FEATURED ARTIST: Sun Choi FEATURED ARTIST: Sun Choi FEATURED ARTIST: Sun Choi FEATURED ARTIST: Sun Choi FEATURED ARTIST: Sun Choi

August 17, 2017

The Stories Behind the Eclipse Music

With the once in a lifetime event coming up on Monday, here is some background information on the composers featured in All Classical’s Eclipse soundtrack.

Richard Strauss’ tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra is one of the most popular pieces of classical music, thanks in part to the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet, the pairing almost never happened. The director of 2001 had already picked Hollywood composer Alex North to score the film. The director changed his mind after North had finished. North was hurt by the change, and claims his score is the best. You can compare the two compositions here: http://www.classicfm.com/composers/strauss/music/also-sprach-zarathustra-2001-space-odyssey/

Gustav Holst’s 1914 work The Planets is composed of seven short tone poems, one for each planet. In his work, each planet has a purpose: Mars is the bringer of war, Venus the bringer of peace. Mercury, the winged messenger. Jupiter, the bringer of jollity. Saturn, the bringer of old age. Uranus, the magician. And Neptune, the mystic. Holst was inspired by astrology and horoscopes. It took him two years to compose. Mars and Jupiter are the most popular tone poems.

Carl Nielsen was in the second violin section of the Royal Chapel Orchestra for sixteen years. He was successful as a composer but was not earning enough to quit his job at the Royal Chapel Orchestra. Years later, he signed a publishing deal and left the orchestra. He took a trip to Athens where he was inspired to compose a concert overture, Helios Overture. Helios is about the sun rising over the Aegean Sea. He wrote it in one month.Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture was first performed in 1903. The initial reviews of Helios Overture were mixed, but it is now one of Nielsen’s claims to fame.

2008 Twilight theatrical poster

Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune is the third and most famous movement of the Suite Bergamasque. The Suite Bergamasque is made up of four movements and is Debussy’s most famous piano suite. Debussy began working on the suite in 1890 and it was not published until 1905. Clair de Lune means moonlight and was inspired by and named after Paul Verlaine’s 1869 poem. Like Sprach Zarathustra, this movement has been featured in movies such as Twilight (2008) Giant,(1956) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Jacques Offenbach became a household name as a composer of operettas. Barcarolle is the most famous duet of Offenbach’s final opera,The Tales of Hoffmann. Offenbach never finished the score for the opera.The duet first appeared in Hoffman in 1881, in the third act which was removed at the premier. In order to keep the melody in the opera, the second act’s location was changed to keep the duet which was sung offstage instead of by characters.The opera describes the beauty of the night. The melody first appeared in 1864 in Offenbach’s romantic opera which was called Komm’ zu uns.

After those classics, the music transitions to rare works inspired by our solar system.

Fuori Dal Mondo by Ludovico Einaudi is a soundtrack from the movie of the same title. The name translates to “outside from this world.” The movie surrounds a nun who is given an abandoned baby and tries to find the parents of the baby. Einaudi is an italian composer and pianist. He often incorporates contemporary music with his compositions, which makes him an unusual classical composer. His unique style has garnered him a huge fan base that includes celebrities. Einaudi sites Bach, Mozart, and Radiohead as influences. Einaudi’s mother taught him how to play the piano as a child. He studied at Conservatorio Verdi in Milan and with the famous italian composer Luciano Berio.

Stars by Eriks Esenvalds. Esenvalds is a Latin composer and his music ranges from choir to orchestra. Stars was written for a SATB (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) choir. The piece incorporates turned water glasses which creates a unique and soft sound mimicking stars. Esenvalds used lyrics from Sara Teasdale’s 1920 poem Stars which remarks the beauty of stars and created a choral piece for Musica Baltica. She won the Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1918.

Alone in the night
On a dark hill
With pines around me
Spicy and still,

And a heaven full of stars
Over my head
White and topaz
And misty red;

Myriads with beating
Hearts of fire
The aeons
Cannot vex or tire;

Up the dome of heaven
Like a great hill
I watch them marching
Stately and still.

And I know that I
Am honored to be
Witness
Of so much majesty.

–Sara Tesdale

There is little known about William Daman except that he was a baroque composer. A Franco-Flemish musician, Daman migrated to England around 1560. He composed Harmony of the Spheres. In a broader sense, Harmony of the Spheres is an ancient belief that considers the moon, earth, and planets as a form of music.

Sun Prayer is by Gjermund Larsen, a Norwegian traditional folk musician and composer. The sun prayer is sung in his native language and was released in 2010. Larsen is considered one of the most talented Norwegian young fiddler of folk music. In 2006, he formed a trio with double bassist Sondre Meisfjord and pianist/organist Andreas Utnem.

Max Ritcher’s 2004 album,The Blue Notebooks, features the song On the Nature of Daylight on the album. The song is a violin piece, and Ritcher has said the album was inspired by his childhood and the Iraq war. Ritcher was born in Germany and is a pianist and composer. He now resides in Britain. He trained at the Royal Academy of Music. He is also part of an ensemble called Piano Circus. Critics consider this album to be more like a composition of 11 movements than an album with 11 songs. The nature of daylight song has been in many films, including Will Ferrel’s Stranger Than Fiction (2006) and Arrival (2016).

Henryk Gorecki was a polish composer, born in 1933 who studied composing at the Academy in Katowice. Symphony no.2 (finale) was composed in 1972 in honor of the 500th anniversary of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus’s birth. It is a choral symphony that Gorecki was commissioned to do in an attempt to gain recognition outside of Poland. Gorecki was inspired by Copernicus’s discovery that the earth moves around the sun. This piece requires a big orchestra and large choir which contributed to it being performed less than his other work.

There will also be film compositions from movies Dragonslayer (1981), Apocalypto (2006) and Koyaanisqatsi (1982).

The program will climax as the eclipse reaches totality in Salem with a WORLD PREMIERE broadcast, specially commissioned and recorded for the occasion by All Classical Portland. Composed by renowned Irish musician and scholar Desmond Earley, the new work is scored for choir, cello, and bass drum. Performers include Portland’s outstanding choir the Resonance Ensemble, Oregon Symphony Orchestra principal cellist Nancy Ives, Chris Whyte of the Portland Percussion Group, and improvisational vocalist Erick Valle.

Sources:

https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Planets

https://www.readingsymphony.org/prog_notes/classics3_1516_program_notes.pdf

http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=30476

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111853462

http://www.classicfm.com/composers/einaudi/

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/sara-teasdale

https://classicalexburns.wordpress.com/2016/08/28/eriks-esenvalds-stars-a-state-of-permanent-ecstasy/

http://womex.mtaprod.se/artists/gjermund-larsen/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/v4bd/

https://presstoejectsite.wordpress.com/2016/11/23/on-the-nature-of-daylight-song-from-the-film-arrival/

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2010/11/12/131272415/henryk-gorecki-composer-of-symphony-of-sorrowful-songs-dies-at-age-76

https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/stars-5/

 

Meet musician Erick Valle! Performing in All Classical Portland’s Eclipse Soundtrack

Erick Valle is a local Portland musician specializing in vocal improvisation and music production, currently assisting for THE VOID Research and Development Center. Erick graduated from the University of Oregon in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. After college, he devoted himself entirely to the development of his sound, which found its origins within the Portland music scene.

Erick pursues greater understanding of the music industry through collaborative work with local artists. He assisted in the creation of the studio band Palace White for recording of the album “Amplify” (recorded at The Hallowed Halls in SE Portland, and currently awaiting release). Featured in several music videos and documentaries from Vanjam Productions, Erick most recently appeared in the music video “Bayou” performed by Worth and directed by John Meyer. Currently, Erick’s time is devoted to recording original material for a blues, rock, soul band that will debut in the late Fall.

From vocal experimentation around late-night fires with friends, to diving into the serious work of recording, Erick feels blessed to be surrounded by talent and support on his artistic journey. He is excited and grateful for this opportunity to share in song for this once in a lifetime eclipse event with All Classical Portland.

Handel and Hendrix

The rooms of two famous former tenants are displayed in an apartment complex in London’s Mayfair neighborhood: Jimi Hendrix and George Friedrich Handel, who found fame after moving to England. The guitar god and the baroque composer occupied adjoining flats, 200 years apart.

Handel obtained the apartment after being appointed by George II. (Hendrix was brought to London by his manager.) The composer resided there from 1723 until his death in 1759. He wrote his most famous music there, including Messiah.  

Handel’s rooms has been restored to mimic his original layout. Most of the artifacts are replicas but a few of his actual possessions were provided by the Handel trust. After peeling back many layers of paint, the original color of Handel’s room, a bluish grey is the color once again.

When Hendrix learned that Handel had lived in the unit next to his, he bought recordings of Handel’s Messiah and Water Music to learn more about the composer.

Some fans of Hendrix claim that Handelian riffs can be heard in the gutiar chords of Hendrix’s later work.

Hendrix was lucky to have no neighbors, which allowed him to rock out as loudly as he wanted.

The Handel house opened in 2001, while the Hendrix flat opened in 2016. It is only officially sanctioned place where Hendrix lived.

There was always a desire to turn Handel’s flat into a museum, but funds were needed. Stanley Sadie, a musicologist, and Julie Anne formed the Handel House Trust which raised enough funds to buy the building and restore it.

The first idea was to purchase the entire 25 Brook Street building but the freeholders didn’t want to release the retail unit on the building’s bottom floor.

In 2000, the Handel House Trust got the lease for the upper floors of number 25 and 23 Brook street, and construction work started. In 2007, the trust got a 999 year lease for the entire building, and a two-stage master plan was developed to restore Jimi Hendrix’s flat.

The next installment of restoring Handel’s bottom floor and basement will begin later.

The nearby Mews of Mayfair brasserie now offers an afternoon tea which includes some of the favorite foods and beverages of both musicians.

The tea and the restored rooms continue to attract crowds of Londoners and tourists to this historic city block –  where two of music’s most influential figures once lived.

 

References:

“Learn.” Handel and Hendrix. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 July 2017.

300th Anniversary of Water Music

It’s one of his most famous works, but the origins of George Frideric Handel’s Water Music are something of a mystery.

In 1717 King George the first of England asked Handel to perform a concert aboard the royal barge as it traveled along the the river Thames. On July 17th, around 50 musicians embarked in a boat for the unique performance. The unusual location presented challenges.  The musicians struggled to keep their balance and Handel had to include extra horns and winds to compensate for the open-air acoustics. In fact, this was the first English music to use French horns. The performance was one of the first of its kind – a public concert meant not for the wealthy elite, but for the crowds that had gathered along the river’s banks.

Few other details of this historic event can be verified. There is no record of the 1717 performance and thus no concrete answer as to what Handel played. The first published work of Water Music was in 1740. The manuscript of Handel’s Water Music is also nowhere to be found.

The works is comprised of 22 movements divided into three orchestral suites of contrasting dances. Suite number 1 had actually been written in 1715 for an earlier river trip. The amount of pieces, and with no concrete evidence, has led to an array of interpretations.

Handel was perhaps a little disorganized, as movements in the larger editions of Water Music had already appeared in other works which makes it hard to pinpoint the origins. “It’s hard to tell if they were made popular by the Water Music and then used elsewhere or if they were published as separate works of Handel and added to the Water Music when the composer put it together for performance or publication” (Smith, p. 62).  

Some theorize that Handel wanted Water Music to be one long sequence, while others speculate that it was meant to be heard as separate suites.  It’s not clear in what order Handel wanted the movements to be performed. Even more confusing, Handel didn’t title his suites.  

The most common interpretation of Water Music is to separate it into three suites with the keys G, D, and F.  Water Music’s 22 movements might not have been separated into different suites for the first performance. Handel could have revised the movements over the years as most music written in the Baroque era was to be performed once.

Water Music consisted of sets of movements that most likely weren’t written for the river concert. Perhaps Handel wanted each suite to be performed on its own.

Since then, Water Music has remained a favorite. 300 years later, Handel’s Water Music stays afloat.

 

References:

Hopkin, Owen. “Handel – Water Music.” Classic FM. N.p., 17 Apr. 2012. Web. 05 July 2017.

Smith, William C. “The Earliest Editions of Handel’s “Water Music”.” The Musical Quarterly25.1 (1939): 60-75. JSTOR. Web. 5 July 2017.

Mordden, Ethan. “A Guide to Orchestral Music.” Google Books. Oxford University, 1980. Web. 01 July 2017.

Swan Song

Since starting my internship with All Classical Portland, I have been given every opportunity to learn new things about classical music, radio, and nonprofit organizations. In addition to learning new skills at ACP, my love of writing has never been overlooked here, and I have been able to write a handful of blogs for All Classical Portland’s website thus combining two things I am passionate about: writing and music. As my time with ACP comes to an end, it’s time for one last blog for the station, my “Swan Song”, if you will, which is exactly what my final blog post is about: the origin of the term Swan Song, as well as several famous swan song performances throughout history.

A swan song is a metaphor used to refer to a final gesture before retirement. The term originated in ancient Greek culture, and its first reference is found in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, which was written in 458 BC. The remark was made when Cassandra dies, “after singing her last death-laden lament like a swan.” Since then, it has been used frequently throughout literature from the works of Aesop to those of Tennyson.

It was rumored that swans live a silent existence until the time of their death, when, with their last breath, they would sing a beautiful song. Plato credited Socrates for remarking on the beautiful, finale song of the swan as being sung, “merrily.” It’s a romantic notion, however, if you’ve ever met a swan, seen one in a park, witnessed a flock making its migratory trek, or been attacked by a protective mother swan while windsurfing, you may be well aware that the birds are anything but quiet. In fact, of all the adjectives used to describe their song, “beautiful” is probably one of the least likely to be employed.

Joe Davies feels the wrath of Tyson the swan on the Grand Union Canal in Bugbrooke, Northamptonshire

(Image credited: Daily Mail)

A perfect example of a swan song in metaphorical context is Franz Schubert’s Schwanengesang; literally translated into “Swan Song”, Schwanengesang is a collection of fourteen pieces based on the poetry of the German poet, Heinrich Heine. Schubert worked on the music just before he died, and it was published posthumously.  The music itself expresses emotions full of joy, remorse, yearning, loss, and love, thus marking the end of the remarkable career of Franz Schubert.

One of the biggest operatic divas of the late 19th century was Australian soprano, Nellie Melba. Dame Nellie Melba demonstrated her own take on a swan song performance towards the end of her career when she announced her departure from grand opera in Australia in 1924. Her farewell tour lasted a healthy four-year period until 1928, when she moved to Europe and toured off and on again for the remainder of her life. Her lengthy farewell tour reflected her eccentric career, and inspired the Australian turn-of-phrase, “more farewells than Dame Nellie Melba.”

On January 8, 2016, David Bowie released his final album, Blackstar. Two days later, the celebrated rock star lost his battle with cancer and sent fans reeling. Immediately, the world recognized Blackstar for what it is: a farewell album. The album articulates Bowie’s sincere gratitude towards his fans and reflects on his avant-garde career. Blackstar is both an unequivocal Rock & Roll swan song and a sincere parting gift.

This past April, the New York Times published an article titled, “The Diva Departs: Renée Fleming’s Farewell to Opera.” This exaggerated title implied that Ms. Fleming was planning to retire from her extensive career, when, in truth, she was merely retiring from one of her many operatic roles, that of the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Ms. Fleming made sure to correct the misunderstanding, and has assured numerous sources that she is not retiring from opera, merely exploring additional avenues. Reneé Fleming’s Swan Song performance of Der Rosenkavalier in May did not signify her retirement; instead, it marked a shift in her career focus.

 

 

This article is not marking my retirement from writing by any means; however, it does mark my departure from All Classical Portland. This station has provided me with memories that I will always cherish, and experience that I will call on throughout future endeavors.

 

 

Sources:

https://www.gramophone.co.uk/feature/masterclass-schuberts-schwanengesang

http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/melba-dame-nellie-7551

http://www.yourclassical.org/story/2017/04/06/renee-fleming-not-retiring

http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2016/02/final-performance-called-swansong/

http://www.online-literature.com/tennyson/4062/

http://www.whats-your-sign.com/celtic-zodiac-sign-swan.html

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2121505/Meet-Tyson-terrifying-swan-attacks-boaters-dare-venture-stretch-canal.html

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.

citations:

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.

Synesthesia

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.

Sources:

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.

evil_eye6

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.