Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Power of Music - How About Humor?

We are , of course, aware of the many powerful projections which emanate from music. There are very few of us who will not have a tune pop up in our minds, and follow us throughout the day this tune appears - music is a pandemic force in our consciousness.
One of the many facets of human expression which music gives us is humor, and there are, to be sure, countless examples of humor or comedic projections - allow me to cite some personal experiences dealing with this aspect:
Strangely, perhaps, the first example that comes to mind is an orchestral piece, "Divertissement," by Jaques Ibert. There is a section in which he lampoons marriage by citing the beginning of Mendelssohn's "Wedding March," and then immediately lurches into trumpet spasms of "wah - wahs", absolutely blasphemising the sacred ceremony.
Horowitz, in his "Variations on Mendelssohn's Wedding March," makes marriage sound as if it's going off to war, with militant trumpet-like passages and a tempo which would cause any marriage couple to quickly run out of oxygen. I have often felt that this may have been Horowitz's true attitude toward marriage ( and this is my opinion only!), his having been married to a lady who would say in front of others "stop that!" if the great pianist's pixie-like humor would get the best of him.
One of the most fascinating experiences I have undergone is an experiment I once did while watching some of the silent comedies of the great comedy team of Laurel and Hardy.
The composers who added music to these silent movies were wonderfully clever in their matching the burlesquing of musical instruments with the visual antics of these great comedians, and if one listens to the music intently, the humor factor in it is incredibly astute.
What I did on one occasion was to turn the music down completely while watching these silent comedies, and found that for a reason unspellable to me, the antics on the screen, though extremely funny, had somehow become less funny. The moment I turned the music back on, the visual antics became more funny immediately.
Perhaps some of you have made a point of doing what I did, and have experienced the same result.
The power of music wears many different coats.


Friday, June 26, 2009

On the Passing of Michael Jackson - The Power of Music

With the death yesterday of a relatively youthful icon, Michael Jackson, some thought comes to mind:
In the world of TV and electronic communication throughout a rapidly shrinking planet, we, of course, are witness to and/or participants in the after shock caused by the departure of a powerful artist. The countless photographs we have already seen of the hordes of Jackson devotees paying homage to his entity, in so many different ways; from flowers, from groups gathering in so many locations, to weeping publicly - the same occurred a generation and a half ago when another popular legend, Elvis Presley, died suddenly.
It is totally irrelevant as to the style of the music; that is, whether it be popular or serious (classical) music. I think of the thousands who attended the burial of George Frederick Handel, the great Baroque composer. Although a native German, he was buried in great pomp in Westminster Abbey, and there is a statue of Handel in the Poet's Corner.
I recall the English author, Bachrach, and his description of the death of Beethoven, with a burial service attended by some 10,000, and a young composer by the name of Franz Schubert as one of the pall bearers.
And the crowds attending the placing of the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz, in 1989, in a family crypt.
Ironic, is it not, that we do not know where Mozart's body lies? We know only the cemetery he was placed in, with no headstone made at the time of his death.
The other side of recognition...


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Imagination - The Transporter in Musical Creativity

Talent is, of course, the prime requisite of the creative mind. One of the elements embedded within that talent the composer calls upon to bring the creative gift into being is imagination.
I thought that I would put forward some examples of the results coming out of the imaginative process:
In Walt Disney's 'Fantasia", the array of abstract designs in direct coordination with the notes brought into existence in Bach's great Toccata enhances the power and direction of this masterpiece. Disney's artists are wonderfully attuned to the majesty of this piece, and the shapes projected onto the screen form a kind of extension of the ideas given us earlier by the mystic composer Scriabin, in his color organ, which would project colors onto a screen that, in the composer's view, paralleled the music having been written, in visual form.
Just the title of one of Debussy's preludes allows us to create pictures in our minds even before the music is heard; the title being "What the West Wind Saw."
The Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, in his "Pacific 231," gives us a vivid aural "picture" of the sounds of a steam train starting on its journey, attaining its top speed, then slowing down as it approaches its destination - all done with musical instruments; no computers or other devices that could emulate those sounds of a train.
How about a composer in the 20th century who, by way of a computer, designs a piece for piano that results in sounds produced by the simultaneous "playing" of thirty or more notes, something a human could not possibly do? The result is a mind - blowing experience, as we listeners are not prepared to hear a piano that produces sounds that a ten - fingered performer could never attain. A brilliant psychological premise by the composer!
And there are many more examples that can be given - I thought that I would submit a mere handful for the reader to contemplate.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Part Nine - Conversations With Whom??

Today I thought that I would consider great authors I might have enjoyed conversation with, and I came up with Mary Shelley and Oscar Wilde. Not, in primary terms, for general conversation, but specifically for two works I had in mind; namely, Shelley's "Frankenstein" and Wilde's "Picture of Dorian Gray".
I would have wanted to ask both of these great writers the same kind of question; namely, issues of some depth having come out of these two works.
In Shelley's novel; was the book, in reality, a question about how many, and/or what kinds of "monsters" can Man conceive and actuate? War, we know, has long been Man's ongoing creation. Are there other incarnations yet to be created? Will Man redeem himself, or destroy himself with one of these "monsters?"
These are the kinds of questions I would have asked Shelley about this work. With her Promethean allusions, what kinds of answers would she have projected to me?
By the way, when I think of Shelley, I also have Chopin and Rachmaninoff in mind, in that Shelley began this famous work at age eighteen and, I think, finished it in about a year - Chopin started his magnificent First Concerto at age seventeen, as did Rachmaninoff in his prescient First Concerto.
In the Wilde book, I keep asking myself about a deep wish - did Wilde hold within his core a wish that might have wanted to be what he created in his character Dorian Gray; that is, one who would forever remain young even if it required a Faustian agreement to do so? Wild's derisive attitude toward life takes shape in Dorian Gray's battles with his monsters even though he had seemingly found a road to immortality.
By the way, is not "Dorian Gray" the only full-blown novel of Wilde? Do correct me if I am in error.


Monday, June 22, 2009

This Day in June - A Significant Date in History

My thoughts concerning the 22nd of June coalesced into three realities today, and the number 22 is one of intrinsic interest to me, essentially due to coincidence:
First; in 1918, Germany surrendered to France in the Compiegne Forest , ending The War To End All Wars. This ceremony was consummated in a railway car in a clearing in the forest.
Second; on the 22nd of June in 1940, France surrendered to Germany in the Compiegne Forest, resulting in Hitler's formal occupation of France. In an act of hateful revenge, Hitler arranged to transport the same railway car, used in 1918, to the same clearing, in order to humiliate his ancient foe. By the way, this act took place 22 (!) years after the first encounter between these adversaries.
Third; on the 22nd of June, 1941, a year to the day of the French surrender, Hitler changed the course of history by invading Russia and ultimately insuring his own destruction.
And so, the number 22 bears witness to defining events in a saga we call History.


Friday, June 19, 2009

"The Art of" - A Great Creative Mind Which Altered History

As you know, I consign the term " the art of" to the process of creativity, whether or not it is endemic to the fine arts; for example, I have already written about the joy of creation as it applied to the great physicist Robert Oppenheimer.
May I again deal with creative genius outside of music and its artistic partners?
One of England's most brilliant engineers, Reginald Mitchell, spent many hours gazing at the flight patterns and motions of birds, and directly utilized his senses in designing an all-metal airplane in 1932 that could exceed 400 miles per hour, at a time when that speed was considered beyond possibility.
His vision found reality past his death in 1937, when after further years of research and modes of fabrication, the Spitfire was pitted, along with its brilliant cousin, the Hurricane, against Hitler's gigantic military machine, when Hitler planned the invasion of Great Britain, after his occupation of France.
Only a handful of men, several hundred in number, dealt the Nazi air force such a severe blow in what was called the Battle of Britain, that Hitler was forced to cancel the invasion, and without defeating England and going to war with Russia, Hitler fought the two-front war which destroyed him and his quest for world domination and what Churchill warned as a "a new dark age."
If it were not for Mitchell's Spitfire (along with the Hurricane), the German Me - 109 might well have governed Britain's skies, and history might have taken a different course.
And so; like Beethoven or Mozart, a great creative mind altered the course of history.
Like Roosevelt, who died just a few weeks before the defeat of the Nazis, Reginald Mitchell did not live to witness the fruits of his labor, let alone his vision.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

About the Great Pyro-Technicians - Is Some Perspective Lost?

A thought crossed my mind today, when I thought of two of the great musicians I revered in my childhood; namely, Jascha Heifetz and Vladimir Horowitz.
They were both in the same lofty position as two of the most thrilling performers known to history. Their staggering physical techniques led, as I remember as a young student at Eastman, to some around me, even a few on the faculty, to utter at least a mild disdain for the placing of their gigantic techniques first, and the music second.
At that point in my life, I had not yet accumulated enough empirical knowledge, and simply let that aspect of argumentation remain in my memory, as I had no weapons with which to question this particular issue.
Now, as I have garnered enough experience as a musician to perhaps add my fuel to the fire of controversy, I must state that the issue of musicianship germane to the likes of a Horowitz or a Heifetz prompts me to defend these two icons against the question of technique over musicianship.
For me, the plasticity of Heifetz in his Bach playing, especially in the unaccompanied violin masterpieces, has never been equaled. The warmth of his adherence to the text in whatever he performed was omnipresent.
In the playing of Horowitz, all one has to do is to listen to his Scarlatti, with the minimalism of the pedal, and the fact that he huddled with Kirkpatrick, one of the great harpsichordists, before he released any Scarlatti recording.
He remarked that he never really liked playing Brahms; however, the call to his own artistic integrity overwhelmed that opinion, as proven in the historic recording with his father-in-law, Toscanini, in the Brahms "B" flat Concerto; one of the epic recordings in the 20th century.
And so, from my view, perhaps one should always consider what any great artist really asks; namely, "now that I know the notes, what do or should I do with them?"


Monday, June 8, 2009

Julia and Moe - What a Couple!........What If(???)

I always like to think of "the art of" as it can apply to almost any pursuit, if the powers of creativity can be applied.
I've written about this aspect before in this blog; for example, I believe that Oppenheimer made an art out of physics by way of his belief in the pure joy of discovery.
Take Julia Childs. Out of Radcliffe, I believe, she became a part of the American Intelligence Service by way of the O.S.S., the precursor to the C.I.A. of today. Her creativity in this clandestine (and dangerous) organization led to such projects, on her part, as working on shark - repellent compounds, which ultimately transmogrified to such artistic pursuits, as, say - French Cooking?
Take Moe Berg, a catcher for such teams as the Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox, and the New York Yankees - a baseball player with a tuxedo hanging in his locker in the event the game he just played in might be followed by a lecture he either attended or gave. A Princeton and Columbia Law School graduate, he also worked in the O.S.S during the Second World War, used his mastery of several languages to spy in places like Japan, Yugoslavia, and Germany itself.
What if these two had stuck to spying as their only source of employment?
Would French cooking have become the staple cuisine in the O.S.S.?
Or would the office of the head of intelligence have had pictures of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams on its walls?


Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Remembrance and Perspective On This Day

eThe world knows of D-Day and the reason for its existence, and so I won't regale you with what is so well -known.
I think of the transmogrification of the ways of war since that day in 1944; war without borders, as promulgated by such events as New York on that fateful September day - war without uniforms, as actuated by men in street clothes.
By the end of June 6, 1944, over 100,000 men were already on the beaches of Normandy, and within eight weeks Paris had been liberated.
In the battle for Berlin, less than a year later, some 300,000 Russian troops and an unknown number of German soldiers were killed.
Consider the totally different dimension today, as it pertains to the ways of war.
For me, the sad reality is that War has been Man's constant companion, and he has not found a way to achieve the kind of peace that would extinguish war.


Thursday, June 4, 2009

Alec Templeton... A Forgotten Genius

A name long forgotten by most of us wafted across my internal blackboard this morning, and I do believe that I have not written about him in my blog; and so:
Alec Templeton was born, as I recall, in Cardiff, Wales, in 1909 (some say it was 1910), and born without sight.
I recently found a recording of his "Tea for Two," and was immediately reminded of his unparalleled cleverness in fusing the styles of Bach, Scarlatti, and other great composers of the past to his pop arrangements.
I played this recording to several of my students, and they ALL asked where I had gotten this performance by George Shearing!
And therein lies the story of this forgotten genius, who preceded George Shearing by about ten years (I believe that Shearing was born in 1919), in writing arrangements of pop tunes in the classical style.
I could kick myself for not having asked Shearing (I have written in a previous blog about my conversation with Shearing) about Alec Templeton - I had COMPLETELY forgotten to do so.
I am convinced that Templeton was a direct influence on Shearing. This recording of "Tea for Two" has uncanny cleverness on the part of Templeton, in his fugal and canon writing in the style of Bach, and is a reminder that THIS chicken came first, not the wonder egg named Shearing.
There are remarkable similarities with both Templeton and Shearing; in that they were both born blind, were educated at college - level in classical music in England, and came to America. Shearing is still with us, but I believe is no longer active, especially after a serious fall a few years ago.
Shearing's recordings are easily available, due to his world-wide reputation in our time; however, for those of you who have not heard the Templeton recordings, I would invite you to get hold of some of them. Although he was not the pianist that Shearing is, and had not developed the dimension of classical/pop fusion to compare with Shearing, you will quickly appreciate the pioneering genius of this Welsh pianist who has pretty much been forgotten.