Posts Tagged ‘modern’
07 Apr

Week 204: “Sarah’s Song” by David Downing



According to a friend of mine who has spent most of his time around classical musicians, different instruments in the orchestra attract different personality types.

Violinists tend to be temperamental. Bassoon players are quirky and intellectual. Percussionists are good dads. Trombone players are sweet but depressed. Oboists are suicidally uptight. Trumpet players are egotistical. Tuba players are egotistical too, but also chubby.

And then there are the cellists. These are the charmers. The sexy ones. Real stylish.

Like most stereotypes, these characterizations probably aren’t entirely accurate, but if there’s any truth to the cellist personality, then David Downing must be pretty popular with the ladies, because he’s quite the cellist.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. David Downing does with the cello what Bobby McFerrin does with his voice, using all the sounds and textures and tones the cello has to offer, creating an orchestra out of one instrument.

2. The delay at 1:58. If U2 had a cellist, it would sound like this.

3. The whole song has a very suave feel to it. I don’t know who Sarah is, but she’s probably the envy of all her friends.

Recommended listening activity:

Ordering food at a French restaurant…in perfect French.

11 Nov

Week 183: “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Alex Patterson

Album Cover 1 PIXELATED

Available November 18th. Buy it here.

Depending on where you live, today might be Veteran’s Day, Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day.

The fact that this day has so many various names is interesting to me, because it raises the question: what is this day for, exactly? The “Veterans’ Day” name suggests that we place our focus on the soldiers who have fought on our behalf in years gone by. “Armistice Day” feels more like a day to be thankful for peace, a day to hope that current wars will soon end.

Then there’s option three: “Remembrance Day.” This is the one I find most fitting. Not only because it’s called Remembrance Day where I live, but because I think the focus should really be on remembering. For me, that means remembering a few things:

  • That I’m lucky to live in an area that is not directly affected by war.
  • That people of my grandparents’ generation helped to defeat Nazism.
  • That all returning soldiers come home wounded.
  • That governments who send soldiers to war should be responsible for their care when and if they come home.
  • That soldiers aren’t the only people who die in war.
  • That nations need to do everything they can to avoid war.
  • That victory should not be confused with glory.

This last point is at the heart of Wilfred Owen’s incredible poem, “Dulce Et Decorum Est.”  If you haven’t read it, please do. Or even better, listen to Kenneth Branagh’s reading of it. It does everything a great wartime poem should do: it honours veterans, it pleads for peace, and reminds us that war is ugly. This song, brilliantly composed by Alex Patterson and beautifully performed by Concanenda, was inspired by Owen’s poem, and provides a fitting soundtrack for remembrance.

So whether your calendar shows today as Veteran’s Day, Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, or even just Monday, take a second to remind yourself that peace is both valuable and priceless, inherently free yet often costly.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening chords, humming almost at whisper-level.

2. The soprano soloist, slow and deliberate, echoing like a distant trumpet playing “Last Post”.

3. At 1:18 there’s just a hint of Gregorian chant, giving the piece a solemn, funeral-like atmosphere.

Recommended listening activity:

Putting your problems in perspective.

04 Nov

Week 182: “November” by Max Richter



November can be a pretty drab month.

By the end of the first week, your Halloween candy is all gone (all the good stuff anyway), and Christmas is far enough away that it still seems like a distant mirage.

The weather doesn’t help. It’s too cold for the romance of fall, not cold enough to reliably provide magical winter snow. Often, November gives you the unwelcome excitement of all four seasons in one day; it’s one of those months (in the climate I inhabit, anyway) that are almost impossible to dress for.

I’m not sure if unpredictable weather was the inspiration behind Max Richter’s “November”, but judging by the rain that opens the track, I’d say it’s a good bet. And maybe the next time I’m caught wearing shorts in a surprise freezing-rain storm, keeping this beautiful song in mind will allow me to view the weather as a moody artist, rather than a vindictive jerk who drops five dollars on the street and then gives you a wedgie when you lean over to pick it up.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening violin line. Either these are the highest notes a violin is capable of playing, or Richter had a miniature violin specially constructed for this song. Either way, turn up volume if you want to make all the dogs in your neighbourhood go simultaneously insane.

2. The arpeggiated violin that enters at about 45 seconds. I don’t play the violin, but this sounds frantically difficult. Is this the part the conductor gives to the violinist they don’t like very much? Are the other members of the orchestra jealous, or glad they’ve been spared? I can imagine the rest of the string section sitting there playing their slow, lumbering lines, shielding themselves from the droplets of sweat flying off the lead violinist.

3. As the song passes three minutes, Richter briefly cuts the frantic violin lines, with big swells in the cello and double bass.

Recommended listening activity:

Step 1: Take cold shower. Step 2: Do this.


21 Oct

Week 180: “Bright Shadows” by Alexander Campkin


Available October 25th. Buy it here.

Ten years ago, in my first year as a teacher, a group of 4th grade students and I invented “shadow tag”.

Okay, maybe we didn’t invent it. I’m sure many other people have come up with the same idea, but we felt like we invented it, and the feeling of spontaneous creation made it all the more fun.

The rules were simple: step on someone’s shadow, and they’re ‘it’.

After several minutes of stomping and giggling we paused to come up with some more rules. No tag backs. No standing right up against the wall to make your shadow disappear. No hiding your shadow in the shade of the big tree for more than ten seconds. Then someone suggested that tag backs were okay, if you could make your shadow tag someone else’s shadow.

Shadow tag became our go-to game for the rest of the year. To someone unfamiliar with the rules, it must have looked pretty ridiculous from a distance; a group of people running near each other, but never coming into direct contact, and occasionally ducking for no apparent reason. And, of course, laughing hysterically the whole time.

I hadn’t thought about shadow tag for years, until hearing Alexander Campkin’s “Bright Shadows”, a haunting piece of choral perfection commissioned and recorded by the Cambridge-based choir Concanenda.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The way the vocals enter by overlapping each other on the word ‘bright’, each voice one tone higher than the last. It makes me think of lights being turned on, one by one, in different corners of a room, throwing shadows in all directions.

2. The floaty line about eternity and time at 1.20. This is a quote from another piece by Campkin, “I Saw Eternity”, and it reminded me that ten years seems like yesterday and forever ago all at once.

3. The way the word “shadows” lands on a nice major chord at 2.57, an unexpected break in the song’s persistent dissonance.

Recommended listening activity:

Exploring your bedroom ceiling with a flashlight.

19 Dec

Week 84: “DFACE” by Leah Kardos



Whenever it comes up in conversation that I endured almost a decade of piano lessons as a child, people often get a wistful look on their faces, before saying something like, “Oh, it must be so great to just be able to sit at a piano and play.”

But strangely enough, lots of the memories I have of learning to play the piano involve things other than the actual sitting-and-playing part. If you were lucky enough to take piano lessons, perhaps you’ll know what I mean. Here is a brief run-down of some of my strongest memories of taking piano lessons:

  • I remember the wrinkles on my piano teacher’s hands.
  • I remember the face of the kid who had his lessons right before me.
  • I remember the sound of the clock ticking during my exams.
  • I remember scales.

For some reason, I really liked practicing scales. No matter how hard the pieces were that I was supposed to be learning, the scales never changed, and I loved that predictability. I could remember where the sharps and flats were. I could visualize them before even playing the scale. Maybe that’s why I love this song so much; it reminds me of the comforting up and down of playing scales.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The wandering time signature. I’m tempted to count it as regular 4/4, but because the notes in the right hand are sometimes grouped in fives, and sometimes in sevens, I keep losing track of where the downbeat is. It makes me feel a bit musically inept, as if I’ve just tied my own shoelaces together.

2. The vocal clip. The grainy old voice that urges us to memorize the spaces in the treble clef is a great contrast to the clear, echoing notes in the piano.

3. The subtle thuds that fade in as the song nears the 2-minute mark. Like a racing heartbeat.

Recommended listening activity:

Sitting on a swing and turning around and around until you can’t turn anymore…and then letting yourself spin.

28 Nov

Week 81: “Campanile” by Harold Budd


If you’re looking for reasons to take an interest in the American composer Harold Budd, you’ll find two in the opening sentences of his Wikipedia entry. First, it states that he was raised in the Mojave Desert. Second, he was “inspired at an early age by the humming tone caused by wind blowing across telephone wires”. Now I don’t know about you, but anyone who’s raised in the desert and spends their youth transfixed by the wind blowing over telephone wires is a person I’m up for learning about.

And I’m glad I did, because Harold Budd is an intriguing guy. Apart from being a fascinating minimalist composer with dozens of albums to his credit since the 1970s, he’s worked with the likes of Brian Eno and U2, and taught at the legendary school CalArts.

This song is taken from the 2003 album “La Bella Vista”. The album is intriguing in itself, in that Budd was completely unaware that it was being recorded. Famed U2 producer Daniel Lanois was hanging out at Budd’s house when Budd decided to play a bit of piano for his guests. Lanois surreptitiously recorded Budd’s improvisations, and the result was “La Bella Vista”.

Oh, and Wikipedia also notes that Budd once composed a “long-form gong solo”. If you’re not intrigued by that, you will never be intrigued by anything.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The way he wanders along the keyboard makes it feel aimless.

2. The way he keeps the damper pedal down makes it feel endless.

3. The way he plays so lightly makes it feel effortless.

Recommended listening activity:

Yawning so hard that your toes point and tears come to your eyes.

26 Sep

Week 72: “Orphee and the Princess” by Philip Glass


This song is taken from a 1991 opera written by Glass, which was based on a 1950 French film by Jean Cocteau, which in turn was based on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus. Which goes like this:

Orpheus was a poet, musician, prophet, and all-around good guy. His wife was tragically bitten by a snake and died in his arms. In his grief, he sang such beautiful music that some nearby nymphs said something like, “wow, you’re talented! You should totally go to the Underworld and see if you can charm death with your songs and get your wife back!” Flattery is an intoxicating thing to a musician, so he decided to do it.

Sure enough, Orpheus sang so beautifully that he charmed the horns right off Hades. He agreed to give his wife back, but on one condition. (Isn’t that always the way it is in myths? They can’t seem to ever do a good turn without sneakily adding in conditions.) The condition was that as Orpheus walked up from the Underworld, his wife behind him, he was prohibited from looking back at her until they were both up and out. If he looked back, the deal would be off.

You can probably see where this is going. He walks out to the edge of the Underworld, and is so darned excited to see his wife alive again that he turns around…forgetting that they both had to be up and out before he was allowed to turn around. His wife, just steps from safety, disappeared, this time forever.

A few thousand years later, Philip Glass wrote this simple and lovely piece of music.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The constantly downward-moving scales in the right hand. I can only assume this is supposed to represent Orpheus descending to the Underworld, but it sounds so pretty, it kind of makes the Underworld seem like a nice place.

2. The left and right hand switch places briefly at 2:40. The left hand starts doing a descending scale while the right imitates the repeating chords that the left had been doing. It doesn’t last long, and I’m not sure what it’s supposed to represent. But it’s nice.

3. Repetition. Some people hate Philip Glass for being so repetitive, but I find it hypnotic and calming. It’s actually great road-trip music if you’re the driver and all your passengers are asleep.

Recommended listening activity:

Not looking back.

20 Jun

Week 58: “The Unanswered Question” by Charles Ives


Since June is graduation time, I’d like to nominate this song for valedictorian of the 20th century. I know the 20th century graduated a while ago, but things like this are easier to think about with the benefit of a decade’s hindsight.

The piece is simple enough: a string section plays a soft, slow sequence of chords. A trumpet “asks a question” in a completely unrelated key. A flute quartet “answers the question”. The trumpet repeats the same question several times, and each time, the flutes’ answer becomes more and more jumbled and frantic. Finally, they give up, and the trumpet’s question is left unanswered. The strings, meanwhile, seem completely unconcerned, and resolve in a nice little cadence.

So what makes “The Unanswered Question” the best musical representative of its century? Well, first of all, it’s very different from most music that came before it. Composed in 1906, many of its modern elements foreshadowed what was to come in 20th century music. In fact, it was so ahead of its time that it wasn’t publicly performed until 1946. Despite taking a while to catch on, it was still relevant enough at the end of the century to be included on the movie soundtrack for the pre-millennial classic “Run Lola Run” in 1998.

And if you’ll allow me to get philosophical for a second, I think that the 20th century was a jumble of contradictions, a collage of the best and worst of human kind: progress vs. world war vs. civil rights vs. environmental destruction vs. technological innovation. With a bit of creative listening, I think you can hear those contradictions summed up perfectly in this piece.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Loud vs. Quiet

2. Calm vs. Frantic

3. Harmony vs. Dissonance

Recommended listening activity:

Sitting in the quietest part of the biggest library you can find.

30 May

Week 55: “Spiegel Im Spiegel” by Arvo Pärt



Q: What is an “Arvo Pärt”?

a)      A compact car

b)      A German fighter plane from World War II

c)       I think I bought one of those from Ikea once

d)      A popular but racy style of Norwegian bathing suit

You earn a million points if you answered, “none of the above! He’s an Estonian composer who’s all kinds of awesome!” And if you didn’t know that, it’s okay. After all, unless you live in Estonia, it’s doubtful that you even know where Estonia is, never mind who their most prominent composer of sacred music might be.

As Pärt was beginning a career as a composer, he was bursting with ideas, but a bit starved for inspiration; because Estonia was occupied by the Soviets, he wasn’t able to listen to any music from the outside world, other than a few illegal records he managed to get his hands on. Eventually, in 1980, he fled his homeland to live in Vienna. He wrote this piece shortly before leaving.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The title. Translated, it means, “the mirror in the mirror”, which conjures up images of the never-ending corridor of mirrors you see when two mirrors face each other. A hypnotic mental picture for a hypnotic song.

2. Tintinnabuli. I didn’t just make that word up, and it has nothing to do with this guy. It’s Pärt’s own compositional technique, in which two voices interact; one repeating arpeggios on the tonic, while the other moves diatonically up or down the scale. He used this simple concept throughout his career, and the results are soothtastic. (And yes, that one I did make up.)

3. The occasional low notes on the piano. They anchor the wandering arpeggios, and give the song the hint of power that it needs.

Recommended listening activity:

Adding ten minutes to your lunch hour.

28 Jun

Week 7: “Sleep” by Eric Whitacre



I first heard this song a couple of years ago at a choral concert close to where I live. I had never heard of the composer or the song, and I was blown away; it was one of those great and rare moments where the hair on the back of your neck stands so tall that it almost dislodges itself from its follicles. I challenge anyone to print off the lyrics, listen to the song, and think of a loved one who has recently died.  If you’re not a sobbing wreck by the end, you have no heart.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The dissonance. Eric Whitacre is what you might call a modern-choral-pop composer, and I mean that in the best possible way. While some modern composers seem to write with the dual purpose of making the music incredibly complex and entirely unlistenable, Whitacre picks his spots perfectly, using dissonance to make his cadences all the more satisfying.

2. The lyrics. Originally, Whitacre had wanted to use a Robert Frost poem, but copyright problems forced him to change course. The lyrics are by Charles Silvestri, and depending on which internet source you believe, they were either written for a young boy who couldn’t fall asleep, or for a soprano whose parents died within days of each other. Either way, they’re simple and evocative.

3. The end. If the choir performing it is skilled enough, the effect is perfect: this world fades away and silence creeps in.

Recommended listening activity:

Visiting a cemetery on a sunny day and finally being okay with it.