A conversation with myself (about David Bowie & Maria Schneider)

“Hey! What’s doing?”

“Hey back! A lot of things doing actually.”

“I’m not surprised. You haven’t written anything new on the blog in 2 months.”

“Yeah. Sorry about that. But there’s still a lot of good stuff going up at JazzSpeaks! Keep your eyes peeled for a discursive interview with the amazing composer/drummer Tyshawn Sorey on Tuesday.”

“Cool. I know you’ve mentioned him before as someone doing really interesting/out-there/exciting stuff. But anyway, the thing that’s surprising me right now is that jazz seems to be having some kind of cultural moment.”

“What do you mean. We all know jazz is dead, right?”

“Haha. Very funny. What I mean is that jazz is popping up in some unexpected places, and without the influence of a neoclassicist like Wynton Marsalis. This new movie Whiplash about an aspiring jazz drummer and the relationship with this tyrannical teacher has gotten huge raves. And apparently another highly anticipated movie, Birdman, with Michael Keaton as a washed up action star trying to revitalize his career with a Broadway show, has a score that’s just some jazz drummer playing beats.”

“Yeah. That drummer is Antonio Sanchez, who’s best-known for playing with guitarist Pat Metheny for the past decade. Check out this solo!”

“Yikes. Those are some chops, man!”

“Oh yeah. Beats for days.”

“Jazz is also topping the charts right now for the first time in I don’t know when with that Tony Bennett-Lady Gaga record.”

“Yeah! I checked it out and though it’s very old-school traditional, it’s well done. Gaga knows this material, and though there are sometimes she goes too big and milks phrases unnecessarily, she doesn’t feel out of place. And the arrangements are all solid and the band is on point. I won’t complain if a lot of people want to buy it! I’d be interested in a Gaga solo effort though where she writes old-school-sounding material and tours with a big band.”

“That would be interesting to say the least. And beyond that record, there’s the new Flying Lotus record that everyone’s raving about. He’s related to Coltrane somehow, right?

“His aunt is Alice Coltrane, the great pianist & composer (and John’s wife), which also means his cousin is the great contemporary saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. But he really has his own distinct personality and the musicianship to back it up. I’ve been loving this track from the new album featuring Kendrick Lamar and a blistering solo by the bassist Thundercat.”

“Wow. This is pretty insane. And now I hear that David Bowie is releasing a new single with a jazz big band?”

“Yeah! It’s this tune called ‘Sue (or in a season of crime).’ He recorded it this past summer with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, one of my favorite groups, and one whose influence on my own writing is hard to discount.”

“So is he just trying to capitalize on this Gaga-Bennett craze for pop stars singing jazz standards?”

“I wouldn’t say so. While half of Schneider’s brass section did play on that Gaga-Bennett record, she’s not a traditionalist at all. Actually, she hasn’t written anything that swings in a traditional sense in like 15-20 years. And I don’t think Schneider would do something like this just for the money. She’s actually been quite successful as jazz artists go.”

“Oh wait. I just heard the song got released today on this BBC radio show, and now it’s posted on YouTube.”

“Sweet. Let’s check it out.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtR3WNpnCjM Continue reading

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Concerto from the far side

This comic is like a Steve Mackey concerto.

Tonight, my girlfriend Julia and I get to see our badass cello-playing-fiend-friend Francesca McNeeley play with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. As an added bonus, the orchestra will be playing a piece by one of my old teachers, Steve Mackey—his 2008 violin concerto Beautiful Passing. I’ve never heard the piece before and want to have a fresh experience with it, but have been listening to one of my favorite pieces of his to get pumped up—his electric guitar concerto Tuck and Roll.

Steve is really, really good at writing concertos. What makes these work really exciting for me is how he writes truly virtuosic solo parts without falling into tropes of the grand, Romantic concerto tradition. He reconfigures the relationship between soloist and orchestra in an almost theatrical way, sometimes pitting the two as adversaries, sometimes making them equal partners in shaping the musical form. Mackey’s concertos are full of surprises, wrong turns, and humorous non-sequitirs. In that way, Mackey’s Tuck and Roll is to a classic piece like the Tchaikovsky violin concerto as…

As…

Hmm.

How about Steve Mackey’s Tuck and Roll is to the Tchaikovsky violin concerto as the comic The Far Side is to Tintin. I mean, I’m listening to Tuck and Roll now and am imagining a windmilling Pete Townshend in a tuxedo in front of the NYPhil and you really can’t get any more cartoonish than that.

So let’s first think of this analogy in terms of the general sound world and color palette of each work. Far Side and Tuck and Roll have much wider and brighter color palettes than their predecessors. I hear Mackey’s industrial timbres—from the huge assortment of percussion instruments to the blazing guitar itself—as Gary Larson’s eye-popping Crayola shades in his Sunday panels. The rich, vintage-velvet sounds of the Tchaikovsky are then a proper analogue to the muted colors of Tintin panels, aged by the decaying newsprint.

The analogy holds for the form of each piece as well. Tintin is an adventure novel in graphic form, with single characters sustained through an extended plot line. The Far Side comics are generally single-paneled, pithy non-sequitir observations, with occasional characters and themes popping up here and there. Like Tintin, the Tchaikovsky concerto is structured like an adventure story. The virtuosic hero-soloist is pitted against the grand orchestra. Single themes are stated, transformed, and returned, creating a linear sense of drama. Tuck and Roll on the other hand is made up different, more loosely connected episodes. The musical kernels are generally shorter—like the 7-beat rhythmic ostinato vs. the famous Tchaikovsky tune—and transformed timbrally rather than tonally. While the episodes in Tuck and Roll are certainly related by their sound world and rhythmic definition, they don’t sustain a single dramatic story like the violin line in the Tchaikovsky. There’s just enough disjunction between the sections to know that Mackey is more concerned with single panel images rather than a traditional musical narrative.

Thirdly, the analogy illuminates the relationship between the communicative styles of the pairs of artworks. Both the Tchaikovsky violin concerto and The Adventures of Tintin engage listeners in a very direct way. They seek to bring the audience safely from point A to point B, while creating the illusion of danger. They speak in common languages that are familiar to the audience. They are exciting to experience, but the adventures are contained within the works themselves. They don’t jump out of the medium to challenge the very reality of the audience. The Far Side and Tuck and Roll are much more subversive in that respect. Gary Larson’s surrealist take on the world, with his peculiar images (like God looking at a piano falling on a man on His computer screen) and obsession with anthropomorphism, isn’t that far removed with Mackey’s surrealist take on musical styles. Tuck and Roll isn’t quite darkly comic like many Far Side panels, but it certainly entertains some wild musical possibilities, like using car parts as percussion instruments and combining electric and acoustic sound sources. The sense of playful surrealism in both works cannot be contained by the works themselves, as the works make it clear to their audiences that the world they know may not always be what it seems. In this regard, The Far Side and Tuck and Roll are gleefully mind-bending.

STEVE MACKEY SHREDS

So thinking about concertos in this analogous way certainly creates some tenuous connections between the artworks, but also leads to a more lively set of possible interpretations. In a way, this gets to the heart of writing about music—trying to communicate non-semantic sound in an analogous semantic way. Listening to a piece as an analogy helps with the translation of the music into words, but has the possibility of distorting the meaning: Mackey may not think of Tuck and Roll as humorously surreal, and Tchaikovsky may not think of his violin concerto as an archetypal adventure story.

However, at a concert of music that is all under 35 years old, this kind of curious, analogous thinking is what can make unfamiliar music come alive. When music is more abstract, it suggests fewer direct musical comparisons and more complicated musical emotions. However, it also allows for a wider range of comparisons and experiences, including imagining the pieces as comic strips. Perhaps then at a concert of contemporary music the audience should be encouraged to think creatively and playfully, rather than being told what to think by detailed program notes and on-stage explanations.

 

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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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The hidden secret that makes a musical great

Orchestration is fun!

In light of recent posts, I know you’re probably asking, “What’s with all these theater posts, Kevin? Have you stopped doing all things musical?” Well, it is true that writing about music has gotten short shrift on this blog recently (I’m still writing for The Jazz Gallery, so check out their blog), but I’ve in no way hung up my music cleats this spring.

In addition to my regular composing, drumming, and teaching duties, I got to embark on a fun new project in March: teaching studio orchestration to undergrads of the Princeton Triangle Club.

Studio whah?

Oh. You don’t know what studio orchestration is. I see.

Well that’s ok. It’s just the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF A BROADWAY MUSICAL OR BLOCKBUSTER FILM!

Well, I might be exaggerating on that point. But I will say that it is quite an underappreciated aspect of any film or musical. There are advantages to that of course. Nobody blamed the orchestrator for the flops of Spiderman: Turn off the Dark or The Lone Ranger. However, the orchestrations for a musical or movie score can have a vital subconscious impact on how you take in the whole work.

Oh. So I still haven’t told you what orchestrations are? Let’s rectify that.

The music you hear during a film or musical doesn’t magically stem from the mind of a single person. For various reasons, a team of musicians creates the score for a film or musical. In the case of film scoring, the reasons have mostly to do with time—composers usually have an extremely limited timeframe in which to complete the score. This means that the main composer will write what’s called a short score, where the all the melodies and harmonies of each scene are worked out, but not assigned to particular instruments of the orchestra. It is the job of the orchestrator (yes, that’s me and my students) to make those assignments. It’s as if the composer drew black and white outlines of figures and the orchestrator colors them in. This isn’t to say that film composers can’t orchestrate. Many composers like Howard Shore do like to orchestrate their own work when possible, and many others, including this year’s Oscar-winner Steven Price, begin their careers as orchestrators. Continue reading

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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 quick thought on NBC’s proposed “Music Man” TV special

The news has moved faster than Harold Hill running from Illinois: buoyed by the success of this past December’s Sound of Music TV special, NBC has not only planned a Peter Pan followup for this year, but a production of The Music Man as well, slated for December 2015. This has made quite a number of people, including myself, pretty happy, and as such, there has been plenty of fantasy casting.

These are wildly different casts that would result in wildly different productions. Yet it is interesting that both Mondello and Lyons would like to see African-American actors in the lead roles. The 1962 film version that so many (including me) grew up with has an all-white cast, and even the Broadway revival from the year 2000 featured white actors in those lead roles. The Music Man is very much etched in the American public consciousness as a fantasy of turn-of-the-century midwestern life, one that keeps minority characters singing songs like “Old Man River” below decks and out of view.

But while the musical does not explicitly deal with issues of race, the many conflicts that define the town’s social dynamic could be enhanced by setting the musical in a racially-divided town. Firstly, let’s imagine that Tommy Djilas, the miscreant from the wrong side of town, is black. He’s secretly seeing Zaneeta Shinn, the eldest daughter of the white mayor. Mayor Shinn’s distaste for her daughter’s secreat beau goes from being a punchline showing how out of touch he is to elucidating the complex racial dynamics in the town.

Secondly, let’s imagine librarian Marian Paroo is white, but is well-educated and has liberal social views, as was Miser Madison, the old man she befriended/benefactor of the River City library. Let’s also imagine Harold Hill is black, but speaks and dresses in a way that allows him to interact with whites more easily than other blacks. When Marian sees Harold Hill begin to unite the racially-divided town with the idea of a brass band, it appeals to her socially progressive views, giving her more motivation to rip the incriminating evidence out of the Indiana State Education Journal that reveals Hill as a fraud. Marian’s liberal social views also give greater motivation for her separation from and disdain for the high-class ladies of the town—the mayor’s wife and her friends.

Individual songs and even specific lines gain greater meaning in a mixed-race Music Man. “Shipoopi,” from the musical’s latter half, is basically an excuse for a big dance number (in the movie, it is given slightly more dramatic motivation by covering Harold Hill’s escape from the big ice cream social). While the original tune has some snatches of early Jazz and a Charleston-like tempo, this aspects could be heightened in a new orchestration, suggesting the song and dance’s African-American origins. The fact that the teens of River City are so into it while their parents are not show how musical styles like Swing and Rhythm & Blues were so popular among American teens due to their sense of the exotic, or “otherness.” Earlier in the musical, when African-American Harold Hill mentions both WC Handy and John Phillip Sousa in his pitch to lead a boy’s band, this line isn’t a reflection of his lack of musical training (who would group Handy and Sousa together?), but a truly subversive line that he sees music of black and white origins on more or less the same terms. It now suggests that while Hill is a huckster, his love for music is real, giving his conducting reverie in the second act more poignancy.

In his review of the original 1957 production, New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, “If Mark Twain could have collaborated with Vachel Lindsay, they might have devised a rhythmic lark like The Music Man, which is as American as apple pie and a Fourth of July oration.” Because of the Twain-like humor powering the show, it is not stretch to imagine Twain-like social commentary infiltrating it as well. A mixed-race cast is perhaps just what this new Music Man needs to keep it fresh, and not a dull rehash like the 2003 Disney made-for-TV version. A serious approach to dealing with racial issues in Music Man shouldn’t drive down ratings—the music will still be catchy and fun, the book snappy and barbed. This serious treatment of race sits below the surface, clear enough for a thoughtful viewer to catch, but not preachy in a way that would turn away someone watching for pure entertainment value.

I’d love to see Will Smith dust off his rap chops and take on numbers like “Trouble.” Maybe he’ll be paired with a big time Broadway voice like Kelli O’Hara, or maybe Anne Hathaway if NBC desperately wants higher ratings in the 18-35 demographic. While we’re at it, wouldn’t Donald Glover be a fun Marcellus Washburn?

By December 2015, NBC’s attempts of doing live musicals on air will have lost their novelty. If the network wants to keep the idea fresh and interesting, they should highly consider reimagining The Music Man to suit the social realities of our time, rather than continuing to whitewash the past.

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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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