The epitome and genius of cool, in my book, is António Carlos Jobim (aka Tom Jobim). He is cool, in the superficial sense, because of his personal affect: well-educated, urbanity, humor, nonchalance, understated, Brazilian in the 60s. He invented cool in the 60s. Watch this video of him and Sinatra -- who is cool and who wants to be cool? More interesting to me, is his more substantial and lasting cool. He melds together a sophisticated harmonic language with simple (sometimes monotonous) melodies; pessimism (no other word will do) and frustrated desires is his tone; love, life, society, and humanity is his poetic inspiration. This particular song (The Waters of March) captures his essence more than any of dozens of remarkable songs. Pessimism and hope woven together in lyric and harmony. Ah. Jobim.
A stick, a stone It's the end of the road It's the rest of a stump It's a little alone
It's a sliver of glass It is life, it's the sun It is night, it is death It's a trap, it's a gun
The oak when it blooms A fox in the brush A knot in the wood The song of a thrush
The wood of the wind A cliff, a fall A scratch, a lump It is nothing at all
It's the wind blowing free It's the end of the slope It's a beam, it's a void It's a hunch, it's a hope
And the river bank talks Of the waters of March It's the end of the strain The joy in your heart
The foot, the ground The flesh and the bone The beat of the road A slingshot's stone
A fish, a flash A silvery glow A fight, a bet The range of a bow
The bed of the well The end of the line The dismay in the face It's a loss, it's a find
A spear, a spike A point, a nail A drip, a drop The end of the tale
A truckload of bricks In the soft morning light The shot of a gun In the dead of the night
A mile, a must A thrust, a bump It's a girl, it's a rhyme It's a cold, it's the mumps
The plan of the house The body in bed And the car that got stuck It's the mud, it's the mud
Afloat, adrift A flight, a wing A hawk, a quail The promise of spring
And the riverbank talks Of the waters of March It's the promise of life It's the joy in your heart
A stick, a stone It's the end of the road It's the rest of a stump It's a little alone
A snake, a stick It is John, it is Joe It's a thorn in your hand And a cut in your toe
A point, a grain A bee, a bite A blink, a buzzard A sudden stroke of night
A pin, a needle A sting, a pain A snail, a riddle A wasp, a stain
A pass in the mountains A horse and a mule In the distance the shelves Rode three shadows of blue
And the riverbank talks Of the waters of March It's the promise of life In your heart, in your heart
A stick, a stone The end of the road The rest of a stump A lonesome road
A sliver of glass A life, the sun A knife, a death The end of the run
And the riverbank talks Of the waters of March It's the end of all strain It's the joy in your heart
RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN "You'll Never Walk Alone"
Rodgers & Hammerstein worked in post-war American, back in that time when many Americans of a certain age remember that the USA was Great. This musical looked at sexual predators and spousal abuse square in the face and some would say it flinched. This final footage of the film chokes me up every time, even to this day, because it flinches and tries to wriggle out of the grip of terror and violence and manipulation. In fact, I think some could see this scene as a grand manipulation, as well. I would disagree based on what we know (through factual reporting) that abused women often rationalize their love for their abuser. This musical's undertow is that the only escape from Billy Bigelow (the abuser) was for him to die in an accident. The abuse is not resolved. The abuser avoids punishment. The abused gives her unqualified forgiveness and love. And we do not have any "justice" in the story...and the music romanticizes and puts a gloss on what has happened. We still use music this way. Except, we might want to listen again to the opening measures of the musical, "Carousel."
The happy theme of the eponymous carousel is put into a darker, more foreboding context which I think is absolutely intentional on the part of Richard Rodgers. R&H wrote other musicals that addressed social injustices of their day: "South Pacific," "The King & I," "The Sound of Music," and "Flower Drum Song." As they worked together, each new musical they premiered seemed to carry deeper and deeper social (in)justice messages. Their work becomes more important with each passing year, as well. I'm working with my band, Paris1919 on a show in February 2019 that is tentatively titled "Dark..." The dark is something we all fear, and rightfully so and it is in part due to Trump, who is never far from our thoughts these days because he never wants to be out of our thoughts and often those thoughts are horrifying and threatening. As we create the music for our February show I will be thinking of "You Never Walk Alone." It gives me creepy, dark and hair-raising chills every time I hear it.
BEN JOHNSTON String Quartet #4 (Amazing Grace)
I consider this work one of the masterpieces of the latter part of the 20th-Century. As John Rockwell, formerly the new music partisan and advocate at the New York Times, Johnston is "one of the best non-famous composers this country has to offer..." Repeated listening has only underscored how magnificent this work is (to me). Love love love this performance by the Denali Quartet. Music for the Ages as far as I'm concerned. Dr. Johnston taught at the University of Illinois in Champ-bana from the early 50s to the mid-80s. He lives to this day in North Carolina. More information about Mr. Johnston is here.
Hear, smith of the heavens
Heyr himna smi∂ur(Hear! Smith of the Heavens) caught my ear while aimlessly wading through YouTube in 2016. This performance is made all the better because the recording is impromptu while a skimpy crowd gathers 'round just as our sextet conjures the 13th century Icelandic poet and chieftain Kolbeinn Tumason to the Heavens Above. What adds to its authentic charm is the clamor of the crowd, the blaring train announcement, poor acoustics and shaky camera work. The music is timeless and lovingly time-warn through the oral tradition, right? Nothing could or should be this simple or easy. I invoke the Three Laws:
Things Are Always More Complicated Than They First Appear -- the music was composed by the Icelander, Porkell Sigurbjörnsson (1938-2013);
Things Are Different in the South -- it was recorded in a train station in Wuppertal, Germany. (south...of Iceland); and
Beware the Law of Unintended Consequences. This performance has been viewed nearly 7 million times. (quite unintended).
All the same, it moves me to see the lads assemble themselves in the yellow-green light of the train concourse and send the echoes up into the rafters; sustained and magical. Why does it catch me off-guard every time and with a catch in my throat?
Hear, smith of the heavens, what the poet asks. May softly come unto me thy mercy. So I call on thee, for thou hast created me. I am thy slave, thou art my Lord.
God, I call on thee to heal me. Remember me, mild one, Most we need thee. Drive out, O king of suns, generous and great, human every sorrow from the city of the heart.
Watch over me, mild one, Most we need thee, truly every moment in the world of men. send us, son of the virgin, good causes, all aid is from thee, in my heart.
William Lawes @ the dawn of early morning
This performance by Phantasm is one among many that I have on my iTunes' frequently played list. At last count, I've listened to this fantasy eighty-seven times. There are a few reasons why I am moved by this music.
Each instrument is playing its own melody. Not one of the melodies is boring.
The Fantasy starts in a long, low, slow arc of six notes upwards to the first discernible melody. I like to move my arms in tandem with these slow arcs...and then soon, I am slowly waving them over my head as if they are branches of a stately birch tree moved by a gentle breeze; then I find myself moving around the room in an Allemande, then a Pavane, a Galliard and then back to a birch tree sunning itself in the risen sun. And thus, I move and am moved.
Lawes' music was forgotten -- because it was jarringly dissonant and/or antique to the next generation, because he was a Catholic and a Royalist and fought on the losing side during a horrifying religious civil war, and because his greatest works were caught in that transition from modal to tonal musical language - a revolution of style and substance. William was loyal to Charles the First during the Civil War (1642-1651) and was killed by an errant bullet in the Battle of Rowton Heath. His body was lost and there is no burial spot.
The music moves in spine-tingling ways; but it is abrupt change sometimes and then settles in great repose within a minute. Quicksilver, it is sensual and vicious like a Gesualdo madrigal and intellectually rigorous like Bach counterpoint. His music's charms require patience and concentrated attention to time, gesture, and affect.
Bill Evans in rehearsal for TV
In this fascinating clip, we can see and hear how Mr Evans and bassist Eddie Gomez work out their "improvisation" for the TV director. We can see how musicking is happening. I so appreciate this documentation of a rehearsal because it dispels the idea that jazz is just made up on the spot. There is certainly freedom of interpretation in jazz and Mr Evans, trained as a composer, took liberties in a performance. BUT there is so much that is planned and rehearsed prior to performance. And Bill Evans' music is inspired and continues to influence musicians in all genres to this very day. Love this music.
ANTON REICHA Etude Nr. 1
"Anton (Antonín, Antoine) Reicha (Rejcha) (26 February 1770 – 28 May 1836) was a Czech-born, later naturalized French composer. A contemporary and lifelong friend of Beethoven, he is now best remembered for his substantial early contributions to the wind quintet literature and his role as teacher of pupils including Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz and César Franck. He was also an accomplished theorist, and wrote several treatises on various aspects of composition. Some of his theoretical work dealt with experimental methods of composition, which he applied in a variety of works such as fugues and études for piano and string quartet. None of the advanced ideas he advocated in the most radical of his music and writings, such as polyrhythm, polytonality and microtonal music, were accepted or employed by other nineteenth-century composers. Due to Reicha's unwillingness to have his music published (like Michael Haydn before him), he fell into obscurity soon after his death and his life and work have yet to be intensively studied." Thus, Wikipedia provides some context. I found this music on a recent NYTimes playlist and article by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim. Somehow I'm reminded of Thom Yorke's latest music coming out this Fall with a simple (and yet deeply-felt) piano. Simple is good. Deeply-felt to this listener is even better and what this blog is all about.
"The number of works I finished in Vienna is astonishing. Once started, my verve and imagination were indefatigable. Ideas came to me so rapidly it was often difficult to set them down without losing some of them. I always had a great penchant for doing the unusual in composition. When writing in an original vein, my creative faculties and spirit seemed keener than when following the precepts of my predecessors." Anton Reicha
MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA You Know You Know
Each of these virtuosi are given license to improvise with 24 eighth note beats in Dorian mode. Freedom within tight constraints is the secret to good improvisations. This is what I have enjoyed most in my work with Paris1919, a band led by Chris Strouth. We are by no means as accomplished as these people (John McLaughlin - guitar; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Jerry Goodman - violin; Rick Laird - bass; Billy Cobham - drums) but they are our heroes. In their day, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was the popularizer of high-octane improvisation in mixed meters and octatonic scales. I have been listening to a number of young bands online testing their wings in this same mix of approaches (now nearly 50 years old!). I'm fascinated with composing for virtuosi. Making a performance that looks and sounds nearly impossible while at the same time making it completely routine to execute is one of the great challenges for any composer. It is a magic trick well-worth the effort. And once an audience understands the trick it only adds to the enjoyment. So, enjoy 1971. You know you know.
LOU HARRISON Suite for violin, piano and small orchestra
Lou Harrison was a Eusonian composer. He disliked the term "American" because it improperly consolidated two continents' cultures in naming one country. But to consider him a cranky PC-er would be to misunderstand the pure joy he found in exploring and celebrating musical cultures on every continent. Ironically, his repertoire - his legacy - may become controversial because it can be heard to appropriate those very cultures he embraced. Lou and his colleagues, including Henry Cowell and John Cage and Steve Reich, built their musical catalogues around the inspiration they've taken from "world musics." Their repertoires can be seen as an "appropriation" which often happens when White, privileged, male composers adapt and profit from the musical sounds and practices of non-White cultures. This uniquely evocative and sumptuous suite for violin, piano and small orchestra is exhibit A. It is one of my favorite pieces by Lou. I came to know Lou's music while working for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Dennis Russell Davies was the music director and championed Lou's music before and after leading the ensemble. The piece evokes the meter changes and the ostinati of gamelan music, pentatonic scales, melodic parallels at the 4th and 5th and the minimization of Western musical development. To Western ears, it can be heard as "oriental." To uninformed ears it can be heard as appropriation. Lou Harrison, this incredibly important composer, this Eusonian and world composer who was a generous and enthusiastic advocate for many cultures, may become the victim of deliberate suppression as a result of our new and widely held, cultural, world-view. The important role Lou played in awakening musicians to each other's presence may have the unintended consequence of limiting awareness of his music. That would be a cultural crime, I think. Long live Lou Harrison! Long live the intersections between West and East, North and South! May Lou's music draw these worlds together for ages to come.
NAHRE SOL I Love You Bye
Young musicians aren't young for very long. They grow and age and gain experience and begin to attract an audience just by "doing" what musicians do. An example that I'm watching right now is a young woman who uses the stage name, Nahre Sol. Her name in reality is Alice Hwang. She is a pianist and composer and member of a trio of musicians that put on recitals in Toronto. Their name is Happenstance. Read more about the group and about Alice, here. I like how she is doing what she is doing. Her music is very attractive to my ear. Her work reminds me of the act of musicking (See Christopher Small's book of the same name). The ideas are very pianistic and remind me also of Christopher O'Riley's re-working of RadioHead. Does the fact that one reminds you of another (previous) person's work make the new work derivative? I wonder if we should care at all about this question but I've heard it used in a dismissive way in music panel discussions and board rooms when describing an artist's music. I believe "derivative" is meant to be mean and critical. It makes one sound smart. It is nothing less than musical assassination. (I know this is a provocative use of language. It is meant to be.) No creative work is possible in a vacuum. There are no original ideas, just unique applications of ideas that have been around the world, for a very long time. The world is becoming smaller and more inter-connected; we are always learning and borrowing from each other. All the time. Creative people know that they are performing a magic trick; we pass ourselves off as unique and as sprung from the brow of Orpheus. But it ain't so. We learn from each other and exchange music ideas every day. Our invention contributes to the next person's contributions which is a contribution to the next person's...and so.
NICO MUHLY Drones, Variations, Ornaments
A colleague suggested an Irish ensemble's recording to me (thank you, Robert Rumbolz). I listened to it and was mesmerized by this piece by Nico Muhly.
ERIC RADLOFF & MIA MINICHIELLO Shine
Check out "Shine" by the now former Bear Attack. Co-written by Eric Radloff and Mia Minichiello. Eric is a colleague at Junior Composers. He's a former student but is now a colleague. With the production elements, "Shine" is great power pop. Maybe because I've met Jenna, I think the earlier, simpler version of this song is just as potent. Lesson: Always trust your ear.
GRACYNA BACIEWICZ String Quartet No. 7
Gracyna Baciewicz is one of those composers that I believe other composers must know. After she passed away in 1969, I was afraid her music would become lost (up until recently). Her Quartet #7 really speaks to me with great vigor, an unflinching stare, powerful theatricality, clarity of expression, the long view. I love this music. Lesson: No energy is ever lost. Do your best.
PINK FLOYD Grantchester Meadows
Pink Floyd's album, "ummagumma" has a song about an axe murderer and a song inspired by electronic music ("Several Species..."). After the racket and horror, this sweet bird song á la Leonard Cohen calms the waters until comedy strikes. Listen. Lesson: Synchcopation of affect.
MAX FRIEDMAN Mnemiopsisfor Bass Clarinet, Horn, and Violin
This recording is from the Luna Nova premiere. Max is a student at Brown University and has participated for a number of years at Junior Composers. I've read through many of his early drafts of new pieces and truly love his ear and mind. There is real poetry and intellectual rigor in every piece. The rising half-step is the animating motif for this piece.
As Max notes: "The title is derived from the scientific name of a deep-sea dwelling parasitic jellyfish-like creature, also known as the warty comb jelly or sea walnut (Mnemiopsis leidyi). Egads. Play the (muted) video while the music is playing. Lesson: Let the music speak for itself, Max. ;-)