"Nature is always more subtle, more intricate, more elegant than what we are able to imagine." ― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
The human hand: its fingers, bones, muscles, and more give us the ability to add a pinch of salt, play any number of musical instruments, change a tire, flip a pancake, and so much else. That our hands have the capacity to perform these movements repeatedly and without thinking about them is due to muscle or motor memory.
But suppose a hand were transplanted from another body. Could it-would it-retain unthinking memories created with that original body? If you were to ask Hollywood, the answer is a very blood-curdling scream of "YES!" As Halloween approaches, let's look at a few horror films in which pianists, or at least the hands they are attached to, are the stars.
The relationship between science fact and science fiction has always been something of a bridge, with inspiration flowing in both directions. Whether it's Leonardo da Vinci's revolutionary plans for flying machines and concentrated solar power, Jules Verne's Extraordinary Voyages series, or Star Trek's hands-free, voice-activated communicators and phasers, it's our imagination that keeps us in fear or helps us conquer it. Just as the unimaginable becomes the near-at-hand, so too do we brush aside the veils of superstition and fear. "Through the hand, human culture waves away animal nature," reflects Raymond Tallis in The hand: a philosophical inquiry into human being. Well, mostly. The ancient and universal nightmares still persist today, even, and perhaps especially, when we should know better.
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The joyful duo Shunia (Lisa Love and Suzanne Jackson) is back to infuse a bit of sanity and peace to our turbulent times with their new single "Sa Re Sa Sa"– a song based on the popular mantra
"Sa Re Sa Sa, Sa Re Sa Sa, Sa Re Sa Sa, Sa Rung
Har Re Har Har, Har Re Har Har, Har Re Har Har, Har Rung"
and if you watched the video, it will simply rub off on you–the chemistry, the colors, the vibrancy that they all have brought together make you forget the dark and uncertain period of the past few months.
I remember their last single "Akal," and whenever I hear it, I get goosebumps. It feels like the duo is on a crusade to drive out the negativity, the gloom, and the directionlessness that the world is engulfed with, and what could be more powerful than to do it with the power of sound–a sound replete with the power of mantras, variety of instrumentation, vocals, and vistas of hope and joy! It is a complete package!
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DECADES AGO at a Carmel Bach Festival solo violin recital the young man sitting next to me struck up a conversation. When he told me he had come from Fresno I asked him if it was to escape the summer heat there. "No," he said, "I wanted to hear how a fugue can be played on a solo violin." Good answer, I thought.
The fugue in question is the second movement from JS Bach's Sonata in A minor, the very work that opens this new Delos recital by the extraordinary Greek guitarist Smaro Gregoriadou. She uses Bach's own transcription for harpsichord of the sonata, to D minor, and plays it on a "high-tuned pedal guitar in scalloped frets of the Kertsopoulos Aesthetics.*"
For the rest of her program, titled "A Healing Fire," she uses a classical pedal guitar of the same aesthetics, a technical platform that expands the timbral colorations available to the performer. In her opening remarks, Gregoriadou writes, "The compositions in this collection offer encouragement and hope against today's dystopia and chaos; they explore spirituality, self-knowledge and transcendence, illuminating dark and ambiguous regions of the human psyche with a different kind of light, a different sort of fire. They are conduits for catharsis, an escape from conflicts, antinomy and traumas this world torments us with.
From Bach's ecstatic Credo to Gubaidulina's submersion into the most transparent awareness prayer can bring; and from Hétu's suspended scream to Britten's self-absorbing surrender to Sleep and Nothingness, these towering masterpieces are, above all, essays on the mystical, reflections of the sacred!" Britten wrote his circumspect Nocturnal after John Dowland for the late Julian Bream; its eight variations, ending in a large passacaglia are based on "Come, heavy Sleep, the image of true Death, and close up these my weary weeping eyes" from Dowland's First Book of Songs (1597), cast as a journey through the night, often meditative and tranquil, sometimes restless or agitated. Sofia Gubaidulina, a Shostakovich protégée who turned 89 on Saturday, is a woefully underrepresented yet hugely prolific Tatarstani composer of deep spiritual affect and a cheeky sense of humor, witness her The Unasked Answer for three orchestras, an obvious play on Ives' The Unanswered Question. Her Serenade for guitar, at just three minutes, doesn't really rectify her status in the West. Jacques Hétu's five-movement Suite for guitar of 1986 makes plain his French aesthetic. Why Gregoriadou calls it a ‘suspended scream' I cannot explain; Hétu (1938-2010) is a self-described melodist with a keen grasp of musical form, harmonic relationships and the guitar itself. Sure there are rigorous challenges for both the guitarist and the listener but ultimately a satisfying adventure. SM
Based on the events from the past two weeks, the word "midterm" likely provokes flashbacks of absent guidance from professors and feelings of dread while opening LockDown Browser. Hopefully, most of us have survived by now. The end of October is arguably one of the best times of the year; a time when orange, black, purple, and green seem to be the only appropriate colors and ghosts and jack o'lanterns thrive on front porches. Although there's nothing scarier than taking exams during an online semester, spookiness has only just arrived. For this week's column, I thought it'd be best to share some Hollywood-inspired sinister tunes, leaving midterms as a repressed memory and embracing the spirit of Halloween, which happens to be right around the corner.
In contrast to my love for "Psycho," I think one of my biggest regrets in life is seeing "Hereditary." The fact that sleep, an activity I was quite fond of prior to watching the film, had become impossible during the full week it took me to recover only serves as a testament to Ari Aster's talent at scaring audiences out of their wits. There are many aspects of the movie that contribute to its spine-chilling abilities, but it'd be fair to give its score some credit. "Reborn" is probably the most well-known piece from the score, partly due to its loud use at the end and its popularity as a sound on TikTok. The best (or worst) part about it is its unnatural celebratory undertone, which makes sense in the context of the scene. On the other hand, objectively hearing it makes me want to rip off my toes. Despite my love-hate relationship with the film, I can't help but admit the music is a premier feature. While watching "Hereditary" on Halloween night is quite the opposite of what I endorse, I can condone listening to "Reborn."
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This Friday - October 30 at 9 pm ET, SiriusXM's Symphony Hall Channel will feature; 'Scary Soundtracks with Michael Shapiro, a 1hr special highlighting the Overture to the the 1931 film 'Frankenstein.' With an incredible legacy, and selected by the U.S. Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant, the movie was first released, unfortunately, with no original soundtrack. That all changed in 2001, when composer Michael Shapiro was commissioned to write one. Join SiriusXM: Symphony Hall for a special Halloween "Classics On Film" when Michael joins host Vincent Caruso to speak about his own creation! You'll hear some of Michael's "Frankenstein" soundtrack as well as to hear some of Michael's picks for scariest film music!
Famed classical pianist Jeni Slotchiver recently released her ZOHO label debut album "American Heritage." It is a homage to the legendary composers of American traditional folk music. Jeni's new eighteen track release begins with the beautifully elegant delivery of Samuel Coleridge Taylor's (1875-1912) "Deep River." She performs a spiritual version of Harry Thacker Burleigh's (1866-1949) six-piece suite of "Southland," before arriving at the epic, nine-minute musical number "Union, Paraphrase de Concert Op. 48" by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869). The melody livens-up with Florence B. Price's (1887-1953) "Nimble Feet" and "Tropical Noon." Jeni Slotchiver finishes up her new album with the more well-known sing-along "Down By The Riverside" by Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938) and the two-minute gentle masterpiece of "Swanee River" from William Grant Still (1895-1979). To find out more about Jeni Slotchiver and her latest release "American Heritage," please visit jenislotchiver.com.
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These Sisters Have Transformed the Piano Duo
"Oh, look!" said the pianist Katia Labèque, pushing aside some neatly ironed clothes hanging on a rack.
Behind the clothes, which were behind the boiler in the utility room of her home and studio here in French Basque Country, was a poster advertising concerts last year at the Philharmonie in Paris. It showed Katia and her sister, Marielle - both with dark hair flowing, glamorously dressed - and listed three programs: five centuries of Basque music; a Stravinsky and Debussy double bill; an evening with three art-rock auteurs, Thom Yorke, Bryce Dessner and David Chalmin.
"We're ridiculous," said Katia. "This is the only poster we have, and it's hidden."
The poster suggests the wildly varied musical interests of the Labèque sisters, who for over 50 years have been playing - and enlarging - the two-piano repertory. They have interpreted traditional classical and Romantic works, to brilliant effect, but have also ventured into jazz, Baroque, modernist and experimental genres - commissioning scores, inventing projects and testing their limits. Their latest recording, out this week, is a newly arranged two-piano adaptation of Philip Glass's opera "Les Enfants Terribles."
"What always struck me with both of them is that, although they are very different human beings, they both have this endless curiosity about everything, not just music," said Simon Rattle, the music director of the London Symphony Orchestra and a frequent Labèques collaborator.
Katia, 70, and Marielle, 68, have been inventing themselves since they were teenagers. First taught by their mother, an Italian piano teacher and pupil of the renowned pianist Marguerite Long, the sisters moved at 11 and 13 from their hometown, Hendaye (not far from here), to attend the prestigious Paris Conservatory.
"They taught you the tricks, but not the love of music that we learned from our parents," Marielle said. "Maybe that helped us develop our sense of independence, the desire to move in the world on our own terms." (The sisters, interviewed mostly in French, also speak fluent English, Italian and Spanish.)
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They decided against the solo careers that their fiercely competitive training had shaped them for. "From the moment we left - and it was 1968, the year of revolution of the students - we said, ‘Let's do something maybe not so conventional,'" Katia said.
They decided to play together.
After studying at the Paris Conservatory, the Labèques made the unconventional choice to play as a duo.Credit...Keystone/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images
"They took a time-honored form, the double piano, which had become slightly less fashionable, and breathed entirely new life into it," said Deborah Borda, the president and chief executive of the New York Philharmonic.
Despite their almost uncanny unity onstage - "it's a mystery beyond sisterhood," Mr. Rattle said - the Labèques have very different personalities. In the interview, Katia exuded energy and enthusiasm, while Marielle remained calm and reflective. But they agreed that they never really had a career plan. After deciding to perform together, they joined the Conservatory's chamber music graduate class to develop their dual repertory, and worked as ensemble musicians with Félix Blaska's dance company.
One day, while they were working on Olivier Messiaen's "Visions de l'Amen," Messiaen, who taught composition at the Conservatory, knocked on the door. After listening for a bit, he asked if one of the sisters would record the work with his wife. Even then, they showed surprising strength of purpose.
"We said, ‘No, we are just starting out and we can't begin by dividing,'" Katia recalled. But eventually Messiaen asked them to record the work together, which led to encounters with the composers Gyorgy Ligeti, Pierre Boulez and Luciano Berio, whom they boldly approached, asking him to compose a work for them. Berio suggested they give the French premiere of his double piano concerto, which they subsequently played all over the world.
Their international breakthrough came with a 1980 recording of "Rhapsody in Blue," which was a best seller but led to some harsh criticism from parts of the classical music establishment.
"The concert halls were closed to Gershwin," Katia said. "People would say, ‘He is not a serious composer.' The same thing was true 30 years later, when we started to play Philip Glass."
The sisters, brilliant in traditional repertory, played Mendelssohn with Bernard Labadie and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2013.
The sisters, brilliant in traditional repertory, played Mendelssohn with Bernard Labadie and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2013.Credit...Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images
They were also sometimes ribbed for their designer outfits and glossy image. But Chad Smith, the chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said he loved that the Labèques "have a complete vision. Lighting creates a beautiful environment; clothes, too. They come with a theatrical approach and have shown the false narrative that it's less serious if you engage in the visual."
Over the years, they have pursued Baroque music, on Silbermann-model period-style pianofortes made for them and with the ensemble Il Giardino Armonico; ragtime; traditional Basque music; and jazz. Katia once lived with the jazz musician John McLaughlin and played in his band, and counts Miles Davis - who wrote two songs for her - and Billie Holiday as influences. The sisters have plunged deep into experimental terrain in "Minimalist Dream House," an ongoing series of concerts and recordings with Mr. Chalmin, who is Katia's partner, and Mr. Dessner.
"They have an extremely broad vision of what they can do in a concert hall, and they treat everyone with the same respect," said Mr. Dessner, best known as a member of the indie-rock band the National.
The coronavirus pandemic paused a number of their projects. A concerto by Nico Muhly, which should have premiered at the New York Philharmonic in early June, is now scheduled for the Paris Philharmonie on Nov. 12; a program with Mr. Dessner and the soprano Barbara Hannigan will probably be pushed to 2022.
But one thing they could work on in quarantine was "Les Enfants Terribles," arranged by Mr. Glass's longtime collaborator, Michael Riesman. During the initial lockdown the Labèques worked separately to prepare the score - Marielle lives with her husband, the conductor Semyon Bychkov, about nine miles from the house Katia and Mr. Chalmin share - but sent recordings back and forth and spoke frequently with Mr. Riesman about changes.
"We wanted more of the story and the dramatic parts," Katia said. "It was so odd that it's a story of confinement." After the lockdown restrictions were relaxed in May, they were able to practice together, and recorded the work in the state-of-the-art studio at Katia's house.
"I love the way they play Philip Glass," said Mr. Riesman. "They have the right style, the right approach. They don't overly dramatize or emote."
Mr. Muhly said, "They are actually much more involved in everything than most people of their stature. They email you about material; they are totally involved. The rhythms of the day are organized around an unspeakably rigorous work ethic, but there is something really elegant about the way they live their lives which flows into music and food and their extended family of artists."
The sisters' trick, according to Katia, is their constant desire to change and learn. "We never want to rely on what we've done," she said. "We have always tried to be relentlessly in the present." PHOTO: Lawrence K. Ho
WaterTower Music is pleased to announce today's release of the 62-track Lovecraft Country (Soundtrack from the HBO® Original Series), featuring music from the first season of Lovecraft Country, which airs on HBO/ HBO Max, and is Based on Matt Ruff 's novel of the same name.
Inspired by the ground-breaking mission of NASA's Juno space probe and its ongoing exploration of Jupiter, Juno to Jupiter is a multi-dimensional musical journey through electronic, progressive, ambient, techno, orchestral, and vocal music.
Milan Records today announces the release of Luca Guadagnino's WE ARE WHO WE ARE (ORIGINAL SERIES SCORE) featuring music by producer, multi-instrumentalist, composer, songwriter and vocalist DEVONTÉ HYNES.
Outside England, the music of Elgar (1857-1934) still has a crusty, flag-waving reputation, despite the efforts of musicologists and the advocacy of musicians. But over the past eight years, Mr. Barenboim, 77, and his Staatskapelle Berlin have released accounts of Elgar's two symphonies, the oratorio "The Dream of Gerontius" and the Cello Concerto, with Alisa Weilerstein.
It's a connection of long standing: Mr. Barenboim's first wife, the cellist Jacqueline du Pré, collaborated with the conductor John Barbirolli on a classic recording of the Cello Concerto in 1965, and she and Barbirolli in turn inspired the young Argentine-born Mr. Barenboim to learn and record much of Elgar's work with the London Philharmonic.
A fifth album in the Berlin cycle is coming out on Friday, featuring "Sea Pictures" (five songs, sung by Elina Garanca) and "Falstaff," an ambitious, often rambunctious symphonic poem. Mr. Barenboim, whose contract with the Staatskapelle and the Berlin State Opera was extended last year amid accusations of bullying, spoke by phone from Spain about Elgar and his music. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Why do you love this music so much?
It's a difficult question to answer, because one has to admit that, historically, Elgar is not so important. If Elgar had not come through this earth, the development of music would have been the same. One also has to forget that he was somewhat anachronistic, when you think what else was being written at the time - Schoenberg, Stravinsky, etc.
The music of Elgar (1857-1934) still has a crusty, flag-waving reputation, despite the efforts of musicologists and the advocacy of musicians.Credit...Central Press/Getty Images
But there is a unique quality in his music which appeals to me tremendously: something emotional, in the best sense of the word. Not outward, but something very, very deep and sincere, which has to do, I suppose, with the modulations - with the harmonic language, which is unlike that of many other composers. The closest is Strauss.
Should we then think of Elgar not as a radical, like Schoenberg or Stravinsky, but as a progressive, like Strauss or Mahler?
I think so. "Falstaff" is a special work in Elgar's output. It has things that connect it to his symphonies, but if the symphonies are close to Strauss's "Don Juan" and "Ein Heldenleben," "Falstaff" is close to "Till Eulenspiegel."
Even in England, "Falstaff" is not that often played compared with some of Elgar's works, and if music lovers know the "Falstaff" story, it's primarily through Verdi.
Verdi, of course. But you know, I take very slight objection to the fact that Elgar's nationality is always mentioned in relation to his music, as if it was not to be expected that one could be English and be a great composer. Nobody talks about the nationality of other composers as much as they talk about Elgar being English; of course, there is a certain Englishness about it, but it's not the most important element.
What is the most important element?
The harmonic language, the orchestration, is remarkable, if the conductor balances the orchestra properly and the orchestra has familiarity with the music, which is very rarely the case, because Elgar is not played that often. The English saying "familiarity breeds contempt" is totally out of place; we forget that orchestras and publics alike need familiarity with music in order to love it.
One of the things that you seem to be saying is that Elgar was part of a European - not just an English - tradition.
This is a very dangerous statement you are making now in view of Brexit, of course. I think he is very much a European composer, don't you?
Absolutely. Wasn't that the point you were trying to make when you played his "Land of Hope and Glory" at the BBC Proms with the Staatskapelle, the year after the Brexit vote?
"Land of Hope and Glory" at the Proms had nothing to do with a political thing; it was totally misinterpreted. We played both symphonies at the Proms, and I wanted to show that you don't have to be English to play this music well.
I am a firm believer in the European idea, and I am a firm believer that a lot of the problem with the European Union is that many people forget that it was not only a financial or economic idea. Let us not forget that whether it is France, Germany, Italy, England or Spain, culture is the greatest contribution, historically, of the continent. It is a different contribution from the other continents, and therefore culture - European culture - is a very important point for today's world, too.
That raises the issue that Elgar is usually thought of as a quintessentially English composer because of his association with the British Empire.
Yes, but do you think that Elgar's connection to the English part of it is more important than, shall we say, Debussy's to France? No.
But as someone who loves Elgar's music, I still have trouble with it historically, as I love and still have trouble with Wagner's music.
Yes, but your problem with Wagner's music, I imagine, has to do with his profile as a person, as a human being, which is not the case with Elgar.
Elgar still wrote works like "The Crown of India" and the "Imperial March," though. So how do you think about performing him today, during a global reckoning with racism, slavery and empire? Should we ignore that part of Elgar? Should we confront it?
No, I think we have to place it in context. Let's be a little bit more neutral in our remarks. We realized a long time ago that slavery was a horrific thing, and we did away with it, but at the time that it was there, it was there. The English Empire quality is only a part of some moments of Elgar's pieces. Let's not dwell on the "Pomp and Circumstance Marches," because that's a "pièce d'occasion," like the ballet in "Aida," but in the serious works - "The Dream of Gerontius," the symphonies, "Falstaff," the Cello Concerto, the "Sea Pictures" - that element is only a part of it.
So we can play him today by accepting that part and moving on? Is that what you are saying?
Yes, I don't think we have to play Elgar and pay special attention, as it were, not to forget that there was a British Empire and that that was the expression of it. That is part of the whole.
Are there particular moments of "Falstaff" that you think show Elgar at his best?
The interlude in the center, the small interlude with the violin solo, is very touching, because it is juxtaposed against very rhythmical, boisterous music. And of course the end. Falstaff's death is an absolute masterpiece of composition.
Elgar had a gift for endings, like the end of the Second Symphony.
Yes, and they are very difficult to conduct. If you look at the score of the end of "Falstaff," it is so constructed - I wouldn't say calculated, because that smells of something not natural. Then, when it's finished, it's finished; it doesn't end on a sentimental note. He dies, and then there is a very little coda, which seems to say death is part of life. And that's it.
PHOTO Credit...Odd Andersen/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images
Daniel Barenboim and Decca Classics continue their acclaimed Elgar series, recording Sea Pictures again after four decades and paired with the symphonic poem Falstaff. Recorded live in the winter of 2019, the album features the Staatskapelle Berlin and mezzo Elīna Garanča in her first recording of Sea Pictures.
The first orchestral recording from Berlin's Pierre Boulez Saal, Brahms: The Symphonies is a four-CD set featuring Boulez' beloved friend Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin in all four symphonic masterpieces from the great Romantic composer.
One of the most important artists of our time, Daniel Barenboim releases a collection of beloved Debussy pieces in time for the French composer's centenary, including Estampes, Suite bergamasque and Preludes, L.117.
Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin Record Elgar's Symphony no. 1 for Decca. For their second album featuring the music of Edward Elgar, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin have recorded the composer's first symphony, following a recording of his second symphony two years ago. "I hold that the symphony without a program is the highest development of art." With these words, spoken in a University of Birmingham lecture in 1905, Elgar declared himself as belonging to the Brahmsian tradition of the abstract symphony, already thought moribund by many, rather than allying himself with Richard Strauss, the modern master of the symphonic poem.
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