Haupz Blog

... still a totally disordered mix

Musical Languages

2023-01-03 — Michael Haupt

I like languages - human and programming languages alike. And I have a sweet spot for “constructed” human languages, such as Esperanto. (I don’t speak any Klingon or Quenya though.)

One interesting niche in the constructed languages corner is the one where the languages are musical.

Olivier Messiaen (one of my favourite composers) used a “communicable language” wherein he mapped letters of the alphabet to note pitches and values. He later added patterns for grammatical aspects and certain frequently used words. The principle of mapping letters to tones, however, only goes so far: essentially, the language heard when playing the notes is still the language in which the original text was written - the musical notation is “just” a different writing system. A sophisticated one, granted, but a writing system.

François Sudre did a more consequential design when he came up with Solresol. Here, patterns of notes represent linguistic concepts. The first note of a pattern denotes one of seven categories; repetition adds topicality; and so forth. There are also rules for grammar. Now there’s a language.

Texts in Solresol don’t sound particularly melodic, but mostly harmless because they only use the seven tones of the scale that are on “white” keys. If I was to give a critique, I’d raise the concern that Solresol doesn’t make use of all twelve tones, making it lack in expressiveness somewhat.

My old colleagues at Babbel have a nice article on Solresol.

Tags: music, the-nerdy-bit

Mieczyslaw Weinberg

2022-12-29 — Michael Haupt

Earlier this year, I went to my first “classical music” concert in a long time, and had an epiphany. I thought I’d been fairly knowledgeable about 20th century composers and music, so reading the name of one Mieczyslaw Weinberg in the programme raised an eyebrow just a little, assuming he was some niche figure.

What an arrogant twit I was.

Turns out Weinberg, born in Poland, was a close friend of Dmitri Shostakovich’s, and that the two entered in a kind of mutual cross-pollination contest. Their music bears some similarity (the older Shostakovich doubtlessly has some influence on Weinberg), but where Shostakovich puts emphasis on rhythm, Weinberg puts it on melody.

Compared to Shostakovich, Weinberg was largely unknown for a long time. His works are growing in popularity, though, thanks to some avid performers who make sure the music is being heard.

And what music it is. Symphonies, operas, chamber music, everything. Weinberg was prolific. I’ve only yet begun to explore the oeuvre (also to pay back for the aforementioned arrogance: this is a gap in my music knowledge I cannot abide).

Some highlights follow.

Weinberg’s second symphony, for string orchestra, is a profoundly sad and thoughtful work rooted in Polish and Jewish songs. This was my first ever exposure to Weinberg’s music, at the aforementioned concert, and I’ve listened to it several times since, finding ever more details in its intricate structure.

The Concertino for violin and string orchestra is quite different, with a more positive overall air to it, even though the melodies are melancholic. It’s captivating from the first moment, with an interesting main theme. The second movement sounds a bit as if it might have inspired John Williams for his soundtrack to Schindler’s list.

Next, the Suite for Orchestra could go down as epigonal to Shostakovich’s famous Suites for Jazz Orchestra. It’s way more witty, though, and has some brilliant humoristic aspects.

Finally, the opera The Passenger (parts 1, 2) tells a chilling story: a former Nazi concentration camp warden who, aboard a ship bringing her to her new life in Brazil, meets one of her victims whom she had thought dead. The encounter brings back memories - and shame. The music employs the large orchestra sparingly (really not like Wagner) and almost steps to the background, leaving all the space to the singers and their (inter)actions. A masterpiece, in my opinion.

There is much more to discover, and I’ll duly catch up with what I can only call an embarrassing omission.

Tags: music

Electronic Music

2022-12-20 — Michael Haupt

Let’s talk about electronic music a bit. Or, its earliest proponents. This is obviously not going to be about 18th century baroque music, right? Nope, it’s the 20th century. I would like to point out two combinations of pioneering inventors, their creations, and composers.

The Ondes Martenot, invented by and named after Maurice Martenot, is, simply put, an electronic string instrument. One single piece of electrical wire, making contact in different places, will produce sounds with different pitches. On the surface, the Ondes Martenot looks like a keyboard instrument, but the keyboard is just a crutch to make the instrument more playable - the wire itself can be manipulated directly to produce all kinds of effects, including glissandi and vibrato.

French composer Olivier Messiaen has made frequent use of the Ondes Martenot throughout his entire oeuvre. One of his earlier works using the instrument is a composition commissioned by the organisers of the 1937 Paris Exposition - it was to be the soundtrack of a modernist light-and-water show (ergo, a successor in kind, albeit more wet, to Händel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks). Messiaen composed a score for no less than six Ondes Martenot: Fêtes des belles eaux. And what a marvel this music is! Imagine the impression it must have made to the ears of people in 1937 who weren’t used to hearing such sounds. Take, especially, the way the music audibly describes the glittering of water droplets, and the joy of the final fountains.

Friedrich Trautwein (German only) invented the Trautonium in 1930. This, plainly spoken, was an early analogue synthesizer, already using many of the techniques that would later be applied by giants like Moog. Trautwein was soon joined by Oskar Sala, who grew to have considerable success as a virtuoso on and composer for the instrument.

One of Sala’s most remembered works is the score to Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds. It deserves special mention: not a single actual bird is heard in the movie. It’s all Trautonium sounds. Remember this when you next watch this movie.

Composer Harald Genzmer wrote large-scale concertos in the classic tradition for Trautonium and orchestra. Here’s one.

Does this all sound a bit odd? Still?

Tags: music

Arvo Pärt

2022-10-01 — Michael Haupt

Back in 12th grade, our music teacher gave us an overview of several musical styles through the ages. To give one example of 20th century music, he played a piece by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. I was immediately hooked.

The music our teacher used was Pärt's St. John Passion, or rather its beginning. Hear for yourselves. Well, so that got me really interested, and off I went on some exploration.

I soon found that Pärt had written music in a rather progressive style at first, before he stopped composing for some time only to emerge with his typical personal style called "tintinnabuli". Before he fell silent for a while, he still finished his third symphony, which combines large orchestra (Bruckner style) with renaissance polyphonics. That already gave an indication of what was to come.

The new Pärt is highly meditative, contemplative even, and typically slow paced, using simple harmonics. It's "simple" or "minimal" music in the best possible sense: nothing can be taken away any more. Listening to it can be surprisingly challenging because it involves dealing with silence.

I recommend every single piece he's ever written. A wealth of them is available on the 'tubes.

Tags: music

Billy Joel, Voices Only

2022-09-03 — Michael Haupt

Why is it that Billy Joel songs just seem to lend themselves to being converted to stunningly beautiful a-cappella renditions?

Here are two especially beautiful (and impeccably presented) examples. The vocal version of "And so it goes" was originally produced and performed by the excellent King's Singers, and here we have a performance. Another beautiful piece, "Lullabye", is here performed by the aforementioned King's Singers together with the equally wonderful Voces8.

Tags: music

Old-School Music Listening

2022-07-23 — Michael Haupt

So yes, I love music, and I have a music collection that's not a playlist at some streaming service. I confess: I own CDs, and I still frequently purchase CDs.

Call me old-school. I don't get why I should pay a streaming service money every month when I can have all the stuff readily available for listening after a one-time payment and audio ripping session. (Having a phone with a lot of flash memory helps.)

My main interest is in classical music, and there, in some very cranky and niche late-romantic or 20th-century composers that aren't well served by streaming services. I understand there are streaming services for classical music fans (e.g., Idagio), but see above about one-time payments as opposed to subscriptions.

In a nutshell, you should listen to CDs.

Tags: music

Large-Scale Song Cycles

2022-07-11 — Michael Haupt

There's a triad of late-romantic symphonic song cycles that I love so much I'd actually attend a concert night where all of them would be played. Sure, it'd take four hours or so, but people go to the opera all the time to take in long performances either. So what's the problem?

The three pieces were written by three different composers who were in close contact with each other. These pieces all are large-scale orchestral works with solo voices, one also with choir. I love them for their sheer expressiveness and colourfulness. (And scale, I'll admit it. I like large orchestras.)

It begins with Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. Written after the composer's monumental Eighth Symphony, it had all the hallmarks of a symphony, but Mahler refused to call it so, because of the superstitious belief that composers would not live long past their Ninth - see Beethoven, and Schubert (who however cheated with the numbering). Das Lied von der Erde uses poems by Chinese poet Li Bai, which, in spite of some sanguine outbursts, all have a distinctly melancholic tone to them - an air of departure and sadness is woven into the texts, and into the musical fabric. This becomes especially clear in the long final movement. This performance is a bit dated, but Leonard Bernstein conducting with René Kollo and Christa Ludwig singing (in order of appearance) make it a classic. As an interesting side note, the final melody to which the words "ewig, ewig ..." ("forever, forever ...") are sung forms the main theme of the first movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, establishing a tight connection between the two works. Das Lied von der Erde premiered in 1911, after Mahler's death.

Arnold Schönberg - infamous for his seminal contributions to "atonal music", or the twelve-tone technique - also wrote a fair amount of very, very tonal compositions. His major song-cycle Gurre-Lieder is one such example. Schönberg worked on it for a long time: he worked on the initial script from 1900-1903, and then on the orchestration in 1910-1911, finishing it in the same month that also saw the premiere of the aforementioned Das Lied von der Erde. The work premiered in 1913. It's massive: Schönberg really didn't care much about saving energy, so the orchestra is huge, and the (large!) choir is used, after an appearance by the male voices, in its entirety only in the very final (and comparatively short) movement. Gurre-Lieder also features a narrator soloist in addition to the singers, for the first time in music history. - The piece is based on lyrics by Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen, and tells a tragic love story. Let's take this performance from the Proms for example. I fail to grasp how the conductor is not blown off the podium when the 200+ voices strong choir goes off towards the end.

While the names of Mahler and Schönberg are popular or yield at least some raised eyebrows ("... twelve-tone technique? yuck!"), Alexander von Zemlinsky is much less widely known even among people who take a general interest in classical music. That's sad, because his music is immensely wonderful - highly chromatic yet always in the tonal space, and of an intense expressiveness. Enter Lyrische Symphonie, which premiered in 1923. Like Mahler before him, Zemlinsky looked to the farther East for inspiration, and used texts by nobel prize laureate Rabindranath Tagore for his work. Here is a rather impressive performance that also has an actual concert video. It says something about the relative popularity of the work that there is a far greater number of performances that just have a CD cover on display. In a way, that's a shame - the Lyrische Symphonie should definitely be more widely known.

Returning to the top, I'd go to a concert sporting all of these three works any time. It's very unlikely, but I'd probably be in a dream-like state for weeks thereafter.

Tags: music

Programming and the Fine Arts

2022-07-09 — Michael Haupt

There's a certain kind of "strange" programming language that could be called "poetic". This is because programs written in these languages read like texts from altogether unexpected genres.

Expressed in the Shakespeare programming language, for instance, programs read like dramatic plays by a certain famous English poet. And Rockstar makes programs look and feel a lot like heavy metal ballads.

Of course that's all a bit nuts. What's wrong with that? After all, English author Tom Holt, in his novel Flying Dutch, notes that Wagner's opera Der fliegende Holländer is actually part of an accounting software system. (If I recall correctly.)

Tags: music, books, the-nerdy-bit

German Humour and Wagner Music

2022-07-03 — Michael Haupt

There is such a thing as German humour, and Loriot defines it. Also, when it comes to "German" music, Wagner is probably on the top ten list of those who define it.

What happens if you combine the two?

You get "Loriot erzählt Richard Wagners Ring des Nibelungen", a collection of musical snippets from the vast 16-hour opera cycle, with the key story line narrated by Loriot in his unmistakeable precise and ever so slightly ironic style. I'm sorry, you need to be able to understand German to appreciate this, but here's a review that also summarises a bit.

It's sad that the 'tubes don't seem to have a trace of this gem, so I advise you to go get a recording and listen to it. Chuckles guaranteed.

Tags: music

Kevin Allen

2022-06-01 — Michael Haupt

Please listen to this before reading on.

How old do you think the music is? It sounds very "Renaissance", right? It has a clarity and structure that reminds of Palestrina and other 16th century masters. And yet, it's rather contemporary.

The composer is Kevin Allen. He lives in Chicago, and is a prolific composer of - mostly sacred - music. His compositions are meant to be used in church rather than for the concert stage, but are nonetheless enjoyable outside mass. Allen has a knack for writing pieces that can be performed by small non- or semi-professional ensembles.

Unfortunately, there aren't too many recordings or things on the 'tubes ...

Tags: music

Franz Schubert, the Singer-Songwriter

2022-05-22 — Michael Haupt

Gisbert zu Knyphausen is a singer-songwriter. His take on Franz Schubert is that he also was a singer-songwriter. Consequently, Knyphausen took some of Schubert's 600 (or so) songs and interpreted them in his own personal style. The result is a recently released album, "Lass irre Hunde heulen", and it's just plain amazing. Those songs are 200 years old, and still make a lot - or even more? - sense in the modern interpretation.

Examples: the iconic opening song from Winterreise, "Gute Nacht"; and one of my personal favourites, "Nähe des Geliebten".

Do yourself a favour please and get the album. It's wonderful.

Tags: music

Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa

2022-05-14 — Michael Haupt

What about Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa? He lived in Italy during the Renaissance, and composed vocal music. Just another 16th / early 17th century composer, right?

Well. He was a bit extreme, in life and works. For instance, he murdered both his wife and her lover upon catching them in flagranti, and I'll spare you the details.

His music, harmonically, is of a kind that was unheard-of at the time, and wasn't heard again until centuries later. He used extreme chromatic modulations to circumscribe the meanings of the words he set to music. While his secular compositions - several books of madrigals - are highly expressive, I have a special fondness for the Tenebrae, a vast cycle of some twenty settings of texts on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The chilling effect of Gesualdo's style is audible in one of my favourite pieces from the cycle: Tristis est anima mea (go here for an excellent example of the extravagant "modern" harmonics).

Tags: music


2022-05-08 — Michael Haupt

Ronald Stevenson, Scotsman and composer, wrote one large-scale (80 minutes!) piece of piano music that I discovered only recently, and now I'm wondering (once more) what took me so long. It's his Passacaglia on DSCH.

DSCH? That's Dmitri Shostakovich's initials, in German transcription. It's also four musical notes - D, E flat, C, B - in German naming: E flat is pronounced "Es", ergo, "S" fits. (Johann Sebastian Bach's last name is also usable in this manner: B flat, A, C, B, and so forth. There are tons of pieces that make use of this technique.)

Passacaglia? That's a musical form, where a bass ostinato that never changes throughout the piece is overlaid with a series of variations on a theme.

The ostinato in Stevenson's work is a short sequence of repetitions and inversions of the DSCH motif, just a few seconds long. The vast complexity that unfolds on top of this is stunning. Stevenson essentially takes us on a journey through the 20th century, and the musical material is not so much a series of variations on a single theme as it is historic and musical commentary. The work ends with a triple fugue that combines all of the intensity into a dense culmination.

It's utterly impressive.

Tags: music

Quarter-Tone Music

2022-04-21 — Michael Haupt

Listen to this - what do you notice? It sounds a bit off, right? It's a bit as if the instruments weren't properly tuned.

They are, and everything about this is intentional. The music, composed by Alois Hába, uses a quarter-tone scale. In that system, each octave is split not into 12 half-tones, but 24 quarter-tones. That is, one extra pitch is inserted between each two pitches that are a half-tone apart.

It takes some getting used to to listen to music of this kind, but it has a certain beauty of its own. It's not a middle-European invention, too - quarter-tone scales have been used in Persian traditional music way earlier.

Examples! The aforementioned Alois Hába has composed many quarter-tone pieces, and one I like a lot is his opera Matka (music: 1, 2). Charles Ives (about whom I'll have more to tell at a later point) has composed quarter-tone pieces for piano. The Wikipedia, of course, has a list with more.

Tags: music

The Moldau, Re-Listened

2022-04-03 — Michael Haupt

Too much routine can blind you for important things. In German, we call this "Betriebsblindheit" (roughly translatable as "business blindness"). It's the primary cause for having retrospectives in agile settings - a team that works very well can easily descend into self-complacency and "this is how we do it around here" mentality, blinding them for both chances for improvement of problematic behaviours and opportunities for amplification of good ones. Never stop observing, never stop reflecting.

I'll use a musical example. Bedřich Smetana's piece "Vltava" ("The Moldau") is, for the best of reasons, immensely popular and often performed. So often, in fact, that a certain fatigue can settle in. I've personally heard it so many times I thought I'd heard it all. How wrong I was. At some point, I stumbled over this performance, and it's new. The tempi, the way the orchestral groups are coordinated, the utter transparency of the melodic lines were simply striking. Granted, there are little glitches in the timing here and there, and the violins' forest nymphs motive is submerged in the woodwinds, but do take it in and revel in it. I can't stop praising this.

Tags: music, work


2022-03-31 — Michael Haupt

The Nanoloop is a truly interesting thing. It's an 8-bit synthesiser-sequencer with an interesting and innovative user interface. Nanoloop started out as a Gameboy cartridge, and has since been released as apps for Android and iOS, and as a piece of hardware called Nanoloop FM. Documentation is scarce, and the whole thing invites to experimentation. Cool.

Tags: the-nerdy-bit, music

Cool Music

2022-03-06 — Michael Haupt

Ralph Vaughan Williams, 20th century English composer, wrote numerous symphonies, of which the seventh provides an appropriate corrective for summerly way too high outdoor temperatures.

The symphony is titled Sinfonia Antarctica. Let's see. Incredibly vast, cold landscape? Check. Unforgiving nature, entirely oblivious of human needs? Check. This is indeed a compelling musical painting depicting Earth's southmost continent.

Tags: music

War Requiem

2022-03-01 — Michael Haupt

English composer Benjamin Britten was asked in 1961 to write a work for the re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed by nazi bombs during World War II. He composed the War Requiem.

The requiem is the special kind of mass said for a deceased, primarily in Catholicism. It has a long canon of liturgical texts and widely known Gregorian chants for the same (you have heard the Dies Irae in some paraphrased form, e.g,. in the movie Nightmare Before Christmas). There is a long tradition in classical music to compose requiems, which vary considerably in size, from plain choral settings to large-scale monumental pieces.

Britten, having been commissioned, had in mind to combine the requiem topos with what had led to the devastation of Coventry Cathedral: war. He found inspiration in poems by Wilfred Owen, who had served in the Royal Army during World War I in France. He wrote those poems there before he was killed in 1918. The poems describe war as experienced by Owen, in its senseless mass-slaughtering of an entire generation.

The War Requiem is a masterpiece. The original Latin texts are interwoven with Owen's poems in a way that makes sense and "connects the dots" between the two sujets so as to spawn new associations. The large-scale composition uses soloists, choir, an additional boys' choir, and two orchestras. The first and larger of these accompanies the Latin lyrics; and the second and smaller one, the settings of Owen's poems.

It's musically beautiful, shattering to hear, hard to endure. It's an admonition. As it should be, given what it should remind of.

In 1962, the first performance took place, in Coventry Cathedral. Britten's plan had been to have soloists from Russia, England, and Germany perform - as a sign of unity. Alas, the Soviets didn't let Galina Vishnevskaya travel to the premiere. In 1963, she was allowed to come to London to participate in the recording Britten himself was conducting. The other two soloists from the premiere, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, partook as well. This recording is available here. I'll share a video of a slightly more recent performance as well (Britten is conducting here, too, but apart from Pears, there are different soloists), as it gives a better impression of the sheer scale of the work.

My hope today is that no one will ever need to feel compelled to write such a piece again.

Tags: music

A Modern Ring

2022-02-11 — Michael Haupt

Richard Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen is quite a mouthful - sixteen hours of music spread out over four evenings. Any director who sets out to stage a performance really has to come up with a concept, or the experience will be boring in spite of the music.

For a long time, stagings were trapped in what you could call "viking style" - the sujet's nordic air would simply be put to pictures. This changed in the Seventies when [Patrice Chéreau staged the Ring in Bayreuth]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jahrhundertring) and gave the whole matter a capitalism-critical spin. Several interesting stagings have followed.

One of them that struck me as really darn cool is the one delivered by the Catalan artist collective La Fura dels Baus in Barcelona. Perhaps my fascination is best explained by remarking that I dearly, dearly love the two Tron movies and their aesthetics. Fura's Ring staging heavily employs video projection (including lots of CGI), technology on stage, and also makes extensive use of the Catalan art of building Castells.

Just take in some of the visuals from Die Walküre (the most beautiful opera of the cycle anyway). Here's a teaser that gives away some of the goodness. As another example, Wotan and Loge's descent to Nibelheim is shown here.

Tags: music

Heitor Villa-Lobos

2022-01-29 — Michael Haupt

Until very recently, I had only been vaguely aware of the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, and had certainly not consciously processed any of his music. The moment that changed this was when I was listening to the radio late at night. Deutschlandfunk really has it all. The host announced a piece called "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5", and it started playing. I spent the following ca. 15 minutes with my ears glued to the radio: 8 solo celli and soprano solo make for quite an enticing setting, and combining what I can only call "Brazilian flair and melancholy" with strict form and composition inspired by Bach caused an explosion of associations.

I was hooked, and started digging. Soon enough, I found there are altogether nine Bachianas Brasileiras, and started listening my way through the collection. They're each a gem in its own right, and my favourite is No. 4.

The symphonies are next …

Tags: music

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

2021-12-11 — Michael Haupt

Have you heard of composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold? If not, I'm still pretty sure you've heard at least some music influenced by him if you've ever been to the cinema to watch some Hollywood block buster.

Korngold was born in Vienna and started being recognised as a composer at a very young age, much like Mozart, and his sponsors included such illustrious and influential people as Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini. His musical style was an accomplished advanced Viennese very early on. Korngold's Sinfonietta op. 5 (composed as a teenager) is an early masterpiece, sporting a wonderfully lighthearted brilliance. His first opera, Die tote Stadt op. 21, was a worldwide success.

This genius' career came to a brutal interruption when he, being Jewish, had no other choice but to leave Europe in the Thirties. He went to Hollywood and started composing movie scores - and this is how his lasting influence came about. Korngold had significant influence on the style, and there is a very direct line from him to contemporary composers like John Williams. (If you like the Fifties' Robin Hood movie with Errol Flynn, watch it again, and listen up. The music is all Korngold.)

Personally, I haven't heard a piece of music written by Korngold that I've found uninteresting. Some of his tunes are extremely sticky and touching, such as this aria from his opera Die Kathrin, where the main protagonist is writing a love letter. You can hear it.

Tags: music


2021-09-16 — Michael Haupt

Franz Schubert has written hundreds of songs, and some song cycles that have gone down in history. An absolute highlight is Winterreise, encompassing a story of lost love and a sad journey through wintry landscapes.

Originally set for piano and solo voice, the cycle has inspired many artists to interpretations of utmost expressivity. One that stands out is Ian Bostridge’s - his range of emotion is simply stunning.

20th century composer Hans Zender went a few steps further. He created an interpretation of Winterreise that is itself composed. It’s way more than just a transcription of the work for chamber orchestra and solo voice. The very first movement makes this clear immediately. Schuberts Winterreise - eine komponierte Interpretation is a gem among not only interpretations of the cycle, but also among 20th century “classical” music output.

Tags: music

Left-Handed Music

2021-09-05 — Michael Haupt

Sometimes tragedy begets beauty. There is a (still growing) collection of piano music compositions for the left hand only. The Wikipedia list of such works for piano and orchestra has the earliest entry for the year 1895. Composer/pianist Géza Zichy, who had lost his right arm early on, had composed a piano concerto for himself. Then, nothing for a long time. Then, in and after 1916, an eruption of creativity. What happened?

World War I happened, and maimed Paul Wittgenstein, who had been a successful pianist before the war. He used his influence to commission compositions for the left hand only from numerous composers, including such titans as Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev, and Richard Strauss. Listening to Ravel's concerto alone, it becomes clear that playing with only one hand doesn't imply a reduction in complexity and expression. Playing this kind of music involves a stunning amount of very quick and precise jumps between the low and high registers.

There is also quite some music for left-hand piano solo, of course, and stumbling over one of the pieces actually made me write this. Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, known for his tendency to write slightly, erm, longer pieces, has composed a collection of 100 Transcendental Studies, and no. 36 is, you guessed it, for the left hand only. It's still very complex and beautiful. Check it out.

Tags: music

Benjamin Clementine

2021-05-12 — Michael Haupt

Benjamin Clementine is simply an awesome artist. His music and lyrics are deep, he has a story or two to tell. I first came across him in this video from the NPR tiny desk concerts, and was immediately captivated. Check out London, and People and I. Then, all the rest.

Tags: music

Music for Flying

2021-04-25 — Michael Haupt

Some situations just call for a soundtrack. One in which I frequently used to have this feeling is when I'm sitting on an airplane, travelling at great speed high above ground (or less high above clouds). The view is usually stunning, and even though the plane is moving really, really fast, the world below seems to pass by very slowly: a matter of scale.

What music would describe this? Rather than readily giving a description, I'd prefer giving examples, and coming to a (preliminary) conclusion afterwards.

The very first piece that I ever associated with flying (before even having flown once) was Wagner's Lohengrin ouverture. The immense slowness and calm of the music seem to resonate well with the impression described above.

Two pieces by Olivier Messiaen emanate the same mood: the movements Demeurer dans l'Amour and Le Christ, Lumière du Paradis from his last big orchestral work, Eclairs sur l'Au-dela.

The almost too famous Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony adds to the list. Despite its more vivid second part, the first movement from Einojuhani Rautavaara's Seventh also belongs there. So does Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question.

It seems strings play a major role: the common trait in all of the pieces above is that they are not only slow, but they also feature what some call a “string carpet”. Maybe that's an important ingredient - in my book, it certainly seems to be. There are indeed strings in Frank Martin's Unser Vater in dem Himmel, dein Name werde geheiliget from his oratorio In Terra Pax.

Yet I must add one more piece that is purely vocal: Gustav Mahler's song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, in the version that Clytus Gottwald arranged for 16-part choir. The orchestral version with solo voice doesn't feel quite right.

Given that last piece, it can't just all be about strings and slowness. (Unless you insist that the human voice is a string instrument.)

Anything I should add to the list? Any ideas of how to come up with a more conclusive definition?

Tags: music


2021-04-02 — Michael Haupt

Being a singer myself, I have a soft spot for a cappella music. I also like Sweden and the Swedish language very much. Ergo, Kraja. These are four women, each with a good singing voice of her own, and in combination, things sound beautiful. They cover a lot of ground, ranging from Swedish folk tunes to something resembling pop music - all very well sung and really good to listen to.

Tags: music

Glam Rock

2021-03-21 — Michael Haupt

Turns out I like glam rock. In a very broad interpretation of the genre.

Back when I was fourteen years old, I was sifting through my godfather's LP collection, and found one that looked interesting. It said "The Alan Parsons Project", and "Eye in the Sky". I had no idea what I was getting into when the first track, Sirius, started playing, but found myself waking up from some kind of trance when the A-side stopped playing. I was hooked. (Look, there's a live version of Eye in the Sky!)

Discoveries ensued. An all-time favourite is the Freudiana album. I also took a deep dive into The Camera Eye by Rush, playing it on the electric organ at some competition, which even won me a prize (go figure). Emerson, Lake, and Palmer were unavoidable.

More recently, a former colleague at eBay pointed me to Liquid Tension Experiment, and such gorgeousness as When the Water Breaks. He also suggested Ayreon, and Tool, whose Lateralus is a wonderful enigma based on the Fibonacci sequence. If that doesn't qualify as nerdy, then I don't know what does.

I'm very very open for more suggestions.

Tags: music


2021-03-01 — Michael Haupt

Twenty-four is a nice number, right?

There is one musical work the title of which you've surely heard: The Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach. It consists of 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys, and you certainly know the C-major prelude (listen to the end to also hear the fugue). This piece is immensely popular, and Charles Gounod wrote an Ave Maria that reuses it as accompaniment (here is Bobby McFerrin and audience's wonderful rendition).

But I digress. The point is that there are those 24 pieces that each tap into the potential of the respective key. There are more pieces like this. The Well-Tempered Clavier actually has a volume I and a volume II, so it's actually two times twenty-four preludes and fugues. Dmitri Shostakovich also wrote 24-sized packages - also twice, as op. 34 (just preludes) and op. 87 (preludes and fugues - this video only has the first half, the complete recording is here).

That got me interested, and of course there's a list. There are many names on there that I know I can associate with good music, so I guess I have some listening to do.

Tags: music

Lili Boulanger

2021-01-10 — Michael Haupt

In classical music, there aren't many female composers, which is a pity. On top of that, many of the few female composers aren't too well known, which is an even greater pity.

I want to share a bit about Lili Boulanger. Her sister Nadia Boulanger was a rather famous composer and teacher, whose students include such illustrious people as Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, and Daniel Barenboim. But Lili Boulanger was the first woman to ever win the highly prestigious Prix de Rome. Her life was tragically short and overshadowed by her fragile health from early childhood, to which she had to succumb at the age of twenty-four.

Boulanger's inevitably short list of compositions is filled with incredible goodness - she was a genius in the late-romantic style. Her orchestral instrumentation is influenced by impressionism and very well balanced, and in the works where she combined orchestra and choir, this leads to a very organic whole.

To me, three pieces stand out.

"Soir sur la plaine" (voici the lyrics) - written for orchestra, choir, and soprano solo, but often performed with a piano instead of the orchestra - is a highly impressionistic and beautiful piece. It captures the mood of a dreamy sunset very well.

Psalm 24 ("La terre appartient a l'Eternel") - for organ, brass (much brass!), harp, timpani, and choir. This should be on the BAM! list I mentioned earlier.

Psalm 130 ("Du fond de l'abîme") - for large (large!) orchestra and choir. This is a 25-minute piece of immense depth and gravity, and shows all the composer's mastery in handling orchestral colour and choral settings. Amazing.

I recommend finding more on the tubes. It's all worthwhile. I'm left to wonder what Lili Boulanger might have contributed, had she only been given more time.

Tags: music


2020-11-22 — Michael Haupt

Movie time. Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927, watchable here) is a masterpiece. Your mileage may vary regarding the story, but take in the imagery. This movie inspired C-3PO, one Bat Man movie, and it has a Really Evil Frankenstein style Supervillain. And the sound track. The sound track! This is a silent film, but it features a large-scale orchestra playing a more than two hours long symphonic poem score that can easily be enjoyed without the images. Gottfried Huppertz, the composer (whose name I'm pretty sure you haven't heard unless you know the movie) was a genius. I fondly recall one occasion in Nikolaisaal Potsdam where the movie was shown, and an actual orchestra was performing the score live.

Tags: the-nerdy-bit, music

Catchy Music Openings

2020-11-15 — Michael Haupt

Do you know that feeling when a piece of music captivates you with the first few notes? I experience this in two different ways. One is that a piece of music just goes BAM! and ties me to the spot so that I can't stop listening. The other is that it gives me that "oh, this is interesting" feeling and makes me curious. Here are some examples. What are yours?


"Oh, this is interesting."

Tags: the-nerdy-bit, music

Beethoven Symphonies for Piano

2020-09-27 — Michael Haupt

It's 2020, and that means Beethoven.

You may know the man wrote nine symphonies, all for orchestra, one also adding singers (for the first time in symphonic history). These symphonies represent a turning point in music history, and are rightfully popular.

A few years later, there lived a composer-pianist named Franz Liszt, who was a genius at the keyboard and basically created the image of the exalted super star piano player. Now, Liszt liked Beethoven's symphonies so much that he wanted to be able to play them wherever there was a piano, and so he transcribed all of them for piano. Given what he was capable of as a piano player, the result is quite demanding. Few recordings exist. I recently finished listening my way through all nine recordings done by Cyprien Katsaris, who is now one of my heroes. Here is his version of The Ninth. If you don't want to listen through the first three movements and just indulge in the utter craziness that is the fourth movement, here's a direct link.

Tags: music

Eight Hours of Music

2020-09-13 — Michael Haupt

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji was a composer. He is not very widely known, and he polarises. Sorabji had a certain tendency to write music that, well, is a bit long. His masterpiece for solo piano, Opus Clavicembalisticum, takes a cosy five hours. His second organ symphony, six. (He's quite the antipode of Webern in that.)

Sorabji's music is very individualistic, and very interesting. Admittedly, it's also an acquired taste. The complexity is stunning, and many of the beauties are, let's say, well hidden. The Fantaisie Espagnole is very accessible, though, and a good entry point at just below 20 minutes.

A recent release got me started. Sorabji wrote, for solo piano, variations on the Dies Irae theme (you've heard it, it's often quoted, also in the movies when things go apocalyptic). Being true to himself, he could not contain this in Goldberg Variations dimensions. So, all in all, the work takes a whopping eight hours. Of course that interests me. Jonathan Powell is the pianist who deserves all the credit for making this recording happen. Thankfully, he has made the entire piece available on the 'tubes (sorry if you can't access it from where you are).

How do you listen to this, you ask? In pieces. During my morning walks, for instance. And it is truly interesting.

Tags: music

Johannes Brahms, op. 118,2

2020-08-29 — Michael Haupt

Composer Johannes Brahms has taken me a surprisingly long time to discover - approaching orchestral music from the point of view of Mahlerian grandeur and expressiveness, I looked down my nose at Brahms' symphonies, which seemed underdeveloped and flat. Ach, the arrogance of the youthful (16, at the time) and inexperienced ...

Anyway. Almost thirty years and several deep expeditions into Brahms territory later (mostly by singing his choral works), I finally stumbled over his piano music. One piece from that corpus in particular gives me something to hold on to and lean back into during these troubling times: his very late Intermezzo. Andante teneramente op. 118,2 (here dreamed by Evgeny Kissin). The tranquility and peacefulness are soothing and help.

Tags: music

Conlon Nancarrow

2020-08-29 — Michael Haupt

YAML indentation patterns inspired this.

They did not inspire Conlon Nancarrow, who passed away well before YAML was even conceived of. Nancarrow wrote, or rather, punched, music for player piano. That's the kind of piano that will play music on its own from punched tape. Composing for this instrument, instead of for human piano players, can do interesting things because you don't really have to pay attention to the music being playable with human hands. You can experiment with very precise timing, geometrical patterns, and so forth. Nancarrow wrote about fifty "Studies for Player Piano".

Here's two examples.

Study no. 5 made me think of YAML, or YAML made me think of it. I wonder what happens if you feed this to Kubernetes. It sounds like crazy ants.

Study no. 3a is a bit more conventional. It's Boogie Woogie on steroids.

Tags: music, the-nerdy-bit

Kurt Atterberg

2020-06-28 — Michael Haupt

I want to introduce you to Kurt Atterberg, Swedish composer, early and mid-20th century. The man is fascinating because he wrote most of his compositions (nine symphonies, operas, concertos, songs, you name it) in his spare time. Atterberg was an electrical engineer, and worked in the Swedish patent office. He must also have been quite a character, because they had to force him into retirement at the age of 80.

What I - lover of late romanticism - admire about Atterberg's music is that it is a perfect blend of naturalistic impressions (read: paintings in music), Swedish folk tunes, and perfect large-scale orchestration that would have put Richard Strauss to shame. Well into the 20th century, he never gave in to the avant-gardistic revolution and serialism, so that his music is actually endurable.

I'll give three examples.

Älven (The River) is a symphonic poem describing the journey of a river from its source to the sea. In this programme, Älven is much like Smetana's Vltava, but set in more recent times. This becomes apparent when the river passes through a harbour, with ships sounding their horns.

The Second Symphony has a special place in my heart, because it perfectly combines all of the aforementioned characteristics. A majestic first movement, a dreamlike second that evolves into a troll dance, and a final third movement the main theme of which is like a composed exclamation mark. Excellent stuff.

Atterberg's Piano Concerto does, in its opening, bear some semblance to Tchaikovsky's first, but hold on, those wan colours all over the opening movement ... that's specific.


Tags: music