Musical Impressions of 2015

The Star Wars franchise features the battle between independent human spirit and the faceless forces of empire power, not unlike some conflicts that showed up in the world of music in 2015.

Publishers Darth Warner/Chappell have collected some £1.3 million per year in royalty fees for use of the song “Happy Birthday to You” (even when just a few seconds are used), but with refreshing humanity, a federal judge finally ruled in September that the song should belong in the public domain.

Without the ruling, it would not have been free to use until the end of 2016 in the UK and 2030 in the USA.

In a case of an artist – albeit one of the world’s most popular singers – making a stand against the clout of the technological empire, Taylor Swift withheld her latest album 1989 from use by Apple in June, so persuading the company to reverse its policy of not remunerating artists during the three-month trial of its streaming service AppleMusic.

In an open letter, Swift wrote, “We don’t ask you for free iPhones. Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation.”

Artists themselves (or their lawyers) can be keen to exert control, such as when the Foo Fighters insist that photographers must hand over ownership of their concert images to the band following their initial publication.

So in protest in July, the Quebec newspaper Le Soleil kept the  staff photographer in the office and sent a cartoonist to cover the Foos’ local gig.

Using a heart-warming, must-see YouTube video, 1000 Foo Fighters fans performed “Learn to Fly” in an attempt to lure the band to play for them in Cesena, Italy.

Not surprisingly, it worked.

A more accurate cover came from a band called Mostly Other People Do The Killing. They did not just re-interpret the iconic Miles Davis album Kind of Blue, but rather reconstructed it note for note, even going as far as trying to replicate the tape hiss.

Defending the apparently pointless exercise, the band’s bassist told the Wall Street Journal that “the art is getting people to think about the original by listening harder to the differences.”

Another unexpected release in 2015 came from Pope Francis. On Wake Up! clips of his sermons and prayers are set amongst prog rock, Gregorian chant and a Chinese choir.

And if there is a collection more certain to send the listener to sleep than a sermon CD, it could be the Grateful Dead’s 80-disc set that came out in the summer. It includes a complete, previously unissued show from each of their 30 touring years.

Being dead for 38 years did not prevent Elvis Presley releasing a new album with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. His original vocals are set among new orchestral backings, recorded to today’s standards.

More contemporary stars broke records with this year’s releases. Sam Smith’s “Writing on the Wall” was the first Bond theme to make the UK singles Number One spot; the 2.03 million plays of One Direction’s “Drag Me Down” caused the highest first-week streams for a UK single; while Adele’s 25 became the fastest 2 million-selling album in UK music history.

One genre from the margins had a chart started this year by the Official Charts Company, but the Progressive Rock chart came “45 years too late” according to keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman.

Something more tangible arrived too late for Roman Totenberg, a violinist and music professor. A 1734 Stradivarius violin, which was stolen from him in 1980, was discovered when the musical thief died and his widow took his violins for valuation in New York.

Mr. Totenberg lived to be 101, but that was not long enough to see the return of his violin, which had been a present from his wife and was valued at $250,000 when it was stolen.

Several notable musicians died in 2015, including Jackie Trent, Hot Chocolate’s Errol Brown, New Romantic pioneer Steve Strange and most of Motorhead; but two pairs of artists will be particularly missed by their fans.

Cilla

Cilla Black and Val Doonican were both 1960s chart singers with a string of hits, and mainstays of Saturday night television. Both came from humble beginnings, with Cilla Black’s rise to fame particularly memorable, as she was a cloakroom attendant in Liverpool’s Cavern Club and – as news reports clearly showed after her death – the ordinary people of the city still felt a deep connection with her.

Two prominent rock bassists died this year: Free’s Andy Fraser, a prodigy who co-wrote much of the band’s material, and Yes’s Chris Squire. The only ever-constant member of a band with more member entrances and exits than a Las Vegas casino, the seminal Squire was particularly influential, using his Rickenbacker bass as if it were a lead guitar.

Looking forward, 2015 offered hints of musical developments in the future. Music of the Spheres, an arts-science project, which met its Kickstarter target in the Spring, aims to record music and store it digitally in DNA molecules. The DNA will be suspended in soap solution and blown into bubbles, so that the music will, according to visual artist Charlotte Jarvis, “fill the air and pop on visitors’ skin, so that audiences will be bathed in music.”

2015 Album recommendations

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Two releases made a five-star impact on me this year. The Neal Morse Band’s The Grand Experiment saw Morse break out from his prog background and appeal to lovers of classic rock and AOR, with a punchy, hook-laden album that is arguably the best Christian release of the last few years  (and which, alongside Dave Bainbridge’s Celestial Fire, offers a musical style well suited to the majesty of God).

Brahem, Souvenance

At the other end of the intensity scale, Anouar Brahem’s Souvenance is a fragile, tentative release that captures the mood of his native Tunisia in the wake of the Arab Spring. Featuring oud, bass clarinet, piano and bass, with gentle additional textures from a string orchestra, this work – apparently inconsequential at first – worked its way into my heart and became an addiction.

Although a compilation of existing recordings, special mention should go to Arvo Pärt’s Musica Selecta, a 2-CD sequence selected by Manfred Eicher, to celebrate Pärt’s 80th birthday. Eicher was the producer who launched the ECM New Series label in 1984 as a platform for Pärt’s music.

An honourable mention goes to PFM’s In Classic, which both expands the rock band’s material with orchestral backing and imagines how popular classical works may have sounded if rock was available to their composers. It is an old idea, but they pull it off with aplomb.

The second-best Christian release of the year for me is The Brilliance’s Brother, a thoughtful, stripped back album with more strong tunes than they have a right to own. Think David Crowder doing Taizé and you will be on the right path.

Best late-issues of the year include two Renaissance live sets (De Lane Lea Studios 1973 and Academy of Music 1974). Despite a couple of small sound glitches, these are recordings that feature wonderful songs and arrangements, and lead toward their crowning glory, Live at Carnegie Hall.

The only CD/DVD release of Soft Machine’s adventurous 1974 Montreux performance, showcasing their new direction as guitarist Allan Holdsworth joins the band, is also worthy of a note.

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