Earworm of the Day

Emerson,_Lake_&_Palmer_-_Lucky_Man

Traveling down memory lane to one of the most haunting songs I know. When I was a kid, I remember hearing ELP’s “Lucky Man” for the first time, getting wrapped up in it, and then being blown away when the last verse hit:

A bullet had found him
His blood ran as he cried
No money could save him
So he laid down and he died

Historical fact: the song was almost not recorded. (From Wikipedia): “On the last day of recording their debut album, Emerson, Lake & Palmer discovered they were short of satisfying the label’s contract requirement of 21 minutes of music per album side, and therefore needed one more song. Greg Lake began playing “Lucky Man”, a song he had written when he was 12 years old.”

12 freaking years old? Such depth….and that Moog synth – first time EVER used in a piece of popular music. And the arc and lyrics of the song. Amazing.

I am not sure there will be another creative team quite the same as Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer in popular music. Please help me understand if I am missing some creative genius on the current popular music scene. I highly doubt it. (I’m speaking of true compositional ingenuity, not a creative performer. There are plenty of those).

Much of ELP’s music is masterful, and I’ll add that “Karn Evil 9” from the album, “Brain Salad Surgery” is a true masterpiece that belongs in any discussion of the most important compositions in any genre of the second half of the 20th century. So there. And you thought I only listened to Bach.

Copyright, 2018. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.

Image from Wikipedia, courtesy Island Records.

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Beethoven, Prince (with a nod to the Blues)

 

2015 and 2016 have been a rough years for some of the major names in the music business. I’ve written some tributes myself, here and here. As an orchestral conductor and trained classical musician, it’s been interesting to note that when I express admiration for an artist such as David Bowie or Prince, it elicits some to comment with surprise that I listen to this music:

“You have such eclectic tastes for a classical musician

I don’t mind the comment at all, in fact I find this type of comment interesting, as if we are supposed to only listen to a prescribed playlist once we begin a career. But it opens up an opportunity for new conversation and exploration.

It is true, I don’t only listen to the “three B’s.” Personally, I feel it is imperative to explore all musical styles, not just the ones that you are trained in. Does listening to the Blues help me shape phrases of Ravel? Absolutely. Does experiencing the music of Prince help me understand energy flow in Beethoven? How can it not? And, I truly feel that listening to rock, folk and alternative concept albums helps me to interpret programmatic symphonies and tone poems.

My philosophy is that when the range of experience is wider, the possibility for depth in a single experience increases exponentially. I refuse to pigeon-hole myself in to the box of what we “should” listen to. I’d rather listen to what fires my imagination, be it Bach, Brahms, Bowie or B.B. King. (Or even an occasional work by Buxtehude!)

So I, like millions of others, mourn for Prince, the artist formerly known as an influence during my college years. I also listen with renewed interest to the new musicians of the day, always managing to find one or two visionary artists whose music speaks and relates to that other music, centuries old–the music of my particular career.

Copyright, 2016 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Curling Up With a Good Symphony

It feels good to return to the blog after several weeks of hiatus.  Six  performances in three weeks has a way of eating up my time!  As the holidays approach, I look forward to having a bit more time to read and also study music.  Not surprisingly, I find the two pursuits quite similar.

The concept of reading music is well-established.  We learn to read music.  We read through a piece.  Sight-reading is a valuable skill for musicians.  Reviewers praise a particular conductor or soloist’s reading of the score.  All very well, but how often do we actually read the music; not merely learning notes with an instrument at hand, but actual READING?

I encourage all musicians to spend some time with printed music away from an instrument, away from the nuts and bolts of sounding everything out (and analyzing the music to death as a starting point). There is certainly a time and place for this, but the life of the music must also be discovered, nurtured and remembered.

These days we usually first get excited about a piece of music by listening to it.  Too often we jump immediately into learning it.  We pick up our instrument and dive in.  The problem is that, without mind time, we can quickly lose the enthusiasm that that initial hearing by trying to reproduce it.  We need to look at the music through the eyes of both our intellect and imagination.

For me, the act of reading a score involves these two types of brain activity.   I endeavor to read the same score both ways to achieve the desired result.  Here’s the idea:

Reading music as non-fiction: This is looking at the craft of a composition: harmony, melody, phrase structure, form, rhythm.  All can be seen on the surface and then more can be discovered as we dig deeper.  This type of reading is like reading a technical how-to manual or a historical description of battles and political events. You see how something works, how it functions and how is fits in with the style.

Reading music as fiction:  While we must do the above to understand a piece and present it to an audience, this “fiction” approach is by far my favorite.  This is where the imagination soars, where I identify with the composer and define myself through the music.  A musical score can be read as a novel, in time.  The unfolding of events, all described by the non-fiction approach, become a vibrant, emotional story.  The soul of the music is revealed.

Great music is like great literature or poetry.  The deeper you dig, the more you discover about the BIG PICTURE.  I consider this an important aspect of learning music.  After these readings I will begin to mark my music and practice the tricky passages.   When I get discouraged, or when the music loses immediacy, I simply curl up with the score and begin again.  Like a great poem, I am always invited back inside.

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

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Amazing story of a composer’s survival from Aurora

It’s not the custom to post and discuss current events on this blog, but this story was simply too amazing not to share.  A young composer, Petra Anderson, was attending the Batman premiere in Aurora last Friday when the tragic events we know all too well unfolded. Apparently she has an anomaly in her brain structure that may have saved her life.  An amazing story that is still unfolding.

The story is reported at the link above and here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/07/24/157297103/in-aurora-an-uncommon-brain-saves-a-young-composers-life

A fund to help the family is located here: http://www.indiegogo.com/readytobelieve 

Petra’s website with clips of her music and poetry can be found here: http://petraandersonmusic.com/index.html

Beyond the1812 Overture

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Americans love the booming cannons of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.  Many Americans can imagine a great conflict on American soil (bombs bursting in air, and all that).  Except the 1812 Overture is not about America.  Tchaikovsky was referring to another War of 1812: the one where Napoleon’s forces were knocking on the door of Russia and where the tide of the invasion was turned back.  (Yes, that’s why he employed are all those French and Russian tunes).  But despite that, it’s a great example of how Americans adopt a composer and piece to make it something truly their own. It is a deeply patriotic piece.  Just not in the way most Americans think.

Tchaikovsky used more than cannons to get the point across.  He also used tunes that everyone of the time knew, familiar national songs.  American composers in the first half of the 20th century also were quite adept at using folk material to garner a sense of music for the people.

Re-crafting something that we intimately know and identify with is a way that artists can establish and maintain a creative connection.

You may be familiar with the most famous and successful of these composers, Aaron Copland.  But there were many more.  In the spirit of July 4th and American music, I offer the following examples of music of the people, by the people and for the people.   These composers tapped into the creative energy of a diverse nation to define their music and connect with their audiences.  Check these out on YouTube, Spotify, or ITunes.

William Schuman: New England Triptych

William Schumann was a major figure in the American music scene of the mid 20th century.  New England Triptych is an interesting and thoroughly listenable re-imagining of tunes originally written in the 1700s by William Billings, New England’s first important composer.

Charles Ives: Variations on America

While Ives’ music can be challenging, this piece is a good introduction to an important American voice.  Check out both the original organ version and the orchestral or band arrangements by William Schuman (the same as above).  As a boy, I would listen to a Boston Pops recording of this work, imagining it as a tapestry of America.

Virgil Thomson: Symphony on a Hymn Tune

Once considered on par with Copland in terms of importance as an American composer, Thomson’s music has fallen off the radar in recent years.  I was honored to play a PBS program in Iowa honoring his 90th birthday in 1986.  While we didn’t play this particular piece, it soon became a favorite of mine.  The hymn tune, Yes, Jesus loves Me, is presented and interwoven into a truly symphonic fabric throughout.  The work was his first symphony, written in 1928.

Roy Harris: Symphony No. 4 (Folksong Symphony).

Like Ives, Copland and Thomson, Harris was drawn to the folk music of America.  This work, for chorus and orchestra, is a wonderfully colorful presentation of American classics.  Also recommended is his Symphony No. 3. Although it is not as tuneful or based on folk music, it is an expansive concept which represents the hope and optimism of America as it sat on the brink of war in 1939 and has been called “the quintessential American symphony.”

William Grant Still: Afro-American Symphony (Symphony No. 1)

This is a work that infuses the traditional symphonic form with the sounds and soul of the Blues.  It is a postcard of Still’s America in 1930.  He was W.C. Handy’s arranger and, like Gershwin, was committed to bringing popular sounds into the concert hall.  Often called the “Dean of Afro-American Composers,” his entire output reminds me of a sonic reflection of Langston Hughes.

Ernest Bloch: America, An Epic Rhapsody

Composed in 1926, ten years after Bloch emigrated to America, this work tries to encapsulate all of American history as Bloch imagined it, from pre-history to his present day.  The work includes American Indian melodies, Pilgrim hymns, songs from the south, and popular American patriotic and folk music.  The audience is invited to sing at the end, although most recordings add a chorus for this effect.

Happy Exploring!

Copyright, 2012  Robert Baldwin

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No One Expects the 12-Tone Inquisition (Bill Eddins, blog link)

“Of course, no one can blame Shoenberg for the current crisis in classical music, anymore than one can blame Queen Elizabeth II for the fact that no British born man has won Wimbledon since 1936.”–Bill Eddins

A timely, thought provoking article that is as much about classical music as it is a commentary of political and social conditions. Sure to raise the hackles on the Orthodoxy of Classical Music.  Written by Bill Eddins, Music Director of the Edmonton, Symphony in Canada on his blog, Sticks and Drones.