The Blues

Listening tonight to the blues and work songs in the film “The Land Where The Blues Began” (made by Alan Lomax in the late 1970s) set me thinking of Harry Partch all over again!

The constant style running through these songs was conversation between instrument and singer. Even the steady thud of the woodchopper’s axe seemed to say its own story. Some of the instruments, like the homemade fretless diddly-bow guitars, seem to belong in Partch’s own instrument family. The playing styles, bending, percussive and glissando speak to a pitch series far closer to Partch’s 43 note scale than conventional 12-note music. The prominence of the voice as instrument as well as words was also striking.

This was undoubtedly yet more Corporeal music that hews very close to Partch’s vision, even if it is relatively limited in range. Not in emotional impact though. This was as powerful as Roscoe Holcomb, and even more mournful.

See here for how to make a diddly-bow!


Howard Hanson

Now listening to Howard Hanson’s 1st Symphony, the well-named “Nordic”, for in atmosphere and style it resembles much of Sibelius’s writing. Which is no bad thing, for Sibelius is as good a symphonic model as any and he also happens to be one of my favorite composers. Richard Whitehouse, in his notes to this wonderful performance by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra under Kenneth Schermerhorn[1], also alludes to similarities with Arnold Bax’s work. This seems perfectly natural considering Bax, like many English composers of the time, was also influenced by Sibelius.

Despite the clear influence of Sibelius, Hanson has his own voice. It seems most evident through an edgy and intense rhythmic thrust, the characteristic that seems most typically American here. There are also folk music-like elements in the melodies, nothing that unusual at the time (1922) as many symphonic composers were doing much the same, but there is a slight American tinge to these even if they are not as clearly delineated as others (such as Copland or Thomson) would make them. Hanson makes full use of the size and dynamic range of a Late Romantic-period orchestra, indeed in much the way that Arnold Bax (who drew heavily on Celtic folk melody) does with his seven symphonies and many tone poems. This is big music. A very enjoyable symphony, and if it does lean closely on the North European model, is that necessarily a bad thing? Abstract music once again, Corporeal only in the implied sense of a dramatic program (a characteristic of many Late-Romantic symphonies).

Once again, this is a Naxos recording – more kudos to them.

[1] Hanson, Howard Orchestral Works Vol. 1 Nashville Symphony Orchestra cond. Schermerhorn Naxos 8.559072

More Roy Harris

So why has it taken me half a lifetime to hear anything by Roy Harris except the 3rd Symphony? It’s an interesting question, explained partly by the rarity of recordings of the rest of Harris’ repertoire, and partly by the fact that Symphony No. 3 is so complete within itself that I feel that there is no need to hear anything else.

Used to feel, that is. Now that Naxos (a CD label that has surely done more to promote classical music that any other, both through its aggressively low pricing and its concentration on good performances of as much music as possible) has put out a CD[1] of Harris’s 7th and 9th Symphonies, plus a memorial piece for John Kennedy, I have had a chance to listen to more.

And guess what – they are just as attractive as the 3rd! All the elements of Harris’s compositional style are there; the rich melody and melodic development, the swift passage of melodic fragments from one instrument or instrumental grouping to others, the rhythmic vitality, the weight and seriousness of purpose. The harmonic shifts that are so characteristic of this composer, based upon the inherent tension between the major and minor triads and his use of distantly related simple chords are there in spades. (See Kingman pp. 371-376 for a very nice analysis-for-dummies of the 3rd Symphony and Harris’s style.)[2]

No other composer writes in quite this way, and to hear Harris manipulate fresh and interesting material with these symphonies is a real treat. Hopefully Naxos will get around to recording his entire symphonic output (a new recording of the 3rd and 8th symphonies is in the way). The current recording was made with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine of all places, and it is surely ironic that these vital American symphonies are getting a splendid and enthusiastic workout from the not-long-ago foes of the Cold War.

It took a little while for the 3rd Symphony to grow on me, and as I listen again to these new recordings, I feel the same process at work. For all the instant attractiveness of Harris’s melodies, it is the way he develops those melodies that really grabs you. This is Abstract music in the Partch scale, but, like the 3rd, just a hint of a dramatic & an implied program (particularly in the 9th where the three movements are entitled “We The People…”, “…to form a more perfect Union” and “…to promote the general welfare” respectively) to give it a touch of the Corporeal.

“…to promote the general welfare” – how quickly that gets forgotten.

[1] Harris, Roy Symphonies Nos. 7 and 9 National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine cond. Kuchar Naxos 8.559050

[2] Kingman, Daniel American Music: A Panorama 2nd Ed. Thomson Schirmer 2003

The Steets Of Laredo

I first listened properly to this song thanks to John Cale, who has a propensity for taking a well-known song and applying a near-malevolent twist to it. Perhaps his most successful, and certainly well-known reconstruction, in this vein is Elvis Presley drama Heartbreak Hotel which exists in two recorded versions[1].

But my favorite reworking is the gloom-laden version of The Streets Of Laredo that John Cale recorded on his Honi Soit[2] album in 1981. This a stark and bleak recording, with prominent drum beat and Cale’s on-the-verge-of-dementia voice right up front, and it is hard not to consider that this performance led Nick Cave (at that time thrashing away with The Birthday Party) along the pathway to his solo career as modern balladeer.

I had the opportunity to reconsider this song thanks to the collection “Back In The Saddle Again[3]”, a double CD set of cowboy ballads spanning the 1920s to the 1980s that I picked up as part of the background listening for my current music course.

Here we have the song performed as an accompanied ballad by John G. Prude, and is a good example of a naturalized ballad. It derives from the old British broadside (i.e. printed) ballad “The Unfortunate Rake”[4], but changes the words to place the story in an American context. Note that this is not a native ballad, i.e. a story that derives directly from American folk history.[5]

Interestingly, Mr. Prude lives up to his name by changing to the cause of the poor young cowboy’s demise to a shoot-out at a gambling house. The subject of the original ballad dies as a result of venereal disease (syphilis most likely) contracted via a much less respectable sin. John Cale restores an ambiguity to the cowboy’s demise, adding considerably to the ballad’s innate menace. Mr. Prude’s version, at a much faster tempo, and concerned perhaps rather more with sustaining the melody than the drama of the tale is a good example of an old and authentic version that does not necessarily triumph artistically over later recreations. Thoroughly Corporeal though.

[1] John Cale, Heartbreak Hotel on June 1, 1974 Island Masters 842552and Slow Dazzle Island CD 846069

[2] John Cale Honi Soit A&M 64849

[3] Various Artists Back In The Saddle Again New World Records 80314-2

[4] Ibid. p. 12

[5] See Kingman American Music: A Panorama 2nd Ed. Thompson Schirmer pp.7-12

From the sublime to the ridiculous?

It’s hard to listen to the CD compilation, The Early Minstrel Show,[1] without wanting to cringe, yet the music is so infectious and the sound (fiddle, banjo, tambourine and bones) is so attractive that it is quite disarming.

Disarming, perhaps, if you are white like me. For the music is in large measure nothing more (and nothing less) than Anglo-American folk music transferred to this unusual instrumental combination, and is as attractive as any conventional folk music in that style. But the songs are so laden with stereotype, so insistent on referring to African slaves or freemen through the exclusive filter of their color (“nigger”, “darkie”, “colored”, “yellow”), and so reluctant to assign qualities that rise higher than those one might attribute to a pet or farm animal, that is painful to listen to them.

Even the songs that actually attempt to highlight the inhumanity of slavery, such as the potentially touching Lucy Neal where the loving pair are separated by the hard-hearted slave dealer never really dignify the black man with the humanity that whites so freely assume they possess in excess.

No wonder musicologist and musician Robert Winans states in the CD notes that ‘the minstrel show helped create or reinforce negative stereotypes of blacks that have plagued American society ever since[2].” (Stereotypes that were alarmingly trotted out once again as African-American survivors of the New Orleans floods ‘looted’ shops for desperately needed water and food.)

The set begins with Dan Emmett’s De Boatmen’s Dance, as catchy a tune as one could wish for, and one of the least distressing songs lyrically. The instrumentals are all fun, jigs and reels transposed to the wonderfully colorful instrumental combination, and one of the solo banjo pieces, Dan Emmett’s Pea Patch Jig, shows an African influence in its use of syncopation. A precursor to ragtime from around 1850. The songs use racist stereotypes for amusement, and it is not hard to see why they would be very popular in a fundamentally racist society.

So do our changed attitudes today negate any worth whatsoever in this music? On one level, yes. It is simply impossible to listen to this music without applying the constant caveat that this is historical, of its time and place. But there is no reason why the lyrics could be changed and the same entrancing melodies and instruments be applied to music apt for our time. It certainly sounds a lot more fun than much of what passes for popular music today. And, yes, this is splendidly Corporeal.

[1] Vincent Tufo, Percy Danforth, Matthew Heumann, Robert Winans, David Van Veersblick, Peter DiSante, and Roger Smith The Early Minstrel Show New World Records 80338-2

[2] Ibid p. 2

Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E Flat Major, No. 62 (Hob.XVI_52)

From the earthiest of Corporeal American folk music to a sublime European artistic statement of the Enlightenment comes Franz Joseph Haydn’s Keyboard Sonata in E flat major. Composed for the pianist Therese Jansen, and intended (initially) for the ears of England’s upper classes, this is music miles away in purpose and composition from the simple folk melodies of the rural working man.

Listening to it today, beautifully performed by John McCabe[1] and completely out that original context, it comes across as music of the highest order of composition and supremely emotive and moving as well. Personally, it is my favorite work of the Classical era, finer to my ears than any work by Mozart or the early Beethoven. This is Partch’s Abstract music, and when I hear it I almost think that there is no need for Corporeal music at all! But I know that I would overdose on a diet of nothing but this, and a dip, for example, into Gypsum Davy (Jean Ritchie wonderful performance of The Gypsy Davy) would be the necessary restorative.

This sonata is followed on the same CD by Haydn’s Variations in F minor (Hob.XVII_6), a work that I hold in about the same esteem in relation to the compositional style of variation as I do the Sonata in E flat major to the sonata form. It does not aspire to the epic length and complexity of Bach’s preceding Goldberg Variations or the Beethoven Diabelli Variations that would follow, but it is perfect within its more constrained proportions. Working in Haydn’s favor is an extraordinarily moving and unrestrained (in contrast to the rest of the work) outburst towards the end of his work that seems to lift the piece into another world. As this dies away, and the measured manner of the rest of the work returns, it is hard not to consider that you have been on a great journey to return to the stability and comfort of your own home. And all of this is accomplished in about a minute and a half!

[1] Franz Joseph Haydn The Piano Sonatas, John McCabe, piano. London 443785

Roscoe Holcomb

Last night I watched and heard the Appalachian amateur folk-singer, Roscoe Holcomb, performing courtesy of John Cohen’s documentary film “The High Lonesome Sound”. As shown in that early 1960s movie, Holcomb is a lean and gaunt man of brooding intensity, and his urgent guitar (some of which I hear in the guitar style of Bob Dylan) plus his extraordinarily powerful vocals produce a riveting and unique sound.

A unique sound I was sure I had heard before. But where?

And then I remembered. He performs on the soundtrack of Michaelangelo Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point”, the film Antonioni made after “Blow Up“. Another powerful movie, if not in the same class as “Blow Up”, that I saw years ago and left many images, sounds and scenes in my mind. Another little tie-in between my varying interests – I love these! The film was also the first place where I heard what remains my favorite Rolling Stones’ song You Got The Silver (one of Keith Richards’ very few vocals with the band). That one never made it to the soundtrack album but is available on Let It Bleed, thank goodness.