Month: May 2007

Line Dance

Our librarian friend Rebecca Hunt (really, all of you should have a librarian friend) alerts us to the launch of the online Juilliard Manuscript Collection, lovely digital images of the trove donated to the school last year by their board chairman, Bruce Kovner. Lots of serious, scholarly stuff here—autographs, sketches, composer-corrected proofs—but, this blog being what it is, we’ll skip the serious and scholarly and head straight to these two drawings of Aaron Copland that Leonard Bernstein saw fit to add to the manuscript of his piano arrangement of El Salón México.

Rock-and-roll is here to stay

Previewing the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
Boston Globe, May 18, 2007.

Some bits that didn’t make it into the article:

Anthony De Ritis on quoting Ravel’s Bolero in his concerto for DJ, Devolution:

I actually had finished the piece before I found out [Bolero] wasn’t in the public domain. Luckily, many thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees later, I was able to use it.

Steven Mackey on the origin of his patriotism:

I remember, I was England for a time as a kid—my father worked for the government—and people would find out we were American, and they’d come up to us and say, “Congratulations on your John Glenn!” or, “Congratulations on winning World War II!” That probably wouldn’t happen today.

Mackey on rehearsals for the 2003 premiere of Dreamhouse, during which the orchestra found out it was being disbanded:

It was literally, the manager came up and said “I just have to make a couple announcements before we start” and then he gets up in front and says, “Um, you’re all fired. Oh, and here’s your guest conductor for the week, Gil Rose.” It was insane.

Excerpt of my interview with Evan Ziporyn:

EZ: There’s rock music in [Hard Drive], but it’s kind of a narrow segment of that, because it’s the music I listened to as a kid, you know? And it’s not always what you expect. I liked prog rock—I liked King Crimson, I liked the Mahavishnu Orchestra. But I was also listening to Barry White.

MG: You know, I was a closet Barry White fan for years, and then one day it was like all of a sudden it was cool to be a Barry White fan.

EZ: His time has come!

MG: I’ve noticed these days that people are pretty shameless about what they like. They don’t care if it’s cool anymore; the nerdier the better. It’s like they wear it as a badge of honor.

EZ: Well, that’s a positive development for the human condition, isn’t it?

(It’s new-music day in the Globe: also check out David Weininger on Harold Shapero’s new song cycle.)

Sing for your supper

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) loved music, but he thought the joys of harmony paled next to the pleasures of the table. The famed author of Physiologie du Goût (The Physiology of Taste) and the honoree of Brillat-Savarin cheese (a triple-crême, 75% butterfat masterpiece), was a lawyer by trade, but also a musician—during a brief exile to the Untied States during the Reign of Terror, he taught violin and was good enough himself to play first violin in a New York theater orchestra. In his book, Brillat-Savarin regarded hearing a more subtle mechanism than taste:

Taste is not so richly endowed as hearing; the latter can appreciate and compare many sounds at the same time; but taste, on the other hand, is actually simple—that is to say, that two flavours at one are equally inappreciable.

But it may be doubled and multipled in succession—that is to say, that in one act of deglutition we may experience successively a second and even a third sensation, each of which gradually becomes more weak, and which are described by the words after-taste, bouquet, or fragrance. So, when a chord is struck, a skilful ear may distinguish one or many series of consonances, of which the number is as yet imperfectly known.

But the complete satisfaction of the gourmand is superior, and has superior side-benefits.

A married pair of gourmands have at least once a day a pleasant opportunity of meeting, for even those who have separate bedrooms—and in France there are a great number who have—eat at least at the same table, and have a subject of conversation which is always new; they speak not only of what they eat, but also of what they have eaten, what they will eat, what they have seen elsewhere, of fashionable dishes, new inventions, and so forth. Everyone knows that such a familiar chit-chat is delightful.

Music, no doubt, has powerful attractions for those who love it; but one must set about it:—it is an exertion.

Besides, sometimes one has a cold, our music is mislaid, the instruments are out of tune, we may have a headache:—there is a strike.

On the other hand, a common want brings the couple to table; the same inclination retains them there; they naturally show each other those trifling attentions which denote a wish to oblige, and their behavior at meal-time has a great share in the happiness of their lives.

Still, it was music that saved his life. Brillat-Savarin had to travel to see one citoyen Prôt, in order to obtain a passport, “which, probably, might save me from prison or the scaffold.”

I am not one of those persons who are rendered cruel from fear, and I think that M. Prôt was not exactly a bad man; but he was not very intelligent, and he did not know how to employ the formidable power put in his hands; he was like a child armed with the club of Hercules.

I was a little better received by Madame Prôt, to whom I went to pay my repects; for the circumstances under which I presented myself interested at least her feelings of curiosity.

The first words she said were to ask me if I loved music. What an unexpected happiness! She was passionately fond of it, and as I am myself a very fair musician, out hearts beat in unison from that very moment.

After supper, she sent for some of her music-books. She sang, I sang, we sang. I never used my voice to greater advantage, and I never enjoyed it more. M. Prôt had already several times said he was going, but she took no notice of it, and we were giving in grand style the duet from [Grétry’s] opera la Fausse Magie,

“Vous souvient-il de cette fête?”

when he told her he really must insist upon her leaving.

We had to finish; but at the moment of parting, Madame Prôt sait to me, “Citizen, a man who cultivates the fine arts as you have done, does not betray his country. I know you have asked some favor from my husband; it shall be granted; it is I who promise you.”

Thus the object of my journey was accomplished. I returned home with my head erect; and, thanks to Harmony, charming daughter of Heaven, my ascension was for a good many years postponed.

Having saved his neck in a most quintessentially French manner, Brillat-Savarin survived the Terror, returned to France, and wrote the book for which he became justly famous. In addition to that delectable cheese, he also lent his name to a cake: a savarin nowadays refers to any liqueur-soaked yeast cake without raisins (which would turn it into a baba au rhum). Eat well.

Homage to Walter Busterkeys

We don’t usually do birthdays on this blog, but we’ll make an exception for Liberace, who would have turned the exquisitely appropriate age of 88 today. I’m not sure that anyone who wasn’t alive during Liberace’s heyday realizes just how big a star he was—headlining his own TV show at various times throughout his career, guest-starring on every show imaginable (Batman! Kojak! The Monkees!), even venturing into movies now and again. (He’s memorably good in his one non-piano role, as the casket salesman in Tony Richardson’s The Loved One.) In the 1980s, he sold out two famous runs of shows at Radio City Music Hall, and was pulling down $300,000 a week in Vegas. For playing the piano.

Well, more than that, obviously: the outfits, the jewelry, the mirror-mosaic piano cases, the Rolls-Royce that drove him onstage—the spectacle always in effective counterpoint to his relaxed and easy stage demeanor, fully enjoying the absurdity of his flamboyance with coy self-deprecation. But the man could play. Liberace honed his technique with Florence Bettray-Kelly (herself a student of Moriz Rosenthal), and was good enough to solo with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock as a 14-year-old. This clip shows his way with Chopin—the arrangement, combining the “Minute” Waltz and the A-flat Polonaise, is an abomination, but it’s Chopin’s notes, for the most part, and Liberace shows some nice limpid fingerwork as well as a real feel for the style. (Had he not opted for glitz, Liberace probably would have been a Chopin specialist in the tradition of Paderewski, his childhood idol; family legend has the old master personally encouraging the young Liberace during a visit to Milwaukee.)

Here’s a couple more clips: this performance of “Mack the Knife,” from a 60s episode of the Dean Martin Show, is shameless and scintillating in equal measure, and you get to see just what a good time he’s having putting the tune through its paces. (The mash-up of Weill with Strauss is a superb musical pun.) And here he is in Vegas, in unusually fine technical form, spinning a surrealistically-juxtaposed medley—”As Time Goes By,” “Chopsticks,” and “Send In the Clowns.”

I sometimes wonder if, had he been born a century earlier, Liberace would have been grouped in with such Romantic virtuosi as Liszt and Alkan. I would imagine that an actual Liszt recital was probably closer to a Liberace show than we think. (Ken Russell thought so, too: his gleefully anachronistic, over-the-top version of the composer in Lisztomania [warning: NSFW backstage toplessness—concert starts at 4:28 mark] owes as much to Liberace as it does to psychedelic-rock excess.)

The image at the top is the cover of a collection I found at Bookman’s Alley a while back, and the arrangements are a cut above similar folios I have by the likes of Frankie Carle and Eddy Duchin, who tended to dilute the technical challenges of their style for the popular sheet-music market. Not Liberace: these versions are lush and tricky, with some sweet harmonic substitutions and effective use of 19th-century textures and flourishes. Here’s Liberace’s arrangement of the Jack Lawrence-Walter Gross standard “Tenderly” (click on each page to enlarge):

Here’s my rendition of it. I’m no Liberace; for one thing, he kept his pianos tuned. But, yes, it’s as much fun to play as it sounds.

Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene

So there’s this website called, and they’ve got this face recognition program, word of which has been going around the Internet. Basically, you’re supposed to plug in your picture, and they’ll tell you which celebrities you most resemble. I’m not sure how accurate it is—one of my top matches was Jacky Cheung. Flattering, but, um, no. Still, I figured I’d let it take a whack at casting the big-budget Hollywood musical about the Second Viennese School I’ve always dreamed of. Here’s what it came up with. No fooling.

Arnold Schwarzenegger as Arnold Schoenberg

Felicity Huffman as Alban Berg

Billie Joe Armstrong as Anton Webern

I’d definitely pay—what is it now? Nine-fifty?—to see that. I can’t wait for the scene where, after the disastrous test screening of Pierrot Lunaire, Webern saves the day by coming up with the idea of having Berg dub Jean Hagen’s vocals.

You’re not getting any work done today

Other Minds, the epitome of Left Coast new-music fun, has launched radiOM, an online clearing-house for archival recordings from Other Minds-produced concerts and experimental programs from Berkley’s KPFA radio. (The announcement was timed to coincide with Lou Harrison’s 90th birthday, of course.) As I write, I’m grooving to a 1965 John Cage-David Tudor performance of Christian Wolff’s “For 1, 2, or 3 people, any instruments” recorded at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Hours of entertainment for the whole family—4,500 hours, to be exact. That’s enough listening to get you to Thanksgiving.

Off to see the Wizard

I had a good idea for a post over the weekend. I still have it; I sat down to write it last night and ended up spending the entire evening surfing for Harold Arlen songs. Well, that’s a good idea for a post, too.

Here’s a 1950s Arlen song, “I Never Has Seen Snow,” from a criminally obscure Broadway show called House of Flowers that he co-wrote with a young Truman Capote. (This is from a Boston Pops telecast; even if you’re not a Vanessa Williams fan, Martha Babcock’s cello solo makes it all worthwhile.)

Arlen is a composer I didn’t really appreciate until I started accompanying musical theater students. I think you have to physically get your hands on the music before you discover how creative and audacious he is—he’s constantly toying with odd phrase lengths, tricky polyrhythmic syncopations, and slippery harmonies that you don’t notice as a listener because his feel for the overall style is so suave. That might be why, even though so much of his musical vocabulary is immediately recognizable, he never had as high a profile as some of his more publicly celebrated colleagues. The more I get to know the songs, though, the more I’m convinced that he and Gershwin are in a class by themselves.

Careless Talk

Quotes for the day:

Munger also spoke of bright people with streaks of “nuttiness”. He gave Mozart as an example. Mozart was a brilliant composer but did nutty things like spend all of his money.

That’s Charles T. Munger, Chairman of Wesco Financial, as quoted in a report on Wesco’s annual shareholder meeting. Munger sounds like he knows from whence he speaks: “Irish Alzheimer’s”? I also love his take on global warming: “If Florida is flooded because it is a low elevation, people will have time to move.”

Last Tuesday, Garvey was asked to move for the second time this season and got into an exchange with police. In a report of the incident, police said Garvey became heated and “left the area holding his permit, which he believes gives him the right to disturb citizens’ peace and quiet.”

Street musician Jack Garvey, a longtime fixture of downtown Salem, Massachusetts, has been running into trouble with some persnickety condo owners, in spite of his license from the city. The cops got it wrong: you don’t need a permit to disturb citizens’ peace and quiet—musicians are born with that right. Get used to it.

Her favorite flute composers include Sergei Prokofiev and Dimitri Shostakovich. Her least favorite is modern American composer John Adams.

“I sometimes wish he’d date a flute player just so he’d find out how hard his music is to play,” Helcher said.

Charleston Symphony Orchestra flutist Regina Helcher accidentally lets slip the way most composers really learn orchestration. Shhhhh!