Which sounds better: Ukulelepalooza or Ukulelepocalypse?

A last-minute Facebook alert led me to check out the Wichita Ukulele Society’s appearance at The Donut Whole this evening, a combination concert, jam session and singalong.  Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my interest in groups of like instruments, so you just know that I couldn’t resist hearing a band of about a dozen (give or take a few members of the audience playing along) ukulele enthusiasts.  The repertoire included expected songs like “Tom Dooley,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” (complete with falsetto, and on Tiny Tim’s birthday, no less!), as well as surprises like “Y.M.C.A.,” “Paint it Black,”  and “Margaritaville.”

The donuts were just an added bonus.

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Pictures Prove: Nineteen Bassoons Converge in Concert

As part of Monday night’s Friends University Band concert, nineteen bassoons (including two contrabassoons) were played together on the stage of Sebits Auditorium.  Stix, the performing arm of the Wichita Bassoon Society, was joined by guest artist Nancy Goeres.  They performed Daniel Baldwin’s charming Echo of the Spheres (scored for four bassoon quartets) under the direction of Dr. John Taylor.  What kind of encore could follow such a piece? Leroy Anderson’s Bugler’s Holiday, of course!

UPDATE: Video of the two pieces can be found here and here.

The Most Annoying Music in the World

“How do they sound? Perfect! They can’t play a lick! But mainly they got the right attitude, which is all rock’n’roll’s ever been about from day one. (I mean, not being able to play is never enough.)”  —Lester Bangs, on The Shaggs

I didn’t set out to become a vinyl collector.  The first couple of records I owned myself as a kid got so scratched up through carelessness and deliberate “misuse”—I wasn’t exactly trying to imitate the DJs who spun hip-hop beats, or “breakdancing music” as my friends and I called it, but I was fascinated by how changes of speed and direction altered the recorded sound—that they were nearly unplayable.  Later on, my dad encouraged me to record my new albums to tape so the vinyl wouldn’t get worn out.  Combine those experiences with a few warped records encountered here and there, and I was left with the impression that vinyl records were a lot more fragile than they really were.

Nevertheless, when I was a teenager records became irresistible to me for a couple of reasons.  The arrival of the compact disc in the late 1980s convinced many people that vinyl was going the way of the vacuum tube, and lots of them dumped their record collections for pennies, or for nothing: it wasn’t an uncommon sight for a box of old records to be left on the curb with the trash, free for the taking.  When I was scouring garage sales and junk shops throughout the 1990s, the number, variety, and sheer strangeness of the records I encountered (not to mention the low prices for which they were selling) made them much more desirable than when I was a kid and they seemed both fragile and overpriced.  Many people were upgrading their collections to the new format (there were recurring jokes along the lines of Dennis Miller’s complaint that he was buying Meet the Beatles for the fourth time), but there was also a generational turnover: among the outlets I frequented were garage sales by downsizing retired couples, as well as estate sales.  In some cases the audience for the first wave of “easy listening” and “mood music” LPs was aging out, and their grown children had no interest in keeping the music that had (undoubtedly) driven them into the waiting arms of rock and roll in their own youth.

PatrioticChimes

Indeed, for a few years, practically any place that sold used goods—antique stores, flea markets, thrift shops, and more—would have records, and I was always, always compelled to look through what they had to offer.  When I was a student at Wichita State University, there was a regular (every three semesters) sale held to raise money for the music department, and I’d spend a good part of the sale week between classes browsing boxes of donated records (along with books, sheet music, and other items).  My collection swelled.

Classical music predominated at the music department sale, but there were always oddball items as well.  Like a lot of teenagers, especially in the “whatever, man” ‘90s, I was driven to search for the tackiest, most ridiculous items I could find in order to mock or celebrate them as “so bad it’s good.” I’ve mentioned following the Dr. Demento radio show; the good Doctor would sometimes feature what he called the “Audio Torture Chamber,” a selection from a truly excruciating (usually deliberately so, but not always) record.  That’s where I first heard snippets of Lou Reed’s infamous Metal Machine Music and “the world’s worst orchestra,” the Portsmouth Sinfonia.  As a collector and aficionado of the weird, I wanted in on that action.  Maybe it says something about me that I loved being able to put on a record that elicited squirms, groans, and protests from my captive audience.  It was at least a more dramatic response than the assumed coolness that would come over them when I tried to play something, you know, good.  (Whether it was any more genuine, or they were just playing up their reaction for my benefit, I couldn’t say at this remove.)

In general, the less specialized the store was, the better: record stores were (generally) staffed by people who had an idea their wares were valuable—although the weird stuff I was looking for was usually in the bargain bin anyway—but thrift stores weren’t picky, and everything might be priced at fifty cents or a dollar apiece, cheap enough that I could gamble on a promising cover.  Years later, when I saw the hip-hop DJ documentary Scratch, I learned about a gizmo some of the crate-diggers used to audition records before they bought them: a motorized toy truck with a needle on the front and a tiny speaker inside.  The truck would “drive” around the record, the needle keeping it in the groove as the sound played through the little speaker.  Brilliant!  As it was, I usually had to rely on the appeal of the cover or my sketchy knowledge of the artists involved.

Yes, I have this in my collection.  Be jealous!

Yes, I have this in my collection. Be jealous!

And what covers they were!  The LP was a miracle of packaging and marketing: its twelve-inch square cover was a perfect canvas for beautiful (or at least striking) art, suitable for framing, an advertisement for itself.  If the music inside turned out to be good, that was an added bonus.  Sometimes the contents were merely conventional: with the right cover and some creative liner notes, a collection of military band marches could be sold as Music for Baton Twirlers, and an album of bump-and-grind studio jazz packaged as How to Strip for Your Husband.  In both cases, the music is pretty good, but what sticks are the pop art covers and the impulse toward functionality, toward treating music as an accessory to one’s lifestyle, common enough in the hi-fi ‘50s.

BatonTwirlers

I was already exploring this territory when RE/Search PublicationsIncredibly Strange Music series arrived and handed me a map to make sense of it.  Founded in San Francisco by series editors Andrea Juno and V. Vale, RE/Search began as underground ‘zine Search & Destroy; by the time I encountered them, it had developed into a series of books dedicated to “fringe” topics: freaks, body modification, cult films, and challenging artists such as J. G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs, and Brion Gysin.  Incredibly Strange Music Volumes I and II were Numbers 14 and 15 in the series, published in 1993 and ’94, and the series’ format showed its magazine roots, consisting of interviews with musicians (including the Cramps, Eartha Kitt, and Jean-Jacques Perrey in Vol. I), collectors, and assorted eccentrics, as well as short articles on aspects of the recording industry.  First and foremost, the series was a celebration of the incredible diversity of music recorded on vinyl (especially in the heyday of the LP, from the 1940s to the ‘70s), most of which was in danger of being forgotten.  A theme that runs through many of the interviews is that, in addition to vinyl’s superiority over the CD (a given for many audiophiles at the time), a vital popular heritage was in danger of being swept away because only the established classics were being converted to CD.  People were throwing records away in order to go digital, but many of their vinyl albums might never make that transition!

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Incredibly Strange Music became, in effect, a guidebook to the kinds of records I might find, and an informal checklist of specific artists and titles to look out for.  Records were about more than just music: for example, Mickey McGowan, proprietor of the “Unknown Museum,” listed such categories as bird recordings, sound effects, promotional, soundtracks, celebrity recordings, outer space (often including electronica), comedy, children’s records, and whistling records, among others, when discussing his collection.  Recovering once well-known artists like Indian organist Korla Pandit or the exotic, multi-octave vocal phenomenon Yma Sumac from obscurity was another goal of many of the collectors interviewed.  A feeling common to many collectors, and reinforced by the interviews in Incredibly Strange Music, was one of cultural archaeology: we were all doing important work, rescuing the cultural flotsam that wasn’t considered significant enough to preserve in libraries or conventional museums.

Music of the hopelessly inept was another “incredibly strange” kind of music discussed, but it was a recurring thread, whether considering the “turn your poems into songs” racket, vanity records that allowed amateurs to put together professional-looking, if not –sounding, projects, or small-time regional acts that didn’t have what it took to crack the big time.  Then there were such unclassifiable acts as The Shaggs (who I think I also first heard on Dr. Demento’s “Audio Torture Chamber”), a group of sisters whose father, Austin Wiggin, Jr., had dreams of turning them into pop stars, despite their lack of musicianship, charisma, or even the ability to keep a steady beat.  Were The Shaggs really “better than the Beatles,” as Frank Zappa reportedly claimed?  Not according to standard definitions of quality, but there is something otherworldly about their spacey, off-key recordings, and there is an endearing charm to their guileless enthusiasm.  For those who seek out this sort of “outsider music,” it’s not uncommon to express wonderment that such a thing exists at all: some of The Shaggs’ recordings are so out there that it’s easy to forget they were conceived of as a pop combo, but their repertoire won’t let us forget, mixing covers of songs by Tom T. Hall and the Carpenters with stream-of-consciousness originals like “My Pal Foot Foot.”

The implication that professional product is too slick to be authentic, and that music like The Shaggs’ comes straight from the heart (or the id, or possibly from another dimension), and is thus more honest, is one that’s been around for a while, and it can be problematic.  Not necessarily wrong, mind you—there is always a point at which the inquisitive listener seeks to go beyond what they’ve grown up with, what they’ve been exposed to by their parents, the radio, and the surrounding culture.  Something like The Shaggs may be just what it takes to start such a listener exploring, and I’ll accept the sincerity of Zappa’s praise of The Shaggs, or that of early Shaggs booster Tom Ardolino (who claimed to hear a resemblance between the Shaggs and early Ornette Coleman), whether or not I agree with it.  Such praise can often be backhanded, though: would notorious perfectionist and technician Zappa have wanted the Wiggin sisters in his band?  I think we know the answer to that.

Any appreciation of outsider art that veers into ironic “so bad it’s good” praise, celebrates a lack of craftsmanship or obscurity for its own sake (especially as a form of one-upmanship: “You probably haven’t heard of it”) can be interpreted, deservedly or not, as either mean-spirited or simply contrary—in either case, inauthentic.  You might even invite the dreaded “hipster” label.  Similarly, the assumption that an outsider artist can be “redeemed” by official recognition or appropriation by someone in the establishment is troubling.  As much as I love Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, for example, its existence doesn’t validate the gonzo creations of its eponymous hero: it doesn’t have to, for they exist on their own and are worthy of consideration as works of art, however naïve.  To treat them any other way is to perpetuate an unfortunate tendency of the fine art world to draw on folk/ethnic/commercial/outsider sources that are conveniently defined as “non-art” in order to be transformed (i.e., exploited) by a “real” artist, or to recognize the occasional genius working outside the system only after they are safely dead.

Still, anyone who feels that the Shaggs are being condescended to should compare their career to that of the Cherry Sisters, who were in some ways the Shaggs of the 1890s.  According to author Irwin Chusid in Songs in the Key of Z, “Effie, Addie, Ella, Jessie, and Elizabeth Cherry of Marion, Iowa, were by contemporary accounts the worst act in showbiz.  Their program, Something Good, Something Sad, was so atrocious it triggered a perverse public hysteria: it played to sold-out New York houses for 10 weeks.”  The Cherry Sisters’ mawkish, humorless performances (“an evening’s worth of hokey, moralistic one-acts, derivative ballads, and awkward ethnic routines,” in Chusid’s words) were greeted with such vitriol that a wire-mesh screen had to be erected across the stage to protect them from vegetables and other missiles thrown by patrons.  Promoters (including Oscar Hammerstein) knew exactly what they were selling, but the sisters at least pretended not to know—they claimed the rowdy crowds were hired by jealous rival actresses to sabotage their performances.  Were the Cherry Sisters playing along or hopelessly naïve?  They never let on, but were able to tour across the Midwest with their show, and earned upwards of $200,000, according to some reports.

A funny thing happened as I explored the world of kitschy, tacky music: I found things I genuinely liked, in an unironic way.  I was already having a good time, of course—I wouldn’t have wasted so much time and money looking for these things if I weren’t enjoying myself—but at some point I crossed the invisible line between “Get a load of this!” and “Hey, this is really good!”  A lot of the music I gravitated to was only “incredibly strange” in the sense of its separation in time, coming as it did from past decades with very different ideas of what was cool.  For example, Lawrence Welk was the epitome of squareness even before I was a kid, but the musical chops of many of his stable of performers were for real.  I was already interested in ragtime and early jazz, so I was receptive to Jo Ann Castle.  Ditto with Myron Floren: I liked the accordion—again, maybe because it was so dorky, associated with performers like “Weird Al” Yankovic, but also because it just sounded cool—and Floren could really play.  There was a whole galaxy of once-popular instrumental virtuosi that I’m still discovering.  My recent column on banjo groups led me to Eddie Peabody, whom I hadn’t encountered before:

Part of the process is simply hearing enough to find what you respond to.  One of my favorite albums that I found in high school was called Dutch Band Organ, and it contained lively, full-sounding arrangements of syncopated pop tunes like “Cuddle Up A Little Closer” and “Did You Ever See A Dream Walking?”  It is the standard by which I have judged other band organ records for twenty years.  Similarly, I have a hard time imagining what the world was like when The Three Suns (a trio of accordion, organ and guitar) were representatives of sophisticated popular music, but I’m glad I found them (their early records, like Cocktail Time, are more impressive to me than the later records where they team up with a full orchestra).  Turntable artist Christian Marclay has commented on his attraction to “deeply unhip” records for his collage-like performances, and I share that interest: I’m always on the lookout for recordings of oddball instruments like the banjo, accordion, or chimes, the seeming underdogs of popular music. They deserve to be heard, too.

Much has changed since Incredibly Strange Music was published.  The entire RE/Search series captures a moment, a transitional period between the underground culture of the 1970s and ‘80s and the internet culture that makes it much easier for like-minded people to find each other and share information.  Many of the recordings featured in the book are easily heard online now; in fact, a great many of the vinyl oddities that were expected to disappear forever have made the transition to CD, however belatedly.  Labels like Collector’s Choice and Sepia specialize in this sort of material.  Even Dutch Band Organ is on CD now, something I never, ever would have expected.  Of course, the CD as a format is now on the wane, replaced by streaming, even as vinyl records have made a comeback, but the older audience that presumably favors these reissues isn’t known for being early adopters, so they may be a better bet for CD manufacturers, for now, anyway.  As for me, I love the options I have now, and I’m glad vinyl has continued to be relevant, but I’m glad I was in a position to explore the LP heritage at a time when it seemed like it might be gone for good.

Get Your Chimes On! (What to do with Christmas leftovers)

So you got a set of chimes (aka “tubular bells”) under the old Christmas tree?  Congratulations!  Perhaps these are your first chimes, or–if you’re Mike Oldfield–you finally wore out your original set and somebody got you replacements.  Either way, you have years of musical enjoyment to look forward to.  If you’re like me, you probably spent the holiday hammering out favorites like “Silent Night” or “Joy to the World;” or maybe you had some friends over for an impromptu sing-along with A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector or the Spector-influenced “All I Want For Christmas is You.”  But a few days afterward, you may be saying to yourself, “That was fun, but what am I going to play the other eleven months of the year?”

"How am I going to fit this in a stocking?"

“How am I going to fit this in a stocking?”

Fortunately, record producers’ use of chimes isn’t limited to the Christmas season: here are a few pop and rock songs that make use of the instrument to tide you over until next December.  (I’m leaving aside those songs that include the tolling of church bells, such as AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells”* or Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”  You can imitate church bells on the chimes, of course, but it only takes one pitch.  The songs that follow cover a wider range and sometimes–gasp!–even take the lead.)

Some kids got the deluxe model this year.

Some kids got the deluxe model this year.

If you’re feeling funky and futuristic, there’s electronic music pioneer Pierre Henry’s “Psyché Rock” (with Michel Colombier, 1967) and Jean-Jacques Perrey’s “E.V.A.” (1970).  Both feature chimes prominently amongst the fuzz guitar and space-age sound effects.  Henry’s composition, in particular, was the inspiration for Christopher Tyng’s Futurama theme (which also includes chimes, so learn all three and you can really make a night of it):

These guys know what I’m talking about:

If you still have a rhythm section at your disposal, consider Blondie’s 1981 mega-hit “Rapture,” the first single to contain rap to hit number one on the U.S. pop charts (and one of the first music videos played on fledgling cable outlet MTV that year).  The sound of bells can be exuberant or mournful; in “Rapture” they complement the slinky bass line in creating an otherworldly nocturnal atmosphere.  Along with Perrey’s frequently-sampled “E.V.A.”, “Rapture” can be heard as a spiritual forerunner of trip-hop.

Staying in the early ’80s, the British girl group Dolly Mixture is one of the most unjustly overlooked bands of the post-punk scene, but they are increasingly receiving their due.  Most of their recorded output is from the (unsurprisingly) spare Demonstration Tapes; their single “Everything and More” from 1982 has a fuller sound reminiscent of Phil Spector’s style, including a rocking chime riff:

Working a similar vein of updated ’60s guitar pop were The Housemartins, whose 1986 hit “Happy Hour” prominently features our chosen instrument in the break:

Perhaps your tastes run toward alternative or indy music.  May I suggest Throwing Muses’ “Mexican Women” (1988) or The Flaming Lips’ “The Abandoned Hospital Ship” (1995)?  Both songs save the chimes for the big ending, giving you ample time to make a dramatic entrance.

It’s fitting that we conclude this list with They Might Be Giants, a group that has throughout its history explored varying styles of production, often using the signature sound of an era or artist to frame its songs, as if they came from a slightly off-kilter parallel universe of pop music.  “Destination Moon,” from the 1994 album John Henry, draws on both the “wall of sound” of ’60s pop and the futurism of Henry and Perrey for a vision of outer (and inner) space travel that’s equal parts Heinlein and Dick.

That ought to do it.  Happy chiming!

* Not to be confused with this “Hell’s Bells,” sung by Betty Boop in the 1934 cartoon Red Hot Mamma.  Playing the chime part for this requires two pitches: Betty Boop 1, AC/DC 0.

Orphans of the Orchestra, Part Three

Early in Ernest La Prade’s Alice in Orchestralia (which I discussed in Part Two of this series), the title character is welcomed to Fiddladelphia, home of the stringed instruments, by the Bass Viol.  In promising to introduce Alice to the other members of the orchestra, the Bass Viol offhandedly remarks:

The others don’t live in Fiddladelphia, except a few of the lower-class stringed instruments, such as the guitars and mandolins and those pesky ukuleles, who hang about the outskirts of the village.  By rights they ought not to be here at all; they’re not members of the orchestra.  But it seems impossible to keep out the undesirable elements, even in Orchestralia.

(Previously, Alice finds the Bass Viol locked inside a case by “those naughty Ukulele boys” who are “always up to mischief,” so the antipathy is obviously mutual.)

One might assume this is another skirmish in the never-ending war between classical and popular music, the snooty Bass Viol playing into the stereotype of the uptight classical musician, while the “lower-class” ukes and guitars just want to live it up, “Roll Over, Beethoven”-style.  At the time of Alice’s writing in 1925, however, the jazz age was just getting underway, and rock and roll was decades in the future. Although there were some associations with “cheap” popular music such as ragtime and the songs of Tin Pan Alley, guitars, banjos, and mandolins had a solid presence in middle-class music making before World War I, and much of the repertoire for these instruments would strike even the following generation as quaint.  No, the undesirable element the Bass Viol hoped to escape wasn’t so much one of rebellion, but of amateurism.

Looking back to the mid-sixteenth century Renaissance, bowed and plucked string instruments were on nearly equal footing.  Instrumental music as a whole was not as developed as vocal music, and it was common for parts to be played by whatever instruments were on hand.  This was the “consort system,” a consort being a family of like instruments in different sizes and registers; a single consort, say a matched group of viols or recorders, could perform a multi-part work, or members of different families could be played together as a “mixed” or “broken” consort.  Along with the bowed viols were lutes, theorbos, and citterns, which were plucked with the fingers.

The lute, in particular, enjoyed great popularity as both a solo instrument and as accompaniment for voices; the first instruction book on playing a musical instrument was written for beginning lute players.  Queen Elizabeth I played the lute and included a lutenist as a member of her court.  John Dowland, who desired the position but never attained it (probably for political reasons), left a substantial body of lute songs and instrumentals. This musical activity primarily took place in homes; although music was used in the theater, at church, and for dancing, the public concert of music for its own sake was a later innovation.

Venere Lute Quartet

Venere Lute Quartet

After this high water mark of acceptance, plucked strings gradually split from the mainstream, following a parallel tradition.  The bowed strings gained momentum as the viols were superseded by the violin family; great makers such as Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari contributed to the design and made instruments that are still played and treasured today (although many of these makers also made lutes and mandolins).  The string orchestra as we know it came together in the mid-seventeenth century, both in Italy and in France at the court of Louis XIV.  Composers Arcangelo Corelli and Jean-Baptiste Lully are both credited with the innovation of bowing string ensembles in unison (perhaps a case of independent invention), a key to the rich, pure sound and unified phrasing of the orchestra that is taken for granted today.

The plucked strings were largely left out of this development, except for special uses: the mandolin continued to be a popular solo instrument in Italy, and (for example) there are a number of concerti by Vivaldi for the instrument, but it has never been a regular member of the orchestra.  The lute hung on as a continuo (chording) instrument in the Baroque period for a while, but was eventually replaced by the harpsichord, and fell into almost complete disuse until the “early music” revival of the early twentieth century that also brought the harpsichord back into currency.  The guitar, originally Spanish, became a nearly universal popular instrument in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but within the classical tradition it filled the niche of the earlier lute, playing solo or accompaniment roles but rarely joining the orchestra.  Other plucked string instruments were relegated to folk use, and there they have largely stayed.

Jumping ahead to nineteenth-century America, the growing wealth and education of the middle class, along with the increased production of material goods thanks to the Industrial Revolution, led to the cultivation of an amateur music-making culture comparable to the one that had existed in Elizabethan England.  A piano came to be seen as an essential article of furniture, and in those pre-radio and –television days it was common for families to while away an evening singing or playing.  Sheet music publishers supplied a steady stream of novel but not-too-hard compositions in anticipation of the pop music cycles of the twentieth century.  Outside of the home, choirs and bands were as much civic organizations as musical ones, and were variously sponsored by churches, schools, businesses, and even prisons.

This atmosphere of low-level but pervasive music making, supported as it was by social expectations and commercial interests (primarily but not only publishers and instrument manufacturers), was fertile ground for all kinds of musical fads to spring up and fade away.  One trend was the adaptation of the banjo (adapted from the African banja or banjar,) which had been popularized by minstrel shows as early as the 1840s but which continued to evolve throughout the century, adding the characteristic metal hoop and frets as late as the 1880s.  Banjo clubs became a popular outlet, and instrument makers obliged by creating different-sized instruments to play a full range of parts, consort-style.  (As a group, these were sometimes referred to as “plectral” ensembles, as all the associated instruments were played with a plectrum, or pick.)

I wish this video were longer; it is obviously from a later period than the 1880s and ‘90s, but it features a good look at a bass banjo with (kangaroo?) gut strings.  When I saw a bass banjo at Miles’ Musical Museum in Eureka Springs, Arkansas*, it was strung with wound piano strings, but it was a newer instrument and undoubtedly had a steel rod to reinforce it against the tension of the strings, which wasn’t the case before the turn of the twentieth century; the instrument here appears to be all wood.  The fact that the bandleader feels the need to introduce the bass banjo (and the bemused expressions of his bandmates) indicates that even at the height of the banjo craze the bass member of the family was a rarity at best.  (A number of different banjo groups, some with mixed instrumentation, can be seen here.)

The popularity of the banjo as a parlor instrument dimmed in the US, not to be revived until jazz brought it back in a louder, snappier form.  Overlapping and superseding the banjo fad was the popularity of the mandolin, first sparked by the American tour of the Estudiantina Figaro in 1880, a group of “Spanish students” who may not have played the mandolin at all, but rather the bandurria, a Spanish instrument similar to the mandolin.  Historically, the mandolin had a teardrop-shaped body with a round back, like an egg sliced in half (much like the lute, to which the original mandolin is closely related); the bandurria was more pear-shaped, with a flat back.  Both instruments, however, were strung with double courses and played with a fast tremolo, so the style was immediately recognizable, particularly to Italian-Americans who were among the first to follow the Spanish students’ lead in organizing their own mandolin groups.  (There was already some basis for an ensemble of different sized mandolins in Italy: Norman Del Mar in his Anatomy of the Orchestra mentions an Italian mandolin orchestra arrangement of a Cimarosa overture in his possession, p. 484.  The American mandolin orchestras took off in their own direction, however.)

Orville Gibson undoubtedly had the most influence on the development of the mandolin in America: a violin-maker, he applied the principles of his profession to a new design with a flat back and carved top, lengthening the scale and adding a cutaway to make the high positions more accessible; he also added the ornamental curl and art nouveau curves that are his design’s most distinctive features.  Gibson’s F-4 “Florentine” instrument was both visually striking and projected more loudly than his competition’s, a feature that was actually toned down with gut and wound silk strings.  At the time, the ideal mandolin sound was light and “fairy-like;” in a situation parallel to the banjo’s use in jazz, it wasn’t until the rise of bluegrass that a brassy, projecting sound was considered desirable.  But Gibson’s design could supply it.

Gibson also understood the power of advertising, and sold his instruments’ capacity to bring people together as much as their musical qualities.  Building on the consort principle that had proven successful for band instruments and (to a lesser degree) banjos, he and other makers expanded the mandolin family, adapting the tenor mandola (which had previously existed but wasn’t common) and developing a “mando-cello” and “mando-bass.”  With these four instruments, the mandolin consort could match the bowed string orchestra as its plucked equivalent; with the addition of a guitar or harp, and a few carefully chosen woodwinds, it had the potential to be a real orchestra unto itself.

Quartet of Gibson mandolins. Source: Wikipedia.

Quartet of Gibson mandolins. Source: Wikipedia.

The potential to rival the traditional orchestra, advocated by some**, was undercut by instrument makers’ insistence that learning to play was easy and painless.  A point frequently made in advertisements was the difficulty of playing the bowed (and fretless) orchestral strings: “While the violin pupil is struggling to grasp but one phase of his studies—accurate intonation—the student of the fretted instrument is able to enjoy his instrument in both solo and ensemble playing,” claimed Gibson’s 1921 catalog.

Large groups of mandolins or other plucked strings weren’t limited to the middlebrow approach described here, of course: in the classical realm, Australian composer Percy Grainger wrote for “guitar bands” in his idiosyncratic search for unusual sounds and textures, including a band of forty mandolins and guitars in his accompaniment for the Faeroe Island Dancing Ballad “Father and Daughter***,” along with more traditional instrumentation.  Bandleader James Reese Europe, a key figure in the transition from ragtime to jazz, is reported to have taken numerous mandolins and banjos with him as part of the “Hell Fighters” Band when he led the regimental band of the 369th Infantry in World War I.  The ranks of plucked strings were partly there for volume in those days before electrical amplification made it possible for a single guitarist to comp for an entire band.  Once jazz and swing replaced ragtime and parlor tunes in popularity, gigantic plectral ensembles became strictly the domain of folk festivals; witness the Russian balalaika orchestras that were an official part of Soviet musical culture.

Karl Alex Smyser Banjo Band ca. 1931, from Bluegrass Today.  (Follow the link for audio recordings!) Note the mando-bass on the right.

Karl Alex Smyser Banjo Band ca. 1931, from Bluegrass Today. (Follow the link for audio recordings!) Note the mando-bass on the right.

Ultimately, the mandolin orchestra gave way to jazz and other kinds of popular music after World War I, although a few groups soldiered on (such as the Smyser band shown above), and of course the mandolin itself became an essential voice in the developing bluegrass style.  A few mandolin orchestras stayed active (a list of active groups can be found here) as far afield as Australia, Japan, and Germany, and the last decade has seen a resurgence in large plectral ensembles; the ukulele is the most visible of the currently popular plucked strings, but a quick YouTube search (how I wish it had been that simple back when I first learned about this music!) turns up numerous performances ranging from the traditional “light classic” approach, to jazz, to covers of contemporary pop songs.  Fortunately, both scholarship and popular music have played a role in rescuing this fascinating instrumental genre from obscurity.

* Sadly, this institution is no more; it was truly a magical place.

** For example, William Place, Jr., in his 1917 book The Organization, Direction, and Maintenance of the Mandolin Orchestra, commenting on the practice of bolstering plucked groups with bowed instruments, wrote, “We have a complete string quintet of our own mandolin family, and there is no reason why we should be obliged to ask for outside assistance.”

*** Described and excerpted in Cecil Forsyth, Orchestration, pp. 481-485.

Instruments of Death

“The Torture Garden: It’s where the Devil calls the tune . . . to play a concerto of fear!”

–Trailer for Torture Garden, 1967

danceofdeath

In honor of Halloween, it’s time to look at the spookier side of musical instruments, specifically the roles some have played in mystery and horror fiction.  On the one hand, the organ has the most sinister reputation of any instrument through its association with the Phantom of the Opera and his fictional descendants: there’s just something about the full organ’s portentous sound and the gloomy atmosphere of the Gothic cathedral that goes hand in hand with cobwebs and candlelight, so expect to hear many renditions of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (or at least the opening bars) during October.  The organ, nicknamed “the king of instruments,” also fits nicely with the popular association of criminal masterminds with classical music: we like our villains to have refined taste, whether played by Vincent Price or Anthony Hopkins.  In the same way, the organist seated at his instrument, surrounded by ranks of keyboards, pedals, and organ stops ready at his command, is a neat visual shorthand for a master manipulator, sitting at the center of a web, controlling everything around him.  (In at least one case, the direct-to-video Disney sequel Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, the organ is the villain, conniving to make others to do its will even though it cannot move from its place.)

Lon Chaney, Sr. in the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera

Lon Chaney, Sr. in the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera

Brian De Palma's 1974 update, Phantom of the Paradise

Brian De Palma’s 1974 update, Phantom of the Paradise

The violin, on the other hand, is often associated with the Devil, as in such pieces of music as Danse Macabre, L’Histoire du Soldat, and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”  In folk tales, the Devil enjoys wagers, betting his own gold fiddle against the souls of his opponents.  He may also bestow musical talent in exchange for a soul, a prominent part of the myth surrounding Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata. Later, the great Italian virtuoso Niccolò Paganini was the subject of lurid rumors that he had sold his soul, and worse: Theosophy founder Madame Helena Blavatsky included Paganini in her story “The Ensouled Violin,” and graphically embroidered on the notion that the strings of Paganini’s violin were made from human intestine, and that his uncanny ability to mimic the human voice with his playing actually came from a spirit trapped within the instrument.

A similar story is part of the mythology of the Blues: Robert Johnson was supposed to have met the Devil at a crossroads at midnight, where he traded his soul for his legendary guitar-playing ability.  The legend formed the basis of the Ralph Macchio film Crossroads and was parodied on Metalocalypse (in the episode “Bluesklok”).  Interestingly, Elijah Wald, in his book Escaping the Delta, has shown that the same story was originally attributed to a Tommy Johnson and then transferred to Robert when his legend outpaced Tommy’s.  Naturally, the whole thing has roots in folklore: Wald points out, “When Harry Middleton Hyatt collected stories of musicians going to the crossroads to gain supernatural skills, as part of a vast study of Southern folk beliefs in the late 1930s, he reported as many banjo players and violinists as guitarists,” as well as an accordionist.

Why is there such a connection between fiddling and death?  In the Middle Ages, instrumental music was considered both profane and frivolous, closely associated with itinerant, always-suspect actors and minstrels and the drunken singers in taverns.  In depictions of Death (usually as a skeleton, the same as now), musical instruments were often a symbol of the sinfulness, vanity, and futility of all human activity, not just music.  (The popular image of Nero “fiddling while Rome burned” probably owes much to this symbolism, as the violin had yet to be invented in Nero’s day; likewise, contrast the supposed indolence of grasshoppers with the industry of ants.)   The image of a grinning skeleton “playing” his victims into the grave may have struck the medieval viewer as cruel irony, a just punishment, or as a warning.

The medieval dance of death.

According to one author, the connection between the violin and mortality was more than just poetic: in 2006, Rohan Kriwaczek published An Incomplete History of The Art of Funerary Violin.  According to Kriwaczek, there had once been a Guild of Funerary Violinists, whose work, repertoire, and indeed their very existence had been suppressed by the Vatican during the Great Funerary Purges of the 1830s and ‘40s.  After 1846, the few remaining members of the Guild went underground, and Kriwaczek, eventually entrusted with their legacy, was able to piece together this secret history and bring it to the public. Kriwaczek describes the Funerary Violinist as playing a potent intercessionary role:

In his tone the violinist must first convey the deep grief that is present in the gathering, and then transform it into a thing of beauty.  By the time he is finished, a deep and plaintive calm should have descended, and the bereaved should be ready to hear the eulogy. . . . The violinist’s is a position of great responsibility, akin in many ways to that of a priest or shaman, and should not be taken lightly.

Alas, the book was a hoax, supposedly concocted by Kriwaczek to increase his bookings as a violinist at—you guessed it—funerals.  Still, I can’t help but feel that Kriwaczek’s story, with its dueling Funerary Violinists, buried secrets, and cameos from outsized characters including composers, Popes, and virtuosi, would make a smashing TV program, a historical saga with more than a touch of gothic intrigue.

Sometimes the instrument is cursed: in the short “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by the master of the English ghost story M. R. James, it’s an ancient bronze whistle (proving that another James title, “A Warning to the Curious,” could equally apply to almost all his stories):

He blew tentatively and stopped suddenly, startled and yet pleased at the note he had elicited. It had a quality of infinite distance in it, and, soft as it was, he somehow felt it must be audible for miles round. It was a sound, too, that seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain. He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure–how employed, he could not tell. Perhaps he would have seen more had not the picture been broken by the sudden surge of a gust of wind against his casement, so sudden that it made him look up, just in time to see the white glint of a sea-bird’s wing somewhere outside the dark panes.

Just as frequently it’s a MacGuffin that activates the plot: a Stradivarius is as valuable as a van Gogh, and serves as well as any other objet d’art as the motivation in a murder mystery.  An example is the three-quarter sized Strad, the Piccolino, at the center of Gerald Elias’ mystery Devil’s Trill, the first of a series centered on violinist-sleuth Daniel Jacobus.  And despite its unusual varnish, the titular instrument of the 1998 film The Red Violin is haunted more by tragedy and human foibles than by any supernatural evil.

The weaponized instrument is an infrequent literary device, but there are a few examples: the murder in Dame Ngaio Marsh’s Overture to Death is accomplished by a revolver hidden inside an upright piano, rigged to fire when the pianist plays the third chord of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor, a Rube Goldberg arrangement that sounds about as practical in real life as this:

Likewise, it doesn’t seem that it would be that hard to escape the vengeance meted out by the grand piano in “Mr. Steinway,” a section of the 1967 anthology film Torture Garden, based on stories by Robert Bloch.  In the story, the piano in question belongs to a prominent virtuoso, a gift from his mother, and his devotion to it is tested when a young lady (played by Barbara Ewing) enters his life.  The black wing shape of the piano is a looming presence in the film version, always in the background or casting its shadow over the doomed couple, and the Oedipal implications of the pianist’s relationship with his mother, never seen but personified by the piano, are left as unspoken subtext.  So far, so good, but by the time the piano lurches into motion and pushes the intruding girl out the window, we’ve entered the realm of delirious high camp.  The lesson: music is a jealous mistress.

Finally, as a bonus, I present one of the most bizarre (and gratuitous) examples of this trope, from the 1976 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown: death by trombone.  Happy Halloween!

The Ups and Downs of the “Fashionable Foghorn:” Orphans of the Orchestra, Part Two

In 1925, violinist Ernest LaPrade wrote a charming children’s book entitled Alice in Orchestralia, in which a young girl travels to a magical land of talking musical instruments.  Although obviously modeled on Alice in Wonderland, the book is in the didactic tradition of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, introducing young readers to the standard instruments of the orchestra and their roles.  (In fact, one could easily imagine Alice in Orchestralia being turned into a narrative concert piece like Peter, with the only drawback being that the book features even less plot than the similar Tubby the Tuba.)

At one point, Alice encounters a lonely outsider camping at a fork in the road between the villages of the woodwinds and brasses:

“Why do [the brass] turn you out?” she asked.

“They claim I’m a wood-wind instrument, because I’ve got a reed like a clarinet, and they say I ought to go and live in Panopolis.”

“Then why don’t you?”

“Oh, I’ve tried to, time and again, but it’s no use.  The wood-wind instruments say I belong in Brassydale, because my body is made of brass.  So at last I got this tent and pitched it here, halfway between the two villages.  It’s damp and rather lonely, but at least they can’t turn me out of it.”

After a little more discussion, the loner reveals that his name is Saxophone.

Alice in Orchestralia, illustration by Carroll C. Snell

Alice in Orchestralia, illustration by Carroll C. Snell

Nowadays, there is little dispute that the saxophone is a genuine woodwind instrument (using historian Curt Sachs’ terminology, a “single reed aerophone,” like the clarinet), the method of sound production being more important than the material from which the body is made.  In fact, if the saxophone’s metal construction were truly disqualifying, one would also have to evict the metal clarinets and oboes that have been experimented with over the years, not to mention the flute.

There is also no question that the saxophone (or rather saxophones, in several sizes) has earned its place as a recognizable and easily available instrument, at least the sizes in common use.  Unlike the ophicleide it is hardly obscure, and unlike the harpsichord it has never really gone away since its invention.

Still, the saxophone’s dual nature has been problematic since Adolphe Sax patented it in Paris in 1846.  Most texts point out that Sax combined the clarinet’s single reed with the oboe’s conical bore, resulting in an easy-to-blow woodwind with a simplified fingering (the clarinet’s cylindrical bore causes it to overblow at the twelfth rather than the octave, resulting in a more complicated fingering pattern); historian Anthony Baines, however, speculates that Sax may have hit upon this combination by attaching a bass clarinet mouthpiece to an ophicleide—both instruments were specialties of his shop—creating a true woodwind-brass hybrid.  Likewise, its brass construction and wide bell give it a powerful tone that blends equally well with brass or woodwinds, so it’s not unreasonable to consider it a bridge between the two groups.

The saxophone was initially developed with the military band in mind, and it was quickly adopted by the French authorities for that use.  However, the qualities that made it perfect for bands—its volume, its distinctive timbre—have made it only an occasional visitor to the orchestra as a special color, despite Hector Berlioz’s enthusiastic prediction that it—or rather, an entire section of them—would become a regular part of the orchestra of the future.  (It’s often forgotten, in fact, that Sax’s original design included two families: a group in the “band” keys of B-flat and E-flat, and a group in C and F for orchestral use.  Of the second group, the C “melody” saxophone, a tenor that allowed sax players to read from scores in concert pitch, survived the longest but was out of production by the middle of the twentieth century.)

One could easily be led to believe that the saxophone’s adoption by jazz bands in the early twentieth century led to its increased popularity, but the opposite appears to be true, at least in the earliest days of jazz.  Concurrent with the rise of jazz was a fad for saxophones (and other “novelty” wind instruments) on the Vaudeville stage, led by such groups as the Six Brown Brothers (who were active from about World War I until 1933). The saxophone became (along with the banjo) a symbol of student life, as necessary to depictions of 1920s college students as the raccoon-skin coat and football pennant, and a musical shorthand equivalent to the bongos in the beatnik ‘50s or sitar in the psychedelic ‘60s.

Bringing Up Father, 1936

Bringing Up Father, 1936

Manufacturers responded to the instrument’s popularity with a number of short-lived saxophone variants, some (like the slide saxophone) little more than novelties and others simply straightened out standard saxes.  Of greater interest is the “Conn-O-Sax,” a straight F alto with a resonating bulb on the bell, and clearly positioned as a single-reed alternative to the English horn.  The Conn-O-Sax was only made in 1929 and 1930, and examples are now very rare and highly collectible, but it has been adopted by some jazz players and shows like Saxophobia, which specializes in demonstrating a wide variety of old and new saxes.  It is a unique instrument, and it seems that there would be a market for a modern reproduction, or perhaps even a revival by the Conn company.

Conn-o-sax2022M

When the saxophone was heard in jazz of the 1920s, it was most frequently a soprano replacing clarinet or cornet, or bass, replacing the tuba or string bass.  There just wasn’t room for the alto or tenor to play in the improvisatory New Orleans style without stepping on either the cornet or trombone line.  (It is for this reason that the tenor saxophone included in much post-World War II “Dixieland” sounds especially inauthentic.) It wasn’t until jazz migrated to Chicago and New York that a fad for oddball instrumental combinations, at least on record (including such eccentricities as the “goofus,” a kind of melodica*, and even “swing harp”—orchestral harp, that is, not harmonica), made room for the saxophone as a lead instrument.

Exceptions include the larger bands fielded by King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson and the “symphonic jazz” of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, but in those groups arrangements became more necessary to corral the larger numbers of players.  The differentiation between soloist and accompaniment is clearer, foreshadowing the swing style of the 1930s.  The saxophone’s presence thus became a dividing line between “hot” and “sweet” players, and between New Orleans purists and fans of the coming swing era: some of the harshest criticisms come from jazz historian Rudi Blesh, who as late as 1946 bemoans the replacement of the trombone with the saxophone in the Chicago style in his New Orleans-centric history Shining Trumpets: “For even an inferior trombone breathes new life into the music which the fashionable foghorn, the saxophone, had murdered.”

The saxophone fad eventually gave way, as all fads must, but not before the association between the saxophone and jazz had become permanent.  Even before its versatility and technical fluency made it a natural vehicle for such giants as Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, the saxophone became an internationally recognized symbol, embraced by energetic youth and reviled by totalitarian governments.  It’s no wonder: the saxophone may have started out with the body of an ophicleide or bass clarinet, but its shape is unique: in profile it makes a perfect logo.  As Czech novelist Josef Škvorecký writes in his essay Red Music, both the Nazis and the Soviets sought to root out the saxophone (replacing it with the cello in most cases), but for opposite reasons: to the Nazis the saxophone’s association with an African-American musical form made it musically suspect (even before that, Germany had been one of the few nations to exclude the sax from its military bands); to the Soviets the hybrid nature of the instrument was somehow “bourgeois,” not of the people.  Ultimately the saxophone has outlasted both of them.

* A favorite solo instrument of Adrian Rollini, who was also known as the “Wizard of the Bass Sax.” Rollini was truly a renaissance man of offbeat instruments.