A new Netflix documentary titled What Happened, Miss Simone? has recently generated interest from film and music critics. Simone was a true original in every sense of the term. Her resume includes being a classically trained musician who attended Julliard, a vocal civil rights firebrand who wrote songs memorializing MLK and the young victims of a church bombing in Mississippi (Mississippi Goddamn), and an innovative Jazz vocalist who often mixed her classical training into her renditions of Jazz and Blues standards. She was also a complex human being who suffered from mental illness and butted heads with the music industry throughout much of her career. She’s widely considered one of the great musicians of the 20th century. Check out her music from the library’s music collection or stream the albums through Hoopla and Freegal.
Two of the hardest working contemporary composers are named John Luther. There’s the Pulitzer Prize winning John Coolidge Luther whose saxophone concerto City Noir has found its way on many year-end lists. You can check out much of his previous work, often characterized as part of the minimalist tradition, through Hoopla’s streaming platform or from one of our compact discs. Become Ocean (winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music) is the stunning new piece from John Luther Adams. Hauntingly beautiful, it’s the kind of music that envelops the attentive listener with its gentle but powerful lyricism.
There’s a wonderful scene in the early part of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1985 film Hail Mary, where a young girl whirls around her living room, performing a kind of modern dance to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 (the Adagio portion). The scene reminded me of how much I enjoy this particular work of the Bohemian (then part of the Austrian Empire) composer as well as his masterful Symphony No. 5. Mahler’s works are impressively evocative and possess an intensity of emotion like few others of his era. His innovative contributions and forward thinking approach to his symphonies represent a transitory bridge from 19th Century Romantic music to that of the Modernist period and its emphasis upon atonality.
The work of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt can operate on multiple levels and register differently from piece to piece. His pared down approach to composition has led critics to place his music within the minimalist tradition though such a category diminishes the range of his work and the influences of Gregorian chants and sacred music. The music can both ecstatically soar with a bang as well as level off into lyrical serenity. Both modern and timeless, the chorales are marked with spiritually affirmative overtones and yet there are also works that are haunting, solemn laments. He may well be today’s most well-known composer, having produced a treasure trove of symphonies, chorales, and operas.
Fans of the violin will want to get their ears on Daniel Hope's newest album Spheres. This is a wonderfully ecclectic array of compositions that highlight his rich and "big" violin sound. Hope has selected pieces that represent a wide range of styles (Baroque, minimalism, chill-out and cinema) and time periods (17th Century through to the present). Overall, it's a beautiful collection that really brings forth a sense of both musical and emotional continuity. Some of the composers featured are Johann Sebastian Bach, Arvo Part, Philip Glass, Karl Jenkins, Michael Nyman, Alex Baranowski, and Gabriel Faure.
For many years, the library’s musical collection consisted mostly of jazz, world and classical music. Over the past 6 or 7 years we’ve really added to that mix, many popular, alternative, hip hop, and rhythm and blues titles. We still continue to order symphonic, choral, opera, baroque and postmodern music but not nearly with the emphasis we once had given the popularity of Top 40 artists. Having said that, classical music lovers, including myself, will likely be able to find what they’re looking for. Here are some of my favorites, all of which we currently own. Stop in and browse the collection.
Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 (Adagietto)
Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies
J.S. Bach’s Sleepers Awake
Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata
Karl Jenkins’ Agnus Dei
Philip Glass’ Company
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus
Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3
Just when it seems that we need some good news the most, this will warm your heart. Yesterday, NPR blogger Anastasia Tsioulcas caught my attention with a post about the Landfill Harmonic: An Orchestra Built from Trash. Through the efforts of a music instructor and a local craftsman, a group of hardworking kids in Paraguay have formed an orchestra using instruments made with materials gathered from beneath their very feet – literally.
The village of Cateura is a slum built on top of a landfill, where many of the locals make their living by collecting and reselling garbage. In a town where “a violin costs more than a house,” a group of students have formed an orchestra and are learning to play music. Orchestra director Favio Chavez works with a local craftsman who fashions violins, violas, flutes, trumpets and guitars out of discarded trash; oil drums, tin cans, spoons, bottle caps, you name it. Now this might sound like the makings of a bad circus band (no offense against circus music) but the result is nothing short of breathtaking.
The group is currently documenting their work in a yet-to-be released film; a short trailer for it was posted a month ago on YouTube and has already collected nearly half-a-million views. The film opens with a quote from Chavez, saying “The world sends us garbage. We send back music.” In addition to the video, the group has set up a Facebook page to help spread the word about the orchestra.
In a world where we generate a ton of solid waste per capita every fifteen months (and that’s just in America) while school budgets get slashed beyond recognition, it’s refreshing to see what can be accomplished if the will is there.
Here’s an extended version of their story. It’s fascinating, watch it…
Landfill Harmonic Orchestra
I just love the sedate, retro vibe of the soundtrack to the oddball film Beginners; the Mike Mills directed roman a clef about his relationship with his widowed father. Old blues and jazz from the 1920’s (Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Hoagy Carmichael, and Josephine Baker) are prominently featured as well as a French horn driven suite by J.S. Bach. Interfiled between the throwback gems are several touching, original scores by Dave Palmer and Roger Niell. The back and forth tone of the film, from light hearted to melancholic, are sensibly reflected in this quirky collection. Oh, and by the way, check out the movie. It appears on our Best of 2011 list.
Beginners [sound recording] : the original motion picture soundtrack
For her latest album, Night of Hunters, Tori Amos delved into the world of classical music to find inspiration. There are no guitars or drums here and no radio-friendly singles; the piano is paired with strings and woodwinds to create a whole-album experience where one song flows into the next. It is to me, in a word, beautiful. Night of Hunters is highly conceptualized; it uses the story of a dissolving relationship to discuss themes of creation and destruction, the hunter and the hunted, within everyone. The lyrics are full of natural imagery and references to Celtic mythology, both of which fit very well with the classically-inspired music. It may not be for the casual listener, but for anyone interested in spending some time with Night of Hunters, I believe there is a lot to find here.
I’m completely biased when it comes to Tori Amos. I’ve been a fan of hers since I was twelve, and I’ve continued to be a fan even though her last few albums have felt bloated and a bit self-indulgent to me. But Night of Hunters showcases some of her best piano compositions and vocal work in years, and I recommend it to anyone willing to give it a try.
Night of Hunters