“Gratitude for all that is”: The Music of David Maslanka

Sunday night, a great man died:

“David Maslanka died during the night of August 6th, 2017 at home. He had been diagnosed with a severe form of colon cancer in June. His wife, Alison, died on July 3rd of this year. He declined rapidly following her passing. He is survived by his children, Stephen, Matthew, and Kathryn.”

So says the statement on Maslanka’s website. A statement. A brief, professional set of facts. A more complete statement might include a list of Maslanka’s musical contributions: nine symphonies, a mass, four wind quintets, three major saxophone quartets, numerous concerti, pieces for wind ensemble, pieces for percussion ensemble, pieces for solo instruments, music for piano, music for marimba and saxophone and euphonium and even steel drum ensemble.

But that doesn’t really do it justice either. It’s a more complete set of facts, but it still falls short. A blurb for the paper. Is this what we amount to when our lives end? How do we measure someone’s life? How do we quantify the effects of the lives we have lived?

Has music ever saved you?

Credit to www.suerissberger.com

I had no idea who David Maslanka was until college. It was January, and I was enrolled in my freshman year at St. Olaf, seated in Skoglund “Auditorium” and waiting to hear the final piece from the St. Olaf Band’s winter tour concert. The program had been impressive so far, but there was still the last piece to hear. After the usual list of logistical thank-yous to the people that had made the tour possible, Dr. Timothy Mahr turned on the microphone to address the audience about the last piece….

Freshman year of college was difficult for me. High school had been both enjoyable and, honestly, relatively easy. High school music equally so. I was a big fish in a small pond. I had some talent, practiced sporadically, and as a result was quite successful. I had grown used to that success. I auditioned for the St. Olaf Band that fall confident that I would get in. I had, after all, already entered the music program without a day of private music instruction, and I felt good about my chances.

When my name was not among those posted that first week of school, I was crushed. It sounds petulant now, but at the time it was a huge blow. My entire sense of identity was built around being exemplary, especially in music. I had been excited to go to St. Olaf because I would meet other exemplary students and get a chance to interact with other great musicians. Unfortunately when everyone else is also intelligent and talented, you no longer feel so special. Failing my audition was a big slap in the face to my concept of myself as a musician. It also deeply shook who I thought I was as an individual. I spent the rest of that year trying to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t prepared to compete in music. I had chosen a field in which the perfection, or at least the relentless pursuit thereof, is a basic tenet. Competition is fierce. Being “good” is not good enough. Until now, I had never truly had to fight for my place, and suddenly I didn’t know if I even had it in me.

I felt like a fraud.

Of course, I couldn’t talk to anyone about how I felt. Voicing my insecurities would mean dropping the calm and collected façade that prevented others from finding out that I was a fraud. I was lonely. I was anxious and depressed, unable to derive joy from the thing I loved most. The thing I needed most. Music was the flame at the core of my being, but as the year moved on, it had turned into a source of shame. A source of stress. The flame that kept me going was dimming. Some days, when I was really lost, it felt like it was guttering out.

I’m not what you’d call a “sharer,” and I don’t need to go into details about that year here. But know that I’m serious when I say that by January of my freshman year, I was at one of the lowest points of my life.

The beginning of February at St. Olaf means the return of the St. Olaf Band from their winter tour. I attended every St. Olaf Band concert that year with a equal parts excitement and dread. Part of me was so, so thrilled to hear such great music coming from a band! Another part of me could hardly bear to be there, berating myself for not being good enough to be onstage with my friends.

It was with that mix of excitement and self-loathing that I sat down with a friend for the Home Concert in early 2009. As I said, even without the last piece, the program was exceptional, and I had thoroughly enjoyed myself enough to briefly forget how lost and miserable I was feeling. Music can do that. And now it was time for the last piece, the third movement of David Maslanka’s Symphony No. 8.

Dr. Mahr took the microphone:

“[Maslanka] talks in his program notes about using meditation to find the concept behind the piece that he wants to create, and with this one, scenes of devastation were revealed to him. And to many composers, many artists, that might have been it right there, and the work that would come out would be “scenes of devastation.” And it would be a powerful work and meaningful and so on. But he got underneath all that to this undercurrent, this base of hope that has been able to keep humanity moving forward even during the toughest times.”

Ii had been a long time by this point since music had affected me like Dr. Mahr was describing, but I was still excited to hear the piece. I settled in and took a deep breath. Dr. Mahr returned to the podium and gave the downbeat, and the piece begin.

And it started with saxophones.

It’s hard for me to describe to you what kind of impact this simple, pure sound had on me. If you didn’t know, I play classical saxophone, an instrument which is at best ignored and at worst derided in much of the classical music world. And yet here was something which sounded so right, something which could not be said by any other instrument in any other way. This was music written for my instrument. This music was written for me.

The introduction of this movement is a duet between a soprano and alto saxophone, and it is, in many ways, a microcosm of the music of David Maslanka. It is earnest, direct, song-like, perfectly scored. When the band enters, it’s as if the soloists are embraced in a sonic hug. It is the band as its own, unique entity, not as and “educational ensemble” or an “orchestra without strings.” To 18 year old me, it was the sound I had been waiting for: the sound of music written for band and only band, a sound no orchestra could hope to replicate–nor should it. It was the sound of a band taken seriously for its own artistic merit as a vehicle for artistic expression. As a saxophonist, it was the sound of belonging. Of home.

Has music ever saved you?

I could sit here and give you biographical information about David Maslanka, but you can find that on your own if you want it. It would be yet another statement of facts, and that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about his music. Suffice it to say that the man had his demons, but once he had resolved them, he emerged with a compositional style very different from his dissonant study days. Maslanka’s mature style is characterized by tonality, by long melodic lines, by almost minimalist ostinati, by brilliant orchestration (in my opinion, nearly unequalled in the band world), and by a sense of directness. He often makes use of the chorales of J.S. Bach, which he played through every day as a source of inspiration. More than that, he wanted to use them as a kind of cultural shared consciousness, as something familiar to use as a touchstone to explore emotions.

He developed a special affinity for the saxophone, producing a sonata, a concerto, several quartets, and several other chamber works, all of which have entered the standard repertoire. As someone who has played in bands for over 16 years, I can also say from experience that he wrote saxophone parts for wind ensemble better than almost anyone, understanding the instrument’s color, flexibility, and ability to both growl and sing when the occasion calls for it.

Now, as someone who has benefitted enormously from his output, I will admit that I am a bit biased about Maslanka’s music. I have heard a fair share of criticism about his works, mostly along the lines of “it’s are too simple,” or “it’s cheesy.”

I think that misses the point of Maslanka’s music entirely.

His works are earnest in an age when earnestness is frowned upon. A cynical, knowing nihilism is more the fashion of the day. We live in a world where being too earnest is either “uncool” or a sign of naïve ignorance. I understand how looking at Maslanka’s music through that lens would leave one less than impressed. Expressing emotion as openly and unguardedly as Maslanka, without layers of irony to protect against the threat of actually experiencing those emotions, is difficult to stomach today. Some see his openness and accessibility as cheese. I see it as a brave, unguarded honesty so naked that we don’t know how to respond to it.

I believe we tend to mistake simplicity with thoughtlessness. But making a piece of music difficult to play–or comprehend–does not magically grant it artistic merit. Simplicity can be a sign of emptiness, but it can also be a deliberate choice. I have played almost all of Maslanka’s works for saxophone, and I can tell you, what sounds simple actually requires the most control, the most sensitivity. His Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano is still the most difficult piece I have ever performed, not because of the technical demands (which are formidable), but because of the white hot intensity of feeling you have to sustain for the entirety of the work. If you don’t lose yourself to the piece, you’re not playing it right.

There is something Id-like about Maslanka’s music. He was a spiritual man, who believed in the power of meditation to find musical truth beyond conscious thought. He explores themes of memory, loss, hope, dreams, and nature. His music is often made up of startling contrasts in mood, held together only by his unique voice and some strange feeling–as in a dream–that there is a compelling connection between its disparate elements lying just beneath the surface.

At the same time, there is something incredibly immediate and human about his works. I contacted him twice to ask him about his music: once about the soprano saxophone solo in his Symphony No. 9, and once about the Sonata. He graciously responded both times. I have a tendency to over-analyze things, and after lengthy explanations of my interpretations and detailed questions, he responded with this advice: follow the music. “Don’t get too wrapped up in a narrative,” he told me, “just follow the music, let it take you where it needs to go.” There is a driving force in his music that, to me, circumvents any normal, logical criticism and shoots straight to the heart of things. To that raw, red, painfully-and-joyfully-alive thing within us that makes us all human.

Hearing the finale of Symphony 8 was one of the formative experiences of my musical life. I was hearing an ensemble I had been part of for years taken seriously with a level of artistry I had never before known. Even if I wasn’t on stage, I could feel that I was part of something special as the band raced to the conclusion of the piece. My best musical experiences involve a kind of paradox. They are both an expansion of my ego and a sublimation of it. An apotheosis and a self-annihilation. I am working my hardest, feeling myself at my best and most creative, and yet I also lose myself to the music I am creating so that I am no longer aware of where I end and the music begins.

Up to this point, I had never had this experience while listening. But this was a rare moment when I was exactly where I needed to be at exactly the right time. My inner landscape and the music I was hearing were reflections of each other. My soul and the music were saying the same the same thing, complimenting each other like two lenses aligned into clear focus. Thinking about it still brings me chills nine years later.

At the end of the third movement (starting at 6:32 on the video above) is a depiction of the devastation alluded to in Dr. Mahr’s speech. It is unrelenting. It is unyielding. It is dense and shrill, a hopeless, inescapable cataclysm. It is that point at which you can bear no more, when your world is crashing down around you. When all is lost.

And then at 8:09, a new melody enters. This melody is unrelenting too, but where before the music was a full of despair, this tune is an unshakeable credo. In blistering orchestration, the music cries out for perseverance. It is music full of fierce joy in the face of utter hopelessness. It is music that rages against the dying of the light.

When the melody cadences at 10:08, the music begins to rise up against a sustained drone in the low brass, struggling not to succumb, straining to free itself, pressing and pressing to an unrelenting dissonance before bursting into a jubilant B major at 11:22. It is an incredible arrival, an exaltation of the will to live against all odds. The final chords–a sound only a band could have the power to create–are an ecstatic shout of triumph to the world.

Has music ever saved you?

I started crying during that first performance. As a rule, I don’t cry in public. But there was no stopping it, and I was not ashamed. I glanced over to my friend next to me and saw that she was crying too. Maybe you’ve heard the speech about how music saves lives. I can testify firsthand that it’s true. I was at my worst, but in the music of David Maslanka I found recognition, which is one of the most powerful feelings a human being can have: that I am known. That after all, we are not alone.

I have many friends from St. Olaf who feel this way about David Maslanka’s music. Throughout undergrad, some of the St. Olaf Band’s greatest musical moments occurred during his pieces. The group’s bond was forged in the recognition that we were creating something wonderful, something that spoke to us about what it was to be human together. It was a way for us to connect with each other, with our audiences, in creating something both deeply personal and shared.

I’d love to say that the tide turned that day in February, that the concert was a wonderful new beginning. But life is not that simple. I failed my Ole Band audition for the next year, too. I was still lost. I still didn’t know who I was. I still didn’t know who I wanted to be, or how to be good, or how to be happy. But I had something important: the knowledge that I was not alone. Maslanka’s music was my life preserver–the thing that keeps you afloat when you felt you are drowning, the ember that keeps glowing even when the flames have gone out.

Has music ever saved you?

I am not a religious man. I don’t know what–if anything–awaits us beyond death. If there is any kind of eternal rest, I hope that it comes with the knowledge that your work and your life meant something. That at the end of all your labors, it is going to be okay:

What is the measure of someone’s life? I think it is who you are able to reach. Who you are able to connect with. Who you can make feel less alone. I am grateful to have music for those times when I don’t know where to turn. I am grateful that I was there at that concert, to hear that music. I am grateful for David Maslanka.

David and Alison.jpg
Alison and David Maslanka

In Defense of Ugly Art.

Hello friends! I’m back after a long hiatus with a topic I’ve wanted to talk about for a while. I want to touch on something that a lot of people don’t like to discuss when we’re talking about art, and that is ugliness.

By that I mean deliberate ugliness. Art is a lot of things to a lot of people, and of course people have different aesthetics. Different styles, forms, and expressions of art will always leave people divided (art nouveau or art deco? Opera or Grand Ole Opry?), but I’m not talking about people’s preferences. I’m talking about art that pushes beyond the limits of “good taste,” art that is intentionally trying to push your buttons in all the wrong ways. Art that is trying to be ugly.

It’s a difficult thing for people to swallow. For many, art is meant to be beautiful. Perfectly reasonable. Most dictionary definitions of art point to two qualities that define the concept: beauty, and expressive power. But I think as a culture most of us gravitate to the art we love for a marriage of the two. Art is something beautiful and expressive, or even better, something that expresses beautiful things. That art should express ugly things is difficult to swallow. That art should be ugly to express ugly things is even more problematic.

I understand that. I understand that after a long day the last thing most of us want to do is contemplate something unpleasant. It’s tempting to brush this kind of art aside and forget about it.

I understand. But I don’t agree.

Cronus Devouring His Son

Above is a painting by Francisco Goya. Wikipedia tells me was the “last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns.” His style evolved throughout his life, and as he aged, became darker and more expressionist. The above painting is Saturno devorando su hijo or Cronus Devouring His Son, though Goya never gave it that name. The painting now resides in El Museo del Prado, but Cronus was never intended for public display. It comes from a set of fourteen works collectively called the Black Paintings painted directly onto the walls of Goya’s Quinta del Sordo residence at the very end of his life. They were the artist’s private expression of what had come to be a bitter attitude toward humanity. All of the paintings feature dark subject matter, but for me, Cronus is the most haunting.

I had the opportunity to see the Black Paintings when I visited Madrid two summers ago. The first thing that strikes you as you enter the dimly lit gallery is the sheer size. Cronus measures nearly 3′ by 6′, and it isn’t even the largest painting. To stare into the crazed white eyes of a creature nearly as large as you are is a disturbing experience.

It is ugly, yes, but ugly art does not mean bad art. On the contrary, the painting is brilliant in composition and execution. From a deep, deep black background emerges a grotesque figure in muted browns and greys. Nothing about the subject’s complexion is healthy or wholesome. The brightest parts of the painting are the deathly pallor of the corpse, the knuckles, white from grasping, the blood, and the mad eyes. You are drawn to the most terrifying details of the painting by the skill of the painter.

At the time Goya was creating the Black Paintings, Spain was in an era of unrest, of war and revolution. Some have interpreted the painting as an allegory for Spain devouring its own future. I can see widening the allegory to all of mankind. But why Goya painted Cronus will remain a mystery. We can only say that whatever dark demons he dealt with at the end of his life found very personal expression in this set of paintings. Any other interpretation must be left to the viewer.

Dealing with the healthy expression of negative emotions is a topic humans have dealt with since antiquity. The ancient Greeks even gave it a word: “catharsis.” The idea is that negative emotions like fear, anger, and sadness need to find some sort of release for people to live healthy emotional lives. “Catharsis” means “cleansing” or “purifying,” and was specifically related to the purging of emotions through interaction with art.

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Cricifixion

During my time as an undergraduate I met a composer who introduced me to Francis Bacon (the painter, not the writer). Bacon was a British artist once described by Margaret Thatcher as “that man who paints those dreadful pictures.” And they are dreadful. But that doesn’t mean they’re bad. Like Cronus Devouring His Son, Bacon’s paintings are skillfully rendered to deliberately provoke the viewer. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) is a prime example of Bacon at his best (or his worst)

The “figures” of the title barely even deserve the label. Vaguely human, the creatures have just enough features for the viewer to identify with, but few enough that they seem alien and frightening. Their skin is a sickly corpse-grey, and the lack of limbs makes them both more pathetic and more repulsive. And yet they have faces, which we are hard-wired to identify with. We automatically analyze the figures for expression, and Bacon delivers by supplying the most horrific faces imaginable.

The first figure is the only one with hair, which shields it from the viewer and gives a “mourning” aspect. It helplessly sits on a stool, the tiny suggestion of arms only highlighting the creature’s powerlessness. The second figure has an even more amorphous body, and is clearly blind. The bandage may either cover where eyes should be, or where they used to be. Despite this, it is unsettlingly clear that the figure is looking out at the viewer. The leering mouth seems ready to snap at us if only we would come close enough. The third figure is the most disturbing. The ribs are clearly defined, and part of the creature’s body is sticking into what appears to be a bed of spikes. This figure has the clearest facial features too, crafted into an agonized, tortured scream.

The figures are incarnations of sadness, anger, and pain. We are meant to recognize and empathize with these expressions, even if doing so frightens us. Especially because it frightens us.

I could go on and on with examples from other disciplines of art. Various poems, novels, and films come to mind. But I’m a musician, and I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight musical examples. Music especially is an art form where people object to ugliness. Unpleasant subjects in film and literature are almost a matter of course (in fact, they’re often the ones that win awards). From the examples above, it’s clear that ugliness in the visual arts is also an established and accepted fact.

But music is different. Ugliness in music is hard for people to bear. We listen to music for many reasons: to have fun, to dance, to set a mood, to enjoy its beauty. It’s common to seek out music for its relaxing properties, but rarer to seek it out to confront and process things we’d rather not think about. To confront the ugly.

My personal theory is that ugly music is harder to engage with because music is one of the only art forms that is inextricably joined to time. You can put some kind of distance between yourself and a piece of visual art. You can take a step back, turn away. But music is experienced in the moment, and if you take the time to remove yourself from the moment, it passes and you’ve missed it. Music exists as a sum of individual moments, and only after the last notes settle can you start to appreciate the totality of what you’ve heard. Only then can you evaluate the true impact of the process of listening.

And it’s the process part that makes music so powerful. One of my friends recently published a post on his blog about an interview with Minnesota Orchestra’s assistant conductor Roderick Cox. In response to a question about how music can improve people’s lives, Cox said, “it’s important for people to have a way of expressing themselves, and if they don’t, they act out in violence and other negative forms of expression.”

I think there’s something very true and very powerful about that. I certainly find it true in my own life. People need a conduit to deal with negative emotions in a way that can release those emotions without being harmful. Listening to music provides that conduit for me.

In 1802, Ludwig van Beethoven–musical genius, pianist extraordinaire, respected composer–was at the lowest point of his life. He had been slowly losing his hearing for six years, and had withdrawn from society. After considering suicide, he found it necessary to draft a last will of sorts. That document, now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, shows a man struggling to maintain his will to continue as an artist.

Fortunately, he did. And the compositional period after Beethoven’s return from the brink marks the beginning of his middle period, which, for music history, marks the turn toward Romanticism.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Op. 55 is subtitled “Eroica.” Its first movement acts as a musical depiction of the struggle to overcome great odds. There are essentially two motives at play: the triadic “hero’s theme” which opens the piece, and the destabilizing offbeat accents which follow (:59). I’d love to do an analysis of the whole movement, but now is not the time or place. Instead, I want you to listen to the contrasting characters of these two musical ideas. The “hero’s theme” has a regular meter (3/4), and on the whole is consonant and confident. The “offbeats” are generally more dissonant, and threaten to derail the whole movement by obscuring the meter (2/4 against 3/4). This movement is cast in sonata form, so for the first few minutes enjoy the exposition. However, notice the tension of moments like 3:07 where the offbeats return.

The real meat of the movement lies in the development, which begins in earnest at 7:10. If you’ve so far been wondering why this piece is included in a post about ugly art, you’re about to find out. The development begins by passing around motives from the first tonal area of the exposition, then takes a dark turn by setting the “hero theme” in minor mode. Things become more agitated as the development spins on. At 8:35 we get a moment of fughetto (woo, counterpoint!) which propels us into a section of anguished sighing gestures (8:44). Then, at 8:49, real darkness descends. The strings, against dissonant chords, strive upward with the offbeat motive. Tension grows, volume and range expand. The violins leap up from deep, violent hits in the basses and cellos, until at 9:25, just when you can’t bear it anymore, Beethoven unleashes a chord scored with blaring half steps crushed against each other.

If I seem dramatic, it’s because 1) I love this piece, and 2) I’m trying to paint a picture of how dissonant this would sound to Beethoven’s Viennese audience. The kind of chord employed at the climax of the development is purposely shocking. It’s the closest our “hero” has come to defeat, and Beethoven wants you to cringe, to feel it. The rest of the development is spent trying to rebuild our hero by casting them in various tonal guises, and the recapitulation creates a more secure and triumphant version of that theme. “I made it,” Beethoven is saying, taking us along on a musical journey paralleling his personal one. The effect of the whole (please listen to the rest) is immensely satisfying. BUT, the great height the movement ends on is only possible because of the dark, dissonant, ugly path we took to get there. As with much of Beethoven’s middle period, you earn that final cadence.

My music history professor described Charles Ives with one word: “maverick.” She was blissfully unaware of any current political use of the word, and simply meant that Ives composed exactly how he wanted in his own way. The Unanswered Question is one of my favorite Ives works, and is also a great example of ugliness with a point.

The piece is built in three layers. First, the strings play long, sustained, consonant chords. The expansive quality is created by a five octave spacing between the basses and the violins. Ives thought of these serene, pristine chords as symbolizing “The Silence of the Druids.” Ives is painting a picture of the universe as beautiful, profound, and unchanging.

The second layer is the trumpet, “The Question.” This motive is completely unrelated to the tonality of the strings. In fact, the question isn’t tonal at all. It is an unmistakably searching motive posing “The Perennial Question of Existence.”

The last layer is the woodwinds, which give “Fighting Answers” to the question each time it is posed. As the piece goes on, these answers become increasingly complex, dissonant, and fraught. Finally, they mock the question and give up on answering altogether in a peevish cluster chord (4:53).

The solo trumpet asks the question one last time, and this time it is left unanswered but for the strings, which have remained unchanged throughout.

The first time I listened to a this piece on YouTube, I decided to read the comments. Many were complimentary. Many were from twelve year olds trying to be profound. And many asked a question of their own: “Is there a version with just the strings?”


Talk about missing the point. I’m sure there are differing interpretations of the piece according to your worldview. Are humans the questioner? The fighting answerers? Both? Is the calm, unchanging nature of the background music comforting, or is its indifference to the question and answer cold and merciless? I leave these to you to ponder, but that’s just it: you can’t walk away from this piece with a happy little answer. It’s asking us to confront something uncomfortable, but it is precisely through questions like these that we grow and define ourselves. Doing either of those is seldom comfortable, but we are always better off for it.

This last piece is very personal for me. For being a classical saxophonist, I’ve talked surprisingly little about saxophone music on this blog. But this is one of my favorite pieces of music period, and one of the strongest works in the saxophone repertoire. The second movement of William Albright’s Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano is entitled “La follia nuova: a lament for George Cacioppo.”

Albright decides to set his lament in a very old form, the chaconne, a type of baroque piece we’ve discussed here before. He even hints toward a descending lament bass. The piece opens with a soft statement of the chaconne theme, then a first variation before the saxophone enters for the second variation at :43. It’s a beautiful moment, with the saxophone closely echoing the piano. At 1:20, Albright asks the pianist to capture the resonance of the notes after a hard attack, creating a harsh “stabbing” effect against the soft chaconne theme. At 1:36 the saxophone begins a rising motive, which becomes a beautiful upward line into the altissimo while the piano descends into the lower register. The low bass and brittle upper chords in the piano against the sustained altissimo in the saxophone is a heartbreaking sound. The saxophone plunges down at 2:32, and the chaconne theme returns to ground us after this surge of emotion.

But it’s not the same stable chaconne we had earlier. The theme is interrupted by dissonant notes and the persistent crescendo of the saxophone pushes us on (3:05). We rise again, pushing to a unison between the saxophone and piano surrounded by harsh chords. And then the chaconne is gone. We’ve lost our moorings in both tonality and form. The figures here are built off of dissonance, wandering, aimless, and unsure.

At 4:22 the chaconne briefly returns before the saxophone leaps to a pulsing high note, like a heart desperately beating. The saxophone then takes the theme up an octave as the piano insistently punches cluster chords around it, and finally, when we can’t take the tension anymore, the saxophone leaps up in a scream of despair (5:12) before melting back downward to the chaconne. But the return feels hollow, and the music peters out before evaporating in the upper reaches of the piano.

In the last part of the piece, the saxophonist is instructed to play into the piano, as if to oneself (6:13). Here is a bare statement of the bass line with the saxophone playing a baroque lament over it. It’s a poignant and austere moment at a point when both audience and players are emotionally exhausted. The movement ends with with a defeated octave drop in the saxophone and then loud, repeated funeral bells. It’s brutally dissonant after the serenity of the baroque section, and the final tolling always makes me wince. And it should.

It’s ugly. But there are times when grief is not beautiful. This is not “take a sad song and make it better” type music. There is a time and a place for that, but there is a need for music that acknowledges that sometimes we are not okay, sometimes emotional healing does not come at the end of a few minutes worth of music. To me, Albright is pushing against the idea that there’s an easy out. The chaconne is a set of gestures used to portray grief, and by using the form and then breaking from it, by letting it disintegrate and fall apart, I think Albright is trying to make a point about formalizing and ritualizing our emotions. Depression, anger, and pain are not pretty, and trying to force them into a rigid mold is a betrayal of the depth and uniqueness of those emotions for each individual. At least, that’s my take.

I’m absolutely not saying music should be ugly all the time. I love beautiful music more than anything. But I also need ugly music. I know this sounds overly grandiose, but at the end of the day I really believe that art should strive for truth, not just beauty. And the truth is that sometimes life is not beautiful. To deny the difficult parts of our existence is to enact a whitewashing of the human condition. There are difficult things we have to deal with, things that must be absorbed and acknowledged before they fester into something worse beyond our control. I believe we need music that allows us to face and process those negative things just as much as we need beautiful music to show us the joys and beauties of living. All things in balance, right?



Today I Made Goat Cheese; or, Cooking is Easier Than You Think

A break from music today. As I said, sometimes I’ll want to talk about other things. Today I want to talk about cooking.

Actual footage from my kitchen.

I was fortunate to learn to cook at a relatively young age. Both my parents worked, and at the end of a day of teaching middle schoolers, my mother was not exactly stoked to prepare a meal for a family of four. Which makes sense, considering that with my adolescent appetite it was really more like a family of five-and-a-half. Anyway, my sister and I learned to cook. I hated doing it at the time, and I griped and complained my fair share. But as time went on and I finished high school, I realized that 1) this cooking thing was a useful skill, and 2) it was actually pretty fun.

So Mom, you were right. Sorry for the whining.

Not that I was a great cook, but I could follow a recipe and cook various meats without burning them. I entered college with probably above-average skills, and those skills kept me happy and healthy during my summers without a meal plan. I can proudly say that I have never eaten a cup of Ramen.

When I moved out for good, I had the opportunity to expand my cooking horizons. Without being bound by the tastes of my family, I suddenly had room to experiment. Not that my family’s palate was boring per se, but it was…how do I put this…Midwestern. That is, when we bought salsa, the “mild” flavor was about as intensely spicy as it got. True Mexican, Indian, or Thai food?

Spicy Food

This past year I’ve been able to try lots of new recipes from various parts of the world, I’ve cooked exotic vegetables like eggplant that would never have made an appearance at my childhood dinner table, and I’ve grown accustomed enough to spice that I survived a month in Mexico without any gastrointestinal distress.

And then, I went further. My cupboard changed. Instead of stocking meals, I was now stocking raw ingredients. I was making some (not to brag) pretty tasty food that I would normally have thought I could only get in a restaurant. So I started thinking about what else I could make for myself.

I’d like to say all my motives were pure, that I was engaging in the great American spirit of do-it-yourself, that the Founding Fathers would be proud of my pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-cooking, and that Emerson and Thoreau would be be honored to dine at my table.

But mostly I’m just easily bored and poor.

I moved out in late August, and by October I’d had my fill of chicken stir-fry. I was also the one paying the electric and gas bills for my house, so I was very, very much aware of the money I was using up just existing, plus groceries, plus the graduate school tuition I am paying for with student loans.

Beaker Panic

With my bank account in mind, I started looking for ways to cut costs. My first thought was bread.

I. Love. Bread. It’s tasty, it’s chewy, it’s flaky, it’s savory, it’s sweet, it’s tangy, it’s whatever you need it to be. It goes with everything. It’s a staple food for a reason, and I was eating about half a loaf a week to make my sandwiches. I chose bread as my starting point for a few reasons. First, I looked at the bread I was buying, saw how much sugar was in it, and thought “that can’t be good.” Second, I’m not a huge fan of the super-soft, squishy, “American”-style bread. I like my bread on the heartier side. Since I wasn’t going to pay some “artisanal bread” price, I decided to make my own.

And you know what? It’s easy.

We’re not taught to think this way. Most people I first talk to about making bread look at me like I’ve worked some kind of miracle. I haven’t; bread has been around for thousands of years. It is stupid easy to make. Do you have flour and yeast? If not, can you buy them? Do you have salt? Do you have…WATER??? Then you can make bread!

Bread does not need sugar to be tasty. The bread I usually make has only those four ingredients, and it’s at least as good as what you would buy in a store. Bread does not require incredible skills to be tasty. My first loaf was fine, not spectacular, but by the third loaf I’d gotten the hang of kneading the dough (the only sort-of-tricky part) and I was good to go. Once you get the basic hang of it, it’s just a little alteration to make sourdough, whole wheat, french baguettes, or a myriad of other possibilities.

But wait, you might say, when do you find time?

This is a legit question, but it’s not a deal-breaker. Baking bread takes about three to four hours total, but the actual work involved in making bread is only about fifteen minutes, and ten of that is kneading. Other than that, you let it sit to rise, and you stick it in the oven. No sweat. I find something else to work on, go practice, or run some errands while the bread rises and bakes.

And it’s CHEAPER.

Math Time. One loaf of wheat bread in the store costs around $4.00. How about when I make it myself? Yes, I have to buy the flour, but one 5-pound bag of wheat flour costs around $3.00. Each bag has around 18 cups of flour. My wheat recipe calls for four cups of flour. That means each $3.00 bag of flour makes around four loaves of bread, which means each loaf costs $.75. Even when you factor in a little honey and salt, there’s no way it’s more than $1.00. Per loaf. Of tasty, homemade bread, sans preservatives.

After bread I needed something to put on it, so I moved to hummus, which is about half as expensive to make yourself as it is to buy in the store.

And then, I decided to make cheese.

I. Love. Cheese. Cheese is its own food group. Not only does it go with everything, but it’s perfectly acceptable to eat by itself. At least for this, Liz Lemon is my culinary spirit animal.

Night Cheese

I’d had some success with bread and hummus, so it didn’t seem so terrifying anymore to make the jump to cheese. As I said, I love cheese, but I had been avoiding buying it because, well, it’s kinda expensive. And the cheese I really wanted was mozzarella, which is really expensive. But hey, in the spirit of experimentation, I thought I’d give it a shot. I bought a gallon of cheap whole milk, picked up some citric acid and rennet from a cheese-making store, and went to work.

First, don’t be scared by rennet or citric acid. They’re inexpensive, and once you have some, it’ll be a while before you run out. I bought a package or rennet tabs for $7.00, and each package has 20 tabs, of which you need 1/4 tab to make a batch of cheese (you can also get vegetarian rennet if that’s your thing). Well worth it. Citric acid is just a powder form of the acid in lemons, and you can use vinegar or lemon juice if you’re more comfortable with that.

The first time I made mozzarella, I felt like I was performing some higher-level wizardry. You have milk, and then suddenly it’s not milk, it’s delicious, delicious cheese! But it’s actually pretty simple. You heat the milk, add the citric acid, add the rennet, and then you let it sit. Ten minutes later, the curds and whey have separated out. After a little more heating, the curds clump together, and you can strain off the whey (but keep it! It’s super useful!). A little more heating, a little stretching, and a little salt and you have a mozzarella ball. Total time: 30 minutes. Total cost: $2.50. Just buy the cheapest whole milk you can, and that’s all the cost there is. The rennet and citric acid come out to cents in the scheme of things. Congrats! You just made cheese for 1/2 the cost of buying it at the store! Want to do it yourself? Of course you do.

If people are incredulous when I tell them I make bread, they’re definitely more so when I tell them I make cheese. Cheese is something you buy in the store. That’s where it comes from. The supermarket. It comes to the supermarket from a factory. Cows are in there somewhere, but the details are…vague.

Except they’re not.

Maybe I’m being over-Romantic, but this is why I think it’s important to know how to cook: to be aware of and connected to your food chain. You don’t need bread with too much sugar or fancy preservatives, and you don’t need to pay exorbitant prices for dairy products. We think we do (and isn’t it nice for big food companies that we think that?), but it’s simply not true. These are skills humans have had for millennia. Cheese-making predates recorded history. If our herding ancestors could do it, those same skills are certainly within our grasp today. But there’s a huge disconnect between buying and enjoying these products and knowing how they are made. Maybe it’s hipster of me to be so devoted to making my own stuff, but I’m also gaining valuable skills and an understanding of how my food got to my plate.

And so today, I made goat cheese. Now, this is a recurring theme in this post, but I have to say:

I. Love. Goat cheese.

Goat cheese is super tasty, but (of course) super expensive to buy at the store. A tiny log of 4 ounces costs over $5.00. So I went to the co-op and bought a quart of goat’s milk. Price: $4.00. I also made an initial investment of some cheesecloth, but since I can reuse that I don’t even know how to quantify the cost-per-batch. I followed this recipe. The only other ingredients are vinegar and salt, both of which I had lying around the house. You heat the goat’s milk until it’s almost boiling. I don’t have a thermometer, so I just waited for bubbles to form and tested it with my finger. Then you pour in 1/4 cup vinegar. Let it sit ten minutes. Strain it through cheese cloth. Let it drip an hour. Salt it. Season it if you feel like it (I added dill, parsley, and chives). Violà! Chèvre!  My quart of milk produced about 6oz. of cheese, meaning my price per ounce was $.67, versus $1.25 in the store. Almost half as cheap. Total time? 15 minutes of work, 1 hour of literally letting the cheese sit and do nothing.

And it’s that easy.

Now, I’m not here to shame you if you don’t cook. I’m absolutely not trying to make you feel bad if you feel like you can’t. Some of you have jobs, or little ones, or other responsibilities that leave you with little time to cook, and I totally understand that. All I’m trying to say is that it’s easier than you think it is. I’m a twenty-five year old male with a degree in music education. I am in no way more qualified than anyone else out there to cook, but I do, and I’ve actually ended up enjoying it (yes ladies, I AM single…). Once you get the hang of it, it becomes easier and easier. It’s a cheaper, healthier alternative to buying pre-made meals, plus you gain skills to be self-reliant. Most importantly to me, I have a better understanding of where my food comes from, and what actually goes into the production of that tasty goat cheese.

Maybe I’m weird. But at the end of the day, I’m just some guy who likes tasty food. If a schmuck like me can do it, you can too. Try some of these recipes! You might be surprised.

Goat Cheese

Pita bread here, make them into chips here.

Words, Words, Words (and Music)

Hey everyone! I’m going to try to do at least a post a week for a while here, and I have a couple ideas in the works. Today I want to talk a little about words. I am fascinated by languages, and since my roommate is currently learning Polish, I’ve been thinking about how we think about words. All of the thoughts and questions I would normally keep to myself about language are overflowing as I think about how he is learning a language, how I learn languages, how languages differ, and what languages and the words that make them up even mean.

It’s a lot to think about.

But I just want to talk about a small part of words, and those are the words we decide to attach to music.

I come from an instrumental background, so thinking about words and music has always been a little foreign to me. For instance, when I listen to the radio, I am usually much much more interested in listening to the melody, harmony, and rhythm of a song than I am in listening to the words. Lyrics are probably the last thing I notice. Often I’ll really be enjoying a song for a month or more before the lyrics even start to creep their way in. This is usually fine, but sometimes I’ll realize I’ve been jamming out to misogynistic drivel because I wasn’t paying attention to anything other than the funky beat, and then I feel sheepish.


Anyway, my point is that music and words are not necessarily a unit for me. The opposite can also be true. I have a friend, for instance, who has never made it through a Beethoven symphony because there are (mostly) no words to listen to. The only reason he ever listened to instrumental classical music was because it was undergrad, he had friends in band/orchestra, and it was convenient. But he would never seek it out. Which is fine! To me, that’s losing a whole lot of great music, but my inattention to lyrics is probably just as weird to him.

But how important is the connection between music and words? Obviously in the case of the Robin Thicke atrocity above it is important, because when you realize that he’s essentially talking about violating consent, that funky-awesome beat ceases to sound so great. On the other hand, while I sometimes get more out of listening to the lyrics closely, I sometimes feel that I..well, don’t. And I wonder if that’s okay too.

I’d like to offer a few different examples of songs I like to listen to, and the different ways I hear them. I’m not really trying to prove a point with this post, just trying to talk it out and see what everyone thinks. So, without further ado, Four Songs Kurt Listens To.

1) Meeres Stille – Franz Schubert

First, Schubert is bomb. Easily one of my favorite composers. He may not be considered one of the titans of classical music, but screw that, I get to decide myself! To me, everything he composes is superbly written: perfect integrity and effortless melody. Whenever I listen to his music, I feel like I’m hearing something that is both spontaneous and inexorable: it’s wonderful, and yet it could be no other way. Nowhere is this more on display than Schubert’s vocal pieces. Meeres Stille is a song based on a text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

Tiefe Stille herrscht im Wasser
Ohne Regung ruht das Meer,
Und bekümmert sieht der Schiffer
Glatte Fläsche ringsumher.
Keine Luft von keiner Seite!
Todesstille fürchterlich!
In der ungeheuern Weite
Reget keine Welle sich.

Before I offer the translation, let’s take a listen.

First of all, as a baritone, I want to steal Bryn Terfel’s voice and learn its secrets. But a lovely song, right? Very simple, opens beautifully, a little tension in the middle, then a nice resolution. Without any idea of what the text means (I don’t speak German), we can still enjoy a lovely art song by Schubert. BUT, let’s take a look at the translation.

Deep stillness rules the water
Without motion lies the sea,
And sadly the sailor observes
Smooth surfaces all around.
No air from any side!
Deathly, terrible stillness!
In the immense distances
not a single wave stirs.

Holy shit, well that puts a different spin on things. What was Schubert thinking when he set the song this way?

Well, he was thinking brilliantly. Every chord in the piece is rolled, which gives both a feeling of calm just a subtle hint of text painting (where the music mirrors the words) by resembling water. The first phrase is very calm, hardly moving from the key of C, which reinforces the stillness of the water and the lack of motion (lack of harmonic movement=lack of waves). All seems well. Nice calm day at sea. The problem is that to a sailor, calm winds can mean a slow death. When the text proclaims “And sadly the sailor observes…” the harmony suddenly changes and the static vocal line begins to rise, mimicking the mood of the sailor who realizes he may die of starvation long before the wind picks up. At “Keine Luft…” the distress of the sailor grows with a prominent tritone leap in the voice. Underpinning this passage is a harmonic progression that resembles the omnibus progression, a harmonic motion which involves a lot of chromatic pitches, but doesn’t really move anywhere. Once again, Schubert is underpinning the text with a perfect musical counterpart: the rising angst of the sailor, and the stubbornly still sea and wind which refuses to reflect his alarm. The penultimate phrase “In der unge…” seems to be agitating again, but the final phrase “reget keine…” finds us back in a calm C major. The move to tonic feels forced though, a…disingenuous return to the home key. Schubert paints the sailor as resigned to his fate, a false calm that is reflected in the motionless sea, which has remained indifferent to the sailor’s fate.

So in this case, the text is hugely important to the piece. What is otherwise a nice little art song gains huge emotional and artistic dimensions once we understand how the music and the text work together.

2) No Surprises – Radiohead

I know I was maybe a bit behind the curve on this one, but I didn’t know much about Radiohead until the second half of my student teaching. My host teacher was a huge fan, and one day I walked in to find him listening to No Surprises. I was immediately smitten. The song is beautiful. I had no idea Ok Computer was an amazing album. I didn’t even know that was the name of the album. I just knew that No Surprises was a great song. It sounded like a little lullaby, mostly moving back and forth between major I and a half-diminished ii chord. If you don’t know harmonically what that means, no worries: it’s the quality that gives the song that bittersweet feel.

That was the first thing I noticed about the song: the wistful harmony. Next I noticed that the melody has a major 7th in it, which is one of my favorite melodic intervals. I noticed the song had a good build, and a warm production. The guitar is perfectly chosen, and the glockenspiel in the background gives the song an almost child-like quality. Basically, I was listening to everything but the lyrics, and that alone was enough to make me fall in love.

And then, finally, I did listen to the lyrics:

A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won’t heal

You look so tired-unhappy
Bring down the government
They don’t, they don’t speak for us

I’ll take a quiet life
A handshake of carbon monoxide

With no alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises
Silent, silent

This is my final fit
My final bellyache

With no alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises please

Such a pretty house
And such a pretty garden

No alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises please

(Get me out of here)

So my instinct of the song as a lullaby was right, but it’s an ironic, defeated lullaby. The narrator is through dealing with his vacant existence, and is ending it through suicide in the form of a “handshake of carbon monoxide.” It’s a great song either way, but knowing the lyrics brings out the irony in the warm production and the child-like quality, and also acts as a strong rebuke to the 90’s consumerist culture that produced it. Like with the Schubert, every part of the song is set up to compliment the music. But in this case, instead of supporting the text the music subverts it.

3) 20 Years of Snow – Regina Spektor

Now we move to and artist for whom words and music interact in different way. Regina Spektor is a fantastic musician. She has an incredible voice which she uses sparingly to great effect. She has power, but we seldom get more than a glimpse of it. She’s also a trained classical pianist, which gets showcased in much of her music. Her background gives her songs nonconventional textures and harmonies for “pop music.”

She also loves words. She loves to play with the sounds of words, sometimes paying attention to their meanings, sometimes not. Après Moi, from the album Begin to Hope, features onomatopoeia and clever wordplay to bring to mind bells. She’s also a fan of glottal stops as a percussive effect and of using words to create a unique tapestry of sound. One of my favorite examples is 20 Years of Snow. First, the song features an ethereal electronic track split between channels that bring to mind the snow of the title. Spektor then takes over the same figure on the piano. As the song builds, she throws whole-tone scales, synthesizers and sampled strings into the mix. A drum set only briefly makes an appearance. The song ends with a restatement of the gauzy electronics and piano, and floats away with vocal glottal stops and a piano riff which stutters to a halt.

The overall effect is like something out of a dream (whole-tone scales have been used for “dream sequences” for years, and I think Spektor is more than smart enough to have made the choice intentionally). And the lyrics? Well…

He’s a wounded animal
He lives in a matchbox
He’s a wounded animal
And he’s been coming around here

He’s a dying breed
He’s a dying breed

His daughter is twenty years of snow falling
She’s twenty years of strangers looking into each other’s eyes
She’s twenty years of clean
She never truly hated anyone or anything

She’s a dying breed
She’s a dying breed

She says I’d prefer the moss
I’d prefer the mouth
A baby of the swamps
A baby of the south
I’m twenty years of clean
And I never truly hated anyone or anything
Twenty years of clean
Twenty years of clean

But I got to get me out of here
This place is full of dirty old men
And the navigators with their mappy maps
And moldy heads and pissing on sugar cubes

While you stare at your boots
And the words float out like holograms
And the words float out like holograms
And the words float out like holograms
They say, feel the waltz, feel the waltz
Come on, baby, baby, now feel the waltz
Feel the waltz, feel the waltz
Come on, baby, baby, now feel the waltz

So…yeah. If you can tell me what that means, I’d be much obliged. There are some themes, for sure. “Snow,” “clean,” “baby,” are uncorrupted images, which goes along with “never truly hated anyone or anything.” These are set against “dirty old men,” “swamp,” and “moldy heads and pissing on sugar cubes.” So we have some clean and dirty imagery juxtaposed, but aside from that…

Which isn’t to say the text isn’t set well. “And the words float out like holograms” is set to a previously unheard echoey string track, and “feel the waltz,” while not a waltz, does have a kind of drunken dance feel to it. But what about the rest?

Honestly, I have no idea. And I’m not sure that it matters. I don’t know if Spektor is going for complete comprehension, or if she’s instead trying to populate a dreamscape with the appropriate words and sounds. For instance, Spektor plays an ominous whole-tone figure under “she’s a dying breed,” which clears suddenly when the original piano figure returns, and Spektor breathily sings “She says I’d prefer the moss.” The effect is, to me, startlingly beautiful. Is it that the word “moss” sounds soft compared to the whole-tone harshness? Is it the ways she says it? Is it that the suddenly clear piano texture brings to mind sunlight, and the word “moss” brings to mind the woods, so that suddenly I have a mental picture of looking up into the sunlight streaming through leaves? In which case, is that just my reaction? But that’s not the case. I was partially inspired to write this post by a friend wondering why that same point in the song was so effective. The words hardly make any sense at all, so how is it they can still create a strong reaction?

The answer is that I don’t know the answer.

4) Dýrð í dauðaþögn – Ásgeir

I’ve been through Iceland four times now. I say “through” because I’ve only been there on layover for Icelandair, which tends to have the cheapest flights between Minneapolis and Europe. I stopped over for fourteen hours my first time, and I got to walk around Reykjavík, so that I think counts as a visit, but two of my layovers were only a few hours and I never left the airport. Hence “been through.”

The first time I heard Icelandic artist Ásgeir was actually not in Iceland, but on 89.3 the Current, a public radio station in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He caught my attention initially with his carefully layered tracks and interesting orchestration, and I downloaded the song I heard when I got home from my commute. Later that year, I went to Iceland for the first time and saw that Ásgeir was one of the featured artists on the Icelandair in-flight playlist. One year later I was on Icelandair again, and since my luggage had to be stowed in a far section of the plane, I was stuck without my book. I plugged my headphones in and scrolled through my options on the screen in front of me. Instead watching the third Hobbit movie again (ugh), I decided to listen to Ásgeir’s album Dýrð í dauðaþögn.

It was a revelation. First, the entire album is fantastic. If you haven’t listened to it, go do so now. Really. This blog post will be here when you get back. I’ll wait.

(Seriously, go listen!)

Second, the album is better in Icelandic. Duh, right? I think it’s pretty obvious most songs are more effective in their original language. But it’s more than that. I had already heard two of the songs in English. Only the vocal track is different; the rest is completely the same, but somehow the Icelandic fits everything about the music better. The thing is, I definitely do not speak Icelandic, so why would I say that? Here, take a listen to the title track:

It’s a beautiful song. The layers build well, from simple piano and guitar to vocal harmonies, and then after an effective shift in harmony, the drums finally kick in. Not only that, but the ever rising, striving melody is perfect for Ásgeir’s voice. And then the brass enter, and…it’s just great. Everything about the song fits, and that includes the language. I’m not even going to print the lyrics, because I haven’t looked up the translation yet and also because Icelandic has funny letters I’m too lazy to find on my keyboard. But it doesn’t matter! Just listen to this baby soar! That applied chord in the chorus! The brass break! Mmm. That’s good stuff.

And part of the reason I think it’s great is because I don’t understand a word of it. The song creates an effective arc for me without that. I can fill in the meaning myself because there are no words I recognize, and yet all the sounds of English are there. My ear has something to hold onto, but my imagination gets free reign. Is it bad of me to do this? To just take the lyrics as part of the soundscape of the song, as another instrument? I’ve been listening to this album on repeat since I got back from Europe three weeks ago. Every song has a distinct feel, created by the combination of the word sounds and the instruments. Am I betraying Ásgeir’s intent by listening this way? He even went so far as to make an English-language version of the album, but as I said, it doesn’t quite fit. So is this way better, when the song sounds right, but I don’t understand it?

I don’t know. I have no idea the answers to any of those questions. All I know is that words and music interact in interesting ways. Sometimes there is great intentionality, and the song benefits from understanding that intentionality. Something that intentionality is wrapped in irony. Sometimes the intent is to be deliberately obscure. And maybe sometimes there is beauty in not knowing, in just taking delight in the way something sounds. I don’t know if there is a “right way” to listen to the different ways music and words combine. But it sure is cool.

I’m Back! Probably. Maybe. Hopefully.

Hey there, blogosphere!

Man, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? A really, reeeeeally long while. I thought about returning, I really, truly did! But sometimes other things take priority, and I can’t really apologize for that. If anyone is still out there reading, thanks for waiting. So, what happened?

Well, when I started this blog I was still in college, and by the time of my last post, I had graduated and was doing student teaching while living at home. It…wasn’t the greatest time of my life. Living with my parents was cheap, but while I love them dearly and am forever grateful for their free food and rent, I was really hoping to avoid the whole artsy-millennial-moves-back-home thing. This blog was my way of staying sane while I applied for graduate school that winter.

But I didn’t get in. Oops.

This is Fine

I’ll save you the long sob story, but basically I had to take a hard look at why I do music and think if it was still worth it. In the meantime, I was working as a substitute teacher and loathing it. After just completing a music education degree, realizing that I didn’t want to teach band was pretty scary. What was I going to do? I didn’t get into grad school, but I was going to go crazy if I stayed a teacher. Every day I walked into a classroom full of vacant teenagers or shrieking kindergarteners was basically this:

Screaming Interally 2
Hey friends! Are we ready to learn today???

Anyway, I had lots to think about in the spring, and then that summer my sister got married, and then I got a job teaching lessons, and then…well, you know how it goes.

That fall I had a choice to make. I could keep on the teaching route and give up on the music I enjoyed, or I could pick myself up and apply for grad school again. So I did. After months of work, of practicing really fast and really high classical saxophone music in my parent’s basement, I auditioned once again. This time, I got in.

So much has happened in the meantime. The next summer, I quit my sub job and worked at a native plants nursery to save money on gas. I had some friends traveling to Europe and I was determined that I’d go with them since I’d never been abroad before. Over one month in July, I had more adventures and learned more about myself than I ever thought possible. I know it’s super cliché to say “I went to Europe and it changed me so much,” but it did. I slept on park benches, met crazy people while Couchsurfing, had adventures exploring Cold-War ruins, spoke nothing but Spanish for two weeks, and became a minor Norwegian celebrity due to an interview which took place at a nude beach.

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Sorry, you don’t get to see that.

Anyway, that was fantastic, and then class started, and then I had my master’s to focus on and then I went to Mexico for a month and then it was second semester andthenIhadarecitalandthenIsartedteachingandthenIhadamusicaltheatergigandthenIwenttoaconferenceinHollandandthenIhadtomoveandthenthischoolyearstartedand now we’re here! Whew.

Point being, a lot has changed since my last post, and so I’m changing the name of the blog. I come from an education background, and I still want to talk about music. Music is my life, more so than ever now that I am pouring my time into an advanced music degree. But rather than follow history chronologically, I want to talk more generally about why music matters: why it matters to me, why it matters to you, why I think it should (and can) matter to everybody. I want to have that conversation. I still think the key to keeping the music I enjoy alive and kicking is to break down all the social construct crap we put in front of it and just talk like humans. I grew up in a largely non-musical family, so I remember what it’s like to have no idea what’s going on. I also realize that a lot of the music I like now is music I initially didn’t. I know that opinions can change when you learn something, so I’m going to try to be here to fill in the blanks.

There’s a lot more to say down the line, and sometimes I might not even talk about music at all. I’m a music nerd, so this blog will still probably focus on me hardcore geeking out about music I like. But maybe not. Maybe I’ll talk about visual art. Or culture. Or food. Or movies. I honestly have no idea. I guess we’ll see. I hope there’s still someone out there listening.


I Believe in Mozart: Symphony No. 41 in C Major

Oh man, oh man, oh man. I’ve been waiting to talk about this next work for a long time. I didn’t fully appreciate who Mozart was or what he was capable of until I heard this piece. I still remember grinning from ear to ear the first time I heard it in Music History, and it has remained a favorite work for me ever since. If just 1% of my excitement over this piece makes it into this post I will be satisfied, because that means you will get at least a taste of the great joy I find in classical music.

What is this miraculous work I speak of? That would be Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C Major, Jupiter.  There is so much Mozart that I could cover in this blog that it could probably be an all-Mozart blog for several years.  And there would still be more!  I haven’t even talked about any piano concertos, or the Clarinet Concerto, or any string quartets!  I’ll have an even bigger problem when I get to Beethoven, I’m sure.  For the meantime, I wanted to end our current time with Mozart with this piece, because this piece is incredible.  I don’t like to throw around big artsy words too often because they lose their effect after a while and can be distancing and snobby-sounding.  That said, this symphony is sublime.  I can think of just a few other examples that radiate pure joy in the way this symphony does, one of which shares its key signature and which we will get to later with Beethoven.  But today is all about Mozart.

Mozart, like Haydn, composed a prolific number of symphonies (Haydn wrote one hundred four in comparison to Mozart’s forty-one, but Haydn also lived far longer).  This symphony was Mozart’s last, composed in the summer of 1788.  As he got older, Mozart’s writing pace for symphonies slowed, as he was preoccupied with other works like his operas and the Requiem.  He wrote only six symphonies in the last ten years of his life.  These last symphonies, including the well-known Symphony 40 in G minor, show a greater seriousness and feature more ambitious dimensions and technical demands than previous symphonies.  They also show an attention to the older Baroque style that had not previously appeared in his works.  Why?

I'm back, baby!
I’m back, baby!

We can thank our good friend Bach for that. After his death, Bach’s music almost instantly fell out of favor with audiences.  They were, however, preserved.  In 1782, Mozart was under the patronage of Baron Gottfried van Swieten (which would make a great name for a movie villain), who owned a large number of Bach manuscripts.  Mozart studied these scores, and began incorporating more of the stile antico into his own musical language.  The result was a group of incredible pieces that blended Classical elegance and balance and Baroque counterpoint.  The nickname “Jupiter” was given to Symphony No. 41 in 1819 in order to link it to the king of the Roman gods, implying that this work was the pinnacle of musical achievement.

We’re going to look at just the last movement.  The other movements are wonderful as well, and if this lights your fire I urge you to seek them out and listen to the entire symphony.  But this last movement shows the absolute best Mozart has to offer, and I’ll have more than enough to talk about with this finale.

The last movement of the symphony is marked molto allegro, or very fast.  It is scored for flute, oboe, bassoon, horns, trumpets, timpani, and strings.  The addition of the trumpet and timpani (not yet standard at the time) give the movement more power, and the choice of key, C major, bathes the entire piece in a bright, joyful light (remember Haydn’s Creation?  C major is back!).

For our video, I have chosen another bar graph score on the principle that to be seen is to be heard.  Percussionists know this concept well, and it is part of the reason they always hold a triangle or a slapstick over their heads: it draws the audience’s attention to the sound, which makes it more audible.  For us, this orchestra is the largest we’ve heard yet, and there’s a lot of counterpoint that’s about to happen.  Seeing the lines visually will allow us to hear them more easily, and boy is there a bunch of stuff I don’t want us to miss!  Anyway, I babble too much, so let’s get to the music:

This movement is in sonata form, so we have some expectations set up.  And we already know Mozart is a master of the different styles of the time.  What will this symphony give us?  Let’s find out.

The first part of the first theme is a surprise: it’s quiet.  Finales are supposed to be big and brash, so it’s a surprise when there are just two voices: the first and second violins.  But of course, there’s a reason to the madness.  Mozart wants us to hear this very important, very simple melody.  You should probably pause the video.

Sorry!  But I need to talk a little about this melody: it’s very important.  These four notes are old.  The melody can be traced at least back to a mass of Josquin des Prez, a Renaissance composer from two hundred years before Mozart’s time.  This was not the first time Mozart used this melody either.  He had also set it as the Credo of a mass earlier in his life.  A credo is a setting of the Apostle’s creed, beginning with the words “I believe.”  So when we hear these four notes:


What we should think is “I believe.”  What does Mozart believe in?  Let’s keep listening.  The first four notes form an antecedent phrase.  The consequent phrase (:09) is in a very different character.  It has quick, repeated notes, then a scale, then a fun little turn in another scale.  What it reminds me of is the same kind of buffa opera that accompanied Leporello’s singing in Don Giovanni.  So..”I believe” in “buffa.”

I have to be honest and say that this hypothesis is not mine.  This came to me from my brilliant music history professor, but her argument is sound.  Remember, Mozart adored opera.  Why not, then, combine the serious stile antico of Bach that he so enjoyed studying with the light buffa style that he so enjoyed writing?  This blend sets up the entire rest of the movement: old and new, combined in one.

All right.  Here we go!  Now that we have that first little melody down, we known we’re dealing with a blend of old and new styles, let’s launch into the piece properly!

We start with our first statement of the theme: “I believe in buffa.”  Once we have heard that, we get the full blast from the orchestra at :13 seconds.  In addition to our theme in the upper strings, we also get exciting scalar figures from the lower strings, blasts from the brass, and suspensions (also a reference to Baroque style) in the woodwinds.  Everyone joins together for the second half of the melody.

At :22 seconds we get our next important idea: the dotted rhythm and scale.  The style of this melody is very regal, and this melody will be very important later.  At the moment, I just appreciate the sense of motion and joy it brings to this section.

Okay.  Now that our theme has been properly introduced the real fun begins.  At :36 seconds, the “credo” theme comes back as transition in the second violins, but before the melody completes, it winds off in a different direction.  However, at the same time the melody breaks off, the first violins take over the same melody a fifth away.  What does this sound like?


More properly this is fugato, or “music in the style of a fugue that isn’t really a fugue.”  At :42 seconds, the viola’s take the theme while the first and second violins form counterpoint around it, and at :44 the cellos take over.  Mozart even wrote a separate part for the basses, who take over the melody for a bit at :47 seconds.  After this little fugal interlude, the full force of the orchestra returns to state the melody as a whole.

At :54, the violins get a new melody, a rising scale with a trill,  which is the fourth musical idea so far and is in a different style: style galant.  The idea is echoes in the cellos/basses, and all the while, the winds are taking part in a series of suspensions.  At 1:00 our bar graph comes in really handy, because we can see all the entrances of our dotted-figure-with-scale melody, which are now in canon, one after another from violins/flutes to cellos/violas/oboes/bassoons, to a hint in the horn.  And it fits!  I find myself once again flabbergasted by the incredible skill it takes to write stellar counterpoint like this.

Is your head spinning with all the awesomeness yet???

The chord at 1:07 is our half cadence in V, and the small break is our medial caesura (MC), so all of the preceding material was just the first theme group!  Once again, Mozart has packed the exposition so full of themes that assigning a P or an S theme is kind of pointless.  This sonata works on harmony.

The second theme group begins with a lyrical melody in the violins.  We also get the galant-trill theme in thirds in the bassoons, and the dotted-figure-with-scale melody in the flute, which links the first and second theme groups and gives a lot of unity to the exposition.

At 1:18 the flute and bassoon trade the galant-trill theme and the violins have some fun running around on scalar figures.  This entire movement is like a lesson in perpetual motion in that there is always activity going on somewhere.  The texture grows more and more full of imitation as the lyrical theme gains a bold new character.  The theme starts in the first violins at 1:30, appearing a beat later in the seconds, then a beat later in the cellos, then a beat later in the violins.  It’s fun to watch the bar graph as the music cascades downward.  At 1:40 the winds join in until the most of the instruments in the orchestra get caught up in this tumbling scale pattern.  All of this leads to a statement of the second half of the melody (the buffa part) in the violins at 1:43, with echoes in the flute and oboe.

But just when we think we’re about the get a full stop, the melody repeats, and this time takes an excursion into minor mode, propelling the energy forward to 2:00, where our dotted rhythm melody appears first in the lower strings, then in the flute and oboe, and then in the violins in the opposite direction!  It’s at this point that I start really freaking out about how awesome everything about this is.  The exposition finally closes out with two last statements of this theme, passed down from oboe to bassoon.

WOO!  Repeat time!  I talked a lot during the exposition, so this time through I challenge you to shut off your melody-and-accompaniment ears that we’ve all received from pop music and try to put on your badass-counterpoint ears and listen to all of these layers, all of these textures, all of these ideas individually and as a unit.  It’s a different experience, but it’s so worth it.

The development begins at 4:34 with a statement of the credo in minor, accompanied by our dotted-scale melody in the double reeds.  It’s repeated in a new key, but this time the dotted-scale melody is flipped, or inverted, which if you remember from Bach is one of the cool contrapuntal operations you can do to a melody.

As developments are wont to be, this one is stormy and often in minor mode, but listen for the different entrances as Mozart explores the possibilities of this dotted-scale melody.  At 5:01, Mozart pits the winds with the credo melody and lots of lovely harmony against the strings with canonic entrances of the dotted-scale melody and inverted counterpoint.  Finally, as if they have suddenly come to an agreement, the strings give a giant unison statement of the inverted dotted-scale theme at 5:24.  Suddenly, only the bassoons and the cellos are left standing, and a proper statement of the dotted-scale melody in C from the violins suddenly takes us to the recapitulation at 5:32.

After the initial statement of the theme and the entrance of the full orchestra, Mozart immediately takes us in a different direction.  The transition here is much more dramatic, and almost seems like a second development, as the credo theme modulates from key to key with violent scales from the lower strings and an insistent rising chromatic line in the winds.  Mozart brings us back to major mode for the galant theme and more of the dotted-scale theme, but before we know what’s hit us, we’re at the MC and the second theme group at 6:12.  Why is this exposition so condensed?  Mozart has other tricks up his sleeve.

The second theme group progresses more or less as it did in the exposition, along with all of its wonderful canonic writing and counterpoint.  7:07 is another one of those moments when I start to get really excited about everything that’s going on.  Just look at the graph!  There’s so much cool writing here!

7:26 sounds suspiciously familiar, and it should.  Mozart has indicated a repeat of the development and the recap.  Is there anything else in store?  I guess we’ll have to wait.  Besides, this way you get to listen more instead of having me yap at you the whole time.

At 10:20 we get a different ending than the first time through the exposition, meaning we’re in new territory now: a coda.  And after a chain of chords to lead us in, at 10:32 we hear one of the most spectacular examples of coda in the book.  Strong, confident, full of life and joy, we get the credo theme in the cellos.  “I believe in this music,” Mozart is telling us.  At 10:36, the violas take over.  This is a full fledged fugal section, but what makes my head explode is that every other major theme is going on too.  The galant-trill theme, the dotted-scale theme, the first theme from the second group (which is now a strident accompaniment), it’s all there and more while the credo gets passed around as the fugal theme!  The second violins and winds get it at 10:40, then the firsts at 10:42, then the basses, then viola again before we all land together at 10:58.  I can’t even begin to draw attention to all of it but it’s brilliant!  When we finally arrive at the final cadence, I feel like I should leap out of my seat and cheer, which I’m sure was what the audience did at the first performance.

WOOOOOOO!!!!!!!! MOZART!!!!!!!!!!!
WOOOOOOO!!!!!!!! MOZART!!!!!!!!!!!

This music is a perfect synthesis of everything known about sonata form up to that time, and the learned counterpoint of the Baroque period. That it succeeds as a joyful, exhilarating work of art is even more to its credit. As usual with Mozart, everything sounds effortless and flawless, as if the piece just suddenly sprang to life fully formed. This isn’t true, and that is even more to its credit.  Woody Allen once said this symphony proved the existence of God.  I think it’s more impressive to think this symphony proves the existence of a man capable of writing it.  I don’t usually like to requote from Wikipedia, but this passage from Sir George Grove says things far better than I can:

It is for the finale that Mozart has reserved all the resources of his science, and all the power, which no one seems to have possessed to the same degree as himself, of concealing that science, and making it the vehicle for music as pleasing as it is learned.  Nowhere has he achieved more.

Mozart died just three years after the composition of this symphony at the age of 35.  Haydn, a dear friend and colleague, wrote that “posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years.”  That would not quite prove to be true, but even by the time of his death, Mozart’s place in music history was among the most assured of any composer.  A master of all styles, genres, and forms of his time, Mozart succeeded because of the beauty, accessibility, and depth of his work.  He was the epitome of his era, and the next great figure in music history-Beethoven-was to usher in a new chapter in music.

And that, sadly, is the end of our time on Mozart-for now.  Though I’m going linearly through music history at the moment, there will always be time for trips back later.  It’s not as if I’m done listening to Mozart, and I hope you aren’t either.  Studying Mozart’s work gave me a great new respect and love for music that I had heard constantly, but had never appreciated properly.  Mozart may have believed in the power of buffa to reach his audience, but I believe in Mozart.


Happy St. Patrick’s Day from Percy Grainger!

Just a short post today with two works by Percy Grainger to celebrate St. Patty’s. Grainger was an Australian composer with a great passion for folk music, which he collected and then set in wonderful arrangements. He’s an extremely important figure in the band world, where his most well-known works are performed. The two pieces here are “Irish Tune from County Derry,” better known to you as the ballad “Oh Danny Boy,” and “Molly on the Shore,” based on an Irish reel. Two contrasting tunes for the day when everyone is a little bit Irish!