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May 10, 2009

Happy Mother's Day

By: Bernard Chazelle

Bach wrote this cantata (BWV 51) to be sung by a boy. Except there is not a boy in the world with the technical ability to sing it. Even among professional sopranos, this cantata inspires absolute terror. In this meditative aria, it's the contrast between the simplicity of the accompaniment and the power of the melody that's striking. And, my god, what a voice! When it comes to voice, let's face it, men can't compete. Of course it's totally unfair. Women are born with a stradivarius in their throat and we are born with a coffee grinder. That's life.

So, here's to the glorious female voice and happy mother's day to all the moms out there!

PS: Notice, once again, the gentle lilt of a dance.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at May 10, 2009 04:13 PM

Thanks. Lovely piece.

Posted by: Batocchio at May 10, 2009 05:04 PM

You can do a lot with a coffee grinder, bub!

Posted by: Tom Waits at May 10, 2009 05:50 PM

I really wish I could appreciate vocal classical music aside from the kind Steve Reich makes. I don't know what it is, but even Bach's vocal works don't interest me, despite the fact that he's probably my single favorite human being ever.

Posted by: ethan at May 10, 2009 07:27 PM

ethan: But Bach without vocals is like the 1970 team without Pele. Sure, you still have Rivellino, Jairzinho, and Tostao, but it's amputation, man. And now I hear Steve Reich. My God, this is like putting Kevin Keegan in charge of the Selecao. Horrifying!

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 10, 2009 08:38 PM

Bernard, aside from the fact that I have no idea what you're on about (except in the vaguest, I know. I know! I think something just needs to click that hasn't yet.

On the other hand, if your mysterious codewords were just saying something mean about Steve Reich...why I oughta...

Posted by: ethan at May 10, 2009 08:48 PM


Wow, you're a soccer fan!! I actually had season ticket to the New York Cosmos...So I saw Pele, and Carlos Alberto, and was at his Pele's last game at Giant Stadium when the Cosmos played Santos...great to see another leftist-I assume you are a leftist Bernard!-that enjoys sports as much as I do. Hockey is actually my favorite sport but soccer is a close second...really looking forward to the Champions league final between Man U and Barcelona...Mighty Barca will win...IMNTHO...I assume you have read Eduardo Galeano's "Soccer in Sun and Shawdow"? Read if you haven't...just a great book by a great writer.. Keep up the good work.-Tony

Posted by: tony at May 10, 2009 09:28 PM

Only kidding. I thought momentarily I was on Tony Karon's blog where this kind of inside-soccer talk happens all the time. One of the things I missed the most when I left Europe. And now I hear people talk like that about baseball and I am still trying to figure out what's wrong with baseball players that they don't kick the ball with their feet. I'm hopeless.

Did you see Reich got a Pulitzer? I've listened to his music a little and I must say I like it quite a bit. The guy actually seems to know what he's doing. But I once took a class in Paris from one of the IRCAM gurus (forget his name) about spectral music (whatever that was) and I developed a lasting distaste for modern classical music.

My next musical project (if I live long enough) will be Indian classical. Now that seems sooooo cool!

But I vaguely remember you didn't like SRV, so our musical tastes seem quite far apart. How can one not like SRV?

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 10, 2009 09:32 PM

tony: ManU? Don't get me started. I've long pushed the thesis there's only one ronaldo, and it's not the guy whose dad named him after reagan. I mean, it's the fat one! But history is being very cruel to me. And that ferrari accident... not even a bruise? anyway, it's barca all the way! let henry and messi show the world how it's done!

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 10, 2009 09:53 PM

Gosh! What a voice! Has a dream like quality and makes one feel like one is floating! Many thanks Prof Chazelle. But who is the 'mystery' singer?

And Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers ( readers and commenters ) including to Mrs Chazelle.

@tony at May 10, 2009 09:28 PM:
Mr Karon, I thought you were a LivepoolFC fan! My nephews are the biggest fans of Manchester United and if they win, they'll go nuts.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at May 10, 2009 10:03 PM

I, too, will take the Reds over ManU any day. And Arsenal over the whole premiership. (different tony, rupa)

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 10, 2009 10:16 PM

Sorry about THAT Prof Chazelle, mixing up names.
And, I have Arsenal fans in the family too. My niece's boys are Arsenal fans and when I watched their Arsenal game on HDTV, I thought it was for real!!! but it was a COMPUTER VERSION!! The players looked SO TRUE TO LIFE ( with all the cheering in the background by the fans) it was amazing.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at May 10, 2009 10:47 PM


the first Ronaldo is one the best players I have ever seen...I have never seen anyone with his speed and control of the ball...and moves you have see three times in slow motion to understand what he did...still a great player despite all of his injuries and his continual expanding waistline...he wasn't called the phenomenon for nothing!!-Tony

P.S I also agree about of the all-time greats...I can play a mean "The Sky Is crying"

Posted by: tony at May 11, 2009 09:02 AM

I'm pretty much entirely unfamiliar with spectral music except in the most abstract of theoretical terms (i.e. I'm only a little more familiar with it than I am with the "1970 team"), but I do have to say that I find those theoretical terms pretty appealing. I've no idea if it would be interesting or pleasant or edifying to listen to, because I haven't, but at least in theory it doesn't sound far off from what you pissed everyone off talking about a while back about Western music's "wrong" tonality.

As regards your more general distaste for modern classical, I wish I had ever gotten around to writing my amateur musicology essay (which I've been meaning to write for about a year now, ever since I got really hardcore into Steve Reich and to a lesser extent the other minimalists) about how baroque music, particularly Bach, is concerned with all the same things, and has the same goals (and, most importantly, impacts me the same way), as minimalist music, particularly Reich. I swear there was more to it than just being one of those "saying two opposites are the same is wicked hip" shockers.

Posted by: ethan at May 11, 2009 09:07 AM

Wait, what's SRV? Sisters Rith Voices?

Posted by: ethan at May 11, 2009 09:12 AM

Yeah, women are great, but let's face it--the western vocal tradition has never really recovered from the loss of castrati.

Posted by: William Burns at May 11, 2009 10:34 AM

ethan: I, for one, would read your essay with great interest. I hope you get around to writing it and you guest-post it here. That'd be very neat.
Maybe in it you can address this point that's crucial to me, which is the physical, emotional power of music. May not look like it, but I am very "un-intellectual" when it comes to music. It has to grab me by the throat and interfere with my blood circulation. If it does not, I may see why it's well composed and stuff, but deep inside I don't care.

Sisters w/ Voices? You must surely mean this:

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 11, 2009 10:38 AM

castrati? Some have speculated Bach composed the above for one (though most likely he did it for his own wife).

Don't worry about the loss. The US Torture Squad is busy perfecting techniques to restore this art form.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 11, 2009 10:43 AM

Bernard, I'm exactly the same way with music. If it doesn't impact me emotionally I have no interest in analyzing it intellectually. Actually, what got me thinking along the lines I was talking about before was noticing that my emotional reaction to Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians (and later his other works) was almost identical to my emotional reaction to much of Bach's work (I think it was specifically the harpsichord concerti originally). Then I started thinking about why. I don't know how well I'd be able to convey these emotions in writing, but it would definitely be a central part of what the essay would be about. I would also write it more elegantly than I'm writing now.

The prospect of having a guest post on ATR is making me need to change my pants. Are you sure I've flattered Mr. Schwarz often enough to merit it? Anyway--big incentive, and if I ever do write the damn thing, the fine folk here will be the first to know.

I absolutely adore the Singing Nun, incidentally. I'm sure you know about her song about contraception, her lesbianism, her school for autistic children, and her double suicide, yes?

Posted by: ethan at May 11, 2009 03:09 PM

Prof Chazelle, do you know who the singer is? If not, could you guess who it could be? Many thanks.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at May 11, 2009 04:08 PM

Several years back, I saw Steve Reich and his ensemble perform "Music for 18 Musicians," and it was transcendent. Hearing a piece live is always good, but I think the many shifts in that work really benefit from it. It becomes a more physical experience, and it stuck with all of us for hours (days, years) afterward.

I am a fan of classical vocal music, though. I haven't listened to all of the Bach catalog yet (I love BWV 140), but Josquin de Prez and Palestrina are also pretty amazing. I got to sing Josquin's choral "Ave Maria" several times in college, and again, it was a physical, emotional and profound experience. I imagine most musicians and music lovers have had that at least once. I hope so.

Posted by: Batocchio at May 11, 2009 07:05 PM

Teresa Stich-Randall (the youtube comments give you the details).

Singing Nun? I only know about her bit to help the Spanish Inquisition: I believe she composed the song to go along with waterboarding.

batocchio's comment means that ethan now has no choice but to write his essay on Reich.

Just don't call it "Our Reich" (the "Our Kampf" joke is already taken)

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 11, 2009 07:38 PM

I already made a Steve Reich-style phasing piece using a sample from a Bach concerto and called it "Beich", so I think I've already filled my lifetime quota of puns on that name. Not that that's remotely a good pun.

Posted by: ethan at May 11, 2009 09:34 PM