Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Music Shows How We Want to Be: Artie Shaw's "Nightmare," Part 2, by Michael Palmer

Control and Crying Out in the Clarinet

When Shaw comes in a second time, on a longer solo, he is deep, thoughtful and yearning; you feel he is looking for something and is not satisfied as he leans on blues notes that sound sour, painful, and don’t quite fit the background harmony. As the solo progresses, he goes further, becomes more abandoned, goes higher and higher in the instrument’s range—nearly three and a half octaves. Every phrase takes in more and more territory; and surprisingly that steady beat underneath, which earlier seemed so ominous, now seems to support him, encourage him on even as it remains so tight, just two semitones. What a contrast to the range of the clarinet!

(Shaw clarinet solo)

So different from “Nightmare,” dark, minor and portentous, is a song Artie Shaw is very much associated with: Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” which is mellow, beguiling and in the major. It was one of Shaw’s biggest hits, and audiences would demand he play it again and again. These two compositions were recorded in the same year, 1938, and it thrilled me to see that the same opposites are central in both of them: the contained and the expansive, something tight, held back, and something that surges forward, together with a persistent, ongoing beat.

(Opening of “Beguine The Beguine”)

Isn’t it something to think that the same man is identified so closely with these very different pieces—one upbeat, with a smooth, undulating melody, the other severe, dissonant, critical. It shows that Artie Shaw, like every person, was trying to put opposites together.

As “Nightmare” concludes—with that dark, inexorable pattern below, the brass blaring out above, and that final bright cymbal crash—we get an emotion that’s very satisfying. This music is brash, it’s bold, it’s critical, it doesn’t smooth things over. We can imagine audiences in the late 1930s, worried about what was happening in Europe, and trying to make sense of their own lives, pleased to hear it played by a big band, to hear something troubling given artistic form. And audiences today can feel this too. In fact, “Nightmare” is part of the background score to the current film, The Aviator.

As we listen to that last assertive minor chord with its crashing cymbal, we feel there’s something honest going on. Reality is not summed up--we feel there’s more to see.

(Conclusion of “Nightmare” starting with the end of Shaw’s solo
when he seems at the top of his range)
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