With this list, we are down to the top 25. Halfway to number 1. Please keep sharing your own favorite pieces. I love discovering new pieces and hearing why people enjoy them.
And beware. This list contains a piece that is dangerously catchy.
(soprano, alto, 2 flutes, harp, viola, cello)
This piece was suggested to me by Joel Love, a composer I new from the University of Houston who is now at UT-Austin. Saariaho’s music always has such am exotic, sensual, and mystical quality about it. Its gorgeous for one thing but, always involves the most delicate treatment of sound even in the more harsh moments. She is able to capture very intense emotion with only a few instruments. Her vocal writing, while very dexterous, projects a sense of fragility.
She came to Houston to premier a new piece of hers with Da Camera, a new music organization. The University of Houston and Rice composers were lucky enough to have a master class with her. She is amazing. A very gentle personality with incredible ideas. Of the composers in this segment of five I’ve met three. More to come on the personal encounters and relationships later.
(soloists, chorus, orchestra)
Ok. So this seems like a no-brainer, I know. But it was actually difficult for me to select a Beethoven work and also find a reasonable spot for it on the list. There are only five, count’em five, pieces from before the twentieth century on this list. We’ve already visited Mozart and Tchaikovsky. Two more are yet to come (one, incredibly in the top 10). But, determining a Beethoven piece was difficult. Of his symphonies, the 3rd and 5th are amazing. Op 131 string quartet is incredible. Several of his piano sonatas are wonderful. And I love his 3rd piano concerto. But, none of these pieces were in the top 50. Is Beethoven’s 3rd better than Tchaikovsky’s 6th? Not in my eyes. I think just assuming that Beethoven is the premier composer genius of all composer geniuses is an easy assumption but not necessarily correct. He wrote a lot of pieces that, due to his stature and mystique, have found their way into everyone’s rep when maybe they didn’t deserve that place. Talk to any performer about Beethoven and inevitably you’ll hear something like:
“Oh my God, he’s such a genius.” “He is simply amazing.” “I love everything he’s written.” “My quartet is performing his opus _____ on our concert.”
Is this because the music warrants this kind of reaction or through the last almost two centuries, performers have been programmed to love his music because in academic settings, they don’t really have a choice? I don’t know. For me, he has a handful of amazing pieces and a majority that just don’t warrant being performed ever again. That isn’t a harsh statement. We all have pieces that just aren’t good. We also have pieces that we truly believe in and others truly believe in.
I’ve had a difficult relationship with Beethoven for a long time. Perhaps it is because of performers absolute adoration for him and I don’t like to root for the New York Yankees, the Lakers, or the Patriots. Any superpower immediately triggers intense scrutiny in my eyes. Maybe its because of my father’s intense love of Beethoven and I’ve seen him as a threat to my parent’s musical loyalty. Probably not but, maybe subconsciously. Anyway - done with my Beethoven rant.
Now, I love this piece for everything except the Ode to Joy - that part I could actually really do without. The first movement is great. The second is absolutely incredible. I think I’ve mentioned pieces that are classical equivalents of heavy metal. This is one of those. It has the same energy as the 3rd movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony. It burns and burns and then keeps going. Maybe I’m drawn because of the timpani writing. Who knows? But, ultimately, I like Beethoven’s 3rd if I’m going to listen to a whole symphony of his. I like his 9th if I just want to classically headbang for a while.
(What I imagine is going on in the mind of reader right now)
Another Grisey? He made the list last week?!?! And he is ahead of Beethoven’s 9th? What has the world come to??? This guy obviously knows nothing about music! Harumph! [Closes computer and never returns to the blog]
Well for those of you that stayed, I like this piece because it falls in the spectral camp. It is truly dealing with sound on sound’s terms. Each piece in the series features brilliant writing for the particular ensemble but never strays from the core concept. If you only choose one, go for Partiels. Those only moments are Earth-shattering. And the middle, with the two clarinets going in and out of tune…(shivers). Damn, is that good.
Do you get this week’s title now?
I’m not a huge fan of solo pieces. I generally think that solo pieces do not have enough timbral variety to hold my attention, especially if it is a long piece. I just don’t care that much about the melodic and harmonic adventure that the composer is trying to take me on if they are ignoring timbre. However, theme and variations are generally an exception. I love this piece because of the Rzewski’s virtuosic inventiveness not to mention the sheer physicality of this piece. It has something for everyone. The jazz/blues variation has to be my favorite moment along with the “frozen chords” moment around the first few variations. The Copland treatment of the first variation is fantastic. And the cut and dry form actually works in this context. Now, on to my Rzewski story.
When I was at BGSU, I performed in all of the instrumental ensembles I could. I had been in, at one point or another, the top two bands, orchestra, percussion ensemble, and new music ensemble. In NME, we were preparing a Rzewski piece called Spoils for the MACCM New Music Festival at BGSU under the direction of Ken Thompson. The piece is typical of Rzewski’s minimalist/process phase of his career in which we get cells of material that are put into a formal design. Here is the issue. We were all playing off of handwritten scores. The form had to be about 20 letters long. Each “cell” was between 4 and 8 measures. We had about 10 pages of score to account for all the material and then a road map of the form at the bottom of the score for us to realize in performance. A lot easier said than done. But we were getting it despite reading from what appeared to be the scratchings from a blind chicken.
Fun side note. Dan Tramte and I were the percussionists on this piece. The percussion is all supposed to be found instruments. They were just given onomatopoeic descriptions like thud, crash, pang, etc. We used trashcans and other found instruments like that. But my favorite? An empty beer keg.
It is the night before the performance. Rzewski is the guest composer at the festival. He walks into the hall (late) and starts listening. We finish the piece. Ken turns around from the conducting stand. Rzewski just starts ruthlessly ripping into us. In particular, the bass clarinetist was receiving the brunt of the attack. Ken stands at the podium and takes all of the criticism in stride. Some, I’m sure, was warranted. But, not all and not like this. Luckily, his wrath didn’t make it back to the percussion section. He seriously was considering not having the piece performed because he was so unhappy with how it was being played. Ken assured him we would have it by tomorrow. He left, disgusted. Ken turns to the ensemble. In a quiet and very calm voice he says, “I’m going to Fricker’s to get a drink. Anyone who wants to may join me.” And he left. Dan and I put our gear away and went right over to meet him. It was the first time I’d ever drank with a professor.
The next day we performed the piece. Afterwards, Rzewski came on stage, gave us the typical two-handed clap, spread arms high, and praise us. He vigorously shook Ken’s hands and then proceeded to shake hands with and thank every member of the ensemble. That two-faced son-of-a...
There actually isn’t much I can say about this piece that it doesn’t say for itself. The one thing I am always impressed by is Elainie’s ability to effectively straddle the point where real sound/gesture becomes unreal. When the breaking of vegetables/branches/whatever the source was comes in, you can visualize the process of creating sound. You can see how the material is bending and breaking to produces those sounds. As the section goes on, the visualization can’t match the sound anymore because it would be inhuman and out of the material’s sonic possibility to make sounds in that given time frame with that much complexity. That switch from real to unreal is something that I find in Elainie’s music often and I love it.
I know Elainie from BGSU. I would perform her student’s pieces at the end of the year if they wrote for percussion. I’ve known her as a composer much more since I left BGSU. My favorite memory of her though was when I was working at Kroger’s as a produce guy. She’d come in and we’d talk a bit about school or music or whatever. When I decided to go to Arizona and study composition, I waited for her to come into Kroger’s again during one of my shifts. I was probably more excited to tell her about this news than most everyone else. I respected her immensely and even though I was never her student, I still felt like I was always learning from her. I still am.