Saturday, May 12, 2007

There was a time in the early 80s when I thought William Bolcom's "Graceful Ghost" might be one of the most beautiful pieces of music I'd ever heard. Well, it is pretty nice, essentially a mid-tempo, romantic rag about three times removed from its source (maybe only once removed from work like Barber's "Excursions") and does retain something special about it although today I pick up a naivete I was likely deaf to then.

The album I have came out on Nonesuch in '83, featuring Bolcom on piano with Sergiu Luca on violin, performing the former's Second Sonata, Duo Fantasy and Graceful Ghost. The sonata blends genteel blues elements with neo-neo-romantic lushness and lassitude. I take it (I haven't kept up at all so I'm unsure) that Bolcom became something of a favorite among certain sectors (what I think of as the NPR crowd), kind of a John Adams without the minimalism (or a Bill Frisell?), dealing in a "classy" Americana that didn't quite shed its more blue-nosed Europeanisms, nodding politely to native forms while carefully avoiding actually getting his hands dirty. The fantasy refers back to antebellum parlor songs as well as ditties like "Turkey in the Straw" and the like, even more distasteful in a sense, though packaged very prettily.

"Graceful Ghost" (I think there's a version for solo piano, actually, that I like much more) has a nice lilt to it, a dreamy, summer riverbank feel that's intensely nostalgic, I have to admit. It's killer element is the sudden shift to a secondary melody in its closing minute (it's only a five-minute piece). ... but wait. Typing this as I'm listening, that last element is absent! I'm wondering now if I'm confusing this with another work or if that piano version (does that exist? I think so) contains the coda but this one doesn't? Hmmm...not sure if I'm entirely misremembering or not, though I can hear what I expected to hear in my head quite clearly andf I'm fairly sure I'm not composer enough to make it up myself. I guess Mr. Bolcom loses a few points for the time being.

I found myself thinking of Howard Skempton a bit while listening, wondering if, one day, I'll feel about Skempton's piano work ("Well, Well Cornelius", etc.) the same as I do about Bolcom now. I don't think so and certainly hope not, but you never know.


Through the first 50 or so pages of George McKay's "Circular Breathing"; very good reading thus far, among other things giving me more context for the background of jazz in Britain than I'd previously had.


Herb Levy said...

I don't listen to a lot of Bolcom or NPR, but it's hard to imagine him getting over with a, what, "non-purist"? crowd, as well as either Adams or Frisell. But then it doesn't seem as if you've heard the remarkably turgid "Songs of Innocence & Experience."

I know plenty of people who diss Frisell for playing "folk music" instead of "new music" (& I don't know if that's how you feel or not), but at least when Frisell plays with a banjo player or a harmonica player, they don't sound as if they learned to play in a museum of obsolete music.

& "Songs of Innocence & Experience" is usually touted as the work Bolcom should have won the Pulitzer for, instead of whatever it was he did win with a year or two later (a work that even folks who like Bolcom acknowledge wasn't very good).

It's things like this that make me wonder what the folks who were troubled about Ornette Coleman winning this year's Pulitzer in music think needed to be defended. Most Pulitzer winners in music have been works that remain unknown long after the award by composers who all too often were primarily known for winning a Pulitzer.

As with many such awards, the list of people who haven't won it it more illustrious than the list of those who have.

But, hey.

Brian Olewnick said...

Though I'm pretty sure I'd heard "Songs of Innocence", it was long enough ago (and presumably unimpressive enough) that I can't really remember anything about it.

I haven't kept up with Frisell's career in quite some time, so it's unfair of me to say with any certainty, but what I have heard by chance over the last few years inevitably reminds me of smeone playing into the whole Garrison Keillor world, that comfy, just a smidgen left of center idea, something that leaves me cold. He's a fine musician, no doubt, and I enjoyed much of his work since first hearing him mid-80s but it's hard to imagine getting into him today.

Off the top of my head, favorite Frisell moments would include the News for Lulu sets, his version of "Live to Tell" and, perhaps shockingly, his rendition of "What the World Needs Now" from that Zorn/Bacharach disc.

As for the Pulitzers, feh.