Reader Poll: Electronic Debussy versus Original–Syrinx, Sunken Cathedral, & Snowflakes are Dancing

See poll at bottom to vote.

Today I’d like to present three pieces by Debussy that I heard for the first time after moving into the French House, at Indiana University, in 1975. The inhabitants of the French house included several language majors, a number of musicians, some journalism students, and a number of other interesting characters of various ethnic, sexual, national and racial groups. Our two story dorm shared a common area with the Spanish House, who for the most part seemed more interested in Latin culture than, us francophiles. However, I enjoyed the mix of people, being exposed for the first time in my life to such diversity. This is where I learned the value not just of simple demographic mix, but rather the value of including different perspectives, ideas, experiences into the dialogue of human interaction. It made for a rich environment.

Music in the 1970 ranged all over the place from the psychedelia of the Grateful Dead, the Disco of Donna Summers, the satiric almost Weil and Brecht-like political and social satire of Frank Zappa to the burgeoning nihilism of Punk Rock. There was also a lot of cross pollination and breaking down of genre-barriers. Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin and Weather Report were fusing Jazz and Rock and Funk and World Music. Rock bands like Kansas and Yes were considered classically inspired since they used violins and had classically trained musicians (Rick Wakemen, for example.) With the advent of cheaper and cheaper synthesizers, even Classical Music was pushing the envelope with artists like Tomita doing covers of Debussy. Tomita, a Japanese went almost even further than Walter/Wendy Carlos (of Switched on Bach), not only doing note for note covers of Debussy, but also creating soundscapes with these new instruments.

Tomita came out with an album entitled, Snowflakes are Dancing, in 1974 that contained Sunken Cathedral, Claire de Lune and Dancing Snowflakes. I wanted to do a side by side comparison of the original version with Tomita’s version and ask you which you preferred.

For some reason I had it in my mind that Tomita also did a cover of the piece for flute entitled Syrinx, but I cannot find it online.

After listening to the original and the Tomita Cover of these pieces, please answer a poll question on which you prefer. Thanks.

Sunken Cathedral (original)

Sunken Cathedral (Tomita)

Snowflakes are Dancing (original)

Snowflakes are Dancing (Tomita)

Here’s the original Syrinx. If someone can find an electronic version of it, please let me know.

Syrinx

Heres’s the poll:

Johann Sebastian Bach: Sinfonia to Cantata No. 29

Last post, I wrote about Wendy Carlos, who in 1967 released the record “Switched-On Bach,” and her contribution to electronic music. She also helped give old Johann Sebastian Bach’s career a shot in the arm as well. When I did a search on the name “Bach” on Amazon’s website, I ended up with over 25,000 recordings. I once read that Bach, Beethoven and Mozart are the hottest selling classical composers these days, which indicates great staying power as Ludwig has been dead over 181, Wolfgang 222, and Johann 263 years respectively.

By using a very modern instrument, the synthesizer, to record very old music, Carlos managed to bring a bit of feeling into what had started out as a kind of cold genre: remember that great early ’60 tinny hit, “Telstar,” played on a clavioline? It caught the attention of the boomer generation, me included.

On Carlos’ website, she attributes the choice of the tracks on the album to her producer. The genius of the choices lay in the length of each one. They were about the length of the average pop song of the era and that made them easy to digest for the younger listeners. In addition, the pieces for the most part were upbeat and “boppy,” which helped with their success. Today’s piece, for example, is a kind of fanfare, like the famous trumpets in Handel’ Watermusic.

Bach must really have liked this little piece. He used it again to open his Partita III for Unaccompanied Violin in E Major. There is also a version for organ, which Virgil Fox played when I saw him in concert in the early 70s.

If you aren’t a musicologist, as is my case, then you face the constant challenge of trying to put in words what’s going on in a piece. One way is to describe the emotions it evokes in you. The downside is the danger of becoming kind trite or maudlin. Another way to approach it is to describe the characteristics of the sounds–fast, slow, loud, soft–which makes it sound dull. You can try combining the two to come up with phrases like ebullient, joyous, festive, happy, morose, or ominous to describe the feeling of the piece, but you soon find yourself running out of adjectives and having to recycle.

Stravinsky had similar complaints, and he was probably the biggest musical genius since Beethoven. In an interview entitled “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man,” in his book Themes and Conclusions he says the following about the Adagio from Beethoven’s Ninth:

I have been so deply moved by it lately, a confession that seem s to make me guilty of the Affective Fallacy. But in fact I have always tried to distinguish between the musical object and the emotion it induces, partly on the grounds that the object is active, the emotion reactive, hence a translation….My point was simply that your feelings and my feelings are much less interesting than Beethoven’s art.

Still, I feel compelled to say something about how festive and soul-lifting I find Bach’s Sinfonia to Cantata No. 29. It makes you sit up and take notice, dust off those cobwebs of self-pity. You listen to it and feel young and joyous and happy. Oops, I just recycled. But if Bach can recycle his melodies, I will allow myself to do the same with my adjectives.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Two Part Invention in D Minor

I hadn’t intended to write about Stanley Kubrick again today. I have to refer to him again, however, in passing because the person who did the music for his films, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, Walter Carlos, was responsible for today’s piece. Carlos gets the spotlight today because of her album, released in 1967, Switched-On Bach.

Wait, you might say, didn’t he just say “her” when referring to Walter Carlos. Yes, because several years ago Carlos granted an interview to Playboy Magazine to announce that he had undergone a sex change operation, and was now Wendy Carlos. This really has nothing to do with her music, but does raise hell with the pronouns. Carlos probably has done more to change the face of modern music than any other musician, and here’s what’s unique–she’s done so both in the popular and classical realm.

Carlos studied composition at Columbia University and from early on was a proponent of computer music. She became friends and collaborator with the inventor, Robert Moog, who developed a keyboard controller for computers that generated music and thereby created the synthesizer.

Before that, creating computer music–which many of the up and coming late 20th century composers concentrated on–was insanely complicated and time consuming. For example, Peter Schickele once told the story of attending a workshop dedicated to computer music in the early 1960s. The class wrote a simple melody which they gave to the programmer. Several hours later the composers were called into the lab to hear the result. After all that work the product was a mere few seconds of sound.

Moog’s first synthesizers had some rather unpleasant limitations–you could only play one note at a time. That pretty much ruled out chords. And to get different sounds, I believe you had to plug chords in and out of what looked like an antique telephone switch board.

Despite those limitations, a number of composers and performers foresaw interesting possibilities. The pianist, Dick Hyman, for example recorded an album called “The Electric Eclectics of Dick Hyman,” which my brother bought and whose novel sounds completely captivated me.

Here’s a piece by Hyman called “The Minotaur.”

In 1967 Carlos released her album, “Switched-On Bach,” from which comes today’s piece, the two part invention in D minor. I don’t know if Carlos played two keyboards hooked to two separate computers or recorded each hand’s part separately and then mixed them together. Either way, Carlos played each incredibly fast, which indicates her virtuosity at the keyboard. The result really shows Bach’s almost mathematical and meticulous genius in weaving together two complex and rapid melodies at the same time.

“Switched-On Bach” contains a number of other memorable pieces by Bach as executed by Carlos. Critics lambasted the bastardization of Bach, but the album went platinum, so it obviously appealed to a lot of us “Philistines.”

Carlos’ collaboration of Moog also resulted in the creation of the Vocorder, which allowed the synthesizing of singing. She used this effectively as part of the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange. Interestingly enough, Carlos had composed a piece entitled Timesteps as an evocation her feelings upon reading A Clockwork Orange. By an odd concatenation of events she was introduced to Kubrick, who chose her to do the music for the film.

If Carlos had a dollar for every song that used a synthesizer and every electronic keyboard with a sound library and sampling capabilities, she probably could buy Bill Gates. Just contemplate her influence. In recording “Switched-On Bach,” she really transformed the face of both classical and modern music. First, the album made baroque and serious music accessible to a new generation. Second, she gave respectability to the budding field of computer music. With the invention of the microchip, the price of creating music using these new tools fell and popular music still goes on strong. So let’s hear if for radical transformations and three cheers for Wendy Carlos.

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