12 things about me (musically)

When you’re as rusty on the blog as I am, you don’t say no to a meme when it drops into your lap. Thanks to Eileen Huang, fellow TFCer and collaborative pianist, for the tag.

  1. First instrument: piano. Thanks, Mom, for the instruction.
  2. Age at first music lesson: Five, I think.
  3. First piece performed in public: I can’t remember any of the piano ones, so we’ll go with my solo vocal debut, a retrospectively cringe-inducing version of Sting’s “Sister Moon” with saxophone accompaniment at the Virginia Governor’s School for the Sciences talent show in 1989.
  4. Piece most recently performed in public: A slightly odd John Jacob Niles arrangement of “Wayfaring Stranger.”
  5. Band camp: Nope. Not even orchestra camp.
  6. Marching band: With a violin?
  7. College a cappella? Undergrad, no; not for lack of trying. Grad school: yes, though we weren’t very good, not for lack of trying.
  8. Absolute pitch: no.
  9. Movable do or fixed do: Fixed, I suppose, though I never gave it much thought.
  10. Faux pas: At the same Governor’s School talent show, forgot all the words to Weird Al’s “One More Minute.” My collaborator slapped me to try to restore my memory. It only ensured that I could never remember the words ever again.
  11. Favorite conductor hair: Jimmy Levine, of course.
  12. I wish I could play: any instrument these days. Happy I can still sing.

Anyone want a tag to continue the meme?

RIP, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki

One of the great composers of the late 20th century passed away today. Like many others, I discovered Górecki’s music through his Symphony No. 3, and turned quite a few other people on to him the same way. I will always remember an afternoon in late spring 1994, a few weeks before I graduated from the University of Virginia, sitting in the middle of the Lawn across from the open door of my room, listening to Dawn Upshaw’s voice at maximum volume with Craig Fennell and Diane Workman and deciding that this Polish composer had a lot to say.

I went on to sing a few of his works, particularly as part of a concert of 20th century choral music with the Cathedral Choral Society, but also during a program with the Cascadian Chorale. As a singer, it was fascinating how so few notes, so few suspensions, could carry so much emotional content and be so impossibly challenging to sing.

As I write this, Górecki’s “Amen” just came up on my iPhone, as if to say: as with all composers, what’s important is still with us.

Other obituaries: The Rambler.

Grab bag: Seduction of the innocent edition

More MacMillan

There’s a fair bit of chatter about the MacMillan St. John Passion, so I thought I’d do a quick roundup. I’ll lead off with three other TFC bloggers, two of whom I’ve already linked, then include a few other notes.

  • Tenore (Len): Free tickets available. Len writes, “While some of it is tonally challenging and a bitch to sing, most of it is quite melodic and beautiful.” Which of course drew a comment from the composer (seriously).
  • Angelina Calderón: From the depths of Symphony Hall. Angelina writes a little about the rehearsal process.
  • Jeff, aka Just Another Bass, has a set of great articles about the process and the piece.

Then there’s all the other writings, some of which stem from the piece’s first round of performances, others are more contemporary:

  • The Guardian, James MacMillan charts the progress of his latest composition The Passion. Interesting diary in progress of the work. My favorite bit from the article: “The scene where Jesus is brought before Pilate is the work’s biggest movement. It’s pure drama. This is the first point where I’ve wondered if I need more soloists. Instead, I’ve decided to give the role of Pilate to the basses. His music has a particular colour – a desiccated, dry clicking sound, col legno strings, temple blocks with low bassoons and parping trombones. It’s a challenge to write this music for chorus rather than soloists; I’m trying to write what I feel the part needs while making sure it’s still manageable for an amateur chorus. I’ve just written a tricky F sharp up to F natural interval for the basses – the music has to prepare and help them in some way, so I’ve outlined the interval in the timpani which sets up a kind of context so they can feel more relaxed about it. They’ll still scream when they first see it, I’m sure.” (For what it’s worth, the TFC basses are doing just fine with the part.)
  • The Jewish Daily, Forward: MacMillan and strife: a new ‘St. John Passion.’ The article calls out the orchestration and the inclusion of the Reproaches text in leveling a charge of antisemitism against the work.
  • Boston Globe, An act of ‘Passion’. Good introduction to the piece for American audiences, including the perspective of Sir Colin Davis, our conductor for the run.

New mix: september grrls

My latest mix, “september grrls,” did not start out to be (almost) all women artists, but it ended up that way. After strong releases this year from Shannon Worrell, PJ Harvey, Neko Case, and others, plus Kim Gordon’s contributions to the latest Sonic Youth… well, I couldn’t resist. Add to that a few songs that have been kicking around my library forever, waiting for a home, and you’ve got yourself a mix.

  1. This Is What You DoGemma Hayes (Hollow of Morning)
  2. Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)Kate Bush (Hounds of Love)
  3. Black Hearted LovePJ Harvey & John Parish (A Woman a Man Walked By)
  4. IamundernodisguiseSchool of Seven Bells (Alpinisms)
  5. Song To BobbyCat Power (Jukebox)
  6. JerichoGreta Gaines (Greta Gaines)
  7. Lake Charles BoogieNellie Lutcher (Oxford American 2003 Southern Music CD No. 6)
  8. If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me)The Staple Singers (The Stax Story: Finger-Snappin’ Good [Disc 3])
  9. When the Other Foot Drops, UncleSharon Jones & The Dap-Kings (100 Days, 100 Nights)
  10. Diamond HeartMarissa Nadler (Songs III: Bird On the Water)
  11. If I Can Make You CryShannon Worrell (The Honey Guide)
  12. For Today I Am A BoyAntony and the Johnsons (I Am A Bird Now)
  13. Massage the HistorySonic Youth (The Eternal)
  14. Crater LakeLiz Phair (Whip-Smart)
  15. I’m an AnimalNeko Case (Middle Cyclone (Bonus Track Version))
  16. Who Is It (Carry My Joy On the Left, Carry My Pain On the Right)Björk (Medulla)
  17. The Way I Am (Recorded Live on WERS)Ingrid Michaelson (Be OK)
  18. Sweet Like YouShannon Worrell (The Honey Guide)
  19. At Constant SpeedGemma Hayes (Hollow of Morning)
  20. September GurlsBig Star (#1 Record – Radio City)

Friday listen: In My Tribe, 10,000 Maniacs

I wrote a long time ago about getting my Denon DP-45F turntable fixed up, and shortly thereafter hinted that I was about to start ripping my records en masse. Then… well, life intruded. I ripped some Beowulf, early and not-so-early Virginia Glee Club records, and not a whole lot else.

Why? A few reasons. First, time. Where ripping a CD can be done in much less than the time to listen to it, and in the comfort of an armchair, an LP requires at least as much time to rip as to listen to it. Then there’s taking the file, leveling it, splitting the tracks, importing them to iTunes, and then (because of a bug in Amadeus Pro’s lossless AAC files) reimporting them as AAC. So for one record, it takes the evening. And one unsuccessful rip–there was a lot of surface noise on my copy of Peter Gabriel II–put me off the project for a good long while.

And now? I finally got around to ripping my vinyl of 10,000 Maniacs’ early hit In My Tribe, and it was a revelation. The sound from the ripped vinyl was superb, and the music was superb…er. The opening chords of “What’s the Matter Here” were as gripping as the lyrics are depressing; “Hey Jack Kerouac” and “Like the Weather” were similarly moving and dynamic. Listening to the record took me back to when R.E.M. played a lot of 12 string and when indie meant Guadalcanal Diary and the Connells. The second half of the record lags a bit, but the final song, the unpromisingly named “Verdi Cries,” was moving and insightful.

In these recessionary times, there’s something to be said for rediscovering music through vinyl instead of paying to download it again. Even if it takes an evening to get the music on one’s iPod.

The crack in the world

Three things entwine for me this morning: the beginning of the Christmas season, the 100th birthday of Olivier Messiaen, and the crack in the wall of Old South Church.

I spent Monday night and Tuesday morning in rehearsals for the upcoming Boston Pops holiday concerts at Symphony Hall (my performance schedule: 12/12 4 PM and 8 PM; 12/14 7 PM; 12/20 11 AM and 3 PM; 12/23 8 PM; 12/27 8 PM), marinating in the secular version of the holiday. It’s always a colorful but thin broth: reindeer and snowmen, with the occasional “Hallelujah Chorus” bobbing by to provide sustinance. This season we add a new arrangement of music from “Polar Express,” the culmination of which is a pop ballad exhorting us to “believe.” In what, it’s not quite clear: the train? Santa Claus?

Last week, a crack was found in the wall of Old South Church, a long standing Boston institution that is quite clear about what it believes and is growing as it continues to celebrate the inclusion of all God’s children, not just the straight ones, in God’s kingdom. The crack, potentially a disaster for the church, has been made an opportunity for reflection on the potential for cracks in any institution or relationship and for thanksgiving for the wisdom of the church’s leadership in ensuring that the MBTA and their contractor, not the church’s insurance, must pay in the event of damage. And yet, there it stands, an irrefutable proof of movements deep below that may at any moment cause a fundamental shift in our world.

That shift, that crack in time, is what pulses through the best of Messiaen’s work, his pieces for solo organ (Le banquet céleste, Apparition de l’église éternelle, L’Ascension, La Nativité du Seigneur, Livre du Saint Sacrement) and a solitary choral motet O sacrum convivium! For Messiaen Christmas is something entirely different: a meditation, an epiphany, on a fundamental shift in the world. Hearing Messiaen in a candlelit sanctuary awaiting an 11 PM Christmas Eve service, the apparition of the eternal church sinking into my blood and bones as the organ opened the doors to the miracle: a transformation out of history that continues to transform us two thousand years later.

(Update: As always, Nancy Taylor’s sermon the Sunday after the discovery of the crack is insightful, and echoes some of my own thoughts in a more coherent manner.)

New mix: Funky President

  1. James Brown, “Funky President (People It’s Bad)”
  2. William S. Burroughs, “When Did I Stop Wanting to Be President”
  3. The Cure, “Primary (Morgan Studio Outtake 9/80)”
  4. Max Roach, “Freedom Now”
  5. Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come”
  6. Virginia Glee Club, “I shall not die without a hope” (Testament of Freedom)
  7. Jay-Z and Danger Mouse, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”
  8. Youssou N’Dour, “Hope”
  9. Branford Marsalis, “Freedom Suite: Interlude”
  10. The Flaming Lips, “Suddenly Everything Has Changed”
  11. Arcadia, “Election Day”
  12. Extra Golden, “Obama (Live, KEXP)”
  13. Funkadelic, “One Nation Under a Groove”
  14. Bob Dylan, “Things Have Changed”
  15. Parliament, “Chocolate City”
  16. Lou Reed, “Voices of Freedom”
  17. Miles Davis, “Freedom Jazz Dance”

Beethoven 9th rehearsal: snapping back heads

Yesterday was our “day off” between the Mass in C performance on Friday night and today’s 9th Symphony performance. Of course, the “day off” included the morning’s orchestra dress rehearsal of the 9th, which was a treat to be a part of. We had the best seat in the house to watch guest conductor Christoph von Dohnányi (with whom I previously sang Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex) rehearse the first three movements. He’s a painstaking conductor, stopping in the middle of an open dress rehearsal to synchronize presto string entrances in several places.

The fourth movement was a lot of fun to sing. It was sometime around 12:30 when we hit the big fugue in which the tenors enter on a fortissimo high A, so I was finally in voice (when the rehearsal began with warmups at 9:30, I didn’t have much above an E), and I saw quite a few heads in the crowd bounce in shock when we nailed the note. It should be fun this afternoon.

Isaac Hayes, RIP

I was two or three years out of college when I first listened to Isaac Hayes seriously. I had picked up Shaft in college but, aside from the title track, it didn’t speak to me. I mean, flutes? Really? I just couldn’t get past the instrumentation. I knew there was something funky there but it wasn’t finding me.

And then I picked up, for some unknown reason, the soundtrack to Stealing Beauty, which leads off with Hoover’s (later Hooverphonic’s) “2 Wicky.” I was never a big Hooverphonic fan, but “2 Wicky” set off all kinds of bells in my head, primarily because of the opening, which I knew had to be sampled from somewhere. I did some digging and found it had come from the lead off track on Isaac Hayes’s Hot Buttered Soul, an album I had always assumed was a goof like Shaft. But I was hooked on that opening guitar + backing vox riff, so I picked up Hot Buttered Soul.

And I couldn’t put it down.

That weekend I was driving around Raleigh, North Carolina, with some college friends–we were there for a wedding–and I couldn’t pull the disc out of my car player. I must have played “Walk On By” and “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” about a hundred times that weekend. The album was so over the top, so drenched in drama and sound, but somehow it touched the same funky center, breathed the same groove, as the Parliament and James Brown that I had been marinating in for the previous four or five years. And it reached deeper than those cuts in some ways–Hayes projected a pain and vulnerability that you’d never hear from the Godfather of Soul.

I was smacked sideways when I heard yesterday about Isaac Hayes’s death. It seems like someone who touched the human condition so deeply shouldn’t be allowed to go so quickly.

Short weeks

… are the fun weeks, aren’t they? I feel like I’m up to my eyeballs in work and yet the week just started.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • I’m within striking distance of reaching zero unlistened to tracks in my iTunes library, after almost two years of dedicated listening to ensure that I listened to every track in the library at least once. As of the end of the Great CD Ripping Project that was around 20,000 tracks; it’s a bit more now. I’ve got it down to fewer than 500 tracks that haven’t been listened to at least once.
  • I’m starting to like this theme; think I’ll stick with it a while longer. If I get bored I’ll always switch it to Stripped.

Audiophile quality music download club

Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld Studios have teamed up with Bowers & Wilkins (B&W speakers) to bring an online music club targeted at audiophiles. It’s not really a store, because the service offers only subscription pricing and the content is exclusive–up and coming musicians recording at RealWorld. The B&W Music Club is part of a set of B&W content offerings, including a blog and an article series on the industry. The intention appears to be to start conversations about bringing high fidelity audio back into the picture, after “audiophile” concerns have been pushed to the side for a few years by the prominence of MP3. It’s a smart marketing strategy for B&W, of course, who have their fingers in both the traditional high-end speaker market and the iPod accessory field; they have a strong interest in making sure that music listeners find out that uncompressed audio through premium speakers sounds much, much better than MP3s through earbuds. This is a classic market education play, in other words, and one that (presumably) has the benefit of sounding really good.

I would appear to be in the target market for this announcement; my primary home listening speakers are B&W bookshelf units (Series DM602s), and when I rip audio rather than purchasing it online, I rip losslessly to Apple Lossless Audio, the same format as the new B&W service. I think I need to check out the free trial of the service to give a better opinion on what it can provide.

New mix: Picture of you where it began

Inaugurating the new blog in style, here’s my latest mix, which started as a party and ended as a lullaby. Of course, the Art of the Mix service is down right now, but here’s a quick tracklist:

  1. Italian men, “Su Tenore A Ballu” (field recording)
  2. M.I.A., “Bamboo Banga”
  3. The Beatles, “She Said She Said”
  4. The Arcade Fire, “Neighborhood #2 (Laïka)”
  5. Vampire Weekend, “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”
  6. Beirut, “Elephant Gun”
  7. Guided by Voices, “As We Go Up, We Go Down”
  8. Elvis Costello, “Clown Strike”
  9. Talking Heads, “Stay Up Late”
  10. Grandpaboy, “Psychopharmacology”
  11. Elvis Presley, “Crawfish”
  12. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, “100 Days, 100 Nights”
  13. Bob Dylan, “Call Letter Blues”
  14. Sonic Youth, “Shoot”
  15. Black Angels, “You in Color”
  16. Mission of Burma, “Dead Pool”
  17. Radiohead, “House of Cards”
  18. Frank Sinatra, “Last Night When We Were Young”
  19. Duke Ellington, “The Controversial Suite (Later)”
  20. Low, “In Metal”
  21. Big Star, “I’m In Love With a Girl”

Copies to the usual suspects on request; just leave a comment. (Man, it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to say that!)

Update: Art of the Mix came back online sometime since I wrote this, so the mix is linked now.