"I am hitting my head against the walls, but the walls are giving way" -Gustav Mahler


I am really bad at updating this. That’s okay.

Real confession: Until tonight, I had not heard Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in its entirety. I had heard excepts and portions, bits and pieces here and there, but gosh dangit sitting down and dedicating the time to experience it in its fullness was well worth it. It was an entirely different beast of an experience. Here’s a pretty awesome performance of it on YouTube. If you have the time to “sacrifice” (ha, get it), turn up those speakers and 720p the heck out of it. Enjoy.

Conflicting Influences: The Music of William Grant Still

I would finally like to begin writing about a topic in music of significant importance to myself.  I would like to touch on a few composers of the early 20th century and how societal views on race, gender, and technology influenced their compositional styles, shaping the soundscape of American music.

To begin, I would like to first introduce you to African American composer William Grant Still (1895-1978).  In the history of African American music, Still’s premier of his Afro-American Symphony in 1931 stands as a powerful symbol of black achievement.  Not only was it one of the first symphonies composed by an African American composer and the first work by a black artist to be performed by a major orchestra but it was also one of the most widely recognized manifestations of the Harlem Renaissance.  

Having an extreme interest in music in his university years, Still studied with American composers such as George Whitefield Chadwick and Edgard Varèse, both prominent figures of the avant-garde American musical modernist movement.  Under the tutelage of Varèse, Still’s compositions deeply reflected the unconventional methods of modernism. However, living in Harlem during the 1920s, Still was also exposed to the explosion of black culture of the Harlem Renaissance that lead to many African American artists expressing forms of racial pride in order to elevate black art forms in  a way that even white audiences would deem acceptable.  The movement saw a boom in the creation of literature, visual art, and music by African American artists.  The result of these two very different influences were concert pieces that that referenced black idioms, such as blues and jazz, as well as the avant-garde.  Unfortunately, critics often expressed disappointment that Still’s work did not completely reflect the color of his skin.  While the teachings of Edgard Varèse deeply influenced and fueled William Grant Still’s musical complexity, critics and society alike enforced expectations that Still’s compositions be indicative of his race.   

The pressures to compose from the African American vernacular clashed with Still’s early modernist tendencies.  He found himself relying on white supporters in order to gain recognition and concert appearances as a composer while maintaining his roots with other African-Americans.  The strong interest in black culture helped to diminish Still’s own modernist ideas.  Historian Henry May illustrates the difficulties Still faced while trying to establish his identity:  “Negroes…had to break into the dominant…culture of the day before they could break out of it.”

While listening to Still’s Afro-American Symphony, it is clear how these societal pressures manifested themselves into his work.  The blues based simpler melodies and rhythms contrast with the dissonant ideas of his earlier piece, Darker America*.  This piece, while also referencing the black musical vernacular, incorporated much more elements of modernism, including a much more complex structure not indicative of either blues or jazz. Still himself acknowledged his gradual transformation into a composer of African American music but refused to be confined solely to that genre.  Had I listened to the piece before learning more about him, I would have assumed that Still simply wrote a catchy piece of music that found popularity among concertgoers of that time.  However, the article leads me to believe that  Afro-American Symphony perhaps represents the racial divide that prevented further exploration of modernism by Still.

William Grant Still played a pivotal role as the first and only prominent black concert composer in a culture dominated by his white counterparts.  His compositions started to break away from the established norms of African American music.  However the beliefs of the time did much to ensure that Still’s distance from that music remained relatively short.

Does society continue to construct these musical barriers?

*While recordings of Darker America are rare, information was taken from excerpts of the score

Holiday Not-Study-Game

I feel so bad that I haven’t posted anything since October but it’s okay since I don’t think anyone besides myself knows this blog exists (not a bad thing =] ).

I am no professional reviewer and I am in no way endorsed by companies, but while I procrastinate on my finals work/study, I’d like to share with you about one of my favorite budget headphones, the Koss PortaPros.


The first thing one might notice about this set of cans is their unique 80s themed styling.  That would be due to the fact that these headphones were first produced in 1984 but their popularity and quality are so good that Koss (and I) see no reason to change anything about them.  To love or to hate the aesthetic is up to individuals.  I’ve found them to be quite comfortable and I am able to listen to them for hours at a time.  However, I could see how the adjustable metal band might prove problematic for users with longer hair, as it might snag some locks here and there.  Although I happen to like the look and feel, the quality of sound is what really shines in these headphones.

After putting these on and starting to listen to some tunes, listeners will notice the PortaPro’s incredible attention to detail.  After turning one of my good friends on to this headphone, he commented to me, “I can hear things that I’ve never heard before.”  The PortaPros are able to create a wonderfully realistic stereo image, separating individual instruments and voices while still maintaining great balance, compared to other more expensive headphones.  Perhaps unparalleled in this price range, the PortaPros feature outstanding range with great midrange, detailed treble, and a really warm thick blanketing layer of bass.  These are not like your typical Beats by Dre quaking skull pounders but they provide ample amounts of warm tone over obscene low end assaults (new post topic?).

If all that doesn’t sound attractive to you, maybe this will: the low price.  When I first purchased the PortaPros, they set me back only 20 bucks.  However, probably around 2011 it seems they shot up in popularity and the price increased to around $50.00.  Still worth it in my opinion but currently they sell on Amazon for $24.99!  I don’t know if this is a limited time offer or if the price has just fallen but I would definitely recommend the PortaPros.  Perfect stocking stuffer for others and yourself!

I hope to post more soon, I’m almost done with school for the semester!  I have much I’d like to share and my currently listening to section is very dated… Some surprising and interesting new selections now!

Without Further Ado: Introduction and The Music of Khusugtun

From my about section and an introduction to the purpose of this blog:

It was recently suggested to me that I start a blog as a way to practice expressing my thoughts and such. In the past I tried starting things like this but quickly deleted them out of insecurities.  I was very self conscious about how others would view my writing and the content. This is very indicative of other aspects of my life. Little by little I am working towards being more confident and losing that fear of how others view me. Part of those first steps are this blog. Through it, I hope to regain the confidence and build up the self-esteem that I once had as a musician, and hopefully have those qualities transfer over to other parts of my life.

As for what I will be writing about, it will probably vary, but I’d like to articulately give you an idea:

I like music.

Prolly going to write about it in some way.

Cause I like it.

And stuff.

Now onto the stuff.

I would like to dedicate this first real post to my friend, who I will refer to as M.  M has remained a very close friend of mine through difficult trials and encouraged my decision to create this blog.  M recently traveled to Mongolia this past summer and I have been waiting very long to finally share this with them and anyone who will listen.

As with many of my musical discoveries, I first found Khusugtun through aimless browsing of YouTube.  I can’t remember the exact circumstances but I know that once I heard them, I was captivated.  Khusugtun, an ensemble from Mongolia, utilizes traditional stringed instruments, the morin khuur (horse headed fiddle), ikh khurr (a bass morin khuur), and the yoochin (dulcimer like) and pairs them with an African djembé. The mixture already produces a richly balanced blend of tones driven rhythmically by the djembé, however, arguably the most compelling factor of Khusugtun’s performance is their employment of overtone and throat singing.

In my experience with overtones, I slaved for hours to produce them on the saxophone, exercising my range.  In larger ensembles it’s always a pleasure to hear overtones as a product of tight and precise intonation within the group. Never did I imagine hearing the sounds I heard from Khusugtun being produced by the human voice. It was also surprising to see how prominent it was.  I could see how in other musics this could be a fun little gimmick but with this music, the throat singing and overtone techniques take center stage.

The basic premise of overtone singing, or “thin whistling overtone singing” as it’s referred to in the accompanying video, is to produce two tones at once with the voice. From my understanding, this is done by manipulating the air that travels across the vocal cords from the lungs.  The result is both a higher pitched melodic drone, that resembles a heavily effects laden stringed instrument, along with a bottom bass voice that really complements the upper quite nicely.  When added to the rest of the ensemble, the eclectic blend of sounds conjures up images of the vast Mongolian landscape and its unique culture, just as the music of classic American Western films paints adventures in the old country.

While all of the more traditional instruments play a huge part in acting rhythmically, it’s interesting to note how the morin khuur is used more for its texture. The timbre of the instrument suggests it could carry the main melodies but that role is reserved primarily for the yoochin and of the course, the voice. What types of interesting things do you notice?

Take a listen: (I’ve added particular times and notes to share)

3:38- Music starts- Tes Golyn magtaal

  • Praise for the river Tes
  • The beggining throat singing is almost chant-like but the introduction of another overtone voice adds another melodic layer.

5:34- Toroi Bandi

  • Story of a Mongolian hero that stole cattle from the rich and gave them to the poor.
  • Also notice the orcehstral musician in the background finally smile at 8:23.

9:37 Mongol

  • Composed more recently, praises the Mongol people’s history
  • Accelerando at 11:10 powerfully driven by djembé and ikh khuur