Researching 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, I encountered many more than 1000 breathtaking pieces of music. That meant painful decisions, and what some will consider outrageous omissions. Along the way I kept a list of works that, for various reasons, ended up on the cutting room floor. In the coming weeks, I’ll post thoughts about some of these tremendous recordings here, starting with Aram Khachaturian's Piano Concerto.
Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) is mostly known for his pulse-quickening ballet scores – his most famous piece, “Sabre Dance” from the ballet Gayaneh, is a series of jousting-match volleys that rush around at the dizzyingly pace of a cartoon chase scene.
Khachaturian composed for the concert hall as well, and this Piano Concerto is among his most vibrant works. Its opening movement exhibits (and at times seems overtaken by) a sense of frenzy – there are extravagant scale-like runs that require the pianist to gallop across several octaves, and moments when the piano lines are answered by crusading melodies coming from all corners of the orchestra. The showy aspects may explain why critics were cool to the work upon its debut – one described it as a “harmless enough piece” but complained that it was loaded with sound effects.
Still, hearing the American pianist William Kapell play the Khachaturian with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, I’m struck by the composer’s balance of whiplash-inducing extroversion and brooding, often disarmingly poignant melodies. Khachaturian is associated with the romantic wing of Russian composition, and that dimension of his art is obvious here – bits of the heavy-hearted Russian soul peek through the elaborate development passages of the second movement, and also in the twisty-road counterlines of the third. Kapell is clearly the equal of the piece’s thundering peaks and obstacle-course challenges – according to legend, he learned this difficult piece in a week. But he’s always listening for the more deliberative and rhapsodic stuff, and in those moments, he argues that Khachaturian was a more complex musical creature than his critics maybe knew.
Collector’s Note: The Kapell Edition reissue pairs the Khachaturian with a sparkling rendition of Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 featuring Kapell with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati.
PIANO CONCERTO (1936)
Aram Khachaturian William Kapell,
piano Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky, cond.
(1946, RCA Red Seal; reissued as William Kapell Edition, Vol. 4, 1998)
#1 from Jeff Reed, Denton, Texas - 08/19/2008 10:32
I have a question for Mr. Moon. Did you ever consider any of Incubus’ recordings? If so, which ones? If not, why not? I am a big fan of Incubus.
#2 from Tom Moon - 08/21/2008 4:20
I always thought of Incubus as a great live band, and was surprised during the research when I listened to Morning View—for me that’s when the band nails down the concept….they begin using counterlines, really wide harmonies, etc. think that album shows the most range, too—the downtempo and quieter stuff is great.
dunno if you’re a Sepultura fan but Roots (1000 Recordings, pg. 689)is similarly musical….not quite the same neighborhood but by no means a galaxy away…
#3 from Matt, new york - 08/24/2008 11:56
Thanks for the book—as far as I know, such a list undertaking (inclusive of all genres) has not been done, and I’m using the book to broaden my experience with genres that I’m not all that familiar with. A directory with so much data is unlikely to make it through the editing process without any errors, and after scanning it earlier today I did find a fairly big one: Santana’s album is called “Abraxas,” not “Abraxis.”
This book will most likely be purchased by people who are very passionate about their music and people who are passionate about their music will be the most likely to be irritated by certain exclusions; all part of the process, I suppose, although I did think that the rock and jazz picks weren’t all that great. When they weren’t boring and/or predictable, they could be somewhat stupefying. Just a few of many examples:
Of all John Coltrane’s amazing albums, the non Love Supreme picks were Blue Train (a very solid album that is nevertheless from Coltrane’s less creative period and vastly overrated by virtue of it being his only Blue Note session) and the pairing with vocalist Johnny Hartman, a fine record that, when compared to groundbreaking masterpieces like Giant Steps (or virtually anything from his Atlantic period) is really more a curiosity than an essential purchase. The Unique Thelonious Monk is likewise a head-scratcher, especially as it was the only representative from Monk’s stellar Riverside recordings and I’ve never seen it (before today) considered one of the superior titles in that great run. The Miles Davis picks were kind of bland; Milestones would have been a more interesting inclusion than Kind of Blue (which is often wrongly categorized as Davis’ first foray into modality—he did it on Milestones first), and Davis entire studio output with his groundbreaking ‘60s quintet was ignored. Kudos, however, to acknowledging the greatness of Phineas Newborn, Jimmy Giuffre, Lenny Tristano, Paul Bley and other great who often get left out in a discussion of great jazz albums.
I wouldn’t want to call the rock picks a *disaster* of predictability, as no book making the outrageous assertion that “A case can be made for Fleetwood Mac as the most important band in rock history” could possibly be accused of blindly following general consensus, but… hell, large stretches of these selections could have just been copied verbatim from any random Top 100 of all time list made by such cutting edge purveyors of taste as Rolling Stone or VH1. I would have thought that a list of “must hear before you die” recordings might minimize (or, better yet, bypass altogether) the stuff that 95% of the people reading the book have already heard. To that end, plugs for Sgt. Peppers or Born to Run are neither necessary nor helpful, whereas one for Magma or Soft Machine may have been. Including only one album by Frank Zappa is dubious, but making that one album one of his many 1988 live albums leaves one almost speechless. Has the author not even heard the albums by the orignal Mothers of Invention? Good call on including Eno/Byrne’s great proto-techno My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, though.
Lastly, it’s a cheap but necessary shot: a boring, derivative album of 3rd generation ska by airheads No Doubt and a lame sophomore album by Fionna Apple are being trumpted as being more more worthy of our time than The Firebird Suite? Than anything written by Anton Webern? Than John Coltrane’s entire series of Atlantic recordings? No, no and no again.
#4 from tom moon - 08/28/2008 4:14
Matt…thanks for taking the time to write!
I won’t go point by point now in responding, but intend to someday. Hopefully we’ll build a lively discussion here that will continue long enough for folks to exchange ideas in some depth – particularly on such artists as Frank Zappa, whose work is perpetually misunderstood.
There are no absolute answers where music is concerned. There is, though, a general point regarding your comment about the predictability of the rock choices I’d like to make. I approached this project expecting (hoping, too) that at least part of the audience would be newbies – people in the beginning stages of exploration, who missed the CD era and maybe aren’t up to speed on the last few Rolling Stone uber-lists. Not folks who’ve dissected those lists, or people who are already music-obsessed and therefore have done some deep drilling. To me it seemed almost impossible – and a profound disservice – to not include Sgt. Pepper or other things you’d consider “no brainers.” Far from being “pointless” inclusions, these serve as towering landmarks, primary texts. People with far more astute understanding of music than I have studied them, and drawn inspiration from them, and many have gone on to create great works themselves. Sure, as critics and listeners we are bombarded with lists, to the point where there now exists almost a consensus “canon” of essential rock listening. That doesn’t mean we can ignore those titles. I’d argue that’s all the more reason to talk about them, as best we can. Take them apart. Relearn their lessons. Play them for our children.
As for No Doubt vs. Anton Webern (or John Coltrane on Atlantic or whatever): This isn’t a cage match. It’s all good. The mission was diversity – to find great music from all over, music that works for meditation and music that works when it’s party time. It was impossible to represent everything, and I didn’t want every single entry to be the audio equivalent of codliver oil. There had to be room for the mindless groove and the thoughtful story-song and everything in between.
PS: Re Monk: Have you heard The Unique lately? I’d argue it demonstrates Monk’s rhythm concept more vividly than the much beloved Brilliant Corners (which is mentioned several times in the book) or any of the other vaunted Riverside titles. The Monk choices had to do two things: Represent his trailblazing approach to the piano and improvisation, and also represent his incredible compositions, which remain an undervalued contribution to 20th century music. I went with the 1957 Carnegie Hall concert with Coltrane because it contains many of Monk’s greatest pieces, and shows a seriously unified group exhausting the possibilities of the tunes. When I went through Monk’s catalog, I was stunned by The Unique. It features Art Blakey on drums, and the spirited push-pull dynamic between the two of them captures the essence of Monk’s methodology – the pianist is swinging differently than he does when working with the (more forgiving) drummers of his regular group. He’s getting pushed by the taskmaster, and winds up reconnecting with the Minton’s spark and fidgeting toward something new and modern at the same time.
#5 from Kitsaun, San Rafael - 08/29/2008 12:19
I heard you on NPR the other day. The next day while at work I checked at Amazon.com and took a peek inside to book and saw that you had in fact included a Santana album on your list. How exciting! I ordered the book for our archive and was surprised to see that you had misspelled the name of the album, Abraxas.
I also saw Matt’s posting in which he mentioned it as well and your answer contained to acknowledgement of the misspelling so I thought that I would go ahead and send in a posting about it as well.
Thank you for the book and for including Carlos.
#6 from Tom Moon - 09/03/2008 4:16
Thanks for writing and my apologies for not responding sooner.
I am embarrassed by the misspelling of Abraxas. I know the album well, and in the course of preparing the book, I read the page containing that entry at least six times. I still can’t quite figure out how that escaped me.
As Matt and other correspondents have noted, errors are inevitable in a book of this size. Still, that’s no excuse. We have corrected the error throughout the online version of the entry
and if we’re fortunate enough to have subsequent printings, we will correct it for those.
Thank you for your understanding.
#7 from Josh Adams, Boone, NC - 09/04/2008 11:52
Kudos for undertaking such a large and daunting concept. I have not read the book only skimmed through your website although I anticipate when I finally have a chance to sit and enjoy. However, I would like to question why you did not go further into some categories or genres. Specifically focusing on electronica, I feel you have left out some key arguments and sub-categories of the genre. If you have the time please listen to Boards of Canada, Bonobo, and Fourtet and let me know what you think. I truly believe they are pioneers of this category and really deserve a mention.
Congratulations on your success,
#8 from Tom Moon - 09/06/2008 3:57
Thanks for your comment. I’m totally with you on Boards of Canada. sometime in the next few months I’ll post thoughts on “Music Has the Right To Children,” which is for me their most thrilling work. I wrote an entry on it for the book and didn’t quite make the case that the album needed. I look forward to hearing it again…it’s one of those totally absorbing listening experiences.
#9 from Bob Riedy, Santa Monica, CA - 09/09/2008 7:14
Why was “Aqualung” by Jethro Tull not listed—- one of the best everCommenting is not available in this content area entry.