Sunday, December 22, 2013

(almost all) classical winter playlist

winter playlist 2014

There are some pieces that are so idyllic of a certain moment. Here are a few of my favorite pieces, both new and old, that are staples for me for a winter playlist. Hopefully, you'll think of snowball fights and reunions with these, too. Included are movements from the "Dumky" Trio by Antonin Dvorak. The textures of that sonata perfectly embody the images and textures of winter, and I strongly recommend hearing all of it. I also added Timo Andres' You Broke It, You Bought It, which I only recently discovered in the past month. I want to know the meaning behind the name, because what I imagine when I hear that phrase and how this piece sounds are so different. I love the interaction between the acoustic guitar and marimba (and I just plain love the acoustic guitar and marimba!). The interplay simply magical. The latter half seems almost an afterthought but rounds out nicely ending the same way it began--with the quiet shimmer of cymbals. 

I'll probably end up adding that track to my lazy summer playlist, too. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Chillin' with Higdon

I Can Haz Muzik?

After listening to Steampunk admittedly a bunch of times, I wanted to find some similar sounding pieces. In that search I came across Concerto 4-3 written by Jennifer Higdon. It could equally work well in that alternate Victorian universe. 

Now, I recognized Hidon's name from a chat with a friend who told me to write about her. (This post is just for you!) But I don't want to post something so similar to the last piece, though you're welcome to click on the link for some epilogue worthy ear candy.

Instead, I'll feature two other pieces from the Brooklynite. Let me first say Jen is praised as one of the most performed living American composers, with her Blue Cathedral piece for orchestra being performed over 400 times since its premier in 2000. I didn't know she was that popular, but after listening to recordings of her music, I'm not surprised. A lot of her stuff sounds really good while being technically challenging. 

Ironically, I chose to feature two woodwind-centric pieces  when her 2014 concert schedule is percussion and string heavy. Of all her performances next year, I'm especially especially excited for Skyline. Also, you can hear Blue Cathdedral performed by the Waynesboro Symphony Orchestra 22 February. 

But on to the two pieces that I chose because isn't that what this post is about? First up is Calmly for its mix of jazz and classical (jazzical?). Also, saxophone is under-represented in classical music and this is one piece that I can see becoming a classical standard. Don't be fooled by the calm introduction. This piece goes places and is deceptively busy despite its title. If you're looking to switch up your playlist for any seasonal party with friends, add this one. The other piece is Autumn Reflection, which has a French impressionist feel with some serious Debussy-esque goings on in the piano. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Crush On: Steampunk

Heart of Veridon steampunk photo
Heart of Veridon by Luis Melon
I'm so excited I don't even know where to begin! I recently discovered popular British American composer David Bruce who two years ago wrote a wildly loved piece commissioned by Carnegie Hall called Steampunk. 

I might be late to the party that was excitedly blogged about from here to kingdom come, but I actually came across it after finding out about Art of Elan (who I'll feature on a later post). But I absolutely freaked out when I heard this piece. I loved it instantly!

Steam all the Punk!

Steampunk is highly imaginative. From the first seconds when the clarinet is calling out over the other winds, you're thrown into the midst of construction on this city built on steam and clockwork. You travel down the too narrow streets surveying people going about their daily lives with brass trinkets and gadgets. The horns make their triumphal entry heralding the hero of the story--the scrappy underdog who has impossible luck for just escaping big trouble. The music is hurried and the violin's pizzacatto ticks time away. 

The second movement explores the damp underbelly of the city, revealing the political mechanics of how the city runs. There's men selling and buying items on the black market and secret passages behind storefronts. Nothing here is as it seems and yet the unlikely hero is inextricably connected to this world. It's as much a part of him as the gilded one above. He might even have an old uncle who tinkers in his shop trying to make something of value while striving to keep from being thrown out on the streets. Life here is unforgiving and brutally honest. The gruffness of the bassoon mixed with the undulating harmonies in the strings attest to it.

The third movement is like the calling card of a young woman who's beautiful, uncharacteristically tough, and yet stuck in a world of formalities where she feels positively alien. The triplet waltz evokes tradition and aristocracy while the minor key and melody go against the usual lightness of the dance. The violin shines in this movement. And when the entire ensemble joins in concert to play the tune, you know she's scheming her escape for another world, one full of adventure and where such pretense doesn't exist. Perhaps she unwittingly captures a glimpse of our unlikely hero. The movement coda's into what could be the theme of the city's capital. It begins softly with pizzacatto. All the instruments move as one often doubling one another. The music isn't simply formal, but meticulously regulated; not a hair is out of place. 

The fourth movement is light and funny. Its wonky off-kilter rhythm evokes the life of the hero--typical and yet not really. He's at work in a factory, but something happens. The obscure tremolo (16th notes?) in the lower strings ominously interrupts the otherwise light fare. His routine is interrupted. He might have something that doesn't exactly belong to him and is being chased by persistent but incompetent officers. The young man escapes the factory and uses his charm on an unsuspecting shopkeeper to hide him until the coast clears. Of course, nothing goes as planned and he's discovered. You can tell by the bassoon that growls suddenly. He ends up barely escaping through the busy streets amid contraptions and people and ultimately runs into the young woman, whom he uses as part of his cover. Her agitated and confused voice is evoked by the flute clarinet. She's asking him a thousand questions and he answers as quickly and calmly as possible. She's his only hope of escaping capture and he has seconds to convince her to help him. The tune from the bassoon comes back (the officers). They work their way through the market and eventually come upon the young woman. They question her. She tells them saw nothing. Once they leave, she blackmails him into inviting her into his world of adventure. An officer turns around and spots the man with her and the chase ensues. They ultimately escape, of course, on an airship!

The fifth movement begins with a heavy melody in the horns as if a funeral. Perhaps the young woman's mother doesn't know where her daughter is and the young man's uncle's worst nightmare is soon to become a reality. The brooding melody lasts for a long time. The young man and woman have to find where the gem he "found" belongs. The promise of riches for its rightful return is his motivation. The music eventually becomes more hurried with constant eighths in the strings. The brass interjects its ominous calls. Our two heroes face off against formidable adversaries who are determined to place him in jail and her in a corset and fixed marriage. The accelerando give the clear sense that time is running out. There's a race between the winds and brass with the strings keeping time.

How does the story end? I'll let you listen and decide. 

Also, check out my inspired pinboard of it on PinterestOh, and don't forget to get the FREE download of this. You're crazy not to. Positively mad! Now to find my pilot's goggles...

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Music for Loss

Black Friday is just a few days away and already I'm determined to find an alternative to the "holiday music", which is played so often and for so long that it's more like Doomsday my wallet anyway. If you're looking for a tongue-in-cheek alternative, you'll welcome Music for Loss by Hannah Lash. If her name sounds familiar, it's because I wrote about Hannah in an October post

Music for Loss is both a haven  from and an ode to the holiday craziness. The opening  reminds me of Saint-Saens's Aquarium from the "Carnival of Animals" suite. The notes flutter about like falling snowflakes. But instead of the glass harmonica Hannah uses the equally angelic celesta. Just like in Aquarium, though, the serenity afforded by celesta is lost in the unsettling harmonies among the strings and brass.  

I don't know for what loss this music was written. Maybe for my money, my patience, or my hope of ever spending Christmas without having to go shopping. But Music for Loss rightly characterizes the loving spirit of the season and the materialism that seeks to ruin it. Just the song to turn up on my phone when I look around slowly at the chaotic crowds in stores like I've entered the Twilight Zone. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Sond'Ar-te Electric Ensemble

 Sond'Ar-te looking sleek in light polkadots

A while back I posted on Tristan's piece Haiku. I loved it because (1) it was a full-on soundscape and (2) because he broke away from traditional musical notation (Because dots and staves are so 1600). In my musical journeys I'm happy to have found this tradition in Lisbon, Portugal--the land of good food, great beaches, and home to the Sond'Ar-te Electric Ensemble.

Sond'Ar-te Electric Ensemble is all about playing new music that incorporates electronics. What makes them different though is that the group is made of soloists. So, when they're not out there being awesome playing ridiculously hard and impressive concerti they join forces--like a musical Justice League or something. They also have annual composition competitions for young music writers that they perform.

Pendulum is one of the competition pieces written by local musician (and 2012 winner) Rui PenhaOnly listening to the audio, the music is dark and mysterious like an otherworldly scene out of a Miyazaki film. The the soot spirits of Totoro or the ghost train riders in Spirited Away come to mind. The amazing music video Rui made is effectively the animated cousin of Tristan's score. See if you can follow the pitches and pendulum swings. FYI, they follow the piano's movement. I hope one day he'll do a remake incorporating colors, shapes, or movements for all the the instruments. 

Watch Sond'Ar-te Live

You can catch Sond'Ar-te Electric Ensemble in concert 12 December at the Festival Musica Viva in, of course, Lisbon! I'm kind of hoping these European rock stars will have time to come this side of the Atlantic, preferably with their immersive audio-video setup. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Listening to New Music Is Like Loving a Platypus

Sometimes, classical music lovers (especially those of a certain age) fear that in an attempt to gain attention and win over "the masses" young composers will concede to the comparatively "vapid" style of pop music and in effect water down their compositions. And apparently a certain duck-billed animal attacked singer Billy Joel leading to Green Day's Platypus (I Hate You).  The reputations of both are hampered by misunderstanding and blind mockery, and every defender thinks they have a solution. But there's something we can learn from Perry, and that's this:

Make me beautiful. 

Be a platypus.

Yes! There's no shame in being a platypus with a fedora even if people question your existence as a joke love child of a duck and beaver, and there's nothing wrong with playing new music that people don't get right away or ever. And present fans need not worry because like Perry, new music has its diehard the Platypus Ensemble.

The Platypus Ensemble is a real group. And no, they are not Phinneas and Ferb fans out to rid the world of evil geniuses--or rather the many contraptions of one particular evil genius--but their mission is just as admirable. Formed back in 2009, they play and commision new music by composers from around the world. Their music is not "easy" nor does it have "commercial appeal".

So, how does one listen to their music? First, let me just say classical music always required a lot of attention. I love Bruch's G Minor Violin Concerto, but if I didn't pay attention to the themes or if I ignored the transitions or *gasp* the cadenzas, even that wouldn't have been interesting. New classical music is no different, it's only that our attention has to be directed to where its beauty lies. Historically, that was largely through modal mixture, but in contemporary classical music (specifically the kind performed by PE) it's through tonal texture. How those musical elements meet creates its charm. And charm only takes effect after being exposed to it for a while. 

A hypochondriac's nightmare.

And so I give you Hardbeat by Leah Muir, which is centers around the experience of chest pain. (Lovely, right?!) The textures, words, and arrhythmic beat create a feeling of anxiety. Their video (below) also plays into the sense of mortality with its imagery of EKG scans, human hearts, and the use of fading in and out of scenes.  Brought to you by the Platypus Ensemble.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Crush On: Madeleine Cocolas

A Piece A Week

Madeleine Cocolas
Aussies know how to rock bold prints and write great music. 
Meet Madeleine Cocolas. If you read her name and thought Coca Cola, don't worry I did too. She's a cute girl from Australia who somewhat reminds me of Sia. I'm happy to have stumbled across the music of this awesome Aussie transplant who is writing one piece a week. It's a daunting task and while her latest piece is only from week 30 (It's been about a year already), I'm sure the delay is from finding time to record and properly post it all.

She chronicles each piece (with regular interjections of Seattle living) in her blog Fifty-Two Weeks. Her music varies in style, but much of it is theatrical, which comes as no surprise since she's worked in film and television. Although I wish the compositions weren't so piano-centric, the collection isn't bad. Her music is perfect for everything from yoga to stargazing to driving. Here are a few of my faves:

Did I mention that I like how her pics complement each track. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Eine Kleine Grimmusik

Grimmusik before spinning a tale of musical terror

Meet the Brothers Grimm

I'm paranoid after hearing the music of brothers Grimm, AJ and BC, and you would be, too. I stumbled across this fraternal pair whose last name really is Grimm by chance. Together they are Grimmusik, multi-instrument wielding composer-musicians who are making a name for themselves in the Wisconsin theatre and dance community. 

Their most recent work? An eerie score for the play This is NOT Shakespeare's MacBeth.  For those of you who might have fallen asleep in high school or asked your "friend" in English to write that paper for you, I'll give you a three-sentence synopsis of it: Macbeth was a Scottish general who met 3 crazy cat ladies witches who told him he would be king of Scotland. A series of events not too unlike Game of Thrones takes place (it helps to imagine Macbeth as Joffrey and his wife as Cersei). He and his overbearing wife eventually die of guilt and denial, or a sword to the neck depending on who you ask. 

Back to the music! 

Grab those in-ear buds and you'll see that they create an atmosphere intense enough to make you think you're losing your mind. One minute it sounded as if a fly was buzzing inside my ear and the next like I'm slowly going deaf. Needless to say, this isn't going to be anyone's jam. But if you have a haunted house (or basement) and need creepy music to introduce that "urban legend" you came up with 20 minutes ago, this is your music.

Sadly, you won't find these Brothers Grimm on the performing circuit anytime soon--they're taking a two year hiatus while big brother AJ teaches in Spain.

I couldn't choose just one piece because they are all so deliciously dark. Enjoy!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Hannah's Autumn Tale

As I walked outside yesterday I noticed quickly the red and brown leaves crunching underneath my feet. I know they weren't there last week. I breathed in deeply all the sights and sounds of fall. Soon, I found myself thinking of all the tastes of it--apple cider, roasted turkey, pumpkin everything! And after listening to Trade Secrets, I developed an appetite for more season-worthy pieces. 

Please excuse the typo. Being a word-class composer is tiring. 

Enter Filigree in Textile by Hannah Lash. This piece is in three movements: Gold, Silver, and Silk. (A lot like the popular Pokemon titles minus the Silk version, which was shelved after it was discovered that pokemon's bugged (no pun intended?) Harden skills made it impossible to move forward). In any case, I'm only going to talk about Gold--up to 07:12. Filigree in Textile begins with what I consider the defining timbre of autumn--the cello. It has a dark wet-earth feel to it that I love. And the interweaving lines from the rest of the quartet that emerge are like streams joining into a river. The harp plays into the sensation dancing around the other voices. It's as though it's leading us down a winding path to take in an idyllic landscape. 

Altogether, Filigree in Textile gives you the feeling there's a mystery unfolding in a quiet town. By the end, the timbres all melt into one another; I can't distinguish the violin's pizz. from the pluck of the harp. They become as sparkling and bright as the movement's name--and the story ends on a note that makes me worlds more hopeful than winning a battle against Silcoon with a Magikarp. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cadillac Moon Ensemble

Cadillac Moon Ensemble
Look at these guys. How can you say no to these guys?

Cadillac Moon Ensemble

This is a band whose repertoire is as colorful as its name. What exactly is a Cadillac moon? I don't know, but I suspect it's something that's high speed and beautiful. This band of four features Patti on violin, Meaghan on cello, Roberta on flute, and Sean on percussion. They've been called "commission-crazed"by Time Out NY, but I don't think there's anything crazy about that.

I thought I'd highlight one piece they performed that embodies the relaxed cool air of the season. Autumn has always seemed to have a certain magic. It's in the suddenly lighter air and in the leaves' change of color. The way the music unfolds in Timo Andres' Trade Secrets is much like the subtle changes the leaves undergo, from deep green to soft yellow to fiery red and orange. Halfway through, the melody alters course cued by its reincarnation in the violin's harmonics. The music goes from warm and quiet to cold and sharp, much like how the new colder mornings foreshadow the daylong colds of winter; it works itself up into a frenzy like a harsh autumn wind and then quickly falls down to pizzacato. The melody's final state is one of ephemeral beauty. I wish I could loop it indefinitely much like how I wish I could freeze time when all the trees are their most vibrant and the air is full of the scent of burning firewood. If you find yourself loving this piece as much as I did, you might want to take advantage of the FREE download.

C.M.E.'s Fall Fundraiser

The group had a fundraiser concert event to kick off their upcoming season. If you missed it, you can still give to their IndieGoGo campaign and get cool swag in return! With a $100 donation you get a free lesson among other things, but there are equally cool gifts at lower levels. Cadillac Moon Ensemble is a fine band to support, if only to perpetuate their insatiable appetite for new (and awesome) music. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

In Reena Esmail's Swinging Hammock

The first time I heard Reena Esmail's Jhula Jhule (pronounced: jewel-a Julie) I didn't know what to say. I was completely mesmerized by this nighttime fantasy world that I was being spirited away to by the piano's introduction. Before last week I didn't know who Reena was. Luckily, I follow Composer's Circle on Facebook. Normally, I only occasionally check in there to find new music, but Reena came up on my news feed. (This was quite possibly a subtle push to get me to return to their fan page. And I did! At least after I could have the chance to find out more about her).

Reena is an American pianist-composer who writes music often infused with Hindustani themes, as is written in her Composer's Circle profile. While she has other works on Soundcloud that are notably more popular, this piece in particular deserves a little more love. It stands out among the rest with its gracefully soaring violin and a piano part that sounds as watery and dreamy as Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1 (click the link if you've never heard it!) I would categorize this as "dream music" because if this is a swinging hammock, it does so across a clear night sky, over a lonely oasis, and through a sleepy village far away. I'm definitely keeping this girl's calendar on my short list. 

Speaking of, on February 8, 2014 she will be premiering a new arrangement of Jhula Jhule for piano and oboe at the Tenri Institute. I wholly intend to see it (partly because I hear the acoustics there are amazing). 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Crush On: Mazzoli's Uproar

One of my favorite bands of all time is Muse. Though a fan for a while, Matt Bellamy and crew absolutely stole my heart with The Resistance. It was so amazing that I thought, Muse has got to make this into an opera so I can see it. (I mean, Green Day did a Broadway rendition of American Idiot). And when I hear Matthew's voice, it's all too easy to imagine a mezzo-soprano belting out those lyrics before pyrotechnics, strobe lights, and a comically archetypal villain. But I had since pushed that thought to the back of my mind...that is until I found this girl! 

Missy Mazzoli
Missy Mazzoli *stares dramatically off camera*
Missy Mazzoli is the brains behind the opera Song from the Uproar. Its story pieced together by recovered entries of an old strewn journal, Uproar chronicles the life of Isabelle Eberhardt who journeys to Northern Africa alone. There she joins a Sufi sect and falls in love with an Algerian man, but dies soon after in a flash flood. The music is just as mystical as the Sufi spirit that moved within Isabelle. The video below starts with a clip from the song You Are the Dust. The cello plays a haunting discordant melody while the electric bass pulsates ominously. It's unsettling and yet entrancing. Gah, with all this soul-wrenching goodness, I can't help but wonder if Missy's a fan of Muse, too. You can listen to the rest of her opera and buy it at Mazzoli's site. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

McKay's Soundscapes

After yesterday, I dived right in to the soundworld of Tristan McKay. He has an amazing way of making you want to go on dangerous expeditions with the music he writes. Take a minute to visit his page and read his bio. Meanwhile, I'll be getting lost in Tristan's remote icy soundscape inspired by the 1914 shipwreck of an Englishman named Ernest Shackleton. (**Spoiler Alert** After being shipwrecked and spending weeks looking for help in the Antarctic, ever single man on the voyage is rescued). 

Tristan McKay
Tristan McKay
Tristan is a composer after my heart with his multimedia composition Haiku. While the very clear *Varese-esque feel is rockin,  I just love  the composition. I mean, have you even seen the score? Following along with a recording hasn't been this fun since...I can't remember. I'm strongly tempted to print it out and draw pictures of penguins engaging the travelers in a bloody battle or a walrus slapping someone in the face. But on a serious note, the symbols are indicative of musical gestures, pitch-agnostic. It's fun to correlate the drawings with certain effects. Especially the middle where there's a glimpse of traditional notation and it explodes back into semi-random lines and figures.

Also worth adding, Tristan graciously gives a futuristic steam-punk redux of the whole affair with his short but awesome album Shackleton Gray, whose cover character looks kinda like a cross between Joel and Booker DeWitt (shout out, gamers!) Because what Shacketon's crew lacked was a soundtrack for when they battle mechanized enemies while smuggling a girl around.

*Don't know who Varese is? Explore and be amazed. You're welcome.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Righteous Girls

Although I love my violin, I will admit the piano is an enticing instrument. After hearing Henry Cowell's The Banshee, I've been in love with the more off-putting side of the piano. (Seriously, it's the perfect theme music for Damien from the Omen or that scene in The Shining where Jack Nicholson's character is chasing his son through the hedge maze). If it weren't for my too-small hands or an older sibling already learning it, I might have dared to try it out. In recently discovering Erika Dohi and Gina Izzo, aka Righteous Girls, I rediscovered my love of creepy as all else piano music! 

missed the opportunity to see Erika play at the Norfolk Music Festival this past June, but be sure I will stalk these two lovelies' concert schedule and see them live. In the meanwhile, their recording of Safari will have to do...and they might have a few other cool tracks, too.