Archive for the ‘Classical’ Category

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The Knife in collaboration with Mt. Sims & Planningtorock – Tomorrow, In a Year

February 28, 2010

The Knife in collaboration with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock - Tomorrow, In a Year

The Swedish electronic band The Knife have stayed busy since their last album, the widely praised Silent Shout, in their own ways. Karin Dreijer, as Fever Ray, released her self-titled debut last year to quiet but unanimous praise, Olof has worked under the name DJ Coolof and the siblings have managed their record label, Rabid Records. As a band that takes few cues from others and follow even fewer conventions, it’s no surprise that The Knife decided to release their latest album in the form of a collaborative work with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock as an opera written for the Danish performance group, Hotel Pro Forma. Tomorrow, In a Year is based on the life and work of evolution theorist Charles Darwin. It should be noted before I dive into talking about this album that not only do I have no prior experience with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock, but their influence here is apparent. These songs are clearly influenced by these outside forces, though The Knife have a hand in writing each and every song.

First, I ask those involved with the overwhelming backlash towards this album, what were you expecting? The answer is probably more material like the leadoff single, “The Colouring of Pigeons,” which The Knife released a couple months back. With that said, it’s a bit of a cruel, leading trick that the Dreijer’s decided to release “Pigeons” before all else. A slow paced, developing operatic piece, one of the few things that the song has in common with prior Knife material are Karin Dreijer’s wispy, haunting vocals that don’t even come in until the piece is three minutes deep. In contrast, the piece has a goldmine worth of new concepts to introduce: a stacatto string section, echoing gongs, and breathtaking guest vocals. These elements build slowly to incredible heights, and ultimately the song might be The Knife’s finest achievement yet.

The Colouring of Pigeons

Barely anything else on the album is even remotely like “The Colouring of Pigeons.” In fact, it takes until the second disk for even any remotely traditional sounding song structures, and a vast majority of the album consists of glitch and noise music. This will be The Knife’s most divisive album; some people will dig what the Dreijers do here, and some people just won’t. Yes, of course a modern opera by The Knife was going to strange, abrasive and abstract. But it stands that they know how to construct such an album very intelligently, slowly developing washes of noise, 8-bit bleeps, subtle atmospherics and operatic vocals with care, the end result an album that keeps listeners either on the edge of their seats or walking out of the theater.

The best of these more difficult, progressive pieces are likewise quite subjectively excellent. “Minerals” and “Variation of Birds” sputter and whir over innovative and gripping vocal parts, but they share space comfortably with the likes of “Ebb Tide Explorer” and “Schoal Swarm Orchestra,” which explore more subtle ambient textures. Many of these contemporary, often times atonal classical pieces seek out their goals more through process and theory than listenability. The Knife travelled to areas of the world such as the Amazon and Iceland for inspiration on their work here, and some pieces match their environments closely (The liquidic synths on “Geology” are meant to emulate flowing lava), and others still represent the concepts involved with the works of Darwin, not stated as evolution but instead as his coined term “descent with modification.” The creative methods in which these tracks were both written and recorded goes on: Drums were recorded while moving underwater and in open, resonating spaces, and electronics are used to create animal sounds in random patterns. The lyrics in this album are often written in relation to Darwin’s documents or essays about his life. Music and lyrics are written about the earth, its creatures and its lifespan. This is by far The Knife’s most diverse set of ideas yet.

The Knife

Which leads us to the fact that not all of these ideas are fully theirs. Remember, The Knife were commissioned to write the music for this opera. They were given a set of concepts, ideas and presumably a stage script, and had to go from there when it came to writing and recording. It’s a wonderful surprise then to know that The Knife have made the project very much their own, crafting a set of ideas that have progressed far past their previous interests. No where on Tomorrow, In a Day will you find the previously explored themes of capitalism, gender studies, politics or fractured love. This album, even within its instrumental passages, explores themes of the Earth and its inhabitants, evolution, death, and the fantastic, turbulent life of a brilliant man. It is difficult to even think about asking for more.

The second disk of the soundtrack brings the progression of both the album and The Knife’s career into perspective, delivering more traditional song structures and focusing particularly on three pieces of about ten minutes each: the aforementioned “The Colouring of Pigeons,” the electro-gothic “Seeds” and the clattering, percussive “Tomorrow, In a Year.” All three pieces slowly shift their weights throughout their massive spans, uniquely and yet somewhat similarly fleshing out sonic narratives. On either side of the stretch of electronic epics are two more quaint pieces, the earlier “Tumult” a continuation of the first disk’s noise experiments and the latter “The Height of Summer” building a tribal groove.

Tomorrow, In a Year

The disk is bookended by two takes of “Annie’s Box,” a piece about the death of Darwin’s daughter Annie, which are melodically the same but fundamentally different due to their vocals. And vocals serve as one of the album’s key elements, among others as percussion and repetition. Voices haunt these tracks like phantoms both alive and dead, and the vocal parts were written for delivery by three performers, one an opera singer, another a pop singer and a third an actress. Seeing how vocals were treated on albums like Deep Cuts and Silent Shout, it is sensible that the vocals here are just as innovative. It is quite clear that the Dreijers have developed their music in leaps and bounds throughout their now long-spanning career.

It’s hard to say whether Tomorrow, In a Year will be a game-changer. For the new decade, it almost certainly won’t- It’s form of release is decidedly exclusive, and most people who do get their hands on it probably won’t even get past the first three songs. These facts are partially due to The Knife being and always having been elegant in their delivery and embracing of high art, even when they dealt with low art concepts on Deep Cuts. But for The Knife and company, as well as everyone who gives this music the time it deserves, Tomorrow, In a Year feels like giant leap forward, both stylistically and structurally. However, the fact remains that unless an accompanying DVD is released or Hotel Pro Forma tours extensively, the masses will mostly be left without the project’s visual component, which we can safely assume is as just as important as the aural. But for the majority of us who will never experience Tomorrow, In a Year in its fullest form, it’s jaw-dropping to think that the soundtrack communicates so much on its own.

You can listen to tomorrow in a year in its entirety at http://rabidrecords.com/tomorrowinayear/.

Tomorrow, In a Year

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Susumu Yokota – Symbol

January 26, 2010

Susumu Yokota - Symbol

A very curious little album. As far as the content goes, it’s Girl Talk with classical music, that is sampling collages with instrumental source material. Which will probably be really fun for some people and really gimmicky to others, and for others still less familiar with classical music, a bit of an adventure. Yokota still retains some of his dance sensibilities, resulting in some awfully cool sampling and rhythmic loops that make a lot of the more obvious tracks here really beautiful and even sexy (“Long Long Silk Bridge,” “Purple Rose Minuet,” “Blue Sky and Yellow Sunflower”). What’s weird, though, is that the other, less obvious tracks make it a sleeper- a lot of moments on here that initially sound gimmicky will have you (or, at least had me) double taking upon further listening, and the album has a really large, initially hidden supply of mysterious, surprising moments. Part of it might have to do with “Claire de Lune” and “Moonlight Sonata” being played out of context so much that they no longer sound like they’re in the wrong place, but I think it also has to do with Susumu Yokota just being a smart arranger. He still knows how to do a lot with a little (“The Plateau Which The Zephyr of Flora Occupies,” “The Dying Black Swan”) and has a desire to challenge both himself and his listeners. Symbol might overstay it’s welcome for some people, but given a chance it can even get doubters rewinding and listening closer to their stereos. So basically, it’s another great Susumu Yokota album.

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Off This Century – My Favorite Albums of 2000-2009

December 25, 2009
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Arvo Pärt – Fratres

August 5, 2008

Arvo Part rarely ever slips up on any of his releases, and this collection is another great release. It comprises mostly of renditions of Fratres, some of which are arguably necessary for the piece to have everything it has to say gotten out, but some are a little less exciting than others. We all know which version of Fratres succeeds the most completely…The solo violin on track two is probably the most crystalized emotion of all of Part’s tintinnabuli pieces. However, other versions are also interesting…Cello and Piano and String Quartet are also nice renditions. But the album is exhausting to listen to all in one place. There is such a thing as too much Fratres, even for Part fans. The other three pieces in the collection are equally as notable and could have been given as much attention. Festina Lente is a wonderfully tragic piece, while Summa is a bit more abrasive but equally emotional. The collection is clinched with the classic recording of Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, probably the finest tintinnabuli piece. Part composes simply wonderfully here, cascading the strings down towards a watery abyss where all of our emotions rest; fear, sadness, happiness, anger, love. It is all consolidated at the bottom, and it is a pleasure to reach it. This might not be the best Part collection to date, but fans of Fratres who want to hear the piece given more attention couldn’t go wrong with this.

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Harold Budd & Brian Eno – Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror

June 25, 2008

After Ambient 1: Music For Airports, Brian Eno decided to immediately bring another ambient artist in for the second album of the series. The choice was Harold Budd, a pianist who had played minimalist music in the past and had recently released his first album, The Pavillion of Dreams, produced by Eno. On Ambient 2, Eno is seen as the producer and overseer, while Budd is the solo performer.

And to be sure, Budd takes the spotlight extremely well. Very little in the ambient world can compare to Budd’s playing. He is classically trained, and thus tastefully restrained, but at the same time his versatility is great and he never seems to do the same thing more than once on Ambient 2. At times he focuses his energy on the subtle melodies, while other times letting the notes loose in harp-like glissandos. What stays constant is his talent. Every note seems to matter. Some notes ring out, sounding warm yet hollow, while others feel like necessary side notes in decorative flourishes. Signposts and hooks however are few and far between. In fact, a lot of the album feels improvised, mostly due to the pacing, which says all the more for his talent and restraint considering how easily the music can melt into an environment.

And in fact, he did improvise a significant amount. What Eno has said of his producing of the album is that he would often create complex production setups that Budd would experiment with improvising on piano. The two artists would then bounce ideas off of one another. One such occasion is undoubtedly the first song, First Light. Budd’s notes are echoed and spread out like ripples over a subtle background of ambient tone. Eno plays the same card later on Above Chiangmai, and equally impressive song with just as much density and detail. But this is one of the few occasions where he tries the same thing more than once, and the album is anything but overproduced. The second song, Steal Away, is conversely left bare, in fact, and it is almost always Budd at the focal point of all of these songs.

The closest Eno gets to the spotlight is Not Yet Remembered. Eno utilizes a synthesized vocal part which Budd wrote and Eno cleverly reversed to somehow miraculously make one of the album’s most memorable tracks. Although this vocal part sometimes overpowers the piano, the melody is still the backbone of the song. Budd is the solo performer and the highlight of the album, but The Plateaux of Mirror feels like more of a collaboration than any of the other albums in the series, even Ambient 4 which featured a multitude of guest artists such as Daniel Lanois and Jon Hassell. Ambient 4 is actually foreshadowed here. We hear many drones and electronic touchups meant to represent nature here, and they all came back in full force on Ambient 4. They are much more subtle here, in the form of an occasional side drone or the sound of a bird, but they still add to the experience.

The album follows the same piano based theme throughout, but there is actually a lot of variation. The songs are played mostly on acoustic piano and occasionally on electric piano. These two styles foreshadow many of Budd’s later solo albums that used either acoustic or electric piano. Many songs feel content and tranquil, others sad and melancholy. Occasionally a dash of jazz or a romantic suspension is included to add to the variety. The result is an emotionally fluid album that can at once seem to draw on past memories, while evoking a sense of contentment with the present, and also a sense of tension towards the future. Actually, this is one of those rare albums that seems to agree with whatever the listener is feeling at the time.

What is truly striking about Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror is that all of the songs are interesting and memorable. All of them. And we have Budd to thank for that, but Plateaux is also one of Eno’s most notable production jobs, and the two stand side by side in its creation rather than Eno taking the backseat. Harold Budd and Brian Eno are both talented, humble artists that know how to work together, and Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror is a perfectly formed album, and probably the best album in the series, because their chemistry works so well.

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The Silence of Being: The Music of Arvo Pärt

May 20, 2008

Four weeks ago, my Music Theory teacher explained to the class that each of us were to do a short report on a classical composer of the twentieth century. I immediately called Arvo Pärt. Nothing else could have competed. I spent a weekend listening to his music and researching him at my local library. That weekend, I had a visit to Borders and by chance stumbled upon this box set. I walked out of the store having purchased it for approximately $32.

Why it took until 2008 for such a box set to be released is beyond me. How I got away with buying it for $32 is also beyond me.

I can say with great confidence that Arvo Pärt is my favorite composer, although I am probably not alone these days. In a world where classical music is becoming increasingly fashionable for the hip crowd, Pärt reigns supreme with his unique and somewhat legendary body of work.

The Silence of Being is a box set that contains many of the composers most famous or seminal works. Instead of being a sort of greatest hits compilation, this box set is instead a collection of five previously released collections of Pärt’s music, divided up somewhat chronologically.

The first disk contains six different recordings of possibly Pärt’s most popular song, Fratres, plus a lovely version of Festina Lente, a string version of Summa, and the timeless recording of Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. The second disk contains the tintinnabuli classic Tabula Rasa as well as some more essential early polyphonic works. The third disk contains the divided entirety of St. John’s Passion, perhaps Pärt’s longest work, and one of the most respected. The fourth and fifth disks explore the composers post-1980 choral music that has come to characterize him, in great variety, actually.

Rounding up Arvo Pärt music is hard. Your library probably has some, and you can order some for cheap off of amazon. But you will likely never be able to get a single collection with every Pärt essential on it. To be sure, this collection misses many important pieces. It contains neither Fur Alina or Spiegel Im Spiegel, two of his most beautiful minimalist pieces, and it also skips out on Te Deum, Pärt’s quintessential choral piece.

These two exclusions alone make this box set’s goals seem purely commercial. Also indicative of a money scheme is the inclusion of the Sonic Rebellion compilation, which contains only one of Pärt’s pieces which can already be found on disk one of the box set. The subtitle of Sonic Rebellion is “Alternative Classical Rebellion.” Clearly aimed toward the indie kids who were already interested in Pärt but wanted more modern music. Pärt doesn’t fit in with these other artists, except perhaps Philip Glass, and the rest is essentially a baited hook for listeners who want to experience the more aimless pretensions of modern composition. I also  noticed several typos and misprints in the track listing on the back of the box.

So it’s a money trick. Yeah. If Pärt had sanctioned and overlooked the release himself, I’m sure we would have gotten a completely new compilation. Instead we get five classic Pärt compilations and a bonus disk of goodies. And for $32? A steal. I should have paid one hundred dollars for this, at least, considering what is in it. If you can find it for a reasonable price, waste no time and buy it. This is a great place to start a Pärt collection, but a bad place to stop.

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Arvo Pärt – Tabula Rasa (Again)

May 11, 2008

I was told several weeks ago that I was to do a presentation in my Music Theory class about a twentieth century composer. Arvo Pärt immediately came to mind as probably my favorite composer and perfect for the project. As much as I loved Pärt when I wrote the last review for the very same release of Tabula Rasa, I simply did not know him as well as I know him now. Part of this comes from having listened to Tabula Rasa fairly often up until last week, and then what happened to me last week. What happened was I acquired about fifteen Arvo Pärt releases in one weekend, both from a box set that I purchased called The Silence of Being (I’ll get to that later, after I find the time to sit down and comb through the five disks carefully and be able to make an assessment) and various other releases from my local library. I have been completely immersed in Pärt for the past week, and I feel that I owe it to him and this album to take another shot at the review with my added knowledge and understanding.

The 1984 release Tabula Rasa is the most popular and essential example of Arvo Pärt’s minimalist tintinnabuli style. Although this is by no means a definitive collection of all of his best pieces of the style, the four recordings here have remarkable cohesion, and the presence of any one piece plays off of the others and brings out its best. It’s no surprise that this album is so popular with music fans who are not attuned to classical music. Pärt has a knack for classical structure, but his tintinnabuli style is both focused on melodicism as well as texture.

Perhaps the most obvious examples of the active working of this contrast are the two versions of Fratres collected here. The first features a fiery, raw solo violin part that represents entire chords at once in violent precision playing from Gidon Kremer, who seems to have little trouble with the complex bowing. The second version of Fratres is played by twelve cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and this recording of the piece is alternatively subdued and more safe sounding, but no matter how you slice it or dice it, Fratres is a soaring, thoughtful, and sometimes spiritual piece. And Pärt is definitely a spiritual composer, although not really a religious, or Christian composer. Although many of his later, particularly choral pieces might reflect a religious theme lyrically, the aural spirituality is universal and accessible to all.

Sandwiched between these two recordings is the collection’s shortest and arguably most memorable moment, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. After a bell sounds off the beginning of the piece, a full orchestra cascades down over the constant pedal point of the bell like water over a cliff, or possibly like souls descending into the deep, in polyphonic parts. The downward moving strings get stronger and stronger, and then compound the dense sea of sound at the bottom. Before the piece has a chance to burn out, it cuts out, and is concluded by the same bell that started it. The word “cantus” has surely become synonymous with this piece as it is a perfect example of what kind of emotion a cantus should evoke.

The collection is rounded off with a full performance of one of Part’s most famous pieces, the twenty five minute long Tabula Rasa. The piece consists of two parts, which although are not separated in any way like on many other recordings, have unique enough ideas and emotions to make the distinction obvious. The first movement, Ludus, is a sprawling expansion on a single theme that grows in complexity with each repetition. Although the piece sounds something like more traditional European fiddle music at times, the harmonies are sublimely universal. Pärt’s experimental flair also comes through here on flourishes of prepared piano, which run rampant in the booming conclusion.

The second movement, Silentium, works opposite to Ludus by constructing a loose, polyphonic texture that delicately floats upwards into the stratosphere of the stringed instruments’ fingerboards on a melancholic chord progression which also seems to reach for the sky. There is little actual melody, but this is considered one of Pärt’s finest tintinnabuli moments and is a frequent pick along with Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten for favorite music of patients dying of terminal cancer or AIDS. Somewhere near the middle of Silentium, it sounds almost as if some ambient soundscape is vaguely introduced into the background. It might be a production trick, or perhaps even a nonexistent illusion of atmosphere, but it almost seems as if the song is ascending an icy, snowy mountain, as the air between the strings gets thinner and thinner. The piece finally fades gently into nothingness, a final equilibrium, a blank slate.

It is no surprise that this is Pärt’s most popular release to date. The pieces here are slowly seeping into popular culture; Fratres was featured in last years Academy Award nominated There Will Be Blood, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten was featured in Fahrenheit 9/11, and Tabula Rasa was used in War Photographer. But this popular exposure does not mean that Pärt is a modern classical sellout, nor does it mean that Tabula Rasa is any less of a quaint release than it really is. All of these pieces mesh stylistically and represent a time of great inspiration in Pärt’s career, and the collection stands up as a collection of four (or five, if you count the two Tabula Rasa movements as seperate) utterly unforgettable works.

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Howard Shore – The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers

November 4, 2007

This orchestral score accompanies Peter Jackson’s second serving of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic Lord of The Rings trilogy, The Two Towers. To many, including me, The Two Towers was the most interesting book and the most enthralling film, and the music has something to do with how tense and action packed the movie was. This is where hell breaks loose, and the music indicates as much. Most of the songs sway between quiet, mysterious movements and loud, dark, sweeping, full orchestra explosions at the drop of a feather. This keeps the score tense, progressive, and effective.

On one hand, the listener will hear many versions of the main Lord of The Rings themes that they have already been spoon fed hundreds of times before and probably won’t need to hear again. The Taming Of Smeagol, The Riders of Rohan, and The King of The Golden Hall are in this way songs that you may want to skip simply because you can already hum along to them. But even these songs carry the same urgency and sense of destruction that most of the movie communicated. This keeps even the familiar melodies rather fresh. But for the most part, the listener will most likely find the most enjoyment in the songs they don’t already know.

What Howard Shore has done here is craft an aural experience just as distinct as the visual and fictional experiences that it accompanies. There is a tint of Gaelic spirit in most every song, which adds to the overall coherency of the score. There are some songs meant to accompany the tense action scenes, such as The Uruk-Hai and Helm’s Deep, that do their damage very well, and recreate the dismal aura of Sauron’s lackeys.

When Tolkien created his books, he pushed his creative boundaries and created not just a series of books around his characters and events, but also a world. He wrote his own languages with their own phonetics, grammar, and vocabulary, and these languages are utilized here in several songs by accompanying soloists, as well as by booming female choruses. Isabel Bayrakdarian and Sheila Chandra sing exceptionally on Evenstar and Breath of Life respectively. But the real winner is, get ready, Liz Fraser appearing on Isengard Unleashed. Fraser has honed vocal emoting for decades using a language of angelic babel on her own, making her the most appropriate vocalist for this score. Her appearance, no matter how short, is deeply appreciated, and a bittersweet reminder that one of the worlds greatest singers still has her talent completely in tact after years of inactivity. There is some English singing on the closing Gollum’s Song by Emiliana Torrini, which captures the insanity of Gollum very well.

The most memorable themes that the soundtrack has to offer are The Passage of the Marshes, The Black Gate Is Closed, Evenstar, Treebeard, The Leave Taking, Breath of Life, and Isengard Unleashed. But this is a soundtrack worth picking up for it’s entirety. If you enjoyed any of The Lord Of The Rings movies, or have any appreciation for orchestral music whatsoever, you will really get a lot from this soundtrack, and really all of the Lord Of The Rings soundtracks. Don’t lie to yourself. Just because The Lord of The Rings has an army of ridiculous fanatics to back it up does not mean it is not quality literature. This soundtrack does great justice to the second Lord of The Rings film, which does great justice to the original book.

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Arvo Pärt – Tabula Rasa

August 26, 2007

I don’t think I would call myself a fan of classical music. I like classical music, and appreciate classical music very much, and have played classical music for many years, but I don’t listen to it in my spare time very much. I have very little classical music in my collection. The essentials mostly… Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Vivaldi, etc. And my mother is big on Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, etc. And unfortunately, most of these works lie untouched by my fingers simply because I usually have a taste for more engaging music. It is not the kind of music that keeps my ear in touch, even though it interests me. I’m not a fanatic, or a fan.

But every once and a while there is a classical piece that I hear and really, really enjoy. Many times they are various works by Handel, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, etc. The basic, well known stuff. It came to my attention that a good deal of popular music fans, or at least indie rockers, seem to have a taste for a piece called Tabula Rasa by a Russian artist known as Arvo Pärt, whom I had never heard of. Apparently this collection of four pieces is a rather big deal, and I’m surprised that I had not heard of it. Upon first listen, I was already floored by the CD which I had ordered on the internet by complete speculation. At least as floored as a classical album can floor me.

Actually, the first time I heard anything from Tabula Rasa was about a half year ago, when this absolutely wonderful violinist from my school played Fratres as a solo. It was pretty intense. He came from the audience and played as he walked up onto the stage. It was almost a little pretentious, but he’s that good that he can pull off the fingering acrobatics that are necessary at the beginning of Fratres, as heard on the first moments of Tabula Rasa. It was not until I mentioned to my music theory teacher last week, who also directs the schools orchestras, that I really loved Tabula Rasa that I found out that it was that same piece that I heard so long ago.

One thing that needs to be in effect when I listen to classical music. I only listen to classical music very loud. I’m sure there is a reason for it, but classical music is mixed much quieter than other recordings, so to get the full effect and hear the resilience, I just have to crank the volume to ludicrous levels. Hearing Tabula Rasa this loud was a liberating experience. Why this music held my interest more than other stuff I probably like more, like Beethoven or Handel, could be due to a myriad of reasons. For one thing, the pieces switch up the style a lot, which is unusual for a classical album. The album consists of four songs total. Two of them are different versions of the same piece called Fratres, one played with a violin and a piano and the other played with twelve cellists. Another song is the absolutely gorgeous, destructively tragic funeral dirge Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten. And the final song is a twenty five minute long progressive melancholy masterpiece, Tabula Rasa, which gives the album it’s name. All of these songs are surely gorgeous.

The two versions of Fratres are both absolutely wonderful, without a doubt. The piece is a ten minute long creative forray into melancholy orchestral music. In some ways, the music sounds a bit religious, but not demandingly so. I have a feeling the word “Fratres,” which is Latin for “brother” might refer to a religious figure. But I don’t think that the pieces are very religiously themed as they are religiously styled. What the two different versions allow are for completely different angles to be explored in the music. The first version with violin and piano allows for a lot of impressive, complex dynamics that only a solo can make way for. The piano adds a bit of needed mystique, and the rapid fire soloing power that the violin is quite great. The version with twelve cellos is more melancholy, and at the same time sounds more polished. When you have twelve instruments on the playing field for making music, some doors really get opened up. The cello is a beautiful, gorgeous instrument that really gets a lot of room for expansion here, and the sweeping orchestration sounds perfect next to the occasional simple drum beats that softly pervade the music.

Possibly the albums most beautiful moment comes with the comparatively brief and fleeting Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten. A mere five minutes long in comparison to the releases three other epics. This piece needs to be heard to be believed. The strings melt down and tragically swoop into the listeners ears. This is truly the sound of death, a perfect song to remember the living. Beautiful, tragic, destructive, wonderful. The final piece which consists about half of the album, Tabula Rasa, is as continuously interesting and engaging as Fratres, an already impressively engaging classical piece. I go to a lot of symphonies, and even when it is a great piece that I love, I fall asleep a lot, which isn’t good. I can imagine if I heard Tabula Rasa played all the way through, I would not fall asleep. This is, strangely enough, a classical piece that is very fun to get to know, and it has distinctly different parts that all mesh together, so it is never boring or repetitive. Arvo Pärt knows how to appeal to mass audience, I’ll bet.

This music is very inspiring, and it lets me know that not all modern classical music is atonal experimental trash. I feel like I really was rewarded by listening to the album, and gained a lot. This is now one of my favorite classical pieces, and I hope to hear more pieces by Pärt in the future.

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A Night At The Symphony

March 12, 2007

Alright, so I saw the Chicago Symphony Orchestra again on Saturday. I’m thinking it was the best show I’ve ever seen. And not just the best symphony I’ve ever been to, but the best show, shindig, event, period. And I’ve seen a lot of symphonies. I’m a pretty big fan of classical music although I don’t show it. I don’t just flip on my stereo and listen to Vivaldi or anything, like, ever, but I do play in an orchestra. So for about half my life I have been exposed at length to classical music, and not just from school, but from home as well. So even before I got to the Symphony Center I knew it was going to be a killer show. Usually they play some good stuff and some crap, but on this night it was different. No modern bullshit, all crowd-pleasers. Namely, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. So I was already expecting this to be great, because I really trust the CSO and these pieces were all fantastic. Going to the symphony can be a bit of a task sometimes but I really do love it. It’s the Opera that annoys me. I can’t deal with all the singing, but the symphony is more my niche and I can have fun just sitting and listening. I used to fall asleep a bit until I really got interested in classical music and started to realize that if a symphony can really actually put you to sleep, it’s doing pretty damn well. Like, if you are hypnotized enough by the music to be able to fall asleep in front of the CSO, that’s impressive. At any rate, tonight was going to be especially good because we had great seats, about the fifth row. We usually sit in the back balcony above the orchestra, but I hate that spot. Acoustically it’s probably better but I always feel like I’m going to fall off or something. I’m just that paranoid of a person I guess. So these seats were very good. I had to be respectful and lean back a little though, because I’m a tall guy and I was probably blocking someones view already.

We sat next to some nice people, essentially symphony groupies if that’s even possible. The kind of people who travel and see orchestras like the CSO, as a hobby. no big tall fat people in front of me, so I had no problems seeing. The first piece, Haydn’s 93rd, was really really good. Unfortunately it was overshadowed by those that followed it, but Haydn can hardly ever be considered an opening act. I was already having a fruitful musical weekend. I saw a friends band concert on Thursday and it kicked some serious ass, and I think I’ve now started to get interested in the whole band music culture, if one exists. The music was just so great. For my Orchestra class I need two outside class concert credits, and I was getting them both knocked off in one weekend; couldn’t be happier to know that I had no obligations after this concert. But Haydn is always great, and this particular piece was very delicate and enjoyable. There was a great little quartet part in the middle of it, and one of the funniest orchestral puns I’ve ever heard. You guys are going to read this and laugh at me because it’s not really that funny, but being an orchestra nerd, I chuckled. There is a part in the middle where only three or so violins are playing at all and they are all playing very quiet notes, in very slow intervals. And then there is a long pause, and a bassoon just blasts out the most obnoxious note ever from the back. It was awesome. And once again, our seats were awesome. We must have been, like, ten feet away from first violin Robert Chen, who is already quite a show to watch. He is one of the best violin players I’ve ever seen live, and he puts so much energy into his playing. It almost looks like he’s relaxed though, it’s hard to describe.

Anyway, the Haydn was pretty short for a symphony, about twenty minutes. But it ended and everyone clapped and it was very good. But that was only the beginning. At this point, the rest of the orchestra reconfigures for the guest player and all the basses leave and many of the band instruments, etc. I guess I didn’t mention who the guest was. Alfred Brendel. For those of you who are not familiar with the man, he is essentially the greatest pianist alive. Or at least he might as well be. He could play fucking Yankee Doodle and I’d be floored, honestly. So the orchestra was rearranged and a big beautiful piano was brought onstage, and then Alfred comes out. He’s in his late seventies, an old bird of an Austrian fellow, and he is kind of twitchy and his age shows. That’s not to say he doesn’t look like a very nice dude, but he’s kind of getting up in his days. When he plays sometimes he makes random little groans and twitches, but it doesn’t interfere with his playing and he is probably still in his prime. They played Mozart’s Piano Concerto 17, which is the one that Mozart famously taught the first five bars of to his pet bird. Mozart is one of those composers that everyone knows for a reason; he is reliable, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a piece of his that I didn’t like. But Mozart is about the greatest you can possibly hear, and there are only two or three composers that compare in my book. I’ll get to that later.

I felt like this was the best piece I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing the CSO do. Alfred sat there next to the piano while the rest of the orchestra started, waiting for his time, with this warm smile on his face, and to hear him start into his piano solos from complete silence when the rest of the orchestra has stopped, that’s to find God in music. There is no question. The piece was only a little over thirty minutes and by the halfway point I already knew it was one of the coolest things I have ever heard. I just have a hard time believing how anyone can play the piano…it impresses the shit out of me. The theory has to be buried into your brain, because on Piano there it’s really black and white, like fretted instruments. On a violin you can search for the right note, but on the piano, if you fuck up, you fuck up. And at that, both of your hands are operating, and Alfred Brendel does it on such a spectacular level. The emotion that he puts into even the simplest fills baffles me. And yet he puts the same emotion into huge intricate solos, and he does it flawlessly. Sometimes with his eyes closed, his elderly jowls going wild. It was a thirty minute piece that felt like ten, it was just TOO good. He got four ovations, three standing.

Somewhere in the middle of the piece, though, a woman on the back balcony caught my eye. She was either drunk, stoned, or not completely there in the head, but I still think she might have been one of the free-est souls I’ve ever seen. She was literally doing a sitting hippie dance during Alfred Brendels piece. That made me realize…this shit is pretty rockin.

During intermission, people usually walk around to exercise their legs, go to the bathroom, pick up a ridiculously expensive chocolate bar or glass of wine at the concessions, etc. But I was too floored to really stand up right then. It was obvious to me that this was one of the most impressive things to ever grace my ears. I can only think of one or two performances that have come close, and then actual recorded music which is quite different and more up for grabs. When it comes to recorded music, lots of songs strike me as just brilliant every time I hear them. Off the top of my head, Song To The Siren covered by Cocteau Twins, Fleeting Smile by Roger Eno, and Samba Pa ‘Ti by Santana. I also saw Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble a few years ago, and that was also just unbelievable. But this was totally a new breed of awesome. So you’d think I’d be disappointed in whatever the last piece had to offer. Because really, how can something measure up to this? It’s Alfred Brendel playing Mozart, that’s pretty hard to beat. Like I said, only a few composers compare to Mozart. Bach is one, Handel is another. I usually don’t think Beethoven when I think of favorite composers, but he is amazing enough in his composures that he should be making top composer lists for all fans of classical music.

To my disbelief, the Mozart was actually beaten out by something even more amazing, Beethoven’s 5th. Even if you don’t know shit about classical music, chances are you know that name. Beethoven’s 5th. Everyone has heard the opening bars. It’s just so a part of popular culture and music that it’s hard to escape. And it’s popular for a reason, most people consider it to be the greatest piece of music ever produced. It’s not just the opening part that is great… Every minute of the thirty minute long symphony is absolutely ingenious, and not one fumble is made in the whole course of the music. It’s the most amazing piece of classical music, bar none. It has load of energy and every time the piece explodes into beautiful sound within the last fifteen minutes, and it feels like about as many times, you just feel like this is the greatest thing you have ever listened to. And it’s being performed by the CSO no less, all operating as one huge wonderful unit. Everything here was absolutely perfect, the pizzicato stretch, the complex solos bouncing off of each of the sections… This shit is hardcore. If there is headbanging classical music, this is it. No question, this was even cooler than the Mozart. I’ve fucking seen the light.

Anyway, Saturday was easily the best night of music of my life, I’m still trying to get over it.