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Posts from — February 2011

Influence & Inspiration: Chopin

Tomorrow is Chopin’s birthday (most likely, though there’s some debate about that), and I’m celebrating this week by listening through his works. Are there more aurally pleasurable ways to usher in March and — one can hope — spring?

Though I didn’t play a ton of his music, I grew up listening to a lot of Chopin. Our piano studio classes generally included at least one of his works. Since these classes occurred about every three weeks, we’d often hear the same pieces in various stages of learning. One year, an older student was learning the posthumous Nocturne in c# minor. We probably heard her play the piece at least half a dozen times. Even though I didn’t like going to these classes (Saturday afternoons!) I always looked forward to hearing her play this piece. She could create the most beautiful, wistful atmosphere; and listening to her made me want to play Chopin too.

Sadly, playing his music never came naturally to me. Most of the pieces I studied frustrated me because they magnified my many technical shortcomings and lack of freedom at the keyboard. My introduction to Chopin was his posthumous Waltz in a minor. Even 18 years after learning this piece, I can actually remember struggling over the ornaments and one pesky arpeggio. I also remember dreading the fourth and fifth pages of the Nocturne, Op. 55 No. 1, and pretty much all of the Etude, Op. 25, No. 3. And lest I forget – the first of the Trois nouvelles études (my introduction to 4-against-3 — need I say more?).

I did have one semi-success with Chopin: the third Ballade. Though I never did get the ending as good as I wanted, learning this piece wasn’t as frustrating an experience as my previous encounters led me to anticipate. That this piece contains one of my all-time favorite musical moments (the transition from 4:25 – 4:35 in the below video) eased any difficulties.

February 28, 2011   No Comments

Music in its proper place

piano hands

“There is a profound difference between great music activating our spirit and our truly being in the Spirit. Works can quite legitimately and easily initiate the former, but only faith can imitate the latter. It is in this sense that Christian musicians must be particularly cautious. They can create the impression that God is more present when music is being made that when it is not; that worship is more possible with music than without it, and that God might possibly depend on its presence before appearing. Faith, in its proper scriptural definition, does away with these errors without doing away with music. It puts music in its proper place, along with every other act and offering: giver before gift and worship containing, not being contained by, acts of worship.”

-Harold Best, Music through the Eyes of Faith

February 27, 2011   No Comments

Cafe Hopping (2/25)

wide eyed coffee owl

Weekly roundup of (mostly) arts-related chatter around the web:

  • Leonardo’s Resume: Da Vinci had to go job hunting too, and his resume has now been translated. Among his credentials: “I have means by secret and tortuous mines and ways, made without noise, to reach a designated spot, even if it were needed to pass under a trench or a river.”
  • Back to the Future Photo Project: Remarkable, fun photo series from Irina Werning. “Most of us are fascinated by their retro look but to me, it’s imagining how people would feel and look like if they were to reenact them today… A few months ago, I decided to actually do this.”
  • Music to Oscar’s Ears: A helpful rundown of the five scores competing for the best-original-score Oscar.
  • Theo-Speak: Mark Altrogge outlines five humorous steps for talking like a theologian.
  • Free MP3: Sojourn Music is offering a free mp3 of “Approach My Soul, The Mercy Seat” from their new split EP, The Mercy Seat/The War. Speaking of which — here’s a video preview:

(Photo, via 22 Words)

February 25, 2011   No Comments

Variations on a Psalm

Next week I’ll be performing two very different settings of Psalm 23 — Schubert’s version and Rutter’s arrangement of The King of Love My Shepherd Is — in a choral concert. Preparing the music made me curious to explore how other composers have treated this text. A few “pastoral” techniques and textures (harp, oboe, running triplets) turn up often; but overall I found the variety amazing. Here are some of my favorites:

Heinrich Schütz, “Der Herr ist mein Hirt” from Psalmen Davids
If, like me, you don’t know German, I recommend listening with a translation nearby. Schütz paid particular attention to text painting (music written to bring out the meaning of the words). For example, I love the moment at 2:01 where the instruments drop out and the vocal texture reflects the solemn line, “And if I had walked a valley of the shadow of death.”

Franz Schubert, Gott ist mein Hirt, D. 706

Schubert originally wrote this SSAA arrangement as a vocal examination piece for his friend Anna Frolich. Another piece of musical trivia: he used the German translation of Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn’s grandfather. I love the simplicity and beautiful harmonic progressions of this setting.

Leonard Bernstein, “Adonai Roi” from Chichester Psalms

Bernstein combines the Hebrew texts for Psalm 23 and Psalm 2 in the second movement of his Chichester Psalms. This is haunting music. The sparse, lyrical opening of boy soprano and harp is jarringly disturbed mid-way through the movement (3:26 in the above video) by the male chorus with the Psalm 2 text (“Why do the nations rage so furiously together?”). The juxtaposition of these two psalms throughout the remainder of the movement musically represents the reality of ongoing spiritual struggle and conflict.

John Rutter, “Psalm 23: The Lord is My Shepherd” from Requiem

A very lyrical setting that functions as an interlude in Rutter’s Requiem. Rutter uses a similar vocal texture as Schütz to mark the line, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

Paul Creston, Psalm XXIII

A rhapsodic and virtuosic version for solo voice and piano. My first encounter with Creston’s vocal rep.

Z. Randall Stroope, Psalm 23

A soaring, moving setting for treble choir, flute, oboe, and piano by a contemporary American composer.

A couple others that aren’t well-represented on YouTube:


February 24, 2011   2 Comments

100 Days of Beethoven

100 4 ways

For the past five years, Michael Beirut at the Yale School of Art has offered a 100 Day Workshop for graduate graphic art students. The class assignment: repeat and document a design operation for 100 straight days.

Anyone who’s tried to keep a simple new year’s resolution knows this is harder than it sounds; and, in fact, many of the students drop out before the halfway point.

Beirut gives his reasoning behind the assignment:

I’ve always had a fascination with the ways that creative people balance inspiration and discipline in their working lives. It’s easy to be energized when you’re in the grip of a big idea. But what do you do when you don’t have anything to work with? Just stay in bed? Writers have this figured out: it’s amazing how many of them have a rigid routine. . .

The only way to experience this kind of discipline is to subject yourself to it. Every student who has taken this project had a moment where the work turned into a mind-numbing grind. And trust me: it won’t be the first time this happens. The trick is to press on.

Beirut posted about a number of the completed projects. My favorite was Jessica Svendsen’s 100 variations on a 1955 poster for a Beethoven concert:

original Beethoven poster inspiration

Original Poster

Poster for Day 6

Poster for Day 96

You can see all 100 posters online.


February 23, 2011   1 Comment

Sojourn Music’s Rocking New Album

The Mercy Seat / The War album cover

Please, please go listen to the split EP released today by the fine folks over at Sojourn Music. The Mercy Seat / The War features five tracks each from worship leaders Jamie Barnes and Brooks Ritter. In true Sojourn fashion, the album marries theologically rich lyrics (often based on old hymns) with excellent musicianship. I love the stylistic diversity of this album — we’re treated to hints of gospel, folk, rock, and blues — which is bound to reward multiple listens.

My early favorite tracks are Absent from Flesh (Barnes) and The War (Ritter):

I go where God and glory shine,
To one eternal day
This failing body I now resign,
For the angels point my way.

Though the scars of my sin run deep
They’re washed in the flood brought from Calvary
Remind me, O Lord, in my hour of deed
The war won for the redeemed!

Wonderful stuff. Stream the whole album for free and purchase the album on Bandcamp.

February 22, 2011   No Comments

Influence & Inspiration: Book Browsing

book browsing

So today is President’s Day here in the US; and never wanting to be left out, Canada now has “Family Day.” Of course they would inaugurate this holiday AFTER I left…

Anyways, the extra day off gave me some time to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes: book browsing.

The location of my first apartment — a block’s walk from two libraries and a bookstore — incited this beloved habit. I’d often break from practice with a library run or take the long way home to check out new book releases.

One of the things I love about physical books is that they offer two distinct artistic experiences. There is, primarily, the reading of the book — savoring the sentences, debating the ideas. But added to that is the appreciation of the book itself — the cover, typography, paper weight, and so on. Book browsing encourages this second experience. We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we can judge — and enjoy — a cover on its own merit. (In fact, most of the design projects I’ve done drew inspiration from a few well-crafted book covers.)

Book browsing also forces you to slow down. Bookstores and libraries are not meant for people in a hurry. The best of them create an atmosphere that beckons you to relax and stay awhile, because these places exist on the premise that browsing ideas demands and deserves time.

I think it’s time well spent.


February 21, 2011   No Comments

How art transcends limitations

empty frames

“[Thomas Aquinas] says that a work of art is a good in itself, and this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten. We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists. He must first of all be aware of his limitations as an artist—for art transcends its limitations only by staying within them.”

-Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners


February 20, 2011   No Comments

Cafe Hopping (2/18)

espresso and beans

Weekly roundup of (mostly) arts-related chatter around the web:

  • Bye Bye Borders: As a bookstore lover, I was saddened to hear of Border’s bankruptcy filing this week.. Dr. Mohler reflects on why printed books and bookstores matter.
  • The Ten Greatest Composers and the Ten I Like Best: An 8-year-old responds to NY Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini’s greatest composers list. I love #6 on the “Greatest Composers” side: This is hard. I’ll go with Brahms. He was supposed to be lower but then I found out he burned his music… Go see the whole thing in all its handwritten cuteness! Oh, and he has a video now too:
  • God at the Grammys: Carl Trueman responds to the WSJ article on how many pop superstars think their careers indicate a special divine anointing.
  • The many faces of profile pics: An amusing diagram that breaks down the most common types of Facebook profile pics. I’m surprised mine (drinking coffee) isn’t on there, though it probably should be.
  • Mako Fujimura Interview: If you have some extra time over the long weekend, watch this interview between Justin Taylor and Mako Fujimura. Subjects covered include Mako’s conversion story, advice for artists who feel tension between “creeds and creativity,” and suggestions for non-artists seeking to better understand art.


February 18, 2011   No Comments

Brainwashed by kitsch

precious moments kitsch

This is part of a series on the Banksy film Exit Through the Gift Shop. Read parts one, two, and three.

Question: How should a Christian assess Mr. Brainwash’s “art” and rise to fame?

I was in the process of writing a post on this when I stumbled across an article that answers the question far more brilliantly than I could: Kitsch and the Modern Predicament, written over a decade ago by philosopher Roger Scruton. I do think that the work displayed at MBW’s show was “kitsch;” and in this article, Scruton describes the rise and meaning of kitsch, and what kitsch reflects about the state of humanity. An excerpt (emphases added):

Kitsch is omnipresent, part of the language, and a seemingly inevitable aspect of cultural democracy. It is the debased coinage of the emotions. Kitsch is advertising, just as most advertising is kitsch. It is an attempt to turn value into price, the problem being that its subject matter has a value only when it is not pretended and a price only when it is. Hence the market in emotion must deal in simulated goods.

This is why the loss of religious certainty facilitated the birth of kitsch. Faith exalts the human heart, removing it from the marketplace, making it sacred and unexchangeable. Under the jurisdiction of religion, our deeper feelings are sacralized, so as to become raw material for the ethical life, the life lived in judgment. When faith declines, however, the sacred loses one of its most important forms of protection from marauders; the heart can now more easily be captured and put on sale. Some things—the human heart is one of them—can be bought and sold only if they are first denatured. . .

. . . The sentiments conveyed by this “art” . . . are elaborate fakes, as remote from real emotion as the kitsch that the “art” pretends to satirize. The advertising techniques this “art” employs automatically turn emotional expression into kitsch. Hence the quotation marks neutralize and discard the only effect that postmodernist “art” could ever accomplish. Preemptive kitsch offers fake emotion and at the same time a fake satire of the thing it offers. The artist pretends to take himself seriously, the critics pretend to judge his product, and the avant-garde establishment pretends to promote it. At the end of all this pretense, someone who cannot perceive the difference between advertisement and art decides that he should buy it. Only at this point does the chain of pretense come to an end and the real value of postmodernist art reveal itself—namely, its value in exchange. Even at this point, however, the pretense is important. For the purchaser must believe that what he buys is real art and therefore intrinsically valuable, a bargain at any price. Otherwise, the price would reflect the obvious fact that anybody—even the purchaser—could have faked such a product.

I highly recommend the entire article to you.

Of note: Scruton identifies himself as a “skeptical Anglican.” I believe he describes himself as having faith in faith. From what I’ve read so far, his ideas on art and beauty are generally sympathetic with traditional Christian views; and he possesses the rare gift of describing complex issues with simplicity and elegance.

February 17, 2011   No Comments