Calvin Hampton: An American Genius

Originally published in the Broad St. Review on November 4, 2014.

 

I was improvising at the organ a few weeks ago when I realized I was emulating Calvin Hampton, specifically his composition In Paradisum, which employs an eerie polytonality. This isn’t unusual. I’ve been accused of composing like Hampton before.

“I went to school with Calvin. He was a genius,” one of my teachers told me. “We didn’t even bother to be jealous of him, since he was head and shoulders above everyone else.”

Combining the incompatible

Hampton dared to take musical chances. While the results are uneven, his better compositions deserve a place in the repertoire. One of his greater successes was the establishment of a Fridays at Midnight organ recital series at his church in Gramercy Park during the ’70s and ’80s. His rock band, Sevenfold Gift, gave the earliest of these concerts. Adding to the unconventional approach, he’d use flashing lights with the music and invited audiences to lie down while they listened.

He was not afraid to combine two seemingly incompatible things. Apparently even his concert programming demonstrated this, with stylistic “right turns” that dashed many listeners’ expectations for a chronological program order. Instead of going from Baroque to Classical to Romantic, he paired pieces from disparate styles, using Bach as the centerpiece rather than the opener. In a sense, he was the inventor of the iPod shuffle manner of listening to music.

More than this, Hampton played organ transcriptions and advocated symphonic style organs at a time when such endeavors were considered passé. The mid-20th century saw the rebirth of the putative classical organ and historical performance practice, which are more suited to early music, but he wasn’t afraid to buck this trend. “He could just sit down and play a symphony from the full score. He had that kind of talent,” one friend of mine reports.

Saying what he had to

He was not merely a shock artist, though. Calvin Hampton broke molds because they couldn’t help him say what he had to say. His unique sense of melody, rhythm, and tonality, albeit not as distinct as Messiaen’s, makes his music instantly identifiable as his. Angular, disjunct melodies, sometimes playful, sometimes sweet, were one of his favorite toys, along with offbeat rhythms that grew out of “added” eighth notes — a device that many modern ears, accustomed to monotonous pop music, find annoying. Yet if there were an organist on Earth you’d see playing pop music, it would probably have been Calvin Hampton.

While Hampton was still alive, Erik Routley called him “the greatest living composer of hymn tunes,” and his biographer, Jonathan B. Hall, notes the rock influence on his hymn melodies de Tar and St. Helena. Not everyone loves his music, though. I once attended a concert at which There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, using the tune St. Helena, was sung. Although the building was filled with the musically inclined, the audience stumbled through the hymn, to many grumbles. But original minds like Hampton’s are not meant for ordinary audiences, and full acceptance often doesn’t come until the artist is safely dead.

Unfortunately, Calvin Hampton’s demise came all too quickly. He died 30 years ago, an early victim of the AIDS epidemic. In spite of his short life, he left a treasure of music behind him that goes far beyond the confines of organ and church music, one that can truly be called American.

I’m not at all ashamed to be accused of trying to imitate him.

 

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New soundtrack from SEPTA announcements

I’m constantly recording my surroundings for new material, especially when I’m on transit, not only for the obvious rhythmical noises that trains make, but also because of other sounds that can be turned into music. Public address announcements are some of them. Here’s a track I made out of delay announcements on the SEPTA system. Not trying to pick on them, it’s just great material.

 

 

Inactive Listening

I confess that I have listened to music for all kinds of reasons, and some of them have very little to do with actually listening to the music. I put my earbuds in to get the world out. I do this on the trolley into work, at the gym, and even at work itself if I don’t want to talk to anyone. I’ll do other things while I listen to music, like surf the internet or read a book or clean the house. There is nothing wrong with mixing music with any of these activities, but what I’ve discovered recently is that I’ve been missing out on a lot by allowing myself to be distracted. I figured this out one day when I actually sat down to listen to the music without anything else going on. It was the first time I’d done this in a while, and it was long overdue.

One of the tricky things about listening to music while we’re on the go is that we think we’re hearing everything but we’re not. Even if the outside noise isn’t getting in our way, there are simply too many distractions for us to hear everything. Even the noise in my own head is enough. This impairs our understanding of what’s going on, to our own poverty. Life is tough and we hate a lot of the things we have to do in life. Listening to music helps us to get through it, but we’re not really using music for its intended purpose at that point; we’re using it as a barrier to protect ourselves.

Many performers will fall for a similar mindset when they ask us to “sit back and relax” during their show. This is ridiculous. Music is supposed to make us feel invigorated. It’s supposed pump the blood through our veins—even ballads and sad songs, in my opinion. Sitting back and relaxing is the opposite of this. And relaxing is the opposite of paying attention, or even of catharsis. Unfortunately it seems like a lot of music is marketed for this sit back and relax, or on-the-go, mentality. Try listening attentively to a Top 40 song and see how much repetition it will bear. Usually not much. One of the tests of a good song, in my opinion, is how many times you can listen to it and still be interested. Even better, it’s how many times you can listen to it and keep finding something new in it. There’s a lot of music out there that is fine if it’s just keeping you occupied during your commute, or pushing your treadmill session at the gym, or getting you through the work day, but as soon as you sit down to listen to it for real, it reveals itself to be vapid.

Activity is prized in our era, along with extroversion. But I would like to speak up on behalf of inactivity. Do nothing, and do it mindfully. Just sit. I would like to encourage inactive listening. Sit still. You can’t learn anything flailing around. It doesn’t work like that. I’m amazed at the number of people who, when I try to play them a song to listen to, listen to the first thirty seconds, if you’re lucky, and then start talking or running around or answering the phone. That’s not listening. It’s trying to placate me, to make me think they’re interested. Or it’s foolishness, thinking that keeping one ear on a song is the same thing as listening to it, synonymous with eating it up.

Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying the people who do this are bad. It’s more likely they just haven’t thought through these kinds of things, or are simply copying the behavior they’ve learned. It is almost a matter of culture that music is abused as a crutch. Is this fair to this form of art? It’s also true that we do it to other forms of art, too, such as painting and sculpture. It’s a pity that so many people in the art museums mosey right past one work after the next, thinking that because they’ve glanced at it, they’ve seen it. They might remember it, but will they have noticed the difference in the left hand and the right hand in Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son? Maybe that leads to a good metaphor. When consuming art, do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing. Be generous with yourself, and with your time. Nothing worthwhile is ever accomplished in a hurry except an ambulance call.

I still listen to music in distracting circumstances, but I just don’t fool myself that this is any way to learn, and I don’t imagine it’s any tribute to my love of the art. Often I prefer to listen to the music that exists naturally in nature and in our cityscapes. I can’t stand the stuff that’s designed for distracted listening; I’d rather get half a good song than totally understand a bad one. I confess that I just can’t seem to let go of music though. It is too beautiful. I even wonder if it’s really the only thing that matters to me. So I put in my earbuds and run off to work and and try to keep as much of this boring world away from me, especially small talk.

It seems as if the best thing to do if we want to be serious about inactive listening is to schedule time to do it, just like we’d schedule gym time or a doctor appointment. Make sure you’ll be free of distractions, and allow at least an hour. Two hours would be ideal. This is no small thing we’re doing. We need time to absorb all the ideas, and to rewind to listen to something that we didn’t get the first time, or that we just want to listen to again. The television can wait. So can the automatic bill pay on our bank accounts. And the phone certainly can. If you don’t make music a priority, it won’t be front and center where it belongs. Life is too short to be in a hurry. It’s too short to be on the run. Sit down. Do nothing. And listen.

New Projects

I haven’t been here in a while, but I’ve been keeping myself busy. In the past year, I’ve been putting together a lot of soundtracks that make use of field recordings–musique concrete, in essence. Music is everywhere, really, in everything from machines to the melody of the speaking voice, and even in the creaks and groans of equipment that isn’t working properly. My goal is to bring it out of the texture of everyday noise and synthesize it into something cohesive.

Here is my first effort in this genre. The material was collected from a series of protests held in Philadelphia during the 2016 Democratic National Convention. It not only makes use of human speech, but also a recorded heartbeat, and a Gregorian chant. This will be the first track of the album I’m currently finishing up.

 

Commissions

If you would like to commission me to write a piece, please contact me at hocket [at] gmail.com. We can discuss details and negotiate a fee depending on the circumstances. I’m adventurous in terms of genre, so please don’t be afraid to throw your wildest ideas at me!