Yearly Archives: 2012

My Week with Philip

It’s not so often that Cincinnati, OH feels like the center of the musical world, and it’s even rarer that I get to work with several of my musical idols on a single project.  But every once in a while, the stars align, and this past week was one of those rare occasions.

March 30 & 31 saw the world premiere of Philip Glass’s new cello concerto (no. 2) by our CSO.  I’ve never thought of myself as a big Philip Glass fan, but in preparing for the concert this past week I had occasion to go back through my CD collection, and there’s no denying that I’ve had my Glassy phases.  When I was a freshman in college, I used to listen to the last movement of his second symphony over and over again on repeat (and yes, I realize that many of my readers will find that concept delightfully ironic.)  The coda is SO MUCH FUN and it features my favorite repeat in all of Glass’s work, because just when you think the movement is about to finish, he goes back in for another round (1:03):

I’ve also harbored attachments to the first violin concerto and “Glassworks” among others, which, when I added it all up, made me realize that I really am a Philip Glass fan.  Which I think is one of those things that serious musicians aren’t supposed to say, but all the more reason for saying it.

And all the more reason why this week gave me such a buzz.  The experience was only amplified by the fact that Philip is a gregarious and charming human being.  A big part of my job this week was to interview him publicly, and let me tell you, that guy’s a talker.  If Charlie ever had him on the broadcast, he wouldn’t be able to get in a word edgewise (which, perhaps, is why Mr. Glass has never appeared.)

I’ll admit that I was a little put off when I first received the score to the concerto about a month ago, and I found out that the music for his new piece was not actually new — it turns out that the concerto is a condensation of his score for Naqoyqatsi, the third installation of Glass and Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy.  But the thing is, everyone involved treated it like it was a brand new piece of music, and because of that, it became a new piece of music.

Much of that had to do with the collaborators involved, Matt Haimovitz and Dennis Russell Davies.  Now, when I said at the top of this post that I got to work with ‘several of my musical idols,’ DRD was definitely included in that mix.  My obsession with him also dates back to my first year of college, when my eyes were opened to the greater world of new music, and I eagerly began buying up recordings of Schnittke, Pärt, and Glass among others.  So many of the albums featured Dennis Russell Davies as conductor that his became a household name in the house of my brain.

First off, I’m happy to report that he’s another class act, all the way.  Secondly, he fucking recorded Alfred Schnittke’s 9th Symphony, which, on a spiritual level, places him ad dexteram Patris as far as I’m concerned.  And this is in addition to the most baddass recording of the Viola Concerto and one of the single greatest albums of all time, Marianne Faithfull’s rendition of The Seven Deadly Sins.  Not to mention the complete Haydn Symphonies, which, correct me if I’m wrong, is only the third such survey ever recorded??

Ahh, just thinking about these people gets me all in a tizzy, but I want to emphasize that the best part is that they were all really dedicated to this project (especially Matt Haimovitz who became one of my musical idols after working with him), they all contributed ideas that made it work, and, what made it so fulfilling on a personal level, they actually listened to and incorporated my ideas — little old me, the assistant conductor.  That’s a rarity for artists who don’t even approach these guys’ stature, and it was an honor to contribute what little I did.


But wait, there’s more!

Because when I said that earlier that Cincinnati felt like the center of the music world this past week, it wasn’t just because I got to hang out with famous people.  The seventh annual MusicNOW Festival took place, organized by Cincinnati native Bryce Dessner.  He collected, among others, the following musical entities: eighth blackbird, Nico Muhly, James McVinnie, Sam Amidon, and no less a deity than Sufjan Stevens.

Sufjan was premiering a new song cycle co-composed with Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner himself.  The one bummer of my week is that I couldn’t get over to hear this collaboration (since I had to be next door attending to the recording of the Glass concerto).

Thank god for YouTube bootlegs!

Mysteries of ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’

“Mysteries of Lisbon” is a 2010 film of epic proportions, a 4 1/2 hour Portuguese-French period drama that was included on several Best Of lists last year.  It’s a visual stunner — every shot looks like a 19th century oil painting, not to mention the fascinating camera work, long takes, and bold editing.  But for me the big mystery watching this film was “what is this music??”  Two names are listed under the music credit on the movie’s web site: Jorge Arriagada and Luís de Freitas Branco.

Sr. Arriagada is a Chilean countryman of the film’s director, Raúl Ruiz, and has been one of his most frequent collaborators.  His name is listed as the sole musical credit (Original Music by) on MoL‘s imdb page and in the film’s credit reel, which would make you think, OK, this guy must have written the music for the film… so who’s the other name?

Well, it turns out that this is the real mystery of Mysteries of Lisbon.  Here’s some copy from the film’s web site:

To allow the Lisbon of the 19th century to ring true, Ruiz turned to the music of the great Portuguese composer Luís de Freitas Branco, a name that is synonymous with the Portuguese culture of the 20th century.  His work continues to be a reference, with special mention for Paraísos Artificiais and Vathek, considered the jewels of modernism he himself created.  He composed four symphonies of a classic quality that truly denote his appreciation for the polyphonic past of Portugal.

He died in 1955.

I found this text rather intriguing.  (Let’s ignore for a second the fact that this was obviously and poorly translated from god-knows-what Romance language and that the phrase “polyphonic past of Portugal” is probably the title of some lame musicologist’s blog.)  I may know nothing of the Portuguese culture of the 20th century, but I do know a few things about modern music, and I had never come across the name Freitas Branco, much less the music he wrote.

So began the investigating.  It turns out that Sr. Freitas Branco’s entire orchestral output has been released on Naxos (who else?) as recorded by Alvaro Cassuto and the Ireland RTE National Symphony Orchestra.  And what an output it is.

Having now listened through Freitas Branco’s four symphonies, two orchestral suites, and several tone poems, I can say this: almost all of the music (and all of the distinguished music) used in Mysteries of Lisbon is his.  I can also say that Sr. Freitas Branco’s music has nothing to do with the Lisbon – or anywhere else for that matter – of the 19th century, but it has a surprising amount to do with film music of the 20th and 21st centuries.

This composer has flabbergasted me.  Some of his music is very derivative indeed; his youthful “Suite alentajana” sounds like a pastiche reenactment of Rimsky-Korsakov’s greatest hits.  There’s hints of Chausson and Vaughan Williams and even Bruckner.  But this composer also created strikingly original music, most of it very dark in mood, with strident harmonies and brooding orchestration.

Have I piqued your interest yet?  Here are some of the themes that feature prominently in Mysteries of Lisbon:

Symphony No. 1 (1924), mvmt. 1:

Symphony No. 1, mvmt 2:

Where did this stuff come from??  It’s so moody and enigmatic, weirdly proto-Herrmann, and – what? – post-Rachmaninoff?  It seems custom engineered for film:

Symphony No. 2 (1926-27), mvmt. 2:

This next piece sounds like Stephen Sondheim and Philip Glass teamed up to write a Bruckner symphony:

Symphony No. 3 (1930 – 44), mvmt. 1

But here’s the real kicker, a section from a symphonic poem titled Vathek.  This canon for 59 voices was written in 1913, but it sounds much closer to Ligeti or Schnittke than it does to Stravinsky’s boldest pages (it pre-Bartóks Bartók, while we’re at it):

This stuff is amazing, right?  And totally neglected and unknown and we should be playing it at least SOME of the time, right??  I’m so glad it made its way into the soundtrack of Mysteries of Lisbon, and I have to give mad props to Raúl Ruiz, because he used it just right.  But, continuing the mini-theme from my last post, it’s at least mildly deceptive that Jorge Arriagada’s name is the default credit for the music in this film.  I’m sure Sr. Arriagada made a valuable contribution to the project, and I haven’t gone back and tallied up the music minute by minute, but I’d have to guess that at least 75% of the music in this very long film belongs to Sr. Freitas Branco.

Why not help even out the disparity: buy the Freitas Branco oeuvre here.  Not that he’ll really care.  But I will!  And you’ll enjoy it!  And we’ll all be happy!  And moody.  Oh, and you should watch Mysteries of Lisbon too – it’s really great!

Is Osvaldo Golijov a musical thief?

A potential scandal in the world of contemporary classical music comes to us today from Eugene, OR of all places, via the Eugene Register-Guard.  Bob Keefer writes about the reaction of two audience members at the recent Eugene Symphony performance of Osvaldo Golijov‘s Siderius:

But when the concert opened with Golijov’s “Sidereus,” a 9-minute composition that premiered in 2010 in Memphis, Tenn., the two men looked at each other in shock.

That’s because, both said on Friday, they recognized large parts of Golijov’s composition from a different composer’s piece, one they both had been working with recently: accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman’s 2009 work, “Barbeich.”

The two gentlemen in the audience that night were Brian McWhorter, a trumpet professor at the University of Oregon, and Tom Manoff, an NPR classical music critic and writer.  Mr. Manoff being the driven journalist that he is, has beaten me to the punch and offered a rather extensive blog post on this developing story in which he analyzes passages of both scores and tells us that they match up in many respects.

Gracious readers, here is a chance to listen and judge for yourselves.

First, a clip from about one minute into Sidereus, ostensibly by Mr. Golijov:

And a parallel fragment from Mr. Ward-Bergeman’s Barbeich for hyper-accordion:

It doesn’t take a musical genius to hear that these clips are two different versions of the same music.  Let’s take a listen to the B section:

Golijov:

Ward-Bergeman:

You get the idea.  Here’s what Mr. Golijov said about the work in an interview with his publisher:

For the “Moon” theme I used a melody with a beautiful, open nature, a magnified scale fragment that my good friend and longtime collaborator, accordionist Michael Ward Bergeman came up with some years ago when we both were trying to come up with ideas for a musical depiction of the sky in Patagonia. I then looked at that theme as if through the telescope and under the microscope, so that the textures, the patterns from which the melody emerges and into which it dissolves, point to a more molecular, atomic reality. Like Galileo with the telescope, or getting close to Van Gogh’s brushstrokes.

While Mr. Golijov may not be able to come up with his own musical ideas, he is certainly a potent generator of BULLSHIT.  What I think he meant to say was that he took Mr. Ward-Bergeman’s theme and created an arrangement.

In his blog post Mr. Manoff writes that he is awaiting responses from both Mr. Golijov and Mr. Ward-Bergeman, and he suspects they must have had a financial or personal agreement.  Certainly they must have.  This “borrowing” is so obvious that Mr. Golijov never could have gotten away with just using it and not saying anything.  But is it plagiarism?

These things are rarely so clear-cut in music.  The various jobs that writers have in the profession – orchestrator, composer, arranger – leave tremendous room for interpretation.  A Composer may be nothing more than a tunesmith or a “whistler”; a professional orchestrator may in fact do the lion’s share of the actual composing.  So who gets the credit?  Look at the case of Robert Russell Bennett, the greatest of the Golden Age Broadway orchestrators: Bennett was a composer in his own right, and his compositions pale in comparison to the great numbers that he orchestrated for the likes of Richard Rodgers.  Rodgers may not have had the time or ability to form his own music into full-fledged musical fabrics, but obviously it was his material that made all the difference.

Then there’s Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.  Who was the composer and who was the arranger?  Were there any such boundaries?  Often one would write the first half of a piece and the other would complete it.  Duke almost always got the credit no matter how much work Strayhorn had done on the music.  But, so the thinking goes, this was to Billy Strayhorn’s benefit: the music sold much better with Duke’s name on it, and Strayhorn reaped significant financial rewards from their arrangement.

At least 9 out of the 11 minutes in Sidereus are based on Mr. Ward-Bergeman’s Barbeich.  Though Golijov adds what I presume to be his own introduction, interlude, and coda, and diverts the melody here and there, I think an honest musician would have to call this piece an arrangement.  Certainly many an arranger has done a lot more work than Golijov did and received less credit for it.  At the very least, I think it’s a little underhanded of Golijov to have fulfilled a commission under his own name with this work if he didn’t clear the concept with his publisher/commissioning agency.

You can listen to the entirety of Sidereus here and the entirety of Barbeich here and make up your own mind: what do you think?

A few additional remarks:

1) Mr. Ward-Bergeman does indeed have a long history of collaboration with Golijov: he is a member of the “Andalucian Dogs” on the Ayre disc, and a musician on the Tetro soundtrack.  Could this piece have been another instance of their musical collaboration?

2) I interviewed the work’s dedicatee, Mr. Henry Fogel, on the occasion of Sidereus‘s Chicago premiere and included a few extra notes about it in a blog post here.

3) “Sidereus” is one of the most awful titles in musical – nay, titular – history.

4) The accordion, and in fact all the members of the squeezebox family, are totally badass.  Witness.

5) This, in case you all didn’t read it already.

The Nephew Song

I had been wanting to write a dirty song for a long time, so when the authors of the 2012 Quadrangle Club Revels told me they needed a song about an incestuous relationship between an aunt and her nephew, I jumped at the chance.  It’s probably good that I got it out of my system.

In this song, the aunt describes her nephew (who has gone missing) to an ace private eye.  The song also needed to contain reference to Greek gods, and the aunt is a Latvian countess.  Again, I can not stress enough that I do not create the plots for these shows:

HE’S AWFULLY TALL
WITH CURLY HAIR
SHAVEN FACE
WITH SKIN SO FAIR
THAT WHEN YOU CARESS IT
YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE STROKING A CHILD

HIS CHEST IS BROAD
HIS LEGS ARE LONG
HIS WAIST IS TIGHT
HIS ARMS ARE STRONG
AND WHEN THEY HOLD YOU
THEY MAKE YOUR WHOLE BODY GO WILD

OH HOW HE’S GROWN
FROM A LAD TO A TALL, CHARMING MISTER
AND WHO’D HAVE KNOWN
THAT HE’D BE THE SON OF MY SISTER

HIS EYEBROWS ARE DARK
HIS PUPILS ARE BLACK
THERE’S A LITTLE BROWN MARK
ON THE SMALL OF HIS BACK
AND WHEN YOU BLOW ON IT
YOU’LL SEE HOW HE REALLY GETS RILED

A GOD ON EARTH
AND A NEW GOLDEN AGE IS UPON US
AND SINCE HIS BIRTH
HE’S BEEN OUR FAMILY TREE’S OWN ADONIS

HIS EYES WHEN THEY SMILE
HIS LIPS WHEN THEY KISS
THE LOOK ON HIS FACE
WHEN IT’S BRIMMING WITH BLISS
WELL I’VE TOLD YOU A LOT
BUT THERE’S ONE THING LEFT TO DESCRIBE

‘CAUSE IF YOU HAD SEEN US
YOU’D THINK YOU SHOULD WEAN US
THERE’S SOMETHING BETWEEN US
THAT MAKES ME HIS VENUS

IT’S THE SIZE AND THE STRENGTH
AND THE SHAPE AND THE LENGTH OF HIS
EARLOBE

The Bilbao Song, pt. II

The Saga Continues…

Back in August of 2009, I wrote a hard-hitting exposé about the green awning that once proudly stood in front of the University of Chicago Quadrangle Club at 57th St. and University Ave.  The awning represented something fine and good and upper crust, something with an air of old world exclusivity that is lacking in our modern age.  New management had recently taken over the club, and the awning disappeared without a trace.  My demands for an explanation were met with silence.

After two and a half years, I thought the story was over, and that the awning would never be replaced.  Even worse, I thought that everyone had forgotten about it.  I cancelled my membership at the club.  Between the awning and the new bar stools, it just wasn’t worth it.

Though no longer a member, I continued to write songs for their annual revue, the infamous Quadrangle Club Revels.  The 2012 Revels was a noir styled “thriller”, and in one scene, the ace private eye at the center of the case delivers a line of dialogue about various unsolved Hyde Park mysteries.  I suggested an addition to the script by Andy Austin: how about we include the mystery of the Missing Quad Club Awning?  It took a little convincing, but Andy used the line.

The script was finalized at the beginning of January, and the show went up 4 weeks later.  I couldn’t get to Chicago to see it this year, and frankly, I had forgotten all about that little inclusion (my main concern was the truly filthy song that I wrote for my friend Lauren.)

And then, lo and behold, this letter-to-the-editor appeared in the Hyde Park Herald:

You can imagine the rest.  (I didn’t take a screen shot of the top of the next column.  The Herald makes available only the most recent edition online, in jpg. format.  I know of no better way to sum up Hyde Park.)

The moral of this story is: art matters.  Drama can still be a vehicle for social and architectural change.  This may be only one letter-to-the-editor, but this single voice proves that the cause is not forgotten.  Academic pencil-pushers can’t just go removing awnings at will.  A movement is at hand.