It’s not often that an indie rock website will review classical work. Every so often a mainstream publication will make the exception for heavy hitters such as Billy Joel’s foray into the genre, Elvis Costello as well and also Sir Paul McCartney. But classical and jazz is finding its way into the indie heart every day. Take for instance Christopher O’Riley and Brad Mehldau respectively. Both have garnered young rock fans by covering Radiohead songs and O’Riley is due to make an album honoring Elliott Smith soon. It’s unfortunate that it had to be done in such an indirect way. What I mean is, appreciation of classical music doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem in Europe as it is in America. More often than not, a European student who has attended university will be able to tell you the difference between specific composers and to identify a specific piece upon hearing it. Not so in the States where even most college graduates wouldn’t be able to distinguish whether something is Bach or Beethoven, and have probably never even heard the name Salieri. Sadly, this is a country where many more people have heard “A Fifth of Beethoven” than Beethoven’s actual Fifth Symphony.
It’s an unfortunate reality, but at least there is some progress being made. The situation brings to mind the idea that Oprah and J.K. Rowling are `spurring’ people to read, a veritable spark to the kindling. We could argue about the comparison including the qualifications or worthiness of such a responsibility, but the underlying basis is the same. These are people who love a specific art form and want to share it with more people. So, now that some of those flames have started to catch, what is the next step? What represents the twigs and branches that you throw in to strengthen the fire? My answer to you is one Mr. Craig Armstrong.
Craig Armstrong was created string arrangements for a myriad of popular artists including Madonna, U2, and Massive Attack. He also started what is sure to be a longtime collaboration with Baz Luhrmann, scoring both Romeo & Juliet and Moulin Rouge. Piano Works is Armstrong’s latest solo release and is just that, classical works, mostly improvisational pieces, on the piano. The result is an absolutely breathtaking collection of emotive compositions, sure to cause a flutter in the heart and a racing of the mind.
This album is Armstrong alone with one instrument. There is no string accompaniment, nor electronic instruments, even though at times, such as on “Delay,” you would swear that he is using some. Along with the album release, which is encased in a fine hardcover limited edition package, there will also be a film with the same title, directed by David Barnard. The CD contains a trailer for the film, which shows scenes of Paris that fit the music so well, you would swear that Armstrong was from there. (He’s from Scotland, incidentally). The album was recorded in Paris and if nothing else, the music evokes Armstrong’s love for the City of Lights.
Those who have been exposed to Armstrong’s previous work, especially his soundtrack material, will be pleased to know that three of the pieces he has written for films appear on this CD, albeit in a different, spare and almost unrecognizable form. “Morning Breaks” from Romeo & Juliet, “Satine’s Theme” from Moulin Rouge, and “Glasgow Love Theme” from Love, Actually all make an appearance. There are other pieces on Piano Works that you would swear you had heard before, like when you hear music on a film trailer that was purloined from a previous film. (Remember when Lord of the Rings used “Lux Aeterna” from Requiem for a Dream in their trailers?) “Theme from Orphans” is just such a piece and is one of the most emotionally devastating compositions that I’ve ever heard. Baz Luhrmann even said about Piano Works, “Craig’s original compositions evoke story and are like soundtracks to films not yet made. You only need to hear a few bars of music and you know instantly it is a Craig Armstrong composition.”
I couldn’t agree more with Luhrmann and I hope that this becomes true for a lot of music lovers. My utopian vision of America contains a society where many more people listen to classical and jazz, able to identify composers and time structures innately, that is when they’re not spending their time reading the latest bestselling books, which in my world would include David Mitchell, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Haruki Murakami.
My wife tends to categorize senses by seasons. Aromas, sights, and sounds can all be attributed to a particular time of year. She would undoubtedly call Piano Works a perfect Autumn CD, evoking images of turning leaves, overcast skies, a chill in the air, and the smells of cedar and newly stoked fireplaces. But it also straddles the passing into Winter, as snow lightly covers park lanes, streetlamps reflecting on the pristine white surface, and all other sound but the music is as muffled and quiet as the deserted streets of early morning. Piano Works is a stunning work of beauty that is sure to find a place in my Sunday morning rotation of music. There are limited copies available, so I suggest picking it up sooner rather than later.
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George Winston- December
Michael Nyman- The Piano