October 28, 2016

Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach, painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann

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 (center) and the O'Connor Band

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.



Fur Elise 1

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.

Boy playing flute Leyster

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.




Music and the Brain: Exploring Musical Preferences

If you ever find yourself listening to your favorite song or radio station and wondering why it’s your favorite, or what it is about a certain band that makes you adore it, or why you are turned off by certain styles of music – you are not alone! Music is undoubtedly an integral part in almost every person’s life, and the reality of musical preferences is very clear. If we recognize that preferences for certain types of music exist, the next logical question is probably going to be: but what drives these preferences? How do they come about? And can you really define their causes?

These are interesting questions with some very interesting answers, but here is a word of warning: most (if not all) studies on this subject are not definitive answers to these questions. They merely give insight into the exploration, aim to provide a basis for theories, and usually lead to even more questions! Over the past few months, I have read a host of scientific studies related to this topic, and I would like to share some of the most interesting findings with you.


Functions of music

It might be helpful think of this exploration at its most basic level: a linear line leading from “certain factors” to musical preference. In this “certain factors” category, we can name a veritable laundry list of things such as social influence, affective experiences, innate auditory preferences, age, characteristics of music, and on and on. My guess is that many people who regularly listen to music could come up with at least 4 or 5 different reasons for why they prefer the music they do.

For two researchers from the Chenmitz University of Technology in Germany, the “certain factor” is the function of preferred music. In one of their studies, they found that the different functions associated with people’s favorite music influences their degree of preference. Simply put, the better the needs of a listener are served by a certain type of music, the higher their degree of preference will be. When 507 German people were studied, the expression of personal identity and values was found to be the function most closely related to music preference. Social functions, such as meeting people and feeling close to others were also important. So were supplying people with information and helping them to identify with the artists.


You might be surprised or confused by these results – I know I was – since you may have expected the most important benefits to be things like enhanced mood, excitement, or relaxation. In fact, these are the functions that are satisfied by people’s preferred music. When asked to rate how much they agreed with different statements about their favorite music, participants tended to answer in this vein. But explaining how your favorite music helps you does not explain why you prefer it over other genres, or even really why you like it. Yes, James’ favorite music, jazz, puts him in a good mood more than it makes him want to dance. But it is his favorite music to listen to because it is a way to express his identity and it brings him together with others. These findings are illustrated in the following figure from the study. The gray bars represent the most important functions of people’s favorite music (like James and his jazz) and the black bars show the relationship between the functions of music and the degree of preference.


It is important to note that almost every study I read dedicated a significant amount of effort into how they might categorize the different genres of music and simplify them. In this case, musical styles were narrowed down to 25 by testing for the “best-known” musical styles. They further categorized these styles by grouping them into 6 genres or “dimensions” 1) sophisticated 2) electronic 3) rock 4) rap 5) pop 6) beat, folk, & and country. A different study that I will discuss below divided genres of music into four “Music-preference dimensions” based off of noticeable factors from a survey. These were 1) Reflective & Complex 2) Intense & Rebellious 3) Upbeat & Conventional 4) Energetic & Rhythmic.




Technology and time

People nowadays have so many different ways to listen to music. You can listen in your car, on your phone, on your computer, literally anywhere you want, at any time. This means that you can listen to that one song that you just have to hear while doing certain activities. Having particular music playing while I run or bike is important, and having a mobile device that can play radio or my personal collection allows me to access that specific music at all times. Even now, I’m using an online streaming service to listen to a playlist of some of my favorite classical pieces to help me concentrate as I write.

A study done on a small group of people by faculty from the School of Psychology at Keele University in the UK found that internet and downloading programs have significantly altered music preference behaviors. We can access any style of music imaginable, allowing us to sample different kinds. We can also acquire music quickly and easily, meaning if I want to hear every single song an artist has ever recorded, I can easily do so (though I probably wouldn’t). People can now listen to music on the internet to affirm the extent of how much they like a song, and can even find any version of a particular song that they prefer.


This study also showed that people tend to report their musical tastes changing over time. I’m sure I am not the only one to have certain tastes when I was younger that I would not proudly flaunt now that I am older. People will go through periods of listening to particular styles and some may even invoke the much-parodied phrase: “I’m really into ____ right now”. In yet another study done by a student at Virginia Polytechnic and State University, it was discovered that music “omnivorousness” (liking a wide variety of music) increases with age up to a certain point, and then begins to level off and eventually decline. So not only are people’s tastes changing as they age, but the amount of different types of music they enjoy changes as well.

According to the Keele University researchers, preference increases with familiarity and decreases with repetition. Participants in their study were found to have developed a means to self-regulate their listening in order to avoid getting sick of something: ceasing to listen to an artist or song for a period of time, or randomizing their listening like “shuffling” a playlist.



The final topic I will cover here is perhaps one of the more popular factors used to try and explain musical preference: personality traits. In a study of undergraduate college students at the University of Texas at Austin, researchers found strong links between music preferences and personality, self-views, and cognitive ability. These factors seem to play an important role in both the formation and maintenance of music preferences. People commonly believe that apart from hobbies and activities, music preferences reveal the most information about their personality, as well as the personalities of others. Using a variety of measures, the researchers collected information about the students to assess their personalities. They identified things like levels of extroversion, agreeableness, social dominance and self-esteem. They studied how certain preference dimensions (aka genres) were positively related to different personality traits. For example, a preference for reflexive and complex music was linked to openness, and emotional stability, while those preferring upbeat and conventional music were more likely to be extroverted and agreeable.


Because people may select music to reinforce their self-views and can use music to make other-directed claims, the researchers included measures of self-views in their study. Basically, someone may choose certain music to alter or maintain how others view them. In order to measure this and connect it with music preferences, students were asked to indicate the extent to which they saw themselves as being politically liberal, wealthy, attractive, etc. By administering an IQ test, the researchers were also able to connect preferences with cognitive ability.  This facet of the research was based on the logic that people tend to prefer music that provides optimal levels of stimulation i.e. complex music can help intelligent people reach their optimal level of stimulation.

The data is presented below in a table taken from the study. It is easy to identify criteria that have strong correlations with certain music-preference dimensions. For further illustration, I pulled the data from the personality criteria measures and created a graph.



There is certainly a lot missing from this investigation – what about explanations having to do with culture, social status, etc. This is a limited scope but I hope it has nonetheless been interesting to discuss several different factors attributable to why we prefer the types of music that we do. One thing that became apparent to me in this process is that attempting to categorize music preferences into neat boxes is a lofty goal, and it is likely a major challenge to study this phenomenon when people are known to prefer numerous types of music. As I mentioned before, our relationship with music is changing with new technology – but one thing will always be true: we like what we like.


Player Piano Rolls: Listening to History

When we tune in to All Classical, we barely pause to consider that, with the exception of live-streaming concerts, most of the music we hear has been recorded. Thanks to the innovations of recording technology from the twentieth- and twenty-first century, we can hear musical moments captured and preserved in time. Performance before wax cylinders, tapes, or CDs is frustratingly forever out of our hearing range, but early recordings from the 1900s can tell us a lot about what and how musicians played. What did performance sound like 100 years ago? And what can we learn from it?

On Friday, June 19, 2016 Stanford researcher Kumaran Arul addressed a unique perspective to these questions in a lecture titled “Player Piano Rolls.” This event was part of the larger Portland Piano International Summer Festival, an annual week-long event at Lewis & Clark College. During the course of the festival, musicians—including scholars, performing artists, composers, and teachers—attended a variety of lectures, workshops, and concerts. The festival’s focus this year is “The Golden Age of Piano,” which “[pays] tribute to… the period between 1870 and 1930.”

Arul’s lecture discussed the importance of player piano rolls during the Golden Age and emphasized how we can learn about piano performance practice of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century. But first, what were these rolls, and what did they do? Player piano rolls are the sheet music equivalent for the player piano, an instrument that in its most basic form functions like a music box in the size and shape of a piano, producing music mechanically. A person places a roll inside the instrument and sits on a bench to operate pedals, which pump air to power the interior pneumatics. As the roll unfurls, air passes through tiny, carefully placed holes in the paper to activate individual notes on the piano. The person does not need to touch the keys; instead, the player piano “reads” the roll and plays the notes on its own.

The player piano rolls that most fascinate Arul are those that have actually recorded pianists’ performances. The reproducing piano is a more technically advanced version of the basic player piano and recorded the notes (and in some cases, the dynamics and shadings) of a piano performance by marking the activated keys on a blank roll inside the piano. The Welte Company, located in southern Germany, manufactured instruments to record pianists as early as 1905: for example, distinguished musician Carl Reinecke playing Beethoven’s Ecossaise in E-flat.


Women also recorded for the reproducing piano, though not as frequently. Here, pianist Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler records for Welte in August 1906, Freiburg.

What is so important about piano rolls today? Rolls, according to Arul, are a “goldmine” for historic discovery and explanation regarding piano performance practice. They have recorded high-quality and nuanced piano performances when the gramophone, still in its early years, could only capture fuzzy, vague acoustic sounds. Many famous composers from around the world played their own works for the reproducing piano: Edvard Grieg, 1906 in Leipzig; Alexander Scriabin, 1910 in Moscow; Gabriel Fauré, c. 1913 in Paris; Nikolai Medtner, c. 1925 in New York.

In these recordings, rolls reveal historic trends in performance style and technique. Arul points out that we can hear improvisational liberties in contrast to today’s strict fidelity to a musical text: in a “wonderfully creative moment,” Rachmaninoff takes an inventive spin on Chopin’s jaunty Minute Waltz.* We can also hear how composers played (and arranged) their own compositions: consider George Gershwin’s arrangement of his Rhapsody in Blue, originally scored for solo piano and jazz band. We can even get insight into musicians who lived before the player piano’s time by listening to recordings of their students; consider Stavenhagen playing Hungarian Rhapsody, composed by his teacher Franz Liszt.

Beyond the music itself, the roll production process can also teach us about evolving recording practices. Much like audio recordings today, player piano rolls were editable, meaning that notes could be added or subtracted at the performer’s or editor’s will. On the earliest recordings, like the Reinecke mentioned earlier, the roll was left untouched, mistakes and all. However, as the technology improved, editors were able to go back and change the notes recorded on the paper, erasing a note here, adding a note there. Accomplished player Paderewski famously requested of roll editors, “I do not play these passages evenly, can you even them out for me?” Performers increasingly desired perfection and precision over improvisational whims, perhaps because recordings could transform ephemeral moments into permanent and physical objects.

These insights extend beyond the realm of player piano rolls. Whenever we listen to a tape, record, CD, radio or internet stream, we hear music from the past that is encoded with a unique historical context. The next time you listen to recorded music, whether from 1906 or 2016, imagine the performance and recording process… and how will it compare to recordings in 2116, 100 years from now?


*I was unable to find the recording that Arul played during the lecture, so please note that this particular recording was done live for the gramophone and is not a piano roll. We can hope that Rachmaninoff performed similarly for the reproducing piano.


Interested in the player piano’s history and development? Read more about Player Pianos and Reproducing Pianos.

The Portland Piano International Summer Festival is an annual event in Portland, OR.

Kumaran Arul is currently at Stanford University, where he and other researchers are working on the Player Piano Project to study the player piano and its connection to performance history.

Marquam Building

The Rise and Fall of the Marquam Grand: a tragedy

This is my second week in Portland, and already I am intrigued by the city’s vibrant music culture and its history. While searching to learn more about the city’s central musical sites, I discovered the story of the Marquam Building…

Like many great operas, this story opens with a glorious and stunning entrance and closes with only the most spectacular of tragedies. Set the scene in Portland, Oregon in January 1890. As the glow and sparkle of New Year’s celebrations fade, Portland shifts its attention and anticipation to a new beginning. A crowd gathers on the corner of Morrison Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in the early morning of January 28, “an unusual thing,” reports the Morning Oregonian, “to see a line of staid and sober citizens waiting for a business house to open as early as 6 o’clock in the morning.” Dollars in hand, they steal glances up through the grey fog at the newly-constructed towering brick building. We cue the overture, and the curtain rises.

The Marquam Building, an early Portland skyscraper, is the title character of this operatic story. Fitting, that it also housed Portland’s first opera house, the Marquam Grand Opera (renamed the Orpheum Theater in 1908) from 1890 until 1912. The wealthy judge and lifelong Portland resident Philip A. Marquam oversaw its construction. It stood an impressive eight stories tall at 335 Morrison Street, currently 621 SW Morrison. Considered the finest theater on the West coast, it attracted many musical celebrities, including nationally recognized Emma Juch and her English Opera Company, over the course of its brief 22 years.

The eagerly anticipated opening was delayed due to the late arrival of 1000 chairs, but the throngs that formed outside the Marquam in the early mornings to purchase their $1 or $2 tickets had to wait only a week. The opera finally hosted its premiere show on February 10, 1890: Gounod’s Faust. The show itself could not have upstaged the long-awaited unveiling of the interior of the theater. “The electric lights, 800 in number, will be in full blast,” promised the Morning Oregonian, and “[the audience] will be fully compensated for their first disappointment by the dazzling display of beauty and elegance which will greet their eyes.” Blue and amber drapes adorned the walls, an impressive 1,442 seats filled the floor, and for a hefty $15 or $20, audience members could have the luxury of watching from domed boxes. House rules were strict: visible signage inside the theater prohibited catcalls, whistling, and stomping of feet, and a bouncer enforced these policies. The opera, with its ornate splendor, large audience capacity, professional music, and frequent shows, was to become the core of the new commercial downtown center of the growing city.

Marquam Grand Opera House interior

The Marquam Grand Opera was certainly the star of this turn-of-the-century show: “It is a handsome nine-story structure, built of modern brick and steel, fireproof throughout and tastefully ornamented with stone.” Handsome, indeed, but this testimony written in 1911 could not predict the catastrophe that was about to (quite literally) fall the following year.

It was an early dawn in November 1912, reminiscent of our opening scene but without the quiet anticipation of an attentive crowd; in fact, no one was expecting the impending disaster. At 4 AM, three lower (and thankfully, empty) floors of the Marquam Building collapsed without warning. The few people in the building quickly evacuated before the second crash at 11 AM, when the remaining floors succumbed to an identical fate. Luckily, there were no injuries, but the imposingly grand Marquam Building now lay across Morrison Street in scattered, irreparable pieces.

There were rumors and contemplations over rebuilding the Marquam Building, but city officials left the plans unfinished and never commenced the reconstruction. The Orpheum company eventually moved the opera to the nearby Bungalow Theater (currently the site of the downtown Nordstrom) to continue their shows in a new building, but the Marquam Grand had delivered its final closing lines. The orchestra sustains, and the curtain falls.


For more information about the Marquam Building, check out the following links:
“Opening Night” and “Wreck of the Marquam Grand” – blog entries by Portland historian Dan Haneckow
“Throngs Gaze As Brick Walls Fall” – article in the Morning Oregonian, November 22, 1912

Interested in some of the operas that were heard at the Marquam Grand? During the opening week, Emma Juch starred in these shows:
Faust (Gounod)
Carmen (Bizet)
Der Freischütz (Wagner)


Bibliography – Marquam Grand

JP photo for blog

Q & A with the Intern: Interviewing the Hosts


It is common knowledge that a good performer makes their work appear seamless. There are no cracks through which information about their influences, skills, and technique pours out. Although some audiences consider it a privilege to crack open a performer and examine the rivers which course through their art, it is usually the case that performers contain these sources within their work, rendering them invisible to the audience’s eye. It is also the case that performers are uninterested in their artistic sources. This perspective is at play when JK Rowling wonders why adults always ask where her ideas come from, effectively criticizing their inability to fathom the imaginative leaps she makes to create the HP world. Basquiat shares this sentiment in Schnabel’s film Basquiat when he frames a question about his artistic choices as dubious: “Was Miles asked where he got his notes from?” I believe that these questions should continue to be posed despite its censure. This is even possible without seeming inane or intrusive. At All Classical Portland, it is necessary to expose the backstage for audiences and involve them in the space and its processes because All Classical Portland aims to create music which its listeners believe in and love.

Thus, with peace of mind, I have asked three staff members at All Classical Portland what shapes their performances at the station. I am specifically curious to know about the keys which unlock their work, such as beliefs/skills/processes, so that listeners can become better acquainted with the parts and players which keep All Classical Portland running. The interviews which follow as well as my experiences as an intern at All Classical Portland have demonstrated that performers don’t always have to be distant.

Opening Conversations at the Booth
with Robert McBride

Z.A: Are there any conceptualizations you have made in your time as an on-air host which underlies your job and the way you work?

R.M: I think of presenting classical music on the radio more as the means than the end. What we’re really doing is trying to enhance the lives of those who listen to us, with music, information, and companionship. The shared, real-time listening experience, by thousands of people around the world, is particularly intriguing to me: most of those people will never have any kind of contact with each other, by they are, nevertheless, a community created by shared interests. The hosts are members of that community and facilitators of that experience.

Z.A: Do listeners know they’re experiencing music in a community and should they? Do you envision a listener on their own or in community, and which do you work for?

RM: It would vary. Extroverts might be more likely to think of themselves as sharing the listening experience with others, but introverts might prefer to feel like they’re having a more intimate, or even private, experience. I/we need to serve both kinds of listeners and be aware of their needs, preferences, and experiences. There are different kinds of listening experiences every day: someone alone in their car, someone else with a group at a dinner party, etc. Certainly the more we refer to different situations or different time zones, the more the listeners will be aware of them and perhaps feel some kind of connection or virtual community.

Z.A: What do you prioritize in your presentation of music? Is companionship more important than historically contextualizing music?

R.M: I think companionship is more important, though I didn’t use to see it that way, when I started way back in the previous century.

Z.A: As the voice which introduces music and the first voice to be heard at the close of music, you may be embedded in listeners’ impressions of music. Do you feel that your position as a facilitator of musical experiences changes? If so, what do you do to offset your omnipresence?

RM: I don’t want to be thought of as omnipresent! I try to avoid that by not talking too much and by varying that constantly: some of my voice breaks will be longer than others, and the occasional really short one helps to keep things moving and keep the emphasis on the music.

This desire he expresses above, to open Western classical music to listeners in different geographical, social, and psychological situations, is evident in his weekly, live broadcast. It has been my pleasure to help set up Thursdays @ Three as I could see his beliefs in action. He made sure all parties were informed about how the broadcast would proceed–performers were given a chance to OK interviews before the broadcast and audience members learned what his gestures for applause and holding for applause looked like–thereby putting everyone at ease and creating an environment where joy and spontaneity were possible.

The Playlist
with John Pitman

Z.A: How do you understand your work as a music programmer at All Classical Portland?

JP:  I’m part of what we call our Programming Team.  It comprises myself, as music director, as well as John Burk, VP of Programming, and Suzanne Nance, Program Director.  Each has different roles and tasks to perform, but we all have the same objective:  to create fresh, vibrant, compelling and relevant programming with classical music.  The latest CDs are sent to me to audition, and either add directly to the playlist, or share with John and Suzanne to give me their perspectives before adding to our mix.  My main work, though, is crafting each day’s music log for the hosts to share with listeners.  This occupies a large portion of my week:  carefully listening to, and crafting, the sequence of music that is heard from 12am to 11:59pm each day of the year.

Z.A: Are there any conceptualizations you have made in your time as a programmer which underlie your job and the way you work?

JP:  Mr. Burk and I, primarily, laid the foundation of the music programming some time ago, which comprises all of the standard repertoire, along with neglected gems, and pieces written by today’s composers which enhance our “sound”.  I start each day’s programming with the music that is currently available to use:  there is library software that helps me – and all of the hosts when they search for pieces – that prevents us from duplicating our own, previous days’ programs.  This ensures the freshest selection of pieces, and avoids overplaying of any piece in our playlist.  We also program music according to its energy level (think Barber’s Adagio versus a Sousa march), and keep certain pieces from appearing at select times of day or night.  This helps to create the appropriate sound to accompany listeners’ activities.  There’s more, of course, but we don’t want to give away too many of our secrets!  It might spoil the magic.

Z.A: Do you have to establish the station’s sound every day?

JP:  I don’t have to establish the station’s sound, so much as sustain it.  A longstanding familiarity with the program department’s vision and mission ensures consistent quality.  The software I mentioned helps me make sure that our overall vision for how the station should sound, remains consistent from day to day.

Z.A: Is there a hierarchy among the music that comprises the station’s sound? For example, do you prioritize standard rep over new music and play it more?

JP:  We make sure that we meet our listeners’ expectations, by maintaining a good balance between the standard repertoire, and newer works or less-familiar pieces from past eras.  Some pieces that we’ve incorporated into our programming have turned up on orchestral concerts over the years, so we seem to be making a good impression!  If either type of music (favorites/unfamiliar) are played too often, listeners notice.  They might say that we’re not digging too deeply, while other listeners might perceive that we’re neglecting the masters.  It takes great care and attention to what’s being played to make sure it all stays fresh.

 Z.A: In order to program relevant content, do you solicit listener’s feedback and program in light of it? Is listener satisfaction and enjoyment, which you call your end goal, possible without addressing listeners’ requests?

JP:  We find that we don’t need to solicit listener feedback, as the passionate classical music fans discover pieces on their own, and then simply get in touch with us.  They might do that via our Saturday request program, our annual Classical Countdown (in December), or simply sending us an e-mail.  I’ve been introduced to some wonderful pieces that we’ve subsequently added to our playlist.

Z.A: What skills/traits/processes are necessary for music programming?

J.P: First of all, a deep knowledge of, and appreciation for, the art form (classical music).  Knowing the music (pieces, or compositions) well, and on an intimate level, ensures the highest level of quality for the listening experience.  It takes a long time, of course, and objectivity can be a challenge.  We strive to present the music according to long-agreed decisions about what constitutes great music; along with that, our subjective sides inform us how to make critical decisions of what pieces should be added to the standard repertoire.  Another trait is identifying when is the right time to play a piece.  Not just time of day, but time of week, or year.  Finally, I would say, passion for this music determines the end result that we’re working toward.  Consistent listener satisfaction and enjoyment.

Negotiating Conversations at the Mixing Board
with Andrea Murray

Z.A: How do you understand your work as a producer?

A.M: My work involves weaving sound and text and music to say something that, ideally, is worth hearing – whether it’s an artist interview, a reported feature or even a promotional message. I try to set a high technical and aesthetic standard for everything I do here. Still, I’ll be the first to admit slick production can never compensate for poor writing or dull ideas.

Z.A: What skill or trait do you feel is necessary for production?

A.M: Anyone can learn the basics of audio software in a couple of hours. But it takes years of being attentive to sound, of really listening, to know what to do with it. Having a background in music really helps.

Z.A: Are there any conceptualizations you have made in your time as a producer which underlies your job and the way you work?

A.M: Here are some ideas that have been passed on to me over the years: Pay attention; Give people space to tell their own stories; Show up with your record running; It’s not about you, but you have to be fully present; Having a microphone grants you a kind of access not everyone has, so use it for the benefit of others whenever possible; There’s nothing wrong with a little ear candy once in a while. You’re an invited guest in people’s homes/headphones – try to be good company.

Off-script: I have learned from Andrea Murray that production is also like stage management.  As such, duties include controlling the spotlights on speakers (“actors) and segments (“scenes”) so that (1) the conversation between the speakers is clear without their tendencies as a pairing (to be amicable, adversarial) or as individuals (to respond loudly, to trail off) to get in the way, (2) the progression between segments is smooth and seems to constitute a natural progression in the show, and (3) a back, mid, and fore-ground is established without the listener having to prioritize what to listen to.

Another way I have envisioned the role of a producer is that it is like emceeing. Just as an MC understands that there is a lot of activity during the event they guide and therefore speaks efficiently and interestingly, a producer also realizes that listeners tune in during other activities. Therefore, producers unearth from audio a script which has a through line. That way, every listener, from the attentive to the distracted, can follow along at every point in the show. Andrea did suggest stick shift driving as a comparison, but I don’t know how to drive. Perhaps there are learned and skilled readers out there who can benefit from this comparison.


Although the interviewees may not agree with me that they are performers, I believe that their commitment to their work, demonstrated in their answers and on a daily basis, should prove them wrong. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching them in action and wish the station continue success. Break a leg!


Earth Day 2016 – Recycled Music

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” – Charles Caleb Colton.

In celebration of Earth Day 2016, All Classical Portland is highlighting the most green composers and some of the most famously recycled pieces of classical music. Perhaps John Williams comes to mind? How about Copland, Bach or even Elvis Presley?  Some say that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 500 times!

Each All Classical Portland host has put together an example of recycled music in these specially produced segments below which will air throughout the day on Friday, April 22 – Earth Day 2016. Be sure to tune-in!

Do you know of a recycled piece of classical music or do you have a favorite green composer? We want to hear from you!

Join the conversation at the All Classical Portland Facebook page!


Brandi Parisi – Rachmaninoff rocks Paganini


John Burk – Borodin goes to Broadway


Christa Wessel – We got a jazzy Pathétique


Ed Goldberg – Chopin is always chasing rainbows


Edmund Stone – Star Wars in Holst’s Space


John Pitman – Bach to Bach


Robert McBride – A lot of la folia


Suzanne Nance – Elvis Can’t Help Falling in Amour


Suzanne Nance – Carmen rips-off Rachmaninoff


Andrea Murray – A Simple Gift for Copland