Category Archives: What I’m Listening to This Month

Easter Morning Music Blog

I have had the privilege to make a lot of music on Easter Sundays during the past 25 years as a part-time church musician and to lead dedicated and hard-working choral and instrumental ensembles for those more festive holiday services. During the past few years, I’ve put more time into preparing original music or arrangements for Holy Week and Easter.

I was especially fortunate while serving as director of music at the (Episcopal) Church of the Epiphany in Rochester, New York, during 2014 and 2015 to have had been able to write some original music with texts by my friend, Debbie Bennett. I also lead a wonderful group of brass players who played on Easter Sundays and for whom I wrote several pieces of original brass ensemble music. I’ve included a computer-realized sample of some of that brass music below.

This year, as director of traditional music at Deer Lake United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, Florida, I composed an original extended, three-part choral introit with accompaniment for piano, oboe, and bassoon on texts by Charles Wesley. I also composed a four-part choral anthem with accompaniment for piano and solo violin, with original texts that I penned. My choir premiered those two choral pieces, “Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise” and “You Have Arisen,” yesterday morning. I also arranged two congregational hymns — “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and “Crown Him with Many Crowns” — for piano, two violins, cello, oboe, and bassoon, which the choir and congregation sang yesterday with our guest instrumental ensemble. The instrumentalists also played two movements from my “Chamber Concerto”, which I composed in January, for our prelude. (You can listen to one of those movements on the “My Music” page. Plans are underway to video record that piece in late April.)

The computer renditions of the hymn arrangements (below) lack the congregational and choir voices but will still give some idea of what the instrumental music sounded like during our two major congregational hymns yesterday morning.  I hope you enjoy them.

(Chamber instrumental ensemble and choir, Deer Lake United Methodist Church, Tallahassee, Sunday, April 1, 2018.)

Arrangement of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” for piano, two violins, cello, oboe, and bassoon (Stan Pelkey, with quotations from Handel, “Hallelujah Chorus”).

Original “Rondo” for brass ensemble, composed by Stan Pelkey in 2014 and first played at The Church of the Epiphany in Rochester, New York.

Arrangement of “Crown Him with Many Crowns” for piano, two violins, cello, oboe, and bassoon (Stan Pelkey).

Who knows what next Easter will bring? But I plan to continue to seek inspiration for special composition projects for Easter mornings that can help turn people’s attention to the Hope of the Resurrection.

Stan

 

What I’m Listening To This Month (December): Jerry Leake’s Latest Album

A Review of Jerry Leake’s latest album, Crafty Hands (2016)

Stan Pelkey

December 13, 2016

Boston-based world-rock-fusion percussionist Jerry Leake is a special kind of musician. He deftly moves in and through numerous traditions from around the world – with deep respect and gratitude – yet also comfortably resides in contemporary styles and forms. But more than that, in his latest release, Crafty Hands (2016), Jerry offers listeners new pieces in which he combines and recombines his many musical interests and passions. One could use words such as “eclectic” and “collage” to describe the results, but these do not adequately capture the coherence and musically satisfying nature of Jerry’s accomplishments. The image that comes to my mind is of a colorful kaleidoscope, where an ever-so-slight turn shifts distinct bits into an entirely new and vibrant pattern. One can listen to and for the distinct musical inflections or instruments from West Africa, the Middle East, and India, but it is the coherent new soundscapes—always delightful and often deeply moving—that really matter.

Throughout the 13 tracks of Crafty Hands, Leake sets up wonderful grooves over which he lays out densely textured but changing surfaces. Tracks such as “Crafty Hands,” “Apprentice,” “Do You Think Your Thoughts,” “Dub Clef,” and “Begin by Listening” start with West African rhythmic cells and/or textures that incorporate West African timbres but quickly add more and more component parts until their full musical vistas emerge. In “Crafty Hands,” Jerry’s own singing voice takes center stage by mid-track, surrounded by a halo of bells, shakers, and strings, before the opening textures and grooves reassert themselves. In “Begin by Listening”—one of my favorite tracks—an appropriately authoritative voice assures us “It’s all just sounds” as the West African groove provides the foundation for that voice, a turntable, distorted, sampled chanting, and a jubilant reed to each make contributions. And just when you think this track or others have settled into their final textural forms, still there are more twists and turns as Jerry continues to transform his materials.

My brief comments only scratch the surface of Jerry’s music, and they completely fail to capture the beauty of “Time Tunnel” and “String Theory,” two more of my favorites. Here again, Jerry sets up grooves and amazing, changing surfaces, yet the timbres and combinations are different enough in these two tracks from those in the others that the album remains fresh and unpredictable. And then Jerry drops into your headphones a track such as “Blue Water,” which diverges significantly from the others, and you are once more left in awe of his creativity and ability to synthesize new worlds of sound.

The bottom line? Crafty Hands is an album of gorgeous music that will reward repeated listening. But it is also an album with a powerful — if implicit — political message. While there are relatively few words, and those that exist are not overtly political, Jerry’s soundscapes both celebrate and embody cultural diversity and the new possibilities that can emerge as we draw upon the best of all of us. Whether intended or not, that is a profoundly important political, social, and cultural statement. As the final track urges us, “Begin by listening.”

I highly recommend Crafty Hands to you.

http://www.rhombuspublishing.com/crafty_hands.html

http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/jerryleake1

Musical Musings

One of the best part of my new job at the College of Music at Florida State University is getting to sit in on some amazing master classes and guest presentations by leading figures in the world of classical music. Here are some of the ideas that I have distilled from a number of master classes and other presentations by world-renowned artists and teachers who have traveled to Tallahassee over the past several months. I have been inspired to incorporate many of these insights into my own practicing, composing, and performing during the past few months; I hope they will inspire you, too!

“Master Class Musings”
Music is crisis! It embodies emotional tension and heightened experience. Audiences are not interested in narratives about the everyday. Therefore, as an artist (whether as a composer or a performer), you cannot be shy. You and your art must take on wild qualities.

Artists take risks! We must fight the tendency to want be too cautious, too calculating. But caution rarely leads to great beauty. Caution more often leads to boring music and boring performances. Allow passion, emotional tension, and risk to drive your creativity.

When creating music, think in terms of arcs of meaning. If working with a text, the arc should be apparent in the words themselves. Then peg specific musical motives to their most appropriate place in that arc. Decisions about tempo and pacing, phrasing, and rhythm will all give shape to the underlying emotional atmosphere of an extended passage of music. A passage of music is “an emotional point of view.” An entire piece is an accumulation of emotional points of view, and accumulation of emotional tension. Guard against over-extending or under-delivering that emotional tension.

Find the colors of your instrument. Try to imagine dynamics as colors or affects (such as “energy” or “decisiveness” or “happiness”) rather than simply as levels of loudness or softness. In such a scheme, “forte” might mean “exaggerated” rather than “loud.” Therefore, as a performer, cultivate an attitude toward the music that allows the arc of the line to determine how you understand its color.

Learn to communicate to many types of audiences.

Figure out what added value you want to bring to people’s lives, then define musical excellence in terms of successful delivery of that value. If you follow that sort of approach, “musical excellence” may look different in your work or your compositions or your performances than it does for someone else. But that is a distinctive.

Keeping knocking on doors of opportunity until they open.

{The musings above are my distillations of inspiring presentations — as well as my thoughts about those presentations — during Fall 2015 rather than direct quotations from guest artists and presenters. I would be happy, however, to share more about some of the specific master classes and who some of those guests artists were. If you are interested, please contact me, or leave a comment and I will answer as quickly as possible. Stan}

December 2015 Music: It’s Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

Ok, so it’s really not… at least not for this boy from the North who is now living in the South. But to be honest, I really do not miss the snow, and I am acclimating to the vision of Christmas lights coexisting with palm trees. I cannot lie: walking around the campus of Florida State University for an evening concert on December 1 with temperatures in the low 70s is marvelous. This is why I moved to Florida… well, it’s one of the reasons.

It’s beginning to SOUND a lot like Christmas!

That’s true.

I’ve “broken out” my Christmas-time iTunes play lists.

So those who know me well know I am a rather eclectic music listener, and my Christmas play lists are no different. Yes, there are some very tasteful choral arrangements of traditional carols, but when I am working in December and want some fun Christmas music in the background, here are some of my favorite go-to-pieces from across several genres:

Selections from Michael W. Smith’s “The Ultimate Christmas Collection.”

Duke Ellington’s suite on selections from The Nutcracker.

Dan Gibson’s “Christmas in the Country” (Don’t judge! I have had a soft spot in my heart for New Age music since I bought my first stereo system in the mid 1980s!)

And favorite selections from a collection of Christmas songs and carols performed by popular artists from the 1940s and 1950s, including a fun version of “Ding Dong Merrily on High” by the Mantovani Orchestra, and Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters on “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

If it is December, it means it is also time for the ever-popular PRISM concert at the College of Music at Florida State University. Tonight’s opening evening performance was outstanding. As you see and hear the sound of a mass of trombones or saxophones or even bassoons in the aisles and balconies of Ruby Diamond Concert Hall, you are made fully aware of the incredible musical benefit of being in a university town with such a large music unit and with such a “deep bench” of players in every studio. That, friends, is another reason I moved to Florida. The musical resources of Florida State University are simply second to none.

I particular loved the Percussion Ensemble’s “Marimba Spiritual” (Miki), the Clarinet Studio’s delightful “Molly on the Shore” (Grainger), and the Bassoon Studio’s “She Loves Me.” The University Concert Band’s “Festivo” (Gregson) was also one of my favorites.

And of course, with the next Star Wars movie set to open in just a few weeks, there have been numerous renditions of Star War cues on various band programs at FSU over the past few weeks. Tonight, the University Wind Orchestra offered “Princess Leia” and “Parade of Ewoks” (both very well played!), the University Symphonic Band reprised its stellar performance of “Star Wars / Main Title” that was also showcased last week on the Band’s final fall concert, and the Marching Chiefs themselves gave a rousing, full-force rendition of “Cantina Band” before concluding tonight’s PRISM concert with “Hymn to the Garnet and the Gold.”

December always reminds me of the emotional power of traditions and rituals and of their therapeutic potential for our mental well-being. I have always loved Christmas trees blazing in a darkened living room. There is something very peaceful about such an experience. I am sure that today, nostalgia for my childhood layers even more meaning on such Christmas-tree moments. After all, as a child, I’d try to squeeze myself under our Christmas tree to look at the lights from below or to snooze in the peaceful down pouring of colored light or to read in the warmth of the hazy reds and blues.

At tonight’s PRISM concert, I was also reminded of the deep value of the traditions and rituals that accumulate around collective music making, such as those that adhere to a marching band program or to an instrumental studio at a vibrant school of music. I appreciated the joy of being part of those rituals tonight, even if only as an outsider invited to look in, or better yet, as an outsider invited to become enmeshed—physically—by the powerful presence of musicians and their music surrounding us on all sides.

These experiences are just like opening up those Christmas-time-only play lists. It’s not that my Christmas play lists are filled with particularly great music (“as music”). It’s that the play lists are filled with familiar pieces that help me to refocus and reground myself each December. And I’ve needed such a recurring role of seasonal music in my life ever since I was five or six and first listened to an LP recording of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” that my father owned. I would listen and re-listen to that LP, in no small part because as I child I fell in love with a choral rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” that was featured on that LP. For years afterwards, I had to listen and listen again to that LP every Christmas season. It is not surprising, then, that “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” remains my favorite carol to this day, and I will look forward to playing my favorite arrangement of it on the piano sometime this month.

“And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”

My hope, dear readers, is that your December is filled with the life-giving joy of music and the life-rewarding experience of friends and loved ones drawn near to you by the holidays.

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Thinking About Star Wars Music

I only occasionally read “top 10” type posts on Facebook, but I could not resist writing a little along that line tonight.

I drove to Sarasota today from Tallahassee. It’s about a 5-hour drive south (for all of you readers who live outside of Florida)—barring traffic jams around Tampa! I was asked to attend a College of Music event “on the road” tomorrow, and I folded into the trip an additional meeting this afternoon at the Ringley Museum in Sarasota. The Museum is situated on the (western) Gulf Coast, and the view this afternoon was gorgeous. (Check out a couple of photographs I took and have posted at the end of this blog.)

Knowing that I’d have a long drive by myself today, I decided to bring along and listen to some of my older CDs of film music. Among those CDs was the soundtrack to Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.

We are surrounded right now by Star Wars hype, what with the December 18th premier of the seventh movie (which I have been waiting for since 1980, when I used to listen to my two-LP set of music from The Empire Strikes Back).

I’ve been trying to cite many of my sources of information in my blogs … but is it even necessary to corroborate my reference to Star Wars hype right now? Is my Facebook feed the only Star Wars-saturated feed right now? 

I have been trying to avoid learning too much about the new movie ahead of time. I would like some surprises with this new trilogy. But the hype has motivated me to think about my own 38-year love of all things Star Wars… and especially John Williams’s six Star Wars soundtracks.

So here’s my horrible Star Wars secret: I LIKED Episode 1 – and particularly its music. Yes, I know, Jar Jar Binks…. But put him aside: the dramatic scenes with a young Obi-Wan, his master Qui-Gon Jinn, and the energetic Sith Lord, Darth Maul, more than make up for Jar Jar. And be honest with me: Episode 1 is at least as entertaining as Return of the Jedi, and more so than the original Star Wars (you know, “A New Hope”).

But it’s the music…. I still love the soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back best, but in my opinion, Episode 1 is Williams’s second best Star Wars soundtrack. Williams was at the height of his power when he composed it; he had an established mythology to work with and an established body of musical themes to reference, reuse, and add to. Granted, there would be few surprises in the new trilogy—the main outline was set in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But that means there were also no “retrospective omissions” (compositionally speaking). Empire’s soundtrack is amazing in part because of the significant new themes it introduced to what was then only a two-film series: “Yoda’s Theme,” the new theme for Leia and Han, the “City in the Clouds,” and most importantly, “Darth Vader’s Theme.” I mean really – doesn’t it bother you to watch the original Star Wars and NOT hear Vader’s theme? And the cues “The Battle in the Snow,” “The Asteroid Field,” “The Magic Tree,” “The Duel,” and “Hyperspace” from Empire are simply amazing for their energy, their moods, and their orchestrations. In my opinion, nothing quite rises to their level in Return of the Jedi, not even the long accompaniment to the battle on Endor.
So what about Episode 1? “Duel of the Fates.” Enough said.

Not convinced: “Anakin’s Theme.” Not only is that a gorgeous track in its own right, it is Williams at his best without the brassy bombast of his many march-based tracks. Furthermore, the manner in which he subtly alters the cadences of the theme’s opening phrases so that later iterations mimic the cadences of Darth Vader’s theme is musical magic. Go back and listen to “Anakin’s Theme.” Note the cadences at 0:34 and 0:44, then compare how Williams begins to reshape them for the cadence at 1:56, before allowing Vader’s cadence to (softly) sound at the most significant formal moment up to that point: the conclusion of the B section and the return to the (modified) opening materials. And then Williams simply allows Vader’s cadence to extend and repeat from 2:30 to the end of the track. It is so easy for people to refer to Williams’s “leitmotifs,” but this is a real example of subtle thematic transformation that truly add to our perception of the object or person. Can we ever see or hear Vader or Anakin the same way again as his/their two themes and all associated meanings coalesce in our inner ear and mind’s eye?

So I will grant that George Lucas may not have gotten it all right in Episode 1 (or Episodes 2 and 3), but Williams’s music suggests that the composer understand the tragedy inherent in the series as a whole. His music for the boy from Tatooine is a study in musical anguish. Indeed, listen for all the iterations of the “Force” theme in Episode 1: they simply add to the anguished quality of the whole. There is virtually nothing triumphant, as least not lastingly so, about Episode 1’s music: even the “Star Wars” heroic theme is almost—almost!—mute. And yet the soundtrack is outstanding Star Wars music. It is outstanding film music.

And I could go on. The opening moments of “Sith Spacecraft” are brilliant. If you prefer a brassy Williams march, there’s “Panaka and the Queen’s Protectors.” (I cannot listen to that track just once!) And I love the way in which Williams uses so much familiar material to maximize the sense of both sentimentality and sadness in the cue “The High Council Meeting and Qui-Gon’s Funeral.”

Here’s my bottom line: What Episode 1’s dialogue lacks, its music makes up for. Common on, this is space opera! And in opera, music often does cover over a multitude of textual deficits!

So to conclude, here’s my list of the Star Wars movies in (descending) order of great to not-so-great. My assessment of their soundtracks inevitably plays into this list (but my assessment of the merits of the soundtracks and of the films do not completely overlap).

  1. The Empire Strikes Back (episode 5)
  2. Revenge of the Sith (episode 3)
  3. Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (episode 1)
  4. Return of the Jedi (episode 6)
  5. Star Wars (you know, the original 1) (episode 4)
  6. that other one (episode 2)

And just for some more fun, here are a few more of my ranked media lists:

“Original” Star Trek Movies in descending order: 6 4 2 3 5 1

Seasons of Dexter: 4 2 1 3 5 {Are the last three even worth ranking?}

Seasons of the revived Doctor Who: 4 5 6 2 9 1 7 8 3

Please feel free to offer your counter lists.

One more thing: if you love John Williams, consider checking out his soundtrack to The Cowboys (1972). It is one of my favorite film soundtracks, certainly one of my favorites to a Western. The film itself is one of my favorite Westerns, and one of my favorite John Wayne movies.

Oh…. And see you on or around December 18 for my review of the new music for Episode 7!

[NB: As I have been writing, I’ve been listening to the recordings included in Star Wars Trilogy: The Original Soundtrack Anthology Box Set, which was released in 1993. The fourth disc – with alternate tracks – remains one of my favorite film music finds. The box set can still be purchased online.]

(November 20, 2015)

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Two views at the Ringley Museum in Sarasota, Florida. Taken by Stan Pelkey, November 20, 2015.

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October 2015 Recordings

Here are a few of the things I am listening to repeatedly this month:

Elmer Bernstein’s score for the film The Magnificent Seven.

Bernard Herrmann’s score for the film The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

William Walton’s Piano Quartet and String Quartet.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 8.

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Charterhouse School in England. Vaughan Williams was a student here. I visited in June 2009.