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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Had Miles Met Maurice

From the CD Shelf Dept.: Several years ago, I wrote a series of program notes for CDs issued on the Dorian Recordings label. This one was especially interesting as it featured Peter Blanchette, virtuoso of the archguitar, which is described below.


“And there’s another thing,” Blanchette points out. “Miles and Maurice both were pretty natty dressers. Ravel had something like 400 neckties, while Miles was famous for commissioning designer clothing for his everyday wear.”

A Julian Bream concert lured Blanchette from electric guitar to classical guitar and lute, but he longed to find a way to combine aspects of the sound of both worlds. So he worked with guitar-maker Walter Stanul on a new design that took shape in 1982, when the archguitar was born. With a smaller body than the standard Spanish guitar, it also has added strings and frets. The smaller body also gives it more in the way of overtones, which improves the sound.

In contrast with his previous Dorian release, Archguitar Renaissance (DOR-93178), Blanchette here offers a program that more closely reflects what his ensemble performs in concert. The musical mix of the title track also plays out in the juxtaposition of tunes. “I don’t want to play just one type of music for an audience all evening, and I don’t think people always want to hear that,” Blanchette explains. “That’s why they buy CD changers.”

One obvious salute to Miles is the way in which this album begins. “His trademark on his early albums was to begin with a soft and tender ballad,” says Blanchette, “then shoot into an up-tempo fun thing. Going from ‘Bettina’ to Rota’s ‘Amore per Tutti’ sort of emulates that. And ‘Bettina’ itself is completely derived from Miles.”

It also was written with trumpeter Charlie Schneeweis in mind. “I took the opening phrase from a Miles Davis recording of the song ‘It Never Entered My Mind,’ and made it into a cantus firmus. I decided to harmonically do something completely different to it. The first phrase is lifted from Miles’s improvisation, but he’s improvising over different harmony. There was something very touching about the way he plays it, that illusion of gentleness that his playing has. Charlie would probably be the last person in the world to consciously emulate Miles Davis, but people often hear Miles in his playing. Charlie is a much more lyrical player, because he’s also a singer.

“The phrase I worked with was a voice that spoke to me, and I thought it could work with such a soft voice as the archguitar. The tune reminded me of a wonderful woman I haven’t seen in years, and that’s where the name of it came from.”

Some of the best-known film melodies were written by one of the cinema’s least-known composers. Nino Rota (1911-1979) wrote an oratorio when he was 12, when he entered the Milan Conservatory. He studied in America at the Curtis Institute, became buddies with Stravinsky, and had great success in his native Italy with a pair of operas, but achieved his greatest fame as Federico Fellini’s favorite film composer. And he wrote music for “The Godfather.” Says Blanchette: “I think the melody the solo trumpet plays at the beginning of the movie is one of the greatest gestures anyone has ever come up with – he got the whole symbolism of the military, the clarion call, the peasant culture – all those things wrapped up into one musical gesture, and it’s all alone, like the loneliness of the Godfather. It was way, way beyond what you usually hear even in good film score writing.” “Amore per Tutti” is from Fellini’s 1965 film “Juliet of the Spirits.”

Blanchette’s arrangement of the theme from the movie “Amarcord” conjoins it with a tune from the harem scene in “8½..” “I heard the ‘Amarcord’ theme and thought, ‘This could make a really great prelude on the guitar,’ and then I liked the sound of its segue into the harem theme. It’s like a late-romantic Italian piece, where you have a prelude and an intermezzo.

“Then I found this wonderful, eerie theme from ‘8½’ called ‘The Cemetery,’ which is such an avant garde piece! It’s a set of parallel minor chords that move chromatically, with an absolutely brilliant melody over it. It’s all parallel minor chords, and I would love to know if there’s another piece out there in all of music that does that.

“Between them we stick in a Stravinsky piece (‘Napolitana’), which I like putting in the middle of the Rota pieces, because it lets you hear how comfortable they are with each other.” Stravinsky (1882-1971) in many ways embodied the 20th century in music, constantly redefining his sound through a body of work that remained consistent in style. “You can best appreciate him in the context of what came before,” says Blanchette. “Put a little Tchaikovsky in your disc changer, say, some ‘Nutcracker,’ and then slip in a Stravinsky piece like ‘The Fairy’s Kiss,’ which is based on some Tchaikovsky themes, and you’ll hear exactly where he’s coming from. Once you understand any Stravinsky, you get all of his music.” The “Napolitana” was used both in “Five Easy Pieces” for piano four hands, and in its later orchestration as the Suite No. 2 for Orchestra.  “Then we do the waltz from ‘La Dolce Vita,’ which is another masterpiece.”

“Once I Loved” (“Amor em paz”) is a song by the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim (1927-1994), written with longtime collaborator Vinicius de Moraes and first recorded in 1966 by Sinatra. “The Jobim is meant to be kind of a surprise piece. We play the Rota set, and sometimes, if the audience doesn’t know whether to clap, we go into the Jobim, which takes it one tangent further. I love Jobim’s music.”

In writing “‘Had Miles Met Maurice,’” says Blanchette, “I wanted to use the guitar the way Ravel and Debussy used the harp. I ended up with an arpeggio piece, like the opening of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, so I decided to explore the kind of melody that could be placed on top of it, a la Gounod’s ‘Ave Maria.’” This is where Miles steps in. “I had Charlie play a variety of things. It was a fun process, allowing him to create freely as a trumpet player. Then I’d go back and edit it, choosing the segments that I thought worked and encouraging him to expand on those.”

The ultimate success of the piece was a performance on “Prairie Home Companion.” The Virtual Consort won the radio program’s 1998 “Talent from Towns under Two Thousand” competition (Blanchette’s home of Shelburne Falls, Mass., censuses in at 1,996). “We still get calls and e-mail from people who heard it back then and want to know about the piece,” says Blanchette.

Academically, the juxtaposition of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1" makes sense: Ravel championed Satie’s music, and this also features a compelling melody over a lean, shifting chord structure. “I had misgivings about those Satie pieces being on here,” says Blanchette, “but when I play them for live audiences, I get a lot of people who say, what is that piece anyway? And I’m happy to tell them. When we rehearse, I encourage Charlie to improvise and then I say, okay, why don’t you do that and that – just state the tune on the first time through, then try some of your own stuff, and audiences really love it.

“Right now, I feel really comfortable with playing stuff from different periods. I’m not a jazz improvisor: if you held a gun to my head and said ‘play eight bars over these chords,’ I’d be dead, because I can’t do anything more than cliched improvising, which I hate. But I can write out an arrangement.”

Satie (1866-1925) entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1879, where he was determined to be gifted but lazy, fond of skipping classes. He was kicked out in 1882. Six years later, he wrote the three Gymnopedies, but it wasn’t until Debussy helped arrange for their publication in 1895 that they started to gain in popularity. (It also didn’t hurt that Debussy orchestrated two of them.) Satie himself languished in obscurity, often working as a café pianist, until luminaries like Ravel and Cocteau began championing his music during the First World War. His high and low points occurred almost simultaneously: he wrote the scandal-provoking ballet “Parade,” a collaboration with Diaghilev, Massine, and Picasso, and was sentenced to eight days in prison for sending a rude postcard to a critic (he pulled some strings and got the sentence suspended).

The Andante by Bach (1685-1750) that follows is drawn from the Trio Sonata in G Major for Two Flutes, BWV 1039 (where it’s marked Adagio); the trio sonata was later reworked to become the Sonata No. 1 in G Major for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, BWV 1027, where the movement gets its Andante designation. “It’s one of those repetitive motive pieces that modulates so nicely. The harmonic blueprint of the piece is fascinating – I love it so much, I had to record it. It’s one of those harmonic masterpieces that works extremely well even without the other movements around it.

“The Renaissance stuff that’s on there is there because we didn’t get it on the other recording. When we play, we play Renaissance stuff. It’s an important part of every program. There are three pairings of Renaissance pieces, usually a solo followed by an ensemble piece.” Pierre Attaignant (c. 1494-1552) was a music printer who married his boss’s daughter and thus inherited the business, which he improved by inventing a streamlined style of music reproduction. It’s not known if he actually composed anything, but, thanks to the many books he published, his name has become attached to many previously anonymous works.

Adrian LeRoy (c. 1520-1598) also married a publisher’s daughter and took over his father-in-law’s business, eventually taking over the prime printing-for-royalty contract Attaignant had held. His authorship of many songs and dances is well established, and it’s believed that he invented the double, the dance variation used by Bach and others. “The ‘Branles des villages’ is an interesting piece,” says Blanchette, “where you play a series of little phrases over a ground, changing the mode, going from the major mode, then three or four phrases in major mode with lowered seventh, then Dorian mode with lowered seventh and lowered sixth. I go into other modes, too, that are more garlicky and spicy, going a little farther than LeRoy went.”

“Packington’s Pound” is one of the most-used tunes of the Elizabethan era, and has been wrapped around such various texts as the story of Jonah and the Whale (you can hear it on the Baltimore Consort’s CD titled “Watkins Ale,” DOR-90142) and an ode to gambling in “The Beggar’s Opera.” John Packington, or Pakington, or Bockington (consistent spelling wasn’t an Elizabethan biggie) was supposed to have been a favorite of the Queen, although Blanchette recalls a story in which this same Packington was supposed to have accepted a bet to swim the Thames, angering the authorities enough to cause them to confiscate his winnings – except for a pound. Francis Cutting, to whom the tune is credited, was born around 1560 and died some time after 1600. He is suspected to have had independent means.

Luis de Milán (c. 1500-c. 1562) told us slightly more about himself: he was the son of Spanish nobles who attached himself to the court of the Duke of Calabria and wound up, thanks to the many intrigues and power shifts of the period, in prison for a decade. He taught himself to play the vihuela, an ancestor of the Spanish guitar, and published the first known collection of vihuela pieces in 1536.

“Remember the Alhambra” (“Recuerdos de la Alhambra”) is one of ten guitar studies written by Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909). The well-known tremolo study evokes an image of the palace of the Moorish kings who lorded over 15th-century Spain. “I can thankfully say I’ve never played it as a guitarist, with the tremolo going on. But it’s a beautiful piece, so I decided to just play the easy arpeggios and give the tune to the trumpet. What I wanted to do with Charlie was to showcase that wonderful tune with its huge, long phrases.”

The Bach Polonaises come from the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in b minor, BWV 1067, a suite that features solo flute. The second of the two is actually a variation (marked Double) that places the melody in the continuo bass and gives the flute a charming descant. Why did Blanchette choose to record them? “There’s a movie by David Mamet called ‘House of Games,’ and it’s got a very nice chamber jazz score by Alaric Jans, who used a lot of Bach motifs. He got this really great intelligent urban sound that was perfect for the movie from these Bach-like motives that he wrote: cool, soft jazz pieces with walking bass. I went right upstairs after seeing that movie and said, ‘Those Polonaises do that,’ and I wrote it out as a trio. They have a classic walking bass, so we did this arrangement where the bass player plays it muted, and I made a third voice for the trumpet.

“Those Polonaises sound very good next to the O’Carolan song,” says Blanchette. “I learned ‘Si Beag Si Mohr’ when I was a street musician in Europe. It was a tune that got a lot of coin from people. I heard it played very badly, and still the musician would make about eighteen bucks. So one night I went out and taped one of those terrible musicians and made my own version. When I arranged it for the three of us, I could have named it ‘Had Turlough met Aaron,’ because when I started writing contrapuntal lines for the trumpet, it sounded like Copland. Very American. It reminded me of the Waltons. Then I started putting ornaments on the guitar that sounded like Floyd Cramer on the piano. He always put those seconds in a chord, and you get that open, American sound. If you want to hear an authentic, Irish version, listen to the Chieftains. I’m trying to personalize it.” Irish minstrel Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738) lost his sight from smallpox when he was in his teens, when he took up the harp. His many failed romances inspired a body of songs that include “Bridget Cruise” and “Peggy Browne,” although he eventually married Mary Maguire when he was 50, relaxing somewhat from the life of an itinerant harpist.

John Dowland (1563-1626) is suspected of being of Irish descent – there are records at Trinity College that claim as much. But nothing is known for certain until Dowland reached his teens and became retainer to the British ambassador to Paris. He returned to London in the 1580s, where he took a music degree at Oxford. Toward the end of the century, he petitioned Queen Elizabeth for the position of court lutenist, a position that eluded him for some 20 years, when King James finally assented and Dowland’s songwriting virtually stopped.

Dowland and his contemporaries often wrote pieces in pairs, and “Lady Rich’s Galliard” is thought to accompany a pavane-like “Fancy.” In the present recording, it’s paired with “The Fairy Round” by Anthony Holborne (fl. 1584, d. 1602), an English composer responsible for a well-regarded collection of consort music published in 1598, and the dedicatee of Dowland’s song “I saw my lady weepe.” “The Fairy Round” brings the album to a close with an easygoing lightness that mirrors its beginning, which is exactly how Blanchette prefers to leave his listeners.

Peter Blanchette: Had Miles Met Maurice
Dorian Recordings DOR-93198

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