“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.