Anger in grief: Shostakovich

As you may already know, anger is not only an emotion but it is part of the grieving process. According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, there are five stages of grief:

1. Denial
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression
5. Acceptance

I believe much of the grief Dimitri Shostakovich experienced during the oppression of Joseph Stalin is expressed in anger. Much of his art was suppressed and many of his countrymen were imprisoned and murdered. What Shostakovich did not have the freedom to express with words, he wrote into his music.

Bitter anger is the only emotion I can take away when listening to today’s clip from Symphony No. 5, Mvt 1. The piano, horns and trumpets are playing in their lowest range. It is not common to hear a piano solo that is this low because it would not project over the orchestra in a normal context. But Shostakovich removes the rest of the orchestra so the piano accompaniment is crystal clear. When the horns enter, they sound like trombones at first. Most people don’t realize that the horn has the widest range of any brass instrument. They can play as low or lower than a tuba and higher than most trumpets, with little effort. Of course, in this register the horn sounds raspy and mean. Perfect for this emotional context. The same is true for the trumpets in this clip. Even through it is members of the New York Philharmonic playing, their tone here is intentionally ugly.

Michael Tilson Thomas has a great commentary of this melody on Keeping Score. He says that the fourth note of the melody (listen again if you need to) is irregular. It doesn’t fit the key, which means we can label it a dissonant note. Because it is one half-step lower than we expect it to be, it pushes our buttons as listeners. Also, if you were to look at the notes of this melody on the page, they form the shape of a valley. The notes go down in the first half of the melody, and just when it doesn’t seem they can go any lower, Shostakovich takes them one step lower than that before coming back up. The lowest note in the melody is also the lowest note a trumpet can play, an F-sharp. Interesting the that the grief chart is also in the shape of a valley.

Symphony No. 5 is Shostakovich’s most famous piece. It is filled with interesting moments like these. Be sure to listen to the whole symphony if you get a chance.

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Emotion in Classical music

“Classical music is a wonderful 1200 year-old tradition that witnesses everything that it has meant and what it means right now to be human.” – Michael Tilson Thomas

At heart, I believe that Classical music isn’t just for everyone, but it is for everything. There is Classical music for every occasion: working, relaxing, eating, drinking, watching a movie (most are orchestral scores), studying, dating, breaking up, getting married, fighting, dying, dreaming, praying, laughing, mourning…you get the idea. Songza has developed an excellent, Pandora-style radio that is meant to play music for every occasion. I would love to see a version within the Classical music genre.

Michael Tilson Thomas’ quote (above) speaks about the nature of our humanity. Our wide spectrum of emotions is something that makes us uniquely human. Over the course of history, we have turned to music to express emotions because our more left-brained forms of communication were insufficient. Classical music has expressed these emotions to a much greater extent than any other musical genre. I would argue that it has also expressed these emotions more deeply and completely than any other genre. But this is a matter of personal taste, of course.

I have chosen to advocate for Classical music because it possesses deep, personal meaning to me. Very personal. It isn’t the product of a bunch of dead white guys as popular culture would characterize it. Its meaning is simply not obvious to most because there are no words in orchestral music. The composer allows the listener to hear critically, to ask “what is this music saying? What does it express? What is the mood of this section? How does this make me feel? What images come to mind? For which experience in my life could this music serve as a soundtrack? Or for which daily activity?” I also hope to answer, “How does the composer achieve this emotional effect?”

Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion (1980)

In the coming weeks, I hope to show you just how much Classical music is personally meaningful, one emotion at a time. I have chosen eight emotions based on this wiki article to write about, one emotion per week. For each emotion, I will explore one representative piece per day, five or six days per week. Here are the emotions I hope to cover:

  • fear/anxiety
  • serene/content
  • anger/fury
  • longing/love/passion
  • elation/joviality
  • sadness/sorrow
  • loneliness/isolation
  • flippant/sarcastic

On a personal note, this series is meant to exercise my writing muscles and develop consistency. I am purposely giving myself very little time to write each post so there will be no room for my perfectionist tendencies. Wish me luck! This week: fear & anxiety. Enjoy!

Keeping Score

I am getting closer to writing my first post about one of my favorite works of orchestral music: Barber’s Symphony No. 1.

Before I do, I have a quick influence I’d like to mention: the PBS miniseries Keeping Score. Again featuring Michael Tilson Thomas, Keeping Score is a show on PBS with 55-minute episodes that are spent analyzing works of classical music. There are 8 episodes so far that span 3 seasons, and the first six episodes are available from iTunes. You can buy all six for $8.99 or each episode for $1.99. Here is a list of the works discussed:

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”
Stravinsky: Rite of Spring
Copeland: various
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
Ives: Holidays Symphony
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5

In these episodes, MTT shows the viewer the historical significance of each work and they it was so revolutionary. He actually visits many of the settings in which the work was written, performed, and places it influenced. The scenes often cut back to the San Francisco Symphony performing each piece to illustrate the point MTT made. I enjoy the fact that in many of the episodes we get the performer’s take on the music. For example, orchestra members speak to what it meant to live in soviet Russia during the time Shostakovich composed Symphony No. 5 or what it was like to perform Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

If you only watch one episode, for $1.99 I recommend the Rite of Spring episode. This is another work similar to Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra that displays the full range of what a symphony orchestra is capable of. If you have heard this piece before and thought it strange and inaccessible, watch this episode and you will be sure to change your mind.

YTSO

Continuing in the series of influences for my Big Idea is the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. In 2008, YouTube announced that it was taking video auditions for an orchestra that would give a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York in 2009. Videos were posted of conductors and professional symphony musicians giving instructions for how the audition materials were to be performed. Many amateur musicians made their audition debut by simply downloading the music, watching the video master classes, and uploading their audtion to YouTube. The 101-member orchestra was selected and it rehearsed for a week in New York City before giving a concert. This concert may be watched in two parts: part one and part two. Other than several bad transitions, this concert was filled with great music and talent.

After the success of the first YTSO, another one was assembled in 2011 at a much grander scale. This time, the venue was the Sydney Opera House in Australia. There are three major themes associated with this orchestra that inspire me:

Great visuals. In both concerts, Obscura Digital provided digital projections that illustrated the music. Images were projected inside the concert halls as well as on the outside of the sails of the Sydney Opera House in dramatic fashion. As you can see below, they are absolutely stunning. During the 2011 concert, a sand artist illustrated one of the pieces. It is pretty impressive stuff. (see 1:47:42 below). As I said in my last post, there are no limits to what the imagination can make of this music.

Digital projections during “Mothership” by Obscura Digital

Personal stories. In between pieces were videos of various performers in the concert. Each expressed what being in the YTSO was like and what music meant to them personally. Here are three:

“Music puts out your fears, your deepest emotions, your angers, everything you have inside you.” – Maria Chiossi, harp (Brescia, Italy)

“I have always had music going on in my head. This is why I love being a musician. When you actually feel the audience feeling what you are feeling, it’s great!” – Xiomara Mass, oboe (Oberlin College, Ohio, USA – originally from Puerto Rico)

“I’ve put my entire career in the hands of the internet. These are my teachers. Musicians who are no longer alive, but who left their works behind, recorded in black and white. I learn from them. I incorporate their movements into mine. When I play a new piece, I upload it. I want people to know who I am, what I do, and to appreciate it.” – Stepan Grytsay, violin (Salta, Argentina – originally from Ukrane)

Knowing part of the performers’ stories helps establish a bond between the performer, the music, and the listener. I wish that our culture revered Classical musicians in much the same way as we do Hollywood actors. When I hear performances, it can be difficult to place the performance in context when I know nothing of the performer. I have an interest not just in the performer’s resume, as though he were applying for the job of my patronage, but I am interested in his influences and life experiences. I am interested in what lead him to this point to be playing this piece at this moment in time. Right now, the audience members have to do a lot of research to follow their favorite instrumentalist or singer.

Classical music advocacy. The scope and grand scale of these videos reminds me of the Olympics. It gets me excited about Classical music, art, world cultures, and God’s unique creation in each artist the way that the Olympics excite me about sports and athleticism. The diversity of instruments, sounds, and styles that the symphony orchestra displays may be easily compared to the diversity of humanity. I’ll be sure to write more about this in a future post. Michael Tilson Thomas opened the 2011 concert with this statement:

“Classical music is a wonderful 1200 year-old tradition that witnesses everything that it has meant and what it means right now to be human.”

– MTT

I have embedded the entire Grand Finale Concert below. Just in case you do not wish to watch the entire two hours and twenty-two minutes, I have prioritized in order of those I believe are a “must see” with some brief commentary:

1:25:00 (intro at 1:23:08): Bates: Mothership – Mason Bates, composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (13:42) – Mothership is a great example of the really cool things modern composers are doing with orchestras. This is one of the highlights of the concert because it includes the world premiere of a brand new composition that features improvisation, electronic music, virtuoso soloists, and incredible visual projections. For the studio recording of this work with other example improvisations, watch this video. Even though improvisation was a major part of classical music, it seems it fell away in the interests of preserving the music in its original form. As Mason Bates puts it, Mothership brings that back. Here are the featured soloists:

John Burgess (Canberra, Australia), electric double bass
Ali Bello (New York), violin
Paulo Calligopoulos (Sau Paulo, Brazil), electric guitar
Su Chang (Beijing, China), guzheng

1:08:01: Barton: Prelude – William Barton, didgeridoo (5:07) – I love William Barton’s improvisation here. Listening to his playing is sheer joy and impresses upon me the incredible number of sounds one instrument can make, such as the didgeridoo.

48:13 (intro at 46:51): Brittan: Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (16:35) – If you haven’t heard this piece, be sure to check it out. It features each of the instruments in a modern symphony orchestra and helps audience members match the sound with the instrument that produces it. This is as good a performance of Young Person’s Guide as any I’ve heard. Watch the intro (46:51) if you get a chance.

Renee Fleming

41:20: Mozart: Cara Bell’idol Mio (3:07) – Renee Fleming, soprano with the Sydney Children’s Choir – I forgot how beautiful children’s choirs can be. They convey such a great sense of purity, innocence, and a sweetness that only children’s voices can. When I think about how broken and stressed this world is, listening to this music makes that melt away. This piece features Renee Fleming, opera star extraordinaire, and the Sydney Children’s choir. Check out Renee Fleming’s website – it is very classy. Her voice is captivating, as is this piece by Mozart.

17:56 – Grainger: Arrival Platform Humlet (3:07)
As with all of Grainger’s dances, this one is very playful. It has a mysterious energy as though the character in the piece were plotting something mischievous. I appreciate the contrast between playful, carefree sections and intense explosions of sound.

36:30: Ginastera: Estancia, Mvt 4: Danza Final (3:26)
This is some great music from Latin America. The Danza Final really gets my blood pumping and reminds me of one of my favorite drum & bugle corps shows of all time – Blue Devils 1999: Rhythms at the End of Time (click to watch)

1:47:42: Abbas & Jackobsen: Ascending Bird: Suite for String Orchestra – Richard Tognetti and Colin Jackobsen, violinists; Kseniya Simonova, sand artist (7:15)
1:58:56: Stravinsky: Firebird Suite, Mvts 5, 6 & 7 (13:06)
3:15: Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture (8:17)
1:20:32: Strauss: Fanfare for the Vienna Philharmonic (2:19)
22:18 – J.S. Bach: Toccata in F major (7:04) – Cameron Carpenter, organ
32:41: Ginastera: Estancia, Mvt. 2: Danza del Trigo (3:09)
1:37:33: Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto, Mvt. 3 – Stephan Jackiw, violin (6:48)
1:13:08: Constable: Suna – Synergy Percussion Ensemble (3:59)
2:14:46 (encore) Schubert: Rosemunde Overture

Did you like any of these pieces? What stood out to you?

Fantasia and imagination

I turned 16 years old on January 1, 2000 – Y2K. While many people were huddled in their bomb shelters at home surrounded by months of non-perishable food stuffs due to the Y2K scare, my family and I went to the local IMAX theater to see Disney’s Fantasia 2000. This event changed my life.

Fantasia is another form of music in motion. Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski teamed up to select seven orchestral works that were animated for the movie theater. Some of these animations were abstract, some depicted real stories with characters, and some featured Disney characters, such as Mickey in the The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas. It was released in 1940 and was to be the first of an on going series of Classical music pieces set to animation that would rotate in and out of the theater. No pieces were added, but Fantasia was re-released in theatres again in 1985 and it was remastered for a 1990 release for VHS as well.

Roy Disney, producer of Fantasia 2000

Roy Disney (Walt’s nephew) used the profits from the re-release of Fantasia to produce Fantasia 2000. While the original Fantasia used many new animation techniques and “Fantasound,” one of the first multi-channel recording systems, Fantasia 2000 used many new techniques as well. Most notable among them were IMAX technology and computer animation. The commentary and special features on the DVD are fascinating.

For this new Fantasia, Roy Disney teamed with James Levine to select these eight pieces:

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5, Mvt. 1 (shortened version)
*Respighi: The Pines of Rome, Mvts 1, 3 & 4 (shortened versions)
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2, Allegro
Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals, Finale (shortened version)
Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Grieg: Pomp and Circumstance, Marches 1-4
*Stravinsky: Firebird Suite, Mvts. 4-7

*Works I’d like to discuss on this blog in detail.

Here is the official movie trailer:

This film demonstrates something I call “mutual inspiration.” When art media are crossed, such as Classical music and animation (visual art), the artists from both sides may be inspired by one another. Many of the animators for Fantasia 2000 noted that they chose to pursue a career in animation because they had watched the original Fantasia and saw how the music could inspire great visual art. I pursued a career in music in part because of how exciting Classical music became when I learned to use my imagination and picture in my mind what the music was depicting. Disney’s achievement in this film was his use of animation to enhance the tangible emotions found in Classical music.

In future posts, I want to explore the way Classical music expresses emotions in ways that few other art forms can. One possible format is to pick one emotion per week and choose a different piece each day that expresses that emotion in a profound way. Emotions may include anger, rage, fear/suspense, ecstasy, peace/tranquility, and the various emotions wrapped up in love.

Getting back on topic, Fantasia 2000 is an influence because it demonstrates the great potential of human imagination in relation to Classical music. Between the two Fantasias, 15 pieces were animated out of the thousands of powerful, inspiring works the genre has to offer. This is not to mention the thousands of ways these pieces could be animated.

In my experience, it is impossible to enjoy Classical music without using my imagination and developing specific images, ideas, or characters in my mind. To me, the music has no meaning if it does not speak to some part of human experience, including my specific memories: love gained, love lost or love missed, elation in success or depression in failure, innocence or the loss of it, loneliness, personal intimacy, and divine transcendence.

Get it? Use you imagination!

Here is a quote from my next topic, the YouTube Symphony Orchestra:

“Classical music is a wonderful 1200 year-old tradition that witnesses everything that it has meant and what it means right now to be human.”  – Michael Tilson Thomas