NOVEMBER 19th 2018 — A report from one of the London gramophone societies discusses Italian composer Pietro Mascagni’s 1890 opera CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA (“RUSTIC CHIVALRY“). The writer comments:
“[…] probably the most original point is the INTERMEZZO — which even the errand boys know — played while the curtain remains up and the stage is empty. It is a refreshing lull between the various passionate episodes of the drama.”
This INTERMEZZO is one of those pieces I listen to every available recording of mentioned in the pages of THE GRAMOPHONE. I believe I first heard it in two episodes of NORTHERN EXPOSURE: 3.23 “Cicely” (1992) and 5.22 “GRAND PRIX” (1994).
In the former, it accompanies a beautiful dance by town co-founder Cicely, and in the latter it plays as Ed Chigliak physically fights “the demon of external validation”. But no recording available is mentioned in this report, so no playlist item of this for now.
An article about a visit to a record-pressing factory of His Master’s Voice (HMV) mentions in passing a musician who was to die at the age of 35 later this decade (the 1920s) after a short illness:
“We saw the whole process of record-making. We heard an orchestra, with Max Darewski at the piano, in the recording room, and heard the piece instantly returned from the wax.”
I also mentioned him in the previous entry in this series in connection with a ragtime piece of his.
Also interesting to note the word “robots” already being used in this 1923 article (“automatic machines which worked like Robots at the making of screws, etc.”), considering that this word was coined only three years earlier, in 1920.
The review pages quote Debussy’s delightful comment on Grieg (many of Grieg’s pieces are among my favorites):
“Grieg is like a pink bon-bon stuffed with snow.”
I’m not sure whether Debussy meant this as a slight or not, really, but to me it’s quite charming and creates a vivid sensory impression. Also, like most northern kids, I’ve eaten snow more than once in my life — just for the taste or because thirsty when playing outside as a kid.
This issue was short of any references to recordings that hold special appeal for me. But rather than skip the Spotify playlist for this entry altogether, these would be my choices from an unexciting selection this time:
Two takes of the same Chopin piece by pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch: IMPROMPTU NO. 2 IN F SHARP MAJOR, Op. 36 No. 2. The difference in tempi makes one of the takes ten seconds shorter than the other.
Tenor Roland Hayes singing the American spiritual “SIT DOWN”.
Spotify playlist for this entry, “Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 5 — October 1923”:
This issue is available as part of the magazine’s digital archive, which every subscriber (a month or a year, digital or print+digital) gets access to.
As this series progresses, the variety of music will grow ever wider, since my interests in music extend to all types of music and since for decades THE GRAMOPHONE covered all types of music, not only classical, as today.
The quality of recordings will also soon improve radically, since the late 1920s marked the switchover from the much less advanced (and so-called-then) acoustic process to the (again so-called-then) electric process of recording.
From my rudimentary reading on this topic, this basically meant that microphones started being used for recording. Up until that time, music was recorded by singing and/or playing into a kind of tube.
OCTOBER 16th 2018 — I visited Chopin’s tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris a bit over a year ago.
And the greatest thing was that there was his music in the air just then, just like in an episode of THE RAY BRADBURY THEATER that had a scene actually filmed there: “On the Orient, North”. Someone was playing it from their phone. I almost couldn’t believe it.
Also wonderful was how the apartment I rented happened to be located literally just down the street from this cemetery (and I mean, Paris is huge), which I always knew I would want to visit. But I didn’t even realize this when arranging for the flat. It was the only one open to me, really.
It was on rue du Chemin-Vert (“Street of the Green Path”). And in Paris I experienced some of the happiest moments of my life. I treasure some of those memories.
OCTOBER 2nd 2018 — Scott Murphy is one of the legends of adventure games. He co-created SPACE QUEST for Sierra, and he’s also a really friendly, approachable, and down-to-earth person.
He wrote back when I messaged him in my earlier Facebook days, and we chatted from time to time, and I was lucky enough to even Skype with him once.
Then later Scott also provided a crucial voiceover — lines written by our leader Agustín Cordes — for our game SERENA.
I feel fortunate to have had some contact with Scott.
He is now dealing with a serious health issue and could use our support. He deserves it. The GoFundMe campaign for him is here.
I hope you may consider sharing the link on social media, and contributing if you can. It all helps and really makes a difference.
* * *
Scott once told me an anecdote on Facebook about DeForest Kelley— Dr. McCoy in the original STAR TREK — whom he saw in the early 1980s.
Our mutual friend and colleague Agustín Cordes — creator of horror adventure game classic SCRATCHES and of the upcoming ASYLUM — went on to comment that this exchange should be preserved for its historical significance.
And it’s true — a very human anecdote with two legends (Scott might squirm at this description) having a close brush.
So I thought, why not actually do that — preserve it? So here it is.
It started when, back in 2010, I shared the above photo from De, with these words:
“I wrote to DeForest Kelley towards the end of his life and received this unsolicited autographed photo. Thank you so much, De. I never had the honor of meeting you in person, but to me you will always be the real McCoy. A true gentleman and hero.”
(In that letter, I made a point of praising his fantastic voice acting for the two Interplay STAR TREK adventure games — available on GOG.com — that feature voiceovers from all of the main cast. I believe that was the last time he played McCoy, and he really did amazing, completely authentic work for them — likable, enjoyable, and funny to an almost unreal degree.)
See the end of this post for screen caps of the exchange between Scott and me, but here it is as regular text for easier reading:
“Simo, shortly before his death, DeForest Kelley kind of staggered into the restaurant I was cooking at just before I joined Sierra, a place called The Broken Bit in Coarsegold, California. I actually cooked a meal for him. (No, he didn’t die within the next 24 hours, bitches!) Unfortunately, we were quite busy, as it was a Saturday night, so I was unable to go out and stroll by his table. Oddly, he was alone, and word from the waitresses and busboys was that he seemed very sad and depressed. Poor man. In front of the camera, though, he was a true professional who will long be remembered. Quite admirable in that regard.”
“Thanks for sharing this, Scott. I treasure every anecdote about DeForest, even sadder ones like this. They all add to the reality of the man and only increase my sympathy for him… I have gathered that he drank quite a lot, but I wonder if something specific was weighing on him at this particular time. Do you remember about which year this would have been? When I read the biography [FROM SAWDUST TO STARDUST by Terry Lee Rioux] again, I could try to see if there is mention of what was going on in his life at that time. (The death of a pet or other loved one was always a terrible blow to him, for example.)”
“I can only guess, as I have barnacles on me older than you. It would have been between the beginning of 1982 and March 1 of 2003 [see below for clarification of these dates], which was when I began my career at Sierra. He seemed someone well acquainted with alcohol. It may have been a stereotype, but he did look that way according to the floor staff and my personal distant view of him through the small window in the kitchen/dining room door. It could even have been in 1981. My memory is a little suspect. I’d lean toward 2002–2003. I know it’s very difficult to have been someone of his celebrity, relegated to the occasional reprising of the role for the new ST movie, as well as making a living attending STAR TREK fan conventions. For some, that could have been, and quite likely was, psychologically crushing. Then there’s the alcoholic’s genetic predisposition. I hope the time frame helps.”
“Definitely — although did you mean 1981–1983 rather than 1981–2003? A quick flip through the biography reveals little about what he did in that time frame apart from the first STAR TREK movies (the first one was released in December 1979, the second in June 1982, and the third in June 1984), so probably it was not a particularly active time for him. From what I have read, I get the impression that he saw the McCoy straitjacket in an increasingly positive light as the years went on and he accepted the lack of other roles. Of course it must have been bitterly disappointing after steady employment for year after year before STAR TREK — but by the mid-80s I think he was saying he was retired from acting other than for STAR TREK. And he seems to have also valued the quiet life he led with his wife and their many animal companions. He was a very private individual anyway. If I remember right, I think none of the other original cast members were ever invited to his home. But aside from the sad decline of his own and his wife’s health towards the end of the 90s in particular, he seems to have had a solid strength in him (of course disturbed badly at times and certainly not helped by his generally frail health) and quiet convictions that he revealed rarely but that came across when he played McCoy. A fascinating man.”
“Yes, 1983. D’oh! Just woke up after a long night of trying to migrate my Outlook files onto my newly installed replacement laptop hard drive.”
“I figured it was something like that! 🙂 Thanks again for sharing this story. I have only slowly gathered over the years how much DeForest imbibed… No disrespect intended, we all have our weaknesses and it never made him harm anyone around him. Official sources have naturally been discreet about it, and the biography does not dwell on it either.”
Epilogue: Two years later
“This post should be preserved for its historical significance.”
And so it was.
Below is the exchange as it appeared on Facebook. Read from left to right like a series of comic book panels. Not sure why Facebook shows 2008 as the date, as I only got on Facebook in 2010.
SEPTEMBER 29th 2018 — As a little exercise, I turned a “chip tune” ditty from the first LEISURE SUIT LARRY game into sheet music.
This is one of the most famous themes in the world, from the 3rd movement (Marche funèbre) of Chopin’s PIANO SONATA NO. 2 IN B FLAT MINOR, Op. 35 (FUNERAL MARCH).
Anyone who grew up playing computer games in the 1980s heard this theme in dozens of games, and it probably appeared in hundreds, typically as the game over music. A lot of classical music ended up in games in those days in particular, as various creative adaptations for often highly limited sound chips or synthesizers.
Chopin wrote this theme in B flat minor, but for this game it was transposed up a whole step (two keys on the piano keyboard, whether white or black), to C minor.
As the first step, I extracted the sound file from the game, then used a free program to convert it into MIDI data. But it turned out that — whether the problem arose from the original sound file format, the conversion process, or the eccentricities of the MIDI standard — the resulting MIDI file was unusable as such. It looked nothing like the above orderly notation, the score instead being full of 64th notes and rests and so on, and the measure breaks were all off.
I could always have gone to sheet music of the sonata as Chopin wrote it, but I wanted to follow this particular adaptation of it. So I wrote the above based on the messy data from the MIDI file, correcting the timing and other issues to create this still very faithful result. It follows the rhythms and of course exact notes of the piece as it appears in the game.
Finally I analyzed the piece for the chords and added those. I’ve done this kind of analysis of hundreds of pieces and I find it a great way to learn. It means going through every note and rest and every other detail in a piece of music and seeing how it all fits together.
And one of the nice things about it is that no piece of music is too short or simple for this type of analysis. Every piece is rewarding to do and can teach something.
Chopin is one of my favorite composers. But I want to write more about him in an entry of his own. So that’s another story.
SEPTEMBER 26th 2018 — Welcome to the first installment of “Let’s listen to Bob Dylan in Iceland”.
Join me on this journey through all of Dylan’s recorded and officially released tracks in chronological order — the order in which they were recorded, as listed in the massive, useful reference tome BOB DYLAN: ALL THE SONGS: THE STORY BEHIND EVERY TRACK (2015) by Philippe Margotin & Jean-Michel Guesdon.
I’ll be sharing Spotify playlists of all these songs, to go with each entry. I have no particular agenda with this series other than to enjoy, educate myself, and see what thoughts occur. I also welcome comments and thoughts from my readers.
For those looking to go deeper, I recommend the book mentioned, and likewise a free PDF that can be found online, THE BOB DYLAN SONGBOOK by Eyolf Østrem. It includes background information, lyrics, tabs, and fingerpicking patterns.
Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 in recognition of the enormous contribution to culture he has made with his songwriting. I was actually in Iceland the day this was announced, visiting the Icelandic family that were my gracious hosts, and chatted about it with them, between bouts of the middle sibling of the family strumming his guitar (a musically gifted family).
But now we rewind back to 1959 and a soft start for this series, since only one song from this year is part of our syllabus:
“WHEN I GOT TROUBLES” (E major) — May 1959
Bob Dylan — born Robert Allen Zimmerman — has just turned 18 and remains undiscovered and without a recording contract.
At the home of a friend in Hibbing, he sings into his friend’s microphone and tape recorder a blues song of his own, “WHEN I GOT TROUBLES”, accompanying himself on the guitar.
The recording is of poor quality and cuts short, but for anyone interested in tracking his progress, this is of course gold. As pointed out by the authors of ALL THE SONGS:
“His voice remains in a lower register, almost confidential in style, and the guitar playing is quite poor. Yet an impression of depth emerges from his interpretation.” (p. 13)
Young mister Dylan is on the path.
Spotify playlist for this entry, “Let’s listen to Bob Dylan in Iceland: 1959”:
SEPTEMBER 24th 2018 — The third issue of THE GRAMOPHONE bears the cover date August 1923.
Reverend Edmund H. Fellowes, Doctor of Music, contributes a one-page article on English Renaissance composer William Byrd to mark the 300th anniversary of his death. This was a time when music from times this far in the past was only starting to be recorded, and its admirers therefore treasured every new release.
Few of these early recordings of Byrd are on Spotify, but four that are are mentioned in the reviews section. All played on the harpsichord by Violet Gordon-Woodhouse:
“ROWLAND OR LORD WILLOBIE’S WELCOME HOME”, FVB. 160.
“THE QUEENE’S ALMAN”, FVB. 171.
“GALIARDA”, FVB. 255.
“EARLE OF OXFORD’S MARCHE”, FVB. 259.
See this earlier post in this “Let’s read” series for a photo of Ms. Gordon-Woodhouse. She did a lot to increase the popularity of the harpsichord and awareness of its importance in the history of music.
I have to mention one more Byrd song cited in this issue, though the recording is not on Spotify, because it has such a great title: “WHY DO I USE MY PAPER, INK, AND PEN?” Most great composers also had great senses of humor. Bach composed a COFFEE CANTATA.
An aside: These back issues of nearly a century ago (at the time of writing this) are treasures. But they are also relics. For example, the N word appears in this issue.
As someone with an academic background (the unwelcome effects of which I have long worked to shed), I am personally not shocked by such things — because anyone who has done any reading of old texts has seen this type of language in old texts all too often. But it is good to realize times have changed since then.
That said, I assume an intelligent readership, so I won’t be climbing on any soapboxes or wasting space commenting further on matters like this. But I did not want to sweep this under the carpet.
Francis Brett Young in an article called “At Random”:
“A little time since, I was asked to contribute to a symposium on a question raised in America […]: whether the cinematograph had not rendered the novel superfluous. The question seemed to me a silly one, for it disregarded one of the fundamental functions of the novelist, which is the achievement of verbal beauty, with all its suggestions, in prose.”
“Z.” rues the loss of a record:
“I only had an opportunity of playing the last-mentioned record once, when the interpretation made a great impression on me, and I am sorry to say that the disc has disappeared from my review shelves. Perhaps my colleague, Mr. J. Caskett, was so much pleased with it that he has literally devoured it, or it may be that he sat on it by accident and buried the fragments in the garden without daring to confess his crime.”
I miss this kind of relaxed, conversational style in publications like THE GRAMOPHONE (these days minus the definite article). Also, digital music — much as I deeply appreciate it and its availability — means no such anecdotes or musings could come about anymore, except with the hardy souls who never abandoned physical media.
Another flight of fancy from “Z.”:
“Much is lost if they are not played with the loudest needle, and although the scratch is not unduly in evidence, so exquisite is this music that I have never felt such bitterness against chemists for not being able to do what they ought to be able to do. If I were a despot, I would summon before me the leading chemists of the day; I would immure them in a completely equipped laboratory, and I would give them two years to eliminate the scratch from gramophone records. The penalty for failure should be imprisonment for the term of their life in a cell lit by acetylene gas and covered with encaustic tiles. Here they should spend the rest of their unnatural lives, listening day and night to the strains of a cheap gramophone playing on a scratchy record ‘I’M FOR EVER BLOWING BUBBLES’. Their food should be sent in to them from the Eustace Miles restaurant in Chandos Street; their lightest reading should be Freud, Jung, and Ernest Jones; and doubtless, if I really were a despot, I should be able to devise all sorts of additional horrors, which in my present state of limited power I have neither space nor time to enumerate.”
He did well enough already. Eccentric digressions like this in these vintage issues often make me smile. They are very human, and more of human life and of humanity comes through when writers are allowed real freedom of thought and expression, and the luxury of enough space. Something has been lost since these days, at least when it comes to most music journalism.
Less charmingly, “Z.” strays from the eccentric to the crude with this:
“Not that I crave to hear the words of what is one of the most tiresome songs ever written, and one that by some curious misfortune of mine second-rate sopranos always choose to sing whenever I go to a concert in Italy. I nearly committed sopranocidio by throwing a lemon squash at the last woman I heard sing it.”
Hardly gracious or gentlemanly.
So while I admire some aspects of these older approaches to music journalism, things like this occasionally cool these warm feelings.
Back along more amusing lines, “Z.” again of a record:
“I thought that it was a really good record; but, alas, with each succeeding performance it becomes more tinny, and if I play it much more I shall be able to preserve tomatoes in it.”
Frank Swinnerton comments on the limitations of the day’s recording technology:
“The gramophone cannot yet reproduce the letter ‘S’. It cannot yet render satisfactorily the full volume of an orchestra or the pure tone of the pianoforte. Always the orchestra has a tinny vibration — a dwarfing of the original; nearly always the piano has many notes — particularly loud notes — resembling the banjo. Pang, pang, pang… Strings are still the most satisfactory instruments for mechanical reproduction.”
A recording already mentioned in this “Let’s read” series and available on Spotify:
Norman Allin singing Albert Ketèlbey’s Shakespeare setting “BLOW, BLOW, THOU WINTER WIND”. “Z.” says it “can be used for frightening cats.” I like this composer’s orchestral pieces more, though.
In the “Gramophone Societies’ Reports” (yes, people used to gather together to listen to music on the gramophone), Ernest Baker of The South-East London (Recorded) Music Society comments on Wagner’s music:
“It covers the whole gamut of musical emotion; it has such amazing descriptive power and is so full of pure musical beauties. We have the music of the sea, of fire, the air, love, life, and death — all painted by a master-hand upon an immense canvas.”
All this reminds me of Iceland as well.
An article called “A Decca Romance” tells the story of a portable Decca gramophone that a British battalion hauled around in “a large clothes basket” in World War I. Everyone brought back records when on leave, in England or Paris, for example, and records were also ordered by post.
“Strange homes that old Decca has had, up and down the villages of France, in ruined houses, in huts, in tents, in transport lines.”
After the war was over:
“It was put up for a raffle in the village, and no less a sum than five pounds was raised for the Benevolent Fund of the battalion’s Old Comrades’ Association, while the man who won it for one shilling is not grumbling at his bargain. Long may it flourish in its new home!”
Wagner pieces or extracts mentioned in this issue with some relevance to Icelandic sagas (though none of the recordings mentioned is on Spotify), cited again here for their evocative titles (Wotan = Óðinn / Odin):
“Forging Songs” / “Siegfried Forges the Broken Sword”
“Mime’s Treachery to Siegfried”
“Siegfried Follows the Forest Bird”
“Brünnhilde Hails the Radiant Sun”
“Brünnhilde Recalls Her Valkyrie Days”
“Introduction: Wotan Invokes Erda”
“Siegfried’s Ascent to the Valkyrie Rock”
“Brünnhilde Yields to Siegfried”
Plus the related composition, not part of the opera:
GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG (TWILIGHT OF THE GODS)
“The Parting of Brünnhilde and Siegfried”
“Hagen Meditates Revenge”
“Gunther and Gutrune Welcome Siegfried”
“Prelude: The Rhinemaidens Scene”
“Brünnhilde Kindles the Funeral Pyre”
Spotify playlist for this entry, “Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 3 — August 1923”:
This issue is available as part of the magazine’s digital archive, which every subscriber (a month or a year, digital or print+digital) gets access to.