Archive for the 'Music' Category

Dylan wins the Nobel Prize

October 13, 2016

I am delighted by the news today that Bob Dylan, my long-time pop-music pole star, has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Instead of entering into speculations about whether a tune-smith really deserves to be so honoured, let’s enjoy the moment. Many happy returns!


I’ve written a lot about Dylan over the years. A list of posts should pop up if this link is clicked.

Things blight and beautiful

September 30, 2016

A few brief noteworthy items:

  • The Tragically Hip have been on tour in Canada, a final, farewell tour that was organized after frontman Gord Downie announced that he has brain cancer. Non-Canadians probably don’t understand the place of The Hip in Canadian pop culture: a band that at least aspires to art, that has nonetheless been consistently popular here, but a band that never made it big outside our borders. I am not a huge fan, but I will be sorry to see them go, and naturally I wish Downie and his family well. That said, the laudatory coverage of this final tour in the Canadian press has been a bit hard to take at times, and I admit I was rather grateful for this high-spirited critique of their “spasmodic non-sequiturs and salvos of blurry amplification”.
  • For the opposite of blurry amplification, check out this charming video of Boris Giltburg, who found an upright piano in a train station and decided to pass the time by tinkling a few keys. (The music is the middle section of Prokofiev’s Sonata No.7.) Isn’t music a wonderful thing? (Hat-tip: The Music Salon)
  • Speaking of beauty, an interview with Peter Kwasniewski reviews a century of Catholic teaching on sacred music and argues that the beauty of our worship should be a central concern for Catholics:

Human beings need beautiful things; human beings long for beautiful music that is suited to divine worship. The liturgy is supposed to be special; it’s not supposed to be an everyday affair. It’s not supposed to look or sound like the prevailing popular culture. It’s supposed to be different, distinctive, an encounter with the transcendent God.

  • A few years ago I reviewed Robert Reilly’s wonderful book Surprised by Beauty, an alternative history of twentieth-century music that focused on composers loyal to tonality and dedicated to making something beautiful. A new edition of the book, much enlarged, has just been issued, and here is a good interview about it. I hope to get this book for Christmas.
  • Terrence Malick’s new film, Voyage of Time, is set for wide release soon. I missed seeing it at the Toronto International Film Festival, but I’m determined to see it once it hits theatres. Early reviews have been mixed: Richard Brody at The New Yorker loved it, Ben Croll at IndieWire hated it, and I’ll just have to see it for myself. Here is the trailer:
  • The title of this post promised blight. The other day I walked past the north side of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum:royal_ontario_museum


For an envoi today, let’s hear one of The Tragically Hip’s best songs:

The wind began to howl

August 8, 2016

Here is an informative exploration of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, which is surely one of his greatest songs:

(Hat-tip: The Music Salon)

Henri Dutilleux

June 10, 2016

Over the past few weeks I’ve been listening to the music of Henri Dutilleux in this, his centenary year. He is one of those composers whose music lingers on the fringes of the repertoire, not greatly beloved by many, but respected for its superb craftsmanship.

Like his fellow Frenchman Duruflé, he was extremely exacting in the demands he placed on himself as a composer, and he published only a small number of works over the course of his long life. He wrote two symphonies, a number of orchestral works, a violin concerto, a cello concerto, and a variety of chamber works. In the French manner, the interest of his music is largely in the textures and colours he is able to draw from the orchestra. A melodist he is not! He dandled with serialism, and his music does sometimes assume the astringent character of that school, but it is counterbalanced by his ear for lush and vibrant orchestral sound.

To give a flavour for his orchestral music, here is an excerpt of a performance of his Symphony No.1, written in 1951, with Hannu Lintu leading the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. It starts very quietly.

But the piece I have most enjoyed as I’ve been spending time with him has been his Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher, for solo cello. Granted, I’m a pushover when it comes to solo cello, but this is truly enchanting music: subtle, elusive, strangely beautiful. Nicolas Alstaedt plays:

Happy birthday, Monsieur Fauré

May 12, 2016

Today is the birthday of Gabriel Fauré. (He’s turning 176.) He is best remembered and most beloved today for his Requiem, and justly so, but he wrote other wonderful music too. Here is the opening movement of his String Quartet, played by Quatuor Ysaye.


Pop music odyssey: the finale

April 20, 2016

At long last, about two years and 235 albums after it began, my pop music odyssey has come to an end. Rejoice!

This leg of the journey was the longest, covering the years from 2000-2016, and it consisted of 13 albums by Neil Young, 10 by Van Morrison, 6 each by Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and 4 by Leonard Cohen.

During the 2000s (the actual 2000s, not this rehearsal of them) my interests had migrated away from popular music toward classical, and in consequence many of the records I’ve been listening to over these past few months have been new to me. There have been some really nice discoveries, Tom Waits’ Real Gone especially.

Having said that, it is also fair to say that the level of inspiration among my chosen few has been ebbing away during these years. There were few outright bad records, but there were quite an armful of mediocre ones, and it has been rather difficult to come up with a list of ten favourite albums.

Nonetheless, a tradition is a tradition, so let me propose the following list, arranged more or less in descending order:

Leonard Cohen – Ten New Songs (2001)
Van Morrison – Down the Road (2002)
Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas (2012)
Tom Waits – Orphans (2006)
Tom Waits – Alice (2002)
Tom Waits – Real Gone (2004)
Bob Dylan – Tell Tale Signs (2008)
Bob Dylan – Modern Times (2006)
Bob Dylan – Love and Theft (2001)
Van Morrison – Pay the Devil (2006)

Ten New Songs I consider to be one of Leonard Cohen’s best records, and maybe the only downright masterpiece on this list. Sonically it is quite spectacular, especially by his rather lacklustre standards, and the songwriting is consistently excellent. Van Morrison’s Down the Road is uneven, but it has a few real corkers on it and I love to put it on. Orphans was a 3-disc set of unreleased songs, fragments, and experiments, and it too is uneven, but gloriously so. Waits had all these songs lying around, and he went back into the studio to record them all afresh in his late, Cerberusian style, so there is a sonic consistency throughout even though the songs were written over the course of decades. It’s fun to try to guess which period each dates from. Dylan’s records in this period have been critically lauded, but for me they lean too much on the blues, and I’ve put them onto the list more or less in order to fill it up. I hate to say that, but it’s true.


It’s easier to come up with a list of ten favourite songs, and even to put them in rough descending order:

Dylan — “Ain’t Talkin'” (Modern Times)
Cohen — “Alexandra Leaving” (Ten New Songs)
Morrison — “The Beauty of the Days Gone By” (Down the Road)
Cohen — “Come Healing” (Old Ideas)
Waits — “Down There By The Train” (Orphans)
Cohen — “You Got Me Singing” (Popular Problems)
Morrison — “Once a Day” (Pay the Devil)
Waits — “Alice” (Alice)
Cohen — “In My Secret Life” (Ten New Songs)
Dylan — “Cross the Green Mountain” (Tell Tale Signs)

Dylan’s lawyers prevent me linking to his songs, which is a pity.


Odyssey MVP

At the outset I assumed that the MVP would be Bob Dylan. He’s my pop music pole star, and I built the odyssey around his music. But, here at the finish line, I’m inclined to give the palm to Van Morrison. He never reached the colossal heights that Dylan reached in the mid-1960s, but, then again, neither did anybody else, including Dylan over the subsequent decades. And Van Morrison never really had a bad patch; he’s been consistently good-to-great for decades.

And, by the phonebook test (“Who would you most want to hear sing the phonebook?”), it’s Van Morrison by a country mile.

I hereby name him the Odyssey MVP.


As a way of wrapping things up, let me point out a few examples of cross-referencing: instances in which one subject of the odyssey makes reference to another. There weren’t many that I noticed, but there were a few.

  • On A Letter Home, Neil Young covers Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country”.
  • In the song “Twisted Road” (from Psychedelic Pill) Neil Young sings about hearing Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”.
  • On “Highlands” (from Time Out of Mind) Bob Dylan sings about “listening to Neil Young” (and everybody shouts at him to “turn it down”).
  • Bob Dylan and Van Morrison recorded a session of duets together.

So it would seem that it’s been mostly Young and Dylan trading cards.


This has a been a really rewarding project, and in a sense I’m sad to see it end. In another sense I’m glad, because I’m ready to move on to something else.

I’ve been mulling over a few other possible projects that I might start: Mahler symphonies (again), Schubert lieder (actually, I’m already doing this one), fifteenth-century music, Mozart’s operas, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams. Any suggestions?

All’s well that ends well

April 7, 2016

About 15 months ago I embarked on a little “listening project” to hear all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, violin sonatas, symphonies, and string quartets in chronological order. Today I’ve finally finished, with his String Quartet No.16, Op.135. (Yes, I know he wrote the final movement of the Op.130 quartet afterwards, but never mind.) I’ve had a great time.

Here is the charming final movement of that last quartet, played by the Alban Berg Quartett:

Books briefly noted

February 23, 2016

A few quick notes on books I’ve read recently. The theme for today is Books With Subtitles:

veryshort-medievalMedieval Literature
A Very Short Introduction
Elaine Treharne
(Oxford, 2015)
144 p.

I acquired this book in the hopes that it would help extend my list of “to read” medieval literature. I was interested in learning about medieval masterworks a little off the beaten trail (viz. not Dante, Chaucer, or Malory). As such, I was fairly disappointed with the book, which makes only brief mention of particular works. Instead, the book takes a wide view of medieval literature, discussing its social context, some principal themes, methods of book production, and so on. It has a rather academic tone (“Literary spaces, literary identities” is the title of one chapter, for instance). This is fine; no doubt it was what the author was going for. It just wasn’t what I was looking for.

veryshort-classicalClassical Literature
A Very Short Introduction
William Allan
(Oxford, 2014)
135 p.

This is more like it. In an effort to organize my Greco-Roman reading lists, I nabbed this brief volume to get a bird’s eye view. I could hardly have done better. Allan gives a brief introduction to the historical and social context for classical literature, and then proceeds by genre — epic, lyric poetry, drama, historiography, oratory, pastoral poetry, satire, and novel — summarizing the principal features of each literary type and highlighting a few of the principal works. I didn’t need him to tell me about Homer or Herodotus, but I’m happy to have a better understanding of where Horace and Juvenal fit into the picture, not to mention Plautus and Petronius. My reading list is now in pretty good shape, I’d say. I faint to think how long it will take to get to all these books, but it is nice that there is always more to look forward to.

kapilow-what-makesWhat Makes It Great?
Short Masterpieces, Great Composers
Rob Kapilow
(Wiley, 2011)
314 p.

Rob Kapilow takes about twenty short pieces of music, mostly excerpted from larger works, and examines each of them in detail, highlighting the compositional techniques and describing the musical structure. The pieces are presented chronologically, beginning with the early eighteenth century (“Spring”, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons) and finishing with the early twentieth century (“…Des Pas sur le Neige”, from Debussy’s Preludes). They range in length from about one minute (the ‘Trepak’ movement from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite) to ten minutes (Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde), with the median being around 3-4 minutes. The book is written at a level appropriate for a general reader with some musical education: each piece is illustrated with numerous excerpts from the score, so he assumes a competence with musical notation, and he uses some, but not too much, technical language to describe what the composer is doing. This is just the sort of mini-listening project that I relish, and it was enjoyable for me to see the musical logic of the various pieces unveiled. For instance, the piece by Debussy is one that I’ve heard numerous times, but I’d never stopped to appreciate the fact that it is based on such a simple musical idea, suitably varied and lavishly harmonized. Likewise, I’d not discerned the musical reasoning informing a little piece like Schumann’s Traumerei, or the way in which Bach’s Prelude in C grows from a tiny musical seed. The book is full of little insights into the craft of musical composition, and I found it very enjoyable.

physics-on-your-feetPhysics On Your Feet
Berkeley Graduate Exam Questions
Dmitry Budker & Alexander O. Sushkov
(Oxford, 2015)
216 p.

This was great fun. I did not have to take many oral exams during my graduate studies, but this book gives a flavour (minus the stress) of what I might have encountered. The authors have selected about sixty oral exam questions given to Berkeley grad students over the years, providing both the questions and, on the flip side, the solutions. The questions are drawn from across the spectrum: mechanics, fluids, electromagnetism, squalid state, nuclear & particle, astrophysics, optics, and molecular physics. Because of the oral exam context, none of the questions can call for lengthy calculations; more often they lean on physical intuition, approximations, and a basic (but wide) knowledge of principles. Which is not to say that they are easy! Admittedly, I have been out of the game for a decade now, and I am getting rusty, but these questions are meant to be challenging, and they succeed. Still, I enjoyed trying my hand at one question each day. I’d like to find another such book and continue the practice.

Messiaen and the celestial city

February 19, 2016

Alex Ross has a nice short essay in The New Yorker on Messiaen (Hat-tip: The Music Salon). Ross writes mostly about Des Canyons aux Étoiles…, the orchestral work Messiaen wrote about the Grand Canyon:

“Zion Park and the Celestial City,” the final movement of “From the Canyons to the Stars . . .” (1971-74), dwells for a short eternity on a hyper-luminous chord of A major. What makes it unlike any A-major chord in history is the noise that wells up within it: clanging bells, bellowing gongs, an upward-glissandoing horn, the sandy rattle of a geophone (a drum filled with lead pellets). This supreme consonance seems less to banish dissonance than to subsume it.

Ross writes that the continuing interest in Messiaen’s music “suggests that the composer is destined to be the next Mahler — a cult figure who becomes a repertory staple.” I hope so! A few years ago I missed hearing a live performance of his Turangalîla Symphony, and I’m still kicking myself.

Here is “Zion Park and the Celestial City”, featuring that wonderful A-major chord:

Musical anniversaries in 2016

January 12, 2016

I usually like to start the year by reviewing which composers will have significant anniversaries over the next 12 months. Here are notable birthdays and memorials coming up in 2016:


450 years

  • Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) [30 March]

150 years

  • Erik Satie (1866-1925) [17 May]
  • Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) [1 April]

100 years

  • Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) [22 January]


100 years

  • George Butterworth (1885-1916) [5 August]
  • Max Reger (1873-1916) [11 May]

10 years

  • György Ligeti (1923-2006) [12 June]

It’s a rather weak year, all things considered, with no ‘A-list’ composers. As such, we have a nice opportunity to explore the music of some lesser-known figures. Speaking for myself, I am planning ‘listening projects’ around the music of Satie, Gesualdo, Butterworth, and Dutilleux.


  • Read David Bentley Hart’s appreciation of George Butterworth, who died in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme.
  • Learn a little about Henri Dutilleux at The Music Salon (here and here).
  • Whatever you do, don’t waste your time with Werner Herzog’s film Gesualdo. Instead, buy this and listen over and over and over…
  • Let your soundtrack of 2016 include Satie’s Vexations, all 9+ hours of which can be heard right here: 


Of course, there are many other, even less well-known composers marking anniversaries this year, including Giovanni Paisello, Malcolm Arnold, Manuel Cardoso, and — if we stretch the definition of “composer” to the breaking point — Milton Babbitt. A full list can be found here (Thanks, Osbert.).

Happy listening!