Tuesday, December 11, 2012

let us now praise famous musicians

Three distinguished names from three fields of music who have died in the last month deserve comment by me.

1. Charles Rosen. A noted pianist, but more famous as a musicologist (although he claimed not to be one, not having a degree in the field), he wrote deeply insightful books on classical and romantic musical style, which I'm afraid I never got much out of, because they're a bit above my grade level. I did get to meet him, once, when he attended the Stanford recordings symposium four years ago, where he irritated many by making contrarian remarks casting doubt on the assumptions motivating the whole symposium. I didn't share the musical tastes he expressed there, but I thought his logical strictures had a lot to be said for them.

2. Dave Brubeck. I don't often listen to jazz, but when I do, it's likely to be Dave Brubeck.

3. Michael Dunford. Who? Well, not very many people, even rock fans, know of this guy. He was the guitarist and chief composer for the 1970s English art-rock band Renaissance, which has been one of my secret obscure passions (and one of the 2 to 5 rock bands, depending on your definition of "rock band", that I actually like) ever since DGK quietly put on one of their albums while I was at his house one day some 30 years ago, and I came back next week and said, "What was that album you played the last time I was here?" because it had not left my head in the interim.

What made Renaissance great was not just the sensitive classical influence on their work, which they actually wore pretty lightly, but Dunford's sumptuously beautiful melodies and the transparently clear and unearthly way that vocalist Annie Haslam sang them. Dunford's hypnotically rhythmic fingerwork and his propensity for playing it on an acoustic guitar also won my favor.

They may have to grow on you - they had to seep in to me - but here are my three favorite songs of theirs, all of them strongly bent towards the lyrical side of the band's output. (All the lyrics are by Betty Thatcher, a reclusive poet to whom Dunford would mail tapes of his melodies, and she'd send back these cryptic ... words.) Be patient: the Renaissance is not in a hurry.

"At the Harbour" - this song is framed by Renaissance's pianist John Tout playing a remarkably straight and unimpressionistic version of Debussy's La cath├ędrale engloutie.

"Black Flame" - if there's one Renaissance song I could save from the dust of civilization, this would be the one.

"Ocean Gypsy" - this song was later, and apparently somewhat more famously, covered by a band called Blackmore's Night, but this is the original.

Thank you for these, Mr Dunford - and colleagues.

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