I’m going through a David Bowie phase in my car at the moment – in-car listening is a terrific way of exploring music – and am working through Changes,Black Tie, White Noise and Reality,
All was going well until three tracks into Black Tie,White Noise when Bowie started singing his cover version of Cream’s I Feel Free. I’ve not heard it before – and it was terrifying.
A 60’s super-group comprising guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, Cream’s original version of I Feel Free has a manic, slightly trippy euphoria about it, a recklessly exuberant feel.
Bowie’s, however, has none of that: instead, there’s a brooding menace about his version: he sings in a very low register, the rhythmic feel is halved, such that it is much slower, there’s none of the jolly hand-clapping of the Cream original. All in all, it adds up to a very creepy rendition: I think it works, but I’m still not wholly sure, being slightly freaked out at hearing a song I’ve loved for years delivered in such a brooding and ominous fashion (once you get past the opening twenty seconds, that is…).
Combined with a slightly deranged guitar improvised chorus, it’s quite disturbing: shades of Buffalo Bill or the Jigsaw Man’s soundtrack inside their head as they stalk the pavements for their next victim.
Compare them for yourself, and let me know what you think. If you dare…
1913 was a year of destruction: it saw the beginning of the First World War, and the première of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring which smashed the homogeny of the orchestra, as well as principles of rhythm and harmony.
But it also witnessed annihilation on a smaller scale: Erik Satie, the master of Arcueil, took on Mozart and destroyed him. Satie turned his satiricial eye on Mozart’s famous Rondo alla turcain his set of three piano pieces forming the Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois.
Satie’s exaggerated parody in the first of these, his Tyroliene Turque, skewers Mozart harmonically, rhythmically, and structurally.
Satie has introduced strange dissonances into Mozart’s harmonies, and altered the time-signature from Mozart’s original 2/4 to a rhythmic feel of three beats in a bar (although, by this stage, Satie had long abandoned anything so traditional as time-signatures and bar-lines, so the score has neither). The right-hand octaves in Mozart’s piece have been split by Satie, such that the melody is distended further by having each note repeated an octave higher.
And then: the music returns to the opening ostinato, which seems to be in G major, but with a prominent flattened seventh on the third beat of each repetition suggesting that the music may move to C major – which, being Satie, of course it does not. These repeating, endless patterns, implying harmonic motion on the one hand whilst denying it on the other, are typical of Satie: ” listen, I’m going to modulate: oh, wait, no I’m not!”
That’s the great thing about Satie: his music is murderous in a brilliantly concise fashion. Don’t underestimate him: there’s always more to Satie than meets the ear.
It’s always exciting to discover a new composer whose musical language instantly appeals to you.
I can still recall the exact moment when I first heard a piece by Steve Reich: Vermount Counterpoint. I was immediately hooked. A pal at school had made a compilation tape of pieces for me, including Eight Lines, Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ, Six Pianos, and a piece by another Minimalist, John Adams, Grand Pianola Music. Now my listening library is dominated by these two composers.
I’ve recently discovered another Adams: John Luther Adams, whose hypnotic music occupies a similar niche. The beautiful soundscape of In a Treeless Place, Only Snow is a delicate gem.