I’m sort of a theme & variations junkie. From Bach to Coltrane, they show just what a musician can do when taking a single melody and running with it. A while back I posted Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which didn’t really improvise the main melody but came up with new ones while repeating the bass line. Subsequent composers usually varied the melody by elaborating on bits of it, like in this Beethoven set. This set came about after the musician and (more importantly) publisher, Anton Diabelli, sent a waltz melody to the leading German composers of the time and requested each of them to write a variation on it. Beethoven thought the melody was garbage and ignored it at first. One story has him changing his mind when he learned that other respected composers (Czerny and Hummel, a sometimes rival) were doing it. Or maybe he decided that the melody was pliable enough to accomplish something. Most likely Diabelli simply offered Beethoven money to compose multiple variations; he knew they’d sell. Beethoven wrote 33 variations. Like Coltrane working a show tune, these 33 get pretty far out there, way ahead of their time. There’s everything from mockery of the melody (“this melody is shit”) to transcendance (“look what I can do with even a shitty melody”) and, well, who knows what to call it. There have been plenty of great theme and variation works since, but none have put a melody through the wringer quite like this.
Beethoven was a master of improvisation; he wrote other such sets, but also worked variations into his symphonies, piano sonatas, string quartets, etc. If you want a shorter example, try the second (and final) movement of his piano sonata #32, his last, where he twists a hymn-like melody all over the place before landing in long, brutal, and otherworldly trills that would cripple a normal hand. The second movement starts at 9:00 if you don’t want to hear the first.
Probably my favorite EJ song. It’s the second half of a medley that opens Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It (along with the opening song, the instrumental Funeral For a Friend) got quite a bit of airplay on FM radio when the album was released. This was the glory days of FM, when stations played deep tracks. You never heard it on AM, which stuck to singles. It gets left out of “best of” compilations, and many EJ fans don’t know it. I don’t get why. This song has everything going for it, including a killer bass line. It’s one of the songs I used to teach myself bass when I got one in 10th grade.
The Strange Brew podcast on Lennon’s musical influences circa Double Fantasy sent me down some rabbit holes: Touch and Go, and time signatures. This was never one of my Cars favorites, but I’m totally fascinated by it now.
The song’s verses feature the use of polymeter. The bass and drums are playing in a time signature of 54, while the vocals, keyboards, and guitar are playing in 44.
Bastards! While my rather limited rhythm lobe tried to tap out the beats, my remaining auditory cortex projected the contemporaneous Spirits in the Material World, which only confused me more. Apparently that tune is 44 but so ska and misleading that you’ll fool yourself trying to count it out.
Available musicians please fix my brain and/or comment.
Claude Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral” is based on a myth involving, well, a sunken cathedral off the coast of Brittany. The beautiful princess of a prosperous coastal town named Ys had an affair either with Satan or one of his many lieutenants on earth (as beautiful princesses tend to do). As punishment, the town was destroyed by sinking into the sea along with most inhabitants. Local legend held that on certain days you could hear the bells of the cathedral of Ys ringing from below. On other days, it was believed to rise briefly to the surface. Debussy begins by representing both waves and the ringing of the cathedral bells. As the cathedral rises, chanting monks and priests emerge, culminating with the great organ at 2:25: a brief emergence of a grand, underwater zombie Mass of the damned. Then it all sinks again until we just hear the bells. Near the end, the great organ melody makes a muted reappearance from the murky depths.
Beautifully creepy stuff here, with the obsessively perfect Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli looking like he’s playing this from deep within his castle in Transylvania. (He actually never lived in a castle in Transylvania, but for a while he did live in one near Brescia).
Billion Dollar Babies is kicking my ass today, this song in particular.
Finally got a ride, this old broad down from Santa Fe
She was a real go-getter
She drawled so sweetly “Think child, that things’ll get better”
We pulled off the highway
Night black as a widow
“Yeah, I read the Bible”
She said, “I wanna know of you”
Hey, I think I got a live one
Hey, I think I found a live one
Hey, I think I got a live one
Yeah, Yeah, think I got a live one
Felt like I was hit by a diesel or a Greyhound bus
She was no babysitter
“Get up now sugar, never thought you’d be a quitter”
I opened the back door, she was greedy
I ran through the desert, she was chasing
No time to get dressed so I was naked
Stranded in Chihuahua
Alone, raped and freezing
Alone, cold and sneezing
Alone, down in Mexico
My mother gave me an Amazon gift certificate, and rather than spend it on something useful like a Nic Cage pillow, I decided I’d buy something really stupid and overpriced. Kidding. I’ve been looking for this for awhile, and haven’t run across one anywhere, so I pulled the trigger because it was free money. Not in the best shape (record plays great, but cover is a little beat), but I’m happy to finally have it.
The nice thing about buying used records is the artists get fuck all from it. If I ever happen to meet any of the contributors to this very good record, I will at least buy them a beer or other beverage of their choice, but that’ll probably never happen.