084: Darkwave

Noun: darkwave (uncountable) (music) – A musical movement that originated in the late 1970s, combining elements of new wave and gothic rock with dark, thoughtful lyrics and an undertone of sorrow; 2002, Jules Brown, Dinah Gardner, Hong Kong and Macau (page 315) “As well as mainstream pop you’ll find dance, funk and all kinds of club music, world music and even very select genres such as darkwave medieval, darkwave gothic to darkwave neofolk.”

TODAY on flaglock: Julian describes a few hypotheticals and the notion of “perfect” music. Sergei Rachmaninoff is crammed into a box. The whole thing rambles on for ages and ages in perhaps the longest post ever written.

News in brief: Firefox suddenly reverted back to its usual speed maybe yesterday. It took three seconds, rather than eight or nine, to start up. I deleted ~/.mozilla/firefox and watched the startup shorten to about half a second. All is well.

Imagine an ability to convert body fat into energy towards teleportation.

In this situation, science has improved to the point where you CAN shed a hundred pounds at the drop of a test-tube. It’s only a matter of choosing to turn it into colorful fireworks, to sell back to PG&E, or to put it towards teleportation, a highly pleasurable sensation. So naturally most people will choose teleportation, if only out of convenience. People coming out of McDonald’s turn gracefully on the spot and shed their fat.

The downside, though, as you see, taking walks on the street, is that teleportation takes some getting used to. Tell-tale signs that someone has been both fat and only novice at the art include asymmetrical body proportions, poor balance, and some loss of motor skills. The more talented ones can turn on a dime and hardly use their fat reserves at all to go for miles and miles.

Society is in uproar. Precocious teleporting children cause problems for their parents, and familial values dissolve. Crime skyrockets as bank robbers and muggers and murderers alike find new ways to make timely escapes. Immigration runs out of control as border patrol quickly becomes irrelevant. Airlines and oil companies all go bankrupt.

And to make things worse, the greatest chemical accident in history renders 90% of the world’s air highly toxic. Blue-collar jobs come into great demand, because most manufacturers move quickly to fit cheap (but effective) mass air filters in their factories. The crowds of people holding their breaths before the factory gates, begging for jobs, enables the widespread exploitation of workers as the American manufacturing industry makes a roaring return. Potato chip prices grow dramatically; it becomes commonplace for bags and bags of these – mostly clean air – to be gifted on birthdays and Christmas. Gleeful children would simply throw away the salty crisps and breathe instead the clean, pure air inside the bag. A child with self-control gets maybe eight delicious breaths; the greedy one two breaths. Life expectancy falls off at least 30% in every country; in China, down 78%. Fear of fan death in South Korea is exaggerated. Suicide rates go up everywhere as crazed cultists emerge everywhere, actually subscribing to the bizarre ideals that hold suicide in a better light than death by bad air.

Somewhere in there, a string quartet perched on a huge stump in a dead forest plays Joe Hisaishi.

Isn’t that pretty? A string quartet, sitting on the stump of the former king of the forest. The whole place has been leveled (that’s not the pretty part), and now these talented musicians have a venue all to themselves: there’s nobody to hear them play except the few brave creatures who still lurk around the stumps. And so the artists four play for their own benefit, and the animals too.

They raise their bows, and the first violin leads them into the soft opening bars of “Hana-bi.” It’s a gorgeous theme in G minor, with harmonies so sweet that the wood underfoot softens a little.

In the middle-section, where the music presents a few simple variations, a rude interruption occurs. It takes the form of an oversize ICBM touching down in the little town – no, big city – nearest the dead forest. Where it came from, and why it struck this particular city, are not important to consider. No. It is there: it has exploded, and everybody there is dead.

The quartet plays on; the forest, uphill, feels a light breeze. The musicians have been blinded by the nuclear flash, but they could play with their eyes closed, ears plugged, and mouths taped. A few missing fingers might slow them down a little bit.

Pianissimo harmonics conclude the B-section, and they return to the A-section. The cello presents a gorgeous, chromatically descending bass line which the other three players ride on. Another missile touches down, in the bigger city even further away. Maybe this one came from a different country than before – it seems bigger. It’s too far away to hear the people screaming, though – and good thing, too; goodness knows how it would disrupt the music.

They keep playing, oblivious to (and probably ignorant of) the eerie radio silence that overtakes Warsaw, New York, London, Moscow, Seoul, Taipei. Their only want is to articulate every note of Hisaishi’s music with love and care.

At the close, the steadfast quartet comprises the last living humans. The forest doesn’t look any different: it’s still kilometers and kilometers of tree stumps on a hill. The four don’t notice or care that nobody’s there. They have forgotten themselves, too.

The quartet at the end of the world ends the world: not with a blasted forte, but with a deliberate lento and tragic piano.

I don’t know why I’ve gotten into such a nasty habit of writing aimlessly sad pieces. I was just wondering in what sort of world would a child be happy to get a bag of air for his birthday. On to the “perfect” music.

I’m more or less a musical hipster. I listen heavily to film music and (as of late) a good deal of classical. I nod my head at criticisms of my being a music snob; I need to see a headshrinker about this one, too – I just can’t enjoy most of the trending music of today. When the thought of “this artist is being squeezed by the label for this,” my musical sense is ruined.

And since most of these artists are still actively in the music business, time has not yet decided what should be remembered as the best of their works. I’m sure that if I had been alive in Beethoven’s time, I would have been hesitant to hear his work, too; but now that we are centuries beyond him, I can look at his music without a timeframe-restricted point of view.

I don’t have synesthesia, but I think my perception of music doesn’t fall within the norm. The fact that I have such trouble taking in modern music is a strange thing. I listened to a bit of Taylor Swift’s new album with my sister today; it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t something I felt like I would come back to and listen to time and again. Sis commented, “She writes the BEST breakup songs. And whatever she doesn’t write herself, she produces.”

Something about that didn’t sit well with me: mostly because I don’t know that I’d ever have the opportunity to use a breakup song, ever.

If I ever had to play a breakup song, it’d probably be something hilariously inappropriate, like … the opening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

The following dialogue is to be read in the style of Benedict Cumberbatch voicing Martin Crieff for the radio show Cabin Pressure, interspersed with banana interjections read as Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic.

“Hey … can we talk? Okay. Good. Hold on, I gotta turn on the stereo – ”

BA-NA-NA-NAAAAA!!!

BA-NA-NA-NAAAAA!!!!!

“I’m … I’m just not feeling it.” Ba-na-na-na-ba-na-na-na-ba-na-na-naaa! “It’s not your fault! Not at all! It’s a chemistry problem.” Ba-na-na-na-ba-na-na-na-ba-na-na-naaa. “So,” [swallows] “do you think we should – ” Ba-na-na-na, ba-na-na-na; ba-na-na-na, ba-na-na-na – “maybe, possibly, end this relationship?”

BA-NA-NA-NA!!! NAAA! NAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!

In all cruel honesty, somebody who’d break up like that probably had it coming to him all the way.

So while Taylor Swift isn’t my cup of tea, the less that Beethoven’s fifth symphony could be anybody else’s cup of tea. A normal person, given the choice between Swift and Beet, invariably picks the former.

Here, my quest for “perfect music” begins and ends – subjectivity. I call it perfect; the rest of the world begs to differ. The world offers another candidate; I scuttle it. I try to compromise; the world doesn’t understand that. The world pushes another one; I torpedo it faster than a speeding “#swag.”

You see that huge surge of water? In the middle, there probably WAS a rational suggestion.

Then, what if we narrowed our search? That could help.

Let us define the “perfect” music to be the music that gives ME the perfect experience: all the right emotions, whatever they may be (and we won’t know until we FIND the perfect music), will be contained in that piece. That’s a rather rude definition, but polite ones are so much harder to pin down.

So, now, only my tastes are in play. This simplifies matters, but doesn’t solve any problems: my tastes change over time – and radically. Once upon a time, “that scary music” (I think it was from the film score for “Titanic”) kept me awake all night when Dad left the CD playing after he tucked us in. It was common for us to fall asleep listening to some calming music. I’m certain that something like Prokofiev’s second piano concerto would have terrified me.

Today, I proudly own a recording of the complete Prokofiev piano concertos, as performed by Kun-Woo Paik with Antoni Wit conducting the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. I now understand the reason for the second concerto’s popularity: there’s a fine aesthetic in there that takes some getting used to. But once you’ve grasped this, the concerto transforms itself in your eyes into a magnificent beast.

I think it’s the – what’s it called – causality playing in. Mozart works well on little kids, for the most part, because it suits their happy-go-lucky, naive natures. It doesn’t work so well when they’re older and they feel like yelling and screaming and thumping and pounding – that’s when the rest of modern music kicks in.

Some call him the one and only master. Some say his “Well-tempered Clavier” is the Old Testament of keyboard literature. But do I LOVE his work? Not really sure. Far be it from program music, too …

The reason I got into film music was because of my fandom for Star Wars – and John Williams did a nice job with the score. The music fed my perception of the movie and vice-versa, in a virtuous circle. I quickly collected all six soundtracks (no regrets – I still love ’em) and listened the heck out of them.

But over time, Williams stopped blasting from my speakers – a new man came, one who took his stage name from Quincy Jones. Joe Hisaishi stormed my CD shelf, quickly overtaking Williams in play count. Today, the number of albums associated with Joe Hisaishi (e.g. “American in Paris” had almost none of his compositions, but showcased his arrangements and partnership with the New Japan Philharmonic) in my collection totals ten. Counting the doubled-disks albums of the original trilogy into the score, Williams still loses at nine disks of music.

In tandem, my classical collection grew – I wasn’t content to limit myself to the flash-bangs of the film score. The first major investment that I made (spoiled brat that I am, I should say “my parents made”) was acquiring a box set of the competition chronicle for the 15th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition. Coincidentally, there were fifteen disks included. It was a hefty but wonderful birthday gift that my parents purchased through Barnes and Noble. There are gems on this disk that I would not have poked my nose into otherwise (because my deepest want from this box set was to hear Rafał Blechacz play), like the Tarantella in A flat major, like the Barcarolle in F sharp major, like the Rondo in C minor, like the many mazurkas, like the twenty-four preludes, like the two piano concertos …

That box set (I think it’s simply called “Chopin Competition XV”) played an enormous role in widening my musical horizons. When I might have been content before to hear Kristian Cvetković perform the Polonaise in A flat major, op. 53 (it was one of the first recordings I ever heard – it’s still on Wikipedia), his playing no longer brings tears to my eyes. Only Blechacz can do that, though today I am not so easily moved.

RENDER01

My history of keeping certain tracks on “repeat one” is speckled with different pieces of music. There’s been “Duel of the Fates” (John Williams for Star Wars Episode I), “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)” (John Williams for Star Wars Episode V), at least two anime songs that I won’t mention by name, “Sophie’s Castle” (Joe Hisaishi for Howl’s Moving Castle), “Reprise” (Joe Hisaishi for Spirited Away), and more recently, “Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53” (composition of Chopin’s, performance by Blechacz). Now THERE is a piece where I can listen for years and never get a full picture of its beauty all at once.

I love the film scores a little more for being part of the movie that I also love; they represent the universe that I like to think about. But as for what recently has been shooting up the scrobble-charts – Blechacz’s playing – I love it just because I think I’ve hit upon the artist of the century. Read the other reviews (in addition to my own rants) and see for yourself that Blechacz must surely be the greatest living pianist (no troll).

I’ve taken the inter-person out of the picture; but even intra-person, there’s too much going on to firmly define a standard for the “perfect” music. There will always be changes that transmute my perception of music, even if only slightly. There has not been an easy-to-follow trend that I can yet track to see how my quest for the “perfect” music might end.

I do have a bet, though: if I were to put my money on any one artist leading me to musical nirvana, I would wager it all on Rafał Blechacz. His rendition of the Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53, surpasses all other recordings (I’ll list and analyze them all some day – there’s a lot) by an enormous margin. Yes. Even Horowitz. All God-knows-how-many of his recordings of it. That springboards me into noticing the magic in his playing everywhere else – in Debussy, in Szymanowski, in Liszt. I say it now (or I repeat it if I’ve said it before): I don’t believe in God, but if there is one, then he must certainly have chosen Blechacz to be his voice. I don’t believe in reincarnation, either, but if the spirit of Chopin had grown tired of wandering for over a century, he probably chose to be reborn in the little town of Nakło-on-the-river-Noteć, 135 years, 8 months, and 13 days after his death, on Sunday 30 June 1985, as Rafał Blechacz.

And so I give up the quest for “perfect” music – no thank you, Taylor Swift. I’m sorry. I’ll have to make do with what I have. Onward.

Emo or no?

And now, a frail attempt at insight into the life of a great Russian composer – Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1873-1943, bless his soul. His saga of five works for piano and orchestra live on in a flood of recordings from every walk of the musical world. I own only one complete set of the five, performed by Rachmaninoff himself with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It’s only monaural sound with some noise, yes, but I think the playing’s just gorgeous. The four piano concertos (sans the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) come in a set of two disks by Vladimir Ashkenazy with the London Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Andre Previn). And then I have two disks of just the second concerto in C minor (and the Paganini Rhapsody) by Lang Lang with the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre (conducted by Valery Gergiev) and Yuja Wang with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (conducted by Claudio Abbado). Then there’s Mikhail Pletnev with the Russian National Orchestra (conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich) on the third concerto in D minor, and Martha Argerich with RSO Berlin (conducted by Riccardo Chailly). Argerich was the first I ever bought, and her playing holds a reserved spot in my heart for that.

GOLLY, but that’s a lot of Rachmaninoff! His two most enduring works are perhaps the most commonly paired and recorded: the second concerto, in C minor, and his Paganini Rhapsody (more or less in A minor). (For ease of style I’ll informally label the Paganini Rhapsody as a concerto, too.)

Handsome, isn’t he?

Rachmaninoff’s works are not always happy ones. I hear a constant tragic undercurrent in his five concertos that’s fairly unique. Compare the cliched piano concertos: Tchaikovsky’s three (plus concert fantasia, so “four”), Chopin’s two (plus that Polonaise in E-flat, Variations on Polish Airs, and Rondo la Krakowiak [sp?] – still only “two” because nobody plays the other three, unfortunately), probably Beethoven’s concertos (haven’t heard enough of them) – none of these convey the same depth of drama and tragedy that Rachmaninoff’s do. The liner notes of Blechacz’s recording of Chopin’s two concertos establishes them outright to have been written in the happy years of his life, for example. I’m not sure we could say the same for Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, but I wouldn’t label them as any more stressed than Rachmaninoff was (judging by the tone of their respective Wikipedia articles. OKAY, FINE, I’M NOT EXACTLY A DEEP THINKER HERE. JUST WRITING WHAT I LIKE).

The first time I heard the opening to his first piano concerto, I heard a screaming, tortured soul. A series of fortissimo F-sharps, without harmonies, are blasted before the piano enters with a sharp flourish. Then a gorgeous cantabile theme enters: beautiful as anything you could write for the funeral of royalty. The concerto goes on through turbulent development and a slow movement that doesn’t really lighten the mood. Moments of sunlight dance through the third movement, but these are quite quickly eclipsed again by ubiquitous darkness.

Here, I am obligated to insert analysis on Rachmaninoff’s first symphony before proceeding to the second piano concerto: not having heard the symphony before, I regretfully skirt over this.

All we need know is that the second concerto was Rachmaninoff’s triumphant – oh yes, most triumphant! – return to the musical stage after the critical fiasco of the first symphony. It was probably written with care and caution and due thought given to what would please the audience. And please it did: this concerto is undoubtedly one of the most famous today, with its wealth of melodic material and amazing depth of musicality.

The third concerto met with similar (though not quite as much) success. The two – one, the other, or both – are now almost traditional rites of passage that many pianists choose to undertake. They’re beautiful beasts of famous technical difficulty, so I can see why; this isn’t your grandpa’s Mozart anymore. This is Rachmaninoff.

I like trees, and I guess Rachmaninoff didn’t hate them.

The second concerto begins with what I think the composer described as “tolling bells” – quiet chimes in the distance that increase in strength until the pianist is launched into rapid up-downs over the orchestra’s introduction of the main theme. If I had to set this music to something visual, I would imagine a dam breaking at night and a village being destroyed by the oncoming flood. Alternatively, imagine a brave crew being sent up a river on a suicide mission – there’s another good use for the music. There’s an enormous, raw energy going on, which eventually gives way to a crystalline section in E-flat major. Long story cut short, more development, a heavenly slow movement, and then a third movement that brings the house down.

(NOTE: I am not labeling Rachmaninoff’s concertos as program music by any means. I was only suggesting some of the easier visualizations in film terms to make my POV clearer.)

The second movement of the second concerto is the only real “happy” music that I have heard Rachmaninoff (excluding Variation XVIII of the Paganini Rhapsody – I’ll deal with that later). My Dad calls it “a slice of heaven.” It’s melodic, drawn-out, and above all, light and carefree. It cannot possibly evoke the same images of dam-bursting or suicide missions. It’s the diamond in the rough, except you KNOW it’s the diamond and its two sibling movements the rough.

The third movement begins in E major, shifts to C major, and then lets the piano out on a cadenza carpet in C minor. Another one of those vicious themes in a minor key is introduced, playing between both the piano and orchestra; a bit of development between piano and orchestra lessens the heaviness before a return to the crusher, which the piano then stops; the orchestra introduces the gorgeous “final” theme in D-flat major, which the piano repeats…

See, overall, the third movement, while happier than the first, is still fraught with severity and austerity. Make an easy, cliched comparison: the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto (we won’t even bother with the other three; those are too happy in their third movements), which predominantly plays around a lively Russian dance in three counts. Can you call that sad? No, not really – not when the most triumphant theme of the concerto is mulled over several times over and given a pedicure; not when the music gives way to a whimsical, “derp-derp-derp” section where the pianists repeatedly plays little dovetailed notes up the piano in such a cutesy way. No. That music is too happy. I would label it playful, but never serious.

All up until the end, that third movement stays pretty straight-faced. But then things change into a major key and ohhhhhhh but that cantabile section in C major for the strings is amazing. The ghost of the angry cadenza that started the movement precedes the “triumphant” theme that ends the concerto with a burst of joy. It brings tears to my eyes sometimes.

Look at his HANDS. That’s a tenth no sweat, at the LEAST.

Aha. But the third concerto is a whole new playing field. I don’t even want to break it down; but dejection and depression  hang over the whole thing like a plague. Even in the second movement, which, while beautiful in its own way, is by no means happy like its cousin in the second concerto. And the third movement only has two or three gems of happiness, one of which Rachmaninoff himself cut from the time-constrained recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

And now we come to my favorite topic of discussion: Rachmaninoff’s fourth piano concerto, the unloved child of his many works.

The work exists in more than one version: namely, the original 1926, the 1928 revision, and the 1941 revision (and there are several intermediate stages that we don’t really care about, if I understand my reading). The 1941 is most frequently recorded one, though there doesn’t seem to be a consensus as to whether it really is better than its older sisters. I’ll only be dealing in the 1941 version, since that is what I have two recordings of.

The first concerto, not really loved and not really panned; the second concerto, praised strongly over time; the third concerto, criticized for deviating from the second; the fourth concerto, besieged by a bukkake of criticism.

I briefly wondered if the fourth concerto might have been Rachmaninoff’s way of giving the critic’s side of the musical world the finger, but his withdrawal of the work (for later release in 1941) disproves that frivolous idea.

I initially sided with those long-eared asses of critics when I first Rachmaninoff perform this with the Philadelphia Orchestra. I thought it formless, lacking in melodic invention, and not as brilliant as the other concertos. This is, upon due consideration, simply not true. It is music of a different sort, kind of like how Art Tatum would clash with Taylor Swift. It takes a different sort of approach to understand it: one must be attuned to chromaticisms and detail cherry-picking to really hear what’s going on. And when you do start to take apart the concerto and look at all the little fragments, you see in it a wondrous work of genius that doesn’t strive to artificially pass itself off as beautiful, but requires the viewer to approach it with open ears to understand its aesthetic.

A mind of a higher order.

The fourth concerto is not as easy to follow as the others – but it is, notwithstanding, a thoroughly-cooked work, well-done, and not half-assed-medium-rare. Rachmaninoff’s understanding of orchestral and pianistic textures was not lacking at this stage; nor was his feel for structure or melodic writing. We can only shake our heads at ourselves, then, and fault our own minds for not being able to keep up with him. There was not, in the past, an obligation for the musician to condescend to make his work understandable by everyone, as there is now.

Why, then, did Rachmaninoff depart so sharply from the style he established himself with in his previous concertos?

I’m not sure about that question – did he really depart? The concerto didn’t come across as much different in tone than the previous three; nor were the melodies any less likeable, once you got used to them.

I suggest this answer: there was no departure. We’re only deluding ourselves when we expect the fourth concerto to be a work that surpasses the third or the second; that is something for us to decide, yes, but also something that the composer holds the truth of to himself.

I conclude that the fourth concerto is a masterpiece, and we are not qualified to understand it in full yet. I myself enjoy the work a lot – at least one other person has agreed with me that the first movement conveys a sense of hopelessness or loss, maybe as in love, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who loves the third movement’s climactic sound of Pyrrhic victory.

On behalf of Sergei Rachmaninoff, I deliver a message, disregarding how unqualified I am to do so:

I don’t think the man ever smiles.

Source image of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Source image of the theme from Beethoven’s fifth symphony courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; voicings for the symphony (in text form), courtesy of some guy on Reddit. Source image of the underwater explosion (“Operation Wigwam”) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Source image of J.S. Bach courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Source image of manuscript for Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Blechacz portrait courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon (copyright Felix Broede). Source images of Sergei Rachmaninoff all courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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