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?