Friday, June 24, 2016

The NRR Project #14: Mapleson cylinder recordings of the Metropolitan Opera

Lionel Mapleson and his enormous recording horn, used to record Metropolitan Opera excerpts live from the catwalks above the stage.
Cylinder recordings of the Metropolitan Opera
Lionel Mapleson
135 cylinders
On March 21, 1900, Metropolitan Opera librarian Lionel Mapleson purchased a gramophone for his personal use. Being an intelligent and curious man, he soon started using it to record operatic performance. The result is the first “live from the Met” recordings, long before the live Saturday radio matinees from thence started in 1931.

Opera was seen as the most legitimate form of high culture at the time. This led to incredible snobbishness at the opera house, in contrast to the art form's former status as a populist entertainment over the course of the 19th century. The explosion of vernacular culture, and the technology to spread it, meant that the designation of value by a cultural elite was no longer needed, or heeded. Soon opera became a bugbear, something to be mocked by comedians. Opera in America wouldd not enjoy an upswing again until the 1980s.

Over three frenzied years, from 1901 through 1903, Mapleson experimented with recording techniques. Initial recordings were made from the prompter’s box downstage center, but Mapleson soon crafted an enormous recording horn to more efficiently gather the sound, and began recording from above, in the theater’s fly space.

The results range from pretty fair to nearly incomprehensible, and include performances from key opera singers such as Emma Calve, Nellie Melba, Jean and Edouard De Reszke, Fritzi Scheff, Pol Plancon, and Ernestine Schumann-Heink. These were names that inspired the same kind of fervent fan-worship today’s opera greats do, and the excerpts are invaluable in terms of getting a sense of the weight and timbre of these historic voices.

There recordings don’t shed much new light on the art form itself – opera has maintained a consistency of approach that makes many productions ever-current (or ever-outdated, if you prefer). But there’s something a little livelier about these cylinders – instead of the close-confined acoustics of the recording studio of the day, and the tinny accompaniment of a few instruments, the listener can hear and feel the broader resonance of the stage and the increased weight and texture of the orchestra’s contributions.

Plus, there is something about working live that adds a soupcon of vivacity to the enterprise. Recordings could be made over and over again until they were “right,” but these on-the-fly snatches have much more immediacy.

These recordings can be found her and there online, and there are some recordings which excerpt the collection. The definitive assembly of tracks, with copious notes, can be found at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Collection of Recorded Sound at the Lincoln Center Library – see the program notes here.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano rolls.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The NRR Project #12: 'Honolulu Cake Walk'

Honolulu Cake Walk
Vess Ossman
1898 (11/10/1899)
Approx. 3:00

“Honolulu Cake Walk” is a prime example of the conscious and not-so-conscious cross-pollinating cultural traditions of black and white in the America of the day.

The clear, ringing tones of the banjo were perfect for acoustic recordings, and banjoist Sylvester Louis “Vess” Ossman, “the King of the Banjo,” was one of the most popular recorded musicians of the day. He toured the United States and England, performing for both president and king. Over a 30-year career, he tracked an immense number of tunes, working as a soloist, accompanist, and a member of acoustic trios (his Ossman-Dudley Trio’s biggest hit was “St. Louis Tickle”). He adroitly performed his own transcriptions as well, as most ragtime was written for solo piano.

This particular recording, again, is not easily available. Interested listeners will have to, as I did, listen to what they can of Ossman’s recordings, and cross-reference them with more contemporary recordings of “Cake Walk.” Ossman’s style is crisp and articulate; he employs the classical plucking style, which emphasizes his rhythmic precision. It’s bright, ringing, confident music, infused with the cocky spirit of ragtime.

Vess Ossman
 Ragtime emerged in 1896, when black entertainer Ernest Hogan penned sheet music in the style that had been floating around the black vernacular music scene for a while. Finally somebody had put some swing into American song. After over a century of aping European music, here was something homemade with a new dynamic. That rough na├»ve energy peculiar to America emerged with a sound that made the hips shake. The phenomenon leaped the color barrier, and soon white artists like Ossman and his primary rival, Fred Van Eps, were playing it too.

Ragtime, of course, propelled dancing, as did most social music of the time. The cake walk originated in competitive dances held on slave plantations. Slaves competed via dancing and strutting to win a large cake, thus the name. This was picked up, again, by white culture, and transmitted through cakewalks performed at minstrel shows.

What white people of the time probably didn’t get was that they were being mocked. Many times, the slaves would dress in cast-off finery, and in the cakewalk they would parody the stiff, inexpressive carriage and manners of their Caucasian masters. It amused the white folks, but they were the butt of the joke. Finally, the cakewalk moved offstage and became part of the repertoire of dances of the day, along with waltzes, polkas, quadrilles, and two-steps.

The racist associations with the cakewalk and with ragtime music remained strong – Ossman recorded tunes such as “A Coon Band Contest,” “Jolly Darkies,” and “Ethiopian Mardi Gras.” “Honolulu Cake Walk” is another title designed to captivate the potential sheet-music buyer with a whiff of the exotic, that romanticizing of the Other that’s so embedded in white culture of the day.

So, why pick “Honolulu Cake Walk” when other Ossman recordings, hits such as his “Yankee Doodle,” “Cocoanut Dance,” and “A Hot time on the Levee” were more popular and easier to hear? Don’t know. But – the first baby step toward the funky happens here.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Cylinder recordings of the Metropolitan Opera.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

‘The Comedians’ a definitive overview

The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy
Kliph Nesteroff
Grove Press

Dammit. Dammit dammit dammit!

Did you ever think, “I’m going to write a book about ________.” You go to the bookstore or to the library the next day, and there it is. Somebody else wrote it while you were out screwing around. Dammit.

“The Comedians” is an incredibly strong work, highly readable, and immensely informative. This is a perfect general-interest overview of the history of American comedy – standup and its offshoots – from the turn of last century to 2011. Kliph Nesteroff somehow compresses this elephantine subject into a compelling 300-some pages without losing either focus on significant detail or a global perspective of the evolution of the style, substance, and business of comedy, along with its permutations through all the mediums we’ve leapt through over the last century.

The author dives right in, describing the late-19th-century American construction of the theatrical “circuits” or chains that would offer performers contracts. The expansion of the continental railroad system meant that it was now cost-effective (if not incredibly uncomfortable and maddening) to tour the country with an act, and hope to climb the ladder of vaudeville respectability to play the Palace in New York City, the heart of the entertainment industry at the time.

In addition to citing such big early names as Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, W.C. Fields, and the Marx Brothers, Nesteroff digs deep into the files and points out significant figures often overlooked – Frank Fay, Ted Healy, Rusty Warren, Ray Bourbon, Jean Carroll, and tons of others. He takes us through vaudeville’s decline, and the successive ascensions of radio, film, television, and digital humor. He illustrates the importance of nightclubs, strip joints, Las Vegas, and the gaping maw of cable TV in the evolution of the art form.

Did I say art form? Yes. Talking about your penis in a spotlight for money doesn’t sound like a skill, but it is. Nesteroff is, like me, a former standup, and it expertly informs his work. He knows what it’s like to stand in the back of the room until 1:30 a.m. to do your five minutes. For free. Six nights a week. He’s seen the depressing interiors of green rooms and comedy condos, where the talent is kept corralled, live livestock with attitudes and bad haircuts. His adept analysis is energized by his lean, clear prose. Another great lesson from standup – have something to say, say it, and move on. This lesson Nesteroff mastered long ago. There is a component of entertainment, of showing some leg, as it were, in writing for money that is mostly absent from academic writing.

Here’s a few glimpses of what the writer captures: W.C. Fields saying of his career, “I would never have gone through with it if I had known what it was going to be like . . . mental torture is too high a price to pay for anything”; Fred Allen, saying of a proposed statue to Milton Berle, “It will be the first time people  shit on a statue”; to Lenny Bruce performing naked; to Richard Pryor asking a Vegas crowd, “What the fuck am I doing here?” and walking, then changing comedy forever.

Best of all, Nesteroff constructs a chain of linkages between the comedy generations. For the first time in print that I know of, you can trace the influences (and, OK, outright thievery) of comedy approaches and structures that provide a kind of Hegelian progression, a passing of the torch, albeit between disturbed, transgressive, misanthropic misfits. For the first time, Nesteroff exposes a continuity. Comedy has a plot, and its performers high and low, big- and small-time, have molded it.

Anyone who likes to laugh will enjoy this look backstage .Any past or present member of the siblinghood of yockmeisters will recognize that nothing much has changed over the century. Anyone contemplating going on stage and telling jokes should read it first. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Post-Trump: Three Candidates Who Could Save the Republican Party

Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes in 'A Face in the Crowd' (Kazan, 1957) - a chilling foreshdowing of Donald Trump's rise. 
Let's face it -- Trump is not going to make it to November. He is nuts, not that this ever stopped a candidate before; but his relentless egocentrism dooms him as a "team player" who could unite the party and coordinate its efforts in a time when the Grand Old Party desperately needs it.It's like watching "All the King's Men" on fast-forward.

Despite my rabid liberalism, I come from a long line of political Neanderthals. One grandfather was evidently the only person in his Nebraska county who voted for Goldwater. So, in some kind of echo of a way, I am sad about the party.

So, here's what will happen. Either Trump will go nutso on-air like Andy Griffith in "A Face in the Crowd" --

or the powers that be will have him incapacitated, as it does with anyone who threatens the power structure.

So, who can the party draft at this late date? Surely none of the whores who endorsed Trump. All other prospective candidates have demonstrated their unelectability. So who can they get? Here are some ideas:

1. Abraham Lincoln. Upside: First Republican president, freed the slaves, won the Civil War. Great approval ratings. Big box-office draw. Downside: Dead, but then so was Reagan from 1984 on.

2. Bernie Sanders. I know this is counter-intuitive -- stay with me. Upside: Good Hilary competitor, good name recognition right now. Downside: a Socialist. Hey, if you can work with Trump, surely you can make a deal with Bernie. Just get high and make a deal with Bernie.

3. Styrofoam peanuts. Upside: Protects fragile objects, fun to play with, not racist. Downside: Inert material; collects static and clings to you, much like Trump.

I am open to more suggestions; obviously all inhabitants of Linnean classification system are eligible.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

My National Donut Day story

I was on my way to a party last night (OK, it’s tonight, because I’m a genius) and I stopped at the store to get something to bring. I’m tired, my feet hurt, I grabbed the first thing I saw – a box of a dozen assorted doughnuts (NOT DONUTS; don’t get me started, or I will have a conniption fit). They were discounted twice. I was so lazy that I not only grabbed something off the closest display to me as I entered, I picked the one on the top because I’m too lazy to even expend the energy to BEND.

As I shuffle with the box to the checkout, a voice comes over the loudspeaker announcing that doughnuts are discounted A THIRD TIME. The checker makes sure I get the discount, and I am generally applauded by the staff for making the purchase. “Buying doughnuts!” they exclaim, nodding their heads and almost pumping their fists.

Now, one of two things has happened here – either they made waaaaaay too many doughnuts yesterday, or I entered a state of mystical grace imposed by the Doughnut Dimension, turning a reluctant errand into a triumphal progress out of “Excalibur.” 

The End. Oh, we kept the doughnuts They’re good!

Friday, June 3, 2016

The NRR Project #11: ‘Gypsy Love Song’

Poster from a Depression-era revival of The Fortune Teller.
Gypsy Love Song
Eugene Cowles
1898 (recorded 5/4/1906)


Victor Herbert was only the most popular of many composers whose operettas straddled the transition between opera and musical comedy in America. “Gypsy Love Song” is Herbert’s first “hit,” from his 1898 The Fortune Teller. Others of his smashes included Babes in Toyland, Mlle. Modiste, The Red Mill, Naughty Marietta, Sweethearts and Eileen. Here’s it sung by the man who originated the role onstage, Eugene Cowles. (Oddly, the designated National Recording Registry recording was made by him in 1906, albeit its official Registry listing is 1898, the year The Fortune Teller debuted.) With Sigmund Romberg and Rudolph Friml, Herbert formed a triumvirate of tastemakers whose lush and corny melodies would inspire affection – and contempt – from generations to come.

Between DeKoven and Smith’s Robin Hood in 1890 and Romberg and Hammerstein’s The New Moon in 1928, operetta’s spun-sugar settings, silly plots, and sentimental ballads dominated the musical scene. It was a reflection of the zeitgeist. Suspicious of high culture, Americans wanted less challenging fare in the post-Civil War boom era. Operetta was something polite society could sit through and get its cultural fix from, without straying into disturbing content, or arias in foreign languages. (For the rest, there were minstrel shows, circuses, and pre-vaudeville variety.)

 Musically, the genre is descended quite unapologetically from the pre-established European template. Jacques Offenbach, Johann Strauss II, Emmerich Kalman, and Franz Lehar set the mold with works such as Die Fledermaus, The Merry Widow, and The Land of Smiles. It breaks no new ground, but within its limitations those who grew up on it still hear it as a sensuous indulgence. The sprightly wit of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works pushed tendencies toward the comic as well.

Operetta still required trained operatic voices, thus the familiar herniated, nasal tone of Cowles’ voice. This is the kind of timbre that would project into an unamplified theater; it sounds unnatural today and contributes to that popular concept of high culture being tight-assed.

It doesn’t help that the lyrics are of the kind common in the Victorian era: “The birds of the forest are calling for thee/And the shades and the glades are lonely/Summer is there with her blossoms fair/And you are absent only . . .” Ouch. These precious, convoluted rhymes would dominate until the slangy vernacular of Tin Pan Alley lyricists started to invade the public consciousness.

And what’s with all the gypsy mania? The culture of the time is filled with musical, visual, and literary use of the gypsy stereotype – emotional, mystical, cunning, charming, and criminal. They make a great plot device, usually kidnapping children before curtain’s rise to set up some lost-prince or mistaken-identity kerfuffle. In a culture that was composed of immigrant elements seeking assimilation, identifying a culturally exotic “other” was necessary to foster group identity. This is a role in American culture that would be assigned to “gypsies,” Jews, “negroes,” “Irishmen,” Italians, and “Indians,” and continues in the demonized representation of Muslims and Hispanics today. Aggression, transgression, and feeling are all projected safely onto the exotics.

The list of memorable songs from the genre is long, and many of them have crept into the Great American Songbook, if only for use as a starting point for many instrumental jazz covers. Here’s a quick sample: “Softly, As in A Morning Sunrise,” “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life,” “Lover, Come Back to Me,” “The Streets of New York,” “Serenade,” “Indian Love Call,” “One Alone,” “Kiss Me Again,” “Rose-Marie,” “Deep in My Heart, Dear,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “The  Donkey Serenade” – passionate schmaltz.

This music permeated the minds of those growing up at the time. They crowded the music rack of my great-grandmother’s piano in the front room; we listened to them on 78 r.p.m. records, and my grandparents warbled them as they worked. Later 33 1/3-r.p.m. compilations such as the Reader’s Digest Treasury of Great Operettas, and Gilbert and Sullivan, were always on the turntable. Mitch Miller and his Sing-Along Gang covered them. They were part of the cultural furniture of our household. (My cultural childhood apparently took place largely about 75 years before it should have.)

It was a fragment of German-culture respectability as well, the dominant one from which my ancestors migrated. Before Germany forfeited all claim to cultural respect by winning Worst Nation of the 20th Century honors, it was seen as the epitome of learned, literature society. German was common speech around the house until World War I, when anything Teutonic was seen as suspect. (One grandfather tossed the umlaut from his name, planing it down to a more American-sounding twang.) "German" charicatures in vaudeville overnight became "Dutch" comics instead; sauerkraut became "liberty cabbage" and frankfurters turned into hot dogs. "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" became "Yours Is My Heart Alone."

Of course, they were outmoded soon after they debuted. Comics such as the Marx Brothers and others mocked their conventions in their own musical-comedy spoofs. Mel Brooks cites bold operetta marches such as "Stouthearted Men" or "The Song of the Vagabonds" in Robin Hood: Men in Tights and famously makes reference to Friml’s “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” in his Young Frankenstein. Equating the female orgasm with the tender sensibilities of the song works even without context, but is even funnier if you know where Brooks is coming from. He grew up in the time when MGM's filmed operetta adaptations starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy were the top box-office draw in the country (1935-1942).

And I still find myself crooning them. They represent a time so innocent it can hardly be comprehended now, little soap bubbles of melody that never pop, as long as disbelief is suspended. Here are dashing tenors, comic basses, and stately sopranos. Dashing swains, flirtacious coquettes. Singing soldiers, waltzing royalty. And gypsies. Don't forget the gypsies.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Honolulu Cake Walk.

NRR Project: 'Gregorio Cortez'

  ‘Gregorio Cortez’ Performed by Trovadores Regionales – Pedro Rocha, Lupe Martinez October 1929 2:31 The corrido is a Mexican balla...