Saturday, December 12, 2015

Refugees, Hope, and a Cello

My friend Webb sent me this photo he came across the other day, taken by Robert Capa in 1939. This is a member of the Barcelona Philharmonic who fled Spain during the Spanish Civil War, The place is Bram, France. The caption of the photo from the news source reads "Former member of the Barcelona Philharmonic at an internment camp for Spanish refugees."
It's an exceptionally powerful photograph. The eyes are vacant. He looks exhausted...hungry....lost. He clutches the one thing that probably gave him hope and comfort.....his cello. I don't know anything about this person, and no other details were provided. I did read that many such refugees were killed in these camps. A year after this, France fell to the Germans who instituted their own horrific treatment of refugees and lost souls who found themselves displaced or labeled as "undesirable."
And what about his cello? What jumped out to me was that it is not in a case. He, and the others in this picture, are wearing heavy coats. Fine instruments don't do well in cold weather, exposed to the elements. Perhaps he was playing it when this picture was taken. What was he playing, I wonder? Perhaps a Bach Cello Suite?
Given the events in our world today, this 76 year old picture seems like it could have been taken yesterday. If he was playing it at the time of the photo, I imagine the sweet, rich sounds only a cello can make gave him, and those around him, a brief sense of peace and comfort.
To that end, let's listen to some beautiful cello music.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Mozart for Infiniti

Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute, premiered on September 30, 1791. And now, 224 years later, the music from his classic opera is being used to market the 2015 Infiniti QX60 SUV. The commercial is called "Be Ready to Winter". Here's a description from

Somewhere in the snowcapped mountains, a gray flag reading "Be Ready to Winter" waves in the wind. A 2015 Infiniti QX60 glides by in slow motion to the overture of Mozart's The Magic Flute. Inside, a family eats popcorn with smiles on their faces. A man in an Infiniti Q70 drives down a ski slope, weaving through the flags, while a woman reverses her Infiniti QX50 through a cone-marked path. Soon, the cars come together against a backdrop of snow and clouds.

Some of you may not like classical music being used to market products of any kind. I disagree completely. Any exposure classical music gets in popular media where it reaches a wide audience, is a good thing. I understand that most people won't know what they are hearing....but that's where I come in....and you. We can learn what it is, and talk about it...and listen to The Magic Flute on Youtube or Spotify etc.....and explore it further.

Here is the commercial:

Thursday, November 12, 2015

10 Questions for Jazz Legend, Pat Metheny

I've been a big fan of Pat Metheny for a long time...since about 1979. He's an exceptional guitarist, songwriter, composer, performer, musician, and innovator. When I moved to Lee's Summit twenty years ago, I thought it was cool that I was in his hometown. I read an interview he gave several years ago in which he talked a little about classical music and I wanted to know more about his relationship with this genre. I reached out to his publicist and requested an interview. Pat is very busy he explained, but if I agreed to email the questions to him, it would be easier for him to answer them. I was so excited to see that he actually took the time to do this interview with me, and I think you will agree he is very thoughtful and genuine. What a class guy. Enjoy!

1. Did you hear much classical music in your home growing up?

I remember my mom bought one of those classical music series of 10 or 12 records that was in the “all the classical music you will ever need” category at the local A and P grocery store. She always had music on at home. I wouldn’t say that my folks were aficionados, but they were very aware of classical music. But at that time I would say that most middle class people were - much more so than now anyway.

2. I read an interview from several years ago where you were asked if you listened to Wagner…to which you replied there was too much modulation going on…you wished he would stay in one place. But you did say you were into the “Russian guys…Stravinsky, Prokofiev, etc…. And the French…Debussy, Ravel and Satie. What classical composers, if any, interest you these days?

I must have meant the Wagner comment as a kind of a joke - actually the more modulations the better for me! While I feel an ongoing attraction to trying to understand all the composers that you listed and many others (Berg, Webern, etc.), I don’t feel like I have ever really had the time to devote to sitting down with scores and spending the months I believe it takes to truly digest that music with the kind of seriousness that I have been compelled to invest in other forms. I keep thinking someday I will. I would love that.

But, I do need to add - as much as I love the musicians on your list there, hands down the most important composer in this general realm for me was J.S. Bach. His music has a place in my life that rivals that of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane in that in addition to loving it as a fan, any time spent under the hood with it also has an instant pragmatic effect on the specifics of what I aspire  to achieve in music myself.

3. Many musicians I speak to tell me they don’t actually listen to music very often. Do you find time to listen to music purely for enjoyment?

Earlier in life, that wasn’t true - I was listening constantly, but as the years have gone on, I probably do fit that description. The main reason is simply time - most hours of the day are set on “output” for me - I have almost no time for “input”. This is especially true since I have had kids. In addition, when I do get a moment away from having to generate ideas, I have a real craving for nothing - no sound or music at all is about my favorite way to spend an hour or two. 

4. To that end, do you still listen to vinyl? 

I know about the recent revival of interest in vinyl, but having lived through it the first time, I am less enthusiastic about it than many I guess. I understand that there is a kind of mystique about it which I attribute to the fact that most people prefer a noise floor to the almost unreal sense of “digital black” that exists in the digital world. The truth is, 16 bit/44.1 CD’s are not great either, let alone MP3s. What is really sad is that most people have never heard digital sound as we have been hearing it in the studio for the past 10 years or so - that being  in the much more advanced 24 bit/96+k audio form. To me, this sound is far better than vinyl in every way - it is essentially identical on output as it is on input. However, unless you buy your records from (highly recommended) and have a home system set up with super hi res D to A converters, you have never really heard what most of these recordings actually sound like. Probably the best aspect of me about vinyl is the size of the artwork and the immersive experience that it offers. 

5. During improvisation, do any classical themes or melodies ever inspire or shape your soloing?

I should probably cut to the chase here. I am not a huge fan of the whole idea of “genre” or styles of music kind of to start with. To me, music is one big universal way of living and being. The musicians who I have admired the most are the ones who have a deep reservoir of knowledge and insight not just about music, but about life in general and are able to illuminate the things that they love in sound. When it is an individual who can do that on the spot, as an improviser, that is usually my favorite kind of musician - but the same instinct to describe the most personal and essential elements of an individuals identity through written material is essentially the same activity happening; albeit at a very different temperature. 

I feel like I am a musician in this broadest sense first. And all the subsets of the way music often gets talked about in terms of the words people use to describe music is basically just a cultural/political discussion that I have found that I am really not that interested in in the same way I am interested in the spirit and sound of music itself.

As far as what is happening under the hood while improvising, I always try to let the music at hand decide what direction I go in in terms of orchestration and scope and sensibility. I am pretty happy to play in a really dense way, or a really sparse way, or really loud or really soft or all over the dynamic range, really inside the chords or outside the chords…it kind of doesn’t matter too much for me - it is whatever seems to sound best for what is happening at that particular moment.

It is the creative impulse itself that attracts me - much more than any arbitrary sense of what makes one set of possibilities different from any other.

6. Over the past year, I have been fascinated to learn about and share in my writing that many famous composers performed in Kansas City: Ravel, Strauss, Prokofiev, Bartok, Rachmaninoff, Respighi, and Honegger, to name a few. I also learned that Django Reinhardt played in KC with the Duke Ellington Band in 1946 at the Pla-Mor at Linwood and Main St. Do you enjoy Django’s music, and have you given any thought to a Django-styled Hot Jazz project of your own?

Of course I love Django. I didn’t know that he had played in Kansas City - that is amazing. To me, like most of the truly great musicians in our general realm, he is literally inimitable. Except for the very early days of my time playing, I have never really spent much time or energy devoted to imitating someone else. To me, the idea is to “do what they did, not what they did”. In other words to define your own voice in sound and spirit. That is the essential point of it all for me.

7. During your time in KC, did you ever play with Claude “Fiddler” Williams? 

There was a record date possibility that came up that I wasn’t able to do at the time - and I really regret that I didn’t. I did get to hang out with him a couple of times though, which was incredible. He was such an amazing person as well as being a fantastic musician.

8. As a musician myself (violinist with the Heritage Philharmonic in Independence, MO) I have been dealing with some of the challenges of getting into my middle years...(I just turned 50). I have tinnitus and my memory is a bit of a challenge these days. How is your hearing? Do you take any special precautions with your hearing when you play? Are you able to concentrate at the same level during a performance as you did when you were younger?

Knocking on wood as I write this - but no, there is no difference on the negative side in any way for me as the years go by. To the contrary, everything is much easier and much more enjoyable for me the longer I have played. I have always considered music to be really hard work; it has never been easy for me. But maybe for that reason, I have a kind of work ethic towards music that necessitates the constant thing for me of having to maintain a certain level through diligent practice and consideration. I never have taken anything for granted and probably never will. So, I am used to having to work hard to maintain a certain level. 

 Regarding hearing, yes, I have been standing a few feet away from various people beating on skins and metal with big wooden sticks for 2 hours a night for almost 45 years now. There are a few dips here and there in the spectrum, but it isn’t major (again, knocking on wood)

9. This is the standard classical music question, so please humor me: You have to live on a desert island and can only take the musical catalogs of 5 classical composers with you to listen to. Who are your 5? (mine are Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Bruckner).

Actually I would only need one….

10. Not to suck up too much, but I am a huge Pat Metheny fan. I am also a runner, and one of my running routes takes me right by Lee’s Summit High School. It’s pretty cool to think that you were once a student there, beginning to shape yourself into such an incredible musician and creative force. I never get tired of listening to It’s For You…or Sueno con Mexico...or Above the Treetops…or Are you Going With Me?……ok, I will stop now…….

That’s great! You must be the only one! No one out there seems to really be that interested in my thing and never really were even way back when. It has always been that way….football and sports seem to be the dominant thing there.

Last question: Do you think growing up here in the KC area had anything to do with your development and success, or were you destined to be who you are today no matter where you would have grown up?

Growing up there was huge for me on a few different fronts. First of all, just the geography and the nature of the land itself around eastern Jackson County is fundamentally a thing for me. I carry that with me everywhere as I travel around the world and it informs everything I do. Lee’s Summit was very different in the years I grew up in, but if you go to the older parts of town, they remain almost unchanged. Whatever that feeling is, it is all the place in the music that I have made.

But maybe more importantly, the scene that existed in Kansas City during that era and the way that that community embraced me as a 14 or 15 year old kid had an enormous effect on me and provided me with a way of learning about this music at a high level that I can’t imagine happening anywhere else. I was unbelievably lucky to be able to be hired by trumpeter Gary Sivils and to have the chance to sit next to and learn from drummer Tommy Ruskin on and off the bandstand. 

Saturday, October 31, 2015


plural noun: ogives
  1. 1.
    a pointed or Gothic arch.
  2. 2.
    a cumulative frequency graph.

I wrote about Erik Satie favorite jazz pianist. I used his 3 Sarabandes as an example of his jazz-like playing which 50 years later was echoed by Theolonius Monk. Satie's chord structures, chord voicings, and harmonic formatting were, and still are, very original. I love the moods and feel that Satie's music creates. If you have ever heard his Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes, you hopefully appreciate the beauty and serenity they invoke. This month, I "discovered" his Ogives, a set of 4 pieces he composed in 1886 and were first published in 1889. I had no idea what an ogive was, nor any idea of the story behind this composition. As you can see from the definition above, an ogive is the pointed part of a Gothic arch. According to Dr. Caroline Potter, in her book Erik Satie: Music, Art and Literature, he spent days sitting in Notre Dame Cathedral contemplating their form for they "symbolized the medieval and esoteric world in which Satie was interested."

Notre Dame is a special place. I have been there many times, and spent time just sitting and looking at it in amazement. I can see how Satie would be transfixed by its power and beauty of form. What's just as amazing is the way this composition creates the image of a cathedral in your mind when you hear it. It took me inside....I could see the ogives myself....I could sense the space around me, the enormous vaulted ceiling, the stained glass.....all of it. Dr. Potter said it perfectly: "In all four Ogives, Satie harmonized the main melodies solely with block chords, which provided a still, solemn, and solid character. Since the entire piece was full of block chords, visually, they resembled building blocks in architecture. In this case, these vertical blocks were reaching for the ceilings of the solemn cathedral with its imposing pointed arches (ogives)."
It's a remarkable piece of music. And in Satie's words himself, published in 1889 in the February 9th edition of Journal du Chat Noir, "The indefatigable Erik-Satie, the sphinx-man, the composer with a head of wood, announces the appearance of a new musical work of which from henceforth he speaks most highly. It is a suite of melodies conceived in the mystic-liturgical genre that the author idolizes, and suggestively titled Les Ogives."

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Great Chords: Beethoven's 6th Symphony

Definition: chord (kord)~noun: a group of (typically three or more) notes sounded together, as a basis of harmony.

"Beethoven's Pastoral is no musical cul-de-sac. It's a radical work, and in it's final movement is music more purely spine-tingling and life-enhancingly joyful than almost anywhere else in his output." - Tom Service.

"But however the case may be, the glory of unchaining the devil in music belongs to Montreverde. That was the beginning of modern music. Later, a new third was superimposed and they dared the chord sol-si-re-fa-la. The inventor is unknown, but Beethoven seems to have been the first to make any considerable use of it. He used the chord is such a way that, in spite of it's current use today, in his works it appears like something new and strange." Camille Saint-Saens.

When I started playing the violin back in 1973, the program I was in also included classes in music theory and music literature. I began to learn the language of music, and its history. Seeing notes on a page is, for me, an almost magical thing. These lines and dots are the code for beautiful sounds. Music theory was not easy, and I found it did not get any easier as I continued to study it in college. But I learned enough to be able to dissect some of the wonderful moments that I came upon while listening to and playing music.
The grouping of notes into a chord has unique power. One chord can establish, change, define or destroy the mood and feel of a song, sonata or symphony. And there are those special chords that stand out in some works that grab you and send chills down your spine. For example, the open chord of the Beatles song "Hard Day's Night" is very unique. At the time it was released in 1964, nothing in rock music sounded anything like it. Its a great song, but it's this one chord, Fadd9, that became famous. Here is a great analysis of that chord and how it was voiced and recorded:
Beethoven wrote his Symphony no. 6, the Pastoral, in 1808. If you are like me, it's hard to say which Beethoven symphony is my favorite because they are all so great. For a long time, I leaned towards his 7th Symphony as my favorite. But now I can't pick any one over the other. But I can pick the exact moment in his 6th Symphony that sends chills down my spine. 38 measures from the end of the fifth movement, "Shepard's song-Allegretto", in the middle of the final climactic fanfare comes a chord that completely sends the music into the stratosphere...a glorious Fmaj/sus9 chord that punches you in the gut and sends chills up your spine and tears into your eyes. The basses and trombones play the root...a low F, while the other instruments voice A, Eb, C and G. The violins, up high, hammer the G, which is the dissonant voice, and the horns hit an A, which is only a half step away from the G the violins are playing and BAM, as Saint-Saens said above, the devil is unchained. It is THE truly singular moment in the symphony. This dissonance quickly resolves when the violins take a step down to F, and we all come back to earth a bit.
Saint-Saens noted further, "In the Sixteenth Century, it was not regarded as admissible at all, for one hears the two notes si and fa simultaneously and this seems intolerable to the ear." (fa refers to the fourth note up from do, and si in French is the ti we know and love, and is the 7th note up from do.) Played together, the si and the do clash dramatically. The tension of dissonance creates drama, tension and heightened expectations. The resolution of the dissonance brings peace and least that's the idea.
Here is a great version of the final movement of Beethoven's Symphony no. 6. The big moment I've just described happens exactly at the 8:00 minute mark. (the climactic phrase starts at 7:44). This is the Chicago Symphony conducted by Sir George Solti. (Sorry about the advertisement before it starts).

Friday, September 25, 2015

George Frideric Handel pimps for AT&T

"God Save the King," is the most famous lyric from George Frideric Handel's Coronation Anthem  Zadok the Priest. Many, if not most of you, have likely heard at least that section of this great work composed in 1727 for the Coronation of King George II. Handel wrote four such anthems for the occasion, the others being The King Shall Rejoice, My Heart is Inditing, and Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened.
The creative minds at BBDO Advertising chose Zadok as the music for their recent commercial for AT&T and Direc TV's All In One Plan. Steve Carell provides the narration. Check it out:

This is such an incredible work. The introductory phrase pulses and builds from a quiet beginning to a joyous outpouring of beauty with the entrance of the chorus, punctuated by the timpani drum.
You can't hear the lyrics in the TV spot, but they are:

Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet anointed Solomon King.
And all the people rejoiced, and said:
God Save the King! Long Live the King!
May the King live for ever.
Amen. Amen. Alleluia.

I don't see any connection between Handel and AT&T's All In On Plan....or Steve Carell. But who cares. The creators could have picked any music they wanted, but they chose a classical work! I'm OK with that. Most people won't know what piece it is, assuming they even realize there is music behind the narration. But I caught it right away and wanted to share it with you. It's a beautiful piece of music. Here is the full version of it, with lyrics included.

Monday, September 21, 2015

This is my "quiet."

At fifty years of age, I must say that I feel very fortunate to enjoy very good health. I never take that for granted either, or at least I try to remind myself not too. One aspect of my health I pay particularly close attention to is my hearing. As a young person, I enjoyed more than my share of music at high volumes via headphones, car speakers, guitar amplifiers, and symphony orchestras. I am a violinist by formal training, yet I never worried about its effect on my ears. I mean, it's not amplified and playing Bach does not generate a high decibel danger least I thought that to be so.
In early January of 2003, I was teaching violin lessons at the Music Arts Institute in Independence, MO. I had a studio there with 5-6 students each week. MAI is in an old elementary school that was transformed into this great program for teaching music. It is a very old building with high ceilings and wood floors. This created a wonderful "echo chamber" that made my violin sound brilliant and alive....and loud. If one of my students did not show for a lesson, I would use that time to practice. I would also stay late to practice, taking advantage of the wonderful acoustics.
The piece I was trying to play at that time was J.S.Bach's Chaconne from his Partita no. 2. Despite the fact that it really was beyond my technical ability, I was determined to play it and I worked on it every chance I got. It is one of the greatest works of art every created, in my humble opinion, and the fact that I could play it at all gave me enormous satisfaction.
One reason the Chaconne is so difficult to play is its use of chords.....lots of them...which on a non-fretted instrument like the violin is very hard for most of us to play. I worked so hard on this piece and spent a lot of time trying to stick the chord passages.
One evening when I stopped practicing and started putting my violin in its case, I noticed a high-pitched ringing in my right ear. It was a very high, super-sonic tone...constant and very noticeable. No matter how I turned my head, or what I did, it stayed there. I didn't notice it as much in the car on the way home because of the noise of the car itself and the music on the radio. But when I put my head on the pillow that night, it was there....loud and clear. I was very frustrated that it had not gone away. And I was also alarmed because it was so annoying. I went to see an ear doctor. My hearing checked out fine, but he told me I had tinnitus. I had heard of tinnitus and hoped I would never have it...but now I did. He recommended that I use earplugs for any sounds louder than a vacuum cleaner. I read everything I could find about it. I learned about many famous people who suffered from tinnitus, including Beethoven, Some of my friends and family have it too. Any loud noises or trauma can cause it, not just music. Firearms are particularly damaging.
In time, I began to learn to live with it. It has became part of my "normal". It has become part of my "quiet".
I wear earplugs when I play the violin now. I wear them when I am in loud places, including restaurants, my son's swim meets, movie theaters and Royal's games. I am mindful of volume when I listen to music. I do everything I can to be smart about it.
And in a weird way, I am forever connected to Bach now....which is certainly not a bad thing either.
Here is a stunning performance of Bach's Chaconne played by Maxim Vengerov.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Fritz Reiner's visit to Kansas City in 1922

I hope you've already figured out that I enjoy writing about legendary conductors and composers who have visited my hometown of Kansas City. By the 1920's, KC was a regular stop for many world renowned artists. Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski are two well known conductors who came through KC. Add to that list, Fritz Reiner.
Fritz Reiner emigrated to the United States in 1922 and started his career here as the Music Director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. By November 3rd of that year, Maestro Reiner was here in Kansas City with the CSO performing at Convention Hall. Here is the short review I found in the November 18, 1922 edition of Musical America.


Kansas City, MO., Nov 11. 1922 - The Cincinnati Symphony gave two concerts in Convention Hall on Nov. 3, including an evening program under the leadership of Fritz Reiner, with Marjorie Squires, contralto, as soloist.
The new conductor of the organization was warmly applauded and impressed by his enthusiasm and intelligent guidance of the orchestra in Henry Hadley's "In Bohemia," Dukas' "Sorcerers Apprentice," the "Mastersingers" Prelude and Goldmark's "Russian Wedding" Symphony. Miss Squires was heard in arias from Tchaikovsky's "Jeanne d' Arc" and Saint-Saens' "Samson et Dalila." Mr. Reiner was the guest of honor at a reception given by the Women's Auxiliary of the Kansas City Conservatory after the concert.

Fritz Reiner went on to have a great career, peaking with his appointment as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1953. He made a series of legendary recordings for RCA Victor in Orchestra Hall that remain standards of recorded music to this day. Perhaps the greatest of these was his 1955 recording of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra....definitely a "must listen" experience.
Here is a short clip of Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony in 1954, performing Bach's Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Liszt and The Stones Took a Different Path

Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the release of their most famous hit, "Satisfaction". The Stones are in their 70's now, and still on tour, performing their hits. Many acts from the 60's and 70's are also still on the road, playing their hits half a century after they were first recorded. Mick and the Stones were just here in KC last month, and from all accounts they were amazing. They have cultivated young fans and their music seems certain to stand the test of time.
I have been reading a book called Paris to Peoria: How European Piano Virtuosos Brought Classical Music to the American Heartland by R. Allen Lott. I am always interested in learning about famous composers or performers who may have visited America. I was curious if Franz Liszt had ever ventured to America. He did not, but others who knew Liszt did, such as Sigismond Thalberg. Thalberg was a renowned piano virtuoso and composer. It was said that he was Liszt's only rival.
Liszt obviously did well for himself despite not touring in America. It was rumored that P.T. Barnum offered Liszt $500,000 to tour America in the 1850's. Others continued to try and lure him to visit America.
Here's a great excerpt from Alan Walker's biography of Liszt, Franz Liszt: The Final Years 1861-1886.
"In the summer of 1885 Liszt received a visit from an American concert agent, who offered him two million marks to come to America the following season. Liszt would share the concert platform with other performers and play only a single item at each concert. The offer amused Liszt, who wrote to the agent: "What, at the age of 74, am I supposed to do with two million marks? Do you expect me to play the Erlkonig three hundred times in America? You can't teach an old dog new tricks!". When a beautiful and amiable American lady told him on one occasion that he could make a "vast fortune" if he came to America, his gallant response was, "Madame, if it were you who required this fortune, I should most certainly come!".
The parallel between Mick Jagger and Franz Liszt hit me: Mick is 72, Liszt was 74 when he was made the offer. Satisfaction is 50 years old, and Mick is still singing it on the road in America. Erlkonig is a poem by Goethe that Franz Schubert composed for voice and piano in 1815. Liszt transcribed it for piano in 1836...49 years before his offer to tour America in 1885.
Here is Erlkonig for Piano:

I don't think Mick needs any more money. His net worth is over 300 million dollars. But he must still enjoy performing, which he still does remarkably well. And singing Satisfaction over and over and over does not seem to phase him. Give the people what they want...the hits. More power to him. Liszt apparently did not feel the need to stay on the road. One big difference of course is Mick flies in a luxury jet and has all the modern comforts of touring in 2015. Liszt faced a much different reality in 1885.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Classics on TV - Edvard Grieg

Occasionally, classical music is used for TV commercials, TV shows, or movies. When I happen to hear a classical piece used in popular media, I will let you know.
Most recently, a commercial for Perrier water grabbed my attention. The music was immediately familiar....I could hum along with it. I knew it was "In the Hall of the Mountain King" by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). This is taken from Grieg's very famous work, Peer Gynt Suite, composed in 1875. Check out the commercial:

This spot was created by the firm Ogilvy & Mather in Paris, France. Lots of CGI, colors, and moving elements for sure. The creative team certainly could have scored new music for this spot, or picked something contemporary. But instead they went with a piece of music that is 140 years old. I think it works well.
It's also possible, though probably not very likely, that Grieg himself could have enjoyed a bottle of Perrier. He toured extensively during his life and traveled to France in 1903 to perform and make a recording of his piano music at a recording studio in Paris. Perrier was first bottled and sold in France in 1898. Maybe, just maybe, he tasted the same drink that 140 years later uses his music to advertise it.
Edvard Grieg

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Is that Simon and Garfunkel, or Maurice Ravel?

In 1968, Simon and Garfunkel released their great album, "Bookends". One of my favorite songs on the album is "Old Friends". Like many of their songs, it uses some cool chords, has wonderful harmonies, and features a wonderful orchestral accompaniment. I'm sure I have listened to this song over 100 times....I like it that much. The main musical statement is based on a perfect fourth interval. "Old" is an A-flat and "Friends" is an E-flat, and the song opens with this theme stated instrumentally 3 times. Cool.
Like many of you, I also love the music of Maurice Ravel. One of the pieces that I only recently discovered was his second opera, "L'Enfante et les sortileges". This is an opera of one act that premiered in 1925. The section of the opera entitled "Il est bon, l'Enfant, il est sage" uses the same interval repeated three times, this time using a B-natural and F-sharp...a perfect fourth. The first time I heard it, I automatically started singing "Old Friends".
Coincidence? Probably. Forty-three years separate the two. Paul Simon (he wrote the music for Simon and Garfunkel) is one of the greatest songwriters of all my opinion at least. Maybe he was familiar with Ravels' operas and "borrowed" this phrase while writing "Old Friends". I would love to ask him that.
Here are both of the works in question. Take a listen. First is "Old Friends".

Next up is Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortileges:

I think this is another great example of the popular and classical musical worlds crossing and blending.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Arthur Honegger in Kansas City; "a Twentieth century Bach" and "at least a better pianist than Ravel."

Kansas City was fortunate to have an active chapter of the Pro-Musica organization in the 1920's. Ravel, Bartok and Prokofiev all toured the US and made a stop to perform in Kansas City, thanks to this group. (hopefully you have read those entries of this blog). Another composer who also came to KC was Arthur Honegger (1892-1955). Honegger was as a member of Les Six, a group of composers comprised of Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Germaine Tailleferre. He studied with both Vincent d'Indy and Charles-Marie Widor. On February 21, 1929, he gave a performance at the Hotel Baltimore. Here is the review from the Kansas City Times published the next day, February 22, 1929.

Arthur Honegger's Music Fascinates Pro Musica at a Concert in the Hotel Baltimore.

It is necessary to put a damper on one's enthusiasm after an application of Arthur Honegger, else one would disgrace oneself with the stock cliches of the profession-"great art," great artist," and so forth. At least it seemed so after the end of the concert given by Honegger, his wife, Andree Vaurabourg-Honegger, the pianist, and the contralto Mlle. Berty Jenny, for Pro Musica. The concert was last night in the Francis I room of the Hotel Baltimore.
The harmonic dodges of the moderns are common property. Anyone can apply minor seconds to the idea in his head, and thus produce a pierce sounding very much like late Bartok, Casella, or whatnot. They may cloak the fact that the second is the base of their harmony under a variety of disguises, but the fact endures.
Wherefore, when a man such as Honegger arrives with the technic of the modern absolutely at his command, and, in addition, with ideas for its use, the occasion is for rejoicing. It is precisely the case of Ravel over and over again, excepting that where Ravel's ideas tend toward the esoteric, Honegger's are lusty and full of what Americans sometimes call "kick." Each man is an intellect; each intellect is individual.
The program included the throe "Songs of the Siren," the "Chanson de Rosard" and four from miscellaneous sources (two being settings of Paul Fort). Mlle. Jenny sang so that every effect reached her audience, so that, in fact, the dullest might see that Honegger was not a great writer of songs. What imagery there was in the songs (excepting the three charming "Songs of the Siren") was too often mere imitation of nature or something else.
But the program included also a toccata and variations for piano written in 1916; the "Sept Pieces Breves," written three years later, and the suite for two pianos completed late last year. There one found the true Honegger, the climax of whose thought Kansas City is dented for want of an orchestra. It was proved that here, at last, is a man with the modern idiom perfectly controlled, who has important ideas and the intellectual balance to execute them. There was to be found amazingly intelligent counterpoint, unorthodox though it may be. The rhythmic element was emphatic, original, deftly maneuvered.
The young French-Swiss might very well be a Twentieth century Bach. His employment of both the old and new resources has in it that feeling of intelligent, irresistible progress toward a viable and worthy goal one finds in the older man. There is no spurious manipulation of threadbare themes, but the creation of new ones of gorgeous beauty. There is no sultry, overemotional feeling, but an earthy tang. It should be added that Honegger is the first modern of this writer's experience able to create a melody on that lofty character possessed by the chorale of the 2-piano suite and sustain its mood for so long without one instant's loss of nobility.
Mme. Honegger is a first rate pianist possessed of all technical requirements, afire with admiration of her husband's music, and so an ideal interpreter of it. Her husband is at least a better pianist than Ravel, and played nice accompaniments.

J. A. S.

Here is one of my favorite pieces by Honegger, his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.

Honegger loved trains. (so too did Dvorak). One of his famous quotes was: "I have always loved locomotives passionately. For me they are living creatures and I love them as others love women or horses."

Sunday, June 28, 2015

My favorite jazz pianist: Erik Satie

I love the piano. I can't play it, but I love both the classical and jazz piano repertoire, and they both form a large part of my music "listening" each week. Erik Satie (1866-1925) is a French composer who is probably best know for his Gymnopedies and Gnosseinnes.....incredible compositions for sure. Most people, even those who do not listen to classical music, have likely heard his works in film, TV or elsewhere. A few years I ago I stumbled onto his Tres Sarabandes. Composed in 1877, they instantly captured me and became my favorite of his works. Take a listen:

This music sounded more like Theolonius Monk to me than anyone else. The movement of the chords, the interesting, dissonant harmony, the varied rhythms, is wonderful and certainly FAR ahead of it's time. Satie was known as an eccentric during his lifetime, and he possessed a sharp wit. He was close friends of both Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. In fact, it was Ravel who helped propel Satie's music to widespread popularity, playing the second of Satie's Sarabandes at a recital himself in 1911. Ravel later said of Satie:

"Another significant influence, somewhat unique, and deriving at least partially from Chabrier, is that of Erik Satie, which has had appreciable effect upon Debussy, myself, and indeed most of the modern French composers. Satie was possessed of an extremely keen intelligence. His was the inventor's mind par excellence. He was a great experimenter . . . these experiments have been of inestimable value. Simply and ingeneously, Satie pointed the way, but as soon as another musician took to the trail he had indicated, Satie would immediately change his own orientation and without hesitation open up still another path to new fields of experimentation. He thus became the inspiration of countless progressive tendencies. . . . Debussy held him in the highest esteem" - April 27, 1928.

It seemed compelling to me that decades before "jazz" was invented, a Frenchman was creating what sounded like jazz to my ear. But I have never talked to anyone about this and it has remained a thought in my own head. But I constantly return to Satie's music, particularly the Sarabandes.
And then just a few days ago, I decided to Google "Monk and Satie" to see if anyone else heard what I heard. To my surprise, others had.

"There was always a playful quality of Monk's music, in a way reminiscent of Erik Satie, but deeply rooted in the blues." - Richard M Rollo-Straight No Chaser, 2008.


"Unlike the tritone (b5) in the blues scale, which, flanked by both a perfect 4th and a perfect 5th (F-Gb-G) produces a sensuous "blue note" sound, the augmented 4th, which actually replaces the normal perfect 4th, has a very bright clean, surprisingly contemporary sound. In Jazz it became very popular around the Bebop era (50+ years after Satie's experimentations) and famously used by the (also rather eccentric) Jazz pianist and composer Theolonius Monk." - Michael Furstner from his website


"Erik Satie, the talented French composer to whom just about everyone ends up applying the adjective 'bizarre, ' was in many ways the Frank Zappa of his time. Or the Theolonius Monk of his time. Or the Mark Twain of his time (although strictly speaking, Mark Twain was, I suppose, of his time)." - Michael Arnowitt, pianist, in "Big Fish," July,1990.

I have some friends who are jazz musicians and we sometimes play the game, "name your top 5 jazz pianists, or top 5 jazz trumpet players"  etc.....Here are my top 5 jazz pianists; 5) Dave Brubeck 4) Art Tatum 3) McCoy Tyner 2) Theolonius Monk 1) Bill Evans. Monk is a close second though. If you asked 10 pianists to play a C major chord, Monk's would sound different than any of them. Much like Satie, he heard music a different way than anyone else. But as it turns out, Satie was also a jazz pianist, so I will put him at the top of my list now (sorry Bill, Theolonius, McCoy, Art, and Dave).

Here is a video of Monk playing "Ruby, My Dear". See if you can detect similarities to the Sarabandes of Satie.

I hope you enjoyed both of these samples. Even the artwork for these albums is strikingly similar too! Both men have goatees and reflective eye wear! 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Thank you Charles Barnett, Organist.

"I cannot find words words to thank you as I wish, but if there was an organ here I could tell you." - Anton Bruckner

We all have moments in life that change things. Forever. One such moment for me occurred on July 4, 1977. We attended the First United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas at the time. I was 12 years old. The church organist was a man named Charles Barnett. In addition to his regular duties, he occasionally gave recitals. After church that day, my parents took me to hear him play. It changed my life forever.
I don't know much about organs, but the one at our church was least it seemed big to me. And it was LOUD. And it made so many different sounds. And Charles not only used his hands to play it, he used his feet! Both of them. The quote from Anton Bruckner, a great organist himself, made sense to me. The organ is capable of great expression.
His recital that afternoon featured 3 pieces that stand tall in the organ repertoire: Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Widor's Toccata from his Fifth Organ Symphony in F, and Variations on America by Charles Ives...perfect for the 4th of July.
Since that afternoon long ago, I have been a huge fan of the organ. A few years later, in March of 1990,  I traveled to Paris with my family and heard the great organ at Notre Dame, as well as a recital given by Vincent Genvrin at Chapelle Des Catechismes de Sainte-Clotilde. (here is that program, which includes the Widor).

Here are links to the 3 pieces above that Charles played at his recital in 1977.

Charles Ives: Variations on America

Charles Marie-Widor: Toccata from the Fifth Organ Symphony in F

J.S. Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D minor

Charles Barnett passed away in 2012. He was also a composer and arranger of music. Here's a great story. On my mother's birthday one year, he wrote a special arrangement of "Happy Birthday" for her and played it in church during the service. He did it in such a way that almost no one had any idea that they were hearing "Happy Birthday". But if you were listening closely, delicately interwoven in an otherwise beautiful sacred organ work, bits and pieces of "Happy Birthday" were dancing beneath the surface. It was perfect.
Thank you Charles Barnett.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Life in America through the eyes of Gottschalk

As a child, I remember sitting in the tiny lobby of the Austin Civic Ballet studio waiting for my sister to finish her ballet class (this was a weekly occurrence). A pianist provided the music for the class, and I heard so much great music every time I was there. I remember hearing the ballet director, Eugene Slavin (rest his soul) yell out to the pianist, "play the Gottschalk". I had never heard of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and I did not know any of his music. The jaunty, lively tunes the pianist proceeded to play were very enjoyable and fun.
Louis Moreau Gottschalk was an American pianist and composer who lived from May 8, 1829 to December 18, 1969. He was a regarded as one of the world's greatest concert pianists, and toured extensively throughout his career. I confess that I until recently, I have not listened to much of his music. He has not been on my musical radar, I guess you could say....until last year when I heard a tribute to him on the radio on May 8th, celebrating his life on the anniversary of his birth. I began reading about him and listening to his music.
Gottschalk kept a journal during the years he toured North and South America during the 1850's and 60's. His observations of people, places, and life during this time in history is fascinating. By his own calculation, he traveled 95,000 miles and gave over 1100 performances between 1862 and 1865 alone. If ever there was a "road warrior",  he certainly was one. He vividly describes the hardships of travel at that time: long delays, cold, heat, drunken soldiers, bad food, bad name it. His journal was published in 1881 by his wife.

Here are some of his memorable observations and reflections:

Chopin: In 1842, his parents sent him to Paris to study music. By 1845 he had built a reputation as a prodigy and word spread around Paris of his talent. He gave a concert that year that was attended by none-other than Frederic Chopin. After the concert, Chopin met Gottschalk and put his hands on his head and said "Give me your hand, my child; I predict that you will become the king of pianists."

Beethoven: Gottschalk had some strong views about Beethoven that I thought were interesting: "Beethoven, taken as a symphonist, is the most inspired among composers and the one who composes best for orchestra. As a composer for the piano he falls below mediocrity.- the least pianist of any intelligence, in our days, writes infinitely better than Beethoven did". Hmmmmm.....I have to say that I don't agree with Mr. Gottschalk at all on this point.

Pianos: "A newspaper attacks me because I play exclusively on Chickering's pianos, and thinks it shocking that I place the maker's name on a plate that decorates the side exposed to public view." "Then he should also know that Thalberg, for the twenty-five years that he has given concerts in Europe, has never played upon Erard's pianos. That Chopin has never laid fingers upon any others than those of Pleyel. That Liszt, in France, in Switzerland, in England, in Italy, in Germany, in Turkey, has always played Erard's to the exclusion of all other pianos. Erard's, whose tone is robust, strong, slightly metallic, is adapted exclusively to the powerful action of Liszt. Pleyel's, less sonorous but poetical and, so to speak, languishing and feminine, corresponds to the elegiac style and frail organization of Chopin. I play Chickering's, not because all others are bad, but because I like their tone, fine and delicate, tender and poetic, because I can obtain, in the modifications of their sound, tints more varied than those of other instruments."

Lincoln: "Concert at Washington.The President of the United States and his lady are to be there. I have reserved seats for them in the front row.The Secretary of State, Mr. Seward, accompanies them. Mrs. Lincoln has a very ordinary countenance. Lincoln is remarkably ugly, but has an intelligent air, and his eyes have a remarkable expression of goodness and mildness."

John Wilkes Booth: "There is no longer any doubt Lincoln is dead. We do not know the details of the horrible outrage-the name only of the assassin is mentioned-Wilkes Booth. I remember having seen him play a year ago at Cleveland. I was struck at the time with the beauty of his features, and at the same time by a sinister expression of his countenance."

News of Lincoln's Assassination: While sailing to San Francisco on a steamer called the Constitution, they met another ship named the Golden City whose captain comes aboard with news: "Richmond is taken. Lee has surrendered. Lincoln has been assassinated."

St. Louis: "Arrived at the steamboat whose saloon is already filled with soldiers, workmen, dirty women, and dirty children packed together. Crowded, suffocated, we manage to force ourselves into the midst of this crowd, but the atmosphere is so charged with the exhalations of those crammed into so small a space the we prefer the risk of being frozen to that of being poisoned. St. Louis is a sad-looking city." "St. Louis is the capital of Missouri, and contains about two hundred thousand inhabitants. It is a dull and tiresome town."

Cleveland: "Nothing can give you an idea of the gloom with which it inspires me. Sunday is always a splenetic day in all Protestant countries, but in Cleveland it is enough to to make you commit suicide."

Toledo: "Nothing interesting. Audience stupid."

Madison, WI: "This town is hardly more than twelve years old, and nevertheless is already remarkable."

Indianapolis: The State of Indiana has a formidable party in favour of the rebellion. One of the soldiers coughed horribly. I offered him a lozenge, which has cured me of a cold from which I was suffering greatly for some days. He accepted it with thanks. At the moment of swallowing it, one of his comrades said to me, distrustfully, "Ah ha! are you not a secessionist! We shall die soon enough without your coming to poison us."

Louisville: "I met at Louisville an inspector of cavalry, an old lieutenant in the Belgian Guards. He has already inspected in three months he has been in Kentucky fifteen new regiments of cavalry. The personnel and equipage he told me are magnificent. Our artillery is also immense, and I do not believe that finer could be found in Europe."

Traveling by train: "I live on the railroad-my home is somewhere between the baggage car and the last car of the train."

Fallen soldiers: "The old man frequently wiped his eyes with his handkerchief. The conductor informed us that he was the father of a young officer killed in the last battle (Pittsburg Landing) whose body was expected, and was about to be received by his family and friends.....I never shall easily forget that poor old father, who, with trembling lips and eyes red with tears, thought that he concealed from us his grief."

One of my favorite compositions by Gottschalk is his Grand Tarantelle for piano. You can hear it here:

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Artist's Profile: John Luther Adams, Composer

"Classical music is singular among major art forms in its bondage to the past"-Alex Ross, The New Yorker, May 13, 2015.

Believe it or it or not....there are composers in our world today, this very moment, writing music. Classical music. Sadly, I know very few of their names, and will hear little of this music. So much remarkable music was written between 1653 (I'll start with the year Corelli was can certainly go back even farther) and 1937 (the year Gershwin died) that one can forever listen to only music of that time frame. Who needs "new" music?
I believe the answer is...WE all need it. I certainly do. And late last year a good friend introduced me to an amazing "new" work by composer John Luther Adams. It is called Become Ocean, and it won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music, and the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

Become Ocean swallows you....whole. It is a work of delicate beauty, power, and sublime emotion. Mr. Adams has been writing music for decades, and I have begun exploring his other works which I have also enjoyed immensely.
I spoke with John Luther Adams on March 26, the same day as Pierre Boulez' 90th birthday. Maybe this was just a coincidence, but it really seemed appropriate as I listened to a great retrospective about Boulez on NPR later that same day. Both Adams and Boulez write music which is both trans-formative and that challenges the listener to hear it with a different frame of reference than we were programmed with. In his book Modern Music and After, author Paul Griffiths states, "the thing is, we're all brought up with this huge education in the harmonic system that governed Western music for so long. And that music has taught us how to listen to that music and it hasn't taught us how to listen to other music".
I feel very fortunate to have been able to talk with John Luther Adams and I am excited to share our conversation with you.

TH Where are you right now? Are you in Alaska?

JLA I’m in New York City

TH I heard in a recent interview you gave that you are “homeless” at the moment…between homes that is. Are you still living in Alaska, and are you still and Alaskan?

JLA I’m still an Alaskan. I’ll always be an Alaskan. Alaska is home in the deepest sense, and always will be. But after 40 years living full-time in Alaska, my wife Cynthia and I decided that we were ready for a new adventure. We both went North in our early 20’s, and now here we are in our 60’s and we decided “let’s do something crazy…let’s have a big adventure again”. We kept my studio, a cabin with five acres in the woods outside of Fairbanks and that place is still for me the navel of the universe. But we sold the house that I designed and built and we are now traveling a great deal. But we are dividing our time between the wilderness of Manhattan and the desert outback of Mexico.

TH So…that sounds wonderful!

JLA It’s pretty exciting.

TH I’m a marathon runner, and there is a place called the Copper Canyon in Mexico that’s talked about in a great book about the Tarahumara Indians and their epic running skills. Is the “outback” you visit in Mexico close to this place?

JLA No, we are farther South and West. But I've read the book and I am a runner also.

TH Born to Run.

JLA Yeah.

TH That book messed me up for a while!

JLA How did it mess you up? Did it start making you run barefoot?

TH That’s what I started to think…maybe I need to give up shoes! Maybe I’m doing this all wrong, you know?

JLA I’m a little skeptical, but I do know from hard experience that the right shoes are essential. I had a bout with Plantar Fasciitis a few years ago that was brought on by the wrong pair of shoes. And then alleviated by the right pair of shoes. And so I think you've definitely got some points about footwear. And when we are in Mexico, occasionally I am able to run on the beach without shoes and it’s wonderful!

TH Nice! My running friends are going to be excited. They’re not necessarily classical music fans…I don’t even know if they read my blog…but they’ll think it’s cool that a famous person that I got to speak with is also a runner. That’s cool!

JLA I’m not a runner the way you are…I’m not a marathoner…but as a kid I played a lot of different sports, but my best was track ‘n field. I was a jumper...a long jumper and a hurdler. But I was also a good sprinter. I was good enough to place in the dashes and be on the relay team. So I've always been a runner in some way. It’s like the highlight of my day whether I’m in New York, Alaska or Mexico, my afternoon run is very special for me.

TH I did read something about you…that even in the cold months in Alaska, you always tried to get outside every day for some kind of exercise?

JLA I got outside everyday…for years it was all walks. I started running again in my fifties. I've been really lucky because I didn't run all those years, and knock on wood, my joints…my knees and hips and everything…seem to be good because they don’t have a lot of miles on them. So I’m enjoying it for as long as I can and I intend to keep on running.

TH Good for you. Me too. I kind of came to it late. I just turned 50 and I've put a lot of miles in, but most relatively recently so I hope that means I can keep going well into the future too.

JLA Good for you!

TH OK, so on to music now. A good friend of mine is a famous sailor. His name is Webb Chiles and he has completed 5 circumnavigations of earth, 2 of them solo, and is currently on his 6th (also a solo). He actually lives with his wife Carol in the Chicago area when he is not sailing, and I had dinner with him over the Holidays while he was home between legs of his voyage. After dinner we sat down to listen to music and have a scotch (Laphroaig). We exchange music suggestions frequently and share a love of classical music in particular. So we sat down and he said he had a new piece of music that he thought I might like. It was called Become Ocean by….YOU of course. So we listened to it and I immediately loved it, and I knew I wanted to talk to you…to learn about how this amazing work came to be. How it came to life. Were you involved in the recording process and production?

JLA It was recorded in Seattle by the Seattle Symphony with conductor Ludovic Morlot. They commissioned the piece and premiered it and gave the first 5 performances. They did it 3 times in Seattle, once in Portland, OR, and once in New York City at Carnegie Hall. I was, as I always am, actively involved in the mixing of the recording. I was not there for the recording sessions. In fact I wasn't there for the premiere. I had a medical emergency. We were home in Alaska a few days before we were supposed to go to Seattle for rehearsals and for the first performances of the piece. I woke up one morning and said to my wife…"something is really wrong. I think I have a detached retina”.

TH Oh no….

JLA And in fact I had a detached retina. So instead of flying to Seattle we flew through Seattle and came back to New York. The day Become Ocean premiered I was on an operating table here in New York having my eye repaired. But it’s a happy story in that I was not necessary…the piece…the orchestra….they did not need me at all. It doesn't often happen, but I was recovering from my surgery a week later…face down. After you have this retinal surgery you have to keep your head down. So you’re sleeping on your stomach, or trying….it’s awful. So I’m lying there, sleep deprived and miserable… worried about my eyesight, and here came the delivery guy with a CD from Seattle, and I put it on and it was a recording of the second performance I think. And I was just so happy because it sounded exactly as I imagined it would. That doesn't always happen. There was not a note that I would change in the composition and there was nothing about the performance that I would change. It was really a wonderful experience. And it was comforting to know that I was completely unnecessary.

TH So many composers are tormented by the need to revise and change their compositions over and over.

JLA I’m right there with them. I’m a chronic reviser. But for some reason, this piece just came out right from the get go.

TH So they recorded several performances…and did they then edit the best of each together into one final version?

JLA No, they actually did a recording session several months later. They were very smart. They lived with the piece for a while…they let me live with the piece for a while…and then they recorded it. I could not get to the sessions, but I knew I was in good hands. And so then I was intimately involved in the mixing of the recording, which is something that is very important to me. I was born in 1953 and really came of age…my generation was probably the grow up with virtually the whole world of music available to us through us through recordings. It’s something we all take for granted now, but it was a new thing and it was very exciting and an essential part of my musical education. So I’ve always been deeply committed to making recordings. And in fact recording sessions and mixing sessions are among my favorite parts of my job. I like recording sessions much better than I like performances. Maybe it’s because I’m working, whereas in a performance I’m just sitting on my hands worrying. In making a recording you’re taking a piece that’s usually conceived for live performance and you’re translating it into a different medium. It’s not just a matter of making a document to me; it’s a matter of making a new work in some sense. The mix is very important to me. When we mixed the recording, I had only heard the piece live once. I had not been in a rehearsal. The Seattle Symphony came to New York and they played it in a concert at Carnegie Hall and I was present at the concert. And it was one of the great nights of my life. It was wonderful. BUT, it also was a little bit incomplete. Carnegie Hall is so big, and so warm and so round in its sound that I missed…. at least where I was sitting on the main orchestra floor… I missed a good deal of the detail of the piece. I missed the harps…there are 4 in the recording…and the percussion, piano, and celesta. ..I missed, if you will, the “foam on the waves”….the little detail of all those arpeggios and those beautiful rolling figures. They got “mellowed out” by Carnegie Hall. So when we got in the studio for mixing the piece, I was delighted with the tracks we had. They did a terrific job not only performing it, but also recording it. And then I was really able to focus in on making a recording that sparkles and works as a solitary listening experience as well as a social listening experience.

TH What label released it?

JLA It’s on Cantaloupe Music.

TH How did they mic this recording? Was it a traditional classical set up with a few well-placed mics for the whole orchestra, or did it involve more than that?

JLA It was done as a traditional classical recording with a couple of stereo pairs and then we used spot mics on individual instruments as well. We were able to really sculpt a mix that has the feeling of being in a real concert hall space but has a sort of hyper reality to it…a little more presence than just a straight documentary recording.

TH It’s perfect. With headphones it was incredible. The balance, voicings, and detail are stunning. I feel like I am on…or in…the ocean.

JLA Great….as you know it was nominated for Grammy's in 3 categories and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition this February.

TH I have to be honest with you….and I shared this with your wife in an email before we talked…and then I decided I had to share this with you…I didn't know until December (2014) that there was a composer named John Luther Adams! So while trying to learn more about you and your other compositions, I stumbled on the fact there is another contemporary composer named John Adams, whose work City Noir was recorded last year by the St. Louis Symphony with David Robertson, and they also won a Grammy this year. So 2 different John Adams’ were part of the Grammy's this year. How come I had never heard of either of you (laughing)??? Are the two of you friends?

JLA I've known John since 1976 when we were both just “John Adams”. Our paths cross from time to time. We’ll share a conversation or an email now and again. We’re friends and colleagues. Although, as with so many friends and colleagues, we don’t see one another very often.

TH Nature and the environment are central themes in your work. And I’m aware of many other composers from Ravel to Mahler to Debussy who also drew inspiration from nature. Do you feel any particular kinship to these other composers?

JLA There are so many aspects to that question and topic. I don’t feel so much kinship with Mahler. I feel a deep kinship with Debussy. I’m an American composer, and I feel that I’m part of a uniquely American lineage that goes back to say….Charles Ives. I think Ives is really the great-granddaddy of us all. And other composers like Ruth Crawford, Henry Cowell, Edgar Varese right up through Lou Harrison, John Cage, Morton Feldman and Pauline Oliveros… these are my people. I feel much more of a personal and direct connection with these composers whose music sounds nothing like mine, but with whom I share a certain attitude of independence and exploration. We’re sometimes called experimentalists…I don’t know what to call it…I just want to say without in any way rejecting the great European tradition that I feel more directly related to this American tradition. Another aspect to your question has to do with the influence of the natural world…of what we call nature…and the expression of that influence in our sounding music. I would say that when I was younger I painted landscapes in music. I made, in some way, “programmatic pieces”. But I haven’t been interested in that for a long time. So Become Ocean, although it has deep connections with the natural world… I don’t think it really depicts nature. There’s a famous episode where someone accosted Jackson Pollock and asked him, “Mr. Pollock, don’t you ever feel the need to paint from nature?” And Pollock snarled back, “I am nature”.  And you know…we are all nature. I get what Pollock was saying and that’s kind of an aspiration of my own for the music to be a place…to be a landscape of its own that has something like the wholeness and the complexity of a real place. So I guess I’m saying I believe in the power of music to be itself. ..and in fact I would say if it’s not itself…if music doesn't stand on its own as music, then nothing else is going to save it. Picturesque titles, programmatic notes, extra musical associations…..they mean nothing if the music doesn't move you or touch you or ravish you or terrify you or sock you in the belly…..MOVE you in some very direct way. Ultimately, there’s a third dimension to this that I’d interject. Everything that we human animals do…everything that we are…everything that we think and everything that we imagine that we create ……ultimately derives from this miraculous, complex, intricately interconnected world that we inhabit. We are inseparable from nature. So how could we do anything but make music from nature.

TH That’s a great perspective! Do you like sacred music? Are you a person of a particular faith? Have you written any sacred music? Do you consider what you've already written sacred? Weigh in on that if you will.

JLA I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. I've never been a practitioner of any established faith. As a young man searching for meaning, I investigated…dabbled in various things here and there. Ultimately, my faith is in the earth. It’s in what the Yupik people of Alaska call the “spirit in all things”. Which, of course, is an idea that is present in virtually all of the world’s religions in one way or another. I understand that somebody might say “you’re an animist”. Well…..maybe. I think I’m an animist in the way that a particle physicist is an animist. That is….we understand now not only through religion or art, but we also understand through science that the universe is more like music than like matter. That everything is vibration. That everything is in constant flux. And everything is inextricably inter-connected and this is true at the level of the cosmos and its true certainly as essential elements as the science of ecology. The Butterfly Effect. So I think that applies not just to what we regard as the physical aspects of the world, but also as what we might refer to as the spiritual dimension of existence. I don’t think there’s much difference. I think they’re the same thing. So the question of sacred and profane?? Music is my spiritual practice. In a sense…music and the earth…are my faith and my religion. And I would say that much, if not most of what I do is, in a sense “sacred music”. Some of it more overtly than others. There’s a piece with sacred in the title…Strange and Sacred Noise. It’s a concert length piece for percussion quartet. It’s visceral. It’s violent. It’s elemental. And yet at the same time it aspires to a certain kind of trans-personal experience that we might call the sacred. I’ve recently written a concert-length choral work called Canticles of the Holy Wind and there is no text…just the sounds of the wind and the songs of the birds…my transliterations of those languages that I don’t speak and won’t ever understand. We love to chop things up in Western culture. We love to categorize and separate our senses into 5 different categories. And really, they are all part of the same whole. I was at the messenger feast in Barrow. It’s a traditional ceremony of the Inupiaq people of Arctic Alaska. It goes on for 3 days in a series of dances and ceremonies for lack of a better word, culminating in this very powerful dance called the “Box Drum Dance” which involves wooden drums suspended from the ceiling…and elaborate masks and headdresses and songs and dances. It’s an unbelievable thing to experience. But I was at the messenger feast (Kivgiq it’s called in the Inupiaq). This ancient tradition and very power cultural and spiritual event happens, of course, in the school gymnasium because there is no big church. So already we’re having what we would think of as a sacred event in a secular space. And so you've got this serious business happening…it’s the center of attention…and then a little grand-child might run though the space and his grand-dad, who might be part of the ceremony, will reach down and pick up the child to wipe his nose. Then he’ll set him down and return to the ceremony. There’s this easy back and forth between the sacred and the secular. I think it’s a really healthy way to view things and “to be”….to realize that every moment and everything we do is sacred, and everything is very much grounded in the earth…and in the moment.

TH After hearing Become Ocean, I began exploring some of your other works such as The Light that Fills the World, Songbirdsongs, Dark Waves, Four Thousand Holes….I’m hooked!

JLA Outstanding!

TH Do you think about what key to write in when you are composing? Are there certain keys that provide a better voice for your music perhaps?

JLA No…and really I don’t think of keys at all. My music sometimes passes through harmonic territories that can be described in traditional tonal terms. But that’s just a passing moment…an incidental thing. For me, I work in non-tempered tunings…extended tunings that don’t exist on the piano keyboard. I work in percussion works that have no tuning whatsoever…they have complex a-periodic sounds…noise rather than tone. And then I work a lot in the familiar 12-tone equal temperament of Western musical tradition. But I don’t think about keys…and I work freely with all these different tonal resources and all these different sounds. And for me, I think of it more like working with different colors or palettes. So different pieces require different colors.

TH I remember hearing how Pete Townshend was working on the project that that eventually resulted in classics like Won’t Get Fooled Again and Baba O’Reilly…he had the idea that every note vibrates a certain way and each one of us is sensitive to this in our own way, and react individually to these vibrations accordingly. You had to score Become Ocean for the Seattle Symphony and I wondered if certain notes carry a thought or emotion differently than others in your “palette” so to speak.

JLA I’m sure that’s true. I have no doubt that that’s true and it might be true a different way for different people. But I don’t think about emotions when I work. I certainly don’t think about a narrative. And as I get older, and the music takes me continually into these strange and beautiful new places, I’m often less interested in telling you or even suggesting what you the listener should think or feel. Or hear in a piece. In fact, nothing makes me happier than when you think or hear or feel or experience something that I, the composer,  didn't anticipate or didn't understand was present…was implicit in the music. That is very exciting to me. Look, the music always knows more than I do. And the reason I do this…the reason we dedicate ourselves to music and the reason music is so essential to our lives is that it’s bigger than we are. It’s deeper….it’s like the ocean. There’s not just one current or one stream. There’s this ocean of possibility. I revel in that. I’m not trying to say anything. I’m just listening and trying to hear something I haven’t heard before, and then my job is to try and make that audible so you can hear it too. What it means is up to you.

TH My reaction to your music has been deeply emotional. When I heard The Farthest Place, as well as Become Ocean, I found myself reacting on such an emotional level. I wasn't thinking about anything in particular. I was just responding emotionally. So from this listener’s perspective, I find your music profoundly emotional.

JLA That’s great…that’s fantastic. That makes me very, very happy. But I guess my point is if I set out to do that, I wouldn't be as successful (laughs). I think it’s more powerful because it’s not as though I know something that I’m trying to tell you. I’m just trying to discover this.

TH And that’s the beauty of music whether it’s John Luther Adams, or Charles Ives, or JS Bach….the way we each perceive it versus what Adams, Ives or Bach thought of when they were writing it…they should be distinctly separate. It should not be a didactic experience. It wouldn't work.

JLA Well, speaking of Bach. Years ago, over dinner somewhere…some gathering with idle dinner chatter…there were two composers at the table and a bunch of other folks, and somebody asked the desert island question…you know, the question if you could only have one composer, who would it be?

TH That question was on my list too!

JLA And now, I don’t know what my answer would be, but then, I surprised everyone at the table including myself …the other composer said Mozart, and I don’t get Mozart at all…I never have. And that’s my problem, not Mozart’s. Mozart just doesn't do it for me. But JS Bach never fails. Just something about Bach that I can get lost in and it seems to be inexhaustible. You can inhabit that music.

TH Quick question, which Glenn Gould recording of the Bach Goldberg Variations is your favorite...the 1955 or the 1981?

JLA I love them both, and I've actually vacillated, and I haven’t listened to them for a while so I’m not sure. I was so familiar with the 1955, so it took me a while to get used to the one from the ‘80s. But in recent years I've liked the late one.

TH Me too. But what great bookends to a fabulous career.

JLA Yes, what a gift.

TH I read you like to drink whiskey? Any favorite brand?

JLA No, it’s like music…my favorite whiskey is the whiskey I haven’t tasted yet.

TH Lastly, I did read that you are a big baseball fan. Did you watch my Royals in the World Series last October?

JLA That’s what speed do!! We were rooting so hard for those guys. We were completely charmed by the Royals. They won our hearts. Here they are, an American League team playing classic National League baseball.

TH I agree with you…even growing up with the Royals, I hated the DH and I would scrap it in a heartbeat if I was the Commissioner.

JLA I’m afraid we are going the other direction. We’re going to get it in the National League at some point.

TH So I understand you’re a Mets fan?

JLA Yeah, I am. And I think this is going to be a good year to be a Mets fan. People are drinking the Kool-Aid. Anything can happen as you guys learned last year. But I will be very happy if the Mets have a winning season, which the Mets haven’t had in 7 years. They've got some very exciting young pitchers as you know, and I’m all about pitching. When I played baseball as a kid I played every position except pitcher and catcher. For me it was all about the dramatic catch, the triple, the stolen base…..But now as an older baseball fan it’s all about that 60 feet 6 inches….the highly compressed space between the pitcher and catcher. I’m all about pitching now.

TH Me too. I’d rather watch a well-pitched game than a 10-8 slug fest.

JLA  Absolutely.

TH Have you been to Kansas City before?

JLA I have not!

TH We have so much great stuff going on. Baseball, barbecue, and a world class symphony in a world class performing arts center.

JLA I would love it!

TH Thank you so much for your time. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

JLA It was a pleasure.

Here is a link to John Luther Adams' Website: