Saturday, January 28, 2012

Non-Bavarian, Non-Westphalian, Non-Tyrolean . . .

Personality test: It’s two o’clock in the morning, downtown, and you’re wanting to cross the street, but there’s a “Don’t Walk” sign warning you not to. There is absolutely no traffic in sight. What do you do?

Well, if you’re Germanic, you wait for the sign to say “Walk.” But if, let’s say, you’re French, you simply cross.

I told you that I don’t really get tired of our pretty Christmas things—the glass ornaments, the fruit baskets, the birds and such—but I do admit that the traditional Germanic stuff gets to feeling kinda old. Backward-looking. Hymns and carols, and all their chordal logic set down hundreds of years ago by Johann Sebastian Bach, sound just right all through Advent, but once we pass into the new year, I’m ready to shake it up.

And I’m not talking about raucous music here, like rock. That’s loud, but it is not really new. It doesn’t generally shake up the foundations set forth by the basic hymn and its I-IV-V-I progressions. I mean, those are the “power chords” on a guitar. And Twisted Sister readily admits to lifting the music of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” for its heavy metal hit, “We’re Not Gonna to Take It.”

So for the past month I’ve been enjoying twentieth-century French music. The last century was a tremendously experimental and creative time, and from what I’ve observed, I doubt that the twenty-first century has the total intellectual power to approach it. And French music has a deftness and delicacy that is missing from those heavy hymns.

I’ve been enjoying my Pandora these last few weeks: My “Francis Poulenc station.” Try it; go to and type in “Francis Poulenc,” and just let it spin interesting and amazing music to you. In addition to Poulenc, it will add similar composers. Early Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Virgil Thomson, Gabriel Fauré, and so on.

This music is not unmelodic, though it takes you down unfamiliar paths, and it’s strongly rhythmic, but the chords can blow you away. If you know anything about music, polychords are one of Poulenc’s trademarks—two different chords being played simultaneously. Listening, you might lose track of the key, whether it’s major or minor or what, if it weren’t for the melody line.

Even though this music is rather “old” by today’s standards, the compositions still sound fresh and challenging to my ear. And they sound very French, as opposed to Germanic. They suggest new perspectives and possibilities, and that, my friends, is just right for a new year.

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