Discover music in a whole new way on Sunday, November 3 with composer, commentator, conductor and author as Celebrity Series of Boston presents ‘What Makes it Great Over the Rainbow: The Songs of Harold Arlen’ at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. Visit www.celebrityseries.org for all the details!
I had the honor of speaking with Rob Kapilow about his radio show on NPR called ‘What Makes It Great,’ his musically interactive books, and Harold Arlen’s music for the upcoming production at Jordan Hall. For the audio version of the entire interview, click here and for part one of this interview, click here.
You have a radio show on NPR and you’ve written a book about it – ‘What Makes It Great: Short Masterpieces, Great Composers.’ How did you translate that into the book?
‘What Makes It Great’ started as a radio segment. The idea was if you can change the way America listened to segments of music a week, you could really create a revolution there.
Each week on the radio show, I would only do a short segment, sometimes with 15 or 20 seconds of music. Then I would expand it to full length evenings. I would take a single piece, that’s the kind of thing for the Celebrity Series where you take just a few short songs or a single piece of music and take it apart. I never really thought of writing a book because there are two choices in writing a book and both of them were bad. You put musical notation into a book and 95 percent of the public cannot read it because they can’t read musical notation. I was very interested in the general public, not scholars. When you don’t put musical notation in a book, then you are forced to talk about music. Was it really worth it for me to write a book?
It was the new technical possibility that made me want to write a book. I’ve actually written two books. The first book before ‘What Makes It Great’ is called ‘All You Have to Do is Listen.’ I’ve discovered what you can do is create a free website where all the musical examples of the book are in notation. You can actually hear them.
Even if you couldn’t read a note of music, you could hear all the musical examples and you would know exactly where you were because of the scroll bar. You are able to translate ‘What Makes it Great’ into book form.
The ‘What Makes it Great’ book was even better. It was actually the first enhanced eBook about music for the Ipad. Even though you can buy a hardcover version with the website like that, on the Ipad, all the musical examples are on the screen. You touch them and they explode to full screen. You can listen to them and they scroll in real time with a scroll bar right there. Even if you can’t read it noted on the Ipad, you can listen to 200 musical examples, know just what is going on, and see my comment at the moment it happens when the scroll passes the music. It is a completely new world of possibility for music books because before then, you couldn’t hear music and talking about music is like writing about architecture without being able to see it.
Let’s talk about some of Harold Arlen’s music. He’s done many wonderful songs such as ‘World on a String,’ ‘Get Happy,’ Let’s Fall in Love’ and ‘Over the Rainbow.’ Will your repertoire include some of the best known songs?
Absolutely! We’re doing many of the most famous ones like ‘Stormy Weather.’ In fact, we start with ‘Get Happy,’ which is the song that made him famous at the age of 25. The story of how he got involved in that show and in that song is sort of an unbelievable, Broadway kind of story itself.
At the time he wanted to be a singer, not a songwriter and he had a small singing part in a show. One day, the dance accompanist got sick and they asked Arlen to fill in. He describes it in his documentary film. Mostly when dance accompanists play, they say it takes two bars to get people into the music. He changed that with ‘Get Happy.’ A producer heard it, thought he could turn it into a song, and introduced it to lyricist Ted Koehler. The next thing he knew, he had an absolute hit song on the Hit Parade. He became a composer, got his first composition, contract with a publisher, and he was on his way.
Arlen was the son of a canter. A lot of these Arlen songs have a quasi-spiritual beginning which in a way is really a version of his father translated into a spiritual, gospel kind of feel. We’ll be doing ‘Last Night When We Were Young,’ and ‘That Old Black Magic.’ You will literally hear them in a completely different way after we take them apart than you’ve ever heard them before, particularly if you know them by heart.
You know, the music is timeless and performers like Michael Buble and Harry Connick Jr are among the many artists that have covered these classics of the American Songbook through the years. What do you think it is about the music that speaks to people today?
The music speaks to hopes, dreams, and fantasies. It is a world we wish we had. We all wish we had a way of going over the rainbow to this magic place. I think all of us in our private fantasies have these desires to meet someone and see them walking across the room and suddenly you know. That was in the musical, ‘South Pacific.’ A song like ‘Get Happy’ is as exuberant is as we ever wish we could be.
What will be so wonderful with audience members is they’ll probably discover quite a few songs that they know they didn’t know Harold Arlen had written and put together.
Absolutely! He always said that in interviews. The four words that seem to define his career and the question that seemed to define his career was, “You wrote that too?” I was actually thinking of calling the program, “Yes, he wrote that too” because invariably when people say Harold Arlen, what did he write? Then you say he wrote ‘Wizard of Oz’ and then when you say he wrote ‘World on a String,’ ‘Blues in the Night,’ ‘Stormy Weather’ and people say, “He wrote that too?” That really sums up his career. Yes, I wrote that too.
Visit www.celebrityseries.org for more on the upcoming production, ‘What Makes It Great Over the Rainbow: The Songs of Harold Arlen’ on November 3, ticket information, and Celebrity Series of Boston’s 75th anniversary season!