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Posts Tagged ‘music’

Picnic Time

August 28, 2015 | by

Elizabeth Shippen Green, 1906.

In 1932, an Irish popular songwriter named Jimmy Kennedy penned one of the most sinister sets of lyrics ever composed. Kennedy—who had already had Tin Pan Alley success with numbers like “Barmaids Song” and “Red Sails in the Sunset.” Later, he would go to write “Isle of Capri” and “My Prayer.” But to the contemporary ear, perhaps none of his compositions is as memorable as that terrifying song he set to John Walter Bratton’s 1907 two-step.

I refer, of course, to “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic.” Read More »

The Gordon

August 24, 2015 | by

From a fifties-era Pan Am ad.

There was a time when I didn’t know Gordon Bishop, but that time’s not worth talking about.

I met Gordon in his shop, Tropics, sometime in the early eighties. I’d been walking through Soho and noticed a store I hadn’t seen before. Inside was a jumble of Javanese antiques—carved doors; four-poster beds; objects that seemed decorative, ceremonial, and incomprehensible—along with fabrics and wall hangings and kites and sculptures. It looked like Santa’s workshop, if Santa had a penchant for priapic statues of half-dressed men with enormous erections and wicked smiles.

No one seemed to be working there, but I heard flute and gamelan music coming from the back room. There was a curtain separating me from the music, along with the sort of velvet rope commonly seen in discos, and a hand-painted sign fixed to the rope: DO NOT ENTERRead More »

We Are All Sensitive People

August 14, 2015 | by

From the cover of Let’s Get It On.

On an uptown local train during the height of an August rush hour, an old man fell asleep in his seat. It should be said that the man in question probably believed his music was contained; he was wearing earbuds. But either he’d neglected to properly plug the headphones into the outlet or the mechanism was somewhat faulty. Because for whatever reason, “Let’s Get It On” started blasting loudly in the otherwise quiet car.

The average urbanite sees a few things in a lifetime of public transit. Kids fighting. Women screaming. Perverts perving. Madmen ranting violently. And the occasional eel, escaped from a shopping bag, writhing wildly down the length of a J-train car. On one occasion, a seven-foot schizophrenic caked in filth spent the better part of an uptown express trip berating a woman whom he claimed had grabbed his ass, threatening to turn her into the transit cops for sexual harassment.

And yet, I have never seen a trainful of passengers more uncomfortable than in the moment when the first four insinuating notes started to play, and Marvin Gaye’s sensuous, passion-roughened voice filled the car. Read More »

Cy Twombly, the JACK, and the Morgan Library

July 2, 2015 | by

JACK Quartet

On November 24, 2014, the JACK Quartet performed Matthias Pintscher’s Studies for Treatise on the Veil in a gallery at the Morgan Library, in New York, before a thirty-three-foot-long painting by Cy Twombly called Treatise on the Veil (Second Version). Pintscher’s score was written in response to Twombly’s painting; Twombly’s painting was composed in response to music, that of French composer Pierre Henry, a pioneer of musique concrète. Members of the JACK were, in turn, influenced that evening by their very proximity to Twombly’s painting: “The music requires so much concentration,” said violist and director John Pickford Richards, “and I felt that the painting was giving me concentration while we were playing.”

Chapter six of our series “Big, Bent Ears” details this curious network of connections, which Richards calls a “daisy chain of beautiful responses.”

Here’s another one: Before the Morgan exhibition, Twombly’s painting hadn’t hung in New York since 1985, and Pintscher’s composition had never been performed alongside the painting. And no one had ever filmed a concert at the Morgan Library. Rock Fish Stew’s video of that evening, which is part of chapter six, is witness to this extraordinary confluence and is itself an element of it. Twombly called his Treatise on the Veil (Second Version) “a time line without time,” which is rather like a story without a beginning, middle, and end. Or, as the “Big, Bent Ears” team likes to think of it, serializing uncertainty and reveling in digressions.

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Skyscrapers and Everything

June 5, 2015 | by

The trouble with gazing upward in New York.

Don’t look up, Stevie!

About four minutes into Stevie Wonder’s 1973 classic “Living for the City”—a surging, seven-plus minute thumper track about racial injustice, migration, and the failure of the latter to cure the former—the song emerges from its second chorus and breaks down to its sparest parts. We hear the quizzical staccato of the synthesizer flit in and out like lingering sunlight; the dry drums, which just seconds ago were rolling out an elaborate fill, tap quarter-note rimshots on the snare; all the other instruments stop playing. Welcome to New York.

This interlude, barely a minute long but seemingly much longer, is a marvel within an already marvelous song. It’s an early example in popular music of that moment when a song recognizes its limits and turns, momentarily, into something larger and stranger. After all, Stevie could’ve just tagged on another verse about New York, keeping the song’s structure intact, but wouldn’t there be something thin and dreamy about that? New York collects anthems like medals: “New York, New York,” “On Broadway,” and “Empire State of Mind” are all, in essence, odes to skylines, with outsized grandeur to match. Their scale grows out of proportion; aphorism replaces emotion; the music hits its mark and no one gets hurt. The lesson for songwriters tackling New York has always been this: if you’re going to sing to the city, sing big. The skyline, as more than few writers have reminded us, can even look like musical notation if you squint hard enough. Read More »

“26 Anos de Vida Normal”

June 5, 2015 | by

I hate the summer. I hate the heat, I hate the humidity, I hate the pressure to have fun, I hate the sand-in-an-hourglass frenzy of it all. I hate summer movies and the crowds of people at outdoor events. I do like the tomatoes. But ever since it dawned on me that grown-ups don’t get summer vacation, I have not seen the reason for the season.

Apparently there’s a sort of SAD that affects some people in the sun. Something about the sun flips a switch in their brains so that, just as everyone else is at their happiest, they’re miserable. I don’t know about me—although the heat is a migraine trigger. But I do go strange in the heat. I’m not just cranky but furious and spiky, able at any moment to erupt in scornful rage. It is exciting, but tiring, too, like a summer film overlarded with special effects. Read More »