Category for Music

What is the musical analog of poetry? (Moonlight)

Composer Nicholas Brittel talks to Song Exploder about how he discovered the theme to Moonlight:

On what drew him to Moonlight:
When I first read [the script], I was just overwhelmed by this feeling of beauty and poetry, that was really the starting point for my personal experience with the film. There was just this incredible sense of beauty and of sensitivity and tenderness and intimacy in the screenplay. What was amazing to me when I first saw the early cuts of the film after it was shot was how well Barry had preserved that feeling of poetry in the movie.

My first emotional reaction to the film was that sense of poetry. I actually was saying to myself, What is the musical analog of poetry? Among the first things I sent to Barry was a piece of music I wrote that I called “Piano and Violin Poem,” because I was sort of trying to channel this idea — that actually [turned into] Little’s theme.

When it comes to the Academy Awards tomorrow night, La La Land will probably win for best score (and most other categories) but Moonlight’s score is in fact musical poetry — deserves rememberi

As the composer manipulates the sound itself, algorithmically dropping the pitch and in other ways reworking Little’s theme, refracting it so it’s almost but not quite unrecognizeable, we hear memory itself grinding gears, struggling to process the emotions it stirs up.

The only flaw in the score, sez me, is that the official version doesn’t include “Hello Stranger,” the classic R&B song with which the story concluduesa. So I”m including it here.

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A country Nirvana song via Sturgill Simpson

NPR and Rolling Stone today both note the arrival of new country star Sturgill Simpson’s version of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” The second song on the epochal Nevermind album, universally agreed to be the band’s masterpiece, and as well Country Love’s fave song on the record, Sturgill completely upends it. Sez me.

The Nirvana version is as hard as rock can be; with massively crunchy guitars, Cobain at full yowl, and an abiding sense of discovery and self-loathing — or so it seemed to me. Of course I found out the song was an ode to a close friend of Cobain’s who loved to shoot guns but didn’t seem to understand what that could mean, which in retrospect makes the song darker than its prideful roar might indicate. Perhaps Cobain envied his oblivious friend.

To Sturgill, who was in middle school when the song came out, it sounded much different, as he discussed with Rolling Stone:

The Kentucky singer-songwriter penned every track on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth except one — a cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” off Nevermind. The tortured Kurt Cobain, and that seminal 1991 grunge album in particular, were an inspiration to the junior-high Simpson.

“I remember in seventh or eighth grade when that album dropped, it was like a bomb went off in my bedroom. For me, that song has always summed up what it means to be a teenager, and I think it tells a young boy that he can be sensitive and compassionate — he doesn’t have to be tough or cold to be a man,” explains Simpson. “I wanted to make a very beautiful and pure homage to Kurt.”

I love what Simpson has done with this song, even though to me it’s as different as it can be. Adding “love” to the chorus changes everything. Or does it? Love the gentleness, the sorrow, the deep understanding.

Must confess I don’t get the video at all, but oh well — I rarely do understand music videos these days.

More Sturgill? Sure — how about a Tiny Desk Concert? Man can that guy pick a guitar. Jeez.


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Have you seen the stars tonight? (paul kantner)

Rock star Paul Kantner died yesterday, news that made the front page of the New York Times,. Over the course of a career nearly fifty years long, Kantner came up with a ton of dazzling songs, many of which became 60’s classics (Wooden Ships, Today).

At the same time he wasn’t a star likely to be recognized on the street. He had an everyman look, with dorky glasses, and didn’t put on airs, from what I can tell. Nor did he posture as a lone genius, or even often take a solo. Many of his songs had puzzling lyrics, perhaps because he ingested large amounts of psychedelic drugs, but some of them rang true.

Kantner had a rare gift for collaboration, The NYTimes: ,

With the breakup of the Jefferson Airplane in the early 1970s, Mr. Kantner began exploring his pet themes on a solo album, “Blows Against the Empire,” which had a science-fiction mini-epic on one side, as well as in the albums he recorded with Jefferson Starship, notably “Freedom at Point Zero” and “Modern Times.”

“We said what needed to be said,” Mr. Kantner told People magazine in 1981. “There was an obvious call not to turn the other cheek when we were being slapped by the system.”

But, he added, “The rock bands of the ’60s supplanted the football and military heroes, and just as all those heroes had fallen when put to the test, rock musicians proved they had no more of an answer to saving the world than anybody else.”

Hmmm. Sci-fi epic about a massive war between civilizations set in deep space. Little or no mention of earth. “Blows Against the Empire.” Reminds one of a certain movie, but never mind.

Although it was a solo project, much of his old band and several major rock stars in their own right (Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, Graham Nash) joined Kantner in this project, which became known as Jefferson Starship.

Rolling Stone today released a list of 12 essential Jefferson Airplane songs. It’s good, but doesn’t mention what is arguably Paul Kantner’s and company’s single best song (because it’s an early Jefferson Starship song — back in the days when the “starship” meant something).

Have you seen the stars tonight?

(Here’s a surprisingly good YouTube version of the recording — worth seeing and hearing.)

Back in the day, when I had a record player, and this on vinyl, I would play just this single song — and ignore the rest of the record. But I did love this song…

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What part of me: Low

That fascinating band from Duluth, Low, has a new record coming out in a couple of weeks. Boy does it sound good:

Not much to see in the video, tho.

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Eliza Gilkyson solo for Acoustic Guitar

Eliza Gilkyson, despite having been nominated for a Grammy last year, remains one of our most-overlooked pop stars.

Well, not pop. As a singer, a songwriter, and guitarist, she shines brilliantly from afar, as she demonstrates in a lovely interview and performance for Acoustic Guitar. In her quiet way, she’s fierce.

Acoustic Guitar Sessions Presents Eliza Gilkyson

The above has an especially nice version of her “Roses at the End of Time,” one of her best recent songs.

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Honduran child refugees: What Woody Guthrie would say

American journalism has begun to catch up with the news about child and young adult refugees from Central America, about 57,000 of whom have tried to find a new life in the U.S. this year, in many many cases to escape murder and terrorization by the the gangs who dominate their neighborhoods. 

An excellent story in the LA TImes this week on the subject began this way:

By the time Isaias Sosa turned 14, he'd already seen 15 bullet-riddled bodies laid out in his neighborhood of Cabañas, one of the most violent in this tropical metropolis. He rarely ventured outside his grandmother's home, fortified with a wrought iron gate and concertina wire.

But what pushed him to act was the death of his pregnant cousin, who was gunned down in 2012 by street gang members at the neighborhood gym. Sosa loaded a backpack, pocketed $500 from his mother's purse, memorized his aunt's phone number in Washington state and headed for southern Mexico, where he joined others riding north on top of one of the freight trains known as La Bestia, or the Beast.

Crossing the Rio Grande into Texas, Sosa was apprehended almost immediately by Border Patrol agents as he desperately searched for water.

After a second unsuccessful attempt to enter the U.S. last fall, he now spends most of his days cooped up at home, dreaming of returning yet again.

"Everywhere here is dangerous," he said. "There is no security. They kill people all the time."

"It's a sin to be young in Honduras."

Last month a deeply informed New York Times story on the wave of young people from these regions found kids leaving these different countries for largely different reasons. From Honduras, they left to avoid being murdered. 

“Basically, the places these people are coming from are the places with the highest homicide rates,” said Manuel Orozco, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based research group. “The parents see gang membership around the corner. Once your child is forced to join, the chances of being killed or going to prison is pretty high. Why wait until that happens?”

A confluence of factors, including discounted rates charged by smugglers for families, helped ignite the boom, he said. Children are killed for refusing to join gangs, over vendettas against their parents, or because they are caught up in gang disputes. Many activists here suggest they are also murdered by police officers willing to clean up the streets by any means possible.

The trauma makes the hatred shown to these youngsters all the more painful to bear.

A friend named Rain Perry, a classy singer/songwriter, for her wonderful monthly semi-improvisational Song Game, rewrote Woody's classic on the same subject, Deportee, for today, and touchingly so. I'll post the full lyrics below, for the curious, but here's the chorus and a concluding verse, which just kill me. 

Is this the best way we can secure our borders?
Is this the best way we can fight the drug war?
Screaming at children who have crawled through the desert
In a country build by…refugees.

Fleeing the streets of my Chamelecon
Was like jumping from the window of a building in flames
They're sending the first ones back to Honduras
All I can think is to try it again 

[I'll also post or link to a basic recording of her singing her version of Woody's "Deportee," backed by JB White.]

And, in tribute to Woody Guthrie in his 102nd year, here is a page of Woody's notes. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame, who was part of the Mermaid Avenue group that put to music some of the many songs Guthrie never finished, told NPR that being allowed to go through his diary and notes was like being allowed to touch a sacred historical object, comparable to the Declaration of Independence.


 Here are Rain Perry's full lyrics to the song — and here's her site.
My father would take me to the Rio Bermejo
In the beautiful forests of El Merendon

But seven young schoolgirls were found there last winter
Face down in the water with their backpacks still on

San Pedro Sula is no place for children
We flash our headlights to show we belong on our street
My brother’s wife Linda was shot on the sidewalk
Spray paint on my door – I took my daughters with me

Hasta Pronto Abuelo y Tia Lucia
I’m coming back home with my little familia
From this overfilled room near the Mexican border

On a big chartered airplane we are returnees
We slept in the churches — we slept under buses
My little girl brave holding my hand
600 miles till we’re crossing the border
A door in the distance like a lake in the sand

“Send them back with birth control”
“When they jump the fence, they’re breaking the law”
“mi casa no es su casa”
“Return to Sender” were the signs that we saw


Fleeing the streets of my Chamelecon
Was like jumping from the window of a building in flame
They’re sending the first ones back to Honduras
And all I can think of is to try it again

Is this the best way we can secure our borders?
Is this the best we can fight the drug war?Screaming at children who have traveled the desert
In a country that was built by refugees


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Neil Young versus Crosby Stills and Nash: the Doom tour

Here’s an example of a forgotten little classic from that l974 tour, with Stills playing a countryish piano cunterpart, from the last performance on the road in Wembley England.

Today Crosby Stills Nash & Young released a massive live compilation of recordings from their huge and infamous "Doom" tour of 1974 (yes, that's right, forty years ago). Thirty-plus songs, from thirty-plus performances, before crowds averaging 50,000, we are told. 

In the Wall Street Journal, in Rolling Stone, on Jimmy Fallon, in Drowned in Sound, and no doubt in an almost infinite number of venues we'll see the old would-be left coast beatles discussed and interviewed. Maybe we'll even hear some of the music. Despite the band's tendency to go over the top lyrically, the record — over which Graham Nash in particular labored for years — has won great reviews. 

Crosby has blamed the jerkiness of the band at the time on cocaine, and from watching film of their talks backstage more than one insider admits that they sound like pompous jerks, and in particular the candid Graham Nash admits with regret that he was a terrible drug addict at the time. 

Bassist Tim Drummond in an oral history today said that Bob Dylan happened to visit, and played songs from his "Blood on the Tracks" record to him and Stills in a hotel room. Drummond was in total awe. Stills sneered at it as "not good" to Dylan's face, which has to be about the crassest possible move, short of actually attacking Dylan with a stick or something. It's an interesting story

But note that in this flood of talk, Neil is not saying a word. Not one word. Not to Rolling Stone, not to the Wall Street Journal. He's made his feelings about the tour plain for years. During the tour he split from the hotel penthouses, the jets, the free food and drink, the drugs, the groupies, the rip-offs. 

Graham Nash to the WSJ:

During the tour, Neil's album "On the Beach" was released and he began traveling separately in a mobile home and then a bus. It was typical Neil. [Mr. Young wasn't available to comment for this article.] The timing of its release was probably part of the reason he did the tour. But Neil also was our conscience. One night after a show, we all went back to our hotel suite where we had the entire top floor. It was decadent. Every night there were huge plates of food set up, like cold lobster for dozens of people. Neil was disgusted by the excess. There were even pillows embroidered with Joni's tour logo as well as china and luggage. Hey, we didn't ask for all that. This soured Neil a bit and, in retrospect, he was right.

Plus, unlike many wince-worthy CSN&Y songs, most of Young's songwriting — which is at its best at his simplest — stands up to time's long gaze without apparent effort.

Here's an example of a forgotten classic from that l974 tour, with Neil on guitar and harmonica, Crosby and Nash harmonizing perfectly, and Stills playing an eloquent country-ish piano counterpart to Neil's plaint, from a last performance in Wembley England. 

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“Silliness” of Schubert vs. “haunted” Janacek: Jeremy Denk

Last week the Ojai Music Festival began with a sublime performance of classical piano music, using a contrasting variety of compositional styles the likes of which this reporter has never heard orseen, brilliantly introduced and played by Jeremy Denk, a blogger.  

Actually Denk has no time to blog these days, between his awards, his preformance schedule, his teaching schedule, and writing essays for The New York Review of Books (on Ives) and The New Yorker, (on piano lessons). 

His introduction to his opening program of Schubert and Janacek was perhaps the most charming and witty such pre-performance talk yours truly has ever heard. Denk self-deprecatingly claimed that he was serving as a a sort of "warm-up band" to the second half of the show, a swinging version of Mahler by Uri Caine, by playing a "fragmentary" introduction. 

"I'm trying to create a sort of iPod shuffle of Eastern European anxieties," Denk said, to laughter in the crowd. He contrasted the "incredible haunted thinkings-over of folk tunes and bits of tunes and childhood memories" of the Czech composer Janacek against some frolicsome dances by Schubert, saying he  "thought these are like visiting the same anxieties, the same pieces, the same problems eighty years earlier. The first two pieces are like, in some weird way, the same piece," he said, added that the two opening and contrasting pieces began with the same few notes. 

He described this as "inward, intimate" music, and said at the end he put one of the "silliest things that Schubert ever wrote" against one of Janacek's "most profound and tragic utterances." 

The stream is a little herk-jerk to start, but the playing is spectacular:  

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

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The slow pulse of nature, via Beethoven (and others)

Alex Ross of The New Yorker is by acclamation the most loved of classical music critics today. This spring he gently lauded a new pianist, Igor Levit, for his playing of Beethoven at his most natural. 

In his words I heard an echo of an idea from Carl Jung about the connection between introspection and nature. In a previous post I quoted a passage from Jung's memoir in which he revealed how he found himself, or, to be exact, a part of himself. He found "Personality #2," a character he liked more than his social self, when alone in nature. Ross discusses a fascinatingly similar idea in the context of this pianist's performance of a solo piano sonata from Beethoven, a composer who voiced nature as much as any other. 

The New Yorker site is a nightmare to work with as a blogger, for reasons I am too hick to understand, even as a registered subscriber who knows his password. Lord knows why this is necessary for a publication as rich in resources as this pre-eminent magazine, but let forge on as best we can, for those who would search to understand the experience of nature in prose:

For context, here's a portrait of Levit, a publicity still, which I will frame with Ross's eloquence. 

IgorlevitA few months ago, the arrival of a debut recording…had me in a skeptical mood. The cover showed a well-dressed young man leaning over a piano, languidly dragging his fingers along the keys. The program contained the last five sonatas of Beethoven: two hours of sublime riddles, the realm of…erudite masters such as Maruizio Pollini and Mitsuko Uchida. What prematurely hyped whippersnapper would introduce himself in such a fashion? After a few minutes, I was transfixed. Here was playing of technical brilliance, tonal allure, intellectual drive, and an elusive quality that the Germans indicate with the word Innigheit, or inwardness. 


In the ethereal theme-and-variations movement that ends Opus 109, Levit revealed a…gift for cantabile playing, for spinning out a long, lyrical line. Younger performers often have troubling falling into the kind of mood that Beethoven describes as "Songful, with innermost feeling." It is the tempo of walking in the woods, of humming to oneself, of finding the slow pulse of nature. Whether or not Levit indulges in such antiquated behavior — his tweets make no mention of it — he has an uncanny ability to let the music amble away into a summery haze. 

Surely Jung would understand. And although Igor's performances of this sonata cannot be found for free on the web, justifiably, here's a very nice live playing of Beethoven's PIano Sonata #30 in E Major from Aaron Wajnberg on Soundcloud, to give you an idea of the piece. Above Ross talks of the third movement. 


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A letter home (on global warming): Neil Young

Neil Young just let slip news of a record relase, in a paradoxical, almost confusing way, embedding the release in a voice and a raw 1947 technology that has to be heard to be believed (and appreciated). 

It's called A Letter Home, a reference to the remarks below. It's richly appealing and enjoyable, about as good as folk music gets, and Young's best recording in years, though the mid-century technology has a lot of flaws, and crazily he doesn't include any of his own songs in the selection. (He did in performance, as he's been touring across two nations and a continent these past months in similarly naked style — solo.) 

The record's not available on CD, at least not yet, though it is available on vinyl, and iTunes, and (streaming) via the Rare-ish Music channel on YouTube

The streaming in this case turns out to be a richly ironic experience, with no song titles, no way of knowing how long a song will run, and a lo-fi sound worthy of a Woody Guthrie in his prime. It sounds as if it was recorded in a phone booth — which it was — but it's a wondrously warm, rich sound.

Before beginning to sing and play, Young speaks right to us. Let me transcribe such, to make these remarks searchable for the curious: 

Hey Mom. It's me again…my friend Jack [White] has this box, that I can talk to you from. Its still going in here, I can still do this. Listen, Jack and I, well we've discovered a lot of old songs, we've rediscovered the songs I used to sing, you know, at Grosvenor, from the records I used to play?

So I'm going to send some of these to ya:

And he goes on to sing and play some wonderful songs that we all know, such as Early Morning Rain, and a few wonderful songs that almost none of us (myself included) know, and it's a great great experience, but before he begins, he says (in part):

You know how we used to watch the weather all the time? On the TV? And you know how we used to know what was happening up there in Winnipeg? Well I met this this guy named Al and he's the weatherman for the whole planet, if you can imagine that. And he's sometimes not popular. And this is very strange but people can turn on the weatherman. When the weather is going to be bad, they actually turn on the weather man, and they put him down. Things haven't been that great lately, I mean, most of the time, day to day, it's fine? Most of the time the weather is good, but now and again all hell breaks loose, all across the planet? It's like nothing I've ever seen before, and it seems to be happening everywhere. Here and there and everywhere, all over the planet. So even though Al's forecasts are good, he gets in trouble. So I thought I'd tell you about that, and I miss you Mom. I'll be there eventually but not for a while… 

His first song is Phil Ochs' "Changes"…a song that he says inspired his own "Harvest." 

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