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One part of ?Ornaments? which is always fun, is picking a classic cut from a holiday album of vintage years, finding a representative cut from it, and then talking to one of the key players involved in making it happen. Joan Baez? 1966 album ?Noel? was a definite candidate, but what a surprise to look at the back and see who had done the arranging for it. None other than P.D.Q. Bach?s alter ego, Peter Schickele! So, when a saxophone quartet concerto of his was premiering in our neck of the woods, and we were recording it, I literally came across him in the hallway. When I asked him about ?Noel,? he enthusiastically told me it was the only one of his old albums he still listens to, every Christmas. He was most agreeable to saying so on tape, and so we stole off to a practice room with a recorder. Below is the transcript.

--Joe Gunderman





I don?t sit around listening to my old albums all the time, but one album that I do hear regularly is the album ?Noel? that I did with Joan Baez, that is, I was the arranger. We listen to it every Christmastime in our family.



It actually was, in its own way, an extremely important album. We had already recorded the first PDQ Bach album in 1965 at Vanguard. And then one of the guys who ran Vanguard, Maynard Solomon, called me up and said, ?We want to do this album with Joan where the arrangements of the Christmas carols have the flavor of the time when the carols were actually written, rather than sort of modern, soupy arrangements. Old carols like Lule My Child would have recorders and viols, and 18th century ones such as Joy To The World would have the standard instruments of the 18th century, and 19th century ones like Oh Holy Night would maybe have harp and instruments associated with that period. And it was because of the period aspect of P.D.Q. Bach that they thought of asking me for the arrangement.



The reason it was sort of an important album was not only because it turned out very nicely, but also it led to my doing two more albums with Joan. One was called ?Joan? and I made the arrangements of that. Those were modern songs, Donovan, The Beatles and Dylan. Then we did an album together called ?Baptism,? which was a very unusual album in which Joan Baez reads and sings poems. She either reads poems over music, or I set them to music as songs. As you might expect from Joan, it has a very strong anti-war bias, and it?s an album about which some people have told me they love the album but they can?t listen to it that much because some of the material can be so disturbing.



Then years later I did music for a movie, an unusual ecological science fiction movie called ?Silent Running? with Bruce Dern. Joan sings two original songs of mine on the soundtrack of that. So a lot came around because of this first ?Noel.?



On ?Noel,? I approached the different songs quite differently. Some of them, which don?t have a particular arrangement associated with them, something like Lule My Child, I felt freer with. But for the Ave Maria I really followed the Schubert piano part quite closely. I put the piano part in harp and the strings, so in that case it was more what I would think of as a transcription. Similarly with Oh Holy Night, which was the same instrumentation.



I don?t think I could name a favorite. Different ones go through my head at different times. Certainly one of my favorites is I Wonder As I Wander. I also am very fond of the opening one, Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel. It starts out as just an organ drone and her voice, and eventually other instruments come in. But I think your question is a little like asking a mother which is the favorite among her children. She may have one, but she?s not going to say so.



I?ve never done another Christmas album, no.