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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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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