Saturday, March 14, 2015

Take Me Back to the Music...


I can’t read a note. I can’t play a note. I can’t dance worth a damn. If I dared try singing in a crowded room, that room would empty out in a hurry. I’ve never really studied up on music, except in recent years from Daniel J. Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music and other books that touch on music as part of the science of mind.

And yet music has always been an essential part of my life, something that moves me profoundly, that is part of my very identity. It’s something universal and yet particular. Music has been part of humanity since prehistoric times, and there isn’t a single human culture that doesn’t have music. But with globalization, we are exposed to many kinds of music, only some of which appeal to each of us; we each come to music in our own way.

I suppose I must have heard music in the womb; studies indicate that infants remember music their mothers listened to during pregnancy. In my case, it was most likely classical from WQXR, a New York City radio station. But I was a child at a time when you could hear classical music in places you’d never hear it today. Television was a new thing, and didn’t get a whole lot of advertising support. So they’d sometimes fill station breaks with “musical moments” videos. That was where I first heard Smetana’s “The Moldau.”

Original music for TV shows, including sf series, was almost unheard of. So the theme of Captain Video was the opening bars of Wagner’s overture from The Flying Dutchman. Tales of Tomorrow used a piece I learned many years later was from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet – the scene where the doge breaks up a street fight between the Montagues and the Capulets. A couple of other pieces used on TV were from Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben for The Big Story (true stories about newspaper reporters) and Resphigi's The Pines of Rome for What in the World? (an archaeology quiz show). Music from Holst’s The Planets figured in Tom Corbett, Space Cadet – but the Space Cadet march, I learned decades later, was actually a German piece by Karl Lattan (1840-88):

Of course, I knew Rossini’s William Tell overture from The Lone Ranger, and Emil von Reznicek’s Donna Diana overture from Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. And movie serials of the 1930’s rerun on TV borrowed Liszt’s Preludes, Dvorak’s New World Symphony (the first record I ever bought), even Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. One influence that I don’t remember was my mother taking me to see Fantasia when I was two years old. Among other things, that gave me an enduring taste for Stravinsky, and the kind of music Stravinsky paved the way for. It was over 40 years later that I saw the Joffrey Ballet recreation of the original ballet and finally got those dinosaurs out of my head! I blogged about the 100th anniversary of The Rite of Spring last May:

Another event that changed my life, although I had no idea at the time that it would, was Aunt Liz sending me a record of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos’ music for my birthday. One of the items was a stunt piece, “O Trenzinho do Caipira,” an impression of a journey on a narrow gauge railroad in rural Brazil:

Villa Lobos is best known for his Bachianas Brasileiras and his Choros; he even did a film score for Green Mansions, hardly any of which was used in the movie; but he put out an album called Forest of the Amazon based on that score that includes one of my favorite love songs:

It was Villa Lobos who got me interested in other nationalist music from Mexico, Spain, and elsewhere. I had a taste for the off-beat as opposed to the avant garde; in a music appreciation class at college (the only formal education I ever had), I asked the professor to recommend something “wild.” She suggested Poulenc, and I was soon an avid Poulenc fan. I didn’t know it at the time, but he died shortly afterwards; this is one of his last performances from 1962:

It was also at college that I first heard the music of Nino Rota, who composed the scores for La Dolce Vita and other Federico Fellini films. Today he’s best known here for the Godfather theme, but my first love was for his blues/waltz theme from La Dolce Vita. I learned decades later that the waltz part (first heard at .45 and repeated several times) is actually a variation of Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife:”

Rota’s film music was so good that I was sure he must have also composed concert music. People kept telling me otherwise, but eventually I found out that he had – symphonies, concertos, even a ballet version of La Strada. Even in his film music, he could be really innovative, as in these two pieces from Fellini’s Casanova:

The first samples The Rite of Spring, it turns out that Rota was a friend of Stravinsky. He also borrowed from himself; the final movement of his Concerto Soirée for Piano and Orchestra is a variation of the Turkish Bath scene score for 8½:

Time to backtrack a bit. Just after the 1956 Hungarian revolution, my family took in a couple of refugees. They introduced me to popular and classical music of Hungary – dances like the chardash and the composers Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartok. One work in particular became iconic for me: Kodaly’s Psalmus Hungaricus, based on a variant of the 55th Psalm that expressed the country’s resistance to Turkish occupation in the 16th Century. For some reason, I had never “gotten” choral music before, but now I did. Here’s the first part. The translation in supertitles isn’t as good as the one I had in a recording back in 1957; it’s too literal, too wooden. But you’ll get the idea:

Most popular music passed me by. It was part of the background noise – I knew about the Beatles and Johnny Cash and other top names in rock, country and other genres, but there were plenty more whose names never registered with me. Of course, I loved the classic musicals – South Pacific, The King and I, My Fair Lady. But I was too much an outsider to get into folk or heavy metal or punk or rap or the other genre music everyone else was grooving to then and afterwards. One exception was classic ragtime; I went on a ragtime kick after seeing The Sting in 1973, and listened not only to Joplin but others like James Scott, Louis Chauvin and Joseph Lamb. I got records by the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble, and read Rudi Blesh’s They All Played Ragtime. I saw Treemonisha, which isn’t exactly a classic, but I love its finale:

Most people who saw the movie probably never got past the soundtrack album, but I not only pursued the ragtime genre but also got into one of the successors of ragtime, stride piano, exemplified by James P. Johnson, a New Jersey (!) native whose works include “Eccentricity,” “Carolina Shout” and “You’ve Got to be Modernistic:”

Late in life, I’ve gotten into some forms of rock, jazz and country – thanks to Angelo Badalamenti, whom I’d never heard of until I picked up on Twin Peaks in 1990. I’d never paid much attention to movie or TV soundtracks until then, but there was something different about his music. Moreover, he worked with David Lynch, who wrote strange lyrics to the songs sung by Julee Cruise, like “The World Spins:”

This led me to watch out for Badalamenti elsewhere, in movies as varied as The City of Lost Children, The Comfort of Strangers, The Beach, Holy Smoke,The Edge of Love, Secretary and A Very Long Engagement. They show an incredible range, and also introduced me to other singers who became favorites of mine – especially Marianne Faithfull and Siouxsie Sioux (whose previous connections with the Rolling Stones and the Banshees had been unknown to me).

Sometimes I find a new musical love through sheer happenstance. I remember that it was when I was driving through the South, a thousand miles from WQXR, that I heard Holly Dunn’s “Love Someone Like Me” on the car radio, and it really grabbed me. I’d seen Coal Miner’s Daughter, but never bought anything by Loretta Lynn or other country singers. Yet somehow I needed this:

Well, I’m still learning new things, including new (to me) music. A couple of years ago I learned first-hand what jazz improvisation is all about. My wife Marcia and I attended a concert by Wynton Marsalis and his band. One of the pieces they played was “Baa, Baa Black Sheep.” What can you do with as simple and banal a tune as that? Well, we sure found out! I wish I had a video link for that, but I don’t.

Really living means forever learning, being open to new things, even at my age!

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