We were at the music store before Thanksgiving to get the busted A-string on my daughter's cello replaced. While waiting, I leafed through a book of Thelonious Monk piano pieces. As one of the pages opened to that song, the plume of its tune filled my head. We got back to the car, and when I turned the key, WORT's afternoon jazz show was mid-song with "Autuor de Minuit" by Les Nubians, a hypnotic rendering of "'Round Midnight" with two singers, gently syncopated percussion, and acoustic bass.
The week before, I'd heard UW professor Catherine Kautsky perform George Crumb's "Eine Kleine Mitternacht Musik (A Little Midnight Music): Ruminations on 'Round Midnight by Thelonious Monk", a nine-piece suite for piano. The theme is quoted faithfully as the work opens and closes, and the travels in between take you through sensations of what you might hear from afar, half-awake or dreaming in the dead of night: the sound of a mallet striking in a percussive burst; the delicate reverberations of harp sounds from plucked piano strings; a technicolor epiphany mid-work as Crumb quotes Debussy ("Golliwog Revisited"), making vivid, absurd sense (well, at least to me...I only began to appreciate Debussy after coming to it after being immersed in Monk); a ritual intonation of the hours of the clock in Italian, from "one" to mezzanotte. (There's much more than I could absorb on a first take, and I was just about to say that I was dying to hear this again, when the welcome news arrived via email that it'll be performed again on campus next week, hurray.)
I've got the obsessive enthusiast's fancy for the variation (Gotta catch 'em all!), whether in works that announce themselves as such, or when old standards are given new performances. It's satisfying to recognize the family resemblance in the disguised retelling of a work in a displaced genre, or to discover a new aspect of its essence as it's turned on its head (which is not to say that we shouldn't recognize and recoil from a wrongheaded adaptation as a wolf in grandma's bedclothes).
I came upon another variation on the 'Round Midnight theme in a roundabout way when I read Bart Schneider's Beautiful Inez this summer, thanks to this recommendation. I feasted on the book's, uh, enthusiastic obsession with language, food and music, but also was taken by finding the book's family home set in San Francisco's Richmond district, evoking by idiosyncratic happenstance my own fond memories of a summer in a sublet apartment on 36th Avenue: being lulled into deep REM sleep by the lowing of foghorns in the misty night; dimly hearing the faraway barks of the sea lions on the Seal Rocks in the quiet predawn; spending Sunday afternoons in solitary bliss walking down Geary Boulevard all the way through the numbered Avenues, with Russian and Cantonese voices mixing in the air, or finding a deserted spot along the hills of the coastline from which to listen to Ella singing Gershwin on my mini-boom box while looking out at the ruins of the Sutro Baths.
But back to the book, which heads toward its conclusion with the beautiful, and despairing, Inez hearing her husband arrive home from work. He's whistling "'Round Midnight", a tune new to her (he's a jazz aficionado, she's a concert violinist), but she's drawn to it immediately. We hear the song whistled again as Inez's husband teaches the melody to her, and as she plays and replays it on her violin, we start hearing the song ourselves, as it goes into perpetual-motion rotation as the soundtrack for the wordless, beautifully wrought, awful end to Inez's story.
Although the melody of the song can be shaded in with any number of chord progressions, versions that simply take the dead man's walk all the way down the E-flat minor scale in the song's final measures miss the point; what needs to echo as the song ends is harmony in E-flat major.
The Thelonious Monk Quartet plays "'Round Midnight" here (scroll down to the link).
Once he called me into his room. The variations from the Opus 111 sonata were open on the piano. "Look," he said, ponting to the music (he had also lost the ability to play the piano), "look." Then, after a prolonged effort, he managed to add, "Now I know!" He kept trying to explain something important to me, but the words he used were completely unintelligible, and seeing that I didn't understand him, he looked at me in amazement and said, "That's strange."
I knew what he wanted to talk about, of course. He had been involved with the topic a long time. Beethoven had felt a sudden attachment to the variation form toward the end of his life. At first glance it might seem the most superficial of forms, a showcase for technique, the type of work better suited to a lacemaker than to Beethoven. But Beethoven made it one of the most distinguished forms (for the first time in the history of music) and imbued it with some of his finest meditations.
Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
...we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. [....] I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than "family resemblances"; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. [....] And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (trans. G.E.M. Anscombe).