Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Beginner’s Guide to Classical Music

[The following is my first column that was published for the guide, the lifestyle magazine of The Hoya. The print version of AMPlify will run every other Friday. You can find the originals by searching my name at thehoya.com.] 

Classical music is a scary thing. Many of the people who listen to it wear diapers, and I’m not talking about the generation that watches Baby Mozart. Most of the people who wrote classical music are dead white men. The people who review it use words like “lush,” “cantankerous” and “supple” in their descriptions. In my youth orchestra, we took out our graphing calculators and did homework — all while humming Debussy — when we rarely got a break.

I get it. It’s an easy genre to hate. Here’s a secret, though: You hear classical music all the time, whether you know it or not. Movie soundtracks, commercials, TV shows, when someone puts you on hold, you name it. You know more than you think, and for those of you who want to listen rather than merely hear, you’re in luck. The following list will provide you with all sorts of knowledge you can use to impress your grandma, and it’s also a solid study playlist.

1. Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”: This song is arguably the most popular in classical music, and people just can’t get enough of it. If you’ve ever been to an American wedding, you’ve heard it. A simple eight-note theme is audible throughout. The embellishments that accompany it never overwhelm it. The Stradivarius String Quartet has one of my favorite versions.

2. Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 5”: Johannes Brahms probably didn’t expect that one of his 25 Hungarian dances would be playing from pockets and purses hundreds of times a day as their owners’ phones rang. Listen to the performance given by the London Symphony Orchestra.

3. Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”: Violinist Sarah Chang once said — to paraphrase — “This guy wrote, like, 500 concertos, but ‘The Four Seasons’ really stand out.” She’s right; there’s a reason these are some of the most famous works of all time. With provocative imagery and a set of poems that goes along with the music for each season, what’s not to love? Sarah Chang and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra have one of the best versions.

4. Piazzolla’s “Libertango”: Argentine composer Ástor Piazzolla brought elements of jazz and traditional classical music to the tango, one of his country’s traditional dances. This one, his most famous, has been recorded on just about every instrument by just about everyone. Check out sexy Montenegrin guitarist MilošKaradaglic playing it on his latest album, or hear British trumpeter Alison Balsom make her instrument sound so much better than it really is in her recording with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

5. Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”: You may have heard of Wagner in your history classes because he was Hitler’s favorite composer. However, he did incredible (and incredibly weird) things for opera and classical music as a whole. You’ve probably heard this song before, especially if you’ve seen Apocalypse Now.

6. Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5”: Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, but this one is by far the most famous. That opening “da-da-da-DUM” is one of the most-played musical sequences in TV and movies, but the entire symphony deserves some lovin’, too. Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic have a great recording of this piece. There’s also a disco recording from 1976 by Walter Murphy & The Big Apple Band, which is a favorite in my house.

7. Smetana’s “Die Moldau”: You may have heard this one, also known as “Vltava,” in the trailer for Tree of Life. With an epic flute solo at the beginning and a theme that sounds like waves, you’ll feel like you’re in Prague on the river for which the piece was named. Look up a few facts about other nationalist Czech music, and you’re set.

A familiarity with these pieces will arm you for discussion with any pretentious classical fan. Oh yeah, and you may even like the music.

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Playlist: Get pumped [for school]

I can hardly believe it – I am a junior in college. Four years ago around this time, I was also a junior, but I was starting as the new kid at Yorktown High School. Needless to say, I was scared shitless. Who would I sit with at lunch? How did these northern Virginia kids dress? Would anyone even care that I was new, or were they so used to having well-traveled kids of Foreign Service officers coming to and leaving from the school every year?

The stars must have aligned or something because a girl totally unlike me introduced me to the people who would become my best friends on the first day of school. I had people to sit with at lunch. I was dressed just fine. And yes, it was somewhat significant that I was a new kid, but I didn’t really stand out, whether for better or for worse.

Though Murphy’s Law didn’t hold, my first day as the new kid is a pretty difficult one to forget. I even remember dorking out and dancing around my room as I got ready that morning, changing my outfit at least four times. The music I listened to was familiar, calming, happy, and I think these songs will always be that way for me. It might be the case that this playlist gets no one else in the world excited about anything, but here it is, the get pumped playlist from four years ago.

  1. “Here Comes the Sun” – The Beatles
  2. “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” – She & Him
  3. “P.D.A.” – John Legend
  4. “Modern Mystery” – Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin
  5. “Love Today” – Mika
  6. “Makes Me Wonder” – Maroon 5
  7. “Mushaboom” – Feist
  8. “1 2 3 4” – Feist
  9. “Hit The Wall” – Broken Social Scene feat. Brendan Canning
  10. “Rise Up with Fists!!” – Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins

So as I prepare for yet another first day of school tomorrow, I definitely know what I’ll be listening to. And if I need a visual pick-me-up, I’ll just be looking at the picture below. I took it today in Georgetown on my way back from the grocery store, and it made me smile.

today is awesome

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Single tracking: Muse, Ellie Goulding, and K-pop

Those of us in college are currently quite busy with the start of classes and/or the accompanying free time before classes really start. Thus, I’ll keep it short and sweet in my post today, sticking just to singles.

Muse – “Madness”

A step-down from the oddity of their “Survival,” the official song of the London Olympics, Muse’s “Madness” is a calmer version of the dubsteppy sound the band has recently adopted. For me, nothing will ever compare to their 2003 album Absolution, which I will always consider one of the most magnificent musical works of all time, but for a band trying to take a new direction, “Madness” is a refreshingly understated way to do it.

Ellie Goulding – “Anything Could Happen” 

As someone who has been a huge fan of Ellie for well over a year now, this single was a disappointment the first time I heard it. “Anything Could Happen” was overproduced, and that weird vocal sample beat thing at the beginning and throughout the song really threw me off. It was annoying and immature. But then, I did something I should do more often – I brought out the good headphones and listened. The experience was entirely different, and I could hear all the layers of the music – the production is more impressive than anything, and I don’t think I’d change it at all. I don’t know if this is fast enough to be a dance track whether Ellie was aiming for that. Either way, break out the good headphones or speakers, and give this track a shot.

Psy – “Gangnam Style”

If you haven’t seen/heard this yet, 1) you live under a rock, 2) change that. This is the weirdest but best song ever.

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Rediscovering Rubber Soul

My favorite Beatles album has always been Rubber Soul. It used to be because my dad told me my middle name came from “Michelle” (which was a mean, mean lie). I’m sorry to say that most of my feelings for the album had been, until today, on just as superficial a level.

image from wikipedia.org

I liked “In My Life” because I once read when I was 13 that Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day wanted it played at his funeral. “I’m Looking Through You” was the soundtrack I turned to when any friend changed, or even when I’d changed. In short, my feelings for this album were formed in middle school and hadn’t grown into anything deeper.

That all changed today as I was packing to move back to campus. I had Rubber Soul on, and I know it’s cliché, but it really spoke to me. “Drive My Car” starts the album with just bit of provocativeness; I don’t know how anyone could stop listening after that song. “Norwegian Wood” tells the story of an affair not quite gone as planned, and with “You Won’t See Me,” whose lyrics I’d previously ignored in favor of the tune, has a pretty clear message of frustration. It blows my mind that Taylor Swift’s atrocious new song about never ever ever ever getting back together rose to the top so quickly, when songs like this and “Think For Yourself” have already existed for decades and are so much more direct and precise. “Though your mind’s opaque/try thinking more if just for your own sake.” I dunno, to me it sends a better message than literally saying, “We are never ever ever getting back together.” But I digress.

My favorites are still the songs I mentioned first in this post. “Michelle” because it’s such a thoughtful, direct love song. “I’m Looking Through You” for the lightness of the music, like cautiously approaching a friend you haven’t seen in a while, then that riff thats ever so passive-aggressive. What a clever pairing of lyrics and music. “In My Life” is one of those songs whose meaning is easy to understand, but I imagine it’s evocative in a different way to each person, so I’ll let you rework your way through that one yourselves.

“Run for Your Life” gets a bit weird and possessive, but then again, we all know love does some crazy stuff to people. I think that’s probably the general theme of this album, if I had to pick just one. Love messes with your head. And just as love messes with your head, the songs on Rubber Soul mess with my head in the best of ways. What a killer combination of love songs that sound sad and sad songs that are so cleverly disguised.

What do you think, readers? Do you hear what I hear in Rubber Soul? Or should I be focusing more of my time on another Beatles album?

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tUnE-yArDs – A Pain to Type, A Pain to My Ears

Today I learned that at least one person at my internship had previously thought that I listen to classical music all day. That’s a funny joke. I love Mendelssohn and Bach and Chopin as much as your next classical programming intern, but come on, sometimes you just have to spice it up.

This morning I kept it pretty comfortable with Beyoncé’s 4. Not the best, but “Love on Top” makes up for all the album’s flaws. After that, though, I decided to be adventurous. I made myself listen once again to an album I’ve been struggling to like for over a year- w h o k i l l  by tUnE-yArDs. NPR Music and Pitchfork and all the other coolest of the cool will not shut up about them. In my unending quest for coolness, I tried once again to understand the reasons for the stellar reviews.

To begin, let me just share a conversation I had via text with my good friend and musical guru, ironically nicknamed Chatty.

Me: Can you explain to me the hype over tune-yards? This sounds like the soundtrack to an abortion.

Chatty: Whaaaaat I adore her.

Chatty: Listen to powa

Me: It’s a her?????

Chatty: Yes!!!!

Me: What the f*cking shit stop no it’s not

Chatty: Yes it is, it’s Merrill. I love her she rules

Me: Are you serious? This isn’t music. What do you like about it?

Chatty: Girl you crazy. I like how different she is, she just gets down to her own bad weird self. And everything about it is really powerful and doesn’t give a shit

Me: I mean I guess that’s true but it’s awfullll

Chatty: I think it rocks. Are you listening to w h o k i l l or the old one? The old one sucks.

Me: I’m listening to whokill. And it sucks.

Chatty: It’s so gooooood!

Me: You’re f*cking kidding me. The music is basically atonal and literally sounds like the singer is coughing up hairballs or being chased

Chatty; Nooooo

Me: Yes. Yes it is. Convince me otherwise.

And Chatty hasn’t responded, so I have the last say for now.

If you are so fortunate enough to have never heard Tune-Yards, try to keep it that way. First off, I thought this Merrill person was a man. Never a good start when you can’t determine the sex of the vocalist. Look, [s]he has a good voice when she tries to, but the classical music nerd in me can’t help but thinking of Schoenberg’s atonality and Sprechstimme when I listen to Tune-yards. And there are few things I understand less and hate more than everything Schoenberg has ever composed.

Even 16 months after its release, this album hasn’t grown on me. I hated it the first time, loathed it the second time, yet today I was actually hopeful upon hearing “My Country.” It’s a relatively palatable beginning to the album. I could see myself jamming to this, red cup in hand, on July 4th in a weird, twisted act of patriotism. But then came “Es-So.” Other than the headache onset by the constant switch between right and left audio output, my biggest concern with this song became that I couldn’t tell whether it was even in English. I gave up on trying to understand and focused on the music, but no surprise, that also sounded like my cats getting their tails pulled.

I could go on and on finding metaphors and similes for the pain inflicted by each of the songs on w h o k i l l, but there’s no need since the rest of the album is just more of the same. I could almost see the appeal in “Powa,” the song Chatty mentioned. Almost. But I would never listen to this music for enjoyment. This is music that I will never, ever give to my parents or any other older person. Even the thought is embarrassing. I am embarrassed to be of the same generation as the person who produces this so-called music. I would rather have my parents listen to the explicit lyrics of the rap and pop out there than to have them literally question whether this is music, as I’m sure they will.

At the end of the day, I want to give Tune-yards credit for originality, but considering Merrill just stole an idea that’s been around for ages, torture, and translated it to a musical medium, I don’t think her music is deserving of much except a swift transfer to my computer’s trash bin.

AMPlifiability – 2. This could be used as music torture. 

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