Friday, January 31, 2014

Philip Glass: No Small Impact On Minimalist Music

Philip Glass  in 2007     

Philip Glass is quite probably the most well-known minimalist composer of our time. He was born in Baltimore and studied music at a very early age at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. At fifteen, he continued his musical training and studied mathematics and philosophy at the University of Chicago. Listeners cannot help but "count" in one way or another throughout all of his compositions. And his work is surely a Calculus in our own time, retaining its minimalist core wrapped in a stylistic evolution.

Here is an excerpt from his score for Koyaaniqatsi (1982), a  mesmerizing audiovisual feast by Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke  examining the interface of people, technology, and nature.  Glass's score for this film has become a signature piece, one that he and his ensemble have performed around the world for three decades. 

Koyaaniqatsi - now a cult classic - was the first of three films that have become known as the Qatsi Trilogy. Readers who enjoyed the clip may want to investigate further.

Here is a man who writes music for the horror film, Candyman, the science fiction film, The Truman Show, and the psychological drama, The Hours. Here is a man who writes music for opera...

... a piano concerto about the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06...

...and symphonies as well.

These are the days, my friends, and these are the days, my friends. Today is Philip Glass's 77th birthday.

Photo credit: Axelboldt, WNYC New York Public Radio

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Frederick Delius: Painting With Music

Frederick Delius                                         Jelka Rosen Delius, 1912

Years ago, I had the opportunity to sit alone on a dock immersed in a Florida sunset across the St Johns River not far from Solano Grove. This music was in my head:

I'd be perfectly honest saying that all the beauty of La Florida was in my heart that day. The sensations were obvious; the music of Frederick Delius made them sublime. A century earlier, he had likely walked that very shoreline, watched the same sun glistening on the water, heard the insects and the wind rustling the reeds and nearby palmettos, and felt the evening move over the landscape. 

Frederick Delius was born on this day in Yorkshire, England, in 1862. At 24, he lived the classic story of breaking away from the family business - wool, no less - to pursue a love for the arts, in this case, music. The break was interesting for it took him first to Solano Grove and an orange plantation on the banks of the St. Johns River south of Jacksonville, Florida. Later, he would teach music in Danville, Virginia, before returning to Europe for formal education in Germany. He took the sounds of American culture with him. In 1888, he settled in Paris, later married the painter, Jelka Rosen - she painted the portrait above - and devoted his life to composition. In his last sixteen years he was tortured by the pain of a slow death from syphilis contracted during his early years in Paris. In the four years before his death in 1934, he was blind and essentially paralyzed from the neck down. He composed and completed some of his most significant work during this period, all of it reaching paper through the notations of his loyal amanuensis, Eric Fenby.

Delius patterned much of his music after that of his friend and fellow composer, Edvard Grieg, but tempered it with English impressionism, his love of naturalism, and folk themes he heard among African Americans working on his father's grapefruit plantation near Solano Grove. The result was a unique and demanding music for performer and listener alike and one that almost demands an acquired appreciation. From his death until the 1970's many in the classical music industry thought his compositions were "too sweet" and trapped in immature cliches. Today, his popularity continues to grow but I believe he remains an underappreciated figure in 20th century music.  

Forty years have passed since that first sunset near Solano Grove. That's a long time to explore and mature in one man's music. It remains a most satisfactory experience - brushstrokes of sound. Different, immersive, and timeless.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Jhango, Stephane And The Quintette Du Hot Club De France

The Quintette du Hot Club de France                                              Paris, 1937

We're splitting the difference this year celebrating the birthdays of two of the most significant jazz musicians of the 20th century, the guitarist, Jhango Reinhardt and violinist, Stephane Grappelli, and their Quintette du Hot Club de France. Reinhardt was born on January 23, 1910, Grappelli on January 26, 1908. Together they entertained the world with the Quintette for about fifteen years beginning in the late '30's. Reinhardt continued performing until his death in 1953. Grappelli played on for another forty-four years until his passing in 1997. Alone or together, they were magnificent:

Rheinhardt brought a guitar sound like no other, and with good reason. He was a poor Belgian gypsy who as a young man played the guitar. When a trailer fire left him with a severely injured hand, he developed a new fingering style to compensate. It was a unique sound. In the early '30s he met the violinist, Stephane Grappelli, an equally free spirit in the early days of jazz. They would go on to form the "Quintette du Hot Club de France" and make music - and music history for the next twenty years.

Reinhardt died in 1953 at the age of 43, but his impact has lived on for decades. Even today, almost every celebrity guitarist in the world of popular music, jazz, blues and rock and roll would acknowledge Reinhardt as an influence in their music.

Like his friend, Jdango, Grappelli was a self taught musician who developed a unique playing style, and made a big influence in the world of music. Fortunately, much of that influence was direct as he outlived Reinhardt by nearly fifty years and performed with perfection almost to the end of his life on December 1, 1997.  He loved people almost as much as he loved music and brought his jovial, upbeat personality and style to audiences young and old, large and small.

It's interesting to note that Grappelli was almost forgotten in the U.S. until he began touring in the 1970s when he was well into his 60s. One would think that a jazz virtuoso would be well known in the country that birthed the genre. How thankful we should be that he was "rediscovered" here and lived to entertain us for another twenty years.

Monday, January 20, 2014

It's Nevermore For Poe's Toaster

Yesterday marked the 205th birthday of the American poet and writer, Edgar Allan Poe. It also marked the fifth year in a row that the famed "Poe Toaster" failed to make an appearance at Poe's grave bearing cognac and roses. I think it's fair to say that the toaster's last appearance in 2009 on the bicentennial of Poe's birth was a most appropriate one on which to end the tradition. 

The hoopla over the Poe Toaster will fade but we should do everything in our power to ensure that his subject be remembered as a monumental force in American literature. For a comprehensive exploration of Poe and his work, readers should visit the website of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore

Martin Luther King's Day, The Reverend's Day

Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964

Back in 2011, Redstate's Dan McLaughlin wrote a wonderful tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. And prior to McLaughlin, we have Scott Johnson contributing a Powerline post in 2005 including some of King's most prophetic and powerful words. Both posts are brief, very much to the point, and not to be missed.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Sound Discovery

Lately I have been exploring new music and found this.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.
Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.
Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.
I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.
If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.
If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.
Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples.
As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love.
If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love.
These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.
This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.

John 15: 1-14

What more need be said?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Today Is Elvis Presley's 79th Birthday

Elvis Presley on The Milton Berle Show, 1956
Imagine The King still with us and turning 79 today. He wouldn't need to swivel a hip or sing a note to lead news stories everywhere. Whether you're a fan or not, Elvis Presley occupies a big chapter in the history of the American experience and deserves the attention of readers - and listeners - young and old. In 2011, Powerline's Scott Johnson posted two fine stories about the "King of Rock and Roll." Your links are here and here. Neither story has much biography. The first relates the realization of what would become the Elvis persona. The second story details one of the strangest meetings of music and politics ever.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Carl Sandburg: Fanfare For The Birthday Of A Common Man

Today is the birthday of the American lecturer, journalist, poet, biographer, editor and folk singer, Carl Sandburg. He remains my favorite American socialist. Those of us who had a childhood in the 1950s grew up knowing Sandburg rather well as he enjoyed near iconic status as a literary figure. By 1950, his most significant work had already appeared but he maintained a busy working retirement at his farm, Connemara, located in western North Carolina, where he produced about one-third of his total literary output. 

Carl Sandburg, 1955                         Library of Congress Photo

Sandburg was widely known as the voice of the American people, especially the working men and women who built a new and prosperous nation out of dreams and sweat. In spite of his popularity, he was a family man at heart who loved the warmth and activities associated with his close-knit family consisting of his wife, Lillian Steichen Sandburg and their three children and their families. 

Here is Sandburg reading, The People, Yes, one of his most beloved poems. I find the video recreation of the poet's face to be a distraction, but the reading is electrifying.

There is much more on Sandburg and his family at the National Park Service website for Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site. Over the course of my career I had the pleasure of working several months with the staff and resources at this historic site. In fact, I was offered the opportunity to manage the place in the mid 90's. As time and fate would have it, my only direct association with Lillian and Carl Sandburg at Connemara will remain my late father-in-law's goat trading with them and their award-winning herd of Chikaming dairy goats.  

If you decide to read one biography, make it Penelope Niven's Carl Sandburg: A Biography (1991). Most enjoyable. 

The book store at the historic site has sold some fine goat milk cheese in the past. Remember to ask the staff if it's still available next time you visit.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Birthday For Iris Dement

Iris Dement, the versatile country, folk, and gospel singer-songwriter from Paragould, Arkansas, turns 53 today. She has the voice of a country angel who brings us home to familiar places and times in this journey we call life.

Writers for a National Public Radio "Soundstage" appearance in March 2013 had this to say about her:

DeMent grew up in rural Arkansas with 14 brothers and sisters, immersed in gospel music and traditional country. Not surprisingly, her voice sounds as if it comes from the previous century, but her songwriting often has as much in common with Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell as Hank Williams.
Merle Haggard once called DeMent "the best singer I ever heard," and her rendition of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" was featured in the closing credits of the Coen Brothers' remake of True Grit.

Here is a sample of Dement's songwriting and singing magic:

We are listening to someone on a journey over many paths. I trust she will find "the way."

Photo: NPR

Epiphany 2014

Today is Epiphany, a celebration of the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus, and their recognition or revelation of Him as the King of Kings.

Art for the day comes from the mind of William Blake, the great torchbearer in the forefront of the Romantic Era.

The Adoration of the Kings                                                   William Blake, 1799

We close with spoken words by T.S. Eliot. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Twelfth Day Of Christmas 2013-14

Twelfth Night (The King Drinks)                                    David Teniers, ca 1634

Today is the twelfth and final day of Christmas. This day is important among Christians who maintain liturgical traditions: it marks the end of the twelve day festival celebrating the birth of Christ, it is the eve of Epiphany, and it is the beginning of the carnival season ending with Mardi Gras and the beginning of Lent. Those who are reluctant to bid Christmas farewell can take heart knowing that the tradition of Christmastide extends through February 2 or Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. 

For some the Twelve Days of Christmas will end with elaborate costumes, masks, feasting, music, dancing, and theater at Twelfth Night festivities where misrule is the only rule. They are indeed topsy-turvy events. Only the Surveyor of Ceremonies will appear without a mask. He will direct the company through a series of games and other activities beginning with the distribution of the Twelfth Cakes.  When all the party goers have arrived, each will select a small festival cake or cake slice. Three of those cakes contain a hidden bean or token designating them as the king cake, queen cake and fool cake. The lucky holders of the royal cakes oversee the evening's activities before returning to their normal lives, most likely "below the salt." 

These Twelfth Night traditions have been part of western culture for over a thousand years. Some traditions carry over the night into Epiphany, January 6. This is the case in New Orleans where Twelfth Night parties have been popular for centuries due in part to their role as opening events of the Carnival season.

Here are three examples of the medieval sights and sounds Twelfth Night revelers can expect:


Friday, January 3, 2014

The Eleventh Day Of Christmas 2013-14

The penultimate day of Christmastide 2013-14 is upon us. I imagine this is a quiet day at home for most folks and today's illustrations will continue that theme...

Ice Pool                                                      Andrew Wyeth, 1969

Branch in the Snow                                   Andrew Wyeth, 1980

Shredded Wheat                     Andrew Wyeth, 1982

Music for the day follows the same theme...

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Tenth Day Of Christmas 2013-14

Continuing one theme from yesterday's post, for the tenth day you have your choice of pipers piping, ships a sailing, lords a leaping, drummers drumming, and cocks a crowing. And in case you didn't meet a chimney sweep on New Year's Day to ensure yourself a year of good luck, perhaps these postcards from the Wiener Werkstatte will work.

And if two chimney sweeps, a pig and pretty girl don't leave you with high hopes for the fortunes of the new year, this music should do it. 

The Ninth Day Of Christmas 2013-14

Today is the ninth day of Christmastide. According to the many versions of the English carol about these twelve days, on Day Nine you can have your choice of drummers drumming, lords a leaping, ladies dancing, pipers playing, or bears a beating. Today's art is a selection of New Year's greeting from the inventory of the Wiener Werkstatte art community active in Vienna in the early decades of the last century.

Music for today removes us from the crowds and noise we may have experienced hours earlier and takes us into the quiet of a starry winter night and the vastness of an new and empty year.