Ah, Thanksgiving: a holiday as rich in calories as it is in cultural significance. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either the greatest culinary day of the year, a twisted celebration of American colonialism, or the annual site of uncomfortable conversations with that conservative uncle of yours. For the turkeys, it’s mass carnage. For the vegetarians, it’s slim pickings. And for retail employees, it’s the beginning of the end. What’s the proper soundtrack for a day that means so many different things?
I’ve always loved This American Life’s annual Thanksgiving episode. They call it the “Poultry Slam,” and cobble together a bunch of stories that have some tenuous connection to poultry. Why reserve the tenuous connections for public radio alone? Why not canvas the work of Chicago composers for music that’s as complex as Turkey Day? Ira Glass, eat your heart out:
For the selfish and gluttonous: Are your niece and nephew fighting over the last piece of pie? Feel a pang when your spouse polishes off the last of the stuffing? James Blake can relate. Check out Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s arrangement of his song “I Never Learnt to Share,” written for and performed by the Spektral Quartet.
For the anxious and ambivalent: Alex Temple, The Travels of E.C. Dumonde. With its mysterious incidents taking place in Oklahoma cornfields or advertising-obsessed towns in California, this eerie piece is perfect for those who experience ambivalence (to say the least) when road-tripping to their towns of origin.
For the hunters: Jenna Lyle, How To Accidentally Kill a Crow. This stylish, humor-filled chamber work was inspired by the composer’s adventures shooting crows in her grandfather’s backyard in Georgia. There’s nothing quite like spending time with family.
For the argumentative: If the two saxophones in Eliza Brown’s Apart Together are sparring relatives, you’ve got a ringside seat for their brawl. The composer writes: “Like an ill-fated family gathering, it begins with a burst of energy and connection, periodically erupts into conflict, and peters out in a state of mutual alienation (the decoupling of the instruments from the performers’ mouths).”
For the birdwatchers: There’s a wintry Americana stillness to Luke Gullickson’s 2014 EP To Evening Lands. (Full disclosure: I played and sang a bit on this album.) It’s thankful music in any season. Check out the final track, Daedalus and Perdix.
For the spiritual, part 1: James Falzone, With Notes Almost Divine. Just when you thought this wide-ranging clarinetist and improviser couldn’t surprise you anymore, he has an original Advent hymn available as a downloadable PDF score on his website. Why can’t I download more composers’ work to sing with my friends around the table after a few glasses of wine?
For the spiritual, part 2: Augusta Read Thomas, Prayer and Celebration: a warm, gorgeous, brief chamber orchestra piece originally composed for a high school orchestra in Concord, New Hampshire.
For the Polish, and for those who miss Lee Hyla: This year’s holiday marks the first Thanksgiving that the late Boston/Chicago composer’s many admirers will spend without him. Listening to Hyla’s brilliant Polish Folk Songs is both pure delight–evoking an important Chicago ethnic community–and a reminder of someone deeply missed.
For the nervous host: Are you anxious about producing a holiday spread for, say, five adults and two children for the first time? Or is that just me? Well, one of the most crucial Thanksgiving decisions one can make is what music one grooves to while chopping, peeling, simmering, and stirring. I’m going with Chicago trumpeter Marquis Hill, who just made the city proud by winning the Thelonious Monk Competition, one of jazz music’s most prestigious prizes. While you’re looking forward to the major-label release that’s part of his winnings, any of his gorgeous SoundCloud tracks are sure to soothe your nerves.
For anyone with a soul: Imagine if, in the year 1825, Beethoven was at your Thanksgiving table. When it was his turn to say what he was thankful for, he would grunt, “I’m grateful I’m still alive” and then compose this. It would be–and still is–kinda hard to compete with the Heileger dankgesang.