Perfect Music

Of late I’ve been listening to my playlists of comfort and escape music, which includes what I think of as Perfect Pieces.

I’ve always loved music. I took piano for a couple years as a kid and loved it, but the piano was in the living room with the TV, and my practice interfered with the family viewing time, so I had to drop it. I sang in school and church choirs for about ten years, and loved that, too, though I never had the sort of voice that warranted further training. In short, not a musician, ignorant about musical theory, but love music.

So my perfect pieces might net an oh, please from sophisticated musicologists, but I’ve loved them—every note—for more than thirty years. Not portions. I have playlists full of songs that I like bits of. My criteria for perfect pieces is that I love the entire thing; that, over the years, just like my favorite rereads, these pieces have been inspiration, comfort, solace, excitement, soundtracks to writing and reading for at least thirty years, some more than fifty.

There aren’t many of them.


One of these is is The Lark Ascending, by Ralph Vaughn Williams, which I discovered in grad school when my single indulgence was membership in the Musical Heritage Society.  Their LPs were three to four dollars (a splurge for me) but you couldn’t find them in record stores, and I got endless hours of joy from them.

Apparently this particular piece was inspired by George Meredith’s poem  by the same name. Here is a lovely performance, the violin solo
played on a 1727 Stradivarius.   and this version is a recreation of the original performance in 1920, for violin and piano. I miss the orchestra, especially the woodwinds in counterpoint, but the violinist is terrific.

My second perfect piece happens to be jazz.

Ordinarily I am very allergic to jazz. Most of it sounds like twittering and deedling to me, added to the fact that I grew up hearing it, so I associate most of it with the fug of heavy cigarette smoke, and the blare of the television blasting professional sports (and my dad’s anger when his team wasn’t winning. The entire household tiptoed when he was angry). And yet two pieces of jazz managed to stand out from that morass of bad associations, both written by Dave Brubeck, and both apparently inspired by Turkish street musicians. Brubeck began messing with interesting beats.


The first, with a 5/4 beat, has pretty much become a cliché in the jazz world, but I don’t care. This version of ”Take Five” is the one I grew up with.

I thought I’d also include this original video, which has (unsurprising in jazz, which is all about improvisational riffs) a different middle section.  That’s Dave Brubeck at the piano, and Paul Desmond on the sax. I don’t like it as much as I like the studio recording linked above, which I think is still perfect in every note. The original’s riffs meander into what I always thought of as deedle. But like I said, I am no musical sophisticate.

To my ear, there is also too much sax tweedle in the middle of the otherwise driving “Blue Rondo a la Turk,”  with its 9/8 beat. As soon as it shifts to 4/4, the musical tension diminishes for me. However, this choral adaptation I find pretty amazing.

Okay, the thing about the next piece is that I thought I had the entire thing for decades. That is, someone gave me a cassette tape recording back in the mists of time, which I listened to for years, without 1) knowing that it was part of a larger piece, and 2) who wrote it and what it was called. The cassette tape had a single word scrawled on it, which looked like “salad.” That couldn’t be right. And I was heartbroken when the tape, played a billion times, finally wore out after years and years of patiently rewinding and pressing play, rewinding pressing play.


Well, along comes the internet, which gradually fills with more and more music and data. Sporadically I tried to track down medieval or renaissance music that might have to do with salad, or was it Sal Ad, maybe, like an Arabic name? Or a blurring of Italian musical directions, a misspelling of saltando?

No, ‘salad’ actually turned out to be right!

My piece was written by Mateo Flecha, (1481–1553), born in Aragon, and served as a court composer, teaching princesses their music on the side, until he retired to become a monk with the Cistercians. (Their music nights must have been awesome.)

He’s best known as composer of the “ensalada” yep, “salad”), works mixing several tempi, languages, and musical themes, for the diversion of courtiers in the palace. One song could mix up Latin, French, Spanish, and Catalan. This particular piece, “La Bomba,” seems to be, as far as I can tell, about a group of people who go sailing for pleasure—and get overtaken by a storm. The song gives their various reactions, and their eventual thanks to heaven when they are safe.

In 1581 Flecha’s ensaladas were published by his nephew, Mateo Flecha “El Joven” (the younger), in Prague. Of the eleven ensaladas, complete versions remain of only six.

It wasn’t until Youtube came around that I got to hear the entire “La Bomba” ensalada. The only portion I’d heard was the link way above, which turned out to be the middle section. I can see why the rest was cut out—it starts off well, and has some good bits, but has a lot more traditional musical phrases that don’t work for me like that middle section.

Then there is opera.


Back in the seventies, I stumbled into a Hollywood job. I met screenwriter Harry Kleiner at a lunch and I happened to cap his quotation of “The Lovesong of Alfred J. Prufrock.” After which we were off and running, talking about Eliot, Edmund Wilson’s totally alien-mind litcrit, opera. He was a fascinating man—used to leave his fancy car unlocked when he picked up groceries for his wife, if he had to make another stop, because he figured anyone who stole food needed it.

At age two, he and his family escaped Russia during one of the many Cossack pogroms aimed at either eradicating or driving the Jews out. His earliest memories are of bouncing on his uncle’s back as his family ran across a field, while Cossacks shot at them from behind a row of tall trees. (He could never bear driving along certain boulevards with tall eucalyptus ever after.) He was passionate about education, about human rights, about music and art. Everything, really.

Anyway, a month or so after that lunch, he had fired yet another secretary whose grammar sucked, and whose entire conversation seemed to be wrapped up in the Beatles and surf culture. He asked for my phone number from the person who had arranged the lunch, and asked me if I wanted a job. Did I! I had just quit a miserable job downtown LA, going to work at four a.m. and often not getting out until after five, verifying electrical supply orders.

So while Harry Kleiner and I worked, we listened to opera on his fabulous sound system. We listened to Russian opera, Italian opera, German opera, trading our favorites back and forth, but we always came back to a specific recording of Maria de los Angeles singing Cho Cho San in Madama Butterfly. Every single time we played it, we’d  both pause when she spotted the ship on the horizon, listen, mop our eyes, then put on something more cheerful (Maskerad was a frequent flyer) and get back to work. But we always returned to it.

Since no one actually reading this far probably has time to listen to the entire opera, here is Maria de los Angeles, singing “Un bel di vedremo” .


And finally, probably the oldest and most steadfast of my loves: the (now out of print, sadly) Mormon Tabernacle Choir arrangement of “Now Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.

When I first heard that blasting out of excellent speakers, my ten year old kid body shivered with awe, and with the sheer strangeness of the idea of a six-winged seraph. I craved that vision of heaven, resounding with polyphonic hallelujahs–still do.

These songs have stayed me all my life, first just as fuel for the imagination, and gradually over the years associations with other music–versions–inspirations, and finally, finding out the stories behind the pieces.

How about you? What are your perfect pieces, and why?



Perfect Music — 28 Comments

  1. What comes under the rubric of ‘jazz’ is vast and broad, enormously varied, and by covers well over a century of composition. What you describe as jazz is that limited 1950’s cerebral — mostly made by white guys for white guys — without rhythm — i.e. unable to be danced to, which kept those icky females away with their icky girl cooties and their non-rational, non-cerebral, non-intellectual capacity to understand and like what WE limited number of WHITE GUYS like.

    I hear jazz every single day of my life, and have for decades and decades, and there is so much, so many Jazzes, I never get to the end of it, from rag-time to contemporary genius Cuban Pedrito Martinez — and he’s only one of the brilliant jazz geniuses who have come to us in the last few years out of Cuba.

    • What I linked happens to be fifties, but my dad listened to jazz from the twenties, (Satchmo in particular), Ricky Ricardo’s jazz, all kinds. He was a blue collar Republican, though, yes, white. My mom loved it, too, so I am scratching my head at the “girl cooties” assumptions.

      I can’t listen to any of it–very bad associations–except what I linked.

  2. Currently my spouse is leading a group on a music tour of Western Cuba. The theme is Spiritual Renewal. Among the many forms of music to which the Travelers will be treated, as well as the religious ceremonial dance-and-music, singer-songwriter ‘fehlin’, timba and salsa, the danzon, etc., will, of course, be jazz.

    I remember our November trip to Cuba after 9/11. To say these journeys built around Cuban music are spiritually renewing is something I have experienced personally. El V says he’s going to bring back enough aché from our Cuban friends for everyone. As well, the Cubans are incredibly kind, compassionate and caring for us, when we in the U.S. have suffered terrible calamities.

  3. Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances is a soothing respite for me, and I have always been fond of Leroy Anderson’s Blue Tango (more invigorating but still mesmerizing). And (though this is a fragment and therefore probably disqualified) the Sicilienne from Faure’s Pelleas and Melisande was more or less my introduction to classical music–I first heard the theme on a radio commercial for bread (!) and when I heard the piece on the classical station, didn’t move the dial on my radio for most of two years.

  4. I love Vienna Teng’s music, personally. I find it soothing and arousing and heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once. Level Up and City Hall are particular favorites.

  5. One of mine is a song by Nightnoise called “Bring Me Back a Song.” The violin solo by Billy Oskay in the bridge inspired a scene in a yet to be written Night Calls novel. I forgot my earphones today, so no link–can’t trust YouTube without earphones!

  6. wow, you can pick a few?
    I play everything from 20s tin pan alley, blues, blue grass, C&W, RR, Mozart/Bach et al…
    I don’t think I could choose just a few genres … lately one play list is dominated by the Sons of the Pioneers with hymns and Bob Nolan songs and then this thrown in just to counter point the shape note version of the song…

  7. Butterfly was my first opera – I was 7 when my mother took me to see it and it has always had a special place in my heart. But I have since acquired a favorite female aria (Casta diva), a favorite male aria (E lucevan le stelle, from Tosca), and a favorite chorus (Va pensiero, Nabucco). And then there is the symphonic stuff – Dvorak’s New World symphony which takes me to a different world…

    • Yup, yup, yup. I like all those indeed. Though I kind of burned out on the Dvorak when I first reached Europe as a starving student, and I had only four tapes for my tiny cassette player. Also burned out a Prokokief symphony, Beethoven’s third, and the soundtrack to Zeferelli’s Romeo and Juliet before the tapes wore out. But I have fond memories!

  8. Baroque choral fugues (especially Bach, of course)- and the ensembles from The Marriage of Figaro. There’s just something about voices weaving in and out and following each other and popping out with the melody and then passing it on that is really happy-making.

  9. Thanks for more great ideas. I have a lot of special pieces, but lately Thor and I have been listening repeatedly to “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Every time it seems to transport me to other realms (and the bonus is that somehow I come away with scenes for my novel in progress). And I also love the “Ancient Airs and Dances” mentioned above. And a lot of Debussy pieces that I used to play on the piano until my arthritis limited the time I can spend at the keyboard.

      • Did you see the film of “Master and Commander,” the incredibly powerful storm scene when they had to cut the poor young man loose or sink the ship– they used the passage from the Fantasia, and it still haunts me. I wonder if you feel the film was historically accurate. I knew a former U.S. Naval attache in Chile, near our land there, who had the whole O’Brien (is that the right author? I’m tired at the moment) collection, and I read quite a few. Wonderful!

        • I thought the film was terrific–even if the Stephen in it wasn’t even remotely like the one in the books. Otherwise, it was wonderfully accurate, with a few finesses for camera (like the ceilings in the cabins being way too high). After the film came out, the ship was down at San Diego and I went down to walk over it. You could really see how they’d adapted it for cameras, but it was still awesome.

          • How fun that you got to walk on the ship! I, too, thought the film was excellent, and was hoping for another one, but maybe it didn’t do that well at the box office.

            • I happened to meet one of the production people at an event in Hollywood, who told me that it did respectably on the coasts, but totally tanked in the inland states. So, they gave up plans for making more, alas.