" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Thursday, October 27, 2016

NRR Project: 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game'

‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’
Edward Meeker
Recorded September, 1908

Why is this song so popular? It’s a straight-up novelty waltz, Tin Pan Alley-style, in the trend of songs of the period such as “Come, Josephine, In My Flying Machine” and “Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven.” Neither of its composers, Jack Norworth and Albert von Tilzer, had ever seen a baseball game, or would until decades later. It wasn’t even played in a ballpark until 1934; it really wasn’t sung consistently during the seventh-inning stretch of major-league baseball games until Harry Caray popularized it during his time broadcasting for the Chicago White Sox during the 1976 season.

Here it’s essayed by the redoubtable Edward Meeker, a long-time Edison employee. We are still nearly 20 years away from the advances of electrical recording techniques, but the analog systems are getting better -- the sound here is less muddy, and the background instruments are balanced and differentiated.

The lyrics don’t contain a ton of inside data – the writers know that three strikes make an out, and that you’re expected to argue with the umpire. That’s about it. But, being good craftsmen, Norworth and von Tilzer came up with a nifty ditty – singable, easy to remember, jaunty, upbeat. The best songs seem to grab and hold an indefinable essence of their subject, and in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” there is something genial and sunny and optimistic, like a baseball game on a summer afternoon. To date, it’s the only non-religious or –patriotic song to be ritually sung by the general American public.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

NRR Project: 'No News; or, What Killed the Dog?'

Nat Wills, in tramp costume.
‘No News; or, What Killed the Dog’
Nat Wills
Recorded October 14, 1908

Nat Wills was the prototype of the modern standup comic. He used personas, most notably his tramp character, the visual of which became the template for the stereotype until Chaplin came along. He told funny stories and sang parodies of songs of the day. On Broadway, he appeared in sketches in variety shows such as the Ziegfeld Follies.

He was a natural for the recording studio. His strong delivery and diction, developed in theaters across the country, came through loud and clear. This routine, his most familiar, is a bit that’s been traced back at least to 1817. In it, a master returns home and asks his servant for the news. “No news,” replies the servant, “except the dog died.” “How did he die?” asks the master, and thus unravels a long, escalating list of disasters that have engulfed the home while the master was gone.

The idea of the add-on story is as old as nursery rhymes such as “The House That Jack Built,” “The Old Lady That Swallowed a Fly,” and others. The repetition, combined with the surprise of each added piece of the story, is an essential lesson about the power of narrative. This routine is hilarious the first time, mildly amusing the second, and annoying from thenceforth. Let us move on.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’

Friday, September 23, 2016

The NRR Project: Caruso sings ‘Vesti la giubba’

‘Vesti la giubba’ aria from Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci”
Enrico Caruso
Recorded March 17, 1907
‘Caruso’ is a bit of an eponym, and that requires effort, good or bad. To call someone a Caruso, or an Einstein, or a Brando, ironically or not, is to refer to someone as an exemplar of a quality. Enrico Caruso, for better or worse, is the Western-art-culture epitome of the fancy “singer” – a human songbird, warm-hearted, outgoing, flamboyant, and dynamic; Italian, therefore somewhat exotic to many, loving fine dress and good food and beautiful women, belting into the analog recording horn more than 260 times between 1902 and 1920, selling millions of records.

Why? Was he that extraordinary? I can’t say that I am an expert. I first knew Caruso through the persona of his mid-century equivalent, Mario Lanza, in the 1951 film “The Great Caruso.”

Now, a half-century of learning about, listening to, and seeing opera, I can say the fame is justified. There are many hurdles to be gotten over to hear this great piece of recorded performance, however. “Vesti la giubba” is instantly recognizable, the go-to image and sound of opera, quoted, adapted, monetized, parodied.

You hear it, your eyes cross, the stereotype leaps into your brain, and you’re done – turned off if you hate opera, numb if you’re a fan because you’ve heard it A THOUSAND TIMES. It’ a sad clown, he’s laughing, he’s crying. It’s Smokey Robinson’s inspiration.

Here’s the story: it comes from Ruggero Levoncavallo’s 1892 Pagliacci, written in the wake of the creation of the nitty-gritty, proto-Neorealist verismo genre, all about peasants getting stabbed, and such – triggered by the success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana two years before.

In this case, the stabber is Canio, a professional clown (don’t have him work your kids’ birthday parties!) whose wife Nedda is a little loose. This drives Canio nuts, and at the end of Act 1, he sings these words:
Recitar! Mentre preso dal delirio,
non so più quel che dico,
e quel che faccio!
Eppur è d'uopo, sforzati!
Bah! Sei tu forse un uom?
Tu se' Pagliaccio!

Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina.
La gente paga, e rider vuole qua.
E se Arlecchin t'invola Colombina,
ridi, Pagliaccio, e ognun applaudirà!
Tramuta in lazzi lo spasmo ed il pianto
in una smorfia il singhiozzo e 'l dolor, Ah!

Ridi, Pagliaccio,
sul tuo amore infranto!
Ridi del duol, che t'avvelena il cor!
Act! While in delirium,
I no longer know what I say,
or what I do!
And yet it's necessary... make an effort!
Bah! Are you not a man?
You are a clown!

Put on your costume, powder your face.
The people pay to be here, and they want to laugh.
And if Harlequin shall steal your Columbina,
laugh, clown, so the crowd will cheer!
Turn your distress and tears into jest,
your pain and sobbing into a funny face – Ah!

Laugh, clown,
at your broken love!
Laugh at the grief that poisons your heart!

It’s a powerful, effective aria in a fast-paced, muscular, expressive opera, Levoncavallo’s only hit but one of the most frequently performed operas in the world to this day. (Spoiler alert: everybody has a really bad show that evening, in Act 2. Like, worst show ever.) Like other signature tenor arias such as “Una furtiva lagrima” or “E lucevan e stele,” it’s lament, a tear-jerking self-pity party. And who doesn’t love that?

The piece is strong, but its ubiquity is due entirely to Caruso’s vocal prowess. (Louis Armstrong would listen to Caruso records, and they influenced his approach as a soloist.) He came along at precisely the right time for the recording industry. He seemed made for the recording studio. The process read his voice well – listen to a few opera recordings from the same period. They are stiff and stilted. Caruso transmits excitement.

 The first of Caruso’s three recordings of the aria in 1902, made only with piano accompaniment, made him a star. Yet he pushes hard in that release. He’s working at full volume, almost bellowing, certainly losing breath too soon during the final phrase. In 1904, he is much more relaxed and expressive, but still wobbly towards the end. By the time we get to this recording in 1907, the one selected for the Registry, Victor Records has sprung for orchestral accompaniment, the space Caruso in singing in is more resonant, and Caruso is more proficient and expressive than before.

It’s not just Caruso’s power – everyone had to project into large, echoing houses before the age of microphones. There is a kind of macho, competitive aspect to opera; Caruso ends up in many minds as the arts equivalent of Babe Ruth. It’s not his charisma, though he certainly had it. He is gifted with natural ability, but it’s the hard, highly skilled work he does with it that makes him memorable.

His voice is clear, ringing, with a quality of transparency as though he were singing THROUGH the note rather than on it. His diction is superb (at least in Italian; he essayed that and a couple of French roles; he sang Lohengrin in Italian, which must have been something.) He's smooth, turning lines into thoughts. Above all, his phrasing is rarely surpassed, because of his ability to make a deep emotional connection with his roles. Like Domingo, Chaliapin, and Callas, he can act as well as sing.

All these factors combine to make his singing still evokes a sense of immediacy, a “thereness” that is palpable. There’s a lot of thought going on in his performances; by serving the music, he elevates his work. And it stays fresh, through all the layers of association, that vitality comes through. And that, my friends, is the name of the game.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘No News, or What Killed the Dog?’