Duke Ellington: Black and Tan Fantasy

I am a firm believer in the importance of contrast.  I have little place in my mind for people who seem to enjoy living on the fringes, enjoying only one partial bit of a complete observation.  We've talked about this before (I think), but how do we define happiness? What is happiness without sorrow? 

How can we understand a concept like daylight without starlight? Or twilight? Or moonlight? Or the difference between a sodium-vapor or metal-halide lamps?

Therein lies the contrasts.

The potential that exists between two or more states is how we as humans make rational comparisons. Unfortunately, this also means that we must sometimes explore that which is unpleasant, heinous or vile. Most importantly, in my humble opinion, we must avoid sugar-coating any of this, because the more we allow the passage of time to soften and dull the bite of that which is dire, the less verdent the opposing side of the spectrum becomes. We need the pain to enjoy the relief.  Without one, the other has no meaning.

It is with that preface that we being our exploration into what is quite possibly the most American of all the music we've explored this month, and that is of course Jazz.

Being a uniquely American artform, Jazz music was born of slaves brought from Africa to the United States in the mid to late 1800's through the early 1900's. As these Africans became acclimated to the society of turn of the century America, they began to meld their own musical traditions with that of the music scene in America, which was still heavily influenced by the strong European musical traditions. America became an isolated petri dish of sorts, where spores from Europe and Africa were allowed to mix and thrive together apart from the rest of the world.

This was before YouTube.

Which is important, because the vast majority of people in the continental US had a limited idea what was really going on in Europe on the pop culture scene and vice versa. News took months to travel by ship and prior to around 1870, commercially available recordings of music wasn't prevalent or even available to your typical American household, much less a slave on a cotton farm. Sure there was written music being shipped around, but in all reality in must have been slightly less than a complete vacuum compared to how music is shared across the pond today.

So, the Africans and the Americans were together in a society that was still trying to find its footing in a larger world. The Africans and their children and grandchildren, of course, were there primarily against their own accord, but they did what any good and honest people do when confronted with a situation of grave inequity.

They found a way to cope.
So combining the music of post-European America and Africa, Jazz began to emerge. It became, in many ways, a bridge that existed over and beyond racial confines. In many ways, it became a crutch to help the burgeoning sense of human equality rise above the shameful contrast of racial inequity.

Of those most revered figures within the developing Jazz community was none other than Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974).

How you doin'?

Duke was so named due to a early tendency to exhibit the personality traits of a nobleman, a dear childhood friend determined that it was necessary to give the esteemed Ellington a title befitting such behavior and he was thusly crowned, "Duke".

Duke never considered himself to be strictly a jazz composer, rather preferring to be a composer of American music. However, he pioneered many aspects of Jazz that are considered standard today and refined a particular sound, defined by his orchestra that performed regularly at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Duke pulled influence from a wealth of musical background and wrote countless pieces which are now firmly ingrained in the American psyche.  It's essentially a part of our DNA.

There are some really cheesy pictures of this concept online.
The piece in particular we will be exploring today is his "Black and Tan Fantasy".  Based on a spiritual, Black and Tan boasts a number of characteristic jazz ideology and "Dukism's" as well as a nod or two to the European forefathers.

It opens with a march-like piano introduction followed by solo cornet.  The theme then transitions from the sombre spiritual to a lighter, smoother saxophone lead and leaves behind the march-like stomp of the piano for a moment. After this it goes into a solo section and continues with the harmonic drive established during the saxophone lead. Growling brass and howling saxes punctuate the solo section as it returns to a head of sorts, which leads into a overly dramatic statement of the 3rd movement from Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor.  You might recognize it as the funeral march.

Duke had a knack for creating a sound beyond what most of us consider jazz. He was an ambassador for the arts and he shared that gift with the world. While researching Black and Tan Fantasy, I uncovered a gem of 1920's cinema which came about 2 or 3 years after the release of the original piece. Called, "Black and Tan", it's a short musical movie about Duke composing his "Fantasy" with cornettist James "Bubber" Miley.

His wife (in the film), Fredi Washington enters and hears them working on Black and Tan Fantasy.  Two guys show up to repossess Duke's piano, since they've had trouble booking gigs and he was behind on the payments.  Fredi bribes them with gin and they decided that it would be best to tell their boss that no one was home when they came to claim the piano.  Fredi eventually manages to get the band work, but at the cost of her performing along with them.  She was a dancer, but had a heart condition that forced her to avoid physical exertion and her doctor had cautioned her against dancing at all costs.  However, she takes one for the team, dances and ends up on her death bed as a result.

Apparently in the 1920's, when someone was dying it was appropriate to bring in an entire church choir as well as the Duke Ellington Orchestra to play while they proceeded to the next life. Fredi's last request was for Duke to play her the Black and Tan Fantasy.  Duke obliges and as they reach the Chopin statement at the finale, Fredi dramatically draws her last breath and we close on a weeping Duke Ellington. 

Still a better lovestory than Twilight.
Obviously, film making has made strides since the 20's, but the music that Ellington created is as relevant now as it was then.  So I invite you to listen to the Black and Tan Fantasy as they recorded with the full orchestra and then watch the film to see another angle of it.  I hope you enjoy, and go America!

See you next Friday.




Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring

I have a love for the anthropomorphization of mechanical objects and buildings. It mostly has to do with anything larger than your typical human being, and particularly toward objects meant to act as a means of conveyance or habitat. For example: I have a 2001 Ford Taurus. As of yesterday evening it has been driven approximately 220,001 miles, 18,000 miles shy of the average distance between the Earth and its moon. The Ford Taurus in general has a bit of a stigma regarding its drivetrain. Many owners of this vehicle have found themselves replacing their transmissions at one point or another throughout the ownership cycle and thus it has earned itself a bad name for that reason. My Taurus, thankfully, has avoided the need for such a costly repair.

Other costly repairs however...
I also tend to love my house. It was a foreclosure that my wife and I bought as a first home. It had sat vacant for approximately one year and the passage of time had taken its toll on the structure. I've spent the past year and a half fixing, replacing or upgrading various aspects of the house such as repairing the irrigation system, remodeling the master bathroom, fixing many electrical issues related to poor repairs by the previous owner, fixing leaky faucets, improving the upkeep on the lawn, many things related to the image (read: curb appeal) and functionality of the home.

Inside is all chickenwire and duct tape.
I love the theatre where I work. It is a large building, with a capacity of 700, it features counterweight rigging system with 29 linesets, a large pit orchestra lift, a fully complemented workshop, and all the accoutrements that one might find in a well-built and operational performing space. I have been here for about half a year now and have spent a great deal of time establishing a maintenance program and attempting to repair or upgrade the equipment we keep on hand for running theatrical, musical and formal events.

I tend to adopt a view of working with these large structures and my car as a cooperative effort between myself and the object. It is a mutually beneficial and complimentary relationship. Both of us could exist without the other, but life somehow wouldn't be the same. It might not be better or worse, but it would be different. I like to think that within these certain objects is a spirit or a will to continue to exist and be useful. I fully acknowledge that the reality of the situation is that I myself most likely am the only one imparting such a notion upon the objects, and any sense of sentience is purely a manifestation of me projecting emotional capability on steel, wood, and plastic.

But dammit, I like it.

So it goes with Aaron Copland's (1900-1990) "Appalachian Spring". Originally a suite for orchestra, Copland adapted the work for ballet about a year after its premier. The ballet itself is the story of a American pioneers in Pennsylvania during the 19th century. They build a farmhouse, have a wedding and experience all the fullness that life has to offer such bold individuals of the 1800's. Copland originally wrote it without thinking of a title, but came up with Appalachian Spring shortly after Martha Graham (who was the lead dancer in the ballet) shared a poem written by Hart Crane:

O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in that violet wedge
Of Adirondacks!
 The rest, as they say, is history.  Copland later found it funny that so many people exclaimed how well he captured the spirit and essence of the the Appalachian region in his writing, since he didn't know he was actually writing for it until Martha shared that with him.

The suite is broken down into 8 sections, the 7th of which will be our target for today's example.  It is desrcibed by Copland thusly:

Calm and flowing/Doppio Movimento. Scenes of daily activity for the Bride and her Farmer husband. There are five variations on a Shaker theme. The theme, sung by a solo clarinet, was taken from a collection of Shaker melodies compiled by Edward D. Andrews, and published under the title "The Gift to Be Simple." The melody borrowed and used almost literally is called "Simple Gifts."
"Doppio movimento" means that this movement will move approximately twice as fast as the preceding one. The Shaker theme, "Simple Gifts", was first written by a Shaker elder named Joseph Brackett (1797–1882) in 1848. He lived in Maine his whole life and helped build a farm with his father that became the center of a Shaker community.  The Shakers are an off-shoot of early American Protestantism that promoted communal living and celibacy. They earned their moniker by an observation of the enthusiastic nature of their worship. Often centered around dance, as a community they have written thousands of songs throughout their existence.  

This was the closest I came to a funny picture referencing Shakers.  Sorry.
So, Copland is trying to explore a day in the life of your prototypical American family, which turns out to be anything but simple.  The variations he cycles through range from melodic and soothing to raucous and thrilling.  Concluding with a magnanimous celebration of the original theme with full orchestra at about 1/2 the speed of the original statement.  

At the end of the day, the car is just the sum of its parts.  The house and the theatre are just buildings that will one day be torn down, either intentionally or by the course of nature or human events.  They do not think.  They do not breathe.  They do not live.  However, when I hear Copland's suite, I can feel the nature of the inanimate.  They objects that we amass and surround ourselves with.  I think about what a family in the 19th century might accumulate in order to make life more livable, in order to devote more time to what they might hold more valuable.  I think of them working with their hands to give rise to a home. Standing back, looking over their completed work with awe. How can you not project a sense of life upon such a thing?  When I listen to Copland, every bit of this rock, upon which we ride about through the vast infinity of stars, seems to come to life.

I swear when you hear it, if you listen closely, you can hear the Earth turn.

See you next Friday.




John Cage (part II): Sonatas and Interludes: Sonata V

I left you all with a bit of a cliffhanger yesterday.  If you want the truth, I bailed.  I hit the deadline and decided rather than just miss the Friday altogether, let me just post John Cage's most famous work and leave a blank entry, all minimalist and whatnot.  I apologize for masquerading this as cleverness.  In my defense, however, I decided upon that course of action shortly after writing the vast majority of what you are about to read.  I didn't have time to fact-check and proofread, so instead of publishing an inferior product I elected to buy myself some time.

"Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music."
John Cage (1912-1992) 

So.  What is music?  

That's the definition according to Google.  Breaking it down we've got sounds that are interpreted to be "pleasingly harmonious".  At it's core, music has been often considered simply organized sound and for much of human history, musicians have categorized sounds in several different ways.  Most utilize a form of tempo combined with some sort of notation so that music can be shared with others.  Being a highly social activity, it's often produced from organized groups singing or playing instruments that have been constructed and modified and altered over decades to centuries to a millennia.  

Charles Ives changed how we perceive the organization.  He wanted to compose music that was more organic and germane to it's environment.  So, he composed music that reflected the performers of his day and their typical habitats.  John Cage expanded on this greatly, taking it to the level of eroding the boundary between the ambient and the performance entirely.  

Some of you might be familiar with a work of his entitled 4'33" (especially if you came to this blog yesterday).  This piece is often claimed to be four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence as in the score there is not a single note to be found through the three movement work.  When it is performed, the musician will sit quietly and just exist for its duration.  It's been criticized by some as being a bit ridiculous.  Others praise it's ability to highlight the environment in which music is created.  However, much as many would consider the absence of light dark, so would many consider the absence of sound to be silence, the pure opposite of music.

Since how are you supposed to get down in silence?
The problem with that line of thinking is that silence is arguably more important than the sound itself, a point Cage went to great lengths to prove.  I'm a big fan of contrasts.  Can we be happy if we don't know what sad is? Can you be excited if you've never been bored? How can we as humans perceive or interpret one extreme without a complete understanding of the other?  In an effort to understand this criteria of sound versus silence, Cage visited an anechoic chamber.  These chambers are super-soundproofed and dampened to the point where you cannot hear any ambient noise, in essence it is a room where perfect silence exists, well below the minimum volume for human hearing.

Upon exiting the chamber, Cage spoke to an audio engineer about two distinct noises he heard while in the chamber, a high and low pitch to which he learned was his nervous system and circulatory system respectively. The room is so quiet, you are able to actually hear your blood moving through your body. Long-term effects of these chambers create all sorts of psychological phenomena and physiological effects in humans such as dizziness and disorientation, purportedly the longest any human has been able to remain in such a chamber is approximately 45 minutes.  

Cage became inspired to write 4'33" upon the realization that there can never be anything as perfect as total silence.  Even in the quietest place on Earth, humans cannot perceive total silence because of their own bodies.  Therefore, his piece is not a celebration of the absence of sound, it is an open embrace of all things that are not music that inadvertently become part of a performance scenario.  An old man with a cough.  A child fidgeting in her seat.  That annoying person texting during the performance while chewing gum directly behind you.

Are certain sounds given more weight than others or should we accept all noise, ambient or otherwise, as part of the holistic human experience?  That's for you to decide.  

But fear not!  In addition to your dose of silence you will receive another John Cage goody today.  He was born to an inventor father and journalist mother in Los Angeles in 1912.  After dropping out of college, he took a trip to Europe to search for an appropriate endeavor for which to dedicate his life. He explored various artforms, but obviously settled his sights on music as a medium.  Being of inventor roots, he began approaching music with a scientific ferocity, using math formulas to compose over outright form and creativity.  Strangely, he never really even considered himself to be a musician, instead preferring the title of inventor.  And that he was.

Cage became well-known for popularizing the use of non-traditional instruments in his work, particularly electronic instruments and recording devices, thus giving rise to the electro-acoustical movement.  He also was a fan of using traditional instruments in non-traditional ways, one of his favorites being the "prepared piano".

Also known as screwing up a piano.  I'm not sorry for that comment.  
Essentially, he would put stuff between the strings of the piano which would have the effect of either muting the strings, making it sound more percussive or changing the tuning of the string by landing on harmonic nodes of the strings.  He used screws and erasers and bits of rubbish to transform the instrument into something that doesn't sounds entirely unlike a Japanese zen garden.  

Coupled with the rhythmic mathematics of the Cage style, these pieces are downright otherworldly. Some of his earliest and most well-known works are from a series known as Sonatas and Interludes. Most of the movements are in binary form and the whole work was inspired by a relationship he established with Indian musician, Gita Sarabhai.  She came to the US to learn about Western music and in return, she taught him about Indian music.  Pulling from a tradition known as "rasa" he established this work based on 8 emotions: humor, wonder, erotic, heroic, anger, fear, disgust, and sorrow.  Furthermore, each movement is based on a particular fraction, incorporating the numerical values into the rhythmic and repetitive nature of the piece.  

Now, our listening is just going to be from one particular movement from the total work, "Sonata V".  However, the whole piece is available on YouTube, and several of the other movements are in this video too, so feel free to let it roll on.  Now, keep in mind while listening that all you hear is generated by a single person on a piano.  Sonata V starts out with a rhythmic, pulsating, rolling undercurrent with a punchy melody on top.  It really reminds me of the kalimba, an African instrument that utilizes metal tongs which are plucked by the musician's thumbs.  It too is often played in a mechanical, punctuated style.  

If you've got time, it's worth it to listen to the whole thing, but definitely give Sonata V a chance.  

See you next Friday.




Charles Ives: Variations on "America"

It's a new year, folks!  For us Floridian's it's already 85° outside, meanwhile the rest of the country is covered in this strange substance that's not entirely like ice.  We'll get back to you on that after we spend the next several days at the beach.  I digress- with the new year comes new series!  I am happy to announce that the first series of the year of our Lord, Two-Thousand Fourteen will be none other than:

For the next four weeks, we are going to look at some of the most influential American composers throughout our country's interesting history.  Granted, we're in a bit of a slump at the moment, but dammit we're still America!  It's always been interesting to me to compare music traditions in our own country with that of European cultures since American music is insanely young compared to something like Ancient Greece.  We'll talk about different stylistic things introduced on the home turf as well, but first I want to share with you one of my absolute favorite composers, Mr. Charles Ives (1874-1954).

Charles Ives, like most good musicians, had a day job.  Unlike most musicians, however, Ives made a decent living from his day job.  Born to a father who was an Army band director during the Civil War, Ives began his musical studies at a very young age under his father's direction.  From early on he was influenced by the contemporary music of his time, such as Stephen Foster, as well as the religious and patriotic music of the early 1900's.  The elder George Ives took a liberal approach to music theory, which at the time was relatively cutting edge on the American music scene.

We've talked about music theory a bit in here before, and I'm wiling to bet that most of you are familiar with tonal vs. atonal to some degree.  If music sounds relaxing and calm, it's typical of a tonal variety.  If it sounds harsh and coarse, full of tension, it probably has some atonal notes mixed in.  Tonal implies that all the notes fit into the harmony we use which is based on the traditional Western scale of 8 notes. Atonal adds some extra notes, and the closer the notes are to each other, the crunchier it all gets.

So Ives and his dad had these little musical experiments they would conduct. To relate to a modern day example, think of a time you pulled up to a stoplight with your radio on and some idiot pulls up next to you, windows down, stereo blasting. Ignore the seething anger for a moment and think back to what that might've sounded like. Let's say you're rocking out to Queen and your neighbor is blasting Justin Beiber.

What does that sound like?

Well, whatever it sounds like was what was an inspiration to the Ives men. One of his most recognized pieces came from an experience where he was in-between two civic bands playing in a large square and as they each played their respective marches simultaneously the mixture somehow made sense to Ives. And so, "Country Band March" was penned.  This piece features two distinct marches being played at the same time, plus many idiosyncrasies that were endemic to amateur performers of this time. For example adding cymbal crashes on the wrong beat to imitate a lost percussionist.

Ives began playing organ for his church at the age of 14, a position he held through his college days. Upon graduating he began his career in the insurance world, eventually forming his own company and establishing protocol for life insurance that actually impacted and shaped how we manage certain aspects of that industry today. His success in the business world offered him a unique chance many composers could only dream of. As a result of his financial stability, he often was able to self-finance his compositions and arrange his own performances of his music. This gave him a tremendous amount of liberty to create music that he wanted to, as opposed to writing for a specific benefactor or purpose. Despite this, response to his particular flair was tepid at best throughout most of his life. Towards the 1930's, composers such as Leonard Berstein and Aaron Copland began noticing Ives' quiet work and displaying it on their own concerts. However, much of his present fame status was not established until decades after he died.  

The piece we are examining today is "Variations on America".  Originally written for the organ at the age of 18, Ives famously claimed that his Variations were "...as much fun as playing baseball." Ives was not only a talented baseball player, he was also one of the few people who could pull this piece of his off on the organ. 

It features an introduction that is a variation itself, albeit one that plays more with the temporal nature of the piece.  From there he explores many musical styles of the day, throwing in atonal bits and pieces here and there to accentuate and punctuate his other thematic material.  

When I sit and listen (or when I've been fortunate enough to perform the band arrangement) I can't help but think of a good baseball game.  It was later set for full band by William Schumann, another champion of both atonal and American cultural music.  As we evolve through the different variations you can't help but hear the hodge-podge of cultural ideas and norms that is America. We are a bunch of crazies living together under a crazy idea that everyone should be free to live and be happy. And it doesn't always work out, you hear that in the Ives too, but dammit we keep trying. We make mistakes, but we keep fighting to stay free in our own ways.

Ives I think understood this concept better than most. In much of his work I think he felt as though he were carrying forward the mantle of his father's musical experiments, but also giving voice to a nation that was growing quickly and trying to develop a more mature identity.

Our recordings today come from the two popular versions of this piece.  The first being the original work for organ, performed by E. Power Biggs and the second being the wind band arrangement by Schumann performed by none other than the President's Own, the United States Marine Corps Band.

See you next Friday.


The Challenger commercial gif is from that awesome Dodge commercial.
"Bill Clinton: The Lady Killer" was made by the awesome artist, Sharpwriter.  Here's more of his stuff: http://www.etsy.com/shop/sharpwriter