Grace Slick, Art Song Pioneer

grace

Yes, THAT Grace Slick, the irrepressible 77-year-old threatened the other day with a “death sentence” by the pastor who preached at Donald Trump’s inauguration for her “sin” of donating royalties to LGBT charities.

But “art song pioneer”? Really??? Yes, definitely – provided one can accept my positing that art song should never be defined as the exclusive province of classical composers.

This fall will bring the 50th anniversary of the release of Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s – a suitable excuse to show some love for Slick’s pair of extraordinary songs on that album. While Baxter’s is justly considered one of psychedelic rock’s defining milestones, Slick’s “Two Heads” and “Rejoyce” stand apart from the other tracks, occupying timeless outsider territory that transcends the unique musical-lyrical idiom fashioned by San Francisco’s leading band of that turbulent era. The two pieces form not only the high-water mark of Slick’s all-too-brief compositional creativity, but can arguably be labeled the most outstanding examples of late ‘60s rock being transmuted into the more expansive universe of art song.

Nearly making the cut is Slick’s earlier “White Rabbit,” with its bolero rhythm and startling dynamic build. (Roy Orbison’s 1961 pop masterpiece “Running Scared” is its rarely-noted precursor.) “White Rabbit,” unfortunately, became so overfamiliar in the culture as to be regarded a caricature of hippiedom’s excesses. This remains the wrong reading. The references to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and the hallucinations called forth by psychedelic drugs were poetically handled and totally apt to the zeitgeist.

Those who already know Slick’s songs on Baxter’s will find reinvestigation worthwhile, as her amazing lyrics (see below) were not included with the original LP.

“Two Heads” is a powerful slice of pure surrealism, its texts left wide open to multiple interpretations. Musically, the song bears few resemblances to rock; the instrumentation is stripped down and stark, the dominant instrument neither guitar, bass nor drums, but what sounds like an electric harpsichord or perhaps an early version of the Hohner Clavinet. The structure is comprised of two distinct verse elements and lacks a chorus, though the second half of each verse functions as one. The rhythm of the first half is a sort of modified march, a perfect minor-mode setting for Slick’s terse, tense and dense lyrics. The second half is a gently rolling ride with only an implied rhythm (arpeggiated keyboard figures underpinned by a moving bass line). This creates a welcome major-key feeling of release before the song snaps back into its grim minor march.

Slick’s declamatory and highly expressive singing is all, riveting the listener’s attention despite the elusiveness of the lyrics. In the last 44 seconds she splits off into an abstract, double-tracked vocal that deconstructs and virtually demolishes the song in this-is-the-way-the-world-ends fashion. After this stunning outburst, one of the most striking in the kaleidoscopic galaxy of 1960s rock, “Two Heads” ends with a soft, upward moan and spent gurgles from the instruments.

The deconstruction and demolishing seem to me the key to understanding – or at least appreciating — what has come earlier in the lyrics. Grotesque Dali- and Picasso-like images abound throughout “Two Heads,” along with evocations of alienation, dysfunction, hypocrisy, despair, ennui, violence. The piece is surely a nightmare parable of American materialism and all its destructive contradictions — a favorite Slick topic. That’s what I’ve always taken away from the final verse, which seems to be contrasting inner city misery (is the “comb like an axe” a reference to an Afro Pick?) with suburban bedroom obsessions prior to Slick’s defiant vow that “no child of mine” should live in such a corrupted world. The first two verses appear to address private psychological material lurking in the human personality which underlies the corruption she references.

Whether or not my guesses are correct, “Two Heads” is a tour de force that has never lost its punch.

“Rejoyce” is even more astonishing — not only in its well-chosen appropriation and adaptation of materials from the famed author’s Ulysses, but in its largely jazz-derived music. Slick herself plays piano, accompanied by Jefferson Airplane’s terrific bassist Jack Casady, drummer Spencer Dryden and a handful of L.A. studio musicians, one of whom (believed to be Gene Cipriano) plays a beautiful, snake charmer-like oboe solo. I can think of no precedent in the rock canon for this eerie and very poetic track. The truth is, it’s not rock — but a strain of art song that could have sprung only from the time and place it did.

What is sometimes forgotten about the ‘60s pop music milieu is its astonishing level of stylistic cross-pollination. The curiousity and openmindedness of the players involved has never been faintly approached since. As with the Byrds and the Doors, there wasn’t a single experienced rocker in Jefferson Airplane’s ranks. The band’s primary influences were folk, jazz, blues, classical, the leading rock competitors of the time and even soul music. Prior to Slick’s replacing of the wonderful Signe Anderson in late 1966, the group had already perfected a new and highly original form of folk-rock, displayed magnificently on its debut album Takes Off. In less than a year, the music had morphed into the wild experimental stew offered up on Baxter’s.

The four-minute-long “Rejoyce” could only have been written by someone with wide-ranging and unusually refined taste (in literature as well as music) and the determination to create an exceptional piece without regard to commerciality or the baseline level of musical understanding to be found in the average rock fan. Not surprisingly, “Rejoyce” was received initially with as much puzzlement as awe.

It begins with an ominous piano arpeggio under which Casady places a downward chromatic bass glissando. The message is unspoken but clear: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” Slick’s vocal entrance – “Chemical change, like a laser beam … “ – is the song’s sole psychedelic touch. What follows is an immaculately structured composition with cannily conceived dynamics and musical elements that include the “jazz waltz” idiom, Mideastern modality, Spanish rhythms, the harmonic world of Gil Evans and a type of dramatic expression encountered only in art song or cabaret of a high artistic level.

But “Rejoyce” is no pastiche; its music is strong and integrated. Slick’s singing and lyrics carry it the rest of the way to greatness. Stream of consciousness is her medium of choice in the text, beginning with the afterglow of sex: “Smiling in my room, you know you’ll be inside of my mind soon.” But this, the only contented moment in the song, is quickly swept away by a lament in 6/8 for the position of the free-thinking individual in a conformist society: “There are so many of you. White shirt and tie … wedding ring.”

This brief section ushers in Slick’s clever borrowing of the Ulysses characters – Leopold and Molly Bloom, “Blazes” Boylan and Stephen Dedalus – for an 86-second episode bisected by a piano riff in 7/4 and the hypnotic oboe solo. The lyrics again touch on alienation (“Mulligan stew for Bloom, the only Jew in the room”), sexual longing and frustration (“Molly’s gone to Blazes, Boylan’s crotch amazes”), before climaxing on the fierce couplet “War’s good business so give your son, and I’d rather have my country die for me.” The latter is Slick’s paraphrase of a Dedalus retort to the menacing English Private Carr in the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses.

This is followed by another unusual instrumental break utilizing odd meters before the “there are so many of you” motif reappears (this time explicitly referencing American society). The music gathers momentum and existential despair (“All you want to do is live … but somehow”), punctuated by woodwind chords, until finally finishing with the near-inconsolable pathos of “It all falls apart” and a hanging, unresolved tone cluster.

The level of inspiration and sophistication displayed by Slick in “Rejoyce” has been matched only a handful of times in the history of rock.

Do have a listen to these two songs – and marvel anew (or for the first time):
“Two Heads” — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G4FtfZ1WuTA
“Rejoyce” — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lscRNsyEzs4

TWO HEADS

You want two heads on your body,
and you’ve got two mirrors in your hand.
Priests are made of brick with gold crosses on a stick
and your nose is too small for this land.

(Reflections from a door of a green Volkswagen … )
Inside your head is your town,
inside your room your jail,
inside your mouth the elephant’s trunk and booze,
the only key to your bail.

Two heads can be put together,
and you can fill both your feet with sand.
No one will know you’ve gutted your mind,
but what will you do with your bloody hands?

(Reflections from a door of a green Volkswagen … )
Your lions are fighting with chairs,
your arms are incredibly fat;
your women are tired of dying alive
— if you’ve had any women at that.

Wearing your comb like an axe in your head
and listening for signs of life.
Children are sucking on stone and lead
and chasing their hoops with a knife.

(Reflections from a door of a green Volkswagen … )
New breasts and jewels for the girl,
keep them polished and shining;
put a lock on her belly at night, sweet life,
for no child of mine.

REJOYCE

Chemical change, like a laser beam
You’ve shattered the warning amber light
Make me warm
Let me see you moving everything over
Smiling in my room
You know you’ll be inside of my mind soon.

There are so many of you.
White shirt and tie, white shirt and tie,
White shirt and tie, wedding ring, wedding ring.

Mulligan stew for Bloom,
The only Jew in the room
Saxon’s sick on the holy dregs
And they’re constant getting throw-up on his leg.

Molly’s gone to Blazes,
Boylan’s crotch amazes
Any woman whose husband sleeps with his head
All buried down at the foot of his bed.

I’ve got his arm
I’ve got his arm
I’ve had it for weeks
I’ve got his arm

Stephen won’t give his arm
To no Gold Star Mother’s farm;
War’s good business so give your son
And I’d rather have my country die for me.

There are so many of you.
Sell your mother for a Hershey bar
Grow up looking like a car.
There are …
All you want to do is live
All you want to do is live
But somehow
It all
Falls
Apart

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Rant Redux

Several versions of this have appeared on my website over the years. It’s now migrating over to the blog for anyone interested in how I view my musical journey and my thoughts on what keeps composers going in these challenging times. Some of these themes are also addressed on this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPRs4e8LavM&list=PL26AFCF90E51B8838

Many aesthetic currents have passed through America during my lifetime, which places me among the first wave of Baby Boomers. It’s been my goal to make some sense of all this and synthesize a response based on first-hand immersion in these currents — above all, those pertaining to classical, rock and jazz.

Jazz has had a profound influence on me but its contribution to my music is primarily subliminal. Over the decades, the improvisation at the core of America’s most original art form has proved nontransferable to static disciplines that make their points through canny use of written materials. In my view, classical and rock are a more logical match for cross-pollination, each having tight structures, certain harmonic and rhythmic commonalities, and similar expository uses of the voice.

Having developed outside of the usual channels, I’ve come face to face with the numerous challenges facing independent composers who seek exposure for their music. The Delos label’s 2012 release of my song cycle “The Dream Gallery” marked the first time I was able to deploy the full resources of an acoustic orchestra in a recording project. The new live-in-the-studio CD “Terrain of the Heart” is a similarly exciting event for me. Prior to the Delos releases, I was able to realize my compositions only with digital sampling technology working alongside the superb singers I’ve been fortunate enough to attract along the way.

The economics of what is left of the “serious music” business seem to work against free-lance composers – especially those drawn to orchestral writing. Commissions are few and far between, and usually confined to a small circle of “name” composers or academic figures. A piece may be performed, but there’s no guarantee it will be recorded or even heard again. Yet there are thousands of excellent musicians and many fine ensembles in the land – adding up to a classic mismatch of the resources available to keep America’s musical world not only alive but vital.

More than a decade into the 21st century, it seems obvious to me that classical music’s future – if it is to have one — lies in boldly expanding and redefining the repertoire. It makes little sense for contemporary composers to draw inspiration solely from the easily identified branches that stem from the textbook classical “tree.” The exclusionary approach has resulted in an alarming shrinkage of audiences and places composers content to work from the cozy bunkers of academia in a position that can charitably be called “out of touch.”

My response to this long-festering crisis has been to develop a personal idiom that admits the usage and integration of popular elements while remaining within an overall framework forged from the classical aesthetic.

The music draws on just about everything I’ve ever heard, “from Abba to Zemlinsky,” as I wrote a few years ago. It’s difficult at this stage for me to tease out any specific references as they appear in my work; elsewhere on this site I’ve mentioned some of the figures who were most influential – philosophically as well as musically. My decision to not suppress rock flavors but instead incorporate them no doubt confuses some listeners. But I feel I would be inauthentic for me to do otherwise.

My style of vocal writing is an unabashed cross-breed of the genres that have meant the most to me over the decades — classical art song (think Schumann, Duparc, Debussy, Strauss) and the heady, short-lived pop/folk/rock gestalt that sprang forth in the early and mid 1960s and reached its zenith of sophistication in the work of such figures as Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Brian Wilson, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, John Phillips, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, and Burt Bacharach. What these artists had in common was the ability to couple sincerity with an aim for the transcendent.

I love a number of operas – “Salome,” “Elektra,” “Wozzeck,” “Lulu,” the Janacek Big Five, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and “Bluebeard’s Castle” among them. But I believe that much operatic singing overemphasizes the technical aspects of tone production at the expense of clarity and basic communication. Consequently, I usually work with singers whose forte is the far more intimate realm of art song.

I prefer that a work’s harmonic, melodic and rhythmic elements appear in as straightforward a manner as possible, and that scripted methods of compositional architecture be avoided. I recall a quote about Manuel de Falla that went something like: “He was content to present his ideas, and to not develop them.” Falla succeeded admirably in such dissimilar pieces as “El Amor Brujo,” “El Retablo de Maese Pedro” and “Pour Le Tombeau de Paul Dukas.” The same could be said of key works by Stravinsky, Janacek, Bartok, Szymanowski and other giants.

Falla once said: “Music does not exist to be understood, but to be felt.” … I would add: “Music exists to be listened to.” If you can’t communicate something to a listener, no amount of pointing at the interior marvels of the score is going to change that.

My lyric writing is a relatively recent development. It too encompasses more influences than I could possibly identify. Beyond exposure to poetry, literature, the work of countless songwriters and sheer life experience, my 21-year involvement with journalism no doubt plays a key role. The reporting, writing and editing process necessarily concentrates the mind but has little use for imagistic or poetic content. I certainly benefited from learning the discipline of concision. But I missed the color and emotion words can provide and apparently am making up for it in the group of works I’ve produced since 2005.

 

YouTube, without which …

Two items that are pretty tough to refute:

1. YouTube, unfortunately, is biting off a bigger chunk of what is left of the classical music industry with each passing year.

2. There’s a solid reason for that. For free, you get to see some truly great stuff otherwise unavailable.

So, every once in a while, I intend to pass along various live performance gems (some of them rarely viewed) that I’ve come across and can highly recommend. Here are four:

1. Mahler: Symphony No. 10/Michael Gielen/Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDT-hAGoUTs&feature=related

This still occasionally maligned score is being performed more and more these days, as conductors are finally taking on board its crucial importance in understanding one of the world’s most popular composers. Yes, Mahler would undoubtedly have done a considerable amount of expanding upon and filling in of the three movements he did not have the chance to complete. But I feel that some conductors’ decision to consign Deryck Cooke’s masterly “performing version” of the 10th  to rarity or “I won’t perform it” status – as Leonard Bernstein and Georg Solti did – must today be regarded as ridiculous. The symphony’s basic identity seems crystal clear.

To me, the work’s greatest importance is showing where Mahler was – and was not – going at the time of his death in 1911. Yes, the opening Adagio is probably the most “progressive” movement he ever penned, but the next three are pretty darned familiar sounding – more installments in the “twisted laendler” and “grotesque scherzo” vein, which I believe Mahler had thoroughly exhausted by 1911 (and perhaps earlier). The 24-minute Finale, however, is something remarkable – not new, mind you, but remarkable. It is unquestionably one of Mahler’s greatest slow movements, quite as expressive as its stellar counterpart in the Ninth Symphony. Bernstein’s and Solti’s belief that the world would be better off not hearing this music is a stain on their posthumous reputations, in my view.   

What I’ve gleaned from the 10th over the years is that Mahler was soldiering on down his unique path – and would have evolved further in only a slow and gradual fashion. One of music’s most fascinating unanswered questions, of course, is how he would have reacted to the imminent ascension of such iconoclastic and brilliant composers as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Berg, Bartok, Hindemith, et. al., had he lived only a decade or so longer. Great as he was, I suspect that Mahler would have been profoundly disturbed by the appearance of a whole new generation who had no use for his sentimental postromanticism. Still, to be fair to him, we should hear the 10th performed as regularly as any of the others in his symphonic canon; it’s a work not to be missed.

This superb performance is led by one of Europe’s greatest conductors, Michael Gielen, who remains sadly little known in the United States, remembered mainly for his seven years as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony. For many decades, he has been a leading advocate for contemporary music and the core 20th century repertoire. Here he leads the excellent Southwest German Radio Symphony in a sensitive and committed performance of the Mahler. No dancing a la Lenny, no shaking of the curly locks a la Dudamel. Just the music. Thank you, Maestro Gielen.

2. Richard Strauss: “An Alpine Symphony” — finale/Bernard Haitink/Concertgebouw Orchestra

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXmTHs0nrIk&feature=related

One could say that YouTube has been very kind to Strauss. While I am a fan of his music, there are a number of works where episodes do suffice to illustrate the overall artistic worth; you don’t necessarily have to listen to the whole thing. “An Alpine Symphony” is one such piece; the first half of it is spotty, the second half highly worthwhile. Thanks to YouTube’s liberation of excerpted material, we get to listen to the last 11 minutes of this work separately; it is one of Strauss’ longest-sustained flights of pure lyricism and one treasured by practically everyone to whom his music speaks.

Not only is this music extraordinarily beautiful, “Alpine” is possibly the ultimate example of his total mastery of scoring for the vast orchestras that briefly held sway in the early 20th century. Yes, those are nine French horns you see, five clarinets and overloaded complements of just about every other instrument. And they make a gorgeous sound; can there be any argument? Just sit back and enjoy this authentic slice of musical history. Strauss’ huge forces are deployed with care, subtlety and poetry.

The conductor is Bernard Haitink, 83 as of this writing and one of the key figures in European music making since the 1960s. He has always been an outstanding Strauss conductor and the clip illustrates that enthusiasm in his characteristically dignified and understated way. It’s also quite wonderful to see how many women are in the Concertgebouw’s ranks these days.       

3. Richard Strauss: Transformation Scene from “Daphne”/ Ricarda Merbeth, soprano/Semyon Bychkov/Vienna State Opera

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvWGKnpqRX0

There have only been two DVDs made of “Daphne,” which remains one of Strauss’ least known operas. This is the last 11 minutes of a Vienna performance video that is apparently not obtainable in the U.S. In it, the mythological wood nymph Daphne sings a series of faltering, then accepting lines as she is slowly transformed into a laurel tree by Zeus at the request of Apollo, ridden with guilt after slaying Daphne’s friend Leukippos. This section is extraordinary enough; it is then followed by an orchestral interlude of extreme beauty and pathos. At the end, Daphne’s wordless voice is heard singing through the branches, her union with nature made complete. 

This dramatically static section invariably poses a stiff challenge for opera directors, and the solution here leaves much to be desired. German soprano Ricarda Merbeth, a Vienna stalwart in recent years, sings wonderfully. Unfortunately, she is daubed with unflattering makeup and a ratty-looking wig and gown that faintly suggest the Norma Desmond character from “Sunset Boulevard.” So, as ever in such cases, we learn to ignore the visuals and focus on the music. No problem, as this is some of the most outstanding written by Strauss in his long career. The sound, conducting and playing are excellent.

If the music stirs you, you’re likely to have the same reaction to this opera’s second most memorable excerpt, the stunning extended aria “Unheilvolle Daphne,” sung here (with one ill-advised cut) by the great Hilde Gueden at the 1964 Salzburg Festival (an audio-only clip) –

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QHZSCa5UvQ&feature=related

Over the years there have been some quite rare performances and recordings of “Unheilvolle Daphne” and the Transformation Scene packaged together as the Final Scene from “Daphne.” The two add up to around 20 minutes of Strauss at his very best – every bit as sublime and rewarding as the “Four Last Songs.”

Symphony conductors! What’s up with this?? Why do you never program this music???

4. Mahler: Kindertotenlieder (In Diesem Wetter)/Jesus Suaste, baritone/Kenneth Woods/State of Mexico Symphony Orchestra

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9GXIHvwGqM

It’s been said many times that music is the universal language. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a clip that portrays this more movingly than this rendition of the last of the five “Kindertotenlieder” – a piece that rarely leaves a dry eye anywhere it is heard throughout the world, dealing as it does with the death of children in a storm. “ … They are resting, as if in their mother’s house, not frightened by any tempest, sheltered by God’s hand.”

For me, this one is less about the performance – which is outstanding indeed – than about the people making the music. It was filmed at a concert in Toluca, Mexico, with an American conductor, Kenneth Woods, a fine regional orchestra, and a superb Mexican baritone, Jesus Suaste, about whom I’ve been able to turn up little information.

The combination of the heart-rending music, Suaste’s intense performance, and the wonderful faces of the multiethnic Mexican orchestra members make this a very special piece of video.