Excellent Things: 03
When it comes to classical music, it’s hard to know where to start.
It isn’t like trying to learn ‘The Smiths’ and going straight to ‘The Queen Is Dead’. Or learning grunge and going straight to ‘Nevermind’.
The original composers are mostly long-gone, and none of their recordings live on.
With classical music, you’re basically listening to a massive live covers band. And the challenge is that you have to find:
- the song or piece you like
- the orchestra & composer who performed it best, and
- the recording that best captures the above.
The other difficulty is that modern pop songs tend to last for 4 minutes, and transmit a narrow band of emotion.
Classical pieces can run for more than an hour, and encapsulate the full range: anger, joy, sadness, fear, disgust.
Listening to classical music doing the anger and disgust parts — the heavy cymbals, the sharp horns, the jolting strings — is dissonant.
When you grow up on pop music, scaling your mind to classical is hard. It’s like growing up on pop art and trying to scale your tastes to classical painting.
So you have a discovery issue, an interpretation issue, a formatting issue, and a comprehension issue. That combination is enough for most people to never make it in.
I’ve been trying.
The point of the Excellent Things series is to move away from the junk food of modern content consumption and get back to something more wholesome and timeless.
Fill the pages of your glorious youth because they will be quickly turned.
You can go to TMZ right now and read: “IGGY AZALEA GIVES BIG F-U To Nick & Baby Mama,” or you can commit that same time and read from E.B. White’s ‘Once More To The Lake’.
Less ‘Rack City’, more Rachmaninoff.
Hourly is often not the right granularity with which to view news, music, writing, and video. The lens of three months gives you a more manageable, higher quality filter.
I spent a lot of time this quarter digging and reading and listening to classical and though I didn’t get far, I did find a pathway in through choral music.
Choral music is written specifically for choirs. Choral music is more melodic, more mellow, more oriented towards joy and sadness, the easiest musical emotions to digest.
Miserere Mei — composed in the 1600s around Psalm 51 and sung during Sistine Chapel matins — is a good starting point. The St. John’s College Choir version is stunning:
Gorecki’s ‘Symphony No. 3’ is another example.
The lyrics recite a prayer inscribed by an imprisoned teenage girl on the cell wall of a Gestapo headquarters.
You could listen to the Seeb remix of Mike Posner’s ‘I Took A Pill In Ibiza’. Or you could listen to ‘Symphony No. 3’.
The classical album that best captured my tentative first steps into this world was Monteverdi’s ‘Vespers’, conducted by John Eliot Gardner.
For a great example of the impenetrability of classical music, read this breakdown of which version of ‘Vespers’ is best. I listened to them all and I still like this Gardner version best.
I’m trying. This is just the start.
Character is destiny.
One of the greatest performances in NBA history just happened, and the post-facto analysis has been a joy to consume.
The Block. The Shot. This was historic stuff. This was lifetime immunity for Lebron James’ legacy.
I’ve written before about my gratitude for being in the presence of greatness. Soon, LeBron won’t play like this any more, and we will have to wait a long time to see anyone like him again.
If you go back 14 years to 2002, , you can see how unlikely any of this was. How unlikely it was that LeBron would turn out to be as great as we thought he could.
2016 was the crescendo to James’ bildungsroman.
Truth and love need each other, so they can be themselves.
The best thing I watched recently was Kirk Docker’s new series Hello Stranger. Kirk has this way of pulling unexpected humanity out of people. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. I was so moved by the series, and by the rich and complex stories it tells about Australia and the diversity of what it means to be Australian.
Truth never triumphs — its opponents just die out.
I tried to watch Jean Luc Goddard’s ‘Breathless’, and Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’ and made it less than 14% through both.
Meanwhile, I devoured ‘All or Nothing: A Season with the Arizona Cardinals’ in a single weekend. It was everything I hoped it would be.
’99 Homes’ was good, not great, but this scene really stuck out.
The best/most harrowing thing I read was Mother Jones’ my four months as a private prison guard.
I have no business to feel downcast or querulous merely because when so much has been given me I have not had even more. — Teddy Roosevelt
- This Bill Gates New Yorker profile from 1994.
- Sivers’ ‘How To Get Rich’
- This 2014 profile of Al Pacino (which finally helped me to understand his descent from Godfather II to Sandler’s Jack and Jill).
- This 1964 profile of a young Bob Dylan. The description of how Dylan worked has stuck with me.
“He prefers to keep most of his time for himself. He works only occasionally, and during the rest of the year he travels or briefly stays in a house owned by his manager in Bearsville, New York. There Dylan writes songs, works on poetry, plays, and novels, rides his motorcycle, and talks with his friends. From time to time, he comes to New York to record for Columbia Records.”
Luxury is an extended period of time to focus on one thing.
I saw Dylan live last month at the Berkley Theatre. It was OK. I was so ready for it to be so much better. Paul Simon was similarly flat.
The deep live memories were formed seeing Underworld in Oakland (bucket list), Keith Jarrett on a single, un-mic’d piano (bucket list!) and Missy Higgins (unexpectedly awesome and nostalgic).
At her show, Missy covered the Drones’ ‘Shark Fin Blues’.
Gareth Lilliard wrote the song about the depression he felt after his mother died. Read the lyrics while you listen.
Standing on the deck watching my shadow stretch
The sun pours my shadow upon the deck
The waters licking round my ankles now
There ain’t no sunshine way way down
I see the sharks out in the water like slicks of ink
Well, there’s one there bigger than a submarine
As he circles I look in his eye
I see Jonah in his belly by the campfire light
See the albatross up in the windy lofts
He gets to beating his wings while he sleeps it off
I hear the jettisoned cries from his dreams unkind
Gets to whippin’ my ears like a riding crop
The captain once as able as a fink dandy
He’s now laid up in the galley like a dried out mink
He’s laying dying of thirst and he says or I think
Well, we’re gonna be alone from here on in
Well you are all my brothers, and you have been kind
But what were you expecting to find?
Now your eyes turn inwards, countenance turns blank
And I’m floating away on a barrel of pain
It looks like nothing but the sea and sky remain
A harpoon’s shaft is short and wide
A grappling hook’s is cracked and dry
I said, why don’t you get down in the sea
Turn the water red like you want to be?
Cause if I cry another tear I’ll be turned to dust
No the sharks won’t get me they don’t feel loss
Just keep one eye on the horizon man, you best not blink
They’re coming fin by fin until the whole boat sinks
Being a father is better than I thought anything could be
Where there are friends there are riches.
Maybe my favourite artist right now is Nils Frahm. He is producing music at such an incredible volume. In the past year alone:
The Solo Remains reissue with 4 new songs, the experimental Tag Eins Tag Zwei (which I didn’t love so much), a reworked ‘Screws’, remixes of Booka Shadea, a Late Night Tales installment and the soundtrack to Victoria.
The quality and volume is staggering. I love it when artists do this.
The conversation is the relationship.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Avalanches’. ‘Since I Left You’ is a timeless classic still (go put it on right now). ‘Wildflower’ is simply very good.
But 16 years! 16 years! That’s too long.
I love ‘Wildflower’s’ cover art. The butterfly logo was designed by Fergus Purcell, who is also responsible for the iconic Palace triangle logo.
Purcell name-checks Jean Paul Goode as a central inspiration. Goode was the mind behind those epochal Grace Jones images.
The lineage of creativity is endlessly fascinating.