Since you can't go to Mass today...

(I think this is relevant to all Christians, not only Catholics but at least those whose communions have a liturgy, and worth the attention of those who don't. Or for that matter anyone who cares about the Western musical and spiritual tradition.)

Since you can't go to Mass today, probably, allow me to suggest that you listen to one of the great musical settings of the Latin Mass. One of my Lenten things this year--I can't truly call it much of a penance, but "discipline" is justifiable--is to confine my listening to sacred music. So far that's mostly been settings of the Mass, and, if you do this attentively--not just playing it in the background while you cook or wash the dishes or something--it's more or less inevitable that you will attend very carefully to the words and reflect on them.

So far I've mainly spent time with Bach's Mass in B-Minor, which of course I had heard before, having bought one recording way back in the late '60s (I think) and another in the '80s,  but never really gotten to know. It takes a bit of effort, as the work is something of a monster. It requires somewhere in the neighborhood of two hours to perform, depending on the conductor, and was never performed in Bach's lifetime. And if you're like me you may have trouble listening to two straight hours of non-operatic music (opera has a plot, and characters). But that's ok. The Kyrie and Gloria together run well over half an hour, the Credo most of a half-hour. And each of those sections is a complete musical work as well as theological statement.

My two recordings are pretty much opposite interpretations. You can gather that from the running times: two hours and fifteen minutes for one, an hour and forty-five for the other. The slow one is the one I bought when I was in college: Otto Klemperer, the BBC Chorus, the New Philharmonia Orchestra, and an all-star group of vocal soloists including Janet Baker. The faster one is John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists, and vocal soloists whose names I don't recognize (not that that means much, except that they aren't superstars). (I don't know why an orchestra calls itself "Soloists".) 

The Klemperer is rich and majestic. The Gardiner is clear and lively. The former is, to speak very loosely, more or less in the more or less romantic tradition of Bach performance, while the latter is pretty much a textbook example of what's called the "HIP" approach--Historically Informed Performance.  (You can read about it at Wikipedia.) I think the two camps have at times been at war over the past several decades. I know some traditionalists hate the thinner, drier sound of period instruments, and some HIPsters mock the grandiosity of Mahler-ready orchestras and choruses applied to 18th century music. 

But I am very happy to have both these recordings. Very happy indeed. The traditional recording brings greater depth (in every sense) to some parts, but the big powerful choir and orchestra sometimes overwhelm the counterpoint or just seem inappropriate, too much. The HIP one is wonderfully clear, but the more somber, heavier parts have less emotional power. 

Thanks to YouTube, you can compare them for yourself. Yesterday I listened to the Laudate section of the Gloria four times, twice in each version. (The work is so massive that each idea or sentence in the text gets its own separate composition.) And I really like both. This is one part where there is, to my taste, no definite preference. I really like the light, bright quality of the Gardiner. The singer, compared to Janet Baker, sounds almost girlish, which for this section is appropriate, as is the sprightly tempo. But the violin obbligato, which is beautiful in the Klemperer, is anemic in the Gardiner. And so on.

I'm speaking as if you only have to take your recording off the shelf and put it on. But if you don't own one maybe you subscribe to one of the streaming music services. Or you can listen to one of the many recordings, whole or partial, that seem to be available on YouTube. If your knowledge of the Latin texts is no better than mine, and you don't own a recording which would typically include the texts, you'll probably need something you can read. You could start here and find the parts.



Julie Byrne: Not Even Happiness

I'm just barely making my before-Ash-Wednesday deadline for this last of three music posts, so I'll be brief.

I avoid reading reviews before encountering the thing itself, whether the thing is music or book or film. But I like comparing my views to others' after I've formed my first impression. After hearing this album once or twice, I thought Kind of sounds like something from the '60s. Vashti Bunyan, maybe, or a female Donovan. Then I went over to and read that Julie Byrne had

...quickly received favorable comparisons to folk titans Vashti Bunyan and Joni Mitchell after releasing her first two records.

The fact that she made me think of Bunyan must mean that there is a definite similarity, as I've only heard a little of Bunyan's work. I wouldn't have thought of Joni Mitchell, because Byrne's music is considerably less complex, but I see the resemblance. The Donovan comparison is further afield: it's not so much any specific musical resemblance as the vibe of finger-picked folkie guitar, the soft warm voice, and the overall quality of gentleness introspective reflection. Several tracks are lightly and effectively enhanced with strings or electronics, and even a dash of natural sound. 

Not every song is a melodic gem. But the album as a whole keeps my attention. I suspect that most listeners would pick "Natural Blue" as one of the two or three best songs. It also happens to be the most elaborately produced, but I think it would work just fine with only Byrne's voice and guitar.

Thanks again to Rob G for introducing me to this and the previous two albums. 

Agnes Obel: Citizen of Glass

I guess we've all heard people say of this or that style of music, generally one they don't care for, that "it all sounds the same." And from a casual distance it's usually a fair assessment. After all, Metallica and Megadeth sound vastly more like each other than either sounds like Bruce Springsteen, and someone who doesn't listen to metal might find them indistinguishable--or not worth distinguishing. But to a metal fan there are big and obvious differences. Likewise, someone who doesn't much care for sensitive, restrained, introspective music written and sung by a woman might think this album is not so very different from the Liela Moss one discussed in the previous post.

But in fact they are almost opposites in some ways: lush vs. sparse, expansive vs. intimate, passionate vs. restrained, open vs. guarded; maybe even light vs. dark. Agnes Obel's voice is not as rich as Moss's, and the arrangements are almost minimalist: piano augmented gracefully with touches of strings and percussion and some other sounds that I can't quite identify and are perhaps electronically produced. Obel's music and lyrics are darker, (even) more introspective, and in fact obscure, although that difference may be magnified by the fact that her lyrics are posted on her web site, whereas I have not been able to read Miller's and can't understand a fair number of them. There's no mystic communion with nature here, but rather a very private inner world. 

I thought the first two tracks here were great on first listen, and was thinking that the album might turn out to be a major favorite. To my taste, though, that promise didn't quite hold up. It is very good,  to be sure, but I've ended up less enthusiastic than I began (this is after four or five reasonably close hearings). The material seems a little uneven, although never less than immaculately arranged and performed. And maybe a more significant problem is that the lyrics just don't have much effect for me. It's not just that they're obscure or cryptic, but that they are so in a way that doesn't conjure much in the way of emotion or association for me; your reaction of course might be different. Everything musical here is so precise, so carefully placed to such exquisite effect, that I expect the words to be equally well chosen and placed. And I suppose they may have been by the artist, but for the most part they don't seem that way to me. 

I was intrigued by the title "It's Happening Again," hoping for something Lynchian, which--again, to my taste--the song doesn't quite provide. Perhaps it would for you. I grant that it would not seem out of place performed in the Roadhouse.

Oh look, there's an official video:

Based on the video I'd say the title is definitely a Twin Peaks reference. 

Despite my reservations, this is definitely a work I'll come back to. I see on her web site that she has just released a new album, Myopia. I'll be checking that out. 

Liela Moss: My Name Is Safe In Your Mouth

Isn't that an evocative title? 

I have a mental backlog of music that I've been meaning to write about, especially non-classical music. As I'm planning to go on a sacred-music-only diet for Lent, which is now only a week away, I'll try to get several of them out of the way before then. As of right now I plan for them to be three albums made available to me by Rob G; thanks, Rob.

I had not previously heard of Liela Moss, though apparently she has been part of a band that is at least well-known enough to have an AllMusic entry, The Duke Spirit (though unknown to me, which is hardly surprising). I don't know how her first name is pronounced but am guessing "Leela." The album was produced by her "partner" and Duke Spirit band-mate, Toby Butler. He also shares the songwriting credits, so I can't pass judgment on Moss's skill in that department.

But she's responsible for the lyrics, as is clear in this release announcement from her label, Bella Union. 

I was in my own modest studio, surrounded by deep rural Somerset, and building the album bit by bit over a year with just my producer and partner Toby Butler – with whom I co-wrote all the music. We worked to our own schedule and across all seasons. Staring out of the window singing, I would watch the changing natural phenomena around me and sing to the forms outside. My window-view outside was like an umbilical cord; I was receiving little messages from the nature beyond and the songs were growing inside the studio, transmitting back.

...I teased melody out from an abstract, day-dreaming space until I can honestly say I felt that I was attempting to sing Mother Nature into existence 

That makes me think of Kate Bush, though I didn't read it until I'd already had the same thought about the album in general. It doesn't sound like Kate (forgive me, everyone who loves Kate Bush's music seems compelled to call her by her first name only). And the word "quirky," which seems almost unavoidable about Kate's work, never crossed my mind. But there is something deeply similar in the vibe: a somewhat mystical relationship to the deep currents of life, a rich and very feminine awareness and receptiveness. At times one is tempted to use the word "spacey" (about transmissions to and from nature, for instance), but in a half-admiring way: the openness of it, the willingness to follow those devotional impulses.

Tell me where the light will go
And I
Will chase it, chase it

That's from "Wild As Fire," and though most of the song seems to be about an individual person it lends itself to a broader interpretation. You can't expect to make linear, logical sense of the lyrics, but (as is often the case with this type of songwriting) they work in context.

I can't discuss the album musically without using the word "lush." The vocals are lush. The melodies are lush. The arrangements are lush, somehow, even though they are relatively sparse, not overly complex: altogether a beautiful piece of work.

Bella Union, by the way, was founded by Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie; no introduction necessary for fans of the Cocteau Twins, of which they were two-thirds (yeah, there were three people in the group). Now it's apparently run by Raymonde alone, and it appears to have a really good roster. I've only heard a small number of the artists, but the ones I recognize are excellent. And they include, to my surprise, The Innocence Mission (only for their latest album, which I have not yet heard). 

Ambient Music and Muzak

As a fan of ambient music, I admit that I've sometimes asked myself the uncomfortable question: is this really any different from Muzak? (If you don't know that word: it's the brand name for the service that provides background music for stores, offices, and so forth. Like "Kleenex", it also serves as the generic term for the kind of product it is.) 

I have two answers: "No, not really" and "Yes." It certainly can be and often is used in the same way. Go into a certain type of trendy retail shop, maybe one with a new age spirituality vibe, and you may hear dreamy background music, possibly based on electronics, possibly having some natural sounds mixed in, but in any case pretty unstructured, without much distinctive rhythm or melody: all atmosphere and little structure. It's using a different vocabulary or repertoire from Muzak, which uses (or used to use) sappy instrumental versions of pop songs, but its function as background is much the same.

But nobody sits and listens to Muzak, at least not as such. It isn't meant to be listened to. Whereas people do listen, quite attentively, to ambient music--but not necessarily, or always. The old master, Brian Eno, put it well: ambient music should be "as ignorable as it is interesting." One difference, a pretty big one, between ambient music and mere background music is that the former is very consciously intended to be what it is.

I'm trying to remember now how I came to be acquainted with the music and with the term, and I can't come up with it. I guess it started with what was once called, first positively and then pejoratively, New Age music: mostly instrumental music, usually on the quiet and contemplative side. And then there was a long love affair with the music of the German group Tangerine Dream, which is mostly fairly complex and definitely not ambient, but is almost all electronic, and gave me a taste for the other-worldly quality which electronics can provide. And for many years I listened regularly to the ambient radio program Music From the Hearts of Space (the name is a little cringey to me, but I certainly heard a lot of good music there. I may have picked up the term "ambient music" there.

But that slight misgiving, that question about ambient and muzak, persisted. So I noticed with interest this headline at The Guardian: "Lost in muzak: how ambient music became cool". I of course didn't know it had ever become un-cool. The piece doesn't really address my question except maybe at the very end, with an observation that if you're listening to it closely it isn't ambient. Yes, but you could ignore it. Or half-ignore it. You can sort of step in and out of it at will, and you haven't lost the thread, the plot so to speak, as you would with classical music or for that matter almost any other kind of music. Steven Hill, the proprietor of HOS, uses the word "contemplative" a lot, and that's generally applicable.

Cool or not, there's no doubt that some specimens of the genre remain...interesting, and not ignored. Eno's Music for Airports  released in 1978, has as much claim to "classic" status in the general category of non-classical music as anything else of its time. I think its subtitle, Ambient 1, may be the first use of the term in this context. It sounds as fresh to me now as when I first heard it, which was not when it came out but still probably something close to thirty years ago.