Wednesday, May 26, 2010

March 9th 1930 - Kurt Weill - Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Now this is a piece of music that's been around for a long, long time, but I only just discovered it as late as 2003. I think I discovered it the same way a lot of people in the 21st century heard about it, through The Doors!
I apologize for the wretchedness of that (totally accidental) pun. But the true fact is that the famed "Alabama Song" also known as "Whiskey Bar" of Doors fame, was in fact originally penned by Kurt Weill in 1929, it's still an odd little piece of trivia, and I am constantly surprised by who knows it and who doesn't. Take a listen, see if you recognize it. I'm confident you will.

Even though this is a German opera, this was the only song that was composed and meant to be performed entirely in English. Later on, the whole play was adapted into English, and that's actually the version I'm used to, I've yet to hear it in it's original German, I wonder how different an experience it is. In either case, "Alabama Song" is a legendary piece of music history. It's been covered so many times by so many people, and not just as part of the play production.
As mentioned before, it's most famously known as covered by The Doors, here is their version.

This version retains the dark jazz influence in the back beat, but Morrison did away with the flourishing, operatic vocals, which was adapted into later productions of the play, as can be seen here.

This chick was very much influenced by the Doors version of this song before she stepped on stage.

Much later on, David Bowie did a lesser known adaptation of the same song, which borrowed from both the traditional operatic version as well as the Doors version. Plus, being Bowie, he threw all his own artistic flair behind it as well, and created something very true, and of his own as well.

It's aobut here that the Opera comes full circle in history, as Marilyn Manson, who clearly found a lot of his own influence in Bowie and the Doors did his own version of "Alabama Song" in his 2003 Berlin Show. In this particular peice of Manson's career, he was experiencing a revival of his own, and delving into a lot of the influence he had gained from his interest in 30's jazz and swing era culture as it existed in Berlin under the newly formed iron fist of Hitler's Third Reich, it seems only natural that these three influence would culminate in his attempting this song.

His version seems to be a very minimalist amalgamation of all influences, taking from the Doors, Bowie as well as from the original opera. I'd have to admit that it was this and the Doors version that had the most influence on me in trying to track down the original source.

I went into a bit of a Doors revival my during the fall and winter of 2004, which was interestingly enough fueled by the release of the Marilyn Manson album "The Golden Age of Grotesque" that previous spring, which is why, for me, tracing this music across history seemed like such a huge... circle. I was way into the album, one of the first albums of his that I really lost myself in. At the time, I was living with my friend John in what was our first apartment together, it was a filthy, stereotypical bachelor's apartment, I was struggling with some of the absolute worst of my insomnia, and I also think I was unemployed at the time, which was kinda scary. Despite all this, these times are among some of my fondest memories, it was one of my first tastes of independence plus I got to spend most of my time with my best friend. The soundtrack of these times involved this, and a lot of other very old music. I remember trying to download it on the oldskool WinMX server, and could only find a couple tracks, but I played the hell out of 'em. I kinda latched onto Kurt Weill's work in this way. This one stuck with me though, because it was kind of my first foray into music from that time period. Before this, the earliest pop music I listened to was Sinatra, and some classical as well, but most of what I clung on to in that department came centuries before.
So that's why this album deserves a place in this blog, this particular version I have wasn't recorded till 2008, but it holds up pretty well. It's not the same as the random mp3's I happened upon back in the day, but since they all lacked proper ID Tags, I could never track down what actual recording they were from. This recording is special to me though, because it was the first time I was able to hear the entire opera in its entirety, that in itself is an experience to behold. I'd love to see this performed live someday, but for the life of me I don't follow the opera circuit that closely at all, so I've no idea who'd be performing it and where.
This album also opened me up to a lot of jazz and rag time, which in turn went on to further influence what became my insatiable love for the oldies, which I will write about ad nauseum on future entries in this blog.
So what is it about The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny that makes it stick? What I think I identify most with are the melancholy chords that run throughout. The melody flows, even as it disjoints. It's haunting. Some music is catchy, and that's why you remember it, that's how it gets in your head, but this music is haunting, it haunts you, stays with you, almost like it's clinging.

The discordant harmonies are what really does it for me, this has always been such an effective device in my mind, and how they're so poignantly punctuated by the raw emotive power of Jimmy's interjections. The entire show has this darkly comic feeling of despair and lost hopelessness.
The use of the accordion and the jazz orchestra only add to this feeling, the timelessness of the sound sort of flashes in your periphery, and for me at least, it's easy to convince myself that the events these lyrics talk about really happened, and that's enough to send a shudder down even the most tempered of spines.

Maybe it's difficult to relate to for a lot of people, but for me, the power and effectiveness of any piece of music, be it from a scale as grand as an opera, or from the lonely strumming of a simple six string, comes from my ability to put myself in the place of the musician, and imagining where all this emotion comes from. In Mahagonny's case, it comes from the story, the events of the songs, and how the characters seem to make the feeling come alive vis-a-vis their vocals.
Its something I can open myself up to, and imagine and be part of, as an experience.

With that, my reminiscence of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny comes to a close. More reviews coming soon! :D

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