Classical Mac n’ Cheese

A new chapter in my family’s story has taken us over 800 miles from our previous home, down and down and down into the bucolic green and genteel part of our country.  Over the past few months of living in this New Place, I’ve found myself with head spinning and heart longing for the familiarity of my community, my family and my friends.  A fine thing, then, that our New Place is bucolic and genteel and brimming with life and “y’all”s.  Nonetheless, I’ve needed comfort more times this summer than I care to admit.

We all have our comforts, those lovely little things that cosset us when things “get weird”, to borrow a term from the American Psychological Association. Oftentimes that comfort is food, and oftentimes that comfort food is mac n’ cheese.  Whether the is-it-actually-food form out of the blue box or a schmancy sort laden with three cheeses, nothing assuages the psyche quite like that classic.

Which brings me to my actual point: there have been several classical pieces in constant rotation in my home that have served in the place of mac n’ cheese.  All of the comfort, none of the calories (my diet book is forthcoming!). (Kidding.)  When my spirit was/is low, hearing these pieces slowed the spinning of my head and the ache of my heart.


You get the picture.

Anyway, let’s move on to more pasta and less cheese.  Gabriel Fauré wrote his lovely, mystical Pavane Op. 50 in 1887.  “Elegant, but not otherwise important,” remarked the composer in what was most certainly the catalyst for the “bewildered” emoji.  The piece was originally written for piano, but is most often heard in an orchestral arrangement featuring a small group of strings, winds and horns. Here, however, is a very enjoyable trio performance of flute, harp and viola.

Murray Perahia’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations never fails to clear my head.  Listening to it is like giving my brain a good spring cleaning, because the music is just that: clean.  Clean and lovely and rippling and vibrant. Note: adjective level exceeded.  While my Sibling will rally for Glenn Gould’s recording, you’ll find me firmly planted in Camp Perahia.  His fingerings are extremely light and crisp, which is exactly what the Variations require.  #Perahia2016 #TakingAmericaBach

Lastly, Renée Fleming’s recording of Debussy’s Beau soir has served me well these last few months.  Accompanied by the stellar Jean-Yves Thibaudet, her lustrous soprano sails through the poem written by Paul Bourget around the mid-1880s and set to music by Debussy not long after.  I first learned this piece in college and find the melody just as haunting today as I did then.

What classical music has met you well during difficult times?  We’d love to hear about it.































The Roots of Rhythm

It would be hard to gloss over the fact that the Siblings have apparently been on an extended Christmas break since, oh, say, December 11th or so. Suffice to say that one of us has a better reason than the other, who is merely procrastinatory. A word which he made up and offers to you as proof that good things come to those who wait.

We have many nascent ideas for posts, but the one I’ve apparently chosen to wade back in with is a little bizarre. Yesterday, while watching something on the teevy (I believe it was the masterful Sherlock, specifically the third episode of this latest “series” – our deep thanks to (a) the UK and (b) WETA!) there was a scene in which a heartbeat was played in the background. For whatever reason — because in my multiple decades, I’ve heard a heartbeat once or twice and faintly remember breaking down the various sections of an EKG in a biology class — yesterday I noticed that it appeared to be in waltz time: 3/4.  See for yourself:

About 10 or so years ago, I began realizing that I had a particular affinity for songs and compositions in 3/4 time, both pop and classical. I hadn’t really thought about why that might be the case. I think it was Elliott Smith’s music that first drew my attention to it, though it did not begin there. As many know, Elliott was a masterful songwriter, a uniquely talented guitar player (multi-instrumentalist, really), and beautifully gifted in both lyrics and melody. Besides the two waltzes on XO (Waltz #2 is better known than the gossamer, sorrowing-yet-angry, deep nighttime Waltz #1), many of Elliott’s songs are in 3, and are so well crafted that their meter is not obtrusive. He seems so at home in the meter, with the melody dipping in and out and over and through the beat, whereas something like James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” seems forced (it is a nice song, though). I think “I Better Be Quiet Now” is one of my favorites of Elliott’s.

Given the Sherlock event’s sudden impingement on this three-quarters of an imponderable, today I did some light digging. Naturally, I’m not the first to notice or wonder about this. Here is one message board (aptly, at where a few folks weigh in; many of them estimate 3/4 or 6/8 time but others say 4/4. I wouldn’t think heartbeats could vary by rhythm rather than speed of that rhythm, but I am a doctor in no sense of the word. Except the sense of “Brain Donors” where I pretend to be one for nefarious purposes.

Many of the participants immediately use the question to suggest that music appreciation is rooted in physiological rhythm. I love the connection to jazz and swing, personally. But overall it’s a bit too much for me, because how do you explain speed metal? Or the diverse time signatures found the world over? I think you could posit a connection to biorhythms more generally than the waltz time specifically. But I do find the possibility of this connection intriguing. It may be nothing more than mere coincidence. But a nice one, at least. It reminded me of these Paul Simon lyrics:

This is the story of how we begin to remember
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein
After the dream of falling and calling your name out
These are the roots of rhythm
And the roots of rhythm remain

A couple cursory searches did not uncover a lot of material on this subject. Perhaps some of our friends can help enlighten us. I will leave you with Erik Satie’s three wonderful “Gymnopédies,” which are written, of course, in my bizarrely beloved waltz time. Here played with bizarre cinematic accompaniment by Aldo Ciccolini, one of the best Satie interpreters for piano.

All That Jazz

Without delving too deeply into my long absence from authorship (I was saving the world from something you’ve never heard of. Yes, I was wearing a cape.), I’d like to swerve out of our usual lane a little bit. But I’ll put the blinker on because that’s how society should function.

In this age of ego and id, classical music must at times seem like superego to many would-be listeners. Impersonal, formal, rules-obsessed, difficult. Michael Tilson Thomas’s recent Tilson Tantrum, while awesome, probably helps reinforce this stereotype. I understand the need for quiet and attention, but are we creating the world here and one errant slip of the baton will make water taste like liquid Roquefort? This criticism is even more emphatic for players of my beloved sport, tennis. Quiet, everyone! These delicate geniuses, these highly-paid professional athletes need absolute silence for their bodies to move properly! They should probably just play in semiconductor fabrication facilities in those white suits, or the Television Room in the Chocolate Factory. For the love of Pete, go to a minor-league hockey game. Somewhere between there and the hushed chapel of Wimbledon, you can still earn an honest buck swinging a tennis racquet.

Jazz, on the other hand, has never suffered from a lack of immediacy. Well, until we got to the really experimental stuff and washed-out smooth jazz Kenny G products of reverse peristalsis. So, ok, I’ll amend that to say, for most of jazz’s history, including the most important eras, jazz never suffered from a lack of immediacy. On this grey, freakishly warm day in November, I’ve been listening to John Coltrane’s “Dear Lord”:

It is hushed and yet immediate. A prayer needing no words, certainly not from this hack.

Now, I’m being purposely unfair to our beloved classical music in order to make a stylized point. Because there are plenty of composers whom I find full of iconoclasm, personability, connection, contrasts – human artists rather than vague painters of boring symphonic landscapes in Randomville-sur-mer, Europe. And there days when they speak to me as I hear Coltrane speaking in “Dear Lord.”

They are out there to find, and highlighting them is one thing I think we’re “doing” here. It’s also clear that the links and exchanges between classical and jazz go back to the latter’s beginnings, and have been rich and fruitful ever since. In trying to find a Wall Street Journal article on classical and jazz I made note of a while back, I came across something better: this article written by Chick Corea on Miles Davis’s setting of the second movement from Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” That concerto is one of the highlights of the classical guitar canon – very Spanish in its composition and execution, a wonderful journey of texture and emotion. The second movement in particular, which  is what Miles “covered”.

Chick Corea is, for me, one of the most unique musicians to whom I have ever had the pleasure to listen, whose work truly blurs distinctions and bends and twists definitions with grace and verve and precision and virtuosity. He ain’t classical, but he ain’t all jazz, either. Listen to his “Children’s Songs” album for an incredible demonstration of this. Here is the inimitable Mr. Corea on the Miles track:

There also was a sense of freedom. Evans had written a gorgeous score and the orchestra was reading notes. But Miles was improvising. He was making up phrases and melodies as he went along. It made me realize that the act of creation was a beautiful thing—that you could make up melodies out of the ether. Years later, in 1971, when I left Miles Davis’s band, I relistened to “Concierto” and was inspired that year to write “Spain.”

And speaking of inimitable, here is Miles’s interpretation of the second movement (16 minutes). The ‘Evans’ that Corea mentions is Gil Evans, one of the great jazz composer/arrangers.

And the great John Williams, with the ‘classical’ version:

Happy listening, cats!

Score-ally Yours, Part I: Hook

Friends, Revelers, countrymen, lend me your ears!  I’m taking a brief detour from classical music proper to write about its distant favorite cousin: film scores!  Besides, my Sibling and I have filled the classical music blogosphere so thoroughly that there’s really not much more we can cover.  Just kidding…we’re gonna need a bigger blog.

When I was little, I wanted desperately to be able to fly.  I’d be lying if I said a little remnant of that wish weren’t still with me today.  I can still remember having those classic flying dreams, swooping around my house in a state of gravity-free bliss.  Loving the Disney and Broadway adaptations of Peter Pan did little to bring me back to reality.

It’s fitting, then, that the other day “Flight To Neverland” from the Spielberg movie Hook came on Pandora and it honestly took my breath away.  I love that movie, but I hadn’t thought about it or its music in so long.  John Williams is always spot-on when it comes to “flying music” (e.g. E.T.) but this part of his Hook score is exceptional.  I’ve mentioned in other posts how in awe I am of composers who are able to shape and mold black and white notes into emotions.  This music literally soars, and after hearing “Flight To Neverland”, I was transformed for a good while into that kid who flew in her dreams.

I’m not going to dissect this to pieces, because doing so takes away from the magic. Take five minutes and listen to “Flight To Neverland”, because I promise you it’s WONDERFUL.  I love it!!!


Play On! A Classical Guide For Kids

Getting your kids soaked in classical from an early age is a wonderful thing (provided they enjoy it, of course).  I’m sure there are loads of studies out there on the Inter-Webs or housed in dusty university libraries that will support my hypothesis:  classical music is really, really good for your kids’ rapidly developing brains.

My daughter definitely enjoys classical, and it’s been a joy to watch her absorb it.  We have played it for her literally since the day she was born.  She likes it as a background while playing, reading and eating breakfast and lunch, and will also request it when we’re in the car (if she’s not in a Raffi, Harry Connick Jr. or the new Broadway cast recording of Cinderella state of mind).  We took her to see a chamber performance of Peter and the Wolf, and they had an “instrument petting zoo” afterwards.  I have made it my mission to teach her that worlds of incredible music exist that have absolutely nothing to do with ridiculous purple dinosaurs or strange men from Australia.

I prefer, even for babies, classical recordings featuring the actual instruments for which the piece was written.  In other words, not Brahms’ Lullaby played on the vibraphone.  In my mind you’re never too young to hear a flute, an oboe or a cello.  (Word to the wise: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor sounds absolutely ridiculous on a vibraphone. Trust me.)

To me, one of the best things about classical music is that there is SO much of it.  There are worlds of Haydn and Boccherini and Smetana that I have yet to discover.  It’s nice to know that there will always be something new to hear, and as a parent, that makes weaving classical into your child’s life that much more exciting.  Below you’ll find what might be floating around our house, broken down into some very practical categories. Enjoy!

Music For The Sunrise: Grieg, “Morning Mood  From Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, this opener is delicate and lush.  It will also cause you to wonder if you’ve heard it in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. 

Music For Tickling: Mozart, Rondo alla Turca  Who knew classical piano could tickle you? Give it a try!

Music For Rainy Days: Chopin, Nocturne Opus 9 No. 1 in B-flat minor  All of Chopin’s nocturnes are perfect for days when rain is coursing down your windows, but I’ve always found this one particularly evocative.

Music For Stomping: Debussy, “Golliwog’s Cakewalk”  The last movement of the wonderful six-movement “Children’s Corner Suite”.  A golliwog is an old-fashioned doll, and a cakewalk is…well, I just hope it involves actual cake.  Ooh, it does!  Thanks, Wikipedia!

Music For Running In Circles: Beethoven, Rondo a capriccio  Evgeny Kissin and his hair engulf the piano keys in flames in this live performance.  No need for running in circles, I’m exhausted just watching him.

Music For Laughing:  J. Strauss, Adele’s Laughing Aria (from “Die Fledermaus”) Sibling the Younger may or may not remember listening to this as children while jumping recklessly on my bed (and yes, laughing) when we were supposed to be sleeping.  It’s just that kind of piece.

Music For Hide-and-Seek: Britten, Simple Symphony, second movement, “Playful Pizzicato”  This piece is so much fun and has great texture.  Ready…get set…here I come!

Music For Flying:  Wagner, “Ride of the Valkyries (from “Die Walküre”)  And what a ride this is!  It’s SO powerful. Serendipitously, it saves you from sitting through the entirety of the opera “Die Walküre”, which is five hours long.

Music For Hurrying:  Rossini, Finale to the William Tell Overture  One afternoon, my daughter and I were trying to get to our local recycling center before it closed, and we were running behind.  I turned on the radio and of COURSE this was playing.  Hilarious.  We made it.

Music For Winding Down: Satie, Gymnopédie No. 1  So, so lovely.  I never tire of hearing those plaintive notes.

Music For Tiptoeing:  Grieg, “Anitra’s Dance  Henrik Ibsen wrote the play “Peer Gynt” (for which Grieg wrote the incidental music).  Being a thief, Anitra definitely needed to tiptoe!

Music For Stargazing: Holst, The Planets, second movement, “Venus”  One of my neighbors is a very bright sixth-grader for whom the universe holds great fascination and mystery.  This one’s for you!  It’s cool, quiet and perfect for picking out constellations.

What Does “Classical Music” Really Mean, Anyway?

After viewing this clip, I really think you have to ask that question. A shared ethos that ElderSib and I have is that, for us, classical music can (and maybe should) be distinguished from the context in which it’s played. Which is to say, you can just strip away all the sociological detritus that has piled up on top of it, to the extent that “classical music” connotes white-tie events, inscrutable music theory, annoying piano teachers who make your fingers curl into unnatural shapes, etc. ad infinitum. Which is to say again, formality and all its concomitant, stifling rigor.

Those elements cannot be fully dissociated from classical music, of course, but the way I see it, they are but one element of the whole. And not even the most important one. Frankly I don’t know how to give words to what I do find to be the most important elements (and I don’t know that I want or need to), so I’ll blindly wave around at it by saying it is the capacity of music – the music itself – to move us, both in creating it and hearing it. We try to leave the other stuff in its rightful place and focus on that.