Tuesday, December 20, 2011

FYI: Observation on the Psychology of Music by the Author of "Brand Sense"

 The Sound of Music

Recently I self-published my second novel, "Agnes et Yves" on Create Space.  This lead me to the library to check out books on marketing.  I ran across Martin Lindstrom's "Brand Sense" and found this section on the psychology of sound and music.  Here is a quote.

"A fascinating experiment once took place in a small Australian village. Local residents, alarmed by the increase in street crime got together and decided that the best way to confront the problem was to remove the offenders from the main street at nightfall. Instead of taking the more traditional more-police, greater security, and tough-on-crime stance, they chose to play classical music.  Every single block began piping out sounds of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.  In less than a week, the town reported a dramatic decrease in crime."

Closer to home, the Bellingham Police piped out classical music around the bus station downtown.  It did decrease loitering around the small police station/bus station. But I noticed that the police stopped piping the music and now loitering has increased.  Perhaps the police need to bring back Mozart.

Monday, December 19, 2011

FYI: The Barefoot Diva Passed On (she will be dearly missed)

Cesaria Evora, the Cape Verdean singer, also known as “the barefoot diva,” passed away on Saturday, December 17th (at 11:45 am local time) at Baptista de Sousa hospital in Mindelo Cape Verde, as announced by Cape Verdean minister of culture Mario Lucio Sousa.

The world famous singer died at 70 on her native island of Sao Vicente about three months after retiring from the stage. She had been suffering health issues for a while and had had a few surgeries over the past few years, including an open-heart operation in May 2010.

“I don’t have the strength, the energy anymore. I want you to tell my fans that I’m sorry but I have to rest now. I am sorry I have to retire because of health issues. I wish I could have given pleasure to those who follow me for much more time” she had told French newspaper Le Monde when she announced her retirement last September 23rd.

She was in good shape on stage at the Parisian venue Grand Rex in April 2011 but her unhealthy heart, which had failed several times, forced her to give up her main addiction, which was touring.

“Life goes on. I came to you, I tried my best and I had a career that many would dream of,” she had told Véronique Mortaigne from Le Monde.

The Cape Verdean government declared 48 hours of national mourning to the singer. President Jorge Carlos Fonseca said she was “one of the main references of Cape Verdean culture.” Cesaria Evora will be buried Tuesday in Mindelo.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

In review--French Jazz by way of Galicia

Jacques Pellarin Quartet
Sup Dude
Independent release

Accordion is an instrument that gets along well with virtually every genre of music, at least the major genres.  You hear the instrument in bluegrass, Parisian chanson, Italian café music, and world jazz.  French accordionist Jacques Pellarin and his quartet perform music that weds Parisian café with jazz, though this is not Paris Combo.  On the album Sup Dude Pellarin doesn’t include the French gypsy swing element that you would expect from French jazz, but surprises me with a performance style that recalls Galician jazz.   Listen to the intro for the titular track and if you’re familiar with Galician music, you’ll hear those musical strains. I’m reminded of the Spanish band Engado.  So Frenchy sounds Spanish too, leaving me wondering about the ironic title.  In any case, Pellarin’s fingers fly across the keys of his accordion in a way that conjures the image of a global music traveler.

Pellarin’s quartet combines the accordion with Diego Fano's lyrical saxophone, Yann Pajean's kit drums and Renaud Bourquard's crunchy electric guitar (that feels out of place to me at times).  I especially like the passages when the accordion takes flight or joins a conversation with the saxophone, meanwhile Pajean keeps a steady beat going.  Heading back to Spain, Luz y Fuerza spices the recording up with Andalusian and Galician flavors.  The musicians heat up the place with this musical mixture.  And I’m guessing this is a fun quartet to catch live on a sultry night in France, Spain, or anywhere.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

In review---Sardinia and the Sea

Franca Masu
10 Anys

Once in a while a new diva crosses my path which is the case with Sardinian jazz vocalist Franca Masu who sings her repertoire in the Catalan language.  So not only am I discovering a new vocal talent (to my ears), but I also discovered a Catalan connection to the Italian island of Sardinia.  If you go back hundreds of years, you’ll discover a goldmine of cultural and language connections in the Mediterranean, but for the sake of this review my goal is to pique your curiosity.  Closet anthropologists similar to me will dig right in.

Franca Masu marks the first female Sardinian vocalists I have listened to, but she’s not the first chanteuse that I’ve reviewed that sings in the Catalan language, Mariana Rossell (Barcelona) and Maria del Mar Bonet (Majorca) come easily to mind.  Masu weds jazz vocals with traditional instruments on her live album 10 Anys. Masu’s vocals alternate between sedate/tender on Aquamare and powerhouse on the opener Cor Meu and L’Adéu.  Accordion, lutes, and traditional flute swirl around Masu’s voice as she reflects on spiritual-religious topics or themes revolving around the sea, and love/romance.   Poetry plays a large role in the Catalan-speaking world, and also plays a role on this album, adding to its elegance.

Besides the Catalan language which American audiences won’t recognize unless they earned a masters or Ph. D in romance languages, the music here with its strong melodies, jazz cadences, and passionate vocals ought to appeal to discerning ears.  For some reason Astrolicamus sounds familiar and I'm certain I've heard this song before in a different context. For fans of traditional and world music, this album is a must, especially for music collectors who enjoy following the career of a formidable woman vocalist.  I know that I enjoy vocalists who draw from a rich palette of emotions, and caress every nuance from a song while emphasizing language and poetry.  Masu certainly fits that bill.  If you seek a new diva to add to your list, look no further.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

WME Top 10 Classical and Early Music Recordings of 2011

  If you take a look at my classical and early music list for 2011, you'll see that classical music is here to stay and diverse as ever.  I considered including an Indian classical CD on this list then added it to the Best World and Jazz Albums of 2011 list instead.  And yes, I find the music on this list healing.

1.     San Francisco Symphony with Michael Thomas and Emanuel Ax, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, San Francisco Symphony

2.     Stephen Hough and Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Grieg and Liszt Piano Concertos, Hyperion

3.     21st Century Symphony Orchestra, Howard Shore’s Lord of the Ring Symphony, Howe Records

4.    Anonymous 4, Secret Voices, Harmonia Mundi

5.    Trio Mediaeval, A Worcester Lady Mass, ECM

6.     Jerusalem Quartet, Mozart String Quartets, Harmonia Mundi

7.      Elizabeth Watts, JS Bach Cantatas and Arias, Harmonia Mundi

8.     The Byrd Ensemble, Our Lady (Music from the Peterhouse Part Books), independent (Seattle)

9.     Bezvidenhout and Von der Goltz, Mendelssohn Double Concerto for Piano and Violin and Piano Concerto in A minor, Harmonia Mundi

10. Emmanuelle Bertrand, Le Viol Celle Parle, Harmonia Mundi

WME Top Ten World and Jazz Albums of 2011

Top 15 World and Jazz Recordings for 2011

I struggled with compiling a top 10 list of recordings for 2011 so I came up with a top 15 list which made my life easier. The first criteria for an artist or recording ending up on the list was how I felt when I first listened to the recording. I admit I am subjective in my approach as are most journalists.  Yet, each of the recordings on the list possess merit too.  Some of these musicians preserve musical traditions, other musicians have mastered their tradition, and others engage their audience through their love of their tradition as in the case of Ana Moura.  You can't help but fall in love with these performers.  The last question I ask, "Do I find these recordings healing for me?"

Most years I find that I'm heavier with African recordings, but this year Latin music from the new and old worlds dominate.  If you have not had a chance to hear these recordings I hope you will get on your favorite search engine and look up these recordings.  No doubt many of them will end up on other journalists' top 10 lists this year. You can visit http://worldmusiccentral.org to check out these lists.

1. Yamandu Costa and Hamilton de Holanda, Live!, Adventure Music (Brazil)

2. Paulo Fresu, A Filetta and Daniele di Bonaventura, Mistico Mediterrano, ECM (Italy/Corsica)

3. Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal, Chamber Music, Six Degrees (Mali/France)

4. Ana Moura, Coliseu, World Village (Portugal)

5. Kyle Carey, Monongah, independent release (Americana/US)

6. Dino Saluzzi, Anja Lechner, Felix Saluzzi, Andean Christmas and Tango, ECM (Argentina/Germany)

7. Gabriel Ayala and Will Clipman, Passion, Fire, and Grace, Canyon Records (Native American/Classical/US)

8. Amjad Ali Khan and Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Samaagam, World Village (Indian/European)

9. Maeve Gilchrist, Song of Delight, Adventure Music (US/Scotland)

10. Marilyn Mazur, Celestial Circle, ECM (jazz)

11.Mamadou Diabate, Courage, World Village (Mali)

12. Le Trio Joubran, Asfar, World Village (Palestine/France)

13. Genticorum, Nagez-Rameurs, independent, (Quebec/Canada)

14. Contradanza, Tentenelaire, independent, (Spain) 

15. Gilad Atzman and The Orient House Ensemble, Tide Has Changed, World Village

Sunday, November 20, 2011

In Review--Bring Lisboa to Amsterdam

Cristina Branco
Live in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Arc Music

If you’re a fan of Portuguese fado music, then fadista Cristina Branco and lute player-composer Custòdio Castelo are familiar names to your ears.  Arc Music takes us back to 1997 before the fame and before the large musical output of these musicians.  Live in Amsterdam, Netherlands features already mature musicians poised for promising careers.  I’m hearing most of these fados for the first time because I didn’t discover either musician until the release of Sensu in 2003, an album that mixed fado with sensual jazz.

Similar to Mariza, Branco takes the Portuguese music tradition into contemporary times. She has covered Joni Mitchell (Ulisses) and she brought in jazz piano (Sensus).  But the 1997 live album features pure fado with traditional instruments, mainly Portuguese guitar, with crystal shimmering tones accompanying Branco’s emotive vocals.   The album features 16 fados with the first track representing an instrumental that sets the flavor for the live performance.

Although the album works as a whole offering some gorgeous fados, standouts include Quisera lavar o pensamento (in which Branco’s voice sails to the rafters and no doubt caused audience members eyes to mist), the chestnut Maria Fado, (who anyone calls themselves a fado aficionado has heard several times), and the jaunty Saudades de Jùlia Mendes.

Branco has released 11 recordings to date, and I would love to spend a day listening to all the recordings.  Her voice never wears thin, but instead grows from strength to strength.  And similar to her contemporary, Mariza, she finds herself on the cutting edge of fado, representing a new generation of Portuguese musicians poised to introduce the world to saudade. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

In Review---Holiday CD Round-Up

Holiday Recordings 2011

Christmas with Cantus
Independent release

Elisabeth Lohninger Band
Christmas in July
Jazz Sick Records

Putumayo Presents Celtic Christmas
Putumayo World Music

Secret Garden
Winter Poem
Heart of Space Records/Valley Entertainment

I find holiday music deeply healing.  Here we are in the midst of the darkest time of year, but like a cup of hot chocolate or lights strung along houses, holiday music offers us warmth and comfort.

When I was a child, I couldn't wait for the holidays to arrive because I could pull out the Christmas albums and sing along with them.  I lost all sense of time and space.  I felt joy singing those songs, even the sad ones.  The first song I ever learned to play on the parlor organ was Silent Night and to this day, I still find the melody haunting.  My brother loved the song Do You See What I See? and certainly it was a favorite of mine too.

There is no shortage of holiday music, from Broadway send-ups, to salsa, Celtic, and everything you can imagine.  I tend to lean towards tradition.  I prefer a cup of hot chocolate, a slice of pumpkin pie, holiday lights twinkling and my favorite carols.  So with no further ado here is the holiday music round-up for 2011.

Christmas with Cantus is easily one of the most delightful holiday recordings I’ve heard in years.  The men’s choir based out of Minneapolis brings us tight and seamless polyphony as well as, new arrangements of favorite carols.  But the vocalists don’t stop with the familiar.  Take a listen to the haunting Slovenian carol of the 16th century (track 2) and Native American songs (‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime and Heleluyan).  Traditional French, English, and American gospel carols, hymns, and songs round off the recording. 

Ralph Vaughan William’s Coventry Carol, Gloria Shayne’s Do You Hear What I Hear and Little Drummer Boy often end up on choral Christmas recordings, but Cantus has given these old favorites new life.  Just listen to the acoustic drum jam on Pat-A-Drummer.  The entire album feels reverential and peaceful.  Cantus produced the perfect music to cheer you up on a cold and dark winter’s day.  And this is just the type of warmth I invite into my life this holiday season and beyond.

If you’re looking for an international jazz holiday recording, Elisabeth Lohninger Band brings us holiday fare from Scandinavia, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, Italy, France and Austria.  Mostly the warm production of this recording pleases my ears with Lohninger’s vocals adapting to the nuances of several languages, you think she was a global native.  It’s also a real treat to hear holiday music from Latin America, Japan, and France since these countries are underrepresented in North American holiday music collections.

The album opens with strains of Coltrane’s Giant Steps that segues into a sizzling jazz rendition of Christmas Song.  Take a listen to Walter Fischbacher’s hearty piano solo.  Os Meninos Da Mangueira swings to Brazilian samba—and who doesn’t want to escape to Brazil during a North American winter?  The salsa-fide Potpourri De Navidad (Mexico) livens up the holidays.  And the warm jazzy Mary’s Boy feels relaxing.  The only problem I have with this album which I hope would bring warmth to the holiday season is Axel Fischbacher’s guitar solos which sound out of place to my ears.  His electric guitar works better as a support instrument than providing listeners with crunchy blues solos.  Of course if electric guitar is your thing…

Leave it up to the folks at Putumayo World Music to come up with the warmest and most comforting holiday music album.  Celtic Christmas compilation features musicians from Ireland and beyond playing carols from the modern era and dating back to the 8th century.  Familiar songs like Good King Wenceslas (about feeding the needy), Joy to the World, White Christmas, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Auld Lang Syne all appear in this collection next to lesser known songs like the French Noel Nouvelet.  And some of these carols have morphed over the years to become popular holiday favorites.  The liner notes offer tidbits of historical information on the carols too.

Standouts on the compilation are Aine Minogue’s harp-centered Manx Jezebel Carol, Dougie MacLean’s heartfelt Auld Lang Syne, Druid Stone’s ethereal Noel Nouvelet with harp, flutes, and soprano vocals, the jazzy Good King Wenceslas and David Huntsinger’s  Angels We Have Heard on High which transforms into a foot tapping jig.  Actually it’s hard to pick any favorites on the compilation because the carols flow nicely into each other, with plenty of accordion, flutes, harps, and acoustic instruments to spare.  I know what I’ll be listening to this holiday season.

Staying with the Celtic vein, Secret Garden (Rolf Lovland and Fionnuala Sherry with 13 band members), offers new winter-themed compositions penned by Lovland.  The songs on Winter Poem range from the new age Make a wish, Dream (sung by Moya Brennan), the instrumental lament, Frozen in Time, to the lively jig Fionnuala’s Cookie Jar, and other relaxing instrumentals.  Only a handful of the songs feature vocals, most are instrumentals.  The album as a whole is piano and violin-centered and tension free for the most part.  In fact, Winter Poem could be listened to in several ways, as a tension-tamer at the end of a stressful day or moment, or as relaxing background music for a family gathering (when tension is present), or at bedtime.
This album falls on the melancholic-ethereal side so people who want to experience joyful and uplifting music during the holidays will find this album too sleepy.  However, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to play this music at retirement homes, hospitals, or in situations where a person needs a tension-free environment.  The music has a popular appeal and in the CD notes famous artists who have covered Rolf Lovland’s songs are mentioned including Barbara Streisand.    Personally, I find the album beautiful, with strong musical direction, but too melancholic for my taste.  I much prefer the Putumayo compilation mentioned earlier.

This concludes part one of the holiday music round-up.





Sunday, November 13, 2011

In review--The World's Woes (Tales of the Unknown)

Kyle Carey
Independent Release

I want to thank Angel Romero of World Music Central for forwarding me American songster Kyle Carey’s self-release Monongah.  The recording which blends Appalachian, light gospel, and Celtic folk sounds refreshing with its compelling stories.  Carey has talent to burn as a songwriter, and a mature, clear voice in which to deliver her stories—more or less tales with some intriguing characters.  Not only that the musician brings luminous musical talent on board with musicians from Lunasa and Cherish the Ladies, among others.

Her stories are sung against a lush background of mandolin, guitar, and banjo.  I think I might have heard some strings in there somewhere to, but it’s late in the day and my brain feels exhausted.   I do remember the sweet melodies that climb into my head and I catch myself humming them.  The cadence of Devil at your Back with its lilting guitar rolling along certainly fits that category and so does Virginia, a story about an authentic wayward woman, and so does the lament John Hardy’s Wife and the closing Adenine.

I listened to the album on headphones to pick up the nuances of the warm acoustic production.  I enjoy listening to Carey’s vocals and find them soothing and informative.  For anyone who enjoys hearty tales and strong melodies performed on acoustic instruments, this one’s for you.  I’m not sure why it took this long for a talent such as Kyle Carey to cross my path, but I’m glad the day finally arrived.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

In the news---Music, hearing, and aging

I found a short news clip, "Striking the Right Note" in Taste For Life (November 2011).  According to a research study conducted at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care (9-13-11), "Lifelong musicians experience fewer age-related hearing problems than non-musicians."

I doubt this applies to rock musicians however since I've known many rock musicians who started losing their hearing in their 30s and 40s.

However, if you wish to check out this intriguing news bite, go to http://www.tasteforlife.com

Also in this publication, "Listening to music can ease cancer patients' anxiety and reduce their pain..."

Monday, November 7, 2011

Essay: Healing with Poly Rhythms

Photo by Patricia Herlevi

So often with sound healing or the concept of healing with music, an assumption that healing music must relax us rears its head.  Healing comes in many guises and each of us needs different types of healing.  We might need to boost our immune system, or boost our energy/vitality, we might need music to help us focus better or to relax from a stressful day.

This brings up one of my favorite concepts and that is purposeful music.  As we grow more conscious of how music affects our soul-mind-body, we build a music tool kit with multiple purposes.  Often I suffer from headaches and so I choose relaxing music, even drones without melody or audio sound scapes.  Some times I could use a good sound healing session with crystal bowls and tuning forks and other times I need to dance to West African drums, Brazilian samba, or need to get my body moving to something hot and Latin.

The purposeful music concept visited me twice within the last week.  I've dealt with huge amounts of stress since relocating such as job hunting, sending literary submssions off, and getting situation in a new environment.  So there are times when I just need to get this body moving and release stress or I need to recalibrate.  The other day when I walked into Wise Awakenings (a sound healing store near the YMCA), a woman was trying out crystal bowls.  The vibration from a set of bowls sent my frequency through the roof.  This took place after a reiki session so I was feeling pretty good at the time.

Later the same week, I felt sluggish.  A friend asked me to give a short lecture about salsa music for her dance class.  Although I had some trouble getting to the location, by the time I heard Latin music streaming from the classroom, I felt good, and that sluggish feeling completely disappeared.  This music included Cuban son, Dominican Republican merenge, and mambo.  The instructor (my friend) mentioned that people who dance to salsa and other Latin music (because of the swaying of hips and movement in the lower body) don't suffer from lower back problems.  But Latin music does more than relieve lower back pain.  This type of music with roots in Africa and Spain, forces the body to move.  And while the body is moving the immune system gains strength and depression lifts.  This is because Latin music spreads joy and feels celebratory.

I'm not saying that Latin music never expresses melancholy or suffering, because it does in the form of fados, flamenco, boleros, rancheras, etc, but this type of music creates avenues for catharsis.  So say you're feeling depressed, then listen to flamenco or a bolero.  Then as you move through that depression, gradually raise your frequency by choosing slighly more joyful music until you find yourself dancing to salsa or a merenge.

If you feel sluggish, like I did, start with slower music and work your way up to the faster tempo and start with simple rhythms and work your way to the more complex poly rhythms. In short, I repeat that healing with music includes many rhythms, genres, textures, timbres, tones, and moods.  As you grow more conscious by keeping track of how music affects you personally at various times and seasons in your life, you will consciously choose the right music for your situation just like you would choose the right foods for your body type.

In the future, I'll post an essay on keeping a music journal.  But for now, enjoy the musical ride.  And support global music.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

In review--Sing children, sing

Joshua Leeds
Good Night Baby
Music to Soothe Your Infant to Sleep
Sounds True

Jai Uttal
Kirtan Kids
The Elephant, the Monkey, and
The Little Butter Thief
Sounds True

If adults find the technological era stressful, imagine what children feel, especially the extra-sensitive infant.  Plenty of record labels release recordings for children and I’ve featured a handful on this blog already.  I contacted Putumayo about its children’s compilation series and never received a response, then Sounds True came out with Jai Uttal’s  (famous in the world of yoga kirtans) Kirtan Kids and psycho-acoustic researcher Joshua Leeds’ Good Night Baby (Music to Soothe Your Infant to Sleep).  While I don’t have any children myself, I feel that music is a healthy non-toxic medicine for stressed out children.  And in the case of Jai Uttal’s recording, he offers an avenue to a higher spiritual source.  A child needs to feel connected to the natural world and the Divine.  I know that as a child, these connections saved me from falling into endless despair.

Oddly Joshua Leeds returns to synthesizers/programming for Good Night Baby.  When he teamed up with Lisa Spector for Through a Dog’s Ear series, he insisted on employing only acoustic instruments, and in fact, was adamant about this in a radio interview I hosted in 2008.  Not that the programming seems out of place on Good Night Baby.  It actually works in a counter intuitive way when combined with sounds from the mother’s womb and classical chamber pieces performed on piano, oboe, and cello.

I listened to the entire recording one time through headphones.  I have no way of testing this recording out on infants so I’ll take the researchers word for it. However, I wonder what type of affect it would have on the rebirthing process for adults or healing traumas from the birth experience.  The famous French ear, nose and throat doctor Alfred Tomatis successfully combined Mozart’s concertos with sounds from the mother’s womb when working with children with vocal and hearing problems.  You can read about this in Don Campbell’s book The Mozart Effect.

Getting back to Leeds’ sound healing recording, the researcher/musician features three long-playing tracks including Earth Plane Welcome (17 minutes), Inside Mama (10 minutes) and Floating Free/Remembering Before (32:48 minutes).  Leeds and his chamber ensemble musicians, including pianist Lisa Spector, wed classical pieces by Brahms, Corelli, and Schumann to programming, while slowing and speeding up the music to match the infant’s energy.  Parents are encouraged to either play the entire CD or just pieces off of it depending on their infant’s response.

I’m wondering if this recording would also help an anxious dog relax around the infant.  Many dogs grow stressful around an infant entering the household and since the dogs already have their own series, I’m guessing that this new recording will help dogs relax too.  The concept is rife with possibilities and I’m certain that parents who have already purchased this recording are saying, “It’s about time.”

Jai Uttal isn’t the first musician to bring the music of India or even kirtans to children. I believe Putumayo arrived there first.  Nonetheless, I believe that kirtan chants could work wonders in teaching children how to focus and also increase their storytelling skills.  While adult kirtan recordings feature chants allowing the practitioner to connect with Divine entities, in the case of Sanskrit kirtans, Hindu gods, this children’s recording features fun stories to melodic call and response phrases. You hear Uttal telling the stories of Ganesh (the Elephant god), Hanuman (monkey god) and other colorful deities.  Then children sing along with the expressive Uttal.

While I’m certain the recording Kirtan Kids is fun for children and adults with children, I personally couldn’t get into it despite my sister-in-law calling me an eternal child.  But the songs here rise above cloyingly cute and they offer children a gateway to the divine experience, possibly healing some children of their lack of attention.  I also think that most children are aware of their spiritual nature, especially when they’re under the age of 5 and they need avenues, (why not a musical one), to express their spiritual yearnings.  I know I did as a child.

Each kirtan comes with a story which you can find in the colorful CD booklet along with the kirtan text.  In fact the CD packaging is exquisite with its Indian motifs.  I think Uttal describing his experience as a father and kirtan singer sums it up best.

“…The many streams of human life began to mingle with my boy’s incredible wise innocence—personality, wanting, individualization, the joy of saying ‘no.’ But still his eyes shone.  Singing to my Gopala gradually changed to singing with my Gopala.  And as the practice of kirtan reminds him of his divine nature, I realize that mostly it’s me who needs the reminding.  I fall asleep most of the time.  And my boy wakes me up.”

I realize that some parents will feel put off by Indian chants that feature Indian gods and that’s okay.  That’s probably not Uttal’s target market.  However, for parents who are more spiritually-open, why not introduce your child to these fun stories and engage in a sing-a-long that helps your child stay centered? The chants help a child to learn phrases, follow a lead singer, tell stories, learn how to focus, and stay spiritually connected as well as, learning about another culture. In a nutshell that's the mission of a cultural creative.

In review--Music for swooning

Grieg and Liszt
Piano Concertos
Stephen Hough
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra with Andrew Litton
Hyperion Records

Many years ago when I researched European classical composers who included folkloric dance and folk songs in their work, I encountered Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.  This was around the time that I became familiar with Norwegian folk music so the timing felt perfect.  As far as, the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, I’m most familiar with the work he composed after he joined a Franciscan monastery.  However, I had read stories about the romantic composer’s affects on ladies in attendance at his concerts.  Remember the passionate violinist in the movie The Red Violin? I’m guessing that character was loosely based on Liszt or at least the composer’s persona.

So when I placed Stephen Hough and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest recording featuring piano concertos by Liszt and Grieg, I expected to hear the kind of music that causes listeners to swoon.  And I wasn’t disappointed.  I also expected to hear folkloric influences and felt pleased when I could point those out to myself.  While these concertos which include Liszt Piano Concertos No 1 in E Flat major and No 2 in A major and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor feature beautiful passages, I prefer to use the adjectives, powerful, bold, and in the case of Liszt, the descriptor brooding.  And true to the romantic era, you’ll hear fiery passages alternating with longing and a hint of sadness.

The opening of Liszt first piano concerto feels haunting, even foreboding. With its few notes acting as a theme or more or less, a motif, I’m reminded of Beethoven’s theme that opens his 5th symphony. You might think that something so simple and memorable would fall flat, but when combined with more expansive themes perform wonders on the listener’s psyche.  This motif is passed on from instrument to instrument, until an oboe (or is that an English horn) floats in with a more expansive motif which the piano then responds with a hint of wistful melancholy.  A cello takes up this new theme and engages in counterpoint with the piano. That is until the horns come in like a winter storm reintroducing the opening theme.

The second movement (although in the liner notes not called a movement), is sonata-like resembling a tranquil lake on a drizzly day.  I find the falling notes towards the end played on woodwinds enchanting.  And we go from tranquil to mischievous with the third section with the fourth section flowing in seamlessly with horns making declarations.

Liszt second piano concerto starts on a grief-stricken note, at least to my ears. A cello responds to the piano’s laments.  Then the pianist and orchestra launch into the long second movement which starts with a gypsy-like cello and more descending notes on the piano. The instruments brood with the cello taking brief flights of fancy.  Still this is a majestic piece that ends with a Hungarian gypsy extravaganza, which according to the liner notes didn’t go well with the music critics of that time.  However, I enjoy it.

The next two sections run just over three minutes and one and half minutes in length, but the composer and in this case, the pianist Stephen Hough and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra portray a large palette ranging from waltz-like piano that sends my mind whirling around the room to ethereal passages that would inspire Debussy and Ravel and the Hungarian gypsy influence returns as well.  When the final notes of this concerto resonated in my ears my only response was “wow!”

The recording ends with Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor.  The bold opening with its descending notes sounds familiar to my ears. I think this is in part that classical radio stations play this concerto often and for good reason, it has everything.  The liner notes describe the first movement as sonata-like, but it’s also heroic.  Still I most enjoyed the lyrical flutes in conversation with a French horn alternating with the piano’s cascading notes, not cascading like waterfall, but of driving hail against a windowpane.

The liner notes describe the second movement as hymnal with its warm horns, and tranquil piano for the most part.  Woodwinds converse gently with the piano and the movement ends with piano flourishes and then on a restful note.  The third movement takes on a bold and heroic stance, almost defiant.  First we hear a flute or a piccolo in revelry and then the piano plays lullaby-like passages that remind me of a boat rocking back and forth on a lake.  I can see why Ravel was inspired by Grieg since the two composers write enchanting musical passages.  Throughout the movement we hear hints of Norwegian folk music which encapsulates the calm slower passages and the spirited dance melodies.  The ending is worth mentioning as the orchestra builds in intensity performing elongated notes with punchy horn and passionate piano and closing with a timpani roll.

I listened to this recording over headphones as I do most classical recordings.  I also found that if I focused my attention on the music without multitasking I was able to catch the various nuances and shifting tones.  In some ways I found these piano concertos meditative, but not conducive for sitting meditation.  I connected to the natural world while listening to the concertos and I enjoyed hearing folkloric influences.  Certainly a listener of Norwegian or Hungarian heritage will enjoy this recording more immensely than I did, but its music for everyone.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

In review--Seasons and Cycles of Humanity

Anita Skorgan
Pågyllen Grunn
Kirkelig Kulturverksted

The Norwegian label Kirkelig Kulturverksted has over several decades brought its audiences innovative projects.  These recording projects build bridges, exchange cultures, or bring Scandinavian folk songs into a contemporary environment.  Anita Skorgan’s Pågyllen Grunn brings together diverse musicians including the early music lute player Rolf Lislevand, a young trumpet player versed in Arabic music, Arve Henriksen, a global percussionist Helge Norbakken and electric guitarist Eivind Aarseth.  And you might wonder what the musicians could do with that eclectic set of instruments.

From what I can tell from the press notes, (the liner notes and lyrics are all in Norwegian with no English translation), the ensemble of talented musicians recorded ten arranged folk songs (lyrics by KKV Founder Erik Hillestad) in the mausoleum of the late artist Emanuel Vigeland.  A large painting featuring the cycles and seasons of human life (seems pagan to me) surrounded the musicians as they recorded this album.  Not only that, the late artist’s urn also rested in the mausoleum. I’m certain that the artist’s presence was felt in other ways too since this music sounds inspired by otherworldly energies.

So how do I best describe this music? Certainly you hear Scandinavian folk melodies, but not in their usual setting of hardanger fiddles and traditional instruments.  Here the musicians have chosen swashes of trumpet, electric guitar used more as a backdrop, and the baroque/renaissance lutes adding plucked and strummed harmonies to sweeping vocal melodies.  And that doesn’t quite describe the sound. The third song Paradis Senkes OverJorden features somber ambient music with rumbling frame drum, the shimmering strums of Lislevand’s lutes and a jazz trumpet never speaking above a whisper.  This odd blend of instruments creates healing vibrations while Skorgan laments, at times singing in the serpentine voice of an Arabic singer.

On the fourth track electric guitar joins a folkloric conversation with its distant ancestor lute.  While I’m not able to describe each of the tracks their folk melodies resonate sometimes resembling lullabies or in one situation, a Christmas carol.  Track six with its strong and sweet melody that cascades into descending notes on the chorus portrays a dreaminess that reminds me of Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun.  Certainly this track feels tranquil and contemplative, not unlike the entire album.  

I listened to the album with headphones so that I could hear the nuances of this seamless production.  Sometimes I thought I was listening to a Middle Eastern nay (reed flute), but was actually listening to Henriksen’s trumpet, which alternately resembled an Armenian duduk (reed instrument).  I’ve heard many unusual recording projects in my time and many of them are eclectic for eclectic sake.  Many fusion projects never make their mark, but Pågyllen Grunn transcends obstacles inherent with fusion projects.  Perhaps this is due in part to all the heart and soul the musicians brought to their work, and the inspiration they received from a late artist Vigeland.

Friday, October 28, 2011

In review--On the Silk Road

Sevara Nazarkhan
Sevara Music

In 2003 I was introduced to the music of the Central Asian country Uzbekistan via a young folk-pop performer Sevara Nazarkhan.  I reviewed her Real World electronic album Yol Bolsin and felt enraptured by its exotic instruments, and snaky melodies and haunting stories. Then after enjoying that recording for a few months, I forgot about the doutar (Uzbek lute) player/songwriter/vocalist (granted I've reviewed 100s of albums since that time).  And in the background the musician recorded a total of 4 albums including her new independent folkloric recording Tortadur performed on all acoustic instruments.  

Her newest recording featuring Uzbek folksongs, some dating back to medieval times, played on traditional instruments features old world musicians.  In fact, the press release beat me to the punch by comparing these elder musicians to the Cuban Buena Vista Social Club.  Here again you have an all-star band, if you want to call it that, and you might say that Nazarkhan has not only returned to her cultural roots, but has also befriended her elders.

So how best to describe the music here other than tossing out the term silk road?   Similar to music of the Arab world and the Middle East, vocals lines feature microtones and oriental scales, and though the instruments sport Uzbek names, the musicians play reed flute, a zither, lutes, and a frame drum.  Since the musicians don't provide listeners with lyric translations, my guess is that some of the songs feature tragic stories, alternating with sacred text.   

At least that’s the feeling I pick up listening to Nazarkhan’s vocals.  Yet, don’t get me wrong, the songs emit beauty and elegance, even if it takes my western ears time to adapt.

In fact, I needed to listen to the recording several times before attempting a review.  Songs such as Sharob sound like lullabies or prayers due in part to Nazarkhan’s gentle vocal delivery.   The slow pace of the album gives a listener time to reflect and drink in the beauty of Uzbek folk songs in the manner that you might drink in the words to one of Rumi's poems.  Ei, Sarvi Ravon picks up the pace a little, but sounds too haunting for me to call the song uplifting.  The album closes with Qarghalar in which Nazarkhan sings in a whispery voice over a backdrop of drums.  The musician describes the album experience in the press release as, "It's a cry of my soul, but in a whisper."

I recommend Tortadur for people already familiar with music of the famed Silk Road.  Although listening to this album takes work, I believe that those efforts are rewarded with gentle-loving melodies performed on exotic instruments and sung by a mature and sensitive vocalist reclaiming her musical heritage.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

In review--Gurdjieff's Spiritual Journey

The Gurdjieff Folk Instrument Ensemble
Led by Levon Eskenian
Music of Georges I.  Gurdjieff

Many of you reading this review probably have never heard Armenian folk music, though you have heard most of the instruments on Levon Eskenian and The Gurdjieff Folk Instrument Ensemble's recording Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff if you have listened to traditional music of Iran, Kurdistan, Turkey, and India.  This folk ensemble features the traditional Armenian reed instrument duduk which both Real World Records and World Village have featured on several recordings.  Other instruments that might sound familiar to your ears are the Iranian spiked fiddle (kamancha), the Turkish saz (long-neck lute), the Arabic tombak (drum) and oud, as well as, the dohl drum and santur from India.  To say that Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff falls into exotic territory is an understatement, but the Gurdjieff who studied many spiritual paths, also composed transcendental music rife with his philosophies.

For the sake of this short review, I won’t go into biographical details of the Armenian composer’s fascinating life and projects.  Suffice to say that the worldly composer found inspiration in the folk songs of his homeland as well as, the chants and songs here date back to pre-Christian Armenia, but also represent music from Greece, Arabia, Iran, Kurdistan, Turkey, and surrounding areas.  Personally I love this music performed on some of my favorite Middle Eastern instruments.  The scales and modes though not totally familiar to my ears allow me to explore diverse moods while feeling spiritually-centered.  I’m currently listening to the meditative Sayyid Chant and Dance No. 10 with features two lutes exploring modes and soon a reed flute and a zither join the lutes reaching a delightful conclusion. 

The flute continues into the next track, Sayyid Chant and Dance No. 29.  I’m not sure what the chant in the title refers to since this is an instrumental album in which we reap the benefit of listening to master musicians at work.  While I’m barely familiar with Gurdjieff, only having heard one other recording of his work on ECM, I feel that the music here is accessible to fans of world and traditional music.  Fans of Silk Road music will also have the right map for following the music. 

I end this review with this intriguing quote from the liner notes, “…After preparing for  a life in both science and religion with studies in the fields of medicine, psychology and theology, Gurdjieff and a group of fellow “Seekers of Truth” set out on a search to understand the significance of life on earth and in man’s place in the cosmos.”  Heady work to say the least. 

In review--Middle Irish and the Legendary Finn

Paul Hillier
National Chamber Choir of Ireland
Stewart French
Tarik O’Regan
Acallam na Senórach: An Irish Colloquy
Harmonia Mundi

Sung in Middle Irish and English, the medieval frame-tale of the meeting of Saint Patrick and associates of Finn mac Cumaill comes to life on Paul Hillier’s latest recording, Tarik O’Regan Acallam na Senórach: An Irish Colloquy.  And what a splendid recording this is, with soprano vocals that sail through the glass ceiling and blend seamlessly with a mixed choir’s polyphony.  Opening with bodhrán the choral work takes on a mysterious quality.  The drumbeats prepare listeners to enter the realm of enchantment and to take a journey to Ireland’s medieval past.  And the story portrayed on the recording represents the meeting of pagan and Christian cultures, and communication from spiritual realms.

Besides the ethereal polyphonic vocals, we are treated to Stewart French’s classical guitar such as on Guitar Interlude 1, 2, and 3.  Listening to pagan and Christian worlds meeting in a musical realm reminds me of James DeMars’ opera Guadalupe, Our Lady of the Roses, another work that tells a story where Catholicism meets an indigenous people.  Instead of combining Mexican, indigenous, and European music idioms, Paul Hillier’s project, focuses on Ireland of a pre-Christian era when the tides were just beginning to change. 

But this isn’t a story about the strong arm of the Catholic Church converting Irish people by sword, but a story of prophecy and warrior legends.  We stand on the crossroads of the sacred and thoughtful exchange between cultures.  Overall, this musical work possesses a positive message performed by a passionate choir and supporting musicians.  The bodhrán and guitar interludes in themselves offer listeners a contemplative experience then the choir takes us straight into the heart of the human spirit. 

I highly recommend this contemplative recording.  Listen to it in the 'tween times and definitely before bedtime.