Sunday, March 24, 2013

Love over Law in Les Miz

As a sophomore in college I struggled with third year French. I couldn’t get it conversationally. I could read it and the prof had me read a history of France in French because history at least used to be written in a fairly consistent and simple tense. The prof said I should go to France and that he could get me a Fulbright to study in Grenoble, a university well known for its history department. I was so frightened of the prospect of going so far from everything I knew (in Iowa!) that I turned away from it.

This was one of those turning points in my life that could have led to an alternative reality today. If I could have seen into the history of revolutions (mostly French) that attracted me then, I could have gone to Grenoble and made a career in French history. Instead I went on to study Russian and spend two years studying the Russian revolution. (Later I traded it all for study of Church history.) What I didn’t see was that the Russian was built on the four French revolutions (1789, 1830-1832, 1848, 1871).

Now I can see this merely reflecting on the great symbolism of covering the body of Lenin with a flag from the failed 1871 Commune of Paris. I wrote in a post last year about how many in France and elsewhere believed “Socialists who seek to reform the human race, but without a revolution are scorned by communists and conservatives alike.” The French army executed as many as 30,000 Parisians within a week to put down the Commune. Lenin knew that if the Bolsheviks didn’t aggressively eliminate their enemies, their enemies would eliminate them.

Les Miserables is an impossible fiction about real events that speaks to the need for social change without violence leading to totalitarianism.

Hugo said:
“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”

Let’s be blunt. Hugo saw terrible injustice, inequlaity, and suffering around him all his life. The entire century and more was about the dismantling of divine right monarchies and the price paid by working people for industrialization. In 1832 he dodged bullets in the brief uprising, in 1848 he opposed the revolt and helped dismantle barricades. But he became a strong Republican and by 1871 he was able to support the Commune, if from a distance, with poetry. He spent 17 years writing Les Miserables to change the world.

Hugo explained his ambitions for the novel to his Italian publisher:
“I don't know whether it will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone. It addresses England as well as Spain, Italy as well as France, Germany as well as Ireland, the republics that harbour slaves as well as empires that have serfs. Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind's wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Miserables knocks at the door and says: ‘open up, I am here for you’.”

I think that the musical and film does great justice to the massive novel, which few will read. The score has wondrous riffs, hooks, and modulations. The lyric is superb. The final scene of the world – the 99% – at the barricade, always seeking justice and progress, freedom and egalite, gives us his purpose. Ultimately, Hugo’s answer to violence is personal love, always pushing progress to its next level in the next generation. The story, called the greatest novel, lifts liberalism from our own sewer of tea party shame. It will do so again for each new generation.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Tyranny of "Fake Books"

I have just completed the basics of a big project, and if you aren't a musician you won't care. Using an app called Mobile Sheets on a 10" Android tablet, I have entered about 1,300 songs in Bb and Eb so I can find and play a tune called in a jam session. I play sax sometimes with guys who can play anything while I have difficulty thinking of a tune. Just for the record I currently have over 500 ballads, 100 blues heads, 100 bebop classics, and many songs from a dozen other genres. (Photo - not a good one - shows the 5" x 8.5" very readable backlit screen in a dark room.)

Where did I get all this sheet music? From jazz and other musicians, and teachers and students, who over the years have compiled “fake books,” collections of what are usually one page “lead sheets” with the melody and chord symbols. This gives the roadmap for the forms and voicings that are the basis for performances. Fake books also record the original or preferred key in which the tunes are played. This layout provides the foundation for where all music – especially jazz – is made, at the intersection of the expected and unexpected, the written and unwritten improvised playing of a tune.

I have six fake books in print and another ten in PDF form on my computer. Some are in the key  of C so that they must be transposed for a Bb or Eb instrument. (Tenor and soprano sax are Bb instruents. Alto and bari sax are Eb.) Reading music quickly a step up or a minor third down is hard, so I seek out Bb and Eb fake books.

The basic fake books for jazz are “The Real Books,” now published by Hal Leonard. They were originally written by hand and I think were compiled by students and teachers for classes at Berklee School of Music in Boston beginning in the ‘60's and ‘70's. [There is a Wikipedia article on The Real Book, which leaves the origin up for question.] There are three volumes. They were illegal because they violated the Copyright laws. [I will post about the tyranny of Copyright Laws later.] I bought mine from the back of a small music store after receiving a reference from a friend they knew. I heard stories about people getting arrested selling them out of the trunks of their cars. This is as close as I ever came to experiencing prohibition or dealing in drugs.

In the ‘90's Sher Music began publishing multiple volumes of “The New Real Book,” a project that I think spurred Hal Leonard to work out the Copyright issues and publish The Real Books legally in ‘03. There had been legal and illegal fake books of popular songs for years, and now there are Brazilian, Cuban, Blues, Ellington, and other specialized mostly legal Real Books. Hal Leonard has done a fair job of updating the old Real Books. There may or may not be an effort to publish them in PDF on cd’s.

In ‘’93 Adobe introduced Acrobat, which allowed publication of large documents in a form that could be saved on disks and later cds, and on line. In the late ‘90's I bought a cd for $5.00 that included a dozen fake books, mostly in the key of C. Now we could see the written music for a lot of tunes. More recently a Swiss site gives downloads of some fake books in Bb and Eb. I wish there were more.

What is included and what is left out of these books constitute huge problems. As I loaded music into my tablet, I edited out music that I knew I would never play. The Real Books are loaded with music written by Berklee teachers and jazz musicians who were popular in the ‘70's and ‘80's. Let’s face it – No one is going to ask me or most musicians to play any music by Pat Metheny or Steve Swallow. Nor are there many who would request most Wayne Shorter tunes and the minor hits of a dozen other such greats. I reduced The Real Book to this extent:
                                  Vol. 1 from 485 to 219 pages,
                                  Vol. 2 from 414 to 174 pages, and
                                  Vol. 3 from 360 to 163 pages, the total pages by 55%.
I acknowledge that others would make different editing choices, but I doubt that they would be much different than my choices. Most of the ballads are keepers but a lot of bebop and mainstream jazz tunes were the possession of the musicians who wrote them. They aren’t performed anymore.

Perhaps the larger problem is the dozens of good old tunes that were left out, and the many tunes written since1970 from pop, rock, and Broadway. Land of Make Believe (Mangione), I’m Beginning to See the Light (Ellington), Anything Goes (Cole Porter) are just examples of what was left out of the original books. I discover new omissions weekly. We are all grateful for singers and others who dig in the hits of the past and turn up new golden oldies. I think Haunted Heart had been forgotten before Charlie Haden and Ernie Watts revived it in the ‘90's. Madeleine Peyroux, Cyrille Aimee, and Catherine Russell find any number of old songs that people of my generation or younger haven’t heard. They are just like new. Sone songs were buried under censorship in the ‘30's, which prevented radio play, such as “Was I drunk?” (This requires a female vocalist.)

I hate to say it, but more fake books are needed. A good American Songbook and a BeBop and Mainstream Jazz fake book would be nice for starters. Hope is in the tablet. For the Ipad there is Igig, for which an Android version is promised soon. Now you can get the chords from Igig for many of my favorite tunes on "jazzstudies." This allows one to use a laptop at a gig. I am not done, but I will keep at it because the payoff is high. I welcome other opinions on Real and other fake books.