Friday, October 11, 2019

Peter Schickele, A Musicologist For All Of Us

Peter Schickele
(Cross-posted in Archimedes--I Could Be Wrong . . .)

Peter Schickele is principally a composer.  For various reasons, he invented an extra, mythical son of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, named P. D. Q. Bach, which allowed Schickele to vent all his instincts to parody everything from Handel to Gershwin and Cole Porter through the prolific pen of P. D. Q. Bach.  In addition, as the 'discoverer' and tame musicologist whose obsession was this son of J.S.Bach, Schickele had free rein to first create numerous musical works, and then proceed to analyze them into the ground, first, of course, having performed them for everyone's coarse entertainment.
In the nineties, Schickele began a regular feature--principally on public radio--called Schickele Mix, which made musicology accessible to typical music-lovers, especially those whose tastes were on the broader side, because there were fewer opportunities for these folks to explore their instinctive feeling that phenomena that were attractive and interesting to them were to be found in most kinds of western music.  Today, popular musicologists spring up like mushrooms, and YouTube provides a ready forum for them, but Schickele was a pioneer.  The musicological connections between classical music and popular music was not the characteristic tool in Schickele's conceptual arsenal; it was rather just one approach, which was particularly powerful.  I don't remember details, but in a post (forgive me for talking about Schickele Mix as if it were a blog) about The Circle of Fifths--or rather, the sequence of fifths, since the circle was rarely completed--there were a number of references to popular songs that used the sequence.
P.D.Q. Bach
As P.D.Q. Bach, Schickele was revealed to be a parody composer second to none.  The compilation The Wurst of P.D.Q. Bach is a veritable Pandora's Box of Schickele's parody compositions, ranging from opera, to overtures, to suites, duets, and even a deplorably bad parody of a play-by-play of the Allegro of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, in the style of a football commentary.  Though that opus makes me cringe (and keep looking for a remote control which I keep forgetting I do not actually have, since it was a cheap CD player) and skip to the next track, some Schickele fans undoubtedly regard it as a classic.
The level of musical performance on Schickele's records is exceptional, featuring numerous legitimate talents, which cross over beautifully into comedy.
For anyone who has the patience and the energy, perusing the archives of Schickele Mix is going to be extremely rewarding.  If there are bootleg tapes or any sorts of recordings of these episodes--there, I used the correct word; they're not posts, they're episodes--they would make interesting listening for long, cross-country rides.
Schickele's main stream compositions are less familiar to this writer.  He has written for movies and for the Walt Disney production of Fantasia 2000.  One of these days, I'll get around to listening carefully to some of these works, and make an addendum to this post.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Sgt. Pepper meets 2017

The Beatles’s historic album of 1967: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has its fiftieth anniversary this year.  This is the album for which they dressed up in satin outfits and looked ridiculous.  (Ever since that time, they did occasionally dress up in goofy clothes, though I’m fairly sure at least a couple of them hated to do it.)

As you know, there are a good number of pop music expert critics out there who feel obliged to make sure that their audience knows good pop from bad pop, especially on magazines such as Rolling Stone.  It's pretty funny to read articles by these guys about Pepper, tripping over themselves to write the most insightful critique concerning the place of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the eighth album by The Beatles (meaning the eighth in order of release in Britain), in the Constellation of Iconic Albums of All Time.

There are many unique characteristics of this album, but most of them are relative to the Beatles: Sgt Pepper was a milestone in the development of the Beatles as a group.  One characteristic is absolute, namely that this is arguably the first concept album released by a popular group, where the cuts were loosely tied together by some thread; in this case, a music hall performance by a fictitious band.  Another important distinction is that most Beatles albums, up to that point, featured songs the majority of which could be performed live, on stage.  Pepper, in contrast, had orchestral sounds almost from beginning to end, and would have sounded terrible performed live.

At least one writer criticized the songs of the album as being substandard, an opinion to which this fellow is welcome though he might be all alone in his opinion.  (For instance, he criticizes Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds as being too repetitive.  Well, ok.  The Beatles were on drugs, at least a few of them, and we must take the lows with the highs.)  I think most of the songs in Sgt. Pepper were outstanding, and to me, more memorable than a lot of the songs from earlier albums, most definitely helped along by the music-hall Sgt. Pepper theme.  (That was quite a clever idea, and it raised the quality of the album, from the point of view of its saleability, very high.  To this day, Sgt. Pepper is considered to be one of the greatest albums ever, by some because of its historical significance, by others because they're fans.)

I'm not convinced that it is absolutely necessary to run out and buy the 50th anniversary $125 Sgt Pepper package, unless you're a maniacal die-hard Beatles fan and an audiophile combined.  It does have some nice things in it, e.g. a totally remastered CD with material from the original tapes, a Blu Ray disk with 5.1 stereo, a CD of the original Mono mix, and lots of souvenir type stuff.  But you owe it to yourself to buy at least a CD of the basic album.  In a few months, we are sure to find for sale the new remastered album offered by itself, for maybe $20, and it is bound to be offered for even less presently.

Annotated list of the songs on the album, with comments by Arch

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
This is a very hard metal introduction (lead vocals by Paul McCartney) to “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” in music-hall style, and the "One and only Billy Shears," singing the first actual song, which is Ringo singing “With a little help” (below).
With A Little Help From My Friends
Ringo sings this innovative song.  It features an interesting bass line and sound, and extra brass instruments above and beyond the usual Beatles guitars.  Three years later, Joe Cocker performed a triple-time version of this song at Woodstock.
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
John Lennon performs this song (inspired by a drawing by a kid: Julian Lennon, I believe) with the new harmonic sequences that Paul and John were experimenting with.  It has a psychedelic feel, both the performance and the lyrics.
Since high school, John Lennon had been writing a certain avant-garde sort of nonsense poetry, and here you get a good, psychedelic blast of it.  "Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly, the girl with kaleidoscope eyes."
This album features the boys playing something called a Mellotron.  This was a keyboard connected to an array of tape loops.  You could play any note into a microphone on the mellotron, and it would make a full keyboard's worth of tape loops of this sound, and you could play it like an organ.  ("Full keyboard" is probably an exaggeration; it might have had just a few octaves' range.)  This instrument, I believe, adds fullness to this song.  It certainly gives the introduction to "Fixing a hole", see below.
Getting Better
A John Lennon / Paul McCartney duet, which is the song that could most easily have been performed live on stage.  There is an interesting drum sound, with an Indian feel to it.  Again, there are a few great lines in the lyrics, e.g. "I used to be cruel to my woman, and beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved.  Man, I was mean, but I'm changing my scene, and I'm doing the best that I can."  I'd love to have written that.
Fixing A Hole
Most definitely a McCartney song, performed by Paul McCartney, with an interesting bass line.
She’s Leaving Home
There was a lot of excitement about this cut (sung by McCartney) because it featured a string quartet.  It was the late sixties, and the theme of alienation was treated by a lot of the popular poetry (and song lyrics) of the time.
Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!
John Lennon sings this circus-themed song, essentially the exact contents of an actual poster.  (The poster is reproduced in the Anniversary Package.)
Within You Without You
George Harrison had already begun experimenting with Indian music and instruments, and the Beatles invited several Indian musicians to contribute to this song.  It ends with a horse-laugh, which might indicate a certain ambivalence about it.
When I’m Sixty-Four
A very clever song (Paul McCartney) in the whimsical style of his parodies of songs of the thirties and forties.  It is so well written, it is very likely to continue being played occasionally for decades to come.  It is scored for a wind ensemble (I can hear a clarinet or two in the sound mix).
Lovely Rita
Another Paul McCartney song (though it does sound like a Lennon-McCartney collaboration) that comes across as a throw-away, but is nonetheless very memorable.  The lyrics are delightful, for example:
Lovely Rita meter maid
May I inquire discreetly
When are you free to take some tea with me?
Good Morning Good Morning
Now, this one is the one that comes closest to being a filler.  It is John Lennon, not at his best.
Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
A sort of outro, essentially a different version of the first cut.
A Day In The Life
A poignant song by John Lennon, continued with Paul McCartney, ending with John Lennon, and the famous “forever chord,” which is a big chord, mostly on the piano, extended artificially to fade out after several minutes.
There are many references to items in the news at the time: holes in Blackburn, Lancashire; someone blowing his mind in a car at a traffic light, etc.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The implications of the rise of plastic waste due to carelessness and littering

A recent article in the Huffington Post brings to our attention the fact that an enormous amount of plastic waste is finding its way into the ocean.

Most of us know that in many ways the ocean is the starting point of the food chain.  (You could trace the chain of food to the energy from the Sun, but fish is an important source of food, and endangering the source of fish is a terrible thing for many countries.)  You could read the article for yourself, and gross yourself out with the disgusting visuals presented there.

Any visitor to a Third Word country in the past twenty years or so would have certainly seen multi-colored plastic bags flying in the breeze.  Even in the US, young people (and probably mature adults as well) sometimes just toss used plastic bags on the street.  Littering is a consequence of lack of education.  Unfortunately, I suspect that college kids are a major contributor to littering, but we know very well that being enrolled in college is not guarantee that someone is educated.  (It would be interesting to see whether littering on campuses is correlated with the perceived quality of the education in that campus.  I have no idea.)

People on the Alt Right, I suspect, would be quick to point out that foreigners and minorities are probably the biggest sources of plastic pollution in the world, extrapolating from the fact that China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand (in no particular order) are the biggest contributors to ocean pollution via mismanaged landfills (or mismanaged waste).

Part of the problem is that these are poor countries, and they have other priorities than careful waste management; because of the limited resources of each poverty-stricken family, an immediate goal for every person is probably that of getting rid of any piece of useless plastic onto the street.  Of course we know that these very people are going to have this same plastic impacting their food supply, but we can easily see that this information is not going to make a difference in their waste-disposal habits.

As I see it, people and organizations in the First World, that is we, will have to take action to mitigate this problem.  In other words, we will have to actually organize to take garbage out of the oceans, especially plastic garbage.  Many of our compatriots will be indignant, because we are not causing the problem, or at least, not the major contributors to it.  We recycle our grocery bags, with which various manufacturers make outdoor furniture, and, I suspect, things like composite patio floors, etc.  But we will soon have to make heroic efforts to ensure that we keep the lungs of whales and other marine mammals, and the gills of all sorts of fish, whether we eat them or not, clear of plastic, because everybody eats somebody, and everybody is eaten by somebody else, sooner or later, and we have to keep sidelining waste plastic until such time as the casual use of plastics for all sorts of inessential purposes declines substantially, or, ideally, entirely.

The answer to "Paper or plastic?" must be "Paper, please," without exception.  I wish our grocer, Wegman's, offers us a choice.  (Maybe they do, and we just never realized it.)  We must organize our friends and acquaintances to reduce plastic use.  We must avoid selecting synthetic-fiber clothes, and pay a little more for cotton and silk and linen.  We must keep our eyes and ears open for any news that the natural fiber industries are using polluting chemicals, and jump all over them if we hear that they do.

The planet we received from our parents was a far healthier place than the one we're leaving for our grandchildren.  Some of us have gotten into the habit of ignoring this sort of bad news; we think of ourselves as fragile, and unable to tolerate too much bad news on any given day.  Ignoring these warning signs is no longer an option.  If we have influence among our friends and acquaintances, we must begin to wield that influence now.  Political action is good, but direct action, and support of green initiatives is beginning to look like a no-brainer.

Perhaps we should take the Green Party more seriously, and address head-on any weaknesses in its leadership.  There wasn't anything very green in their party platform in the last election; perhaps it is time to take it over, and make it have a more explicitly environment-friendly set of policies and objectives than it has had in the past.


Friday, March 31, 2017

An Index into Archie's Archives

I'm not really sure how many visitors there are to this Archie's Archives website, but I for one use it heavily when I want to hear some of the old stuff from the radio days, when WXPI was still on the air for reals, as we say.

The way the links are structured, you have a continuous mp3 of each quarter of the show, but no way to get each individual cut.  In fact, it might not be legal to serve up the material divided up into individual pieces.  But I'm seriously considering providing an index into the website in show order, that is, roughly chronological order, so that anyone interested can go directly to the item of interest.  (Of course, they will have to sit through a large fraction of a half-hour long "podcast" to get to it, and listen to all my comments.)

So here it is, starting with the first program, and I will add to this as I have time and energy:

Show 101
July 5, 2014
Trios (and triple counterpoint)
Introduction to Archie’s Archives
Bach:  Organ fugue in A minor, BWV 543

Beatles:  You’re going to lose that girl

Bach:  Trio Sonata in E Flat, BWV 525, Movt. i

Hopes for this show.  (We did not stick to these objectives!)

Bach:  Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen?

Episodes:  Train Wreck

Bach:  Trio Sonata from Musical Offering, Movt. ii  (from Music at Menlo)

Peter, Paul & Mary (Gordon Lightfoot):  In the early morning rain

Haydn:  Trio

Wagner:  Prelude to Die Meistersinger—ending.

Bach - Walton:  See what his love can do  (Seht was die Liebe tut)

Tom Lehrer:  Alma Mahler

Signoff:  Tune (adapted from Starlight Serenade, by Jonny Heykens)

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Music of Johannes Brahms

The music of Brahms is easy to like.  As with most great composers, knowing a little about the person is very important for clues as to what is going on in the music; but knowing almost nothing about him, there's still a lot to love.

Like many others, the first few compositions by Brahms that I got to know were the famous Brahms's Lullaby (Weigenlied), the Waltz in A Flat, and the Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, also called the St Anthony Chorale Variations.

Brahms was very fond of the great German composer, Robert Schumann, and his beautiful and accomplished wife, Clara (Wieck) Schumann.  Their lives were intensely intertwined, not least because of Schumann's tragic insanity, which left his wife Clara to have to fend for herself and her children without much support, except from Brahms, for a while.  This lullaby could easily have its origins in the time Brahms spent with the Schumann children.

The Waltz in A Flat is an elegant stylized waltz, not really long enough to be danced to; in other words, it is a concert waltz for the piano, or the studio, like those of Chopin.

Both these pieces, simple though they appear to be, have little harmonic surprises that are just enough to delight, and after we hear the pieces a couple of times, we can't imagine them being harmonized any differently.  The Lullaby, in particular, has the same bass note throughout, repeated gently deep in the bass.  The Bryn Terfel performance was a lush orchestral arrangement that obscures the repeated solitary bass note, but once you're aware of it, it can't be ignored.

We're told that the Variations on the St. Anthony Chorale was initially a piano piece, and Brahm's first venture into orchestral composition, and a brilliantly successful one, too.  This performance is conducted by Riccardo Muti, with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Anyone interested in the life of Johannes Brahms can easily find out more.  He was brought up in poverty by a single mother, but is considered a good and wonderful man, though his last years were spent in a cloud of bitterness.

Brahms wrote several concertos, all of them among the most popular in their various genres: the amazing Violin Concerto in D, the two Piano Concertos, and a Double Concerto for Violin and Cello.  All of these are worth hearing; I'll put in links one of these days.

Finally, for those who want something light and fluffy, Brahms enjoyed gypsy music, and his Hungarian Dances are simply gorgeous: rhythmic and tuneful, intended to be played piano four hands (two pianists playing the same piano), and now orchestrated for full orchestra.


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Music of Star Wars!

Boys and girls, I want to alert you to a post from 2012 about the Themes from the Star Wars movie cycle.

Before this Blog was established, I wrote copiously about musical subjects in another blog, and I will post links to them here as I dig them up.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The two most often-played tunes on Archie's Archives

This is the introduction and the opening theme music.  It is an organ fugue--Fugue BWV 543 in A minor--by J. S. Bach, performed on percussion instruments and plucked strings.

The next is played even more often; it is the march that I play (when I can) after each quarter of the show, and at the end.  It is a tune called Starlight Serenade by Jonny Heikens of the Netherlands, recorded by Richard Tauber.  The instrumentation is highly varied, because I sometimes play a version by woodwinds, and other times a guitar version, a brass version, a piano version, and occasionally even a version in Waltz time.  This is the main Woodwind version.  (Actually there's a horn in the mix; horns are considered honorary woodwinds.)

The graphics are a clever way of representing the strings of the voices visually, devised by Stephen Malinowski.

Well, I'll come back and stick in the other versions of this tune when I have a little more time!!