Yearly Archives: 2010

On the Road

I’ve arrived in Maine for L’École Monteux 2010, and I’m pleased to say that I’ve been greeted by warm people and warm weather!  Along the way, I stopped at the Eastman School of Music, which is BEA-UTIFUL, esp. their gorgeous concert call and the great cafe/sandwich shop that’s right on the same street.

I also stopped in Lawrence, MA, birthplace and first home of one Leonard Bernstein.  My goal was to find the house in which Jennie Resnick Bernstein (Lennyz Mom) lived and reared young Leonard.  First stop, the Lawrence Historical Society:

also known as the “Immigrant City Archives”.  And “Immigrant City” is definitely an appropriate name.  I felt like I was in Havana or someplace in this town, or at least in the Sharks’ turf.  When Lenny was a bambino there, however, it was mainly composed of Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, Ukranian, etc. immigrants.

As a newly minted member of the Lawrence Historical Society, I was afforded to access to the town’s complete archives, and the wonderfully helpful archivist (who I think really did not know what to make of me… [above]) brought me just about everything that the town had collected re: Lenny.  The Bernsteins lived in Lawrence only briefly, relocating to other Boston suburbs soon after Lennyz birth.  So, most of the LB file focuses on Lennyz 1983 return to the town of his birth to celebrate his 65th birthday.  Here’s the headline announcing his visit in the local paper:

After a little sleuthing, I was able to find the address of Lennyz house: 24 Juniper Street.  Here is Lennyz hood (and I do mean hood):

and here is Lennyz House:

which, all things considered, is looking pretty, pretty good.  Pretty good.  Many of the other houses on the block have wooden boards up over the windows.  It’s entirely unclear if the current residents have any idea of the historical significance of their house, or if they would even know who Leonard Bernstein was if I mentioned his name.  Although, the town does boast proudly of her son along the road into town (signage and all).

Aside from this great chance to add another stop to my collection of Bernstein locations (which includes the music school buildings at IU, I’ll have you know!), the other thing that I really enjoyed on this long drive was the chance to listen to Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid over and over and over again.  This is SUCH a great album.  It’s got a little something for everybody, and a lot of everything for me.  The styles include a mix of Motown, funk, electro-folk (think Simon and Garfunkel but good), hip-hop, 70’s-, 80’s- and 90’s-style pop, straight ahead rock, jazz and a healthy dose of classical.  It’s got two overtures for God’s sake!!

Jane can do just about anything with her voice, sometimes inflecting a 1940’s-ish pop tinge, other times sounding like the child Michael Jackson at his Jackson 5 prime, and even channeling artists as diverse as Sade and Santi White.  Several of the tracks resemble “The Wiz”, and the whole album has a heavy theatrico-cinematic flare to it, the concept of the album being linked to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.  Monáe’s band of collaborators are known as the Wondaland Arts Society and include the producers Nate Wonder, Chuck Lightning, and the composer/arranger Roman GianArthur.  It’s a dizzying blend of talents and well, well worth the listen.  The biggest hit so far is the infectious, brilliantly arranged dance track, “Tightrope”:

Rue the day

Unfortunately, it’s time for a Rue McClanahan tribute.  When Bea Arthur died, I mentioned her character Dorothy was really the heart of the show.  Well, if that’s the case, then Blanche was the show’s libido, the backdrop for the vital sexual essence that made “The Golden Girls” so very risque and continues to do so.  In that post, I provided a list of what I considered to be the top 3 “Dorothy” episodes of The Golden Girls, so here is my list of the top 3 “Blanche” episodes:

End of the Curse [1] [2] [3]

Many of the “Blanche” story lines center around Blanche’s obsession with preserving her looks and sex appeal into old age.  She considers plastic surgery, dates younger men, and wrestles with her past as a beautiful Southern Belle.  In this episode, the first of the second season, she deals with the onset of menopause.

Blanche’s Little Girl [1] [2] [3]

“The Golden Girls” invariably portrays Blanche’s relationship with her own children as fraught: she relied heavily on a nanny to raise them and feels emotionally distant from them.  One daughter (back in the 80’s, there were rarely consistent storylines on sitcoms – Blanche’s children come into existence on a writer’s whim and disappear just as easily) birthed a child through artificial insemination, leading to a mini-story arch within the show.  However, I have chosen this particular episode to represent Blanche’s parental redemption, in which Blanche’s daughter “Rebecca” returns from being a model in Paris, no longer slim and beautiful, but now grossly overweight.  Joey Regalbuto of “Murphy Brown” fame plays Rebecca’s abusive fiancé.

Journey to the Center of Attention [1] [2] [3]

In this episode, Blanche tries to expand Dorothy’s social horizons by taking her out to the Rusty Anchor.  At first awkward, Dorothy ends up becoming the favorite of the bar’s patrons, winning them over with her manly baritone.  This late episode reveals a great deal about the complicated Blanche-Dorothy relationship.  One might consider this episode a “Dorothy” episode, in that it allowed Bea Arthur a golden opportunity to show off her musical theater chops.  However it also allowed Rue a unique opportunity (in the entire series) to show off her amazing talents as a physical comedienne.  “The Golden Girls” is a show that is pervaded with the spirit of “I Love Lucy”, and I think it is no stretch to say that Rue was the most Lucy-esque of the four actresses.  The singing revenge scene ranks right up with the best of Lucy’s disastrous night club turns at the Tropicana (it starts around 7 minutes into the second clip.)

In closing, here are two of Rue’s finest moments from the entire series, neither of which come from the above listed episodes:

On Style(z)

I just finished reading Orhan Pamuk‘s 1998 novel My Name is Red, a superlative piece of literature set in late 16th century Istanbul concerning a murderous group of Ottoman miniaturists.  Pamuk interweaves his brilliantly constructed murder mystery with extensive discussions of art, style and apprenticeship.  I found this quote particularly interesting:

“Nothing is pure,” said Enishte Effendi.  “In the realm of book arts, whenever a masterpiece is made, whenever a splendid picture makes my eyes water out of joy and causes a chill to run down my spine, I can be certain of the following: Two styles heretofore never brought together have come together to create something new and wondrous.  We owe Bihzad and the splendor of Persian painting [above] to the meeting of an Arabic illustrating sensibility and Mongol-Chinese painting.  Shah Tahmasp’s best paintings marry Persian style with Turkmen subtleties.  Today, if men cannot adequately praise the book-arts workshops of Akbar Khan in Hindustan, it’s because he urged his miniaturists to adopt the styles of the Frankish masters.  To God belongs the East and the West.  May He protect us from the will of the pure and unadulterated.”

What a wonderful description of the relationship of artistry to craft – new art arises when someone masters craftsmanship in multiple styles and figures out ways of combining said styles to illuminate and enhance each other.  I bring it up as part of my ongoing diatribe against those artists, musicians in particular, who seek to purge their work of all perceptible influences.  A) good luck and B) it seems to me that in so doing all they end up with is a bunch of voiceless muck.

I know that this was a trend in many artistic spheres, but as far as I can tell, this blight – that is, the aesthetic wherein novelty was prized over artistry – seemed to have hit Music (i.e. Western Academic Art Music) worse than other disciplines in the 20th century.  But I am continually heartened that this generation of, shall we say, “classically trained” composers takes music quite seriously and realizes that we are competing with popular genres (whose musicians are increasingly devoted to music as art), with other artistic media, and with the larger world of entertainment.  [Ed: I think that competition among musicians is a wonderful, healthy thing.]

It is in this regard, and many others, that I would like to offer my highest praise for Timothy Andres‘ new album, Shy and Mighty, released by Nonesuch.  I bought it just a couple of days ago and have been glued to my speakers ever since.  What a debut album!  This is really an album, both in the classical sense and in the contemporary sense of a recorded-album-cum-artistic-work, consisting of ten single movement pieces.  I hesitate to call them miniatures – most of them are quite substantial pieces, with only two serving as brief interludes, but even these are part of a larger framework.  This is really first-rate writing, and what’s more, it is a brilliant melding of influences as diverse as Steve Reich, John Adams, Olivier Messiaen, Dave Brubeck, Aaron Copland, Claude Debussy and a coterie of popular artists (“Out of Shape” really sounds like a pop song).  To my ears, one of the strongest influences is Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

From a sort of dogmatic approach, one thing that I really admire about this work is that Mr. Andres speaks in his own voice and delivers a personal artistic message, but he never hides any of his influences.  And yet, it’s not like they’re awkward or hovering on top of the writing or anything like that – rather, they’re beautifully interwoven.  To me, his music proves my previous point: an individual voice is a product of taste, assiduously cultivated and ultimately refined.  And to make things even better, in listening to this album (which I have done several times over the past couple days) one never stops to think about any of this – the influences move in and out organically – listener simply relinquishes himself to pure aural enjoyment.

Back to the opening idea of style, however, I often find myself wondering the job of uniting different styles is more difficult for composers today than in previous eras, for the obvious reason that there is a has been such a proliferation of musical styles in the past century.  Not only that, but we now have access to recordings of all of these styles.  It’s hard to say whether or not it’s harder or easier though.

Take Bach for example, who diligently learned and interpolated so many different stylistic strains in his music (look at any given Cello Suite for the range of nationalities and historical eras that informed his approach).  From his youth through his maturity, Bach copied out manuscript after manuscript by hand so as to familiarize himself with the music of his forebears and contemporaries.  He traveled incredibly long distances to meet musicians and learn their music.  But was his job of rendering his discoveries into a new and unique voice more difficult than ours is today?

I haven’t the faintest clue, but I often wonder, because every time I compose a piece, it seems so difficult.  The truth is probably that it’s always been incredibly difficult, but Bach was just such a master that he left no traces of its difficulty!

Actus Tragicus

The White Columned Church

In 2010, members of the Presbyterian Church of Barrington, IL, commissioned me to write a hymn for the church’s 50th anniversary.  I relished this opportunity, both as a chance to give back to a place that was very special to me, and also just because I really wanted to write a hymn.

Writing a hymn is a tricky little thing – you’ve got to come up with something that is singable by a large body of untrained singers but that isn’t so bland you can’t remember it.  The music has to relate to the text of the several verses but still encapsulate the overall theme.  Plus, there’s an enormous body of literature that you’re competing with and being inspired by.

There’s also a huge body of repertoire, namely hymns written since 1960, to actively despise because of its saccharine popiness.  I tried to write a hymn that had something of the grandeur of 19th century English hymnery, Southern Baptist languor and maybe even a touch of popiness (anybody who’s heard my music before knows I just can’t help myself in that regard.)

The text was written by the pastor of the church, the Rev. Dr. Curtis Baxter.

Fantaisie en noir

My second foray into the world of electronic music is decidedly unelectronic, more just a low-tech remix of some examples of my favorite genre, film noir.  I tried to create a sort of collage-fantasy of the themes in these movies, a distillation of the central tropes of 1940’s grisled Hollywood cinema.

The source material comes from 4 films:

  • Suddenly (1954) starring Frank Sinatra (a major boon for a huge Sinatraphile like me, I can use his voice in my piece because this film is in the public domain), in which he plays a deranged assassin out to kill the president.  Download
  • The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) starring Barbara Stanwyck (my favorite Hollywood actress of all time), Lizabeth Scott and Kirk Douglas, is the story of a complicated love triangle (rectangle), power, deceit and secrets.  Download
  • Scarlett Street (1945) directed by Fritz Lang and starring Edward G. Robinson, is a sultry tale about petty con artists taking a sensitive, demure painter for a ride.  Download
  • The Second Woman (1950) a melodramatic story of a man who was responsible for his first wife’s death and how enacts his guilt in increasingly destructive ways.  Interestingly, the entire score consists of arrangements and re-orchestrations of music by Tchaikovsky.  Download