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 YouTube and 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!
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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 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 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 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.