Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Monday, May 31, 2004


The Sunday Doonsebury listed the American dead from Iraq War 2. It angers me that the American dead of the Afghan War don’t rate a mention with anti-war activists. The warmongers who complained that Ted Koppel reading the list of the American Iraq War dead on his TV news show were right. It was anti-war propaganda. I oppose the Iraq War. Don’t forget the Afghan War.

America intervened in a decades-long civil war between drug-free Muslim fascists and fascistic Muslim druglords. We're on the side of the druglords, who are still winning. We prop up some democratic humanists in Kabul too, but they're a weak minority.

Memorial Day is bitter, and when we destroy human lives and squander our wealth and freedom on deathly dishonest folly, it's ghastly.

Sunday, May 30, 2004


It’s called Folklife, which is a fine name if you know what it is, or maybe Northwest Folklife, which underscores the pretentiousness of the name of what is after all an international folk music festival.

Folklife runs Memorial Day week-end, Friday through Monday, at Seattle Center, the complex of park space and public buildings around the Space Needle. It’s free though they ask for donations. I never go on Fridays -- work -- but yesterday afternoon my spouse & son & I made it down for a few hours between the toddler dude’s nap and dinnertime, and again today the toddler dude & I made it down there while my beloved spouse was at work.

A few quick highlights.

Item. The Ethiopian outdoor stage yesterday (Friday). Lots of Ethiopian immigrants in Seattle. I don’t know that much about Ethiopian music but I really like it. We saw one act -- a female singer accompanied by keyboardist, electric bassist, & electronic drums, who were fine, and then the headliner, someone we’d never heard of who’s apparently been a big star there for decades, a man named Ali Birra, a smooth & expressive singer fronting a happeningly powerfully grooving 6-piece band of trombone, trumpet, electric guitar, keyboards, electric bass, & drums. The crowd went nuts -- from the first note there were a couple hundred people up front dancing. Then, better: people climbed up and danced onstage. Dancing in couples, dancing in groups, dancing with the singer. And little little kids dancing -- 4 or 5 years old, two boys, jumping up and down, arms around each other. A young woman pulled off Birra’s fine black fedora revealing his bald head, midsong -- he smiled. On the most uptempo number, two young men jumped up immediately and put their arms around Birra’s shoulders as he sang. Beautiful, the barrier between performer & audience so permeable and friendly -- never seen anything like it in American music except at some punk shows, and those back in the ‘80s. Great music too.

Item. The Jewish stage today (Saturday). Bumping into a couple I know with their five-year-old.

She (who’s Jewish; he’s not): “I didn’t know you’re Jewish!”

Me: “I’m not.”

She (laughing): “I didn’t know you were Ethiopian either at the Ethiopian stage!”

The Klez Cats were pretty happening, and then another local Klezmer band came on whose name didn’t stick, and they were pretty good too. The best part was a big dance line during the last song, where the last band invited the Klez Cats to join them for a 10-piece wailing klezmer ensemble, as dozens of people hand in hand wove around in loops. I held the toddler dude against my ribs with one elbow so my hand could stick out and hold the next person’s in line. Joyous and exhilarating.

Item. Folklife encourages buskers -- very cool. Lots of drum circles, ranging from free hippie drumming (which has gotten better over the years as music from Africa and India and South America has seeped deeper into American consciousness) to serious West African drum ensembles. 3 teen-age looking guys playing acoustic guitar, snare-drum-and-high-hat, and glockenspiel, totally unamplified, ‘80s-style new wave music with a snappy beat -- friendly guys too. Lots of fiddle circles playing old-timey southern American music. A ukulele ensemble strumming traditional Hawaiian songs. Break dancers doing their thing to a live 3-piece percussion ensemble. An old friend of my spouse’s named Jonny Hahn who plays New Agey piano instrumentals leavened with original satirical-political ragtime songs -- makes his living & pays social security tax & health insurance from what he takes in playing on the streets; he has a 3-quarter size piano that he keeps locked up in a closet downtown, and bandaids wrapped around the tips of all his fingers; and he’s a totally sweet guy (and a good player) -- always nice to see & hear him.

The toddler dude loves to dance, & he dug the crowds & the music, so hopefully we’ll make it again tomorrow -- a day off for me.

Saturday, May 29, 2004


Half-falling-asleep while singing a lilting waltz to my 16-month-old in the upset middle of the night to try to calm him, in a momentary half-dream hallucination the underlying harmony of the music -- one particular (lost) chord -- became a cliff wall, and I was hanging on by any crag and toe hold, limbs stretched and chest pressed against it. A very nice cliff wall & an impossibly intriguing chord. No sense of danger.

Sweet dreams.

Thursday, May 27, 2004


Last Friday I lurched my car alarmingly close to the curb in my rush to change the station as Amy Goodman on her syndicated public radio news show detailed some specifics of the torture done in our name at Abu Ghraib, trembling with horror and outrage and rage. I immediately thought of Jack Nicholson’s line in that movie “A Few Good Men.” Playing the American military commander of Guantanamo Bay, on trial for his role in the death-by-hazing of an American sailor (I think it’s Navy), Nicholson barks at the prosecutor, “You Can’t Handle the Truth.” I can’t look at the pictures either. Maybe I could deal with the details if I had some power over the situation.

It’s been said by many others: Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld’s decision to toss out the Geneva Conventions -- monstrous.

The only power I have over the situation is to do my part to vote the bastards out in November.


On the all-hits station today, heard a lovely R&B ballad by a man with a lovely tenor and falsetto. I’d heard of the singer, a young man named Usher. Interesting tune, the hook is medium-slow simple lovely melody played on (I’m guessing) a keyboard with a harp-like sound, while the song by contrast is fast, tricky, intricate, nervous, impassioned, while the (probably electronic) percussion quietly nervously groovily percolates below. Minimal instrumental arrangement with lush vocal richness, which I hear a lot on the all-hits station, especially in R&B. I didn’t catch many of the words, something about “let it burn” -- it, the heart, the self, the emotions -- a love lost song, I think. A modern update of Marvin Gaye, with a similar vocal texture and sexy funkiness in the instruments as “Sexual Healing,” except the hook is in the keyboard, not the vocal melody, and the relationship between the vocals & the rhythm is considerably more complicated. Beautiful song -- I hope to hear it again soon.


The school-days rule against double negatives fell apart in my mind today. The school-days rule says that when Roger Miller sings, “I ain’t got no cigarettes,” he is committing a grammatical error, and that logically the double negative -- “ain’t” and “no” -- means that he does indeed have cigarettes.

The anti-double-negativists don’t know from logic. By positing that “no cigarettes” is a positive possession that a person can have or not have, they are arguing that the “no” in the sentence “Roger has no cigarettes” attaches to the cigarettes, and not the verb, not to the word “has.” This makes no sense. If the “no” attaches to the cigarettes, the phrase-word “no-cigarettes” can only mean anything-but-cigarettes. “Roger has no cigarettes” must then be taken to mean that he has anything which is not cigarettes, WHICH DOES NOT PRECLUDE ROGER FROM HAVING CIGARETTES AS WELL. “Well sure,” Roger says, “I have this banana in my pocket, which constitutes my no-cigarettes, but I never said I didn’t have cigarettes too.”

The anti-double-negativists argue that by saying “I ain’t got no cigarettes,” the double negative logically indicates that Roger has cigarettes. But by their logic, all it means is that Roger doesn’t have anything which is not cigarettes. In addition to that, he may or may not have cigarettes as well. By their logic.

Clearly, the word “no” in the sentence “Roger has no cigarettes” attaches to the verb, not to the noun.


The logic of double-negativism is an accumulative emotional logic. “I ain’t got no cigarettes” may be denotatively redundant. “I ain’t got cigarettes” denotes the same state of lacking cigarettes with one word less. The double negative isn’t wasted though; it connotes an emotional emphasis.


The composer and critic Gavin Borchert writes in response to recent posts on 20th century critic-composers Virgil Thomson and Constant Lambert, and a slightly older post on a concert I heard by the Seattle New Music Ensemble.

John: It was great to read an account of the SNME concert on the 15th--I hated to miss it, but I had to. They played a piece of mine wonderfully at their concert last October. Absolutely you should explore Thomson's newspaper writings; there are a couple anthologies out, one published in the 70s, which should be locatable at any used bookstore, and one more recent one.

The State of Music is overripe with generalizations, but his newspaper reviews (he wrote for the NY Herald-Tribune for 14 years) have an insight and precision of observation that are breathtaking. And in turn I'll try to find the Lambert book, which I've heard about & always been curious about.
~~Gavin Borchert

JOHN REPLIES: Thanks very much for your generous comments. I wince over an overripe generalization of my own, having written last night that maybe other critics like Thomson because of his superior attitude toward music. I based that on one experience with one annoyingly attitudinous classical critic who touted Thomson. My apologies to Thomson fans, and I will keep on the look-out for his newspaper writings, and may even break down and order them online.


My friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey, who lives in Queens, writes in response to yesterday’s post on Hank Williams singing “Rambling Man,” and adds a report on a TV special on Beatles producer and orchestrator George Martin, of whom Jay & I are big fans:

Hank had that haunted/haunting quality -- especially disembodied on that one. There used to be a subway picker around who had a kind of General George Custer look going on that sang that song over and over, day after day. I imagined it his life's work. He sang it well and always got a crowd.

Saw a fragment of a BBC show featuring George Martin talking music -- Rhythm of Life I believe was the title, obviously a series, and aimed at the layperson. Anyway, in this one he focused on melody and tried to explain what made some great (and memorable) and others not.

Simplicity was his answer. Not novel, but he outlined it nicely, using Beethoven (the 9th being the ultimate catchy tune), Mozart and Oasis and Billy Joel. He nicely paralleled some suspension/pedal tone elements in Oasis (who the guy from could not articulate himself) to a bit of some Mozart symphony (can't remember) and called Mozart, of all things, the master of simplicity. positing that what made him great was couching simple,
scalar melodies within formal and harmonic complexity -- always
grounding. Michael Tilson Thomas was interviewed and played a particularly flighty Mozart melody and broke it down into scalar components to an underlying sweet and simple run -- and then revealed the Wolfy wrote it when he was four.

Anyway it was fun to watch and Sir George's enthusiasm was nice, and he had the LSO on hand to play examples.

JOHN REPLIES: It’s nice to imagine how nice it would be to have the London Symphony Orchestra on hand to play examples. But I’d probably be overcome with bashfulness -- “oh go ahead guys, just play what YOU want to play.”

Wednesday, May 26, 2004


I'd been in the habit of posting something every night, Sunday through Thursday, and then our computer went down, and so no blogging Monday or Tuesday night this week. And Monday night I was nervous & fidgety missing it. And so I played guitar instead -- something I used to do daily, for many many years, and got out of the habit of after the arrival of my son. (And before the blog -- don't blame the blog! No problem with the blog! I can quit any time!)


In my Sunday night post I mentioned that Virgil Thomson in the entirety of his book "The State of Music" makes explicitly positive mention of only two 20th century composers: himself and someone I'd never heard of & whose name I'd already forgotten. I have the book at hand; the other worthy composer is someone Thomson identifies only as Sauguet.

After he wrote this book, at the age of 44 or so in 1939, Thomson became a regular classical music critic for a daily newspaper. I'd be curious to read his reviews. He obviously knows music.

I remember reading in my early teen or perhaps just pre-teen years a book on the 10 Commandments that took "Mad" magazine satires as illustrations of how breaking the Commandments can lead you astray. The writer -- apparently a serious theologian & an ordained minister -- liked "Mad." He wrote the book with the permission of "Mad"'s publisher, and the cover was a picture of Alfred E. Neuman posing as Moses as he smashes the tablets with his retrospectively Dubya-esque grin. (The book is called "The Mad Morality," by Vernard Eller. I still have it.)

I mention this because something stuck with me from the chapter on the first commandment, which forbids a believer from having any other gods before God. Where you put your energy, where you put your focus -- that's your worship, that's your god.

It's only because Thomson obviously puts a lot of energy into understanding and hearing and writing about and composing music that I am able to believe that he loves it. "The State of Music" certainly doesn't give that impression generally. The tone is superioristic -- Thomson is superior to music, and certainly to the other fools who make it. As I said, I'll keep my eyes open for his more specific music reviews, but I'm not too hopeful.

I'm guessing that Thomson's haughtiness as a critic is what makes him so attractive to other critics. The idea that the critic is superior to the music. The nationally esteemed critic who touted Thomson during a speech I heard six weeks or so ago certainly seemed to have an above-it-all attitude toward music and other music lovers. He pooh-poohed another critic -- a critic who out-thought, out-heard, and out-loved him by far -- for prostrating himself before music.

I'm not advocating that anybody get on their literal knees. But I ain't saving no pews for no damned superioristic sourpusses in my temple.

"Do I exaggerate? I hope I do, for without exaggeration there can be no love, and without love there can be no understanding" -- Oscar Wilde (paraphrased from memory)


Turned on the car radio yesterday & was greeted by Hank Williams’s mournful caterwaul on “Rambling Man.”  Such a haunted haunting song – 8 bar couplets, over and over, never varying melodically or harmonically or rhythmically, just accumulating verbal detail and emotional power, Hank-in-the-song knowing that he’ll die before the beloved he’s addressing and that she will be standing over his grave, knowing that God has called home this rambling man.  Sometimes it breaks my heart to hear people consoling themselves with thoughts of an afterlife.  What a great song.


Lately I've added an all-hits station to my channel surfing route. Teen pop, all the way. And within that, great variety. Smooth R & B, rough hip hop, wailing hard rock all following each other. United by upfront vocals, which I like, up up energy, and a typical though not universal focus on unrequited or recently lost love. Most memorable thing I've heard so far is a whiny white-sounding teen-sounding male hard rock pop group lamenting unrequited love with the chorus, "I'm addic, I'm addicted to you." Except it sounds like, "I'm a dick, I'm addicted to you." Trashy funny rueful truthful, the self-deprecation of unrequited love.

Sunday, May 23, 2004


3 nights ago I posted about a "Music Ho!," a mostly delightful (and occasionally racist) book on the contemporary classical music scene of 1934 by a then-29-year-old English composer named Constant Lambert. I mentioned that I learned more and laughed more from the book than I had from reading the much-touted music criticism of George Bernard Shaw, who along with Virgil Thomson, is often mentioned as one of the 2 top classical music critics. I mentioned having read Thomson years ago and having remembered nothing about it.

The very next day, Friday, while taking a break on a drive between work meetings, I found "The State of Music" by Virgil Thomson for 60 cents in a used bookstore. Written in 1939 when Thomson was around 40 (I'm esti-guessing) and revised in 1961. Read the first couple chapters and skimmed the rest.

Thomson and Lambert both blast the neo-classical tendency of the 1930s, and Thomson gets a few digs against his (unnamed) compatriot Aaron Copland which I appreciated. (He made a snide remark about the fashion of quoting folk tunes in accessible '30s classical, which confirmed something I had just e-mailed someone a couple days ago, that the massive quote of "Lord of the Dance" a/k/a "Simple Gifts" at the end of Copland's otherwise lovely "Appalachian Spring" really mars it for me.) Thomson and Lambert agree that music had changed very little, technically, since the first world war. They agree about a lot.

I ended up skimming Thomson's book because it's an extremely generalized sketch of classical music social and economic life in the '30s, with only a little bit of musical description. What little there is, is good -- he has a good riff on the 2 schools of orchestration, the Germanic, which builds up massive powers of sound in unisons, and the Franco-Russian founded by Berlioz and followed by Rimsky-Korsakoff, Debussy, Stravinsky, and others, which avoids unisons and brings the instruments into sharper, more brilliant focus among each other. And he made a sharp insight that the early masters of sonata form -- Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven -- never ever spoke of sonata form, and they never used it the same way twice. I don't know enough to know whether that's true, but it was interesting, and I'll listen for it.

2 things bugged me though. First, Thomson makes a plug that Viennese music from 1750 to 1850 is the pinnacle of western music, period amen. He doesn't name names, but he's talking about the 3 big names mentioned in the last paragraph, plus their immediate followers Schubert and Mendelssohn (I'm guessing here, and too late in the night to look anything up). Lambert's approach appeals to me much more -- his big 3 exemplars are Mozart (paradigmatic aristocratic-era composer), Moussorgsky (paradigmatic nationalist composer), and Wagner (paradigmatic Romantic), and he talks about the spiritual-emotional-political backgrounds of each style, how the backgrounds inform the styles, and the limitations and glories of the styles.

The other thing -- Thomson speaks on the level of generality to the degree that if I hadn't just read Lambert's book, I would have had no idea what he was talking about a lot of the time. He hardly ever names names, and in fact the only two 20th century composers Virgil Thomson speaks of explicitly approvingly by name are Virgil Thomson and some other guy I'd never heard of and whose name I don't remember. Maybe I'll look it up after some sleep.

If this guy is one of the 2 greatest critics ever, why, he must be one of the 2 greatest 20th century composers ever too.

Thursday, May 20, 2004


Some books I read fast, some books I linger over for months or even years, absorbing a few pages and then putting it down for a few weeks as I read other things. In some ways, those may be my favorite books. Moby-Dick was like that for me. Took me a couple years to read.

The other night I sorrowfully finished one of those books, "Music Ho!" by the English composer Constant Lambert, who was born in 1905, was writing ballets for Diaghellev at the age of 20, and wrote this book before he was 30. I've posted about it hereabouts before -- nearly every page stimulates with fresh insight spicily presented. Sad to finish it -- I wanted it to go on and on.

In the context of the ongoing controversies over atonal serial music, reading a book from 1934 that expresses shock that the oddball revolutionary Schoenberg had attracted a whole school of followers -- it's dislocating. Lambert predicts that atonalism will fizzle out, despite some beauties among its chief practitioners, Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Lambert isn't against atonalism, and admires Berg a great deal, but he's against any sort of dogmatism, and the atonalists had become dogmatic even by then.

Lambert helps me understand my impatience with 19th century symphonies and concertos. He talks about how what Wilfrid Mellers later called the Sonata Principle, first apotheosized by Haydn, depends on a spiritual balance, which the repeat of a movement's opening theme at the end psychologically indicates. Haydn and Mozart had that balance; Beethoven's symphonies pushed the classical balance to its limit. Lambert says that the 19th century zeitgeist of individualistic romanticism, and Beethoven's example of music-as-unfolding-drama, combine to make the theme-development-recapitulation sonata structure untenable. Hence Liszt's brilliance in creating the orchestral tone poem, which starts on its journey and doesn't force its way back to the beginning.

A standard opinion in classical music talk (I heard an eminent critic repeat it a month ago) is that George Bernard Shaw and the 20th century American composer Virgil Thomson were the greatest of classical music critics. It's been a long time since I've read Thomson, but I have read GBS recently. I learn a lot more, and laugh more, reading Lambert.

You don't have to agree with it to enjoy a sentence like this: "There is a definite limit to the length of time a composer can go on writing in one dance rhythm (this limit is obviously reached by Ravel towards the end of La Valse and towards the beginning of Bolero)."

Music ho!


My friend Emily Dietrich wrote in response to my post Sunday night on hearing a performance of Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" and the debut of two of Forrest Pierce's "Blood Concerti" ("MHC," which she mentions, is Mount Holyoke College):

This Blood Music sounds so stimulating. I'm glad, glad, exultant that your experience of music includes a physiological response, tears, shudders, etc. I feel that too, feel so full to bursting. I feel like music has direct access to something. Maybe receiving the information through the ears activates a different translator method. Or maybe music doesn't have to be TRANSLATED! Trivial, in a way, "the universal language,etc." But true true true. I think of Le Ton Beau de Marot, a cool book about translation and empathy and a wee poem by Marot and the death of the author's wife and Nabokov and Eugene Onegin by Douglas Hofstadter.

But there's this other thing. I was having a hard time on Mother's Day, missing my mother. I distracted myself by learning a prelude by Bach in B Flat I think. Any way there are these crazy runs (made me think of the cello trill you describe) and they build and build when I can get them right. That reminded me of a part of Bach's Magnificat which I sang at MHC. Our director struggled with the focus of the piece and then one day came and revealed her vision to us. The melodic lines were like ivy twining up white columns and then bursting out with the words "SUPERBOS."

If I could sing the Magnificat once or twice a week for the rest of my life with Mendelssohn's Die Erste Walpurgisnacht the other days. There's no dominant for that subordinate clause. That's all. If I could. Then what? Just if I could.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004


Heard Norah Jones on the Quality Rock station today. Very pleasant and sultry, and while not particularly memorable, neither unmelodious. She has an “instant classic” appeal, which I hadn’t noticed since the two classic Crows -- Counting and Sheryl -- got going in the early ‘90s. While I enjoy coming across Counting’s hits on the radio, I’m a big fan of Sheryl’s first two albums. Don’t know how much I’ll warm to Ms. Jones’s stuff, but I don’t mind hearing her.


Also heard a swingin’ nightclubby-bluesy cover of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” on the “great songs, great memories” AM station today, with a velvetty smooth singer & swinging bluesy organ. Who is it, I wondered -- Al Hibbler? Nah. Whoever, it’s happenin’! Charles Brown? Yeah, I think so. (Original singer of “Merry Christmas Baby.”) I think it’s him.

Nope. Joe Williams with Count Basie on organ. Count Basie studied with Fats Waller, and organ was Waller’s favorite instrument. Hitting the spot.


My friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey writes today:

In the car on the way to school, listening to Phil Schaap on KCR, doing a special Brown vs. edition, talking up some Bird, talking social change, talking jazz revolution, and talking, and talking, and talking... When I turned off the car, still talking.

Where's my Bird!

Love Phil -- love the talk, but...

In the Deli, Frankie Valli intones "Can't Take My Eyes Off You."

Every time I hear that now I think of your pointing out the incongruity of belting out passionately, "and if its quite alright..."

JOHN REPLIES: I borrowed that observation from classics scholar W. R. Johnson, writing in his book “The Idea of Lyric,” a history of lyric poetry, up to and including its survival in the jukebox, Frankie Valli’s song being Exhibit A. Love that song, love that line, love Prof. Johnson’s observation. (Editorial note: Those are Jay’s ellipses.)

Tuesday, May 18, 2004


I was talking to my friend John de Roo tonight, and he told me about playing at the Tucson Folk Music Festival recently and being thrown off by shoddy amplification of his acoustic guitar -- how distracting, how ruinous-to-concentration that is. Having experienced it several times myself, I sympathized.

I've been listening to classical guitar lately, recordings of the virtuoso Australian-born guitarist John Williams, who coincidentally has the same name as the Hollywood composer and Boston Pops conductor. Program notes to one of the albums talks about how classical guitar didn't really catch on until the 20th century, partly because it's so quiet. A soft sweet instrument. And when Segovia pretty much single-handedly made it a classical instrument, he made the new tradition mostly a solo tradition.

You can hear how soft & sweet the guitar is in bluegrass. The fiddle, the banjo, the mandolin all cut through so much more sharply than the guitar. Those fancy bluegrass guitar pickers always sound a little weak to me coming after another soloist, just because the instrument is so mellow-souding, and the genre isn't.

Virtuoso guitar traditions in Spanish Roma (Gypsy) music and Brazilian music emphasize the guitar's harmonic flexibility and rhythmic spirit in a way that bluegrass doesn't.

When I read about the guitar's quietness having contributed to its classical obscurity before the 20th century, I remembered reading an interview with an Indian master sarangi player who contemptuously talked about the quietness of the sitar, and how it never could have become such a world-famous instrument in the pre-amplification era. It was a chamber instrument played in court, according to this guy, not an instrument of the people, like the loud and beautiful sarangi.

I prefer playing regular guitar to electric, because one, you don't need an amp, and two, it sounds so sweet, and three, it's much more responsive dynamically and to changes in pick placement. But when I'm playing in a bar, I like to plug it into an amp. It's going to get amplified anyway, and I'd rather have some control over it onstage.

A friend of mine makes decent side money singing traditional Irish songs in noisy bars. He has a huge booming voice, but with a P.A., it doesn't matter. When I've sat next to him singing songs at parties, hearing that voice, it's a thrill. Unamplified is always better.

Chamber music.

Monday, May 17, 2004


I wrote X-hundred words on a classical concert last night, and I didn’t say a thing about the circumstances of the pieces. Partly I just wanted to get down my impressions of the experiece of the music-as-music. Partly I knew I had written too much already. But mostly I was responding to my experience of the music. I read the program notes before the concert -- what the composers said about their pieces, what they were thinking about, what they intended -- and I even had read a really good article in the New Yorker magazine about the Messiaen piece a couple months ago, which was one of the reasons I was so hyped to see the show. But while I was listening to the music, I got so absorbed in it that when I read the program notes again afterwards, they surprised me. This is not a typical experience for me, but then, I hardly ever go to shows that boast program notes; I hardly ever hear live classical music.

The program notes related Forrest Pierce’s pieces to poems from Rilke’s early collection “Das Stundenbuch,” which is where the titles of his concerti came from. Rilke’s book has been translated as “The Book of Hours” and “The Book of the Monastic Life.” I have no doubt that monastic life can be rich with emotional storminess, but the stereotype connotes quiet and calm and contemplative, which is how the poems I’ve read from Rilke’s book in translation come across. As I tried to describe yesterday, Pierce’s music didn’t strike me that way. If I had to relate his Blood Concerti to Rilke, I would have picked the “Duino Elegies,” with their high-strung nerves and complex textures and ultimate affirmativeness.

Alex Ross's New Yorker article does a first-rate job telling the remarkable story behind Olivier Messiaen's “Quartet for the End of Time.” Messiaen, a devout Catholic, wrote it in 1941 as a French POW in a German stalag, not as a catastrophic vision of the end of days, as the title and circumstances would lead me to guess, but as a loving revelation of Jesus' love as it will be revealed at the end of time. The long, slow, subtle, rhythmically complex melodies of the piano's duets with violin and cello in the piece's 5th and 8th movements are apparently meant to suggest timelessness. The metaphysics of timelessness are beyond me, but whatever Messiaen's inspiration, the music floated with piercingly poignant joy.

Sunday, May 16, 2004


Last night I heard the Seattle New Music Ensemble play Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet at the End of Time” in St. Ignatius Chapel. Wow.

I live near a small Catholic university with a pretty campus that I walk through once or twice a week on the way to a supermarket or a drug store or a magazine stand. A week ago I saw a sign outside the campus chapel, a very pretty modern building, advertising a concert on May 15, a local group playing Messiaen’s quartet and new compositions by the ensemble’s composer in residence, Forrest Pierce, 2 of his “Blood Concerti” written for the group. I’d heard of the Messiaen piece and recently read about it -- I wanted to go.

The chapel is smallish with high ceilings and wasn’t half full, maybe 50 or 60 people there. I got there early and sat in the 2nd pew, close enough so I could hear the flautist breathe between phrases during Pierce’s concerto for flute and marimba. In the age of recorded music it’s so easy to forget the physical demands of making music; these people were working.

A thrill to hear such sounds up so close. (I should get out more.)

So many funny rituals of classical-music listening. I thought about this while waiting for the concert to start. At a rock show or jazz show, if you’re a fan of the performer, and you’ve been waiting for them to show up, you cheer when they finally do. Same with classical, whether you’re a fan or not. Except the cheering is different. In classical, it’s clapping only, at least before the concert. At a rock show (and maybe jazz), shouting and hooting and whistling are included.

Then there’s this thing about movements. Pierce’s concerti had 3 movements each; Messiaen’s piece had 8. And in classical, you don’t cheer between movements. Geneologically, this makes no sense, as the concerto and the symphony are descended from the dance suite, and the dance suite is descended from, well, dance music, and, presumably, even back in the staid 17th century (if times were staid then, which I doubt), people clapped after each dance, not after each set of dances. But somewhere along the way, the custom evolved to make the shuffling of chairs and papers in the pause between movements part of the sonic experience to be concentrated on in silence, and so be it. I’ll go along with it. After the first movement of the first piece, Pierce’s cello concerto, I wanted to shout Yeah! But I kept quiet, kept it in.

Pierce scored the concerti for violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano, and percussion; the percussionist played marimba, gong, and two different bass drums, one played with mallets, the other played with a foot-pedal like in a jazz or rock drum set, which the excellent David Reeves played while playing the marimba. Messiaen’s quartet was made up of violin, cello, clarinet, and piano.

Pierce was born in 1972. His stuff was full of nervous energy, emotion, and attractive ensemble effects. Motifs being shot around the group, sometimes joining up in unison. The cello and violin dueting, with the cello playing higher than the violin. The piano playing sustained notes in close intervals with the marimba playing the same notes in a trill, creating an almost subliminal echo effect as the marimba is the quietest instrument in the group and was positioned, as is the custom with percussion, in the back. The violin briefly joining the cello for a unison trill until the cello shoots out for some glass-like harmonics -- this moment thrilled my eyes to watering. The occasional coming-together of attractive almost-hummable melody for 16 bars, and dissolving back into nervous gestural texture.

The cello concerto rocked, and I whistled and clapped after the last movement. I was the only person whistling -- probably a classical faux pas. At least I didn’t yell “Rock!” which is what I really wanted to do. The piece was called “[where] THE GREAT TERROR [can dismember me].”

Pierce’s writing is complex, engaging, and skillful, but at a couple points during the concerto for flute and marimba (“RUMORS OF GOD [run through your dark blood]”) my ears rebelled. The second movement had passages of parallel fifths that struck me as Hollywood-Chinoiserie; there was nice melodic stuff going on simultaneously but the “orientalisms” distracted. And the first movement of RUMORS OF GOD ended with loud rising figure to a sort of musical Ta-Da -- it sounded showy in a song-and-dance way. But these are picky cavils; on the whole, RUMORS OF GOD danced with pleasure. The 2nd movement with the distracting fifths ended up nicely with 16 bars (if I remember correctly; may have been 32) of strong ensemble melody followed by a brief denoument of quietly fragmenting textures -- lovely.

The showy big ending of the first movement of RUMORS OF GOD illustrated a common conundrum: Form is tough. Even two of the movements of the Messiaen struck me as formally off. The second movement started with dissonant loud fast unison playing, evolved into something quiet and tender, and ended with a repeat of the opening. I didn’t get it; didn't get the repeat; didn't get the relationship of the quiet tender stuff with the dissonant loud fast stuff. And the 4th movement for violin, cello, and clarinet without piano ended with a pizzicato’ed 5-1 cadence on the solo low cello that sounded like a Gordon Jenkins orchestration for a Frank Sinatra number. I love Jenkins & Sinatra, but the association in context struck me as unfortunate.

Despite these moments of falling-out, I had come to Messiaen’s quartet expecting something extraordinary, and I got it. Over and over again, thinking, omigod this is so beautiful. One movement a gorgeous clarinet solo, played with clear rich smooth tone by Jesse Canterbury. Notes laboriously emerging from inaudibility and building up to loud-as-possible, cut off suddenly and allowed to echo for a few seconds in the high-arch-ceilinged cement room. Two movements, the 5th and the 8th, slow piano chords supporting slow, slow, slow beautiful singing-toned melody from the cello (in the 5th movement) and the violin (in the 8th) -- in my echoing mind’s ear it’s a 20th century distillation of Chopin’s slow lyricism on piano. Eye-wateringly gorgeous. Beauties abounding in the other movements as well, but the clarinet solo and the piano duets with the violin and cello absolutely spellbound me. I want to hear that music again and again.

The band rocked. Flautist Leslie Laibman had a round full tone that paradoxically included an attractive breathiness. Pianist Melissa Plagemann played with sensitive dynamics and rhythmic authority. Cellist Brad Hawkins played with gusto, verve, and conviction. Violinist Stephen Creswell acquitted his part well in the Pierce. Maria Sampen took his chair for the Messiaen, and her lead playing in the last movement brought tears to my eyes and made me shudder. When we finally did applaud, having held it in after the first seven movements, it felt good to stand with the crowd and clap the group back for another bow after they had left. This “waiting till the end to clap” business has its points after all.

Unamplified instruments -- so beautiful. And so many sonic details -- hearing the page turning, hearing the breathing. Both of the Blood Concerti started with a sharp intake of breath from the cellist on the upbeat, like the shouted one-two-three-four of a rock band, except the one-two-three were silent and the four was just that breath. During the Messiaen, violinist Sampen did the heavy upbeat breathing during pauses in the loud-fast passages.

Intimate and human. Chamber music.

Thursday, May 13, 2004


The BBC Classical Music Magazine comes every month with an original, complete CD of music by one or another of the myriad BBC performing groups. This month one of the orchestras plays 2 Beethoven symphonies (I'm still debating whether to pick this one up); last month it was a BBC choir doing a selection of music by an Italian composer contemporary with Shakespeare named Carlo Gesualdo, whose music I didn't know at all and am now glad to be acquainted with in its haunting yearnful beauty. A bunch of music mags out there now include CDs, but as far as I know BBC is the only one that doesn't just put compilations out there, but thought-out programmed original recordings. One of the handful that I've bought is a collection of orchestral suites from Hollywood movie scores performed by one of the BBC orchestras. The CDs seems to alternate between standard repertory (Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner) and more off-the-beaten path stuff (Hollywood, Gesualdo).

Every month they review 150 new classical CDs. 150!! Every month!! Hard to imagine.

The most amusing feature, which they don't run every issue, is a debate over a composer's reputation. Last month it was a Pro or Con over Mozart. Another month it was Berlioz. Except of course they don't really find people to say Mozart and Berlioz stink -- it's more like the Pro side says, "Super delightful genius!" and the Con side is stuck with, "Well of course he's a genius, but not every damn thing the dude wrote is brilliant, I mean come on." Except it's the BBC, and they don't write like that.

The anti-Mozart position talked about how the Big Mo wasn't the youngest composer genius, that Mendelssohn and Schubert at 16 kicked Mo's ass at 16, which is interesting, since part of Mo's rep is based on super-young prodigy status. And the guy also talked about how Mo had to crank out commissions for dance parties, and that's fine, but, I mean come on, when the classical DJs play some Mozart dance track and announce it in hushed tones accorded to divine genius, that's just silly. But of course, the so-called anti-Mozart advocate said, a lot of Mo's stuff really is super-awesome. (I'd go along with that. I once listened to a cassette of "Don Giovanni" on a solo all-night road trip, and when the Stone Guest entered to drag Don Giovanni to Hell in the last act at 3 in the morning, my hair stood up and I thought the Statue was in the backseat. Scared me to thrilled.)

I once found a 2-CD set of "German Dance Music" by Mozart and Beethoven for five bucks and very excitedly bought it but I couldn't make it through it because the ensemble had no verve; they had no idea they were playing dance music. Rhythmically slack. And I got the strong feeling that Ludwig and Wolfgang saved their best tunes for other occasions.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004


I read David Wondrich’s book STOMP AND SWERVE in a blaze last week, never wanting to put it down, charmed by the insouciant erudition and inventiveness and humor, absorbed by the history, and constantly saying yes yes yes as my own preoccupations were gratified and prejudices confirmed. Wondrich posits that North American hot music stems from the collision of the swervy rhythms of displaced/dispersed Africans and the stomping rhythms of dispersed Celts that happened here north of the border while it didn’t down south. The “1843” of the subtitle alludes to the founding of the first famous blackface minstrel *band*, the Virginia Minstrels, led by northern whiteman Daniel Emmett, composer of “Old Dan Tucker” and “Dixie,” which started its life as the cake-walking finale of a minstrel show.

Where to begin?

Reading this book, I can't help but feel a kinship. Wondrich graduated from high school in 1979, two years before me, and played in punk bands for 10 years (longer than I did), after having been blown away by the energy of the Sex Pistols and then shocked to find out accidentally as a high schooler that ‘30s blues great Robert Johnson is every bit as intense as Johnny Rotten. (For me it was early ‘60s Mingus who jazzed me to the overwhelming rocking-ness of non-rock genres.) And: he gets the term “swerve” from the Roman poet Lucretius, whom he quotes liberally in his own translations. Any rock critic -- and this is a rock book as much as it’s a jazz book or a country book -- who makes the old poets rockin’ and relevant gets my crow of approval.

Wondrich persuasively argues that the racist, swervy, energetic Euro-American misunderstanding/appropriation/collision/homage of/with/to African American music that begat the minstrel tradition of Daniel Emmett informs all subsequent North American vernacular music. Ragtime, jazz, swing, rock-and-roll, country, bluegrass, soul, funk, hip hop, techno.

Complex story.

Ragtime wasn’t just Scott Joplin and the other dignified pianists. A whole world of songs, bawdy and stupid and smart and everything, descended from minstrelsy, with the Ragtime syncopation that got everybody’s body moving. And from Ragtime, or Ragtime + Blues, jazz and its descendants.

And. Banjo, originally an African instrument, got adopted by whites via minstrelsy, which lasted much longer than I could have imagined -- until the middle of the 20th century. (Tidbit: A teen-age Ornette Coleman played in minstrel shows in the late ‘40s!!!) Banjo got adopted by southern whites as an instrument good-old old-timey old-time good-time music, into the early country music record industry of the 1920s and into its sophisticated jazzy bluegrass descendants. Early country singers of the ‘20s recorded minstrel songs as straight-up country-folk songs, because, 60 years after they were originally written up north by professional white minstrels, the country folk tradition had absorbed them.

Also: the corny jokes of bluegrass and country acts like the TV show “Hee-Haw”: straight out of minstrelsy.

Other tidbits seemingly designed to win my enthusiasm: Wondrich devotes positive space to the hot band of John Philip Sousa, who (news to me) recorded ragtime tunes as well as his own compositions.

And: Wondrich digs Paul Whiteman, the (white) much-dissed so-called King of Jazz of the 1920s, who happened not only to hire great musicians like George Gershwin and Bix Beiderbecke, but also just made slick, peppy, imaginatively arranged records even without the participation of brilliant instrumentalists like Bix and George. I'm with Wondrich all the way on this one.

And: his story of the breakthrough of Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds, who made the first big hit blues record to sell hundreds of thousands to African Americans in 1920, Crazy Blues.

Wondrich winds up the story in 1924 -- actually 1925 -- because in a brilliant critical insight, he knows that's when the story moves into the common property of conventional wisdom, and he shows how that was when the future course of jazz as a virtuoso soloist's art was irretrievably set. Late in December 1924, the Red Onion Jazz Babies cut a terrific record called "Cake Walking Babies From Home," on which the brilliant soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet actually upstaged the young Louis Armstrong. Two weeks later in early 1925, the group cut the same song again, and Louis recorded the first of his many mind-bogglingly inspired trumpet solos to come, all tonal bravado and rhythmic surprise. I've heard both of these versions, and Wondrich is right. The present age starts here.

Best book on music I've read in a long time. Chockful, and a hot read. I thank and congratulate the author.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004


Monday night I dreamed that I had scored a rare book of essays by one of my favorites, Kenneth Rexroth, in a used book store, and at a bargain price, five bucks or something standard for a typical used book but not for a rare book. In my dream I was so happy.

The book doesn’t exist outside of my dream. It was called “Revictualize,” a neologistic pun on revitalize, revisualize, and replenish-the-food-supply or feed-again; implying that vision, vitality, and sustenance amount to the same thing.


My friend Emily Dietrich wrote in response to recent posts on acoustical space and on Rachmaninoff:

“At Mount Holyoke, we used to sing Christmas Vespers in New York City in I think Saint Thomas Cathedral.  It was stone and vaulted and all those things.  We all loved it.  Then, Senior year we sang at Saint Bart's which was lower and carpeted and we were all outraged at the plain old sound which certainly would not do for our mood music.  I was in a small acapella group (all female of course) and we sang "In Dulce Jubilo" and my mom, who had come from Michigan to hear the concert, said it sounded pure and perfect.  But to us squat Saint Bart was a sad way to end our Vespers career. . . .
“My mother-in-law always calls Rachmaninoff schmaltzy.  She insists that's not insulting, but since schmaltz is pure gooey chicken fat, I think there's a negative connotation in that label! 
“Jenny Brown and I played a Ferrante and Teicher duet in the Homecoming Show in 10th grade.  I'd never heard of them before, and haven't thought of them much since.  When we started playing, someone in the audience said, ‘oh no!  Beethoven!’
“My music theory prof in college said every pianist should be able to play the opening to Rocky's piano concerto, just to show off at parties.”

Monday, May 10, 2004


I forgot to mention my grandma when discussing the personal roots of my eclecticism in my post last night. She studied piano at Northwestern University in the ‘20s and used to trade her orchestra tickets to see touring Broadway shows in downtown Chicago, though she loved classical music too and gave me beautiful records -- Debussy, Chopin, Rossini. Till the end of her life, even though she had Parkinson’s, she could play just about anything by ear. Her favorite TV show -- at least by the time I was hanging around and paying attention -- was Lawrence Welk, a taste I have tried but failed to cultivate for myself. She taught music in elementary schools when she was younger; I don’t know when she stopped doing that.

My mom -- her daughter -- took piano lessons as a kid. I think she told me that she only took lessons for a couple years and gave them up for cheerleading, which astonishes me. Not the cheerleading, but the brevity of her study, because she can sightread almost anything. She knows no theory though, can’t transpose at all, can’t play chords if they’re written by name above a melody line.

My mom has made money on and off accompanying ballet classes and high school choirs, which makes me a second generation semi-pro musician, because I make a little money every once in a while playing my folk-rock songs in smokey clubs. Whenever we get together we get out songbooks and she plays and I sing. I didn’t get into doing this until 10 or 12 years ago or so. Embarrassingly late, but glad to have gotten there.

Mom came out and visited a few weeks ago. I took her to band practice at the bass player’s house. The bass player’s partner is in night school when we practice, and they have a 16-month-old girl who’s 12 days older than my boy. Practice is usually interrupted by some bedtime ritual -- putting her to bed, giving her a bath. The bass player, Robert, took voice lessons some years ago and his piano is covered with songbooks, including one of Copland and one of Samuel Barber, a less famous 20th century American composer. When Mom and I first got there, Robert was giving his daughter a bath, and so I sang a song while Mom played Robert’s piano. Can’t remember what song -- some old pop or other.

What I do remember is that we got the drummer, Bob, to sing one. Bob had studied voice in college but hadn’t sung in years and can’t sing and play drums at the same time. He had heard one of the Barber songs in Robert’s book and asked my mom to play it. They stumbled through it together once and then did it for real, a dissonant and rhythmically difficult and ultimately lovely song with words by James Agee. Bob has a beautiful baritone. He and Robert have played together for years, and Robert had never heard him sing.

All of us were delighted.

Sunday, May 09, 2004


On Sunday, March 14, when I wrote about the intermittent influence of classical on pop, I said that Liszt represented the end of the virtuoso soloist-composer line. A few days after writing that I heard on the radio some hairy Romantic piano soloing in front of a wailing Romantic orchestra and I thought, hmm, I wonder about Rachmaninoff. I didn’t really know his music but I guessed that he may have supplied some tunes to Tin Pan Alley and some gestalt and style to muzak. The Romantic piano & orchestra on the radio turned out to be indeed Rachmaninoff (a lucky guess always pleases me).

Shortly after that, I came across a reference in the BBC Classical Music magazine to Rocky IV, meaning, Rachmaninoff’s 4th Piano Concerto. Cheeky, but Google tells me that the BBC isn’t the only institution to talk about ol’ Sergei’s concerti that way.

A few weeks later I was stuck in Everett, Washington at an all-day conference for my job. I got a short break and wandered out of the building, found a pawn shop, and laid down 2 bucks for “Rachmaninoff’s Greatest Hits.” I finally got around to listening to Rocky II today, the only one of Rocky’s concerti to rate as a greatest hit according to Columbia Records. Melodious and virtuosic and strenuously romantic -- I will enjoy listening to it again.

My suspicion about Rocky’s influence on muzak proved true. Few people know -- probably because the people in the know don’t like to talk about it -- that one of the most popular recording acts throughout the 1960s was the “beautiful music” piano duo Ferrante & Teicher, who sold more than 20 million records during the heart of the rock era. Pop music scholars, to the extent they don’t simply ignore or remain in denial about the popularity of this stuff, tend to dismiss it as lame hold-over Euro-centric bourgeois reactionary tripe not worth discussing any further than that.

Ferrante & Teicher met at Juilliard as piano prodigies and after a peripatetic career as a touring, recording avant-garde-novelty piano duo who followed John Cage in the tradition of modifying their pianos with sound effects on the strings, they stumbled into the dual-piano muzak game and became big stars. Their formula was to take a strong melody, like “Smile” by Charlie Chaplin (famously sung by Tony Bennett) or some catchy movie theme, soup it up with cascading Rocky-esque vituoso piano filligree, and layer on a thick sauce of screaming violins. When I was a kid there were radio stations devoted to this stuff -- “easy listening” was the name of the format, and sometimes, “beautiful music.”

(“Easy listening” has gone by the wayside, of course, supplanted by the very interesting catch-all genre “smooth jazz” and by the ever-receding “new age.” Also by the oxymoronic genre “soft rock.”)

Of course I disliked this stuff heartily as a kid, but I genuinely like it now, the grand sweeping melodies and excessive orchestration and obvious emotionalism. A sensibility, no doubt, inherited from my mom, who, along with her Ellington and Ahmad Jamal and Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie records, and her classical records, and her Barbra Streisand and 5th Dimension and Johnny Matthis records, she had -- still has -- Ferrante and Teicher.

I can’t blame you if you have no interest in or patience for Ferrante and Teicher, but I tell you I’m glad I found their “All Time Great Movie Themes” in the dollar bin of a used CD store. Great dreamy late night music. A bowdlerization of Rocky, but my impression is that most of the classical critics tend to think of Rocky as a bowdlerization of Chaikovsky and Mussorgsky with some stolen Wagnerian harmony thrown in. So what the heck. Give me melody, give me an excess of screaming violins and passionately cascading virtuoso piano notes. I’ll take ‘em.

Ferrante and Teicher, in semi-retirement, now own their own record label devoted to their own music. The name of the label is Avant-Garde.

Friday, May 07, 2004


I've long suspected Seattle's (commercial) classical radio station of laying on a thick spread of artificial reverb over everything they broadcast. Last night driving home from work I think I heard the proof.

They were playing Mozart's charming (and charmingly titled) "Eine Kleine Nacht Musik" ("A Little Night Music"). It starts with the little lick Salieri plays for the priest at the beginning of that lurid movie "Amadeus" -- DAA da DAA da da da da da DAA (silence). During that momentary rest in the music, I heard the echoing reverb.

Reverb is an effect of acoustical space; natural reverb reflects the space in which one is hearing or in which one recorded the music. Big stone churches have natural reverb. Some new music guys (names escape me at the moment) record in places that have several seconds of natural reverb.

It's unlikely that anyone would record Mozart in such a space, because the reverb tends to blur over the music's detail and filigree. In this instance, the violins sounded screamingly close-miked. Placing the mikes hard up on the instruments would seriously cut into the natural reverb of any space in which one was recording. And I can't imagine a standard classical record producer adding the reverb electronically afterwards. The radio station was doing it.

It sounded bad but I liked it. So weird. Most people listen to the station as a higher-class muzak (not excluding me), and the station's honchos must have figured out that when the music is competing with the noise of traffic and the kitchen and the workplace anyway (though I've never heard it on a construction site -- only NPR cuts into classic rock's traditional market dominance there in Seattle) -- the honchos must have figured that the reverb sweetens the pot for more listeners than it annoys.

Thursday, May 06, 2004


Thom Gunn, an English-born poet who lived most of his adult life in America, died last week. I don't know much of his poetry, but his poem called "Elvis Presley" has the prophetic line, "He turns revolt into a style." Gunn wrote the poem in 1957 -- an audaciously early critique of the myth that rock and roll = revolt.


Driving to work this morning (Wednesday morning; it's late Wednesday night for me now), I heard on the college jazz-folk-news-world-music station a swatch of intense freebop in the style of Miles Davis's '60s pre-electric band. Early in the morning, I had a momentary fantasy that the band had been up playing all night, that musicians are possessed and inspired always to play, play, play, all night long and long into the day.

Then I turned the station -- wasn't in the mood for freebop. The older-than-oldies station was playing Nat King Cole's awesomely dreamy & lush recording of Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust." Not right either for early morning music. Counter-intuitive programming -- I've noticed radio does this quite a bit. Monday morning 8 o'clock I heard the great uplifting workday-done song, "Five O'Clock World" by the Vogues.

"But it's a five o'clock world when the whistle blows.
No one owns a piece of my time.
And there's a five o'clock me inside my clothes,
thinking that the world looks fine, yeah."

And then a swooping wordless full-hearted melodic yodel.

It seemed almost cruel, hearing it at 8 o'clock Monday morning, until I remembered that there IS a 5 o'clock me inside my clothes, always, and eventually that person & outward circumstances will coincide happily again.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004


Reading a review of the new Stephen Sondheim musical in the "New Yorker" last week, I was wondering why theater critics and not music critics review musicals. But of course, I remembered, music critics are segregated by genre. Jazz, pop (mostly rock, country & hip hop), and classical -- and musical theater is theater, not music, by this taxonomy. It’s as if movie reviewers were segregated by genre -- only “thriller” critics review thrillers, only “comedy” critics review comedies, and foreign-language films are reviewed by linguists.

Then I noticed: The “New Yorker” reviewer pans the new Sondheim musical on the basis of a weak script and never once mentions the music. Not once.


I was feeding breakfast to the baby dude and reading the paper this morning, and a letter to the editor from a World War 2 veteran named Robert Eckert in today's Seattle P-I made me break down sobbing. Eckert tells the story of sitting around with some WW2 veteran friends shortly after Bush launched the "Iraq war debacle," trying to figure out Bush & Co.' motivation. Oil, religion, and vengeance are mentioned as possibilities.

"The 18-year-old grandson of one of my friends who had been listening to the conversation said, 'You old guys think too much. Bush has an itch. The military has an itch. Cheney and Rumsfeld have itches. All of the itches are a little different, but build toward one goal: Find a common enemy and a reason that the public will buy, then unleash hell on earth. Most of the kids my age know they will be called on to scratch the itch even if it kills them. The young will pay for it one way or another for years to come.'

"What do kids know? We all agreed that the war was a combination of everything we said it was and nothing that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld said it was. We continued drinking our coffee, and talking about the old times."

It was the pure affection expressed in the pseudo-dismissive banter of "What do kids know?" that broke the dam for me. Love, letting me grieve for the destruction and suffering and gall.

The baby dude didn't know what to make of my crying and pretended to laugh, to try to cheer me up.

Monday, May 03, 2004


Last night when I wrote about big shows I've seen in the last decade or so, I forgot to mention the most recent, REM, whom my beloved spouse and I saw together last Labor Day, our first night out together since the birth of the baby dude. And it was a lovely summer evening outdoor stadium concert of all those lively melodic songs, and Michael Stipe so cute & sweet an energetic showman frontman. They played some new songs too, one of which I later heard on the radio and which I've read is supposed to be a critical comment on the Bush administration but I can never understand the words, being myself a fogey.

Anyway, Diary, tonight I went to a Rock-and-Rollers for Kerry event at a downtown club and saw the Minus 5, a local band fronted by one of the members of REM's touring band, a guy named Scott McCaughey who also is the leader of the Young Fresh Fellows, who aren't so young any more, being most of them older than me. (Or at least some of them.) I'd seen the Minus 5 once before and didn't understand why they were thrashing through a serious heartfelt Neil Young song I like ("Tonight's the Night"), seemingly half-sarcastically. So I was skeptical.

Well, tonight, Diary, they ROCKED. A different lineup, with an acquaintance of mine, a nice guy and fine musician named John Ramberg, playing lead guitar and singing fine harmony. The drummer was some white-haired dude who hit the skins hard and wittily and joyfully and melodically -- one of the best drummers I've ever heard. The bass player I recognized, Peter Buck of REM, laying down a fine groove like the accomplished and serious journeyman rocker-become-rock-star he is, playing fine in a 4/5ths empty medium small club. (Ah, but it would have been only half empty if they hadn't started an hour later than advertised, as it's a Monday night & I'm not the only one getting older around here.)

I asked my friend Jake London -- musician, Turtletop correspondent, and man about town -- who the drummer was, 90% sure that he'd know, because he knows 'em almost all. I forget the name now, but he's REM's touring drummer since the original drummer retired (actually the second guy REM hired, the first one not having worked out), and he used to play in the industrial band Ministry. Mr. Drummer, I would take off my hat if I were wearing one.

I LOVED being hit with the LOUD small club ROCK SOUND. Very physical thing. Chirpy melodic rock songs written by Scott M, interspersed with joyous LOUD improvised rock NOISE. Bobbing up & down happily, happy to be at a Rockers for Kerry event, until suddenly the late hour & the LOUD got to me and I left before it was over, partly because I wanted to tell you, dear Diary, all about it before I now go too tired to bed. Good night, and good rockin'.

Sunday, May 02, 2004


On my Thursday morning drive I heard an in-studio interview and song on the local Oldies station. The Beatles-tribute-impersonator group Rain was playing a couple shows in town and they came in to promote their appearance. (I assume their name was “Rain” and not “Rein” or “Reign” or “Rayin’.”) There was almost-witty banter, and they played one song, a Beatle fave of mine, “This Boy.” Nicely done, the tight 3-part harmony, the energetic 6/8 rhythm guitar. Nicely done, and what made it awful was the lead banterer not only tried to sing like John Lennon but talk like him too. His impersonation was almost good -- recognizable, and just wrong enough to be hideous.

I’ve never seen or knowingly heard an Elvis impersonator, but I understand that impulse more. Elvis had a more flamboyant voice and persona than any of the Beatles. Larger than life and sincere and sweet. The Beatles’ non-musical group persona was insouciance and wit and sarcasm and goofiness. All fine qualities to emulate, but hard to pull off when you’re straining to recreate the physical sound of someone else’s voice.

Nothing against tribute bands, mind you. Couldn’t we consider symphony orchestras to be Beethoven tribute bands? I’ve been to several tribute shows in the last decade. Most of them have technically not been tribute shows, but oldies shows -- old stars touring on their catalogues. Trying to remember whom I’ve seen:

Ramones. (What struck me was that they played the same roles in the same costumes longer than Carol Channing in “Hello Dolly.”)

Television. (Twice! Two of the best shows I’ve ever seen -- wild jazz-noise-improvised bluesy-riff-anchored rock. Exhilarating.)

Funkadelic. (The four OTHER original singers won control of this name from P-Funk leader George Clinton. The show was a George Clinton tribute act, even doing some of Clinton’s solo hits. And it was tremendous -- they can really sing, and they hired an ace band, and it was in a small club, and it rocked.)

Brian Wilson. (Beach Boys tribute act, with a couple songs from his solo career. Gorgeous show. I cried during the song “Add Some Music to Your Day,” at the suddenly climactic line, “Music is in my soul.”)

Earth Wind & Fire. (Great showmen; Philip Bailey can still sing like an angel -- he sang the high parts. Since they were playing Seattle, in the middle of the show most of the band left the stage, leaving the lead guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer, none of whom had been in the classic EWF band, and they did “Machine Gun” by Hendrix. And it was wonderful.)

Patti Smith. (I love her first album but she’s never been an inspired bandleader. She still sings with energy.)

A Jimi Hendrix Tribute Night by lots of people at the downtown Symphony Hall. (Mostly striving to be arty & different while failing to deliver the songs on anything resembling their own terms. Except Medeski Martin & Wood, who tore up “Manic Depression.” A good match -- the first time I heard MMW, I thought, wow, that guy is the Hendrix of the organ -- such a creative master magician of tone & timbre & distortion.)

A Rahsaan Roland Kirk Tribute Night led by Steve Turre, a trombonist who recorded with Kirk, and featuring sax phenom James Carter. (Tremendous show. Kirk is one of my top favorite all-time composers, and this band tore it up.) ("Tore it up" -- it just occurred to me: an allusion to Dionysus.)

Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra doing selections from Duke Ellington’s sacred (meaning, explicitly Christian) music. (I’ve seen this concert twice! And wonderful.)

Barry Manilow. (A great showman, and aside from maybe Patti Smith, the only of these acts to offer new material in his show, some of which was head-shake-able No, some of which was lively & tuneful & head-nod-able Yes. At a party after the concert, a friend, when he heard where my beloved spouse and I had been, said, “John, I think you’re taking this irony thing too far.” I tried to explain that I really like a lot of Barry’s songs; that they had touched me in my pre-teen years before I understood what was supposed to be cool, and I was enjoying getting back in touch with that open-ness. My friend said he understood and talked about how Journey was the new hip thing in coffee shops, and the 20-year-olds pouring the coffee probably had the same relationship to it that I had to Barry. I was horrified, never having run into this trend, and the very next day I heard Journey in a coffee house, and I started the process of making my peace with Journey, and trying to hear what people like in it. I’m getting there.)

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?