How to talk to a female composer

Alex Ambrose, writing on the WQXR blog:

Begin with basics. Always lead with the question, “What’s it like to be a composer and a woman?” or “How does being a woman influence your music?” Women love having their personal, defining creative impulses reduced to outdated stereotypes of gender, and don’t at all find it ironic that men are never asked “How does being a man influence your music?” as if estrogen and testosterone were the creative juices feeding all artistic inspiration. Or, maybe estrogen just makes it harder to compose?

It wouldn’t take a lot to rework this article into How to talk to a female professional.

The Sound of a Lightsaber

There’s a great three-minute video interview with Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt up on Mental Floss at the moment, where he describes the creation of that beautiful lightsaber hum.


I could really just sort of hear the sound. I guess somewhere in my subconscious I had seen a lightsaber before.

We tend to watch the Star Wars trilogy,1 I think, with rose-tinted glasses. While there are many things to be admired in them, they’re also flawed in a lot of ways. Sound design isn’t one of them. Think of how many iconic sounds come from those films: lightsabers, laser blasts, Vader’s breathing, Chewbacca’s roar, R2D2’s chirps and whistles, the engines of the Millennium Falcon. The list goes on.

I’ve written before about my admiration of good sound design. In the case of Star Wars, it was fundamental to the creation of the universe.

Which is all to say, check out the video.

Update: There are more videos, which Mental Floss are drip-feeding us. Here’s Chewbacca and R2D2, and explosions.

1The Star Wars trilogy.

A musical commemoration of World War I

It’s the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I this year, and I’ve seen some touching tributes. This is the first I’ve heard of a musical one, though. The London Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic have recorded a couple of pieces together under Simon Rattle, to commemorate the dead. Mark Brown, in The Guardian:

The commemoration at the St Symphorien military cemetery is one of three big events taking place on 4 August – the centenary of the declaration of war – and the only one with cultural content.

Rattle chose two works for the LSO and Berlin Phil to record: the last movement of Brahms’s German Requiem and George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad. The latter is laden with symbolism as Butterworth himself died in the trenches.

It’s a beautiful idea, and the pieces are well-chosen. I hadn’t heard of Butterworth before reading this piece, but using a piece by a composer who died in the war is as moving and true a tribute as I can think of. I took a short trip around some of the war sites in Belgium earlier this year, and what stayed with me most of all is what a pointless waste of life it all was.

Later in the piece, Brown mentions some problems that the orchestras had to overcome in playing together. Quoting Nicholas Kenyon, the creative consultant on the project: “There were interesting little problems, like they don’t play at exactly the same pitch.”

I knew that orchestras on the west and east of the Pacific used to play at slightly different pitches, but I’d thought that as recording spread, those changes were pretty much wiped out. There’s a video on YouTube where you can hear, in chronological order, the first two chords of every major recording of Beethoven’s third symphony. At first, it’s jarring, even unpleasant, with sometimes major differences in pitching. As you come into the sixties and seventies, though, it starts to feel more like a warped record, with generally just slight variations. You get to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and the only outliers are those played on traditional instruments, pitched noticeably lower than modern ones.

I suppose that at the level of these orchestras, the differences in fine tuning only become apparent when they play together.

Alive Inside

Dawn Chmielewski, at Re/code, on the new documentary Alive Inside

Audiences first encounter Henry hunched over in his wheelchair, head down, hands clasped firmly together, unresponsive to the world around him.

As soon as a pair of headphones are placed on his head, the 94-year-old dementia patient opens his eyes, sits up straight and begins swaying and humming along with the music. Henry speaks animatedly about his favorite band leader, Cab Calloway, and even begins to emulate the jazz artist’s style of scat singing — at one point launching into a rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

I first encountered Henry’s story two years ago, through a promotional video for the film. That music can reach people who have even lost the ability to recognize their loved ones is incredibly moving, and the transformation in Henry’s case is astonishing.

I hope the film gets cinematic release on this side of the ocean. It sounds like one not to be missed.

Red Hot Bach

This is a rather neat little app from The Red Hot Organization—a free app that’ll let you listen to, and muck about with, music by Johann Sebastian. It’s a good selection, including some classic recordings (the aria from Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, the prelude from Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of the prelude from Cello Suite no. 1, to name two) along with modern interpretations.

The app is free, but connected to a full album (Red Hot + Bach), with a wealth of recordings. I can’t vouch for the album as I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, but all the proceeds from the group go to fighting AIDS, so what’s not to like?

I found this app through The Guardian’s Top Twenty iOS apps of the week.

Behind the Roar: Finding Godzilla’s Iconic Voice

I loved discovering how the original Godzilla roar was made, in this article by Dawn Chmielewski on Re/code:

“It’s one of the most famous sound effects in cinema history,” said Aadahl. “We really wanted to embrace that and use the original as our template, and pay homage to that.”

The original film’s composer, Akira Ifukube, used a double bass, a leather glove and some pine tar to produce Godzilla’s trademark call.

“They’d rub the glove against the double base to create that groan,” Aadahl said.

The imagination of sound artists in those days blows my mind.

Some Rachmaninoff for your Easter Sunday

Normal(ish) service will resume as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, enjoy this extraordinary performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Artur Rubinstein.

Two parts, alas, but the split is clean.

With most pianists, it’s worth watching their hands for the athletic performance, but keep your eyes on Rubinstein’s face here: no matter how virtuosic it gets, he looks like he’s taking it all at his leisure.