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Bold as Brass:
Some songs featuring, or with critically good bits for, the Horn Section
[Cross-post from Spotify Classical Playlists blog]


[The post below is a repost/cross-post of a guest post I was invited to write for the unofficial Spotify Classical Playlists blog. The playlist in question is decidedly not classical, so it was a pleasant surprise to be asked over to that particular venue. For those interested, the US version of the Spotify streaming music service can be accessed here.]


Much of the fun of creating Spotify playlists lies in the innumerable ways in which lists can be themed. Some Spotificists choose the straightforward “jam” mix: songs they like, songs they happen to be listening to Right Now, songs for partying, songs for canoodling, and on and on. Others opt for the archival approach, collecting complete sets of things or definitive surveys [“Jos. von Rottweiler - The Complete Bassoon Pavanes, 1610-1623”]. My preferred method is thematic free association.

Bold as Brass: Some songs featuring, or with critically good bits for, the Horn Section [40 tracks, 2 hours]

This list is essentially what its title says it is: a group of songs linked only by the fact that there are horn parts in [most of] them. All the songs are songs that I happen to like, usually because of the way the horn part works.

Two recent releases were catalysts (cata-lists?) for this selection, each bringing a marching-band sensibility to bear on non-obvious material. Both of them appear in the collection: the Hackney Colliery Band, represented by its take on Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.” The other inspiration is Asphalt Orchestra, the avant-marching band project under the umbrella of NYC’s Bang on a Can, whose take on Frank Zappa’s “Zomby Woof” (it appears here as "Zomby Wolf") is a hoot and delight.

Thinking about marching-band influenced tracks rapidly expanded to include horn/brass parts generally, leading to the list as it is now.

Beyond the presence of horn parts, other rules are in play, of course. Most of them have been broken as often as they are followed. For example, I have tried to avoid obvious choices in favor of the less well known. There is nothing here from the Rolling Stones (though I have included a song from a Keith Richards solo outing) and none of the many possible choices from the Beatles. That the Beatles are not on Spotify only simplified a choice I would have made anyway. I have tried to avoid the well-known generally, so I feel a bit guilty over the inclusion of “Tusk” and The Who – but I’m too fond of the songs to omit them.

Theoretically, I adopted a one-song-only-per-artist rule, but that has been broken, too. The ostensible Elvis Costello number, “Stalin Malone,” has lyrics and presumably was recorded with vocals, but the album version is strictly an instrumental performed by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The Dirty Dozen reappears in its own name with “Feet Don’t Fail Me now.” EC himself reappears, singing this time, in a selection from his collaboration with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint. (New Orleans is fully represented, by the Dozen and Toussaint and by the unexpected “second line” that burst out in Elvis Perkins’ “Give My Fond Regards to Lonelyville.”) In another violation of the one-song rule, I’ve started things off with Eric Mathews, under his own name, with his wonderful “Fanfare,” and he reappears as the horn-playing half of Seinking Ships on “One Day Forever.”

While the hors are prominent and obvious in many of these selections, they sometimes take their sweet time joining the party. Midnight Oil’s “Power and the Passion” doesn’t set the brass loose until it’s final minute, but that minute makes the song. “Christi,” by semi-obscure Chicago psych-folk group The Singleman Affair, has a wonderfully woozy horn part in this live version, but nowhere else: the studio version released earlier this year is good, but missing the little bit of wacky joy that the trumpet brought to it live.

Perhaps the biggest breach of the rules is in the title of the Playlist itself. The song “Bold as Brass” comes from a very early (1977) Split Enz album, when it was still Phil Judd and Tim Finn’s band, before Neil Finn came on board. It is a song I have liked since its original release . . . and despite its title, has no brass part. But this is my playlist, by gumbo, so I can say with Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself!”

I hope that this music brings you the pleasures it brings me. If so, trumpet it to all and sundry.


Photo: Union Brass Band of Ferry Village, the first civilian band in Cape Elizabeth, Cumberland County, Maine, 1873; via Wikimedia Commons.


Bearing Valse Witness



Some thirty years later than I meant to do, I have recently been reading Carl E. Schorske's Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture, which surveys its titular era in a series of interlocking essays considering the figures centered in Vienna who in a range of disciplines—drama, politics, architecture, painting, music, psychology—essentially created what we thought of as "the Modern" through most of the twentieth century. As an entry in to his subject, in the opening paragraphs of the very first essay, Schorske considers not a person but a musical form: the waltz.    

At the close of World War I, Maurice Ravel recorded in La Valse the violent death of the nineteenth-century world. The waltz, long the symbol of gay Vienna, became in the composer's hands a frantic danse macabre. 'I feel this work a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, linked in my mind with the impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny.' His grotesque memorial serves as a symbolic introduction to a problem of history: the relationship of politics and the psyche in fin-de-siecle Vienna.

Although Ravel celebrates the  destruction of the world of the waltz, he does not initially present that world as unified. The work opens rather with an adumbration of the individual parts, which will compose the whole: fragments of waltz themes, scattered over a brooding stillness. Gradually the parts find each other—the martial fanfare, the vigorous trot, the sweet obligato, the sweeping major melody. Each element is drawn, its own momentum magnetized, into the wider whole. Each unfolds its individuality as it joins its partners in the dance. The pace accelerates; almost imperceptibly the sweeping rhythm passes over into the compulsive, then into the frenzied. The concentric elements become eccentric, disengaged from the whole, thus transforming harmony into cacophony. The driving pace continues to build when suddenly caesuras appear in the rhythm, and the auditor virtually stops to stare in horror at the void created when a major element weakens the movement, and yet the whole is moving, relentlessly driving as only compulsive three-quarter time can. Through to the very end, when the waltz crashes in a cataclysm of sound, each theme continues to breathe its individuality, eccentric and distorted now, in the chaos of totality.

Ravel's musical parable of a modern cultural crisis, whether or not he knew it, posed the problem in much the same way as it was felt and seen by the Austrian intelligentsia of the fin de siecle. How had their world fallen into chaos? ...

And we're off, never really returning to the question of the waltz—although in that first essay and again later Schorske spends time and attention on Hugo von Hoffmanstahl, whose libretto for Der Rosenkavalier (1911) provided Richard Strauss numerous opportunities to compose some of the last serious but non-ironic waltzes.

Schorske's opening gambit notwithstanding, I was not particularly thinking about waltzes until I read this post from Susan Scheid on her Prufrock's Dilemma blog: "Does Anyone Still Compose a Waltz?" That post is less about "the waltz" than it is specifically about La Valse and more generally about Ravel.  It is worth your time, so I'll wait whilst youse reads it.


All right, then. Does anyone still compose a waltz?  Well, the form did not die, certainly, even as Ravel was busily vivisecting it. To the north, in Denmark, Carl Nielsen was busily constructing the first movement of his Symphony No. 3 (aka the Sinfonia Espansiva) around a grand, driving waltz theme that recurs at intervals, over the objection of the sections around it. (Some enterprising choreographer could construct a fine dance from that movement, if not the entire symphony.)  

Nielsen composed his symphony in 1910 and 1911, conducting the premiere in 1912. His waltz, therefore, falls in the middle of Ravel's composition process: begun after Ravel started his Valse in 1906 but completed prior to the outbreak of the war that so influenced Ravel's final version. While rumors of war can be detected in the brass and percussion—they become explicit in Nielsen's 4th and 5th symphonies of 1916 and 1920-22—the Espansiva is a fundamentally optimistic piece, particularly in its final two movements.

Susan complains of the fabulously gauche Andre Rieu and his sugary embalming of the quintessential waltz, Johann Strauss' Blue Danube. The best antidote I know to that is to revisit that waltz in the version that has kept it pretty swimmingly alive these past four-plus decades: Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic and the performance Stanley Kubrick selected for the long space station docking sequence in 2001:A Space Odyssey. Kubrick was never one for icky-sticky, and the von Karajan version is clean, astringent and smart smart smart, a performance that highlights what a sophisticated thing the Danube is, once you probe beneath its familiarity. We're not talking Beethoven, here, but the skill and intelligence it took to construct this particular confection should still impress us.

Here is a random selection of post-World War(s) waltzabilia:

The poet Theodore Roethke took the waltz as theme for one of the best of his autobiographical poems, harking to his brusque and practical German father, a Michigan nurseryman.  In My Papa's Waltz, the waltz is a foundation of sorts to the aging, inebriated father, and an anchor as well for his child, who will someday become a poet.  Here is Roethke reading his poem:  

The band Team B, made up largely of brass players who have participated in projects with the likes of Arcade Fire and Zach Condon's Beirut, released an EP, The Lost Son, in early 2010, consisting of settings of Roethke poems. It featured this stern and rustically gallumphing version of My Papa's Waltz:

Having mentioned Beirut, it should be acknowledged that the waltz is not unknown to Zach Condon and his co-conspirators. The "lead single," or equivalent, from 2007's Flying Club Cup (my personal #5 pick of that year) was waltz-y as can be:

I can't really answer the question that Susan Scheid poses in her post title. At least insofar as "serious" composers are concerned, the waltz seems not to be a viable, lively form. It lives on as a basis for pop songs of various kinds, as this catalog on Wikipedia suggests. In terms of orchestral music, the waltz has seemingly become principally the province of film composers. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from one of John Williams' Harry Potter scores, trotted out for Dancing with the Stars' "Classical Week": 

Of course, it could be worse: the waltz could be left in even less respectable hands....


Illustration: Eadward Muybridge, Phenakistoscope of a couple dancing the waltz, Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.