I know, another stretch of radio silence. And it's for the usual reasons! Busy at work, lots of writing tasks to complete, and last weekend and this coming weekend are long weekends for me, with lots of fun and exciting stuff, like our annual trip to Ithaca (though no Apple Festival, thanks to COVID), and a wonderful visit by my sister last weekend.
Also, I'm not gonna lie, folks, the impending election is taking up more and more of my brain cycles, the closer it comes. I try to maintain my optimism, but part of my brain keeps thinking about that scene from Schindler's List, when Schindler is bidding what he thinks is a final farewell to Itzhak Stern after the orders have come down to send everyone off to Auschwitz.
SCHINDLER: Someday...this is all going to end, you know. I was going to say that we'll have a drink then.
STERN: [reaches for glass] I think I'd better have it now.
And Schindler pours his unlikely friend and comrade a drink, as neither expects to see the other ever again.
I'm hoping, folks. I'm hoping.
On a somewhat cheerier, but also macabre, note, here's the most recent addition to my collection of Toby jugs. It's Anne Boleyn, whose fate is shown by the fact that the handle of the jug is the headsman's handle, with his hood.
"This is the weirdest three...combination of guys I've ever seen. One looks like a mechanic, the other one looks like he gets ALL the girls, and the other one looks like he's book-smart. They just decided to get together, like, 'Fuck it! We could all sing, let's do it!"
Here are four videos, all featuring the same song. But wait! There's a reason for this.
Earlier this year (or maybe it was last year!), Sheila O'Malley started linking what are called "reaction videos". In these, YouTubers record themselves in real time listening to something, usually a song, and they react in real time as they hear it for the first time. And it's not just new music, new hits: these reaction videos often feature young people digging back into the archives, to listen to old music, older music from their parents' or even their grandparents' generations.
And they are wonderful.
These people are encountering this music with an open-mindedness that is stunningly refreshing; they are coming to each song as if it's a new thing, and they aren't judging or being harsh in their summations. They smile and they laugh and they groove along with the music that they are choosing themselves. They are exercising their curiosity in a way that quite honestly gives me just a little hope in this point in history where, quite honestly, hope is a wee bit hard to come by.
So here are four reaction videos, in which four different young people react to the Bee Gees and "How Deep Is Your Love". They do occasionally pause the music to talk, they do swear, and the first guy is--gasp!--smoking.
A native of Buffalo who later moved to San Francisco to pursue her music career, Pamela Z is a composer and performer who works extensively with electronic sounds, vocal sampling, and other sonic augmentations to create works with an intriguing meditative quality. This particular piece puts her techniques on full display, as she augments a string quartet with electronica and recorded effects (much of which the listener will recognize) to create a piece that is at once meditative and disjointed, as the piece is continually interrupting itself.
I thought I had blogged about the current incarnation of the venerable comic strip Nancy at some point, but apparently I haven't! Or if I have, I can't find the post in the archives. Anyway, today's installment contains one sentence that almost made me literally squeal with delight when I read it. See if you can guess which sentence it was!
(I'll still write about Nancy sometime, but for right now, suffice it to say that its current incarnation is one of my favorite things. It has a very gonzo and off-kilter sense of humor right now that really does feel like Ernie Bushmiller's unique brand of zany, updated for 2020.)
Actress Diana Rigg has died. She lived a long life (82 years) and did a lot of amazing work, but for me, she will always be Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, also known as Tracy...who would, very briefly, be Mrs. James Bond. Rigg was the greatest Bond Woman in the long history of Bond Women, and she is a huge reason why On Her Majesty's Secret Service is the greatest Bond movie ever made.
Thank you for the wonderful work, Diana Rigg! Here's Louis Armstrong with his signature ballad from OHMSS.
I haven't posted any Beethoven in a while, which is strange since it's supposed to be a focus, given that 2020 is Beethoven's 250th birth year. But here's an interesting tidbit: even though it's Beethoven, we're not completely taking a break from my recent delving into the history of Black figures in classical music history.
This is not a tone poem by any definition, so I shouldn't even be using it here, but my house, my rules. It's a sonata for solo violin and piano. Beethoven wrote ten violin sonatas, which are among the greatest works ever written for the instrument. Beethoven's compositional mastery of the violin is astounding (as I'll discuss more when I finally get around to writing about his Concerto for violin and orchestra), and it shines forth here, in the Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major. This piece is often called the "Kreutzer Sonata", after violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, to whom Beethoven dedicated the work.
But that's where things get a little interesting, because Kreutzer took one look at the score, decided the piece was unplayable, and rejected it. But the dedication stood, which seems weird, doesn't it? If I dedicated a piece to a specific musician who then insulted it, I'm not sure I'd let the dedication stand. And Beethoven was no stranger to removing dedications from his works, as we know from the Eroica symphony and...this very violin sonata.
For Rodolphe Kreutzer was not Beethoven's first choice of dedication. That honor went to violinist George Bridgetower, a Black violin virtuoso who had already disproved Kreutzer's notion that the sonata was "unplayable" by not only playing it, but by sightreading it. Bridgetower was one of the greatest violinists of his day, and he lived a long life mostly in England. He also did some composing of his own, but it's as the original honoree of Beethoven's Ninth Violin Sonata that he caught my attention.
Bridgetower's falling out with Beethoven is also a rather odd story. Apparently Bridgetower was out on the town with the great composer, when he made some insulting comments toward a woman, without knowing that the woman was a personal friend of Beethoven's. This was the impetus for Beethoven to rip off his original dedication and instead gift the work to a musician who didn't even like it and refused to play it. Isn't it weird how often the world of great art is as subject to human pettiness as everything else?
The sonata itself is a spellbinding listen as the mood shifts from moody darkness to the kind of joyful light that so often turns up in Beethoven's music. Is it a tone poem? Of course not...but it was first played by a Black man, and had that same man not made some inopportune comments one night, this piece would be carrying that Black man's name into history instead of some other guy who didn't even play it.
It's strange about comets. Except for a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of comets come quickly, brighten our sky, and then disappear forever (or for so long it's functionally forever). For the brief time they are in the sky, they are a wonder...and then they are gone, leaving us with only the memory of this wonderful thing that blazed amongst the stars for a short time.
That is how I keep thinking of Chadwick Boseman, a man of incandescent talent who blazed across movies and teevee for a few years...and now is gone.
Here is the End Credits suite from Black Panther, written by Swedish composer Ludwig Goransson.
Farewell, Mr. Boseman. You won't be forgotten. How could you be? You shone too bright in the sky to be forgotten.
There was a game going around Twitter the other day in which you post a photo of yourself from January of this year, when you were blissfully unaware of the jaw-dropping frightfest of a shitshow that 2020 had in store for us all. Here's the one I chose:
This was taken on January 22. How optimistic that guy looks! How hopeful!
Here's hoping that I can capture a similar mood on this coming January 22....
Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1924, Julia Perry was a Black composer who studied widely, attending the Berkshire Music Centre and working with the great teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris and then relocating to Florence for further study before returning home to the United States. She eventually settled into a life as a teacher and as a composer, working hard to integrate her African musical heritage with the Western musical language she had grown up with. She was apparently quite prolific, writing a dozen symphonies and a couple of operas in addition to her other works, until a series of strokes incapacitated her on the right side of her body. Undeterred, Perry taught herself to use her left hand to write, thus furthering her compositional career until she died in 1979, when she was only 55.
All that, and until last week I had never heard of her or her music [oops: this, it turns out, isn't entirely correct! I need to search my own archives before saying things like this]. I think that's the most sobering thing about this project I've been on in this space these past few months: realizing how all of these composers, who all wrote interesting pieces that should be heard, have never been on my radar before. There are a lot of reasons for that, of course. I, like many, tend to more easily gravitate to what I know than what I don't. But there's another, deeper, more insidious reason why these Black musical voices have been largely drowned out, and it's pretty obvious what that reason is.
Here is a sacred work by Julia Perry, her setting of the Stabat mater. Many composers have written the Stabat mater over the centuries, adapting the hymn and text to new musical language each time out. Perry's is a contemplative and modernist setting for string orchestra and contralto. The sound strikes me as somewhere between Black spiritual and Catholic chant, with the hypnotic qualities of each. Fascinating piece.