Happy First Day of Spring everyone!

Le Sacre du Printemps

The Rite of Spring

Igor Stravinsky

Those of you who were reading this blog last year at this time, know of my spring ritual.  Actually, even if you just live near me, you probably know my habit.  On the first day of Spring, I choose one of my recordings of The Rite of Spring, and play it as loudly as my tower speakers will allow.  I think this is a cathartic experience, honoring one of my favorite composers and favorite pieces of music.  As objectionable as it may be to some of my neighbors, it is more acceptable than sacrificing a goat on the front lawn, to make the crops grow.

Rite of Spring BoulezOne of the best orchestral performances available is the Cleveland Orchestra with Pierre Boulez conducting.  Boulez actually has recorded Le Sacre on more than one occasion with Cleveland, and those performances have been released and re-released multiple times.  (When available, I love the version he led in 1969)


RiteMy most recent favorite version of The Rite of Spring is by the trio The Bad Plus.  They have adapted the work to their instrumentation, and added their rebel spirit to the material.  The Bad Plus is an intelligent, creative, and masterful group of musicians.

Listen to the iconic opening of Stravinsky’s masterpiece in the original orchestra version.

Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, Introduction, Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra

And now listen to the same stretch of music, performed by The Bad Plus

Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, Introduction, The Bad Plus

I absolutely love both versions.  For variety, this year the neighbors will be subjected to The Bad Plus version.  I have included links to both on Spotify, if you care to join in the fun playing your favorite at home.

The Rite of Spring, Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra on Spotify

The Rite of Spring, The Bad Plus on Spotify


Happy Accidents

Happy Accidents

Sometimes you find the best things in life by pure accident.  Something or someone you didn’t even know you needed or were looking for.  You are minding your own business, running up the stairs of life, and BOOM, it smacks you right in the chest.  You find it (or them) and you don’t know how you ever lived without this presence in your life.

I have to admit, I can be overly selective of the music to which I listen.  Music exists in time, and there are only so many hours in the day.  ITunes tells me it would take 62 days worth of listening, 24 hours a day straight, to listen to the music already in my collection. There isn’t always time to just blindly wander about, sifting through refuse, and panning for musical gold while listening randomly to all the tunes out there.   I tend, to a degree, to choose mainly things from which I have some idea what to expect.  Maybe I’m just on the verge of becoming a boring old fart.  Let’s hope not.

Album coverSo when I first saw The Brooklyn Rider Almanac, by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, I normally would have passed it up in a hot second.  Honestly, I didn’t even recognize them as a string quartet from the name “Brooklyn Rider”.  Then, by pure accident, I noticed a familiar name.  Ethan Iverson, the piano player from The Bad Plus, wrote one of the compositions.  (Yes fans, there is my obligatory Bad Plus reference for this week).  This made me take a closer look at the album, and I am very glad I did.

I love string quartet music, from all historical periods, and especially modern quartet repertoire.  It quickly became apparent to me that the Brooklyn Rider is not your average string quartet, but a modern chamber music ensemble in the vein of the Kronos quartet or eighth blackbird.  It is very difficult these days to have a successful string quartet, with all of the great repertoire of the past having been recorded a million times by hundreds of great ensembles.  If anyone still “bought” CD’s, I would ask “does the CD shelf really need another Beethoven cycle?”.  The same could be asked about the great quartet compositions of Brahms, Mozart, Haydn and even my favorite Bartok.  It’s almost impossible to get noticed with a recording of the standard repertoire.


Brooklyn Rider has avoided all of that, and reinvigorated the modern string quartet in the process.  The Brooklyn Rider Almanac is an album of all contemporary music by living composers.  Every track has a different musical voice, but there are some generalities about the album I can offer.  The music is all modern sounding, and fresh but not harsh or dissonant.  I have as much tolerance for harsh dissonance as anyone, so I wouldn’t shy away from the music if it was extra crispy, yet, this is all quite palatable.  Many of the tracks are rhythmic and almost dance-like, making them pretty accessible and enjoyable even on the first listen.  Repeated listening uncovers enough depth to keep one interested for a long time.

Not all of the tracks have complete independence of all four voices in the string quartet, like you might find in the Beethoven late string quartets.  That is more of an observation than criticism, as the trade offs are some fresh sounds that have put new life into a 300 year old art form.  Currently, my favorite tracks are the opening number,  Rubin Kodheli:  Necessary Henry! (2012), and of course Ethan Iverson: Morris Dance (2012).

Turns out, I must have been living under a rock for a long time.  Brooklyn Rider has been recording and performing for TEN years now!  The artists are :

RiderJohnny Gandelsman, violin

Colin Jacobsen, violin

Nicholas Cords, viola

Eric Jacobsen, cello

They have recorded at least six other albums, and now I have to go look all of those up.  I am ashamed to say this is my first exposure to such a vibrant and accomplished group.  You can find their website at:


I urge you to take some time and listen to The Brooklyn Rider Almanac on Spotify as soon as possible.

The Brooklyn Rider Almanac




Transcription, Recomposition and Reimagining

Transcription, Recomposition and Reimagining

I wrote a little on what my idea of Good Music is in a recent post about Nina Simone.  That idea is at the center of what this blog is about.  Another notion I expressed in the “About” page of Good Music Speaks, is the thought that the musical experience is ultimately a three part process between the composer, performer and listener.  The composer obviously gives birth to the musical idea, taking their conception and constructing it into material for a performer to use.  Sometimes that is a written score, but not always.  The performer takes that material and adds a layer of interpretation.  Tempo, phrasing, shading of color and emphasis are all things worked out in performance.  The performer adds a great deal, which is why I can own several different performances of the same piece of music, and it is not crazy, no matter what the CFO may think.  🙂

The listener brings their own baggage to the music, and this greatly  affects how the performance is received.  Imagine a lovely song.  For some it is just lovely, but for another person, it could be something their mother used to sing when they were a child.  Maybe it was a song from a movie you saw on a date when you had your first kiss.  Or from a children’s movie that your toddler has watched 87 times in a row, and wants to see it again but it’s going to make you nauseated to hear it one more time. Those associations that a listener may have are often completely outside anything presented by the composer or performer.

Which brings us to today’s topic.  There sometimes is a fourth interloper in this process, sometimes welcome and sometimes not.  That is when another person comes along and transcribes, recomposes or reimagines the composer’s work into something else.  I hope to offer three examples of where this musical metamorphosis was successful.  You will have to listen and make up your own mind.

bach_colThe first music that came to mind was the Toccata and Fugue in d minor by J.S. Bach.  Bach’s music has been a favorite source for persons looking to transcribe something for another musical instrument.  Bach was a master church organist, and the famous Toccata was written for a large pipe organ.  Counterpoint, Baroque ornamentation, precision and music that is unmistakably Bach are all on display.

Bach, Toccata and Fugue in d minor

stokowskiLeopold Stokowski was a great conductor, and he created a famous orchestral transcription of this work.  In so doing, he added a great deal of his own aesthetic to the music.  The transcribed music is now for a large orchestra, and is ultimately layered with drama, pathos, emotion, rubato (fluctuations in speed), and energy that is more indicative of Romantic era music written 150 years after Bach.  All the notes are there, but the Toccata has been reborn into something related, but different.  To my ears, this is transcription.

Bach/Stokowski, Toccata and Fugue in d minor

tchaikovskyIn my mind, recomposition is a more radical process.  The source material is readily apparent, but has been more thoroughly reworked.  The best example I can think of is when Duke Ellington took music from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet, and recomposed it into his own Nutcracker suite.  The Tchaikovsky is a holiday favorite that I am sure is familiar to almost everyone.  If not, the holidays are right around the corner, so your chance is not far off.  Here is the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, as found in the original ballet.

Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker, “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”

DukeEllingtonThen Duke gets his hands on things.  The result clearly borrows much from Tchaikovsky, but is now owned by Mr. Ellington.  It is now a joint composition by the two men, and which one gets more credit is hard to say.

Ellington, Nutcracker Suite, “Dance of the Sugar Rum Cherry”

igorIt seems that I can hardly finish a blog post without referencing The Bad Plus, and here I go again.  These guys recently tackled one of my favorite masterpieces of twentieth century music when they put out their own version of The Rite of Spring.  I have written about Stravinsky’s most famous work on this blog before.  I really wasn’t sure how it was going to translate from a large orchestra to a trio of piano, bass and drums.  The process to get from Stravinsky to the Bad Plus is one I would have to label “reimagining”.  So many of the notes are still there, but it is the primal spirit of the original that comes through in the new version more than anything.  The essence is intact, in spite of all that has been metamorphosized.

Here is one example.

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, “Sacrificial Dance”

RiteThe sheer guts it took The Bad Plus to even touch this iconic work speaks volumes about their fearless character.  The fact that their whole version is a great musical success says a lot about the talent, musicianship and intellect that these three possess.  I have to admit I was reluctant to try this album out when it was first released.  The Rite of Spring is one of my all-time favorite pieces of music, and I couldn’t imagine liking anything that changed it.  I was clearly wrong, as I have  been listening to The Bad Plus version all week.  Here is the same excerpt from above, reimagined.

The Bad Plus, The Rite of Spring, “Sacrificial Dance”

This version is still primal and jarring, uneven and raw like the original.  In addition, now the music gets downright funky at about   2:30  in the video.  I don’t know if Igor ever got truly James Brown funky in his life, but here in this album his Rite of Spring does in places.  I may have to use this version for my annual first day of Spring celebratory blasting of the Rite to my whole neighborhood.  Look out Detroit!