Friday, May 27, 2022

RIP: Alan White

lett -/\= from Luque, Paraguay, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The first sound I ever heard from what would become my favorite band was a peculiar drum break played through a Fairlight CMI, an early sampling keyboard. That sound opened "Owner of a Lonely Heart," a song that was unlike anything else heard on Top 40 radio at the time, with all of its quirky little "whiz-bangs," as producer Trevor Horn called them, that came courtesy of what were cutting-edge instruments at the time.

The band was Yes, and drummer Alan White played that opening fill on the Fairlight.

Alan White died yesterday at age 72. He was a mainstay of a band that was noted for its frequent personnel changes, having manned the drummer's throne since 1972. Back then, he was rooming with Yes producer/engineer Eddie Offord and had sat in on a rehearsal with the band when original drummer Bill Bruford was unavailable. Being thus well known to the band, he was the obvious choice to step in when Bill left Yes for the more experimental pastures of King Crimson.

Alan had some big shoes to fill. Not only had Bill brought a jazzy complexity to Yes's early music, but he also left Yes in need of a drummer less than a week before their world tour was set to begin. Alan had three days to learn the band's entire repertoire, but he proved up to the challenge. It probably served as incentive to nail Bill's parts that the rest of the band threatened to throw Alan out the window of the third-floor room where they'd convened if he declined to join.

He was far more of a straight-ahead rock drummer than Bill had been. While he changed a lot of Bill's signature parts in concert to suit his own style, he didn't dumb them down. He just gave them more directness and power. And that was the same approach he took to Yes's intricate music in the years to follow. Characteristic of his style is a section in the long instrumental passage of "The Gates of Delirium" that's played in 11/4 time. Where a lot of prog-rock drummers would take the opportunity to get flashy in a section like that -- Bill, for one, would have danced all around the beat with clever little flourishes -- Alan's heavy beat centered on a pair of eighth notes on 3 and 7 on the snare, followed by a single hit on 10. Workmanlike and to the point, but very effective. He brought a similar rock 'n' roll punch to the entirety of the 1980 Drama album, which in my opinion stands as one of his finest performances.

Most of the world will remember Alan as being the drummer on John Lennon's iconic songs "Imagine" and "Instant Karma." He also played on several tracks on George Harrison's All Things Must Pass triple album, and he'd worked with Joe Cocker and Steve Winwood before signing on with Yes. So when he joined Yes, the band clearly knew they were getting a solidly reliable timekeeper to pick up where Bill had left off.

He hit the ground running with Yes. Not only did he have to get up to speed for an entire tour in three days, but then the band went into the studio to record their ambitious double album Tales From Topographic Oceans. And he proved up to the task, and then some. He features on a long and riveting percussion-driven section on the final track, "Ritual," that would become an audiovisual delight in Yes's live shows. He also stepped up on piano, writing and performing the part that ends "Ritual" when keyboardist Rick Wakeman wasn't around to contribute.

Those little unsung contributions were abundant over the years, as Alan would reveal in interviews that he wrote this or that passage on piano or guitar. He also added backing vocals, and he shared the keyboard duties on the 2001 Yes album Magnification with bassist Chris Squire, when the band decided to move ahead as a quartet without a permanent keyboardist in the lineup. Alan's piano work on that album is featured on "Can You Imagine," a piece sung by Chris, and the band built the song "In the Presence Of" around a piano melody that Alan played in the studio during the recording sessions.

Alan and Chris kept the Yes flame burning after the band broke up in 1980. They cut a Christmas song together, called "Run With the Fox," in 1981, and joined forces that same year with Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page in a failed attempt to create a new supergroup. In 1982, they met guitarist/singer/songwriter Trevor Rabin, and the band they created together, called Cinema, ended up evolving into the reunited Yes that gave us "Owner of a Lonely Heart" in late 1983. Many members had passed through Yes's revolving door since then, with only the rhythm section of Chris and Alan remaining constant, until Chris's death in 2015 left Alan to carry on with a band that no longer had any original members in the lineup.

Alan had been ill in recent years, and the band had been touring with a second drummer, Jay Schellen, to help him shoulder the load. Yes had just announced a few days ago that it would be touring its Close to the Edge 50th anniversary tour without Alan. The end, it seems, came quickly, and tributes from his Yes bandmates poured in on the official Yes website, with everyone remembering what an easygoing, down-to-earth, and friendly person he was. In a band filled with big egos and difficult personalities, Alan always did give off the impression of the guy who was just happy to go along with whatever the rest of the band decided to do -- while offering his own memorable contributions along the way.

He's the third member of Yes to shuffle off this mortal coil, following Chris Squire and original guitarist Peter Banks. And his departure comes just days after the death of Vangelis, who made four albums with singer Jon Anderson and had auditioned in 1974 for the role of Yes keyboardist, a job that ultimately went to Patrick Moraz.

Alan's death is a reminder that the heroes of rock's classic age are slowly fading away. But even as they pass, we can remain grateful for the musical creativity they've graced our ears with over the years.

Thanks for the music, Alan, and rest well.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Flash Review: Phosphorescent, "Muchacho"

Adapted from my erstwhile Acousticx blog.

I haven't made any music posts in a while. My kid got sick, then I did, and then life just got in the way. You know how it is. But my wife gave me a nudge to share my thoughts on an album she was listening to on the way to and from the dentist this morning. She's a novelist waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for her big break, and she says she'd used one of the songs in reference to one of her fictional characters.

So today we have Alabama native Matthew Houck, who, like Five for Fighting and Passenger, are simultaneously singular artists and entire bands. Houck's band-slash-alter ego is called Phosphorescent, and before this morning I'd never heard of him. The album in question is 2013's Muchacho, which, a quick Wikipedia reading tells me, came out of a period in Houck's life when he got off tour and had to disassemble his recording space because of New York zoning laws. He lost his girlfriend along the way, too. But the upside was that he got to play around with a lot of sounds while building a home studio, and the result was this album.

Here's the first tune. Click over to YouTube to hear the rest of the album.

My first impression was that Houck's voice sounds similar to that of Ben Bridwell from Band of Horses, with that same sort of world-weary, stretched-thin tenor delivery. But there's also a raw raggedness that puts me in the mind of Neil Young, in one of his acoustic moods when his voice feels like it's warbling in despair, the sound of a man who's seen too much.

The album is bookended by similar pieces. At the front, we have "Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, an Introduction)," whose sunny African-tinged percussive electronics and multilayered vocals don't give you an indication of what's coming. The ending piece, "Sun's Arising (A Koan, an Exit)," sets aside the opening piece's electronics for a loosely jangling electric guitar line behind long, swooping vocal gilssandos. The lyrics, minimal though they are, speak of embracing the light after a time of darkness, which gives the listener a sense that the feeling of resignation that characterizes a lot of the music in between was a phase in the artist's life that got better. Or at least we can assume he's looking ahead with optimism to brighter days.

I see that Houck mentions trying to capture a Brian Eno vibe on this album, and that comes through most strongly on the second track: "Song for Zula," with its airy production and bubbling bass line, wouldn't be out of place on a U2 album. Houck also gives a lyrical nod to Johnny Cash here when he sings, "Some say love is a burning thing / that it makes a fiery ring." Sure enough, the song speaks of a love gone sour, one that makes him feel that his soul has been trapped in a cage.

The next track, "Ride On/Right On," feels a little more upbeat, yet we still hear the singer hating his situation, one in which he seems to feel taken advantage of by others. Then we move into a bit of a country mood, with violin, steel guitar, and piano setting the mood for "Terror in the Canyons (The Wounded Master)," coupled by a lyrical sense that our narrator feels as if he could have been anything he wanted to be, until the bottom dropped out when the one he loved left him.

Nowhere is the Neil Young vibe stronger than on "A Charm/A Blade" and "Down to Go," the latter of which shares some melodic qualities with Young's "Beautiful Bluebird." Houck here gives an especially emotional vocal performance, his voice sounding as if it's cracking under the weight of tiredness and sadness.

The other three tunes probably caught my interest more than the rest. "Muchacho's Tune," as close as we get here to a title track, serves up a waltz-tempo twang over which Houck finally feels a glimmer of hope, determined to fix himself and return to his erstwhile lover. One can only hope, on listening to the yearning in his vocal delivery, that his optimism isn't in vain.

"A New Anhedonia" held the most rhythmic interest for me, swinging between a 9/8 and two bars of 6/8 on the verses. Lyrically, though, we return to a bleak place, as the song appears to be about a friend who's burned out after always chasing the next drug high. The Wikipedia article did mention that alcohol and drugs contributed to Houck's personal dissolution that preceded the making of this album, so perhaps this tune is just as autobiographical as the ones about lost love appear to be.

And finally, there's "The Quotidian Beasts," which I think is my favorite track upon my first run-through. It rocks harder than any other tune on the record, and the intriguing lyrics appear to have something to do with being bewitched, with references to claws and a raven's beak. Dark but compelling stuff here. The yowling wordless vocals between the verses put me in the mind of a melody I've heard somewhere else but can't quite place. If I ever figure it out, I'll come back here and comment further on it.

And there you have it. This was a fun experiment that got the creative juices going today. I'm eager to see what music the Missus cooks up for me next.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Truth Is a Pathless Land, and That's OK

Those who read this blog are aware of my religious and spiritual ruminations over the years. My spiritual journey began as one of questioning what I was told when I was young, and that questioning nature within me has never quite been satisfied with the answers I've found along the way. 

Christianity -- specifically, Catholicism -- was my home base, the place where I was planted. And though I came back to it later in life after a long journey through the wilderness, in my heart of hearts I could never take the teachings literally, as was expected of me. Symbolically, I could grasp them. Mystically, they made intuitive sense. But taken literally, it all breaks down for me into a hopeless thicket of contradictions and logical impossibilities. 

In this painful world, we understandably crave the comfort of certainty. When life makes no sense and it feels hard to press on for another day, it's reassuring to think you have every answer to life's problems at your fingertips, chapter and verse, all conveniently contained within a single book. That book might also give you hope that there's a light at the end of the tunnel -- that if we just have faith and submit to the will of a higher authority, there will be someone there to reward us for a life well lived, to take us by the hand, and lead us home.

It has to be nice to be able to fall back on that kind of belief system.

I can't do it. And I've tried. Believe me, when you've suffered bodily for years and your undiagnosed physical malfunctions take more out of you with each passing year -- indeed, when every day feels like a near-death experience -- you long for some kind of peace, some reassurance, some word from somebody, somewhere, that everything is going to be OK. 

But wanting it doesn't make it so.

And yet even I can't chalk up my suffering to pure randomness. I do believe, based on my own life experiences, that something exists beyond this material realm -- that the material and spiritual are the yin and yang of our being. And suffering, for better or worse, plays a role in that state of being.

Catholics like to say that suffering builds character, but I've got to say that if that's the case, then I've had quite enough character-building for one lifetime, thank you.  

But what if we're suffering as a result of our past misdeeds? That's where karma and reincarnation come into play. 

I've joked before that I must have been a horrible person in a past life, but sometimes I wonder if it's more than just a joke. The Problem of Evil remains, well, a problem when you take for granted the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing deity. But the problem largely solves itself if you accept that our karmic debts carry on from one lifetime to the next, and that we have to keep coming back, lifetime after lifetime, until we settle our debts and set things right. 

The idea is not new to me. Jon Anderson, the lead singer of Yes, led me to the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda many years ago. Alan Watts helped me build on those Eastern concepts. And everyone from George Harrison to the driving philosophy behind John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra only reinforced what I'd already learned. 

In the West, we of course call this overarching Eastern philosophy Hinduism. But that word has always set uneasily with me, inasmuch as it smacks of a colonialist ignorance that imposed from the outside a name on something not fully understood -- much as Islam was once referred to by non-Muslims as Mohammadenism. To someone from India, the term Sanatana Dharma would be an accurate expression of a way of life that embraces the various strands of India's native religious traditions.

I find Indian religion fascinating in many ways, but it's such an inextricable part of Indian culture that it feels inauthentic for someone outside of India to adopt it. And indeed, there are Indians who agree with this view, that you can't be fully "Hindu" without being Indian. I felt the same when I was exploring Buddhism in some of its Japanese expressions -- Nichiren, Pure Land, Shingon. Stripped-down Western Buddhism to me felt cold, self-absorbed, and thus rather missing the point, but "ethnic" expressions of Buddhism felt like something that was off limits to me -- though that admittedly had more to do with my own hang-ups than with the way anyone at any of the Japanese temples ever treated me. 

My wife and I have been reading the Bhagavad Gita, and I have the Upanishads on my to-read list. I'm reading them not so much with an eye toward converting to Indian religion as to gain a better understanding of what makes "Hinduism" tick. And the more I learn about it, the more I'm coming to understand that "conversion" would result in little more than trading one group of superstitions (i.e., literalist Christianity) for another, as it does appear that most expressions of "Hinduism" within India are indeed weighted down with superstitions, most notably as they apply to a literal belief in a pantheon of deities, and the subsequent rituals, prayers, and offerings that go along with that literal belief.

Alan Watts and others who helped bring Indian religion to the West have focused more on something called Advaita Vedanta. Without getting too far into the weeds, Advaita Vedanta shares the core philosophy underpinning Indian religion while cutting through some of the Indian cultural trappings. One can still honor the gods and goddesses if one wishes, while thinking of them more as aspects or symbols of Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, rather than as entities in and of themselves. The deities aren't objects of worship, per se, but symbols to help us visualize the Divine.

Vedanta also posits that atman, the soul or self, is not separate from Brahman but actually a part of it, and that our goal is to cut through the illusion of the world we think we live in to discover our true divine nature and thus facilitate a reunion of atman with Brahman. Ultimately, then, there is nothing but Brahman, and Brahman, while itself without attribute, is inseparable from sat-chit-ananda, or the state of existence-consciousness-bliss. 

Most traditional "Hindus" take a dualistic approach to religion, seeing atman and Brahman as related but separate. So the monism of Vedanta is a minority view in India, but it would seem to be a flavor of Indian religion that translates well to other cultures. Westerners tried to do something similar when they imported Buddhism and removed anything that felt "foreign" or "superstitious," but my 15 years of exploring Buddhism left me feeling that the attempt was not so successful, as Western Buddhism feels like little more than a self-help program with some meditation thrown in for an "exotic" feel. 

But even in its Eastern setting, it feels to me as if Buddhism tried to get too cute when it took the idea of atman and rejected it with the concept of anatman, or no-self. In an attempt to stake out a viewpoint contrary to the "Hindu" belief he would have been raised with, the Buddha created a seeming contradiction, wherein he denied the self but simultaneously claimed that something about ourselves survives death and is reborn. Vedanta, like Buddhism, encourages us to cease our clinging to an illusionary world, but unlike Buddhism, it doesn't try to deny that there's something eternal about us that survives bodily death. 

In any event, I'm not here to proselytize for Vedanta. Even if I wanted to adopt it for myself, there's no Vedanta community within hundreds of miles of where I live. The only remotely "Hindu" things near me are a cultural center about an hour and a half away and an ashram about a two-hour drive from me. So I'd be undertaking the practice by myself. 

All I'm saying is that after all these years, I've ended up pretty much in agreement with Vedanta, without actively trying to -- which I find really interesting. Reading about Jung's collective unconscious and Bernardo Kastrup's theories on consciousness from a scientific point of view kind of closed the loop for me. Science can't explain consciousness, how a slab of meat in our skulls can account for the subjective inner experiences of living that we all possess, and so Kastrup (and others) posit that consciousness, possessing no other obvious origin, might be a fundamental building block of the universe, like gravity. If so, that points us back to the Vedantic idea that the universe is consciousness itself. Another way of looking at it is that the universe is a gigantic organism, and we are its mind -- the vessels through which the universe experiences itself. 

The only question, then, becomes whether what we experience through our temporary vessels is real or an illusion. Vedanta, of course, would argue for the latter -- that we are, as Alan Watts put it, merely pieces of God playing hide-and-seek with himself, and that eventually the game ends and we all go home. I don't have an answer for whether we experience reality or illusion in this life, and ultimately I don't think it really matters. My opinion would only be just that, an opinion, with no bearing on what actually is

So as much as I'd love to check my brain at the door and sign up for a religion that gives me all the answers I'll ever need, I don't think that's in the cards for me in this lifetime. I'd love to have the escape hatch that that certainty would offer, especially when the insanity of the outer world and the pain of my inner world overwhelm me, as they do most days. I want a shelter from it all. Work, music, books, and family are the only safe havens I have, and they'll have to be enough.  

It feels like a resignation, a defeat, to say these things, after all these years of desperately combing through the world of belief in hopes that something might stick. I know now that I have to settle for resonating with bits and pieces of Taoism, Zen, esoteric Buddhism, Shinto, Druidry, European paganism, mystical Christianity, and, yes, Vedanta, with an overarching emphasis on the Sacred Feminine. Actually following those paths, with the fervor of a devotee, is for others, not for me. But I can at least take from them what works for me, in whatever way I have to mix and match them. I can go to a high Latin Mass, listen to the lovely Gregorian chant, and contemplate Brahman if I want to. It's about the best I'm going to be able to do. 

I went into 2022 with a mind toward cobbling together my own religion. I still think it would be fun to share my views with others in a ministerial role, and I believe there's a unmet need for people who are rethinking religion and spirituality in new ways. But I also wonder if my logical brain would nag at me and say that even my grab-bag approach to religion is not much more than a security blanket.

In the end, I've come around to seeing the beauty of Jiddu Krishnamurti's insights. K., as he was often called, was plucked out of obscurity as a child and groomed to become the next World Teacher, the incarnation of Maitreya, the Buddha to come. But he publicly rejected this role for himself and spent the rest of his life speaking to crowds around the world as a sort of anti-guru, dispensing practical wisdom while remaining adamant that he didn't want any followers. His unwavering belief was that once you begin to seek truth through a guru, a church, or anything external to oneself, then you've abandoned your own search for truth in favor of taking on someone else's idea of truth. He insisted that "truth is a pathless land." You have to climb the mountain on your own. No one can do it for you. That can be tough medicine to swallow for those who want easy and satisfying answers, but I don't think he was wrong. 

Ironically, that makes K. perhaps the wisest guru of them all. It could be that rejecting the role of Maitreya was necessary for him to become exactly Maitreya, or for all practical purposes the same thing. In that sense, I think he also represents what Vedanta leads people toward: an abandonment of blind belief in pursuit of what's true, rather than what we want to be true. After all, if authentic (i.e., non-superstitious) Indian religion does anything well, it's in encouraging people to seek, to question, to explore, to find their true selves, rather than simply giving them a hidebound list of rules to follow in exchange for a supernatural reward. 

Moreover, if atman is Brahman and Brahman is atman -- if you are that, as the saying goes -- then that changes everything. And it transcends us far beyond anything that the scriptures, or K., or any human religious system could ever hope to impart to us. 

That beats wishful thinking any day of the week... and twice on Sunday.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

The Challenge of Mahler and His Music

Adapted from my erstwhile Acousticx blog.

Once I discovered the works of Gustav Mahler, I had a feeling I'd either love or hate them. He seems to have that effect on people.

Born in 1860 in eastern Bohemia -- what is now the Czech Republic -- Mahler grew up in an abusive family and saw many of his 13 siblings die as children. But he had a gift for music, and his early skills on the piano led to his being accepted into the Vienna Conservatory. Writing his own music would become secondary to his career as a conductor, although the virulent anti-Semitism of the day led to a withering public campaign to cancel the man of Jewish heritage.

Mahler did manage to write nine symphonies in his spare time, but his music went largely unappreciated in his lifetime. He married, but one of his two children died of scarlet fever and diphtheria, and he discovered that his wife was having an affair. To top it all off, he was eventually diagnosed with a heart condition that he knew would cut his life short. Sure enough, Mahler only survived to age 50.

The man threw all his angst into his music. Many of his works explore deep philosophical and religious issues such as the meaning of life. And it was this emotionalism that makes some of his works difficult to penetrate. Although he touches on universal human topics, the subjective personal nature of his works can make it hard to separate the man from his music. Beethoven, of course, also channeled his emotion into his works, but the emotions he conveyed were not so much about him but about the human condition in general, which is what gives his works such a wide appeal even today, whereas critics aren't entirely wrong to interpret Mahler's works as an exercise in indulgent self-pity.

There's no denying that Mahler, who at one point in his life ended up on Freud's couch, used music as a kind of personal therapy, expressing through his works what he couldn't in any other way. Does that make his works inherently whiny? At least one music critic thought so, calling the composer "a psychic weakling, a complaining adolescent who [...] enjoyed his misery, wanting the whole world to see how he was suffering." A scathing indictment, to be sure, but ultimately the listener must be the judge: Either the music moves you or it doesn't.

Either way, it does seem that Mahler had an abundance of neuroses. Musicians who worked under him chafed at his demanding perfectionism, his low tolerance for mistakes, and his insistence on rehearsing pieces over and over until he was satisfied with their execution. When he married, he insisted that his wife, herself a budding composer, give up her career in order to support his. He had to have things his way. Not someone you're likely to enjoy having a beer with at the neighborhood bar, that's for sure.

He's also a long-winded composer. All his symphonies run from an hour to 90 minutes. From what I've heard so far as I work my way through his compositions, it seems clear that he took a kitchen-sink approach to writing. That makes his compositions very dense and full of contrasts. That's not a bad thing in and of itself, but it can be difficult for those with short attention spans who like their composers to get to the point rather than linger a bit on this theme, then a bit on that, then meander into something else, and then reintroduce some of the themes at various points throughout the work. In short, Mahler's works get your brain working and force you to pay attention.

Mahler was a complex man, and that complexity plays itself out in his compositions. I'm going to refrain from rendering a judgment on his music just yet, because I feel I need more time with some of his symphonic works to fully digest and appreciate them. I'm not sold on the gimmickry of, say, having horns play offstage, or using the thud of a gigantic hammer to signify the blows of fate. But I can say that I like the overall melodic approach he took to writing in an age when atonality was rearing its very ugly head in the classical world. He wrote captivating passages, especially for basses and horns. And of course it's all very dramatic, and very personal to his own life and struggles.

A movement in his First Symphony, for example, teeters between a minor-key rendition of the children's song "Frere Jacques" and the sound of European folk music. It's very easy to imagine a young Mahler living through a dark childhood full of abuse and death, such that what should be a happy time in life felt grotesque and distorted -- and as he'd run out of his house to escape the misery, he'd find himself surrounded by musicians playing folk tunes, dance songs, and military marches. Why was there this seeming happiness around him when life seemed so dark? Was life all just an elaborate hoax? What did it mean?

Mahler asked those questions in his music. His compositions were his catharsis. If he were alive today, I think he'd be a Roger Waters type, working out his anger, bitterness, and sorrow in his lyrics. But his music would resemble something like Yes' Tales From Topographic Oceans -- remarkably long and meandering, packed with themes and melodies that snake through the compositions and demand your attention and patience.

Nothing about Mahler, it seems, is easily digestible, and I suppose that's why he elicits such strong reactions from classical fans. For now, I'm keeping an open mind. I'm taking my time with each of his symphonies, and I'm sure I'll have more to say about Mahler and his music when I'm done.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Adrift, but Rowing, in a Sea of Classical Music

Adapted from my erstwhile Acousticx blog.
Photo by Josep Molina Secall on Unsplash.
When I was a kid, I had an LP recording of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. It was from the "Great Performances" series, with one of those yellow covers made to look like the headline-blaring front page of a newspaper. Eugene Ormandy conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir handled the choral section in the fourth movement. I remember it all very vividly. I played that record over and over, and I remember being fascinated by the German-speaking voices as I'd follow the choir with help from the English translation included in the liner notes.

I no longer recall for certain what that triggered my interest in classical music at such a young age. Chances are it had something to do with Schroeder from Peanuts. I was probably curious about why the kid hunched over his toy piano was so obsessed with Beethoven. Once I scored my own copy of the Ninth, I understood.

And while rock and pop would become my preferred style of music, my little excursion into classical had left its mark. The progressive rock I eventually gravitated toward was often symphonic in its structure and sophistication, and many of the genre's virtuoso musicians kept pointing me back toward their own classical influences. Keith Emerson, for instance, worked up rock versions of the intermezzo from Sibelius' Karelia Suite, the entirety of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Holst's "Mars, the Bringer of War," and Copland's "Hoedown" and "Fanfare for the Common Man." King Crimson's Robert Fripp, meanwhile, often referenced Bartok.

In the case of my favorite band of all time, Yes, the classical influences were abundant. Singer Jon Anderson has mentioned that Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 helped inspire him and guitarist Steve Howe -- himself an avowed fan of classical guitarists Andres Segovia and Julian Bream -- to create "Close to the Edge," arguably the band's magnum opus. Rick Wakeman contributed an all-keyboard arrangement from Brahms' Symphony No. 4 to Yes' Fragile album, and Chris Squire worked up bass renditions of both the spiritual hymn "Amazing Grace" and the theme from the second movement of Dvorak's New World Symphony. And keyboardist Geoff Downes quoted the toccata from Widor's Organ Symphony No. 5 on the 1980 song "Machine Messiah."

On top of all that, the band was notable for opening their live shows with a recording of the finale of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. One gets a sense that the band had quite a soft spot for the Russian composer: On their 1973 triple live album Yessongs, Jon Anderson can be heard between songs humming the opening line from Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

Over the years, I put together a small collection of classical music, based largely on the composers and works that my prog-rock idols referenced. Along the way, I picked up an interest in the music of Ravel, Gershwin, and Debussy on my own. In recent years, I discovered the melancholy beauty of Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. And at some point in the distant past, I heard Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," probably in some Halloween context that wanted to make the piece spooky. To me it wasn't the stuff of Dracula but an absolute musical revelation -- the most majestic, single most spine-tingling piece of music I'd ever encountered. Even today, stretching across the expanse of all genres of music, Bach's organ masterpiece remains my favorite piece of music by anyone, ever, and it's not even close.

My wife and I discovered Orff's Carmina Burana together, after hearing a recording of the dramatic "O Fortuna" section at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Those were in the days before Shazam, when you had to actually ask other human beings what that song was you'd just heard. When I met my wife, I found out that she was a fan of opera, especially Verdi's works, and an admirer of certain pieces by Pachelbel, Vivaldi, Mozart, and Beethoven. She's the one who got me on my current classical kick, by showing me a funny video with four guys managing to play Ravel's "Bolero" on a single cello.

So you'd think, given all that exposure to classical music over the years, that I'd know my way around the genre pretty well. The truth is, now that I've dug in and immersed myself in studying and listening over the past week, I realize I've barely scratched the surface. That's both intimidating and exhilarating. It's hard to know where to start when you have hundreds of years' worth of repertoire to sort through, but I can already see that the journey will be immensely rewarding. I've already found that I like most of the big Russian composers -- I already had Shostakovich's string quartets, and I haven't yet heard anything beyond those pieces that I dislike -- and that Sibelius' Seventh, the one that inspired Yes' "Close to the Edge," is an absolute marvel, a river of music that continuously flows from one theme to the next, working its way to a climax that's both sudden and utterly satisfying.

I also know that I'm not enamored with the light, frilly, dainty work that characterizes a good deal of music from the Baroque and early Classical periods (capital "C," as opposed to "classical" as a catch-all designation for European-based art music). I always equate that kind of music, rightly or wrongly, with the kind of sonic wallpaper you'd hear at a dinner party. Imagine a string quartet playing at a gathering of important people in dresses and tuxes, as they mingle, sip champagne, and nibble on their fancy hors d'oeuvres. That's what I'm talking about, and I get the sense that that's the stereotype of classical music a lot of people have today. I acknowledge the beauty and the artistic mastery of that style of classical, but it just doesn't ring my bell.

Instead, I tend toward pieces with dynamics, emotional expression, and a little bit of muscle. That could be a reason I'm attracted to the Russians, who seemed to develop their own unique style that encompasses all those qualities -- informed as their music is by European sensibilities yet flavored with their own ethnic traditions, the toughness of the Russian people and culture, and the reality of being situated between East and West, taking influence from both but not being wholly either one. First impressions, so far, have left me with an affinity for Prokofiev's second symphony, Tchaikovsky's sixth, Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, and pretty much all 15 of Shostakovich's symphonies.

I think one reason I admire Shostakovich so much is that not only was he able to maintain his own unique voice while maintaining that appealing Russian-ness, but he also managed to do it while under extreme pressure from the Stalinist regime to please the Party or end up in the gulag. Most of us, I imagine, would collapse under that kind of pressure. Not Shostakovich, who persevered and went on to create some of the most remarkable music of the modern classical era -- at least of what I've heard so far.

My love of prog-rock has no doubt influenced my classical likes and dislikes. I know some people think of classical as relaxing, and ultimately inconsequential, background music, like the aforementioned dinner-party fare. But that's not what I'm interested in, and that's certainly not all there is to classical. Whether it's rock, classical, or anything else, I like intricate yet melodic music that forces me to pay attention and makes me think. Music to wash the dishes to has its place, but I like to sink my teeth into music that delivers more than just a good beat and a memorable chorus. I want something that draws me into its world, wows me with its beauty, and challenges me with its panoply of themes, meters, melodies, and ideas.

At the same time, I do appreciate tonality. I'm drawn to beauty in music. The atonality of modern composers is something I can take in only small doses. I'm quite fond of the same Rite of Spring that allegedly caused a riot upon its debut, for instance, but it's not the kind of thing I'd want to listen to all day. I don't think there's anything particularly inventive about rejecting tonality in music, and at some point the act of deconstructing musical forms becomes, I think, a self-indulgent exercise in hollow intellectual cleverness that doesn't serve the artform in any meaningful way. It's an approach that progressively unravels upon itself until you reach outright absurdities like John Cage's 4'33" -- you reject musicality until you end up rejecting music altogether. People can appreciate the beauty of a Mona Lisa or the abstraction of a Picasso, but there's no beauty in a blank canvas.

Anyway, that's where I am, and if anyone reads this entry, I'd love to hear any recommendations you have for future listening. Mahler is up next on my list, and after listening to his first symphony before writing this, I think I'm in for quite a treat.

More on that another time.