Kaffeeklatsch!

One half of Sibling Revelry, and the husband of the other half, loves coffee. That would be the half with the pen at the moment. And by “loves,” I mean that a morning without coffee looks like a black-skied, dust-blown, radioactive post-nuclear apocalyptic hellscape. This magical elixir of the gods is the sine qua non of your wayward, deadbeat blogger.

Recently, I was in blissful attendance at a They Might Be Giants concert. That’s right, sports fans, the normally high-and-mighty Sibs occasionally doff their crushed-velvet pantaloons and change into street garb to blend in with the howling masses and investigate their strange, rhythmic musical traditions. Naturally one must wear a cloak and eyepatch in order to avoid detection.

Kidding aside, I adore They Might Be Giants and have for a very long time (to which the other Sib who used to share a wall with me will attest). I remain deeply inspired by their creativity over the years; well into their third decade of making music together, they have released no less than THREE albums in the last 15 months, each brimming with their usual wonderful weirdness. But I also deeply respect their musicianship and, certainly not least, incredibly deft and inventive ability to write melody. Without those two things, just being weird for weirdness’s sake…that doesn’t have any pull with me. These guys have the ability to get inside music (of truly any genre) and do their own thing with it. It’s quite rare. It’s genius at work, friends: not only in its individual parts, but the partnership at its core. And, to use that abused adjective, unique. I’d also say REM was always true to their own unique north star, yet the fame differential between the two is vast. And REM’s creativity in later years was, I’ll humbly say, nowhere close to the Johns. Those two things are probably related. A topic for a different day. Here is a great example for the uninitiated (one of 1,000 I might have picked):

After the concert, still radioactively aglow (I mean, they played the Fingertips medley, one of my all-time favorites. Oh, you don’t know what that is? Gee, let me see if I can scare up the studio version…….)

…I was reading old interviews, and what do you know, one of the Johns of TMBG (Linnell) happens to be a great admirer of the one, the only, the original melodic genius and prolific baby-maker, Herr Johann Sebastian Bach! A man whose praises have been sung, oh, from time to time here. No surprise, there’s a TMBG connection.

Linnell mentions Bach’s so-called “Coffee Cantata,” a very interesting and famous composition. The great JSB didn’t compose any opera (raising his estimation here yet higher), but the Coffee Cantata comes pretty darn close (coming back down). It’s not rock opera, it’s Bach opera! (cue laugh track)

The complete cantata will last longer than your morning cup, however good its first or last drops, at about half an hour. In keeping with opera’s insistence on over-dramatizing everyday life, the protagonist, Aria (snicker), loves coffee but her overbearing father won’t let her drink it. Causing her to exclaim (this should really be done from a fainting couch) that lack of coffee will cause her to shrivel up like a piece of roasted goat. Neat imagery. Seriously, you couldn’t think of anything else that might shrivel? (Bach didn’t write the libretto, so we are not insulting The Master). Here it is in German, with a translation:

http://emmanuelmusic.org/notes_translations/translations_cantata/t_bwv211.htm

My favorite line is probably, “You may not go to the window and watch anyone passing by!” You people need a hobby. And yes, I did mean, “YOU PEOPLE.”

Also in keeping with opera’s simultaneous insistence on ridiculously implausible solutions to the over-dramatized problems of life and love, Aria is placated when her father has three daily cups written into her marriage contract. No mention of roast goat, sadly.

Obviously our proclivities lay far away from stilted Europeans whining in high register about preposterous, self-created culs-de-sac of puffed-up emotion. BUT. It’s Bach, and all Bach is by definition worthy. Especially on (or around) the Kapellmeister’s birthday! Here it is, in full, sung by people who have clearly practiced facial expression at home in long hours before their mirrors, mirrors, on the wall. Cool set, though.

So let’s see if all the puzzle pieces fit here. We like Bach. We like They Might Be Giants. We love coffee. They Might Be Giants are obsessed with coffee. John Linnell wants to have coffee with Bach. Bach wrote a cantata with a coffee theme. Look, it’s a litter of puppies knitting sweaters for roosters!

Or, in other words, by rocket to the moon, by airplane to the rocket, by taxi to the airport, by front door to the taxi, by throwing back the blankets, hanging down the legs…

 

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Jan, a Czech

Every weekday morning I wake to the usually mellifluous, occasionally clangorous sounds of WETA 90.9. As this daily routine occurs on Rooster Time, WETA wisely crafts its playlist for the early morning hours – only very occasionally is there something like John Philip Sousa summoning you awake (and possibly inducing violence). Unfortunately, it’s never as nice as the royal awakening Eddie Murphy enjoys at the beginning of Coming to America, which every classical music lover and comfort enthusiast would enjoy. Oh, plus the bath. My god, the bath!

My favorite part of my decidedly less regal routine is when I lay in bed and listen, half-awake, for a while when there is something particularly interesting or new to me on WETA. While my dog re-cuddles under the bed, hoping against hope that it was all just a horrible, horrible mistake and that bipedal idiot isn’t really going to get up when the sun hasn’t even yet elected to do the same! (to her everlasting credit, she gets into our routine fairly quickly). One day this week, the annoyingly-not-on-Twitter David Ginder played a piece for us by Leoš Janáček entitled, “Moravian Dances” and explained that Janáček had made a great study of the folk music of his native lands (he was born 1854 in Moravia, then a crownland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now part of the Czech Republic) and used it in his compositions. He was a leading expert on this folklore and made the first recordings of Moravian folk music and published his adaptations and transcriptions. Since I am not an expert, I learned today that these are more closely related to Slavic music melodically and structurally; whereas Bohemian music gravitated towards its geographic German neighbors.

Word up, homies.

There was something about the melody in the first Dance that captivated me. Now, this isn’t exactly a stretch. Your correspondent is someone who has listened to hours of Jodeln and Alphörner on YouTube, worn out CDs of traditional Bavarian music, etc. So the affinity for European folk music was already extant (which, as you can imagine, makes me societal anti-catnip – hence I only mention it from the safety of a blog). I mean, my favorite scene in The Sound of Music is when they dance the Ländler! By the way, if you’re looking for otherworldly yodeling (and I have a sneaking suspicion that, clandestinely, you are), look no further than Franzl Lang, the Bavarian Jodler-König (King of the Yodelers). And you thought Brian Wilson’s falsetto was impressive!

You want and need that hat in your life. Just look in the mirror and admit it already. I know I did.

Swerving from the rumble strips back onto the highway, there was something so simple, yet so culturally expressive in the first Moravian melody that Janáček brought to us. I kept humming it throughout my ablutions, listened to it in the car on the way to work, and although the Jodler-König’s highwire act has now replaced it in my head, I listened to it a few times at work as well. I learned from some digging that it is called “Fur coat” (Kožich). Janáček took it down in 1886 from someone named Jan Myška, in Petřvald (eastern Czech Republic, close to the Polish border, as I now know). I like how the tempo slows and the volume diminishes when the melody is played, and how eventually, there is a harp playing triplets underneath it. Sublime stuff. Here are the 5 dances, played (ironically) by the Slovak Philharmonic:

Two related points. One, Janáček is not exactly who springs to mind when thinking of classical composers, awash as we are in the three B’s and Mozart and the other giants of the genre. Sometimes that hierarchy is correct – I’m sure the Beatles were outranked at times on the charts by long-forgotten bands – and sometimes it isn’t. Discovering these “other” composers is a true delight. Without inflated reputation (“I’m supposed to like this, right?”) one feels free to simply explore and enjoy. There are vast worlds outside Vienna and Italy! Janáček’s Wikipedia entry notes that “Through his systematic notation of folk songs as he heard them, Janáček developed an exceptional sensitivity to the melodies and rhythms of speech, from which he compiled a collection of distinctive segments he called ‘speech tunes’. He used these ‘essences’ of spoken language in his vocal and instrumental works. The roots of his style, marked by the lilts of human speech, emerge from the world of folk music.” I mean, I just HAVE to know more about that.

On the other hand, since I don’t value every piece of music that Bach wrote the same, it also throws the truly great works in harsher relief – mere mortals can write beautiful music, like Janáček, but the Chaconne is not of this world.

Second, obviously at one point in time, the music of Europe’s hoi polloi was not exactly celebrated in classical music’s lofty capitals. It is to the great credit of Janáček and others (his compatriot Dvorak springs to mind, even Debussy weaving French children’s songs into some of his compositions) that they recognized the simple beauty in these dances and songs – that, in the final analysis, they were as deserving of a place in the musical firmament as anything else. Spruced up symphonically, of course, for their big début. You comb your hair before you go out, don’t you? Well, you should start.

And, if you follow the chronology closely enough (or, rather, not closely, since now I’m bloviating), that eventually gave us the great gift of the Jodler-König. For which every single person on Earth thanks you, Leoš.

Strike up a tune, Moravian minstrels!

Shut Your Brassy, Magnificent Trap!

Well, Sib1 has been carrying all the weight of our return to the tumultuous, colorful carnival that is classical music blogging – it’s like Burning Man, but doesn’t make you weep for humanity. So it’s high time for Sib2 to step up and do his bit. And what better way to self-importantly announce one’s arrival than with a majestic chorus of brass instruments?

Full disclosure: I am a recovering brass player. I take it one day at a time. My habit of choice was the trumpet, otherwise known as “the gateway instrument.” Oh, they lure you in with phrases like, “This is God’s instrument!” as if God weren’t so obviously playing autoharp. And I’m pretty sure that when trumpets blow in Revelation, stuff gets messed up. But to a young, impressionable kid just wandering the streets of music, the offer seems too good to pass up. And then somehow, years later, you find yourself identifying the first movement of Haydn’s trumpet concerto after hearing just one note. You can – and have – drummed the entire thing, all 3 movements, with your fingertips while reading the newspaper. You know which recording it is by certain key passages even before the cadenza. You move on with your life, but the trumpet is always with you.

Eventually you learn to accept and embrace it. You know in your soul that the highest enjoyment you ever had playing music was Brass Choir, freshman year of college. That was when you first heard and played Bach’s incomparable Die Kunst der Fuge – Contrapunctus I. It moved you then and moves you now when you hear that singular melody shared and echoed among a small group of brass players. You feel uplifted and transformed! The best kind of high, really: an authentic one. I love Glenn Gould, of course, but I cannot truly compare the two:

 

Last night I turned on the radio (yes, it was still 2015) in the kitchen as I did some household chores, already tuned to the local WETA station, when immediately my ears perked up (possibly literally). In my opinion, Giovanni Gabrieli gave brass music the gift of his genius, a significant corpus that has rung (brassily) down the centuries. A Gabrieli “canzon” (it’s like a calzone, but less caloric) greeted me on WETA last night. Here is a video of brass players from the Bayerische Staatsoper playing it, conducted by Zubin Mehta:

 

Clearly I owe Gabrieli more than a mere ‘like’: his work actually pioneered this form and setup of instrumentation and playing. Brass music introduced me to polyphony and antiphony, two forms I’ve  dearly loved ever since. Gabrieli was instrumental (wink) in their development. He was the first composer to include dynamics notations (necessary when you’re blowing God’s wind through God’s chosen mazes of brass pipes, emptying the Lord’s spittle ever and anon). The above calzone, a revolution in Italian fast-casual brass dining, comes from a Sacra Symphonia that remains a landmark of this music.

We bid you a brassy adieu with this video from the Chicago Symphony Brass, which talks a bit about Gabrieli (Gabriel, blow your horn) before giving us a few clips of them playing his music:

 

Our undying thanks, as ever, to Jack McFarland, whose wit contributed our title:

 

Bach’s Melodious Underpinnings

Once upon a time, there lived a German violinist named August Wilhelm.  In 1871, presumably having some extra time on his dexterous digits, he decided to write a piano and violin arrangement of the second movement of J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D.  By changing the key to C and transposing the melody down an octave, he was able to play using only one string of his violin.  Snicker, snicker…the G string.  And with that, Herr Wilhelm unleashed into the centuries a much-beloved Air punctuated with unavoidable jokes.  (I, for one, first heard such jokes in my college Music History II class.  We were super sophisticated.)

Bach composed his Orchestral Suite No. 3 around 1731.  In that time, orchestral suites were “easy listening” for parties and other occasions of entertainment.  This was not Bach’s preferred style of composing (remember, this is the man who gave us the Brandenburg Concertos and the St. Matthew Passion); however, he wrote four orchestral suites as acts of good faith to the Leipzig City Council.  Bach had a bit of a temper, and his relationship with the city council was often contentious. By contributing new music, his petitions for better wages and better teaching and conducting opportunities fell on open ears- a savvy move on Johann’s part.  Ah, were that the political climate of today!  Three of Bach’s four “acts of good faith” were written specifically for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, a group of music students and aficionados who, under Bach’s direction, gathered together at Zimmermann’s Coffee House to crack wise and make music.  Bach devoted his time to this extracurricular activity from 1729 to 1741.

Interestingly, “orchestral” seems to be a misnomer, as the Suites are composed for small instrumental groupings.  The Third Suite is scored for three trumpets, timpani, two oboes, and strings- with the exception of the Air, of course.

What I love about the Air is its dignity.  It’s slow but not stodgy, tender but not cloying.  In this beautiful recording on period instruments, the cello and violone provide this wonderful, velvety foundation and the violins and viola are refined and elegant.  Note the lovely additions of baroque organ and “archlute”.

Another of my favorite recordings is the fantastic duo of Bobby McFerrin (read more about his views on Bach’s “danceability” here) and Yo-Yo Ma.  They lend a unique and utterly gorgeous artistry to a melody that is often overlooked due to its familiarity.

Bach’s Air on the G string:  not just for wedding processionals and “Sounds of the Ocean” recordings!  We here at Sibling Revelry hope you’ll listen and enjoy.

There’s Always Room For Cello

“Ah, Juilliard.  It was like prison, but with cellos.”  ~Robin Williams

Yesterday, somewhat plagued by the darkness in this world and the mind-boggling disrespect mankind has for human life, I found myself listening to the Benedictus of Welsh composer Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man: A Mass For Peace. Classical music is a balm to a ragged soul, after all.  The first few minutes, during which only a cello sings a mournful melody (with a touch of flute and other strings), are transporting.

Soul soothed, albeit temporarily, I began thinking about the cello and what a beautiful instrument it is, then wondered about its provenance…

The first cello-like instrument emerged in northern Italy in the early 16th century. Until then, the violin’s earliest precursor, the viola da braccio, was the instrument of choice.  Artisans such as Andrea Amati, Gasparo da Salò and Paolo Maggini wanted to expand the violin’s sound to deeper ranges, thus the instrument had to be built on a much larger scale and the violoncello (“big little violin”) was born.

By the end of the 16th century, a standard bass violin (violone) had been established and was often partnered with the violin in the music of that day.  Wire-wound strings were invented in the mid-17th century in Bologna and produced a much louder sound with more ring than the conventional gut strings.  It was then that the first real cellos were built and used for solo performances.  Violones were literally sawed apart and resized to fit the new design.  But by 1710, Antonio Stradivari unveiled what became the design and proportions of choice, and it is the famed luthier’s design which remains in use today.

By the turn of the 19th century, performance experience had led to refinements in design, including a higher string tension (producing a clearer tone), a thinner, taller bridge and a sharper neck angle.  The end of the 19th century saw the invention of the endpin for resting the cello on the floor, whereas previously the instrument had been held between the calves.  The endpin proved essential for stability and height during playing.  In the 1920s, steel strings gifted the cello with longer-sustained notes, clearer sound, and amplified volume.

In 2012, a Stradivarius cello built in 1707 and one of sixty surviving of its kind, sold at auction for well over six million dollars. Nicknamed “The Countess of Stainlein“, it was once owned by violinist Niccolò Paganini. In 1822, it nearly suffered an untimely and malodorous demise in a Milan city dump. In the late 1990s, it underwent a meticulous two-year restoration.

Perhaps the most widely known and beloved music written for the cello are the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by J.S. Bach.  Other landmark compositions include Dvorák’s Cello Concerto (a front-runner here at Sib Rev), Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1, and Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto in A Minor.  And for those of you who claim you have never listened to the cello, queue up “Good Vibrations”, “Eleanor Rigby”, or “Strawberry Fields Forever” for a classical sneak-up.

Lastly, after all of this highbrow music history, I would be remiss if I did not mention the phenomenon that is the styrofoam cello.  Far from the days of Stradivari, an ingenious student at the College of Ghent has found a truly unique way to amplify the sound of this lustrous and honored instrument.  Happy weekend, dear Revelers!

The Countess of Stainlein, one of sixty surviving Stradivari cellos.

The Countess of Stainlein, one of sixty surviving Stradivari cellos.

Son of a Mendel!

Although I will assert that no one wears a forehead better than he, Felix Mendelssohn’s music has always left me rather lukewarm.  This predicament became clear a few years ago, when, after singing both parts of his oratorio Elijah, my one conclusion was that within the first syllable of Mendelssohn is “Meh”. (Which, in hindsight, is insane. Three words, soprano-sung: “Hear ye, Israel!”)

“Meh”, indeed.  Until recently, when over the glistening waves of Pandora a familiar theme was heard and I thought “I LOVE this piece!” A quick glance at the screen told me it was none other than the handiwork of Mendelssohn- the Allegro vivace movement of his Symphony No. 4 Op. 90 “Italian”.

In all honesty, how could I hold up the mission we hold so dear here at Sibling Revelry (in case you haven’t memorized it, we strive to make the wide world of classical music approachable and enjoyable for all mankind) while disdaining a composer who is generally quite popular?  It was time that I learned something from my own blog.

Felix spent the better part of 1830-1831 in Italy, indulging his admiration of Italian art and culture and honing his skills as an amateur watercolorist. Unfortunately, his impressions of Italian music were quite opposite. “I have not heard a single note worth remembering”, he lamented in letters to relatives and friends. The knife was further twisted upon discovering that the orchestras of Rome were “unbelievably bad”.  As homage to the country he had come to hold dear- and perhaps to compensate for its one flaw- Mendelssohn began writing his fourth symphony in Italy in 1832 and completed it in Berlin in 1833.  He was never fully satisfied with it, however (even refusing to have it performed in Germany) and gave it at least two revisions: one in 1837, and again in 1847, shortly before his death at the tender age of 38.  It was finally published four years later by one of Mendelssohn’s teachers, Czech pianist Ignaz Moscheles.

The Allegro vivace is just that: fast and lively.  Some musicologists say it was inspired by Felix’s time in Venice.  Metered in 6/8, it is bright, flowing and nicely textured.  I particularly like the little “chat” between the strings’ line and that of the woodwinds’/brass.  You may very well recognize the opening theme, as I did on that day when the “Meh” was taken out of “Mendelssohn”!

I’ve chosen three performances to contemplate.  The first is the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein and his usual exuberance.  The second performance is the Orchestra of Aix, chosen because of the glaring difference in tempo. The third is a live performance by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, conducted by Paavo Järvi.  I hope you’ll enjoy this musical painting very much!

“This is Italy! And now has begun what I have always thought… to be the supreme joy in life. And I am loving it. Today was so rich that now, in the evening, I must collect myself a little, and so I am writing to you to thank you, dear parents, for having given me all this happiness.”  ~Felix Mendelssohn in a letter from Venice to his father Abraham, October 10th 1830

Mendelssohn Sym 4 Allegro vivace Mendelssohn

The Roots of Rhythm

It would be hard to gloss over the fact that the Siblings have apparently been on an extended Christmas break since, oh, say, December 11th or so. Suffice to say that one of us has a better reason than the other, who is merely procrastinatory. A word which he made up and offers to you as proof that good things come to those who wait.

We have many nascent ideas for posts, but the one I’ve apparently chosen to wade back in with is a little bizarre. Yesterday, while watching something on the teevy (I believe it was the masterful Sherlock, specifically the third episode of this latest “series” – our deep thanks to (a) the UK and (b) WETA!) there was a scene in which a heartbeat was played in the background. For whatever reason — because in my multiple decades, I’ve heard a heartbeat once or twice and faintly remember breaking down the various sections of an EKG in a biology class — yesterday I noticed that it appeared to be in waltz time: 3/4.  See for yourself:

About 10 or so years ago, I began realizing that I had a particular affinity for songs and compositions in 3/4 time, both pop and classical. I hadn’t really thought about why that might be the case. I think it was Elliott Smith’s music that first drew my attention to it, though it did not begin there. As many know, Elliott was a masterful songwriter, a uniquely talented guitar player (multi-instrumentalist, really), and beautifully gifted in both lyrics and melody. Besides the two waltzes on XO (Waltz #2 is better known than the gossamer, sorrowing-yet-angry, deep nighttime Waltz #1), many of Elliott’s songs are in 3, and are so well crafted that their meter is not obtrusive. He seems so at home in the meter, with the melody dipping in and out and over and through the beat, whereas something like James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” seems forced (it is a nice song, though). I think “I Better Be Quiet Now” is one of my favorites of Elliott’s.

Given the Sherlock event’s sudden impingement on this three-quarters of an imponderable, today I did some light digging. Naturally, I’m not the first to notice or wonder about this. Here is one message board (aptly, at Drumforum.org) where a few folks weigh in; many of them estimate 3/4 or 6/8 time but others say 4/4. I wouldn’t think heartbeats could vary by rhythm rather than speed of that rhythm, but I am a doctor in no sense of the word. Except the sense of “Brain Donors” where I pretend to be one for nefarious purposes.

http://www.drumforum.org/index.php?/topic/20674-what-is-the-time-signature-of-a-heart-beat/

Many of the participants immediately use the question to suggest that music appreciation is rooted in physiological rhythm. I love the connection to jazz and swing, personally. But overall it’s a bit too much for me, because how do you explain speed metal? Or the diverse time signatures found the world over? I think you could posit a connection to biorhythms more generally than the waltz time specifically. But I do find the possibility of this connection intriguing. It may be nothing more than mere coincidence. But a nice one, at least. It reminded me of these Paul Simon lyrics:

This is the story of how we begin to remember
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein
After the dream of falling and calling your name out
These are the roots of rhythm
And the roots of rhythm remain

A couple cursory searches did not uncover a lot of material on this subject. Perhaps some of our friends can help enlighten us. I will leave you with Erik Satie’s three wonderful “Gymnopédies,” which are written, of course, in my bizarrely beloved waltz time. Here played with bizarre cinematic accompaniment by Aldo Ciccolini, one of the best Satie interpreters for piano.

All That Jazz

Without delving too deeply into my long absence from authorship (I was saving the world from something you’ve never heard of. Yes, I was wearing a cape.), I’d like to swerve out of our usual lane a little bit. But I’ll put the blinker on because that’s how society should function.

In this age of ego and id, classical music must at times seem like superego to many would-be listeners. Impersonal, formal, rules-obsessed, difficult. Michael Tilson Thomas’s recent Tilson Tantrum, while awesome, probably helps reinforce this stereotype. I understand the need for quiet and attention, but are we creating the world here and one errant slip of the baton will make water taste like liquid Roquefort? This criticism is even more emphatic for players of my beloved sport, tennis. Quiet, everyone! These delicate geniuses, these highly-paid professional athletes need absolute silence for their bodies to move properly! They should probably just play in semiconductor fabrication facilities in those white suits, or the Television Room in the Chocolate Factory. For the love of Pete, go to a minor-league hockey game. Somewhere between there and the hushed chapel of Wimbledon, you can still earn an honest buck swinging a tennis racquet.

Jazz, on the other hand, has never suffered from a lack of immediacy. Well, until we got to the really experimental stuff and washed-out smooth jazz Kenny G products of reverse peristalsis. So, ok, I’ll amend that to say, for most of jazz’s history, including the most important eras, jazz never suffered from a lack of immediacy. On this grey, freakishly warm day in November, I’ve been listening to John Coltrane’s “Dear Lord”:

It is hushed and yet immediate. A prayer needing no words, certainly not from this hack.

Now, I’m being purposely unfair to our beloved classical music in order to make a stylized point. Because there are plenty of composers whom I find full of iconoclasm, personability, connection, contrasts – human artists rather than vague painters of boring symphonic landscapes in Randomville-sur-mer, Europe. And there days when they speak to me as I hear Coltrane speaking in “Dear Lord.”

They are out there to find, and highlighting them is one thing I think we’re “doing” here. It’s also clear that the links and exchanges between classical and jazz go back to the latter’s beginnings, and have been rich and fruitful ever since. In trying to find a Wall Street Journal article on classical and jazz I made note of a while back, I came across something better: this article written by Chick Corea on Miles Davis’s setting of the second movement from Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” That concerto is one of the highlights of the classical guitar canon – very Spanish in its composition and execution, a wonderful journey of texture and emotion. The second movement in particular, which  is what Miles “covered”.

Chick Corea is, for me, one of the most unique musicians to whom I have ever had the pleasure to listen, whose work truly blurs distinctions and bends and twists definitions with grace and verve and precision and virtuosity. He ain’t classical, but he ain’t all jazz, either. Listen to his “Children’s Songs” album for an incredible demonstration of this. Here is the inimitable Mr. Corea on the Miles track:

There also was a sense of freedom. Evans had written a gorgeous score and the orchestra was reading notes. But Miles was improvising. He was making up phrases and melodies as he went along. It made me realize that the act of creation was a beautiful thing—that you could make up melodies out of the ether. Years later, in 1971, when I left Miles Davis’s band, I relistened to “Concierto” and was inspired that year to write “Spain.”

And speaking of inimitable, here is Miles’s interpretation of the second movement (16 minutes). The ‘Evans’ that Corea mentions is Gil Evans, one of the great jazz composer/arrangers.

And the great John Williams, with the ‘classical’ version:

Happy listening, cats!

Score-ally Yours, Part III: Atonement

Upon going over my list of favorite film scores, I quickly discovered that you really cannot write cogently about the music belonging to a film that you’ve never seen.  I can’t, anyway, so I trimmed my list and will reveal the discarded titles at the end of this little series.  As Barney Stinson would say, “Wait for it…”.

In the meantime, however, I’m happily writing about award-winning composer Dario Marianelli and his clever, artful and compelling score to the film Atonement.  Set in WWII-era England, the film stars James McAvoy (sigh) and Keira Knightley as ill-fated lovers Robbie and Cecilia.  As a card-carrying member of The Book Was Better Society, I will say that I found the movie quite depressing and enjoyed Ian McEwan’s novel more only because you simply cannot replicate the intricacy of an author’s artistic hand and mind in a movie.  Nonetheless, the score made a lasting impression.

I’ve picked the movement “Briony” to focus on because it showcases Marianelli’s inventiveness at weaving together note and plot.  The opening measures don’t feature instruments at all- you hear the delicate, earnest clink of typewriter keys, which then meander their way through the rest of the few minutes in a percussive form before neatly polishing off the piece with a swipe and a tearing off of paper.

I was so struck by this because The Typewriter is an integral character in the movie. Robbie’s fervent lines to Cecilia, dashed off with impassioned anticipation and never meant for the eyes of conniving younger sister Briony, caused the cascading string of events that forever changed both their lives.  I love how Marianelli decided to use typewriter keys as an instrument and giving them a very unique spotlight.  The entire piece is very hurried and staccato, portraying just the right sense of urgency.  It’s delightful and a bit mysterious.  Enjoy!

Mother Moat’s Art

To my delight yesterday, WQXR (please let us do a late-night infomercial for you someday!) played a Mozart piece tortuously titled, “12 Variations in C Major on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman”, K. 265.” Now, the reader (s) of our blog will know what the K stands for, and it’s not potassium. Mozart’s title was “Zwölf Variationen in C über das französische Lied „Ah, vous dirai-je Maman“ KV 265.” I note, uselessly, that the English translation drops the modifying phrase “the French song,” probably because the title of the song is in French. In other words, duh, Mozart.

This is a lovely little piece (I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything Wolfie wrote that wasn’t lovely, but still) that I think is great for kids and is also exemplary employment of theme and variation. Don’t forget that Sibling Variation 1 (or does that make her the theme?) wrote a guide to classical music for kids!

What, exactly, is this so-called French children’s song, “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman”? Melodically, most listeners will hear it as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” though the tune is also used for asking black sheep how much wool they have and reciting the alphabet. Now, “Twinkle, twinkle” is a staple of childhood bedrooms across the land, and with good reason (staring up at the stars and wondering about life has sparked a lot of creativity in humans over the millennia and should be encouraged). But the lyrics of the French song are, in my mind, quite hilarious. Noting the formal “vous,” the song basically boils down to: candy > grown-up stuff. And that’s hard to argue with, most days. Et mais oui, one would never tutoyer when speaking grandly of candy’s value!

Ah ! Vous dirai-je Maman

Ce qui cause mon tourment ?

Papa veut que je raisonne

Comme une grande personne

Moi je dis que les bonbons

Valent mieux que la raison.

Oh! Shall I tell you, Mommy

What is tormenting me?

Daddy wants me to reason

Like a grown-up person,

Me, I say that sweets

Are worth more than reasoning.

So which came first, French candy theory or English astronomy? It would appear that Gaul is the origin in this case. According to a couple of Internet sources (not pretending to scholarship here), the tune was first published in Paris in 1761 without words.

Mozart’s variations on this theme were first published in Vienna in 1785. Here is Walter Gieseking playing the piece:

You have to love the appearance of the minor key after 3:00 (de rigueur in theme & variation)! And I swear there are small Bach quotes after 4:00 (one of the few composers the little genius actually acknowledged as also having talent). But whether your bag is Mozart, theme/variation, or candy, this is a fine piece for your listening pleasure.