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What’s Your Response?

November 22, 2015 at 10:28 am

I want to say as little as possible about today’s piece, only because I’m afraid that I’ll ruin it. Maybe you should listen first, then read:

Christian Zeal and Activity was written by John Adams, a living American composer. It’s very simple (most classify it as minimalist), but it has the ability to strike deep. This 10-minute piece is ONE verse of the hymn, “Onward, Christian Soldiers“, played excessively slow – about 1/12 of the normal tempo. The voice leading is also out of place – for example, the basses might move to the next note five seconds before the melody note gets there, etc. It feels as though time is standing still (or at least going very slowly). About halfway through, a speaking voice enters the music – it’s a recording of an evangelical preacher. Words, sentences are repeated for no particular purpose. Oddly, it is the speaking voice that becomes the melody (there is a melody present in good public speaking – just listen to any successful auctioneer!) while the hymn remains in pseudo-suspended animation.

I’m not really sure what to call this piece – I can’t exactly call it “sacred”. It’s not something you’d hear in church, even though the two major elements of the piece came right out of the Christian church (a preacher and a hymn.)

When I first heard this piece, it had a profound effect on me. I’d love to hear your response to the piece (please comment!), whether positive or negative (or something in between).


Something for your Saturday morning

November 21, 2015 at 9:00 am

Not much to say about this one! Pour a cup of tea and draw yourself a musical bath – courtesy of Ralph Vaughan-Williams.

Some quick notes about Vaughan-Williams :

  • He loved and collected English folk music; its influence can be heard in all his music
  • He was the son of a priest, but was an atheist; later, a self-described “cheerful agnostic”
  • Despite the above, he wrote a great deal of sacred music and practically defined the hymnody of the Anglican church for a century
  • He volunteered to serve as an ambulance driver in WWI; the experience affected him (and, by extension, his music) profoundly
  • His remains are interred in Westminster Abbey, near those of Purcell and C.V. Stanford

Vaughan-Williams’ music might be conservative when compared to his contemporaries, but it really hits home. The Lark Ascending is simply transcendent.


TGIF – Unwind to Bolero!

November 20, 2015 at 10:00 am

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” (famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Machiavelli, Socrates, and Nicolas Cage.)

French composer Maurice Ravel‘s (1875-1937) most famous piece is probably Boléro. The piece is basically a one-minute melody, repeated 17 times. The tempo (speed), rhythm, notes of the melody and the harmony remain virtually unchanged from the beginning to the end. Some might call this insanity (the snare-drum players definitely call this insanity, because they play the same two-measure idea over 150 times, unchanged, until the very end of the piece. If you don’t believe me, take a look!)


Oddly enough, people seem to enjoy this insanity. So what makes it exciting? First: each time the melody is repeated, Ravel changes what instruments are playing, exploring a wide palette of orchestral color. Second, the whole piece is one gigantic crescendo – it starts soft, and grows to a full blow-your-ears-off loud. Turn your speakers up and make sure your boss isn’t around.

More than one person (two, to be exact) have told me that they love to start this piece with the volume turned all the way up – and they see how long they can last until they HAVE to turn it down.

Thanks to Larry, who gave the little push I needed to start this blog!