Sometimes I wish I’d had a cooler childhood. Many of my friends have neat stories about discovering The Smiths at age 13 or getting drunk and listening to Springsteen (which I certainly do, but it’s for a different reason when you’re 30). My experiences were a little different. Sure, my dad used to play Electric Light Orchestra and Supertramp vinyls when we would clean the house and Paul Simon and B.B. King cassettes when we went on drives, which was awesome and formative, but most of my meaningful early experiences with music were with the classical music my grandparents and teachers would tell me about.A lot of my childhood was spent alone at the piano. After school, on weekends, when I would fake being sick so I could stay home alone with it, I revelled in the time I had with the instrument. I would play whatever I could get my hands on, as long as I liked it. My grandparents, who were very passionate about all kinds of music, would buy me CDs of famous works performed by illustrious pianists and conductors, and I would fall in love with certain sonatas or movements, sometimes buying the scores but usually printing them out from illegal sheet music sites in my high school library, daydreaming about them until I could go home and work on them. I loved Chopin’s nocturnes and Beethoven’s sonatas, Joplin’s rags and Ravel’s chamber music. I grew to love Serkin, Horowitz, Rubenstein, Bernstein, Goode, Abbado, Toscanini—so many great pianists and conductors.In addition to the piano I began playing saxophone when I was about 10. When I entered high school I decided to start taking lessons and I somehow made it into the studio of the St. Louis Symphony bass clarinet player James Meyer. Mr. Meyer taught me a tremendous amount about a whole range of cool things, such as zen meditation, martial arts defense moves, how to select and prepare reeds, and, most importantly, how to think about music. He exposed me to jazz, playing me my first real jazz record. It was Oliver Nelson’s 1961 Blues and the Abstract Truth, a hard bop masterpiece with unreal orchestration and elegant solos. I remember very clearly feeling like it was the dopest shit I’d ever heard. I bought the CD the following day at Borders. He also taught me about modern and postmodern music, from Debussy to John Adams. We played through everything we could.One summer Mr. Meyer was playing in the pit orchestra for a production of John Adams’ excellent 1987 opera Nixon in China. He showed me some of the sheet music and explained what post-minimalism was about. He said it was one of the hardest pieces he had ever played. I knew nothing about Adams or opera, but when I told my grandparents about it, they insisted that I have the opportunity to see it. My grandfather and I went to see Nixon in China a few weeks later—I found it exhilarating, new, and inspiring, but as a lifelong Puccini and Verdi fan, he did not like it very much at all. To this day I sing arias from that opera to myself when I am alone. Maybe it’s not as cool to some people as singing Springsteen, but I still think it’s pretty fuckin’ rad.
Following the US election on Nov 8, 2016, we asked Dowsers contributors to discuss the moods and music the results inspired. We collected their responses in a series, After the Election.I have studied music since I was a child, but in my memory there is one singular moment in which more was revealed to me about the potential of the art form than in any other event in my life. I was an undergrad student at Webster University, where I was studying music history and piano, when this metamorphosis happened. It was very simple: I was working on an assignment in the music building’s computer lab, half listening to a conversation between my friend Shumpei, a Japanese composition student, and one of the composition professors. Shumpei, for his senior project, was writing a symphony, and he was describing the work to the professor, saying that he was fleshing out this or that part of it on that particular day. The professor was intrigued by this project, especially because in today’s composition programs, most students are working in electronic, atonal, or highly-specialized experimental composition. For Shumpei to be writing a symphony was very strange. Then the professor posed the question that was immediately and permanently seared into my mind. He asked, “What’s it about?”It had never occurred to me that classical music could be “about” something. Clearly operas were about something, and program music was about something. But instrumental works? It seemed insane to me. My first thought was that the professor was joking, being facetious, testing Shumpei with an obviously rigged question. But as the conversation unfolded, I started to become attuned to a new plane of meaning in music. I became aware of its essence.I share this anecdote not only because it continues to resonate with me today in my work as a historical musicologist, but also because it frames the way I associate music with contemporary historical events. Whether one likes it or not, Trump’s election is the most significant, unexpected, and potentially transformative political event that has occurred in the adult life of a person my age. I am not saying this in the affirmative or the negative—I am merely being dialectical about it. It is going to produce a new political terrain. Neoliberalism is under siege, the Democratic Party has fractured, the category of “president” is changing, and, most importantly and ideally, the Left has a new position from which to critique—and hopefully overcome—capitalism. From a Marxist standpoint this is truly an interesting situation.I have found myself listening to Beethoven for the past week. At first I did not question it, for this is typical of someone in my line of work. But as I started to realize that I was listening almost exclusively to Beethoven, I began to wonder why this was. As I have thought about it for the past few days, I find myself contemplating not only Beethoven, but the French Revolution, Hegel, and subjectivity. I don’t intend to descend too far into philosophy here, but I will point out that for Adorno, Beethoven’s music represented a particularly sensuous, philosophical image of society. He believed that in Beethoven’s music resided hope and transformation, that his music personified the emerging human quest for consciousness, becoming spirit. “Art is more real than philosophy,” Adorno wrote in his fragments on Beethoven, “in that it acknowledges identity to be appearance.” This means that, to put it reductively, art’s forms, like those of society, are subject to change, that the whole is mediated by the individual parts, that the totality can become something greater than itself, something non-identical, something other.What will Trump do? I don’t really know. I want to believe that he wont be that bad, and that, in opposition to him, we will witness the first revolutionary Left that has existed during any of our lifetimes. In my opinion, this possibility—as the sectarian, dead “left” has shown in the past decades—could not have existed if Clinton had become president. The code word here is “revolution,” and it always must emerge in opposition to something. Trump is the better opponent.My point with all this is that I look to Beethoven’s music for hope, because it was truly revolutionary in every sense of the word—its forms, its relationship to tonality, and, of course (!) its dialectical relationship to the French Revolution. His music is living proof that spirit cannot be extinguished. Beethoven during his lifetime (1770-1827) witnessed the rise and delay of the possibility of freedom, and this had a profound impact on his development as a composer. In no other body of music can one bear witness to such dizzying moments of hope and despair.The Eroica asked what it would mean if a particular interval resolved upward instead of downward, allowing the listener to observe as the status quo of form was broken apart before their very ears, melodies conversing and intertwining, down literally becoming up. The fugue of the op. 110 piano sonata contemplates, among other things, what would unfold if a theme was inverted, played as its own negative. The counterpoint and orchestration of the “Harp” quartet is sublime, especially in the last 90 seconds of its first movement, which contains gestures that continue to legitimately blow my mind. The late quartets investigated tonality to its full potential, so much so, in fact, that most music for the following 75 years was a form of sublimation, trying to catch up to what Beethoven did. This is distilled in Josef Danhauser’s 1840 painting Liszt at the Piano, which shows Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt playing at the keyboard under the consterned bust of his great predecessor, a symbol of Beethoven’s domination of all of his 19th century pupils.To invoke the opening to this essay: What is music about? It is about humanity and possibility. It is an image of ourselves in which the rules do not have to apply, allowing us to work through our desires, our fears, our fantasies, and our losses. I conceived of this playlist as covering a range of classical works that I consider to have significant moments of beauty and freedom, but due to the lengths of the movements I would have selected, as well as the fact that for me, Beethoven is *the* subjective composer, I decided to make this a Beethoven Essentials, of sorts. These are some of his most inspiring flourishes of autonomy. I have listened to Beethoven this week because, if we were living in a sonata form, we would be in the development. There has been a thesis and an anti-thesis, and there is hope. Things are changing, whether we like it or not. It is up to us to determine how we recapitulate.
Few television shows in recent memory have managed to blend poignant social commentary with a delicate treatment of everyday lived experiences quite like Master of None, the brilliant Netflix comedy-drama created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. For their second season, the creators have developed another 10 episodes that easily stand alone as individual vignettes. But in each instalment, music always takes center stage. Ansari and music supervisor Zach Cowies 69-song compendium mirrors this seasons emotional arc and sharp sense of humor, looking beyond the expected indie soundtrack choices for an eclectic array that includes John Fahey, Dorothy Ashby, and even the Vengaboys.Even if you havent watched this season, you can sense the extreme contrasts between episodes through this playlist—the neo-classical film scores of Ennio Morricone (which accompany the season’s black-and-white premiere) give way to the pristine Italo-disco of Ken Laszlo and Mr. Flagio that accompanies the technicolor vibrancy of the second episode. However, the playlists most sublime selections benefit from onscreen recontextualization. When Dev (Ansari) and Navid (Harris Gani) skip Ramadan prayer to attend a pork-filled barbecue to the tune of Poison’s “Nothin’ But A Good Time,” the track instantly morphs into their personal elegy for religious obedience. Strangely enough, it’s a very smart choice. Master of None has done much to rewrite the narrative surrounding the onscreen representation of people of colour, and Ansari and Cowie have discovered that mission extends to musical choices as well—regardless of how cringe-worthy they may seem. Click here to follow this playlist on Spotify.
Most people don’t really know what a conductor does, and that’s understandable—much of a conductor’s work takes place out of the spotlight. Contrary to the belief held by some that the conductor is a largely dispensable figure who shows up, waves his or her arms for a few hours, and then takes home a big paycheck, the conductor is often the hardest-working member of the orchestra. A great conductor trains for decades to become great, usually mastering at least one instrument at the highest level. Along the way, he or she achieves a thorough knowledge of music history, a mastery of music theory, and an encyclopedic knowledge of how instruments work.Indeed, the conductor has to know each instrument’s part better than its own player does, and must understand how each of those parts can be best actualized. The conductor spends months learning 100-plus page scores, sometimes even memorizing them, in advance of orchestra rehearsals, which occur in the weeks before a performance. While studying the score, the conductor uses their years of experience and knowledge to interpret its contents, drawing from academic literature as well as recorded music to make executive decisions about phrasing, tempo, dynamics, rhythm, temporality, balance, and countless other aspects. In this sense, every performance of a work is a unique interpretation, even if, on the surface, many sound the same. Once the conductor shows up on stage on the night of the concert, he or she has spent many hours rehearsing that night’s piece with the orchestra, who will be playing, for better or worse, the way the conductor has instructed them to.Conductors are also responsible for selecting the music their orchestra plays, and the ones on this list—compiled by the BBC’s classical-music.com site—have surely been indispensable to the unfolding of music history over the past century. Mahler, for example, may never have become popular in the United States if Leonard Bernstein hadn’t obsessed over his music in the 1960s, producing the first complete recorded cycle of the composer’s symphonies. Nikolaus Harnoncourt and John Eliot Gardiner are both well-known for their important contributions not only to recorded music, but to the scholarship, advancing philosophies of historical performance practice and often insisting that their ensembles use historically accurate instruments. These two conductors seek to deliver interpretations that come from tireless academic study of both the source material and the conventions of its time period. Pierre Boulez was an austere conductor whose interpretations of modern and postmodern music cut to the chase, favoring transparency and clarity over large romantic gestures; some called him cold, while others said he was second-to-none in putting the emphasis on the musical material instead of catering to the emotions of the audience. Point being: Conductors are often (but not always!) rich thinkers who make important decisions about how, when, where, and why we hear music.We should take this list as authoritative, since the BBC polled 100 of the most important living conductors to create it, from Vladimir Ashkenazy to Michael Tilson Thomas. Fans of classical music have argued for years over the qualities and failures of this or that performance or recording, often descending into semantic insanity; however, few would argue that anyone on this list isn’t great. Use this playlist as a jumping-off point to venture forth and decide for yourself: Do you prefer Kleiber’s Brahms 4, or Harnoncourt’s? Furtwängler’s Bruckner 8, or Boulez’s? For Mahler: Bernstein or Abbado? Ultimately everyone has their own opinion of which conductor is the greatest, but the experts have spoken, and these are their selections.
Maya Beiser’s new album, the day, features two works by David Lang written for Maya. The day was composed as prequel to world to come from 2003. Where world to come chronicles the journey of the soul after life, the day chronicles our time on earth preceding that journey. Lang’s world to come was written for Maya in response to the events of September 11 at the World Trade Center (which shares the initials of the title piece, WTC). The two works are meditations on two journeys: the day on the mortal journey, and world to come on the eternal, post-mortal journey of the soul that follows.Maya says, “My new album, the day, is a meditation about life, death, and the afterlife. It’s not a lighthearted theme, but ours is not a lighthearted period. So I chose songs about the end and named my playlist ‘the day after.’ It sounded really gloomy, if appropriate. But then I thought that any time when people get together to make music is a good time. And music is innocent. To quote the great Neil Young: Don’t let it bring you down. There are still things we can do to make it better.”Follow Maya on Twitter and Instagram.
On Feb. 9, Icelandic experimental composer Jóhann Jóhannsson was found dead in his Berlin apartment. He was 48. Jóhannsson leaves behind a deep catalog of acclaimed solo albums and soundtracks (including his Academy Award-nominated scores for Sicario and The Theory of Everything). to help you navigate his vast musical universe, weve asked Glasgow-based composer Richard Luke to select 10 essential pieces. "These songs are all compelling but diverse in their ability to either sweep you away in a dream or zone you into something specific. Most of all for me, Jóhanns sense of melody had a lush darkness that I’m drawn to, particularly in The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black. Music that can affect a grave sadness with a sense of hope, or give a happy sentiment a sense of melancholy and nostalgia——that, to me, is like life: bittersweet. These qualities came easily to Jóhann and he was comfortable and generous with his powers. This gave his scores the simple ability to make movies better, more effective, more intense, more of whatever it is they were trying to be——and then something of himself). His solo work is even more intriguing——see: ‘Part 1/ IBM 1401 Processing Unit’ and ‘Flight From the City’——in the way he pushed the form with analogue tape, signal processing, effects, noises... he could make the normal sound haunting and weird, and the weird sound perfectly normal. This playlist celebrates some of my favorites from an exceptional back-catalogue. I’m sorry he’s gone——not least because it felt like even more was just around the corner."——Richard Luke
The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.
It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.
Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.