Beautiful Things

Heard this song in church this morning, coming off from an extremely rough week of practicing, a piano competition, and work.

All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found
Could a garden come up from this ground at all

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

This song is hopeful without being saccharine, reassuring without coming across as empty. It’s just straightforward, direct, and honest. It doesn’t make a hard thing seem simple, or a simple thing seem difficult. It just says what is truth.

Because sometimes we need to know that beautiful things can come out of the dust. That out of “old ground” hope can spring up and new life can be found.

All around
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found in You

It’s a music typewriter

Saw this on my twitter feed this morning, via @kickassical.

Source

I want to know if it actually works. And who built it. It does look pretty cool… judging from what’s going on the music behind it, I’m guessing it’s more for the novelty than for anyone wanting software that can format their musical composition into some nice format. You can’t bar eighth or sixteenth notes, and I think placement of sharps or flats could get tricky.

Still doesn’t compare to Sibelius. Or Finale.

It’s still kind of cool, though.

In other news, Google’s homepage today is featuring a special playable guitar logo in honor of the 96th birthday of musician Les Paul, someone I’ve personally never heard of but was apparently a prominent guitar builder and musician notable for his use of “overdubbing,” or layering guitar sounds over each other. He earned two Grammys before his death. More information here in PC mag.

The cool thing about this special guitar logo (and I think Google’s engineers have really outdone themselves) is that not only can you play music, but you could also record a little ditty of your own composition and send it to your friends.

It seems as though all the musicians (and even non-musicians) in my facebook newsfeed are enjoying it.

I’m pretty happy about it.

Love is a rebellious bird

The Habanera is a famous aria from the opera Carmen, often sung by female vocalists at the height of their profession.

Wikipedia notes,

It is based on a descending chromatic scale followed by variants of the same phrase in first the minor and then the major key, corresponding with the vicissitudes of love expressed in the lyrics.

It has also been arranged for various instruments, and one of my favorites is the arrangement for two pianos done by piano duo Anderson and Roe (jump to about 3:35 for the Habanera theme) and filmed in both the concert hall, with concert grands, and an intimate garden setting on upright pianos:

And then there’s this version, filmed in an old warehouse:

The latter is a clearly nuanced interpretation, with Beaker’s clear soprano declaiming the lines “MEEP MEEP MEEP” and the Swedish Chef’s steady underlying rhythmic background. Animal provides what would be originally the chorus’s interlude, and he provides it with character.

rah rah rah RAHHH!

Beaker’s rose is also a nice touch.

All in all, a truly thrilling performance.

So Much For the Duck

Art is never a passive experience.

When you start a non-profit arts organization, you want something that will not only be fulfilling to all the people involved (dancers, artists, musicians) but an organization which can give something beautiful and meaningful to the surrounding community. It’s not just about giving kids something to do on the weekends or after school, it’s in part about teaching them the value that art can have in the life of those around them — the “perceivers” of the art as well as those making it.

Ultimately, you want it to be an active participation or a dialogue between concertgoer and musician, audience and dancer, gallery visitor and painter.

An exchange…

The State Ballet of Rhode Island, resident non-profit dance company of my home state, is such an organization. Ever since its inception by artistic director Herci Marsden 51 years ago, it has provided a nurturing environment for young dancers to gather and polish their art in the form of choreography as well as motion, and then present the results to the surrounding community. When I was younger, around 10-12, I’d actually been a member, participating in probably three or four of the shows before deciding to do something else.

I was really cute, even though I must have been pretty awful. Even so many years later, I do remember the effort they took to make it a legit ballet performance, rather than a glorified dance recital. My siblings are still active participants, and twice a year, I’ve gone to shows. In the past few years, I’ve noticed that they’ve been making changes, taking steps to “keep up with the times,” so to speak. Some changes were the addition of a Facebook page, another an overhaul of the website, Cultural Enrichment programs at local schools around the state, and still others the addition of several more smaller, more select performances and collaborations placing them in the public eye (such as with the Gloria Gemma Foundation, to mention a recent one).

The most obvious is the changes that they have been making with the performance experience itself. What about the integration of other forms of art, or taking elements from the past or traditional dance styles, and mixing them with new ones?

With this excitement, I attended the State Ballet of Rhode Island’s spring show, Artists in Motion, on April 30, at Rhode Island College.

I was not disappointed.

The program featured three different one act ballets. Tying them together was the fact that each ballet was choreographed by three different generations of dancers, from Shana Fox Marceau to her mother Ana Marsden Fox to the artistic director, Herci Marsden herself. These three different ballets were unique to each choreographer in terms of styling. Fox, as a person who loves making people laugh, favors simple storylines filled with humor, while Shana tends to go for precise, synchronous movements and beautiful symmetry. Marsden’s ballets are always elegant and deeply passionate. In terms of programming, none of the ballets felt jarring or out of place, and each choreographer used her stylistic strengths to her best advantage.

The first ballet was Ana Marsden Fox’s premiere of Petra and the Vuk, or an adaption of Peter and the Wolf. I always like adaptations when done well. Tradition is good, but adding a new angle to an old ballet is always refreshing. Obviously, Peter was replaced by Petra, played by the talented Holly Fusco. As demonstrated through the title of the play, Fox drew on her Slavic heritage for inspiration, incorporating Slavic traditional dance here and there through the piece. The names of the characters were in Slavic. Even the theme, composed by Prokofiev, was played on traditional Slavic instruments at the outset and near the close. The audience was encouraged to laugh at the duck (charmingly portrayed by Peg Chobanian), cheer when the wolf (Mark Marsden) was captured, and clap in time to the music. I liked it.

Impressions of the Sky, by Shana Fox Marceau, followed. This ballet was a distinctly different style, largely impressionistic rather than having any sort of story line. According to my sisters, the ballet was originally choreographed by Marsden, but in the present, they only had a fuzzy video recording that did little to preserve the original. Marceau decided to do a fresh choreograph around what they could pick out from the old version. Similar to Fox’s incorporation of Slavic elements, Marceau used contemporary dance elements to evoke impressions of the sky, from the rising sun, showers ahead, dusk, storm clouds, the calm before, and lightning (the truly exhilarating Zapped).

I’ve watched a couple of Marceau’s dances before, and was hugely impressed by the sheer energy and coordination. This ballet did not fail to disappoint. Marceau’s dancers are always perfectly synchronized. Every step was exactly in place. Whenever one group left the stage, another group would soon follow. Marceau’s insertion of modern dance elements into classical ballet is successful. Each movement belongs. It brings to mind a tapestry with many threads interlocked. One thread breaks, the whole thing might fall apart. I couldn’t help but feel new appreciation for the work of the dancers in synchronizing the movements, as well as for the choreographer for making such an energetic and precisely woven work. Marceau also showed her versatility as well as her creativity through the haunting and enigmatic section “The Cloud,” where dancer Elizabeth Cyganoski as a solo female dancer danced, yet never touched the ground. At the end, I felt exhilaration, and I think many of my follow audience members did, as evidenced by the cheers that erupted.

Click to enlarge.

Concluding the set was Marsden’s Pictures at an Exhibition, music by Mussorgsky. The piano music was composed after the sudden death of his dear friend and artist Viktor Hartmann. Viewing the paintings of Viktor Hartmann, Mussorgsky was inspired to write his suite, with each piece based on a particular painting by the artist: paintings of sound. This collection became his most famous suite of piano pieces, and is often performed today. I have never played them. The version used for this ballet was probably Ravel’s orchestration.

I tried to go online to find examples of Hartmann’s work, and unfortunately, few survived. However, in other bit of ingenuity, Marsden and several of the company members arranged to have artists in different media (paint, photography, digital imaging, charcoal) from the surrounding community and within the dance program bring in artworks that they had made based on impressions they had gotten from listening to the music. Managed by Peg Chobanian, graduate of Rhode Island College with a studio art degree, these pieces of art were set up in a gallery next to the auditorium for the audience members’ viewing pleasure. Entitled “The Artist Exchange,” this was a successful example of how music, dance, and even visual art can be used in harmony to enhance the experience and expand the dialogue amongst different kinds of artists and audiences members.

Throughout the ballet itself, these pieces of art would be projected on the wall whenever the “Promenade” (impression of the composer himself walking around viewing the artwork) was played. There was quite a variety of art involved, and I was amazed at the sheer talent of the artists. This, together with Marsden’s skillful choreography, formed an experience that probably affected me a lot more than I expected. It all started with the paintings by Hartmann. The composer may have painted the characters and scenes of his friend’s paintings into sound, but Marsden brought the characters into life and set them into motion.

click to enlarge

Also, never have I seen such emphasis placed on the music and the genius of the composer than in this ballet. Even several weeks later, I feel emotional just thinking about that final closing scene where the dancers, still in character, come on stage with this long sheet of cloth with the actual notes of the composition (I didn’t bother to check, but I’m taking their word for it) painted on it and dramatically paying homage to the composer by placing the cloth in front of him and kneeling before him in a wonderful act of reverence. You have to see it to believe it. It was a fitting conclusion not only to the piece itself, but the entire program.

So in conclusion, this show was one of the most enjoyable I have been to in a while, and perhaps one of their best in recent years. I would also be amiss if I did not mention the talent of some of the young dancers in the company. They not only have great technical ability and power of expression, but if what I heard is true, they have discipline to get where they need to be, as well as a strong commitment to their art. It is clear to me that SBRI is developing artists who, even if they stop dancing, will always remember this exchange of which they are a part. SBRI is going in a good direction with their thinking, and I am certain that the exchange they have fostered will continue.

Here’s to an exchange…

*Pictures taken by me. Not to be used without my permission, unless you are from the State Ballet of RI. 

For more pictures of the show, check out my public album on Facebook. 

Illusions: Review of Lindsay Aline’s Debut Album

I heard of singer/songwriter Lindsay Aline from a Facebook ad. I just happened to glance over when I was playing Cafe World (don’t judge me) and see her name. I’m all about finding gems of albums and artists that few people have heard about, and which I think more people should know about, and I found her background intriguing. However, I did not get her CD until very recently, when she and her managers sent out a call for bloggers interested in reviewing her debut album, Illusion. I received the album in the mail about two months ago, and since then, I’ve listened to it quite a bit.

Lindsay Aline does not seem to be a person who shies away from heartbreaking honesty. Her biography mentions a fall into disillusionment and discouragement and eventual burnout, a painful situation for any artist to go through. She makes no secret of her struggle to find her voice and regain her love of music. Such experience and maturity makes its way into empowering themes such as those in the title track, “Illusion.”

As for first impressions, I was struck by the beauty of her voice. There is this lovely soaring, ethereal quality to it which reminds me somewhat of Enya. She has cultivated a very pure sound, and I think here is where her classical influence is most obvious. Her voice stands out from a lot of the other artists I know partly because of this very “refined” sound, with a certain calm elegance, for lack of a better way to describe it. I think most prominent artists (Sara Bareilles, Brooke Fraser, Taylor Swift) in the music industry nowadays tend to be self-taught, and Lindsay’s extensive background of arts songs and arias is fairly unique in this regard.

She’s also pretty cute.

Further evidence of her musical training shows. Her diction is very clear and precise. I never have a problem making out the lyrics, and this is a plus because I often feel as if I’m struggling to hear lyrics in otherwise sound albums (Brooke Fraser’s voice is hard for me to make out sometimes). Her range is incredibly versatile: in the title track “Illusion,” her voice soars nearly effortlessly (perhaps there is some tension the higher it goes, but still) into melismas that I can’t even attempt to reach. In the next track, “What Would It Be Like,” her voice dips beautifully into a lower range with more somber thematic material. Though I favor her lower range and wish she would use it more, she does showcase her higher range more.

As an arranger, Lindsay Aline is particularly skilled at bringing together voices and instruments and sounds to forge an unique effect. What stands out to me is the layering of voices in songs such as “Reach” and “Eye Contact.” Linking all these different styles and instruments and sounds is Lindsay Aline’s expressive voice, which remains pure, ethereal, yet strong throughout each track.

However, with all that said, I come to the weakest part of the album: her lyrics. Even before I became a literature major, I’ve loved words. When listening to a pop album, words are what pull me in, even more so sometimes than the beat or the melody. If a song has a good melody but poor lyrics, I might be disinclined to listen to it again. If a song has good lyrics but a blah melody, I might listen to it a couple of times more before putting it aside. If a song has good melodies and good lyrics, that will probably be my new favorite song, and I will listen it to death.

Lindsay Aline’s lyrics are not horrible, but they could use a lot of tightening up. Certain passages seem clunky and awkward, placed at odds with Lindsay’s smooth voice and her flowing melody.

From “Eye Contact”:

Eyes wander a crowd, search for a match
Heart recognize the heat, another pair trying to catch

This is probably one of my favorites of the album, in terms of melody. However, these lyrics gave me pause. While I can identify with the theme of meeting someone one enchanted evening, I’m not sure the lyrics truly capture this magic. To me, it seems as if a lot of the words were used just to fit the melody, or to make the syllables match, rather than melody into words and vice versa.

In “Please”:

Please, please, please shine again, please
They say that dark is void of light

I want to help, I want to be support

Again, “dark is void of light” was perhaps not the smoothest word choice. Perhaps another word to describe these lyrics is “obvious,” and especially in that last line I used in the example. The expressions and metaphors Lindsay uses can be kind of cliche at times.

Lindsay Aline at her release concert

But I am not here to give a critique her lyrics. In spite of this weakness, I truly enjoyed the first song, “Reach,” with its ultimately upbeat message. And of course there’s “Illusion” as well as the aforementioned contemplative “What Would It Be Like,” which drew me in with its wandering melody and Lindsay’s gorgeous lower register. The more I listened to that song, the more I fell in love with it.

And then there’s “What a Day,” impossibly catchy and with lyrics I can honestly say are truly magical. Set against a backdrop of simple piano and guitar, with Lindsay’s expressive voice, this song truly evoked the feeling of sun, oceans of miracles, and “ends we can’t see.”

I loved it.

In terms of songwriting, Lindsay Aline, though promising, has some ways to go. Even though I am not a fan of her lyrics, I am confident that she will tighten up her records with a little more time, experience and experimentation. I wish her luck in her music career, and look forward to seeing what else she comes up with. I really believe she has a big future ahead of her, and I am sure that she will embrace that future with fearlessness.

*Apologies about the lateness in reviewing! Finals caught up to me somewhat, and though I had notes, I did not have the time to sit down and put them together. To Lindsay Aline’s management team, thank you for your patience!

Samples of Illusion are available to listen on Lindsay Aline’s website here.

To purchase, go here.

Pictures are from website and facebook page, and are used only with Lindsay Aline’s permission.

Making Art

My writer friend April lately wrote a blog post about hobbies.

She stated that many of her friends have hobbies and other things they love to do outside of their day jobs. For example, her husband (congratulations to her on her recent nuptials, by the way!) is a woodworker who makes boxes, articles of furniture, wine stoppers, even candlesticks. He takes the wood and finds the beauty in the wood, the “colors and shades and swirls and designs” that is present in the bark of the tree, and coaxes it out, making it into something that is both beautiful and serviceable.

Then she wrote about something that struck her as someone who wants to become published:

Everyone acknowledges the work it takes to grow a successful garden or knit a winter scarf or restore an old rocking chair. But people who aren’t writers assume it’s easy. They assume it’s a non-issue. We just pound out words in the form of a story. Anyone could do that.

I agreed. I feel as if people don’t realize just how hard it is. Just sit down and pound out some words — how easy is that?

But then I realized…

The hard part is not getting the words down, but making it art.

It’s never going to be an issue for me to write down words. Most people can string words together to make sentences, and string sentences together to make paragraphs. Whether those sentences or paragraphs make sense together or even alone is a different matter. It’s easy to understand the concept of writing down an idea or statement.

I could always write down words on a piece of paper. But to make those words something people can feel, identify with, and enjoy — to make those words simply understandable — is something that takes a great deal of skill. A great deal of skill that may take years and years to learn. A skill which even now I am learning, and will continue to learn for the rest of my life.

It’s similar with music. People think it’s so easy to just sit down and play a tune at a piano. Anyone can look at notes and plink them out on the keys — how hard is that? I have friends who believe that being a classical musician, or learning to be one, is easy because all you have to do is read music and play the notes right. To them, it doesn’t seem to be a hard area of study because all one has to do is look at the sheet music and simply follow the composer’s instructions.

Not hard, is it?

You’d be surprised.

But it’s not at all about that. There’s expression, articulation, the way a cadence has to be ended just right, the push and lift of the pedal in between chords, so many things. So many things that go into making a piece of a music more than mere sounds, but something that can touch the soul and lift the spirit and to put it in the words of an old cliche, make the world into a better place.

It’s not just reading forte or piano and thinking to yourself that you have to play it loud there, and soft elsewhere, though dynamics are important. It’s not just looking at the tempo and playing it at that tempo, though that is good as well. It’s going deeper than what is written and feeling what the music is really about: gratitude and humility and emotion and a reply.

Things which can be so easily forgotten.

The hard part is not getting the words down or the notes right, but making it art.

Pictures taken by me. Not to be used without permission.

Memories

I’m making lists again. This time it’s one of memories of the Atlantic Music Festival, my first music festival ever, and one of the best things that ever happened to me. It was hectic at times, practicing and getting ready for lessons and concerts (I actually only had one of the latter), but I think I want to go back next year if I can rob enough banks and mooch enough money off my parents and grandparents.

And of course, if I can improve my musicianship.

But the best things that strike me about this music festival is the memories. The little things that happened. The funny things people said that became inside jokes.

In the end, it was a truly inspiring experience.

So here are some of those little memories, in no particular order.

1. Going to McDonalds and waiting at least a half hour for a taxi.

2. Midnight games of Jenga aka Jumbling Towers, accompanied by cookies, chips, and alcohol (which I didn’t drink much of).

3. Stealing cookies from the dining hall for said midnight games.

4. Playing (or in my case listening to) string quartets played just because. And then getting four emails afterwards from administration because of complaints about the noise.

5. Waiting until 10 PM for the practice room sign-up sheets.

6. Amazing concerts.

7. Running around campus taking pictures with a borrowed camera, set to macro lens.

8. Fighting the field hockey camp for food and ice cream every meal.

9. The ice cream party after the last student piano recital. Blueberry ice cream with gummy bears, and taking goofy pictures of each other.

10. FAIL.

11. Solomon dude.

12. Sheridan Seyfried’s Sextet. No. Words.

13. Church bells suddenly echoing while a piece dies away. Quite magical.

14. Friendships.

15. The opera people singing a rendition of the Magic Flute to thank the cafeteria people on my very last night…

And above all, a reply.