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Diary of a Mad Composer

Theo Bleckmann and John Hollenbeck. Photo: Wolfgang Grossebner.

Das Mädchen nimmt aus Ärger Den ersten, besten Mann,
Der ihr in den Weg gelaufen
Der Jüngling ist übel dran.
The girl takes out of spite
the first, most eligible man
who comes her way;
the boy is miserable over it.

Dichterliebe, composed by Robert Schumann, poem by Heinrich Heine (translation by Philip L. Miller)

Musically, Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe is known as art song, meaning it’s a set of songs, based on some kind of poetry, written a long time ago in a language other than English. In this case, the songs come together to tell a complete story, like a concept album.

I mean to be irreverent, not because I have anything against Schumann or Dichterliebe—I LOVE Schumann and I LOVE this piece—but because songs are songs, difficult to write well no matter the genre. A song is a basic, enduring musical pleasure. It’s fair to say Schumann was a classical musician, and he made music that is more abstract and complex than pop/vernacular music, but he also wrote songs. Songs are meant to be sung.

Or, to adapt something the composer Phil Kline put up on Facebook, songs are meant to be covered. The advent of the singer/songwriter era has blurred the fact that throughout most of history songs were a common body of knowledge that different singers performed, and up through much of the 1960s that’s even how pop music worked—the singing stars were all doing cover versions.

But cover Schumann? You better believe it. Theo Bleckmann had a residency at the Stone in June, and his very first set was Dichterliebe, accompanied by Uri Caine. From the opening, ragtime touch of “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,” it was one of the most musically rewarding evenings I’ve had in recent years. Bleckmann sang the music in so many ways—straight, as vocalese, improvising, and, in the case of “Ein Jüngling,” with a cowboy twang, a yodel, and his own translation:

The girl in her confusion
picked another man,
some random schmuck she met.
I pity that poor lad.

Perfect. He wrapped up his week with a set of Kurt Weill songs, with pianist Julia Hülsmann and her trio, fabulous music-making you can hear on the newish ECM CD, A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill and America. A modal, dirge-like “Mack the Knife” may be different from what you usually hear, but how else to sing a song about murder?

Many people find it remarkable, even uncomfortable, to hear songs they know in one way done differently. Weill is an exception, because jazz musicians—and Bobby Darin—have been covering and altering his work for decades. But Schumann? The songs are wonderful straight, but the reward is the same as going to the museum and looking at old pictures. Playing music brings it to life, and it’s nothing to take the next step and bring it to contemporary experience and relevance. Singing Dichterliebe in the 21st century means singing though 200 years of history that Schumann could not envision.

This has stuck with me since our April Rail Tracks podcast, when we talked with Bloomsbury editor Ally-Jane Grossan about writing about music. When I played several different recordings of メGood Morning Heartache,モ starting with Billie Holidayユs premiere single, our worthy constituent Steve Dalachinksy spoke very strongly about the idea of there being a definitive version of a piece of music, specifically that Holiday had set down the definitive version, the last word in what the song should sound like. The unavoidable implication is that there should be no other versions.

I simply do not understand that. It seems to me it confuses the music for the object on which it’s distributed. The 78 is not the music, it’s the medium, but you spin the medium and it’s the same every time, it encourages stasis. This confusion between content and medium is what crippled music business executives when the mp3 hit the internet. They thought they were selling music, when they were just selling a package. Consumers realized they could strip out the music they liked and leave behind the worthless CD, jewel case, booklet, and all the filler.

Music grows more meaningful the more musicians respond to it. That’s why, pace Dalachinksy, I love Cassandra Wilson’s arrangement of it, and everything else on her excellent Coming Forth By Day album (Legacy 2015), dedicated to the music and memory of Lady Day. Since the first recording of the song, in 1946, we’ve had hard bop, R&B, funk, and soul, and Wilson acknowledges these styles explicitly while working directly with the blues. She sings through history and makes the old new. It is the opposite idea to that of the definitive version, and seems to me to be musically and aesthetically admirable.

More of the finest music I heard in the first half of the year came from a “cover band,” John Hollenbeck and his Large Ensemble. At Roulette in June, they played music from his new CD with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band and singers Bleckmann and Kate McGarry, Songs We Like a Lot—a companion to his fine 2013 CD, Songs I Like a Lot (both on Sunnyside). Hollenbeck’s approach is so basic and honest—these are songs like “True Colors,” “Up, Up and Away,” and “Close to You,” that cemented some time and place in his mind with such substance that he had to respond. The arrangements are lovely and lush, and while the feeling on the CDs is subdued, the live experience was rich and forceful, satisfying in the way the music rose up from my gut. It’s always a thrill to hear Bleckmann sing “Wichita Lineman” in his epic, open-throated voice, but what left the deepest impression was a stunning arrangement of Kraftwerk’s “The Model,” which for some tragic reason Hollenbeck has not yet recorded. The band’s old-time, rocking beat was tremendous, and they drove memories of the original out of my head. Which was the point.


George Grella

George Grella is the Rail’s music editor.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2015

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