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May 22, 2017

The Audio-Visual Art of Céleste Boursier-Mougenot

In my last blog I shared information about a few different abstract forms of music-making, from albums made of tree rings to Swedish cattle herding calls. Much in the same way that people from different parts of the world create meals unique to the ingredients found in their region, musicians from around the world are able to draw on their local environments for artistic inspiration. In keeping with the theme of unique creations, I want to introduce you to the work of French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot.

I first learned of Boursier-Mougenot when I saw a YouTube video of an art installation that consisted of white china bowls floating in a pool of slowly moving water and clanking into one another softly as they drifted in the current. The sound produced by the bowls is reminiscent of heavy wind-chimes, but with a greater resonance due to the nature of their housing. Boursier-Mougenot explains that the piece is called “Clinamen” – a Latin word that refers to the random nature of swirling atoms. The piece is mesmerizing, to say the least, and offers a therapeutic combination of visual and audible art:

In addition to his aquatic art installation, Boursier-Mougenot has created numerous other sound-oriented art installations, some of which utilize foam, vacuum cleaners, or seventy very talented finches.

Boursier-Mougenot’s installation, “From Here to Ear,” is a piece that allows viewers to walk pathways through a room that houses seventy zebra finches and a number of electric guitars and bass guitars that are positioned around the exhibit on stands. As the birds behave naturally in their surroundings, they land on the strings of the guitars (which are connected to numerous amplifiers) and a unique song is produced. The birds are well cared for and have food, water, and nests available to them in the exhibit. Boursier-Mougenot describes “From Here to Ear” as “a piece that’s impossible for humans to play,” a statement that is verified by the heavy reverb of guitars intermingling with the bird’s chatter:

In addition to being audibly stimulating, Boursier-Mougenot’s installations are also visually captivating. The housing for his sound-rich creations adds an additional theatrical element to the display, whether it’s a cave-like setting for “Clinamen”; an open and airy aviary for “From Here to Ear; or in the case of “Harmonichaos”, a luminous sequence of vacuum cleaners outfitted with harmonicas staged a dark room that makes me think of a mashup between E.T. and the Overture from “Phantom of the Opera”. I mean that, of course, with the greatest reverence for the works of Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, Steven Spielberg, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.


Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s work provides stunning examples of how music and visual art overlap one another. It’s also a reminder of the resourcefulness and versatility of artists and musicians.

Music Innovation

The human race, as a whole, has made huge strides in technological advancements when it comes to how we make music. Just looking at the evolution of the piano gives us an idea of how far we’ve come – beginning with harpsichords, which could not sustain tones, and evolving into marvelous grand pianos that have sustain pedals and use hammers to strike the strings.

Our eagerness to make music is nothing new; some of the earliest known musical instruments were wind instruments discovered in Germany. These ancient flutes were made from avian bones and mammoth tusks, and scientists estimate they are between 43,000-45,000 years old. People tend to search for music everywhere regardless of whether or not they play a traditional instrument, and in doing so we have invented – and stumbled across – some very creative ways to produce music in our surroundings.

Leonardo da Vinci’s knack for invention did not stop at flying machines and under water breathing apparatuses; One of his designs was for the Viola Organistaa piano-shaped instrument that combined bowed strings and a keyboard.  Although da Vinci himself was never able to build the instrument, Polish pianist Sławomir Zubrzycki built the Viola Organista depicted in da Vinci’s drawings. The Viola Organista plays a little like a piano, but produces the sound of a stringed instrument :

Of the many different forms of singing, one of the more uncommon styles was developed in Sweden, and is called kulning. During medieval times, Shepherdesses needed a way to share messages over long distances, and they developed a form of song that utilizes voice in a way that increases the sound produced from the normal volume of about 60 decibels to around 105 decibels. Not to be confused with yodeling – which hails from Switzerland – kulning utilizes different tones and pitches, and is audibly different from yodeling.  In addition to being a creative and effective way to share information across the Swedish landscape, it is also beautiful to listen to:

To most, birds perching on telephone wires is a familiar and often overlooked part of daily life, however, to the trained eye, scattered dots across lines can have a curious resemblance to notes on a staff. In 2009, Brazilian artist and musician Jarbas Agnelli saw a picture of birds on telephone wires while reading the paper, and made this very connection. He then decided to turn the birds into actual notes and “play” the music they made:

In keeping with the theme of music inspired by nature, I would like to share with you “Years” by Bartholomäus Traubeck. Traubeck designed and created a record player that plays sections of tree trunks like albums using a camera, programming, and piano tones to depict the rings and blemishes of different trees. The resulting music is haunting, with sustained tones and an eerie resonating sound. For a fascinating interview with Bartholomäus Traubeck, check out Data-Garden’s brilliant interview with Bartholomäus.

From flutes made of bone to albums made from trees, it is clear that after thousands of years we still have yet to tap all of the musical resources we have available to us.


Barness, Sarah. “Dream-Like Song Created From Birds Perched On Electric Wires Proves Nature Is Perfect (VIDEO).” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 28 Apr. 2014. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

Wright, S. “To Call the Cows Home: A Selection of Swedish Kulning – by Sheila Louise Wright.” Academia.edu. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

Arvo Pärt Festival (Cappella Romana) review

This February in Portland, Oregon, Cappella Romana and Director Dr. Alexander Lingas, presented the first-ever festival in North America dedicated to the contemporary composer, Arvo Pärt. The Estonian composer’s music is arguably the most performed of any living composer. It was a slight departure for Cappella Romana best known for their performances of Byzantine, Russian and Greek Orthodox choral music.

The comprehensive festival in Portland gave audiences the chance to immerse themselves in many different aspects of Pärt’s music and his life. They featured a film, a lecture, and concerts of instrumental music as well as vocal works throughout the 8-day festival. I attended two of these concerts on the second weekend of this remarkable, and moving, celebration.

Saturday, February 11 at St. Mary’s: “Odes of Repentance”

There is something about Pärt’s music that is at once powerful, yet also fragile, representing both extrovert and introvert. His music not only reflects the words of ancient texts, but also brings complex expression to the human experience. This is music that is both timeless and timely. One is able to become lost in the music, feeling as though they’ve entered a portal to a thousand years ago, and yet remain completely in touch with the current state of the world. Sunday’s concert at Reed College had this effect on me personally, with both vocal and instrumental pieces performed, but it was in Saturday’s performance at St. Mary’s when I most intensely felt this phenomenon.

The music was not presented in the usual “concert format,” with applause expected between pieces, and an intermission, but in the form of a paraklesis, (a service of prayer intended for the living). The absence of applause allowed the audience to focus intently on the music, which resonated beautifully throughout the cathedral. Pärt’s music was worthy of a space like this, as the “space” between notes and phrases is paramount to the composer’s unique voice. Many of Pärt’s music is based on his compositional principle which he called tintinnabuli (‘Little bells’), some of which is dependent on silence, but also on a reduction of materials to an essential level. That doesn’t mean the music is simplistic at all; it seems to invite the listener in so as to become a participant of sorts, rather than a passive observer, by focusing on the sounds as well as the space.

Most pieces were in Church Slavonic (the conservative Slavic language used by the Orthodox Church in many countries), but some were in English, including The Woman with the Alabaster Box, which relates the story of Jesus’ anointing of oil by a woman whom the other apostles shun. The tempo of the work is slow, which in some recorded performances can come across somewhat muddled. By comparison, Cappella Romana’s diction was so clear, I didn’t need to follow along with the English text, as one often does, even during works written in English.

Saturday’s performance was structured primarily around several movements from the composer’s Kanon Pokajanen which Pärt wrote for the 750th anniversary celebration (in 1998) of Cologne Cathedral. At times, the music was dark and brooding, with dissonance creating significant tension; other times, the music would shift to a major key, and the voices would soar from a hush to full voice, filling the space of St. Mary’s and seeming to bounce off of the glittering stained-glass windows. Alto Kerry McCarthy, who has been featured as a soloist in previous concerts, opened the performance with a voice that rang out with stunning clarity.

While the music played, I considered its source, written in the late 20th century by a composer who is still with us; a composer who grew up in Communist Estonia where his beliefs were frowned upon. I found myself sitting in an American Catholic church as Pärt’s Estonian Orthodox music washed over me, and I realized that perhaps the differences that seem so significant among we humans, aren’t as great as we perceive.

Sunday, February 12 at Kaul Auditorium, Reed College: Festival Finale Concert

Sunday’s concert took place at the comparatively more secular Kaul Auditorium at Reed College, but that doesn’t mean that the spiritual essence of Arvo Pärt’s music wasn’t experienced. This time, Cappella Romana was accompanied by Third Angle New Music, primarily the string quartet element. The principal work of the concert was Pärt’s Te Deum, from 1985. But the concert opened with several recently-composed works, including Da pacem Domine, which was commissioned by early music director Jordi Savall for the victims of the Madrid bombings in 2004; and his Alleluia-Tropus of 2008. Alleluia-Tropus had its U.S. premiere at that concert, and I could sense that the audience was excited about being a part of musical history.

Unlike Saturday’s concert of unaccompanied choral works exclusively by Pärt, the Reed College concert incorporated two of his contemporaries: the Scottish Sir James MacMillan, with a work titled: Who are these angels?; as well as Slow Motion (1990) by Thanos Mikroutsikos for string quartet. Also featured on the program was British composer Sir John Tavener (who died in 2013), and like Arvo Pärt, belonged to the Orthodox church and expressed his beliefs in his many choral and instrumental works. Tavener’s 1996 Funeral Canticle, sung in English, is a large-scale work that Tavener composed in 1996 for his father’s interdenominational funeral. Between each section, bass John Michael Boyer, sang the words “Eternal Memory”, in Greek. This phrase, though repeated four times in the work, was delivered with the utmost precision by Boyer, whose voice, at once deep and resonant, and even gravelly where called for, again created that sense of connecting to an earlier time and place.

The conclusion to the festival was Arvo Pärt’s setting of Te Deum, the traditional and celebratory text that has been set by the likes of Handel, Berlioz and others throughout the centuries. This was my first time hearing Pärt’s setting, and I believe that it will remain in the repertoire for many years to come. Pärt utilized a uniquely 20th century effect most often associated with the American, John Cage: prepared piano. Metal screws were attached to four of the piano’s strings so that Susan DeWitt Smith could strike them at specific intervals. Electronics added an ethereal quality to the piece, as Erik Hundhoft brought up the recorded sound of the Aeolian harp (literally “played” by wind). These techniques created an atmospheric, almost out-of-doors effect: I pictured a young Arvo Pärt, standing on the Baltic shores of Estonia, looking north into a stormy horizon.

Cappella Romana’s celebration of this inspirational composer forms part of the choir’s 25th anniversary celebrations. In November, the choir participated in a performance at Stanford University, where electronics combined the reverberant acoustics of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia with Cappella Romana’s live performance. At the end of March, they perform in Seattle and Portland a “Russian Chant Revival” program; and in April they will perform the works of Venetian masters employed at the Imperial court of St. Petersburg. Dr. Lingas and his choir continue to bridge the centuries, and cultures, with unique and compelling performances. One can only imagine what the 26th season will bring.


On a recent episode of Thursdays at Three, Robert McBride spoke with the members of the Miró Quartet about how they analyze the music that they play. Violinist Daniel Chang explained that they, as a group, do not analyze music on a theoretical level so-to-speak, instead, they look at the construction of a piece to determine how they want to convey it emotionally.

When we pull apart music and analyze it there are very few restrictions on the diction we can use to describe it. When examining music technically we might discuss its timbre, melodic configuration, or rhythmic patterns. When we discuss music’s emotional elements we might say that it is joyful, morose, cavalier, or demure – anything really – because music is an extension of one’s self, and it has the ability to take on the qualities and characteristics of the people who create it. But what does it mean when we use the expression “colorful” to describe a piece of music? For some, it may indicate the variety of tones or movement in a piece, but for others, “colorful” might actually be referring to the visual color and light produced by a piece of music. This sensory experience is known as chromesthesia – which is a type of synesthesia – and it is not entirely uncommon.

Synesthesia is a neurological condition where a sense becomes evoked when another is engaged; some people with synesthesia might associate colors with certain days of the week, or perhaps certain words have a behavior attached to them. Chromesthesia is the most common form of synesthesia, and it occurs when someone sees fluctuating color and light that corresponds with auditory stimulation. Washington based artist Sherise Mckinney, describes her experience with synesthesia as, “seeing with my ears.” Unlike hallucinations, the colors, sounds, and images that people experience with synesthesia in no way compromises their ability to see, it is more like a presence in the back of their mind that they are aware of. The experience is so natural that many people never realize they have any form of synesthesia.

(“Giving In” by Sherise Mckinney)

It should come as no surprise that many people who live with synesthesia have become artists. Miles Davis had synesthesia, as did Jean Sibelius. When Liszt was the resident Kapellmeister in Weimar, Germany, he made reference to the colors that he associated with the music, and was quoted saying, “gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!

For the most part, people with any form of synesthesia experience it in different ways. Karl Ekman describes Sibelius’ experience with chromesthesia in his book “Jean Sibelius” as:

…a strange, mysterious connection between sound and color, between the most secret perceptions of the eye and ear. Everything he saw produced a corresponding impression on his ear – every impression of sound was transferred and fixed as a color on the retina of his eye and thence to his memory.

I’ve been interested in chromesthesia for several years now, so when I recently happened across the synesthesia inspired artwork of Sherise Mckinney, I reached out to her in hopes of learning about her experience as an artist. Mainly, I wanted to know how she would describe her experience to someone without synesthesia. She graciously obliged, and explained that she hears sounds “as they project images and colors into [her] brain”, and that “high contrast” and “juxtaposition of color” tend to make the biggest impression. Sherise clarified that, while not all of the sounds she sees are beautiful, “The bonus of having [synesthesia] is that I happen to be an artist, and can turn beautiful sounds into pictures […] it’s not technical, it’s pure emotion.”

(“Addiction” by Sherise Mckinney, is a piece inspired by Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujahand Ludovico Einaudi’s “Night” You can follow Sherise on Instagram @Sherisemckinneyart)


 Part of why music is so wonderful is because of its many facets; it can flex to convey any emotion we experience, and we can analyze it technically until we have broken it down to every triplet and quarter rest. Regardless of how we describe our experience with music, there is no doubt that it has a profound impact on our lives.


Ekman, Karl, and Edward Birse. Jean Sibelius, His Life and Personality. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1938. Print.

Mahling, F. (1926). Das Problem der ‘Audition colorée: Eine historische-kritische Untersuchung . Archiv für die Gesamte Psychologie. Leipzig: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft M.B.H.

Featured image is “You Seem so Very Far” by Sherise Mckinney

If you have had an experience with chromesthesia that you would like to share, I  would love to write a follow up article including your story. Please contact me at intern@allclassical.org subject line: Synesthesia

Boo! A Halloween Special

With Halloween approaching, it seems only relevant that we shed light on some of the spookier aspects of classical music. Though no well-known composers or performers had superstitions around Halloween day itself, many had obsessions and superstitions surrounding curses, death, and other macabre topics.

Arnold Schoenberg was well-known for his superstitions, suffering from triskaidekaphobia, or fear of the number thirteen. He famously developed the twelve-tone technique, which manipulated the chromatic scale to prevent establishing a key and to give each note equal importance, though it is unclear whether he produced this technique due to his phobia. Schoenberg did religiously avoid the number thirteen, however, labeling the thirteenth measures or pages of his works as “12a” in place of the dreaded digits, and shortening the name “Aaron” to “Aron” in his opera, Moses und Aron, to avoid a thirteen-letter title. Ironically, he was born on September 13th and died July 13th, when he was 76 (7+6=13). Some hypothesize that this coincidental death was triggered by his fear of the number – a fear exasperated by the astrologer who helpfully wrote him that he should be wary in his 76th year for its unlucky sum.


Amulets of the Evil Eye that are believed to ward off evil spirits

Gustav Mahler was thought to have feared the Curse of the Ninth – the curse that a composer will die after completing their ninth symphony, or die before completing their tenth. Similarly, Verdi is thought to have been afflicted with the curse of the Evil Eye while in Naples. Though Verdi himself did not hold this superstition, the people of Naples did. Verdi’s opera, Alzira, failed while in Naples, and his few fans thought that his opera had been cursed by fellow musician Vincenzo Capecelatro, who had greeted Verdi before Alzira and was thought to have the Evil Eye. Four years later, when Verdi returned to Naples to perform his new piece, Luisa Miller, he barely missed being crushed by a large piece of set that had fallen. At the last moment, he had been pushed out of the way by Capecelatro. Though Capecelatro was technically the one who had saved Verdi, the superstitious people of Naples took Capecelatro’s appearances before both inauspicious events as proof of Verdi’s curse.

Franz Liszt was quite obsessed with death and other dark subjects. Liszt’s fascination appears to have developed following a massive cholera outbreak in Paris in 1832. In the confusion of the streets, coffins would often overturn and burst open, bringing to mind what poet Heinrich Heine called “a riot of the dead”. Liszt famously composed many works around this topic, including Totentanz (“Dance of Death”), Funérailles, La lugubre gondola, and Pensée des morts, and frequently went to hospitals, asylums, and prison dungeons to see those condemned to die. Interestingly, Liszt participated in one of the first recorded cases of musical therapy on one of these visits, to the Salpêtrière hospital for the insane. A sixty-year-old patient there, incapable of speaking or taking care of herself, was mesmerized by Liszt’s playing and would sing back the melodies played for her, becoming calm and transfixed as long as he played.

Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary performed at The Royal Albert Hall

The Phantom of the Opera

Though modern times have inherited many of the superstitions that plagued composers hundreds of years ago, it appears that few modern composers suffer publicly from these afflictions. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, much of the eerier elements of classical music have become concentrated in shows and movies, and in musicals like The Phantom of the Opera and Sweeney Todd. Films about serial-killers, zombie outbreaks, alien invasions, and other premises that did not exist in previous centuries produce creepy new scores to match their suspenseful plots. In some cases, classical music has been taken past its original setting and has partnered with films to heighten violence and fear (as shown in movies like A Clockwork Orange, where Beethoven’s ninth plays over violent scenes).

Classical music has always had a relationship with curses, superstitions, and general spookiness, be it through the Curse of the Ninth, ghoulish violin screeching, or creepy film scores. So, those lovers of horror – fret not! Dark and eerie music will continue to strike fear in our hearts for many years to come.

Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt. New York: Knopf, 1983. Print.

Lebrecht, Norman. 1985. The Book of Musical Anecdotes. New York: Simon & Schuster; London: Sphere Books. ISBN 978-0-02-918710-4.

“Verdi’s Curse Of The Evil Eye.” Web log post. Classic FM. N.p., n.d. Web.

The Bach Cello Suites: A 300 Year History, A 300 Year Mystery

The Bach Cello Suites are some of the most recognizable and well-loved pieces of music in both classical and popular circles. They have been featured in concerts and commercials alike, transcribed for a diverse array of instruments, and interpreted by every style of music imaginable, from swing to electronic. However, little is known about the history of the suites, or even how they were originally meant to be played. An in-depth analysis of the Bach Cello Suites often comes up with more questions than answers. Confirmed knowledge of the suites, or their composer, is rare, and experts in the field must often make peace with assumptions and educated guesses. So, how does one go about unpacking the suites’ mystery? To begin, we must start by examining the first step of the suites’ inception, with the life and history of the composer who first put them to page.


The brief glimpses into Johann Sebastian Bach’s personal and professional life paint contrasting pictures of the composer. Some historical anecdotes point to Bach being somewhat of a hooligan. While working as an organist in Arnstadt, Germany, Bach engaged in a fistfight with a member of the orchestra after allegedly calling him a “nanny-goat bassoonist” (the insult, though colorful, has probably lost something in translation). Bach was also known to play truant, particularly while he held a teaching position, as was the case when he left on an unauthorized absence from Arnstadt in 1705, and when he neglected his duties as cantor in Leipzig in the latter half of his life. While Bach was reverential to royals, often to an excessive degree, it was only when it suited him. He was known to combat their orders aggressively when it conflicted with his professional pursuits, which in one case, led him to being jailed by his employer, the Duke of Weimar, after aggressively pushing his request for dismissal from his position as the Duke’s organist in 1717. And though Bach has the reputation of being a god-fearing, rather conservative man, he participated in his share of romantic trysts. While working in Arnstadt, he was scolded for allowing a “strange maiden” into the church loft, who many believe later became his first wife, Maria Barbara. While married to his second wife, Anna Magdalena, Bach was something of a romantic, gifting her with songbirds and yellow carnations. In addition to this, he was a devoted family man, incredibly proud of providing education for his sons and for the musical careers that many of them would pursue.


It seems only right that such an elusive and at times, contradictory, character would produce some of the most mysterious and lauded pieces of music known today – the Bach Cello Suites. Their story is much like their creator’s, plagued with a history of being mistaken for dull before a sudden and celebrated rediscovery.


To begin the story of the suites, one must begin in Cöthen, Germany, with an older, more confident Bach as Capellmeister for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. Leopold’s court was nestled in the countryside, but boasted a rather cosmopolitan collection of virtuoso musicians and a very capable Capellmeister in Bach. The Suites are believed to have begun following Bach’s composition of the Brandenburg Concertos, with each concerto featuring solos of a different instrument. One was a concerto for the viola da gamba, a bowed string instrument popular at the time, and is thought to have been written for Prince Leopold, who favored the instrument. The viola da gamba part of this concerto is simple, while the accompanying instruments play intricate and captivating parts that capture the listener’s attention – believed to be a move by Bach to include Prince Leopold in the music-making without embarrassing the prince and exposing his rather modest talent in the face of his virtuoso accompaniers. Bach Scholars believe that this was the first time Bach experimented with solo performance for instruments like cello, which many believed were best suited to play in the background, supporting the melody of more dazzling instruments.


Following the Brandenburg Concertos is the period of time around 1720 that scholars believe Bach composed the cello suites, while he still worked as Capellmeister in Cöthen. The year, though a confident and educated guess, has never been confirmed, as the original manuscript of the cello suites has never been located. Bach later relocated to Leipzig, Germany, to work as cantor and to provide an education for his sons in the nearby university. Though he hoped his relocation would advance his career and bring him recognition, he was disappointed and began looking for new work soon after. Ultimately, this proved unsuccessful and Bach remained in Leipzig for the remainder of his life. Despite these disappointments, Bach experienced a period of creativity in Leipzig and produced many of the compositions that, after his death, propelled his long overdue fame.


Bach did not experience fame during his lifetime; however, he did experience minor recognition as a talented harpsichordist, a teacher, and a rather stale technical expert – never as a composer. This is most likely because Bach never lived in a musical hub, like Vienna or Paris, spending most of his life in towns and minor cities like Cöthen and Leipzig, and never composed operas, which were the catalyst to classical music fame at the time. More than a century after the alleged composition of the Bach suites, Felix Mendelssohn conducted Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, effectively pulling Bach from his spot on the shelf as a great, but rather uncelebrated, technical expert, and dusting him off to reveal a formidable composer in his own right. This performance initiated what would soon be called the Bach Revival – a period of time where Bach’s masterpieces were reexamined and reintroduced to the world.


Pablo Casals

The Bach Revival had begun, but the cello suites still languished without recognition. It was another fifty years before the inquisitive eyes of a thirteen-year-old cellist by the name of Pablo Casals found a battered copy of the suites, thought of then as a collection of humdrum studies for the aspiring cellist, in a second-hand music store in Barcelona. He would practice the suites for thirteen years before performing them publicly. When he did, near the turn of the century, the suites experienced a meteoritic rise in popularity and transformed from bland studies to one of the most celebrated collections of music today.


One of the great beauties of the cello suites has also been one of their greatest vexations for scholars and musicians alike: their lack of musical markings or notes. The earliest manuscripts, copies penned by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, bear no indication of how Bach thought the pieces should be played, and thus are completely up to the interpretation of the performer. It is for this reason that the cello suites are so versatile, that they can be articulations of distress in one moment, and absolute giddiness in the next. Yet, this aspect of the suites gives them their transcendental quality. The necessity of the performer’s interpretation makes them some of the most personal pieces to performers and listeners alike. Pablo Casals, for one, would hold the suites dear for his entire life – making a routine of playing a suite each day of the week (the sixth he would play on both Saturday and Sunday). The suites were the background music for some of the worst moments of social and political strife for Casals. While Francisco Franco’s forces attacked his homeland of Catalonia in the Spanish Civil War, Casals was in the midst of recording the cello suites for the first time. Following this period, Casals boycotted performing in any country that recognized Franco’s regime, with one exception for President John F. Kennedy. Even then, he refused to play the cello suites. In addition to Casals, Mstislav Rostropovich, a Russian cellist and human rights activist, played the suites at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as a way to welcome East Berliners who were crossing the wall. At the tenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, Yo-Yo Ma performed the Sarabande from the first cello suite to honor the victims.


If anything, the mystery of Bach and his cello suites only amplifies their intrigue. While many have obsessed over the missing manuscript of the suites and the life of the mysterious man who wrote it, often there is only one choice that remains – to accept the little that is known of both, and to listen to the story grounded in the notes, approaching its three-hundredth birthday and just as fresh as the day it was first penned.

Works Cited 

“Report: Johann Sebastian Bach and His Sons Kenyon College, 1-4 May 2014.” Bach Notes 21 (2014): n. pag. Print.

Siblin, Eric. The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly, 2009. Print.

Mark O’Connor returns to Portland for “An Appalachian Christmas”

We at All Classical Portland are thrilled to present, for the fourth consecutive year, Grammy-winning violinist Mark O’Connor Wednesday, December 14. The violinist takes the stage of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with the O’Connor Band as part of the acclaimed An Appalachian Christmas tour.

O’Connor’s annual performances have grown each year. I still remember the first one, at the Scottish Rite Center, enjoying an evening of traditional carols imbued with the fiddler’s signature “roots music” style, which O’Connor has honed since his childhood days in the Pacific Northwest. Last year, “An Appalachian Christmas” filled the Arlene Schnitzer hall with over 2,700 people, many of whom told us that it was the highlight of their holiday season. We’re so excited to be able to bring Mr. O’Connor’s beautiful concert to you again this December!

An Appalachian Christmas has its origins in a CD that Mark produced with stellar guests from the world of classical music. The concert expands on the music from that CD, and O’Connor embellishes it with new arrangements of holiday favorites and rediscovered treasures. For the first time, Nancy Ives, principal cellist with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra will make a special guest appearance, performing works originally played by Yo-Yo Ma on O’Connor’s trilogy of “Appalachia” albums, and accompanying the O’Connor Band on additional selections.

This “infections mix of roots music” (The Oregonian) is now an established holiday tradition for Portland families. Don’t miss your opportunity to secure seats! Tickets cost $18-$105 and are available through the Portland’5 website, at portland5.com. Donors to All Classical Portland receive a $5 discount on all ticket purchases.

This tour features the O’Connor Band, bringing together elements from folk, bluegrass and classical traditions to create an “Americana” sound and technique that feels both modern and nostalgic. The touring musicians are founder and internationally acclaimed fiddler Mark O’Connor, fiddler and singer Maggie O’Connor, singer-songwriter and mandolinist Forrest O’Connor, singer-songwriter and fiddler, Kate Lee, bluegrass guitarist Joe Smart, and bassist/old-time banjoist Geoff Saunders.

Less Respite, More Ruckus: Re-examining Classical Concerts, Past and Present

It’s a Friday night, and I’ve found myself in a dimly lit room packed wall-to-wall with people, some tapping away on their cell phones, others chatting, all eager for the set-up to complete so the featured musicians can come onstage and start the show. I notice that the man in front of me sips from a plastic cup filled with a foaming beverage, probably beer, and I recall that on my way in, I passed by a table with alcohol and snacks for sale. Considering I’m twenty-two years old, it’s easy to assume that I’m at some local club or bar, or even a rock concert; there is no shortage of these in Portland. However, the sea of white hair and the occasional magnifying glass that pops out of a purse and hovers over the program notes immediately identify the scene as otherwise. This is a concert with Chamber Music Northwest (CMNW), an annual summer festival of classical music. The woman next to me gently taps my arm and asks if I can show her how to turn off her cell phone. Yes, I definitely won’t need earplugs at tonight’s show.

Statistically, most college students aren’t spending their evenings at classical concerts. I guess I’m in the minority among my generation’s musical preferences, but I don’t mind. I eagerly jumped on board with All Classical: the “we” in “we love this music” applies to everyone, including the summer intern. Yet just because I’m a classical fanatic doesn’t mean that my concert outings are limited to ones featuring Poulenc and Vivaldi. I recently attended a concert that, by a few simple scene transformations, may appear to have little distance from the CMNW performance at Lincoln Hall. Just subtract a couple decades from the average audience age, scatter around a few more cups of beer, take away the chairs, and there you have it: a folk concert by Gregory Alan Isakov at the Crystal Ballroom.

But if we’re to be perfectly honest, many more than a few degrees of separation distinguish these concerts; in reality, the small transformations create two completely different atmospheres. For example, the string quartet of CMNW would be stunned if the audience jumped from their seats to dance along. And Mr. Isakov would be quite confused if audience members hushed each other as he walked out on stage. At Lincoln, a friend and I lowered our voices to a whisper if we wanted to speak briefly during the music. At the Crystal Ballroom, we had to shout. The only raised voices I hear at the classical performance are the calls of “bravo!” that follow a particularly well-played Beethoven quartet. I try to imagine this audience, which normally cringes nervously at the sound of a crinkling candy wrapper, instead imbued with the palpable energy of the folk concert fans, perhaps screaming out “we love you!” or waving their arms in hopes of catching a guitar pick tossed to the crowd. I almost start laughing at the thought. But then I remember a lecture from a recent music class on classical performance history. We may find this imagined scenario ridiculous, but a little over 200 years ago, it was the expected norm.

"The Laughing Audience," printed by Carington Bowles after a satirical cartoon by William Hogarth (late 18th century)

“The Laughing Audience,” printed by Carington Bowles after a satirical cartoon by William Hogarth (late 18th century), pokes fun at the ruckus typical of theater attendees.

Consider the opera in 18th-century Italy. It was the place to go to check out the latest fashions, gossip, catch up with friends, and maybe hear a bit of music. “Listening to the music was only one of the things the audience was there to do,” explains Richard Taruskin, author of the comprehensive Oxford History of Western Music. The audience, “a mixture of aristocracy and urban middle class (what we would now call “professionals”—doctors, lawyers, clergy, civil servants, and military officers), was famed throughout Europe for its sublime inattention,” as well as its capacity for volume. The chatter often drowned out the music, and there was a constant stream of traffic from box to box. Only when a favorite singer or aria appeared front and center in the show would conversations momentarily pause. The now attentive audience was perhaps even more lively, “egging [the singer] on with applause and spontaneous shouts of encouragement at each vocal feat.” If cell phones had existed back then, I wouldn’t be surprised if there had been flurries of Snapchats, Tweets about who wore what, and clumps of giggling friends squeezing behind one outstretched arm to catch a selfie with the onstage prima donna.

Solo performers entertained similarly rowdy audiences. Franz Liszt is perhaps the best example of a historical “superstar” from the 19th century. The BBC recently published an article that compares Liszt to the Beatles, at least in terms of their audience reception. The article notes that Liszt’s contemporary, the 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine, coined the term “Lisztomania” to describe the frenzy of the composer’s fanatic fans that swooned, screamed, and threw themselves at his very feet. For good reason, too: Liszt was “indubitably the real deal.” His musical compositions were top notch and his technique unparalleled. He also had a dazzling stage presence, the kind we might expect today from a rock drummer or lead guitarist. The piano company Bösendorfer even crafted an instrument in his name, as I discovered on a recent visit to Classic Pianos, located on SE Milwaukie Ave. in Portland. The “Liszt Piano” is so named because as he was “wrecking nearly every piano made available to him” in Vienna, the Bösendorfer withstood the young virtuoso’s playing. If his status as celebrity musician weren’t enough, Liszt was also a rather handsome dude. As modern stars like Justin Bieber and the Beatles can attest, the flowing hair is really a hit with the ladies.

isakov cso

Gregory Alan Isakov rehearsing with the Colorado Symphony. (Photo by Brandon Marshall)

Gregory Alan Isakov wears a cowboy hat for the duration of the concert, so there’s really no telling what kind of hair he has, at least not from where I stand at the back of the Crystal Ballroom. Flowing or not, I presume that it’s his music and not his hair that is the main focus tonight. The musicians onstage make up an unusual ensemble for a typical folk concert. Mr. Isakov is performing with more than his usual band, including musicians on violin, viola, cello, and French horn. It’s him and what he’s termed “The Ghost Orchestra,” a collection of players from the Colorado Symphony. This travel-size group is on tour to promote his most recent album, Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony, a collaboration with the eponymous full symphonic orchestra. Given the likeness shared between modern pop and historic classical music audiences, it’s not too much of a leap to picture this project as a distant but nevertheless connected, new-forming branch of classical music.

Musical boundaries are ever in flux, and I always looking forward to seeing (and of course hearing) how classical music evolves over time. It will be interesting to observe how audiences evolve, too, in both composition and behavior. Not to worry, the recent movie “Florence Foster Jenkins” exaggerates a scenario of extremes in which young navy soldiers and the elderly upper crust cross paths at a recital in Carnegie Hall. Yet harmony prevails, if not in Ms. Jenkins’ singing, then at least among audience members old and young alike. Will CMNW entertain drunken, screaming fans at future seasons? I would guess not. Is it likely that folk audiences will sit still with their cell phones on silent? Again, probably not. But it is eye-opening to know that over the course of history, we haven’t isolated the two extremes. As for the future of classical concerts, we’ll just have to keep listening to find out.


Over the course of my summer in Portland, I attended many concerts that were each spectacular showcases of incredible musical skill. Many thanks to Chamber Music Northwest, Gregory Alan Isakov and the Ghost Orchestra, the Portland Opera, the Portland Wind Symphony, and the many performers at All Classical’s weekly live broadcast, Thursdays @ Three for making live performance a frequent feature during my stay in Portland. I’ll experience one last classical treat this evening, September 1st, when the Oregon Symphony presents a Waterfront concert to kick off their 2016-17 season. Join us down by the river for free live music and fireworks, or tune into All Classical at 89.9 or streaming at allclassical.org for the live broadcast.



Piano. Push. Play. transforms Portland with music, art, and a bit of magic

The piano on the sidewalk doesn’t make any attempt to blend in with the bustling city surroundings. Its bright pink exterior bristles with wild fur that surpasses many of the hip and trending hairstyles in both eccentricity and brilliance of color. Above its dense mane bobbles a cluster of orbs resembling eyeballs and from underneath grins a slightly alien face that bears eighty-eight black and white keys for teeth. Please play me, a sign on its back pleads. Heads turn as people walk by and ask, what is that? The instrument is located outside the Portland Art Museum; it’s probably one of those weird modern sculptures. Only when someone is curious enough to sit down and fulfill the polite request by testing the keys do people realize: oh… it’s a piano.

Piano Push Play logoMary Lou, as this pink furry instrument is affectionately named, is only one of many pianos that Piano. Push. Play. has placed around Portland. The project, founded by Megan McGeorge in 2012, is focused on building community and challenging perspectives through music, specifically through accessibility to public pianos. With the help of local piano companies, visual art designers, musicians, and the greater Portland community, the project team members “rescue pianos and put them on the street for everybody to enjoy.” Piano. Push. Play. breaks musical boundaries by freeing the instruments from their traditional residences in living rooms, concert halls, and practice rooms to “give pianists more opportunities to play for the public.” And the term “pianist” leaves ample room for interpretation. Whether day or night, weekday or weekend, these pianos are for Portland and anyone – everyone – who wants to play. Even the project’s name emphasizes the simplicity of their mission: Here is a piano. Push a key. Yes, you too can play the instrument!


Mary Lou, the piano outside the Portland Art Museum, is named after musician Mary Lou Williams (1944).

The pianos themselves are works of art, inside and out. Once they rescue instruments that are in disrepair but still playable, visual artists transform their surfaces with swirls of paint and other materials to invent a uniquely charming character for each one. Amy, who sits outside the visitor center at Powell Butte Park, is elegantly dressed in “bright gold rococo-inspired details on a dark, dusty blue to shine like stars in the midnight sky.” Katy Towell Design’s passion for fairy tales and antiques inspired this theme, which fittingly mirrors the starry night skies that twinkle and glimmer above the park. Dorothea graces the center of Lownsdale Square with depictions of Ancient Greece. The wooden, splintering construction is painted with an illusion of marble, which looks so realistic that we are surprised when it is not cool to the touch. Artist Charlie White completed the look with depictions of historic female figures: “the caryatids from ancient Greek pillars that support the structure of the massive buildings; the amphora — vessels of all variations used throughout Europe in that period of antiquity and meant to hold, serve, store and ship liquid or dry goods,” and a water naiad whose dainty feet emerge as pedals at the base of the instrument. Each instrument is named after a female musician: Amy Beach composed large-scale works and was an acclaimed pianist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; Dorothea Banner was a composer of electronic and computer-generated music and served as an esteemed professor; and Mary Lou Williams (pictured above), the multi-talented jazz pianist, vocalist, and composer, mentored and taught many jazz stars including Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis. These examples are only the beginning; each of the project’s twenty pianos is an artistic gem with a history and namesake of its very own.

Dorothea 2

Dorothea, one of the project’s many pianos, is pictured here in Lownsdale Park.

Though each piano sports a one-of-a-kind exterior, their request called out to passers-by is always the same: Please play me! They do not differentiate between professional musician and novice, dexterous and bungling fingers, perfectly pitched and tone deaf ears. In fact, by extending the same invitation without discrimination, Piano. Push. Play. demands that we reconsider who musicians can be. Megan recalls a moment of reevaluating her own preconceptions: “I remember that no sooner had we placed a piano on the bus mall last fall, a group of young boys went skateboarding down the street and one of them stopped, walked over, sat down and started playing Für Elise. In a short three seconds my perspective on who this kid was flipped 180 degrees, and I try to remember that same feeling whenever I interact with people as I go about my everyday life in Portland. I remember that you never know what’s lying underneath a person.”

Portland is a city of people as well as physical spaces, and Megan sees the project as an opportunity to transform our interpretations of both: “That street corner is no longer just a street corner. It is a living room where you’re enjoying/experiencing the creation of music right in front of you and seeing a side to someone you wouldn’t be able to experience otherwise.” It’s a moment worthy of a little fairy dust, as fantastic as the metamorphosis from decrepit piano to interactive sculpture. In fact, Megan describes the music with a similar sense of awe: “We believe that by exposing people to the visual and auditory experience of the piano, we are reminded of how magical and vital music is.”

Powell Butte 2

Visitors to Powell Butte Park pause their evening walk to play a tune with Amy.

The magic doesn’t vanish at the end of the summer. The pianos will be relocated once again, finding new homes in community centers and schools. The perpetual rain of Portland is not exactly nourishing for these mechanically intricate creations, but this does not hinder them from year-long music making. They will continue to play and be seen and heard indoors, brought to life by the community. It’s music of the people, by the people, for the people, sustained by these unconventional contraptions of wood, paint, keys, hammers, strings, and sometimes, a touch of pink fur. Magic, indeed.


All quotes from Megan McGeorge and Piano. Push. Play. are directly from their website, www.pianopushplay.com.

Piano. Push. Play. places instruments all around the city, indoors and outdoors, from parks to rooftops to high school cafes. You can find the pianos’ current locations by downloading and checking this handy app. Their Facebook and Twitter pages are also frequently updated with videos, photos, news about locations, and even upcoming events. But hurry! The pianos will be out for only a couple more days, wrapping up with a farewell concert this Friday, August 26th at 7 PM outside the Portland Art Museum. What are you waiting for? Go play.

A Darwinian Take on Musicology

Evolution. It’s not just about Darwin’s finches and paleontology. Music history can be considered an evolutionary study of sorts: a tracing of where, when, why, and how music was played, written, discussed, or heard, and who was involved in the process. We can study these changes of musical sound over time by examining one branch of this massive evolutionary tree: musical instruments. The “ideal” musical sound is a concept that has shifted dramatically over the years, and the instruments we play reflect these new ideals, which in turn reflect broader social changes in history. Here, we’ll analyze a (relatively) small evolutionary window of two instruments, the flute and the violin, from baroque to modern styles. We’ll see how their physical bodies affect their sonic capabilities, and why they have developed into their familiar forms today.

The flute has one of the longest known histories of all human-crafted musical instruments. Scientists discovered bone flutes in a European cave; these instruments date back to 40,000 years ago. Since technologies have come a long, long way since then, let’s fast-forward to the 1600s when humans and musical performance have migrated from caves into courts and churches. Flutes in the baroque style during this time are made of wood in a conical shape that tapers slightly at the foot, or the open end of the instrument. All the finger holes are uncovered, with the exception of a single metal key located toward the foot of the instrument. The instrument produces a soft, subdued sound with a unique timbre, or tone quality, for each note due to the open holes that create inconsistencies in airflow patterns.

Baroque modern flutes 3

Left: Baroque flute, modeled after flutes by J. W. Oberlender (1681-1745). Right: Boehm flute, 1877.

The flute underwent a serious make-over in the mid-1800s when Theobald Boehm, in search of a “better quality, a purer intonation” and a “greater compass of tones,” revamped the flute. His intense study of physics and acoustics eventually resulted in a sleek new instrument that is the basis for the modern, 21st-century flute that we see (and hear) today. Its metal body, enlarged tone holes, and reverse conical shape (that widens instead of narrows toward the foot) all contribute to an increased volume power for the instrument. The addition of keys to cover some of the holes and a coupling mechanism that uncomplicates fingerings also homogenizes the timbre of the instrument: Boehm boasts, “a player is in a condition to play in all keys with equal purity, certainty, and ease… As compared with the old flute,” and here he refers to the baroque model discussed above, “this one was unquestionably much more perfect.”

Baroque modern violins

Left: baroque; right: modern. Visible here is the difference in fingerboard length and the presence (or absence) of the chin rest.

The violin also underwent similar changes from its baroque to its modern model. In the 17th- and 18th-centuries, baroque violins are strung with gut strings under low tension, creating a soft, mellow sound. Violin bows from this time vary in length, and are shorter and more loosely strung compared to bows today. The low tension of the horsehair makes it easier to manage quick dynamic changes and is “better suited for music created with a sound ideal of constantly shifting variations between strong and weak notes and passages,”* i.e. music in the baroque style. The balance of the bow construction also influences the player’s leverage over the strings. Under these specific physics, downbows on the baroque violin are naturally stronger and louder than upbows, which are weaker and quieter.

The evolution of the violin has been more gradual than that of the flute, but the new design strives for similar aesthetic goals. The violin bow lengthened and shifted its balance, tailored for the newer music styles: “The shift of balance in the modern bow makes it easier for the player to put almost equal pressure on the strings no matter what part of the bow he is using. The modern bow was developed for playing music composed for a sound ideal which called for longer lines and gradual changes in dynamics.”* String tension increased by slight alterations of the violin body: the neck angled lower, the bridge increased in height and curvature, and the standard tuning increased. Combined with a tightening of the bow hair and the outward arc of the bow itself, these characteristics allow a uniformly responsive and louder sound. The fingerboard lengthened, so violinists could play higher notes. The strings changed from gut to steel, which could play louder and withstand higher tensions. Perhaps the most noticeable difference from the baroque to the modern violin is the addition of the chin rest. With this feature, it is easier for a player to grip the instrument between their chin and shoulder, freeing their left hand to move with increasing speed between notes.

Why did musicians and instrument makers want louder, faster, more uniform instruments, anyway? Changes in acoustics, artistic styles, and collaboration practices were making new demands on musicians and their instruments. Performances relocated from royal courts to concert halls, which were much larger in physical size and attracted larger audiences. Projection was necessary to reach listeners in the farthest rows; thus, material changes in the instruments—gut to steel strings, and wooden to metal flutes—helped the instruments to meet the demands of the larger concert hall acoustics. The rise of the virtuoso musician in the 19th-century glamorized flashy, highly technical performance. Longer fingerboards reach higher notes, high-tension strings and bows quicken response time, and keyed flutes increase finger and pitch accuracy; musicians could now raise the bar on their virtuosic performance. In addition to changing performance standards for solo musicians, ensemble dynamics were changing as a result of wider-reaching, more accessible transportation. When playing in larger ensembles with musicians from different parts of the country or the world, a common baseline for sound was necessary. As a result, pitch was gradually standardized, fidelity to the written score grew in significance, and both the violin and flute, as we have seen, strove for a consistent, pure timbre. As our social demands change and our ideal sound qualities evolve, so do our instruments, which record historical, social, and musical trends in their physical forms.

Laurent Bernadac playing the 3dvarius, a 3D-printed instrument that he modeled after a Stradivarius violin.

Although gradual and barely discernible, evolution is never static. In 1994, Eva Kingma introduced a patent for her self-named Kingma system for the flute. This new design facilitates playing quarter-tones and multiphonics, extended techniques that are especially prevalent in 21st-century compositions. The 3dvarius is a minimalist, 3D-printed violin that can be played acoustically or electrically. And with the rise of computers, which can electronically manipulate flute or violin recording samples, our ideals for and the possibilities of sound are infinitely expanding. We are currently experiencing the newest, most modern branches of musical instruments and their social influences. We’re listening to evolution.


*Source: Newman, Bach and the Baroque, p. 226


For a local example of Baroque string playing, check out the Portland Baroque Orchestra playing Vivaldi’s Spring from “The Four Seasons,” under Artistic Director Monica Huggett. Compare this sound to the Classical Chamber Orchestra’s stylistically similar version, but played on modern instruments.

Aside from the contrasting artistic interpretations (tempo, ornamentation, etc.), the difference between the sound of the baroque and modern flutes is easier to discern. Compare recordings of the first movement (Allemande) of J.S. Bach’s Partita in A minor BWV 1013, first on baroque and then modern flute.


Beyond external instrument technologies, our human bodies also influence how we play and the musical sounds we create. How do we shape our bodies to produce our perception of the “ideal” musical sound? Check out what Christina Kobb has to say about her historical investigation of 19th-century Viennese piano technique.