Thursday, October 28, 2010

Forgotten Music: Chiller by Erich Kunzel

Mozart never made a concept record. And, no, I don’t count opera. It wasn’t until the 1800s that music took the natural next step and created a sonic landscape with a unified story or theme. A concept record before there were even records.

What am I getting at? Program music—that is, music with the intended purpose of creating images in a listener’s mind—didn’t flourish until the Romantic Period in the 1800s. And it wasn’t long before music evoking a pastoral landscape gave way to things that scared us: demons, witches, and death. Often referred to as tone poems, some of the best are collected in the 1989 CD “Chiller,” by the late Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra.

Kunzel made a niche market of popular music from movies being recorded and packaged together to go with a common theme. “Round-Up” features western music, “Star Tracks II” showcases some great themes from science fiction films, while “William Tell and Other Favorite Overtures” shore up the usual pops orchestra material. So it was natural that they tackled the music of the macabre.

One of the fun things on a Kunzel CD is the sound effects. “Round-Up” begins with sounds around a campfire. The CD that includes music from “Jurassic Park” starts off with the sounds of a T-Rex stomping through the forest. So, as you can expect, “Chiller” starts off with a scream. A very loud scream. You hear thunder and rain, a mewing cat, and footsteps running up some wooden steps. Three knocks of the door knocker boom and the door creaks open. The woman, so happy that some is home, turns to look at the…thing in the doorway and screams. The thing screams back. The short piece ends with the door slamming shut and immediately, the opening to the Andrew Lloyd Rice’s “Phantom of the Opera” kicks in, the pipe organ played to full volume. It really starts things off with a bang.

After the Phantom has left the stage, the remainder of the CD’s first half (time wise; these are long pieces) meanders through the great supernaturally-themed orchestral pieces from the 19th Century. All the great ones are here save one. “Night on Bald Mountain” blows through your speakers with its accustomed ferocity. You hear the intense string line flurrying around and, then, suddenly, the thunder of the low brass bolts from the sky. Having played this piece before, it never gets old.

My personal favorite supernatural piece of music is Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre.” Musically, you hear night fall and the dead rise, led by Death sawing through his violin concerto as the dead dance. Kunzel and the orchestra nail this reading of the piece, bringing forth all the innuendos of the instruments: xylophone as dancing bones, harps tolling midnight, the oboe as rooster, among others. This piece just floats along and, man, you can just see the skeletons and ghouls prancing in the graveyard and over the tombstones. It all climaxes in a fantastic melding of two scales, one ascending and one descending, being played over each other. Just like when you turn up the volume on your car radio when you hear “Hotel California,” I always crank up the volume when these scales do their thing. And then it all ends at dawn.

The rest of the classical music includes two pieces from Berlioz (“March to the Scaffold” and “Pandemonium”) and Greig’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt, a piece that can always leave you panting. The one piece whose inclusion would have made this CD perfect is Paul Dukas’s “The Sorcerer's Apprentice.” You’ll have to get it elsewhere. “Classics from the Crypt” includes it as a few other pieces not on this CD. I have both and pretty well have all the great supernatural orchestral pieces out there.

The second half of “Chiller” is a let-down after the spectacular music from the 19th Century. It’s film music from the 20th Century. None of it is bad, it just suffers when compared to the older music. Moreover, the carefully-crafted mood evoked by the classical music is broken with happier-sounding material like the overture to the movie “Sleuth” or the theme to the movie “Without a Clue.” If I had selected the music for this disc, I would have included more pieces like the Herrmann music from “Psycho,” complete with the exact sound effect you’d expect from the famous murder scene. The theme from “The Bride of Frankenstein” does its job well, bringing to mind all the fantastic images from that horror film of that era.

The fact that there are images associated with the film music is why I enjoy the older tone poems better: they were intended to stir up in the listener images of their own imagination. Film music, by its very nature, compliments eerie pictures on a silver screen. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some great music is out there to correspond to some great horror films: the theme to the movie “Halloween,” for example, or the music from “Silence of the Lambs.” But so much horror film music is best experienced within the context of the film. The classical music on “Chiller” is of itself and the images are entirely yours. Yeah, I’ll admit that I can’t listen to “Night on Bald Mountain” and not think of the demon from “Fantasia” but that’s the exception (and, oh boy, what an exception!).

What made these concept classical pieces of the 19th Century so compelling was that we, as humans, didn’t know as much as we 21st Century citizens know. With our ultra modern lifestyle, we can keep the supernatural at bay more easily than we used to. Heck, we keep nature at bay. To some extent, with greater scientific knowledge comes with it a greater understanding that supernatural things our ancestors were scared of are merely figments of our collective imaginations. Death doesn’t rise from the grave and play a violin. There is no supernatural witches’ Sabbath. With nature largely conquered in the western world, the things that scare us are falling stocks, serial killers, terrorism, or bio-warfare, things all man-made. We don’t get scared at the supernatural anymore.

Which is why “Chiller” is such a wonderful CD. With the classical pieces included here, you can get a sense of the frightening wonderment audiences experienced two centuries ago in the concert halls. After an 1870s concert featuring “Danse Macabre,” I can imagine a few folks looking around shadowed corners as they walked home or rode in carriages. Horror films do the trick for us nowadays but there’s a part of you that knows, logically, that the amputated leg is fake, that the demons in a film use fake blood, or that it all is created on a computer.

Not so with this music. It’s all in your head. Which is why I would have loved to experience a demonic piece by Mozart. With his brilliant orchestral work, can you imagine how messed up and scared the citizens of Vienna would have been if Mozart trotted out a “Danse Macabre” or “Night on Bald Mountain”? I know your smiling one of your devilish smiles at that delicious thought. I am, too.

Forgotten Music: October 2010

Welcome to the October 2010 edition of the Forgotten Music Project. Inspired by Patti Abbott's Forgotten Book Friday series, here we examine music that has fallen off the public's radar or other music that never made a blip. We're doing this on a once-a-month basis, the last Thursday of every month. Aside from my own entry, here's today's line-up:

Paul D. Brazil
Bill Crider
Chad Eagleton
Martin Edwards
Randy Johnson
George Kelley
Evan Lewis
Todd Mason
Eric Peterson
Charlie Ricci
Ray Foster

If I have missed your name or got the wrong address, let me know and I'll fix it here and for future months. Anyone can join: just let me know here in the comments section, by e-mail, or in the comments section of my entry that you'd like to join in next month and I'll add you to the list.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

PBS's "Sherlock" - A Review

Earlier this year, when my friends in the UK started writing about this new incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, I'll admit I was jealous. The gist of what I read--the new creators plucked Holmes and Watson out of 1887 and plopped them into 2010--had me curious and excited if not a little worried. It's not a given that PBS brings every single BBC mystery program over here to the States. I did a weird thing: I stopped reading about the new show, partly because I didn't want to be disappointed if Masterpiece Mystery chose not to broadcast "Sherlock" and, partially, I wanted to keep from reading too many spoilers if we Yanks saw the show.

On Sunday, our patience was rewarded. "A Study in Pink", the first of three episodes in the "Sherlock" series, debuted. And I couldn't be more thrilled at the outcome. As one who has read and knows the original source material--Holmes first adventure, "A Study in Scarlet"--I enjoyed many of the in jokes and winks to knowledgeable Sherlockians. But my wife, who is only a casual Holmes fan, liked the program as well. In an interesting bit of history repeating itself, the new Watson was, like his original counterpart, a veteran of fighting in Afghanistan. How...timely. Of course, for us Americans seeing the show for the first time, we had to contend with the recent news that the actor who plays Watson, Martin Freeman, is also the new Bilbo Baggins. He, like Jude Law in last year's feature film, play Watson not only as a competent doctor but also a man of action. He's not a bumbling idiot, Watson. He's an able ally for Holmes. Freeman did a great job of keeping the good doctor's desires for action and frustration at his injury just below the surface.

Benedict Cumberbatch wears the skin of Holmes well. His frantic delivery of his lines, especially when trying to explain how he arrived at his deductions, played well as an example of our oversaturated modern life. And, pointedly, I appreciated that creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat didn't have the new Holmes use cocaine, instead getting his fix via nicotine patches.

Lastly is Lestrade. Most long-time readers and watchers of the Holmes canon knows that Inspector Lestrade is considered by Holmes not to be very bright, but he's the best Scotland Yard has to offer. Not so this Lestrade. Rupert Graves gives strength to his Lestrade, interlacing cool one-ups-manship (as when he uses his police powers to raid 221B Baker Street looking for drugs, letting Holmes know that only one man wears the badge) with clear admiration for the mind of the consulting detective.

The story is good for an introduction to the new Holmes: a series of deaths that, on the surface, appear as suicides, but is actually the work of a serial killer. Of all the neat things the producers did with this new Holmes, the one aspect they can never do is get inside Holmes' brain. In "Sherlock," they depict Holmes' mental miracles in two ways. One, a typical slo-mo replay, very similar to the Downey film. The second way, however, was brilliant: actually show text on the screen, fading in and out, keeping a list of things Holmes notices. It also worked well when he and Watson texted each other

I'm not one of those people who thinks every favorite thing is sacrosanct. What makes Holmes and Watson so timeless is that they can be reinterpreted time and again and the basic foundation of their characters and relationship remain constant. I am looking forward to future episodes and series of "Sherlock" and highly recommend the series.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Forgotten Music: October 2010 - Call for Entries

Hello all. This Thursday, 28 October, is the October 2010 edition of the Forgotten Music Project.

Per usual, I'll post links on Thursday to everyone who posted in September. If you have the time, great. If you can't make it, you can either let me know before Thursday (and I'll remove your name) or not (whereby readers can jump to your blog and read your latest entry and be amazed at your erudition). If you want to join and you haven't posted before, just let me know and I'll get your name on the list for Thursday morning. As usual, I"ll do a summary at the end of the day.

Looking forward to everyone's entries.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hard Case Crime 2.0

As reported by Patti Abbott, James Reasoner, and Gerald So, Hard Case Crime has made a deal with Titan Publishing to resume publication of books starting in 2011. And the titles they have on tap--new Christa Faust, new Quarry novel--is something that'll make the next year seem longer than it'll really be.

The Hard Case Crime books are great products: smaller paperbacks, wonderful art, easy to fit in the back pocket. Plus they look awesome on the shelves. But I have to say that I'm just as excited that the new deal will also include some ebooks. That, to me, is the icing on the cake.

Now, if we could get more audio versions...

Congrats to Charles Ardai and the entire Hard Case Crime family for inking this deal. We readers are really, really happy!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Beat to a Pulp: Round One - In the House!

It is difficult to describe the feeling I got on Saturday when my contributor's copy of Beat to a Pulp: Round One landed in my mailbox. There wasn't a cloud in the sky here in Houston that day, but I had my own cloud nine.

There, in print, was a story I had written. Everyone I know had already read the tale back in April 2009 when it first was published at the Beat to a Pulp website. But having it there, in my hands, was a truly awesome experience.

If you read my Do Some Damage column on Saturday, you saw the state of my writing space here at my house. Now, with this new addition...

Thanks again to David and Elaine for including me in this first of many volumes. The company I keep in this volume is humbling.

Beat to a Pulp: Round One is available at Amazon or at Createspace. Put it on your Christmas list. Better yet, make a gift of it this year. I know I am.

Now, I'm off to read the other stories...

Houston Texans Haiku: Week 6 vs. the Chiefs

Andre the Giant!
Sir Matt the Magnificent!
Thrilling as always.

Texans got it done.
Season one point O over.
Two point O, let's go!

Kansas City Chiefs - 31
Houston Texans - 35

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Houston Texans Haiku: Week 5 vs. Giants

First half was pungent.
Question: Do laundry or watch?
Ah! The smell of lint.

Memo to Bookies:
Stop picking Texans to win.
It's our albatross.

The high of Week One
Now a distant memory.
Might have been a fluke.

Playoffs are for teams
Who know, in their skins, winning.
To date, Texans don't.

Talent for playoffs
Is something Texans possess.
Now, just prove it. Please.

New York Giants - 34
Houston Texans - 10

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Book Review Club: The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

(This is my October 2010 entry for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, click the icon at the end of this review.)

Halloween is a day to remember what we have forgotten. What have we let slip from our collective human consciousness? Fear. Being scared of things we can’t explain, things that go bump in the night. Isn’t that why we dress up as scary monsters, to help laugh at the things that used to scare the dickens out of us even if we don’t know why? I think so, and the same is true for the heroes of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree.

Eight boys dress up for Halloween in various costumes: an ape-man, a mummy, a druid with a scythe, a ghost, a witch, a beggar, a gargoyle, and a skeleton. They are beside themselves with excitement. It’s Halloween! The best day of the year, including Christmas. But their cadre is not complete. They need Pipkin, the ninth boy of their group. “Joe Pipkin was the greatest boy who ever lived.” As the eight gather on Pipkin’s doorstep, awaiting their friend to bolt out of the house and lead them, Pipkin meekly walks out. Without a costume. He tells them he’s okay but that he’ll meet them at the house on the outskirts of town. Bewildered, they go.

Once there, they see it: the Halloween Tree. “There must have been a thousand pumpkins on this tree, hung high and on every branch. A thousand smiles. A thousand grimaces. And twice-times-a-thousand glares and winks and blinks and leerings of fresh-cut eyes.” Suddenly, some thing shows up: Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, a tall, skeletal man. He asks them why they are wearing those particular costumes and then chastises them for not even knowing what those costumes represent. The boys implore Moundshroud to tell them about the history of Halloween. At that instant, however, from a distance, the soft voice of Pipkin wafts to their ears. He’s trapped. He needs saving. They run to him but Pipkin disappears into the darkness and only the mysterious Moundshroud can help. With swirling fantastic magic, he whisks the boys away on a giant kite. They need to hunt for Pipkin in the history of Halloween. First stop: Egypt.

The bulk of the book is given to the eight boys’ flight through time and space, learning the history and folklore of the celebration we now call Halloween. It’s a phantasmagorical history lesson, really. At each stop—Egypt, pre-history, Greece, Rome, England, Europe, Mexico, etc.—the boys experience the traditions of the various regions and how each place celebrated—dreaded?—the coming winter darkness. And at each stop, Pipkin is there. But he’s not. He’s enshrouded as a mummy in Egypt, he’s a gargoyle atop Notre Dame in France, or trapped in catacombs in Mexico. He’s always just out of reach, always requiring another jump through time.

The manner in which the boys travel from one place and time to another is fascinating. Hanging onto each other’s heels, they act as the tail of a giant kite created from old circus flyers. The catch: all the animals on these flyers are alive and growl and roar. At one time, they are whisked away by leaves. Leaving Mexico, they are commanded to break a piñata and little figures fall from the piñata, each corresponding to one of their own costumes. Thus freed, the little figures lift each boy up and fly him back to Illinois.

If there’s one thing that stands out in The Halloween Tree, it’s Bradbury prose. It’s had a singsong quality to it, a brazen joyfulness in just being alive. It’s like the prose itself were a twelve-year-old boy dressed up on Halloween and running through the town. It picks you up and sweeps you back to a time and place you may never have known but, somehow, know. It’s a part of the human DNA. Take these wonderful Dickensian opening lines:
It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state. There wasn’t so much wilderness around you couldn’t see the town. But on the other hand there wasn’t so much town you couldn’t see and feel and touch and smell the wilderness. The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here. And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across. And the town was full of…Boys.
And it was the afternoon of Halloween.
And all the houses shut against a cool wind.
And the town full of cold sunlight.
But suddenly, the day was gone.
The day dying, the sunlight being “murdered” as Moundshroud puts it, is an important theme in this book. Halloween, throughout history, is the celebration of the ending of the season of light. The passing of October 31 equates to past generations of humans, far and wide, the beginning of the long, dark winter. As Moundshroud asks the boys, once the sun sets, what assurance do we have that it’ll rise again the next day? What if it never does? It was a real fear for our ancestors, something the boys and our modern culture have forgotten.

Not too long ago, the darkness in our world was quite a bit closer than it is now, at least in the modern western world. We have science to tell us the true nature of things. We can rely on it to cast away the superstitions and fears our ancestors had. Our children say “trick or treat” but don’t really know why.

Halloween, however, is the celebration, the remembrance, of our past. It’s a cumulative organism now, an amalgamation of traditions and beliefs passed down. It’s a celebration of death as marked by the living. Toward the end of the book, Moundshroud forces the boys to make a choice to save Pipkin or not. The price they have to pay is a year of life, taken at the end of each of their respective lives. He warns them that here, when they are twelve, life seems so long. Later, however, when they’re going to want one more year, it won’t be theirs. Here, Bradbury, through Moundshroud, gives these modern boys a taste of the past, a past they know nothing about but, by learning about history and what makes life special, they make their choice.

At the end, one boy, Tom, the default leader of the eight, asks a question of Moundshroud: “…will we ever stop being afraid of nights and death?” Moundshroud has an answer. You may have another. But, on Halloween, for one day a year, we get to revel in the fear that our ancestors lived with daily. We get to remember. And, on November 1st, we get to put it all away and forget about it all over again.

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@Barrie Summy

Monday, October 4, 2010

Houston Texans Haiku: Week 4 at Raiders

Weapons not all there.
Sloppy, brilliant, down to wire.
A win is a win.

A note to Foster:
Whatever you did, stop it.
Be the Texans' Earl.

Houston Texans - 31
Oakland Raiders - 24

Record: 3-1, 1st in the AFC South!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Forgotten Music: September 2010 - The Summary

Thanks to all who participated, including Ed Gorman who joins us for the first time.

Paul D. Brazil – Swoon by Prefab Sprout
Bill Crider – David Seville
Chad Eagleton – The Groovie Ghoulies
Martin Edward – Jackie Delshannon
Ed Gorman – Dakota Staton
Randy Johnson – Shake Your Money Maker by The Black Crowes
George Kelley – Bitches Brew by Miles Davis
Evan Lewis – The Black Adder Theme
Todd Mason – Rainy Day (and the Bunch)
Scott D. Parker – Brand New Day by Sting
Perplexio – Days of Innocence by Moving Pictures
Eric Peterson – Zulu Death Mask by Deadbolt
Charlie Ricci – Do You Remember by Cashman and West

Until the next Forgotten Music Thursday on 28 October...