Posted in Brain Bits, Cats, Movie Reviews, Music

Brain Bits on Back-to-School Day

It’s that time of year again—the school bus armada has hit the road, proud parents are taking photos of their kids at bus stops, new backpacks are on parade, and the silence is golden for those of us who work at home, at least between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. It’s an odd, sort of in-between time: the calendar says September, but the weather is still late August. In fact, today we’re expecting a typical hazy, hot and humid afternoon, well into the 80’s. But the signs are there—the days are shorter, the mornings are cooler and apples are beginning to evict peaches from my local farm stand, though my favorite Macouns won’t be appearing until the end of the month. There’s nothing like the transition into autumn, as fall foliage, the World Series and Halloween are just around the corner. Pure heaven.

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One of the funniest videos around, “Henri 2, Paw de Deux,” just won first prize at the Internet Cat Video Film Festival. Now, you may think pet videos are idiotic and/or cats are for crazy people (watch it, buster!), but this is one clever little gem that amuses on so many levels. The bad French accent, the world-weary intonation of the narrator, the maudlin piano track, the existential subtitles and most of all, the expressions of Henri—utter perfection. I’m hoping we see more of Monsieur Le Tuxedo in the future, along with “l’idiot blanc.” Well done, Will Braden, even if Henri has dubbed you “the thieving filmmaker” on his Facebook page.

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Do you think you have a good musical ear? If so, I’ve got a great skull buster for you—it’s been known to humble even professional musicians, at least those who haven’t played the piece or cheated by sneaking a peek at the score. Without further ado, I’m talking about the instrumentation of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero,” that absolute marvel of orchestral color.

The game goes like this: grab a piece of paper and a pen (or your iPad or whatever), cue up any recording of “Bolero” and list the instrument or instruments you hear every time the theme is repeated, in sequence. It’s harder than you think, even during the first part of the piece when one solo follows another—the sound alone may not always be indicative of what is being played. There’s also a trick situation of sorts, what I call a “sneak-in.” One instrument begins the theme, which is finished by another, entering unobtrusively to finish the phrase because the notes are below the range of the original soloist. And when Ravel begins to combine instruments, the layers of sound make it even more challenging—there’s one combination I never get, no matter how many times I try. The best hint I can give you is to remember that timbre can be changed by external means. Which unfortunately may confuse you even more. To see how accurate your list is, check out the solution here .

Unfortunately I can’t find a decent “Bolero” recording on Youtube that isn’t a video, which would of course give the game away. What I did find, though, is even better—a clip from the movie “Bolero,” that 1934 cheese-fest starring George Raft and Carole Lombard, which appeared on the scene long before Bo Derek’s “10,” and Torvill and Dean. I haven’t seen the full movie in years, but if I remember correctly, they’re a dance team that split when he went off to fight in World War I. He’s gassed during combat and is presumed dead, she marries someone else (Lord Whoever), and they meet again to dance once more. Only now he has a bum ticker, so this turns into his dance of death, complete with pounding drums:

Sigh. They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.

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Posted in Music

Animal Crackers

Animals pop up with surprising frequency in music. I’m not talking about cameos and guest appearances like the sheep in Strauss’s Don Quixote, which courtesy of the brass section bah delightfully. My favorites are actually full-length portraits of the fur and feather crowd that never fail to please.

Yesterday morning I enjoyed my breakfast to the hee-haw strains of “On the Trail” from Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite. I hadn’t listened to it in a while, and I’d forgotten how accurate it is in describing the stubborn donkeys who finally get it in gear for tenderfoots (tenderfeets?) in the saddle. Grofe first made his name as an arranger, most prominently for Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue when the piece was premiered by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, and his talent is very apparent here. The donkeys’ clip-clops and the great wide-open-spaces feel of “On the Trail” make for delightful listening:

Probably the most popular animals are those in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Even people who hate classical music can usually identify the cat’s Sneaky Pete prowl, if not the duck’s plaintive theme. Although the composer wrote this for children, even adults tend to flinch when they hear the four French horns portraying the wolf (I must say, though, that as a former bassoonist, the grandfather’s harrumphs are just as much fun as the depictions of the other characters). Director Suzie Templeton’s animated Peter and the Wolf, which won an Oscar several years ago, is an excellent version, though it makes me sad that the poor duck isn’t promised her return as Prokofiev intended. But here are Peter, the bird, duck and cat in happier times:

Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals, a very clever theme and variations, is another crowd-pleaser. Featuring a piano duo and full orchestra, the piece is replete with lions (whose theme, fittingly enough, was used a number of years ago in a Dreyfus Fund commercial), hens, kangaroos, tortoises, elephants, donkeys and a swan of renown. The “Fossils” movement is the funniest—those dry bones are referred to by the composer with a quote from his own Danse Macabre played on the xylophone and he puns by including several bars from Rossini’s “Una voce poco fa,” a musical fossil in Saint-Saens’s eyes. Despite all this, my favorite section describes the mystical-sounding fish swimming in an  aquarium:

Mother Goose, initially a ballet and later a suite by Ravel, features a section that I think is the wittiest and one of the most charming pieces of music ever composed. “The Conversation of Beauty and the Beast” first presents Beauty, but not in the form you’d expect. In most cases a flute will depict a feminine character, but Ravel, that master orchestrator, instead introduces Beauty with an infinitely graceful clarinet solo. After Beauty speaks, here comes the Beast, attempting to be courtly, but remaining, well–a beast. A contrabassoon does the honors, and its bumbling never fails to make me smile. After the initial exchange of views and evidently some doubt on Beauty’s part, the two lines come together as they continue their bumpy conversation. Starting at :50, you can hear their dialogue:

Feel free to chime in by sharing your favorites.