Bach and Casals: A chance meeting in Barcelona

I finally finished reading Eric Siblin’s brilliant book The Cello Suites the other day. What a fantastic read! For all lovers of classical music – and even all potential lovers of classical music (by which I mean everyone else) – this really is a book not to be missed. The premise is simple: Eric Siblin, a reviewer of pop music, falls in love with the Bach Cello Suites upon hearing them live in performance one day and is compelled to trace their story. But what follows is a seamlessly-woven narrative of three stories, not just one.

First, there is Bach’s own story – his life, his family, his career, his manuscripts, his employers and patrons, his colleagues. For a composer that actually didn’t leave behind a great deal in the way of solid documentary evidence of his life and work, Siblin has done the most amazing job of researching Johann Sebastian Bach (not to mention all the other Bachs, of which there were dozens!) and bringing him to life for twenty-first century reader. Then there is the famous Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, without whom the world may never have known about these six obscure pieces for solo cello. Casals’ story lies against the backdrop of political turmoil of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, and Casals himself spent much of his life in exile from his native Spain. Eric Siblin writes a poignant and moving exploration of Casals’ musical, political and personal life. And then there is Eric’s own story – immersing himself in the music of Bach, interviewing dozens of cellists, listening to every available recording of the suites, visiting places that Bach and Casals would have known well in their lifetimes, and even beginning to learn the cello himself. It’s a story that borders on obsession, but we have much to be thankful for his infatuation because he’s given us a brilliant book from it.

At the end of March I was fortunate enough to experience all six suites in concert in St John’s Cathedral by Brisbane cellist Patrick Murphy. Such a great evening, with refreshments served between the second and third suites (and again between the fourth and fifth) to break up the performance a bit. I was only part way through the book at the time, but the fact that I’ve been reading it slowly over the last couple of months has meant that I’ve delighted in dragging out my exploration of Bach, Casals and the music. I didn’t even want to come to the end of the book, I was enjoying it that much.

Since this is a blog about music and stories, I thought I’d share one of the early passages from the book in which Siblin paints a picture of the day the thirteen year old Pablo discovers a published copy of the Cello Suites (which at the time would have been little-known – those who knew of them were mostly academics who considered them purely technical exercises). It’s an account he pieced together from Casals’ own recollections, from wandering Barcelona, and from various other bits of research, but he writes like he was right there beside the young cellist. I feel like I can hear this story in the way Casals plays the first prelude – that, and it transports me right back to Barcelona. (Photos are my own from about February 2008.)

* * * * *

It was a leisurely stroll through the streets of Barcelona, past the heroic monuments and flower stalls, the Gothic arches and fashionable cafes, that rescued the world’s greatest cello music from obscurity. To imagine the scene, which took place one afternoon sometime in 1890, we have to picture Pablo and his father walking along the Ramblas, the city’s most celebrated avenue, shaded by plane trees, lined with neoclassical mansions, and teeming with markets selling fresh flowers, local produce, and birds in cages.

At thirteen, Pablo was small for his age, shorter even than the cello he was carrying, with close-cropped black hair, searching blue eyes, and a serious expression out of synch with his youth. His father, visiting from Vendrell, had a few hours to spend with the young cellist who was making a name for himself in the big city – they called him el nen, “the kid”. Pablo, who preferred his Catalan name of Pau, was working seven nights a week in a trio at the Cafe Tost, which was well known for its coffee and thick hot chocolate beverages. Earlier in the day Carlos had bought Pablo his first adult-sized cello, and the two had their eyes open for sheet music the boy could use for his cafe concerts.

They strolled in the vicinity of the Columbus monument, towering sixty-two metres above the eight bronze lions at its base. It was a fiercely proud Columbus, the world’s highest, clutching a parchment in one hand and pointing to the Mediterranean with the other, as if suggesting future discoveries. At some point Pablo and his father would have left the singing birds of the Ramblas and entered the tangle of narrow, twisting streets near the waterfront. Ironwork balconies were draped with laundry and flowers. The occasional stone gargoyle screamed mutely. There was a faint smell of the sea.

Father and son made their way through the cramped streets to one second-hand store after another, rummaging for cello music. On Carrer Ample they went into another music shop. As they rustled through the musty bundles of sheet music, some Beethoven cello sonatas were located. But what’s this? A tobacco-coloured cover page inscribed with fanciful black lettering: Six Sonatas or Suites for Solo Violoncello by Johann Sebastian Bach. Was this what it appeared to be? The immortal Bach composed music for cello alone?

Pesetas were paid for the sheet music. Pablo could not unglue his eyes from the pages, beginning with the first movement, the prelude to everything. He glided home through the twisting streets to the rhythm of a music that was taking shape in his imagination, the sensual mathematics of the score filling him from footsteps to fingertips.

He would have heard the first prelude as an opening statement, improvisatory, like a leisurely stroll that ends serendipitously. The ground is prepared for all that follows: structure, character, narrative. The comfortable pulse undulates into more intricate passages. The baritone soliloquy grows in intensity, solidifying, gathering strength, ascending a great height where a vast panorama reveals itself. Pause for one beat. The stakes are raised. Struggle is pressed into service. In time, a satisfying denouement.

Pablo looked again at the score. He would practice it every day for twelve years before mustering the courage to play the suites in public.

* * * * *

Pages 37-39 of The Cello Suites by Eric Siblin. Published (in Australia) by Allen & Unwin, 2009.

Posted in Literature, Orchestras & Instrumental Music, Travel | 1 Comment

Comfort Food

Just a short post today – I know I’ve been a little quiet lately. Well, quiet on here, but very busy elsewhere. Time flies when you’re learning about rocks and singing Bach. (Not at the same time.) I had the most wonderful Bach-filled day yesterday: a six hour rehearsal for a concert I have coming up in a fortnight, followed by an incredible once-in-a-decade performance of the complete Bach Cello Suites which I went to at St John’s. I suspect I will write about the cello suites in a future post, but today I just want to share a simple but beautiful piece that it turns out has been lurking in my iTunes for several years. I probably listened to the whole CD when I first acquired it, but it was only recently that I was struck by the magic of this particular track.

I’ve written a couple of times here and here about the enjoyment that can be found in purposefully setting out to discover new music. I think it’s a really valuable and important thing to do (especially if you are a musician), because being exposed to the unfamiliar is how we broaden our tastes and influences, which in turn helps us grow. But I think I also need to acknowledge the flip side of that – sometimes what you really want is the comfortingly familiar, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that either. I was reminded a couple of weeks ago when I hit a short bout of illness that there are times when the body, mind and soul just crave simplicity, not challenge. I had the best of intentions for my next post (i.e. this one) to be Composer Date #2, but try as I might I couldn’t summon the energy or the right frame of mind for choosing a composer and exploring unknown musical territory. During the few days where I did nothing much except sleep, my body asked for comfort food, and so did my mind.

So I guess that’s how I would describe this piece, which is an arrangement of a traditional American song that I already knew well. There’s something rich and wholesome about this music, and there’s an innocence to it as well. It’s not pretentious and doesn’t try to be something it’s not – it just is. But it’s also not so simple that it has no substance; there are some beautiful chord progressions in there (1:50-2:00 is yummy), and I love the unassuming but nonetheless integral piano accompaniment. The warmth of that choral tone also seems to have divine healing properties – it certainly made me feel better, anyway, listening to it several times a day. The recording is from a group conducted by Tony Funk, an inspiring musician who I’ve worked with several times and have truckloads of respect for.

So this is my “comfort food” – my chicken soup, my hot buttered crumpets with honey, my jelly and custard with icecream. If you’re in need of some comfort as well, then I’d start right here. Do your soul a three minute favour.

What’s your musical “comfort food”? Please feel free to leave a comment and share something.

Oh, and I promise I’ll return to dating composers… soon…

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A musical remembrance for Japan

I think it says a lot about us as human beings that we instinctively turn to music during times of crisis and sadness. Whether personal, communal, national or global crises, once the numbing sensation of shock wears off, we are so often driven to music – driven by an unspoken knowledge that music is the great healer and will do for our grief what no other medium can achieve in quite the same way. This is not a new revelation, of course – I’m just telling you something that I suspect you already figured out a long time ago. Maybe when you went through a break up, or had to choose music for the funeral of a loved one. There’s a sense that the music that accompanies you through this part of your life matters in a way that it didn’t before. Layer upon layer of meaning is entrenched in music that has the privilege of seeing us through a difficult time.

I found myself musing today about the influence our global interconnectedness has on collective grieving in the twenty-first century.  How the outpouring of a grief response from a planet with several billion people on it, a great many of them sharing the same sadness at the same time for the same reason, has only been possible in the last ten years or so. Less, even. And how, thanks to the wonders of technology, the same music can be a channel for processing that sadness among people who have never met and will never meet. Is it just me who finds this extraordinary?

I’ve noticed a few tributes to Japan popping up today in various forms, marking the one year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, which triggered a tsunami that swept across large parts of coastal Japan with astonishing devastation. The music I’m sharing today is not actually about Japan. But it could be. And one of the reasons why I find it so moving and poignant is because it seems to be one of those songs with the power to bring people together through a shared experience. The song, called Requiem, was originally written in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami which took the lives of more than a quarter of a million people on Boxing Day 2004 and in the weeks following.

I first heard the piece last year sometime – I discovered the choral arrangement below first – and only later found out that it was a setting of a song by popular/folk/country singer Eliza Gilkyson. (Who I actually saw perform live in Melbourne a few years ago, but I didn’t know about this song then.) And not long ago I found a radio interview with Eliza where she talks about her impetus for writing it:

“We were all just glued to the television, all of us just watching these horrific events unfold. And almost immediately there was a benefit where a lot of major stars did a fundraiser on television. And I remember I watched the fundraiser, and I was touched by people stepping forth and asking for help and donations. But at the time I was struck by the actual music they were playing. I felt it was so disconnected to the event and somehow I was inspired to write something that would connect in a more visceral way, to create a vehicle for grieving for victims of the tsunami.”

After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf of Mexico in September 2005 she found herself thinking more about Requiem again.

“I think people here in this country because of what’s happened in New Orleans have been wanting to find songs that address what this country’s going through right now. I thought that once again there was this need to grieve, and I was grateful that I had a piece of music that could offer that prayer and that option for consolation of some sort, some sort of image of compassion. I was glad I had a song that could address it, it’s been a sad time for everyone.”

Clearly, this was a song that people responded to. The choral arrangement by Craig Heller Johnson, who conducts Conspirare, has pretty much gone viral itself and has been sung all around the world, even by people for whom the underlying religious sentiment of the text is not personally significant. (Oh, and for the interested folk among you there’s also a short clip where Eliza talks about her use of Mary as the archetype of compassion, despite not being particularly religious herself.)

A year ago, when the Japan earthquake and tsunami hit, it resurfaced again in online tributes, including a version on YouTube with a backdrop of photos of the devastated areas. I’ll admit it – I find it hard not to cry when I watch it, and it’s a moment of truly cathartic release when I do. To know that I’m just one of thousands of people who probably have this reaction too is somewhat comforting. Living in the world today means that we’re never really disconnected from global crises, and global expressions of grief. And I think that’s a good thing. So today I find myself listening to this, as I recall the sadness of the events last year, and the deeply human need to process loss and devastation in times of natural disaster. Thinking of the people of Japan, as they continue to rebuild their homes and lives.

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Date #1: Seduced by Scriabin

My goodness, life gets busy doesn’t it? Working, singing, dating… well, probably more of the first two and less of the last but they’ve all kept me occupied recently. At the end of January I started a new job in a field completely unrelated to anything I have ever done in the past (geology, of all things! Insert rock music jokes here) so that’s claiming a fair amount of my mental energy lately. Last weekend I was out of town for a rehearsal weekend to do some intensive work with Brisbane Chamber Choir on repertoire for the current season, and the first performances are now less than a week out. And I’ve also been busy booking a month-long European trip in July this year, so nutting out all the details of that has left less time for extras like blogging and listening to new music.

A couple of weeks ago you’ll recall that I issued myself a challenge – in addition to going on five real-life dates in five weeks, I’m also attempting to go on five “blind dates” with composers to see if I click with anyone new. Reading more of Christopher Lawrence’s book Swooning is also making me aware of just how many composers there are out there whose names I am familiar with but whose music I’m not. Names that I have often heard on the radio or read in books and that I can link to places and times, and in many instances I even know who their contemporaries were. However, if pressed I couldn’t identify or name a single one of their works. So I decided these would become my primary criteria for a “blind” date:

1) not knowing anything about them beyond very sketchy biographical details, and

2) not being able to hum, recognise or instantly name any of their music.

So I have embarked on the journey, selecting a handful of composers and trawling the interwebs for recordings of their work, actively listening (as opposed to having it on in the background) to however many pieces it takes to find something that resonates with me. For some composers that might happen instantly, and others might take a little while, but I’m assuming for the moment that I can find something to like of even the most obscure and “out there” composers. [Note: If you want to put that to the test and recommend someone extreme, go ahead – I’m up for a challenge!]

So without further ado, allow me to introduce you to the guy behind door number one.

* * * * *

When I was a kid, my parents had a poster on the back of our kitchen door that was a sort of timeline of notable Western classical composers. Every composer was represented by their own coloured line (different colours for different nationalities) and their life span was mapped out in comparison to each other so you could see who was alive when. In the bottom left corner was a panel of photos or portraits of selected composers, maybe twenty-five or so. Many were looking straight ahead, but for the few that weren’t, my brother and I used to make up silly explanations for what they were thinking, or where their gaze was directed. The one that sticks in my mind the most is Alexander Scriabin, who had a moustache more suited to a cartoon character than a real person, and who had a distinctive starry-eyed, wondrous, gazing-off-into-the-distance kind of expression. But what was most amusing was that, in our kitchen, he was looking longingly at the tins of cat food lined up along the top of the pantry. So in our house he became “Scriabin, the composer who liked cat food”. Yes, really. Until very recently, whenever I heard his name THIS is what came to mind.

Poor Alexander. What a reputation to have. Pretty sure this is a major disservice to a man who pushed some serious boundaries with his music during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century. So I’ve set out to correct this perception, and see what he was really like. (Note: I can fairly confidently say, however, that I would never go on a real-life date with someone if the only thing I knew about them was that they liked cat food. Just saying.)

Well Scriabin was quite the character, as it turns out. Born into an aristocratic family in Moscow in 1871, he grew up surrounded by pianos and pianists and became pretty fascinated with the instrument from an early age – apparently somewhat precocious, he would often demand that his aunt play for him, and when he was a bit older started building his own pianos. So, you know… probably not the most sociable of kids. There was an unsuccessful attempt to conduct an orchestra comprised of local children, and he would put on little performances of his own short plays and operas with puppets, presumably to whomever he could get to watch them. I can’t help imagining a cross between Ralph Wiggum from The Simpsons, and Schroeder from the Peanuts cartoons. With a moustache.

He became a remarkable pianist and studied at the Moscow Conservatory, but as he got older he delved into all kinds of weird and wonderful philosophies – he was into mysticism and theosophy but also exceptionally narcissistic, attaching a great deal of significance to his birth date (Christmas Day in the Russian Orthodox calendar, but 6 January in the Gregorian). So he effectively believed himself to be a bit of a cult figure, also having been influenced by Nietzsche’s ideas about the coming of a superhuman. And he had periods of alcoholism, which fuelled his belief in his own omnipotence. So, deluded and mentally ill seems to be the consensus nowadays. Scriabin also claimed to be synaesthetic, experiencing music as colours, but a fair amount of research into synaesthesia over the last century would suggest he probably wasn’t, and that it was more likely psychological in his case, rather than neurological. The fact that his personal colour wheel aligned neatly with the circle of fifths is probably a little too convenient, shall we say.

His music started out being heavily influenced by the great Romantic composers and pianists like Chopin and Liszt, but he increasingly played with unusual tonality and chromaticism and developed a sound world that was distinctly his own. He was innovative and highly controversial, well-liked by some and wildly unpopular with others, but most certainly famous within his lifetime. Most of his music was written for the piano, but he produced some orchestral work too, primarily a piano concerto and several symphonies. One of these symphonies, or symphonic poems as they’re commonly referred to, is the Poem of Ecstasy. Scriabin called it his “Orgiastic Poem”; Christopher Lawrence says it’s the only orchestral work he knows of about multiple orgasms, complete with phallic trumpet. (And if that doesn’t make you go and have a listen, then what will?!)

If you think Scriabin’s life was unusual, by the way, then consider how it ended: at the age of 43, a large pimple underneath his moustache became infected and he died of blood poisoning. Given that, at the time of his death, he was in the process of writing a large scale work to be performed in the foothills of the Himalayas with lots of bells and whistles like scent and light and dancing, and which was somehow supposed to bring about the end of the world, I think he would have been rather disappointed to pass away so unglamorously.

Anyway, I had a meander through quite a few of his works on YouTube, in search of a piece that would help me connect with this mad genius. I’ll be honest, it took me a little while. It’s not all pour-yourself-a-glass-of-red-and-lie-back-on-the-couch-while-the-music-washes-over-you kind of experience. It’s not unpleasant either, but some of it does feel like a completely different musical language to what I’m used to (although I do think my tastes are continually broadening). Which is fine, that was the whole point of this exercise, right?

I started my exploration fairly randomly, just typing his name into YouTube and clicking on the first few things that came up. I think I’ve figured out that his later work (basically anything from 1900 onwards) is going to require some dedication on my part to really appreciate it. Like the Poeme Satanique, or the aptly-named Ironies in C Major (because it isn’t – until the very last chord). But when I listened to pieces which date back to his teenage years and early twenties, I found some of it was really quite accessible. There are a series of 12 Etudes (studies) from 1894 that are very beautiful – I liked No. 11. But I was really hoping that somewhere there would be a piece that from the very first bar would have me saying “Yes! This is what I’ve been looking for!” And there was.

When the piano starts so poignantly just as the clarinet takes over the theme (about 1:37), it’s like tiny raindrops just starting to make ripples on the surface of a still lake. I love the intimacy of the orchestra as it repeats what it had to say at the very beginning, but lets the piano join the conversation over the top. I love the images that accompany this track as well – very other worldly. It fits somehow. This is the second of the three movements and the other two are wonderful as well, but the opening of this movement might be one of my new favourite passages of music. Totally entrancing.

* * * * *

Second date potential: 3/5

Well, what girl can resist a Russian megalomaniac who thinks he’s God, writes some powerfully erotic music, and sees C major in vibrant crimson? I would love to say 4 based on the beauty of the piano concerto, but alas Scriabin didn’t stay 24 forever. I will definitely come back to his work at some point, and I’m glad I took the time to learn something about him, but I’m not sure if there’s a long-term future here. At least I don’t still think he likes cat food.

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Revisiting old friends

Another post from Bronwyn this week? So soon? Yes! Mainly because I recently found a journal entry from exactly six years ago today which highlights some of the music I was obsessed with at the time. So it seemed like a good time to share it with you. You’ll notice it’s a little… link-intensive, shall we say. Well, instead of embedding a dozen videos in the post, I’ve just included links to the best recordings of things that I can find on YouTube. I don’t expect you’ll want to click on them all (at least, not all in one sitting!) but these are some fabulous pieces which still stand out as favourites among all the things I’ve performed over the years. Although I’m yet to sing all of the Lux Aeterna with a choir (just the ‘O Nata Lux’ so far). Maybe one day.

I have to add that I’ve loved compiling this post as well, because it’s given me an excuse to listen to some things I haven’t heard for a while. It’s like catching up with old friends! There’s probably an hour of music listening to be had here – more, if you seek out the rest of the Rheinberger Mass and the Howells Requiem – but space it out over the week and it will keep you going until I post again. Enjoy!

(And yes, that would be the violin solo from Mozart’s Laudate Dominum that worked its way onto the page…)

7 February 2006

Every now and then I have a day or two where I like to completely immerse myself in some new piece of music I’ve discovered, listen to it until I know it backwards – every nuance, every spine-tingling moment, every delicious chord or yummy dissonance. I haven’t quite had a chance to do that yet with Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, but I will in time. Yesterday was our first Concordis rehearsal for the year and by happy coincidence I also received the two CDs in the mail that I won on eBay last week, one a compilation of things by the Robert Shaw Festival Singers, and the other is a CD of work by Morten Lauridsen recorded by the Nordic Chamber Choir and it’s simply stunning. Plus at rehearsal last night we looked at a couple of new Eric Whitacre pieces, so I’m rediscovering my love of that CD too. I love having these days where I just can’t get enough music – I listen at every opportunity and remind myself of a whole lot of music that has the power to take me to another world entirely. There are lots of things that can do it, depending on what mood I’m in, but I love discovering new things as well as reliving old favourites. I think I’ve become a lot more open-minded since joining NYCA – where would I be without having discovered Rheinberger’s Cantus Missae, or the Howells Requiem, or how much fun it is to sing Bach, or what it feels like to sing Stanford’s Beati Quorum Via just the way it’s meant to be sung, including capturing the lilting feel of it the way Noel wants it. Sometimes I am just struck spellbound by a piece of music and its warmth, or luminescence. It truly is one of the most important things in my life, and I wouldn’t trade anything for the experience of singing and listening to some of the world’s most powerful music. Nothing is quite as life-changing.

(OK, so it may have been a little over the top, but you get the general idea how much I adore some of this music. By the way, apologies that the Concordis link only goes to their website – they haven’t got any recordings up online that I can find. I may have to suggest they fix that!)

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A blind date with Beethoven

“Dear Sean,

I hope this book makes you laugh out loud in public spaces. Your laugh is your aria. I love you.

Louise xoxo”

About two weeks ago I went to the Lifeline Bookfest, an annual event which fills the Brisbane Convention Centre with probably several kilometres’ worth of secondhand books. These kinds of events are always a bit of a mixed bag, and although I came away with a few interesting finds, it was only after I trawled through endless Dan Browns and Bryce Courtenays. On the dubiously categorised ‘music & art’ tables I had to sift through numerous celebrity biographies of people like Sting and Miley Cyrus, and book tie-ins from once-popular TV shows of the 90s like the X Files. But my effort was eventually rewarded when I came across a gem of a book called Swooning: A classical music guide to life, love, lust and other follies by ABC broadcaster Christopher Lawrence. I’m a bit of a fan of the ‘Swoon’ segment on ABC Classic FM; I knew of this book but hadn’t read it, so I was delighted to find not just one but multiple copies of it buried among the chaff. And when I opened the front cover of one to reveal the handwritten inscription from Louise to her beloved, I knew this was the copy I had to own.

I haven’t finished reading it yet but, as someone who loves reading about musicians and composers but who is actually often bored to tears by anything so dry as an “Introduction to Classical Music” guide, his style immediately resonated with me. I suppose I don’t quite get who such introductory guides are aimed at – maybe I don’t really believe that there are actually people in the world who wake up one day and decide to educate themselves about classical music and go looking for a generic book, course or website to start from. Surely it happens more organically than that? You are captivated by a piece of music first and decide that you want to know more about who wrote it, and when and why. But if you want to delve into the mind of the person who created music that had the power to make you sit up and take notice, do you really turn to a bland overview of historical periods and styles and their defining characteristics? I know I wouldn’t but perhaps that’s just me. Anyway, Christopher Lawrence is anything but bland, and he managed to sum up my hesitation about exactly that (and get me thinking as well) all in the space of two paragraphs:

Words about music for the novice can be had in what is called a ‘music appreciation’ course. This is such an awful term. Learning to ‘appreciate’ good music is a bit like learning to sift patiently through your spouse’s personality in search of the odd attractive feature in an arranged marriage. Of course many arranged marriages do work out, but only after the partners reach an accommodation with each other. These days we don’t have the luxury of twenty years in which to learn to accommodate a Beethoven symphony.

What we’re really after is fulfilment with some romance and excitement along the way. This is as true of people as it is of symphonies, sonatas and operas. We’re not just encountering Beethoven; we’re meeting him on a blind date. First impressions mean a lot. Eventually one learns to look (or listen) beneath the surface to the goodness within, but it helps to have been just a little captivated over the first dinner.

Yes! This is what classical music needs! We don’t need more studying: we need more dating. We need less musical analysis, and more getting to know composers by the fire with a glass of wine in hand. More secretive glances and flirting and seeing whether the composer we’re courting is willing to reciprocate with a spine-tingling chord or a lingering melody. More ‘canoodling’ behind the bike sheds with an mp3 player and the complete Bach motets. Hell, even more casual hook ups should be encouraged: downloading tracks or borrowing CDs with reckless abandon from the library (or the libraries of friends) and returning them when our wantonness has been satisfied. We wouldn’t be hurting anyone. Not even the inspired creators of the music we devour so frivolously.

It’s funny, since beginning Swooning I’ve been thinking about what it would mean to go on a blind date with a composer. Actually, I’ve been thinking about dating generally, since this month I’m participating in a charity fundraiser called Five in Five which involves going on five dates in five weeks to raise money for people in urban poverty. And at this stage it’s just a theory, but I think there’s a lot to be said for approaching new music as you might approach a blind date, except that you don’t have to worry about the bit where you’re constantly focused on making a good first impression yourself. Instead you get to sit back and admire, assess what things immediately catch your attention, and consider whether you see a future between you and this unfamiliar composer. Maybe you’ll decide they’re not for you but you can still appreciate that you took the time to discover someone new. Maybe a piece will intrigue you enough to listen to it a few times but there the dalliance will end. Or maybe you’ll start a lifelong love affair that will still have the potential to surprise and delight you with every new work you discover. And the best bit about going on dates with composers? You don’t need to be monogamous.

So in addition to my real life dating challenge, I’ve decided to set myself a musical dating challenge – go on a ‘blind date’ with five new composers to discover some new music, and report back here on my findings (probably just the musical ones, sorry!) The challenge is open to you too, if you like! Post a comment or send me an email to tell me about it.

I thought I’d leave you with a piece that is probably as close as I come to having had a blind date with Beethoven himself. I honestly don’t remember when I discovered his music but it was a long time ago, certainly at some point while I was still at school. I knew snippets of several works without having ever really listened to them in depth, and once I could play the piano I would sometimes pick up the book of his sonatas and work my way through at random, attempting any passages that looked easy enough to note-bash my way through. The Moonlight sonata and the second movement of the Pathetique sonata are the two I remember most clearly. So I’m not sure I’d describe him as a childhood sweetheart exactly, but he certainly seemed to be a musical presence in my youth. And then last year I had an encounter that was surely the most breathtaking Beethoven moment of my life, when Camerata of St John’s played the Cavatina from his String Quartet No. 13 in a late night performance at the Cathedral. It was like time stood still; I may not have breathed for a full eight minutes. I’ve never been the biggest string quartet fan which is probably why I didn’t already know the work, but played by a small chamber orchestra it was like nothing I’d ever heard before and I couldn’t quite believe that a composer I thought I knew could have such a sudden and immediate affect on me. There’s a reason why this piece was chosen for the Voyager Golden Record and launched into space.

Anyway, who knows what became of Sean and Louise, although I do hope they’re out there somewhere and still sharing a musical life together. I will continue to enjoy reading their book.

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Sounds from a literary underworld

If there’s one thing I love almost as much as music, it’s words. And words about music even more than that. There’s a quote I read recently (which has been attributed to multiple people such as Elvis Costello, Thelonious Monk and Frank Zappa but which a quick Google search would reveal that there’s a bit of controversy over who said it first and where and how):

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture – it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”

I sort of agree. Except for the stupid part. I personally think writing about music, talking about music and thinking about music are all amazing things to do – it’s just that they are fundamentally different activities, with different purposes and outcomes and expressing different ideas. Of course, they can’t replace music itself. But then most people who write about music aren’t trying to. And there are some fantastic words about music floating around out there in the world.

This week Music Tasting turns to fiction, for someone else’s words about music. Orpheus Lost is by ex-pat Australian author Janette Turner Hospital, who has written several highly acclaimed books and numerous short stories and who also happens to be my mum’s cousin (just putting it out there, so you know – I had the pleasure of staying with her and her husband at their home in the US a few years ago). The novel is a contemporary twist on the Greek legend of Orpheus in the Underworld, and is a beautifully told story of Leela, a mathematician from the American South, and Mishka Bartok, a young Australian musician. A love story, but set against the complex backdrop of terrorism and paranoia, and infused with music and obsession. I highly recommend the whole book, but here’s an extract from the very first chapter, which completely and utterly drew me in from the beginning.

* * * * *

The tunnel smelled of monstrous decay, but even so, even knowing within the dream that she should turn and flee back up into the sunlight, Leela would be powerless. Mishka’s music drugged her. Waking or sleeping, she could close her eyes and see him as she saw him that first time: not just the visual memory lurking entire, but the sounds, the sensations, the hurly-burly of Harvard Square, the slightly dank odor of the steps as she descended into the underworld of the Red Line, the click of tokens and turnstiles, the gust of fragrance from the flower sellers, the funky sweat of the homeless, the subdued roar of the trains, and then those haunting notes….

She stood riveted, her token poised above the slot in the turnstile. She had heard two bars, perhaps three, in the brief lull between trains.

“Would you mind?” said someone behind her.

“What? Oh… sorry.” She let the token fall through the slot. She pushed against the steel bar and into the space of the music. There was another pause between trains, a few bars, a stringed instrument, clearly, but also a tenor voice. Was it a cello that the singer was playing? Surely not. No street musician would cart such a large and unwieldy instrument down into the bowels of the city, onto the trains, among the crowds; but the sound seemed too soft for a violin, too husky, too throaty. She could feel the music graphing itself against her skin, her body calculating the frequencies and intervals of the whole subway symphony: base throb of trains, tenor voice, soft lament of the strings, a pleasing ratio of vibrations. Mathematical perfection made her weak at the knees.

She was letting the music reel her in, following the thread of it, leaning into the perfect fifths. Crowds intruded, echoes teased her, tunnels bounced the sound off their walls—now the music seemed to be just ahead, now to the right—and two minutes in every five, the low thunder of the trains muffled all. The notes were faint, they were clear, they were gone, they were clear again: unbearably mournful and sweet. Leela was not the only one affected. People paused in the act of buying tokens. They looked up from newspapers. They turned their heads and scanned the walls and ceiling of the subway cavern for speakers. With one foot on the outbound train, a man was arrested by a phrase and stepped back out of the sliding doors.

“Where is that gorgeous sound coming from?” he asked Leela. “Is it a recording?”

“A street musician,” she said. “Someone playing an early instrument, I think, a Renaissance violin, or something like that.”

“Over there,” the man pointed.

“Must be. Yes.”

“Extraordinary,” the man said. He began to run.

Leela followed him the length of the inbound platform to where a dense knot of commuters huddled. For a while the music was clearer as they approached, and then it was not, and then it seemed to be behind them again. Leela turned, disoriented. Her hands were shaking. The man who had stepped back from the outbound train leaned against a pillar with his eyes closed, rapt. Leela saw a woman surreptitiously wiping her sleeve across her eyes.

The violin itself was weeping music. Sometimes it wept alone; sometimes the tenor voice sorrowed along with it in a tongue not quite known but intuitively understood. The singer was singing of loss, that much was certain, and the sorrow was passing from body to body like a low electrical charge.

Leela recognized the melody, but although she could analyze the mathematical structure of any composition, she had trouble remembering titles of works and linking them to the right composers. It was an aria from some early opera, that much she knew. Gluck, probably. She had to hear all of it.

Ahead of her was an impenetrable cordon of backs.

Leela closed her eyes and pressed her hands to her face. She had a sense of floating underwater and the water was warm and moving fast and she was willing to be carried away by it. It was this way back in childhood in summer ponds in South Carolina, or on the jasmine-clotted Hamilton house veranda, or in deep grass, or lying under the pines with local boys; it was this way in later carnal adventures: body as fluid as soul. Everything was part of the euphoric storm surge which swept Leela up and rushed her toward something radiant that was just out of reach.

A fist of air punched her in the small of her back and a tidal wave of announcements drowned the music. Her hair streamed straight out in front of her face like a pennant. Words rumbled like thunder. Stopping all stations to shshshsh clang clang for Green Line change at Park clang shshshshsh…. Bucking and pushing ahead of the in-rush of train, a hard balloon of air plowed through the knot of listeners and scattered them.

That was when Leela caught her first glimpse of Mishka Bartok.

His head was bent over his instrument, his eyes focused on his fingered chords and his bow. He was oblivious to the arrival of the train. His body merged with the music and swayed. He was slender and pale, his dark hair unruly. A small shock of curls fell down over his left eye. When he leaned into the dominant notes, the curls fell across the sounding board of the instrument and he tossed them back with a flick of his head. Leela thought of a racehorse. She thought of a faun. Incongruously, she also thought of a boy she had known in childhood, a boy named Cobb, a curious boy with a curious name, a boy who had been possessed of the same skittish intensity which somehow let you know that, if cornered, this was a creature who would not yield. The violin player had Cobb’s fierce and haunted eyes.

There was no hat on the platform in front of him, no box, no can, no open violin case for donations, and the absence of any such receptacle seemed to bother the listeners. Someone tucked a folded bill into the side pocket of the violin player’s jeans but he appeared not to notice. A student in torn denim shorts took of his cloth hat and placed it beside the closed violin case as tribute and people threw in coins and placed dollar bills—ones, fives, tens even—in the hat but the musician seemed indifferent and unaware. Some listeners boarded the inbound train, some seemed incapable of moving. Leela let five trains come and go, bracing herself each time against the buffeting of air. She had now worked her way forward to the innermost circle. She was four feet from the man with the violin. She could feel the intensity of his body like a series of small seismic waves against her own.

Trains arrived and departed, some people left but more gathered, the crowd around the main with the violin kept getting larger. His instrumental repertoire seemed inexhaustible—he barely paused between pieces—but when he sang, it was always and only when he cycled back to the same aria that had first reached Leela’s ears. When he sang, she could not take her eyes off his lips. She touched her own with the pads of her fingers. She had a sensation of falling forward, of free-falling into a well of melody without end. The cautionary words above her desk hovered at the edge of her mind: Obsession is its own heaven and its own hell, but she did not care if she stayed on the inbound platform all day. She wondered fleetingly if hours might have already passed. She gave herself to the wave of music. She wondered if she might have grown gills.

Perhaps because she was now so close to him, perhaps because of the heat that her body gave off, the musician glanced up as he began to sing the aria again. Their eyes met. Something fizzed and smoldered like a lit fuse along the line of sight. Leela let less than one second pass as the last note faded, and then, recklessly, interposed herself between the player and his next chord.

“What is that song?” she asked, or tried to ask, even as his bow hovered above a new beginning. There was a constriction in her chest.

Che farò senza Euridice.” He lowered the violin from his left shoulder and stroked it with the fingers of his bowing hand. “Gluck.”

* * * * *

Pages 4-8 from Orpheus Lost by Janette Turner Hospital, published 2007 by Fourth Estate. Read the rest of it – I promise you it’s worth it.

Posted in Literature, Solo Vocal Music | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Musical Tapas: How to turn any concert into a tasting plate of musical discovery

Last year before Fusion‘s November concert, I wrote a short article for the Music Council of Australia about ways to help audiences appreciate live classical music when listening to a programme of music that might be almost entirely unfamiliar. It was just for one of their weekly e-bulletins and thus the article itself was only online for a short time and didn’t reach a terribly wide readership, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about again recently so I’ve rewritten it slightly for the purposes of this blog. And in this format I’ve also been able to include the musical examples which I reference throughout the article.

* * * * *

Trying new things comes naturally to some people. Others are more hesitant but may be persuaded once someone they trust gives them a hearty recommendation. Many will try new foods, travel to new places, see new films, and discover new authors, all with reckless abandon because they don’t think they have anything to lose. Classical music, on the other hand, can be a whole different story. Rarely are people so hesitant – even when they are already self-confessed lovers of classical music – as when they are invited to a concert of works they don’t already know. Mozart’s Requiem? It’s a full house. A programme of music by composers you haven’t heard of? Hmm. Suddenly going to a movie instead seems more appealing (and yet ironically, the chances are that you’d choose to see something you haven’t seen before).

While there is a small percentage of music lovers who actively seek out new works by emerging composers and up-and-coming performers, musicians know that it is a constant struggle to entice audiences to classical concerts of all kinds. The struggle is amplified when we don’t expect the audience to already be familiar with the programme. And yet we also know that our growth as musicians, both personally and professionally, comes from expanding our knowledge and appreciation of music – and that means choosing to seek out the unfamiliar.

Fusion is a vocal ensemble based in Brisbane and directed by Debra Shearer-Dirié. Their November 2012 season consisted of music from Spain and Latin America. Entitled Tapas, the concert was something of a ‘tasting plate’ of choral repertoire, from rich Mexican Baroque through to a lullaby arranged by a contemporary Venezuelan composer. To the best of my knowledge, none of it is repertoire which is performed frequently in Australia. Inspired by the theme of the concert, I began thinking about ways in which the metaphor could be a useful way to approach any performance of new or unfamiliar repertoire. If audiences need a helping hand to explore new music – and it would seem that sometimes they do – then perhaps a short ‘tasting guide’ is what’s needed.

If you wish to gain something more from your next experience of listening to new music than you get currently, then below are three elements you could consider. For each of them there is a repertoire example from Fusion’s Tapas programme, but the concepts could easily be applied to almost any music, live or recorded.


First of all, consider the component parts of the music. In the same way that you would judge a meal by its ingredients, notice what’s in the music, and what’s happening. Notice voices, instruments and how they interact. Think about the texture – is it sparse, dense, or somewhere in between? Who or what stands out, and does this change? Pick one or two things that you make a point of listening out for, like a particular instrument or voice, just as you might do when you concentrate on a mouthful to see if you can identify a flavour.

Francisco Guerrero – Ave virgo sanctissima: The two soprano parts are in canon four bars apart for the duration of the piece. Listen to the dialogue between them, and how the sound changes with the movement of the lower voices.


We all know that what food looks like plays a part in how appetising it is – a well plated dish is visually enticing, and we often assess food’s appeal by its colour. This is harder to do with music of course, when you need to rely on information primarily received aurally. But you can still ask yourself what mental pictures it creates for you. What does the music look like? What colour is it? What words or images do you find yourself imagining? Is it a still lake with barely a ripple on the surface, or is it a blur of movement so frantic you can’t keep up?

Diego José de Salazar – Salga el torillo hosquillo: This vibrant piece from 17th century Spain depicts a bullfight and is full of movement and excitement. Create a movie in your head while you listen, and focus on the colours, images, words or other sounds that come to mind.


Food and music are both deeply connected to emotion: both are involved whenever we celebrate, and we often turn to both for comfort. Music doesn’t have to be analysed on a cerebral level to be appreciated. What does it make you feel or think about? Who, where or what does it remind you of? Just sitting with the feelings that the music provokes, even unpleasant ones, is a way to engage with music.

Gerardo Dirié – Pomegranate Friends: This new work for 4-channel live electronics, saxophone and choir creates an interesting sound world that plays with unconventional tuning systems. Try to experience yourself being inside the sound, and see if you can identify any particular emotions as you listen to the music. If you can, name the emotion.

[Unfortunately there’s no recording available yet of Gerardo’s work, but I’ll post a link here if one becomes available. Since it was written for and premiered by Fusion, we’re still working at getting an excerpt from the live performance online.]

I believe that all of the above can enrich the pleasure of hearing live music and make the experience more interactive. And the next time you are invited to a concert of new (or new to you) music, you can be confident that you’ll find the experience a more rewarding one for having a few basic tools to better appreciate what you’re tasting.

* * * * *

I’m interested in your comments: What are some of the things you love about attending live performances? What are some of the things you find challenging? Is there a piece of music which you first heard live in concert that has stayed with you?

Posted in Articles, Choirs & Choral Music, Foundations | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Song for a beach holiday

Happy New Year, musical friends! Welcome to Music Tasting in 2012.

I’ve been on a week-long beach holiday recently, which was a delightful way to begin the year. It’s becoming something of a tradition, actually, with a close group of friends. This is now the third year that a few of us have spent the first week of January somewhere in the general proximity of sun, surf and sand. We hire out a not-too-expensive place for the week and pass the days swimming, walking, snoozing, reading, playing cards and board games, watching movies, and cooking our own meals. This year was even hotter than usual so I think we also ate icecream on seven consecutive days (which I do believe is a personal record). Plus we’re all musicians, so usually there’s a fair bit of music chatter, singing and listening to music too. It’s a great way to kickstart the new year.

I thought I’d share a song and musical story that takes me back to our first beach holiday as a group. Although we decided to stay in Queensland this year (Rainbow Beach, up near Fraser Island), the past two vacations we’ve headed south instead. Last year was Brooms Head – or ‘The Broom’ as it is affectionately called – and 2010 was at Wooli, a tiny and remote place on the northern NSW coast, nestled down the bottom of Yuraygir National Park. It fills up during peak tourist season, but it’s a beautiful spot to idle away some days at the beach.

That year one of my friends brought a big pile of sheet music with her and we sang through a number of things – just for fun of course, as we choir geeks are prone to do on occasion. One of the pieces was called Gøta (pronounced geu-ta) by Swedish a cappella ensemble The Real Group; I was familiar with the group but not with this particular song. It’s a wordless song, but nonetheless powerful and evocative. It starts out with a simple melody over a drone and builds gradually, with harmonies coming in underneath, the soprano hitting ridiculously high top D’s, and the low bass impressively percussing away four octaves lower. I hasten to add that it’s also a bit of an earworm, and after we’d sung it a few times there was no getting it out of our heads in a hurry! It sort of became our holiday theme song, I guess you could say, the kind of thing that it was easy to default to humming while standing at the barbecue turning the sausages, or sitting on the beach gazing out at the ocean.

I actually only found out recently the history of Gøta and how it came to be written. And it’s definitely a world away from summer in an Australian coastal town. Composer Peder Karlsson, who used to be the baritone with The Real Group, writes on the score that it was inspired by the people and nature of the Faroe Islands, situated in the North Atlantic between Norway and Iceland:

“When The Real Group had a concert there in 2002, I met a very young Faroese singer named Eivør Pálsdóttir. We played guitar and sang our songs to each other, and she took me on a tour of her beautiful home village. After coming home I listened to a lot of Faroese music, especially Eivør’s records. Then early one morning I woke up with a melody in my head that sounded like nothing I had heard or written before. So I went up and recorded the melody. Then I fell asleep again and forgot about it. Later I found the track in my computer and added a B-part, where the melody indicates harmonies in contrast to the A-part. I didn’t sing the song to anyone until the spring of 2004, when I was in the Faroe Islands again, to rehearse with Eivør for some gigs later in the summer. In a little performance in Eivør’s parents’ house, I named this song Gøta, the name of their village.”

(If you prefer live performances there’s one here, although the sound starts to distort a bit a couple of minutes in.)

A long way from Wooli, that’s for sure. But maybe one day I’ll get to spend a summer holiday in the Faroe Islands instead.

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In the coming weeks and months I look forward to sharing with you some of the plans for Music Tasting during 2012. There are a few things I hope to introduce this year as the site begins to take shape and I give it some more direction. A lot of it is still in the development stage at the moment, but down the track I intend to add a few more features, including ways for readers to contribute their own musical stories and anecdotes. I’ll also begin to branch out into sharing more than just my own favourite music and my own experiences – there’s a whole world out there of people who have so beautifully expressed the power of music in words. One thing is for sure – this is just the beginning! I hope you’ll hang around.

Posted in Folk & Popular Music, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A different Christmas story about a donkey

It was starting to look as though I wouldn’t get around to adding another post before Christmas, such is this crazy time of year. I know it’s that way for everyone in December, but we had some sad news in my family this past week which has added some emotional strain to what is already a busy and stressful period for most people.

But I am posting, because I think for my own sanity I want to share something joyful, and Christmas is usually a time when people come together and stories are born. Probably a lot of people have a family story that begins “I remember this one Christmas when…”, and it might be happy, sad, hilarious or embarrassing. Whatever it is, most people have them. Including me, but what I actually want to share is not really a story of my own but a short tale about the story of a Christmas carol.

A few weeks ago I went to the end of year performance of the Brisbane Concert Choir, who sang a musical story called Brother Heinrich’s Christmas, by the well-known English composer John Rutter. I used to have a recording of the story about 15 years ago but I don’t think I’d heard it since, so it was wonderfully nostalgic for me to go and revisit the work. The narrator that night was excellent too. Rutter took the myth about the origin of the carol ‘In dulci jubilo’, and spun his own tale about the monk who is credited with writing it. It’s a delightful story, which features a donkey (played by the bassoon) who sings in the abbey choir and helps Brother Heinrich finish writing the carol just in time for a special service on Christmas Day. Sigismund – which I happen to think is a most excellent name for a donkey – only knows two notes and “they are almost always the wrong ones”, according to the Abbott. But if it weren’t for Sigismund… well… maybe we wouldn’t know the carol today!

The whole text of the story, as read by a narrator, can be found online here, and if you don’t want to go and find the whole recording on iTunes or similar then it’s probably a good idea to at least read the complete story before watching the short clip below. It’s fairly short. It would be a lovely story to read to children as well. (This is just a fragment of the work to give you a taste – it’s all I’ve had time to upload so far, but I highly recommend the Cambridge Singers recording of the whole thing.)

And finally, because it’s Christmas, I just want to share with you a recording from the recent CD from St John’s Cathedral. This is where I’ll be at midnight tonight, hopefully singing this!

Greetings of the season to you, whoever and wherever you are in the world. May it be wonderfully musical and full of shared stories. I’ll return again soon.

Posted in Choirs & Choral Music, Orchestras & Instrumental Music | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment