Music for dancing

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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.”

Here at Hymie’s we’ve always loved the idea of the lesser-known dance craze, and we’re surprised this next dance tune isn’t one you hear on the radio very often anymore. Actually, not so surprised.

Prince’s untimely passing coincided with a program by Warner Brothers to reissue his albums under their license, and as they work their way through his catalog chronologically they’ve hit a stumbling block with Batman, which is not exactly his most popular album anymore. Nevermind that the record was a colossal success when it was released in 1989 — it remains the most un-loved of several orphans in the Prince discography.

How does one do the “Batdance”? We’re not certain, and Prince’s music video for the song really only further confuses the matter. We do know for sure it is not the same as the legendary Batusi, as performed by Adam West.

“Batdance” is one of the most unusual Prince songs to become a hit. The track uses dialogue from the movie and seems entirely spliced together in the style of musique concrète. The album is probably the first (to that point) in Prince’s catalog to age poorly — Batman still feels like a record from 1989 where everything leading up to it has a magical, timeless quality. The record also marks the end of Prince’s paisley, psychedelic era and the dawning of a newer and darker image.

We’re not movie critics (hell, we’re hardly music critics) but the Batman film to which Prince contributed music feels like the only screen adaptation of the dark knight’s story which captures the comic book’s continuing creepiness. Prince, so recently on the national radar for his suggestive lyrics, really captured the weirdness of Tim Burton’s reimagination of the Bruce Wayne story.

So we love Batman because the album makes us feel like kids again. You know, unsure of the future and a little terrified but also curious.

 

A while back we put together a goofy post of lesser-known dance crazes, and today we have another to add to the list: “The Bend”!

We first found it on this 45 by former I Dream of Jeanie star Barbara Eden, but the song was earlier a huge European hit for a group comically named Dave Dee, Doozy, Beaky, Mitch and Tich.

Their recording of “Bend It!” topped the German single chart. The song incorporated the bouzouki sound popularized by Zorba the Greek by using an amplified mandolin. It received little airplay in the United States because the lyrics were considered suggestive, so the band re-recorded it with different lyrics.

Barbara Eden made a few records in the sixties which are campy collector’s items today. Her version of “Bend It!” came with a picture sleeve that had instructions for “The Bend” on the back, so now you can dance along at home!

 

Actually, it’s “Book Sale Day” at our kids’ school, but parachute day was always pretty awesome.

parachute time LP

Bean bag day is fun, too!

bean bag activities

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