What does Death sound like?

May 3, 2017 at 1:17 pm

We humans certainly are fascinated with Death. Do you fear it? welcome it? try to postpone it? encourage it to come sooner? And what happens as we pass out of this world? Let’s dive into some musical expressions of death.

Richard StraussTod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration)Strauss’ magnificent tone poem tells the story of a sick man, facing death – he fights the illness, but loses, his life flashes before his eyes, he is scared, and then achieves a peaceful calm as his life slips away and, in Strauss’ own words, “the soul leaves his body, to discover in the eternal cosmos the magnificent realization of the ideal that could not be fulfilled here below.”

Guiseppe Verdi – La Traviata finale: This is your classic tragic ending to an Italian opera (the music at the point of death is strikingly similar to the final death scene in Rigoletto). Like nearly all Italian tragic operas, you can sum up the plot thus: adultery is all fun and games until somebody gets killed.

Gustav MahlerSymphony No. 9 finaleMahler’s last complete symphony ends with mournful elegy to himself. He had been diagnosed with a heart defect, and felt (knew?) he was dying as he wrote it. Though a long, slow-moving listen, the deep peace of the pianissimo strings ending is very rewarding – it’s as if Mahler is taking his final breaths (and indeed, I find it hard to breathe when I listen to it!)

Giacomo PucciniLa bohème finale: Maybe it’s a little clichéd as far as deaths go, but every time I see this opera I get a cold chill when the minor chord signals Mimi’s death (in this video, 2:05). Mimi is finally at peace, but the torment that her friends and lover go through is utterly heart wrenching.

Richard WagnerLiebestod (Love-Death): In a Romeo-and-Juliet-like moment, Isolde dies over the body of her lover, Tristan, and in doing so finds complete fulfilment and repose, and becomes one with the universe, or something like that. The romantics were totally into that sort of awesomeness.



What does Water sound like?

April 25, 2017 at 1:39 pm

What does water sound like?

“Water” is a big word with many meanings. It encompasses everything from a single molecule to vast oceans. We quench our thirst with it, clean ourselves with it (physically and spiritually), cry it when we are overjoyed or sad. If we have too little water, we die of thirst; too much, we drown. Civilization sprung up around sources of water, and was (still is?) the primary method of travel and trade. I could go on and on …

It’s no wonder that composers have put their sweat (water again) into creating music that somehow captures water. Rather than blab on and on, I’ll let the music speak for itself.

This post is a longer listen, so be prepared to sit a while, or feel free to go through in multiple sittings, whatever suits you.

La Mer (The Sea)Claude Debussy: This impressionist work gives you a sense of rolling waves in an dark, infinite ocean through its gentle rhythms, rich orchestral colors, and expansive harmony.

Overture to Das RheingoldRichard Wagner: The first notes of Wagner’s magnum opus transports the listener from a chair in an opera house to the bottom of Germany’s most famous river, the Rhine. Unlike many other opera overtures, there’s not much to it – just 4 minutes of Eb major, slowly unfolding; a musical equivalent to the slow rising of a curtain in a theater.

A Sea SymphonyRalph Vaughan Williams: Longest. Symphony. Ever. And also, RVW’s first symphony, written at the same time as Debussy’s La Mer, and as quintessentially English as La Mer is quintessentially French.

Four Sea Interludes from Peter GrimesBenjamin Britten: For Britten, the sea was always a part of his life, having been born, raised, lived, and died in a seaside town. In his operas, the ocean is practically a character unto itself. The Imperial Royal Navy heard in Vaughan-Williams is no longer present – instead, we get an ominous, expansive agent of life and death.

(Another) Sea SymphonyHoward Hanson: Across the pond, us Yankees have crafted our own Sea Symphony with chorus; but unlike Vaughan-Williams endless composition, this one is much shorter, and musically is closer to Britten.

 Obviously this list is far from complete. Any suggestions? (and no, Handel’s Water Music doesn’t count!)


Advanced Conducting Techniques 101

February 15, 2017 at 11:00 am

Of all the musical tasks I’ve had to do, conducting is by far the weirdest. On one hand, the conductor is of supreme importance as the leader of the troops. On the other hand, the conductor makes no sound, and is therefore essentially useless. I’ve worked with ensembles who want every nuance clearly defined by subtle hand gestures coupled with eyebrow lifts, and I’ve worked with ensembles that want a downbeat and nothing more. I’ve messed up conducting pieces I had studied for ages and perfectly conducted pieces that I had never seen before. A great conductor with a bad ensemble will probably make a bad performance because the musicians won’t bother to look at the conductor, while a bad conductor with a great ensemble will probably perform well because the musicians will just ignore the conductor anyway. And yet, even though the performers claim to “never watch the conductor”, when something goes wrong, guess who gets the blame? The Sword of Damocles constantly hangs over the conductor’s head.

So what makes a great conductor? Here are some totally legitimate conducting moves that will up your conducting game. In no particular order:

1. The CLAW. This is legendary conductor James Levine’s signature left-hand move. It was first unveiled in 1990 at the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Wagner‘s Siegfried. Note how at first, you see The Claw slowly taking shape, but at 1:50 it completely takes control of his body – nothing can stop the awesome power of The Claw once you allow it into your conducting.

And here is Levine, much later in his career. You can see how The Claw has consumed and destroyed him; it dominates nearly every musical moment.

2. The MINIMALIST. When you’ve been asked to lead the best classical orchestra in the world, why bother doing anything at all? What could you possible do to make the best musicians any better? Even Leonard Bernstein, one of the world’s greatest conductors (and a composer), knew better than to try to mess with perfection. So he stood there, listened, and sort of smiled.

3. The MOMENT OF REALIZATION. This is a move created by Simon Rattle. After giving a handful of very specific cues, begin conducting as the Minimalist (see above), except with a stunned, euphoric face as if God has just revealed the secrets of the universe to you. That’s what happened in the video below – well, either that, or he just realized that he forgot to comb his hair for an entire decade.

Speaking of combing …
4. The HAIR. Some conductors like to use a baton to exaggerate gestures and make it easier for large ensembles to stay together. Some conductors prefer the expressiveness of the empty hand. The best conductors, though, conduct primarily through their hairdo.

5. The WHATEVER. If the performers know the music backwards-and-forwards, the conductor doesn’t have to worry about technical things like cues or keeping the group together. If you find yourself in this lucky position, just wiggle your fingers or make little goofy motions to ensure you don’t get fired for being redundant. Here are some expert examples:

6. The SPARKLY SEXY SHINY SHIRT. A tuxedo might be the standard conducting attire, but if you need a boost to your skillset, a Gold Shirt +1 will increase your CHA and your dancing abilities.

7. The COMPLETE IDIOT. If these masterful conducting moves are too difficult for you, don’t give up. Anyone can be a conductor, given the right circumstances.

If you know of any similar videos of masterful conducting, please post them in the comments!