Monday, December 5, 2016

Program notes: Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Once again, I have written some short program notes for an Oahu Choral Society concert, this time our Christmas concert, and I'm posting the notes here. Enjoy, and if happen to live on Oahu, please come to the concert this Saturday, December 10th at 7:30pm at St. Andrew's Cathedral in Honolulu.

Graphic designed by Katherine Fisher
What is the spirit of Christmas? At its center, it is a light in the darkness, finding hope where there seemed none, finding comfort and joy amid pain and sorrow. Is there a more natural reaction to finding a glimmer of joy and comfort than to shout and sing? Tonight we sing you good news, tidings of comfort and joy.

Tidings of Comfort

  • “O Nata Lux,” by Morten Lauridsen, is a beautiful sonic landscape depicting Christ as the source of light.
  • In “Lux Aurumque,” Eric Whitacre paints a peaceful, reflective nativity scene.
  • Arvo Pärt’s “Magnificat” is a spare version of the ubiquitous Latin text. Listen to the choir’s harmonies as they oscillate among stacked sonorities like a huge bell—what Pärt scholars call “tintinnabuli.”
  • Herbert Howells’s “Here Is the Little Door” is another nativity portrait, this time with the wise men, that paints the Christ-child against the bittersweet backdrop of war and death.
  • “Ave Maria (Angelus Domini),” by one-hit wonder Franz Biebl, depicts the hope-filled annunciation of Christ’s birth to Mary, with the choir playing the part of angels comforting and praising Mary.

Tidings of Joy

  • “African Noel” is an ebullient, joyous group sing inspired by African choral traditions.
  • “Christmas Day” is Gustav Holst’s atypical medley of four carols, all telling men on earth to rejoice at the birth of their Savior: “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen,” “Come Ye Lofty, Come Ye Lowly,” and “The First Nowell.” Listen as Holst stacks carols on top of each other.
  • John Gardner’s setting of “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” a traditional English text, boils over with joy; and what better signals human joy along with singing than dance? However, we’re not sure exactly how anyone could dance to the changing rhythm of this music—there is a lot of musical complexity crammed into just over two minutes, and by the time you feel you are getting a handle on the rhythm, the carol is over.
  • “The Twelve Days of Christmas” tells a story of joyous gift-giving taken a little too far. Listen for how John Rutter’s arrangement keeps the numerous repetitions interesting.
  • We end the concert with Handel’s Hallelujah chorus, one of the most recognized expressions of praise and joy in the world.
We hope our singing tonight will provide you with comfort and joy and healing and hope during this holiday season.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Program notes: Writings Etched in My Soul

I sing with the Oahu Choral Society, and we are performing a Veterans Day/Remembrance Day concert this Friday, November 11 at 7:30pm at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Honolulu. I volunteered to write the program notes and am posting them here, too.

Graphic designed by Katherine Fisher

Often, feeling intense emotion leads humans to open their mouths and sing. This act of deep expression further solidifies those words and feelings in our hearts. Few human events produce a greater variety of intense emotions—pain, suffering, loss, hope, joy, and triumph—than war. This program presents some of these war stories and the emotions that come with them, not just tragedy and loss, but also hope, peace, and resolution. We hope that these selections allow for positive reflection on the human experience for this Veterans Day (or Remembrance Day, as November 11th is celebrated in many countries).

The Holocaust (also often called the Shoah, from the Hebrew word for catastrophe) is one of most brutal and hard-to-comprehend tragedies of war in modern times. The selection for the first half of the program, the Holocaust Cantata, presents stories from Nazi concentration camps. The inspiration, texts, and basis of the music for the cantata come from materials found in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archives. Musical movements alternate with spoken stories drawn largely from the life of Irena Augustyñska Kafka, a Polish Holocaust survivor. For many European Jews, as well as individuals from other ethnic and cultural groups imprisoned in concentration camps during this time, song was an escape and refuge. In the words of the cantata’s narrator, “I can honestly say that singing saved my life.” While the cantata portrays the stories and suffering of those in concentration camps, it also highlights life-affirming choices made by those same people—to dance, to fight, and to make music.

The Chamber Choir’s selections deal with human struggle. “MLK,” originally from U2’s 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire and later arranged for a cappella voices by the King’s Singers, features a gentle yet strong lullaby melody with sparse accompaniment that shows the contrasts of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and his struggle for peace. “Even When He is Silent,” by Kim Arnesen, is a statement of faith in the midst of struggle. The anonymous text was found written on a concentration camp wall after World War II, and Arnesen portrays in the music the glorious brightness of hope in defiance of a dismal present. Paul Aitken’s setting of “Flanders Fields,” from the famous 1915 poem written by Canadian soldier-poet John McCrae in the midst of World War I, may seem at first to be solely about the struggle of war, but the text is also a plea to survivors to move on—but not forget. The setting gives a profound voice to the dead, betraying an urgency for us, the living, to commit to honor the sacrifice of those who have passed on. Finally, Moses Hogan’s setting of the traditional spiritual “The Battle of Jericho” is about a struggle-turned-triumph through one man, Joshua of the Old Testament, obeying divine instructions. Hogan’s masterful arrangement creates a call-and-response battle between the groups of singers, culminating in a grand musical depiction of the tumbling walls.

The next four selections in the program look forward to a future without war. “The Mansions of the Lord” (from the movie We Were Soldiers) is a triumphant hymn that envisions a peaceful rest at the end of the struggle. Srul Irving Glick’s “The Hour Has Come” is a heartfelt invitation for mankind to come together amid pain, banish hate and suffering in favor of love, and see each other finally not as enemies but as family. The next two selections praise the leaders necessary to reach this post-war goal. “Benedictus,” from Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, delivers a fragile melody with a fragile message: “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.” “The Last Words of David,” one of the most popular works of Randall Thompson, depicts such a leader, but instead of being defined strength, the desired leader is compared to morning sunlight on growing grass—someone who builds rather than razes. After a bombastic introduction, the piece slowly becomes more calm, concluding with an almost-whispered “alleluia.”

The final selection of the evening is Peter Wilhousky’s iconic arrangement of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a thrilling evocation of the coming of Christ crossed with the fight for the freedom of slaves during the American Civil War. Listen for the organ imitating battle trumpets and the quiet, contemplative men’s verse in the middle of triumphant, full choruses.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Sting Appreciation Day ’16: Review of 'Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police'

Every October 2nd (Sting’s birthday), I try and watch a Sting-related movie—usually a concert. This year, I decided to watch Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police, a relatively new documentary, released on DVD in 2015. Can’t Stand Losing You is really a memoir of Andy Summers, the guitar player from the Police, based on his book memoir One Train Later (2007). Interspersed with Summers’ narrative of his time with the Police in the '70s and '80s is footage of the 2007 Police reunion tour. So really today ended up being more of a Summers appreciation day instead of a Sumner appreciation day, but that's okay with me.

There are elements of what you’d expect in a Police documentary—origin stories for the bleached blonde hair, the aviator sunglasses, and "Roxanne"; and lots of footage of live concerts. But the movie gives a different perspective than Sting’s own memoir, Broken Music (2003)—Summers emphasizes the collaborative nature of the creative process of the Police, who did much of the production for their albums themselves, but also how this creative process sometimes devolved as Sting took more and more of the creative power. There is some critiquing of Sting and acknowledgement of the contention, though mostly without vitriol (the biggest critique comes from the editing and juxtaposition of Sting's own Police-era interviews).

What Summers chooses to focus on, though, is a tale of alienation that ran its course over the lifetime of the band. Not only the alienation of the Police from each other, but Summers from his second wife, Kate. In some ways, the title (which has to be a song title) is not so much about losing the band, but losing himself. It seems to be scripted as cautionary tale of what might happen with too much drugs, sex, money, and egos.

Other extras are scattered throughout the film, such as a 2007 Summers strumming his guitar while making coffee or running into a karaoke bar in Japan where someone is singing “Every Breath You Take.” And of course there are copious amounts lots of Summers’ black and white photography (he’s a frequent exhibitor).

Can’t Stand Losing You is not a critical or "serious" documentary. The movie was made for fans, or possibly just because Summers wanted to tell his own version of the story. I would have appreciated more critique and viewpoints; the only interviews were Police-era and mostly focused on Summers. And those old Police interviews could have used some analysis—it’s really hard when to tell when they telling the truth or lying (especially Copeland). I also would have liked more treatment of the creative process (especially Summers’ part in it), which seems to take a backseat to touring, Summers’ personal life, and concert footage. But it was still interesting to get another perspective (I still have not seen Stewart Copeland’s version).

One final note: I saw the Police reunion tour when it came through Salt Lake City in 2007. We had some cheap seats and I was very disappointed with the sound system, which I’m still a little angry about. Besides the bad sound quality (I think it was just the speakers close to us), what I do remember is that Sting and Copeland did not look especially happy to be there—but Summers was on fire. He took extra-long solos and exuded energy, even though he was the oldest on stage by 9 years. In both the concert and the film, I could see that he missed the Police and was sad the band split when they did. Even though Summers is the least flamboyant of the trio, his contributions to their success should not be underestimated, and
Can’t Stand Losing You gives him a voice, albeit a somewhat shallow one.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Behind the scenes calling into a music radio show

What I talked about on Sound Opinions. Buy the album here.
This week, I got a chance to call into Sound Opinions, a public radio show produced by WBEZ in Chicago and featuring Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, two rock critics, who review popular music Siskel-and-Ebert style, interview artists, or deejay themed shows about the history of rock music or other special topics. For those who have not tried calling into radio shows, what follows is a behind-the-scenes take on what goes into the final on-the-air 2-minute radio spot. Then, I'll write what I should have said on the show.

On Wednesday, Sept. 7, a week-and-a-half before the show would go up, I saw a tweet from Sound Opinions asking for emails if someone had a band or album we think was overlooked this year. I emailed in with my selection, Fictionist’s Free Sprit EP, and got a response back in a few days from the show’s production assistant, Alex Claiborne, who asked to set up a pre-interview for Monday, Sept. 12. She called at the appointed time and asked me to just talk about my pick; I think she was simply judging whether I had something to say and would sound good on radio. Even though it was a pre-interview, I was extremely nervous and had to stop several times and calm myself down. I must have sounded at least a little interesting, however, because after we talked, she set up a time to do the real interview with Jim and Greg the following Wednesday, Sept 14. After my nervous pre-interview, I realized I needed to be a little more prepared for the real thing, so I wrote down some things to say. When the day came, Alex called a few minutes earlier than expected (I was ready), and then put me on the line with Jim and Greg, who asked me about my breakfast (it was noon their time but 7am in Hawaii) to check my levels and complained that I should be “climbing a palm tree to pick a pineapple” instead of eating granola. Then the tape was rolling. Jim and Greg proceeded to ask me questions about my pick of a musical “buried treasure.” I didn’t have good answers to some of their questions. I also ignored that the song I was talking about wasn’t new music at the release of the EP—it was recycled from Fictionist’s recent eponymous album (reviewed by me here) and packaged with some new music to drum up more publicity. At some point, Jim and Greg played at bit of the track, which I heard tinnily through the phone. After some more chatting about the music, they asked me to repeat something I had said when apparently my cell phone was not coming through. Then Jim and Greg passed me back to Alex, who told me she’d send me the link when the show was up. The whole phone call took a quick 7 minutes.

I then had the rest of the day to rethink every part of the conversation, coming up with what I should have said. Which I did—by 5pm, I had produced a much better version of the conversation in my head.

Finally, Friday morning, Sept. 16, I got an email from Alex that the show was up, and I went and listened to it. As expected, the producers had edited it down, taking out all the “mm” and “uhh”s and the questions that didn’t lead anywhere. They also reordered a lot of things—the first thing you hear from me is actually the last thing I said (which makes more sense than when I actually said it). There were even a few things I didn’t remember I said. In the end, though, the final result is fairly flattering to both me and them, though I realized listening to the two other listeners’ calls Jim and Greg took that they were definitely not as excited about Fictionist as the other two bands suggested. But at least they were interested enough to talk to me about it (or maybe it was just Alex who was interested). Here's the link for the final show. My bit starts around minute 31:

If had a do-over, this about what I would say about Fictionist’s EP Free Spirit that I didn't get to say right:

My favorite track from the EP is the title track, "Free Spirit." It's a well put together, exciting track with catchy melodies. The band does a great job of varying the music when each section of music comes back; it's always at least slightly different. Sometimes, the music returns very different—I just realized this week that the ethereal, clock-like outro comes from the pre-chorus. There's an earnestness and emotion in the main singer's voice as he sings about giving his partner a choice to leave the relationship, a theme that is not common in pop music. What really gets me is how the verse starts and stops but then the chorus picks up and rockets forward, helped immensely by the percussion. I get goosebumps every time.

As seen in “Free Spirit,” I think Fictionist’s songwriting is one their strengths. Each song is tightly-knit and captivating. Robbie Connolly and Stuart Maxfield have a kind of Lennon-and-McCartney thing going, collaborating and sharing songwriting credits while also trading off vocals. Also like the Beatles, the other band members write an occasional song. Not many bands have that much talent.

I haven’t seen them live since they changed their name to Fictionist, and if I wasn’t living in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I would try and go to their concerts. You can see some live studio performances on their website that are pretty exciting. Of course, they recently lost their keyboard player, so it is unclear to me how they are handling performing these songs without him; I’m curious how they are getting around that. Hopefully, I’ll get the chance to find out someday.

Meanwhile, I hope they do start playing festivals! They deserve it.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sarah Jarosz’s Undercurrent—solid effort with bright spots

[Guitar, banjo, mandolin, or octave mandolin not pictured]
[Guitar, banjo, mandolin, and octave mandolin not pictured]
One of my recent regrets is that I only discovered Sarah Jarosz last year, from an album that came out in 2013.* Because of this regret, I made sure to purchase her new album, Undercurrent, right when it came out in late June.

Jarosz is not only a great mandolin, guitar, and banjo player, but she has a very emotive voice and writes most of her material. She actually doesn’t even play the normal mandolin on this album, splitting most tracks between octave mandolin and guitar. 4 of the tracks are just her and a guitar. Most of the time, Jarosz is equally captivating with just a guitar or mandolin as with a band, delivering captivating intimate performances; although I think more songs with more instruments would have made this a better album.

The hands-down standout track of Undercurrent is “Green Lights”; from beginning to end, the songwriting and production transports to an optimistic place. The lyrics effectively mix the mundane and the cosmic, with long notes and phrases underpinned with driving rhythm. Jarosz makes the genius decision of making the first chorus wordless. “House of Mercy,” another standout, has the opposite feeling of “Green Lights”—instead of opening up because of relationship, the character is closing up, with short phrases, rhythms that start and stop, and a controlled-yet-angry vocal delivery. “Everything to Hide” (the track from which the album gets its title) also is notable for its unconventional structure and confessional, candid lyrics.

Some of the songs are more forgettable than others, short on nuance or number of ideas necessary to sustain interest. Then again, there is only so much you can fit in 2 minutes and 30 seconds. While I don’t think Undercurrent is quite up to the level of Build Me Up From Bones, it is a solid album and recommended.

*I mentioned in a previous post that it was a rare case in which Amazon’s suggestions worked, though the album was suggested over and over again before I actually tried it out.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Artists want to reform DMCA, but is problem deeper?

Earlier this month, 180 artists sent an open letter to Congress in the Washington Post to reform the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) stating the copyright no longer allows artists to earn a living. While there are multiple issues, the main complaint here is against Google and their company YouTube, which these artists feel are exploiting their creations at their expense. You can read a summary of these issues here at the Guardian, which mostly revolve around how advertising revenue is collected.

While YouTube could certainly reform their practices, there’s a bigger problem here that will be harder to solve. Kent Anderson at the Scholarly Kitchen Blog points the problem out after examining similar circumstance happening now in the publishing industry: “The fundamental contributor to the erosion of copyright is the expectation for 'free information.' This is an expectation the large technology companies have been happy to set and users have been happy to adopt.” In other words, in the past few years, people have been trained that writing, music, news, etc., should be given out for free. This feeling is understandable (of course we want free stuff!), but it is also doesn’t help the system that creates the art, especially the content creators lower down the pecking order. To illustrate his point, Anderson tells a personal story about presenting a new publication idea to a focus group. Here is what the focus group said about the new product:

"They felt even the rough prototype was superior to its competitors in the market, and they trusted us to execute to that level. The enthusiasm was palpable. When we asked them what they’d pay for it, they unanimously agreed they would not pay for it. They expected to receive it for free—somehow."
Now, I like getting free stuff, too. But it is deeper than that—we've been trained to think that beautiful, complicated, useful systems and products somehow pay for themselves by just existing. This type of free model, in various forms (for example, the "freemium" approach), might actually work for some companies, but obviously is failing for some markets. The real solution to shoring up the failing the artistic (and journalistic) economy is for us to cough up the money and pay for things that we use and like.

It’s that simple. It takes a lot of work to put together music and we shouldn’t expect to get it for free. Quality takes a lot of work and we shouldn't expect it to appear for nothing. I know, easy to say, but hard to do. But it is something that we all should just swallow—even celebrate—and content providers should expect it, too, and make the process of contributing easy. Otherwise, there's a chance that the stuff we enjoy will just disappear.

What do you think? How do you think we can change the expectations?

Monday, June 27, 2016

Birdsong and music

I hear these guys, called alternately a Brazilian, South American, or red-crested cardinal, outside my window every morning. Their song sounds like an ornamented descending mi-re-do. From Mike's Birds under a CC license.

As I've written about on this blog before, I personally love birdsong and often try and identify birds by the sounds they make (though I am not anywhere near as good as this guy). If you are also interested in birdsong and its connection with music, I recommend listening to this 30-minute radio program recently produced by the BBC and part of the series “The Listening Service”:

Although the title of the program (or should I write “programme”?) is “is birdsong music?”, BBC reporter Tom Service instead spends most of his time answering the question: “how has birdsong been used in Western classical music throughout the years?” Though it is not the stated question, it is also a good question, and of course Service does an excellent review on the music of Messiaen, a 20th-century French composer who spent much of his career translating birdsong in to concert music.

Personally, I’ve found Messiaen’s birdsong-inspired music difficult to listen to, somewhat because it was an attempt to take something we don’t understand and try to create some order on it without changing it too much, resulting in very static-sounding music. Birdsong, though, is something that humans often feel like we should understand, because it is all around us and has influenced the way we write music ourselves. But, as this program makes clear, we don’t know birdsong's purpose, and what’s more, we don’t actually hear it very well: “Birdsong is too fast, too high, for us to understand.” While I disagree slightly with the reasoning the program presents as to why this is the case (size or heartbeat really doesn’t make a difference; the speed of audio wave sampling is much more important), it is true that besides not understanding what birdsong means, we can’t even hear it or reproduce it very well.

Instead, birdsong “becomes translated by us” into music. I think this is why I, like Service, enjoy Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” even if it has very little to do with the actual sounds a lark makes—he uses bird-inspired sounds and creates a symbol of the peace and freedom of nature, but doesn’t try to re-create it.

When Service finally get the to the question (“is birdsong music?”) in minute 25, he hasn’t really analyzed the issue, or even defined the terms in the question, but just dismisses it as “false”, even when no proof has been made against at least some birdsong being music to birds (why wouldn’t attracting a mate be artistic?). Still, it is an interesting listen and I would recommend it, especially to anyone fascinated by birdsong.

One more caveat: While I don’t particularly like author Bernie Krause’s metaphor of the great animal orchestra, especially the comparison with taking the strings out of Beethoven 5th, I do understand what he’s saying about birds filling communication niches—animals using sounds to communicate have to differentiate from other animals, so that their message can get across. Which is kind of like orchestration, except formed by competition and instead of consonance. So, kind of the opposite, actually. (I don't think Service really likes the idea, either.)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Album Review: Oh Pep! Stadium Cake
Yes, Olivia and Pepita can see you.
Usually, if a music critic gives a review of an album or group you probably haven’t heard of, especially if they only review a few albums a year, it is probably a favorable review. After all, why would they bother reviewing it, then? However, that’s not exactly happening with this review.

I first encountered Oh Pep! through All Songs Considered, first in an episode and then in a NPR Tiny Desk Concert. After getting a taste, I was excited to listen to Oh Pep!’s first full length album, Stadium Cake, which is streaming this week on NPR’s First Listen series through Wednesday (6/22). What drew me to them? Mostly the song writing—interesting lyrics, fresh chord progressions, and highly-structured songs that aren’t the usual verse/chorus or ABABCB.

After listening to the album, I have to say that while I still think the songs are good, I have a beef with the production. It sounds to me like Oh Pep! is doing covers of their own songs. Or, to say it another way, they got in the studio and starting putting stuff in songs because “that’s what you do to songs in the studio, right?” I think this album would have been much better with less heavy-handed production, or maybe just different production.

For example, the bluesy guitar riff in “Seven Babies” messes up with otherwise might be a great song, like a greasy toupee dropped on the Thanksgiving turkey. “Tea Milk and Honey” would have worked so much better with a piano or guitar rather than the electronic instrument at the beginning; it’s definitely a relief when that instrument is replaced with Olivia's acoustic guitar as the song progresses. The group singalongs and layered vocals in "Crazy Feels" and "Wanting" both fall flat, too, along with other added synth sounds.

The album is it’s best when it focuses on the melody, lyric delivery, and acoustic sounds—like the atonal strumming “Bushwick,” the bi-tonal string hook in “Crazy Feels,” the violin riff in “Doctor, Doctor,” and the mandolin at the beginning of “Only Everyone” and "Trouble Now" (though some of the instrument solos could use some more virtuosic flare). Most other sounds get in the way, including the many of the layered vocals.

Despite the production missteps, the songs still come through, especially with “Doctor Doctor,” a poignant and emotional coming-of-age song about deciding whether to have an (unexpected?) baby, and a great example of how repeating the same lyric over and over again can be successful (this happens in other tracks; every lyric here is placed for a reason). Also, “The Race,” a lyrically genius track with melodies that accentuate the words, though this song also suffers from unsatisfactory production (mostly off-putting drum loops and too much change between sections).

I’m usually a bigger fan of the recording than the live set, but I’ll have to say that’s the opposite here. After listening to the album and then going back to the live Tiny Desk, the Tiny Desk set is just better. Just take the first song in the Tiny Desk set “The Race”—in the live version, Olivia communicates the words better, and somehow the accompaniment focuses the words, melody, and structure instead of distracting from it.*
Also, the album track seems to end suddenly, but the live version ends in just the right place. My theory is that the producer didn’t quite understand the radical song structures and so couldn’t quite sonically communicate them, while those structures seem totally natural in the live set. In these songs, just because something is repeated and at the end of a song, it doesn't mean it the "chorus" and should get the biggest instrumentation. Perhaps this production/structure misunderstanding is what happened to the “The Situation,” which sounds like the section and lyrics were loosely stitched together. "Only Everyone" actually has some good structure/instrumentation decisions, though still suffers from overproduction in the end.

So, in summary, I’m still not sure if I’m going to buy the album or just keep going back to the live Tiny Desk set. 

What do you think?

*I also think the tempos were slightly faster in the live set than the recording; or at least, the delivery seemed more immediate.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Program Notes for the Masses

A monument to Rheinberger in Liechtenstein, photo by Anke Jana

This coming Friday, April 29, I'm singing with the Oahu Choral Society as we present a concert of two masses, Bruckner's Mass in E minor and Rheinberger’s Mass in E-flat (see the Oahu Choral Society's webpage for more details about the performance). I wrote the program notes for the concert and am posting them here, also, so that even if you can't come to the performance, you can enjoy the notes. Besides a brief listening roadmap, there's a short history lesson about the direction of Catholic church music in the 19th century, which I find fascinating.  

Masses are music set to fixed Latin lyrics, normally performed at weekly religious services. In Europe, the desire for new music for the frequent services led to an almost insatiable demand for more masses, especially in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Many prominent composers registered their own submissions to the form, especially in predominantly Roman Catholic countries such as Italy, Spain, France, and Austria. Even Bach, though a Lutheran, wrote his own mass. In a compositional arms race, some of these masses became so complicated and required such large ensembles that only a very small number of church choirs were equipped with the means to perform them, relegating these compositions almost entirely to the concert hall.

Both Anton Bruckner (1824–96) and Josef Rheinberger (1839–1901) made their livings as Roman Catholic church musicians, Bruckner in Austria and Rheinberger in largely Catholic Bavaria. They are two of only a few great Romantic musicians of the second half of the nineteenth century who wrote music for church services, as many churches looked to the old masters for their weekly services while other contemporary composers sought fame in the concert hall or opera house. Bruckner and Rheinberger each composed at least a dozen masses of varying sizes and types; those on the program tonight are two of their most highly regarded. Both of these masses are written for double choir, meaning that two full choirs are singing antiphonally.

Behind the resurgence of older church music during Bruckner and Rheinberger’s time was Cecilianism, a popular musical reform movement in the Catholic Church that frowned on contemporary compositional practices such as word painting (having the music mimic the words), musical complexity that overshadowed the words, and heavy chromaticism. As you will hear tonight, Rheinberger and Bruckner were not fans of Cecilianism and sometimes went out of their way to raise the ire of its proponents.

Rheinberger’s Mass in E-flat, op. 109, subtitled “Cantus Missae” (1878), was written shortly after Rheinberger was appointed the director of the court chapel for Ludwig II of Bavaria (of Neuschwanstein fame). What to listen for: 

  • The interplay of the choirs as they trade musical ideas
    The fugal section at the end of the Gloria
  • The drama in the Credo as Rheinberger paints the crucifixion and resurrection with music
  • The danceable Benedictus, perhaps inspired by the popular Viennese waltz 
  • The Agnus Dei, which starts slow and plaintive but soon transitions to a florid, rejoicing finale
Bruckner’s Mass in E minor (1866, revised 1882) for double choir and winds is probably the grandest of his masses. Written while Bruckner was employed as the organist at Linz Cathedral, the music was inspired by renaissance polyphony, but has more in common with contemporaneous Romantic music. What to listen for:
  • The layered a cappella opening section of the Kyrie, first from the women and then from the men, which returns later in the movement.
  • The fugal “Amen” section at the end of the Gloria
  • Again, drama in the Credo as Bruckner paints the crucifixion and resurrection with music, with a return of the movement’s uptempo opening theme at the end
  • The tightly contrapuntal a cappella opening of the Sanctus
  • The interplay between the men and women in the Benedictus, as they pass melodic ideas back and forth
  • The quiet, restrained Agnus Dei which caps the mass

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Music of Waitress

Today, Waitress: The Musical opened for previews on Broadway. It’s been a long journey for the musical based on the 2007 movie of the same name, the first musical with an all-female creative team. You can read more about its path to Broadway in this New York Times spot this last week. The article also profiles Sara Bareilles, the composer of Waitress’s music, who made the leap to musical from popular music. Bareilles is certainly not the first to make this leap (see my post about Sting and his Broadway musical The Last Ship, which failed after a few months, as many musicals do). Nor will she be the last. Musicals based on movies have also been a big trend, though very few of them seem to do well in the long run; a notable exception was Kinky Boots, Cyndi Lauper’s Tony award-winning musical.

So like Kinky Boots, here we have another musical based on a movie by popular songwriter that’s a newbie to Broadway. How’s Waitress’s music? While a cast album hasn’t come out yet, like Sting with The Last Ship, Bareilles released versions of the songs of Waitress,
with herself singing them, before the musical came out, so we have a taste of the final product.

I think there are at least three creative obstacles that a songwriter who is from the popular music world needs to overcome to succeed on Broadway:
  1. Making different songs match different voices, instead of being all the songwriter's own voice,
  2. Writing songs that fit an emotion and plot narrative arch, and
  3. Taking the pop musical style and merging it with a theater musical style.
Did Bareilles overcome them? Let’s take a closer look.

1. Different voices for different characters

Bareilles does a great job of writing characters, especially those apart from the main ones. For example, in “When He Sees Me,” the music has very persistent pounding for the worrying, OCD part of the character; stutteringly-like phrase extensions for nervousness; and a quick transiting to a romantic latin rhythm section for the warmth of wanted love. Also, in “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” the music conveys the quickness, pushiness, and fun of this character, again with clever lyrics. I think Bareilles has some experience at writing song that are fiction, so this probably wasn’t a big leap for her, but she did well.

2. Emotion and plot arc

I think Bareilles does a good job encapsulating emotions and narrative arc into songs. For example, “Door Number Three” and “Opening Up” both have some clever lyric writing that sets up emotional and plot points at the same time (I especially like the “heartbeat” section of “Opening Up” that has her voice imitated a heart, while simultaneous hinting at other plot points). However, I’m a bit disappointed that there aren’t more thematic music returns, which can be a great way to infuse emotion, especially late in a musical.

3. Channeling pop into theater

I’m not sure that the music on this album really lends itself to visually-stunning set pieces that are important in musicals. With few exceptions (such as “Opening Up”), most are confessional songs; these are normal for singer-songwriter pop songs, but a musical requires more production, on-stage song sharing, and drama to succeed. Even the duet “Bad Idea,” while uptempo and exciting, with handclaps and a dash of humor, seems more a confessional than an emotional decision-making plot point or a production number. “You Matter to Me” could carry a dramatic emotional bump in context, but as a song, it doesn’t show as much variety and inspiration as the other songs on the album/musical; I really want the overlapping melodies at the end to redeem the song, but they aren’t as complicated as I would like for a such a long set up, and so don’t quite overcome the humdrum. “Everything Changes” might be a great set piece song, especially the chorus where the song projects the plot out into our own lives, but it still ends up being a confessional that peters out instead of a final plot exclamation. Of course, often songs that reveal too much of the plot are left off these type of advanced albums, so maybe there will be something more; also, the article mentioned that the music is still being tweaked, so perhaps there will be some improvement in the final product.


I think at as album, with many strong, varied songs and clever lyrics, is a strong as other Bareilles albums, though perhaps without a “hit” song strong enough to make a big splash. But it is hard to see how the songs will translate to a stage where Bareilles isn’t singing from behind her piano. We’ll have to see.

Have you seen Waitress live? What did you think?

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Do born-digital sound recordings have a future?

I spent the weekend at the Music Library Association annual conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. Many of the sessions I attended dealt with the problems of preserving born-digital materials, or materials that are created only in digital form. Preservation of these born-digital materials in a world where files and formats become unreadable and obsolete every 10–20 years is something that many people don’t think about and librarians are still trying to get a handle on.

One of the biggest issues/problems for music libraries is the preservation of commercial audio recordings that only appear in digital and not physical format; this digital-only distribution is increasingly the case. Physical format collection and preservation is the bread-and-butter of libraries because of a concept called "first sale," which is the legal idea that once some person or organization has purchased a legally-copied and sold physical object, they can do almost anything they want with it (I’ve blogged a bit about first sale before). However, digital-only copies often come not as purchases, but controlled by legally-complex licenses which do not allow resale or storage and specifically exclude institutions such as libraries from purchasing or even downloading an inaccessible copy (a so-called "dark archive") for preservation. Further, the large corporate sections of the music industry have a track record of not caring about the preservation of their own sound recording archives, often throwing master recordings away when they are no longer profitable to keep them. In other words, if things continue the way they are, these recordings will almost certainly be inaccessible in the not-too-distance future.

A recent article in the Music Library Association’s journal Notes gives a great (or, more accurately, horrible) example of the problem. The situation involves a music library approaching a large recording company about purchasing a recording distributed only digitally:
We chose to pursue the purchase of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s recording of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, available via iTunes, toward making it part of the University of Washington collection. This recording was issued online and not in any physical format such as a compact disc. In 2011, we contacted the Los Angeles Philharmonic about purchasing this recording and were referred to its distributor, Deutsche Grammophon, who in turn referred us to its parent company, Universal Music Group (UMG). UMG responded by stating that such an institutional license would not be possible. After exchanging several e-mails, UMG changed its answer, and agreed to license the material to the University of Washington Libraries, our institution, under the following conditions: that no more than 25 percent of the album’s content could be licensed, and the license would be valid for no more than two years. Furthermore, a $250 processing fee would be charged in addition to an unspecified licensing fee that would have been “more than” the processing fee. Given that the standard cost of a complete iTunes album is $9.99, we determined UMG’s offer to be unreasonable. Perhaps more importantly, having 1.25 movements of this five-part piece is useless to a library or user. We attempted to further negotiate with UMG, but our efforts were rejected (Judy Tsou and John Vallier, “Ether Today, Gone Tomorrow: 21st Sound Recording Collecting in Crisis,” Notes: Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association 72, no.3 (March 2016): 465).
Truly, the response of Universal Music Group is ridiculous. 

What are the possible solutions to this problem? The article (which is available via Project MUSE, if you have access to a subscription, or in print form) details a few, most of which are pie-in-the-sky (for example, simply adding to copyright law a legal exception for libraries, which will certainly be opposed by a legislature that seems to be in the pocket of large media corporations). At the moment, the only seemingly doable solution (and not a very comprehensive one at that) is working with willing smaller, independent recording companies to create dark archives of digital files for preservation that will just sit around until the music itself becomes public domain. That may happen in around 90 years, unless copyright terms get extended again, in which case, it will be longer.

Here’s hoping we can find something better!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Chris Thile's "Alright"

I don’t have much to say post-Grammys. Awards-wise, it went about as expected (except for Ed Sheeran, which was weird…). I didn’t get to watch it live, but based on chatter afterward, the best performances were from the cast of Hamilton and Kendrick Lamar, who performed pretty much one after the other.

But I want to point out something that happened on Prairie Home Companion about a week before the Grammys. Chris Thile, who with his band the Punch Brothers had been nominated for several Grammys this year (none of which they won), was guest hosting the radio show. He started talking about what amounted to a lullaby for his baby boy and then dived into an amazing one-person cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” a song that won two Grammys last Monday. You can listen to the cover on the Prairie Home Companion archives here (you’ll have to jump down to the “Alright; Song for a Young Queen” segment, which is just after intermission). Update 2019: Here is the new link:

Some comments:

1) I think this performance shows a lot about Thile and the diversity of music that influences him. I’ve seen him cover the Beatles, the Cars, Radiohead, Of Montreal, and many others, all with his own take, all unironically and incredibly well. But this is even more far afield from bluegrass than those others (though considerably more PG-rated than the original).

2) You can tell from the performance that Thile isn’t just throwing this song off; he is genuinely in love with the music and spent hours learning the words and figuring out the best way to perform it (he did mention later on Twitter than he had flubbed a few of the words). He throws himself into the song. He later tweeted this after the Grammys, which got a lot of reactions:

3) This song is so not Prairie Home Companion. I don’t think the audience even knows how to take it, besides acknowledging the virtuosity that the performance took. Can you imagine them having the real Kendrick Lamar on this show? Yet Thile does it anyway. I think it shows guts, conviction, and firm cosmopolitan musical sensibility.

After you listen to “Alright,” take a listen to the opening number for that Prairie Home Companion show on February 6, 2016, Thile’s cheeky “Omahallelujah,” a great conflation of sports and religion, with Peyton Manning as the center of worship. Gold.

Monday, February 15, 2016

OK Go: Does the music matter anymore?

If you are like me, you can’t stop watching OK Go’s new music video. You know which one—the one with zero gravity, ehh…I mean bursts of microgravity from being on a plane flying in parabolas. What the name of the song again? Oh, you don’t remember, either?

This may just be me, but it isn't possible for me to watch this elaborate and amazing video and pay attention to the music. I spend the whole time marveling and just trying to figure out how they did it. In fact, the music hardly registers at all; I just get too distracted.

I was tempted to write a similar blog post about Ok Go’s 2014 video, “I Won’t Let You Down”
The blog’s tag line would have been something like“—Or Do They?”, meaning that even though the video was amazing, the music was unremarkable. Or perhaps the music was okay, but I couldn’t actually listen to it because there was too much going on in the video. To get back to “Upside Down & Inside Out” (which is the name of the new song and music video, by the way), I think the music is not bad, or at least has a lot of potential. The song has ups and downs, climaxes and calms, that match well with the plane’s parabolic periods. It is emotionally explosive, which is matched in the choreography. But the music production suffers from too much extraneous noise, unclear pitches, and superfluous echo that takes away from the emotion that it could show. Maybe that was the point of the production—but to me, the song sounds overproduced and lacks nuance.

Should OK Go just concentrate on making videos, then? Well, no, music does add something important to the genre, besides just the first word in the genre’s name; it wouldn’t be a music video without music. Why is the music important? Well, first, I think it is important to make clear that music videos are mainly a performance, more particularly a dance performance. Movement and music go together. The music gives the video structure in time, pacing, and often emotional impetus, often with some input from the words.

Having agreed that in general music is important, is this particular song replaceable? I would say that in the case of the last two OK Go music videos, another song with similar tempo and structure could be substituted just fine. In my opinion, the songs were not really emotional powerful on their own. But that is not always the case with music videos—I think the best music videos complement the song, bring out themes in the song, and even extend the song's meaning, while not distracting from it. You could say the same about ballet; what is ballet but an early form of music video? I think the closest OK Go got to this ideal was “A Million Ways”. The choreography is subtle, winningly awkward, and at least didn't get in the way of the message (mostly). Or maybe the song was just more interesting and stood out over the video, or I was actually able to pay attention to the music, unlike the next one (you know, treadmills…or whatever the song was called…) or their subsequent string of videos.

I don’t think this emphasis on video at expense of music is a problem exclusive to OK Go (though their videos are an extreme example). Actually, I encounter this problem with most music videos, for example most recently with Beyoncé’s highly-acclaimed "Formation". I’ve watched the video a few times, but in order to pay attention to the music, I have to ignore the video. This NPR’s article got it right—it’s a visual anthem, foremost. Musically, I’m not sure it’s her best work. Does that matter? Probably not; but I do wonder if emphasis on videos—especially visually overstimulating videos—drives down the quality of music.

Do any of you ignore or hide videos to focus on the music?

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?