Monthly Archives: July 2014

Pin Penin – Nino Rota

 He had learned the worst lesson that life could teach – that it makes no sense. And when that happens the happiness is never spontaneous again. It is artificial and, even then, bought at the price of an obstinate estrangement from oneself and one’s history.

 

American Pastoral, Philip Roth

 

Nino Rota composed scores for over 150 films in 46 years. That’s quite some output. He’s probably best known to English-speaking audiences for his work on the Godfather films, but perhaps his most admired work amongst music critics and scholars was done for the films of his friend Federico Fellini, who spoke of him the best collaborator he ever had.

Film composing is a tremendously complicated affair, particularly in the era before musical mechanisation, MIDI, and so on. As well as creating a rewarding, substantial piece of music, you have to do it in sync with the film: your crescendo might have to coincide with the clash of swords in the middle of a fight and so occur precisely one minute and 17.5 seconds into a scene, or you might need an arresting chord change just at the moment that two characters meet. To work as a film composer, working every day under these kinds of technical considerations for 40 years, would require tremendous discipline, technical facility, imagination and good humour.

Nino Rota had all of these things and more. He was touched with something indistinguishable from genius. His first oratorio was performed in Milan and Paris when he was just twelve. He studied music in Milan, Rome and Philadelphia, and received a PhD in literature from the University of Milan. He was a man of many talents and accomplishments. He was adept at pastiches in many styles, even before he began composing for the screen; his early works sometimes recalled Dvorák, but he experimented too with twelve-tone technique. And so, when tasked with writing a score for Fellini’s dreamlike, impressionistic Il Casanova, Rota took the opportunity to do something a little unusual.

Rota produced a score for instruments not normally found in the orchestra. O Venezia, Venaga, Venusia features the contemporary electric piano (it sounds like a Fender Rhodes to me) as well as discordant string drones and the first appearance within the score of tuned percussion, used frequently throughout the score to create a music box-like sound. Pin Penin, perhaps the most famous piece from the score, adds glass harmonica and what sometimes sounds like electric bass guitar to this mix, as well as the subtle use of deliberately out-of-tune instruments. On some pieces, the electric piano is panned so that it ping-pongs around the stereo field, while reed organs, harpsichords and harps play off-kilter waltzes

The result is a score that is playful but sinister and vaguely surreal. It lives in the space between the lulling and the nightmarish, in a space the normal the rules of logic don’t quite apply – a fertile territory in other forms of music.

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Let’s Stay Together – Al Green

Let’s get right to the point. Let’s Stay Together by Al Green is one of the most glorious records in popular music. If you drew a Venn diagram of all the different kinds of soul music, from the roughest Southern cut to the most sophisticated and classy Philly soul ballad, Let’s Stay Together would be in the middle. It’s raw without being rough, sweet without being cloying, smooth without being bland. If you like deep soul with a small-band feel, the core of Let’s Stay Together is the rhythm section, organ and one guitar. If you like horns and strings, you’ve got them too: a couple of horns on the right, playing the iconic off-beat lick that opens the song, and a small string section on the left.

The guys who made Let’s Stay Together knew how to put together a hit record. The song was written by producer Willie Mitchell and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. Jackson still played on Hi Records sessions as a favour to Mitchell, even though he had enough work on his plate to keep him busy every day of every week, and it was he came up with the rolling beat that defines the song’s rhythmic feel. It was presumably played by him on traps kit and Howard Grimes (who was Green’s drummer when Jackson wasn’t around) on, I’d guess, congas. It’s one of the greatest drum tracks in pop music, instantly addictive and endless satisfying. Mitchell could have put that out with just Green’s vocal on top and it would have got to number one just the same.

But the record has so much else to offer, Green’s vocal being a key part of its charm. Green was somewhat unsure about singing softly and making such prominent use of falsetto. He’s grown up as a something of a shouter with bluesy, Otis Redding inflections. Mitchell coached him to tone it down, to speak softer and mean more. The result was a career-defining performance, and turned ‘Al Green’ into a sort of shorthand when describing male soul ballad singers.

There’s a sort of alchemy present in Let’s Stay Together: the warm and inviting instrument sounds; the sense of vocal power held in reserve; the extreme discipline of the musicians (listen to every instrument in turn: no one’s playing much). There’s a couple of dozen live versions of this song on YouTube if you want to spend an hour or so going through them. None of them is a patch on the studio version. It was a once in a lifetime moment for Green. And he didn’t know it at the time, fighting Mitchell over the song for days before finally giving in and recording it. Sometimes musicians are the worst judges of their own work.

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