Saturday night music: “Prelude to a million years” by Tony Banks


Tony Banks was my first rock hero, as Genesis’s keyboardist for their entire existence as well as the writer of many of their signature songs. Quiet, shy, and introvert in person, he was the one-man orchestra that put the S in ‘symphonic rock’. He has issued a number of underrated solo albums (‘A curious feeling’ and ‘Still’ both have gems on them), but in semi-retirement he has devoted himself to writing orchestral neo-classical music. The results sound much like film music, with echoes of John Barry and Bernard Herrmann, and occasionally of Ralph Vaughan Williams and other late-Romantic English composers. Tony has released two albums of his orchestral work so far, “Seven” and “Six” (the titles refer to the number of pieces on each). This is a track from his upcoming third orchestral album, “Five”, taken from his official YouTube channel.



International Shoah Memorial Day: Chiune Sugihara (“The Japanese Schindler”), the Teheran Children, and David Draiman’s powerful memorial song

In observance of International Shoah Memorial Day, January 27 [the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of the Auschwitz death camp], a few items.

(1) Here is an interview with survivors and escapees who remember the “Japanese Schindler”, the diplomat Chiune Sugihara.

Sugihara was appointed vice-consul in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania in 1939. After the USSR occupied sovereign Lithuania in 1940, many Jewish refugees from the Nazi war and murder machine tried to flee eastward. “Sempo” Sugihara issued Japanese transit visas that allowed such refugees as could afford a ticket to board the Transsiberia Railway and travel to the Pacific Ocean port of Vladivostok, and hence by boat to Kobe, Japan (the one town in Japan that had a significant Jewish community). His instructions from his superiors were that such transit visas could only be issued to people who had entrance visas to a third country: in the beginning the Dutch consul helped out by issuing entrance visas to the Dutch Antilles and to Suriname, but eventually Sugihara ignored orders and hand-wrote about 6,000 visas until the consulate was closed, and he himself reassigned to Königsberg, East Prussia (present-day Kaliningrad, Russia), later to Prague and to Bucharest. He reportedly passed his last batch of visas from the train window as the train was pulling out of the station.

Many of the “Sugihara visa” holders spent the war in Shanghai, including the parents of a friend of mine. (Japan was an ally of Nazi Germany but for the most part had no idea what Jews even were, let alone shared the obsession with killing them.) Sugihara’s act — in open defiance of his superiors — was culturally unthinkable on the one hand, but on the other hand brings to mind the famous story of the 47 Ronin, with its conflict between obedience and honor.

(2) The story of the “Teheran Children” (Hebrew Wikipedia page here) and how they escaped​ is not well known outside Israel. Below follows a documentary in English. The foreword to a book in progress can be read here.

(3) [Reposted] David Draiman, the frontman of heavy metal band Disturbed, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family adn actually trained to be a chazzan (cantor). Even though he lost his faith later, he remains connected to his Jewish roots, and it is hard not to hear the echoes of chazzanut in his vocals. The song below is his response to Shoah deniers: if heavy metal isn’t your thing, then just read the lyrics.

They have a frightening desire for genocide
They wouldn’t stop ’till what was left of my family died
Hell-bent on taking over the world
You couldn’t hide in the shout of conformity
We can’t forget how we were devastated by the beast
And now we pleaded with the captors for release
We were hunted for no reason at all
One of the darkest times in our history

[CHORUS:] All that I have left inside
Is a soul that’s filled with pride
I tell you never again
In a brave society
Didn’t end up killing me
Scream with me, never again…not again

A generation that was persecuted endlessly
Exterminated by the Nazi war machine
We will remember, let the story be told
To realize how we lost our humanity
You dare to tell me that there never was a Holocaust
You think that history will leave the memory lost
Another Hitler using fear to control
You’re gonna fail this time for the world to see


For the countless souls who died
Their voices fill this night
Sing with me, never again
They aren’t lost, you see
The truth will live in me
Believe me, never again


Meeting of the spirits


By accident, I stumbled on the YouTube channel “Fredneck” of the guitarist of a fusion jazz cover band named General Zod. In the following video, they offer a worthy tribute to one of my all-time classics in the genre, “Meeting of the Spirits” by the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

The intro (which is a bit distorted on my CD of the original) begins with a rather strange chord progression based on minor-major chords: C#add#9 — Dadd#9/C# — C#add#9 (another voicing) — Cmadd#9/B — C#9#11/G — F/E — G/F — G/A — F/G.

The main section is a modal 6:4 jam in the F# Phrygian mode (i.e. the 3rd mode of the D major scale). The riff is a based on arpeggiating a mutant version of the familiar Phrygian i-IImaj7 progression: F#m is “jazzed up” to F#b9 without the 3rd (the individual notes are F#2 F#3 C#4 G3 E4) and Gmaj7 is spiced up to. Gmaj7b5add6 (individual notes G2 F#3 C#4 B3 E4). In a 6:4 meter, the arpeggiation follows a 5-5-2 pattern. The repeated riff is most easily played using the thumb to fret the bass note.

The “spirits” that meet are guitar, keys, and violin. I literally never tire of this progression for jamming over. Enjoy!



Of art, craft, and acquired tastes

A friend who is an art historian lamented that even his most attentive students could not share his enthusiasm for modern art and that even those who understand the context in which it arose still dislike it.

One of the issues I have with much of what passes for modern “art” is that it is 99% concept (the more pretentious and preachy, the better) and 1% about execution. I am reminded of how in Dutch, “kunst” (art) comes from the same root as “kunde” (ability, skill, knowledge). It’s hard to see any “kunde” in making cans labeled “Merde d’Artiste” [sh-t of artist/sh-tty artist] (Piero Manzoni); in displaying one’s unmade bed as an art installation; dripping paint on a canvas (Jackson Pollock); making stains of various bodily fluids (Andres Serrano — this work of “art” was used by Metallica for two album covers); and the like. Richard Bledsoe of the Remodern Review has been blogging up a storm about this poseurism, and the neo-figurative “Stuckist”  and “Remodern” movement that arose against this “stuck on stupid”.

What much of modern “art” really amounts to is a rejection of “craft” in favor of “concept”. I cannot help being reminded of a similar trend in literature.

Now you could call me an artistic philistine who is stuck on Renoir, and maybe you have a point — but I’m much more conversant with music than with any visual art, and yet we see something similar there: contemporary classical music has, for the most part, become a sterile exercise in intellectual and ideological peacocking by academic musicians for academic musicians and snobbish hangers-on.

Another friend asked in response whether this was a matter of acquired taste. After all, people who are not chocoholics or wine connoisseurs cannot truly appreciate “the good stuff” for how good it is?

Perhaps, but here’s the thing: even the person who would like the cheap chocolate from the dollar store as well as the rare gourmet stuff still has no trouble recognizing the latter as chocolate — they just would miss the added value. To use a musical analogy: consider listening to a Bach fugue.  Knowing formal counterpoint will make you realize just how much of a genius Bach was to do what he did, but you don’t need to know any music theory to hear it’s music — and if it’s well played, an attentive listener — even without any formal training — will realize it’s a tapestry of independent voices in a harmonious conversation, even if you don’t know any of the “rules of order” that govern it (which is what classical counterpoint really is, a “Roberts’ Rules” for polyphonic music).


On consciously and unconsciously knowing


A Facebook friend of mine, very articulate, a sharp thinker, and with multiple academic degrees in “hard” subjects, was discussing his frustration with only speaking one language, and even so, “don’t ask me about the rules of grammar. On good days, I know what a gerund is.”

Now his written communication is always flawless in spelling and grammar, so he clearly knows how to apply grammar — which illustrates the difference between knowing something and knowing the words for it. Or, if you like, between having internalized a skill and being able to explain it.

Richard Feynman, in “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” recalls how his father taught him that knowing the name of, say, a species of bird in several languages still doesn’t teach you anything about  the bird. That is true enough, of course, except for one thing — if I know what the bird is called, I can go look it up — trudge to the library for the Britannica or a handbook of ornithology when I was young, or just search in Google or Wikipedia nowadays.

I write a fair amount of highly technical nonfiction in my day job — well enough that I’ve been asked to teach others — and frankly didn’t consciously know any of the grammatical rules until I realized I was able to teach people how something was done, but not why. “This is how it goes, it just sounds wrong otherwise, don’t ask  why,” isn’t how thinking people like to be taught. Consequently, I was forced to hit the textbooks myself just so I could “tell people what the bird was called so they could look it up”. I imagine this is a similar situation to people who are self-taught as jazz or rock musician but need to go learn theory just so they can be more effective teachers.

In an interview shortly before he passed away, the legendary jazz trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis reminisced about a meeting with Jimi Hendrix, planning a recording session that sadly never came to pass due to Jimi’s untimely death. He recalled mentioning a “diminished seventh chord”, and Jimi looking blank. He then took his trumpet and arpeggiated the four notes — Jimi of course immediately played the chord that he’d never known the name of. In fact, Jimi would have stared the same way at the mention of a “major-minor chord”, a.k.a. “dominant seventh-sharp ninth chord” — even though it’s nowadays often referred to as the “Purple Haze chord” or “Hendrix chord” due to its prominent use in one of Jimi’s best-known compositions.

Hendrix “spoke music like a native”, but didn’t consciously know the grammar, if you like — he just could apply it in his sleep. A very different intuitive musician, Evangelos Papathanassiou — world-famous among electronica and soundtrack lovers by the Greek nickname Vangelis — had classical piano lessons but never properly learned to read music: blessed with a prodigal ear and memory, he could reproduce what his teacher showed him just fine. While he apparently took some college classes in music (as did his more meditative German college, Klaus Schulze), he kept an intuitive, “feel” attitude toward music his whole life. When an interviewer in Keyboard magazine asked him how he composed, he answered tellingly: “it’s like breathing: if you think about how to breathe, you choke”.

Now while some of Vangelis’s more ambitious compositions (such as “Heaven and Hell”) clearly draw inspiration from Western classical music (Klaus Schulze even wrote a brief orchestral fugue in the studio version of “Ludwig II”), it would be hard for a musician to “function” in the classical world without the musical equivalent of “knowing your grammar”. (To be sure, at least one famous classical organist needed to learn most of his repertoire by ear — Helmut Walcha had been totally blind since age twelve — but he surely knew his theory, and taught for many years at the Frankfurt Conservatory.) Likewise, in some of the more ambitious, through-composed realms of jazz and progressive rock, a thorough conscious knowledge of music theory is a great asset—though you may be able to get by just fine with an unconscious one, as long as your fellow band members are comfortable learning by ear.

Conversely, knowing the rules without being able to apply them in real time may get you a job as a critic, but won’t get you far as a musician — or a writer.



Saturday delight, Chanukah edition: Rami Kleinstein, “All your wonders have not yet ceased”

Happy Festival of Lights/Chag urim sameach!
Happy Festival of Dedication/Chag Chanuka sameach

In honor of the holiday, not my usual classical, prog-rock, or electronica fare. but an Israeli pop song that is a paean to this small, weird, and wonderful country: Rami Kleinstein’s “Od lo tamu pela’ich” —”All your wonders have not yet ceased”.

“Ulpan la-inyan” has a pretty accurate translation, which I’m quoting here:

ארצנו הקטנטונת, ארצנו היפה
מולדת בלי כותונת, מולדת יחפה
קבליני אל שירייך, כלה יפהפייה
פתחי לי שערייך אבוא בם אודה יה.

בצל עצי החורש, הרחק מאור חמה
יחדיו נכה פה שורש אל לב האדמה
אל מעיינות הזוהר, אל בארות התום
מולדת ללא תואר וצועני יתום.


Our little land, our beautiful land
Homeland without robes, homeland barefoot
Accept me among your songs, beautiful bride
Open your gates, I’ll come forth and praise G-d.

In the clearing trees’ shade, far from sun’s light
Together shall we plant into the earth’s heart
To the shining springs, to the groundwater wells
Homeland without figure, orphan gypsy.

עוד לא תמו כל פלאייך
עוד הזמר לו שט
עוד לבי מכה עם ליל
ולוחש לו בלאט:
את לי את האחת
את לי את, אם ובת
את לי את המעט
המעט שנותר.

Your wonders have not ceased
The song has yet to sail
My heart still strokes at night
And whispers in the dark:
You are for me the one
You are for me mother and daughter
You are for me the little,
little that remains.

נביאה בבגדינו את ריח הכפרים
בפעמון ליבנו יכו העדרים,
ישנה דממה רוגעת
וקרן אור יפה,
ולאורה נפסעה ברגל יחפה.

עוד לא תמו כל פלאייך…

We bring with our clothing the village scent
To our heart’s bell shall the flocks stride
There is a calming silence
And a pretty ray of light,
And to its light we tread barefoot.

Your wonders have not ceased…

And since it’s also the Sabbath, another song by Kleinstein, “Small gifts,” which is an ode to the Sabbath and to the transmission of Jewish heritage:

[Translation by the YouTube poster, with a few slight corrections.]
Another Friday, breathing the air,
Light and shadow are playing “tag” again.
The table is set, childhood photos on the wall,
Processions in white are returning from shul,
And that smell which scratches my heart-
Sneaking in and opening doors
To a small joy,
To the same old song which is being passed along the generations.
Small gifts
Someone has sent me small gifts
Shards of intent, circles of belief
Small gifts
Such as the strength to accept what I lack and what I possess
What more can one ask for?
Another Friday, a balcony, and a newspaper,
The sun, like worries, is slowly being erased,
Simple melodies crawl through the window
and there is no longer any storm which can hide the silence.
To a small joy
To the same old song which is being passed along for generations.

Saturday musical delight: Well-Tempered Clavier in MuseScore animation

Via YouTube channel “gerubach”, which has been presenting “scrolling score” youtube videos of musical compositions for many years, I stumbled upon the following gem of a playlist:

All of Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is being rendered there in MuseScore animation: as you hear the audio, not only do you see the score on screen (two systems at a time) and a pointer scrolling across the notes being played, but at the bottom of the screen, you see the notes currently sounding displayed on a piano keyboard.

Especially in combination with YouTube’s ability to play back videos at reduced speed without altering the pitch, this is a marvelous self-tutoring tool for keyboard playing as well as music theory.

The audio is taken from the performance by pianist (and former competitive weight lifter!) Kimiko Ishizaka [official website]. The MuseScore team could legally do so as the (IMHO excellent) performance was released in the public domain (!)

The onetime child prodigy pre-funds her recordings through Kickstarter campaigns (most recently, she ran one for a “Libre”recording of Bach’s The Art of Fugue), then releases them online under PD or Creative Commons licenses. The word “Libre” she uses has some currency in the open source software developer community: It refers to one of the two words in French (and other Romance languages) that correspond to the English “free”, namely libre (without restrictions, “free as in speech”) vs. gratis (without cost, “free as in lunch”).  She does not work gratis, but on what I have been calling a “massively distributed commissioning” model, and what is becoming known as a “threshold pledge” model: she sets a funding goal, solicits pledges from patrons on Kickstarter, and if her threshold is met, the work is performed and the money collected. For her last campaign, the threshold she set was 20,000 Euro, and the minimum pledge was 10 Euro — the price of an album at a CD store (remember those). Larger pledge amounts (20 Euro, 50 Euro, 100 Euro) get various extra goodies, such as live recordings from recent concerts, a physical CD of the music, and admission to one of three “meatspace” live concerts.

D. Jason Fleming has been talking a lot about the “Open Culture Movement”. I believe this is an interesting example, and may actually point a way toward the future for classical performers. The big losers here, of course, are the classical music labels, who in this model are about as profitable as illegal CD bootleggers….