It's Time for Three
Music from Back to the Future
Back to the Future was the blockbuster of 1985. It is the story of Marty, a teenager with troubled parents, who meets the proverbial “mad scientist” with a time machine. Transported back to 1955, Marty meets his parents as teenagers at a school dance, where Marty’s mother falls in love with him. Realizing that unless he gets his parents together, he will wipe out his own existence, Marty attempts to correct and rearrange events. Silvestri’s music takes us back to the 1950s (Listen).
Born in New Jersey, Alan Silvestri studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, but already at age 21 started composing scores for films and TV series. His big break came in 1984, when he teamed up with Robert Zemeckis to compose the score for Romancing the Stone
Since Back to the Future, Silvestri has composed the scores for dozens of films and TV series, including Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her, Forrest Gump and The Polar Express.
Grand Canyon Suite
Composer, pianist and arranger Ferde Grofé began his musical career at 14 by running away from home to work as pianist in the mining camps of Northern California. Later he served for 10 years as a violist with the Los Angeles Symphony. He then switched gears completely with his own jazz combo in the dives and vaudeville houses in San Francisco. In 1920 big band leader Paul Whiteman hired Grofé as a pianist and arranger, helping establish Whiteman as the leading figure in symphonic jazz. Grofé’s own reputation was firmly established in 1924 with his orchestration of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a work that inspired him to compose large-scale works himself.
In most of his compositions, Grofé tried to present a picture of the American landscape and its people, which he knew intimately from his extensive travels. His works are tone paintings in the truest sense of the word, and he considered the music of these colorfully orchestrated suites as the natural outgrowth of scenery that would be obvious to any listener.
The Grand Canyon Suite, composed in 1931, is by far the most popular of Grofé’s works. The inspiration for the work, however, had occurred quite a bit earlier, in 1922, while he was working in the Grand Canyon area. The opening movement, “Sunrise,” uses a background of gently rising scales ending with a grand orchestral fanfare to portray the mysterious dawn in the Canyon, where the arising glow awakens crickets and birds (Listen). The sun first shines on the highest rocky peaks, finally bursting forth over the whole canyon (Listen). Grofé was not the first composer to use this device; Joseph Haydn composed a symphonic sunrise in his Symphony No. 6, the first of a trilogy depicting morning, noon and night.
“The Painted Desert” is a delicate, static musical portrayal of the ageless, moon-like landscape, delicately pulsing with heat and punctuated by sudden moments of drama (Listen). Note how the melody itself conjures the “lifelessness” of the desert. In the Suite’s most popular movement, “On the Trail,” glissandos on solo violin portray the braying of a recalcitrant mule. The fiddle morphs into an oboe playing a jerky melody in triple time against the duple time of the mule’s hoofbeats (Listen). In the original score, the composer scored coconut shells muted with leather for the clip-clop of the mule’s hooves on the rocky trail. The middle of the movement portrays a rest stop cabin, with the suggestion of a music box (Listen). The movement ends with another mule bray and its echo.
“Sunset” reverses the mood of the opening movement. Just as Grofé portrays the sunrise with an ascending melody, he paints the sunset as a gradually descending one. The lush orchestration gradually fades as the sun dips below the horizon (Listen). The evening calm, however, is interrupted by a “Cloudburst,” as Grofé adds his take to the substantial repertory of musical storms. The wailing wind and flashes of lightning are sound effects as music (Listen). Conductor Arturo Toscanini, who recorded the Suite, considered this movement one of the most vivid and terrifying pictures in music. The movement ends with a spectacular coda, to which Grofé added a heading: “Nature Rejoicing in its Grandeur.”
Travels in Time for Three
When we come across a musical dynasty – the Bachs, Mozarts or the Couperins – the question always arises whether musical talent is in the DNA, learned or some magical combination of genes and environment. The third musical son of celebrated jazz musician Dave Brubeck, Chris Brubeck first distinguished himself as a jazz musician, performing and recording with his father, but in 1987 he began composing for symphony orchestra as well. He is also a lyricist, orchestral arranger, music educator and performer who plays bass, bass trombone, guitar and piano. He enjoys an active and diverse career, equally at home playing Jazz, rock, folk, funk and classical music. He learned from his father’s eclectic and diverse compositions that serious music can be accessible without being dumbed down.
In January, 2009, on a train to Philadelphia, Chris jotted down a sketch for part of a three-day jam session with bass player, Ranaan Meyer, and fiddlers, Nick Kendall and Zach de Pue. The jazzy theme (Listen) eventually morphed into a musical motto for a four-movement “triple concerto.” Chris writes: “The group and I have tremendously eclectic tastes. We love all kinds of music from Funk to Classical -- we embrace it all.” In a mix of styles leaping from the 1700's to the 21st Century, the trio becomes musical time travelers, hence the title, Travels in Time For Three.
While improvising on the "train" theme, the trio fell into playing it in a "classical" manner. This central idea is clearly expressed in the final version of the first movement, "Thematic Ride." Of course, much jazz is based on the idea of variations on a theme, but this movement presents a series of variations in a variety of styles – although always with a beat. A few variations sound as if the group were suddenly transported into the Baroque era (Listen).
On the second day in Philadelphia, the group started jamming in some odd and contrasting time signatures. Zach started playing country fiddle in 4/4 over the complex metered bass line. This confluence of meters and rhythms is the foundation of the second movement, “Irish Folk, Odd Times.” The fiddle melodies dance over a 4-bar rhythmic pattern consisting of one bar of 4/4, one bar of 3/4, one bar of 4/4, one bar of 5/4. Then, in a stylistic switch to Funk, the pattern changes to 9/4. The movement continues in a swinging Irish/Appalachian stew (Listen).
“Suspended Bliss,” the contrasting third movement, marked Adagio Pensivo, is dominated by the string section of the orchestra. Led by bass and one fiddle, it emphasizes harmonic exploration and contrapuntal suspensions (Listen). At the emotional climax of the movement, the main theme is restated and expansively re-harmonized. The musical arc of the movement returns to the opening motif and a quiet resolution.
The last movement, "Clouseau's Mardi Gras," marked Misterioso Burlesco “takes the audience on a humorous ride from a sneaky Mancini-influenced opening, to a Cajun fiddle/Mardi Gras Funk parade, to a Gospel Funk Country groove in 7/4 complete with blazing fiddles on top that matches the intensity of rock and roll (Listen). After individual cadenzas, the entire piece climaxes into a fast 7/8 version of the original theme.”
Duke (Edward Kennedy) Ellington
Selections from The River Suite
The Giggling Rapids
Among the great Big-band leaders, Duke Ellington was the only one who could be everything: composer, arranger, pianist and bandleader. Born in Washington, DC, where his father was a butler, he began playing the piano at age seven, making his professional debut as a ragtime pianist at 17. Ellington moved to New York in 1923 to join Elmer Snowden’s Washington Band. In 1930 his composition Mood Indigo catapulted him to world fame. Elegant and well spoken, he was one of the most important figures of the Harlem Renaissance and a symbol of the Big Band jazz era. He composed over 2000 works, many of them three-minute pieces, constrained by the limitations of the old 78 rpm records. Every member of his band was a virtuoso, and Ellington incorporated their original riffs as part of his compositional process. He composed in many genres, including film music (Anatomy of a Murder) and, towards the end of his life, liturgical music.
In 1969 Ellington received the Presidential Medal of Honor and in 1970 was elected to the exclusive National Institute of Arts and Letters. He was also the first jazz musician to be named a member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Music.
In 1970, the American Ballet Theatre commissioned Ellington to compose a ballet for choreographer Alvin Ailey. The River, according to Ailey in a 1983 interview, “(The River) was to be all water music, and it was to follow the course of this stream through various stages: through a meander, a falls, a whirlpool, and then gurgling rapids. I fell in love with the idea.” Ellington combined the European classical tradition with jazz, the blues and swing harmonies and rhythms, creating an American jazz incarnation of Smetana’s Vlatava (The Moldau). Ellington was deep into liturgical music, and he saw the river as an allegory to birth and rebirth. The ballet comprised 12 movements arranged for piano and big band; Trombonist, composer and arranger Ron Collier (1930-2003), who worked with Ellington, orchestrated seven of them for symphony orchestra.
The history of this work – as with most of Ellington’s music – raises as many unanswered questions as the thorniest problems of authentic attribution and performance practice in early music scholarship. First of all, there is no definitive score; once liberated from the constraints of choreography, every performance was different as the composer modified the music with new riffs for particular players, or simply re-composed the music according to the improvisatory nature of jazz. The leads into the main tunes are especially open to a flexible approach in all interpretations of Ellington’s compositions. He did, however, work with arrangers such as Collier, to commit a version to paper. Exactly what the original ballet score sounded like we will probably never know.
Giggling Rapids: Ellington adapts typical musical water imagery into jazz riffs (Listen).
The Lake: A sinuously haunting relay of solos for the upper winds is subtly transformed in different instrument combinations (Listen). Ellington sets up a contrast theme toward the middle in Latin rhythm (Listen).
Short Ride in a Fast Machine
John Adams is generally associated with minimalism, a style of composition pioneered by Terry Riley, Phillip Glass and Steve Reich in which short musical motives are repeated, gradually changing the harmony or rhythm one note at a time. While the repetition in the works of Riley, Glass and Reich can seem interminable, Adams adds more drama and musical direction and a more accessible tonal and melodic language to his scores.
Born in Worcester, MA, Adams studied at Harvard University before moving west to settle in California. From 1979 to 1985, during his tenure as composer-in-residence with the San Francisco Symphony, he established a reputation with the success of such works as Harmonium, settings of three poems by Emily Dickenson.
In 1987, Adams’s collaboration with stage director Peter Sellars catapulted him into international fame with the Grammy-winning opera Nixon in China. In 1991, Adams composed The Death of Klinghoffer with a libretto by the poet Alice Goodman. Not only did both works become the most performed operas in recent history, but both were also televised by PBS. Klinghoffer was filmed in 2003 on location in the Mediterranean aboard a cruise liner, the most authentic venue for the presentation of the opera on film. In September of 2003 Adams succeeded Pierre Boulez as Composer in Residence at Carnegie Hall.
Adams composed Short Ride in a Fast Machine in 1986 on a commission from the Great Woods Music Festival in Mansfield, Massachusetts where it was premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. It is a good example of Adams’s particular take on minimalism; its melody – if one can call it that – is monotonous, but the rhythm and meter constantly and unexpectedly shift, as does the instrumentation, keeping a sense of both exhilaration and scariness (Listen). Towards the end of this short piece, Adams's break-away into more rapidly changing notes in the trumpets, which carry the upper line, creates a quasi melody, or fanfare, with echoes of Aaron Copland and John Williams in its harmonic language (Listen).
Asked about the title, Adams said, "You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn't?"
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016