Y is for Akiko Yano

I’m doing the A-Z April Challenge again. This year, I’m going to look only for composers born the same year as I was: 1955.

Today is Y, and my choice is Akiko Yano: Rose Garden

Wikipedia entry for this Composer

Moondog (Louis Hardin): Invocation followed by Pastoral

Something rousing and reminiscent of a Roman costume drama followed by sublime sweetness.  





Moondog – New Amsterdam

New Amsterdam was her name
Before she was New York
New Amsterdam is a dame
The heart and soul of big apple city

No matter what name she goes under
I dig her deeply and no wonder
For she’s been lovely to me
And I’m the better for having met her

New Amsterdam was her name
Before she was New York
New Amsterdam is a dame
The heart and soul of big apple city

No matter what name she goes under
I dig her deeply and no wonder
For she’s been lovely to me
And I’m the better for having met her




Moondog (Louis Hardin): Synchrony #2 & Vladimir Martynov: The Beatitudes

The reason I paired these two pieces for today’s post is because youtube automatically started playing the latter after I had typed in Moondog.  Scrolling through the list of Moondog’s works, I espied something performed by the Kronos Quartet.  Kronos has been around since 1973 and has been instrumental (no pun intended) in breathing new life into the string quartet form starting in the last quarter of the 20th century.  They accomplished this by adapting music from almost every genre–for example, “Do the Funky Chicken,” on their first studio album, “In Formation, ” (1982), “Purple Haze,” (1986), medieval music dating from the 9th Century, and modern composers like Riley, Glass, Reich, Feldman and Part.  Over 400 pieces have been written for them, and they’ve given over 3000 performances since their inception.  So maybe, I’ll feature some of their pieces in my next few posts.

I won’t say much about the Moondog, except, that it’s lovely, and you can hear the his fascination with the canon form. (Think “Row-Row-Row Your Boat.”)

After the Moondog finished, it served up Vladimir Martynov”s “The Beatitudes.” Martynov was born in 1946, was classically trained, and ended up in the The Alexander Scriabin Museum, which was the Russian equivalent of 20th century european electronic music centers.

He was much influenced by the serialist music and American minimalism, however, his interest in ethnomusicology and religious music, lead his music down a much more spiritual path than other composers of minimalism.

“The Beatitudes” was written in 1998 and was rescored by the composer in 2008 for the Kronos Quartet.

Being an American, I tend to gush enthusiastically at anything that’s new to me, and I splash the word “sublime” over a lot of things like I do ketchup. But this piece really is sublime.


Moondog: Romance (from his string quartet in C)

Moondog continues to fascinate me.  I’ve listening to a number of his works today.  There is an album called “Moondog In Europe,” from which today’s piece comes.

Interesting online article about the life of Moondog by Zachary Crockett.

I can’t find a recording of the entire string quartet, this one movement is really beautiful.  And so listenable when you consider what kind of works were coming out of serious contemporary composers.



Joep Franssens – Harmony of the Spheres

I’ve never hear of Joep Franssens.  Before the internet and youtube, I probably never would have, either, since appreciation for classical music in the United States has declined over the years.  His name popped up on youtube in the most serendipitous of ways.

Yesterday I went to the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, to see an exhibition of paintings — called “Seeing Nature” — that came from the collection of Paul Allen.  Paul Allen, along with Bill Gates, founded Microsoft and is worth an estimated $17.6 billion dollars.  The collection, I was told by a security guard, came from his 18 houses.

There was a painting in the exhibition, painted I believe, sometime in the 1700s, which depicted Mt. Vesuvius erupting.  Though that eruption looked pretty fierce, it attracted crowds who came to watch it from across the Bay of Naples.  Great entertainment before television and the internet.

At the bottom of the picture, standing on a rock, was a priest, his back to the volcano, preaching to a small group of people, his hand pointing back to the flames shooting up to the sky.  It reminded me of when I lived in Naples, Italy from 1980 to 1980, where I was based under a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct inservice teacher training sessions to Italian middle school teachers of English as a foreign language throughout the south. The preacher bore a resemblance to San Genarro, the patron of Naples, who allegedly has the power to stop the flow of lava from Vesuvius and save the city.


Naples has a rich history, of being conquered.  The ancient Greeks did so and named it Neapolis (new city).  Then came the Romans, and after the fall of the Western Roman empire, the Ostrogoths, and the Byzantines.  The city became and independent Duchy for about 500 years (interrupted for periods by conquest by the Lombards and Saracens) until the 12th century, when the Normans annexed it.  Next, it was joined to the Kingdom of Sicily, which was eventually taken over by the Hohenstaufens, a German royal house.  Let’s see. Next came the French Angevins (from Anjou), who gave way to the Spanish Aragonese, who fell to the Hungarian Angevins, before being captured again by Spain and reunited with the Kingdom of Sicily.  In 1501 Naples was captured by the French again before being recaptured by the Spanish in 1503.  In 1647 a local fisherman named Masaniello led a revolution and was in power for a few months before being quashed.  In 1714, it was lost again to the Austrians and ruled from Vienna, Here, I get confused, and I think after the French Revolution, the British royalist Nelson tried to keep the city from having its own revolution against the monarchy.  That failed in 1799, and supported by the French Republican army, the Parthenowpaean Republic was established (Parthenope was the pre-Greek name for Naples). That was overthrown and it came back under Spanish rule through the kingdom of Sicily. France came back, under Napoleon and then his brother Joseph, and ruled for 7 years. When they were booted out, the city reverted to Sicily and this was known as the kingdom of the two Sicilies. In the late 1800s, Italy was unified under Garibaldi1, which unfortunately, looted the treasury and left the city destitute. As a result over 4 million people emigrated from Naples from 1879 to 1913. Naples was one of the most bombed cities in WWII after the Germans conquered it. It was finally freed by the US and British in 1944 and much money was funneled into the city to help after that.

Why is this important for me to tell you? Neapolitans, when I lived there, had a bad reputation among the rest of Italians. There has been pretty much active discrimination against them by many conservatives (and not so conservative) in the north who advocated seceding from the south. Granted, the Neapolitan mafia, known as La Camorra, was at its height when I lived there. And the neighborhood around the train station, known as Forcella, was full of cut rate stores, selling cheap electronics brought in legally and illegally through the port of Naples. Almost every Neapolitan I met had a story of having gone to Forcella, bought a television, saw it put into the box, and when they opened the box at home, it was full of bricks. Living there, I found the Neapolitans warm and passionate and they would always ask you on first meeting if you didn’t find Naples the most beautiful city in the world. Living under occupation for so long, (and under the Germans, supposedly it was the worst), I think Neapolitans survived by being intensely loyal to their family, and clever, to take advantage of and pull the wool over the eyes of their occupiers. They were also extremely religious and devoted to the popular saints, Santa Lucia and San Genarro.

Gennaro’s power was proved in 1944, when the mountain last erupted. A flow of lava threatened a suburb of Naples, so people carried a statue of Gennaro to the the edge of the town and pointed him toward the flow, his hand raised as if casting out demons. The lava miraculously stopped.  The preacher in the painting I saw in the Phillips connection struck a similar pose.

Gennaro also has a hand in determining economic fate of Naples three times a year. In the cathedral of Naples, there are relics of the saint, head, body and two vials of dried blood. Three times a year, the faithful of Naples come to church to witness a miracle. The blood is displayed in a sealed ampoule, and women in the audience begin chanting. (A friend in Naples told me they shout, “Gennaro. Gennaro. Do it!”) The priests watch the ampoule closely and after a while, one announces that the blood has miraculously liquefied. Supposedly, the time it takes to liquefy, or not, is an indicator of how the city will do economically.

So after I saw the painting that reminded me of San Gennaro, yesterday, I checked out Youtube to see if there were any videos of the ceremony. There were.

When I found the above video, for some reason, Youtube also also suggested today’s piece by Joep Franssens. He was born the same year as I was, 1955, and he lives in The Hague. He was classically trained and also influenced by the minimalists, including Steven Reich, Glass, and Terry Reilly. This piece is wonderfully, ethereal.

Paul Allen’s work allowed him to buy hundreds of paintings and other works of art for his personal collection. The exhibition at the Phillips is the first time items from his collection have been put on public view. People grumbled that he buys these paintings because he is a billionaire and can, thereby driving up the price of art, making it even more inaccessible to the hoi-polloi. One critic in the Washington Post, actually trashed the show for this reason, writing it didn’t say anything substantial as an exhibition. The pieces to me were stunning. The critic says Allen’s collecting is a form of philistinism, that is, he likens it to a tourist who thinks that since he saw some impressive work of art on vacation, it is now a part if him. My feeling is that the art itself isn’t a political statement, it’s just art, which is what humans do in order to express their emotional response to the ineffable and inspiring world around us.

It is odd though that the internet, torrent, youtube and music streaming services, allow us to consume culture in a way we couldn’t do in the past, thereby democratizing it more. But at the same time, it’s also destroyed the the old pay and royalty system which — though admittedly not very fair to the artists — at least did try to compensate them for the hard work and devotion they put in to their work.

What do you think?

From Arapahos through Moondog, to Reich, Glass, Eno and Byrne

Last post, I wrote about Moondog and how he had started drumming at an early age. He was heavily affected when his father took him to an Arapaho Sundance at a powwow in Wyoming when he was little more than a toddler. The powwow took place near the Wind River, and apparently, it still goes on as the first video on the left shows. To the right is Moondog’s tribute to the powwow, however, you can find many drumming works by Moondog that sound like the Indian drumming if you search youtube (hint, hint).

Windriver Powwow – Wyoming
Moondog: Wind River Powwow

Steven Reich Supposedly turned Philip Glass onto Moondog. This is a comparison of Moondog and Reich. In the Reich, you have a visual representation of how he builds the piece from layers of rhythms and how it keep changing by incremental changes after every cycle.

Moondog: Marimba Mambo 2
Steve Reich: Music for Pieces of Wood

Minimalism is what they call Philip Glass’ music, which I often feel is repetitive and static, hence boring. I’m putting the following pieces side by side, to focus on the repetition, but I feel Moondog is much more pleasant to listen to, and not just because of the instruments. It does feel, though, that Philip Glass is paying a tribute to Moondog’s marimbas in this piece.

Moondog: Fujiyama 1
Philip Glass: Opening from Glassworks

I stumbled across this piece by Moondog, called Cosmic Meditation, written in 1956. What surprised me is how much it sounds like Brian Eno ripped it off (I guess he would say, paid homage to) Moondog with the piece on the right from 1978.

Moondog: Cosmic Meditation
Brian Eno: Ambient 1, Music for airports: 2/2

Before the final piece I post here, I want to make one more comparison that shows the influences of Moondog on Reich, Eno, and David Byrne. Moondog spent much of his time hanging out, wearing a Viking costume on Avenue of the Americas (6th Avenue) in Midtown Manhattan. As is usually the case, when one becomes blind, a person’s sense of hearing develops greater capacity and acumen to compensate for the lost visual sensory input. The “found sounds” of the city–cars, buses, ships, foghorns, street vendors–found their way into Moondog’s music. Check out pieces like “Fog on the Hudson” or “Westward Ho! for example. Moondog was also fascinated by the rhythm and music of language, and his vocal pieces often have repetitive chants, canons or rounds (go listen to his “Be a Hobo”).

Steven Reich took the concept of “found sounds,” on the radio, especially gospel preachers, looped them, and came up with the piece on the left, called “It’s Gonna Rain.” Again, Reich influenced Eno, who worked with David Byrne and the Talking Heads to shape their unique sound. A collaboration of theirs, was “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” (1981), and they used the found sounds of religious expressions, over which they layered multiple tracks of guitars, drums, gamelan, in funk, soul, world, and other heavy rhythms.

Steve Reich: It’s Gonna Rain
Brian Eno & David Byrne: Help Me Somebody

I’ll finish with one of my favorite pieces that comes out of this lineage of composers. It’s Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians.” I’ll just let it speak for itself.


Moondog: Bird’s Lament

Having recently read Oliver Sack’s “Musiciophilia,” I am even more amazed by the human brain’s capacity to create something overwhelmingly amazing and which serves no readily apparent evolutionary purpose. Such is music. The ability to perceive music requires different parts of the brain to process its distinct components–rhythm, melody, harmony, pitch, timbre, dynamics, etc.

Sacks fills his book with amazing stories of people lacking in the ability to perceive one or more of these elements; others who lose the ability to understand music at all; still others who suddenly start hearing music playing in their head constantly; people who are not musical and suddenly start composing music in their head and have to learn music in order to transcribe or play it; people with and without perfect pitch; synesthetes who see musical keys and notes in colors; people who lose sight and develop increased powers of music; and composers for whom color and music are so inextricably linked that it directs the form their compositions take.

I am reminded of Moondog, a who wrote today’s piece.

Moondog was born Louis Thomas Hardin in 1916 in Kansas but grew up in Wyoming, where at an early age he started drumming on cardboard boxes. At some point, his father took him to an Arapaho sun dance, where he ended up on the lap of a chief named Yellow Calf, playing along on a buffalo skin drum. He continued playing drums in high school after his family moved to Missouri, where he was blinded in a blasting cap accident farm accident. His family sent him to a number of schools for the blind where he studied the principles of music and taught himself composition and trained his ear. He wound up with a scholarship at the age of 26 to study in Memphis, Tennessee in 1942. After that he moved to New York where he flourished–in a most unusual way.

Wearing a Viking helmet and long robes, he stood on the corners of 6th Avenue and the 50, sometimes standing completely still, sometimes busking for money, or selling his poetry or tracts on music. He was greatly influenced by jazz and the music of Benny Goodman and befriend Arturo Toscanini and Leonard Bernstein. He seemed to be homeless but actually had an apartment in the city and a house in upstate New York.

He took the name Moondog after hearing a dog that howled “more than any dog” he’d ever met, and developed a following. In the 50s, a disk jockey in New York, named his show after Moondog and played an excerpt from Moondog’s First Symphony until Moondog sued him. The jockey tried to blow it off but then Bernstein and Toscanini testified that he was a serious classical composer. In New York, he also became an inspiration to the minimalist composers Philip Glass and Steven Reich who studied his work and later paid him homage.

In the 1970s, Moondog moved to Germany where he met a young German student who hosted him, transcribed his work from Braille, and eventually inherited his estate when he died in 1999.

His music continues to inspire as it seems like a wonderful fusion of classical, jazz, folk, minimalist, and “found” music–he was inspired by foghorns and other sounds most of us would perceive as noise.

Bird’s Lament is one of those pieces which is like a perpetual motion machine. It’s repetitive but it sucks you in and they shifting between two chords, Gm and D, creates a tension that doesn’t ever seem to resolve and it feels like t’s sweeping you into an endless trance-like state.

Sacks tells us that the in order for the brain to integrate all the pieces of music, we have some kind of higher order organizing capability. Without that capability, music would just sound like foghorns and car crashes to us.

Which version of Bird’s Lament above does the higher order part of your brain prefer? How about your baser one?

Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major

On Monday mornings in high school (in the early 1970s), everyone talked about the parties they had gone to over the weekends. The parties always took place at the house of someone whose parents had gone out of town. Each one was rated on how much beer was drunk and which girls were there. During the week, most of my male peers and I would try to find where the next was going to be. No one really wanted to host one for fear that the crowd would grow too big and trash the house.

One weekend, my parents went out of town and it was only in the evening that I told a few of my pals from the swim team. About four of five guys showed up and we proceeded to get extremely drunk–the whole point. About 10:00 in the evening my brother Ken–who was about 3 years older than I and at college in a town about 90 miles away–called to check on me, probably on the instruction of my parents. At the time, I was under the dining room table, barking like a dog and therefore could not come to the phone. My friend Matt Vandeputte answered, told my brother why I hadn’t answered, and hung up. I believe I bit him on the leg. The next morning, severely hung over, I awoke to the sound of Ken, who’d driven home. He was very angry at me, but to his credit he did not tell my parents. I think he had been mollified when he realized the party hadn’t been too big and the house remained intact.

Most of my friends on the swim team had parties like that. We were too responsible to let people come in and destroy our parents’ house. That didn’t stop us from doing damage when we went to other people’s parties. Once, for example, I went to a friend’s house whose parents were devout Christians and very active in their church. I went around with a pad of Post-It notes, writing down obscenities and then sticking them behind all the pictures in the house. Another time, I submerged a model train in an aquarium. Don’t ask me why.

One night, a swim team mate, Dick M*****, announced that his parents were out of town and a few of us could come over. His father was some big wig at the local radio station and they lived in a new exclusive community called Winding Brook Park. It wasn’t really a party. I think we had a six pack between about four of us and his parents had locked the liquor cabinet, so we did not plan to stay long. Unfortunately, Dick’s older brother was there. He was the valedictorian in the class above us and that made him almost by definition incredibly dull and boring. The brother took us on a tour of the house, showing all the wonderful books, records, the “total sound” stereo system, and the locked liquor cabinet.

The record collection caught my attention and I was surprised to see that they had a fair number of classical albums. Leafing through it, I discovered a copy of two piano concertos by Maurice Ravel, the Piano Concerto for Left Hand and today’s Piano Concerto in G Major. I asked Dick’s brother if he could give it a spin on their fancy schmancy stereo, and he was more than delighted.

When the G Major started, I was really surprised, because I had heard it on the local classical channel before. But I thought Gershwin had written it. The first movement starts off with a fast, upbeat theme that bounces back and forth between a trumpet and a piccolo, while the piano plays high and fast in the background. It slows after a bit and then the piano plays a pensive little rhythm and the E-Flat clarinet launches off into a sexy phrases that sounds like it was lifted right out of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. A few phrases later, Ravel quotes Stravinski’s Petroushka. You can hear Rachmaninoff everywhere, too boot. Ravel himself says the concerto was inspired by Mozart and Saint-Saens, but it sounds sometimes more of a pastiche of snippets taken from his own peers. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that whenever I hear the piece on the radio, I have a devil of a time trying to figure out whose it is.

Ravel’s teacher was Gabriel Faure, who wrote the incomparably beautiful Requiem and Pavanne and the second movement is a nod to his mentor’s song-writing ability. It is quiet, dignified, and sweet. In the final movement, Ravel switches back to the exuberance of the first movement. As in the first, he weaves in Jazz rhythms and melodies, which he had been greatly affected by on a trip to the Unites States in the 1920s. In addition, the piano sometimes adopts the meticulous finger work of Ravel’s own Le Tombeau de Couperin.

Though not the piece you’d necessarily choose for a high school drinking party, nor even for a romantic dinner party, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major is quite an interesting piece and ought to be in anyone’s CD library.

Download MP3 or Buy CD from Amazon

Darius Milhaud: La Creation du Monde

I wanted to write a bit more about Milhaud today, not just to describe this extraordinary piece, but also to pay homage to the music label, Nonesuch.

When I started collecting classical music, I was, after all, in my teens and from a working class family. I had odd jobs—mowing lawns, life guarding, etc.—but when I went into record stores I was astounded at how much classical disks cost—at least double the price of popular albums. My friend, Kerry Wade, had a copy of La Creation Du Monde on the budget label, Nonesuch, which—if my memory serves me correctly—were about half the price of records on the big labels.

Nonesuch was an amazing company, and they seemed to have found an interesting niche. The artists on Nonesuch recordings were rarely the big names like Heifitz, Karajan, Rubenstein, or the New York Philharmonic, all of whom were busy, in the 60s and 70s turning out the same set of standard repertoire recordings as every other violinist, pianist, or orchestra. My Nonesuch copy of La Creation Du Monde, for example, was conducted by Milhaud himself, with the Orchestra du Theatre des Champs-Elyssees, which theatre is where he premiered Le Boeuf in 1919. Nonesuch, by not courting the big names, was able to carry works of less popular composers and artists, and therefore probably did more to bring classical music to a wider audience than any other company.

There is some irony here, especially with regards to La Creation Du Monde. Milhaud was deeply influenced by Jazz, which he first heard in London in 1920. He then visited New York and was taken to a number of Jazz clubs in Harlem where the music electrified him. Supposedly he sat in the front row taking notes. When he returned to Paris he wrote La Creation Du Monde and announced that European culture was now being influenced by American culture for the first time. That was about the time that Hemingway and the “Lost Generation” flocked to Europe, which also resulted in flourishing of the arts on both sides of the Atlantic. So La Creation Du Monde is a piece of three continents—Africa, North America and Europe. Milhaud was World Music before World Music was cool.

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