a Better Bubble™

Rene Spencer Saller

All Hail the King (of Instruments)

3 weeks 6 days ago
As much as I would prefer to pretend that a good four months hasn’t elapsed since my last blog update, I feel obliged to attempt some kind of explanation. The truth, sadly, is that I have been very lazy and didn’t feel like it. Instead of blogging, I have been doing my best to keep […]
René Spencer Saller

MTT Conducts Beethoven’s Ninth with the SFS

6 months ago
The late Bay Area composer, academic, and arts leader Olly Wilson drew from his vast knowledge of African and African-American art forms and genres, as well as standard conservatory fare, to create his own musical language, transforming field research into felt experience. Inspired by the Yoruban god of thunder and lightning, Shango Memory uses a post-bop jazz idiom to rewrite the tropes of European modernism. Wilson's style is informed but not dictated by his extensive ethnomusicological studies in West Africa. Like Beethoven's Ninth, Shango Memory marshals the elements to approach the divine. Ancestor worship—re-imagined as an alternative, Africanized canon—becomes a force for collective liberation. Like many young men of his time and place, Beethoven was deeply moved by Friedrich Schiller's "An die Freude." In the decades that transpired before he set Schiller's heady verses to the tune we can all hum in our sleep, Beethoven witnessed the degradation of his Enlightenment-inspired ideals. The Age of Reason devolved into the Age of Metternich. In 1824, when ordinary Austrians could be arrested for saying the word "freedom" or gathering in unrelated groups, resurrecting Schiller's humanist anthem was downright subversive. Almost two centuries later, the Ninth's message retains its urgent relevance: music as the source and full expression of a radical—even revolutionary—communal joy.
René Spencer Saller

The Muse Known as Misia

8 months 1 week ago
Some admiring words about Maria Zofia Olga Zenajda Godebska, better known as Misia Sert, a muse who might have been an art monster if she hadn't decided to marry (and marry and marry) instead. Who knows, though? She certainly left her mark.
René Spencer Saller

Weird Work in Progress

8 months 1 week ago
In which I vaguely allude to my weird work in progress and share some notes I wrote five years ago about Alban Berg's Violin Concerto, which was dedicated to the memory of Manon Gropius, whose Wikipedia entry lists her occupation as Muse. Some gig, huh? Berg called her an angel, and Canetti called her a gazelle, and her polarizing mother pawned her off on Austrofascists. Kid never stood a chance.
René Spencer Saller

Teenage opera ephemera

9 months ago
A review of Christophe Willibald Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, in a 1984 production by OTSL. I wrote this at age 18 for the punk rock fanzine Jet Lag, the first place to publish my music writing (or any other writing, for that matter).
René Spencer Saller

Verdi’s Requiem

9 months ago
Verdi responded to the Latin text by locating its emotional core, the dramatic significance of each singer's moral confession. He offers no comforting lies, no confident speculation. Let other composers traffic in the theological; Verdi's heart is with the human: the soprano, pleading in terror for her salvation, sinful but shining, shining. The tenor, the mezzo, the bass-baritone: all kissed by the holy, implicated and yet innocent. 
René Spencer Saller

Another n-b c photo-dump post

9 months 2 weeks ago
Lots and lots of photos of the night-blooming cereus (four open blossoms on the patio tonight), along with one photo of the funny Phyllis Dilleresque Passiflora incarnata.
René Spencer Saller

Reena Esmail’s Black Iris

9 months 2 weeks ago
Approximately 10 minutes long, Reena Esmail's Black Iris is performed on Western instruments and notated according to Western conventions, but many of the melodies involve quicksilver microtonal shifts, subtle shadings of notes that slip between the lines and spaces of the staff or the steps on the scale. As any fan of Hindustani ragas or Delta blues or early Sonic Youth will attest, these liminal spaces contain vast stores of power and pleasure. Rather than “resolve” any harmonic ambiguities, Esmail delights in them.
René Spencer Saller

A Juneteenth Program

10 months ago
In recognition of Juneteenth tomorrow, here is a program I wrote about a couple of years ago for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. I don’t think I ever uploaded it to the blog, and if I did, the link is surely dead by now, so it seems worth reposting. Juneteenth is an especially significant holiday for […]
René Spencer Saller

Rest in Peace, Kaija Saariaho

10 months 2 weeks ago
I just learned that the great Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho died today, at 70, as a result of brain cancer. If you’re not familiar with her strange and seductive sound world, you might start with Laterna Magica. I wrote about it for the Dallas Symphony (the 19-20 concert season), but I don’t believe I ever […]
René Spencer Saller

Ligeti, Liszt, and BartĂłk

10 months 3 weeks ago
György Ligeti's influence is incalculable, but it often goes unnoticed, possibly because his style never stagnated over the many decades of his career, and it touched so many people who don't attend conservatories or engage with traditional concert culture, from aging punk rockers to Gen Z–ish aspiring cinéastes encountering Kubrick and Ligeti for the first time in college film classes. 
René Spencer Saller

An Immortal Passes

10 months 3 weeks ago
Who among us hasn't whiled away a summer afternoon pretending to be Tina Turner, baring those famous golden thighs, shaking an imaginary shock of coppery hair, screaming and sighing and strutting and signifying like a sex-starved Pentecostal? Who else could sing like that, each phrase razor-blade bright and so sharp it doesn't even hurt at first when it slices your heart in two? 
René Spencer Saller

On Birdsong and Messiaen

10 months 4 weeks ago
"The birds are the opposite of time. They represent our longing for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant song." Olivier Messiaen, avian champion
René Spencer Saller

Orffully Popular!

11 months 1 week ago
The late musicologist and critic Richard Taruskin rejected the art-for-art's-sake argument that music is essentially innocent, pointing out that questions about Orff's intentions—specifically regarding the use of his music by the Nazis—are irrelevant because "[t]hey allow the deflection of any criticism of his work into irrelevant questions of rights: Orff's right to compose his music, our right to perform and listen to it. Without questioning either, one may still regard his music as toxic, whether it does its animalizing work at Nazi rallies, in school auditoriums, at rock concerts, in films, in the soundtracks that accompany commercials, or in [the concert hall]." (With no disrespect toward Taruskin's memory, I'd be astonished if you leave the Meyerson tonight any more animalized than you were upon entering it.)
René Spencer Saller

Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust

11 months 2 weeks ago
In previous versions of the Faust story, including Goethe's, the particulars changed, but not the broad outlines. In Berlioz's Faust, the hero goes to Hell, eternally damned. On one level, he sacrifices himself because he wants to save his beloved Marguerite. On the other, less noble level, he winds up in Hell because he, like so many of us, neglected to read the fine print of a contract. Yes, he should have been more suspicious—the spooky-looking stranger is named Méphistophélès, for pity's sake—but then again, you'd think a heroine worthy of music as sublime as Marguerite's two arias wouldn't be so idiotic as to accidentally poison her mother. It's better not to delve too deeply into these logical inconsistencies. As W. H. Auden famously noted, “No opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.”
René Spencer Saller

Luisi Conducts NegrĂłn, Beethoven, and Brahms

11 months 2 weeks ago
Angélica Negrón's distinctive style filters an eclectic range of influences—Arvo Pärt, Björk, Juana Molina, Meredith Monk, John Cage, and former DSO composer in residence Julia Wolfe, among others—through her unique and wildly fertile imagination.  Arquitecta, a song that features Colombian Canadian vocalist Lido Pimienta, was co-commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Bravo! Vail. Although Negrón has written several other major vocal works, both for chorus and solo voice, this is her first composition for voice and full orchestra. Augmenting Pimienta's live singing are sampled voices, an essential part of Arquitecta's sound world.  [...] Negrón explained that the sampled voices are "mostly in Spanish" or singing something that more closely resembles "sound and gesture than language," sourced from "the actual recorded voices of women I love and admire who have shaped in some way or another my life—family and friends."
René Spencer Saller
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