Thursday, May 07, 2009

New writing by Wayne H. W Wolfson

Spanish Tinge

She said that she had always been lonely and I took her at her word. I kept telling her that with ice water in my veins, I was bad news and would eventually let her down in some way. It still had not happened and now she would smile whenever I gave her my warning, no longer believing it. Still, it served its purpose for this honesty made me feel no pressure to be good even though for the most part I had been.

There were things that we liked to do on certain days or daily at specific times. The start of the repetition slowly morphed into ritual which seemed to be working out for us. They all gained power not only from their success but because we had faith like children in these made up rituals of ours.

One of them was drinks during the hour of aperitifs at Olivier’s after which depending upon the weather and our mood we would go home and make dinner or go for a walk. The day had been long and hot so we would stroll.

We had been walking without a clear purpose of destination. There was an unspoken and strong mutual sense of arousal. We could afford to take our time, the wait itself becoming a sort of foreplay that combined denial and desire. There was a nearby alley which we ducked into. For a moment I just stood there as a way of teasing, making her take the initiative. I was curious, what would she do, how far would she go? She put her back against a wall which I was pretty sure was dirty.

Here in this alley, the scent of her skin, slightly sharp from arousal and all the walking we had done mixed with that of the boulangerie down the street and the cobblestones at our feet that were never touched by the sun and had an almost wet, secret scent that I did not find unpleasant all combined to create a perfume which intoxicated me and made me throb. I was half-heartedly trying to think of the name of a jazz record or musician to pretend to be distracted by when I realized the Jelly Roll Morton record Marceau had told me about would be in today. The distraction became genuine. He was only getting three copies in and offered to hold one for me. I did not want him to do that though as the small label distributors that he dealt with did not always give an accurate description of the records. This could very well be tracks culled from albums I already own which have fallen into the public domain. If he held it for me and then I did not get it he would be sore, I did not want the pressure. I kissed her deeply and we ground against each other, if we were already home we would not be going out but as the record store was between here and home, I murmured to her;

“Jelly Roll…”

She told me to make it quick and sat on a bench outside as the place was always an oven. Marceau was not in; his assistant who always pretended not to remember me when I tried to strike up polite conversation was behind the counter. I looked through the bins and as I suspected the album had blurry liner notes on the back cover and tracks cherry picked from his Red Hot Pepper sessions. I had it in my mind now though to get something. There was a Bud Powell I had owned but worn out. In my exploration I always felt the urge to find new things and put restocking something I had already owned as low priority. The Bud Powell reminded me of Lapin though, and in that way, listening to Bud, I kept him close and remembered him.

I tucked the bag flat under my arm and left. She asked what I got, when I told her she did a small frown. The name was not exotic enough for her. She had started “collecting” unique jazz musician’s names as supplied by me: Papa Celestin, Cow Cow Davenport, Johnny and Baby Dodds, Bunk Johnson, Wingy Manone and Fate Marble. She would explore their music through my collection but often liked the names more than their work. Jelly Roll was one of the definite exceptions.

Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton (1890-1941) claimed to have created jazz, the King of Jazz. This is a bit of self aggrandizing although not far off the mark, he, working concurrently with a handful of others got things started, if not the king, then definitely in the royal court. Jelly Roll had this concept “The Spanish Tinge”. It was a sort of rhythmic exoticism that he said was Creole/French. Lacking in his explanation was where Spain met its French (Creole) neighbor. Also missing was his articulation on the harmonic devices and actual cadence to be found in some of what was played, especially on piano. The much later (final) recordings of Jelly Roll when he no longer had to bow to commercial considerations most easily exemplify the Spanish tinge. Buddy Bertrand’s Blues No. 1 off of The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax is a prime example in which one hears rhythmically how Jelly Roll mixes boleros and danzons all done in a delicate cadence which suggests Claude Debussy (1862-1918) playing the blues.

The music which would eventually become directly tied in with a sort of aural impressionism like a lot of great modern art did not have one definitive “Eureka” moment nor chief architect. The Spanish tinge more accurately could be said to sonically be the place where various Iberian rhythmic devices melded with a sort of (salon) classicism which was forward thinking, created in Paris by composers who daydreamed of or had come to Paris from Spain.

Issac Albeniz (1860-1909) was as important to contributing to a new musical genre as Debussy although not necessarily as well known. He was born in Gerona (Spain) and was a child piano prodigy. At the age of seven he was a private pupil in Paris of Antoine Francois Marmontel (1816-1898) who also taught Georges Bizet (1838-1875) and briefly, Debussy. There was an attempt to enroll him in The Paris Conservatory but despite passing the tests he was deemed too young. He returned to Spain to give concerts and also wrote his first composition Marcha Militar.

In 1868, still young, he attended what is now The Royal Conservatory of Music. His virtuosic piano playing had him being compared to Mozart (1756-1791) and considered Spain’s greatest prodigy. Popular lore has it that his studies began to bore him and he ran away from home, stowing away on a ship, first to Argentina where he earned so much from concerts that he was then able to travel to Cuba, Puerto Rico and finally America where he found himself in New York broke and having to become a baggage porter for steam liners to eke out a living while keeping up his chops by playing in dockside dives. While sitting at the upright he would try for extra tips by doing such tricks as playing with his back turned to the keyboard. In this way, slowly earning fare to San Francisco, San Francisco being his debarkation point back to Europe. While this makes for a compelling chapter in his mythos it is not entirely true. He did tour far and wide at a very young age but with his supportive father who was a customs agent that often had the practical turn of mind to have the tours adopt the same itinerary that he had to maintain for his job. Like the prodigy Mozart, Albeniz did sometimes chafe under his stage father’s presence. Also like young Mozart, sometimes payment took the impractical form of expensive gifts which did not leave them destitute but occasionally taking a financial hit when necessity dictated pawning them for which they would be paid undervalued prices.

He was fifteen years old upon his return to Spain and was becoming too old to use the child prodigy angle to call attention to his performances. This was still the age of the virtuoso with many of the romantic era greats still widely touring. Without the prodigy angle there was not as much to differentiate himself from the other virtuosi. He decided to once again study. This time he studied in Leipzig (1876) under two of Franz Liszt’s (1811-1886) students Louis Maas (piano) and Salomon Jadassohn (composition). In Leipzig he found himself often hard up for funds and did not enjoy the lifestyle with its accompanying formalized discipline. Unhappy after mere months studying, he returned to Spain

Back in Spain he gave a few recitals at one of which he was heard by Count Guillermo Morphy who was private secretary to King Alfonso XII. He helped Albeniz obtain a royal stipend to attend the Brussels Conservatory with his main interest of study being composition. In 1879 he won first in piano performance there. This served as a good promotional hook on whose strength he did a tour of Europe.

A strong ambition of Albeniz’s had been to meet and possibly study with Franz Liszt. Liszt had created the genre of the symphonic poem and championed what he termed “Music of the Future” (Richard Wagner, Hector Berlioz et al) devices from which Albeniz would over the course of his life freely draw from.

With the impetuousness of youth and not wanting to waste anymore time, he set out from Brussels for Budapest to meet his idol. There has been much written about how long Albeniz studied under Liszt. Some accounts have them meeting for several informal lessons, other seemingly reliable sources talk of Albeniz following his hero to Rome as part of his entourage. Albeniz’s own diary says that they met but once on August 18, 1880. The reality was that he never got a chance to meet Liszt even once. He had doctored the account in his diary as to avoid angering his father who had funded the trip. Even playing devil’s advocate with the dates, during the time Albeniz was in Budapest there are ample accounts and records of Liszt’s whereabouts at the time (Weimar, Germany). The facts of Albeniz having studied under two of Liszt’s students plus his own small white lie have over the years become misconstrued and grew into a legend.

From this failed attempt he returned to Madrid. He gave concerts and toured the major Spanish cities for the next few years. He also at this time managed and conducted a zarzuela company (cross between music theater, burlesque & circus). This was the impetus behind his first musical theater works (3 zarzuelas: Cantalone de Gracia being the “hit”). Three years later (1883) he finished what had felt like an endless tour and settled in Barcelona where he met Felip Pedrell (1841- 1922). Pedrell had a deep influence on Albeniz who up until now had mainly been drawing from the mode of European Romanticism style (Schubert, Chopin, Liszt). Pedrell urged Albeniz as he would many others to adopt his “Spanish composers should write Spanish music” philosophy. Albeniz would begin to consider inspirations outside of those normal for the Western classical tradition he had been working in adding traditional cultural elements from his native land.

This same year he also married one of his pupils, Rosita Jordana. In 1885 they move to Madrid. Albeniz quickly made his name as a teacher and continued also in his role as virtuoso. At this time he was considered the third greatest piano virtuoso (Liszt, Anton Rubinstein 1829-1894). The next few years would be the pinnacle of his career as a concert pianist (1889-92) with tours through Austria, Belgium, Great Britain and France. During all this touring he continued to compose, varying the styles of each composition from suites, dances and piano concertos now adding elements of Spanish flavor to his work. He was also given a contract by entrepreneur Henry Lowenfeld to both write and perform. It was through his dealings with Lowenfeld he once again reconnected with theater music. He worked first at The Lyric Theater then the Prince of Wales Theater.

The money he was now making allowed for him to move his family from Spain, London now being his home base during these virtuoso years. Showing an inate ability to write in the music theater style without it being vapid, Lowenfeld got Albeniz to write the lyric comedy Magic Opal (1893) which was stylistically in the vein of Gilbert and Sullivan. It proved popular and a year later, now translated into Spanish premiered as La Sortija in Madrid.

Moving among the London theater world brought Albeniz into contact with Francis Burdett Money Coutts (1852-1923) who aside from being heir to the banking fortune of Coutts & Co fancied himself an amateur poet and playwright. In 1894 he bought Lowenfeld’s contract with Albeniz. Unlike the dynamics between a lot of composers and their patrons Albeniz was given respect and enough money to live well the rest of his life. He was offered directorship of The Prince of Wales Theater (1893) which he declined. Instead he moved back to Spain from where he once again set off to Paris (1894). Although he had left London his patron became his collaborator, writing librettos (Henry Clifford 1895, Pepita Jimenez 1896, and Merlin 1898/1902).

“Merlin” was the first of what was supposed to be a trilogy under the umbrella title of King Arthur, inspired by the English folk hero and Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Merlin was not actually produced in Albeniz’s lifetime, Lancelot the second opera was never finished and the final part of the trilogy Guenevere never even attempted.

In Paris he became absorbed into the community so much so that he was given a post teaching advance piano at the Schola Cantorum (1898-1900). The Schola Cantorum had some of the most progressive French musical minds teaching who cast an eye back towards earlier music (Gregorian chant, 16th/17th century) even as they forged new ground compositionally. He interacted with the cream of musical society (Vincent D’Indy 1851-1931, Ernest Chausson 1855-1899, Paul Dukas 1865-1935, Gabriel Faure 1845- 1924). The effect of this artistic cross pollination was to make Albeniz reassess his earlier work which he now found lacking in sophistication and depth. He now wanted to strive for a greater complexity which would incorporate the diverse influences he had absorbed including those of Pedrell.

Sadly poor health made him go back to the steadily warmer climates of Spain. In Spain he worked with Enrique Morera in promoting Catalan lyrical works but made no headway in having his own staged partially on account of how distinctive they were and with varying influences hard to categorize. The frustration mounted until he decided to once again return to Paris where he was considered a star.

In Paris his home was a meeting place for Spanish artists (Joaquin Turina 1882-1949, Munuel de Falla 1876-1946 et al) to come and receive encouragement and socialize. Albeniz slowed down his performance schedule to concentrate on compositions. His compositional style had metamorphosed shedding its overall lightness for a greater complexity.

The new artistic phase birthed the songs;

Il en est del’amor, Deux Morceaux de Prose de Pierre Loti and some collections of poems of Coutts set to music. After attempts, some finished others not with lyrics Coutts lost his ambition to write librettos and Albeniz naturally gravitated back to writing piano music and the inspiration of his homeland.

La Vega (1896-98) showed the direction that he would take with Iberia (1905-08). These two pieces used components of ethno-national elements but not rigidly, synthesized with an overall impressionistic lushness that was just then emerging and which in turn would serve as an inspiration to many including Debussy and Ravel.

Iberia’s genesis lay not merely in finally hitting upon how to merge all he had absorbed over the years but also in the challenges of personal tragedy. In 1900 Albeniz began suffering from Bright’s Disease (Nephritis) at the same time as his wife had fallen seriously ill and one of their three children died. With all the distractions he could not finish the lyrical work he had begun nor could he get the finished opera Merlin produced. Artistically it was not where he wanted to be anyways and with ill health giving him limited amount of energy mixing with his desire to create art without compromise he decided to stop writing for the lyric stage.

The result of his desire of art without compromise which would encapsulate his total music identity was Iberia. Iberia was subtitled Twelve New Impressions. It is a suite of twelve piano pieces collected into four books. The pieces are notoriously difficult to play. Despite the complexity of each piece they are not rendered frigid by their technical demands. Part of the strong appeal of them is in how they manage to meld the cerebral with the spiritual. The pieces incorporate Spanish folk forms (mostly Andalusian which also allowed for Moorish exotica) and aspects of late romanticism (Liszt, Berlioz) along with what was incubating in Paris which would evolve into a sort of musical impressionism.

Pedrell had, aside from getting Albeniz into utilizing musical modes from his own country also emphasized the importance of not trying for an overall authenticity which could only make a piece stagnant as it would too quickly be trapped by the past but to color and flavor his work, give the “impressions of” what he wanted to depict emotionally.

Evocacion (song 1) the title could serve as a mission statement not only for itself but the entire suite. It is beautiful and calls forth a sort of nature induced daydream. Evocacion would not sound out of place among the pieces which constitute Liszt’s own three book piano collection Annees de Peleringe (1835-39-83). The lushness of the piece is made easily apparent by the slower tempo. Once could easily imagine that slight feeling of lazy intoxication which hits upon finding yourself someplace new which is full of sun and flowers. This piece sits squarely astride the fence between romanticism and the impressionistic palette as was being created via Albeniz and his Parisian peers. It is an easing in to the introduction of compositional evolution without sacrificing anything.

El Corpus Christi en Sevilla (song 3) starts with a sort of processional march. The piano offers up percussive like effects to simulate drum beats as might be heard by people in such a procession. Throughout the piece tension is built by alternating between bell like shimmering tones and the more percussive, urgent runs which also mark points of faster tempo. The ending finds a slow tempo, delicate toned minor chords. It is the end of the festivities, lamps are being lit, a man walks home alone only a silhouette moving against the flickering squares of light coming from the windows, softly humming to himself, stillness and the emergence of the stars.

El Albaicin (song 7) was the gypsy quarter of Granada located on a hill that faced Alhambra. Debussy professed himself to be a fan and influenced by this piece. It starts with quick single note pattern over which more discordant chords bubble up before a sort of call and response pattern is taken up by the single notes and chords. The piece’s rhythm alters as does its cadence; it takes on melancholy inflections of Moorish descent. It is a beauty made all the more so by its sadness. A descending pattern emerges peppered with ringing notes of discordance; it is a beautiful woman whose hair has come undone, a dance in the gypsy camp by firelight. This piece shows how Albeniz could rapidly switch emotional gears within one piece.

Lavapies (song 9) is the only non Andalusian piece in Iberia. It is named after a quarter in Madrid which at the time had many chic dance halls. It starts with a sprightly feel and tone. The image of woman in colorful dresses, which open like flowers unfurling as they wheel upon the dance floor, is evoked. The piano takes on the different attitudes of the women waiting to dance, she is shy, she is aroused, she is here just for the music and that one has had your eye all night as she waits to feel her palm against yours as she is lead onto the dance floor. Like attending a dance, the tempo throughout the piece alters, slow to fast to frenzied moments which are release. During some of the slower parts the piano actually takes on a near stately tone while keeping its Iberian rhythms, the contrast between the two working despite their seeming dichotomy.

Eritana (song 12) mixes virtuosic playing with elements of Andalusian dance. This piece shows how seamlessly Albeniz had learned to fuse the romantic compositional elements to those of his own idea. It presents a theme which is then altered with the sprinkling of modernist filigrees which alternates back and forth with more traditional sounding virtuosic runs. Again as had occurred in some of the other pieces, it is the heat of the sun, dance floor and what ever else may be brought on by beauty.

If she liked Jelly Roll then she would enjoy Iberia they were practically related. I was in a good mood now, I felt like going out or maybe making my Etouffee as can sometimes happen when I contemplate Jelly Roll.

We get home and I carefully file Bud where he should go on the shelf. I put on Rondena from Iberia and at the same time we meet each other’s eyes deciding to now go out, heading towards Port Royal for some live music and maybe a little seafood.

She wore her hair pulled tightly back and held in place by a large tortoise shell comb which gave her the look of a maja. It was her shorthand for letting me know that the old arguments and rules need not apply tonight. We had some drinks and the band, a bop trio, was good even though part of me was still in Spain.

A waitress squeezing by bumped the back of her head causing her comb to fall out. It fell to the floor breaking one of its teeth. The comb had been one of the first things I had gotten her and she looked beautiful when wearing it. Upset, she looked as if about to cry, I was going to tell her not to but I wanted to see it.

- Wayne H. W Wolfson 2011

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