Surrexit Christus Hodie! It’s Easter! Hooray! I apologize for being so late posting today’s Tune-Up, faithful readers; I’ve been singing Easter service and doing post Easter service activities.
Easter is, obviously, all about the resurrection of Jesus. This being a joyous occasion, Easter music is just about the best of all liturgical music in the calendar, and all hinges on the central theme of rebirth. We sang a few versions of this today. First, my choir sang this glorious anthem by early 17th century German composer Samuel Scheidt. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been looking forward to it all year. The version we sang was much longer than this (there are a total of six verses) but the tempo and tone are very similar.
Surrexit Christus hodie
Humano pro solamine
Mortem qui passus pridie
Miserrimo pro homine.
Laudetur sancta trinitas,
Deo dicamus gratias.
The words are from a 14th century Bohemian carol. What do these latin lyrics mean? This piece grew up to be that gem in the Easter crown, “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” whose tune was written by John Arnold about a hundred years later in 1749.
Whatever religious tradition you follow, wherever in the world you are, I hope you have a joyous day today.
This seemed to be an appropriate (if a bit delightfully sacrilegious) song for the day before Easter. Holy Week itself has always had a bit of a “final countdown” feel to it, but it wasn’t until last year while I was getting vested to sing the Palm Sunday service that a friend of mine commented that the run up to Easter always put her in the mind of “that Europe song – you know the one?” And I, being a total goober who can recall obscure Monteverdi motets on command but not, like, I don’t know, anything more recent and normal, was like, “the what song?” Upon hearing her sing the synth riff, the lyrics of the song came back to me, and I have to admit that I laughed so hard I started crying. This, mind you, comes from a baptized, confirmed, tithing, choir-singing Episcopalian. Never mind that the words really don’t make any sense in any sort of context, nor, for that matter, does the video (marshland? a church spire? trains? what?)
So, while you’re decorating the Easter eggs, glazing the ham, breaking out all of your festive pastels, and relishing the thought of diving back into whatever it was you gave up for Lent*, I encourage you to share the day with the bouffant boys of Europe.
*I gave up cursing. It has been excruciatingly difficult. And, yes, while it was meaningful and now I am more aware of cursing, which is great, oh man – I’m going to be cursing like a happy little sailor while I cook Easter dinner Sunday afternoon.
So, like everyone, I have a number of circles of friends. Some of them overlap, some of them don’t. Within each circle is a person or set of people that know me really well. And these people form their own special little subgroup – the sanctum sanctorum, if you will (or even if you won’t. This is my blog. Get you own, you crank). These are people I tell everything to, who let me be crass and laugh at my dumb jokes, and don’t wig out when it’s a Friday night and I all want to do is hang out with them in our PJ’s and enjoy some microwavable chicken pot stickers and crap $3 wine from Trader Joe’s and ask questions like, “how weird would it be if humans evolved to not need noses anymore?” People who would be down to join me if I said “I’d rather dance in ugly pants in the comfort of a lounge room in suburbia.” Parties are where your people are. So thank you, sanctum sanctorum. You know who you are, and man, “things don’t get no better – better like you and me.”
Gorecki was a modern Polish composer who is probably best known for his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. This piece is my favorite of his. It is a very simple arrangement of a Polish folk song about undying love.
This is such a sucker-punch of a song. You don’t even need to understand the words (which are below, never fear, faithful readers) to know it’s about something fairly wretched involving a train. This song portrays the life of black African migrant workers working in South African mineral mines. Some melancholy songs are more mellow than sad. Not this one, not by a long shot. This is sad, resigned, longing, resentful, and angry, all at the same time. By the time harmony spreads out at 2:31, you’ve already committed yourself to listening to the whole thing, maybe even again a second time, even though it’s a tough haul.
Masekela wrote this song in 1974, about halfway through the lifespan of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi
there is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe,
There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique,
From Lesotho, from Botswana, from Zwaziland,
From all the hinterland of Southern and Central Africa.
This train carries young and old, African men
Who are conscripted to come and work on contract
In the golden mineral mines of Johannesburg
And its surrounding metropolis, sixteen hours or more a day
For almost no pay.
Deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth
When they are digging and drilling that shiny mighty evasive stone,
Or when they dish that mish mesh mush food
into their iron plates with the iron shovel.
Or when they sit in their stinking, funky, filthy,
Flea-ridden barracks and hostels.
They think about the loved ones they may never see again. Because they might have already been forcibly removed
From where they last left them
Or wantonly murdered in the dead of night
By roving and marauding gangs of no particular origin,
We are told. They think about their lands, their herds
That were taken away from them
With a gun, bomb, teargas and the cannon.
And when they hear that Choo-Choo train
They always curse, curse the coal train,
The coal train that brought them to Johannesburg.
A Western, a Tarantino film, a Dragnet episode, and a burlesque show walked into a bar. Cozy the bartender put them in a blender, added some rum, and poured the results into some instruments and called it “Big Noise From Winnetka.” This song makes me want to race out to the nearest store and get some leopard-print horn-rimmed sunglasses, cigarette pants, a pack of smokes, and a guy who calls me a “broad.” This song sounds so raunchy – I mean the whistle sounds like a cat-call, for one thing. But there’s a real disconnect between this song, written in 1962, and American culture at the time. For one thing, fashion.
Does that woman look like this song sounds? Correct! Not even close. That’s a Doris Day woman. What does her family look like?
Oh stop – stop – you’re driving me crazy.
Yep, like that. What television shows do they watch? The Andy Griffith Show, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Red Skelton, and Danny Thomas.
So there is some serious cognitive dissonance going on between saucy Cozy Cole’s jazz track and “normal” American life. This is another reason, Tuners, why music is my favorite art medium. It’s always ahead of the curve, carving out space for new ideas and feelings and emotions. Without Cozy Cole, there could be no Prince. Without Prince, there could be no Common. I would also argue, without Cozy Cole there could be no feminist movement, but that’s another argument for another day. People get so wrapped around the axle about time-travel when really, all you have to do is turn on your stereo.
Certain songs make you want to dance. The smallest subset of those songs make you want to learn how to actually dance. Then there’s the rest of the set of songs that make you just want to jump up and down and flail your arms around like a spaz in a bouncy castle. This is such a song. (And I am such a dancer, no matter what’s playing, so I appreciate this song all the more.)
The Essex Green is a zippy little indie band from Brooklyn (from whence hail many other indie bands, and much of the “indie” scene in general, although according to most hipsters I know, Brooklyn is “over”) that I discovered back in 2005. They’ve been pretty consistently awesome since then, but this song always cheers me up. Note, however, that it’s really hard to not want to clap along with the song so you might not want to listen to it while taking public transit. Or, hey, do listen to it while taking public transit. The Tune-Up is a judgment-free zone.
I was born today, a northern constellation A minor where a major wants to be I stacked my words, manufactured legend And walked along the water in my sleep Till the news spun circles and there I saw you Wrapped up in a New York magazine Was that the page that tells how I was fallen? Well maybe that part is not worth mentioning Now…what will they say? Now…what can they do anyway, anyway? So let me down slow, let me down real easy Even giants have to watch how they decline I’d wheelie in the sky or anything else, I promise I will until the day that I die I will until the day that I die What will they say? What’s the world, gonna do anyway, anyway?
We sang this anthem in church today, so it’s fresh on my mind – and means we are back to regularly scheduled program of Renaissance polyphony. (I promise to change it up soon, Tuners.)
Beyond this being one of the three anthems I sang at Palm Sunday service today and therefore stuck in my craw, this is a magnificent example of Byrd’s use of harmony. Each individual line is gorgeous on its own: as in Bach’s music, each line goes on its own exploration, interacting with the others but not necessarily serving the melody alone. My favorite part begins at 2:15 at the “Dona nobis pacem.” You can hear the plea echoed within each line in a different way. It wraps you up in the community of all those who came before you asking for the same thing – Lord, give us peace. And because there is such a community of prayers, it gives one the feeling that there’s a chance that the prayer will be granted. That’s a pretty nice feeling.
The choir of Christ Church, Oxford, sings this recording.
You probably know the Lumineers from their “Ho-Hey” song used in a commercial a few years ago. That’s a great song. This one is better. The lyrics are excellent (“It’s a long road to wisdom, but it’s a short one to being ignored”). The energy is so happy. And it’s short! Incredible! The shortest things always take the longest to perfect and a lot of modern music is appallingly self-indulgent. (Actually I might extend that critique to movies but I’d rather not start a comment war.) This is just a little amuse-bouche of a song, and I just love it. I highly recommend going out and grabbing everything else they’ve ever done.
I have been saving this song for a very special day. Today is such a day. It doesn’t matter why today is special – who really cares – but let’s dig into the song.
This is one of those songs that I would consider to be absolutely perfectly constructed. What is a song composed of? I would posit (because I love to posit) three things: tempo, melody, and rhythm. First of all: the tempo. The tempo is absolutely right on the money. It’s slow enough to give it a real sultry groove, but it’s fast enough that you want to get out of your chair and dance to it. Secondly: melody. This song has a simple enough melody that you can remember it after you hear it once, and then sing along with it the next time it comes on. It’s also just intoxicatingly bluesy. And third: rhythm. The rhythm of this song is straight up four-square, meat-and-two-vegetables, staple-diet stuff. It musical bedrock.
So why in the world is such a song, with such simple bones, so extraordinary? Obviously part of it is Redding’s voice, that manages to be so gritty and on pitch at the same time. Another part is the strategic use of – yeah, you guessed it – horns. But for me, it’s how everything drops away before the next verse. What do I mean? I mean that the song starts with Redding singing alone. He sings a verse. Before he asks us whether we’ve ever been lonely (lo-oh-oh-oh-ohnly), it’s just him and the drums – and then the horns come it. And god help me when Redding can’t help himself at 1:03 (“ooh yeah”) – he knows it’s cooking. It just keeps building until we can’t take it. And then what happens? The guitar lick at 1:58, straight out of a Temptations song – and then song slips into minor.
It’s just…man. I just can’t even. This is like the Hope Diamond of songs for me.