Music for dancing

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“Superstition” may be one of the most universally beloved songs on record – few and far between are the freaks who won’t freely admit Stevie’s mastery of funkiness

Remarkably, Stevie Wonder – strangely inured to his own genius – nearly gave the song away to instrumental rocker Jeff Beck. The well-known guitarist is credited with creating the drum part which opens and propels “Superstition”, although it is of course Stevie who pl

The question is why do we love “Superstition” so much? In a larger sense what is it about Stevie’s seminal 1970-1972 albums (Signed, Sealed & Delivered, Where I’m Coming From, Music of my Mind, and the boy wonder’s magnum opuses Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale)? Believe it or not the answer to our questions is first found in the music of the Baroque period…

Although the clavichord was invented in the fourteenth century, it was during the Baroque period that it achieved it’s greatest popularity, especially in Bohemia, the Iberian Peninsula, and Scandinavia. It’s assumed that many of the leading composers of Baroque music enjoyed performing on the clavichord in their homes, even if little music was specifically composed for the instrument.

Clavichords are too quiet for the concert hall, unfortunately. They are also among the most expressive keyboard instruments because the player has so much control over the duration and volume of each note. Pressing a key on a clavichord causes a hammer to strike the string in a way more similar to a guitarist’s “hammering” technique than a similar action inside a piano. The hammer remains in contact with the string, and as the player’s finger releases the key the string is dampened and thereby silenced. This allows the performer to create a punchy, percussive – potentially funky – sound on the instrument. See where this is headed?

In the 1960s Baroque music experienced somewhat of a short-lived revival, both in the classical world and in pop music. One of my favorite composers of the era, Burt Bacharach, began writing elaborate, narrative melodies often orchestrated with traditionally Baroque instrumentation. Bacharach’s orchestrations from this period frequently rely on flugelhorns for accent and color.

The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is often identified as the high point of “Baroque pop”, fitting as Brian Wilson had been one of the first to explore the high-falutin’ sub-genre with his elaborate work on the second side of the 1965 album The Beach Boys Today! The era’s other leading acts followed suit: The Rolling Stones with “Lady Jane” and the Beatles with “Eleanor Rigby”, a track on which their voices were backed only by a string quartet arranged by George Martin. As with many of the Beatles’ passing fancies, Baroque music was by and by the subject of ridicule, this time via George Harrison’s parody “Piggies” on the White Album.

Sophisticated baroque arrangements became commonplace in pop music, often occupying the upper echelon of the charts (Although remarkably many of the perennial favorite to come out of this era – the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, the Bee Gees’ Odessa or the Zombies’ Odyssey and Oracle, for instance – would top Billboard’s US albums chart). Although it was enormously popular for a short time, inspiring not one but two Bacharach Baroque albums, the sub-genre faded rapidly as pop music took a turns towards rootsy-er, more basic influences like blues and classic country.

In this brief Baroque flourishing, Hohner introduced the Calvinet, an electronically amplified keyboard instrument based on the clavichord. It used electronic pick-ups in the same way as a guitar, although it was initially marketed at enthusiasts of Baroque and Renaissance music, not rock and soul performers. The Clavinet retained the intimate action of the clavichord as well as it’s percussive potential, and as an electronic instrument could be run through pedals the same as a guitar. It was only a matter of time before this modest, wood-paneled 60-key Baroque instrument would change popular music.

The earliest appearance of this instrument, first introduced by the German manufacturer in 1968, may have literally dropped out of the sky. Sun Ra’s 1969 album Atlantis is of greatest interest to his fans for establishing the framework in which he would work for the following decade with its side-long title track, but two songs on the flip of the disc feature “the solar sound instrument”, something that sounds distinctly like the Clavinet.

With some irony, it is an American-roots band (from Canada) who next fold the new instrument into the rock tableau – The Band’s keyboardist Garth Hudson played the instrument through a wah wah pedal on the group’s hit single “Up on Cripple Creek” the same year Sun Ra was exploring the distant expanses of the deep sea.

With Hudson’s innovative performance in “Up on Cripple Creek” (credited on the back of The Band as the “clavinette”) the potential of this mysterious new machine was revealed.  Stevie Wonder was an early innovator, presaging “Superstition” with his reworking of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out”.

Sly Stone tapped into the Clavinet’s potential for subtlety with “Family Affair”, a song also remarkable as an early drum machine experiment.

On the flip side to his hit single “I Wrote A Simple Song” Billy Preston took the instrument to new funky heights in his first piece written for it, an instrumental called “Outta-Space”.

And then there was “Superstition” – All hell broke loose because everybody wanted to use the Clavinet, yet few could engineer and perform at the level of Stevie Wonder. A year later, his own “Higher Ground” was the closest anyone came to the total awesome-ness of “Superstition”. Our choice for a close second? Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time”:

Oftentimes in this period the Clavinet was used to establish a funky backing track, as with several tracks Bob Marley and the Wailer would record in the early 70s. Their first to feature a Clavinet, “Concrete Jungle”, remains one of the best, with the keyboards bubbling with lively energy underneath a searing guitar solo.

The Clavinet never played a central role in jazz fusion, despite the coincidental appearance of each in the late 60s and the instrument’s feature on what we imagine must be the genre’s most popular album, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. The fifteen minute “Chameleon”, not surprisingly a dancefloor favorite then and now, is entirely unimaginable without the Clavinet.

In fact, Hancock is pictured on both sides of the jacket seated at a Hohner D6 Clavinet, the most popular model.

So there you have it: Strange connections, unimagined consequences, and technological innovation driving new creations. We’d be surprised if you didn’t have several of these records on your shelves, or at least several of these songs saved in the computer through which you’re reading these words. Although very different from one another (you can’t get much further apart than Sun Ra and Garth Hudson, can you?) each owes it’s unique sound to an instrument that has not been made for years. In fact, more often than not the only appearances of a Clavinet in pop music are in the form of samples from songs recorded between 1969-1973.

Available this weekend after a long wait are two new songs by Black Market Brass, Minneapolis’ irrepressibly awesome afrobeat ensemble. The tracks were recorded last year at Colemine Records’ famous Plaid Room in Loveland, Ohio and are available on a new 45rpm single.

As with their LP, the songs on the single are originals by members of the 10-piece band. We have long been fans of these guys, and even recorded them here ourselves a couple years back. Fans will not be disappointed to add this new single to their collection!

Sometimes we don’t look too closely at the art on these Musical Heritage Society LPs. They often contain excellent recordings of both well-known and esoteric classical pieces.

This album collecting what’s called Schubert’s Biedermeier Dance Music is a great example of the latter. They are the most famous of the fifteen hundred compositions he wrote in his thirty-one short years, but the album is an interesting addition to a collection of his music. We thought “Biedermeier” might refer to a beer hall or tavern, but it is actually a reference to a time period in Central Europe during which the middle class took an interest in the arts. One significant aspect of this in regard to music was that it was a time when people performed music in their homes and even held small concerts.

This was where Franz Schubert thrived, in as much as he was ever successful. In fact, during his lifetime his music was only performed in a public concert once, in March of 1828. Otherwise Schubert was a denizen of the house show, so to speak.

This album has several chamber works for a quartet with piano, and a pair of pieces (including “Six Valses Sentimentals” above) for piano performed by Verena Pfenninger.

It was only posthumously that the music of Franz Schubert was fully introduced to the concert hall, but many of his works have become a staple of the classical repertoire ever since (for instance his String Quintet in C Major, the “Cello Quintet” as it is often known, is considered one of the finest chamber works by any composer).

This copy of Schubert’s Biedermeier Dance Music is here in your friendly neighborhood record shop for just $3. Of course, there’s some asshole selling it on Amazon for $225 right now, if you’d rather have it delivered to your door. Absurd prices such as this for classical recordings are fairly common, especially on Amazon, so there must be some unfortunate souls out there who actually pay them. Is the music on the LP actually worth a couple hundred bucks? Well, if you look closely at the jacket you can see that it is in fact so good that its taught dogs and cats to get along with one another…

There is a book inside this LP commemorating the golden anniversary of the Panama Canal, which was in 1964. The forty-eight mile waterway opened for passage on August 15, 1914 (we’re a couple days late to celebrate its birthday) after a decade of construction. It is commonly considered one of the largest engineering projects ever undertaken.

According to the book, the project involved the excavation of more than 276 million cubic yards of earth, and an investment by the US Government of a half a billion dollars. If you are thinking that this seems like a bargain compared to the proposed wall along our southern border, which has been estimated at costing anywhere from twenty to seventy-five billion, do not forget to adjust for inflation. Even after this, a $14 billion Panama Canal would be a far wiser investment than the proposed wall, and still a deal compared to the Chinese canal project currently underway in Nicaragua.

This may lead you to ask why we don’t build a canal along the southern border, if we’re going to build anything at all. Eighty percent of the proposed wall will sit within the Rio Grande Valley, so why not deepen this famously shallow river and excavate the remaining distance? Earlier this year The Weekly Standard made an entertaining and compelling argument for the idea, which among other things would make El Paso into a port city.

The other thing you may be wondering after all this is whether we ever listened to the record, or if this was all an excuse to propose a pan-American Canal. Yes, and the record features the delightful music of Lucho Azcarraga. The Panamanian keyboardist was a child prodigy born two years before the canal opened. Throughout his long career, he enjoyed popularity in the United States beginning with the boom in latin dance groups in the 1930s. Azcarraga passed away in 1996.

Here is a medley of three popular Panamanian songs from this album, arranged by Azcarraga.

You’ve probably noticed the posts are shorter here on the Hymie’s blog lately, and its true that we wish we could simply program a summer rerun season. They’re called the dog days of summer but right now its our cat who is about twice his usual length while trying to cool off on the kitchen table, and we feel like we have about the same amount of extra energy.

In the interest of hearing something lively, here’s a post from about two years ago. We thought of it after last week’s performance performance of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

DSC07239In yesterday’s post about the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s groundbreaking digital recording of Appalachian Spring we mentioned that Aaron Copland himself had earlier conducted a recording of the original 13-piece arrangement of the ballet. We never loved that recording as much as the SPCO’s, but both are records we’d recommend in a heartbeat.

We also wrote disparagingly about the “Copland Conducts Copland” series but it really has less to do with the quality of the recordings than with what the period of time in his career represented. His transition traveling guest conductor was the result of his diminished inspiration as a composer. He is quoted, heartbreakingly, in Howard Pollack’s biography Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man, as saying “it was exactly as if someone had simply turned off a faucet.”

We find it sad to imagine an artist bound to his earliest works because of its enduring popularity, having never understood how for instance Bruce Springsteen can still drag “Born to Run” onto stage with any passion. Copland, in his later years, was often invited to conduct Appalachian Spring, Rodeo and Billy the Kid. For good measure also The Red Pony and Fanfare for the Common Man at times, all fine works and famous for a reason.

His late-period twelve tone compositions like the Piano Fantasy are rarely performed in this country which declares him a favorite son, just as (let’s be honest here) nobody really wants to hear songs from the last decade’s worth of Bruce Springsteen albums. This isn’t a fate which befalls all composers or all rock stars. Richard Strauss, for instance, had something of a renaissance of creativity in his seventies and eighties, composing his Four Last Songs almost in anticipation of his own passing. And until this Frank Sinatra bullshit it seemed like Bob Dylan was as creative as ever (maybe that’s the idea — you never know with Dylan).

DSC07242Anyways, every record collector in the world loves any kind of album insert, especially a bonus disc. And any music lover would enjoy hearing a favorite composer rehearse one of their most famous pieces. Columbia’s Masterworks division experimented with 7-inch inserts for a while, offering insights into the album by Leonard Bernstein or Bruno Walter, or in this case recordings of the rehearsals.

The little bonus record provides an interesting and enjoyable portrait of Copland, both as a composer and a conductor, as well as an opportunity to imagine what it would be like to revisit one’s own work decades later.

Tribute albums have been around for about as long as any other kind of record, but they really took off in the 90s when the “Various Artists” section of your neighborhood record shop (likely to be largely CDs in those days) swelled. Some artists were fortunate enough to find such a collection could buoy their careers by introducing their music to a larger audience. Sometimes the covers disc eclipsed the sales of the original recordings, as for instance with Sweet Relief – A Benefit for Victoria Williams in 1993, and a subsequent album of Vic Chesnutt’s songs.

It may be some songwriters will be best remembered by such a collection long after they’ve left us, and to further this theory we’d like to look a ways further into the past, about 135 years. This is when an Austrian music publisher, Antonin Diabelli, embarked upon a charity project to benefit the country’s orphans and widows in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. To create his fundraising publication, Vaterländischer Künstlerverein (“Variations for the Pianoforte on a Given Theme”), he sent a waltz he had written to every A-List composer he knew and asked each to write variations on it. Fifty complied, including Franz Schubert, a now largely-unheard son of Mozart, and a then-twelve-year-old Franz Liszt. And then there was the fifty-first contribution, which came from Ludwig van Beethoven.

At this time, the monumental maestro was working with renewed fervor on the late sonatas (including the epic, finger-twisting twenty-ninth), the late quartets, the Missa Solemnis and that capstone of all works, the Symphony no. 9 in D Minor. His initial reaction was to dismiss the project as beneath his talents, as we know from his description of the piece as Schusterfleck, a German term of derision (literally “Cobbler’s patch”) which compares work to mundane stitching. Beethoven’s secretary and earliest biographer Anton Schindler, fond as he was of exaggerating Beethoven’s accomplishments, claimed he quickly created his thirty-three variations so as to establish his enduring prowess. More likely, Beethoven was promised a princely sum for a set of variations and complied for the cash. Studies of his sketchbooks suggest the variations were not written at one time, contradicting Schindler’s story.

The scale and depth of his set of variations, thirty-three in all, certainly did serve to further his supremacy in Vienna at the time. They were published, along with one each from the fifty other contributors, in 1823. The Diabelli Variations, op. 120, were his last major works for the piano published before his death three years later. And Antonin Diabelli, who likely initiated the project to advance his publishing business, achieved at least part of his goal in establishing the endurance of his name. The work is a favorite among Beethovenians, widely recorded and performed, and even the subject of a Tony-nominated play (33 Variations) produced in 2009.

Famously described by Daniel Barenboim as “thirty-three mutation,” Beethoven takes tiny elements of Diabelli’s melody and expands them. Throughout the series, which hardly strays from its original C-Major setting, Beethoven makes reference to Bach, his own sonatas, and most famously to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Beethoven changes direction in the last several variations, first shifting to the minor and then, in number thirty-two, to the key of E-Flat-Major. This leads to a dramatic flourish which builds to a comfortable return to Diabelli’s key for the brief closing minuet in number thirty-three.

Some pianist, such as Alfred Brendel, have suggested his thirty-three variations were intended as a capstone to the thirty-two sonatas, the last of which had only recently been published. There is also an account of Beethoven having asked Diabelli how many composers had contributed variations to the project, and when told thirty-two said, “I shall write thirty-three myself.”

Owing to how ridiculous thirty-three little track players would be, we’ve posted this recording of Rudolf Serkin performing The Diabelli Variations in two tracks, one for each side of the record. The first track contains numbers 1-19 and the second track contains the remaining eighteen. You’ll have to forgive the noisiness of our this copy of the album, which was recorded from our personal collection.

There’s an interesting story about Serkin himself, who made his debut at seventeen years old while living with the family of German violinist Adolf Busch. Joining his host and others in a performance of one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, young Serkin was asked to play a little encore. As a joke, he suggested that other famous set of variations, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. “I took him seriously,” recounted Serkin, “When I finished there were only four people left — Busch, [pianist] Artur Schnabel, [musicologist] Alfred Einstein and me.”

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