It's the time of year for black cats, goblins, candy, skimpy costumes, and of course, Modest Mussorgsky. Halloween seems to come around too soon every year for me, as my costumes are part together at the very last minute, but they are often times successful. As much as we all love to be with friends and put forth fake personas on this witchy holiday, it's also a good time for a few composers. Over the years our cultures have adopted a few select pieces as being very scary, mystical, and appropriate for Halloween, all in the name of fun. To our ears they fit perfectly, but I can't help but to wonder what these composers would think about the way we appreciate their music on a yearly basis.
Night on a Bare Mountain is probably one of Mussorgsky's better known works amongst people who don't make it a point to listen to classical music regularly. If you, by chance, have no idea what piece I'm talking about, here's a clip:
Gerald Abraham, noted English musicologist and former president of the Royal Musical Association, is quoted as saying that "No work of Mussorgsky's has had a more confused history and none is less known."This piece exists in a fw different versions, but the most common is an arrangement by composer Rimsky-Korsakov. Today, the tone poem is a genre of classical music that isn't very new or innovative, but this work was one of Russia's first tone poems by a Russian composer, written after a witches' sabbath. Wait...witches' sabbath? I guess Mussorgsky knew what he was doing.
There are many other famous classical works used for Halloween, and many of their histories aren't seeded in anything scary or evil at all. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is one of these "scary" pieces of music (especially if you're performing the Wind Ensemble orchestration):
Despite this piece only being believed to have been written by Bach, it's still probably the most famous work in the organ repertory. Bach was a composer who was most concerned with the constructs of music, as opposed to its emotional influence or what it referenced, so I think its safe to say that he didn't think of this work as scary, or even Halloween appropriate. He definitely, unlike Mussorgsky, didn't write this after the idea of a witches' sabbath.
If anyone knows that "girls just wanna have fun" it's me, and you may not have the time to sit down and listen to Mussorgsky and Bach, but when you're out and about this weekend all dressed up celebrating all of the evil spirits of the fall and partaking of various adult "candies", take just a moment to think about the classical music that helps to promote this time of year - I know that me and all of the other school girls will!
Listening to: Thriller, Michael Jackson
Lately I've taken on the task of being more of an advocate for Wind Ensemble and the wind repertory. I love my brothers and sisters of the string persuasion, don't get me wrong, but I think it's a shame that the efforts (and lack of) of wind musicians often go unnoticed - especially in the orchestral world. Wind players in orchestral settings seem to dodge the bullet a lot. I enjoy dodging bullets as much as the next wind player, but let's face it - it comes at the price of lesser quality. I make it a point to prepare parts for rehearsals to the absolute best of my ability, especially for the first rehearsal, but I wasn't ready for this one!
Yesterday I took part in the first rehearsal of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 for a concert the USC Symphony will be putting on later this month. For the past couple of weeks there has been a stir on campus about the conductor for this concert, who the clarinet professor here. I received many warnings that I needed to have my part prepared, and that he, for a lack of better words, "don't take no shit". In my mind I thought, "That doesn't sound much different than the Wind Ensemble rehearsals at the University of Memphis", but I took the warning. Before the first downbeat, Professor Gilad, (the clarinet professor and conductor of this concert) said that he was told to yell at me in that rehearsal, and that he had his eye on me. This caught me off guard, and made me a little nervous. He proceeded to tell the first violin section that they were to have the piece memorized by the next rehearsal, and that he would be going down the line to hear it. Yikes!
Rehearsal commences, and he is very particular about what he wants, and the imperfections that arising. In general he seemed happy with the bassoons, but both myself and the second bassoonists began to sweat a little bit when we came to the following 16th note passage in the second movement:
Now I don't know what you know about the bassoon, but something like this is pretty challenging at quarter note = 126 or so to articulate cleanly. He repped the section with the cellos (who have the exactly same thing), and then asked to hear winds alone. The bassoons, of coarse, were the only ones with this. It went fine, but I thought it was good that the conductor paid so much attention to the winds in this section, and in general. Many orchestral conductors spend most of their time dealing with the issues of the string section, and allow the winds to kind of do what they want. As a wind player I must say that it's convenient often times to be left alone, but my desire is for wind music (in and outside of the orchestra) to get a high level of attention at all times.
I'm currently working on a research paper that deal with the topic of the Wind Ensemble being able to hold its own and sit next to the symphony orchestra as equals. Although the passage above is pretty difficult, things like this appear all the time in wind music. Wind musicians, in my opinion, are forced to go outside of the comfort zone and do things that may not be completely characteristic on the instrument when playing wind literature. At colleges and universities across the country, orchestra concerts show much higher attendance than band concerts (with some exceptions). It's not much wish to diminish the orchestra, but it's good stuff, but like I said, I want winds and Wind Band to be of equal importance. So to the Wind Ensemble conductors, and orchestral conductors who "don't take no shit" from the wind sections, I tip my hat to you. As for the rest of us, we need to take more time to listen to, embrace, and enjoy the colors of the winds. As Prof. Gilad would say, "Life is not a bagel"!
Listening to: "Colors of the Wind", Pocahontas
When I learned that the first concert of my new position in the American Youth Symphony would be Mahler Symphony No. 2, I was expecting it to be 2010. Gustav Mahler is commonly known for his very lengthy symphonies, and I wasn't sure that I would enjoy it at all. I ended up actually loving the piece, and it's made me want to listen and perform more of his works. The conductor of the orchestra, at the dress rehearsal, said that when playing Mahler it's very important to keep your focus, because unlike other pieces by other composers, once you're gone, you're gone, so you have to stay in the game. When I perform music I enjoy painting a picture of a story in my head to keep focus, so on that note, I decided to "stay in the game" with a story I'm sure Mahler didn't intend.
The picture I painted in my mind about this symphony is about two rival high schools at homecoming, let's call them the Pirates and the Bears. The Pirates are from a rich, private school and the Bears are from an urban, public school. The beginning of the symphony opens abruptly and angrily, which makes the setting for a late night meeting of the two football teams at their respective secret meeting places on a stormy night. They're discussing what can be done to beat the opposing team at the football game on Friday night. Different things are considered, and they come up with plans on how they can ruffle the feathers of the other school by playing pranks (very serious pranks). When the music in this movement gets light and airy, I consider it to be thoughts of the team captains about their girlfriends, who they hope will be the homecoming queens of their schools. When the meetings are dismissed they walk home in groups, and the two opposing teams happen to run into each other on the street, resulting in a brawl (this is the middle section of the first movement where the music is very loud and angry), but it is soon broken up by the police. The Pirates follow the advice of the officers and go to their homes, but the Bears are unhappy with this. The music of this movement ends very menacing, and this is where the Bears decide on something more to do to the Pirates. The go to the Pirate's school that same night to steal the mascot, but set off the alarm and are forced to leave. The two pizzicati that end the movement represent the thought that "this ain't over yet".
The 2 and 3rd movements are simply the homecoming dances of the Pirates and Bears, respectively. I chose the 2 movement for the Pirates because it sounds like more of a proper, elegant waltz - fitting for a rich private school, and the 3rd movement for the Bears because it sounds more rustic. In the 2 movement after the main theme is played the music gets softer and more mysterious, and this is a discussion by a couple of the football players on what they think is going on over at the Bear's high school. The music gets angry when the captain's girlfriend hears that they are planning to do something to the Bears, but he eventually woos her and they dance during the string pizzicati section. As expected, she is crowned homecoming queen and the Pirate homecoming dance ends happily. It's similar for the Bears dance, but it's a little more rowdy, as is the music of the 3rd movement. The dance goes well, but when it's time for the homecoming queen to be crowned the Pirates show up at the dance and cause chaos! Administrators come and force them off campus so that the crowning of the Bear's captain's girlfriend can commence. The third movement ends with a very dark , held by and low strings, and this is the Bear's team captain secretly planning for his revenge on Friday night.
The 4 movement, in my opinion is the most beautiful, but I think this is simply represented in my story by the national anthem at the football game. We see retrospective scenes from the school year during this movement, led by solo alto voice. We see the hopeful fans in the stand, the two teams in the locker rooms, and even the angry student mobs preparing for what they'll do if their teams loses.
I'm going to pull a Scheherazade here and not tell you my thoughts on the final movement, so you'll have to listen to the piece and create your own ending. The off-stage musicians in this movement, in my mind, are clearly represented by the two marching bands at the game, and the chorus as the fans for the two teams. There's scandal, drama, injury, and victory in this movement's story, but I'll leave it to you to decide who won the game.
As much as I enjoy creating stories in my mind about music, I would never consider myself a , but more of a Formalist, when it comes to music and musicians. I encourange you, though, to create a sort of music video in your mind when listening to classical music if you can't enjoy and appreciate it on its contructs alone. :-)
Listening to: $ha, Take It Off
I think the primary teaching vehicle in "classical" music is the student/teacher relationship. I don't use the word relationship as a means of referring to how a teacher feels about his student (or, more importantly in my opinion, how a student feels about his teacher), but that there is a sort of family tree created when studying music, except that being related (kin) isn't usually involved. Physical family members absolutely mold much of our personalities outside of music, and it directly affects our musical personalities, amongst other things, but it's not as important to people in the field as your musical tree. When traveling to a new place to perform music, people tend to want to know with whom you studied music. Depending on the reputation or prestige of the teacher, it could get you brownie points. In many cases, successful students build the prestige of the teacher, which I think is a more valuable way to make a name for yourself (as a teacher) than to be the heir of Mr. Maestro Famissimo, or whatever. That aside, I don't think it hurts to be related to someone important in your field - it is after all, who you know, and not so much of who you are, in today's world. I can't help but to recognize, though, what's seeded in us from our non-musical backgrounds, and how that plays a role in music.
I talk about teachers in response to a couple of things I've heard and come across the past couple days. At a recent AYS rehearsal one of the oboists and I joked around a bit about how black people are beginning to make their way into more of the front of musical ensembles, as opposed to just in the back (percussion, low brass, etc.). The conversation came up when he asked me if I knew another local bassoonists, who is black. The more I thought about it the more I wondered if the thought that black people are rare in orchestras is taught, or just seen. Clearly there aren't as many of us (yes, I'm black if you haven't noticed) in the classical music scene as let say, basketball, and I hope it's on that fact alone that the conversation we had would be a little funny, as opposed to it being taught that classical music isn't a realm with black people in it. We're (black people) only sprinkled around in orchestras around the world right now, but it seems that many things started that way. I'm sure there are people who can remember a time when blacks were only sprinkled in basketball, football, or even Top 40 radio. I'm not saying that we're taking over (calm down, everyone), but I think it's interesting to think about.
On the drive home from that rehearsal there was an interview on KUSC, a classical music station here, about the upcoming performance of the Barber Violin Concerto. The DJs kept making jokes about the story behind the piece, and kept talking about how they didn't want to get into trouble, so they just wouldn't go there. I assumed there was some sex story (specifically a gay scandal) behind the work, but after some (very light) research I've read that the person it was written for said the third movement was too hard. Barber had the piece premiered by someone else, despite the opinion of the other violinist. Maybe that was petty, but maybe it wasn't. Who taught us the egos we have musically? Does that come from a teacher, or general upbringing? My former teacher (who is, by the way, a black classical musician), says that musicians have to have a little bit of an ego, and I don't think I can disagree with that. I would never, however, be upset if someone else could play something that I considered too difficult - it happens on a daily basis actually :-)
My overall point is that we should, in general, be willing to consider the idea of something that in our minds is strange, different, or even wrong, to be ok. As rapper Vanilla Ice said, "Stop. Collaborate and listen" (which I'm using a. to be more pan-cultural, b. show an example of a white rapper to parallel the idea of black classical musicians, and c. because I saw it on a stop sign in a Beverly Hills neighborhood), and that's precisely what we need to do with all of our preconceived ideas about everything.
You may or may not have noticed that I do not use the term "African-American", and if you're interested I can discuss that with you some other time. Also, I don't know if Barber was gay or not, but I'm for sure not trying to imply that he was. Finally, I can't genuinely say that I don't think Vanilla Ice is kinda cool...
When we talk about the performing arts, the discussion of awareness is always soon to follow. The more aware you are about a certain thing, or the things around you, the more in control you are of your personal contribution to others, or the situation. In short, you can't dance a tango if you don't know your partner's moves, know what birthday gift to buy for someone you don't know, or have sex if you don't know your boyfriend's sensitive spots. Well...I guess you can, but you know.
When you leave the specific examples of intimate situations like dancing or music making, you can potentially get as broad as you like. I suppose being completely up to date on things like national and world politics counts as awareness, but with all of the mud-slinging and wasted money I see in it, I tend not to care. I find it interesting that we're still hearing about Christine witch dabbling, though, because that deals with a culture seen as unacceptable by our conservative friends, and where there's culture, there's music.
When I think of witches, vampires, and the like in a musical sense, I can't help but to think of a genre of music that I (shamefully) am not very versed in - Metal. I'm slowly becoming more aware of more artists in Metal, and I can see how it can be scary or intimidating for some old blue-haired ladies, but the topics of blood, death, destruction, vengeance, and darkness are all pretty interesting (and relevant) in my opinion.
You won't find tons of Metal in my , but there is some! A few years ago I was introduced to Adult "", a show about a Death Metal band called . I think the point of the show is to poke a little fun at the culture of metal, but the band has put out some songs that aren't completely ridiculous in content, if not delivery. I mentioned the buying of a birthday gift earlier, parallel to that topic, I have to say that my personal favorite track is "Birthday ". To celebrate the birthday of bass player, , the members perform a song describing how he's "running out of life" and that he should "RSVP...for [his] death". I get that the creators are trying to be funny in being overly hardcore about a birthday, but they're not completely off the mark! We're so bombarded with love songs, break-up songs, and songs about sex - what's wrong with singing out death?
At work yesterday someone mentioned Jada -Smith's group, Wicked Wisdom, which I had no idea about. I'm still trying to listen to more of their music, but right now my personal fave is "Bleed All Over Me". No one can deny that we've entered a new found curiosity of the vampire culture, with things like True Blood and , so maybe that's why I think this is a good song. In 50 years I think people will go back in say "What was it about blood sucking that the people of the early 21st century loves so much?", but they'll be talking, none the less. It says something about our culture - a culture that we need to be aware of!
I'll continue to get into Metal music as much as I can, but I don't think I could completely adopt the culture. I mean, if someone wanted to sing to me in a screaming hair slinging rage on my birthday, I'd accept it, but the gift was given, in the words of the lyrics of the song, was "a bunch of fucking nothing", because it's "the darkest, most brutal gift of all". As deep and thought provoking as that may be, I'd prefer a gift card. None the less, it's music and a culture about our time, and I'm aware of it. So the next time you're at a birthday party and someone gets an empty box, you'll understand the signifigance of it, because you're more aware.
...my birthday isn't coming up or anything, by the way.
Listening to: Duncan Hills Coffee Jingle
People in professional fields, whether it's music or mud wrestling, should be advocates of their art. I don't think I can be an exception to that, but starting a blog, I've found, is rather challenging. There are so many blogs about so many different things out there, and finding my personal niche hasn't been easy. After long thoughts in the shower, in traffic, and in general boredom, I've decided to start this blog to discuss my daily feelings about the music around me, about me, and about us all.
So much about me as a musician and a person centers around the idea of there being a place for everything. If you know me personally, you've probably heard me say that I like both hot dogs and filet mignon, and that those two things (and everything in between) have a place in my life. I truly believe this to be the case for me, and not only about food! Life is about experience; coming into contact with different foods, people, genres of music, places, things, etc. seed the depth of life experience, and I believe that the more life experience one has, the better musician (and music lover) he/she can be. How can you perform and understand Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" if you've never experienced both the warmth of the sun on the first day of spring, and the frigid wind of a winter night? Can you accurately portray John Mackey's "Redline Tango" if you've never seen the busy streets of New York City at rush hour? Maybe you can, but I think it adds a level of depth to the music if you can attach knowledge and experience to it. What does Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" mean to the person who's never been clubbing? (I plan on having a lot of this deal with non-classical music, by the way).
Of course, no one has been there and done it all (if you have, I'd love to meet you and add that conversation to my life experience), but adding limitations to our lives doesn't help. Life throws out so many limitations for us automatically, so doing the little things to open other doors can offset that. I tie this in with music by exposing myself to different genres as often as I can - especially outside of classical music! Listening to different sorts of things makes me think more about where I am, and where we all are as people. Sometimes it's good, and sometimes it's bad, but it's all life experience.
I can't, however, have a blog as a bassoonist that doesn't mention the occasional difficult orchestral excerpt or solo - I know, buzz kill. So check back often and add me to your life experience as I try out blogging in an effort to give my perspective on life through music, and music through life! It's all full circle.
Listening to: Mahler Symphony No. 2 - South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra