I am getting the next YES post written, but it’s turning out long and my life seems to be entirely interrupt-driven these days. Today was our first day of school – YAY – but school only lasted an hour – BOO – and parents were supposed to stay at the school for French Immersion orientation – OOPS – and now we have a laundry list of school supplies to buy – YAY? – and I’m already fretting about travel at the end of the week – EEK – but I’m still planning to get this done tomorrow or Weds – HUZZAH.
But you see how it is. Constant. Interrupt.
To tide you over, here’s Chris Squire, bass player for YES and arguably my favourite member, playing the first two songs from his solo album Fish Out of Water. The second song, in particular, has a wonderful basso ostinato line under the flute solo, which gives it a pleasantly Baroque flavour.
I, uh, can offer no excuse for the kimono (and I’d love to learn it’s a lady’s kimono, because that would somehow serve him right). I’d protest that it’s better than Wakeman’s gold cape, except it really isn’t. I try to pretend it isn’t there.
I’ve been threatening for some time to compare the band YES to a sandwich.
It turns out to be harder than I first thought, not because the comparison isn’t apt but because I seem to have rather a lot to say about YES (not as much about sandwiches, but that might change if I really get going).
This has made it tricky to get started. I’m not quite convinced that my yammerings about YES are anything the world has been waiting desperately to hear. However, I seem desperate to yammer, and I’m thinking I should finally get it out of my system so I can move on to other things. This is going to be too long; didn’t read for most of you, and that’s ok. You could go take a nap instead. I think you’ve earned it.
The rest of you intrepid villains may follow me under the fold.
My son has just started guitar lessons again after taking the summer off. His old teacher left to pursue a PhD, but we’ve found a new teacher who can teach both electric (heavy metal) and classical. If it were up to B, of course, he’d be all Metallica all the time, but we mean parents like him to have some variety of technique.
This is the long way around to what I really want to talk about, which is Baroque music. B’s new classical piece is “Agitato” by Mauro Giuliani. Here’s a very serious dude playing the song in outer space:
(I love how he maintains that absolute deadpan face while galaxies swirl out of control behind him. Also: well played, serious dude!)
Anyway, this song is simultaneously easy and challenging for B. Easy because the rhythm is very regular and there aren’t a lot of position changes, challenging because there are a lot of accidentals. The thing is, the accidentals are absolutely predictable if you’re familiar with Baroque music. Every time B gets stuck, or plays a wrong note, I’m able to sing the correct note for him — and not because I’m already familiar with the piece. I’ve now listened to Mr. Deadpan’s performance about six times, but before that I really wasn’t familiar with this.
But this is either the beauty or the tedium of Baroque music (depending whom you ask) — composers had essentially just invented the circle of fifths, and they liked to ride that thing like a merry-go-round. I enjoy it. I find it soothing. Back when I played cello, I used to rank Baroque composers by how predictable they were. Bach is one of the all-time greats because he’ll surprise you; Vivaldi, on the other hand, really only ever wrote one song, in my opinion. Kind of like Boston. You can turn “More Than a Feeling” into “Foreplay/Long Time” without breaking a sweat.
Which is not to say I don’t enjoy Vivaldi. I totally do, and – who am I kidding? – Boston, too.
Handel was always my favourite Baroque composer. He seems predictable until you actually have to learn the parts, and then you realize he’s way weirder than you ever imagined.
Here’s another of my favourites, though, and it’s about as predictable as they come: Corelli’s Christmas Concerto. It got a lot of play at home when I was a kid, and I’ve performed in it as well.
YE GODS, IS THAT AN ARCHLUTE?? Actually, it’s probably a Baroque tenor lute, but still! We didn’t have no stinkin’ lute in my university orchestra, more’s the pity. Anyway, I think I should make B listen to this. It’s got all the best Baroque tropes, used to good effect.
An astute reader recently asked me whether I’d had a particular song in mind for the “Invocation” Seraphina plays at Prince Rufus’s funeral. I did, in fact: there’s a moment late in the first movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 where a flute plays a plaintive melody, echoed by French horn.
If you’re not familiar with Shostakovich’s Fifth, here’s a decent interpretation by our old friend Lenny Bernstein:
If you’re the impatient sort, the flute/French horn duet is at about 14:00. That said, I really think you should listen to everything that comes before it, rather than skipping ahead. It’s so much more beautiful if you’ve
suffered through endured fully experienced the music that came before. It’s actually quite an easy listen for a 20th century composer. I almost wonder, as I’m listening again (for the billionth time in the last two weeks) whether someone like John Williams didn’t find influences and inspirations here for the Star Wars soundtrack. It’s that level of listenable, is all I’m saying, full of grandeur and drama, always in motion. Also, Lenny is fun to watch. He’s got kind of a Peter Falk thing going on sometimes, which amuses me.
This symphony, along with Brahms’s 4th, was my go-to music for writing when I was a teenager. I would sit on the couch with headphones on and scrawl terrible, terrible fantasy novels in spiral notebooks. I hardly dare describe how terrible they were, but the music that fuelled them was not. One thing I love about this piece is that it has a bit of everything: anguish, hope, terror, beauty. There’s a diabolical march at 10:54 that gives me chills. I had better stop enumerating all my chills right there; there’s really no point counting. I’ve got chills enough for an influenza epidemic.
Also worth knowing is the history of this piece. It gets its own Wikipedia entry. The short version: Shostakovich fell from political grace – a dangerous thing to do in Stalin’s USSR – and this symphony is his attempt to give the Party the kind of inspirational, uplifting,”classical heroism” they demanded.
Or is it? Did Shostakovich comply, or not? How do we know what a piece of orchestral music really “means”? Is meaning something the listener brings to music, or something the composer puts in it? What about Lenny, what’s his role? How much does the artist create for himself, and how much for others? It’s fascinating to me how many layers there are.
So my lovely Madrigalians gave a concert yesterday evening, and it went wonderfully well. Each member of the choir was “piece monger” – meaning chooser, conductor, and ultimate arbiter of taste – for one song. That meant we sang as many songs as there are members of the choir, which was a lot of music to learn!
Anyway, it occurs to me that I can give you a virtual concert right here, or nearly. None of these recordings are us, of course, but here’s what we sang, in order:
Belle, qui tiens ma vie (We began this piece with a recorder quartet)
Pastyme with goode companye (by Henry VIII, and featuring yours truly on tambourine) (no tambourine in this recording, alas)
Amour Ha Pouvoir Sur Les Dieux (I couldn’t find a sung version of this on YouTube, sorry)
Ach Lieb, ich tu dir klagen (I was piece monger for this song, which was great fun. I’m one of those power-hungry, bossy conductors, though, so maybe I shouldn’t conduct too often)
So ben me ch’a bon tempo (we didn’t have the big instrumental interlude in the middle)
Vita de la mia Vita (a modern madrigal!)
The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (composed by a member of our choir, Lise Kreps; the lyrics are the A. E. Housman poem that inspired the Ursula LeGuin short story collection by the same name)
Bring Me Little Water Sylvie (this is the Leadbelly recording; the version we sang was arranged by our own Earle Peach)
After all that, if you can believe it, the audience asked for an encore. We hadn’t prepared one, but we managed to belt out Sing We and Chant It almost as if we knew what we were doing.
The Viola Organista! It’s like a harpsichord and a cello had a baby! Read this article about it, and be sure to listen to the performance as well. I’m loving this so hard. It sounds like a string quartet to me, playing Baroque-style without vibrato. Incredible.
In other news: I’ve been relaxing most arduously, playing Mass Effect 2, doing housework, attending to all the things that need attending (the dog, largely; she’s been ill, poor thing). I keep having ideas for fiction. I am jotting them down, then letting them float away, which feels like the height of luxury to me. I’ll get to them; there will be time.
I hope November is treating you gently, too.
We’re singing several good songs in choir this session, but my favourite by far is “Ach Lieb, ich tu dir klagen,” by Hans Leo Hassler. It’s Renaissance-tastic. Here’s the only YouTube recording I could find:
Isn’t it gorgeous? It’s in five parts. I usually sing alto, but since I’m technically a mezzo-soprano, I decided to sing the second soprano part this time (our conductor is very easy-going and doesn’t mind). I always think whichever part I’m singing is the most beautiful, but in this case I’m pretty sure it’s true. The second soprano line is something special.
German has a bad rep in some circles as a harsh-sounding language, but I don’t think it’s harsh. It’s super fun to sing. During one of our more melodic moments as second sopranos, we’re singing “die grossen Schmerzen mein,” which doesn’t look like it ought to be beautiful, but it is. It takes a lot of mouth-effort to pronounce correctly, but I like that in a language. I think it gives the song some additional timbre and nuance. The sound of the words, separate from their meaning, is an interesting and integral part of the whole.