Funded! This project was successfully funded on November 29, 2012.

Update #3

Post-Sandy Update / The World of Alec Wilder

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Post-Sandy Update

First of all, I want to thank everyone for the emails of concern etc. I've been in regular communication with friends and family in the band in New York and New Jersey. I live in Boston so I was very fortunate to escape the brunt of Sandy's wrath, but for the rest of the band in the NYC area, many are without power, but everyone is safe and offering help where they can. The Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn was one of Sandy's biggest victims. We've been getting some pretty sobering reports from our violist Tanya Kalmanovitch who lives in Red Hook. In a note from her today, "I'm one of the lucky ones...it's going to be months before things are back to normal." Miraculously, one of our favorite venues, Jalopy Theatre in Red Hook (featured in our video on the main page and the video below) escaped without damage. Owners Jeff and Lynette have continued hosting shows and are playing a large part in reaching out to the community to help. Many homes and businesses in lower Manhattan and the Red Hook area were flooded, however, and our thoughts go out to those communities.

The World of Alec Wilder

On a much lighter note, I thought I'd use the rest of this post to write about my journey into the world of Alec Wilder. I discovered Alec Wilder's music a couple years ago after stumbling across a footnote in Gunther Schuller's massive jazz history book The Swing Era. A few months later, Gunther's son George Schuller (a great drummer based in NYC and who sometimes plays with GTO) told me a little more about Gunther and Alec's relationship, and even discovered some old Wilder charts at his father's house.

Largely self-taught, Wilder studied briefly at the Eastman School of Music but left without completing a degree. By all accounts Alec Wilder was a real character. As a teenager, he split from his family and lived in and out of the Algonquin Hotel throughout most of his adult life. He loved to laugh, loved his friends, and loved alcohol, which he struggled with. He was known to run in large circles -- he had friends in the jazz, classical, and popular music worlds and was clearly at ease composing in all these genres. But he often lived and worked alone and struggled with his role as an artist. In one letter, he wrote the following:

Am I fit to be a composer or was my minimal training at Eastman inadequate apprenticeship for any art as complex as so-called serious music? The publishers for whom I have played songs reject them on the grounds that, as one put it, "we can't sell any of that Julliard shit." I'm not a composer and yet my songs are too complex to sell. More irony? -- Alexander (Alec)

p.s. I've decided that "Alexander" looks much too pompous printed on a piece of sheet music, so I've made it "Alec." Why not "Alex" I don't know...must have been an Alex I disliked in one of those ghastly boarding schools I went to...

In 1937 Alec Wilder, with the help and organization of Eastman classmate and oboist Mitch Miller (who later became head of A&R for Columbia Records), recorded several strange and beautiful sides in New York City. Wilder imagined an octet with unusual instrumentation: oboe, flute, bassoon, clarinet, bass clarinet, harpsichord, bass, and drums. The octet recordings ("Octets") had odd song titles. "Bull Fiddles in a China Shop", "Kindergarten Flower Pageant", "Dance Man Buys a Farm". The pieces all have an air of wonder and whimsy about them, yet they're highly sophisticated in terms of structure and form. It's been noted the octet pieces preceded by decades the Third Stream movement of the 1950s that Gunther Schuller spearheaded by combining jazz and classical concert music.

I later found a recording of Alec Wilder speaking in an interview (scroll down to the bottom of this post) recounting a meeting where he discussed his fondness for the harpsichord and strange titles. He even jokes about Raymond Scott as "competition". It's worth noting that the Raymond Scott Quintette debuted in 1937. From there I made the connection with other bandleaders in the late 1930s, including Reginald Foresythe and John Kirby, all working in a hybrid of jazz and classical music. And so then it felt like a zeitgeist in the air around that time. And so again I had found a particular thread of like-minded composers during a very short window of time (1937-1942) in New York City. And that's how Book of Rhapsodies came to be.

I later found a book Wilder wrote called Letters I Never Mailed: Clues To A Life. The book was written toward the end of his life and contains letters to people he know which he never mailed, with only first names enclosed for privacy. So it's very autobiographical and intensely personal and somewhat mysterious. In one of the "letters" to a "Mike" (I later read that Mike is Mitch Miller's son), he mentioned in passing something about Maurice Sendak doing some loving drawings for lullabies he harmonized and composed. I nearly fell out of my chair when I read that! That's when I found this now out-of-print songbook called Lullabies and Night Songs by Wilder and Sendak. The book is out-of-print but I've collected a few first editions for our rewards (there are 2 left as of this writing!)

Wilder's music is hugely inspired by children, yet it is not easily classifiable. As a result, his music fell through the cracks and as a result his work is not as well-known as his contemporaries. In the early 1940s, however, word soon got around to musicians in New York that Wilder was a composer to watch out for. It wasn't long before Frank Sinatra heard one of Wilder's classical pieces and approached Coumbia Records on Wilder's behalf to get him recorded. The record executives agreed to record the pieces but only if Sinatra himself conducted the session.

On first listen, it was immediately apparent to me why a young Sinatra would be so captivated by Alec Wilder: Wilder had an ear for melody, beautiful song-like melodies. Like Sinatra, I too became a Wilder evangelist, collecting as many 78s as I could find and asking nearly every musician I knew if they had heard of him (most had not). I began arranging the Octets for the Ghost Train Orchestra. Wilder's music is deceptively simple -- it is dense with rapid form changes and rather difficult to comprehend on a first reading. I heard all sorts of things in the Octets that appealed to me. Wilder's music was so lyrical, it felt to me that the Octets were almost gasping to be sung. It also occurred to me that Wilder's music was very modern and should be approached that way. I find that Wilder's music is continually rewarding on subsequent listens. The more you listen, the more is revealed and it is revealed very slowly over time. I hope you too will experience the beauty and wonder of Alec Wilder's music through our new arrangements.

Here's a clip of a performance at Jalopy of my arrangement of Wilder's composition "Her Old Man Was Suspicious" featuring our man Curtis Hasselbring on trombone. I added a few sections here for improvisation and changed the title slightly to "Her Old Man Was (At Times) Suspicious". This piece tells quite a story and I've exaggerated the arrangement to make it even more obvious. Curtis plays her old man, you see...

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