IMO: Blues and Rachmaninov

As a person not schooled in music, it doesn’t stop the instinctual draw to the beauty of different genres. Music is like wine. Either it tastes good or it doesn’t. Your palette is in charge of you, not the other way around. Like wine, I like how music speaks to me regardless of whether someone says this is excellent or this is garbage.

With music, I enjoy different viewpoints. Why is this piece good? How did the artist create it? The appreciation grows, and my initial like turns to love. Time plays a part. A song I loved at twelve makes me cringe when I hear it today. Basically the entire Carpenters collection. So what? At twelve their music depressed me and somehow that made me happy. Anyway, when I investigate a genre of music, learning about the layers of its history and composition alters me at an emotive level. Rachmaninov is a friend of mine. In fact, his music invades me and becomes a part of who I am. Even if, like me, you can’t play a note.

Blues

I don’t claim to know much about the Blues other than it is the great influencer. I can tell you a famous name like Muddy Waters who played an important role. But I couldn’t tell you why, other than when he migrated to Chicago, he influenced others to play like him. Blues influenced Rock and Roll. I have listened to Bonnie Raitt, Janis Joplin,  Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan all my life. They all link their beginnings to previous blues greats. In the historical timeline, who is first? .

On Netflix last night, I watched a brief documentary (48 min) about Robert Johnson, a legendary Mississippi Delta Blues player called ReMastered: Devil at the Crossroads. I enjoyed hearing from other blues artists like Taj Mahal and music scholars who researched Johnson’s life and attempted to explain his importance. Surrounding the biography was the legends about him. The supernatural slant gave it a flavor that coincides with African American mythologies. Then, add to the mix Robert Johnson is a member of the 27 Club. Well, you can see how the man and the myth are a theme within the story.

It was his actual technique with the guitar which interested me. With huge fingers, he managed to sound like three players playing at once. Dexterous fingers illustrated. Though Robert Johnson recorded only one record of approximately 29 songs, his tragic life earned him the right to play the blues. He influenced a host of subsequent blues musicians.

Blues is a world where the gritty aspects of life are made better by its escape. Blues has a life of its own and the artists and the audience are connected. When I listen to blues, I’m on a trip where my mind and heart sit side by side. It’s a fine journey.

Rachmaninov

In the same 24 hour period, I switched from Blues to classical piano. Sergei is my man. In chapter one of my recent book, Fritz Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou, is an accomplished pianist killing time on a set at UFA studios. My anti-hero, George, discovers her playing Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor. As she bangs the death march, she swears at her husband in sync with each chord. It was a challenge to write the scene expressing the beat of the piece.

This morning I discovered “Rousseau” on Youtube. It visually shows you the chords and their beats. It’s stunning. What a great way to experience classical music! Different genre, another trip. Add the visual to the auditory–it made me experience Rachmaninov on a different level. He wrote this piece apparently when he was only 19. He had a dream, the story goes, where he marched forward to a casket. He opened it up and it was him inside.

This prelude best describes what my mind and heart feels like inside. It’s loud in here.

And you? What do your mind and heart sound like as if it were set to music? 

Are you not entertained? Films & TV

In this series, I share my choices for better-than-average entertainment. Maybe you liked these, too? 

FILMS

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Green Book (2018) Easily the most enjoyable film of the year for me so far, the chemistry between Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is believable. Both actors shine brightly in this inspiring true story about the black concert pianist in the 1960s who lives above Carnegie Hall alone in his ivory tower. Highly educated and affluent, respected with friends in the highest places, Shirley travels to the deep south to be a presence among whites who only see blacks as sharecroppers. He takes with him a Bronx bouncer, a loveable Italian called Tony Lip. Their road trip doesn’t change the world, and the straightforward story doesn’t preach. If you liked Driving Miss Daisy, this story was just as good, if not better. I cared for both men and their ironic friendship. High praise to the acting of Mortensen. My ex-husband was from the Bronx and lemme tell ya, Viggo nailed it. Highly recommended. 4.5/5 

Trespassing Bergman (2013)  I find it is interesting to begin at the end of a story and learn backward. For example, if you are like me and know little about filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, instead of first watching his films blindly, a documentary provides me with the end result, his legacy. I want to know about the person first. Who better to explain his impact than the leading filmmakers as they recall their memories and the influence Ingmar Bergman had on them? Tip-toeing around Bergman’s estate on the faraway Swedish island of Faro, top directors pay homage. Jane Magnusson and Hynek Pallas direct this documentary oozing with ethos. Interviewees include Woody Allen, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Ang Lee, Lars Von Trier, Yimou Zhang, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Wes Anderson to name a few. For the sophisticate who possesses a solid foundation about Ingmar Bergman, I do not know how much will be gleaned. But for me, I enjoyed getting to know the man in his natural habitat and learning why his films had a powerful impact on filmmakers today. Now I will explore a few of his films. Where should I begin? Summer with Monika3.5/5 

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TELEVISION

SEASON THREE  – THE LAST KINGDOM 

Oh, King Alfred! I knew you would die in season three. I knew it was coming, but seeing you dead on your royal bed truly saddened me. What a sophisticated, complicated character! Better than the Game of Thrones and The Vikings, and far better than Outlaw King (2018) starring Chris Pine, what makes this BBC Netflix series entertaining is the balance achieved between the battles and the struggles, the accomplishments, and the forgiveness between Alfred (David Dawson) and Lord Uhtred (Alexander Doetsch). Series three was all about closure. Swedish director Erik Leijonborg did a fine job encouraging the actors to feel and provided them time to cultivate their personalities. If you have not seen the series, this is outstanding entertainment. 4.8/5.

Are You Not Entertained? Elvis, Foo Fighters, and John Coltrane

Here are some recent music documentaries that enthralled me.

This year, HBO released Elvis Presley: The Searcher in two parts totaling three hours of exploration of the complicated man behind the music and his checkered history. To those of us who listened to his records as they were released and have seen his corny films and watched many tributes to him, this doc might not provide enough insights that you didn’t already know. To those who barely remember him or have only heard the name but not his story, this is a fine documentary showcasing his influences in Memphis, his devotion to his mother, his suffocating relationship with the Colonel, his love for Gospel, and his rise to iconic stature with the outrageous costumes and over-the-top shows in the 1970s. I preferred part one and how his stamp of individuality helped black music to air on white radio. It was not a conscious civil rights decision on Presley’s part, but his voice and songs sounded black; his popularity soared and endorsed subliminally the acceptance of blacks in a white world. From the eyes of a social historian, it was a refreshing revisit of King of Rock and Roll and his importance in time. 4.5/5.

Foo Fighters Back and Forth (2011) by James Moll. My son and I listened to them on road trips in the 1990s. He bought me their albums through the 2000s and the 2010s. I’m going to see them in October when they play in Phoenix. So, with so much emotional baggage attached to the group, can I be objective about the musicianship and lyrics by the leader of the band, Dave Grohl? Why, yes I can. Especially Dave Grohl’s songs of heartbreak. He’s my age, and as he gets older, his albums get softer, and I like that, too. If you were never a fan in the first place, I doubt you would care about Grohl and his band or the background behind their albums. If you like their songs, you’ll enjoy the documentary. It’s a subjective thing. 5/5.

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary (2017) directed by John Scheinfeld is a remarkable documentary regarding the life and music of the legendary saxophonist. I didn’t know a lot about Coltrane other than listening to Giant Steps (1960) and A Love Supreme (1965). His childhood and troubles were foreign to me. His relationship with Miles Davis and how those in the industry who knew and played with Coltrane was fascinating. In particular, how do you explain the creative genius of the man? Color imagery to explain how he thought outside the box was a clever touch. Coltrane was magical. He takes one chord and maximizes the notes via improvisation. I’m not a musician, just a lover of it, so when those that know claim he invented a new language of music, I’m sitting forward to understand how. This documentary did that. 4.5/5. 

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