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David Goe on music

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The Odd Twisted Journey of “The Nutcracker”

By David Goe
Friday, December 12, 2014

Olga Preobrazhenskaya as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nikolai Legat as Prince Coqueluche in the original production of "The Nutcracker." Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, c. 1900.
 

As ubiquitous as eggnog and Christmas trees, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s famous score to “The Nutcracker” symbolizes the return of the holiday season as much as anything.

Act II’s “Waltz of the Flowers,” for example, is a seasonal staple that feels just as cozy as Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas.”

“Waltz of the Flowers,” “Trepak” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” are so instantly recognizable, memorable and enjoyable, it is easy to see why “The Nutcracker” has become such a popular holiday treat.

In fact, the entire score is so good it’s uninteresting to discuss. It’s an absolute masterpiece, end of story.

However, how “The Nutcracker” came to be one of the most well–known ballets of all time is an interesting tale. From adaptations by legendary authors and composers, to what is now a time-honored tradition, “The Nutcracker” is an unlikely success.

When most people remember “The Nutcracker,” scenes with the Sugar Plum Fairy, dancing toys, mischievous mice, waltzing flowers and sparkling snowflakes dance through their heads.

But what is often forgotten is the odd and twisted source material from the original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, and the wild, century-long transformation the story went through to make it stage worthy.

Written in 1816 during the German Romantic period, Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” is a tale on par with the original Grimm Fairy Tales, the gruesome ones full of death, torture and general misery, not the Disney-fied versions.

In Hoffmann’s story, a young girl named Marie escapes into an imaginative dream world to shed herself of her overbearing family. There’s a seven-headed mouse king, the execution of a number of children, transfiguration curses and love between Marie and a nutcracker.

“The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” is a strange tale, but underneath the dread is a whimsical story that appealed to a number of influential artists.

One such artist was French playwright and novelist Alexandre Dumas. It wasn’t until Dumas, author of “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers,” adapted Hoffmann’s tale in 1844 and stripped out many of the darker elements that “The Nutcracker” we now know started to take shape.

Forty-eight years later, using both Hoffmann’s and Dumas’ stories as reference, Tchaikovsky, Russian choreographer Lev Ivanov and French choreographer Marius Petipa delivered the modern “The Nutcracker.” Debuting in St. Petersburg in 1892, Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” was whittled to a two-act ballet maintaining a fluffed up version of the original story line.

Considering Tchaikovsky’s incredible body of work at the time — he already had composed the masterpieces “Swan Lake” in 1876 and “Sleeping Beauty” in 1889 — “The Nutcracker” was initially considered something of a flop. It was the staging of the ballet, not Tchaikovsky’s music, that received most of the criticism.

“The Nutcracker” was shown off and on during the early 1900s and it wasn’t until the San Francisco Ballet performed the show on Christmas Eve in 1944 that it became associated with the holidays. It was another 15 years before the entire United States embraced “The Nutcracker” and performed it annually around the time of the holidays.

Interestingly enough, in the early 1980s children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak (“Where The Wild Things Are”) led the Pacific Northwest Ballet in a production of “The Nutcracker” true to Hoffmann’s original story arch. Sendak even went so far as to create sets and even illustrate a children’s book featuring Hoffmann’s tale.

Enjoy the music and artistry next time you sit down to watch “The Nutcracker,” but don’t forget how the story came to be. Considering its global journey and the legends involved, it’s an absolute wonder the ballet exists and thrives for our holiday enjoyment.

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Spongebob Mocks Dubstep

By David Goe
Friday, December 5, 2014

14 comments

Isolated Vocals from Mariah Carey’s Live Christmas Performance

By David Goe
Thursday, December 4, 2014

Last night, NBC aired its annual Christmas broadcast. It featured a number of 'live' performances including one from Mariah Carey. Here is Carey singing her famous Christmas tune, "All I Want For Christmas Is You," on the broadcast, with the music, any backing tracks, and her backup singers vocals stripped away. It's Carey's isolated vocals, and yikes, they are not to hot.  

Anytime a pop singer performers anything 'live' on TV, take it with a grain of salt. When they're not straight up lip-singing, this is more-or-less what they sound like. This performance is not as bad as it sounds but let's not kid ourselves, it's not good either. Blame it on the cold weather or maybe even Nick Cannon, but this is what passes as a 'live' performance now. 

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Obscure Basquiat Record Reissued for Black Friday Record Store Day

By David Goe
Thursday, November 27, 2014

It’s Black Friday, a day when American consumerism is at its very best, a day when you can get the deal of a lifetime on giant TVs, tablets, cameras and ... records?

Yes, not to be left for dead like the trampled hoards of door-buster shoppers, the music industry has expanded the popular Record Store Day concept to Black Friday, offering limited vinyl pressings and reissues of both new and long-forgotten recordings.

This year’s offering delves deep into 1990s nostalgia. Among the many specialty items are Dave Matthews Band’s initial 1994 EP “Recently,” Aaliyah’s 1994 debut album “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number” and They Might Be Giants’ 1990 major label debut “Flood.”

Other highlights include the “Guardians of the Galaxy” soundtrack on cassette (just like in the movie!), a Ramones’ best-of album curated by Morrissey and a picture disc of Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” that comes in the shape of the rap collaborative’s iconic logo.

Considering all the Black Friday releases, perhaps this year’s most coveted item, the so-called Holy Grail of early era New York hip-hop, is Rammellzee vs. K-Rob’s recording “Beat Bop.” Produced by the Radiant Child himself, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and featuring his own artwork on the cover, this 10-minute plus track has never been officially reissued since the initial 500 copies came off the press in 1983 and were sold through a New York art gallery.

Initially intended to be rap battle between the famous artist and Rammellzee, “Beat Bop” is an extended back-and-forth barrage of lyrics over a repetitive minimal funk beat. Rammellzee plays the role of a street corner pimp and K-Rob raps from the point of view of a young boy coming home from school.

While the continuous interplay between Rammellzee and K-Rob is impressive, Basquiat’s contribution to the actual recording of “Beat Bop” goes well beyond floating the cash to record the song.

What makes “Beat Bop” so interesting is Basquiat’s influence over the entire track and how it mirrors his own work as a fine artist. The minimal beat is credited to him, as well as the decision to include such heavy processing and effects such as chorus, delay and echo.

The use of these effects give the track new levels of dimension, previously unheard in early era hip-hop, and highlight a number of Rammellzee and K-Rob’s lyrics in much the same way as the scrawling words across canvases and New York City walls highlighted messages in Basquiat’s paintings and graffiti.

“Beat Bop” doesn’t follow any traditional rules and is a free-form dichotomy of street life, both traits typical in Basquiat’s work as a painter.

“Beat Bop” is an experimental and witty recording that is decidedly not SAMO (the artist’s original graffiti tag name, meaning “Same Old S$@!”) and is cited alongside The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” as one of old school rap’s essential songs.

Though less celebrated than its two counterparts, “Beat Bop” was nonetheless an influential record to a number of well-known hip-hop artists, including El-P, B-Real of Cypress Hill and, most notably, the Beastie Boys, who sampled the track on “B-Boys Makin’” from 1994’s “Ill Communication” and on “Jimmy James from 1992’s “Check Your Head.”

The Black Friday reissue again features Basquiat’s original artwork, which, by the way, includes a misspelling of Rammellzee’s name on the back cover, and an insert featuring interviews with those who helped create the landmark recording.

I’m sure very few will be beating down store doors the morning of Friday, Nov. 28, to get a copy of “Beat Bop,” but for hard core record collectors and fans of early hip-hop, there is no better Black Friday deal than this exclusive, genre defining reissue. 

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Sweden Goes ‘Postal’ With New Musical Stamps

By David Goe
Friday, November 14, 2014

In European postage news, Swedish/Danish postal company Postnord recently announced a new line of special edition postage stamps featuring five of their hottest homegrown pop music acts.

EDM superstar Avicii, dance hall queen Robyn, sister folk duo First Aid Kit, pop singer Seinabo Sey and super producer Max Martin will all be immortalized on a series of snail mail stamps available in January.

The stamp series features hand drawn pencil renderings by artist Jenny Mortsell and are meant to honor Sweden’s long and successful contribution to pop music. It’s a small country, but Sweden’s been a hotbed for talent: ABBA, the Cardigans, Ace of Base, Opeth, Swedish House Mafia, the Hives, etc.

And while hardly anyone pays attention to what’s actually on a stamp, this series got me thinking. If the United States were to release a limited run of stamps featuring contemporary pop musicians, who would be picked?

The United States has a long history of featuring musicians on its stamps, but if we were to make a new list featuring a DJ, a dance vocalist, a band, a pop singer and a producer, who would we honor? Which artist would illustrate it?

I have some ideas ...

It’s difficult to condense a nation’s worth of talent down to five spots, but I’ll do my best.

Let’s start with the DJ spot. A number of American DJs have made a worldwide impact on the EDM scene. Skrillex would be the obvious choice, but I couldn’t possibly allow anyone who actively popularized dubstep, the most offensive genre of music in the history of music, to appear on a stamp.

I would go with the hit-maker Calvin Harris, but he has fewer facial expressions than Derek Zoolander, so that leaves the long-haired, cake-throwing party-starter Steve Aoki as the clear choice.

Now as far as I can tell, the only reason stamps and postage still exist is to communicate key plot points in Wes Anderson films. But if anyone can get people excited about mail again, it’s got to be Katy Perry. Her eye-popping confections are just what the U.S. Postal Service needs to get young people back in the mail game.

Perry is on an amazing hot streak and outside of gold, she’s our nation’s greatest commodity.

I’m really tempted to pick someone ridiculous, such as Slipknot, to fill the band spot just because it would be hilarious to think about my 92-year-old grandma licking the back of a stamp featuring the masked metal icons just so she could send me a Thanksgiving card.

Let’s get real, though. There’s not a lot of great bands to choose from at the moment, so Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” band, The Roots, get the honor just because.

The fourth stamp is easy. It’s the Snow Queen, Elsa, from “Frozen.” I hear you arguing for Beyonce, but seriously, let it go. Ask any kid under 12. Elsa is the most important vocalist in music right now.

Finally, on the American front there are plenty of great producers to turn to. Rick Rubin or Dr. Dre would both be worthy. T Bone Burnett would be a timely choice based on his body of work and what he recently did on Bob Dylan’s “Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes,” but we’re looking for someone who has made a significant impact on the pop music scene.

My choice is Pharrell Williams. His producer credits both solo and as part of the Neptunes are incredible. Pharrell is the most in tune with what’s currently popular in music (see The Voice). He and his Arby’s hat would look good on our postage.

As for the artist, we need something graphic and bold. Shepard Fairey’s my choice. He’s the designer behind the “Obey” campaign and the Obama “Hope” poster.

Obviously, the U.S. Postal Service will never go for any of these suggestions and probably will release another run of Elvis stamps, but no matter.

They’re just stamps. 

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