Friday, July 31, 2009

Benny Goodman Tribute


Joe Muccioli and the Jazz Arts Project are producing a tribute to King of Swing Benny Goodman at the River's Edge Cafe, 35 Broad Street Red Bank. The band will be Dan Block, clarinet, Ehud Asherie, piano and Rob Garcia, drums, with special guest Warren Vache, a faculty member at Juilliard and a veteran of Goodman's band.

Here's Muccioli's email PR:


I could think of no-one better to lead a tribute to Benny Goodman than our own Dan Block. Many of you have heard Dan in concert with the Red Bank Jazz Orchestra at our Holiday shows performing the Ellington Nutcracker or the Sinatra Birthday Bash at the Count Basie Theatre. While reviewing the video tapes recorded at one of those events we heard an audience member clear as a bell proclaim; "oh my, he's incredible. Its like he's channeling Benny Goodman!"


Reservations are strongly suggested. Call 732-741-7198.

--C.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Storm Continues


Took my two children to see and hear "The Storm" concert at Ocean Grove (www.ogcma.org) last Wednesday. As I noted in my
previous post
, these free concerts invoke pictorial sound effects of a large storm, thrilling listeners. Curator John R. Shaw and organist Gordon Turk explained that this type of concert has a long history, dating back at least as far as the French Revolution. During that time, the church was out of favor and the organists repurposed their instruments for popular spectacle-type concerts, both to keep the instruments in use and to curry the favor of the populist leadership who would otherwise have surely cannibalized the pipes for scrap metal and other parts.

The kids loved it. Some of the presentation was just cheesy enough to be historically accurate. The wind sound effect, in particular, required a leap of imagination. ("It sounded like a blender," my daughter said later.) The rain effect sounded like rain. And if the lightning looked like an electric light being switched off and on ... well, that's just that much more 19th Century. And it is great fun to watch Turk rip into the pedal-tone clusters and wild, swooping passages that create the thundering storm imagery.

There are two more of these coming up. Each program uses different music as a vehicle to paint the storm picture. The next is tomorrow, Wednesday, July 29, and the last one is the following Wednesday, Aug. 5. Both begin at 7:30 p.m. Tomorrow's will have the second half of the lecture/demonstration, presented by Shaw and Turk in tandem.

--C.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Storm


In the days before television, before movie houses became ubiquitous, when the most exciting amusement ride was a relatively tame wooden roller coaster, there were other ways for audiences to find thrills. One of them was to attend theater organ concerts that simulated giant storms. Theater organs around the dawn of the 20th Century routinely included wild sound effects as well as musical timbres, and a small repertoire of music evolved to use these to their fullest advantage.

In 1905, one such series of "Storm" concerts at Ocean Grove, on the Great Auditorium's massive organ, caused an uproar. As recorded in the New York Times online archive, summer residents found the concerts "too noisy."

Cottagers and hotel guests in the vicinity of the Auditorium have become surfeited with the organ's noise. They complain it disturbs their afternoon naps and annoys them at tea time.


Organist-in-residence Gordon Turk should take heed from this ugly precedent as he prepares for a return of "The Storm" 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, July 22, as part of the Great Auditorium's free Wednesday organ recitals. The composition, "The Storm," will be accompanied by a lecture by Turk on the subject of "storm" compositions and the restoration of certain sound effects to the Great Auditorium instrument that make the performance possible.

For more information, visit the theater's website, www.ogcma.org.

--C.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Mail Call

I've received some nice comments lately from readers regarding posts and articles. I thought I'd collect them and share them with you here.

  • Regarding the analysis of Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner," two different soldiers (one retired, one a bugler at Arlington) emailed to express their appreciation. Former Army Captain Rick Barnes agreed that Hendrix's interpretation expressed the "duality of pride and criticism that was reflective of that time." And Jari Villanueva writes that Hendrix's use of the "Taps" melody was "a stroke of genius and a salute to those who served." I must say that for all the hoopla regarding Hendrix's rendition of the National Anthem at the time and since (it was called a "hate-filled" performance by one misguided academic writer), soldiers were the last people I expected to hear from--I was just blinded by my own preconceptions, I guess. Thanks guys for wising me up.


  • Today my editor, Kathy Dzielak at the Asbury Park Press, said on the phone that my article on Michael Jackson (E1, Sunday, July 16) was "the only one out of all that's been said and written" on the singer's death to capture the scope of the public's fascination and the complex of reasons behind it. Jackson was a hit soap opera unto himself. In the article, I compared him to a character from myth, like the Greek gods, full of huge triumphs and enormous failings. What we find compelling is the entire package, both good and bad, not just one piece or another. "You nailed it," she said. "And you were the only one." She forwarded the article to friends and colleagues with a note that said, "wish I'd written this." Coming from a lifelong journalist, that's the highest praise.


  • A couple weeks ago, I received a letter from Ocean Grove Great Auditorium organist-in-residence Gordon Turk thanking me for the coverage of their classical series and organ recitals and inviting me to attend some of these concerts. I plan to take him up on it. He says, "we certainly appreciate articulate, interesting writing and the good publicity it provides." Gordon is a musician of incredibly high standards and I'm honored by the compliment.


  • Lastly my high school friend Celinda Black made a comment on Facebook that my post Evolution and the Singer/Songwriter was "an excellent point to ponder." In the blog post, I wondered what it would be like for a hearing person to live without music, particularly a nonmusician (for a musician it would clearly be a kind of hell on earth). But probably "pondering" is the best we can do, really, since as soon as you stop to think about it, you realize that the music in our lives is inescapable. We only need to open our ears to recognize it where it occurs. Later, we can worry about which sounds have the most meaning for us. First, just listening is enough.


I read all the mail that's sent but I've been lax about responding directly, which I hope to correct in the future. As always, carlton@musicofinvention.com.

--C.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Robot Gamelan

The League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots presents Karsh Kale and Timeline, GamelaTron and Forward Motion Theater 9 p.m. Tuesday at the Winter Garden of the World Financial Centre in Lower Manhattan. I've written about the LEMUR instruments before. Here you get to see a full robotic Gamelan orchestra.

The gamelan itself might be new to a lot of folks. It's basically singing with a percussion orchestra where the main instruments are made of ranks of metal plates, struck with mallets. Looks like a sort of giant xylophone with metal can lids instead of wood bars. Traditional Indonesian gamelan playing is a community activity, like a handbell choir, where each player is responsible for a very small part of a much larger pattern. It's a highly influential style that seems to connect Heaven and Earth with a stairway of slowly changing sound.





GamelaTron, the robotic gamelan, is ... well I haven't heard it. Nor have I heard the composer/performer Karsh Kale. It would be nice to go and get acquainted with both, but I don't think I will be able. You will have to go for me and let me how it sounds.

The event is free. Visit The Arts at the World Financial Centre for more info.

--C.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

One more on the WQXR deal

In the online press explosion regarding the WQXR deal, very little mention has been made of Univision and the current 105.9 station, WCAA. Univision is responsible for the programming of some 70 Spanish language stations in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. They're the ones who just shelled out $33.5 million, so you'd think everybody in the news media would be calling for an interview. Apparently the company is just going to move its current WCAA station to the new frequency. With greater signal strength and a central location on the FM dial, the company will be able to expand on an already successful formula.

WCAA is a commercial pop station popularly known as "La Kalle," ("Caliente 105.9"--not to be confused with every other "caliente" frequency out there). "La Kalle" is a popular respelling of "La Calle" or "Street." The station plays what is known in music marketing as Spanish Tropical, a format Univision defines as "Salsa, Merengue, Cumbia and Reggaeton."

The fact that the station broadcasts in Spanish has contributed to the lack of discussion about it in the media. There's clearly a language barrier at work in the news industry, if not an actual bias.

The station's commercial pop format also makes its victory in this deal seem less than newsworthy. Where QXR is basically the only classical music station in New York City, La Kalle 105.9 is one of five accessible Spanish-language stations listed in the New York Radio Guide (not all five are playing reggaeton, but a few are). That may simply be another facet of a Spanish-language bias, but there it is.

Adding to the problem, Univision hasn't released a statement yet.

--C.

RE: WQXR sale

So I've now read confirming reports that the 105.9 signal will definitely be weaker than QXR's current signal and I've updated my blog entry below to reflect that. That means, regardless of what happens, it will be New Jerseyans and other outlanders who suffer from this deal, as most of us will no longer be able to get WQXR. The new owners could choose to boost the signal strength (they've done that with WNYC). But without such a boost, it is unlikely we'll be able to pick it up down here at the Shore.

Even for those within broadcast range of 105.9, the future is in doubt. WQXR's website uses the carefully ambiguous wording "for the future, WQXR will continue to bring classical music to FM listeners in New York, and online listeners around the world, for a long, long time to come." That's clearly not a firm commitment to their current status as a clsassical-only station.

WQXR's website is saying that a timetable for the relocation to the new frequency "is not yet known." In a formal announcement, WQXR's president said only that it will occur "later this year."


--C.

WNYC Buys WQXR

Public radio station WNYC announced yesterday (Tuesday) it has acquired the last all-classical music station in the New York area, WQXR, for $11.5 million. WQXR was owned by The New York Times; WNYC is an independent nonprofit. The deal involved a third party, Spanish language media corporation Univision. The Times is making a solid profit as a result, reaping a total $45 million. It is uncertain at the moment exactly how the move will affect the already beaten-down classical music broadcasting for the Northeast area.

NYT first sold Univision the rights to WQXR's broadcasting frequency and accepted Univision's WCAA frequency, 105.9, in exchange, along with a 33.5 million. In marketing psychology, this swap automatically reduces the value of WQXR by pushing it to the edge of the FM radio dial. Then NYT sold the WQXR call letters and business to WNYC. WQXR is still broadcasting as of publishing time (7:54 a.m. Wednesday).

The deal will also reduce the strength of QXR's signal, but it is uncertain how exactly it will affect programming. Bloggers and online comments are immediately concerned that QXR's signal will be as weak as WCAA's current signal and that programming will shift to a variety format, a la WNYC, pushing classical music into the background.

Alternatively, WYNC could move its remaining music programs--the popular weekday "Evening Music" with Terrance McKnight for instance--to the newly re-located QXR. Any move like that could be bad news for us in Central New Jersey. I just tried 105.9 on my kitchen radio and I get nothing but static, while 96.3 comes in loud and clear.

Several large cultural institutions in New York, including the Metropolitan Opera and the Juilliard School, depend on QXR to broadcast their performances. While those relationships are now uncertain, it is doubtful the board at WNYC would want to abandon such high-profile content altogether.

Many comments on news sites and blogs have painted this a positive move likely to preserve classical music on the New York radio. It also effectively turns QXR from a loss-making arm of a for-profit company to a nonprofit, following the successful model of WNYC's 93.3 and that also bodes well for the future.

For those of us farther away from New York City, it just may not be our future.

--C.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Evolution and the Singer/Songwriter

Preparing my notes for a class on Music and Environment in the Fall, I find myself thinking again about the deep importance of music in human society and human psychology. Researchers in the new field of evolutionary musicology now believe that music is intertwined with language, arising out of a mother's vocalizations to her newborn. As the primitive child grew, other, similar vocalizations would come in handy for socialization and coordination within groups. Both for newborns and for adults, certain sounds elicit certain emotions and reactions. At that point in human history, music and language are the same thing.

So I'm wondering, what would it mean to live without music? This is a topic I'll return to in subsequent posts and along the way I'm particularly interested in hearing stories and reactions from readers. I'll begin with a personal example of my own.

As a composer, for many years I had neglected my song writing--songs with original lyrics in various popular styles, for voice usually accompanied by guitar or piano. In that singer/songwriter style, I hash out the music and the lyrics more or less at the same time, as I'm improvising. The style focuses an awful lot of brain power on emotional and intellectual levels, as I'm puzzling over poetry, melody, rhythm patterns and song structures--harmonic patterns, forms and relations of material across large distances--all at the same time. And, at the same time, I'm trying to realize a full blown performance, involving the kind of ritualized motion found in dance. I'm forcing any ideas I have into the vessel of my own performing style, abilities and limitations.

The song doesn't have to stay in that jar--I could choose to arrange it later for some other combination. But it's important to me that I can play it and gain satisfaction from it immediately. I think that gives it a sense of spontaneity and it also helps maintain a sense of style between songs, even as I'm experimenting with different influences. I know what I like to play, so I form my ides into those types of musical patterns.

Back in February of 2008, I suddenly started writing songs again. About 10 years had gone by since the last song. I had written many things in that decade. But to me, composition on paper isn't necessarily the all-engaging exercise that songwriting is.

Immediately, with the first song, I felt changed, refreshed. The sense of creation, of immediacy, was there again. Casting an effective magic spell might feel that way: all of sudden, a power flows through you and out of you to create something that wasn't there before. A song can take a few minutes, a few hours or even a few weeks to complete. When I'm done, no matter how long it has taken, I'm left with a feeling of magical satisfaction.

Imagine turning that off for a decade. Seems perverse, doesn't it? Yet, that's exactly what I did. Don't know why. Returning to it felt like regaining the use of a withered limb.

The musical experience from a creative, performing perspective may not be the same as it is from a listeners' perspective. I'm interested in hearing how music, and the absence of music, affects nonmusicians in particular. Add your comments or write me at carlton@musicofinvention.com.

--C.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Word 'Repertoire'

There's got to be a better, less snobby and obstructive word than "repertoire" to mean the same thing. I find myself over and over resorting to that word to describe a certain body of work--"standard repertoire," "Classical repertoire," "piano repertoire." The words that come easily to mind--"canon," "literature" and the Anglo "repertory"--are all equally, shamelessly and needlessly snobby. The word should be generic, like "stuff" or "collection".

The word "stuff" has a derisive quality. But that almost seems to fit with my personality. Maybe I'll use it from now on. "The orchestra performed largely standard stuff with one contemporary work thrown in, by a composer well-versed in the 20th century modernist stuff."

Then again, maybe not.

"Collection" makes every concert appear like a museum. "The band played two little-known symphonies drawn from the classical collection." You have to scrape the dust off that sentence to see the meaning.

The word "stream" is used to define contemporary musical styles in jazz or classical traditions. But it hardly serves with traditional … stuff. Although, there are moments where it could be appropriate. "The audience was caught in the net of Schubert 'Trout" Quintet and another from the Romantic stream, Dvorak's String Quartet No. 1." But not every concert is going to supply me with an opportunity to put on my waders.

Likewise "fare" is a word I steer clear of. I'm not even sure how "fare" ever got to be applied to food. It means something akin fo "offering" and, in effect, it mineralizes whatever it touches, turning the finest gourmet into a subway token.

The word "style" and "genre" really are misleading and the latter is just as stuffy as the worst word in my stuffy repertoire of stuff. "Category" is scientific, but overly so. "Lineage" sounds like they're all holding a nylon rope on the mountain road of history.

"Repertoire" isn't so limiting as any of those, although it does make the stuff sound like the library of an exclusive club. But still, most everybody knows what it means. I suppose I should just resign myself to it--join the club.

But why oh why does it have to be so … French?

--C.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Jimi Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock

NOTE: See my note at the end about the video clip. --C. 7/4/16

Apart from the context, Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangle Banner" is completely straightforward, a cinch to interpret. The context alone is what gives it its emotional and social complexity. That complexity also gives the piece more power than it already has, and it has quite a bit.

https://vimeo.com/90907436

Although his is an instrumental version, Hendrix's interpretation remains tied directly to the lyrics. The music divides into large sections, the first being a virtuosic but faithful rendition of the melody for the opening four lines:

Oh say can you see, by the dawn's early light
what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight
o'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming


Each pair of lines forms a complete musical phrase in the anthem. In these first two phrases, not much happens in Hendrix's playing in a pictorial sense. The occasional feedback and shifts of timbre, together with Mitch Mitchell's free-form drumming far in the background, feed into the creation of a "perilous" atmosphere, a sense of danger permeates the moment, offering a hint of what's to come.

I need to point out here that the constantly shifting timbre of the guitar is a hallmark of Hendrix's style. In addition to coaxing feedback--particularly as a kind of punctuation at the ends of musical phrases--he also makes near-constant use of the wah-wah pedal and the tone switch and level controls on the face of the Stratocaster guitar, any of which can instantly or slowly change the sound from a spitting bright sound to a half-swallowed dark sound and everything in between. The so-called "whammy bar", which allows him to loosen or tighten all of the strings at once with a single hand motion, adds to this effect by allowing him a wild vibrato, pitch bends and other effects.

Hendrix's virtuosic style is also marked by his ability to be anywhere on the neck of the guitar instantaneously. This is a technique that originates with the old Delta blues players, who would have a bass line going on the low frets alternating with a melody on the high frets, leaping back and forth fast enough to make both sound continuous. Hendrix uses this to give his playing a wild character, a sense both of fullness in the arrangement and a sense that you never know where the next sound is going to come from.

From the perspective of those style characteristics, it's remarkable how plain these two quatrains are. The first is merely the melody, without any decoration other than feedback and the pulsing of what sounds like a stereo vibrato effect. In the second, Hendrix elaborates the melody by sustaining a few notes and by adding some others in a kind of mimicry of a classical music approach. The elaborations add a flamboyant, swelling grandeur that probably has to be interpreted as at least slightly mocking. I say that reluctantly because I don't think Hendrix's version is in any way a satirical rendition. Its heartfelt and of the moment. But the moment included poking a little fun at conventions of the "squares".

But now, in the second section: this is where the thing really begins to fly.

And the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there


In the video, you can see Hendrix powering into this section. In the first verse, he's fussing with the tuning keys and the knobs of his guitar, idly watching his fingers or looking out over the audience. Clearly, this kind of playing he doesn't have to think too much about. As he gets close to this verse however, his whole posture changes: suddenly he races up to his pedals, his neck and spine bend forward slightly and he begins to radiate a raw physicality. From this point on, his hands barely leave the guitar, his facial expressions vary from meditative to intensely expressive. The guitar itself now travels up and down, elegantly changing position relative to the player as they were engaged in a pas de deux.

Using the whammy bar, feedback, the effects pedals and covering the full expanse of the neck of the guitar, he creates bursts of sound after each half of the first line of this couplet. Repeatedly, he slides up from the bottom of the neck on the low strings, to get a swooping sound, and the open strings of the guitar, to get a smashing dissonant chord. After the second line in particularly he gets momentarily caught up in tightening the whammy bar and letting it out slowly, ending the fall with a crash of open strings.

These aren't the simple elaborations of the first verse but instead form a full-blown, well-balanced collage, divided in half by the playing of the melody for "the bombs bursting in air." The sounds here describe the text with imitations of the sounds of war: Bombs dropping, searing explosions of various types. A scraps of the previous melody appears as well, altered but recognizable, as if not to let us forget that where we are is a violent nightmare version of where we came from.

For the fourth line of this quatrain, Hendrix simply reasserts the melody, immediately resuming his slightly distracted, almost bored physical poster. But before moving on, he pauses to salute the flag with an excerpt from the military bugle song, Taps. Hendrix probably understood, at least on some level, that Taps signals the close of day. It's a melody played at funerals. The inserted melody serves as a stark transition into the final couplet.

Oh say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.


In the first of these two lines, he uses a mandolin style plucking as a kind of drum roll version of the melody, echoed by a drum roll from Mitchell. He also uses this section to reflect back a little on the feedback and collage of the middle section. With a dramatic pause, he launches into the last line, given an appropriate grandeur with some elaboration reminiscent of the first section and a final bomb-dropping whammy bar and crash. Three chords form a dramatic final crashing cadence.

The complexity of the context is easily apparent to anyone who lived through the era. Hendrix could be both proud and critical of his country at the same time. Many of us were. He could also be using protest as a marketing gimmick, playing to his young hippie audience. All of that at once is probably true. For those who don't get it, I'll try to explain a little in a later post.

--C.

UPDATE ON VIDEO CLIP: The video I had originally embedded involved one of the camera angles used in the opening composite of shots shown in the final version of the film "Woodstock," by Martin Scorcese. It was a YouTube video which was, unfortunately, subsequently removed, probably for copyright concerns. The link above is the same clip on Vimeo. If you want, you can still find this alternate camera angle through various sources, including the DVD of Hendrix at Woodstock: it offers a view of the performance from in front of the performer and from his right side, clearly showing the body language I described below. 

--C. 7/4/16

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Giants of Jazz at TAG Night Tonight in Trenton

One of Wilbo Wright's many blessed incarnations will be appearing at Joe's Mill Hill Saloon, Broad and Market streets, Trenton, tonight at 8:30. Here's his emailed publicity, cut and pasted:

GIANTS OF JAZZ WED. JULY 1, MILL HILL SALOON!

BIG JAZZ ON LITTLE INSTRUMENTS, GET IT?

FEATURING: UNCLE "The Weather Up Here's Fine" HO - piccolo and curved soprano

WILL "Travelling Gulliver" CONSTANTINE - pocket trumpet

DOUG "Too Tall" MILLER - Schoenhut toy piano, miniature bakelite organ

JOHN "You People Look Like Ants" SHERIDAN - miniature Shredder guitar

WILBO "His Head In The Clouds" WRIGHT - cello as bass

CLAUDE "I Can See Your House From Here" COLEMAN - toy drums

PLUS GUEST APPEARANCES FROM OTHER MUSICAL GIANTS!

2 SETS starting at 8:30PM, 5 measly bucks

This is a RARE gathering of this group, an idea out of JOE Z's head, more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Please come out and Please forward this message to your friends who like music and have a sense of humor. The Mill Hill Saloon is located at 300 S. Broad St. in Trenton, at the corner of Broad and Market. 609-394-7222

--C.