First Five on the Shuffle #1

With less time to devote to blogging, I need an easy topic generator to get me going , so here a new series: First Five on the Shuffle. I have a huge mp3 library, with a lot of tracks I’ve never heard or only played once (and maybe didn’t even hear them when I did), so refreshing the shuffle on iTunes almost always brings up stuff that’s still new to me. So I’m going to react to the first five things that come up when I hit refresh, whether I’ve heard them before or not. You can listen for yourself by following the link at the bottom of the post.

The Ex: “Sucked Out Chucked Out #8” (The Dignity of Labour, 1983)

I love the Ex, but I haven’t gotten round to listening to The Dignity of Labour,  which has eight tracks, all with the same title. This is the last of them. It’s not the most bracing thing in their catalog by any means, but it has enough of their rhythmic insistence and pointed noise to work. Which I guess is a pun. Oops.

Hungarian Ensemble: “Rollin’ Rollin’” (Koncert A Marson, 1970)

I have an absolute ton of 50s and 60s rock and roll from outside the West; in this case, that means Hungary, which was on the other side of the Iron Curtain when this was recorded. Hungary had a much more vibrant recorded music industry and pop scene than a lot of its Warsaw Pact neighbors, which is not to say that there was a ton of innovation. There certainly isn’t on this track by one of the least creatively named rock groups ever, but it’s still a very enjoyable little record, splitting the difference between 50s rock and roll and 60s bubblegum with a tiny dash of 70s hard rock. Honestly, I was hoping it’d be a mis-titled cover of “Rawhide.”

Nicolas Sosa: “La Petenera Jarocha” (Harp Music, 1950)

At forty five seconds, this is a very brief demonstration of Mexican folk harp styles (and by harp, I mean the big, stand-up string instrument), but it’s quite lovely. The harp played a big role in a few Latin American folk styles (Venezuelan llanero music is sublime), which has always been interesting to me because the instrument is so unportable. You can’t exactly sling it over your shoulder and jump on your horse, you know? I don’t know anything about Nicolas Sosa, but I can tell you he played the harp wonderfully.

Lonnie Johnson: Jersey Belle Blues (my mp3 is from Jonathan Bogart's 100 Great 1930s Records For The New Depression, 1939) 

This is a blues tune, and sort of a weird one at that—a piano and acoustic guitar are both used in the accompaniment, and there are parts of the song where they both play lead instead of trading licks. As for the Jersey Belle… well, that’s a type of cow, but you know this is a double entendre, because that’s what almost every 1930s blues song that wasn’t about murdering someone was. I can just imagine Johnson grinning into a big old microphone as he deadpans “she’s a mighty tough titty” as though he really is talking about a cow. He doesn’t really try very hard to mask the raunchiness anyway. The first verse remarks that his bedroom is lonely since his Jersey belle is gone, and if you took it as literally about a cow, well, that’d be a totally different kind of song, wouldn’t it?

Ache: “Cyclus 7 Introduction” (Pictures from Cyclus 7, 1976)

This is the opening track of what appears to be a concept album about… I think Cyclus 7 is supposed to be some sort of phase of man, like Aquarius? Ache was from Denmark, and this is fairly bland prog rock. The sudden tempo shift in the middle of the song is competently handled, but the rhythm section is too straight ahead with its plodding rock beats. I do like the waves of Leslie-soaked guitar that sweep across the stereo field during the slow bits, though. I dunno. Is it really necessary to start your concept album by explicitly stating that you’d like to sing to your audience about what you’re about to sing about? Probably not. The album also contains a track called “Outtroduction.”

Hear these tracks here.

György Ligeti: “Lux Aeterna” (1966)

If you’re looking for frightening music to play while kids come around to your door tonight trick-or-treating, you couldn’t do better than raiding the canon of 20th Century classical music. So much of this music is built on challenging and subverting our normal assumptions about harmony, rhythm and timbre that it can’t help sounding alien and foreboding.

"Lux Aeterna" is a good example. Ligeti’s piece for a 16-voice choir, written in 1966, is a canon, a musical form that dates back to the Renaissance. In its most basic form, such as in Pachelbel’s quite famous canon in D, it consists of a melody, followed by a repetition (or a variation) that starts at a different time, so that you wind up with multiple versions of the same melody playing in different rhythms and creating counterpoint. It’s basic polyphony—you may have done it with “Row Row Row Your Boat” in grade school.

So how does Ligeti get it to sound so otherwordly? Well, for starters, he’s not using tertian harmony, which is what we’re used to—this is where a basic chord is made of intervals of thirds, ie C, E and G (a C major chord). He’s using tone clusters, where the notes sounding simultaneously might be C, C# and D, for one example. So you get these dissonant smears—the term for it is micropolyphony, where sustained dissonant chords slowly shift over time.

What Ligeti was primarily interested in anyway was timbre—he wanted to explore the particular tones and textures of the voices. They are actually singing these words: “Lux aeterna luceat eis / Domine, cum sanctis tuis in aeternum / quia pius es / Requiem aeternum dona eis / Domine / et lux perpetua luceat eis.” But you don’t really notice the words unless you’re listening for them. What you do notice is the disorienting effect of sixteen voices singing independent lines, many of them in extreme falsetto.

Kubrick famously used it in 2001: A Space Odyssey (without consent from the composer) specifically because of its alien quality (he also used Ligeti’s micropolyphonic “Requiem”). Ligeti’s creative restlessness and embrace of bleak, alien texture may stem somewhat from his rough early life: a Hungarian Jew born in Romanian Transylvania, he was sent to a forced labor camp by the Horthy regime when Hungary took Transylvania from Romania in 1943 (he was 21), during World War II. He lost much of his close family to the camps. After the war, he lived in Budapest and escaped to Vienna in 1956 after the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Revolution.

Ligeti was forced to re-evaluate his world more than once, and I speculate that this may have been among the factors that allowed him to so thoroughly re-think what music should sound like.

This version of “Lux Aeterna” was performed by the Schola Cantorum Stuttgart, conducted by Clytus Gottwald. I don’t know the year.

Hidden Track:

If you’d like to know what this sounds like played on string instruments, check out Ligeti’s “Ramifications for String Orchestra,” which uses a very similar approach but is scored for strings.