Spring is Coming, and Not a Moment Too Soon

Wash

This sign made us smile while we waited in a long line at the car wash recently.

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Another snow day. It’s been a rough winter here in the Northeastern US. We wonder if our Butterfly Bush will survive the cold. The Rhododendron’s leaves are rolled up so tight, they look like pencils. When we shovel, there’s no place to put more snow.

What brings a sense of hope is that March has now arrived. With that more cheerful thought in mind, we bring you a Visualization to music that is a favorite in our “Music is Brain Food” workshops.

A Visualization is a form of Meditation. It employs images to take the listener on an inward journey of personal discovery. Music adds another dimension to this process as it resonates in the body.

Click on the button below to go on your own journey.

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If you’d like to listen to this atmospheric music all by itself as well–we use Claude Debussy’s Nuages played by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy–click on the button below.

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A Great Passion for Music

Josh and Lynne Berrett

Josh and Lynne having fun “playing the building” in NYC

Interviewing people about the music they love to listen to is endlessly fascinating. Every story is different. Yet, a common thread runs through them: they are all stories of discovery and a deep commitment to consciously choosing the music in their lives. We find this inspiring and contagious.

We hope you can approach the music we include in these posts with a sense of curiosity and in a spirit of exploration. Perhaps you will want to share your musical preferences with us too. Perhaps you will find yourself listening to “your” own music more consciously–with even greater appreciation for its value to you in ways you have not recognized before.

So, as the last interview of 2014, we bring you the story of Frank. Now 58, Frank has been passionate about the blues since the age of eleven. He speaks of how he gets a thrill–a physical feeling–“everything starts to tingle”–as a melody gets into his heart.

Growing up in a coal mining family in West Germany during the years of the Cold War, he was always hearing music around him. His grandfather sang in a Communist choir, and his father played guitar and sang German and French folk songs. The American Music Hour broadcast by Radio Luxembourg made a lasting impression on him. He vividly remembers lying in bed at night, listening enraptured until well after midnight through his hand-held transistor radio and ear plugs while reading under the covers with a flashlight.

The death of his father when he was still quite young brought a time of great trial and tribulation. He ran away from home and ended up living with three different families. Music was his salvation during that dark period, he says.

As he grew older, and especially after coming to the States, Frank developed ever broader musical tastes, ranging from Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, and Dvorak (he particularly loves the artistry of the great violinist Jascha Heifetz) to the music of Africa and Latin America to American icons like Jimi Hendrix, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Johnson, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane.

But the heart and soul of his musical passion is still the blues, particularly the work?of the acoustic slide guitarist Ry Cooder. Frank is in awe of Cooder?s gift for interconnecting a great variety of?musical genres. Frank has created a website to celebrate his passion for acoustic, folk and country blues in the 21st Century (http://www.thecountryblues.com).

You can find dozens of artists? profiles there, ranging from the internationally famous to more locally or regionally known musicians. He speaks with special warmth about John Jackson (1924-2002), an illiterate musician from the Fairfax, Va. area who was deeply immersed in the oral African-American tradition.

Here is a sample of Jackson?s music-making called “Red River Blues”:

Like many of our interviewees, Frank is someone with a passion for music who has other passions that are also important to him. He has been director of marketing and communications at a major manufacturer of motor speed controllers for battery-powered and electric vehicles for some twenty years–work he enjoys. Music is a vital part of his day in the office. He credits it with being a source of inspiration, sparking his mind when he writes. It is his comfort food too, helping him deal with everyday stress.

Here are two more examples from his must-have listening list:

Ry Cooder, “Chicken Skin Music” –(Hawaiian and Tex-Mex fusion)

Jimi Hendrix, “Axis: Bold as Love” (the first record Frank ever bought)

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© Wickedgood | Dreamstime.comJimi Hendrix Advertisement For George Kalinsky Photo

 Click on the button below to listen.

What music helps you deal with stress? Share in a Comment.

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The Fountain of Youth

One of the more inspiring ways different generations can bond through music is described in this post. Research tells us that positive inter-generational connections are important for our well being.

Here is an exciting example of one way to create a bridge when you listen to music with someone of another generation. If each of you shares what you like about the recording, what happens?

Let us know here. Leave a comment.
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Singer, Tony Bennett, now 88, has just released a duet album, “Cheek to Cheek,” with Lady Gaga, age 28, which quickly became No. 1 on Billboard.

Drawing upon the wisdom of his long and rich experience, Bennett says of his current music-making: “I’ve learned that it’s what you leave out of a performance, not what you put into it. Less is more. It’s not because of age, but it’s the right thing to do.”

The extent of his engagement with other singers, many of them half his age and more, is nothing short of astonishing. This goes back more than ten years now and includes names like K.D. Lang, Amy Winehouse, Sheryl Crow, Andrea Bocelli, and Mariah Carey. What is even more remarkable is how these collaborations have tapped hitherto unknown abilities in singers like Lady Gaga, who in the current duet album performs against type–and does so in superb fashion.

The title track,”Cheek to Cheek,” a 1935 classic with words and music by Irving Berlin, first made famous by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, is given fresh life here by our two virtuosi. Listen to how the melodic line is developed from a simple melodic cell of adjacent notes. (If you listen carefully, by the way, you can hear a resemblance to Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 53!) The word painting is such that the melody perfectly matches the intimacy suggested by the lyrics.

For your listening pleasure (share it with someone younger or older, please!):

Vital cue: Track 2, 2:04 on bottom of screen, Lady Gaga sings “Heaven, I’m in Heaven…”

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvXGUzUR-xU

Vital cue: 0:42 on bottom of screen for melodic cell that quite possibly inspired Irving Berlin.

Vladimir Horowitz performing Chopin Polonaise in A-flat

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George Gershwin: “Stairway to Paradise”

From Josh: I am having a ball these days teaching a course, for mature adults, on George Gershwin for the Lifetime Learners Institute at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. The many people in my class are so engaged that they give me a special energy. In fact, we seem to energize one other.

One of the recent highlights of the class was my presenting one of Gershwin’s early hits, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” a showstopper from the George White Scandals of 1922. This was an extravaganza in the mold of The Ziegfeld Follies, with girls dressed in black patent leather strutting up a glittering staircase.

More than anything else from that show, it is this music and its lyrics –Ira Gershwin had a hand in them– that live on. The exuberant introduction to the song begins with a bold leap of an octave (“I’ll…build…”), shortly followed by a juicy, bluesy note (listen to the minor sound on the word “Para…dise”). The upward leap of an octave so often signifies great energy in music, the sense of being transported to another, better place—famously in the very first word of that classic pop song “Some…where over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. (Try singing it and you will hear what I mean.)

Listen to the catchy, bouncy rhythm of the opening verse, and the buoyant rising melodic line accompanying the words, “All you preachers who delight in panning dancing teachers….” The words that follow deliver an upbeat message to get up and move around: “It’s madness to be always sitting around in sadness, when you could be learning the steps of gladness.” Brain research these days is underscoring the importance of doing just this!

As it also underscores the importance of expanding your horizons, when the song’s chorus continues: “ I’ll build a stairway to Paradise with a new step every day.” Not only a physical step, but the openness to trying something new each day.

Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks give a rousing rendition of this old song with vocals near the beginning of the biopic The Aviator. In the plush setting of the Coconut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles the young Howard Hughes, a man of soaring ambition, is seeking backing for his aeronautic ventures to the accompaniment of Gershwin’s music—a truly vivid aural analogue to what is to be played out in the movie.

And for a snappy, irresistible fox trot version, nothing can match the 1922 recording made by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra shortly after the premiere of the George White Scandals earlier that year. It brings back for me happy memories of listening when I was writing my book, Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz (Yale University Press, 2004). What is also worth noting is that the George White Scandals of 1922 brought George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman together and led to a commission that forever changed music history—the writing of Rhapsody in Blue, premiered on February 12, 1924

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_K6kuribsJE

 

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A Poignant Tribute

Early in the morning of Friday, August 15, 2014, less than a week after the fatal shooting the previous Saturday of African-American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, rapper J. Cole ( Jermaine Lamarr Cole) posted his tribute song “Be Free” to the online audio platform SoundCloud, where users can upload tracks and share them through social media.

A little more than six hours later it had become the most talked about song on Twitter, and by afternoon it had gone viral, having been listened to over 250,000 times.

We are profoundly moved by the way the raw emotions aroused by the shooting have been sublimated and poignantly expressed in J. Cole’s song. Listen to the painful vulnerability in his breaking voice as he repeats the refrain, “All we want to do is take the chains off, All we want to do is be free.”

This certainly gives the lie to the stereotype of rap as simply loud, angry, racist gangster stuff saturated with references to misogyny and physical violence. (The complete lyrics, by the way, are available online.)

As you listen below, notice how the lyrics are greatly enhanced by the musical underpinning–an unchanging four-measure phrase stated some forty times, using three basic chords presented with a limping syncopation.

The bass line, which oscillates between the pitches of F and E, the melody itself, and two of the three chords draw entirely upon on what is called “the Phrygian mode”—a scale going back many centuries to Medieval practice.

You can try it out yourself by playing only the white piano keys from E to E. One of its distinctive features is the half-step between the first two notes, from E to F. This sound has been used by many composers to suggest the stark and the timeless.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OEQYn4qHqBE

Here is something else that might surprise you: it can be instructive to compare J. Cole’s “Be free” to two other modern examples of Phrygian- inspired music.

One is the first movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms; the other, the prayer intoned by Mahatmas Gandhi in the Philip Glass opera Satyagraha.

The Stravinsky, sung in Latin, uses Psalm 39, verses 12 and 13— an expression of human frailty and mortality in the face of Almighty power: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears; for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. O spare me that I may recover strength before I go hence, and be no more.”

Satyagraha (satya= truth; agraha= firmness) celebrates Gandhi’s mode of non-violent protest. The vocal of the prayer consists of an unchanging ascending Phrygian melody sung in Sanskrit, which expresses Gandhi’s firm resolve as well as a connection to the Eternal on the eve of an Indian coal miner protest march he was to lead in the South Africa of 1913.

 

 

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