Saturday, August 4, 2007

For we are consumed - by Mennen!

We can easily transition from the topic of identity translation back to another personal fave: tune theft. As it happens, a couple of tune thefts have been on my mind, and I've been trying to remember not to forget them before getting around to blogging about them. Here we go. As a reminder, by "tune theft" I don't really mean acts of conscious compositional borrowing or thievery, but rather instances of melodies which, probably by coincidence, share something distinctive enough with another to make me hear them as close cousins. It's a fun way to explore how melodic DNA works.

In a way, this is the reverse of the normal translation process in which the translator intentionally recreates an identity in a new medium. Here we find a creative situation in which an unexpected identity sneaks in via certain distinctive characteristics. Recently, the Sports Guy has noted that in the current ESPN miniseries The Bronx is Burning, the actor playing Reggie Jackson looks disturbingly like C. Thomas Howell playing a white guy pretending to be black in the awful but remarkably watchable 80's flick, Soul Man. (SG's right!) That's a completely accidental connection, but it's the kind of thing minds like mine can't help being distracted by. It's not so surprising since the whole idea of intelligence is arguably based on the ability to make analogical connections.

Just as the Sports Guy can't get past the Soul Man problem while watching the miniseries, I have an unusual problem with Charles Ives' famous setting of Psalm 90. I think this is generally a terrific piece, and the story goes that the composer declared it to be one of the few works that completely satisfied him; I mentioned it here as an example of a work that doesn't fall into the trap of depicting awfulness in a way that's too artful. Still, while I find the bewitching final portion (beginning with "O satisfy us early with thy mercy...") utterly satisfying because it so peaceful (almost Lauridsenian), and while I know that the peaceful effect is significantly created by contrast with some of the unsettling musical effects in the first half, I don't feel that all of those unsettling effects work for me on their own terms - they're more awful than artful, although artfulness can create its own problems. (That problem of finding genuine, not-too-artful artistic expression for something awful is a question for another day - although it's a BIG question.)

Anyway, there are several sections in Psalm 90 that build to big, messy choral tone clusters on texts such as "Thou turnest man to destruction" and "For we are consumed by thine anger." I know what he's getting at here, and I understand that there's an essential honesty involved in making these thoughts sound ugly (as opposed to the exquisite craftsmanship we can't miss in a Dies irae setting by Mozart or Verdi, although Ives' music still falls far short of what it would be to experience true destruction/consuming anger). Still, the music just sounds clumsy and too artless for me, but that may be because of a tune theft problem.

I've been rehearsal accompanist for a couple of performances of Psalm 90, and a passage like "Thou turnest man to destruction" gets rehearsed a lot because the clusters are so difficult. So, I've heard that and its analogous passages many times - unfortunately and unfairly, I inevitably hear something else as well. The Ives sounds like this. If you're a fan of this piece, you might not want to read further, but that characteristically quick octave leap followed by a sudden cutoff sounds a lot like this. Now maybe if you're young enough, you're also lucky enough not to have had the "By Mennen" jingle implanted in your brain. For those of us who sat through thousands of commercials like this one though, we understand why it is that George Costanza thought of himself as its dating equivalent:

George: . . . and I got a date with the sales woman. She's got a little Marisa Tomei thing going on.
Jerry: Ah, too bad you got a little George Costanza thing going on.
George: I'm going out with her tomorrow, she said she had some errands to run.
Jerry: That's a date?
George: What's the difference? You know the way I work, I'm like a commercial jingle. First it's a little irritating, then you hear it a few times, you hum it in the shower, by the third date it's "By Mennen!".

So there it is. Not only do I find Ives' "consuming anger" music a bit contrIVESd, but I can't help but hear in it one of the most powerful and insidious jingles of all time. I have my other complaints with Ives' setting, but you really can't blame him for this one and, all in all, I highly recommend this music. Among other things, the 10+ minute work is one of the most striking examples of pedal tone usage as a low organ C sounds all the way through, symbolizing God's enduring faithfulness; faithful readers of this blog know that I'm putty in the hands of a good pedal point. (A good recording of the Ives is available for (not free) download here and here.)

Wow: I've already covered the Sports Guy, Reggie Jackson, Soul Man, Charles Ives, Psalm 90, George Costanza, and Speed Stick deodorant without even getting to my second tune theft example for the day, so let's get right to that. Francis Poulenc had the kind of gift for melody that Mozart had - great tunes just pop up all over the place, and the delightful Concerto for Two Pianos is a terrific place to find an abundance of Poulencian melodies. Some sound like they come from the circus, other from the local tavern. This one, from the third movement, sounds like - well, take a listen first. So, maybe it's just me, but from the first I've always heard this. However, it's not nearly as distracting a problem as the Ives/Psalm/Mennen thing. The funny thing is, I've never even seen Oliver! ( I do like that exclamation point though; maybe I should change my name to Michael!; then, if I go see Oliver! and like it, I could write, "Michael! loves Oliver!!")

Eventually, I'll get these posted over in my Tune Theft Archive, although the tune connections are easy enough to hear without musical examples. Last time I did this, Patty from Oboe Insight pointed me to an Andrew Lloyd Webber spoof that mentions a major Tune Theft I'd never picked up on. It's particularly stunning because we find one of the most serene and gorgeous melodies of all time, the slow movement theme from Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, turned into one of the worst songs of all time. And I won't debate the latter assertion; that's just one bad piece of musical theater. As amazing as it is that these tunes could have so much in common, it's worth noting that Lloyd Webber's disaster really goes downhill in the clumsy phrases that follow the borrowed part; Mendelssohn's version, on the other hand, soars to even greater heights. Ah, the infinite variety of music.* (*NOTE: Infinite Variety doesn't guarantee that all varieties will be of equal value.)

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