The long-awaited Downton Abbey movie has just been released, as has its fantastic score by John Lunn. Lunn is the Emmy Award-winning composer of the soundtrack for the Downton Abbey TV show as well.
In this interview, he talks about his surprising musical roots in pop and minimalism, how you can hear those influences in the music for Downton, what it’s like to write for the show and the movie, and he even reveals (gasp!) a movie spoiler.
What do Brahms and Ligeti have in common? More than you might think. Violinist Augustin Hadelich brings the two disparate composers together on his latest album, highlighting the unlikely similarities between their violin concertos.
In this interview, Hadelich talks about what (on Earth) these two composers have in common, and how the two pieces inform one another when heard on the same recording.
While cooking, walking, tending the garden, or washing clothes, the women of Haiti sing songs. For Nathalie Joachim, a Haitian-American singer, flutist, and composer, her image of Haiti is one of love, beauty, tradition, family, and, perhaps above all, music: it pervades the house after church on Sundays and communicates the stories and traditions of past generations.
On her new album Fanm d’Ayiti, Joachim taps into Haiti’s long musical history through original songs and arrangements of classics by some of Haiti’s legendary women musicians. The resulting compositions engage her Haitian heritage and continue these women’s messages of resilience, love, and hope.
On Fanm d’Ayiti, which is Haitian Creole for “Women of Haiti,” traditional songs are treated in a radically new way, with original arrangements featuring voice, flute, and electronics by Joachim and strings performed by the Chicago-based Spektral Quartet. Woven into the mix are recordings of a Haitian girls’ choir from Joachim’s family home, interviews with some of Haiti’s best-known female voices, and the voice of Joachim’s own grandmother. These elements come together to form something that feels both old and new—a musical language of tuneful songs, folk-style strings, stuttering electronics, and vibrant energy.
The album is set into motion with an arrangement of the song “Papa Loko,” which features fluttering string harmonics, skipping electronic percussion, and a bouncy arpeggiated bassline. This song segues into a recording of the Haitian singer Emerante de Pradines, who speaks about her feeling of unity with all female Haitian artists and leads us into the three-part “Suite pou Dantan,” a heartfelt dedication to the farming village that Joachim’s family calls home. Here, Joachim sings along with the girls’ choir over chaotically exuberant percussion, pairs field recording samples with steady drum tracks, and weaves winding flute melodies through the strings of the Spektral Quartet.
An arrangement of “Lamizè pa dous,” a song of African origin translating to “Poverty is Not Sweet,” gives way to the interlude “Couldn’t Tell Her What To Do,” in which we hear the moving story of the Haitian singer and justice-seeker Toto Bissainthe, as told by her daughter Milena Sandler over swelling string harmonies.
Side B of the album begins with an elegy-like arrangement of the traditional Haitian song “Manman m voye m peze kafe,” which feels almost like a theme and variations or a passacaglia with its continuous bassline, circling strings, and arpeggiating, marimba-like electronics. Two further arrangements of traditional songs follow: the grooving yet plaintive “Legba na konsole” and “Madan Bellegarde,” which features a contrapuntal duet between Joachim and the viola, a contemplative chorale of strings and flute, the voice of Joachim’s grandmother, and scattered blips of electric harmony.
This leads us finally into the interlude “The Ones I Listened To,” in which the voices of Haitian musicians Carole Demesmin, Emerante de Pradines, and Milena Sandler encourage both Nathalie and the listener to pursue their dreams despite hardships, and the title track “Fanm d’Ayiti,” a festive original song celebrating Haiti and its strong women, ending the album on a hopeful note.
It is important to remember that for Joachim and the people of Haiti, many of these songs are an integral part of their culture, traditions, and everyday lives. Joachim has said that songs like “Lamizè pa dous” are not only songs to sing while working, but were used by slaves to communicate with each other in ways that their oppressors couldn’t understand, much like the Negro spirituals of the United States.
In a certain sense, these songs continue to serve that purpose. Many of the Haitian Creole songs on this album were sung by women during the worst periods of intellectual repression and dictatorship in Haiti’s history as a way of maintaining their language and traditions—and it is these subtle acts of subversion that Joachim celebrates in her arrangements. On Fanm d’Ayiti, Nathalie Joachim continues the lineage of Haitian women who bring together communities, pass on their culture, and fight for justice through their music.
Nathalie Joachim’s Fanm d’Ayiti is out August 30 on New Amsterdam Records. For more information, click here.
Donnacha Dennehy is an Irish composer who is intensely interested in the music and culture of his homeland. Whether it be setting Irish poets like William Butler Yeats or incorporating Irish folk traditions into his music, Dennehy frequently celebrates his roots while retaining his colorful, vibrant, and forward-thinking musical style.
This is certainly the case on his upcoming album The Hunger, a collaboration with the always inventive Alarm Will Sound featuring soprano Katherine Manley and Iarla Ó Lionáird, a singer specializing in sean-nós (“old style”) singing—a typically melismatic and highly ornamented style sung in the Gaelic language. The album consists of a stirring cantata remembering Ireland’s Great Famine (1845-1849) by setting first-hand accounts from American humanitarian Asenath Nicholson and utilizing material from a sean-nós style song of the period titled “Na Prátaí Dubha” (Black Potatoes).
One of the most emotionally powerful moments on the album is the movement “I Feared He Would Die,” which depicts a starving old man (represented by Iarla Ó Lionáird) who is continually denied the food he needs for himself and the children under his care to survive. Asenath Nicholson, as represented by Katherine Manley, tells of the callousness of the English officers and the harsh reality of the famine over fluttering strings and undulating harmonies.
Hear it here first
ahead of the album’s August 23 release date.
Donnacha Dennehy’s The Hunger is out August 23 on Nonesuch Records. For more information, click here.
The mellow buzzing of synthesizers and electric organs
has been used in popular music for decades now, but some of the first people to
experiment with these instruments were classical and avant-garde composers. The
mid-20th century saw a wide range of composers creating new works
that mined the expressive potential of electronic instruments—a trend that is
continually unfolding today.
On his new album Teenages, composer Qasim Naqvi shows us that a synthesizer can change and respond to its player just like any other more traditional instrument, creating a surprising and one-of-a-kind journey of an album in the process.
Teenages is played entirely
on an analog modular synthesizer, which is a synthesizer made up of multiple synth
units connected together without a playable interface like a keyboard. Essentially,
the machine generates tones while the player guides it, turning knobs to change
frequency, create rhythms, or add timbre filters. What makes Naqvi’s machine so
special is that he built it himself over the course of two years, and the
process of the instrument’s evolution is catalogued on the album. Reflecting on
the process of learning his machine’s quirks, Naqvi found that it seemed to
react to his impulses in surprising ways and to mature over time, which
inspired the album’s title.
The first five tracks of the album were created in the year leading up to the title track. They give us a sense of the machine’s evolution, beginning with “Intermission,” an atmospheric and ambient track that starts from almost a single tone, expanding slowly to include pulsing sounds of different timbres and pitches.
“Mrs 2E” brings in some more recognizable material, with stuttering beeps and blips fluttering around the steadier rhythms of something resembling a melody and bassline. “Palace Workers” continues this progression, with a quirky but danceable percussion section keeping a steady beat. This is joined by a bouncy, repetitive synth line that starts to give a sense of harmony. By “No Tongue,” Naqvi and his machine have learned to work together to form what sounds like an ensemble of electronics featuring a bright, melodic hook, lively textured rhythms, and scattered beeps and clicks.
While “No Tongue” is animated and restless, “Artilect” takes us into deeper waters with a low, pulsing drone that makes you wonder what could be around the corner. This leads us finally into the main event, “Teenages,” an almost 20-minute track which brings together everything that came before. Multiple synth lines build steadily upward into rich harmonies to form what sounds like an electronic orchestra playing an oddly off-kilter sort of anthem. These chords are then warped and spun through different filters, with fluttering synths imitating and reacting to each other over time to create what feels like a journey through the mind of Naqvi’s machine.
For Naqvi, modular synthesizers feel almost alive in a way that he wanted to capture by treating Teenages like a live album: the title track, for instance, was recorded in a single take, with no edits or overdubs. Showcasing the sometimes-unpredictable behavior of the machine was a priority for the composer, and this makes for an album that is always evolving and transforming into something new.
In the end, it is both Naqvi turning the knobs and the machine interpreting his actions that come together to create something of a collaborative album between a man and his machine.