The Art Music Lounge: A Different Music Blog

organ-tissue

Yes, I’m an organ and tissue donor.

The title of this article may seem, to some readers, self-serving, but honestly, I’m a pretty modest woman at heart. I’ve loved music all my life, have listened (as my articles and reviews will show) to an extremely wide range of it since I was a child, and still have far-ranging tastes from klezmer, country blues, early jazz and old classical music going back to the Middle Ages up through the most advanced free jazz and modern classical pieces. And my interests have never stopped at just the music. When I’ve really liked a certain composer or performer, I try to find out as much as I can about them, their backgrounds, how they arrived at the music they created or played, and what made them tick as people as well as artists.

And in my musical journeys, I learned one important fact early on, that no two people hear music or musicians exactly the same way. The number of artists and composers one can agree on can probably be counted on the fingers of both hands, which really isn’t much when you consider the length and breadth of the musical spectrum, and the same goes for interpretive styles. For instance, for reasons I will soon explain, I can’t stomach soft, mushy performances of any music, yet I know there are thousands, perhaps millions, of listeners out there who prefer this manner of playing. The same goes for the composers and styles of music. There are only so many soft, relaxed pieces of music that I consider to be interesting, let alone great. But perhaps you might understand me and my musical biases better if I explain myself.

If you know my blog and have read the bulk of my profiles of certain artists, interviews, book and CD reviews, you’ll also know that my tastes, in addition to varying widely, cannot be bought. Many have tried to buy me as a music reviewer over the past 47 years, including impresarios and at least three major magazines I’ve written for. None have succeeded, and that’s why I eventually went freelance. It wasn’t just that I resented them trying to buy favorable reviews from me, it’s that I resented the fact that all of them DO—and not just those three. Over the years I’ve discovered that ALL classical and jazz review publications try the same thing with their reviewers…which means that much of what you read as a positive excerpt from a review on artists’ websites is nothing more than paid advertising, and this practice went back to the time when I was a young woman just getting into jazz and classical music and was myself swayed by the purple prose that appeared for certain recordings and artists in High Fidelity and Stereo Review (and yes, even Gramophone).

I grew up in a working class household that abhorred any music that was considered “arty.” My father particularly loved such “vanilla” bands as those of Sammy Kaye, Blue Barron and Mantovani, and pop singers like Andy Russell, Perry Como and the more mellow offerings of Sinatra. My mother, who had actually studied briefly to become a soprano, had surprisingly vanilla tastes in classical music as well: Chopin, Mozart, Puccini and Donizetti were her favorites. When I started getting into the music of Berlioz and Beethoven around age 11, they practically freaked out. But when you’re still a child you do tend to be led by your parents’ tastes, and I freely admit that my father and I had a couple of favorite artists in common, Nat “King” Cole and Glenn Miller. I still love both, for different reasons.

I saw my first opera at age 16: Carmen in a Met student performance with mezzo Nedda Casei in the title role. That same year I went to Carnegie Hall (a daytime concert…my parents would never have let me take the bus to New York City alone at night) to see Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall. But in a way my musical growth was stunted by my parents’ refusal to let me study a legitimate instrument. Because my father was Polish, I was forced to learn and play the accordion, and that mostly for the entertainment of the rest of the family when we came together to play polkas. It was my kid sister who was bought a piano and given piano lessons, which I envied. Yet I was yelled at and chased away from the keyboard every time I sat down to play “her” instrument. I bought the Schirmer scores of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas at a fire sale of a sheet music store when I was in high school and studied them. I even tried to play some of them myself, and got further than I thought I might for someone with no formal piano training, but I was also forced to work after school (in addition to doing homework), not to mention keep up my accordion skills, thus I really had no time to become proficient at the instrument. But I just kept on plugging away at both classical and jazz, buying recordings of famous artists and learning as much as I could—in jazz, from all the way back to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band up to Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis, who were popular in my day.

By the time I graduated college, where I was finally lucky enough to study music and learn how compositions were constructed (one of our exercises was to take a book of Bach Chorales and study both the top line and the accompaniment, then invert them), I also studied piano—but again, I had no real time to become proficient at it. In addition to my classes, I also had to work two jobs to help pay for my tuition because my parents, who could easily have afforded to pay for my education, absolutely refused to do so after I graduated high school. (To be fair, they also screwed my brother and sister this way.) But if nothing else, I was stubborn and I wanted to keep learning as much as I could. It was during this time that I also started getting into contemporary classical music of that time, the works of Ginastera, Britten and, of course, Stravinsky, who was then still alive and still writing music. This helped open my ears to a whole world of music beyond the old masters.

After graduation, when I started writing reviews—beginning with opera performances at the Metropolitan—I had a pretty good grounding in music theory and had listened to a great many of the finest singers past and present so I knew what I was talking about. But of course my musical education was still somewhat incomplete, and I knew it, so I just stuck to what I knew (quite a lot by that time, but by no means as wide a range of music as I know now) and wrote in an authoritative manner. This was enough to get me noticed and my reputation grew; but as anyone who has written reviews professionally will tell you, it is a cheap-ass business. They nickel and dime you to death because they figure that your free tickets to the concerts or opera houses are part of your pay. But I still took anything I could get because it was all a learning experience. Believe it or not, I was one of the few music critics to give a very positive review of Britten’s Death in Venice when it came to the Metropolitan. I was lucky enough to give a copy of the review to the work’s star, tenor Peter Pears, who in turn showed it to composer Benjamin Britten, who found it “informative and lively.” I still have Pears’ original letter to me preserved in plastic wrap.

In the late 1970s, by which time I had moved from New Jersey to Ohio, I decided to write a book about the various methods of singing technique taught by the great masters from the 18th century to the present, guided in part by the writings of Canadian baritone and author John Stratton. I spent roughly four years researching that era and discovered a lot of information about the REAL performance practices of that time, which were often at odds with the CREATED performance practices now followed like a religion by most historically-informed musicians and singers. What I learned was that the opera and concert singers of that time did NOT uniformly use “straight tone” when they sang; on the contrary, MOST of them had vibrato in their voices, and sometimes very rapid and noticeable vibrato at that. And I also learned that string and wind players (read: violinists, violists, cellists, flautists, clarinetists and oboists) emulated the timbre, tone and expression of their favorite singers. Yes, some of them rested their violins against their shoulders instead of under their chins, but not all. Yes, some string players used straight tone when they played fast passages because vibrato got in the way, but again, not all. Some string players used a continuous light, fast vibrato whereas the majority of them used straight tone for fast passages and, yes indeedy, VIBRATO for sustained notes. And they prided themselves on having a beautiful legato—again, emulating the singers—and playing with subtle shifts in dynamics to give their performances color. So do me a favor, all of you straight-tone HIP hypocrites, and stop lecturing me on what performance practice was really like in those days.

Between 1988 and 1991 I published my own little homemade music magazine. I never had more than 40 or 50 subscribers; this was well before real desktop publishing or the Internet was available, and I struggled on next to no money. And it was during this time that I learned, the hard way, that the Grammys were as crooked and corrupted as those record reviews I once trusted. Money, not merit, was and still is behind 99.5% of all Grammy winners in all fields. So if you’re a promoter or a record company, please do not try to impress me by saying that your latest record won a Grammy or is performed by Grammy-winning artists. You can’t bullshit me. Been there, done that.

My having to work for a living, often at a succession of menial and/or soul-deadening jobs, impeded much but not all of my musical growth over the decades, and the 1990s in particular kept me from keeping up with the latest new young artists and composers too much, but I kept on plugging away and eventually caught up by, I would say, 2008. Yet it was my becoming permanently crippled at age 60 that was both a curse and a boon. Unable to get to work, I had to resign my job and live off what was left of my 401K for a year and a half until I was eligible for Social Security. This decimated what little savings I had to pay my mortgage, utilities, food and clothing bills. But the upside is that I now had the Internet to research things, a lot of great music was suddenly available for free, and I sopped it all up like a sponge.

So here I am at age 70, still writing my blog. I’ve become more and more irritated with and bored by artists who refuse to play 20th and 21st century music, and in fact with earlier music in general. My CD collection spans four six-foot bookshelves, but remember that this includes jazz (which fills up most of the last bookshelf) along with classical music from all eras…and yes, some older music in alternative and multiple recordings. Frankly, there’s nothing that 95% of modern-day artists can say about the music of the past that hasn’t already been said by others before them, so why should I go out of my way to hear your version of a piece I have one to three outstanding recordings of? Put on your big girl skirts and big boy pants and start playing contemporary music.

My comments regarding the Grammys were also the reason I eventually decided to designate certain recordings with my own “What a Performance!” award. It’s not a gold statuette handed out by the paid shills of the recording industry; it’s just a blue ribbon on your review on my website; but it’s an honest award. It has no strings attached to it. It comes from the heart and the head. No one can buy my approval. And no one ever will.

I turn down far more CDs and DVDs—especially the latter—offered to me for review than I write about, and it’s not just for my prejudice towards music I haven’t heard vs. the stuff I’ve heard a hundred times. There are certain trends in both classical and jazz nowadays that I simply don’t respond to. Here is a list:

  • Edgy-atonal-shock style music. This goes for both classical and jazz. For whatever reason, and in the classical field I kind of blame Thomas Àdes, a very talented man who inadvertently started this style and became famous for it back in the 1990s. In jazz, I guess it’s just a trend, but neither one appeals much to me any more. I was suckered in at the beginning, but have learned that this is just a gimmick that too many artists are latching on to. So there’s No. 1.
  • On the opposite side of the scale, there’s also the soft, slow, mushy style of music. This seems to be the hot thing with Millennials nowadays, probably because they’re all sitting at home crying because they can’t go out and socialize and hug their friends.
  • Allied to the above are the apparently dozens of soft, whispery “jazz” singer out there who are giving you their music “from the heart.” The women in particular all pose for their album covers with come-hither looks on their faces, usually in soft pastel dresses that look as if they’d fall to the floor in an instant if you responded to their music from the heart.
  • Music that uses too much electronics, and again this applies to both jazz and classical. Electronics do not appeal to me as a rule. On the contrary, when I hear them, they upset my nervous system and either give me a headache or make me angry. A subset of this is the use of overblown rock guitars, particularly in jazz. Sorry, folks, but I didn’t much like Miles Davis’ Bitches’ Brew when it came out, nor did I like its successors in the jazz world thereafter. In fact, the only rock guitarists I’ve ever really admired were George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Alvin Lee. (Jimi Hendrix had an amazing technique, but nothing he played ever made sense or appealed to me.) I can take electric guitars played in a jazz style, but as soon as I hear what I call “that Fillmore East sound” the record goes off.
  • The kind of classical music that I define as “schlumph,” a term borrowed from the late Anna Russell. This is modern classical of the sort that doesn’t really go anywhere, it just progresses from one schlumphy moment to another ad infinitum.
  • Guitar players of either genre who play too softly all the time. Sorry, but I was weaned on Julian Bream (classical) and Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt (jazz), and your wimpy guitar playing doesn’t impress me.
  • Anything written by Astor Piazzola. For whatever reason, he’s one of the hottest composers in classical music, and I don’t get it. His classical tangos just aren’t all that well written. Neither, for that matter, is most minimalist music (sorry, Philip Glass).
  • The music of Bruckner. As an acquaintance of mine put it, all he wrote was “a succession of endings,” and his symphonies are, to me, interminable and boring. And it doesn’t matter if Jesus K. God is conducting them. I’m just not interested.

Other than that, I’m actually pretty open-minded and have discovered some really amazing classical composers I hadn’t know about previously as well as quite a bit of modern jazz that’s highly creative.

So there you have it, me and my musical background and tastes in a nutshell. Or maybe two nutshells. Who’s counting?

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music OR

From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

Standard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s