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November 28, 2006

Real life
Posted by Patrick at 12:02 AM * 46 comments

Back from Montreal. More soon. Meanwhile, this, one of the most beautiful pieces of music of our age. (Via).

Comments on Real life:
#1 ::: Bruce Adelsohn ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 01:35 AM:

Lovely piece of music. I played it (mumble) years ago with the Suffolk All-County (high-school) Orchestra, and even at that level it was beautiful. I have three professional versions in my collection, and this makes four. Thank you.

#2 ::: random ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 01:39 AM:

I knew I heard that somewhere else before. It was in the movie "Master and Commander".

I agree that it's beautiful but I love almost any orchestra or choral melody akin to this.

#3 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 04:07 AM:

You discern what I cannot. I envy you. Not only do you have the joy of a beauty that I cannot see, but your experience is one of being included, integrated, of becoming a part of some greater whole, and of understanding and communicating. For me, every time I strain to comprehend and fail, it only deepens my frustration and sharpens my sense of alienation from my own culture, times and people.

#4 ::: Merlin Missy ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 09:02 AM:

I knew I liked you. :)

#5 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 09:03 AM:

The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is a wonderful piece, I agree.

Dave Luckett: What is the root of your alienation? There are people who tell me that I should not be enchanted by the music of Vaughan-Williams, or Coplant, or Rodrigo, or Shostakovich for examples because they come from (save the mark!) a culture which is supposed to be 'alien' from mine(or what those people deem to be my culture), yet I find remarkable solace and pleasure in them.

#6 ::: JC ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 09:39 AM:

Isn't it a kick? The chorus I sing in is currently preparing Vaughan Williams's Hodie for our Christmas concert.

I hope you and Teresa had a great time in Montreal.

#7 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 10:30 AM:

Fragano: I can't tell. Listening to that piece replicates every experience I have ever had with the music of Vaughan Williams - and I assure you, I've tried to listen to it. It seems to me that he endlessly tiptoes around in a formless cloud of sound out of which at any moment an actual melody might emerge, but one never does. I can see no consequence, no meaning to it. It doesn't make any sense to me. I can't say why not. It just doesn't, and all I experience is vague but mounting irritation, frustration and, eventually, resentment.

#8 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 10:46 AM:

Dave Luckett: I know exactly what you mean. I happen to enjoy Vaughn Williams, though not with rapture, but I have the same experience you describe with Arvo Part's Tabula Rasa and with Einojuhani Rautavaara's music -- great swelling hunks of sound, but it doesn't work for me. If I want swelling hunks of sound I'll listen to Wagner.

#9 ::: Mark ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 10:49 AM:

From this long-time, hardcore Ralph Vaughan Williams fanboy, thanks for linking us to that. Excellent way to start a snowy Seattle morn.

#10 ::: Tracie ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 10:52 AM:

I love the Vaughan Williams, but Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium is so beautiful it give me chills.
And this performance, by an amateur choir, is just astonishing.

#11 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 10:57 AM:

Dave Luckett: I find some post-modern music alienating in that way, though not the Vaughan-Williams.

#12 ::: JC ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 11:30 AM:

#10: Tracie:Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium is so beautiful it give me chills.

Another piece along the same line for me is the Franz Biebl Ave Maria

(I think the piece was really popular in collegiate a cappella for a while. I don't know if it still is. The performance I link to is one by Chanticleer.)

#13 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 12:26 PM:

Dave Luckett:

Have you tried Vaughan Williams' folksong-oriented stuff? Specifically "Greensleeves" and the "English Folksong Suite"? I blame them (and the lazy high school World History teacher who showed a National Geographic film about England, with them as the soundtrack) for turning me into a history major in college.

#14 ::: Mark D. ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 01:43 PM:

Many thanks for this! I don't find that the Fantasia records well, so it is good to have a live performance to watch. And it is very well conducted (I speak as a conductor myself.)

With that said, I have some sympathy for Dave's point of view. V-W's modalism gets....tedious...after a while.

#15 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 03:34 PM:

Dave, that's interesting. I know that Patrick has a more structural experience of music than most people, but I hadn't realized that for some listeners, RVW turns to mush. I'm guessing you're not a big fan of Thomas Tallis, either.

Are there any other musicians whose work sounds like that to you?

#16 ::: Jon Sobel ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 03:37 PM:

What Dave Luckett finds frustrating is precisely what I find enjoyable about this piece and others like it. It's a different kind of experience than you get listening to more melodic or dramatic types of music (like Beethoven or Mozart, or pop music). Following this music is rather like staring into a fire in the hearth, or watching the waves go by from the deck of a boat. There's no aim. There is a kind of simple beauty, derived from the co-existence of sameness and change, resting in a single mode but moving about within it, which some souls find very soothing and enjoyable.

#17 ::: Jeffrey Smith ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 07:13 PM:

I love the Tallis Fantasia, and much of Vaughan Williams. One of my all-time favorite cds is the Bryden Thomson collection of "Norfolk Rhapsody," "In the Fen Country," the Tallis Fantasia, and "Dives and Lazarus." (I see they've reissued it and added the Greensleeves Fantasia and "The Lark Ascending.")

But, Dave, don't get angry or even upset at not liking it. We like to think that we can be objective and like everything we "know" or are told is good, but our responses to art are individual. It's good to keep revisiting things to see if we might like it better this time, but don't worry about it. Vaughan Williams is beyond caring that you don't like his stuff.

I once had the classical pianist Gloria Cheng as a house guest, and admitted to her that while I had her Messiaen disc I had never been able to get into it; she said that while she loved Messiaen, she knew he wasn't to everyone's taste and that she appreciated me trying to listen to it.

For those here who are enjoying Arvo Part, do you have Gorecki's 3rd Symphony? The music is so quiet (and incredibly beautiful); I saw it live once and it looked like the musicians were just sitting on stage, not moving, and the music was just in the air. There used to only be two recordings of this, one by one of the European Radio Orchestras (which I first heard, but don't know which of them it was now) and the very popular one by David Zinman and Dawn Upshaw. There are lots of them now, and I don't know how good any of them are -- the Zinman/Upshaw one will do just fine.

I am currently listening to Zero Church by Suzzy & Maggie Roche. What an incredible album. It's a collection of prayers -- with a very elastic definition of "prayer." (Essentially, they asked people to send them prayers, and anything that got sent in was considered, whether it was an actual prayer, a statement as to "why I don't pray," a group of rules for living, or whatever.) I don't agree with all of the Roches' musical choices, but the high points are so much higher than the low points are low that I'm not going to complain about the things I don't like. I saw them live a month or so ago and they did a couple of these, including "A Prayer" written by Bill Barbeau, a fireman and Vietnam vet. It brought me to tears at the concert, and is equally devastating on the cd.

The lyrics are posted on the Roches website:

This is to the being I know as God

God please help me to be a better human being
As a young man, I killed a lot of people
for no good reason!
What became no good reason!
I would love to blame someone else, anyone
else for how I feel about what I did,
the killing.
What I thought I had to do to survive to be a
good American like my dad.
I must have had other choices.
I know I had other choices
Forgive me

I will try to do good things to my fellow human
beings like nursing,
Fighting fire and save lives. It's what I know.
Until you call for me, or whatever way you use
to make this pain end.
God; you can take me anytime!

#18 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 07:18 PM:

OK, knowledgeable people: is there any other Luciano Berio out there like his "Magnificat", which I did in a chorus over 20 years ago? I ask because it's got some of the same quality as Vaughan Williams; the music sort of floats.

#19 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 08:47 PM:

Teresa (15) I wonder if there is a parallel in graphic arts, particularly 20th Century abstract expressionist painting. When I visited the Tate, it was the chance to get close up to a Pollock that I remember. My mother was not as impressed (we did agree on the Turners, however). I am already saving up nickles and dimes to get to the opening of the Clyfford Still museum; others just see blotches of color. I wonder if it is well beyond a question of taste or background, something more like color blindness.

Tracie (10) O my very word. I have never heard Lauridsen before. Thank you, that was wonderful.

Jeffrey (17) How about John Tavener? Also, I am still astonished by that prayer.

#20 ::: Bruce Adelsohn ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 09:24 PM:

Claude #19: I'd make more of a parallel with Monet and the other Impressionists; there are forms present, but they're blurry, and never clearly resolve. If you're looking for a sharp image, then you're in the wrong place, but if you appreciate the suggestion of forms and the gestalt of the image, then bingo.

#21 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 09:31 PM:

Teresa, I don't know about it turning to mush. I can actually hear fragments of - I don't know - meaning? sequence? logical progression? in it. I almost said it's like listening to a foreign language that's close to yours, but not quite close enough to understand. That's not it, either, but it does convey that feeling of teasing elusiveness. It is that, I think, that produces the frustration.

Tallis - I have only his Mass for Four Voices and a selection of motets. I like Hildegard Von Bingen more, but that's the sere austerity of it, everything stripped back to stark white. Tallis makes sense to me. Yes, he meanders, but he gets somewhere. With Vaughan Williams the crescendoes always feel somehow rootless, arising from nothing, falling away into nothing, going nowhere. Tallis will produce a sudden key shift that feels like a fracture, a breach in the world that has to be confronted and healed, but Vaughan Williams seems to be saying that the world is all broken, and all we can do is observe small disconnected fragments of it. Some of these are beautiful, but the significance is gone from them.

But the significance is why I buy my ticket.

#22 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 10:06 PM:

Ah, the Fantasia: the only reimagining of early music that I like better than the original. I think of it as "New Age meanderings for people with brains." Dave is right when he says that it doesn't go anywhere, but sometimes that's a feature. Some days I want to hear it over and over, some days I scream and turn on Purcell's Funeral Sentences. (Now there's some crunchy dissonance.)

The Lauridsen and Biebl are nice, but the pastiche is too audible to satisfy me. It's like looking at a Viollet-le-Duc "restoration" instead of a 12th-century fresco, or reading the Steinbeck King Arthur instead of Malory or Chr├ętien.

#23 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 10:53 PM:

Dave: For me, the Vaughn Williams Fantasia is like some of my favorite Impressionist landscapes. They're not narrative, and they don't concentrate on the fine details of form. What they're about is the light and color and overall shapes of that place, at that moment.

The Fantasia doesn't really do much. It's like a collection of beautifully assembled pieces from a longer work we have to take as read. For a while it plays with the Tallis theme, but it doesn't move it any great distance. If I had to define it as being about anything, I'd say it's more about Vaughn Williams' feelings about Tallis than it is about anything else.

#24 ::: random ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 11:14 PM:

Adagio on piano one of my favorite pieces of music in any form. I been listening to it for years (since I was a kid) and I just did a search looking for more performances of it, turns out it's the MOST downloaded classical song on iTunes. Not that joke techno ripoff version, the actual genuine article. Apparently a lot more people have gotten into classical in the past few years.

I'm looking forward to a time when I can mention "Air on the G string" and not getting slapped in the face.

#25 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 11:15 PM:

Yes. Narrative. That's something to do with it. It must be related, somehow, to the fact that I experience narrative as essential to a novel, and can't manage if the writer simply doesn't see it that way, or is more interested in something else.

#26 ::: Nancy C ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 11:36 PM:

random, I am glad that I am not the only person who has ever noticed the title of that piece...

#27 ::: random ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 11:52 PM:

It's a wonderful ice breaker at parties...
*walk up to some girl with your violin and the twinkle of a virtuoso in your eye*
"'scuse me miss would you like to hear 'Air on the G string'?"


#28 ::: Jeffrey Smith ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 12:28 AM:

Claude (19) -- Tavener, yes, I have several cds by him. He's so prolific I can't claim to "know" his work, but I like a number of the short pieces I have, and "The Protecting Veil" is very much for people who like the Gorecki and similar works. I'm fond of both versions I have: the Stephen Isserlis, which I think was the first; and the Yo-Yo Ma, which I was lucky enough to hear in rehearsal the night before it was recorded.

#29 ::: Jack Womack ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 08:09 PM:

Dave, have you heard RWV's "The Lark Ascending"? If not, you may want to give that one a try -- the central theme has enough of a melodic structure that I can whistle it, and it does at least build, climax, and diminish.

"Fantasia" is (to my ears) magnificent but more impressionistic, yes. That is to say, as Teresa has noticed -- it wanders.

As for Tallis, his "Spem in Alium" is the only piece of music that invariably sends this particular agnostic into religious ecstacy (well, that and "Venus in Furs"), so if you haven't listened to that one, it's well worth a try. It also starts somewhere.

My favorite version of Lark is Pinchas Zuckerman's rendition on DG but most any will do to give the general idea. Granted, I like it well enough that I've told my wife it's the one piece of music I want played at my funeral (no rush) so I am prejudiced...

#30 ::: Cassie ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 09:24 PM:

Tracie at #10, thank you for posting that link. I haven't sung that in a while-- I think it was high school, even-- and the distance finally made me realize that the song I sang wasn't the song everyone else heard. Usually I zero in on the soprano part to the exclusion of most else.
I shall now waste time searching for specific bits of choral music on the Internet. Such pretties, even if no one seems to notice which Ave Maria they've posted!

#31 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 11:35 PM:

Dave L: I'm not in raptures over this piece either, but it's one piece; there's a lot of other RVW that is much less unfocused --- cf his first symphony and Dona Nobis Pacem, both settings of Walt Whitman poetry (with additional texts in the latter. I'm a fairly serious choral singer, so most of my favorites are choral simply from experience; it's true there is a difference between listening and performing, but I don't think it's quite that dramatic.

#32 ::: Scott Spiegelberg ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2006, 10:33 PM:

#18: You should listen to Berio's Folk Songs Suite, a song cycle for soprano and chamber ensemble. A great recording of this is Dawn Upshaw, on the Ayre CD. The other half of this CD is a very interesting song cycle by Golijov.

#33 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2006, 10:33 AM:

Dave Luckett, you have been noticed.

#34 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2006, 11:02 AM:

I am not sure what it says about me that when I read "Air on a G string" in conjunction with "getting slapped," my mind failed to present me with images of burlesque artists, instead choosing to wonder "But do people really have such strong objections to Procul Harum's 'A Whiter Shade of Pale'?"

#35 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2006, 11:33 AM:

Also, I'm listening to the RVW piece now, and I'm forced to conclude that my ear for music is hopelessly and permanently skewed towards the four-minute pop song.

It's pleasant enough. But it's wallpaper. I don't get an emotional response at ALL.

I'm not without a grounding in classical music. I played flute through my school years, and have sung Bach cantatas. Now, the Bach DID produce something like religious ecstasy, even though the text wasn't talking about my religion... it was the physical experience of singing it. The soprano-only movement in "Christ lag in todesbanden?" Amazing.

But there's precious little in classical music that can provoke the visceral response I get to something like the Cruxshadows' "Sophia" (if I could only turn it up loud enough, I am sure I could glide on it, like a hawk soaring on thermals) or the opening bass riff of the Smithereens' "Blood and Roses" (which grabbed me the first time I ever heard it on the radio, before one word of the lyrics appeared). Even with something as blatant as the John Williams Star Wars music, I'm not sure if I'm reacting to the sound, or to the associations with a beloved story (although "Binary Sunrise" encapsulates yearning for me as nothing else does).

If I'm sitting through a performance of classical music that doesn't also involve fireworks or stage spectacle, I confess I have to start imagining it as a film score, preferably one with deep-space dogfights, or I lose focus entirely.

And yet anything in Mixolydian mode (it's not just the Coventry Carol, although that was the first example I discovered) gives me reverent chills.

I don't understand my own responses to music. Not at all.

#36 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2006, 09:59 PM:

A perfectly reasonable response, Rikibeth. I don't understand my own response, as I tried to make clear above, but on reflection I believe Teresa's right, and it's because I see all art in terms of narrative. This is self-limiting, of course; but it is also curiously satisfying, because it is self-reinforcing. I don't think I'd want to trade a general appreciation for all forms for my keen pleasure in forms that resonate with my own sensibility.

#37 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2006, 01:19 AM:

I don't think we can trade off. We have the reactions we have. We can refine them and get better at them, but we can't swap them for a different set we think we ought to have.

Rikibeth, "Binary Sunrise" (or is it sunset?) hit me in exactly the same spot, from the first moment I heard it.

#38 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2006, 01:12 PM:

Scott #32

Thanks. Sounds a great combination; I love folk song thingys, and have been meaning to follow Golijov up after reading a piece or two about him in the NYT.

#39 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2006, 02:39 PM:

#37 - Binary Sunset is probably my favorite Williams theme (though Yoda's Theme is a close second).

A couple of weeks after the first Star Wars film was released I attended a film convention. In the dealer's room there was a gentleman selling soundtracks. He was playing the one from Star Wars and I startled him by identifying the segment of the film where that particular cut of music first appeared.

He played other cuts from the film and I had no difficulty repeating the exercise. He seemed to think my ability to do this was unusual, but I was (and am) of the opinion that everyone is able to do this...doesn't the music conjure the scene for everyone?

#40 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2006, 02:50 PM:

My favorite John Williams score probably is the one for 1978's Superman, especially the scene where Clark tells his human mother he has to leave.

#41 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2006, 03:07 PM:

I've always loved this piece. It's what led me to Tallis himself, whom I regard as perhaps the greatest choral composer who ever lived (sometimes I think it's Palestrina).

#42 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2006, 10:59 PM:

I think I'm on record around these parts saying that I think "Spem in alium" may be the loveliest piece of music ever. OTOH, I recall that I bounced off Vaughan Williams the last few times I heard him, but the Tallis fantasia is heart-stoppingly beautiful. I wonder if I ought to give him another chance.

#43 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2006, 05:39 AM:

One of my favorite classical CDs has two pieces by Tallis (one being "Spem in alium") -- and Gregorio Allegri's "Miserere," which the Vatican used to have a jealously guarded monopoly on. I find "Miserere" even more glorious than "Spem in alium," truth be told.

#44 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2006, 05:41 AM:

Satie's Gymnopedies. Or pretty much anything by de Bussy. I put that on if I'm feeling down and voila!

#45 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2006, 10:19 AM:

Peter Erwin, I think I may have that same album, though I think of "Miserere" as a close second.

#46 ::: annette ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 11:39 AM:

I just found this sight. Listen to "Song" by Vaughn Williams it is nestled in Hodie. The words are by Milton and it is gorgeous, especially at this time of year.

The Trois Gymnopedia is has a sad history and it comes through just as it was written. I will not listen to it if I am sad.

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