Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Curtis Curtis Smith - The Great American Symphony (GAS!)

Kazoo Blues
Northern Harmony
Dido's Dance

This piece was controversial and was included in what must have been an interesting concert of the American Composers Orchestra, October 31, 1999, under the heading "PROTEST".

The liner notes for the disc says:

GAS! was commissioned and premiered by Yoshimi Takeda and the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra in 1982, supported by a grant from the Michigan Council for the Arts. The New York premiere was conducted by Dennis Russell Davies with the American Composers Orchestra on the “Great Performers Series” in Avery Fisher Hall, November 6, 1983. Since then, Davies has championed the piece with performances in Stuttgart, Germany, the Cabrillo Music Festival, The Indianapolis Symphony, and the West German Radio Orchestra in Cologne, and most recently, a second performance with the American Composers Orchestra in Carnegie Hall on October 31, 1999. 

The audacious title is as mischievous as it is ridiculous, and as American as a slick Madison Avenue advertising slogan (The Great American Spaghetti Factory, et al). There are allusions to sundry aspects of Americana, from New Orleans jazz to acid rock; from gospel harmonies to boisterous marches to quaint southern folk hymns and Broadway show tunes. On one level, the piece may be heard as fun-and-games entertainment, while on another level, it may be heard as an ironic and satirical commentary on the very tunes and styles it purports to trifle with. The piece has certainly enjoyed widely diverse reactions, from those finding it a “masterpiece” to those thinking it a travesty. Ross Lee Finney called GAS! “a controversial piece,” and David Diamond, while finding the title a “happy impertinence,” admitted to lacking “the requisite sense of humour about the title.” Another listener objected to my “irreverent” treatment of the Star Spangled Banner in the last movement. I have never before, nor since, written such a brazen, outlandish, ill-behaved piece—yet GAS! is not malicious; it's more like a clown working things into his act.

The first movement, Kazoo Blues, begins in the low register, in the middle of a phrase, unfolds to quasi-bluesy progressions and ends again in the dark low register, presaging the beginning of the fourth movement.

 The second movement is a noisy and rambunctious March, with allusions to “barbershop” harmonies. In the trio, the pungent banjo (the voice of the pullet) twangs its way through the smooth, near-blues string chords. At the very end of the movement, in a three-note banjo solo, the chicken gives voice: “The Chicken Speaks!”

The third movement, Northern Harmony, was inspired by the Southern Harmony tradition. Southern Harmony is a collection of folk hymnody first published in 1835 and still in use today in a few rural southern communities. Called the Sacred Harp tradition, the singing style is very nasal and pungent with the melody in the tenor voice and frequent doubling of parts. The harmonic progressions are often unorthodox with parallel fifths and “wrong” inversions. In Northern Harmony, certain elements of this tradition are evoked and parodied. The pentatonic melody is scored for double reeds and muted trombone to simulate the nasal quality of the Sacred Harp style.

The fourth movement, Dido's Dance, is a phantasmagoria of rock, parodies of Purcell's Dido's Lament, a mock-rock monster waltz, the Dies Irae, and a tightly woven quodlibet on five tunes including I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo, The National Anthem, The Blue Danube, On Top of Old Smoky, and Glory, Glory Hallelujah. All five tunes share the characteristic ascending triad in their initial phrase.

Despite its playfulness, Dido's Dance is psychologically complex. It is funny and fiendish at the same time. While there are musical “jokes,” these jokes conceal ironic motives behind the laughing mask. (Behind the comic mask lurks the Requiem Mass.) In Dido's Dance, I have wedded Purcell and rock. I have always been struck by the uncanny resemblance between Purcell's chaconne bass lines and rock ostinati. The musicologist Paul Nettle, in The Story of Dance Music, says that the Spanish chaconne, which Purcell and other Baroque composers adapted for their own purposes, actually originated in the West Indies. Coincidentally, the Caribbean also contributed some of the rhythms and dances which were to shape early jazz and eventually rock. In Dido's Dance, the five-bar chaconne of Dido's Lament is compressed into a frenzied 15/8 rock pattern. Purcell's lamenting bass is taken into the higher registers and treated melodically (as did, ironically, the earliest 17th century chaconnes).

In the “Great Monster Waltz,” the mocking E-flat clarinet, playing with its bell held high, twists and distorts Purcell's divine melody into a sardonic miscreant. This clumsy waltz is scored for bizarre combinations of instruments with the celeste painting a glassy-eyed glaze over contra bassoon and tuba groans. The monster slowly dies—soothed by the bass clarinet—and from his ashes rises the American eagle (phoenix?) to sing out the National Anthem in combat with the last contorted writhings of the expiring monster.

William Bolcom said about his colleague:

 "Curtis Curtis-Smith is one of the best-kept secrets in contemporary music. It is high time that listeners and musicians alike become acquainted with this music of passion and humor, intellectual agility and disarming emotional directness. I have long been its advocate to our best performers, who have played it enthusiastically worldwide, and I envy anyone who is becoming acquainted with it for the first time." 

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