Tag Archives: Music

Imagining the stars tonight …

Rain, rain and more rain … here’s hoping we will still have a turnout for the inaugural rehearsal of Dos Pintele Syd tonight. For the rehearsal, I’ve just finished a 4-part arrangement of one of the most beautiful songs to come out of the Vilna Ghetto, Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern, written by the late great Abraham Sutzkever, with music by Abraham Brudno.

I think the poem encapsulates the antitheodical conundrum facing Jewish culture at its darkest moment. In a place of fear and entrapment, with an immanent threat of death, the song expresses the longing for some divine comfort, a place or being that the poet is not sure even exists.

Zachary Braiterman in his excellent book (God) After Auschwitz cites Sutzkever’s friend in the ghetto Zelig Kalmanovitsch commenting thus about the poet’s calling God to trial in the poem Kol Nidre:

“Ver es hot a din-toyre mit Got darft koydem kol gleybt in Got.”
(Whoever calls God to account must first of all believe in God)

Marc Chagall wrote of Sutskever that “Once upon a time we were dreaming of sweet and imaginary fires and of crumbling wedding canopies, but he, Sutzkever, beheld man in his utter ugliness, in his physical and spiritual degradation.”

It is not possible to know what exact poems Chagall was thinking of when he described Sutzkever’s work in such terms, but I don’t think that Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern fits this description. It is a work that exists between hope and doubt.

Here’s one of the most beautiful renditions of this song, performed by Chava Alberstein:

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Beautiful and delicate

Just a quick post today, as I have too much preparation on my plate for tomorrow. Last night (Monday) I went to hear the St Lawrence String Quartet and Diana Doherty at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney. Sadly, I could only stay for the first half of the program, which comprised Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor, op 20 no 5, Gordon Kerry’s Elegy for String Quartet (2007) and Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F major, K370.

Years ago, someone told me of a categorization of certain music lovers: it was either Bach or Handel, and either Haydn or Mozart. Well, for me it will always be Bach and Haydn.

But back to the performance itself. The Haydn was a beautiful, idiosyncratic reading. It was a slow reading in terms of tempo, somewhat unusual, perhaps making a certain statement from the ensemble against the more regular tendency to take Haydn at a livelier pace. The first movement always feels to me like a violin concerto with accompaniment, and the flailing legs and hips of the first violinist added to this preconception (at times, the movements were somewhat irksome and distracting … but the extraneous limbs seemed to settle after the first movement). The third movement, the Siciliana in F major really stood out, with extraordinarily delicate playing. The St Lawrence String Quartet have outstanding control in their dynamic range, and add subtle and sophisticated bowing techniques to enhance the notes on the score. The final fugue was spectacular.

Gordon Kerry’s Elegy, written after the occasion of the death of his mother, was an intensely personal work. A disclaimer: Gordon is a personal friend. I would like to hear this piece a few times more, before making a proper assessment. My first impressions are that of contrasting figures of joy and sorrow, befitting the process that transforms our memories of a loved one from the pain of loss to the comfort of reminiscence. The St Lawrence String Quartet performed the many extended techniques written in the score with the same masterly finesse on display in the Haydn. The end floated away in a most ethereal manner.

The audience favourite of the first half was undoubtedly Diana Doherty’s performance of the Mozart Oboe Quartet in F major. The sigh from the audience at the end of the first movement signaled a few things to me, in no particular order: relief in the tonal sounds of Herr Mozart after Gordon Kerry’s haunting, modern tone colours; delight at the continued improvement and subtlety of Diana Doherty’s masterful playing (better with each iteration); joy at the ever-familiar and popular Mozart work. Call me a philistine, call me a brute, call me anything but late for dinner, but the Mozart Oboe Quartet is not to my taste. Still, it was an essential crowd pleaser, beautifully rendered by Doherty and members of the St Lawrence String Quartet.

If you want to see them, they’re still on tour in Australia until 28 April. Next Sydney performance is this Saturday night. For more information, visit the Musica Viva website:


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Afternoon tea with Alice

I met Alice (Aliza) Herz-Sommer in her London flat in the summer of 2008. Through the generosity of an anonymous benefactor and funding from the University of Sydney (via the Kath O’Neil Scholarship, a special research scholarship for post-graduate Arts students), I travelled specifically to interview her, along with other Holocaust survivors living in the UK and Israel. Alice was a sprightly 103 years old at the time.

Alice is a gregarious and generous person, and receives visitors every day, offering coffee and cake at each sitting. After calling her from Australia to let her know I was coming specifically to interview her, I called again upon my arrival. She nominated a day and time, and I duly turned up that afternoon, digital recorder at the ready, and questions in hand and in mind.

At that time, Alice’s biography, A Garden of Eden in Hell (by Melissa Müller and Reinhard Piechocki) had been recently translated by Giles MacDonogh and published in English.  I used this as the background for my various questions, but my primary focus was more upon her understanding and relationship with four most prominent composers in the Terezín ghetto (Theresienstadt): Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Hans Krása and Pavel Haas.

Some fine documentaries have been made of her life and her remarkably optimistic perspective. In my opinion, the biography by Müller and Piechocki is a little sentimental and awkward in its portrayal of an extraordinarily complex, rigorous intellect as Alice (especially with the clumsy metaphorical pairing of emotional aspects of the Chopin Études with personalities from the Ghetto). However, this biography does contain excellent detail of Alice’s early life, her relationship with her loved ones, her time in Terezín and afterwards. Time will tell if the new biography by Caroline Stoessinger provides any new material.

I doubt that my interview with Alice was in any way more revelatory than any other interview done. However, two things stood out in our discussions. The first was the emphasis she placed on protecting her young son Rafi during incarceration in the ghetto. She spoke at length about his musicality in utero and at even at the age of three, listening to Robert Schumann’s Mondnacht (Op. 39 No. 5) from the Liederkreis song cycle, and crying at the beauty of the music. Just in case you are curious, here is the incomparable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing this, accompanied by Wolfgang Sawallisch.

The second remarkable account was the method by which she coped during perhaps her lowest point during the war: accompanying her 73 year old mother in 1942 to the place of deportation from Prague. On the way back, a revelation came to Alice, almost Paulian in character. This is what she said to me at the time:

” now, even after 70 years I believe, I remember the place where it happened, near our house.  I had to stop, and like an inner voice spoke to me in my depression; I was so unhappy.  An inner voice spoke – not the doctor.  I went to the doctor – I couldn’t eat.  Not the baby, not nothing can help yourself – only you can you help. And at the same moment … ‘ 24 Études by Chopin ‘.  So I was running home, and from this moment, two years, hundreds and hundreds of times, I can’t tell you – I didn’t stop playing and playing and playing.  What is interesting – nowadays, in the time of technology where everything goes so quickly, there is not a single composer which composed so difficult for piano as Chopin.”

I mentioned earlier that Alice regularly serves coffee and cake to all her afternoon visitors. She has an extraordinarily regimented routine. Mornings comprise of a walk around the block, followed by 2-3 hours of piano work, receiving visitors in the afternoon, and quiet time at night. The flat is modest but fulfills her needs. She does not eat cake, nor does she drink coffee, tea or alcohol. She eats one meal a day – a nourishing chicken stew. She is often interviewed about her longevity (asking me at one point whether I had ever met anyone as old as her), and is also approached by scholars interested in Franz Kafka (she knew the writer as a friend of the family).  By the end of the interview she was asking me about my musical life and the encouragement that I received from my mother! It was one of the most memorable conversations I have had, and I continue to be grateful to those who made it possible.

Alice celebrated her 108th birthday last year, and is still going strong. Here’s one of her most recent interviews, made with the famous motivational speaker Anthony Robbins. Unfortunately, there are moments of inaccuracy and sensationalism, as always seems to happen in popular portrayal of  Holocaust narratives. For example: Alice didn’t write her biography – she was, of course, intimately involved, but the work is by Müller and Piechocki. Another strange inclusion in this clip are  images of death camps and emaciated survivors in the standard issue striped pyjamas. Terezín, although a hell-hole and a place of deprivation, misery and infection (33,000 people died of communicable diseases there between 1942 and 1945) was not a place of extermination. It was a ghetto, a place of concentration in the most literal sense, and for a time, a show camp and intended subject for future propaganda purposes. The third strange feature of the clip is the lack of credit of Alice’s friend who is interviewed, Zdenka Fantlová. But even with these inaccuracies (and I could probably mention more), it is still inspirational to listen to Alice’s words and ponder on the resilience of an optimistic spirit.

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For the month of April 2012, I made two temporary vows: to suspend my Facebook account and to give up alcohol for the duration of the month.  The latter, I suspect, was more symbolic than anything else; I do indulge a little too much on the weekends, and although I know that the absence of alcohol will probably help shed a few pounds, the induced abstinence resonates more with the idea of making a vow. I will write a separate post about breaking the Facebook addiction in the coming days.

Vows can be dangerous things to undertake. Witness the stupidity and eagerness for victory that accompanies undiluted vows from early Hebrew literature: in the Book of Judges, Yiftakh  (Jephthah/Jefthe) vows that he will offer a burnt sacrifice of the first thing that greets him at his gate, should his battle against Ammonites be a success. Foolishly assuming that this would be some sort of animal, he is horrified when his daughter (his only child, Yiftakh’s daughter is only apocryphally known by the name Adah – in most accounts she is nameless) comes out to celebrate his triumph.  Over the centuries the Rabbis have had many arguments as to what happened next – whether Yiftakh did, indeed, offer her as a sacrifice (against all Jewish tradition), or whether his daughter gave up a life of worldly concerns, and became a religious devotee (a prototype of the monk or nun). Before she either dies or goes into reclusion, she is given two months to farewell the world. The Italian composer from the early Baroque period, Giacomo Carrissimi, wrote a magnificent setting for that moment of the story, in his oratorio “Jephthe”. The composition is replete with lush suspensions in the very best late Renaissance, early Baroque style. Here’s a great recording, sung by The Gabrieli Consort under the direction of Paul McCreesh:

I guess that even though vows can be dangerous, they can also inspire great beauty …

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Mad Men music

I’ve been indulging in a Mad Men marathon. Many friends and acquaintances have recommended the series to me, so I  watched all 52 episodes over the past few weeks – a visual distraction and personal reward after the submission of my dissertation. The show is a visual feast – a glorious tribute to the glamour, style and aesthetics of the 1950s and 1960s. But more than this, it is a multivalent feast to my ears, beginning with the opening music and credits.

The theme music is a small sample of the instrumental track, “A Beautiful Mine” by the producer/DJ/musician RJD2, who produces some really interesting funk/hip-hop/electronica (see http://www.myspace.com/rjd2).  The choice of artist is matched by an equally engrossing visual: a silhouetted male executive approaches his office, attaché case firmly clasped in his right hand.  As he takes a few final steps and places his case on the floor, what appears to be advertising boards begin to fall, closely followed by the entire office falling (some say it melts away).  Cut to the next image: the silhouetted man is free-falling past huge glass skyscrapers, covered in stylised advertising imagery.  According to Gary Edgerton (http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/2009/04/19/falling-man-and-mad-men-154), the images include seductive women, whiskey, hackneyed advertising slogans, a nuclear family, hands wearing wedding rings and four vintage photographs – as Edgerton so rightly points out, “a lot going on in just thirty-six seconds”.

As deceptively simple as the music may appear on the surface, a lot is going on not only in the imagery, but also in the music, and that this element also plays a crucial covert imprimatur for setting the scene of the entire series. In support of this hypthesis, let’s to Matthew Weiner, the creator and Executive Producer of the series.  Weiner discusses the opening sequence for the program “Inside Media at the Paley Center: Top TV Stars in their own words” (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqX_WMNi_gM).  In the interview, he states that the initial concept for the opening sequence involved the live action of a man jumping out of a window and freezing the frame with a title coming up.  This idea was put to the network (AMC), and they came back with justifiable objections on the ground of feasibility. In relating this story, Weiner expresses a sense of respect at this reaction, seeing it as an indication of the the interest and commitment of the studio.  He goes on to explain the consequent rigorous process of refinement for the concept of the opening sequence, leading to the stylized end result.  Then comes the crucial statement regarding the music:

“… and then I heard this piece of music on the radio, that kind of was like everything. Once we got the piece of music … and the image at the end of the titles was in the presentation that they gave us, and it was a cut out of that shot that Alan Taylor and Phil Abraham constructed for the opening of the pilot.  Once I saw that image I’m like ‘we want to work to this’ …”

Weinberg goes on to explain that the imagery on the buildings was about the internalized fears to be found within the faceless silhouette; and that the image of falling man, while perhaps still a raw image in public consciousness after 9/11, was even more a uniquely American symbol from an earlier era.

My writing here is not going to enter the debate on the iconography of the falling man in the opening sequence and its relationship to the erased image of the falling man in 9/11 photography (airbrushed out of press reports after countless objections); nor the more obvious reference to iconic newspaper reports of suicidal actions of stockbrokers and businessmen during the 1929 crash.  You can read about that stuff on Gary Edgerton’s post, and the comments following his article are engaging and interesting. What really interests me is the process of hearing RJD2’s track on the radio crystallized the abstract concepts in Weinberg – to reiterate his words, “then I heard this piece of music on the radio, that kind of was like everything“. What is it in the track that makes this music serve so well its programmatic context? How does the music reflect the imagery and metaphor that makes up the opening credits?

Initially the instrumentation appears traditional: for the first four measures we hear a string quartet, with the addition of a subtle rhythmic pattern on the closed high-hat cymbals, with an occasional open cymbal punctuation towards the end of the pattern.  A very subtle synthesized element is added at the sustained last note, conjuring in our audial imagination the slowed-down pattern of some sort of automated machine (timed with the image of a fan).  As soon as one notices this, a fairly complex rhythmic pattern is introduced (full drum kit and bongo accompaniment).  The quartet reiterates the four bar pattern without modification underneath this new rhythmic movement, as a harp figure cuts a counter-melody in what appears to be a coda.  The music concludes with a tonic pedal note, movement in the string bass and then a final iteration of the last two bars of the string pattern.

Harmonically and melodically, the music appears very conventional.  The accent on the suspended melodic pattern is a figure known in conventional musicology as an appoggiatura – each note is leaning towards resolution on the following note.  There is a rising bass which switches octaves unexpectedly; the harp’s counter-melody spans a large range with some pleasant dissonances.  The most interesting dissonance is in the concluding chord – an added diminished 7th gives an air of unease.

Overall then, the music presents a solid conventional structure constantly being undermined by subtleties and counter-claims: the ground is shifting.  What appears at first to be a very clever, snappy quasi-classical offering, morphs into something far less stable.  The addition of a rhythmic section that sounds live (but feels grounded in an electronic rhythmic genre) undercuts the expectation of a traditional presentation.  We expect some sort of rhythmic syncopation in the string section when the percussion is introduced, but the strings continue on intransigently, jarring against the new rhythmic form and making us even question if they are ‘acoustic’ or acting as a sample for the greater work.  The harp counter-melody parallels the fall of the the string melody, but in a completely different and unpredictable way.  Synthesized sounds take us further out of the comfort zone, and the final harmonic clash completes the feeling of unease, uncertainty and displacement.

All of this music contributes to my perspective of Mad Men as a show about displacement, unease and uncertainty. For all intents and purposes, the primary characters present as insiders, but underneath they embody the turbulent changing times. Don Draper is the consummate slick, intelligent and handsome WASP advertising man, a war veteran and self-made man. But the writers have drawn a character that hovers precariously between self-made and invented.  Peggy Olsen challenges the stereotypes and negotiates her way to a position of power, constantly compromising her own inner independence because of necessity in this very male, very heterosexual world. These are the characters of greatest interest in the script, although there are many other minor characters who also encapsulate such tensions.  What is most wonderful about the music is that embedded within it is the kernel of dissemblance that operates to unite this brilliant, engaging work.  A final word about music: one of the aspects of Mad Men I most appreciate is the space for silence and words, away from some sort of dull musackal undertone that seems to be present in so many of today’s dramas and comedies.  It allows us to appreciate the very fine writing for what it is, without unnecessary distraction.  This feature alone deserves praise …

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