Monthly Archives: October 2011

Pirate Jenny

OK gang, it’s time for some Halloween fun: which of these five fabulous divas makes the best Pirate Jenny?

1. Lotte Lenya

2. Nina Simone

3. Marianne Faithfull

4. Bea Arthur

5. Hildegard Knef

Before you cast you’re vote, I would just ask that you not to be swayed by the fact that three of these ladies have videos, one is singing in German, and one is singing an alternate (and far superior) translation of the text.

Only an evil genius would pit these ladies against one another.  Happy Halloween.

In other news, I’m I’m busily assembling a new recording of a new piece I recently composed. It’s a cantata, a setting of the 46th Psalm using the rare and beguiling Young’s Literal Translation.

Making a recording takes a lot of money, so I’ve started a Kickstarter campaign to try and raise some funds.  Perhaps some of my readers would consider kicking in.  I’d certainly be grateful, and at the very least, you’d get your own mp3 copy of the piece!

Here’s the link: Recording of Psalm 46, a new cantata


Björk just released the album credits for Biophilia, her latest album, on her web site.  As I postulated in my post about the new work, Björk was indeed the impetus behind all the musical elements on this album, having written the brass, choir, and organ arrangements herself, and having done the lion’s share of the producing.  That’s not to take anything away from her numerous collaborators, whose contributions were clearly invaluable.

One of the interesting things I learned from reading the credit roll is that Björk came up with the concept (if not the execution) for all of the newly invented musical instruments on this album except for one: the Sharpsichord:

The Sharpsichord, also known as the Pin-Barrel Harp, is the invention of an English musician and engineer named Henry Dagg (duly credited on, I might add).  He invented the instrument for a folk music sound installation in Kent, after which it seemingly had no further use, and could no longer stand to live in the out of doors.

If you’ve listened to Biophilia as many times as I have now, the sound of the instrument will no doubt be familiar from the song “Sacrifice“.  The instrument is basically an enormous, many-geared music box that activates a set of harp-like strings, and, strangely, has a sort of shamisen-like vibrato.  It’s shocking that this instrument wasn’t custom-engineered for Björk, given that it incorporates all of her favorite things.

Here is Mr. Dagg himself performing on the musical saw with sharpsichord accompaniment.  I’m hard pressed to think of a stranger music video on the internet.  His eyes tell the whole story:

A Journey to the End of Taste

This is the first installment in a co-blogging project with my friend and fellow blogger Eric Benson at Inverted Garden.

The first thing Eric and I have decided to do is a book clubish reaction to Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, which you won’t have to have read to follow along, but which would be well worth reading for your own enjoyment.

The premise of the book is this: Carl Wilson is a rock critic who sets out to examine the elusive concept of Taste – what it is, how we form it, and how it has been analyzed by various philosophers and sociologists over time.  Mr. Wilson uses his personal aversion to the music of Céline Dion as a case study, examining just what it is that’s so inherently distasteful to him (and many others) about her music while her many millions of fans live and die by it.

Now, Eric’s sphere is mainly Jazz, and mine is mainly Classical, and we’re trying to look at what might link the two and where they diverge.  I’ll start off with a commonality: both genres share a general lack of public interest.  [If you need proof of this, note that the same lame public radio stations tend to play both.  And folk.  But that’s another story.]  As such, people involved in both genres tend to think/worry/bother a lot about the public’s taste, since we’re always looking to convert new followers (with missionary zeal, in the case of the classical establishment).

Here’s a quote from the book, in which Carl Wilson discusses some ideas of the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu:

One of Bourdieu’s most striking notions is that there’s also an inherent antagonism between people in fields structured mainly by cultural capital and those in fields where there is primarily economic capital: while high-ranking artists and intellectuals are part of the dominant class in society thanks to their education and influence, they are a dominated segment of that class compared to actual rich people.  This helps explain why so many artists, journalists and academics can see themselves as anti-establishment subversives while most of the public sees them as smug elitists.

People go to hear live classical music for a lot of reasons: because they love it (what we might call pure taste); because they want to be seen loving it (social capital); because they want to be seen (economic capital).  Allow me to explain those last two: the social capitalistas seek to gain status in society by embodying an image of genuine Lovers of Art.  These are the people who go shh! The economic capitalistas go because the symphony hall and the opera house are socially acceptable meeting grounds for their particular set; music is an afterthought, and it does no good or damage to their reputation whether or not they appreciate it.  These are the people being shh!ed.

[BTW, when you are a master of the half-turn, as I am, there is no need for audible shh!ing.]

Institutions talk a good game about trying to build new audiences, but few are willing to take any risks that would alienate their reservoir of financial support, which includes both the economic and social capitalistas.  Of course, what these institutions really want is to keep doing the same thing and have droves of people love it for the very same reasons they do.

Alex Ross had something interesting to say about this:

[Classical music] exists off the radar screen of the major media. It’s actually kind of exciting when you think about it. If I were in the business of marketing classical music to younger audiences, I’d make a virtue of this. Classical music is the new underground.

One thing I don’t understand is why more classical institutions/musicians won’t capitalize on the growing sonic connection between “indie” music of various sorts and their own.  String arrangements have been all the rage for at least 10 or 15 years, and lord knows Sufjan has gone a long way to popularizing the oboe.  Shouldn’t classical musicians be making a huge virtue of the fact that tons of young, educated, musically interested people are primed to listen to acoustic music-making like never before?

This is getting long, and I’d like for Eric to jump right into the conversation, so I’ll end with a Charlie Rose style question for him:  Jazz has a much larger swath of the population who stand to gain social capital from an appreciation of the genre than does Classical, largely because it’s more fetishized as a commodity.  Elderly black people in the suburbs and the Williamsburg-Wicker Park-Silver Lake set can make their friends think they’re hip when they play Miles or Ella at their backyard picnic.  Yes?


If anyone seriously interested in creating music isn’t listening to Björk, and namely her new album, Biophilia, I don’t know what they’re doing.  I’m talking here to composers, producers, singers, instrumentalists, arrangers, whatever.  Music industry types are certainly taking notice, since project is being released simultaneously as an album and an app.  The app is said to be revolutionary, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it is.  Not having an iPad myself, I can’t comment.  But that’s OK, since everyone else is already talking about the app, and I want to talk about the music itself, which is more than enough topic for conversation.

Many Björk albums have an orchestrational unity.  With Vespertine, she explored the tinkly sounds of celestas, music boxes and harps; Medúlla was a study in a cappella; Volta was largely defined by brass.  Biophilia incorporates all these sounds and textures, and of course Björk’s many flavors of electronic beats.  She adds some startling instruments to her palette, the tesla coil being one, and the commissioned gameleste being another:

But Björk’s real sonic obsession on this album is the organ, and she gets everything she can out of it.  There are Messiaen-like cluster progressions:

There’s are chiffy bass lines and percussive jabs:

And a sort of minimalist, modal/tonal hymnody:

Now, as with all Björk projects, this one is a collaboration, so one does wonder who is directly responsible for writing these organ parts.  Until I can see some liner notes, I’m glad to believe that Björk herself.  She arranged much of the brass music for Volta, and like that album, the organ harmonies here are so integrated with the vocal lines, it seems impossible that she is not their author.  And even if she’s not, she certainly deserves credit for assembling the whole thing.

I think that what appeals so much to me about the organ on this album is that as Björk steadily expands her use of electronics, she also steadily expands her use of acoustic instruments.  What’s more, it sounds to me like she has translated some of her previously electronic ideas into acoustic ones and, in some cases, even re-translated them back into electronic ones.

I don’t know if that even makes any sense.  Just go listen to the album like 30 times.  It has everything you’d want from Björk: epic hymns with brass and choir, aggressively undanceable dance music, bold modernist compositions, and haunting, contemplative etherea.