Eric Whitacre Singers in Koblenz

The  Rhein in Koblenz
My wife and I took the train down to Koblenz, Germany on Sunday to catch the Eric Whitacre Singers concert with Eric Whitacre conducting. My thoughts?

Totally cool. Totally totally cool.

Somehow in my choral studies at the University of Arizona I never had the chance to sing his works, even though his work was very much present in the minds of choral enthusiasts. Nevertheless, I’ve always enjoyed listening to it, and I’ve always appreciated his apparent efforts to blend concepts like dissonance with a certain amount of accessibility. You don’t need to be a theory expert to enjoy Eric Whitacre’s music, but musicians versed in theory enjoy it as well.

On Saturday, I saw this Tweet:

I asked my wife if we should go, and voilà. Off we went the next morning.

I’m not going to write a whole review of the concert, but I will call out a couple things. First, I appreciate the casual atmosphere but nevertheless meticulous nature of the concert. Besides the Eric Whitacre Singers themselves were a chorus of 200 amateurs who’d rehearsed the day before and were joining for a few numbers at the beginning and ending of the concert. They were totally solid. In addition, Mr. Whitacre always had enough interesting backstory to provide compelling illustrations for every piece and keep us entertained while the larger choir entered and exited.

Second, I love his arrangements of others’ pieces. Seriously; love is not too strong a verb. The Bach, Depeche Mode, and Nine Inch Nails arrangements manage to remain true to the sources while adding new dimensions to them. I’ve purchased and have been listening to his “Enjoy The Silence”
recording continuously since the concert. It’s haunting. Additionally, his description of the Bach sounding like a smeared painting was dead-on.

I’ll take any chance I can get to hear his “Hurt” arrangement. I’d heard bits of it online before, but it’s a special experience to hear it live. Being familiar with the NIN original and the Johnny Cash cover lends further context to this piece, which has always hit me in the gut. I’ve always loved the song, and Whitacre’s arrangement deepens that. Again: the arrangements don’t replace the originals but deepen them.

Third; what a terrific group of singers. It’s just wonderful watching such a well-oiled machine at work, especially when they’re singing music that requires such precision. Lots of colors, interesting phrasing, great dynamic range and whatever special sauce is required to make those ideas more than just musical concepts but emotional realities for an audience.

Besides the concert, Koblenz is a really cool town. Seeing two great rivers come together is humbling and inspiring and simply beautiful, and I snapped up photos greedily.

Great trip. As I’ve said, I still feel very “abroad”, and getting to visit places like this with my wife still feels lucky. Especially since we also got to see the Eric Whitacre Singers.

Of Silence and Concerts

Konzerthaus Dortmund and Reinoldikirche

Photo: Konzerthaus Dortmund with Reinoldikirche in the background

Sitting perched above the orchestra during the rehearsals and performances of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky at Konzerthaus Dortmund, I had the recurring thought:

This is irreplaceable.

I don’t mean the composition itself, though it’s glorious. I mean rather the entire experience of sitting in a concert hall and listening to musicians playing for an audience in real time. I mean the sea of sound coming from specific people and everywhere all at once. I mean the sheer effort by both performers and audience members to be there together in an act of reverence for the experience itself.

And let’s be clear: the audience is also working. They pay for tickets, but the music we play nowadays is not easy. This Prokofiev piece is challenging to perform, but it’s also hard to understand without multiple listens. Beyond the dissonant passages, the melodies themselves are often treated like recursive Leitmotifs. They are often introduced well before their main introduction in a kind of reflection of the future onto the past. How can an audience know these things in advance? They can’t.

Instead, they need some time to reflect.

The tradition of reserving applause until the end of a multiple movement work has become controversial in recent years. It’s argued that it intimidates new audience members by creating a set of rules to follow. Instead, it’s argued, audiences should be allowed at any moment to show their enthusiasm by cheering and applauding after each movement or even during, much like modern rock or pop concerts.

I understand the concern and desire to make it easier to attract new audience members, and I’m certainly against ever treating anyone with disdain if they applaud outside of traditional places. Nevertheless, I’m still a fan of the silence. Setting aside the difficulty of convincing someone to be the first one to consciously break tradition, the willingness of a large group of people to hold back and be with one another in silence is part of what makes the experience unique. Compared to the hysteria and random outbursts during televised singing contents, I’m perfectly happy with this ritual.

Secondly, it is a part of the effort put forth by the audience to understand and appreciate a work. It’s counterintuitive, but complex music is oftentimes not emotionally comprehensible until its absence. The change in silence itself cues us to the musical journey on which we’ve been. It serves as a reference point. Have you ever noticed that the moon looks larger when it’s near the horizon than when it’s in the middle of the sky? It’s not. It just has a reference point.

Silence is that reference for music.

Chandelier hanging in Deutsche Oper am Rhein

Photo: Chandelier in Deutsche Oper am Rhein foyer

For that effort, the audience receives an experience that is wholly ephemeral. At the end of a concert, there is no cardboard box with the shrink-wrapped concert inside. There is nothing that can freeze a moment of music. Live music is gone as soon as it is created. It is a sand painting being created during a wind storm.

And no recording can capture the experience adequately. There are no pre-amps, gold tipped cables, bit rates, mic placements, ribbon microphones, or processing equipment that can capture the sound of live classical musicians, especially if they’re in an acoustically vibrant hall. No surround sound system can reproduce the sound of a widely spaced orchestra in a hall that sends sound at you from every direction. The sound of live musicians, each with instruments that are perfected to produce that single sound, is too complex. Too much color. Too much dynamic range. Too much.

Each audience member receives something different for that unique ephemeral experience. As I wrote before, we love music, but the manifestations of that are different for each person listening.

Personally, I receive sheer joy from hearing great music, and I do my best thinking while sitting in a concert hall and listening. My thoughts form a turbulent ride of associations as a consequence of the music. Listening to the various climaxes and lulls of Alexander Nevsky, it came to me that I’d only get to experience this a few times in my life. I had managed to live 31 years without ever hearing this piece before, and who knows when I’ll get to hear it live again, let alone sing it? I considered what pieces of music I’d never hear nor sing, and I was grateful for the chance to hear and sing this. 

I could sense the passage of time. Highlights came and went, and once gone they seemed distant though separated by only moments. Minutes. No rewind. Only forward. The musical journey we were on together could be vaguely grasped and related to our own ephemeral lives. Barreling forward. Irreplaceable. Full of moments that cannot be re-lived. Of themes that trade dominance, die and abruptly return. Clues from the future that were unseen at the time. Lost or illusory resolutions and temporary climaxes that trail off with no clear ending.

And finally. Silence.

Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” at Konzerthaus Dortmund


Tonight, we singers with Theater Dortmund’s opera chorus will join with the Dortmund Philharmonic in the Konzerthaus Dortmund to perform Sergei Prokofiev’s cantata version of Alexander Nevsky, which is based on his music for the film of the same title.

I have to say: this is incredible cool music, and you can hear how music of this era continues to influence movie soundtracks to this day.

Take a listen to a portion here, the “Battle on the Ice” to get a sense of what I mean. It’s incredible music: frightening, exciting, beautiful and chaotic while clearly belonging to the genre of film music.

Auf Deutsch:

Wir Chorsänger beim Theater Dortmund werden heute Abend  zusammen mit der Dortmunder Philharmoniker im Konzerthaus Dortmund die Kantatefassung vom Film Alexander Newski von Sergej Prokofjew singen und spielen.

Ich muss sagen, ich finde die Musik toll. Die Musik ist spannend, erschreckend, schön, and chaotisch, aber es ist klar, dass die gehört zum Genre Filmmusik. Man kann noch das Einfluss heute noch hören.

Hören Sie das Beispiel, das “Schlacht auf dem Eis” heißt, bitte da oben.


More information here. Mehr Informationen hier:

Vaterland” Philharmonisches Konzert

The Ring Cycle as Comic Books

The four comic books of the Ring Cycle


Just finished the comic book version of The Rhinegold from the Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Niebelungen) last night, which was complete with a creation myth, lightning bolts, rainbow bridges, naked Rhine Maidens, gods slaying giants, and treacherous dwarves.  It was full of gorgeous artwork and a nice prologue explaining some of the history of gods and giants. It was also very accurate to the opera, but took much less time to read than to watch.

Thank you, Jacob!

What is the Value of Music?


What is the value of music?

Norman Lebrecht asked a month or so ago, “Why can’t we articulate the value of music to society?”  His question and a few recent experiences have caused me to obsess on the following:

Why do we bother with music?

You will often hear claims that music is not intrinsically valuable for survival, unlike water or shelter. Admittedly true. Furthermore, it’s true that the immediate benefits of music are not practical in the way, say, driving a car is. Driving at least gets you from point A to point B.

But people do pay for the stuff; they buy recordings, concert tickets, and iPods to carry a gazillion songs in their pockets. Audiophiles invest enormous sums just to hear music recordings more clearly. People travel great distances to hear the artists they love. People from all walks of life and cultures spend an inordinate amount of time and money trying to become good at making music, and many uproot themselves and struggle for years attempting to make music professionally. Massive cultural institutions are created for music. Every culture makes music, and music seemingly seeps into every nook and cranny of human life.

It clearly has value. And this value is so obvious, simple, and important, that we might not want to acknowledge it.

That value might make us feel like heathens or unserious or even boring. It sounds gooey or mushy. It doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that will convince other people to help us with money and support. And if we’re being honest, minimizing the importance of music makes it easier to underpay working musicians.

At the same time, the manifestations from that primary value are legion, and we mistake those as the value itself. As a result, we see these trotted out as the primary value of music. This is missing the forest for the trees, and it’s like being told that the value of our spouses is the kiss after getting home from work.

Some of this is innocent, but some of these efforts clearly seek to minimize the importance of music. You might hear that music is merely a pleasant background to the actual valuable activities of our lives. This is summed up in this quote from a recent article by Steven Hyden discussing the decline of music purchases:

“Music is an accompaniment, to add to your jog, your workday, your prep in the kitchen,” James L. McQuivey, an analyst for market analysis firm Forrester Research, told the Times last week. “But it’s not something you’re eager to pay for if you don’t have to.” Does this statement depress you? It depresses me.

It is depressing because that’s such a limited view of what music is. That analyst has confused a single manifestation for the value, and in so doing has reduced music to sonic wallpaper. Music can definitely be a terrific accompaniment, but it can be nearly anything.

Another genre of manifestations-as-value are those arguments that treat music as an intermediary step for the actual valuable activities of our lives. The “Mozart Effect” and other bullet points about how music improves collaboration skills, language skills, reasoning and so on have one thing in common: they assist some serious sounding but ultimately non-musical goal.

And, please, don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of non-musical benefits of music. But – again – these are individual manifestations, they’re not the primary value. They aren’t the valuable kernel that starts our relationship with music and makes us stick with it long-term. The non-musical benefits of music are like the potential health benefits of wine: wine drinkers are happy they exist, but they’re secondary.

So what is it? What is the primary essential value of music? What is the value that drives all of its other uses?

I feel a little silly writing it, to be honest. Remember the scene in Almost Famous where the rock star’s final words of “I dig music” are met with middling approval? He’s a human being: of course he digs music.

Ding ding ding. We dig music. Sans 70’s slang:

We love music. 

That’s the value.

Corollaries grow from that love that make it richer and more complex. The richest is this:

Other people also love music. 

“Love” is the only word that can cover the breadth of the what music adds to our lives. All the manifestations and corollaries of that value jumble together into a kind of harmony, and from this, we humans have created a rich and living jungle of innumerable musical possibilities.

Crowds of people will begin laughing, smiling and dancing because of a song and a really good band. I’ve seen grown men burst into tears at a chord change. Movies and television communicate their meanings more clearly with the right music (30 year old spoiler alert). Music can help people sleep. Opera singers and an orchestra can make an audience feel like demigods. A good beat can make the drudgery of the commute feel like freedom. Mothers sing to their children, and the children will sing right back.  A teenager will sing for someone they like and get a date. A packed stadium will roar songs for their team. People recovering from heartbreak can find songs letting them know that they aren’t alone. Vets with PTSD can find some relief with music therapy. Hip hop can be a protest. A pair of headphones and a good recording can be an aural roller-coaster ride. A parody can let people laugh at themselves. A Josquin mass or a Bach Passion aria or some Gospel might be more inspiring than any sermon. Tibetan monks meditate while chanting and playing percussion. We even relax to and enjoy birdsong.

This biased list is obviously paltry compared to the endless variety of music. In the same way that there’s no one correct way to love other human beings, there’s no one way to do music. You might have completely different tastes than me, and that’s perfectly ok. We define and redefine our relationship to music as our tastes, needs and lives change[1], and we continue to love it and look for reasons to insert it into our lives.

And when you hear that music isn’t necessary for survival, know that music is itself a motivation to be alive.

[1] Pablo Neruda:

y así como no tuvo nacimiento
no tiene muerte, es como un largo río,
sólo cambia de tierras y de labios