Alkan, Nichols and the Vagaries of Fame
September 19 2010
The computerized InterGooYaHoogleWebNet robs the Pianobabbler of the pontifical pleasure expatiating on these names would bring. You can look them up with ease.
Look them up you should. Not only to slake curiosity's thirst, but also to enrich the spirit with the happy nutrients great art and artists secrete.
Alkan and Nichols? Highly, happily nutritious.
Pending your lookup, however, the Pianobabbler will expatiate a bit. Not only to inform, but to revisit this crucial principle: fame and celebrity are art's fickle lampreys (see Pianobabbler 20). They swim near some, not all, of the larger bodies of art. But they are not conditions of art.
The topos of fame was triggered the other day as I sat peacefully enjoying a well-made cappuccino. Ideal blend of milk and coffee. Perfect temperature. And then mediocre song from a mediocre artist began excreting through the cafe air.
Mediocre, but famous. Why did fame touch this artist? Why this song, audibly cobbled together by a business committee using a facile antique formula, looking to seduce through dullness, rather than excite through laborious invention?
Then I remembered. Fame and celebrity often overlook art. As they overlooked Alkan and Nichols, for example.
Charles-Valentin Alkan. Born 1813. Died 1888- felled, apocryphally, when a Talmud for which he was reaching bopped him on his head. What a phenomenon of music. A virtuoso equal to, and admired by Franz Liszt. Wacky for his time as a composer, nowadays recognizably ahead of those times. All manner of things one rarely saw in the 1800's. Blue notes. Time trickery. Explorations in forms and harmonies that sound modern today. Pieces like the Grande sonate op. 33 (as played by the titanic Marc-Andre Hamelin). The Etudes in all the major and minor keys op. 35 and op. 39 including the fitful Aesop's Feast. Startling. Unique.
Herbie Nichols. Born 1919. Died 1963. A gifted pianist. A poetic composer of Thelonious Monk proportions. His music commanded my attention on first hearing, through persuasion, not force. Obliged to make a living playing Dixieland for much of his life, Nichols only recorded 48 tracks. His reputation grew- so it goes for many artists -only after death. The re-release of his recordings raised awareness. Tributes like The Herbie Nichols Project did the same.
Nichols and Alkan. Common traits. Musicians and connoisseurs knew of and respected them both, despite their relative anonymity. African-American (Nichols) and Jewish (Alkan) backgrounds parked them at the social margins. They both had the markers that attract recognition: virtuosity, creativity, accessibility.
And for them both, fame passed ahead, leaving them behind.
Why? I have no answers. One certainty: nothing to do with merit.
Fame comes from the Latin fama, meaning talk, report, rumor, gossip, tradition.
As long as we continue talking about them and, more importantly, listening to them, Alkan and Nichols will have fama to take the place of the celebrity they deserve.
The Pianobabbler has babbled.
The Pianobabbler is a RonDavisMusic production. The Pianobabbler's blog posts appear weekly at pianobabbler.com. Please remember to leave your comments and thoughts below. Subscribe to the RSS feed. And subscribe to RonDavisNews by clicking on the link, above right. And follow us on Twitter.
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