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Classical Notes

Unexpected Connection

Posted at 12:22 PM on August 8, 2012 by Fred Child

I'm endlessly fascinated by unexpected connections, so the multiple layers of connection here make this all the more entertaining.

We sometimes see art and commerce as polar opposites, but in the early 1600s English composer Orlando Gibbons turned commerce into art with a wickedly creative piece called "Street Cries of London." He strung together several dozen short rhythmic hawking calls of street vendors, and set them over a lovely instrumental bed.

We hear all kinds of things for sale. Food: hot apple pies, pomegranates, rosemary, milk, cabbage, oysters. Also ink and pens, candles, perfume, shirts. A few service providers pipe up: a chimney sweep, a makeshift podiatrist who wonders if you have corns on your feet, blacksmiths ask if they can fix your bellows. There's even a lost and found section: a gentleman asks if anyone has seen a grey mare with a long mane and a short tail. It's like Craigslist set to music. Which brings us, of course, to the Craigslistlieder.

In 2006, American composer Gabriel Kahane took eight actual ads from Craigslist and set them to music, including this one, which is rapidly becoming a modern classic. The words for "Neurotic and Lonely" are from the personals section of Craigslist. "Neurotic and lonely, average height, brown eyes, slightly disproportionate. brown curly hair, Jew-fro, 20 years old. Slightly hunched, occasionally employed. Currently living with parents."

And to complete the circle, we come back around to what amounts to a modern version of Gibbons' "Street Cries." In 1975, Tom Waits set the seductive hyperbole of American sales language over a swinging bass line in the song "Step Right Up."

Art and commerce merge, and everything old becomes new again. Tune in for a remarkable performance of Orlando Gibbons' "Street Cries of London" from a concert three weeks ago in London, Friday on APM's Performance Today.