Tag Archives: John Harbison

Advent playlist – Part 1: Between two voices and tutti

I’ve heard a lot of goosebump-inducing live music lately. Over the past couple of weeks, Emmanuel Music’s worship service offerings have included Igor Stravinsky’s “Ave Maria,” Arvo Pärt’s “Magnificat,” and deliciously rich Bach Cantatas. Last Friday afternoon, an anonymous donor made it possible for PW and me to attend the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s mind-blowing program of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, John Harbison’s Second Symphony, and Schumann’s Second Symphony.

I don’t know about you, but my experience of music — especially live music — is that it goes right into my cells, settling in there among the mitochondria, lysosomes, and, my personal favorite cell component, the Golgi Apparatus. I don’t just hear music with my ears. When I’m listening to live music that moves me, I feel as though I’m hearing it with my whole being, as though my body has become a sounding board.

Emmanuel Music’s recent offering of Stravinsky’s “Ave Maria” bathed me in goosebumps, and then cracked me open like an egg. I have absolutely no attachment to or history with the prayer Ave Maria, or to the sappy musical settings that the text often receives. I didn’t grow up in a religious tradition that spent much time talking about Mary, much less praying to her. So I didn’t see it coming — this business of getting cracked open. I certainly didn’t expect to be completely liquified before the Emmanuel Music singers had finished singing the first phrase.

I can’t guarantee you’ll have the same experience listening to this through your computer, but if you haven’t heard this piece before, I’d wager your musical life is missing an essential texture. I think it’s particularly important to have this echoing in your ears before you listen to Pärt’s “Magnificat,” which comes next on our Advent playlist.

Annoyance warning: after you click the play button on the video below, you’ll have to click on the “Watch on YouTube” link to hear this. They won’t let me embed the video into the website. Sheesh.

In last Sunday’s bulletin, Ryan Turner’s Music Notes for Pärt’s “Magnificat” described the texture of the piece as alternating “between two voices and tutti.” When I read that, I knew I had a title for a post for this website. I love the rhythm of the phrase, and the way that the friction between the English and the Italian words echoes the friction of the music itself.

If you play the video below, you can hear what I mean, particularly if the Stravinsky has already wound its way into your cells. Don’t bother watching the video. Just click play, close your eyes, and listen to what “between two voices and tutti” sounds like.

And now for something completely different. Just this morning, somewhere in the midst of re-scheduling my half-century hazing ritual whose medical term is “colonoscopy,” making an appointment for my annual checkup with the eye doctor, and working on our 2010 Holiday Letter, I stumbled across this song about birth. Since Advent is an expectant, pregnant season, I couldn’t resist adding this infectiously happy song to the playlist. Rubblebucket’s “Came Out Of A Lady” swarms with all kinds of tutti-ness.

Lucy with her flat penguin

Hairpin turn warning: If you’re still basking in the post-Stravinsky-Pärt glow, you might not be ready for Rubblebucket just now. Musically, it’s a little like sitting in a comfy chair, sipping tea, quietly reading a collection of Rumi’s poetry, when suddenly an overly friendly dog shoves her nose under your arm and drops an eviscerated, formerly-stuffed animal in your lap. However, if you’ve had it up to here with quiet wintertime reflection and are ready to shake shake shake your booty, then by all means press play and invent a Happy Advent Dance.


“Buzz gave him a complete chipmunk.”

Following up on last week’s post about the red-tailed hawks of 185 Fresh Pond Parkway, I stopped by the Hawks “R” Us strip mall on Tuesday to get a progress report.  Turns out that the middle hawk, Larry, took his first flight over the Memorial Day weekend (no doubt he was compelled off the nest by the holiday furniture sale at a nearby retailer.  Nothing says “Honor the War Dead” like buying a new sofabed at 40% off.)  I asked one of the omnipresent onlookers if she had managed to get a picture of the big event.  She growled, “No.  I was being harassed by a goddamn religious zealot who kept saying I should have my camera focused on the heavens, and not on a bird’s nest.”

Yes, well, do go on!  She then told me that Larry is surprisingly good at flying but he hasn’t gotten the hang of landing.  His inability to stick the landing has kept him from returning to the nest, which he apparently wants to do.   On one of his early flights, he landed on the point of the office building, just above the nest, and because there was nothing to dig his talons into, he slid halfway down, a la Charlie Chaplin, before taking off again.  If you click on the photo to the right, you’ll go to a very cool photo gallery that documents some of Larry’s first flying adventures.

A local nature blogger has been posting fairly regularly on the progress of the hawk chicks and the phenomenon of the human circus that has gathered around these birds.  I love his post from June 2, which you can read if you click here.  In particular, I love his account of Larry’s meet-up with his dad, Buzz, who gave Larry the chipmunk he had been carrying back to the youngsters still in the nest.  I love it so much I stole one of the lines from it for the title of this entry.

All week I’ve been thinking about these birds learning to fly, and how flying seems to be easier than landing, at least at first.  It makes me wonder if animals can curse.  Surely, if there were reason to let fly with a string of obscenities, it would be when you’ve landed on the point of a roof, and you begin to slide down awkwardly and unintentionally, all while being photographed and ogled as though you’re on the red carpet at the Oscars.

There’s a reason that sports commentators gush about someone “sticking the landing” – it’s hard to do.  When Sheerah and Lulu were learning to walk, whenever they lost their balance and toppled over, their dad would go into baseball umpire mode and say “Safe!” while making the accompanying “Safe!” signal with his arms.  I always thought that was a brilliant strategy – way better than rushing over, picking the kid up and saying, “It’s okay honey, try it again!”  The “Safe!” signal is, generally speaking, a true statement to a kid learning to walk that she is safe, in a “no blood, no foul” type of way.  And it’s an entertaining diversion from whatever minor pain or embarrassment a kid who’s learning to walk might feel at falling down for no apparent reason.  And today I’m thinking it’s the hawk equivalent of being given a complete chipmunk.  Just forget about how you look while you’re learning to do this hard thing.  Get out there, try it again, and whenever you manage to land, no matter how it looks, you might just get a complete chipmunk!

Maybe there ought to be a Complete Chipmunk Award for trying something new, where you may (or may not) end up like looking like a complete idiot, but at least you had the guts to move outside your comfort zone.  Heyyyy, wait a minute…I’m a writer, I hereby declare such an award!  I’ll have to figure out the criteria for earning the award.  Or maybe I’ll keep the criteria a secret, so they can change over time to suit my whimsies.  For now, the Complete Chipmunk Award does not come with any golden statuette or cash prize.  Fercryinoutloud, folks, I’m a writer not a financier.

I’ve been listening a lot this week to songs from Peter Gabriel’s “Scratch My Back” project.  I’ve been a huge Peter Gabriel fan since my teens when he was with the band Genesis (the first incarnation of it.)  I love all sorts of things about this project.  Mostly, I love the variety of songs Gabriel covers, his self-imposed restriction of no guitars and no drums, and his idea of asking the artists he covers to cover one of his songs in return.  Initially, Gabriel’s plan was to release both albums simultaneously, but there have been delays in completing the album of others covering his songs.   The idea of making so much more than a covers album, of using the project as a springboard to collaborate with the artists he’s covering, even if the project doesn’t quite unfold the way he had originally hoped – that is what wins Peter Gabriel my inaugural Complete Chipmunk Award.  Well, that and I got all tickled at the possibility of mentioning Peter Gabriel and the word chipmunk in the same sentence.

I highly recommend you go here to read Gabriel reflecting on each of track of “Scratch My Back.” Compare this project to Renée Fleming’s new album “Dark Hope”, of the renowned opera singer recording cover tunes from the so-called “indie rock” world.  Or don’t compare the projects.  I have, and I gotta tell you, Renée, Peter Gabriel makes your project look like a bald-faced attempt to make a record that appeals to a bunch of different demographics (and by “demographics” we mean “wallets,” don’t we?)  Renée might be eligible for a Complete Chipmunk Award if she took my blogging buddy James Primosch’s advice and recorded an album of contemporary composers such as George Crumb and John Harbison.  I love Renée Fleming’s work, but, really, does the world need yet another cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”?  This hot-head says no.  No chipmunk for you.

Here are two videos about the “Scratch My Back” project.  This first one is about Peter Gabriel’s recording of Bon Iver’s mysterious song “Flume,” and of Justin Vernon’s (a.k.a. Bon Iver’s) recording of Gabriel’s “Come Talk to Me.”  I love that Vernon included a banjo in his instrumentation for “Come Talk to Me.”  I’ve never thought of a banjo as an instrument that conjures up yearning, but I think it works here, the way he uses it.  If these songs were on vinyl, I would have worn the record out by now, just from the last week alone.

This next video is about Peter Gabriel’s recording of Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble” from the “Graceland” album, and of Simon’s recording of Gabriel’s anti-apartheid anthem “Biko.”  I love how Gabriel’s take on “Boy in the Bubble” plumbs the depths of the terror in the lyrics, and how Simon’s recording of “Biko” uses the slackly-tuned 12-string guitar to echo the clicking language of Stephen Biko’s Xhosa people.  Goosebumps.

Speaking of hot-heads, it pains me to send you to iTunes, because Apple’s proprietary approach to music distribution pisses me off, but sometimes you have to suck it up to support Chipmunk-worthy art.  Here’s where you can download “Flume” and “Come Talk to Me.” And here’s where you can download “The Boy in the Bubble” and “Biko.” I recommend you listen to them with the volume turned up to 11.

Ihr seid die Gesegneten des Herren

A couple of Sundays ago, the chorus of Emmanuel Music sang a motet “Der Herr denket an uns,” which is #9 in Johann Hermann Schein’s “Israels Brünnlein” collection, or whatever it’s called by people who know these things.  The text is from Psalm 115, verses 12-15.   I sat there in my usual spot, soaking up the beauty in my usual way – not following along in the program but just watching the singers, players, and John Harbison’s conducting dance.  And listening.  Listening with a ferocious desire for bigger ears so I could take in this miracle of sound that we call music.  I’ve heard that the ears continue to grow throughout one’s life; what a great place for this wish to be coming true!

As I sat there imagining myself floating in a pool of shimmering sound, the sound suddenly stopped.  I snapped back to attention to see John’s hands hovering in the air, then cueing the players and singers to their next entry point.  I looked down at the program to see where they were and, to my delight, they were repeating the line again:  “Ihr seid die Gesegneten des Herren” or in English “You are the blessed of the Lord.”  The pauses between the lines were long enough to create, in me anyway, an intense feeling of leaning forward, anticipating, feeling that pull of “What’s next?”  The silence of the pauses was, as I suppose musicians already know, a kind of music in itself.

This line, “Ihr Seid die Gesegneten des Herren” was repeated at least three times when I heard it.  In the recording I found, it’s repeated six times.  So maybe that’s how EMI performed it, but I honestly can’t remember because I was so completely transported I lost count.  I found myself scooping up these silences like prized stones found on a beach, filling my hands and pockets with them.  And it is these silences that are most vivid in my memory of this event.

I’m still floating on this little musical offering, two weeks later.  Thanks to my local library, I found a collection of the “Israels Brünnlein” that has this little gem in it, so you can hear it at the end of this entry.  The repetitions of this phrase and the accompanying pauses start at about 2:20.  I don’t expect the recording to have exactly the same rapturous effects as my hearing it live did.  For one, what you don’t get to see when you listen to a recording is the relationship between conductor, players and singers.  This was particularly delightful to see during these pauses – the intensity of the waiting, the anticipation, the alertness, the readiness, the commitment to the next measure.  Goosebumps.

It’s easy to feel like “the blessed of the Lord” when music like this is echoing around in my brain.  Plus, today is Mother’s Day, and I always feel particularly blessed on this day.  I’m blessed to have an incredibly brave, resilient mother who has accompanied me through various bumps, blind curves, hairpin turns, and occasionally goofy or heart-stopping rides in life’s clown car.  I’m blessed to be a mother of three extraordinary daughters – two of whom I inherited when PW and I combined our lives and our families and one of whom chose me to escort her into this life.  These three have been such a blessing to me that I can barely remember what life was like without them.  I know I lived before I knew them, but that past is dim, blurred, and flatter.  I’m also blessed to get to mother with the woman whose mothering – and whose children – convinced me that I could be a mother, too.

Johann Hermann Schein created the “Israels Brünnlein” in 1623, but the need to hear “Ihr seid die Gesegneten des Herren” over and over is as keen now as it was then.  Each brief and ballistic pause reminds me of more ways that I’m blessed.  Imagine living every moment of every day with this feeling of blessedness woven into every fiber of our being.  Mother’s Day is as good a day as any to begin living this way.  Even if you’re not a mother, you have a mother, or you have people who have mothered you, or you have people or creatures or ideas or dreams that you care for as a mother.

Ihr seid die Gesegneten des Herren.  Happy Mother’s Day.

Manfred Cordes conducting Weser -Renaissance Bremen in Johann Hermann Schein’s “Der Herr denket an uns” from “Israels Brünnlein”