Postmodern (1945-present)

Arvo Pärt, Spiegel im Spiegel (1978)

People who don’t think they like classical music will probably say they like the music of Arvo Pärt. He is a deeply spiritual man, who composes music that works as a form of prayer, music that can make you look inside yourself and find something good.

In the piece I have embedded below, Pärt provides music that defines “stillness.” It contains no moments of conflict and works as a benign counterpoint to the noise of the modern world. “Spiegel im Spiegel” translates from German into “mirror in mirror,” the perfect title for a piece of music that should feel as if you want it to go on forever.

Leonhard Roczek (cello) and Herbert Schuch (piano)

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein's contributions to educating people about classical music in general and Gustav Mahler in particular are legendary. For almost fifty years he brought a depth of passion to the musical masterworks he conducted that touched audiences around the world. If only he had been able to live two lifetimes so that he could have given us even more original compositions. (Bernstein was born on this date 100 years ago.)

Bernstein, "Simple Song" from Mass (1971)
Joseph Kolinski (baritone)



Bernstein, score for On the Waterfront (1954)
(The music begins at 2:53.)



Bernstein, "Mambo!" from West Side Story (1957)
Gustavo Dudamel conducting the
Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra

Oscar Peterson's Master Class

The distinguished Oscar Peterson (1925-2007) was a Canadian jazz pianist who was trained in the European classical tradition. This short video of Mr. Peterson explaining styles of jazz piano is a gem. All told, the video provides six examples of jazz piano.
  • Stride (Art Tatum)
  • Two-Fingered Percussiveness (Nat King Cole)
  • Lyric Octaves (Errol Garner)
  • Relaxed Block Chords (George Shearing)
  • Double Octave Melody Lines
  • Tonality-Based


As for Peterson's own style, here's how it's described in
A Natural History of the Piano by Stuart Isacoff:

“The Peterson style was always characterized by rapid, graceful, blues-tinged melody lines unfurled in long, weaving phrases with the inexorable logic of an epic narrative; and, equally important, a visceral sense of rhythm, transmitted with fire and snap. Those qualities for which he was renowned — effortless fluidity and clockwork precision — were not merely aspects of his playing; they were the very foundation on which his artistic expression rested. And pulling them off required the highest level of athletic prowess.”





The American Sound in Classical Music

When listening to Chopin’s Polonaise in A Major we are told the music represents the sound of Poland. We are also told that Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 provides a musical slice of Hungarian culture, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture takes us into the sound of Czarist Russia. But what classical composer best provides the sound of America? What is the sound that best represents the United States? These are not easy questions to answer.

Since the 1890s, when Americans were beginning to develop their own traditions in classical music, composers have recognized the dilemma of creating the American sound. In 1892 the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák became the director of the newly formed National Conservatory of Music in New York City and was paid a sizable wage to help create an American school of composition. The problem confronting Dvořák stemmed from the absence of a unified American culture. Quite simply, there were too many different types of people living in the United States to create a sound that was distinctly American. (Like Dvořák, Gustav Mahler, the great Bohemian composer and conductor, also believed the United States was too culturally diverse to be represented by one type of music.)

Dvořák’s solution to the problem can be heard in the cultural diversity evident in his
Symphony No. 9 in E minor ("From the New World"). The symphony includes original themes that sound somewhat like Stephen Foster tunes, African-American spirituals, and Native American music. Although From the New World has been accused of having too much of an eastern European accent to truly sound American, Dvořák did get the process of creating an American sound started, a process that explores the diversity of American culture.

Antonín Dvořák, Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Fourth Movement (1893)


After Dvořák left the United States in 1895, various classical composers have been associated with the creation of an American national sound — most notably Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and Elliot Carter.

Charles Ives (1874-1954) is best known for composing his memories of a pre-industrial, small-town America. Although his music ranks with the greatest composed by any American, the nationalism in his music did not acknowledge the tremendous ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity that defined the United States. Ives looked at America primarily through the eyes of someone who grew up in a small New England town in the late nineteenth century.

Charles Ives, Country Band March (1903)


Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is probably most associated in the public's mind with the American sound, creating music that defined an ideal America. Copland’s music romanticized the United States and celebrated the best in the American Spirit. In general, he also avoided the complexities and diversity of the American experience.

Aaron Copland, Appalachian Spring, "Simple Gifts" (1944)


The composer, in my opinion, who best captures the complexities of America — and therefore the true American sound — is
Elliot Carter (1908-2012). I make that declaration, however, with a confession that I don't always understand his music, and I cannot overstate the challenges of listening to his compositions.

Carter was an intellectual composer, and the music he created is among the most cerebral that any of us will ever confront. Although he composed in a variety of musical styles, he was best known for the masterworks that did not romanticize the American experience and seemed designed to avoid any desire to evoke emotional reactions from listeners. His music is best understood on a purely intellectual level.

What helps me understand Carter’s compositions is to think about the diversity of American culture and the reality of what that diversity should sound like when represented musically. I think about the “salad bowl” of humanity that defines the United States — the variety of religious, cultural, and philosophical beliefs, as well as the cultural gaps too often separate the American people according to their ethnic, racial, and other differences. I think about how America is home to almost all types of people. I then think about what all those various types of people would sound like if they were all expressing their differences at the same time.

That, in a nutshell, provides a pathway to understanding Carter’s music. It’s a type of music that celebrates democracy, freedom, and diversity. It's classical music's version of Martin Luther King's "Beloved Community," a society in which people of all types live together in peace.

In describing the complexity of his music, Carter used these words to describe his
Variations for Orchestra:

I have tried to give musical expression to experiences anyone living today must have when confronted by so many remarkable examples of unexpected types of changes and relationships of character uncovered in the human sphere by psychologists and novelists.… The old notion of unity in diversity presents itself to us in an entirely different guise than it did to people living even a short while ago."

Carter's music may not be easy listening, but it challenges us to recognize the prodigious diversity that defines American culture.

Elliot Carter, Variations for Orchestra (1955)


Elliot Carter, Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano (1961)

Bacharach, South American Getaway (1969)

In 1970 Burt Bacharach won an Academy Award for Best Original Score for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In the film, “South American Getaway” is performed by the Ron Hicklin Singers. The version I’ve embedded below is arranged for cello ensemble, and if you’ve never heard Crocellomania, you’re in for a treat.

Crocellomania directed by Valter Dešpalj

Brubeck, "Blue Rondo à la Turk" (1959)

In 1958, the jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck was touring the Middle East when he heard a Turkish folk tune that repeated a rhythmic pattern divided into beats of 2 + 2 + 2 + 3 + 9. Brubeck later converted that Turkish music into a jazz tune titled "Blue Rondo à la Turk," a piece that serves as a great example of what can be done with odd meter in jazz. The Dave Brubeck Quartet first recorded the piece in 1959 for their ground-breaking album Time Out.

The rhythm of "Blue Rondo à la Turk" is organized into groups of nine beats, but it is the subdivision of the nine beats that makes the piece so fascinating. At the beginning of the tune, the nine beats are subdivided as
2 + 2 + 2 + 3. This subdivision is then repeated three times before switching to a subdivision of 3 + 3 + 3, which is only played once before switching back to 2 + 2 + 2 + 3. This pattern repeats itself several times before leading into an extended section of improvisation without the Turkish rhythms, which do make a reappearance at the end to wrap things up.

Whew! I wish you the best of luck at keeping up with what happens rhythmically, and I hope I have described it clearly and accurately.

Dave Brubeck Quartet

Evelyn Glennie: Teaching the World to Listen

"My aim really is to teach the world to listen. That is my only real aim in life."

– Dame Evelyn Glennie


According to Evelyn Glennie's biographical information on her Facebook page, she is "the first person in history to successfully create and sustain a full-time career as a solo percussionist." What her Facebook bio does not mention is that she has been profoundly deaf since she was twelve years old. She claims to hear with parts of her body other than her ears and performs barefoot to help feel the music. In a TED talk from 2003, Glennie not only provided a great musical performance (beginning at 27:15), she also offered a new and more mindful way of listening to music. As a bonus to the TED talk, I have embedded a video of Glennie performing Piazzola's Libertango.

Evelyn Glennin, TED Talk, February 2003


Astor Piazzola, Libertango, perfromed by Evelyn Glennie

Top Secret Drum Corps

The Top Secret Drum Corps is based in Basel, Switzerland, a city that is said to have over 3000 active drummers performing in a culture rich in the tradition of drumming. Top Secret gained recognition for its controversial challenge to the traditional Basel style of drumming, playing faster and more playfully than the Basel tradition was willing, at first, to allow. The success of Top Secret at international festivals has evidently ended the controversy.

Enjoy!




Hall of Fame Film Scores

In 2015, the UK’s Classic FM created a Movie Music Hall of Fame by polling their listeners. I participated in the poll and chose three soundtracks that I believed were integral to the character of their films. In other words, I can’t imagine these films without their soundtracks, and when I think of these films one of the first things that comes to mind is the music. Here’s my HOF candidates (listed in order):

To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962 (music by Elmer Bernstein)


On the Waterfront, 1954 (music by Leonard Bernstein)


High Noon, 1952 (music by Dimitri Tiomkin)

John Adams: An American Treasure

In 1987, John Adams composed Nixon in China, a work that has been called the greatest American opera since George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. In 2003, Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for On the Transmigration of Souls, a piece composed as a tribute to the victims of September 11. In 2009, Adams was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. John Adams is a national treasure.

Music critics sometimes use the word “minimalist” to describe Adams' music, grouping him with two other minimalist composers: Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

If minimalism is defined by its few musical ideas and repetitive, sometimes monotonous, forward motion, I suppose Adams' music could, in some cases, be labeled “minimalist.” However, his music contains much more. According to such writers as H. Wiley Hitchcock and Michael Walsh, Adams bridges the gap between minimalism and more traditional styles of music.
a
Adams’ music represents less of a conscious break with the past than either Reich’s or Glass’s; instead [he] draws inspiration from composers like Beethoven, Mahler, Sibelius and Stravinsky. His works have a lushness and emotional depth largely absent in the ascetic though fundamentally cheerful sounds of Reich or the giddy, explosive rhythms of Glass.... Adams has forged a big, strong style, expressed in complex forms that employ a more extensive use of dissonance than other minimalists. – Michael Walsh, “The Heart is Back in the Game,” Time, September 20, 1982 (as quoted by H. Wiley Hitchcock in Music in the United States, p. 338)

John Adams, Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986)
Marin Alsop conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra



John Adams, Nixon in China, "News, James Maddalena, Houston Grand Opera (1987)


John Adams, On the Transmigration of Souls
Lorin Maazel conducting the New York Philharmonic


While I'm in the midst of writing a blog about a composer named John Adams, I might as well provide a quote about the arts from John Adams, the second president of the United States.

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

– John Adams, letter to Abigail Adams, 1780


Eric Whitacre Conducting Actual Choirs

Yesterday I posted a blog with three embedded videos of Eric Whitacre conducting virtual choirs. In the For-What-It's-Worth Column, I've posted videos below of Whitacre conducting the same pieces with actual choirs.

The music is worth hearing in all its forms.

Eric Whitacre conducting Lux Aurumque


Eric Whitacre conducting Sleep


Eric Whitacre conducting Water Night

Everything was in Shocking Technicolor

If you have yet to hear about Eric Whitacre, he is a rock star of the choral world, a charismatic man who is swarmed by admiring crowds at music conferences. I first heard about Eric Whitacre over a decade ago when my son sang two of his compositions — Water Night and Sleep — with the New Mexico All-State Choir, and I count myself a big fan.

Whitacre’s life story should give hope to anyone who starts late in music. In his
lecture on TED, he tells about going to the University of Nevada Las Vegas at age 18 with little musical experience. When the choir conductor discovered he could sing and asked him to join the UNLV choir, he at first refused, believing people who sang in the choir were “geeky.” However, he accepted the invitation after a friend told him he could travel to Mexico with the choir at the end of the semester.

Whitacre described his first day with the choir as a transformative experiences. As the choir began singing the
Kyrie from Mozart’s Requiem, he said everything changed. “In my entire life I had seen in black and white, and suddenly everything was in shocking Technicolor.”

Whitacre stayed with the choir, learned how to read music, and began studying composition. Within three years he had completed his first concert work,
Go, Lovely Rose. He then earned a graduate degree in composition from Juilliard and has since published numerous vocal and instrumental works, making quite a name for himself through his works for "virtual choir."

As my son told me, “If you meet someone who says they don’t like choral music, tell them about Eric Whitacre."

Eric Whitacre, Virtual Choir, Lux Aurumque


Eric Whitacre, Virtual Choir 2, Sleep


Eric Whitacre, Virtual Choir 3, Water Night