Friday, December 28, 2007

Of Harvests and Rivers

In the late Thirties, a few U.S. composers moved on from Modernism (or maybe they backed away), revisiting sounds more native to America. Aaron Copland wrote El Salon Mexico, then Virgil Thomson was tapped to create folksong/hymn-based soundtracks for a couple of documentary films, the scores for which in turn persuaded Copland to go further, creating his so-called "Americana" sound, lovely and expansive, evoking the wide open spaces of America, to be memorably and most melodically found in Fanfare for the Common Man, the Billy the Kid and Rodeo ballets, and then his ineffable Appalachian Spring.

Others followed along too, each in his own fashion--Roy Harris, Lou Harrison, William Schuman, et al, plus Charles Ives, rediscovered and increasingly studied. I admire the music of all these composers, but Copland remains my favorite, his triad simplicity practically the total antithesis of complex, world-in-each-symphony Gustav Mahler, whose massive, brooding works are my other personal touchstones. Think The Tender Land Suite vs. Mahler's Symphony No.4, or Copland's Old American Songs against Das Lied von der Erde. Apples and oranges? I'd say more like grapes up against watermelons!

But what matter if the music pleases, if it captures the imagination and soothes the soul? And those documentary scores by Thomson too are delectable green grapes (so to speak)--The Plow That Broke the Plains (from 1936) and The River (1937), Pare Lorenz's famous visual essays in support of President Roosevelt's New Deal projects.

I first heard Thomson's scores on a Vanguard record 40 years ago, conducted I believe by Leopold Stokowski. In the years since, that disc disappeared, was replaced, and then newer recordings added--I remember especially an Eighties album including a third Thomson suite with the others, Neville Mariner conducting one of the esteemed Los Angeles ensembles. But I never had the good fortune actually to see the films themselves. They had become historical landmarks lost to public view...

Until recently, when enterprising Classical label Naxos not only recorded new versions of the two suites (Angel Gil-Ordonez leading a group called the Post-Classical Ensemble), but synched them up against new prints of both documentaries, which were then at last made available once more, late in 2007, on Naxos DVD 2.110521, complete with informed commentary by era survivors. And viewing The Plow a week ago immediately reminded me that I had forgotten to list (in blog posts from the end of August) one film I proposed back when I was writing for King Screen Productions--a poetry-and-music documentary on Washington State's wheat harvest.

Using a few poems written by my now-deceased friend Robert Sund (from his book Bunch Grass, I think; this was over 35 years ago), I scripted--meaning roughed-out for a cinema verite approach to the filming--a series of shots that would recreate "A Day in the Wheatfields": elegant color footage flowing from dawn beauty through heat-of-day harvesting (the big machines moving row on row), then a midday slower break from the hot sun, then a return for more harvesting, the shadows growing longer, and transport of the wheat to silos, and finally the sunset coming on across newly sheared fields--and all these elements set to Americana-styled music and straightforward harvest-scene poems.

Something like that, anyway; I have no copy of the script on file, it seems. Sadly this one too was nixed by the King Screen bosses, even though the only competing film we could find was a short produced by the federal government's Agency for International Development for viewing overseas only (no domestic screenings allowed!) in those libraries we used to sponsor in foreign countries.

I was really proud of that idea and script; I imagined myself (and the production crew) following in the footsteps of Flaherty, Lorenz, and the other documentary giants. But it was not to be. Still, decades later, now I can finally see what Lorenz at least had in mind, how the visuals, music, and poetic narration worked together, to Presidential praise, international acclaim, and a place in the history books...

Well, actually both films are very much of the Thirties, sort of American Eisenstein, or (lately) John Edwards-styled populism, with some hokey staged visuals, some inadequate framing or coverage utilizing stock footage, and with Thomson's music definitely smoothing over the rough spots and finally carrying the day. Yet they are compelling "message" films even so, and The Plow a likely influence on John Ford's soon-to-come Grapes of Wrath. (Another posting I wrote several months back included my Dorothea Lange poem, very much in the same tradition, and I shamelessly opened that poem with the homage line "The plow that broke the plains/ broke on dust and drouth..." And anyone who read the recent New Zealand post with poem about communities flooded by reservoir construction will know what I discovered viewing The River--which wrongheadedly extols just such manmade (mis)management of Nature. Look how well that T.V.A./Corps of Engineers approach worked with Katrina...)

Living on the planet is never easy, and getting more complex and fraught with unforeseen dangers all the time. The politics of Lorenz's films may now seem simplistic, but the music of Thomson and Copland and the other Americana-influenced composers still resonates, both in recent interpretive recordings and in soundtracks created for a variety of new films today.

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