Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Music in the air


MIKHAIL MIKHAJLOVITCHIPPOLITOV-IVANOV is one of those "minor" composers known for only one piece, the colorful Caucasian Sketches*. It's a piece that means a lot to me, as it was on the winter concert played by the college orchestra when I was a freshman and still nominally a music major. I was seventeen and had just graduated from high school, where I played bassoon in the concert band — there was no orchestra in our small country high school.

I didn't have a bassoon, so when I got to Chapman College, in those days a small Christian school on Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles, they provided me with a French horn on which I was asked to play the first bassoon parts. My band teacher had encouraged me to learn all the wind instruments (all but flute, which never worked for me, and trumpet, which I didn't like), and to learn to transpose at sight, so while a little demeaning this wasn't too hard.

What was annoying, though, was that at the dress rehearsal a ringer showed up with a bassoon, and I was moved from hornoon or whatever you'd call it to triangle.

I've always been a sucker for Russian descriptive music, perhaps because of my concert band background. Ippolitov-Ivanov studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, whose influence is as strong in orchestration as hyphenation. I-I writes beautifully for horns and trombones. I have no idea who played oboe and English horn at Chapman; they get some pretty extensive solos.

There are four sections, as I recall: "In the Mountains" — maybe this is another attraction to me — "In the Village"; "In a Mosque"; and a long, wonderfully local-colorful "Procession of the Sardar." There's hardly any melodic material at all, just noodling, broken chords, and scale passages; but the sonorities are fabulous and the rhythmic drive, even in the lengthy slow-tempo sections, compelling.

The piece is sizable, maybe twenty minutes long — I listened to it on headphones on the way over here, in the airplane; it's perfect airplane music, mindless and attractive. Maybe next time I'll load Reinhold Gliere's Ilya Mourometz Symphony onto the iPod; it's four times as long and even more colorful. Then there's the Borodin symphonies…

*Wikipedia is right to quibble that Caucasian Sketches is a silly title and probably a poor translation; Ippolitov-Ivanov means "Sketches from the Caucasus," but that inescapably brings Miles Davis to mind.
The whole thing reminds me of visiting the French lawyer with my friend George's death certificate, so the estate could be put into motion. The lawyer sat gravely in his serious, formal, provincial French office and silently read over the certificate. After a few minutes he smiled: this was odd, it was a sober occasion. The smile grew into a chuckle. He peered up over his glasses and explained, in French — he spoke no English — But look, it says here George was a Caucasian; I knew George, he wasn't Caucasian, he was born in Canada but he was an American; they've made a silly mistake; he wasn't anything like a Caucasian.

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