09.18.2008

New Piece By Mozart Discovered In France!

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:00 pm

Apparently a hitherto-unknown handwritten manuscript of Mozart’s has just been found in a French library in Nantes. It’s just a melodic sketch, missing harmony and notes about instrumentation; but they’re positive it’s Mozart, so it’s an exciting find all the same. Read all about it on MSN:

New Mozart piece of music found in French library

P.S. Check out the picture of the vice-mayor of Nantes included with the article. He looks like a crazy composer-type himself.

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09.16.2008

This past Saturday night (9/13) my lovely girlfriend and I attended the Concert for Hope at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The Concert for Hope was produced in conjunction with the opening of the Village of Hope, a new homeless shelter in Tustin. The Village of Hope is a branch of the Orange County Rescue Mission, built on the very interesting premise that beauty motivates people to change their lives for the better. Original artwork, sculpture and architecture were commissioned for the Village, all in hope that if the homeless who are sheltered there are surrounded by beauty, they will be more inspired to achieve self-sufficiency than if they were in a drab, purely functional environment.

In order to raise money and community awareness about this project (which officially opened on Sunday), OCPAC hosted the Concert for Hope on Saturday night, starring the Pacific Chorale and Pacific Symphony directed by Carl St. Clair. All proceeds from ticket sales were donated to the Village. The concert was held in the only two-year-old Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, which is an amazing performance space I’ve greatly enjoyed in the past. The program consisted of some Copland music and a new piece commissioned for the occasion, the cantata From Greater Light, by Californian composer Alva Henderson with a libretto (i.e. text) by Richard Freis (sorry, no link; I couldn’t find a good website on him).

The concert started off with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, a stirring brass ‘n’ percussion tribute to the human spirit (presumably the reason it was included on the program). The acoustics in the hall are superlative, and the Fanfare was flooring. It was followed by a suite from Copland’s ballet Billy The Kid, and some of his Old American [folk] Songs sung by the famous baritone Jubilant Sykes. Why these were programmed was a mystery to my girlfriend and I; Copland’s main distinctive (apart from his music itself) is as the quintessential American composer. It was certainly good music, but in terms of thematic coherency it didn’t seem to apply much to the Village of Hope. It didn’t even fit with the “tribute to the human spirit” idea (the Billy The Kid suite includes the movements “Celebration [due to] Billy’s Capture” and “Billy’s Death”). But we enjoyed it nonetheless.

The first half ended with Sykes singing an uncredited arrangement of “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” and an a cappella spiritual, which brought the house down. The entire second half consisted of From Greater Light, which lasted about 45 minutes.

The piece is a cantata (the Latin word for “sung”) scored for chorus, orchestra, solo baritone and solo tenor. Cantatas are dramatic pieces, often based on sacred texts, that tell a story but don’t fully stage it (there are no sets, props or costumes). Freis’ libretto dramatizes the biblical story of Job, a righteous man who loses all his property, wealth and children in one blow. In the piece, the angel Gabriel (“played” by the tenor) visits Job (“played” by the baritone) and tells of God’s love, proclaiming the message “We all live in one another and in God.” Freis then incorporates Jesus’ parable of the Final Judgment from Matthew 25, in which he states “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink,” etc. Gabriel declares that God is in the hungry and the one who feeds the hungry, God is in the thirsty and the one who gives a drink, etc., culminating in “God is in the homeless and the one who gives a home.” The choir sings the refrain “We all live in one another and in God,” occasionally takes a character part on itself (“We are the homeless….”), and generally serves to reiterate and comment on the soloists’ statements, much like the chorus in a classical Greek play. Eventually Gabriel implores that God’s invisible hands be made visible in service to those in need, and Job, no longer mourning for his children but still singing their names in remembrance, joins in, and the piece ends with a quiet “Amen” from the choir.

Henderson’s music was conservative, tonal and accessible, and while not being anything special was certainly good. Apparently Henderson is primarily an opera composer, and that showed in the music for this piece in that it was very dramatic, sometimes overly affected, but generally effective in conveying the emotion of the story. There was some nice word painting, notably shimmering high strings, winds and percussion for Gabriel’s entrance. I was particularly pleased, as well, to note Henderson’s skill in giving the choir several a cappella passages, free of orchestral accompaniment, to highlight the text and allow the singers to shine.

The libretto, however, was very weak in my opinion. The Christian tradition has a rich depth of theology and philosophy on the subject of suffering, which could have provided a wealth of richly meaningful and moving material for the piece, and certainly using Job as a starting point is creative and promising. But Freis opts instead for vague and vacuous sentiment, portraying the grief of Job but offering no consolation. It would seem to me that in the middle of the piece there should be a dramatic turning point, in which Job is comforted and uplifted and turns to service (who would serve others when they’re lost in the depths of unconsoled despair themselves?), but this point never comes. Instead there is no real transition, and thus rather than a coherent storyline arc the form of the libretto is nebulous and unconnected. (“Hey, Job, I know you’re bummed about your kids, but to take your mind off it why don’t you try helping others?”)

Because of this From Greater Light can’t achieve the greatness that it aspires to in the service of its worthy cause. The music is effective and dramatically well done, but the libretto falls far short of what it promises and the music is unable to redeem it. However, I have to emphasize that I fully support the concept–I love the idea that the mere presence of beauty can change lives, and I hope the Village is blessed by the awareness and funds contributed by the concert. Henderson’s music: B; Freis’ libretto: C; concept for Concert for Hope: A+.

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09.14.2008

Clapping Music, Steve Reich

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:58 pm

To close out the week of clapping posts, I present to you Clapping Music, an actual piece of art music by a real-life composer consisting only of clapping. The teacher of my composition class at CSUF, Lloyd Rodgers, told us about a performance of this piece at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles: two grown men holding a concert audience transfixed simply by clapping onstage.

The piece Clapping Music, written in 1972, is by Steve Reich, one of America’s most important living composers. Reich is also one of the most prominent composers of minimalist music. Minimalist pieces usually consist of short cells or motives that are repeated continuously, gradually undergoing slow processes of change. Clapping Music fits this bill and also represents a variation of Reich’s idea of “phasing.” In this concept, two performers begin by playing, say, an 8-note-long melody in unison, and player B begins to speed up very gradually until his second note is in unison with player A’s first note (thus player B is now “out of phase”). They play in unison again for a while, and then player B speeds up slowly again until his third note is in unison with player A’s first note, and so on all the way through the cycle until they are playing the same melody in unison as at the beginning. (The Wikipedia article on Reich’s piece Piano Phase provides a more detailed explanation of how phasing is practially applied in that piece.)

In Clapping Music, the two performers begin by clapping the same rhythm in unison. After a few repetitions of this pattern, player B pauses for one beat and then claps the same rhythm one beat behind. After a few repetitions of that pattern, player B pauses for another beat and then claps the same rhythm two beats behind. The piece cycles through the whole rhythm this way, and it ends with the performers clapping the same rhythm in unison again. (You can see Reich’s handwritten score here.)

If there was a YouTube video of that WDCH concert, I’d love to share it with you; but this one isn’t half bad. Apparently it’s from a doctorate recital at the University of Texas at Austin in 2005. If you’re interested in learning more about the piece, I recommend reading the program note by the performer under “More Info” on the video’s YouTube page. Or you can just watch the video below. I love how the first performer begins the clapping piece by joining in with the audience’s applause.

And that concludes our week of clapping posts! Give yourselves a hand!

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09.13.2008

"Clapping Canon," AJ Harbison

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:26 am

One more clapping piece for your listening pleasure–and I promise, this one is cooler than the last one.

Our other clapping assignment in the composition class was to compose a clapping canon–where one voice (in Latin called the “dux” or “lead”) would begin, and the second voice (called the “comes,” or literally, “friend”) would imitate the first exactly. Kinda like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “Three Blind Mice.” This piece sounds more interesting than the last one and has cooler rhythms because the interplay between the two (or rather four) hands is more specifically focused on interacting with each other, and more complicated because the imitative part is fixed based on the leading part, and the leading part then has to play something against what it just played a few measures before.

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(Just in case you were wondering how I did on these assignments: both of them got an “A” grade; the ostinato was also marked “Nice” and the canon “Good counterpoint.”)

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09.10.2008

"Clapping Ostinato Duet," AJ Harbison

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:02 am

In my junior year at CSUF, I took the “Composition” class–not applied composition lessons, but an actual class on composing. The first piece we wrote for the class was a monophonic (i.e. single melody line) chant in free rhythm using only a certain scale, to allow us to focus on melody without worrying about rhythm as well. The second and third pieces we wrote were clapping pieces, so we could focus on rhythm only, devoid of pitch.

My first clapping piece was a clapping ostinato duet. “Ostinato” simply means that one of the parts repeats a rhythmic pattern over and over again, which in this piece happens to be the following one-measure rhythm:

The ostinato part repeats this exact same rhythm in every measure of the piece, albeit at varying dynamic levels (sometimes soft, sometimes loud), while the other part changes rhythms freely and plays with and against the ostinato.

You can listen to a brand-new performance of this piece by clicking on the player below. I performed both parts, and my clapping chops have never been terribly skilled, so it’s not a perfect performance but it’s passable and it will give you a feel for what a clapping piece might sound like. N.B. In order to make it easier to hear the two parts separately, I panned the ostinato almost all the way to the right and the other part almost all the way to the left. Thus the piece is best experienced with stereo speakers or headphones.

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08.28.2008

My Favorite Olympic Commercials

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:32 am

And, bringing my Olympic posts to a close:

My favorite commercial during the Olympics–or rather my favorite series of commercials–has been United Airlines’ “It’s Time To Fly” campaign. I’ve seen four of the five commercials in the series at various times, the most prevalent being the one entitled “Two Worlds,” in which a business man from a black-and-white world rises to a fantastic colorful world in the sky, and when he returns, begins to spread color throughout his world. The earliest one I saw, “Sea Orchestra,” employs a very colorful, illustrative-type style to depict an orchestra of various sea creatures heralding a transoceanic flight. The other two I’ve seen, “Butterfly” and “Moondust,” utilize a very fluid sidewalk-chalkesque animation style that I enjoy very much.

All the commercials, however, are notable for their background music: Rhapsody In Blue by the American composer George Gershwin. Gershwin was a jazz musician in the early twentieth century, but he was also an art music composer, and Rhapsody in Blue represents one of the first pieces considered a “crossover” blending jazz and classical music. It has become one of America’s most performed concert works, is instantly recognizable by its famous themes, and all in all is a really cool piece.

This piece forms the background for each of the five commercials in the United campaign (United has been using the piece in commercials since the 1980s), and is featured very prominently as the commercials contain no dialogue and limited narration. Perhaps the commercial drawing the most attention to its soundtrack is the “Sea Orchestra” spot, in which different groups of sea creatures perform the different groups of instruments in the piece. Perhaps I’m biased because of my affinity for Rhapsody in Blue; but I enjoyed the visual art of each of the commercials as well, and they’ve been the best spots I’ve seen in the three weeks of the Games.

You can see the commercials by following this link to United’s website; click on “Commercials,” then mouse over the small thumbnail picture to expose all the individual commercials. You can also see “behind the scenes” material for each one; the “Music Sketch” PDF file for “Sea Creatures” is pretty interesting.

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08.26.2008

The Star-Spangled Banner In Beijing

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:00 am

As post number two of three in my Olympic series, I wanted to point out that in watching the Olympics on NBC this year–probably more television than I’ve watched in the past two years combined–I’ve noticed two distinctly different arrangements of the American national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.

This news story from the official Beijing Games website details the delivery of national anthem recordings to “BOCOG,” an acronym (somehow) for “The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad.” The Beijing Symphony Orchestra, representative music ensemble for the host city, recorded the national anthems of all participating countries (a huge and daunting project that began in May 2007) for welcoming and victory ceremonies–presumably including ours. (Meaning no offense to any TLB readers outside America; but I don’t think there are any of those, as of yet…)

The arrangement of the anthem is typically done in a fanfare-type style, using lots of brass and percussion. But the arrangement that I’ve heard the most is notable because the middle section (“And the rockets’ red glare…”) is played only by the strings, and uses harmonic progressions I’ve never heard used before. It also contains an atypical (but cool-sounding) 4-2-3 suspension on the last chord. It’s not bad, per se (although the “actual expert” quoted in this Seattle Times blog story certainly thinks it is), but it’s certainly unusual.

The most interesting thing, though, is not that arrangement, but the fact that I’ve also heard a more traditional arrangement in which the middle section was played by the brass and the rest of the orchestra, with the typical chord progression. I don’t remember the specific context in which I heard it, but I’m almost positive that I heard both arrangements at medal ceremonies.

While trying to find online corroboration for this strange phenomenon, I discovered that the unusual arrangement is likely being plagiarized from the arrangement of Peter Breiner, as detailed in this story from the Washington Post. Not surprising, considering all the other various controversies and scandals coming from the Beijing Games, but certainly of interest.

Am I off my musical rocker? Or has anyone else heard these two different versions?

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08.24.2008

The Olympic Fanfares

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:00 pm

In honor of the final weekend and close of the Games of the XXIXth Olympiad, I’ll be posting three TLB entries over the next few days concerning the Olympics and their televised coverage by NBC.

There are actually two common fanfares used as themes for the Olympics. The first, entitled “Bugler’s Dream,” was composed by Leo Arnaud in 1958 as part of his Charge Suite. It was first used in ABC’s television coverage of the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968, and picked up subsequently by NBC. “Bugler’s Dream” is a stately march, beginning with a timpani cadence and moving into a theme played by the brass.

The second fanfare, entitled more specifically “Olympic Fanfare and Theme,” was composed by none other than the great film composer John Williams specifically for the 1984 games in Los Angeles (which were televised then by NBC). It is a fast and energetic fanfare also utilizing a lot of brass and percussion, and it is sometimes combined with Arnaud’s piece, as in the arrangement for the soundtrack album of the Games in Atlanta in 1996.

In addition to these familiar fanfares, there is also an official Olympic Hymn, known informally as the Olympic Anthem, composed for the first modern Olympics in 1896 and adopted as the official Olympic anthem by the International Olympic Committee in 1958. Up until the 1960 Games in Rome, it was customary for each host nation to commission a new Olympic hymn from a native composer for their year. I assume that this practice was discontinued since the official hymn was adopted around that time; but perhaps it should be reinstated. How cool would that be, to compose an Olympic hymn for your own country? I could be the Michael Phelps of composers….

Samples of each fanfare can be heard on the Wikipedia page; as always on Wikipedia, click the triangular play button twice. A YouTube vide of the Olympic Hymn, performed at the Opening Ceremony of the Athens Games in 2004, can be found here.

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08.23.2008

Beethoven In The Temperaments, Enid Katahn

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:50 am

While reading back over Kyle Gann’s website about historical tunings in research for my first post about tuning, I came across his recommendation for the CD Beethoven In The Temperaments. (The link is to the Amazon page, but Amazon is currently out of stock and will remain so indefinitely.) The CD is a recording of four Beethoven sonatas–the “Pathétique,” the “Moonlight,” the “Waldstein” and the creatively named “Op. 14 No. 1.” The twist is that they’re performed on a modern concert grand piano (a Steinway D, for those for whom that means something) that’s tuned in two different historical well temperaments common in Beethoven’s time: Prinz temperament and Thomas Young temperament. (The pianist is Enid Katahn, and the piano tuner is Edward Foote.) So, essentially, this is a recording of Beethoven’s sonatas as Beethoven might have heard them. (Had he not been deaf, of course….)

I thought it sounded intriguing (no pun intended), so after failing to find it on iTunes, Amazon, or anywhere else I finally ordered it from ArkivMusic. It arrived on Thursday evening, and I listened to the Pathétique, which is performed in the Prinz temperament. The liner notes said that this temperament was chosen for the great contrasts between keys: pure and consonant for the “home keys” of the piece, and more and more dissonant the further the tonality went from “home.”

(Minor digression: I love Steinways. I’m a huge fan of dark, mellow and rich when it comes to sound, and Steinways are the epitome of that sound in a concert grand. Yamahas, while more popular and much cheaper, tend to be much brighter. If you play guitar, you’ll understand: Steinways are like Martins–sigh–while Yamahas are like Taylors. The latter are good, maybe even really good, but ultimately just can’t compare. For me, at least.)

I have to say that I didn’t notice a world of difference–the difference was certainly there, but it wasn’t nearly as pronounced as I anticipated (or perhaps hoped). In the opening chords of the sonata (click here and push the play button twice–although of course it’s in equal temperament), I could hear slight differences in the resonances of the chords–they were somewhat richer. But the most notable were the dissonances, especially in big chords: they really stood out, almost uncomfortably in places, because of the temperament. It’s interesting, and a foreign concept to those of us raised on equal temperament, that dissonances in other tunings can be dissonant not only because the notes themselves clash (like minor ninths, for example), but also because the notes aren’t quite in tune with one another. As I mentioned, the Prinz temperament showcases differences in keys, and gets more dissonant the further afield the piece roams; so some of the dissonances in the “further afield” keys can get positively crunchy. (Yes, that’s a technical term.)

Overall, it was a rich sound, certainly more colorful and vibrant than an equal-tempered piano. Another interesting temperament experience. It’s no wonder musicians who work in just and well temperaments all the time consider equal temperament so bland.

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08.20.2008

… I would be remiss if I failed to mention that TLB was honored to receive a visit by Pauline Oliveros herself–the inventor of Deep Listening and the “quotee” of this blog’s header quote. She asked me to clarify some comments I’d made, and we had a brief exchange in the comments section of my last post. I encourage you to check it out, and if Ms. Oliveros happens to stop by this post as well, thanks again!

N.B. Unfortunately the date in the email below will reveal that my previous post and this one were written quite a while ago. I hope you find them intriguing nonetheless.

No sooner had I written my post about comprehensive listening than I saw this email, forwarded to me from the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the American Composers Forum (of which I am a member)….


“…the coolest ride of the year…sure to permanently change the way you think about – and listen to – SF” – Nitevibe

“AudioBus create[s] unique participatory sound experiences” – Reyhan Hermanci, SF Chronicle 96 Hours

“…what better place to have a city music festival than on a bus…commuting takes on new meaning…” – Jennifer Maerz, Last Tango in Traffic, SF Weekly

MOVESOUND, SoundwaveSeries’ third season, launches the first of five AudioBus events this Saturday July 12 at New Langton Arts. The AudioBus is a moving venue giving audiences an adventurous sonic experience like never before. The sound artists and musicians curated for the AudioBus compose their San Francisco route and perform live scores to the scenery moving past them.

We are also excited to announce Sennheiser has come on board to become a major sponsor of AudioBus suppling quality microphones and headphones for the series. Sennheiser joins CitySightseeing San Francisco and the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the American Composers Forum as crucial support in making AudioBus a reality.

Saturday, July 12, 2008
AUDIOBUS: HUMAN STREET TEXTURES: Live Processed Sound on a Moving Open-Top Double Decker Bus by David Graves (San Francisco) and [ruidobello] (San Francisco)

Composer David Graves & sound artist [ruidobello] devise a tour route collecting live moving street sounds. David & [ruidobello] will mix, and manipulate the soundscapes into an alternate sonic reality for audiences equipped with headphones atop a CitySightseeing open top double-decker bus moving through the city.


Sounds pretty cool to me! Almost makes me wish I lived in San Francisco…. (But not quite.)

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