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Sonnet 73: Chorale & Explication

Especially when compared to the author’s great tragedies, William Shakespeare’s sonnets always appeared to me to be the runts of the Bard’s poetic litter. I’d read the line “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and my mind would draw up images of butterflies and roses and tacky Hallmark cards, not deep thoughts on the struggles of human experience. It turned out I was not alone in that thought either: In the two centuries after Shakespeare’s death, the sonnets had little lasting impact on English poetry, as great poets like Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope looked to Milton as the pinnacle of English sonneteering.

Yet when I first read these poems closely, and really got to know their ins and outs, they turned from sweet, fourteen-line morsels to something much darker and more mysterious. For instance, most of the sonnets center on the relationship between the poems’ speaker and a male “fair youth.” Is their relationship romantic and sensual? Just platonic? Not quite either? Does it matter? Once I followed the sonnets down the rabbit hole, I discovered that they lead to endless questions rather than simple answers.

In a course on Shakespeare that I took in college, my professor encouraged us to dig into the sonnets by trying to write an analysis of a favorite one using only the words in that sonnet. I chose Sonnet 73, a meditation on lost youth.¹ By playing with and rearranging the words from this poem, I got a new insight into how it worked. No longer was I just struck with the asymmetrical beauty of lines like, “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.” Instead, I noticed just how obsessed the speaker is with explaining his or her station in metaphor. As opposed to a person aging gracefully and imparting wisdom on a young friend, the speaker appears extremely frightened of the future, using every bit of poetic skill to express what he or she is feeling. Even the final couplet directed toward the fair youth feels more like a passive-aggressive command than a statement of fact.

In this piece, I am hoping to convey both the ambiguities of the sonnet itself and the sense of discovery one gets when digging deeply into such a rich piece of literature. The poem itself is set as a chorale. Like a love sonnet, a chorale has a very strong archetypal emotional connotation—we immediately associate it with church services and solemn events. But just as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 subverts our concept of what a sonnet is meant to do, my hope is that the mysterious oddities of this chorale push against your own sense of what a chorale is supposed to evoke. After the chorale, the singers pull the sonnet apart, creating a new texture based on single words from the poem. At the same time, a reader puts the sonnet back together in a new way, using that old assignment from college to attempt to explain the poem in Shakespeare’s language. Just as it takes more than one reading to really understand a poem, it takes more than one musical setting to tease out the sonic possibilities of a poem’s words.

 

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

 

This piece was premiered by the San Francisco Choral Artists on June 8, 2014, in Palo Alto, California. It was subsequently performed on June 14 in San Francisco, and June 15 in Oakland. It won second prize in the San Francisco Choral Artists’ annual “New Voices Project” call for scores.

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1. This may have been a symptom of the classic senior year “what’s next” ennui.

 

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For Best Actor in an Historical Role

Art imitated life at last night’s Tony Awards, and no, it had nothing to do with Hugh Jackman being a kangaroo. Three out of the four winners for best lead actor honors—Bryan Cranston, Audra McDonald, and Jessie Mueller—not only portrayed real people (Lyndon Johnson, Billie Holliday, Carole King, respectively), but real people from recent historical memory. Most of us know what these figures looked and sounded like. It’s not like these actors brought long-lost figure to life in a way that we could only imagine.

I’m not here to comment on the relative merits of each actor’s performance (I’ve only seen Cranston’s as LBJ). Instead, I’m wondering why it’s easier to give a prize to an actor portraying a person that we’ve heard and seen, rather than a purely fictional one?

Depictions of contemporary public figures have recently been extremely well-represented in the Oscar lead actor and actress categories as well as the Tonys. Just in the past 10 years, actors have won the top Oscars for depictions of Ray Charles, June Carter Cash, Edith Piaf, Truman Capote, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II, Harvey Milk, Margaret Thatcher, and Idi Amin. Playing this kind of role carries more weight with awards voters—all but two of the winners above have only won the top prize by playing these kinds of characters.

One potential reason for this trend is what I’ll call the Fantasy Baseball Quotient. As an audience, we usually only know the public personas of the characters portrayed on stage or screen, but not what happened when the cameras stopped rolling, or the stage lights went out. We get excited by the fact that we’re let into these people’s worlds, that we get to be acquaintances, not just a throng of fans. These performances allow us to fantasize about being a part of an important, historical moment. Continue reading

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A World Jazz Day Freebie!

Today is UNESCO World Jazz Day! Woohoo! While there have been many celebratory concerts all over the world, there’s probably a good chance that your day has not been sufficiently jazzy. So to rectify that, listen to this brand new tune that I wrote called “Bones.”

The title refers to the old-school percussion instruments most commonly found in minstrel music (they’re a relative of the spoons and the washboard). While listening to recreated minstrel music in a folk music class taught by Peter Winkler that I’m TA-ing this semester, I thought about how the rhythms of the bones didn’t sound all that far removed from New Orleans second line snare playing, or Elvin Jones’s brush work. So if contemporary folk styles and post bop jazz have the same rhythmic roots, could a sprawling vehicle for contemporary improvisation be built on southern shape note hymn harmony? I decided to find out.

 

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What’s in a critic?

Last week, esteemed music writer Ted Gioia unleashed a screed on The Daily Beast about the nature of music criticism today. Gioia writes:

Imagine, for a moment, football commentators who refuse to explain formations and plays. Or a TV cooking show that never mentions the ingredients.

These examples may sound implausible, perhaps ridiculous. But something comparable is happening in the field of music journalism. One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music.  Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.

It’s a fair point, and not an uncommon one (see n+1 magazine’s takedown of Pitchfork) but Gioia overlooks the fact that the issue of celebrity navel gazing masquerading as arts criticism is as old as criticism itself. If you go back to the earliest examples of British theater criticism in the late 18th century, the writers are definitely more interested in the spectacle of the gathering than what’s actually going on on stage.¹ However, Gioia’s article brings up an issue that’s at the heart of the meaning and purpose of arts criticism – is criticism a technical analysis of art, or is it about what the art means to the society at large? It’s great that Gioia’s piece has started a healthy debate on this topic on the interwebs.

Certainly the condemnations of Gioia’s piece have come hard and fast – it does indeed come off as pretentious and lumps really great cultural criticism (writers like Ann Powers and Jon Caramanica come to mind) in with cheap celebrity gossip pieces. But there have been plenty of people piggybacking on Gioia’s ideas. Matt Zoller Seitz, television critic for New York Magazine, wrote a piece on his blog about how writing about the form and construction of a film should be just as important as talking about the plot. Slate published a former Facebook post by sometime-Arcade Fire member and Oscar-nominated composer Owen Pallett that involved him analyzing Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” in a technical, music-theoretical manner in a way that was intended to be widely understandable.

As a music practitioner, I certainly appreciate Seitz’s argument and Pallett’s analysis. I would love critics to care enough to devote time and space to describe the inner workings of a piece I wrote, like how the form works, or how improvisation and pre-conceived material interact, or how the textures are constructed. But as a music listener and a regular reader of criticism, I feel that in-depth technical description of the type that Seitz and Pallet articulate isn’t particularly important, or rather, I don’t think that a good piece of criticism needs to focus on describing the sound and design of the music at the expense of everything else.

I feel that the most important role of a critic is to translate the feeling of experiencing a work of art, a point hammered home by film critic Bob Mondello during a class I took with him in undergrad. When I’m trying to review an album or a movie or a piece of theater, I think about what the performance made me feel and think about, and what aspects of the artwork elicited that response. For music, I don’t run to I-V-I or “sonata form” for an explanation, but more intuitive aspects, like tone-color and character. Certainly a magical moment like the deceptive cadence about 11 minutes into the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth can be explained away with Roman Numeral analysis and a Schenkerian graph, but I feel that the sense of that moment can be more adequately described in metaphorical language. In an ideal situation, the beauty of the critic’s description can elicit a similar emotion in the reader as the piece itself (theater critic Walter Kerr was a master at this. Ben Ratliff is quite good too). Sometimes, when a piece of art explicitly plays with form and technique (like say a Wes Anderson film), it’s great to have a vocabulary with which to discuss them in order to get to the crux of how the art works and affects the experiencer, but not all works require technical descriptions to describe their essence.

One’s experience of a piece of art, however, isn’t just mediated by the art itself. Certainly Kanye West’s outsized personality colors the way we experience his music, and it’s important for a critic to talk about things like that—to talk about the nature of celebrity and authenticity and class and so on. The problem is when a critic becomes so in love with their own social insight that they forget to differentiate between what the music makes them feel and what the extra-musical elements associated with it make them think. Reviews like this become pieces of hollow cultural punditry, rather than real arts criticism, which Gioia justly criticizes.

Nevertheless, Gioia’s doom and gloom take on the state of music criticism as a whole does a great disservice to modern readers. I feel that very few people would enjoy a Pitchfork-style review more obsessed with explicating the reason for an artist’s celebrity than describing the music more than a review that genuinely attempts to translate the experience of the music into words and bring the reader along for a ride. There have always been and always will be vapid criticism and click bait and tabloids, just as there have always been and always will be Kenneth Tynans and Ellen Willises and Pauline Kaels. The difference between good and bad criticism isn’t good technical description vs. a lack thereof, as Gioia or Seitz contend. The difference has to do with the writer—will they be vulnerable enough to be honest about their experience of the art and emotionally perceptive enough to describe it, or will they be more in love with their erudition and opt for cheap takedowns?

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1. I read reviews to that effect in a theater class in college, but can’t find links anywhere online. Just trust me on this, I guess.

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March 25, 2014 · 5:10 pm

A New Tune

Without going into too much detail, I present a brand new big band arrangement of “Where or When,” the lovely earworm from the Rodgers & Hart show Babes in Arms. Enjoy!

The track is performed by the Stony Brook University Blowage under the direction of Ray Anderson, and features Tzvia Pinkhasov on voice and Peter Gustafson on trombone.

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What a little producer can do…

While the “Young Lions” movement of young musicians playing swinging tunes in Brooks Brothers suits has faded into jazz history (or shall I say has become the institutional jazz status quo), I feel the jazz world still has a penchant for “Young Lions” syndrome. Every year it seems belongs to another “it” person – someone under the age of 27 who puts out a record on a major label, or just won/placed in the Thelonious Monk competition, or both. When I was getting excited about current jazz my sophomore year in high school, the “it” person was fresh-faced pianist Taylor Eigsti, with a sharp and erudite debut album on Concord. The baton has since been passed on to the likes of pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Ben Williams, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and vocalist Gretchen Parlatto – all of whom did 2nd or better at the Monk competition their year. These musicians get a lion-share of the limited jazz media attention (pardon the pun, I had to), and the ability to be involved with one of the few groups that can actively tour outside the New York metro area (for instance this year, Akinmusire has been criss-crossing the country with a supergroup produced by the Monterrey Jazz Festival. Parlatto toured with Herbie Hancock. Clayton with trumpeter Roy Hargrove). While all of these musicians are prodigiously talented – there’s a reason they stood out from their peers – I usually find the music that gets made during this “it” person period feels labored and easily categorized. It almost always is produced to remove any rough edges and risk, not wanting to ruffle the feathers of listeners who still get their jazz from local radio stations and bigger label albums, rather than the basement clubs where new ideas develop.

However, the spotlight always moves on to new people, and it’s always curious to see what kind of music these artists produce after their 15 minutes. Some players fade into careers as steady sidemen and teachers, never stealing the headlines again. Others use their new anonymity to break new artistic ground, reemerging as a mature and unique voice a couple years down the road. Mr. Eigsti, for instance, moved to New York and instead of acting like the big man on campus, sought new collaborations and riskier projects. Instead of being the big-name solo artist, he’s a vital member of the young jazz sub-community that is searching for new sounds through engagement with hip-hop and indie rock. When Eigsti gets written about, it’s not because he’s the wunderkind of the moment, it’s because his music itself is worth writing about.

So as I am wont to do, I have once again buried the lede – this post is not about Mr. Eigsti or any of the other aforementioned players. It is about this year’s “it” person, vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, and yes she is a Monk Competition winner and has a new record called “WomanChild” out this year on Mack Avenue (which is pretty big as jazz labels go). She’s gotten tons of press and now has quite the busy touring schedule over the next several months with both her own group and with bigger names like Jacky Terrasson and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. 

So what is her music actually like you say? Well the esteemed New York Times jazz writer Ben Ratliff compared her to pianist Jason Moran in his “WomanChild” review, and I think that’s a good jumping-off point. Like Moran, Salvant would never be mistaken for a “crossover” musician – her style is firmly rooted in the jazz vocal tradition of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, and so forth. The pure timbre of her voice is quite close to Holiday, which makes her success in capturing the attention of traditional jazz listeners understandable. But while her tone is quite traditional, Salvant has a vocal flexibility much more reminiscent of boundary-pushing singers like Jeanne Lee and Jay Clayton. She pulls and prods phrases to their breaking point, sculpting her vowels into multidimensional oblong shapes. Salvant, like Moran, likes to push the boundaries of the tradition, not necessarily through bringing in sounds and performance practices from other genres, but by abstracting sound, form, and song material, attempting to reclaim old music for her modern purposes. On “WomanChild,” she has the guts to take a song whose lyrics are long past politically correct (“You Bring out the Savage in Me”) and turn it into a bravura performance of re-appropriation. And she has the pure vocal chops to turn the simple “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” into sonic fireworks, the words abstracted into shimmering tones from a previously-unheard instrument.

It’s an ambitious and impressive debut to be sure, but it’s also all over the place aesthetically. There are unadorned blues duets with guitarist James Chirillo, followed by pristine and measured songbook material, followed by blazing, abstract post-bop, followed by funkified folk tunes. While the band, spearheaded by young pianist Aaron Diehl (man can he play stride), admirably follows Salvant through every twist and turn, there were more than a few times when I wanted to hear some riskier and more idiosyncratic accompaniment.

Because Salvant’s interests are so wide-ranging, I felt that this record was the “best of” of several different albums, all thrown together out of economic necessity. But after this year of being the “it” person, after the tours and the press and the major label albums, Salvant will be able to try new things, explore her different personalities with musicians perfectly suited to the task. Below, I have played a bit of fantasy jazz producing and have planned out Salvant’s next five albums based on tracks I heard on her debut. 

1. Inspired by “Baby Have Pity on Me,” a spare and jangly blues album with Marc Ribot

I’m thinking Marc Ribot’s stunning solo album “Saints,” now with some singing. Salvant has shown a great affinity for the repertoire of Bessie Smith, but pairing her with an iconoclast like Ribot will stretch the material in some hair-raising directions. In the meantime, you can listen to Fay Victor’s “Exposed Blues Duo” with guitarist Anders Nilsson.

2. Inspired by “You Bring out the Savage in Me,” an exploration of African exotica and blaxploitation with Don Byron

Byron is the king of jazz concept albums – he’s explored everything from klezmer, to motown, to gospel, to Raymond Scott’s Looney Tunes jazz, to German lieder, to… you get the point. With Salvant in the mix, a potent singer and risk-taker after his own heart, certainly sparks will fly. There will be curious and uncomfortable source material, but the assuredness of the performance (I’m thinking Uri Caine on piano/keyboards, David Gilmore on guitar, Brad Jones on bass, and Pheeroan akLaff on drums) will make it impossible to turn away.

3. Inspired by “John Henry,” a folk-jazz hybrid album with lots of big names from the Americana world

The past few years have seen some really great jazz and folk hybrids – Jeremy Udden’s “Plainville,” Dave Douglas’ “Be Still” with Aoife O’Donovan, and the work of Becca Stevens. Working from a list of Old Time tunes, Salvant teams up with a rotating cast of folk and jazz virtuosos to bring them new life. I’m thinking Bill Frisell, Chris Thile, Michael Davies, Brandon Seabrook, Abigail Washburn, Dave Easley, Brian Blade, Jenny Scheinman, Doveman… Let’s stop before I get carried away here. Oh, and it would be produced by Hal Wilner and/or Tucker Martine. It might be a bit bloated yes, but isn’t that the point of fantasy music?

4. Inspired by “Jitterbug Waltz,” an album of songbook standards with a rotating cast of piano accompanists

One of the current musical projects of any genre that I’ve been digging most right now is this project “Liaisons” by the classical pianist Anthony DaMare. He’s commissioned a ton of great contemporary composers to write arrangements of favorite Sondheim songs and the results have been quite fascinating – Steve Reich’s minimalism works surprisingly well on “Finishing the Hat” for instance.

The idea for this album would be to pair Salvant up with several different pianists, who would arrange a favorite standard in their own way. There would be no rehearsal, just a quick and dirty session to see what would happen. My preliminary list includes Fred Hersch doing “So In Love,” ” Ethan Iverson doing “All the Things You Are,” Aaron Diehl doing “Let Yourself Go,” Gerald Clayton doing “Where or When,” Vijay Iyer doing “But Beautiful,” Craig Taborn doing “The Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” Joey Calderazzo doing “Pennies from Heaven,” and Myra Melford doing “I Loves You Porgy.” Matt Mitchell and Dan Tepfer will likely also end up in there somewhere. Two volumes may be in order. Think of it as a reverse “Piano Jazz” with Marian McPartland.

5. Inspired by “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” a free-wheeling album featuring Jason Moran’s Bandwagon

Come on. This one was too easy. I think everyone’s been thinking it since Ben Ratliff made the comparison. I have no other concept in mind than to just get Salvant, Moran, Taurus Mateen, and Nasheet Waits in the same room together for a few days. And maybe JD Allen or Mark Turner to sit in on a couple of tracks. Good things will happen.

Have any better ideas? Let’s start a Fantasy Jazz league in the comments section.

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Improvisation Workshop!

The illustrious young saxophonist Kevin Sun (he of the great blog “A Horizontal Search”) and I are giving an improvisation workshop at Montgomery High School in Skillman, NJ this Thursday afternoon at 5:30 PM. It’s geared toward members of the high school’s jazz program, but any interested musicians are welcome to come! We’ll be attempting to take the fright and mystery out of improvisation, a subject that usually takes a back seat in school big band rehearsals to issues of rhythmic interpretation, blend, balance, all that stuff. Whether you’re an experienced improviser or a someone who’s new to jazz, you’ll be sure to get some great stuff out of it.

Check out the Facebook event listing at here! And to get you thinking about the process of improvisation in the mean time, check out these 10 illuminating thoughts about improvising from drumming/composing/improvising master Bobby Previte.

ImageYay improv!

 

 

 

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