Thursday, October 30, 2014

One-Offs of the Damned - Charles Ives's Hallowe'en

Happy Halloween!  The bad news is that there's Wiccan razor blades in your caramel apples, and the worse news is that you're apparently the kind of person who likes pulling their own teeth out trying to eat caramel apples.  The good news is that I found the perfect piece to showcase on Halloween night, Charles Ives's Hallowe'en from his Three Outdoor Pieces.  Ives wrote, "It is a take-off of a Halloween party and bonfire - the elfishness of the little boys throwing wood on the fire, etc, etc... it is a joke even Herbert Hoover could get."  Well, as I always say, if it's good enough for Herbert Hoover it's good enough for Re-Composing.

In order to illustrate a building fire and joyous tomfoolery, Ives designed the piece to be played multiple times in growing numbers of voices, speed and volume.  The first time just the second violin and cello play at pp; the second time just the first violin and viola at mp, a little faster.  He allows for a three-time version or a four time, and in the recording I'm using they go four times, the third time still faster with all strings but piano p, and the fourth time everybody ff and pretty dang fast, taking the jokey coda at the end.  He gives the option of having a bass drum play during the moments when all the instruments rest, and this performance by The Boston Chamber Ensemble under Harold Faberman does just that.  Ives notes in the introduction to the score that "It has been observed by friends that three times around is quite enough, while others stood for four - but as this piece was written for a Hallowe'en party and not for a nice concert, the decision must be made by the players, regardless of the feelings of the audience."

I performed in an all-Ives concert with Alea III under the direction of Gunther Schuller a few years ago, and not only did I get mentioned favorably in the Boston Globe, wherein Jeffrey Gantz called my playing in The Unanswered Question "properly disturbing", giving me my career slogan, but was also one of my most successful and enjoyable performing experiences of my life (though we didn't do Hallowe'en).  While rehearsing one of the goofier pieces, Schuller stopped for a second and said, "You know, a lot of pieces Ives wrote were jokes, and some of them ended up being unperformable...but he was a good insurance man."

Happy Hallowe'en.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Visual Music - Ghost Tales by Mathilde Bilbro

Holding the unique position of being Alabama's most prolific composer, Mathilde Bilbro was once an undisputed leader in pedagogical piano music, but like the majority of artist who work in the field her music has been totally forgotten.  I'd also point to the fact that, like most music written for the most beginning of beginners, Bilbro's music isn't exactly worthy of critical attention.  I'd normally not even mention her except for the presence of one of her pieces in my collection of sheet music covers, and once you see it you'll understand its dire need to be recognized among Halloween's visual artifacts.

Christ on a cracker, look at those things.  The unsettling apparitions you see here are from story episodes told through narration accompanied by music, but the thin-line, etched art style has made these spirits far more frightening than anything pedagogical music could even dream of.  It seems you're never safe - getting a snack, going to the well for water, swimming, boating, trying to sleep - every corner of these kids' world is a soul swallowing waiting to happen.  The stories themselves give up any sense of true fear by attempting to rhyme, and sometimes language itself forgets to put its pants on in the morning ("We were skeered for fair!"?).  But do you really need flimsy words for ghosts like that?  I can't even tell if the attic ghost is holding a guitar or a tommy gun, and that's just the kind of thing you don't want to mess around with when the Ghostbusters are called.


Friday, October 24, 2014

One-Offs of the Damned - Fartein Valen's The Churchyard by the Sea

There are few more enduring images in horror than the graveyard, especially those final resting places that appear ruined and abandoned, reminders that our feeble attempts at spiritual consolation and relative immortality are futile in the face of Nature and Time.  Old graveyards and crypts appear so often in horror that it's a wonder that anybody has lived on Earth more recently than a hundred years ago, and there are plenty of classical pieces that use cemeteries as inspirations for some startlingly beautiful music, most memorably our dear friend Clairs de Lune by Abel Decaux.  Most old cemeteries don't have to do anything to haunt us - their static presence is enough to grab us in the darkness that we cannot solve.  While it's hard to beat Decaux in my book, one of the worthiest attempts to top the Graveyard Smash Hits came from an unlikely source - Norwegian serialist Fartein Valen.

Not content to merely copy the Second Viennese School, Valen developed a sophisticated and unique approach to dodecaphony that placed a big emphasis on polyphony and harmonic richness.  While it's probably worth doing a whole article on his work on this blog I can't think of a better way to introduce him than with one of his most colorful works, The Churchyard by the Sea.  Those with even a passing knowledge of geography know that Norway is a country gashed open by fjords, shoreline canyons familiar to Seattlites by their other name, sounds, and as such Norway is a nation run by its harbors.  One can only imagine what the winds must be like on the shore, and before the industrial revolution the only buildings strong enough to forever withstand whatever pounding storm the North Sea can lob East would have been churches.  This brings to mind the horripilative image of generations of gravestones being worn down to nothing by the harsh judgment of the elements, and this is from where Valen draws his ink.  

Valen's approach to depicting a is not strictly horror and most certainly not liturgical, but rather atmospheric, opting for a very slow burn to evoke distant forces making their way towards a last bastion of human faith.  Valen had a great ear for melody and allows a handful of motives gradually emerge in scattered instruments, aiming for accumulation rather than overconfidence.  Absent are stereotypes of orchestral tone-painting (especially those God damned wind machines) as Valen stencils fine lines into each other to let the storm clouds gather, as if standing on a cliff's edge, peering towards a vast Approaching without truly understanding its power.  Orchestrational prowess eventually peers an icy eye our way, as flutter-tongued flutes and sul ponticello violins form a seething drapery behind an eerie horn solo, and the piece remains for the longest time a showcase for section leaders as soloists dominate the melodies.  And just when you think the storm has passed the whole land is engulfed, rocked by vaulting sevenths in the brass and vast string surges.  And then it's gone, leaving whoever is still standing uncomprehending of the storm's intent, knowing only the way it changed the face of his soul and the world around him.

"Sure," you may say, "that's all fine and good, but what's the horror in some rain splashing on rocks?  I thought you said this was a chop-'em-up."  And you'd be right - there's no supernatural elements or explicit deaths, but The Churchyard by the Sea manages to frighten by the sheer power of setting a tableaux, and that's no small feat considering that we literally see nothing.  Horror is such a visual experience that we often forget about the mind's eye's ability to create images more terrifying than anything we can see in the real world, and Valen's sound world here is singularly haunting in a way words can hardly express.  His horror is both visceral and existential, cool to the touch and impossible to forget.  Horror's first principle is that we are always more afraid by what could be than what isand few orchestral works are steeped so fully in that truth than this one.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

One-Offs of the Damned - Aaron Copland's Grohg

Yes, it's been quite a while since these blogs trembled with excitement, and as Halloween is the time when spirits walk the Earth once more there's no time like the present for a resurrection.  I love Halloween and all things horror but, like I mentioned in my articles on Abel Decaux's Clairs de lune and Tina Davidson's 7 Macabre Songs classical pieces themed on horror are few and far between.  The handful of horrific pieces that get regular play (Night on Bald Mountain, Danse Macabre, Erwartung and Wozzeck, the Witch's Sabbath movement of Symphonie Fantastique) are fine but we've heard them so many times that the real horror is the realization that the classical repertoire has crept into a soul-crushing stasis.  That's why I'm using the rest of this month to spotlight some hidden frights in the unknown rep, and why not start things off with the biggest name I could muster, Aaron Copland.

The earliest of Copland's work dates from the 20's and his studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, and in 1922 a German film escaped the legal attack of Bram Stoker's widow to be released to an entranced public - F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu.  A pioneer in location filming and Expressionistic design, the film made a huge impression at the time and has continued to scare and inspire to this day, due not only to the continuing success of its parent novel Dracula but to the creation of one of the most striking and original movie vampires ever, Count Orloff.  Copland was among the film's admirers and in the following few years created a one-act ballet drawn from the film called Grohg, a fine made-up vampire name if I ever heard one.  Started as an exercise, it was completed in 1925 after his return to America and was later recycled to make the Dance Symphony, the only work to be recorded by RCA Victor's Composer's Competition out of its five winners (more on that in another article).  I'm sure that you're curious as to which one is better, but as Halloween is the season of surprises I'll let you track down the much-more-common Symphony and join me in savoring the original recipe.

The scenario of Grohg, written by Copland's filmmaker friend Harold Clurman, reads like a choreographer's first attempt at combining the words "dance" and "horror" but it somehow manages to be just right.  The eponymous Grohg is a sorcerer who uses the evening to summon the dead in order to...get  First the dancers are just the coffin bearers, an image ripped from Nosferatu's chilling scene of a plague overtaking the town Count Orlok takes residence in (but with dancing, of course).  Grohg enters after a bit and the dancers pay him their respects.  Grohg then revives a teenager who is frightened by the sorcerer, so Grohg strikes him dead (after a xylophonic dance, of course).  Next up is an opium addict who sways to a smoky jazz tune, and apparently this act is enough for Grohg to pity the man so much as to undo the spell and let him rest.  No good vampire (?) story would be salacious enough without a sex angle, so Grohg resurrects a prostitute, one so good at her job that the presumably immortal sorcerer is smitten with the first hooker he brings back from the dead (really puts a whole new meaning into "necromancer").  As their dance draws into an embrace he starts hallucinating and believes the corpses are laughing at him, and let that be a lesson to you, young impressionable men - sexual insecurity can last you centuries if you don't get over yourself.  Grohg joins in what is now a massive danse macabre, getting so worked up as to throw the prostitute into the crowd.  The dance dies down (heh) and Grohg is left alone on stage in a beam of light, his form receding as the music reprises the opening grave chords (heh heh).

One of the most striking things about Grohg is how many of Copland's signature tics, such as gravely suspended stacks of polychords, bell-pinging motor rhythms and deft synthesis of jazz elements, are already present in a score this early in his career, a mark of a strong artistic personality resistant to the idea of compromising one's creative fingerprints for the sake of getting pieces finished.  Sure, it's not exactly Appalachian Spring 0.5 but who wants that, anyway?  The obvious influences of the breathtaking revolutionaries of modern ballet saturate the score but are invigorating rather than overbearing.  The orchestration is inventive and enriches Copland's musical ideas rather than smothering them, especially touches like a prominent English horn part, the traditionally skeletal timbral combination of piano and xylophone and the novel dead-skin timbre of strings played col legno (struck with the wood of the bow).  While Copland's resolve and imagination hadn't yet fully grown (or gained confidence) his music is always charming and engaging, even in its more canned, even entombed (heh heh heh!)* moments.  

I can't say that any of it is particularly scary, lacking the titanic savagery of The Rite of Spring and the searing psychological terror of the Second Viennese psycho-triumphs, but in a way that's just fine for Halloween.  As I alluded to in my article on the electronic project Slang Halloween isn't about being truly scary but rather as a way to use concocted specters as harmless representations of true horrors so we can laugh in the face of death and spend millions on candy.  Let's be perfectly honest - when was the last time you were actually frightened on Halloween, outside of some excellent horror movies and the poor excuse for fear elicited by being startled?  In fact, most Halloween stuff is geared to put grins on faces, and a lot of it is openly funny.  Grohg is a sustained celebration of that mood, and some moments (especially the prostitute dance) are pretty funny, almost quaint in their idea of horror.  The wildest music is the "mocking" section, and Copland really lets the clarinets and trumpets rip with guffaws.  In that sense Grohg ultimately pays much more homage to Danse Macabre than Wozzeck, putting a savory veneer on the soul-freezing oblivion of death.  I can't say it has much of anything to do with Nosferatu or Dracula or even vampires, but there are other Dracula ballets and that dang Philip Glass score so those hang-ups can take a hike so the rest of us can enjoy Grohg's little ritual bal.  In case you're wondering why the piece hasn't made it to your local ballet company's program, Grohg was shelved after Copland reworked it into the Dance Symphony and was thought lost until a full score was found in the Library of Congress, and the orchestra version was premiered in 1992, getting recorded by Oliver Knussen and the Cleveland Orchestra along with a couple other Copland rarities for the sadly defunct Argo label.  What's not defunct is YouTube and a bright star uploaded the work in full along with the section names, and that's the kind of generosity that I can claim inspires memories off trick-'r-treating and hopefully rake in the cash like everybody else this time of year.  All joking aside, Grohg is a warm and gooey confection, a Ballet of the Living Dead you can wrap like a scarf around your Halloween night, and hopefully I'll let some more Pieces that Go Forte in the Night out of the bag before the month is up.  Stay tuned and, hopefully, scared.