The eclectic, Portland-based musical group, Pink Martini is the furthest you can get from the homogeneous mediocrity of slickly marketed corporate pop music. Founded in 1994, and dubbed the “little orchestra”, it’s a group where music takes precedence over category. According to their website, Pink Martini blends “genres of classical, jazz and old-fashioned pop.” I remember performing with them when they appeared with the Richmond Symphony about seven years ago.
The song Clementine comes from their 2004 album, Hang On Little Tomato, a title inspired by a 1964 Hunt’s Ketchup ad. It seems like appropriate end-of-summer listening, especially with a reference in the lyrics to “a packing up of summer clothes.”
There’s something atmospheric and slightly surreal about this song. It falls into an undefinable space between upbeat and melancholy. Pay attention to the great drum set groove and the simple expressiveness of the harmony in the piano:
The world is becoming increasingly saturated with information, but arguably less thoughtful. That was the topic of a recent opinion piece in the New York Times. In Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain, Daniel J. Levitin writes about the increasing amount of information our brains are trying to process through e mails, tweets, Facebook and other technology. All of this crowds out daydreaming, which he cites as the true source of creativity:
Daydreaming leads to creativity, and creative activities teach us agency, the ability to change the world, to mold it to our liking, to have a positive effect on our environment. Music, for example, turns out to be an effective method for improving attention, building up self-confidence, social skills and a sense of engagement.
At same time, writers such as Chris Hedges and Henry Giroux suggest a similar trend in education, documenting an attack on arts and literature-based classical education in favor of standardized testing. On the college level, liberal arts are under attack. In this environment, it suddenly seems less crazy when an NPR host openly questions the value of Shakespeare.
All of this makes me wonder if we’re in danger of forgetting how to slow down and really listen to music. Since the advent of recordings, there’s more music around us than at any time in history. Background music encourages us to tune out, a phenomenon which troubled Aaron Copland. To really listen requires focus and attentiveness. The more times you hear a piece, the more you may get out of it.
Concerts are social and communal experiences, but when the lights go down, the listener engages in a personal relationship with the music. Orchestras have been engaged in initiatives to perform in unusual venues where the audience is up close and personal. These initiatives have value, but when it comes to focused listening, there is no substitute for the “frame” of the darkened concert hall.
The 40,000 year old flute which was discovered in the Danube Valley suggests that music is as old as humanity, possibly pre-dating language. The voices have something to say to us. Let’s put down our cell phones and really listen.
More than any other composer, Aaron Copland is credited with establishing the virtual soundtrack of the American West. Listening to Copland ballet scores such as Rodeoand Billy the Kid, or his music for the film The Red Pony, instantly evokes images of wide open prairie spaces and the rough and tumble adventure of a mythical frontier. These associations have been re-enforced by countless film scores which generously borrowed Copland’s sound (the opening of Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Sevenis one small example). In reality, Copland grew up in Brooklyn and never saw the West. But his music still embodies something big, bold, and uniquely American.
Copland wasn’t the only American composer to draw upon inspiration from the prairie. Occasionally, cinematic sonic landscapes can also be heard in the music of Howard Hanson (1896-1981). Born in Wahoo, Nebraska to Swedish immigrant parents, Hanson was director of the Eastman School of Music for forty years. In my earlier post we heard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 and music from the opera, Merry Mount.
Hanson’s music has more than a few layers of Scandinavian influence, but underneath all of that, I hear the majestic sound of the Great Plains. Listen to the second movement (Andante tranquillo) of Hanson’s Third Symphony and see if you agree.
The long, sustained chords in the trombones and tuba under the sweeping string lines create a feeling of endless, expansive vistas and suggest the noble, eternal beauty of the land. John Barry used the same sound for the film score of Dances With Wolves (listen here, here and here for comparison).
When you hear the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D Major, Op. 70, No. 1, you’ll immediately understand why this piece earned the nickname, the “Ghost” Trio. It’s some of the most eerie, strange and terrifying music ever written. It constantly keeps you off guard, taking sudden and unexpected turns, like a shadowy apparition which is there one minute and gone the next. As the second movement unfolds, it may play tricks with your perception of time.
Beethoven’s ability to pack a universe of drama and color into three instruments is amazing. There are moments which seem strikingly symphonic (he had just finished the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies). At times, even tonality seems to be on the verge of slipping away (the second movement’s prolonged trills in the low depths of the piano which confuse the ear).
Gustav Mahler said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” It’s easy to get a similar sense with this trio. The outer movements are emotionally far removed from the haunting Largo. There are moments of giddy joy, love and gratitude. All of these contrasting emotions are a great reminder that this music expresses much more than the frustrations and torment of a man who was slowly losing his hearing. Beethoven’s music transcended his life, tapping into something much deeper and more universal. In that respect he “heard” things no one else could.
Beethoven wrote the two Op. 70 Trios in Heiligenstadt during the summer of 1808. Around this time he was contemplating an opera based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The opera remained unwritten, but its ghosts seem to have found their way into Op. 70, No. 1.
Here are Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax in concert in Paris in 1992:
In June the Metropolitan Museum of Art and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary hosted a thought-provoking discussion, Spirit in Sound and Space- A Conversation Inspired by Arvo Pärt, in conjunction with this summer’s Arvo Pärt Project. The discussion brought together architect Steven Holl, neuroscientist Robert Zatorre, and musician and theology professor Peter Bouteneff.
For Steven Holl, one of the most visionary contemporary architects, ideas often emerge through the process of painting watercolors. Buildings like the Chapel of St. Ignatiusin Seattle and the Knut Hamsun Center, two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle in Hamarøy, Norway, register the flow of time with constant, subtly changing plays of light and shadow. Holl notes that Arvo Pärt “sees sound as space.”
“Music surrounds you. It’s an immersive experience” says Holl, whose work is influenced by music. “Architecture, space surrounds you.”
Zatorre points out that the parietal lobe of the brain handles our perception of music as well as space. His insights, based on a strictly mechanistic view of the workings of the brain, are interesting, but in the end they leave many questions unanswered. The “spirit” part of the conversation remains elusive. What is the source of a creative idea? How do great buildings suddenly emerge out of Steven Holl’s brushstrokes? Albert Einstein hinted at these questions when he said,
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.
A new voice emerges…
The story of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) demonstrates the mysteries of the creative process. At the end of the 1960s, Pärt suddenly abandoned the dissonant, twelve tone music of the mid-century musical establishment. For eight years he was unable to compose beyond musical fragments jotted in a notebook. Then, in 1976 a new and radically different voice suddenly emerged with Für Alina, a three minute piece for piano:
All music flows through time. Listening to the mystical minimalism of Arvo Pärt, there’s an equally powerful sense of time flowing through music. It’s easy to become one with the moment in Pärt’s music. It allows us to “enter inside the sound.” You might be reminded of the meditative, circular flow of Gregorian Chant or the music of Lassus or Palestrina.
Pärt’s style of writing, which suggests the overtones of bells, is known as Tintinnabulation. He describes it here:
Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises – and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. . . . The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.
Silentium is the second movement of Pärt’s Tabula Rasa (1977):
Here is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s performance of Canon of Repentance, which took place June 2 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Anne-Sophie Mutter first recorded Mozart’s Violin Concertos (No. 3 and 5) at the age of 14 with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (listen here). I grew up listening to this excellent recording, which features the slightly slower tempos you might expect from von Karajan, but nonetheless great sense of style and beautiful singing tone.
In 2005 Mutter re-recorded the Mozart Concertos as part of her ambitious Mozart Project, this time with the London Philharmonic (listen here). She talks about the project here. Her approach in this later recording is slightly more free in terms of tempo. In general, it’s a more dramatic reading with a wider range of tone colors.
Recently, I ran across Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219 with Mutter and the Camerata Salzburg Orchestra (below). She leads the orchestra as soloist, in keeping with the way it would have been performed in Mozart’s day. Listen for the “Turkish” dance in the final movement. The exotic sounds of the East were fashionable in Mozart’s time.
Lauren Bacall, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 89, will be remembered partly as the seductive, husky-voiced film star who played opposite Humphrey Bogart throughout the 1940s in films such as To Have and Have Not,Dark Passage and Key Largo. Later, she appeared on Broadway. In 1970 she won a Tony award for her role in the musical, Applause. It was her first appearance singing onstage and she was coached by the show’s composer, Charles Strouse. While Lauren Bacall clearly fell into the category of “actress” rather than “singer” in the conventional sense, she definitely knew how to convey the drama of a song.
Strouse seems to have an occasional affinity for songs which start out with quiet energy, gradually build and then explode at the end. A Lot of Livin’ to Do in Bye Bye Birdie is an example. For another example, listen to Bacall sing But Alive from the original cast recording of Applause below. The show is an adaption of the film, All About Eve.
Watch an interview with Charles Strouse and learn about his career as a Broadway songwriter here and here. Read Terry Teachout’s tribute to Lauren Bacall at his blog, About Last Night.
The Magic Flute, Mozart’s bizarre two act comic opera, can be seen as a fairy tale battle between the forces of darkness and light. Like all good fairy tales, at the end of The Magic Flute’s second act,love and happiness triumph. The Singspiel opera (featuring singing as well as spoken dialogue) was written in the prolific final year of Mozart’s life. It premiered in 1791 at the popular Theater aug der Wieden on the outskirts of Vienna. Amid its convoluted story, Masonic symbolism, Enlightenment philosophy and sly political references (the sinister Queen of the Night might be a coded allusion to Austrian Empress Maria Theresa), is Papageno, the bird catcher. He isn’t exactly a main character, but he’s there, nonetheless, through most of the opera (read the synopsis here). In the first performance the role was sung by the opera’s librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder.
Mozart’s music tells us everything we need to know about Papageno as a character. He’s a clownish buffoon, decidedly unheroic, who tries to lure birds with his panflute. But, as the music suggests, he also exhibits a vivacious and contagious passion for life. He’s imperfect, yet amiable and we can relate to him. Here is “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja” (The birdcatcher am I) from the first scene of Act 1:
You might remember the next excerpt from the movie, Amadeus. Here is “Ein Mädchen Oder Weibchen” (A maiden or a wife), in which Papageno longs for female companionship:
At the end of The Magic Flute, Papageno’s magic bells summon Papagena. The couple dreams of the many future children they will have.
The Magic Flute Overture
Mozart and Schikaneder were both Freemasons and lodge brothers. Judith Eckelmeyer’s analysis of The Magic Flute includes a discussion of the work’s Masonic symbolism as well as the use of the “golden mean” and attention to mathematical proportion. Three is a significant number in Masonic symbolism, and patterns of three occur throughout the opera. In the middle of the overture listen for three repeated chords.
Here is James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra: