Thirty-three for thirty-three, pt. 2 (26-23)

26. György Ligeti, London Sinfonietta Voices, “Éjszaka – Reggel”, A Capella Works, Sony Classical, 1955 (Hungary) 

Ligeti’s twin settings of Sándor Weöres’ short poems, “Éjszaka” and “Reggel” (night and morning) are brief, but dramatic and rich with natural and psychological meaning. He amplifies Weöres’ text. The London Sinfonietta Voices recordings interpret Ligeti’s gestures to full effect; some recordings drag the tempo and sound oblivious to the text. “Éjszaka” is the unanswerable question, the storm, the misfiring human psyche. “Reggel” is the simple inevitability of another turn of the Earth.  

“Éjszaka” begins with obfuscation. “Rengeteg tövis” (countless, or so many thorns) is repeated, so soft at first it is barely audible. The first “tövis”, a C, sung by a lone tenor is immediately blotted out by a bass joining in canon, singing his first “rengeteg” an octave below. We hear the chromatic rise in the harmony as other voices join, but the lyric “tövis” is frequently unintelligible, as if the countless number of thorns was more real than any single snag. In the murky, chromatic canon with obscured lyrics of “Éjszaka” we hear early traces of the flowing micropolyphony of later works like Lux Aeterna.

As “rengeteg tövis” is repeated, the volume increases steadily, voices are added in canon and the lines collide like waves overlapping one another in a squall, until the voices converge on fortisssssssimo rengetegs in an absolutely flooring sequence. But this is only mid-way through the song, seventy seconds depending on the tempo of the performance and it remains for Ligeti to artfully set impending silence to music. The choir only now completes the first line of the poem. “Csönd” (silence, stillness) is held, a wind chime cluster chord, halting the storm of tövis. “Rengeteg” burbles up to be abruptly silenced by peaceful csönd chords, as “szívem dobogása” (beating of my heart) interrupts the silence in half-step chromatic dissonance. “Éjszaka”, the final word and line of the poem is resolved on a C-major chord, referencing the first “reneteg” sung on C by the tenor, though Ligeti’s chromaticism has undermined any traditional feeling of resolution.

“Reggel” is the easier of the pair to assess. Ligeti sets “már üti, üti már, a torony, a hajnalban” (already striking, striking already, the tower, the dawn) in a quick, forceful canon, dispelling the sinister gloom of the night with the mindless, rhythmic urgency of the morning. Splitting kikerikis from the sopranos and tenors accentuate the rising volume, like the rising sun, of the second line: “Az időt bemeszeli a korai kikeriki” (something like, time is whitewashed, the early cockcrow). The third line, the full arrival of morning, “reggel van! Már üti már! Reggel!” (morning is here! Striking already! Morning!) is delivered in glorious, confident harmony. “Reggel” is confident and simple, it clarifies after the confusion of “Éjszaka.” Ligeti does not ask questions here, nor does he challenge our expectations for the dawn.

Side AA: Anthony Braxton and Max Roach, “Birth”

25. Geinoh Yamashirogumi, “Kaneda”, Akira Symphonic Suite, Victor, 1988 (Japan)

Is this blog your first experience of Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s “Kaneda”? If so, skip to number twenty-four and take in all of Akira when you have an opportunity to do so.

Geinoh Yamashirogumi is a large collective of professional and amateur musicians founded by composer and scientist Tsutomu Ōhashi (aka Shoji Yamashiro). Their work often features vaulted choral arrangements, global folk alongside contemporary pop and art music, and a cinematic, Noh theatricality. All of those elements feature succinctly in Kaneda’s theme, as if Yamashiro and the hundreds of members of the collective decided to stamp their creative essence onto one short song. Outside of the Akira soundtrack, much of their work is only available in the argent unicorn inhabited forests of Discogs imports. If the world were about to end, I would commission Geinoh Yamashirogumi to compose our outro.

“Kaneda” serves as the intro to sci-fi anime epic, Akira (dir. Otomo, 1988). Geinoh Yamashirogumi anchor Otomo’s (occasionally over-inflated) imagery in Indonesian gamelan, offsetting the neon, FM synth waste of Tetsuo and Kaneda’s Neo-Tokyo with ancient rhythm. Here, a bamboo jegog ensemble joins militant stamping feet and drum machines, bursting through a thunder clap that has splintered into a peal of electric noise. The irresistible rhythm plunges us, along with the youthful motorcycle gang, from pettiness into the cosmic limits of the mind.

Chants of “rassera, rassera” are delivered in the same cadence as in the Nebuta festival in Aomori, where participants parade a large float depicting a heroic warrior through the center of the city, imploring bystanders to gather and join in. Ōhashi completed his doctorate at Tohoku University in Sendai, not far south of Aomori. Tetsuo and Kaneda’s epic announcement is not initially appropriate to the flippant, teenage recklessness of their motorcycle battle with The Clowns. Neo-Tokyo appears to be irredeemably post-modern, without meaning, but underneath a current of primordial, generative energy flows. Geinoh Yamashirogumi are absolutely locked into the narrative layers of Akira, sometimes more so than the filmmakers, balancing traditional forms with the modern, using one to amplify the other.

Side AA: Beverly Glenn-Copeland, “Let Us Dance”

24. Dr. Dre, “Let Me Ride,” The Chronic, Death Row Records / Interscope, 1992 (USA)

Including “Let Me Ride” on the list is including three songs at once – the Negro spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, written by Choctaw freedman Wallace Willis in the 1860s; Parliament’s Afrofuturist “Mothership Connection (Star Child)” from 1975, here sampled for the chorus; and Dre’s 1992 G-funk update. Elijah’s chariot immediately following emancipation and the Civil War, The Mothership landing in irreparably segregated Detroit during a period of white flight, and a 1964 Chevrolet Impala cruising South Central L.A. after the Rodney King riots make for three interrelated symbols of African American liberation rising from historical contexts of racial tension, violence and exploitation. “Let Me Ride” doesn’t reference the L.A. riots as frequently or explicitly as some songs on The Chronic – it’s largely boasting – but it’s a masterstroke of music history awareness, giants standing on the shoulders of giants. Dr. Dre only needed to inch George Clinton’s vision of a spaceworthy pimp Cadillac a little further. The six four Impala itself is as layered and multi-generational a symbol as Willis’ biblical chariot. Economist Karl Muth provides a history of the Impala’s rise from object of middle-class access to icon of Black cinema and music here

Dre’s impossibly gangster nonchalance is as important to the realization of the G-funk aesthetic he touched on N.W.A.’s Efil4zaggin as the slower tempos, Moog sine wave tractor beams, and Parliament samples. The Chronic remains perennially appealing because Dre let’s us ride passenger seat in his Impala through South Central L.A. in the early 90s with such a gangster lean, a measured distance, that the environment washes over us and we are able to absorb the violence. We’re taken on a non-narrative montage of creeping OGs, fly bitches, Glocks and TEC-9s, sunset on the Strip, riots, threats around any corner, hydraulic Impalas. Dre kills himself off in the third line but the song continues; it’s a feeling, not a narrative. He immediately follows, “bodies being found on Greenleaf with their fuckin heads cut off,” with the defiant non-sequitor, “motherfucker, I’m Dre!” The violence rolls off of him. Dre’s gangster glare, not reliant on any material/anti-material (medallions) and political pageantry (dreadlocks, black fists), claims realism, it guarantees his survival. And in spite of the ubiquitous violence, it ensures a degree of freedom.      

Side AA: De La Soul, “I Am, I Be”

“Let Me Ride” is the third track. Figured Dre should get the Tube click revenue.

23. Mohammad Rafi, “Aaj Mausam Bada Be-iman Hai”, Loafer, Odeon, 1972 (India)

You’re about to read a book report on a love song. You wont read about love, but about details. The song is about the unequivocal confidence of new love that is always slashed with the dread of that love going unfulfilled. The rest is details.

Superstar Indian playback singer Mohammad Rafi’s “Aaj Mausam Bada Be-iman Hai” from the 1973 film Loafer (dir. Bhimsingh) is my favorite love song. The prolific composing duo, Laxmikant – Pyarelal, wrote the music and directed the orchestra, and poet Anand Bakshi wrote the lyrics. I first heard it in Monsoon Wedding (dir. Nair, 2001) in a sensuous, Almodovar-like scene that cleverly re-applies the approaching, quiet storm lyrics of the original. The song’s scene from Loafer is available on the internet, but watching it wouldn’t add much valuable context to a listener today. Rafi’s recordings remain well known to Indian pop music fans.

Yearning romance pours from Rafi’s voice with the hummed melisma of the line ending “mausam” (मौसम, weather). Rafi’s delivery is not static even as the lyrics are repetitive; he subtly develops his performance throughout the recording, implying a conversation. For example, in the second chorus, “bada” (बड़ा, big, very much) is sung louder, with a more percussive emphasis on the second syllable, hanging the qualifying word out, vulnerable, pleading. The percussive -da further engages the reverb (more on that later) and the word echoes for a moment. The sharply rising melody of the third line of the full chorus, “aane vaala koee” (आने वाला कोई, someone / a storm is coming), is thrilling, briefly pulling us from the main melody’s gentle descent.

Laxmikant and Pyarelal’s varied and wonderfully detailed arrangement contributes as much to the song as Rafi’s performance. The strings pulse in large, simple lines as an alternative to Rafi’s voice. An instrumental section follows the second, third and fourth refrains. Each is distinct in melody and instrumentation.  Cascading swarmandal (zither) punctuate transitions from instrumental sections to the verses, breathlessly pausing time in a glissando of notes. Similarly, the accompaniment is dropped out of the mix to highlight Rafi’s vulnerability as verses transition into the refrain. “Aaj Mausam” is bassy, like any properly intentioned slow jam, here provided by drum and periodic upright bass.

Much of the charm of “Aaj Mausam Bada Be-iman Hai” comes from the Bollywood recording aesthetic of the 1960s and 70s – tape compression, (here only mildly) overdriven vocals, slapback reverb applied to everything. I’m infatuated with this recording aesthetic. I suspect Rafi and the orchestra are all being recorded at once with no overdubs, on two or four track consoles with mics carefully positioned for the superb mix we hear. The result is a warm, woozy, self-consistent aesthetic that maximizes relative technological limitations into something every bit as interesting as what the Western studios were producing.

Side AA: Caetano Veloso, “Cucurrucucu Paloma”

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