Halloween preparations

October 23, 2016 at 10:00 am

We all have our own rituals when preparing for a holiday. Some put up the Christmas Tree the day after Thanksgiving, some wait until Christmas Eve. Maybe there are TV specials or movies that you MUST watch every year. Some decorate like mad a month before Valentine’s or St. Patrick’s day. Or maybe you’re really into Americana on the 4th.

Every October, I have a canon of scary short stories that I read. It always begins with Poe, especially the Fall of the House of Usher, includes a handful of things like Sleepy Hollow, and ends with a generous portion of Blackwood and Lovecraft. But for now, let’s stick with Poe – how about The Masque of the Red Death?

André Caplet is mainly remembered for his orchestrations of the piano works of his friend, Claude Debussy, especially Clair de Lune. It’s difficult living in the shadow of such a great master; Caplet left behind a generous catalog of works in many different genres, including this gothic tone poem inspired by Poe’s short story. A classic string quartet instrumentation is greatly augmented by the harp, which makes the small ensemble sound much larger than five players.


Happy Rosh Hashanah!

October 3, 2016 at 10:17 am

Today marks the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, and the beginning of the High Holy Days. This festival comes from a biblical command God gave to Moses:

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts.

Trumpet blasts? Sounds good to me. How about Leonard Bernstein‘s Chichester Psalms? Bernstein only wrote a handful of religious works; you could argue that his Kadish Symphony and Mass are better described as anti-religious. The Chichester Psalms is unique in his repertoire as having a positive spin on religion, even if it isn’t backed by any belief on his part. The piece bears an English name because it was commissioned by Chichester Cathedral. It is often performed in a slightly strange reduced instrumentation – organ, percussion, and harp. Though they are often found in synagogues, the organ here perhaps acts as a symbol for Christianity, while the harp and percussion call to mind the ancient Hebrew psalms. In the first movement (today’s piece) they sing from Psalm 108:

Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn.

With the synthesis of Jewish and Christian instruments, the Hebrew text, and an Anglican Cathedral’s name on the piece, makes me want to see this work as a symbol of healing between the two religions.


A Longer Listen on a Serious Subject

September 3, 2016 at 10:04 am

Today is Saturday; take a half-hour to close your eyes, sit, breathe, think, and of course, listen.

You have to admire Carson Cooman‘s legendary work ethic. At 35, he already has penned over 1100 musical compositions, all the while maintaining careers in organ performing, academic writing, and others. He has written for every genre and his music has been performed all over the world “in venues that range from the stage of Carnegie Hall to the basket of a hot air balloon.”

His poignant Symphony no. 4 is best described using Cooman’s own words (taken from his website):

… for me, a symphony is a piece that attempts (in some rather small way) to make an artistic comment on a “big topic,” whether that be emotional/psychological, societal, or natural…. My fourth symphony, Liminal, addresses climate change—a topic at the forefront of discussion in the present time. The English word liminal comes from the Latin word for threshold. In social and cultural anthropology, the concept of liminality is used when describing rituals and processes; it refers specifically to the quality of ambiguity that occurs in the middle of the ritual, when participants are not the same as they were before the ritual began, but have not yet reached the conclusion.

It seems inarguable that the earth is (and perhaps has always been) in a liminal state. This piece is made up of varied soundscapes that reflect musically on the large-scale changes taking place, many of which have very distressing consequences for the future of the life we know…. while the ultimate trajectory is perhaps disturbing, as the ecologically-minded composer John Luther Adams has written, “Amid the turbulent waves we may still find the light, the wisdom and courage we need to pass through this darkness of our own making.”

[In this symphony,] one harp is tuned a quarter tone lower than the rest of the orchestra, and the two harps together provide an uneasy, blurry tonal area through which the rest of the ensemble is led…. in the final section only one harp remains. Some sort of transformation has been reached, or at least the search for light continues. The quarter tone contrast returns for the final chord. Perhaps the process only seems to be at an end from our limited perspective.