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.


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.

Name That Painting!

In Feb­ru­ary 2010, the Paris-based band Hold Your Hors­es! released a music video to go with their song “70 Mil­lion,” which became an imme­di­ate suc­cess. In the video, the band mem­bers recre­at­ed famous paint­ings, tak­ing the view­er on an enter­tain­ing tour through art his­to­ry. Try to iden­ti­fy as many paint­ings as pos­si­ble, then com­pare your results with the list of the actu­al paint­ings below the jump. Enjoy — and let us know your scores! And, of course, Hap­py Bastille Day.


How Alice Herz-Sommer, the Oldest Holocaust Survivor, Survived the Horrific Ordeal with Music

What you’re watch­ing is the trail­er for the doc­u­men­tary Alice Danc­ing Under the Gal­lows by Nick Reed, to be released lat­er this year. At 110, Alice Herz-Som­mer is the old­est Holo­caust sur­vivor. Her sto­ry is both touch­ing and inspir­ing.

Alice was born in Prague — then part of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an Empire — in 1903. She start­ed play­ing the piano as a child and took lessons with Con­rad Ansorge, a stu­dent of Liszt. At 16, she attend­ed the mas­ter class at Prague’s pres­ti­gious Ger­man musi­cal acad­e­my. Lat­er, Alice became a respect­ed con­cert pianist in Prague. Through her fam­i­ly, she also knew Franz Kaf­ka. All of this changed when the Nazis occu­pied Czecho­slo­va­kia in March 1939. Along with oth­er Jews liv­ing in Prague, Alice was ini­tial­ly forced to live in Prague’s ghet­to before being deport­ed to the There­sien­stadt con­cen­tra­tion camp in 1943, along with her five-year-old son Raphael. Even­tu­al­ly her whole fam­i­ly, includ­ing her hus­band, cel­list Leopold Som­mer, and her moth­er, were sent to Auschwitz, Tre­blin­ka and Dachau, where they were killed.

Alice and her son sur­vived There­sien­stadt because the Nazis used this par­tic­u­lar con­cen­tra­tion camp to show the world how “well” the inmates were treat­ed. A pro­pa­gan­da film by the Nazis was shot and a del­e­ga­tion from the Dan­ish and Inter­na­tion­al Red Cross was shown around in 1943. To boost morale, Alice and many oth­er impris­oned musi­cians reg­u­lar­ly per­formed for the inmates. Despite the unimag­in­able liv­ing con­di­tions, Alice and her son sur­vived. They moved to Israel after the war, where she taught music. In 1986, she moved to Lon­don, where she still lives. Her son died in 2001 (obit­u­ary here).

The way Alice dealt with those hor­ri­ble times is par­tic­u­lar­ly inspir­ing. She says about the role of music: “I felt that this is the only thing which helps me to have hope … it’s a sort of reli­gion actu­al­ly. Music is … is God. In dif­fi­cult times you feel it, espe­cial­ly when you are suf­fer­ing.” When asked by Ger­man jour­nal­ists if she hat­ed Ger­mans, she replied: “I nev­er hate, and I will nev­er hate. Hatred brings only hatred.”

Extra mate­r­i­al: Art Ther­a­py Blog has a tran­script of the trail­er, mem­o­rable quotes by Alice and two BBC Radio inter­views with her. Alice’s life sto­ry is told in the book A Gar­den of Eden in Hell.

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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