Music Review

The Best Classical Composers List: This One Goes to 111

There was a furor in the classical music community over The New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini’s recent list of the ten greatest classical composers. The author himself characterized the project as "absurd." It's not that his choices were outrageous, though of course there were plenty of commentators chiming in that some of their favorites had been left off. It's that ten is an absurdly small number. One doesn’t really learn anything from such a list, and as has already been suggested, some people might get the erroneous impression that in the whole long history of classical music, there haven't been all that many great composers.

Well, I love making lists, and I'm as opinionated as the next guy, so I couldn't resist replying. But not on his terms! What's the point in repeating an absurd exercise? The first thing that was obvious was that the list would be better if it were longer, since one of the best things about lists is how they can stimulate awareness of more than "the usual suspects." Tommasini's list is, I suppose, fine as a starting point for neophytes, but it's more useful, and more fun, to explore some roads less traveled.

Moonbeam Twist Baroque

I AM KLOOT Buxton Opera House, Derbyshire, UK 19th January 2011

There is a provincial gaudiness to Buxton Opera House; the foyer ceiling, a gilt and white confection where some neo-classical broad defies gravity, floating on garlands and clouds above the heads of the incoming crowd. An air of plush grandeur pervades, and tonight this assemblage of souls are present to witness I Am Kloot -- the Mercury Award-nominated, Manchester combo who are riding the crest of one of the most constant, but slowly rising waves of recent times.

Best Classical Recordings of 2010

Freire_ChopinThere are inevitable biases in best-of-the-year lists, and I want to acknowledge mine up front: I am most interested in the piano, choral, and symphonic literatures. I’m happy to listen to other things, but those are what I seek out, vastly tipping the balance in their favor. I know it shows. Another note: while old material can be included, it has to have been released for the first time -- so no reissues or compilations here.

Captain Beefheart Album Survey, Part 4

shiny-beastA couple of years ago, I was surveying Captain Beefheart albums here and got through the first seven. I always meant to finish; his death jolted me back into action. You can catch up with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 as well.

Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Brothers) Coming after some unsuccessful commercial compromises, about which the less said the better (Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams yield one good track each, maybe two if you're generous), this 1978 album was a significant comeback.

ANNIVERSARIES: Beethoven Born 240 Years Ago

beethovenWe don’t know for sure what day Ludwig van Beethoven was born, but it is documented that he was baptized on December 17, 1770. Like practically everything about his fascinating life, this has been studied in detail and speculated over. Some folks say that he was probably baptized the day after he was born, and they thus insist that he was born on December 16. Whatever. What is not disputed, even by those who don’t like his music (John Cage and Glenn Gould are two examples of great musicians who considered Beethoven’s influence malignant), is that Beethoven was one of the most revolutionary and influential composers in history.

Jim Morrison: The Admiral's Anarchist Son

jim_morrisonHad he not overdosed in Paris in 1971, Jim Morrison would have been 67 years old this December 8th. The legendary star of The Doors called his childhood "an open sore," and told his band that he was an "orphan." Later they discovered he had a mother after all. In 1967, she was sitting in a front row seat her son, "The Lizard King," had reserved for her in the Washington auditorium. During the show's climactic number, "The End," he sang "Mother, I want to…" then barred his teeth and snarled "FUCK YOU!" He refused to see her again. Nor did he ever again see his father, a Navy admiral. "Father?" he sang in "The End," "I want to KILL YOU!"

Springsteen's Promise Well Worth Keeping

Bruce_Springsteen_The_PromiseBruce Springsteen: The Promise (Columbia) After breaking through with Born to Run in 1975, Bruce's change of managers left him mired in a lawsuit that prevented him from following up until 1978. But he wasn't sitting around twiddling his thumbs for three years. Nope, he was prolifically writing songs and recording them. This two-CD set, subtitled "The Lost Sessions: Darkness on the Edge of Town," has 22 of them. There's also a three-CD/three-DVD version that includes a remaster of Darkness on the Edge of Town, The Promise, and three DVDs of rehearsal, recording, and concert film, including a 2009 concert of Darkness and a complete 1978 Houston show. But kudos to Bruce for giving fans a cheaper way to get the previously unreleased tracks without having to re-buy Darkness.

Jazz Guitar Hero

Joe_Morris_CameraJoe Morris: Colorfield (ESP-Disk) Joe Morris: Camera (ESP-Disk) Though he's only 55 years old, Joe Morris is more or less the elder statesman of free jazz guitar at this point. It's a combination of a long and prolific career (around 30 albums in 20 years), an immediately distinctive sound and style that will rarely fool anyone in a blindfold test, and seemingly a complete lack of musical compromise (and not only have there been strangely few guitarists in the genre, the late Sonny Sharrock is the only one who was even briefly as prolific and prominent within the scene as Morris, though Tisziji Munoz is also in the discussion). Throw in Morris's completely reliability of standards -- everything he's ever released is excellent -- and his name on an album is practically a guarantee of quality. These two are no exception, and with their less common instrumentation offer welcome variety.

Dylan's Diamonds in the Rough

Witmark_Demos Bob Dylan: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (Columbia) The ninth volume (available as two CDs or four LPs) in Columbia's never-miss Bootleg Series of Dylan rarities is the first one where the historical value sometimes outweighs the musical pleasure, since he coughs between verses of "Blowin’ in the Wind," forgets everything after verse one of "Man on the Street," and so on. Nonetheless, this set of 47 lo-fi singer-with-guitar (or piano) tracks recorded for his music publisher is absolutely riveting listening for anyone with more than a casual interest in Dylan, not least because there are 15 songs here not on any other official Dylan album (there have been bootlegs).