Stanley Kubrick had pretty good taste in music. His use of the opening sequence of Also Sprach Zarathustra is about as legendary as music in film gets, but it wasn’t just the ultra-famous Strauss bit that he employed to great effect. In fact, an equally effective use of the other Strauss’ By the Beautiful Blue Danube waltz can be found in the same movie. Composers as diverse as Ligeti, Bach, Khachaturian, and Liszt can be heard in Kubrick’s films, and his sense of the moment and the mechanism of classical music to help achieve that moment is one of my favorite things about his films. Continue reading
The idea of a piece of music being “derivative” is something I’ve explored a bit in this space previously. Within the sphere of organized sound the possibilities have been virtually exhausted at this point, and if you are composing firmly in the area of tonality, you can remove the “virtually” from that sentence because Tristan and Mahler 7 pretty much won tonality already (I suspect Schoenberg agreed with this………………..).
That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing interesting to be said, though. There are countless works of art that are universally recognized as significant achievements that are extremely derivative. Take the story of the aforementioned Tristan, which predates the awfully similar yet probably more famous tale of Lancelot and Guinevere. Or how about the much-loved-in-these-parts Sibelius 1, which has an incredible Tchaikovsky imprint running throughout it. How about “Brokeback Mountain,” a movie which somehow garnered a reputation for being a world-shattering film even though it’s basically the same “star-crossed lovers who can’t be together because of their families and society and shit” story that’s been around since the same God damns stories that probably inspired Tristan in the first place. It doesn’t make any of those artistic achievements any less deserving of praise. Being able to absorb the essence of a story and repackage it in a manner consistent with your own artistic ideals and beliefs is not as easy as the dismissive term “derivative” implies. Continue reading
Before America was America it was a bunch of English colonies, and there wasn’t anything uniquely American about it to speak of prior to the revolution. Hell, they called the bulk of it New England, which gets points for honesty if not creativity. It had to have been a pretty exciting time for those who were there. 120 years after their first foray into the New World, the British settlers had successfully established a society on land that was definitely never inhabited prior to the Mayflower, I swear (citation needed). These were heady times filled with people working at trades, going to church, banging out children, and definitely doing all of your own manual labor without any outside help from, say, Africa (citation needed).
It was the famous Patriots (a word which has unfortunately lost all meaning today) that we all learned about in school that first began sowing the seeds of American Nationalism in the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence. Ben Franklin, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and the rest of the gang all deserve their fair share of the credit (and blame) for the burgeoning republic that ultimately became a reality, but as much credit as belongs to the political heroes of the day belongs to the cultural heroes as well. Men like Thomas Paine, John Singleton Copley, and Ben Franklin again (seriously, Ben Franklin is the shit) slowly began establishing the elements of a unique cultural heritage that would come to full flower in the 20th century. Continue reading
My love for Richard Strauss is well-documented in these parts. I’m on record somewhere sometime in saying that he composed with the greatest ease of anyone who ever lived – more than even Mozart, the most common answer given when the “who’s the most naturally gifted?” question arises. Strauss has an innate ability to make music sound absolutely bad ass that towers over everyone around him, and while this is not necessarily to suggest that it means he is the greatest composer or the most meaningful or the composer we’ll turn to in our darkest hours for solace or whatever the fuck else we laud Beethoven and Bach for, we’ve gotta take Strauss for who he was, and that’s someone so unimaginably skilled that it literally and truly boggles the mind. Continue reading
Much of the history of the twentieth century is some variation on the idea of exile, occasionally self-imposed. Music’s portion of that history is filled with musicians and composers who fled the Nazis or the Communists for safer environs. But there was a small subset of prominent musicians who remained firmly entrenched in the cultural life of these regimes, and they are often the figures that are the subject of some controversy (the obvious archetype being Wilhelm Furtwangler). Sergei Prokofiev was one such figure. Continue reading
Transcriptions are a funny thing in the world of music. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, and whether or not they do can largely be determined by the simple matter of who or what they’re transcribed for. Bach organ works work pretty well dressed up for full orchestra, which is why important and fancy-time composers like Mahler, Elgar, and Schoenberg have all transcribed Bach (to say nothing of Stokowski’s famous versions as well). Pictures at an Exhibition, a pretty successful piano piece, is one of the all-time amazing orchestral transcriptions, thanks to Ravel being a genius orchestrator. The list goes on and on, from Wagner operas and Beethoven symphonies arranged for the piano to string quartet versions of Led Zeppelin and Metallica. Continue reading
There’s a broadcast of the Pittsburgh Symphony from a few years back in which the program was conducted by the orchestra’s concertmaster, Andres Cardenes. During the broadcast, there was an interview that I’ve probably referenced entirely too many times in which Cardenes described the pleasure of working with an ensemble of the PSO’s caliber because he did not “have to work out the kinks.” This, of course, is incredibly stupid and is perhaps the biggest reason why, for good or bad, many people find the work of contemporary conductors lacking relative to their musical forebearers. Working out the kinks is a great way for a conductor to develop a deeper understanding of a work: I don’t want to put words into old friend Ken Woods’ mouth, but I would hazard a guess that his well-received recordings of the Schumann symphonies with Orchestra of the Swan (along with the symphonies of Hans Gal…hey look, you can buy them on the internet!) likely owe a respectable debt to his time spent working on them with the Oregon East Symphony out in cowboy country. Continue reading