Sunday, August 9, 2015

Up in the air and out of this world

Coincidentally I ran across two unusual performances this week, both rather, uh, up in the air. The first one is by Janice Martin, "aerial violinist". Here, have a look/listen:

That, to me, seems to be at the crossroads of all the most superficial trends in current classical music performance. Which probably means that it will be a Big Hit (though with only 9000 and change hits on YouTube it's not a big hit yet). Let's run the checklist:

  • Pop crossover, Kashmir, by Led Zeppelin with extra marks for pseudo-world-music status: check!
  • Glitzy costumes: check!
  • Fancy stage choreography: check!
  • Contemporary classical tune with folk references: check!
  • Vivaldi, Four Seasons: check!
Did I miss anything? Oh, right, attractive female soloist: check!

Alongside this rather tired attempt to enliven crossover with some gymnastics let's juxtapose a rather more original effort: the first music album to be, partly at least, recorded in space. Here is the article in the Globe and Mail: "About to launch album debut, Chris Hadfield talks recording music in space." You remember Christ Hadfield? He is just starting his third career. First he was a fighter pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, then an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency where he spent 166 days on the International Space Station. While there he did a lot of interesting things in his spare time with photography and social media. Yes, he is one of the few people to post photos to the Internet from orbit. I posted about him way back in May, 2013 when he released a cover of the David Bowie tune "Space Oddity" that he recorded on the space station. Now there's a first! Here it is:

The voice and guitar were recorded on the space station, everything else on the ground. With over 26 million hits, it rather puts Janice's acrobatics in the shade.

But, as we learn from the Globe and Mail article, that was just the beginning. Chris, a veteran of various bands over 25 years, also wrote and recorded several original songs and they will be released on Oct. 9. One interesting bit:
“It’s hard to play guitar on a spaceship, because there’s nothing to hold the guitar stable,” he pointed out. “Almost always, the guitar slips in your hands. If you’re a guitar player, I tell people to try playing while standing on your head.
“The producer who was helping me, Paul Mills, said: ‘Your guitar playing is a little messy,“’ he added with a laugh. “I said, yeah, you come up here and play guitar.”
You bet! I tried to practice guitar while on a five-day train trip across Canada and I know exactly what he means. On a train (or in a car) you are constantly being jolted in different directions so it is basically impossible to play guitar. Stability is pretty much a necessity. There is one tune from the album on YouTube. Here is "Feet Up":

Well, ok, there's your pretty good Canadian soft rock. Chris Hadfield gets full points for versatility!


Christine Lacroix said...

Maybe this is just a sign of how competitive the industry has become? People will do anything to stand out?Or, maybe they're just very motivated? Sometimes I think I'd do backflips if I thought it would help my students learn better. Janice Martin looks like she's taking a cue from Lindsey Stirling and David Garrett.Have you seen the number of YouTube hits Lindsey Stirling has for some of her work?

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh you bet. But people compete in different ways. Some with the music, others with the presentation. Don't get me started on Lindsey Stirling and David Garrett!

Ken Fasano said...

When Nathan Milstein played the Bach Sonatas and Partitas - or Yehudi Menuhin, or many other great artists - they didn't have to fly through the air or have themselves transported by helicopters. It seems that an artist (including composers) who needs a gimmick is simply an inferior artist.

Bryan Townsend said...

Amen! They also chose better repertoire.

Christine Lacroix said...

Ken maybe it's the audience that needs the gimmicks and not the artists? We aren't all wired for sound the same way. I personally need all the help I can get when listening to music, particularly music I've never heard before. I just don't seem to be able to process music the way you do or hear what you hear.I was at a concert with friends last night in a lovely 11th century stone chapel near my house. Bertrand Cuiller played Froberger, Rameau, Couperin, Forqueray on the harpsichord and I was desperately trying to keep my mind from wandering throughout. I just didn't get it. He could have been banging on pots and pans for all I got out of it. And my friends were ecstatic! We're not all created equal when it comes to music and maybe some artists realize this and try to help out the musical dunces using helicopters, lasers, sound and light, whatever.

Bryan Townsend said...

Christine, as always, you present an interestingly different take! Yes, we must never forget about our responsibility to present music in ways that can help the audience. There is a fine line, of course, between doing that and doing circus tricks to distract the audience from the music. Funnily enough, the idea of hearing 18th century French harpsichord music played in an 11th century chapel sounds like a perfect listening experience to me!

So your friends were right and you were wrong! No, no, just kidding. Every listener's experience is uniquely theirs, just like every pain and pleasure is uniquely theirs. So what was blocking the aesthetic experience for you? It might be that your friends are familiar with the sound of the harpsichord--which can be jarring until you get used to it. The great Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia used to liken the sound of the harpsichord to two skeletons making love on a tin roof. Also, you may be unfamiliar with the aesthetic and characteristic gestures of French Baroque music. I used to live with a harpsichordist and this music has always been very special to me. I wrote a post a while back where I talked about it in some detail:

The way I look at it, you have the wonderful opportunity of getting to know and love this music! It's like living in a big castle and every now and then you discover a new door you haven't opened or a new tower or, in this case, a whole new wing!

Christine Lacroix said...

The friends I invited chose the concert they wanted to attend. Basically they only like music from the 16th to the 18th century. You're right I am totally unfamiliar with the aesthetic and characteristic gestures of French Baroque music. Usually with classical music I need to listen to a piece several times and preferably spaced out over a long period of time to know if I'll like it or not. If I'm invited to a concert I try to listen to the music on YouTube beforehand to become familiar with it. Otherwise it falls on deaf ears. As I said before, we're not all wired for sound the same way.Maybe I need a sort of sign language interpreter, like in the Eminem clip. Maybe expressive performers through emoting serve that purpose to some extent?

I do like the sound of the harpsichord by the way. Doesn't sound like skeletons to me at all.

Bryan Townsend said...

I like the crisp formality and expressive nuance of French Baroque music and tend to dislike the overstuffed intensity and emoting of Romantic music. But these are simply taste preferences. Some Romantic music I learn to like with great pleasure.