This past Christmas my mother gave me a subscription to Listen: Life With Classical Music, “America’s classical music magazine,” which is published by Arkiv Music. In the Summer 2010 issue, there’s an interesting article about Brett Richardson, a pianist who performs regularly in a bar in New Orleans called The Spotted Cat. Along with the usual suspects–stride piano, ragtime, blues–he also plays Chopin, Poulenc, Bach, Prokofiev, Schumann, and the music of other classical composers. The article isn’t available on Listen‘s website, but Richardson had a couple of great quotes that I hope they won’t mind me sharing with you here.
“I’m disgusted with [the institution of classical music]. And I participated in it for a long time before I was able to articulate what bothered me. Basically, I don’t think the tradition is currently conducive to the masses. It’s a stuffy thing. To force someone to sit still and pay attention, it’s just alienating and furstrating. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone! But if you go somewhere and play some Scott Joplin, play some blues, and then sneak in some Beethoven, people are like, ‘Oh, man, that’s great! Some fine piano-playing right there.’ People like Beethoven, they really do. But if you present it in a lofty way, people will be put off, agitated, even insulted…. Ultimately, I would prefer to contribute to the atmosphere rather than be at the center of it. To be on stage and playing Rachmaninoff is a big responsibility. To say, ‘Okay, you have to be still and quiet and pay attention while I do this,’ well, hey, you better do it damn good. But if you’re playing where people are telling jokes and flirting and you’re contributing to that, that’s the whole point of sharing music. If people want to sit and listen quietly, they can do that, but if they want to get in fights, well, that’s fine, too.”
Although I wouldn’t say I’m “disgusted” with the institution of classical music, I do agree with his comments about it to some extent. That’s the reason why the institution is struggling all over the country–because it’s not conducive to the masses. And that’s why a lot of the contemporary classical music that matters isn’t being written for and performed in concert halls (though some of it is, to be sure). It’s being fused with popular music and played in spaces like galleries, lofts, and yes, even bars; places where it’s not portrayed as “sophisticated” or “high-brow,” for the “hallowed halls,” but for people to come together, hang out, share and enjoy. I certainly wouldn’t want my only experiences of listening to classical music to be in a noisy club. But if I knew of a bar nearby that played classical music, you’d definitely find me there a lot.
My good friend Courtney Patino, a rabid Dave Matthews Band fan, recommended to me a website sent to her via DMB’s email list. It’s called “Pairings,” and it details an evening of music, wine and food last fall when Dave Matthews met with New Orleans chef John Besh at the Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley, California. There are five videos on the website featuring interviews with the two of them and Genevieve Janssens, Mondavi’s director of winemaking, as they tour the winery and kitchen, taste wine and food, and listen to an acoustic performance by Dave Matthews at the dinner culminating the event. It’s pretty interesting to watch, and there are some good parallels drawn between food, wine and music as being more thoroughly enjoyed when experienced together rather than individually, and how they are all meant not to be kept to yourself, but need to be shared to be experienced to their fullest potential. There’s no timer on the video frame, but I’d say each video is short–between three and five minutes long. Just one warning: don’t watch the fourth video, “A Magical Evening,” if you’re hungry–it shows the menu that John Besh put together and it’ll make your mouth water!
I hope one day to be able to say, like Dave Matthews, that I have a small vineyard and a go-to winery for myself. Although I hope that unlike Dave Matthews, I will continue to pronounce “New Orleans” “New OR-luhns,” as opposed to the way he says “New OR-lee-uhns.”
For the full World Science Festival video, check out http://vimeo.com/5732745.
I saw this fun video in an email sent by a fellow member of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, and thought I’d pass it on. A group of creative folks try to get people to take the stairs rather than the escalator by turning the staircase into a big keyboard. Check it out!
Thanks to my friend Jessica (@jesserface) for this one: A video by Australian musical comedy trio Axis of Awesome where the keyboardist quips, “We’ve never had a hit because we’ve never written a four chord song.” They then proceed to show how every pop song ever written uses the same four chords: I – V – vi – IV (in the video A, E, F-sharp minor and D). The list of songs included below the video is from the YouTube page, so I take no responsibility for any grammatical or punctuational or capitalizational errors (and just to be sure, I encased it all in quotation marks).
Funny? Yes. True? Yes. Sad? You decide.
“Songs Included are :
You’re beautiful by James Blunt,
Forever young by the Alphaville (covered by Youth Group),
I’m yours by Jason Mraz,
Amazing by Alex Lloyd,
Wherever you go by the Calling,
Can you feel the love tonight by Elton John,
She will be loved by Maroon 5,
Pictures of you by the Last Goodnight,
Cigarettes will kill you by Ben Lee,
With or without you by U2,
Fall at your feet by Crowded House,
Am I not pretty enough? by Kasey Chambers,
Let it be by The Beatles,
Under the bridge by RHCP,
Horses by Darryl Braithwaite,
Down under by Men at Work,
Old Australia’s funniest Homevideos intro,
Taylor by Jack Johnson,
2 become 1 by the Spice Girls,
Take on me by A-ha,
When I come around by Green Day,
Save tonight by Eagle Eye Cherry,
Africa by Toto,
If I Were A Boy by Beyonce,
Self Esteem by the Offspring,
Apologize by One Republic,
U + Ur Hand by P!nk,
Pokerface by Lady Gaga,
Barbie Girl by Aqua,
Kids by MGMT,
Scar by Missy Higgins,
Thats all it takes to be a star by Axis Of Awesome.”
My wife and I attended a holiday/birthday party on Labor Day, and we sang “Happy Birthday” to the lady who was turning a year older partway through the festivities. (Instead of a birthday cake, Irish cupcakes were served, which are cupcakes made from Guinness with Baileys frosting. They were delicious.) Being a musician, I’m often asked to lead the group in singing everyone’s favorite (or least favorite) birthday song, but in this case, someone else, who is not a musician, did the honors. It’s hard, especially for non-musicians, to start singing something a cappella, because you don’t know exactly where you’re starting pitch-wise so you don’t know whether the range of the song will eventually take you too high or too low to sing comfortably. And, of course, it always takes a while for a non-musical group that’s singing to agree on a pitch. There were probably 15-20 people at the party at that time. I decided to listen intentionally to the group’s singing to see how long it took for them to fall into something close to a unison agreement. Unsurprisingly, it took two whole phrases: “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to–” and then by the second “you,” they were pretty close to singing the same notes.
It was an interesting experiment. Try it the next time you’re at a birthday celebration–and let me know what you hear!
Another entry in the recently reshuffled iPod playlist category….
I wrote a year ago about how my friend Rae hooked me up with some free CDs she didn’t want. Two of them happened to be the Greatest Hits of Billy Idol and the Greatest Hits: 1974-1978 of The Steve Miller Band. (What it says about the band that they have a Greatest Hits album with 14 tracks that spans all of 5 years, I’m not sure.) I put both those albums into my playlist, and I’ve heard multiple songs from both of them over the last week or so at work.
I’m not too impressed with either album. It’s definitely the 70s-80s rock sound that I would expect, not knowing much about either artist, and to be honest it bores me. Sure, there’s a lot of energy. But the style is quite outdated (insert your favorite cliche about 80s music here), and there’s nothing in the music that transcends the style–nothing that’s designed to last beyond the style itself. Especially in the Billy Idol tracks. They’re all constructed the same way, with the same instruments playing the same types of musical lines in every song. There are very few interesting details. The one exception is the live version of “Rebel Yell,” featuring some rocking acoustic guitar from Steve Stevens. He plays some unique accompaniment patterns, does some “superstrumming,” plays rhythms on muted strings, etc. That is worth listening to. But none of the other songs have the same redeeming quality (or any redeeming quality, to my mind).
Right after a song of Billy Idol’s and a song of The Steve Miller Band’s the other day, the song “All Your Reasons” from Matchbox Twenty’s album Exile On Mainstream started to play. It made me smile, because I love that song and it was a breath of fresh air after the other two. But then I started to wonder why–what was it that made “All Your Reasons” better than “White Wedding” and “Take The Money And Run”?
First of all, “All Your Reasons” is more intelligent than the other songs because while it has a distinctive pop/rock style, it transcends it because it’s a parody of the style. (The song starts out, quite humorously, with a couple of singers singing, with much feeling, “Ba da da da ba ba ba ba da” etc.) Maybe the parody won’t last for decades, but at least it’s a sentient style, so to speak–it’s aware of the style it’s operating in. Secondly, even though “All Your Reasons” is a simple song, there’s more detail in it than in five of Billy Idol’s songs combined–more subtle nuances in the instruments’ parts themselves, on a small scale. And thirdly, there’s more detail on a larger scale: there are great variations in texture (how many instruments are playing and what they’re playing), from the acoustic guitar and voices in the intro, to the full guitar-bass-drums chorus, to a driving bridge, to a chorus with only high guitar (punctuated by small drum fills, otherwise known as “details”).
Perhaps Matchbox Twenty’s music won’t last too far beyond its own style, either. But, while we’re still in a time where their style is relevant (and even if we’re not), it’s better music, and more worth listening to, than Billy Idol or The Steve Miller Band.
No doubt due to my post yesterday, my TLB twitter account notified me that Longplayer Live (@longplayerlive) is now following me on Twitter. So if you’re interested in keeping up with the latest news on the Longplayer Live performance in September, head on over and follow them!
Usually, I can’t listen to music while I do something else, because I’m always listening to the music and analyzing it, whether I want to or not. In college I was never able to listen to music while I was studying because the music would be too distracting. Even when I’m eating out at a restaurant, some back corner of my mind is always listening and analyzing. I like to call this one of the “occupational hazards” of being a composer.
All this to say, I don’t have much occasion to make use of my iPod. However, occasionally at work I’m given some mindless tasks, like data entry for reports or conversion of a bunch of files from one format to another; and so I keep my iPod at work for such situations. It’s not large enough to sync with my entire iTunes library (it’s a 4GB iPod nano), so I have to pick and choose what I put on there. Here are some of the more interesting things I’ve recently put into my shuffled mindless-work playlist:
- The entire Wicked soundtrack. I hadn’t listened to anything from Wicked in a while, so I thought I’d get it back into the rotation; and just hearing a couple of the songs again is enough to make me wonder at Stephen Schwartz’s genius. Even the “non-greatest-hits” songs (e.g. “Dear Old Shiz,” “I’m Not That Girl,” “Thank Goodness”) have very clever words and catchy, quality music; and when Schwartz is at the top of his game (e.g. “What Is This Feeling?”, “Popular,” “For Good,” “Defying Gravity”) there’s no one better.
- Strange Attractor, Mercury Rev. I wrote about this album a few weeks ago. Even though it’s instrumental pop music, which normally doesn’t interest me too much, Strange Attractor is strangely attractive and I find it engaging, detailed and well-put-together. And for free, it’s hard to beat.
- Under The Pink, Tori Amos. An old friend of mine from Colorado who lived in LA for a while introduced me to Tori Amos by way of this CD. Amos is weird, there’s no doubt about it, but some of her writing is really good in her own eccentric way, and as a performer there’s much I can learn from her unique piano playing style.
And here are a few albums I’ve taken out:
- Turning Point, The Emmons Sisters. This was a family band (four sisters) that I met on our road trip two years ago up in Oregon; they play folk/acoustic/country-style music. But the songwriting is not very good, and the vocals are far too nasal to be easily listenable. A shame, because I had a lot of fun jamming with them while we stayed at their house.
- Kicking Television, Live in Chicago, Wilco. A friend of mine from Redlands gave me this CD to borrow, and it was the first time I’d heard Wilco. I’ll grant that a live album might not be the best way to be introduced to a band, but I really wasn’t feeling it. It’s difficult to put my finger on, but nothing really stood out to me and I don’t understand what the big deal is about Wilco. Any fans care to enlighten me?
- Stockholm Syndrome, Derek Webb. The only reason I took this off is because I’ve been listening to it incessantly since I downloaded it. The (censored) physical album comes out on September 1st, but it’s still available to order in its original form at http://www.derekwebb.com/store; so head on over and get yourself a copy!
08.10.2009Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:05 pm
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.)