A Belated Merry Christmas from Listening Friday!

So I screwed up this posting somehow as it was supposed to publish on Christmas Day.  However, here it is in all its glory, wishing my 2.5 readers a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a great New Year!

Here's RUN-DMC's classic, Christmas in Hollis:

I'll be taking tomorrow off since it's the holidays, see you next, next Friday.



arr. Bob Thurston: You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch

In 1942, Glenn Miller was at the height of popularity on the American music scene.  It was the year following the attack on Pearl Harbor that fully engaged the United States into World War II.  Miller was compelled by civic duty to enlist in the Army with the goal of forming a band to promote morale and patriotism within the US military as well as around the world.

The Navy actually turned him down first.

And look where that got them...
Between his success as a civilian and as an Army bandsman, Miller assembled what can be considered by some to be the best conglomeration of musicians for any given musical period.  He developed a unique sound, using enough familiar textures to capture his audience, but then changing subtle things to make it truly the "Glenn Miller sound".

You may notice today's Listening Friday is not actually a Glenn Miller tune.

Glenn Miller tragically perished in 1944.  He was flying from the UK to France when his plane was lost.  The official story claims that his flight fell victim to an errant drop of explosive ordinance by a flight that was returning from a canceled attack.  Another story claims that the plane was destroyed as a result of friendly fire.  In 1997, a German tabloid published a story that Miller had in fact arrived safely in Paris, but died from a heart attack the following day in a French brothel.

In 1997, I stood at the Glenn Miller memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

You must understand, he is a personal hero of mine.  From my earliest forays into the world of trombone, Miller has been a companion. He was first introduced to me when my father decided that if I were to play trombone I ought to listen to an actual trombone player.  When I stood in Arlington on that hot summer day and contemplated the destructive gossip that had befallen my musical role model...  It hurt.

It was perhaps the first time in my life where I had experienced the possibility that a hero was less than heroic. It was a highly unpleasant experience. Now, much of the sordid tale has been debunked and many other conspiracies have blossomed in the fertile soil of doubt, but most agree that it was in fact false and that Miller met his ends in a tailspin into the ocean.  But that feeling is still carried with me.

So, in a Madsen-esque transfer of epic proportions, I shall now build you two transfer-bridges from Glenn Miller to the Grinch and back again. First of all, Glenn Miller's goal of transforming the military music machine did not die with him in 1944. As the Air Force was born, so was the Air Force band and eventually, carrying on the mantle of military jazz, the Airmen of Note.  There is also an authorized "Glenn Miller Band" that is civilian-led, but that's a story for another time.

The Airmen of Note continue to play his charts as well as many of their own, including our listening for today.  "Your a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" was originally written by Dr. Seuss with music supplied by Albert Hague.  Thurl Ravenscroft provided the remarkable bass voice that made the song a hit.  But Bob Thurston himself (a product of the Florida State College of Music) arranged his own version for the Airmen of Note as the chief composer-arranger for the group.

The bass trombone solo that opens the piece (and continues throughout) is performed by a gentleman named Dudley Hinote, another FSU grad and also the Flight Chief for the Note. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with bass trombone, it's essentially what happens when you mix a flamethrower that runs on testosterone with a regular trombone.

I call it, "The Apocalypse in Bb"
So, the bass trombone is the tenor trombone's more aggressive, alcoholic big brother. Chief Master Sergeant Hinote offers a commanding presence on the horn, really defining his version of the Grinch, making Thurston's arrangement on par with the original for sure.

So without Glenn Miller, we wouldn't have the Airmen of Note or Bob Thurston's arrangement or Dudley Hinote's wicked bass bone solo.  Transfer #1: complete.  Now for #2, let's go back to the hero thing. The problem with having real heroes (and I mean real as in the sense that we're not talking about Superman or some dumbass Pokemon thing or whatever you stupid kids watch these days) is that they are in fact real. Humans are completely flawed creatures. We have the capability to learn from the mistakes of other humans around us, but quite often inexplicably fail to do so. Many times quite deliberately! We cave to temptation, we are lazy, we are sometimes too industrious, there's avarice and oppression and just generally being a not great person in general.

Humans tend to make lousy heroes.

But the problem comes because I think somewhere in the creation of these human supermen and superwomen, we forget that they are in fact fallible. We project upon them the antithesis of all our insecurities and shortfalls. We cast them in light that shines of invincibility. And it just can't hold up. There's no shortage of examples in history of heroic individuals cracking under the pressure. Seeking quiet respite and release at the hands of less than reputable folk. And they invariably get caught and we all get swept up in the frenzy, because nothing sells soap better than Bob Johnson, family man and local hero being caught with his pants down at the neighbor's house.

Florida Man to the rescue!

It's reflected in our TV, our media, our society.  We look to reality TV to provide us a template for how we should conduct ourselves within our microcosms.  The problem is, these heroes (or antiheroes) aren't really human anymore. They've been invented by TV producers and the like to create a superficial entity that generates enough mass appeal to, again, sell soap.

Or ducks or something.  I can't fathom this, people actually watch this crap?!
When I think back to that day the seed of doubt was planted in my young mind, and I stood at that small block of marble on the ground in Virginia, fighting back tears, it still hurts as bad now as it did then. Despite knowing that the idiot German who wrote that article was essentially disproven to oblivion and that Miller most likely met his death at the hands of a simple accident, it still hurts for some reason.  And I don't have an explanation.

But today, I think of the Grinch and those goofy little Who-people. I think of how his jealousy and anger brought him to bring down what he actually wished he possessed himself. And that in the end, the little Who-villites really were good heroes, because their Christmas celebration didn't have anything to do with presents or lights or trees or any of that crap. It was just well and good enough that they were together. But they also aren't real.

To look in the face of complete destruction and devastation and to pick up and keep moving.  That's what being a hero is all about.  I will remember my hero, Major Glenn Miller of the Army Air Force, as sacrificing his life as a civilian to support his country and ultimately giving his life because he felt the music he loved was important enough to risk it all.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

See you on Christmas for a very special Listening Friday edition!  No homework!  School's out forever!


Since it's the USAF, you can download the mp3 for free!  Here's a link to their site.



Sussex Mummer's Christmas Carol: Percy Grainger by kind permission of Miss Lucy E. Broadwood

From the late 1800's to the early 1900's, the hotbed of musical creativity was a little area of England south of London known as Sussex County.  We've discussed before the trend of composers in the late Romantic, early Modern era to seek out the rich vocal tradition in the English countryside. It was the perfect fit to the growing popularity for the development of melody born of the Romantic Era, and there was plenty of English oral tradition being passed down from generation to generation through the use of song. This of course is nothing new, mankind has been sharing oral history through music since before the ancient Greeks. The exciting part at this place and time was how composers were beginning to treat these melodies in lush choral and band arrangements.

Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was one such composer.  He favored piano above all else, as he aspired through most of his life to become a concertizing pianist.  He succeeded for the most part at his goal, and a remarkable byproduct was that he began to arrange his piano works for band, orchestra and chorus. Grainger was an early technophile and utilized the phonograph to actually record these folk melodies, compiling a database of sorts and then attempting to capture the subtle nuance in each tune as he transformed these into arrangements for piano as well as full ensembles.

Which became easier after her perfected cloning technology.
However despite Grainger's fervor in collecting such gems, the earliest collection of such folk songs was attributed to a gentleman named, Rev. John Broadwood. He was the first to publish words and music together to these folksongs of his community.  He had a niece who also took to this familial musicality pretty well, Miss Lucy E. Broadwood (1858-1929). There's no shortage of companions that helped in the Broadwood's goal to catalog and preserve the folk music around them. I can't help but think this was a difficult task at times though since most of the people singing were essentially illiterate when it came to music.  Grainger fondly wrote his arrangements to carefully capture the rhythmic inaccuracies and tonal shifting that the amateur singers would produce and wrote them into many of his arrangements.

One such work preserved by Miss Broadwood would be the Sussex Mummer's Christmas Carol.  Now a mummer by today's definition is someone who puts on a public play involving costumes or disguises, the death of a hero (or heroes), and the resurrection of said hero(es) by means of some miraculous potion provided by a doctor or other such healer.  The play itself is usually performed outdoors or in some public place, but often door-to-door in a caroling fashion. They are usually comedic, but often exhibit some great struggle between good and evil.  Broadwood notated the Christmas Carol after watching the exhibition of, "St. George, the Turk, and the seven champions of Christendom".  The mummers (sometimes called tipteerers) sung the carol as a finale from what I can determine.  The play they put on featured the patron saints of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, and Wales as each character/saint demonstrated what they were famous for (St. Patrick getting the snakes out of Ireland, St. James fighting an imaginary battle against African Muslims, etc.).  It made sense for the conclusion to feature the carol, as Christmas was a common theme in all of the mummer activities.

As was murder.

So Lucy hears this and writes it down.  Grainger hears it from Lucy and arranges it for piano.  Richard Franko Goldman hears Grainger's piano version and tells him he has to arrange it for band.  Grainger dies. Goldman, undeterred, takes up the mantle and arranges it himself.  Goldman was the son of Edwin Franko Goldman who, among other things, founded the Goldman band in New York City and also the American Bandmaster's Association.  So, the younger (and equally skilled) Goldman premieres this piece at Iowa State College in 1963 and the rest is history.

The carol itself is interesting since the majority of it focuses on the redeeming death of Jesus Christ and the resurrection as opposed to his birth, as do most Christmas carols.  The lyrics are available here if you're interested.

Another interesting bit about the mummers is the fact that they are not just in Sussex. You may be familiar with the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia, PA held each New Year's Day. It's known to be the oldest folk festival in the United States and it does indeed draw its roots from the tipteerer/mummer tradition from Sussex.  It pulls its traditions from many countries, not just England and the parade is comprised of elaborate floats that are often human powered pieces of scenery as well as incredibly elaborate costumes and acts that take months of preparation to create and perfect.  Musical groups are also included and are as eccentrically garbed as any of the other parade entries.

Step 1- Strap a Mardi Gras float to your back.  Step 2- Party.
The whole concept evolved from a tradition of visiting one's neighbors the day after Christmas dressed in wildly outlandish costumes. Other traditions carried over involved firing guns into the air and performing poetry, rhymes and songs for beer.  As this tradition of door to door entertainment evolved, it eventually became a parade in 1901 when presumably residents grew weary of passing out alcohol to armed and drunken wassailers in medieval costumes wandering around for a week after Christmas.

We must take your rum and return to Valhalla. 
The parade carries on the same spirit and tradition founded in those early medieval plays in the 1700's. However, despite the occasionally bacchanalian nature some of the mummer related activities take on, the Christmas Carol is a bit of a reprieve. It begins with a fairly standard, choir-like introduction of the melody that starts with a woodwind texture, slowly and gracefully giving way to trumpet. The thing that strikes me as most interesting is the phrasing and dynamic choices established by Grainger in the original piano score.  The first YouTube video you'll see shows the score as the piano version is played, so you can see the care Grainger took in labeling the manner in which it should be performed. The second video is the North Texas Wind Symphony performing Goldman's setting (it's the best I could find online, there are better performances of this however).  The first statement introduces the melody with a plodding 8th note undercurrent. The second statement gets a bit bolder with a bit of modulation and a very interesting counter melody introduced by the horns. It replaces a lot of the 8th note undercurrent from the first statement, which is still partially intact in the lower woodwinds and brass.  Finally, it returns to the triumphant original key and finishes the theme with a few additions of new chords in a few spots.

It would be interesting to do some research on how much of the final band version of this piece was Goldman's decision-making versus Grainger's.  I hear a lot of Grainger in it, but knowing that Goldman completed it makes it interesting, especially when you consider that he was now the fourth known person to have his hands in the mix- starting of course with the tipteerers who performed it, then Lucy E. Broadwood, and Percy Grainger.

I like Christmas music that exists somewhere between jolly and depressing.  Not to say Christmas isn't always a wonderful time of year, but there's something about the holiday that really displays a wide range of emotion for me. Perhaps it's the dichotomy of the birth of Jesus, juxtaposed with the fact that some 30 years later he would be faced with a gruesome death.  Maybe it's the often bemoaned hardships many endure during this time of year being apart from loved ones resultant of circumstances beyond anyone's control.  Or rather, those who are no longer with us in a physical sense, those who have passed over.  I like that Christmas is such a happy time of year because it has the potential for such sorrow. I know that sounds odd, perhaps even certifiably insane, but I really believe we measure happiness in contrasts. Without knowing what's sad, we find ourselves unable to know if we are in fact happy.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Homework: You get this week off.  Go find your happy Christmas.

See you next Friday.


North Texas Wind Symphony


Morten Lauridsen: O Magnum Mysterium

There is some music which has the potential to exhaust us both emotionally and physically. However, I am not referring towards pieces that require or demand an abundance of technical prowess, but rather music that with it comes a heavy burden. For me, one of the most draining pieces of this nature was Stjepan Šulek’s trombone sonata 'Vox Gabrieli' which aims to chronicle the adventures and exploits of that famed archangel, Gabriel.  There are some who proclaim that it was he who heralded the birth of Jesus Christ.  Milton's Paradise Lost proclaims that it will be he who announces the return of the Lord via epic trumpet explosion.

Michelangelo's The Last Judgment


I performed this work when I was a senior in college as a part of my required recital. Not to go into too much detail, but the end of the work follows a few ethereal and contrasting light melodic passages to bring forth a finale that is nothing short of diabolical. You can hear and feel the end of days occurring. In that final moment, when all is lost, there is a passage that floats through. To me it spoke volumes. In it I could see the tired angel turning a downward glance toward the condemned planet. In a single cathartic and sacrificial gesture he acknowledges the tremendous agony and suffering to be but a part of a greater plan.  He turns toward the culmination of his assignment.

The Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Salvador Dali

Very heavy.

Performing it took a lot of me emotionally. It’s one of few pieces I felt an incredibly strong connection with on the trombone. I often found it useful to study a piece ad nauseum, to find every scrap of history or knowledge about the composer, the work, the subject, etc. I feel it makes us understand the full intent of the composer, particularly when the matter at hand is as grave as the Revelation.

But today is not about Šulek or his trombone sonata.  So, what do you get if you cross Bob Ross, Paul Bunyan, William Riker, Ernest Hemingway, and your grandfather?

The correct answer is Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943).  Lauridsen grew up in the Pacific Northwest, prior to becoming a composer professionally he worked for the forest service as a firefighter and lookout, stationed on a tower near Mount St. Helens.  He frequently spends time in the outdoors as he often frequents Waldron island, which is essentially the Pacific Northwest version of Amish country (without any Amish people and just the simple, plain living).

The video below is really fascinating, because he makes what he does sound so utterly simplistic. I spent the week listening to Lauridsen's works performed by the Elora Festival singers and I have to say my overall opinion of the man seems to be based firmly in my belief that somewhere deep within his psyche, he has communicated with Giovanni Gabrieli on an alternate plane of existence.  His music exhibits a profound ethereal quality, but at the same time manages to speak to a very human nature. Consider him a modern Gabrieli or perhaps a Gabrieli add9.

Or if you'd rather have a simpler analogy.
O Magnum Mysterium is a piece with a long tradition of many varied settings.  The text itself references the birth of Jesus Christ and was originally part of a type of Gregorian chant known as Responsorial. Essentially, the priest would sing a verse and the choir would chant the chorus, back and forth. This was all part of a nighttime liturgical service in the Catholic church that took place in the evening around Christmastime. The text for the work is as follows (translated from the Latin):

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.

I'm not sure what God looks like. I kinda get the feeling that many other people in this world have a better understanding of what God might be or represent than I do. There is, of course, no shortage of opinion on the matter and I don't really mean to delve into a religious debate through this entry. My own personal beliefs lie within the concept that God, as a omnipotent force in our universe, is one in the same with the forces that hold everything together. I think nothing could be more poetic and meaningful than considering God to be the very metaphorical fibers that bind atoms to one another.  And as we as a species continually unravel and discover these laws, the mystery persists and evolves. That is just such a powerful image to me.

I realize that's a bit of a jump from an old white guy with a beard sitting on a cloud, but like I said- I'm not here to start a religious debate. What I am here to say is that when I close my eyes and listen to this piece of music, I cannot describe what I see, but in what I hear I feel as though I can begin to comprehend the face of God. I'm not sure if that's what Dr. Lauridsen was setting out to achieve, but nevertheless he certainly made one hell of a Christmas carol.

Homework: Close your eyes, listen, visualize. Write what you see.

See you next Friday.


Note: The first video is a really interesting interview with the composer himself regarding his piece Dirait-on.  The second video is O Magnum Mysterium.