A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 7
Jacopo da Bologna: Italian Madrigals of the 14th Century. Ensemble PAN. Ars Musici
We’ve seen already in this history that Dante Alighieri (c1265-1321) was a great admirer of the troubadours, and this opinion held true among the Italian aristocracy generally. Troubadours and joglars, including those fleeing the Albigensian crusade in the early part of the 13th century, had been welcome at the Italian courts, and the local musicians who succeeded them not only imitated their musical style but also continued to set verses in Occitan. Aside from the spiritual laude there was no tradition of Italian song in the vernacular. Around 1306, Dante wrote his treatise De vulgari eloquentia, in which he cited the troubadours as well as classical poets as exemplars in his attempt to devise rules for the creation of vernacular poetry. He also suggested that poetry and music should be distinct – that profound poems of the high style shouldn’t be set to music because this would distract from the text, whereas pastoral, descriptive poetry would be ideal for those who wished to compose great music. It’s not until the 1330s that we see the flowering of vernacular Italian art song, in the form of a genre called the madrigale (which may be translated as meaning “in the mother tongue”), practiced most notably by Jacopo da Bologna, Giovanni da Cascia, and Maestro Piero in the northern cities of Verona and Milan in the 1340s and 1350s. In its formal structure, the madrigal comprised several three-line stanzas, each of them with the same music, with a short ritornello to conclude, this being one or two lines with new music and a different meter; madrigals invariably had a rustic subject, inspired by the bucolic images of classical poets such as Virgil. Unlike vernacular songs elsewhere, the madrigal was a polyphonic form from its inception, although it’s not certain whether it evolved from monophonic songs with accompaniment or had its origin in 12th-century conductus, which it in some way resembles. One notable musical feature of the madrigal is the presence of long melismas at the very start and very end, but not in between so that the text could easily be understood. Related to the madrigal was the caccia, written for two equal voices in canon, often with an accompanying instrumental part; although the caccia had the same poetic structure as a madrigal, musically it was quite different.
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Kane Ikin – Sublunar
The opening track of Sublunar, Kane Ikin’s debut full length release on 12k, clearly announces the theme and aesthetic of the album, and at the same time sets the standard very high for what follows. The album title places us on the ground; the track title, “Europa”, directs our gaze toward the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus (Io, Titan, Hyperion, Rhea, and Oberon are still to come). The track opens with a gently oscillating wash of haze and static, out of which a hesitant, lurching rhythm emerges, sounding like something assembled from various sources and precariously held together by sticky tape and string. The rhythmic effect is somewhat reminiscent of some of Giuseppe Ielasi’s off-kilter beats. A wobbly, ghostly, faintly choral note like a decayed tape recording of music from a decades-old science fiction movie adds a mournful melodic line and a further duality – are we listening to signals from distant moons (as the accompanying video seems to suggest) or the voices of our own past dreams of the future?
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Last night I was at the Calvin College Fine Arts Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for what turned out to be one of the more memorable shows I’ve ever attended. I was there for Tinariwen (on whom more below). I had never heard of the opener, Kishi Bashi, not even via the use of his music (as I now learn) in a familiar Windows 8 commercial, and even if I had made the connection I would not have expected his music to be my thing. Support bands you’ve never heard of are often a bit of a lottery, and as two guys with a violin and a banjo took the stage I was ready for anything, but little expected what followed. Working with an amplified violin, various looping devices, and the assistance for half the set of Mike Savino of Tall Tall Trees on banjo and bass, Kishi Bashi (real name K. Ishibashi) strung together a series of loop-based pieces that defied genre categorization. He is blessed with formidable skills on the violin, a pure and powerful voice, and apparently boundless energy and musical imagination. Picture Jónsi Birgisson of Sigur Rós singing bluegrass-classical-folk-pop-experimental pieces structured like miniature progressive rock epics interspersed with beatboxing and driven by double-speed loops created live and you’ll be half way there.
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Like all music scenes, the Twin Cities have their own pantheon of local greats. Prince, The Replacements, The Suicide Commandos, The Suburbs, Soul Asylum, The Jayhawks, and Atmosphere to name a few. Then there is Hüsker Dü. Active from 1979-1987, Hüsker Dü is a music typologist’s nightmare. Initially the band’s work could be described as ‘hardcore’, but over the years both songwriters, Bob Mould and Grant Hart, drifted more and more into poppier college radio territory. Taken as a whole the band’s catalog can claim, as with a number of other independent ’80s bands, inspiration for all the ‘alternative’ and ‘modern’ rock that was to follow (Kim Deal famously joined Pixies after answering an ad looking for a bass player who liked both Peter, Paul and Mary and Hüsker Dü). Perhaps more importantly, though, Hüsker Dü was at the forefront of the ’80s DIY movement which helped create the independent music scene (regardless of genre) that we enjoy today.*
It has been 25 years since Hüsker Dü called it quits following its final performance in Columbia, Missouri. During that time each of the band members has moved on with their lives. Bob Mould has had a very successful career both as a solo artist and with the band Sugar, Grant Hart has been less commercially successful but has put out some no less excellent music with the band Nova Mob and under his own name, and Greg Norton took his handlebar mustache to chef school and now owns a restaurant in Red Wing, Minnesota. I decided it would be interesting to explore how the places that were important to the band have changed in that same time period, so I did some research, grabbed my camera, and toured the Twin Cities. This is the result:
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Thus far, 2012 has been a fantastic year for free mixtapes and LPs. While there hasn’t been anything with the widespread impact of The Weeknd’s 2011 trilogy, the depth and breadth of free releases demonstrates that artists across genres are taking advantage of the internet to get their music into people’s hands like never before. In furtherance of our goal at Music is Good to highlight some lesser known, but no less important music, below are three that should be a part of any music collection:
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The Nordic Jazz sound has situated itself solidly at a distance from Jazz’s epicenter… introspective, austere, with drifting melodies, and rhythms that often eschew swing for drama. And as musicians from that fold push the envelope ever outward, it gets to where, perhaps, the music stops being Jazz at all. In the face of whether an album is of value, this genre philosophizing is a small matter.
What is of more compelling, though ancillary interest, is that by pushing the borders of Jazz outward, musicians who typically play other types of music are testing the waters of Jazz. Some, like Splashgirl, have actually built a foundation in one of the slight areas of fuzziness where genres cross over.
Combining elements of a Jazz piano trio, ambient electronica, and alt-classical new-schoolers like Nils Frahm, with Pressure, Splashgirl has created an intoxicating brand of music that may be tough to categorize, but very easy to enjoy.
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Compared with more traditional instruments that have been played for centuries, the analog synthesizer went from cutting-edge to retro in a remarkably short space of time. With the advent of digital processing and the laptop as the music tool of choice for a new generation of electronic musicians, there was a time when it felt as if the analog synthesizer, which came into its own in the 1960s, might have had a shelf-life measured in mere decades. It had offered a couple of distinctive motifs to the musical world – cosmic atmospherics and the insistently pulsing sequencer rhythm – before ceding the stage, like the protagonists of Toy Story, to more up-to-date electronic playthings. The association of early analog synth sounds with an era in science fiction whose ray-guns-and-jetpacks vision of the future now seems quaint added to the curious cultural positioning of synth music as futuristic yet almost immediately retro. For at least some of us who grew up with Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Kraftwerk, and Tangerine Dream, the digital revolution was not all unalloyed gain. Thankfully, fears of obsolescence have proved premature – a steady flow of recent releases continues to unfold the possibilities of the synthesizer sound world, whether with vintage equipment or its hand-constructed descendants. The three albums below are my favorites from the first half of 2012.
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Dirty Projectors brought their new album Swing Lo Magellan to First Avenue in Minneapolis on July 15, 2012, and Purity Ring tagged along for the last of their six dates opening on the tour before their debut LP, Shrines, is released on July 24 via 4AD. I came home from the show with Shrines (at first listen it’s as good as hoped), and a Dirty Projectors’ tour only 7″ (limited to 1000) that cannot be purchased but is free when you tell the merch booth the secret Twitter word for that show (this time it was “Fuel Vapour Hose”). It has the unreleased tracks “Buckle Up” and “Desire to Love”, and only about 20 are being brought to each show. I passed on the “Gun Has No Trigger” square 7″ that comes in a hard case with the lyrics to the song etched into the case in cuneiform. My wife already rolls her eyes at me enough so I didn’t drop $15 for that. It was seriously cool looking though.
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Slumber takes you, and as time passes, you slip into a vivid dream. You are at a heavy metal concert, and thrill to the first deep and doom-laden, viscerally crunching chords. Then you realize that what you thought were guitarists have morphed into cellists, and as the tempo shifts into double time a saxophone adds a frenetic melody. As you look around you find that you are actually sitting outside a cafe in Eastern Europe, and what started as a metal band is now playing klezmer. Some villagers are dancing – somehow it doesn’t strike you as odd that they are dancing the tango, or that evocative middle eastern melodies drop in and out of the tune. You glimpse palm trees, and then hear a jazz ensemble playing somewhere behind you as a marching brass band passes in front, with heavy metal riffs returning to punctuate their melody. But as you turn to watch, you are sitting in the corner of a deserted café in which the pianist is playing his way plaintively towards closing time. In your dream all of this makes sense; the transitions are not jarring but part of an oddly continuous dream logic in which you are in constant movement toward a destination that is ever on the tip of your tongue, yet each passing location is oddly right and vivid.
Such is the experience of listening to an album by Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat (which translates as “Hammers of the Underworld”). Alamaailman Vasarat create hugely entertaining instrumental music that draws from a bewildering variety of world music genres and fuses them within a progressive-rock-like inclination towards ever-shifting rhythms and bombastic flourishes.
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A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 6
“Philippe de Vitry and the Ars Nova”. Orlando Consort. Amon Ra (link)
In the 1320s, two Paris-trained mathematicians who were also musicians published similarly titled treatises that pointed to a new direction for composition: Jehan des Murs’s Ars novae musicae and Philippe de Vitry’s Ars nova. The essence of this “new art” – Ars nova has become the name given to the general compositional style of the 14th century in France – was a move beyond the idea of “perfection” associated with the number three. Where the Franconian system divided the perfect long into three breves and divided breves into semibreves worth one- or two-thirds of a breve, Vitry and Jehan argued that it was fine to have an imperfect long comprising two breves of equal length, or a breve divided into two equal semibreves, and a semibreve divided into two shorter notes (the minimum note length, or “minim”). Moreover, a composer could mix-and-match between the use of two or three subdivisions, so that a long might be split into three breves but the breve might comprise just two semibreves. The first compositions demonstrating these ideas are some by Vitry that appeared in a 1316 edition of the Roman de Fauvel, a satirical poem attacking the moral state of France at the time; this particular edition included some 169 musical items, both old and new, providing a kind of soundtrack to accompany events in the story. By freeing the rules of composition from the ideology of “perfection”, the Ars nova opened up a wide range of possibilities for rhythms, not least of which was duple time (one-two one-two) – not that duple time didn’t exist in music until then, but now there was a formal system for writing, and composing, in it. With shorter note values being used, the music could move at a faster pace, and the tenor part of a motet became relatively longer, such that it ceased to provide a recognisable melodic component and instead formed a structural foundation for the polyphony. This structure is reflected in a feature of the Ars nova motet called isorhythm, the use of repeated statements of one rhythmic pattern that didn’t necessarily correspond to melodic patterns. Initially, isorhythm was used only in the tenor, but it soon spread to the upper voices also, giving greater organization to the composition as a whole.
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