Stopped by Academy Records on 18th Street yesterday. The moment I walked in, David Raksin's "Laura" began playing on the P. A., in the wacked-out Spike Jones version. This seemed a perfect accidental memorial to Raksin, who, I'll wager, loved Jones' maltreatment of his hit tune. I dropped $32 on a big stack of records that included Scott Johnson's John Somebody, Sviridov's Poem in Memory of Sergei Esenin, the Vainberg Seventh Symphony (I'm on a Soviet kick), a Thomas Weelkes disc with Peter Pears' Wilbye Consort, Kirsten Flagstad singing excerpts from the Ring with Furtwängler conducting, Peter Maxwell Davies' Vesalii Icones, the entire 1954 Furtwängler Die Walküre, and, best of all, Raymond Lewenthal's classic recording of Charles-Valentin Alkan's Funeral March for a Papagallo, which, in a visionary anticipation of Monty Python, enacts the funeral of a parrot. Alkan's text is as follows: "Have you had lunch, Jaco? And what? Oh." The cover art is, as you can see, possibly the greatest in the history of recording.
As I browsed, I kept seeing less fortunate, wannabe-hip record jackets — Bauhausy sans-serif fonts and abstract forms for 50s-era discs, trippy psychedelic collages for Mahler in the 60s ("Mahler is Heavy" was the Utah Symphony's slogan), ghastly soft-porn scenes for the 70s. The Vesalii Icones LP comes with cover art by Ken "Lisztomania" Russell — a picture of a black guy in partial whiteface and thong underwear. The Johnson disc, issued in 1986, carries a note by Greg Sandow, sounding a familiar theme: "Classical music is hard to place these days. Once it was part of a continuum that included folk and popular music at one end and complex works of art at the other.... Since Mozart's time there's been a divorce ... Johnson wants to heal the divorce. He's not alone: he's joined by other composers, by critics like myself, and, thank God, by a growing audience." It made me melancholy to read these words. Greg and others have been trying for a long time to heal the breach between classical music and popular culture. Kurt Weill was trying to do it back in the twenties. The road is littered with failures and false starts: Mahler, in the end, isn't heavy. But it's still worth pressing on. Better this than the dead-parrot procession of music as usual.