Staff Picks: Music
Kalamazoo’s local music scene these days is diverse and richly vibrant. One look at the Gazette’s Ticket supplement and you’ll find everything from talented local amateurs to nationally known superstars performing in dozens of different venues across the area, even Kalamazoo Public Library!
But has Kalamazoo always had this kind of passion for music? You might be surprised!
If you’re like me, you wonder what popular entertainment sounded like in Kalamazoo a century or even a century-and-a-half ago. What instruments were being played? What music was being played? Who was playing it, and where?
Admittedly, there isn’t a CD called “Early Kalamazoo Music” (yet!), but All About Kalamazoo History, KPL’s aptly titled collection of Local History essays, has a wealth of information on that very topic. Check the newly created Music category, and you’ll find articles about everything from Kalamazoo’s very first band (formed in 1837 shortly after Kalamazoo—then Bronson Village—was established) right through the Ragtime Era at the end of the nineteenth century and into the Jazz Age of the early 1920s. There’s information about Kalamazoo’s leading music organizations, the early dance bands, the musical leaders, and some of the local performers who “made it big.” Learn about the early efforts to establish the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, and discover the various local businesses that grew up around the music industry. There’s even an article about “That Gal from Kalamazoo.”
So dig in, you’ll never know what you might find.
Kalamazoo Ragtime Music
If ever I was hard pressed to name a favorite song or piece of music, Samuel Barber’s masterpiece Adagio for Strings would likely top the list. Like many, my first exposure to Barber’s famed work, with its evocative and emotionally charged beauty, came from its inclusion within Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War film Platoon (winner of Best Picture of 1986). One of the twentieth century’s most recognized songs, Adagio for Strings elevated Barber’s reputation, placing him alongside other notable American 20th Century composers like Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. Barber’s lesser known work Knoxville: Summer of 1915, developed for soprano (with lyrics) and orchestra, is a romantic and nostalgic work often played during the summer months for its suggestive and wistful feeling.
NPR recently took a look at Barber’s Adagio for Strings, analyzing its musical structure in order to better appreciate and understand its power to move and stir human emotions.
Fusing jazz, classical and blues music together like no one before nor after her, Nina Simone was a one-of-a-kind artist whose artistic achievements and life-long support of civil rights places her firmly within the pantheon of twentieth century greats. Her long-time battle with bipolar disorder, her tumultuous relationship with the music industry and her self-imposed exile are also part of her rich narrative as the “High Priestess of Soul” but it is the plaintive beauty, ferocious spirit, immovable anger, and affirming force of her music that makes Simone so vital. One need only listen to her eulogy for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Why? The King of Love is Dead to grasp the depth of character her music embodied.
To be free [sound recording] : the Nina Simone story
Andrew Bird’s music is in many ways unremarkable, in the sense that he like so many other musicians working today, crafts quirky, folk-pop with lyrics that strike you as urbane and literary. What differentiates Bird’s sundry brand of high-indie folk within this excessively saturated genre, packed full of overhyped, one-dimensional signer songwriters, stems from his classical music training, specifically his employment of the violin and other non-traditional rock and roll instrumentation (whistling and glockenspiel e.g.). Such an eclectic background provides Bird’s music with so much more compositional depth and textural nuance than his contemporary peers. Sample some of Bird’s material in this video clip at Pitchfork Media. If you’re a fan, Bird is slated to play the Kalamazoo State Theater on October 18th.
Noble beast [sound recording]
Admittedly, I don’t often locate myself in the choral music section of a store. However, after having attended the annual holiday concert hosted by the First Presbyterian Church and performed by WMU’s award-winning University Chorale singers, my appreciation for this deeply calming and ethereal form of music has been greatly expanded. A perfect compliment to emptied, commercial holiday music, take a chance, like I did, and endeavor to explore something new about the variety and wealth of our arts community.
Song for Athene
My first encounter with the American composer Philip Glass was several years ago and honestly, one of shock and awe. Clearly, at the time, I wasn’t ready for his brand of repetitive music structures strung together with an odd assortment of instrumentation and vocal textures. Now several years later, Glass’ eerily minimalist symphonies, hauntingly beautiful film scores (The Hours, Kundun, Fog of War), Eastern inflected rhythms, and evocative ensemble compositions have become some of my favorite classical tracks to listen to.
John Adams is another wonderful composer whose work I’ve recently embraced. His music is often thrown under the heading “minimalism” along with Glass and notable avant-garde musicians Stephen Reich and Terry Reily. Adams’ music, like Glass’ work, tends to generate its melodic color from alterations or subtle tweaking of a foundational harmony. Both deeply expressive and at times jarringly dark, Adams' music has been both widely honored and praised for its humanist themes and boundary-expanding nature.
The Dharma at Big Sur
We were privileged to host the Pacifica Quartet on July 8, in a concert and lecture made possible by Fontana Chamber Arts. The quartet's virtuosity and exuberant style thrilled the audience, which ranged in age from infants to elders. One patron remarked after: "Nothing beats a live performance." How true, and particularly so for chamber music which has been called the ultimate democracy. There's no conductor in a chamber ensemble, so all members must cooperate and collaborate. Each musician's contribution is unique. Each musician and his complete focus are needed throughout the piece. A live performance lets you appreciate this special relationship and the lively musical conversations that take place among the members.
Our next concert at KPL will be August 12 when we welcome singer songwriter Rachael Davis. Rachael's been singing on stage since the age of two. Among her accomplishments is taking grand prize in the Telluride Bluegrass Festival's Troubadour Contest.