Vladimir Horowitz performs Chopin’s Ballade in G minor
Vladimir Horowitz was the 20th century’s biggest star of classical music—his concerts routinely sold out in minutes and, in the case of his homecoming performances in Russia in the mid-1980s, televised worldwide. The Kiev-born pianist has always stunned audiences with his virtuosic prowess (witness his Art Tatum-like interpretation of Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2”). Here, Horowitz displays the grace and restraint required in performing the first of Frédéric Chopin’s four ballades. A piano teacher once told me you should never pound Chopin, that even when the music is marked at its fff-loudest, Chopin is never about bombast. Notice all the times Horowitz underscores dramatic moments in this piece by pulling back on his dynamics; watching this is a lesson for young pianists on the power of not playing as loud as possible.
George Formby, “When I'm Cleaning Windows”
Though obscure in America, the comedian, singer, songwriter, and banjolele player George Formby was a huge star in Britain in the 1930s and ’40s, famous for his distinctive nasal Lancashire accent. This is one of his signature tunes: a really perverted little earworm about how great it is to work as a window cleaner because you get to watch other people fuck. As far as dirty ditties from interwar Britain go, it doesn’t reach the heights (or depths) of Harry Roy’s notorious “My Girl’s Pussy,” a song too blatant to qualify as innuendo. But any song that can make something as sleazy as work-time voyeurism sound cheerfully guileless—like a radio transmission from the surreal, risqué world of an old Fleischer Studios Betty Boop or Bimbo cartoon—is doing something right. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve had the chorus in my head for weeks.
Gordon Hempton, “Aspen Trees”
I like music, but I frequently don’t want to listen to it. Maybe it’s because I’ve been working in an open office for the past three years, maybe it’s a by-product of living in a city where noise pollution is inescapable, or maybe it’s just me, but I exist in a state of constantly craving silence—or barring that, at least peaceful noise instead of the loud, stress-inducing kind. But that leaves a real problem for when I need to put headphones on to block out the loud noises resulting from the aforementioned open office or when an inexcusably rude passenger on the bus is watching YouTube videos at full volume. Since a lot of instrumental classical music makes me feel vaguely anxious, I was left without a good option—until I stumbled upon Gordon Hempton’s work.
Hempton calls himself a “sound tracker,” and his goals are loftier than providing someone like me sounds to listen to. He goes to places where the sounds are unique and probably have never been recorded before, or even heard by that many humans, geographically limited as we are. His “sound portraits” are more than purely natural, though the ones where no human-made noises can be heard are my favorites. Hempton’s work can be seen as complementary to Pauline Oliveros’ concepts of “deep listening” and “sonic awareness”: a conscious attempt to tune into the noises you’d normally tune out. Being profoundly alienated from nature, I do this with the city’s own soundscapes while walking down Chicago sidewalks.
Going back to what to listen to on the bus or at work when I need to drown some other, more irritating noise out, Hempton’s work is far and away the best way to do so. The second I press play and hear rain falling or birds chirping or thunder clapping, I feel instantly calmed, like I’ve just stepped out of my life and into pure unadulterated nature. No, it’s not the same as hearing those noises in actual nature, but its effect is remarkably similar. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m listening to—the wind rustling a field of wheat? Insects or maybe frogs chirruping?—but it doesn’t matter. It’s exactly what I need.
Kyle, “Nothing 2 Lose”
SoCal rapper Kyle sounds like he rhymes through a smile, or at least a smirk. It came through on his double-platinum single with Lil Yachty, “iSpy,” and it’s even more apparent on the new “Nothing 2 Lose.” Whereas some rap thrives on boasts and dominance, Kyle’s new track—the anchor of his upcoming Nothing 2 Lose Tour—shrugs: “If a nigga trippin’ / We ain’t really trippin’ / We got nothing to lose, got nothing to lose,” Kyle repeats throughout the song. “Nothing 2 Lose” has the breeziness of a summertime single, radiating positivity and good times. The accompanying video follows suit, even when a car explodes in the background for some reason. Hey, it’s summer. Don’t sweat the smoldering wreckage in the street.
Joseph Shabason, “Aytche”
I recently got a summer cold, which is exactly as much fun as it always is, which is to say, I want to lie in a small corner, blankets covering me, and gently weep myself to sleep. Seriously, I can feel each individual air molecule hitting my skin, like billions of tiny daggers carving up my flesh. I blow my nose roughly 43,000 times a minute. NyQuil and DayQuil do almost nothing to staunch the misery. (God, remember when DayQuil was just the best? I miss the old pseudoephedrine recipe.) During these periods of intense unpleasantness, when every waking hour is just a struggle to not do a backflip into the Grand Canyon, normal music sounds awful. I need something soothing but not narcotizing, ambient but without jagged interruptions, and compelling enough to keep me engaged. Luckily, the new music from saxophonist Joseph Shabason just found its way into my inbox, because it has become my go-to aural relief.
You may know Shabason from his work in Destroyer or with the Toronto band Diana. Now I know him as a creator of rich, healing ambient jazz, minimalist yet still spacious and evocative. I’ve listened to “Aytche,” the title track from his forthcoming solo album on Western Vinyl, about 20 or 30 times now, and it never fails to fill me with a sense of calm, from the moment the opening synths begin gently thrumming away. It’s the kind of thing that’s so elegant and sparse that it would be easy to dismiss on first listen as too close to easy listening, but Shabason’s melodic choices hew to just this side of genteel, keeping it awash in a haze of unexpected flourishes of sound, yet never becoming too disruptive or killing the chill vibe it establishes. It’s getting me through this illness, and for that alone, I owe the guy a debt. Looking forward to the full album.