Friday, January 08, 2010

More of the same

Sometimes one blog picks up where the other one left off. I mentioned Palestrina in the last one. He's widely studied in music schools throughout the country, considered universally to be the Father of Modern Counterpoint.

All well and good. It's decent stuff, Palestrina's tunes. But for my money, the cat from that time(17th century) was Orlando di Lasso. More imaginative, more soulful. At least that's how I remember it.

It's been now 30 years since I was a music student. My education took place in, as it turns out, the last century. I like to think it's still of some value. Two significant experiences come readily to mind when I think back on that period, from '73 to '80(okay, I bounced around a little). One of them is what I just wrote about in the previous blog. Don't remember the year.

The other one I do happen to remember and it was in '75. Studying Music History. I was reading Grout's History of Western Music, then pretty much the standard text. Reading about a composer, a Russian composer named Modest Mussourgsky. He wrote a wonderful piece, initially for two pianos and later orchestrated by Ravel, called Pictures at an Exhibition, and an Opera called-- Boris Godenov.

Reading this title, a light went off in my head, and I hurled the book across the room. As a longtime Bullwinkle fan, I now knew where they got Boris Badenov.

And now, some 35 years later, I share it with you. Ah, the joys of a college education.


Well every year has its casualties, and late in '09 the local music community lost one of its better bassists. Didn't know him well, but had the good fortune to play a couple gigs with him over the past 2 years. Good solid player, particularly on the funkier grooves. Seemed like a nice sort personally as well. I don't know all the details of his passing, just that it was very sudden. His roommate just walked into the room and found him dead.

He was the bassist for, among others, a 4-piece group on a Friday evening happy hour gig. I was told that right after his passing--the visitation was the same night--the band played its usual 2 hours, only without bass!

A very fitting tribute, since the loss is demonstrated, exemplified, in the choice of instruments: everyone but him. And so much more keenly felt, being the backbone of the group, cliched as that may sound. You can do without guitar, or without keyboards, and even without drums, but take away the bass and you take away not only the backbone but the heartbeat of the music. The resultant musical edifice is a foundationless house- which ends up just being a pile of kindling.

Hearing this news reminded me of something I learned in a Music History class, back in my college days. It was a similar symbolic gesture from a 17th century composer, around the time of Palestrina. Don't know the composer or the honoree, but it was a piece written without a Cantus Firmus.

The Cantus Firmus, in pieces of this time, was a melody on which everything else in the piece was based. Not the bass voice but rather the tenor- still, the central theme, the heartbeat of the music. The word 'tenor' comes from the Latin tenere, to hold. It, like the bass player(that is, if he or she is good), holds the music together.

So a piece without a Cantus Firmus demonstrates by its very nature the personal loss of the individual honored, just like a gig without the bass player mourns his loss by the absence of bass frequencies in the mix. Sometimes rests are more powerful than what you play. Missing that funky 'cantus firmus' he used to lay down...