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Another music list, this time non pop-music.

As with previous top 10 lists the items listed are in no particular order (i.e. being number one in the list is not in any way more prestigious or significant than being number 6 or 8, say).

1. Nixon in China (1987) is an opera by John Adams, Peter Sellars, Alice Goodman et al (Adams did the music, Sellars the theatre production [and the original concept was Sellars’], and Goodman the libretto with choreography by Mark Morris), first performed in the Opera House in Houston, Texas, in October 1987. This is my favourite opera: when I first saw it — on Channel 4 television in the UK back when Channel 4 was doing lots of interesting stuff — for the first time I got a sense of what opera could do (and, at the time, I was not someone who had interest in opera at all, which, in fact, at that time, I regarded it as stupid shit for rich people who wanted to appear and feel cultured, but this production enlightened me — educated, entertained, informed and challenged me). What we have here is the opening 10 minutes or so, ‘The People are the Heroes Now’ and, towards the end, the more famous ‘News, News, News’ (this video is from a performance at the Met in New York City in 2011, which, in fact, I listened to on ‘Live at the Met’ at the time — which was relay-broadcast on on RTE Lyric FM).

2. Kimiko Ishizaka playing Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ (which date from the 1740s); ideally I would have one of the recordings of Glen Gould performing these (my favourite being the recording from 1981) but I could not find a good video for it; and also I like this video here (with the score and the little digital bar-pointer) so this is what I’m going to go with.

3. George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (1924). Apparently Gershwin wrote this while shuttling by train between Boston and New York City (I think he was rehearsing a show in a theatre in Boston at the time, and, of course, he lived in New York City). One can hear the rush and drive of an early 20th century train in the composition, I feel, and even the clickity-clack hither and thither, hoot and whistle of Grand Central — this being the same age as FitzGerald’s Great Gatsby, of course, the jazz and flapper age —, the energy and swirl of what we would come to know as the ‘American Century’ (which such pieces not only reflected but, reflecting them, also added to its factualization).

4. And the foregoing puts me in mind of the following (for some reason): Tom Lehrer’s ‘Elements’, which is the periodic tables of elements set to music from a Gilbert and Sullivan show from the 1880s (Pirates of Penzance: ‘I am the very model of a modern Major-General’). This piece can be found on several Tom Lehrer album releases in the 1950s (Tom Lehrer in ConcertAn Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer, and More Tom Lehrer) but this recording is from 1967, a concert performance in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Stick around to the end of the video where he does an older version of ‘Elements’ which is also very good.)

5. And this is possibly my favourite piece of music of all these: ‘A Few of My Favourite Things’ performed by the John Coltrane Quartet (Belgium, 1965). ‘A Few of My Favourite Things’ is, of course, a Rodgers and Hammerstein song from The Sound of Music (theatre show, 1959; film, 1965) but here it is taken off into a new dimension altogether (and all the better for it).

6. One thing is suggesting the next now such that the list is somehow composing itself! I intended to have something by Abdullah Ibrahim (I think) and I could have chosen any of half a dozen pieces from him, however, here he is with his band from 1968 (Ibrahim on piano), in Hamburg (apparently), performing a piece called ‘Jabolani’ (Joy).

7. ‘Debe’, Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté, from their 2005 album In the heart of the moon; filmed at Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 2005. Love the sound these guys make and love this album, which is one of my favourites of all my albums (never drive anywhere without it).

8. Again here I could have chosen any of several pieces to represent the work of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt so ‘De Profundis’ (1980) is going to have to do representative duty (Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir).

9. Yet another representative piece, a William Byrd mass for 4 voices, sung here by the King’s Singers (Byrd was a composer in the court of Elizabeth, the last of the Tudors, and although born a Protestant became increasingly drawn towards Catholicism, which was not a healthy direction of travel in England in that period).

10. Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach (1976). Einstein on the Beach is an opera in four acts, written in 1975 and first performed in Avignon (France) in 1976 (and like a lot of such productions — see also John Adams’ Nixon in China, above, for example — it is really a collaborative production, based on a concept and a series of sketches by theatre producer Robert Wilson, along with the input of writers Christopher Knowles, Samuel M. Johnson, and Lucinda Childs, not to mention the performers and technical people and others who helped shape and give form to what we now know as Einstein on the Beach). This part here (known as ‘Knee-Play 5’) is the closing piece of the opera, recorded in New York City in 2012 by members of the production staged by the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

 

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