As you can tell from my super lengthy playlists, I really love music, and I love being able to have the opportunity to listen to Pandora at my job while I work. I don’t want to play just classical music; I want to play all kinds of music on my cello with people from a variety of musical backgrounds and genres, so I’ve been listening to lots of different music in order to get a sense of rhythm, color and style. Here’s a compilation of the music I’ve listened to this week. I think it’s called Pandora for a reason, for I have uncovered a box full of songs I would have never known about or listened to otherwise. I have been corrupted (jk lol. 🙂
“Ceremony”: New Order
“Sleepyhead”: Passion Pit
“Like Eating Glass”: Bloc Party
“Quiet Little Voices”: We Were Promised Jetpacks
“Soft Shock”: Yeah Yeah Yeahs
“The Sound of Silence”: Art and Garfunkel
“Burning”: The Whitest Boy Alive
“Sixties Remake”: Tokyo Police Club
“Vcr”: the xx
“Nachde Nesaare”: Jasleen Royal
“Bubbles”: Herbie Hancock
“Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?”: Moby
“La Vie Boheme”: Rent (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
“Our Swords”: Band of Horses
“Handy”: Weird Al Yankovic
“The Old Mill Steam”: Lena Horne
“9 to 5”: Dolly Parton
“Bluish”: Animal Collective
“Lay Me Down”: Sam Smith
“Tareefan”: Badshah (from the movie Veere Di Wedding. Haven’t seen it but sounds interesting.)
“Mob Ties”: Drake
“F**ckin’ Perfect”: P!nk
“Don’t Gas Me”: Dizzee Rascal
“Roll Up”: B.O.B.
“Wednesday Morning”: Mackelmore
“Good Day”: Nappy Roots
“Home”: Machine Gun Kelly, X Ambassadors, and Bebe Rexha
Symphony No. 9 (New World): The New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein
I was re-watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel last night, and there’s a scene towards the end where the comedian Lenny Bruce (played by Luke Kirby) performs “All Alone”. I didn’t know until my friend told me while we were watching it that Lenny Bruce had actually performed the song in real life. It made me think of the profound legacy he left for comedians.
Thanks to the good grace of Pandora, which I recently discovered in my free time this week (lol I’m such a technology dinosaur), I have an abundant list of songs to put on this post. Because there are so many songs and I’ve created so many playlist posts, some songs I have already put in previous playlists. The beauty of Pandora is that they choose artists similar to the one whose playlist you search. So for Joss Stone, it also played artists whose music I had not listened to much before, such as Melody Gardot, Melanie Fiona, Ruthie Foster and Leela James. For Herbie Hancock’s playlist, I discovered so many other jazz artists I hadn’t known about before. This is a mix of jazz, R and B and pop.
These past few days I listened to the entire Stripped album by Christina Aguilera. I listened to “Fighter”, “Soar”, “Beautiful”, “Can’t Hold Us Down” and “Dirrty” before, but I hadn’t listened to her other songs on the album. So I decided to give it a go because I was nostalgic for some good old early 2000s music. I’m just going to touch on just a few of the songs on the album. I’ll probably talk more about it in the future.
First and foremost, this is the rawest album yet, next to Joss Stone’s Introducing Joss Stone. (another excellent album) As much criticism and mixed reviews as she got, Christina Aguilera, in my personal opinion, put her heart and soul in this album. I like her early album Christina Aguilera because while it’s categorized as pop, it’s also this mature lovely album about sexuality, womanhood and other things. “I Turn to You” is one of my favorite songs and makes me cry nearly everytime.
In Stripped, Christina takes that maturity up to another level. She uses the piano and strings in the most symbiotic way to create this organic collection of personal lyrical narratives. In “Impossible”, her ballad with Alicia Keys on piano, she starts off with Alicia playing a simple calm piano solo and interludes with some syncopated singing. Then she dives into a chilling 3/4 blues, jazz waltz with drum tats and brass interluding with her deep soulful voice, conveying the pain of trying to read the mind of a guy who won’t tell her how he really feels, a real feeling that happens a lot of times in every day relationships. In “Cruz” she opens with a chorus of resounding voices, then goes right into a beautiful rock ballad. The chords have this lovely emotional complexity that show the versatility of her voice. “Cruz” reminded me of “The First Cut is the Deepest” by Sheryl Crow because both songs integrate country and rock music and add a powerful dash of soul. I love how in this song she goes back and forth from G major to F major to G major to F major back to G major. The song evokes a bittersweet longing to be free, a longing that Christina feels to leave a painful situation, and we hear the freedom in her unbridled voice as she belts out the end of the song in the key of G major.
Another thing that makes this album truly one of my favorites (and as a staunch music lover, that is hard for me to say because I have a lot of “favorites”) is her free use of the key E minor. The key of E minor is one of my favorite keys because it evokes this beautiful darkness that is just hard to describe in words. In “Keep on Singin’ My Song” Aguilera uses E minor to its utmost advantage, opening up with a simple introduction of humming and soft singing, then plunging into this poignant raw piece about not looking back at the past and moving forward with what you want to do with your life, even if it’s painful to do so or if other people don’t like it (“that’s why I’m gonna/ Say goodbye to all the tears I’ve cried/ For every time somebody hurt my pride/ Feeling like they won’t let me live life/ Take the time to look at what is mine”). Around the 4:13 mark, she slows down the tempo, giving the listener about thirteen seconds to contemplate the rough-shod ride she just took us on through her song, and then picks it back up at 4:26 with just her and the chorus, and then moves back into a rhythmic 4/4 beat with the percussion keeping the tempo. Around 5:22, the drums and the flutist bring a beautiful close to the song.
In “Walk Away” the song opens with a lone piano waltz (it reminded me of “Dangerous Woman” in a way because that song, too, is in the form of a waltz. Also “Fallin'” by Alicia Keys has the same time signature and key as “Walk Away”, so I thought about that while listening to the song), and Christina brings us into a chilling mezzo-forte first verse, and then crescendos into a gut-wrenching chorus, backed by strings, piano and percussion. Hearing this chorus each time gave me chills up and down my spine because she doesn’t try to beat around the bush or pull any punches about illustrating the pain she suffered for the longest time. Honestly, while listening to this song at work, all I could envision was myself dancing alone in an empty studio to this song, contorting my body dressed in a black long-sleeved leotard, leaping around, sliding across the dance floor, my body moving in time with Christina’s rhymes. The middle of the song she crescendos and falls into the softness of the third verse, and then crescendos back into the chorus. I would love to play this song on my cello just because even though I can’t directly relate to Aguilera’s personal struggles, it doesn’t take much for her to suck me in with her mature powerful lyrics. I mean, seriously, if the lyrics don’t strike some kind of emotion in you, then what will? Gosh, listening to the song was one thing, but actually reading the lyrics just heightened the overall suspense of the album. It reminds me of “Love on the Brain” by Rihanna because both songs present gritty portrayals of emotional abuse in relationships and how it psychologically messes up the survivor of this abuse because they know deep down they need to leave the relationship, but the perpetrator’s power is so life-threatening and the trauma so enduring that it is easier said than done to “just leave” an abusive relationship.
She also uses the E minor key in one of her most famous songs “Fighter”. I first heard this song when I was around eight years old. A friend had gotten me a mix of 2003 hits and “Fighter” was one of those hits. Every time I listen to it, I want to hit a punching bag or go back to tae kwon do to finally get my black belt. Somehow when I hear songs in the key of E minor I see a portentous black cloud hovering over an empty landscape, so that’s why E minor takes on such a dark tone for me as the listener. It reminded me of “U + Ur Hand” by P!nk because both songs are in the key of E minor and they also punch us in the ears with their heavy rock beats and thematic material.
As a classical musician, hearing Stripped was like listening to a piece by a Romantic-era composer. The Romantic era of music, which emerged from the Classical music period around 1830, allowed for a great deal of freedom in composing music, and composers such as Peter Tchaikovsky, Robert Schumann and Gustav Mahler embraced passion and used music as a means of expressing deep emotions, such as depression and infatuation. Composers also branched out from the traditional orchestra format and experimented with woodwinds and percussion. Beethoven helped usher in this new approach to music by referencing other aspects of life, such as nature, in his works, and making sonatas and symphonies less strict-sounding. His “Ode to Joy” is a famous example, with its grand sweeping gestures and booming majestic chorus. A lot of Romantic era music I have noticed uses the key of E minor because it is such a brooding key. While listening to Stripped, I thought about all the Romantic era compositions that use E minor, and the list is inexhaustible. Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor smacks you in the face with E minor; the entire symphony is passionate and the last movement is a turbulent beautiful tangled-up web of pain, grief and yearning. Schumann’s Cello Concerto is another example; it is so hard to play in part because it is so emotionally complex. Schumann suffered with mental illness and so the player must feel what Schumann was trying to convey through the movements. While practicing it, I had to read up on the piece to understand what kind of emotional expression I needed to bring to the piece.
I could talk about this album for ages. Heck, I would love to do a deeper musical analysis. But there’s only so much I can say about how much this album touched me on a personal level. This blog can’t do justice to how incredible and powerful Stripped is for me. Aguilera’s songs have lifted me, inspired me to keep going even when I don’t feel like I can. Here’s one of the songs:
Yesterday and today I did some research on orchestras in parts of the world outside of Europe and the Americas. I thought after the concert, Why am I not paying attention more to orchestras in Africa? After all, a lot of Western composers derived their melodies from Africa’s musical traditions, so it would seem fair to say that if we want to change the way people see classical music, we can’t just focus on Europe and the United States. So I looked up the history of classical music in countries such as Ghana, Uganda, and South Africa, and I learned that classical music in Africa is more prevalent than people would normally think. If you watch some of these orchestras, they’ve got so many members, and they also have music schools such as the Kampala Music School to promote early classical education. Of course, even though the tradition of classical music in Africa has roots in European colonialism, musicians in African countries have used music as a means of addressing social issues and getting through their daily lives. I wanted to know more because I haven’t read much about classical musicians going to Africa to perform. I first became interested when I found violinist Rachel Barton Pine’s coloring book of Black classical composers yesterday before the orchestra concert. I wanted to do more research and so this question popped in my mind: if we are trying to do outreach programs for Black and Latino students in the U.S., how have musicians in the rest of the African diaspora fared?
This isn’t the only clip I watched, but it gives a glimpse of the potential research I hope to continue as time goes on.
I just got done watching an incredible TED Talk by musicologist Christopher Lewis about the future of classical music. In this talk, he tells the audience that he asked people what they thought of when they thought of classical music, and most of them said it was snobby, pretentious and expensive. He then asked them if it was the industry that was snobby or the music itself that was snobby, and played them a classical piece. When he played the piece the people’s reactions immediately shifted and they said they loved the music and thought it was lovely.
Lewis argues that instead of playing in the same old traditional concert halls, musicians should play classical music in public venues where people can hear classical music without paying $100 for a ticket to the symphony. I’m not digging on the symphony in any way, and like Dr. Lewis, I myself am a classically trained musician. However, I found out this orchestra I love was playing the Schumann Cello Concerto and I was so excited to go, but by the time I got to buy the tickets they had already sold out of the $100 something seats in the front rows. I was bummed, but when I actually got into the auditorium I learned how to conquer my fear of heights because I was on the balcony looking down at the orchestra. I saw perfectly fine, but what was rather interesting to me was that there were more than a few of those $100 seats that were empty. Part of me wondered if next time, the orchestra ticket personnel should offer a discount if any $100 seats are left. But I also understood that musicians need to make money, and could understand why they were expensive. Still it boggled me why they would slap this huge price tag on it and then have empty seats. Then again, it’s not just classical concerts that are expensive. I can’t exactly envision Katy Perry charging anything less than $200 for front-row seats at any of her concerts.
Lewis continued the talk by sharing about music ensembles that were branching out to perform more than just classical repertoire. One of the groups plays everything from J.S. Bach to Beyonce, and another has a no-rules policy where audiences can mill about, be on their phones or chatting while listening to music. One of these groups even gives free wine and beer to people who attend. Now of course, I will say that I partially agree with the purists that being on a cell phone during a classical music performance (or really any kind of concert, be it Jay-Z or Kelly Clarkson) takes the fun out of just living in the moment and focusing on the music instead of the celebrity status of the performer. But I also understand that symphonies are long and I myself, even as a musician, have been guilty of falling asleep through other people’s performances. I just personally found that not being on my phone during the symphony concert I attended today helped me enjoy the music to its fullest. Also, I didn’t want to miss the cellist playing Schumann’s concerto because I love that piece and have been working on it for the past year or so with my teacher, so I wanted to know how to improve upon it by watching a more experienced performer play it. I cried throughout the performance because everyone was just so passionate and through their bodies they went beyond just technicalities and expressed their love for the music. I know technique is important in sounding good, but I couldn’t really hear anything off, not just because all the players were really good but also because they got so into the music, moving their bodies with the utmost soul. And the conductor was Ms. Sasha Fierce in the way she led the orchestra musicians, putting every ounce of soul in her movements and coordination. The cellist exerted himself so much in passionately playing his concerto that, during the parts where the orchestra plays, he had to blot his forehead with a handkerchief from his suit pocket. I envisioned myself playing that concerto and thought, I, one day, will be blotting my sweaty forehead as I saw away at that Schumann. All of this emotion I was able to feel deeply because I did not use my phone and just lived in the moment.
On the other hand, I understand from personal experience and frustration that just limiting classical music to concert halls isn’t going to address the still-existing issue of accessibility of classical music performances. Lewis’ friend told him that she loved classical music, but hated classical concerts because she didn’t know what to wear and didn’t know when to clap (after the piece is done? in between movements?). Lewis, a harpsichordist, said that he saw a harpsichord recital in a bar, and while he noticed that people were milling about and talking and drinking, they were also paying attention to the musician performing. I myself have asked this question multiple times when thinking about the purpose of my passion for music: do I want to spend my entire career playing in the same kind of golden elaborate venues? Not bashing these beautiful works of art, it’s just that I want to play in other venues, too. I want to go to Africa and play with musicians there. I want to play for homeless shelters, animal shelters, agricultural communities. I want to use my music to address social injustice such as gun violence and climate change. I basically want to go beyond what is traditional of classical musicians because I know so many who are doing it today. I know critics say that doing this somehow devalues classical music, but if we want to address the idea that classical music is dying, that no one likes it and that it is this high-class art that you must somehow be an expert in (thirteen years of playing so far and still learning a lot about composers and pieces. Trust me, I’m living proof). I remember playing in a bar/restaurant once and also a coffeeshop, but I don’t think it was the venue itself that was the problem, but mainly the fact that I worried about not getting paid for my performance, how people were going to think of me, if anyone would listen. I let my own self-doubt sway how I viewed performing in these public spaces. I always wonder sometimes, because I’m not performing for money anymore, if performing in public spaces means I’m making myself less of a professional musician. Yes, I understand you need to get paid, but that’s why I have a day job, so that I don’t need to worry about being paid for my music.
Lewis said that in 2018, classical music was the most streamed music genre, and that’s in part because people come into contact with classical music not just through recordings and concerts, but through film score music and video game music. Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman are two prominent examples. I don’t think classical music is dead; obviously if people are hearing it in movies, video games and commercials, it’s still very much alive. However, I agree with Lewis that the industry itself is so concerned about preserving this pristine image and keeping all these rules that we end up staying where we are instead of making progress. I myself need to remind myself that I don’t play music to show the top cellist of, let’s say, NY Phil, how good I am. I don’t like showing off anymore; I do it because I love it and it sounds pretty. Here is the full TED Talk below.
I was bored one day this past week and wanted to learn more about the music industry and the effect that streaming is having on artists, record company managers and consumers. I was watching some interviews that the late jazz singer Amy Winehouse did, and for some reason I thought, Hmmmm, maybe I should learn more about how people make it in the industry, and how prolific I need to be to do this. So I thought about streaming my music, but then it got complicated, I felt my recording could have been better, and also they were covers of songs by other artists and I didn’t have copyright permission yet, and so I ended up not streaming it or putting it on YouTube and playing it for my own pleasure.
At first I didn’t care much about the wider issues around the music industry and how it treats artists, but it led me thinking that even as a person you’d normally think of as a classical musician, I really want to unite with my fellow musicians in all different genres. I remember playing a gig for free one time at my job because I felt bad for saying “no” and thought it would be good for exposure, but then I told people I did it and some of them told me that it’s important to not play for free if people can afford to pay you for your performance. At first I had a careless attitude, thinking, Eh, no one really does music for money, especially classical musicians, so why should I demand pay?Why set rates if no one cares? (looking back, this thinking was ignorant and self-pitying) But then, a year goes on, and I still think about how salty I am for not getting paid my dues. Or even really speaking up for myself and straight-up telling the people I was playing for, Hey, I set this rate to pay for this much for this many hours, can you pay me? Of course, not like that, but somewhere along those lines.
I figured, If I’m going to be a musician who wants to collaborate with other artists, get a Grammy and expand my boundaries beyond the classical realm, then I need to know a thing or two about the biz itself. And I need to take my music seriously and strive to listen to and create as much music as possible, experiment for myself first before rushing to put out every piece for people. I decided to listen to my inner child and explore what was going on in the industry as someone who hasn’t what in mainstream terms people call “made it” in the big league industry yet. So out of sheer curiosity, I pored through dozens of articles after Google News-ing “the music industry” to see what was going on in the business. Here’s a few articles I found: