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Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Never hope in any other

Tallis, from Wikimedia Commons

Lots of driving this weekend resulted in multiple listenings to Thomas Tallis’s great motet “Spem in alium”. Calling for a minimum of 40 singers, it’s considered a pinnacle of Renaissance polyphonic choral music (which as far as I’m concerned is already a pinnacle).

I wish the dial on the car radio would go up to 11. As it was I was afraid I would blow out my speakers, not to mention my eardrums. Tallis (1505-1585) was possibly a recusant Catholic, a dangerous critter to be in Elizabethan England. But thank goodness she must not have objected to setting Latin texts, and so we have this work for 8 choirs of 5 voices each – soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass in modern arrangements.

I have recordings by the Tallis Scholars and King’s College Cambridge. Based on a rave review in the Gramophone, I bought a recording by the group Magnificat. Here’s a link to possibly the largest performance in history — over 700 singers in Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, recorded by the BBC in 2006. What’s missing, at least on my laptop, is a sense of the extraordinary effects big stereo speakers can bring. But it’s fun to watch, and now there are even flash mobs performing it.

Man, would I love to see that. It will be performed on March 28th at St. Ignatius Loyola in New York.

Spem in alium nunquam habui praeter in te
Deus Israel
qui irasceris
et propitius eris
et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis
Domine Deus
Creator coeli et terrae
respice humilitatem nostram
I have never put my hope in any other but in You,
O God of Israel
who can show both anger
and graciousness,
and who absolves all the sins of suffering man
Lord God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth
be mindful of our lowliness
(original and translation from Wikipedia)

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John enrolled for his Master’s program at Manhattan School of Music today. It’s in a great location, off 120th Street in the Upper West Side, between Riverside Drive and Broadway. We’re very excited for him (and he’s excited already). You can see a slideshow here.

Jenny and I drove him up and spent the night Tuesday night with our friends Janet and Gary at their farm in Bucks County, PA. We were lucky for a move-in day: great weather, some traffic inbound but not bad, and I even managed to find a parking spot about 50 yards from his residence, the International House.

We were not far from the epicenter of the great (?) Virginia earthquake on Tuesday the 23rd, but never felt a thing. On Thursday we head back to Wilmington to see about Hurricane Irene.

Whew!

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Another geek alert:

Last time I wrote about digitizing LPs. Here’s my newest techno toy: the Zoom H2 digital recorder. I used this on a recent trip to Virginia for the Wayne Henderson Music Festival and Guitar Competition.

My sister Jean, a musician and educator who lives near Wayne in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia had invited me and I decided to test the H2 as a field recorder. I was really impressed. I used it for a story I later did for WHQR. You can find the story, and some of my original files, here.

With an 8G card, the H2 can record about 12 hours of stereo in WAV format, which is far less lossy than mp3. Of course, for the web and for many purposes mp3s are just fine; I use a Mac program called Amadeus to convert WAV to mp3. More on Amadeus later.

The H2 actually uses 4 mikes in pairs to record sound. You can direct the sound recording to the front stereo (facing you as you look at the controls), rear stereo (facing away), 2-channel front and rear, and 4-channel surround.

I quickly realized that for audio production I got best results from the 4-channel. In this mode the H2 actually makes simultaneous recordings from the front 2-channel and rear 2-channel. You can choose whichever one you like, or both. The front version takes in a 90-degree stereo field, good for a small group of musicians, for example. The rear setting’s field is 120 degrees, better for a larger group.

For my music recordings, even though I recorded in 4-channel mode, I only used the rear track since I was recording a fairly large group and didn’t need anything from my direction. What really fascinated me, though, was the way it worked for my interview with Erynn Marshall of the Blue Ridge Music Center.

I held the mike about halfway between the 2 of us, so the front channel got my voice and the rear channel got hers. All around us was the ambient noise of people cleaning up after a concert by Doc Watson.

You can see what this looks like in this Amadeus wave file. Originally these were two separate files; I copied and pasted one into the other, after clicking “Add New Stereo Track.” So now there are 2 stereo tracks here. My voice is in the 2 upper channels, hers in the lower 2. You can easily see who speaks when.

What’s remarkable is that the makers of the H2 thought to flip the stereo image between front and back, so the surrounding ambience is correct even though they point 180 degrees opposite each other.

We’re still not at a satisfactory stereo image, though. So I click on the upper track (my voice) and click “Merge With Next Track”. Voila! one single track with nice stereo ambience, and both of our voices in the middle.

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True story: I bought 4 old long-playing albums at Goodwill and decided to digitize them. When I tried to find an LP cleaner at Radio Shack the clerk said, “What’s an LP?”

Some months ago I had bought a USB turntable for $50 at Costco. I had previously digitized cassettes, but never LPs. I was glad to find the Chad Mitchell Trio’s “Singin’ Our Mind” album again — most of those tracks are not available as files that I can find, and I have a nostalgic affection for the group. So lacking a cleaner (thanks, Radio Shack), I literally washed the LPs in warm soapy water, patted them dry and finished with a hair dryer.

The turntable setup was ridiculously easy and I downloaded the albums into Amadeus Pro for the Mac without trouble. As you might guess, all these albums had some small pops and clicks, and most of one side of the Mitchell album had a huge scratch. I used Amadeus’ Interpolate routine to go through and try to eliminate as many of the pops as I could. Here’s a screen shot of “Maladyozhenaya” in Amadeus before using Interpolate (click for a larger version):

Every one of those spikes is a major click. To use Interpolate, you have to go and locate each one of them; as you can imagine, a tedious process. Here’s a shot of what it looked like at about 80% complete:

Some were harder to fix than others. I had to fiddle with Amadeus’s display a bit to locate the 2 big clicks on the far left. The results aren’t perfect; there are places where I think I grabbed too wide a swath of audio and as a result Interpolate suppresses things a bit. But to my nostalgia-tinged ears, it’s much more listenable:

Clip of Maladyozhenaya before Interpolation

Clip of Maladyozhenaya after Interpolation

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Our son John the opera singer sent us three recordings he made recently at the University of South Carolina. I think they’re the best he’s ever recorded.

They are:

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The Sacred Harp community of Cincinnati has lost one of our dearest friends. Christine Cox died last Wednesday at 87, following a serious stroke in March of this year. Singer Eloise Clark was with her when she died, singing some of her favorite hymns. John Bealle has a wonderful tribute to Chris on his website.

The Cincinnati singers will sing at her visitation this Sunday night and her funeral Monday morning. Isaac Watts’ lyrics to “China,” which we will sing, read in part:

Why do we mourn departing friends,
Or shake at death’s alarms?
‘Tis but the voice that Jesus sends,
To call them to His arms.

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Grayson-Highlands State Park, near Mouth of Wilson, VA. My li’l sister Jean is Secretary of the Festival Committee. “Always the 3rd Saturday in June, rain or shine.”

Wayne is a celebrated  old-time musician and guitar builder who famously kept Eric Clapton waiting 10 years for his to be built.

Update 7/12/10: Voice of America recently did a feature story about Wayne. Thanks, Jean!

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from Wikimedia Commons

As usual on Trinity Sunday, we sang “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” at Holy Trinity Oxford today. It’s a terrific hymn, both in words and music.

According to Wikipedia, although the Old Irish poem is traditionally ascribed to Patrick of Ireland (4th century), it probably dates from the 8th century. The English translation by Cecil Frances Alexander powerfully captures the incantatory power of Celtic nature poetry:

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the star lit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea
Around the old eternal rocks.

And the equally great music is by Charles Villiers Stanford, with Ralph Vaughan Willams contributing one stanza.

Old Irish is a quirky language, no doubt about it. I had the privilege of studying it under the great Murray Fowler at Wisconsin. It’s the only language I know where the word for 7 literally means “large 6.”

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Off to Opera Camp

Our son John took off for Wooster, OH today. He’s a Young Artist Scholarship winner at the Ohio Light Opera summer festival.

OLO is a remarkable institution, focusing exclusively on light opera (duh!), Gilbert and Sullivan, and 1 or 2 musicals each year. John has small roles (some speaking, some singing) in about several of them, and is in the chorus for a couple more. We’ll see him in at least Kismet, Gypsy, The Count of Luxembourg, and Iolanthe.

It’s actually quite an honor for him, and he’s excited about it. His older sister keeps things in perspective by calling it ‘Opera Camp.’ Actually, seeing him drive off this morning was a little bit like seeing him off to camp.

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On March 7th we attended a performance of this work by William Averitt:

The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to St. Matthew
In Twelve Scenes
Incorporating American Shape Note Hymns

Averitt is on the music faculty of Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. This performance was in Columbia, SC, with orchestra and the University of South Carolina Concert Choir and the Cantus choir of Shenandoah, directed by USC’s Larry Wyatt. It will be performed again at the southeastern conference of the American Choral Directors Association in Memphis. The conference is March 10-12 and the Averitt performance is on the 11th.

I wanted to see this work not only because of my long interest in Sacred Harp/shape-note music, but also because our son John is a senior vocal performance major at USC. He sang the role of Judas on Sunday and will do so again in Memphis.

The work was commissioned by a group of southeastern music departments and premiered in 2000. Very much in the spirit of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, it presents Matthew’s narrative in 12 scenes with an Evangelist and Jesus in the prominent roles. Just as Bach drew from Lutheran chorales, each scene in Averitt is followed by a hymn taken from the shape-note tradition, concluding with the moving Deal Gently with Thy Servants, Lord (‘Gently Lord, O Gently Lead Us’) from  The American Vocalist of 1849.

I spoke briefly with Averitt after the performance. He first encountered shape-note music from recordings by the Boston Camerata. But only Deal Gently is presented in a straightforward shape-note style. Others use the words and the tunes, but are set in complex harmonies reflecting a contemporary classical idiom. The other ones Averitt used are:

  • from Harmonia Sacra: 68 Supplication, 302 Resignation, 389 Limehouse, 114 Liberty Hall, 232 Voice of Warning, 213 Salisbury
  • from The Sacred Harp: 39 Detroit, 95 Vernon, 312 Restoration, 102 Fulfillment, 38 Windham, 159 Wondrous Love, 48 Kedron

It’s not always easy music. Some in our party found it difficult going. Others were fascinated. All of us found the final chorale, Deal Gently, deeply moving. To me it’s a worthy successor to Bach’s use of the Passion Chorale ‘O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded.’ I want it sung at my funeral.

By the way, John did great.

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