N.B. I’m back! I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been studying for the GRE, and taking it, but now (thank all that’s good, true and beautiful) it’s all over, so I’m hoping to be able to post a little more frequently.

The “classical” music columnist for Slate yesterday posted an article called “A Grand Tour of Contemporary Music: All the new noise explained,” which is an interesting overview of the current state of “classical” music. He provides some good historical context and then describes three broad movements he feels the music of the day is following and which are attracting a “youngish” and “hippish” audience. Good thoughts–a bit long but worth the read.


John Adams’ Blog

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:40 pm

A fellow CFAMC composer recently shared a link to this post, called “I didn’t realize I was sitting next to the composer!” on the blog of John Adams, one of the most successful and widely-known of contemporary American composers. I liked the post and read through several others; Adams has a very entertaining and engaging writing style, and has a number of insightful comments on various musical and non-musical topics. I’ve added the blog, which is called “Hellmouth,” to my RSS feed, and I thought I’d share it with you, my loyal readers. Even if you don’t read the blog, though, you should definitely check out this post, entitled “Anger Builds at Dudamel’s Mishandling of Oil Leak” (some of the best work on the blog are these type of satire posts).

Hell Mouth is a blog about music (mostly contemporary), literature (mostly good), politics (mostly pernicious) and culture (mostly American). It is written by John Adams with the help of several “friends” who live in the redwoods of coastal Northern California.


Pastor Doug Wilson on the Arts in Culture

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:21 pm

I don’t normally post things that don’t have to do with music in particular (this is The Listening Blog, after all), but Doug Wilson says some great things in this video that more people in our culture need to hear. He rightly describes how artists in former times were considered craftsmen rather than “lonely isolated artistes” in “capes and berets;” the lofty ideal of the artist as a human being living on some higher plane is a recent idea from the Romanticism of the 19th century (and many “artistes” would do well to realize it). And his illustration of Tolkien’s “leaf-mold of the mind,” and how great art can only come from a good education in the grounding of history, is another excellent point. Enjoy!

Ask Doug: Peter Hitchens and Art as Evangelism from Canon Wired on Vimeo.


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.


Bach, Beethoven, Brahms–and Bits and Bytes?

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:11 am

Slate.com has another intriguing article in their music section, this time a profile on modern composer David Cope, who wrote one of my college textbooks and works primarily in the field of computer music. He’s apparently created a computer program (christened “Emily Howell”) that takes input from the greatest composers of Western music, including Bach, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Barber, and Copeland, and composes its own music by recombining elements from the music in its database. Now Cope’s primary method of composing is to listen to Emily Howell’s work and tell it what he likes and doesn’t like–most of his music is created by the computer. As usual, several clips of Emily Howell’s music are included in the article, though unfortunately they’re too short to make any judgments of quality.

Cope’s case is that all great music is created by this process of synthesizing bits and pieces of music that the composer has heard before, which is of course true and seemed rather self-evident to me, though not (it appears) to the author of the article. But what do you think? Is there something “inherently distasteful” about composing through a computer–or rather letting a computer compose for you? Do you have any aesthetic objections to the process? Why or why not?

“I’ll Be Bach: A computer program is writing great, original works of classical music. Will human composers soon be obsolete?”


A Personal Update

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:20 pm

I am sad to announce that I was laid off from my day job yesterday, effective immediately. Unfortunately, my day job was what supported my music, and therefore I’m going to have to devote my time to looking for a new job. I may post more infrequently on here, and the release of my upcoming CD Songs From My Shelf and the party that comes with it will now be delayed. I don’t want to say “delayed indefinitely,” because that sounds like a long time and I hope to still be able to finish the CD by summer’s end; but I can’t make any promises. I hope you’ll still continue to read the blog and follow my updates–I will be sure to keep you posted as to when and where the CD will eventually be coming out–and in the meantime my wife and I would appreciate your thoughts and prayers that I would find a new job soon. Thanks so much!


Jan Swafford’s second recent article on Slate.com concerns the history of tuning and temperament, and it’s an excellent summary of the subject. It’s another enjoyable read–I particularly like the way he describes the impossibility of pure tuning as “the laughter of the gods” and continues the image throughout the article. And again he includes some great musical clips, including Peter Watchorn playing from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier (which, Swafford says, was written “not only to show off this improved system but to help make well-temperament mandatory by writing irreplaceable pieces in every key”) and a side-by-side comparison of a Beethoven sonata movement in modern equal temperament and in a 19th century tuning called Prinz. Can you hear the difference? (Hint: I think it’s a little easier to hear listening to the Prinz first and then the equal temperament, rather than the other way around.)

“The Wolf at Our Heels: The centuries-old struggle to play in tune”


Jan Swafford has recently written two interesting (albeit lengthy) posts on Slate.com‘s music channel that I thought I’d share with you. The first is about a unique collection of 19th century pianos in Massachusetts and their keepers, Pat and Michael Frederick, and how playing composers’ works on the pianos they wrote them for is a much different experience than hearing them on, say, a modern Steinway. It’s an enjoyable read, and best of all there are lots of music clips of performances on the older pianos to demonstrate the difference. The recording of the “Moonlight” Sonata on a Viennese piano from 1805 is a little disappointing–it’s very quiet, and there are lots of other ambient noises that obscure much of the effect–but the following recording comparing the modern and older pianos playing the “Appassionata” Sonata is much better and shows a very discernible difference in tone quality, especially in the lower register. The remaining comparisons are all pretty cool and worth a listen; and the closing remarks about the current homogeneity in piano brand sales and tone quality is also insightful.

“Why you’ve never really heard the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata”


I was referred last week to an interesting article by a fellow CFAMC composer. It talks about a new book by Philip Ball called The Music Instinct, in which he finds that there’s a neurological reason why people find it hard to enjoy atonal music by Schoenberg, Webern and the like. Apparently our brains are always looking for patterns in the music we listen to, and while music by Bach, Mozart and other classical composers naturally has the sort of organization that lends itself to pattern recognition, the music of twentieth century atonal composers is devoid of such patterns. (An interesting quote: “We measured the predictability of tone sequences in music by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern and found the successive pitches were less predictable than random tone sequences.”) To his credit, though, Ball qualifies, “That isn’t to say, of course, that it is impossible to listen to, it is just harder work. It would be wrong to dismiss such music as a racket.” It reminds me of something my piano teacher at Cal State Fullerton used to say: he said that he enjoyed listening to modern, avant-garde music–as long as he was in the mood to work hard enough to understand it. Check out the Telegraph article at the following link and let me know what you think!

“Audiences hate modern classical music because their brains cannot cope”


TLB Update

Posted by AJ Harbison at 6:49 pm

Greetings, readers! (If there are any readers left…)

I apologize for the lack of posts recently–I’ve been posting only about once a month for a while now. There are basically two reasons for this. First, I’ve been extremely busy. I’m currently leading worship for my church, recording hymns of the month for the same church, recording my own CD Songs From My Shelf, rolling out new website stuff, composing concert music, trying to practice guitar and piano more, etc.–I’ve been too busy creating and playing music to write about it on the blog. Second, writing blog posts has become less enjoyable and more of a chore for me, so I’m not nearly as excited about it as I used to be.

However! I’m not ready to give up on the blog quite yet. So I’m going to give it one more try. I’m going to try to post more consistently, but it’ll be more along the lines of one or two posts a week than the three or four I’d originally hoped for. There are several ways you can follow the blog (apart from just checking www.thelisteningblog.com) if you’d like to stick around:

And one more thing: if you’d like to see TLB continue, I would love for you to comment on my posts. I know that comments, or lack of them, don’t by themselves indicate how many readers I have; but it’s so much more encouraging when I receive comments, even if it’s just to say that you liked the post or you’ve listened to the same piece.

I hope to be able to post some new content this week. Thanks for your support–and thanks for listening!


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