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Bruckner, Brown, Blakey, and Bop

Music of varying forms has been on my mind lately. Today's entry deals with some recent experiences with sacred and secular music.

One thing I like about being a part of the Catholic Parish where I'm registered is that when you go to Mass, you know you went to MASS. Catholicism has picked up a lot of ritual and theatrical baggage in its two millenia of existence, which I know doesn't agree with everyone. Personally, I tend to think that it's the Eastern European part of my heritage that goes in for the ritualistic and mystic parts of religion. But hey, that's me.

This past Sunday's Mass was particularly theatrical for two reasons. The first was that it was Pentacost, the fiftieth day after Easter Sunday when the Holy Spirit first came to the Twelve Apostles. The second was that a deacon in residence at the Parish had been ordained and celebrated his first Mass. It was essentially high Mass, with all the stops pulled out... a full choir, chanting and singing in Latin, and a great many local Catholic religious present to celebrate the event.

Being somewhat familiar with the Catholic canon of sacred music from my own past experiences in church choirs, I was surprised with the musical director pulled something out his bag of tricks for some post-Communion meditation that I hadn't heard before: a motet based around the Ave Maria by Bruckner (the usual choice being the one by Shubert). I thought it to be a winner. My mother being a choralier of some experience had never heard of it either. I think I'll have to see if I can find a recording of it.

In another completely unrelated musical experience, I've been listening to more Bop and Hard Bop jazz lately. I think I'm finally "getting" it. Bop era jazz always used to intimidate me. Something about its sonic melodic bombast used to put me off.

I was reminded last night it all changed when I saw Ken Burns' documentary series Jazz (the series is being re-run by the local PBS station). In Burns' description of Charlie Parker and be-bop, I realized that nearly all the bop recordings I'd ever heard were lousy documentary audio tracks on TV. Those tracks did a lousy job of preserving the music; the trumpet and alto lines sounded shrill and the bass, percussion, and piano lines were barely present. I then realized that I could never make sense of bop because the lack of those backing tracks robbed me of the ability to hear the chord progressions that helped the solo lines to make sense.

Since then, I've bought a few CDs by Clifford Brown and Art Blakey. By listening to them, I begin to see past what I percieved to be bombast, and begin to understand the idiom. If jazz were text, this would not be spare, economical Hemingway. It don't know who it would be... perhaps Faulkner, with his almost eternally long sentences (my lack of Literature background fails me). These are long, kinetic lines... like flags or streamers unfolding in the breeze. As I understand that, and the aim behind the playing, it begins to all make a bit more sense. It is something that is not marking intervals of silence with a few carefully chosen notes. It is about the opposite -- filling a chorus with a long, continuously unfolding line.

This is not to say that this approach is my favorite, by any means, because I've always felt that there is a certain subtle beauty in economy. So if three very carefully chosen notes will do the same thing as a dozen poorly chosen ones, why not go with the three? But I do feel gratified in some understanding of something that mystified me before.

As a final epilogue to this thought, I happened to catch part of the concert video Down The Old Plank Road with The Chieftains and a variety of American Bluegrass and roots music stars during a PBS pledge drive the other night. Wow. I always love music that is unafraid to show its roots, and the roots here were, well, running all over the place. I suppose I had been peripherally aware of the connections between American country and Irish folk music, but I believe that this concert laid everything out there for everyone to see -- be it instrumentation, arrangement, or even vocal style -- in the temple of country music, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville Tennessee. If Girlfriend S. had been around, she would have wanted to put on her Irish Dancing shoes I'm sure.

said drgeek on 2003-06-10 at 3:39 p.m.


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