Keith Emerson (1944-2016)

Keith Emerson (1944-2016)

keith-emerson-1Sadly, I learned that keyboardist and composer Keith Emerson died this past week from what the coroner has determined was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  He was suffering from depression and anxiety mainly over some nerve damage in his hands hampering his ability to play keyboards.  It seems that depression got the best of him and he committed suicide.  He was 71 years old.

Emerson lake and palmerEmerson was part of the progressive rock super-group named Emerson, Lake and Palmer.  I am regrettably a very latecomer to the ELP party.  The band formed in London in 1970, with Keith Emerson on keyboards, Greg Lake on bass and vocals, and all sorts of percussion played by Carl Palmer.  I really don’t know what rock I have been living under, but I had only heard a few of the songs of ELP that would play on the classic rock radio stations.  Things like “Lucky Man” from their 1970 debut album Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and “From the Beginning” from the 1972 album “Trilogy”.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Lucky Man”

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “From the Beginning”

efp284Clearly you could throw a rock out your front window and hit someone who knows more of the history of Emerson, Lake and Palmer than I do.  I feel shortchanged that I only knew the shorter radio-friendly tunes.   I have for so long missed out on some of the longer, more adventurous tracks this group recorded.  Keith Emerson was a very technically accomplished keyboard player, and a big fan of all sorts of music of all genres.  He played piano, early Moog synthesizers, Hammond organs and made full use of all sorts of cutting edge keyboard technology available to him.  With the instant gratification of streaming music on Spotify, I have been able to explore so much more of the output of ELP.  The 1971 live album version of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” was a find for me to write about on this blog a year ago.  Only 11 days before Emerson’s death I was writing about Piano Concerto No. 1, Opus 28 (1961) by the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera and found the ELP version of the fourth movement on their 1973 album Brain Salad Surgery under the title “Toccata”.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer,  “Pictures at an Exhibition”

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Toccata”

The more listening I do, the more surprises and gems I uncover.  Clearly those three listened to everything they could.  There are versions of things as widely varied as “Hoedown” from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, to the Scott Joplin “Maple Leaf Rag”, quotes from J.S Bach and honky-tonk blues piano.  I even caught a quote of the Dizzy Gillespie bebop tune “Salt Peanuts” in the middle of Emerson’s keyboard solo on “Tiger in a Spotlight” from Works Volume 2 (1977).

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Tiger in a Spotlight”

Depression is a horrible disease, a truly painful experience for anyone who suffers from it.  If you, or someone you love, seem to have symptoms of depression, stop fooling around with my humble attempts at a blog and get help immediately.  There are so many more treatment options, pharmacological and otherwise, than there were even 15 years ago.  Seek some sort of therapy and treatment before it progresses to suicidal thoughts.  Suicide is a tragedy for both the person we lose and all the people in their life, left behind to grieve.  

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Show Me The Way to Go Home”




Something new.

Something new to me at least.

siriThis is how it happened.  One of the new features of the iPhone gives you some suggestions from Siri when you swipe to the right from the home screen.  I see the people I have most recently contacted, the apps I have most recently used and some headlines from Apple’s news service.  The LA times must have entered some financial agreement with Apple, because it seems that four out of the five headlines suggested by Siri are from the LA times.  I’ve not decided whether this is an amazing upgrade of convenience, or some sort of Big Brother/Big Business effort to control the news to which I am exposed.  In either case, I read a headline about the LA philharmonic starting a tour with a challenging orchestral program of relatively modern music.  The program contained two different works by living composers, and other music from the twentieth century.  There was a piano concerto that was described as “challenging” for the listener.  

Alberto Ginastera

Alberto Ginastera

The concerto was the Piano Concerto No. 1, Opus 28 (1961) by the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983).  I am delighted that I at least recognized the name Ginastera as a twentieth century composer, but I couldn’t recall ever hearing any of his music.  I am a pretty big fan/student of twentieth century “classical” music, and at this point a bit of ego kicked in.  It seemed like it was something I should have heard before, so I looked into finding a recording.  Spotify came to my rescue by having the recording on the Naxos label available for me to stream.  This was instant gratification at its finest, the music I wanted at my fingertips exactly when I wanted to hear it.  I was blown away by the composition.

This concerto is just the sort of music that I sought out as a student composer.  Modern sounding, not afraid of dissonance, rhythmically driving and grippingly expressive.  Liner notes tell me that Ginastera is using a serial, atonal method of composition in putting this concerto together.  I can hear that in the music, but what stands out in the foreground more than anything is the musical voice of Ginastera.  The serial method that dominated musical academics and composers in the late 1950’s and 1960’s can be a very cumbersome tool, and in many hands it overwhelms the musical aspects.  It takes some familiarity to begin to sort out bad serial music from good, and a lot of bad music can hide behind accusations that the listener wasn’t “sophisticated enough to understand”.  This is not the case with the Alberto Ginastera.  I hear music first, rhythm and expression and a very effective musical voice which happens to be using a particular method to construct the music.  The method serves the music, not the other way around.  

Alberto Ginastera, Piano Concerto No. 1, Opus 28 (1961)

ELP_-_Brain_Salad_SurgeryUpon further reading about Ginastera, I learned a new bombshell.  The progressive rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer adapted the fourth movement of this same piano concerto.  It appears as “Toccata” on an album titled “Brain Salad Surgery”, a 1973 release that was their fourth studio album.  Even more remarkable, it seems that Ginastera approved and endorsed the effort.  During the time they were recording the album, Keith Emerson traveled to Switzerland to meet with Alberto Ginastera to play the version of the movement that they had created.  Ginastera didn’t speak much English, but with a little help from his wife the message was delivered that Ginastera was impressed and approved of the recording.  

Clearly I have had my head buried in too much Shakespeare and Mozart in recent months.  I am completely annoyed with myself for never having heard either the original Piano Concerto, or the Emerson, Lake and Palmer record before now.  My proverbial socks are knocked off.  I am delighted to familiarize myself with both versions.  It seems that Ginastera has written a lot of music I haven’t heard, including three operas.  One of the operas, “Bomarzo”, was banned in Argentina for a few years, which makes me want to listen to it at once!  I can’t believe that my main man Mike didn’t share at least the Emerson, Lake and Palmer version with me years ago.  He had to be familiar with it at the time.  I wonder what old “Mike on Keys” thinks of the Ginastera concerto.  In case you didn’t make it through the entire 30 minutes of the concerto in the above recording, I have included a video of the fourth movement by itself with a video of the Toccata from “Brain Salad Surgery”.  It makes for a high octane 12 minutes to listen to them back to back.

Alberto Ginastera, Piano Concerto No. 1, Fourth Movement

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Toccata” from “Brain Salad Surgery”

Exhibitionism Part 3:  Showing it All

Exhibitionism Part 3: Showing it All

Two of the most dramatic movements of “Pictures at an Exhibition” are “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga)” and “The Great Gate of Kiev”.  Fortunately for our discussion here, both of the Hartmann images have survived.  These two pictures inspired Mussorgsky to write some of the most memorable music in the entire suite. The first of the two images is of an ornate clock in the figure of a hut or house.   The house stands upon the legs of a chicken.

Baba Yaga clock

This image would be immediately recognizable to any Russian, especially one who was scared as a child with the story of Baba Yaga.  This story has many different variations, and several parallel stories in other cultures.  Baba Yaga was a Slavonic supernatural witch, who lived in a fearsome hut in the woods.  The hut stood on chicken legs, and would magically rotate to face each new person who happened upon it.  She would lure in lost children, and eat them for dinner.  Baba Yaga flew around on a large mortar, steering with a pestle, and used the mortar and pestle to grind up the bones of the victims upon which she dined.  In most versions, there also is a broom which sweeps away her tracks.  I imagine this story was used as a morality tale, to scare Russian children into good behavior, lest they be sent into the woods to face Baba Yaga.   Before we judge this child rearing tactic too harshly, we should remember Grimm’s fairy tales were also pretty gruesome before Disney got their hands on the stories.

Mussorgsky drew upon both the image, and the tale it invokes when writing his section of “Pictures” to accompany this Hartmann creation.  Here is the original piano version.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (piano version)

This dramatic music invited some brilliant orchestration from Maurice Ravel in the most popular orchestral version.  There are an endless supply of recordings of the Mussorgsky/Ravel version, but one of my favorites is by Sir Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (orch. Ravel)

As we saw in the previous post, Mussorgsky’s music has withstood transformations into versions he never could have imagined.  My newest favorite is by the progressive rock trio Emerson Lake and Palmer.  Their recreation of “Pictures” can be heard complete at the end of the previous post, but here is the Baba Yaga selection to sample.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Hut and the Curse, Baba Yaga – Emerson Lake and Palmer

The big finale of “Pictures” comes in “The Great Gate of Kiev”.  This image has a real world story behind it.  In April of 1866, there was an attempted assassination of Tsar Alexander II, one from which he escaped, and survived.  Following this close brush with death, a contest was held to design a gate to the entrance to the city of Kiev to commemorate/celebrate the survival of the Tsar.  Viktor Hartmann thought that his design for the city gate was some of the best work he had created.  Sadly, the contest was called off, and no gate was ever built.  Hartmann’s design was included in the memorial exhibition that Mussorgsky attended.  The exhibition catalog listed this image as “Stone city-gates for Kiev, Russian style, with a small church inside”.

Kiev Gate

Kiev was the birthplace of Christianity in Russia, in 988 when Vladimir of Kiev converted to Christianity and ordered a mass baptism of his subjects in the local river.  (No need to win the hearts and minds of your subjects, when you can just order them around.)  This Christian theme is reflected in Hartmann’s design by the small church on the right of the image, with three bells in the tower.  Another description of the gate indicates that there was to be an inscription above the arch that read “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord” (in Russian, of course).  Mussorgsky’s music is a grand statement that matches this grand image, and borrows from a Russian hymn.  It is a proper finale to the suite, and simply oozes Russianness.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Great Gate of Kiev (piano version)

This grandiose finish to the piano suite just begs for orchestration, a task which has been performed by a large number of people (as we have seen).  Here is the ever-present Ravel version.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Great Gate of Kiev (orch Ravel)

When Leonard Slatkin performed his compendium version of “Pictures” at the Proms in 1991, he had the opportunity to do something special.  In Slatkin’s version, a different orchestrator was chosen for each movement.  The finale was performed in the Ravel orchestration that we find in the above video.  As an encore to the successful concert, Slatkin was able to repeat the finale in a different orchestration.  To close the concert, he very appropriately chose the version created by Sir Henry Wood, the founder of the Proms in England.  Leonard Slatkin’s enthusiasm for “Pictures” is what began this series of posts, so it is only fitting that I end with him conducting that encore.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Great Gate of Kiev (orch Wood)