World Premier: Wu Fei’s Hello Gold Mountain at Ingram Hall

Soaked to the bone by the torrential rains that accompanied my walk to Vanderbilt’s Ingram Hall, I sank, rather damply, into my seat and began to scribble some notes on the topic of requiems in the now half disintegrated notebook that accompanied me to Chatterbird’s premier of Wu Fei‘s Hello Gold Mountain on Saturday, a piece the composer describes as “a requiem for the lost possibilities of the Jewish community in Shanghai”. Those notes I have since disregarded because too many words can, so easily, do a disservice to the truth and at this point in the experience they hang round my neck more like a millstone than a medal. And that is because Hello Gold Mountain is, at—and in—its heart, so simple.

I don’t mean simple in the sense that anyone off the street could play it. That is far from the truth. There’s an argument to be made that Hello Gold Mountain is as much a double concerto for oud and guzheng as it is a piece for chamber ensemble. Cadenza-like passages in multiple movements highlight the virtuoso touch and technique of oudist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and the composer herself at the guzheng. I mean “simple” in the sense that the truth behind the piece seems so basic, so fundamental, that it could be—perhaps should be—taken as a given.

For many years leading up to the Second World War, Shanghai was often one of the only ports open to Jewish refugees fleeing an increasingly troubled European continent. Those refugees, thousands of them, were all crammed into a small area in Shanghai which came to be known as the Shanghai Ghetto. The story is not familiar to many today, myself included, but it is the inspiration for Wu Fei’s most recent large-scale work. Of course, a requiem is, traditionally, a mass for the dead. The form may very from one tradition to another, sacred to secular, but the general purpose remains the same, whether dedicated to an individual, the victims of a tragedy, or humanity as a whole. But can one hold a requiem for that which never happened?

When thinking back on Hello Gold Mountain, it is hard for me not to draw comparisons to another “Jews in exile” piece of relatively recent memory, Osvaldo Golijov’s Grammy-nominated song cycle Ayre. But what I think is most interesting about that comparison is not what they have in common, but how they differ. Hello Gold Mountain does not dip heavily (or really at all) into the klezmer tradition the way Golijov did in Ayre (and just about everything else he was writing at the time). Perhaps those are just the quirks of the individuals who wrote them, maybe it’s the difference between a Jewish composer’s approach and a Chinese composer’s approach to the topic. But I’m inclined to believe there is more at play.

Hello Gold Mountain relies heavily on two instruments, the oud (a lute-like instrument with roots in the Middle East) and the guzheng (the Chinese take on the zither family, this one with 21 strings). (By now, I’m sure you’ve realized that the oud here represents the Jewish refugees and the guzheng their eventual destination in Shanghai.) Separately, in the hands of their respective players, the two featured instruments provide their share of memorable moments. Blumenkranz’s solo passages on the oud often approach the level of poetry, with just enough rhythmic flexibility to convey the fear and trepidation of a refugee bound for the unknown. One can feel the pull of gravity (or is that destiny?) in his runs. Wu’s playing is, as always, haunting, often with the weight of generations behind it. But where she truly sets herself apart is when she pushes the guzheng to its limits, attacking the strings in an aggressive, almost violent manner.

But where Hello Gold Mountain really hits its stride is not in the solo passages, remarkable though they may be. It is when the guzheng and the oud step back and melt into one another becoming, at times, nearly indiscernible from each other when I think the true depth of the piece is revealed. It is then, when the unique and beautiful characteristics of the individual instruments join together to create something new and exciting, that we get a glimpse of the elusive “possibilities” Wu refers to in her description of the piece. But those moments, like the Jewish refugee community of Shanghai, are fleeting. And it is their impermanence that we mourn here.

At one point, midway through the performance, it became evident that one of the strings on Blumencranz’s oud had been rendered somewhat out of tune. It was then that Wu appeared to hold a trill on her guzheng for quite some time while he worked to get back in tune and then, with a nod to the conductor, they were off again. It is perhaps a cheap metaphor, one performer supporting the piece while another regains his footing before continuing on together, but I’m going to run with it anyway.

With the war over and continuing political unrest in China, the Jewish community in Shanghai began to disperse. Some relocated to the newly formed Jewish state of Israel. Others continued on to San Francisco, known in Chinese as “Old Gold Mountain” to begin a new life in America. And even though it is now a much neglected story, the Shanghai Ghetto remains an important chapter in the Jewish wartime experience and warrants wider retelling. Hello Gold Mountain is an important step in the sharing of that story.

As the final movement of Hello Gold Mountain wound to a close, the house lights came up for a communal singing of a brief melody printed in the program. As the house lights dimmed once again and Chatterbird performed the final strains themselves, the stage lights changed to a golden hue. The color of “Old Gold Mountain”, to be sure, but also the color of sunrise and of the dawn of new possibilities.

Shara Worden with yMusic at MusicNOW

Shara Worden and yMusic

For those of you who like a bit of snarkiness in your gig reviews, I’m sorry, but you’re likely to be disappointed by this one. I’ve been lost in thought over this particular set for nearly two months now. I couldn’t even speak about it for a week after, and even then, I was barely coherent.


For someone who hasn’t released an album of her own in three years, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) has been remarkably busy, performing all over the world with everyone from Clogs to the Decemberists, and making guest appearances on just about every album released in the last 18 months (Penelope, anyone?). Somehow, in there, she even managed to spend an hour talking to me, which is a remarkable feat for anyone. Then there’s the matter of the album’s-worth of material she’s written in that time, which is what concerns us here.

When a friend with connections to MusicNOW told me in March that I had to get down to Cincinnati for the festival, if only to hear Shara’s new stuff, I didn’t exactly put up much of a fight. I’ve been hearing second hand accounts of it for a while and everyone seemed to be in agreement that it was really something, but, in retrospect, nothing they could have told me could ever have prepared me for the real thing. Because something has happened here – something big – but I just can’t quite put my finger on it.

Maybe it’s her teaming up with yMusic. I’ve been witness to a number of incredible performances in the last few months and, more often than not, yMusic (or members thereof) have been involved. Whether they’re backing Owen Pallett or playing their own rep, there is just something revelatory about the way they play – a sort of purposefulness that is all too rare. (It’s worth noting here that Shara Worden and yMusic violinist Rob Moose have recently collaborated on a multimedia/poetry album, Letters to Distant Cities, for New Amsterdam Records, which I have reviewed for another publication.)

That could be it. Yes, I know that we all love the way My Brightest Diamond can turn it up and blow the roof off a club, but this was different. Here was power derived through intricacy – a fabric so finely woven it’s hardly noticeable until it’s swept your feet out from under you and carried you away. On only one occasion, I managed momentarily to tear my gaze from the stage and scan the room. And in that moment, I witnessed something I have never seen before: an entire audience transfixed – jaws scraping the floor and people pulling at their hair in rapt amazement – hundreds awash in power and intimacy, under a blanket of music and dance, punctuated by squeals of a baby in the back at the sound of his mother onstage.

So maybe it was he who threw that switch, because in those final moments – a lullaby – the great sweeping wind that left bodies slumped in their chairs under the sheer power of it all came to rest a gentle breeze that stole our breath and drew tears from more than one witness. (Even now, it’s difficult to think back on it without becoming choked up.)

I’ve spent a great deal of time on this blog talking about reconciling pop and classical music. I discussed it with Shara a couple of years ago, and have done with several other artists since then (some of which I haven’t even published here yet). But I’m starting to think that maybe reconciliation isn’t what we’re looking for here. “Reconciliation” still seems to imply, at least to some extent, pandering to what one (or both) side(s) think of the other. But what we really want – I think – is a complete dismantling of all previously-formed opinions. And I’m pretty sure that’s what I’ve just seen. And the fact that this same material can be performed at Lincoln Center one month and in front of a theaterful of Midwestern indie rock kids the next speaks volumes about the music – and that both audiences can find it equally ravishing and devastating gives me a little hope for humanity.

Looking Ahead: Bands to Watch in 2011 (part 1)

So that’s it, then. 2010 is over. We’re well into 2011 now, so I suppose it’s time to start looking into the coming months to see what’s headed our way. I mean, 2010 felt like an endless streak of one economic or natural disaster after another and, if you’re Dave Barry, the worst year ever.

But still, it wasn’t all bad, was it?—not for music, at least. With several solid releases from old favourite along with a surge of exciting newcomers, I’d say it was a pretty good year if I’m honest. And if you’ve been anywhere NPR or Time Out New York recently, you may have read something about the exciting rebirth of classical music in the form of “alt-classical” or “indie classical” or whichever ridiculous moniker you prefer. (Never mind the fact that I’ve been going on about this since day one of this blog, it’s nice to see that some ‘real’ publications are catching on.) I mean, honestly, who thought, 12 months ago, that a tiny Brooklyn label like New Amsterdam would be the most celebrated thing in the world of art music?

So, with that said, you shouldn’t consider what follows to be my definitive list of predictions regarding who will be huge by the end of 2011. There’s a chance some of these projects will be released in obscurity and continue to languish there. Some may not make it off the ground in the next calendar year, while others may never see the light of day to begin with. What this is is an assortment of things to look forward to—the things that have me the most excited for—in 2011.

Parlours (Des Moines, Iowa)

I first mentioned Parlours to you way back in the summer of 2009. At the time, Parlours, was just Dana Halferty in her bedroom with a guitar and a bunch of loops and layers. They’ve expanded since then into a full-fledged five-piece and recorded an EP to be released later this month. The music has grown more melodic and the surrealism dialed back a notch or twelve since I first fell in love with ‘Bobby on Repeat’, but I’ve been anticipating a concrete release from Parlours for a year and a half now, and I for one am excited. I don’t know if ‘Bobby’ will be included on the EP (I haven’t received my copy yet), but one can only hope. For now, you can still hear it on MySpace (that is, if you can still tolerate MySpace).

The Black Atlantic (Groningen, Netherlands)

Here’s another band The Indie Handbook has been supporting for a while. God only knows how many bazillions of people have downloaded their last album, Reverence for Fallen Trees. But can you blame them? It’s free and it’s gorgeous. What more do you need? More recently, however, the band have been back in the studio working on a new album. Though I don’t know of any firm release date yet, I have it on good authority that singer Geert van der Velde has been listening to a fair amount of Arvo Pärt and medieval lute music lately, which is always promising. Then there’s the simple fact that these guys tour relentlessly. Having made at least three separate trips to the US in 2010, including appearances at SXSW and CMJ, the band long ago confirmed their return to SXSW in March followed by several dates in China later in the spring.

The Vaccines (London, UK)

They’ve generated so much buzz in recent months, that it almost feels like cheating to list The Vaccines here (not bad for a band that’s been together for just about a year). My own experience with the band is limited to the performance of a couple of songs on the Bonfire Night edition Jools Holland a couple of months back. But I was thoroughly impressed by their uptempo lo-fi guitar pop and—well—any band who can dethrone enfants terribles Kings of Leon (who performed on the same show) gets my vote any day.

Cults (NYC)

Just like The Vaccines, perhaps even more so, Cults are a band that have hotly tipped in the past year. For several months, the tracks from their debut 7” were available on Bandcamp as a free download, but, having recently signed with a major label that is, of course, no longer the case. The signing, at least in theory, bodes well for Cults who, if they are able to retain some semblance of creative control, could do some wonderful things with some decent label backing. And if they don’t, well, there’s still that first 7” floating around out there. I suggest you grab one. Here’s to 60s-drenched lo-fi melodic homophony.

In Defense of Pure Music

I’m sorry if you’ve read this already. I posted it on my other blog over the weekend, but I think it’s an important point to be made, so I wanted to post it in a more high-traffic area. You all know I love both pop and classical music. I frequently inflict both upon you. I hate to be told that one of my loves is more essential than or superior to the other, as a blogger from Rosebrook Classical suggested last week. Let’s be clear (though most of you already know this), I am not choosing a side here. I am choosing both sides and neither side.

I feel as if I owe you all an apology. I’ve spent the last two weeks transcribing an interview I conducted in London several months ago and haven’t had time to post any reviews. Once you’ve read it, though, I think you’ll forgive me. At 7,500 words, it is rather epic, which is precisely why I am not apologising for the recent lack of activity. No, my sin was committed over a year ago, when I was given an hour with Shara Worden—one of the brightest lights in American music—yet failed to pursue the most interesting topic broached in our time together: the idea of pure music.

Immediately following our meeting, I thought I had done quite well, especially for my first ever interview. Of course, that was a long time ago, before I had fallen in with ne’er-do-wells like Greg Sandow and Anne Midgette and become a card-carrying member of the alt-classical movement. Then again, at the time, I didn’t expect to read something like this:

We estimate (complete speculation based on no fact) that 75% of “pop” musicians (not necessarily the songwriters) don’t read music, and an even larger percentage (even including pop songwriters) have never studied music theory. We say this not to seem snobby, but to bring up the next point.

Pop music is written in less musically complex manners due to the inability of pop musicians/songwriters to create music in a studied way.

~ Rosebrook Classical blog

Likewise, I never expected to hear such absurdist speculation called “intelligent” by people I respect and who (I think) respect me. (Actually, “absurdist speculation” implies a degree of self-awareness in the author. In this case, it’s more like polemical condescension.)

[If you need to take a moment to let off some steam, punch a pillow, or swear a bit, I completely understand. Just try to keep in mind, they don’t intend to “seem snobby”. We will reconvene momentarily.]

Now, if you’ve been brave enough to read the offending post from the beginning, you may have picked up on the author’s “reason” for launching an unwarranted attack on feckless simpletons like Emilie Simon (Medieval Music, La Sorbonne; Electronic Music, IRCAM), Owen Pallett (Composition, University of Toronto), and Dave Longstreth (Yale). (Hint: It’s money.) And, I will grant that the initial question of the “discussion” is an interesting one. Why any form of music be granted non-profit status or given the benefit of government funding? Unfortunately, rather than exploring the issue, the author (I don’t know his name, but I think I heard someone say “David”, so I’ll be using masculine pronouns) resorts to repeated rehashings of his thesis: “I’m not saying classical music is better, but, seriously, we all know it is…”.

Of course, had he conducted more (or any) thorough research, he probably would have noticed the myriad examples of national governments that support classical AND pop music, including Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Canada, and the UK. However, it appears that, for the kids at Rosebrook Classical, talent is a zero sum game and only one genre can lay claim to it. How fortunate we are, then, that their presticogitateur-in-residence has had the wherewithal to explain the inherent ineptitude in my choice to write about under-appreciated pop bands rather than the 186 recordings of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466 currently on the market.

It’s the creativity, don’t you see? Classical musicians have it. Pop musicians don’t, at least not in the high concentration classical musicians do. After all, as we learned earlier, “pop music is written in less musically complex manners due to the inability of pop musicians/songwriters to create music in a studied way”. He’s probably right, of course. I mean the Antarctic field recordings Emilie Simon sampled and modified for Marche de l’Empéreur were all naturally occurring, as were the plant and water sounds she used for Végétal (my pick for album of the decade). And that’s not creativity, that’s stealing! After all, “creativity must be learned and fostered as much as anything else”.

Wait. Creativity is learned? No one ever taught me that!

But didn’t Sir Ken Robinson once say “we are educating people out of their creative capacities….I believe this passionately, that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather we get educated out of it.”? (In case you’re wondering, yes, he did, in his legendary TED talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity”, which you can watch below or on the TED website). But seriously, who cares what a world-renowned expert on innovation and creativity thinks about creativity? After all, @RBClassical (the ultimate authority) knows quite well that assigning names and rules are the building blocks of creativity, not intuition. Surely you don’t require any further explanation, but indulge me for a moment.

I was speaking with a friend—a translator—this past week who was telling me about her first experiences in translating, a gloriously delicate art if ever there was one. She explained:

When I was doing my M. Phil, I joined a translation course…because I was already a translator…and I thought it would improve my skill. […] I found that [my colleagues] translated by dealing with words as things, …whereas I would come up with the apt word instinctively. […] The outcome of that course was that…I couldn’t translate for almost two years. It had made me…too self conscious to do anything.

Of course, I don’t mean to deride education. As many of you already know, I have an advanced music degree (which is apparently why I will never be accepted or appreciated by pop musicians) but there is a lot to be said for intuition—more, in fact, than can be said for rules and systematization. Intuition is the reason why, though we followed the same rules, J.S. Bach composed his magnificent Chaconne in D minor while all Bethel Schiefer and I could manage was Canticum graduum (read: absolute rubbish).

I am beginning to realise that if I actually try to address every one of my grievances, this post is going to run about 15,000 words, so I’ll leave things to Shara Worden, and a brief extract from the interview we did last year. You remember her from My Brightest Diamond. She’s one of those stultifying pop musicians who doesn’t think about anything, as evidenced by her comments about writing her most recent album, A Thousand Shark’s Teeth:

At the beginning of the writing process for Shark’s Teeth, I was listening to a lot of Boulez and so I was trying to write songs—more so trying not to be prescriptive of the songs, not dictating the form of the songs. Allowing the harmony to take it to a different place, or not having repeated choruses or kind of trying to find different ways of setting the text, so in a certain way the text was more important, the texts and the harmonies were the priorities. You can see that with songs like “Goodbye Forever” or “If I Were Queen”.


The thing I am interested in now is rhythm, and so I don’t know if there will be many strings appearing at all on the next record. I’ve been trying to define my harmonic language, so now I’m really excited about finding a rhythmical language.

If you haven’t yet, I suggest you read the interview. There’s a lot of that kind of thing in there. And afterward, if you’re still interested in what real pop musicians think about when writing music (rather than what defensive classical music bloggers think they’re not thinking about), read the Emilie Simon interview.

Division is the last thing I want from all of this. When I first pitched the idea for The Indie Handbook to Kristin, I did so with the expressed intent of addressing classical and pop music on equal terms, because there is no superior music. And the offending blogger gets one thing right: that “if the biggest reason for Arts subsidization is fostering creativity, then the advancement of the Arts themselves should be the most important creative endeavor to support as a society”. Unfortunately, the Arts are not advanced by defensive diatribes aimed at cementing one aesthetic preference firmly atop a pedestal. The higher you build your ivory tower, the further you’re carried from the Music of the Spheres.

Now, let the musicking begin.

Corey Dargel – Someone Will Take Care of Me

Every year or two, I am overcome with an urge to get organised. It’s not an obsessive thing, by any means, and it doesn’t extend to every facet of my life. Tax documents, pay stubs and things of that ilk remain right where I left them—under the dresser, under the bed, on the bed—until I need them. But my books and CDs—the important things—are cleared from their shelves (and from under the bed and from grocery bags) and stacked in neat piles to be rearranged according to a system that only the great bibliophiles could claim to comprehend.

The process smacks of pragmatism, but it is an exercise in futility, really. Within weeks, they will migrate by the dozen, to resume their rightful place in the world: the passenger seat of my car (should the need arise to reference Jung’s Synchronicity whilst stuck in rush hour traffic, you know how it is…). The only thing of any practical use to come out of the experience is the opportunity reevaluate my collection—to note the gaps and count just how many more copies of The Waste Land I have accumulated (14). But what struck this last time round was an unsettling number of volumes dedicated to psychological disorders, suicide, depression—and self-mutilation.

And now, with Someone Will Take Care of Me (New Amsterdam), Corey Dargel has added his musical contribution to my library. The two disc collection features two of Corey’s music-theater, pseudo-song cycles, Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, and Removable Parts, exploring some of the darker recesses of the human experience. In what plays out like a Freudian hybrid of Pierrot Lunaire and the Postal Service, Thirteen Near-Death Experiences (brilliantly executed by Corey, the International Contemporary Ensemble, and David T. Little) takes an unflinching look at the illnesses, both physical and a psychological, that plague the less fortunate among us.

Perhaps more difficult to come to terms with, however, is Removable Parts, ten songs about voluntary amputation. Thankfully, it is state of mind entirely foreign to the vast majority of us. But like me with library of self-mutilation, Corey throws himself into his research until he can, in some way, relate to the subject at hand. The subject matter paired with stripped down instrumentation (relative to Thirteen Near-Death Experiences), first-person lyrics delivered in a straight-forward, unadorned manner, make for a pleasantly unsettling listening experience.

In a sense, listening to Someone Will Take Care of Me, has been somewhat akin to the experience of reading The Bell Jar for the first time. It highlights the delicate balance between health and illness and how close we are at any given moment to stumbling (or leaping) across the fine line separates the mundane from my “psych shelf”. And this album, like all things of true beauty, teeters on the brink of madness.

Download “Fingers” from Someone Will Take Care of Me, part of Removable Parts.