Cow bells

Richard Strauss. Heard of him? Somehow, I got it into my head that there was a Strauss family, headed by Johann Strauss, he of “The Blue Danube” and many another waltz. And that Johann was the genius, and Richard the honest trier. A worthy but lesser Strauss, like Leopold Mozart, or Hank Williams Jr, or Julian Lennon. And so, I never paid Richard Strauss much attention.

Why I love Planet Vinyl is that my preconceptions are so often debunked. Richard Strauss was in no way related to the waltz-meister. Nor was his music anything remotely like the fine Hapsburg confections of Vienna’s golden era.

You probably know “Also sprach Zarathustra”, the building, booming trumpets and timpani which ushers in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? Well, that was Richard Strauss. And he did so much else besides, including this challenging, haunting, alluring work: An Alpine Symphony.

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You can hear the cowbells. Image: The Telegraph

This monumental piece of music is not a symphony at all: rather it is a long series of impressionist tone poems. Taking about 50 minutes to perform, it tells the story of setting out into the mountains at dawn, climbing to the summit, and being caught by a fierce storm, before descending to safety as the sun sets. There are 22 sections, which all bleed into one another without a break. There are few dominant tunes, and the music ebbs and flows and different motifs (there are about 60) play over the top of each other. There is no way on God’s good earth that the whole sprawling thing should work. But it does!

I knew nothing about this piece when I randomly chose this record, and played it on headphones while reading a book. I soon put the book aside, and just listened to the whole thing, entranced.

Here is an excerpt. It is one of the more peaceful sections, in which the climber passes through a high meadow where cattle are grazing – you can hear the cow bells – and then gets lost in thick bushes before finding open air above the treeline. Unfortunately, An Alpine Symphony, is one of those large works for which an excerpt, to invert the usual formula, is less than a fraction of the whole. Try this out, but if you are interested in music, and its ability to wordlessly tell a story, please: find a full recording, close your eyes, and just listen.

  • Composer: Richard Strauss
  • Performers: Rudolf Kempe, conducting the Dresden State Orchestra
  • Album title: The Orchestral Music Of Richard Strauss, Volume 4
  • Track: Extract from “Alpine Symphony, Opus 64”.
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: World Record Club
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: S/5626
  • Year: 1974
  • First performed: 1915
  • This recording: 1971

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Do they still have elevator music in elevators?

Do they still have elevator music in elevators? I live in a provincial town. In my workplace there are few lifts (which is what we call elevators in Australia) and anyway I usually take the stairs. But when I do go to the big smoke and catch a lift in an office tower, there is no music. Silence, and the faint hum of (hopefully reliable) machinery, reigns.

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This is a welcome change. When you caught a lift, not so long ago, they would inflict on the passengers what, even in Australia, was called “elevator music”. This is the sort of thing I mean.

That was Wout Steenhuis and Peter Schilperoort with their take on Procal Harem’s “Whiter Shade of Pale”.

Now, I mean absolutely no offense here. On Planet Vinyl we believe that it is always a good thing that people make music, and if they can get paid for it, so much the better. Wout and Peter were both Dutch musicians, jazz instrumentalists. Making a living from jazz in post-war Holland cannot have been easy, and if recording this sort of thing helped pay the bills, I have no problem with that. The Planet Vinyl rule is to just listen, with an open mind. But you only have to do it once. And I honestly don’t want to hear this track again.

But there is elevator music, and elevator music.

The track from Steenhuis and Schilperoort comes from one of the samplers which many labels produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, hoping to persuade listeners to upgrade to stereo. Stereo Galaxy, it was modestly titled, and promised “A New World of Quality Sound”. Fitting the space theme, the opening track is a version of “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, the brass-and-kettle-drum fiesta by Richard Strauss, which had been adopted as the theme to the movie 2001 – A Space Odyssey. But the record quickly settles down – well, into elevator music. Tightly-played, over-sweet arrangements of well-known tunes.

But while riding the Stereo Galaxy elevator, one track stood out for me. Elevator music, yes, but … There was “a certain something”. Faint praise given the competition, but still. It stood out. There was something there.

And so I have discovered the Hawaiian music of Basil Henriques. If that does not sound a particularly Hawaiian name, you are onto something – Baz did not hail from Hawaii. He was an Englishman, who fell in love with the Hawaiian pedal steel guitar as a teenager. Henriques became small-big, playing regularly with a group called the Waikiki Islanders (none of whom came from Waikiki) at a nightclub in Birmingham, which was called (not making this up) Kastaways. Band photographs of the Waikiki Islanders show them, shivering and white, in kitsch Hawaiian outfits.

But music is the universal language. It crosses cultures and times. And the spirit of music will out.

Basil, the pale lad from Birmingham, could play, really play, the Hawaiian pedal steel guitar. This guitar is the uilleann pipes of string instruments – demanding to the point of insanity. Henriques mastered it, and went on to teach and inspire others, such that he was formally nominated for inclusion in the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, a most unusual thing for someone not from Hawaii. He has not yet been included, but that serious steel peddlers think he deserves to be considered in the company of Sol Hoʻopiʻi is high praise indeed.

I doubt that this track is Henriques’ best work – its is flattened out to fit into the elevator – but there is musicianship there that shines. If I was to be stuck in a lift, this is the music I would like to listen to.

  • Artist: Basil Henriques
  • LP Title: Stereo Galaxy: A New World Of Quality Sound (Various Artists)
  • Track: Side 1 Track 3 “My Cherie Amour”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: MFP 50004
  • Manufactured in: Great Britain
  • Year: 1972

This record, and hundreds of others, is for sale on Discogs.