The Ghost of Debussy’s “Des pas sur la neige” in Morton Feldman’s Final Work

Four ascending notes, repeated with hypnotic persistence amid a soundscape of restlessly shifting harmony and color…This is what we hear in the atmospheric Des pas sur la neige (“Footprints in the Snow”), the sixth piece from Book 1 of Claude Debussy’s solo piano Préludes. Written in 1909, this music seems to mirror the dreamy winter scenes of Impressionist painters like Claude Monet- paintings in which recognizable landscapes begin to blur into abstractions of color and light. …

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Prokofiev’s Haunting First Violin Sonata

“Wind passing through a graveyard…” This is how Sergei Prokofiev described the hauntingly ethereal passage at the end of the first movement of the Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor. Hushed, wispy scales rise and fall in the violin over a series of numb, ambivalent piano chords. This chilly passage, which is anything but definitive or conclusive, returns later in the final movement. It encapsulates the atmosphere of the Sonata, perhaps the darkest, most …

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Happy Birthday, Morton Feldman

Today marks the ninety-second anniversary of the birth of American maverick composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987). Amid an increasingly loud, fast-paced contemporary world, Feldman’s music moves in the opposite direction. Frequently, it emerges somewhere just above silence. We’re forced to confront the nature of sound, itself. Many of Feldman’s works unfold gradually over incredibly long durations of time. His longest works- the five-hour-long String Quartet No. 2 (1983), and the eighty-minute Piano and String Quartet (1985), for …

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Mahler’s Fourth Symphony: Heaven Through a Child’s Eyes

The Fourth occupies a unique place among Gustav Mahler’s nine symphonies. From its opening sleigh bells, it pulls us into a bright, exuberant drama- a song-symphony of occasional sardonic humor, frivolity, introspection, and ultimate innocence. Its instrumentation suggests a light, pared-down classicism in which the low brass voices of the trombones and tuba are conspicuously absent. It looks backwards as well as ahead. Mahler’s first four symphonies all grew out of song- in …

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Ólafur Arnalds Meets Steve Reich

There’s something about Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds’ 2013 ambient track, No. Other, that reminds me of the music of Steve Reich- specifically, Reich’s 1979 Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards. It isn’t that the notes or rhythms are even remotely the same. It’s more about the general atmosphere which emerges from the two works. Both unfold with a gradual, hypnotic inevitability. In both, long, sustained, static tones in the middle register give us the sense of floating …

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The Buggles and Laurie Spiegel: Art Meets Technology, Circa 1979

Nostalgia for the past and anticipation for the future, with its promise of both excitement and peril…These are themes which seem to sum up New Years. They are also the themes which underlie the classic rock song, Video Killed the Radio Star, by the British New wave band, The Buggles. Released as a single in September, 1979 as the disco era was fading rapidly into the Synth-pop sounds of the 80s, the song’s lyric suggests a sense …

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Francis Poulenc: Four Motets for Christmas

Francis Poulenc’s Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noël, completed in 1952, are inspired by four scenes from the Nativity story. The first, O magnum mysterium, captures the awe and mystery of the birth of Jesus, and praises the Virgin Mary with a hushed reverence. The second, Quem vidistis, asks the shepherds, “Whom did you see?” The third, Videntes stellam, transports us to the serene, starlit night through which the Magi travel, bearing their gifts. The final motet, Hodie Chistus natus est, is a …

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