New Music Continues: Bill Frisell’s “John Steinbeck” Commissioned by Brooklyn Rider String Quartet

Image of jazz guitarist and John Steinbeck composer Bill Frisell

Passionate about sound and programmed to appreciate performance, John Steinbeck took piano lessons as a boy, listened to classical records when he wrote, and liked new music, old music, chamber music, opera, and jazz as an adult. American musicians—including a contemporary string quartet group—have remained passionate about John Steinbeck in return. Steinbeck’s spirit has animated folk songs by Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen, inspired operas by Carlisle Floyd and Ricky Ian Gordon, even motivated the composition of recent organ music by Franklin D. Ashdown and Lothar Bandermann. Such eclecticism seems especially appropriate for an author who sang in the church choir as a child, loved Bach and Broadway equally, and wrote an early, unpublished novel called “Dissonant Symphony.”

Image of Brooklyn Rider string quartetFor the latest addition to the growing body of music inspired by John Steinbeck, applaud  Brooklyn Rider, a young string quartet with Steinbeckian crossover audience appeal. In 2014 Brooklyn Rider commissioned new chamber music works from a group of distinctively different composers including Bill Frisell, an acoustical guitarist blessed with an expert back-up band and a big following in the world of jazz. Each composer selected for Brooklyn Rider’s recording project was encouraged to “look outside the sphere of music” in writing a short chamber music piece inspired by a person, place, or idea of the composer’s choice. Bill Frisell picked John Steinbeck. The resulting CD, Brooklyn Rider Almanac, is an example of contemporary recorded music at its best—clear as sunlight on the sea, full of color and character, and as varied in style, feeling, and form as the books of John Steinbeck.

Steinbeck wasn’t the only artistic figure chosen by a composer for the project (Daniel Cords picked the painter Keith Haring), or the only author: Aoife O’Donovan celebrates William Faulkner in a fiddling romp through the mind of Faulkner’s character Quinten Compson, Benjie’s brother in The Sound and the Fury. But Bill Frisell’s piece—titled simply: “John Steinbeck”—is the last cut on the album and stands out as the shortest, and the most surprising, of the 13 works recorded. Partisans of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner at the time accused Steinbeck of being a sinplistic sentimentalist while praising books such as The Sound and the Fury for hard-edged modernism and challenging complexity. Did Bill Frisell write his tough little string quartet as a belated musical rebuttal to Steinbeck’s critics? “John Steinbeck” certainly tests the ear and requires effort to understand, more like Faulkner than Steinbeck, who refused to write for the critics or to criticize fellow writers who did.

Cover image from The Brooklyn Rider Almanac CDI think the Salinas Valley native who listened to records while writing The Grapes of Wrath in his California Coast Range retreat would get the point of Bill Frisell’s peak-and-valley piece, chamber music inspired by an artist who agonized and rejoiced with the characters he created in a small room high in the mountains, observing monkish solitude as Bach’s Art of the Fugue and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms played in the background. You decide. Close your door, shut your eyes, and listen to Brooklyn Rider Almanac from start to finish, then repeat the last piece on the album as you contemplate the personal context and social sense that inform The Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck was a sociable loner, a pretty good description of a string quartet player—or a jazz performer like Bill Frisell, creating a printed score for recorded chamber music instead of improvising as usual. Like a string quartet’s lead violinist, Frisell is the first among equals when performing with his group. In “John Steinbeck” he communicates the lonely predicament of a working novelist who, like a composer putting sound on paper, has only himself to praise or blame, peak-or-valley, before the record ends.

Steinbeck Suite for Organ Published by Zimbel Press

Cover image of Steinbeck Suite, a new work for pipe organ

Steinbeck Suite for Organ, a new work by the American composer Franklin D. Ashdown, has been published by Zimbel Press. Commissioned in celebration of the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath and in memory of Randall Ray, the five-movement work was premiered by the organ music expert and virtuoso James Welch on the pipe organ of California’s Mission Santa Clara in February 2014. The performance, which can be heard in full here, was recently repeated on a program of organ music related to Steinbeck’s life and writing played by Welch at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Steinbeck’s childhood parish in Salinas. Ashdown’s colorful and dramatic piece is believed to be the only example of organ music written with Steinbeck specifically in mind. Passages from The Grapes of Wrath and Tortilla Flat, Ashdown’s favorite Steinbeck novels, are quoted in headnotes above each movement. According to pipe organ enthusiasts who have heard or played the piece, it is technically challenging but well-suited for use as service organ music on most pipe organs. The 18-minute work is available from Subito Music Corporation.

Hear The Grapes of Wrath—Steinbeck Suite for Organ

Image of Franklin Ashdown and James Welch at Mission Santa ClaraSanta Clara University recently hosted a celebration in sound for the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath at California’s Mission Santa Clara—the world premiere of Steinbeck Suite for Organ by Franklin D. Ashdown (at left in photo), a prolific composer of popular contemporary organ music. As University Organist at Santa Clara University and a fan of Steinbeck’s fiction, I had the pleasure of performing the world premiere of Frank’s work in the program of American organ music that I played to conclude Santa Clara University’s 2014 Festival of American Music on February 16. Inspired by passages from The Grapes of Wrath and Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck Suite for Organ brought the Mission Santa Clara audience—which included Lothar Bandermann, a distinguished composer of orchestral, choral, and organ music who shares John Steinbeck’s German heritage—to its feet. (Scroll down to play audio.)

Organ Music for The Grapes of Wrath and Randall Ray

Steinbeck’s biographers say that the writer studied piano, sang in choirs, and appreciated organ music, particularly Bach. Since The Grapes of Wrath appeared, the music-minded author’s spirit has inspired almost every kind of music—including Aaron Copland’s musical setting of The Red Pony— except that written for the pipe organ. Thanks to a fan who lives near Santa Clara University and appreciates Frank’s organ music as much as he does Steinbeck’s writing, this condition ended with the commission of Steinbeck Suite for Organ in celebration of The Grapes of Wrath and in memory of Randall Ray, a North Carolinian who admired the novel and visited Steinbeck Country shortly before his untimely death in 2013. Members of the family present for the performance felt that the passages selected by the composer perfectly reflected Randall’s generous spirit and sympathy for the poor.

A World Premiere at California’s Mission Santa Clara

But hearing is worth a hundred words. Listen for yourself by clicking to enjoy each of the five movements of Steinbeck Suite for Organ recorded live on February 16 at Mission Santa Clara—music that reverberates with the pathos and exuberance of Tortilla Flat, The Grapes of Wrath, and John Steinbeck’s humanism. As I explained to the Mission Santa Clara audience, this organ music expresses energy, drama, and transcendence, qualities of Steinbeck’s writing, in colorful cascades of sound that rise and fall with the emotion of the passage being portrayed. Mission Santa Clara was a perfect venue for the world premiere, located on the Santa Clara University campus midway between Steinbeck’s home town of Salinas and San Francisco, the city where he attended opera and concerts as a boy. The program notes excerpted below were provided by the composer in the original organ music score.

I. Preambolo: “The Humanity of John Steinbeck”

In Preambolo, the first movement of this organ suite, Steinbeck’s sympathy for the individual and the common man is represented by the Trumpet stop which sounds a melody similar in character to Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. As the piece develops, a secondary theme builds to full organ, reflecting the immense influence of Steinbeck’s prose in American culture and politics.

 

II. Divertimento: The Grapes of Wrath

The Joad family joins a makeshift camp of fellow migrant pilgrims headed on Route 66 for the verdant valleys of California. They enjoy instant community as they trade stories, sit around the camp fire, sing folk songs and gospel songs, and finally join in a spirited square dance.

 

III. Miserere: The Grapes of Wrath

Ma Joad presents groceries for her large family at the check out counter. The clerk, a man with his own family to feed, cannot extend her credit. But he is sympathetic to her plight and pulls out a dime from his pocket to make up the difference. Miserere creates a somber tone which later brightens in response to the kindness of a stranger.

 

IV. Musica de los Paisanos: Tortilla Flat

Danny and his friends are a mixed Latino and Caucasian band of brothers living above Monterey, paisonos who spend their days adventuring and drinking booze. Musica de los Paisanos begins with a mellow haze and moves through a patchwork of stylized Spanish and Mexican folk tunes.

 

V. Toccata: Tortilla Flat

Danny, the central character of Tortilla Flat, inherited two houses. The smaller one, which he gave for the use of his paisanos, burned to the ground due to their carelessness. In a forgiving gesture, Danny let them move into his main home, where they enjoyed rich and colorful camaraderie, like the Knights of the Round Table. But it all ended when Danny died and his main house was consumed by flames. Toccata is emblematic of both houses burning.

 

Playing the Pipe Organ is a Family Affair

In addition to the world premiere of this piece, my February 16 program at Santa Clara University included organ music by American composers, such as Horatio Parker and Richard Purvis, that Steinbeck might have heard. As noted, the writer took piano lessons as a boy and enjoyed a variety of music, particularly the great American genres of jazz and Broadway, throughout his life. Following Steinbeck Suite for Organ on the Mission Santa Clara program, my son Nicholas, age 15, played the piano part for Clifford Demarest’s Fantasie for Piano and Organ, composed in 1917 when John Steinbeck was the very same age. Nicholas is shown at the far left of the photo with our son Jamison, 14, my wife Deanne, and me. Both boys are high school students in Palo Alto, California, where Steinbeck attended Stanford University. Like the writer John Steinbeck and the composer Frank Ashdown, our sons started piano early, and Nicholas now plays the pipe organ at church, as Frank and I did when we were growing up. Enjoying music was a family affair at the Steinbeck home in Salinas. It is at ours, too.

Image of the pipe organ-playing James Welch family

Recording provided by Santa Clara University with the permission of the composer and the performer. Program notes paraphrased by permission of Franklin D. Ashdown. The Mission Santa Clara pipe organ was built by Schantz Organ Company. Frank Ashdown’s choral and organ music is published by Morningstar, Augsburg Fortress, Alfred, Adoro, Concordia, and others. His distinctive compositions for choirs,  pipe organ, and other instruments have been performed in concert halls, churches, and cathedrals including the Mormon Tabernacle, Notre Dame de Paris, and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He was born in Utah, grew up in Texas, and lives in New Mexico, where he directs his church choir and composes on an ingenious digital organ, installed in his home, that produces convincing sampled pipe organ sounds.

The Literary Music of The Grapes of Wrath

James Welch, organist, photoAs I was writing my book about the life of Richard Purvis—a California contemporary of John Steinbeck who composed literary music for the organ with a colorful, cinematic character—I was reminded how hard the task faced by writers of books really is. It certainly was for Steinbeck, one of my favorite writers of books on any subject. Steinbeck’s language has always sounded like literary music to my ears, but I wasn’t sure why that was before reading about the background of The Grapes of Wrath. I knew Steinbeck wrote the novel in Los Gatos, not far from Palo Alto, where I live. Recently I learned that he listened to Bach’s Art of the Fugue as he wrote. No wonder the literary music of Steinbeck’s masterpiece conveys such convincing counterpoint. He had Bach’s masterpiece in his head as he was wove the literary music of the Joads, California, and Depression-era America into his great verbal fugue.

As a concert organist, I’m used to practicing my art long hours each day. Most writers of books do as well, but Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath at an incredible pace. Two- to three-thousand words at a sitting is extraordinary, a fact I came to appreciate when I was writing my biography of Purvis. I couldn’t help speculating that certain subjects of Purvis’s literary music, particularly his “Night in Monterey” for organ, would have appealed to the author of The Grapes of Wrath. After all, the literary music of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” inspired Steinbeck’s title and was reproduced on the endpapers when the book was published.  How many other writers of books ever paid similar homage to a specific piece of music?

I read about how Steinbeck liked listening to Bach in Working Days, the collection of daily journal entries Steinbeck made to warm up before resuming work on The Grapes of Wrath. It occurred to me that, for writers of books, this process is like organists running through scales and arpeggios at the piano before beginning daily organ practice. To make music on the organ—or create literary music at a desk—requires limberness, dexterity, and well-developed skill. So I wasn’t surprised to hear from the organist at Steinbeck’s Episcopal church in Salinas that the author of The Grapes of Wrath took piano lessons as a boy and sang in the children’s choir. Though he attended Stanford University 50 years before I did, Steinbeck and I have much in common. We both like science, enjoy travel, and love Bach and the beach. We’re both from California, a state that has produced distinctive literary music, from Richard Purvis to the Beach Boys, over the years. Other writers of books hailed from sunny California, but for me, none was a literary music maker quite like the author of The Grapes of Wrath.