I was pondering this question the other day having spent the morning reminiscing about the birth of popular music back in the late fifties and early sixties with a very close friend of mine.
We are both of an age that we bought early pop records (for information my very first single was “Poetry in Motion” by Johnny Tillotson).
Since those early 1960s I have continued my interest in popular music but also broadened out into most other genres. I remember hearing Ornette Coleman played on the German music station Voice of America (little knowing it was a front for CIA propaganda in the cold war) and many of the other emerging ‘avante garde” musicians including Albert Ayler, Sun Ra and John Coltrane.
And of course I came across the greatest jazz musician of them all, Duke Ellington and became transfixed by his orchestra playing such standards as “Take the A Train” “Things Aint What They Used to Be” “Dukes Place” and “Caravan.”
Next came the classical music phase and my discovery of Mahler, Sibelius, Shostakovich and John Adams (try his Grand Pianola Music) and inevitably Beethoven. During my travels I have been fortunate to attend concerts by The Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw, Barcelona Symphony, London Philharmonic, Toronto Symphony and the Halle.
It was around this time that I discovered “prog rock” and developed a penchant for the music of Yes, and their masterpiece “Close to the Edge” and the early Genesis albums which then featured Peter Gabriel as singer. Albums that joined my collection included “Foxtrot” and “Selling England by the Pound” and the bands greatest album “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” which contains the creepiest and weirdest song you will ever hear “The Carpet Crawler.”
Over the last 40 years or so I have explored the work and music of many artistes including Steely Dan, Tom Waits, Bang on a Can, Piano Circus, Abida Parveen, Nusrhat fata Ali Khan, Fairport Convention and the inimitable (and unique) Captain Beefheart.
Having reflected long and hard about the greatest piece of music I have heard I was drawn to Mahler 2nd Symphony, Gorecki 3rd Symphony, Sibelius 2nd Symphony, Strayhorn Take the A Train, Rolling Stones Sympathy for the Devil, Jarret The Koln Concert and Strauss Ein Heldenleiben.
My heart says Mahler 2 but my head says Beethoven 9th Symphony. I think that this piece of music is the closest to musical perfection I have ever heard. I am not a musician, I cannot read music and nor can I sing but there is something about the 9th that says everything that a piece of music should say.
Should you be in any doubt about this music watch the performance by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain under Vasily Petrenko at a Proms performance…………sublime!