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Ahmad Jamal’s early albums for Argo were some of the best selling jazz records of the late 50s and early 60s, which is why they are often found in used bins today. Unfortunately, they were also some of the most popular albums of the era, so they’re often found in pretty worn shape. A nice copy of But Not For Me: Jamal at the Pershing is essential to any collection of jazz Lps, largely for his extended interpretation of “Poinciana.” His use of block chords and open space were influential on the developing cool jazz movement, especially as heard in the first Miles Davis Quintet over several highly praised albums for Prestige and Columbia.

Jamal’s career in jazz is interesting because after adopting a piano-bass-percussion trio form, he rarely recorded in other settings. He did perform on electric pianos periodically, as for instance on Freeflight, an excellent live album recorded in 1972 on which he performs “Poinciana” on a fender rhodes. He has, on occasion, recorded with larger groups — in fact, his most recent album featured Yusef Lateef (and may have been the last recording of the ninety-two year old multi-instrumentalist).

There are about twenty albums in Jamal’s catalog for Chess and its jazz subsidiaries (Argo and Cadet), most of which have been poorly represented in the digital age despite their success in the sixties. A 2014 series called The Complete Collection compiled the first dozen or so, but drew the recordings from vinyl drops rather than the original master tapes themselves, much to the frustration of audiophiles. Our favorite of his early albums, Naked City Theme, has only seen one CD reissue, an import which is presently out of print.

Naked City was an innovative television series which presented crime stories in a semi-documentary form. It ran from 1958 to 1963 and featured an impressive array of well-known stars as guests. Its theme was written by George Duning, who had a long and successful career scoring for television and film after beginning as a trumpeter in Kay Kayser’s big band in the 40s. Jamal’s recording of the song was made at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop, the club where Cannonball Adderley had earlier produced one of the most groundbreaking live albums in jazz (The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco, which was released in 1959). Recording engineer Reice Hamel was regarded by his peers as the pioneer of on-site remote recording. The six songs on Jamal’s Naked City Theme were captured by Hamel over a three day run at the club in June, 1964.

At this time Ahmad Jamal was beginning to perform more original material, moving away from standards. His two compositions on Naked City Theme are the highlight of the album. His exciting nine-minute tribute to Miles Davis may have been a thanks to the trumpeter, who began performing one of his originals, “Ahmad’s Blues” nearly a decade earlier (it appeared on Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet in 1956). “One for Miles” highlights not only Jamal’s dexterity, but his accompaniment as well. Bassist Jamil Sulieman stayed with him for several years and the two work together intuitively on the live recordings they made. Chuck Lampkin had previously played drums with Dizzy Gillespie. His jazz career is unfortunately brief, because he was exceptional whenever recorded — Lampkin left jazz and embarked on a second career in broadcasting, becoming one of the nation’s first African-American news anchors when he took a position at WIVB in Buffalo, New York in 1970.

In this 1985 interview for MPR, Jamal explains that while the early live recordings at the Pershing established him, he was criticized for not playing original material. He also explains that his current performances were almost entirely of his own compositions. He was especially productive in the several years following Naked City Theme, writing some of his most memorable originals, including “Extensions” and “The Awakening.” Both of those are title songs from great albums — the discography on Jamal’s official web page lists more albums than we care to count, but we sure would like to collect more of them.

Our copy Naked City Theme has a couple unfortunate skips, which we’ve done our best to edit out in the recordings heard here. This is an album we bought at Let It Be Records, which closed in 2005 after sixteen years on Nicollet Avenue. There were often a lot of great jazz albums to be found there, especially during those years when many people were replacing their records with CDs.

Oliver Nelson’s 1961 LP The Blues and the Abstract Truth is one of the most interesting jazz albums issued by Impulse Records during its fifteen year run. A remarkable all-star band is featured in the album, and several soloists are captured at transitional points in their career. In many ways the record is similar to the modal jazz established with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and two performers — bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Bill Evans — are heard on both records. Nelson’s compositions are far more complex than the rough head arrangements which formed the framework for Kind of Blue‘s five tracks, but the album explores the same slow-paced harmonic development.

oliver nelson

The opening tune, “Stolen Moments,” is sublime: although framed by an elaborate sixteen bar theme the song features four minor key solos on a basic 12-bar blues. Freddie Hubbard, who had just begun his transition out of hard bop into more progressive jazz (appearing on Coltrane’s first Impulse album and beginning a collaboration with Wayne Shorter the same year) performs a stunning solo. Nelson’s is, like his compositional style, cautiously paced and measured. We’ve always thought it felt pre-meditated — he does the same thing on the second side in “Teenie’s Blues.” Bill Evans is one of the most interesting personalities on the album, and his appearance is of interest because he so rarely after the early 60s performed in ensemble settings.

Evans’ best contribution on the album is on the second side, in a faster blues tune called “Butch and Butch,” where he dances through several bars with a light Basie-eque grace. And the very best solo on the album is Dolphy’s alto sax solo in “Yearnin’,” which hints at the wild style he would perfect a few years later with his very best album, Out to Lunch.

Nelson makes “special mention of [the] fine work” of baritone saxophonist George Bowering in the album’s notes. Bowering does not solo, but his role is pretty essential to the arrangements, especially “Stolen Moments.” The album is a great collaborative work, considering the band didn’t play together before or after (although several members did often collaborate). Roy Haynes is fairly restrained throughout, especially compared to what he was recording with Roland Kirk around the same time, and bassist Paul Chambers is as awesome and reliable as expected — the contrast of styles between the rest is what makes The Blues and the Abstract Truth such an interesting album.

Nelson recorded a follow-up for Impulse three years later. It features a larger group, but less innovative arrangements. None of the performers (including Nelson himself) appear on More Blues and the Abstract Truth, which is sort of a disappointing sequel — the album has a Weekend at Bernies II quality in spite of all the talented musicians who perform on it.

Last December we took pride in posting about the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra’s 1958 recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which is a remarkable record for both artistic and technical reasons. Fans of Tchaikovsky are certain to have recordings of the Minneapolis Symphony (today the Minnesota Orchestra) in their collection –in addition to making the first recordings of the 1812 Overture to include the bells and cannons as originally composed (in mono in 1954 and stereo on that second recording), the Minneapolis Symphony produced the first complete recordings of the composers three magnificent ballets.

All of these recordings were made for Mercury Records during Antal Dorati’s eleven year residency as the Orchestra’s conductor — he is often regard as one of the finest interpreters of Tchaikovsky’s music on record, later conducting recordings of all six symphonies with the London Philharmonic, but the recordings he made at our own Northrop Auditorium are still regarded as some finest you’ll ever find. You have likely seen a copy of their 1812 Overture since there are more than a million of them out there. The gold record awarded by the RIAA hangs today in the office of current musical director Osmo Vänskä.

Because we are the best place to live in the entire world, the Twin Cities is home to not one but two world-class orchestras. The other is the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which is the only full-time professional chamber orchestra in the United States. The SPCO is every bit as awesome as the Minnesota Orchestra — each has in the past decade or so tackled the monumental task of performing Beethoven’s nine symphonies, and each has made many albums which are both best-sellers and critically acclaimed.

As the Minnesota Orchestra was, in its Minneapolis Symphony days, associated with Tchaikovsky’s three ballets, the SPCO has a deep connection to one written by another composer. It happens to be one of our favorite pieces of American music.


The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s July 1979 recording of Aaron Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring was awarded the Grammy award for best chamber music performance, an honor only slightly sullied when then two-year-old Kanye West insisted it be taken away and given to Beyonce. Its a beautifully paced interpretation of the ballet, and a uniquely-engineered recording, making it of enduring interest to collectors. The record was made at the Sound 80 studio here in our neighborhood, overseen by engineer Tom Jung. The conductor was Dennis Russell Davies, a Juilliard graduate who spent eight years directing the SPCO, and is currently with the Symphony Orchestra in Basal in Switzerland.

On the flip side is presented Three Places in New England, one of Charles Ives’ most popular and distinctive pieces. That same July, the SPCO also recorded Schubert’s fifth symphony, and a third album by jazz group Flim and the BB’s was produced using the same 50.4 kHz digital recorder as a alternate to the intended direct-to-disc lathe. These three records are the earliest digital recordings made at Sound 80, and among the first digital recordings made for commercial release anywhere.

All three are of interest to audiophiles and record collectors, but the SPCO recording of Appalachian Spring is also a welcome return-to-form for the fine piece as well, as it is presented in Copland’s original instrumentation for a small chamber orchestra of thirteen musicians. While it had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Music after its debut in 1944, it is usually performed in an a weightier re-orchestration first composed soon after and popularized by Leonard Bernstein.

Copland himself conducted a revival of the original arrangement a few years earlier, commissioned by Columbia Records as part of its hit-or-miss “Copland Conducts Copland” series, a recording which likewise captures the earthy appeal unheard in the overlarge orchestra suite. As originally planned, his the ballet — which a bemused Copland often remarked was not inspired by the rolling mountains of Appalachia — presents a pastoral setting characterized by an inspiring sense of community and optimism. It is, along with his other ballets and his incidental music for Our Town, definitive Americana, while also something very much like our own version of Beethoven’s sixth symphony.

Until it was suggested he borrow its title from a Hart Crane poem, the piece was simply his Ballet for Martha, as he was working with legendary choreographer Martha Graham. In short it is the story of a congregation building a farmhouse for a pair of Pennsylvania newlyweds. Graham had commissioned Copland’s composition for a performance in the hall inside the Library of Congress, and its size determined his decision to arrange it for a small chamber orchestra. Like what we learned looking into the history of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture when posting the Minneapolis Symphony’s recording, the final score was influenced by utterly pedestrian circumstances.

The SPCO has performed Appalachian Spring as recently as on year ago, where it was conducted by Steven Schick (a recording of which you can hear here). Their original recording with Dennis Russell Davies on the Sound 80 record remains a monumental moment in Minnesota music, in many ways just as remarkable as the Dorati recordings which put the Minneapolis Symphony on the map in the fifties.

This weekend the SPCO will be performing Schubert’s Quartet in D Minor, Death and the Maiden, along with other pieces featuring violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja. There is a free open rehearsal tomorrow afternoon.

Music is Just a Bunch of Notes by Spider John Koerner and Willie & the Bumblebees is one of our favorite local records of all time.

Its original pressing of 1000 copies was hand-stamped (pre-dating the Replacements’ Stink album by a decade) — many that we’ve seen here at Hymie’s have green marker circling the title. In the case of our own copy it’s a big wild squiggly circle. Some copies had a serial number, like the “White Album,” others have additional doodlings and marks. The photographs you see here are what we were able to find searching online — We had been photographing each unique copy that passes through the record shop, but when the Hymie’s computer suddenly pooped out on us last month we lost the files.



We also found this unfinished or abandoned blog, where somebody had the idea of tracking down all 1000 copies.

My first copy of this album was a CD-R that Dave Ray made for me when I was working at Al’s Breakfast. At the time the album was out of print, and fairly difficult to find. Sadly, that disc didn’t survive one move or another, or the theft of a CD collection from a car or something. It would be something special to have today. Music Is Just a Bunch of Notes is in print again and now comes with DVD of Koerner’s weird 1970 movie, The Secret of Sleep.

The album includes crowd noise from a performance at Macalester College and a couple of absurdist comedy bits by Ted Olson. The remaining tracks were recorded above the Coffeehouse Extempore, as described in Dave Ray’s extensive liner notes. We first posted about the album’s stranger features in our very popular “Weird Stuff” series a couple years ago. Here is one of the tracks with Olson driving his car.

Hearing Koerner perform “Summer of ’88” on the new Live At Patrick’s Cabaret disc reminded us (we posted it here earlier this week) reminded us how much we love his songwriting and his totally original performances. People hang onto their Spider John Koerner albums, which is why several of them are so difficult to find — it took years to build up a collection of all of them, as well as all the great records Dave Ray made. We are, of course, very excited about the new Red House Records compilation of Ray’s records. A few customers here have been disappointed it wasn’t released on LP, but we’re just glad to hear all the rarities and live recordings.

school dadysJazz fusion is fun music to listen when you’re working. There’s enough of a groove to keep your feet moving, and on the best albums a lot to keep your brain working, too. A lot of it was controversial at the time, and for some jazz fans it still is.

Some of our favorites are really tough albums to find today, while others which were big-sellers in the seventies are fairly common (you won’t have to dig too long to find most of the Crusaders albums, for instance, or the Weather Report albums after Mysterious Traveler). Some of the rare ones are in print today as reissues — for instance we’ve been stocking reissues of Miles Davis’ On the Corner for a while and it’s been very popular.

Fusion is, in so many ways, beset on all sides by irony — the subgenre so inspired by commercial pressures created some of the most “un-commercial” jazz of its era. Miles Davis’ response to the popularity of Sly & the Family Stones’ funk-heavy act led to hard-sell albums like On the Corner, (which had as much to do with musique concrete and avant-garde classical music as it did with jazz or funk) while at the same time Herbie Hancock response was the highly commercial and popular Headhunters. And really, who doesn’t love “Chameleon”?! People who don’t like jazz fusion dismiss it as simplistic or sell-out-istic, but some of the most innovative and talented soloists of their generation recorded fusion records that were complex and anything but commercial.

Stanley Clarke is certainly regarded as a living legend, one of the best bassists performing today, whether acoustic or electric. He really belongs to the second wave of jazz fusion albums, having cut his teeth playing double bass with an astonishing array of bop legends like Horace Silver, Dexter Gordon and Art Blakey. By the time he recorded School Days (which was his fourth album as a leader) his recordings were almost entirely on electric bass — for many he was best-known as a co-founder of Return to Forever, even though his previous three albums were pretty awesome.

school days“School Days”

School Days is one of the most infectiously fun records to come out of 70s fusion — the title track alone blends the funk-infused fun side of fusion with its expansive potential. There is more variety on this album than other sort-of comparable albums like the Crusaders’ Chain Reaction, because Clarke varies the backing from track to track. David Sancious, as the most constant player, alternates between organ, electric piano and mini-moog, and guitarist Raymond Gomez plays mostly backing parts to Clarke’s lead (kind of the opposite of the guitar/bass relationship on most records). George Duke and Billy Cobham join just a single track, “Life is Just a Game,” on the second side and Clarke, on acoustic bass, jams with John McLaughlin in the quiet mini-masterpiece “Desert Song.”

desert song“Desert Song”

On a lesser album “Desert Song” would stand out — it might fit more handily on a record like the Sam Rivers/Dave Holland duos or even a Leo Kottke album from the same era. Clarke reminds listeners he can still pluck and bow a string bass with sensitivity and drive, and McLaughlin offers a hypnotic accompaniment. His part was was sampled on the 1995 Courtney Pine album Modern Day Jazz Stories. — another album that explores new jazz territory by fusing turntable work with conventional jazz performers.

In the Garden of Eden

“In the Garden of Eden” by Courtney Pine

One thing that always bugged us about School Days is the cans of paint on the cover — what’s he going to paint with the yellow one?

“Hot Fun,” with Steve Gadd on drums, take Clarke’s bass to the dancefloor and the last track, “Life is Just a Game” hints at the Stanley Clarke/George Duke collaborations to come. Our favorite groove on the album is “The Dancer” from the first side, which features Gerry Brown and Milton Holland on drums and percussion and a couple solos on the mini-moog by Sancious — Clarke plays a solo on the piccolo bass, too.

the dancer“The Dancer”

The reason we’ve been jamming to School Days for the past week is that Stanley Clarke is currently touring the entire album — he’ll be performing next Thursday night at the Cedar Cultural Center (details here). The program will also include tracks from his epic catalog of music; we’ll bet a couple songs from his various collaborations with George Duke will be in there, as a tribute to the great fusion keyboardist who passed away last summer. We’d also enjoy hearing a couple of the spacier tracks from Clarke’s 1973 debut as a leader, Children of the Future.


There’s Martin Devaney, all twenty-one years of him, with a wry nod to Nashville SkylineTony Nelson took this and several other photographs of him for the City Pages‘ first feature (here) on the fella who went on to become the unofficial Mayor of St. Paul and put a half-dozen discs between himself and Whatever that Is. The story was all “new Dylan,” the sort of thing people have been writing about other “new Dylans” since the Boss or before, aptly applied as it is here– find a copy of that debut disc and you’ll hear what I mean. Devaney’s homages to our favorite son from Hibbing are described as “familiar, sweet and clumsy.”

Devaney claims his mother once mistook a framed copy of New Morning for a new photograph of him, and I have to admit I myself saw Devaney in this picture inside the latest “Bootleg Series” collection, Another Self Portrait. It’s not just the fuzzy hair, it’s the way he holds himself.

dylan another self portrait

And last month I found myself writing City Pages’ second feature on Devaney (in today’s paper and online here), listening to Another Self Portrait while talking to my old friend about twelve years of making music, and of his desire to leave his latest album, House of Rust, somewhere in the past. Abandoned as it is even on the eve of its release, Devaney’s sixth full-length album is his most individual, singular work yet — the first, he tells me, where you can’t play the “what was Martin listening to” guessing game. It is as distinctly Devaney as Dylan’s enigmatic Self Portrait was entirely his own, though House of Rust is unlikely to be greeted with the same widespread disdain (“What is this shit?” asked Rolling Stone in 1970). In fact, Devaney has never sounded more at ease, turning phrases with a casual confidence, and — as always — “familiar, sweet and clumsy.”

you can’t win

“You Can’t Win”

House of Rust was recorded way out at Rich Mattson’s retreat-like Sparta Sound with, he says, friends and girlfriends and dogs all along for the ride. It was the fall of 2011. The entire project coming together with the ease of a lazy breeze through changing leaves — “My girlfriend asked when I had written all these songs,” he explains, because they seem to have come together suddenly, smoothly, in incidental moments like waiting for her to get dressed for an evening out. Another — which became the album’s closer — started with some chords he’d been strumming for years and a couple lines he sang while waiting for fiddler Jake Hyer to head out to a gig. Short and simple, “Fountain Cave” refers to Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant’s 1838 settlement on the Mississippi River — yep folks, the founding of the city of St Paul — as much as to the tranquility of Devaney’s life that fall.

Maybe there was a prescience to the album that seemed to flow so naturally — I wrote as much in a passage I ultimately cut from today’s story in the City Pages. House of Rust‘s lazy opening sets a slightly ominous tone. Devaney described the song as a continuation of “Nashville by Nightfall,” which closed his 2010 album The West End. An amalgam of real and fictional settings on either end of I-35, “Magnolia Diner” hints at a “couple in the break-up booth” with, you guessed it, a sweet, familiar clumsiness.

Magnolia Diner

“Magnolia Diner”

House of Rust may have been his most domestic work to date — distinguished by “Crosby Block,” a Pogues-y paean to the Prior Avenue apartment where his father’s family first lived when they came to America — but the feeling is tenuous, uneasy. Devaney describes the album as “a spiritual sister to West End,” but it’s more of a sequel, a second act that follows storylines to uncertain conclusions. The outlaws of a song like “Wise Blood” have become bitter — “Sometimes you get the feeling that you can’t win,” Devaney snarls in House of Rust‘s sharpest chorus. He takes an even darker tone near the end of the album with “Keep it Dark,” an intense performance where our “familiar, sweet and clumsy” Mayor sounds less like the Dylan of Self Portrait and more like the Dylan of Time Out of Mind.

keep it dark

“Keep it Dark”

Throughout these tracks are tightly constrained in arrangements that — contrary to Devaney’s live performances of the past year — are hardly, if ever, guitar-driven. Despite the excellent musicians contributing to House of Rust (including our favorite fiddler Jake Hyer of Pocahontas County, Ol’ Yeller’s Mattson, and a great piano player I feel like I shouldn’t name) there aren’t any extended solos on the album. Taken as a whole it’s a rich ensemble piece, consistently held together by the rhythm section of Steve Murray (bass) and Mick Wirtz (drums). These guys back Devaney’s rockers with jaunty confidence, and the laid back tracks like “Magnolia Diner” with quiet grandeur. Having a backing band this good is one of the benefits of working in the same city for twelve years.

Elsewhere the restless souls of West End return simply resigned, as in the last track on side one, which pulls the album’s conflicting comfort and unease together. In the City Pages story I compared “Weddings and Funerals” to my personal favorite Dylan song, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” because it captures the very same weariness. Devaney delivers some of his best character descriptions in a third verse, and he parts with the past with peace. “It could be one of us next time around,” he sings in the voice panned by one local critic (I won’t say who because I love his writing) as “flat.” I prefer to think of it as “familiar, sweet and clumsy.”

So the short version is that the relationship which had buoyed his life and music two years ago came to an end. I could find you a picture of them singing together at the first Record Store Day we hosted — in the basement of the old Hymie’s. I could write about how worried I was about him the night we ran into each other at the Triple Rock and he said his life was coming apart at the seams, or that it got worse from there. I felt uncomfortable not crediting her performance in the duet “Lowertown,” in the story I wrote about the album, because it was really awesome. There just didn’t seem to be a nice way to say it. It all seems too close to the bone. Devaney says he’s going to release the record and then put it all behind him — but we all know you don’t walk away from the past so easily, especially in St. Paul. House of Rust nearly became Devaney’s own Basement Tapes, and I for one am glad it didn’t. From the first time I heard “Magnolia Diner” in Devaney’s car behind the Turf Club, I argued against shit-canning something so “familiar, sweet and clumsy.” After all, we’d end up visiting it someday in the Martin Devaney “Bootleg Series.”

You can’t just walk away from your past — you’re going to run into it at a funeral, or a wedding, or at the Triple Rock. Somewhere, anyway. If nothing else you’re going to see it every time you look in the mirror — it made you the person you are. This became the unintentional theme of House of Rust, a great album nearly unheard. And since it’s all but certainly never going to be played again, let’s have a listen to “Lowertown.” Thanks for reading — hope to see you at the release show at the Cedar Cultural Center on Friday night (Ol’ Yeller and the Cactus Blossoms will open).



Some years ago I was told that the french composer Oliver Messiaen was an ornithologist, and that he often worked his own transcriptions of bird songs into the chamber music he composed. Inspired by this I walked over to Hymie’s – I was not yet in any way employed there – and bought this album, based on its trippy artwork on compelling title.

quartet for the end of time tashi

I listened to his Quartet for the End of Time one time but didn’t read the liner notes. The unusual clarinet part satisfied my curiosity, and  The recurring “Louange a l’eternite de Jesus (Praise to the Immortality of Jesus)” caught my ear, but I only played the record once, as it quickly became buried in my disorganized collection.

messiaen quartet for the end of time angelFast forward to last week, when this recording of the same piece on Angel’s “Music of Today” imprint came into the shop. Again, the jacket caught my eye, but this time for different reasons. Somebody’s making a pretty bold choice when there’s a swastika on an album cover, after all. It depends somewhat on the context — Thelonious Monk’s Underground, for instance, portrays the pianist as a freedom fighter of the French resistance, and so the Nazi flag draped over a radiator represents the opposite of an association.

Old albums on Angel do not credit an art director or cover artist, but they often have very interesting covers (this is one of the things I have always enjoyed about the classical section of any record shop). The fractured swastika may represent the broken world created by Nazism, or maybe it’s ultimate failure to unite the people. I can’t say, being an even less qualified as an art critic than I am a music critic.

Here is the story behind Messiaen’s Quartuor pour la fin du temps: Messiaen was thirty-one years old when Germany invaded France, but his poor eyesight kept him from the front line. Instead he served in the medical auxiliary, but was nonetheless captured by Nazi troops in Verdun. While held at Stalag 8-A in lower Silesia (in what is today Poland), Messiaen met several musicians, including a clarinetist, a violinist and a cellist. He composed a trio for them which was eventually expanded to include a piano. That work, his Quartet for the End of Time, was debuted on January 15th, 1941 before an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners.

Messiaen later recalled his impromptu audience with great fondness. “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension,” he wrote. Hollywood (or the writers of Hogan’s Heroes) could never dream up a story so extraordinary and inspirational. Even if the Quartet were never again performed, it’s debut in a POW camp was a powerful condemnation of Nazism.

Messiaen’s manuscript was accompanied by a preface by the composer, and a paragraph explaining each of the eight movements. Messiaen, a devout Catholic, explains that the work was “directly inspired” by this passage, the opening verses of the tenth chapter of the Book of Revelations:

And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ….

Apocalypticism aside, the title may also refer to the compositions unique approach to musical time. “Particular rhythms existing outside the measure contribute importantly toward the banishment of temporalities,” he writes in his original score. Many passages expand and contract conventional time, and the unique piano arrangement in the first movement, “Liturgie de cristal (Crystal Liturgy)” has an ethereal and unbound quality. It’s methodical repetition of a simple seventeen tone phrase through nearly two dozen chords is hypnotic.

The debut performance at Stalag 8-A relied on any instruments that could be found. The Quartet has since been recorded a number of times under much more comfortable circumstances. The album I first bought was by the Tashi Quartet – Ida Kavafian, Peter Serkin, Fred Sherry and Richard Stoltzman – a group originally formed for the purpose of recording Messiaen’s piece. Over the next several years they recorded other chamber works ranging from Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet to new pieces by Toru Takemitsu. They re-formed years later to celebrate what would have been Messiaen’s 100th birthday with a tour. Their 1977 recording for RCA/Victor’s Red Seal imprint is the one you’ll hear below.

Messiaen was released from the camp not long after the performance, and he returned to France where he took a prominent position at the Paris Conservatory. I have always found it hard to imagine a place like the Paris Conservatory going about its day-to-day business during the war, but indeed that’s what they did. Messiaen’s students in the coming years would include Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and he continued to compose as well. It was in the sixties that he more actively began to incorporate bird songs into his work, as I had been told years ago by a friend. A 1953 piece Réveil des oiseaux consists almost entirely of bird songs heard in the dawning of a day in a region of the western Alps called the Jura Mountains.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Messiaen’s compositions is his consistent use of palindromic rhythms. These, combined with extended harmonic sequences, would theoretically (if played indefinitely) exhaust all potential variations, and return to their relative starting points. The interaction between the cello and the piano in “Liturgie de cristal” is one example of this concept. In presenting only a portion of this elaborate and epic interaction, Messiaen is providing the listener only a glimpse of something beyond the scale of a human lifetime. What we hear performed is a tiny snapshot of something eternal.

We live again in times of great apocalyptic fervor, yet we seem to be turning away from the natural world in circumstances which drove artists like Messiaen into its refuge. Ironically, the most extreme example of this, and the most famous quartet of recent decades, was composed by a former student of Messiaen. Stockhausen’s Helikopter-Streichquartett (Helicopter String Quartet) calls for the performers to be in walk outside after their introduction and ride in four separate helicopters above the hall for the duration of their performance. The entire spectacle is presented to the audience on a series of video monitors.

If you’re thinking that sounds absurd, I submit it is no more so than the way we separate ourselves at every chance by listening to our own private music on earbuds. We buy our groceries at self-checkout counters and nearly everything else online. For many of us in the only thing more actively avoided than human contact is interaction with the natural environment. There are many artists like Messiaen, to be sure, whose work draws upon faith and deeper relationships (His Quartet for the End of Time) was written to be performed by friends he had made of fellow POWs, for instance). When I think of how musicians like this must fit into an increasingly commercial and alienating industry, I recall the ending of Heinrich Böll’s novel about post-war Germany, The Clown. Hans (a clown “who collects moments”) finds himself with nowhere to turn. In the end he takes a guitar to the train station and plays as people drop change into his case.


Liturgie de cristal
(Liturgy of crystal)


Vocalise, pour l’ange qui announce la fin de Temps
(Vocalise, for the angel who announces the end of Time)


Abime des oiseaux
(Abyss of the birds)




Louange a l’eternite de Jesus
(Praise to the eternity of Jesus)


Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes
(Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets)


Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du Temps
(Cluster of rainbows, for the angel who announces the end of Times)


Louange a l’immortalite de Jesus
(Praise to the immortality of Jesus)

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