There are many skills that you develop as a musician here at the Concord Conservatory of Music, and it’s our objective to make sure that we provide you with the tools you will need to be successful. As part of your Musician’s Toolbox, it is important to include the ability to listen and to expose you to a wide variety of music.
Listening is an integral part of all musical activity and learning. As an active listener, you develop the ability to sing or play in tune; stay in time; blend sounds; cultivate your own ideas about music, and deepen your appreciation of songs. Being an active listener means all you are doing is listening, not doing another activity with the music playing. The latter is called passive listening. It’s all about exposing yourself to a wide variety of music and learning to be an active listener.
How do you actively listen? First, listen to the song. Then go back and listen for the rhythm, the melody, what’s going on in the background, the harmony. What are the different instruments that are playing? Can you isolate what they are playing? What is the mood of the song? What key is the song written in? We’ll provide you with some questions to think about when you listen to our monthly playlist.
Each month, we’ll be sending out an email alerting you to the new Spotify playlist selected by CCM faculty member Stephen Marotto. He will provide you with some background information on the song and a question to think about while you’re listening. The playlist may include songs from a selected topic or genre and have pieces better-suited for adults and our younger learners.
We encourage you to keep a Listening Journal and explore a variety of music outside of your regular selections. One idea is to listen to variations of the song you are working on in your lesson. How is it different than the version you are learning? Your CCM instructor will also ask you about the Listening Project playlist and your selections.
Non-CCM students can also receive a monthly alert for the Listening Project. Sign-up now!
Questions? Please write to us at ListeningProject@concordconservatory.org
In anticipation of the fabulous Harmolodic Microjam jazz concert on December 1st, this November CCM Listening Project playlist explores the world of free and avant-garde jazz, as well as “Harmolodics”.
The term “Harmolodic”, coined by saxophonist and violinist Ornette Coleman, describes his musical philosophy and approach to improvisation and music making. It is difficult to overstate just how important Coleman’s music is and the influence he has had on multiple generations of jazz musicians. Comparable to the likes of Charles Ives or John Cage in the classical music world—Coleman was also a musical innovator light-years ahead of his time and whose music was often not taken seriously and even despised.
Coleman developed the groundbreaking, free jazz genre. This style of music attempted to break free from the harmonic and formal restraints of bebop, the dominant jazz trend in the late 50’s. Despite an improvisational-based vernacular at that time, the structure of jazz was rigid. Jazz combos or big bands would play tunes with specific harmonic and chord structure and improvise over a melody. With the development of free jazz, gone was the traditional tonal center and chord structure as well as a steady, regular groove. In its place was an invitation for pure musical expression and group synthesis.
It can be misleading to think free jazz is created on the spot and without structure. While there are often no predetermined formal descisions made by the players, musicians co-create the musical structure and textures as the music unfolds. The musician acts as both soloist and a cog in the wheel of the group structure. The term harmolodic refers to a state of mind and approach to improvising where the harmony, rhythm, texture, and dynamics all share equal importance.
Listen to these examples of free and avant-garde jazz influenced by these ideas, and you’ll understand why Coleman’s meteoric impact on the music world continues.
Piece 1: Ornette by the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet
We begin with the opening track from Roscoe Mitchell’s debut album, Sound. Several of the musicians on this record would go on to form the Art Ensemble of Chicago, one of the preeminent and most important groups in the avant-garde/free jazz scene who remain active to this day. The influence of Coleman can clearly be felt right from the opening gesture. There are references to traditional jazz before the group blasts off into another direction.
Listen to how the opening section has melodic fragments tinged with bebop and blues aesthetics. Michell’s multiphonic/overblow gesture begins the unraveling of the melodic section that turns into a free for all at the 45 second mark. Despite the journey into avant-garde territory, there are still vestiges of standard jazz form. Listen for the opening melody section or “head”, followed by an extended improvisation section, before the head returns at the end of the tune.
Listen to the different sonic elements the players use during the improvisation section. There are no discernable chord changes or harmonic elements, but there is a great deal of cohesion despite the musical chaos. Can you hear the influences from bebop and more “straight-ahead” jazz on this tune? Listen to how Mitchell uses these influences to develop a new musical vernacular that would lay the groundwork for decades of music making to come.
Further listening: People in Sorrow and Baptizum by the Art Ensemble of Chicago
Piece 2: Eventually by Ornette Coleman
Now listen to Ornette himself with a track from the landmark 1959 album, The Shape of Jazz to Come. This was the first album to feature his quartet of Charlie Haden on bass, Don Cherry on trumpet, Billy Higgins on Drums, and himself on sax. This group notably did not feature any chordal instrument, such as piano, and is one of the first records to fully dispense with traditional chord changes.
Coleman also famously played on a plastic saxophone to further highlight his shift away from previous aesthetic concepts in jazz to a more timbre and tone color-based approach. The plastic saxophone often has a more shrill and tinny sound which was used for artistic effect. This is one of several jazz combo records that set the stage for seminal 1961 album Free Jazz. That album is too long for the scope of our playlist, yet I cannot recommend it highly enough. You may be familiar with the adage “the medium is the message”. That is certainly applicable here with the album Free Jazz. This album consists solely of two side-long tracks presented as one continuous piece of music. In 1961, commercial recordings were released on long playing (LP) vinyl records. Since it is an analog recording, there is only so much physical space each side of the record can hold. The tracks on Free Jazz are structured the way they are because that was the maximum amount of music they could fit onto one record at the time.
Listen to the rhythm section in this tune (bass & drums). The bass sounds like a traditional walking bass line, while the drummer keeps a steady swing-like beat. Yet, they do not play over any predetermined song structure.
How do the saxophone and trumpet solos fit in with the groove established by the rhythm section?
Further listening: Free Jazz by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet and Ascension by John Coltrane
Piece 3: Moonring Bacchanal by David Fiuczynski
David Fiuczynski is a personal favorite guitar player of mine and featured in the upcoming CCM Harmolodic Microjam jazz concert. This piece of his showcases his amazing guitar playing. Comfortable in a wide range of musical styles and genres, his unique voice on his instrument always stands out in his recordings. While this track is not purely free jazz per se, it incorporates different elements of funk, rock, and world music into the groove. This track has a unique blend of eastern and western sensibilities. Fiuczynski’s guitar sounds may sound like an electric oud with its microtonal tuning. I am not sure what kind of instrument is being played here, it could be a fretless guitar or a guitar with microtonally tuned frets.
Can you hear the microtonal inflections used by Fiuczynski here? How does the different tuning affect your listening experience?
Further listening: Lunar Crush by David Fiuczynski and John Medeski, Kabalogy by Hasidic New Wave
Piece 4: Diggin’ That Harmolody by Konstrukt
Next up we will have a listen to the Turkish free jazz group Konstrukt. They are a group based in Istanbul and have collaborated with the likes of musicians, such as Peter Brötzmann. Brötzmann was an extremely important figure in the European avant-garde jazz scene whose album Machine Gun blazed a path in similar ways to Coleman. The tune on our playlist here clearly pays homage to Coleman and other free jazz progenitors, but with a harder edge rock sound. Konstrukt incorporates sonic elements of free jazz and avant-garde music in the soloing, but the bass proves a steady groove and harmonic foundation for most of the tune. Towards the 3:30 mark of the song this steady groove breaks down into all out chaos and beautiful cacophony.
Can you hear how the more melodic soloing in the first half of the song contrasts with the texture and noise-based soloing towards the end of the song?
Piece 5: Afterglow by Ingrid Laubrock
We tend to think of free jazz playing as always being high energy and frenetic, but the concept of collective improvisation can take on different moods and aesthetics. German saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock’s composition features a blend of chamber music along with more spacious laconic improvised sections. The piece ends with a mournful contrapuntal between the strings and saxophone which leads to a dramatic climax.
How would you describe the mood of this piece? What words come to mind and how does it compare to other selections from this playlist?
Further listening: Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt by Ingrid Laubrock
Piece 6: If Becomes Is and Shards and Constellations by Tomeka Reid and Alexander Hawkins
Lastly, listen to two selections from an album by cellist Tomeka Reid and pianist Alexander Hawkins. These fantastic musicians embody the spirit of harmolody and collective improvisation on a chamber music scale. I wanted to feature two selections here to highlight the amazing diversity in range and tone colors that the players can conjure from their instruments. On the first selection, If Becomes Is, Reid uses preparations to alter her cello sound—likely done with alligator clips on the strings, or some kind of putty attached to the strings. This mutes the instrument and gives it a rattly percussive timber reminiscent of a kalimba or other metallophone instruments. On the second track we hear much more jagged and irregular gestures permeate the texture.
Listen to the interplay between the two musicians and the texture that they are co-creating. How do the percussive sounds of the cello in the first track blend with the piano?
Also listen to how the unpitched noise-based timbers of the cello in the second track contrast with the angular melodic fragments in the piano. This is an excellent example of two highly skilled musicians putting their unique stamp on the idea of harmolodic playing.
Further Listening: Tomeka Reid Quartet by Tomeka Reid
Hello and welcome to this month’s edition of CCM’s Listening Project. This month we will be listening to music based on folklore, mythology, and legend. Classical music has the power to tell stories and engage with the listener in a myriad of diverse ways.
We often make emotional and spiritual connections to the music and feel that the music is pointing to something ineffable just beyond our reach. Stories passed down from one generation to the next manifest themselves in different ways in musical compositions. Sometimes, composers try to portray an affect or feeling that they derived from a story, and other times the composer paints a much more direct picture. The music we will encounter today deals with stories and myths in small chamber music settings.
Piece 1: Leos Janacek: Pohádka (Fairy Tale) I. Con Moto. Andante. Allegro
Experience a work for cello and piano by Czech composer Leos Janacek. Pohádka is based on the epic poem “Stazka o tsrae Berendyeye” (The Tale of Tsar Berendeyev) by Vasily Zhukovsky, which is also the basis for Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird. An unusual feature of this piece is that it is written in the seldom-used key of G-flat major, a key that has six flats. This gives the music a veiled or mystical aesthetic as none of the cello’s four open strings are diatonic to the key signature.
The original fairy tale is very convoluted but concerns the handsome Prince Ivan who falls in love with Princess Maria. The only problem is that her father is Kaschei the Undead, King of the Underworld and the drama proceeds from there. The dreamy opening of the first movement, representing the magical lake at which Ivan and Maria meet, leads to a touching love-duet. This culminates with a passage of turbulent syncopations as Kaschei chases the young lovers on horseback.
Listen to the opening pizzicato motive played by the cello contrasted by the fluid passages in the piano.
How does this set the stage for the rest of the movement? What kind of character does the cello represent?
Piece 2: Morpheus by Rebecca Clarke
Morpheus, a composition for viola and piano by the English composer and violist Rebecca Clarke, premiered in 1917. The composer gave the first performance herself. The piece features highly impressionistic musical language that Clarke developed and was influenced by other composers, such as Claude Debussy and Ralph Vaughn Williams.
The harmonies are ethereal and mystical; the title is the name of a Greek god, who was associated with sleep and dreams. The piece is emotional and takes you on a musical journey through an otherworldly dreamscape. Clarke’s use of the full range of both instruments adds dimension to music as Morpheus explores all corners of possibility. The piece concludes quietly, with both instruments slowly dying away into silence.
How do the specific tone colors used by the composer in this work contribute to the emotional quality of the music? What kind of landscape do you see in your mind’s eye when you listen to this piece?
Piece 3: Sonata in G minor, “Devil’s Trill”: III. Allegro Assai by Guiseppe Tartini
Our next piece comes from the Baroque composer, Giuseppe Tartini. A gifted violin virtuoso and an extremely prolific composer, Tartini wrote more than two hundred sonatas throughout his career. A great deal of mythology surrounds the creation of this violin sonata, including when it was written. The sonata did not appear in print until after the composer’s death. In 1769, the astronomer and writer Joseph Jérôme Lefrançois de Lalande published what became the canonical account of the sonata’s origin in his Italian travelogue, in which he attributes the following statement to Tartini:
“One night I dreamed I had made a bargain with the Devil for my soul……. I gave him my violin to see what he could do with it. How great was my astonishment to hear him play, with such consummate art and intelligence, a sonata more exquisitely beautiful than anything I had conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy. I felt enraptured, transported, spellbound. My breath failed me, and I awoke. At once seizing my violin, I tried to retain the sounds I had heard in my dream. But it was in vain. The music I then composed is indeed the best that I ever wrote, and I call it the ‘Devil’s Sonata,’ but it is so inferior to the one I heard in my dream that I would have destroyed my instrument, bidding farewell to music forever, if it had been possible for me to live without the enjoyment it gives me.”
Notorious for its high technical demands which may explain the source of the sonata’s nickname—especially the passage where the violinist trills while simultaneously playing arpeggiated triads on another string.
Listen to the cadenza beginning at the 4:30 mark of the track. How does the combination of the trills and melodic passages affect the dramatic contour of the piece?
Piece 4: Gamrial by John Zorn
For our next piece, we take a turn in a much different direction. Our selection here is by composer and saxophonist, John Zorn. Zorn’s music spans an immense range of genres and aesthetics too wide to delve into here. Zorn is also an incredibly proficient composer and artist, having released a steady stream of albums since the 1980s.
This song is a composition from his Book of Angels project. Zorn composed a whole songbook based on different angels from Jewish mythology. Each song is misnamed after a different angel, and there are thirty-two albums in total. Zorn recruits a different group or artist for each album. This album features the Masada string trio. Zorn’s music draws from diverse sources—jazz, klezmer, and folk music from the Jewish diaspora. On our featured track, Gamrial, we hear the three different voices play several different roles. The bass is the ostinato, while the cello and violin alternate between melody and accompaniment all while mixing in extended techniques.
Listen to the wide variety of sounds the cello and violin produce. How many different techniques can you name? (listed at bottom) * Lots of spooky sounds just in time for Halloween!
Piece 5: Songs Found in Dream by Liza Lim
More adventurous listeners can experience this piece by Australian composer Liza Lim, written in 2005 for a chamber ensemble and scored for oboe, bass clarinet, alto sax. trumpet, two percussionists, cello, and bass. Lim is a leading voice in avant-garde composition, and her works are played by the top new music ensembles all over the world.
Starting around 2005, Lim began a series of works that engage with (but are careful never to quote) the art and culture of Aboriginal Australia. The concept of song is essential to many Aboriginal peoples. The title Songs Found In Dream refers to Aboriginal song lines, where geographical landmarks embody myth. Many of Lim’s Aboriginal-inspired works draw on the Yolngu concept of “shimmer” or bir’yun. This is an aesthetic-spiritual principle in which patterns of painted dots or cross-hatchings create a visual illusion that manifests the power of ancestral spirits. Lim unifies her material through the Aboriginal idea of bir’yun, weaving together a web of supernatural, ecstatic sounds and complex timbres.
This may be quite a different listening experience for you. I would encourage you to approach this work with open ears and listen to the different timbers and sonorities created by this unique ensemble. Think of textures that emerge as patterns of shimmering sonic turbulence that fade in and out of view. No question here, just an invitation to listen and enjoy.
*harmonic glissando, sul tasto, behind the bridge, sul ponticello, left hand pizzicato, tremolo
Welcome to our first CCM Listening Project for the fall 2023 semester. Get ready to explore small chamber works by major composers of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. We hope everyone has had a great summer and is approaching the new school year with an open mind and open ears.
Piece 1: Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor, Op. 25 (Orch. A. Schoenberg) IV: Finale by J. Brahms
Our playlist begins with a confluence of two of the most important composers and theorists from the late 19th century and early 20th century, Johannes Brahms and Arnold Schoenberg. Brahms composed this work between 1856-1861 and premiered in 1861 with the composer Clara Schumann at piano. This quartet was composed for the traditional forces of piano, violin, viola, and cello. It is one of Brahms’ most beloved chamber pieces and it is a staple of the piano quartet repertoire to this day. In 1937 at the behest of conductor Otto Klemperer, Arnold Schoenberg arranged this piece for full orchestra, and it was premiered by the LA Philharmonic that year. It is this orchestration that we will listen to today.
For our young listeners who may not be familiar with some of these terms, let’s define what orchestration means and explain Schoenberg’s contribution. An orchestration is an arrangement of a pre-existing piece of music for an orchestra or similar large ensemble. Schoenberg did not write any of these notes and rhythms, rather he took the notes and phrases from Brahms’ score and distributed them around the orchestra in a way to give the work new dimensions and new life without altering the structure and form of the music.
This is also a good opportunity to think about what tone color is and what we mean when we talk about it in a musical context. Tone color describes the quality of the sound and often specifies the instruments involved. For example, in this orchestration all the notes are exactly the same that Brahms composed, but the tone color is often radically different. There is no piano in the orchestral version, and Schoenberg has many instruments at his disposal that Brahms did not.
When you listen to the lively finale of the Piano Quartet orchestration, can you hear the original instruments in your head? What sort of effect does the addition of percussion have on the music? Listen for the sections where the xylophone doubles the melodic line, and where the cymbal crashes punctuate the phrases. Can you hear how Schoenberg transformed this wonderful piece into something even more exciting and breathtaking?
Piece 2: Sonata for Violin and Cello I. Allegro by Maurice Ravel
Our next piece contains much of the drama and excitement of the previous piece, but for a much smaller ensemble. This piece was composed between 1920-22 and was dedicated to Claude Debussy who had just passed away a few years prior.
Ravel conjures up a vast number of different textures and moods in this work with only two instruments. Listen to the opening section of the piece. The violin plays an ostinato figure while the cello soars above it with a beautiful melodic line, the two instruments trade roles before a long-extended section where the two instruments play in hocket. Hocket is a musical term used to describe two or more voices alternating notes. Beginning at the 1:03 mark of the recording, we can hear the violin and cello alternating notes, and filling in each other’s gaps. The resulting composite rhythm that we hear is a steady stream of 8th notes. This movement also contains many interesting harmonic elements as Ravel seamlessly alternates between A minor and A major, giving the music a very mysterious and ambiguous quality.
Listen to the final chords in the movement, can you tell how the players are creating that specific sound? Also, listen to how Ravel makes extended use of the cello’s upper register. How does the mood of the music shift when the cello is voiced above the violin?
Piece 3: Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano is E-flat Major K. 498 “Kegelstatt” I. Andante by W.A. Mozart
We harken back to the classical period for a unique piece of chamber music composed by Mozart. Mozart’s fascination with the clarinet developed late in his life—he only lived to the ripe old age of 35, and he wrote several chamber works dedicated to the clarinetist Anton Stadler, including the Clarinet Quintet and Clarinet Concerto. This piece scored for clarinet, viola, and piano is believed to be the first piece ever written for this specific trio of instruments.
Another unique feature of this work is that the composer wrote the viola part for himself to play. Mozart was a skilled violist as well as a virtuoso pianist and played the viola part at the premiere of the work in 1786.
The first movement of the trio is a noticeable departure from other chamber works by Mozart in several ways. First, the movement is marked Andante instead of the traditional Allegro. The movement also does not contain repeats and the slow, languid nature of the music and is much different from the lively spirited character one might expect. This work was important is several ways including help popularize the clarinet, which was a relatively young instrument at the time.
This is a recording made on historically accurate instruments. The viola and fortepiano heard here are beloved and were owned by Mozart himself. Listen to the tone quality of the fortepiano, how does it differ from a modern piano? Also, this is an excellent piece to listen to for motivic development. Listen to how the opening motive played by the viola gets passed around the ensemble and transformed throughout the movement.
Piece 4: Lines made by Walking I. Up the Mountain by John Luther Adams
Let’s travel to the 21st century and the wide open expanses of Montana. Our selection is a movement of a string quartet composed by John Luther Adams in 2019.
The music of Adams is deeply entwined and connected to the natural world. He spent many years living in Alaska, and his music is imbued with a strong sense of wonder for the environment and ecosystems. A quote by the composer aptly sums up his composition process: “In the mornings, in my studio, I would search for the most fluid and beautiful routes across my musical landscapes. In the afternoons, on my walks, I’d follow the contours of the land, along old tracks and animal trails or watersheds and ridgelines. In the process I discovered something approaching a true multi-voice polyphony—not so much through my fingers on the piano keyboard as through my feet, walking across open ground.”
He composed this piece using tempo cannons to make a multi-layered texture. A tempo canon can be thought of as a single melodic line superimposed on itself at different speeds. This creates a seemingly complex structure out of simple elements.
You may think of this piece as four individual characters tracing their own way across a wilderness landscape. Can you hear how the four different voices play similar melodic material at different speeds? Are you able to trace the path of the individual lines throughout the texture?
Piece 5: Arcadiana Op. 12 VI: O Albion by Thomas Ades
Discover the beautiful contemplative movement from Thomas Ades’ string quartet, Arcadiana. Written in 1994, this piece is meant to be an evocation of paradise in seven short movements, each movement representing a different idyllic scene. Our selection here is the slow movement of the piece and is by far the most traditional interns of harmonic language and formal structure. Albion is an ancient name for Great Britain, which is Ades’ home country. The meditative music of the slow movement gradually unfolds before ending in an unresolved cadence. The viola holds on the 4th scale degree, and while our ears long to hear the major third, it never arrives.
How does the unresolved cadence at the end of the movement affect your listening experience? Can you hear the expected resolution in your head?
Piece 6: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion III. Allegro non Troppo by Bela Bartok
Our September playlist concludes with the thrilling finale from Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion composed in 1937.
This piece provides a nice bookend to our playlist. We began with a Brahms quartet that was scaled up to orchestral size by Schoenberg, and we end with a quartet for two pianists and two percussionists that has similar orchestral ambitions. You can clearly hear an orchestral texture with the four players alone.
Later this piece was arranged by the composer and retitled Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra. Bartok himself would perform one of the piano parts in a 1943 Carnegie Hall performance in what ended up being his final public performance before his death in 1945. Bartok was famous for his ethnomusicological pursuits as he traveled to remote villages to record and transcribe folk songs. You can hear the influence of this folk language that is blended with traditional European art music forms throughout Bartok’s works and especially in this piece.
Can you hear how this piece might sound with a full orchestra? Listen to the melodic structure in the piano parts. Can you hear how Bartok may have been influenced by rhythmic and harmonic elements of folk songs?
Hello and welcome to the June edition of CCM’s Listening Project. Out of respect for African American Music Appreciation month, we will feature a playlist of music written exclusively by African American composers.
This amazing group of composers and musicians have had an enormous impact on the course of music in this country that covers a wide range of genres. From ragtime and jazz to traditional classical and avant-garde contemporary classical, you will find musical titans who left behind legacies that still reverberate and have great influence today. Composers like Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, William Grant Still, and George Walker, to name a few, have helped shape the course of music history in the 20th century and beyond.
Unfortunately, many of these composers did not get equal opportunities or receive proper recognition during their lifetimes due to the dark history of racism woven into American society. To the benefit of us all, many of these composers are now garnering long overdue recognition and acclaim. I would encourage you to use this list as a starting point that will hopefully encourage you to cast a much wider net as you search for more music by African American composers and musicians.
Piece 1: Blue/s Forms: III. Jettin’ Blue/s by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004)
Composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s accomplishments spanned the worlds of jazz, dance, pop, film, television, and classical music. His music incorporated elements from American Romanticism, blues, spirituals, and black folk music to produce a compositional voice that was uniquely his. He worked as a composer, but also a professional jazz pianist and film scorer. As a pianist he worked with the likes of Max Roach and composed arrangements for Marvin Gaye and Harry Belafonte. Our selection here is the lively finale from his solo violin piece Blue/s Forms. This piece blurs the line between traditional classical music and music with aural traditions like blues and folk—and is fully written out with no improvisation, a testament to the skill of the composer.
Listen to the rhythmic energy of the violin in this movement. Can you imagine this piece as a distillation of music for a jazz combo? How many different styles and elements can you pick out in this movement?
Piece 2: Serenade for Orchestra by William Grant Still
Explore the beautiful orchestral work by William Grant Still. As a prolific and influential composer, many call him the “Dean of African American Composers”. This title and his reputation hold up to this day. William Grant Still broke barriers as the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra (his first symphony), the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television.
Still composed his Serenade for Orchestra in 1957 on a commission by the Great Falls High School in Great Falls, Montana. The piece reflects Still’s interest in American folk idioms, with conventional melodies and harmonies that nonetheless express a fresh and individual compositional voice.
Listen to the beautiful melodies and figures played in the cello section throughout this work. Can you hear the influence of folk and traditional music on these melodies?
Piece 3: Merce and Baby by George Lewis
Taking a sharp left turn aesthetically, we dive into the music of George Lewis and his work Merce and Baby, which is scored for flute, violin, cello, and drum set. Lewis is one of today’s most prominent composers as well as a musicologist and trombonist, and holds a teaching position at Columbia University.
The title of the work refers to the 1946 Merce Cunningham dance show “Fast Blues” and its music by drummer Baby Dodds. Dodds was an important drummer from the early jazz/pre big band era who played with Louis Armstrong. He was among the first drummers to be recorded while improvising and is known for his creative drumming.
With vastly different backgrounds (music and dance), Cunningham and Dodds used different approaches to collaborating. Cunningham believed that the dance should not relate to the music, rather it was for the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Dodds came from the jazz tradition where the drummer provided the essential background that accompanied the ensemble. The work by George Lewis aims to depict this dichotomy. The dancers are represented by the flute, violin, and cello, and the drum set plays rhythms that are transcriptions and extrapolations of Baby Dodd’s drumming. The two pairs have a non-dialogic relationship, meaning that each exists in its own world without any meaningful interaction.
Can you hear how the two groups or instruments exist in relation to one another? How does the fusion of jazz rhythms and contemporary classical sounds affect your interpretation of the piece?
Piece 4: Solace by Scott Joplin
You’re likely familiar with American composer and pianist Scott Joplin. Dubbed the “King of Ragtime,” he composed more than 40 ragtime pieces, including the famous Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer. Ragtime, first celebrated in the 1890s, blended African American musical styles (including work songs and gospel hymns) with European forms and melodies. Joplin’s influence on classical and popular music through the years cannot be overstated. Our selection here is a piece called Solace, which is subtitled A Mexican Serenade. Compositionally unique, it features elements of the tango and habanero dance rhythms.
How would you describe the mood and emotions of this work? Can you hear the mixture of the tango elements with ragtime?
Piece 5: The Little Suite by Roscoe Mitchell
Dive into the world of free jazz with a track from the seminal album Sound by the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet. This is the debut album of Roscoe Mitchell, and it features contributions from several musicians that would later come to be known as the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
As a landmark recording and template for many artists to draw upon, this album contains wide-open spaces between instruments in between high-energy climaxes and showcases a more abstract quality to its solos. Steady rhythmic pulses were mostly discarded in favor of collective, spontaneous dialogues and novel textures (including some strange and unusual instruments).
An exploration of pure sound, the album made up its own rules, allowing musicians’ imaginations to run wild.
As you listen to this piece, think of it as a blank canvas for the musicians to paint metaphorically with their individual sounds. A musical Jackson Pollock painting, if you will.
What kind of images come to mind while listening to this music? How does this piece compare to other kinds of improvised music you’ve heard before?
Piece 6: Joy Boy and Buddha by Julius Eastman
We give you two final selections by the avant-garde composer and performer Julius Eastman. Eastman tragically died young and did not receive recognition during his lifetime for his musical brilliance and innovations. Eastman should be mentioned in the same breath as composers like John Cage and Terry Riley for his contributions to contemporary music. His music has been re-evaluated in recent years and is finally getting the acclaim he deserves.
Eastman’s music often intertwined with his identity as a black queer man in a time where there was far less acceptance than there is today. One of his innovations was with his musical notation and his relationship to performers. His scores are often (but not always) starting points for guided improvisation, and due to the nature of the aleatoric music, no two performances would ever be the same.
His music also featured open instrumentation, meaning that many kinds of ensembles could realize his work. His compositional output was so rich and varied I decided to include two separate pieces by him. The first piece, Joy Boy, calls for any four treble instruments. The players are interpreting written-out material while there is space left for improvisation. The first line of the score reads simply “create ticker-tape music” to describe the mood of the music.
Listen to how the specifically notated rhythms collide with the freer open material. Can you hear the delineation between the two? How does the addition of the performer’s voices affect your listening experience?
Our second piece Buddha is a much more meditative and open-ended piece of music. The score is a single handwritten page drawn in the shape of an egg. There are no instructions or specified instruments, rather the performers must choose what path to take through the written notes on the page. The results can be transcendent and beautiful as the recording here shows.
No questions to ask regarding Buddha—simply accept this invitation to listen to it with open ears and let the music flow.
Hello and welcome to the May edition of CCM’s Listening Project. This month, we focus on drums and all things percussion. Found in every culture around the world, percussion instruments create a universal language with a visceral response to the sound of a drumbeat. The expansive world of percussion includes innumerable instruments found in every music genre. For classical music, the range of percussion instruments provides composers with a vast soundscape—from marimbas and xylophones, which use mallets and contain the same notes as a piano, to unpitched instruments played with our hands. We’ll explore a small sample of percussion music in both classical and non-classical idioms in our playlist today.
Ionisation by Edgard Varese
Ionisation, composed from 1929 through 1931, is one of the first pieces in western classical music written exclusively for percussion instruments—specifically scored for thirteen percussionists. A watershed moment in the history of classical music, Ionisation was one of the first attempts to move beyond music that was organized strictly around pitch. The arrangement around rhythmic cells and motives, and the different tonal colors of the percussion instruments, set it apart from previous pieces. Varese used several categories of percussion instruments in this piece: instruments with definite pitch (for example, the glockenspiel and chimes); instruments with sliding or continuously changing pitch (like the siren and lion’s roar); and instruments with no definite pitch (like the cymbal and bass drum). This ensemble with its vast array of different sounds opens a whole new world to Varese, and the composers who came after him.
Listen carefully to how he used the various kinds of percussion instruments. How many different instruments can you identify in this piece?
Steps – What Was by Chick Corea
Chick Corea’s groundbreaking and classic album released in 1968, Now He Sings Now He Sobs, still sounds fresh and dynamic and includes the great tune Steps – What Was.
Although piano is technically a percussion instrument, the reason I included this tune here is to listen to the virtuosic drumming of Roy Haynes. Haynes is one of the most important and most frequently recorded jazz drummers in history. He was born in Boston in 1925 and is still with us at age 98! Haynes’s career began in 1942 and spans every era in jazz music. He played with many titans of jazz such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Lester Young, and Eric Dolphy – just to name a few.
Haynes’ propulsive drumming holds this song together. This song is two separate tunes linked together with an expansive drum solo.
How does the drum solo in the middle of this song add to the overall shape of the piece?
Out of the Blue by Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain, and Edgar Meyer
Get ready to explore an intriguing example of world music fusion with a tune from the album The Melody of Rhythm. This album features an amalgamation of distinctive styles and genres. From the bluegrass twang of Fleck’s banjo, the folk and jazz playing of Meyer on the bass, and the Indian classical influence of Hussain on the tabla, a wonderful new combination of sounds arises.
Give special attention to the unique sound of the tabla played on this track. The tabla is a pair of drums, played with the fingers. It is used extensively on the Indian subcontinent and is the main percussion instrument in Hindustani classical music. The tabla creates a wide range of both pitched and unpitched sounds. Listen to the way the tabla interacts with the two other instruments in this tune. There are sections where the tabla sets a steady groove, and other sections where it has more of a call and response role. The tabla plays a unique role in this piece as it provides the basis for both the harmony and rhythm of the group, thus explaining the appropriate album title, The Melody of Rhythm.
In this piece, the tabla player performs a few roles: provides a steady groove, acts as a soloist, and gives a harmonic drone. Can you hear how the tabla player shifts between these roles over the course of the tune?
Nagoya Marimbas by Steve Reich
Take a listen to a marimba duet composed by one of America’s most famous living composers, Steve Reich. Reich was heavily influenced by the experimentalist tradition in American classical music in the 60s and developed a unique voice that has influenced generations of composers. He is one of the most well-known composers of minimalist music, although that term can be misleading. The term minimalist does not necessarily mean that the music is spare and passive; rather, it refers to the compositional material and forms used. Reich, compared to many other composers, uses lesser amounts of pitch and rhythmic material that is extrapolated upon to create much larger textures. A good example of this—Nagoya Marimbas.
Reich uses a technique known as rhythmic phasing, which is one of the hallmarks of his compositional style. Phasing is a technique where two similar musical motives are played at once while slowly drifting out of phase with one another. This idea came from electroacoustic music, where music played on two different tape machines would eventually drift apart.
Listen to how the first marimba plays a steady, repeating motif while the second marimba plays a slowly accumulating motif that eventually emulates the first part.
Listen carefully to the interaction of the two marimbas. How does rhythmic phasing affect your sense of meter and pulse while you listen?
Ondas (Na Ohlos De Petronila) by Brazilian percussionist and multi-instrumentalist, Nana Vasconcelos
An incredible musician, Vasconcelos mixed the indigenous sounds of his native Brazil with jazz musicians from around the world. My favorite albums by him include his collaborations with Don Cherry and Colin Walcott under the group name, Codona—albums definitely worth seeking out and listening to.
Vasconcelos plays all the instruments and vocals in this tune and uses a vast array of percussion instruments to create his unique soundscape. Some of the instruments include a talking drum, a pandiero, which is like a Brazilian tambourine, and a caxixi, which is a maraca-like shaker instrument.
Can you pick out all the individual layers of percussion as the tune builds towards its climax around the 6-minute mark?
Flora Aura by Billy Martin
A must-listen: Flora Aura, a live, improvised solo percussion set by Billy Martin. Martin is a personal favorite musician of mine, and is part of the jazz trio Medeski, Martin, and Wood. An incredibly creative drummer and percussionist, Martin’s goes well beyond the range of a typical jazz drum set. In this tune, he improvises using an instrument called the Mbira. This is an instrument that originated in Zimbabwe and is closely related to the Kalimba. This instrument consists of a wooden sounding board with metal tongues of varying lengths. The mbira is in a category of instruments known as lamellophones—instruments that contain metal tongues which, when plucked, produce sound.
Do you perceive this instrument more as a melodic instrument or as a rhythmic instrument?
Silver Street Car for the Orchestra by Alvin Lucier
To conclude our list this month we turn to a curious piece of music written for solo amplified triangle by Alvin Lucier. Lucier was an incredibly influential composer and sonic innovator. His music can often be described as “concept music” or “sound art,” where the form and structure of the music are ordered in such a way to highlight a specific aural phenomenon. His music constantly plays with the limits of human perception and has altered the way I listen to music in general.
One of his most well-known pieces, I am Sitting in a Room, consists solely of spoken words: the title is all the text used in the piece. The sentence is recorded, and then re-recorded repeatedly on the same tape until the words become unintelligible. Listening to a performance of this live is quite an experience, you can hear how the words slowly fade into noise, and all you are left with is the resonant frequency of the room you are in.
Our piece at hand, Silver Street Car, is all about subtlety and slowly shifting sound – and hearing all the different possible resonances that can come out of a triangle. The percussionist strikes the instrument at a steady rate, and what changes is the location of where they strike it and the performer’s hand muting the instrument. As the instrument becomes more muted, the fundamental frequency is dampened while the high frequency overtones shine through.
Listen carefully to the different tone colors and overtones that can come out of a single triangle. Can you hear how the way the instrument resonates changes slowly throughout the work?
Hello and welcome to the April edition of CCM’s Listening Project. This month we have a very exciting theme: music composed for piano. As you’ll see in the playlist below, this is an incredibly wide-ranging topic that includes many sounds you might not have heard a piano produce before. I tried to fit the broadest range of aesthetics into a single playlist, so each selection will have its own distinct sound. It is quite difficult to say anything enlightening about the piano that has not already been stated.
The piano is such a ubiquitous and well-known instrument, and one of the most commonly played. The piano holds a very important place in the history of all kinds of music around the world. Before commercial recordings became widely available in the first few decades of the 20th century, if you wanted to hear music, one had to play it oneself. It was common for every house to have a piano and for people who were interested in music both professionally and casually to have proficiency on the instrument.
The piano is also a fascinating machine and a technological wonder. The modern piano has over 12,000 individual parts, and has gone though many iterations over the years as technology has progressed. My aim with this playlist is to show you many different kinds of music written for the piano, challenge your assumptions about the instrument, and expose you to some new and wonderful sounds.
Nola by Felix Arndt
We begin our musical journey this month with a light-hearted and whimsical number by Felix Arndt. This piece was written as an engagement gift to his future wife, Nola Locke. Nola is thought to be among the first pieces in the novelty ragtime genre. Arndt wrote many popular music tunes, but is perhaps best remembered for this composition. Arndt was also a talented pianist who recorded many piano rolls, some of which still exist to this day. Piano rolls are continuous rolls of paper with holes cut into them. The perforations represent notes and other data like pedal action and volume. The roll moves over a reading system known as a “tracker bar” which uses a vacuum to sense when there is a hole in the paper. Each musical note is triggered when a perforation crosses the bar and is read. The completed roll could then be played back by a player piano, something which we will encounter later in our playlist.
Ragtime was an important genre that became very influential to many other styles of American music such as jazz, blues, and rock. What aspects of this tune remind you of other styles of music? What characteristics or features of this tune did you enjoy listening to?
Sechs Moments Musicaux, II. Andantino in A flat Major by Franz Schubert
Next up on our playlist is a movement from Franz Schubert’s Sechs Moments Musicaux. Schubert was one of the most important composers from the early Romantic period, and he died tragically at the young age of 31. Despite his brief time on Earth, we have a rich catalogue of repertoire that he left behind. Some of his most well-known works include the Cello Quintet and his “Unfinished” symphony. He also composed many volumes of piano music, such as our piece here.
I selected this specific recording not just to showcase the beautiful music, but also the instrument. This recording was made on a historically accurate instrument, the fortepiano. The fortepiano was a transitional instrument standing between the clavichord and the modern piano. It was first developed in the 1720s, and the first documented music written for it appears in 1732. It did not gain widespread popularity until the 1760s; later, it became the instrument of choice of Mozart and Beethoven and was widely used throughout most of the 19th century. The important developments in this instrument are the expanded range and the first use of the sustain pedal, which is crucially important to modern piano technique. The instrument featured leather hammers instead of felt hammers, and did not have steel bracing, thus making the instrument much softer than its modern counterpart.
How does the sound of the fortepiano compare to the modern piano in your opinion? How does the nature of the instrument affect the expressive quality of the performance and color the music?
Celestial Mechanics “Makrokosmos IV”: II. Beta Cygni by George Crumb
For our next selection, we pivot from Vienna in the 19th century to West Virginia in the late 20th century. George Crumb was an incredibly important figure in American contemporary classical music. Those dedicated Listening Project followers may recognize his name, as his music has been selected here several times, most recently last year to commemorate his passing. Crumb had a distinct and innovative style and was a pioneer in composing with extended techniques for the piano. Extended techniques is a term that represents methods of sound production that are outside of the standards for that instrument.
The piano is a unique instrument that presents many opportunities for extended techniques. The piano is a keyboard instrument, but it may also be thought of as a percussion instrument. The instrument also contains over 200 strings, which the pianist may use directly to make sounds instead of depressing a key. One may strum the strings, or pluck them individually, as well as striking the body of the instrument in various places to produce percussive sounds. The strings of the piano are particularly useful for the technique featured in this selection: harmonics.
For those of you out here who play string instruments, you may be very familiar with how harmonics work. These phenomena do not apply only to string instruments; any string held under tension will exhibit the same properties. Just like on a cello or guitar, lightly touching the string at the correct nodal point will activate a harmonic. The same is true for piano. This piece is for 4 hands, which opens up even more possibilities for extended techniques inside the piano. Listen carefully to all the different tone colors that Crumb combines in this movement. He often constructs melodic fragments using simple motifs and ideas and augments them with the enormous color palette available to him inside the piano.
If you didn’t know this was a piano composition, you might not realize what instrument was being played. What other instruments does the piano resemble in this movement? How do the harmonics affect the mood and character of the piece?
Pictures at an Exhibition: X. The Great Gate of Kiev by Modest Mussorgsky
Next up, we have the iconic suite for piano by Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition. This is a very well-known piece, and probably the composer’s magnum opus and most famous work. The suite comprises 10 movements plus a recurring Promenade theme. The structure of the work is inspired by a collection of paintings by Viktor Hartmann that were on display in St. Petersburg. The Promenade music is an overture of sorts, and the various recurrences of the theme throughout the work depicts the composer walking from one painting to the next.
This work is perhaps best known for Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of the piece, which is a staple of orchestral repertoire around the world today. I would highly recommend listening to the orchestral version in its entirety. Comparing the original suite to Ravel’s orchestration can provide many insights into the structure of the music.
Listen to the way the promenade theme is expanded upon and embellished throughout this movement. What orchestral instruments do you imagine playing this theme? Can you hear how this piece easily lends itself to being fleshed out for orchestra? What other instrumentations can you imagine for this work?
Studies 1-12: Study 3a and 3b by Conlon Nancarrow
This playlist is comprised of all piano compositions – however, no one stipulated that a human must be playing the piano!
The following two compositions by Conlon Nancarrow are for player piano, which is a self-playing piano that operates by pre-programmed music on a paper roll. During Nancarrow’s composition studies, he began composing music of greater and greater complexity. He found very few musicians who could provide satisfactory performances, so he turned to mechanical methods to further realizer his compositions.
The player piano can do many, many things a human cannot. The piano can play any combination of notes at any time, while a human would usually be confined to 10 notes, and there is maximum speed at which fingers can fire. Removing himself from such limitations provided a tabula rasa on which to experiment. Nancarrow superimposed different rhythms and tempi on top of one another to create very intricate rhythmic structures. The two selections here are from his Boogie Woogie Suite and imitate the harmonic language of pianists like Art Tatum.
The first of the player piano pieces, Study 3a, is quite chaotic, but there is a familiar harmonic structure. Can you hear the 12-bar blues progression in the bass register that underlines the music? The second piece, Study 3b, exists in a musical “uncanny valley” of sorts. It sounds almost like a human is playing, but there is enough evidence throughout the piece that it is indeed a player piano. Does this sound like something a human can reproduce on a real piano?
Daughters of the Lonesome Isle by John Cage
Our next piece takes a pretty sharp left turn and leads us to a very unexpected place. This composition by John Cage is for prepared piano. A prepared piano can mean many things, but in this instance Cage uses bolts, screws and other various small metallic objects that are places between this strings.
The objects inserted into the strings drastically change the sound of the instrument, and instead turn the piano into a large metallophonic percussion section. The piano in this piece sounds more like a gamelan or a steel drum than a piano. John Cage developed these ideas while writing music for a percussion section to accompany a dance company. The hall was too small to fit a percussion section – only a single grand piano was available. Cage then turned to preparing and modifying the piano to emulate these sounds. This music was written to accompany dancers, hence the rhythmic flow to the music.
Have you ever heard sounds like these emanate from a piano? Can you picture a percussion ensemble in your mind’s eye while listening to this? Are there any specific instruments that this work reminds you of?
Three Quarter-Tone Pieces for Two Pianos: Chorale by Charles Ives
For our conclusion this month we turn to one of the greatest American composers, and native New Englander, Charles Ives. Ives was a musical pioneer far ahead of his time and has inspired many generations of composers with his innovations. Ives also composed the “Concord Sonata,” which is truly a must-listen for anyone in the Concord community.
The sonata is a four-movement work, and each movement is dedicated to a different transcendentalist figure. Ives experimented with many different techniques throughout his musical career, including using microtones on a piano. The piece featured here is for two pianos: one tuned normally, and the other tuned one quarter tone higher. A quarter-tone is not a note typically found on a keyboard instrument. You can think of a quarter-tone as simply a semitone sliced in half, or the notes between the notes. The combination of these two instruments means the harmonic space is totally blurred by the second piano, and every note the second piano plays will result in a very dissonant clash with the first piano. This produces an other-worldly effect where we can hear unique harmonies and combinations of tones.
The music is still steeped in a romantic affect; if you were to listen to each part individually, they would sound far more conventional. This piece foreshadows many musical movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, which explore microtones and alternate tuning systems that deviate quite dramatically from the 12-tone equal-tempered system.
How does listening to this music alter your perception of what is dissonant and what is consonant? How does the quarter-tone tuning affect the emotional content of the music?
Rest in Peace, Wayne Shorter (1933-2023)
Hello and welcome to the March ’23 edition of CCM’s Listening Project. This month’s playlist will focus on jazz. Jazz contains an incredibly broad spectrum of music and ideas, and we will dive into a small slice of it together in this playlist.
What constitutes the genre of jazz is almost impossible to define neatly, but one thing we can say for sure is that it is a quintessentially American art form. Jazz is a constantly evolving form of music, and has been since its very inception. Jazz music originated in New Orleans in the early 20th century. The unique geography and culture of this city helped create the perfect environment for the genre to flourish in its early days. New Orleans has a history of both French and Acadian migration. In addition, there were major influences from the African diaspora, the Caribbean, and Latin American cultures. Jazz can be seen as an amalgam of all of these influences that became something greater than the sum of its parts, which includes harmonies and forms from Western classical music and ragtime combined with rhythms from Africa and the Caribbean. Jazz has always been a musical creole of many different languages, and we will explore a few of these directions today.
Piece 1: Watermelon Man by Herbie Hancock
We begin our journey with one of the most famous and important living jazz musicians, Herbie Hancock. His accomplishments and contributions to jazz are far too great to cover here. He has played on countless albums both as a sideman and leader, including this album, Headhunters, which is one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. This album was a watershed moment for the jazz-funk movement in the early 70s and brought this style of music to a whole new audience.
Listen to how Hancock builds the groove in this song. It begins with tuned glass bottles and other electronic effects. Then the bass enters by itself with an instantly recognizable riff. This is followed by the drums and Hancock comping on the clavinet, which is an electroacoustic keyboard instrument that almost sounds like a guitar. At the 1:45 mark, we jump into the melody and the form of the tune.
How does the build-up in the intro add to the overall experience of listening to the song? Can you follow the different layers present throughout the song?
Piece 2: Ensenada by Bennie Maupin
Our next selection takes us to perhaps an unexpected place, with the first track from Bennie Maupin’s debut album as a leader, The Jewel in the Lotus. Maupin is a multi-instrumentalist reed player (saxophone, bass clarinet, etc.) and contributed to many fundamental jazz albums in the late 60s and 70s by the likes of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. He was the saxophone player on the previous track.
The music here unfolds in a similar way but with a few key differences. Maupin also uses texture and tone color to create the song’s foundation. Listen to the steady rhythm in the bass and how the instruments layer on top. Around the 1:45 mark, we hear a melodic gesture fade in on the flute and marimba. This is an example of free jazz, which was an incredibly important sub-genre that branched off from the mainstream beginning in the late 50s with the music of Ornette Coleman. This song can be described as free jazz because it contains no discernible meter or form. There is a central melody present, and the other players are free to improvise around it while mutually creating the tone, color and mood of the song.
How does this song compare to other jazz tunes you have heard? Does the lack of a steady meter change how you listen to the song?
Piece 3: Autumn Leaves by Cannonball Adderly
Our next track, from the album Somethin’ Else with Blue Note Records, takes us back to the late 50s and the Hard Bop era of jazz. Cannonball Adderly was a member of Miles Davis’ quintet at the time, and this record was made in 1958, just after the group recorded his seminal Milestones album. While Somethin’ Else is credited to Adderly as the leader, Miles Davis’ impact on this record cannot be passed over. He was under contract with Columbia Records, so this may have been a strategy for him to record with Blue Note. Miles takes the first solo and chose most of the material for the record. This would be the last record where Miles played as a sideman. Somethin’ Else can also be seen as a sort of precursor to the musical breakthroughs on Kind of Blue, which would be released the following year in 1959.
For our selection here, Adderly and Davis provide us with a unique take on the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves.” The intro to this tune features a vamp in the bass line with a straight-ahead groove before the main melody enters around the 1:00 mark. After several rounds of solos and the return of the head, the band drops out except for the piano, which drifts into an impressionistic solo. Then at the 9:00 mark, the song melts back into the opening groove, now heard at a much slower pace, which provides a beautifully somber end to the song.
What sort of mood or emotions would you use to describe this song? How does using a different groove for the intro and outro add to the overall experience?
Piece 4: Palladium by Weather Report
For our next selection, we jump to the 1970s and the world of Jazz Fusion. This sub-genre can be a very broad and nebulous term, but several salient features distinguish it from more traditional jazz styles. Fusion, in general, makes use of a combination of electric and acoustic instruments. A bass guitar often replaces the double bass, and electric keyboards replace the piano. The term originates from a fusion of jazz and rock; there is an instrumentation akin to a jazz combo but combined with the energy and rhythm of rock music. Instead of a swing pattern, fusion tends to have a straight-ahead feel.
Jazz Fusion also incorporates styles from around the world, particularly from Brazil and other Latin America countries. One of the main torchbearers of the fusion movement was Wayne Shorter, who founded the band Weather Report shortly after he departed from Miles Davis’s group.
In the mid-70s, Weather Report recruited Jaco Pastrorius to join the band. He was an immensely talented electric bass player who revolutionized the instrument. He played a fretless bass, which opened the door to new sonic possibilities. Our selection of “Palladium” from the Heavy Weather album features Pastorius’ playing quite prominently. The bass traditionally provides the harmonic foundation and the groove of tune, but Jaco does both things while also acting like a lead instrument.
Listen to how Jaco’s unique sound propels the song forward. Can you hear how the bass fills multiple roles simultaneously throughout the tune? What are some world music influences that you can hear in this song?
Piece 5: Morning Prayer by Pharaoh Sanders
Next, we move to the music of Pharaoh Sanders, who was one of the founding fathers of the Spiritual Jazz movement. This sub-genre contains a mix of free jazz and often has meditative qualities to it. The music is imbued with religious and philosophical ideas and strives to be a vehicle that transports the listener to a transcendent state of mind. Another notable feature of this style is the heavy influence of African and Asian cultures, which can be heard here in our selection.
This song begins with a cascade of African percussion instruments before the groove kicks in around the 1:00 minute mark. Another feature is the lack of harmonic movement. This song uses only two chords; however, both harmonies can be derived from a single mode that permeates the whole song. The harmonic stasis gives the soloist a very wide range of possibilities for their solos.
How does the lack of harmonic movement affect your listening experience? How many different percussion instruments can you pick out from the texture?
Piece 6: Bubblehouse by Medeski, Martin, and Wood
We now take a left turn with the avant-garde jazz trio Medeski, Martin, and Wood. The trio formed in New York City in the early 90s and have explored the boundaries between many genres, such as funk, free jazz, blues, and electronic music, throughout their career. This group has frequently challenged what can be categorized as jazz. It is important to remember that genre classifications are just labels to help us better understand the aesthetics of the music and are by no means concrete immutable objects. Jazz is a constantly evolving and breathing organism.
The song on our playlist, “Bubblehouse,” showcases collective synergy. The song features a long accelerando to a frantic tempo followed by a ritard back into the initial groove. The musicians demonstrate remarkable skill in maintaining the groove as the tempo ebbs and flows.
This song is an excellent example of three musicians communicating and co-leading a song together. Have you encountered situations similar to this in your study of classical music?
Piece 7: In a Sentimental Mood by Duke Ellington and John Coltrane
Our next selection comes from a one-off collaboration that featured two of the most important jazz musicians to ever live, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. This is a rare opportunity to hear Ellington in a small jazz combo instead of the big bands he was well-known for. The album contains many Ellington compositions that have become standards, like our selection, “In A Sentimental Mood.” This beautiful ballad is a showcase for Coltrane’s most tender and lyrical playing on the soulful melody line. The song then gains intensity during the piano solo, which is accompanied by double-time playing in the rhythm section. Following the solo, the song returns to its gentle and wistful melody.
What kinds of emotions and feelings does this song conjure up for you?
Piece 8: Sanctuary by Miles Davis
Our final selection is a Wayne Shorter composition featured on the seminal jazz fusion album Bitches Brew. (N.B. the title of this album comes from a term of endearment that was part of the vernacular of the 1970s. It is meant to describe the virtuosity of all the players assembled on the record.) It is with great sadness that we mark the passing of Wayne Shorter; he was one of the most iconic jazz musicians and composers of the 20th century. I would encourage you to take a deep dive into the wealth of music in his catalog. From Art Blakey to Miles Davis to all of his sessions for Blue Note Records, there are many gems to uncover and explore.
Sanctuary is an elegy for Shorter and the void he leaves behind in the jazz world. One of the major innovations of the album is the raw intensity and power that was brought into the jazz idiom. This song traverses a wide range of emotions, from the sparse, haunting opening to the passionate wail of the trumpet and saxophone at the climax of the song around the 4:15 mark of the song. Several unique colors contribute to the mood and atmosphere of the song. Listen to the interjections of the electric keyboard throughout the song by Chick Corea. The keyboard usually provides harmonic support and augments the rhythmic groove of the ensemble. For large stretches of the song, Corea’s playing sidesteps these usual roles and acts more like a commentary on what the other players are doing.
This record has highly unusual instrumentation for a jazz record, using two drum set players. Can you hear the two different drum parts? What elements in this song were borrowed from rock n’ roll or other musical genres?
Hello and welcome to CCM’s Listening project playlist for February 2023. This month we will be focusing on the connection between music and water. This playlist is in conjunction with the Music & Water concert and lecture, which will take place at CCM on March 3 at 7:30 pm. We would highly encourage you to attend this event as well.
Water has long been a source of artistic and philosophical inspiration for mankind. In addition to being a necessary ingredient to sustain life, water provides a mirror both metaphorically and literally to reflect on our existence. The never-ending ebb and flow and constant state of flux of water is an invitation to ponder much deeper existential subjects such as the nature of time itself. Or, as the ancient Greek poet Heraclitus put it, “ No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” Water is also a symbol of tranquility and serenity and represents our tenuous relationship with our natural environment and ecosystem. There are endless ways that water has inspired composers throughout the centuries, and we will explore a small sample of them here.
Barcarolle in F sharp Major, Op. 60 by Frederic Chopin
One of Chopin’s final compositions, the Barcarolle is a type of folk song originally from Venice, traditionally sung by the gondoliers while ferrying passengers. This piece is also in the very rarely used key of F sharp major, which adds to the dream-like and wistful character of the music.
What kind of imagery do you see in your mind’s eye while listening to this piece? How does the rhythmic structure of the piece influence that?
Four Sea Interludes Op. 33a: I. Dawn (Lento e tranquillo) by Benjamin Britten
Our next work comes from a set of short orchestral interludes by composer Benjamin Britten, originally written to accompany scene changes in his opera Peter Grimes. Each depicts a different time of day and the corresponding moods and emotions of that setting. Dawn carries a sense of calm and anticipation of the coming day. Two main motivic ideas; a high, silvery melody in the violin is interrupted by brisk arpeggios and a slow-moving chorale from the brass section. Listen to how these two elements interact to paint a picture of a day on the water about to begin.
What adjectives would you use to describe the two different ideas in this piece? How does the way these two motivic ideas interact affect your perception of the music?
Slow Water by Brian Eno
Brian Eno is a true pioneer in electronic music who has shaped the direction of both avant-garde and popular artists such as Coldplay, U2 and the Talking Heads. The track featured here is from “Music for Films,” a solo conceptual album of songs written as soundtracks to imaginary films. The track begins with a languid synthesizer melody against a background of sounds emulating slowly churning waves. This is then augmented by gentle arpeggios on the piano.
Imagine: what sort of film would have this soundtrack? How does the music provoke your expectations?
Threnody (Sikuigvik) [Version for Chamber Ensemble & Electronics] by Matthew Burtner
Burtner has composed music for water itself: acoustic instruments are heard in combination with a field recording of the movements of actual glaciers. “Threnody was recorded on Aialik Glacier, part of the 23,000-year-old Harding Ice Field, and catches the sounds of ancient air being released from pockets inside the glacier as pieces break from the main ice and melt as they drift out to sea with the tide”. The music moves slowly and placidly, augmented by its glacial accompaniment. Midway through the piece, the acoustic instruments fade out, and we are left simply with the sounds of a glacier calving and breaking apart. This music is a visceral reminder of the glaciers that are melting away around the world. Glaciers are not stable, immutable objects but fragile pieces of our ecosystem that may disappear in our lifetimes. Listen to the way the recorded glacier sounds interact with the live musicians.
How does the addition of the field recordings alter your experience?
Traction in the Rain by David Crosby
David Crosby, who recently died at age 81, is best remembered as a founding member of the Byrds along with Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and sometimes Young). But I would like to highlight a track from his stellar solo record, 1971’s If I Could Only Remember My Name. An avid sailor, Crosby spent a great deal of his time on the water and “Traction in the Rain” is a beautiful, slow-moving work that floats along in an illusion of weightlessness. The slowly strummed chords of an autoharp—traditionally an Appalachian folk music instrument—conjure warmth and steam, rising off the ground after a summer rainstorm. The autoharp is an instrument traditionally found in Appalachian folk music. Here it is repurposed as both a melodic and harmonic element and greatly expands the color palette of the song.
Can you pick out the strumming of the autoharp in the texture?
Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra I. Adagio Molto Misterioso by Tan Dun
Here is a piece filled with mysterious new sounds, many difficult to identify, because experimental composer Tan Dun offers us something very special: water itself as musical instrument. The “waterphone” features a resonating metal bowl lined with rods of different lengths along the edges. These rods are then bowed to give various unhitched metallic sounds, and when the instrument is tilted, the water inside moves around, bending the pitch. The water gong is a small metal gong suspended over a metal bowl of water. It is struck and lowered into the water, which changes its pitch and timber. And finally, large open bowls of water are used as percussion instruments, and even actual drums are filled with water. Listen carefully at the 2:20 mark of the track. You will hear a glissando figure in the violins, then an imitation by the water gong.
What new sounds and tone colors did you hear while listening to this work? How does the use of water change and augment the sound world of the piece?
Interested in learning more?
Hello and welcome to the first Listening Project of 2023. This month’s playlist is in conjunction with a CCM lecture, Music of the Enlightenment, presented by CCM faculty member Fabrizio Mazzetta on Thursday January 12th at 7:00 pm.
La Dauphine by Jean-Phillipe Rameau
We begin our musical enlightenment with French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. Rameau was one of the most important French composers of the 18th century and made great contributions to the repertoires of harpsichord and opera. One of Rameau’s most enduring legacies, however, is his work as a music theorist.
Rameau published his Treatise on Harmony in 1722, which is a foundational text in Western music theory. Following in the tradition of his fellow enlightenment thinkers, Rameau put forth a new fundamental way to think about the structure of tonal music and analyze music critically as well as artistically. Many of his innovations are still taught to this day. It can be said that Rameau is to music theory as Isaac Newton is to physics.
The first piece on our playlist, La Dauphine for solo harpsichord, is thought to be the notated version of an improvisation performed at the wedding of the Dauphin Louis Ferdinand in 1747. It is amazing to me that a piece of this complexity could be improvised. This clearly shows Rameau’s proficiency in technique and harmony.
What sort of character would you ascribe to this piece? Does the freeform nature of the piece sound improvised to you? How does the harpsichord compare to other keyboard instruments that you have heard before?
Barytone Trio in D Major, Hob. XI:69 by Joseph Haydn
The next piece on our list features a little-known instrument for which music was written by one of the most famous Classical-era composers, Joseph Haydn.
The Barytone is a highly unusual instrument that is a hybrid between a viola da gamba and a viola d’amore. The instrument was held up between the legs and played like a cello or viol. The instrument has a unique arrangement of strings – there are 6 or 7 fretted strings and a second set of sympathetic strings behind the neck that the player could access with the left thumb.
Haydn composed many pieces for this instrument because his employer, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, was an avid player. The trio on our playlist is written for barytone, viola, and cello. Throughout the trio you can hear the distinct voice of the barytone shine through. Listen at the 1:26 mark of the third movement for the barytone cadenza. Here you can hear the bowed strings along with the plucked wire strings. These two-tone colors give the illusion of multiple instruments at once.
What instrument does the barytone resemble to your ear? Can you hear the differences in tone color between the bowed strings and the plucked strings?
Adagio and Rondo for Glass Harmonica, Flute, Oboe, Viola, and Cello in C minor, K.617 by W.A. Mozart.
One of the major themes of the Enlightenment was the expansion of scientific knowledge and reason together with technological innovation. This led to new developments in instrument building and experimentation.
One historical curiosity is the glass harmonica, featured in this piece by Mozart. This instrument was invented by Benjamin Franklin on a trip he made to England in 1761. The sound is made by rubbing a wet finger against a spinning glass bowl. Each bowl has a different diameter and produces a different pitch. These bowls are held together with a metal spindle and rotated by using a foot pedal. Mozart wrote two pieces for this strange instrument in1791, the last year of his life.
Have you ever heard a sound quite like the glass harmonica before? How does the sound of the glass harmonica blend with the other instruments? How does Mozart use the sound of the flute and oboe to augment the glass harmonica sound?
Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-Flat Major, Op. 106: IV. Largo-allegro risoluto by L.v. Beethoven
Perhaps no one embodied the spirit of individualism better than our next composer, Ludwig van Beethoven. The piece by Beethoven featured here is one of his most challenging works: the Hammerklavier Sonata. This work is infamous for its high degree of difficulty and was considered unplayable at the time it was written. It’s one of the most technically challenging and complex works in the classical piano repertoire. The Sonata was written in 1818 and is one of the most important pieces from Beethoven’s late period.
This finale movement embodies many of the features that made Beethoven so innovative. He uses musical forms from the past, transforms them, and pushes them to their limits to create something new. After a beautiful slow introduction, there is a colossal three voice fugue. The fugue is an imitative musical form made famous by J.S. Bach among many others. Here Beethoven uses the fugue and stretches it beyond its previous limits, adding impressive contrapuntal features including a retrograde where the subject is played backwards.
Can you pick out the different voices in the fugue?
This work was written in 1818, over 200 years ago. How does this piece compare with other piano sonatas you’ve heard from this period?
For our more adventurous listeners, here is a bonus track to be found on YouTube.
Leonhard Euler was of the most influential and important mathematicians to ever live, and was a key figure in the Age of Enlightenment. His mathematical principles extend to the realm of art and music as well.
The quartet featured here is composed by Marc Sabat, and he uses mathematical principles from Euler to structure the pitch and harmony. Sabat uses Just Intonation, which is a method of tuning based on the overtone series and other mathematical ratios.
This opens limitless space to create intervals beyond the 12-tone equal temperament system that is used in most Western music. The harmonic twists and turns are tracing the surface of a theoretical Euler Lattice, as if the listener was inside an imaginary harmonic structure watching the scenery unfold. You don’t need to know any of the mathematical principles to enjoy the aesthetics and beauty of this music. Keep those ears open and enjoy!
Hello and welcome to the final Listening Project playlist of 2022. With no specific theme for this month’s entry, we present a musical potpourri. You’ll hear a mix of classical music from different eras along with some jazz- and bluegrass- influenced music.
Symphony No. 4 in G Major 1. Bedächtig, nicht eilen by Gustav Mahler
We begin our journey this month with a familiar sound to get us into the holiday spirit. The Fourth Symphony by Gustav Mahler famously opens with the sound of sleigh bells in the percussion section. Mahler is well known for continuing the tradition of nineteenth-century Romantic symphonic music. His work acted as a bridge to the modernism of the twentieth century. He was quite an innovator and pushed the boundaries of what an orchestra could sound like. Many of his symphonies are sprawling epics that are over an hour long. Completed in 1900, the Fourth Symphony departs from the grandiosity of his previous works and has several unique features. The symphony is smaller in scale than the others and features a solo soprano voice part in the fourth movement. The intimate texture of the solo voice and orchestra almost gives the impression of chamber music within a symphony. The second movement also has a curious feature—the concertmaster is asked to play a solo on a violin where all four strings are tuned a whole step higher. This is supposed to give the solo a harsher and unusual sound and requires the concertmaster to have a second instrument with them on stage.
What kind of moods and characters do you hear when listening to the first movement of this symphony, often described as full of playfulness and innocence?
Chromium Picolinate by Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall, and Bela Fleck
Next, we take a left turn to a barnstormer of a tune by three virtuosos of their respective instruments: Meyer on bass, Marshall on mandolin, and Fleck on Banjo. The album, Uncommon Ritual, is not conventional bluegrass, yet still influenced by that tradition. The three players combine a mix of classical, jazz, Americana, and blues to create a strikingly unique sound. The tune featured here, Chromium Picolinate, begins with a melody played in hocket. Hocket is a musical term to describe a melody that is played by more than one voice where the voices alternate and play while the other is resting. The result is a melodic phrase that moves between all three players. Not only is there a hocket, but they throw in a dramatic accelerando to heighten the tension.
Can you follow the melodic lines that pass from player to player?
Nefertiti by Miles Davis
For our next entry we have a tune by Miles Davis and his legendary quintet featuring Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. This tune Nefertiti comes from the album of the same name, which was Miles’ last fully acoustic album. Miles is a true innovator who shaped the direction of music multiple times over his six-plus decade career, but none of his innovations resonated quite like his shift to electric instruments in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Although this album is all acoustic, you can hear the changes about to come brimming under the surface. In jazz, the melody of the song is known as the “head.” The traditional format of a jazz tune features the head, followed by various solos, and a return of the head to end the song. Miles turns this upside down in Nefertiti. The melody instruments (sax & trumpet) keep repeating the head while the rhythm section shifts around them.
Listen for the different iterations of the melody in this song. Can you hear the changes in the way the melody is played? What kind of effect do the piano and drum parts have on the intensity of the song?
Pyramid Song by Radiohead
We will now jump to the turn of the twenty-first century with a tune by British rock band Radiohead. This band is another example of artists who defy convention and push boundaries in music. Pyramid Song shows how perception of rhythm and time can be very relative.
Listen to the piano introduction – can you guess what time signature it is in?
After the drums kick in for the second verse, it becomes clear that the piano part was syncopated, and this is plain old 4/4 time. This song plays with our perception of the beat. If the song started out with the drums right away it would be a much different effect; what we think is the downbeat become off-beats in a swung groove. Radiohead are also masters of orchestration and timbre. Listen to how the vocal part is echoed by false harmonics in the strings.
What sort of effect does the false harmonic doubling have on the music?
Two Koans and a Cannon III. [Cannon] by James Tenney
Our next entry on the playlist is a piece for solo Viola by American composer James Tenney. Tenney is well known for exploring “spectral music,” or music whose form and structure are based on the physical structure of sound and how we perceive it. This piece features a viola augmented by a six-second tape delay. Tenney uses only the natural harmonics of one string as his musical material for this movement. Despite having limited source material to work with, the music builds into a beautiful kaleidoscope of sound.
Can you hear the difference between the live sound and the tape delay effect?
Cello Suite No. 6 in D Major, BWV 1012: IV. Sarabande by J.S. Bach
Next on the playlist is a piece of music that is very near and dear to my heart, the Sarabande from the Sixth Bach cello suite. This is my personal favorite movement from the entire collection of cello suites. Having studied cello for as long as I can remember, I can tell you that this is one of the most beautiful and profound pieces of music ever written for the instrument. However, it is not entirely without controversy, since musicologists don’t quite know what instrument this suite was actually written for. The instrument we know today as the cello was very different in the year 1720, when these suites were composed. A manuscript copy in Bach’s hand has not survived, so we can only rely on copies. The Sixth suite bears the inscription “a cinq cordes” (with five strings). It is clear that this was written for a five-string instrument with a high E string. This instrument could be a piccolo violoncello (a 7/8 size cello with an E string), or a Viola da Spalla which resembles a small cello that is strapped around the shoulder and played like a large viola. This recording uses a five-string baroque cello with gut strings.
The texture of this movement is mostly in chords rather than single notes. Can you hear the different musical voices that the cello has to play at once?
String Quartet no. 15 in A minor Op. 132: III. Molto Adagio by Ludwig van Beethoven
Our musical journey for the year 2022 ends with a hymn of thanksgiving and hope for a better year ahead in 2023. This string quartet was composed in 1825 after Beethoven recovered from a near fatal illness. The full title of this movement in the manuscript is: Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart or: “Holy Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode.” This would prove to be the second to last string quartet and one of the last works he would write, as he would pass away just two years later in 1827. The slow chorale-like sections are interrupted by joyous faster passages where Beethoven wrote “feeling new strength” in the manuscript. The delicate slow sections that bookend this movement are stark in their simplicity, but they give space for vast emotional depth to unfold as the music builds towards its climax. I hope listening to this music can inspire you and leave you fulfilled.
Hello and welcome to the November edition of CCM’s Listening Project. This month’s theme is music influenced by the Industrial Age, in conjunction with events held by the town of Concord. This is an incredibly broad subject, but I have narrowed it down to a few orchestral/chamber pieces along with an electroacoustic piece and some blues and bluegrass for your enjoyment and edification. Some of the connections to the Industrial Age will be quite overt and direct, and others may be a little more abstract.
Piece 1: Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams
First up on our list is the exciting and dramatic fanfare Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams. John Adams’ music has often been described as “post-Minimalist;” or in other words, he was influenced by and uses techniques from other composers to form the minimalist movement in his own way. The term “minimalist” can be misleading and is often misused. There is nothing minimal about the music here, but you can hear the influences on his rhythmic and harmonic language. One very striking and unique feature here is the use of the wood block.
Listen to this piece in its entirety and focus your attention on the wood block (if you’re not sure what that is, it’s the percussive tick that sounds like a metronome). Adams creates what is known as phasing or “rhythmic dissonance” by subtly shifting how the wood block interacts with the pulse and the other instrument groups, particularly the brass section.
How does the wood block affect your sense of rhythm while you listen to the work? Can you tell when the wood block shifts to the off beats?
Piece 2: Different Trains: America, Before the War by Steve Reich
Up next, we have a movement of a piece written for string quartet and tape by Steve Reich. This piece touches on the industrial theme in a very literal way. In the tape part, we hear various train and mechanical sounds that blend in with and are emulated by the live string quartet. The title of this piece comes from a heavy subject that we do not have the space to dive into here. As a child, Reich would take cross country trips from New York to Los Angeles to visit family. As a Jew living in America, he imagined that if he had been on a different train in Europe, it would have taken him to a concentration camp rather than California.
Can you hear how the speech excerpts in the recording are imitated by the string quartet? Listen to how the speech patterns get transformed into melodies and get passed around the ensemble.
Piece 3: The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (36 Variations on “El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido!) by Frederic Rzewski
Our playlist takes a different turn here while we listen to music inspired by the songs of factory workers. This set of theme and variations by Rzewski was based on a Chilean protest song. This song is about the unification of working-class people to stand against the oppressive dictatorship of Pinochet that had just been installed in the 1970s. The theme of standing together against injustice certainly rings true in the present day. The piece begins with the original song unadorned, and then the composer builds the piece into a virtuosic tour de force through the subsequent variations. The original song is 36 bars long and there are 36 variations, each one consisting of the same 36 bar structure.
Listen to the original melody at the beginning of the work. Can you hear the original song during each variation? Each variation has its own unique character, and some of them stray quite far from the theme. The form and harmonies of the original song are always present no matter how abstract the music becomes.
Piece 4: Diamorphoses by Iannis Xenakis
For our next stop, we will take a dive into the world of electroacoustic music. The term “electroacoustic” can mean many different things, but here it is used to describe music that was composed using electronic means without traditional acoustic instruments. This is a very early example of electroacoustic music which was composed in 1958. Needless to say, this is well before the advent of personal computers, so this music was produced using tape and all the editing was done by hand.
In the decades following the Second World War, many composers who were interested in the avant-garde and experimental turned to technology to explore new sonic terrain. This music was also labeled “musique concrete”. To those of you who may not have encountered these types of sounds before, Revolution 9 by The Beatles is a good starting point. This is not music based on melodies or traditional song structures; rather, it uses all kinds of pitched and unpitched sounds which are developed into musical material and syntax. The source materials used here were tape recordings of engines, trains, and various other industrial and mechanical noises.
Can you hear the different mechanical sounds that the composer uses here? Listen to how these sounds blend to become building blocks of a completely different musical language.
Piece 5: Rain by Jon Hassell
The next selection features Jon Hassell, who was a trumpet player, composer, and electronic music pioneer. Hassell made many incredibly influential recordings over the course of his career. He studied with figures like LaMonte Young and Karlheinz Stockhausen and blended avant-garde electronic music with jazz and world music aesthetics. This selection is from the album City: Works of Fiction. This album features dense polyrhythmic textures that are reminiscent of a chaotic urban landscape. The mechanical percussive sound on this track sounds to me like cogs turning in some futuristic machine.
Listen to the melody instrument, can you guess what instrument it is?
It is a trumpet with several electronic effects placed on it. Hassell created a unique timbre for his instrument which gives more depth to the otherworldly sound on this album.
Piece 6: Plastic Factory by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band
Up next is the bluesy rock ‘n’ roll sound of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. This tune is from his debut album from 1967, Safe as Milk. His early music was steeped in the blues, but you can hear elements of the progressive and experimental sounds that would come to define his later music. Listen to how the time signature changes after the harmonica solo – this is very unusual for a blues tune.
Captain Beefheart was famous for his unique vocal style. Does he remind you of any other vocalist you’ve heard before?
Piece 7: Nine Pound Hammer by Tony Rice Unit
This is a take on a bluegrass standard tune by the guitarist Tony Rice. Many of these pieces were derived from working songs from the coal miners or railroad workers in greater Appalachia. Listen to how each member of the band functions. The bass lays down the root of the chord on beats 1 and 3; the mandolin chops on the off beats and harmonizes; the guitar provides rhythm; and the dobro and fiddle play lead as they all take turn taking solos.
See if you can pick out how each individual instrument functions within the group, and how they all combine to create an incredibly appealing groove.
Hello and welcome to CCM’s October listening project. In conjunction with our upcoming concert and lecture, Music & the Cosmos, this month’s playlist features music inspired by space and cosmology. This event will take place on Friday, October 21st at 7:30pm, hope to see you there!
Piece 1: Il mondo della luna Act 2: Sinfonia by Joseph Haydn
Our musical journey through the heavens begins in an unexpected place. Joseph Haydn’s opera Il mondo della luna from 1777 is a lighthearted opera buffa (comic opera). In this work, the protagonist the bogus astronomer Ecclitico uses his telescope to try to convince people there is life on the moon. It is, more or less, an 18th century attempt at a science fiction opera about extraterrestrial life.
One unique aspect of the opera comes in the overture to the second act which is featured here in our playlist. Haydn makes extensive use of string harmonics which was a very rarely used timber in the classical period. Perhaps the harmonics represent the shimmering of the moonlight or the light of distant starts.
What image comes to mind when you hear the string harmonics?
Piece 2: The Planets, Op. 32 1. Mars the Bringer of War by Gustav Holst
Next up on our list is a famous piece that you may be well acquainted with. How could we have a playlist about space and not feature a movement of The Planets by Gustav Holst?
For those who may not know, this work is a suite of tone poems that contains one movement for each of the 7 other planets in the solar system (Pluto had yet to be discovered at the time this was written and has since been demoted from the ranks of planets). Featured here is the fiery overture Mars, the Bringer of War. The introduction to this movement has a special tone color. The entire string section is instructed to play col legno battuto, or in English, to strike the strings with the wood of the bow. This produces a cliky-claky texture that resembles the sounds of armored solders marching in the distance. This movement is also infamous for its use of a time signature that is uncommon in standard orchestra repertoire.
Can you tell what time signature Holst uses for this movement?
Piece 3: Polaris “Voyage for Orchestra” by Thomas Ades
For our next stop, we venture in the immersive sound world of Thomas Ades’ Polaris for orchestra. The piece unfolds from a simple melodic played by piano into a vast shimmering landscape that swirls around the orchestra. The use of two harps, celeste, and glockenspiel add to the otherworldly texture. An excerpt from the composer’s program notes elucidates his thought process in writing this piece:
“Their melody, like all the music in this work, is derived from a magnetic series, a musical device heard here for the first time, in which all twelve notes are gradually presented, but persistently return to an anchoring pitch, as if magnetized. With the first appearance of the twelfth note, marked clearly with the first entrance of the timpani, the poles are reversed. At the start of the third and final section a third pole is discovered which establishes a stable equilibrium with the first.
The piece is named for Polaris, the North Star, or Pole Star, around which the other stars appear to rotate as if it were itself a magnetic pole, and which has since ancient times been used by seafarers as a navigational tool.”
Can you hear how the distinct groups of instruments (strings, winds, brass) all have their own character and identity throughout the piece?
Piece 4: Etudes australes, Book 1: Etude 1 by John Cage
Our next composer, John Cage, takes a radically different approach to composition compared to the others on this list. He was one of the most important composers of the 20th century, and his innovations are too vast to discuss in detail here.
He was one of the pioneers of indeterminate music, in which one or more of the musical parameters may be left to chance. This ensures that no composition or performance could be done the same way twice. For this piece, Etudes australes, Cage takes the star chart of the northern sky (Atlas Australis) and maps the location of the stars onto a music staff to be played by a piano. So, if you have ever wondered, “what does this star chart sound like on a piano?”. You’re in luck!
How does the musical material presented here compare with other solo piano music you have heard in the past? What makes Cage’s composition so different in your opinion?
Piece 5: Makrokosmos III “Music for a Summer Evening”: V. Music of the Starry Night by George Crumb
As well as John Cage, George Crumb was a musical innovator, especially in the realm of prepared piano. For those of you old enough to remember vinyl records, this recording came with a special and highly unusual warning label.
George Crumb uses many kinds of piano preparations, or in other words, placing foreign objects inside the piano or using non-traditional methods to produce sound. One of the preparations used here is to place a sheet of paper in between the strings of the piano. This intentionally crates a fuzzy and distorted sound, just like if your stylus was not tracking properly or if your speakers had blown out. The label was to warn consumers that your stereo system is not broken, it is meant to sound that way!
This piece creates a dreamy nocturnal landscape and evokes a feeling of wonder as one gazes at the vastness of the night sky. The distant piano melodies between the outbursts of percussion sound to me like someone floating in the endless vacuum of space.
What images do you see when you listen to this piece?
Piece 6: Astral Traveling by Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes
And now for a sharp departure away from the classical world. Classical music is not the only genre that draws from astronomy and cosmology.
Jazz musicians were inspired by celestial realms and took a different approach to manifesting that in their music. “Spiritual Jazz’ is an off-shoot from the free jazz movement that started in the late ‘50s and blossomed in the ‘60s.
Musicians such as Sun Ra, Pharaoh Sanders, Alice & John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and many others viewed music as a path to transcendence. To ascend to higher realms of consciousness and travel to distant worlds. Music was a vehicle for existential discovery and exploration. Our next entry features the electric piano playing of Lonnie Liston Smith along with an incredible rhythm section which has a conventional drum set along with a table player. There is no prompt question here, just sit back enjoy the groove.
Piece 7: Jupiter by John Coltrane
This track from the album Interstellar Space is the one of the last recordings made before John Coltrane’s tragic death in 1967. Released posthumously in 1974, this recording is a big departure from the rest of his discography. The whole album consists of free improv takes with just saxophone and drum set. You can hear Coltrane pushing into uncharted musical territory here compared to the seminal A Love Supreme, which he made just three years earlier. Here Coltrane dispenses with the traditional jazz forms and harmonies, and solely focuses on interaction with his duet partner.
Can you hear the different ways Coltrane reacts and responds to the drummer on this track?
Piece 8: Space Loneliness by Sun Ra
Our last entry for this month is by the iconoclastic and mythical jazz musician, Sun Ra. Sun Ra claimed to have been transported to Saturn by aliens early in his life, which set him on his path to be a musician (he was in fact raised in Birmingham, Alabama). He later founded a band known as the Arkestra which took many incarnations over the span of his sixty plus year career. His music was wildly eclectic and drew from numerous influences. He also created his own mythology based on his music. Our selection here was recorded in the late 50’s and is heavily influenced by the swing and big band era, with Sun Ra’s unique arrangements and orchestrations added in.
How does this tune compare to other jazz ballads you have heard?
Hello and welcome to the September edition of CCM’s monthly listening project. I hope everyone has had a restful summer and is ready to jump back in to the fall semester.
To those of you who may be new to this, I’d like to give some brief explanatory remarks. This is a curated monthly playlist intended for use by students, families, and the community at large. My intention is to create a space for you to listen to music critically and with intent, and also to expose you to music you might not otherwise hear.
The playlists usually do not follow a theme (unless otherwise stated), but there may be a few loose threads tying things together. My aim is to strike a balance between both classical and non-classical styles and feature an eclectic mix of genres.
Be sure to use the thought-provoking questions to help stimulate critical thought about some of the cogent aspects and unique features of the music.
Piece 1: Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet in B Minor op. 115 by Johannes Brahms
Our first entry in this month’s playlist is a true masterpiece in the chamber music repertoire, Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet. Brahms had previously retired from composing, but changed his mind after developing an infatuation with the clarinet late in his life. He would also go on to compose a clarinet trio as well as two sonatas for the instrument a few years before his death in 1897.
This piece has been described by many as having an “autumnal” feel, hence my inclusion here in the first playlist of the fall semester. The first movement of this work is one of tremendous beauty and introspection. Brahms is a master orchestrator and the dark and lugubrious tones of the clarinet are blended seamlessly with the traditional string quartet to create a whole new sound and timbre.
When I listen to this work, I feel waves of joy tinged with sadness and melancholy, and a longing for the halcyon days of July and August. Or, to quote the late great Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully (R.I.P.), “to push the sun back up in the sky and give us one more day of summer”.
What sort of emotions do you feel when you listen to this work? How does the clarinet interact with and augment the sound of the ensemble?
Piece 2: Voices and Cello by Morton Feldman
Here we have a piece by Morton Feldman, who was an iconoclastic and highly influential late 20th century composer. His music tends to defy easy categorization, but some labels that may describe his music best to those who are unfamiliar are “experimental”, and “minimalist”.
The music featured here is stark and unadorned, even the title just simply describes the forces involved. The aesthetic is the polar opposite of the hyper-Romantic Brahms; phrases are short and pointillistic and there is no clear tonal structure. The piece reaches a climax of sorts about midway through the piece when all three voices play in unison. There is heavy use of quietly sustained long tones and silence, which would become hallmark features of his later music.
Listen to the way Feldman blends the tone color of the cello harmonics with the voices.
Are there points where the two different instruments sound indistinguishable? How does the use of the voice in this piece differ from other pieces you have heard?
Piece 3: Estampes, L. 100: No. 1, Pagodes by Claude Debussy
Next up on our playlist is a piece by Claude Debussy. Debussy is well known for his large catalog of impressionistic solo piano works, including this set, Estampes. The title translates to “prints” and each movement is evocative of a different scene like musical postcards.
This movement is influenced by the sound of Indonesian gamelan music and traditional folk melodies. The wash of color and the rapid figurations in the right hand in the last minute of the piece are reminiscent of shimmering metallic gamelan sounds.
What sort of images does this movement conjure up for you?
Piece 4: String Quartet No. 4, BB 95: III. Non troppo lento by Bela Bartok
Bela Bartok’s string quartets are considered a foundational piece of 20th century string quartet literature. All 6 string quartets are incredible pieces in their own right, and are definitely worth your time and attention if you are unfamiliar.
Bartok was a pioneer of many contemporary string techniques which have now become part of the expressive language of the instrument. Our piece featured here, is the slow movement of Bartok’s 4th string quartet. The aesthetic found here is what the composer would refer to as “night music” Works in this style typically feature soft sustained chords balanced against solo melodies. The cello solo here is one of the finest in the string quartet repertoire I might add.
What sort of nocturnal landscape do you imagine? What sort of creatures do you hear the quartet imitating?
Piece 5: Back-Woods Song by Gateway
Now shifting gears to the folk/americana side of things, let’s start off with a tune by jazz supergroup Gateway featuring John Abercrombie on guitar, Dave Holland on bass, and Jack DeJonette on drums. All three musicians were major proponents of the emergence of jazz fusion in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Jazz fusion can be used to describe a lot of different things, but here it means the structure and philosophy of jazz music played with a steady rock beat instead of swing. In this tune here, there are many elements from different genres being blended together at once. Jazz, rock, folk, Americana, and funk.
Listen to how the drummer and bassist give the guitarist ample room to improvise with their steady yet steadily evolving groove. Listen to the end of the bass solo around the 6-minute mark. That’s about as funky as it gets, folks.
Piece 6: Big Sun by Hawktail
Next up is a contemporary bluegrass ensemble by the name of Hawktail. This group deviates slightly from a more traditional bluegrass outfit as there is no banjo or vocals present, but the ethos is the same. This tune weaves in and out beautifully between the arranged sections and the improvised sections, and features a very powerful and satisfying climax. The instruments play different roles throughout the tune, melody, accompaniment, and lead/solo playing
Listen to the interplay between the four voices and how they interact and play off each other so create a constantly shifting texture.
Piece 7: Bread Line Blues by Jorma Kaukonen
Our next tune traverses to the country blues side of things with venerable guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. Some readers of a certain age may recognize him as the lead guitarist from the psychedelic rock band, Jefferson Airplane. After the dissolution of that band, Jorma took off on a long solo career exploring various elects of American traditional music.
Here is he joined by bluegrass all-stars Bela Fleck on banjo, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Sam Bush on mandolin. Here elements of ragtime, swing, and country blues are blended together with bluegrass band.
What are some of the differences you notice between the different solo instruments in this tune (dobro, guitar, mandolin, banjo)?
Hello and welcome to CCM’s summer Listening Project! This edition features a more substantial playlist and is more focused on Baroque and classical music.
Piece 1: Track 1-2: Fantasia in C Minor for Viola da Gamba, TWV 40:26 by G. Telemann
The first several works on this playlist will take us along a journey of discovery of music composed during the Baroque era (ca. 1600-1750). Our first piece features an instrument that may be unfamiliar to you; the viola da gamba. This instrument is a cousin and predecessor of the modern cello. These two instruments indeed have several things in common, but there are some important differences. The viola da gamba had between 5 and 7 strings, and the instrument was fretted. The bow was also held underhand, similar to the French style of modern bass playing. In terms of tone, the instrument could be mistaken for a cello, but it has a unique voice all its own.
Telemann was an extremely prolific composer, and he wrote Fantasias for many different instruments. The piece featured here shows off the full expressive range of the viola da gamba as the music takes many different dramatic turns.
Have you ever heard or seen a viola da gamba before? Does the instrument sound familiar to you?
Piece 2: Tracks 3-5: Sonata VII for Cello and Basso Continuo by G.C. Dall’Abaco
G.C. Dall’Abaco (1710-1805) was a virtuoso cellist and composer. He was the son of a famous violinist who wrote many works for the instrument, but now he is getting more recognition for his compositions in his own right. His cello sonatas are light hearted and very joyful to listen to. This sonata features a unique title for the third movement. The movement is labeled “La Zampogna”, which is a southern Italian folk instrument very similar to a bagpipe. In this movement you will hear many open string drones and double stops along with a very lively tempo in 12/8 time, which is meant to emulate the sound and spirit of the Zampogna.
The cellist in this recording uses a period instrument, which is an instrument built to specifications from the 18th century. The gut strings and the bow are quite different from a modern instrument, and the cello is played without an endpin.
Can you hear the differences between this instrument and a modern cello? How do you think the use of gut strings and a baroque bow affects the sound?
Piece 3: Tracks 6-9: Sonata for Violin, Mandolin, and basso in E minor by Carlo Arrigoni
Our tour of historical performance practice continues with a special and often overlooked instrument: the baroque mandolin. The development of this instrument in 17th and 18th century Italy took on several different iterations, but the Neapolitan Mandolin from the second half of the 18th century closely resembles the instrument we know today. In Naples, the instruments were built with 4 string courses (8 total) that matched the tuning of the violin. The baroque mandolin used a combination of gut & brass strings, and a quill was used instead of a pick.
The sonata by Arrigoni featured here was written for both mandolin and violin. These two instruments have the same exact tuning and same range, yet use very different modes to produce sound.
What differences and similarities do you hear between the two melody instruments?
Piece 4: Track 10: Lux animae (Version for Cello) by Horatiu Radulescu
Our next piece leaps several hundred years in the future to the early 21st century. It may be jarring to hear a contemporary piece with radically different aesthetics next to a baroque piece, but the two pieces have more in common than you might think. Often in baroque music certain parts of the music were left to the performers to improvise. The continuo player was only given a figured bass part, and they were expected to flesh out and improvise the rest. Also, ornamentation and cadenzas were ways for melody instruments to improvise as well.
In Radulescu’s music the performer is also expected to improvise along a very specific set of guidelines. The cello is tuned to overtones of a low E, which means all four strings are altered from their usual state. Each page of the score is a different scenario where different techniques and harmonies are prescribed and the performer must fill in the rest.
How does the improvisatory nature of this music affect the dramatic shape of the piece?
Piece 5: divisio spirals (2019) by Catherine Lamb
Our next piece features a single short movement from a much larger work for string quartet by Catherine Lamb. She is a composer based in Berlin whose music is on today’s cutting edge of experimentation. Her music makes extensive use of Just Intonation and other mathematical processes to derive the form and harmonies found in her music. The math behind the music can get quite complex, but all you need to do is just listen and enjoy without worrying about the underlying structure. Just Intonation is a term for music based on the natural overtone series, which deviates from the equal temperament system that is used to tune pianos. Just intonation enables the performers to achieve clearer consonant sounds and more intense dissonant sounds.
How do the harmonies in this piece sound different to you? How does the different tuning system used affect your perception of mood and tone color?
Piece 6: Tracks 12-16: Mother Goose Suite by Maurice Ravel
Here we take another sharp left turn to the whimsical world of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. This piece was composed originally for two pianos in 1910, and then arranged for full orchestra by the composer. The movements were inspired by fairy tales, and each movement has a dream-like and fantastical mood. Ravel was also a master orchestrator, listen specifically for the use of celeste, harp, and percussion throughout the music.
What kind of scene do you picture in your mind when you listen to this piece? Do the various solo instruments resemble different characters to you?
Piece 7: Tracks 17-25: Pulcinella Suite by Igor Stravinksy
Our final orchestral piece is the Pulcinella Suite by Igor Stravinsky. This suite for orchestra was derived from the one act ballet he composed with the same name. This version of the piece was premiered in Boston in 1922 (almost exactly 100 years ago!). If you are familiar with the music of Stravinsky, the Rite of Spring may immediately come to mind. Unlike the primordial expressionism of that very famous piece, the Pulcinella suite marks the beginning of a very different era; his neoclassical period. This suite is based on music originally believed to be composed by Pergolesi, an Italian composer from the early Baroque period. Stravinsky interpolates his melodies and writes new music based on 17th century traditions. He puts his own spin on the music in terms of specific instrumentation and rhythm, but this is music that can exist in two worlds at once.
Can you believe this is composed by Stravinsky? If you listened to this music with no context, would you believe it is from the 20th century and not the 17th?
What are some ways this piece differs from other Baroque and Classical pieces you have heard?
Piece 8: Track 26: Bright Darkness by Klaus Lang
If you are reading this far, you have made it all the way to our last entry of the summer listening project. Here we have something quite different and special in store for you. This is a piece written by Austrian composer Klaus Lang for the Ensemble Nikel, which is a quartet composed of electric guitar, piano, percussion, and saxophone. Lang’s music often functions on a much longer scope of time than you might be accustomed to. The work gradually unfolds and shifts over the course of an hour. The textures created by the different instruments weave together, so one can’t always tell where one ends and one begins.
My intention in putting this piece on the playlist was to give you the listener an opportunity to have a more mindful listening experience. I would recommend lying in a hammock on a lazy summer’s afternoon, and take in this piece in its entirety. I was actually in the audience for the premiere of this piece in the summer of 2018. It was performed outside on an ideal summer evening. The piece started around sunset, and watching the sky slowly shift to twilight and night as this beautiful music shimmered in the background is a memory I will not soon forget. Have a great summer!
Hello and welcome to this month’s edition of the Listening Project. As always, there is a very eclectic mix of styles here. The goal is to have some music that is familiar and some music that will come totally out of left field. With an open mind, you may realize that music you thought was strange and unfamiliar might not be so strange after all.
Video 1: America is Waiting by Brian Eno & David Byrne
Our first entry features a collaboration from two incredibly important and influential figures in 20th century popular music: Brian Eno and David Byrne. You may recognize Byrne’s name as he was the lead singer and guitarist for the band Talking Heads. Much ink can be spilled about the career of Brian Eno. He rose to prominence in the Glam Rock scene in the UK in the 70s, and his musical journey has taken many twists and turns into all sorts of diverse styles and genres. He is a pioneer of what is commonly referred to as “Ambient Music” (his album Music for Airports being a seminal entry in that field), and as a producer he has worked with scores of successful bands.
The album our first selection is taken from, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, broke the mold in many regards. This is one of the first albums to make extensive use of sampling. This is a technique where short audio samples from different sources are spliced together to form a single song. This technique became very common in hip-hop and other forms of dance and popular music.
This album is from 1981, but still sounds fresh today. Can you hear how the audio samples interact with the rest of the music? Does this sound like a song you might hear on the radio today?
Video 2: Wing Melody by Jon Hassel
The next song comes from the late trumpet player and avant-garde musician, Jon Hassel. His career featured an astonishing blend of different genres and influences. He was part of the Downtown music scene in New York in the 1960s where he worked with composers such as LaMonte Young and Terry Riley. He also studied Hindustani devotional music, as well as being on the forefront of experimental electroacoustic music. All of these influences came together and led Hassel to create music that blended Jazz, experimental music, world music, electronic music, and many others to create a unique sound.
The sounds you hear on this song evoke a choir of Gamelan players, and the rhythmic ostinatos sound like they could have been written by Steve Reich or Philip Glass. The melody instrument you hear is actually a single trumpet. The trumpet sound is being fed through a harmonizer, which is an electronic effect that transposes the sound of the trumpet and plays it back so it sounds like there are multiple trumpets playing in parallel intervals.
Have you ever heard a trumpet played in this manner? What sort of instrument/voice does the processed trumpet remind you of?
Video 3: Follow Your Heart by John McLaughlin
Next on our list is a solo piece by one of my all-time favorite guitar players, John McLaughlin. I would implore you to look into his massive discography, specifically the albums he recorded with Miles Davis in the late 60s/early 70s. This tune comes from his solo album, My Goals Beyond and features John playing both rhythm and lead on the track. The song has an unusual time signature of 11/8, but he keeps time perfectly despite the asymmetrical grove.
Listen to how he weaves in and out of the melody while using different techniques in his solo (tremolo, octaves, etc). Can you follow the melody during his solo?
Video 4: Everybody by John Prine
Next up is a tune from the iconic singer/songwriter, John Prine. Prine was often referred to as the “Mark Twain of American songwriting” and for good reason. Similar to Twain, his songs feature a very clever wit and sense of humor. Prine mixes his storytelling ability from an everyman perspective. No matter who you are, you can find a message to relate to in one of his songs.
Listen to the wordplay in this song, and how he tells a story with just a few short verses and choruses. Do you find yourself laughing at the song’s playfulness?
Video 5: Whole Earth Chant by Paul Winter
This tune, Whole Earth Chant, comes from one of my personal favorite albums, Icarus by the Paul Winter Consort. This band was a collective of many diverse musicians such as guitarist Ralph Towner and oboist Paul McCandless, who would later form the band Oregon. This album was also produced by George Martin, whom you may know as the producer for the Beatles. This song features a kaleidoscopic blend of sounds and textures, and features a very virtuosic cello solo. As we have just passed Earth Day a few weeks ago, the constantly shifting timbers and textures in this piece remind me of all the vastly different landscapes and ecosystems that can be found just in our country alone.
How many different instruments can you pick out and identify throughout this song?
Video 6: Glissade, for Viola Cello, Doublebass and Tape Delay System: Shimmer (1982)
Our next two selections highlight a unique sound produced by bowed string instruments: harmonics. All the young string players out there: Ask your teacher about harmonics! They are very fun and easy to play and it makes your instrument light up in ways you might not have realized.
This piece, Glissade by American composer James Tenney features a blend of natural harmonics on the three aforementioned instruments plus a tape delay. Back in the 80s when this piece was written, you would have needed two analog tape players to achieve this effect, but in the present day this can all be done electronically. Tenney uses the tape delay as a separate instrument, and the layering effect is intrinsic to the structure of the music.
Can you hear the tape delay effect? Can you hear the difference between the live instruments and the recorded sounds? How does the looping of instruments on top of each other affect your experience of listening to the piece?
Video 7: Six Moments Musicaux, Op. 44 V … Rappel Des Oiseaux… [Étude Pour Les Harmoniques] by György Kurtág
Our exploration of string harmonics continues with a string quartet by Hungarian composer György Kurtág. The subtitle of the movement translates to “memory of birds” which may provide some insight to the effect the composer is trying to achieve. This quartet is almost exclusively harmonics, both of the natural and false variety (If you don’t know what that means, ask your teacher!). The four instruments blend together to form a single texture that is reminiscent of a glass harmonica or other ethereal and otherworldly sounds.
What sort of images come to mind when you listen to the harmonics in this piece?
Our last entry comes from Franz Schubert. He was one of the most influential composers who died at the tragically young age of 31. He was a pallbearer at Beethoven’s funeral in 1827, and passed away himself the very next year in 1828.
This piece, as you might notice, has the same title as the previous string quartet by Kurtag. This format of 6 “musical moments” was commonly used for short incidental pieces that were not as hefty as a sonata or a symphony. The musical moment no. 6 that is featured here was published in the year that Shubert died and carries with it such emotional depth and beauty. A very distinctive feature of this movement is that the final cadence features only one note, A flat played in octaves. One would normally expect a fully fleshed out major or minor triad, and this ending leaves us with a feeling of wanting more.
What emotions do you feel when you hear this ending? Does it sound like a true ending or more open ended?
We’re celebrating women composers in April! Welcome to this month’s all-women-composer edition of the CCM Listening Project.
Video 1: Everything is Free by Gillian Welch
This month, we’ll start our journey with the iconic singer/songwriter Gillian Welch. The first song, Everything is Free, from the album Time (The Revelator), is an incredibly beautiful and heavy song that knocks me out every time. This song was written in 2001, and the rise of Napster and other file-sharing/music piracy networks were definitely part of the zeitgeist. The lyrics describe the author musing about how she can survive now that:
Everything is free now, that’s what they say
Everything I ever done, gonna give it away
Someone hit the big score, they figured it out
They were gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay
Listen closely to the lyrics in this song; does it remind you of any musicians in your life?
What does it make you think about the current way we consume music?
Please treat Spotify as the beginning of your musical journey, not the end. Support your local musicians; buy music and merchandise directly from artists. Don’t take streaming music for granted. As Gillian writes, “If there’s something that you wanna hear, you can sing it yourself.”
Video 2: Game to Lose by I’m With Her
I’m With Her is a folk/Americana supergroup trio comprised of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan. These three musicians all have incredible careers and discographies in their own right, and a few years ago, they teamed up to record this top-notch album. I’d highly encourage you to look up these artists individually!
Listen to the three-part harmonies on this track and the interplay between the different instruments. In the first instrumental break there is a mandolin solo accompanied by pizzicato violin.
Can you hear the subtleties between these two instruments? Both have the same tuning and register, yet one is being played with a pick and one with the fingers.
Video 3: Bonny Light Horseman
Here is another folk supergroup featuring singer/songwriter Anais Mitchell on lead vocals and guitar. This record uses traditional folk music from America and Europe as its source material.
Despite this, the band makes this material sound completely fresh and brand new. This song is very wistful and atmospheric. What sort of emotions does this tune conjure up for you?
Video 4: My Mind I Find in Time by Mary Halvorson
Our next entry features the virtuoso guitarist Mary Halvorson. In addition to her amazing guitar playing, she is the composer and bandleader on this record. My Mind I Find in Time also features Amirtha Kidambi on vocals. She augments her sound in some very interesting ways with the use of live electronics. The intro of this song features the guitar with looping and delay effects added to it.
What kinds of new sounds do you hear from the guitar?
Listen to how to the vocals are used as a separate instrument in the ensemble. How do the vocals and guitar interact with the rest of the band?
Video 5: String Quartet “1931”: IV. Allegro Possibile by Ruth Crawford Seeger
The second half of our playlist will feature a much different aesthetic as we veer towards the avant-garde and experimental. Next, we have a movement from arguably Ruth Crawford Seeger’s most important work, her 1931 string quartet. Crawford Seeger was at the forefront of American modernism and experiments at a time when far too few women were granted the freedom to be self-sufficient composers.
Crawford Seeger got a chance to study in Europe during the interwar period, and was exposed to the most avant-garde music happening there at the time. She absorbed all of these influences in addition to the American folk traditions of her family to create a unique and hugely important voice in American classical music.
The 1931 string quartet is a milestone of sorts for contemporary chamber music. At the time of its composition, she was years ahead of her time. This quartet sounds closer to the quartets of Elliott Carter that were written several decades later rather than the music of her contemporaries.
She was influenced by many of the trends in European avant-garde circles such as serialism, and she interpreted them in her own fashion to make something striking and new.
The fourth movement of her string quartet includes several unique features. Instead of the traditional four-voice counterpoint of the string quartet, in this movement, it is reduced to just two. The first violin acts independently, while the second violin, viola, and cello play together in unison in double octaves. These two voices are set apart in maximal amounts of contrast. The first violin plays short, loud, angular fragments, while the other three players play a quiet, undulating melody underneath at a quiet volume.
This movement also has a unique compositional structure; is it a retrograde, meaning it is the same forwards and backward. The first violin plays an additive sequence of pitches, starting with a one-note phrase and then building up by one note every time (2,3,4, etc.) The other three voices start with a 20 note melody, and then each subsequent melody is reduced by one note (19,18,17, etc.) until the roles are completely reversed. The movement then ends exactly the same way it began.
The compositional structure of this music falls into a brand category known as “process music”. This means that the underlying form of the music determines several parameters, like pitch and rhythm. Looking back to Classical and Baroque, one may think of a fugue and a sonata form as process music as well. This is significant because by employing these techniques in an atonal context, Crawford Seeger opens a path for many American composers in the subsequent decades to follow.
Having read about the structure of the movement, can you hear the retrograde happening?
Listen to how the two voices start as opposites, move towards each other, and then return to where they started.
Video 6: Invisibility by Liza Lim
Australian composer Liza Lim specifically wrote Invisibility for virtuoso cellist Severine Ballon to perform. As a cellist myself, this work is one of the most creative and inspiring pieces I’ve heard in a while, and it expands upon the tonal palette of the cello into uncharted territory.
This work is written for a cellist with two bows. The first bow is the normal traditional cello bow, but the second is a specially prepared bow where the frog is removed and the hair is wrapped around the stick before being reinserted. The prepared bow creates a unique sound that blends pitch and noise and makes the cello sound otherworldly. The open strings are also dramatically altered in a process called scordatura. This transforms the sounds of the cello even further.
Have you ever heard a cello being played in this manner before? How would you describe the sounds that you hear?
Video 7: The Beauty of Sorrow by Pauline Oliveros
A titan of American composition and sonic experimentalism, Pauline Oliveros founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 60’s and was a pioneer in the world of electroacoustic music. Her range of compositions is wide and includes various form of improvised music. She also developed what she called “deep listening” which is an “aesthetic based upon principles of improvisation, electronic music, ritual, teaching and meditation.”
The Beauty of Sorrow is a composition/improvisation that features Oliveros performing on her accordion tuned in Just Intonation. This means that the notes on her accordion are tuned to the natural overtones and harmonics, which deviate from the 12-tone equal temperament system, which most pianos are tuned to.
I would implore you to listen carefully to this entire work in a quiet space. What intentions do you bring to the piece when you listen? How does this music affect your state of mind? What kind of connection do you feel with the music and/or the composer?
Welcome to this month’s edition of the Listening Project at CCM. As we approach spring and the sun gets higher in the sky, there is a sense of optimism in the air. I have tried to capture that feeling in some of the songs on the playlist this month.
Note Video 5: Trenzinho Do Caipira (Verde) by Egberto Gismonti is not available on YouTube
Video 1: Iko Iko by Dr. John
We’ll begin our journey in New Orleans with the legendary musician Dr. John. The musical legacy of New Orleans is an incredibly rich and diverse one, and many ways is a microcosm of American music in general. So many current forms of jazz and popular music can trace their roots back to this area. Due in part to its favorable geography and settlement history, there are musical influences from Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and the American south. The title of the album, Dr. John’s Gumbo, encapsulates this melting pot perfectly. In this tune, Iko Iko, Dr. John gives us his spin on this classic song. You can hear influences of ragtime, swing, jazz, rock, and funk, all blended together to create a texture that is both familiar and new. This is also an excellent example of the Second Line drumbeat which provides the foundation for the groove in this song.
As the warmer weather approaches along with Mardi Gras, I felt like starting this playlist off with an upbeat tune. What kind of musical styles do you hear being blended in this song?
Video 2: Pungee by The Meters
Staying in the same geographic region, next we have Pungee by one of the quintessential New Orleans bands, The Meters. This is a perfect example of economy of means in a musical sense; nothing more or less than what is needed to create the perfect groove. Listen to how all four players in the group blend with perfect synergy. This is similar to what you might find yourself doing in an orchestra or chamber ensemble, making sure everyone is contributing equally to create the musical texture. Listen carefully to the interaction between the bass and drums as they lay down a funky groove for the melody instruments to play over.
What kind of mood do you find yourself in after listening to this tune?
Video 3: Denomination Blues by Ry Cooder
Next we have a song by Ry Cooder, a multi-instrumentalist roots musician. This song comes from the Album Into the Purple Valley, which is a collection of dust bowl era tunes with a modern spin. This particular song, Denomination Blues, has a unique sound due to its unusual instrumentation. Here we find a Celesta playing lead throughout the song. This is a keyboard instrument just like a piano, except the hammers strike metal bars instead of strings. Listen to the beautiful sparkling tone of the celesta mixed with the mandolin in this song. This particular instrumentation has some precedent in the classical world. In the last movement of Gustav Mahler’s orchestral tone poem Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), this combination of instruments can be heard as well. Of course, in Denomination Blues the style is much different, but the effect of creating an otherworldly texture still comes across.
Have you heard a celesta before? What other instruments does it remind you of?
Video 4: Daisy Dean by Tut Taylor
Sticking with the roots music theme, next is a tune by Dobro player Tut Taylor featuring Norman Blake on Guitar and vocals. This is a cheerful tune that I thought would be seasonally appropriate. The first line of the lyrics is: “Down in the meadow on the first day of springtime”. This song features another unique instrument: the Dobro. This instrument is very similar in origin to the steel sting guitar, but the Dobro has a metal resonating cone and is played in the lap with a slide on the left hand. Tut Taylor is unique among Dobro players in that he uses a plectrum to pluck the strings rather than using fingerstyle or clawhammer technique like a guitar or banjo.
What similarities and differences do you hear between the two instruments on this song?
Video 5: Trenzinho Do Caipira (Verde) by Egberto Gismonti
For our next song, we have virtuoso Brazilian guitarist/composer Egberto Gismonti performing his interpretation of Trenzinho Do Caipira by Hector Villa-Lobos. He takes the tune and transforms it into something unique to his instrument. He is able to accompany himself and play the melody and the bass lines at the same time. Along with this, he expands the range of the instruments tonal pallet with steaming behind the bridge and false harmonics. All of this is being played by just one person.
How many different parts and voices do you hear throughout the texture?
Video 6: Quartet for Strings in F Major, M. 85: I. Allegro Moderato by Maurice Ravel
Our next selection is the beautiful and evocative first movement of Maurice Ravel’s string quartet. Ravel was one of the progenitors of the musical style known as “impressionism”. While this term has its flaws, it is accurate in that it describes a general aesthetic of the music. The piece was composed in 1903 at a time of transition in Western classical music. Ravel still uses the traditional forms of the string quartet, but adds new harmonies and tone colors. This piece was also strongly influenced by the string quartet of Debussy written 10 years earlier. Listen to the different themes in the first movement, and how the different iterations are accompanied by different textures and moods.
This work has a very bucolic or pastoral feeling to me, what kind of images do you see when you listen to this work?
Video 7: Catalogue d’oiseaux, Book 5: No. 1 Short-Toed Lark
One tell-tale sign of the arrival of spring is the chorus of bird songs you can hear in the woods. French composer Olivier Messiaen famously had a strong affinity for bird songs, so much so that he spent many hours in the woods transcribing bird songs and incorporating then into his music. One of the fruits of his labor, the solo piano work Catalogue d’oiseaux demonstrated this. Each movement is a character piece named after a different bird. Listen for how he emulates the bird calls with the shimmering high-register melodies. He also incorporates the rapid chaotic movements of the birds into the rhythm of the piano part.
What you see in your mind’s eye when you listen to this piece? What kind of bird do you imagine?
Video 8: American Songbook VI: “Voices from the Morning of the Earth” No. 6: Blowin’ in the Wind by George Crumb
For our final entries this month, I would like to pay tribute to the late composer George Crumb, who passed away last month at age 92. He was a very influential American composer from the second half of the 29th century who greatly expanded the tonal range and palette of the piano. His seminal work Makrokosmos Vol. 1 & 2 is a tour-de-force for the contemporary piano. In addition to his avant-garde sensibilities he never lost touch with his West Virginia roots. He seamlessly blends avant-grade sounds with folk songs and harmonies from Appalachia.
An excellent example of this kind of melding of different worlds can be found in the first Crumb selection: No. 6: Blowin’ in the Wind from the American Songbook VI: “Voices from the Morning of the Earth” This piece uses the words and melody from the American folk classic Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan, with Crumb’s unique orchestration and sound world. He combines the familiar text with a seemingly alien and haunting mixture of piano and percussion sounds.
How does hearing this classic song with Crumb’s unique sound world make you rethink the original Dylan tune? Have you ever heard an arrangement of a folk song quite like this?
Video 9: Black Angels (13 Images from the Dark Land) Pt. 3 “Return”: No. 10 God-Music
Our final entry this month is a movement from the ground breaking work for electric string quartet by George Crumb, Black Angels. This movement, believe it or not, is actually a string quartet despite the fact that the only string instrument that can be heard is the cello. The other three players are playing the “Glass Harmonica” which is a set of tuned crystal glasses that are played by bowing the rim of the glass. In this movement the cello is labeled “Vox Dei” in the score and the combination of the high register cello playing along with the bowed crystal glasses create an absolutely beautiful ethereal texture unlike anything else in the string quartet repertoire. This movement is also a direct parody of the cello solo movement from the Quartet for the End of Time by Messiaen, who is featured above.
Listen to the way the cello interacts with the “glass harmonica” How would you describe the texture of this movement?
Greetings to all the curious listeners out there, and welcome to the February edition of CCM’s Listening Project. Several of this month’s selections have been influenced by recent weather events. Music is often quite evocative of a certain time, place, or mood, and that is certainly the case here.
Video #1 Schnee: Canon 1b: Fast immer zart und still by Hans Abrahamsen
Our first entry is a movement from a piece for chamber orchestra titled Schnee, which translates to snow in English. This piece may have some unfamiliar and new sounds, but the underlying structure is a very old and familiar form; the canon. A musical canon is a type of compositional tool where the melody gets repeated at different intervals of time, often with ornamentation. This is something you’re likely familiar with even if you’ve never heard the term before. For example, a round is a type of canon. The melody in this movement is presented in several ways: false harmonics on the string instruments, whistle tone on the piccolo, woodwind choir, and in octaves on the piano.
Listen to how the melody is passed around between the different groups of instruments, often overlapping with one another. The melody is always present throughout the movement in different iterations and speeds. See if you can follow the thread.
What winter memories come to mind when you hear this? Does this remind you of any specific images?
For me, I think of snowshoeing through a silent forest, or watching the particles settle inside a snow globe.
Listen to the percussion part in the background of the piece (the light rustling sound played on a snare drum with a brush). What images come to mind when you hear this texture?
Video 2 Arctic Dreams: No. 2, Pointed Mountains Scattered All Around by John Luther Adams
Next is a movement for a piece for chamber ensembles and voices by composer John Luther Adams.
He draws inspiration for his works from the natural world. His music is often times evocative of a certain landscape or environment and “brings the wonder that we feel outdoors into the concert hall”. He lived for many years in northern Alaska, and many of his pieces are connected to that part of the world. In Arctic Dreams the first sound we hear is a single tone followed by a harmonic glissando on open strings. For all the string players reading this, a harmonic glissando is achieved by simply touching the string lightly and running your finger up and down the string while you bow. If you don’t know how to do this, ask your teacher or a string player!
John Luther Adams is often referred to as a “minimalist” composer, but that term can be misleading. He is a minimalist in the sense that the musical materials he draws from are often limited in scope, but that doesn’t mean the music can’t be complex. The musical drama and shape also unfolds over a much longer span of time than you might be used to. Think of a Rothko painting—when you look at it from far away, it may only have two colors, but when you look closely many different nuances come out.
What sort of landscape or environment do you think of when you listen to this piece? What kind of natural phenomenon do the harmonic glissandos remind you of?
Video 3 Journey in Satchidananda by Alice Coltrane
This music piece comes from a seminal album in the Spiritual Jazz sub-genre by Alice Coltrane. Alice was the wife of John Coltrane and kept his musical legacy alive after his untimely death in 1967. While being influenced by jazz artists of the past, Alice forges new ground in the album along with saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders. She performed using the harp, which was an unusual instrument in jazz. On Journey in Satchidananda, she fused the standard rhythm section of jazz with the instruments of Indian classical music to create a mesmerizing sound. It’s transportive—not just to exotic new worlds but also to inner realms.
Listen to the bass and drums keep steady time while the other instruments improvise on top of the groove.
What sort of emotions or feelings does this music create for you? Have you ever heard a harp being used in this way?
Video 4 My Funny Valentine and Yaphet by Miles Davis
These tunes by legendary trumpet player Miles Davis showcase his terrific style. Lots of ink could be spilled to talk about his 6 decade recording career, so I’ll save that for another day. The two selections here come from two different eras: the late 1950’s with his first “Great” Quintet, and from his electric period in the early 1970s. These two tracks are radically different in style, but there are several similarities. Both feature Miles playing the tune with his signature Harmon mute sound, and both feature melodic repetitions with subtle variations.
In Yaphet, listen to how the bass clarinet shadows the trumpet when the melody is played. The bass clarinet is intentionally playing slightly behind the trumpet to create an out-of-phase effect. Here, Miles Davis also mixes the sounds of Indian classical music with western Jazz. Listen to how the rhythm section (guitar, keyboards, drums, bass) are constantly shifting while the drone holds steady in the background.
These are two recordings by the same artist about 15 years apart. What similarities and differences do you hear?
Video 5 Uncloudy Day by John Fahey
For a change of pace, we present iconic guitarist John Fahey. His music contains a broad mix of blues, folk, and other roots music with an innovative touch. On Uncloudy Day, he used fingerstyle picking to play. Using this technique, he can play a bass line and melody at the same time.
How many different parts can you hear being created by just one guitar?
Video 6 Frosty Morning by Bela Fleck
We give you a fiery take on an old fiddle tune by banjo player Bela Fleck. Listen to the interplay between the banjo, mandolin, and violin. Each player puts their individual spin on the tune as it gets passed around. Bela Fleck would later explore new musical territory with his band the Flecktones, but this is a good example of him playing in a traditional style from his early days.
What differences do you hear when each player takes a turn playing the melody?
Video 7 Lullaby by Codona
Codona was a super group of sorts in the free jazz/world music genre. The name is derived from the first two letters of each members’ name (Colin Walcott, Don Cherry, and Nana Vasconcelos). It’s worth your time to look up these musicians individually, they all have incredibly diverse musical backgrounds. However, this track features only Colin Walcott on the sitar. Listen to how he accompanies himself by playing on both the drone strings and the melodic strings at the same time.
What kind of mood do you find yourself in after listening to this piece?
Video #1 Hüzzam Saz Semaisi
The video version of this song was not available on Spotify. Our Spanish Love Song was substituted on the Spotify list. The notes below are for the video, but on both versions, you will listen to the microtones.
Listen very carefully to the melodic components of the tune.
How do the notes you hear differ from the scales you play on your instrument or the piano?
They are using what we refer to as “microtones” or, in other words, the “notes between the note” In the Western world, we use a tuning system called 12-Tone Equal Temperament. This divides the octave into 12 equal pitches that are the foundation of Western harmony (although the pitches and subsequent intervals that are created are not quite equal, that is a topic for another day). A famous example demonstrating this system’s possibilities is The Well-Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach. He extrapolates on this new tuning system in his day to write a prelude in fugue in all 24 keys. From our point of view, the notes used in Hüzzam Saz Semaisi may sound foreign or unusual, but for someone who is inside the tradition, these notes sound just like a D major scale would to our ears.
What do you notice that is different about his guitar?
To accommodate the microtonal pitches used in this melody, the guitarist has a custom-designed fretboard that enables him to play intervals that are smaller than a semitone.
Video # 2 Keesher Bar
The performer plays a beautiful and unique instrument called the Baglama or Saz. This particular instrument has two necks that use different tunings and different styles of playing. On the bottom neck, he is fingerpicking, but not the top neck; he uses his right hand to tap on the fretboard to create pitches. This may remind you of the Chapman Stick (an electroacoustic bass/guitar hybrid)
What instrument does this remind you of?
In terms of musical form, this is quite similar to folk traditions in the western world you might already be familiar with. The melody is introduced and repeated, then followed by extensive ornamentation and improvisation on the melody.
Video # 3 Bucimis
Listen carefully to the cornucopia of sounds created by the percussionist using only one hand on the drum. The various techniques make his drum sound like an entire percussion section. At the 2:50 mark of the video, virtuoso mandolinist Avi Avital introduces the melody.
How is this tune different from other traditional folk dances you are familiar with? What do you notice about the rhythm?
This song features an asymmetrical time signature of 15/16. The subdivisions of the meter can be divided into the following groups of 16th notes: 2+2+2+2+3+2+2. Each bar has 7 beats, with the 5th beat containing one extra 16th note. Another way to conceptualize the time signature is to think: short-short-short-short-long-short-short. Each bar follows this pattern. Now with this in mind, listen to the tune again and see if you can follow the meter.
Video #4 Eastern Love
Featured in this video is another beautiful instrument from the Arabic diaspora, the Oud. This instrument has many similarities to instruments from the previous videos, but the Oud has its own unique voice. It is shaped like a guitar or a lute but with double course strings like a mandolin. However, this instrument is fretless, which leads to a different range of possible notes and a more lyrical and expressive performance practice. For more on this instrument and Arabic music in general, please join our online lecture on Arabic Music on January 27th at 7:00 pm.
According to the artist, this recording is meant to “…expresses the love and pain of lives lived by the people of war-torn Iraq.”
What emotions does this piece evoke when you listen to it?
Video #5 Black as Crow
As we pivot away from Arabic music, here is a performance of Black as Crow by Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi. This is an arrangement of an old-time American fiddle tune.
For our younger students, does this melody resemble a tune you may have played on your instrument?
Many of the songs in the Suzuki books come from fiddle tunes or other traditional folk songs. You are likely to work on a piece like this with your teacher in the early stages or your musical journey.
The song also features accompaniment by another unusual instrument; the cello banjo. The cello banjo is a bass/baritone banjo with the same tuning as a cello (C-G-D-A from low to high). The arrangement also features the flute and accordion, giving the tune an Irish feel. This is yet another example of fusing different folk traditions to make something fresh and unique while staying rooted in the past.
Video #6 Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
Here is a bittersweet tune from the Bob Dylan songbook performed by world-class musicians Brad Mehldau on Piano and Chris Thile on Mandolin. Listen to the interplay between the two players as they seamlessly blur the lines between folk, bluegrass, swing, and jazz. I wanted to end our monthly list on a hopeful note, and listening to this song always lifts my spirits.
Bonus Track: Hand of Fatima
The version of this song was not available on Spotify. A version by a different group was substituted. The notes are for the video version.
For our more adventurous listeners, here is a song from a tribute album to the Master Musicians of Jajouka. It is performed by the trio of Medeski Martin & Wood with Marc Ribot on guitar and Bachir Attar playing the Gimbri, a bowl back styled rustic lute with a goatskin top. The group is a collective of musicians who play traditional music from Morocco. Listen to the blend of western jazz and funk interspersed with sounds from the Arabic world. Throughout our listening project this month, a theme has been the combination of different traditions around the world to create exciting new sounds and textures, which are taken to a new level here.