Among my plans, activities and resolutions for the New Year, I have decided that every day I will listen to a new piece that I had never heard before by a living composer. This blog brings my impressions of my favorite ones.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Moravec, Bach, and "Where's Waldo?"

In the corner of my eye, I see people gathering around us. Some of them are standing, others are sitting on the floor, several are holding their phones and filming. The Phillips Collection, America's first museum of modern art, is open late on Thursdays, and the Phillips Camerata and I have become one of the exhibits.

Rehearsing with the Phillips Camerata
A small smile sneaks onto my face, but I am trying to remain focused on the rehearsal. Paul Moravec’s Brandenburg Gate, one of the pieces on the program for our Sunday concert, constantly switches between time signatures and consists of complex rhythmical patterns that often work against the meter changes. I especially love the beginning of the third movement, which sounds to me like an imitation of an improvisation on an electric bass guitar. It develops, and becomes groovy and wild, kind of like metal music. I had been devoting a significant amount of time to practicing the difficult spots at home with some crazy exercises, such as conducting with my right hand while simultaneously playing the bass line on the piano with my left hand and singing the violin and flute lines. It seemed almost impossible at first, but after some repetitions it became easier, and I could feel I was gaining control over the different musical elements.

Thursday was also my birthday, and while working with these superb musicians, I was thinking to myself that I couldn’t ask for a better way to spend it. It did, however, take me some time to get comfortable. It might sound like a paradox, but it’s easier for me to relax and feel like myself with a bigger orchestra than a chamber orchestra like the Phillips Camerata. For some reason, when I conduct a symphony orchestra, I am not worried about being silly, or crazy, or whatever the music requires you to be. But there is something about the intimacy of working with a smaller ensemble for the first time that makes me more self conscious, and this gets in the way. It’s kind of like wanting to make a good impression on a first date, which could result in the opposite outcome.

As the rehearsals progressed, I was feeling more and more comfortable and started joking around like I usually do. Bach’s 2nd Brandenburg Concerto, which was also on the program, is one of the most joyful pieces Bach composed. It is written in F Major, but right before the recapitulation in the first movement, it surprisingly ends in an A Minor cadence. When we reached that point in the rehearsal, instead of continuing and finishing the movement as it is written, I stopped my hands and told the musicians that I was thinking about finishing the piece here, in A Minor, “you know, bitter, like life.” The musicians went along with the joke and agreed that we should try it.

It is no coincidence that we chose to perform both of these pieces in the same concert. Bach’s 2nd Brandenburg Concerto was the inspiration for Moravec’s Brandenburg Gate. They are written for a similar instrumentation, with two differences: Moravec replaces the oboe with a clarinet and doesn’t use harpsichord. The clarinetist also plays the bass clarinet, adding a lower range and a special color to the piece.

On Saturday, we were expecting the arrival of Moravec in our rehearsal. Before the rehearsal, I went to Eastern Market for lunch and afterwards took a short walk. It was a sunny, hot day in Washington, DC, and a big crowd was wandering between the restaurants, cafes, and art stands wearing shorts and flip-flops. I was wearing long pants and a buttoned down shirt, trying to look respectful for the rehearsal and the composer’s visit. The most I could do to ease the burden of the heat a bit was folding up my sleeves. I stopped a taxi and directed the driver to the Phillips. The air conditioning wasn’t working, and I got out of the car soaking wet. I had a little time before the rehearsal started, so I went into an ice cream shop near by, had a coffee, and cooled off in the AC.

with Paul Moravec right before going on stage
“The most important thing in my music is the tempo,“ Moravec whispered to me right before we began the rehearsal. “If it gets too slow, it sounds dorky.” I must admit that I was already quite nervous about playing his piece in front of him, and his comment made me take an unusually fast, unplayable tempo. I had to stop. “Perhaps it’s a little too fast,” Moravec said, and I replied, “It’s because of you. You stressed me out with your tempo remark.” Moravec chuckled. He seemed to understand my Israeli humor.

Brandenburg Gate starts with a dizzying fragment that repeats over and over and is a variation based on the notes B-flat, A, C and B natural (or H, in German), i.e., the notes that form Bach’s name (B-A-C-H). Before the performance, Moravec and I gave a talk to the audience that involved some humorous moments. I argued that the repeated BACH pattern sounds like Bach is haunting you.
“I think of it more like a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ painting,” Moravec said. “A huge musical tapestry in which you have to spot the BACH notes.”
I replied that, growing up in Israel, I had no idea what he was talking about.

The second movement opens with the same BACH notes, but this time they are harmonized in a manner that gives the music a kind of an ancient scent. The third movement, virtuosic and challenging, features some manic, edgy music, as if the players have lost all control and are just going wild on their instruments. But if you explore the parts separately, you will discover that they are derived from the BACH notes as well, transformed into different keys, octaves, and sometimes played backwards.

The audience received our performance of Moravec and Bach warmly, with a standing ovation. After the concert, Moravec, with a big smile on his face, hugged and thanked me. Then, his face took up a more serious expression. “So, you don’t know what Where’s Waldo is.”

To listen to Brandenburg Gate, click here

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Taking Risks and Travelling Far - Unsuk Chin's Šu

Upon finishing their mandatory army service, many young Israelis embark on a new journey as the country’s border gates reopen before them. And a journey it really is. 20-year old women who served for two years and 21-year old men who served for three, pack a large travel satchel with camping equipment, grab a travel book, and fly away as far as they can for what will commonly last about a year. Popular destinations include India, the Far East, and South America. Most frequently, it is an impromptu kind of trip, meaning that lodging is not booked in advance and neither is a return ticket. They will figure everything out as they go.

The “post-army-service-trip” is a phenomenon that has become a core part of Israeli culture. Why do young Israelis feel compelled to take such a journey? Perhaps because after devoting several years to the military without being able to leave Israel, they feel the need to turn to the opposite extreme and visit as many countries and cities as possible. Or, perhaps the years of having to report to others and adhere to a strict schedule have made them eager to do whatever they want, not plan anything, and just be. There might be yet another motivation—one that almost anyone can relate to: the desire to have a life-changing experience that will make you a different person.

I served in the Israeli army as a musician, and as such was allowed to travel abroad to perform concerts during my service. This experience—along with the fact that I have been living outside of Israel for more than 8 years now, which has been a journey of its own—may be part of why I don't typically feel the need to travel to exotic places for indefinite periods of time.

But it is also a matter of character. Backpacking is not really for me. I love being in nature and seeing the world from the top of a mountain, as long as I can take a funicular up there and back. I love lying on the sand in the middle of the desert and watching the stars glowing at night, as long as I can go to sleep in a nearby hotel afterwards. I’m not really keen about random encounters with wild animals either.

Nevertheless, when you perform music, you have to be able to take risks. You have to have conviction (even if you have doubts), and go all the way with your musical vision. You have to forget about yourself, about possibly embarrassing yourself, and devote yourself to the music that is in front of you. There is something tempting about purchasing a one-way ticket to a far-off land without committing to any further plans, but perhaps it is the aspiration to take risks in music that has left me with a need for more certainty and stability in my extra-musical life.

However, pieces like Šu revive my appetite to travel far and leave everything behind. Written for orchestra and sheng, a traditional Chinese instrument, this piece makes you think about things that are far from you; that are not a part of your everyday life; that you only read about in books and newspapers, see in movies and photos. Listening to this music is another step out of your comfort zone. It makes you forget about here, and think about somewhere else.

The sheng is an old mouth-blown Chinese instrument that is made out of a collection of pipes.
Resembling a small fracture of an organ, or a bagpipe without the bag, the instrument sounds like a combination of an accordion and a harmonica. More than 3000 years old, the sheng often serves as an accompaniment for singing. South Korean Composer Unsuk Chin brings it to the front of the stage, making it the soloist in a western concerto.

Pronounced “Shu,” the title of the piece is derived from Egyptian mythology and represents the symbol for air. And indeed, the coda of the piece sounds as if a tranquil wind is blowing through the ancient instruments of the orchestra, caressing the bells and gongs.

The piece is divided into two sections, like two eras. In the first, the old era, the sheng plays high, prolonged chords. The special technique of playing the sheng, combining both blowing and sucking air, allows the player to hold the notes for a long time, creating a sense of infinity. The chords are hypnotizing, taking you to another place, remote and foreign. In the second section, the new era, the sheng becomes a virtuosic instrument in the spirit of the European solo concerto. The orchestral score calls for four percussion players, each of whom also plays the harmonica—a distant relative of the sheng from a parallel world.

The charm of Šu is in its cryptic character. Listening to it is like living through a suspenseful process of evolution. You are constantly eager to know what’s going to happen next, and the strange sonority of the piece fills you with a sense of wonder. You just sit there, taking it all in, without exactly knowing what it means. And there is no need to.

There is a special feeling to returning home after a journey. You’re driving again on the same roads that lead to your house, the furniture in your apartment is exactly as you left it (hopefully), and hearing your language again is, perhaps most of all, a comforting reassurance that you are really back. But despite the fact that everything is so familiar, it also feels different, strange even. Because you are different. The trip and the experiences that you had have changed you.

Šu has the same impact. After listening to it, I came out a somewhat different person. I was back to where I was before, but with an evasive longing for a place that is far away from here. And who knows, perhaps a few more listenings will prompt me to leave everything and fulfill the post-army-service-trip that I never had.

To listen to Unsuk Chin's Šu click here

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Resurrecting a Forgotten Instrument - Jörg Widmann's Armonica

In 1761, American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin attended a concert in London that featured a performance of musical wine glasses. Franklin was ecstatic. A true renaissance man—not only a brilliant politician but also a writer, inventor, musician, and scientist—Franklin decided to build a machine that would create the same effect as the wine glasses, but with a more efficient arrangement. He placed a bunch of glass bowls around a turning rod activated by pressing a pedal. Franklin called his new instrument “Armonica” after the Italian word for harmony, “Armonia,” in reference to the instrument’s new capability of creating harmony, i.e. chords—three or more notes played at the same time.

Benjamin Franklin playing the armonica
A musician named Marianne Davies was the first person to play the instrument at a concert in London. It just so happened that a wunderkind by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was in town at the same time for his own concerts. Mozart heard Davies playing the armonica and was intrigued by the new instrument. While he spent the ensuing years writing string quartets, piano sonatas, symphonies, and many more, he never forgot about the peculiar instrument. In 1791, a few months before his death at the age of 35, Mozart returned to the armonica. He wrote a couple short pieces featuring the instrument, and those turned out to be the last chamber music pieces he ever wrote.

In the decades that followed, the big concert halls that were built and the increasing capability of acoustic instruments to produce stronger sounds pushed the soft-sounding armonica to the dark corners of history, where it mostly remained quiet, collecting dust. Two centuries passed, and then German composer Jörg Widmann was asked to write an homage piece to Mozart to be performed on January 27th 2007—Mozart’s 251st Birthday. Widmann chose an original way of doing so. He used his own musical language to commemorate the instrument for which Mozart wrote his last chamber music piece.

An armonica in an orchestra is like someone who goes to a party alone without knowing anyone there.  In order to help the armonica feel more comfortable in its new surrounding, Widmann adds a couple more friends: the accordion and the water gong. Although these don’t often get invited to most orchestra parties either, they are more common instruments than the armonica, and are both connected to the armonica. This enables them to serve as a bridge between the armonica and the rest of the orchestra.

The upper register of the accordion sounds very similar to the armonica. But whereas the armonica’s sound is glassy and somewhat cold, the accordion is softer and warm. The water gong is a bronze drum hung over a small tub filled with water. After hitting it, the player lowers the drum into the tub. As the drum takes a dip, its pitch changes. The use of the water gong is a clear reference to the armonica and the musical wine glasses, which are both played with moistened fingers.

One of the unique characteristics of the armonica is the delay in its sound production, like seeing the light of a star that died millions of years ago. Everything that happens in Widmann’s piece derives from this idea of delayed sound. The orchestra here is an extension of the armonica. The armonica sets things in motion, and the orchestra takes them further, as if trying to stretch the instrument’s abilities. Like the armonica, with its sound constantly fading in and out, the orchestra performs a series of crescendos and diminuendos. It begins with mere breathing—first by the accordion, whose bellows go in and out without making a sound, just air. Then, the breathing becomes vocal. The instrumentation grows with each crescendo-diminuendo pattern, like a stream of water that gradually thickens, increasing its erosion and velocity. The orchestra reaches a huge climax when all the instruments play a few loud, repeated chords.

But the real climax, the emotional one, comes toward the end of the piece, when the armonica becomes soft singing. Literally. The human voice was always the object of envy for instruments. When we learn to play an instrument, our teacher regularly implores us: “sing!” In the score of their instrumental pieces, composers often write cantabile, songful. In a hair-raising moment, as a final effort of stretching the boundaries, Wildmann asks the armonica player to sing while still playing, making it sound as if the singing is coming out of the instrument. Like spinning straw into gold, the sound of the armonica turns into a human voice.

Wildmann’s Armonica has a ghostly feel to it in part because of the nature of the instruments, but also because of the extensive use of the octanonic scale—alternating intervals of a whole step and a half step. Composers used the octatonic scale often in order to create a supernatural atmosphere. Listening to the piece, you might very well feel as if you are conjuring ghosts, perhaps those of Benjamin Franklin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, trying out the armonica for the first time.

To listen to Widmann's Armonica click here

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Embracing the World--Andrew Norman's Play

In 1907, shortly before leaving for the US to take over the position of principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, Gustav Mahler travelled to Finland to conduct a concert. In Helsinki, he met with another great 20th-century composer, the Finnish national hero Jean Sibelius. As they strolled together, they discussed the future of the symphony. Sibelius stressed the importance of structural severity. Mahler disagreed: “No, the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”

I recalled Mahler’s words while listening to Andrew Norman’s Play, a 47-minute piece in three movements, which creates a holistic symphonic world that embraces everything. Play wrings the maximum possibilities out of the orchestra. Written for a standard 19th-century size orchestra with the addition of a big percussion section, it calls for extended special playing techniques, from “machine gun stutter” sounds in the strings, through flipping the mouthpiece around to create a buzzing sound in the brass, to swiping a credit card against the strings of the piano. The use of unusual playing techniques and extra musical accessories are not unfamiliar ingredients in contemporary music. However, Norman’s precision in employing these ingredients and the new combinations he makes with them create innovative and delicious tastes. Like an obsessive compulsive cleaner, the composer’s indications are extremely clear and accurate. I can only imagine the amount of time Norman invested in putting down each instruction in order to achieve the realization of his imagination. He even instructs individual players when to turn their page.

And the orchestra sounds like never before. Bold, impulsive, fresh. I have already dedicated a post to one of Norman’s earlier orchestral pieces, Sacred Geometry. However, listening to Play was such a striking experience—like visiting a foreign country for the first time—that I had to share it too.

Norman derives inspiration from the different meanings of the word “play”: music playing, theatrical play, playing a game, as well as the negative connotation of playing someone. The titles of the three movements of the piece—which can each stand on its own and be performed separately—are Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3, like in a video game.

Level 1

The opening of the piece sounds like a scratched record that is being played backwards by a possessed DJ. The music is frenzied, repeats itself, goes back and forth and starts over from different places of different passages. Before too long, the main motif of the piece appears: scales that are moving in different directions at the same time.  

The coda, which comprises the last two and a half minutes of Level 1, is breathtaking. We don’t get the final product immediately, but rather watch it being created in front of our eyes. Different spices are tossed into the pot. Fragments of earlier parts of the piece, like shards of a memory, are added one by one. At first, you feel puzzled and unsure about the result. But slowly, the fragrances begin to intoxicate you. Individual brass instruments make a fast crescendo on a single note until it’s abruptly stopped, like someone suddenly yanked the cord out of the outlet. Brisk string arpeggios flicker capriciously. The main motif of the piece (scales going up and down) returns. A new rhythm—dotted and unstable—materializes, perhaps an homage to John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine. An epic melody in the brass emerges, reminiscent of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. The effect is mesmerizing. It feels as though everything has fallen back into place, as though you are looking back on your own life, contemplating your successes, failures, achievements, and disappointments, and you suddenly realize why they had to happen.

Level 2

The first half of Level 2 unfolds soft chords played in harmonics by the strings. They appear and disappear over and over again, like the musical equivalent of breathing. A most touching moment occurs when the harmonics (the overtones that are produced by lightly touching the string rather than pressing it down) become real tones. It’s a feeling of relief, of coming back to life.

The second half of Level 2 is a duet between two percussionists playing slapsticks and bass drums. The effect is startling. I was listening to the piece at 2 am and jumped in my seat when the first blast occurred.

The piece ends with a theatrical display of page turning. Each stand of the string section is instructed when to turn the page, followed by the winds and percussion. American composer John Cage has a famous piece called 4’33, named after the length of the piece. A pianist sits at the piano and doesn’t play a single note for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The idea is that everything is music: the sound of breathing, an audience member clearing his throat, the squeaking of a chair, the hiss of the air conditioner. Norman pays clear tribute to Cage by making the trivial act of turning the pages an essential part of the music.

“I wish you all could see Play performed live,” writes Norman in the booklet of the CD, referring to the theatrical meaning of the word “Play” that he implements in his piece.

Level 3

When I was a kid, my friend and I used to play a game where we would choose two random words and transform one to the other by repeating one of them many times, while slightly altering it with each time. To make things challenging, the two words had to be very different in sound and length. For example, a long word like “encyclopedia” had to be converted into the one-syllable word, “fish.” We would repeat the word “encyclopedia” numerous times, while gradually and unnoticeably distort our pronunciation until, surprisingly, the word smoothly mutated into “fish.” Looking back on this somewhat peculiar game, I’d like to say that, as aspiring young musicians, we were fascinated by sounds—including the sounds of words. But I think the truth is that we were simply a bit bored, and for some reason this game made us laugh.

In any event, Level 3 of Play is kind of like this game. It begins with the trombone player blowing air into the instrument with no sound. It is followed by quick, restless answers from the strings. Like an improvisation game, the different groups of the orchestra are having a lighthearted musical chat. Hesitant in the beginning, the music slowly gains confidence, rhythms and harmonies are formed and phrases are created. As time passes by, the different musical elements change their appearance and character, slowly morphing from “encyclopedia” to “fish.”

Play “embraces the world” because it’s full of contradictions, and yet it makes sense. It’s eclectic, drawing ideas from the great pieces and composers of the past, but has its own unique voice. It encompasses sounds, noises, and theatrical gestures, but for Norman, it’s really about the people who are making them, the musicians of the orchestra.

To listen to the piece, go to this link, and hit Play.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Defying Gravity - About Thomas Adès' Traced Overhead

To me, the most fascinating thing about Traced Overhead is that it makes the piano sound like a new instrument. There are no special effects such as playing inside the piano, nor there are prepared-piano accessories like screws or clothespins. And yet, it sounds different. The piano is the easiest instrument to produce sound from—all you have to do is press the keys. Anyone can do it, even a cat promenading on the keyboard, or a dog leaning on it with its paws (see recent popular YouTube videos). On the other hand, it is a limited instrument. It cannot sustain sound, there is no possibility for expressive effects such as vibrato, and its sound character is extremely homogenous and therefore can often sound dull.

Composer Thomas Adès challenges these constraints.  He looks for new possibilities of creating unfamiliar textures and sounds, and floods the score with instructions about tempo, dynamics—the performer is often asked to play several chords simultaneously with different dynamics for each one—and even the amount of pedal use in every moment (quarter-pedal, third-pedal, half-pedal, full pedal, or no pedal at all). The harmonic language is also unique. It combines severe renaissance counterpoint rules, 19th-century chord progressions, and 20th-century spices. Like putting old photo slides one on top of another, memories from different periods of life—a new picture is created. It is a stunning example of how the small details create the big picture; how extreme specificity creates an illusion of ambiguity.

In the beginning of the piece, the composer throws a fast arpeggio up in the air and watches it slowly descend, submitting to gravity, like a balloon losing its air. The names of the two first movements, as well as the title of the piece, evoke associations of “upwards.” Traced Overhead is a title that invites you to look up. The first movement—less than a minute long—is called “Sursum.” It comes from a part of the Christian Mass that begins with “Sursum Corda,” meaning “lift up your hearts.” The second movement is called “Aetheria”—Latin for sky, upper air, or ethereal. Longer than its predecessor, this movement is comprised of capricious music that quickly shifts between different ideas, like electric pulses in the brain during a dream. While these titles all suggest ascending, the piece is really about what happens after the rise—when gravity begins to run its course.

The heart of the piece is the last movement, called “Chori”—Choruses in English. It is the longest one, and it opens with three different chorales, like three choirs that sing different songs in different places of the cathedral at the same time. An ornament precedes each chord, creating a sound like wind chimes. The chords conflict with each other and create dissonances, musical clashes, aching and pleasing at the same time, like beauty that hurts the eye. When most piano music is normally written in two staves (one for each hand), here the score opens up to four, and later to six. The pianist has to constantly jump between registers and exchange hands for the different voices. This creates an illusion that the music is being played by more than one pianist—a technique commonly used by Mendelssohn—and adds to the distinct sonority of the piece.

The music wraps-up with an arpeggio à la Chopin, morphing unexpectedly from one harmony to another, until it disappears somewhere in the low keys of the piano. It invokes the very first arpeggio that opened the piece, now saying its farewell. What goes up must come down.

To listen to Traced Overhead click here

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Chaos and Order - Hans Abrahamsen's Piano Concerto

When you listen to the second movement of Hans Abrahamsen’s Piano Concerto, you slowly begin to lose track of time. The first part of the movement features a piano solo, which consists of chords and intervals played one after the other. After a while you realize that the music is not just about the different pitches that are being played, but also about the way they decay. Your ears follow each chord or couple of notes as they slowly move in space. Like a human being, the sound changes and evolves with time. It goes slightly up, then a little down, alters its appearance and character, until it slowly disappears.

With a wind or string instrument, the musician can increase the volume of a note as it is played. On the piano, however, it is physically impossible to create a crescendo during a single note; the note starts fading as soon as it is born. But a fantastic moment occurs in the piece that challenges this limitation: the orchestra suddenly sneaks in and merges into one of those piano notes, saving it from perishing. As the piano plays the next note, and the one after that, the orchestra crescendos into each one of them—like beams of light that come out of the keyboard—and in a way overcomes the laws of physics.

Abrahamsen’s music contains multiple musical layers that exist at the same time, like ancient cities buried in the same ground, accumulating one on top of the other for thousands of years. In other words, when you first listen to the piece, it sounds like a complete mess. It takes several listenings to peel back each layer and discover what’s underneath. The beauty is that you hear something new each time. In the fast, middle part of the movement, I could hear dream fragments of Shostakovich’s 1st Piano Concerto, some Rachmaninoff, and the opening of Mahler’s 5th Symphony, all played in a distorted way, one on top of the next.

The first movement starts in chaos, spinning molecules in space that look for order. This short movement lasts less than two minutes and holds the essence of the whole piece. In order to deal with the chaotic world that we live in, we constantly look for order. To that end, we invented calendars and planners. We follow our dreams and desires, and we’re also influenced by societal pressures, as well as expectations that the people in our life have for us. We make a plan for our lives, but most often, life has something else in mind. Douglas Adams said, “I never get to where I want to be, but I always get to where I need to be.” Abrahamsen’s short Piano Concerto is like that. It searches for meaning in the turmoil of blackness. It ignites processes and sends ideas out into the world. In the beginning of the fourth movement, the piano plays an ornate passage, which is beautifully taken over by the clarinets and the rest of the orchestra. Once these ideas are out there, they develop and take on a life of their own. In the end, the Concerto reaches a sense of acceptance and peace of mind.

To listen to Hans Abrahamsen's Piano Concerto, click here

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Somei Satoh - Violin Concerto

Somei Satoh’s Violin Concerto is different than any other piece of music I have ever heard. It is music that is “becoming”—a term coined by pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. Several pieces in the classical repertoire are similar to this in their beginning, taking some time to form their identity before declaring their argument. Bruckner’s 4th Symphony is a good example. It does not start with a clear statement right away, but lets the music take form and—“become.” The opening of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances is like that too. The difference between these and Satoh’s music is that the latter is constantly becoming. It’s similar to how life can feel on occasion. Sometimes, you feel that you’re waiting for something to happen, some sort of event that will change everything so you can finally start living the life that you’ve been imagining for yourself. Until you realize that this is life. Life is not what you are waiting for, but rather what is happening now. Satoh’s Violin Concerto is like that. The music slowly unfolds; prolonged chords change very gradually—like the appearance of the sky at different times of the day—and a sense of infinity is created.

The piece reflects Satoh's identity in its infusion of western instruments, 19th- and 20th-century harmonies, and an old European genre—the concerto—with traditional Japanese percussion instruments. The concerto is my favorite classical music genre, because it is about relationships—a subject that we are all concerned with. In the case of a concerto, the relationship is between the solo and the orchestra. Like in every relationship, the solo and the orchestra can sometimes get into a musical fight, have a discussion, tease each other, or complete each other’s sentences. A concerto is also a piece that aims to highlight the soloist and show off his or her musical and technical skills. However, Satoh’s piece is non-virtuosic, utterly lyrical, and the solo and orchestra are in almost constant agreement. It is the opposite of what you would expect from a normal violin concerto.

Shinto Shrine
In his music, Satoh incorporates philosophical ideas from Shinto, the largest religion in Japan. Shinto promotes a doctrine of acceptance. When a child is born in Japan, he or she is automatically added to a list kept in the Shinto shrine—not as a form of religious imposition, but as a welcome greeting. Shinto does not differentiate between the natural and the supernatural; neither does it dismiss beliefs of other religions simply because they are different. God, or multiple spirits—“Kami” in Shinto—can take the form of humans, animals, trees, places, energies, and universal forces. Shinto is known as the religion of “eternal present,” a beautiful paradox in which the past flows into the present and into the future; where the present embodies the past and future and cannot exist without them. This concept of simultaneously embracing seemingly contradictory periods in time (past, present, and future) also applies to Satoh's music.

"The Profile of Time"
inspired by Salvador Dali's 1931 painting "The Persistence of Memory" 
©Stephen Dawson
Still time, an impossible physical phenomenon, can only exist in art. Time stands still in paintings, statues, or photos. The exceptions are film and music, which are dependent on time. Like film, music requires movement, and therefore cannot live without time. Music is born when a bow is drawn against a string, when air is blown into a pipe, or when a hand hits a drum. When the movement stops, the music vanishes with it, and all that is left is a memory and a feeling that the music evoked in us. In Satoh’s Concerto, however, there is an illusion that time stands still. The music starts with a slow, steady pulse, like the first heartbeats of a baby in its mother’s womb. This rhythm, lasting for a little over than five minutes, is hypnotizing. The music, meditative, mostly quiet and slow, also involves many moments of silence. For Satoh, silence is not the absence of music, but a part of it. In an almost magical way, Satoh manages to create the sensation that the silence itself is vibrating before taking the form of sound.

As you submerge into Satoh’s world, the heartbeat appears again at the end. It looks back to the beginning and recollects the path that the music has taken us through. But at the same time it has its own presence and meaning as it leads us to the end of the piece, simultaneously embracing past, present, and future.

To listen to Somei Satoh's Violin Concerto click here

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Guillaume Connesson - Techno-Parade

Except for a few visits to nightclubs during my teen years—when I was mostly yearning for the night to end as soon as possible—and hearing the occasional car pass by with blaring speakers and a driver aspiring to spread the word of techno music to the masses, I’ve rarely listened to techno. To be honest, I was never particularly interested in it. But this week, I stumbled upon a piece written for flute, clarinet and piano that aroused my curiosity.

Originally, what appealed to techno artists was the possibility of making all of the music by themselves. Techno removed the need for real players; the artist could produce all of the sound independently, with just a machine. Techno-Parade creates a fascinating phenomenon by taking this concept—machines imitating acoustic instruments—and reversing it. In the most innovative and creative moment of the piece, the pianist is asked to put sheets of paper on top of the piano strings and rub a brush against them while playing. This move produces an amazing effect: the piano suddenly sounds like a digital sampling of its own self. An acoustic instrument is now imitating a machine, whose original purpose was to imitate an acoustic instrument. I know, very meta!

The charm of Techno-Parade comes from integrating techno with contemporary classical and jazz music. After a short introduction and a lush piano glissando, the music moves into irresistible, repeated rhythmic patterns written in 7/8 meter. These patterns appear a few times throughout the piece. In jazz they are called riffs and are sometimes used as bed for improvisations. While practically all techno music is written in a steady 4/4 meter—making it easy to dance to—Techno-Parade changes meter constantly and unpredictably, building excitement and surprise.

Techno music was born in the nightclubs of Detroit, Michigan, in the 1980s. Some say that techno was inspired by the noises and rhythms of the factories that make up Detroit’s famous auto industry, but others dismiss that as a legend. In any case, great classical composers such as Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner, were constantly looking for ways to improve and develop the abilities of different instruments. With the overwhelmingly rapid development of technology in the 20th century, composers started looking for ways to incorporate technology in music. And it was only a matter of time before technology would be used in popular dance music too.

I’ve listened to Techno-Parade many times in the past few days, because I enjoy it so much. But it’s not just the pleasure of listening to it that makes Techno-Parade—out of all the new pieces I listened to this week (recall that I am listening to at least one new piece each day for this project!)—such a standout. I’m excited because it has opened a small door for me into the world of techno music, a genre I had previously overlooked. And if your experience with nightclubs and techno is similar to mine, there’s a chance that Techno-Parade will do the same for you.

Out of all I’ve learned about techno this week, there is one thing in particular that I found especially inspiring, which has really made me think about techno in a new way. It is a quote from a Detroit based techno producer named Carl Craig. He said: “since we’re dealing with machines, it’s important that we put some of ourselves into the music. And by ‘ourselves,’ I’m not just meaning note values. I’m meaning spirit; I’m meaning heart. I’m talking about that little ‘oomph’ that’s needed to go into it to make it powerful; to make it me.”

Listen to Guillaume Connesson's Techno-Parade here.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Brian Elias' Pythikos Nomos

As I was listening to Brian Elias’ Pythikos Nomos, I tried to understand why I liked the piece so much. After all, it opens with harsh chords played by the piano and saxophone that sound like arbitrary banging. An ambiguous dialogue between the instruments follows, and then a crazy dance-like part with more rough piano chords and squeaking saxophone sounds at the extreme end of the instrument’s range. And yet, when I finished listening to it, I immediately wanted to go back and hear it again. And each time I listened to it, I liked it more and found new things in it.

So why, indeed, did I like this strange piece so much?

First of all, I loved the ending. It is surprising, unusual, and breathtaking (literally breathtaking, as I found out later). Secondly, there is coherence in the musical language. In other words, although quirky and bizarre, the piece has its own unique sound world. These are not just random chords and passages; they are a result of strict harmonic rules that the composer set for himself. And although the musical language is odd, I found myself enchanted by it. Finally, the piece has perfect timing. You can sense that nothing is too long or too short—everything happens exactly at the right time. I find that this is a critical condition for a great piece. 

Pythikos Nomos was inspired by another musical piece with the same name that was written in 586 BC by a Greek composer named Sakadas of Argos. At that time, in addition to the Olympic Games, there were a few other Panhellenic sport festivals occurring regularly in Ancient Greece. One of them was the Pythian Games that were unique for hosting art and dance competitions in addition to the athletic ones. Legend says that the Pythian Games were created by the god Apollo to commemorate his stunning victory over the enormous Python that had terrorized all humans. In honor of Apollo’s triumph, Sakadas wrote a musical piece for the Pythian Games’ music competition, and he was declared the winner. Sakadas’ piece is considered to be the first evidence of programmatic music (music that tells a story). The piece itself did not survive, and we only know some theoretical information about it, such as its form that contained five different sections.

Brian Elias’ Pythikos Nomos, written for alto saxophone and piano, was inspired by the story of Sakadas’ piece and adheres to its form of five sections. In the opening section, Apollo examines the surface of the land to see if it is suitable for battle and then incites the serpent to fight. Like a snake, the music slithers around the note B-flat, gets closer, goes farther, and comes back to it. The battle then erupts, and the music becomes a funky, violent dance. Although the harmonies are harsh, the music is exciting because of its groovy rhythms and the high pitches of the saxophone, which sounds almost like a klezmer clarinet. 

The focal point of the piece is the victory hymn of Apollo. Surprisingly, it is a poignant, melancholic hymn, as if Apollo is mourning for the animal. The saxophone plays so nasally that it almost sounds like an aulos—an ancient Greek wind instrument with two connected pipes, on which Sakadas originally performed his piece in the competition back in the 6th century BC. (You can listen to the aulos here.)

The final part represents “the last breaths of the dying monster.” The saxophone plays the same descending scale a few times, each time softer and softer, until all you can hear are the keys of the instrument being pressed down. But that’s not the end yet. The musician then plays “flutter tongue” into the instrument without pressing the keys, creating the effect of the serpent’s death rattle. Flutter tongue is a special technique in which the performers flutter their tongues, kind of like rolling your ‘r’, which gives a unique “Frrrr” sound. Flutter tonguing is not an unusual technique, but in this particular case, the effect is striking.

I first heard about Brian Elias from violinist Sasha Pavlovsky, member of the Jerusalem String Quartet, while running into him in a small, old café in Jerusalem last month. As we were catching up, Sasha told me that Elias had been working on a new piece for the Quartet. “He takes a lot of time,” Sasha said, “because he really labors on each and every note.”

Listen to Brian Elias' Pythikos Nomos here

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Andrew Norman's Sacred Geometry

The Chartres Cathedral
I was drawn into Sacred Geometry from the very first note: mysterious, scary, low contrabassoon sounds move slowly, like old, enormous cracking doors, followed by a quick run that evolves into a loud clash of brass and percussion, bells and echoes, expressive and impressive harmonies. I imagined the heavy doors of the Chartres Cathedral opening before me, and I was suddenly standing inside and looking in awe at its arches, statues and ornaments. Andrew Norman got the inspiration for his piece when he came across a book in the library called Gothic Cathedrals and Sacred Geometry by George Lesser. Lesser devoted the third volume of the book to the study of the Chartres Cathedral, the gothic medieval French cathedral which is located about an hour drive southwest of Paris.

Whether you are religious or not, there is something spiritual about the experience of walking into a cathedral and feeling how small you are in comparison to the building, and how small you are in comparison to nature. I love walking around inside cathedrals, because sometimes the magnitude of the space makes you also look inside yourself. In Norman’s piece, those moments of introspection come in a meditative middle section, where the string instruments are playing harmonics – a special technique in which the player touches the string lightly (instead of pressing it down the whole way) and therefore evokes the overtones of the basic note and creates a sound of a high whistle. Slowly, a melody develops and the music becomes rich and songful, somewhat sorrowful, as it is played by multiple instruments. The interesting thing is that instead of playing exactly together, the different instruments are playing in a slight retard, like a small canon. It creates an impression of a singing congregation, where a few people are a little behind (this happens a lot in synagogues actually).

From Lesser's book
"Gothic Cathedrals and Sacred Geometry"
plan of the Chartres Cathedral
After listening to Norman’s piece, I went to the library and got Lesser’s book. As I was flipping through the pages, I found this beautiful description of the Chartres Cathedral, explaining that its beauty comes from its imperfections and what it’s been through over the years: “The west front of Chartres Cathedral is not of a flawless classical beauty like that of Notre Dame of Paris, nor does it proclaim… the triumph of one master mind whose design was adhered to by consecutive generations. It betrays five building periods; five times either a new start was made, or loose threads had to be taken up. Yet it is, despite all its incongruities, perhaps the most breathtaking face of all the Gothic churches that have remained to us.”

Listen to Andrew Norman's Sacred Geometry here.