This week I am listening to a few records by Béla Bartók, (1881-1945,) a composer from Hungary I got interested in after hearing that he influenced my two favorite musicians, Ornette Coleman and John Fahey. (Check out Ornette’s violin playing on the Town Hall Concert, for example.) I don’t usually listen to much classical music, because I’m not a fan of big sweeping orchestral pieces, with significant exceptions. I do like opera, but apart from that my favorite classical records are usually solo pieces. Pablo Casals’s version of Bach’s suites for violincello is a perennial favorite. My mom listened to it when I was a kid and I have always returned to it on a regular basis as an adult. I also really like Andres Segovia’s solo classical guitar records, and Glenn Gould’s takes on Bach’s Goldberg Variations. (He recorded two of them, one in 1955 and one in 1981. Guess which one uses a more manic tempo.) More recently, I really liked Pierre Laurent-Aimard’s Hommage À Messaien, which I bought after I read a review of it on Alex Ross’s (old) blog The Rest is Noise. In a similar vein, I have been manipulating and mashing samples from another solo piano record I love, Marizio Pollini’s take on Schoenberg’s piano music, which was released by Deutsche Grammaphone.
So it didn’t come as a surprise when I fell for a few records of Bartok’s music that were similarly minimal. One of them is more recent release that oddly enough made me think of Double Nickels on the Dime by the Minutemen. Not because of the way the musicians dressed on the cover, certainly. But because it delivers the bizarre phenomenon of a record with over 40 songs on it that goes by quickly because the songs are so short and so consistently good. The record is Béla Bartók: 44 Violin Duos by Angela and Jennifer Chun, (Harmonia Mundi.) The length of the titles ranges from 34 seconds to 2:56. Only 5 of the pieces are over two minutes long. 22 are between 1 and 2 minutes long, with the remaining 17 clocking in at under a minute. Double Nickels on the Dime has 43 songs. Nine of them are over 2 minutes long, with the longest clocking in at 2:58. Only two of the songs are under a minute long, with the shortest – Three Car Jam, which consists of recordings of running motors, presumably the motors of the three cars the band members are shown driving on the cover of the original LP – clocking in at 39 seconds. (this still far outdoes The Folk Implosion, who only broke the under-a-minute barrier once in their entire catalog, with Sputniks Down.) Relative to even Double Nickels, 44 duos comes off as a sprint to the finish. It also sounds completely fantastic. I don’t know enough about classical music to say any more than that, except that the length of classical pieces frequently comes off as bombastic to me. The brevity of these pieces avoids that connotation.
If you want to spend more time with Bartók, I recommend the double CD piano performances 1928-1945, by the man himself. I have yet to get through this record in a single sitting. I actually have yet to get all the way through it, period. The first CD has 43 tracks, and the second has 42. None of the pieces are under a minute, and the longest lasts for 19:08. The date of the recordings means there’s a fair amount of surface noise on the recordings, which adds a flavor I like. Many of the pieces are have titles like “Hungarian Folk Music: 41. The pear tree of Gyóngyös.” I don’t know whether these were composed or modified by Bartók, but I do know that he was one of the first people to collect and study folk music in the way that Smithsonian Folkways and the like made famous years after his death. Perhaps this “folk” influence on his work is what makes him come off as less pretentious than someone like Mahler, whose 8th Symphony is sometimes called the “Symphony of a Thousand” because of the large number of musicians required to play it. One 2011 performance used approximately 1,100 musicians, which makes prog rock look like the Young Marble Giants. Anyway, I like to hear solo piano records by composers because it shows you the basic structures of how they put their pieces together before all that bombast gets added on, which sometimes shows you new intervals or relationships between notes you might not have thought of.
One last Bartók record I really like is relatively maximalist, called Bartók: 6 String Quartets by the Tákacs Quartet, (Decca 1997.) It’s a more consistent record than the piano performances, and a lot of it is just gorgeous, (see link below.) If I were a director, it would make me want to make a movie. As a musician, it makes me wish I knew how to play violin or cello, (I actually did take cello lessons for a year in the 3rd grade.) Since I don’t, I’ll have to settle for spinning this disc. I’d also like to read a book about Bartók, I feel like I’d get more out of his music if I knew more about the context it came out of. One thing I know is that he opposed the rise of the Nazis in the 30’s (unlike Richard Strauss) and that he had to leave Hungary as a result and emigrate to America, which he wasn’t so fond of. I once heard Steve Reich say that Bartók died penniless in New York, but the Wikipedia page I looked at on him says tales of his down-and-out-ness in exile are exaggerated. He refused to register with ASCAP, but they did help provide him with medical care when he got sick anyway. (This reminds me of how Jon Spencer refused to register his songs with BMI back in the 90’s because he didn’t want his songs to be owned by “the man,” a stance which Lou used to make fun of by saying, “would you use a mainstream toilet if you had to take a shit? Those small checks from BMI really helped me when I was starting out.” This may have been said in revenge for Spencer having called out the simple epithet “Feeble! Feeble!” from the audience during an early Seba show in NYC.) I don’t know who Bartók may have had a similar rivalry with back in his time, but he scores points with me on all three of these releases.