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?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

WWII and Britten's War Requiem

This month, Clef Notes is exploring the topic “Music and War.” So far, we’ve looked at several war favorites premiered by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, pieces commemorating September 11, and works written around WWI. This week, let’s wrap up by looking at a few pieces composed as a result of WWII.

The Cathedral of St. Michael in Coventry was bombed in 1940 by enemy forces. The building was a 14th-century structure and this act of evil shook the nation. Years following the war, a new cathedral was built using remains from the original. Upon its completion in 1962, a dedication event was planned including a work composed for the festivities by Benjamin Britten.

Not everyone approved of Britten as the designated composer, as he was a pacifist and even left the country just before Britain entered the war. Despite this controversial decision, Britten successfully completed a memorial for the dead of all wars throughout history: the War Requiem.

Britten’s War Requiem is an oratorio that uses the Latin Requiem Mass with an added commentary text taken from settings of poems by Wilfred Owen, a young poet who died in battle during WWI. This grand work includes an orchestra, soprano solo, and mixed chorus for the performance of the ancient Requiem Mass. Owen’s poetry shows a more personal side of war, using tenor and baritone solos representing men affected by the war, a distant boy choir, chamber ensemble, and organ.

Here you can listen to Britten’s War Requiem. Do you think he effectively creates a memorial to those whose lives were taken by war?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

How the Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony is Greatly Misunderstood

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 3, A Pastoral Symphony is a greatly misunderstood work, many taking the title quite literally rather than understanding its true purpose. Today, let’s continue our chat about music inspired by WWI by looking at this moving symphony.

Vaughan Williams wrote his “Pastoral” Symphony in 1922. While many believe it relates to the English landscape, providing peace and rest to the listener, it is actually quite the opposite. Vaughan Williams uses his Third Symphony to depict the terrain of the WWI battlefields and writes in a way that causes his listeners to confront loss and death, remembering those who have found eternal rest. The symphony is unique in that each movement is slow. Vaughan Williams frequently changes the tonal center, causing his audience to feel emotionally unsettled.

Below you can listen to this symphony. Listen especially in the second movement during which a trumpet cadenza depicts a bugler that the composer heard practicing during the war:

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

WWI and Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin

This month we are looking at music inspired by war or written in commemoration of tragic events connected to war. This week, let’s focus on music written as a result of WWI, beginning with Maurice Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin.

During WWI, Ravel initially opted to refrain from serving in the military due to his small stature. He figured he would be able to help his country more by writing music. When his brother enlisted, however, young Ravel could not resist and decided to join as a nurse aide. He later went on to serve as a truck driver, delivering war materials by night. Following his mother’s death, Ravel was discharged from the military and sent home where he completed the piano version of Le tombeau de Couperin.

Le tombeau de Couperin is six movements in length, each dedicated to one of Ravel’s friends who died in the war. He gave it this particular title because the piece originated as homage to French music during the age of Francois Couperin (18th century) but, following his military service, it came to reflect the tragedy brought on by war. The piece acts as a memorial rather than actually depicting battle. It is in the style of a Baroque suite with an introduction followed by a series of dances. Here is Angela Hewitt performing the piano version of Le tombeau de Couperin:

In 1919, Ravel orchestrated four of the six movements. You can hear this version below:

Thursday, September 10, 2015

An Interview with John Adams

Like Steve Reich’s WTC 911 that we looked at last time, John Adams also received a commission to write a commemorative piece. We had the pleasure of chatting with Mr. Adams when he was in town this past spring and he talked with us about his On the Transmigration of Souls.

Adams admitted to us that, when the New York Philharmonic approached him with the commission to write a commemorative piece for the first anniversary of 9/11, he was appalled.  He believed it was impossible to write a piece of music about this type of event that created such a wound for the American nation. He explained that he initially felt it would either come across as tasteless or opportunistic to approach this type of project as an artist. After some thought, however, he realized that a serious composer ought to be able to respond to a national trauma so he accepted the commission.

Composer Charles Ives has been somewhat of a guardian angel to Adams, who talked about how his transcendental philosophy about the American spirit guided his work for On the Transmigration of Souls. His piece is very intimate, touching on personal loss and private emotions. Like Reich’s WTC 911, On the Transmigration of Souls uses the orchestra more as a background while choirs and taped voices take center stage. Texts included on the tape relate to 9/11 and contain a reading of names of many who died, as well as excerpts from notes that loved ones taped to Manhattan walls following the event.

Is there a commemorative work for 9/11 that you tend to relate to?

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Steve Reich's WTC 911

This week marks fourteen years since the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. In light of this, let’s turn our “music and war” topic this month to look at a couple of pieces inspired by this tragic day in U.S. history.

The events on September 11, 2001 were quite personal for composer Steve Reich, whose son was living in an apartment just four blocks from the World Trade Center at the time. Around 9:00am that morning, Reich received a call from his son relaying the details of the attacks. Reich instructed his son to remain on the line. The call lasted six hours.

In 2009, Reich received a commission from David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet to write a piece in commemoration of 9/11. Reich decided to make the piece personal, using a pulsing tone that sounds like a land line when left off the hook as his main theme. The piece contains various emotions in response to the 9/11 attack, including taped samples of responses to the event from firemen, neighborhood residents, and air traffic controllers. These taped selections are more of the focus in this piece, the ensemble simply providing a background and adding to the overall emotion of events. The work is titled WTC 911 and you can listen below. What do you think?

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The American Spirit in Lincoln Portrait

Last time we looked at Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, composed for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra during WWII. He also wrote another piece one year earlier that our local orchestra premiered—do you know which one?

On May 14, 1942, Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was first performed by the CSO. It was commissioned by prominent conductor Andre Kostelanetz, who instructed Copland to choose a distinguished American figure as the basis for this work intended to boost American morale. Copland initially wanted to use Walt Whitman but after receiving advice from Kostelanetz to use a political figure, he decided to choose Abraham Lincoln.

In Lincoln Portrait Copland sought to convey the American spirit during a difficult time of war. Among his own original material, he also incorporated several period pieces including Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races” and an 1840 ballad titled “Springfield Mountain.” Lincoln Portrait’s text famously uses Lincoln’s own words, including excerpts from the Gettysburg Address.

Below you can hear a wonderful performance of Lincoln Portrait from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s 2014 Hallowed Ground CD featuring narration from the late Dr. Maya Angelou.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Music and War: Copland's Fanfare

It’s interesting how catastrophic events inspire great art. When moved by a world-altering situation, many in the fine arts turn to their craft to best deal with difficult circumstances. The result, in turn, can impact audiences across the globe who may share in their sentiments. War is an example of this type of event. Composers throughout time have created masterpieces inspired by war or dedicated to the memory of those lost in war. This month, let’s explore a few of these pieces.

Many of you Cincinnatians may know that Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man was premiered by our very own Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra back in 1943. The conductor at the time, Eugene Goossens, commissioned eighteen composers to write fanfares as a contribution to the WWII war efforts. One of these fanfares began each concert of the CSO’s 1942–1943 season. Of these fanfares, Copland’s remains the most famous today. Prior to its premiere, Copland wrestled over the title, considering Fanfare for the Spirit of Democracy, Fanfare for the Rebirth of Lidice (a town in Czechoslovakia that the Nazis had destroyed), and Fanfare for Four Freedoms (in Roosevelt’s 1941 speech he mentioned four freedoms including the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.) In the end, Copland settled on Fanfare for the Common Man, saying “it was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the way and the army. He deserved a fanfare.”

The video below is taken from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s 2014 Lumenocity concert.