Song of the Day: July 31

Phil Kline‘s final Song of the Day this week. Thanks, Phil!

“Waterloo Sunset,” Ray Davies, The Kinks

Of all the amazing songs that came with the creative expansion of rock and pop music in the late sixties, I can think of none that I love more than Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks. It’s not psychedelic or wild, in fact it sort of tiptoes into the consciousness, and the emotions aren’t exuberant or extreme. But Ray Davies at his best excelled in vignettes about ordinary people. We get what the title implies, a picture of a certain place at a certain time. Not much happens. The river flows, people get out of the tube station and cross the bridge. The singer studies all that is going on around him, shy and overwhelmed but happy to be there, watching the sunset and going home. It’s hardly the young swinger’s London, in fact it’s more like the lonely old man’s. But it’s also exalting, in the way that certain 8th century Chinese poems are exalting.

Some years ago I was visiting London and found myself on the Victoria Embankment near Cleopatra’s Needle. I was looking out at the garbage on the Thames when my English friend softly said “dirty old river” and I was jolted by a sudden realization: we were standing in the song. There was the dirty old river, there was the bridge, there was the Underground station. God knows, Terry and Julie were out there, too. And I sang softly to myself “long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset I am in paradise.”

*Some of the images in this video are silly or overly literal, but I appreciate the attempt to give us a literal map of the song, albeit a few decades later.

Song of the Day: July 30

(Curator: Phil Kline)

“Mysteries of the Macabre” – Gyorgi Ligeti – sung and conducted by Barbara Hannigan

My ears perked up when this person I’d never heard of, Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, did a sparkling turn in the song “Das Himmlische Leben” which concludes Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. I soon learned that she sang a lot of contemporary music, is perhaps the only singer out there who has starred in both The Mikado and Lulu, and that she also conducts. But I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for this.

Song of the Day: July 29

(Curator:  Phil Kline)

“Al Atlal” (The Ruins) – poem Ibrahim Nagi, music Riad El-Sonbati – sung by Kalthoum

When I was a kid I saw TV footage of four million people crowding the streets of Cairo for the funeral of Oum Kalthoum. I wondered who she was. When I first heard her voice I was surprised. It wasn’t high, it wasn’t coloratura, in fact I’m not sure you would call it pretty. What I heard was an irresistible force, intense and focused. She was born in a humble village in the Nile Delta in 1904. Her father was an imam at the local mosque which made him something of an authority figure, and he taught his daughter to recite the Koran as a toddler. Oum had an unusually strong voice, prodigious memory, and perfect diction. It is said that in 50 years of her recordings there is not one unclear word. To me it sounds as if she is sculpting the text, as befits one who learned her craft by singing scriptures.

While her vocal peak came in the 1940s and early 50s, her greatest collaborations with poets and composers occurred in the late 50s and 60s. At this point in her career she gave a concert, broadcast throughout Egypt, on the first Thursday of each month. It is said that nobody in the Arab world went out on those nights. The songs she made with Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Riad El-Sombati were epic, anywhere between an hour and three hours long. In the context of Arab music, they were both traditional and experimental. But what gave a song like Al Atlal its greatest impact is the way the poetry, ostensibly romantic and sensual, offered subtle double meanings to its audience, lending political and sociological urgency to a lover’s complaint. Only Oum Kalthoum could make her audience think that her passion was an affair of state. And over the long span of Al Atlal that passion, at first restrained, is meted out in increments, like the slowly rising, inexorable flood tide of the Nile.

*If you’re not up for an hour’s worth, I would suggest tuning in around 18:30 and giving it 3 or 4 minutes. There are extended cycles of repeats with varied improvised ornaments. If you can get into it, long term listening will prove rewarding.

Song of the Day: July 28

(Curator: Phil Kline)

“To Gratiana Dancing and Singing” – William Denis Browne, sung by Ian Bostridge, with Julius Drake, piano.

This one always gets me. The poem is by Richard Lovelace and the song alludes to an anonymous allmayne in the Elizabeth Rogers Virginal Book. The composer, William Denis Browne (Denis Browne is his surname) attended Cambridge, impressed Ralph Vaughan Williams, and became close friends with the poet Rupert Brooke. They both shipped off to Gallipoli together in 1915 and never returned. The fact that the poem is an ecstatic snapshot of youth’s fleeting grace and that this meltingly lovely song is about all we have to listen to by young Denis Browne provides a haunting consonance.

Song of the Day: July 27

Welcome to this week’s SOTD curator: composer Phil Kline! Phil’s music has been featured on NYFOS Mainstage programs and he curated the second ever program in our NYFOS Next series for new music.

“The Kiss” Judee Sill

Judee Sill was one of music’s sadder stories. She grew up in Oakland and spent much of her early childhood in her father’s bar, which happened to have a piano that she taught herself to play. Her father died when she was 7 and her mother passed when she was 16. After that, Judee bounced around a few high schools, developed a drug habit and was arrested for robbing a liquor store. Following a spell in reform school she somehow found a job as a church organist and went back to school. Soon, though, she was working long hours in a piano bar, back into drugs, and married to a junkie. Another larceny bust led to jail time. Getting out, she vowed to reform and get her songwriting act together. Amazingly, she did precisely that, writing echt-late sixties singer-songwriter material that was infused with Bach and Schubert, Christian imagery, and psychedelia. She was the first act signed to David Geffen’s new Asylum label. Her eponymous debut album and the follow-up Heart Food received critical acclaim but did not sell well. She never finished a third record, and died of a drug overdose in 1979. Some of her stuff sounds dated now, the production a bit hokey, but this BBC footage from the Heart Food tour shows her plainness plainly: an intelligent but shy and wary soul, desperately seeking salvation and singing her heart out.

Song of the Day: July 24

Steven Blier’s last pick of the week:
I am due to start my work on the Rachmaninoff project soon, and to give my mojo a jump-start I have been working on one of his final songs, “Son” (“Sleep”) from Opus 38. It’s one of those sublime pieces of music that needs to sound tranquil and airborne, even though Rachmaninoff keeps your hands leaping all over the piano. It’s like the sleepy slow movement of a concerto, or a very large bird soaring into flight. I’ve been finding it helpful to listen to Vladimir Ashkenazy play it with soprano Elisabeth Söderström. He made me realize that I am always trying to make the piano disappear, morph it somehow into a pure image, an idea, a story, a dream—or another instrument. Or an orchestra. Or a jazz band. Ashkenazy, of course, has no compunctions about playing right into the piano, letting it sing, giving it a full, corporeal, juicy reality even in a song this diaphanous. He has a less complex relationship to the instrument than I do. And Söderström soars through the piece with freshness and a refreshing, quiet zest.

Hear more Rachmaninoff performed by soprano Dina Kuznetsova and baritone Shea Owens with Steven Blier and Michael Barrett at the piano in From Russia to Riverside Drive on November 10 at Merkin Concert Hall in NYC. Buy tickets today!

Song of the Day: July 23

(from Steven Blier)

I have been listening obsessively to the late American soprano Teresa Stich-Randall this week (as one does). Her name came up during an email interview exchange I was having with writer/critic David Shengold, who casually let it drop that Stich-Randall had been a lesbian. He assumed I knew, but this fact had eluded me. In response to my question, “Are you saying T.S-R. was gay?” he wrote back, “WAS RICHARD TUCKER JEWISH?”

I’d always been fascinated by this artist, one of those musicians in the so-cold-they’re-hot category. Karajan chose her to sing Sophie in his recording “Rosenkavalier” with Schwarzkopf, and she was Toscanini’s Nanetta in “Falstaff.” Stich-Randall (1927-2007) had a pure, instrumental line, abstract and disembodied—a kind of Stepford Wife approach to Mozart and Schubert. She could pull out the dramatic stops in certain roles—her “Or sai chi l’onore” in Don Giovanni took no hostages. But she always gave off the odd vibe of being a hologram—in her pictures she seems remote from the other people onstage with her, and her publicity shots make her look as if she were made out of plastic. Now I have some sense of what this “otherness” might have been about. And I can’t stop listening to her pure, spaced-out, immaculate performances. I saw her only once, at my first Don Giovanni in 1966 at the old Met. She was entering her late, decadent phase where a kind of madness started to invade the pure control of her early years, like seeing a Barbie Doll have a nervous breakdown. Here she is singing Schubert (one of my summer projects) during her sweet, pristine prime. “Du bist die Ruh,” Teresa. Requiescat in pace.

Hear more Schubert at NYFOS’s December 8th concert Schubert / Beatles featuring soprano Sari Gruber, tenor Paul Appleby, baritone Andrew Garland at Merkin Concert Hall. Buy tickets now!