Friday, April 29, 2005

tetralogy

I'm finally reading Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker series, 20 years after all my friends did. So far, it's fun: it avoids being nothing but a huge pile of clever showing-off by occasionally offering wonderful little commentaries on the human condition.

My edition contains all four books. The cover's subtitle says: "The Trilogy of Four." Which leads me to ask, publicly and loudly, What the doohickey is wrong with the word tetralogy?

After all, "trilogy" isn't considered off-limits. Tons of books and movies come in threes and are called trilogies. But tons of them come in fours, and they're never ever called tetralogies. Why not? Lord of the Rings gets around it by being considered a trilogy, with The Hobbit as a sort of optional introduction, even though of course the four books together fit the classical model, from Aeschylus to Wagner, of a four-parter consisting of three beefy stories plus a light-hearted cosmic set-up.

Speaking of Wagner, we never refer to the "Ring Tetralogy," even though that's what it is: we call it the "Ring Cycle." It's a cycle. How about the Time Tetralogy by Madeleine l'Engle? A Wrinkle in Time and all that? Nope, it's officially called the "Time Quartet." Quartet? Yep, they're all over: the Raj Quartet, the Earthsea Quartet. Science-fiction/fantasy is apparently overrun with Quartets.

I dare someone to write a tetralogy.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

puffy, gounod, and the liturgy

I'm thinking about Puff Daddy, Gounod, Bach, disco, Sting, Andy Summers, MC Hammer, and the Roman Liturgy.

What happened was that I overheard someone offering the standard-issue grouse about hip hop: it's derivative nonart made by people who can't come up with their own music so they talk over someone else's. So easily dismissed.

But is that a fair depiction? Surely lots of music is derivative without being invalid. Are these the same people who called Jules Massenet "Mrs. Wagner?"

In medieval times, composers actively sought to come up with stuff that wasn't new; they'd take a familiar folk song like "Oh Susannah," add to it an old Gregorian chant like "O Come O Come Emmanuel," and then write their own melody to it, using lyrics from a contemporary poet. The resulting mayhem wasn't mayhem at all: it was tightly conceived tapestry. The best composers used the texts to comment on each other, so that the Dies irae from a Mass written for a warlike king would have as its counterpoint the popular drinking song "Le Soldat," and as its cantus firmus — its chant-foundation — Beati pacifici, a setting of "Blessed are the Peacemakers," repeated over and over in slow motion underneath the main melodies. Ingenious! And the medieval mind was energized by all those layers.

So, when MC Hammer takes the main hook of Rick James's "Super Freak" ("she's a very kink-ay girrrll") as the cantus firmus of his song "Can't Touch Dis," is it because he's lazy and can't come up with something of his own? Or is it because he's making a clever connection that you and I wouldn't have thought of?

Puff Daddy's elegy "I'll Be Missing You" takes as its basis the Police hit "Every Breath You Take." The song was written by Sting, but when we say "song" we mean that the lyrics and melody were written by Sting, so that he gets the royalties. What really makes the song work, though, what gives it the creamy hypnotic texture that likely turned Puffy on, was Andy Summers's arpeggiating riff. Play a few notes of it and anyone in the Western world will recognize it. (That Summers gets not a penny of royalties for Puffy's sample, but Sting does, is proof that copyright law is unrelated to any reality.) Puffy's new lyrics, and the spoken verses that go between them, are words of mourning, apostrophized to his dead friend Biggie Smalls. Or was it Tupac? Can't recall. Nonetheless, his choice of the beautifully undulating Police riff speaks volumes: the original song also mourns a loved one gone, but it's a woman who left the speaker, and the speaker vows that he'll be watching her every move and step. It's a song about dark obsession; that tone leaks through to Puffy's simple grieving and infects it with something of the menacing atmosphere in which both Tupac and Biggie (and Puffy) lived.

Nothing new, really: even after the Renaissance, composers did the same thing with each other's stuff. Charles Gounod, for instance, decided in 1853 that Bach's simple Prelude Number One from The Well-Tempered Clavier would make an excellent background for a melody. He did some cutting and pasting, and some composing of his own, and wound up with a hit. In 1859 he decided to add another layer: the classic church text of the Hail Mary. Why? Who knows what lurks in the hearts of composers? The result was an even bigger hit. An ancient text, a hundred-year-old riff, and a simple added melody.

You could say it like this:



Charles Gounod Puffy Combs

used

J S Bach's Andy Summers's

catchy arpeggiating riff
as the basis for

Ave Maria his own lyric

which he set to

his own Sting's

melody.




There's nothing new under the sun.

(Not an original quote; it's from Ecclesiastes.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

white noise and four-chords

Our room has a mountain stream right outside the window. The sound of it is a constant white noise that's about like an air conditioner or noisy fan. Actually, it's quite nice to sleep to, but it's no babbling brook.

The thing about white noise is that technically it's a combination of all frequencies put together. It's the exact equivalent of what you see on the television when no real signal is present and all possible colors shish around on the screen. So, you've probably had the experience of being somewhere where the air conditioner is loud, or a blow-dryer is blowing, or in the shower, and thinking that you hear a radio, or a television show, or people talking, or the phone ringing. All frequencies are there, and your brain is picking from them, trying as it always does to make sense of things.

All this to say that the other night I heard in the river a chord. It sounded to me like not just a major chord, and not just a major seventh chord — that laid-back chord so used in 70s pop (it's the opening four notes of "Color My World") — but a IV Major 7. That is, it sounded like a chord that was the fourth degree of some key.

Furthermore, there was the voicing. A chord can be voiced a million ways. Even with a simple C major triad, you can put the E on bottom and the G on top, you can play it high or low on your instrument, you can put lots of Cs in and several Gs and only one E on top (as in the glorious final minute of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms), and so on. The particular way this was voiced made it exactly resemble the IVM7 that forms the title phrase of the 70s song "Baby Come Back."

And that's my life.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

marley lyrics

When I first heard the Police, I thought it was one of the freshest sounds I'd ever heard. Later on, I learned that they were indebted to Bob Marley, but only in the past few days have I realized how much. I've never been too into Marley, or heard much of his stuff. This place we've been eating, though, plays his music constantly. So much of what I hear — the jazzy rasp of his voice, the epigrammatic guitar riffs, the cool jittery drum fills — is inarguably at the source of the Police's sound.

There's one song that has tickled Catherine and me. Marley sings:

I'm iron
Like a lion
In Zion


which works when sung in a Jamaican accent. But then, when he repeats the line, he ends the stanza with a quick recap:

I'm iron
Like a lion
In Zion
Iron! Lion! Zion!


What a great idea. I think other songs with subtle rhyme schemes could benefit from this device. Hmmmmm:

I will be here
To watch you grow in beauty
And tell you all the things you are too me.
Beauty! Too-me!


I like it better already.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

panama anniversary

I am sipping a gorgeous cup of freshly brewed local coffee and writing to you from a cafe high in the mountains of Panama, in the tidy village of Boquete, altitude 4400 feet. Our hotel room overlooks a rushing stream and a glorious garden with probably 30,000 flowers in full bloom, shimmering brightly in the zizzy mountain air.

Evenings are cool and comfortable; afternoons are pleasantly warm, hot if you're hiking; mornings are crisp, suffused with the bajareque, the local weather miracle in which mountain breezes carry a mist that's like a transparent cloud, kissing the skin with coolness and forming rainbows in the middle of the town square. Lift your head and, in any direction, you'll see verdant mountains with their heads in the clouds, mist weaving through like pipe smoke around a grandpa's beard. Sit on the hotel veranda and look over the noisy tumbling Rio Caldera and garden, with impossible cliffs in the background, and smoke a Cuban cigar, and you're in heaven.

This is, by our estimation, the best first anniversary anyone's ever had. How do we stumble into these amazing fortunes?

Saturday, April 16, 2005

guess what? we're in panama

After a long series of mishaps, both in the Ministry of Health and in the Ministry of Information, we have arrived in beautiful downtown Panama City, where we'll be spending our anniversary trip. What fun! We've already seen the Pacific Ocean, walked over to the beautiful colonial ciudad vieja, had a truly marvelous tomato and cheese sandwich, and spent roughly two hours and 42 minutes trying to get a waiter's attention.

Our original plan was to go somewhere a bit less urban and more gently lovely than this — the charming colonial part of town has no decent rooms, a situation crying for an entrepreneur — so we imagine we'll try to blow town tomorrow or the next day in search of a nice beachfront community. Meantime, we're brushing up on Spanish, a language both of us briefly studied between 15 and 25 years ago!

Monday, April 11, 2005

note from the composer

Hey! Look at this note I just this moment got:

Hi,
    I'm not sure who you are, but I am sure glad you chose to spend your honeymoon in Bangkok as you seem to be the only person in the universe who noticed my use of the Turandot 5-note motif at the end of my new ending ... I am glad I stumbled on your review while randomly googling.
    I'm actually reorchestrating the ending for a 2007 revival because I was so swamped I didn't actually have time to finish composing the ending last year. So, if you plan to come Bangkok again, please come to the opera as my guest.

All best

Somtow Sucharitkul

I just may take you up on that, Somtow. That might be a nice hatpeg for a 2007 trip to Thailand.

Friday, April 8, 2005

the seat of luxury

After several search sessions, we finally found a really nice big website full of resources for Fano, Italy. And, moments later, we came upon a place that I shall dare to call the seat of luxury:

Tuesday, April 5, 2005

a loose canon

The other night, playing at a jazz club on the Riverwalk, the group I was leading hit a funny groove. We pulled out some of our favorite recentish tunes, "The Boy is Mine" (Brandy & Monica), "It's Gonna Be Me" (NSync), "Movin' On Up" (from "The Jeffersons"), and several others that aren't considered standards from the Golden Age of American Music, but which are great raw material for a jazz journey.

We then kept going, into territory we hadn't done before: someone suggested we do "We Will Rock You," and we did, as a jazz tune. Then we went straight into "Careless Whisper," George Michael's best tune. Keep in mind that these things weren't done in the latter Miles Davis style, as pop instrumental sendups, but rather in the former Miles Davis style, reconditioned as real jazz tunes, with swing or bossa beats, instrumental improvisation, the whole bit.

That got me to thinking about how jazz musicians think about standards. The common thinking is that we mainly do stuff from the golden age because it was better composed and more rewarding, more romantic, with more intelligent and well-crafted lyrics, and all that. But really, now: take away George Gershwin's brilliantly simple music, and how good are Ira's lyrics after all? Someone like Wynton Marsalis, who often claims that the lyrics of old made more room for grown-up relationships and true romance between man and woman than do ones of our day, would have a hard time facing Ira against, say, Joan Baez, Dar Williams, or for that matter Reba McIntyre.

And, now that you mention it, jazz musicians don't really mine the trove of pop songs from yesteryear as much as we mine the trove of Broadway and movie musicals and Disney. If Miles had done in the 80s what he did in the 50s, he'd have been doing "Somewhere Out There" (from An American Tail) and not Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time."

So, we do stuff like Cole Porter's tunes from Red, Hot, and Blue and Gershwin's tunes from Porgy and Bess. You hear "Night and Day," "Summertime," "Someday My Prince Will Come," and occasionally stuff like "Surrey With the Fringe on Top." (Miles did killer versions of all those.) Where do you ever hear a jazz musician performing Andrews Sisters or Glenn Miller? "Rum and Coca-Cola," "Dream (When You're Feelin' Blue)," "It's Been a Long Long Time (Kiss Me Once and Kiss Me Twice)," "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," "In the Mood," "Moonlight Serenade," all were huge huge hits that are still impressed on the American heart, and all are absent from the jazz bandstand.

So, when we do "Beauty and the Beast," "Never Had a Friend Like Me," and "Rainbow Connection," that's the stuff — less immediately popular but longer lasting — that puts us in touch with what jazz musicians were doing generations ago. On the other hand, we're in a great era for pop, when NSync can do songs that make rewarding sambas, Destiny's Child puts out stuff that Benny Goodman would have loved to get his hands on ("Bugaboo"), and at least a few jazz musicians out there are taking off the blinders and doing once again what every artist should be doing in the first place, each in his own craft: visiting the melodies and lyrics that are the soundtrack of our lives, and cracking them open to find riches.

Saturday, April 2, 2005

newspeak

Jeff writes with a quote from a recent meeting to remind me why I don't do corporate:

"Our end-to-end, mission-critical solutions create synergy for best-of-breed market leaders."

Friday, April 1, 2005

april fool's and folly

April Fools' Day got me to thinking not of foolishness but of folly.

The library of Alexandria is my common metaphor for the internet. That shows you how I think and how I use it: Marshall McLuhan might have used the metaphor of a campfire, or someone else could call it a giant marketplace. I think of it as a vast storehouse of knowledge, and that's how I mainly use it.

I often think about the real library at Alexandria: do you remember how it got destroyed? Most people have some vague idea that it was ransacked by vandals, or possibly destroyed in war.

It was actually destroyed in stages. Julius Caesar's Alexandrian campaign destroyed half of it in AD 47; more of the museum and library were destroyed in 272, under the emperor Aurelian, during the civil war; Theodosius, responding to a Christian mob in 391, ordered the burning of much of the library annex at the temple of Serapis; in 640, Alexandria was captured by the Arabs, and the next year the Caliph of Baghdad ordered books burned, saying, famously, that "If these writing of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed"; the remaining books were used starting the next year as fuel for public baths.

Historians love to dispute the various accounts, but there's a central truth there. As Stewart Brand has pointed out, everyone's guilty. This army did it for this reason, that army did it for that reason. (Apparently, the Ptolemaists did a lot of the destroying in 47 in attempting to protect Alexandria by making it less of a prize. Yeeeeeesh!) This religious group did it, that religious group did it. And it was finished off by common citizens using books as fuel: the very symbol of anticivilization.

So no one can point the finger at anyone else. Religion, war, bureaucracy, personal grudges, it's all in there, helping to create the most powerful symbol of knowledge lost. At its height, the library had over five million volumes. Doesn't that make you sick?

The question is, does that make you sick enough?