Saturday, 31 May 2014

A Ligeti Odyssey

Like virtually everyone else of my generation I first became aware of the extraordinary music of György Ligeti — pronounced "Jurge" (rhymes with "surge") "Liggetty" (rhymes with higgetty-piggetty) — through Kubrick's use of it in 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

Ligeti wasn't entirely pleased by this exposure or, some say, by the fact that his music had been distorted in the film. 

You can read more about that here, but in the end Kubrick and Ligeti settled out of court and Ligeti came to be pleased by the association of his music with 2001. Kubrick, for his part, would return to Ligeti's music for The Shining.

These observations have been prompted by an excellent documentary on BBC Radio 3 about the life and work of Ligeti. It's fascinating and informative and Ligeti comes across as charmingly unpretentious. 

He describes how the Fourth Movement of his Piano Concerto, sometimes called The Fractal Movement was actually inspired by a Marx Brothers movie.

In Night at the Opera, Groucho packs his tiny ship's cabin with visitors, including a stream of waiters bringing him boiled eggs. The room rapidly fills to bursting point, just as the sparse sound world of the Fourth Movement begins steadily more dense. "It's not the Fractal Movement," said Ligeti with amusement. "It's the Boiled Egg Movement."

Even more appealing to me, it reveals that Ligeti admired the work of Henry Mancini and was influenced by him, consulting Mancini's book on orchestration and studying works like the Pink Panther Theme. Suddenly György Ligeti doesn't seem such a daunting, austere or formidable figure, but an approachable musician of genius.

There was also a first rate program of music accompanying the documentary on Radio 3, though by the time you read this it will probably have expired. The documentary however, looks like it will be available indefinitely. Have a listen.

(Image credits: The 2001 cover is from Amazon. The LP of the Shining, with great cover are by Saul Bass — and a surprisingly rare album — is from Flickr courtesy of William Creswell. The Pink Panther is from Jazz dot Com. Thank you all.)

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Finian’s Rainbow

I'm not normally a fan of Broadway musicals. To be frank I often find them too screamingly camp. Some I cotton to immediately — the noirish and sexy classics directed by Bob Fosse, like Cabaret and Chicago (both of which had songs by Kander and Ebb) are just great. But, as a rule, most Broadway songs need to be put through the purifying charcoal filter of jazz before I can endure them.

On the other hand, I love the songs of lyricist Yip Harburg. His left wing masterpieces like Buddy Can You Spare a Dime and, especially, Dusty Shoes seem to me powerful, moving and relevant. Not to mention brilliantly written. My admiration for E.Y. Harburg ('Yip' is a nickname, Yiddish for squirrel, given to him when he was a skinny redheaded kid dashing everywhere) has even led me to reassess The Wizard of Oz (yes, he's the guy who penned those blood-chilling words, "Somewhere over the rainbow...").

The one Yip Harburg musical I really wanted to catch was Finian's Rainbow (Music by Burton Lane, lyrics by Harburg, book by Harburg and Fred Saidy). I used to assume this was some kind of cod Irish nonsense about Leprechauns and crocks of gold. Well, it does feature both of those items, but it's set in the deep south of the USA and wrestles with issues of racism and hostility to immigrants. It features this great one-liner: "My family has been having trouble with immigrants ever since we came to this country."

It also features some truly classic songs, including Old Devil Moon. So when an acclaimed production turned up at the Charing Cross Theatre I zipped along to see it like an eager squirrel. Smart move. It was an outstanding production with a notably jazzy score played by some gifted pit musicians. And Christina Bennington was a knockout in the role of Sharon.

If you get a chance to see this production — adapted by Charlotte Moore, directed by Phil Willmott — drop everything and rush along. In the meantime you can listen to the superb (and jazzy) version recorded in 1963 by the Reprise Musical Repertory Theatre, Frank Sinatra's record label, which turned me on to the glories of these songs in the first place.

(Image credits: The poster for the production I saw is from West End Whingers. The Reprise LP cover is from EIL.)

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Moira Stuart on Sunday Nights

I used to have a Sunday night ritual. I'd retire to bed early, set the sleep timer on my radio and drift off listening to the best music show of the week. This was on Radio 2 and it was the Russell Davies Song Show. It was magnificent — erudite, informative and full of good music. Occasionally it veered down musical byways which were not my ways. My kind of music is jazz, big band and swing and what they did to the great American (and occasionally British) songbook. But even on the oddest tangents, the huge charm and intelligence of Russell Davies kept me interested and listening.

And then, just like that, the Russell Davies Song Show was gone. 

Some mad axeman at the BBC simply decided to get rid of it. It was too good to be allowed to live. I was bereft — and furious. Cue a cutting letter to the Radio Times. (They didn't publish it, of course.) 

But things change. And on Sunday nights on Radio 2, things kept on changing. After Russell Davies's departure there were further alterations to the schedule. And Don Black's late night (11pm) show has now given way to Moira Stuart.

And Moira Stuart is just wonderful. She did a fine, short, series of programs about great jazzmen for Radio 2 last year, and that has now paved the way to her regular slot. I love Moira Stuart's show. It's described in the schedules as "the best in easy listening and timeless standards." 

But it's much more heavy on the jazz than that suggests — last week she played Mark Murphy, Ramsey Lewis, Mel Tormé, Julie London and Count Basie, in addition to the Hi-Lo's and Nelson Riddle. Or how about the week before — Blossom Dearie, Carmen McRae, Horace Silver, Oscar Peterson, Georgie Fame, Billie Holiday and Joni Mitchell.

Moira Stuart has great, eclectic taste, playing famous performers alongside rarities like the Italian singer Mario Biondi or Brazil's Elis Regina. And she has introduced me to people I'd never heard of before, treasures like the Dutch chanteuse Trijntje Oosterhuis. 

Moira's knowledgeable, crediting the great jazz photographer Pete Turner with the classic cover for Wes Monrgomery's Road Song. 

She's perceptive, pointing out how Lalo Schifrin's composition 'The Wave' was a precursor of his unforgettable theme for Mission Impossible. 
And she's witty, remarking after a space age Esquivel exotica track, "You can almost see the flying saucers landing."

A wonderful show. Check it out here.

(Image credits. The LP cover images are all from the BBC web pages for various episodes of the show. Like this one. And this one. And this one. Yawn, and this one... And so is the shot of Moira herself.)

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Star Trek by Gerald Fried et al

I've recently had a run of buying soundtrack music from TV shows of the 1960s and 70s and it's providing a lot of pleasurable listening. There's a wealth of wonderful material lying more or less forgotten in the studio vaults. So when I saw a bargain copy of a 3 CD set of vintage Star Trek scores, I thought about it for a split second and then scooped it up.

The deciding factor for me was the presence in this collection of Gerald Fried. Fried is an intriguing composer. He was a friend of Stanley Kubrick and got his start on Kubrick's first feature Fear and Desire. The groovy label Film Score Monthly have released an excellent 2 CD set of Fried's obscure horror scores which provide an excellent starting point for any acquaintance with his work.

The Star Trek set consists of the music from six episodes, two of them by Fried, three by Alexander Courage  and one by Sol Kaplan. When I started listening to the discs, naturally enough I was mostly concentrating on Fried's compositions. Yet Alexander Courage also immediately made an impression. 

Courage wrote the famed Star Trek main title theme which begins with Jerry Goldsmith-style Americana horns and then transforms into Les Baxter-style exotica female voices. For some reason I thought his music for the series would alll sound the same, but it's spiritedly diverse, evoking everything from crime jazz to electronic sonar noises.

But it was Gerald Fried who is the hero of this week's post, particularly his music for the episode Amok Time. This lovely score is distinguished by the unexpected presence of an electric bass guitar, an inspired choice and an unexpected one in a richly orchestral science fiction context. The bass guitar features strongly on the theme Contrary Order, with mysterioso strings. That electric bass creeps back in, giving a Spaghetti Western feel after some beautifully angular Hebraic strings, on Marriage Council. And the bass is back on Processional, twanging fatly in a track that sounds like a stripped down version of a march from Rozsa's Ben Hur, with ram horns that call to mind Jerry Goldsmith's Planet of the Apes themes. Meanwhile, The Ritual, another stand out track, is also reminiscent of Alex North's Cleopatra.

In fact, this cue The Ritual (full title The Ritual/Ancient Battle/2nd Kroykah) has achieved legendary status among fans, known simply as the 'Star Trek Fight Music'. It has appeared in the movie Cable Guy and the TV cartoons Futurama and The Simpsons. These links, showing the various uses of the music were helpfully listed in Wikipedia's Gerald Fried entry.

If you only listen to one of these Star Trek CDs I recommend the one featuring this music from Fried's Amok Time and Sol Kaplan's Doomsday Machine. But I suspect any of the releases will repay your attention. This is wonderful stuff and it emphasises the point that I'm coming to realise: vintage TV music is a treasure trove. 

(Image credits: The cover shot of the boxed set is from Zyx Music. The individual CD covers are all from the extremely useful Soundtrack Collector.)