I wanted to do a series of posts on Facebook of some favorite records. It’s one of those damned trends, and people tag each other and rope each other into participating, at least in theory, or whatever. I went and posted something about how I was surprised nobody had tagged me. I used to have a lot of opinions about music, although nowadays I wonder what any of themwere, or why it mattered. I mean , I still have a lot of opinions – I seem to be setting out on course of writing about music. It is, after all, fun to write about music.
So, it seems clear enough that the rules of the game are not established in any authoritative way, and I can pretty much play however I like. I am choosing ten albums that have been important to me. The first one I’m doing is the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Music of Samuel Barber, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, and recorded in May, 1988. It features the pieces Overture to “School for Scandal”, Adagio for Strings, three Essays for Orchestra, and the diabolical Medea’s Dance of Vengence. This was among the very first CDs that I owned. I’m pretty sure I got it from either my parents or from the next door neighbor (whom we were, and still are, close with). I got it because, you know, my name is Samuel Barbour. The guy I’m named after, one Samuel Steele Barbour, who came to Chilicothe, Ohio from West Virginia some time early in the 20th century, is my great-great grandfather.
It was an important CD for me. What is this music about? It’s not like pop music. You can’t sing along with it. There’s a lot going on in the orchestra, and there aren’t a lot of clear repeats. I was 11 or 12 years old when I was listening to this – I also had a disc with the first four Brandenberg concertos that I also liked. The Barber was much different from baroque music. Big, lush, evocative scores. Like in the movies, but more so.
And I’m pretty sure it has something to do with my wanting to be a composer. I consider myself a songwriter, but not a composer really. I played around with the idea in high school, but never really took it seriously. I loved the romantic idea of being a composer, all caught up in the act of creation, but actually doing it was a lot of work, and I was too busy being a teenager to get anything substantial done. More generally, this is why I am not a professional musician. Just not much in the way of self-discipline.
By the time I got this CD, I already knew plenty about classical music. I was enrolled as a viola student in a Suzuki program at the local music conservatory when I was 7. My brother played violin as well. I was never particularly good, but I had a friend who was quite good at violin, and she helped introduce me to a lot of stuff.
Although my musical priorities changed a lot when I got into my late teens, classical music was really important in shaping my expectations of music. Good music is contemplative – it wants you to think about it. It wants you to ask questions, to reflect on your life. Certainly in my early 20s I spent quite a lot of time walking around, listening to music, and thinking. Sometimes, I have stopped playing music in the middle of a song when someone else begins talking, because I believe that talking demonstrates that the person is not thinking about the music, and therefore I ought not waste my time. High romanticism – which sort of goes from Beethoven through Liszt and Wagner, to Mahler, and eventually to Shostakovich and Barber – is fantastic, but not that many people want to sit around and talk about it. When listening for the purposes of discussion, you have to listen to what other people are listening to. And most people don’t just hang around and listen to classical music. You’d think it would be the ultimate hipster music – its obscure, its retro) but hipsters don’t really care for it.
The one particular moment of the disc that really stands out for me is a part of Medea’s Dance of Vengence, in which a propulsive piano rhythm drives the orchestra forth. It sounds remarkably close to the score for the opening credits of Beetlejuice, an early Tim Burton film featuring Michael Keaton and a young Winona Rider. It was a thing that was striking about Barber: his music had a 20th century feel to it, but it was still tonal. In high school I got into Ives, the Second Viennese school, and so on, and got convinced that the only kind of worthwhile music to write was really super intense, atonal stuff with mininal structure. Meanwhile I was also starting to play guitar and learn to think in terms of songs. In retrospect, I can see that putting what that all meant together coherently would take years. I’m pretty sure it was just confusing at the time.
Tomorrow, I’ll talk about another album that featured a lot of really great guitar playing that I got really into in my late teens, and then again later in life: Funkadelic’s Maggotbrain.