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Tuesday, May 06, 2014

A Schickele Mix

From the Turntable Dept.: Peter Schickele’s public radio program “Schickele Mix” was in its comparative infancy when I wrote the piece below; it would go on to include 169 episodes and a dozen listener-support specials, and would continue to be broadcast long after he stopped recording new episodes. Because of licensing issues, it can’t be reissued, so we’re stuck with replaying whatever we might have happened to record off the air. But here’s a snapshot of what was happening in the Professor’s life twenty-some years ago.


IT’S A MIX THAT DEFIES CATEGORIZATION: you’ll never hear such musical juxtapositions on a mainstream radio show. When Peter Schickele wants to illustrate a musical point, he digs into a seemingly limitless library that can jump from Buxtehude to the Byrds. “Schickele Mix” airs Fridays at 11 AM over WAMC and covers subjects as diverse as the use of bells, songs about unhappiness, canons and rounds, and, not surprisingly, humor in music.

Peter Schickele and Friend | Photo by Peter Schaaf
As discoverer of the music of P.D.Q. Bach, Schickele adopts the pontifical pose of a professor at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, paying tribute, along the way, to his midwestern background – and to his real-life job as professor of music at the Juilliard School in Manhattan in the early 1960s, after a stint there as student. In fact, it was at Juilliard that he put on the first P.D.Q. Bach concerts, celebrating the supposed last and least of the great Johann Sebastian’s sons.

As Schickele has observed on his radio show, it makes sense to parody that which you know and like, and he’s a special fan of the music of Bach and Mozart – the very era P.D.Q. seems to straddle. Otherwise, “I was a Spike Jones freak when I was a kid and knew his records inside out,” Schickele explains, also explaining the chaotic, vaudeville-comedy nature of the P.D.Q. Bach concerts still performed annually at Carnegie Hall. Those early Juilliard concerts were given with no thought of an eventual career, but P.D.Q.’s growing popularity led to a public debut at New York’s Town Hall in 1965.

“Even then I didn’t realize that it would continue for so long. I thought it might last five years at the most. But that’s also when I quit teaching at Juilliard, partly because I wanted to be free to go on the road with P.D.Q. Bach, and partly because that was the heyday of the really super mathematical approach to music, in the post-Webern sense, which has never been my bag.” An approach rooted at universities such as Columbia, not too far up the street from Juilliard back then.

Still, the first three P.D.Q. Bach tours lost money, says Schickele. “It didn’t start making me a living until into the 70s. But another part of what I wanted to do was get into the musical scene, rather than just talking about it as a teacher. So I was arranging for Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie and other folksingers, and I was doing film scores, and whatever came along. The relationship with Joan Baez was particularly fruitful and gratifying. I did three albums with her, on one of which I wrote the music as well as arranged it. It was a very happy collaboration. And when I wrote the music for a science fiction film called Silent Running, Joan did a couple of songs for it.”

It probably was this period in his life that planted the seed that would eventually grow into “Schickele Mix.” He’s had eclectic musical tastes as long as he can remember – “When I went to Swarthmore College in the 1950s I was already a serious composer in the sense that I knew that’s what I wanted to go into. I was the only music major at the time, so I was regarded as Mr. Classical Music. I can remember raising eyebrows when I went into the lounge and put on Elvis Presley or Ray Charles. There were people who still felt snobby about that – popular music wasn’t in the same league, and they were surprised that I’d listen to that stuff. But I loved it.”

Part of the burden of being a struggling composer is copying out the instrumental parts to orchestral and chamber scores – a task that, thanks to computers, has now all but vanished. Schickele was no stranger to the task, and recalls the utter boredom of it. “Even though you probably copy best when you don’t listen to other music, I had a record changer and would put on things like a Gerry Mulligan record, followed by Jean Ritchie doing Appalachian Mountain stuff. And I think that when I listened to them literally next to each other like that, that’s when I first not only enjoyed listening to the variety of music, but also noticed certain similarities I wouldn’t otherwise have found. So in some ways I think the genesis of ‘Schickele Mix’ goes back to that record changer.”

The program, now beginning its third season, just won the Deems Taylor Award from ASCAP, given to significant print or broadcast coverage of music. “This show is something I wanted to do for years,” says Schickele. “I had the good fortune to hook up with a wonderful producer, Tom Voegeli, and we do it real down home. And there are people around like Tom Keith – he does sound effects for Garrison Keillor – who does a morning show there, so it’s like having an extra hand. You go in and say “I’m doing a show on bagpipes,’ and before you know it, Tom is handing you an album with the Toyota Bagpipes Band. It’s a for-real Scottish band but it’s underwritten by Toyota, and on one side they’re playing reels and marches and all the regular stuff, and on the other side there’s stuff like – this is for real – ‘Send in the Clowns’ and the theme from ‘The Magnificent Seven.’ I get wonderful material from these guys that I didn’t know about.

“Then we record the show live, basically. Unlike the way some other shows are put together, we play all the music as we go along.” Schickele travels to St. Paul to put together the program, and sounds faintly apologetic about it. “I hate to puncture the bubble here,” he says, “because we try to give the impression that it’s being done down the hall. But I go out there for about ten days at a time and we record a show a day.”

Nevertheless, Schickele is actually closer than you may think. Although his professional life is rooted in Manhattan and his work as a composer and performer takes him all over the world, his preferred retreat is just down the road in Woodstock.

“This time of year, we go up there on weekends, but we’re there the whole summer. I like to concentrate on composing then.” Although he counts a number of transplanted New Yorkers as neighbors, Schickele is actually a transplanted midwesterner – he was born in Ames, Iowa – who professes a love for the west. “I’m a western boy at heart and I like vistas. There are places on the east side of the river I like for that reason, but in terms of the combination of the scenery and the people, nothing beats Woodstock.”

That western theme drifted into his latest recording. It’s a rewrite of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” retitled “Sneaky Pete and the Wolf” to suit Schickele’s new text, a B-movie western cleverly fitted to the familiar score. The animal and human characters of “Peter and the Wolf,” on the other hand, have been given western guises with even a little romance thrown in. “‘Peter and the Wolf’ was a favorite piece of mine when I was kid – obviously, I identified with Peter because of the name. Since I’ve always had a weakness for cornball Western stuff, I decided to do a Western version of it.” The piece is paired with his rewrite – and narration – of the Ogden Nash verse to Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals.”

As a composer, Schickele is in constant demand to write for and appear with orchestras and ensembles all over the country. “I just finished writing a brass quintet for a group based in Philadelphia called the Chestnut Brass Company. It’s called ‘Brass Calendar,’ and it has a movement for each month of the year. It’ll be premiered next month. And I have two orchestral commissions that are due next summer. One of them is an oboe concerto, and the other was commissioned by an orchestra in Columbus, Ohio, in conjunction with the James Thurber House. The piece has to have something to do with his work, so I think it’s going to be based on Thurber’s dogs. Each movement will be based on a different dog from one of his stories.”

We can expect another season of “Schickele Mix,” too. “We just got a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, so it looks like we’ll be going for another year. There’s no corporate underwriting for the program, so the backing comes from grants and foundations.”

The variety within the programs themselves is matched by the variety from program to program, which range from lessons in music theory to a suite of songs on the same strange theme. “I like to vary the programs a lot,” says Schickele. “I did a program on blood and a program on drinking songs, so those had virtually noting to do with music theory. Sometimes I’ll just focus on an instrument – one of the ones I just recorded was about the bassoon. My hope is that for regular listeners it’s not always the same kind of show.

“I did a program recently where I pretended I was in the audience at the first performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, trying to imagine how somebody might have reacted who didn’t know about music history since that time. I guess the variety is what I love about the program, and it’s also part of the point in the educational sense. Some of the terms I illustrate are things people only associate with classical music, but these terms, or the concepts they describe, have application in all sorts of music. And that’s why I begin every program with a quote from Duke Ellington: ‘If it sounds good, it is good.’”

Metroland Magazine 16 December 1993

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