Category Archives: Music

‘Samarkand’

What a useless post this is going to be.

I’m going to criticize a song you’ve almost certainly never heard. And when you watch the video, below, you won’t understand it, because it’s in Danish.

But I thought of it last night, during one of my ever-popular sieges of insomnia. I hadn’t heard it since I stopped playing my vinyl albums, back in the ‘90s. So I checked out the video. And the more I thought about it, the more it annoyed me. Because I think it’s a really pretty and sweet piece. But also wrongheaded and soul-killing.

The singer is Birgitta Grimstad, as well-known Danish folk singer. This number, adapted from a modern Swedish popular song, was a big hit for her in that country. What it describes, in brief, is how the singer wakes up on a beautiful morning to find herself alone in her bed. And she immediately understands that “it happened, what we talked about.” Her lover has moved on – he’s searching, metaphorically, for “Samarkand,” which apparently symbolizes some transcendent dream that won’t let him settle down.

Except that’s not exactly it. She says, “…and another will be what I can never be.” In other words, her lover is looking for a new – presumably better – lover. She is sad about it, and cries. But she’s very accepting and hopes he finds what he’s looking for “if you ever find your way to Samarkand.”

There it is, the ethic of the 1970s. “Love” means sex, and sex is temporary. Nobody is obligated to stay in a relationship if some better prospect shows up. I first heard this song on the “Prairie Home Companion” program, and I remember Garrison Keillor praising its “sweet reasonableness.” Well, from what we’ve now learned about Keillor, it’s no surprise he’d consider the song reasonable. The perfect lover is one who lets you go without complaining, when you get offered an upgrade.

So here I am again, railing against sins I never got the opportunity to commit. But I’ll say this – I suspect that a lot of the anger we see in radical feminism today springs from women who were expected to play this kind of submissive game back during the Sexual Revolution years.

The Good, the Bad, and the Danish

I don’t think I’ve shared this yet. Apparently the Danish National Symphony did a series of concerts earlier this year, performing the music of Ennio Morricone, who wrote all those great scores for Sergio Leone (and others).

This might seem like artistic slumming, but it isn’t. First of all, Ennio Morricone is in a class by himself. And it’s been suggested by people who know a lot more than I do that the only really good classical music being written today is being written for films.

Anyway, I think this is beyond great.

Trevin Wax Salutes Andrew Peterson

Trevin Wax offers this album-by-album guide to the work of Andrew Peterson.

Andrew’s work resonates with me for several reasons.

  • First, Andrew expresses a childlike wonder toward this world and our place in it, waking us up and seizing our imaginations until we see—truly see—the wonders of existence. I gravitate toward music and books that lead me in the way of wonder.

  • Second, Andrew’s albums are steeped in biblical allusions and Scriptural imagery—all of which grow more powerful the more you study Scripture and the more you put his songs on “repeat.” There’s a richness to his lyrics that rewards the contemplative listener.

  • Third, Andrew’s songs bear the mark of authenticity, giving voice to a faith that is firm in its grasp of the truth and yet honest in its experience of doubt or suffering. The result is a compelling portrait of Christianity in all of its messy glory.

I enjoy this music too and have long wished Peterson great success. His music is marvelous. I’ve tried to burrow this song in my head since buying the album a couple years ago.

‘Les Bicyclettes de Belsize’

When spring comes, I generally think of this song. It came out about the time I graduated from high school, and followed me into college, performed by various artists. But this is the original version, from the short film of the same name, “Les Bicyclettes de Belsize.”

The film (which I’ve never actually seen) is about a young man in London who falls in love, in rather improbable fashion, with a fashion model. Why is the title in French? I have no idea.

Can’t Make a Living Writing Songs

You can’t be a songwriter without having a spare job,” [Andre] Lindal, 41, tells [Pacific Standard magazine], sounding downhearted as he rummages around his Los Angeles home—a home that Lindal can only afford thanks to his other jobs on the marketing and management side of the music industry. “It’s awesome to be working with great people. But it stinks that you’re not going to be able to get paid for what you do. You can only be a fan for so long.”

Lindal had a #3 song performed by Justin Bieber in 2013 with 34 million plays on YouTube, four million more on Pandora. Those YouTube plays earned him $218 due to regulations established in 1941. Songwriters used be able to draw on sheet music, album, and download sales, but streaming services are outside of those schemes. (via Prufrock News)

Sola Gratia: Grace Alone

The choir of the Bible school where I work is just wrapping up a tour of Germany. They got to visit a number of notable Reformation sights. I was impressed by a video they posted on Facebook, where they got the opportunity to sing a Bach piece at Bach’s tomb. I was hoping to post that tonight, but at this point it’s only on Facebook.

So here’s one (filmed in our chapel) that is on YouTube — a number which (I believe) is part of their repertoire in Germany. “Grace Alone.”

‘Lili’ and the magic of storytelling

For reasons I’m not sure I entirely understand, I happened last week on this clip from the old movie, Lili. It features the song “Hi Lily, Hi Lo,” which was a very big hit when I was a very little boy. I realized, somewhat to my own surprise, that this might be my favorite song in the world.

The situation here is that Lili, an orphan in post-war France, has just lost her job in a carnival, and has been rejected by a man she thought she loved. She is contemplating suicide when the puppeteer, speaking through his puppets, engages her in conversation. Soon she is having a wonderful time. Then comes the song. I’ve watched this clip again and again, and I’m fascinated by the storytelling skill of the screenwriter, Helen Deutsch.

Notice something strange in the scene? The song is (as the lyrics say), a sad song. And indeed, most of the many performers who’ve covered it since have slowed it down and sung it soulfully, with a different chorus. But Deutsch is doing a subtle and interesting thing here. She’s creating deliberate ambiguity. The words of the song don’t match the mood of the scene. That would be a great writing error if the writer didn’t know what she was doing. But this ambiguity creates a tension in the mind of the viewer. And that tension’s like Chekhov’s famous gun – if you hang it on the wall, you’ve got to use it before the play is over. Continue reading ‘Lili’ and the magic of storytelling

“Bill” by Wodehouse

Were you aware that, aside from being the funniest writer in history, P. G. Wodehouse helped invent the American musical comedy?

He and another Englishman, Guy Bolton, came to America early in the 20th Century to write for Broadway. At that stage, the theaters were running translated, Americanized versions of Viennese operettas. And that’s what Wodehouse and Bolton did at first. Then they branched out and began to write original plays of their own.

For one of those (now forgotten) shows, Wodehouse wrote the lyrics to a song named “Bill.” The production failed, but years later Jerome Kern (one of their collaborators) and Oscar Hammerstein dusted it off and inserted it into their production of “Showboat.” Thus it became the only Wodehouse song that remains in the songbook today.

Here it is.

A Carol Symphony

Here’s an orchestral work that isn’t played constantly every Christmas season but could easily fit in any holiday concert program. Victor Hely-Hutchinson wrote “A Carol Symphony” in 1927, which was about the mid-point of his life. It hit all the right notes of his London audience at the time, but since then other compositions have crowded it off of our traditional Christmas playlists.

I hadn’t heard of it until today. Have you?