Orchestral Manoeuvres in North Korea Prove Yet Again That Music is Universal

In November 2012, the Munich Chamber Orchestra and its conductor Alexander Liebreich had the rare chance to travel to Pyongyang to work with the students of the local Kim Won Gyun Conservatory. The Goethe Institut Korea arranged the visit and invited German filmmaker Nils Clauss to shoot a documentary about this moment of cross-cultural musical cooperation. Joint orchestra rehearsals were held, but the German musicians also conducted one-on-one chamber music classes with the North Korean students. At the end of their visit, the German-Korean ensemble performed a concert at the conservatory.

Nils Clauss's documentary shows in a beautiful and unobtrusive way how musicians from two very different worlds quickly overcame the language barriers and let only the music speak. Alexander Liebreich described in an interview with the BBC how much had changed since his last visit to North Korea in 2002.

You can enjoy parts of the final concert here:

Plus find bonus material here:

By profession, Matthias Rascher teaches English and History at a High School in northern Bavaria, Germany. In his free time he scours the web for good links and posts the best finds on Twitter.

Herbie Hancock: All That’s Jazz!

"I think I was supposed to play jazz," says Herbie Hancock. Hancock is one of the most noted jazz musicians of all time. He was born in Chicago in 1940, and it became apparent early on that he was a child piano prodigy. Herbie performed a Mozart piano concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11, then started playing jazz in high school and later double-majored in music and electrical engineering at Grinnell College. His fascination with musical gadgets led him to become one of the first jazz pianists to work with electronic keyboards. And his landmark albums blurred the boundaries of music, effortlessly mixing jazz with funk, soul, rhythm and the blues, forever changing the face of jazz. As Miles Davis once said, "Herbie was the step after Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and I haven't heard anybody yet who has come after him."

The documentary above -- Herbie Hancock: All That's Jazz -- was produced for KCET's signature news series "SoCal Connected." It retraces the most important steps in Hancock's career and shows us his home, the office where his award-winning music is composed and his private rituals. Very few people know that Herbie is a very religious person - he has been a practicing Buddhist for over forty years.

Bonus material:

By profession, Matthias Rascher teaches English and History at a High School in northern Bavaria, Germany. In his free time he scours the web for good links and posts the best finds on Twitter.

 

Joy in the Congo: The Inspiring Story of the Only Symphony Orchestra in Central Africa

Did you know that the only symphony orchestra in Central Africa is located in Kinshasa, the capital of the Congo - a war-torn country plagued by poverty and despair? This short film (transcript here) tells the amazing story of the Symphonic Orchestra Kimbanguiste (page in French), revealing the difficult circumstances under which the 200 musicians labor: they come from all over the city; most travel on foot to get to rehearsals six days a week; and the bulk of the instruments have been donated, salvaged and repaired or purchased from second-hand shops. Despite all of these difficulties, the orchestra manages to make the most beautiful music: listen to Johann Strauss's The Blue Danube Waltz (An der schönen blauen Donau).

This is not the first documentary about this outstanding orchestra. In 2010, a team of German filmmakers released a 95-minute film called Kinshasa Symphony (trailer). Also, Le Figaro has an arresting photo essay about the musicians.

By profession, Matthias Rascher teaches English and History at a High School in northern Bavaria, Germany. In his free time he scours the web for good links and posts the best finds on Twitter.

Dave Brubeck Gets an Uplifting Musical Surprise from a Young Violinist in Moscow (1997)

December 2, 1997. Exactly ten years after his first visit to Moscow, jazz legend Dave Brubeck returned to perform before the faculty and students of the Moscow Conservatory. During his concert, an audience member asked him to improvise on the old Russian sea shanty "Ej, Uhnem." About two minutes into the improvisation, a young violinist rose from his seat and started to play along. You just have to love Dave's surprised look at 2:09.

This young man turned out to be a student at the conservatory. His name is Denis Kolobov and he is now a violinist of international renown. Denis must have mustered up all of his courage to cut into the performance of one of the great jazz pianists. But the day before, French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli had died in Paris and Denis decided to honor Grappelli's memory in this way. What a great idea!

By profession, Matthias Rascher teaches English and History at a High School in northern Bavaria, Germany. In his free time he scours the web for good links and posts the best finds on Twitter.

Pickin’ & Trimmin’ in a Down-Home North Carolina Barbershop: Award-Winning Short Film

Pickin' & Trimmin' is a documentary short film from 2008 profiling "The Barbershop" in Drexel, North Carolina, where Lawrence Anthony and David Shirley have barbered for decades, and where bluegrass musicians have jammed in the back room every weekend. Directed by Matt Morris, the award-winning film showcases the people and atmosphere of a small community in rural America, perhaps better than anything you've seen before. And the music played in the back room is simply wonderful.

You can find photos taken at The Barbershop on Flickr here. The film itself has been added to the Documentary section of our Free Movies collection.

Update: Lawrence Anthony, the head barber portrayed in this film, passed away in 2009. His son continues to run The Barbershop, but severe water damage has left the shop in need of repair. Here is a video showing the current situation.

By profession, Matthias Rascher teaches English and History at a High School in northern Bavaria, Germany. In his free time he scours the web for good links and posts the best finds on Twitter.

Harry Partch’s Kooky Orchestra of DIY Musical Instruments

Composer and instrument inventor Harry Partch (1901-1974) is one of the pioneers of 20th-century experimental instrumentation, known for writing and playing music on incredible custom-made instruments like the Boo II and the Quadrangularis Reversum, and laying the foundations for many of today's most creative experimental musical instruments.

In this Universal Newsreel footage from the 1950s, Partch conducts a student music performance on his instruments, built with insights from atomic research and Partch's 30-year obsession with finding the elusive tones that exist between the tones of a regular piano. The setting is Mills College in Oakland, CA. The unorthodox orchestra performs music tuned to the 43-tone scale Partch invented, rather than the usual 12-tone, even though individual instruments can only play subsets of the scale.

For more on Partch's genius and seminal innovation, see his excellent 1949 meditation, Genesis of a Music: An Account of a Creative Work, its Roots, and its Fulfillments.

Maria Popova is the founder and editor in chief of Brain Pickings, a curated inventory of cross-disciplinary interestingness. She writes for Wired UK, The Atlantic and DesignObserver, and spends a great deal of time on Twitter.

Klaus Nomi: Watch the Final, Brilliant Performance of a Dying Man

Klaus Sperber was born in Immenstadt, southern Germany, in 1944. As a teenager, he discovered his love for opera and also pop music. In the early 1970s, he moved to New York and soon found many friends among the East Village artists there. Around this time, he started using the pseudonym Klaus Nomi, an allusion to the American SciFi magazine Omni and an anagram of the Latin word omni(s) (all, every). David Bowie discovered Nomi in 1978 and helped him sign with RCA records two years later. But Nomi's musical career was cut short when he was diagnosed with AIDS  - an illness virtually unheard of in those days. He died in New York on August 6th, 1983, at the age of 39 - two years before Rock Hudson's death raised public awareness of this new illness. His ashes were scattered over New York City.

Klaus Nomi's musical style was undoubtedly unique: he combined opera and New Wave pop music and performed his music in elaborate stage shows reminiscent of retro-futuristic Science Fiction visions of the 1920s: face painted white in Kabuki style, black lips, extravagant clothes and hairstyles inspired by Cubism. One of his most famous live performances is Total Eclipse from the music film Urgh! A Music War (1981).

The video above shows Klaus Nomi's last performance before his death. Towards the end of 1982, he returned to Europe for a small concert tour and also performed at Eberhard Schoener's Classic Rock Night in Munich, close to the place where he was born. He chose the Aria of the "Cold Genius" from Henry Purcell's 1691 opera "King Arthur or, The British Worthy." In the third scene of Act Three (The Frost Scene), the Cold Genius is awakened by Cupid and ordered to cover the landscape with ice and frost. The answer of the Cold Genius is sung by Klaus:

What power art thou, who from below / Hast made me rise unwillingly and slow / From beds of everlasting snow? / See'est thou not how stiff and wondrous old, / Far unfit to bear the bitter cold, / I can scarecly move or draw my breath? / Let me, let me freeze again to death.

This performance is certainly one of the most memorable in operatic history - Klaus Nomi conveys the message of the text with every fiber of his body (note in particular the movements of his hands and eyes). And as one YouTube commenter put it, the fact that Klaus knew that "he was dying of AIDS when he gave this performance (...) gives an added albeit unwanted poignancy to his performance."

There are two other famous performances of The Cold Song: by Andreas Scholl and Sting. You can decide for yourself how they compare to Klaus Nomi's interpretation.

Bonus material: In 2004, the documentary film The Nomi Song took a closer look at Klaus's life and music (view the trailer here). YouTube also has two interviews with Klaus Nomi: Klaus Nomi on NYC 10 o'Clock News (c. 1981) and a 1982 interview from French TV.

By profession, Matthias Rascher teaches English and History at a High School in northern Bavaria, Germany. In his free time he scours the web for good links and posts the best finds on Twitter.

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