The semester is over, y’all. It’s in the past. Let us give thanks for what he have learned and how we grown over these past few months, and let us prepare ourselves for much merriment and well-earned festivities.
Your course grades are available on Solar. Take a peek when you feel like it.
Rejoice or lament, for this is the last lengthy missive you’ll be receiving from me. On such a somber occasion I am tempted to write continuously, to outpace time’s advance with a sheer torrent of words that will stave off that moment when I no longer have your ear. (Or should I say your eye? At the very least, your inbox.) But then I remember that I am teaching this class during Summer Session I, so I will have a whole new set of students to exasperate or delight, depending on their receptiveness to rambling. I might as well tell you that I’ve been posting these emails on profprattle.wordpress.com, so if you want to see what I talk about over the summer, head on over. Last semester’s emails are also on there. Let’s get on with it, then. Last semester I just sent out a list of all the albums I listened to while I was grading the final exams. This semester I incorporate the music I’ve been listening to into a narrative, with characteristics digressions, asides, and embellishments.
John Adams was the 2nd president of the United States of America; his son, John Quincy Adams was the 6th president. Another pair of John Adamses with identical professions is John Adams and John Luther Adams, who are each contemporary American composers. John Adams is the more famous of the two (which is why he gets away with not using his middle name), but ol’ J.L. is coming in hot after winning the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his work Become Ocean, of which Alex Ross of The New Yorker wrote: “It may be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history”.
The O.G. John Adams has his own Pulitzer, for his 2002 piece On The Transmigration of Souls, which commemorates the victims of the September 11th terror attacks. I also like his Shaker Loops, The Dharma at Big Sur, and especially his score for the opera Nixon in China, for which he incorporates elements of minimalism but also a wide variety of other musical styles. Another giant of the contemporary American music scene, Steve Reich, also wrote a 9/11 memorial piece; his is called WTC 9/11 and is scored for string quartet, but also uses (slightly altered) FDNY and NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) recordings from the day of the attack as well as interviews with some of Reich’s Manhattan neighbors. The tape recordings call to my mind his early works “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out,” which are deceptively simple but pioneering pieces that exploit the phase shifting that occurs when two identical recordings are played on different machines. Back in the 60s when these pieces were made, the imperfections of analog playback would cause the two recordings to fall out of sync with one another, to entrancing effect.
(Someone made an homage to “It’s Gonna Rain” using a clip from Family Guy. Also worth noting: the track “America’s Most Blunted” on Madvillain’s phenomenal début (and thus far only) album Madvillainy samples “Come Out”. The phrase “come out to show them” is also repeated multiple times in “Moonlight on Vermont”, from Captain Beefheart’s classic 1969 album Trout Mask Replica. Beefheart is definitely not for everyone, but some of you might be into it. Singer/songwriter/main dude Don Van Vliet’s voice often elicits revulsion in the unaccustomed ear. As does that of Tom Waits, who deserves his own email and not just a place in this extended parenthetical. Actually, Madvillain and Captain Beefheart merit more than passing mention as well, but what am I gonna do, write a whole big ol thing about every darn tootin band and artist? I guess it probably seems that that’s what I am doing, sometimes. Anyway, go listen to Tom Waits. You’ll get used to his Cookie Monster voice.)
That’s a painting by Mark Rothko, just to break up this massive block of text. It’s in the MoMA, so go out and see it before a crazy person burns the place down or something. You know where else you can find a Rothko — Bert Cooper’s office at Sterling, Cooper & Partners on Madison Avenue. A lot of Steve Reich’s music is quite fitting to listen to whilst contemplating a massive Rothko as it hangs humming with the resonance of its perfect pigments. It is perhaps even more fitting in a room full of such works, such as the Rothko Chapel in Houston:
There’s an excellent sculpture by Barnett Newman outside of the chapel. (Perhaps you remember Barnett and his funky zips from the first email of the semester! Perhaps not! Although if you’re actually reading this maybe you do.) It’s called Broken Obelisk, for obvious reasons:
The pulsing insistence of Reich pieces like Drumming and his masterpiece Music for 18 Musicians, as well as the disorienting asymmetry of his phase shifting pieces (“Piano Phase” and the aforementioned “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out”) seem natural matches for the austere power of a Rothko.
Of course you know our pal Steve wasn’t going to let not sharing a name with a former president stop him from picking up a dope Pulitzer Prize. His Double Sextet, the winner in 2009, includes some of those signature propulsive phrases in its “Fast” sections, which sandwich the more contemplative second movement.
Besides John Adams and Steve Reich, the two other main figures in 20th century minimalism are Terry Riley and Philip Glass, neither of whom, oddly enough, has a Pulitzer. (Incidentally, Glass prefers the phrase “music with repetitive structures” to the label “minimalism”, and I can’t say I blame him.) Riley wrote In C and A Rainbow in Curved Air (the latter piece was recently named by John Adams as a good candidate for the Colorado Symphony’s bring-your-own-marijuana fundraiser series “Classically Cannabis: The High Note Series” (and, presumably, stoned listening in general) in an article in the NY Times entitled “Pass the Bong, and Tune up the Berlioz”). He also wears a beanie like all the time:
Glass is probably the most famous of these four, probably because of his film scores. Most popular is his great work on The Hours, the film for which Nicole Kidman won her Oscar (I highly recommend the book on which the film was based; it’s by Michael Cunningham, who has a new novel out called The Snow Queen that I’m keen to read). If you like more experimental moving pictures, give Koyaanisqatsi a try. (The guy who directed that picture, and the other two in the Qatsi trilogy, Godfrey Reggio, had a new film out last year called Visitors that is, as far as I can tell (I’ve not yet seen it) just 4K shots of people (and a gorilla) looking into the camera (i.e., at you). It’s also scored by Glass.) If you like weird opera, Einstein on the Beach will be your jam. It is so good (even better than Yoplait!). If you’re more into beautiful piano music, then go for Glass’s Solo Piano.
Another excellent contemporary composer is the estimable Estonian Arvo Pärt. His lovely piece “Spiegel im Spiegel” may be familiar to you from the trailer for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. And you can listen to “Fur Alina” on your laptop, I guess, but you should really run it through speakers or a decent pair of headphones. Now, I don’t imagine that many of you have seen Cloud Atlas, because it was a colossal flop, but there’s a character in that film (Vyvyan Ayrs, played by Jim Broadbent) who is a composer and he looks a lot like Arvo Pärt. I don’t know if that was purposeful or not on the part of the filmmakers (The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer), but it really jumped out at me. Maybe I’m imagining it, though. Ah, but wait! Spiegel im Spiegel was used in the soundtrack to Tykwer’s 2002 film Heaven. So we know that Tykwer is familiar with Pärt. And Tykwer was definitely the one who directed the Vyvyan Ayrs section of Cloud Atlas. Actually, now that I think about it, Arvo Pärt looks more like Jennjamin Franklin, as played by Will Forte in a recent sketch on Late Night with Seth Myers (the show is not great so far, though for some reason I found that sketch surprisingly funny). Judge for yourself:
That’s Broadbent, Pärt, Forte, respectively. I’m getting some Salman Rushdie vibes from Pärt, too. Incidentally, while I cannot in good conscience recommend Cloud Atlas the film, I will say that the book on which it was based is one of my favorites of all time. Its author, David Mitchell, is one of just two writers whose entire oeuvre I have read (the other being Junot Díaz; I’m quite close with David Foster Wallace — ironically, I haven’t read his book about infinity, though I’ve heard there are some mathematical errors in it (people tend to overstate DFW’s mathematical ability)). I’m not counting one-and-done authors like Harper Lee, obviously. Come on. That’s ballin in the D-League. You know me, though — I’m speaking Swaghili!
With the imminent onset of summer, it’s good to keep in mind handy tips for keeping bugs away:
“You know what’s probably a good thing to hang on your porch in the summertime, to keep mosquitos away from you and your guests? Just a big bag full of blood.”