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