Arachnophonia: Gustav Holst – “Beni Mora”

Editor’s note: Welcome to the first “Arachnophonia” column of the 2017-2018 academic year. Arachnophonia is a regular feature on our blog where members of the UR community can share their thoughts about items in the Parsons Music Library‘s collection. All links included in these posts will take you to either the library catalog record for the item in question or to additional relevant information from around the web.

As your friendly neighborhood blog editor/Music Library Associate, I thought I would kick things off for this academic year with a post in honor of British composer Gustav Holst‘s 143rd birthday.

Gustav Holst

“Beni Mora” (Op. 29, No. 1 1909-1910)

Today (September 21st) marks the 143rd birthday of British composer Gustav Holst. Holst was born in Cheltenham, England on this day in 1874. Today he is probably best known for his orchestral suite The Planets but he wrote many other works for orchestra as well as works for concert band, choral works, chamber music, operas and stage works. So, I thought I’d focus on one of my favorite pieces of his that is not quite as well known, “Beni Mora“. This piece is available as streaming audio in the library collections and is available for UR students, faculty and staff to access on campus.

Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

Beni Mora” was inspired by a vacation trip Holst made to Algeria in 1908. In letters home to his wife, he called Algeria a mix of East and West where mosques and hijab wearing women were juxtaposed with advertisements for American cinematography (source: GustavHolst.info). He even went so far as to go bicycling in the Algerian portion of the Sahara desert — quite a vacation!

Photo (postcard?) Algeria circa 1908

A photo of an Algerian street scene circa 1908

There was a fascination with “the orient” as a broad concept (literally broad stretching from North Africa to India to Japan) in Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which led to a bit of an artistic fad for “Orientalsm” across various artistic media with varying success.

Orientalism in Action

I’m not sure how someone actually from Algeria would feel about this “cigar box” type portrayal from the early 20th century

The work premiered in 1912 and definitely reflects a mixture of East and West there is definitely a westernized sense of the “Oriental” evident, but not in a way that feels disrespectful of the culture that inspired it.

Working manuscript in Holst's handwriting from "Beni Mora"

A snippet of a working manuscript in Holst’s handwriting.

Beni Mora” consists of three movements – two dances and a finale subtitled “In the Street of Ouled Nails”.
The first dance starts off with a languid, almost cinematic feel — winds blowing across lonesome sand dunes are definitely evoked to my Western ear and builds to a louder, bigger feeling section that sounds to me like a lost outtake from the soundtrack to Lawrence Of Arabia (which of course was written much later!).
The second movement starts with an interesting syncopated percussion motif and makes use of orchestral tone color, having various melodic lines thread through different sections of the orchestra and groupings of instruments.
The third movement was directly inspired by a repetitive flute tune that Holst overhead during his Algerian travels. This 8 note flute melody becomes the hypnotic basis for this movement and is repeated many times while other harmonies, instruments and musical themes swirl in and amongst and around the repeating flute motif in a manner that suggests the changing scene as people come and go on their daily business on an Algerian street and also help keep the motif interesting. Some music critics have even referred to this movement as “proto” minimalist because of the 163 plus repetitions of that flute motif.

Frederick Arthur Bridgman - "A Street Scene In Algeria"

Frederick Arthur Bridgman (American, 1847-1928), “A Street Scene in Algeria”, oil on canvas

I first discovered “Beni Mora” in 2003 when I was living in Cheltenham while working at the Holst Birthplace Museum and fell in love with its blend of exoticism and romanticism that causes it to sound like a miniature film score. This feels like something that really would fit right in on a film soundtrack from a 1930s or 40s serial (or an Indiana Jones movie), which also appeals to me. I admire Holst’s curiosity about other cultures as evidenced in his incorporation of his Algerian vacation experience and musical style (as he perceived it) into this musical travelogue.

(Fun fact: Holst was also fascinated by the culture of the Indian subcontinent and wrote choral works and chamber operas exploring myths and legends of India, even going so far as to teach himself Sanskrit so he could read Hindu texts in their original language! Yay cultural curiosity!)

CD streaming

Of course, one should also listen to “The Planets” (it’s very famous and beloved for a reason), but I think “Beni Mora” provides a great way to delve further into the output of an early 20th century composer whose total output is well worth exploring! (Especially since the Music Library has a version that can be streamed — access is a wonderful thing!)

Holst Statue

Statue honoring Gustav Holst in his hometown of Cheltenham, England

It was 50 years ago today …

The BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was released on June 1, 1967 in the UK and on June 2, 1967 in the US. It became the soundtrack for the fabled “Summer of Love” both influencing and reflecting the flower powered youth culture of the time, but its appeal has proven to be timeless.

Beatles - Sgt. Pepper album cover

The Beatles stopped touring in August of 1966, and took some time off. The group reconvened in November of that year and spent over 400 hours in the studio between November 1966 and April 1967 completing the album. (This was a far cry from their first foray into EMI Studios to record their first album in 1963 — that entire album was recorded in less than 24 hours!) This studio time led to all sorts of interesting musical experimentation and since the group had decided they were done with touring, there was no need to worry about whether the songs could be produced live on stage. The album as a whole is a fascinating almalgamation of harmonium, harpsichord, brass band, fairground noises, harp, psychedelia, Leslie speaker tweaking, multi-tracking, tape loops, full orchestra, crashing apocalyptic piano chords, dog whistles and more. The Beatles’ musical ideas required lots of technical innovation from producer George Martin and studio engineers.

Sgt. Pepper gatefold

The eclectic mix of songs was loosely held together by the “concept” of a fictional Edwardian alter-ego Sgt. Pepper Band and the songs are wonderfully joyful. From the psychedelic marching band music that introduces us to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to the psychedelic imagery of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” ( title inspired by a drawing by John Lennon’s young son, Julian), to the music hall whimsy of McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four”, to the spiritual tone of Harrison’s sitar-laced “Within You Without You”, to the amazing shifting tones, full orchestral crescendo and avant garde surrealism of “A Day In The Life” (one of the greatest ever Lennon/McCartney collaborations in this author’s opinion), there is much to enjoy, right through to the startling tape loop ending inserted into the run-out groove of the original LPs (and included on CD reissues if you wait for it). The Beatles drew inspiration from varied sources like an 1843 circus poster (“Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”), a TV cornflakes commercial (“Good Morning, Good Morning”), news stories about runaway teens (“She’s Leaving Home”) or car accidents (“A Day in the Life”).

An alternate take from the Sgt. Pepper cover photo session

An alternate take from the Sgt. Pepper cover photo session

There is just as much to enjoy in a perusal of the album art itself. The cover features a pop art inspired collage of various folks (famous and not so famous) that the Beatles chose as inspirational to them, elaborate gatefold sleeve packaging (with bonus cardboard mustaches and pseudo-military insignia in early pressings) and includes the lyrics to all of the songs printed on the back cover, something that had never been done before with a pop album.

Sgt. Pepper back cover with lyrics

Sgt. Pepper signaled that pop & rock music could also be considered high art or even progressive social expression and more than just disposable entertainment. Musicologists cite Sgt. Pepper as continuing the musical maturation of the Beatles as a group that began with Revolver and Rubber Soul. It was also extremely influential on the development of progressive rock with its emphasis on studio experimentation, elaborate instrumentation and insistence on pushing the boundaries beyond conventional subject matter and track lengths. The album has been an influence on countless others since its release in 1967.

Here’s a sampling of a few of (many) parody takeoffs on the iconic cover:

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention – We’re Only In It For The Money

Frank Zappa & The Mother's Of Invention

The SimpsonsThe Yellow Album

Simpsons - "The Yellow Album"

The RutlesSgt. Rutter’s Only Darts Club BandRutles - Sgt. Rutter

Golden Throats – a compilation of critically lambasted cover songs

Golden Throats

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band consistently ranks in critics and fans listings of best albums of all time. Among numerous accolades and awards, it is ranked # 1 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It’s included in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry and is one of the best-selling albums of all time.

Whether Sgt. Pepper is an old favorite or if it’s brand new to you, this classic album / cultural touchstone is well worth a listen!

Sgt. Pepper cut outs insert

Sgt. Pepper cut outs insert

Arachnophonia: Daft Punk “Discovery”

Editor’s Note: Our music review column “Spider Sounds” has had a name change and will now be known as “Arachnophonia”. The name has changed, but the idea remains the same — members of the UR community can share their thoughts about items from the Parsons Music Library‘s collection. All links included in these posts will take you to either the library catalog record for the item in question or to additional relevant information from around the web.

Today’s installment of Arachnophonia comes courtesy of Music Library student worker Olivia (class of 2019), and features the Discovery, the second studio album by French electronic music duo Daft Punk. Thanks, Olivia!

Daft Punk

Discovery

Daft Punk - Discovery album art

Daft Punk have established themselves as legends in the realm of dance music since their 1996 debut album, Homework. They gained popularity quickly with their funky mix of French house music and mixing punk, funk, disco and rock elements.

In 2001, they released their album Discovery, in my opinion the best of their work. The songs “One More Time” and “Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger” have remained hits since their release, with music fans everywhere able to sing and dance along.

Single for "Harder Better Faster Stronger"

Kanye West’s use of “Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger” in his song “Stronger” only increased the duo’s popularity and widespread listening population.

Promotional material for "Discovery" (2001)

What is so great about Daft Punk is their ability to appeal to almost every type of music listener, spanning the separation of many different genres. Also intriguing and interesting is their rare appearance in interviews, television and photos with their robot helmets off, inspiring a sense of mystery and awe in these house music legends.

Arachnophonia: The Color Purple

Editor’s Note: Our music review column “Spider Sounds” has had a name change and will now be known as “Arachnophonia”. The name has changed, but the idea remains the same — members of the UR community can share their thoughts about items from the Parsons Music Library‘s collection. All links included in these posts will take you to either the library catalog record for the item in question or to additional relevant information from around the web.

Today’s installment of Arachnophonia comes courtesy of Music Library student worker Susie (class of 2019), and features the 2005 cast recording for the Tony award winning Broadway adaptation of The Color Purple. Thanks, Susie!

The Color Purple

The Color Purple

This is one of the best cast recordings for a Broadway musical I have ever listened to. Often it can be difficult to understand the musical and truly appreciate it when you only listen to the soundtrack without ever seeing the show. The Color Purple is different, the plot, heartbreaks, triumphs, and best moments are all captured within the cast recording.

While listening to the “Opening/Mysterious Ways”, the listener can imagine being in this small town filled with gossip and hardships.
In the series of songs “Big Dog”, “Lily of the Field”, and “Dear God” the listener is experiencing horrific events with Celie and mourning with her. Even a person who does not have strong faith can feel the glory of God in the musical’s title song “The Color Purple”. And the strength Celie shows in her songs “Miss Celie’s Pants” and “I’m Here” can give any listener the strength to get through the toughest of times. This soundtrack gives listeners the incredible experience of listening to an amazing musical, but it also takes listeners on Celie’s journey to hell and back and her strength and wisdom can lift up anyone.

I recommend laying back, closing your eyes, and letting this cast recording take you on a journey that will surprise and uplift you.

Playbill - The Color Purple

Cover of the Playbill for the 2016 revival of the show — which won the Tony award for Best Revival of a Musical in 2017.

Arachnophonia: Bon Iver

Editor’s Note: Our music review column “Spider Sounds” has had a name change and will now be known as “Arachnophonia”. The name has changed, but the idea remains the same — members of the UR community can share their thoughts about items from the Parsons Music Library‘s collection. All links included in these posts will take you to either the library catalog record for the item in question or to additional relevant information from around the web.

Today’s installment of Arachnophonia comes courtesy of Music Library Student worker Colette (class of 2017), and features indie folk band Bon Iver’s second album. Thanks, Colette!

Bon Iver

Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Bon Iver, Bon Iver

This album has been one of my favorites since high school. Two years after “For Emma, Forever Ago” was released in 2008, Bon Iver’s sophomore release was this self-titled album.

“Holocene” is one of my favorite tracks on the album. The intro features intricately woven electric/acoustic guitars and vibes. While the beginning of the song is gentle and almost mesmerizing, by the time the chorus rolls around, the song picks up. The chorus lyrics are not your typical “pop” chorus:

And at once I knew I was not magnificent
Huddled far from the highway aisle
Jagged vacance, thick with ice
And I could see for miles, miles, miles

Justin Vernon

A wintry shot of Bon Iver’s frontman, Justin Vernon

“Towers” is also a favorite. This tune demonstrates the poetic nature of the group’s lyrics. The lyrics are a rhyming poem, which detail the process of falling in, then out of love. Some of my favorites include:

From the faun forever gone
in the towers of your honeycomb
I’d a tore your hair out just to climb back darling
when you’re filling out your only form
can you tell that itʼs just ceremon’
now you’ve added up to what you’re from

If you’re looking for a folk/indie album that’s not like the rest, check out Bon Iver’s “Bon Iver”.

Holocene cover

Cover for the 12″ single release of “Holocene”

Arachnophonia: Carlo Gesualdo “Complete Sacred Music For Five Voices”

Editor’s Note: Our music review column “Spider Sounds” has had a name change and will now be known as “Arachnophonia”. The name has changed, but the idea remains the same — members of the UR community can share their thoughts about items from the Parsons Music Library‘s collection. All links included in these posts will take you to either the library catalog record for the item in question or to additional relevant information from around the web.

Today’s installment of Arachnophonia comes courtesy of Music Library Student worker Erin (class of 2017), and features some sacred choral music by Italian Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo. Thanks, Erin!

Gesualdo

Complete Sacred Music for Five Voices

Gesualdo - Complete Sacred Music for Five Voices

If you’re looking for some relaxing study music, you should definitely check out Gesualdo’s CD of Complete Sacred Music for Five Voices!
This collection of choral pieces was written by Carlo Gesualdo di Venosa around the year 1600, and is entirely a capella. This specific recording from 1993 is by the Oxford Camerata, a group created for the specific purpose of making music from the medieval and renaissance periods more accessible. This music was written before more recent Western ideas of musical keys and common practice period chordal structure came about, so the way Gesualdo weaves chords and cadences together is very unusual and beautiful to my ears.

Gesualdo - Tenebrae

If you enjoyed this CD, I’d also recommend another CD of Gesualdo’s music that the music library carries — the Hilliard Ensemble’s 1991 recording of Tenebrae. The polyphonic style (or multiple voices singing different lines at once) of this piece is more on the darker/serious side because of the topic material (the Passion of Christ). The Latin text is translated in the CD’s notes in English, so you can follow along with it as well if you’re wondering what they’re actually saying!
It’s a really long and really gorgeous piece that always helps me find a sense of peace and relaxation amongst the craziness of college life.

Enjoy!

Carlo Gesualdo

Portrait of Carlo Gesualdo, principe de Venosa (ca. 1560-1613) by an anonymous artist