Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Still Listening To This Christmas Album

Well, here's the one Christmas album that this Grinch still listens to: A Charlie Brown Christmas, featuring the music of American jazz musician Vince Guaraldi.

It's not accurate for me to say that the music hasn't gotten old. It was already old when I first heard it on the TV show, which was released in 1965, and which I didn't watch (on Betamax!) till the early 1980's. I was already a fan of the Peanuts strip then, so maybe that's why I didn't have a hard time taking to the show.

In fact, the music didn't take to my younger self's ears right away as much as the show itself, except for one song, the upbeat "Linus And Lucy", which by itself I've given over to be the Peanuts theme song. But as I grew older, as the TV special began to be replayed on our beta player, on local TV, or on FEN-P more and more often (no cable yet back then), I began to hear the soundtrack as much as the dialogue of the Peanuts characters, all without needing to turn the volume up. In other words, my ears began to hear more than they usually did, and the music grew on me.

Many of the songs on the album are easily recognizable instrumental versions of familiar carols: O Tannenbaum, Hark, The Herald Angels Sing; A Christmas Song; My Little Drum (for The Little Drummer Boy). But what I particularly enjoy with these familiar carols is the way Mr. Guaraldi takes off from the main melody and gradually sets off to play all sorts of his own complex beats, riffs, and patterns; yet he never strays so far from that melody that you don't remember it or fail to hear its echo, or loses control, even as he delves and loses himself in his own arrangement.

There's an admittedly poor mental image I use which might help explain what I mean. You know those movies from old Hollywood, films like Singin' In The Rain? This was back when dancers like Kelly, Astaire, Charise, and Reynolds were the A-listers on L.A. casting lists. (Brief aside: Charise passes away earlier this year, while Reynolds is more popularly known among younger people--like me, ahem--as the mother of Princess Leia Organa, er, Carrie Fisher). Anyway, back to the mental image:

Imagine a deserted boulevard at dusk, stretching into the distance, lit dully by streetlamps. Place in this scene (enter, stage left) a genial drunk, played either by Kelly or Astaire, stumbling on the asphalt, right in the middle, along the white, dashed lines. As the music starts, the drunk times his steps to the beat; he's still drunk, and he's still stumbling, but he moves as if in the beginning of a dance, though still along the white line. Once the music builds, and Guaraldi starts moving off the melody, the drunk begins to dance in earnest and with more energy, stepping away from the white line bit by bit, but to move to the steps and twists and turns that only an Astaire or Kelly can discover and own.

Once we're deep into the music, the drunk is everywhere but the white line, though we never lose sight of it, and he's still on the same road, though he never steps off camera or onto the sidewalk.

At last, as the music finds the melody once more, as Guaraldi somehow returns to the original key from wherever other chords and patterns and scales he's been, the drunk moves back to the white line, slows down, and stumbles on to disappear into the darkness just as the music ends. Fade.

It might help even more if you can imagine this mental image in black and white.

Hmm. How else can I explain the appeal I find in the music of A Charlie Brown Christmas?

It's like a writer who cheekily attempts to break the rules and write a long, run-on sentence, one that starts with the main idea of what he truly wants to say, then goes on and on, delaying the full-stop for as long as possible, all the while trying to maintain coherence, to keep the idea, to hold the reader within the narrative of the text, to not break the thin, delicate thread that keeps everything together, intact, and which connects writer with reader, yet daring and testing the tension and control by flying off on so many tangents, hither, tither, and yon, but never forgetting to come back to the main point, which is: that he was really just playing on this idea and sought this form of expression because he believed that this was the best way for him to bring forth what was on his mind; a long, leisurely journey that at its heart clearly had only one direction in its intent despite the main feints and fakes along the way.

Ooo, that was lame. Check out some Latin American writers for better examples; they're pretty good with those types of sentences. Or for a text that's closer to home, check out the first paragraph of Nick Joaquin's "May Day Eve".

I think the rest of the songs in the album are original compositions, and all of them sound just like their titles: Christmas Time Is Here, Skating, Christmas Is Coming. I say this perhaps because I've already associated this music with the scenes in the TV show, respectively, when the Peanuts kids go caroling, when Snoopy skates on the frozen lake (barefoot! Er, paw!), or when all the kids go nuts and start dancing during rehearsal, breaking up the preparations for the Christmas play Charlie Brown is directing. With these songs there is no need for Guaraldi to go off line; he makes up his own melodies and lines here, and can freely choose how he wants to go. The songs are lovely, whether they are the slow melancholy of a sweet carol or an upbeat tune for dancing.

The only song I find to be the odd-man in the mix is Beethoven's Fur Elise, played by Schroeder in one of the show's slower moments. It's a pure classical piano piece, but I just accept it because, well, Beethoven is Schroeder's favorite composer, and Peanuts would not be Peanuts without Schroeder and his toy piano somewhere in there. All is forgiven.

So there. A small part of this Grinch's small heart is still given to one (and just one!) Christmas album; I sometimes listen to it even outside the season, and while reading. I've done my best to explain why, and I hope my fellow Grinches out there will pardon me, and grant me this small, small indulgence. I'm listening to it right now, Skating is playing, and I'm smiling as I finish this blog entry.

I want to greet everyone a Merry Christmas right now, because once this album ends, I'm going back to my regular Grinchy self. Have a safe season, everyone!

(Check out this link for samples of the music).


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