(Randy Newman, “Shame,” Bad Love, 1999)
I write this as an unabashed Randy Newman fan of more than three decades: the songs, the soundtracks, the piano playing. I consider him to be a national treasure, the tribune of the 75% of the American populace that is utterly un-self-aware–especially Los Angeles at its most whacked and narcissistic. Of course, where LA has it over anywhere else is its paradoxical self-awareness and self-mockery about its narcissism. Newman’s songs assemble layer upon layer of irony, all couched in superb music that often mocks the very conventions it partakes of. I’ve seen him live several times; perhaps my favorite was around the time of Little Criminals—late 1970s—when he played with a seven-man band at the Universal Studios Amphitheater, with sound cleaner than most records. Even though I knew the songs already, his delivery made me weep with laughter. There are probably several studies waiting to be done on his work. Which he would then mock. Forget I said anything.
I heard on a Denver radio station that he would be doing several nights in Fort Collins, a nearby town (or small city, WHATEVER), in 2007. I’m there, obviously! The news moved me to take out some CDs and put them on, and wonder at them all over again, and also to reflect on something I’ve though about for the last few years:
Think for a minute about Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin’s piece has had a great run, hasn’t it? Made bazillions for the family and its foundation, it is celebrated, analyzed (I love it, I’ve played it, but love the Concerto in F more, myself) and in recent years, of course, it has become the ubiquitous soundtrack of United Airlines. As a sort of sassy mix of Jazz and symphonic music languages (yeah, I know about the original arrangement but we all know the version for piano and orchestra best), it perfectly captured the American urban ethos of the 1920s and 1930s, and be extension America itself. None of this is new, of course; I happily buy into the propaganda.
Still, in going-on-2007 it’s not exactly edgy and au courant, is it now? More like the national anthem, by this point. It’s high time for a concert work that hits us where we are, without being too cheesily ephemeral, rather than hitting us where our parents and grandparents were, culturally, when they were young. Think of Randy Newman’s soundtracks: The Natural and A Bug’s Life are two of the most evocative. Think of the instrumental complements on his records: piano and orchestra done to a heartbreaking fare-thee-well on Good Old Boys, and especially on the first two tracks of the superb Land of Dreams. Newman has a long history of New Orleans-type piano, and he stands in the great lineage of the Newman family of soundtrack composers. Moreover, he is multilingual master of pop genres: ballad, gospel, blues, breakdown, cabaret, country—all the popular styles. We already know, from the recordings, how well those languages play together in the same sandbox (or, if you will, melting pot). What is a more American sound than that?
Imagine, say, a New Orleans Suite for piano and orchestra (part of his childhood was spent in New Orleans, and he obviously feels as ambivalently close to it as he does anything else, including LA). People would kick down the walls of concert halls to hear it performed live. Imagine people lining up to hear performances of a new symphonic or concerted piece! Imagine, moreover, the sheer rush of playing something like that, were it to be published! The point is, there are glimmers of what such a thing might be like on the aforementioned recordings. Imagine a concert work that could be purely and openly loved without either condescending or faking it.
But will such a piece be written?