Saturday, June 15, 2013

PDQ Bach: Gateway to classical music

Classical music can be very boring. So boring in fact that it can effectively be used to put someone to sleep.  No surprise here. However, have you noticed how in record stores there's always a classical music section, oftentimes of sizeable extent? Maybe there's something to it, else they wouldn't dedicate so much space to the genre. Maybe we are missing out on something by not taking a closer look.

If only it were not sooo boring.

The music of P.D.Q. Bach is a great way to get to know and listen to classical sans stupor. PDQ has nothing to do in reality to the better known JS Bach; rather, he is a fictional character invented by the American composer and musicologist Peter Schickele.

This PDQ happens to have  a mind is so twisted by fate/booze/genetics that  coupled with his utter lack of talent has made his works all but lost. However, dutiful Prof. Schickele has unearthed many of his pieces in unusual places by luck or by commisioned discovery. As it turns out many of the themes that PDQ uses have been taken (read:borrowed [read: stolen]) by later  composers and then made popular (or maybe the other way around as PDQ's lifespan is problematic and most [all] of his output was fueled by plagiarism).

Be it as it may, the odd characteristics of the compositions turned out to produce a well-defined psychological effect on audiences: hilarity. And this what, in part, makes this music so special: you cannot be bored with music that makes you laugh. And indeed the music is very funny and entertaining and it's classical music! The compositions, too, are very clever and make use of a wide range of musical devices and instruments, some specially crafted for or adapted by PDQ.

It is strange how we find humor even on abstract stuff and in music, doubly so. It was high time someone opened this vein.

The principal way to listen to PDQ are still CDs. I wouldn't try Youtube or Mp3s as it might get tricky to choose among individual pieces. Each Cd has a listening plan and it would cause undue confusion not to follow it. PDQ's album output is vast and is divided between the Vanguard and Telarc labels, the former having the earlier recordings and the latter the most recent ones. Probably the best albums to begin with are, Two Pianos are Better Than One from Telarc  and an Evening with PDQ Bach from Vanguard. Two pianos, in fact, was my first PDQ album and I got it quite by accident in one of those "Choose 5 Cds for 2.79 ea." catalogs and the music was so plausible and yet so odd that it took me many months of informal listening before smoking out its true nature . I still consider it one of the top 5. Now, for non- German speakers, Black Forest Bluegrass is best left for the end as it is sung in that language. Also, the most recent album, The Jekyll and Hyde Tour, is somewhat unlike the others (I can hear Prof Schickele now: "Each PDQ Cd is unlike the rest. Whaddya expect?"), so also skip that one for now.

I don't think that listening to this music might, by its contrast, make you less inclined to listen to serious composers. On the contrary, it might help a non-classical listener venture a bit further afield.


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