Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, & Five Generations of American Experimental Composers  – ★★★★
Experimental music is defined as “any music that pushes existing boundaries and genre definitions“. Though the term originated in the 1950s, the US of the 1960s saw certain music artists emerging that can be said to be loosely associated with the “experimental music” movement. This book by American composer and educator William Duckworth compiles the author’s interviews with experimental composers and performers from the US, including John Cage, Philip Glass, Lou Harrison, Conlon Nancarrow, Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson. The interviews shed light on the artists’ backgrounds, major works and inspirations, and many of the interviews are frank, interesting and inspirational.
Frank Churchill was an American composer known for his years’ long partnership with Walt Disney. He provided scores for Disney’s animations Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo, Bambi, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (posthumously) and Peter Pan (posthumously and not included), not to mention scoring many uncredited short animations. Churchill’s song Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?for animation The Three Little Pigs achieved an unexpected commercial success.
Churchill’s Someday My Prince Will Come is a beautiful, catchy tune full of hope and longing for a better future. Ithas many melancholic, “heart-breaking” notes, but the overall impression is one of endless reverie, of a desire that tomorrow brings a better day. Churchill’s contribution, including his musical pieces Heigh Ho and Whistle While You Work, helped make The Snow White the world’s first great animation.
Frank Churchill was an immensely talented musician, but also a sensitive soul. He took his own life on 14 May 1942 at the age of just 40. Though at the time of his death he was involved in a dispute with Disney over his Bambi pieces, the cause was most probably depression after the deaths of Churchill’s two closest friends. However, his music lives on, uplifting and touching millions around the globe.
“The activity of the artist is about transcending the ordinary world. The world of appearances” (Philip Glass).
My previous music post highlighted American composer Philip Glass, and I am now sharing his beautiful, minimalistic composition Mad Rush. This piece was first written by Glass in 1978 for an organ of the cathedral of St. John the Divine (New York) for the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s first public address in the US in 1979. It has since been re-recorded and titled Mad Rush (which can now be viewed as encapsulating our franticmodern lifestyles). I love the way this piece intertwines the themes of peace and chaos – meditative and sublime. Philip Glass said that that these two contrasting themes represent “the play of the wrathful and peaceful deities in Tibetan Buddhism“.
“I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well“. Johann Sebastian Bach
The music of Bach is complex, inventive, awe-inspiring and brimming with mathematical precision and religious fervour. The man behind it appears equally stern and unreachable. But, who was Johann Sebastian Bach really and how it came about that a cantor operating in a rather small region of Germany managed to compose music of such brilliant contours, imaginative force and spiritual depth that it now forms much of the foundation of our classical music and is worshipped by many across the globe? In this non-fiction, British conductor John Eliot Gardiner aims to shed light on these precise, still puzzling questions. Music in the Castle of Heaven is an illuminating account of Bach’s life and music that starts from the premise that to understand Bach’s art we have to first immerse ourselves in the very essence of his time and place of birth. Numerous factors influenced Bach and made him into a musician we know today – familial, historic, socio-economic, cultural, educational – and without knowing these we cannot fathom Bach’s mind and how it worked. Gardiner strikes at the very heart of Bach’s genius, presenting us with a complex and sometimes contradictory musician who was also a very empathetic man.
This song was written as a response to the then ongoing violence knowing as the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. In particular, the song commemorates the victims of the Warrington bombing that happened in 1993 when two children aged 3 and 12 (Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry) were tragically killed and 54 others were injured. The song, written by Dolores O’Riordan (1971 – 2018), talks about the personal devastation caused by the terrorist attacks, criticising how desensitised the public and media have become to them and calling for sympathy.
Today, 12 October, is Spain’s National Day and I am sharing Isaac Albéniz’s Cantos de España (or Chants d’Espagne). Isaac Albéniz (1860 – 1909) was an influential Spanish virtuoso pianist and composer and some of his best-known compositions incorporate Spanish folk music.
Today (11th September 2021) marks 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks which took the lives of 2.977 people (see also this article on people who died from cancer which was directly related to the tragedy). Given this important date, I thought I would pay tribute to all those who suffered and/or died in this tragedy, as well as to all those who fought bravely to save people in the aftermath, by sharing this powerful soundtrack composed by Terence Blanchard for Spike Lee’s film 25th Hour (2002). I consider this film, based on a book by David Benioff, to be the most significant 9/11 feature film. While it does not speak of the tragedy directly, it conveys movingly the 9/11 atmosphere just after the attacks and somehow manages to show collective and individual trauma caused by the tragedy, albeit indirectly and somewhat symbolically. The film contains resonating messages on loss, grief, isolation, confusion, anxiety, missed opportunities and responsibility.
I. Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum  by Tyler Anbinder – ★★★★
I love reading about the history of New York City, for example see my review of Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York. In Five Points, Tyler Anbinder focuses his attention on once the most notorious area in New York – the infamous Five Points, once a densely-populated, poverty, crime, riots and disease-ridden area. The area, which was once a green place with a lake called “The Collect Pond”, became by the end of the eighteenth century “a putrid nuisance” (due to local industries’ contamination) [Anbinder, 2002: 14] and, later, a place to be feared and ruled by criminal gangs. However, what became a place of danger for some, also turned into a place of fun and unthought-of opportunities for others. This non-fiction book is a very detailed account of the history of Five Points in the nineteenth century. Through documents, contemporaries’ accounts (each chapter starts with a “personal story” prologue), maps, graphs and old photographers, the author shows how Five Points gained such a vile reputation around the world and what made it so different from other New York neighbourhoods.
I thought I would share today this lovely tune Le Piccadilly by one of my favourite French composers – Erik Satie [1866–1925] (Gnossienne No.1, Je te veux). It is a ragtime march written by Satie before his fame and at the height of the ragtime popularity. Happy Friday!
Carlos Gardel was a French-Argentine singer, songwriter and composer. Born in Toulouse, France, he was celebrated throughout Latin America and became known for his melancholy ballads and classic tango songs. Often referred to as “The King of Tango”, he created hundreds of recordings and one of his songs titled Por una Cabeza was featured in such films as Scent of a Woman  and Schindler’s List . The lyrics were written by Alfredo Le Pera, and Gardel himself sang to his own piece in a film Tango Bar . “Por una Cabeza” is a gambling jargon signifying a horse winning a race narrowly and, in this case, probably also refers to the possibility of losing a beloved woman. The mood of the song is said to be “passionate and vivid”, and the composition is often praised for its contrasting use of minor and major chords.
The video below shows the piano performance by Stanislav Stanchev who plays his own arrangement. Carlos Gardel tragically died in an airplane crash in 1935. He was 44.
Did you know that a music piece (a Septet) that made Beethoven’s name in the nineteenth century is hardly ever played today? Or that later pieces by Beethoven that are now known to everyone were considered in the composer’s time too complex and brazen to merit any attention? Beethoven’s elusive “Immortal Beloved” is still without identity, and his attempts at self-promotion were not always successful. Through just nine musical pieces, Laura Tunbridge places Beethoven in a particular time and place in her well-researched book, presenting an intimate and detailed image of the great composer. Rather than Beethoven being an isolated genius making music masterpieces on his own, the author talks of Beethoven as a gifted person that was depended on others (such as on his friends and patrons), as well as on the particular time, norms and politics, as well as on the musical tradition in which he lived. Tunbridge demonstrates how Vienna and Beethoven’s own personal life affected his music, and how changing perceptions, as well as tastes of nobility, ultimately dictated and shaped the man and his music that is now admired by millions.
I don’t think I shared a jazz piece before, so I thought I would share this composition sung by Ella Fitzgerald to brighten everyone’s Monday. “Skylark”  was composed by Hoagy Carmichael (“Georgia on My Mind“ ) with lyrics by Johnny Mercer (“Moon River” ).
17 December 2020 marks 250 years since the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven (he was baptised on 17 December 1770, but his real date of birth was probably 16 December 1770). Considered by many to be the greatest composer who has ever lived, Beethoven composed some of the world-famous classical music compositions, from Piano Sonata No. 14 (“Moonlight Sonata”) to “Emperor Concerto”. I would like take this opportunity to share one of his masterpieces – the beginning of “Sonata Pathetique”, No. 8. My favourite performance of this piece is by Vladimir Ashkenazy at the University of Essex in Colchester in 1972.
Joe Hisaishi (6 December 1950) is Japanese composer, probably best known for his music collaborations with director Hayao Miyazakion various Studio Ghibli films. Yesterday he turned 70 years old and I think it is a perfect time to share a couple of his best-known compositions for animations: Merry-Go-Round of Life from Howl’s Moving Castle(2004) and The Name of Life from Spirited Away (2001).
After Yann Tiersen’s Rue des Cascades, I feel like sharing this quieter but no less beautiful composition by the composer. Comptine d’un autre été forms part of the score for the film Amelie . This piano arrangement/performance is by Rousseau.
Yann Tiersen  is a French musician and composer that likes to experiment with different instruments when creating his music. He is most famous for his soundtrack to the film Amélie . Below I am sharing his composition Rue des Cascades(the instrumental version).
Erik Satie [1866 – 1925] was a French composer known for his Gymnopédies and Gnossiennescompositions, among other late 19th century experimental music (he was “a precursor of minimalism, repetitive music and the Theatre of the Absurd”). This week it will be 154 years since the composer’s birth, and I would like to share his uplifting Je te veux composition to brighten everyone’s Wednesday.
My readers probably know by now that I love film music. In October 2019, I “celebrated” the 70th birthday of film composer Gabriel Yared (The English Patient , Betty Blue ), so now I want to highlight that today Alan Silvestri, an American film composer known for his collaborations with director Robert Zemeckis, is 70 years old too. Given this, I think it is perfect time to share one of this composer’s greatest scores for the film Forrest Gump  that starred Tom Hanks.
This will be an unusual post for me, but since I heard of the death of Marie Fredriksson (1958 – 2019), a once lead singer in a Swedish band Roxette, I thought I would also pay tribute on my blog to the music (and love ballads) of the 1980s by compiling a list of memorable songs from that decade. In the 1980s, Roxette had a hit song – “The Look”  and it is also the band behind a song “It Must Have Been Love” , featured in a film Pretty Woman . Even though I do not listen to the 1980s music anymore, I recognise that that decade produced some of the greatest hits ever, especially in pop music, and no music could compare to the instantly recognisable beat of the 1980s. This was also the decade that produced the best love songs, whose quality (and cheesiness!) is unmatched to this day. In no particular order (trying to feature different genres without repeating artists):
Neil Sedaka (1939-), an American singer, composer and producer, is 80 years old today. He is a writer or co-writer of more than 500 songs, and was also a popular singer with some serious hits under his belt. In 1972, Sedaka co-wrote with Phil Cody a beautiful song Solitaire, and it was later famously performed by The Carpenters. The audio below is the performance by Mark Lanegan, an alternative rock artist who I consider to be rather underrated (see the greatest cover of the song Man in the Long Black Coat). Lanegan’s album Imitations  is composed of song covers that he heard when growing up at his parents’ home.