Gabriel Kahane’s “November”

November is the haunting opening track of Book of Travelers, a new album released in late August by New York-based composer/singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane. The album was inspired by the conversations Kahane had with strangers during a two-week-long Amtrak journey across the United States in November, 2016. In the final lines of November, the train becomes a means of “escape,” perhaps a metaphor for the restless westward expansion of the American frontier days. As November progresses, its harmonic center begins to …

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Five Examples of Bartók’s “Night Music”

Strange, haunting, nocturnal sounds emerge throughout the music of twentieth century Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. These passages, which are known as “Night music,” evoke the hum of insects and other distant murmurs we might hear in a lonely field on a summer night. Bartók held a spiritual reverence for “Nature, Art, and Science.” But the “Night music” doesn’t offer the kind of poetic tone painting we hear in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Instead, these moments contain something more vague and terrifying. They surround …

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Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta”: A Haunting Symmetry

From an intricately woven spider web, to the crystalline perfection of a snowflake, to the proportions of a sea shell, nature is filled with logical structures, pleasing mathematical ratios, and stunning symmetries. In the natural world, there is a sense that it could only be as it is. Nothing is wasted. The closer you look, the more you become aware of an infinite and awe-inspiring underlying order. Listening to Béla Bartók’s ghostly Music for …

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New Release: Víkingur Ólafsson Plays Bach

The music of J.S. Bach travels well. It is some of the most perfect and highly-ordered music ever written. Yet it’s also some of the most durable and versatile. These 300-year-old notes continue to come alive in new and exciting ways. We got a sense of this earlier in the month with violinist Hilary Hahn’s fiery, romantic approach to solo Bach, reminiscent of the free and distinctive interpretations of twentieth century artists like Kreisler, Heifetz, …

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George Crumb’s “Black Angels”: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land

Things were turned upside down. There were terrifying things in the air… they found their way into Black Angels. – George Crumb, 1990 Black Angels, a work for “electric string quartet” by American composer George Crumb (b. 1929), pulls us into a terrifying, nightmarish soundscape. Completed in March, 1970, the piece has been associated with the apocalyptic zeitgeist of the Vietnam era. Yet the strange, disturbing voices which haunt this music seem to transcend any one …

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Eight Pieces Based on the Dies Irae

Last week, we explored two pieces which bookend the musical output of Sergei Rachmaninov- the First Symphony, which Rachmaninov wrote at the age of 22, and the Symphonic Dances, his “last spark,” completed in 1940. The Dies irae, the ancient chant of the dead, emerges as a prominent presence in both works. It’s a motive that returns throughout Rachmaninov’s music with haunting regularity. We hear it in The Isle of the Dead, The Bells, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, where it …

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Handel’s “Water Music”: Akademie für alte Musik Berlin

Handel’s festive Water Music springs to life with an infectious sense of joy and celebration in this January, 2016 live performance featuring the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. This has to be some of the most enduring and magical party music ever written. As I outlined in a previous post, this collection of three Baroque dance suites was written for King George I’s pleasure excursion up the Thames River on the evening of July …

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