New publishing venture

A new publishing venture called uu&me Publishing has just issued their first book, About Death. It looks like a great book to talk about death with kids.

uu&me was a magazine that grew out of the work of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and eventually was included as an insert in UU World magazine, until it was slashed in 2009 due to budget cuts. The current kids’ insert in UU World magazine recycles materials from curriculum books, and just isn’t as much fun. I have kept all my back issues of uu&me, and still refer to them (full disclosure: I had material published in the final issue of uu&me).

On their Web site, uu&me Publishing indicates that they will be collecting material from back numbers of uu&me for a new series of kids’ books. Let’s all buy their books, and encourage them, and maybe they’ll start producing some new material as well!

Defining religious liberals

Recently, I was trying to explain to another person (this is someone who belongs to a liberal denomination) that some evangelical Christians are impossible to distinguish from religious liberals. This other person found my assertion difficult to believe. I realized that most of us tend to define religious liberalism by denominational boundaries: if you are in a United Church of Christ congregation, or a Reform Jewish congregation, you are a religious liberal; if you’re part of an evangelical congregation, you can’t possibly be a religious liberal. But denominational boundaries began eroding a long time ago, and that old definition no longer works particularly well.

Here’s another possible definition for religious liberal: A religious liberal is someone who is flexible about theological or ideological matters, who instead is more concerned with living out his or her values in the wider world, and who is willing to make adjustments to his or her theology in order to make the world a better place. By contrast, a religious conservative is someone who is most concerned with theological purity or purity of religious ideology, and not social justice.

By this definition, evangelical Christian Richard Ciszik, former staffer for the National Association of Evangelicals, is a religious liberal because he is more committed to “creation care” or environmentalism than he is to religious ideology. Richard Dawkins, by contrast, comes across as a religious conservative, a humanist who demands ideological purity even if he alienates other religious groups to the extent that he greatly reduces his chances of working with them to solve real-world problems.

Or to put it another way: I’d much rather work with Richard Cisik on social justice issues than with Richard Dawkins; actually, I suspect Richard Dawkins would never condescend to work with someone like me on anything because I wouldn’t pass his test of ideological purity.

Classical music video no. 7

And for the last in a week’s worth of classical music videos….

Just 26 years old, Mohammed Fairouz (b. 1985) is already on his third symphony and recently premiered his first opera. His published music also includes art songs and works for small ensembles; these compositions have the kind of instrumentation we can use in our congregations. In this concert footage, Imani Winds perform “Mar Charbel’s Dabkeh” — and yes, there is something of a middle-eastern sound in this piece: Farouz straddles the worlds of Western art music and Mid-eastern music; but in his case, instead of breaking genre boundaries, I think of him as twisting and reshaping genre boundaries.

Classical music video no. 6

There are several young classical composers that critics are calling “indie-classical,’ because they combine the singer-songwriter sensibility of indie rock with classical music complexity and depth. Today you get three videos, all of “indie-classical” music:

Continue reading “Classical music video no. 6”

Classical music video no. 5

Yesterday I mentioned composer Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997); today’s video is of the Bang-on-a-Can All-Stars playing one of his works. “Study 3a” was originally written for player piano, and was not playable by a human pianist. This transcription, playable by humans, divides up the music among several musicians playing piano, electric guitar, clarinet, sax, cello, bass, and percussion.

Here’s another example of music that defies the boundaries of musical genre. Is it jazz? classical? or what? Nancarrow had played jazz when he was young, before studying “classical” music with Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, etc. This piece is obviously influenced by classical music of the mid-twentieth century, but check out that groovy boogie-woogie left hand on the piano that just gets under your skin and makes you want to dance.

If you’re curious what the original work sounded like, here’s a player piano rendition on Youtube. Me, I like the human-performed version better.

Classical music video no. 4

Today we have the Asphalt Orchestra doing “Zombie Woof” by Frank Zappa (1940-1993): new music meets marching band and weirdo rock n roll. As with Anthony Braxton, the second of yesterday’s composers, Frank Zappa can’t be easily contained within the boundaries of conventional musical genres. He made a living as a rock musician, recording on rock labels and playing in rock venues. But he was heavily influenced by contemporary classical composers, received commissions from renowned “classical” conductor Pierre Boulez, and developed a critically acclaimed multimedia piece in Berkeley. Avant-garde classical or rock n roll — who can tell? Zappa blurs the boundaries.

Zappa was often frustrated by the inability of human musicians to perform his music up to his standards. Even his early rock recordings contain lots of post-production manipulation (overdubbing, etc.). Like the somewhat older composer Conlon Nancarrow, Zappa spent the latter part of his career composing for a machine; Zappa used a programmable synthesizer, while Nancarrow punched out player piano scrolls by hand.

Despite his frustrations with human musicians, I suspect Zappa would have been pleased at this performance/ arrangement by the Asphalt Orchestra: the Orchestra manages to sort through the multi-level overdubbing of the original rock recording and create an arrangement for marching band; then they give the arrangement a tight performance that’s coupled with sassy choreography.

And can you imagine having a marching band like this walk into a Sunday services? Or how about stealth marching band performances in public places in the style of What Cheer Brigade?

Classical music video 3.5

Bonus — you get an extra video today!

Part of the problem with trying to define “classical music” is that musical genres are not so easily delineated. These days, musical genres are mostly created by people who want to sell you music: when you listen to a recording that you like, or attend a concert that you like, people want to sell you more recordings and more concert tickets of music that sounds pretty much exactly like what you just heard. So it is we have increasingly narrow genres, within the boundaries of which all the music sounds pretty much exactly alike.

But there are many composers who stretch the boundaries of musical genres. For example, is Anthony Braxton (b. 1945) a jazz musician? Well, he has recorded on jazz labels, played jazz clubs with some of the great jazz musicians, and is typically identified as belonging in the “free jazz” genre. But Braxton acknowledges a debt to “classical” composer John Cage, and you can see a Youtube video of him lecturing on Henri Messaien and Karheinz Stockhausen, and he has premiered his compositions at “new music” (i.e., contemporary classical music) concerts. So maybe he’s a classical composer?

The lines between jazz and new music are blurry at best, and sometimes the only difference between a jazz composer and a classical composer is that the jazz composer is black and the classical composer is white. Composer Anthony Braxton is black, he’s placed into jazz. Composer Terry Riley, who has worked as a jazz musician, is white, he gets put into classical. Duke Ellington is black, he’s a jazz composer; Gunther Schuller is white, he must be a classical composer. We accept these definitions, and even defend them, but at a certain point they don’t make a lot of sense.

I was hoping to present you with a really good video of Braxton’s music. Unfortunately, there just aren’t any good online videos of his music: only the usual crummy handheld video from someone sitting in the audience, or excerpts from one of his recordings with a static visual of the cover of the CD. But to give you a taste of Braxton’s music, I did find one 20 second clip of his mammoth “Composition No. 19 (For 100 Tubas),” written in 1971 and first performed in 2006. That’s Braxton in the foreground, with the drum major’s baton, conducting:

Classical music video no. 3

Today’s classical music video is of the Bang on a Can All-stars rocking out on Steve Reich’s “2×5” (2008). Steve Reich (b. 1936) started out as a jazz drummer, but soon switched to composing lcassical music. He is best known for his early minimalist compositions. Bang on a Can is a group of composers and musicians who have produced some remarkable performances and compositions in the twenty-five years since they were organized. If you have a chance to attend their 12 hour Bang on a Can Marathon, held each summer in North Adams at Mass MOCA, go — it will change your image of “classical” music forever.

Alas, the videography is boring. On the other hand, it’s fun watching the interaction of the musicians without constant intrusions from the videographer.

By the way, this video proves something I had though impossible: you can have a group of four electric guitar players in which not one is an egomaniac. There are four electric guitars, and two bass guitars, in this video, and every guitarist is an extremely disciplined musician showing very little ego in a very tight band.

Classical music video no. 2

Today’s classical music video is a collboration between Ben Frost (b. 1980) and Daniel Bjarnason (b. 1979). Frost is both a performer, primarily heavily modified electric guitar, and a composer; he has worked with Nico Muhy, Bjork, and Brian Eno, among other musicians. Bjarnason has also worked with classical and rock musicians in his native Iceland.

This is another meditative piece: “Cruel Miracles” is part of a longer work titled “Solaris,” which was inspired by the brilliant 1972 film of the same title directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. The visuals are in fairly standard music video format, but I do like the way the videographer emphasizes the computers and sound boards necessary for this performance: this is not nineteenth century classical music.

Classical music video no. 1

“Classical music” — an imprecise term for art/concert music in the Western tradition — has been getting a bad name in liberal religious circles. Its primary defenders promote classical music written in the nineteenth century. Its detractors rightly point out that nineteenth century music is outdated, but then typically go on to advocate commercial pop musics which are distinctly lacking in musical or intellectual depth.

Neither nineteenth century classical music nor contemporary commercial pop musics do much for my spiritual life. But I have been getting a lot of spiritual sustenance from twenty-first century “classical music,” better known to its listeners as “new music.” This week, I’m going to post some videos of new music that do something for me spiritually. First up is this fabulous music video — music composed by Anna Clyne (b. 1980) and artwork by Josh Dorman — which I would love to use as a “reading” or meditation in a worship service:


Oops! Did something wrong, and this didn’t publish Monday as I meant it to do; so here it is on Tuesday.