Hildegard von Bingen
12th Century mystic visionary, saint, writer, theologian, and heaven knows what else, Hildegard is probably best remembered for her music.
It’s unlike almost anything else. At a time when chant was about it for music she writes music that is’ like chant, monophonic, but soars and glides in extraordinary ways.
Her music came to notice in a famous CD called “A Feather on the Breath of God” and this pretty much describes the impact of her music.
Hildegard von Bingen – O Tu Suavissima Virga [Sequentia] – YouTubehttp://youtu.be/quMgY08jDf4O Tu Suavissima Virga from Sequentia’s “Canticles of Ecstacy” CD. Music by Hildegard von Bingen [1098 - 1179], performed by Sequentia.
Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza, married his cousin then, when he discovered her in bed with the Duke of Andria, stabbed and shot them both to death in a killing frenzy. According to some accounts he also killed one of his young children as he doubted its paternity. He then left the mutilated bodies at the castle gate for all to see.
He later remarried and after another unhappy married died, according to some, poisoned by his wife.
Oh it was all go in Italy!
But in between all this he had time to write a fair old lot of music.
His music is all for voices and is full of crunchy dissonances and notes that really don’t go together. You wouldn’t hear these chords again until the late 19th century. The effect of hearing music that has all the characteristics of 17th Century madrigal with these 20th century harmonies is sort of magical.
OK – horrible man, but beautiful music
C.P.E Bach - Organ Concerto
Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach was the eldest son of the great Johann Sebastian Bach and a damn fine composer in his own right.
There’s an inevitability about Classical Music when you listen to it. It goes exactly where it needs to go and nowhere else. The pleasure is in in the skill of the Composer working within those inevitable boundaries.
What makes C.P.E. Bach so interesting is that just when you think you know where he’s going he goes somewhere else. And yet he makes it sound right. I’m not sure his Dad would approve, but it’s very good.
Eric Satie – musique d’ameublement
Satie (1866 – 1925) is one of the great originals in music. At a time when everyone was dead set keen of copying Wagner or going all neo-classical, Satie wrote tiny miniatures for piano, full of strange ideas and dry humour.
In 1917 he wrote the first of his musique d’ameublement – literally “furnishing music”
The idea was to write music that didn’t need to be listened to, only heard in the background, in the same way that curtains are seen, but never really observed.
He wrote little pieces about four bars long and the players could just keep repeating them over and over until the allotted time was filled – ten minutes of music, in the same way that you buy ten metres of music. It was a lot like the modern practice of looping, except with live performers.
This performance is of the first two pieces in the series, rather explicitly by Satie as:
- Tapisserie en fer forgé - pour l’arrivée des invités (grande réception) – À jouer dans un vestibule – Mouvement: Très riche
- Carrelage phonique - Peut se jouer à un lunch ou à un contrat de mariage – Mouvement:Ordinaire
Or, in English
- Tapestry in forged iron – for the arrival of the guests (grand reception) – to be played in a vestibule – Movement: Very rich
- Phonic tiling – Can be played during a lunch or civil marriage – Movement: Ordinary
Schoenberg – Pierrot Lunaire
In World War One Arnold Schoenberg was called up into the Austrian Army. His friends tried to arrange to have him discharged on the grounds that a composer of his genius should be safe. Schoenberg asked them not to worried. “I am being attacked here in the army less often than I was attacked at home by the critics. It’s far more peaceful.”
One day an officer asked him if he was the notorious composer Arnold Schoenberg. “I beg to report sir”, he said, “that someone had to be and the job fell to me.”
Schoenberg was greatly superstitious about numerology – he made sure his Biblical opera was called “Moses and Aron” rather than “Moses and Aaron” to avoid having a title with 13 letters – and Pierrot Lunaire was begun on March 12, 1912, is his Opus 21, and contains 21 songs. The songs are arranged in three groups of seven and, including the conductor, there are seven in the orchestra
He wrote the seminal work “Pierrot Lunaire” as a sort of expressionist cabaret. The singer – traditionally a Soprano, but Schoenberg didn’t really say – doesn’t really sing as such. Schoenberg invented a sort of half singing, half talking for the performer and combine this with his use of atonal music the whole thing becomes a sort of nightmare song cycle. Endlessly fascinating, hugely entertaining and even funny in a strangely Germanic way, this is fantastic music.
The performance here is by Pierre Boulez and is pretty damn good. Oddly it starts with a solo clarinet piece by Stravinsky, but there’s no harm in that.
Webern – Symphony
Anton Webern was one of Schoenberg’s pupils and took up his method of “Twleve Tone Music”. No I won’t go into hit. Look here if you want to know, but don’t get caught up in it all – it’s about how it sounds. not how it was made.
Webern made music of extreme compression, (this entire symphony lasts just over nine minutes and is one of his longer works) and full of silence as much as sound.
The first time you hear it you’ll probably think it’s just a series of unrelated boinks and bings, but it’s extremely worked out and organised – every note is exasctly where it needs to be,
Cage – Music of Changes
John Cage was one of the Gods of 20th Century music.
In the early 50s Cage became interested in what he called “indeterminate music” – that is, music composed using chance and random processes. In “Music of Changes” he composed the work using the Chinese I Ching Oracle – the one where you toss coins to tell the future. You can read about what he did here.
When we think of a “composer” we usually think of someone who is calling the shots, making decisions about what notes get played, how loudly, how long, which notes go with which – the whole kit and kaboodle. The composer takes charge and also responsibility.
But Cage wasn’t having an of that, thankyou very much. He wanted to compose random music, where the decisions were out of his hands. And so he sat, tossing coins and converting the results into musical notation.
And here are the results. No-one is going to mistake this for an easy listen, or even beautiful music. But it’s a major work and built on principles of chance and randomness.
Steve Reich – Clapping Music.
In the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s music went back to basics after the avant-guarde excesses of the 40s 50s and 60s. Minimalism it was called and there was lots of repetition and simple harmonies.
You can’t get much more minimal than this. If you think music is about harmony and melody and tunes and virtuoso playing of expensive instruments, then you might need to rethink afer this. It’s just two guy clapping their hands.
Here is the composer himself (he’s wearing the hat) clapping away for all he’s worth.
If you want to see what’s going on here’s a video of the score synchronised with a recording. Turn down the volume, get a friend and have a go yourself.
Morton Feldman - For Philip Guston
Feldman – not Marty Feldman, Morton Feldman – was a part of John Cage’s circle and was also working with indeterminate music, doing things like telling performers how many notes they had to play in a certain time, but not which ones. But Feldman became interested in music that was still and quiet and, as time went on, of extreme duration. (His Second String Quartet lasts over six hours.)
This work clocks in at a fairly succinct four and a forty eight minutes and is made up of very quiet sounds and silence. Sometimes the silence seems even more important than the sounds. It does raise the question of how do you listen to a flute, a piano, a Celeste and some minimal percussion play very slow, very quiet music where nothing much happens and keeps on not happening much for the same length of time as a Wagner Opera. It’s a very unusual experience.
Brian Eno – Music for Airports
Brian Eno started out as synthesiser player and tape operator in the original lineup of Roxy Music.
By 1978 he had recorded and released a number of interesting solo albums, but on this he invented an entire genre – Ambient Music.
In the mid seventies Eno was stuck at Cologne Airport and had to listen to Muzak for several hours. This album was intended as an installation to be played in airports to allow people to keep calm .
It’s made up of tape loops – and in 78 they really were tape loops – all of which were of slightly different lengths and designed not to actually repeat. If, for example, one loop is 10 seconds long and the other is 20 seconds long then as they play there will be times when they come back into sync. But the loops Eno used were odd sort of lengths like 23 and 29 seconds. So they form an ever changing texture of sound that although it sounds like it’s repeating over and over is always different.
Eno said that the aim was to make music that was interesting enough to get you listening, but not so interesting that you couldn’t listen to anything else. Obviously this is a lot like Satie’s Furnishing Music, but lusher and less repetitive.
Autechre – Confield
In 2001 Autechre – a duo made up of Rob Brown and Sean Booth from Manchester – were pretty much revered in electronic music circles. On Warp records they had developed a genre called IDM -Intelligent Dance Music – and along with Aphex Twin pretty much ruled the EM world.
With “Confield” they moved away from actual synthsisers and hardware and worked with laptops and software programs. The result is this jittery, cold, precise music that still astounds.
Nurse with Wound – Soliloquy for Lilith
Nurse with Wound is a pioneering electronic music project made up of Steve Stapledon and whoever he’s working with at the time.
Originally coming out of Krautrock and Industrial Noise over the years it covered a multitude of electronic genres.
Soliloquy for Lilith is a long form work that fills 3 CDs in its hard copy form.
In 1988 Stapledon plugged a series of effects pedals together and then plugged to output for the final one back into the input for the first one. This loop of effects created a feedback hum which altered as Stapledon moved around it. As he slowly moved his hands and finger over the pedals they prduced a series of low droning aural texture. Since this shouldn’t happen the album notes contain a”thankyou to electricity for making this record possible”, because when recorded those textures became the material for this album.
Two and a half hours of slowly shifting feedback sounds. Before you say ” I’d rather have my eyeballs sucked out by leeches than listen to that”, give it a try – it may not be what you think.
I’m not even going to comment on this. If you don’t get why this is great then you just don’t deserve ears.