Monthly Archives: July 2021

Martha Martha Martha!

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I have something of an obsession with Martha Stewart’s instagram. Or perhaps you gleaned as much from reading this blog.

But there’s one particular tweet I’d like to draw your attention to:

A song cycle based on the photo captions of Martha Stewart’s instagram? A grand idea to be sure, but I’m a busy guy. When, if ever, would I find the time to devote to such a whimsical project?

OK, yes, it’s a bit of a joke that I used a month of my lockdown time to compose a 45-minute song cycle on the instagram poetry of Martha Stewart. But you know what? It was pretty important to me. It was a form of music therapy. I wrote these songs during this past February and March. The dreariest, chilliest time of year, and thus, the loneliest time of the pandemic. I was toying with a number of composition projects, but I chose this one because I thought it would bring me some much needed joy and light.

And it did! One of the great advantages of this piece was that it was not only entertaining to write, but it also gave me new material to play and sing at home (and yes, I have written many apologetic texts to my neighbors. Luckily, they’re into it!)

The other great thing is that it gave me a very entertaining party trick to take into the post-vaccinated world. I’ve now sung the songs at a number of house parties and they always go down a treat. I hope others will use them in this context — at salons, soirées, and diletti musicale.

And the other thing I hope? That Martha gets to hear them (preferably performed by me, for her, at one of her properties.) I’m trying to make it happen, but very open to help. Email me if you have ideas. I have quite a bit to thank her for.

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We did a Bastille Day* special on the Gabfest all about French music this week, featuring Maestro Ludovic Morlot:

One thing we were trying to get at was “what makes French music French music“? While I’m skeptical of nationalist essentialism, especially in art, it’s a fun discussion question, so I want to further the discussion here:

One thing Ludo brings up is that French music is the music of “harmonic ambiguity.” He was talking about the extended 7th chords of Debussy in particular. But let’s get real — when you think of “harmonic ambiguity,” the first name that comes to mind is Richard Wagner. The Triiistaaan Chooord.

It’s a known known that Debussy was influenced by Wagner, then rejected his influence, then found mocking amusement in his influence. But the influence was there, and it’s unmistakable. But then of course, there’s a lot of other influences, famously, Javanese gamelan and Chopin’s pianistic imaginings, which are also non-French sources. (Though Ludo might contest the case of Chopin.)

But here’s the thing: to me, these extended 7th harmonies in Debussy have precisely nothing to do with harmonic ambiguity, i.e. with chords that could go any which way. In Debussy’s hands, they’re the opposite — pictures of coloristic stasis.

The example of Debussy is illustrative of how this nationalism thing can get tricky. Ludo talked a lot about Stravinsky being a “pseudo-French” composer and listed Rimsky as being the “French” influence on him. What? Paging Richard Taruskin!

But of course, he’s not altogether wrong, because the Russians were heavily influenced by the French. But they were also doing their own thing and that’s true of no one more than Rimsky-Korsakov who is responsible for all sorts of discoveries concerning octatonic harmony that Stravinsky would later go on to use. So what’s Russian and what’s French? It’s pretty hard to disentangle.

I suppose I’m left where I started, wondering if there is truly any through line that binds Rameau to Berlioz to Franck to Debussy to Boulez to Grisey.

Probably not, but I’ll finish by recommending another excellent book, a favorite discovery of mine in recent years, but with a warning that it is very hard to come by: Martin Cooper’s “French Music from the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Fauré.”

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*Yes, I am well aware that the French call it “le 14 juillet” or the “fête nationale” and not “Bastille Day” — it’s literally the only thing anyone ever says when you say “Bastille Day”!