Category Archives: Arts and Music

Music Is Powerful

“I say I survived for a reason: to tell my story. I believe that…Music is powerful. It is the only thing that can speak into your mind, your heart and your soul without your permission.”
– Emmanuel Jal

The Second Sudanese Civil War from 1983 to 2005 was one of the longest and bloodiest civil wars on record, yet it barely registered in Western media. The war resulted in the deaths of roughly two million people and the repeated displacement of over four million others in southern Sudan alone, constituting one of history’s largest refugee crises. Among the atrocities committed during the war were slavery, rapes, mutilations, mass killings, and the forced enlistment of children as soldiers by all sides.

Emmanuel Jal was one such child soldier. Born in what is now South Sudan, Jal was a young child when the civil war broke out. After his father joined the rebel army (SPLA) and his mother was killed by loyalist soldiers, Jal joined the thousands of Sudanese children travelling to Ethiopia, hoping to escape the conflict and find education and opportunity. Along the way, however, many of the children, Jal included, were forcibly recruited by the SPLA and taken to military training camps where they were taught to kill, in Jal’s words, “mercilessly and efficiently.”

For the next several years Jal and his comrades fought with the SPLA, first in Ethiopia and then back in Sudan, until the fighting and deprivations became unbearable. Jal and some of his friends ran away, and for three months they were constantly on the move, stealing food and dodging roving patrols. Eventually Jal met a British aid worker who adopted him and smuggled him to Kenya, where he attended school. It was in the slums of Nairobi that Jal became a community activist. He also discovered hip-hop and the power of the spoken word; singing and rapping became a form of therapy to ease the pain of his experiences, and his life’s course was set. Over time Jal developed a unique form of hip-hop, seemingly conventional in form but layered with African beats and sung/chanted over African-inspired choruses.

Unlike many of his American counterparts, Jal sees hip-hop as a powerful vehicle to lobby for social justice and political change in a positive manner, rather than as a method of pursuing street credibility. His raps and spoken word pieces emphasize unity and common humanity as motivators for young people and weapons in the fight against the scourges of ethnic and religious divisions, such as those that plague his homeland. This hopeful outlook, combined with his many humanitarian activities, dovetails neatly with the goals of UC San Diego’s Eleanor Roosevelt College, and marks Jal as a suitably inspirational figure to help celebrate the College’s 30th Anniversary.

His dynamic performance is by turns thought-provoking and uplifting, at times almost somber, but also leavened with humor and, yes, with fun. As Jal himself puts it, “Life without fun is no life at all,” a remarkable perspective from one who has suffered much but has refused to give in to bitterness or cynicism.

Watch From War Child to Global Citizen with Emmanuel Jal.

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Jazz Rules the World

Contributed by John Menier

32822
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called the 1920s the “Jazz Age,” and recent inventions such as radio and phonograph records helped to spread the popularity of two quintessentially American musical genres, jazz and blues, across the country and beyond our borders. In 1926 a Paris-based music magazine began its review of recorded jazz with the observation that “Jazz truly rules the world,” and a growing number of influential European composers were jazz fans, including Hindemith, Milhaud, Weill, Honegger, and Poulenc. Maurice Ravel spent several happy nights with George Gershwin at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom listening to jazz, a testament to the music’s appeal.

For a time these foreign composers included jazz elements in some of their works, with varying degrees of success, but by the mid-1930s their ardor had cooled as new forms of modernism took hold on the Continent. It was left then to American musicians to continue nurturing the confluence of their native jazz and “serious” music that began in the early 1920s, and they did so brilliantly.

Three of the foremost practitioners of this hybrid form were George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Aaron Copland. Though they came from different backgrounds and training, and each developed a singular musical personality, they shared an interest in elevating the jazz/classical fusion from a novel experiment to a vibrant art form. They shared another quality, harder to quantify but nevertheless distinctive: their music was unmistakably American, with all that implies.

This characteristic is perhaps most evident in the Gershwin masterpieces on this program, “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” In both pieces, the jazz/blues influences are on prominent display, as the music alternates in mood from contemplative to nostalgic to swaggering, and from Paris to Harlem. Gershwin insisted that both pieces are examples of sonata form, but whether sonata or tone poem or concerto or potpourri, it’s not important how it’s categorized. What matters is that this is fun music, as full of personality as anything you’re likely to hear.

It’s been said that Duke Ellington embodied the very soul of jazz. Ellington wrote some of the first extended jazz compositions to appear in the concert repertoire, and the two pieces on this program, “Mood Indigo” and “Solitude,” amply demonstrate his versatility and sophistication as a composer. Ellington was also an innovative, idiosyncratic orchestrator, and what became known as the “Ellington Sound” is a constant feature of his music – elusive, hard to define, harder still to imitate, but once heard, unmistakable.

Aaron Copland was a city boy who brought a certain polished urbanity to his work. After extensive studies in Paris Copland initially worked with then-voguish European styles, but gradually his native “Americanism” emerged and he established himself as the premiere American composer of his generation. “Quiet City” is a mood piece, a tone poem in miniature, originally written for a friend’s play. The play failed but the music lives on as a popular concert selection. The influence of jazz and/or blues is perhaps less overt in this haunting work than in the Gershwin and Ellington pieces, but it’s there in the tones and phrasings of the featured trumpet and oboe combined with the dotted rhythms of the string orchestra.

The program is rounded out with an exhilarating premiere work by Asher Tobin Chodos, “Concertino for Two Pianos and Orchestra.” Joining the composer on piano is Cecil Lytle, who also performs on “Mood Indigo,” “Solitude,” and “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Watch: Crossing the rue St. Paul – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Nosferatu with Werner Herzog

Contributed by John Menier

32822“For such an advanced civilization as ours to be without images that are adequate to it is as serious a defect as being without memory.”
― Werner Herzog

The Carsey-Wolf Center at UC Santa Barbara has created a series entitled “Hollywood Berlin,” featuring screenings and discussions of films by five prominent German directors: Werner Herzog, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, and Billy Wilder. With the exception of Herzog these artists are representative of the wave of German exiles and immigrants who left Europe in the 1920s and 1930s to work in Hollywood, and counted among their number producers, directors, actors, writers, technicians, and cinematographers. In addition to their professional expertise that generation of émigrés brought European influences to American cinema, as reflected by film noir, increasing sophistication in comedies, and a willingness to address serious social issues.

In the inaugural program of “Hollywood Berlin” celebrated filmmaker Werner Herzog joins Carsey-Wolf Center Director Patrice Petro for a discussion of his film, “Nosferatu the Vampyre,” based on F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens” (“Noserferatu, a Symphony of Horrors”). Upon the release of Herzog’s film in 1979 many critics expressed surprise at his choice of subject matter. Herzog was already well-known as the auteur of idiosyncratic art-house works based on his original screenplays. Pundits assumed that Herzog’s film was simply a remake of Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece, and they were puzzled. As Herzog explains in this program, that assumption was mistaken; his version of “Nosferatu” was intended not as a slavish imitation but as an homage both to Murnau’s film and to a seminal era of German filmmaking. In terms of plot and characters it falls midway between Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula” and Murnau’s “Nosferatu” (which was an unauthorized version of Stoker’s novel), incorporating elements of both while adding the director’s well-known pictorial sense. Herzog sees his film as providing an explicit link between his generation, the “New German Cinema,” and what he calls “our grandfathers,” those movie-makers whose mass exodus left behind a German film industry that was moribund until the advent of Herzog, Fassbinder, Schlöndorff, Wenders, von Trotta, et al in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Using “Nosferatu” as a jumping-off point for conversation, Herzog elaborates on a variety of topics including his writing process, his relationships with collaborators, the importance of music, and his philosophy concerning the primacy of the image. He also addresses some of the myths and misconceptions (mythconceptions?) that have arisen from his storied career, most of which cast Herzog as an uncompromising artist who undertakes his projects with a humorless, single-minded zeal bordering on madness. While it’s true that the prolific Herzog is passionate about cinema – he once said that “we are starved for images, and it’s my duty to provide them” – he displays a healthy sardonic humor regarding himself and his public image. (“I am not Teutonic. I am Bavarian.”)

Witty, articulate, intellectually rigorous, and disarmingly honest, Werner Herzog is the perfect introduction to a series celebrating the work of German filmmakers past and present.

Watch Nosferatu with Werner Herzog

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Simply Fun

Contributed by John Menier

32822In his remarks from the podium, La Jolla Symphony & Chorus Conductor Steven Schick notes that the 2017 edition of the “Young People’s Concert” features music by two composers with differing influences, temperaments, and styles: George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. While acknowledging the contrasts Schick also points out some surprising similarities shared by the two men: both were born to Russian-Jewish parents in Brooklyn, both studied in Paris, both had an interest in jazz and popular music, both experimented with different genres, and both came to prominence in the Jazz Age. First and foremost, Gershwin and Copland were American, with all that implies; as Gershwin put it, “True music must reflect the thought and aspirations of the people and time. My people are Americans. My time is today.”

Perhaps the best expression of what’s been called “the American touch” may be found in two of Gershwin’s most popular scores, “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris.” Both pieces reflect Gershwin’s abiding interest in jazz and blues, two indisputably American art forms, and both touch glancingly upon some of the conflicts and contradictions of American life (then and now). Ultimately, though, the most profound and appealing quality shared by the compositions is that, in the words of the Conductor, “they are simply fun.”

By comparison to the high-stepping confidence of the Gershwin tunes, Copland’s “Quiet City,” originally written for a failed play, reflects another, more contemplative aspect of the American character. One reading holds that the longing and unfulfilled aspirations evoked by this piece warn of the consequences of not being true to one’s self, an ever-present danger in a fast-moving, ambitious society. Perhaps. However one interprets “Quiet City” (if it needs any interpretation at all) there’s no denying the work’s beauty, the result of a perfect balance between string orchestra and two soloists on trumpet and oboe.

Throughout his remarks, Steven Schick notes the empathy and intricate interplay between the various sections of the orchestra, by turns tempestuous and serene as required by the score, and the absolute need to serve the music and the composers.

Watch Young People’s Concert 2017 – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

UC San Diego Jazz Camp

8232Since its inception 15 years ago, UC San Diego Jazz Camp has stayed focused on a single goal: ensuring the continued vitality of jazz music by identifying, instructing, and nurturing new talent. The camp accepts students ranging in age from 14 to adult, and from a variety of educational or vocational backgrounds. Prior to attending the camp, students attend placement auditions based upon which they are assigned to one of two proficiency levels, intermediate and advanced. Most of the camp’s instruction is designed for one of these levels.

The camp’s faculty is made up of internationally renowned musicians who are experts in a variety of jazz stylings, from be-bop to contemporary open-form. The rigorous and immersive curriculum covers a broad range of topics and techniques, including Jazz Improvisation, Listening to Jazz, Master Classes, and individual lessons. There is a particular emphasis on jazz as a performance-oriented art form through participation in small ensembles and informal jam sessions, and attendance at faculty concerts.

The week’s activities culminate in a finale concert in which all students perform as a member of an ensemble under the supervision of a faculty member. Concert sets feature an assortment of instrumental combinations and an eclectic repertoire that includes standards as well as new compositions by faculty and students. Each student gains valuable performance experience and an opportunity to shine in front of a supportive and appreciative audience. In turn, audience members have the opportunity to witness some fine young musicians at the start of their career and older musicians embarking on a new chapter.

Watch UC San Diego Jazz Camp 2017 and explore the archive.

facebooktwittergoogle_plus