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A master and a masterpiece: Pablo Casals and the Bach ‘Cello Suites’

Pablo Casals


Editor’s note: 57 years ago this month, Pablo Casals, at the age of 77, gave a remarkable performance from Bach’s legendary “Cello Suites” in an ancient abbey in France. The recital was filmed, resulting in a rare document of the maestro.

Tom Healy reflects on Casals and the “Cello Suites” in this review of a recently reprinted, classic study of Bach’s masterpiece. Amazing video of Casals playing in the abbey after the jump.

“The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece”
Eric Siblin

Grove Press, 2011 reprint, 336 pp.

“The difference between the reputation Bach enjoyed in his lifetime and that which he accumulated posthumously is one of the remarkable phenomena in the history of music.” – Percy M. Young

I consider J. S. Bach’s “Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin” the most beautiful music I have ever heard. Like nearly all of my (sadly limited) favorite classical music, Bach demands many hours of attentive listening. An appreciation of him is all the more rewarding because I used to live in fear of Bach and the possibility that his music was beyond my comprehension; his was the exalted realm of people I held in awe: Yngwie Malmsteen and Yo Yo Ma, the torment of my musical inadequacies made incarnate.

At any rate, after a slow initial sneak attack, Bach’s “Cello Suites” still challenge me. With one instrument to focus on, in time I am confident that I am hearing nearly everything, whereas in a symphony of voices, I am easily lost.

For musicians Bach can be an ideal frame of reference for harmony and tonality. Working within Baroque and Lutheran liturgical constraints that are severely limited by today’s standards, he constantly finds unforeseen avenues and manages to sound fresh 300 years later. You could do worse.

With Bach, the moment we presume intimacy, materials shift and re-assemble to generate new twists and new expectations which are in turn, unfailingly, crushed. Here is an unusually detached means of our watching our little minds at work, struggling with the defeats of our incessant, spontaneously-generated assumptions. Sometimes Bach, obviously the consummate music listener, seems a mischievously amused presence.

Most of what I know about writing music stems from songwriting, where what starts as in impenetrable confusing mass gradually recedes, (though things unforeseen and serendipitously magical remain.) An eventual familiarity is attained, though something, with any luck (if it is good), is left deliberately resistant to interpretation — some calculatedly non-resolving and non-resolvable stuff — some of it in the lyrics.

With Bach’s violin “Sonatas and Partitas” and similarly with the “Cello Suites,” I am not sure it is possible to feel a secure orientation, or even to remember entire sequences and transitions, at least not without complete immersion on a scale akin to practicing them every day as cello legend Pablo Casals did. They deepen.

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The Top 10 Stereolab Songs


Editor’s note: In honor of the 20th anniversary (approximately) of the release of Super 45 by Stereolab, Tom Healy countdowns his 10 favorite Stereolab songs. Read his epic appreciation of the band here.

It is seriously difficult to rank or rate the songs of Stereolab. I know I am wrong all ready. It isn’t possible to have a constant favorite 10 Stereolab songs. These turf-greedy songs demand and require, slutty and intimate, jealously polyamorous relationships with your unconscious.

In no particular order, and not the same songs as next month, and of limited yet nearly golden-mean-sample-population-size-landscape due to economic purchasing power necessity, with music videos (all over the place, like the music, and likely able to host a party unassisted) exploiting an occasional unfair dimensional advantage.

10. “Whisper Pitch” – Fab Four Suture Compilation (singles and B-sides), 2005

A puzzle? How can you have effectively disguised actually being able to play the guitar, or being this weird, without a pathology? Out of guitar-dearth, plenty. The band’s afterthought instrument, out front, pioneering, odd and ambling, gorgeous and confusing and placed in the midst of the art flick I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t understand.

Supple and creamy, loping and crawling, expert reggae bass lines weave through these tantalizingly resolving and unwinding guitar chords’ spooling wind-chime logic. Geometry, Sadier says, is what Stereolab has to offer. Necessarily, austerely perfect, tailored to the song melody writing. The outro is sublime. The video is a dated-beauty-ideal grenade.

9. “Cybele’s Reverie” – Emperor Tomato Ketchup, 1996

Bless ye celestial fairy creatures, Stereolab! Narnia-like escape from our too familiar ego-soused, surroundings of declining plutocracy. In cycles I withdraw from worship to thinking the repetitive chorus is annoying, only to enjoy the song more next go round.

I took this song off my list and put it back. I apologize, song: you are granular Stereoglob. Somehow band-defining for me. Compare this selection with any charting pop tune.

8. “Come and Play in the Milky Night” — Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, 1999

Oscar Peterson’s Very Tall is the first jazz record to actually be warm and underwater, in the lushest coral marine garden setting imaginable. Same here. Being in the womb. Music for lovers.

I was offended by myself for not noticing earlier in my life how incredible vibraphones can be. Gane sometimes fails to see or exploit chance dynamic shifts, which would make some of his songs even more moving. Not here.

7. “Fluorescences” — Fluorescences EP, 1996

Genre schizophrenia. There is definitely something in the marmalade. I felt fear when I tried to figure out what kind of song this is. Pretty and angst-fraught with an unsettling aura. The double-tracked and harmonized chorus vocals are a monolithic edifice to pure tone singing. Ultra cool horns.

Lyrically we have the irksome difficulties involved in becoming a strong and independent person. Go away. I’m all right. The song is a meditation technique that shouldn’t be used often because it is very soothing until the swimming in blood part.

6. “French Disko” – Single, 1993

Nearly every time Stereolab rock like a mo fo, you wish they did it more often. A great live song. Manic frenetic and maddening. Artfully chosen geetar and electronic goodies with a straightforward slammin’ drumbeat, with great halting and scuddering snare corner- turns, at which they excel. The voices harmonize like recorders from space.

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Twenty years later: The beautiful, bewildering music of Stereolab


Editor’s note: Twenty years ago this past May, the UK band Stereolab released its first official recordings. To commemorate the dawn of post-rock music, KDHX music writer Tom Healy muses on the band’s sound and vision. And check out Tom’s list of top 10 Stereolab songs here.

Now that we are racing to get rid of seemingly everything of tantamount importance (and all of our money) the vital relevance of uplifting, invigorating, inspiring and beautiful music, long, astonishingly, undervalued, is more important than ever. Particularly when it charges a bewildering beast it is none too pleased with, with chivalric resolve, honor and purpose. May it save us all!

For a couple of decades now, the predominance of unbelievably bad music foisted upon us has blighted and beknighted the collective unconscious of the hold-out music fan, who endearingly still seeks musical nourishment from commercial sources. In the deep grey remoteness of our bewildered domes, reconnoitering, mad scrambling envoys, marveling at the canyons where these deep wounds run, attempt repairs on a difficult schedule.

Have you ever watched some of our TV opinion-makers speak for several minutes, wearing the learned smug face of the anointed and beyond-question and realized that you have no idea what they said? They didn’t either. That takes study.

People are paid here in these, our United States of America to couch what most matters in pseudo-comprehensible gobbledygook. They know they must ensure the issues remain just complex enough that a self-respecting person of average intelligence is terrified of revealing his or her ignorance by even trying to discuss them. Then TV, that medium incapable even of an apt snapshot of what we need to know and understand, cuts to the chase, accelerating the feelings of powerlessness and futility that make us controllable, as designed.

Laetitia Sadier, singer, lyricist, and keyboards for Stereolab: “We refuse freedom because we refuse the responsibilities that come with freedom. In this culture of propaganda, of fear, no one is wanting to stand up to take responsibility. I feel like this system isn’t working.”

The people in charge with all of the money who make it clearer every election that they would sincerely like to keep all of the money, with grander privilege and, wherever possible, all else exactly the damned same, except with more secret policing and less rights and money (elsewhere.) All else be damned. Throw in invisible surveillance techniques, improvised and stapled-on anti-constitutional ‘security’ provisions as needed, armed robots and the kind of get things-done-with-the-money-I-don’t-have-cunning to make our own people test, applaud, engird themselves, upon and astride (and pay for, even! Genuis!!) technologies which look to those of us with nervous inclinations like our rapidly advancing undoing. And that’s just the stuff we actually know about!

The voice of Stereolab, Latetia Sadier on pop music: “It’s not even ‘fake’ anymore. It’s gone beyond the ersatz into the utterly absurd. Pop has completely eaten itself. It’s not even like we’re cultivating these artistic riches and then exploring them. It’s just exploitation of exploitation. We can’t help ourselves.”

With twinges of retro-futurist ’60s music, lounge, reggae and an unfathomable melange of crossover and cross-cultural styles. A study in contrasts and personalities, Stereolab’s individual components, like lots of greatest artistic results, sound like a potentially very bad idea when inventoried.

What are they? Apache beat dream pop? Neu or Can throwbacks? Motorik? The Archies? What it is and what others see it as being can bear little resemblance.

Wandering the map with an always nearby religious chorale music sensibility (and sound, somewhat), sophisticated and yet child singsong, with a jazz sensibility and metronomically steadfast grooves. There are harps and vibey synth strings and moogs, and ticklish raver arpeggios. Much fun.

Plowing through the archives I found Todd Rundgren chillin’ with candy raver girls. Don Cherry on the Krautobahn listening to Coltrane Jazz era John Coltrane. Led Zeppelin circa Houses of the Holy era. Forgotten Smith’s Strangeways tracks, Jobim does French new wave cinema. Blondie. Squeeze even! This band has been lots of bands and every listening points to others on deck. It is their weakness and strength.

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Concert review: Marshall Crenshaw and the Bottle Rockets relish rock & roll, Off Broadway, Wednesday, January 19

Marshall Crenshaw and the Bottle Rockets at Off Broadway

Tom Lampe

This was the first show of an unusual Midwestern tour, in which the musicians had not met previously and had only practiced together for two days prior to the show, rehearsing on this very stage.

The Bottle Rockets were on a dual bill, first as themselves, then as Marshall Crenshaw‘s backing band, which this night seem to prove a true calling. Henneman appraised it as THE show to be at in town for the evening, even as another opening set was happening outside. Snowfall-braving smokers congregated outside in the capacious and cozy (though cold) smoking area and heard the lush windmilling chords and suspenseful, fat beats of an unnamed band practicing in an adjacent apartment building.

Indoors the sound was exceptional, with big vintage tube amps blunting the snarls from shiny, lusty axes of several strands and warm and liquid Stratocastery atmospheres. At their heights the Bottle Rockets do what other bands do better — ACDC and NRBQ for instance — and their excesses will see you on the dark side of the Skynyrd — a couple dozen extra bars of double-stop riffing beyond your desired stop.

When Crenshaw hit the stage the band assumed depth and within a half hour the Bottle Rockets became Crenshaw’s ground and foundation. Crenshaw’s set was strewn with songs worth listening to, the kind that release you from yourself for a moment. The songs can make you wonder whether and why they are good, even as you learn to trust them because they hone your antennae. Crenshaw is a sometime great songwriter. Any doubts must send one looking for his magical “Theme From Flaregun” and much of 1996′s Miracle of Science and 1999′s #447.

Back in the day Crenshaw’s preternatural youthfulness must have seemed a curse when he tried to look cool on his 8x10s, only to resemble Neil Patrick Harris hanging out between chess and physics club. The young face seemed to affect a profundity he came to possess rightfully later. These days the weathered face, with its same goofy expression of perpetual discovery, is more like George Carlin idealistically tweeded up for the local public access broadcast of a city council meeting.

Crenshaw’s irreducible, folksy brilliance is notches of literary caliber beyond what this music would typically call for. It can be tempting to take for granted his other earned distinctions: He has a remarkable sense of time, effortless confidence, facility with many genres. In revisiting his records one constantly rediscovers his frequently excellent guitar playing. It would be tough to think of anyone in rock & roll deserving more recognition and having less. Crenshaw has mentioned his being ill-suited for opening big arena rock shows and some of his previous pairings (Howard Jones comes to mind) seem particularly ill-advised.

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