BERNARD HERRMANN on DECCA PHASE 4

From my YouTube channel

I discuss the classic records made in the 1960s and 70s by Bernard Herrmann for Decca Phase 4 Stereo.

These recordings of music from his own scores included Citizen Kane, Psycho, Vertigo, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Obsession.

I talk about the scores Herrmann recorded from his collaboration with Ray Harryhausen.

Herrmann also recorded scores by other composers like Shostakovich (Hamlet), Miklos Rosza (Julius Caesar), and Arthur Bliss (Things to Come).

So sit back and enjoy this journey through a unique legacy of classic film score recordings. And stay tuned for a fun Easter egg at the end of the video……

SILENT MOVIES LIVE AGAIN!

Text originally published in the Financial Times, November 22nd 1986

One of the regular high spots of the London Film Festival in the past half decade has been the presentation each year of one or more silent films with a live orchestra. Sponsored by Thames Television, these performances have not only resurrected the long hidden glories of silent cinema, they have also introduced their audiences to an experience of overwhelming intensity – a far cry from most people’s perception of silent films as dusty, dated entertainments to be watched stoically to the accompaniment off on out-of-tune piano in a cold, almost empty cinema.

The moving force behind this revival consists of David Gill, a documentary director and producer at Thames; Kevin Brownlow, director and historian of the silent era; and Carl Davis, composer and conductor.

(from l. to r.) Kevin Brownlow, Carl Davis and David Gill

In the late 70s, Kevin Brownlow’s classic book on the early days of Hollywood, The Parade’s Gone By, inspired Jeremy Isaacs, then Director of Programs at Thames, to give the go-ahead for a series about the American pioneers of film.  The aim of this series was twofold: to give a history of the early film industry, told largely in interviews with veterans of the period, and to present the actual footage of the time, be it clips, outtakes or newsreel, in as authentic and  pristine a manner as was possible.

This involved finding the best possible prints (not always an easy task), projecting them at the correct speed (thus eliminating the traditional “speeded-up” image of silent film), and providing music which would genuinely enhance the visuals. Recognizing Kevin Brownlow’s dedication to the original quality of these old films, David Gill nevertheless had misgivings about how a modern audience would react to them: “I still had a slight reservation because I had been away from silent films for so long.  We not only had to demonstrate these films existed and make an interesting, educational program, we had to build an audience, capture their imaginations, make it an entertainment – something they could surrender to.  And the only way I could see that happening was not just by using music, but by really spending so much money on the music — composing it and being able to afford a large orchestra, something which documentaries never envisage.  Then, as soon as we started seeing the results during the course of production, we were astounded by the effect it had on the film.  A whole new entity appeared, and we could see it from the reaction all people who saw the programs.”

Napoleon mesmerizes the audience at the Paramount Theatre, Oakland, 2012

Carl Davis had already worked with David Gill on a documentary series, The World at War, and jumped at the chance to score Hollywood.  “First of all I did quite a bit of research on how the film scores were created in the period.  The series really ran the range of all the styles of film of the period, and involved me  in thinking and creating for a great many clips.”  

Erich von Stroheim on set – note the musicians present to create a suitable mood for the actors
Film fragment of Stroheim filming with musicians on-set

Davis resorted to many of the methods of the silent era: borrowing chunks of the classics, cobbling together popular pieces of the time; anything that would go with the film.  Throughout he would interweave his own music, often finding inspiration in certain composers to reflect this style and mood of a film or actor in the accompanying music: Rimsky-Korsakov for Fairbanks and The Thief of Baghdad, Liszt for the soul of Garbo in A Woman of Affairs.  

Garbo in A Woman of Affairs

Not surprisingly, Davis was itching to try his hand at a full-length score for full orchestra to accompany a theatrical presentation of a silent film.  The opportunity to do so did not arise until the BFI earmarked Kevin Brownlow’s reconstruction of Abel Gance’s epic Napoleon for the London Film Festival in 1980.  In three months Davis had to produce five hours of music.  As much out of practical as aesthetic considerations he quickly settled upon the idea of using the music of Beethoven and his contemporaries as the backbone for the score, an apt choice in view of the youthful Beethoven’s admiration for the young Napoleon.  “One of the first things I  learned about silent film musicians of the time, when I was working on the Hollywood series, was that they had absolutely no inhibitions about robbing, like grave robbing, and using classical compositions to support the score.”

Sometimes an important film would be distributed with a specially composed score. Whenever possible Davis has made reference to these, and has often found useful source material (various army and popular songs of World War I for The Big Parade, for example), and on one occasion has reconstructed an entire original score – for D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms.   

But in the case of Napoleon in 1980, Honegger’s original score had yet to be rediscovered, so Davis found himself plundering the treasure houses of Classicism.

Napoleon at the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square, 1980s

Yet he was careful never to use music which might jar with the film’s carefully constructed historical authenticity.  “I had a notion, which I always follow, which is to try and be faithful to the period, or at least to pay service to the period it was done in.  I would use Beethoven, but only up to compositions off about 1810, and I would not go into Berlioz, for instance, or Schumann or Wagner or any of those pieces which might be appropriate from a mood point of view, but which I felt would betray the spirit all of those wigs, corsets and breeches, so to speak.”

Napoleon screening at San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 2012

In the films which have followed Napoleon, ranging from romantic melodrama to knockabout comedy, Davis has refined his techniques and approach.  Some have been recorded just for broadcast on Channel 4, which aids with the financing.  Each film is approached with a fresh musical concept, and careful attention is paid to orchestration to create a distinctive and individual sound world.  Structurally Davis relies on a simplified form of leitmotif technique, in which certain themes and characters are represented by easily identifiable melodies that recur throughout the score.

For the broadcast versions of the films, synchronization of picture and sound is achieved in the recording studio through close adherence to a time code printed on the film’s video copy (Davis’s guide when composing).  In live performances Davis the conductor has to rely on his internal sense of time and the rhythm, along with his detailed knowledge of the film (described shot by shot in the score), to keep him and the orchestra in the right place.

This year’s Thames Silent is Greed, the ”lost” masterpiece of Erich von Stroheim – a grim study of the darker side of human nature.

Davis has drawn his inspiration from Austrian and American music of the 20s.  “Though the film is set in San Francisco at the turn of the century, von Stroheim as a director is always very Germanic in his work. The thematic approach, the recurrence of themes, and the fact that the characters come from a German background even — certainly Trina’s Family does – made me lean towards German music, or rather Austrian music, of the early 20th Century.   I really didn’t want the orchestra in itself to have a very sympathetic, soft or romantic sound.  I wanted it to be harsh and clear – a quality which I think could also describe the way the film is.  Alban Berg and von Stroheim would be quite good partners in a way because they are both full of a mixture of banal phrases with a sort of torment: soaring lines and a ‘what-lies-under-the-skin’ kind of character.”

Erich von Stroheim

Davis omits strings, except for an elaborate violin solo, leaving wind, brass and extensive percussion.  In sequences where several planes of action are involved on screen, he has adopted an Ivesian technique of allowing simultaneous but different music to elide and clash.  “For example, during the wedding service a funeral procession passes by.  Now if we accept my job as being to bring out what is in the film, it seemed that there was no alternative other than to do a wedding and a funeral going on simultaneously.”  Therefore Davis collides Wagner’s Wedding March from Lohengrin in B major with the Chopin Funeral March in B minor, plus a popular song of the period, O Promise Me, in F major.

The Wedding in Greed. Outside the window a funeral procession passes by……

“This is simply doing what the film is doing, and because of the example of Charles Ives one wasn’t afraid of the clash, one welcomed it.  What von Stroheim is actually saying is – this is a wedding that is doomed – and my job then is to reinforce that idea.”

Elsewhere Davis has taken this technique a step further, to bring out what lies beneath the surface of a scene. Two friends quarrel and then make up in a seaside tea shop where a mechanical piano is playing: the steady honky-tonk prattle runs in counterpoint to their reconciliation. The music seems to say: will it last?

Filming Greed in Death Valley. Note musicians in foreground.

Kevin Brownlow comments: “The great director King Vidor says in the Hollywood series that music is 50% of the emotion, and I thought, ‘Come on! This is 30% over the top.’ But he’s right.  When you see it working you realize it’s the fusion off the two, like a carbon arc, that creates that fantastic impact.”

Some examples of scenes from Thames Silents productions, all with music by Carl Davis:

From King Vidor’s The Crowd

Further articles on Kevin Brownlow, Napoleon, Carl Davis, and their revival of silent films with orchestral accompaniment:

Napoleon Redux: The Emperor of Films Returns

Filmmakers on Filmmakers: Alan Parker on Kevin Brownlow

The Greatest Film Ever Made? Napoleon on Bastille Day

A MUSICAL METAMORPHOSIS by ORLANDO DI LASSO

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One of the legacies of my extended sojourn in chapel choirs, from the age of 7 to 22, is an abiding love for unusual corners of the Anglican choral repertoire.  Long before I myself had to compose intricate 5-part counterpoint at various desks in damp libraries and assorted examination halls, I grew to love the polyphonic repertoire of Palestrina, Josquin and other masters of the Renaissance by actually singing it.  As my interest in early music expanded I corralled various friends into putting on concerts of what were then practically unknown works: early French organum from Notre-Dame, Machaut and Ockeghem.

After a recent back operation I decided to reconnect with my love of singing in choirs by joining a couple of ensembles at UCLA.  I have already written about the once-in-a-lifetime experience of singing Beethoven under the masterful baton of the legendary choral teacher Donald Neuen, in his farewell concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall.  But UCLA offers many other conduits for those wanting to embark on unusual musical adventures.  In particular, the UCLA Early Music Ensemble brings together an eclectic group of students and faculty from all disciplines, together with some interlopers from the community like myself, to perform anything from Baroque standards to way-off-the-beaten-path curiosities from across the world and across the centuries.  Instrumentalists play authentic instruments of the period.

In one chamber concert we tackled a delightful potpourri of works by French and Flemish masters of the Renaissance, and for this particular work — “La Nuict Froide et Sombre” (The Cold and Somber Night) — I was asked to write the program notes.  Here they are, and at the end you can watch our performance.

OrlandoLasso

Orlando di Lasso, also known as Lassus, was something of a rock star in the hushed cloisters of 16th century polyphony.  Legend has it that he was abducted no less than three times for the beauty of his youthful singing voice.  Judging by the ubiquity of his works in print, he was also one of the first composers in history to understand the financial benefits of a good publishing deal.  It enabled him to spend most of his life in stable employment at the Bavarian court in Munich where he enjoyed enormous creative freedom.

Lassus performing at the Bavarian court

Lassus performing at the Bavarian court

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You are about to hear why his music was so popular.  He was able, within the strict compositional methods required at the time, to cultivate a more earthy and sensual manner that humanized the sacred.  His gift for word setting was especially evident in his series of French chansons, which were amongst the most widely known and popular works in late 16th century Europe.  The text for “La Nuict Froide et sombre” is by Joachim de Bellay, one of a group of poets who turned to Greek and Roman poetry as a way to revitalize the form.

Joachim de Bellay

Joachim de Bellay

This poem clearly channels Ovid to depict a scene of cosmic metamorphosis thus:

“The cold and somber night

Covering with dark shadow

The earth and the skies

As sweetly as honey

Dripping from the sky

Pours sleep into our eyes.

Then the glowing sky

To labour calling

Reveals its faint light

And in varied hues

This great universe

Unfurls and forms.”

(my translation)

This text may be secular, but its depiction of the unity of creation and the constantly renewing cycle of day and night would have resonated with devotional literature of the time.  The diurnal cycle thus mirrors how despair and hope are constantly evolving into one another in the Evening and Morning meditations.  That Lasso is aware of this resonance between nature and the spiritual life is reflected in both the pictorial detail and the underlying religiosity of his word setting.  The descent of night at the opening is depicted in a series of slow-moving but harmonically unsettled chords.  Contrasts between high and low registers accentuate the poet’s invocation of the earth and sky.  A sequence of drooping suspensions perfectly mimics the effect of sleep upon the eyes.  Throughout, a virtuosic use of chromaticism invokes not only the diaphanous quality of the scene being described, but also the profound sensuality of Nature’s effects.  In that profundity the metamorphosis of day into night, and night into day, is rendered into a spiritual contemplation of palpable physicality.

BEETHOVEN TRANSFIGURED ( THE NEUEN EFFECT )

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To transfigure: to transform into something more beautiful or elevated

There are experiences in all our lives that so completely transcend the mundane that we step out of time completely. Those experiences live on in the eternal present in our heads and we are, on some deep molecular level, altered by them – utterly.

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I had one such experience recently. I was not the sole participant in the event that prompts these words. But I dare say many of the 300-plus performers who shared the stage with me at UCLA’s Royce Hall felt similarly. We were there for two reasons. First to perform two of Beethoven’s great choral works, the Mass in C and the Choral Fantasy. Second, to mark and celebrate the extraordinary musical life of our conductor and choirmaster, Donald Neuen, Distinguished Professor of Choral Music at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music.

Beethoven poster FULL

At the age of 80, after a sixty-year career of conducting and teaching, Donald was retiring. Yes, that white-haired gentleman on the podium summoning up a veritable tempest of musical joy was less a Prospero thinking of lazy afternoons in a more temperate clime, than a newly liberated Ariel, ready to take on the world with mischief to spare.

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There are those people who feed on life and give nothing in return, who drain the colors from the canvas. Then there are those who accept nothing as enough, who believe everything is possible, and who view adversity as opportunity. Opportunity to strive, to create, to enrich, to find the Yes buried within the No. Beethoven was one such man, and Donald Neuen is another. When these two finally meet, it won’t be over sedate scones and Earl Grey at the Elysian Tea Rooms. There will be no talk of what was and what could have been. No Falstaffian reminiscences of “the days we have seen”. More likely the conversation will go something like this:

Neuen: “So, been working on anything new?”

Beethoven: “Yes. But it’s really difficult. I doubt you can find a choir capable of singing it.”

Neuen: “Then I’ll make one.” (Turning to the hovering angels): “Now who among you can actually sing?”

The 13-year-old Beethoven

The 13-year-old Beethoven

It seems as if Beethoven, like music, has always been a part of my life. As a toddler I figured out how to operate my father’s old portable record-player with precocious alacrity, and, along with Holst’s Planets and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Beethoven’s symphonies were rarely far from the spinning turntable. The hammer blows of the 5th, the frenzied dance of the 7th, and the soaring finale of the 9th were the soundtrack to my precocity. The Sixth Symphony, nicknamed the Pastoral for its musical depiction of walks in the countryside, bucolic peasant scenes and thunderstorms, remains my go-to piece for spiritual solace. It’s music that puts what really matters in life into perspective, that says: “This is you, and this is your place in the cosmos. Treasure the world around you and it will bring you enlightenment.”

It’s a truth we still find hard to live by.

Beethoven was at odds with the world, and his music reflects his Promethean spirit with a naked, and sometimes painful, honesty. He accepts nothing, wants everything, and rails against the gods when he has to settle for something less than the ideal – which is most of the time. His deafness, the cruelest of cruel jokes to ever befall a composer, would have felled most musicians; instead it emboldened Beethoven. When you can no longer hear the sounds of this present world, you imagine the sonorities of worlds to come. And so it was with Beethoven: his music grasps for a future he desperately wants not only to hear, but also to live. His notebooks testify to his struggle to find the language – the notes – to encapsulate those sounds, that vision.

One of Beethoven's sketchbooks, containing material for the Missa Solemnis. This was once owned by Mendelssohn.

One of Beethoven’s sketchbooks, containing material for the Missa Solemnis. This was once owned by Mendelssohn.

Musical ideas erupt messily from the pages, some scratched out in a fervor of second and third thoughts. The masterpieces in his portfolio are legion, spread across all musical genres of the time. They articulate a humanist, inclusive, utopian vision, brought about as much through music as through political and ideological reformation. This vision finds its fullest public expression in the end of Fidelio and the Ode to Joy from the 9th Symphony. The more interior reckoning is to be found in the late piano sonatas and quartets.

Beethoven at work

Beethoven at work

By some miracle of happenstance (or the benign influence of a god who loves music), Beethoven lived at the precise moment in time when musical language could, for the first time, sufficiently encompass his Dionysian impulses within an Apollonian frame. This was during the maturation of the so-called Classical period, articulated and embodied by Haydn and Mozart. Harmonic language found itself at a point of complete equilibrium between concord and discord. Tonality was held in balance, yet to succumb to the unraveling by the late Romantics that resulted in dodecaphony at the turn of the 19th century: the equalizing of all harmonic impulses, be they concordant or discordant – the democratizing of dissonance. As music plunged towards the maelstrom of the 20th century it moved towards a liberation from any sense of a tonal center in the music of Wagner, Richard Strauss, and early Schoenberg. From here it was but a small step to the convulsions of Stravinsky, Bartok and the birth of serialism.

In the Classical period (roughly 1730 to 1820), rhythm had become sufficiently liberated to both disrupt and also assert order.  Beethoven was too wayward and forward-thinking a spirit for the more formal structures of the Baroque, and in the 20th century the freedom to do anything tonally and rhythmically would have overly diluted the tension between disruption and resolution (or, perhaps more accurately, containment) that drives his musical dialectic.

Beethoven by Hornemann, 1803

Beethoven by Hornemann, 1803

Sonata form – the principal means by which musical material was organized at the time – was the cornerstone of the Classical era in which he composed. It had just enough elasticity to allow him to push his ideas to the limit without breaking the vessel. You see hear this over and over again, but never more tellingly so than in the famous passage in the development section of the Eroica Symphony’s first movement, where a series of hammer blows in the form of dissonant chords threatens to upend the entire harmonic and rhythmic structure. But just when you think the musical vessel is going to buckle and break completely, Beethoven pulls back so that the music’s natural order can reassert itself. (Almost a century later, Stravinsky, working with the same kind of hammer-blow motif in The Rite of Spring, is only too happy to splinter the vessel asunder and ride headlong into the whirlwind.)

Soviet-era stamp, 1970

Soviet-era stamp, 1970

These kinds of musicological preoccupations take on a different hue when one actually has to perform Beethoven’s music. In his own lifetime, the impulse behind the music – its deeper intent and modes of expression – reached beyond the notes written on the page to a degree that musicians and listeners found difficult to wrap their heads around. Even the instruments themselves seemed inadequate. The so-called Hammerklavier­ sonata for solo piano, which did, literally, hammer in a manner designed to cripple, it seemed, the instrument’s mechanism, was merely the first volley of an all-out assault on the piano’s physical capabilities. Beethoven’s music was a major factor in the instrument’s evolution away from Haydn’s polite parlor-room fortepiano into the über-instrument of today: the 9-foot long Steinway Grand used in today’s concert halls.

Controversy still rages over the precise meanings of Beethoven’s seemingly contradictory (and often willfully impossible-to-play) metronome markings (the score’s indication of what speed the music should be taken at). These issues have still not been entirely resolved by the most recent, scholarly editions of his works by Jonathan del Mar, as witness the frequency with which his recommendations are ignored by conductors. (Though this might be more accounted for by the extent to which interpreters, especially conductors, feel a right – indeed a need – to appropriate Beethoven for their own aesthetic agendas, and damn the textual niceties. Two recent examples of this inclination are Mikhael Pletnev and Christian Thielemann.)

Autograph score for Mass in C

Autograph score for the Mass in C

Given the technical and interpretive challenges of Beethoven’s music, it was hardly surprising that at our first choir rehearsal for our concert, Professor Neuen began by addressing two core issues for anyone planning to sing Beethoven: vocal production and rhythm.

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He talked about how Beethoven demanded an intensity of singing that, if one did not employ good technique, could literally tear one’s vocal chords. To avoid this he talked about how one must project more from one’s forehead than from one’s chest, and he carefully walked us through the way to achieve this (complete with diagrams). Allied to this was an idea we had to firmly implant in our brains of sending forth our voices from our bodies in a cone – an almost literal, physical projection of sound. (This also came with a diagram). By the time of our concert, seven weeks later, that “cone of sound” would be hitting the audience like a physical force, a literal “wall of sound”, even when we were singing pianissimo.

At some point in the midst of the rehearsal process, when our singing was occasionally lacking a certain focus and power, Professor Neuen pulled out a book about the great choral conductor, Robert Shaw, with whom he had trained and worked, and whose approach to choir training he had absorbed and emulated.

Robert Shaw

Robert Shaw

He read us a quote from Shaw:

“People, the flesh must not be weak. Beethoven is not precious, he’s prodigal as hell. He tramples all over nicety. He’s ugly, heroic; he roars, he lusts after beauty, he rages after nobility. Be ye not temperate. Enter ye into his courts on horseback.”

This came from a letter Shaw had written to his choir, the New York Collegiate Chorale, as they prepared for a performance of Beethoven’s 9th under the baton of the legendary maestro, Arturo Toscanini. The letter continued:

“Which, being freely translated, means: Get your backs and your bellies into it. You can’t sing Beethoven from the neck up – you’ll bleed. Quit sitting back on your soft little laurels. Get your feet on the floor. Get elbow room. Spread your back. Keep your neck decently erect and your throat open. Don’t lead with your chin. And give with the part of your gut that ties onto your ribs. Make your body do part of the work. And, oh yes! Get lots of sleep. Read lots of good books. Drink lots of milk and orange juice. Think good clean thoughts. Love your neighbor – and Allah be praised.”

Robert Shaw conducting the New York Collegiat Chorale at opening of United Nations Building in 1953

Robert Shaw conducting the New York Collegiate Chorale at opening of United Nations Building in 1953

This advice Donald recommended we follow too. I swear a look of quiet despair passed across the faces of those students inclined to dedicate the end of the school year to more Dionysian pursuits. Yet adhere to Donald’s dictum they needs must do: it was already clear he inspired fierce loyalty, devotion and love in his singers. This was all the more remarkable considering the majority of the choir consisted of non-music majors. The keg parties would have to wait.

As to rhythm, this is at the core of Beethovenian style. His music’s characteristic cut-and-thrust is achieved, in part, by accenting the offbeats and upbeats which, traditionally in music up to and including this period, are played more lightly, leading into the heavier downbeats. This off-the-beat accenting is so counter-intuitive, going against pretty much all the early training musicians receive, that Professor Neuen was reminding us of it right up to the dress rehearsal. With the orchestra in full flight, those lazy upbeats (KYR-i-E instead of the required Kyr-I-e) would cause him to yell “BEETHOVEN!!!!” and, somewhat shamefaced, we would make the necessary adjustment.

Neuen in rehearsal

Thrilling as the concert was (and it was thrilling, like riding a bucking bronco on a high-wire over the Grand Canyon), it was the many weeks of rehearsal leading up to it that I treasure. Attending rehearsals was like embarking on a great journey with a companion from whom one never ceases learning. I had forgotten (as so many of us do once we leave school) what it is like to embark on a course of study in the company of a great teacher and inspirer of men. There is a sense of moving towards a place of enlightenment that the so-called “real world” of jobs, marriage and kids can seem to deliberately obfuscate.

Arrayed around Professor Neuen in rising semi-circular tiers, like the audience before the actors in a Greek amphitheatre, we were alternately coaxed, lulled, harangued, goaded, bullied, inspired, shamed and seduced into action by the kind of leadership that wins Superbowls and great battles. In fact, Neuen has been compared to the legendary coach of UCLA basketball, John Wooden, known as much for inspiring the hearts and minds of generations of student players as for capturing trophies. Neuen had, in fact, once contemplated a career in sports, that is until he became involved in choral training. Once he caught the choir bug there was no turning back.

Donald Neuen at a recording session, 1987

Donald Neuen (r.) at a recording session, 1987

 

But, as I rapidly learned, the strictly musical preparation that took place on Monday and Wednesday afternoons was only one part of the “Neuen experience”. In the midst of wrestling with half and quarter notes, recalcitrant tuning, listless rhythms and all the other ailments that afflict even the nimblest of choirs, the Professor would put down his baton, settle into the back of his stool and invite us to share a “sit-back” moment. There would follow a reminiscence, or an anecdote, or an observation of musical methodology or history, that would, first of all, be informative and helpful to what you were trying to achieve in the rehearsal room. But then you would start to realize there were other applications for these bon mots. They were little lessons to make you feel better about how your day was going, where your life was at the moment, and where it might go in the future. All those petty preoccupations and obsessions from outside the rehearsal room, the general life-malaise with which we so easily fill our daily internal monologue, would suddenly all reveal themselves as the utterly disposable bric-a-brac they truly were. From there it was but a small step to putting them all into a little box, placing them in a drawer, closing and locking it with the thought that you might revisit at a later date, but actually you also might not need to. Then it was “Back to Beethoven”!

 

The concert hall at Eisenstadt where the Mass in C had its first performance

The concert hall at Eisenstadt where the Mass in C had its less-than-triumphant first performance. Prince Esterhazy II, who had commissioned the work, was none too happy, declaring: “But Beethoven, what have you done here?”

 

The Neuen “sit-back” moments, I learned, were famous, and rightly so. They were the lobs of a great champion on the tennis-court of the day’s preoccupations, bringing with them enlightenment and inspiration. They slowed down life’s driving forehands, jabs and seemingly insurmountable volleys and overheads. They changed the rhythm of the game, so that the defensive back foot play reset the balance of power. From love-forty down one could find oneself serving for the match.

And so, finally, and all too quickly, came the performance itself: the pomp and splendor of some 350 performers arrayed across the stage of one of the world’s great concert halls, UCLA’s Royce Hall.

 

UCLA Royce Hall at night

It was here that the Decca recording label made many of its most celebrated recordings of the 60s and 70s, capturing the legendary acoustic and the sounds of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with its now classic array of “Decca tree” microphones.

 

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Royce Hall from Sunset Boulevard, 1924

Royce Hall (left) from Sunset Boulevard, 1924

Under construction

 

Led by Dr. Rebecca Lord, who gained her PhD at UCLA under Neuen’s tutelage, and who had then become an Associate Professor in the Choral Department, there were speeches, tears – and even bugle volleys courtesy of fellow faculty member, Jens Lindemann, of the Canadian Brass.

 

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(l. to. r) Jens Lindemann, CEA Vice President Stephanie Sybert, Dr. Rebecca Lord, Professor Donald Neuen, CEA President Kanwal Sumnani, and SPARK Coordinator Elizabeth Seger

 

Current and former pupils and singers who had been touched by the Neuen magic flew in from around the country. The house was packed for a concert whose costs were met by an online campaign organized by the students themselves.

 

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Dr. Rebecca Lord and Professor Neuen

 

But finally, ineffably, after the tributes and the farewells, there was the most important thing of all —

— the music.

The Agnus Dei from the autograph score to the Mass in C

The Agnus Dei from the autograph score to the Mass in C

 

Music by Beethoven!

 

Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

 

As Professor Neuen strode towards the podium one last time for the Mass, he shook his fists like a great baseball hitter heading out to the plate in extra innings, bases loaded. Everything to win, everything to lose. He mouthed only one word: Beethoven! And we all knew exactly what work had to be done.

 

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To participate in a great performance, led by a great conductor, is to reach so far beyond oneself that the process has the quality of a dream. Or, sometimes, a delirium. An articulate, controlled delirium, but a delirium nonetheless.

The notes are learned, everything is practiced and rehearsed to the nth degree, yet in the moment of performance the process is a both a frenzy and a becalming. Our minds are necessarily racing, because all music-making at this level is primarily about thinking hard and fast, always one step ahead of the score.

Our thoughts are driving our bodies to make the required sounds with constant changes in pitch, rhythm and expression. In the process we seem to become almost autonomous, divorced from ourselves, bound up into a collective, but also singular, act of creation.

The conductor’s baton, his eyes, his will, gather us up into a single thought. And in that thought, that moment, it seems as if the notes were never actually written down by the composer, the music never printed, never passed around, never scrutinized, studied, dissected and re-assembled, never worried over ad infinitum in the rehearsal room. The notes, the music, seem simply to emerge spontaneously in the here and now, drawn up from some distant consciousness we call Beethoven, to be hurled into the cosmos like the fire Prometheus stole from the gods.

With Beethoven one always seems to come back to the prodigious Prometheus; the composer even wrote music for a ballet about the mythical figure.

prometheusSmallside_wm-763275

 

What, asks Man of his gods, is it for, this music? What does it mean?

Why, the gods answer, do you need to ask?

The music, and the making of the music, is its own answer.

And so, the orchestra plays, the soloists and choristers sing: “a lifetime”, as T.S.Eliot writes in Burnt Norton, “burning in every moment”.

 

Professor Neil Stobart, soloist in the Choral Fantasy

Professor Neil Stulberg, soloist in the Choral Fantasy

 

The 80-year-old professor who has given his ideas, his passion and his grace to his students, friends, colleagues, family and the family of men and women who have shared his life’s journey; who has given his life to music, and the idea of music – that professor stands before us one final time on the stage. He invites us, through Beethoven, to reach out into the void, and pluck forth meaning.

 

Beethoven chorale men

Soloists Sarah Grandpre, Sarah Anderson, Daniel Suk, and Michael Dean

Soloists Sarah Grandpre, Sarah Anderson, Daniel Suk, and Michael Dean

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As the conductor and choir trainer par excellence Robert Shaw once wrote:

“The Arts have a chance to become what the history of man has shown that they should be – the guide and impetus to human understanding, individual integrity, and the common good. They are not an opiate, an avoidance, or a barrier, but a unifying spirit and labor.

 

Max Klinger working on his sculpture of Beethoven

Max Klinger working on his sculpture of Beethoven

 

“The Arts are not simply skills: their concern is the intellectual, ethical and spiritual maturity of human life.
 And in a time when religious and political institutions
may lose their visions of human dignity,
they are the custodians of those values
which most worthily define humanity,
 which most sensitively define divinity
and, in fact, may prove to be 
the only workable Program of Conservation 
for the human race on the planet.”

 

Beethoven by Max Klinger, 1902

Beethoven by Max Klinger, 1902

 

And so, in Royce Hall, this extraordinary music that a deaf man wrestled into existence from the void, lives again – in our hearts and voices. In the process something deeper lives too. The Soul of Man.

 

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The teacher and leader is young again —

— and we are old.

It is a complete and perfect metamorphosis, both within – and outside of – time.

As the music sounds, we are all, performers and listeners alike, translated –

— and transfigured.

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1888822_642508942496493_3283011908952522623_o

BEETHOVEN CHORALE ONSTAGE AT ROYCE HALL

You can watch the complete concert here:

Beethoven, by Andy Warhol, 1987

Beethoven, by Andy Warhol, 1987

THEMES FOR SECRET AGENTS ( The Phase 4 Stereo Effect Part 1: James Bond, Roland Shaw, et al. )

roland-shaw-secret-agents1

Note: Where indicated, audio only tracks are transfers from original vinyl in my collection, yielding the best sound quality. Otherwise, audio tracks are from 2009 CD reissue of selections from Roland Shaw’s spy soundtrack albums (where masters are unknown).

James Bond Theme (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):

Burt Bacharach

Burt Bacharach

Roland Shaw

Roland Shaw

Phase 4’s compilations of spy themes were entirely the province of arranger/orchestrator Roland Shaw. He was one of Decca’s principal house arrangers, working for Vera Lynn, Mantovani, Ted Heath, and the label’s principal conductor of film music, Stanley Black. He also worked on several films himself as composer, including The Great Waltz, Summer Holiday, and Song of Norway. He had a passion for motor cars, of which he owned several exotic examples over the years. These ranged from a Rolls-Royce to a Bentley and a beautiful classic red Ferrari. He competed in club meetings at Silverstone, Goodwood and Brands Hatch, where he often acted as a race marshal. In fact, it was while parking his Rolls near his home in Barnes (purchased with a royalty check from Tutti Camerata) that he got his break with Decca Records. He was approached by an admirer of the vehicle, who turned out to be Frank Lee, head of A&R at the label.

Roland Shaw - the James Bond thrillers

Monty Norman

Monty Norman

Shaw’s first spy genre album, Themes from the James Bond Thrillers, was released in 1964 to coincide with Goldfinger. It was a massive hit, spawning a series of further records of “Spy” themes.

Monty Norman had composed the music for the first film in the Bond series, Dr. No, and Shaw’s arrangements filled out the minimally orchestrated originals to great effect. In this track, Underneath the Mango Tree, the addition of rippling flute and harp, plus swirling strings, creates a sense of travelogue exotica.

Underneath the Mango Tree (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):

 

John Barry

John Barry

However, it was John Barry’s iconic arrangement of the James Bond Theme, and his scores for Goldfinger and beyond, which defined the “Spy Sound” of the Swinging Sixties soundtrack. Barry seamlessly blended his jazz and bop background with lush romantic strings and heavy Wagnerian brass chords (interspersed with fabulous, soaring breaks that wailed over the propulsive drums and bass) to create a sound that defined the cool of Bond every bit as much as the beautiful girls, designer clothes, exotic locations and futuristic gadgets.

Every bit the epitome of Swinging London: John Barry and his wife, Jane Birkin.

John Barry epitomized Swinging London just as much as the spy whose musical identity he forged on the big screen. Barry is seen here with his then wife, actress and singer Jane Birkin

You can hear all these elements at work in this music from the pre-credits sequence in Thunderball, which culminated in Bond making his escape with a jet-pack.

Chateau Fight (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):

 

Thunderball jet_pack_2

Record labels were jumping over themselves to create knock-off compilations of Bond and other spy music, using various Easy Listening arrangers and scratch bands. The results were frequently lacklustre, but every so often these cover versions struck gold. Such was the case with Roland Shaw’s series of albums for Decca Phase 4.

Roland+Shaw+-+The+Phase+4+World+Of+Spy+Thrillers+-+LP+RECORD-382357

Roland Shaw rear sleeve

In his arrangement of music from Diamonds of Forever you can hear how Shaw, while remaining true to the essence of John Barry’s original, has embellished the orchestration to highlight the Hi-Fi aspect of the recording and give it more zest.

Diamonds-are-forever-James-Bond-Poster

He has added soaring and swooning contrapuntal string lines to the original, no doubt a legacy of his arranging for Mantovani’s orchestra. Then fat, funky bass lines combine with propulsive guitar licks (even throwing in a bit of wah-wah for good measure), latin drums and stabbing brass to give the whole thing an extra tinge of pop and of the exotic. (Many Phase 4 albums highlighted unusual percussion and other sounds from world music to lend a sense of travelogue to their albums).

Roland-Shaw-Themes-From-The-J-376147

Staying with Bond, here is Shaw’s arrangement of one of Barry’s most lyrical inventions for the Bond series, You Only Live Twice.

Bond girl Akiko Wakabasyashi behind the wheel of her one-off Toyota 2000 GT convertible

Bond girl Akiko Wakabasyashi behind the wheel of her one-off Toyota 2000 GT convertible in You Only Live Twice

Interestingly, one of the theme songs that Shaw leaves more or less unchanged, is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  Maybe this was because the track was already one of Barry’s most exciting inventions — and why mess with perfection? It was the first title sequence in a Bond film not to feature a vocal.  Instead, to accompany visuals that recapped the previous Connery adventures in preparation for George Lazenby’s assumption of the role, Barry built a driving chase fanfare over a Moog synthesizer playing in unison with a bass guitar.

Robert Moog pictured with his invention

Robert Moog pictured with his invention

The Moog was a completely new kind of instrument, purely electronic with no acoustic elements, and sounds radically different even on Barry’s own various recordings of this theme.

ohmss title

In the wake of Bondmania, film and television companies fast-tracked numerous secret agent projects, all demanding their own John Barry-tinged music. One of the most successful of Bond imitators was the series starring James Coburn as an urbane American agent, which kicked off with Our Man Flint.

Japanese poster for Our Man Flint

Japanese poster for Our Man Flint

 

Jerry Goldsmith

Jerry Goldsmith

 

Jerry Goldsmith, one of the most distinctive film composers to emerge at that time (his credits include Planet of the Apes, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Alien) provided a theme which channeled the Barry sound in its guitar licks and brass stabs. But he also added his own elements (percussion and jazzy improvisations) to convey a sense of the send-up that the film encapsulated.

Our Man Flint (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Back in the U.K., a quirky TV series that combined Bondian elements with fantasy and sci-fi became a cult classic and ran for many years.

the-avengers-series

The Avengers launched the careers of several subsequent Bond girls — Honor Blackman in Goldfinger and Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The hero, John Steed, always immaculately dressed in the finest Savile Row suits, with accompanying umbrella and bowler hat, was played by Patrick MacNee, who later featured as Roger Moore’s accomplice in A View to a Kill.

Diana Rigg and Patrick MacNee

Diana Rigg and Patrick MacNee

The Avengers had a killer theme written by Laurie Johnson.

Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

The Avengers (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

One of the most successful TV riffs on Bond was The Saint, which also proved to be a training ground for a future 007, Roger Moore. Based on Leslie Charteris’s series of novels about a Robin Hood-like character, the show’s catchy theme song was the work of Edwin Astley, a prolific TV composer who became a regular contributor to ITC Entertainment which produced the show. He also scored the themes for Patrick McGoohan’s iconic Danger ManRandall and Hopkirk (Deceased), and, in a different vein entirely, Kenneth Clarke’s epic documentary series, Civilisation. The theme for The Saint opened with a characterful motif for flutes, echoed woman’s voice, vibraphone and muted trumpets which would play as a halo appeared above Roger Moore’s head. It perfectly mirrors the cheeky quality of the character and show.

The Saint - Roger Moore

This kind of unusual instrumentation was typical of the genre, and is why so much of this music is such a good fit for the exotic orchestral palette of Easy Listening records. (Shaw’s arrangement dispenses with the woman’s vocal but goes to town in the blaring brass section; there’s that terrific drumming again too.)

the-saint- with car

The Saint (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

A precursor to Bond was the American TV show Peter Gunn, the creation of maverick film-maker Blake Edwards, one of the most underrated talents among post-War American writer/directors, who found enormous commercial success with the Pink Panther movies.

Peter_Gunn poster

The iconic theme song, by his long-time collaborator Henry Mancini, undoubtedly influenced later composers working in the genre (including Barry).

Henry Mancini receiving the Grammy for his album of music from Peter Gunn

Henry Mancini receiving the Grammy from Peggy Lee for his album of music from Peter Gunn

Peter Gunn has been much covered, most notably by cult 80s group The Art of Noise, with Duane Eddy taking on the guitar “twanging” duties. In his version, Roland Shaw doubles that guitar line with an early synthesizer, adds some percussion pops for Hi-Fi glitter, and plays up the drums and jazzy improvised elements.

Not all spy movies of the 60s were upbeat. John Le Carre’s The Spy who Came in from the Cold offered Richard Burton one of his most celebrated roles in a gritty cat-and-mouse game set in a divided Berlin. The muted, evocative score was by Sol Kaplan.

The Spy who came in from the cold

The Spy who Came in from the Cold (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Another highly successful series that, tonally, fell somewhere between Fleming and Le Carre, was launched with The Ipcress File, starring Michael Caine as the world-weary British agent Harry Palmer. The series shared much of Bond’s DNA, not surprisingly because the producer was Harry Saltzman (half of Eon Productions), bringing with him Bond’s editor, Peter Hunt, and production designer, Ken Adam. The music was also by John Barry, who used his taste for exotic instrumentation (in this case the cimbalom) to evoke eastern menace on the streets of London.

ipcress-file- Music by John Barry

The Ipcress File (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

John Barry also contributed a memorable score to The Quiller Memorandum (1966). George Segal and Alec Guinness starred in this straight ahead cold war thriller, with a script by Harold Pinter.

Quiller_memorandum_EP6305

Wednesday’s Child from The Quiller Memorandum (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

In finest Easy Listening fashion, even Shaw was not afraid to go with a somewhat cheesy vocal arrangement when called for. Here is his take on one of Burt Bacharach’s numbers from Casino Royale. (In the film it was only used as an instrumental; this is the version with Hal David’s lyrics).

Casino Royale record cover

Note, as always, the fabulous drumming and that tight rhythm guitar. I wonder how many bachelor pads have echoed to this track at the cocktail hour…..

Martini anyone?

James-Bond-Martini

“Let the Love Come Through” from Casino Royale (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Avengers - cocktails

Twisting with James (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):

 

Bond Connery aston martin Goldfinger

 

THE MAN IN THE MACHINE ( Kraftwerk Live at Disney Hall )

Kraftwerk - silhouettes

One of the most momentous discoveries of my musical life happened almost by accident.  I was a teenager at boarding-school, just hanging out one afternoon, when one of my friends sauntered by.

“Read about a pretty cool album in this week’s New Musical Express.  You should check it out.”

He ambled away down the corridor, and after a few minutes returned with a copy of the music broadsheet.  On the cover were four men dressed in red shirts and black ties, hair plastered down, heavily made up, their faces locked in expressionless sideways gazes, arranged in a highly stylized shot that reeked of both Teutonic totalitarianism and mechanistic macho.

kraftwerk2

“I think this might be right up your alley”.  No, he wasn’t making a crack at my expense.  My friend knew that I was heavily into avant-garde classical music, and especially the German avatar of progressive and electronic music, Karlheinz Stockhausen.

He opened the paper to the feature review.  It was of an album called The Man Machine, and those four men on the cover were its creatorscollectively known as Kraftwerk.

Kraftwerk_-_The_Man-Machine

From the moment I started reading about this band I realized this was music I had to investigate.  I inhaled the article.  I was only just starting to listen to pop and rock seriously; up until then I had been strictly into classical and jazz, assembling a semi-improvisatory ensemble when I was 12.  But recently I had discovered Pink Floyd and David Bowie and was getting really fired up by these new musical worlds.  By the time I finished the article I knew I had to have the record, and headed down to the local record store as soon as I could.  That record is still with me, one of my prized possessions, albeit with one chewed corner courtesy of a family pup who bypassed Bach and Basie in favor of Krautrock, discriminating fellow that he was.  On a good system this record sounds like you are inside the man machine.  Those analog synths and drums are fat.  None of the reissues or even the American pressing comes close to the sound of that original English pressing.

Kraftwerk-The_Man_Machine-Interior_Frontal

I will never forget the first time I played the album.  It was on headphones and I didn’t just listen.  I was absorbed into the music, and into a sound world unlike any other.  The electronic canvas was so rich it felt organic, and the short, motivic melodies were immediately catchy.  The occasional human voices, often fed through a range of processing devices, were flat and mechanistic, yet also oddly imbued with real feeling.  There was a sense of melancholic machine chanting.  The B-side led off with a number that is the closest the group has ever come to a conventional single, The Model.   The song plays on how we objectify feminine beauty, turning models into remote, almost technological creatures: infinitely desirable, and infinitely unapproachable.  It is an incisive piece of musical observation, made all the more poignant for the yearning that lurks just beneath the surface.  That yearning is transmogrified into something both familiar and otherworldly in the next song, Neon Lights, a tour de force of electronic expressionism.  I think it is their greatest track, a road song of the modern urban experience, driving through canyons of steel with the neon lights of the city dancing and dazzling the senses.  Cascades of shimmering synthesizers ripple over a relentless march beat and a simple, haunting melody, again tinged with melancholy.

Neon lights

Shimmering neon lights

And at the fall of night

The city’s made of light.

Neon Lights live

Many a time I have found myself on a freeway, sometimes with a light or heavy rain to deepen the electric shadows, with that music playing on the stereo or in my memory.  I am sucked into a netherworld of strange, Metropolis beauty.  (Metropolis, not surprisingly, is the title of another track on the album: an apt hommage to Fritz Lang’s silent epic which defined the modern cityscape on film, in our heads, and finally in reality).

The Tower of Babel in Metropolis

The Tower of Babel in Metropolis (1927)

Kraftwerk performing Metropolis

Metropolis live

I still hear details in that record that I’ve not heard before, it is that well-crafted.  At the time of the album’s release I was not alone in the opinion that this group was creating something unique, not just in pop music, but in music, period.  I immediately bought their earlier albums, Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express.

trans-europe-express1

I quickly discovered that Kraftwerk were sui generis, and today they are hailed as the most influential group ever, even more so than The Beatles.  And it’s not just the music which continues to ripple through practically every genre, even non-electronic music.  (Listen to Philip Glass or Steve Reich and Kraftwerk is right there at the heart of their work.  No surprise then that their appearance at Disney Hall is part of a citywide celebration of musical minimalism).  Kraftwerk’s stripped-down sense of design, for example, was a huge influence on Peter Saville, who designed covers for Joy Division and New Order, and spawned a million imitators.

Joy Division Unknown Pleasures cover

Peter Saville's cover for Blue Monday single

Peter Saville’s cover for Blue Monday single

At the time these record covers were the complete opposite of Roger Dean’s visual fantasias for Yes, as was the music.  Everything was stripped down to the essentials.  Repetitious and hypnotic rhythms were so carefully layered that they avoided any of the dead-hand quality of their numerous imitators.  Melodies were short and mesmeric, and full of romantic yearning.  Kraftwerk’s tunes are some of the most memorable in pop.  That romantic quality evokes the human in the machine, and it is in that domain that Kraftwerk’s music breathes and finds its staying power.  The only other techno act that I think approaches that quality is Massive Attack, but it does so with more conventional vocals laid on top of the electronic palette.

In the Kling-Klang studio

In the Kling-Klang studio

The thing about Kraftwerk is that it’s a band whose work still sounds incredibly modern at the same time as feeling timeless.   No matter that you can hear the evolutions in electronic instrument technology from album to album. (Techno Pop, formerly Electric Café, is suffused with the new digital technology of Yamaha’s DX-7 synth, and was the least well-received of their albums, though in its new remastering it is redeemed).  Timeless, indeed, as the masterworks of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner that came out of Germany’s classical tradition.  But it was in reaction to that tradition that Kraftwerk crafted its distinctive sound and ethos.

Kraftwerk_by_Ueli_Frey_(1976)

After the war, German musicians wanted to do, and be, anything so long as it was far away from the German classical tradition which had been heavily tainted by its co-option by Hitler into his promotion of the Aryan ideal.  Young musicians needed to turn their back on centuries of German high culture, but they also shied away from the popular forms of their conquerors.  Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider started Kraftwerk in 1970 within the loose umbrella of the Krautrock movement, and their early albums used conventional instruments and free-form improvisation seasoned with the spice of electronic manipulation.  But their compositions were essentially conventional in method and execution.

kraftwerk_moma2-boettcher_1_wide-d5a63a7731b7db04be982e559dd4e0283ee1eb63-s6-c30

That all changed with Autobahn, whose single A-side concept piece was an electronic realization of the aural and aesthetic experience of crossing Germany via the new freeway system that had no speed limit.

waltdisneyconcerthallmar18-600x218

It was a revelation, both for what electronics could now do, and for its reinvention of what a pop record could be.  And it was as potent in its ideas — of sound as movement, and vice versa; of engagement with technology as romantic — as it was in its execution.  Its successors were no less influential.  In particular, Trans-Europe Express, which did for rail travel what Autobahn had done for motorways.   Together with The Man Machine and Computer World, these albums created a sense of what it felt like to exist as a human being in the late 20th century: one’s humanity slowly leeching away from the organic experience of life, through the mediation of technology, into something both immediate and distancing, something “other”.

KRAFTWERK 3D MoMA

On Trans Europe Express people remember the epic title track and its extension, Metal on Metal, but they forget about the haunting Hall of Mirrors, a meditation on identity and celebrity with glistening synthesizer figures rippling against a pointed refrain (“Even the greatest stars discover themselves in the looking-glass”), and the elegiac Franz Schubert, a techno call-out to Germany’s most lyrical and poetic composer, who in the here and now is buried beneath the literal and aesthetic railroad tracks of the new Germany.

kraftwerk-3d-trans europe expres

It is often claimed that hip-hop begins with Afrika Bambaataa’s 1982 club hit Planet Rock, which quotes from Trans-Europe Express and Computer World I remember hearing this on the dance floor of London’s legendary Camden Palace, and being blown away both by the fact that I knew where the melody and rhythm had come from, and that they now existed in this cool new context.

KRAFTWERK 3D Der Katalog  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Kunstsammlung NRW Düsseldorf 2013

But back to The Man Machine, which I think is Kraftwerk’s most fully realized and perfect record.  This was the album in which the individual members of the band finally disappeared into their conceptual creation.  They became their own robots, literally using mechanical alter-egos in videos and live performance.

This week I revisited this album in vivo, so to speak, as part of the band’s 4-day trip through their complete oeuvre in live performance in the iconic performing space of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

walt_disney_concert_hall_sg020808

Two modern icons working in tandem, so to speak.

Kraftwerk 3-D disney hall

disney_concert_hall4-2

Only Ralf Hutter of the original band still remains, one of four “operators” onstage (Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen), all standing behind minimalist work stations (one of whom “mixes” the 3-D visual component of the show in real time).

Kraftwerk - Hutter projection

Quite apart from the excitement of finally seeing one of my favorite bands in action, I couldn’t wait to see how music that is so essentially “canned” would work as a live show.  Stripped of the crowd-pleasing elements of the typical live rock or pop show, like barnstorming guitar or drum solos, I wondered how well the Kraftwerk aesthetic of complete control and pre-determination would play for an audience.

Kraftwerk in 1981

Kraftwerk in 1981

It took about a minute for my doubts to evaporate.  First of all the sound, the best I’ve ever heard at a live rock show, was both muscular and delicate, subtle and forceful, going as deep as any bass I’ve ever heard.  And it travelled through the space – around, about, and in and out.  No doubt those famous Disney acoustics had a hand in rendering the Kraftwerk sound so vividly and precisely.

Kraftwerk – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 TOKYO AKASAKA BLITZ

Whatever elements were pre-programmed, nothing about the musical performance felt canned, and the personality of each member of the band clearly emerged in the ways in which familiar musical lines were varied, embellished, speeded up and slowed down.  In a nice touch at the end, each player had a chance to improvise at his work station, and I was left wishing they had done a little bit more performing on the musical fly.

Kraftwerk onstage current

But it was the visuals that added a whole new dimension to the Kraftwerk experience.  On a large screen behind the four band members (who wore black suits with grids on them), a mixture of ultra-high tech and almost retro video, fully exploiting the ability of 3-D imagery to pluck at your eyes, created a fully integrated “happening”.

Kraftwerk - Disney Concert Hall - March 18, 2014

autobahn - vw

Kraftwerk live w: drawings

kraftwerk spacelab

In fact, the whole evening felt closer to a piece of performance art than to a concert, which is no doubt one of the reasons why these events have been mostly presented in museums and architecturally significant spaces rather than stadiums.  Viewing and hearing the Kraftwerk oeuvre as a whole one was struck not just by its originality and uniqueness, but by its prophetic nature.

Kraftwerk_TateModern_Feb13-144_1360242498_crop_550x372

Everything about how technology has come to shape our lives was there in this extraordinary music, created years before this phenomenon fully came to pass.  Nowhere was this more evident than in a sequence from Computer World.

Kraftwerk-Numbers-Electronic-Beats1-940x626

Here, patterns of fluorescent numbers flashed by and undulated towards us in sensual waves, while the music alternatively spiked and caressed, threatened and lulled.  It all perfectly caught the dichotomy of our love-hate affair with personal technology.

kraftwerk-perform-3d-headlining-act-at-sonar-by-night-in-barcelona_2155365

The most chilling note was sounded with the performance of Radioactivity from the lesser-known album of the same name.

Kraftwerk – The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Tate Modern

Against a deeply funky groove, the names of nuclear incidents like Chernobyl and Harrisburg flashed on the screen, and then —

horishimakrafwerk_2477923b

Fukushima copy

Germany has committed itself to going nuclear-free within a couple of decades.  In a nice twist of fate, the country that originated modern mechanized warfare with the objective of cultural subjugation and annihilation has become more sensitive to the lessons of technological misdeeds than its conquerors.  Maybe the rest of us, those who are inclined to forget the lessons of history, and are unwilling to accept the prophecies of climate science, are indeed destined to dance with Death into oblivion.  If so, it will be in beautiful buildings like Disney Hall, and all to the techno stylings of a generation of musicians who confronted the dehumanizing legacy of their forefathers by seeking the man in the machine, and vice-versa.  It is an irony at which Mr. Hutter would no doubt smile.

kraftwerk robots with instruments

Kraftwerk Boing

11__Kraftwerk

And in the world of Kraftwerk cover bands —

KKK4 cover & back

( HOW MANY MILES TO ) BABYLON?

Grace Kelly b&w

BAB-Y-LON (noun): a city devoted to materialism and sensual pleasure (Origin: ancient city of Babylonia). (Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

LA LA LAND (noun): The term either refers to Hollywood, Los Angeles or a state of mind synonymous with Hollywood that is out of touch with reality, focusing on dreams, fantasies or frivolous endeavors. (Source: Urban Dictionary)

“One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: that word is love.” — Sophocles

What do you say to the woman you love

Up there on the silver screen?

Where do you go at the end of the show

With nothing to hold but a dream?

What would you say to the golden girl?

How would you play the scene?

Oh, how would you play the scene?

to-catch-a-thief-kelly-grant

Did your dreams come true as the years rolled by

Young king of the silver screen?

william holden sunset boulevard 1

How does it feel to be tied and bound

To a fading movie queen?

What can you say at the end of the day?

How will you play the scene?

Oh, how will you play the scene?

Sunset Boulevard on couch

How many kisses crossed your lips

Before your lips met mine?

How many lovers held your hand

Before your hand touched mine?

How many hopes, how many fears?

How many hearts, how many tears?

How many miles to Babylon?

sunset boulevard dancing

Why do you gaze at the silver screen

Pretty girl in the second row?

mia_farrow_purple_rose_of_cairo

How would you act if the man came down

What do you need to know?

It’s cold out there in the neon nights

How far do you aim to go?

How far do you aim to go?

purple-rose kissing

How many kisses crossed your lips

Before your lips met mine?

How many lovers held your hand

Before your hand touched mine?

How many hopes, how many fears?

How many hearts, how many tears?

How many miles to Babylon?

Grace Kelly silhouette in LIFE

Vocal by Mary Carewe.

Song and Video by Mark Ward.

Peter Gabriel - Security cover

An excellent documentary about the making of one of the greatest rock albums of the 80s, and a highly influential one too. Peter Gabriel broke new ground in terms of integrating world music and the latest sampling and synthesizer technology into the soundscapes of one of his most adventurous albums. This documentary originally aired on British TV’s South Bank Show, and offers a unique opportunity to see this highly-regarded musician exploring new terrain. It is the best documentary I’ve ever seen about how a rock album is created.

And follow this link for a superb archive of photos taken by Larry Fast, who contributed synthesizers to this and several other Gabriel albums, during the sessions and the resulting tours.

peterlinn2 prophets