We all want to be the musician who’s cooler than a pack of menthols in all performance scenarios. Exposed orchestral solo? Easy. Recital? They play one every week, more if possible. Big concerto with a major orchestra? Why not. No matter what the details, everything comes out Newport smooth.
I’m afraid I don’t know every Classical Dark Arts reader as well as I’d like. But if movies have taught me one thing it’s that a good mixtape is the best way to fast-track a friendship. The mixtape is something to pore over in a quiet moment, a way to unwind, a way to personalize the unfamiliar. So I’d like to offer a catalog of classical stuff I’m listening to. It’s a few notes longer than an hour, but the pieces are short (I see you, Millennials). >> Here you go. Continue reading “Free classical mixtape”→
Let’s face it: we’re all just biding time until Nadia Sirota’s Meet the Composer pod — the apex predator in the classical jungle — roars back to life. I’ve been skulking in MtC message boards. I played every episode backwards searching for hidden messages. I keep refreshing iTunes in case the next episode drops. There’s gotta be a better way to entertain ourselves, right?
Say hello to The CoffeeHouse Classical podcast. It’s brought to you by hosts Allison and Asa. Each installment looks at one movement from a well-known piece. It’s got terrific potential. I asked Asa and Allison a few questions via reddit. Here are their lightly-edited responses.
Let’s start with the basics. Who are you, and why did you decide to do a podcast? You two have a very easy chemistry, I take it that was developed on a previous project, right?
Allison: Together at Colorado State University we hosted a weekly radio show, also called the Coffee House, that we started almost as a joke. We thought it would be funny to play two hours of Gregorian Chant on the radio every Friday night, but then we actually followed through and created our Sunday morning classical and jazz show. I was graduating from CSU and moving out of state just when we were really starting to feel comfortable on the air and our show was taking off, so we thought, Why not keep this up in a format that will work long-distance? Asa: Allison and I have known each other for four years during our music degree programs at Colorado State. In that time, we have collaborated on projects from our own nationally-performing quartet, to organizing local events to, of course, our radio show on CSU’s own KCSU radio station. After the success and knowledge gained from my own Star Wars podcast (Back to Dials), we decided to continue our radio show in a format that would be both workable for long distance and attractive for listeners of all levels of classical knowledge!
So far the emphasis has been on single movements — “Jupiter” from Holst’s The Planets, the third movement from Beethoven 7, etc. It’s refreshing because the listener doesn’t get overwhelmed right out of the gate. Is the plan to continue like this?
Allison: We do want to keep our shows on the shorter side to hopefully be more enjoyable for the listener. However, we do want to give a really good in-depth discussion of the pieces, so often single movements work best to get the length we’re looking for. We do have some “holiday specials” in the works that will go into much longer works over a few episodes! Asa: Classical music, especially the “canon” works, can get very lengthy. Although each and every second of the works we choose is special, a listener can buy a CD of Holst if they want to listen to the entire Planets suite. In my mind, the show’s length is based roughly around my average morning commute – roughly 20 minutes. By selecting only certain movements, we can go into the depth we want to about the composer and the piece itself, while still allowing for a significant amount of unedited music to be played. I feel like this balance is crucial to achieving a palatable podcast for an audience that enjoys the classical genre, and trying to cram more in would be counterproductive.
Most of the episodes have been about “canon” works so far, and you have ably dug into the history behind the pieces and the composers. Will you be looking at works by living composers for future episodes?
Allison: We are looking at doing some more recent works, however the availability of information on these works does seem to be harder to find. One work that I’m particularly interested in for the show is Rainbow Body by Christopher Theofanidis.
Asa: Allison mentioned the availability of information – to clarify, we like to familiarize ourselves with the work by looking at an and analyzing the scores, and public domain works available on IMSLP make that easy. However, we both have access to our various university libraries (Colorado State and Michigan State) which can help us so much when doing our score research! I personally would love to have a living composer on the show to talk about their own music.
You guys bring a kind of eager, nerdy energy to the show, and you don’t shy away from theoretical and technical musical details. Was that a conscious decision, or are you just staying true to your inner musical nerds?
Allison: We actually modeled our format on an old NPR classical podcast What Makes It Great, that had a really vivacious zing to it. I personally really love music theory and analysis, and when I listen to music it’s the little details that thrill me and I really wanted our listeners to experience these things that might heighten their listening enjoyment! So, I guess it was really a conscious decision to stay true to ourselves!
Asa: I think if you don’t let your own excitement show on an informational program, you can’t infuse your audience with any sort of enthusiasm either! So for me, anyway, it was definitely a conscious decision based on our radio experience as well as my other podcast — at least, the decision to let my enthusiasm show through to create an upbeat show that, I hope, is fun to listen to! When it comes to music, I am a performer moreso than I am enthralled by the technical aspects, as Allison is, and my excitement comes from finding out why the composer might have done what they did and how their own passion is written into the page. And then, of course, from sharing my love of music! The two of us together, I think, make a fantastic team when we allow that excitement on the air.
Who do you see as some of your classical music podcasting peers, and are there any shows (e.g. Nadia Sirota’s Meet the Composer, Bill McGlaughlin’s Exploring Music) you’ve modeled your approach after? What can listeners expect in the immediate future?
Allison: As I mentioned before, we were trying to hash out a format we liked and came across the What Makes It Great show. What I really loved about that show was the use of musical examples during the analysis of pieces. What I’m thinking of as our show progresses is to have even more music included in the show as background while we’re speaking, to make it sound more like a complete production!
Asa:What Makes it Great was what we modeled most of our “sound” off of, however, the nuts and bolts (history and more in-depth discussion) was inspired by the Naxos Classical Music Spotlight podcast as well as the American Public Media production Composer’s Datebook, which I listen to every day! I can’t say that I have listened to either of the shows that you mentioned, but we take inspiration from wherever we can! In the immediate future, at least, we want to be able to feature the music as much as possible, as Allison mentioned. We’ll do our best to stick to an every-other-Sunday release schedule, and choose works that we both can get excited about!
The lighting is dusky and subdued. The clothes and staging are straight out of a BBC period drama. The audience chatters and cameras click with a rapidity that would be distracting were it not for the triumphant, churning Reliquary by British composer Ilan Eshkeri.
This week I got to had some fun over at Vinyl Me, Please. I looked at ten crucial classical releases to add to your record collection. With vinyl in the ascendance its vitally important you rep for great (modern) classical music.
Here’s the short list, with handy links to buy any and all:
The vast majority of classical music apps are hot garbage. Every major symphony has one, as do classical radio stations. Most are designed by the same outfit (not going to name them, but I should). It’s a mystery who they’re designed for, or why they bothered in the first place.
Regular readers of the CDA mailer remember the infamous “Classical Music Fails” volumes 1 and 2. They are lowlight reels of classical-music nightmares, the worst things that can happen onstage. The standout among those — and this is saying something — was a shitty, broken-down, unattributed performance of Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra. (Don’t worry, I’ll link to it later.)
The group responsible for the carnage was the Portsmouth Sinfonia. They were founded at the Portsmouth College of Art in 1970 as a conceptual art project. The concept? Nobody in the orchestra knew how to play their instruments. The mistakes were the art, man.
Portsmouth Sinfonia’s founder, Gavin Bryars, demanded an earnest effort from his subjects. They practiced, they improved marginally, and they performed in a way that sounded approximately like what the composer intended. The Portsmouth Sinfonia counted none other than Brian Eno among its members (on clarinet!). Composer Michael Nyman was even more dramatically seduced while attending a Portsmouth Sinfonia performance:
I sat through the first half […] and I was so moved and entertained and excited by the music that I went up to Gavin in the interval and said, ‘Is there a spare instrument? I’d like to join.’ They had a spare cello, so suddenly I was playing ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ in the second half.
When you’ve got that kind of heat it follows that more and more people would start to hear about it. The Portsmouth Sinfonia grew so popular (really?!) they recorded an album which Rolling Stone called 1974’s “Comedy Album of the Year.” They played Royal Albert Hall and other downscale venues while billed as “the world’s worst orchestra.” And then they broke up.
The lesson here is that if you premise your recordings on a certain “authenticity” fans are happy to get behind it (the Wesley Willis / Lil B axiom) even if it sounds… kinda suspect. Some fails are secret successes, we love what we should hate, we’re so random and unpredictable like that. Reach for the stars.