Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Eine kleine cementmusik

They've been working on our street and sidewalks for weeks now, tearing up the old ones and laying down new ones. The noise has been constant, but it's okay -- that's what backyards and headphones are for. The job is nearing its end; a big truck like the one shown above has just pulled up in front of our house. The workmen have been toiling like mad in unseasonable midsummer-type heat and humidity, and I feel for them; hence this small musical tribute by Slim Gaillard, abetted by bassist Bam Brown. This record was a minor hit in the 1940s. As kids we tried to sing it and sound like Slim and Bam, but we couldn't duplicate their unique brand of verbal nihilism.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

"...il neige! Brrrrrrrrrrr!"

The snow ballet from Offenbach's Le Voyage dans la Lune.

As movie buffs know, filmmaking pioneer Georges Méliès wrote and directed a short film in 1902 called Le Voyage dans la Lune, based loosely on Jules Verne's novel De la Terre à la Lune. With its innovative use of animation and special effects, Méliès' film (viewable here) was a sensation.

Georges Melies' moon.

Theatrical adaptations of Verne's novel were nothing new. In 1875 Jacques Offenbach, "the Mozart of the boulevardiers," composed Le Voyage dans la Lune, an opéra-féerie in four acts. Opéra-féerie was a sub-genre of operetta, featuring fantastical plots, lavish staging, and stunning visual effects. For the theatre-going public, Le Voyage was the science fiction of its time.

Offenbach's version of Le Voyage dans la Lune opened in Paris at the Théâtre de la Gaîté, complete with a huge, illuminated model of the moon outside the theatre. Despite accusations of plagiarism by Jules Verne, the show was a big success, thanks in part to Offenbach's scintillating music, in part to its over-the-top staging which included a gigantic cannon blasting off a spaceship, and a spectacular snow ballet. The cannon can be seen below in the programme for the London premiere in 1876.

The popularity of Offenbach's works in London ignited an English operetta craze, which made Gilbert & Sullivan possible, necessary, and -- to G & S and impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte -- highly profitable. Iolanthe, more satiric than Le Voyage and one of G & S' best, is a toned-down, cross-Channel cousin to opéra-féerie.

Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880)

Offenbach often took impish delight in assigning his singers with odd-sounding words or phrases. In the Final de la neige from Le Voyage de la Lune, playable below, he makes an unsingable syllable the centerpiece of a sparkling ensemble number.

As the clip begins, the space-travellers from Earth have captured the moon princess, prompting her father, the moon king, to order his subjects to capture the invaders. At 0:40 the Earthlings are shocked, shocked to discover -- it's cold on the moon. What an extraordinary country, says one. Cast and chorus are frozen to the bone. What's more, to their horror, the snow is falling thick and fast ("il neige!"). General panic. You'd think a people clever enough to devise a cannon-propelled spaceship would have thought to bring overcoats and galoshes.

The falling snow is deftly described in the orchestra's descending strings starting at 1:34, leading us to the Act Two finale at 2:07, a delightful rondo in which the shivering Earthlings bemoan the appalling turn in the weather and the cruelty of nature, singing long, graceful runs on the word "Brrrrrrrrr!" (in harmony yet!) -- a surefire show-stopper.

Monday, 21 May 2012

I hear music. No, it's an air-freshener!

The New York Times' online paywall policy has severely restricted my access to bad writing about jazz and pop music. I had resolved not to return to this topic, but I can't help myself; it's one of my guilty pleasures. Some people are fascinated by demolition derbies. Some enjoy watching people humiliate themselves on reality TV shows. I enjoy reading music reviews in the Times.

With the political season in full swing, I had already squandered my monthly allotment of free articles on campaign news and not-so-penetrating political analysis, which is why I missed this latest howler from the music department. Fortunately it was spotted and sent to me by jazz scholar Legrand Sidney Doggett. In the words of Eddie Condon, it's too good to ignore:

Half of the album’s 10 tracks date to the Thornhill era, and it’s striking how fresh they sound: even amid the swinging brio of a tune like “How About You,” there are piccolo parts made to lodge a citrusy dissonance.

"Made to lodge a citrusy dissonance" -- now that's Hall of Fame material.

The only antidote to such aromatic writing is a musical breath of fresh air, in the form of You Smell So Good (playable below) sung by Rebecca Kilgore, accompanied by Dave Frishberg -- two artists for whom the run-of-the-mill adjective "superb" will suffice.

As for the Times' music reviewers, I want to help. I really do; so let me lodge a curative suggestion, laced with calming undertones of sandalwood and ylang-ylang. The next time you feel the urge to be a prose stylist, make this your mantra and keep repeating it until the urge goes away: "I am not Whitney Bailliett, I am not Whitney Bailliett..... "

Monday, 14 May 2012

The curious case of Sir Christopher Kyrle

Such is our faith in the internet as the repository of all human history and knowledge that when it falls short of encyclopedic completeness, the shock is profound.

The other day I was thinking about 1959, senior year at Cornell, Nehemiah Klein, and days we spent reciting seventeenth-century Cavalier poetry. (English majors did that sort of thing for fun in those days). My particular favorites were the verses of Sir John Suckling and his friend (or rival, I never learned which) Sir Christopher Kyrle.

Sir John Suckling (1609-1642)

Suckling was an attractive figure. He's been described as "one of the most vivid personalities of his age.” "[H]is gay trifles have remained current in the language as some others have not; he is the prototype of the Cavalier playboy."

Here's Suckling's most famous trifle:

Why so pale and wan, fond lover?
Prithee, why so pale?
Will, when looking well can't move her,
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee, why do pale?

Why so dull and mute, young sinner?
Prithee, why so mute?
Will, when speaking well can't win her,
Saying nothing do't?
Prithee, why so mute?

Quit, quit, for shame! This will not move;
This cannot take her.
If of herself she will not love,
Nothing can make her:
The devil take her!

While Suckling's poems lack depth, they have an insouciant quality which appealed to a decidedly non-insouciant undergraduate. Thomas Crofts has written: “Suckling's verse, of course, smacks of the court: it is witty, decorous, sometimes naughty; all requisites for the courtier poet. Suckling had his own voice, a deft conversational ease mixed at times with a certain hauteur or swagger, which qualities were not incompatible with his high birth and military occupation."

Suckling is said to have invented the game of cribbage (another point in his favor). Unfortunately he wasn't very good at it, losing large sums of money, much of it his sister's, to his friend (or was it rival?) Sir Christopher Kyrle, one of the now-forgotten versifiers with which the court teemed.

The amply proportioned Kyrle, an avid trencherman, cut not quite so dashing a figure as his friend (or rival) Suckling, but he certainly wasn't lacking in the vanity department. Kyrle wrote a lengthy verse called, I think, A pretty conceit upon the morning shaving, full of battle imagery, in which his razor was the Sword of Justice making righteous war against the invading hordes of black stubble. I can recall just half of the triumphant concluding couplet:

Da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dunn,
The War for Beauty has been won!

I remember reciting Kyrle's most popular poem, Song: To his guilty mistress, replete with trial-by-jury imagery. Only the final quatrain remains fixed in my memory:

O coy defendant, where art thou?
Art thou devoid of sense?
Of thy alleged love show now,
Conclusive evidence!

The only "conclusive evidence" I retain of our 1959 poetry readings is this Kyrle poem, typed out on my old Underwood typewriter and discovered just last week among my souvenirs (cue music):

Now here's the curious part: when I google Sir Christopher Kyrle, I come up with nothing. Zero. Zip. Nada. It seems Kyrle has been virtually erased from history. It's as if he never existed. I remember reading that his name appeared on one of his works as "Sir Ch. Kern," so I try googling Kern. Still nothing, except for the Kern family crest and the clan's early origins in County Mayo. But if those Irish Kerns had any connection to Sir Christopher, they're not talking, at least not on the internet.

It's not Kyrle's (or Kern's) poetry that's so important. The world will not suddenly be a better place having rediscovered his modest, sub-Suckling set of versifying skills. It's the principle of the thing that bothers me.

Why were Kyrle's (or Kern's) poems, as well as information about the man, available to us in 1959 but not now? Cavalier poets, especially portly ones, aren't supposed to vanish in thin air. I could understand a google-search being imperfect or incomplete. To allow a few odd bits of data to slip through the cracks is forgivable, but how do you misplace an entire poet, especially one who was as colorful a personage as Kyrle (or Kern)?

I have little time or aptitude for literary research, so I leave it to qualified sleuths to solve this vexing riddle. For the time being, Suckling's friend (or rival) Kyrle (or Kern) remains the Cavalier poet who wasn't there.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Thanks a lot, mister moon

For many years now, I've had trouble sleeping whenever there's a full moon. I won't get into the harrowing details of the sleepless nights, mainly because I don't want to relive them, but believe me, I'm talking serious trouble. Brooklyn Girl and our longtime friends never tell me when a full moon is coming. I don't want to know. On my computer I could summon in seconds the date of the next full moon, and of full moons for years to come, but I don't. My unwavering policy is willful ignorance. It doesn't prevent "the trouble," but it spares me a lot of anticipatory angst.

A couple of days ago (they tell me) we had a full moon of historic proportions, and I had a sleepless night to match. This time I couldn't avoid seeing articles about it on the internet. I read none of them. Whenever MSNBC reported on it, I switched channels. Sure enough, when The Big One hit, I experienced the most hideous sleepless night of my life. All it lacked was Béla Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. Fortunately, unlike the hapless victim in a 1943 Monogram Picture, I had Brooklyn Girl, the best life's companion one could have, for help and solace throughout the ordeal.

Years ago I mentioned my full-moon syndrome to our family doctor, an intelligent, caring, open-minded fellow. He scoffed. It wasn't a nasty scoff; more of a facial tic, but it was definitely there. He then politely dismissed my hypothesis. Yesterday, in a pitiable, post-ordeal state, I was in his office again. This time, no scoff; just compassion, and the right pill.

The internet is full of anecdotal evidence of full moon-related anxiety of one kind or another, but the all-knowing great god Wikipedia says:

The theory that there is correlation between specific stages of the Earth's lunar cycle and deviant behavior in human beings that cannot simply be explained by variation in light levels. There is no good reason to expect this to be the case, and in spite of numerous studies, no significant lunar effect on human behaviour has been established. Scholars debunking the effect sometimes refer to it as the Transylvanian hypothesis or the Transylvanian effect to emphasise its fanciful nature.

Who are these "scholars"? I know who they are: a bunch of sound snoozers, that's who. Transylvanian effect? Well, just call me Wolfman Boy. One of our best friends already does.