Since we’re in the thick of the holiday season, I should mention that the instrumental theme song to Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel) is incredibly similar to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”—specifically, the “He knows when you are sleeping” line. Except that last note (“sleeping”) goes pear-shaped on what sounds like an oboe. Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-DUUUUH. Subliminal holiday tie-in? Or have the seasonal jingles merely corrupted my sentimental (and susceptible) brain?
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A life well spent?
That’s the goal, isn’t it? For any of us. Not necessarily to be enshrined in a newspaper’s obituary (although few people would protest such a proposition), but to have affected even a few lives, to have left the world better; or failing that, different, than it would have been. Leading a life that is, in some way(s), directed outward as well as inward, cultivating a passion and then sharing it; assisting others in discovering or enjoying that passion. Not an inconsiderable accomplishment, by any standard.
Of course, some shoot higher. For instance, William Dowd (who died this week, aged 86, in Reston, VA–which makes me wish I’d met him). Dowd’s life’s work was reviving the craftmanship of harpsichords (a skill perfected in the 17th-century, when harpsichords were the electric guitars of their time). What prompted this singular ambition? After serving in World War II, interested in music but not properly trained, he fell in love with the quaint instrument after attending several classical music concerts. Along with lifelong friend and partner in crime Frank Hubbard, the two men engaged in the modest mission of (in their own words) “reviving single-handed the whole baroque orchestra.”
More from Dowd: “They were (no longer) making anything that was remotely like an antique harpsichord. We discovered a resonant, flowering sound which we liked. We, with the enthusiasm and rash brashness of the young, believed we knew how to bring back the authentic instrument upon which the early harpsichord music was all based.”
Over 800 harpsichords later, Dowd’s handiwork is scattered across countries all over the world, and arguably comprise a collection of the most frequently played–and appreciated–instruments. Says his wife, Pegram Epes Dowd: “Men like that ame back from World War II, and they believed there was nothing they could not do. They really were risk takers. I think it was very heroic.”
It seems somehow appropriate that in assessing the work of what could fairly, if somewhat inadequately, be described as a quintessential 20th-century man, one is obliged to discuss a type of music (and the instrument upon which most of it was composed) made several centuries before he was born. It goes beyond the obvious, but essential, actuality that Dowd was keeping alive music that cannot (and fortunately, for the forseeable future, will not) die; his life is necessarily larger (in scope, in ambition, in consequence) because he devoted his energies toward a force that endures simply by virtue of being. It is not a stretch, then, to propose that Dowd will continue on through the music played on the instruments he assembled.
We shall not see his like again. That this encomium is offered up so frequently is, for once and in a refreshing exception, a demonstration of the power of cliche: that we’ve had so many individuals deemed worthy of this praise says much about our potential as human beings. It is, nevertheless, more than a little bittersweet to consider the larger implications of Dowd’s ambition. Will we have enterprising craftsmen dedicating their best years to the refinement of harpsichord construction in the 21st century? Will we have people even listening to harpsichord music? The answer, obviously, is yes; at least to the second query. But it still warrants consideration: even though every generation necessarily mourns the inevitable passing of its so-called best and brightest, when it comes to artistic endeavors, once we lose advocates (not to mention the actual artists) that part of our world becomes a little bit smaller. Over time, these losses constitute an erosion that simply can’t be replicated.
Progress in virtually every other earthly endeavor, from medicine to science to sports, is always pulling us forward to the future: advancements are the currency of innovation and they render the old ways irrelevant, dispensable. The opposite might be said to be the case with art: innovation does occur, and it is welcome and inexorable, but entire periods of time are contained within particular artistic movements; these eras are a very real way in which we can assess ourselves. Put more prosaically, no one is going to lament the loss of, say, 20th-century (to say nothing of 17th-century!) medical practices; our collective progress means less pain and more salubrity for us all. The art being created today (and that will be created tomorrow) is, to be certain, as valid, meaningful and useful as the works enshrined in museums and box sets. Indeed, our art today naturally says as much about us now as art from yesterday speaks of the way we lived, then. Still, while we celebrate the exceptional life and achievements of William Dowd, we should also hope that his work serves to inspire an individual, not yet been born, who will find himself drawn irretrievably toward a past he is able to apprehend, miraculously, through the music.
*Dowd’s obituary, in today’s Washington Post, can be found here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/05/AR2008120503631.html?wprss=rss_metro%2Fobituaries
In the annals of rock and roll history, producer Ross Robinson will most likely be remembered as a scoundrel. After all, Robinson is largely responsible for the “Nu-Metal” scourge of the late ‘90s, having produced and championed acts like Korn, Limp Bizkit and Soulfly. Future historians, however, would do well to also note Robinson’s second act, wherein he realized the err of his ways and attempted to slay the beast that he had created. Starting at the turn of the millennium, Robinson scoured the globe for progressive hardcore and metal bands, in a valiant attempt to break through the haze of cookie-cutter Nu-Metal being peddled by MTV and corporate radio. To his credit, Robinson managed to round up some of the most inventive heavy bands active at the time—At the Drive-In, the Blood Brothers, Glassjaw—and in the albums that he produced for them, he pushed these bands to produce recordings that accurately captured their energy as live bands. The resulting records, At The Drive-In’s Relationship of Command, the Blood Brothers’ Burn Piano Island, Burn and Glassjaw’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence and Worship and Tribute, still stand as some of the best post-hardcore records produced during the last decade.
As he enters his fourth decade as a professional musician, Elvis Costello has successfully parlayed his experience as a chameleonic rock ‘n’ roller into some sort of self-appointed ambassadorial role. He dabbles in jazz and classical, unpacks his pop-addled brain into articles for Vanity Fair, and caters to both high and low art, all while affecting the genteel air of well-rounded elder statesman of the pop intelligentsia.
This evolution hasn’t gone unnoticed by his audience; even the most forgiving of his devotees, myself included, can’t help but admit that this preoccupation with tastemaking has blunted Costello’s own music, which has moved from innovative to professorial throughout the last decade. And yet, it is for this very reason that the notion to give Costello his own musical talk show at this point in his career makes perfect sense.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
The stupidest movies can make me well up. I don’t know why as I am generally quite cynical. I’m not going to embarrass myself by telling you guys.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Fritz the cat.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy. This is a terrible question for me to have to answer, and an arbitrary response
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
5. Your ideal brain food?
Fresh vegetables, raw nuts.