This week on the show, the Ether Game Brain Trust is tidying up, and doing away with all the bells and whistles. We’re exploring simplicity in music, in a no-frills show we’re calling “Keep It Simple.” Check out our simple playlist below!
- Aaron Copland (1900–1990) – Appalachian Spring: Variations on a Shaker Tune (“Simple Gifts”): Appalachian Spring was the third of Aaron Copland’s great American ballets, and the first written for famed choreographer Martha Graham. Copland did not know the plot of the ballet when he began to work on it, but simply knew that Graham wanted something with an American theme. Originally called Ballet for Martha, the ballet ended up being about a group of Shakers and their springtime celebration after building a farmhouse for a young married couple. The Shakers were a religious sect in Pennsylvania in the 19th century, known for their simple, pacifist lifestyle, and their simple style of furniture. The melody “Simple Gifts,” attributed to Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett, was hardly known outside of the Shaker community before Appalachian Spring in 1944. Thanks to Copland, this melody now shows up all over the place, including performances by Michael Flatley (the “Lord of the Dance”) and the CBS evening news.
- Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) – Simple Symphony: Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony was simple for two reasons: 1) it was written only for string orchestra, with no winds or percussion, and 2) it represents the composer’s simple, youthful musical ideas.. He completed the symphony when he was only 20 years old, a fresh-faced graduate of the Royal College of Music in London. But the melodies are all derived from his juvenalia, the melodies from his youth, which he wrote as a prep-school boy. Each movement has an appealing and alliterative appellation, including a “Boisterous Bourée,” a “Playful Pizzicato,” a “Sentimental Sarabande,” and a “Frolicsome Finale.” The “Playful Pizzicato” has become especially popular. It makes several appearances in the 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom by the quirky American director Wes Anderson. Other works by Britten appear in the film as well, both diegetically and non-diegetically, including The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra and his children’s opera Noye’s Fludde.
- John Adams (b. 1947) – Common Tones In Simple Time: Composer John Adams began work on his orchestral piece Common Tones In Simple Time in 1979, shortly after completing his work Shaker Loops (which was also based in part on the Shaker religious sect). The work is one of the first orchestral works written in the minimalist style, a style that simplifies musical material, usually with lots of repetition of small musical motives. The “Common Tones” referred to in the title means that with each successive change in harmony, one or two notes are held in common. And the “Simple Time” means that the whole work is 4/4, with everything divided into simple groups of two. Adams composed this piece around the time he was the composer-in-residence at the San Francisco Symphony. Although it was still an early attempt at minimalism for Adams, he still held it in high regard, calling it “a pastoral with pulse,” and saying that it gives the feeling of, quote “viewing the surface of a continent from the window of a jet plane.
- Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525–1594) – Missa Papae Marcelli: During the High Renaissance, sacred polyphonic music became increasingly complicated as composers wrote complex counterpoint for more than seven independent voice parts. Palestrina’s masses however, with their simple, graceful melodies and easily understood texts were a welcome relief for the Catholic Church, so much so that Palestrina became a legendary figure. The story goes that Palestrina clashed with members of the Council of Trent. The council argued that polyphonic music should be banned from the mass for being unintelligible. During the debate, the members of the Council of Trent were given a performance of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, based on a melody delivered to Palestrina from an angelic messenger. So convinced were they of the beauty and clarity of Palestrina’s music that the cardinals change their minds, and Palestrina was hailed as the “savior of music.” While Palestrina did write real a Pope Marcellus mass in 1560s, the story is probably more legend than fact.
- Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) – L’incoronazione di Poppea: The early days of opera were rooted in the extravagance of the nobility. Monteverdi was engaged by the Italian courts in the early 17th century to create vast spectacles of musical theater combined with dancing, elaborate stage designs and costumes as a display of wealth. Almost fifty years later, Monteverdi was again at the center of a new revolutionary development in Italian opera: the public stage. His opera L’incoronazione di Poppea was one of the first public operas to open in Venice. Because these performances relied on public financing and profit margins, productions were comparably simple affairs. Poppea used a much smaller orchestra than Monteverdi’s earlier operas, with some performances only including continuo and upper string parts. The set designs was also simplified to cut costs. Much of the plot of this opera takes place in and around a Roman palace, so that only one set piece was needed and could be rearranged according to the different locations within the palace.
- György Ligeti (1923–2006) – Musica Ricercata: You might have noticed that this piece, or at least the first movement, consists of only two notes played in different octaves. Ligeti took this theme of simplicity in music to an extreme level in his Musica Ricercata. The term “ricercata” has held a variety of different meetings through time. J.S. Bach used the term as headings for each part of his Musical Offering, in which a single theme undergoes a number of variations in different forms. Though working on a more fundamental level, Ligeti’s use of the term is close in spirit to Bach’s in that he means it as a kind of search or musical research. Both present a series of pieces that get progressively more difficult. The Musica Ricercata begins with a movement that includes only two different pitches: “A” and “D.” A new pitch is added in each subsequent movement, so that by the 11th and final movement, Ligeti used all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale.
- Alan Hovhaness (1911–2000) – Symphony No. 2 “Mysterious Mountain”: Alan Hovhaness received the commission to write his Second Symphony, subtitled “Mysterious Mountain,” after the conductor Leopold Stokowski gave a wildly successful premier of the composer’s First Symphony. Written for Stokowski’s opening concert with the Houston Symphony, the beauty of the Second Symphony seemed no mystery to the audience, and it received glowing reviews. Those who published reviews of the work often pointed to the beautiful simplicity of Hovhaness’s style, which is exactly what the composer intended his listeners to appreciate about his music. Hovhaness wrote that his mission as a composer was to create music, quote “simple enough to inspire all people, completely free from fads, artificial mannerisms and false sophistications, direct, forceful, sincere, always original but never unnatural.” He went on to say that music must, quote “be freed from decadence and stagnation. There has been too much emphasis on small things while the great truths have been overlooked.”
- Carl Nielsen (1865–1931) – Symphony No. 6 “Sinfonia Semplice” (“Simple Symphony”): The sixth symphony by Danish composer Carl Nielsen ended up being a break from his usual style. His previous five symphonies are confident, philosophical, and individualistic; tonal, but still ambitious. His third symphony was subtitled “Espansiva” (or “Expansive”), and his fourth symphony called “The Inextinguishable.” For number six, he titled it “Semplice” (or “Simple”), a conscious retreat from the expansive nature of his earlier output. Part of the reason was reactionary: Nielsen was disillusioned with modern music, and puzzled by newer composers like Alban Berg and Bela Bartok. At the same time, he was getting older and ill—he was weakened by a series of heart attacks before writing this work. However, the result was not as simple as he intended—Nielsen’s Symphony No. 6 ended up being his most bewildering work to date, with half-formed ideas and lingering questions. It’s his least performed symphony today, and ended up also being his final symphony.
- Antônio Carlos Jobim (1927–1994) – “One Note Samba”: Can you write a melody with only one note? That’s what bossa nova composer Antonio Carlos Jobim set out to do with his “Samba de Uma Nota Só” or “One Note Samba.” It turns out, it’s not easy to make such a simple song. He manages to use a one-note melody for 8 measures, before switching to a different single note for the next four measures. By the time he gets to the song’s bridge, Jobim abandons the one-note challenge altogether, using a more complicated, jazzy melody. Jobim was the songwriter behind the 1960s bossa nova craze, but the performer behind this craze was guitarist and singer João Gilberto. He was the one who first performed “One Note Samba,” and other Jobim songs like “Girl From Ipanema” and “Corcovado.” Gilberto’s wife Astrud also became famous when she performed alongside her husband João and saxophonist Stan Getz on the American crossover album Getz/Gilberto.