Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Le Sacre du printemps (1913)

The young girls of Le Sacre, original costumes and stage set, 1913 

Tomorrow, May 29th, 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the premiere performance of Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps, known more commonly by it's English title the Rite of Spring. There has already been much ballyhoo about the centennial and this entry may very well seem like another bit of carpetbagging (not unlike my Gatsby post of a few weeks ago), but the Rite is a fairly significant piece of music to me personally. Like many, I first heard it in a movie theater courtesy of Walt Disney's Fantasia. My Aunt Marianne took myself and my younger cousin Paul to see either the 1977 or 1982 theatrical run at the Cinema 21 in San Diego, California. Now Cinema 21 was not any run of mill movie theater: it was a single-screen 1,000-seat temple to modernity and one of the reasons I can't take today's multiplexes seriously. At the time of it's 1963 construction by Statewide Theaters it was the only movie house in the country set up to screen films in 35mm, 70mm, Cinerama, AND Cinema-scope. No small achievement. Even 15 years after it's opening it made an impression - certainly to a young boy such as myself. The experience obviously has stayed with me, reinforced over the years by countless visits to Disneyland capped off with what we called the dinosaur train: the Primeval World attraction.

Promotional postcard, Cinema 21, San Diego, California, 1963

The Rite of Spring sequence in Fantasia was of course set to visuals of the origins of the earth and the prehistoric days of the dinosaurs. And what 6 or 11-year-old boy doesn't like dinosaurs? I didn't care about the dissonance in Stravinsky's music, to my young mind it was just what the cogs of creation sounded like as fascinating creatures rose from the primordial ooze. I was captivated and I can recall the experience with some clarity to this day. I have revisited the film in recent years and am well aware that Stravinsky disowned the film upon it's 1940 release (although he cashed the check) not only for the truncated version of the score (due to time limits of the original theatrical release) but to the visual interpretation of the music. Yes it is flawed, but it served a purpose not only for my life but for so many other young ears across the United States that may have never been exposed to the savage beauty of Igor's music. Later through my development as a musician and as my interest in 20th Century modern jazz deepened, I approached Stravinsky's music from a different angle inspired at least in part by Charlie Parker's noted appreciation and admiration for the composer.

Walt Disney and Igor Stravinsky, Los Angeles, California, 1939

The performance that now intrigues me most is the Joffrey Ballet's painstaking 1987 recreation of the original 1913 Paris production. It was not only the music that ushered in the modern era of ballet, it was the angular, primitive choreography of the legendary Vaslav Nijinski and the earthy sets and costumes of Russian folklorist Nicholas Roerich combined with Stravinsky's brilliant music that made for such a revolutionary production at Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. For years, it was thought that everything buy the score was lost. After only a dozen or so performances in Paris and London, the ballet was not performed for 7 years by which time the choreography had already been forgotten by all of the principals. It's something of a modern miracle that the '80s reconstruction happened at all. But what the Joffrey most effectively did is help revive the exciting, primal nature of the piece: as Leonard Bernstein once famously exclaimed, 'it's about sex!'. And surely the Russian folk elements of the story which culminate in a virgin sacrifice thinly veils this strong subtext. But as the sacrifice of virginity can also be viewed as the creation of new life and rebirth, perhaps ol' Walt Disney wasn't so far off the mark after all!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sir Pendleton (1956)

1956 print ad

Four years after Pendleton Woolen Mills introduced their iconic Sport Shirt to the American male, the Sir Pendleton made it's debut. And while lesser known, it is an important part of the clothier's canon. Like it's predecessor it was made of virgin wool, but new addition was of an extremely lightweight worsted variety intended for yearlong use.

1959 print ad

The expansion of the garment line had deep roots. In 1912, the Pendleton company acquired additional woolen mills in Washougal, Washington nearly 200 miles West of it's Pendleton, Oregon location. Washougal sits on the Columbia River, just a few miles and across the border from Portland. The facilities allowed production of lighter-weight woolens, such as those used in men's suiting. Worsted wool, while stretching back several hundred years, made tremendous advances in the late-1800s due to industrialization in both England and the United States. By the early 20th Century it had started to gain the upper hand in men's suiting.

1961 print ad

Much like the Sport Shirt, the Sir Pendleton had a distinctive style that changed very little for quite a few years perhaps most notably it's classic open collar with a loop for the top button and a single breast pocket with a button rather than a flap. And like the Sport Shirt it was available in a variety of colors and plaids.

By the early-1960s the Sir Pendleton shirt gave way to an expanded Sir Pendleton full line which included everything from button-down collar shirts to blazers and jackets. And again like the Sport Shirt (nee Board Shirt), it has a presence in the current Pendleton clothing line. And the Washougal mill? It recently celebrated 100 years of operations and can be visited most days of the week.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Bill Hughes (1954)

Tal Farlow Quartet, Blue Note 5042, 1954, photo by Francis Wolff, design by Bill Hughes

In previous entries on this weblog, I have detailed the early contributions of both John Hermansader and Gil Mellé to the design canon of Blue Note Records. Both preceded the deservedly legendary Reid Miles and were featured prominently during the 10-inch long playing record era. Our subject today is another name from that same time period, one that crops up only on a very rare few discs and one whose story remains open-ended. The name Hughes first caught my eye as a credit on Tal Farlow's stylistically striking debut disc sleeve from 1954. Contrasting a Francis Wolff session photo of one of the most remarkable bop electric guitarist to emerge from that era, is a pair of geometric images not to far off from the Bass/Whitney opening sequence to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (although that was to come a few more years down the road). 

Julius Watkins Sextet, Blue Note 5053, 1954

The The Farlow sleeve is the first of only 3 Blue Note LPs whose design credit is given to Hughes...Bill Hughes to be correct. All 3 are 10-inchers and share a certainly level of minimalism that provide a contrast to the other design ideas utilized by Alfred Lion during his label's adolescence. The discs in question were all released within the same calendar year, which of course begs more questions. Unfortunately in this case, there are not a lot of answers.

The Gil Mellé Quartet featuring Lou Mecca, Blue Note 5054, 1954

Another clue lies in the third disc design credited to Hughes. Thanks to the subsequent anothology of Mellé's Blue Note output, we have learned that Hughes was also (or perhaps primarily?) a photographer and that he was responsible for taking the photo that graces BN 5054's sleeve. Shot in the same year of 1954 at a Town Hall concert, it remains one of the few photos of Mellé much more so one of few photos of him performing live. 

Miles Davis, Vol. 3, Blue Note 5040, 1954

But I propose that perhaps Hughes contributions to the label did not end there. There are a few releases around this time that lack contemporaneous credits of any sort. The first example is third 10-inch volume by Miles Davis, cut and released near the beginning of his first "rebirth" of sorts. Only 2 releases earlier than the Farlow disc, it bears some notable similarities to the latter - particularly with the Wolff session photo contrasted to a geometric-based background. I suspect (and this is pure speculation, of course) that Hughes was responsible for the design in this case as well.

 Elmo Hope quintet with Frank Foster and Freeman Lee, Blue Note 5044, 1954

Another Hughes-design candidate comes a couple issues after the Farlow disc in the catalog. New York-born pianist Elmo Hope's second Blue Note LP features another stark, minimalistic design not too far off from Hughes second and third credited contributions to the label. It's a further stretch than the Davis disc, but should at least be a suspect in this case. Regardless, Blue Note Records was clearly a growing enterprise at this stage. Not only were they experimenting with their roster of musicians and where the music was recorded, but they were working from an impressive pool of graphic designers. All of this contributed to an exciting flash in time. While perhaps less stylistically unified as the "classic" late-'50 through mid-'60s time span that many (if not most) think of when they hear the phrase Blue Note, this time period showed a high degree of experimentation both aurally and visually.

Jumpin' at the Woodside, A Buck Clayton Jam Session, CL 701, 1955, photo by Bill Hughes

But the Hughes story ends there for the most part. Unfortunately, in this overly-informed age the Hughes story seems to have slipped through the cracks...for now, at least. His name does crop back up a year later on a sleeve photo credit for Columbia Records, but there is very little evidence elsewhere that gives much plot to the Bill Hughes graphic designer and  photographer story. It is my sincere hope that today's entry changes that and I look forward to reader contributions that pick up this thread.