Merry Melodies

Earlier this week I was sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting my turn.  The silence of the exam room was broken only by the piped-in music.  Had it been the regular bland kind of music that one usually hears in such a setting I don’t think I would’ve paid any attention to it.  But this wasn’t that.  The first tune I noticed that told me something different was going on was Henry Mancini’s 1958 classic “Peter Gunn Theme.”  It struck me that despite how familiar that melody is, I’ve never heard it in the catalog of what I usually think of as waiting room music.  The next tune that caught my attention was “Birdland,” by the vocal jazz group Manhattan Transfer.  Then there was a Sinatra tune of all things, but I can’t remember which one it was.  The last song I heard before the doctor came through the door was a tune that isn’t as foreign to the standard-issue easy-listening pop of waiting rooms but one that, by this point, I was conditioned to hear differently.  It was Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot’s 1970 hit “If You Could Read My Mind.”  What I focused in on was the quality of its melody: it’s one of the best melodies in all of popular music.

As a critical component of a piece of music, the melody of a song is what we most often carry around with us.  It’s what we whistle or hum; it’s the arc of a song, the notes that carry voices or instruments up and down a particular scale from which is distilled an artistic statement.  Ninety-nine times out of 100 it’s what’s most memorable or even famous about a piece of music. “You Are My Sunshine” for example has a wonderful, unforgettable melody.  There’s an old adage about The Beatles that says John Lennon wrote better lyrics and Paul McCartney wrote better melodies.  That’s a bit too simplistic perhaps, but it’s true that McCartney’s melodies, like Eleanor Rigby, which is his best, usually run circles around Lennon’s.

One of the best melodies in all orchestral music has to be the one from the first movement of Mozart’s Serenade in G Major.  Indeed, it’s one of the most memorable melodies ever penned even though most people don’t know its name. Even its more colloquial title, “Eine Kliene Nachmusik,” doesn’t particularly roll off the tongue in a way that promotes familiarity, but I know that if I started whistling it you would join in before I finished the first nine notes. Early in the 1984 Academy Award-winning film Amadeus, it’s the melody that Antonio Salieri plays on the piano for the priest who’s come to hear his confession, bitterly certain that the young cleric will be familiar with the work of his rival if not his own.

Russian composer Tchaikovsky had a wonderful sense of melody that manifests itself most clearly in his ballets.  (I’ve written before about this.) Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and of course The Nutcracker contain some of the catchiest melodies you’ll ever hear an orchestra play.

Strange as it may seem, despite its centrality to how we think of music, some pieces don’t have a melody, at least not a fixed one.  Much of American jazz from a period in the middle of the twentieth century was improvisational: that is, the melody is completely dependent for its existence on a soloist who’s making it up as he or she goes along.  One of the best selling jazz albums in history provides a prime example. The story goes that in 1959, Miles Davis went into the studio with his group armed only with a few sketches of songs about which he provided his players almost no detail, no melodies, just keys. The result was Kind Of Blue, widely regarded as the greatest jazz album ever made. It consists of great players making it up as they go along—the melodies don’t exist until they’re played. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times and I don’t think I could really whistle any of the songs for you.

By contrast to Tchaikovsky’s ballets and to improvisational geniuses like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or Charlie Parker, composer Igor Stravinsky’s modernist ballet Rite of Spring expresses its musical significance through rhythm more so than melody. Its jarring irregular pounding rhythms created a sensation when the work was first performed.  Even today with its place in the canon secure I can’t quite imagine anyone leaving a performance hall humming parts of it.

What do we take away from an extended contemplation of melody?  Mostly I think an appreciation that music can be both complex and intimate at the same time.  The interactions between the rhythmic structure and chord progressions often provide the complexity.  The melody on the other hand is the part with which we most easily interact and that most often provides the emotional connection that we enjoy with pieces of good music. But it can also be the means by which we’re drawn into a deeper understanding of how music itself in any genre comes alive from mere figures on a page.





Taking the arts seriously

Actions speak louder than words as the old adage has it, and perhaps in no field of endeavor is this well-worn expression quite so applicable as in the arts. People may speak as art supporters, they may praise institutions like the local orchestra, they may even write columns for newspapers, but the ones who count the most are those who actively incorporate art into whatever enterprise they undertake. Those who demonstrate through their actions that the arts can play a significant role in human flourishing are its best evangelists. My slender efforts to endorse the arts as a civic good pale in comparison to what people who are creative—and who are expansive and generous with their creativity—can achieve.

Few people embody this action more than does the music minister at my church. His name is David Bolin, and he is retiring next month after decades of service and a lifetime of testifying to the power of art within the human act of worship.

photo by Luke Stokes

The job of a music minister in a church is a tough one.  At minimum it involves leading the congregation in song every Sunday, picking the music for the choir, rehearsing it during the week, and conducting it during the service (all this while half the congregation questions your song choices).  Few music ministers whom I have known can make a choir sound better than David does.  And the thoughtfulness with which he picks songs for the choir to sing, and the performances that he coaxes out of it, testify both to the power of music, and to just how important the choices are of which songs to sing and what instrumental music to include.

When I first arrived at the church almost 18 years ago, a friend who was already a member described David to me as something more than a music minister. “He’s like an artist-in-residence,” he said.  It took me a while to realize what he meant by this, but eventually I saw the myriad ways in which David carefully plans all of the artistic expressions that take place over the course of a worship service.  It’s not unlike the level of attention the artistic director of an opera company has to devote to upcoming performance of, say, Bizet’s Carmen.

In addition to that, David Bolin is the first music minister I have known who is also an active and prolific composer. He writes music, lyrics, and music for other people’s lyrics, all of which have a distinctive power and effectiveness when performed.  I’ve been fortunate enough to accompany him sometimes, playing the bass as he sits at the piano and plays for the congregation one of his own pieces, teaches them how to sing it, and even tells them what he was thinking when he wrote it.  In so doing he draws everyone into the power of the music itself.

Photo by Luke Stokes

Perhaps most impressive of all is that he understands the capacity of other art forms to bring illumination into the act of worship.  He writes musicals:  one called A Winter Snow and another entitled A Christmas Journey are two of his creative productions in which orchestral music, vocal music, and dramatic action combine.  I’m happy that my children have each had the experience of being in one of his productions.  These and his other non-musical dramatic performances he stages are for the benefit not only of the congregation and visitors, but for those who are fortunate enough to take part in his productions and thereby share in his artistic vision.

I’ve written about his work before but I’ve never specifically given him the credit for the artistic vision about which I was writing.  There was the time I was surprised to see ballet in a church service, but once I saw it, it seemed like the perfect way to convey the idea of reverence. I’ve written about how moved I was by his conducting the orchestra in a performance of Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” movement from the Enigma Variations during the offertory of a service.  Again, it never would have occurred to me that that particular piece would fit there; it’s certainly not a hymn, it’s not even church music really, but it was perfect.

He understands perhaps better than any music minister at any church I’ve been a part of that all artistic expression is a gift from God and that we shape our hearts toward God as we engage in creativity.  In this, he highlights the inherently spiritual character of the arts by showing how well they fit into worship. That is to say, he shows how art is a more fundamental human expression than even speech itself. In David Bolin, everyone who wants the arts play a greater role in their lives has a wonderful model to emulate. He will be missed.

photo by Luke Stokes

The Bernstein Centennial

In many performing art circles, the year 2018 has special meaning.  This would have been the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, one of the most important and celebrated musicians in American history.

He was born in 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts to parents who had immigrated to the United States from Jewish villages in northwestern Ukraine in the first decade of the 20th century, a time when nearly 50,000 Jews were coming to America from Russian territory each year.  They met after they arrived here and soon married.  Shortly thereafter, Lenny—as the entire musical world would come to call him—was born.  When he was ten, an aunt gave his family an upright piano, and from that moment he was hooked.  Soon he was playing better than his first teacher, who was quick to recognize how gifted he was.  He graduated Harvard in 1939 where his senior thesis was “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music,” in which he examined how contemporary composers like Gershwin and Aaron Copland incorporated other musical styles into what they wrote, thereby making a distinctively American music.  The topic pointed to his future tendency to write in various forms and styles.  Through his career as a composer he wrote symphonies, Broadway musicals, choral pieces, film scores, ballets, operas, chamber music, piano music and more.

As a conductor he was emotional and effusive and rather exactly what the public imagined conductors to be.  From early in his conducting career, profiles written about him inevitably made much of his physical gyrations and expressiveness while leading an orchestra.  Some thought him more interested in being a showman than a serious conductor.  He was dramatic and entertaining to watch, no doubt.  He explained, however, in a 1958 New Yorker profile that he never thought about what else he might be doing physically while he was conducting.  He was fully drawn into the score and the power of it spoke through his actions on the podium.  Anyone who plays music and while doing so moves without thinking will understand this instantly.

This year, orchestras all over the country are having Bernstein celebrations.  The San Diego Symphony is spending the month of May performing some of his most notable works (including his Symphony #1, entitled Jeremiah, which I’m listening to as I’m writing this).  This month and last, the Charlotte Symphony played concerts from his wide-ranging repertoire.  In two concerts next fall, the Utah Symphony is playing a “Bernstein on Broadway,” program and his opera “Candide.”

The New York Library for the Performing Arts (at Lincoln Center) just wrapped up a months-long exhibit on the Bernstein centenary with all sorts of artifacts being on display from batons, to handwritten scores from West Side Story, to that childhood piano.

Closer to home, several performing arts organizations in Austin are teaming up at the end of June for a blockbuster two-night performance of Bernstein’s 1971 Mass that will involve the Austin Symphony Orchestra, Ballet Austin, several choirs, and numerous other groups.  It’s being billed as the “largest performing arts collaboration in Austin’s history,” which is certainly saying something.  Several other events across the city, including a young composers concert, are happening as well.  Bravo to Austin for such an undertaking.  That sort of sweeping celebratory civic gesture through music is right in line with the spirit of the man who conducted a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth in Berlin at the fall of Berlin Wall, substituting the word “Freedom” for the word “Joy” in the famous “Ode to Joy” climax of that timeless work.  It represents faith that music can overcome differences of any sort and bring people together.  This is exactly what every symphony in the country should be up to as they celebrate one of the most important conductors, composers, and educators in American history.

There’s a line in Hamilton when the character of Aaron Burr sings of Alexander Hamilton, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time / Write day and night like you’re running out of time,” and one gets the feeling, after toting up Bernstein’s lifetime of conducting orchestras all around the world, undertaking educational projects at every turn, and composing in every style from classical symphonies to jazz-influenced Broadway smashes, that such a question could’ve been asked of him.

That restlessness, that wanting to be all things at once, that inability to decide what you want to be when you grow up and a conviction that all things are possible, is what makes Bernstein so American.

A version of this column appeared in the Waco Tribune-Herald on April 11, 2018

Disappearing Instruments

In the arts, styles change. Since the advent of Modernism, change has been more purposeful and freighted with philosophical significance but even before that, painting and music, poetry and literature always evolved with the passage of time. The changes may have been more gradual, less sudden and jarring than in more recent times, but styles came and went nonetheless. No one would mistake a Schumann symphony for a Bach orchestral suite, and it’s easy to imagine harpsichord aficionados grousing about why no one plays their favorite instrument any more.

Last week, Fortune magazine reported that gradual shifts in musical tastes are making people less interested in playing guitar and that’s putting guitar companies in a tight spot. “As rap and hip-hop have become more main stream,” writer Chris Morris explains, “guitars have become less crucial to the country’s most popular songs.” Anyone who listened to a lot of pop radio 30 years ago and who tunes in to listen today likely will immediately notice that the guitar solo—which for decades was a funadmantal part of pop song architecture—is nowhere to be heard. Usually you can’t even hear a guitar backing track of any kind. They’re not there.

Such transformations of musical tastes are not without consequences. George Gruhn, owner of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, a fixture of that city’s music scene since 1970, recently told the Los Angeles Times that because there aren’t individual guitar players who are captivating and inspiring new generations of players, and because the instrument quite obviously doesn’t have the place in contemporary music it used to have, people (and especially young people) are buying fewer guitars as a consequence.

Businesses are feeling the pinch. Guitar Center, the country’s largest instrument retailer, is facing $1 billion in debt even as this change is threatening its very business. Gibson, a company that began making guitars and mandolins in 1902, is facing similar woes as it watches its revenues drop precipitously. In the past, artists like Elvis Presley, B. B. King, and Eric Clapton were closely associated with Gibson guitars and they drew generations of rock and blues players into that world. No longer. Fender, another seminal guitar company that also pioneered the electric bass, has also seen its revenue plunge in recent years.

In 1916, auto maker Henry Ford said “history is more or less bunk”—not exactly one of my favorite historical quotations and not one I’m prone to quoting to my classes. But innovators can’t be blamed for harboring a certain ambivalence if not plain hostility toward the past inasmuch as they’re more than willing to disrupt it utterly. (This is why it’s difficult and not exactly accurate to think of business pioneers like Ford and Andrew Carnegie as unalloyed conservatives.)

Modernists and to some extent artists of all stripes are more interested in what they’re going to create tomorrow and how it will be different than that which is going on today. Today’s pop performers at some point might have said “the guitar is more or less bunk,” and while such a remark would still be as wrong on many levels as in Ford’s day, it’s easy to understand the compulsion behind saying it.

At the same time it’s a shame when things like pianos and guitars begin a slow retreat from the artistic centrality they once had, not least of all because of the effect that abandonment has on those who earn their livelihoods making and selling the things. A few years ago I wrote about declining piano sales and the slow disappearance of the piano from American homes. In the same way, the plunge in guitar sales also marks the continuing evaporation of participatory culture and the ability to play music as opposed to just listening to it.

Maybe in an earlier age I would have written a column lamenting the disappearance of the harpsichord. But then again I’m writing this one largely on my iPhone and not with a Underwood manual typewriter, and it’s never occurred to me to complain about that.



The City and the Soul

Several years ago, I team-taught an interdisciplinary class with the subtitle of “the city and the soul.”  One of the points that we sought to make to the students was that politics—at least how classical philosophers understood it—involved far more than just the ordering of material goods, the structure of the state, and questions of representation.  Politics involved creating a civic arrangement that would contribute to the individual citizen’s soul flourishing.

We sure don’t think of politics this way these days, at least overtly.  But it’s the rationale behind things like city parks and libraries.  It’s at the root of the National Endowment for the Arts and, in fact, it’s the basis of everything I say about politics and art from the national level to the local:  art and culture are civic goods just like parks, public pools, and zoos, and they deserve public attention.

In my very first weekly column almost eight years ago, I said that one of the most important things required for a thriving arts scene is to have an ongoing conversation about the arts.  This is what this column has tried to create from the time it appeared.  Whether I wrote about local issues—what a certain arts organization here in town was doing, or the significance of a new mural that just popped up downtown—or something of more national or even international scope, the purpose here has been to get readers to think about the scale of what we call the arts, and about the many ways they influence our lives.

Unfortunately however, this column is going to be a casualty of some necessary changes coming to the Waco Tribune.  It may appear once in a while in shorter form but sadly, this is the end of its weekly run.  It’s been a good one: we’ve covered a lot of ground together over the course of eight years. I’ve talked to many people who’ve enjoyed its contribution and I hope it’s made some sort of difference.  The Waco art scene has come a long way from what it was eight years ago, although there’s still a long way to go.  If your interest in the arts has grown or broadened over the past few years, keep it up.  There’s a lot out there to explore, from musicians and composers you’ve not yet heard of to great painters you may never have thought about.  When it comes to the arts, knowing more deepens your understanding of everything you already know.  In the arts, it’s never too late to find new favorites. There’s always great art waiting that will be new to you.

Conformity is a powerful force in our lives, politically and culturally, and society presses hard on every one of us to fit into a certain mold.  Outliers tend to find little space.  But good art teaches us not to be conformists, not to settle for prepackaged culture at every turn.  Talking and thinking about art are the first steps to keeping yourself open to it.

G.K. Chesterton described art as “the signature of man,” and we’re at our most human when our creativity is engaged, our sense of beauty awakened, and art is a regular part of our lives.  We aren’t purely materialistic creatures no matter how our skewed politics would have us be.  I’m going to keep writing about this on a regular basis, looking at local and national issues, and you’ll always be able to find it on my blog and maybe in some other new places.  And as always, I’ll welcome your comments on our continuing conversation.