Friday, November 15, 2013

Deep thoughts (not mine) about music

Let['s start with a masterpiece from the Great American Songbook, "Autumn in New York," with words and music by Vernon Duke and a warm rendition by Frank Sinatra:

I began there because an excerpt from Duke's out-of-print autobiography, "Passport to Paris," is one of the highlights in a magazine I read this week: the fall issue of Daedalus, the quarterly journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. (Go here to learn more.)

The forward by Gerald Early tells us the last and only issue of Daedalus ever devoted to music was "The Future of Opera" 27 years ago. This one encompasses everything from hip-hop to Johnny Cash, dance-floor politics in the 1940s to racial politics in a play about Louis Armstrong (Terry Teachout's "Satchmo at the Waldorf," excerpted in this issue).

Some of the scholasticism made me think of a saying of my dad's: When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Many American 20th-century classical composers were homosexual or bisexual -- Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Ned Rorem, Gian-Carlo Menotti -- but I don't think their music is more interesting or comprehensible if heard through that filter, and I don't believe homophobia led to Copland's downfall in the 1950s and '60s. (He incorporated serial techniques and wrote music most people didn't want to hear.)

But most of the academicians turn phrases well and make salient points. I especially enjoyed Ellie Hisama's retrospective on Ruth Crawford Seeger, the pioneering folklorist and classical composer (and Pete's stepmother), and John McWhorter's essay about "Early to Bed," the lost Fats Waller musical from 1943 that was the first one written by a black composer for a mostly white cast. (Waller died six months after the premiere, and no cast album was recorded.)

Most of the issue deals with music we listen to purely for pleasure. But we can get a different kind of pleasure when a thoughtful writer takes it apart and puts it together again for us.