Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fragility Cycles, Bach, and the Whisk

I'm not sure I ever had a specific goal of blogging daily, weekly, or at any other regular interval, but I think I'll steal the blogging goal of a teacher from high school, Phil Sanderson: "Could I have something to say, once a month, for a year?...My promise to you: when I've got nothing more to say, I quit."  Sounds good, dad.

FRAGILITY CYCLES is a hauntingly beautiful, semi-improvised piece by minimalist composer Ingram Marshall.  In this recording, the composer performed it solo, using a Balinese bamboo flute called a "gambuh," some synthesizers, tape loops, voice, a delay system, and a few percussion instruments. Sounds like a lot of work for something whose product is so serene.

For me, listening to this sort of music is an act of defiance, against myself and my society.  Life moves so fast: we live in a world where we can't believe we have to wait nearly two whole years before we can finally upgrade our piece-of-crap, 'ancient' smartphones.  We answer emails on the toilet, drive across parking lots, and can't believe Redbox doesn't have the movie that came out today.

I love that world.  I think technology is pretty damn cool, and I love to figure out how to make it do things I want even faster or more efficiently.  I choose my route home based on whether or not I think I'll make it through a certain stoplight in one cycle.  As soon as a match is over, I want to be able to read a summary and analysis within five minutes.

Fragility Cycles is 15 minutes long.  There are no words; no melody to speak of; no pulse to catch, recognizable harmonic progression - nothing to immediately tell me what's happening and where it's going.  Which is precisely why it's so important to me.  It doesn't happen every day, but when I find that moment, I need things like Fragility Cycles to remind me to slow down.  It's also why I prefer the inconvenience of making my coffee in a french press, and carrying a pocket watch.

At some point in your day, take 15 minutes to listen to this.  Think of it as meditation, if you like.  It's a wonderful exercise in slowing life down, and a great exploration of musical texture besides.


You may recall my mention of a computer networking course I began via Coursera.  Though I still love its egalitarian approach to knowledge, I've discovered a drawback: because anyone can sign up, you can take courses that assume you know more than you do.  Shortly into Week 3, I realized that this course assumed I knew a lot more about computers than I do, so I ended up dropping it.

Not satisfied with just not learning, I decided that I'd stick to a realm I do know about, and deepen my knowledge instead.  So, I'm planning to spend this year getting to know J.S. Bach better.

Wait, you already know about that guy?  No, you don't.  You know about him like I know about wireless routers.  Sure, you've heard of him - some of you have even played or sung some of his stuff, maybe.  But almost none of you have any more than a passing familiarity with his existence.  If you studied music in college, you might even know that his harmonic language was really important to the development of Western music, but I bet you couldn't really articulate why.

As a vocalist, I have performed precious little of his music, much to my own detriment.  In college, I liked a bass player who played the 2nd cello suite in d minor on her recital.  She graduated and we lost touch, but I kept the interest in the cello suites and have been listening to them ever since, so I feel like I know them passingly well for a non-cellist.  But that's about it.  So, I've put together a list of music that will take up most of my listening for this year (hopefully some score study to accompany it!).  If you're interested, my listening syllabus looks like this (all of this is on spotify, by the way):

The Well-Tempered Clavier: Glenn Gould (book I); Masaaki Suzuki (book II)
Goldberg Variations: Glenn Gould
The Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello: Yo-Yo Ma and Pablo Casals (VERY different - try it!)
Brandenburg Concertos: Masaaki Suzuki & Bach Collegium Japan
Various Cantatas, including nos. 82, 199, 227, and 228: Masaaki Suzuki
Mass in B Minor (John Eliot Gardiner and also Masaaki Suzuki)
Magnificat (JEG/Suzuki)
St. Matthew Passion (JEG/Suzuki)
St. John Passion (JEG/Bach Choir of Bethlehem, featuring my former voice teacher!)
Christmas Oratorio (JEG/Suzuki)

Since it's Lent, I've started in with St. Matthew Passion, but my life doesn't always allot many extended periods of time where I can follow a score or translation while listening to a multi-hour work.  For those times where my eyes and hands are occupied, I'm also listening to Casals on the cello, or the Mass in B Minor, since I know the words already.  By Advent, the Christmas Oratorio will probably replace my annual listening to Messiah.

In addition, I've also gotten Christoph Wolff's biography, "Bach, the Learned Musician," and with any luck, I'll also get through Albert Schweitzer's biography of the man.  We'll see how all that goes - it's taken me nearly two months to read a single 600-page book so far, so I'll take them one at a time.

So, what about the Whisk, you say?  Fiona's new favorite toy.  Don't spend money on baby things, just find cool stuff you already own. 

Which toy is she actually holding?  I rest my case.