Rob Kapilow at work...
(Photo: Steven Speliotis)
Rob Kapilow at work...
(Photo: Steven Speliotis)
Rob Kapilow, music interpreter extraordinaire, is best known for the What Makes It Great? series, which teaches audiences to appreciate and understand classical music. On January 27, the final night of this winter's American Songbook series at Lincoln Center, Kapilow will mix it up a bit and present a similar survey of American popular song. He will be aided by singer-songwriter-glamazon Ann Hampton Callaway; together, they'll look at a selection of four American popular songs and, with the audience's help, decide just what it is that makes them so great.

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JIM CARUSO: Tell me about this special night at Lincoln Center.

ROB KAPILOW: Normally, in the What Makes It Great? series, we take a piece of classical music and spend the whole evening discussing that one piece. It all grew out of a show I did on National Public Radio a few years ago. I've always wished I could get an audience to hear what just happened; you spend hours working on a piece and then, when you finally perform it, it goes by so quickly. This night will be about being able to stop and say, "Wait a minute: Listen to that chord! Listen to how the lyric sits on the melody!" Since I am also a composer, I'm always fiddling with songs, thinking of all the different ways they could have been written. What if Mozart had changed this note to that note? Would it make it better or worse? What if, in Irving Berlin's "Cheek To Cheek," instead of "Hea-vennnn, I'm in hea-vennnn," the song went "Hea-ven-I'm-in-hea-ven" in an even, staccato way? I'll have Ann Hampton Callaway there at Lincoln Center to sing it both ways. Living in New York City, we have a lot of opportunities to hear the American songbook repertoire, but I wanted to do it in a completely different way.

JC: How did you go from classical music to classic show tunes?

RK: I grew up playing classical, but I also played show tunes. For some reason, I never thought of the show tunes as taking the same craftsmanship or technique; but I recently started delving into more pop and show material, and it's been mesmerizing. At Lincoln Center, we're going to take four songs that everybody knows: "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," "The Lady Is A Tramp," "Cheek to Cheek," and "Alfie." The idea is to see what makes them tick. I'll change vocal lines, rhythms, harmonies, make the audience sing along...all in an attempt to see what's there and to hear the songs as if for the first time.

JC: It's all about listening, isn't it?

RK: Yes! It's about paying attention. When I was at Yale, I took an art history class. Every week, we looked at one painting for two hours. We learned how to see. Then I took a poetry course with Harold Bloom. We spent an hour on eight lines. In a world where we're overloaded with information, we process at such a rapid level. The chances to really look closely at something are few and far between.

JC: What do you find so interesting about popular songs?

RK: A great many Broadway and pop songs are made up of only 32 measures. That's just the standard form. It shows utter self-confidence. In one eight-measure idea, so much fantastic stuff can happen! Twenty-four of the 32 measures of each song are often the same musically, and that's the part we remember. What is it about those eight measures that gets you totally hooked? For one thing, there can be a lot of character development in them; a writer can create whole personalities and whole lives in those few measures.

...and in repose
(Photo: Steven Speliotis)
...and in repose
(Photo: Steven Speliotis)
JC: Has the current pop music scene--the MTV world--made it impossible to take the time to know why something is good?

RK: It's hard with everything now. The great songs from the '20s and '30s had a level of sophistication based on an audience that was paying attention. That's culturally difficult at this moment. I'm sure the composers in the '40s would be stunned to know that their shows are being revived now. Broadway has become a classical museum in its own right; those shows were created the same way a Beethoven sonata was, with no thought that they would ever exist beyond the next year. No one would be more stunned than Mozart to hear his music being played 200 years later. Popular music in America is now going through what classical music went through 150 years ago: Both grew up with the freshness of "we have no history." That's also the story of America as compared to Europe. The original attraction was that they had no observable past.

JC: Do you have an all-time favorite popular song?

RK: This sounds like a politically correct answer, but the truth is that I love the song I'm talking about at the moment. When I talk about that "hea-vennnn..." part of "Cheek To Cheek," that one line is the best line anyone ever wrote!

JC: The audience must really enjoy your enthusiasm for all of this.

RK: I hope it's infectious. They realize that they can hear what I'm talking about, even if they thought they couldn't. Maybe I'm a catalyst, but everyone gets it. It's even more rewarding because we're talking about songs we've all heard our whole lives. It's like when you live with a person for years and you think you know everything about them, then something happens and the person looks completely different. It gives you an enormous sense of possibility; the sense that, if you only take the time to look closely at the things around you, there is so much more to see. That's the message. Look how much there is to hear if you only pay attention!

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