Berlin Philharmonic & Herbert von Karajan: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (pt. 2)

Karajan_Beethoven_Symphonies_1963

Dear Matthew:

I’m not sure I’m sold on recordings of classical music.

Don’t get me wrong — this is a heck of a piece of music. The last movement is particularly striking. Everyone knows ‘Ode to Joy’, but we’re really only familiar with the main hook of it, and the final fifth of this piece is spent doing all kinds of interesting things to that hook — and, as you’ll recall, I love musical recontextualizations.

But the problem I was having while listening to this was this: I kept losing focus. Maybe the problem was, as previously discussed, that I’m doing it wrong — I was doing more mindless data entry as I listened. Even so, my mind kept wandering in the quiet parts.

Maybe it’s a function of the way music is recorded. I’m sure you’ll agree that dynamics make music interesting — a song that does the same thing at the same volume all the way through is probably going to get boring after a while. In my experience, classical recordings feature pretty huge dynamic range. I don’t want to get into a whole debate about sampling rates and bit depth, but the salient point is this: I listened to this recording on a set of studio monitors in a soundproof radio studio, and I found myself constantly adjusting the monitor volume. I had to turn it up to hear the quiet bits, but I’d have to turn it back down for the loud bits to keep things at a comfortable volume. It’s like that thing when you’re trying to watch an action movie and you have to crank it to hear the dialogue, but then something explodes and your neighbours call in a noise complaint.

So maybe the problem is that I should be using headphones? You’re a headphone guy — do you find you have this problem? Don’t get me wrong, I love a good pair of headphones, but it seems pretty limiting to have an entire genre of music that you can’t listen to on speakers without deafening yourself. Say what you will about the loudness war, but at least I can listen to (most) modern albums without riding the volume knob the entire time.

It’s a bit of a copout to write off an entire segment of the Western musical canon for something like that, but the fact remains that most of the rest of the symphony still didn’t really grab me. Has pop music ruined my attention span? Am I still having that kneejerk ‘ew, classical’ reaction that young people have to most things their parents like?

I would really like to think it’s not either of those, so the only thing I’m left with is that maybe recordings just aren’t the best way to experience a symphony. I can’t help but think how much more impressive this sort of music would be in a giant concert hall directly in front of the 50+ people performing it. It’s the same problem I have with live albums in general: it’s a losing battle to try and capture the live experience in a recording, especially if sonically superior studio versions already exist. With a few exceptions, I really don’t like live albums.

You pointed out in a real-life discussion that a major problem with live classical music is that quality can be hugely inconsistent, and having a good experience hinges entirely on living near a good orchestra. That may be true, but isn’t that true of any live music experience? You’ll only see big international rock shows if you live near/visit a city big enough to warrant a tour stop. The sound guy might have an off night and ruin the entire show with awful mixing.

I don’t know. Again, this symphony is full of some seriously impressive music. But the entire idea of a symphony — of getting 50+ people to play an hour-long song in a giant concert hall on, let’s face it, some totally ludicrous instruments — it’s insane. It’s a spectacle. It seems like some of that spectacle is lost when all you have is an audio recording.

But hey, this piece did stir something in me that I had completely forgotten until this week: when I was a kid, I’m almost positive I had Beethoven Lives Upstairs on VHS. Only 90s Kids Will Remember Beethoven Lives Upstairs.

— Matt

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Berlin Philharmonic & Herbert von Karajan: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (pt. 1)

Karajan_Beethoven_Symphonies_1963

Dear Matt:

I have been looking through my past assignments to you and I’ve discovered a flaw in my approach.

From the start of this project, each of us has been trying to guide the other into unfamiliar musical territory. As you’ve pointed out a couple of times, we’ve generally been providing fairly non-standard entry points. That’s to be expected given how nerdy we both are, and it’s part of what keeps this so interesting.

But as I scanned our oeuvre thus far, I couldn’t help but think that my assignments have been borderline perverse. Nobody has ever suggested Van Der Graaf Generator as a possible ‘in’ to prog — let alone Magma. And, even my assignments drawn from the pool of ‘standards in their genre’ — Red and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady come to mind — have tended to be the sort of music that’s become standard specifically because of how it plays against the conventions of its genre.

This all goes double for my approach to classical music, so far. Come to think of it, I haven’t assigned you anything that can even be called ‘classical’ without some heavy qualifications. (Bartok, maybe. But even that’s a stretch.) Perhaps I ought to defer a bit more to the broader public’s notions of ‘the essentials.’

Yes, I like the sound of that. You need a firm grounding in the basics, Matt. You need ‘core repertoire.’ You need something that is, for us classical concert hall types, utterly standard to the point of monotony.

You need Beethoven 9.

(You can tell a real classical type by whether they refer to symphonies by cardinal or ordinal numbers, i.e. ‘Beethoven’s Ninth’ vs. ‘Beethoven 9.’ Incidentally, that’s the same way you can tell an old-school Doctor Who nerd from a Nu-Who fan: ‘the Ninth Doctor’ vs. ‘Nine.’ In either case, both options are acceptable nomenclature.)

What shall I say about Beethoven 9? Well, I suppose the most important point to bring up is that there’s more to it than ‘Ode to Joy.’ That may seem obvious. But then, that melody is so synonymous with the phrase ‘Beethoven’s ninth symphony’ that it may indeed come as a surprise for some that the ‘Ode to Joy’ doesn’t even crop up until over 45 minutes into the piece.

And when it does, it’s one of the most gratifying moments in all of music.

To my ears, even the most familiar parts of Beethoven 9 don’t have the whiff of mould about them that, say, Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’ does. Or Beethoven 5, even. I can’t begin to speculate as to why that is, or if it’s true for anybody except me. But for all of my bluster about how the classical repertory is strangling the modern concert hall and silencing living composers, I would never question the common wisdom that this symphony is one of the best things ever accomplished by a human.

A colleague of mine, who isn’t really that much of a classical music person, once opined that Beethoven 9 is the best piece of music ever written because anybody can listen to it and enjoy every part of it. It isn’t my personal favourite piece, nor even necessarily in my top ten. But I find it hard to disagree with my colleague’s assessment. In modern parlance, Beethoven 9 is chock full of hooks.

Okay, enough eulogizing. You need context. This is Beethoven’s final symphony. It is the only one that he wrote during what’s thought of as his late period, premiering a full decade after his eighth. It was the first symphony of note to use voices and text — the ‘Ode to Joy’ is a setting of a poem by Schiller. There’s no overstating what a massive deal that was. Wagner would later interpret this as Beethoven proclaiming that instrumental music had run its course, and he used that interpretation to justify his decision to only write operas (or Gesamtkunstwerken, if you insist).

A quick word about the recording I’ve chosen: it’s a classic performance from 1962, by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Herbert von Karajan. Karajan was an old Nazi (no, an actual Nazi — though his sincerity has been questioned) who led the Berliners with an iron fist and a contemptful scowl for over three decades. By the end of his career, he’d shaped the orchestra into a slick monolith that sounded the same in Debussy as in Wagner. But early on, he made some recordings that are still considered the gold standard. This is one. (And for what it’s worth, it has sold massively well, over the years.)

Beethoven and Karajan were both angry, serious and unpleasant men, but this music is none of those things. It is effervescent and powerful, and has no desire to alienate anybody but rather to reach everybody. I hope it reaches you.

— Matthew

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (pt. 2)

Become Ocean

Dear Matthew:

I don’t think you’re going to like this post.

Become Ocean is fine. It’s pretty. It’s interesting enough to listen to it ebb and flow, to build from silence to full blast and back again. But in the end, I have the same reaction to this piece that I did with the only other classic drone record I’ve listened to — Sleep’s Dopesmoker* — and it’s a question we’ve both posed on this blog before: What is this music for?

One thing this blog has caused me to examine about myself is the ways I like to experience music — and how that might affect my tastes more broadly, in a way I hadn’t really considered before. I think there might be a medium-is-the-message sort of component here, and if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to try to unpack it.

Generally, I listen to new music in only a few specific settings: while commuting and/or exercising (these have been one and the same for a while now, since I bike to work and almost everywhere else); while doing primarily rote and/or visual tasks, like cleaning or organizing or photo editing; or while playing the popular computer game StarCraft II. I also like to listen to music while I drive, cook, and do certain computer-based tasks, but I don’t like these situations for brand new music because I can’t devote enough attention to it and/or there’s too much background sound.

What I like about commuting/exercising, sorting/editing and StarCraft is that they don’t take a lot of processing power, or at least not all at once. (Not at my StarCraft skill level, anyway.) I find I can almost never listen to music while I ‘work’, because my work generally either involves writing and thus consumes essentially all of my available brainpower, or involves working with audio and thus precludes music listening altogether. I usually don’t even listen to music when I’m just surfing the internet, because I either won’t absorb what I’m reading or I won’t absorb the music, so I’ve realized at this point in my life that it’s a lost cause to try and do both. And even StarCraft isn’t perfect; if a skirmish gets particularly heated, I’ll completely lose the thread of whatever I’m listening to for a few minutes.

Now, what these situations all have in common is this: while listening to the brand new music, there is something else that is actively demanding at least partial attention from me. With the rote/visual tasks or the real-time strategy, I’m diverting at least some attention away from the music, and sometimes all of it for brief periods. Commuting/exercising is probably closer to ideal, particularly when public transit is involved, but while this avoids the problem of concentration lapses, you’re also competing with other sounds. Cars, people, wind noise if you’re on a bike — all of it makes it harder to pick up on details in the music.

The more I think about this, the less of a coincidence I think it is that my favourite music tends to be energetic, driving, loud, bizarre, cerebral, and other similar adjectives — my favourite music tends to be stuff that really commands attention. I think this may be due at least in part to the types of situations in which I generally consume music, combined with my obsessive personality. (I’m one of those people who keeps entire albums despite only really liking one song, and I almost always prefer to listen to entire albums versus songs on shuffle or in a playlist or whatever.) In other words, I think my taste is at least somewhat affected by the use I see the music as having for me. Simply put, I seem to generally want music I can bob my head to while doing other things.

So, with that in mind, let’s consider my original question about Become Ocean a bit differently: What can I use this music for? It’s not rhythmic enough for bike riding. It doesn’t work for StarCraft at all. It’s far too droney and atmospheric for the bus. What I ended up doing was listening to it at work where, as you know, I’m currently doing some glorified data entry, so it worked well enough for that. But really, I find that music like this is of only limited utility to me. There’s only so much data I have to enter, only so many photos to edit. And besides, rote tasks like that are great opportunities for music that is too cerebral — some lyrically dense rap, say — for more attention-demanding situations. For me, this music falls into the same category as bands like Mogwai or múm: bands I really like, but whose music I really only ever listen to in specific situations, like at three in the morning on a deadline and I need something besides the silence to keep me clinging to consciousness.

I don’t know, maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I’m not approaching the music on its own terms. I mean, this piece clearly isn’t meant to be a workout mix, or a video game soundtrack. I’m sure it’s spectacular live. And I realize that it’s incredibly selective and hypocritical of me, given that one of my favourite musicians recently released an EP of moody space music, and I love it. But even though it’s selfish, the reality is that this kind of music is of limited use to me just because of how, why, and where I tend to listen to music, and I think that might be why I find it hard to get especially excited about.

All of this is to say: it’s fine music. But I think I understand your response to the Micronauts a lot better now.

But hey, speaking of workout mixes and long compositions, I think you’ll really like your next assignment.

— Matt

*OK, I guess it’s kind of obvious what a record called Dopesmoker is for.

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (pt. 1)

Become Ocean

Dear Matt,

I’m still reeling from my unexpected reaction to the Offspring. I’m assigning you orchestral music to rebuild my sense of self.

In your response to my Brooklyn Rider assignment, you thanked me for starting you out with a quartet, since it lacks the flash of a soloist or the bombast of an orchestra. And, while I may chafe at those characterizations of venerable art music genres, you’re clearly right on both counts. I mean, the first ensembles that we could recognize as orchestras developed in the only place where they feasibly could have gathered the forces: 17th-century Central European royal courts. It doesn’t get more bombastic than that.

But at the same time, thank god that art is like that sometimes. Occasionally, when you put a creative genius at the helm of truly massive forces, great things happen. I don’t want to live in a world without Ben-Hur, or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or BioShock Infinite or any of the other great decadent works that obviously had huge amounts of money poured into them. I think that the symphony orchestra is one of the best things that humans have ever invented. And, the fact that the logistics and finances of it dwarf those of a chamber group is part of the appeal.

To wit, here is the greatest contemporary argument for why orchestras are still a good idea: John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean.

Adams has been the composer of the moment since he won the Pulitzer for Become Ocean last year. He’s lived in interior Alaska since 1978, and all of his music is written as a response to that landscape. This is a guy who used real-time data taken from the position of the sun in the sky, the fullness of the moon, the presence of minor seismic events, and the strength of the Aurora Borealis to produce a computer-driven audio installation at the University of Alaska.

But, as conceptual as Adams’ music can get, it never veers into territory that makes it unappealing to listen to. It’s powerful, cerebral stuff — but never obscurantist. Adams cites some frightening figures as influences: the player piano innovator Conlon Nancarrow, stochastic musician Iannis Xenakis, and that arch-avantgardist John Cage.

But possibly his most important influence was Morton Feldman, who practiced a sort of alternative minimalism that focusses on creating spare, spacious music rather than the driving rhythms of Steve Reich and Terry Riley. For my money, his Rothko Chapel is one of the most gorgeous pieces of the 20th century. And Adams’ music sounds a lot more like Rothko Chapel than anything by Cage or Xenakis.

(Around this point, it’s traditional to explain that there are two well-known American post-minimalist composers named John Adams. John Luther Adams is not the guy who wrote the hit opera Nixon in China. That’s John Coolidge Adams. He got famous first, so he doesn’t need to use his middle name in his credits.)

Become Ocean is Adams’ reflection on the rising sea levels caused by climate change. As Adams put it himself, in one of the more succinct program notes you’re ever likely to read: ‘Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.’

Clearly, instrumental music is a strange medium by which to approach such specific themes. But, Adams isn’t being didactic in this piece. He’s doing what modern composers do best: expressing vague notions, sensations and anxieties by way of sound.

The work is a single, 42-minute composition (I know, I know, I know) for large orchestra. It is purely textural music — I believe that when I first discussed this album with you, I described it as ‘drone music for full orchestra.’ I basically stand by that. But as with the inventor of drone music, Richard Wagner (not trolling, listen to this), Adams employs a wealth of textural effects that intermingle to bring the music to crashing peaks and tense troughs — brought to life beautifully in this premiere recording by the Seattle Symphony and their brilliant musical director Ludovic Morlot.

Certainly, Adams would never deign to incorporate anything so vulgar as a melody. But I think that the side of your taste persona that’s into droney electronic music (a taste attribute that we share) will also appreciate this different sort of droney music — a drone made more vibrant for being played on acoustic instruments and orchestrated by a master. Feel free to zone out during this music. It’s approachable on a number of different levels of attention.

One of these days, I’ll assign you some proper core orchestra rep. But as much as I love Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Brahms, they’re not coextensive with what is erroneously called ‘classical music.’ John Luther Adams is, to me, just as central to that tradition. I hope you enjoy this.

— Matthew

P.S. This New Yorker profile of Adams by Alex Ross is one of my favourite pieces of music journalism. Just, as an aside.

Bryce Dessner & Sō Percussion: Music for Wood and Strings (pt. 2)

Dessner

Dear Matthew:

You’re right — this is pretty good.

I have to admit, though, that it wasn’t quite what I expected from a group that describes themselves as a percussion ensemble. I mean, I get that a dulcimer or dulcimer-like instrument is technically percussion in that you play it by hitting it, but there aren’t really any drums to speak of on this record. Which was a bit disappointing, because I love me some drums.

I don’t really know or care that much about the National. I think I listened to their album Boxer in undergrad once when it was the hot new thing that all of my indie rock friends were into, but I don’t remember it doing much for me. So, I can’t really say if this is ‘in keeping’ with Dessner’s earlier work or anything. But what makes good indie rock and good minimalist percussion ensemble music seem to be pretty different worlds. I guess I could give the National another go? I mean, a lot of people like them, so they have to have some redeeming qualities, presumably.

I do definitely see the minimalism you’re talking about. This isn’t a concerto or a suite or anything — this is definitely one 35-minute-long song. It’s always fun to hear a leitmotif come around again, to hear a familiar sound being recontextualized again and again. (In fact, a lot of the reasons I enjoyed this pieces are reasons why I like Bleep to Bleep so much. I’m not sure how you’ll feel about me saying that.) And whatever mode the piece uses (you’ll have to tell me this part, it’s been literally more than a decade since I did any music theory) is very dynamic and epic-sounding.

Aurally, this piece reminds me a lot of an Icelandic band called múm, if you’re familiar with them at all. I can’t really say why, because now that I listen to them side by side they’re actually quite different. But they have similar characters, if that makes sense? I don’t know. They’re both the kind of music I like putting on at three in morning when I’m up late working on something in my dimly lit room and the rest of the world is asleep.

The main other type of music I go for in that situation? Post-rock. Are you into post-rock at all? Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, that sort of thing? In fact, I put it to you that Music for Wood and Strings is, itself, a post-rock song. I put it to you that this is the kind of music Mogwai would make if you gave them Dessner’s chord sticks. I think I know what your next assignment is.

Well, your next next assignment. Confession: while I do definitely love M.I.A. and did want to assign her, Kala also doubles as a setup for your next assignment. I hope you’re ready for some soothing island rhythms…

— Matt

Bryce Dessner & Sō Percussion: Music for Wood and Strings (pt. 1)

Dessner

Dear Matt,

Let’s have a change of pace. This week, you’ll be listening to something brand new.

Bryce Dessner is the guitarist from The National (the band, not the newscast), a group that I think you and I have about equal experience with — that is, not much. However, Dessner has been on my radar for a while in his other capacity as a composer. He’s written music for the Kronos Quartet, Bang on a Can, and even the LA Phil. Nothing I’d heard of his really hit home — until this past May.

Music for Wood and Strings is a 35-minute composition for the New York percussion quartet Sō Percussion. Sō is a group with a similar spirit to our old friends Brooklyn Rider. They fall broadly under that nebulous umbrella of ‘art music’ — they’re a bunch of Yale grads — but they’ve got a sense of adventure and a penchant for working with composers on developing new repertoire. (I’m especially fond of their recording with Canadian composer Nicole Lizée.)

This collaboration with Dessner has the added dimension of being written for entirely new instruments. Dessner and the instrument maker Aaron Sanchez (from the DIY pop duo Buke and Gase) designed a contraption that they’ve creatively named the ‘chord stick.’ It’s kind of like an amplified hammered dulcimer that you’re meant to approach much more as a percussionist would than a guitarist. Sō strikes their four chord sticks with everything from drum brushes to the pink erasers at the ends of lead pencils.

I’m not going to say a whole lot more, because I’m still processing this music myself. I have to say, though: a few listens in, I’m totally sold. This is the best new music I’ve heard all year. You’ll recognize a distinct influence from minimalism, but composers of Dessner’s relatively recent vintage tend to use the innovations of people like Steve Reich and Michael Nyman as one ingredient in a more complex stew.

I think you’re going to like this. I’ve already recommended it to a few people, and I’ve only had positive responses. I wonder how your first impression will compare to mine?

— Matthew

Michael Nyman & Motion Trio: Acoustic Accordians (pt. 2)

Acoustic Accordions

Dear Matthew:

This is good shit.

Seriously, I enjoyed this album way more than I thought I would. I mean, I didn’t think I wouldn’t like it, but I didn’t expect to be totally floored by it, either. Where I’m having trouble, though, is quantifying exactly why.

Maybe it’s the Baroqueness. I’m not a hugely informed classical listener, as you know, but Baroque stuff has always been my favourite. Of the ‘rock stars’ of the classical pantheon, Bach has always been the one I’m most into. When I took piano lessons as a kid, my favourite pieces to play were always from List A — the Baroque repertoire. This is even reflected in a lot of the modern acts I’m into — Ratatat and Justice both smack of this stuff, and it’s my favourite feature of their music. I also like a lot of music that is definitely influenced by minimalism — Daft Punk spring immediately to mind, but there are certainly others.

Maybe it’s the playing of Baroque music on instruments other than what I’m used to hearing Baroque music on. An epiphany I’ve had over the course of writing this blog is that one thing I’m really into in music is recontextualization — I love picking out samples, I enjoy clever and unexpected mashups entirely too much, and I have enormous respect for good DJs (there aren’t many). I love music that takes something familiar and twists it in an unexpected way. That’s certainly what’s going on here. It reminds me of what little Wendy Carlos I’ve heard. (Mostly just the A Clockwork Orange soundtrack. But apparently she and Weird Al did an interpretation of Peter and the Wolf, and I now desperately want to hear it.)

But what specifically is it about Baroque music that’s so compelling? Why am I so into it? What is the source of its driving rhythm and energy? What magical switches is it flipping in my brain with its complex, mathy harmonies and incredibly satisfying modulations and resolutions? I’m seriously asking. I’ve heard about Mozart’s brilliance and Beethoven’s intensity and whatever else, but I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer to a question that I didn’t realize was bothering me so much until I sat down to write this: Why is Bach so damn good?

Also: while listening to the bonus Michael Nyman Band piece from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover I couldn’t shake the mental image of the cartoon characters in Victorian garb trying to be inconspicuous in a funeral procession. I am confident that it improved the listening experience significantly.

— Matt