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.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

True Patriot Love

Sloan, Excerpt from "Rest of My Life" on the album Action Pact, 2003

Since 1993, the Canadian power-pop band Sloan has released nine full-length albums containing a total of 124 tracks. Played back to back, they would last just six hours, thirty-two minutes, and twelve seconds, or not quite half as long as Wagner's Ring cycle (but with way more hooks). In other words, they specialize in lean, clean three-minute songs.

Out of all those songs, this one gets closest to what I like about this band. The lyrics are oblique, and the video, though simple in concept, balances precisely between optimism and nostalgia: these kids are singing about the band they will eventually grow up to be, although they are really just idealized memories constructed by the adult band, who already embody nostalgia by playing a style of music that was out of date even when they formed. Whew!
And if that weren't enough, this line ("I know that I'll be living it in Canada") opens up a whole new can of worms. Here are some ways I've tried hearing it:
  1. As a straight-up statement of patriotism. I think the band really loves Canada, as do the fans who drunkenly scream along with this line at Sloan shows.
  2. As a wry take on overblown, inappropriate patriotism. This line seems to burst in from outside the song, interrupting the structure of the verse (compare this line to the opening lines of the song) and introducing geographic specificity that contrasts with the delicately vague temporal viewpoint, outlined above. And musically, it's completely over the top! The multitracked vocals and big plagal cadence sound like the national anthem at a curling tournament.
  3. As a fond memory of the uncomplicated patriotism of childhood. This may reflect my American point of view, since Canadian patriotism, even among my expat friends, seems to have been uncomplicated right up until Stephen Harper's election last year.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Persuasive harmonies

Béla Bartók, Excerpt from Bluebeard's Castle (1911), performed by Walter Berry, Christa Ludwig, and the orchestra of Covent Garden under the direction of István Kertész, 1965.

Here's another beautiful moment from Bluebeard's Castle (the first one is here). When Judit opens the first of Bluebeard's seven locked doors, she finds a torture chamber with bloodstained walls. This hardly fazes her, and she resolves to open all the other doors. To reassure Bluebeard, she promises to be gentle and quiet, accompanied by these extraordinarily gentle, quiet chords in the strings and harp.

But Bluebeard is barely convinced, and if you listen closely, the accompaniment reflects his reluctance and suspicion as well. There's something about the harmony and orchestration here that is guarded and meltingly seductive at the same time. It might be a stretch, but I think I can even hear Judit's wariness of Bluebeard, who is rumored to have murdered his three former wives.

The night wind sighs down endless, gloomy labyrinths

Béla Bartók, Excerpt from Bluebeard's Castle (1911), performed by Christa Ludwig and the orchestra of Covent Garden under the direction of István Kertész, 1965.

In honor of the Chicago Opera Theater's recent production, our first two moments are from Bartók's only opera. Judit has just moved into the dark, creepy castle of her new husband Bluebeard. She wants the doors open, he wants them closed, she thinks he's hiding something, and that's basically the plot of the opera.

Early on, Judit throws a tantrum and pounds her fist against one of the doors. At that point, Bartók writes in the score: "The sound is answered by a cavernous sighing, as when the night wind sighs down endless, gloomy labyrinths," but he doesn't actually write any notes or say how the orchestra should make the sound!

This has to be one of the weirdest sounds ever recorded. Does anyone know how they did this? My other recording sounds prosaic by comparison: