August 16, 2015 10 Comments
When compiling the list of pieces I used to listen to as a child, some subconscious part of me made me leave out The Grand Canyon Suite. “It’s not serious, or classical music,” I heard a voice inside saying. As a child, however, I often played the recording of it that belonged to my older brother, Bob, on the days when I’d sneak into his room while he was at work.
The Grand Canyon Suite is a highly imagistic piece of music. Grofé tried to capture the majesty of the striated canyon as the light gradually reveals the dazzling colors at sunrise. In another section, he imitates the clopping of donkey hooves transporting tourists down into the canyon floor. Grofé then shamelessly uses the violins to imitate the bray of the asses as they lose their grip and then grind to a stubborn halt. You know how it goes: every filmmaker has used that technique in every documentary and cowboy western film. Still, I wonder, what lay behind my ignoring the piece?
Looking Grofé up in the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, I find an entry for the composer. Well, if the musical Dons at Oxford thought him serious enough to include in their book, why should I turn my nose up at him? Also, while researching this piece, I learned that he was quite an accomplished musician, having orchestrated Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Grofé’s entry also says the composer wrote The Grand Canyon Suite in 1931, which means he probably wasn’t the first composers to imitate animals. Let’s see: I think, Saint-Saens has braying assess in Carnival of the Animals and Prokofiev, born just one year before Grofé, imitated a wolf, a duck, and a twittering bird in Peter and the Wolf. All of this occurred in the infant stages of film, and television and Walt Disney’s anthropomorphic animal documentaries were just a twinkling in a cartoonist’s eye. So it’s not really Grofé to blame for making this device hackneyed, it was Hollywood film or New York TV executives.
There must be more to my negative associations with this piece than just TV, and while thinking about my last couple entries, the answer suddenly popped out at me. Snobbism and ignorance. I mentioned earlier that a certain highly intellectual family I hung out with in high school weren’t really snobby people. Mind you, they could spot bad taste more quickly than anyone I’ve met. Yet, they did not look down their nose at the perpetrators of kitch. They usually just laughed at it or attributed it to greed.
In retrospect my actions become clear: in my desire to be “cultured” and an “intellectual” I divided the world into cultured and non-cultured, and labeled the one “good” and the other “bad.” Though my origin is definitely working class, I put on airs. Why? Why does anyone? To be liked? Respected? Popular? It’s now painfully clear that I drew the wrong conclusions about culture that the this family exposed me to. What the harm? The answer is “missing quite enjoyable experiences that some people label ‘popular.'”
Fortunately, life always give you a second chance when you make a mistake. While driving home from my daughter’s violin lesson when she was in her teens, the local public radio station playedThe Grand Canyon Suite. Instead of switching it off, I left it on for her to hear, so she could form her own opinion. I listened as if for the first time, and then I realized this piece was an old friend, and it was still fresh and vibrant for me. So here’s to Ferde Grofé and second chances.