Secret Santa

Though devoutly secular and sometimes not particularly cognizant of holidays of any sort, I have always enjoyed the Christmas-Hanukkah-Kwanzaa-Winter Solstice season. There’s something really wonderful about getting gifts for people; I felt all aglow rummaging through various stores surreptitiously and then sneaking my bounty back home to keep it a surprise until the end of this week. And, I have to confess, it’s great to receive gifts, too, even if I sometimes feel like most of the things I want which it would be fair to ask people to get for me are things I already have.

That said, I thought it would be fun to compile a list (feel free to add to it) of things that I don’t have because they don’t exist—namely, recordings of important musical works and/or performances that somehow, despite the seeming infinite supply of audio recordings, still have not been released. I started compiling such a list on my PalmPilot about a decade ago (I’m a list addict), and I’m happy to say that several of the things I listed on it actually have appeared since then, e.g. the complete Vincent Persichetti piano sonatas; the complete Quincy Porter string quartets (which I actually wound up writing the program notes for!); to briefly leave U.S. shores, even the complete Alois Hába string quartets (quartertones, sixth-tones and all); quartertone works by forgotten maverick Mildred Couper; a brief incarnation of the Dizzy Gillespie big band that featured Thelonious Monk on piano; and the manic minimalist soundscapes of Julius Eastman, which amazingly surfaced on a 3-CD set back in 2005. So here’s hoping some of the ten items below will wind up in my proverbial stocking as well as yours before too long…

1. John Cage: Complete Song Books

A towering achievement in the history of contemporary vocal music, several of the individual compositions within this massive series have been recorded but shockingly, despite the flurry of Cage recordings since his death in 1992, there has yet to be an integral release featuring all 92 (!) of them.

2. George Perle: Complete String Quartets

The late George Perle was one of the most self-critical composers of all time. So much so that there are many works of his that he disowned and took out of circulation, so it might not even be possible to collect all nine of his string quartets. But at least the ones that he acknowledged deserve to be together in one place. The few that have made it to a commercial release thus far—Nos. 5, 7, and 9—are scattered on various labels, some on multiple composer collections that are no longer in print.

3. Forgotten Pulitzer Music Winners, a boxed set

It’s hard to believe that the very first composition ever to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music, William Schuman’s Secular Cantata No. 2 “A Free Song”, has never been commercially recorded. You would think that this would have been remedied in this Schuman centenary year, but still no. Isn’t anyone else besides me curious to hear this? There are also still no commercially available recordings of Henry Brant’s remarkable Ice Field, Douglas Moore’s opera Giants in the Earth, Leo Sowerby’s Canticle of the Sun, and Richard Wernick Visions of Terror and Wonder. I can’t speak to the latter three because I’ve still never heard them. Shulamit Ran’s Symphony, which was given the nod in 1991, briefly was available for streaming on the former NewMusicNow site administered by the League of American Orchestras but is no longer accessible. And wouldn’t it be cool to juxtapose recordings of 1992 winner Wayne Peterson’s The Face of the Night with Ralph Shapey’s Concerto Fantastique, the work that the Pulitzer jury unanimously put forward in 1992 but which the Pulitzer board rejected? Both have yet to be recorded commercially.

4. Frank Loesser: Pleasures and Palaces & Señor Discretion Himself

The year 2010 also marked the centenary of William Schuman’s childhood friend, Frank Loesser, whose musicals Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying are still constantly revived a half century since they first appeared on Broadway. His final two shows, Pleasures and Palaces and Señor Discretion Himself, sadly never made it to Broadway, but given how well-regarded those two classic shows are, why won’t anyone give these later works a chance?

5. Meredith Monk: The Politics of Quiet

I was totally floored by this work when I attended its New York premiere some years back, particularly the music of the final act. Yet after all these years, despite ECM’s incredible Meredith Monk discography, this is still not out there.

6. Miles Davis and Prince

There’s been a longstanding rumor that the music that Miles Davis and Prince played together in a studio only days before Miles’s death was actually recorded by someone. Who? Where?

7. Henry Mancini: Wait Until Dark (soundtrack)

Henry Mancini is one of the most widely recorded composers of any genre, and scads of the films he scored made it onto top selling soundtrack albums. Yet his remarkable score for the 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark, which features two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart throughout, was never issued independently of the film. The movie is readily available on DVD, so it is possible to hear this music, but it would be really great to have it on its own as well.

8. The Music of Terry Jennings

The late Terry Jennings (1940-1981) is frequently lumped with LaMonte Young and Terry Riley as one of the earliest minimalist composers, yet none of his landmark compositions—which include a string quartet whose score was reprinted in Michael Nyman’s seminal book Experimental Music, Cage and Beyond—have ever made it onto commercial recordings. I was heartened, at least, to see that Kyle Gann posted a recording he made with Sarah Cahill of a complete performance of another early minimalist classic, Dennis Johnson’s monumental six-hour solo piano work, November from 1959.

9. Captain Beefheart: Bat Chain Puller

One of the most creative forces in the history of rock, Don van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, died over the weekend, squelching forever for his legion of fans the possibility that there will ever be more music from him following his departure from making music back in 1982. Over the past decade, there have been some tremendous releases documenting rare never-before-released Beefheart material. But one of the holy grails of the Beefheart discography is Bat Chain Puller, a full album from 1976 that never got issued due to legal wranglings and was re-recorded as Shiny Beast a couple of years later. Rumor has it that it will finally make it to disc in January 2011; here’s hoping that’s true.

10. Two important American operas—John Harbison: The Great Gatsby and John Corigliano: The Ghost of Versailles—acknowledged on their own

(NOTE: This paragraph has been partially revised since its original posting subsequent to reading a Twitter post in response to this list by Steve Smith.) One of the most heralded recent American operas has been The Great Gatsby by John Harbison, whose birthday happens to be today (December 20). Yet for a full decade after it premiered at the Metropolitan Opera it was not released either in audio or video format, even though the Chicago Lyric Opera’s performance was nationally broadcast over the radio. Another major American opera that has long remained unavailable on commercial recordings is John Corigliano’s The Ghost of Versailles, another Met Opera premiere, which was briefly available on VHS and laser disc (remember those?) from Deutsche Grammophon, who sadly never saw fit to issue it on CD. So while it is heartening to see that both of these operas finally got released on DVD, why on earth are they only available as part of a 21-disc box that retails for $300?

Happy holidays.

2 thoughts on “Secret Santa

  1. Kyle Gann

    There’s no disc I yearn for more than George Antheil’s unrecorded opera Transatlantic. There are also a few final Roy Harris symphonies I’ve been waiting all my life to hear.

    Reply
  2. cbustard

    I wish Santa would add to the now pitifully few recordings of the choral, orchestral and chamber music of the 18th- and 19th-century Moravians, Protestant emigres from Central Europe who were the first capital-C classical composers in this country.

    If there’s a Moravian Christmas Love Feast in your town this season (churches other than Moravian present them), that would be your likeliest live introduction to this literature. Here are a couple of samples of what you may hear, from the 2009 Moravian Music Festival:

    The most widely available recordings are “Lost Music of Early America” by Martin Pearlman & Boston Baroque (Telarc) and string trios by John Antes and Johann Friedrich Peter (New World Records).

    There’s a lot more in the archives of the Moravian Music Foundation (http://www.moravianmusic.org/) in Winston-Salem, NC.

    Reply

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