Tuesday, November 3, 2015

G.F. Handel, the German who wrote Italian opera and English oratorio

I sing with the Oahu Choral Society, and we are performing an all-Handel concert this Saturday, Nov. 7, at 7:30pm at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Honolulu. I volunteered to write the program notes and decided to post them here on the blog, too.

One of the first life-sized marble statues of a living person who wasn't a noble or a military leader, you can learn more about this sculpture of Handel at the V&A website.

When modern concertgoers hear the name George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), chances are they think of his Messiah, the English-language oratorio that has become a staple of holiday celebrations not only in the United Kingdom and the United States, but across the world. Fewer people, however, know that Handel was born in Germany and even fewer that he rose to international prominence writing Italian opera in Italy. In the early 18th century, Italian opera—a term that indicates style as well as language—was like today’s Broadway musicals: it was theater exported and performed in its original language in many different countries, regardless of those countries’ main spoken languages. In Handel’s day, however, musicians could rarely work without a regular sponsor (often royalty or the church), so despite finding fame in Italy, he soon became connected to the prince-elector Hanover and was appointed court Kapellmeister (that’s connected to both church and royalty, for those who are counting) at the age of 25.

Almost immediately after his appointment, Handel used the Hanover family connections to travel to England and write Italian opera there; Rinaldo, the first Italian opera to premier in London, opened in 1711. Handel was obviously enchanted by London, and he continued to travel frequently to England. He was actually under Queen Anne of England’s pay when she died in 1714 and the German prince-elector of Hanover became George I, King of England, thanks to a 1701 act which forbade Catholics to sit on the throne combined with the fact that most of Queen Anne’s relatives were Catholic.

While Handel was not officially connected with King George I’s court anymore (in fact, as a German, Handel could not hold an official royal appointment), the king did hold a substantial stake in the Royal Academy of Music, which was not a school but an Italian opera company cofounded by Handel in 1719. Handel continued to write Italian opera for the London stage, as well as occasional contributions to the royal court, for the next twenty years. Following Serse (1738), however, Handel’s Italian opera company lost its financial backing and he turned to the oratorio, a form of music often described as partially staged opera without costumes and sets.

Why oratorio? Well, the English—and the Hanover monarchy—liked it. They enjoyed the English-language texts, the complex choruses (Italian opera was dominated by soloists), and the religious subjects. Oratorio was also easier to finance. While Serse was not Handel’s last opera, nor Messiah (1741) his first oratorio, Messiah’s success in public concerts in Dublin shifted Handel’s focus and led to a deluge of oratorios including Semele (1744), Judas Maccabaeus (1746), and Solomon (1748).

Besides Messiah, Handel’s most enduring success is probably Zadok the Priest, the first of four anthems composed for the coronation of George II in October 1727. Handel had known George II since the prince was a child, so the commission probably came as no surprise; coincidentally, however, Handel had become a naturalized British subject earlier that year, and it may have seemed as if the commission was a way to prove his new nationality. Prove it he did—Zadok has been performed at every British coronation since. But there is more to the coronation anthems than Zadok; the other anthems, based on a hodgepodge of royalty-themed biblical texts used for previous coronations, were a taste of what British audiences would come to love about Handel’s oratorios: full, religious, dramatic, and exciting choral music.

This Saturday's program showcases selections from the operas and oratorios mentioned above, bringing together the coronation anthems, three iconic arias, a famous chorus from Judas Maccabaeus, and an instrumental excerpt from Solomon. If you come, we hope you enjoy the many different sides of Handel: Italian opera and English oratorio, vocal showcase and instrumental entr’acte, complex chorus and virtuosic aria.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Costumes Mandatory, Fear Optional: A Halloween Playlist 2015

From paper artist Melina Hermsen on Flickr, used under a creative commons license.

I made a Halloween playlist. Before I could come up with my playlist, however, I needed to decide what the Halloween holiday is all about. Here’s what I decided: Halloween is about pretending to be something we’re not or being in a situation that seems unreal. Fear (often fear of the supernatural) is also a big contributor, but it is optional.

Why is music a big part of Halloween? Well, music can help convey emotions. Because music is abstract, it is actually very easy to come up with sounds that are scary or other-worldly—the music just needs to be indecipherable or grating or surprising. Music can also help tell a story, and Halloween storytelling is a big part of unreal situations or being something we are not. Music can add to the story by providing emotional suggestion, moving the plot along, or giving extra information not found in the lyrics.

This playlist is more about storytelling than facilitating horror, though; each selection has a little Halloween-themed vignette. I also decided to leave out obvious songs and artists like Alice Cooper, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, the Addam’s Family theme song, or “Ghostbusters” (if you want those types of playlists, they are easy enough to find).

Here's my playlist, with some notes on each:

  1. Creepy Doll, by Jonathan Coulton - Classic horror story. There comes a point when the tropes (musical and literary) start adding up, though, that we start laughing at the horror. Which is kind of point of Coulton's song. But are we laughing in fear...?
  2. Something the Boy Said, by Sting - A great story about how fear can creep up on you.
  3. Happy Phantom, by Tori Amos - She's putting on a ghost costume to see what it would feel like. Fear is definitely optional here.
  4. A Rose for Emily, by the Zombies - A song by the Zombies! Of course it counts! But seriously, this song is reported based on a creepy short story by William Faulkner which involves (spoiler alert!) a suspected murder and a decomposing corpse.
  5. Turn Around, by They Might Be Giants - The ultimate Halloween song. I'm not sure how this doesn't end up on all the big lists. The turns of phrase are just masterful, as is the ghost train music in the third verse. Always good to be reminded of your impending death.
  6. They Are Night Zombies!! by Sufjan Stevens - From the Illinois album, this song is about ghost towns.
  7. Heads Will Roll, by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Besides "Thriller," this should be the dance track for your Halloween party.
  8. House Carpenter, performed by Nickel Creek - This well-known folk song is a chilling tale. In many versions, the woman notices the sailor has cloven hooves for feet. Too late.
  9. The Maid on the Shore, performed by Solas - Continuing the folk song theme, this song is also about disguises, deceptions, and supernatural singing, and a reminder to be careful what you wish for.
  10. Fashion Monster, by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu - There are places in Tokyo where you become your costume. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is from one of those places. You can read my in-depth analysis of this song here.
  11. When You Play the Violin, by the Gothic Archies (Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields) - inspired by Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events #5, The Austere Academy. I mean, what's scarier than a badly-played violin? My favorite line: "Sculleries, skulls, and skulduggery, sir." 
  12. Trogdor, by Stongbad - The Burninator himself; fear his burnination. The best version is from the CD Strongbad Sings and Other Type Hits, which features "wicked dueling guitar solos."
  13. Psycho Killer, by Talking Heads - Actually, I take back what I said about violin playing. A crazy person speaking French is scarier.
  14. Ghost Chickens in the Sky, performed by Moosebutter - A warning to all you poultry farmers out there—your time is numbered.
  15. The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge) by the Decemberists - This is a song late in the concept/story album The Hazards of Love. Earlier in the story, a rakish father kills his kids so he doesn't have to deal with them. During this song, the ghosts of children come back to get their revenge. The whole album could be included in this playlist, really. Actually, maybe everything by the Decemberists...
  16. Faster, by Janelle MonĂ¡e - From The ArchAndriod, also a concept/story album. The narrator knows she should run from a freaky relationship, but is caught up in the gravity of her lover.
  17. Wuthering Heights, by Kate Bush - Another in the genre of songs based on creepy stories, the song is told from the point of view of a ghost trying to talk her way back into a house to seek forgiveness from her lover.
For those of you on Spotify, I’ve also created a Spotify playlist that has all but three of the selections.

Having presented this Halloween playlist, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the greatest Halloween live music experience I’ve ever had: the Utah band MonkeyGrinder. This band pretty much only perform on Halloween night at Provo’s Velour Music Gallery. They are variable in size, but the main characters are usually Colin Botts, the main songwriter, a percussionist playing found objects and who always dressed as a pirate because he has an actually peg leg, an accordionist, a trumpet player, and a clarinetist.
All of their songs are Halloween-esque, mostly about death and circuses. I think they came out with an album and every once in a while, I kick myself for never having bought it. You can listen to a few of their songs on Colins Botts's SoundCloud page, though it just doesn't match the live experience. The highlight of the show I saw was the song “Welcome to Hell, here’s your accordion,” a heavy metal song, which in my memory featured no less than 7 accordions on stage.

If you live in the Utah, though, it turns out you are in luck. MonkeyGrinder is performing at Velour for the first time in five years on October 31. Don't think: Go! And have a wonderful Halloween!

Monday, September 28, 2015

A hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton? It's no joke

Yeah, that guy
Recently, I have felt guilty that I'm not doing more album reviews. After all, I have been doing a free Apple Music trial that will end in a few days and so I have had access to full albums that I probably wouldn’t otherwise hear until well after their releases. And I have listened to a lot of new albums, including Watkins Family Hour, Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Carly Rae Jepson’s Emotion, Tomorrow is My Turn by Rhiannon Giddens, and Venus by Joy Williams, to name a few. But I haven’t felt I had anything that needed to be added to the conversation—for example, I didn’t want to jump onto the Ryan Adam’s 1989 bandwagon and I feel like other people reviewed Chvrches’ new album as well as I could.

One thing that did jump out at me this week is Hamilton. If you haven’t heard of it yet, it is a hip-hop musical based on the biography of US founding father Alexander Hamilton (of the $10 bill fame) written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars as Hamilton. No, this is not a joke. Although this musical has been in the works for six years, under production and workshop since last February, and on Broadway for about two months, I just started hearing about it last week when the entirety of the cast album was streaming on NPR Music’s First Listen series. It might still be there this week, as the album doesn’t go to stores until October 16. I would suggest at least listening to at least 15–30 minutes to get the idea. The first act, by all accounts, is the better one.

In case you can’t listen to the full thing, you can catch a few samples from this short podcast from NPR about why this hip-hop musical actually works. If you can’t listen to the podcast, you can certainly read about it; there’s no shortage of opinions. Besides the New York Times review, there’s a long, pretty involved New Yorker article from when the musical opened for workshop off-Broadway, or an NPR review for when the musical opened on Broadway. Finally, a short article on why presidential candidates should see the musical, also from the New Yorker.

For my part, I listened to the first half of the musical yesterday, and I can say I was generally taken in. I was impressed at how General Washington (“a modern major general”) translates into hip-hop bravado and the context of war and at the same time it comments on today's politics and invites us to learn more about what happened 240 years ago. If you dig into the music, there’s lots of references to classical hip hop music and musicals. As the NPR podcast suggests, it is not all hip-hop, but a bonafide mix of musical and hip-hop and other styles. But it all works.

Try it out. There’s a good chance your children may be putting it on as their high school play in 5 years.

Monday, September 21, 2015

How you clap at concerts is wrong

From Flickr, under a creative commons license.

One important part of live music is how concert-goers show appreciation for the music they’ve just heard. Strangely, this is different for different types of music and concert venues. Most involve some form of clapping (a form of applause). And much of the time, the way clapping is used just doesn’t make sense. Here’s what I mean:

1. Classical

For some reason, in classical music concerts in America, we give a standing ovation at the end of pretty much every concert. This doesn’t make sense. I am of the school that a standing ovation should mean something special, but also that musicians shouldn’t feel bad when they don’t get one. Also, there should be a middle ground between sitting and standing. European audiences have this solved: if they really like the concert, they will start clapping in sync with each other, which has the added effect of being way more interesting for an audience member than just continuing to clap asynchronously.

These Classical concert standing ovations often last for a long time, too, while the conductor or soloists come out and bow 3–4 times. I think hardly anyone (performers or audience) actually likes this. I think that classical music should take a cue from the theater and have one highly-staged bowing event (where the performers take turns bowing, with the soloists bowing last, and then one final group bow or two), and then they are done. If after this bowing event, the audience really doesn’t want to stop clapping after a few minutes, that’s the time to encore.

Also, at classical music concerts, there is the constant fear that someone will clap in between movements. I’m not sure what to do about that, partially because (believe it or not) during the early 1800s, people often clapped after every movement. In fact, sometimes they clapped hard enough to encore a single movement. Part of me thinks this makes more sense than the current system, but on the other hand, a lot of music in the late 19th and 20th centuries were written without the expectation of clapping between movements.

2. Popular

In most larger-venue popular concerts, we’ve gotten to the point that the audience expects the performers to do about three more songs as an encore. This annoying practice is so widespread that a few years ago I heard a performer say: “We’re getting close to that time in the concert where I leave the stage and then come back on and play a few more songs.” Let’s have encores be real encores.

3. Jazz

I know you are “supposed” to clap to for individual solos, but often we end up covering over the next’s person’s solo or other music. Couldn’t we just wait until the music stops and then clap? Instead, how about some whoops or hollers that don’t interrupt the music as much, but still give the soloist some energy?

No, I don’t have some unified theory of clapping for music appreciation, though generally I think there should be less of it. In fact, the more I think about the act of clapping (banging hands together to show appreciation for some artistic performance) the weirder it gets.

The highest form of showing appreciation, of course? Paying the musicians. Something that is for the most part happening less.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Changing up TV theme songs

Theme songs are important for TV—they signal the start of the show and brand it. The theme song can also channel the emotion of the show, both conveying the show designers’ emotion and releasing the viewers’ stored emotion (if the viewers have formed an emotional attachment to the show). If an American TV show has an opening theme, it is usually the same for all seasons, though in later seasons it may get a rewrite or two. The closing credits are also similar or the same to the opening theme, though not always.

Many recent Japanese Anime, however, operate differently, with a new theme song for every season. Being used to American TV, it was somewhat jarring to get to a second season of a show and hear completely new songs for both the opening and the closing credits. I can see the advantages—one theme song over multiple seasons can get boring, especially if you are watching the shows in a short period of time. Also, new theme songs can shape a different feeling for different seasons, which could be great for a storytelling arc. New materials also lets the show show progression, which is important for TV, where presenting a story over a long time can be a strength.

There are some problems, though. What if the new theme songs just weren’t as good as the first ones? This was certainly the case with Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, a great anime series that I just finished (and would recommend). The first theme songs (with the opening and closing credits) were very good, catchy, and really fit the character of the show. I quickly became attached to these songs, not just because they were well-written, but because I associated them with the new, exciting show. Because they are the first things people associate with a show, the first theme songs are really the most important ones, and when a show chooses to pick a new one, it runs the risk of letting some people down. And I was let down by the second season’s theme songs—not because they were necessarily bad, but because that for me, they didn’t work as well as the first season’s songs.

I can understand why the creators of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood decided to change the themes every season—it allowed them to create new opening and closing animation sequences that matched more closely what was happening in the show that season. It also allowed them to promote other artists’ music, and this practice may be one reason for the still-profitable music industry in Japan.

Once I got used to the idea of new theme songs for each season, I wondered if this idea could be used even better. One could imagine taking this practice to the extreme and having different opening music for every show, but it would be costly and difficult to animate new opening and closes sequences every episode, and you would lose the branding abilities of the music (though the creators of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood did animate new sequences to the same music to great effect on several occasions). So it seems that a song every season can be a good compromise. One strategy the show’s creators employed only once, but could have been used a lot more, is bringing back older themes when the story might call for it. It would be a great way to bring back emotions from earlier in the series, or create needed tension, or foreshadow events. Do you know of any TV shows that have done this?

Since your are probably curious, and even if you aren’t, here is my ranking of the Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood theme songs, with some notes:

  1. 1st season, end credits ("Uso," by Sid) - An expansive melody that starts with an innocent-sounding pentatonic melody, not unlike the simple attitudes of the brothers. As the theme progresses, thought, it adds a driving rhythm. Also, the best credit images, with a completely different animation style. Seriously, I've had this song stuck in my head for a month.
  2. 4th season, end credits ("Shunkan Sentimental" by Scandal) - The initial electric guitar melody tied best into the ends of episodes, add adding an excitement to the end that leaves the viewer believe that the next episode will continue the story in a great way.
  3. 1st season, opening credits  ("Again," by Yui) - Also has a simple beginning with a child-like voice that breaks into richer and more powerful guitar chords. The quick delivery of the lyrics adds interest and urgency.
  4. 2nd season, opening credits ("Hologram" by Nico Touches the Walls) - This is the one piece that was effectively reused in the penultimate episode of the show.
  5. 3th season, opening credits - ("Golden Time Lover," by Sukima Switch) - Second-best constructed animated sequence credits, that had the normal snapshots of the season's animation and characters, but also told a story in itself.
  6. 4th season, opening credits ("Period," by Chemistry)
  7. The other four songs
Would you have picked a different ranking order? Why?

Vocab: pentatonic, rhythm