(via Theo Alexander)

“Haunting” is a lazy and inaccurate way to describe one’s sound, except when you’re talking about London composer Theo Alexander. Layers of piano echo on top of each other to create an ancient, claustrophobic sound that sounds eerie and beautiful – imagine if My Bloody Valentine tried writing a piano ballad. Alexander is currently based in Prague and has taken inspiration from the Charles Bridge and Kafka to heart and to excellent results. Haunting, indeed.

From Bandcamp:

“‘Points of Decay’, is an album of deconstructed piano pieces that have been manipulated and re-spliced through a series of tape loops. Each piece makes use of a recording technique that runs a single recording through a seccession of different mediums, to achieve a heavily degraded sound that is unfamiliar to most piano recordings.

As each layer reveals or obscures another, textures are heard that would not otherwise be possible without the experimental studio techniques that drove production and writing respectively.

A major inspiration for album was the portrayal of memory in Samuel Beckett’s ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’.”

Theo Alexander:





(via Vladimir Martynov & Kronos Quartet)

I’m actually talking about two things today: Russian composer Vladimir Martynov and American string ensemble Kronos Quartet. Martynov is a contemporary classical composer who specializes in concerto, orchestral music, chamber music, and choral music genres. Kronos Quartet is a San Francisco-based Grammy-winning string quartet – David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Sunny Yang (cello) – that has reinterpreted everyone from Thelonious Monk to Jimi Hendrix and has worked with the likes of Asha Bhosle, The National, and David Bowie. The long list of collaborators is so impressive that it’s worth clicking here to see all the work they’ve done.

Martynov’s original “The Beatitudes” is pleasant and moving, but Kronos Quartet adds so much more depth and emotion to the composition. This string version of “The Beatitudes” needs to be played over every emotional scene in every Terrence Malick film (The Chicago Tribune also agrees).

Note: I’m not a fan of the photo chosen for this YouTube video since I think it spoofs the song’s beauty. For optimal listening, press play while not looking at this photo.

Kronos Quartet:





(via Pierre Boulez – “Le Marteau Sans Maître”)

Year: 1955

I always think of the ’50s as an innocent and square time (think Happy Days). But classical music in the ’50s challenged the restraints of its romantic past to confront a less romantic modern world. The US was fighting Russia in a Cold War, a conflict that was affecting most other countries still coming to terms with the devastation caused by two back-to-back World Wars. Surely the world was going to end in fire or nuclear radiation. This reactionary movement among artists was happening even before Schoenberg and the atonality movement, but several new composers throughout the world came into their own in the ’50s to challenge the notion of classical music’s place in modern culture.

One such artist was Pierre Boulez, who passed away earlier this year at 90. For his famous piece “Le Marteau Sans Maître,” the French composer took the surrealist poetry of René Char and used its words as the focal point for a chamber ensemble to create an unsettling, random sounding composition. Except everything was in order. The piece took two years to write and incorporated flutes, xylorimbas, and a contralto, a classical female singer with the lowest possible vocal range who provides the only sense of human life. Everything else sounds cold and calculated. It’s long, but random hits of the bongo and crashes of instruments keep you engaged. It’s a piece I’ve come to enjoy in a certain mood (if you encounter me in such a mood, run away from me).

As with any classical music I write about, I encourage you to read the master Alex Ross for more details into the life of Boulez.


(via Antonín Dvořák – “Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, B. 178 (From the New World)”)

Year: 1893

Album: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor (New World Symphony)

Does the beginning sound like the Jaws theme song? It should. The story goes that John Williams stole that suspenseful two-note change from Dvořák’s most beloved work. The Czech Dvořák wrote this piece while living and composing music in New York City as the director of the National Conservatory of Music, and it became one his most successful pieces right away when it premiered at Carnegie Hall. Dvořák returned home after a few years of being homesick for beautiful green Bohemia, but New York’s influence, and his newly found love for black and Indian melodies, gave us this moving piece of music that was so good that Neil Armstrong took a recording of the symphony with him on mankind’s first trip to the moon. But the Jaws shout-out is cooler. Just kidding. Maybe.


(via Franz Liszt – “Bagatelle sans tonalité”)

Before there was Beatlemania, there was Lisztomania. This Hungarian virtuoso pianist was considered the most technically skilled player of his age and, at one point, the greatest pianist who ever lived. His live performances were widely popular in his lifetime, comparable to how popular the Beatles were when they first came to the United States. It helped that he was an over-the-top guy who knew how to put on a good show. Alex Ross called him the Lady Gaga of his time, though I’m sure Gaga can’t play piano as well as Liszt.

This 1885 composition is just one example of Liszt’s crazy hands and taste for flair. Some critics hate his flashiness, but it’s hard to deny the man’s talent. This piece is also famous for being one of the first pieces by a major composer to explore a theme of atonality that Schoenberg would later perfect. Underneath its quick playful tone is a lack of structure that challenges the ideas of concrete organization in classical composition.

And now you know what that Phoenix song is about.


(via Aaron Copland – “Appalachian Spring”)

Year: 1944

The orchestral suite that won Copland his Pulitzer Prize for music in 1945, “Appalachian Spring” was a piece commissioned by choreographer and dance legend Martha Graham and music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for a ballet with, “an American theme.” Copland’s piece is grand and sweeping, much like our fantasies of the American mountainsides.

Except the Appalachian of this ballet has nothing to do with mountains. The title actually comes from the poem “The Dance” written by Hart Crane, another American artist whose work is often misunderstood (“O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge; / Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends / And northward reaches in that violet wedge / Of Adirondacks!”). The working title was just “Ballet for Martha,” because this ballet was indeed for Martha Graham. The new title would be tagged on at the last minute, but it worked out in the end that Copland, an openly gay Jewish man from Brooklyn, accidentally gave these American mountains an unofficial anthem.

Also make sure to listen to Copland’s other excellent American score “Rodeo.”


(via Olivier Messiaen – Quartet for the End of Time)

Year: 1941

On first listen, Quartet for the End of Time doesn’t sound like much. It’s long and slow, with moments of sudden excitement in-between long periods of calm, single-instrument themes. It sounds pretty, but you’ve heard this kind of stuff before. Nothing new here. Move along now.

But let’s give the music a little backstory: French composer Olivier Messiaen composed this stark piece for a clarinet, violin, cello, and piano quartet while he was a German POW during WWII. Messiaen played piano while the other performers – clarinetist Henri Akoka, violinist Jean le Boulaire, and cellist Étienne Pasquier –  were fellow prison mates. The prison quartet premiered this piece in their own camp and played to about 400 prisoners and guards. Performance night was freezing and the performers played under the watch of armed guards.

And yet music played on.

Imagine trying to write music while you’re a prisoner of war, and then try to imagine performing your music for the men who are keeping you locked up. When you add the back story to Messiaen’s work – and when you try to picture yourself at the prison camp hearing his quartet perform the piece for the first time – the music now sounds violent. It’s the sound of dread juxtaposed with a calm, almost serene soundscape. It’s a blue sky seen above a death camp. It’s a seemingly desperate attempt by a man of strong Catholic faith using images from the Book of revelations to come to terms with the madness of the modern world and of this war that has literally imprisoned him.

Taking all this into account, it’s a miracle that Messiaen could write something like this. This piece was, in a sense, written for the end of time.

It’s WWII classical. It’s Messiaen’s masterwork. It’s a work of genuine art.


(via Alban Berg – “Wozzeck”)

Year: 1925

The best way to experience opera is in person, but the next best thing is to watch the film adaptation with subtitles. This was Berg’s first opera and it was based on Georg Büchner’s incomplete play Woyzeck (which is partly why the film version works). Berg began working on the opera in 1914, but soon he left to fight in World War I and experienced first-hand the desperate humiliation of fighting a war with people you despised. (Berg was also not the easiest guy to get along with, but still.)

Wozzeck is an early example of using Schoenberg-atonality in 20th century opera, and it’s considered a major step in bringing avant gardeinto the mainstream. The lack of major/minor tonality gives the music an uneasy feel, which Berg used to match his uneasy story of a German town caught up in wartime.

Now that it’s finally snowing a lot on the east coast, it’s a great time to stay in and watch some atonal opera on your computer.