Rubbing the Vinyl Lamp

I was dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but I’ve learned to love it. Over the summer the hard drive on my Mac G3 laptop crumpled over in agony, and I spent a week cursing technology. A technician was able to retrieve all my info except for my Eudora e-mail box (in case some of you out there wonder why you never heard back from me). But perforce I bought a G4 with 10 times the hard drive space – enough to handle humongous audio files – and a CD burner. And now, with some cheap audio software my son gave me, I’m making my own compact discs. The world has changed. Reality seems almost frighteningly malleable.

Of course, my students have been blithely making their own CDs by the truckload for years, while we nearsighted faculty futzed around with cassettes and begged for transferring favors. Now that I’m finally independent, I’ve been putting all my recordings of my own music, back to 1976, on CDs. Some of this stuff has been lying around on reel-to-reels and cassettes for decades, the audio quality definitely not mellowing with age. At least for now, I’ve digitally halted further deterioration. I can now also carry my collected recordings of my own music around on my computer, nine hours’ worth to play on the slightest encouragement, and to run off CDs of in any configuration a friend pretends to want. Ever try to listen to nine hours of your own music in succession, early and recent, good and bad? You could slit your wrists. I’m a walking CD factory, and if you run into me, it’s not safe to express any interest.

The more enduring and self-indulgently time-wasting project, though, is transferring to CD all my cherished old vinyl records that you can’t get on CD. All that wonderful audio that has for years seemed imprisoned in a cumbersome vinyl collection has now been freed, like a genie out of a bottle. I’ll never relinquish my vinyl, but playing it for classes is nigh-impossible, and practically, I just never listen to vinyl for casual pleasure. Yet the more I look through my collection, the more the number and prominence of great discs that never made it to CD astonishes me. A partial list of the records I’ve transferred may serve as a stark reminder of the great art our culture can casually leave behind:

Stravinsky: Threni and Requiem Canticles. The only way I’ve found to get Threni is on a several-dozen-disc set of Columbia’s complete Stravinsky, and I’m not sure you can get Stravinsky’s own recording of Requiem Canticles at all, which I prefer to the sole available recording by Neeme Jarvi on a two-disc set with Le Sacre. I’m not wild about all of Stravinsky’s 12-tone music – Abraham and Isaac and Movements leave me cold – but Threni and Requiem Canticles are superb, fearlessly unconventional, so avant-garde they sound ancient, and absolutely top-shelf. Had 12-tone music gotten off to this kind of start, rather than that of Schoenberg’s Variations, its history might have unfolded in a far more interesting pattern. I have a secret theory that Morton Feldman learned a lot from the “Interlude” of Requiem Canticles, and he is on record as having known the piece. Considering how many recordings there are of Firebird and Le Sacre, it’s alarming how difficult it is to find on CD Stravinsky works that used to be quite well known, like the “Ebony” Concerto and Danses Concertantes.

Carl Ruggles: Complete Works. Come to think of it, this list may become a chronicle of all the great old Columbia recordings that they won’t release the rights for, and churlishly refuse to reissue. You can find Sun-Treader on DGG, a few other things on CRI, but what about Portals, Toys, Vox Clamans in Deserto, Evocations with John Kirkpatrick playing, and that wonderfully quirky swansong Exaltation? Not available today that I can find.

Charles Ives: “Concord” Sonata with John Kirkpatrick. Another Columbia holdout. How can an Ives fanatic live without the first, seminal, definitive recording of this work?

Giancarlo Cardini: Sonata No. 1 and other piano works (Edipan). You’ve never heard of him, but he’s my favorite living European composer, a superb harmonist, something of a postminimalist romantic between Morton Feldman and Robert Schumann.

William Walton: Facade, the Argo recording with narrators John Scofield and Peggy Ashcroft. More recent recordings, which can condescend to Edith Sitwell’s lovely poems, just don’t measure up to this one Walton conducted himself with two accomplished British actors. A wonderful classic of the 1920s, unlike anything else in the literature.

Dane Rudhyar: Early piano music. This astrologer-composer was a major force in the 1920s and an agent of musical mysticism, hailing from Scriabin territory but better than Scriabin. Michael Sellars and Dwight Peltzer recorded his sonorous early Pentagrams and Tetragrams, and then they virtually disappeared.

Terry Riley: Happy Ending, Journey from the Death of a Friend, Lifespan – these are some of Riley’s best vinyl sides ever, from obscure European labels, with his smooth soprano sax echoed via tape delay. He’s rarely sounded so good since, yet these pieces remain almost unknown.

Luigi Dallapiccola: Piccola Musica Notturna – one of the warmest 12-tone pieces ever written: smooth, lucid, and sensuous, recorded on Argo with Busoni’s gorgeously chromatic Berceuse Elegiaque in its orchestral version.

Schoenberg: Complete Music for Chamber Ensemble, David Atherton conducting on Decca. Contains some of Schoenberg’s most charming, and therefore predictably least-known, works, such as his Weihnachtsmusik (a lovely chamber fantasy fusing “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” with “Silent Night”), Ein Stelldichein, and Herzegewachse – the very pieces that remind me that I sometimes actually like listening to Schoenberg – in stellar performances by the London Sinfonietta players.

Ivan Wyschnegradsky: various works by this Scriabin-influenced Russian mystic, for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart, and for three pianos tuned a sixth-tone apart, from McGill University records that were never widely available.

The Reflexe series of medieval music – some of it’s been selectively reissued, but not the Studio der Fruhen Musik’s wonderful reconstruction of hymns by the castrated 12th-century philosopher Peter Abelard.

Roy Harris: Symphonies 7 (his second best) and 4, along with the great old Bernstein recording of the 3rd, the definitive interpretation of what was and in some ways remains The Great American Symphony.

Harry Partch: Barstow, the expanded chamber version on Columbia, which represented Partch’s last revision of the piece and the best performance ever captured. Another unconscionable Columbia holdout.

Ben Johnston: String Quartet No. 4, “Amazing Grace,” with the Fine Arts Quartet on Gasparo. The Fine Arts does a better job with the tuning of this seminal and well-loved microtonal work than the Kronos does.

Cornelius Cardew: Memorial Concert, 1982 – an uneven but important document of the 20th century’s most thoughtful political composer.

I’m sure a few people will write to tell me that one or another of these pieces can be found on CD, but I won’t give points for ones listed as “out of stock” on Amazon. Aside from Cardini and Wyschnegradsky, who are private obsessions of mine, these are hardly obscure composers, and most of this is music I play for classes and friends year after year – on cassette, up until now. I get this poignant sense of trying to drag along with me into the future recordings and works I fell in love with as a young man. Did they really never catch on? Is posterity just as blind as the present? And then, within recent weeks, Arts Journal has run articles on the imminent death of the compact disc, and the brief lifespan of recordable CDs. In what medium can an old man preserve the life-changing recordings of his youth? The beauty of the rose is in its passing: must the same be true for audio data storage?


  1. Miles says

    Five years late, I realize, but I did want to thank you for this post, which I stumbled upon in the course of searching for the David Atherton Schoenberg box. I’ll investigate Cardini immediately.
    The CD reissue of Terry Riley’s Lifespan must be old news by now; so too, perhaps, the fact that the complete Reflexe series–including the Abélard–is available on CD from
    I’ve some listening to do!