UCLA Seminar: The Music of Rufus Wainwright #6

February 28, 2006

“The Art Teacher” and “Danny Boy” were discussed today.

With respect to the meaning of “The Art Teacher” the first order of business was whether the story teller was a boy or a girl. Most felt it was indeed from a woman’s point of view, but one student said that she remembered Rufus saying in a concert that actually he was both characters. The line “I was just a girl then” has double meaing for an effeminate man. This notion of Rufus’s effeminacy was briefly discussed: his speaking voice is effeminate, but his singing voice is not. [I will devote a chapter to this in my book.] I opined that Rufus takes singing very seriously, and that he could sing the phone book with devastating conviction.

Discussing the form, we identified each verse, and saw that at the end of each was a refrain: “But never could I tell him it was him,” sometimes sung once, sometimes three times. In toto, there are 5 verses, one being an instrumental verse (solo horn). There is one contrasting section (“All this having been said…”) where there is a fascinating harmonic digression. [A complete analysis will be forthcoming, and the musical level was beyond this class so I soft-pedalled that…]

“Danny Boy” offered a spring board for talking about a few related topics. After playing the introduction, I asked the class what the sound reminded them of.

“A harpsichord?” No. “A hammered dulcimer?” Yes. “Piano used in silent films?” Yes.

I steered the conversation towards the notion of a “honky tonk” piano and how the sound is made. The timbre, or sound quality of pianos heard in cowboy saloons, or in old silent films are often one of two things: either the hammers of the piano have become so hardened from age and smoke, that they create a very sharp attack when they strike the strings; and the other is that people would actually put tacks on the felt hammers (listen to “Matinee Idol” for other examples of this sound) — hence the name “tack piano.”

I then asked: “what is unique about the opening vocal melody in this song?” The class was baffled. “It’s that Rufus stretches each syllable out for a very loooooooooongggggg time. Can you think of any other artist who does this?” Again silence. I then took out my sonic microscope and said “what are we hearing in Rufus’s voice?” At this point, I demonstrated singing in overtones showing how the lips are essentially filters for your vocal chords. Rufus Wainwright has a very “bright” voice that is quite rich in overtones. That vocal quality is attractive to many, and annoying to others.

I asked whether there was any relation between Rufus’s song and “the original.” Many looked puzzled, so I sang “Oh Danny Boy” and the puzzlement evaporated and the answer was “no.” There was a very brief discussion of the meaning of “Danny Boy” but we ran out of time.

O Danny Boy

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