As a female studying classical music I always wondered if there were any female composers in the early classical history eras. I have not found many. I supposed it is be expected as women throughout history have always been denied certain rights and freedoms. However, in my search one female composer stood out among the rest, Florence Beatrice Price. Not only was she a female but also an African American composer in a time when African Americans, let alone African American women, had little to no freedoms or rights. She was the first African American woman to have her compositions played by a major symphony. She faced adversary which led to her having to move out of her town due to hate crimes such as lynching and even pretended to be a Mexican student to save herself from prejudice. But at the end she finished her musical education at Conservatory of Music in 1906. In the end, Price finished a whooping total of more than three hundred compositions. Shortly after her death in 1953 some of her pieces were lost due to lack of interest as new modern composers were emerging.
One of her most famous compositions was The Symphony in E Minor. There are four movements within this composition. Each one with a different sound or inspiration. Although some say that the first movement is a representation on the African American spiritual or spirituality. I found the piece to be much too soft sounding and peaceful to represent the African American spirituality. When studying American African history and their music their spiritual music sounds very powerful and strong with an intensity that moves and penetrates. I found the very end of the first movement closer to this ideal representation than the rest of it.
The second movement has a soft oriental sounding harmony that sneaks up throughout the piece. True to popular saying, the trumpets did remind me of a hymn like song just as Price based it to be. The melody in this part is played only by a brass choir. Later in the piece when the wind instruments join the strings in harmony it gives you a feeling of righteousness and strength as if you are constantly rising above temptation that is displayed by the minor melody. Then of course there are the famous church bells at the end that tie together this feeling of being in touch with a higher being and your spirituality.
The third movement is defined by many to have a jovial feel. When asked Price stated that the third movement was influenced by the African American “Juba dance”. She wanted to bring out some of her Africanisms within her compositions. Prior to listening to this piece, I familiarized myself with the Juba dance and music. So, when I heard the third movement I immediately detected the Juba dance melody throughout the whole piece. It even had the percussion beat that follows a Juba. It truly is a jovial piece as all I pictured in my head was Charley Chaplin in a film happily strutting down a nice sidewalk with a side to side head movement to the Juba beat.
Finally, in the last movement the tempo speeds up. It feels as though Price is rushing to a finish. There are a lot of repetitions of scales throughout this movement. Towards the end when the instruments join together and play as a force, the ups and downs among the minor scale feel as if you’re on a winding carousel with no end. This piece comes together in a loud forceful sound that brings this movement to a strong end.
On February 18, 2017 the Ecstatic Music Festival at the Kaufman Music Center in New York City presented Origami Harvest, a modern Jazz / Hip Hop fusion of the trumpet virtuosity of Ambrose Akinmusire with the postmodern rap lyrics of MC Kool A.D. Ambrose Akinmusire was the primary creative force behind this Jazz / Hip Hop collaboration which featured Kool A.D. along with the instrumental accompaniment of the contemporary string ensemble Mivos Quartet, piano and synthesizer effects by Sam Harris, and drumming by Marcus Gilmore. In an interview for Liquid Music website at the beginning of 2017, Ambrose states that Origami Harvest stands for a cyclical exposition of the various musical elements which make up the diverse ensemble’s presentation. During the performance each performer takes a turn at presenting his or her instrument’s unique voice as a metaphorical fruit, which is then harvested by the changes in the seasons. Through this cyclical performance, the sonic textures blend with one another and the juxtaposition of the diverse instrumentation folds upon itself in the same way that the folding of paper creates an origami image. The composition also explores how there is no clear beginning or end to a cycle as all preceding moods and textures morph onto the next section.
The piece began with the string quartet’s creating dissonant waves by making circular motions with their bows and sliding up and down the strings, which created the whispering sound of an ocean floor. This technique would be revisited several times. The intro by the quartet was a mix of dissonant and consonant sounds, which established an atonal motif for the rest of the piece. A different section also featured a modern chromatic piano solo, which was in contrast to the usual rhythmic groove patterns, Sam Harris, played on a synthesizer along with drummer Marcus Gilmore. MC Kool A.D. would typically rap over the synthesizer’s effects and drumming, and Kool A.D. would also add sparse lyrical content with varying dynamics throughout the sections. Interestingly, Kool A.D. attempted to mimic the virtuosic off-beat phrasing of Ambrose’s trumpet. Needless to say, Ambrose provided varies trumpet solos with the unconventional sounds of the Free Jazz form.
All the performers demonstrated a high level of musicality and control over their modern, unconventional sounds. Origami Harvest was successful in presenting a series of cyclical and separate sections featuring an atypical ensemble, however, the visual staging of where a performer stands while not playing could be improved upon or “relaxed.” There were awkward moments when MC Kool A.D. was just standing on stage silent while the quartet played. On other occasions, he compensated by repeating a lyrical phrase such as “and it don’t stop” or attempted to make creative moments. Ambrose also sat on a stool and avoided direct eye contact with the audience when he was not playing. The tension onstage could have been relieved if the performers had had more freedom to move around the stage. Perhaps, Ambrose or Kool A.D. could even have walked over to conduct a different section, which did not feature them. I believe this would have relaxed the visible onstage nerves of the musicians. After all, there is countless footage of Miles Davis or Jon Coltrane walking to the side of the stage to smoke a cigarette or gaze at the audience, while another performer took the spotlight.
With the current trend of musical fusions within the mainstream market, Origami Harvest is a commendable attempt to bridge the gap between the modern Jazz, Classical, and Hip Hop genres. Recently, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) received an unprecedented acceptance with mainstream audiences and won awards for successfully blending Hip Hop with Funk, Free Jazz, Soul, and Spoken Word. The album’s fusion was presented as a kind of avant-garde conceptual album, which featured Free Jazz prominent figures such as Kamasi Washington on tenor saxophone, Thundercat on bass/producer, and Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, among the various other instrumentalists. To Pimp a Butterfly brought Free Jazz elements into a Hip Hop production while Origami Harvest brought Hip Hop into a modern musical auditorium. The new and experimental trend that has united free jazz, classical avant-garde, and hip hop artists in a common musical aesthetic is evocative and inspiring.
For February I saw Ethel perform at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ethel is an acclaimed string quartet that was founded in 1998 and based in New York City. Its members are “Ralph Farris (viola), Dorothy Lawson (cello), Kip Jones (violin), and Corin Lee (violin).” Ethel plays both new and old songs and plays music for free every Friday at the Met.
I arrived at the museum around 5p.m., around the start of the concert, and this was my first time at the museum. The stairs leading up to the building and the museum’s interior set the stage for the music I was about to hear. When I asked where the concert was, I was surprised to find the open setting of the music-playing. They were playing at the Balcony Bar, in front of people enjoying food and having conversations. By the time I got there the seats closest to the band were already filled up, but I had no problem hearing their music.
The instrumentation included a mixture of the oboe, English horn, clarinet, Native American flute and the piano. More specifically, the music I heard was a low note being played and held, while the higher notes (the flute and piano) played a melody. When the first section of the song was finished, the song switched in that the high note was now being held (flute) over the lower-note melody being played by the horn.
Throughout the piece were moments of quirkiness, where the piano would play an ‘untraditional” riff, but the feeling of the music stayed constant throughout: it, to me, was ambiance-setting music. The best words to describe the piece are slow-paced, and smooth-sounding. There were not many dissonant parts to startle the patrons; instead, the music served as a background to the museum, the paintings, and the art. In fact, a line from the Met Museum’s website tells us to “[r]elax and enjoy cocktails and appetizers while looking out over the majestic Great Hall” while listening to Ethel’s music, which is exactly what people did.
Also, to me, the music seemed to incorporate the patrons themselves, through their talking. Usually, when a performer performs a work, the audience may be silent and take in the music (depending on the performance). Here, it seemed almost as if the patrons, and their talking, became part of the music themselves. I’m not sure if this effect was intentional, but it made for a very interesting sounding piece altogether. The music seemed light, and appropriate for the setting of the Met museum.
Apparently, the music I heard is notably different from the music they are known for. A review of Ethel’s third album Heavy, by Jayson Greene of Pitchfork.com, reads: “Ethel function as a living affront to the misconception that chamber music is polite, white-napkin stuff.” Here is one piece of music that Greene refers to:
Also, Ethel’s website lists other sources such as the New York Times and the New Yorker to attest to Ethel’s visceral, non-traditional sound.
These reviews demonstrate to me how versatile Ethel is, to play the soothing-sounding music, and then to also play the edgier music as well. The music I heard at the Met was not ‘white-napkin,’ but it was in no way intimidating to its listeners.
Ethel’s music provided a cool juxtaposition to the other music I heard outside of the museum. As I left the museum I was greeted with the sound of a blaring saxophone. Right outside was a man in a suit playing music, alternating between the saxophone and the oboe. This music sounded louder, even though he was playing alone and there were many more instrumentalists playing inside the museum. The sax player’s music was more arpeggiated, and he sang as well. He evoked a jazzy sound with his instrumentation, whereas Ethel’s music had a more classical sound.
The environment outside the museum was also different: some people were walking past, maybe going up the grand stairs; some were walking past him on the sidewalk, maybe not walking at all; others were sitting down on the stairs, to talk, or to hear his next song.
The music outside and inside the museum were very different, but I found their similarities to be much more interesting. Both pieces had two different vibes, but both were connected through their innovative styles of playing, their ability to captivate their audience, and the sense of calm that both pieces held.
Although I did not find any outside information for the saxophone player, more information on Ethel can be found here:
and on their website here:
Saturday February 18th in East Harlem, Carnegie Hall brought their neighborhood concerts to the historic El Museo del Barrio. Harlem, a neighborhood that is historically black and Latinx, got to experience a fusion of their culture embodied in the musical group: Antibalas. El Museo del Barrio tries to bring these events to their community regularly and for free or a low cost. This event was part of their Super Sabado program, but they’ve had other events such as lectures featuring the prominent Dominican American writer, Junot Diaz. Music, however, is a particularly strong way to immerse one’s self in culture. It also acts as a point of connection for many within the community and outside of it. This event was attended by a very diverse crowd, including a group of Eastern European women sitting near me. The band itself, Antibalas, was made of about twelve men. Though it was led by its black and Latinx members, there were a few members of other cultures who were involved as well.
Antibalas is a Brooklyn-based band composed of saxophones, trumpet, trombone, vocals, guitars, keyboard, bass, vibraphone, drums and percussion (congas and woodblocks). Their sound is a unique mixture of funk, jazz and afrobeat. Their inspiration stems from Fela Kuti and his afrobeat grooves, but their keyboardist harbors similarities with the playing style of Ray Manzarek from The Doors. The primary focus of this band resides in its brass and percussion sections which dominate both the rhythm and melody. Each member of the band had a specific role to fulfill. As a large band like this can be challenging to control, communication between one another is key. They immediately exemplified how talented and tight they were in their performance. Catchy guitar riffs, an insane keyboard solo on top and dense percussion lines mixed with call-and-response melodies from the horn section marked the beginning of Antibalas’ performance.
There was an amalgam of texture and timbre coloring the first song, which lasted about 12 minutes. The piece kept building up, leading to the vocalist emerging and calling for the audience to repeat his phrases; the audience gladly cheered the lines in excitement. As the dynamic died down, funky repeating guitar riffs settled into the mix. The band also responded to specific vocal cues by the lead singer in a call-and-response form. The lead singer began chanting, “Go up! Go down!” and the band repeated his continuous line in response. Dynamics began to build louder and louder as melodic phrases from the horn section colored the background, bringing it back to the powerful introduction with a few variations throughout. The audience was so impressed and eager to applaud that they started clapping and dancing right before the final climax.
Each song gave the audience much more than expected. They clapped to the beat as much as possible. If this wasn’t a seated event, everyone would have been dancing from the beginning. Behind each dense percussive horn driven line, a complex yet controlled and danceable drum beat was laid. Each musician had their own spotlight in one song where they would solo to showcase the talent that is Antibalas. As the last song began, the audience started to lift from their seats, unable to control themselves after an hour of outstanding music. They began to dance, both on their own and with others. The band, in response, turned the event into a wild party. Steady and fast dance rhythms grew in power while the trombonist burst out a solo that blew everyone away and empowered the entire band. An encore was definitely in order and requested by the audience who were engaged throughout the performance. In addition to their outstanding musical talent, Antibalas embodied an approach that gave the audience an even greater gift: a true community experience.
I decided since it is Black History month, to listen to a famous songwriter and saxophonist, Charlie Parker. Playing mostly jazz music, most of his songs are still popular and played today like “Now’s the Time.” Since I heard that song, and most of my classmates, I wanted to hear something different. Jazz music was something I wasn’t exposed to as much until came to Lehman, but Parker was someone I was familiar with. He was born August 29, 1920 and started performing as saxophonist since he was 15. Parker grew up as an only child and found his talent in music through lesson from school, transitioning from the baritone horn to the alto saxophone (the sax was given to him by his mother when his father abandoned them). Dropping out of school at 15, Parker was determined to make a career as a saxophonist that he played in clubs where he lived, Kansas City, Missouri. He played in clubs until he joined a band with a pianist that had the group tour in places like New York and Chicago. Since he chose to stay in New York, Parker became a part of different groups that allowed him to make his first recordings, his own solos in those recordings, met other upcoming jazz musicians, and became a leader in his own group. Unfortunately, his music career wasn’t as long as it could’ve been since he died in 1955 due to his history of alcohol and substance abuse.
Out of all the music he played or has written, I enjoyed listening to “Summertime”. It begins with a string section introduction, which is different considering only the double bass is popular in jazz music. Right after, you hear the harp play a repeating melody, almost like a scale, and the remaining instruments (bass, percussion) join in the music, leaving the saxophone as the solo instrument. The song is short but consist of harmonies between the saxophone and another instrument such as the harp, strings, and piano. The tempo of the song is slow or moderately slow but then turns into a swing motion in 8ths, which is common in jazz music.
A little fuzzy to read but below is the first page of sheet music of “Summertime”. The music is written for only a pianist to play the notes and sound is similar to the ones you hear in the video below. The saxophone solo plays a certain pattern with a similar sound heard at least three times throughout the whole song, like a melody, and then follows with the other instruments playing their harmonious section, repeating the same thing. The harp plays a repeating glissando melody, the strings play a harmony in both pizzicato and acro, and you hear the piano for a brief moment.
I enjoyed listening to this piece and learning more abound Charlie Parker. It was unfortunate that he lasted in the music industry in such a short time but I think he enjoyed the journey of being exposed to it while he was still alive. Even though he didn’t composed this song, there is no denying he was a great saxophone performer.
Have you attended a concert yet? Don’t let February pass you by: it is the single best month to attend a concert of contemporary music in New York City! Check out the Calendar to find an event happening when you are free. Take advantage of today’s holiday to attend a performance of music by African-American composers.
If getting out to a concert this month is difficult, you might want to write a review of new recording or respond to an issue in the press, or write a post that is timely (look for composers celebrating birthdays right now, for example. Some ideas: Philip Glass (Jan. 31), John Adams (Feb. 15), John Corigliano (Feb. 16), Gyorgy Kurtag (Feb. 19))
Review one of the albums or pieces that won a Grammy last night. Since our course is mostly about “art” music we should start by looking under “Best Instrumental Composition” and then anything with “Classical” in the title, such as “Best Engineered Album, Classical”, “Best Orchestral Performance”, “Best Opera Recording”, “Best Choral Performance”, “Best Chamber Music / Small Ensemble Performance”, “Best Classical Instrumental Solo” etc. You might be pleasantly surprised by the music you discover here. Of course, we shouldn’t ignore Jazz and many other genres, but I think that Beyoncé and Adele get enough press without our help.
NOW Ensemble + San Fermin Wednesday, January 25, 2017 at Merkin Hall
The imagined boundary between “art” or “Classical” music and “popular” music has been shifting over the past decade. Or perhaps a better word is dissolving, as musicians find themselves listening, working, and performing on both sides of this imaginary divide. Audiences, too, seem to embrace a greater variety of music than ever before, bringing the habits of practices of different musical cultures together. This sometimes awkward, sometimes exhilarating friendship between “Classical” and “popular” was especially felt in the second performance of the 2017 Ecstatic Music Festival when the NOW Ensemble, a chamber group dedicated to playing new music, met with the Brooklyn indie band San Fermin.
The pairing of these two ensembles may have seemed a natural fit for their members. Both of the composers in the groups studied composition at Yale, and both work with ensembles of unusual instrumentation. Moreover, as the host of the program, John Schaefer, pointed out, both groups seem to operate like rock bands, with members of the group writing new compositions or songs that draw on the individual strengths of the performers. And yet both are also like typical “Classical” ensembles, with pieces orchestrated in detail and parts given out to performers. Both ensembles play music written specifically for them, or directly by their members—typical of rock bands, but not at all the norm for “Classical” chamber ensembles.
The NOW Ensemble held down the concert, performing two original compositions in the first half, and then joining San Fermin in the second half for a collaborative work as well as familiar songs from that band’s catalogue. The NOW Ensemble is an eclectic group of instruments: flute (Andrew Rehrig), clarinet (Alicia Lee), electric guitar (Mark Dancigers), double bass (Logan Coale), and piano (Michael Mizrahi). Finding repertoire was a challenge and they tended to perform works for “open” instrumentation until they had commissioned or composed their own. Such was the case of the opening number, “Dreamfall” (2013) by the group’s electric guitarist, Mark Dancigers and the title track their newest recording. The piece is in three movements: the first movement seems to convey the descent into sleep with slow falling motion in a pointillistic texture, followed by some nostalgic cadential figures (are we falling asleep in front of the TV?) The second movement conveyed more anxiety through tight dissonances between the flute and clarinet and rapidly repeated notes especially on the electric guitar. The last movement returns somewhat to the sonic space of the opening with that pointillism achieved by isolated pitches played by the instruments at wide distances, though not extremes, of register; rich piano chords, arpeggiated with the flute echoing the highest pitch of the chord suggest a sort of calling out into the distance. The work ends with big stately piano chords punctuating a repeated “chugging” rhythm in the guitar and long sustained pitches in the woodwinds. If we have awoken from this dream, is has been a slow process, not a sudden awakening, and we bask in the warm glow of this pleasant sound world.
Ellis Ludwig-Leon, composer for San Fermin, offered the NOW Ensemble a new work titled “Simple Machine” which had its world premiere in this performance. The “machine” of this piece seemed to be small repeated patterns, almost little melodic circles, limited in pitch and interlocking among the instruments in syncopations reminiscent of Gamelan so that a single pitch could be enlivened by being heard by different instruments in different short rhythms. The machine seems to lose momentum as the clarinet repeats a pattern against a very low grinding double bass note, before flourishes in the flute suggest that the piece will take off again. Instead, gentle repeated arpeggiated chords in the piano bring the piece to an end.
Mark Dancigers “Gulf” (World Premier 2017) was written for this encounter between the two ensembles and inspired, according to the composer, by the view he has in Florida where is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Composition at the New College of Florida in Sarasota. http://dancigers.com/about
The work seems to evoke the clear waters of the gulf, with a shimmering surface on top of larger more static sounds and undulating, repeated patterns in the guitars that invoke waves. The piece opens with rhythmic strumming, not out of place in any “indie” song today, layered over with the flute playing short repeated punctuations and long wistful tones in the clarinet that are then taken up by the violin. The piece, like others on the program, has the feeling of general harmonic stasis—there is no strong pull anywhere harmonically, which creates a sense of ease. On top of this, punctuated remarks by the trumpet, saxophone, flute, and clarinet suggest busyness, but nothing threatening. Harmonic changes happen through juxtaposition: a move from one sonic “shade” to another, perhaps the way the color of the water might change suddenly when a cloud passes in front of the sun. Textural changes take place over time, lending an organic feel to the work. Repeated notes are passed around the ensemble, slowly building a simple melodic motion that is overlapped to be thicker and then varied slightly as it grows to include the basic patterns decorated.
The concert closed with San Fermin performing a single from their most recent recording (Belong, to be released in April) as well as songs from their previous two studio albums, Jackrabbit (2015) and their self-titled debut album from 2013. Their music is rich in timbral variety, which the NOW Ensemble expanded in this performance, helping the performance come close to the thickness of the studio recording. Vocalist Charlene Kaye seemed uncomfortable to be performing in a concert hall setting with the audience seated and attentive, and yet completely still. For “Jackrabbit”, the group’s infectiously lively title track from their last album, she instructed the audience to get up and move—not an easy demand for the audience in the narrow rows of the concert hall, but gamely attempted by all.
While the two ensembles may move freely between the worlds of classical and popular music, it seems that audiences do not. The applause between movements of “Dreamfall” may have met with chagrin by the classical audience, in the same way that the silent and stiffly seated audience seemed antithetical to the festival and club-going group that came out to hear San Fermin. The opportunity for audiences to mix is perhaps one of the most valuable opportunities that the Ecstatic Festival provides each year.
San Fermin was founded in 2013 by composer and composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone and includes vocalists Charlene Kaye and Allen Tate, trumpet John Brandon, saxophone Stephen Chen, violin Rebekah Durham, drums Michael Hanf, guitar Tyler McDiarmid and Aki Ishiguro.