Posts Tagged: Gordon Jenkins

Top 10 BEST Composers

Hi blogfanz – I’m back, and I’m glad to be returning to our top 10 top 10 with List #8, the Top 10 BEST Composers, where by “BEST” we mean something along the lines of “Most Technically Accomplished”.

“Compositional technique” is a phrase that gets bandied around a lot (among a tiny, tiny élite of classical musicians and critics).  But I don’t think I’ve ever heard it defined.  Composers confront a series of Design Challenges and Execution Challenges as they write a piece.  So, is a composer’s technique simply a question of how well he or she executes a given design?  Is it possible to separate the design from the execution?

My favorite example of this conundrum is Gordon Jenkins, a composer/arranger from the Golden Era of pop music who wrote beautiful, lush arrangements for Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, et al.  As a composer, he specialized in writing “concept albums” for many of these collaborators.

His concepts for these albums were, in a word, ludicrous – Frank Sinatra taking a guided tour of outer space, for example.  But the music he wrote to accompany his zany scenarios is gorgeous.  It’s like, “yeah, if Frank Sinatra took a space ship to Saturn and then sang a jig about it, this is the best possible version of that jig.”  You know?

Here’s what I came up with.  We’ll talk more about the criteria at the end:

1. J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750)

Any person who writes a canon at the 7th, smoothly and gloriously, you do not mess with this person.

(Goldberg Variation 21, Glenn Gould ’54)

2. Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

Here’s some mad compositional technique: Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, second movement, letter D.  This audio begins 4 bars before the printed excerpt.  Here’s what happens:

(Concertgebouw, Jansons)

00:00  Impassioned 2-part counterpoint; violins v. lower strings; build-up to

00:11  The previous two lines are remixed into one, and this composite line is pitted against itself; build-up to

00:21 Dramatic tremolo in strings, winds play the main motive (ascending 3-notes), trombones recall the main motive from the previous movement of the symphony.

00:32 Letter D:

Violins and bassoon play the counterpoint from the beginning of this movement, flute and oboe keep playing the motive from the last section, long tones in the lower strings build drama and tension into

00:48  Parallel section to 00:21

This is what we call ‘tightly constructed’ – the themes all relate to each other, play against each other, appear and reappear, and build up into a large scale structure.  But honestly, you don’t have to appreciate ANY of this to enjoy the symphony.  This wealth of composerly technique is in the service of beautiful, dramatic, and emotional musical story-telling.

3. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

I say we let Lenny sort us out on this one:

4. (F.) Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)

Now, a lot of the tricks that Lenny was just talking about w/r/t Beethoven, I’m convinced Beethoven learned from Haydn.  That is to say – the guy (Haydn) was killer when it came to form.  But he (Haydn) also happened to be really good at all the things Lenny claims Beethoven sucked at: melody, harmony, fugues, etc.  Haydn dazzles us, leaves us spinning, and has a ball doing it.

So for all his fancy tricks, I’m going to present a passage that seems rather mundane – just 8th notes, in pairs.  The trick though, is that he slowly modulates the harmony, dynamics, and instrumentation to bring us back to the opening theme of this, the last movement of his 88th Symphony:

(Wiener Phil, Lenushka)

(score picks up on 00:04)

It’s like you’re driving around some back country roads, and just when you think you’re totally lost, you look up and it turns out you’re back where you started.  That’s Haydn.

5. Johannes Ockeghem (1420ish – 1497)

I’m hardly an expert on this composer or his music.  But like many an undergraduate music major before and since, I did at one time learn about the staggering contrapuntal accomplishments of Flanders’ greatest son.

Let’s look at his most famous work, the Missa Prolationum, so called because of its extensive use of “prolation canons”.  It works like this: you all know what a canon is – “Row, row, row yr boat”, “Frère Jacques”, etc., anything where one guy sings a tune and the other guy starts singing the same tune a little later and it all works out harmonically.  Well, in a “prolation canon” (which is more commonly known as a “mensuration canon”), the two guys sing the same tune at different speeds.  Normally, they have a relation to each other – like twice as fast or twice as slow.

They don’t always have to stagger their entrances either – they can both start singing at the same time and it still counts.  Ockeghem took this idea of mensuration canons to the extreme.  Here’s the Kyrie II from his mass.  There are two melodies: one in the soprano and alto, and another one in the tenor and bass.  The soprano and alto sing their melody at different speeds.  The tenor and bass sing their melody at two entirely different speeds.  What’s more, the two melodies are very closely related.

You try to do that.

(Hilliard Ensemble)

6. Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)

I’ll turn over the floor again, this time to Esa-Pekka Salonen:

7. Wolfgang Amad̩ Mozart (1754 Р1792)

I don’t know where to even begin talking about Mozart’s ridiculous compositional technique, but you can’t do much worse than the final set of canons in his last symphony, No. 41 (the “Jupiter”).  This piece is chock full of canons, fugues, and other contrapuntal devices – and yet, you never get tired of them (unlike, let’s admit it, Bach).  It’s just one vivacious bar after another:


8. Gy̦rgy Ligeti (1923 Р2006)

With a mind to the generalish audience that sometimes reads this blog (if anyone’s actually made it this far), let’s turn again to the Hungarian composer’s Nonsense Madrigals, based on texts by Lewis Carrol.

Here’s “Flying Robert”:

(King’s Singers)

So what makes this so great?  Well, first off, let’s figure out what’s going on.

Element the first: The tenor has a melody (“when the rain… when the rain comes tumbling down… in the country or the town”).  Each of the three phrases of the melody begins the same and builds to a higher note.  The rhythm of the melody is irregular – it has a rhapsodic quality.

Element the second: This piece is a passacaglia, which means there is a repeated, regular figure in the bass line.  Ligeti does that and also includes the two baritones in establishing the pattern.  So even though this pattern gets shifted from beat to beat, there is a regular pulse going on, grounding the music.

Element the third: When the altos come in, they pick up the tenor’s melody, but their rhythm mimics the regular pulse of the passacaglia people, but shortening their pulse by 1/4 of the value.  Just to make things a little more complicated, at the top of the third system, the second alto starts drifting off into his own little world.

So again, what’s so great about this?  It’s that Ligeti combines the elements in a way that gives the listener a simultaneous sense of regularity and irregularity – everything sounds natural but odd, logical but unpredictable.  It works like a precision machine, as does much of his music, including the wild, 100-instrument scores from his early period.

9. Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)

I’ll admit, there’s occasionally things that are clumsy in Stravinsky’s writing – some of his meter and barring choices can be rather confusing at times – but the flaws are very minor, and easily overlooked when taken in context of his overall skills as a writer of music.

Since fugues seem to be a common theme of this list, here’s a great one:

(Symphony of Psalms, LSO/MTT)

10. Alban Berg (1885 – 1935)

Alban Berg, the shining light of the Second Viennese School, has gotten all too little love up in these lists so far.  Finally, we’ve arrived at his category.

What I personally find so impressive about Berg’s writing is his ability to unite disparate elements.  He chose to use a wide range of compositional tools: tonality, atonality, dodecaphony.  He wrote waltzes and polkas, but infused them with eerie harmonies.  He wrote startling, arhythmic sound masses and contrasted them with delicate, crystalline chords.

His opera Wozzeck is practically a textbook of compositional forms.  But I’ve chosen the most famous passage from his Violin Concerto to illustrate how he so skillfully combined vastly different musical worlds:

Berg’s going from a huge dissonant cluster to a quotation of Bach.  What’s admirable is the smooveness with which he does it: the chorale melody starts with a rising 4-note motive.  He introduces this motive in the violin during the most dissonant music.  Then he gives us the tune, but it’s set against slightly less dissonant music.  By the time the winds enter on Bach’s harmonization, it makes all the sense in the world.


So, in choosing the composers on this list, I think I settled on the following criteria for great compositional technique:

1) handling of counterpoint (multiple, simultaneous lines)

2) tight motivic construction (building melodies and sections of music out of small themelets)

3) form (a logical succession of musical ideas, paced correctly so that the music seems to follow a logical flow)

4) ability to contrast and unite disparate musical ideas (which nobody does better than Schnittke, and I hate not including him on this list)

And then there’s the matter of, given their resources, how well did these guys write the stuff down on a score?  Sibelius is one of my favorite composers, but his scores are a certifiable mess when it comes to logic and consistency.  Ligeti’s scores are nearly as virtuosic in their meticulous layout and instructions as they are in their musical content.

So, y’all, what do you make of these criteria?  And who fits it?  My guys, or some other peops?

If you’ve made it this far, it’s time to let your voice be heard in the comments section!

New year, new things

1) Can we all just agree that these are really good examples of percussion writing?

This, because it builds up patterns in the percussion section, which is such a good way to use those guys back there.  Who doesn’t like a good percussion pattern?  Ravel’s great at it – so is Stravinsky.  And then of course, there’s all that Popular Music.

This because it’s just raucous.

Both excerpts come from a piece that’s altogether new to me: Alberto Ginastera‘s 1934 ballet Panambi, his Opus 1.  Heard it on the radio the other day, loved it.  I think it has an awful lot to do with Stravinsky, Revueltas (I’m thinking specifically of “Sensemayá“) and more than a little to do with Varèse, and Who wouldn’t like that??

2) I’ve been thinking a lot more about Gordon Jenkins.  Jenkins is the gentleman who composed the final installment of Frank Sinatra’s ill-fated “Trilogy: Past, Present, Future” album from about 1980, if I’m recollecting correctly.  I presented an in-depth analysis of this particular work here.

Let there be no mistake: I love Jenkins’ “The Future”.  It’s wacky, wild, and wet all over.  It’s easy to laugh at and laugh with (ok, at), but I’ve started to look at it more analytically.  What is it about this piece that makes it so very strange and not “successful” in the way we might normally associate that word with great pieces of music?

A composer faces many little compartmentalized tasks that we tend to take as a bundle: concept (which the composer rarely chooses in collaborative projects), narrative (be it a ‘programmatic’ or theatrical work or the emotional narrative of an instrumental work), lyrics (sometimes), style, texture, orchestration, harmony, counterpoint, melody, rhythm.  Form covers many tasks: phrase structure, song structure, movement structure, key relationships.  And how about pacing which is sort of a formal issue, but also it’s own thing.

Then there’s other things: choosing which gestures to include and when, deciding who should play what and when someone should sing something (separate from the technique of orchestrating these decisions) and deciding how the various textures should be edited together.  I suppose what I’m getting at is that composing isn’t just as simple a thing as Concept and Execution – there’s tons of mini-concepts to be conceived and executed along the way.

Because we study the great composers to the exclusion of almost all others, we sort of expect a master composer to have mastery of all these categories, but it’s really not the case.  Take Gordon Jenkins: he’s extremely good at texture, harmony, melody, rhythm, and certainly orchestration.  Form, sometimes.  Some big misfires in the style department (that is to say, in choosing the appropriate style to suit his needs, not in executing his chosen style, so maybe those are really two different departments?).  I’m guessing he was commissioned to take on the concept of “future”, but even taking that as a given, his sense of narrative is pretty Loony.  And let’s just be honest, the man shouldn’t have been allowed within a 2,000 mile radius of a lyric.  But then again, the distinctively bizarre lyrics of “The Future” contribute greatly to the charms of the piece, so don’t listen to me.

Berlioz is kind of an oddball in all of the categories, and it’s always fascinating to see where his experiments worked and where they didn’t (see: Symphonie Fantastique, mvmt. 5, m. 11 – that’s figure 61 – for a major Berlioz fail.  I’ve always contended that this is the single poorliest-composed bar in the standard repertoire.)  I’d say the same for Janáček.  Even when Shostakovitch does really well in all the categories, he often paces his large scale forms very poorly.  Tchaikovsky, astoundingly brilliant in so many categories, frequently lets the seems show between his textures and sometimes had a really weird sense of narrative and concept.  But sometimes not.

I’d be very interested in knowing if people agree with me/have other examples of composers with blatantly compartmentalized skills.

3) I just finished reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  Here’s another example of compartmentalization – Mr. Franzen has profound strengths: inner narrative, complex psychological motivations, weird family stuff.  And his prose flies right off the page.  But the guy’s got a tin ear for dialogue.  The narrative is propulsive – the book has a wonderful ratio of plot events to pages invested – but the concept is kind of zany (but then again, the narrative is so good, you don’t care).

The book’s ending is a real paradox: when you reach it in context, it’s very satisfying – it’s hopeful and conclusive, and your soul ravaged from the journey, so it’s much appreciated.  But give it a little distance and it appears way, way neater and tidier and than it ever needed to be.  It’s not only cloying, but it becomes the most unlikely event after a series of extraordinarily unlikely events.

But you know what, I still loved reading the book.  And he’s got some fantastic rules for writing fiction.

The Future: A Guided Tour

In 1980, Frank Sinatra released his first studio album in 6 years.  It was a concept album entitled Trilogy: Past Present Future, the concept being a biography in song of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself.  Past featured several standards that Sinatra had (amazingly) never recorded.  Present was a collection of “contemporary” pop hits (though, even by 1980 standards, “Love Me Tender” was really pushing it).  Present gave us the unfortunate Kander & Ebb power ballad (is that what it is?) “New York, New York”.

But Past and Present don’t really concern us — the singing on both is pretty lame by Sinatra standards, and the arrangements… well, let’s talk about those arrangements.  Sinatra assigned each chapter of this triptych to a different arranger: Past to Billy May, Present to Don Costa, and Future to Gordon Jenkins.

It’s such a shame that May and Costa were selected for the project, though no surprise as Sinatra frequently employed them both during the 70’s and 80’s.  [Here’s a great history of his arrangers]  Frankie and Nelson Riddle were on the outs at the time of this record, and Sinatra was leaning towards the poppier sounds of May and Costa by now anyway (think “My Way” and “You are the Sunshine of My Life”).  In Past, May’s arrangements have that pseudo-retro-big band feel (which I didn’t think existed until the 90’s, but there you have it.)  They’re way too clean and not nearly swingin’ enough.  Costa sounds like Costa on Present, and as far as this author is concerned, that’s lamesville (too much marching bandy pitched percussion – we don’t need the melody doubled on glockenspiel, Don.)

OK, but I digress, because like I said, we’re really not concerned with Past and Present; the Future is our subject today.  And what a subject it is!  Gordon Jenkins composed the piece from scratch, and he conceived of it as one large-scale composition in a series of movements.  Jenkins’ signature sound is extremely lush, symphonic, classically-oriented, with a definite proclivity for dark string saturated orchestral colors.  His arrangements are often very dramatic.  Take for example his intro to “Autumn Leaves” from 1957:

Now honestly, would you ever have guessed in a hundred years that that was an intro for “Autumn Leaves”?? Don’t get me wrong, “Autumn Leaves” is a beautiful song – one of my favorites, in fact – but it’s a simple affair harmonically, and it’s usually presented in a straightforward fashion.  In the hands of Gordon Jenkins, it ends up sounding like Sergei Rachmaninoff, Bernard Herrmann and Ernest Chausson teamed up to write the prelude to their next tragic opera — that is to say, GREAT!

So, now that we know what Mr. Jenkins is capable of – gorgeous, expansive, music which may not exactly suit its context – it’s time for us to take a look into the Future.  My best research indicates that Mr. Jenkins served as both composer and lyricist for this… well, what is it really?  Song cycle? Symphonic ode?  I have no idea.  What I can tell you is that it’s not only the strangest thing I’ve ever heard Sinatra sing, but that it’s one of the most unique 20th century compositions known to me.  The Future is essentially a monodrama for Sinatra, Chorus and Orchestra.  Much of Sinatra’s vocal line is written in a wandering, pseudo-melodic recitative style.  The score is occasionally sprinkled with aimless tunes, and often interrupted by “narrative” soundtrack elements and phantom feminine voices.  Gushing orchestral interludes, like the one above, abound.

You’ve really got to hear it to believe it though, so let’s jump right in.  The work is in six movements:

1. What Time Does the Next Miracle Leave?

Stephen Sondheim has said that the very first notes of a musical should set the tone for the entire show (a lesson he learned from West Side Story) and I think Gordon Jenkins does just that in his opening: we know that this is going to be an “autobiographical” work, we know that it will feature both a chorus and an orchestra, and we know that the next 50 minutes of music are going to feature an incomprehensibly bizarre mix of the banal and the sublime.

The lyrics continue:

I’ve had some very good years
[extended orchestral interlude on “It was a very good year”]
I haven’t missed a whole lot in those firecracker years
And I don’t want to miss a thing when the future appears

Then Frank shares some of his simpler pleasures with us:

You’re talkin’ my language, Frankie boy!  It turns out that while he’s reclining with said beverage, Mr. Sinatra likes to “look at the stars.”  He continues:

Now, this clip is indicative of much of what we’ll hear on the album, so let’s examine it a bit more closely.  We have three parts: 1) a continuation of the quasi recitativo ramblings, 2) the overhead speaker announcing the itinerary of Sinatra’s imaginary spaceship – these narrative sound-design elements will feature heavily in the album, and will go a long way to creating the sort of soundtrack feel to the whole thing, and 3) something that, compared with the other music in the score might be considered a “tune”.

The voice on the overhead monitor counts down to the lift-off, depicted by particularly strange, 1940’s sci-fi-esque orchestral episode.  First stop:

a) Venus

And why shouldn’t Frank Sinatra assume that when he arrives at Venus he’ll encounter the girl who’s been waiting for him for oh so long?  Makes sense to me.  This first planetary sojourn establishes an important precept for this section: the visit on each planet is a representation of said planet’s mythological counterpart, i.e. Venus is the planet where Frank falls in love, etc.

b) Jupiter and Saturn

Despite the fact that Jupiter and Saturn are the solar system’s two largest planets, they receive one very brief stop by Sinatra and crew.  The music is a sprightly little jig, with the following lyrics:

Jupiter makes with the rain
Saturn makes with the crops
A nicer trade was never made
And hopefully never stops

c) Pluto

I think that just about speaks for itself.

d) Mercury

Mercury (the messenger) gets very short shrift, just one line in fact: Mercury will lead us out to Neptune.  As a side note, let me mention that there’s really no point in trying to figure out the order in which these episodes are presented, all astrological maps having been left home on planet earth.

e) Neptune

Neptune is represented by its “deep, blue sea”.  Again, mythological, not geological (geological? that can’t be the right word… neptological?  that just sounds wrong.)  Here we come to perhaps the most beautiful of the many, many orchestral interludes that pepper this score, a sort of Holst-Ravel-Debussy-Max Steiner fantasy on the theme of the Sea:

f) Uranus

The Uranus sequence is the least successful of the bunch, but it does present two thematic elements that will be very important to the rest of the piece: the use of an unidentified, disembodied female voice; and a hackneyed stereotype of Italian mandolin music.

The “Satellite Special” then heads back for earth, and let me assure you, zany hi-jinks ensue.  Since we’re back at earth, let me just put in my first plug: buy this album.  You won’t be disappointed.

2) World War None!

Jenkins’ second movement is far less ambitious than the opening ten minute epic; “World War None” is basically a song in the traditional form, complete with verses and choruses.  The musical language is sort of Borodin meets Lawrence of Arabia meets Wagner meets Vegas lounge lizard.  Picardy thirds abound and express the optimism of a world without war.  The lyrics defy easy categorization… in one sense, they’re on the triter side of Jenkins’ spectrum, but the rhyme schemes are much more successful, in that the words do actually rhyme occasionally.

3) The Future

Here begins an interior suite of three sections, the connective tissue being a trip to a Gypsy to get Sinatra’s fortune told… well, not Sinatra‘s future, per se, but another disembodied female’s fortune told, I guess…

Interesting how Jenkins could channel Claude Debussy in writing the blues.  Also, note the appearance of the famous “button pushing” motive at the end there.

BTW, it’s definitely worth pointing out that that last segment contains the most explicit references to anything actually having to do with a time beyond 1980 – that is, the future – of anything on the entire album.

The chorus informs Sinatra that if he lets his “imagination burst into flame, it will let [him] do whatever he damn well choos[es] to do.”  Sinatra:

And then follows another ravishing interlude for the orchestra:

p.s. That magic wand that Frank mentioned earlier?  That was a baton.

Also, notice in the lyrics I quoted above the phrase “damn well choose”.  We’ll see more later how sussing seems to be a very important device in Jenkins’ lyrical toolbag.

4) The Future (con’t): I’ve Been There

This segment begins with a minute-long intro from the chorus, and continues with another “song” called “I’ve Been There”, which could actually be kind of decent as a song if it had an actual tune and was about anything:

The orchestration is quite nice though, and definitely contains the most contemporary (Costa-esque) sound to it, which I guess is as close to the future as this thing is going to get, musically speaking.

5) The Future (con’t): Song Without Words

The Mendelssohnian titled final installment of “The Future” mini-suite is notable for the fact that, of it’s 6 minutes and 11 seconds of music, Sinatra sings for only 30 seconds of it.  Jenkins is ready with yet another choral prelude (including a third disembodied female voice, singing about building a house on a star), and at least 2 lengthy orchestral meditations.

6) Before the Music Ends [Finale]

A piece like the Future demands a finale of considerable weight and power, and Gordon Jenkins does NOT disappoint.  This movement makes a fine bookend with the opening, matching it in length and scope.  Sinatra opens the piece waxing poetic about his past.  The chorus, ever ready, jumps in and asks:

(See what I said about the cussing?)

[Editor’s note: does that music as the clip trails off remind anyone a LOT of the Finale Ultimo of Cabaret? I think it’s the harmonies.  Just a thought.]

“Before the Music Ends” refers to the many things Sinatra wants to do before he dies.  Ironically, these involve visiting many locations from his past:

Let’s take a closer look at the rhyme scheme here, certainly among Gordon Jenkins’ most ambitious poetry in the whole piece:

Before the music ends
I must go
to Ho-

Interior rhymes, mid-word enjambment… is this Gordon Jenkins or e. e. cummings??  Also, I love how the music suggests that the Hoboken of Sinatra’s youth was squarely situated in Western Slovenia or Lombardy or someplace.

After Sinatra glumly leaves Hoboken, we take a pause in the narrative so that Sinatra can offer his personal thanks to a series of composers of the classical cannon:

For now let’s ignore Gordon/Frank’s fast and loose use of jocular nick-names with history’s greatest composers – in this piece it somehow makes a world of sense.  My question is, what if any connection does Sinatra have with these classical composers?  Since when was he such a Puccini specialist that the mere sound of Giacomo’s first name elicits this kind of treatment?

These, and so many other questions are really for the ages, so let’s continue our journey, shall we?  After this transcendental foray into the history of classical music (again, what does any of this have to do with the future?), Frank makes one last charge at Vegas, accompanied by “Dino” (Dean Martin) and “Sarge” (Sarge Weiss, I’m guessing, Sinatra’s ersatz musical producer on some TV work in the 60’s).  The trip to Vegas consists of Sinatra explaining why he prefers shooting craps to all other forms of gambling:

The Vegas sequence is capped off by a brief threnody for solo cello (isn’t that exactly what you were expecting by this point??) which leads into the Grand Finale, a slow build-up in which Sinatra commissions one last song before he dies and records it with “the best musicians in the world”.  Brass blare, timpani pound and the chorus intones the final words:

Only one man could refer to Death as “that cat with a scythe” and then invoke the finale of Shostakovich’s 5th symphony in one stroke of the pen.  That man is Gordon Jenkins, and to him I am ever grateful for composing this strange universe of the Future.  Critics, of course, panned it, many of them taking solace in the fact that Future‘s oddities couldn’t ruin an otherwise great trilogy album.  I couldn’t disagree more.  I think the first two records are musically bankrupt – they’re totally anti-septic and make you yearn for the old Sinatra.  The Future, on the other hand, is an imaginative cornucopia, a bizarre smorgasbord of endlessly entertaining delights.

So many questions remain.  For me, the primary among them is: did Gordon Jenkins REALLY pen all the lyrics to this piece?  Might it not have been Sinatra himself?  Or at least have had a hand in them?  Was Gordon Jenkins, at the age of 70, perhaps overlooking the precipice of dementia?  Were these all trunk songs/arrangements that had been seeking an outlet for decades and finally saw the light of day on this project?

Frankly (pun very much intended), these are the kinds of questions that make the Future worth listening to.  Speaking of which: