Essential Music: The Return of The Durutti Column

UntitledFor those who weren’t around or listening to music in 1979, it’s hard to imagine how different the world of “popular” music was. Critics and retailers hadn’t fragmented music into the many genres you see today in stores, and many of today’s genres didn’t even exist. Rap was taking its first steps, ambient and electronic music were considered avant-garde, new age was just budding, and punk and disco were battling it out in the record bins. New wave was just following in the footsteps of punk, as progressive rock was in its final death throes.

Amidst the punk and new-wave music that came out of England, as part of the late-’70s independent music scene, was a now-legendary record label based in Manchester: Factory Records. Its first two groups were Joy Division (which, after the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis, morphed into New Order) and The Durutti Column, but Factory released many other records by little-known groups, and the Factory concept, together with other independent labels in the UK, such as Rough Trade, revitalized a moribund music scene.

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Essential Music: Charles Ives

Scott Mortensen writes:

I vividly remember the first time I ever heard the music of Charles Ives. The piece was the raucous “Putnam’s Camp” movement from Three Places in New England. I’d never heard anything so immediate and vital and joyous; it made me laugh out loud with pleasure. My current favorite recording of this work is by conductor James Sinclair and the Orchestra New England, a disc that also includes Ives’ Four Ragtime Dances, the Set for Theatre Orchestra, and other short orchestral works. If you’ve never heard Ives’ music before, this is the perfect place to begin. To my ears, Ives’ Fourth Symphony is one of the great masterworks of the twentieth century. Ives’ Fourth is one of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’ specialties, and no one has surpassed his recording, which is coupled with Symphony No. 1. Tilson Thomas’ mastery of Ives’ music is also clear on his recording of the Holidays Symphony, an essential disc that also includes tremendous readings of “Central Park in the Dark” and “The Unanswered Question,” which is probably Ives’ best known composition.

Along with orchestral music, Ives composed a large body of songs and chamber works. For a fascinating selection of Ives’ songs, check out recital by mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and pianist Gilbert Kalish. DeGaetani has a completely idiomatic command of Ives’ unique musical language, and the disc demonstrates the enormous stylistic range of his songs.

Lastly, no survey of Ives’ essential music is complete without his Second Piano Sonata, subtitled “Concord, Mass., 1840-60.” Each movement of the sonata is a musical portrait of a New England Transcendentalist writer who inspired Ives: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Alcott family and Henry David Thoreau, and. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin has made two recordings of the “Concord.” They are very different, but each is stunning in its own way. For the more Olympian, thrusting view, seek out his first recording on New World; for a more inward, depths-plumbing perspective, try Hamelin’s recent recording on Hyperion.

Scott Mortensen is an avid fan of the music of Charles Ives, and has created the Internet’s most comprehensive web site on the composer.

Yet Another Important Box Set: Bach’s Sacred Cantatas

Gustav Leonhardt & Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading the Concentus Musicus Wien

Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

If you like Bach, you simply must be familiar with his sacred cantatas. These vocal and instrumental works, written to be performed in church on Sundays and on feast days, feature some of Bach’s finest melodies. This set, conducted by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, was groundbreaking when it was first released, starting in the 1970s. At the time, it was the only complete set of cantatas, but now many others are available. Performed in what is now called historically informed performance, this set is unique in that it has no female singers; only boys are used for the soprano voices, unlike other recordings.

This re-release is a reminder just how great this music is, and how important it is to know. While I have this set, and like it, I prefer more recent recordings, such as the in-progress complete sets by John Gardiner or Maasaki Suzuki. But the pure instrumental sound achieved in these recordings, and the simplicity of the boy singers’ voices, makes it an essential recording. It’s not cheap, but for Bach fanatics it is a must-have.

Getting the Most out of Classical Music with iTunes and the iPod

[Update, September 2006. Apple introduced gapless playback to iTunes 7 and to the latest iPods, making the questions of joining tracks, as explained below, moot in many cases. See this article for an explanation of gapless playback.

However, if you have an older iPod (older than the iPod video or nano), you won’t benefit from this feature. In addition, you may still want to join tracks to be able to play music at random, playing entire works, rather than disparate movements. So much of this article remains valid today.]

While Apple is aggressively marketing its iPod to the younger generation, through its ads and commercials featuring black silhouettes dancing to hip-hop and rock music, the iPod is also a valuable device for listening to classical music. However, to get the most out of this type of music, you need to reconsider the way you rip your CDs.

I’ve got eclectic musical tastes. My iPod contains music by the Grateful Dead, The Durutti Column, The Clash, Brian Eno, moe. and Widespread Panic, as well as Bach, Haydn, Handel and Schubert. I’ve long explored all types of music, and the capacity of my iPod lets me carry a diverse selection of tunes with me.

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Classical Music on the iPod and iTunes

Are you a classical music fan? Then this new article is a must-read for you. I’ve written the first of a short series for Playlist, the website of Playlist Magazine. Find out about compressing and importing classical music, joining tracks and more here.