Tuesday, January 19, 2016

This is Your Brain on Music

If you are interested in the science of music cognition, you should definitely read this article from NPR's Bret Stetka. We don’t really understand why humans make music or how the brain processes it, but many scientists are trying to find out. This article focuses on two recent studies in music, the first on entrainment (or how our brain waves oscillate in time with speech and music) and the second on the sensitivity of the brain to lower pitches and tempo.

I’ll let you read the article, but basically: 

  1. Your brain waves sync up with the music you are listening to;
  2. Musicians' brains are better at entraining to music—they can make sense of slower tempos better than non-musicians; and
  3. Your unconscious brain cares more if low notes are off tempo than high ones.
It’s a score for the nurture camp, in which I count myself; I think much of what we consider musical aptitude can be taught. I do take issue with Stetka equating boring music and slow music—I think there is a lot of uptempo music that is boring, and that non-musicians might agree with me.

Of course, the entrainment study only used classical music; I wonder how it would be different with other types of music?

Monday, December 7, 2015

Albums I didn't buy in 2015, plus some I still might

I took a good look back at my posts this past year, and after noting I had failed in my new year’s resolution to have and do more guest posts, I also noted that I had done only one album review this entire year. This is not a review blog, but just one review seems too few. I found this particularly strange because I tried out Apple’s streaming service for 3 months, so I was listening to more new music than I usually do. This year, as in the past several years, I also listened regularly to NPR’s Sound Opinions and All Songs Considered programs to get a handle on new music, so you might think that I would have responded to some of that music here on the blog, also.

In the end, though, I guess I didn’t have much to say about a lot of music that came out this year. I do try and set the bar high for myself, meaning that if I have something to say, I better say it well. Also, with some styles of music (such as hip-hop), I don’t feel like I have the expertise to really comment on it well.

In this post, I want to make some amends, and a mention is probably better than nothing. Instead of doing a top 10 albums or my biggest disappointments (like the Sounds Opinions annual Turkey Shoot), I’m just going to list some albums I listened to this year, divided into two groups: 1) albums I’m thinking about buying because I mostly enjoyed them, but didn’t have a lot to say about them (and obviously weren't so strong that I bought them right away) and 2) albums I’m not thinking about buying, meaning I seriously considered buying them, but ended up taking them off my wishlist after I listened to them. For the second group, I don’t think any of them are bad necessarily, but I didn’t think they were worth buying, either.

Albums I’m still thinking about buying:

  • Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and And Sometimes I Just Sit
  • Wilco: Star Wars (note: this was free, and I don’t regret downloading it)
  • Sufjan Stevens: Carrie and Lowell
  • Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love
Albums I’m not buying:
  • Churches: Every Open Eye - I loved their first album; I was excited by the first single for this album, too, but it was mostly a letdown. I may still buy that single.
  • The Decemberists: What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World - I mean, it was okay, but none of the tracks really grabbed me.
  • Watkins Family Hour - I got excited about this when I saw their tiny desk concert (link), but the songs they did for that turned out to to be the only one good tracks on the album.
  • Joanna Newsom: Divers - I probably needed more time to get into it, but am not willing to put in that time.
  • Björk: Vulnicura - ditto.
  • Passion Pit: Kindred
  • Glen Hansard: Didn’t He Ramble
  • Rhiannon Giddens: Tomorrow is My Turn - My one #TweetReview for the year, which was not a positive one.
  • Joy Williams: VENUS - Definitely some good tracks, but not as strong as her Civil Wars records.
The best I album I discovered this year was actually Sarah Jarosz’s Build Me Up From Bones, which came out in 2013. It was actually an album that Amazon had repeatedly suggested to me until I gave up and listened to it and loved it.

What albums did you buy this year, or were thinking of buying but changed your mind later? Should I rethink any of my album decisions?

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 Monáe - 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.