Author: Molly Raben

Music on trial

Sometime in these past few weeks, your parents likely purchased their tickets to Christmas Festival, or perhaps you have submitted a plea to the St. Olaf Extra email alias for said tickets. Maybe you have considered camping outside of the Buntrock Office to secure your spot as first in line for student tickets or have been prowling Craigslist, ready to capture your prey as soon as it presents itself. Christmas Festival certainly deserves the enthusiasm of its attendees. It is an absolutely joyous celebration presented with passion and the talent of our musically-inclined peers. I do love Christmas Fest; believe me, I have participated in many a Fest night.

I am, however, a bit saddened by the fact that its music overshadows that of its surrounding holidays. Mostly, those fine tunes associated with Halloween. Many of you will likely be celebrating the holiday this upcoming weekend and might be unsure of how to truly engage in the festivities. I have compiled a short list of my favorite Halloween songs in hopes that you will listen and find in them a true holiday spirit.

1. “Werewolves of London” from Warren Zevon’s 1978 album Excitable Boy

This song might just be the greatest party rock anthem ever written. Need I say any more? I will. Zevon opens with the line, “I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand,” painting the werewolf as a civilized being, but Zevon’s werewolves wreak havoc upon London – mutilating little old ladies, ripping out lungs and drinking Piña Coladas at Trader Vic’s. This is a great Halloween jam, not only for its subject matter, but also for the opportunity it presents in a group setting to sing a collective “Ahh-oooh” in imitation of the werewolves of London.

2. “The Witch” 1964 by the Sonics

Many have deemed the Sonics as the “first punk/grunge band,” and their 1964 hit “The Witch” certainly testifies to that title. The lyrics warn of a new female in town with “long black hair and a big black car” and advise listeners to steer clear of her “’cause she’s the witch.” Although she may not be the witch we would associate with Halloween a woman dressed in black with frizzy hair and a broomstick, it remains a fine tune for the holiday with its chromatic and distorted guitar lines and trembling organ accompaniment that make for a great boogie. I hope you do not meet the Sonics’ witch at the Grand or your various other weekend destinations.

3. “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” from “30 Rock,” Season 2, Episode 2, “Jack Gets Back in the Game”

If you have not seen this episode of 30 Rock, I highly recommend watching it – solely for this song. Tracy Jordan presents to his producer his novelty song “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah,” and it becomes the most memorable three minutes of the episode. In it, a werewolf comes to Jordan on the eve of his Bar Mitzvah celebration and gives him an order. “He says tomorrow, my son, you will be a man, but tonight’s the time to join the wolfen clan.” The narrative is sung over a good party groove featuring horns and female back-up vocalists – perfect for any Halloween celebration.

4. “Psycho Killer” 1977 by the Talking Heads

Talking Heads frontman David Byrne once said about this song: “When I started writing this, I imagined Alice Cooper doing a Randy Newman-type ballad.” If you have heard the hit, then you can perhaps understand Byrne’s remark. Over a driving bass and bright guitar groove, Byrne sings his chant-like melody, flying into his falsetto following refrains and slipping into French for the bridge. Although the singer claims, “I’m tense and nervous, and I can’t relax,” hopefully you will not be should this song start playing at upcoming Halloween gatherings.

5. “Nightmare on My Street” 1988 by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince aka, Will Smith

Do not listen to this song immediately before going to bed. It will keep you up awake and sweating in fear. In it, Will Smith tells his story of a night spent watching “Nightmare on Elm Street.” After returning home and climbing in bed, he awakens to the sound of the television and, thinking he is alone, walks into the living room and turns it off. His action does not go over well with the man watching TV: his sweater-clad neighbor, Fred, who says in a demonic voice, “You turned off David Letterman … now you must die!” This is a fantastic Halloween hit – check it out!

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Music on trial: a master’s works reworked

Much of the driving, repetitive music we listen to today can be traced back to the pioneering efforts of minimalist composer Philip Glass. Glass’s highly influential career spans over 40 years and includes works for a variety of musical ventures: chamber ensembles, solo instruments, orchestra, even operas and film scores, among others.

I now bring him up to highlight an upcoming album release in celebration of his 75th birthday, REWORK_Philip Glass Remixed out Oct. 23 on Orange Mountain Music/Ernest Jenning/The Kora Records. It is a collection of various Glass works re-envisioned by many musicians – Dan Deacon, Beck and Tyondai Braxton, just to name a few. Each composer remains true to Glass’s original compositions, yet masterfully displays the changes that have come about in the past 40-50 years and the influence he has had on every one of them.

The album opens with a re-working of Glass’s 1974 work “12 Parts-Part 1” by electronic music duo My Great Ghost. Through heavy use of electronics, this piece brings forth and showcases the more joyous elements of the original work so that it becomes upbeat and dance-like, far from its original format. The biting quality of the music places it more in the present, rather than a pure reflection of the past.

In contrast, Nosaj Things’s vision of “Knee I,” a piece from Glass’s pivotal 1975 opera Einstein on the Beach, is peaceful and reflecting. It employs synthesized strings and samples of the original vocal parts amidst its foggy texture. Unlike the fierce quality of its predecessor, this reworking is hypnotic and detached, highlighting the nostalgic aspects of the project.

Dan Deacon’s cover of “Alright Spiral Snip” is an effective example of how Glass continues to influence today’s up-and-coming composers. Deacon does not stray from his own distinctive style, yet uses instrumentation that recalls early Philip Glass – synthesized wind instruments and strings. His take on this piece feels everlasting because of the dissonance that constantly invades the music and finally gives way to a lush wash of sound at its end.

Another highlight of the album is Tyondai Braxton’s reworking of “Rubric.” This track is especially intriguing because of its heavy club beat supporting the twinkle of bells and percussion on top. Glass’s minimalist work has, since its beginnings, influenced the progression of dance music and we can hear it on occasional Saturday nights in the Pause.

Beck contributes the most monumental piece to the record: a 20 minute weaving-together of more than 20 Glass works, titled “NYC: 73-78.” His goal in this was to display the continuum of the composer’s ideas and the progression of his genre. Listening to this work, I was amazed at how fresh it sounded. It is as though Beck himself wrote the music and intends to release it on his own forthcoming album, although much of it has been public for 40 years. His patchwork project comes off seamlessly. The result is coherent and fluid from one sample to another, reflecting the graceful evolution and timelessness of Glass’s music.

Although the songs from this album will likely not be featured on popular radio or come up in daily conversation, I felt it important to draw attention to the release. Philip Glass paved the path for many of his followers and genres, as evidenced in this celebration of his 75 years.

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Music on trial

As a rather impressionable 15-year-old, my older sister often hauled me around with her to support her local musician friends at their various performances throughout the Illinois Valley.

This was a treat for my teenage self and even more so when her friends Will and Alex, collectively known as Taxflo, played in the area. These guys really set themselves apart from the small town-Illinois scene: They performed ambient sounds with guitars, drums, electronics and, occasionally, vocals.

I often became entranced by their Sigur Ros-like music when hearing them live and was thrown through a loop when, one day, my sister and I arrived at the town coffee shop to hear them play only to find their equipment to be replaced by toy piano, little drums, recorders and a harp. Fortunately, these changes made a positive impression on me, and I am excited to hear this same music on Saturday in the Lair.

Harpist and songwriter Timbre performed with Taxflo that evening so many years ago, and, if you so choose, you can also hear her live. I highly recommend you attend and also that you listen to her music beforehand. Her entire recorded collection is available on bandcamp

Timbre’s sound is warm and inviting, often adding multiple instruments and vocals on top of her harp lines. On one of her latest releases, Little Flowers, sounds of brass, strings and percussion, along with the percussive quality of her harp contribute to a very joyful and quietly energetic tone. The title track of the album, “Little Flowers,” contains an especially effective use of accordion in duet with harp.

Timbre is traveling to Northfield from Nashville, so please, if you can, show your support and help her have a great visit to campus.

Also this weekend, campus bands Midnight Moonshine, Merino Wool and The Glorious Misfortune are performing in the Pause on Friday at 8 p.m. We are fortunate enough to have fine musicians surrounding us on campus, and I am sure they would much appreciate your attendance this weekend.

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Music on Trial: Something new, something old.

As the transition into fall surrounds us here on the Hill, I have been looking and listening forward to new album releases while not forgetting the past: e.g., the golden year of 1982. I shall begin with the changes now upon us.

Out Oct. 2, Steven Ellison’s a.k.a. Flying Lotus new album is a presentation of rich electronic textures over the top of which plays bells, harps, guitars, auxiliary percussion and voices including that of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. During the past decade, Ellison has been instrumental in the development of the hip-hop scene in Los Angeles and his latest release evidences this fact.

Until the Quiet Comes opens with an ethereal sound of harp arpeggios accompanied by beats, shaker and synthesizer. This rather effective atmospheric quality remains throughout the first half of the album, shimmering within each track.

A change occurs at the crux of the work. The mechanical and otherworldly mood of the opening tracks gives way to a more earthy sound presented in “DMT Song” through syncopated beats and lush string accompaniment. The album comes alive through these contrasts and its seamless transitions create a very comfortable and balanced divergence of material, reflective of Ellison’s background in hip-hop/jazz fusion.

Flying Lotus’ album is a continuous work that makes it difficult for one to pause the music at any certain point. Without strong cadences, Ellison is able to lure his listeners in with a steady yet ever-changing tone. If you are hoping to hear his new album and I recommend you do so, it will be available on NPR Music for the next few days and will be released by Warp Records on Oct. 2. Unfortunately, Flying Lotus will not be stopping by Minneapolis on his upcoming tour; however, if you happen to be in Chicago over fall break, you can catch him at the Metro on Oct.16.

Although Ellison will not be gracing us with his presence, one of my favorite artists, Laurie Anderson, will be performing at the Walker Art Center in early November. I bring Anderson up because she is a pioneer in electronic music and made possible much of what Ellison created on his forthcoming release. If you get the chance, I recommend you listen to her pivotal work, Big Science 1982. The album contains her most well known track, “O Superman For Massenet.” A combination of minimalist ostinato, melody spoken into a vocoder, saxophone and bird sounds, the song creates a similar ethereal mood to that heard in Flying Lotus’ new album. The dark mood of this piece is paired with that of the opening track, “From the Air,” and many others on the album. However, Anderson balances their seriousness in both music and content with lighter, horn-filled tracks such as “Example #22.”

Laurie Anderson’s work remains significant not only for its musical innovations, but also for its political statements. She performed “O Superman” at a concert in New York a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. She spoke the original lyrics on this night: “This is the hand, the hand that takes / Here come the planes / They’re American planes. Made in America / Smoking or non-smoking?” Anderson claims these words, when premiered in 1982, were commentary on the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-80. After performing the piece during the aftermath of 9/11, the lyrics have gained new topical significance. If you have not heard this track and have interest in either of these times in our history, I advise you to listen closely to Anderson’s album.

I certainly hope that if you decide to listen to my recommended pairing of albums, you enjoy them both very much.

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Music column – Live music: I cannot live without it

Last Saturday, I had the privilege of spending my evening at the State Theater in downtown Minneapolis where David Byrne and St. Vincent presented a concert together in promotion of their recent album release, “Love This Giant.” For those who may not be familiar with these musicians, I will gladly paint you a picture: Byrne is a musician, artist, filmmaker and writer ­- a true renaissance man best known for founding the Talking Heads, an American new wave band active from 1976 to 1988. St. Vincent, or rather, Annie Clark, is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist renowned for her most recent solo album, Strange Mercy 2011.

Their collaborative performance was truly a feast for both ears and eyes. I laughed. I cried. I danced more than I ever have and nearly peed myself out of enthusiasm for their music. This powerful experience of live music forced me to reflect upon the tradition of live performance, and I would like to share my thoughts with you.

During the upstart of the recording industry in 1906, John Philip Sousa commented on the emerging institution: “These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy . . . in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs.”

Prior to the introduction of “talking machines,” people had to gather to listen to music, as Sousa made clear in his objection to the recording devices of his day. Sound was evanescent – it could only be heard live. The ability to record sound has made listening to music a much more personal and often solitary experience.

Although I do not believe this is a problem in the slightest, it remains a curious behavior to me. We so often close ourselves off to our surroundings by closing our ears with those notorious white buds. It is a beautiful thing that we can listen to any music at any time and in any place; however, would it not be more beautiful to share that experience with those with whom we are close? Or anyone, for that matter? As I bopped along to the sweet sounds of Byrne and St. Vincent last weekend, I felt connected to the strangers surrounding me. We all made the decision to be in that place that night and were all swallowed up by the same remarkable sights and sounds in the room. It was an exhilarating event that had a similar emotional impact on many people in the space, thus bringing us together.

In addition to feeling the connectedness of the audience, the opportunity to see and hear a favorite performer live can engage you so much more in his or her music. Professional musicians are no longer selling their products as they once were so must play more concerts in order to financially sustain themselves. Attending live performances offers support to individual artists and the general music industry.

So, as students living in rural Minnesota, what can we experience here? This weekend, your peers will be presenting their musical talents in Skoglund in celebration of Homecoming Weekend: the St. Olaf Band will perform Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Manitou and Viking Choruses with the Norseman Band and Philharmonia will take the stage Sunday at 3:30 p.m. Besides our own revered ensembles, St. Olaf will host many musicians in the Pause and the Lair this school year keep an eye on my column-I will try to highlight these events as they approach. The town of Northfield, as many of you know, also offers a plethora of opportunity to hear live music at The Contented Cow, The Tavern, Hogan Brothers and The Chapel, among others. And, if you feel like crossing the bridge, Carleton’s Cave will host a variety of bands and music events in the coming year. Thanks for reading, and please support musicians!

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