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The WILT Archive

What I'm Listening tO

        Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.

        Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.

September 2014: Rock, Classical, And Classic Rock

Old rock stars never die. They just get less media coverage.


What is ‘Rock’, anyway? Rock’n’Roll is – or at least, started out as - white kids playing black rhythm and blues (just as Swing, 20 years earlier, was white kids playing black jazz). But ‘Rock’? OK, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to make a big deal out of genre labels. But I know they’re necessary. I wouldn’t try to argue that genres are so meaningless that you could re-classify the Sex Pistols as Jazz and Louis Armstrong as Punk, and no harm would be done. But ‘Rock’ – or even more vaguely, ‘Pop/Rock’? Can something that includes everyone from Abba to Zappa, even be considered a genre?


Maybe I have some kind of issue here because ‘Pop/Rock’ is the section where my records live, at least, here in Berlin at Dussmann, the ‘Cultural Department Store’ which (oh joy!) still has 3 floors of CDs and vinyl. But there’s also a section called ‘Alternative’, which as far as I can make out, means ‘Rock but younger’. So Led Zeppelin are Rock, but the White Stripes, however much they might sometimes sound like Led Zeppelin with no bass, are Alternative.


Speaking of which,




I wasn’t a fan of Led Zeppelin back when they were all still alive, but then again, at that point I was the weirdo at the back of the class with the violin case and the Beethoven score under his arm. Well, I got beaten up for that, and more recently I’ve come to appreciate the power and importance of Led Zeppelin too. Nevertheless I still wouldn’t have thought of checking out this 2005 Robert Plant album, if my old friend and drummer Dave Houghton hadn’t nagged me into it.


He was right, it’s an excellent album, which has grown on me more than I expected. I wonder what happened to The Strange Sensation; Plant has had a couple of different bands since then, but this sounds very much like a band album, and a great band, too. They all play with feeling and conviction, not doing anything startlingly original, but somehow not sounding ordinary or predictable either. Some tracks are reminiscent of Led Zep, with Bonhamesque drumming; others have unexpected touches like odd time-signatures or echoes of Plant’s long-standing interest in North African music. There’s also a fascinating dub/drum ‘n’ bass remix at the end of the album. It seems to be meant as a bonus or ‘extra’ track, but it really works, and is one of the best things here. Hearing this voice in this context is a blast.


Robert Plant stays out of the gossip columns, doesn’t seem desperate to hold on to his earlier success, has not become a judge on American Idol, and seems to just resurface now and again with a project that really interests him. I reckon he’s a pretty cool guy, and it strikes me that it would have been much harder to know that when Zeppelin were at the height of their fame.




The word ‘genius’ is over-used. When it comes to music, there’s Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Duke Ellington and The Beatles. After that it gets tricky. But there are some people to whom the G word has been thrown at and to whom it sticks better than it does to others. Todd Rungren is a great singer, multi-instrumentalist, producer (and engineer) of hit records, designer of computer software, and God knows what else . . . and that’s before we even get to his brilliance as a songwriter.


In the 1970s Rundgren was the white Stevie Wonder. I don’t know if anyone else has made this comparison, but they both wrote beautiful, harmonically sophisticated songs that stood out from those of their contemporaries, and they both made innovative records which transcended their genres – in this case, genres defined largely by Race, with Todd filed under Rock and Stevie under Soul or R&B. Both were multi-instrumentalists who played almost everything on their respective albums, at a time when the technology didn’t offer them much help in keeping it all together. To be honest, though, I always thought that part of the charm of Rundgren’s albums was their sloppiness, which had great character: for better or worse it was All Todd.


Liars is All Todd Plus Computers, and although I personally miss some of that old lo-fi messiness, it still couldn’t be anyone but him. The songs are consistently both soulful and clever, and need to be listened to a few times. Though this isn’t a ‘concept album’, there is a theme running through it: a search for truth and a frustration with all forms of dishonesty. Many of the songs have a searching, yearning quality; some are sad, some angry, and some funny (for instance Soul Brother and Stood Up, which are not only funny but wildly catchy, and would have been huge hits in a more righteous universe). The whole album sounds surprisingly contemporary, or rather, timeless; Rundgren’s distinctive and very cool harmonic tricks are all over it (the downward modulations in Stood Up, for instance, make me smile every time); and his voice hasn’t aged a day.


HILARY HAHN: Hilary Hahn Plays Bach


One of the nice things about music – or at least, jazz, blues, classical, latin and various kinds of ‘World’ music - is that people of different ages, or even completely different generations, can work together – something that almost never happens in ‘Pop/Rock’. When this very special album was released in 1997, it was, in a sense, a collaboration between a 312 -year-old composer and a 17-year-old performer.


You might think that music for a solitary violin would be a bit boring, or that something would seem to be very obviously missing (a piano accompaniment, for instance). Miraculously, that’s not the case. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (as well as his majestic Suites for solo cello) are completely satisfying compositions, with a huge range of rhythms, colours and emotions, in which the underlying harmonic structure and development are always implicit in the melody – you can almost hear the chords behind it - and in any case, on the violin you can also play two notes at once or, by sweeping quickly across the strings, create the illusion of playing three or four at once. Bach exploits this in a hundred ways, even to the extent of writing a fugue – yes, a fugue for solo violin, in which one player is ingeniously made to sound like three. It takes a special musical mind to figure out something like this, and Bach was a musical Einstein.


These pieces are towering, daunting milestones in the violin repertory. The performer is totally exposed; on a high wire with no safety net. In other words, this isn’t what you’d expect a 17-year-old, even a prodigiously talented one, to record for her debut album. It took a lot of nerve, but the results are sensational. Hilary Hahn’s technique was rock-solid, but it’s the sheer freshness and joy in her playing that lifted this record out of the ordinary. She’s now a seasoned veteran (in her 30s!) and playing beautifully, but I can’t imagine that she’ll ever play any better than this. Bach may have been dead a long time, but thanks to Ms Hahn, his music is still as energising and uplifting as anyone’s.