Friday Performance Pick – 120

John Mackey, Asphalt Cocktail

Have you ever thought of giving a musical composition to someone as a present? John Mackey’s 2009 Asphalt Cocktail came about in just such a way. An admirer of the Michigan State University Wind Ensemble and its conductor Dr. Kevin Sedatole asked composer John Mackey to write a new piece as a gift. In fact, commissioning compositions this way accounts for the creation of a lot of music throughout history.


Professor Carol, Evgenii Fuk, and John Mackey

But getting a commission to write music and finding the ideas needed are two different things. You may not know the name John Mackey, but he is one of today’s most gifted and successful composers. His following in what we sometime call the “band world” is enormous: he’s like a super-star. Wind ensembles around the world eagerly await his newest pieces.

Mackey’s compositions are infused with an edgy energy, but filled with rich harmonies and soaring melodies. They can also be explosive, bubbling over with electrical energy, complex rhythms, and a fascinating array of percussive colors.

Mackey is conscientious about his titles. He says that titles need to be like invitations to a party. They should tell the listener something about the music to follow. So with great assistance from his wife, who suggests many of his titles, he likes to employ vivid titles such as Frozen Cathedral (a stunning musical depiction of Denali/Mt. McKinley), High Wire (portraying the daring play of acrobats on a tightrope), and Sheltering Sky (rich harmonies, shimmering instrumental colors and folk-like melodies evoking the majesty of the sky).

But what is an Asphalt Cocktail? The phrase itself can mean different things, but primarily it’s used to describe a bad “wipe-out” while skateboarding. Mackey in fact was working in New York City, which put him in the mood to write a highly energetic piece. A fellow composer suggested the phrase as a possible title for his own composition! Mackey, captivated by the idea, asked to take it on and the friend assented.

The resulting piece reflects some of the most dazzling aspects of Mackey’s style. Watch these young performers as they grapple, seemingly effortlessly, with the complex changes in meter and rhythmic intricacy. Split-second accuracy is required in every part. There’s no rest for the players in a piece like this. Playing this piece probably does feel a bit like careening down a hill on a skateboard that’s about to crash.

It’s energizing to experience a new work like Asphalt Jungle. No matter how astonishing the beloved compositions from the past, music was never meant to remain a revered antique. Before recording technology, historical pieces did not have the staying power they do now. Very few popular pieces kept their popularity. New compositions were needed constantly.

Today the situation is all but reversed and composers have a difficult time breaking through the system to bring their works to today’s audiences—except in the world of wind ensembles, where there is almost a thirst for the newest, most exciting pieces. So, enjoy this performance and the young players who bring their skills to Asphalt Jungle.

And if you get interested in Mackey’s music, search out the titles listed above. Also, you might enjoy reading about a Kickstarter campaign that The Dallas Winds has just launched regarding their upcoming recording of many of Mackey’s most popular works. The Dallas Winds even will be live-streaming a good deal of the recording process to people who get involved in the campaign.

Can you imagine what composers of two hundred years ago would have thought about all of this? My guess it that, after their initial shock, they’d be ready to jump right into the excitement.

Friday Performance Pick – 119

Pergolesi, Stabat Mater

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.

I’m posting this week’s Friday Performance Pick a day early. Our weekly digest goes out on Thursday and, since the selection this week relates directly to Good Friday, we decided to adjust the timing.

weydenMany composers have set the text of the 13th-century hymn Stabat mater. The setting by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) has a remarkable sequence of dissonances that captures Mary’s anguish. The two vocal lines rise together, each moving in turn one step higher than the other. The dissonance of the voices sounding notes just one step apart resolves briefly only to resume a step higher. It’s hard to imagine a more effective musical portrayal of the scene, all within the conventions of Baroque counterpoint.

Pergolesi, as his dates indicate, had a very short life, dying of tuberculosis at the age of 26. He had significant success as an opera composer, particularly in the new comic opera style of opera buffa. His Stabat mater is his best known sacred work and became the most frequently printed composition of the 18th century.

The entire work has twelve movements. The featured video contains only the first.

Painting: Rogier van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross (detail) (c. 1435)

Friday Performance Pick – 118

Elgar, Lux Aeterna

elgarYou may recognize this piece as “Nimrod” from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. It is also often performed as a stand-alone work.

Writing in The New Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians about the Enigma Variations, Diana McVeagh says:

“Nimrod,” the Adagio core of the work, drops with serious, intimate effect from a single sustained G to the key of E-flat. “Nimrod” is among Elgar’s most impassioned utterances, a great-hearted melody, the 7ths built by characteristic sequences into a magnificent long crescendo, the climax diffusing gently to end in humility.

That’s a pretty good description of why this particular variation has gained such popularity. Its chorale style makes it possible to arrange for many different ensembles, and you can find quite a variety of arrangements on YouTube. The arrangement featured here is by John Cameron for eight-voice vocal ensemble. While a chorale style would normally lend itself well to voices, the melodic line in this work is characterized by wide leaps (the 7ths described above) and rather difficult to sing. The greater difficulty, however, lies in blending the voices and maintaining control over the emotional arch of the work. The British ensemble Voces8 manages to do all of those things very well. I have been listening to a number of recordings by this group of singers, and I suspect I will be featuring them again before long.

The text Lux Aeterna comes from the Communion antiphon in the Requiem Mass (the liturgy for the dead).

Lux æterna luceat eis, Domine,
cum sanctis tuis in æternum,
quia pius es.
Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine;
et lux perpetua luceat eis;
cum Sanctis tuis in æternum,
quia pius es.
May everlasting light shine upon them, O Lord,
with your Saints forever,
for you are kind.
Grant them eternal rest, O Lord,
and may everlasting light shine upon them;
with your Saints forever,
for you are merciful.

The Perils of Multi-Tasking

multi-taskingLet’s talk about something that may signal the end of civilization. Okay, maybe it’s not quite that serious, but it’s close. Multi-tasking. If you are young, you may be always multi-tasking and consider it so normal that you don’t even know there’s a word for it.

Multi-tasking may be appropriate in certain situations, but it is the enemy of every serious endeavor, and it will defeat your efforts to learn music if you let it creep into your listening routine.

Nobody does anything seriously and well while trying to do a lot of other things simultaneously. A professional NASCAR driver is not chomping on a hamburger and texting his girlfriend while he circles the track at 200 mph. How would you feel if your doctor insisted on watching “Dancing With the Stars” in the examination room?

Listening to music seriously requires you to pay attention. Yet much of the music we encounter these days is background music. It plays constantly in stores, in elevators, when we are on hold, and as a backdrop to conversation in restaurants. Someone has put it there to mask silence and to manipulate your emotions.

I have a simple rule: If music is worth listening to, then stop what you’re doing and listen to it. The corollary is this: If the music is not important enough to cause you to stop what you’re doing, then turn it off.

Now that sounds rather drastic and rigid, but I allow some exceptions. If you are engaged in a routine activity that does not require you to listen to something else, then you can probably listen to music while you do it. Driving alone or cooking dinner are good examples. It is possible to use your hands productively while listening to music. It is not possible to use your mouth or your ears on an unrelated task while listening to music. The listening won’t happen.

I encourage anything that adds to your focus on the music. For me, that has usually meant listening at night when I can set aside all distractions. Other members of the family are hopefully asleep. The phone is not likely to ring. I like listening with a good set of headphones (not earbuds!); it blocks out other sounds and puts the music up close and personal. I also like listening in darkness. If I could, I would enter a realm where I am conscious of nothing but the music, where there are no other stimuli. That may sound extreme to you, and it may sound positively frightening to a committed multi-tasker. But isn’t that essentially what you try to achieve in a movie theater—to focus all of your attention on the screen and to feel like you have entered some other time and place?

You will likely discover your own time and place for listening. If it permits you to focus on the music, then do it. If it doesn’t, or if you think you are the exceptional person who can really hear music while watching TV and chatting on the phone with your friends, then you might want to stick to “on hold” and elevator music. It was written especially for multitaskers.

Image: Ryan Ritchie (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Friday Performance Pick – 117

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet “Dance of the Knights”


Sir John Gilbert, Capulets and Montagues

This post is scheduled to appear when I’m somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. If you hang around Professor Carol, as I do on a regular basis, you will find yourself in some interesting places. I remember thinking something like that when I found myself in Russia for the first time. That trip included attending a performance of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet at the Mariinsky (Kirov) Theater in St. Petersburg. While Russia was new for me, Carol was chatting with her old buds in the orchestra during intermission.

The ballet is perhaps best known for the “Dance of the Knights,” which occurs at the Ball Scene. Its ponderous rhythm and hard edges capture the arrogance and tensions between the Capulets and Montagues. This link will take you directly to the ball. If you have the time to explore the entire ballet at that link, you would find it worth your while.

Prokofiev wrote Romeo and Juliet in 1935, at about the time he decided to return to his native Russia. He had left Russia for America in 1918 shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution and moved later to Paris. In his years in the West, he composed and toured as a concert pianist. His return to Russia was apparently driven by homesickness and accompanied by political naïveté. He explained:

Here I have to kow-tow to publishers, managers, committees, sponsors of productions, patronesses of art, and conductors each time I wish my work to be performed. A composer doesn’t have to do that in Russia. And as for ‘politics’, they don’t concern me. It is none of my business.

But if Prokofiev shunned politics, politics did not shun Prokofiev. Shortly after the move, Stalin’s Great Terror (1936-1938) began. Prokofiev would live out his life in the Soviet Union, dying on the same day as Stalin in 1953.

Friday Performance Pick – 116


Bach, Fugue in G Major, BWV 577 (“Gigue”) Since we all celebrated Bach’s birthday this week, I thought we should feature something festive by Bach. What, you missed his birthday? Pity, but it happens. A few years ago I went […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 115


Nestico, Songs of Erin and The Boys of Wexford Since St. Patrick’s Day falls on Friday this year, it seems appropriate to hear some Irish music. Of course, Nestico doesn’t sound like an Irish name, but never mind that, it’s […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 114


Schubert, Arpeggione Sonata What is an arpeggione, you ask? Pictured here, it seems to be a cross between a guitar and a cello. Hence its other name: “guitar violoncello.” It has six strings tuned like a guitar (in fourths rather than […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 113


Sor, Variations on a Theme by Mozart, Op. 9 Fernando Sor (1778-1839) was called “the Beethoven of the Guitar” by French composer François-Joseph Fétis. I’m not sure what Fétis meant by that. Sor was a contemporary of Beethoven who wrote in […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 112


Gounod, Marche funèbre d’une marionnette Those of a certain age will remember it as the theme music to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. From 1956 to 1965 (the show was expanded in 1962 to become The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), the popular show presented […] Read more.