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