Vinyl Reunion

Perhaps a deluge of unpopular opinions foreshadowed a deluge of unwelcome waters, but this August 29 – the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina – is also the third anniversary of the debut of my blog. On the last anniversary, as New Orleans braced for the worst, I announced that I had written fewer blog entries in my second year than my first, and that the third would doubtless exhibit a further decline. This year I have an opposite announcement: despite my August slump, I have written more blog entries than in either of the previous years, and on the average they have been considerably longer. I complained last year that I was unable to back up my unpopular opinions with musical examples. That difficulty has been overcome. Meanwhile, my readership has expanded enormously. (Many readers report a weight gain of 30 to 40 pounds, which I can only attribute to their absent-mindedly munching down doughnuts while absorbed in my totalist analyses.)

I sometimes wonder why I blog and what good it does me, but there have been occasions on which the advantages are quite apparent, and in which I have been overcome by gratitude to my readers. Upon my mentioning an admiration for the Danish composer Per Norgard, reader Christopher Culver directed me to a web site that drew me far closer to an understanding of that master’s most characteristic music. And recently David DeMaris drew my attention to the software Click Repair ($25), which has allowed me to transfer my record collection into playable form. I had long been recording records on CDs, but Click Repair removes all the pops and clicks, and make me forget that I’m listening to a recording of a vinyl record. I have since transferred several dozen records to CDs and MP3s, with tremendous psychological impact. A lot of my records, pressed on substandard vinyl in the early ’80s, have never been listenable, and I’m suddenly hearing them for the first time as they were intended. The musical tastes of my youth have sat for years in boxes and then in cabinets in a spare room, mute reminders of the influences that formed me. All of a sudden they’re back, pristinely recorded, as though I inherited the CD collection of someone with remarkably similar tastes.

It’s always been an observation of mine that music professors have very different musical tastes than record critics, and that I possess that of the latter. Academics harbor a conceit that only the very best music is worth listening to – Brahms, Schoenberg, Berg, Ligeti, and then Brahms again – and that anything lesser is almost contaminating. Record critics are far more catholic, and pervasively doubt that history has done its job unearthing the best music. Carl Nielsen is one of the most delightful and underrated composers of all time. Franz Berwald is one of the great Romantics; Liszt predicted that he would never be appreciated during his lifetime, but opined that he was highly original and should keep composing. Max Reger wrote some incredible music, stretching tonality to the breaking point, and achieving far more subtle effects than Schoenberg. There is no Dvorak symphony I love listening to as much as the “Easter” Symphony of Josef Bohuslav Foerster: and yet, no other Foerster symphonies are recorded, so I can’t find out for myself whether that work is an anomaly. A couple of my favorite piano concertos ever are by Hummel. The music of the short-lived Hermann Goetz was championed by Bernard Shaw, and his symphony and chamber music are similar to Mendelssohn, only livelier. Muzio Clementi’s late sonatas are unbelievable, fantastic, yet he remains known only for those stupid sonatinas. The inordinately subtle Jan Ladislav Dussek is listed as a Romantic, a post-Beethoven composer, even though he was born ten years earlier than Beethoven – incredible. Ferruccio Busoni, of course, is one of my favorite composers, and my own music contains several homages to him. Other composers are less compelling, but I made it a point to seek them out: Sir Arnold Bax, Hans Erich Apostel, Nikolai Myaskovsky, Lord Berners, Alexander Zemlinsky, Cyril Scott, Franz Schmidt (whose Fourth Symphony and Piano Quintet are magnificent, but Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln? Don’t bother).

These are all names one never encounters in academia – nor in American concertgoing, unfortunately – but that record critics scarf up by the bundle. The strange thing is, I didn’t get interested in them because I became a critic – I was already seeking them out in college. If there’s anything that has characterized every move I’ve made as a musician, it is a kneejerk distrust for the mechanisms by which composers become famous. The routes by which composers gain visibility in the orchestra circuit today are patently bogus, and I suspect it was more or less ever thus. I don’t know whether I will ever have opportunity to teach these names in the classroom; it’s difficult to justify analyzing Berwald’s Simphonie Singulaire, remarkable as it is, to students who don’t know Schumann yet. But I love listening to them, and they contributed something to my musical personality, Nielsen, Reger, and Busoni most of all. For 20 years much of this wonderful music has been sitting mutely in my vinyl collection, inciting waves of nostaglia whenever I glance into what I call my “vinyl room.” Now it’s unleashed, with pops and clicks erased. It’s been like a college reunion, and I’m thrilled to have them back.


  1. David Cavlovic says

    John Field. Don’t forget John Field. His piano concertos outshine Chopin’s anyday. Yet, we never hear them.
    I almost mentioned him: I do analyze his gorgeous nocturnes in class. I haven’t warmed up as much to his piano concerti, but you’re right, they’re more substantial than Chopin’s. And Harry Partch thought “the Field Piano Concerto” was the best ever, but he didn’t specify which one.

  2. says

    This post is, if you will, the flip side of your August 4 vinyl musings, in which the medium brought to mind all of the things you once hoped for from a career in music, all of the disappointments to which you have grown accustomed.
    Now we have you reflecting on all you have gained, and that’s an attitude I can relate to more readily. The aspirations of my adolescence now seem, well, adolescent to me, whereas each passing year makes me more and more astonished and grateful for the number of transcendent moments and admirable people that have been a part of my life as a composer.
    Congratulations and thanks for three years of personal enrichment.

  3. Gavin Borchert says

    The opening chord progression of Berwald’s Sinfonie Singuliere (or however you spell it) makes a great exercise for Roman-numeral analysis; I used it once in a second-year theory exam. . .