Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Han Zimmer's "Inception" Suite (rather a Passacaglia) makes concert music in its own right

The BluRay DVD package for the WB film “Inception” supplement includes a 38-minute orchestral suite by Hans Zimmer, which would make an interesting concert item in its own right.

The suite has ten sections with various titles, such as “We Built our own World”, “Dream Is Collapsing”, “One Simple Idea”, “Dream Within a Dream”, “Paradox”, and “Time”.

The entire suite, as well as all of the music in the film, is based on a four note (and four chord) motto, or ground bass, making the piece a bit like a passacaglia, though in quadruple time.  Sometimes the motto is expanded to 6/4 time with one chord played four times on beats 1, 2, 4, and 5, giving a menacing effect.  In “Mombasa” the music has a disco-like effect. In a few places, it resembles John Barry’s music in “Body Heat”, and a few others, Anton Bruckner (the Ninth Symphony).

The film is reviewed on the movies blog July 16, 2010. 

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Bruckner's Gods: The Ninth Symphony is made whole

Today, I picked up the Naxos 2-CD set of the “completed” Symphony #9 in D Minor by Anton Bruckner, which had been dedicated “To God”.  The performance is by the New Philharmonia Orchestra of Westphalia, conducted by Johannes Wildner.  The finale, all 23:28 of it, is on a second CD by itself, maybe the shortest CD I have. They could have added the “Te Deum”, originally proposed as a finale.
In fact, the awesome first movement, with its leaping octaves and crashing, evolving dissonances does invoke the idea of a God to be feared; the conclusion of the First Movement sounds like an Old Testament apocalypse.

The Scherzo has its own menace, and the E Major Adagio used to the main event for the work. It is constant chromatic, opening with the interval of a 9th.  

This work has significance to me. In December 1961, shortly after I returned home to Arlington from my “William and Mary Expulsion” (covered in my main blog), I did buy the Bruno Walter performance (3 movements) on Columbia. I got to know the music during a very trying time in my life (and for my parents).  The old RCA Victor record player had a lot of trouble with the inner groves of this long record, and that led to an advancement in my stereo technology those days, a VM stereo.  (Until  1961, we didn’t know better than to use sapphire needles.) .  Wildner’s tempos seem just a little brisk compared to what I had been used to with Bruno Walter.

The notes give a lot of details as to the nearly complete condition of the Finale (it was second-to-last), an claims that the “reconstruction” by Samale, Phillips, Cohrs, and Mazzuca from 1991 and 1996 is the best possible.  This was not available to me during my college recovery (and NIH) days.

The Finale has all the mannerisms that derive from the first three movements, and a noble descending tetrachordal  theme that resembles Han Zimmer’s music for “Inception”.  The fugal coda brings back the galloping octaves from the first movement, and build an “epilogue” in D major, with tetrachords flashing around, slowing down in a locomotive-like fashion, braking, and opening up to the Light as in Wagner’s Gotterdamerung, which is so obviously the inspiration.  I thought about that little top-thimble spinning as the last image in “Inception”, but I knew I was not dreaming, I was still alive. 


Update:  Nov. 12, 2014

You can listen to Nicolas Harnoncourt's lecture on the Bruckner manuscript here, where he plays only what Bruckner lived to compose (which is 90% of the movement, with only an indication of what he wanted for the Coda, and some woodwind instrumentation not completed)



Most versions (since around 1990) provide a complex coda.  The first part of the coda is a massive fugue on the "octave theme" of the first movement. (This sounds like true coda to me, not recapitulation, which has already happened with the majestic cathedral theme.)  The music comes to another cathartic on huge brass dissonances.  Then there is a "coda of the coda" where Bruckner, having concluded the Ninth formally speaking, wanted to summarize a lot of his earlier symphonies, tracing them back to Beethoven, in about 4 minutes of cathedral-like triumph.  The versions offered seem to take the descending fifth's theme from the Third ("Wagner Symphony", also in D Minor), superimose some of Wagner's Ring, which mixes with the rising theme that opens Bruckner's own Seventh (after all), and then blatantly superimpose the opening "fifths" theme of the Beethoven Ninth and the famous rhythm that opens the Beethoven Fifth.  It's as if all of western symphonic music could be summarized in three minutes, maybe at a celebration of the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall now.  The music finally crashes "FFF" on one tremendous D Major Triad in the brass and full orchestra.

Above I've embedded the last ten minutes that I like the best, the 2008 Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca Reconstruction, which is what I would recommend be performed now. Maybe we will see it in NYC or Washington in the 2015-2016 season.  

Monday, March 07, 2011

PBS airs "Scott Houston: The Piano Guy"

On Sunday, March 6, WETA aired a two-hour piano lesson program by Scott Houston, “The Piano Guy”, 
with a basic link here, or his basic website  here.  The process is called "Play Piano in a Flash: 3 Steps to Piano Success". Were it that simple!

The class, in which each student had a small greatly reduced keyboard, offered to teach people who to play songs for social occasions without having to read much staff music.   He made a comment about what mind of music works at social occasions, and that may not always be a Bach Musette or Mozart “Turkish Sonata” – but then again, it might.

There were some interesting points. The piano doesn’t have to be tuned and manipulated before playing it every time (a “real” piano has to be tuned occasionally), and you don’t need to build up calluses. (You do need to trim fingernails, which are “dead” appendages, like hair!)  But “novices” have a real deal with the complexity of notation.

Actually, it seems like an accident of physics that a scale of twelve notes per octave (doubling of frequency) works so well (and composers use microtones so rarely).  But it’s arbitrary that we use “C” as the middle note, rather than “A”.  There is an arithmetic system for learning how key signatures (with sharps or flats) work, and also a mathematical system for meter.  For kids, proficiency in music tends to go hand in hand with proficiency in math.

Here’s another trick: composers of piano music know that it’s easier to play fast passages with many black keys (like D-flat Major), than in native “C major”.  Chopin and Liszt were particularly fond of using the black keys heavily.


It’s interesting, to someone with nine years piano and years of classical record collecting and some ties to the arts community, how people sell “music” (or subscription tickets to performances) for a living. Sales and art creation are not the same activities, psychologically speaking.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

PBS airs 25th Anniversary "Les Miserables"

Sunday night, March 6, PBS stations followed on, one week after the Oscars, with their own “Event”, the re-airing of the recent 25th Anniversary concert  at the O2 in London of the musical "Les Miserables", with a typical link here (for WETA)  

The donations for the show and for WETA support (including DVD’s and other thank you gifts) are processed here at 888-202-2777.  This is becoming important as the GOP is likely to force budget cuts on PBS and arts support.

The musical is based on the famous novel by Victor Hugo. The other details are: book by Alain Boublil, music by Claude-Michele Schoenberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, based on the novel by Victor Hugo (didn't we all read portions of it in high school French? -- one of my high school finals was to write an essay on the book), I did see this musical performed at the National Theater in Washingtonin  Jan 2006, as directed by Cameron Mackintosh .

The plot, of redemption and revolution by common people, is well known enough, but it is the soaring melodies, including an encore finale (“Do You Hear the People Singing?”) where numerous singers play Jean Valjean, that make the musical famous. It’s ironic to see such music from a composer named “Schonberg”, except that the “real” Arnold Schonberg produces his own chills-and-fever with the Mahler-like Gurrelieder, with its brazen closing pages (which are rarely performed well).  For this concert, video of the finale encore was broadcast into the show from the 1985 original.

The new cast tonight featured, above all, Nick Jonas as Marius, and Nick dominated much of the performance. This is Nick’s shining moment so far. For the first time, he appears in public as a fully grown man. Here’s another link on his appearance

Watch the full episode. See more PBS Specials.

I've attended one show on the London West End, "Evita", in 1982 (with clubbing and disco in SoHo afterwards).

Wikipedia attribution link for a West End scene is here

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Anton Bruckner's Gods: some composers' early works are their best; A note about Mac Logic

The other day, I played Riccardo Chailly’s 1984 recording  (CD on London) of the “Vienna” version of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony #1 in C Minor, as revised in 1890, after the composer had started all of his symphonies.  Bruckner used C Minor twice in a row (#1 and #2), and then again in #8, the last symphony that he would complete.

I had a DG record of the earlier Linz version, which sounds almost Schubertian (which is not to put it down).  But the 1891 Vienna version (not to be confused with the notorious “Vienna Variation” in chess) really does strive to invoke the Apocalypse, “The Event” (yes, “They” are going to take Earth back, if you haven’t heard yet). The tempos slow down to a crawl in the finale and the composer takes us through every chromaticism, stretto and passing tone imaginable, almost as if he wanted to enumerate all possible consequences of the famous dissonance in the development section of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony first movement. Finally, we are in another parallel universe, but anchored on C octaves. The life we left was transient after all. But we know that something of each one of us will go on, forever.

The rhythm in the Finale appears in Bernard Hermann's score for "Vertigo" at some of the most critical moments. 

Sergei Rachmaninoff would pull the same hat trick on one of his early works, the Piano Concerto #1 in F# Minor, in 1917 (not so late in his life, however). He would trim it down and make it leaner, and take out the finale “big tune” which ought to sound rich in F-sharp, but which musicologists say seemed trite compared to the success Rachmaninoff had with the thrilling conclusions of his Second and Third Concertos.

Sometimes early works turn out to be more daring than later well accepted “masterpieces”. Dvorak’s Symphony #1 in C Minor may be his longest, and the finale has truly daring experiments with continued dissonance in its development section; the closing pages of the finale are brazen, and not done justice by conductors. The Second, in B-flat, is also daring harmonically. Both early symphonies have expansive slow movements.

Of course, we all know that Richard Strauss wrote many of his famous tone poems early. 

I've ordered the Naxos recording of the "completed" Bruckner Ninth and comment later. 

I’ve connected Logic  Express 9.0 to my new Casio digital piano, and started experimenting, leading to the idea of getting my own youthful works saved on a computer, printed, maybe published and performed professionally (after considerable editing). I must say that an inexperienced Logic user will create polytonality unintentionally, whether useful or not (you don’t need Mozart’s Coronation Concerto as a starting point).  It seems a bit like Cakewalk, but with even more features (even in Logic Express).