Saturday, June 2, 2007
Inside and Out
Domenico Scarlatti, Excerpt from Sonata for keyboard in C major, K. 159 (L. 104) "La caccia", performed on banjo by Bela Fleck on the album Perpetual Motion, 2001
Peter and Bobby Farrelly are best known for making over-the-top, gross-out comedies, the kind that that used to be called "lowbrow" until they got profiled by Ian Parker in the New Yorker in 2004. (Okay, maybe not everybody takes the New Yorker so seriously. Maybe it's just me.) At the time of that article, they were writing the screenplay for an updated "Three Stooges" movie, and Parker mentions (on page 5 of the linked article) that they had worked in an old "family joke": miming along to music with the gestures for a different instrument.
Like most jokes, that gag has a history, though this in no way diminishes its hilariousness. Hundreds of years before Peter Farrelly played air flute to a guitar solo, Classical composers imitated bagpipes and hunting horns with harpsichords and orchestral instruments. It's not exactly a gag, but there is something playful about the intrusion of "outdoor" instruments into the refined space of a string quartet or keyboard sonata. These imitative devices were so popular that they coalesced into instantly recognizable musical tropes: droning fifths in the bass came to stand for bagpipes, while a particular pattern of thirds and fifths in the melody came to stand for hunting horns. That pattern, known as "horn fifths," appears at the beginning of this excerpt.
So at the beginning of this example, we hear a banjo playing a harpsichord sonata written in imitation of hunting horns. Just as Scarlatti's audience probably enjoyed the incongruity of horn fifths on a harpsichord, we can get a kick out of hearing harpsichord music played on a banjo, but with a twist: while the harpsichord has to "dress down" to sound like horns, this time it's the banjo getting all done up to sound aristocratic.
This CD really is surprisingly good, by any standard one wishes to apply. The Bach cello suite is particularly beautiful. Thanks to "Shoney Joe" for playing it for me years ago.