Notes on words

Over the past few days I’ve been mulling the subject of words and music. At church choir rehearsal last Thursday, the director prodded us to be more mindful of the text we were singing. That’s not unusual. But I did find it remarkable that several fellow choir members felt moved to share their interpretations of the text. I had barely given the words a passing thought. My first reaction was a slight sense of shame; no wonder the director stopped us. But then I thought, no, I am paying attention. To me, so much of the meaning comes through the notes that they almost always overshadow the text. I was a college English major and this happens even with Shakespeare. I’m sure I heard Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music several times before I realized it’s a setting of the exquisite passage from Merchant of Venice that begins, “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon the banks….”

My point is not to argue that music is superior to verse as a form of artistic expression. I’m simply observing that that when they’re married, the partners aren’t necessarily equal. Or totally compatible. I think of another famous English piece: Hubert Parry’s anthem “Jerusalem.” The music is a noble and sentimental hymn to an England of the mythic past. William Blake’s text, nimbler than the music, veers for a moment through the country’s “dark, satanic mills.” Parry can manage only a wide turn in that direction. That’s always struck me as an awkward moment in the piece.

Then there was a piece I heard Sunday afternoon when the stunning six-member group Nordic Voices gave a concert in St. Paul. “Schwirren” (Whirr) by Cecilie Ore sets an essay by Austrian writer Robert Musil describing the slow death of a fly stuck on flypaper. “Thus they lie there. Like fallen airplanes, which rise up with a wing into the air. Or as slaughtered horses. With the infinite bearing of despair.” I can barely begin to describe the virtuosity of the work, from its opening, impossibly discordant screech to desperate, vocalized flailing to overlapping recitation. I can say this: In my auditory memory it became a marriage of music and text not to be put asunder.

The Tenor of Don Knotts

Don Knotts died on Friday. Nowhere is his comic genius as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show more evident than in those episodes in which he sings. Or tries to. Knotts himself said that one of his favorite episodes was “Barney and the Choir,” in which no one can stop him from singing. His hideous voice gets the broad laugh, but the real humor comes from his comic vanity. Some sample dialogue, starting at a singing lesson with his matronly voice teacher, Eleanora Poltice, prepping him for the big event…


Eleanora: Oh, I can feel it. You’re going to be another Leonard Blush.

Barney: Oh no, that’s too much to ask.

Eleanora: Why not? He just walked in here off the street one day. Two years later he sang the Star Spangled Banner at the opening of the County Insecticide Convention. The rest is history.

Barney: And he still has that radio program, doesn’t he?

Eleanora: Third Tuesday every month. Station YLRB, Mt. Pilot.

Barney: Big Time. Does he still wear that black mask when he sings on the radio?

Eleanora: Oh no, no. He just wore that for a year when he had that skin condition.

Barney: Probably emotional – he went to the top so fast.

Eleanora: Very meteoric. Very.


Eleanora: Never let it be said that Barnard Fife let down Eleanora Poltice!

Barney: I’m going on. My music Eleanora.


Barney: My voice was surging out of my body like Niagra Falls coming over that cliff in Rochester, NY.

Andy: Buffalo.

Barney: Huh?

Andy: Nothing


Barney: “You know Andy, there’s no better feeling than knowing you were perfect.”


Andy: The last tenor I can remember around here was Bruce Flowers. He could only sing high after a fight with his mother.

"Current" Classical

One of John Zech’s comments in today’s earlier post raises another interesting question. John, you suggest that the “exotic instruments and textures” in The Constant Gardener soundtrack would not fit so well in a classical radio format. And you wonder if New Music (I assume by that you mean new “classical” music) belongs on a different radio station. So what does fit in a classical format? Western European art music that has a Romantic or Pre-Romantic sound? From a radio programming standpoint, that would make sense. If Kool 108 can limit its playlist to “Super 60s and 70s,” why shouldn’t Classical Minnesota Public Radio stop the clock (stylistically) at 1900? Lots of people would be happy with that approach. But if you do that, how do you connect what we play to what’s going on today in “classical” music? I know you were writing about movie music, John, and I’m not saying I disagree with you about Alberto Iglesias. But I’d also be interested to know where you think Alberto Ginastera belongs.

Postscript: Along these same lines, I just noticed this opinion piece in London’s Daily Telegraph.

Film music–a strong maybe

I listened to Andy Trudeau’s excellent piece on Oscar-nominated composers Alberto Iglesias and John Williams, (see Don Lee’s previous entry) and I was struck at what excellent music it was–for the movies!

I kept missing the pictures, though. The textures and sounds and the wistful waltz by Williams were nice, but I didn’t feel like they said much, as music, on their own. We have quite a number of film score albums in the library, and it’s pretty hard to even find excerpts from a lot of movies that actually hold their own if you haven’t seen the movie.

Some of the exotic instruments and textures used so well by Iglesias in his score for “The Constant Gardener” would probably fit better on “The Current” than on a classical format.

So let me ask this: Should the home for New Music and new composers be on “The Current?” A lot of people would say it already is, and that the new music coming out of the many bands they feature is really as thoughtful and important as anything coming out of the American Composers Forum.

Are the two equal? Is a composition by Libby Larsen commissioned by a symphony orchestra of any greater intrinsic value than something by, say, Iggy Pop or Fifty Cent? Depends on the piece, I suppose, but I would say it is.

It certainly is time for film music

Bob, in reply to your film music post, I wanted to mention a friend and former colleague of mine named Andy Trudeau. As a film score fanatic, he would agree with your friend in the industry. For about ten years, Andy has analyzed the Oscar-nominated scores for NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. He presented the first of three installments this past weekend. (Click here to link to it.) Three of this year’s four nominees are newcomers: Alberto Iglesias (The Constant Gardener); Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain), and Dario Marianelli (Pride and Prejudice). Good old reliable John Williams earned two nominations(for Munich and for Memoirs of a Geisha). Giving weight to the argument that film music is the “new” classical, Williams puts violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma in the spotlight in Memoirs. I encourage you to listen to (not just read) Andy’s analysis; he takes the genre seriously…but not too seriously.

Dumping history

When I was in my teens and 20s I was discovering all aspects of the audio world, from hi-fi stereo (and Quadrophonic Sound!) to the oldest 78s, a quarter inch thick and cut on only one side. I loved the connection these old recording provided to the past, and I especially loved hearing programs of “historic recordings” on public radio in those days. The cramped audio spectrum and surface noise was part of the charm of those old discs.

These days, there are a lot of recordings from the 50s, 60s and 70s which are becoming “historic” in the worst sense of the word, I think. A lot of them just don’t sound that good, either sonically speaking, or from a performance standpoint (e.g. the Haydn Symphonies recorded by Antal Dorati with the Philharmonia Hungaria on London/Decca, or a lot of the Maurice Andre and Jean-Pierre Rampal recordings).

Should we still plays these discs as examples of the best of the their time, or should we let them be and give our listeners the best of OUR time?

I think there’s plenty of new/recent material on the shelves which would make for a more consistent, more exciting and more engaging sound for our listeners.

Time for More Film Music?

I friend of mine in the industry said once that the best classical music being written today is being written for the movies, and after listening to scores by James Newton Howard, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman and, of course, John Williams, I have to agree. Although we have a small amount of film music in our mix, is it time to widen the scope and add quite a bit more, or are there objections to even classifying these works as

Anybody ever hear of Brenno Blauth?

This afternoon I was helping out in the control room as Melissa Ousley fulfilled listener requests on her weekly program, Friday Favorites. Someone requested a piece by an Argentinian composer named Brenno Blauth. We listened to a movement from his Concertino for Oboe and Strings (on Dorian DOR-90249), and it was captivating. The piece invites comparison to Heitor Villa-Lobos. I didn’t think to grab the CD to read more about him so now, ensconced at my desk, I try a Google search. I learn that Blauth was born in 1931 and that he is a “gaucho” composer who’s produced a vast body of chamber music, orchestral and choral works. I’d include the links, but that’s all they say. The music made me want to hear more. It made me less skeptical about the term “undeservedly neglected.”