Thursday, March 15, 2018

At the Barbershop: Snack Time

Continuing on with my Barbershopping, today's offering is on the more absurd end of the spectrum. I've been thinking often recently about the idea of "playing" music and its not-so-distant cousin "playing with music." (I wrote about this briefly about thirteen paragraphs into this post.) The classical mode of engaging classical music is to do so either by performing, listening, or analyzing. However, my years of experiments in mash-ups and other types of arrangements have taught me that "playing with" existing music - bending it, contorting it, whatever - can be one of the most satisfying ways to get inside a composer's creation.

I know that such distortion is often treated as a sort of sacrilege, although humorists like Victor Borge and Peter Schickele get away with it in the name of fun. Many years ago, I quoted then New York Times critic Alan Kozinn (who has pretty wide and progressive tastes) saying, "I would probably cringe to hear a young pianist play Scarlatti the way Horowitz did, but Horowitz’s eccentric twisting and rebalancing of Scarlatti’s ecosystem sounds just right when he’s the one doing it." Clearly, he's reacting positively to ways in which Horowitz is "playing with" Scarlatti's conceptions, but he's also been taught to think that's a bad thing, so: "Don't do that, young people!" I'm not going to go into all the ways in which this kind of "don't mess with the classics" mindset plays out, but I will say that doing a half-serious, half-baked orchestration of the fugue from Barber's Piano Sonata taught me a lot about that piece and about Barber's abilities and methods.

And now I'm back with something much sillier and perhaps closer to real sacrilege, but I still had fun making it and it has increased my appreciation for Barber's gifts.

Let's back up a bit. As I mentioned last post, my friends Tim, Peter, and I will sometimes have extended Facebook comment threads that go on for hundreds and hundreds of words. Sometimes about music, sometimes about baseball and other sports, sometimes...well, that's really most of it. Tim was off on one of his violin-concerto-based Barber-bashing rants (Bernstein did not fare well either), and I was defending my fellow Americans zealously. Then middleman Peter says [italics added for clarity]:
As much as I do NOT [appreciate] SB’s talents, I happen to think that the Fiddlecerto is his masterpiece, if not Knoxville, Summer 1945 (is that the right year?)
I wrote back:
 I also agree with Peter that Knoxville, Summer of...ahem...1915 is a winner. 
A few comments later, Tim confessed:
my scorn for anything Barber is well known but then I remember I love that Knoxville Spring 1905 piece
You can see where this is going - though you wouldn't guess what's coming - as Peter summed up:
I actually can’t both believe and NOT believe at the same time that we both love Rockville, fall of 1549..
And finally, I concluded:
I'm just glad to see [Tim] acknowledge the beauty of Barber's sublime "Burger King: about fifteen minutes ago."
Don't you wish you were in on these conversations? And, incidentally, it took a bit of sleuthing to go back and find that thread from late January, so in a way today's post is about preserving it for all time - or at least until winter dawns on the planet Knoxatron in 2215.

If you don't know the glorious work in question, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a 15-minute setting for soprano and orchestra of prose by James Agee. Among other things, "Knoxville" is one of the best examples I know of turning prose into lyrics.

So I love "Knoxville" - but I also love having fun, and I simply couldn't resist having a go at just the opening of my imagined Burger King homage. For reference, here is the beginning of the text set by Barber (which may be heard at the 0:31 mark here):
It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds hung havens, hangars.
And here, my house soprano and orchestra:

I know it's ridiculous, but I it's worth noting that Agee's text is also a celebration of the simple things - he just didn't know about burger kings.

Tomorrow, we'll conclude this little three-part exhibition of Barbershopping, which I think will put Barber right up there amongst the composers whose works I've tortured the most. Stravinsky is still the leader by far in this regard with Bach alone in 2nd place, but I'm as surprised as anyone to see Barber not so far behind Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Ives and Satie. (Satie was unexpected as well.) And, to get back to my opening point, desecrating this much-loved work has reminded me how much I love a lot of Barber. Even something as simple as entering the orchestration for that opening into Finale made me appreciate little details I hadn't thought about before. Your mileage may vary.

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