Posts Tagged ‘György Ligeti’

First Wednesday: December 1968

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018

In this space ten years ago, I put up a series of monthly posts looking at the year of 1968, then forty years gone. I thought it would be interesting to rerun those posts this year as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of that remarkable and often horrifying year. We’ll correct errors or update information as necessary, but the historic portion of the posts will otherwise be unchanged. As to music, we’ll also update our examination of charts from fifty years ago if necessary and then, when possible, share the same full albums from 1968 as we did ten years ago, but this time – as is our habit now – as YouTube videos. The posts will appear on the first Wednesday of each month 

It’s not like nothing happened in December of 1968.

Harsh new governing measures were adopted December 13 by the military government in Brazil, measures that were in place for ten years. California’s Zodiac Killer is said to have shot his first two of at least seven confirmed victims – David Arthur Faraday, 17, and Betty Lou Jensen, 16 – on December 20 in the city of Benicia, California. In an event that still echoes for us every time we sit at our desks, inventor Douglas Engelbart publicly demonstrated on December 9 his pioneering computer hyperlink system. And most certainly, other events of the month damaged or influenced people’s lives around the world in ways that still reverberate today.

But December 1968, at least from where a current events-savvy Midwestern boy of fifteen watched, was a fairly uneventful month. Coming at the end of a year that saw an escalating war, two assassinations, riots and a bitter national election, the quiet month made it feel like the nation, having drawn so many anxious breaths in the eleven months just past, could finally release its breath in a sigh of relief. Not that there hadn’t been damage; there had been, much of it grievous. But all the madness seemed to be ending.

And maybe that’s why the most historically significant event of the month seemed to be almost like a benediction:

On December 24, Christmas Eve, the U.S. spacecraft Apollo 8 became the first vehicle to enter orbit around the moon. The three-man crew – Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders – became the first humans to see the far side of the moon. The crew also became the first humans to see the Earth rise above the moon and captured the moment in a remarkable photo. And in a memorable live broadcast from lunar orbit that evening, Borman read to the world the account of creation from the book of Genesis, the first book of the Christian Bible. Borman closed the broadcast – at the time, the most-watched television broadcast in history – with: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, and a Merry Christmas to all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

As appropriate as that Christmas Eve message was (if a good deal less than multi-cultural), and as historic as that first orbit of the moon was, I think the most important thing that Apollo 8 did was show us the Earth rising over the moon’s horizon.

apollo08_earthrise

Later Apollo flights gave us pictures of the Earth alone. I included in my December 1968 post something I’d written more than a year earlier about those later photos: 

“Such images have become so commonplace – in advertising and elsewhere – in the thirty-nine years since that it’s hard for those who did not experience it to understand just how electrifying and humbling it was to see for the first time all of the earth at one moment. That image – of the blue earth hanging alone in the black of space – underlined to me, and, I think, to many, how alone we are and how this small earth is all we have, a lesson that I think we need to relearn.”

Of course, it’s been forty fifty years now, but the lesson, I think, remains.

Even in a month that provided us a new perspective on our dwelling place and, one hopes, ourselves, there were Earth-bound pursuits and pleasures. On December 3, Elvis Presley starred in Elvis, a special NBC television broadcast now frequently referred to as Elvis’ “Comeback Special.” The broadcast featured the performer sometimes with a large orchestra and sometimes in a more intimate setting with a small group, performing in a way that music fans hadn’t really seen in nearly ten years. In a music world that had changed immeasurably from the time Presley went into the U.S. Army in the late 1950s and emerged to – mostly – star in mediocre movies, Presley was, after his special, relevant again. As Wikipedia notes: “The live segments of the ’68 Comeback Special in particular gave the audience more than a glimpse of Presley’s charismatic and emotionally charged performing style that won him his first fans in the 1950s.”

So what was it we were listening to at the end of the week that Elvis took to the stage again? Here’s the top fifteen from the Billboard Hot 100 of December 7, 1968:

“Love Child” by Diana Ross & the Supremes
“Hey Jude” by the Beatles
“For Once In My Life” by Stevie Wonder
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye
“Who’s Making Love” by Johnnie Taylor
“Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf
“Abraham, Martin & John” by Dion
“Wichita Lineman” by Glen Campbell
“Stormy” by the Classics IV featuring Dennis Yost
“Those Were The Days” by Mary Hopkin
“I Love How You Love Me” by Bobby Vinton
“Hold Me Tight” by Johnny Nash
“Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins
“White Room” by Cream
“Cloud Nine” by the Temptations

That’s an almost-perfect Top Fifteen: I could get along without the Bobby Vinton, and I still have never heard – that I know of – the Johnny Nash single. [I have since heard it, and it’s all right.] The Mary Hopkin single is a little frothy, but it works, and that’s probably a good description of Judy Collins’ take on “Both Sides Now.” But boy, with those caveats, that’s an hour of radio bliss.

What did the album chart look like? Here’s the Billboard Top Ten from December 7, 1968:

Cheap Thrills by Big Brother & the Holding Company
Feliciano! by José Feliciano
Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
The Second by Steppenwolf
Time Peace/The Rascals’ Greatest Hits by the Rascals
Wheels of Fire by Cream
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly
The Time Has Come by the Chambers Brothers
Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
Gentle On My Mind by Glen Campbell

That’s not a lot different than the chart had been a month earlier: albums by Jefferson Airplane and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown had dropped out of the top ten, replaced by the Steppenwolf album and Electric Ladyland. It’s once more a pretty good chart with a lot of different styles. As I may have said before, I don’t think the Iron Butterfly album has aged well (a fact that I think extends to the group’s entire catalog). All-Music Guide regards Steppenwolf’s The Second as a great album, but I’m a little skeptical. Other than those quibbles, this is a great chart.

The album I’m sharing today managed to climb almost halfway into the Billboard Top 40, peaking at No. 24 during an eleven-week period that began in October of 1968. Not bad for a soundtrack album made up of classical music, some of it very adventurous.

The album was the soundtrack to the MGM film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that still sits atop my personal list of the greatest films I’ve seen. It was not well regarded by critics at the time. (Nor did it have the respect of my contemporaries: During a bus trip to the Twin Cities by the St. Cloud Tech concert band in early 1969, we band members were asked to vote on which movie we wanted to see as the final portion of our excursion to the big city. I cast the only vote for 2001: A Space Odyssey. We went and saw Oliver! instead.) Most critics acknowledged the technical achievements demonstrated in the Stanley Kubrick-directed film, but the film’s content – or perceived lack thereof – was dismissed by many writers

Now, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s film is regarded by many critics and viewers as an eloquent allegory about the human race and its tentative steps toward greater accomplishments throughout history. And its technical achievements, amazing in 1968, remain just that.

One of Kubrick’s innovations was the use of classical music for the film’s soundtrack. A conventional soundtrack had been commissioned for the film, and I believe it was well-regarded composer Alex North who wrote that score. There are CD copies of it floating around the ’Net; I’ve heard bits of it, and it’s not bad, but it’s predictable.

Kubrick’s decision to use classical music for his film provided us with two unforgettable moments when music and image were blended into an icon: The pairing of Richard Strauss’ anthemic “Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra)” – propelled by its solo trumpet, swelling orchestra and solo tympani – with the image of the enigmatic monolith was the first iconic pairing, and the linking of the silent and subtle movements of space flight with Johann Strauss’ waltz, “The Blue Danube” was the other.

The soundtrack has its share of selections that were avant-garde in 1968 and remain less than easy to access forty years later. But it’s a fascinating collection, and if not all of the tracks remind one of the film, I think that’s the passing years. Having listened to the soundtrack a couple of times since I found it online [and many more times since I got my own copy], I plan to take a look at the film very soon, for the first time in years.

Music from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey Overture: “Atmospheres” (excerpt) by György Ligeti
Main Title: “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss
“Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo Soprano, Two Mixed Choirs & Orchestra” by György Ligeti
“The Blue Danube” (excerpt) by Johann Strauss
“Lux Aeterna” (excerpt) by György Ligeti
“Gayane Ballet Suite (Adagio) by Aram Khachaturian
“Jupiter and Beyond” (“Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo Soprano, Two Mixed Choirs & Orchestra,” “Atmospheres,” and “Adventures [altered for film]”) by György Ligeti
“Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss
“The Blue Danube” (reprise) by Johann Strauss

Supplemental tracks: “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss (This version was included on the original MGM soundtrack album in 1968 but was not used in the film.)
“Lux Aeterna” by György Ligeti (This full-length version was included on the original MGM soundtrack album in 1968 in place of the excerpt used in the film.)
“Adventures” (unaltered, full-length version) by György Ligeti
HAL 9000 (A dialogue montage featuring the HAL 9000 computer, one of the film’s central characters.)