Posts Tagged: Stephen Sondheim

Here is why GLEE is the worst

Let’s ignore for a second the fact that the writing is AWFUL, that the plots never make sense, that the characters are hackneyed, that the integration of music into story is woeful, that the treacly overproduction of each and every song is an aural demoralization, and that most of the scenes are so poor that it makes me uncomfortable to watch them by myself.  No, all of that is Glee’s own business, and it’s my fault for watching it.

But when Glee decides to put on a high school production of West Side Story, it gets PERSONAL.

And since, after an artist has died it is the duty of his self-appointed representatives on earth to guard his reputation, I present a list of grievances so far this season re: WSS.

1) Mercedes and Rachel are going up against each other for the role of Maria. And why is that?  Is Mercedes really prepared to sing the high C at the end of Tonight?  Has anybody on this casting committee bothered to consider the RANGE and VOCAL TYPE needed to play any of these parts??

2) Rachel’s statement that she would sing the “classic Maria song ‘Somewhere'”. Though there is a brief — and I mean brief — a cappella reprise of “Somewhere” by Maria at the very end of the show, the theatrical version of West Side Story assigns this song is to an off-stage voice.  The actual actress playing Maria is onstage enacting the Ballet reenactment of the first act.  Somebody please do your homework.

3) Dear Idiots: the melody of “Cool” has two notes on both of the first “Boy”s. Here’s what I’m talking about:

Here’s what you did:

And this was after Mike Cheng proudly announced that he’s been “working on his singing”.  Sounds to me like he and everyone else at Glee needs to work a LOT HARDER.

4) Leonard Bernstein has not been mentioned once this season. Kurt name checked Stephen Sondheim in this past week’s episode.  It’s not like a have a problem with that per se – I’m all for mentioning the hallowed name of Sondheim whenever possible – but the line he delivered made it sound like Sondheim was the creator of West Side, and yes, he was one of the creators, but I just don’t want Lenny to be forgotten in the hubbub, since if they’re going to crap all over his songs, they might as well help popularize his name/image/work among the younger generation.  I don’t seem to recall them having mentioned him in connection with “Ohio” last season either.

So that’s why Glee is really the worst, and why it’s a crying shame that I’m going to have to keep watching it this entire season to keep them honest about their use of the West Side property.

Having said that, I will admit that Darren Criss is the perfect Tony.

Top 10 Personal Favorite Composers

OK everyone, this is the last Top 10 Top 10 list – Personal Faves.  Here are the rules:

1) These are your personal FAVORITES.  No explanations, no reasoning.  Don’t choose someone just because you think he or she is a particularly good or great composer.  Choose someone because you love his or her music.  [Note: the two need not be mutually exclusive.]

2) These are your personal favorites at this very moment in time.  Try to let it flow – don’t hem and haw.  Five minutes hence, you might have a totally different list.  In fact, you could come back five minutes later and post a whole new list.  I would love it if you did that.  Maybe the You of five minutes ago really didn’t understand the You of now and your new perspective on life, love, and music.

3) Your list need not reflect any particular order.  It can if you want it to though.  Also – and this is very important – just because someone’s not on your list doesn’t mean you don’t love them.

4) Our working definition of ‘composer’ is anyone whose primary means of musical conveyance is the written note.  Feel free to understand this broadly.

Discuss! We’ve had some astonishingly interesting and in depth discussions on these lists.  Between like 5 people.  And I love those 5 people, and respect them and value their opinions and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from them.  But I have a little thing called Google Analytics, and, Dear Readers, I know that there’s many more of you out there.  This is a get-to-know you activity – absolutely not a debate.  Just fun, y’all!!

I’ll start.  In no particular order (excepting Beethoven):

My Top 10 Personal Favorite Composers

1. Ludwig van Beethoven

2. Alfred Schnittke

3. Maurice Ravel

4. Jean Sibelius

5. Claude Debussy

6. Giaocomo Puccini

7. Stephen Sondheim

8. Henry Purcell

9. Joseph Haydn

10. Björk

Top 10 Composers Born During or After the Year 1900

Now we come to the vaguest of my Top 10 lists.  As far as the qualities we’re looking for in a composer, this list has no more specificity to it than the original Top 10 Composers List what first inspired my project.

I like having this list be more open-ended though, because I think we’ll get a lot more interesting interpretations of what makes a good 20th/21st century composer and hopefully a lot of variety in musical style.

Obviously, music in the 20th century was a whole new ball game.  First, there was this little thing called Sound Recording, which forever changed the ways in which music is created and disseminated.  Then there wholly new channels of communication allowed us to out about all the tinkerers and oddballs, the hermits living in caves and railroad cars (not to mention the suburbs of Mexico city.)  Supposedly at some point along the way, innovation trumped beauty as an aesthetic value in its own right.

OK now, before playing/judging, take a careful look at the title of this list: we’re not looking for composers who WORKED after 1900, we’re looking for composers who were BORN after 1900 (or during that year – so Copland is fair game; Poulenc is not.)  It’s just another little tweak to make the game harder/more interesting.  Maybe.

1. György Ligeti (1923 – 2006)

György Ligeti.  The Ligster.  “El Ligerino” (if you’re not into the whole brevity thing).  I think Ligeti is the best of what the 20th century is all about: he was a bold experimenter, he was a meticulous technician, and he forced musicians to reckon with the extremes of difficulty presented in his writing.

Ligeti’s music also forces listeners to confront their conceptions about what music IS (Poème Symphonique), yet it retains an obvious connection to the great music that came before him.  He was part of several movements: Dada, Darmstadt, even “World Music” to a certain extent, but he was beholden to none of them.

His music is intelligent but not abstruse.  He lived through some of the 20th century’s greatest atrocities (he even escaped a forced labor camp in Hungary) and yet he had a wicked sense of humor (his only work to bear a published opus number lists it as “No. 69”.)  He lived and created in the tiny sphere of the European avant-garde, and yet his music became a part of pop culture.

I think this about sums it up:

(Nonsense Madrigals, The King’s Singers)

2. Alfred Schnittke (1934 – 1998)

Why do I love Alfred Schnittke so very, very much?  There’s obviously the surface layer – the way that he can write a beautiful piece of music, then manipulate it 100 different ways.  But that would be worth nothing if there weren’t a tremendous and powerful meaning behind it.

Schnittke was in every way a more subversive artist than his Russian forbears, Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev.  Admittedly, this was a much easier task for a Soviet artist working after the death of Stalin.  But I think it says a lot about Schnittke that even after all the walls had fallen, when the great 2nd World had come to its knees, he could have used his enduring popularity (and yes, he is a national HERO in Russia) to forge a new, and undoubtedly lucrative career by playing ball with the new regime; instead, he refused the Lenin Prize and moved to Germany.

Schnittke was the first composer to make full use of historical styles as a means of musical story-telling.  He was also the best.  His creepy distortions of earlier musics suggest a commentary about the meaning an manipulation of truth – let’s not forget that during the Soviet era, subscribers to the Soviet Encyclopedia would routinely receive replacement pages to be glued into their volumes when certain artists and politicians had become “non-persons”.

(Concerto Grosso No. 1, Kremer/von Dohnanyi)

3. Arvo Pärt (1935 – )

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is considered the great mystical figure of contemporary music.  There’s something of an irony involved here: he’s well published, well recorded, well represented in the media (especially in film soundtracks), well studied by the academic establishment, and even a frequent interview subject.

But despite our access to the man and his music, there’s no denying the powerful sense of the mystic in his art.  Pärt famously invented a system of writing counterpoint called tintinnabulation which mimics the ringing of bells.  His melodies recall Gregorian chant.  Amazingly though, his music doesn’t sound like an anachronism – it sounds like an eternity.

(Fratres, Shaham, GSO/Järvi)

4. Billy Strayhorn (1915 – 1967)

If you read David Hajdu’s Strayhorn biography Lush Life (and I certainly recommend that you do), you’ll find out just how very difficult it is to separate the contributions of this jazz legend from those of his constant collaborator, Duke Ellington.  But Ellington was born in the 19th century, so that makes it easy to choose Strayhorn for this list.

As best I can tell, Ellington was the revolutionary, Strayhorn the poet.  Ellington was nearly two decades Strayhorn’s senior, and while young Billy was still knee-high to a grasshopper, Duke was creating major innovations in harmony, form, and especially orchestration that would change the face of jazz composition.

But at the tender young age of 16, Strayhorn famously penned the aching and harmonically sophisticated ballad “Lush Life”.  During the very same period, there was this little gem, a melancholy ode to Chopin entitled “Valse”:

(Valse, van Rouijen)

5. Steve Reich (1936 – )

I’m not sure why, but I somehow feel like Steve Reich is a better minimalist than a composer.  It’s probably silly to even talk about such things, but I’d be interested in hearing if anyone else knows where I’m coming from.

His early pieces were tremendously innovative and they gave life to a whole new musical world.  Sometimes they shimmer, sometimes they startle.  Some can be preformed by just about anyone (“Clapping Music”), others require unerring virtuosity (“Piano Phase”).

Maybe it’s just me, but I find Reich’s newer work much less fresh and less skillful.  But maybe it’s just that his music has infiltrated the entire musical panorama so thoroughly that I approach these more recent pieces with an unfair set of expectations.

But hey, good luck making funner music than this:


6. Stephen Sondheim (1930 – )

Allow me to expand on the things I said about Sondheim last time.  First, he loves many of the same composers that I do: he’s frequently listed his favorites as Ravel, Berg, and Rachmaninoff.  Not to mention Bernard Herrmann.

So he takes those composers, mixes them with some more from the Great American Songbook (esp. Harold Arlen and George Gershwin), folds in the most brilliant lyrics in Broadway history, and voilà, you have a soufflé:

(Into the Woods, OLC)

(Who knew “Little Red Riding Hood” could be so creepy and so funny when you set it to a mixture of Ravelian blues and meta-Music Hall strolling music?)

7. Ástor Piazzolla (1921 – 1992)

The great innovator of the Argentinian Tango, Ástor Piazzolla studied composition with the mythical French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger.  Piazzolla’s music is infused with the language of Bach and the early 20th century European modernists.

I liken his music to Haydn’s or Johann Strauss Jr.’s: his pieces aren’t written for the dance, they are written to tell the story of the dance.  Each piece is a miniature scene – the cabarets and night clubs where he cut his chops are the setting.

(“Milonga Loca”/Piazzola)

8. Thomas Adès (1971 – )

Thomas Adès is the real deal: a composer who writes music that is both interesting and  emotional, has the piano chops to back up his incredibly demanding instrumental ideas, and makes a living off writing and presenting his own works.

Add to that the fact that he’s adept at incorporating a variety of styles into his music and a natural flare for the dramatic (see The Tempest and Powder Her Face) and you’ve got a first rate composer.

(Violin Concerto, Marwood, COE/Adès)

9. Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992)

Messiaen reminds me of two other composers on this list: Arvo Pärt, because of his fervent and mystical religious beliefs; and Ligeti because of their shared experience as prisoners during WWII (Ligeti had it much harder) and because they both wrote music that explores new ground while maintaining a direct connection to the romantic tradition (Messiaen’s is stronger).

But now that I think of it, there are more parallels: like Ligeti, Messiaen dabbled in various –isms throughout the 20th century and took only what he liked.  Messiaen’s modal harmonies are often bear a passing similarity to Billy Strayhorn’s mellow sonorities.

Then there were all those damned birds.  And the weird early electronic instruments.  Let no one say that Messiaen wasn’t an original.

(Turangalîla Symphony, RCO/Chailly)

10. Alberto Iglesias (1955 – )

It would be slightly insane to make a list of the “Top” composers born after 1900 and not include at least one person who primarily worked in the essential 20th century art form, film.  Probably a lot of you will think it’s equally crazy to choose Alberto Iglesias, a semi-obscure Spaniard who’s only scored about 20 movies, to fit that bill.

My reasons: Iglesias takes the best things from other composers who rank among my favorites: Herrmann, Max Steiner, Miklos Rózsa – even Danny Elfman.  Then he turns the volume up.  He is an amazing orchestrator and user of instruments more generally.  Much like Pedro Almodóvar, his primary collaborator, Iglesias speaks an altogether contemporary language but informs it with a thorough knowledge of history.  Both gentlemen speak to our lightest and our profoundest selves.

(La Mala Educación)


Formulating this list was a lot harder than I thought it would be.  It shouldn’t have come as any surprise that an instruction like “Pick the top 10 composers” would leave me adrift though.  The good thing was that in choosing the contenders, I was able to better define my criteria.

I’m glad I used a fixed birth date as a criterion: for one thing, it made things easier than if I had gone with an even vaguer notion of “20th/21st century” composers, because then there would have been invited all this blabbing about who’s secretly a 19th century composer, etc.  Choosing 1900 as a starting point for composer births was arbitrary enough.

I ended up going for a bon milieu approach: I preferred composers who were not afraid to experiment but who didn’t specifically align themselves with any group, and who made music that was both daring and beautiful.  Not really any different then the criteria I would use for composers of any era.

Now, my conversants, to the comments section.  The usual rules apply: make your own top 10 list or modify mine by replacing my selections with you own.  There’s a whole lot of latitude in this list – much room to interpret that pesky word “Top” and bring in a lot of different ideas about music.  Also, for this list please mention at least the birth year of your submissions.

Top 10 Composers for Non-Concert Settings

Our fourth in the series of top 10 lists, this list focuses on people who might be termed “the best collaborative composers”.  Composers who are distinguished by their contributions to film, theater, dance, TV, or some other non-musical medium.  In some cases, their works have a life on the concert stage, or in yet another medium.  In some cases, they also double as brilliant composers for the concert hall.  (In other cases, they double as not-so-brilliant composers for the concert hall.  Quite a smorgasbord we’ve got here.)

Each of these media requires something different.  Opera, pantomime, and ballet often require the music to tell the story as much as the action on stage.  Some music theater composers do this as well, but some just write great songs that propel their story along at a really entertaining clip.  Movies, TV, and “incidental music” for the theater are different – if the music distracts from what’s going on in the drama, it has ceased to serve it’s function.  But the really excellent composers for these media do more than just set a mood – they come up with ingenious ways of working the musical material into our minds and play subtle psychological games so that we interact with what’s going on in front of our eyes on a subconscious level.

1. Stephen Sondheim (1930 – )

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I think Sondheim is our greatest living American composer.  The irony of my including him on this list, however, is that I always find that his music is ruined when I see it staged in the theater.  His music (not to mention his lyrics) does such an amazing job of telling the story that I can lean back, close my eyes, and see every move, facial expression, and visual image in the play.

But it’s not Sondheim’s fault that the people in the business of recreating his works can’t possibly match his genius and live up to what he’s written.  Here’s a glimpse of a nearly-original production of Sweeney Todd (the ’82 touring company). It’s directed by Hal Prince, so let’s just go ahead and call it “authentic”. Notice how Sondheim writes all of Mrs. Lovett’s slaps, stomps, and sighs into the music?  That’s good theater.


2. Bernard Herrmann (1911 – 1975)

Would Alfred Hitchcock’s films be what they were without Bernard Herrmann’s music?  No way.  His pre-Hermmann films were excellent, and had that certain Hitchcock touch, let there be no doubt: through Herrmann, we see Hitchcock at his best.  Herrmann’s music elucidates and amplifies everything in Hitchock’s visual language.

He scored Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane.  He scored Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.  He wrote the iconic opening sequence for The Twilight Zone. What more do you people want??  Whatever it is, he’s got it.  A horror score using only strings?  Psycho.  A heavily ironic score for a romantic comedy adventure?  North by Northwest.  An intricate psychological dreamscape?  Try this:

3. Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

Name a single ballet in the common repertory written before Tchaikovsky came along.  The only ones I can think of are “Giselle” and… that’s it.  Even Ballanchine said that before Stravinsky, the only ballet scores of any merit were Tchaikovsky’s.  He is a brilliant musical storyteller.  Add to that the fact that his music is so very danceable, and you’ve got a hit, baby.

More than any of the previous lists, this list is bound to reflect my personal view as an American.  And what could be more  American than seeing The Nutcracker during the month of December.  No, seriously, I think we’re like the only country who really gets into this ballet at Christmas thing.

Swan Lake moves me to tears, and it’s no surprise that it’s featured prominently in films like Billy Elliot and the highly comedic and altogether craptastic Black Swan.

4. Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924)

Now, my friend Marcello and I have gotten into a lot of debates about Puccini v. Verdi.  He thinks that Verdi is a better storyteller through music, whereas Puccini more or less writes soundtracks for the action on stage.  Point well taken, though not entirely conferred.

My biggest problem with opera is pacing.  A composer is invariably tempted to stop the action and tell us everything about a character’s inner depths.  That’s great, and it’s a really unique property of music that it can do just that, so why not go for it?  Because if the characters aren’t doing anything, why should we care about their inner lives?

For me, Puccini is that rare combination of an opera composer who can pace the action in a scene and simultaneously tell us everything we need to know about the characters in it.

5. John Williams (1932 – )

Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, Indiana Jones, E.T., Home Alone, Hook, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter, and don’t forget a little something called THE OLYMPIC GAMES.

Yes, it does read like a Steven Spielberg filmography, but fine.  The two are ideally suited for each other.  They are both unabashed manipulators of our emotions, and they both do it incredibly well.

John Williams may be a red-handed thief when it comes to his material.  But he doesn’t waste what he’s stolen.  His music may be as cheezy as an overflowing fondue pot.  But I bet all of you could sing the main themes from each of the above listed movies, and that’s saying a LOT.

I mean, come on, right?

6. Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990)

Wait, so you’re saying street gangs don’t do ballet?  Could have fooled me.


7. Alberto Iglesias (1955 – )

An analogy:


During their generation, Hitchcock and Herrmann were the most distinguished practitioners of their respective art forms.  It also happens that they were ideally suited collaborators – they shared an artistic soul.  One expressed that soul in a visual language, the other in an aural one.

I would say the exact same thing about Alberto Iglesias and Pedro Almodóvar.  Again, the movies Almodóvar made pre-Iglesias are very much his own, and excellent in and of themselves.  The ones he made with Iglesias as collaborator are just way better.

8. Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)

Stravinsky’s first three major works, all ballets, are staggering accomplishments in every category: harmony, form, orchestration, instrumentation – everything.  And I don’t care that we’ve lost a lot of the original choreography – I know that these are perfect works for the stage.  Much like what I said about Sondheim, Stravinsky’s music tells the story.

My primary example would be Petrushka, his 1911 ballet about puppets coming to life (a Russian sort of Pinnocchio, you might say).  Every character, every argument, every laugh is vividly portrayed in the music.  Different musics interact with each other, and pile on top of each other, just like freaks at a carnival show.

He did plenty of experimenting in weird little stage genres, like pantomime (Renard), narrated chamber music (Histoire du soldat), and ballet chanté (Les noces).  But what I find really striking is that he could be as moving in the overblown romanticism of The Firebird (1910) as he could be in the refined and formal classicism of Apollo (1928):

(and p.s. Herrmann:Hitchcock::Iglesias:Almodovar::Stravinsky:Balanchine, yes?)

9. Frank Loesser (1910 – 1969)

I think Guys & Dolls is the perfect musical.  Great tunes, great pacing, great dialogue – everything you’d want.  The amazing thing is that Frank Loesser is the first and only Broadway triple threat, having written the score, the lyrics, and the libretto for this gem of the musical stage.

Plus, how do you not include someone who looks like that?


10. Danny Elfman (1953 – )

Everyone just looves to talk about how Danny Elfman doesn’t write his own music.  Admittedly, there is so much rumor-mongering out there, it can be really hard to sort the facts from the fiction.  I think this article makes a really good case, and I’m willing to take it at face value.

OK, so the guy writes his own music.  And it’s really, really cool.  I can hardly think of a more inventive score than Beetlejuice – it’s a wild romp, just like the movie itself.  And who doesn’t tear up when that choir comes in at the end of Edward Scissorhands?

The pièce de résistance however, has to be Nightmare before Christmas – I loved it when I was a kid, and I was really surprised when I started conducting youth orchestras 10 years later that it was still so very popular.

(so, Danny Elfman:Tim Burton::… do we really have to go through this whole thing?)


So that last list didn’t seem to generate much talk… I guess it was just a little too tame for the Webern crowd.  But I’m anticipating that this list could get real territorial real quick.  Will the opera queenz, the balletomanes, and the Hans Zimmer fanatics get all up in each others’ grillz?  Will there by any video game music people out there?  Will anyone say Adam Guettel?  Will Gabe say Monteverdi?

And are there any Lost fans out there?  I never watched the show, but I almost thought about including Michael Giacchino just on Alex Ross’s recommendation.  And speaking of TV, how about Alf Clausen?

Just remember, we’re not trying to glorify any cults here; we’re just taking a chance to reason and discuss and think about music.  But the fun of this game is to face the artificial limits it provides and organize your thoughts accordingly.  So, either a) come up with and present your own list or b) suggest alternatives and remove someone from my list in so doing.


I got an e-mail yesterday from my friend Kensho, who had to give some sort of mock-pre-concert lecture for his conducting seminar at the Curtis Institute.  Well aware of my prowess in the field (and who isn’t?), he asked if I had any advice.  I proceeded to type out a 3 page deluge of information, everything from which software to use to make audio clips (I use Switch, MP3 Trimmer, and Audio Hijack Pro), the ratio of talking about a composer’s bio to his music (like 1:10), and whether or not to include a Q&A (don’t).

I rambled into the message box and cleaned things up later, but I never had any doubt about sending so much detailed, practical information, because I know that that’s what people like best.  Read David Ogilvy’s Ogilvy on Advertising; not only does he provide a wealth of specific information about making print and TV ads (the very reason my web site features fonts with serifs and black text on white background), but he proves that it’s the best way to sell a product too.  Ogilvy was first and foremost a research man, and from his research he learned that the primary function of an ad was to inform a potential customer (this is not to mention his pioneering work in branding).  The ads that had the most copy invariably sold the most product.  And if you wouldn’t believe a man who looked like that, you’re crazy.

I love specific, detailed, technical information, and that element might be my most favorite thing about Finishing the Hat, Stephen Sondheim’s new book.  The first chapter is a primer on rhymes – perfect rhymes, slant rhymes, masculine and feminine, what an “identity” is.  It’s all stuff that you could get in an average poetry guide (or on Wikipedia for that matter), but when you read Sondheim’s descriptions and his impassioned reasoning about why rhymes are important, you connect deeply with him as an artist and a craftsman.  You realize that for all his virtuosity, the key to his success is that he has humbled himself before the basics of his craft time after time after time (or beau after beau after beau, as the case may be.)

There’s a young German composer who’s recently come to my attention named Robin Hoffman.  He mainly writes for film, and if you just peruse his music (which is offered very generously on his web site), you can hear how immaculately he has absorbed every single style that Hollywood has turned out over the past 100 years.  It’s an extremely impressive accomplishment.  What’s even better though, is that he publishes a “Daily Film Scoring Bit” on his blog.  It’s really valuable information, and you can tell that this man knows his métier intimately.

It’s hardly news, but there’s an awful lot of crap on the internet.  But if you can weed through it, you’ll find what you need.  I’m working on a band piece right now, and it was very helpful to find out not only that you can indeed mute a vibraslap, but also just how to do it, which I’m guessing is something not many people knew before they saw this video:

And then there’s my friend André’s new web site,, which I really have to recommend to anyone who lives in Chicago and likes to eat out at decent restaurants.  It allows you to review individual dishes on restaurant menus throughout the city.  The ramifications are really pretty cool: a) you know what to order when you go to a new restaurant, and b) chefs could use the aggregated data to improve their offerings.  I think there are lots of other ramifications, but those are probably a little too specific in terms of trade secrets for right now.

On another note, I specifically exhort everyone to boycott the iTunes store until they get this composer thing sorted out.  That is to say, Composer information no longer downloads from the iTunes store into your iTunes library, which, as I have spent much time explaining to the Apple people, is a deal-breaker for people who primarily purchase classical music.  The amazon mp3 store has better deals anyway, and much more legible track information and album covers.

Just shop there, and please lets not even start with this AAC v. mp3 business, you can’t tell the difference anyway.