Various Artists – Notes From The Underground: Radical Music Of The Twentieth Century: Album Review

Notes from the Underground is an intriguing release that showcases the influence and impact of radical music of the Twentieth Century.

Release Date: 21st January 2022

Label: El Records / Cherry Red Records

Format: 4CD Box

Notes from the Underground: Radical Music of the Twentieth Century, is a new box set containing four discs, showcasing a selection of innovative and paradigm-breaking recordings, that left a lasting legacy, both musically and culturally, in the Twentieth Century. The detailed accompanying booklet sets out how these works often created polarisation and controversy. A broad spectrum of music and the spoken word is covered, including classical, jazz, electronic, and rāga, alongside film soundtracks and poetry.

Here is a history that provides the listener with a source of new musical and spoken word discoveries, as well as putting familiar recordings into a new and fascinating context. The recordings also offer a remarkable insight into how an artist’s work can journey through controversy to recognition as artistically and culturally significant.

Across the four discs of Notes from the Underground, it is only possible in this review to give a flavour of what is available to the listener. So, I will reference and highlight here a selection of the recordings on each disc, which provide an interesting starting point.

On disc one, we encounter Claude Debussy’s, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), as performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Monteux. It is music full of soaring beautiful melodies, where woodwinds, horns, strings and harp combine to create an impressionistic and layered sound. In the sleeve notes, Pierre Boulez, the composer, conductor, and writer, who also recorded with Frank Zappa, is cited as considering “the score to be the beginning of modern music”.

This is followed by Igor Stravinsky’s, Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1913 version) parts one and two, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and again conducted by Pierre Monteux. Written for the ballet, during its first performance there were audience protests, and it certainly has a very avant-garde presence. A constantly changing palette of rhythm, tone and dynamic accents simply burst out of your speakers. It is an impressive and very dramatic piece, and seems to fit the context of the movement towards modernism in the early part of the Twentieth Century.

Disc one also includes two extracts from the soundtrack music for The Prisoner television series. Firstly, Sidney Torch, Virtuosi Moderne, Off Beat Moods, Part 3, Dramatic Sustained, followed by The Four Lads track, Dry Bones. 

Notes From The Underground

The Prisoner, from 1967, is a brilliant seventeen-episode television drama, that had elements of a thriller, and science fiction, allied with counterculture and psychological themes. It was created by Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein, and starred Patrick McGoohan in the lead role of ‘Number Six’. The music included contains elements of foreboding and quirkiness, both so present in the series itself. Interestingly, the broadcast of the final episode of the series led to an outpouring of public anger and frustration, as so many of the shows central dramatic questions appeared to be left unresolved  

On disc two, a particular highlight is Edgard Varèse’s Déserts (in its world premiere performance in Paris in 1954), performed by the Orchestre National de France with conductor Hermann Scherchen, and magnetic tape operator Pierre Henry. This exquisite, innovative composition, and live performance, brings together an orchestra and taped electronic sounds. The performance sadly received a very hostile response from some in the audience, which can be heard on this recording.

Edgard Varèse was a very important influence on Frank Zappa and his work, and resonances of Varèse’s work can be heard on, for example, early Mothers of Invention recordings, and Zappa’s first solo album Lumpy Gravy.

Daphne Oram, who designed and directed the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, is represented by three recordings on disc two: Amphitryon 38 (1957), and with Desmond Briscoe, The Ocean and Winter’s Journey (intro) (both from1958). These striking and pioneering electronic compositions quite wonderfully create evocative pictures in an audio form. 

Moving on to disc three. It includes Façade: An Entertainment, a series of poems by Edith Sitwell with music by William Walton, represented on a recording from 1948 in New York by the Chamber Orchestra conducted by Frederik Prausnitz, with Edith Sitwell and David Horner the readers. This piece, which integrates the spoken word in poetical form with music, dates to 1922, and was first performed utilising a curtain, mask, and megaphone, apparently creating quite a stir in the audience. There is a lovely countryside ambiance to the words and music, with the nuances of tone and rhythm very much to the fore.

Also on disc three, The Ornette Coleman Quartet perform Kaleidoscope from the 1961 album, This Is Our Music. It features a band that includes some fantastic musicians: Don Cherry, pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; and Ed Blackwell, drums. The music is free jazz, with the dazzling individual improvisation, imbued with a collective empathy, that provides a sympathetic emotional core to the music. A complete standout track, and if you haven’t listened to free jazz, a very accessible entry point. 

On the final fourth disc of the collection, Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Op.21 (1912) Part 1, sets selected poems from Albert Giraud to music. It includes the musical innovation of ‘Sprechstimme’, where speech and melody combine, though not in a sung way. Here on this 1962 recording, Helga Pilarczyk is the speaker, and the conductor is Pierre Boulez. While on a first listen, it might feel a little challenging, it is on repeated listening a mesmerising and immersive experience.

A final selection from disc four, is another standout track. Ali Akbar Khan’s, Raag Chandrakauns, Alap & Gat, from a 1960 broadcast on All India Radio. The sarod playing creates a wonderful sense of journey and adventure, where the path the music takes you on, is both hauntingly beautiful, and undulating. 

Notes from the Underground is a box set which is all about exploration and embracing new forms of musical and spoken word expression. Something, which music and the spoken word in all their forms, continue to offer us. It only asks of us that we are willing to listen, in an open way, and have our expectations sometimes confounded.

Here is a performance of Claude Debussy’s, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra which is included on Notes From The Underground.

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