VILLA LOBOS “The Little Train of the Caipira” from Bachianas Brasilieras No. 2 1930 | 4 mins
Heitor Villa-Lobos was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1887 and died there in 1959. After a youth in which he traveled widely, played cello in cafes and movie theaters, became a masterful guitarist, and joined a succession of itinerant street bands, he decided it might serve him well to get some formal music education. The first thing he learned in school was that school wasn’t for him. He decided instead to study on his own and began contacting European musicians for guidance, figuring that there had to be something to learn from over yonder if the music of J.S. Bach was anything to judge it by. Villa-Lobos’s nine Bachianas Brasileiras are aptly titled after his idol; while each of the works is inspired by Brazilian folk song and dance, they use Bachian forms and genres.
Coming from such an independent spirit, it’s perhaps no surprise that the formal details of Villa-Lobos’s musical background do little to prepare us for “The Little Train of the Caipira” from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2. Despite the title, this music really represents the characterful Brazilian in all his glory. The rhythms are more Latin than Bachian. (It probably wouldn’t have occurred to Bach to make use of a bamboo scraper as an instrument, either.) The music builds great visuals. The sounds will lead you to see in your mind’s eye the little train as it slowly gathers speed, the clicking of its mechanisms as it chugs along, and the eventual slowing to a halt.
ANDY AKIHO Oscillate 2014 | 17 mins
Andy Akiho, a master of the steel pan, is known for inventively incorporating his serious rhythm and percussion know-how into strikingly innovative classical compositions. Oscillate was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and recently received its world premiere in 2014 as part of the ensemble's new music series. When interviewed about the work, Akiho admitted that he got "addicted to the piece" while composing it, and offered some insider info: Listen, he says, for the use of credit cards and chopsticks (actual chopsticks, not the two-finger tune that you “played” at the office holiday party) in the piano part. Because who doesn’t use credit cards and chopsticks to make music?
SAINT-SAËNS “Aquarium” from The Carnival of the Animals, Grand Zoological Fantasy 1886 | 2 mins
A lover of animals, Saint-Saëns was, on the whole, disillusioned with his fellow humans. Yet he was aware that more people than animals bought concert tickets, so he made his accommodation with humanity. No question, The Carnival of the Animals was written to please people. He composed the piece for the annual Mardi Gras concert at the home of the cellist Charles-Joseph Lebouc, and it was there, on Shrove Tuesday 1886, that the work was first heard.
Saint-Saëns would be appalled to know to what extent his posthumous fame rests on The Carnival of the Animals. He assumed that his musical in-jokes—most of them in the form of quotations and parodies—were too special to be taken outside of professional circles. Not every listener catches every allusion, but Saint-Saëns's “Grand Zoological Fantasy” has turned out to be one of the most accurately aimed and deftly executed masterpieces of comedy-in-music; moreover, the musical poetry of the “Aquarium” is absolutely lovely.
CRUMB Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) for Three Masked Players 1971 | 18 min
For much of the period between 1965 and 1985, George Crumb enjoyed a nearly unique position among living American composers: although he did not adhere to the style that prevailed in academic circles, he commanded widespread respect among those who made pronouncements about the intellectual integrity of new compositions—and at the same time, audiences actually seemed to like his music, unabashedly modern though it was. He spent his boyhood in West Virginia, where he was born on October 24, 1929—otherwise known as “Black Thursday,” the day the stock market crashed and set off the Great Depression.
Vox Balaenae was completed in 1971, a few years after a commercial recording of the whistling sounds of humpback whales had been released and gained widespread attention. It is hard to imagine that only flute, piano, and cello—all electronically enhanced—are capable of producing the sounds of this piece. The pianist sometimes plucks the instrument’s strings or produces harmonics by damping strings at critical points of vibration. In his instructions to the performers, Crumb notes (as if sending the keyboard player off on a scavenger hunt): The pianist will need a paper clip, a chisel, and a solid glass rod (about nine inches in length) for certain special effects. A strip of plate glass may be substituted for the glass rod, if more practical. The flutist, who is directed to stand throughout, employs a full-range of “extended technique” effects, is called upon to sing and speak (though not real words) while playing, and even doubles as a percussionist by adding delicate touches on four crotales (antique cymbals) in the concluding “Sea-Nocturne.” The cellist plays in scordatura (in Italian, literally “mistuning”), with strings tuned to an unusual combination of pitches, and joins the flutist in a call-and-response of whistling at the beginning of the “Sea-Nocturne.”
Many of Crumb’s works capitalize on the overt theatricality of performance, ranging from what he has called the “inherent choreography of performers playing instruments” to relatively complex indications of costuming, set decoration, and staging. In Vox Balaenae, Crumb advises: Each of the three players should wear a black half-mask (visor-mask) throughout the performance of the work. The masks, by effacing a sense of human projection, will symbolize the powerful impersonal forces of nature (nature dehumanized). Vox Balaenae can be performed under a deep-blue stage lighting, if desired, in which case the theatrical effect would be further enhanced.
Vox Balaenae is cast in three sections, of which the second is a “Sea-Theme” with five variations played without pauses between them. The first and third movements carry the subtitles “. . . for the beginning of time” and “. . . for the end of time.” While the outer sections capture a spirit of timeless mystery, the middle movement serves as the dramatic heart of the piece, its theme being marked “solemn, with calm majesty.” Each of the variations inhabits a unique, subtly shaded sound-world, and together they cover eons of earth’s history. “Archeozoic” (“Timeless, inchoate”) includes what the composer has likened to the cries of seagulls, while the buzzing drone and sinuous cello line in “Proterozoic” (“Darkly mysterious”) has an Indian flavor. In “Paleozoic” (“Flowing”) the cello’s whale songs sound distant compared to the brilliant punctuations of the piano and the flute. The glass rod is placed over the piano’s strings to create what the composer calls the “jangling” timbre of “Mesozoic” (“Exultantly!”), a passage in which Messiaen’s angels dance very near. This leads to “Cenozoic” (“Dramatic; with a sense of imminent destiny”), where the flute suggests a Japanese shakuhachi. The work concludes in a hovering “Sea-Nocturne,” (“serene, pure, transfigured”), its shimmering sounds augmented by the delicate touches of the crotales, and the work floats away into silent mystery.
DAVID LANG are you experienced? 1987 | 23 mins
David Lang, recipient of numerous honors and awards including the Pulitzer Prize and Musical America’s Composer of the Year, is the co-founder of the Bang on a Can Festival, an international festival of new music held annually in New York City. Locally, he has provided music for productions of American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
“Are You Experienced?” is a good question with many answers, as good questions often have. It’s also the title of a lot of good music with many incarnations, as good music often has. Some may have first heard the question as the title of a song by 1960s counterculture icon Jimi Hendrix; it was also the title of the late guitarist’s first album. As it happens it’s also the title of a piece written in the 1980s by American composer David Lang and was the title of one of Lang’s albums. Perhaps most immediate to our experience is that it’s being performed at this month’s SoundBox (in the interest of continuing this incarnate record: January 2016).
Lang’s restlessness and his taste for the laughably bizarre can clearly be heard in are you experienced? It starts off, as did the Saint-Saëns, as somewhat of a joke. In this case, Lang attempts to evoke Hendrix’s psychedelic electric guitar by featuring the guitar’s absolute, most ridiculous, third-cousin-via-a-grandaunt-who-married-into-the-family-dogwalker’s-husband’s-nephew: the electric tuba.
are you experienced? is a response to—not an arrangement or cover of—Hendrix’s original song, exploring the darker side of Hendrix’s sex and drug mania. Put simply: “Hendrix’s song is the experience of losing your mind to pleasure; Lang’s is about simply losing your mind.” Enjoy . . .
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.