Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"Vocal Accompaniments to Brahms Songs," John Wustman, pianist, Music Minus One Records

Posted By on Tue, Feb 18, 2014 at 11:40 PM

John Wustman
  • John Wustman
Keats wrote: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter" ("Ode on a Grecian Urn"). I think of this line as I play Vocal Accompaniments to Brahms Songs. After I got the record, from the Formerly Yours Thrift Shop in Phoenicia (for free), I almost returned it, realizing it had no singing. (It's not Brahms songs, but the piano accompaniment to 15 songs, with a booklet of sheet music inside, most of which has disappeared.*) I'm so glad I didn't! Now I've spent two months listening to these works, in homeopathic doses: maybe two minutes a day. It's not exaggerating to call this "Brahms karaoke."

This is literally background music, but listening carefully, you learn the architecture of Brahms' mind. (And John Wustman is a master pianist.) There are thousands of types of minimalism, as there are multiple varieties of the Baroque. What we call "minimalist music" is just one type: an extremely repetitive version pioneered in the 1960s by Steve Reich. Brahms Songs is not very repetitious, but it is spare. It's like Brahms pared down to his essence, without the multitudinous murmurings of an orchestra.

Accompaniment has its own logic; for one thing, the rhythms of words (but not ordinary speech — songs are adapted from poems) predominate. Some of these pieces really resemble the piano stylings of Carole King & James Taylor. Did they listen to this record — perhaps this exact copy? (In the 1960s lots of rock stars lived around here.)

*That's why it's "Music Minus One" Records! The "minus one" is the singer.

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