Music Labels

November 16, 2016 at 10:30 am

We humans like to organize, categorize, and label things. This is usually a good thing. Organizing food into specific groups (meat, vegetables, grains, etc.) helps to prepare our tongues for what we are about to eat. Labelling a piece as “French Baroque” helps us know what sort of sounds we will be hearing. On the other hand, it takes no stretch of the imagination to see how social categorization of human beings can cause huge damage.

So, what about the word “modern“? Does it mean turn-of-the-20th-century, or just current/contemporary? When exactly was (or is) “modern music” written? Is it an intellectual concept rather than a time period? Or perhaps it’s just coded talk for “ugly”? I offer no answers here – the best I can do is point out that the context of the conversation changes how we use the word.

I’m imagining your average high school or college level music appreciation class. The time comes for the 20th century – “modern music”! Without a doubt, the Rite of Spring is played, and enthusiastic discussion ensues. If it’s a high school class, the performance is probably accompanied by the dancing dinos of Fantasia, while college students get to hear stories of riots, orgies, human sacrifice. What ends up happening is that the Rite ends up becoming the piece that defines what modern music is supposed to sound like. Later, when these students hear Stravinsky‘s later works (labelled “neoclassical” and “serial“), they are shocked that it sounds so completely different.

There might have been a riot at the premiere of the Rite, but not because of the ground-breaking modern sound. Five years before, Arnold Schoenberg (who, as a Jew, was labelled by the Nazis as “degenerate”) wrote his Five Pieces for Orchestra. Knowing this piece came first, the Rite almost seems like a step backwards toward romanticism. Fifty years later, Pierre Boulez would label Schoenberg as not modern enough.

Be careful with labels.

This is just the first movement. Listen to the full 5 pieces here.



Yom Kippur, part 2

October 12, 2016 at 10:30 am

I’m ending this year’s Jewish High Holy Days with a meditative, minimalist work from a unique source.

John Zorn is … interesting. He might be the most eclectic musician ever. On one hand, he writes instrumental metal. And, he has a sense of humor, as can be seen by his song and album titles, which include Lovecraftian Lore and Jewish puns. He also wrote film scores, plays jazz, and composes concert music.

Kol Niedre is the declaration of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Yesterday’s piece used this traditional Jewish melody as well, but today’s clear texture makes it much easier to hear. A low and high pitch E is sustained for practically the entire piece, breaking only in the middle for a brief hymn. The effect is timeless and mystical, simple yet profound.


Yom Kippur

October 11, 2016 at 12:21 pm

The Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur, begins tonight at sunset.

Please read my previous blog post to learn about the brave life of Jacob Weinberg, whose work I recently discovered while seeking art music related to the Jewish High Holidays.

This piece comes from the same string quartet as my previous post; this time, we hear the second movement. Like the first movement, this one uses a traditional Jewish melody, this time based on the Kol Nidre – a declaration on the day of atonement, Yom Kippur. There is something magical about this melody and it’s short, pleading phrases, so much so that Protestant Christian composer Max Bruch wrote a concert piece for cello and orchestra based on it. But whereas Bruch simply uses a Jewish melody as the basis for a piece, Weinberg weaves the holy mysteries of the holiday into his music.