Notes from the underground

In addition to my day job as a columnist for the Record, which pays the bills, I also TA on the side for Professor McAllister in the Political Science Department. Last class, for whatever reason, Professor McAllister decided to question me on a few statements I made in last week’s column. Questions like, “What ‘sinister’ musics do you listen to?” and “what IS the best music to listen to while naked?” Thought-provoking, intellectual questions. Unfortunately, I had no good answers, and so I generally looked like a fool in front of a group of people who are supposed to feel comfortable asking me questions. But Professor McAllister is a good guy, and I harbor no ill feelings. In fact, I will now answer those two questions more thoroughly.

Sinister music that I listen to? Well, I reached into my past even further than I’ve been doing in this column and came up with two examples. The first has to be Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung,” a song many readers probably know. Any song with the words “sitting on a park bench/ eyeing little girls with bad intent” has to be counted as sinister, even if, by the end of the song, we kinda like Aqualung. The other example I’ll give is off of the Judgment Night soundtrack – “Another Body Murdered” by Booya Tribe and Faith No More. This album, for those of you who don’t remember, matched up rap and metal artists to create a very violent album. This song is the most visceral and violent of the bunch, and it still gets my heart to beat a little faster. Possibly with fear.

As for the second question – the best music to listen to naked? Well, my answer to that has to be “whatever the person who’s with you wants to hear.” And don’t show this column to my parents.

But enough of this! We have my past to explore. Last week was Chopin, this week is Rachmaninoff. For a long while, Sergei Rachmaninoff was my favorite composer. When I started writing music, I emulated his Preludes; all I wanted to do was write a piano concerto like he did. Of course, eventually I found my pretentious side and “realized” how trivial his music was. After all, he was writing Nineteenth Century music in the Thirties! Come on! But in the last couple years, I’ve come back to his music, and I really feel that he is a great composer.

Regardless of my current feelings, the fact is that he was very important to me when I was first listening to music. Like many people our age, I found my parents’ record collection to be a source of great music. I took all of their Beatles, Stones, and other records, which wasn’t a problem since I had the only working phonograph in the house. But after hearing the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto on the radio, I had to hear it again. Sure enough, my parents had an old recording of Lazar Berman playing the piece, and I wore my needle out playing it in my room.

I’m glad to come back to this piece, because the only recording we have in Sawyer is new to me, and a good one – Vladimir Ashkenazy and Bernard Haitink conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra (CD R23 6). Many of you will know this piece from the hit movie Shine, in which our friend and hero David Helfgott plays this piece as he tragically loses his mind.

To serious classical musicians, the real tragedy was the marketing bonanza that followed the success of the movie. This poor man who had lost most of his proficiency as a pianist was dragged around the world playing pieces for thousands of people, something that he couldn’t handle, while orchestras throughout America were folding because of insufficient audience support.

This absurd event doesn’t diminish the power of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto. To the film’s credit, they chose a great piece to showcase. It is one of the most sophisticated of the great Romantic piano concertos, and one of the most technically challenging. Unlike many difficult piano concertos, though, the brilliant writing does not call attention to itself. Rather, the absurdly difficult passages are integrated into the texture of the piece, creating a wonderfully evocative musical experience.

Unfortunately, this is the sort of piece that should be heard live first, and I can’t provide such an opportunity for any of you. But I recommend lying on your bed and pretending that this was a live performance – this piece takes you on a wonderful journey in a way that only a virtuosic piano concerto can. The piano is a mighty instrument, the only one that can actually stand up to the power of a full orchestra and make itself known. Rachmaninoff was a great pianist himself – in fact, you can hear his own recording of this piece (CD R23 7), though I think it’s not very good. He was a pianist first and a composer second, as well as a conductor, and all of these qualities shine through in the relationship between the piano writing and the excellent orchestration. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more evident than in the enormous final climax, where the piano exchanges blows with a trumpet and timpani in a military call for the end of the piece to begin. This is followed by lyrical playing in the strings and winds, along with the piano now playing an equally lyrical line. Here, the piano changes character to match various sections of the orchestra, gluing the fabric of the piece together. Rachmaninoff does this throughout the work, and, in so doing, creates a masterpiece.

I want to come back to Rachmaninoff eventually, since there is another CD in the library which deserves a review. But next week I have reserved for Rimsky-Korsakov, another true Romantic who is part of my lineage. I’m hoping that I won’t have to cover any more pop music, but if it got me on the cover, I may have to change the whole concept of this column. Next week: “Pandering to the Masses from the Underground.”