About Hans Zimmer’s Score to “Man of Steel”

July 1, 2013 at 11:44 am | Posted in Composers, Movie Music | Leave a comment

Les Six & the Sixth

March 23, 2011 at 10:04 am | Posted in Composers, Concerts, History | Leave a comment

This Sunday afternoon, the IWS will present a concert titled “Les Six & the Sixth” that features France’s “Les Six” (or Groupe des six) composers. Perhaps you’ve heard of “The Five,” a group of five Russian composers who met in St. Petersburg to try to create a specific form of Russian art music. (Can you name The Five without looking? Answers at the end.) Les Six was so named in 1920 as a comparison to The Five by music critic Henri Collet.

Though these six composers had disparate musical backgrounds, tastes, and expectations, they were joined by a reaction against German Romanticism, at least in the beginning. They were also friends and frequent collaborators. All six officially collaborated on only one project, a collection of solo piano music called L’album des six, published in 1920.

Here, then, is some brief background information for each of Les Six composers, whose music you can hear this Sunday at 3:00 at the Palladium in Carmel, Indiana. You’ll also hear what we believe will be the Indiana premiere of James’ Barnes Sixth Symphony, written in 2008.

Georges Auric 1899–1983

Georges Auric was a child prodigy whose compositions were first being published when he was only 15 years old. By the time he was 20, he had established himself as a composer and arranger of stage music, especially ballets and incidental music for other stage productions. When Jean Cocteau, Auric’s friend and one of the major influences of Les Six, started making movies in the early 1930s, Auric went with him and started writing movie scores. His success in French and British films led him to writing movie scores for Hollywood. Some of his more well-known successes were Beauty and the Beast (1946), Moulin Rouge (1952), Roman Holiday (1953), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1956).

In 1962, he became director of the Opéra National de Paris and gave up writing for motion pictures. He continued to produce new chamber works, especially for winds, until his death in 1983.

Louis Durey 1888–1979

Louis Durey was a late bloomer, musically speaking. He didn’t decide to pursue a career in music until he was 19, when he was inspired by a performance of a piece by Claude Debussy. He was mostly self-taught, but his music caught the attention of Maurice Ravel, who introduced him to his publisher. Durey’s extreme left-wing views ultimately held him back from what might otherwise have been a more successful career. After the Nazi occupation of World War II, during which he was an active member of the French Resistance, Durey joined a group of other hard-line communist composers who wrote in accordance with communist doctrines of art, which required their music to be of mass appeal. His uncompromising adherence to these political tenets ultimately hindered his career. Though he composed throughout his life, nothing he wrote after World War II met with either popular or critical success.

Arthur Honegger 1892–1955

Born in Le Havre to Swiss parents, Arthur Honegger’s first foray into music was with the violin. He eventually studied in Paris, joining Les Six in 1920 and shooting into the limelight with his dramatic choral work Le Roi David. Honegger had some eccentric traits about him. A consummate lover of trains, Honegger’s 1923 Pacific 231 was a musical depiction of a locomotive, and it won him even more fame. In 1926, he married pianist Andrée Vaurabourg on condition that they maintain separate apartments; except for one failed attempt at living together and during the last year of Honegger’s life, when he could no longer live alone, this arrangement remained in effect.

Unlike his fellow Les Six friends’, Honegger’s work — especially his later works — showed the influence of German Romanticism, as well as Bachian counterpoint. Honegger was the first of Les Six to die, in 1955; Darius Milhaud dedicated his Fourth String Quartet and Francis Poulenc dedicated his Clarinet Sonata to the memory of Arthur Honegger. Honegger also always maintained his Swiss nationality, and he was honored at the end of the century by being featured on the Swiss 20-franc note.

Darius Milhaud 1892–1974

When Darius Milhaud joined Les Six in 1920, he was still looking for his musical voice. He found to during a trip to Harlem in 1922, when he heard “authentic” jazz for the first time. From that moment on, his music showed the influence of both jazz and polytonality, the simultaneous use of more than one key.

One of the twentieth century’s most prolific composers (his opus listing ends at 443), Milhaud wrote all genres of music, including ballets, operas, symphonies, vocal and choral music, film scores, and chamber music. He was also a well-known and well-respected teacher. The only Jewish composer of Les Six, Milhaud fled the coming Nazi occupation in 1939; he and his wife emigrated to America in 1940, and he took up a teaching position at Mills College in Oakland, California, where he mentored such musical greats as Dave Brubeck, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Burt Bacharach.

Francis Poulenc 1899–1963

Francis Poulenc’s mastery of music was largely self-taught. Though his earlier works during the 1910s gained the attention of Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Bartok, and others, he didn’t get his first taste of formal musical training until 1921, the year after Les Six was created. Throughout the 20s, his early work was marked by a musical irreverence common among Les Six. During the mid-30s, following the unexpected deaths of some close friends, he rediscovered his Roman Catholic faith, his compositions in turn became more austere, and he began writing more sacred works.

Poulenc had a lifelong fondness for wind instruments. He had intended to write a sonata for each of them but, alas, had finished only four — for flute, oboe, clarinet, and horn — when he died of a heart attack in 1963.

Germaine Tailleferre 1892–1983

The only woman in Les Six, Germaine Tailleferre was born Marcelle Taillefesse but changed her name when she was young to spite her father, who refused to support her musical aspirations. Tailleferre was a prolific composer, though just how prolific we may never know. Many of her works are considered lost, but some — like her dramatic ode “Sous les Rempart d’Athànes” and her ballet “La Nouvelle Cythère” — have been discovered in partial or condensed score and are currently being reorchestrated and revived, mostly through the work of Tailleferre scholar Paul Wehage.

Though her turbulent personal life — which included two failed marriages and taking guardianship of her granddaughter — hampered her success as a composer, she did continue composing right up until her death on November 7, 1983.

Which of Les Six composers do you enjoy playing or listening to most?

Answer: The Russian Five were Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, and Cui.
Posted by Andy Hollandbeck

Eric Whitacre, Music, and Technology

March 1, 2011 at 10:18 pm | Posted in Composers | Leave a comment
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Eric Whitacre is a composer and conductor working out of LA. The IWS has played his “October” and “Noisy Wheels of Joy” before and had fun with them. Recently, though, he has managed to put together his love of composing and conducting with current technology and created something beautiful, original, and beautifully original. The Virtual Choir.

The idea is rather simple: Write a piece of music, send the music out into the world where people can record themselves performing each piece, and then bring those pieces together into a single musical performance.

Last year’s project was called “Lux Aurumque.” It brought together 185 voices from 12 countries in this ethereal performance:

Whitacre will release this year’s project in April. Find out more about it at EricWhitacre.com. Submissions are already closed for this year, but maybe next year you can become one of the voices from around the world to contribute to this music.

Music isn’t immune to advancements in technology, and it shouldn’t be. Changes in technology open up new horizons in music, just waiting for a creative mind to put ideas together and create something new, original, and beautiful. What ideas do you have for combining technology and music in new and interesting ways?

In defense of Bach and Mozart

November 28, 2010 at 10:46 am | Posted in Composers, Repertoire/Programming, Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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While riding in the car with my violinist son (aged 20) this week, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto came on the Sirius Radio (one of the greatest inventions of the past 20 years, Howard Stern notwithstanding).  “I can’t wait to play that”, he said.  “When?”, I asked.  “Not for a while.  They say you shouldn’t play it until you are at least thirty.  It’s not very difficult, but it’s very hard.”

Bach wrote 6 unaccompanied Partitas and Sonatas for violin.  Mozart wrote five violin Concerti and thirty-six violin Sonatas.  My son told me that he hears a lot of violinists play the Bach or the Mozart and “you can tell from the first bar that it’s not going to be music, it’s just going to be note-note-note-note-note.”  He told me that every good violinist is musical when playing music from the Romantic period.  What’s really impressive is playing the seemingly simple and less “sophisticated” works with musical maturity.

“Beethoven created music.  Mozart discovered music” – Albert Einstein

There are a lot of ways to describe the difference between music of the Classical period and music of the Romantic period.  And while Beethoven is usually described as a “transitional” composer, the distinction that Einstein made is useful.

Albert Einstein loved Mozart.  He also loved Bach, about whose music he said “I have this to say about Bach’s works: listen, play, love, revere – and keep your trap shut”.  But mostly, he loved Mozart.  Einstein was an accomplished violinist.   He once said that had he not been a scientist, he would have been a musician. “Life without playing music is inconceivable for me,” he declared. “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music…I get most joy in life out of music.”  He never went anywhere without his violin.  He particularly loved to play Mozart Sonatas and Quartets, often playing the quartets with other scientists and professors who also played music.

Einstein credited his violin playing experiences with leading to some of his greatest insights. Einstein explained that he loved Mozart because it seemed that Mozart was capturing a pure music that was simply formed by the universe or divined by God.  Mozart himself would sometimes say that he felt like he was not composing so much as taking dictation.  Einstein would go on to explain that while Beethoven was a revolutionary genius, that his music was “too personal” and thus overwhelming and unnerving.

This makes sense though.  Einstein never saw himself as creating anything.  His quest was to simply discover how the universe worked, perhaps to explain it.  Mozart and Bach had a structure and simplicity that he saw as coming naturally from the universe, not from Mozart or Bach themselves.  It fits with his life long quest to explain the physical universe in a complete and organized way.

Another great figure of the 20th century, physician, philosopher, and theologian Albert Schweitzer, was a devotee of Bach.  Among his many accomplishments he was a music scholar and organist who studied the music of Bach extensively, examining its symbolism and imagery which he said illustrated with sublime simplicity the religious themes of the hymns the works were based on.

There is a belief so long held that it is axiomatic among many musicians.  It is that Baroque Music and Classical (period) Music is too simple to be given any more attention than the occasional “roots” performances.  It is a belief that Romantic Music, 20th Century Music or Post-Modern music is the only music with sufficient sophistication to be taken seriously.  It is a belief that only the common rabble prefers Mozart or Haydn or Bach over Mahler or Bruckner or Stravinsky.  It is a belief that the earlier music is not sufficiently complex to warrant much attention.  It is no small thing that Mahler and Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky revered Mozart and Bach.  It wasn’t nostalgia.  It is in their music.  The third movement of Mahler’s First Symphony works because even if the melody is altered just enough to not be obvious, something in is will still subconsciously recognize and be moved the simple folk tune Frere Jacques.   Percy Grainger, Aaron Copland and Anton Dvorak had a reverence for simple accessible folk songs that informed their greatest works.

I would submit that it is in this simplicity that genuine sophistication lies.  Countless philosophers, educators and scientists have opined, researched and concluded that music is a basic human need.  It is a need for all humans, not just the initiated.  If that is true, then accessible music is far from being inferior music.  Music that reaches humans at a basic level regardless of their level of musical sophistication is “classical music” regardless of when it was written.

Einstein said, “ the music of Mozart is of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely found it—that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe waiting to be revealed”.

You won’t hear Mozart and Bach at the next IWS concert.  But you will hear some great Holiday music – much of it very familiar, accessible and comforting to the human soul.  Not a bad thing to accomplish on a chilly Sunday afternoon (Sunday December 12th, 3:00 p.m. in the Auditorium at Arsenal Tech High School).

The Musical World of Harry Potter

November 23, 2010 at 12:28 am | Posted in Composers, Music Reviews | Leave a comment
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Ok, so it’s no surprise to any who knows me knows what a movie buff I am, and what a fan of movie music I am. (See the previous article I wrote here!) While I am not a crazy Harry Potter fan, I have seen all the movies and generally do enjoy what they offer, especially on the musical side.

For me, the biggest let down was when John Williams stopped composing for the series. As with practically any movie franchise John has done, he sets up the musical vocabulary and tone for the films. However, once he no longer composed our musical vocabulary dried up.  From having all these wonderful melodies, we get instead quasi, wanna-be themes. They don’t stick with you cause they don’t have any substance.

So we went from the amazing soundtrack to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, including such amazing music like this selection from “The Knight Bus”…

…which is arguable one of the most jazzy themes we’ve heard from JW in recent years, and a heck of a lot of fun to listen to!

Then we get our roulette of composers, staring with Patrick Doyle. All of them have done admirable, but writing music that is nothing but cool sounding at the time. Nothing offensive, but nothing that make you want to go buy the album. Of Doyle’s best is this cool brass band-inspired tune.

Next in line for the job is Nicholas Hooper, who writes even less memorable music than Patrick Doyle, save one track which has some potential, Professor Umbridge’s theme! It is the only thing I left humming.

What I really don’t understand about the HP folks is why they seem to hire someone less known for each  movie, and most disconcerting is that these composers just dont have the composing chops of a blockbuster franchise. A British movie with a room and a view of a pond, sure. Harry Potter, hmm, not so much!

The most recent addition to the composers of Harry Potter is the Alexandre Desplat, an odd if not random choice. His biggest claim to movie music is the soundtrack from The Golden Compass, as well as some of the Twilight films. When I heard the opening titles, I was excited. This has potential! Unfortunately, due to a creative decision I’m sure, there are long sections of the new movie sans music. It fits the mood, etc, but wish I would hear more of Desplat to get a good feeling for him. At this time, I imagine Desplat will return for the final movie. JW is only rumored, but I imagine with only 7 or so months until release, we’d know if it were him writing the music. I am looking forward to some cool battle music from Desplat, who at times was channeling a bit of Hans Zimmer, and at times, a little Williams. Of the tracks of the new movie, this one is one of my favs!

I hope he is given a nice canvas to do some good work on the final Potter film! So any movie music people out there? Which HP film soundtrack has been your favorite (or your favorite parts)?

Do You Need Room for Some Clarinet in Your Coffee?

November 10, 2010 at 11:00 pm | Posted in Clarinet, Composers, Trombone | 1 Comment
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I just happened upon this post at the Improbable Research blog about a recent UK study testing the link between flavor and different musical sounds. The research results, encapsulated in the improbable-sounding (is that where they got the blog name?) “As bitter as a trombone: Synesthetic responses in nonsynesthetes between tastes/flavors and musical notes,” highlights the findings that even for people who are not synesthetic*, the different sounds of different instruments affect the perception of taste. To quote Martin Gardiner at Improbable Research:

For example, the piano was felt to be particularly appropriate for the taste of sugar — and quite unsuitable for brass instruments. Similarly, coffee was more woodwindy than brassy, and orange-flower was brassy rather than stringy. These newfound associations between flavours and individual instruments lead on to a new hypothesis — might similar matching effects occur with more complex sounds — and even perhaps with music in general?

The implications of this research could be felt — er, tasted — in restaurants near you. If experiments reveal that, say, low string sounds make tomato-based dishes taste more succulent, your next trip to the Olive Garden may find your family dinner conversation drowned out by an invasive, unwavering bass solo.

This may explain the existence of haggis, which may be the only food that tastes good while listening to bagpipes.

*Synesthesia is a condition in which a sensation normally felt in one sense is felt instead in another. A synesthete might, for example, hear colors, feel odors, or in this case, taste sounds. It is believed that a number of musicians were or are synesthetes, including Leonard Bernstein, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Billy Joel, Duke Ellingon, Tori Amos, and Eddie Van Halen.

What’s on Gilligan’s iPod?

October 20, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Posted in Composers | 2 Comments
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Just sit right back, and you’ll hear a tale…

You are stuck on a desert island, and you can only bring the MP3s/CDs of your top 5 favorite composers. (Apparently, you are also provided with an MP3 or CD player and an infinite supply of batteries in which to listen!)

5.  Richard Wagner: Alright, so a lot of people have problems with Wagner, but let’s leave all that aside. Musically, he writes some of the most exciting and bold music. It’s usually very brass heavy (Ride of the Valkyries anyone?) with some great melodic lines, amazing development of the melodic idea, and was one of the first to use the leitmotif. Favorite pieces include the aforementioned Ride of the Valkyries, Prelude from Act III of the opera Lohengrin, and The Ring.

4. Gustav Holst: His band music is written so incredibly well. It’s crafted in such a way that only a master could craft it. His compositions almost always feature something good for every instrument, be it melodically, or accompaniment wise. Stuff written for each instrument is in really good ranges, and seems to fall really easy on the instruments. Like his good friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams, these guys were big into the use of English (as in British) folk songs to create great compositions. And despite the fact that many people totally overlook or pass over his music, Holst is essential to the repertoire of the band world. Favorite pieces are First Suite, Second Suite, and of course The Planets!

3. Eric Whitacre: Wow, can this guy write some music or what?! One of the cooler things about Eric is that he is one of very few composers who can write for choir or band. His use of suspensions and resolutions, passing tones, and other harmonic devices give his music such a gorgeous quality. October is probably one of my favorite pieces of music. The harmonies are so lush! His choir stuff is really cool too.

2. Leonard Bernstein: I was too young to have seen anything Lenny did live, but this man was a true musician and really connected with audiences to make classical music part of their lives. His series of young people’s concerts are unlike anything that has ever been done. He was an amazing piano player and conductor too. His music is also quite varied, but has a heavy jazz influence. Favorite pieces include Slava, Overture to Candide, as well as his symphonic suites to On the Waterfront/On the Town and of course, West Side Story.

1. John Williams: Of all the composers, I could literally listen to John Williams all day. The fact is I think many people don’t give him credit because he is a movie composer. But if you took away the titles of his pieces and called them something else, they would still stand compositionally on their own. His ability to craft memorable melodies, he takes every instrument and uses it to its full potential with range, volume, use such amazing harmonic texture, and use development and counterpoint are just some of the things that makes John Williams “The Man”. He can both compose a piece that is lyrical and gorgeous, and something that is exciting. Don’t believe me? Don’t listen to the big stuff everyone knows: no Star Wars main theme or Imperial March, no Indiana Jones or Superman main themes. Go to the middle of the Empire Strikes soundtrack and listen as he takes an idea and really makes it come to life. One of the best tracks to show this: The Battle of Hoth. This is some incredibly exciting and well written music! His rich musical vocabulary makes him unlike most any composer!

So, what are your thoughts? Which 5 composers classical, concert band, or jazz would you choose?

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