josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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1 Oct '01 04:38:33 AM

Over the weekend I picked up a Naxos recording of Beethoven's string quartet in A minor, Op. 132. I already own a recording of it by the Budapest String Quartet, on Sony/Columbia, but the recording is old and mono, and I've never been happy with the sound on it. I had been wanting a different performance for a while, and since the quartet is on the list of required or suggested (I can't remember which) listenings for my philosophy of music class, now was as good a time as any. Speaking of which, Applause, the classical/jazz branch of Cheapo in the Twin Cities, has loads of good stuff.

As I suspected, hearing the quartet in stereo, with a fuller, more modern sound, really opened it up for me. I've been listening to the whole thing, but so far the middle, third movement is the most captivating. A quote from the liner notes to the Budapest version:

A serious abdominal ailment in the spring of 1825 interrupted Beethoven's work on this quartet. His subsequent recovery is immortalized by the poignant inscription of the Molto adagio: "Hymn of thanksgiving to the Almighty, in the Lydian mode, offered by a convalescent." The "hymn" is heard in alternation with a second idea in bright D Major, marked "Neue Kraft fuhlend" (feeling new strength). For this listener, this miraculous edifice is the greatest slow movement in all Western music.

OK, so clearly, the author thought highly of it. He's not alone - Beethoven's "late" quartets (the last four) are pretty well regarded across the board. Lots of people claim them to be the best string quartets ever.

Now, you know what I think about talk like that. (Or maybe I've been reticent. But you should be able to guess.)

Which is troubling, at the moment, because I really really love that slow movement. It's hard writing about instrumental music, especially classical music, for me anyway. That I like it a lot just compounds the difficulty. That the music is so widely revered makes it even worse, because I can't stand to let it seem that, even if I like it for the reasons I'm supposed to like it (and I'm not saying that I do yet), that doesn't mean I want my further testimony, as it were, to add up with all that other talk of the quartet... in that way.

But what can I say about it at the moment? Little. The "hymn" portions are slow and beautiful, and we know what a sucker I am for slow and beautiful. The "feeling new strength" portions are led off twice by buoyant, stately melodies, the second time around higher and more wonderful than the first. At first the melodies seem so simple, so basic. Soon the typical classical-style eighth-note runs come in, especially between what seem like more prominent notes in the melody. These make me wonder about the melody, about how much could be stripped away. Aside from possibly some chords being sounded (it is a quartet, plus all the instruments are chordal ones), it seems like the basic notes to the melody are just six: the first three, with some eighth-note junk between those and the next three. Does the extra context help make that seem like a better-defined melody than it is? Is it that the notes are actually chords, voiced by different instruments? In different ranges? Not sure. But the basicness of the melody feels like a slight vindication to me, because it's got the kind of simplicity to it that it's easy to find in popular music. And aside from the fact that I'm no longer talking about the "hymn" or even the other four movements, which I'm sure have all kinds of formal unity yadda yadda yadda, I'd like to think that what sets so many people off about this quartet is that melody - a powerful one, yes, but also one not gotten at by formal devices claimed as the specialty of western art music.

Anyway, like I said, I don't know what I think yet. It's so soon. This is a pretty dumb reason, anyway, but it's something interesting to think about maybe.

26 Sep '01 09:01:11 PM

Suppose the last track on the newest Boards of Canada EP is deliberately meant to sound like Kraftwerk from Trans-Europe Express? If so does it mean anything?

26 Sep '01 07:27:33 PM

I did put on the new Bonnie 'Prince' Billy this morning, though, finding myself with an extra 5 minutes to spare. Surveying my kingdom, etc.

26 Sep '01 05:32:25 AM

Most days I don't put on a record when I wake up, or after I shower. No time. But when I do now I always think of Maura, playing Liz Phair to dance to to dry her hair.

26 Sep '01 05:28:24 AM

I can't hear the piano trio version of "Caravan" without hearing the smeared trumpet lead of the version I'm used to.

How long before it stands on its own?

26 Sep '01 05:23:51 AM

Playing when we were out for pizza tonight: August and Everything After, which I hadn't heard in years. It sounded good. Do I want to dig it out and listen to it again? No.

26 Sep '01 05:19:51 AM

Money Jungle moves from sounding like Ellington to someone entirely more modern at a moment's notice. But then I notice that what he's playing could sound like a piano part on a Mingus record (Mingus is on bass after all), or like a less knotty and cantankerous Monk playing Ellington.

26 Sep '01 05:12:49 AM

I didn't mention it when it went up but you should check out my friend Ethan's first Pitchfork review even if the only rock band he likes is the Who. Hopefully Ethan will continue to write, even if he has to mail in the reviews on goddamned postcards thanks to his busted computer.

26 Sep '01 04:55:20 AM

"Unarchitectonic": Tim also said something about how he's tempted to discuss jungle using a Marxist base/superstructure metaphor - "the presumption that the character (and quality?) of the track is defined by the interplay of bass and beats, and that the 'added on' melody/arrangement/vocals are merely consequential mirrors of this initial and crucial starting point."

I think it's kind of odd that Tim would pick this Marxist metaphor, but then again I don't really want to criticize his choice - aside from the Marxist connotations which I think are irrelevant, the idea involved makes sense. But I can't think of a better way to make it more immediately clear how the structural relationship he's talking about works. (I bet they have terminology for it in music?)

Anyway, about this base/superstructure: I've been listening to Spring Heel Jack's Treader recently. I had wanted to hear some SHJ proper for a while, but after hearing Masses, their record as producers slash manipulators of sounds provided by contemporary free jazz people, I thought it would do to hear what they could do on their own, to help make sense of the free jazz record. The first few listens didn't help much (but then how often do they, really?) - largely cacophonous. When it started making sense, it still felt very very neutral. New-music encounters aside, I can't think of a kind of music that interests me that I'm more neutral toward than jungle. I haven't heard much. I like Amon Tobin's take on it, and Photek has given me pleasure on occasion (though it took a while). The last Roni Size album bored me, which I regard as being slightly worse than being very very neutral to me, but only slightly. Sometimes this SHJ album bores me too, but for some reason I keep listening to it. (The connection to New York minmalism that they make explicit by titling a track for La Monte Young seems to me to be an important enough one that I should withstand boredom by seeing it as a source of potential interest, as in lots of other "boring" music that I like, but I'm not sure how yet.)

Er anyway yes superstructure. Base. I'm sleepy, I have to go to bed so much earlier now than before. Main point is that regardless of all the wooshy noises and whatnot, jungle feels like all base to me - sort of what I meant by "unarchitectonic". Even though I can hear some layering going on and can tell that there's plenty of interaction between the "layers" (quotes because they don't really feel like layers), it never feels like it adds up to anything, like all the little details accrue into a solid enough structure for me to latch on to. So maybe I don't even mean "all base" - it could be worse than that. Sometimes when listening I think I might, it's not clear yet. In some tracks the main rhythm seems overriding, not in the sense that I can't see my way away from it a la a driving house beat, but in the sense that it's just all there is - the other stuff doesn't matter. (Not in Taylor Clark's sense of the "stupid" two-step beat sinking tracks. And I think it's a bad sign when your answer to a record you don't like is just a whole bunch of stuff on a different record label which all happens to sound boringly self-similar from time to time anyway.)

Is this a trenchant criticism? No it is not. I can't really make sense of the record at the moment, but I don't really expect to be able to. I don't have my jungle bearings. (And I've barely listened to any "real" jungle in the first place!)