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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #295
The Blues
David Gunn

The blues is a musical style created in response to the hardships endured by early avant-garde composers. According to paleomusicologists, it originated in the rural Champigny-sur-Marne region of France in 1901, coincident with the beginning of Pablo Picasso's "blue period." At the time, Picasso was a promising young composer of techno-impressionism, living in the Paris suburbs on a Fulbright scholarship. He dutifully churned out a corpus of tunes evocative of light, wind, water and kibble, but he simply couldn't seem to get enthused over them. Then one night, a friend, un ami, took him to a whiskers six-draw parlor in the heart of the Latin American Quarter. Picasso was enthralled, but not because of the game and its treacherously confusing rules -- unsuccessfully explained on a previous program. Rather, he was stimulated by activities that were occurring in spite of the parlor game. In the alley behind the salon, half a dozen street musicians were engaged in a debauchedly vibrant hootenanny, and the resultant melodic mélange sent chills down Picasso's spinneret. He returned to the parlor night after night, but while his friend, his ami, pursued the intricacies of the game, Picasso stayed outside, soaking up the seductive riffs of the musicians. Eventually, he made friends with them all -- Saint-Saëns, Dukas, Tournemire, Vierne, and especially an old guitarist named Georges "Fretfingers" Braque. Braque divided his playing time between Ruelle díaspiration des favoris six and a Parisian art house known as the Académie Humbert. It was on a Saturday afternoon much like this one at the latter establishment that Picasso first heard the whole tone scale, impeccably improvised by the old guitarist. So moved was he by the piece's granular synthesis and the way it hurt his ears in a gentle but immutable way that he forthwith abandoned his previously successful compositional technique. Filled with a new longing for despairing texts, angular harmonic structures and melodic shapes of flattened third, fifth and seventh notes, he wrote "The Old Guitarist," in 1903, popularly regarded as the first example of the French blues. Alas, the composition's bittersweet emotional impact failed to dazzle the general Parisian public. That would be left for the audience, waitstaff and concessionaires at the premiere of The Rite of Spring ten years hence to deal with.

The cover art of the sheet music, however -- a sketch of a despairing Braque playing for spare change that Picasso had imbued with a predominantly blue palette -- got rave reviews. Art mavens proclaimed the style au courant, and hounded the young composer for more of his visual creations. The erstwhile techno-impressionist sensed he was on to something and soon he permanently swapped his manuscript paper and pencil for an easel and muskmellon paintbrush.

The musical blues continued to evolve without Picasso's help. The five hootenannians he had befriended had all evolved into higher wage-earning life forms, mostly gravitating to the garment profession, which left a temporary vacuum in street musicianism. But, like nature, Paris abhorred a vacuum, and the music-empty space was soon filled by a new batch of young compositional turks: Honegger, Tailleferre, Poulenc, Satie and Cowell. Cowell's contribution to the blues was fittingly Norwegianesque. Recontextualizing the repeated chord progressions of Picasso's day into 12-bar tone cluster patterns, he instantly evoked sentiments of love, freedom, the sorrows of life and kibble. Roy Harris was also among this lot, but because he was related to the Electrolux clan on his motherís side, Paris abhorred him, too, and he was forced to seek his compositional repute in America.

Decades passed and the blues continued to evolve. Morton Feldman, David Tudor, Philip Glass, William Bolcom and Gladys Night each left his or her indelible mark on the musical form. Gyorgy Ligeti even successfully experimented with different gradations in the color: the indigos, the smalts, the cyans, the cobalts, the aquamarines, the turquoises and the navy blues. In 1933, the brothers Tommy, Jimmy and Latissimus Dorsey formed a swing band that explored a conterminous musical style, the greens. Sixty-eight years later, its earth-toned roots still exist, though in the ostensibly unrelated field of the political arts.

Sixty-eight years later, Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar likewise still exists, though in not such a different format from its tortured, soul-searching conception, as this 295th episode will corroborate, beginning with a little tortured, soul-searching composer's tooth and nail wisdom from Kalvos.