Sinfonietta), and the majority of his works period, were composed in the final decade of his life, when he was at his most modern-sounding. Janáček's Glagolitic Mass (1926) - so called because its text is in Old Church Slavonic, which was originally written in the Glagolitic alphabet - is considered by some to be the composer's magnum opus, and one of the greatest choral works of the 20th century... (Read more below)

John Cage definitely goes under the "Avant-garde & Experimental" tag. The putative leader of the so-called New York School of composers (which also included Morton Feldman, Earle Brown & Christian Wolff), Cage was a probing intellect, a true philosopher of music, who challenges us to rethink what music can be, how it can be made, and how it can be listened to. All that the so-called "infamous" and "controversial" work 4'33" (you know, the "silent" piece) was about was getting the listener to this place of rethinking, of quieting the mind and listening to all the sounds that surround us all the time as if they're music, or at least could be. Cage's work shows the influence on the one hand of artistic nihilism like the Dada of Marcel Duchamp, and on the other hand of Eastern spirituality, especially Zen Buddhism and Taoism. It was in the spirit of these traditions that Cage often sought to remove his own personal tastes, indeed remove himself as a composer, from his own works. That's where his use of indeterminacy and aleatory come in. With indeterminacy, one or more or even all parameters of a work are left unspecified by the composer, and must be "filled in" by the performer. With aleatory, chance operations - the roll of dice, the tossing of coins, etc. - are used to generate a choice from a predetermined selection of possibilities. Cage used such procedures in many of his works, but others are very strictly composed. His most popular work, the Sonatas and Interludes (1948) for prepared piano (Cage's great invention - a piano with various objects inserted among the strings in specific ways) - is written out in very express detail. When Cage wrote music, as he did often, for his lover Merce Cunningham's dance company, he was especially careful that the music be quite fixed, especially from the rhythmic and metrical aspect, so as not to confuse the poor dancers (or piss off his boyfriend)! In other works of Cage's, you're never quite sure what a performance of it will sound like... one performance of a particular piece might sound so different from another, that they are unrecognizable as the same piece... (Read more below)

And Les Paul. Well, now there was a genius. Les Paul didn't single-handedly invent studio techniques like overdubbing, or multitracking, or tape delay... but his pioneering use of them, at first in his own hand-built studio, marked a complete revolution in how recordings of popular music were made. Likewise, Les Paul certainly didn't invent the electric guitar. But the solid-body model he developed for the Gibson company in the mid-50s was, once again, a complete revolution in music. I mean, shit, imagine Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page or Pete Townshend or Ace Frehley or Keith Richards or Slash without a damned Gibson Les Paul! Heck, look at ol' Luther Allison up there... what kind of guitar is he playin'? That's right, it's a Les Paul! Oh, and Les Paul didn't invent guitar-playin' and Mary Ford didn't invent singin', but they sure did 'em good... (Read more below)



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