Thursday, October 1, 2015

Jennifer Higdon and blue cathedral

Continuing our look at modern-day composers this month, today let’s talk about Pulitzer Prize and Grammy-winning composer Jennifer Higdon (1962), who currently resides in Philadelphia working at The Curtis Institute of Music.

Higdon got a late start in her music training, beginning studies at 18! She later began composing at the age of 21 and soon realized she had a knack for writing a variety of genres.

Written to commemorate The Curtis Institute’s 75th anniversary in 2000, blue cathedral was inspired by Higdon’s idea of crossing paths with various people in life and how one can grow through each encounter. Around the time she was working on this piece, Higdon’s brother died and she decided to represent him with the clarinet and herself with the flute. The flute begins the duo since she is the elder of the siblings and the clarinet ends the piece by continuing in an upward motion in a journey beyond.

Did you know that Higdon’s decision to use flute and clarinet in blue cathedral was quite intentional? She plays the flute and her brother played the clarinet.

Next week we’ll look at Morten Lauridsen and Arvo Part! 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Mason Bates and Mercury Soul

What do you get when you combine orchestral writing with jazz harmonies and techno rhythms? Mason Bates—modern composer and DJ extraordinaire also known as DJ Masonic. This month, Clef Notes explores the music of composers living in today’s world. We kick things off with Mason Bates, a thirty-eight year old composer who strives to share music with people in a way where no one feels isolated.  

How does he accomplish this? One way is what Bates calls “Mercury Soul”—an idea that has brought classical music to thousands of people in non-traditional settings including clubs and warehouses. Mercury Soul is headed by Bates and Maestro Benjamin Shwartz who first launched it in San Francisco’s Mezzanine Club in 2008 for an audience of 1,400 people. They use modern stagecraft designed for the space in which the performance is held and incorporate lighting elements created by Anne Patterson. The end result fuses electronic dance music with contemporary classical.

Written in 2011, Bates’ Mothership combines orchestral music and electronica. In the video clip below, notice the visual presentation of the soloists and the special lighting effects. This is one way Bates may attract a younger audience. Also note the types of instruments that are used as soloists. The electric guitar and zither are not common orchestral instruments! While Mothership uses these modern elements, it also has historical roots in that it is quite similar to the symphonic scherzo, however it incorporates techno rather than waltz rhythms.

Did you notice the composer in the video clip above? Bates often appears with his laptop in the percussion section of the orchestra. Mason Bates has found great success in his approach to composition and was recently appointed the first composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center.

Join me next time as we learn about Jennifer Higdon!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Music Written in a POW Camp

Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was conceived in a fascinating way and is the perfect piece to end this month’s discussion on “Music and War.”

Did you know that after called upon for military service at the beginning of WWII, Messiaen was captured and taken as prisoner of war? During his time at the POW camp, he certainly did not waste any time! He wrote the Quartet for the End of Time on paper supplied by a German officer who made sure no one bothered the composer while he worked!

Messiaen only had a tattered violin, clarinet, cello, and piano at his disposal so it was for these instruments that he wrote. The work is eight movements in length and inspired by passages found in Revelation. Messiaen uses irregular meter, palindromes, and his token bird calls throughout the work. The title reflects the work’s purpose, to depict the end of time and beginning of eternity.

The Quartet for the End of Time was originally premiered at the POW camp for fellow prisoners on a cold January night in 1941. You can hear a performance of this work below:

We’ve talked about music inspired by war throughout the month. Do you have a particular favorite that moves you personally?