This week on the show, the Ether Game Brain Trust is taking to the sky. It’s a show that will certainly set you aloft, as we celebrate the crossover between music and flight. Spread your wings for a show we’re calling “Flying Home.”
Take-off with our airborne playlist below:
- George Gershwin (1898–1937), Rhapsody In Blue – No doubt you’ve heard the music of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue before. It’s shown up in countless films, commercials, and television shows. And if you’ve ever flown out of the Chicago O’Hare Airport, chances are you’ve heard it there too, because Rhapsody In Blue has been the theme song for United Airlines for over 40 years now. For as popular as the piece has become, the reviews were surprisingly mixed when it premiered at Aeolian Hall in New York City in 1924. The New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly and particularly the New York Post offered scathing reviews of Gershwin’s masterpiece of symphonic jazz. One reviewer wrote, quote, “How trite, conventional and feeble the tunes are, how sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment. Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony. So derivative! So stale! So inexpressive!”
- Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), The Lark Ascending – This idyllic work was completed before the outbreak of World War I and Vaughan Williams’ entry into the British Army. Though in his early 40s, the composer served first as a medical orderly, then an artillery officer, and finally a music director. Supposedly, Vaughan Williams sketched The Lark Ascending as he watched British troops crossing the English channel. He would have seen first hand the impact of flight on wartime efforts; World War I was the first war to use aircraft seriously. Though Britain was late to the conflict and initially relied on planes built by the French, it became the first country to introduce a dedicated air force, creating the Royal Air Force in 1918. Vaughan Williams originally scored the work for violin and piano, but revised it for violin and full orchestra in 1920. It would become one of his most famous works, especially among British audiences.
- Eric Whitacre (b. 1970), Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine – Contemporary choral composer Eric Whitacre was inspired to compose this work when he imagined what Leonardo da Vinci might dream about. Da Vinci was more than just a scientist. He was an extraordinary man of many talents, dabbling in art, architecture, botany, music, sculpture, engineering and aviation. Whitacre worked closely with his librettist, Charles Anthony Silvestri, to match the text and the music. The text is made of storytelling in English and statements in Italian by a voice in da Vinci’s dream, compelling him to find a way to fly. The music combines modern harmonies and vocal effects with elements drawn from the kind of Renaissance polyphony that was composed when da Vinci was alive. The clashing chords and extended techniques help to establish the dream-like world where the master himself would often go to bring his greatest visions to life.
- John Williams (b. 1932), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: The Flying Theme – Until Jurassic Park in 1993, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was the highest-grossing film of all time, even surpassing George Lucas’s Star Wars from 1977. All three of these record-breaking films involved collaboration with Spielberg’s long-time friend and composer, John Williams. Williams is regarded as one of the greatest movie-theme writers of all time, a skill that was apparent in the making of E.T. when Spielberg later recalled that he liked and included every theme that Williams had written for the film in the final cut of the movie. The famous chase and flying sequence that occurs in the final act of the film, when Elliott and E.T. make a dash for E.T.s homeworld ship, was even edited by Spielberg to suit the music that Williams composed in an early draft because he liked Williams’ sense of pacing so much.
- John Adams (b. 1947), Nixon In China: Landing of the Spirit of '76 – Several of John Adams’ operas touch on world events that were quite recent when the operas premiered. In the case of Nixon in China, which was first performed in 1987, the events portrayed took place 15 years before in 1972. The opera tells of the president’s historic visit in a series of vignettes, which portray both the American and Chinese characters with sympathy and historical perspective. The music is minimalist but contains colorations that effectively characterize the various historical persons in the cast. Unlike the music, the staging of the opera is quite elaborate. The scene we just listened to features a scale replica of Nixon’s presidential airplane. After his inauguration, Nixon was given the opportunity to completely redesigned Air Force One, as it was due for repairs and upgrades. Among other things, Nixon drastically changed the plane’s paint job and had the phrase “Spirit Of ‘76” printed across the nose of the aircraft.
- George Antheil (1900–1959), Airplane Sonata – Self-styled as the “bad boy” of music, George Antheil’s aggressive music blends a number of trends in the twentieth century—the anti-Romantic objectivity of Stravinsky, the Futuristic fascination with machines, and the fad for blending art music and popular culture. In his Airplane Sonata, Antheil marks the first movement “As Fast As Possible.” His repetitive, driving rhythms deny all prettiness, glorifying (and perhaps even fetishizing) the high-flying machine as a transcendent object. Antheil also has another connection to flight. His affinity for mechanical and electrical objects put him in touch with, believe it or not, Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr also was a tinkerer, and during World War II, she wanted to leave Hollywood and become an inventor. Together, Lamarr and Antheil invented a radio-controlled torpedo guidance system that hopped around to different frequencies to avoid detection by radar.
- Marc Blitzstein (1905–1964), Airborne Symphony – Marc Blitzstein began working on his Airborne Symphony in 1943, in the thick of World War II. At the time, he was a member of the U.S. Air Force, working in the film division as a composer. The work presents a history of human’s desire to be airborne, starting with the earliest myths of Icarus and leading up to the use of airplanes for war. Blitzstein performed a draft of the score for friend Leonard Bernstein in 1945, who loved it and wanted to perform it. But when Blitzstein traveled back home to complete the work, his manuscript was lost and he had to start over from scratch. He completed the work just in time for Bernstein’s premiere in 1946, and ironically, by that time the original lost manuscript had turned up. Go figure. In the work’s premiere and in this recording 20 years after the premiere, the role of the narrator was performed by a very familiar voice, that of the great Orson Welles.
- William Bolcom (b. 1938), Inventing Flight – Like Marc Blitzstein’s Airborne Symphony, William Bolcom’s 2002 work Inventing Flight similarly tracks humankind’s quest for flight from ancient mythology to modern aviation. The first movement, Daedalus and Icarus, is a depiction of the Greek myth that warns of the folly of the selfish pursuit of the heavens. In the story, the craftsman Daedalus and his song Icarus attempt to escape prison using wings crafted from feathers and wax. Icarus does not follow the advice of his father and flies too close to the sun, melting the wax and causing him to plunge to his death. The final movement of Bolcom’s work is much more triumphant, describing Orville and Wilbur Wright’s successful achievement of the centuries-long quest for flight. The work was commissioned by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra in celebration of the centennial of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Dayton, Ohio was the Wright Brothers’ home town.
- Kenny Loggins, "Danger Zone" – “Danger Zone” is the bombastic, hard-driving synth-pop hit that defined the 1986 blockbuster film Top Gun, which starred Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer as “Maverick” and “Iceman,” a couple of arrogant naval pilots who fly fast and look cool doing it. Kenny Loggins was the perfect choice to sing the song, too. Loggins started out as a folk singer-songwriter in the early 1970s, but had transformed himself into the King of the Movie Soundtrack by the 1980s, singing the theme songs for Caddyshack, Footloose, and Over The Top. Loggins was only half the equation though. The real mastermind behind the nine-time Platinum Top Gun soundtrack was songwriter Giorgio Moroder, who wrote most of the songs on the album. If you don’t know the name Giorgio Moroder, you definitely know his music. Moroder was the “Father of Disco,” the man who wrote and produced basically every disco hit for Donna Summer in the 1970s.