Camille Saint-Saëns: Danse Macabre

So for this Listening Friday on a Listening Sunday, we're celebrating Halloween.  But fear not, this isn't Halloween 2014.  No, we're getting a jump on the box stores this year by skipping Thanksgiving and Christmas and setting up for next Halloween.

They'll never see that coming.

So, our listening today comes from an existentialist French guy with perfect pitch and a wonderful beard.  His name? Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921).

C'est magnifique!
He possessed an uncanny memory for piano literature and an early aptitude to composition and the piano.  Additionally, he grew to be a sort of Romantic-era Renaissance man, possessing and amassing a wide array of scholar-level knowledge about astronomy, mathematics, botany, archaeology, lepidoptery, and geology.

Saint-Saëns was also considered somewhat controversial in his earlier days as he trumpeted support for the likes of Wagner, Berlioz, and Liszt, but pretty much hated Debussy and Stravinsky.  Like many humans often do, he grew up embracing much more liberal forms of music than what was contemporary of his time (Mozart and Beethoven), but eventually as he grew old began to loathe and publicly revile the younger, up and coming composers for misusing the artform.  He claimed once that he stayed in Paris just to trash Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande.  Debussy reportedly responded thusly:

LOL You mad bro?
Despite this, Saint-Saëns is widely known for popularizing a musical concept that is still frequently employed today, albeit in much different varieties.  Being friends with Liszt allowed Saint-Saëns to become familiar with the idea of the tone poem, which is basically a symphonic work that is crafted to evoke imagery from a work of literature or art or something that's not music without visual aids.  Usually these works are single, relatively short pieces and creates a mental image for the listener.  

The piece we are exploring today is none other than Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre.  It draws its roots from the poem, "Égalité, Fraternité..." by Henri Cazalis.  Click here for the text.  Basically, every Halloween at the stroke of midnight, Death comes out and raises hell with all his buddies until the rooster crows and sends everyone to their graves.

Lots of musical trickery is employed to evoke the imagery of goblins and ghouls rampaging across the European countryside, including a notable use of the xylophone to simulate the sounds the bones in skeletons might make.

Which Disney would later find useful.
Reception of the work was timid at best.  Many people were actually a bit unnerved at the use of the instruments to evoke such harsh imagery.  One of the more notable examples of treachery within the work is the usage of the "tri-tone" or augmented fourth/diminished fifth interval in the beginning with the solo violin.  To our Western inspired ears it sounds quite dissonant.  So harsh, in fact that it was prohibited from composition during the Middle Ages in religious music.  It is disputed, but many attribute the term, the "Devil's Interval" to the leap starting from this time period.

Without any further stalling for time, I give you Danse Macabre.  

Happy belated Halloween!

See you next Friday.


Buena Vista Pictures/Touchstone Pictures


J. S. Bach: Suite No. 1 in G major

In 1890, a 13-year-old boy named Pau was browsing a used music store in Barcelona.  He came upon a collection of unaccompanied works for cello, written by a Baroque composer (or possibly his second wife), that had been forgotten and set aside for 150 years or so.  I like to imagine that he understood the severity of the composition the moment he laid eyes on it, like an Indiana Jones sort of moment.

That boy grew to become one of the finest cellists the world has ever seen.  And the piece found on that day was not to be recorded by the artist until 47 years later.  It has been said that Pau "Pablo" Casals would perform these suites daily so as to cleanse and purify the house, as he considered them to be holy works of art.  This contrasted with the prolific opinion of the suites by his contemporaries who regarded it as mere studies and exercises, not to be performed but to refine musicianship like a whetstone on steel.

Sr. Casals saw it differently.

Between 1936 and 1939, Casals recorded what has since become the definitive interpretation of the work and redefined the cultural value bestowed upon Bach's work.  The interesting thing is that there is no autographed manuscript of the work.  What that means is that we don't really know what Bach intended these pieces to sound like.  This may seem odd, but the style of music notation we use is not a perfect system.  It is essentially a bare-bones guideline for how a piece might sound, but depending on the detail given by the author a lot is placed upon the performer to dictate and apply rational musical ideas to the written music.

Think of it this way- what does a duck sound like?  Does it really say quack?

Quack is an oral, man-made approximation of a sound made by a duck.  Despite popular belief, most ducks cannot spell, but humans require a way to express to each other ideas and beliefs that are based on the natural realities that surround us, and to do that we have to use approximations.  This has often led to great injustice and suffering merely for the sake of misunderstanding.  I quote Douglas Adams (it's a bit long I'm afraid):
It is of course well known that careless talk costs lives, but the full scale of the problem is not always appreciated.
For instance, at the very moment that Arthur said, "I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my life-style," a freak wormhole  opened up in the fabric of the space-time continuum and carried his words far far back in time across almost infinite reaches of space to a distant Galaxy where strange and warlike beings were poised on the brink of frightful interstellar battle.
The two opposing leaders were meeting for the last time.
A dreadful silence fell across the conference table as the commander of the Vl'hurgs, resplendent in his black jeweled battle shorts, gazed levelly at the G'Gugvuntt leader squatting opposite him in a cloud of green sweet-smelling steam, and, with a million sleek and horribly beweaponed star cruisers poised to unleash electric death at his single word of command, challenged the vile creature to take back what it had said about his mother.
The creature stirred in his sickly broiling vapor, and at that very moment the words "I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my life-style" drifted across the conference table.
Unfortunately, in the Vl'hurg tongue this was the most dreadful insult imaginable, and there was nothing for it but to wage terrible war for centuries.
Eventually, of course, after their Galaxy had been decimated over a few thousand years, it was realized that the whole thing had been a ghastly mistake, and so the two opposing battle fleets settled their few remaining differences in order to launch a joint attack on our own Galaxy -- now positively identified as the source of the offending remark.
For thousands more years, the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came  cross -- which happened to be the Earth -- where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog.
Those who study the complex interplay of cause and effect in the history of the Universe say that this sort of thing is going on all the time, but that we are powerless to prevent it.
"It's just life," they say.

So, music, being an approximation of sound imagined by the author, is often left in the more or less capable hands of the performer to interpret and reproduce at will.  Being that Bach left no indications for slurs or phrasing, most cellists and music people alike dismissed these suites as serious works.  Casals, however, was able to discern more and found an intricate, spell-binding beauty within.  He formed phrases and slurs over notes that had none, and found remarkably agile ways to cope with the technical challenges laid out by Bach.

It was later found that Bach's wife, Anna Magdalena, had produced a hand written copy of several of the suites that included slurs that corresponded to much of the harmonic progression and therefore supported a valid interpretation of the works.  There have been many editions set out on the works, for several instruments beyond the cello.  Being that very little literature exists for solo trombone prior to the 19th century, cello literature is often pillaged to supplement the void and the suites have become a sort of "holy grail" for trombonists.

And through it all, there is Casal's interpretation and vision of the work.  It has secured a place in the annals of musicology as a momentous and memorable exploration of something beautiful and beyond the ordinary.  Something that was nearly forgotten, before a young man salvaged it from terminal obscurity.

Sadly, the recordings of Casals are not the best quality.  Despite this, much can be learned from listening.


See you next Friday.


The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The Library of Congress


Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer: Big Top

The first time I heard Béla Fleck and the Flecktones the idea that if you take enough musicians who are ridiculously talented on their instruments and put them into one box, that whatever comes out will be astonishing.  The idea that ability supersedes genre is one that has oft been practiced and proven by Fleck and others that all operate in this land of Neo-Bluegrassish music.  Rather than shunning the different lineages of these instrument groups, we instead try to accept it all for what it is and generate a product that reflects the diversity in texture and sound, assuming that making music takes precedence over form and function.

Such is the case with Chris Thile (b.1981) and Edgar Meyer's (b.1960) new album, Bass & Mandolin.

"Mine's bigger."

It is comprised of ten original compositions by the duo for bass and mandolin (with a few for piano or guitar as well).  It is a whirlwind of technical prowess coupled with risk-taking tonality.  Sitting and listening to it for a few times now I can't help but feel like this is what it might sound like if Paul Hindemith wrote for Flatt and Scruggs.  There is an earthy, human tone to all of it, but each piece can drift seamlessly in and out of the bluegrass genre and drift atonally about without offending the ear. There's a unique combination of harsh dissonance and super-human technical prowess that merges with the characteristic folk and bluegrass harmony to establish a new breed of music that exists somewhere between Bach, Weber, Cage, and Grainger.  

Thile pulls on his appreciation for the Baroque habit of musical ornamentation frequently, creating these elaborate mandolin riffs that leaves one pondering the notion that the instrument itself might actually be restricting to the performer's ability to translate the whole of his ability.  While Meyer reinvents the double bass as a 6' tall fiddle.  There are moments where you just can't help but feel like we're all just showing off for company.

But the moment before it goes off and gets labeled a technical freak show, we are reminded that there is a sense of order to all of this and Bach and Hindemith regain control of the helm.  It's a proper balance of musicality and technicality.  

The piece I most identify with on this album is "Big Top".  It begins with a playful interchange and then a bass melody that moves through keys like a fat kid through cake.  It then works itself into a jazzy, circus-like groove that allows a mandolin solo that takes us back to a minimalist interlude peppered with chromatic runs that break knuckles.  

It's this creative back and forth between two instruments at the polar ends of the frequency spectrum that makes this album work.  It has the feeling of a technical contest without the sense of one-upsmanship.  Both men are competitors to the same end and working toward a common goal.

Thile hails from California and has contributed much to the world by way of the two groups, Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, both of which have worked to develop this unique brand of folk music. Meyer on the other hand was born on the Bluegrass-homeworld of Tennessee and grew up under the tutelage of his orchestra director father and thus has a firm foot in the classical and bluegrass worlds.  His virtuosic abilities on the bass are noteworthy if for no other reason than it's really freaking hard to play a bass in the manner Meyer has adopted.

Well, damn Paul, I've always thought I was just big-boned.
The thing about this music is that it fills a musical void for me.  As of late I've grown more and more frustrated with the crap that radio stations deem appropriate to blast in our ears daily.  In researching the duo I came across no shortage of news articles praising their current tour.  One in particular stuck out from journalist Joel Francis of the Kansas City Star.
If albums like this had singles and radio had interest in playing anything like this, the enchanting “El Cinco Real” would be on every DJ and programmer’s desk in the country. Instead it will have to settle for a life of NPR bumper music.
Someday I hope we as a society can rise up against the spoon-fed mediocrity of the radio and television, and maybe the internet can be a vehicle for such an act of treasonous subterfuge. In any event, I do sincerely hope you take the time to enjoy what Meyer and Thile are doing for our ears and maybe explore it a little further.

See you next Friday.


Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/ent-columns-blogs/back-to-rockville/article2258403.html#storylink=cpy