Posts Tagged ‘orchestra’
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.


26 Aug

Week 172: “Symphony #1 in E flat major, Op. 28 – 3. Quasi Fantasia (Grave)” by Max Bruch



As well as looking strikingly similar to the cover art of an Iron & Wine album, Max Bruch is also one of the 19th century’s most underrated composers.

I’m not sure why this happens with classical music. Maybe it’s a supply-and-demand thing. There are five or six composers who are universally recognized as geniuses, and whose work is performed daily in venues around the world. Others are remembered as one-hit wonders, known only for their most boring piece, while still others are barely performed.

In Bruch’s case, it might be that the musical landscape was shifting dramatically as he neared the end of his life. Composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky were shaking things up, while Bruch was quietly working within the borders of a style that had run its course over the previous decades. Maybe Bruch’s work started feeling stale and irrelevant as the abstract and expressionist movements of 20th century art made everything else seem irrelevant.

Whatever the case, if you happen to have an orchestra at your disposal, I urge you to help bring back Bruch. Start throwing in his pieces between crowd-pleasing numbers by Bach and Mozart. Have a concert celebrating bearded composers, featuring Max’s orchestral pieces. Do a flash-mob performance of his work in the middle of rush hour. Call it “Bruchfast of Champions”. Let’s introduce Max to the 21st century.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The first minute is super majestic. If I ever emerge from an ocean wearing a cape (and I’m not sure why I would be doing such a thing, but anyway) I would like this minute of music to be playing as it happens.

2. Several of the big cadences, like the one at 3:45, don’t resolve quite as soon as you’d expect them to.

3. He uses the timpani sparingly. No disrespect to Handel, but big percussion loses its effect if you overuse it. When Bruch uses it, he means it.

Recommended listening activity:

Using a brand new camera to take pictures of a really old camera.

17 Jun

Week 162: “The Death Of Ase” by Edvard Grieg



Most of the time, procrastination is a bad thing. But I’d like to suggest that it’s not always a bad thing, and that sometimes it might actually be a good thing.

It all depends on how you procrastinate.

If you adopt the “YouTube rabbit hole” method, you’re doing it wrong. You’ll end up eating Wheat Thins at 3:48am, wondering how you became so interested in cat videos.

But if you procrastinate by doing something that is extremely different from your normal routine, completely unrelated to the task you’re trying to avoid, the results might surprise you. If you go to the library and grab a book at random, or go see a movie that you are absolutely sure you will hate, or eat at that place around the corner that you always pass but never enter…one simple decision to do something out of your ordinary might lead to something good.

The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is a good example of this. After a few years of reasonable but not earth-shattering success, he decided to do something different. He broke out of his normal routine. By moving to Italy.

During his self-imposed exile from his homeland, he wrote the two plays that would launch him to worldwide fame; Brand and Peer Gynt. So while I’m not trying to imply that Ibsen was a procrastinator, he certainly knew how use a change in routine to spark his creativity. So perhaps he was an effective procrastinator.

Appropriately, the play Peer Gynt features a main character legendary for his procrastination. It also features a legendary soundtrack by Ibsen’s countryman Edvard Grieg. The soundtrack is filled with songs that even non-classical fans are familiar with (like this one and this one), but my favourite is “The Death Of Ase”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The slow, climbing chords that open the piece.

2. The same pattern one minute later, but a fifth higher.

3. The same pattern in reverse, creeping downwards chromatically about three minutes in. I don’t know if Grieg meant these sequences to represent Ase’s last breath, or an ascent to heaven, but they’re chill-inducers.

Recommended listening activity:

Something else.

20 May

Week 158: “Manhattan” by Rodgers & Hart (as performed by Ella Fitzgerald)


The term “staycation” may not have surfaced until 2003, but the dynamic songwriting duo of Rodgers & Hart captured the idea perfectly with this 1925 gem.

The song tells of the exploits of a young couple who decide against vacationing in a faraway place, but instead “save their fares” and explore their own backyard. They indulge in New York’s simpler (aka cheaper) delights – Mott Street! Delancey! Baloney on Coney Island! – and turn Manhattan into an isle of joy.

Staycations are highly recommended. No passport, no lineups, baggage optional. Admittedly, if you’re seeking adventure in your own backyard, those who live in Manhattan are at a clear advantage over most of us. But I love the song’s message; some of life’s best adventures are free, and right around the corner.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Lorenz Hart’s clever lyrics. My favourites are in the first and last lines. In the first line he rhymes “Niagara” with the first half of the word “aggravate”, and in the last line he gives himself the chance to throw in a New York accent by rhyming “spoil” with “goyl”.

2. While the tempo of other versions are more foxtrot-friendly, this one is ideal strolling speed.

3. The voice and strings are very far forward in the mix, but the drummer is back there somewhere, about 50 feet in the background, waiting for the session to be over so he can go chill in his hammock.

Recommended listening activity:

Pretending your bike is a train, and embarking on a glamorous trip across the continent.

28 Jan

Week 142: “Lacrimosa” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart


Mozart’s death has spawned more theories than probably any other event in the history of music.

Depending on whom you choose to believe, Mozart may have died from poison, a streptococcal infection, kidney stones, rheumatic fever, a subdural hematoma, malpractice on the part of his doctor, or self-medicating an illness that didn’t exist.

But no matter whether you think it was Salieri on the grassy knoll or simply the common cold, you’ve got to think he died too young. At 35, he had survived the transition from child prodigy to fully-grown superstar, and some of his later work is considered by many to be his strongest. His legendary Requiem, which he had barely begun when he died, remains as mysterious as his death. How much of it was finished when he died? Did he write it because he foresaw his own death? Who completed it once he was gone, and which sections did they write?  All these things add to the mystique of what is, by any measure, a beautiful piece of music.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening bars (which may be the only section actually written by Mozart) give the feeling that something ominous is coming. If there was a soundtrack to the grim reaper tip-toeing, this would be it.

2. There’s a quiet, major-key section around 1:40 that’s like a fake-out sequence at the end of a horror movie, when it seems like everything is going to be okay. But by 2:10 we’re back to the minor key, and the grim reaper is back.

3. It ends with a big, wonderful “Amen” that the orchestra holds for as long as it can before the choir runs out of breath.

Recommended listening activity:

Dusting off the Ouija board.

01 Oct

Week 125: “Symphony #5, Third Movement” by Dmitry Shostakovich


I would love to tell you that I discovered this piece because I was researching Shostakovich’s life. I would love to say that I was curious about the rumour that some of his music, composed during Stalin’s reign of terror, contained secretly coded anti-government sentiment. Or that I knew that many of Shostakovich’s friends and relatives were imprisoned and killed in the years before he wrote his fifth symphony, and I was wondering if it contained any anti-Stalin messages, so I studied it intensely for months in a University library.

Unfortunately, the real story of how I found out about this piece is far less intellectual: I was browsing a cardboard box filled with records at a garage sale. I saw the soundtrack to a sci-fi movie I’d never heard of and thought it looked cool, so I bought it for $1.50.

The movie, it turned out, was “Rollerball”. I watched it, and it’s awesome in the way that only 1970s sci-fi can be awesome. In the future, apparently, everyone will be dressed entirely in brown and orange, and computers will be small enough to fit in a single room. But at least we’ll listen to good music; Andre Previn did some great arrangements of classical pieces for the soundtrack, including this one. The movie, along with its soundtrack, was released in 1975. (Funnily enough, the year after Shostakovich died.)

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The strings are amazing. They soar and pulse and roll and sing and fade.

2. From the midst of all the soaring and pulsing, the harp and flutes poke their heads out at 3:32.

3. It’s unpredictable, but still melodic. A lot of 20th-century composers tried to veer away from the conventional patterns of earlier music. I like that Shostakovich’s music does that without being too atonal.

Recommended listening activity:

Watching figure skating with the volume on mute.

16 Jul

Week 114: “Orchestral Suite #3 in D, Air” by Johann Sebastian Bach


This is one of those pieces of music that everybody knows. If you’ve ever been to a wedding, owned an album of “Relaxation Music”, or watched footage of hot-air balloons, you have heard this song. But no matter how many times you’ve heard it, this one deserves a close listen.

The first time I really listened to this song was in university, while taking a course called, and I’m not joking here, “Listening to Music”. You can imagine how a course with a name like that might appeal to a 20-year-old with a severe allergy to hard work. There was no textbook to purchase, just a set of 6 CDs that contained all the music deemed worthy of analysis. I took home the stack of digitized course material, put on some headphones, sat on my ratty old couch, and listened, skipping straight to Bach.

I remember coming to the conclusion, then and there, that this piece was the most beautiful, most perfect combination of notes ever assembled, and that Bach was the uncontested champion of musical genius. Years later, it’s still a conclusion I find difficult to dispute, and it’s still a piece I love to hear.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It’s impossible to get it wrong. In 1902, this became the first piece of Bach’s music to ever be recorded, and in the 110 years since, it must have been recorded literally thousands of times…and yet I have never heard a bad recording of it, no matter what the instrumentation, the tempo, or sublte variations in performance. It’s as if the notes won’t let themselves be played badly.

2. The way each phrase slowly builds and subsides, like a boat bobbing on the ocean.

3. The way some notes are held for just a bit longer than expected, creating just the slightest bit of tension between the different instruments.

Recommended listening activity:

Imagining yourself rolling down a mountain of pillows in slow-motion.

30 Apr

Week 103: “Symphony No. 9, II: Largo” by Antonin Dvorak



At some point, as the 1800s became the 1900s, the lion’s share of the world’s power, wealth, and culture creation shifted from Europe to North America. It’s impossible to say exactly when this happened, and of course it was probably a series of events rather than a single moment. But for the sake of making a point, I’m going to say that it happened in 1893.

1893 was already promising to be a breakout year for the United States; the Chicago World’s Fair was a showcase for American ingenuity, giving the world the Ferris Wheel, Juicy Fruit gum, Quaker Oats, and some of the first functioning electric lights. Clearly, the 20th century was shaping up to be a century in which most of the world’s breakthroughs would happen west of the Atlantic.

Providing a soundtrack to this power shift was Antonin Dvorak, who, having moved to the US from Prague, premiered his legendary “New World Symphony” at Carnegie Hall in December of that year.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening chords. Grand, ominous, powerful. For the first 30 seconds of this piece, I like to imagine the sun rising on the horizon, wearing sunglasses and an expression that says, “That’s right. I’m the sun.”

2. The melody. Having opened so grandly, the melody that follows on the clarinet is sweet and gentle. Dvorak was a huge fan of folk music, and much of this symphony was based on African-American spirituals that he heard during his time in the states. He famously (and controversially) said he was “convinced that the future of music in this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies.” The following 100 years of American music would seem to prove him right.

3. The closing chords. Having climbed to a squeaky high note in the final minute, the closing chords are played exclusively on the low strings, and if your spine doesn’t tingle when you hear them, your spine might be missing.

Recommended listening activity:

Going home.

12 Dec

Week 83: “Sonata VII” by Johann Rosenmuller


A lot of people find baroque music to be a bit showy, a bit too fancy for its own good. But you don’t need to be wearing a powdered wig to appreciate this wonderful piece by Johann Rosenmuller.

In the musical history books, Rosenmuller is a overshadowed by Baroque powerhouses Bach and Handel. In his own time, he didn’t fare much better: he held a promising job at a church in Leipzig, but his career was thrown off the rails when he was imprisoned for homosexual activities in 1655. He fled to Italy and didn’t return to his homeland until just before his death. Meanwhile, the promising job he had once held in Leipzig before his imprisonment had been filled by a young man named…Johann Sebastian Bach.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The way the strings creep upwards at the beginning…

2. …and then creep downwards at 1:33. The slow chromatic rise and fall gives the song a lot of emotional weight.

3. After sliding around chromatically for the first three minutes, the chords abruptly begin giving us dramatic pauses and cadences. The last cadence, especially, takes several seconds to resolve, before ending on a heartwarming major chord.

Recommended listening activity:

Breathing on a window, using your finger to write the name of the person you secretly like, and then immediately erasing it.

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.

24 Jan

Week 37: “Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 49″ by Dmitry Kabalevsky


I think that some instruments were created for a specific purpose. The electric guitar, for example, was invented so that teen angst could be given a soundtrack. The slide whistle was invented to make sad clowns funny. And the bagpipes were invented as a weapon to drive the English out of Scotland, screaming and clasping their hands over their ears.

The cello, meanwhile, was invented so that people would know what beautiful sounds like, and Kabalevsky puts the instrument to good use in this piece.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The shifts from major to minor. Considering that he was the son of a mathematician, and a member of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, Kabalevsky wrote some amazingly emotional music.

2. The oboe echoing the cello. It took a few listens for me to notice this, and I’m not sure why; picking out an oboe in a sea of string instruments should be as easy as finding your own belly-button. But once I noticed it (the oboe, that is), I loved it.

3. The cello by itself, beginning at 3:07. After a particularly victorious-sounding section, the orchestra slips away, leaving the cello to fend for itself. On this particular recording, the cellist is Yo-Yo Ma, who, when not hanging out with his buddy Bobby McFerrin, does a pretty good fending for himself. Notice that the major-minor thing happens again, in pizzicato form, at 4:06.

Recommended listening activity:

Taking a nap under a sheet that’s just come out of the dryer.

30 Aug

Week 16: “New World” by Bjork


Though I recognize Bjork’s talent, I find it difficult to make it through an entire album without feeling like I’m losing my grip on sanity. For me, it’s a bit like watching Japanese cartoons; very colourful, very different, kind of exciting…but you don’t really understand what’s going on, and after a while the noises start to get annoying.

Bjork is an oddity. And I mean that in the best possible way; her rise to global fame in the 1990s, given the experimental nature of her music and the unusual quality of her voice, baffles me. Just take a look at the other female vocalists who were popular in the 90s: Shania Twain, Sheryl Crow, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston…next to them, Bjork looks like a recently escaped mental patient with a love of showtunes.

But whether you categorize her as a genius or a weirdo, I insist that you take another listen to this song, from the soundtrack to the film “Dancer in the Dark”, directed by Lars Von Trier.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The lyrics. Co-written by Von Trier and Bjork, this song feels a bit like a eulogy for the movie’s main character (played by Bjork in the film). It’s a sad and bizarre story of a Czech woman living in the US in the 60s, who is slowly losing her sight due to a genetic condition. As she goes blind, she relies on her imagination to escape from the monotony of the factory where she works. (Oh, and she’s working there to save up enough money for an operation which would save her son from going blind as well. Uplifting stuff.) But knowing that her character is blind makes some of the vivid lyrical imagery even more powerful: “I’m softly walking on air/Halfway to heaven from here/Sunlight unfolds in my hair…”

2. The melody. The three notes she sings on “oooooh” are just great. Every time I hear the song, I’m surprised at myself for having forgotten how great those notes are.

3. The orchestration. This song is a great mix of electronic and live instruments. I think Massive Attack might have collaborated on this song, but apart from shaky internet evidence, my only reason for thinking that is “well, it kind of sounds like Massive Attack”. But the orchestration is where the song really earns its spot on this list. Bjork is famous for big orchestration, and most of the time she does it to remind you of how wacky she is (e.g. It’s Oh So Quiet), but in this song it’s there to support the melody, and it does so beautifully. From a quiet French Horn line at the beginning to a full-on symphonic explosion, then back down to a soft trumpet that brings to mind a military funeral, the orchestration in this song is perfect.

Recommended listening activity:

Taking one last look through your old apartment before moving.