Monday, October 29, 2012

music for monday

Here are some things I've been listening to lately (complete with Spotify links).

Ne-Yo's "Let Me Love You" this came on the radio yesterday, and I was struck what a great, weird song it is.  The chorus is pretty standard (it's fine, but nothing to write home about).  But the opening lines really grab you.

It starts with a David Grey "Please Forgive Me" ish feel (oh hi, early 2000s), and then the jagged and odd vocal line comes in-- what?  interlocking fourths?  a vocal line that dives around and goes all over the place?!  The line is so odd, so non-pop music, he repeats it again, and it's just as cool the second time.  The music then transitions into the perfectly serviceable but dull chorus.  But it's the crazy little moments like this in current pop music that make you sit up and listen closer.  (We're not going to get into the square-peg-in-a-round-hole text setting-- like Stravinsky-- but it is some clunky text to music going on...luckily the music is far more interesting than the text, so he could really be saying anything and be A-OK).

I'm reading the amazing memoir by Pulitzer Prize winning music critic Tim Page, "Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger's."  The thrust of the book is right there in the title, but he has such a clearheaded writing style, and is able to talk about how his mind works with such detached specificity it's really amazing.  I highly recommend it.

I bring this up because he has one little aside where he mentions one of my favorite Steve Reich pieces, and in just a sentence, completely sums up my feelings on why it's an amazing work.  He writes, "In my own idiosyncratic version of paradise, Reich's Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ would always be playing in one Elysian pasture or another."

Yep.  That's pretty spot on.  The work is, in my mind, one of Reich's most joyful, expansive, and somehow personal pieces.  Maybe it's the natural sound of the voices humming that taps into something visceral, but this is a warm piece, a musical moment that draws you in and makes you feel like you're floating, like you're surrounded by something warm.  The piece starts with the same repeated vocal line amongst the instruments  but then it elongates-- the voice slows down, and in that moment something opens up.  I can't really put in to words how much I love this piece.  I know Reich is maybe the most "New York" of all New York composers, but this piece, to me, says California sunshine, warm sunsets, pink sky, the smell of flowers.  Listen and see what you think.


Friday, October 19, 2012

music & nature

It's 5:30, the sky is getting dark, and I'm drinking a beer and listening to Chopin.

I'm at one of my favorite places in the world-- the wet and grey Oregon Coast.  Here for the weekend with some old friends, the coast is a magical place in that nothing happens, nothing has to happen, and the weather is agreeable only in fits and starts.  If it stops raining for more than 5 minutes, you have to take the window of opportunity to go outside, because who knows how long it'll last.

This is a place literally and figuratively at the edge of civilization, at the ends of the earth.  That infinite, liminal space where dirt turns to sand turns to water turns to sky.  It is wild and uncivilized, which is an odd bedfellow for the cultured and refined nature of Chopin.  To hear a mazurka is to think of old world civilizations, of customs and manners borne from years of practice, of buildings and streets and history.  The beach is a place without history.  Well, human history, at least.  So hearing such refined, compact perfection in a place of wildness should be jarring, right?

Somehow, the wild and the restricted, the untamed and the planned fit together like hand in glove.  What underlies both is emotion-- the breaking waves, the sheets of rain, the wind tossing the trees.  You can see them in front of you, AND hear them in the cresting waves of sound Chopin creates.  Music describes nature, nature enriches music.  What a great pair.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

you can stand under my (green) umbrella

BYRD: Two Motets (arr. Muhly)
MUHLY: Seeing is Believing (electric violin concerto) (West Coast Premiere)
TRADITIONAL: Tvísöngur (arr. Muhly)
BJARNASON: Over Light Earth (world premiere; LA Phil co-commission)
BJARNASON: Bow to String (US premiere)

LA Phil New Music Group; John Adams, conductor; Thomas Gould, violin; Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir, cello

Last night I went to the first concert of the LA Phil new music series (aka “Green Umbrella”).  These concerts are always great and always interesting; this is the only thing I subscribe to because these are concerts I am willing to plan the rest of my life around.  I will always make the effort to be free on a random Tuesday night for a Green Umbrella concert.  Definitely.

Last night was half Nico Muhly music and half Icelandic music.  I love Iceland with a fiery, volcanic passion, and I feel similarly about Muhly’s music.  He writes music that is tonalish, accessible when it needs to be, and obviously feels very comfortable writing for groups of varying sizes.  The stand out piece last night was Seeing is Believing, his electric violin concerto.

The Byrd arrangements at the top of the program started the night off in an odd way-- Muhly had given the works some interesting orchestrational touches, but for the most part, they were very standard, very straight forward.  But the motets retroactively made sense once we had moved on to Seeing.  Muhly is a composer who makes no bones about the fact that he is strongly influenced by early choral music, and hearing the Byrd and its use of inner lines and flowing harmonies, you could hear a direct music line from Byrd to Muhly.  In a similar fashion to the motets, Seeing is full of multiple lines moving simultaneously yet independently, and the work is cohesive, compact, and structured.  Spoiler alert: I’m a big fan of structure.  Diffuseness in music (a drawback to the Bjarnason works in the second half) should either be the guiding principle of the work-- a la Morton Feldman-- or should be a fleeting addition to the overall texture.  You can’t halfass diffuse.  With Muhly’s music, you sense that you are moving somewhere, you are being guided by someone who has a story in mind, be it an actual programmatic story, or, in this case, an inspiration drawn from mapping the stars.  You are sent on a journey with a capable guide who gets you where you need to go, but leaves room for surprises along the way.

The high point of Bjarnason’s Over Light Earth was that the ensemble had two grand pianos and a TUBA WITH A MUTE.  A++.  That is welcome anytime, anywhere (I’m a euphonium player, so I have a visceral, positive reaction to low brass.  Because it’s the best).  The work, however, as I mentioned above lacked direction, and seemed to merely float without purpose.  I suppose that was the intent, seeing as how the first movement (and title) are taken from a really lovely Rothko color fields painting at the Museum of Contemporary Art, but, to bring up Feldman again, that has been done before, and done better, in Feldman’s Rothko Chapel.  Bow to String I liked, though.  The added soloist forced some semblance of structure-- things had to hold together more to give a proper background to the soloist, and in this work I felt like the diffuse clouds of sound were used more as background to the solo lines.  They floated in and out as details to be noticed, but most importantly, they were not the main focus.

John Adams conducted, and totally knocked it out of the park.  My lovely wife has an allergy to attaca movements, especially when they have separate titles in the program; I have had to swear, repeatedly, never to title movements that run into each other because “it’s confusing, and I hate it.”  (I admit, she really has a point.)  John Adams made the classy and smart choice to announce before the last piece: “Because it’s nice to know where we’re going with a new piece, I just wanted to let you know the second and third movements flow one into the next.”  He then added some descriptions of the work, then dived right in.  

Is there anything better than hearing contemporary music played at a very high level with a silent and attentive audience in one of the most beautiful and perfect concert halls in the world?  Well, I had guacamole when I got home, so that really just was the icing on top of the cake.  New Music & Guacamole: Los Angeles at its finest.

Friday, October 12, 2012

an introduction

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” has been attributed to pretty much everyone imaginable—Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson, Steve Martin, Martin Mull, Elvis Costello, Thelonius Monk, etc. etc.—which I think proves how true and universal the sentiment is. How  can you describe something you hear with something you silently read? You can’t. So what am I doing here?

I’m a composer, I love writing, and music is, well, pretty much Where It’s At, if you ask me. I love classical music, but I will listen to anything once. I fully admit to having days where I can’t face the seriousness of purpose in an art song by Barber and just need to hear Mary J. Blige or the theme to The Greatest American Hero. Every balanced diet needs a little from each food group.

I think all music has a time, has a place, has a purpose. It’s like comparing apples to oranges (or Original Sin to ketchup) when you attempt to compare and contrast the Mozart Bassoon Concerto to “California Gurls” by Katy Perry (feat. Snoop Dogg). Do I love both of those pieces of music? Yes. Do they have to be judged on wildly different criteria?  Absolutely. But I am not ashamed to say that I think “S&M” by Rihanna is better than “Harold in Italy” by Berlioz. It’s more interesting to listen to, it is immediately clear in what it is attempting to do, and it does not overstay its welcome (AHEM, Berlioz—please wrap it up).

As an introduction, here are some pieces or musical moments that are important to me, and hopefully give you a sense of the kind of music I might be writing about, thinking about, and listening to on repeat.

Copland: Third Symphony
This is the piece that made me want to become a composer. Is Copland “cool”? No, not really. But do I like him better than someone like Harrison Birtwistle? You betcha. He’s not afraid of big, emotional gestures; he always has a tight rein on the orchestration, the structure, the flow of the piece, but he’s comfortable enough in the small stuff to let the bigger emotional things go off the rails…in an awesome way.  There’s a reason everybody rips off “Fanfare for the Common Man” (which starts the last movement of the symphony), and it is because it stirs something inside you, something bigger than yourself, something primal.

Reich: Music for 18 Musicians
Yes, it’s over an hour long.  Yes, it’s minimalism.  Yes, very little “happens.”  But this is a piece that rewards listening with an opening mind and with open ears.  You quickly become attuned to the small things, the in-between-the-beats moments, and find out that something relatively minor (an extra eighth note at the end of a phrase, for example) causes repercussions that echo throughout the rest of the piece.  The piece starts with a repeated pulse, and then a musical butterfly effect happens with small things added that change the course of the pulse.  I can’t do this piece justice in words-- just listen.

R. Schumann: Dichterliebe
I can’t begin to describe why “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” or “Ich grolle nicht” is so perfect, but I will just say that the postlude of “Ich grolle nicht” perfectly and succinctly sums up, in just a few bars, the feelings of longing, heartbreak, and resignation.  Not to oversell it or anything.  

Couperin: Les Barricades Mystérieuses
A little harpsichord piece with the enigmatic title “The Mysterious Barricades.”  Nobody knows why he gave it that title, but that just adds to the aura of the piece.  I’m not a big fan of Couperin usually, nor am I a fan of the harpsichord, nor even a fan of the Baroque era.  But this piece gets me.  It’s in “rondeau” form, and has some weird inner motor that pushes you forward.  It has a feel all its own.

Michael Jackson: “Human Nature”
So this isn’t classical, and it wasn’t written by Michael Jackson (it was composed by Steve Porcaro & John Bettis, and produced by the one and only Quincy Jones), but it’s his song.  One of the many amazing singles off Thriller, “Human Nature” is just a sweet, beautiful, direct song.  Great lyrics, great arrangement, great performance.  It’s a song that holds up when covered by lesser artists, I’ve heard a nifty bossa nova version of it, and it works even as an instrumental.  Pitchfork called it “meltingly tender.” It’s pretty much a perfect piece of pop music.    

OK, I’ll stop here to keep from going too overboard.  I could wax rhapsodic about “True Colors” by Cyndi Lauper.  Or Takemitsu’s A Flock Descends Into the Pentagonal Garden. I have lots of favorite pieces, and lots of things to say.  But I’ll save those pieces for the future.  I hope you’ll stick around.