Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Lost Princess of Oz, August 19-28, 2022 at The Pollak Theater, Monmouth University

 


The Lost Princess of Oz

August 19-28, 2022

at The Pollak Theater,

Monmouth University

This is just a quick post to say I am composing the music for a new one-act ballet choreographed by Gabriel Chajnik for Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater. This is the same company who performed Blakeley White-McGuire's beautiful dance "Devotion" last summer with my string quartet "Heroes" as the score. Those performances were incredibly moving, and I am extremely pleased to be working with Gabriel and his company again on a full-length work. More details to come . . . 

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Beth Hart: A Tribute to Led Zeppelin

Photos of Beth Hart by Roxanne de Goode

Is there anything more painful one can experience than having love taken away from you, through no fault of your own? Be it a lover, a parent or a friend, or an environment you found nurturing and supportive, be it a great band, or even a great school? It’s a moment we all will have to face. When it comes to living life above ground, before its inevitable end, it’s part of the deal. And the trauma often takes place at a very early age, when we’re powerless to do much about it.

But while it may be hard to fathom, that wound you carry from such a painful experience can be a gift. Ernest Hemingway said something along the lines of the worst thing that can happen to you can be the best thing, if you survive it. I can’t speak for Los Angeles-born singer and multi-instrumentalist Beth Hart, whose newest album is A Tribute to Led Zeppelin, but she herself has spoken in interviews about the pain of her biological father abandoning her at a young age and her battles with drug addiction and mental illness. Now at the age of 50, Hart is a survivor, and her voice and presence are all the more powerful because of it.

“Then the pandemic happened. No one could go out of the house. I didn’t sleep. There’s stuff going on on TV. The racism, the Covid, people dying, the conspiracy theories… it all came out. Everybody showed their true colors, right? All your good and all your bad come out. I called Wolff [manager] and I said: “Yo! I wanna do this Zeppelin album now!” – Beth Hart
[1]

The first time I heard Led Zeppelin, I wasn’t even a teenager. I was listening to FM radio, especially Q-FM 96 in Columbus, Ohio (“We rock Columbus!”), but as I approached adolescence, I leaned more toward alternative rock, new wave, punk, glam rock, post-punk, Prince, and jazz, beginning with 80s-era Miles Davis, Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays’ As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls (with special guest percussionist Naná Vasconcelos), and, thanks to my biological father, flugelhorn maestro Chuck Mangione. Sadly, my few pre-teen and teenage “friends” just weren’t all that diverse in their musical tastes and were so paranoid and fearful about their bodies and evident lack of intellect and talent, that anything outside of a norm nobody could really identify in the first place was considered “weird” or worse “fag” music. Even today, I envy people who grew up among more open-minded folks.

So, anyway, no. What struck me then as meat and potatoes stoner blues rock didn’t move me at all. “Whole Lotta Love”? Yawn. Couldn’t relate. However, there were Led Zeppelin grooves I couldn’t get enough of when I heard them on the radio. And their drum sound, conceived by the band’s drummer, John Bonham in collaboration with Led Zeppelin I engineer Glyn Johns and on later albums, Glyn’s brother Andy Johns, was incredibly huge. Bonham took a lot of musical inspiration from the world of jazz, and accordingly, tuned his drums high, like a big-band drummer, so he could play large drums, and still have them project. [2]  The sound of Bonham in combination with guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist John Paul Jones is unquantifiable and deeply funky. Meanwhile, cutting through the mix was lead singer Robert Plant, whose high register made your hairs stand on end, but he had no qualms when it came to moaning. Back then, I really didn’t understand how unusual this band was. Dropped in between the latest AOR hit by AC/DC, REO Speedwagon or Foreigner, Led Zeppelin’s groundbreaking amalgamation and mastery of such diverse influences, from rural blues to British and Celtic folk music, from Indian and North African tunings and instrumentation to James Brown-inspired funk still blows away nearly every band of imitators who came in their wake. For Led Zeppelin, and you could argue this for the Rolling Stones and the Beatles as well, the color lines that separated great American music and music from around the globe, be it Mumbai, Morocco or Latin America just didn’t exist. The very idea of painting oneself into a corner when it came to making music was absurd.


From the start, Led Zeppelin were never blues purists. They never tried to imitate 
[3], although you hear the influence and outright lyrical and musical quotes from plenty of American blues artists, especially Skip James, Willie Dixon, Memphis Minnie, Bukka White, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf. Throw in Ray Charles, James Brown, Otis Redding, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and you’ve got some idea of what you’re in for before the needle hits the groove of any album in Led Zeppelin’s oeuvre.

For some reason, the Q-FM DJs deviated from the standard practice of providing their listeners with the song titles and artists and Led Zeppelin’s song titles often didn’t match the words Plant was actually singing. “Trampled Under Foot,” one of Zeppelin’s funkiest tracks, is just one example. While the groove owes a lot to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” the lyrics are an intentionally hilarious and lascivious metaphoric word salad comparing a car to a woman:

“Factory air-conditioned,
Heat begins to rise,
Guaranteed to run for hours,
Mama, you're the perfect size . . .”


It always amazes me when I read younger writers decrying the well-documented excesses of Led Zeppelin but entirely missing the humor in a lot of their songs. So, what about this song title, “Trampled Under Foot”? Well, I might be making a leap here, but Plant was and is still a pretty literate rocker, and the expression appears in several different contemporary translations and re-imagined versions of the myth of Dionysus, a Greek god Plant no doubt took some inspiration from as Led Zeppelin’s audiences grew in size and the band seemed at times to operate without fear and with impunity. (The music writer Nick Kent described being on tour with Led Zeppelin as “like traveling around with Genghis Khan and his boys on a particularly lurid rampage of some foreign dominion.” 
[4])

Which is to say, there’s often a deep divide between how people see you and how you are actually feeling.

Now back to Beth Hart.

With singers, if you’re going to do a convincing job of singing the blues, you can’t really hide behind anything. You have to have the technique, know the music and the lyrics and a plan in mind for how you’re going to phrase each line. You need a clear idea of the story you are telling and how you want to tell it. It can be very scientific, where every syllable in every word has its place, its own color and pitch or pitches. But the best singers are also intuitive. Every one of us can quote-unquote “sing,” but there are those who are SINGERS. Those who possess a voice that just freezes you in your tracks when you hear it. Work stops, time stops, and you are prompted to sing along.

Listening to Hart’s voice as she tackles some of the most iconic in Led Zeppelin’s canon (there are no “deep cuts” on her album), it makes total sense that she at one point in her career played the role of Janis Joplin in the Off-Broadway production of the musical Love, Janis. Joplin’s voice, like that of Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen and Buddy Guy, who Hart paid tribute to with a stunning rendition of “I’d Rather Go Blind” at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors, comes straight from the church, “high-pitched screams that aren’t joy and aren’t agony but sound like both together,” what writer Michael Ventura describes as “a holy scream.” Going back to the turn of the 20th century, the music of the black church would become a crucial component in the creation of rock and roll. So while Hart’s scream at the end of “The Crunge” is a wicked homage to James Brown, her wordless vocalizing on “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” hits you like a call to prayer, straight to the gut. Hart has said she broke down listening back to her performance on “Babe,” since it reminded her of her father’s departure. 
[5]


Speaking of screams, years ago, a friend and roommate told me about seeing Howlin’ Wolf in a club, where Wolf began his set howling and crawling across the stage on all fours, like the spirit animal that was his namesake. I remembered that image after watching Hart’s straightforward band-miming-the-track video of her alternately snarling and soaring rendition of Led Zeppelin's “Black Dog,” which climaxes aurally and visually not once but several times, with quick cuts of Hart writhing like a snake, on her butt, leaning against a bass drum with her legs spread wide, and at one point, on the floor flat on her back pushing her stomach up to the sky à la 70s-era Iggy Pop. Nothing understated to see here, folks.

That Plant chose to title this screaming, call-and-response bizarro blues number with its constantly changing time signatures “Black Dog” is telling. “Black Dog” is an expression dating back to Victorian times to describe a “bad mood,” and later, thanks to Winston Churchill, the overpowering, paralyzing nature of self-doubt and depression. It’s a term also associated with fate, that is, something you can’t escape from, and at some point will have to face down.

On A Tribute to Led Zeppelin, is Hart facing down her demons? Yes, but isn’t that what the blues are all about?

And when it comes to pain, can you prepare yourself for it? Nope. But can you navigate it after it has had its way with your body and soul? Yes. And you can do it with music.

Beth Hart, A Tribute to Led Zeppelin
Track Listing: Whole Lotta Love; Kashmir; Stairway to Heaven; The Crunge; Dancing Days/When The Levee Breaks; Black Dog; No Quarter/Babe I’m Gonna Leave You; Good Times, Bad Times; The Rain Song

Personnel: Beth Hart: vocals; Dorian Crozier: drums; Chris Chaney: bass; Tim Pierce: guitar; Rob Cavallo: guitar; Jamie Muhoberac: keyboards; Matt Laug: drums on “Stairway to Heaven;” David Campbell: orchestral arrangements

Special thanks to Peter Feder for copyediting and proofreading this essay. 
________________________________________________________

[1] “How Beth Hart made the Led Zeppelin album she didn’t want to make,” by David Sinclair, Loudersound.com, March 3, 2022, https://www.loudersound.com/features/how-beth-hart-made-the-led-zeppelin-album-she-didnt-want-to-make

[2] “John Bonham: Achieving the Bonham Drum Sound,” by Rick Beato, July 23, 2018, https://youtu.be/KjSgXZHBkhg

[3] I should note that Chicago blues musician Willie Dixon successfully sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement for recording and not crediting correctly two tunes Dixon wrote and copyrighted, “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” But, as Robert Palmer points out in his liner notes to Atlantic’s 1990 Led Zeppelin box set, “. . . several of Dixon’s copyrights are of material from the folk-blues public domain . . . it is custom, in blues music, for a singer to borrow verses from contemporary sources, both oral and recorded, add his own tune and/or arrangement, and call the song his own.”

[4] The Dark Stuff, by Nick Kent, Da Capo Press, 1995

[5] Shadow Dancing in the USA, by Michael Ventura, Tarcher’s/St. Martin’s Press, 1985

[6] "How Beth Hart made the Led Zeppelin album she didn’t want to make,” by David Sinclair, Loudersound.com, March 3, 2022, https://www.loudersound.com/features/how-beth-hart-made-the-led-zeppelin-album-she-didnt-want-to-make.

Monday, February 28, 2022

Gentle for Vibraphone, Harp, Viola and Cello

 


"Gentle (Quartet Version)" is an arrangement for vibraphone, harp, viola and cello of a solo piano piece I composed in September 2021. I was inspired by Debussy's arrangement of Satie's music, as well as the music of Max Richter, John Zorn and Philip Glass. (Be sure to go Full Screen and watch in HD to see a clear image of this score.)

Score and parts are available on Sheet Music Plus.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Widow's End screens at Lincoln Center's Dance on Camera Film Festival

 


Exciting news! Widow's End, a split-screen video I scored for New York artist and performer Jil Guyon will screen at Lincoln Center's 50th edition of Dance on Camera Film Festival, a festival Guyon describes as "the mother of all dance film festivals." Guyon stars in and directed the video, and Valerie Barnes did the cinematography.

Widow’s End screens in the SHORTS PROGRAM at the Walter Reade Theater / Lincoln Center, Sunday, February 13th at 8:15PM. Tickets go on sale Friday, January 28th at 12 noon: https://www.filmlinc.org



Thursday, October 28, 2021

Gentle Video Created By Artist Jil Guyon

 



Gentle
Original Score - Chris Becker 
Cinematography and Edit - Jil Guyon

This is a new video created by my friend and collaborator Jil Guyon for my solo piano piece Gentle. The images were filmed in Vienna, Austria, and somehow magically complement the mood swings of the music. This is MIDI piano you're hearing, and we'd love to hear a pianist perform the work at a screening at some point.

Sheet music for Gentle is available on Sheet Music Plus.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Widow's End Selected for 2021 Artists Forum Festival of the Moving Image


Jil Guyon's split screen video Widow's End has been selected for this year's Artists Forum Festival of the Moving Image in NYC. Due to Covid the event will take place online from October 22 - December 5. This year's theme is The Politics of Emotion. 

Director / Performer: Jil Guyon

Original score: Chris Becker

Cinematography: Valerie Barnes

"The perils of isolation and climate instability meet in this split screen/2 channel video set against the backdrop of a volcanic red rock quarry in southern Iceland. Caught in an extreme, inhospitable landscape, a bereaved woman finds herself enveloped in a swath of black fabric. The intensity of her stillness combines with a stark sound score to form a slowly shifting visual tableaux that explores the terrain where inner and outer realities collide."

Listen to the score for Widow's End on Bandcamp:

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Weird Nightmare for Baritone Voice and String Quartet

 

Charles Mingus - Bi Centenial, Lower Manhattan July 4, 1976

My arrangement for baritone voice and string quartet of the Charles Mingus composition "Weird Nightmare" is now available to purchase on SheetMusicPlus. The vocal melody can be transposed up an octave and sung by different voice types.