Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Slow Unwind

Been listening to a lot of Tom Waits lately. Consequently, I do not have to drink whiskey. [thank god!]

Waits has an uncanny way with timing and tempo, and it's a musicality that feels unconscious and intuitive rather than like a worked out plan. I love it, even though it's sometimes disconcerting to my classical ear. Listening to his songs, my inner Heather--the one who lives and breathes by her DB60--is constantly screaming, 'Wait a minute! We're not halfway through the song and you are in a radically different tempo from the opening!' And thanks to modern technology [finger on the CD player's scan back button] I can check the opening against the end of the third verse, against the end of the fifth, and so on:
And if I have to go
will you remember me
or will you find someone else while I'm away

there's nothing for me
in this world full of strangers
it's all someone else's idea

I don't belong here
and you can't go with me
you'll only slow me down.
The instrumental opening of the song ("If I Have to Go" is on Waits' latest three disc collection Orphans) seems confident and sure of itself; the piano carves out a lilting rhythm, its last eighth note into the second full measure quite deliberately [soberly] placed. As soon as Waits begins singing, however, the accompaniment begins a long, slow stumble. Slackening the pace at the line, "you'll only slow me down," makes musical sense. ('Text painting! Text painting!' The inner Heather blurts out, always a measure ahead of a polite raised hand.) In the classical tradition, after such a ritardando, one would probably return to tempo primo, and in fact, if I (accompanist) were to NOT return to tempo, I'd likely be reprimanded for dragging, for not "picking it back up." For this reason, perhaps, I am acutely aware that Waits does NOT pick it back up. From the opening line to the last, in so many of his songs, it's a long slow unwind. I admire this. I want to embody it. Metronomes and perky conductors be damned. Waits continues:
until I send for you
don't wear your hair that way
and if you cannot be true, I'll understand

tell all the others
you hold in your arms
I said I'd come back for you

I'll leave my jacket to keep you warm
that's all that I can do
If these aren't pure Romantic (yes, capital R) art song lyrics, I don't know what is. The narrator of the song is the rugged individualist, a resigned adventurer at odds with the world, a hero with something to prove...to the strangers, to someone else, to himself...and so, without good reason, or for that very reason, he must go. Yet wanderlust is contradicted by expressions of love and sentimentality (aw, he notices how she wears her hair!) that ring true and steadfast. In just a few simple lines, Waits taps into that vein of overwrought, self-defeating angst--beautiful angst--that I associate with the fine art songs of Brahms, Schumann, Wolf and Schubert. Ah yes, Schubert. In fact, the first song on which I plan to take a Waitsian approach to tempo is Der Leiermann (The Hurdy Gurdy Man). One might argue that the accompaniment should never falter, that over its precise, metronomic insistency the voice, the weary traveller of memories, ought to manage the unwinding. [Eh, she shrugs.] If you've made it through twenty-three songs of Die Wintereisse, you--whether performer or listener, or, more aptly in both cases, survivor--deserve one more final torture, and so I'm curious about bringing both the vocal and piano parts, in tandem, to an unbearable halt. It will be very Tom Waits, that sort of tortured unbearableness, and it will still be very German Romantic lieder. Hmm...
and if I have to go
will you remember me
or will you find someone else while I'm away
Sing it, Tom. I'm overwrought. But you can always unwind me.

1 Comments:

Hi there.
I'd say a similar thing about much of Leonard Cohen's later output, especially the "live" album - amazing stuff! As a singer no-one expects me to count, but I think that to sing the Frauenleben und lieben cycle à la Tom Waits would be a beautiful thing...

--Miss Despina

By Blogger Heather, at 6:56 PM  

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