21st Century Perspectives -- Amram & Bernstein

21st Century Perspectives -- Amram & Bernstein

1 July 2022 / William Anderson / On the Beat

RSF commissioned David Amram to set two poems by his old friend Jack Kerouac, celebrating the Kerouac Centenary, scored for voice and two guitars.

Hear them on September 10 at St. John’s in the Village, an opening event for The Village Trip. They will be performed sometime beteween 8 and 10PM. in a guitar marathon.

I am revisiting David Amram’s film scores and I must jot down some impresssions while they are fresh.

Splendor in the Grass

The theme is stunning. I took note of the composer’s name the very first time I heard it so many decades ago. It is memorable for its phrase endings with 4-3 moves, feeling like Renaissance music filtered through Appalachia, with some bluesy minor/major moves.

The 4-3 is always a harmonic cow-catcher. s – – These set the 5 cycle in motion, erasing or contending with the bluesey 034 stuff. This sets up a rhythm of memorables: 034…..027….034…..027….etc., swimming in triadic water.

There’s more to the Amram sound: a reverent, respectful chorale feel – shape-note singing – that tells us, “listen carefully because something important is in the works here”.

Manchurian Candidate is less bluesey, but still has that noble, stately quality.

Amram’s syncretism is European, Appalachian & Blues, knowing that Appalachian & Blues are already syncretisms.

Bernstein is in this universe. He brings to mind a Hindemithian syncretism. This occured to me listening to the Chichester Psalms with the Harrisburg Symphony about 18 months ago – quartal harmony is made to work with the bluesy American things.

And here is a decidedly quartal move in Amram’s “Ah, Let’s Go Back to the Village”, puctuating the word, “watch”.

Amram cared about his jazz friends and his folk friends, and he now has modernist friends. His voice is distinct enough for a kinder, friendlier 21st C. modernist. He was not trying to please a contextualist, he was interested in pleasing Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Mingus, Dizzy….

We care about these things, but we failed to care about them during the heady days of the modernist bubble. They were too subtle, and too likeable, too much in a public space, a bourgeois space. And yet, Amram constantly surprises us with sneaky chromaticisms. And if one cares about aggregation and complementation, how remarkable that he does that too, coming to it from a uniquely American place. See the ending of his piano accompaniment for Pull My Daisy. Pushing off from a plagal move in the 2nd ending, he goes around the horn, and lands back on his feet.

In 2022 we can see clearly that Amram avoided group think of any stripe whatsoever. It is notable that he avoided both minimalist and maximalist bad habits. [ More on those elsewhere. ]

Next, a note about Manchurian Candidate –

Like Daphne DuMarier’s The Birds (the book) – the crazy birds is the sci-fi element that dramatizes the sense of being out of sorts with nature – that, conflated with the crazy manifestations of sexual tensions, body angst hitting the brain and getting processed and transformed in bizarre ways.

Same with Manchurian Candidate. The sci-fi brainwashing is reflected so strongly in the more “natural” power plays going on between the Angela Landsbury character and her two men, her husband and son. The sci-fi is a parallel demonstration of real pyschological issues. The family dynamics are escalated in the political dynamics and both ultimately conflated with the sci-fi brainwashing.

To the brain, the body is a disgusting alien; to the body, the brain is no less alien. Sci-fi & horror always dramatizing that discord.

Splendor in the Grass is no less deep in the way it examines personal pathologies – sexual frustration – and social pathologies the stock market collapse and the bipolar extremes of capitalism.

Amram, the Aphorist

From his 92nd birthday concert at the Theater for the New City, December 3, 2022


# 1 When asked how I have so much energy at 92 , my response is “Desperation is very stimulating”

#2 Remember to eat at least one vegetable a week.

#3 Premature expiration is highly over-rated .

#4 When i was in Paris at an out door Cafe and moaning about our President to a Parisian gentleman, he said “My dear boy, politics has been a dreadful mess for the past 2000 years. Just enjoy your dinner”

#5 You’re only as old as you make other people feel.

#6 The Cheyenne people say that the three values we should remember to practice every day to live a good life. are “Respect , Love and Sharing”

#7 When Duke Ellington was asked for his advice to all young musicians, he said, ”LISTEN!”

So a big thank you for all of you who came to see and hear these wonderful musical artists. They are the men and women who inspire us all to be in harmony. And all of us wish all of you a long and healthy life with hopes that you will remain creative.