Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Response to K. Monalescu’s Journal Entry on Plunderphonics

John Oswald’s Plunderphonics are the sound of our age. His “compositions” give the impressions of scanning through a radio to find the best song or a cd skipping while getting bumped around or walking into best buy when there are multiple radios or tvs on at once. Of course the music is much more than these associations. By taking recordings of the twentieth-century as raw musical material Oswald creates his own unique compositions that have a feeling that is distinct from the sources. The most remarkable thing about Plunderphonics is when the listener already knows the source material the new reproduction is a bizzare jolt and as as Monalescu put it “subverts expectation.”

The first moment my mind was tricked and my expectations destroyed was in the song “Power” which turns out to be one of Oswalds first attempts at plunderphonics from 1975. The sources are a Led Zeppelin tune and a monologue of an evangelist preacher. I am familiar with both Zeppelin and the usual rants of preachers. For one this combination is quite an ironic contradiction. The “devil’s music” and “god’s word” together at last. Contrary to the goals of many musicians, Oswald claimed that he was “trying to create an uncomfortable situation which would lack a tailor-made audience. “ The other tubulent facet of “Power” that all the riffs and drum grooves are rearranged. While the timbre is unquestionably Led Zeppelin, the tune is no longer the one they wrote. Nor is the sermon that accompanies the song the one the preacher originally gave. What I gather from this plunderphonic is that it matters little whose side your on, but rather how much “power” you feel.

In a similarly powerful vein is the plunderphonic “2net” which is used to be Metallica and Queen. Again Oswald has used the original tracks as tones to build a new composition with. While it may seem as though this genre is unique to recorded and produced music, this track leads my mind to wonder why a band could not try to reproduce this live. It would not sound exactly like this, but why not make it ones own in a live analog format?

Perhaps one of the biggest controversies of plunderphonics is that it questions what original music is and where we draw copyright lines. While “Vane” is clearly a Carly Simon tune that has been altered, at no point to we hear the whole refrain or any coherent part of the song in length. Small fragments are used here and there. Oswald likes to create the sound of a skipping cd with this track. It has a nice effect that gives a sense of timelessness. So, if the new song does not have a discerenable melody that the old one contained is it subject to copyright infringement? I would argue that is does not. If one person writes a book and get a copyright for it. That means that another person cannot write a book with the same plot and the same words(In the same order). What Oswald is doing is creating new plots and usings words that are rearranged from the sources. Okay, there may be some gray area.

Another of my favorite songs of this collection of Plunderphonics is the “Brazillianaires Theme.” The source is a Joao Gilberto tune. Cleverly, Oswald has taken short snippets and created new melodies and chord progressions that sounds nothing like the original. This is followed by another Brazilian tune that has crazy drums tracks added. It sounds like Elvin Jones sitting in with Astrud Gilberto at a late night jam session in the fourth dimension. This type of flow between tracks is something that Oswald takes very seriously. He is constantly changing the songs that he has already constructed so that they lead better in sequence.

It seems as though Oswald uses a different method of composition and reproduction with evey track. This variety in remixing is incredibly stimulating. There is no doubt that this is art and a form that should be studied and explored. Like Monalescu pointed out, this type of reconstruction has it’s roots in western art music. It something that composers have been already been doing for hundreds of years. The difference is that now we have music that is recorded exactly as the composer desired it. Oswalds Plunderphonics question what composition is and what is subject to copyright law. His work also opens up new methods of creation and variation that I hope artists continue to plunder.

Cutler, Chris. “Plunderphonics.” Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music: A Continuing
Symposium. New York, NY: Schirmer Books 1996.
Holm-Hudson, Kevin. “Quotation and Context: Sampling and John Oswald’s Plunderphonics.”
Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 7, (1997), pp. 17-25.
Oswald, John. Plunderphonics. CD; Interview by Norman Igma.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Bachianas Brasileiras of Heitor Villa-Lobos - A Response to Hannah Porter's Journal Entry

There are several reasons to appreciate music. It can be for its beautiful melodies, harmonies and timbres. It can be for the way the composer has woven together previously unrelated ideas in new ways. It can be enjoyed for the emotions and feeling that surface through the listening process. Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras fulfill all three of these qualifications of “good” music. In Hannah Porter’s journal article, she argues that that these works should be enjoyed as a whole rather than trying to disect the parts. In fact, the thick orchestration of many of the Bachianas Brasileiras makes it difficult to clearly hear every note that is played. However, each line that Villa-Lobos writes has such an interesting character that I cannot help but to want to follow to see where it leads.

I was drawn to the same two Bachianas that Hannah explored, nos. 1 and 6, as well as no. 3 (for Piano and Orchestras). The first Bachiana is for an orchestra of violincelli. I think Villa-Lobos was on to something with this unique instrumentation. The ‘cello is such a versatile instrument because of its wide range and warm, rich timbre. It can be at once jarringly rhythmic and beautifully melodic. In the Introduction(Embolada) Villa-Lobos presents a Brazilian rhythmic motif that is played in the higher register while a nationalistic melody in the lower register brings to heart the passion of the Brazilian people. This theme comes to back at the end to the movement closure. The second movement is a Preludio and a Modhina. It feels like a lament at times with desceding lines and at other times it feels more like an empending tornado of emotions. There are chromatic rises and falls interspersed among lush, romantic sweeps. Villa-Lobos takes the listener from the Brazilian countryside to a café in Rio in a matter of seconds. The third movement, a fugal “conversation” is perhaps the most Bachian of the first Brasileira, yet it’s A theme speaks of the influence of the Arab immigrants in northern Brasil, where Villa-Lobos visited. As the movement progresses the language of Bach becomes more prominent, yet I never forget where I am at in the world. Ms. Porter is correct in ascertaining that the fugue is definitely the most “baroque” sounding movement of the work and that the composer succeeds in demonstrating the similarities between music that is two centuries and a globe apart.

Bachiana Brasileira No. 6 for flute and basson is perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces of music that exists. Again, the passion of Brasil and its people comes through strikingly clear. While the instruments and compositional style are quite European, even in the most romantic composers it is difficult to find this kind of emotional expression. No. 6 is another example, also, of unique instrumentation. I believe there is great merit in combining varying timbres because the overtones that one instrument lacks, the other fills in. In this case, the flute, which has such a pure tone, creates overtones that have more relative space, while the bassoon’s overtones are more rich and thus cover some of the emptiness of the flute. It is a work such as this that would inspire me to learn one of these sonorous instruments.

Leaning towards beautiful timbres, my other favorite Bachiana Brasileira is No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra. The piano makes this piece. Like the ‘cello, the piano is quite versatile and seems to be well suited for just about any style of music, especially the dramtically emotional music of latin America. While I am usually one to loathe the genre of concerto for the lack of inspiration that the orchestra recieves, Villa-Lobos pulls this one off. His use of timbres is unique and modernistic. Of all of the Bachianas, this one (the first movement in particular) I could hear in a dark adventure movie as background during a development. Batman goes to Brasil? The fourth movement introduces a xylophone to play with the high winds. As a percussionist I appreciate this, although it surprises me that coming from a country with such a rich percussion tradition that the only idiophones and membranophones used are those that are directly European. It makes me think that Villa-Lobos was working within certain boundaries and had a very specific audience that he was trying to appeal to, namely that of upper-class Europe. It is evident from the stories he told aristocrats in Paris about his travels to the savage jungles of Brasil that he was trying to impress. To this degree I think it is unfortunate that the composer did not use more colors of Brasil aside from melodies, scales and rhythms. I think Bach’s musical style could benefit from an added pandeiro, surdo, ganza or tamborim. While Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras are perfect for what they are: some of the most beautiful compositions ever, the genre he invented leaves much room for expansion. In addition to Ms. Porter’s hope that these works be studied and appreciated as they are, I sincerely hope that composers of the present and future take up where Villa-Lobos left off.


Peppercorn, Lisa. Villa-Lobos: The Music. New York: Pro/Am Music Resources Inc. 1991.
Mariz, Vasco. Villa-Lobos: Life and Work of the Brazilian Composer. University of Florida Press 1970.
Peppercorn, Lisa. “Villa-Lobos’ Brazilian Excursions.”
The Musical Times, Vol. 113, No. 1549 (Mar.,
1972), pp. 263-265.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Harry Partch's The Bewitched

If equal temperament, advanced European harmony, and serial music are ‘sliced bread,’ then the musical language of Harry Partch is ‘the greatest thing since.’ The magic of The Bewitched has truly changed my musical paradigm and the way I aurally understand the world. Let me explain the process that led to this life-changing revelation. In my search for a musical work to study, I first chose Libby Larsen’s Marimba Concerto. I love the marimba and the expanded battery of percussion instruments used in the 20th Century. Upon listening to it, I was disgusted with its trite orchestral clichés. It was the same music heard at every Percussive Arts Convention evening concert featuring a big name soloist and university wind ensemble. I needed something fresh. I remembered a colleague mentioning something about Harry Partch and his unique instruments, and thus began listening to Partch’s The Bewitched. From the first notes I was hooked; there was no turning back. This music has feeling. This music is the future. It leaves the limitations of twelve equal tones in the dust like a snake that sheds its skin. I had to know how this music came to be.

The impetus for The Bewitched came in 1952 when an undisclosed man approached Partch and asked him to “write a series of “backgrounds” for television airplane crashes, drowning, and murders in the park…” Partch was intrigued by the idea but perhaps differed in interpretation. These “backgrounds” or scenarios poke fun at the thought of doing such a thing seriously. Partch also gained inspiration from the dozens of musicians that flocked to him in search of something new. He called them “the lost musicians” and dedicated the first eighteen minutes of The Bewitched to them, their pursuit, and their subsequent discoveries. The third muse behind this magical spoof is, of course, the witch. Partch’s witch is not an evil, seventeenth century Puritanical idea of a witch. Rather, Partch goes back further to the “ancient idea of the benevolent, all-knowing witch” (Partch 334). In the album notes Partch explains that we are all under some kind of spell. We are the products of our environments, cultural conditioning, and systematic brainwashing. While it may be impossible to completely untangle ourselves from such a bewitchment, pure experience and liberation can be found by breaking free into the moment.

There is a sense of juxtaposition in Harry Partch’s music that is exemplified in The Bewitched. The tuning was the first things that stood out to my ear when I listened to the work. The implementation of just intonation allows the music to go two different directions. The use of ratios to tune intervals results in harmonies that are more in tune than they would be if tuned in equal temperament. We hear this clear consonance when “Exercises in Harmony and Counterpoint” plead their case “in a Court of Ancient Ritual.” The polyphonic clarinet and adapted viola play distinctly more harmonious lines than similar melodies would be in our standard tuning system. When the koto and crychord enter to prosecute the “counterpoint” they “speak” in what we would consider microtones. These tones are, however, included in Partch’s scales based on ratios. To ears accustomed to twelve evenly spaced tones per octave, these extra tones seem out of tune. They are actually quite in tune. With Partch, harmony becomes relative. Every tone is relative to a single “tonic” of G = 392. Consequently, Partch’s music is at once more harmonious than almost any other 20th century western art music and just as microtonal as any Indian or South Asian music.

One of the biggest aids in listening to The Bewitched is a resource on the American Mavericks website. The website allows visitors to “play” all of Partch’s invented instruments. My favorites include the boo (bamboo marimba), the diamond marimba, the mazda marimba, and the xymo-xyl. In our world of academia and western art music we are taught to create the best sounds possible and that we have to play instruments that use only the best materials and are made with the best craftsmanship. Harry Partch rejected this notion by building many of his own instruments with the materials he had around him such as California redwood and bamboo. The mazda marimba is made with old light bulbs, tuned, arranged in rows and played with rubber mallets. It sounds like nothing I have ever heard, though Partch claimed that is sounded like a coffee percolator. I actually thought the CD was skipping on first listen because I did not initially accept that sound as an instrument. I love playing pitched percussion instruments. The hearing these new inventions with their clever tuning opens up so many possibilities. It opened my ears to sounds in nature previously unclassified as music. Anything can be an instrument and most objects can be tuned. Partch was incredibly clever and industrious with regards to his original instruments.

If The Bewitched is not in the canon, I do not understand why. The music of Harry Partch is perhaps the most groundbreaking and innovative music ever created. I see this as the future of art music. Partch’s concepts should be taught in theory classes and his compositions should be analyzed. His instruments should be well maintained, reproduced, and mainstreamed. There is no reason that this music should die. If anything should pass, it should be the stale European derived forms of the concert hall that composers continue to write to please audiences and musicians that are scared to get out of their suits.

Partch, Harry. Genesis of a Music. New York: Da Capo Press, 1979.
Ben Johnston. “Corporealism of Harry Partch.” Perspectives of New Music Vol. 13, No. 2 (Spring-
Summer, 1975): 85-97.
American Public Media. “Harry Partch’s Instruments.” American Mavericks Interactive Website,
(accessed April 13 – 20, 2009)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Early Chamber Works of Carlos Chávez

Carlos Chávez was born in Potpola, a northwest suburb of Mexico City in 1899. By the time he was coming to adulthood, the Mexican Revolution was nearing its end and the country was finding stability. The new leaders of the government promoted the arts and wanted to create a sense of nationalism with them. Chávez was inspired by this nationalism and was commissioned to write new “Mexican” works. As Mexican heritage and genealogy is a mixture of native American (“Indian”) and Spanish culture, much of Chávez’ and others’ nationalistic writings are influenced by “Indian” culture and music. His music, however, is beyond nationalistic; it is beyond European; it is what some might call Universalist. Chávez created a style that was inspired by things that came before him but that was all his own. It is at once primitive and modern. In the chamber pieces of his decided to write about, there exist drastically different compositions, yet there is an underlying personal style that is inherent in them all.

Xochipilli an Imaginary Aztec Music, is a great example of Chávez’ nationalistic writing that is informed by pre-Colombian culture. Because Aztec music and culture was almost completely destroyed by Hernando Cortés and his army in 1519, it is impossible to know how Aztec music was performed. Chávez did extensive research before composing this piece. He visited many museums in Mexico looking at any instruments that survived. He studied Cortesian era documents of Bernardino de Sahagún and Juan de Torquemada that described Aztec music. He analyzed pre-Colombian art and sculpture and drew influence from it that he applied to musical form. Chávez also remembered going to the “Indian” town of Tlaxcala as a child and hearing their music. Through these methods he recreated what he thought could be the sounds of an Aztec festival or ritual.

The instrumentation is for six percussionists and four wind players. The percussion instruments that he calls for are huehuetls(single-headed drums), teponaztles ( log drums with two pitches a minor third apart), and an assortment of bells, rattles, and scrapers. The wind instruments are piccolo and flute (to recreate the sounds of the Aztec bone or clay flutes), Eb clarinet (to recreate the sound of the clay ocarina), and trombone (to recreate the sound of the conch shell) While the percussion timbres of Xochipilli give the piece a rustic and natural sound, the complex overlapping rhythmic structure that Chávez uses makes it an enjoyable rubix cube of a listen. Also, the pentatonic scales and short repeated melodic motives that Chavez gives the woodwinds are at once beautiful and ritualistically repetitive. By the third movement all three woodwinds are playing contrasting scales giving the listener a mind warp. Are we in the pre-colombian fifteenth century in the poly-tonal twentieth century? I appreciate the percussive textures that Chavez creates by interweaving hemiolas and phrases of different lengths for each instrument. Through this work he brings the percussion family of instruments to a new level of awareness and acceptance in the concert hall. Also, because Xochipilli invokes the Aztec god of music, and because it contains very little that is obviously European, it played a role in developing Mexican nationalism through the arts.

In 1923 and 1924, Carlos Chavez wrote six short songs called Tres Exágonos y Otros Tres Exágonos with poetry written by Carlos Pellicer. These exágonos (hexagons) are named this because each poem has six lines. I think it’s interesting that Chavez and Pellicer ended up collaborating on six of them. While both artists were sympathetic of indigenismo, that topic could not be further from that of these poems. The first three are about a romantic love similar to the story of Rapunzel, and the second set alludes to travelling through space and water with very colorful imagery. The original songs were written for voice and piano, but later Chávez orchestrated the piano part for a modified string quartet: flute/piccolo, oboe/English horn, viola, and bassoon. Tonally and structurally they remind me of Shoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, though not quite as dark. In these songs the vocalist sings with an operatic bel canto style mostly and half-sings certain words when it seems appropriate. There is one line that is spoken and works so incredibly well because nothing else is in that tone. I don’t think that Chávez is trying to be atonal or pan-tonal, but rather he wants the music to support the text with the appropriate colors and textures. While there are small elements of Wagnerisms in these songs, it seems that Chávez was successful in not “sounding” like anyone else. The unique combination of timbres with the continually interesting vocal melodies and instrumental counter-melodies make these songs among the best of the “new” short pieces written in the early twentieth century. I would include these song cycles in the canon, except for the fact that they may not have been so influential at the time they were first written and performed.



Conklin, Dorothy Rice. Percussion Instruments in Two Compositions by Carlos Chavez: Xochipilli: An
Imagined Aztec Music (1940) and Chapultepec: Three Famous Mexican Pieces (1935). Ann Arbor:
UMI, 1995.
Parker, Robert L. Carlos Chavez: Mexico’s Modern-Day Orpheus. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.
Saavedra, Leonora. Carlos Chávez: Symphony No. 1, Sinfonía de Antígona (1933). 17 March, 2009.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Response to Victoria Brown’s Journal on the Etudes and Nocturne of Maria Szymanowska

Being a lover of the music of Chopin, the timbre of the piano, and Romanticism in general I took great pleasure in listening to the short Etudes and Nocturnes of the Polish-born, Maria Szymanowska. Of any “pre-romantic” composers, she may have had the most impact on Chopin, the celebrated composer and pianist of the Romantic period, who was also from Poland. In her journal article, Victoria Brown notes the parallel between Szymanowska and the Irish composer John Field. There is a lineage here. Field was the first to adapt the “Nocturne” to a single movement character piece for piano. In turn, Szymanowska used the form and made it her own and subsequently Chopin did the same. The nocturne was not the only form that Chopin took for inspiration from Szymanoska and others. Their Etudes and Polonaises also show close similarities in form, technique, and melodic phrasing, however Chopin’s works are more developed, more chromatic, and essentially more expressively “Romantic.”
No composer creates from nothing; there is always something that came before that informed. Maria Szymanowska was influenced by her piano tutors(one of whom was trained by Haydn), musicians that were invited to her home by her parents, and the traditional music of Poland. Essentially her music was informed by “Classical” styles and local dance music. From these and the infusion of ideas from Field and poets such as Goethe she began to create something new. We can hear this in her Etudes and Nocturne. While the Etudes are short and developmentally simple, they demonstrate inventive techniques for the piano. I especially like the second “Etude in C Major.” The “bubbling” arpeggio technique is quite impressive and texturally exciting; almost Lisztian. The “Nocturne in Bb Major” included on this recording is my favorite of hers. As Brown points out, it demonstrates her compositions a bridge between the Classical and Romantic periods. I do not feel, however, that the change is apparent from one section to the other. Rather, I hear the lightness of the Classical style. With the Nocturne as well as the Etudes, Szymanowska uses the major mode to give a tender lightheartedness. If the music is any indication of her mood, it seems she is jovial and “in love” with the act of music making and living life. While the expressiveness “could be in part because of the performer’s interpretations” I tend to think that certain compositions and compositional styles lend themselves better toward the expression of the performer. This is the magic of the “Nocturne in Bb Major.” It is available for creative interpretation of expression. This may be another facet of her influence on Chopin and other composers and performers of the nineteenth century.
Brown comments on the fact that Szymanowska was referred to as the “feminine Field” and brings up good points about how sexism may have played a role in the shape of her career. While it may be possible to entertain the idea of a female vituosa, could the nineteenth century European mind allow for a “feminine Beethoven?” Did Szymanowska really cut back on composing because she performed so much? Did her taking care of her children take away that time? Or did European society at the time frown on women taking up composing and directing? These are questions that will not be answered here, but they are important to consider when pondering this issue. I cannot help but think that if she had been able to compose more during her life that her influence may have been on par with that of Shubert, or Chopin.
I would indeed love to hear more of her compositions and agree with Brown’s affirmation that Maria Szymanowska’s “works are simply wonderful!”

Spiegl, Fritz. Lives, Wives, and Loves of the Great Composers. New York, Marion Boyars Publishers, 1997.
Dobrzański, Sławomir. Maria Szymanowska and Fryderyk Chopin: Parallelism and Influence. Polish Music Journal. Vol. 5, No. 1, Summer 2002.
Dobrzański, Sławomir. Maria Szymanowska & the Evolution of Professional Pianism.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Isaac Albéniz’s Suite EspaÑola no. 1 Opus 47

Isaac Albéniz, one of the foremost Spanish composers in the late nineteenth century has been called the Spanish Liszt because of his virtuosity, though was raised in a manner similar to Mozart. Isaac Manuel Fransisco Albéniz y Pascual was born in the small town of Camprodon in the province of Girona of northern Catalonia in Spain near the French border. His mother’s family was Catalan while his father’s was from the Basque country to the northwest. Albéniz never learned to speak the native tongue of his homeland, Catalan, nor did he boast of his north Spainish roots. Instead, he at different times in his life claimed to be “moor” and “Jewish.” The reasons for these claims cannot be certain, but through looking at his nationalistic compositions, we find a strong influence of Andalucían music. He must have been intrigued by the rhythms and tonalities of Jewish, Gypsy, and Arab music to such an extent that he felt it in his soul. Albéniz learned to play piano at a young age with the help of his older sister. At four, he gave his first public concert, which he improvised, and reportedly, the audience was quite impressed that such a small human could make mature music. His father, Angel, took him on the road, giving concerts across Spain to make money for the family. They even toured Latin America when Isaac was 12. In the early 1880’s Albéniz took lessons with Spanish composer Felip Pedrell who inspired him to write more nationalistic works. Thus, we see in the same decade, an enormous output of “Spanish” style works. With such virtuosity and interesting compostitions, Albéniz helped to increase the awareness of Spanish music to more people of the western world from amateur home pianists to conservatory-trained musicians.
The Suite EspaÑola (no. 1) is a collection of eight stylized dances for piano with specifically “Spanish” rhythms, tonalities, and melodic contours. It evolved from a three movement Suite EspaÑola that Albéniz was performing in 1886 that gained so much popularity and success, that his publisher Benito Zozaya wished to sell the music in print. They jointly decided to make it an eight movement suite, though only four had been written: a serenata, a curranda, a sevillana, and a capricho, nos. 1, 2, 3, and 8, respectively. The other four were taken from later works and added to the Suite EspaÑola in 1901.
The first movement is a serenata entitled “Granada.” Though it is in a common Spanish time signature (3/8), it is perhaps the least dance influenced number in the whole suite. The A section begins with rolled chords in F major which keep a slightly rubato time in the higher register while the tenor voice plays a beautiful, mostly step-wise melody that hints at Spanish rhythms of sixteenth-note triplets and motives over the bar lines. The B section modulates to F minor where the left hand takes over the accompaniment and the right hand plays a “gypsy” sounding melody full of minor seconds, grace notes, and mordents. The form is ABABA.
CataluÑa, the second piece in this collection, is derived from the curranda, a dance in 6/8 with strong dotted-eighth-sixteenth-eighth rhythm similar to the French courante. Again Albéniz uses a contrast of tonalities. The first theme in G minor at measure 4 but soon modulates to Bb major. The next theme is back in the minor mode with more dissonance especially the use of the augmented 2nd which is common in the Arab-influenced music of southern Spain. The form is ABA’ABA’coda.
The third movement is a lively tango-like sevillana cleverly titled, “Seville.” It is in ¾ meter with eighth-sixteenth-sixteenth rhythm. The A section is in G major. Albéniz gives the melody a wide range and creates much excitement with the active rhythms of the accompaniment. The B section is slower and rhythmically contrasting (which is a stylistic feature of many of these short stylized dances) with many instances of two voices playing the same line in octaves. This reminds me of the piano montunos used in 20th century Cuban son music.
The only other movement that was composed in 1886 and included in the original Suite EspaÑola is number 8, “Cuba”, a capricho. While it is written in 6/8 meter, the listener may not decipher the meter at first because the introductory rhythms are displaced and a feeling of ¾ is implied. This metrical ambiguity is heightened when, during the main theme, the second eighth note is given an emphasis. Albéniz also uses a 2 against 3 rhythms. These complex rhythmic devices are found in Cuban music such as the habanera which was gaining popularity in the late nineteenth century not only in Latin America but in Europe as well.
I enjoyed listening to this work by Albéniz. The piano has so many possibilities as far as sonorities, textures, and expression which is partly why it became so popular in the Romantic period. I do not believe these short pieces are terribly difficult to execute yet there is ample space for self-expression within the written notes and thus this collection would be great for a student or advanced amateur to pick up and work through. Although it is specifically a Spanish suite, the listener can here Albéniz’s other European influences as well as the mixture of cultures that have existed in Spain. With the growing trend of Nationalism in the late nineteenth century many composers were using folk tunes from the people of their nation-state. Spain, has had so many cultures mixed together for such a long time that to write nationalistically, it was par for the course that Albéniz should use such contrasting time feels and tonalities to represent the mix of traditions in Spain. “Albéniz’ minor colour suggests an illustration of [Tomás] Bretón’s theory that the jota [a triple metered Spanish dance] belonged to Andalusia in origin.” [Livermore 182] Another facet that stands out to me is that many of these short pieces are arranged in ternary form where in one of the sections Albéniz gives a sense of being in the locale of the title and the other section is a feeling of nostalgia for that place while somewhere else. It is simple, yet effective.
The Suite EspaÑola is not included in the canon because it is not Albéniz’s best work. That is reserved for Iberia, the monumental work of twelve “impressions” for piano that took Albéniz nearly four years to complete. It seems that the Suite EspaÑola was merely a warm up for Iberia. However, the Suite is very enjoyable, rewarding, and is something I would listen to in my free time (ha!) at home and encourage others to as well.

Clark, Walter Aaron. Isaac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romantic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Verlag, G. Henle. Suite Espagnole Opus 47. Germany.
Livermore, Ann. A Short History of Spanish Music. New York: Vienna House, 1972.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Response to Ryan's Post on Mozart's Concerto in C for Flute and Harp

Overall, I think Ryan’s analysis of Mozart’s Concerto in C for Flute and Harp is penetrating and detailed, at least, in the description of the first movement. I also appreciate Ryan’s background information on the death of Mozart’s mother and his father’s accusations.
The solo instruments that Mozart has written this concerto for are an interesting combination. Of all the instruments that were used for performance in the Classical period, the flute and harp may be among the oldest in human civilization. They were not always in the same form, nor are they in the form now that they were in Mozart’s, yet there is something ancient and rustic about their sounds. The harp dates back over 5000 years to African and Mesopotamian roots. Bone flutes have been found with the remains of ancient civilizations all over the world. In this concerto, the flute especially reminds me of a pastoral environment. The timbre is so pure; one can almost feel fresh air in their nostrils. The harp also has a beautiful tone. Unfortunately, it’s hard to hear the full timbre of the harp when other instruments are playing. I do, however, appreciate the combination of harp and flute. They are different enough in their ranges, timbres, and technique that they compliment each other well.
The andantino movement has a very lovely character that at times brings out a Spanish flavor. It is at times like a florid waltz. The harp lines are similar to what I’ve heard of southern Mexico/Guatemala music. The Spanish often used the harp as a continuo instrument in the baroque and brought it to Latin America. Even to this day I would wager to say that the harp is more popular in Spanish-speaking countries than any others except in Africa. Even the eighth-note sweeps in the strings reflect the Spanish style. I have to wonder if Mozart intended this or if it is just a coincidence. As Ryan pointed out, Mozart was in Paris this year, and that may have had something to do with it.
I agree with Ryan’s reasons why this usually is not included in the canon. If there were as many harpists as there were keyboard players, I am positive there would be many concertos for harp. Another factor is the volume. The harp is such a quiet instrument that if there are too many other instruments playing the sound of the harp is buried. Even in the recording of this Concerto, only the attack is heard, and barely, when the flute and concerto grosso are playing. The solution that some composers have found is to have multiple harps, but of course, then you need multiple virtuosic harpists. It may be that the harp does not work well as a solo instrument in a concerto. It may also be that I need to listen to more harp concertos to really know if it can work. Nonetheless, I appreciate, artistically, what Mozart created with this work and feel that there may be more places to go with the flute and harp duo.