Posts Tagged: Sufjan Stevens

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!

List of Acceptable Christmas Music

I’ll probably submit this to Wikipedia.

1. Sufjan Stevens, Songs for Christmas

I don’t think we give Sufjan nearly enough credit in general, but certainly we should all be bowing down on our knees when December 25 comes around.  Simply put: Sufjan saved Christmas music.  All of it.  All of the familiar carols and songs, the trite lyrics, the pat harmonies.  He redeemed them, re-invented, and glorified them.  And all it took was a banjo and some oboes.

He also wrote some great new classics from scratch:

2. Tomás Luis de Victoria, O Magnum Mysterium

3. Gian Carlo Menotti, Amahl and the Night Visitors

This is likely the best thing Menotti ever wrote.  Pieces like The Medium and The Telephone have so many silly melodramatic moments and text-setting gaffs that they just don’t hold together.  Amahl is simple and tunely, contains a musical setting of the line “This is my box. This is my box. I never travel without my box,” and always makes me cry right here:

4. In Dulci Jubilo

I love the tune, and I love the back and forth between Latin and Olde English.  I love how “show” is spelled “shew”.

5. Alfred Schnittke’s “Stille Nacht

6. John Adams’ El Niño

7. “Glory to God” by Yours Truly

You didn’t seriously think I would leave this out, did you?

8. Benjamin Britten, A Ceremony of Carols

Marginal:

– “Silver and Gold” as sung by Burl Ives on the original Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer soundtrack

– The Vince Guaraldi Christmas Album

– The Little Drummer Boy

– “The Eight Days of Christmas” by Destiny’s Child

Specifically unacceptable:

– Morten Lauridson, O Magnum Mysterium

– This:

– And everything it represents.

– Everything else not specifically on one of the above lists.

Am I missing anything?

Top 10 Genre Composers

This list, #6 on our Top 10 Top 10, is kind of a free-for-all.  I wouldn’t say it’s as vaguely defined as that last list, but it’s definitely more of a game game than trying to analyze who the most influential composers were.  The idea is to pick composer whose overall output may not have been worthy of the greatest pantheon, but who did write one genre of music better than anyone else.

You’ll pick it up as you go along.

1. Johann Strauss Jr. (1825 – 1899) – Waltzes

Nothing beats a good old fashioned waltz.  I use them in my own music all the time.  And nobody ever wrote a better waltz than the great Viennese legend Johann Strauss, Jr.  He was so passionate about three-quarter time that he even defied his famous composer father – in order to follow in his very footsteps (Johann Sr. had a banking career in mind for his sohn.)

He is rightly fêted every year on New Year’s Eve by the World’s Greatest Strauss Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic:


(Rosen aus dem Süden, VPO/Boskovsky)

2. Charlies Villiers Stanford (1852 – 1924) – English Church Music

Leave it to an Irishman to best the English at their own game.  The English choral tradition is a quite specific thing.  There’s the whole issue of dueling churches, the Anglican and the Catholic.  Certain composers specialized in one or the other.  Certain composers were glad to be denominational mercenaries.

Another irony in my selecting Mr. Stanford for this particular honor is that I submit as his outstanding work a Latin Motet:


(Beati Quorum Via, Cambridge/Rutters)

3. Kurt Weill (1900 – 1950) – Cabaret Songs

What I love about Weill’s songs is how sardonic they are.  He displays a remarkably dark wit in the interplay of his spiky harmonies with the light lyrics (which he didn’t write).  His music represents the gritty world that his characters inhabit.

I also like how many of his cabaret songs are real Cabaret Songs – that is, the lyric sets them inside an actual cabaret.  It’s much like a Saloon Song.


(“Alabama Song”, Marianne Faithfull)

4. Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924) – Opera

Puccini appears on my lists of Top 10 Melodists and Top 10 Composers for Non Concert Settings (i.e. the stage).  So, it should be pretty obvious why I would put him as the top opera man.  I’ll be interested to see if the Wagner contingent mounts a strong defense.  As much as I adore Richard’s music, I’d prefer to listen to it in smaller, concert-sized chunks.

5. Vladislav Zolotaryov (1942 – 1975) – Bayan Music

OK, so here’s a composer and an instrument that you’ve likely never heard of, but get ready, because it’s going to be way better than you expected.

First off, this is a bayan:

Basically, it’s a Russian/Eastern European accordion, which differs from the regular accordion in some way or another.

[Now, apparently there is an alternate meaning to the word ‘bayan’ of which I’m wholly unaware.  If you want to find out what it is, or what it might be, or what ‘bayan’ might autocorrect to in some bizarre google conspiracy world, you could do a google image search for ‘bayan’, but I strongly recommend against it.]

So, we’ve established that much.  Everything I know about this composer’s biography comes from the liner notes of the one CD I’ve found with his music on it.  Apparently his parents were prisoners of the Gulag and he was born in the northernmost region of northeastern Siberia.  Great start.  He excelled at the bayan, and got some training in music at a small conservatory.  He was rejected several times from the Moscow Conservatory before he finally made it in to study composition.  He committed suicide at the age of 33.

He composed a number of pieces for other instruments, but this is where he made his mark:


(“I’m recalling instances of gloomy sorrow”, David Farmer)

6. (F.) Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) – Minuets

In many ways, I think the minuet was Haydn’s genre par excellence.  These pieces were not written for dancing.  They were written to add a dance scene into the dramatic flow of his symphonies (as I touched on in the discussion of Piazzolla in last list.)  Haydn was a wry observer of human interaction, and he humanizes his noble acquaintances in these minuets.

We might hear the heavy brocade weighing down the upper crust, or see the lush curtains and the warm glow of the gaslit ballroom.  We might sense the hesitations and embarrassments of the youth present, relishing their only opportunity for flirtation in a highly formalized milieu (then we catch them as they sneak out to the veranda.)  There are the dancers who don’t quite know the steps and their bashful apologies; then there are the big fat ladies with two left feet who couldn’t be less aware.

It’s all just so funny and charming and gemütlich:


(Symphony No. 94, LSO/Jochum)

7. Sufjan Stevens (1975 – ) – Pensive Old-Testament Banjo Ballads

OK, so there’s obviously a lot of things that Sufjan Stevens does impressively well.  And in my opinion, there’s a lot of things he does better than anyone else.  But in this category, he’s pretty much got to be the undisputed leader, right?


(The Transfiguration)

8. J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750) – Music for Solo Strings

I think Bach’s cello suites and solo violin sonatas & partitas are every bit as great an accomplishment as his works for organ and the big choral-orchestral combinations.  Not only are they shockingly original and deeply emotive, but they link him to other European masters of the solo viol, like Marin Marais and the incorrigible Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe.


(B minor partita; Grumiaux)

9. W. A. Mozart (1754 – 1792)Piano Concerti

This is a genre-composer combination on many levels: that is to say, not only do I think Mozart wrote the definitive collection of piano concerti, but I think that the piano concerto was the definitive Mozart genre.  So chew on that one for a while.

For me, these are Mozart’s greatest operas.  They have the beauty, the drama, and the songfulness of his operas, but they condense the plot into about 30 minutes.  Who wouldn’t like that?


(D minor concerto, Brendel, St. Martin/Marriner)

10. Michel LeGrand (1932 – ) – Jazz Opera Film

Aside from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, just how many other Jazz Opera Films are there?  Well, there’s a least one: Les Demoiselles de Rochefort – ALSO by Michel LeGrand.  I’d say he sweeps this category.

No but seriously, he wrote such a gorgeous score for Les Parapluies.  And I know there’s a lotta h8trs out there, and h8trs gotta h8t.  And I hate that Steven Sondheim is one of them, and that he said that he thinks this “just doesn’t work” or whatever.  But then again, he was in Camp which might be the worst movie ever made, so with all due respect Steve, let’s just tone it down an notch, shall we?

I mean, come on:

Discuss

This is easily the most ridiculous list so far.  [Just you wait!]  But I think it should make for a good game, because there’s at least three ways to play:

1) Make your own damn list

2) Replace the composer for the category.
Example: Khatchaturian was a way better writer of waltzes than Johann Strauss Jr. ever was! [as if]
or Thomas Tomkins was a much finer composer of English choral music than was Charles Villiers Stanford! [perhaps…]

3) Drop one of my category-composer combos and say that your guy did his thing better than mine did his.
Example: Conlon Nancarrow was a much better writer of boogie-woogie piano rolls than Kurt Weill  was of Cabaret Songs!


Ouch, my neck.

dfw

Like many people who participated in the Infinite Summer, I just finished reading Infinite Jest, the sprawling masterwork of recently deceased American author David Foster Wallace (above).  I mention this for 2 reaons: (1) since people first began finishing the novel in 1996, it has been de rigeur to make said deed publicly known on the internet, and (2) because in my various post-Jest Infinite Internet Wanderings, I stumbled upon such a lovely quote by Mr. Wallace that I just had to share it.  This comes from a ’96 Salon.com interview with the author, and let’s just say, I think it applies equally well to the world of serious music:

If an art form is marginalized it’s because it’s not speaking to people. One possible reason is that the people it’s speaking to have become too stupid to appreciate it. That seems a little easy to me.

If you, the writer, succumb to the idea that the audience is too stupid, then there are two pitfalls. Number one is the avant-garde pitfall, where you have the idea that you’re writing for other writers, so you don’t worry about making yourself accessible or relevant. You worry about making it structurally and technically cutting edge: involuted in the right ways, making the appropriate intertextual references, making it look smart. Not really caring about whether you’re communicating with a reader who cares something about that feeling in the stomach which is why we read.  Then, the other end of it is very crass, cynical, commercial pieces of fiction that are done in a formulaic way — essentially television on the page — that manipulate the reader, that set out grotesquely simplified stuff in a childishly riveting way.

What’s weird is that I see these two sides fight with each other and really they both come out of the same thing, which is a contempt for the reader, an idea that literature’s current marginalization is the reader’s fault. The project that’s worth trying is to do stuff that has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it’s also pleasurable to read. The reader feels like someone is talking to him rather than striking a number of poses.

That’s so beautiful it could have been written by Alfred Schnittke.  [Although Schnittke put the same thought quite elegantly with his famous statement, “the aim of my life is to unify serious music and light music, even if I break my neck in doing so.”]

Here we are 13 years later, and I have to say, I think that the situation has improved greatly, at least as far as music is concerned.  There’s plenty of really excellent serious stuff that is both interesting and entertaining.  Personally, I think most of that comes from people like Björk, Sufjan Stevens, and Animal Collective, but even students in Academe these days seem to have the “right” challenge in mind —  much more so even than when I started college in ’01.  This new state of affairs has been accepted with a rather defeatist sort of attitude by the people at the top, but that almost makes it even better.

There’s some good fodder for this subject in the recent Bitchfork review of Sufjan Steven’s new album The BQE (not to be confused with his other new album, which isn’t so much his new album, but arrangements of an old album of his):

it’s tough to know for whom The BQE project is intended. It seems doubtful that the work will find a second life in orchestral programs, and it feels equally unlikely that fans of any of his previous albums will be clamoring to hear this work live. As such, The BQE is probably best classified as an unusually successful vanity project, as well as evidence of Stevens’ restless creativity.

I personally think it’s more than that, but I can see where this reviewer (Jayson Greene) is coming from, because indeed, this album appeals to a pretty niche audience.  From an academic viewpoint though, a “successful vanity project” would basically be anything that more than half of the audience stayed awake through.  I think artists like SS have seriously expanded the audience for serious music — the question is, have artists expanded their definition of “serious music”?

Deep.

Sufjan-Quilty

P.S. Also from the same review:

In fact, until an electronic interlude crashes in about halfway through, The BQE could easily pass for the sort of palette-cleanser that might have opened a major orchestra’s subscription concert in the 1950s.

Um, actually no, it couldn’t — I’m sort of an expert on this subject, since in my interior mental life, I have in fact attended most of the orchestral concerts, night club acts, and cocktail parties that took place from 1932 – 1959.