Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Retrospection for a Ragtime King: Scott Joplin and the American devaluation of Black art

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I found the above in a post that collected seven performances of Scott Joplin’s compositions. I wanted to go beyond the familiar pieces — The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag. I was looking for a Joplin introduction to Adrienne Davich’s fine essay in Van Magazine, which begins:

In 1991, when I was eight years old, I found a simplified version of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and relished playing it for most of the year that I was in third grade. My parents had recently divorced. I’d moved from Las Vegas to Reno with my mother, a kindergarten teacher. Before and after school, I played “The Entertainer” on an out-of-tune piano in my mother’s classroom. I played it obsessively, perhaps because it occupied my hands and sounded jolly. I didn’t feel sad when I played it, though I missed my dad fiercely; instead, I felt indefatigable and industrious. The lyrics on my sheet music described a clownish performer doing “snappy patter and jokes” that please “the folks.” I know I imagined a Black man on stage, but I didn’t know about minstrel shows or much else about America’s racist past and present. 

My babysitter, who was 13 and also white, loved “The Entertainer” so much that she asked me to teach her how to play it. She’d never taken piano lessons, but she patiently learned the right-hand notes and I accompanied her with the left-hand part. We created a duet and took turns singing the words. I don’t know about her, but I never once thought deeply about what the lyrics evoked: a “mask that grins and lies.” The entertainer I envisioned was a lot like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who looks happy tap-dancing alongside Shirley Temple in her childhood movie series. I presumed that the imagery associated with minstrelsy was normal and innocuous, just as I thought topless showgirls performing in my city’s casinos was. I’m not ashamed of this, but it’s baffling to think that in the 1990s I lived in a place where I was able to spend a year playing “The Entertainer” and learn absolutely nothing about the history of African American music, specifically ragtime, and the life of Scott Joplin.

I still knew nothing about Joplin, the man, when I was 14 and my piano teacher asked me to learn “Maple Leaf Rag.” Or I knew almost nothing. I’d at least learned that Joplin was Black because his photo appeared on my spiral-bound volume of his music. His race didn’t register with me as particularly important, but on the other hand, from somewhere I’d absorbed the idea that ragtime music was simpler and less important than the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. When my teacher, who was a professor of music at the university, handed me the “Maple Leaf,” I presumed it was because he’d disqualified me from playing other, “more serious” pieces. I felt bad about being asked to devote my time to a piece that’s often programmed into player pianos. 

That is, until something unexpected happened: I began playing it reasonably well and people loved it. When guests came to my mother’s house, my stepfather urged me to play it. He never asked for Mozart or Scarlatti. Joplin’s rag was more delightful and impressive. It is, after all, a vivacious, happy piece that looks harder to play than it actually is.

Can you play a piece of music well without knowing its background? Is everything you need to know really on the page? 

During the years I studied piano, we presumed yes. At weekly lessons, I learned theory, practiced sight-reading, and played pieces from every musical period. Although I was expected to know the dates and features of different musical styles, my teachers rarely if ever contextualized the music they asked me to play. It’s curious to me now that we didn’t talk about historical backdrops and personal tragedies. I know for certain that my teachers had rigorously studied classical music history. Did they think that I didn’t care? Or had they found that students fared better focusing solely on the music as written and their technique in playing it? 

I’ve asked these questions because the pieces I played during my formative years are embedded in my soul. They’re part of my identity. I didn’t choose to bring them into my life (a teacher usually did), but ultimately, I did choose them, because I stuck with them. The two pieces that have haunted me the most are ones I started playing at 13 and 14 years old. I felt proud to play the first of these, Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”; I believed it represented me, with its melancholic air and evocation of loneliness and longing. But the other piece, Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” didn’t flow from somewhere inside me. I would have to inhabit it in a different way.

Joplin was born around 1868, possibly in the vicinity of  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 January 2023 at 2:47 pm

Posted in Art, History, Jazz, Music

1st Prize Winner ECU Guitar Competition 2019

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Oscar Somersalo, 1st prize winner of ECU GuitarCompetition 2019

Music:
Variations on Carnival of Venice by Francisco Tárrega
1st movement, Fandangos y Boleros from Sonata by Leo Brouwer

Performed on July 16, 2019
Guitar: Gabriele Lodi

Written by Leisureguy

18 January 2023 at 9:15 pm

Posted in Daily life, Music, Video

In the Stacks, a short story by Robin Sloan

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Short, but good. I hope you read it.

Written by Leisureguy

6 January 2023 at 1:55 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Memes, Music, Writing

I Ain’t Got Nothing But Time: The mostly true legend of Hank Williams

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David Ramsey writes in Oxford American:

BUT SLEEP WON’T COME

It seems fitting to begin at the end. The final recording session Hank Williams had was banged out over a couple hours in a studio in Nashville on September 23, 1952. Four songs, four classics—including “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” That’s just how it was for Hank, even then, at the tail end of drinking himself to death. A little more than three months later, he died in the backseat of a baby blue Cadillac. He was in a bad way on booze and pills and injections, but the circumstances of his death, like his life, remain murky. We’ll get to that.

Hank’s second wife swore “Your Cheatin’ Heart” was about his first wife; his first wife swore he had written it about himself. It hardly matters.

On the one hand, we can say heartbreak is an essentially generic topic for a song, and the lament of the cuckold is a rather sour brand of the form. Still: Just listen. The lilt and longing in Hank’s voice. The freakish adrenaline in his delivery. His rubbery tenor, the way the tune yo-yos up and down like something about to snap. It is just one of those songs: Slinks up as lazily as a python; before you know it, you’re smothered. Sometimes I think it’s the meanest lullaby ever written.

The brief career of Hank Williams became such a definitional anchor for what was then mostly known as hillbilly music and is now known as country that you can catch yourself wondering if the whole genre might have had slightly different preoccupations if Hank wasn’t so fixated on cheating and drinking. There’s a tear in my beer, and so on and on. But he was a medium. He knew what the people wanted.

“If you’re gonna sing,” Hank said, “sing ’em something they can understand.”

After he died, a Wisconsin woman wrote in to a newspaper in Montgomery: “We have listened to Hank Williams on disc jockey shows so often that we felt he was a friend of ours; someone we had known for a long time.”

Hank called it folk music, before that term took on another connotation. Songs for the people. Drinking and cheating are familiar troubles, but they are also proxies, let’s say. There are so many ways to feel cheated, so many longings and lacks. There are so many troubles. I’m not here to tell you what country music is, but that’s what it is to me. You’ll cry and cry, and try to sleep.

They called him the Hillbilly Shakespeare, but that almost seems to miss the point. There is no meter to a certain sort of sorrow. Sometimes all we can do is howl. When the light fades to dusk, when the night is quiet and our mind is not, when the medicine wears off, when the road is long, when time is short. I got a feeling called the blues.

THE BOOK OF KINGS

He was born outside of Georgiana, Alabama, to Lon and Lillie Williams. His first name, according to state records, was Hiriam. They meant to give him the Old Testament name Hiram, but there was a mix-up on the birth certificate. As a boy, he went by “Harm” or “Herky” or “Skeets.”

His mother ran a boarding house that may or may not have doubled as a brothel. She was a large, intimidating woman who eventually worked the door when he played shows. “There ain’t nobody I’d rather have alongside me in a fight,” her son was heard to say, “than my mama with a broken bottle in her hand.”

His father sustained a serious head injury during his service in World War I, which may or may not have happened in a fight with another soldier over a French girl. Later, Lon had either an aneurysm or something like shellshock, and he left for the VA hospital when the boy was six years old. Likely in part due to Lillie’s efforts, he was mostly . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 December 2022 at 3:26 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Music, Video

Bandcamp

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Bandcamp is new to me, but looks good and interesting. It’s a site where you can specify the various musical genres that interest you, browse offerings, and buy CDs (physical or digital) or individual tracks or stream music. Some seem to be free samples.

For example, take a look at the album More Touch, by Patricia Brennan:

Marimbist, improviser and composer Patricia Brennan “has been widely feted as one of the instrument’s newerleaders.” observed The New York City Jazz Record. She has performed in venues such as Newport Jazz Festival, SF JAZZ, and Carnegie Hall, as well as international venues such as Wiener Konzerthaus in Vienna, Austria, and Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.

Listen to “Unquiet Respect,” the first tune on the album.

released November 18, 2022
Marcus Gilmore drums
Mauricio Herrera percussion
Kim Cass bass
Patricia Brennan vibraphone with electronics, marimba

It’s sort of like Spotify, but with Bandcamp, the musicians get the money.

And if jazz isn’t your thing, they offer many genres and sub-genres.

Also:

On the first Friday of the month since March of 2020, we’ve waived our revenue share to help support the many artists who have seen their livelihoods disrupted by the pandemic. Over the course of 23 days, fans have paid artists and labels more than $84 million dollars, helping cover rents, mortgages, groceries, medications, and much more. If you’re among the nearly 800,000 fans who have participated, thank you.

The next Bandcamp Friday is January 6th. As always, isitbandcampfriday.com has the details.

If you’ve started to feel guilty about buying music on any other day of the month, here’s something to keep in mind: on Bandcamp Fridays, an average of 93% of your money reaches the artist/label (after payment processor fees). When you make a purchase on any other day (as millions of you have, with close to $1 billion now paid directly to artists), an average of 82% reaches the artist/label. Every day is a good day to support artists on Bandcamp!

Written by Leisureguy

2 December 2022 at 7:55 pm

Posted in Jazz, Music

The Death of the Key Change

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An interesting article on pop music sheds some light on one of the reasons popular music hasn’t appealed to me for quite a while. A combination of style and the technology used in songwriting has flattened the musical aspect. For example, think of a recent pop song you’ve heard — and it’s likely to be hip-hop — and hum the melody. You probably cannot, because hip-hop’s focus is on lyrics and rhythm, and melody is just an unimportant add-on.

In the music I like, melody (and lyrics) are the focus. For example,

There’s no love song finer,
But how strange the change from major to minor
Every time we say goodbye.

The line, from Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” includes a key change, as discussed in this article.

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2022 at 5:27 pm

Posted in Daily life, Jazz, Music

Boston Public Library Vinyl LP Collection

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Some great titles. I’m listening to one now.

Some are complete, some have only 30-second samples from each tune. 😦

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2022 at 4:12 pm

Posted in Jazz, Music

Unheard-of instruments in the saxophone family

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Full disclosure: I played a tenor saxophone in high school, though not very well.

Written by Leisureguy

24 October 2022 at 11:30 am

A contrabassoon is all well and good, but what about a subcontrabassoon?

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Here’s the contrabassoon:

Subcontrabassoon at left, contrabassoon at right

I like people who have a vision and determination/obsession, particularly if the goal is not in the direction of making money or gaining power.

Richard Bobo, pictured at right, wants very much to have and play a subcontrabassoon, which did not exist save as his dream, so he set about to make one. 

You can read more about it at his website, and if you search YouTube on “subcontrabassoon,” you’ll find a few videos.

And don’t overlook the octobass, a stringed instrument whose lowest note is outside the range of human hearing.

Written by Leisureguy

24 October 2022 at 11:27 am

Uncommon instruments — I particularly like the piccolo trombone

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Written by Leisureguy

22 October 2022 at 11:55 am

“Resonant Chamber”

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Written by Leisureguy

22 October 2022 at 7:51 am

Posted in Music, Video

List of common misconceptions

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Written by Leisureguy

16 October 2022 at 5:55 am

How playing a musical instrument benefits your brain

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See also this earlier post.

Written by Leisureguy

18 September 2022 at 10:18 am

Why is the Oldest Book in Europe a Work of Music Criticism?

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Ted Gioia has posted (in two posts: Part 1 and Part 2) the first chapter of his book Music to Raise the Dead. Part 1 begins:

Greek workers were simply trying to widen the road from Thessaloniki to Kavala. On January 15, 1962, the work crew had arrived at Derveni, a narrow pass six miles north of Thessaloniki in present-day North Macedonia, where they stumbled upon an old necropolis.

They didn’t know it at the time, but they had discovered a burial ground near the ancient city of Lete. Judging by the weapons, armor, and precious items, it had served as a gravesite for affluent families with soldiering backgrounds.

Here among the remnants of a funeral pyre on top of a slab covering one of the graves, they found a carbonized papyrus. Experts later determined that this manuscript was, in the words of classicist Richard Janko, “the oldest surviving European book.”

The discovery of any ancient papyrus in Greece would be a matter for celebration. Due to the hot, humid weather, these documents have not survived into modern times. In this case, a mere accident led to the preservation of the Derveni papyrus—the intention must have been to destroy it in the funeral pyre. The papyrus had probably been placed in the hands of the deceased before cremation, but instead of burning, much of it had been preserved by the resulting carbonization.

Mere happenstance, it seems, allowed the survival of a document literally consigned to the flames. And what was in this astonishing work, a text so important that its owner wanted to carry it with him to the afterlife?

Strange to say, it was a book of music criticism.

But this charred papyrus contained a very unusual type of musicology. To start, it analyzed a song by a composer who didn’t exist, or so we’re told. Even by the standards of reclusive star musicians of our own time, that’s quite a disappearing act.

To add to the mystery, the expert analyzing the song, the author of our Derveni text, was also anonymous, but clearly was a sage consulted for his deep theoretical and practical knowledge—expertise that gave the possessor a quasi-magical power—of hymns by Orpheus, the composer of the song in question. But most unusual of all were the claims made about this music—which, as we shall see, go far beyond the usual boundaries of song analysis and interpretation.

Adding to the mystery, excavators also found in Derveni some of the oldest pharmaceuticals and medical tools ever identified in the Western world. Trying to put together the details is challenging—or even bizarre. What we seem to have here is the resting spot of rare individuals who were warriors and priests and healers—empowered by special songs with their own esoteric musicology.

If this was, in fact, the birth of music criticism, it’s unlike any kind practiced today. Lester Bangs at Cream or the gnarliest punk ‘zines seem conventional by comparison.

Yet, in some ways, all this was fitting. Orpheus was, without question, the most famous musician of antiquity, although also the most peculiar. He too was an adventurer and a healer and a musician. His songs were so remarkable that they charmed not only people, but also animals and trees, and even Hades, ruler of the Underworld, who rewarded Orpheus by allowing him to bring his dead wife Eurydice back to the realm of the living.

You’ve probably heard that story at some point. It’s one of the most famous tales in history. Orpheus literally knew music to raise the dead.

But this beguiling myth, still widely told today, could hardly be an actual historical event. You can’t really visit the Underworld, can you? Songs can’t really raise the dead, can they? That’s obvious, no? Maybe to us, it is—but 2,500 years ago, Orpheus was considered every bit as real as Homer, Hesiod, and other respected authorities of antiquity.

I’ve been researching the myth of Orpheus for almost 25 years now, and I’m not so sure he is merely a myth. Certainly the author of the Derveni papyrus was absolutely convinced of his reality. As far as I can tell, everybody back then believed that both Orpheus and his music were incontestably real, and capable of doing things that, today, would fall under the domain of medicine, or science, or philosophy, or even magic.

We would love to hear music of that sort, wouldn’t we? And the Derveni papyrus actually shares parts of a hymn, praised not for its beauty or artistic merits, but because of its extraordinary powers. In other words, the Derveni author was offering to teach the secrets of a kind of music much like that famous Orphic song that had brought a dead soul back to life. You can now understand why someone would want to bring this music to the next life—it was simply too good, too powerful to leave behind.

But let me emphasize, here at the outset of our journey, that . . .

Continue reading.

Then read Part 2.

Written by Leisureguy

17 September 2022 at 5:34 pm

Posted in Books, Music, Religion

This is your brain on piano

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See also this post.

Written by Leisureguy

17 September 2022 at 12:25 pm

Good electric bass

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I just recently came across Charles Berthoud’s YouTube channel, and I’ve been enjoy it a lot. He plays some unusual instruments — for example, a 12-string bass and a fretless 6-string bass — but he does a lot with a regular 4-string electric bass. Here’s a sample:

Written by Leisureguy

6 September 2022 at 12:21 pm

Posted in Music, Video

Unbridled ambition: Example

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That the person can’t spell “tambourine” is the icing on the cake.

Written by Leisureguy

1 September 2022 at 8:43 pm

Posted in Daily life, Music

John Atkinson is a great cartoonist

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Check out the mother lode.

Written by Leisureguy

29 August 2022 at 9:40 am

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life, Humor, Music

An Infinity of Young Talent

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Corporations go out of their way to be disgusting, in this case mocking young musicians to try to sell cars. (I wonder when we’ll see the commercials mocking those with disabilities.)

Written by Leisureguy

5 August 2022 at 9:50 am

The Josh Hawley Trot in slomo with various soundtracks

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Click the link to see the full thread with the various soundtracks. (I like “Born to Run,” for example.) Though I call the move “the Josh Hawley Trot,” it was really more of a gallop.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2022 at 9:08 am

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