Monday, March 10, 2014

Bach Bagatelles

March 10

            By Linda de Vries

On this date in 1972 the film Silent Running was released. Starring Bruce Dern and directed by Douglas Trumbull, this science fiction adventure imagines an earth on which all plant life has become extinct. A fleet of space fighters are sent into space to cultivate plants in weightless domes for the eventual reforestation of the planet.

The UK film critic Mark Kermode lists it as one of personal favorites on his BBC blog, preferring it to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 2008 Silent Running was nominated for AFI’s Top Ten Science Fiction Films.

This film is clearly relevant and worth watching on this day in 2014, but what on earth (!) does it have to do with Sebastian Bach?

Well, the answer is our Bach Bagatelle for today: PDQ Bach.

Johann Peter Schickele was born July 17, 1935 in Ames, Iowa of Alsatian immigrant parents. He attended high school in Fargo, North Dakota, Swarthmore College, and the Juilliard School of Music, where he received an M.S. in musical composition. His instrument was the bassoon.

In his early career he wrote music for a number of folk singers, most notably Joan Baez, for whom he also arranged and orchestrated albums during the 60s. He was also a member of the rock group Open Window, which wrote and performed music for the 1969 “naughty” review, Oh! Calcutta!

He was a serious and well-trained musician, a classmate of Philip Glass at Juilliard. In fact, the two collaborated on Concerto for Horn and Hardart. Horn and Hardart was the company that created the first American automat, so in this composition the player had to put in coins to pull out implements with which to strike the instrument. Glass helped build the instrument.

This piece used Mozart’s Symphony No. 29, for which Schickele wrote a cadenza, the cadenza later recorded by the Los Angeles alternative hip hop group Jurassic 5.

His interest in musical humor triggered by the work of Spike Jones, Schickele’s annual reviews at Juilliard became popular enough to move to Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. This aspect of his work evolved into the creation of PDQ Bach, for which he is best known.

 PDQ Bach is a gag that has lasted over a five-decade career of musical satire, allowing Schickele to continue his purposeful but tongue-in-cheek send ups of serious attitudes to serious music.

PDQ performs the newly “discovered” works of the “only forgotten son” of Sebastian Bach. His name, parodying the three names of the Bach family that were often reduced to initials, such as C.P.E., stands for “Pretty Damn Quick.”

PDQ, it goes, was born in Leipzig on March 31, 1742, the 21st of Sebastian and Anna Magdalena’s children, whom they didn’t even bother to name. The only thing his father willed him was a kazoo. PDQ describes himself in relation to his musician brothers as having: “the originality of Johann Christian, the arrogance of C.P.E., and the obscurity of Johann Christoph Friedrich.”

He defines his music as “manic plagiarism,” composed using such invented instruments as pastaphone, tromboon, and left-handed sewer flute. He also incorporates objects of daily life and rude vocal sounds into his music, as well as unusual methods of playing them. The “S” numbers used to catalogue his works are a parody of the way musicologists catalogue the works of composers—“BWV” for J.S. Bach, for instance.

PDQ uses actual compositions of serious composers—Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Glass--but with his own twists and insertions, perhaps prefiguring the contemporary movement in art known as “appropriative art.”

He might play the original piece at half speed, double speed, with interminably repeated phrases, with added noises, or side-by-side with popular songs. As with all humor, he evokes laughter with his sudden and unexpected juxtapositions. He is also known for entering the stage in unusual ways—through an air duct or down a rope, for example.

Although he largely stopped performing in 2012, he has performed in venues from Las Vegas to Carnegie Hall, and has won four Grammy awards for Best Comedy Recording. Check online for a list of his compositions and his many album recordings—the titles alone are a music-lover’s delight: Oedipus Tex, A Little Nightmare Music, Little Notebook for Piggy Bach, Einstein on the Fritz, and my favorite, OK Chorale.

Peter Schickele, to return to our Bagatelle, continued serious composition as well. He composed the soundtrack for Silent Running, which includes two songs released as singles by the hugely popular folk singer Joan Baez: “Silent Running,” and “Rejoice in the Sun.”

He has composed over 100 original works for symphony orchestra, choral groups, chamber ensembles, films, and television. As an educator he hosted Schickele Mix on public radio. You’ll have fun reading more about him and listening to the music of this very interesting American composer.

Yet to come—More on J.S. Bach’s music in films!

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