Saturday, March 26, 2016

Music of Bali: Gamelan Semar Pegulingan

This excellent Lyrichord release, from field recordings made in the Balinese village of Ketewel at a Hindu temple, presents five tracks of gamelan music.

This blogger first encountered gamelan in the early Nineties and was immediately captivated by its otherworldly sounds, stately, gently hypnotic and highly rhythmic.

The liner notes by Wayne Vitale, who recorded the music, observe that there are some 20 variants of gamelan on Bali, with some of the oldest elements of the form played by an ensemble representing the Gamelan Semar Pegulingan, basing its work on the Balinese god of love, Semara.

Twenty-five musicians comprise the ensemble with families of instruments grouped together and the music utilized paired tuning, in which the tone of one instrument has a partner in another, tuned just higher or lower, for a mesmerizing effect through the use of tremolo, which gives that distinctive shimmering sound for which gamelan is so noted.

There are several metallophones, tuned at different octaves; tuned gongs; drums and cymbals, and flutes which accompany the main metallophone (the gender tetulas).

This music was performed for royalty for the purposes of relaxation, so it has the elements of manis (sweet) and halus (refined) sounds dedicated to that end, but in the village of Ketewel, the music takes on a religious dimension for rituals and celebrations at the temple.  The structure and the instruments used in the recording are said to date back more than 400 years.

The instruments are considered sacred and can only be used after offerings and rituals have been made and carried out to provide the proper spiritual environment for the making of the music and the ritualized masked dancing that accompanies some of it.

It is believed that this type of gamelan has healing powers and there are many people throughout the world who say that music does just that--has a restorative power for the health of the listener.  Westerners may tend to be skeptical of the medicinal effects of music, but there is no question that this music, once a listener accounts for the type of tuning and scales used and the melodic bent entailed in it, is strikingly beautiful and relaxing.  Why couldn't this be conducive to an improved mental, if not physical, well-being?

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Al Green: Greatest Hits

For several years in the early to mid 1970s, the combination of great songwriting, the amazing vocal gymnastics of Al Green and the rock-solid production of Willie Mitchell, produced some of the greatest music of the era.

Released on Mitchell's Hi Records out of Memphis, the singles and albums that this duo churned out from 1971 to 1977 were a perfect melding of Green's superior singing with the excellent performances of mainly unheralded musicians, and Mitchell's steady hand at the mixing desk.

In 1975, at the peak of Green's career, a greatest hits album was released, picking the ten best-known of the songs and twenty years' later, five more selections, taken from a second album of greatest hits, were added.  The result is a stellar album, especially with those first ten tracks and particularly when "Love and Happiness" replaced "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?," though the last five songs have their great moments, as well.

Greatest Hits is filled with songs that match Green's peerless singing with instrumental accompaniment that works in the service of the singer and the song, all supervised and assembled by a producer who knew how to make the most of the material and the personnel.

To this listener, the album builds with great tracks like "Tired of Being Alone" and "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)" to the pinnacles of the groove-laden "Love and Happiness" and the vocal masterpiece, "Let's Stay Together" before gradually winding down through "I Can't Get Next to You" and "You Oughta Be With Me."

Even if the last five tracks don't quite measure up to the sheer greatness of the earlier tunes, there are still plenty of memorable moments in "Look What You Done For Me", "Sha-La-La", "L-O-V-E" and "Full of Fire."  Green's vocal pyrotechnics on "Belle" are a great way to close the album, though he was then, in 1977, at the end of his peak years.

Earlier this week, George Martin's death was a reminder of the importance of a great producer for a great band of performer.  Willie Mitchell's work as the architect of the sound behind the unmatched singing of Al Green is, to this listener, much the same as that of Martin to The Beatles.

Something has to be said, too, about the great musicians on Greatest Hits including the three Hodges brothers, known as The Impalas, who formed the core of the studio band on most of these songs, including guitarist Teenie, bassist Leroy, and organist/pianist Charles, the remarkable drummer Al Jackson, Jr. whose expansive snare and shimmering cymbal work is understated but always steady, and the horn section and backing vocalists who supplemented the excellence of these recordings.

After a 1978 record that didn't do well among changing times, mainly the peak of the disco era, Green turned to religious music for many years, though recently he has been mixing secular and sacred concerns in his work.  But, Greatest Hits captured Al Green at his peak, working with Willie Mitchell and great musicians to make dynamic music on a plane unmatched for their time and any time.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Milton Babbitt: An Elizabethan Sextette/Solo Piano Works/Groupwise/Vision and Prayer

Milton Babbitt has often been criticized for being cold, mechanical, and overly intellectual, with his interests in electronics and twelve-tone composition lacking human elements.  However, a recent read of his Words About Music, a compilation of lectures he gave about his views on Schoenberg's system and other aspects of music, while often very technical and beyond this amateur's understanding, revealed someone who had a quick sense of humor, a way of lecturing to students and others and, more importantly, a total passion for his calling.

It's one thing not to like someone's work because it just doesn't reach you, but it's quite another to dismiss it because of perceptions about a composer's qualities.

This recording, then, is an excellent example of showing Babbitt in a variety of settings, including some beautiful vocal works that amply demonstrate a very human approach to composition.  "An Elizabethan Sextette" is, of course, a series of a half-dozen love poems from the Elizabethan era, including one by the famed queen.  The singing is in six parts, so this sense of polyphony adds to the lushness and captivating nature of the works.

Alan Feinberg's piano work on five pieces, four of which are under 2 1/2 minutes with the last, "About Time" running over twelve, is recorded with great clarity, his performance precise, and the composition compelling.  The piano is inherently an evocative instrument and, whatever views there are about twelve-tone composition, the range of sounds generated in these pieces show, to this untutored listener, a certain warmth, as well as of virtuosity and the interesting combinations and recombinations of twelve-tone technique utilized.

"Groupwise," is a concerto for flute, alto flute and piccolo with a piano and string trio accompaniment.  The flute is almost constantly soloing, but the range of sounds generated by the other instruments in conjunction with the main one is striking and alluring.  The piano has its own sort of sound world, while the string trio has its, as well and then there are duos of violin and cello and what appears to be a viola and cello.  Exploring low and high registers, using pizzicato techniques, and unusual arrays of long and short notes are just a few examples of what this untrained ear can pick out as far as notable sound elements.  Simply put, what's attractive about this is the way the various instrument combinations "speak" to one another within the recombinations of the twelve tone set.

Dylan Thomas's poem "Vision and Prayer" is rendered into a striking piece with Babbitt's use of electronic tape from the classic Mark II RCA Synthesizer at the pioneering Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (another recently-read book, Electronic Sound, discussed this instrument and center at some length by author and composer, Joel Chadabe) and the now-90 year old Bethanie Beardslee's utterly amazing soprano vocals from a recording many years earlier than the late 1980s ones on the rest of this album. Here is a way for the electronics to mesh with the human voice so it isn't overly harsh or forbidding--unless you just don't like electronic sound to begin with.