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1. The Lerner Letters: Part 2 – Lerner and Loewe

This is the second of a three-part series from Dominic McHugh on the correspondence of Alan Jay Lerner. Read the previous letters to Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. The next installment will appear on Tuesday, 23 December 2014.

Amongst the many famous people Lerner corresponded with, Frederick Loewe is naturally the most important in terms of musical collaborators. Yet sadly, correspondence between Lerner and Loewe is quite rare. I found only a few letters between them during the course of the research for the book, and was particularly disappointed by the lack of letters from their early years. They must have written many letters over the forty-odd years they knew each other, and it would have been particularly fascinating to have been able to chart every move of this legendary collaboration. (Incidentally, letters between Rodgers and Hammerstein are also quite rare; of course, composer-lyricist teams spend a lot of time together, and don’t always need to collaborate through the mail.)

Nevertheless, the letters that have survived are quite wonderful. For example, a letter from May 1956 – not long after their biggest hit, My Fair Lady, had opened – indicates the warmth of their relationship at this point, as well as their close interest in business matters:

There has been a lot of interest motion picture wise in the last couple of weeks and Irving has worked out a formula which he will, of course, go over with Ben, whereby whatever sum is paid for the picture rights will exclude GBS. He will get his on the gross later on. In other words, if the property sells for a million dollars, which is certainly the mini­mum, we will be able to divide it on the usual basis.

The songs are doing absolutely wonderfully. Vic Damone’s record in the last seven days has begun to crash through and you hear it all the time. Not only that, but “On The Street Where You Live” is get­ting wonderful plugging on radio and TV; in fact, all three of the songs are. Rosemary Clooney is making another record of “I Could Have Danced All Night” this week and the old record is being withdrawn. I have been keeping after Goddard [Lieberson] and Mitch and I’m going to try and get them to make another record of “Accustomed” with a male singer.

Did I tell you last time about the Actors Benefit? I don’t think so. Anyhow it was the goddamnedest night of all time. It made the opening night look like a Hadassah benefit. The laughter was enormous on every point; practically every song stopped the show and the ovation at the end was something I’ll never forget as long as I live. When Rex and Julie stepped out of the line for their final bow, the entire audience stood up like one person and shouted. There were over seven minutes of curtain calls. Comments at the end were something I’ve never heard before. It was an absolutely incredible experience and I can’t tell you how much I wish you’d been there. Rex told me later it was the most extraordinary night in his entire theatrical career. Incidentally, Rex gave the greatest performance I’ve ever seen him give and it was fascinating to see how the actors knew that his was the really great performance of the show. His ovation was tumultuous.

[…] The French play I told you about looks fascinating and Moss and I have also been kick­ing other things around from time to time. I am sure when you come home that it won’t take too long for us to decide on something. I want you to know, incidentally, that for the first time in my life, I am not bursting to go to work. The only reason I am doing what I am doing is just to keep my mind occupied in a vague way. However, I am sure this lethargy won’t last forever and the minute we’re together again, the old sparks will begin to fly.

Here, we see them discussing a possible film version of Fair Lady already (it didn’t appear for another eight years); some cover versions of a couple of the songs by popular singers Vic Damone and Rosemary Clooney, released to boost interest in the show; and a special Actors Benefit performance, at which Rex Harrison had evidently given an especially electric performance. Then, the final paragraph offers a vivid insight into the affectionate relationship between Lerner and Loewe at the time, with reference to “the old sparks flying.”

By the 1980s, however, the previous warmth had gone. Two letters regarding the revised stage version of the movie Gigi, which was being put on in London under Lerner’s supervision but without any input from Loewe, reveal high levels of tension between them:

There has been so much legal back and forthing about what songs can or cannot be used in “Gigi” that I thought, perhaps, I could cut through it all by giving you a history of the enterprise over here.

[…]The idea of bringing “Gigi” to London originated over a year and a half ago with Cameron Mackintosh, who, as you know, did “My Fair Lady” and did us proud. It was while Cam was planning it that John Dexter, who certainly in everybody’s opinion is one of the best directors in the world, became involved. What Dexter had in mind, and God knows I agreed with him and I am sure you would, too, was to capture the intimacy of the film— which, as we know, did not have the usual M-G-M production numbers, etcetera—but, at the same time, not be haunted by the film. It would be a true theatrical piece and not what Gerald Bordman, in his authoritative History of the Musical Theatre when writing about “Gigi,” said: “Lerner and Loewe’s enchanting film musical was lifted off the screen and set down uncomfortably on the legitimate stage. The translation from film script to play script was mere hack work.”

Rehearsals are to begin a week from today and last week was the first time we heard that you only wished songs from the film to be used. If your desire was conditioned by the success of Louis Jourdan’s production, let me assure you it was dreadful and only successful in places because of Louis combined with “Gigi.” When I read the script, I told Dave Grossberg to make certain it never appeared within 150 miles of New York. Even Cam, when he saw it, was appalled.

Also, the fact is at this point that management has rights that can­not be withdrawn. The Dramatists’ Guild Law and the law over here is that only one of the authors’ signatures is required. The reason for this is that if the other author (or authors) is unhappy, he can have his ver­sion done by someone else. Because I signed the contract with the full confidence that you would be as pleased about the production as I, the producers now have the right to the stage version.[…]

The rest of the letter offers more detail, but the situation was this: Loewe tried to wield his legal rights over Lerner, who was making changes to the score on his own in London, and Lerner replied by explaining that he had the legal right to do so in the UK. Twenty-five years after they had taken Broadway by storm in a series of musicals including Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady, and Camelot, the golden partnership had been reduced to bitterness. Yet, as the letters from the 1950s reveal, at the height of their fame they had been intimately connected and deeply affectionate.

 Headline Image: Old Letters. CC0 via Pixabay

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2. Merry Elvis Christmas recollections

In celebration of the recently published biography, Elvis Presley: A Southern Life by Joel Williamson, I thought I would share some memories of Christmas past. In the 1970s we listened to Elvis on vinyl. Every December when it was time to decorate the tree you could hear the deep dulcet warbling of Elvis coming from the hi-fi. Some of my favorite Elvis renditions of Christmas songs follow.

Photo by Ollie Atkins. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Original photo by Ollie Atkins. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

With the tree up and ready to be decorated we’d pop on the Elvis to kick off the Christmas season with “The First Noel”.

In the kitchen we’d often hear my mother sing along to “Winter Wonderland” as she made stained-glass window cookies to hang on the tree.

Photo by Christian Purdy. Used with permission.
Photo by Christian Purdy. Used with permission.

One of my dad’s favorites was “Silver Bells”. He’d sing along so that it sounded like Elvis was his backup singer.

My best friend Tracy had an artificial, all-white tree bedecked in tinsel and lit solely with blue lights. In the evenings we’d just sit in her living room watching the tree as she and Elvis sang “Blue Christmas”.

Now that I am older, I still like to listen to Elvis when I decorate for Christmas. Then when I have everything just the way I want I like to get a crackling fire going, turn down the lights, plug in the tree, toss back a few slugs of egg nog, settle into a comfy couch with someone special, and listen to Elvis’s “Merry Christmas Baby”.

Here’s hoping your stocking is stuffed with Elvis this season. I find he makes the holiday merry.

Headline image credit: Elvis! Photo by Kevin Dooley. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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3. Carols and Catholicism

Carols bring Christians together around the Christ Child lying in the manger. During Advent and at Christmas, Christians everywhere sing more or less the same repertoire. Through our carols, we share the same deep delight at the birth of a poor child who was to become the Saviour of all human beings.

The carols are wonderfully ecumenical in their origins. Four verses and the tune of ‘Adeste Fideles’ (‘Come all ye faithful’) come from an eighteenth-century Roman Catholic layman, John Francis Wade. ‘Angels we have heard on high’ is a traditional French carol, now commonly sung to a tune arranged by Edward Shippen Barnes (d. 1958), an American organist and composer. The text of ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ was written by Charles Wesley. Its widely used melody is taken from Felix Mendelssohn, who was born into a Jewish family and brought up a Lutheran. Isaac Watts, a non-conformist, composed the words of ‘Joy to the world’. The music, although often attributed to George Frederick Handel, seems of be of English origin.

An Episcopalian bishop, Phillips Brooks, wrote ‘O little town of Bethlehem’, and the tune we normally hear accompanying this comes from Ralph Vaughan Williams.

‘Ding dong merrily on highis sung to a dance tune from sixteenth-century France; the text was composed by an English enthusiast for carols, George Ratcliffe Woodward (d. 1934). We owe ‘Away in a manger’ to a nineteenth-century children’s book used by American Lutherans. The words for ‘See amid the winter’s snow’ were written by Edward Caswell, who became a Roman Catholic and joined Blessed John Henry Newman in the Birmingham Oratory. Sir John Goss, an Anglican organist and composer, provided the musical setting.

‘Silent night, holy night’ was the work of two Austrian Catholics, the priest and organist of a country church. An Irish Protestant, Nahum Tate, probably composed the text of ‘While shepherds watched their flocks, which is often sung to a tune taken from Handel.

These and other familiar carols have been composed by members of different Christian communities who lived in various parts of the world. The carols have also proved splendidly ecumenical in their use. No other collection of hymns are sung so widely by Christians when they celebrate one of the two central feasts of their liturgical year.

‘Adeste Fideles’ by Kronenberger (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

With a happiness that lights up their faces, Christians sing together the carols. With the birth of the Christ Child, light has replaced darkness, and real freedom has taken over from sin. The beautiful ‘Sussex Carol’ catches the common joy of Christian believers: ‘On Christmas night all Christians sing/To hear the news the angels bring/News of great joy, news of great mirth/News of our merciful King’s birth.’ The words of this carol go back to a seventeenth-century Irish bishop, Luke Wadding. In the early twentieth century, Vaughan Williams discovered the text and the tune that we use today, when he heard it sung at Monk’s Gate in Sussex. Hence it is called the ‘Sussex Carol’.

Such carols bring Christians together around the manger. They blend beautifully text and music to unite us all and lift our spirits at Christmas. But they also remind us that the shadow of the cross falls across the birth of Jesus.

Some carols foreshadow the suffering which the Christ Child will endure for all human beings. Thus the penultimate verse of the traditional English carol, ‘The first Nowell, declares: ‘and with his blood mankind has bought’. ‘In dulci jubilo’, a medieval German carol, arranged by J. M. Neale (d. 1866) and entitled ‘Good Christian men, rejoice’, subtly links Bethlehem and Calvary when the second verse repeats: ‘Christ was born for this.’

The carols that feature the Magi and the gifts they offer foretell the passion of Christ. Myrrh is an aromatic resin that was widely used in the Middle East to embalm corpses. From early times Christians understood that gift to symbolize the death and burial of Jesus. ‘We three kings of Orient are’, a nineteenth-century Christmas carol from Pennsylvania, devotes a whole verse to the gift of myrrh: ‘Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume/breathes a life of gathering gloom/sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying/sealed in the stone-cold tomb.’ Such carols unite Christians with the Magi in worshipping the Christ Child, whose birth is already overshadowed by the cross.

When we sing our favourite carols this Christmas, let us rejoice in their very ecumenical origins and in their use by Christians everywhere. The carols light up our faces with vivid joy. But they also recall how the shadow of Calvary fell over Bethlehem. Jesus was born into a world of all-pervasive pain and suffering.

Featured image credit: Little Twon of Bethlehem, by Phillips Brooks. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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4. Top five Robert Altman films by sound

Director Robert Altman made more than thirty feature films and dozens of television episodes over the course of his career. The Altman retrospective currently showing at MoMA is a treasure trove for rediscovering Altman’s best known films (M*A*S*H, Nashville, Gosford Park) as well as introducing unreleased shorts and his little-known early work as a writer.

Every Altman fan has her or his own list of favorite films. For me, Altman’s use of music is always so innovative, original, and unprecedented that a few key films stand out from the crowd based on their soundtracks. Here are my top five Altman films based on their soundtracks:

1.   Gosford Park (2001): The English heritage film meets an Agatha Christie murder mystery, combining an all-star ensemble cast and gorgeous location shooting with a tribute to Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu (1939). Jeremy Northam plays the real-life British film star and composer Ivor Novello. Watch for the integration of Northam/Novello’s live performances of period songs with the central murder scene, in which the songs’ lyrics explain (in hindsight) who really committed the murder, and why.

2.   Nashville (1975): Altman’s brilliant critique of American society in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate. Nashville stands as an excellent example of “Altmanesque” filmmaking, in which several separate story strands merge in the climactic final scene. Many, although not all, of the songs were provided by the cast, which includes Henry Gibson as pompous country music star Haven Hamilton, and the Oscar-nominated Lily Tomlin as the mother of two deaf children drawn into a relationship with sleazy rock star Tom Frank (Keith Carradine, whose song “I’m Easy” won the film’s sole Academy Award).

3.   M*A*S*H (1970): Ok, I will admit it. It took me a long, long time to appreciate M*A*S*H. Growing up in 1970s Toronto, I couldn’t accept Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould as Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John — familiar characters from the weekly CBS TV series (but played by different actors). Looking back, I realize that M*A*S*H really did break all the rules of filmmaking in 1970, not least of which because it appealed to the anti-Vietnam generation. Like so many later Altman films, what appears to be a sloppy, improvised, slap-dash film is in fact sutured together through the brilliant, carefully edited use of Japanese-language jazz standards blared over the disembodied voice of the base’s loudspeaker.

MASHfilmposter

4.   McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971): Filmed outside of Vancouver, Altman’s reinvention of the Western genre stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. The film uses several of Leonard Cohen’s songs from his 1967 album The Songs of Leonard Cohen, allowing the songs to speak for often inarticulate characters. Watch for how the opening sequence, showing Beatty/McCabe riding into town, is closely choreographed to “The Stranger Song” as is Christie/Miller’s wordless monologue to “Winter Lady” later in the film — all to the breathtaking cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, who worked with Altman on Images (1972) and The Long Goodbye (1973) as well.

5.   Aria (segment: “Les Boréades”) (1987): Made during Altman’s “exile” from Hollywood in the 1980s, this film combines short vignettes set to opera excerpts by veteran directors including Derek Jarman, Jean-Luc Godard, and Julien Temple. Altman’s contribution employs the music of 18th-century French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. The sequence was a revelation to me personally, since it contains the only feature film documentation of Altman’s significant contributions to the world of opera. One of the first film directors to work on the opera stage, Altman directed a revolutionary production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the University of Michigan in the early 1980s: the work was restaged in France and used for the Aria Later, Altman collaborated with Pulitzer-Prize winning composer William Bolcom and librettist Arnold Weinstein to create new operas (McTeague, A Wedding) for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Rounding out the top ten would be Short Cuts (1993), Kansas City (1996), The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974), and Popeye (1980) — Robin Williams’ first film, and definitely an off-beat but entertaining musical.

Headline Image: Film. CC0 via Pixabay

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5. Frozen and the Disney Princess Song

There are plenty of operas about teenage girls—love-sick, obsessed, hysterical teenage girls who dance, scheme, and murder in a frenzy of musical passion. Disney Princess films are also about teenage girls—lonely, skinny, logical teenage girls who follow their hearts because the plot gives them no other option. The music Disney Princesses sing can be divided into three periods that correspond to distinct animation styles:

Fleeger OUP Blog Image 2
Image used with permission

Onto these three periods we can map the themes of the princess anthems, the single song for which each princess is remembered:

Fleeger OUP Blog Image 1
Image used with permission

The relative lack of variance in these songs tells us something important—while animation styles have changed, the aspirations of girlhood have not been radically altered.

But then there’s Frozen.

Elsa’s anthem, “Let It Go,” combines aspects from all three periods: Frozen is a computer animated film, Idina Menzel is a Tony Award-winning singer, and, most importantly, the song and the Snow Queen who sings it have an operatic legacy rooted in representations of madness and infirmity. “Let It Go” is a tribute to passion, spontaneity, and instinct—elements celebrated by both the opera (which nevertheless punishes the bearer severely) and the Disney film (which channels them into heterosexual romance). Frozen does neither.

Unlike the songs of longing for belonging that came before it, “Let It Go” insists that being like everyone else is bound to fail. It’s a coming out song often read as a queer anthem and easily interpreted to account for a number of stigmatized identities. As such, Elsa is a screen onto which may be projected our fantasies and fears. While her transformation into a shapely princess swaying in a sparkly gown with wispy blond hair may be familiar, the scene where this takes place, the way she looks back at the viewer, and the music she sings define Elsa as more ambiguous than she appears. Is Elsa sick, is she mentally ill, is she asexual, is she gay? What is Elsa and why does she resonate so strongly with young girls?

Elsa is like the women of 19th-century opera in her exclusion from the world the other characters comfortably occupy. Marred by magical ability, Elsa must isolate herself if she does not want to scar those she loves—or so the dialogue tells us. The imagery suggests an illness; Elsa behaves as if she were contagious. Indeed, she is consumptive like Mimi, but she is also betrayed like Tosca and scandalous like The Queen of the Night. As Catherine Clément says of women in the opera: “they suffer, they cry, they die…Glowing with tears, their decolletés cut to the heart, they expose themselves to the gaze of those who come to take pleasure in their pretend agonies.” Operatic women express their hysteria skillfully. At the pinnacle of her agony, Elsa builds a magnificent castle while singing her most beautiful song, a song that has itself become infectious. In its final moments, she exposes herself, only to slam the door on viewers who would like nothing more than to gawk at the excess.

Most princess anthems end satisfactorily on the tonic chord, their musical conclusions coinciding with lyrical expectations that assure the story will fulfill the princesses’ desires. For example, when Ariel wishes she could be “part of that world”, she sings a high F, which a trombone echoes an octave lower, reinforcing the song’s key and suggesting the narrative’s interest in giving Ariel what she wants. In “Someday My Prince Will Come,” Snow White’s final line repeats the home pitch no less than six times as if to insist the screenwriters pay attention. “Let It Go,” on the other hand, ends unresolved. The score establishes a sharp distinction between the assertive melodic phrase sung by Elsa, “The cold never bothered me anyway,” and the harmonic manifestation of the accompaniment. Elsa turns her back to the camera after singing the downward moving line, which ends rather abruptly on the tonic, while the chord that ought to have shifted with Elsa’s exit lingers in the icy upper register of the strings, as if refusing to acknowledge the message. Is the music condemning the singer’s difference by suggesting that her immunity to the elements is indicative of a physical or psychic malady?

Fleeger OUP Blog Image  (2)
DVD screen shot.

Unlike Donizetti’s operatic heroine, Lucia, whose infamous “mad scene” prompts the chorus to weep for her, Elsa stares into the camera, eyebrow raised, as if daring the spectators to pity her. This is the look of a woman who refuses to capitulate to patriarchy. And with our endless covers and video parodies of “Let It Go” we have rallied to her defense. Rather than constrain her by Frozen’s story, “Let It Go” lets Elsa escape again into possibility. The new princess message, “Leave Me Alone,” is echoed by little girls everywhere.

Peter Conrad says of opera, “It is the song of our irrationality, of the instinctual savagery which our jobs and routines and our nonsinging voices belie, or the music our bodies make. It is an art devoted to love and death (and especially to the cryptic alliance between them); to the definition and the interchangeability of the sexes; to madness and devilment…” Such is also a fair description of Frozen, for what are its final moments than an act of love to stave off death, what is Elsa but a mad and devilish woman who revels in the impermanence of sexuality, what is a fairytale but a story full of savage beasts that prey on our emotions. “Let It Go” releases an archetype from the hollows of diva history into the digital world of children’s animation.

Headline Image: Disney’s Frozen. DVD screenshot via Jennfier Fleeger.

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6. Scoring loss across the multimedia universe

Well known is music’s power to stir emotions; less well known is that the stirring of specific emotions can result from the use of very simple yet still characteristic music. Consider the music that accompanies this sweet, sorrowful conclusion of pop culture’s latest cinematic saga.

When the on-set footage begins, so does some soft music that is rather uncomplicated because, in part, it simply alternates between two chords which last about four seconds each. These two chords are shown on the keyboard below. In classical as well as pop music, these two chords typically do not alternate with one another like this. Although the music for this featurette eventually makes room for other chords, the musical message of the more distinctive opening has clearly been sent, and it apparently worked on this blogger, who admits to shedding a few tears and recommends the viewer have a tissue nearby.

music_blog

This simple progression has been used to accompany loss-induced sadness in numerous mainstream (mostly Hollywood) cinematic scenes for nearly 30 years. This association is not simply confined to movies, yet inhabits a larger media universe. For example, while the pop song “Comeback Story” by Kings of Leon, which opens this movie’s trailer, helps to convey the genre of the advertised product, the same two-chord progression—let’s call it the “loss gesture”—highlights the establishing narrative: a patriarchal death has brought a mourning family together (for comedic and sentimental results).

Loss gestures can play upon one’s heartstrings less discriminately; they can elicit both tears of joy as well as tears of sadness. Climaxes in Dreamer and Invincible, both underdog-comes-from-behind movies, are punctuated with loss gestures. As demonstrated at 2:06 in the following video, someone employed by the Republican Party appears to be keenly aware of this simple progression’s powerful capacity for moving a viewer (and potential voter).

Within the universe of contemporary media, the loss gesture has been used in radio as well. The interlude music that plays before or after a story on National Public Radio often has some relation to the content of the story. A week after the Sandy Hook school shootings, NPR aired a story by Kirk Siegler entitled “Newtown Copes With Grief, Searches For Answers.” Immediately after the story’s poignant but hopeful ending, the opening of Dustin O’Halloran’s “Opus 14” faded in, musically encapsulating the emotions of the moment.

How the loss gesture works its magic on listeners is a Gordian knot. However, it is undeniable that producers from several different corners of the media world know that the loss gesture works.

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7. The Lerner Letters: Part 1 – The Stars

This is the first of a three-part series from Dominic McHugh on the correspondence of Alan Jay Lerner. The next installment will appear on Tuesday, 16 December 2014.

One of the joys of editing the correspondence of Alan Jay Lerner has been discovering his letters to and from the major stars with whom he worked. As the lyricist, librettist, and screenwriter of Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, An American in Paris, My Fair Lady, Gigi, Camelot, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and many more, he worked with the finest performers of his time. In this post, I’ll explore focus on his relationship with two of his stars: Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews.

Rex Harrison’s iconic performance as Henry Higgins was one of the keys to making My Fair Lady the most successful musical of the 1950s. He played the role for over a year in New York, opened the show in London, and went on to appear in the 1964 movie version (currently celebrating its 50th anniversary). But Fair Lady was Harrison’s first foray into musical theatre, and he found the process terrifying. The following letter was the first I found for my book, and it’s a wonderful insight into the writer-performer relationship. This excerpt shows how Lerner tried to lay Harrison’s fears about some of the initial songs they had written for him to rest:

[…] I was very interested in your comments about “Why Can’t The English,” and want you to know that I feel your reservations, as far as you are concerned, are completely justifiable. As I said in my cable, don’t let it tinge one hair with gray—we are rewriting it completely in a way that will be not only simpatico with you, but with the character of Higgins. I can do no other but agree with you when you are right, but I would fight you like a wounded tiger if I thought you were wrong.

Photo of Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison from My Fair Lady. Eliza Doolittle, the flower girl, meets Professor Henry Higgins.
Photo of Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison from My Fair Lady. Eliza Doolittle, the flower girl, meets Professor Henry Higgins. NYC Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I might add, before closing the matter, that there are certain lyric liberties one can take when they are framed by certain kinds of melodies. There are “song songs” and “character songs.” A “character song,” which is basically free and is accompanied by an emotion or emotions, as is the case in “I’m An Ordinary Man,” must pretty much stay within the bounds of reason. In a “song song,” certain extravagances are not only permissible, but desirable. “Why Can’t The English,” written as it was, was definitely a “song song” and therefore contained a certain amount of satiric extravagance. The minute the same idea is written in a freer way, so that it almost seems like normal conversation set to music, those extravagances would seem definitely out of place. When one reads the lyric of a “song song” over and compares it to the character who is singing it, very often there will seem to be a discrepancy. For example, what business does a young Navy lieutenant have singing a poetic song like “Younger Than Springtime”?

The second paragraph is a particularly wonderful insight into the lyric writer’s mind, explaining how he viewed different kinds of songs. Another wonderful letter related to My Fair Lady shows how Lerner tried to persuade Julie Andrews – future star of the movies Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music – to arrive a little early for rehearsals. She had decided to spend New Year at home with her family in London because she knew she was about to start a long run away from them, but Lerner wanted her to come to New York early in order to rest and take part in publicity opportunities:

[…] I don’t know whether or not you have been aware of the explosive conversations that have been going on lately between Herman Levin and Lou Wilson. I might add that Herman has been doing the conversing and Lou the exploding. What it’s all been about is the matter of your being here on December 27th. I, of course, realize how much you would want to be with your family over New Year’s, but there are a few things involved that I beg you to consider. I am sure you know in advance that our desire to have you here on that date is no capricious whim on our part.

Both Rex and Stanley Holloway are arriving at that time. It is not at all uncommon for the stars of a play to make it their business to be in town a week before rehearsals for the express purpose of using that time for the good of themselves and the play. You are a star now, Julie, and I do think that as a well-meaning observer, as well as an active participant in these proceedings, it would be most impolitic to have them, who are two great and established artists, follow the usual pattern and you not do so. Even though we will not, of course, be working around the clock during that time, much can be accomplished in those few days. We can go over your new songs with you and get the keys set. If you feel it is necessary, you could freshen up your Cockney with Dixon. We could go over a couple of the scenes, which we would all like to hear, mainly for length, before the first reading on stage January 3rd. Besides that, there is that old devil Publicity, which, annoying as it is, is more annoying when it isn’t. It will also give you a chance to make yourself comfortable in your flat, and you will be rested and ready for the official first day of rehearsals January 3rd.

In spite of Lerner’s power of persuasion, Andrews chose to stay in England: as she explained more recently in her memoir Home, she found it a huge wrench to spend time away from her family, and her family life had been difficult. It’s well-known that she then struggled with early rehearsals for Fair Lady, which the director (Moss Hart) had to close down for a weekend while he spent time training for her the role of Eliza, line by line. But she quickly went on to be a star when the show opened in March 1956, and the rest is history.

These two excerpts show how the use of primary sources shed new light on the study of Broadway musicals. They provide a snapshot of the collaborations that are so important to the genre’s success. And in the case of Lerner, they show both his witty and charming personality and his incredible prose facility, something I feel is often overlooked.

In the next blog post, I’ll look at the letters from Lerner to Frederick Loewe, his most beloved composer collaborator, focusing on two letters from the 1950s and two from the 1980s.

Headline Image: Old Letters. CC0 via Pixabay 

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8. Your Hit Parade #4: Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me)

In honor of the return of my very favorite variety of apple, the *Honey Crisp, returning to produce shelves now, I have had the song "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" running through my head now for the past two weeks and I thought it would be interesting to explore the song's WWII roots.

In the spring of 1942, things were not going well for the United States, now at war in Europe and the Pacific.  In fact, things were really looking bad in the Pacific, where the US was losing in the Philippines and would end up surrendering in Bataan and in Corregidor to the Japanese.  Yet, even as the US was losing the war in those early days, Americans were still wanting and listening to war-related  music, but mostly of the novelty or sentimental variety and if only to boost morale.

"Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" proved to be a real favorite during those dark days, but it was not originally a war-relate song.  It was written in 1939, with music and the lyrics by Sam H. Stept, Lew Brown and Charles Tobias and was called "Anywhere the Bluebird Goes," but the name was changed when it was used in a play called Yokel Boy starring Judy Canova.  According the Playbill, Yokel Boy opened  July 6, 1939 and closed January 6, 1940, after only 208 performances.

But the song's popularity increased after the US entered the war.  In early 1942, it had been recorded by Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, and with vocals by Beneke, Marion Hutton (older sister of Betty Hutton), and the Modernaires.  Miller's version of "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" was very popular and stayed on Billboard's charts for 13 weeks in 1942.

Billboard January 2, 1943 pg 27
In May 1943, the movie Private Buckaroo, a musical comedy about army recruits after they are finished with basic training, was released.  In it, the Andrews Sisters travel around the US, performing at USO dances in uniform  accompanied by Henry James and his Orchestra.  One of their most popular songs in the film was "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree."  The song was a perfect fit, since it is about a young soldier who is off to war and is basically asking his sweetheart to stay true to him while he is off fighting, something that was happening every day in real life.


"Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" proved to be a very big hit for the Andrews Sister, and though not as big as "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy", it does have that distinctive swing style Maxine, LaVerne and Patty Andrews were so well known for, as you can see in this clip from the movie:



In his 1985 Pulitzer Prize winning oral history of World War II, The Good War, author Studs Turkel interviewed Maxine Andrews about the wartime experiences of Andrews Sisters. This is what she said about "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree":
"I remember we sang it up in Seattle when a whole shipload of troops went out.  We stood there on the deck and all the young men up there waving and yelling and screaming.  As we sang "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," all the mothers and sisters and sweethearts sang with us as the ship went off.  It was wonderful.  The songs were romantic.  It was a feeling of - not futility,  It was like everybody in the United States held on to each other's hands."

"Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" was so popular that during 1942, three different versions were recorded and all ended up on the pop charts - Glenn Miller's The Andrews Sisters, and Kay Kyser and his band.


*The Honey Crisp is the only apple that should be refrigerated other it gets mealy real quick.

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9. Music from Scotland: a playlist

When one thinks of traditional Scottish music, one instrument usually comes to mind: the bagpipe. Although bagpipes are prominent in traditional music from Scotland, Scottish music branches far out beyond that. In light of Scotland receiving the title of Place of the Year for 2014, we’ve put together a brief playlist of music from Scotland, from chamber music to modern classical.

To learn more about Scotland and why it was voted Place of the Year for 2014, read our Place of the Year archive.

Headline image credit: Photo by PublicDomainArchive. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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10. In memoriam: Juan Flores

Oxford University Press is deeply saddened to report the passing of Juan Flores on 2 December 2014. Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and director of Latino Studies at New York University, he was one of the foremost voices in Latino Studies and an exceptionally inspiring and generous writer, teacher, and colleague. His legacy is rich, with ten influential and award-winning books to his name and more on the way, and he had a passion and energy for his work that is rare and infectious. Through this work, Juan Flores will continue to bring understanding and insight to countless readers, students, and fellow scholars. I count myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to know and work with him as an author, and offer heartfelt condolences to his loved ones on this tragic loss.

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11. Laying to rest a 224 year-old controversy

The disease that carried Mozart off 224 years ago today was as sudden as it was mysterious. It struck during a year in which he was uncommonly healthy and also spectacularly productive. Only its essential elements are known, the most striking of which was progressive swelling (i.e., edema) of the entire body, ultimately so profound that a few days before Mozart died he was unable to make the smallest movement and had to be fitted with a gown that opened at the back to facilitate changing. By then, according to his son, Carl Thomas, he also had a stench so awful (likely due to retained urinary waste products), that “an autopsy was rendered impossible.” Although Mozart was the disorder’s most notable victim, he was by no means its only one. According to Dr. Eduard Vincent Guldener von Lobes, one of several consulting physicians: “A great number of inhabitants of Vienna were at this time laboring under the same complaint, and the number of cases which terminated fatally, like that of Mozart’s, was considerable. I saw the body after death, and it exhibited no appearances beyond those usual in such cases.” Von Lobes’ statement was recently confirmed by Zeger, Weigl and Steptoe, who found a marked increase in “deaths from edema among young men” recorded in Vienna’s official daily register in the weeks surrounding Mozart’s death compared with previous and following years.

Although over 100 different diagnoses have been proposed as the cause of Mozart’s fatal illness, none fits its character, course, and epidemiological characteristics better than acute glomerulonephritis – acute inflammation of the microscopic filters of the kidneys (the glomeruli) induced by a preceding streptococcal infection. Mozart, in fact, was no stranger to streptococcal infections and their complications. He had a series of severe illnesses as a child, which were almost certainly recurrent episodes of strep throat and streptococcus-induced acute rheumatic fever. Therefore, if his final, fatal illness was acute, post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, it would have been just one of many times his life could have been cut short by an encounter with streptococci. However, unlike acute rheumatic fever, post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis is typically a benign disorder of young children, which virtually always resolves fully in a matter of weeks. How then, could acute, post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis explain not just Mozart’s death, but also those of the many other young Viennese men who died of “edema” during the winter of 1791/2?

The answer lies with the particular species of streptococcus responsible for the cases of acute glomerulonephritis. Streptococcus pyogenes is the species of streptococcus responsible for the vast majority of acute post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis (also “strep throat’ and rheumatic fever) – those benign cases, involving children who recover completely after relatively brief illnesses. There is, however, another rarer form of post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, a much severer form, which attacks and sometimes kills adults. It’s caused by a different species of streptococcus, Streptococcus equi, the agent responsible for “strangles,” a highly contagious infection of horses. The bacterium also attacks cows, and in rare instances in which humans are infected, consumption of milk or milk products from S. equi-infected cows is responsible. The infection produces an illness typical of acute glomerulonephritis, in which over 90% of the victims are adults. One in 50 dies, even with the best care available today. One in 20 requires renal dialysis to recover, which, of course, was not available in Mozart’s day.

In the final analysis, of the myriad diagnoses proposed to date, only an epidemic of acute post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis caused by milk or cheese contaminated with S. equi, explains both the clinical and the epidemiological features of Mozart’s fatal illness.

Headline image credit: Mozart family portrait, circa 1780. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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12. On the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Terry Riley’s In C

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Terry Riley’s In C. The date was 4 November 1964 at the San Francisco Tape Center. Having written a book on the topic, it’s a time of reflection for me as well. The piece continues to endure, and though only five years out, it becomes ever more clear that its inclusion in the OUP series Studies in Musical Genesis, Structure, and Interpretation was justified. In short, it’s a canonic work.

Happily, most of the participants in the event are still with us. In particular, Terry is celebrating his 80th next year, and such luminaries as Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Steve Reich, Stuart Dempster, and Ramon Sender are still going strong. One of the great joys I experienced in the course of researching the book was to meet a group of composers about 20 years older than I who were not only still productive, but also not bitter. Their engagement with their work and purity of commitment was inspiring then, and continues to be.

By now minimalism is so ingrained in our era’s musical consciousness that it becomes ever harder to imagine what a break the piece represented. But it came over me recently in a different way, when listening to a new release on New World of the “TudorFest” that was organised in February 1964 by Oliveros. This was a series of concerts centered around David Tudor as both performer and general collaborative provacateur. The 3-CD set concentrates mostly on music of Cage (though there’s a great work for accordion and bandoneon by Oliveros, that she and Tudor perform on a multi-dimension seesaw—how I wish for a video!). Even though Cage’s ethos of experiment and freedom is obviously an inspiration to the circle that organized the event, it’s also clear just how different that sort of experimentalism was from what was about to erupt in the immediate future. Cage’s pieces, most from the 1950s, are amongst his most radical works, “atonal” in the purest sense for the word, and resolutely refusing any traditional form or teleology. Frankly, listening to several in a row, exhilarating as is their invention, they’re also tough.

For me this makes it clearer just how much the new music percolating under the surface in San Francisco wasn’t just about process or repetition, it was also about beauty (even if no one really wanted to use the word). Cage was a California boy, but he found his milieu in New York, with its intensity, rigor, and challenge. To take a counter-example, Lou Harrison, his early friend and collaborator, went there too, but he returned West and found himself in the pursuit of Asian sounds. I may be making too much of a dichotomy here, as there are many other factors involved in the making of a style and individual works therein. But the old trope of “mean old modernism” vs. minimalism is too pat; there was a generational shift at work as well. Cage was a beloved pioneer, but he wasn’t living the Haight life. The music that was about to resound in November had a new sensuality and freedom, in tune with the adventure, love, and sheer subversive fun that was erupting across the country.

Headline image credit: Music. CC0 via Pixabay

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13. The Birdhouse

In addition to writing and illustrating, my soul also loves to sing!

I recently acquired an old (100+ year old) building in Covington, TX that I'm using for all my artistic passions. One part of it is my studio away from home. It's very, very quiet here. very condusive to work. The other part of the building is for music (kind of music -- old style, traditional music) and puppets.

Here are a few pictures of the birdhouse, and if you want to know more, visit the birdhouse blog. If you're in Texas and play old-time music, come on out!

Photo Nov 18, 12 18 50 PM

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  Photo Oct 30, 5 57 29 PM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Photo Nov 13, 5 11 46 PM

 

 

 

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14. Tune In Tuesday

It's the first Tuesday of the month, which means it's time for Tune In Tuesday. Tune In Tuesday where I share (and invite others to share) some of their favorite music to use in storytime and library programs-or just for fun!


No More Monkeys by Asheba

I discover so much music thanks to Spotify, Pandora, and Songza, especially now that I listen to kid playlists with my son. When I was home on maternity leave earlier this year I listened to lots of various playlists and I discovered what I think is the best version of No More Monkeys ever!

You can find Asheba's Carribbean jam on either his No More Monkeys CD or on Animal Playground by Putumayo Kids. I was lucky enough to have Animal Playground in my library, so I immediately added it to my storytime repertoire. 

I used this song last week in storytime to go along with our monkey themed storytime. I love it because it's catchy, bouncy, and you can't help but jump and sing along. The kids know the basic song of Five Little Monkeys Jumping On the Bed, so they catch on to the lyrics easily and love to jump around like the monkeys and sing along. It's so much fun (and it's great exercise-you jump around with the kids in storytime and that's your cardio for the day, right?) 

Take a listen-but be warned-you might just want to  jump out of your seat and dance!


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15. Remembering the original On the Town during World War II

A stunning new production of On the Town, directed by John Rando, opened in October at the Lyric Theatre on Broadway. It transports a viewer back to the golden age of American musical theater, when highly skilled orchestras delivered a robust sound while extended segments of dance were central to telling the story.

Carol J. Oja’s Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War explores the very first production of On the Town, which opened in December 1944, towards the end of World War II. It marked the Broadway debut of a soon-to-be-famous creative team, with Leonard Bernstein as composer, Betty Comden and Adolph Green as lyricists and book-writers, and Jerome Robbins as choreographer. There were many audacities to this youthful production. The star was the gorgeous Japanese-American dancer Sono Osato, even as her father was among the Japanese nationals interned in the United States. The stage manager was Peggy Clark, who was among the earliest women to serve in that role on Broadway. The cast included six African Americans, who were intentionally presented as part of a multicultural citizenry, avoiding pernicious racial stereotypes of the era.

Headline image credit: Theater spotlights. CC0 via Pixabay.

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16. Webcomic Alert: Cibo Matto by Sophia Foster-Dimino

cibo1 Webcomic Alert: Cibo Matto by Sophia Foster Dimino

The other day we linked to the fine Comic Arts LA poster by Sophia Foster-Dimino. Poking around her website, we found this charming comic about the band Cibo Matto, created for Pitchfork Review. Billed as two Japanese expats singing songs about food, Cibo Matto’s 1994 debut Viva! La Woman! is a staple of the 90sscene centering about Grand Royal Records, and led to the haunting Sugar Water video directed my Michel Gondry that features the same footage shown backwards in palindromatic fashion.

Cibo Matto came out with a new album this year (Hotel Valentine)—not the sample heavy, expensive to clear music of their debut, but concept album about a haunted hotel with a still fresh sound and some tasty guest playing, including the great Nels Cline. And a fun comic about it all.

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17. Illustrator & Gig Poster Designer Dan Stiles

dan 12 dan 13

While my color mood project is officially over, I haven’t stopped keeping an eye for effective uses of color and geometry in illustration and design. Because I happen to be a musician, I’ve also started creating gig posters for my band’s shows. The gig poster is an interesting format–you have to draw attention quickly and effectively, which typically means that it needs a striking illustration or eye-catching typography.

Dan Stiles is a cornerstone of the gig poster world, and has continued to surpass its limits with his incredible command of color and use of interacting shapes. He’s a Portland-based designer and illustrator with an award-winning track record, and has worked with clients such as Death Cab For Cutie, Feist, Nike, Birch Fabrics, MTV, and Wired Magazine.

dan 3 dan 8

Dan, originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, got his footing in Portland during his college years. He gravitated towards design by falling into the role of rock-poster-maker at the University of Oregon. Interestingly enough, he got his start as a pen-and-ink artist rather than a digital pixel-pusher (which he expounds on in his interview with WeMake). As a punk DIY-er, he originally was avoidant of graphic design. It’s a relief to know that there were others who resisted digital illustration at first aside from me!

From there, he fell in love with the design process as well as the silkscreen process, which is often a principal element in many gig posters. His minimalist aesthetic and focus on the integrity of shape only lends itself to his chosen medium. As a gig poster designer, he often has complete creative control over the concept and execution of his designs.

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Since those early days, Dan has branched out to advertising, branding/identity, surface design, packaging, and even creates his own books and merchandise. He’s worked with Birch Fabrics on their Marine Too and Mod Squad lines (the former of which was borne out of his design for an A.C. Newman poster). Dan cites his success as being dependent on his abundance of completed work.

“I look at it like the sorcerer’s apprentice. I’m Mickey Mouse, and every project I complete is another broomstick out in the world doing work for me. The more quality work I release, the wider my reach.” -Dan, from his interview with Birch Fabrics.

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Follow along with Dan here:

Website

Instagram

Grain Edit

Art Rep NYC

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18. DECEMBER UPDATE!

December is here and there's lots to talk about, including an appearance and exciting new stuff! BOOKS! Elephant and Piggie's WAITING IS NOT EASY! came out last month and the response has been nice.  Thanks to you, the story debuted at #2 on The New York Times Bestseller List. (Not to be left out, THE PIGEON NEEDS A BATH! joined Waiting is Not Easy! on the next 2 weeks). The New York Times

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19. Band Aid (an infographic)

On this day in 1984, musical aficionados from the worlds of pop and rock came together to record the iconic ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ single for Band Aid. The single has gone down in history as an example of the power of music to help right the wrongs in the world. The song leapt to the number one spot over the Christmas of 1984, selling over a million copies in under a week and totalling sales of three million by the end of that year. The Band Aid super-group featured the cream of eighties pop, including David Bowie, Phil Collins, George Michael, Sting, Cliff Richard and Paul McCartney.

The sales target for the single was £70,000, all of which was to be donated to the African famine relief fund. With support from Radio 1 DJs and a Top of the Pops Christmas Special, sales sky-rocketed and Geldof, feeling the strength of public opinion behind him, went toe-to-toe with the conservative government in an attempt to have tax on the single waived. Margaret Thatcher initially refused the plea, but as public outcry grew, Thatcher caved-in to public demands and the tax on sales worth nearly £9 million was donated back to charity.

Bob Geldof and a host of artists old and new have re-recorded the single to help raise funds to stem the Ebola crisis. Our infographic marks the 30th anniversary of the original recording and illustrates the movers and shakers that made this monumental milestone in pop history possible.

Band-Aid-30th-Infographic-Blog

To view free articles examining the cause, the people, and the music, you can open the graphic as a PDF.

Headline image credit: Live Aid at JFK Stadium, Philadelphia, 1985. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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20. AMS/SMT 2014: Highlights from the OUP booth

We had a great time at this year’s AMS/SMT meeting! Milwaukee was a bit chilly, but we drank lots of coffee, cozied up with thrilling new books, and listened to some fantastic presentations!

Weren’t able to make it, or just feeling nostalgic? Take a tour through the eyes of OUP music, and check out some memorable highlights from this year’s joint meeting:

You can find out more information about the AMS/SMT 2014 conference by visiting their website. We already can’t wait for next year!

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21. Thank you: musicians recall special ways their parents helped them blossom

“My thanks to my parents is vast,” says Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboist with the Imani Winds woodwind quintet. “Without their help, I would never have become a musician.”

Many professional musicians I’ve interviewed have responded as Ms. Spellman-Diaz did, saying that their parents helped in so many ways: from locating good music teachers, schools, and summer programs, to getting them to lessons, rehearsals and performances on time, while also figuring out how to pay for it all. In addition, there are those reminders (often not well received) that parents tend to give about not forgetting to practice. Ms. Spellman-Diaz received her share of reminders, noting that “at some points, I didn’t feel like practicing. Dad’s going to be thrilled that I’ve admitted that it helped that he nagged me to practice. For decades he has been bugging me to admit that.”

But beyond these basics, when I ask musicians to recall something especially mhelpful that they’re thankful to their parents for in terms of furthering their musical development, the responses tend to focus on how a parent helped them find their own musical way.

Toyin Spellman-Diaz
Toyin Spellman-Diaz as a teenager, during a summer she spent at the Interlochen Arts Academy. Courtesy, Interlochen Arts Academy.

Toyin-Spellman Diaz: The non-musical goal her parents had while looking for a good private flute teacher for their daughter during elementary school had a profound effect on Ms. Spellman-Diaz’s musical future. “They wanted an African-American teacher so I could see a classical musician who looked like me, to show me that there were African-American classical musicians out there,” she says. Her second flute teacher was also black, as was one of the three oboe teachers she had during high school, after she switched instruments. “It absolutely made an impact and is partly why I play in the Imani Winds.” This woodwind quintet of African American musicians was started in 1997 with much the same goal her parents had: to show the changing face of classical music. However, one of her flute teachers was also into jazz. “I think my parents were trying to steer me toward jazz. They would have been really excited if I became a jazz flutist,” she says. But classical music won out, and that was fine, too. “With my parents, it was knowing when to let go and let me find my own voice, my own passion for it.”

Jonathan Biss: This pianist credits his parents with creating an “atmosphere that I didn’t feel I was doing it to please them or because it was good for me. I was doing it because I loved music.” When he was young, he too sometimes needed practice reminders. “But if they said, ‘Go practice,’ which wasn’t often, it was always accompanied by ‘if you want to do this.’ Their point was that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, but if you choose to do it, you have to do it well.”

Paula Robison: After she started flute at age eleven, her father realized that she had a special flair for it and “saw a possible life for me as a musician,” says Ms. Robison. He knew regular practice was essential, but he didn’t want to become an overbearing, nagging parent. So when she was twelve, they shook hands on an agreement: she promised to practice at a certain time every day and if she didn’t, it would be all right with her for him to remind her. That went well until one day during her early teens when she was “lounging around on the couch” during the hour she was supposed to practice. He reminded her of their agreement. She says she angrily “stomped up the stairs” to practice and “whirled around and shouted, ‘Someday I’m going to thank you for this!’” And she has. “I thank my father every time I pick up the flute.”

Liang Wang: When asked what he was most grateful to his parents for, this New York Philharmonic principal oboist says, “They allowed me to be what I wanted to be. A lot of parents want their kid to fit into what they think the kid should do. Oboe was an unusual choice. There aren’t many Chinese oboe players.” But he fell in love with the sound of the oboe. They supported him in his choice. He notes that his mother “wanted me to pursue my dream.”

Mark Inouye: When asked about the best musical advice he received as a young musician, Mark Inouye recalls something his father said to him at about age eleven, after a particularly disappointing Little League baseball game “in which I had played poorly,” says this principal trumpet with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. The pep talk his father gave him carried over to his beginning efforts on trumpet, too. He says his father told him, “You may not be the one with the most talent, but if you are the one who works the hardest, you will succeed.”

Sarah Chang: “Mom understood I had enough music teachers in my life. The best thing she did was leave the music part to everyone else and be a mom,” says violinist Sarah Chang, who started performing professionally at age eight. “Bugging me about taking my vitamins, eating my vegetables, fussing about the dresses I wore in concerts. . . She was always encouraging, my number-one supporter.”

Headline image credit: Classical Music. Notes. Via CC0 Public Domain.

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22. Strange things did happen here…

Hi everyone!  So, that was another fun hiatus.  Since our last episode: My family moved from our Wisconsin home of 20 years, to the Fort Wayne area. I’ve made it a project to check out all the area coffee places and review them on FourSquare (and also hopefully find a new favorite haunt or two). Put […]

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23. Thanks, teacher: musicians reflect on special ways a teacher helped them learn their craft

“I was lucky all the time in having great teachers,” says clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. When I asked him about special ways his early teachers helped him, he mentioned his elementary school band director who was “enthusiastic and cheerful, no matter what,” and also a private teacher he had in high school who taught him how to practice with purpose. But the teacher who seems to have had a life-changing impact was his first private teacher, with whom he studied for about a year during junior high at a music store in San Francisco. That teacher instilled in young Mr. Stoltzman the idea that he could indeed become a musician.

Other musicians have cited similar confidence boosters when asked about the especially helpful things a teacher did for them. Here are teacher reminiscences from Mr. Stoltzman and other professional musicians.

Richard Stoltzman — “He taught me both saxophone and clarinet,” says Mr. Stoltzman of his first private teacher at that San Francisco music store. “He didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t play classical music and improvised music.” At this store, young Mr. Stoltzman played his first “crossover recital,” performing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” as well as a classical piece. “This was a big moment for me, that my teacher allowed me to do those things and encouraged them.” Then the Stoltzmans moved to Ohio. “I was so sad to leave that teacher. At my last lesson, he looked me in the eye and said something like, ‘You can do it. You can play music. Don’t stop.’ If somebody believes in you, that makes you say to yourself, ‘Well, this person believes in me. So even if I don’t think I can do it, I guess somehow I better keep doing it.’”

Isabel Trautwein — “My confidence was very low at the end of my undergraduate years. I was close to quitting because I was so uptight and just couldn’t stop worrying that I might play out of tune,” says Isabel Trautwein, violinist with the Cleveland Orchestra. “Then I went to Cleveland to study with Donald Weilerstein. He used the ultimate non-judgmental approach. He never used criticism. He would go through a piece line by line and wanted to know what I was trying to say, as a person. He would say, ‘In this phrase, where are you going?’ My eyes would open wide. I would think, ‘I don’t know. I’m just trying to play it in tune. I’m trying to play it well.’ But that’s a terrible goal. So he would say, ‘OK, but do you want it to be gutsy? Or dark? Are you going for the gypsy approach? Are you going for fantasy? ’ He had all these great words. He’d also say specific things like, ‘Feel your index finger when you play.’ It was a mixture of musical cues that have to do with the character and musical feel, and then physical cues that had the ability to take your mind away from that voice that says, ‘Oh, that wasn’t good,’ the critical voice. If I’m thinking about my fingertips, I’m not going to be able to judge myself on what just went wrong. Weilerstein’s lessons were only about the violin. Never psychoanalytical. It helped a lot.”

Paula Robison teaching at New England Conservatory.  Courtesy New England Conservatory and Andrew Hurlbut
Paula Robison teaching at New England Conservatory. Courtesy, New England Conservatory and Andrew Hurlbut.

Paula Robison — “I had been studying with Marcel Moyse for about five years, and was already in the professional world of music as well as the artistic one, but I still had many questions,” says flutist Paula Robison, who studied with this renowned teacher at the Marlboro Music School. “One day I came to a lesson with the Concerto in D of Mozart. I played the first movement. Mr. Moyse was silent. He puffed on his pipe, in deep thought. Minutes passed. I waited. Then he slowly said (in his wonderful French accent) ‘Paula, I have teach you many theeng, but now you MUST GO YOUR OWN WAY.’ I was shocked. I felt like a bird kicked out of the nest. But he was right. It was time for me to fly. And I did.”

Jennifer Undercofler — “I am so thankful to all my teachers for their tireless commitment and dedication, but the one lesson that stands out was the lesson I learned from the great Dorothy DeLay,” says violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, who studied with Ms. DeLay at Juilliard. “She told me to go to the library and listen to all the recordings I could get my hands on and attend concerts as much as possible, to listen and learn as much as possible. She thought it would be incredibly helpful to study the phrasing, tempi, sound, and technique of all performers so that I could imbue my own sound with this insightful study and thoughtfulness. This purpose of being able to teach oneself with the right tools, so as to ‘own’ your sound, was the greatest lesson of all.”

Jennifer Undercofler — “I’m probably most grateful to my first piano teacher, a graduate of the Paris Conservatoire, who was deeply creative, with a wonderful, wry sense of humor. She always expected more out of me than I thought I could give. I remember her assigning me an Ives etude (I must have been 10 or 11 years old), declaring that she hated it, but knew that I would probably love it. She proceeded to break it down with me over the coming weeks, with considerable gusto. She was right, of course—I did love it. I don’t know many teachers, even now, who would have taken that particular plunge with an elementary school student,” says pianist and music educator Jenny Undercofler, whose fascination with ‘new music’ has continued ever since. “In a similar vein, I remember Jerry Lowenthal calling me when I was a masters student at Juilliard, to tell me to make time to play ‘new music’ on the Focus Festival. I was so surprised and flattered by the call, and of course I then played in the festival, which further opened the ‘new music’ door. I think of this when I encourage private teachers to have their students play with Face the Music. Their ‘endorsement’ can make a world of difference.” Face the Music is a ‘new music’ ensemble for teenagers that she started as an outgrowth of her work as music director of the Special Music School, a New York City public school.

Toyin Spellman-Diaz — “The impetus for my interest in music came from my first public school music teacher in fifth grade,” says the Imani Winds oboist, Toyin Spellman-Diaz. “She inspired in me a love of seeing a project come to fruition. She put on musical productions. She would play the piano, rehearse the choir, have kids get costumes. She had crazy ideas and somehow made them come to life and did it with determination and joy. I remember watching her as a young child and thinking that even though it was a lot of work, she enjoyed what she was doing. I remember thinking, ‘I would really like to do something like this when I grow up.’ I sang in the choir. She introduced me to the flute and I played in the school band. I wanted to follow in her footsteps and be a music teacher,” says Ms. Spellman-Diaz, who has a studio of pupils now. She also serves as another kind of teacher during Imani Winds concerts, with the informative comments that she and others in the quintet share with the audience before each piece.

Headline Image: Sheet Music, Piano. Public domain via Pixabay.

The post Thanks, teacher: musicians reflect on special ways a teacher helped them learn their craft appeared first on OUPblog.

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24. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, by Caroline Jayne Church | Book Review

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, by Caroline Jayne Church, is a delightful board book that takes a childhood favorite nursery rhyme and sets it with beautiful illustrations of children around the world.

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25. A Q&A with a Keytar player

I sat down with V.J. Manzo, author of Max/MSP/Jitter for Music: A Practical Guide to Developing Interactive Music Systems for Education and More, and real-live Keytar player, to get the inside scoop on one of the coolest, retro electronic instruments on stage — the Keytar.

When and why did you decide to start playing Keytar? 

I’ve been playing keytar for a little over 5 years now. I play in a group where it is necessary to use multiple keyboards at once. I wanted to play an instrument that allowed me to move around freely on the stage, instead of always being tethered to the keyboard on a stand that is stuck in one location. The keytar, in particular the vintage Roland AX-7, looked retro and quirky, so I decided to use it because it made the parts I perform on it a little bit more fun and noticeable for the audience.

What exactly is a Keytar, and what makes it different from the keyboard?

A keytar is a synthesizer instrument just like a keyboard synthesizer on a traditional stand, but it is tied to a strap and worn like a guitar. It’s played mostly for live or stage performances. It differs from a keyboard on a stand in that it has a smaller range of keys, and can be worn. Because of the way it’s held, it’s probably best used for one-handed solos, rather than 2-handed playing that is more common with the keyboard on a stand. Unlike a piano, the keytar sends computer messages using a protocol called MIDI, that say “I played this note, this hard.” Then the software receives the information from the instrument and synthesizes the note with different sounds. For this reason, a keyboard or keytar can sound like anything: a piano, a guitar, a bagpipe—anything, really!

V.J. Manzo playing Keytar
V.J. Manzo playing Keytar. Image used with permission

What was the first song you learned to play on Keytar?

The first song I learned on keytar was “Separate Ways” by Journey. It had a really nice melody that I thought would stand out and be able to catch the audience’s attention. I remember thinking, “That main melody is really memorable, and iconic. It’s nice to get to play an instrument that really shows the audience where on the stage that melody is coming from, and in such a fun and surprising way.”

Do you remember your first Keytar performance? What was running through your head? 

Yes! I remember thinking, “WOW! This instrument takes a little bit of getting used to after playing keyboard. How do I hold this thing and play with good technique?! Oh, I can’t?— Oh well, at least it looks cool!”

What do you enjoy most about playing Keytar? 

I really enjoy being able to move around on stage, and having the ability to really interact and engage with the audience. That flexibility is something keyboard players don’t really get with the stand. It’s lot of fun too — and I usually get good responses from the audience.

Are there any notable Keytar players that you like?

Lots of players have used and currently use a keytar! Jordan Rudess from Dream Theater, Herbie Hancock, and Stevie Wonder all shred on Keytar! They were popular in the 80’s, but have recently become popular again with the introduction of new technologies into the new Roland models. It takes a certain amount of confidence for a keytarist to be ok with the stigma having “guitar-envy”!

What is your favorite song to play on the Keytar?

My favorite song to play on the keytar is “Tom Sawyer” by Rush. The keyboard lick in the middle is iconic, and with a keytar, the audience can actually see the notes I’m playing. The musical figure itself works out nicely to be played with one hand, which is ideal for the keytar!

V.J. Manzo playing keytar:

 Headline image credit: Korg RK-100 (1984) MIDI remote controller. CC-BY-2.0 via WikiCommons

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