Toccata and Fugue

Toccata and Fugue - igor

We all lost an hour when the clocks went forward last night. And, today, Crotchety Man slipped a few centuries back in time. It’s a big leap from Jimi Hendrix to J. S. Bach but it’s not so hard, really. These days, all it takes is a few clicks of a mouse.

The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565) has become Bach’s best known organ piece, although there is some doubt about its authenticity. It was probably composed around 1730 and may have existed only as a single manuscript until its first publication in 1833. It has some characteristics that are atypical of Bach but statistical analysis has not found a more likely composer.

The pipe organ was the synthesiser of the 18th century. One man, sat at an organ, could make more noise than a whole orchestra, more than enough to fill a cathedral. Sat there he could generate the rumble of thunder or the chirruping of song birds. He could imitate brass, woodwind and string sections, switching between different timbres at the push of an organ stop. Pipe organs were big, powerful and awesomely beautiful instruments.

The popularity of BWV 565 comes, I think, from its exploitation of the particular qualities of the organ.

It opens with a short trumpet fanfare followed by an arpeggio that builds like five male voices preparing to sing an opera: bass, baritone, tenor, counter-tenor, contralto. As each voice joins in the volume swells and the chord becomes increasingly dissonant, a sequence of diminished intervals sending a chill up the spine. The opera singers perform a few voice exercises, give us that dissonant chord again and swing smoothly into a dainty aria. The piece is only a dozen bars in and already we have three contrasting styles.

The opera singers converse with each other for a while and then, as the toccata ends, they leave the stage.

When the organ pipes breathe again it is with the interwoven lines of a fugue. The organ has become a choir of dragons with lusty voices that dance about in the great halls of our ancestors. Simple peasants that we are, we can only stand, watch and marvel at what we see and hear. The dragons dance a while for our entertainment – there is no threat in their movements and no fear in our hearts. When they are done the dragons disappear in soft puffs of smoke and we are alone again.

The imagery, of course, is mine. This is what Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor sounds like to me. It takes me back to the days when I sang in the church choir a few decades ago, further back to the eighteenth century when it was composed and way, way back to the days of legend when dragons walked the earth. You see, the pipe organ is not just a versatile musical instrument, it is a time machine for the imagination. And that reminds me… It’s time to wind the clocks on an hour and welcome Summer Time.

Electric Ladyland

Electric Ladyland - nudes

Why do we write about music? After all, mere words can not express the pleasure we get from listening to our favourite songs. How do you communicate the excitement when you hear something for the first time and your inner music critic says “Wow, that’s amazing!”? How do you explain what makes this song special?

We can, of course, use similes and metaphors: as sweet as honey, a sledgehammer of a song, etc. We can search for adjectives: mellow, gritty; stunning, awesome. We can compare this track with others that share some of its characteristics: pop, rock, folk, jazz; happy, sad; acoustic, electric. Do that well and we begin to sketch a phonic picture in the reader’s mind using a palette of rhythms, tones and melodies. But even then it is a ghostly apology for a picture, a figure without shape or substance, the merest hint of the sounds we are trying to convey.

Sometimes this flimsy sketch is enough to pique the reader’s interest and insinuate another note into their mental list of things to explore. If we write about a typical track by a well-known artist we may succeed in siphoning a little of its essence from our minds to theirs. But that’s the easy part of the blogger’s art. It is much harder for a writer to get across the thrill that comes from the exceptional or the utterly extraordinary.

That’s why writing about Jimi Hendrix is so daunting. Jimi was truly extraordinary. He is widely regarded as the greatest rock guitarist there has ever been. When drawing up a list of great rock guitarists for an article in Rolling Stone David Fricke put it this way:

Jimi Hendrix was Number One in every way; the other 99 were all Number Two.

So, how can I write about Jimi Hendrix? What can I say that hasn’t already been said? And, if I do write something, how can I compete with the eloquence of professional journalists? Well, of course, I can’t. What I can do is give you my take on the man and his music.

Electric Ladyland - faces

Looking down Fricke’s list there aren’t many I would have in my own shortlist. Most of them I’d reject as “not rock”¹ or “not in the same league” or even “not heard the name”². Steve Howe and Robert Fripp deserve consideration but they both belong in the ‘prog rock’ sub-category which is not really comparable. Peter Green is a genuine contender but even he didn’t achieve the symbiosis between man and instrument that Hendrix so effortlessly demonstrated. In Jimi’s hands the electric guitar could squeal and whine and thunder, but it could also sing with the voice of an angel. That, for me, is the mark of his genius.

The art of Hendrix reached its peak in the 1968 album, Electric Ladyland. When I think of Electric Ladyland I remember the electronic effects first. I think that’s partly because the album opens with a psychedelic wash of sounds that seem to be from another world or another time, the perfect introduction to the mystical land of lovely android women. It seems to say, this is what heaven must be like – soft, warm, your every need catered for.

If there is a theme to the album it is one of benign Science Fiction. The old Earth is dead but technology provides an escape from the devastation, a bolt hole under the sea, where what’s left of humanity can live in peace and harmony. Hendrix is known for his flamboyance and turning up the amps to maximum but much of Electric Ladyland is a laid back, gently rocking groove. It is powerful without being abrasive – the perfect antidote to the crash and thrash of later metal bands.

Electric Ladyland is very much a studio album. Guest musicians make an important contribution, changing the character of individual tracks, adding variety without destroying the integrity of the album as a whole. The 15 minute Voodoo Chile would be a different track without Steve Winwood’s organ, there’s tenor sax on Rainy Day, Dream Away and, if you pay attention, you’ll hear piano, congas, flute and girl backing singers. It’s a vibrant and faultless production.

Above all, Electric Ladyland is a showcase for Jimi Hendrix’ mastery of the electric guitar. It is an essential part of every rock enthusiast’s record collection, a disc for the desert island and one of the best reasons for writing about music that I know.

Notes

  1. Bert Jansch and Joni Mitchell, for example, were/are folk guitarists.
  2. In most cases that just illustrates my own ignorance; it’s not meant to imply any judgement of their talent.

Wicked Soul

Wicked Soul - chessboard

Wickedness, Lesson 3 – Seduction

Seduction is a game. It has rules, like chess. And, like chess, you’re more likely to win if you have studied the game and developed your technique. The key thing is to judge the pace. If you dither too much you will be beaten by the clock; if you are too eager you will make mistakes. So, take it slowly, but keep the moves coming. In chess you focus on the board; in the game of seduction you must give all your attention to your partner. Remember,  seduction is a mind game; it has nothing to do with the physical.

A Case Study

We are going to listen to a track called Wicked Soul by Kubb. As we shall see, the songwriter is inexperienced in the ignoble art of seduction but we can learn a lot from his mistakes. For the sake of this exercise we can assume that the singer and his girl have met once or twice but this is the first time they have been alone together. She likes him but she’s an old-fashioned girl with no plans for anything more than some TV, a chat and a friendly kiss on the cheek when he leaves.

The song starts well. The opening piano chords and subtle synths establish a nice easy pace; there is purpose in our steps but no hurry. Then, a little too abruptly, drums, bass and guitar crash in; this guy means business (but it’s not clear where he’s taking us). If we were startled, the easy rhythm soon calms and comforts us again. When the vocals come in the tone is reassuring but the words betray an unforgivable impatience.

I don’t wanna watch The Street on TV,
I don’t wanna hear about your day.

While the Kubb man keeps these thoughts to himself no damage has been done, but if he makes the mistake of saying them out loud he will almost certainly have blown it. Let’s listen to some more of the song and see how he gets on.

The relaxed beat rolls gently on through the verse and into the chorus. As it does so, the voice rises high over the instruments, the vocalist imagining the conquest to come.

Tonight’s the night I shed my wicked soul,
I take it out on you and watch you lose control.

And still the beat goes on, insistent and comforting at the same time. The voice revels in anticipation of the end game.

Tonight’s the night I shed my,
Tonight’s the night I shed my,
Tonight’s the night I shed my wicked soul…
My wicked soul…
My wicked soul.

The song keeps moving forward, which is good, but as a plan it lacks finesse. Sometimes the direct approach will work but it’s a risky strategy. Can you do better?

Your Assignment

For your assignment this week I want you to think about how you could improve on Mr. Kubb’s approach. Essays should be with me, as usual, by 18:00 hrs one week from today. In the meantime, keep practicing, and good luck!

Old Nick (wickedness tutor)

Lucky Man

Lucky Man - piano

They say bad things and London buses come in threes. Of course, when you’re waiting for a bus you want it to come quickly; you don’t want bad things to come at all. But come they do. Sadly, in the space of a few weeks, the deaths of three prominent figures in the music business have been announced. First it was David Bowie, then George Martin and on Friday Keith Emerson.

If you live in the UK, are not deaf and are older than, oh I don’t know, let’s say three, you must be familiar with David Bowie. The same goes for the Beatles and, if you have any interest in popular music, you will know that George Martin was their friend and producer. Keith Emerson was less well known but, arguably, no less talented. He was brought up on western classical music but went on to become one of the greatest rock keyboard players of all time.

Fanfare - ELP

Emerson came to prominence as the organist and front man of The Nice. Their version of Leonard Bernstein’s America reached number 21 on the UK singles chart in July 1968 and three of their albums made the top 5 in the UK album charts. The Nice were one of the first progressive rock bands and when that band crumbled Emerson recruited Greg Lake and Carl Palmer to continue the prog rock theme as Emerson, Lake and Palmer. ELP released four studio albums between 1970 and 1973 which all charted in the top five in the UK. There were three more albums in 1977 and 1978 that also enjoyed some chart success. Their last two albums in 1992 and 1994 sold well but didn’t chart.

Although ELP released a few singles¹ they were much better known for their albums and live performances. Their stage act was, by all accounts, spectacular. They would often use pyrotechnics and Emerson himself developed a number of highly theatrical tricks: wedging knives into his Hammond organ, playing while upside down or suspended in mid air and spinning round. But ELP were first and foremost musicians and the visual side of their act was always subservient to the music. And the fans loved it.

A large part of the repertoire of both The Nice and ELP consisted of Emerson’s arrangements of classical pieces. These included: Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition,  Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta and works by J. S. BachBéla Bartók and Alberto Ginastera. It would not be stretching a point too far to say that Keith Emerson was primarily an arranger and performer of other composers’ works. With ELP the other composers included Greg Lake who, as a member of the band, contributed some of the most memorable tunes on their albums. Having said that, Emerson did also compose material of his own and insert extended improvisations into the scored pieces.

Keith Emerson was an immensely talented keyboard player. With ELP Emerson brought classical music to modern audiences by presenting it as grand theatrical rock. That is his unique and lasting achievement.

Lucky Man - biker

For me, Greg Lake’s Lucky Man is an eerily fitting epitaph for him. In the song a man with great wealth and destined for high honour is killed by a bullet. Was he a lucky man? Until his untimely death you would have thought so. Keith Emerson, too, was blessed with great musical ability and the trappings of a successful career. He was also killed by a bullet – a self-inflicted head wound that we must assume was suicide. We will probably never know what drove him to take his own life but, whatever it was, I think we can still say he was a very lucky man.

Notes

  1. Only Fanfare for the Common Man charted in the UK. It reached no. 2. I mentioned it in this blog post.
  2. Emerson’s death was announced on the BBC, in Rolling Stone magazine and several other news sites.
  3. Keith Emerson was briefly a member of the band 3. They made one album, To the Power of Three, in 1988 but it wasn’t a success. Perhaps 3 is not a lucky number.

Into the Night

Life is mostly mundane. We all have our daily routines: the school run, walking the dog, watching the latest episode of our favourite soap opera. Of course, every day is different in small ways, too: a new crossing lady today, the Labrador with the dark chocolate eyes has lost his ball, the TV soap has been postponed to make way for a special programme on some scandal or tragedy. Ripples of difference decorate the pools of our lives never disturbing the deeper waters that flow through our emotional veins.

Every once in a while, though, something far from ordinary happens. Into the Night is an account of one of those extraordinary, life-changing moments. The song was written by Chad Kroeger for Carlos Santana. It appears on the Ultimate Santana compilation album and was released as a single in 2007. The single was accompanied by a video and the song has inspired Crotchety Man to write a prose piece about it. Here, then, are three perspectives on Into the Night.

Into the Night - angst

The Prose-Writer’s Perspective

It’s cool up here on the roof. From here I can see the city stretching out beyond the air-conditioning units, a forest of Mediterranean slates and gables jostling in the fading light of the setting sun. Down below relaxed holiday-makers are eating on restaurant terraces, strolling through the streets, enjoying themselves. I should be with them. We could be drinking together, teasing each other, having fun. But my father is dying and my heart is too heavy for laughter.

My dad was my hero. As a child, when I fell and hurt myself, it was always Dad who picked me up, checked me over and told me that I wasn’t badly hurt. Only then would Mum bathe my grazed knee or put a plaster on a cut. When I was old enough to drink too much it was Dad who fixed my aching head with a cheery “serves you right” and a raw egg hangover cure. And it was Dad who understood how I felt when I was dumped by the only angel in a world of plastic mannequin women. Nothing was said, but he shared my pain.

And now I am feeling his pain. He doesn’t have an unspeakable disease; he is just getting old. He struggles to see, to hear, to walk. The never-ending ache of arthritis wracks his joints. It is too much for him to bear. His spirit is fading away and watching his decline is agony for me. The Dylan Thomas poem, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, keeps going around in my head. I want my father to fight on, to be my superhero again, to defeat the creeping juggernaut of death.

Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.

But it is no good. My father’s life is coming to an end. If he doesn’t have the strength to carry on, how can I? Peering over the parapet, looking out over the rooftops, there is just one thought in my head. Jump. It would be so easy. So quick. A few seconds and my anguish would be over. It was the Devil’s voice and I could not disobey.

. . .

As I looked down a woman in a traditional Spanish dress came out of a doorway. She had long black hair and she moved with the grace of a swan. As I watched she waved at her friends in the bar opposite. A warm smile lit up her face and the essential spark of life itself shone in her eyes. My Spanish señorita walked lightly across the square and into a café where a chalkboard advertised traditional Spanish dancing. The Devil challenged my reverie. “She is not your señorita, my friend. And your father is still slowly dying.”

I wavered there for a time but the Devil’s grip had been loosened and another voice floated up from among the hubbub below. I don’t know if it was the voice of God or just the voice of Reason but it did not cower when the Devil spoke. “Look”, it said, “there is another way out. A better way.”

. . .

I found the café where the señorita had gone and ordered a beer. It wasn’t long before she appeared and began to dance. At first she performed traditional dances, swirling her skirts, stamping her feet and clacking castanets. Then the mood changed and she moved on to a more modern, more sensual style. Pretending to flirt with the men in the audience she picked out one or two to join her on the dance floor.

I was about to order another beer when she beckoned to me. Time stopped. All conscious thought evaporated. Propelled onto the dance floor by invisible hands I joined her and we danced. I was a puppet controlled by her voice, her eyes, her hands. Together we stepped and spun, twisted and swung, instinct choreographing our movements.

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The Songwriter’s Standpoint

Into the Night marries the grandeur of the Canadian Rockies to the fire of Latin American rhythms. It rattles along like a steam train on a record run, huffing and puffing through a mountain pass. On the footplate the stokers are heaving great shovelfuls of coal into the firebox, sweating with heat and exertion. As we watch the engine sweep by, a blues-influenced rock guitar line sings of an anguish quelled by a vision of beauty and gracefulness, an evil defeated by love.

Like a gift from the heavens, it was easy to tell
It was love from above, that could save me from hell.
She had fire in her soul, it was easy to see
How the devil himself could be pulled out of me.
There were drums in the air as she started to dance
Every soul in the room keeping time with their hands.

Like a piece to the puzzle that falls into place
You could tell how we felt from the look on our faces.
She was spinning in circles with the moon in her eyes,
No room left to move in between you and I.
We forgot where we were, and we lost track of time
And we sang to the wind as we danced through the night.

And we danced on into the night…

The Video-Maker’s Viewpoint

There’s a lovely example of unintentional humour on the Wikipedia page for Into the Night. It describes the video in these words:

The music video features a man … about to jump off a roof when he sees a girl … dancing. He falls for her immediately …

Of course he doesn’t literally fall; he just admires the dancer’s beauty and graceful movements and in doing so his inner demons are tamed and vanquished.

The video uses shots of Carlos Santana and Chad Kroeger performing the song interleaved with scenes on the roof and in the café/bar. The clips of the dancing beauty and her troubled partner are annoyingly brief, as if semi-subliminal adverts have been inserted into a short film of the Santana guitarists. I know it’s a music video but wouldn’t it be better to feature the lovely woman at the centre of the story more prominently than the musicians? It is a visual medium after all. Or am I seeing with a Crotchety Old Man’s eyes?

The video is on YouTube. You can find it here.