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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 13, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Music Made New, How to Win Friends

Old music on new instruments -- sometimes it's a wonderful idea.

I first came to love Bach listening to the Goldberg Variations -- Glenn Gould's crystalline recording from 1955. I played the album over and over again as I wrote and worked, until it felt as if Bach had written his music into my very bones.

Of course, this did not make me an expert on either Bach, the Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould, or piano music. I doubt I even rose to the level of aficionado.

But you don't have to be able to make a good souffle to know when you're eating one.

There are those who dislike transcribing great music to other instruments, just as there are those who hate any performance of Beatles songs other than the Beatles' own.

I think they're wrong. Just as great literature can usually be translated into other languages, and can often be adapted to other media and still deliver most of its value, so also when great music -- whether classical or pop -- is performed by other groups or on unusual instruments, it can illuminate the music in fresh ways.

For instance, a favorite album of mine has long been Barber's Adagio, on which that great work of music is transcribed for flute, brass, choir, clarinet, string quartet, organ, and chamber orchestra (and performed in turn by the Strings of the Boston Symphony, James Galway and Hiro Fujikake, the Canadian Brass, Agnus Dei of Trinity College of Cambridge, Richard Stoltzman and the Kalman Opperman Clarinet Choir, Tokyo String Quartet, David Pizarro, and the Smithsonian Chamber Players).

Along the same lines, but slightly less successful, is the album Ravel's Greatest Hit: The Ultimate Bolero, on which, despite the slightly sarcastic title, Bolero is given ten different performances, ranging from Benny Goodman's jazzy version to a piano duet version by Jacques Fray and Mario Braggiotti.

Let's just say that Barber's Adagio is more adaptable; Ravel's Bolero really sounds best with the full range of the orchestra, and played absolutely straight.

Now back to Bach: I have listening at this moment to Catrin Finch's wonderful harp transcription of the Goldberg Variations.

When you think about it, piano and harp have a lot in common. Though the harp is plucked and the piano hammered, they're both a full set of separate strings, each tuned to a particular note, and both are able to provide full employment for all ten fingers.

But the open ringing and gentle attack of the harp bring a completely different color to Bach's music. In Finch's flawless performance (to my ears, anyway), I find new pleasure in music that is still deeply inscribed in my bones.

Would this harp performance have done the same thing to me as Gould's original recording?

I think not. Rather like the harpsichord (also plucked strings), the harp can't demand attention the way the piano can.

But I take great pleasure in this new version. I can see why the tradition of harp music being played in heaven might have grown -- there's something rather ethereal about the sound. Even played badly, the harp is peaceful.

In my version of heaven, however, I expect all the instruments to be represented. If they're not, I hope I can bring my .mp3 collection.

If you think doing Goldberg Variations on harp is surprising, then you're going to be floored by Bela Fleck's brilliant album, Perpetual Motion, on which he plays transcriptions of 20 classical pieces ... on banjo.

Now, I love banjo music anyway -- I recently reviewed Steve Martin's loving tribute to the banjo, and I adore the soundtrack to Deliverance -- but this is banjo as never heard before.

When you start listening to Scarlatti's Sonata in C ("La Caccia"), the banjo doesn't sound like a banjo; you have to listen closely to be sure.

But by the time you get to Debussy's Children's Corner Suite, you're ready for the much more banjo-like sound.

From Chopin mazurkas and etudes to Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," Fleck's banjo shines new light on all the music.

Even when the music is a bit flippant, like Beethoven's "Variations in C on 'God Save the King'" (the music we Americans sing as "America" but the Brits think is their national anthem), Fleck's performance remains pure.

Only the last track on the album reveals Fleck's knowledge of the bluegrass version of banjo-playing. Having already done Paganini's "Moto Perpetuo" in a respectful, traditional version, Fleck plows into it again with a more traditional banjo sound.

Oddly enough, though, his virtuosity betrays him a little here. While he has all the notes, he's lost the ragged enthusiasm that makes bluegrass banjo such a joy to hear. Fleck remains a classicist, with all the notes exactly evenly spaced, the tempo unvarying, and the result is technically impressive but lacking in soul.

Still, it's great fun, and this is an album I've already listened to several times without wearying of it.


But there's more than one way to reenvision music. A group of alternative-pop singers has taken on grand old hymns in Nearer: A New Collection of Favorite Hymns. All but one of the hymns (the LDS "Come, Come, Ye Saints") are among the best-loved in the Protestant tradition.

With only one exception ("Onward, Christian Soldiers"), every one of these hymns is freshened by being sung without a trace of bel canto.

Kyle Henderson's "Nearer, My God, to Thee" adds a brilliantly effective tribal-music feel to the accompaniment; Paul Jacobson's "Lead, Kindly Light" puts an almost jaunty guitar with a sober and simple vocal; Chris Merritt's "How Great Thou Art" makes subtle use of synthesizer while his voice seems to rush headlong through the song until he suddenly departs from the traditional melody in a surprising turn of tune.

But if you want a completely fresh take on Christian music, you owe yourself a look at Mercy River. The group Mercy River is a trio of "moms who like to sing" who have created an extraordinary album of new songs with a New Age feel that is at once ethereal and poetic and sacred.

Whom can I compare them to? There are hints of Enya-like Celtic music, but that would be misleading. Maybe you simply have to try them out. Just don't confuse them with the Philadelphia pop group of the same name. The right album can be purchased at http://www.mercyrivermusic.com/.


It seems that aging singers all turn to the Great American Songbook, and the result is often quite happy, though strange.

For instance, Willie Nelson has a new album called American Classic, which puts his delicious old-man voice on songs like "Fly Me to the Moon" and "Since I Fell for You."

These songs have a way of exposing every flaw or oddity in a voice, and this album is no exception -- Nelson's too-wide tremolo and hard retroflex rs really stick out.

But since those are longtime attributes of his voice, if you already like Willie Nelson's singing, you'll like these songs.

And it's a wonderful thing to hear him sing with Norah Jones and Diana Krall ("Baby, It's Cold Outside" and "If I Had You," respectively). He's not quite doing jazz, but there's swing in it. A far cry from outlaw country music.

But then, Leon Russell has been doing this for years. I don't know if you remember his album Carney from back in the 1970s -- I class it as one of the greatest albums of all time. But that scratchy, twisted voice would seem to be the last one that would work well with the Great American Songbook.

Yet on Moonlight and Love Songs he proved -- long before Willie Nelson tried it -- that the songs are remade when a great but nontraditional singer takes them on -- and with very traditional scoring to boot.

(And you might enjoy hearing more of his pilgrimage through different musical traditions, as he also sings bluegrass on Rhythm & Bluegrass, and blues on Guitar Blues.)


When I was a kid, my parents apparently worried that I had such a repulsive personality that I needed a textbook on human relations. They tried to put a good face on it, but I didn't see them giving a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People to any of my siblings!

Whatever deficiencies in my character my parents were trying to help me compensate for, I read the book avidly then -- more than once. While I didn't instantly become a charmer, I improved greatly in my ability to persuade people.

But as author Dale Carnegie says in the book, it's easy to get sloppy and forget the principles he teaches, reverting to either basic human nature -- getting mad, griping, talking only about yourself, ignoring what the other person wants -- or to a phony version of his teachings -- flattery, lying.

After all, the title makes the book sound like just another entry in the great tradition of books about how to manipulate other people into letting you have your own way all the time -- though in most ways this book is truly the opposite of that.

Recently I spotted the book on Amazon and downloaded the Kindle version. While it was sloppily formatted -- for instance, m-dashes were all omitted entirely, which shatters the flow of many sentences -- and the introduction proved itself to be shatteringly dull and inappropriate, the great virtues of the book are still there.

As Carnegie repeatedly stresses, you can't fake his techniques. When he says you should be interested in other people if you want to befriend them, he means it. You really have to care about what they're saying. Sincerity, in other words, can't be faked, not even by staring soulfully into the other person's eyes.

In fact, rereading this book from the perspective of my 58 years on this planet, I can see that what Carnegie is really giving us is a practical course in applied Christianity. The principles are there, only explicated in a fully usable form.

Not everything holds up -- for instance, he uses one example from the psychology of the mid-1930s. Since psychology wasn't even remotely a science in that era, the example is reduced to nonsense. But not the point he was making, which remains true!

I read this book so often as a child that as I read it now, I can see phrase after phrase that I routinely use myself, unaware anymore of the source. And there are maxims he quotes from other people that remain a part of my mental furniture. "Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise" -- good heavens, that's the core of my work with writers and actors, encouraging what they actually do well, far more than criticizing flaws.

The usefulness, truthfulness, and effectiveness of the ideas in this book are undiminished; and even if some of the language and examples are a bit old-fashioned, it's still well-written and easily read and understood.

Even if you're the nicest person in the world and make friends easily, you'll enjoy reading this book if only to reaffirm to you the things you're already doing!

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