Sunday, May 25, 2014

Let's Talk about (Recorder) Love, part 2

Nested within the week leading up to the performance of Noye’s Fludde, unforeseen by fortune cookie or horoscope or Nostradamus, was a massively random second recorder event also involving a ship.

First of all, really, I don’t do that much recorder playing. And secondly, I never ever play recorder about ships. So when it happens twice in the space of seven days, you’d better believe I’m either the Most Interesting Man in the World, or I’m God, resting.

Anyway, the second event—which, temporally, was the first event (nesting! nesting!)—was this: I performed on the soprano recorder, epically, the epic 8-bar pennywhistle solo from the epic Celine Dion song My Heart Must Go On from the soundtrack of the epic movie Titanic. This was done in an epic concert by an epic middle school choir conducted by my epic wife.

But what really made it all seem like an epic voyage to the epicenter of the earth is that I was in the middle of a book written by a music critic, Carl Wilson, about his efforts to come to terms with Celine Dion; or more accurately, to come to terms with the fact that, while he can’t stand her music, millions of people around the world adore it. So, I was getting to play the epic music at the same time as I was reading about an epic effort to not hate it that, along the way, said some things that led me to ponder why Titanic is so epic and (nesting! nesting!) Noye’s Fludde is so not.

Odysseus, do you hear sirens? What? They’re singing Nearer My God to Thee? My God! (resting! resting!)

Given all this epicness—which I’d love to spice up if only I had an ├ępicerie—I must first admit that using the soprano recorder for the pennywhistle was a massively uncool thing to do. Also, “massively” is the adverb of choice for qualifying descriptors connected with such epicity.

But, about the uncoolness. Carl Wilson believes in cool, or, rather in the power of cool. In his book Let’s Talk about Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, Wilson has this to say: “In early 21st century terms, for most people under fifty, distinction boils down to cool.[Wilson’s italics] Cool confers status—symbolic power. It incorporates both cultural capital and social capital, and it’s a clear potential route to economic capital. Corporations and culture-makers pursue it as much as individuals do. … As much as we avow otherwise, few of us are truly indifferent to cool, not a little anxious about whether we have enough, and Bourdieu’s theory may illustrate why that’s not merely shallow: being uncool has material consequences. Sexual opportunity, career advancement and respect, even elementary security can ride on it. To ignore cool may mean risking downward mobility at a time when many people are falling out of the middle class.”

Bourdieu is Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist whose ideas of the derivation and dependence of taste upon social position are what’s left after Wilson boils down a brew of argumentation about aesthetics that also includes Kant and Hume as ingredients until they get vaporized. Gotta boil down to something.

If it seems like I’m boiling this down to dismissiveness (in massively epic fashion), it’s a shame, because I really did enjoy the book. I read it twice, and I re-read books as much as I play recorder about ships. I will give it four stars on Goodreads. Wilson’s dogged pursuit of “an experiment in taste, in stepping deliberately outside one’s own aesthetics” in order to answer the question “What is the real substance of the dislike I … have for Celine Dion” is indeed exemplary. The world could use more such exercises in empathy.

But, “distinction boils down to cool”? I can only register that with a wince.

Regardless of what people think about Dion, when it comes to “her” music, she is just the voice. She does not write the lyrics or the music. She doesn’t do the arrangements. So—making distinctions here, which I know is probably a different sense of “distinction” than the one Wilson uses, but it is the original, essential one—there are many aspects of a song like My Heart Will Go On that people may or may not like, and when it comes to the first 8-bar instrumental introduction, which sets the tone for the rest of the song, to use a recorder instead of a pennywhistle is massively uncool.

If you think like Wilson, you might assume I mean that the soprano recorder—due no doubt to its association with classrooms full of children using it to butcher Hot Cross Buns with such fervidness that John Wayne Gacy starts to look like Francis of Assisi—possesses some kind of downward mobility unpossessed by the pennywhistle, and that, as a result of using it, I’m going to fall out of the middle class. Outraged purists of epic pennywhistle solos, players of Cards Against Humanity, blue-faced Wallaceites, Celtomanes, fans of the Pogues and the Dropkick Murphys: all will rise up and prevent me from pursuing a career as a performer at epic middle school choir concerts, and I will be left to play for pennies on interstate off-ramps.

[A class of recorders in a gym. My ears bleed at the very idea.]

While I’m prepared to face that (more in a bit), that isn’t what I meant. I meant it is musically uncool because, well, it boils down to fingering.

It's not easy to explain if you're not familiar with how woodwind instruments work, but it's sort of like the difference between a fitted wrench and an adjustable one: the fitted wrench only works on one size of nut, but it works perfectly on that nut. The adjustable wrench, on the other hand, can be made to work on all sizes of nuts, but imperfectly so (slipping, etc.).

In musical terms, while both instruments are basically just whistles on a tube perforated with holes, an F pennywhistle matches the song key with a simple fingering pattern well suited to accomplish the slides and finger vibrato that a truly distinctive (meaning excellent) rendering of the music demands. The soprano recorder, on the other hand, can play the notes, but has to use harder, more awkward finger patterns and combinations to do so. These so-called "forked" fingerings can't provide as many of the characteristic stylings, so it doesn't sound quite the same.

It meant I'd basically be faking it. And fake it I did. Epically, of course.

But what you must know—and here’s the “more in a bit,” all you Cropdick Celtomanes—I tried to buy an F pennywhistle the weekend before the concert, but the local music store only had the usual selection of D’s, which works for 95% of Celtic music, so why stock an F? For all those people who make a living playing the first 8 bars of My Heart Will Go On with middle school choirs?

So, now you know: if I fall out of the middle class as a result of faking an epic pennywhistle solo on the soprano recorder, I fall advisedly.

It all boils down to massive ├ępiceries.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Let's Talk about (Recorder) Love, part 1

I peaked last Sunday morning, 18 May, 2014. My whole life, in one respect, led up to that day’s hour between 11 a.m. and noon.

It wasn’t peaking at the same level that getting married is, or having children is, or having children get married is. Those are the Himalayas of life geography, to me anyway.

No, this was a lesser peak, but still a significant one. Let’s just call it my Ararat, for an obvious reason: Last Sunday I peaked as a recorder player by performing the solo treble (alto) part in my church’s production of Benjamin Britten’s opera Noye’s Fludde.

Britten composed his setting of the Noah story designedly to accommodate the varied abilities of amateur and professional musicians. Thus, the treble recorder part calls for a solo player and ripieno players. Ripieno recorders? I knew the term from its association with violin family members in the Baroque concerto grosso, which alternates between sections of the whole orchestra playing together—the ripieno passages—and sections when just the soloists play. As one who’s been in a roomful of people learning to play recorder at the same time, I had to question the wisdom of this particular aspect of Britten’s orchestration.

Happily for the musical quality of the production (I like to think), there were no ripieno treble recorders. It was just myself along with two descant (soprano) recorders, both played tastefully and in tune by my wife and one of my daughters. Three is a good number of recorders. More than that, and the warbling starts to move along the timbrometer in the direction of shrieking.

Three is an even better number of recorders if it’s two parents and an offspring. It was the second time for me—so that I now realize with no small bemusement that maybe the peaking was indeed of an Himalayan scale.

I’ve been a recorder player since I was a child. My parents played recorder. My mother taught me to play; my father set a rigorous performance standard. Occasionally we performed as a trio—The Barry Consort—in churches or at the occasional downtown arts festival in Chattanooga.

I still have the books we played from. Most of the music consists of keyboard or string pieces transcribed—in a peculiar mid-20th century variation of Tin Pan Alley—by arrangers who seem to have lived off the ravenous hunger for something, anything for recorder demanded by participants in the great recorder revival (the recorder having gone extinct in the 19th century).

The picture above show the cover of an exceptional case: a recorder trio actually composed for recorders in the early 1700's. My mother's handwriting shows that its 5 movements--minus the Overture, which her handwriting says to "skip"--took 10 minutes to perform. (Notice the stamps: House of Music on 732 Cherry St., Chattanooga--back then music stores had music, meaning sheet music; and my father's handmade recorder name stamp.)

At less than 2 minutes per, our selections were generally very short—often, in the case of the up-tempo ones, less than a minute. These tunes were originally written to be danced to, and as such, originally, would have been repeated 3 or 4 times, then followed by other tunes, similarly repeated, to form a long enough set to make the dancers require a break to refresh themselves with perry, flip, or shrub.

Here's the first page from a two-page piece from the Faber book shown above. I just timed a "performance" of the whole thing in my head, with repeats as marked. It took 44 seconds.

These pieces The Barry Consort played one time through. There was no dancing to recorder music at downtown arts festivals in Chattanooga. This meant my father did a lot of talking to pad the program, which was fine, really, because nobody knew what continent recorders came from or what they ate or why anybody would want to consort with them. With that level of not knowing, everyone seemed okay with letting my father be the ranger in a musical Jurassic Park.

Among the first things you learn about these creatures is that there are two sets of fingerings, which go by the names of the pitches that sound when you cover all the holes: C and F. At first I played the C-fingered instruments, the soprano and tenor. In the trios played by The Barry Consort the soprano generally had the prominent part—the “lead” or the “melody” or whatever label best says “here be flash.” Naturally that was the part I wanted to play, but I would’ve had to assassinate my father to have it, so I settled for the backup quarterback role: I could scrimmage by myself with the soprano part, but in performance I played tenor. Functioning musically as the bass voice of the ensemble, it was the largest of the three instruments, and it was being played by the smallest person in the trio. Thus, quite early on, I became aware of the many ways that size does and does not matter.

In The Barry Consort my mother played the F-fingered alto recorder, which, sounding the inner voice, is analogous to the viola in a string ensemble. I think it was the Bohemian composer Dvorak who said the viola is the most important instrument in the orchestra. The viola is also the butt of most instrument jokes. It must’ve been these I was channeling in my musically preconscious recorder trio days: alto equals viola does not equal flash.

Except, as I was soon to learn, alto does not necessarily equal viola. In Baroque music, it turns out, alto equals rock star. When J. S. Bach writes a part for “flauto,” he doesn’t mean flute like we think of flute. He’s using the term as shorthand for “flauto dolce,” which was Baroque music’s term for the alto recorder, one of its pre-eminent solo voices. I hadn’t ever been a real lover of Baroque music until I went to college and began playing Bach on the oboe. I was hooked. So badly did I want to learn F fingering and play Bach’s Brandenburg flauto parts that I dreamed myself into it: I had a dream that mapped out the alto’s F-fingering for me. I’d gone to bed unable to read alto recorder music; when I woke up the ability was there.

I learned those Brandenburg parts; I learned a whole book of alto recorder parts from the Bach cantatas; I never performed them, but I scrimmaged them. I coulda been a contenda.

(The music above is one of my favorites: the recorder part to the aria Bestelle dein Haus from Cantata 106, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit.)

I did go on to work out a folk-rock improvisational style on the recorder that my friend Lawson Garrett let me use in some of his songs.

But at the age of 60, while I didn’t think about it much, I would’ve told anyone that my recorder glory days had happened back when I was playing tenor with The Barry Consort in a big tent out in front of the Tivoli Theatre in Chattanooga and questioning the appeal of 50-second one-off tunes.

When the church music director asked me a couple of months ago if I knew any recorder players who’d help with a performance of Noye’s Fludde, I told him I’d try to find some (I know a few musicians). I wasn’t eager to play—I had the idea that Britten’s use of recorders would be infantile, along the lines of Carl Orff. Nothing against Carl Orff at all. I just didn’t want to tootle rudiments. While I was procrastinating on finding any other recorder players, the music director got the music to me.

Holy spit.

This wasn’t Orff. This was a real alto recorder part. It ran the gamut from the lowest notes to the highest ones. It had difficult keys. It had some demanding passage-work. It had … flutter tonguing. Flutter tonguing! That’s when you roll your r’s while blowing. I could do it, but I’d never ever performed a flutter tongue. More than a part, the alto recorder had a role: as the voice of the dove in the Noah story, it’s the recorder that delivers the musical news of dry land to the passengers of the ark.

Even so, I can’t say I jumped at the opportunity. Could a church choir pull this off? There would be one rehearsal of the entire production. Just one?  Just one rehearsal for a Britten opera? Those are long odds. Even if the story has the ark making it through the flood unscathed, there was no guarantee that we would. I practiced my part and hoped for the best.

As it happened, the choir’s core soloists—vocal majors at ETSU, along with a couple of others in their cohort—carried the main parts with aplomb, and, with them leading the way, Britten’s crafted involvement of choir, children,  instruments, and a hymn-singing congregation worked its magic.

While somewhere in the orchestra, helping the ark to Ararat, a recorder player wound up high and dry on a peak of his own.