Thursday, September 22, 2005

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!

Monday, September 19, 2005

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

Saturday, September 17, 2005

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

Friday, September 16, 2005

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.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Our Prayer

Perhaps because I made it home on my bicycle without being drenched, or perhaps because I’ve been listening to American folk-religious music for much of the evening, I've just played The Beach Boys song, Our Prayer[1]. This also happens to be the opening song on Brian Wilson’s Smile[2], finally being put in its proper place. Either way, it’s a quiet, beautiful and contemplative a cappella piece far removed in mood from the fervent religious music that I heard earlier. This was the truly Corporeal (Partch would embrace this music with enthusiasm) earthy folk-spiritual music of the Kentucky Hills and Southern Bible Belt, be it fervent revivalism or enthusiastic shape-note singing. But the sound of The Beach Boys, albeit cleaned up and smoothed out, is clearly there in those throwbacks to an earlier period of American musical history.

Considering vocal harmony music was essentially the sole music of the earliest colonists, the use of it by Brian Wilson on Smile – a record that really does strive for a panoramic overview of all American music - seems most apt. Curiously enough, another record stemming from the heady rock experiments of the 1960s that strives (with even wider range) for a similar panoramic effect, namely Van Dyke Parks Song Cycle[3], begins with a bluegrass version of The Gypsy Davy! Another ancient stream. Note that Van Dyke Parks was also the lyricist for Smile. He must be a very interesting man.

[1] The Beach Boys Our Prayer from Friends/20/20 Capitol CD 31638

[2] Brian Wilson Smile Nonesuch 79846

[3] Van Dyke Parks Song Cycle Warner Bros 2-25856

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Messe de Notre Dame

The net effect of listening to all this music, the Webern Symphony included, is to push me to pull out a recording I have owned for a long time but not played recently. This is a thoroughly desirable consequence, I might add.

So I play the Messe de Notre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut[1]. This is a very old piece, predating the American Colonies by centuries, believed to have been composed in 1364. It is also the earliest 4-part polyphonic Mass by a known composer,[2] which puts it in at the dawn of polyphony. Music from this period seems relevant, at least in sound, to the polyphonic performances that I have been listening to over the past day, and listening to this performance reinforces that view. There is one aspect to this particular performance that is very important – particularly with reference to the psalms and hymns that I have heard. The director of this performance, Marcel Pérès, is very much aware of the contemporary performance practice that endeavors to recreate as authentic a reproduction of the music as heard in its own time as it is possible to achieve (not easy in relation to 14th century music). Thus he introduces variations in pitch, tempi, timbre, and volume plus ornamentations, glosses, alterations and micro-intervals that he believes more closely represent the performances of the period.

The net effect is to produce a performance that is not that different from the Gaelic rendition of Psalm 56 (described below), except that there is a technical facility and fluency in the performance of the Messe that is missing from the Psalm. Both are effective and both are moving. Listening to this extraordinarily densely textured music suggests that Partch[3], who regards Pope Gregory’s plainchant codification of the Mass as the first strike in the war of the Abstract vs. the Corporeal, a strike that led to a music inappropriate to the language and emotions of ordinary people, might have missed the boat here. For plainchant led directly to the early polyphony heard here which to my ears sounds as emotive and dramatic as any folk music, and even if the language is Greek and Latin, its meaning is quite clear. This is ritual music of the highest order.

Partch bypasses this aspect of medieval music entirely, preferring to concentrate on the secular folk art of troubadour and only reengaging with the ‘serious’ tradition around the time of Monteverdi[4]. I think if he had been aware (as very few were in the mid-20th century) of a church music performance in the style of this Messe, he might have revised his opinion. And let’s not forget that those highly expressive devices that Pérès applies here are equally applicable to plainchant. Plainchant may not have been nearly so plain and much closer the folk tradition.

[1] de Machaut, Guillaume Messe de Notre Dame performed by the Ensemble Organum, director Marcel Pérès, harmonia mundi HMC 901590

[2] Pérès, Marcel, notes to Messe de Notre Dame p.5

[3] Partch, Harry Genesis Of A Music 2nd Ed. Da Capo 1974 pp. 18-19

[4] Partch, Harry Genesis Of A Music 2nd Ed. Da Capo 1974 pp. 20-24

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

And Now For Something Completely Different

After all that highly Corporeal music, I feel an almost desperate yearning for the Abstract. Abstract as undiluted as I can get it. Which just goes to show, at least as far as I am concerned, I need to hear all types of music and get different types of satisfaction, of equal value to be sure, from them.

So I will close out the evening with Anton Webern's "Symphony", a work of fiendishly complicated structure and a 12-tone composition that avoids any recognisable tonality. There is no 'easy' melody. It's a work that seems static, almost like a sculpture, even though the msic does flow. I sometimes, while listening, imagine I am walking around a beautifully and perfectly proportioned geometric object, looking at it from many different points of view. Plato's 'heaven' perhaps. But on the other hand, I also find myself imagining a walk through the pristine clear air of an Alpine mountain valley, taking in the far from perfect yet equally beautiful world of Nature. So perhaps Webern's "Symphony" is not as Abstract as I might think, if such a real world program can arise in my mind.

Ultimately, it's clear, for me at least, that most music really cannot be split into the Abstract vs. Corporeal dichotomy as defined by Partch. As a concept, I am sure it helped Partch move towards his uniquely dramatic compositions - in instrumentation and tonality. It gave him the necessary theoretical grounding for his own work. Something many composers seem to need to be able to compose at all.

But perhaps the most extraordinary thing of all it that listening to this symphony, I hear something of the fuging tunes and Billings' canon. I will examine that conundrum later.

Most Corporeal to date?

I left one piece out of the list of folk melodies and hymns (below). I did this quite deliberately as this short excerpt, although obviously related to the other songs, is of such a strange and ethereal quality that it stands out. It's a rendition, in Gaellic, of Psalm 56, Verse 12, and is sung by a choir that sounds so ragged and untogether that the sound veers close to noise. But there is definitely a melody that rises and falls, following the lining out of the leader, even if the pitch and timing of the choir diverges from that line. It's an extraordinary sound of great power. I would judge that this is exactly the type of music that Harry Partch would call Corporeal - music that seems to spring directly from the voice and the word with no concession to the Abstract at all.

An evening of folk melody

All from the companion CD set to Kingman's "American Music". The folk songs, "Gypsy Davy", "John Hardy", the fiddle tunes, "Soldier's Joy", "College Hornpipe" and the country ragtime "Dill Pickles Rag", the play-party song "Old Man At The Mill", the protest songs "Farmer Is The Man" and "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around". Folk melody hymns - "Amazing Grace", and "Wondrous Love". William Billings' famous patriotic song, "Chester", a religious canon of his "Jesus Wept" and popular fuging tune, "Amity", by Daniel Read.

Strikingly almost all of these performances are for voice alone, or for voice as the prominent carrier of the melody. The few instrumental tunes for violin are 'vocal' in sound, with a tone that hews close to vocalising. The vocal music is clearly Corporeal as defined by Partch, falling into the class of story or drama. Only with the canon and fuging tune do we get any hint of the Abstract, but even here the words and their meaning are uppermost. In "Genesis Of A Music", Partch states that all purely instrumental music is Abstract, and so, on the face of it, the fiddle tunes should be grouped here (but then hedges by stating that program music tends towards the corporeal). The style and the melodic content of these folk melodies are so suggestive of drama that I prefer to group them as Corporeal, particularly in the light of Partch's later statements on Corporeality (see "Magical Sounds" and other comments below).

These are all good tunes and generally emotive performances (even if some are irritatingly truncated on the CD). But by the end I was hankering for something else - something Abstract.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Ol' Man River

The most famous song from Jerome Kern's "Show Boat", and perhaps most famously sung by Paul Robeson, this is another song that crops up on Jeff Beck's "Truth" - an album that is emerging upon re-listening as rather more than your conventional rock album. Indeed, the interest in folk idioms and musicals, as well as the more conventional rock and blues styles, places this album squarely into the exploratory 1960s and out of the the hard-rock continuum that was to follow, in part heavily influenced by some of the material on this very record.

On "Truth", "Ol' Man River" is sung by Rod Stewart, thus giving us an early taste of what would become the staple material in Rod's "American Songbook" late-career renaissance. His raw blues-rock voice really isn't that convincing with this type of material, but here he has youth and enthusiasm on his side and the effect is quite charming. He's helped by an unusual (for rock) arrangement with lots of rolling timpani fills (strong influence of "Sgt. Pepper"-era Ringo here), moody low-register organ, soul-style rhythm guitar and some very restrained and effective blues electric guitar fills by Jeff Beck. It is really a very fine performance. Strong on Corporeality.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Beck's Bolero

Interesting that Jeff Beck puts a version of "Greensleeves" on his "Truth", although rock musicians doing folk ballads at that particular time (1968) was in vogue. One only has to think of Jimmy Page redoing Bert Jansch's "Blackwater Side" as "Black Mountain Side" on Led Zeppelin I.

But I was not listening to Greensleeves but instead to another track from "Truth", "Beck's Bolero". This has to be one of the most exciting rock instrumentals ever recorded, with Jeff Beck's and Jimmy Page's guitar being pushed into other dimensions by the explosive drumming of Keith Moon. It's a bolero, easily recognisable as such to anyone familiar with Ravel's "Bolero" that is probably the most well known of all, but it's also a storming hard rock song, short and sharp and pulverizing. Recorded in the thickly compressed middle range that is characteristic of much mid-1960s pop music, the instruments appear to be glued to each other and when they all come together the dominant effect is of a surge of distorted and electric, almost electronic, sound over which Beck's eerie leads float. Wonderful music, and it would take a determined lo-fi enthusiast to replicate it today.

Barbara Allen

"Barbara Allen" is another venerable Scottish ballad, but one that seems to have put down particularly strong roots in the United States. Kingman states that as of 1962, there were 243 transcribed versions in the Library of Congress[1].

Is that why I find this maudlin ballad of a lovesick youth on his deathbed spurned by his prospective sweetheart so sentimental and unconvincing? Familiarity breeds contempt, and perhaps I have heard it a few times too many.

But I think it is more. Although the folk ballad is a tragedy it lacks the mystical or magical power that underlies many others, and, in doing so, loses a lot of impact. The denouement, where Barbara Allen, stricken by her conscience, lays down and dies is completely unconvincing in real terms. The final image, of the rose and briar rising from the adjacent graves of the putative lovers and winding around each other is effective as metaphor, but again seems overly sentimental.

But, evidently, my opinion is not shared by others. No song would have accumulated as many variants and as widespread a distribution without appealing to a large number of listeners and performers. Perhaps its very familiarity aided its success – many people react positively to the familiar and are less accepting of the new. Furthermore, it is a readily acceptable and understandable story, the common meter ballad is easy to sing, and song is most often set to an attractive and simple folk melody. Recipes for success. But give me “Tam Lin” any day.

“Barbara Allen” with its absolute emphasis on the words and drama of the ballad all molded by the individual style of the folksinger, is prime Corporeal music.

[1] Kingman, Daniel American Music: A Panorama 2nd Ed. Thomson Schirmer 2003 p.6

More music, more music, more music

To quote one of the jingles from The Who's "The Who Sell Out", a record that rises ever more in stature as perhaps the single greatest pop/rock album of the 1960s, despite quirks, one or two less than inspired songs and a concept that largely peters out before the end of the record.

But that's not really the point of this post which is simply to record that I have ordered a good chunk of the 'Further Listening' in Kingman's "American Music: A Panorama" that fills some of the large holes in my knowledge of American music - be it folk, spiritual and secular popular or classical. Feeling very excited about this, because it is a dip into the unknown and unheard. What was it John Cage said? The most exciting music is the music he has yet to hear - something along those lines. I feel much the same way.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Another Aside: An Interesting Emotional Reaction

I'm now diving into American music in earnest now; traditional and native ballads, musicals, orchestral music - a strange statement to make as I have always been listening to American music of this and other types practically my whole life, so what is different today?

What is unusual here in the concentration on American music. Already I feel myself recoiling from this nationalistic concept. Personally, I find it very hard to accept or even classify music along national lines. Even though Kingman in his book "American Music" is laying out a strong case for the establishment of a uniquely American series of musical forms - an argument that is irrefutable - I feel unhappy about it. Perhaps it is because I see music more as the product of individuals, who just happen to be living in one particular place. Maybe it is because whatever arguments any one nationalist is using are being used in precisely the same way and towards the same ends by his or her nationalist counterpart in another country! But, ultimately, this feeling derives more from the events of the past two weeks than anything else. The level of incompetence and failed leadership exhibited by government at all levels in response to Hurricane Katrina is not going to make anyone feel proud of a country represented by such lamentable qualities. At least the people have come through! But I expect more.

Magical Sounds, Visual Beauty and Experience Ritual

Magical Sounds, Visual Beauty and Experience Ritual are three qualities that Partch regards as paramount to his concept of music; indeed, he considers the very term 'music' in its modern iteration to be inadequate in the task of describing his art.

It's clear that his conception of Corporeality integrates these concepts - thus it is practically impossible to regard a recorded musical performance as Corporeal, however closely it may hew to the criteria described below (Abstract vs. Corporeal and More On Corporeality).

So am I wasting my time by trying to judge recorded music in Partch's terms? Perhaps, if I consider the full breadth of Partch's vision. However, despite these inevitable restrictions, I think it is still valuable to extrapolate from a recording a degree of greater (or lesser) Corporeality. I just have to be mindful that I am not fully embracing Partch's world by doing so.

By forcing me to consider music as a material that has ancient and omnipresent cultural roots, many of which have been forgotten, distorted or ignored by those of us living today, Partch, at the very least, serves to prompt me into an attempted reintegration of these fundamentals. How well I can succeed, I do not know.

More on Tam Lin

Rick Lee was kind enough to respond to an e-mail query concerning his version of Tam Lin, and told me that he used a modified version of an Irish melody from a song called "The Whin Blossom". He also sent me a lengthy quotation from his liner notes to "Natick" (which, of course, I neglected to read before e-mailing him...) pointing out that Tam Lin "is the resolution of the story of Thomas Rymer and The Wee Wee Man" (both recorded in Child) and is "excellent instruction in how to rescue someone from enchantment". Could these be the origin for the title of the Incredible String Band's "Wee Tam" - I think they are.

Excellent and very detailed instruction indeed. Lee points out that "the earliest printed fragment appears in Herd's Ancient and Modern Scots Songs, 1769, but the story is certainly much older." I have some investigating to do here.

More on Harry Partch

My good friend and music teacher, Ken, passed on these links to Harry Partch websites. These are well worth looking at for more information on the composer and his music.

First we have Corporeal Meadows, the official website of the Harry Partch Foundation.

Then, the Harry Partch Information Center, maintained by Newband, an Artist Ensemble in Residence in the Department of Music, McEachern Music Building, Montclair State University, New Jersey.

Finally, a webpage on Harry Partch's instruments, from the American Public Media's "American Mavericks" series, maintained by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. This is especially fascinating as you can use this to sound out both the pitches and timbres from Partch's extraordinary collection of self-designed instruments. For example, here is a link to Partch's bass marimba. This one is a lot of fun!

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Tam Lin

“Tam Lin” is a very old Scottish folk ballad that I was first introduced to on Fairport Convention's groundbreaking British folk-rock album, "Liege And Leif[1]", way back when I was a teenager. I can thank my friend Mark Judd again for this one - he was exploring folk music well before I developed an interest in it.

The Fairport Convention version is a dramatic rock-ballad rendition, with full electric guitar and electric fiddle, and is one of the best vehicles extant for the late-lamented Sandy Denny. She is easily my favorite female folk singer.

But, in what appears to a rather remarkable premonition, a few months ago I felt the desire to hear alternative recordings of this song, and I found a very different recording by the New England folk singer, Rick Lee[2].

In marked contrast to the dramatic approach taken by Fairport, Rick Lee adopts a gentle piano accompaniment to the ballad and puts the words up front. Corporeal music through and through here.

I then came across this very same ballad printed in the Quiller-Couch “Oxford Book Of English Verse[3]” (although why “English”!) and, lo, I have the material for one Kingman’s project questions – “Find an example of a traditional ballad sung by a present-day professional singer and compare it with a version in a printed collection…”. I’ll have to transcribe Rick Lee’s words from the recording, but there we have it. Plus it is a very good ballad.

Now if that isn’t serendipity, I don’t know what is.

I might even feel compelled to compare Lee’s version to Fairport’s, as the printed version of “Tam Lin” is very long (52 verses to be precise), and it will be interesting to see which verses the two versions share and which are unique.

Interestingly, in the Quiller-Couch, “Tam Lin” is followed immediately by “Sir Patrick Spens” – another song recorded by Fairport Convention and another of my favorite folk ballads. Also within is “Barbara Allen’s Cruelty”, more of which later.

[1] Fairport Convention Leige & Lief 2002 Island Records IMCD 291/586 929-2

[2] Rick Lee Natick 1995 Waterbug Records WBG0016

[3] Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch ed. The Oxford Book Of English Verse 1250-1918 Oxford University Press 1979 Edition.

The Theatre Represents A Garden by John Woolrich

A piece composed 44 years after Partch by a composer born 7 years after the first edition of "Genesis Of A New Music". So what we have here are the thoughts of the late 20th century passed thorough the mind of one who was very young when the polemical wars of serialism vs. tonality were at their height, and who not that much older during the flowering of minimalism.

So what do we have here? What we have is Mozart. But not the Mozart we know and love, well not quite. Mozart's melodies, rhythm and harmony all seem to be here - but then they are not. Everything is gently altered, so that listening to this piece is akin to looking at a well-known painting through a thick and slightly distorting glass. The effect is not dissimilar to the strange feeling you get when listening to Webern's transcription of Bach's Ricecare from "The Musical Offering" where Webern's application of Schoenberg's 'klangfarbenmelodie' technique of orchestration has the effect of yanking Bach into the mid-20th century.

The overall effect is that of distancing, of forcing one to re-evaluate the familiar. This is clearly an Abstract approach in Partchian terms, perhaps the greatest so far in that the effectiveness of this piece relies on a complex set of pre-assumptions about the listener, from a knowledge of Mozart's music itself to an understanding of the development of music from Mozart's day onward.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Symphony No. 3 by Roy Harris

Next up on the listening list comes a piece that I have known well since I was a teenager. Indeed it is one of my favorite musical works. Significantly, Kingman devotes a lot of time to this symphony both in his text and on his accompanying CD set – it’s the longest single piece on a set that is composed of mostly very short performances. But his thoughts are not going to be part of this - I have deliberately not read his comment.

Actually, I cannot listen to Roy Harris’s 3rd Symphony without generating a considerable emotional response. There are few other pieces as weighty, with such gravitas, and with such such entrancing melodic invention as this. This was one of the first pieces of 20th century music that I fell completely in love with, and it sent me on a search through much of the 20th century repertoire to find similar works.

Now, looking back, I hear a lot of Paul Hindemith in this piece, particularly the Hindemith of Mathis de Mahler (1934) and Nobilissima visione (1938). Harris’s symphony dates from 1937-38, and although it is possible he was aware of Hindemith’s work, I sense that he arrived at his style in parallel. Other contemporary composers who plowed similar turf were the British composers Ralph Vaughan Williams and especially Edmund Rubbra. This was fertile ground.

The work begins with a melody in the low strings that echoes those of early church music and hymns and this sets the tone for the entire work. Similarly weighted counter-melodies from the mid-range strings are introduced, and the orchestration fills out with the introduction of low pitched horns. A slow and measured pace is maintained as melodic elements are repeated and used as the basis for slowly developing variations, migrating now to woodwinds and high strings. The whole effect of the work is of slow and inexorable growth and development. A less weighty passage in the middle of the symphony passes melodic fragments between woodwinds over a lightening string texture, moving to a faster paced interplay between horns that climaxes with all the instruments of the orchestral being joined by timpani. A general sense of playfulness and vitality emerges here – it really is hard not to imagine the buffalo roaming the plains and the galloping horses of the hunter at this point. Pizzicato strings and call and response phrases from orchestral groupings end this passage, and from below a stately hymnal string theme reemerges. This finally consolidates with the whole orchestra over a pronounced and steady kettledrum beat that continues with an almost unbearable emotional tension that is never really resolved despite a conventional symphonic ending. I always feel this is one classical work that it would be better to fade out rather than try to tie the loose ends. But no matter – it’s a marvelous work that has stood the test of time for me.

Oddly enough, it is the only symphony of Roy Harris that I know. His other work has been neglected by recording orchestras, and I’m looking forward to hearing a recent Naxos recording of his 7th and 9th symphonies. That’s on the way.

So were does this fit in the Partch analysis? Well, it is obviously an Abstract, highly composed, work for symphony orchestra. There is no explicit program. Moreover, the use of melodic elements that echo vocal techniques used in church music, place the ‘vocal’ elements of this work into the type of use that Partch regards as being far from Corporeal. Nonetheless, the work consistently suggests a program, that, along with its visceral power particularly in the final passage, leads me to give it a significant Corporeal quality.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Just an aside

Having skimmed through the “Classical Music” section of Kingman’s excellent introduction to American Music[1], I decided to check out just what I had in the American classical music line in my own collection. I was a bit taken aback at how much I already have. Not only the really big names like Copland, Barber, Ives and Cage, but Amy Beach, Paul Creston, Roy Harris, William Schuman, Gershwin, Diamond, Corigliano, Bazelon, Schuller, Hanson, MacDowell, Crumb, Partch, Glass, Carter, Sousa, Reich, Riley, Blackwood, Bernstein, Feldman, Griffes, Babbitt, Dett, Bolcom, Wuorinen…it goes on. Some of these composers (Ives, Copland, Barber, Cage, Wuorinen) are represented by a good number of recordings too!

The point is, much of this music is relatively unknown by me (having listened to it maybe only a couple of times or so) and now I feel a mental obligation to reengage with it! This is a rather daunting amount of listening. Still, without cause, it might very well remain unheard for some time yet (this is always the greatest peril of amassing a large recorded music collection).

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

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Howard Hanson & Gunther Schuller

Listened to two recorded symphonies by American composers this afternoon. Putative Abstract music by the Partch definition. Let's see how they held up to that classification.

The first, Symphony No. 6, by Howard Hanson is a broad romantic symphony very much in the tradition of Sibelius. Echoes particularly of Sibelius's 4th and 6th symphonies were very evident, as was the influence of Stravinsky's pre-WWI ballets. This piece seemed very European in origin and style. Yet there were elements of percussive playfulness and a surging energy that I associate with American music. But little that could be really Corporeal. This was a fine abstract piece, derivative perhaps, but satisfying.

The same could be said about Schuller's Symphony 1965, except that the European influences were not Sibelian but Schoenbergian. Schuller's work also showed the same playfulness that was found with the Hanson. It's almost as both composers respect and admire yet don't imbue the European elements in their composing with the same gravitas as one might find with a European composer. The second movement of Schuller's work sounds very much like Webern's Symphony, almost to the point of pastiche, but enjoyably so. Again there is lightness to this composing that reduces the overall seriousness of the music. There's also a more pronounced rhythmic verve than I hear in Webern, giving the work that nervous energy that may be the closest this piece gets to the Corporeal. Otherwise this is Abstract through and through.

Interesting, though, that both composers, to my ears at least, arrive at rather similar emotional results even though the formal and harmonic compositional styles are radically different. There is an American sensibility to these pieces.

Horny Frog

Continuing the blues theme, let's go back further to 1937 with Big Bill Broonzy's "Horny Frog". This adheres more closely (but not absolutely) faithfully to the standard (and by now essentially clichéd) 12-bar blues form than does Faron Young's country-blues song. Here too we have a small group accompaniment of string bass, two acoustic guitars, and piano.

Once again, the focus is on the expressive vocals with swoops and yells adding enormously to the sense of frustration and loss that is conveyed in what is essentially a story of unrequited love. Once again, bent and sustained acoustic guitar notes give a vocal quality to the instrumental breaks. Corporeal.

Listening to the earliest blues songs, it is instructive to hear how fluid the structure really is. It accomodates all sorts of unconventional bar-lengths and forms that really do seem to be tied far more to the vocal requirements of the song much more than you hear in later blues (and most particularly in the rock-blues of the 1960s and beyond where the structure seems almost fossilized). Consequently, these early recordings retain a freshness and power that later recordings can lack.

I'm A Free Man Now

Next piece of music up for the Partch analysis is a Faron Young obscurity (in contrast to the well-known "West End Blues") called "I'm A Free Man Now". Details of this recording are lost, but it appears to date from 1952, just before the advent of rock 'n' roll. Which is appropriate, as this tune is basically a mid-tempo blues with a pronounced drum accompaniment, and electric guitar breaks and fills that would soon crop up on a hundred rock 'n' roll and rockabilly records to follow. Subtract the steel guitar and country fiddle breaks, and you have would have a pure rockabilly song (if there is such a thing).

As with most blues songs, the vocal line is closely wedded to the accompaniment. Instrumental breaks - the bent notes of the lead electric guitar, the slide guitar glissandos and the expressively sour violin playing - all mimic expressive vocal techniques.

Thus, this is a highly Corporeal song, with only the basic adherence to the conventional 12-bar blues structure suggesting a more abstract formal quality. But even here there is the sense that the structure is strictly a framework for expression, not as an expressive end in itself.

Like many other strands in my musical experience, I came to Faron Young via an unusual circuitous route. In this case, it was a lovely Prefab Sprout song called "Faron Young"...

More on Corporeality

Reading further and deeper into Partch, I begin to get a deeper sense of his concerns about music. For Partch, the relationship between music and language is paramount. His preference for music that brings out the inherent drama of language has led him to construct his own 43 pitch scale capable of generating 28 different tonalities. Partch's system, which he calls Monophony, serves to generate music with obviously much greater microtonal flexibilty and adaptability that than derived from the conventional 12-tone system. Partch has the tools to generate music that can more closely follow the pitch-line of speech and recitation. In doing so, he brings his music back to the word and thus towards true Corporeality by his definition. [1]

Following on, it is true to say that any music that emphasises human drama (or comedy or any other similar human condition) expressed either directly (through sung or spoken words) or indirectly (through sounds that emulate the patterns of speech) is Corporeal. Early jazz falls largely into this category, as does most folk and popular music.

[1] Partch, Harry Genesis Of A Music Da Capo Press 1949, 1974

More on "West End Blues"

As I slipped off to sleep last night, that incredible opening trumpet solo of Louis Armstrong's on "West End Blues" kept playing over and over in my mind.

Gunther Schuller points out that "We are immediately aware of their terrific swing, despite the fact that these four notes occur on the beat, that is, are not syncopated, and no rhythmic frame of reference is set (the solo being unaccompanied). These four notes should be heard by all people who do not understand the difference between jazz and other music, or those who question the uniqueness of the element of swing. These notes as played by Louis - not as they appear in notation - are as instructive a lesson in what constitutes swing as jazz has to offer. The way Louis attacks each note, the quality and exact duration of each pitch, the manner in which he releases the note, and the subsequent split second silence before the next note - in other words, the entire acoustical pattern - present in capsule form all the essential characteristics of jazz inflection."[1]

Listening, it is not hard to see why that solo has become an icon of jazz music for it is truly perfect in structure and form. This is now about as abstract as it gets in Partch's definition, yet it is integral to and derives from the corporeal performance of the whole song. Confounding again

[1] Schuller, Gunther Early Jazz: Its Roots And Early Development, Oxford University Press, 1986, p 116

Saturday, September 03, 2005

West End Blues

In memoriam New Orleans, let's begin the Partch analyis with Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines' "West End Blues".

So what do have here? A series of instrumental call and response breaks, trombone and horseshoe-type percussion, a wordless vocal answering a clarinet, all overlaying a stately piano accented rhythm and chordal accompaniment. Beginning with concise solo trumpet and ending with a brief piano flourish, does this fit the 'abstract' instrumental model?

In one way, yes, for the mental sense is that this is beautifully proportioned blues, perfect in structure. But in another way, no. This music hews almost completely to the corporeal because every instrument here is 'speaking' with as much descriptive and emotive power as found in any dance or poetry-allied vocal performance. This is a lament, conveying a sense of loss and sadness, that cries out - no more so than towards the end when Armstrong begins his closing solo with a long held and stunningly emotive note that lifts the tune into another dimension. Spiritual, yes - that too.

"West End Blues" illustrates as much as anything the power of music to confound verbal description or classification, however hard and thoughtfully that we try.

Abstract vs. Corporeal

Just installed the blogger Word plug-in, so we will see how it works with this posting. Not well at all, I'm afraid. Oh, well.

I’m beginning a new course at Washington University about American music. Practically all American music – this course covers music from “Plymouth Rock to Rock ‘n’ Roll”! One of the requirements is to undertake six projects drawn from our text, Daniel Kingman’s “American Music: A Panorama”.[1] One of these particularly appeals to me.

This project suggestion is based on Harry Partch’s analysis of music as detailed in his book “Genesis Of A Music”. Partch has doggedly followed his own muse into composition and performance, devising both his own musical scale and his own instruments, but the project itself alludes not to Partch’s own compositional methods but his philosophy of music. Partch choses to classify music as gravitating towards two distinct poles, the corporeal and the abstract. He describes corporeal music as emotionally tactile; music that is not of “pure form” or appreciated on a mental or spiritual basis. He considers it to essential vocal or verbal. Abstract music, on the other hand, is distinctly mental or spiritual, instrumental in form (even when the instrument is the voice itself), and it based on a non-verbal “form”.[2]

Examples of Corporeal Music are:

Sung or chanted stories (includes much folk music).

Recited or intoned poems (some folk and popular music).

Dramas (e.g. early 17th century Florentine music dramas).

Narrative dance music - ancient or modern.

Examples of Abstract Music are:

Songs with words that convey mood, not meaning.

Songs or dramas with words rendered meaningless via compositional means.

All purely instrumental music, with or without program, although programmed music tends towards the corporeal (telling a story, much as ballet music may do).[3]

Kingman’s project suggestion asks which of the two types appeals most to you, and requests that you set up a diary recording the music you listen to over a period of time and discuss it Partch’s terms taking care to describe your own personal reactions. Already, a short consideration of music using these concepts begins to establish tensions – for an example is an acappella folk song transcribed for instrument or instruments suddenly converted from the corporeal to the abstract? Perhaps it is – much would depend on the musical knowledge of the listener. Someone who knew the words and message of the song would recall and re-associate those meanings upon hearing the instrumental message. Someone who did not, would not, and thus the work would fall into the abstract. Interesting concepts already.

Thus, this project, in the words of Peep, seems like “such a good idea”[4], that I shall do so and I will record my impressions in this blog as I go along.

[1] Kingman, Daniel American Music: A Panorama 2nd Ed. Thompson Schirmer 2003 ref p.419

[2] Partch, Harry Genesis Of A Music Da Capo Press 1949, 1974 pp. 8-9

[3] Partch, Harry Genesis Of A Music Da Capo Press 1949, 1974 pp. 9

[4] Peep And The Big Wide World, Canadian children’s video