Wonder: Stravinsky

Igor_StravinskyHere’s a mood-altering drug for you courtesy of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) – it’s the introduction to the second act of The Rite of Spring. It’s today’s example of Emotion in Classical music, specifically awe and wonder. Even though The Rite of Spring was composed 100 years ago this year, it is still considered modern music because of how stretching it is to our ears and to any orchestra that attempts to perform it.

This movement is an introduction to a series of scenes at the end of which a young girl is sacrificed as an act of worship to the Earth by savages, but I could never latch on to that imagery. Instead, I imagine floating in the vacuum of space. Weightless, alone with the void of existence, pondering the vastness of the universe, and yet able to look back and see the body on which all of humanity lives in one gaze: the Earth. That is definitely an experience that gives one a sense of wonder.

astronaut-self-portrait

Stravinsky creates this sense of wonder through his use of harmony, or disharmony in this case. He uses a strange ostinato (a continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm) that uses a tritone interval, which is one of the most dissonant intervals. Some police sirens, particularly in Europe, use a tritone interval because the dissonance is very attention-grabbing. Stravinsky also uses tone clusters; a very revolutionary idea for 1913. Tone clusters are similar to if a person were to take their palm and push down several notes on a piano at a time. This happens in the middle part of this clip, when the orchestra’s texture becomes thicker and louder.

John_WilliamsIntroduction: Sacrifice from The Rite of Spring is a great example of how Classical music can leave incredibly tangible impressions on listeners. John Williams was an admirer of Stravinsky because he clearly borrowed from him to describe the desolate landscapes of the planet Tatooine in his soundtrack to Star Wars Episode IV. Can you hear the similarities?

I plan to write a whole series on movie composers and the ways they borrow from Classical music to create a profound impact on their audiences. I believe those who enjoy these movie soundtracks secretly love Classical music, they just don’t know it yet.

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Fury: Stravinsky

fury |ˈfyo͝orē| – noun – wild or violent anger
rage |rāj| – noun – violent, uncontrollable anger

As my final post on anger & fury, I chose the 5th movement from The Firebird Suite, entitled “The Infernal Dance of King Kastchei” by Igor Stravinsky. As you can see above, fury and rage have similar definitions. The idea of uncontrollable anger fits these clips. In the ballet, The Firebird, the main character, Prince Ivan, confronts King Kastchei and is attacked by the king’s magical creatures. The Firebird, who promised to help Ivan, puts the magical creatures under his spell and makes them do an “infernal dance.” It is a very intense scene.

The writers at Disney took the story a different direction. In Fantasia 2000, The Firebird is a creature that was awakened deep inside a volcano by a delicate fairy. The volcano erupts, spewing fire and ash as the Firebird pursues the fairy until catching it, swallowing it in fire and lava. The bird in this story has a rather demonic character and seems to be filled with pure rage. This was not the sort of anger that could be reasoned with. Here is the opening of the movement:

There are a number of musical reasons why this clip from The Firebird Suite sounds so furious. It opens with a loud, orchestral bang that can be startling. After that, there is a melody in the horns and tuba that is played off the beat instead of on the beat, like most melodies. This creates a jarring effect. The horns are playing in their low range, similar to the way they did in my earlier clip from Shostakovich 5, where they sounded downright mean. The melody is full of half-step intervals which create dissonance. There is no chord progression here – it is just a minor key pedal, as though you had hit a low note on the piano while pushing the pedal. It is sustained throughout the melody; suspended. Ever feel like time stands still when you’re angry? That is what is happening here harmonically. After the second orchestral bang, the horns jump up two octaves to their upper range. This is a composer’s trick to add intensity to any melody by taking it up an octave. But Stravinsky is an over-achiever by going up two octaves.

The end of this work becomes even more out of control as the notes get faster and faster, the trumpets play fast, double-tongued notes, the trombones glissando (slide in between notes), and the biggest orchestral bang slams the door on us.

I hope you enjoyed listening to this aggressive Classical music. There are many great compilations that have titles like “Classical Thunder” that portray these emotions to an even greater extent. Here are some other pieces that display fury and anger, to name only a few:

Rachmaninov: Prelude In C Sharp Minor, Op. 3/2, “The Bells Of Moscow” – #2 In C Sharp Minor
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring: I The Adoration of the Earth: Young Girls’ Dances
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring: II The Sacrifice: Glorification
Orff: O Fortuna from Carmina Burana
Verdi: Dies irae from Requiem Mass

Next week: Longing, love & passion.

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

Big idea

I want to create a multimedia presentation, perhaps an eBook, on the pieces of music that are most meaningful to me. I want to narrate what is happening in those pieces and what I listen for. I would include pictures, audio clips, videos, and related pieces that remind me of the works being presented. I would discuss some of the music theory behind it, but only in order to shed light on how the composer achieves the affect of the music or to explain why that particular piece is unique.

While I believe presenting facts about the music and its composer is important to developing and enhancing the listener’s appreciation of it, I want to tie in people’s personal experiences with the music. I hope to include prominent reviews of the music and perhaps some short interviews with music professors, performers, and composers. I am also interested in the opinions of those who may not be trained in classical music, but appreciate it as well.

In order to choose the format of my presentation, I plan to do a survey of related literature. This will help me find inspiration and narrow what it is I have to contribute.

Influences:

Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra
My wife and I attended Fort Worth Symphony concerts on and off for the last several years we’ve lived in Texas. For me, each concert was a delight and I was fully engaged. For Dawn, her levels of delight varied. The times where she enjoyed the concerts the most are when a visual element was added, not to upstage the music, but to enhance the audience’s understanding and imagination of the music. Her appreciation grew when time was taken to highlight sections of the music with imagery.

Two examples are of concerts with Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite, and of Holst’s The Planets. For the two suites, which are both based on mythology, paintings of ancient Russian mythology and the story of Daphnis and Chloe were displayed on a large screen above the orchestra. With The Planets, the most recent images taken by NASA of the other 7 planets were displayed in high definition in the most dramatic way. The slide shows were timed to the music so that paintings that inspired greater emotion displayed at an emotional high point in the music.

It gave me much pleasure to see her excited about Classical music. I want to incorporate a visual element to my presentation of classical music if not so others can appreciate it better, than just for her. I love you, Dawn!

Benjamin Zander’s Ted Talk
In this brilliant presentation, Zander used a Chopin piano prelude to prove that everyone can “come to love and understand Classical music.” He spoke about what it is like to perform the music, gave a very simple framework for the form of the music (going from the note B to the note A, the C is played to make the B sound sad, etc), mentioned a few related works (Mozart Symphony No. 40, Shakespeare’s Hamlet), and spoke of vision and following the long line from the beginning to the end (a life lesson).

I appreciated how he validated that many don’t have an interest in classical music, some are lulled to sleep, and some lost focus after a couple minutes and wonder “What’s for lunch?” I think it is important to validate people’s objections to listening to and appreciating it. The way Benjamin Zander overcame this is by relating the music to something personal to the audience. He told a story of how a listener was impacted by this and was able to mourn the death of his brother for the first time by listening to the Chopin prelude. This is one approach that I want to use in advocating for classical music.

Those are the two biggest influences. In future posts, I will discuss other media that influence my desire to write, including:

Fantasia and Fantasia 2000
Blast!
Keeping Score (PBS)
The Philadelphia Orchestra filing for bankruptcy
Dan Pink – TMEA Keynote speech (from his book, A Whole New Mind)

Until then, thanks for reading!