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

Sunday, May 09, 2004

BEAUTIFUL MUSIC AND ROCKY

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.

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