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I CONFESS TO being sometimes a little behind the identification of trends. For example, in the November 3, 2016, issue of the London Review of Books I learned the term “riffing off,” even though I’ve been enjoying this practice for years.
Colin Burrow’s LRB article “Big Rip-Off” focuses on the related activity of ripping off, in the sense of one’s taking advantage of the work of another. But he also cites riffing off, a complimentary improvisation when “a jazz player takes a standard and turns it inside out and back to front and then, to a cheer, makes it reassemble out of the apparent dissonances.”
Yes, I’ve been savoring riff offs ever since the 1950s and because of my love of Dave Brubeck. To this day, his piano riffs on Gershwin and Bartok blended with the soaring artistry of Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone make Jazz at Oberlin one of my favorite vinyls and CDs; this, despite its 1953 vintage.
Burrow’s focus is literary, not musical, in reviewing four books as “textual appropriations” of Shakespeare plays: Shylock is My Name: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Retold, by Howard Jacobson; Vinegar Girl: ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ Retold, by Anne Tyler; The Gap of Time: ‘The Winter’s Tale’ Retold, by Jeanette Winterson; and Hag-Seed: ‘The Tempest’ Retold, by Margaret Atwood.
I’ve not got around to reading any of these yet. However, I can recommend another in the genre: The Serpent of Venice, by Christopher Moore. I cited it briefly here at SimanaitisSays in context of Moore’s other flights of literary fancy.
The Serpent of Venice is a triple riff, blending Shakespearean plots of The Merchant of Venice and Othello with tonalities of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado. It’s a wonderful literary riff off.
Riffing off Internetwise on my own, I came upon two other tidbits on the subject, one with whales, another from a 2012 movie that got me riffing off in another direction.
It’s generally known that whales sing to each other, and recent research has shown that they also take part in riffing off: One will start a tune, and others will improvise on it, sort of oceanic scat singing, in the Ella Fitzgerald sense.
Interspecies riffing off is not unknown either. The website abeautiful.world discusses musician David Rotherberg and his activities with whales, birds and insects. It poses the question, “Are Whales and Nightingales Singing the Same Song?” I like to think they are.
In fact, they may well be enjoying sonic fun akin to that in the 2012 movie Perfect Pitch. As described at Painted on a Napkin, The Riff-Off is a party game in which one person begins singing a song and stops on a particular word. The next player must riff off with another song matching this word. Points are allotted, depending on how competitive the group is, how well the riff off is continued and whether anyone can stop laughing enough to keep score.
For example, though I didn’t know the Rihanna song “What’s my Name,” I delight in learning her line “hey na na” led to the riff off “na na na na na na na na Batman!”
I confess my own popular music appreciation dwells more within the Great American Songbook. Nonetheless, it’s ripe for riffing off. Here are two to encourage everyone into the game. The rule is simple: Riff off the most recently posted comment.
“I’m singing in the rain….”
“It was only a paper moon….” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016