Sometimes, there’s just nothing to say

November 29, 2016 at 11:30 am

A short list of great composers who died in their mid-thirties would include Bizet, Chopin, Gershwin, Mozart, Purcell, Schubert, Weber … and Charles Griffes.

Despite a short life, Griffes purchased his immortality by leaving a fair amount of music behind. His compositions stand out in early 20th-century American Art Music because of his French impressionist flavor (most composers at this time were modeling German styles), and his taste for the exotic (very much related to impressionism.)

His Poem for Flute and Orchestra is just beautiful; perhaps it is an homage to Debussy‘s Afternoon of a Faun. What else is there to say? Nothing.


Do you speak Whale?

November 14, 2016 at 10:46 am

On this day in 1851, Moby Dick was published in the US. It is one of the greatest books ever written – highly recommended reading! First, you learn that all sailors are lunatics. Then, you’ll learn all sorts of useless whale facts as you crawl through chapters of classification and lore. Lastly, you get to endure tens of thousands of words devoted to the slow mental deterioration of an already bonkers-crazy ship captain. (Joking aside, it is a truly marvelous work.)

George Crumb is an American composer whom I deeply admire for his ability to be avant-garde without being off-the-deep-end. He uses all sorts of unorthodox instruments (e.g. toy pianos, tape loops, electronic effects) and extended techniques (i.e. using an instrument in a non-traditional way, like singing into a flute or bowing on the wrong side of a violin bridge) in his music. Many composers have done this, but most fail at making music, and instead make something more akin to organized noise (if you like organized noise, that’s fine. I don’t. When I want to listen to organized noise, I turn on my washing machine.) Crumb, on the other hand, makes music – it is otherworldly, but often astoundingly beautiful.

Among his more famous works is Vox Balaenae, or voice of the whale. On one hand, it’s exactly what you might think – weird underwater “moos” like Dory does in Finding Nemo. But once you get past that, it’s oddly pleasing, calming, and brilliant. The entire work lasts 20 minutes, and is for masked performers (seriously) playing flute, cello, and piano. This video is the beginning of the piece, a flute solo with a little piano to set the mood – both using a lot of extended techniques!

And, unlike Moby Dick, you don’t have to invest hours into it before deciding you don’t like it and quitting. (Joking aside, it is a truly marvelous work.)


Lazy Afternoons can be Revolutionary

October 2, 2016 at 2:08 pm

Nothing is quite as inspiring as a dirty piece of poetry.

Well, that’s how it all began. Stéphane Mallarmé wrote a sexy poem called “The Afternoon of a Faun“, in which a faun dreamily describes some intimate experiences he had with some nymphs that morning. The poem is highly effective at creating an erotic mood, and is considered one of the finest ever written in French. Enter Claude Debussy, who found the poem and set it to music as a “tone poem“. To be clear, he did not set the text of Mallarme’s poem to be sung by a singer or choir; instead, instruments alone were used to paint the evocative mood with erotic, chromatic melody and lush harmony that was truly groundbreaking when it was written. Mallarme at first was worried that the natural “music” of the poetry would be destroyed by a composer’s music. Debussy invited him to premiere; Mallarme’s fears were assuaged, and he wrote the composer a nice letter praising the piece. Later, one of the most influential ballet dancers of the 20th century, Vaslav Nijinsky, would create a ballet using the music.

This goes to show that when powerful minds are at work, even a lazy afternoon can change the world.