100 Records That Set The World On Fire (While No One Was Listening): 1, Charles Ives, Symphony No. 4; 2, Blind Willie Johnson, Dark Was The Night – Cold Was the Ground

Every week, we’ll be looking at 1 or two records from The Wire’s “100 Records That Set the World On Fire (While No One Was Listening)” list, originally published in the The Wire 175 (September 1998). You can find the list we’re working from in several places: An archived copy from RTXArchive, A Discogs List, and a Rate Your Music List. Both the Discogs List and the Rate Your Music list also have an additional 30 Records that the Wire published later. You’ll also notice that the original lists are in alphabetical order. The Rate Your Music list is in chronological. I think it’s far more interesting to do it chronologically, so that’s how we’re going to do it. The text below the pieces are from the Wire writers. Please listen and comment on reactions.

Charles Ives. Symphony No. 4 (composition, 1910-mid 1920s, premier 1965, this recording, 1988)

Charles Ives (1874-1954) is now regarded as the father of American music, though during his lifetime his work was rarely played and usually misunderstood. His magnificent Fourth Symphony (1910-16) involves polytonality, polyrhythms, quarter-tones, aleatoric music, and the simultaneous playing of different idioms, achieving a stunning complexity in a work that is by turns nightmarish, phantasmagoric, nostalgic and triumphant. Popular tunes, hymns, ragtime rhythms, marching band themes, atonality and skewed romanticism jostle and collide or are delicately superimposed. And Ives hadn’t even heard any Stravinsky or Schoenberg. His principal influences were an imaginative or eccentric father, and the sights and sounds of his New England childhood. Seiji Ozawa’s DG recording with The Boston Symphony Orchestra effectively handles the myriad changes. Berio and The Beatles, Zappa and Zorn, plus countless tape collagists and samplists, have all followed in the pioneering footsteps of this great composer. 

Blind Willie Johnson. “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” (released, 1927-1928, launched into space, 1977)

These days it could be filed under Ambient: a piece of Country gospel improvisation, slide guitar with vocal hums and moans, but no lyrics. The great Blind Willie recorded nothing else like this and, therefore, it has no equal in recorded music, even though Ry Cooder has made a good living scoring movies following its lead. I first heard this in the late 60s, surrounded by nuns and schoolgirls, while perched on a hard seat at a Newcastle-Under-Lyme convent during a screening of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Jesus biopic The Gospel According To St Matthew. The effect was stunning and I have remained in awe of this tune ever since.

Look ahead: Bob Graettinger. “City of Glass”/”This Modern World” (1953)

Graettinger’s entire body of work consists of about a dozen original compositions and song arrangements commissioned by Stan Kenton from 1947-53, but it was enough to briefly shake the foundations of big band jazz before sliding into obscurity. Such aggressive dissonance, jagged polytonality and clashing rhythms, in scores like “Incident In Jazz”, “House Of Strings”, and his four movement “City Of Glass”, were previously unheard in the jazz world, and quickly confused and alienated critics and even the musicians themselves. Graettinger’s unorthodox compositional methods were drawn in part from Bartok, Stravinsky and especially Varese in his collision of dramatic blocks of sound, but his own unusual psychological/acoustic theories – plus the undiluted intensity of their presentation – turned them into a musical Rorshach test for listeners. They’re just as shocking and breathtaking today.