Delle Citazioni dei Compositori alla Pellicola “Mean Girls”, op. 10 nos. 1-16

This is an extra-credit post, so anything goes. Therefore, I have hereby decided to produce something from one of my favorite hobbies – collecting snarky insults spoken by composers of composers. What follows are my favorites I have found.

Several notes:

  • I don’t necessarily agree with the insults enclosed. I just enjoy reading about composers throwing shade, and wanted to share that enjoyment with you. Please don’t complain in the comments.
  • The name of the insulter is a source for his (or Clara Schumann’s) quote. The other links can be musical examples, fun biographical facts, or (in one case) 45 minutes of cow footage. There will be a quiz later, so watch each video in its entirety.
  • The name of this post is my bad Italian for “Some Composers’ Quotes In the Manner of the Film “Mean Girls,” 10th Blog Post, Quotes 1-16.” If the Italian is bad, remember that the history of music is written in Italian by non-Italian speakers.
  • Yes, the only woman in the entire post is Clara Schumann. What can I say? Western musical history is full of Germans, and Germans sure love their Würste.

“He knows no more counterpoint than my cook!”

Baroque composer George Friedrich Handel, on creator of the modern operatic form Christoph Willibald Gluck

“A great tub of pork and beer.”
Romantic composer Hector Berlioz on George Friedrich Handel, famously caricatured here

“What an ungifted swine! It angers me that this conceited mediocrity is regarded as a genius… Brahms is just some chaotic and utterly empty wasteland.”

Russian Romantic composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky on the intellectual Johannes Brahms

“Rossini would have been a great composer if his teacher had spanked him enough on the backside.”

Master of the late Classical era Ludwig van Beethoven on opera buffa composer Gioachino Rossini

“One can’t judge Wagner’s opera Lohengrin after a first hearing… and I certainly don’t intend hearing it a second time.”

Great operatic composer Gioachino Rossini, on notorious narcissist with a composition habit Richard Wagner

“A man devoid of all talent.”

-Member of the famed Russian Five César Cui on deeply disturbed anti-Semite and all-around impossible human being Richard Wagner

“He does not know how to write four consecutive bars which are beautiful or even correct.”

Clara Schumann, on, Richard Wagner, who was such a jerk

“He gives me the impression of being a spoilt child… particularly in his compositions which I cannot qualify in any other term than ‘awful.’”
Clara Schumann, on subject of the most embarrassing historical film of all time Franz Liszt

“Listening to the fifth symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams is like staring at a cow for 45 minutes.”

Americana composer Aaron Copland on (believe it or not) the fifth symphony of Ralph Vaugh Williams

“A very tolerable imitation of a composer.”
English composer Ralph Vaugh Williams on late Romantic composer Mahler (whose buddies, as Tom Lehrer teaches, all knew him as Gustav)

“If he had been making shell cases during the war, it might have been better for music.”

Romantic composer and bitter misanthrope Camille Saent-Saëns on French Impressionist Maurice Ravel

“He’d be better off shoveling snow than scribbling on manuscript paper.”

Early modernist composer and 2001: A Space Odyssey score writer Richard Strauss on twelve-tone pioneer Arnold Schoenberg

“The expressions he uses are as banal as a cheap song.”

Twelve-tone pioneer Arnold Schoenberg on early modernist composer and 2001: A Space Odyssey score writer Richard Strauss

“I play through all his music every so often to see if I am right about him. I usually find I underestimated last time how bad he was.”

English composer Benjamin Britten on listening to Johannes Brahms again.

“I liked the opera very much. Everything but the music.”

English composer Benjamin Britten on Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress

“Why is it that whenever I hear a piece of music I don’t like, it’s always by Villa-Lobos?”

Polytonal composer Igor Stravinsky on Brazilian art composer Heitor Villa-Lobos

There wasn’t actually a quiz. Hope you enjoyed 45 minutes of cow footage. Thank you!

Get the Show On – Get Paid

Somebody once told me the world is gonna roll me – I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed.” Thus began one of the most popular songs that alternative pop-punk-ska band Smash Mouth released. Smash Mouth, also known as “Guy Fieri in band form,” could easily be called the first toll of the bell announcing the death of 90s ska. But before they began to wither away into Twitter battles and pathetically misspelled pseudo-tributes to George Michael, Smash Mouth performed the soundtrack music for a certain film known as Shrek.

The Internet, it turned out, liked this film. It liked it so much, in fact, that its love for said film has its own Wikipedia page. And when the Internet loves something (see: DeviantArt, fanfiction.net) it loves it to an unsettling degree. Like Lennie from Of Mice and Men, the Internet has a bad habit of loving things so much it crushes them to death. For “All Star,” this came in the fashion of remixes after remixes.

It began with finding other characters from other series to create covers. From Disney animation to Steven Universe cartoons, many of these were from other kid-friendly sources. But the Internet doesn’t know “kid-friendly.” So as the election came up, we found ourselves listening to our current Dear Leader’s performance, and (through the Internet’s limitless talent to make things weird) a mash-up where every use of the word “the” is replaced with “China” and the recording speeds up 10%.

That’s a good junping off point to the next field of Youtube remixes. These changed the recording itself. Some replaced all the lyrics with one word, like “somebody,” or multiplied the number of “sheds.” Some reordered the notes by alphabetical order or by pitch, or removed any pitch alterations entirely. Some reversed the lyrics while keeping the rest of the song in order, while some removed all the lyrics entirely. These remixes didn’t stop coming, and things got really dank.

So the music nerds came in. Suddenly we had a Bach chorale following strict Common Practice contrapuntal rules. We had staggered remixes tripping you up with 7 beats per measure. We had remixes passing through ten different distinct musical genres. And we had this piece of musical genius here.

But now that the Baroque chorale has fallen upon the throne of Smash Mouth, where can we go? Fool! The Internet asks not “where”, yea – it does! After experimenting with adding the lyrics to “All Star” to other accompaniment tracks like Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” the Chainsmokers’ “Closer,” or Rick Astley’s notorious “Never Gonna Give You Up”, the assorted YouTube hordes found their true calling – autotuning the beautiful vocal stylings of Steve Hartwell to new melodies. We gained Smashified versions of Evanescense’s “Bring Me To Life,” David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” A-ha’s “Take On Me,” and Darude’s “Sandstorm.” I could go on… so I will. Thomas the Tank Engine’s theme song. Seinfeld’s theme song. A song from the Icelandic children’s show BNE Lazy Town. LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN’S DAMN FIFTH SYMPHONY! (At least we know why he went deaf now.) Perhaps the Internet asks not “where,” but perhaps it should consider asking “why not.”

So our larger question is – what made this shitty ska-pop song from 1999 the unofficial anthem of YouTube? I have two theories. First, it comes from the late 90s, the era much of the Internet grew up in. All the more so, it was featured in a popular children’s movie of the early 2000s (which is love and is life). If the 500 articles showing “you’re a ‘90s kid” show anything, it’s the enduring appeal of said decade. Second, the chorus’ refrain – “You’re an all star! All that glitters is gold!” is appealing to a generation that grew up surrounded by “high self esteem” advocates, and now is faced with a bunch of old jerks blaming us for everything, just like their parents did to them. The water’s getting warm, so you might as well swim.

A Long Time Coming

Who was Sam Cooke? Sam Cooke was myriads upon myriads. Sam Cooke was the King of Soul. Sam Cooke was the inventor of soul music. Sam Cooke was the Black Elvis. Sam Cooke was a founding inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The world would say to Sam Cooke, “Honey, you can’t be beat!” Who was Sam Cooke? He was everything.

Sam Cooke was a devout man, a top-notch gospel singer. The fifth of eight children of a Baptist minister and his wife, he was a lead singer in a gospel group by the age of 14, and was the lead singer of the Soul Stirrersone of the biggest gospel groups in America – by 1950. Yet popular music at the time was often considered a sin – abhorrent to the Lord, to be avoided by any devout Christians, especially by gospel singers.

Sam Cooke was a rule-breaker. Sam didn’t want to be bound to solely perform gospel music for all his life. In 1956 he released the pop song ‘Lovable’ under the pseudonym “Dale Cook” to “test the waters.” But his voice was so recognizable that a pseudonym wasn’t enough to satisfy the Soul Stirrers. He found himself without a label.

Sam Cooke was a tenacious man. He found a new label, the independent “black music” label Keen Records, and released a new song under his own name – ‘You Send Me’ – a number one hit on both the ‘black music’ R&B chart and the ‘mainstream’ pop chart, generally reserved for white musicians! Sam Cooke went on to chart with more hits like ‘You Were Made for Me’, ‘Only Sixteen,’ ‘Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha,’ and ‘Wonderful World’ (NOT the Louis Armstrong record, you racists. And comparing their vocal stylings is like comparing this with this). But there were limitations in working for a small label like Keen, and the mega-label RCA Records was knocking on his door. All of a sudden…

Sam Cooke was a star. He had resources he couldn’t have dreamed of at a smaller label. And like many great artists who gain access, he expanded his musical styles, from straight dance tunes like ‘Twistin’ the Night Away’, to bluesy laments like ‘Sad Mood’ or ‘Bring It on Home to Me’, to bouncy proto-Motown odes to girlfriends like ‘Sugar Dumpling’, to socially-conscious pop anthems like ‘Chain Gang’. But Cooke wanted to do more.

Sam Cooke was woke. As the civil rights movement was picking up steam in the early 60s, he amassed an unprecedented amount of control over his work and his finances, more than any black performer had ever had before. And as he “was particularly entranced by” Peter, Paul and Mary’s performance of Bob Dylan’s glorious protest song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ he decided to work on his masterpiece, a work called an “anthem of the civil rights era,” a fully orchestrated piece of genius on the level of Gershwin himself – ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. He was never to see it released.

Sam Cooke was murdered in a hotel in Los Angeles at age 33. The story behind it is confusing and full of holes. Some claim Cooke was abusing a woman named Elisa Boyer in his room, others claim Boyer was robbing him. Eyewitness accounts disagree about just about everything in the story, other than one thing – he ran out of his room in no pants and Bertha Franklin shot him in the heart. The case was closed far sooner than it should have been, and probably what actually happened in that hotel room will be a mystery forever.

But one thing we know is that Sam Cooke was a devout, rule-breaking, tenacious, talented, woke, musician, the likes of whom we will never see again. And considering the news, we should remember that no matter howlong the time has been coming, a change is gonna come, yes it will!

Cantor Jeff Warschauer: Davening Through Music

I met Jeff Warschauer at in NYC in 2014. He was running the Columbia University klezmer band. I didn’t know at the time that I was talking to one of the most well-known mandolinists in the world of klezmer. I talked to him on Wednesday. Here’s our interview, edited and somewhat summarized. Some Yiddish terms have added definitions in [square brackets].

I: You’ve said to me you grew up in a secular family. What drew you to Yiddish culture and klezmer as a genre?

J: Growing up, I Iargely lacked an identification with the Jewish community. My mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany, whose native language was German. My father had an Eastern European background. We had a little Jewish culture – we celebrated some hoidays, we sang some songs. If I heard any Hebrew, it would be in a German Ashkenazi pronunciation. My grandmother was a Zionist, so we had books about Israel in the house. And as a child of a refugee, we had a lot of stories about the Khurban [the Yiddish term for the Shoah or the Holocaust].

I: Could you give an example?

J: My mom remembers that my grandfather was a store manager. My grandmother was blond with blue eyes. Some Nazis bothered her while she was coming into the store with my mother, saying, “What is an Aryan like you doing going into a Jew store?” She grinned and said, “Smile to the nice man.” My grandmother was a strong woman.

I: Sounds like it!

J: Yes. Also, my generation saw a lot of Holocaust stuff on TV. Anyway, I didn’t have a bar mitzvah ceremony when I was thirteen, but I read a lot. I was a voracious reader – I would read whatever I could get my hands on.

I: How did you break into klezmer as a genre?

J: I grew up playing guitar. I eventually fell in with a group of “Jewbillies,” playing what I call “American ethnic music” – country, bluegrass, rockabilly – in bars. I was a working musician, working as a frontman for the rockabilly performer Sleepy LaBeef. But I was feeling limited by the music scene I was in. So I went back to school at the New England Conservatory, in what was then called the “Third Stream Department” and now the “Contemporary Improvization Department.” I studied under the great Hankus Netzky and Alan Bern. It was a great environment for me to begin exploring my own ethnomusical roots.

I: What drew you to the mandolin?

J: The guitar is not a traditional klezmer instrument at all. While I was at NEC I spent time working on using the guitar as accompaniment or as a solo instrument, but for playing lead I needed something else. I wasn’t about to pick up the fiddle or clarinet, and electric guitar was frowned on at the time. But I had some experience with the mandolin. I was influenced by Andy Statman, as well.

I: You’re a founding member of the Ger Mandolin Orchestra, a mandolin supergroup. Could you explain the concept of a mandolin orchestra?  

J: A mandolin orchestra is a group of instruments in the mandolin family, often accompanied by an accordion or percussionist to fill out the sound. The original Ger mandolin orchestra was an amateur pre-war group from Góra Kalwaria (Yiddish: Ger), Poland. After the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) secular Jewish cultural and educational groups like this grew. The mandolin was at the time like a recorder today – a not-too-expensive starter instrument. So it was a good one for amateur groups. The current Ger Mandolin Orchestra is named in their honor.

I: Any stories in your career that strongly affected your life path?

J: In 1985, I was one of four klezmer musicians who went to (what was then) the Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks [Jews denied the right to leave the USSR] and non-Jewish civil rights activists. We played music with them, and I was struck by how they were using music to promote human rights! We were interrogated by the KGB and were eventually forced to leave. So we used that notoriety to help get some of the refuseniks out. We met with Ted Kennedy, Alan Dershowitz, and other important officials from both sides of the Iron Curtain, and we helped some people escape. It was extremely formative to my Jewish identity, showing me what the People Israel really can be.

I: After years as a major figure in the Jewish folk community, you decided to go back to school. I met you while you were studying to become a cantor. What inspired this decision?

J: First of all, Deborah Strauss, my wife and musical partner, and I would do musical residencies around the world. It was fulfilling, but I sometimes felt like a “new kid on the block,” dropping in and leaving without ever making a home. I had also become more observant, and was looking for a way to keep Jewish traditions like not traveling on Shabbos which were difficult for a touring musician. But really the key was that I felt I needed to know nusach and cantillation [traditional melodies for prayer or reading] for a fuller understanding of klezmer. For years, I’ve been playing different types of music, trying to daven [Yiddish for “pray” or “have a spiritual experience”] through it, so I decided, “Why not learn how to use music specifically designed for davening?”

I: Finally, any advice for people considering going into music?

J: Hankus Netzky told me his teacher Ruth Rubin told him, “Don’t expect anyone to be interested in what you do, and don’t expect to make a living in it.” Having a disposable income is helpful, too.

I: Thank you!

J: It was great to talk with you!

 

Seattle with Missiles

Let’s play an association game. What do you think of when you think of the state of Israel? If you’re like many Americans, you’ve thought of an impoverished, dangerous war zone. But ask a person who’s been to Tel Aviv or to Jerusalem and they’re likely to say they feel safer in Israel than they do in America! So let’s narrow this down and play another round. I’ll describe an area, you tell me what you’d expect there.

Imagine, if you will, a small impoverished desert city, barely half a mile from the Gaza Strip border, the direct target so many Qassam rockets (over 4,200) that its unofficial nickname is the Bomb Shelter Capital of the World, where over 70% of children show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder,  where you can’t sell your house and leave because nobody would buy it, a city that  other cities’ mayors use as an example of what they will not turn into. What do you suppose would be this city’s greatest contribution to the world? War reporting? CNN coverage? Michael Bay movies? Well, how about a music scene so vibrant and revolutionary it’s called the Seattle of Israel? Ḥaverim, may I welcome you to Sderot, home of the most unlikely rock hotspot on the planet.

The story of Sderot’s rock all started with a man named Ḥaïm Uliel, born to a poor Moroccan Jewish family in a tin shack in Sderot, founded as a refugee camp in 1951. Israel had, and still has, a serious problem regarding relations between (largely wealthy and successful) Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and (often poorer and discriminated-against) Mizraḥi and Maghrebi Jews from Arab countries. Pronunciation and language differences and a music industry controlled by Askenazim meant that Israeli music was dominated by Ashkenazi artists, Western bands, or Ashkenazi artists covering Western bands. But, like a high-schooler in a Twisted Sister video, Ḥaïm wanted to rock. In 1988, he founded a local Sderot band called Sfatayim (“Lips,”) which mainly got work at local Moroccan weddings. Uliel recalled in 2007, “Beatles, Led Zeppelin. I dreamed of being Jimi Hendrix. But I also understood that to make a living, I had to play at weddings, and that meant playing… songs in Moroccan.” So he combined the songs of his Moroccan heritage with the rock he loved, adding his own inspiration to create something new and never before seen.

The Israeli mainstream couldn’t make head of tail of Sfatayim. Labels weren’t interested in Arabic music, and radio DJs wouldn’t play it. But it caught on, surprisingly enough, on world music stations, played along with Cuban dance music and West African guitarists. In the words of Matt Rees, “Most of the first Sfatayim fans outside the Moroccan Jewish community were unaware that the Arabic hits ‘Lalla Isha’ and ‘Ahlan waSahlan’ were recorded by five guys who grew up forty minutes outside of Tel Aviv.” But their notoriety grew as they released gold album after gold album, until they were welcomed into the Israeli mainstream. Looking back, Uliel reminisced,

“As we matured, we became more socially aware. We started to understand what we had achieved. That we had won. Until Sfatayim, North African music wasn’t played on the radio in Israel. I feel we managed to save the culture of our parents and bring it from the margins into the mainstream.”

Sfatayim’s keyboardist Kobi Oz founded Teapacks, a “bizarre mélange” of rock, Mizraḥi music, and Chasidic klezmer that became so popular as to record the disturbingly schizophrenic klezmer-French-folk-metal-rap ode to nuclear annihilation “Push the Button”, the official Israeli entrant for Eurovision in 2007.

Altogether, this poor dusty desert town of Sderot begat a new kind of rock – Rock Mizraḥi (note – link in Hebrew). Combining Arabic folk music, Western rock, and a unique Israeli ethos, it was born and raised here, but, like the Liverpudlian skiffle that inspired the Beatles or the Seattle garage rock responsible for the ‘90s alternative renaissance, a seed of something wholly new was planted. The Seattle of Israel may have more missiles raining down than water, but, more than the Ashkenazi establishment’s talking points ever could, the seed of Rock Mizraḥi “made the desert bloom.”

Roumania, Roumania: How It Sounds

 

 

Aaron Lebedeff (born 1873 in Belarus, died 1960 in New York City) is probably the single greatest Yiddish performer of all time. He was born for the stage, singing with the local cantor Khazzan  Borukh Dovid in his shtetl and running away from home multiple times to join theatre troupes. After being drafted into the Russian Army in the war, he was sent to Manchuria, and went from there to Shanghai to San Francisco to New York City (the exact opposite direction almost every other Jewish immigrant came to what was affectionately called the American Jerusalem). Unlike many of the performers of his time, he composed, wrote the lyrics to, and sang and performed all of his material.

Lebedeff’s most famous work is the classic comedic monologue Rumenye, Rumenye, an old recording of which I’ve linked here. The Jewish community of Romania was often joked about by other Jewish communities, who characterized them as drunken thieving lowlifes who only want a good time. This song plays into those stereotypes, but in a humorous and poignant way. And we see this in the song’s structure.

We begin with a slow clarinet introduction, full of the sobbing krekhts and quivering dreydlekh that characterize eastern European folk music. Then, at 14 seconds, our narrator comes in. “Ekh!” he shouts. “Rumania, Rumania, Rumania, Rumania, RUMANIA, Rumania, Rumania!” We hear the loss in his voice as he reminisces… “Once there was a land, sweet and lovely.” Is this song going to be yet another dirge about lost history and home, as was his Slutsk mein Shtetele? But at 50 seconds, we reach a turn!

 

“Oy, to live there would be such a delight!”

“What your heart desires you can get!”

“A mamaliga!”

“A pastrami!”

“A karnatzl!”

SLAM!

SLAM!

SLAM!

SLAM!

SLAM!

And just as it seems to be calming down with “a little glass of wiiiine,” we break into a fast-paced freylekh dance. This is the core of the song, and as the music livens up, so to do the words:

 

In Rumania, life is good!

No one worries, no one should.

Everywhere they’re drinking wine –

And a bit of cheese is fine

In Rumania, iz dokh gut

Fun keyn dayges veyst men nit.

Vayn trinkt men iberal –

M’farbayst mit kashtaval.

Ay-diggidiggidum-diggidiggidum!

 

At 1:38, we suddenly find ourselves major! And at 1:58, we come across the chorus:

 

Ah, it’s such a joy!

You can’t find better

Ah, it’s such a delight

Drinking Rumanian wine!

Ay, s’iz a mekhaye,

beser ken nit zayn!

Ay, a fargenign

iz nor Rumeynish vayn.

 

At 2:09, we start hearing some new “vocables” or nonsense sounds. These grow more prominent throughout the verses and verses and verses as the speed increases to a climax at 3:07.

Suddenly, a full stop. We’re back at the beginning, with some pseudo-chazzanus from the former cantorial soloist. As Aaron semiaudibly reminisces about Bucharesti, we begin to let our guard down. This is a bad idea. At 3:19, a huge “HEYYYYY!” starts the second half of the song – twice as fast. We find ourselves in almost a full minute of nonsense sounds, from rhythmic panting to a clarinet impression to lip flapping, smacking, and gargling.

When meaningful words come back at 4:00, we’re not sure what to expect. But what do we find? Did you guess a reference to the ancient Sabbath liturgy, followed by a bunch of crude and rape-y jokes about sexual harassment? Well, that’s what we get.

 

“May redemption come from the heavens!”

Stop and kiss the cook, Khayeh

Dressed in old scraps of cloth

She’s making a kugel to honor the Sabbath

Moishe Khayim comes over

And takes the best part for himself

Moyshe Khayim, Borukh Shmil

Grabs her kitzl* in secret.

And the girl pouts, annoyed

And she doesn’t want it, but allows it.

“Yokum purkon min shamayo!”

Shteyt un kusht di kekhene, Khaye,

Ongeton in alte shkrabes,

Makht a kugal likoved Shabbos!

Iz Moyshe Kahyim ongekumen

Dos beste kheylik tzugenumen;

Moyshe Khayim, Borukh Shmil – 

Khapt a kitzl in der shtil!

Un dos meydl nebekh blozt zikh

Un zi vil nit nor zi lozt zikh.

*I’m not translating kitzl, but I’ll let you know katz means “cat” and –l is the diminutive ending, like –y in English. Figure it out yourselves, creeps.

After the patter song gets more and more convoluted, we’re solidly back in party mode, which goes on as another chorus (5:00) goes on to a vast shout (5:10), then more vocables, another few verses of patter, and finally one ending chorus (5:52) and three last great big shouts (6:01).

People say the Jewish story is one of loss and tragedy, and that may be true. But we have some great parties as well. And Lebedeff, the great one of Yiddish theater, shows that more than anyone else. This recording was made after the Nazis destroyed Jewish Europe, and the Soviets disappeared what was left. But Lebedeff knew as we all should remember that you can’t have sorrow without joy. You can’t have mournful reminiscence without drunken parties. And as Purim, the Jewish celebration of drunken nonsense, comes up, we should keep that in mind. Enjoy your Rumanian wine!

Achievements in Anti-Joyce: 5 Classic Songs that Mean Less than You Think

People love to search for hidden meanings in song lyrics. They always have, and they always will. From 2500-year-old erotic poetry being reinterpreted as sacred scriptural allegory (seriously, click on those and scroll down to 4:5 – you won’t be disappointed) to people looking for everything from elaborate death hoaxes to in modern classic rock. This is an entirely harmless activity (with some odd or insane exceptions) that provides great amusement to both listeners and authors. And musicians often write music that begs for overanalysis while actually being about the inanest subjects, whether for their own entertainment or just by accident. I call these works “achievements in anti-Joyce,” because just as every time you read Ulysses you reveal a new layer of depth, every time you listen to these five songs you uncover a new kind of nonsense. And here are five of them, followed by how people analyze them and what their composers said. IMPORTANT NOTE: These are all songs I love. Just because they mean less than you think doesn’t mean they’re not great. This is not intended to insult these songs, but rather to show that we can appreciate works of musical genius with incredibly silly lyrics.

 

1: Bob Dylan, Mr. Tambourine Man 

With lyrics like “Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship” and “Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of your mind”, many have claimed this song is about LSD and the druggie counterculture of the 60s. The mysterious “Tambourine Man” whose song is requested has been identified with characters from counterculture icon His Hipness Lord Buckley to the Pied Piper of Hamlin to Jesus himself. And Dylan is, of course, the unchallenged master of allegory and poetry in song lyrics (just ask the Nobel Prize committee!)

So what does the Bard of the 20th Century say this song is about? A man, with a tambourine, playing a song for him. In 1985, Dylan confided in an interview that the song was based on seeing his friend Bruce Langhorne in the studio. In his own words: “…he had this gigantic tambourine… It was as big as a wagon wheel. He was playing, and this vision of him playing this tambourine just stuck in my mind.”

 

2: Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven

 From Satanic conspiracy theories involving backmasking to complaints about a pretentious Tolkien-inspired “P*O*E*T*I*C lyrics… as lush as a Kleenex forest,” one thing everyone can agree about Stairway to Heaven is that its lyrics must be at least attempting to deliver a deeper message. But, in the words of self-declared “intensive researcher of lyrics” (read: spewer of pretentious pseudospirituality and other nonsense) Bob Wallace, “If you ask a million people to give their interpretation of Led Zeppelins’ Stairway to Heaven, without collaboration, you will get a million different interpretations.” Maybe that’s because the song is at such a deep level we cannot understand its true nature, like the universal form of Krishna, or like Tshup Aklathep, the Infernal Star Toad with a Million Young.

Or maybe we should listen to Robert Plant, the author of the lyrics. He has said that “nobody can blame you” for hating the lyrics because of how “pompous” they are. He has said “I struggle with some of the lyrics from particular periods of time. Maybe I was still trying to work out what I was talking about.” Or maybe he didn’t know in the first place. He wrote it sitting by the fire with Jimmy Page and hashed it out in just one night.

 

3: David Bowie, Life on Mars

This song has been described as sounding “like a cross between a Broadway musical and a Salvador Dali painting,” with “a slew of surreal images” as lyrics, flowing topics together from an obscure reference to a 1960 novelty song about a comic strip to a mockery of John Lennon’s (alleged) “working class hero” status. This song is perplexing enough that an entire TV series was based on it, using it to create a fish-out-of-water feeling as if being on another planet. There must be some deep meaning behind all these evocative images, right?

Turns out it was written as a parody of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” after he got the rights to the original French song it was based on instead of Bowie. The chord progression is close to the same, and Bowie admitted writing it in one afternoon. It’s consequently been described as a “song about plagiarism,” and it seems that was the intention from the beginning!

 

4: Peter, Paul and Mary, Puff the Magic Dragon

It’s such a well-known “fact” that this song is about weed that it’s become a running joke that potheads won’t shut up about it. In the sarcastic words of acclaimed urban legend debunking site Snopes,

“Puff” was an obvious name for a song about smoking pot; little Jackie Paper’s surname referred to rolling papers; “autumn mist” was either clouds of marijuana smoke or a drug-induced state; the land of “Hanah Lee” was really the Hawaiian village of Hanalei, known for its particularly potent marijuana plants; and so on.

This is a sore spot for Peter Yarrow, the song’s author. He’s been forced to defend against this accusation for years, and it clearly has annoyed him to no end. He’s called it “sloppy research” with “no basis for it,” has lamented that it “it defames the sweetness of a child’s song,” and has proclaimed, “What kind of a meanspirited SOB would write a children’s song with a covert drug message?” The guy is 78. Let him be, people!

 

5: The Beatles, I Am the Walrus  

What do people think this psychedelic Lennon song means? A better question might be what they don’t think it means! Some have analyzed it as referring to Lewis Carrol’s “the Walrus and the Carpenter,” with John as an allegory for the walrus, while the oysters he leads to be taken advantage of are the Beatles’ fans. Others have looked through the pounding  opening and heard old emergency sirens. The “Paul is Dead” conspiracy theorists eventually reached the point where they thought “that almost every line of “I Am the Walrus” relates to Paul’s death and replacement by a lookalike.” From the beginning (“’I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together’ clearly  refers to a massive unified conspiracy!”) to  the end (“The clip from King Lear’sO, untimely death!’ is about Paul!”), every lyric they slice and dice to fit their theory.

But what really happened? Well, this song is at the end of this list for a reason. John probably meant the entire song as a prank to play on those who overanalyzed his lyrics! John’s old friend Pete Shotton told it like this:

“I dipped into a sack [of fan mail] that had just arrived and pulled out a letter which happened to be from our old school, from a pupil at Quarry Bank. He said his English teacher was getting them to read and analyse [sic] Beatles lyrics, find out the hidden meanings, what they were really all about. This started John off remembering lines we used to recite when we were at school. ’How did that dead dog’s eye song go, Pete?’ I thought for a while and remembered bits of it – about yellow matter custard, green slop pie, all mixed together with a dead dog’s eye. ’That’s it,’ said John, and he started scribbling: ’Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye.’ And it went into I Am The Walrus. He threw in semolina, thinking of how we were forced to eat it as kids and hated it, and pilchards. When he finished, he turned to me and said: ’Let the f***ers work that one out, Pete!’”

 

No matter the original meaning of these songs’ lyrics, they’re all still classics, and we love them for a reason. Patterson Hood of the Southern punk band Drive-By Truckers said of Stairway to Heaven, “I’ve always been a lyric guy, and there aren’t lyrics that would hold up on their own without the music in their catalogue. But Stairway is a perfect lyric for that music.” We can use the same logic for all the songs on this list. Dylan’s ethereal imagery fits the airy acoustic guitar and harmonica of Mr. Tambourine Man wonderfully, just as Bowie’s surreal pop-culture references meld together with the ‘70s TV hugeness of Life on Mars, and the imagery of the dragon in a faraway land works with Peter, Paul, and Mary’s campfire storytelling style. And even the intentional complete nonsense of I am the Walrus is perfect for the psychedelic cacophony of the music – were the lyrics to make sense the music wouldn’t fit at all! Lyrics don’t have to be deep to be perfect for their song, and overanalysis can, if we’re not careful, ruin what we love. We can peel back the nonsense only to find more nonsense, but music first and foremost touches the heart, not the mind. Let the songs speak for themselves!

The Takács String Quartet’s Beethoven Cycle

Ludwig van Beethoven’s string quartets are well known as some of his most forward-thinking works. From his early quartets (Opus 18, no. 1-6)  demonstrating his mastery of the form to his colossal and complex late quartets (Ops 1278, 130-133, 135), he pushed the boundaries of the form, making it into what it is today. Conveniently for performance cycles, Beethoven wrote 17 (when separately counting the Große Fuge Op. 133, technically originally meant to be a finale attached to no. 13), and they evenly range throughout his musical periods, meaning a series can have a taste of multiple periods in each concert.

The Takács String Quartet of Hungary is an acclaimed quartet, forty-two years in age, which is performing the complete Beethoven string quartet cycle, all 17 string quartets, at Princeton University’s 123rd season of concerts (six sessions, throughout the 2016-2017 school year). I recently attended their fourth program, on January 19. They performed:

Before the concert, there was a lecture by Princeton music professor Scott Burnham about a specific element in the string quartets. Several in the series had similar lectures, and this one focused on Beethoven’s slow movements. This was most likely because this program’s three quartets have some of Beethoven’s greatest slow movements. Although I enjoyed the lecture and its discussion of said slow movements, it felt a bit like a spoiler. One of the best parts of a classical performance of an unfamiliar piece to me is how it unfolds and shifts, revealing itself as you listen, especially in Beethoven’s heavily motivic works. So listening to a lecture (including recordings of key transitions) before seeing the performance can sometimes spoil the wonderful surprise you get when, for instance, the third variation of the second movement of String Quartet #12 shits from A-flat to the distant key of E through use of a single half-step. I would have probably enjoyed the lecture more had it been at a separate event, or after the concert instead of before. Nevertheless, it was still fascinating and I don’t regret attending.

The performances were excellent, but the Takács quartet has been around so long it would be more surprising had they not been. Their style is often heavily emotional, and you can see that they are deep into the music and having the time of their lives. It was as much fun to watch the performers as it was to hear the music, and when you love Beethoven as much as I do, that’s a hell of a lot of fun.

The seating was interestingly arranged – as part of what they called “Beethoven Up Close,” the balcony was closed, and seats were placed on the stage, so that the audience (through a system of open seating) surrounded the performers. This was a nice idea, but it had the minor drawback that any coughs, shuffles, or dropped items on the stage were heavily amplified from the acoustics in the auditorium.

All in all, it has been a fantastic series, and the oddities in seating are more than made up for by the sheer joy of the performers and their fantastic performances. Although this particular post focuses on their most recent program, I’ve been to three of them, and will be attending the final two as well. I highly recommend the series to anybody who wants to experience the heights that a string quartet can reach. The March 15th (with “Beethoven Up Close” seating) and 16th (with a pre-concert lecture) still have available tickets!

*Yes, it’s labeled no. 3. It was published third in Op. 18, but he had completed it before any of the other five in the opus. Opus numbers can be complicated for people who don’t know a lot about classical music, so as an analogy, remember that the Beatles recorded Abbey Road last, but released Let It Be after Abbey Road.

Sephardic Songs

You start playing Sarband’s 1994 Sephardic Songs. A woman’s voice, unaccompanied, strikes up a lament. But then, the kettle drums come in, and you enter a different world. A wonderful call-and-response begins, and you get four straight minutes of sheer exuberance. But they suddenly cut out and conclude with a melancholy choral work, as if awakening from a wondrous dream into cold hard reality. And all three are part the first track!

The story of Sephardi Jewry, also known as the Jewish community of Spanish and Portuguese heritage, is full of such contrasts. From the great expulsion of 1492 of which the opening Ea Judios cries, to the startling modernity and openness shown by the central depiction of of a woman having an affair, concluding with the church-influenced yet pastoral melancholy of Juan del Encina the “New Christian” priest. The Jews of Spain experienced both the highest of privileges and the lowest of persecutions during their thousand-year history, and their art shows this.

Yet there’s another side to Sephardi tradition. Unlike the enforced separations of the ghettoes of Italy or the Russian Pale of Settlement, the Jews of Spain were part of a great multiethnic culture of Christians, Jews and Muslims living together and (more or less) harmoniously. And no band is better suited to show this than Sarband, a medieval music ensemble featuring Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike performing music together.

We can see an example of this side of Sephardi culture on this album as well. A simple tune, less than a dozen notes long and a fourth in range, was adopted by Muslims, Christians, and Jews to their own words. From an Arabic folksong Qalbi bi-qalbi qalbi Arabi (Arabic for “my heart, oh my heart is the heart of an Arab”) the Jews of Spain wrote a Ladino song Rey don Alonso (honoring King Alfonso VI of León, who conquered Toledo and gave the Jews new privileges), as well as a Hebrew homophonic translation as Kol libi, kol libi, kol libi l’Avi (Hebrew for “All my heart, all my heart, all my heart is for my Father”) for secret “conversos” to hold on to their heritage under cover.

This fusion of cultures continues throughout this album, including classical Arabic poetry set to Spanish folk music, strange and possibly satirical fusions of Arabic, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew words set in a classic motet form, solo lute music from little-known Italian composers, and an extended (over eleven minutes!) folk ballad called “Porke yorash” that seems to be impossible to find in recording online.

In the US, we often think of Judaism as an Eastern European thing, associated with Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews of the Woody Allen type. Ashkenormativity is so accepted it has its own TVTropes page. It’s so standard Mel Brooks’ “Spanish Inquisition” song from History of the World, part I has Jewish characters IN SPAIN talking like stereotypical alter kockers. We need to face that. And an album like this, with is mishmash of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions in a classically Spanish way, achieves this goal. Sephardic Songs is altogether a great album for expanding your perspective on what is Jewish and what is global, and I recommend it.