AUDIO FLASHBACK: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Four Novelettes

This week’s Audio Flashback is Samuel Coleridge-Taylor‘s Four Novelettes. Coleridge-Taylor honored his pan-African heritage with ever-mellifluous compositions that increasingly embraced syncopation. African American elites of the Gilded Age cherished him. Whitney Slaten, Assistant Professor of Music at Bard College, writes in the concert notes: “Though Coleridge-Taylor has been called the “Black Mahler,” there are more apt musical analogies. One writer … hears “touches of Brahms and the blues.” Similarly, one could listen to the dotted rhythms that introduce the first movement and find echoes of Handel, who used them to pronounce the regality in his oratorio Messiah.” TŌN performed the piece with conductor Zachary Schwartzman on September 19, 2020 as part of the “Out of the Silence” festival, presented with the Bard Music Festival and the Fisher Center at Bard. You can read Whitney Slaten’s full concert notes on the work by clicking here.

Grieg’s Holberg Suite

Notes by TŌN violinist Misty Drake

The Backstory
While classical music’s top composers dished out symphonies and concertos to gain recognition, Edvard Grieg forged a slightly different compositional path to popularity. How did a Norwegian composer with a large compositional output of choral pieces and short lyric suites join the classical music cannon? Simple: Grieg drew inspiration from the traditional Norwegian folk songs of his homeland. Before long, his writings became adopted as the nationalistic style of Norway. That being said, it is no surprise that Grieg was asked to compose festival music for the 200th anniversary of prominent Norwegian-Danish playwright Ludvig Holberg. On Dec 3, 1884, From Holberg’s Time: Suite in the olden style was premiered, along with an assortment of pieces that were inspired by the popular music during Holberg’s lifetime. Grieg engages in various meters and rhythms to blend Norwegian folksongs with classic Baroque dances. Definitely written with twirling and toe-tapping in mind! A year later, the Holberg Suite was rewritten for a string orchestra. This was a clever move, in my opinion, because it showcases the wide range of color, techniques, and versatility of this lesser-known ensemble.

The Music
This five-movement suite begins with a Praelude, imitating the broken chord progressions found in 18th-century harpsichord preludes. The Sarabande spotlights a solo cello-turned-trio, while mordant trills add the flavor of folk ornamentation over bass pizzicatti. A cheerful lilt in the bow adds a buoyant spring to the Gavotte, accompanied by a leisure drone played by the first violins. After taking an unexpected detour in the form of a Musette, this drone inherits a bagpipe-like quality before returning back as an accompanimental role. The fourth movement, Air, showcases the rich sound of a large string orchestra, and 18th-century ornamentals add intensity by prolonging harmonic climaxes. The final movement is a lively Rigaudon. Solo violin and solo viola create an energetic momentum with rapid folk passages, while the Poco meno mosso recalls the lilting folk-like qualities of previous movements.

Jonny Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver

Notes by TŌN bassist Tristen Jarvis

The Composer and The Music
From recorder enthusiast-turned-violist to internationally renowned rockstar, guitarist/composer Jonny Greenwood, of the multi-platinum-selling rock outfit Radiohead, brings us his award-winning Popcorn Superhet Receiver for string orchestra, notably featured in the 2007 Oscar-nominated film There Will Be Blood. Deeply influenced by experimental 20th-century composers Olivier Messiaen, György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Arvo Pärt, Popcorn is dominated by dissonant, anxiety-provoking, microtonal clusters (evoking static from the shortwave radio catalog of an actual superheterodyne receiver), an infectious groove-based middle section, and familiar contemporary art-music atonality with occasional bursts of consonance for stability.

Creating Popcorn
Greenwood wrote the piece by playing many of its expansive tone clusters on the viola, then manipulating those notes using the industry standard audio-editing software Pro Tools, creating an orchestra of Jonny Greenwoods. Through the same process, he also multi-tracked an ondes Martenot (an early electronic keyboard from 1929 that sounds like a theremin) and transcribed his creation for string orchestra all by hand. “There’s nothing like sitting in a completely quiet room, and then the strings start up,” Greenwood comments. “It’s like when you go to the cinema— the first two or three minutes of any film are amazing because the scale of the screen is so big. Directors can pretty much do anything for those first few minutes. It doesn’t matter how many films you see, it’s still a big moment.”

A BBC Commission
Independently of his acclaimed work for Radiohead, Greenwood has established a growing reputation for himself as a composer of “classical” works, and as one of the most sought-after film composers working in Britain. In 2004, Greenwood was made composer-in-residence with the BBC Concert Orchestra. Popcorn Superhet Receiver was the first fruit of this association, premiered by the BBC Concert Orchestra and Robert Ziegler in April 2005. Greenwood’s own comments on the piece are as follows: “This was my first commission for the BBC Concert Orchestra—and a chance to try out a long-held ambition to write something using large, Penderecki-style microtonal clusters. I wanted to start from white noise, treating it like a big block to carve up and distort . . . You can just do things with the classical orchestra that unsettle you, that are sort of slightly wrong, that have some kind of undercurrent that’s slightly sinister.”

Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Notes by TŌN violinist Xinran Li

The Background
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, also known as the Tallis Fantasia, is a one-movement work for string orchestra by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. It was premiered by the composer and the London Symphony Orchestra in the Gloucester Cathedral in 1910. The Fantasia is constructed for double string orchestra with string quartet, and is inspired by both a theme by 16th-century English composer Thomas Tallis, and John Bunyan’s Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, with which Vaughan Williams had a lifelong obsession. He adapted the tune from a hymn by English poet Joseph Addison:

When rising from the bed of death,
O’erwhelmed with guilt and fear,
I see my Maker face to face,
O how shall I appear?

The Music
The harmonies in the piece have a continuous sweeping motion, and the work has a nonstop changing texture. With roots in improvisation by each of the solo players, the Fantasia builds up with its complicated, flowing layers with interesting tones. It is full, serene, and spiritual. It is covered by layers and layers of the string ensemble with its shimmering tones. Combining English folk and Renaissance stylings, the work blurs boundaries, switching between major and minor keys, creating an earthy, subtle chill. This piece brings me to a starry sky, and an oak forest. It sounds familiar but vague, something that is old but new, something that is so large but also so small. It is a rising swell, a wave that carries me away to a secret place of my own.

Sarah Hennies’ Falling Together

Notes by the composer

For many years I have been interested in labor as musical material. Labor is a necessity for human wellbeing—both economically and psychologically—despite being a source of weariness and stress. I often compose this “work music” using a series of unusual repeating patterns that represent the effort and repetition of labor.

Falling Together is inspired by the orchestral work of Iannis Xenakis, who composed individual parts for each member of the orchestra rather than grouping musicians by section that play in unison. The work’s utopian “society” of all members working differently but together gradually exhausts itself.

A Q&A with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood

Ahead of our concert this Sunday, New & Classic Works for Strings, composer and Radiohead musician Jonny Greenwood agreed to answer some questions from our musicians about his craft and his 2005 work Popcorn Superhet Receiver, which we’ll be performing on February 21.

Popcorn Superhet Receiver—What is the origin of the title?
James Bagwell, Conductor of Sunday’s concert and TŌN’s Academic Director and Associate Conductor

A Popcorn superhet receiver is a kind of radio. I remember long car journeys as a kid where, after exhausting the same 3 cassettes for hours, the music would be stopped—but I found that if I listened hard enough to the engine noise, I could still hear the songs playing. This is about that feeling of swimming through that noise until your mind makes music for you.

First, I just want to say thank you for taking the time to answer our questions and to connect with us musicians. To say it is a dream come true to play one of your works is an understatement, your music has shaped my life more profoundly than any other artist or composer and it is truly the reason I am a musician today.

My question for you is this: Since you have made a career out of blending different musical genres to create something totally new and different, how do you decide what becomes a Radiohead song and what becomes an orchestral piece? In other words, where is the musical line drawn, or is there a line at all? Do your orchestral works live in the same creative space that a Radiohead song does, or do you view them as two separate entities? 

P.S. If you need a double bass player for Radiohead LP10 or even a studio version of “The Daily Mail” I’d be honored!
Kaden Henderson, TŌN bassist

Thanks – that’s very kind of you to say! Well . . . I suppose tonal ideas are usually more suited to Radiohead. Though that’s become less and less true as we’ve progressed. I know we are increasingly bored / frustrated with the same tonalities. I would hope they’d come together somehow.

You’ve scored many films directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Are there any other directors in particular that you would like to work with someday? I was also wondering what your favorite film scores from the past decade are.

P.S. The score to Phantom Thread is amazing and “House of Woodcock” is a really special track.
–Sean Flynn, TŌN violist

I don’t imagine there are better directors to work for than PTA and Lynne Ramsay—though I’m currently in the middle of scoring films for Jane Campion and Pablo Larraín, and they’re both really open-minded and collaborative in the best way. So, I’m very lucky indeed. It’s so helpful having a solid reason to write music that involves a) someone else’s opinions, and b) a nice crunchy deadline.

Best score in the last 10 years? The score to Midsommar was very underrated. Not least because I love recorders.

Have you ever considered writing music for a solo instrument?  Perhaps a concerto or just a true solo piece for any instrument?
Tristen Jarvis, TŌN bassist

A flute player with mutual friends asked me (and lots of composers) to write her a piece that had to be played in one breath, so she got lots of tiny pieces. That was a lovely idea—shame I didn’t get round to it yet. But I must—thanks for the reminder.

I greatly admire the originality and experimental nature of your music. Do you have any advice for other musicians who are trying to experiment with new techniques and sounds? How do you personally know when you have found something that you want to use in your music?
–Bram Margoles, TŌN violinist

I like complexity in sound—and find it more and more interesting when that complexity comes from human effort rather than software. Having said that, I’m sure you guys already study Max/MSP / supercollider-type software, which is great for experimenting. I also think manuscript and access to good musicians is equally inspiring—in a way, it’s all the ways of making music between those two extremes that I find uninspiring. I’m not sure how to advise you. I guess I’d say this: whatever you write, have a performance in mind, and think about those five minutes (or whatever) you’re going to occupy. And then start experimenting. An interesting sound / texture / rhythm is great, but it’s good to keep the frame of the performance around it. I get frustrated with how much great electronic music is a few minutes of fascinating rhythms ruined with a handful of cautiously sustained, very conventional chords over the top. Anyway—I’m just ranting now. And probably guilty of doing the same . . . .

TŌN IN: Augusta Read Thomas’ Silent Moon

For this Thursday’s video feature we check in with TŌN violinist Bram Margoles and violist Katelyn Hoag, who perform Augusta Read ThomasSilent Moon.

AUDIO FLASHBACK: Roque Cordero’s Adagio trágico

This week’s Audio Flashback is Adagio trágico by Panamanian-born composer Roque Cordero. Cordero first started working on the piece in 1946, after the death of his mother. He then set it aside, completing it only in 1955 after another tragic event: the assassination of Panamanian President José Antonio Remón Cantera, whose wife, Cecilia Pinel de Remón, had been a benefactor of Cordero’s. TŌN performed the work with conductor Andrés Rivas on September 19, 2020 as part of the “Out of the Silence” festival, presented with the Bard Music Festival and the Fisher Center at Bard. You can read the concert notes, written by Peter Laki, Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard College, by clicking here.

TŌN: In the Mood for Love!

We asked our musicians to share their favorite concert music to set the mood for Valentine’s Day. Here’s what they told us! We hope you hear something new to make your heart beat faster, or rediscover an ‘old love’ on this list to share with someone special.

Give your heart over to classical music with a gift to TŌN today!

Your generosity will sustain the next generation of great performers—more than 70 players from 14 countries—learning to share their passion for music with 21st-century audiences.

Help us spread the love . . . Your heart and ears will be happy you did!

  • Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht
    TŌN violinists Dillon Robb ’21 and Weiqiao Wu ’22


    “What immediately comes to mind is Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. It is a special piece to us because early in our relationship during a vacation on the Cape, one particularly clear evening, we laid out on a hammock and listened to a recording of the sextet while we watched stars fill the night sky. It was an experience that I will always remember, and performing the piece last week with TŌN reminded us of this beautiful moment that we share.” —Dillon

  • Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht
    TŌN bassists Mariya Andoniya-Henderson ’21 and Kaden Henderson ’22


    “The poem behind Verklärte Nacht is one that portrays the most noble and beautiful kind of love. Love that is accepting and transforming. Schoenberg does a pretty good job at capturing the drama and resolution of the text.” —Mariya

  • David Lang Just (After Song of Songs)
    TŌN cellist Lucas Button ’21 and TŌN horn player Emily Buehler ’21


    “I have heard it performed live just once before and it immediately affected me deeply. David Lang uses single words and small groupings of words from the Song of Songs, the text of intensely passionate love from the Old Testament—so in that sense the connection to Valentine’s Day is obvious! But for me, beyond this, the song is also about how we as humans experience love and how we practice love. The three voices begin alone with a simple and transfixing delivery of simple lines of text. The rhythm always has a feeling of a cradle rocking back and forth, or of two people in an embrace swaying gently. As the song goes on, lines of text are repeated and become familiar. The story is perhaps changing as the strings and percussion become increasingly involved throughout the song, but the lovers are staying just as close or growing closer. This reminds me of the way we notice the qualities we love about our partners over and over again. And the act of uttering aloud to one another what we love about them is the practice of building upon a love connection.” —Lucas

  • Wagner Siegfried Idyll
    TŌN trumpet player Guillermo Garcia Cuesta ’21 and Estefany Carrillo


    “Wagner wrote it as a birthday present for his wife, and performed it on her birthday as she woke up.” —Guillermo

  • R. Strauss Der Rosenkavalier
    TŌN violist Katelyn Hoag ’22 and TŌN violinist Bram Margoles ’22


    “We love Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier (or the orchestral suite version) as a piece for Valentine’s Day. It’s an amazing rom-com with a happy ending, which is rare for opera. The music is so lushly romantic—perfect for that Valentine’s Day feeling!” —Katelyn

  • Fritz Kreisler Liebesleid
    TŌN violist Sean Flynn ’22 and Nico


    “Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesleid for violin and piano is maybe a bit of an ironic choice for a Valentine’s Day playlist in that the English title is Love’s Sorrow. Despite that, this piece evokes to me the full gamut of emotions one can feel while in love: nostalgia, warmth, bittersweet-ness, tenderness. It’s certainly sentimental, but not overly sappy and that’s why I enjoy it so much. When I hear the piece, I can’t help but picture my wife and me just sitting in a French café and sharing a simple moment together, and I think it’s these sorts of simple moments that will always be most memorable to me.” —Sean

  • Tchaikovsky Swan Lake
    TŌN bassoonist Cheryl Fries ’22 and Rajan Panchal


    “My perfect Valentine’s Day concert music would definitely be music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet. My last Valentine’s Day pre-pandemic was spent going to Swan Lake at the New York City Ballet with my boyfriend Rajan, who is also a musician. Not only is it a special memory for us, but the romantic story line and beautifully enchanting music would make anyone’s Valentine’s Day more magical. Make an evening out of watching the ballet from the comfort of your home with whomever you hold special to you!” —Cheryl

  • Ravel Daphnis et Chloé
    TŌN violist Celia Daggy ’22 and TŌN trombonist David Kidd ’22


    “To me, Daphnis et Chloé is one of the best musical love stories out there. Even without watching dancers, you can hear the passion the characters feel in the music. Ravel is one of the best text-painters out there, and the epic fantasy tale of Daphnis fighting his way to rescue his love Chloe is so clear through the music, I’ll never get tired of reliving this love story.” —Celia

  • Brahms C-minor Piano Quartet, third movement
    TŌN cellists Sara Page ’22 and Cameron (CJ) Collins ’22


    “CJ and I listened to many recordings of this piece early on when we started dating, and it is a shared favorite of ours. It has a beautiful cello melody at the opening and hearing it takes us back to when we first started spending time together as more than just studio mates at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.” —Sara

  • Franz Liszt Un sospiro
    TŌN cellist Eva Roebuck ’22


    Un sospiro translates to A Sigh. What starts out as a fairly simple melody quickly expands into a lush, rhapsodic, and sweeping display of virtuosity, all the while evoking a dreamy atmosphere. True to its title, the ending of the piece never fails to leave me sighing. It reminds me of that feeling of contentedness when you’ve just shared a blissful moment of closeness with a loved one. “

  • R. Strauss Morgen!
    TŌN cellist Eva Roebuck ’22


    “This is a relatively short piece, but has some of the most tender and romantic lyrics of any piece I’ve heard. This piece, to me, is an embodiment of profound love, peace, optimism, and beautiful times yet to come. The text translation is simply as follows:

    “And tomorrow the sun will shine again
    And on the path that I shall take,
    It will unite us, happy ones, again,
    Amid this same sun-breathing earth …
    And to the shore, broad, blue-waved,
    We shall quietly and slowly descend,
    Speechless we shall gaze into each other’s eyes,
    And the speechless silence of bliss shall fall on us . . .”

  • Eugène-Auguste Ysaÿe Chant d’hiver (Wintersong)
    TŌN violinist Nicole Oswald ’22


  • Aram Khachaturian Adagio from Spartacus
    TŌN violist Batmyagmar Erdenebat ’21


AUDIO FLASHBACK: Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady

This Tuesday’s Audio Flashback is Sophisticated Lady by the brilliant Duke Ellington. Ellington was recognized as the greatest jazz musician in America, giving voice to the Black experience in his works. He was an indefatigable innovator who was always open to new forms of expression, eventually crossing boundaries of genre and writing longer compositions for symphony orchestra. We performed Morton Gould’s arrangement of this piece with conductor Leon Botstein on September 26, 2020 as part of the “Out of the Silence” festival, presented with the Bard Music Festival and the Fisher Center at Bard.