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(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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#kurtweill #weillproject #joemabel #julianabrandon #musselfrommargate #jealousyduet #alabamasong #berlinimlicht
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Juliana and I had our first face-to-face rehearsal today (thank you Pfizer & Moderna, even if you are a pair of money-grubbers). I'd say it was not miraculous—our bottle of lightning is only half-full—but definitely encouraging.

This was only the second time Juliana and I ever played music together: we managed one quick outdoor trial on a verandah on a sunny day this January, just enough to know we weren't out of our minds to think we could perform together. That day I was playing a sixty-dollar yard sale guitar I didn't mind exposing to the elements, and we were trying not to freeze off any digits. This time was a lot more thorough: a couple of hours, indoors at her art studio, performance-quality guitar, sheet music, a reasonable amount of prior separate rehearsal, an actual concept of what we meant to accomplish, etc.

So where are we? A few songs are stage-ready, or so close that they just need a few run-throughs, at most. Juliana is going to KILL with "Youkali" (French-language lyrics by Roger Fernay). I honestly believe it's going to be among the best versions of the song ever. No qualification needed. From Threepenny Opera (lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, 1928) I have down "What Keeps Mankind Alive" so completely (using the Ralph Manheim / John Willett translation that Joe Papp commissioned) that I can improvise a different musical take each time if I like, and I'm singing the "Moritat (Mack the Knife)" a capella just fine, in German (didn't rehearse those today, because they are my solo pieces). We're pretty good on "Speak Low," one of three songs we plan to do from One Touch of Venus, with lyrics by Ogden Nash. Neither of us had worked on that until the last week or so, and we hadn't really discussed it, but we came up with pretty compatible takes. My arrangement uses a lot of sixths, ninths, thirteenths, diminisheds, etc.; I'm going to simplify it a little—not a lot—in view of how it went today: Juliana's more classical voice calls for a little more resolution than the jazzier way I hear the song in my head. I'm pretty sure we'll nail it next time. It will still be full of sixths, ninths, thirteenths, but not changing among them as rapidly.

We also are doing well with a rather warped take on "Alabama Song" ("Show me the way to the next whiskey bar…"). Originally written in 1927, the song is usually credited as "Brecht/Weill," but the lyrics are really by Brecht's assistant and mistress Elisabeth Haputmann, who rarely got the credit she deserved (though she did get paid). The lyrics were in English from the outset, one of several ways we know it was not by Brecht, who didn't yet have much English at that time. "Alabama Song" has rather atonal and abrasive verses and a melodic chorus. Usually performers smooth it out (with the notable exception of David Bowie, but I find his version a little too histrionic). The Doors version in 1966 definitely plays down the contrast betwen verse and chorus, covering it over with Ray Manzarek's carnivalesque organ playing. I like their arrangement, although Jim Morrison kind of phones in the vocal; he was probably hung over. It's fine to sing the song like you are drunk, but not like you are hung over. Anyway, we are going the other way: guitar dropped a full tone to DGEFAD instead of EADGBE, pretty raw in the verse, very melodic in the chorus, second chorus sliding off into ragtime, and then Juliana gets to go full diva on the last chorus, way more so than Lotte Lenya did even when Lenya was in her 20s. (I wish Al Jolson had sung that chorus some time, though I imagine he'd have had no idea what to do with the verses, which are more Nick Cave, who in turn would probably have no idea what to do with the chorus.)

Probably the two most difficult pieces we are taking on are "Mussel From Margate" (1928, lyrics by Felix Gasbarra, Juliana has done a nice translation) and the "Jealousy Duet" from Threepenny Opera, which I've translated, if that's the word. Adapted? Traduttore, traditore, as they say in Italy. Yes, we tried them today. And, mostly, we confirmed that these are indeed the two most difficult pieces we are taking on. Long way to go, lots of work ahead. I've probably put fifty or sixty hours into "Mussel From Margate." I think my arrangement is really solid&mdsah;on paper— but it is full of weird-ass clashy German expressionist chords, as it ought to be, and I still can't get my brain to push my fingers through it. The last time I had nearly this much difficulty playing a song was Reverend Gary Davis's "Sally, Where'd You Get Your Liquor From," and that was when I had long hair, Gerald Ford was president, and there had never been a designated hitter in the World Series. (For the record: among the few religious beliefs in my family is that the designated hitter is an abomination, a blasphemy, and a crime against nature, possibly even worse than blueberries in a bagel. Hell, I'd sell my soul to Ray Walston to do something about that.)

Schlossbrücke (Palace Bridge), Berlin-Mitte, from the north, at night.

Even for just a stroll in Berlin, a few watts may be in order. (Photo by Joe Mabel)

We're a lot closer on the foxtrot "Berlin Im Licht" (1928), the one song I'm aware of for which Weill wrote his own lyrics. There are a couple of tricky passages we still need to bring together (there's a three-against-four in the second half of the verse, a few rather warped very German chords, and it seems I overlooked a few bars in my initial tablature) but it will come soon. "If you want to take stroll, sunlight is enough, but if you want to see Berlin, you're going to need some WATTS!" Just as true today as it was in 1928. Berlin: land of the midnight opening time.

Juliana got out ahead of me learning the Kurt Weill / Ogden Nash "My Foolish Heart," which I hadn't even tried before today. I could do about half the chords by ear, but I'll need some time to work out what I want to do with it.

And then there are half a dozen or so more we haven't even started on. Fortunately, we have plenty of time, and none of these look as challenging as "Mussel" or "Jealousy." Stay tuned. Same bat time, same bat channel.

Next blog post: Weill's Student years (2)

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Original date: 26 April 2021
Last modified: 26 April 2021

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