The Gregorian soul

4 07 2021

Some time ago, I became fascinated with French organ music from the late 19th and early 20th century. I am not sure why, because it doesn’t really appeal to me aesthetically. Honestly, the organ hasn’t really been a favorite instrument. I suppose I am more interested in this music as tradition. At least in the recent past, the organ has played a substantial role in Catholic music, so in order to properly understand the evolution of the Catholic liturgy over the last two centuries, one inevitably encounters the organist and their instrument. In France in particular, with the likes of Charles-Marie Widor, Cesar Franck, and Louis Vierne, you have not only famous organists in prominent churches but figures who played an influential role in the emergence of the music of the modern French school. One of the last figures of this school, one whose life spans the ascent and decline of the Catholic cultural revival in France between the wars, was the organist and composer Maurice Duruflé.

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11 04 2019

As a follow-up to my review of Ram Dass’ Be Love Now, I decided to get a documentary on Krishna Das named after his first album, One Track Heart. To refresh your memory, Krishna Das is a major figure in the circle of followers of Neem Karoli Baba, an Indian religious figure who helped bring a certain popular brand of Hinduism to the West. Krishna Das’ path to following his guru goes through music, specifically kirtan. Kirtan is congregational singing of mantras made popular in the United States in particular through its performance in yoga studios and similar venues. Indeed, Krishna Das is known as the “king of kirtan”, providing the popular soundtrack to the yoga craze that has taken over the West in the last 20 years. Read the rest of this entry »

Words without Music

25 01 2019

Philip Glass’ most recent autobiography, Words without Music, was a bit of a disappointment to me, and a bittersweet read because I realized that, in a sense, I have sort of moved on from his music. Longtime readers might remember that Glass was one of my first big musical obsessions as a teenager. I even wrote a review of Music in Twelve Parts for my high school newspaper of all places. Glass got me through some pretty rough patches. I remember specific pieces that accompanied me through certain episodes in my life, how I was hunched over listening to early Philip Glass coming out of my boombox cranked to full volume, and how I would go out of my way to see Philip Glass’ music live when his ensemble was in town. Even my lukewarm appreciation of his opera Appomattox at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco was still a memorable experience nonetheless.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nadia Boulanger

14 01 2019

In connection to finding the last post, I began to meander for similar videos and came upon this remarkable one of Nadia Boulanger. It contains footage from her analysis classes given in her apartment as well as an interview with a journalist. What is notable here for me is how little of use this would be to an advocate of right-wing culture war. In her class, Boulanger says that things have been said one way for a long time, but now things are changing, and they as her students would find new ways to say the things that must be said. The interviewer tries to peg her down concerning a favorite style, music that she objects to, etc. Boulanger doesn’t take the bait. She sees her role of a pedagogue as giving her students the tools to say what they want to say, not one of imposing her vision on others.

This is perhaps to be expected of someone who knew everyone from Stravinsky and Faure to Quincy Jones and Philip Glass. She knew the history of 20th century music like few could, and thus her optimism at the collective ability to continue to creative impulse unencumbered is not surprising. I can’t say that I agree with her sentiments, perhaps there is now a stagnation in the air that she could have never expected. But I consider her impartiality refreshing nonetheless.

Faure’s Requiem

10 01 2019


4 01 2019

This could be a contrarian post about how I once hated pop music but now I sort of like it (in moderation), but that would be expected. Recently I got around to reading John Seabrook’s book, The Song Machine, that is inside look at how most Top 40 songs have been made in the last two decades. Briefly, many of these songs are the work of a group of Swedish producers who work in a highly formulaic and methodical manner. Many of them are the product of a superior musical education program in that country, and some like Max Martin didn’t even start out in pop music. Seabrook even confesses at the beginning of the book being more of a rock critic, but saw an opportunity to investigate a phenomenon that he found obnoxious.

If pop music sounds like it’s in a bit of a time warp, as in songs haven’t changed much in the past 20 years, it’s because it’s probably because of the same people producing them. Compare music from 40 years ago on the radio to songs from 20 years ago and you might start getting the gist of this. From groups like Ace of Base and the Backstreet Boys forward, we are talking about the same cadre of producers, with some additions here and there. We also see that music has been revolutionized due to digital downloads, the Internet, and YouTube.

These are commonly known problems. The question I am left with is: Is the music any good? Is it a profound affront to actual music, as many people adamantly protest? I think a more interesting question concerns its universality. We all know the secrets if we forced ourselves to think about it: familiar beats, an infectious hook, and near-obnoxious mass marketing. It turns out that people like hearing what is familiar, even if they hate a particular song at first. How does one measure a song that has been viewed, listened to, or downloaded millions of times against a work by Bach or Couperin that may have been performed in a church a couple of times during their lifetimes, and perhaps only occasionally in concert halls now? Does scale ever factor into the consideration? Can one at least admire a little the global apparatus that is the “Song Machine”? Is that not a tremendous work of art in itself?


Cuca Roseta

14 12 2018

This woman’s voice is like butter.

Lili Boulanger’s Catholic Modernism?

11 12 2018

I have recently delved into the music of Lili Boulanger, a promising composer struck down in her mid-20’s in 1918. She is also the sister of Nadia Boulanger, the famous pedagogue of the 20th century who taught composition to some of the greatest composers in recent memory. Both she and her sister were believing Catholics, though interestingly enough, Lili composed vernacular settings of the Psalms as well as setting sacred texts from other religions.  Read the rest of this entry »


22 11 2018

I remember being quite moved at a YouTube video of Dudamel conducting Mahler’s Eighth. A very laudable endeavor.

The Death of Amédé Ardoin

24 06 2009