Category Archives: Music

Summertime

…and the living is easy.

Which is to say that we’re on a bit of a sumer hiatus here at Andante.

We’ll be back in the fall with new postings on new music experiences, including (as a teaser) my experience of Camille Saint-Saëns‘ Symphony number three (aka the “Organ Symphony“).

But for now, I’ll leave you with this to tide you over until we return.

Enjoy!

Thanks Google for the Doodle

Google gets kudos for their “doodle” tribute to Les Paul recently.

Not just for paying homage to someone who so richly deserves it, though that’s a part of it.

No, Google gets kudos for paying homage to someone in the arts first and foremost. To say the arts are under fire is an understatement. The very foundation of the arts as it has been most of my life is changing and eroding. Just yesterday, the Bellevue Symphony announced it was closing up shop after 43 years. A friend of mine has speculated that the concert music world is headed to a two-tiered system of just a few large, professional orchestras and a number of amateur community orchestras.

I think he may be right.

So Google deserves credit for paying homage to someone in the arts like this.

They also deserve credit for paying homage in a way that sparks individual creativity. If you do a quick search on YouTube you’ll see that people have posted clips of them using the “doodle” to play songs (and yes, “Stairway to Heaven” is one of them, I guess they didn’t see the sign).

Seriously though, every little bit helps. We’re in a society now that devalues arts and creativity so much that seeing a large company take a public stand to remind us of the importance of music and encourage us to make some ourselves is a wonderful thing. And clearly the world is hungry for more things like this: the doodle was so popular that it ran for an extra day.

Thanks Google for the doodle.

Take a Bow Mr. Wagner

Any good geek will tell you that for some movies it pays to stay in the theater through the end of the credits. Filmmakers sometimes like to give a little something extra for those who stay.

The Return of the King, the last of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films is no exception, though there is a twist. It’s not Jackson who’s giving the audience a little something: it’s Howard Shore, the composer of the film’s score.

As the film closes, we start with Annie Lennox singing her song “Into the West”.

Once that finishes, we move into a fairly standard instrumental medley, reprising the major themes from the trilogy.

Then we hear a nice closing sequence with the horns, woodwinds and strings coming together seeming to wind down the themes for the closing. The strings in particular play a theme that very much conveys a sense of a curtain slowly closing.

But then we start to hear something a bit unexpected. The woodwinds hold what you expect to be the closing chord when you hear the strings meander a bit once more and the low strings start a strong, loud upward crescendo sweeping the woodwinds up with them. Both grow stronger until you realize that somewhere in there the horns have come in and that all of them together a playing a very decidedly Wagnerian closing chord.

In less than a minute, Shore manages to take us out of his score for the Lord of the Rings and back to Wagner’s own Ring Cycle.

The clip here is from the original soundtrack, so it cuts short the thematic reprise after Annie Lennox’s song ends and comes before the Wagner homage. But you can hear the homage begin around 4:35 into it.

If you want to get the full effect, I strongly recommend you get the The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (The Complete Recordings). If you like Shore’s music, the entire set, while pricey, is a rare treasure: it’s ALL the music from the three films. And includes great, detailed musical commentary that explains the themes in depth. And this is one where I would get the physical box sets rather than the digital download.

For all the ink spilled about who’s Ring is better and whether Wagner influenced Tolkein or not, it’s nice to at least have Shore tip his hat to Wagner. Even if Wagner didn’t influence Tolkein, his influence on the aesthetics of film, particularly in terms of scores, is undeniable. And so of course he is an influence for the work that Shore and Jackson have done.

So, take a bow Mr. Wagner, you deserve it.

The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway: A Reflection and Memoir

Music.

Memory.

For me the two are inexorably linked. There is no easier way for me to go into the closet of my life and pull out an old version of my self, put it on, remember what it was like to wear that self every day, and feel where and how that self does and doesn’t fit any more than to put something on from the past. In particular with pieces that become part of my emotional history like I talked about in Mood Music.

One album (and I use album specifically because it’s so tied to that now-archaic form) that falls into this category is the last full album by the Peter Gabriel-fronted GenesisThe Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. For me, this is an album that I associate very closely with winters during both my freshman and sophomore years of college at Oberlin. I happen to be listening to this today and as I listen to it, all the history and meaning associated with this album come back to me.

When I talk about this blog as a travelogue about my experience of music, the story of how I came to be listening to the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway so much during those years is an example of what I mean. The path to those days tromping through the snows of Oberlin, listening to Peter Gabriel regale us with the fantastic tale of Rael and his experiences in a nether-world copy of mid 1970’s New York City on my cassette Walkman is a round-about one that passes through so much of my personal musical history.

To get to those days, you have to start even further back and understand first, that up through seventh grade, under the influence of my fairly strict Catholic upbringing, I was convinced that any music other than classical music was, truly, music of the Devil. Ironically, my mother was a huge Beatles fan: this was a case of me being more conservative than my mother like Alex on Family Ties (though I would secretly, guiltily listen to some of her Beatles albums when home alone, but that’s another post). Even once I had drifted some from the Church, that bias was sublimated and transformed by way of some classical music snobbery to conclude that while it may not be the Devil’s music, non-classical music, most especially Rock and Pop forms, had no redeeming artistic merit.

My stance on music would be changed by the chance meeting one day on a bus from summer school classes between seventh and eighth grade. I was taking a class on computers (itself a foreshadow of my later life) and happened to meet a kid named Chad Clark. Chad has since gone on to a successful life in music starting several bands over the years including currently Beauty Pill and running his own studio. This meeting though was before Chad started to pursue his interest in music seriously. Even so, he was much more familiar with non-classical music than I was and found my outright rejection of it all as closed minded and rather silly.

Chad was a very important person for me: after that meeting he became my best friend and was the first non-Catholic friend I ever had.  He would also go on to be best man at my wedding. He challenged the bedrock of pretty much everything that I believed at that time. Not least of which was my rejection of non-classical music.

Over the course of the next few years, as Chad’s interest in music increased and my mind opened up, I would be receptive to more and more possibilities around non-classical music. I could come to accept that at least some of it could be fun to listen to. But my stance on the artistic merit of it compared to classical music was still intact.

And then, sometime around my freshman or sophomore years in high school (it was over 20+ years ago so dates get fuzzy) Chad introduced me to Peter Gabriel’s solo work and made the case that here was someone that put real thought and gravity into his lyrics and music. The first album I ever heard of his was Security. Peter Gabriel’s lyrics are always deeply thought out and the encounter with Peter Gabriel would have deep and profound effect on me in many, many ways (again, for future posts). Here, the key thing is that Peter Gabriel convinced me that there could be intellectual and artistic merit to non-classical music, though I generally considered him to be the only one to merit that gravity and respect.

During the next couple of years, I would collect all of Peter Gabriel’s albums (and even use his haircut as a model for my own!). I would eventually come to understand that he had been the singer for Genesis before Phil Collins. But it was a real brain-cramp for me to understand how someone this smart and who thought so deeply about things could have been the singer for the band that was at that time fronted by someone inflicting Sussudio on the world at that time.

At some point, though, Chad started to tell me how “Old Genesis” was very different from what we were hearing now. He told me how when Peter Gabriel was part of the band, they would do concept albums with underlying themes and that Peter Gabriel would narrate, tell stories, play roles and be in costumes. Sometime during these talks, he introduced me to the phrase “progressive rock” to denote Old Genesis and other rock groups who were trying to make meaningful, mature music that had more in common with the classical tradition than with Sussudio.

Taking a chance, I went ahead at one point and bought a cassette of Nursery Cryme. As the tape started playing “The Musical Box”

and I heard the detailed guitar work, the flute, the lyrics with their echo of legend and myth, and a full story being told, I realized that there was something new here, something far more thoughtful than Sussudio.

I would continue my explorations, learning about King Crimson and collecting as much of their stuff and Old Genesis as I could lay my hands on, building a decent (though hardly complete) collection by the time of my freshman year at Oberlin. I even had bought a cheap keyboard off of Chad to take with me to school, with vague thoughts about composing music along the lines of Peter Gabriel, Old Genesis and King Crimson.

As my first semester at Oberlin came to a close, I finally got myself a copy of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway at Sarge’s Records, the one record store in town. I bought it on vinyl, one of the last actual vinyl albums I would ever buy. I promptly recorded it over to cassette and added it to my walkman walking music around campus.

While an extremely odd album, I was in love with it nonetheless. Songs like Carpet Crawlers

and Anyway

had a certain lyrical quality and delicate quality that suited them well to the cold, snowy winters at Oberlin. Many was the time I would put the 120 minute tape in my walkman and walk, thinking about life and love now that I was nineteen and through my first semester of college and life on my own.

The coming twelve months would turn out to be hugely transformative for me. I would lose a friend I cared about deeply to suicide, see my last high school romance end (even though we carried it on while I was in college, it was still a high school romance), and start my first adult romance. I  shed my vague thoughts about pursuing music (going to a school with a professional quality conservatory will burn any such thoughts out of you quickly) and decided to make a shift in my path and follow my bliss (as Joseph Campbell would say) by becoming a comparative religion major (which itself was somewhat influenced by Peter Gabriel).

Another change was that this was actually the last new material from Old Genesis I bought: everything else I’ve gotten ever since has either been live albums, my replacing albums in new formats, or getting the post-Peter Gabriel albums that still had Steve Hackett on them (A Trick of the Tail and Wind & Wuthering which lack the lyrical depth but still are musically interesting and not yet the pop nightmare that would mark the Phil Collins era of Genesis). My period of progressive rock exploration would downshift in its importance for me after this.

Certainly, there were many other changes during those twelve months too: you grow up a lot fast those first couple of years of college.

By the time winter rolled around again the next year, my sophomore year, my natural sense of nostalgia returned and I found myself playing The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway once more to mark the changes of the year. I had a very real sense when listening to it of what had changed, of how late adolescence had closed and early adulthood had started somewhere in the intervening twelve months. The music was still wonderful, lovely, still had that winter quality I loved. But now, it wasn’t alive and vibrant like it had been: now it was rather a reminder, a museum piece.

Today, twenty two years later, more time has passed than I had been alive when I was listening to this and marking those changes. As I’m in the midst of changes in my life, as I have a very real sense that adulthood is becoming true middle age, I find myself listening, feeling the memories of those early freshman days, feeling the memories of those sophomore days, recalling the sense of nostalgia I felt that sophomore year for my freshman year and understanding now that I had no idea what the press of memory and nostalgia can really be like.

I still love this album, but it will always be a marker of the past, of two different selves that I can go back to when I want. But there are no more memories to be made with this album, it’s already carrying all the memory it possibly can.

Menacing Covers

When I was a kid, I was very closed-minded about a lot of things.

One way this closed-mindedness would manifest around music is that I didn’t like the idea of covers. In my mind, there was always only one “real” version of a song, the original by the original artist. In my mind, other people covering others’ songs were doing a disservice to the original artist, by making an invalid copy, and to themselves, by not focusing on their own creative work.

Different versions by the original artist were a bit more complex, but even then, I always viewed the original version as definitive and those others as derivative and would always prefer the original.

This stance began to soften a bit when I was in college. I began to realize that I was coming to like a live version of a favorite song nearly as much as the original. Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here was a favorite of mine. And when I got the live album, Delicate Sound of Thunder, I found that I was becoming as fond of that version of Wish You Were Here. I realized that I was finding new things in that version that weren’t present in the original. Add to that, the fact that one of my college roommates had a huge collection of Pink Floyd concert bootlegs and that listening to these expanded that understanding all the more.

This was after Roger Waters had left so some versions I was hearing was him singing while others were David Gilmour signing. But overall, it was still the original artists, so while other versions by the original artists might be OK, I was still down on the idea of covers by others.

It really was only a few years ago that stance finally softened. One thing that helped soften my stance was falling in love with the three songs I love to hear covered: Startdust, Brazil, and September Song. Another was discovering cross-genre covers, like Apocalyptica’s work covering Metallica. These showed me that no only can you find new things in different versions of the same work by the original artist, sometimes another artist can bring a truly unique point of view to bear. Rather than viewing all covers by other artists as uncreative, I started to understand that it really could be a collaborative, creative process.

One particular type of cover I’ve come to appreciate in particular is where an artist is able to take a song that is happy or otherwise innocuous and give it a twist that some how makes is sound menacing.

I was thinking of this today while listening to Marily Manson’s I Put a Spell On You. That’s a song I’ve heard various renditions of over the years, and some have more of an edge. But when you listen to this version, the seething menace and violence in the rendition turns it into a completely different song.

Another good example of a cover that transforms the original completely is Placebo’s cover of Running Up That Hill originally by Kate Bush. The Wikipedia article for the song it was described by Q magazine as ‘sound[ing] more like a pact with the Devil’ than the original ‘deal with God’, and I have to say that quote really does nail it. The first time I heard this version I was just floored by how utterly different it was and how it was so different that you can’t say this is worse or better than the original.

I suppose at this point, things like Placebo’s and Marilyn Manson’s covers have really helped me to fully and finally learn that even when the rendition is menacing, covers themselves aren’t inherently menacing. Indeed, they can combine to make a fuller, better understanding of what the piece is capable of.

Besides, if not for covers and versions, when else would you be able to ask: which do you like better, the Metallica or the Yo-Yo Ma? But, that’s the stuff of a future posting.

Requiem

I got word today that a person that interviewed me eleven years ago when I came into my current company has advanced cancer and the prognosis is rather grim.

It was about ten years ago that I myself got the first news that my mother might have cancer. That news would later be confirmed on my birthday in November 2000.

After I got the news, I went out and got myself a CD to be a present to me from my mother so that she wouldn’t have to worry about that. It turns out that she went ahead and got me something herself: in a way I think that it was helpful for her to focus on me in that motherly way.

The CD I got was Zbigniew Preisner’s Requiem For My Friend.

I fell in love with Preisner’s work first with his music for the film La Double Vie de Veronique. And I’ve always had a fondness for the requiem mass. My first CD ever was Sir Neville Marriner’s recording of Mozart’s Requiem (which I still have). So, with those two things in mind, this new recording was a very logical thing for me to get, even if it was perhaps a bit morbid given the news I’d gotten.

A friend of mine gave a talk this weekend comparing the Mozart and Verdi Requiems. And one of the things that he was highlighting was the degree of passion and feeling in the Verdi. I do love Mozart’s for many reasons but the Verdi really does exude passion. And given the subject matter, death. There are ways in which the requiem, of all pieces of music, really should be passionate and should express the classic Kübler-Ross five stages of grief or whatever emotions death brings up for us.

For me, that rainy autumn 2000, what I felt can only be called anguish. And I found amazing musical expression of anguish in the Lacrimosa in Preisner’s Requiem.

I remember many a day or evening listening to that as I would cry into a pillow trying to let all of the anguish I felt flow out of me.

And so today, as I sit listening to the sounds of a rainy autumn, thinking about others going through what I went through, with the discussion of requiem music and feeling fresh in my head, it seems appropriate to be thinking and writing about that piece that, for me, expresses anguish so well.

My thoughts and best wishes to J and his family.

One day, you finally see her across the room and your eyes meet.

In my post, A Thousand Words for Love, I talked about how I want to start writing about what it means when I love something. So today I’m doing my first post in that vein, though it’s more about how I fell in love with a piece than how I love it.

There’s a piece by Bear McCreary in Battlestar Galactica that I feel in love with in a way that reminds me a great deal of how I feel in love with one of my high school girlfriends (who I actually met in orchestra). And this piece is important because it was this piece that really made me realize that I felt something for McCreary’s work that was deeper than with other soundtracks.

As an aside, I should note though it’s still not the post I promised in The Mind of the Composer (though as a hint, I’ve already referenced a couple of the pieces that will go into that post). That one is coming still, really!

Today’s post is actually appropriate as the first of my “how I love this piece” series because it’s actually, in the mind of the composer, as close to a “love theme” as you’re going to get on Battlestar Galactica.It is the Roslin and Adama Theme.

I didn’t really notice this theme when it first occurred during the series. But that’s pretty standard: I don’t really get deeply into the music of film or TV score until I listen to it on it’s own.

In terms of audio recordings, this theme first appears on the Battlestar Galactica: Season Two Soundtrack. I got the soundtrack when it was released in June 2006. I already had the soundtrack for the pilot as well as the season one soundtrackand was happy with both of those, though honestly, not really blown away.

The theme is track thirteen out of twenty-two, so it’s buried in the middle towards the end. I listened to the soundtrack several times through July and early August, enjoying it, with some pieces starting to stand out more than others. But not this piece. No, this piece was still lost in the crowd.

Then one night in late August, my wife had gone to bed and I was up by myself. It was hot that night (for the Pacific Northwest at least). I was on our computer puttering about, drinking a gin and tonic (ideal when it’s hot) and listening to the Galactica season two soundtrack. It was background music really, since nothing had yet really stood out.

As track twelve, Epiphanies,

finished and the quiet, gentle combination of the acoustic fiddle and piano of the Roslin and Adama Theme started playing, it caught my attention suddenly and I started listening closely. I was struck by the gentle cadence of the piece moving forward, gently but steadily. The acoustic fiddle standing out in front by itself so prominently had a poignant, almost sad quality, particularly when the theme twists slightly on the B flat, giving it that richness I love with minor keys. And then, about two-thirds of the way through, when the guitar comes in and the tempo picks up, all of a sudden the sad quality becomes joyful and the piece ends on a note that is for me, positive and hopeful and loving.

Here was a piece that I’d been listening to for a couple of months and hadn’t really stood out from the rest. And now, all of a sudden something clicked and I feel in love with the piece.

The way I fell for this piece would later remind me of when I feel in love with K when I was a junior in high school. We were in orchestra together and would see each other once every four or six weeks. It was rare enough that I didn’t catch her name and not wanting to embarrass myself didn’t ask her again, hoping that I could figure it out when someone else called her (“Hey K!”). Alas, my great plan failed and six months after we met, I was forced to ask her her name. And while we’d talked and been friendly she didn’t stand out of the crowd of people I knew there. But the, after seeing each other in orchestra for seven or eight months, all of a sudden one night something clicked and I fell in love with her. And as I fell, hard, it was wonderful, beautiful and intertwined with music, poetry, springtime; it was all those things that falling in love at that age is supposed to be.

Indeed, I even today when I hear Smetana’s Moldau

I remember her and that spring and still remember what it was like to feel that.

Of course, it was high school, so we won’t talk about how it worked out: you know how it worked out.

But the important thing isn’t how that relationship turned out: it’s how it started and how magical it was and how my experience with McCreary’s Roslin and Adama Theme mirrors that. How both of them were instances where one day, you finally see her across the room and your eyes meet and then magic happens.

A Thousand Words for Love

So, let’s get the facts out of the way: the Eskimos don’t have twenty-four or some other inordinate number of words for snow.

While this is an urban legend, the concept it tries to highlight is a real one; it’s called “focal vocabulary”. Linguists use that as a term to highlight instances where humans develop words to distinguish nuanced differences when necessary. The multiple words for snow faux-example illustrates a further aspect of this: that nuanced distinctions that are so clear to one culture so as to require separate terms can be glossed over by another culture by using just one word.

There’s a better, real example that we’re actually familiar with: “love”. In English, we use “love” to denote a number of different, nuanced emotions. Many of us are familiar with the fact that in Ancient Greek there are multiple terms that we translate using “love”, for example agape versus eros. But most people are OK understanding the differences because they have some awareness, even if unconscious, of the distinctions implicit in the English word, if only based on usage and context. No one mistakes “I love you, man!” for “I love you, darling”.

But when we lack discrete, distinct terms, it’s easy to miss distinctions. For a number of reasons, even before we may have been made aware of the different terms in Ancient Greek, we knew there were different kinds of love between people. We knew because (most of us at least) felt the differences when we used the term with our parents and then our romantic partners because the differences are stark and clear to nearly all of us.

But if the differences are nuanced, subtle, and there’s nothing to prick our awareness to notice the differences it’s easy to go through life and never recognize that distinction. And in a way, when we miss distinctions like this,our experience of life is poorer for it. We miss the chance to understand, glory in, and relish the differences.

And so when our awareness is pricked and we become aware of distinctions that language and usage have left us previously blind to, it can be an amazing and rewarding process of discovery. Because, once you understand there are differences you’ve been blind to, you first want to understand all those differences, understand what makes this one what it is and what makes that one what it is.

What does this have to do with music and this blog? Simple really. As I was contemplating the post I promised in The Mind of the Composer, I was going to write about how I love the music that Bear McCreary has done. But I love other music too, and I love his work ways that are different from those other pieces. Contemplating the different ways I love (and have fallen in love with) those different pieces, I found myself thinking that it would be an interesting exercise with the blog moving forward, to try and understand those different kinds of “love” the underpin the same word. When I say I love McCreary’s Passacaglia

how is that different from how I love Barber’s Adagio

or even from McCreary’s The Shape of Things to Come

which is a piece that is very similar and yet different from Passacaglia?

And so it struck me that there’s a whole angle to take in my writing here, one that tries to understand the differences in pieces that I love. Not from the point of view of technical differences, historical differences but rather from the simple point of view of understanding what I mean, what I really mean when I say I love something or have fallen in love with it.

My friend Jenny has always said how she loves me sharing my music because she loves what it means to me, how my sharing that is sharing a part of me and that my love for it is infectious. And,Juli-Ann in her comments on Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n noted “What I really appreciate about your writing approach is the deep emotional connection you make with music. It is a vivid reminder to me to simply experience the music and enjoy the emotional journey. To allow myself to forget the years of music theory and analysis, turn off the intellectual side, and feel the music in my body and soul.”

When I think about that all, I realize that trying to understand what I mean by “love” is really a more directed exercise to those points they both raise. So, I think I’ll be doing some posts from time to time, now, that try to explain what I mean when I say I “love” something.

The mind of the composer

If you watched Battlestar Galactica, the revisioned series, and you love the music, then you really should take the time to dig into Bear McCreary’s blog as it represents a truly unique thing in music.

Bear takes time to go through and outline his thinking and the construction of his music in a very clear, succinct, and approachable way. You don’t have to be an expert in music theory or composition to understand it, though it helps if you can read music some. Check out his posting on themes of Battlestar Galactica as a start.

I’m a huge fan of Bear’s work on the series and taking the time to really dig into the soundtracks to a level of real depth, so I’m starting a read of the blogs from the beginning as part of that work.

Another great resource is the Battlestar Wiki, which has a lot of great information on the music including lyrics and information otherwise locked up in liner notes.

Take these two things together, and you’ve got a degree of access and information that’s truly revolutionary. It gives us the ability to dig into the music deeply and to hear from the composer what his intentions were and what the music was to him.

If you love music but haven’t watched Battlestar Galactica, well then, I’d argue you should. But that’s another posting.