5 Records You Should Own: Quiet Listening

By Wes Phillips

The cliché of an “audiophile” recording is a big, sometimes bombastic, spectacular that recreates the sound of a full symphony orchestra—or of a full-tilt rock or jazz band cooking away. Records that capture that degree of excitement, not to mention that amount of moving air, are very special. And those of us who cherish fidelity do revel in them.

Yet, there’s another side to sonic accuracy and that’s the ability of a sound system to reproduce intimate sounds—the breathy whisper in the ear, the decay of a single voice in a large room, the delicate cushion of air that supports a sustained chord. I seem to be most receptive to these pleasures during my late night listening sessions, when the dedicated audiophile can surrender to small epiphanies. Every audiophile has been there—and, the next day, most of us struggle to describe these moments to friends, family, and even fellow audiophiles.

But ‘fess up, some of your favorite magical moments have occurred in the quiet, solo hours, too. These five recordings always take me away from the cares of day-to-day life—I’d like to share them with you.

Ravel: Concerto in G/Gaspard de la Nuit; Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3. Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Claudio Abbado, cond. Martha Argerich, piano. DG.

For me, the late night magic is strongest in the Ravel concerto’s adagio assai movement, but the whole G concerto is delightful—it’s simultaneously pure Ravel and infused with jazz.

The first movement starts with a whipcrack and a tight snare drum roll and then it romps off, with the piano guiding the orchestra through a heady amount of exposition that introduces all of the first movement’s themes. This leads to a passage of “Ravel mysticism” (think Daphnis et Choe), with harps establishing a shimmering veil pierced by the piano’s forward progress. The tunes are lively and bright and the orchestration is light on its feet and reinforces the piano’s dancing progression through the development.

And then comes the second movement, surely one of the most noble and gentle pieces of interplay between a piano and orchestra ever composed. The solo piano begins, unraveling a stately, almost funereal melody that is at first supported by solo flute and then oboe and clarinet to carry the piano into the development of the second movement’s themes. The pace is stately, with the tranquil right hand flowing like water and the left continuing its waltz-like progression through the entire movement.

There are very few moments in all of music that match the adagio assai’s tranquility and nobility—listening to it, you may well find yourself forgetting to breathe.

After the almost unbearable grace of that movement, Ravel lets it all out with a gleeful romp pitting rapid piano flights against the chattering orchestra. To me, it evokes the pure joy of motion–children at play, perhaps. It is fleet and brief and it’s as close to an orchestral representation of unforced laughter as I’ve ever heard. You cannot frown listening to the presto. In performance, audiences frequently demand an encore of the presto—you might, too.

On CD, the Argerich Concerto in G is generously paired with Gaspard de la Nuit and Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3.  Listeners who prefer LPs have a wonderful array of choices, ranging back to Katchen’s mono performance, a longtime staple in record collecting circles, to interpretations by Michelangelli (sometimes cited as a “performance of the century”), Philippe Entrmont, and Samson Francois. Herbie Hancock included the adagio assai movement on his Gershwin’s World recording and, while it is not my favorite treatment of the work, Hancock’s thoughts on it are well worth hearing—and his inclusion of it in a recording titled Gershwin’s World was a typically astute assessment of Ravel’s impact on that composer and vice versa.

quiet listeningDavid Lang: the passing measures Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Birmingham Symphony Chorus, Paul Herbert, cond. Marty Ehrlich, bass clarinet. Cantaloupe Music.

If you think 21st Century classical music is hard to listen to and difficult to understand, the passing measures very well might convince you that it can also be beautiful. David Lang is a member of the Bang On A Can music collective and tpm is an immense work featuring an amplified orchestra, woman’s chorus, and bass clarinet. Its single movement runs 42 minutes and unfolds slowly—the orchestra holding a sustained chord that evolves slowly over a cushion of voices sighing, and a generous shiver of high, tinkly percussion. Over that, under it, weaving through it, is Marty Erlich’s breathy bass clarinet providing the piece’s forward momentum.

Think of it as ambient music, if you will. But a lot of ambient music is based on tape loops and electronic alteration of small sonic events stretched out after the event. While there is some electronic treatment of the orchestra here, it’s very much a living presence. I find its slow pace mesmerizing.

While it rewards close listening, it also demands that the listener slow down. Its sustained unfolding relaxes me, practically insisting that I forget deadlines, chores, and worries and just be. here. now. That’s a rare quality these days—multitasking is thought of as a virtue and everyone I know goes to bed with a to-do list longer than they woke up with. the passing measures is meditative in the way that the act of breathing is meditative:  breath in, breath out—when you focus on the tiniest details, everything else ceases to matter.

David Lang has written a lot of other great music, if the passing measures resonates with you. death speaks, Lang’s setting of Death’s lines in Schubert’s Death & the Maiden, made many people’s best of 2013 lists (and was even released by Cantaloupe Music as an LP) and love fail, Lang’s interpretation of Tristan and Isolde, just happened to be Anonymous 4’s valedictory recording—a revelatory fusion of A4’s ancient passion and Lang’s contemporary cool.

quiet listeningAyub Ogada: En Mana Kuoyo Ayub Ogada. Real World.

A lot of people can’t relate to music sung in languages they do not speak, but don’t let the fact that Ogada is Kenyan and singing in his native Luo deter you from hearing En Mana Kuoyp (Just Sand). The record’s gentle pulse, featuring Ogada’s niatti (a gut stringed lyre), his otherworldly voice, and sparse percussion, is a sonic landscape like nothing you’ve ever heard.

Ogada is fully multicultural, having traveled around the world with his musician parents before attending an England boarding school. Returning to Kenya, he joined a group called African Heritage Band, which melded African musical forms with elements of rock and soul. He later trekked back to the UK, playing niatti and singing, where he attracted the attention of Peter Gabriel, who booked him into the WOMAD festival and recorded this album on the Real World label. So have no fears, audiophile, En Mana Kuoyo ain’t no primitive sounding recording—it’s state of the art.

The sound is sparse, but atmospheric, and Ogada’s voice soars—he can reach unbelievably high notes without straining—above the ground of the gut-stringed niatti and various shakers. That’s pretty much all there is—and, although it doesn’t sound like much, it’s a different world entirely.

While Ogada is sui generis, there’s a wealth of contemporary African music that brings ancient musical traditions into the modern era. If En Mana Kuoyo appeals (and trust me, it will), you should check out the music of Francis Bebey, a composer who is just as likely to layer the sound of mbiras (thumb pianos) on top of synths as guitars. Also check out Toumani Diabate, a Malian whose mastery of the kora (a 21-string cross between a harp and a lute) will leave you slack-jawed in awe at his lightning fast runs and trills.

It’s a big ol’ world—you should hear more of it.

quiet listeningPaolo Fresu, Richard Galliano, Jan Lundgren: Mare Nostrum. Paolo Fresu, trumpet; Richard Galliano, accordion; Jan Lundgren, piano. ACT Music.

Wha? Trumpet, accordion, and piano? Have I lost my freaking mind? No, only my heart. Of course, it helps that each of these three virtuosos is playing at the top of his game. And it doesn’t hurt that this non-ECM recording sounds remarkably like one of Manfred Eicher’s sonic gems.

Paulo Fresu’s mellow trumpet playing is well known to jazz enthusiasts. His name on any project is an assurance of quality. French accordionist Galliano is less well-known, but I’ve begun treating him as a touchstone like Fresu—nothing I’ve bought that features him has disappointed. (His quartet’s transcriptions of Bach offer both exemplary performances and audiophile sound quality.) He sure ain’t Lawrence Welk, his accordion timbre is earthy and mellow—I’ve never heard those metal reeds sound so organic. Swedish pianist Lundgren is probably the least recognized of the three, but he’s spectacular in that brainy, meditative Bill Evans tradition of pianism—and implicit in that description is the wonderful way he interacts with the other members of this trio.

Mare Nostrum is Latin for “our sea,” meaning the Mediterranean, and the flowing, liquid nature of the songs reflects that. The songs range from folk tunes to Ravel, with stops in Argentina and Brazil along the way.

Although the three musicians intertwine and trade solos constantly, the lead voice is, perhaps, Fresu’s, who favors playing with a mute. However, even without one, his tone is so liquid and warm that it’s hard to believe he’s playing the same instrument as Louis Armstrong (not that I’d ever disparage Pops, I’m merely acknowledging Fresu’s unique tone). If Fresu stands out as a soloist, Galliano excels as an accompanist—blending breathy reeds into piano chords and trumpet tones. The entire concept of subtle accordion is counter-intuitive, but that’s exactly what Galliano plays. As for Lundgren, his accompaniment is on such an exalted level, I want to invent words to describe it. What’s the opposite of outrageous? Inrageous? I don’t know, but there must be some concept that encompasses such perfection at letting other voices soar.

To avoid confusion, I should note that Mare Nostrum, the album, bears no relation to the Mare Nostrum Ensemble, an early music group which has recorded a wonderful double CD of Bach transcriptions, which is also worth a late-night listen.

quiet listeningJohn Martyn: Solid Air. John Martyn. Island Records.

To many folks my age, Nick Drake’s recordings are among the ultimate late night records—and yes, I am among them—but Drake died young, leaving us with only three completed records. However, while Pink Moon, Five Leaves Left, and Bryter Layter all could have made this list, I’m going with John Martyn’s Solid Air, whose title track was dedicated to Drake. Martyn was a phenomenal guitarist and, prior to Solid Air, pretty much a straightforward British folksinger.

On this album, however, he “stepped out of his comfort zone,” as allmusic.com put it. He added tons of echo, effects, and looped delay to his guitar and recruited vibraphone, sax, and, most importantly, a Fender Rhodes electric piano to his cause. Moreover, he stepped out of the purist folk tradition, incorporating world music, jazz, and a heavy dose of American blues to his interpretations.

Folkies cried apostasy, but Solid Air crossed genre boundaries and many of the songs on it became integral parts of Martyn’s performances for the rest of his life.

Solid Air is primarily about mood—slow and dreamy, focusing as much on Martyn’s voice as on his guitar. Martyn had one of the great voices and his slurred delivery, whether in his natural husky tenor or his ineffably sweet falsetto, is a wonder of elision. For me, this is the album that personifies F. Scott Fitzgerald’s aphorism: ”In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.”

The recorded sound is remarkable, with a particularly plummy bottom end, frequently anchored by Danny Thompson’s double bass. The top end is extended, filled with harmonic overtones from Martyn’s acoustic guitar strings and, on a few songs, the decay from the vibraphone. Considering how many layers of sound Martyn achieves, there’s a remarkable amount of air.

Although the accompaniment is tasty, Solid Air is Martyn’s show and, as he sings on “The Easy Blues,” he mostly keeps his damper down.

On CD, you’re spoiled for choice, with both a single disc version that adds a few tracks to the original release or a 2 CD Deluxe Edition, which adds both demo tracks and live performances of every song on the original. Myself, I prefer the original LP sequencing and find the extra disc’s worth of material on the Deluxe Edition both too much and not enough. When I want alternate versions of the songs on Solid Air, I turn to Martyn’s Classics, which are reinterpretations rather than a greatest hits package or In Session At The BBC. LP collectors will want to seek out the original UK Island (“pink rim”) pressing, which isn’t an easy find, but is worth searching for. The US Island release sounds really fantastic—until you hear the British disc.