08.10.2009

My lovely wife and I visited the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine last Saturday night to attend a concert by the Pacific Symphony, Orange County’s resident orchestra. The concert was titled “Rhapsody and Rapture,” and featured Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Carl Orff’s magnum opus Carmina Burana.

Neither of us had been to the amphitheater before, and it was a fun experience. It’s an outside venue; we were pretty far off to one side, so we couldn’t see the whole stage, but they had big screens above the stage which helped. And it’s a relatively small theater, so we weren’t terribly far away from the action.

The first piece, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody, was performed by the orchestra and pianist Yeol Eum Son, the silver medalist of the 2009 Van Cliburn piano competition, one of the foremost piano competitions in the world. It’s a great piece, often used in movies, trailers, commercials, etc.; it’s big and passionate (as Russian artworks tend to be) but also has its whimsical moments (see the very end of the piece). Unfortunately, since the amphitheater is an outdoor venue, most or all of the sound comes from speakers, rather than primarily from the orchestra as it would in a concert hall; this gives the impression that you’re listening to a recording, rather than seeing a live performance, but it’s an unavoidable consequence (I suppose) of the great outdoors. What’s more unfortunate, though, is that it wasn’t a terribly good recording. The mix in the speakers left something to be desired; the piano was a little low in the mix for my taste, and the brass was especially low–instead of being at the forefront when playing loudly, as they would be live, they were relegated to a role somewhere in the middle or even in the background. Yeol Eum Son, however, shone in her performance. Some of the big loud passages felt a little thin, and it was hard to tell whether it was the fault of the pianist, the piano itself, or the mixer. But her delicate touch in the softer passages was second to none, and she had a lightness to her touch that seemed almost supernatural. Her staccatos in the nineteenth variation (the return to the minor theme after the slow, major theme) were the crispest and shortest I think I’ve ever heard from any pianist. She was certainly the star of that show.

Carmina Burana comprised the second half of the concert. It’s one of my favorite pieces of all time, a huge cantata for orchestra, choir, children’s choir and tenor, baritone and soprano solos that takes about an hour to perform in its entirety. The opening and closing movement, “O Fortuna,” has been used in movies, trailers, commercials, etc. almost as much as Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. (You can listen to a recording courtesy of Last.fm by going here and clicking on the black “play” button.) I’m fond of saying that it’s a piece everyone should see performed live before they die.

After this performance, I said to Eleanor that I may have to take her to another performance of it live before she dies, because this one wasn’t exactly top-notch. The orchestra had some tuning problems in the beginning. Conductor Carl St. Clair took some passages at a faster tempo than I’m used to hearing them, and it seemed that the orchestra and the choir (the Pacific Chorale) had some trouble keeping up. And the mix still wasn’t as clear as I would have liked. Whoever was operating the cameras that controlled the large screens above the stage didn’t seem to be paying much attention to what they were doing; the clumsy, rapid switches back and forth combined with shots that lingered too long and panned out into nowhere were often more laughable than useful. And that goes double for the subtitles. In an effort to make the text, which is in Latin and German, understandable to the audience, they projected subtitles onto the screens as well, translating what the choir was singing into English. But whoever was in charge of the subtitles was clearly not paying attention. Even without the rudimentary understanding of Latin and German I have, one could tell that the subtitles were often late in changing, sometimes having to rush through three or four slides to make up for missed time before it caught up again. Sometimes words would remain on the screen when no one was singing; sometimes words would disappear during the singing; and sometimes a section of singing would pass with no subtitles at all. I assume the concept behind the subtitles was to be helpful to the audience, but more often than not they were just distracting.

However, despite these things there were some strong highlights to the performance, and these highlights were the three soloists. The tenor solo only sings one movement, the “Lament of the Roasting Duck,” which is a tortuously high aria from the roasting duck’s perspective, played to very comical effect. The tenor, John Duykers, did a terrific job of acting out the part as well as singing it and was very funny. The baritone, Christopheren Nomura (whom I’ve seen sing this part with the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale before), had a much larger role but was extremely expressive with his facial expressions and body language, as well as being a very talented singer. And the soprano solo, Kiera Duffy, was even more expressive–almost too much so, as some of her expressions were pretty suggestive, especially toward the end of the piece (much of the text in Carmina Burana is quite salacious). And she did an amazing job with “Dulcissime,” the impossibly high cadenza before the penultimate movement (you can hear it here; the highest note is a high D, two octaves above middle C).

Unfortunately, the end of the concert was a clunky throwaway for the unwashed masses, where the choir and orchestra reprised “O Fortuna” while booming fireworks went off and obscured the music completely. I suppose that summer concertgoers aren’t satisfied unless the performance ends with fireworks, but it was almost an insult to the greatness of the piece to revisit the “fan favorite” movement and fire off some explosives immediately following its end. And whoever was in charge of the subtitles must have been in charge of the fireworks, too, because there were sometimes long pauses where no fireworks went off and they came in seemingly random spurts; and, just as I thought they’d finally gotten something right as the big fireworks finale went off during the climactic final chord, another big fireworks finale went off a few seconds after the music ended.

It was a clumsy and unnecessary ending for a concert that wasn’t bad, but wasn’t the great one that it could have been with two great masterworks and two competent ensembles. I’ve heard both the Symphony and the Chorale perform better than they did on Saturday night; only the soloists really stood out. I’m sorry that we caught them on an off night.

(The local Orange County Register had a different perspective on the concert; you can read their review here, but beware the unrevealed bias–the Register was the primary sponsor of the concert.)

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08.03.2009

Way back in March, coldplay.com featured an interview with Mercury Rev, a band that was opening for them at that time on their tour. In the interview, they mentioned that they had an album available as a free download on their website. As someone who (at least in principle) is always interested in free music, I headed over, signed up for their email list and downloaded the album; as someone who (at least in practice) is always interested in procrastination, I hadn’t listened to it until today. But when I did, I found a very pleasant surprise.

On Wikipedia, the genres listed for Mercury Rev are “alternative rock,” “art rock” and “dream pop,” whatever those mean. Apparently the band normally has vocals, but the free album, entitled Strange Attractor, is all instrumental. I guess “dream pop” isn’t quite my cup of tea, but it was an enjoyable listen. The first track, however, captured my interest immediately. It’s called “Love Is Pure;” but it’s essentially a rock/pop remix of Arvo Pärt’s art music composition Fratres. I wrote about Fratres in the short-lived Listening Page feature on my former blog (short-lived because I soon expanded it to become this Listening Blog); here’s my description of the piece:

Pärt is an Estonian composer of minimalistic music, particularly a style known sometimes as “holy minimalism” (and ridiculed sometimes as “Holy minimalism, Batman!”). This is one of his best-known works–a hauntingly beautiful piece for four cellos. It’s one of those pieces in which the composer sets up a pattern, writes the beginning, and then lets the rest of the piece write itself (I hope to write a piece like this someday, it just seems too easy). In this particular piece, he writes a chord progression which begins at a very high pitch; then he repeats the progression nine times (I think), and each time the progression starts on a different, lower pitch, until it ends in the deep middle-low range of the cellos. The piece is about 10 minutes long, but it never gets boring because of the balance of repetition (the same general progression) and contrast (different chords in the progression in different ranges)…. It’s a really cool piece.

Mercury Rev’s version doesn’t repeat or change pitch, but it does use the same chord progression. The rhythm is jazzed up and delay is added, but the progression is clearly the same. It even retains the low held interval that the original Fratres does. Very cool.

You can listen to a recording of Fratres here, courtesy of Last.fm; and you can listen to “Love Is Pure” (by itself) here. However, the free download of Strange Attractor is still available at Mercury Rev’s website, and I’d recommend checking that out instead!

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07.19.2009

Fastest Violinist In The World

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:23 pm

I came across this video on CNN.com a few days ago. The violinist is David Garrett, a Juilliard graduate who studied with Itzhak Perlman, did some modeling on the side, and wears (for the interview) a leather jacket and a Von Dutch cap; he plays both classical music and pop music, “channeling” Michael Jackson and Metallica. But he’s also going in the 2010 Guinness Book of Records as the world’s fastest violinist for playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee in 66 seconds–13 notes per second. If you’d like to skip the opening segments with the gushing interviewer who is clearly smitten with him, skip to the 1:30 mark.


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07.17.2009

Open Sound New Orleans

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:32 pm

My lovely wife grew up in the city of New Orleans, and I was tipped off to this project by my cousin-in-law who emailed her and her parents when he heard about it on NPR. It’s called “Open Sound New Orleans,” and it describes itself as “a community media project that invites and enables New Orleanians to document their lives in sound.” The main page is an interactive Google map of the city, with sound bubbles in three categories (ambient sounds, music sounds and voice sounds) scattered around. You can click on the sound bubbles to hear the sounds that were recorded in that location of the city.

http://www.opensoundneworleans.com

Eleanor and I clicked around for a while last night, and it was pretty fun. In the right sidebar there’s a list of “greatest hits,” which provide a better chance for interesting material than clicking on a random bubble. I’d highly recommend listening to “Amazing Grace at Cafe du Monde,” which is a recording of a violin and guitar playing the song at the famous Cafe–I think it’s the most soulful (and bluesy) version of “Amazing Grace” I’ve ever heard. Eleanor also liked “Cicadas at dusk,” which she said was a very familiar sound to her, though a new one for me (I’ve never lived in a place that had cicadas before). And, just for a laugh, listen to “Who dat!” on the last page of the “greatest hits”–the excitement and then disappointment of New Orleans Saints football fans (“Who dat” is their official chant).

It’s certainly a cool idea for a project, and it’s fun to click around for a while. I wonder a bit about the long-term value of the idea. But here’s their “vision statement:”

Our intent is to make more accessible the authentic, unedited sounds and voices of New Orleans. Sharing the sounds of our city as we hear them, move through them, and create them, is an act of celebration. But it also serves each contributor – you and me and anyone else who might participate – as a simple way to extend our own experience to others, harness our representations and those of our city, and participate in New Orleans’ public culture with intentionality.

Reminds me of The AudioBus Experience in San Francisco that I wrote about last summer, except less mobile and more authentic (since the AudioBus manipulated the sound live rather than recording it). What do you think? Cool idea that contributes to community, or a novelty with a little interest but no lasting value?

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06.26.2009

Oldest-known Musical Instrument Found?

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:45 pm

On Thursday afternoon I came across the following story on MSN. Entitled “Music for cavemen,” it describes the discovery in southwestern Germany of what is considered to be “the earliest handcrafted musical instrument”–a flute carved from the bone of a griffon vulture. If you click on the picture at the top of the article (or on the link in the middle) you can hear an audio sample of what the flute “might” have sounded like. (I believe that means that the flute in the clip is a replica, not the actual specimen found–it’s probably far too valuable to actually put your lips to.) I wonder what it is that the flute is playing; it’s a simple, folklike tune, pretty boring in the beginning but getting more interesting as it goes along.

“Music for cavemen”

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05.13.2009

Agnus Dei, AJ Harbison

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:10 pm

At my church, every Sunday morning we follow a set liturgy or order of service–the prayers, songs and Scripture readings change, but the structure of the service is always the same. Early in the service, there’s a time of confession where the congregation reads a prayer aloud, and then prays in silence for 45 seconds. Following this we sing the “Agnus Dei,” a traditional liturgical text originally used in the Catholic Mass: “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us / Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us / Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, grant us peace.” The Agnus Dei that we sing every week was composed by a member of the church, David Hlebo, who is a composer and musician who plays sax and flute on the church’s worship team. The Agnus Dei that he wrote is amazing. It’s very simple, and probably most lay people would think it adequate but unremarkable; but from a compositional standpoint, it comes close to technical perfection, and it works really well at the point in the service when it’s used.

After becoming a member of the church myself, I thought it would be fun to try to compose another Agnus Dei that could alternate with Hlebo’s version. (I suggested this to the pastor, and he was all for the idea, since he said “We’ve sung the same song every week for the past seven years”). It took me a long time to come up with a good idea, because Hlebo’s version was so ingrained in my head and so good–most of my early thoughts were far too similar to his. But eventually I came up with a melody and chord progression I was happy with.

My Agnus Dei is in 6/8 time, in C minor. Since the piece is for congregational singing, I wanted it to be a simple, almost folk-like melody that would be easy to catch onto quickly; and since it’s intended for use in the confessional part of the service, I wanted it to be solemn and reverent without being too slow or boring. I wrote along with the melody a suggested piano accompaniment; it’s not too exciting, but it has some cool moments and it helps to give the piece some movement and energy. At the moment I don’t have the ability to record the piano part, but in the future I will, and I’ll let you know when that happens. In the meantime, you can head over to the Agnus Dei page on my website to listen to a scratch recording with guitar. Leave a comment here and let me know what you think!

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04.27.2009

Xylopholks

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:23 pm

Thanks to Seán Dunnahoe for the tipoff to this…. Nothing too profound here, but it’s a lot of fun. Cookie Monster on xylophone and a pink gorilla on standup bass, plus a chicken on banjo in the second video, playing “novelty ragtime music from the 1920s” (http://www.myspace.com/xylopholks).

Seán’s wife’s comment: “Cookie Monster should definitely eat his mallets at the end of every set. Expensive, yet effective.”

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04.12.2009

Happy Easter! He is risen–He is risen indeed!

My lovely wife and I were visiting a friend last weekend, and he introduced me to a piece that he’d been taken with recently. It was a modern “deconstruction” or reimagining of a Bach piece that was very well done. It just so happened that I had brought a CD for him to borrow, and it also contained a modern deconstruction of another Bach piece, so I played it for him and he enjoyed it quite a bit. And, of course, I thought it would make a great two-parter on TLB. So here’s part one of two….

The piece our friend played for us was a piece for choir, orchestra and solo piano entitled Credo, by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (born 1935). Pärt is best known for a composition style known as “holy minimalism” or “sacred minimalism,” which employs tonal chord structures with frequent repetition and an overall static (rather than dynamic and progressing) feeling. His particular brand of the style is designated as “tintinnabuli” (from the Latin tinnabulae, of bells) and is meant to sound like pealing, harmonius bells. Pärt has said that “Tintinnabuli is the mathematically exact connection from one line to another… tintinnabuli is the rule where the melody and the accompaniment is one”–in other words, the melody and accompanying voices move in block chords rather than having different rhythms. Most of Pärt’s famous works, including his Berliner Messe and Fratres (my personal favorite of his works), are written in this style, which he adopted in the 1970s.

However (after that long aside), Credo was written before that period, in 1968, and shows marks of his earlier preference for neo-classical and twelve-tone (or serial) styles. It is based on Bach’s first prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier, a very simple piece in C major that repeats the same arpeggiated pattern while changing chords in each measure. (You can see a performance of that piece here; if you listen to the Pärt piece, I recommend listening to the Bach piece first.) Credo takes the piece and its chord progression, and then applies neo-classical, twelve-tone and collage techniques and makes it another piece entirely.

Credo begins with the choir singing and the orchestra playing long held notes–the same chords as the Bach prelude, but with no arpeggiation (in other words, instead of the chords being played as a series of individual notes, all the notes of the chord are sung at the same time). The first several measures are exactly the same progression and voicings of the Bach piece; but it gradually begins to stray from the original piece, getting farther and farther from the source material, and experiences a harrowing journey through a frenzied middle section that is loud, wild and twelve-tone (sounding much like something from Schoenberg or Prokofiev). It is a struggle, and a violent one at that, almost as if Pärt is wrestling with his own beliefs (“credo” is Latin for “I believe”), but also seems to symbolize the struggles between tonality and serialism, order and disorder. The piece almost seems to fall apart and disintegrate. But eventually the solo piano returns, playing the original prelude up several octaves, high above the fray; the dissonant orchestra attempts to drown it out, but tonality begins to triumph, and the choir returns softly but gains strength, and after a hymn-like return to the original prelude by the choir, orchestra and piano, the piano concludes the piece playing each C on the keyboard, from the lowest to the highest.

The piece was rather exhilarating, and is a brilliant “update” of sorts of the original Bach work. Pärt reinterprets Bach and turns his simple prelude into a huge piece that represents the struggles of both twentieth-century music and the human spirit. Definitely recommended!

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a free online recording of the piece to listen to; but it would be worth checking out on CD. If you’d like a more in-depth analysis of the piece, I found an excellent article you might want to check out as well, that gives a more detailed play-by-play of the piece and places it in the larger context of Pärt’s career; you can find it here.

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04.10.2009

I’m surprised, upon a quick look back over TLB, that I’ve never posted about Derek Webb before and I’ve only mentioned him a few times in passing, since he’s one of my favorite songwriters. That makes it ironic, too, I guess, that this first time I post about his music, he won’t be the focus. Ah well.

After listening multiple times through The Book of Secrets this past week in my car, I switched it out for Mockingbird, Derek Webb’s fourth solo album, since I realized I hadn’t listened to anything of his for a while. Each one of his solo albums is in a completely different style than the others, and this one has a stripped-down, simple, house-recorded feel to it (I guess because it is all of those things). In recording the album, the band did very few overdubs (recording multiple times through a song on the same instrument, or a similar one), resulting in simple instrumentation and little reworking or extra production. It’s not a sound I could listen to all the time, but I do enjoy it on this album.

What caught my attention this time through, as it has several times before, is the piano playing by Cason Cooley. On Derek Webb’s previous album I See Things Upside Down, Cooley mostly played keyboards that did a bunch of crazy things, but on Mockingbird it’s almost all straight piano. What I love about his playing is that oftentimes it’s very simple, almost too simple, and yet with a few notes he’s able to create a memorable riff or accompaniment pattern that fits perfectly with the style of the song. On track two, “A New Law,” the piano provides the primary motion of the harmonic accompaniment as well as the main riff of the song–and all Cooley is doing is arpeggiating root position triads in a certain way. For “A King & A Kingdom” (track three), he does the same thing with even fewer notes: he starts by playing a held octave, then a major seventh (moving the bottom note of the octave up a half step), then a few descending notes before returning to the octave. Incredibly simple, yet along with the drums it sets the mood for the whole song. And his playing is in a similar vein all throughout the album. The Romantic composer Johannes Brahms once said, “It is not hard to compose, but what is fabulously hard is to leave the superfluous notes under the table.” Cooley is a performer who knows how to leave the superfluous notes behind and make the most of the ones he keeps. I wish I could play so well.

You can listen to “A New Law” and “A King & A Kingdom” courtesy of Last.fm by visiting their respective links and clicking on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.

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04.08.2009

Two Exciting Opportunities–My Record: 1-1

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:47 pm

I wanted to give you all a brief update on the two exciting opportunities I wrote about two weeks ago, one involving a string quartet from Arizona interested in my piece P.S.Q. and the other involving starting a choir at my church.

Unfortunately, the leadership of the church wasn’t interested in the choir concept I’d come up with and didn’t think it fit with their vision and direction, so there went that idea. However, I’ve had much better success with Quartet Sabaku. My contact in the group told me that they read through the first movement (based on Maroon 5′s song “Harder To Breathe”) and loved it, but they were really busy and were hoping to finalize next season’s repertoire in a few months. So that was a great start, if nothing concrete. But I got another email from her on Monday and she informed me that they were going to be using my piece for an educational workshop on April 17th. I’m not sure exactly what the workshop is about, but that was rather exciting in and of itself–and seems to up the chances of landing the piece in their next performing season. I’ll keep you posted on further developments!

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