Review: Hanging by a Hair — Playing Rapunzel

It’s been a long time since I really loved a filk album. “Hanging by a Hair” broke the drought. Mich Sampson and Marilisa Valtazanou, performing as Playing Rapunzel, put the emphasis where it counts: on the songs. The topics are fascinating, the lyrics clear, and the musicianship aimed at bringing out the songs.

album cover, Hanging by a Hair“Hanging by a Hair” has a mix of popular oldies, filk oldies, and new songs. Picking a favorite is hard. I think I’d go with “Lizukha,” for its storytelling, fitting the words to the rhythm, and its frame structure. I could also mention the very distinctive setting of Jodi Krangle’s “The Lady” or the old favorite “Starship and Haiku.” “Ophelia” had me puzzled till I noticed the title; it takes an oblique approach, and I think I’ll have to listen a few times to grok it completely. Mich and Marilisa use a lot of different instruments without overwhelming the vocal lines.

According to the website, it’s available as a download or CD purchase from Bandcamp, but shipping to the US isn’t available yet. (I got the CD at the release party in Germany. I paid for it like anyone else; there aren’t many review copies in filk.)

If I have a complaint, it’s that there are only ten songs on the album. But which is better: a ten-track album with at least eight tracks I’ll want to listen to repeatedly, or a sixteen-track one with four really memorable songs?

Update: There’s a carefully concealed lyrics booklet in the package. It was over a month before I noticed it. Like many such booklets, it puts prettiness over readability, with black lyrics on a mottled blue background. I don’t know why anyone does this. Black text on white paper is not only more readable, it’s cheaper.

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A short history of “Yankee Doodle”

One of my current projects is a book called Yesterday’s Songs Transformed, a history of how songs have been rewritten, repurposed, and parodied through the ages. It’s a lot of fun to research, if nothing else. Here’s a section of my draft on “Yankee Doodle” and some of the changes it went through.

Undoubtedly the most rewritten and transformed song of the American Revolution was “Yankee Doodle.” Its origins are uncertain, but its earliest versions mocked Americans as country bumpkins. The tune is older than any form of the words. A British Army surgeon, Dr. Richard Shuckburgh, is credited with writing one of the mocking versions, though the song has gone through so many changes that it isn’t clear which words are his. These may have been his words:

Brother Ephraim sold his Cow
And bought him a Commission,
And then he went to Canada
To Fight for the Nation;
But when Ephraim he came home
He prov’d an arrant Coward,
He wouldn’t fight the Frenchmen there
For fear of being devour ‘d.

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Song: Mary Dyer

Wikimedia image of Mary DyerSong blogging time again. I introduced this song at the MASSFILC gathering on March 4. I’ve been thinking about an alternate history cycle involving the Quakers, and decided to start with actual history. The lyrics and sheet music are on my website.
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“The Impossible Voyage” update

Sorry, my showing of “The Impossible Voyage” next week is off.

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Wagner’s Ring (the “good parts” version)

Yesterday in Nashua I got to see a concert performance of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, cut down to three hours including an intermission. The performance was fantastic. The experiment of squeezing it down had a mixed result.

1876 scene from Das RheingoldSymphony NH, Nashua’s resident orchestra, combined forces with the Lexington Symphony Orchestra and a group of soloists in Keefe Auditorium, Elm Street Middle School. The stage had to be extended to accommodate all the musicians. Between the two orchestras, the contingent was close to what Wagner specified; they even had Wagner tubas and anvils. It was my first time seeing anything close to a live performance of the Ring, with or without constumes and staging. There are some thing you need to see to appreciate, such as singers who can hold their own against a hundred-piece orchestra. I was particularly impressed by Alfred Walker’s Wotan. Wotan’s definitely the main character in Rheingold and has a good claim to it in Walküre, and walker brought a lot of power and emotional effectiveness to the role. (By the way, his skin is dark. Take that, Nazi Wagnerians!) Pawel Izdebski, who played the giant Fafner, really is a giant, a head taller than any of the other singers. Many of the singers covered more than one role; Sam Handley doubled as a dwarf and a giant.
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Naxos Music Library revisited

My love-hate relationship with Naxos Music Library continues. It has an ever-growing collection of on-demand streaming music. I love being able to listen to unfamiliar composers without any cash outlay beyond the monthly subscription fee.
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Kurt Masur

Kurt MasurToday I learned that conductor Kurt Masur has died. It always saddens me to learn about the loss of a major musician, but I’ll admit I’m not a connoisseur of conductors. Unless a performance is really out of the ordinary or noticeably sloppy, I don’t notice the difference, except for a few bits of interpretation which I’m fussy about. On that point, Masur doesn’t pass my Beethoven’s Ninth test (the passage at measure 513, as Toscanini knew, is a juggernaut, not a funeral march!). But no matter; in reading about him, I learned something much more important.
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Chris Hadfield’s “Space Sessions”

Cover of 'Space Sessions'Like others coming home from OVFF (the Ohio Valley Filk Festival), I found find Chris Hadfield’s CD, Space Sessions: Songs from a Tin Can, waiting for me. My reactions are mixed. It has some very good songs on it, but it’s not the CD I expected.

Hadfield is an astronaut and a musician. his “I.S.S. (Is Someone Singing)” is very popular among filkers, and I hope a convention can snag him as a guest. Space Sessions is described as “11 new songs — all recorded in space. … Hadfield says he hopes the music, lyrics, and the unique circumstances of its creation will give listeners a taste of life in outer space.”
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Filkers on Patreon

Just a list of some filkers’ (or close-to-filkers’) pages on Patreon:

If I’ve missed some, please let me know.

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Miscellaneous musical notes

Some singers allegedly have four-octave vocal ranges. This is very doubtful. That would cover F below the bass clef to F above high C, allowing the same person to sing Sarastro and the Queen of the Night. (Update: I’ve found numerous claims that certain singers have ranges of five octaves and even more. My impression is that they’re counting the ability to produce sounds, not their usable singing range. I can produce three octaves myself when I have a cold, but you wouldn’t want me to.)

You don’t “rise to a crescendo.” A crescendo is a rise in volume, and if you want it to be effective you start softly.

If random notes scattered in an illustration represent music, then random letters likewise scattered ought to represent literature.Franz Schubert postage stamp

Alto is the shortened form of contralto. They mean the same thing.

There are two musical instruments whose name means “small”: the piccolo and the cello. The piccolo makes sense. The cello does too, if you know its name was originally violoncello, or “little big viol,” but I can’t think of any other case of a word being worn down to its suffix while retaining its specific meaning.

Until the twentieth century, no one set out to write “classical music.” Bach and Beethoven wrote for their audiences, employers, or students.

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