Essential Music: Brian Eno’s Ambient Compositions

There are some kinds of music that, when you first hear them, sound like they are music that you’ve always heard in your head, but never on a record. That’s how I felt when I first heard Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports shortly after it was first released. The self-effacing title of this 1978 album suggests that it might be a form of muzak, or taffelmusik. In fact, that was, in some ways, the goal of the work. It was designed to be played as background music, but the kind that you could focus on at any time and appreciate the qualities of the music. Eno, according to Wikipedia,

conceived this idea while being stuck at Cologne Bonn Airport in Germany in the mid 70s. He had to spend several hours there and was extremely annoyed by the uninspired sound atmosphere.

This four-part, 48-minute work, was the first album to bear the moniker “ambient,” though it was not Eno’s first truly ambient work. While other albums featuring a similar tone were made prior to Music for Airports, this was the first one consciously designed with what would become the ambient ethos.

Eno’s Discreet Music predated Music for Airports by three years, and, featuring the eponymous 30-minute track, as well as three experimental “remixes” of Pachelbel’s Canon, was the first true ambient work, designed as a background track for Robert Fripp to play over in concert.

Eno would go on to create other album-length ambient works, such as the 61-minute Thursday Afternoon, in 1985 (perhaps his best long work), the 58-minute Neroli (as of this writing, just 99 cents in MP3 format on Amazon) in 1993, and the 1999 I Dormienti, a 40-minute soundtrack for an installation.

Much of Eno’s music is ambient in nature, and he has recorded many other albums with the same tone, but others are more collections of shorter tracks, or collaborations, such as those with Harold Budd or Robert Fripp. But the five long ambient albums remain the most successful approaches to ambient music. While there are now thousands of people composing “ambient” music – after Eno, it became a genre of its own – Brian Eno’s albums are the pillars of this type of music. If you’re unfamiliar with this music, go for Music for Airports and Thursday Afternoon first. The title track of Discreet Music is excellent (though I don’t like the remixes of Pachelbel’s Canon). And Neroli is a dark, yet moving piece as well. No matter what, you owe yourself to discover this moving, meditative music.

The Crapification of iTunes’ Classical Music Store

In recent months, the quality of content that Apple highlights in the classical music section of the iTunes Store has taken a serious plunge. It now looks like what I guess Wal-Mart’s classical music section does (if they have one). I’ve been increasingly surprised by this, and today I decided to take a closer look.

Looking at the top-selling classical albums on iTunes, you see a number of cheap, “best of” albums: Bach: 100 Supreme Classical Masterpieces; 100 Must-Have Classical Songs A-Z; The 50 Darkest Pieces of Classical Music; 100 Piano Classics; and so on. These are cheap sets, licensed from different classical labels, some featuring top-notch performers (the Bach set seems to contain only tracks from Bis, a Swedish label, with excellent performers), and others featuring unknowns (the 100 Must-Have Classical Songs has what seem to be mostly eastern European performers that I’ve never heard of). 12 of the 20 best-selling albums today are this type of compilation. Another best-seller is Invincible, by Two Steps from Hell, a compilation of movie trailer soundtracks. And there’s something called “Rock Symphonies,” which is anything but classical.

Looking beyond the top 20, there’s an album by George Winter (new age), some Andrea Bocelli (Italian pop songs), a recording by Ludovici Einaudi (ambient/new age), and a number of other non-classical recordings. Once you get past the first 25, you get “real” classical music, but there are also plenty more of those best-of albums.

But it goes beyond the best-sellers. Look at the first five “New and Notable” recordings:

And the first five “Recent Releases”:

And “Major Releases”:

The majority of the albums that the iTunes Store is highlighting are, quite simply, crap.

You can go further in the Recent Releases and Major Releases by clicking See All. For the former, I get a total of 64 albums, few of which are truly recent (released, say, in the past month). Some date back to early 2010, and others are even older. If I wanted to see what new recordings are available, there’s no way for me to do so. As for the Major Releases, clicking See All takes me to a list of 56 albums, about half of which are crap, and some as old as October 2009.

Then there’s the bricks in the center of the page. There are three “Essential” bricks, one for orchestral music, one for solo piano music, and a third for opera. Each one leads to a mere ten albums, seemingly chosen at random. They’re generally good performances, but what makes them “essential?” There are hundreds of albums that could be highlighted in those sections if there were some true editorial work done for classical music.

Now, I follow classical music, and I even review some classical CDs, so I’m pretty much aware that there are a large number of excellent albums released in the past few months. In the iTunes Store, however, I don’t see any of these. Okay, they do highlight a few “real” classical albums in the rotating graphics at the top of the page: there’s one by Hélène Grimaud, a performance of John Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur, and a new Hilary Hahn album. But not all of these recordings are recent: the Hilary Hahn album is from last September. Looking at this section of the iTunes Store, I get the feeling that there are no more than a half-dozen “good” classical recordings, that most of what they are selling is classical music for people who don’t listen to classical music.

Things have changed. In the early years of the iTunes Music Store, some unofficial figures were bandied about suggesting that some 10% of the store’s sales were classical. There used to be bricks (those clickable graphics in the center of the pages) leading to lists of new releases by some of the more interesting classical labels, such as Bis, Hyperion and Naxos. But now, all that is gone. Apple has clearly caved in to Wal-Mart style classical music sales.

This is a shame, because the iTunes Store is a good way for people to buy classical music from labels that may not have distribution in a lot of countries. Sure, you can still find the music, if you know what you’re searching for, but the interest of any kind of store is to discover music you didn’t know about. Over the past few months, I’ve found that I’ve been ignoring the iTunes Store for classical music, and going to web sites that specialize in classical music. Perhaps this is what Apple wants; to drive away the classical music fans, and focus on music that makes bucks more quickly.

Essential Music: Ultravox!

Okay, I’m in a 70s music mood these days. Recent posts have been about Genesis and Fela Kuti, both of whom I discovered in the mid to late 70s, as well as Jerry Garcia, whose music has been with me since around 1976 and who, together with The Grateful Dead, is one of the staples of my iTunes library.

Today’s listen is Ultravox!, a sui generis group that flourished in the 70s, before changing drastically after founding singer-songwriter John Foxx left the band. The band’s first album, Ultravox!, was released in 1977. It was a combination of pre-punk, glam rock, and pre-new wave. (Ultravox would later become a popular new wave band, but I’ll get to that.) The quality of John Foxx’s songwriting, and singing, make it easy to put this album side-by-side with early Roxy Music and David Bowie, one of their influences, but the music is not at all derivative. Foxx is very sincere: In I Want to Be a Machine, Foxx sings like he really means it. The Wild, The Beautiful & The Damned is a powerful rock ballad. And My Sex, with its combination of 70s Euro-drab-chic and Pink Floyd-esque sounds. Produced by Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite, this album is a snapshot of a transitional period between early 70s rock and the nascent punk rock.

Released later the same year, the band’s second album, Ha!-Ha!-Ha!, takes the same moody music but pumps up the energy. From the punky Rockwrok and Fear in the Western World to the Euro-gray Hiroshima Mon Amour, through the introspective The Man Who Dies Every Day, Ultravox honed their sound, with catchy songs that nevertheless depict the monochromic urban world of 1970s England.

For their third album, released in 1978, Systems of Romance, Foxx is at his peak in songwriting, and Quiet Men would become his signature song, even after he left the band. The music becomes smoother and grayer, using synthesizers, and suggests what would soon be heard from Joy Division and other groups. Produced by Conny Plank, the producer of Kraftwerk, the influences of krautrock are clear. But this would be the last of the group’s albums with John Foxx, leaving this trilogy of excellent songs that depict the heart of a decade.

After Foxx left, Midge Ure came in as singer, and the group changed to a more new wave sound. In fact, listening to their 1980 Vienna, one would be hard pressed to find much of a link between the two periods. I saw Ultravox! live in a small club in New York in 1980, and they performed a combination of older songs along with those from Vienna (there were several hit singles from that album), and I recall the band all wearing those early-80s new wave coats while performing. (If you ever see any old new wave music videos, you’ll know what I mean.) It was a good performance, but I regret never seeing John Foxx perform live.

Foxx released Metamatic in 1980, which could be seen as the first real electro-pop album of the new wave era. Hugely influential, it was followed in 1981 by The Garden, and Foxx set out on a career of electronic and ambient music, and has been an important composer in this area.

But when I listen to those three early Ultravox! albums, I’m reminded of a wonderful period of music before MTV, on the cusp of punk, and before New Wave would bring a lot of bland, formatted music to the airwaves.

Essential Music: Genesis, Seconds Out

Back in the 1970s, as a teenager in New York City, I had amazing opportunities to see concerts by the world’s most popular bands. In the mid-70s, I became a fan of Genesis, the group formed by Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks back in 1967. Around 1976, I discovered their music through their album Trick of the Tail, the first album after Gabriel left the band. This led me to get their older albums – those with Gabriel – and their follow-up, Wind & Wuthering. These two mid-70s albums were excellent, but the music was different from the Gabriel era.

From the touring for these two albums, Genesis compiled a double-album called Seconds Out. It includes one of the great Peter Gabriel songs, Supper’s Ready, which is over 24 minutes in this live recording, along with many other songs from the 76-77 albums, and a few older songs (The Musical Box, Cinema Show, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway).

But as a live album, Seconds Out is one of the highlights of the late 70s. It is consistent, well recorded, and well performed. Yes, it was the period after Gabriel left the band, and his unique voice and performance style were missing. But it wasn’t the descent into cloying pop music that would follow after 1980. Collins is a strong singer and drummer, and the album, in fact, has a strong presence of drums, with both Collins and Chester Thompson, who played with the band when touring, being central to the sound (especially in the closing Dance on a Volcano > Los Endos, two very drum-heavy songs).

I was able to see Genesis live just once, at Madison Square Garden, on July 29, 1978. This was a special performance, as there was an unannounced guest for an encore: Peter Gabriel came out and sang I Know What I Like with Phil Collins to close the show.

Genesis was a powerful performing band, with what was, for the time, an adventurous light show and excellent sound. I listen to Seconds Out from time to time and feel a bit younger. If you’re not familiar with Genesis back before they became a staple of MTV, this is a good place to start.

Some Thoughts on John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage Series

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For more than five years I’ve been buying John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series recordings on his label, Soli Deo Gloria. After this extraordinary series of performances was made in 2000, Deutsche Grammophon, which recorded them all, released several volumes of the series, then pulled the funding. Gardiner, armed with tapes of the performances, wisely decided to found his own label to sell these discs, starting with subscription sales, then expanding to distribution around the world in record shops and via online dealers (such as Amazon).

I received the final two volumes of this series (four CDs) in the mail this morning, which close this musical adventure. (These are the last two volumes that SDG will release; it’s still not clear if they will release their own discs of the four CDs that DG released from the Pilgrimage series.) This has led me to consider this series and its importance.

I’ve been a Bach fan for decades, and I first discovered the cantatas in the groundbreaking recordings by Nicolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, where only boys are used for the higher vocal parts, in line with the way Bach himself performed them. While these are excellent recordings, the boy singers are very unequal. Over the years, I’ve collected other cantata recordings and series: those by Helmut Rilling, less “HIP” but with excellent choirs; Suzuki Maasaki’s wonderful ongoing series which is tight and brilliant, yet perhaps lacking in spontaneity; the many recordings by Philippe Herreweghe, which feature crystal-clear performances; and many other recordings by a variety of conductors and performers. Yet I find, in Gardiner’s recordings, despite some imperfections, an energy and a spirit that the others don’t have.

John Eliot Gardiner set out on a wild and risky journey: to perform all of Bach’s cantatas in venues around the world from Christmas 1999 through the end of 2000, in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. As he says on his web site:

“When we embarked on the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in Weimar on Christmas Day 1999 we had no real sense of how the project would turn out. There were no precedents, no earlier attempts to perform all Bach’s surviving church cantatas on the appointed feast day and all within a single year, for us to draw on or to guide us. Just as in planning to scale a mountain or cross and ocean, you can make meticulous provision, calculate your route and get all the equipment in order, in the end you have to deal with whatever the elements – both human and physical – throw at you at any given moment.”

Beginning with the Christmas Oratorio (recorded on this DVD), Gardiner went on the Quixotic journey, facing trials, tribulations, and logistical issues. (There’s a documentary on the previously-mentioned DVD discussing the pilgrimage, giving an idea of what they were up against. There’s also another DVD with three cantatas from one performance.)

I’m a Deadhead; a fan of the Grateful Dead, the quintessential live band of the 60s and 70s (and on through to the mid-90s), that toured constantly, and that proved that live music, with its spontaneity, is truly unique. My equating the Gardiner Bach Cantata Pilgrimage with a Grateful Dead tour may sound odd to some readers, but those familiar with the two worlds will see the links. Here was a conductor going on tour to record this astounding body of works without a net, taking risks and counting on the excellence of his performers, and hoping not to have too many problems along the road. This was a long, strange trip that has worked out quite well, as can be heard in the recordings of the cantatas.

For live recordings, they are truly astounding. Naturally, Gardiner and his crew didn’t only record the actual performances; they also recorded the rehearsals just in case. I’m sure that some movements come from rehearsals because of problems with the performances, but those rehearsals were still live; they weren’t performed in a studio with the luxury of time and a stable location. Gardiner managed, throughout this tour, to keep his group performing at a very high level, and the recordings feature, in addition to a solid core of performers, a wonderful selection of singers (the singers varied from concert to concert, some staying for several concerts, others coming back from time to time, others only singing once).

One can certainly find weaknesses in this series; there are some singers who are not top-notch, and the musicians are not as tight as they could be in all performances. But overall, the quality of this series is extraordinary. One may prefer the scintillating recordings of Suzuki Maasaki, who has the leisure of recording them in studios with the time he needs. One may like Helmut Rilling’s recordings, which, while less HIP, show a great understanding of the works. Or the many other conductors who have recorded some or many of the cantatas and have their own vision (such as the one-voice-per-part recordings of Joshua Rifkin and his followers).

But I find that the unity that Gardiner and his musicians present in this series is perhaps unique in the history of recording Bach cantatas. What he did, during this pilgrimage, will likely never be repeated, and the recordings we have bear witness not only to this complex venture but also to an excellent group of musicians who went all-out to share their love for this ageless music.

If you haven’t heard these recordings, check out any of them; check some out on Amazon.com, and you can listen to samples on the Soli Deo Gloria website. And, to get a taste of Bach’s sacred music, there’s a 22-CD box set of John Eliot Gardiner conducting Bach’s passions, his B minor mass, and a number of cantatas, including the four discs worth of cantatas from the Pilgrimage that Deutsche Grammophon originally released (and which SDG did not release; so if you want the entire series, you need to get this box in addition to the SDG recordings.)

Thank you, Mr. Gardiner, for your amazing tour and its recordings.

A slightly different version of this article was published on MusicWeb International.

Update: The last two volumes of the series include a printed list of the cantatas by album and number. You can get a PDF file of that listing here.

And here’s a recent interview with John Eliot Gardiner about the cantata pilgrimage.

Update, August, 2013: There will be a box set of all the cantatas, including the four DG discs, in October, 2013.

New Big Box Set of Bernstein Symphonies

There’s no details yet on the Amazon page listing this box set, but it contains 60 CDs of symphonies recorded by Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic from Sony. My guess is that it includes the recently remastered Mahler recordings from the 1960s, along with many other key Bernstein recordings. At less than $100, this is a no-brainer. I’ll be getting this no matter what it contains, because there was so much great music that Bernstein recorded with the NYPO.

It’s getting to be the Christmas season, so all the labels will be releasing big box sets at low prices like this one to tempt music lovers. I’m looking forward to this year’s selection, as every year I generally find one or two that are worth getting.