Sunday, December 28, 2008

New Review - Indiana Jones: The Soundtrack Collection by John Williams

After a wait of nearly 20 years, a new Indiana Jones movie hit theaters this summer. And while fans of the film had to wait almost two decades for a new chapter in the story, film music fans had to wait nearly three for a comprehensive collection of the film's signature music.

Released last month, Indiana Jones: The Soundtracks Collection is a milestone set as it features the most complete recording of the music from Temple of Doom (one of the quirkiest and most successful of the scores) and newly remastered sound for all four scores. While not the amazing success of the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings collections, the set is certainly worth the $40 it currently lists for on You can read my complete review of the Indiana Jones set for more details.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

"But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart"

“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.
For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever.”
Luke 1: 46-55 (NLT)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Return of Messiah

Last year, you may remember, I wrote of my fascination with the performance history of Handel's Messiah. I teach the work as the last piece in my undergraduate music history course, and so every year consider anew how this work captivates the Western world, has seeped into high and low culture in numerous and unexpected ways, and in some ways has become a parody of itself. No section of Messiah is more abused than the "Hallelujah Chorus," which appears in countless movies and commercials in settings from the slightly appropriate to the absurd. And so, in the spirit of Christmas, I offer to you this Christmas Eve my favorite abuse of that venerated musical work:

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

All I Want For Christmas

Here it is, two days before Christmas and since your presents have not all arrived, I knew that many of you were wondering what you could possibly get me for Christmas. Wonder no longer. I'd take one of these:Seriously, NASA has decided to sell off its orbiters when the shuttle program ends in 2010. The price tag? A mere $42 million which is a bargain considering that it includes the $6 million cost of transport and detoxification of the shuttle. You can get Atlantis, Endeavor, or Discovery, but the word on the street is that the Air and Space Museum will be getting one, so only two are up for grabs.

Of course, if $42 million is out of your price range, I'd take one of the 10 decommissioned shuttle engines - they are only $400,000 to $800,000 each, plus shipping and handling.

Monday, December 22, 2008

New Trick - Eating

It must be new trick week around here, because in addition to sitting up, Noah began eating last Friday. We gave him a spoon to play with as a distraction and starting spooning in the rice cereal.
He took it like a champ. It looks like he may follow his brother in eating; Sam's always eaten anything and everything (he's one of the few kids I know that goes out to eat and selects broccoli over french fries on ocassion). It could also be that Noah is just a laid back kind of guy and takes everything in stride:
Well, almost everything. He did let big globs of cereal fall out. But as of this morning, he's eating almost all of what we prepare and even asking for more.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

New Trick - Sitting Up

Look at Noah's new trick - he's sitting up. He's been working on sitting unsupported for about a month now. In his baby papasan chair, he began doing crunches to be upright. Then we put in in the boppy for a bit of support, but he just wanted to fall over and gnaw the soft boppy cover for a while. So we finally discovered that putting a toy in front of him distracted him enough that he would sit for long periods of time without falling over.

Invariably, though, Sam comes running by, and Noah wants to follow him. Tump goes Noah, squeal goes Sam as he runs away, scream goes Noah as he's thwarted in playing with Sam. But with sitting up, crawling can't be too far away, and then watch out Sam, or more specifically, Sam's toys.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Tale of Neenga

We spent all day at church today because tomorrow night, our choir is presenting Bach's Christmas Oratorio with Joy singing the soprano solos and yours truly making his debut as a timpani player. Since Joy is singing some hard solos and duets, she's been practicing most evenings after supper before we put the boys to bed. Sam loves to hear Joy practice, loves to accompany her on the piano or his egg shakers or his (duck) whistle even more, and loves her warm-ups best of all, especially her vocalization on "neenga." While she practices, she often tells Sam the story that she is singing, which has been a wonderful way to introduce Sam to the Christmas story this year.

But the other day Joy decided she'd been practicing a bit too much. She came to that conclusion after hearing Sam come up to me in the kitchen and proudly proclaim that Mom was singing about God and Jesus and David and a little boy named Neenga.

Me? I think he got it about right.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Viral Orchestra

Perhaps you have heard of this:

That's right, google, the London Symphony Orchestra, and Tan Dun have teamed up to create a symphony orchestra through viral marketing. There are things I love and things that give me pause about this idea.

Things I love:
Most symphony orchestras are stuck in the 19th century. Occasionally they dip their toes in early 20th century music. Every great once and a while they plunge into 21st century music. But in both those cases, they tend to play the music that, though written in the past 100 years, sounds like it was written 200 years ago. For an organization traditionally mired in the past to embrace modern techniques is a marvelous step forward.

Engaging Tan Dun to write a piece was a masterstroke. Tan has credibility among classical musicians through his orchestral writing and the general public through his score for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. He is ideal to bring in a wide swath of musicians.

Michael Tilson Thomas is brilliant at bringing in young people and using technology to reach a wider audience. If anyone in the current classical music world can pull this stunt off, he can.

Things that give me pause:
I know that some viral marketing campaigns work, but for the most part viral videos and ideas spread without the obvious guiding hand of advertisers. Take a look at the requirements and look again at some of the people in the video. I'm not sure this will catch on with the population they hope to reach.

Many of the best players are technologically challenged. Trying to reach musicians through the internet is a bit daunting to me. also, they say they want to create a truly international symphony, but what is the reach of the internet and will musicians in nations outside the US, West Europe, and Japan have the capability to find out about this project and then record a video with good enough sound quality for the judges to accurate gauge their performance?

Still, even with that worrisome twitch behind my eye at the artificiality of the endeavor, it is exciting to see usually stale orchestral playing branch into new avenues. What do you think?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Happy Birthday, Messiaen (oh, and Elliot Carter too)

If he were still alive, today would be Olivier Messiaen's 100th birthday. Presuming he makes it on more day, tomorrow will be Elliot Carter's 100th birthday. We musicologists love to celebrate birthdays and plan themed concerts around them, so you can imagine the concerts and parties planned for this weekend. I've always had a love affair with Messiaen's music simply because it is so alive with the love of sound. I've heard it described as sensuous and visceral, but the best description I've heard recently comes from Virgil Thomson by way of David McIntire:

"Nevertheless, the man is a great composer. One has only to hear his music beside that of any of the standard eclectic modernists to know that. Because his music really vibrates and theirs doesn't."

If you want to hear what we all mean, jump over to the audio guide for Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, and be certain to listen to the selections from his monumental From the Canyons to the Stars. For my money, that work is one of the most powerful and transcendent he ever wrote. (Ross also has great footage up of Messiaen at the organ.)

We had our own Carter/Messiaen birthday celebration in early October around here, and I gave a short concert talk at the mini-festival's opening. In celebration of the dual birthdays, here's the text of my lecture:

This past week, my wife and I have slowly been working our way through HBO’s miniseries John Adams. It is a wonderfully acted portrait of a tumultuous time in American history, but in the most recent episode we watched, which covers Adam’s stint as Vice-President under Washington, I was struck by the close connection the United States and France have had since its inception. In the miniseries, we see how Adams goes to France to aid Benjamin Franklin in negotiating France’s entrance into the American Revolution. Then, once we were established as a nation, and France was having her revolution, France came to the US and asked for aid in the burgeoning war with Britain. The US claimed that their treaty had been with King Louis 16th and they therefore would be neutral. That’s right, although Jefferson wanted us to aid France the way France had aided us, we stayed out of it all.

This uneasy relationship with France, seen right at the beginning of the United States, resonated in me with our celebration of two composers tonight, one French and one American. This was because during the 20th century, the musical connection between the two nations could not have been stronger. During WWI, French composers flocked to the United States to find safe harbor and succor. In the 1920s, American composers beginning with Aaron Copland flocked to France to study under Nadia Boulanger. After WWII, the OMGUS (office military government, united states) established a new summer course in Darmstadt, Germany to try and rehabilitate German musicians by introducing them to French and American musical trends, ultimately helping shape the future direction of modern music, a future that was directly impacted by the two men we celebrate tonight.

In many ways, Olivier Messiaen is probably rolling in his grave and Elliot Carter is rolling in his bed with the knowledge that we put them on a program together in this way. It would be hard to find two men whose music, on the surface, is more different. But this flashpoint of modernism, the Darmstadt school as begun by French and American interests, will serve as a useful metaphor for ultimately understanding how and why we put these men together beyond the mere fact of their birth being one day apart (December 10 for Messiaen and Decemeber 11 for Carter) one hundred years ago.

Messiaen as Color

Color is the heart of Messiaen’s music. Messiaen said that the terms “tonal,” “modal” and “serial” (and other such terms) are misleading analytical conveniences, and that for him there were no modal, tonal or serial compositions, only music with color and music without color. For Messiaen, Claudio Monteverdi, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Chopin, Richard Wagner, Mussorgsky and Stravinsky all wrote strongly colored music. In addition, Messiaen experienced mild synaesthesia, manifested as some sort of experience of colors when he heard or imagined music (he said that he did not perceive the colours visually). He even went so far as to notate the colors in the music (in Couleurs de la Cité Céleste and Des canyons aux étoiles, for instance) to aid the conductor in interpretation rather than to specify which colors the listener should experience.

But this doesn’t mean that he colors according to traditional tonal models of major and minor. As you heard in the chords I played, he ascribed color to modes that he created. These are the famous “modes of limited transposition, Mode 1 = whole tone scale, Mode 2 = octatonic scale, Mode 3 = whole tone followed by two half tones best examples. The idea was to create scales that are symmetrical and cannot be transposed often. Gives him an amazing profusion of major and minor triads, but they cannot produce standard chordal progressions. Instead, you get harmony skidding from one chord to the next, creating, as he called it, “rainbows of chords.”

Messiaen also developed an intense interest in issues regarding rhythm. In general, Messiaen typically tried to write pieces without perceptible pulses or regular meters. Sometimes used rhythms borrowed from other sources (like Indian rhythms); rhythms built from a numeric series. Also created rhythms that were “non-retrogradable”; in essence, that were palindromes. These were the rhythmic equivalents to his “modes of limited transposition.”

George Benjamin, one of Messiaen’s pupils was asked what made Messiaen so influential and said, “I think the sheer—the word he loved—colour has been so influential. People, composers, have found that colour, rather than being a decorative element, could be a structural, a fundamental element. And not colour just in a surface way, not just in the way you orchestrate it—no—the fundamental material of the music itself.”

But beyond color, he also organized his music according to other means. He was a lifelong Catholic and religious impulses colored his music throughout. But even beyond his faith, there is one other aspect that pulls his music together. Remember the flashpoint I spoke of in Darmstadt? Messiaen was an early teacher there, pulling students who would define European composition for the next 50 years to him. But, the story goes, in 1953, he went off on an unexpected tangent. He brought in a book containing colorful illustrations of birds. “Birds are my first and greatest masters,” he declared, and then showed them all notebooks he had been filling with birdsongs he had transcribed. His students began to wonder what was up, if he was losing his mind by having birds on the mind. But he was in earnest – he had found a new source of musical inspiration; new sources on which to base his compositions, sources that he often said were nothing less than the earthly incarnations of angels.

Messiaen, color and birdsong, and you’ll hear plenty of examples over the next two nights. Elliot Carter was interested in something else.

Carter as Time

Where so much of what Messiaen was doing was new and little connected with the centuries of musical development, development that happened in his own backyard. Elliot Carter, on the other hand, looks at those centuries of development and always asks “What’s Next?” (even titles his only opera, written when he was only 90, “What Next?”)

He begins his life going to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger for three years. Carter’s compositions up through WWII were proof positive that he had studied with Nadia Boulanger. Neo-classical; sometimes almost Coplandesque in their sound [not a fair term, since this is not a copy of Copland, but contemporaneous with him].

Immediately after the war, though, Carter began to question his own style. Came to believe neo-classicism evaded vital areas of feeling/expression. Began talking about the “static repetitiveness” and “squared-off articulation” of neo-classicism and seek something other than the neo-classical “sound.” That sense of repetition he sees as something assaulting us at all times through our media and advertising and begins to push back against it. Starts writing music that had a more continuous, unbroken flow, a flow that developed through the course of gradual change or evolution. The key to this, he thought, was not to work out a new system of harmony, but to work out a new system of rhythm. Studies the rhythmic systems of India and the Middle East; the Balinese gamelans, and African music (in particular, that of the Watusi).

All of these sources ultimately led Carter to devise a new rhythmic technique now called “metrical modulation.” (Actually, it’s a misnomer, because it’s not the meter that changes, but the tempo.) Like harmonic modulation, metric modulation (or tempo modulation) shifts from one tempo to another through a notatable rhythmic ratio.

The musical world in which he presents this new formation of time (he is adamant that his music not match the clock because that isn’t how we experience time) is one that is modern – often harsh and dissonant. Sees modernism as a way to express the time in which he is living and isn’t willing to go backwards in time like Messiaen, who draws great inspiration from the Medieval traditions of the Catholic church.

Basically, Carter’s line of development from the 1940s to today is unusually direct and unbroken. One of the most stylistically consistent composers of the late 20th century. No great upheavals in philosophy or compositional technique. Seems more to have drawn from his previous accomplishments and with each new piece, developing his techniques to the next level.


Did you note all the connections between these two men? They study in Paris and are connected with modernism, Messiaen by teaching at Darmstadt and Carter by the tradition in which he writes. Both are interested in new ways to construct their music, whether by color or by time. Messiaen talks often of “ecstatic timelessness,” a sense that you don’t think of how time passes, which makes him sometimes write extremely slow changing music, and something that Carter has talked about in his music and shows up in his dislike of regular repetition.

But their approaches could not be more different. Messiaen deals with the sensuous in music, the color of it and how its sound penetrates you. Carter deals with the progress of music, where it is going next. As a result, this French and this American composer have been more respected in the opposite country – Messiaen was engaged to write a piece for the American bicentennial while Carter has been recognized in Europe and played there more than in America. But I think both might agree with this quote from Carter:

“Art music in America (or really art music in today’s society) has been like a plant, transplanted in a new place that provides a very different environment from the one in which it originally developed. In this new situation, hitherto unrealized qualities inherent in its nature begin to appear, and the special challenge of trying to live and develop under new circumstances may produce a considerable mutation. The plant is sturdy, the environment strange to it, the desire for adaptation great, and the process of adaptation filled with difficulties which at times seem insurmountable and threatening to the life of the plant, yet its wish to live and develop is very strong.”

The result has been a music of incredible richness and variety, as you’ll hear over the next two nights, a music that will engage you in new ways and hopefully enrich you as well.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Baroque Listening Journals Now Available

In case you aren't completely full up of reading because you are grading non-stop, I thought I would post my most recent round of listening journals from my undergraduate classes. I've found this semester's experiment in having them read each other's writings and respond to be a great success as it fostered connections both inside and outside the classroom. I'll try it again next semester and see if the same holds true across classes. For now, though, sit back and enjoy the blogs.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

2nd Sunday in Advent - Time for Dress-up

After last Sunday's post, you probably realized that each Sunday in Advent, I want to post a bit about what our family is doing to celebrate this season. Today, I give you adventures in dress-up.

Every year, our church helps sponsor families at the Bethel Neighborhood Center. We pick one Sunday in December, put a tree out front with ornaments listing needed items, and then everyone brings their gifts that Sunday wrapped in white as gifts to the families, but more importantly to and in honor of Christ.

To help us visualize why we are bringing these gifts, the two more recently-born babies in our congregation are invited to be the baby Jesus at the altar along with their parents as Mary and Joseph, one family in each service. Sam was born in October, so after being member of the church for all of three weeks and having no idea what this tradition was about, we found ourselves three years ago performing this ritual. This year, we thought Noah was too old, and when we discovered that he actually was the second youngest baby in our congregation, we tried to pass the buck to another family who hadn't played the holy family before.

No such luck:As you can see, Noah (along with his new, ever-present, tuft of sticking-out hair) was Jesus along with Joy as Mary. In a way, it was nice to have both boys participate in the service separated by their three years. But whereas last time Sam slept the entire time and we could contemplate what it meant for the young family that evening so long ago, this time we had chaos. Why? Because of our shepherd (or as our pastor called him, Jesus's big brother):

That's right, Sam participated, and one of the pastors decided to leave a microphone on the stage ready to pick up everything Sam said as he rocked the (thankfully) empty manger back and forth. A few choice gems:

"Let's go get some of that bread" (today was communion Sunday as well)

"That's where the baby Jesus sleeps" (pointing to the manger)

"Can we go down and get the presents now?" (as the white gifts accumulated before him)

Both boys were actually extremely well-behaved, and Noah smiled at everyone the entire time, making everyone who came down the aisle smile back at him.

The event helped me remember that one of the gifts of Christmas is the child. There is something about a baby that calms our minds and our hearts, makes us smile, and helps us loose our normal inhibitions. I would never make the faces or the sounds I make for Noah to anyone else, not even Sam now. I don't smile as readily at anyone as I do Noah. I might fly off the handle at Joy or Sam, but not Noah. Babies are a gift of peace and contentment, even in the midst of sleepless nights. And isn't peace something the world desperately needs now in all its various meanings? How fitting that the image of a child reminds us of the promise of peace every year during Advent.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Minimalism in Advertising, or the Little Style that Could

Unlike many fascinated by musical minimalism, I don't remember the first time I heard it. I don't have a story about how In C, Piano/Violin Phase, Einstein on the Beach, Music for Eighteen Musicians changed my musical outlook. I suppose my lack of epiphany comes from being adventurous as a teenager and having a piano instructor who encouraged my explorations. I do, however, remember the first time I saw Koyaanisqatsi. Before my senior year of high school, I attended Arkansas Governor's School, and once a week they had movie nights with campus-wide discussions following. Joy and I had just met, and I knew that we might be on to something with our relationship when she didn't back away, eyeing me warily as I talked non-stop about the movie and especially the music. I had never experienced anything like that movie, and it lodged Philip Glass's style (and minimalism in general by proxy) firmly at the top in my musical pantheon.

Fast forward to graduate school. As I began delving into contemporary music, I naturally turned some of my attention to minimalism. I was curious to see how it had evolved past the little bit I had studied as an undergraduate, and was astounded at what I began hearing. Sitting in my library cubicle, listening to recording after recording, I found numerous connections between the popular music I heard through high school and college, the minimalism of the early 1970s with which I had initially fallen in love, and the art music of the late 1990s and early 2000s. These styles were intertwined, feeding off each other, and I came to believe that minimalism was one of the most important and potent musical movements of the past 50 years.

Now come to the present. Teaching undergrad and grad students music since 1900, I naturally focus a large section of my courses on minimalism. I try to trace out its impact and demonstrate how it is one of the few musical styles to gain a foothold outside the academy and the traditional concert hall, how it is the one style from the past 40 years that popular musicians have embraced. I play recordings such as Reich Remixed where DJs take on Reich's standard early minimalist pieces. I show them movie clips with Philip Glass's scores to let them know they've been hearing this style longer than they though. And I play random selections from the radio, whatever happens to have most recently crossed my ears, to demonstrate how it has mutated in the popular medium.

The result of these pedagogical revelations? My students are largely nonplussed.

But I've recently found an amazing example of how the waves of minimalist style have completely taken over so much modern music. Consider this recent trailer for the movie Watchmen, due out in March:

The clip opens with a cue from Glass's Koyaanisqatsi, and when the glass (get it?) breaks, another cue from the same movie takes over after a breath of silence. That cue is spliced and manipulated over the course of half the trailer, but then a remarkable transformation occurs. Glass's music literally becomes Muse's song "Take a Bow." Can you pinpoint the moment the transformation happens? The connection is so close that on first hearing it is almost impossible to notice that the shift in music has occurred. Moving from a minimalist work from 1982 to a rock anthem from 2006 with almost no perceptible shift is remarkable, and is yet another example of the wide-spread influence minimalism has had in Western culture. Now if only the rest of the classical music world would notice its impact.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Bit About Virgil Thomson in Kansas City

One of the stranger roles I occasionally find myself in since beginning college teaching is that of the public intellectual. Every once and a while, someone from the newspaper, a local website, or even an area high school will call or e-mail me with a pressing question about music history (particularly American music history) or a request for an interview. I'm happy to help out and only request to see the final product because it is always entertaining to see how my words are used.

Another such opportunity presented itself right before Thanksgiving when a writer for The Pitch, Kansas City's Alternative Weekly Newspaper, decided to write an article celebrating Virgil Thomson's 112th birthday. His angle was that Kansas City largely ignores its own composers, particularly Thomson who was born and reared here. I've always loved Thomson's music, which I find even more American than Aaron Copland, so I was happy to spend 20 or so minutes discussing his place in American musical history. You can read the results for yourself.

Monday, December 1, 2008


We had a great Thanksgiving break, seeing family, eating lots of good food, trying to corral Sam and Noah on top of our niece and nephew Liza and Eli, and playing on the beach. That's right, we spent our Thanksgiving week in the sand and sun, and the weather was among the best we've ever had. It was in the upper 60s or lower 70s, the water was warm enough to swim for a good 20 minutes before retreating in for hot showers, and though it rained, it only did so at night. This is what we saw every day:
Then we flew home.

We knew Saturday morning that there was a bit of snow falling at home, but you can imagine our feeling after a week of shorts, jumping in the waves, and lounging in the sun to see this out our window this morning:
Talk about whiplash. Welcome back to reality, back to work.