Category Archives: music

Which is better, “Asturias (Leyenda)” on guitar or piano?

John Williams plays “Asturias (Leyenda)” by Isaac Albeniz

It’s fun to take something you think you know, change it up a little, and hear what happens.

Like “Asturias (Leyenda)” by Isaac Albeniz. I’ve heard it a number of times before and thought I knew it fairly well (for a non-musician). More about that below. First, the video above. What I like about it (aside from the music itself and the virtuoso performance of it) is that you can watch Williams’s hands and fingers – you see up close the music being made. A rock concert, even a symphony, is larger than life. Nothing wrong with that. But this is intimate, music that invites you to come close, music at your fingertips. Continue reading

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How much are audiences influenced by reputation?

How much does an author’s or artist’s identity influence our perceptions of quality? By now you’ve probably heard that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling quietly published a detective novel under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The book received good reviews but sold poorly until the author’s true identity was revealed. (Stephen King had a similar experience with his Richard Bachman pseudonym some years ago.)

In commenting on the above, the biologist Jerry Coyne raises an interesting question on his blog:

So here’s a conundrum for you, one that I’ve asked some of my artistic friends.  Imagine that Beethoven had never written his Fifth Symphony. But then, a few years ago, someone finds the score of that piece in a stack of old papers—written by someone other than Beethoven, say, one Gustav Biederstücker.  What would happen? Continue reading

Guantanamo and Beethoven

Discouraged by current events, I found a surprising bit of inspiration in Beethoven, specifically in the story behind his celebrated Ninth Symphony.

Let me back up a bit. A few days ago on my Facebook page I posted a link to the disturbing video of Mos Def being force-fed by the same procedure used at the US prison at Guantanamo Bay. I wrote: “As of a week ago, 106 of the 166 Gitmo detainees are now on hunger strike, with 45 being force-fed. Not only have most of these men not been convicted of (or even charged with) crimes after more than 10 years in prison, but 86 of them have been cleared for release, sometimes years ago. Think about that. Even the US military acknowledges the innocence of nearly half the prison’s population, and has not bothered to prove the guilt of the other half (a handful have been convicted in military tribunals), yet we imprison them indefinitely in this American gulag, withholding from them even the right to end their own lives in protest.” Continue reading

Django Reinhardt’s three-fingered genius

Django Reinhardt

Jean “Django” Reinhardt was a promising young musician when a crippling injury seemed to end his chance of having a music career. Born in Belgium in 1910, Reinhardt grew up in Romani (Gypsy) camps near Paris, learning banjo, guitar, and violin. As a young man he and his wife lived in a caravan and scraped by on his earnings from music and his wife’s sales of artificial flowers that she made out of celluloid and paper in their little home.

One night Django knocked over a candle while climbing into bed, and all that celluloid and paper went up in flames. He was pulled from the fire badly burned, and lost much of the use of the third and fourth fingers on his left hand — his fret hand. Continue reading

Seeing music in a new way

How do you “see” music? I’m not just talking about watching a live performance. I’m talking about experiencing the music itself visually. (And If this blog is about anything, it’s about experiencing things you thought you knew in new ways.)

I’ll admit I’m not the biggest fan of John Coltrane, whose music I’ve often found too abstract for my taste. So he’s a good test case for me. Will the things I talk about below help me better understand and appreciate his music?

First I want to dismiss the idea of obligation — the sense that I should like this music because a lot of musicians consider Coltrane a genius. All art is personal, and it’s foolish and pretentious to try to like something just to seem sophisticated. That said, if all these musicians think he’s great, maybe there’s something really cool about his music that I’ve been missing.

So with that in mind, here are two animated videos of “Giant Steps,” which, I think, transform the song into new experiences. Continue reading

“Bonny Portmore”: a song about a tree and so much more

My previous post about a photographer who’s taking pictures of the same tree every day for a year got me to thinking about the song “Bonny Portmore,” a traditional Irish ballad (which some of you will remember from the Highlander movies). There are several modern recordings of the song. My favorite is by Loreena McKennitt, from her 1991 album, The Visit. It’s a haunting rendition, and she really captures the song’s emotion. Here’s a live version:

Different renditions of the song have slightly different lyrics. McKennitt sang these: Continue reading