Category Archives: Think Pieces

Papalmusik

Hi Pope Francis. Meet Mr. Golijov.

Hi Pope Francis. Meet Mr. Golijov.

Of all the headlines Pope Francis has made during his visit to the United States this week, this is one of the most recent:

Ok, ok that was an understatement—it’s also the most surreal one. The track—which has been streamed over 231,000 times so far today—does a respectable job of using a vernacular musical style to open up a space for communication and connection. After a slow-building opening that merges prog-rock organ with more post-rock guitar atmospherics, brass instruments enter on a square and declamatory melody that feels like a traditional hymn tune. This use of sacred music signifiers helps transform the rock milieu of the introduction, creating a dramatic juxtaposition that motivates the entrance Pope Francis’s sermon.

But in the end, the song isn’t all that memorable and doesn’t have all that much to offer in terms of musical richness or production values (it sounds like it was recorded in a home studio, with a lot of MIDI instruments, and a clunky, computerized drummer). It’s hard to imagine a song that sounds like this getting more than a handful of streams on the day of its release without the Pope’s imprimatur. Compared to the other ways Pope Francis has carried out his ministry—the strongly worded speeches, sermons, and encyclicals, his public interaction with the avoided and vulnerable, his predilections for Fiats and Ford Focuses—this one probably won’t be something he’s remembered for. However, I was struck by this quote from Don Giulio Neroni, the producer and artistic director not only of this work, but of albums with Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

As in the past, for this album too, I tried to be strongly faithful to the pastoral and personality of Pope Francis: the Pope of dialogue, open doors, hospitality. For this reason, the voice of Pope Francis in Wake Up! dialogues music. And contemporary music (rock, pop, Latin etc.) dialogues with the Christian tradition of sacred hymns.

As someone who likes to create poly-stylistic dialogues in my own music, I certainly appreciate what “Wake Up!” is going for. But it also made me think about other music that engages in this dialogue of the sacred and secular more effectively, something that actually transforms both musical medium and ecclesiastical message.

Over the past two centuries or so, there have been a lot of works that use Christian sacred texts, but were meant to be performed in more-or-less secular spaces. There have been many rich and affecting concert requiems by Berlioz, Brahms, Verdi, Faure, and Benjamin Britten (whose War Requiem juxtaposes the Latin requiem text with poetry by Wilfred Owen). The work of Olivier Messiaen has much dazzling Christian imagery, many times articulated as a kind of ecstatic bird song (something the animal love Pope Francis could get behind. He’d also like Messiaen’s dramatic work about the original St. Francis). Leonard Bernstein and Steve Reich both composed vibrant and joyful settings of Hebrew psalms. And current New York-based composer Missy Mazzoli recently composed a haunting, postmodern “Vespers For a New Dark Age,” a piece that deftly explores a changing relationship to the otherworldly in a world an increasingly technological world.


(A somewhat exhaustive playlist of the music discussed in this post)

Pope Francis and Don Giulio Neroni should definitely check all these works out if they haven’t done so, but if they only have time to listen to a ponder a single work that effectively interfaces the sacred and secular in this era, then I would suggest they spend some time with Osvaldo Golijov’s bracing Pasión según San Marcos from the year 2000.

Osvaldo Golijov’s life and music are suffused with contrasts. He grew up in Catholic Argentina, son of an Orthodox Jewish mother and an atheist father. He remembers a lot of different music floating around the house while growing up; traditional European classical; klezmer and Jewish liturgical music; the tangos of Astor Piazzola. While much of his music blends these various influences, none are so brazenly genre-crossing as his passion setting. Golijov was commissioned by conductor and Bach expert Helmuth Rilling to write a passion based on St. Mark’s gospel in honor of the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death. Golijov was unfamiliar with Mark’s specific account of Jesus’s death, but he was very familiar with the public depictions of Jesus he grew up with in Argentina. Using both his life experience and varied musical influences as a guide, Golijov gives Mark’s passion a distinctively Latin American flavor, complete with propulsive, percussive music based on flamenco, rhumba, samba, and other Latin dance styles.

Golijov’s composition is as much a passion play as concert piece. There are dance breaks inspired by the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira and the choristers have choreography as well, including an intense flamenco foot-stomping sequence as Jesus stands silently before Pilate. It also has a strong ritualistic element because of there aren’t any texts from outside the passion that act as commentary. The visual spectacle of Pasión según San Marcos links it to Latin American street festivals, like Posadas, but curiously, it lacks is a clear segregation of characters. There is no single evangelist part—like Johann Sebastian Bach’s passions—or a Jesus soloist. Instead, the words are spread among the choir and a variety of soloists who play no specific role.

The alternation of choral and solo settings of Jesus’s words has particularly striking implications. Jesus is not just a first century Galilean Jew, but a transcendent being whose story plays out in the daily lives of the poor and politically oppressed of Latin America, as symbolized by the choir members dressed in humble robes. The combination of multiple storytellers, settings of vernacular translations of Mark’s gospel, and the mixing of popular Latin music styles make Golijov’s passion a musical analog of liberation theologian Ignacio Ellacuría’s concept of the “crucified peoples,” where Jesus is encountered through the experience of those on the world’s margins. Golijov is not setting the passion story as much as a particular experience of the passion, one that transcends its typical setting in Christian ritual.

Golijov’s work has a complicated relationship with the secular concert hall. With its shear volume, theatrical presentation, and percussive intensity, the passion attacks the listeners’ senses and forces them to deal with Golijov’s politicized message. If listeners disagree with or cannot relate to the message, the passion becomes obnoxious pastiche of popular Latin forms because these musical gestures lose their symbolic meaning of communicating the experience of a common Latin American person. In addition, Golijov’s particular fusion of text and musical styles can come off as disrespectful and drain much of the passion’s Christian meaning. In a review of the passion in the Christian journal First Things, music theorist and composer Michael Linton criticized many of Golijov’s musical gestures that he felt were ineffective at articulating the true meaning of Mark’s passion. He was particularly critical of the settings of Jesus’s dialogue for a female soloist that utilized singer Luciana Souza’s range extremities and Middle Eastern melismas, making Jesus look and sound like a “disembodied transsexual lunatic.” Linton was also disappointed at Golijov’s emphasis on political symbolism over character development, particularly during the foot-stomping section before Pilate. For Linton, Golijov’s passion is unsuccessful because the music undermines the story by advancing the composer’s own agenda, misappropriating the passion narrative for his own ends, rather than treating the passion as an end in and of itself.

However, La Pasión según San Marcos is admirable for its creative audacity. Despite not being a Christian himself, Osvaldo Golijov sees that the passion narrative is inextricably linked to Christian ritual. Thus in order to create an effective concert passion in a secular space, a composer must embrace the passion as a form of prayer, and not just a simple story that can be treated humanistically. By setting the words of Jesus—plainly-translated from Mark’s gospel—for singers of all kinds, Golijov articulates the transformational power of Christian ritual rooted in the passion narrative; a power that can transform the concert hall into a genuine place of worship. However, as the composition itself sees no boundaries between pop and classical, music and theater, religious ritual and secular life, it transforms the communicative power and reception of the Christian message, stripping away sticky doctrine to reach the heart of Mark’s gospel. The music’s sincerity and exuberance breaks down boundaries between the text, performer, and listener alike, inviting all to join in celebratory and communal music-making.

In this way, Osvaldo Golijov’s Pasión según San Marcos beautifully encapsulates Pope Francis’s ministry of encounter. In the making of the work itself, a Jewish Argentinian encountered Mark’s passion and discovered that it resonated with his experience in contemporary culture. The text of Mark’s gospel encounters the Spanish language, as well as Jewish traditions, as Golijov ends the work with a haunting setting of the Kaddish in Hebrew. Contemporary art music encounters vernacular styles from across Latin America, creating a rich and emotionally potent hybrid. And today’s staid concert culture, with its assigned seats and separation of performer and audience, encounters the theater of religious ritual. What would it be like to experience this musical encounter in St. Peter’s Basilica on a Good Friday?

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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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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 new year’s catchup (and some thoughts on producing)

Like the poor old man from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, this blog ain’t dead yet.¹

Yes, posting has been quite sporadic. This year has been filled with much flux and change. There’s been the grad school application racket, the teaching of 40-plus students a week out of a big box store, the adjusting to life in the alternate universe known as Long Island.² But that certainly hasn’t meant that I’ve stopped writing.

For those who haven’t followed, I am now writing for Jazz Speaks, the official blog of The Jazz Gallery, whom I think is one of the most important venues for new improvised music in New York. They’ve been a real incubator for a lot of great young talent from across the aesthetic spectrum, helping musicians go from “talent deserving wider recognition” to actually getting that recognition. I interview a couple of musicians each month about their upcoming shows and current projects, attempting to illuminate the experience of being a maker of art in today’s highly-connected world. I just posted an interview with the clarinetist and composer Mike McGinnis today and he’s doing some fantastic work in the cracks between jazz and contemporary concert music. Update your bookmarks and keep your heads up for more in the new year.

Some of you may now be looking for a top 10 list, like what any self-respecting music writer puts out at this time of year. However, now that I am far away from the large giveaway stacks at NPR headquarters and the regular stream of promo CDs popping up at the Princeton Record Exchange, I don’t feel I’ve listened to enough new music to really make a list of albums that have honestly affected me in a major way this year. But as I’ve looked at the end-of-year lists and listened to some of the tracks and albums that have made their way to the top of the heap, I’ve heard something – perhaps a trend, perhaps something less than that – that has gotten me thinking:

What’s with all the gauzy production out there?

Gauzy production? What the hell does that mean anyway, Kevin?

Well first of all, production refers to how all the sound sources are mixed and organized in a recording. When a production is gauzy, all of the sounds are organized in a way that makes them seem cold and distant, that they aren’t vibrating in an actual space. Sometimes it means that there’s too much reverb, or that the reverb doesn’t mimic a real space. Let’s look at exhibit A in that department: “Don’t Swallow the Cap” by the National from their album Trouble Will Find Me.

Listen closely to both the piano sound and the pulsing strings that dart in and out. The low piano notes are suffused with high overtones, creating a very complex sound. You can only get this sound by micing the exact piano string very closely to pick up all those subtleties. However, in order to make that sound stand out in the thick mix, the recording engineer had to add artificial reverb and boost the overall level. So instead of emphasizing the unique color of that note, the production makes the piano seem artificial. We feel uneasy because we know that this sound could only be generated using a great deal of digital technology.

The string parts are recorded not with a full section, but with what sounds like a quartet (a whole section would probably be too expensive for an indie record like this, even one for a band as big as The National). While recording with a string quartet vs. a section can give a greater point to the sound, it seems the band wanted the sweep of a whole section, so they added a good deal of artificial reverb. However, the reverb doesn’t feel natural. The sound of the strings tends to decay quickly after each articulation, and then the tail of the note is held for longer than one would expect.

The effect of these production choices undermines what I think makes The National a good band. There are very few rock performers out there who are as technically proficient on their instruments as the members of The National are. For instance, guitarist Bryce Dessner can shred with the contemporary classical crowd (see his other group Clogs and his work with Bang on a Can/Steve Reich) and drummer Bryan Devendorf comes up with the most melodic, almost chamber music-like grooves in rock. They sound terrific live – go check out their Tiny Desk concert and performance at Bonnaroo from this past year. When I listen to the great songs of “Trouble Will Find Me” from the studio album, I feel I’m almost getting a really good midi mockup of the songs, rather than an immediate, messy, and human live performance.

Another way that production can feel gauzy is if all the instruments are mixed in a way that prevents their sounds from interacting with each other like they would in an acoustic space. To see this issue in action, let’s look at the song “Man” from Neko Case’s standout album from this year.

On the surface, Tucker Martine’s production on this track is virtuosic. The arrangement is just seething with energy from a full-bodied piano, a blazing distorted guitar, and Brian Blade’s ferocious drums. Yet even with all of this sound coming out of the speakers, each instrument seems to have its own frequency band. If you listen carefully, you can pick out what each instrument is doing quite easily. And when Neko comes in on the first verse, her voice superhumanly floats over the fray. Martine’s ability to somehow both overload the listener, yet make each part clear, is uncanny, but not always in a good way. Again, during the course of the song, one gets a sense that the particular blend of instrument levels is impossible to create in a real space. The drums reverberate differently from the guitar, which reverberates differently from Neko’s voice. With this production, it sounds like all the band members could be recording in different locations and just listening to each other over an internet connection. The effect is particularly noticeable on Brian Blade’s drums. The characteristic of Blade’s drumming that I love most is the warmth he is able to coax from his instruments; how he somehow is able to create this gorgeous halo of sound around everyone else he plays with. By regulating the drums and cymbals to a narrow band of sound, Martine saps Blade’s performance of its warmth, making it sadly anonymous.

These aren’t the only examples of gauzy production on highly-touted pop albums this year. It happens on Kanye’s Yeezus and Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City (though the production on Arcade Fire’s Reflektor is surprisingly less so, especially on the title track). Why is this the case?

Well I think part of it has to do with digital sound sources. No matter what you do to a digital synthesizer patch, it’s nearly impossible to make it sound organic and in a real space. There’s a reason why electronic music pioneers like Daria Semegen still work with analog instruments and composers like Steve Reich abandoned electronic instruments altogether.

But that’s not the only reason – there certainly aren’t very many digital sounds on Neko Case’s record, and only marginally more on The National’s. The other reason for this rise in gauzy production is a change in how we listen to music now. Despite the rise in vinyl sales, most listeners around the world don’t have fancy Hi-Fi systems. For most of us, we listen to music out of tinny earbuds and laptop speakers, or marginally-better car speakers. In order for us to get pulled in by a song, it needs to come screaming out of those inadequate speakers, pushing them as hard as they can go. If these speakers can’t do nuance, then why should there be any in production?

Case in point: let’s look at the waveform for The National’s “Don’t Swallow the Cap.”

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 6.25.23 PM

Sorry to pick on you guys…

It’s at almost the highest sound amplitude (volume) possible for the entire song. It makes for a good first impression, but it gets a bit overwhelming on subsequent listens, as the volume gets in the way of experiencing the lovely inner parts.

However, there are some musicians who are bucking that trend and making music where the production feels immediate, tactile, and very human. One of the best examples from this year I think is from jazz/folky/poppy singer-songwriter Rebecca Martin on her album Twain. With the sonic image of “Don’t Swallow the Cap” fresh in our minds, let’s take a look at the first track off Martin’s album, called “To Up and Go.”

Now that's better.

Now that’s better.

Just from looking at the waveform, we can see that the song is thinner and more delicate. But what you can’t tell from the waveform is how tactile Martin’s acoustic guitar and Larry Grenadier’s bass feel. Because the speakers aren’t overwhelmed by a huge amount of different instruments boosted too high in the mix, you can hear every plucked string, every decaying phrase as if you’re sitting right in front of them. The record was recorded in the living room of Martin’s friend Peter Rende and Rende does a phenomenal job of capturing the warmth and intimacy of that setting. Even when Dan Rieser’s drums are added to the mix, they don’t overwhelm the material – you can still hear each sweep of the brush on the snare drum head. Even with a set of only semi-decent headphones (I still use a pair of $30 Sennheisers from 2009), Martin’s songs feel natural and intimate, an oasis of calm in an over-saturated world.

So while I did love Trouble Will Find Me and The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight and Yeezus, I think the albums that I’m going to keep returning to are the ones like Twain that don’t feel bound by production trends. I’m going to return to the albums that know the ultimate timeless power of humans using voices and pieces of wood and metal and animal guts to make art in whatever room they may be in.

Here are some other lovely, organic-sounding records from this year (in no particular order):

Maria Schneider & Dawn Upshaw: Winter Morning Walks

Sam Amidon: Bright Sunny South

Amir ElSaffar: Alchemy

Stephan Crumb’s Rosetta Trio: Thwirl

The Claudia Quintet: September

Joe Fiedler’s Big Sackbut: Sackbut Stomp

Michael McGinnis +9: Road*Trip

Craig Taborn Trio: Chants

Sarah Jarosz: Bring Me Up from Bones

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1. Though the same can’t be said for one by a New York Times jazz columnist.

2. Seriously. Bob Moses designed it so it’s almost impossible to escape – traffic jams on the Belt, traffic jams on the Cross-Bronx, pokey train service…

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Tragedy, Grief, and Music

I don’t think I need to use space here to update you on the news coming out of Newtown, Connecticut today. The mass shooting at an elementary school there is deeply saddening, whether one has children of his or her own or not. I was listening to NPR’s special coverage earlier this afternoon and heard reporters holding back sobs when talking about the latest updates. These are the kinds of events that scar – the one’s where even highly trained reporters are pulled into the trauma in very personal ways.

As one might expect from me, I’ve been trying to figure out what piece of music to listen to, as a memorializing act of catharsis. There are the old standards like Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and Brahms’ “German Requiem.” Then there’s John Adams’ “On the Transmigration of Souls” and Steve Reich’s “WTC 9/11,” written in memorial of another great modern American tragedy, yet hold emotional truths that can speak to this one as well. Or maybe I should go into the pop realm for something off Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” or Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.”

However, what seems to sear me (and probably most people too) about this tragedy is that it happened to little kids. The victims here are not just those killed, but their forever-traumatized classmates as well. The picture of two children in the woods by the school, shielding their faces from the tragedy, has gone viral, an instant symbol of a collective loss of innocence. This has sent me looking for music that is about children or performed by children, music that captures both the despair one feels when faced with tragedy, and the accompanying loss of innocence of children that witness it.

The first piece that fits the moment for me is David Lang’s haunting “Little Match Girl Passion.” In the piece, four singers weave together the tale of Hans Christian Andersen’s impoverished little match girl and the passion of Jesus (as told by J.S. Bach). In its stark simplicity, rife with piercingly soft minor sonorities, the piece articulates how we adults feel when witnessing the suffering of an innocent child.

This next piece for the moment is quite as starkly sad as Lang’s “Passion,” but still deals with loss and is written to heard and performed by children. It is Benjamin Britten’s “Cuckoo Song,” used to devastating effect in Wes Anderson’s film “Moonrise Kingdom.” It is a quite simple and tonal piece, ambiguously floating between major and minor. However, what really gets me about it is the subtle despair of its lyrics – the beloved cuckoo bird goes from singing in the spring to leaving when autumn approaches. The industrial-strength melody just sears the nerves off when it reaches its peak on “away.”

After listening to these two pieces and searching for another, I came across a recording of my own piece, “Spring and Fall: to a Young Child.” It too deals with a child’s loss of innocence. In Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, the speaker observes a child crying at the sight of falling leaves, realizing that through this observation, the child is confront her own mortality. The piece was not intended to memorialize a specific moment or tragedy. It was just that I found the poem quite moving and peculiarly musical. In my original program note for the piece, I talk more about children’s literature like the Velveteen Rabbit and Toy Story 3 than any specific moment in my life or another’s. It’s a small piece about a small, nearly universalizable moment. But just as the two previous pieces will be forever altered in my mind because of their associations with the events of today, perhaps my piece could take on a new meaning as well.

Either way, I hope you find some solace in music on this difficult day and would gladly take recommendations of what to listen to next.

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We interrupt this program for a Muppet News Flash

Muppet News Flash

We interrupt the scheduled programming on this blog to bring some peculiar analysis of news of national importance.

Last night I introduced my girlfriend to my holiday tradition of watching “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (don’t worry, I’ll be getting to her tradition of watching the the Hepburn/Tracy film “Desk Set” soon enough).  While the film has all the classic Muppet traits of zany physical comedy, gloriously earnest songs that can even melt the hearts of the scroogiest among us, and oh-so-much breaking of the fourth wall, it has some surprisingly dark moments (perhaps due to the fact that it was the first Muppet film done without creator Jim Henson and puppeteer/voice master Richard Hunt).

The film’s underlying darkness hits very early on in the offices of Scrooge and Marley, a London financial institution who seems to deal with foreclosures like its modern American counterpart, Bank of America (or Wells Fargo, or Citi Bank, or well… you get the picture). As CEO/CFO Ebenezer Scrooge (a fantastic Michael Caine who never phones it in) sits in his office, he is approached by his legion of bookkeepers and top clerk Bob Cratchit, I mean Kermit the Frog, about adding more coal to the fire to keep the office a little warmer for working (“Our pens have turn to inksicles!” notes one of the rattily- attired bookkeepers).

Bookkeepers

“The bookkeepers were wondering if they could put some more coal on the fire.”

Scrooge deals with that request in a manner that is both a bit heartbreaking, and all too relatable to the economic times in which we live. With a piercing gaze shooting lasers of fury, Scrooge asks how it would feel to spend these cold months, “UNEMPLOYED!?” In typical muppets fashion, the bookkeepers suddenly sing and dance a calypso for their boss to show how very warm they feel.

UNEMPLOYED

“UNEMPLOYED!”

While this is a pretty small moment in a movie more notable for hearing Michael Caine sing, it felt oddly prescient for our time of economic malaise and rollbacks on organized labor. While today’s bosses may not deal with employees in so brusque a manner as Mr. Scrooge, the threat of prolonged unemployment has been very effective at increasing worker productivity while decreasing real wages. As the US economy spiraled in 2008 and 2009, the accompanying decrease in consumer demand made companies of all sizes attempt to make more capital with less labor by laying off staff and increasing hours for remaining employees (though not necessarily giving appropriate wage increases as well). If employees complained about the increased stresses of work, employers had a very strong bargaining chip – a bad job is better than no job at all, isn’t it? Especially when you may be out of work for months or even years at this rate…

This idea of a bad job being better than no job at all has become an assumption undergirding national policy debates about capital and labor. Yesterday, Michigan’s legislature passed a “right to work” law, instituting that any potential employee cannot be forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment, even if a union does bargain collectively for that employee. The rationale for the law is that it makes a Michigan a more attractive place for businesses to work in – they can come in and create jobs without having to deal with those pesky unions. When an economy is in a depressed state, so the thought goes, excessive unionization can keep the economy from growing because businesses aren’t investing to create jobs, as excessive union wages cut into potential profit margins.

These assumptions come from a supply side view of economics, one that believes that once capital is free to move uninhibitedly, then the economy grows for everyone. In this view, corporations of benevolent heroes, “creating jobs”  for the good ol’ average American to take. However, as shown by the (lack of) efficacy of supply side economic policies like the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 (which didn’t stimulate economic growth as proposed), a supply side view of economics is incomplete at best. Indeed, a demand side model explains better how in the US economy today, companies are sitting on large amounts of capital, but are not investing it. In a depressed economy when people are not spending enough on products from cars to electronics to home appliances and beyond, it does not make sense for companies to open up new factories or stores because the opportunity costs of these new business outlets are not high enough to justify the investment. In a depressed economy, over-worked and under-payed employees (like Scrooge’s bookkeepers) don’t have the disposable income to pay for the larger house or new coal-burning stove, a cycle which further depresses the economy. In order for an economy to grow for all people, not just holders of capital (like Mr. Scrooge), ordinary workers must have high-enough wages to pay for more than just necessities, thus increasing demand for products of all kinds, a demand that justifies new corporate investment.

With this view of economics, Michigan’s “right to work” law will not create the benefits that it proposes. It will allow employers to act like Mr. Scrooge, using the lack of unionization as a way to increase productivity without increasing pay or benefits (like appropriated heated workspaces). It will then prevent these workers from buying as many products, especially luxury consumer items, causing stores and movie theaters and the like to close, increasing unemployment, and decreasing the potential for corporate investment. Labor and capital are not antagonists in economic growth, but rather partners.

Charles Dickens’ Christmas fable, whether in Muppet form or Bill Murray form or McCarter Theater form, is not just a heartwarming tale of redemption through generosity. It is a story that continues to shed light on whatever present in which it finds itself. The bookkeepers and clerks of Scrooge and Marley may just be bit players in a magic fantasy, but they illuminate real issues faced by our very friends and neighbors.

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Toward a Tradition of Hersch and Sondheim

Hearing pianist Fred Hersch play solo is a rare kind of experience, one where you get of both warm familiarity and uncharted adventure. He never seems to have an off-night, always pushing well-worn songs (whether standards or originals) in new directions. Tonight, on stage at Raritan Valley Community College, “Dream of Monk” featured some scurrying, vaguely tonal micro-counterpoint. “Stuttering,” a piece normally reserved for trio gigs, got an exploratory treatment that stretched the form in some uncharacteristic ways.

As someone who’s lived in both the jazz and musical theater worlds (see this blog’s inaugural post), I’ve found Hersch to be a great way to get theater people to listen to and enjoy jazz (just ask my girlfriend). To my ear, he shares both a harmonic and melodic sense with Stephen Sondheim. The vamp that undergirds Hersch’s tune “Echoes” even bares a strong resemblance to the vamp at the beginning of Sondheim’s “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George. I’ve always pondered about Sondheim’s potential influence on Hersch. I asked former Hersch student Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus about it, and he said they never spoke about Sondheim, but that it could possibly be an influence.

So after the show tonight, I just had to ask: “What kind of impact has Sondheim had on your work, Fred?”

“Zippo,” he curtly replied, then adding that he’s probably the only gay American musician of his age that hasn’t dealt with Sondheim in any serious way, outside of seeing a couple of  his plays.

However, the similarities are too strong to be simply coincidental. It’s most likely that it comes from both shared musical reference points and a shared aesthetic that prizes harmonic ingenuity and pure lyricism.

On the shared reference points side of things, Hersch and Sondheim are both steeped in the American songbook tradition. Hersch is regarded as one of the most faithful interpreters of songbook repertoire and vocal accompanists (just see his duo album with vocalist Jay Clayton, “Beautiful Love”). Sondheim learned that tradition from one of its sources – lyricist Oscar Hammerstein – and explored it deeply in his songs for Follies. In addition, to this intimate knowledge of the American songbook, both musicians are well-versed in the classical repertoire, especially of music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hersch’s tune “Pastorale” is a response to the piano music of Robert Schumann, and Romantic harmonies crop up in many other tunes as well – tunes that would feel right at home alongside those from Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”

But more important than these shared reference points are Hersch and Sondheim’s shared love of memorable melody. While talking to Hersch after the show, he mentioned how the art of songwriting has mostly fallen out of jazz. For him, jazz compositions are many times exercises in being slicker than the next guy, only having fragments of melody that can’t actually stick in one’s head. While he has a true jazz master’s command of extended harmonies, Hersch never explores complex harmonic terrain without being able to thread a good melody through it. Though Sondheim originally sought the composer Milton Babbit as a teacher to help him write serious atonal music, Babbit told Sondheim not to abandon his gift for melody, urging Sondheim to explore the many possibilities afforded to him by traditional tonal systems. Sondheim clearly learned a lot about how to construct rich, piquant harmonies from his lessons in classical composition, but like Hersch, never sacrificed melody to make a more interesting chord progression.

For me, the work of both Hersch and Sondheim suggest their own tradition of American, urban, piano-based art song. Today, most pop and jazz songwriters come more from a guitar tradition, derived from blues, rock, and traditional folk – more rural genres of music. Jazz musicians in particular that write on piano are more prone to think like composers than songwriters, prizing complexity over singable melodies. The Hersch-Sondheim tradition comes out of the era in which classically-trained, urban dwellers were the creative forces behind popular music – the Broadway composers, Tin Pan Alley songsmiths, and famous writing teams like Lieber and Stoller. The artification¹ of this tradition may not have begun with Leonard Bernstein in works like “On the Town” and “West Side Story,” but these works certainly opened the doors that Sondheim and Hersch went through, showing that you could create piano-based music that was both musically rich and appealing to an average, non-musician. Nowadays, this tradition is mostly relegated to the musical theater world (think of Jason Robert Brown or Ricky Ian Gordon), but there are some practitioners elsewhere (I would definitely put Eric Whitacre in this category, and would make a case for Missy Mazzoli’s Victoire as well).

Because of how this tradition is relatively small, there are still many routes to explore within it. Hersch has added a sense of rhythmic playfulness and unpredictability to the style, especially through his work with drummers like Tom Rainey and Nasheet Waits. I would love to see a musical theater writer run with this idea, creating a show with more rhythmic drive than your typical Sondheim work, but not resorting to rock opera kitsch. Hersch, like Sondheim, has opened many musical doors, but not many have followed him through them. Treasures await those who will.

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