Sunday, June 26, 2011

This is what I like

While researching this post, I came across a YouTube interview with John Adams (one of the composers featured below). He raised a good point: What would happen if a TV interviewer asked a presidential candidate "What music do you like?" and the answer was "Beethoven"?

Such a response could end a career. A politician is in a much safer spot if he pretends to prefer someone like Kanye West. At least, so said John Adams; I'm not quite sure who this West personage is.

Is our entire nation really so insecure?

Having no presidential ambitions, I've decided to turn you all into quivering blobs of resentment-filled jello by presenting this collection of recent music I happen to like. Note that "recent" means something different in my world than, perhaps, in yours.

G'wan, give it a try. Please: Put on the headphones and pump up the volume. This isn't background music.

Urmas Sisask: "Voice of the Universe" I've just discovered Estonian composer Sisask, very popular in his home country but little-known in the United States. The video above features the first eight-or-so minutes of an insane work called Voices of the Universe, scored for a "piano orchestra."

The video on the other end of this link features Urmas himself (looking "adorable," in the words of one commenter) as he improvises on a shamanic drum while wandering around a performance of this very same piece. He seems to be having a grand time. Alas, that video features inferior sound quality, which is the reason why I decided not to post it here.

The video embedded above features a stripped-down "revised" version of Walter Ruttmann's famous experimental silent film from 1927, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. You'll get an idea of what the place looked like before, y'know, we blew the city all to hell.

Warning: At the 2:20 mark, you will hear...that theme. Sisask's most insidious creation. You'll know it when you hear it. It is simple, it is direct, and it just keeps going. Once you've heard it, you can't un-hear it. You'll be carrying the stupid thing in your head all freaking day. And the next day. And the next. While you're driving. Walking. Making love. It's always, always there. Finally, you will vow to do whatever it takes to become president (even if that process involves telling Chris Matthews some bullshit about Kanye West) just so you can get your finger on the button and NUKE ESTONIA -- because that, my friend, is the only rite of exorcism which will permanently dislodge that damned theme from your noggin once and for all.

You have been warned.

Arvo Pärt: Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. This is a surprisingly good performance at only five minutes. The best version I ever heard (conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste, a friend to the composer) lasts nearly 8 1/2 minutes.

This is music that reaches into the heart. Nothing else quite resembles it. You can read background information about the work here and here, if so inclined. Orchestras will still be performing this work as long as Western civilization survives.

This Cantus is probably the most popular piece that Pärt (another Estonian!) ever composed. Yet it's the work of a man so deeply engrossed in a dialogue with himself (or perhaps with something far beyond himself) that he seems genuinely indifferent to his sizable audience.

John Adams: "Harmonielehre: Part III - Meister Eckhardt and Quackie." Has it really been a quarter century since this music came out? Harmonielehre is based on images from dreams. This movement depicts a vision of Adams' baby daughter (called "Quackie" as a toddler) in the arms of the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, who whispers the secret of harmony in her ear as he takes her racing through outer space.

Several YouTubers have tried to find a visual complement for this cosmic piece of music. Whoever put together the version shown here had a truly mad idea: The music plays over one of those ancient instructional/propaganda short films that the MST3K crew loved to use as riff-bait.

And it works!

Philip Glass - Tirol Concerto, movement 2 (excerpt). You think you're done with Glass? Not so fast. I thought the guy had no more surprises for me, but this piece...there's just something about it. For weeks, I had to hear it every day.

To me, this is a piece about an impossible love. Someone you lost. Someone who died before you were born, or who will be born after you die.

* * *

That's enough for this weekend. Unless objections pile up, I may do this again. There are so many other fine contemporary composers...Rouse, Killar, Tavener, Gorecki, more...

If you find yourself growing addicted to one or more of these compositions -- well, sorry to ruin your shot at the White House!

One final point: All over YouTube, kids refer to these compositions as "songs." THESE ARE NOT SONGS. In the world of grown-up music, we use the terms "piece" and "work." If the composer labels his or her piece a "movement" or "overture" or "prelude" or "symphony" or anything similar, use that nomenclature. If a composer uses the term "song" -- or lied -- then and only then may you use the term "song."

A song is a composition for voice, often accompanied by instruments. A song is usually fairly short, although Mahler once wrote a song that lasts about half an hour. That was very naughty of him.

Jeez, don't they teach Music Appreciation anymore?

Oh -- and unless you are a studio technician, never refer to a musical composition as a "track." That's a barbarism.
My blog-reader ADD kicked in before I could complete my listening pleasure. Love the Phlilip Glass one, and your description of it. you said "To me, this is a piece about an impossible love. Someone you lost. Someone who died before you were born, or who will be born after you die."
That's enough to get anybody listeining! You should write liner notes! ;-)
Going back to finish it.
The German/Etonian ones are a bit too Germanic for my taste (they "bombed our hip shops ya know! ;-) English-born)
What fantastic selections!

Should anyone dare to object, please feel free to tell them to take a hike, Joseph.

Those are some nifty ditties.

"A song is usually fairly short, although Mahler once wrote a song that lasts about half an hour. That was very naughty of him."

I think Iron Butterfly did that too. Or maybe I'm also thinking about Mahler. I get the two mixed up.
Yeah, that whole "song" thing has always bothered me. Even in more rock based music, people refer to instrumentals as "songs", when in fact they are not. Songs require singing, very simple to remember. I do disagree that there is a length requirement, I think songs can be however long or short they need to be.
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