This Week's Show • August 28, 2014

WWI: Remaking Music

In the last show in our series on the Great War, we're listening to the sounds that emerged from its ashes. In Vienna concert halls and New York jazz clubs, from Maurice Ravel’s piano elegies to Igor Stravinsky’s explosive symphonies, we’re coursing through the composers who defined a modern era, reacting to the terrible violence of total warfare through art.
braque

Georges Braque, Violin and Glass (1913), charcoal and oil on canvas.

Guest List

• Virginia Eskinpianist, artist, and lecturer.

Gil Rose, conductor and founder of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

• Loren Schoenberg, artistic director, National Jazz Museum in Harlem; band leader and musicologist.

• Stephan Pennington, assistant professor of music at Tufts University, specializing in jazz, African-American, and queer music studies.

How did composers react to the violence of The First World War? In the last show in our series on the Great War, we’re listening to the sounds that emerged from its ashes.  In Vienna concert halls and New York jazz clubs, from Maurice Ravel’s piano elegies to Igor Stravinsky’s explosive symphonies, we’re coursing through the composers who defined a modern era, reacting to the terrible violence of total warfare through art.

It’s a twenty-year-long journey that begins in Paris in 1914—as bombs began to fall and mass media began to rise—with Ravel’s Le Tombeau, a swirling piano suite dedicated to friends of Ravel who died in the war. We’ll move across the Atlantic and hear George Antheil’s bombastic Ballet Mécanique, which brought the noise of war—a whir of plane propellers, sirens, and an army of player pianos—directly into the concert hall.  Finally, we’re making the great transatlantic jazz connection: how Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, and others pointed a new way out of the darkness.

Reading List

Two essential book-length treatments of that beautiful, movable-feast-in-music moment: Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues and Alfred Appel, Jr.’s Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce.

    • The war took the lives of notable composers across Europe, including Albéric Magnard, Enrique Granados, and George Butterworth. German broadcasting company Deutsche Welle compiled a list of the many injured;
    • “Deceptive Cadence”, the NPR classical music blog, collected musical responses to the war from Ravel, Ives, Holst, and others;
    • New Yorker music critic Alex Ross details the great composers of the era—Stravinsky, Satie, Milhaud, and others—in a chapter in his primer to twentieth-century music, The Rest is Noise (a rich audio guide to that chapter is online);
    • CBC took on popular and classical music during The First World War, in an exceptional episode of Ideas, with Paul Kennedy;
    • Then, if you didn’t catch it last year, WNYC broadcast a special on art in 1913: a “mad, Modernist moment” before the war, with a focus on Stravinsky and Schoenberg;
    • Finally, hear BBC’s “World War One: Cradle of Jazz,” a special on the musical evolution of ragtime into jazz during the war.
    • And we’ve got a playlist of ten pieces that gives the shape of the evolution in music after the war:

Podcast • July 8, 2014

Ruby Braff’s Tribute to Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong came out of the Colored Waifs’ Home in New Orleans and the honky-tonks of the red-light Storyville district. Then and ever after Louis Armstrong’s time and phrasing, his tone and spirit made him the most influential voice in 20th century American music. We’re appreciating the man the world came to know as Satchmo. Thousands of musicians and friends called him Pops. Our guest this hour, the cornet star Ruby Braff, always called him Louis.

Ruby Braff / Clark Terry / John Lewis (1980)

Hoagy Carmichael, the song-writer of “Stardust” and “Georgia,” remembered the first time he heard Louis Armstrong play, in 1921. He dropped his cigarette and gulped his drink. “Why,” he moaned, “why isn’t everybody in the world here to hear that?”

Something so unutterably stirring, he knew, had to be heard by the world. And over the next 50 years indeed it was. Louis Armstrong came out of the Colored Waifs’ Home in New Orleans and the honky-tonks of the red-light Storyville district. In Chicago in the mid-twenties his small-group recordings on the Okeh label with the so-called Hot Fives and Hot Sevens revealed an original jazz genius, full-blown.

Then and ever after Louis Armstrong’s time and phrasing, his tone and spirit made him the most influential voice in 20th century American music. We’re appreciating the man the world came to know as Satchmo. Thousands of musicians and friends called him Pops. Our guest this hour, the cornet star Ruby Braff, always called him Louis.

Podcast • July 7, 2014

Wynton Marsalis on Louis Armstrong

“What we play,” Louis Armstrong said, “is life.” We’re learning that Louis Armstrong was not just the world’s greatest trumpet player, not just the most original and influential voice in jazz, not just the founding father of an American music with new forms and phrasing and feeling all indelibly marked by him; what’s seen and heard in perspective is that he was an actor and artist of range and depth, who shaped classic songs of American life as Dickens and Shakespeare formed classic characters of the English language.

Wynton_Marsalis_2009_09_13

In celebration of July 4th, we’re republishing this interview about Louis Armstrong, who is said to have been born on Independence Day, 1900. The second part of the conversation, with the trumpeter  Ruby Braff, is here.

“What we play,” Louis Armstrong said, “is life.” We’re learning that Louis Armstrong was not just the world’s greatest trumpet player, not just the most original and influential voice in jazz, not just the founding father of an American music with new forms and phrasing and feeling all indelibly marked by him; what’s seen and heard in perspective is that he was an actor and artist of range and depth, who shaped classic songs of American life as Dickens and Shakespeare formed classic characters of the English language.

Novelist Ralph Ellison heard a lyric poet in Louis Armstrong: “man and mask, sophistication and taste hiding behind clowning and crude manners — the American joke,” Ellison said. Our guest Wynton Marsalis hears in Louis Armstrong’s music “an undying testimony to the human condition in the America of his time.”

June 19, 2014

Vijay Iyer: Jazz in the 21st Century

Where is jazz headed in a new century? With the pianist Vijay Iyer as guide, newly tenured as a professor at Harvard, it tends toward the experimental, with drummers, young musicians and slam poets. If it doesn’t always swing, it’s surprising and takes you in new directions. Will jazz be forgotten or just re-shaped by new, emerging artists like Vijay Iyer?
Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music & Beauty, Part I
Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music & Beauty, Part II
Robin Kelley's Transcendental Thelonious Monk
Miles Davis' Kind of Blue

Where is jazz headed in a new century? With the pianist Vijay Iyer as guide, newly tenured as a professor at Harvard, it tends toward the experimental, with drummers, young musicians and slam poets. If it doesn’t always swing, it’s surprising and takes you in new directions. Will jazz be forgotten or just re-shaped by new, emerging artists like Vijay Iyer?

Here’s a short sample of the show. Vijay Iyer brings you inside the head of a jazz improviser and describes the expressive give and take conversation musicians are having with each other. Click on the black bar at the top of the page to listen to the whole show.



As you can see by this infographic from Google, jazz audiences have been shrinking since the 1960s, supplanted by rock mostly, so the question is: will jazz be forgotten or just reshaped by new, emerging artists like Vijay Iyer?

fina copy

 

And here’s the playlist from the show:

Thank you to Michael Lutch for the photos above.

Podcast • June 18, 2014

Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue

In advance of our show with the jazz pianist Vijay Iyer this Thursday, we dug through our old Connection archives and found this wonderful conversation about Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” recorded in 2000. From a humble birth in 1959 as forty-five minutes of improvised music recorded in two sessions, “Kind Of Blue” has become the best-selling classical jazz record of all-time.

blueIn advance of our show with the jazz pianist Vijay Iyer this Thursday, we dug through our old Connection archives and found this wonderful conversation about Miles Davis from 2000.

In the Church of Jazz, Miles Davis’ album “Kind of Blue” is a holy icon. From a humble birth in 1959 as forty-five minutes of improvised music recorded in two sessions, “Kind Of Blue” has become the best-selling classical jazz record of all-time. Rock stars cite it as a clear influence. Aspiring musicians say it got them hooked on jazz. Aficionados insist it explains jazz. In 1959, Miles Davis was already the innovator who introduced Hard Bop and Cool to jazz.

He wanted his sextet for “Kind of Blue” to be a laboratory for a new experimental style he called “modal jazz” which would free the soloist forever from the old rules and structures of music. Add to that a Dream Team of talent separated by two degrees from every great jazz record ever and “Kind of Blue” became an album that almost transcended music.

Guest List

Podcast • April 24, 2014

Norman Lebrecht: Why Not Mahler?

Norman Lebrecht is  the English culture buff and blogger, author of Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World. He’s made a lively career stalking the life inside the man’s music – and he still speaks of Gustav Mahler in the present ...

Norman-Lebrecht.-February-007Norman Lebrecht is  the English culture buff and blogger, author of Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World. He’s made a lively career stalking the life inside the man’s music – and he still speaks of Gustav Mahler in the present tense, as a living force in the culture. I asked him in a conversation over Skype – about Mahler’s 9th Symphony which comes right at that “modern moment” around 1910, when everything changed, including human character. That was a century ago. I was thinking of the F. Scott Fitzgerald line that there are no second acts in American lives. I put it to Norman Lebrecht: is there a second century in Mahler’s life? The not entirely comforting answer turned out to be ‘yes.”

April 24, 2014

What’s So Great About Mahler?

This week we're taking on Gustav Mahler, and his farewell Ninth Symphony. The irresistible, inexhaustible Ninth has inspired the admiration of musicians, writers, and composers for more than a century. Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, is one of Gustav Mahler's great conductors and champions. He's the one taking us inside the music tonight.
Teju Cole: the Consummate Mahlerian
"Rite of Spring" Revival
Norman Lebrecht: Why Not Mahler?
Video: Four Paths to the End

Benjamin Zander is giving us the maestro’s tour around Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, an epic novel without words, the musical match of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, except that Mahler 9 is about Life and Death. It’s the only work of art you can think of in which the author and the audience have the experience of giving up the ghost, together. It stretches the sounds of silence, and every other form and mood – waltzes, marches, fanfares, folk tunes. It’s so full of ideas and one man’s emotions you can forget that he’s repeating himself over and over. It’s the last pinnacle of Vienna’s orchestral history, the first masterpiece of Hollywood music before there were movies. It lives on near the center of the concert repertoire as a heart-rending farewell to life and a foretaste of a century of breakdown and trouble ahead, starting with World War I. This is the symphony that opens with music that’s close to silence, and closes an hour and a half later with a more extended, almost endless hush of strings.

If you need a refresher, watch Philharmonia‘s short guide to the symphony:

And see Ben Zander’s TED talk on bringing classical music to the general public:

 

More Reading

• Alex Ross’s piece on Gustav Mahler in the London Review of Books;

• Lewis Thomas’s full essay, “Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony”;

• “Four Ways to Say Farewell,” a short documentary featuring Leonard Bernstein on the Ninth Symphony;

• and our own take on the video, with four endings to Mahler’s 9th cut together:

From the Archives • April 22, 2014

“Rite of Spring” Revival

On the way to our show with Benjamin Zander on Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 9 this Thursday, we're revisiting a show we did with him nearly fifteen years ago about another orchestral masterpiece, Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."

benzander-sm1

On the way to our show with Benjamin Zander on Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 this Thursday, we’re revisiting a show we did with him nearly fifteen years ago about another orchestral masterpiece, Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”

The most uproarious artistic performance of the 20th century is often marked now as the screaming birth cry of modernism. It came in Paris, at the end of May, 1913.

The fabled Nijinsky choreographed the dance to Igor Stravinsky’s music, recounting in sounds of chaos a pagan “Rite of Spring,” the sacrifice of a young maiden to the sun god; conductor Pierre Monteux had orders to keep the orchestra playing, no matter the reaction-and the reaction was riotous. As was the music, in its own way: “spring seen from the inside,” one writer said, “with its violence, its spasms and its fissions.”

Almost a century later, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” is a familiar old classic – though oddly enough there’s a lively argument yet about how fast it is supposed to be played. Maestro Ben Zander says Stravinsky himself recorded it too slow – because he didn’t think his players could keep up with the right mad tempo.

From the Archives • March 31, 2014

Speaking of Music Again: Oliver Sacks

We've been contemplating the mysteries of music over the past few weeks, since our conversations with Gunther Schuller and Richard Powers. Perhaps the essential question here is what neuroscience is contributing to the delicious mystery of music. Will any discovery in the brain circuitry of music trump Proust's reflections on the experience of sound?

 

proust

We’ve been contemplating the mysteries of music over the past few weeks, since our conversations with Gunther Schuller and Richard Powers. What makes a piece of music “great”? It can’t just be revolutionary rhythms or technical difficulty. From where does that inexplicable effect of music on our emotions come?

The andante had just ended on a phrase filled with a tenderness to which I had entirely surrendered. There followed, before the next movement, a short interval during which the performers laid down their instruments and the audience exchanged impressions. A duke, in order to show that he knew what he was talking about, declared: “It’s a difficult thing to play well.” Other more agreeable people chatted for a moment with me. But what were their words, which like every human and external word left me so indifferent, compared with the heavenly phrase of music with which I had just been communing? … I wondered whether music might not be the unique example of what might have been — if the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas had not intervened — the means of communication between souls. It is like a possibility that has come to nothing; humanity has developed along other lines, those of spoken and written language. But this return to the unanalysed was so intoxicating that, on emerging from that paradise, contact with more or less intelligent people seemed to me of an extraordinary insignificance.

Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past: The Captive, the Moncrieff-Kilmartin translation, page 260 in Volume III of the Vintage edition, 1982.
Oliver Sacks: Musicophile [Elena Seibert photo for Knopf]

Oliver Sacks: Musicophile

Music uniquely among the arts is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly. It needs no mediation. One does not have to know anything about Dido and Aeneas to be moved by her lament for him. [Henry Purcell's opera, from 1689] Everyone who has ever lost someone knows what Dido is expressing. And there is, finally, a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.

Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia, p. 300.

I was always doubly tantalyzed by music: first of all by its patterns, its symmetries, its proportions, its mathematical perfection and abstractness; and and second by the excruciating pleasure which it could produce, and the sweet pain which was beyond words, beyond concepts, beyond expression by anything else…

Oliver Sacks, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Cambridge Forum, November 5, 2007

There’s a case to be made, and Paul Elie makes it elegantly in his Slate review of Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, that of the two Oliver Sackses — the patient and the observant clinical neurologist — the patient, with 70-plus years of soaring, passionate musical memories, is more interesting than the neurologist. In our conversation, there seemed almost to be two Sackses.

Language of the heart, and language of souls. There’s part of me which sort of rebels against words like the heart and the soul and transcendence, and yet, and yet, one can’t avoid them. Interestingly, Williams James never uses the term ‘soul’ in The Principles of Psychology, but he continually used it in conversation and correspondence and of course he uses it, it’s central, in The Varieties of Religious Experience

I had a dream the other night. In dreams one escapes from the shackles of one’s own reason and reductionism. And in my dream I dreamt some Fauré; I didn’t know what it was, though when I woke up I realized it was his Requiem. But this in fact went with a vision of star nurseries, the sort of thing which the Hubble reveals and galaxies being formed. I don’t like words like ‘the beyond’ or ‘eternal’ but maybe one can’t avoid them. I may soften up here, but I’m not sure what to say…. Again, my feet are … I’m narrowly, childishly planted in the clinical. I can’t talk about transcendence, and galazies. I think of my patients, you know, who on the whole do not speak in cosmic terms.

Oliver Sacks, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Cambridge Forum, November 5, 2007

Perhaps the essential question here is what neuroscience (still ragingly conflicted about, for starters, the place of music in our evolutionary history) is contributing to the delicious mystery of music. Will any discovery in the brain circuitry of music trump Proust’s reflections on the experience of sound?

By the Way • March 24, 2014

Gustavo Dudamel: Stardust from El Sistema Heaven

This is how we make music in Gustavo Dudamel’s world: intense focus, intense fun together. For 60 minutes or so, El Sistema-trained teenagers from public schools in Boston, Somerville and nearby worked several times through Bizet’s “Farandole” and the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with the mesmerizing maestro of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Dudamel rehearsing orchestra

“I’m not a great singer,” Gustavo Dudamel told the kids in a teaching aside on Saturday in an El Sistema rehearsal with the Longy School at MIT on Saturday. “But of course I sing in the shower,” he said, working up a conversational lather. Here was the point, in spirit and in so many words: “We sing in the orchestra, same way we sing in the shower. You know how you get to love that big, long line you’re singing — clearer and stronger when you’re into it. We want to take it right to the point where the people in the next apartment start banging on the wall and shout: ‘We get it! Now shut up.’”

This is how we make music in Gustavo Dudamel’s world: intense focus, intense fun together. For 60 minutes or so, El Sistema-trained teenagers from public schools in Boston, Somerville and nearby worked several times through Bizet’s “Farandole” and the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with the mesmerizing maestro of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Not once did the conductor speak of tempo, articulation, or even being in tune. But he kept offering the kids images: the difference between a dancer with long legs and someone marching on short legs, for example. Every coaching point was about adding colors for the listeners, making the musical experience more dynamic in the ensemble, a life lesson closer to home for the young players.

The life lesson was humility in triumph for the surprise star of the rehearsal show, the 9-year-old timpanist Francis Puente from the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton. With his broken left wrist in a cast, Francis was working his kettle drums with just his right hand, ever with style and effect. Maestro Dudamel singled him out for recognition, and Francis smiled his thanks. His mother Maria Puente emailed the next morning: “But you know what was even more admirable with our son? While we were in the car, I asked him how he wanted to celebrate his wonderful achievement — maybe eat out in some nice restaurant, I suggested. He said he wanted to celebrate by just going home and having a quiet evening with us. He said, ‘I like being acknowledged and then being able to go back to the ordinary pace of life, like going into oblivion.’ What a blessing, too, for him to remain unaffected by all the attention he gets.”

Next day at Symphony Hall, under a thundering, tearful standing ovation, Maestro Dudamel took credit with Francis Puente’s taste for oblivion. Dudamel saluted his Los Angeles Philharmonic stars, embracing his horn soloist, his woodwind section, his brilliant cello duo who’d outdone themselves in the full Tchaikovsky 5. But to the end he stood hand in hand with the ranks of his first violins and violas. The most celebrated young conductor in the world today, the man we came to hear, never mounted the podium again after the music stopped. He declined to take a solo bow.