Thursday, May 31, 2012

Janos Starker and Abba Bogin: Brahms Sonatas for Piano and Cello, 1951

Today's pick is an earlier effort by the brilliant cellist Janos Starker, a duo recording with pianist Abba Bogin comprised of both of Brahms's Sonatas for Piano and Cello.  Bogin was a highly accomplished pianist but may have been best known as the president of the Bohemians, a musicians' club in New York that has been operating since 1907.  He died last August a widely respected musical figure.  The cover was done by a print maker and sculptor named Ed Casarella.  He is fondly remembered here.  The music on this album is mostly somber and brooding and also quite technically demanding, but of course the musicians handle the challenges masterfully as they draw out the music's richness.  Brahms is noted for exploring new forms while staying more true than most of his Romantic period contemporaries to baroque counterpoint roots.  Stylistically speaking, these pieces are no exception, and even inexperienced listeners such as myself can hear the mix of old and relatively new woven carefully and seamlessly together. 

In 1833, Johannes Brahms was born in Germany into a middle class (one might say petite bourgeoisie?) family that owned an inn.  He initially learned music from his father and at the age of 10, he played a concert to raise money for his own musical education.  As a child, he also played music at social events like dances to supplement his family's income.   One of his earliest meaningful musical encounters was his acquaintanceship with Eduard Remenyi, a Hungarian violinist who moved to Germany after being banished from Austria.  The exact date of their meeting seems disputed with wikipedia placing it as early as 1848 while others (whose information I suspect is more reliable) say they did not meet until 1850.  Remenyi had to leave Austria because of his contributions to the separatist Hungarian Revolution of 1848, an independence movement that many Hungarians see as one of the most significant steps towards the formation of the modern Hungarian nation-state.  The Hungarian folk forms that Remenyi introduced Brahms to would have a profound impression on the young man for years to come, and the two toured together in 1853.  (NB: In light of Brahms's connection with Remenyi, it seems like more than a coincidence that Starker, a musician who dedicated so much of his genius to performing the music of Hungarian composers, would return to these Sonatas to perform and rerecord them at various times throughout his career.)  That same year, the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt became interested in Brahms and tried to take him under his wing but Brahms felt too constrained by Liszt's style.  1853 proved a major year for Brahms's entry into the social world of European music as it was also the year that met the immensely popular Schumanns, with whom he shared a deep mutual admiration.  He remained close, lifelong friends with Clara after her troubled husband Robert's death in 1856.  Throughout his life, Brahms treated the compositional process with a sense of deep gravity and often destroyed all copies of his pieces that did not satisfy his standards.  As he approached death in the 1890's, his musical output slowed dramatically in terms of its volume, but many critics maintain that some of his compositions from this period are among his most creative.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Radio Freedom: Voice of the African National Congress and the People's Army Umkhonto We Sizwe, 1985

This album is a mostly document of the time that two Rounder Records representatives spent in a Lusaka, Zambia radio station where the African National Congress was broadcasting programming that reached South Africa, where it was prohibited.  Apartheid was in full swing, and South Africa’s Black population routinely experienced harassment and violence at the hands of the state.  The government had by that point developed a wide array of strategies to prevent black people from gaining power.  It had long pressured Black Africans to live in Bantustans, designated areas of the country for each major ethnolinguistic group to reside in as ethnically pure homelands.  By separating indigenous ethnic groups from one another and trying to augment the barriers between them, the apartheid government sought to prevent Black Africans from consolidating power. 

Another strategy prominent during apartheid’s last decade, which is addressed on this record, was the tricameral legislature that president P.W. Botha established with the passage of a new constitution.  The legislature consisted of one house for white representatives, one house for Coloured (i.e. mixed race) representatives, and one for Indian representatives, who would legislate for their respective racial communities while the white house remained in control of the nation as a whole and the pure blooded African majority was excluded.  The record includes a radio drama (track 15) in which a few characters try to convince a stubborn old man who doubts that Botha’s intentions are as bad as they seem.  The others argue apartheid could not be worked out from within the government’s framework; true change could only be achieved from outside the bounds of legality.  One of the revolutionaries says that true reform must leave open a path for struggle.  On the other hand, Botha’s system puts the white population firmly and permanently in control of the country.  The characters’ entreaty to boycott the elections in protest of apartheid’s vision of governance apparently resonated with the popular sentiment of the day as the Indian and Coloured elections saw dramatically low voter turnout. 

The African National Congress is now the reigning political party in South Africa, but when this record was cut roughly ten years before apartheid’s fall, when the mostly Boer-run government systematically and violently oppressed the country's indigenous population, the organization was an unofficial revolutionary party.  The People's Army was its armed division, its name meaning "spear of the nation".  The station touts itself as the sole station that broadcasts from the perspective of South Africa's oppressed majority.  This album is a compilation of messages broadcast from the station and South African anti-apartheid music.  At the time this record was made, the punishment for a Black person caught listening to these types of radio broadcasts was up to 8 years in prison.  One could also be jailed 5 years for owning a record by the outspoken singer Miriam Makeba, who was living in exile by that time. 

Radio Freedom broadcasts came at staggered intervals from Angola, Ethiopia, (the sole sources of spoken material for this record,) Madagascar, Tanzania, and Zambia with the consent of the governments there.  The Madagascar station was temporarily put out of commission in 1983 by South African commandos, and not surprisingly the South African government’s military ventures into foreign countries are condemned on this album.  Programming was recorded in all the languages spoken in South Africa but only English selections were included on this record given its target audience.  Many pop songs from those days used encrypted lyrics to criticize the government while avoiding censorship on South African radio stations, and some of those songs are included here.  (Though not on this record, the station apparently also featured the music of ex-pats such as Dollar Brand and Dudu Pukwana.)  This album notably lacks daily news bulletins; the producers felt that because of the country's hectic political state, news items could become outdated so quickly that it was best to focus on the overall commentary about the state of the nation.  The proceeds of the original sale of this record went to Radio Freedom.

The content of the album is relentlessly revolutionary.  With an address to both the people of South Africa and the international community, one speaker began by describing the “state of war ... developing between the police and the people.”  He scorned the Boer government’s Western supporters with accusations of hypocrisy: "The people of Europe and the world at large breathed a deep sigh of relief when Hitlerite fascism was defeated in Europe by the allied forces.  They prayed that never again should mankind ever experience such inhumanity and cruelty.  Little did they realize that even at that moment in time fascism was rearing its ugly head in the Southern tip of Africa...  It is indeed ironical that the governments of the West, who joined forces in the struggle against Hitlerite fascism, are the same countries which today are supporting apartheid militarily, economically, and politically...  One cannot help but wonder whether this does not in itself smack of racism.  They did not invite Hitler.  They did not council negotiation with Hitler; because their people, white, were dying, they took up arms and fought.”  He goes on to warn these nations that their actions are not only immoral but lacking in political wisdom as well: “we shall not forget that the guns and bullets used to murder our people come from the Western countries.  The planes used to invade neighboring countries are supplied by them...  Our country will be free with or without the support that Botha enjoys from the Western imperialist countries.  And then they will have to contend with the aggrieved people of South Africa.  We shall never forget, never” (track 4). 

History has seen the ANC distance itself from this type of rhetoric, notably in South Africa’s decision to host the 2010 World Cup.  This kind of speech was more effective in rallying the troops than garnering confidence in trade partners, but more importantly, the shift away from it reflects a desire by post-apartheid South Africa’s leadership to hold the most egregious offenders against human rights accountable while engineering a national, interethnic reconciliation.  In any case, the message back then was clear: the people needed to find the strength to defeat Botha’s government within themselves because sufficient international aid would not be forthcoming.

Another speaker reiterates this point later when he bemoans Reagan’s reelection in the US because with it, “the apartheid government is assured more support of their oppressive system” (track 11).  But rather than be deterred by setbacks, another announcer proclaimed, the people of South Africa were compelled by their collective ethos and bare necessity to fight for their rights.  “The path of compromise that has been taken by the traitors and puppets is not open to us.  The path of surrender and subservience is also not open; it is foreign to us.  There is only one path and one path only, it is the path of relentless struggle.  It is the path of sacrifice.  It is the path of war and glory...  Our children have died of malnutrition in the Bantustans while food was being destroyed to maintain high prices” (track 6).  In other words, the physical, political and economic violence against all Black South Africans was so indiscriminate that even children became its targets.  It was this reality that motivated Radio Freedom to broadcast the following message: “Let [the government and its collaborators] fear each and every Black man in South Africa.  For indeed, the truth, the profound truth is that each and every one of us is a freedom fighter, each and every one of us is a guerrilla” (track 18).  South Africa became a place where ordinary people performed extraordinary deeds because they had little other choice.  This happens countless times across the globe in every generation, and this brings us closer to the thoughts and concerns of the South African rebels, whose heroism and valor is mirrored in the bravery on display today in the various Arab Springs, as well as in the Middle Eastern countries where such uprisings have been silenced or squelched before they could articulate themselves of mass levels. 

Although this album does not document one single continuous broadcast, I left each side whole instead of splitting apart tracks to preserve the feeling of a radio transmission that the producers created through their editing choices. The song I've posted below is a chant by rebel militants, very disciplined and ferocious.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sharan Rani (Backliwal): The Music of India, 1962

This World Pacific album of Sharan Rani Backliwal's music was her American recording debut, and wikipedia credits her as one of the first Indian artists to record for major label releases in the West.  A student of Ali Akbar Khan, she was apparently the first female sarod master.  She instructed many gifted students and inspired many women to dedicate themselves to the study of Hindustani classical music.  She passed away a few years ago, but she was truly a person who lived music; she apparently played concerts in the late 30's when she would have been 10 years old at most.  She owned a vast collection of over 350 instruments, some of  them dating from as early as the 15th century, which is housed in a museum.  She wrote extensively about music and is noted as having both an aesthetic and scholarly understanding of art. 

Her deep musical vision drives this album.  Her sound is bright and lush and the recording captures the richness of the sympathetic strings and masterful slides.  On tabla is the always impressive Chatur Lal giving Rani strong, steady support.  The tambura was played by Robert Garfias, an ethnomusicologist who now teaches in the anthropology department at UC Irvine.  The third track is primarily a tabla solo, but the sarod playing on Raga Kasui-Kanada (a midnight raga) and Raga Lalit (an early morning raga) is beautiful.  NB: this album is best heard at high volumes.  Sorry about the poor sound quality of the video, it was the best sample I could find of this album.

Recorded November 21st, 1961.

Sharan Rani: sarod
Chatur Lal: tabla
Robert Garfias: tambura

Saturday, May 12, 2012

M.S. Subbulakshmi: Sri Venkateswara (Balaji) Pancharatna Mala Vol. 5, Sri Annamacharya Samkirtanas, 1979

The albums that I upload on this blog have not typically been sitting in my collection for years.  More often, they are titles that I have picked up within a week or two of the posts.  Lately, I've been lucky to come across two great Carnatic albums, the first of which I posted two weeks back and the second of which I present to you today.  The featured soloist on this recording is Srimati M.S. Subbulakshmi, the 1968 recipient of the prestigious Sangeetha Kalanidhi award given almost every year to a Carnatic musician for excellent technique in Carnatic music.  Wikipedia describes it as among the highest awards available to performers of Carnatic music.  She was also the first musician to receive the Bharat Ratna, India's most prestigious civilian honor.  This album is the fifth and final in a series capturing Subbulakshmi performing the songs of composer and musico-religious devotee Tallapaka Annamacharya, who lived during the 15th century, an early figure in a tradition of Carnatic composers called Vaggeyakaras.  You can hear volume 2 here.  His music and his entire life were dedicated to Venkateswara, the supreme incarnation of Vishnu in the Kali Yuga age, which in Hindu theology stretches from about 5000 years ago far into the future and is the age of vice.  Vishnu appeared as Venkateswara out of benevolent love for his devotees.  The liner notes describe Annamacharya as a deeply and naturally musical person, one who composed because music was always flowing through his consciousness. He often composed music while in a musico-meditative state called Nadoapasana. 

Annamacharya's impact on Indian was substantial. He is credited as a major figure in the development of the kirtana devotional song form and is said to have written about 36000 songs over the course of his life.  He also occupies an unconventional place in India's social memory.  Legend has it that one day, a group of untouchables wanted to worship at the temple of his deity but were driven away.  He intervened by singing a song about how all people are the same "before God... as he resides in everyone's heart."  The linked explains Annamacharya's position that "God is approached by a saint and sinner and He welcomes the former and reforms the latter."  This is a brahmin speaking up on behalf of untouchables by asserting that, essentially, a person is defined more by character than caste and all people come before a God who treats them with understanding rather than discrimination.  The story goes that some of the people upset by his challenge to the status quo burnt all the documents containing his compositions in an act of revenge, but that the deity engraved his compositions on copper plates so that they would not perish again.  The message that discrimination is base and human makes this story an interesting bit of oral counterculture.  I am reminded of the split in Christianity between those who try to enforce what they see as the will of Christ versus those who strive to affect the world by leading Christ-like lives.

Radha Viswanathan: vocal support
Dwaram Manga Thayaru: violin
Kandadevi S. Alagiriswami: violin
T.K. Murthi: mridangam
V. Nagarajan: kanjira
R.H. Vinayakram: ghatam
K.S. Raghunathan: recording engineer

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Louvin Brothers: Ira and Charles with Instrumental Accompaniment, 1957

Today's post is a country album of mostly religious songs.  You'll have to excuse the quality of the record, I thought the music was worth posting in spite of the noise.  The Louvin Brothers were a country duo from Alabama who are joined here by a studio band.  They were one of the great close harmony duos of country music.  They started out in gospel and later gained recognition for songs about love and other themes, a couple of which appear here.  The duo split in 1963 when Charlie decided to leave his brother, who had developed a reputation as a heavy drinker, to pursue a solo career.  Ira died in a car accident in 1965, but Charlie continued to perform and record for much of his life, especially with a resurgence of interest in his music in the last decade.  He died in January 2011 at 83 years old. 

A different pressing of this album was posted on another blog with a different cover and two songs, I'll Live with God To Die No More and The Sons and Daughters of God, left out.  According to discogs, this pressing was released in 1957. On a personal note, I find that I often have trouble connecting with country music because it's primarily about the lyrics and the music doesn't really speak to me.  The singing and instrumentals on this album are exactly what I want out of country.  The pure vocal harmonies backed up by fiddles and twangy guitars make for a rich sound.

Although it's not the best song on the album, a track called The Great Atomic Power caught my attention.  It comes from the early period of the Cold War when the nuclear threat was still new.  Surprisingly, (to me at least,) the Louvin Brothers don't seem too alarmed.  To them, nuclear war is another doomsday scenario, a man made rapture.  Like the apocalypse, nuclear war would "[blot] out the works of man" without affecting the kingdom of heaven. The Louvins sing about the importance of preparing one's soul for heaven because no one knows when the rapture will come: "will you shout or will you cry when the fire ain't from on high?  Are you ready for the great atomic power?"  Interestingly, the Great Atomic Power doesn't appeal to politicians to avoid a nuclear winter.  Many revivalist Christians expect to see the end times during their lives and anxiously anticipate the reward that awaits them in heaven.  The Louvin Brothers' mission was to prepare people for the rapture, not postpone it.  Even if the end of the world were brought about by human technology, it would be a part of God's plan.