Saturday, October 18, 2008


There are several things I've been wanting to write about, but they've all been swept away by my discovery of a recording of a March, 1971 concert by Circle. Now I've got to write a few paragraphs in praise of a true supergroup of avant jazz.

Circle was Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul. The group lasted, kind of incredibly, for a year, from around August, 1970 to August of '71. I say that it was incredible that they lasted that long because these four extremely talented musicians, while they shared common areas of musical interest, were pulling in somewhat different directions. They were all interested in and adept at free improvisation - without counting minutes, I would say that about half of their recorded output is improvised without the benefit of any predetermined material. Braxton was just as interested in composition, and presumably felt somewhat limited by the free-blowing format the group often adopted. And Corea's interest in Scientology led him to direct his music energies into more accessible avenues, culminating in the Return to Forever groups.

But during its short life, Circle produced some amazing music. Their recorded legacy is pretty small, though. The best-known Circle album is the ECM Paris Concert, recorded at a February, 1971 show; this was originally released as a double album and has been continually in print since. Three August, 1970 sessions for Blue Note resulted in five and a half LP sides worth of material, released under Corea's name five and eight years later. Japanese Sony released two Circle albums: 50 minutes of a November, 1970 show came out as Live In German Concert (sic), while Gathering documented a long improvisation in a New York Studio. Then there is an obviously bootleg Corea album with a long Circle performance of "Nefertiti" from an Italian concert.

The material ranges from free improvisations to abstract versions of standards ("There is No Greater Love" was a favorite) to originals by Braxton, Corea, and Holland. Braxton's originals were complex and demanding, and it's hard to imagine that any other group at the time could have given him better performances of his music. In this respect, the Hamburg show I recently came across is very revealing. The group recorded Braxton's Composition 6F several times, but this show also includes his Compositions 6A and 6I, as well as Corea's "Rhymes," a piece the group never otherwise recorded.

What a group! Braxton was at his fieriest during this period, and Corea was at his most exploratory and interesting. It was through the Paris Concert album that I became aware of what a virtuoso Dave Holland is, and Altschul's range of percussion colors is amazing. There was plenty of doubling to increase the palette of timbres: Braxton used his full arsenal of woodwinds, from sopranino sax to contrabass clarinet; Holland played cello and guitar as well as bass, and they all doubled on percussion.

These days, Circle seems to be remembered mostly as a way station in Braxton and Corea's careers. About the only serious critical attention I have seen given to the group is in Ronald Radano's book on Braxton, New Musical Figurations. Paris Concert is the place to start checking out Circle. If you like that, search out the other stuff, if you can find it. The Japanese albums are pretty rare*, but the Blue Notes show up in used record stores pretty frequently. The Hamburg show can be found on at A great, detailed discography of the group is at

Long live the music of this short-lived group.

*Of course I have them. Don't be ridiculous.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

For the End of Time

Except for performing ensembles, the two undergraduate college courses that have meant the most to me 30 years later are my first English literature course, Introduction to Poetry (I'm embarrassed that I don't remember the professor's name), and 20th Century Composition, taught with passion and deep knowledge by Tom Wallace*. I remember Tom analyzing Varese's Density 21.5 in great detail, dissecting it interval by interval. But the greatest gift Tom gave the students in that class was his discussion of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. I had never even heard of this piece, but it immediately became one of favorite "classical" pieces.

It's also the subject of book I'm just finishing up: For the End of Time by Rebecca Rischin. The Quartet is worthy of a book, because its story is one of the great classical music legends. As I learned in Tom's class, the piece was written and premiered in 1941 in Stalag VIII A, while Messiaen, along with the other musicians who premiered the piece, was a prisoner of war. Rischin's book debunks some of the myths I "knew," such as the story that the cello at the premiere only had three strings and that the clarinet had a broken key. It does make clear just how much this music meant to the musicians and the prisoners who heard it. It's fair to assume that most of the prisoners didn't "understand" this complex piece, but it apparently touched most of them deeply.

It continues to touch me deeply. After studying the piece 30 years ago, I went out and bought the LP recording by the chamber group Tashi. 15 years later I replaced the worn-out LP with the CD edition. Inspired by Rischin's book, I also just ordered a CD of the first recording, with Messiaen on piano.

Messiaen's quartet is inspired by the Book of Revelation, in particular by Chapter 10, in which the seventh angel blows the trumpet which marks the end of Time. Seven of the eight movements are moving, inspiring, frightening, or otherwise quite serious, but the brief fourth movement ("Interlude") is more lighthearted. The very slow fifth and eighth movements, "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus" for cello and piano and "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus" for violin and piano, are two of the most absolutely beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard; they should be heard by every musician and music lover, even those who don't care for "modern" classical music. They really evoke timelessness and eternity, even for someone like me who doesn't believe I have an immortal soul that's going to live anywhere when I die.

The third movement is a clarinet solo, "Abyss of the Birds." On the Tashi recording, the great Richard Stoltzman is the clarinetist. His control is so amazing that there are times when you become aware that there is a note sounding, but you can't exactly say when it began - it came from nowhere and at some undefined point became audible. I was lucky enough to hear Stoltzman play this movement in concert a few years ago. By the way, one of the beauties of Messiaen's music is that he didn't just evoke bird song with a few cliches, he transcribed hundreds of bird songs exactly and used them in his compositions.

I still remember two of Messiaen's techniques which give this piece much of its flavor - Modes of Limited Transposition and Non-retrogradable Rhythms. The first refers to scales which can only be transposed a few times before they return to their original pitch set. The simplest example is a whole-tone scale; it can only be transposed once. When you transpose it up a half-step a second time, it duplicates the pitches of the original scale. These scales have a color and flavor unlike the usual major and minor scales. A non-retrogradable rhythm is a rhythmic palindrome, a rhythm that is the same when it is reversed. A simple example would be half note, quarter note, whole note, quarter note, half note. Messiaen's rhythms are much more complex, however, and gave the musicians at the premiere quite a bit of difficulty.

One of the most touching things in Rischin's book is the fact that Henri Akoka, the clarinetist in Stalag VIII A, never lost his clarinet. He kept it with him when he was captured, and even managed to hold on to it through two unsuccessful and, finally, a successful escape attempt.

To be totally honest, inspiring bits like that are mixed into an overall somewhat dry tone in Rischin's book. While I have enjoyed reading it, I don't recommend it wholeheartedly. But if you don't know Messiaen's Quatour pour la Fin du Temps, I wholeheartedly suggest you do yourself a favor and hear it.

*I still see Tom occasionally in his capacity as trumpet player with the Peachtree Brass Quintet; the group sometimes plays concerts at one of my schools. When it does, I know I'm in for it - at the end of the segment demonstrating the history of popular music from ragtime to rock, he always makes me "volunteer" to come up and do the twist, much to the delight of my students.