Modernism Monday: “Three Piano Pieces, No. 1,” Arnold Schoenberg

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So, March 31st was a weird day in history.  Let’s review:

– 1774: The port of Boston, Massachusetts, closed pursuant to a decree from the British Parliament, known, handily, as the Boston Port Act.

– 1909: Construction began on the Titanic, and Serbia accepted Austrian control of Bosnia and Herzegovina (good one, guys).

– 1913: The Vienna Concert Society rioted during the performance of new music by, among others, Arnold Schoenberg.

Let’s hear why they might have rioted.

It’s pretty unfriendly music, by which I mean it has no melody, discernible rhythmic structure, or emotional base.  If someone asked you to hum a bit of this to help them remember how it goes, you’d be really hard pressed to do so.  It’s the musical equivalent of those modernist pieces of art in galleries that have caused millions of people to say out loud, “seriously?!  could have painted that.

And yet.

Schoenberg wrote this piece in 1909.  Only about twenty years prior, in 1888, Erik Satie wrote his delightful “Gymnopedies.”  In 1890, Claude Debussy wrote “Clair de Lune.”  All of a sudden, classical music took a sharp lefthand turn away from the easily digestible and towards the challenging and assertive.  Stravinsky wrote his famous “Firebird” (remember the piece from Fear Day – sorry – Valentine’s Day?) a year after Schoenberg wrote these three piano pieces.  All of a sudden it seemed that Western music was running away from its stolid four-square forebears as fast as possible.  And people hated it.  They walked out during opening premieres, they denounced modern composers in the press, they labeled the music degenerate.

And yet.

When I listen to Schoenberg, I hear the sounds of a world about to be thrown into the most unimaginable hell.  Five years and five months after this piece was written, the government of Austria-Hungary issued the so-called “July Ultimatum” and invaded Serbia in reaction to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie.  So began World War I.  The music and art produced around that time evokes horror, sadness, and loss.  I hear Schoenberg and I see Otto Dix.  No one should want to hear such music.

"Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas," Otto Dix, 1924

“Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas,” Otto Dix, 1924

And yet.

Still it persisted – in fact, it thrived.  Schoenberg and his contemporaries wrote music that did not dictate an appropriate emotional response.  The music is purposefully murky and vague.  It reflects back to the listener whatever emotions the listener brings to the piece.  In this way, and also from a purely technical music theory perspective, Schoenberg pushed the boundaries of music so far beyond the popular comfort zone that it helped pave the way for Gershwin and Copland, Bernstein and Arvo Pärt.

I used to have a really difficult relationship with Schoenberg, and sometimes I still do.  But I am grateful for the opportunity to be challenged, to be pushed as a lover of music, and to reflect on whatever emotions his compositions evoke.  Art should challenge, it should be difficult to deal with, we should wrestle with it.  What’s the point of life, otherwise?

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REMIX WEEK! Sacred Sunday: “Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing,” John Wyeth meets Sufjan Stevens

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I’ve loved this hymn forever.  The tune is lovely, of course, but the words are some of the most powerful in Christian hymnody.  Sufjan Stevens writes some really beautiful and interesting secular music, so I was really excited when I found out he’d done an arrangement of the hymn.  Stevens’s version adds new depth to my favorite verse:

“Here I raise my Ebenezer*, hither by thy help I’ve come,

and I hope by thy good pleasure safely to arrive at home.

Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God.

He, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.”

By placing the melody underneath the harmony, instead of the other way around, Stevens grounds the sentiments expressed in the lyrics – and, helpfully, makes it easier to hear the harmony in the first place.  And, also, banjo.  I’m a sucker for the banjo.

*Ebenezer means “stone of help,” and refers to a battle between the Israelites and Philistines.  As described in the book of Samuel, God swayed the outcome of the battle in favor of the Israelites, and as a permanent memorial of their salvation, Samuel, an Israelite prophet and judge, dedicated a great stone to the battle – and named it Ebenezer.

Original tune sung by the mighty Mormon Tabernacle Choir:

REMIX WEEK! Salubrious Saturday: “Ain’t That Good News,” Sam Cooke meets Les Paul and Jeff Beck

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I absolutely like the original better than this version, but I have to testify to Paul’s and Beck’s smokin’ guitar work.  (And as my baby is in fact coming home tomorrow, I really had no choice but to post this song).  It gives an already rocking song a spicy southern, bluesy, rockabilly twang.  It also has a nice build-up.  But tinkering with Sam Cooke is the textbook example of gilding the lily.  The original is pure uncomplicated happiness – probably because the instrumentation doesn’t rely on so many dominant seventh chords (not sure what that means?  It’s the horn’s chord at 1:01 and 1:50, among other places.  More on this here) but allows Sam to go there with his own voice.  And those horns.  I mean, come on.  Without further ado, here is the man himself.

REMIX WEEK! Funk Friday: “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head,” Kylie Minogue meets Patrick and Eugene

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Oh my sweet, sweet readers, I feel badly about pulling such a fast one on you like this.  I bet you were expecting a funk cover of a non-funk song, or a funk-oriented remix or mash-up.

YOINK!

I had a lot of options to choose from, lest you incorrectly assume a paucity of musical ideas.  Au contraire.  It’s just…well, let me put it this way.  A good re-working of a song is like seeing an actor do a particularly fine job portraying a character: you can’t so easily see that person’s face and not think of the emotions their character made you feel.  So too with this song.  I adored Kylie’s song when it came out.  It was slick, sexy, and had a great beat.  …Then I heard this version.  And poof!  Bye, Kylie, thanks for trying.  For better or for worse, Patrick and Eugene’s bizarro-world, klezmer carnival version supplanted the original.  It’s possible the reason is – and this really is a curse, let me tell you – I tend to be way more interested in things that are weird than I am things that are easy.  Kylie’s song was a very well-constructed, well-packaged, dull song.  Standard girl-sees-boy, girl-wants-boy fare.  P and E’s version is unsettling, difficult to read, and absolutely hilarious (I had a really hard time mood-tagging this one).  When they get to the “stay forever and ever” lyric, I feel oddly compelled to shout “IT PUTS THE LOTION ON ITS SKIN OR ELSE IT GETS THE HOSE AGAIN.”*  Like I said: it’s a curse, being more interested in weird things.

*”Silence of the Lambs” reference?  Anyone?  …Anyone?

Original song here:

REMIX WEEK! Throwback Thursday: “Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, Adagio Moderato,” Edward Elgar Meets Venetian Snares

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I have listened to this Elgar cello concerto hundreds of times.  I bought a cheapo bargain basement recording during one of the many trips my parents and I took to visit colleges.  Years later, I bought this Venetian Snares album.  It took me another year to put the two together: the beginning of “Szamar Madar” is so demented, I always skipped over it.  One morning, while on the train to work, I listened to the entire thing and finally got to main meat of the piece and thought, “…wait…I know that line…  …Holy $%&! that’s Elgar?!?”  I was practically effervescent, I was so excited.

To save you the hassle, here’s a cheat sheet.  The cello line arrives in earnest around 1:47; before that there’s only snippets.  At 2:14: fasten your seatbelt.  Venetian Snares takes a beautiful and somber Elgar cello concerto, adds cocaine, and puts it in a blender.  My favorite part is at 2:54 when it smoothes out on top while the drums go bananas beneath.  And after all that, it just sort of slowly fades away, like a bruise, and you’re left wondering what just happened.  You have to love a band who hears Elgar and says, “yeah, that’s pretty…but what if we sampled the main cello lick, sped it up, and added a breakbeat beneath it?”  I just can’t get enough.

Original Elgar, played by Yo-Yo Ma:

REMIX WEEK! Worldly Wednesday: “Voodoo Child,” Jimi Hendrix meets Angelique Kidjo

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When I’m getting my head in the game for a big meeting, when I need to suit up, when I need to kick the tires and light the fires, I turn to this song.  Hendrix’s version is very sexy – that naked, shimmering guitar riff, the thumb of the bass drum, the crash of the chord at the entrance.  It has real swagger.  But after I heard Kidjo’s version, it sounds…vaguely pompous.  Like there wasn’t any doubt that the protagonist could make an island out of the pieces of the mountain.  Like he could always just do that.  Kidjo sings it like this comes from experience, from hard work, practice, and struggle.  That’s why this version gives me that extra boost – it’s a song of strength learned from difficulty.  It’s a “oh, you don’t even know what I can do” kind of song.  A “you think this is difficult?” song.  It’s a very human sort of voodoo.

 

Hendrix’s original version:

REMIX WEEK! Termagant Tuesday: “Suit and Tie,” Justin Timberlake meets The Stepkids

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I won’t lie – I’m not the biggest Justin Timberlake fan anyway.  I think he’s a great vocalist and a great dancer, but his songs…meh.  I am a big fan of barbershop-style harmonizations and jazz covers of pop songs.  The Stepkids bring some Tony Bennett and Rat Pack-era Sinatra to an otherwise bland pop song; the guitarist even throws in a “Sweet Georgia Brown” lick at 2:56.  They also look like accountants having a blast.  And – it honestly sounds like this is the original song, and Timberlake covered it.  Dig it.

Original Timberlake song: