Music is universal among humans, typically used for immediate benefits: aesthetic pleasure, accompaniment to ritual, dance or work or even getting a baby to sleep. However, there is a 2.0 kind of music. You may like it fine on first hearing, but only with repeated listenings do you fully take it to heart and feel that magic click.
This music does not follow predictable patterns, the harmonies might be complex, the instrumental arrangement might be agitated with countermelodies and eccentric frills, the piece might not have been designed to summon you to move your body, or maybe the thing is just kind of long. It’s hard to embrace its full essence until you’ve experienced it a few times.
When you like a beat or the texture of a voice or are hooked by a catchy chorus — the prime elements in most modern pop music — songs can grab you instantly. Here’s to them! But when music is founded on things beyond those three elements, it can take a few listens — for me, often about seven — before you connect with it as viscerally as you do to your favorite pop.
It is not the most intuitive way of engaging with music, concentrating on it in solitude, hoping for enlightenment. And I realize that my predilection for this kind of listening, inherited from my father, is weird. After all, it doesn’t even always pay off. For example, Harvey Sachs’ new study of Arnold Schoenberg is a sad book in its way, asserting that the composer’s serial music, based on unalterable sequences of twelve tones rather than conventional melody and harmony, will never truly move any but a sliver of listeners, even with repeated exposure.
I would have to agree with that. But when repeated listenings do deliver, the satisfaction can be deeper than the feeling the easier kind of music brings, at least for me. This has occurred to me listening to two things recently that I want to share.
Edward Bland (1926-2013) was a classically trained Black composer who spent decades creating a sui generis idiom he called “urban classical funk.” It combined classical technique with Black American and African elements. He is now mainly remembered for his creation of a single half-hour film in 1959, “The Cry of Jazz,” which argued that white people might “appropriate” jazz but that they could never truly understand it. The film occasioned heated controversy at the time: Amiri Baraka loved it. Ralph Ellison did not.
But in the grand scheme of things, it was a passing episode. For him to be remembered mainly for that film is as if Jane Fonda were known solely for posing on a North Vietnamese antiaircraft gun in 1972. Accounts of Bland’s career make passing references to soundtracks he worked on (such as for the film “A Soldier’s Story”), but these examples only scratch the surface. The recording “Urban Counterpoint: The Piano Music of Ed Bland” represents the true heart of Bland’s oeuvre.
This work makes a great case for repeated listening. The first time you play it, you hear improvisation that sounds sly — intense and intricate, as if Ravel did jazz — but meandering. You aren’t sure where you’re going, you can’t dance to it, there are no words, and it rarely shouts. You like the general flavor but quietly think that maybe a little goes a long way.
But repeated listens are well worth it. The thing is that the pieces on this album only sound improvised. Bland actually wrote these awesomely busy works out in full. The recording is not of Bland jamming in a way that came out differently every time he did it but of the pianist Judith Olson playing from Bland’s scores.
For example, Bland’s “Chaconne in Blue No. 3” opens with a wary, angular theme, inching soberly from point to point, as if working through a problem. A rapid, skittery passage by the left hand sneaks in, first accompanying the theme harmonically — something that may not be evident until a second or third hearing — but then going on its own way for a bit. (Bland often gives the left hand as serious a workout as the right.) Then the theme and the left hand come back together, into a four-minute fantasia based on the theme’s harmonic pattern, with a dusting of hip, wise jazz chords. Now and then the two hands trade textures, with the left hand less busy and the right hand doing the single-minded trotting.
It’s a little worried and weirdly touching, the aural kaleidoscope eventually yielding to a restatement of the ruminative first theme, and then we’re done. Bland has given us a slice of a mind — maybe his, maybe yours. And like many minds, you don’t always understand them on first encounter. This is serious music.
As are the musical theater scores of Adam Guettel, and Broadway is about to feature a new one, after a successful Off Broadway run this year: his musicalization of the film “Days of Wine and Roses.” Here again, repeated listenings compound the amazement.
His work, such as the musicals “Floyd Collins” and “The Light in the Piazza,” has always offered that kind of challenge — initially leaving a feeling of: Beautiful, but wait, I need to hear it again — and those up for it have a way of coming away shining like Moses down from the Mount. The new score has the same effect and has become my favorite of his works.
“Days” is about a couple who fall into alcoholism; the hit 1962 film starred Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. Guettel has written a solo for the husband, “Forgiveness,” that on first encounter both floored me and left me needing another listen (and another one) because there is so much to take in. The character, Joe, is giving up drinking and sharing with us his grappling with taking responsibility for his previous behavior without hating himself.
The structure is not the tidy AABA structure of classic musical theater songs like “The Lady is a Tramp” and “Makin’ Whoopee,” as that would be too confining for these thoughts, expressed by a person of ordinary rather than polished ability of self-expression who’s getting out overwhelming feelings. One would no more dance or jam to “Forgiveness” than one would to Bland’s “Chaconne.” You can’t know where Joe is going to land until he does, and at the end, when it comes to his mental journey, he only approximately lands, if at all — he can’t know the future.
Guettel has certain genes: his grandfather was Richard Rodgers, who with Oscar Hammerstein, did a masterful job of capturing a comparable moment in “Carousel,” when Billy Bigelow sings about his approaching fatherhood in “Soliloquy” (so memorably summoned in a scene in the first season of the television series “Only Murders in the Building”). But musical theater language has moved on since 1945, and Guettel’s is richer both in its harmonic density — I hear a new brushstroke every time I listen — and its sectional flexibility, allowing a more realistic and nuanced portrait of Joe than any musical could manage in his grandfather’s day.
Guettel has Joe sing the title word “forgiveness” on strained, high pitches, which first seems unexpected but on new listens feels exactly right. Forgiveness can be tough to both give and accept, and one may ask for it out of a kind of desperation, squeezed out despite embarrassment. Guettel sets the word and concept in precisely the way it would feel in this man’s head. I almost choke up hearing this song, which only one other musical theater song does to me (“Simple Song” from Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass”). The whole score is on this level.
Broadway will always offer easier music, to be sure. After all, you can see “MJ,” the musical biography of Michael Jackson, and hear some of the best pop songs ever written in all their devilishly immediate infectiousness. But I can’t say that my seventh hearing of “Billie Jean” was significantly different from my first, other than that initially I thought I was hearing “The chair is not my son.” Guettel’s score for “Days” is a different kind of genius: this is sit-down music, deserving the aural equivalent of sitting on a bench in front of a painting and taking it in for 15 minutes. MJ’s music is the watermelon-flavored Jolly Rancher to “Days of Wine and Roses’” $300 bottle of Amarone.
I hope folks will give “Days” the chance it deserves when it settles into its limited run on Broadway in January and embrace the upcoming recording as well. And while we’re waiting, we can listen to some Bland — and then do it again.