I've created some traditions while writing this blog and these have become my own little bitches. I'm completely responsible for them. No one else will celebrate them for me. They're my personal sacred rituals. Obsessive compulsions. They demand fulfillment. They will be served. If I miss a year, these observances will haunt me for ignoring them. I just know it.
One such Mixed Meters tradition is the yearly Jingle Bells piece. These have taken various forms since 2006. I take pride in making each new one as different and unexpected as possible. As this autumn wore on, closer and closer to the winter solstice, I searched for a musical idea which would be both new, to me at least, and also include the trope known as Jingle Bells.
At one point I was driving while thinking on this issue. The announcer of our local classical radio station introduced the overture to Gioachino Rossini's final opera William Tell.
If you had been with me in the car you might have seen the proverbial compact florescent bulb light up over my head. I had had an idea: I could combine the music of the William Tell Overture with the melody of Jingle Bells. I knew instantly that this idea would work.
Ideas are a bitch.
At least the good ideas are. I suspect that is how you know that an idea is a good one, by how it behaves. Bitchy ideas, like bitchy traditions, will grab your brain with their soft little fingers and not let go. Later, if your final product is not good, blame will not rest with the idea. The culprit will obviously have been an insufficiently talented composer. Good ideas, by definition, are blameless.
Here is a video about an artist who has been very successful in the art of having ideas (John Baldessari) narrated by a musician with the most gravel-toned voice (Tom Waits). Why am I including it here? Because much of the soundtrack is from the William Tell Overture. Duh. (Fun video.)
You might already know the William Tell Overture. It is the epitome of a music appreciation course curriculum, a classical warhorse, a trite chestnut, a hackneyed tone painting that needs no description because it describes itself. I bet it would be hard to find someone so musically illiterate, so tone deaf that they can't hear the musical depictions of a storm, birds singing or horses galloping.
The last section - the horse business - now apparently known to online music databases as "the finale from the William Tell Overture" - was for decades the theme of a radio and television show called The Lone Ranger. That's how a bit of the opera William Tell, part and parcel of the European white-guy classical music canon, became an inextricable element of American culture.
The overwhelming majority of Americans have no interest in Italian operas written in 1829 about sharpshooter Swiss patriots. Heck, most Americans have no interest in the first half of the overture, the part which doesn't sound like a horse. Most Americans are not fans of classical music.
Classical audiences do seem to enjoy having a laugh at the expense of their favorite music. People like Gerard Hoffnung, Victor Borge, Peter Schickele and Igudesman and Joo have given them the chance. It's gotten to the point where making fun of classical music has its own long and hallowed tradition.
Another famous musical comedian, Spike Jones, didn't play to a classical audience the way the others did. He played to a pop audience who actually were familiar with some of the classics. I guess times have changed. Here's his classic William Tell parody:
Apparently the tradition lives on elsewhere. I discovered this on YouTube:
Here's a fun anecdote, found in the L.A. Times, about Arnold Schoenberg and the Lone Ranger:
Nonetheless, Schoenberg adapted to California life with surprising ease: He listened to UCLA football on the radio, wore wacky polka-dot ties and once made fun of a student's composition by galloping around the room and shouting "Hi-yo, Silver!"
And here's an article about a major orchestra performing live during a horse race. Can you guess which piece they programmed?
Meanwhile of course there's also Jingle Bells. It is only a few decades younger than the William Tell Overture - but still pretty old and even more a part of our culture.
I was sitting in our backyard a few weeks ago reading. We live on a corner so that there's a sidewalk on the other side of the hedge. People walk up and down but can't see into our yard. As I was reading I could hear a young girl's voice. She was singing Jingle Bells to herself as she walked down the street. She seemed very happy.
Her happiness now is the formative stage of her Christmas nostalgia later in life. Nostalgia is powerful magic and seems like an essential part of both Christmas music and Classical music. Here's the definition of nostalgia:
a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations
Nostalgia is what advertisers evoke when they use Christmas music to sell us stuff. Someday that girl will wonder why she can be manipulated into spending money so easily when she hears Jingle Bells and other Christmas tunes.
Here is Jingle Bells being used to sell sexy underwear for men. I'm guessing that this ad is designed to convince mostly women, not men, to buy these as gifts.
Here's a chart (from here) which encapsulates the interaction of the Christmas music industry with Baby Boomers' nostalgia for their childhoods.
The Baby Boomer part of the hypothesis is probably wrong simply because everyone, not just Boomers, has nostalgia. These songs have been part of every subsequent generation's childhood. Still, for all the harm we Boomers have actually done to our society over the last few decades, we might as well take responsibility for screwing up Christmas music too.
One thing to remember about these twenty songs is that they are all under copyright. Someone - probably big corporations - owns them. The corporations receive money each time they are played. It would not be surprising to learn that the same corporations own many of the radio stations surveyed for the data behind this chart.
The William Tell Overture and Jingle Bells are still in the public domain. I expect Disney Corporation is probably busy trying to bribe congress into changing that. Until they succeed, however, I am free to combine those tunes in any manner I want and even claim my own copyright over the result.
What I have actually done is to make an "arrangement". My William Bell Overture (or you can call it Jingle Tells if that pleases you) is not really an original David Ocker composition. Younger generations might prefer to call it some sort of old-fashioned classical music mash-up. Science Fiction geeks might enjoy the image of creating a hideous musical mutant by splicing the melodic genes of Jingle Bells into the harmonic and formal structures of William Tell.
Whatever name you give the final piece, my original idea did in fact turn out to be a bitch. And I have managed to celebrate another year of my personal, bitchy holiday tradition. Also, please forgive the cheap synthetic orchestra sound.
Click here to hear The William Bell Overture (Jingle Tells) - © 2013 by David Ocker 390 seconds
I do sort of wish that I had waited a few more days before starting on this project. I might have come up with a better idea.
P.S. There is no truth to the rumor that this piece was once entitled "I Saw the Lone Ranger Kissing Santa Claus".