Saturday, January 31, 2015

Philip Glass: Speaking In The Most Elegant Language

The American composer, Philip Glass, turns 78 today. For a long time his work has been described as minimalist, but it seems anything but "minimal." Listening to Glass is often more an experience where one can get "into" the music as a participant rather than merely observe. Even at its simplest, his work has complexities in tone, harmony, tempo and orchestration. For one thing, Glass counts. He plays by the numbers, practicing his musical arithmetic adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, and even solving some algebraic formulas here and there. In the end, music to Glass seems like mathematics. Perhaps that's as it should be - he studied mathematics and philosophy at the University of Chicago. Fortunately for our culture, popular as well as haute, he became an extraordinary, prolific composer and a significant international influence in the music world.

View a three-minute 2012 BBC Hardtalk interview with Glass here.

Below is the final movement of Glass's Violin Concert No. 2, The American Four Seasons, composed in 2009. 

We close with "Knee Play 5" from Glass's 1975 opera, Einstein on the Beach, a work that has been called the composer's watershed piece as well as a defining experience in 20th century classical music.   

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Frederick Delius: A Cry Of The Soul

If you have read this blog for more than a few months you know I enjoy a variety of musical genres. Personally, the choice of a favorite kind of music is impossible but there are favorites in each of those niches. In the world of the classics, the choice is Frederick Delius (1862-1934), an English composer noted for his lyrical and innovative music.  I remember sitting at home with my dad in 1968, both of us reading, with the television providing nothing more than background noise. Suddenly there was the sound of amazing new music. The program was a broadcast of Ken Russell's film, Song of Summer, a biographical window into the story of Delius and his music in his last years.  His music has been with me since that day. And it's been a pleasure watching the growing appreciation of the man and his music over these decades.

Delius portrait by his wife, Jelka Rosen, 1925

Delius is an interesting character in western music. He patterned much of his style 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 American working on his father's grapefruit plantation near Solano Grove, Florida. The result was simply beautiful, but I think appropriately described as an acquired appreciation. 

Years ago, I had the opportunity to sit alone on a dock watching the sunset across the St. Johns River not far from Solano Grove. This music was in my head, and all the beauty of La Florida was in my heart. Delius had likely walked the river edge, watching the same sun glistening on the water, hearing the songs of the workers blending with those of the insects and the wind rustling the reeds and nearby palmettos, feeling the evening move over the landscape. It was an immersive experience for me. Events like that become fixed in memory. They emerge as compelling memories meant to be shared. I'm more than happy to share this one and encourage readers to continuing exploring its subject.

Music is a cry of the soul. It is addressed and should appeal instantly to the soul of the listener. It is a revelation, a thing to be reverenced.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Frederick Delius

This post commemorates his birth on this day 153 years ago. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Stephane Grappelli: Inventor Of The Jazz Violin

Stephane Grappelli, the unsurpassed master of the jazz violin, entertained audiences almost to the very day he died in 1997 at the age of 89.  There was happiness and optimism in virtually every note of his music, even when those notes brought nostalgia and its touch of sadness to mind. No question he loved what he did and it flowed straight to his listeners. I doubt his songs ever came to an end without a sea of smiles in the audience.

Here is Grappelli in late 1995 performing with Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar, John Burr on bass, and guest guitarist, John Pizzarelli, at the famed Blue Note Jazz Club in New York.

Grappelli was born is Paris, grew up poor and made a marginal living as a self-taught street violinist and silent film accompanist on the piano. In 1934 he met a gypsy guitarist named Django Reinhard - we commemorated his birthday a few days ago -  and with him formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France, an ensemble that would make history in the world of jazz and popular music.

Grappelli made his American debut in 1960, long after the Hot Club dissolved, and enjoyed a second career playing to admiring fans around the world for the next 35 years. I find it interesting 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 so many years.

Here is one example of that entertainment, a stunning performance of Nuages, a jazz standard composed by Django Reinhardt. The recording features Grappelli with Oscar Peterson on piano, Joe Pass on guitar, and Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen on bass. 

Yep. Simply stunning.

To conclude, here is the Quintette du Hot Club de France in their classic performance of Minor Swing, composed by Reinhardt and Grappell in the mid-1930's:

Yes, it's another jazz standard, and still going strong after eighty years. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Cold Genius Brings Winter To The East

While light snow and black ice visits the Georgia mountains tonight much of the Northeast braces for what may be a record breaking blizzard.  Variances come with all the seasons but for those who prefer warmer climes the thought of sub-freezing temperatures, howling winds and depths of drifting snow measured in feet, It is enough to awaken the chills and shivers. And who would expect to find a 325 year-old song about such an awakening? It comes from a dramatic opera, King Arthur, by Henry Purcell with a libretto by John Dryden. It is to say the least a most unusual four minutes of music. What more could you expect when Cupid rouses Cold Genius, the spirit of Winter?

What power art thou, who from below,

Hast made me rise unwillingly and slow,
From beds of everlasting snow?
See'st thou not how stiff and wondrous old,
Far, far unfit to bear the bitter cold,
I can scarcely move or draw my breath;
Let me, let me freeze again to death.

Inventive pieces of music both stand alone and also lead to imitation. I hope you enjoyed this sound discovery on its own merit and identifying the more familiar chain of music it inspired over the centuries.

May you stay warm while Cold Genius is awake these next few days.

Cold Genius as portrayed by Klaus Nomi, 1982

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Winston Churchill: He Passed Away Fifty Years Ago Today.

There were several Internet references to this anniversary but none better than three posts by Instapundit's Stephen Hayward that appeared in the last three days. Keen observation and much to ponder here about an extraordinary man and his legacy.

Churchill in 1895

The Lion at 10 Downing Street in 1940

Churchill with his son and grandson in 1953

Friday, January 23, 2015

Django Reinhardt: "...Among The Few Great Inimitables Of Our Music..."

Andres Segovia, Wes Montgomery, B.B. King, and Jimi Hendix. All masters at the guitar. And then there is Django Reinhardt. 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. 

Django Reinhardt, New York, 1946

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. Here is an entertaining musical link to an NPR Jazz Live blog expanding on Reinhardt's legacy. We commemorate his birthday today (in 1910) with this documentary excerpt:

We'll be writing more about Reinhardt's friend and co-founder of the Quintette du Hot Club de France, Stephane Grappelli, in a few days.  

The title quote by Duke Ellington appears in his autobiography, Music is My Mistress (1976). 

Photo credit: William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress

Monday, January 19, 2015

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2015

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Credits: NPS

Friday, January 16, 2015

Retiring To New Opportunities: Two Legendary Educators You May Know

Talley Kirkland
In the past few weeks two of the nation's finest Civil War interpreters/educators, Talley Kirkland and Richard Hatcher, retired from their respective positions at Fort McAllister State Park, south of Savannah, Georgia, and Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston, South Carolina. Kirkland's departure was proceeded by his earlier retirement after thirty years of service at Fort Pulaski National Monument, a National Park Service (NPS) site east of Savannah. Hatcher also had prior NPS assignments at Kings Mountain National Military Park, Colonial National Historical Park, Gulf Islands National Seashore, and Wilson's Creek  National Battlefield. 

Both could have easily chosen an academic track teaching at the university level, archival work in the museum field, authorship of several books of note or management of any of our historic parks and resources from the Civil War era. Instead, they chose to stay close to what is known in the NPS as interpretation.  The term originated in 1896 with the great American naturalist, John Muir, who wrote in his notebook about Yosemite Valley, California: 

I'll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and the avalanche. I'll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.

Defining interpretation is much akin to herding cats. It isn't easy because it encompasses the heart (emotion) as much as the brain (reason).  After a century or so the concept remains a process. Today, the NPS says that interpretation:

facilitates connections between the interests of the visitors and the meanings of the artifacts, collections or natural resources of a site. It is these personal connections and powerful meanings that visitors will remember long after their site visit, more so than the tactics involved in a battle, or the names of wetland species. Truly meaningful interpretation relates what is being interpreted to the hearts and minds of the audience and answers the question “Why should I care?” 

Rick Hatcher, the longtime historian at the Fort Sumter National Monument, will retire today.
Richard (Rick) Hatcher

Kirkland and Hatcher have devoted a combined eighty years of their storied careers connecting national and state park visitors to historic resources, to themselves, and to the visitor's conscience.. They did it in blistering summer heat, frigid cold, flood tides, prejudice, and the most wretched circumstances of political correctness. Believe me, they are storied because I can document them having known and worked with both characters for most of those years.  What is remarkable about them is their dedication to authenticity, accuracy, and the understanding of the everyday life of ordinary people. And even more remarkable is the reach of their wisdom. In the college classroom, they could have touched a few hundred a semester, In books and museum exhibits, their touch - impersonable but still meaningful - would have reached many thousands. As field interpreters/historians they had daily face-to-face contact with visitors. In eighty years, I am confident they have talked to millions of them - and you could have easily been one - about the American Civil War, Billy Yank and Johnny Reb, the strategies and tactical engagements, the aftermath, and the impact of the war and its consequences on the contemporary American experience. They helped people understand not only who they were as Americans but why they were. Such revelation can be powerful. For a fact, they have met more than one Wall Street banker who would have traded places on the spot to be paid a modest salary and have the honor to do what they did.

My thanks and congratulation to both Talley and Rick on the conclusion of their park careers and the beginning of new lives within the bounds of their own work schedules. They are going to love the flexibilities and possibilities that await them. Legends are made of such lifetime devotions. I am honored to call them both colleague and friend and look forward to seeing where their futures take them.

Kirkland photo: Jamie Parker/Bryan County Now
Hatcher photo: Post and Courier, Charleston, South Carolina

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Day Of Revelation - Epiphany 2015

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

The Adoration of the Kings                                                 William Blake, 1799

There is but one popular American carol for the celebration of Epiphany. It was written by the Episcopal clergyman, John Henry Hopkins, Jr., and appeared in print in 1863 in a collection of his sacred music.

And here is a piece I first wrote in 2009 about the celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas, an event that often ends in Twelfth Night parties or the presentation of gifts on Epiphany:

We can only imagine what it must have been like to celebrate Christmas for twelve days. The festivities, including the giving of one gift a day, then opening all of them on Twelfth Night or the following day (Epiphany), must have delighted children. I suspect that a few of those gifts were modest by today's standards, perhaps as simple as an orange or bag of special candy. My dad once told me that as far back as he could remember, his Aunt Lizzie 

(shown here in 1912 when she was 24) had always given her nieces and nephews several gifts, including a popcorn ball wrapped in colored cellophane. I'm sure they were a part of Lizzie's childhood in the late 1880s and 90s when popcorn was wildly popular. Like many women of her era Lizzie never married, choosing instead to care for her parents and brothers. When my dad's generation married and had children of their own, she continued her generosity, including the distribution of those popcorn balls up through her last Christmas in 1958. By that time, her popcorn ball making had turned into a small industry - we were a large family.

And so, every Christmas for my first twelve years, I eagerly accompanied my parent to Lizzie's home to exchange gifts and return home with a bag of popcorn balls. For some reason, my parents never carried on Lizzie's tradition, nor have I.  It may be too late for my kids, and grandchildren are rather unlikely in the near future. Still, I think it's never too late for my wife and me to enjoy a batch.

Aunt Lizzie's Christmas Popcorn Balls

8 cups of popcorn
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup of sorghum syrup
1/3 cup of water
1/4 cup softened butter
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla

Combine the sugar, sorghum, water, butter and salt in a saucepan over medium heat and stir until sugar dissolves. Continue cooking until the mixture reaches about 250 degrees or hardens when dropped into cold water. Remove from heat, stir in the vanilla, and pour over the popcorn. Working quickly, mix thoroughly, butter your hands and shape popcorn into balls about four inches wide. Let them cool on wax paper. Wrap each ball in red or green cellophane and secure with a ribbon. Distribute to wide-eyed youngsters or oldsters alike.  

Sounds like a tradition in the making.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Happy Birthday, Iris Dement

Arkansas's country/folk fusion singer and songwriter, Iris Dement, turns 54 today. Her melody remains as sweet as ever and her songwriting timeless.

From 1992:

And you know the sun's settin' fast,
And just like they say, nothing good ever lasts.
Well, go on now and kiss it goodbye,
But hold on to your lover,
'Cause your heart's bound to die.
Go on now and say goodbye to our town, to our town.
Can't you see the sun's settin' down on our town, on our town,

Up the street beside that red neon light,
That's where I met my baby on one hot summer night.
He was the tender and I ordered a beer,
It's been forty years and I'm still sitting here.

But you know the sun's settin' fast,
And just like they say, nothing good ever lasts.
Well, go on now and kiss it goodbye,
But hold on to your lover,
'Cause your heart's bound to die.
Go on now and say goodbye to our town, to our town.
Can't you see the sun's settin' down on our town, on our town,

It's here I had my babies and I had my first kiss.
I've walked down Main Street in the cold morning mist.
Over there is where I bought my first car.
It turned over once but then it never went far.

And I can see the sun's settin' fast,
And just like they say, nothing good ever lasts.
Well, go on now and kiss it goodbye,
But hold on to your lover,
'Cause your heart's bound to die.
Go on now and say goodbye to our town, to our town.
Can't you see the sun's settin' down on our town, on our town,

I buried my Mama and I buried my Pa.
They sleep up the street beside that pretty brick wall.
I bring them flowers about every day,
but I just gotta cry when I think what they'd say.

If they could see how the sun's settin' fast,
And just like they say, nothing good ever lasts.
Well, go on now and kiss it goodbye,
But hold on to your lover,
'Cause your heart's bound to die.
Go on now and say goodbye to our town, to our town.
Can't you see the sun's settin' down on our town, on our town,

Now I sit on the porch and watch the lightning-bugs fly.
But I can't see too good, I got tears in my eyes.
I'm leaving tomorrow but I don't wanna go.
I love you, my town, you'll always live in my soul.

But I can see the sun's settin' fast,
And just like they say, nothing good ever lasts.
Well, go on, I gotta kiss you goodbye,
But I'll hold to my lover,
'Cause my heart's 'bout to die.
Go on now and say goodbye to my town, to my town.
I can see the sun has gone down on my town, on my town,

From 2001, with John Prine and his song from the film, Daddy and Them:

From 2012 the title song from her album, Sing the Delta - the Arkansas delta, that is.

So you're headed down a Southern way,
passing thru the Delta some time today?
In my mind, pictures line the walls
of a place I used to know, and vividly recall
I love you so much, and you sure sing good
and it would mean so much to me, if you would
Sing the Delta a love song for me!

It's the land where the cotton used to grow
that owns a piece of my heart and soul.
It's where my people, on both sides, going back
eked-out a liven' farmin' and fillin' them ole' cotton sacks.
Dad took us West when I was a little child.
But it's in my blood, and it's still flowing strong and wild.
Sing the Delta a love song for me!

Sing the Delta a love song for me!
Lay it down on that ole river, let it roll on out to the sea!
The Delta lived in my Momma's voice and in her hands
it's a language my spirit understands, so
Sing the Delta a love song for me?

You give it all just the way your Daddy does,
you both got your demons, but they're cloaked in love.
And I know that life's puttin' your callin' to the test,
But you've got somethin' that sets you right up 'long side the very best.
So take that heart, good as Heaven ever made,
and that voice that lays like August in the shade,
and sing the Delta a love song for me!

Sing the Delta a love song for me!
Let it rock that old cradle and roll on out to sea.
I've been West, I've been East and North,
from that sweetness I just can't ever divorce,
Sing the Delta a love song for me.

She is a unique voice in American music and one of most talented songwriters of our time.