Tuesday, July 31, 2012

American Recording Society

The American Recording Society made a bunch of recordings of American music about sixty, sixty-five years ago. This one is two pieces done by their house orchestra under the baton of one Walter Hendl. The world has changed. The recordings have not. Context is the only thing: we see and hear them with new eyes and ears, and they are changed.

Jerome Moross's ballet setting of the traditional blues potboiler "Frankie and Johnny", heard here, is a masterpiece, orchestration that goes nine directions at once and never lets up, the song stretched and exploded, vocals eerily harmonized. The 1951 recording adds drama, murky with the peanut-butter-smeared reel-tape technology that was the sound of recorded music in those dark days. (My wife, listening from the next room, was convinced it was a modern recording, so consciously alien it sounds.)

Frankie and Johnny were lovers
Oh Lord and how they could love
Swore they'd be true to each other
True as the stars up above

He was her man, but he done her wrong
So wrong

Frankie went down to the corner saloon
To buy her a large glass of beer
She said to the big bad bartender
Has my lovinest man been here?

Style flows up the class gradient. There's your vernacular, vulgar, all manner of "V" style, for the low-class sort who just primitively express, who inhabit the roadhouses and the blues and the jazz and steamy, steamy, exotic sex. The body. "Hollering". The savages are then fetishized, when someone white but Jewish, a Gershwin or a Moross from somewhere like Brooklyn where poor was poor and people were people, rescues it from the vernacular, makes people sing it all opera-y, and gets it in the concert hall where the decent people can go and safely feel the excitement with their high brows, and think about how it must feel to be honest and poor and noble.

I ain't gonna tell you no fable
I ain't gonna tell you no lie
Your lovinest man just left this place
And with him went Nellie Bly

Frankie went back to the crib
This time it wasn't for fun
Cause under her old red kimono
She toted a forty-four gun

Ok. One, "crib". Cool, daddy-o. Two, kimono. Who knew bar-going common folk wore kimonos back then? Three, .44. That's a serious gun.

So then there's the part where Frankie catches her "lovinest man" in the "parlor house" with Nellie Bly, and it's curtains for Johnny. And then this verse, which is just the awesomest thing:

Get out your rubber-tired carriages
Get out your rubber-tired hacks
Cause they're gonna bury her Johnny
And they ain't gonna never bring him back

Just reading the words, it's easy to forget it's a ballet. The narration is sung by a trio of Salvation Army ladies - awesome - and at the end, Frankie and Nellie get drunk together and cry on each others' shoulders at Johnny's funeral. Awesomer.

Music of another Brooklyn Jew (and a gay one to boot!), Aaron Copland, is heard on the other side, an early work called Music for the Theater. I dig his early stuff a lot: he's got this way he turns a motive into a hooky melody, and a penchant for dramatic open fifths. The common narrative of Copland's career arc has him being fucked-up/awesome/brilliant in the 20s, poppy/sellout in the middle (Appalachian Spring, Rodeo), and then maybe crazy again at the end but no one cares. Less generous: his late embrace of serialism was pander to academia as his 1940s populism was pander to the people. This piece, written in the jazz/avant-garde period (1925) and recorded twenty-six years later at the height of his popular interest, rules. It pairs well with the Moross, too.

At the heart of this record and the series it comes from is the idea of America, always a work in progress and at its best a conversation that admits many voices. The American Recording Society, the orchestra that bore its name, and the records it released all sprang from the Ditson Fund, whose purpose was to "provide support for composers, performers, and performances of new American music".

America has two faces: freedom and oppression, opportunity and enslavement, protector and genocide. Appropriation and incorporation. Eclipse and synthesis. Lover and rapist. Even as it fought for liberation it institutionalized the colonial worldview. Its colonial, hierarchical mentality was and is experienced physically by millions of bodies. This is a present and future experience. Its expression is constant: unequal opportunity, defining people as "illegal", belief as antithetical, sexuality as commercial, DNA as determinative, on and on. These problems are larger than America, true - but the American engagement with them is unique. White liberals, urban renewal, "cheese product", charter schools, "entitlement".

Nineteen fifty-one. Eighty-six years after the end of the Civil War, sixty-one years before the now I'm sitting in. Copland was called the "Dean of American Composers". A clunky title, but it stuck because he embodied it. As Dean, he played the academic, always seeking a high-minded theoretical grounding for even his most populist choices. As American, he synthesized: jazz and classical, low and high, pop and art. The vision he expressed was the positive spin of the American Janus. He incorporated more than he appropriated, offering a concert music that evokes the freedom, boldness, and synthesis of America, attempting to continue a conversation rather than stamp an approval. Jazz and joy inhabit the concert hall and join hands with the European complexity he got from hanging with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. It's music you listen to but you understand it with your body.

Art and music always leads the conversation. It compels you to show not tell. Whatever's in the seedy undermind, that will come out through music first, before it finds expression in politics and social movement.

So what's the point? Jerome Moross says:

This story ain't got no moral
This story ain't got no end
For this story just goes to show you
That you can't put no trust in any man

We see. We hear. We cannot know.

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