Friday, January 02, 2009

762. Christmas music

Not the usual subject of this blog, but I've been seething about something for a few weeks and need to vent. As a choral singer since childhood, I've performed a lot of Christmas music. (NPR recently ran a BBC feature about a British survey of conductors asked to rate their favorite carols. The results were scholarly and geeky--and I knew most of them. In Dulci Jubilo, anyone?) I've sung everything from "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" to "A Spotless Rose" at venues ranging from big, fancy churches to the late, great World Trade Center. Most of this music is really beautiful, especially when performed from a nice arrangement.

But in New York City, Christmas music is piped into every commercial establishment beginning the second after Thanksgiving--and generally not the nicest of arrangements. We get, instead, the over-orchestrated, inappropriately pop-tinged versions, with country singers drawling "pa rum pum pum pum" like they're trying to drive away their cheating lovers rather than beat a gentle drum. In any case, not even the best compositions can withstand constant, relentless repetition. Sometimes I wonder if subliminal messages compelling us to shop are embedded in the music, designed to burrow into our brains after all else has been destroyed by the hundredth hearing of "Carol of the Bells."

"CotB" disappoints me the most. It's one of the first carols I ever learned, during the year I was in my 7th grade choir. (I left choir in 8th grade because I wanted to take art instead--one of many occasions when the New York City public schools forced me to choose between the two. But I was already addicted to the smell of greasepaint, so joined backstage band crew instead. There I learned how to open curtains, turn on stage lights, and smoke cigarettes. Only once, really. I soon acknowledged that backstage was too cool for me, and stuck with art class.) The version of "Carol of the Bells" that we sang in 7th grade was light and quick, like snow falling, the song's minor key reminding me of a twilight evening full of anticipation.

A few weeks ago I went into my local Hot and Crusty deli (which I love despite a most unappealing sign on the door: "Hot and Crusty bathrooms for patrons only"). I recognized the first strains of "Carol of the Bells," and prepared for some feathery nostalgia. Instead, I heard a string section fight with loud, portentous bells that reminded me of the theme from "The Exorcist." It was really scary and made me think that a big beast was arriving rather than a little baby. I couldn't get out of there fast enough, stumbling over an impenetrable phalanx of French-Canadian Christmas tree vendors lining the curb, but managing to make it home in one piece. (Who buys all those trees, anyway? Especially on the Upper West Side?)

I don't mean to sound like a scrooge. I just yearn for the good old days before all of December turned into a bad orgy of sound. On that note, Shabbt Shalom!


Claire Joy said...

I could not agree more!!!!
I was paging through the YouTube carols trying to find both versions of bleak midwinter and was assaulted by CotB performed by Celtic Women... yikes.

alto artist said...

I just watched that... Oh. My. God. Uniquely terrifying.