“Rothko Chapel”


Considering that I used to go visit my dad in Houston pretty regularly when he lived there, I am saddened that we never went to the Rothko Chapel.  In my own defense, I had not yet discovered the brilliance that was Mark R0thko and his use of color block paintings to convey transcendental emotions.  In this sacred space are the final paintings Mark Rothko completed before his suicide, a series of black tones on huge canvases.  You would think they would be sorrowful and empty, but everything I’ve seen of the chapel conveys something else.

Rothko’s work brings a peace to my mind that nothing else has ever done.  It is the closest I’ve ever come to true silence in my head–no mean feat given the hamster wheel consistency of my brain.  These paintings are to me the Zen concept of nothing mind in color.  And the light, oh my stars, the light!  I will never know how he did it, but Rothko captured light in a way that I cannot describe as anything but pure.  Even his darkest paintings–and those in the chapel qualify–convey a sense of the depth and gradation of light.  The dim brightness of the sunrise, the gentle wash of the sunset.  It’s all there, and it is a miracle.

So imagine my surprise and joy when I found out there was music composed to accompany the Rothko Chapel paintings.  The chapel opened not long after Rothko’s death, and they commissioned his friend Morton Feldman to compose a piece.  It is perfect.  I don’t mean perfect as a piece of music, although I think it is very, very good.  I mean that is matches these paintings perfectly, complimenting their monochromatic atonality and diversity, creating a space for meditation and quiet while simultaneously honoring their spirituality.

I’ll get back to Houston one day and see the chapel in person.  Until then, I can listen to it.


Not My Usual Thing, But Totally Worth It


Anyone who knows me really well knows how much I hate musicals (with a few exceptions that prove the rule).  I suppose I should clarify my feelings, though.  Because it’s not the music of musicals I hate; music written for the stage and screen can be just as transcendent (and just as mediocre) as any other genre.  There are composers for musicals who have created not just some of the best music in the world, but some of the most recognizable and iconic music ever.  And in the hands of the right performer, some of these songs can leave you absolutely breathless.

No, the music for musicals is definitely fine with me.  What I hate about musicals is that all this perfectly good music is wrapped around a plot and “acted” as part of a character or story.  While that can also, very occasionally in my opinion, be terrific, generally the plots are thin and corny, the emotions patently false, and the characters are one-dimensional at best.  It’s not fun for someone like me who likes prefers depth and ambiguity.

One exception to the cornball rule of musicals is the great Stephen Sondheim, who definitely does depth and ambiguity.  I still don’t see his shows, but that’s just a matter of preference than a judgement on the quality of his work.  He’s an amazing composer who recently gave permission for an amazing project that lets people like me who stay away from musicals and fans of the genre rediscover this music in a wonderful way.  The album is called Liaisons: Re-imagining Stephen Sondheim from the Piano, and it pretty much does what it says on the tin.  I’m listening to the iTunes samples right now, and I’m just thrilled.  The whole thing was conceived by concert pianist Anthony De Mare, who plays the music.  Each track was arranged by a different composer, and they more than do Sondheim justice.  Trust me.  It’s totally worth the time.

I couldn’t really find any of the tracks on YouTube, but here’s a nice little promotional clip that should whet you’re appetite.

James Horner


Longtime film composer James Horner was killed yesterday in Ventura county when his small plane crashed.  Horner composed music for dozens of films and television programs, but he is most famous for his Oscar-winning work on Titanic.

I’m not a fan of “My Heart Will Go On,” but I was pleased to discover that Horner scored one of my favorite movies, Searching for Bobby Fischer.  If you’ve never seen it, do so soon; it’s charming and sweet with a great cast.  The music isn’t the most wonderful I’ve ever heard, but it was so appropriate for this lovely family drama.

I think that was Horner’s greatest talent: fitting the music to the film.  It didn’t stand out because it wasn’t supposed to; the score of a film should work seamlessly with the story, action, and performances.  For that alone, Horner will be greatly missed.

Repost: The Mission


I’ll be back with new posts next week sometime.  Mom’s doing much better, although still not 100% yet.  I’m just taking a little extra mental vacation.

Time for a little side trip into the wonderful world of film scores.

If you have not seen The Mission, I highly recommend it. It is not a great film, but it is a very good one; there’s a couple of plot points that could’ve been explained better, but it features fierce performances by Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons. (To be honest, it is on my short list of movies that actually could’ve stood to have been a little longer.) The score was done by Ennio Morricone, a marvelous composer and one of the great names in entertainment history.

I’m not entirely sure if I can describe what this music does to me. It is simultaneously heart-wrenching and uplifting. Although I flash on the film whenever I hear it (and knowing what happens in the film does influence my reaction), I am transported to someplace else whenever I hear this. Especially the refrain of “The Falls.” It begins as a series of notes played solo on what sounds like a wooden flute, then swells at the end into full orchestra. I feel some unnameable thing–it is joy and despair, blessing and curse, falling and flying. For the time it is playing, I believe in miracles.

“Vita Nostra” is another track that strongly moves me. “Vita Nostra,” for anyone who doesn’t know their Latin, means “Our Life.” It occurs several times in the score, a reminder that the lives of the priests and natives are at odds with the rest of the world. Their only concern is to protect their home in the rainforest, to live a life that is righteous. It has always seemed to me like an accusation of the world, of the greed and corruption that spells the mission’s doom (oops, that was a bit of a spoiler). I like the way the voices bite off each word, snipping and sniping without quite crossing the invisible line of insurrection.

These are just two of my favorite moments from a sublime musical experience. Please experience the whole thing for yourself. And it’s good even if you don’t see the film.

Repost: 4′ 33″


This was originally a Freaky Friday post, but why limit freaky things to Fridays?  The October issue of Mental Floss has an article about this famous John Cage composition as part of its 101 Masterpieces series (4′ 33″ is number 47).  It got me thinking about this amazing work of art once again.


Went out to dinner with the family tonight, so I haven’t really prepared an extensive freak for today. But a notion struck me today: Why not post one of the strangest compositions of all time? So here it is, in all its glory.

No, the sound on your computer is not malfunctioning. This is John Cage at his weirdest—and that’s saying something. I’ve been thinking a lot more about experimental music since I read Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, since there is a great deal in it about composers like Meredith Monk, La Monte Young, and Phillip Glass. Cage was a bit ahead of these artists, and probably influenced all of them to some degree. In 4′ 33″, there is an artistry to the silence; the sound of the auditorium, the audience, the world, are all part of the composition. I think the purpose of this piece is to get people to think about what music really is. Just like Andy Warhol made people think about what could be considered Art.

Cage was very influenced by Eastern music and philosophy, so this Zen-like approach isn’t really surprising. It’s just taking things a bit further than most composers would. No. This isn’t music in any real sense. It’s the sound of possibility. Everything is open in these four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Anything is possible.


“Ode to Joy” (sort of)


Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is one of the single most incredible musical achievements.  Ever.  It is the crowning moment of the Ninth Symphony, and possibly of his entire career.  It is stirring and inspirational and utterly breathtaking.  This is not that version.

I was thinking that it was time to post a little Muppet music, and did a search on YouTube for something fun.  I had originally wanted something from one of the classic Sesame Street albums I’d had as a kid, Bert & Ernie Sing-Along, and there were a couple of good moments from that.  But honestly, that’s an album that actually needs to be heard as a whole; if someone had posted it in its entirety, then I never would’ve done a search.  Which would’ve been a shame, because then I wouldn’t have seen this little comic wonder featuring everyone’s favorite lab assistant, Beaker.

This made me smile like not many things do, a smile of pure uncomplicated joy.  Innocence and happiness.  The fun of being a kid, or a kid at heart.  That’s what Muppets will do to you.  It’s also what “Ode to Joy” will do to you, except for maybe the kid part.  It is music that means to uplift your soul, and Beethoven accomplished that quite nicely, thank you very much.  But this version also makes it something that makes you laugh.  And there’s nothing more uplifting than a laugh just when you need one.


Freaky Repost: Einstein on the Beach


There are still tickets available for this.  I’ve been so topsy-turvy lately, I just now checked for availability.  Maybe it’s time to call the BFF.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported that the Los Angeles Opera will be performing Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach as part of their new season.  Now, I’ve been reading a lot about Glass in Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, since those few years were formative for him.  I’ve been intrigued about the descriptions of Glass’s minimalism, but I’d really never heard anything by him.  I just know him by reputation, so I figured this announcement was further cosmic reinforcement that maybe I ought to give Glass a chance.

Minimalism is a style of music that relies heavily on repetition, and Philip Glass is considered one of the masters of it.  I can understand why people would find his work boring or difficult; this stuff is not for the faint of heart or the easily bored.  But there is something compellingly hypnotic about this music.  The repetition forces you to pay attention.  Every change in tone or rhythm is amplified–you simply notice everything.  But it’s lulling as well.  You get caught up in the repeated mantras and notes that when something does change, you’re startled out of yourself.  Another interesting aspect is that the repeated words begin to seem like they’re a foreign language.  There’s clearly something deeply unique happening here; there’s also something deeply strange.  What I think Einstein on the Beach accomplishes is to take the everyday world and make it new.  This is to music what Modernism was to Literature, what Cubism was to Art: a new way of seeing.  There’s also a very Zen quality to all of it, which appeals to me greatly.  If I can find anyone I think will be able to handle it, I think I’d like to go see Einstein on the Beach when it premieres in October.

Marvin Hamlisch


Famed composer of film, television, and stage, Marvin Hamlisch, has died at 68.  He was brilliant.  Not because his music was so fantastic, although it was pretty damn great, but because he knew the trick of writing music for movies.

The thing about writing music to go along with visuals–film especially–is that you need music that complements the action and fits the emotional tone being set, but never overpowers what’s being seen.  In other words, you should notice and remember the music, but the music should not be the most memorable thing about a movie.  Hamlisch was a master at this.

I will freely admit that I cry every time at the end of The Way We Were.  Sophie’s Choice, too, but that movie just kills me dead; it’s almost too emotionally intense.  Sure, his music tended toward the schmaltzy on occasion, but only when schmaltz was called for.  He also wrote music for The Good-Bye Girl, and penned one of the all-time great James Bond themes, “The Spy Who Loved Me.”  Every time, his music fit the movie, enhanced what the audience was feeling.  Marvin Hamlisch simply made the movies he scored better movies.

My personal favorite?  A movie inextricably intertwined with–and vastly improved by–its music.  Here’s the final scene, another one that makes me cry every, single time.

See ya, Marvin.

Gorecki, Symphony #3, “Lento e Largo”


I swear I’m going to cheer up tomorrow.

After listening to Hans Zimmer’s gorgeous and mournful “Aurora,”  I got to thinking about some of the most sorrowful music I’ve ever heard.  Henryk Gorecki (sorry, I still can’t do accent marks) composed his third symphony, also known as the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” in 1976.  It is often interpreted as a tribute of sorts to victims of Auschwitz, although Gorecki himself resisted that and any other political/religious/spiritual interpretations of what might be his finest work.  He saw it as being about the relationship between mother and child, more universal than specific.  The lyrics, sung on the recording by Dawn Upshaw, are all based on lamentations about a parent and child separated by tragedy.  The second movement, “Lento e Largo,” was taken from an inscription on written on a wall in Auschwitz by a teenage girl.

It is a powerful piece of art, considered a modern classic.  The symphony as a whole creates an intense sense of sadness, but also leads toward hope.  It takes my breath away every time I hear it.  I can’t think of a better way to describe it.