Using Imagery in Music: Leroy Anderson and The Typewriter (Musical Musings #4)

In the vast history of music, the category of “novelty” music has always been of interest to me, especially considering that until very recently, virtually all non-bluegrass or country banjo music would have been considered “novelty”. Some novelty music is quite strange and nonsensical, and there’s quite a bit in which I get the sense that either the composer is just trying to be “different” and “unique” in order to garner attention for himself, or he’s trying to communicate an idea and oftentimes the listeners don’t understand what he’s trying to demonstrate. Sometimes, however, there is novelty music that is really quite ingenious and deserves a bit of recognition. So let’s look at one of my favourite novelty pieces, “The Typewriter”.

Leroy Anderson was an American orchestral writer who sort of redefined the orchestral genre. He would write pieces that seemed at first glance awkward and clumsy to be handled by a big band-style orchestra, but when one hears his pieces, he quickly learns that Anderson knew exactly what he was doing.  In essence, Anderson took a standard orchestra and wrote tunes that sounded more like pop pieces of the time. His popularity boosted when Arthur Fielder, the legendary director of the Boston Pops, took Anderson’s music and began to perform it with the Pops.

Anderson wrote several hugely popular pieces, including “Blue Tango”, in which the orchestra somehow transforms into a Spanish dance sound. I mention this song because it’s the only instrumental song ever to sell more than one million copies. Another big song that you might know is “Sleigh Ride”, the popular Christmas tune. Anderson didn’t write the lyrics (those came later), but within six months of his releasing the tune, it had reached the level of popularity that it remains at today. So what made Anderson’s music so great?

Anderson was good at focusing the listener’s attention by way of musical imagery. In “Sleigh Ride”, for example, the percussion clearly imitates a horse’s hoofs, and at the end, a trumpet calls out like the whinny of the horse. But in between that time, Anderson focuses the listener’s attention on the theme of the song, so much so that lyrics were added later to this prominent theme. During the middle of the piece (“there’s a party at the home of Farmer Gray…”), the percussion becomes much more prominent, and a whip-like sound is heard, focusing attention on the horse. Then the theme comes back (“let’s take the road before us…”), and the attention is focused again on the surrounding winter landscape. The call and answer just before the big finish is similar to greeting friends, an idea that made its way into the lyrics as well (“friends are calling yoohoo”). But this is just a simple example of Anderson’s imagery and attention-focusing.

Anderson recognised that in order to communicate his ideas well, and to get his imagery across, said imagery had to lie mainly in the percussion, or at the very least, the rhythm set by the instruments. This is heard in “Jazz Pizzicato”, “The Syncopated Clock”, and “Sandpaper Ballet”, all of which use percussion and rhythm to make the listener visualise the jazz band, the collection of clocks, or the shuffling style of vaudeville dancing that really did resemble sandpaper in its sound. While other composers have tried to make the instruments the focus of the unusual ideas they might have, Anderson knew that changing the percussion alone was enough to drive the whole piece. And while it can be argued that classical pieces like “Flight of the Bumblebee” and “Peter and the Wolf” use instruments for imagery, Anderson was writing music to be enjoyed by the general public, not just music buffs or huge music fans. In essence, as said before, he was writing orchestral-style pop music.

When Anderson wrote “The Typewriter”, he used the keys of the typewriter as the main percussion, with a handbell to replace the bell within the typewriter, and the carriage return as other forms of percussion. There are no drums heard in this piece, because the drummer was the one playing the typewriter, as the song is very fast-paced. Anderson actually claimed that only drummers had the wrist flexibility to be able to play the typewriter in the piece at full speed. I’m not a drummer, but I actually have performed the piece live before, and despite how simple it may sound when heard, it’s actually quite difficult to play. But the imagery and attention-focusing in this piece are phenomenal, because the typewriter is the lead instrument.

Although the typewriter leads the orchestra, there is still an intelligent musical theme playing behind it. In just ninety seconds of music, the song starts out in G major, then modulating to E minor for a more intense sound, and then coming back up again to G major to repeat the established theme. Then the song gives the typist a break by playing a slower bit in the key of C major, before going back to the theme in G and ending from there. So the structure is essentially ABACA. In that time, the listener’s attention is focused on the furious typing, the intense feel of the E minor section (aka the B section), the annoying repetition of the demanding bell, the typing again, the pizzicato in the C section (which coincidentally is in the key of C), and then back again to the A section, bringing everything together– the typing, the bell, and the strings– to have the listener listen to the piece as a whole for the first time, and leaving him satisfied with what he’s heard, despite the fact that the entire process only took one minute and thirty seconds.

If you haven’t heard “The Typewriter” or any of Leroy Anderson’s tunes (“Sleigh Ride” doesn’t count; I know you’ve heard that one), then I’d highly recommend giving his music a listen. You may be surprised at just how much can be done with a simple big band orchestra.

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