Weird Records

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John Sebastian performs Bach’s Sonata no 1 in B Minor for Flute and Piano on a four-octave chromatic harmonica. He is accompanied by pianist Paul Ulanowsky.

Performing on the same instrument, George Fields performs the popular “Prelude and Fugue” from The Well Tempered Clavier, Book II. Through the magic of overdubbing (the true “classical gasp” of the venture) Fields accompanies himself on the bass harmonica.

For today we have the music of a composer who was largely unknown until late in his life. Conlon Nancarrow was born in Texarkana, Arkansas but spent most of his life living in Mexico. His early musical education included a stint as a trumpeter in a jazz band and studies with eminent American composers Roger Sessions, Walter Piston and others. He left Boston at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War to join the XV International Brigade (the famed “Abraham Lincoln brigade”) in fighting the fascist Francisco Franco. Uncomfortable in the United States after his release from the Gurs internment camp in France, Nancarrow fled to Mexico City where he made his home and returned to his study of music.

Having found performances of his complex compositions unreliable and inspired by Henry Cowell’s polyrhythmic theory in the book New Musical Resources, Nancarrow took an interest in composing for the player piano. With an inheritance he returned to New York City in 1947 to acquire a custom piano roll punching machine and began to produce by hand rolls which carried his compositions. The work was so slow that some of his Studies for Player Piano which last only a few minutes took more than a year to program.

The player piano can “perform” at speeds far beyond human ability, allowing Nancarrow to create previously unimaginable polyrhythmic structures in his Studies. At the same time, player pianos are unable to produce tones with the delicacy of human fingers, and pound out the notes in a furious fortissimo. Nancarrow accommodated for this challenge by adapting his two Ampico player pianos — covering the hammers of one with metal and in the other with leather in a manner familiar to followers of Henry Cowell of John Cage.

Nancarrow’s work with the player piano presages much of the early explorations into electronic composition (such as the music in this post from May). He would later admit that if he had waited a little longer to begin his work he would have taken an interest in electronics. His Studies for Player Piano evolve over the years from the first several which bear the mark of Art Tatum’s advanced stride piano technique to complex canons with entirely idiosyncratic rhythmic ratios.

The release of an album of his Studies in 1969 brought some attention, but he continued to work in isolation into the 1970s. He was not even known to Mexican musicians and composers. The work of two American avant garde composers began to bring about Nancarrow’s rise to recognition. The first was minimalist composer Peter Garland, who started publishing Nancarrow’s scores in 1976, and the second was Charles Amirkhanian, then the musical director of a listener-funded Berkeley, California radio station one might compare to Minneapolis’ own KFAI. Amirkhanian recorded the complete Studies for Player Piano on Nancarrow’s player pianos under the composer’s supervision and released them on four volumes on his record label, 1750 Arch.

The first of these volumes is presented here today. These records are out of print, but there is a CD box set which collects them all. A couple later CD sets collect the late Studies composed after the recording of the 1740 Arch albums. Amirkhanian’s extensive notes contain enticing details about Nancarrow’s works, as well as a photograph of an unfinished pneumatic percussion machine which was to perform the work of an ensemble from programmed rolls.

One of the most enthusiastic acolytes of Nancarrow’s music was György Ligeti, the Hungarian composer best known to American audiences through the frequent use of his music in Stanley Kubrick’s films. Legeti discovered these albums in a record shop while, according to one story, looking for albums of his own, and they were an inspiration for his own landmark Etudes. In a television documentary, Ligeti said of Nancarrow, “His music is so utterly original, enjoyable, perfectly constructed, but at the same time emotional … for me it’s the best music of any composer living today.”

Winter break is over and bleary-eyed kids all over the City of Minneapolis are rising to alarm clocks and Mom’s admonitions. Soon we’ll all be back in the rhythm of our routine, such as it is, for the remaining 103 days of school.

To celebrate (as this is a very different kind of day when you don’t have to get on that school bus), here is the most unusual educational record we have ever posted here on the Hymies blog, borrowed from a 2014 post.

little red 1little red 2A remarkable relic from China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Songs of the Little Red Guards is a 10″ album from the late 60s with a similar package to the Ella Jenkins and Pete Seeger records American children were putting on their Fisher Price players at the time.

Although sung by a children’s choir, the songs reflect the turmoil of the times, in particular the re-establishment of Mao-ist orthodoxy. Titles such as “Let’s Help Pick Up the Rice Left in the Fields” and “Growing Vegetables for the Armymen’s Families” hint at the legacy of the famine which followed Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Foward while others enforce the Communist Party’s doctrine.

One of the most interesting songs is a tribute to Lei Feng, a relatively unknown soldier whose memoirs were published after his death in 1962 as Lei Feng’s Diary. The book expresses his admiration for Chairman Mao Zedong and the sacrifices he has made for the revolution in the form of selfless acts. The soldier was the subject of a propaganda campaign, and his story became part of the compulsory curriculum in schools.

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An iconic poster of Lei Feng

The Red Guard was a student movement which began in 1966 in the middle school attached to Beijing’s Tsinghua University. After receiving recognition from the CCP the group quickly established itself in nearly every school in China. With the Chairman’s personal endorsement at a rally that summer, the group became an essential part of his Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Party leadership in Beijing struggled to control the Red Guard, which became increasingly divided into factions as it grew, potentially out of control. The campaign against Capitalist or bourgeoisie remnants became violent in places, where assaults on Chinese cultural relics quickly became assaults on individuals. The People’s Liberation Army began suppressing the Red Guard’s most radical elements in 1967, and it was entirely eliminated, often with brutal force, by the summer of 1968. The Chairman, whose enormous personality cult was greatly enhanced by the Red Guard, was alleged to have a tear in his eye when he last spoke to Red Guard leaders.

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A Red Guard poster featuring the watchful Chairman

If you’d like to learn more about the Red Guard or start such an organization in your own school, you will likely enjoy Carma Hinton’s 2003 documentary about the Cultural Revolution, Morning Sun. If you still think it’s a good idea, we have a little red book for you.

One of the most esoteric subgenres in American music may be eef, a turn-of-the-century Appalachian precursor to beatbox which enjoyed its fifteen minutes of fame in the early 60s with a single minor hit (“Little Eeefin’ Annie” by Joe Perkins) and recurring appearances by Jimmy Riddle (accompanied by hambone “artist” Jackie Phelps) on Hee Haw.

You may be surprised to read that record companies were not lining up to sign eef acts, and so actual recordings are fairly uncommon. A sole single by the Goodlettsville Five from 1964 may be one of the only eef records which has turned up here at your friendly neighborhood record shop in the better part of a decade.

baileys gone eefing

Its often said that culture moves in cycles and things once discarded will come around again — and Lord knows no one here could have predicted there’d ever be enough demand for Eagles records that they’d actually start making more of them — but eef seems like an art form lost to the ages.

Some years ago we met the Devil at a crossroads. In exchange for making our record shop beloved unto the masses, we agreed to share with our followers the holy doctrine of the almighty Jim Backus at least once a year.

Yea, wretched sinners — behold the Truth of Truths

You have now heard “Overture” and “Creation” from Truth of Truths, a rock opera based on the Bible, produced by Ray Ruff in 1971. Not just spiritually enlightening, Truth of Truths boasts occasional sludgy rock passages a la Iron Butterfly and soul-pop in the 5th Dimension vein.

And yes, the voice of God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, is none other than Jim Backus. Mr. Magoo is your Lord. Thurston Howell III your almighty Creator.

You were created in His image.

Some folks are embarrassed when they bring in boxes of records. Turns out that Wham! album always belongs to someone’s sister.

Truth is, there’s no judgement. Nobody should ever make fun of you for the music you enjoy, unless its your neighbors and you’ve been playing it too loud. Our own collection has all kinds of skeletons in the closet, and we don’t mean a copy of Skeletons in the Closet.

There is one record in particular which we have never played all the way to the end. We’ve never even finished a single side, and it’s a double LP. It’s Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed.

metal machine music

Reed’s hour-long electronic drone has no musical value whatsoever. Rolling Stone said it was as unpleasant as “a night in a bus terminal” at the time. It is commonly listed as one of the worst records of all time.

Always a contrarian, Lester Bangs praised the album, although given his tumultuous relationship with Reed its hard to tell if he is serious or not when he claims Metal Machine Music to be “the greatest album in the history of the human eardrum.”

A classical music it adds nothing to a genre that may well be depleted,” wrote Bangs. “As rock ‘n’ roll it’s interesting garage electronic rock ‘n’ roll. As a statement it’s great, as a giant FUCK YOU it shows integrity—a sick, twisted, dunced-out, malevolent, perverted, psychopathic integrity, but integrity nevertheless.”

Why have a record you’ll never play? Well, because we are Lou Reed fans, and it has to sit on the shelf in between Sally Can’t Dance and Coney Island Baby. And also because one day maybe we’ll finally “get it.”

There’s also have a book I’ve never finished: Bill Clinton’s 2004 autobiography My Life. I received it as a gift from my wife the week it was published because she knows how much I enjoy reading about the Presidents in their own words. The year before she gave me Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs, which were originally published by Mark Twain in 1885 in part to provide for the Civil War hero’s family after his death.

my lifeMy Life by Bill Clinton is the most oppressively boring book ever written. I read a review at the time which said it was like being stuck at the airport with a lonely old man, and that’s about the kindest way to describe this book. I refuse to skip ahead, so don’t ask about the scandals which began to follow him as early in the 80s, because I haven’t gotten that far into the book. See the bookmark in the picture? That’s where I am after eleven years.

Whenever I have a fever or I can’t sleep, I take Bubba’s book off the shelf. It always solve my problem better than Nyquil, and with only a slightly more unpleasant hangover.

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Police officer Don Vegge often performed the offertory at Faith Evangelical Church in Billings, Montana on his musical saw. He is heard here performing “Amazing Grace” and the moving “Through It All” by the late Andraé Crouch from his Lp, The Carpenter’s Saw.

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