ALBUM REVIEW: Rebirth of a Nation

by Maggie Molloy


D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” was the first film in American history to be screened at the White House—and while that may seem like quite a triumph, the tale it tells is deeply tragic.

Released in 1915, the silent epic drama film is based on the novel and play “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon, Jr. If the title didn’t already give it away, the film is three hours of racist propaganda portraying an extremely biased (and honestly, downright offensive) account of the American Civil War and Reconstruction era.

And it’s more than just a film: this movie helped lead to the creation of Hollywood—as one of the first pieces of sophisticated, mass-produced cinematic media, its message became embedded in our country’s history, art, and ethos. Its reverberations can be felt even now, 100 years later.

Electronic artist Paul D. Miller (better known as DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid) reflects on the cultural significance of this film in his large-scale multimedia performance piece, aptly titled “Rebirth of a Nation.” The ongoing interdisciplinary project includes a documentary film, site-specific performances around the world, and, most recently, a new album.

Recorded with the fearlessly experimental Kronos Quartet, “Rebirth of a Nation” is conceived as a remix and reimagination of Griffith’s original film. Miller remixed, remastered, and resynced the original score, taking a critical look at society’s racial politics and making a musical statement about it.

Kronos photographed in San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013©Jay Blakesberg

Kronos photographed in San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013©Jay Blakesberg

You can watch the trailer for the project here:

“We need more than ever to see the context that early cinema offers us,” Miller said. “As my old friend Saul Williams likes to say: Another World Is Possible. A remix of a film as deeply important and problematic as ‘The Birth of a Nation’ reminds us that, in the era of Trayvon Martin and Ferguson, many of these issues still linger with us at every level.”

The album itself retells the story through 19 short pieces for string quartet and electronics, creating a colorful, fractured, and fragmented collage of American History. Miller layers the classical strings with hip hop, folk, gospel, and blues elements, combines them with drum beats and electronic echoes, and resynthesizes them into a musical mashup of American history—thus expressing, without words, a history of racial (and musical) complexity that Griffith’s original film sought to suppress.

“Collage is the collective unconscious,” Miller said of his creative inspiration. “Sound is a phenomenon that’s totally open, so there are no real boundaries unless you make them. I like to think of all sound as just patterns, so there’s no reason to think we can’t just add patterns, subtract patterns.”

The result is a series of over a dozen unique soundscapes, each telling its own fragment of a larger story: the history of U.S. slavery and the ongoing struggle for racial equality. With ominous, grim titles like “Gettysburg Requiem,” “Ride of the Klansmen,” “Lincoln and Booth get Acquainted,” and “Ghost of a Smile,” Miller’s music tackles many of our country’s most challenging and emotionally-charged political issues. The pieces are haunting, often even hypnotic—but they certainly get you thinking.

Musically, Miller portrays Civil War and Reconstruction era America as a desolate electronic wasteland—but as he travels through this metallic and industrial landscape, he discovers and explores a number of hidden treasures: a soulful blues melody here, a folky harmonica riff there, an infectious hip hop beat beneath him or a trancelike drone just around the corner.

“From almost every angle, this kind of creativity celebrates collage, a willful breakdown of boundaries, and a playfulness that would aggravate almost anyone,” Miller said of his compositional process. “That’s kind of the point. That’s where I looked for inspiration.”

And it extends beyond music, too: the film and site-specific performances recreate the project again and again, making full use of the artistic possibilities of today’s digital age.

“Multi-disciplinary art is crucial these days,” Miller said. “It’s the way we live now. The year 2015 is science fiction for me, but we are still using the imagination of a different era to describe a cultural milieu that has evolved more rapidly than anyone anticipated. That’s kind of like using an old bicycle to race an F-34 Joint Strike Force fighter jet. It’s apples and oranges; it doesn’t make sense. That’s the paradox at the heart of my ‘Rebirth of a Nation’ film project.”

And in exploring this paradox, in critically examining that deep, dark part of American history that “The Birth of a Nation” portrays, Miller is able ultimately to offer a message of hope: We do have the power to reexamine and remix our past—and we likewise have the power to reform our present and our future.

“The realm of the possible is always greater than the realm of the real,” Miller said. “I try to navigate between the two: that’s art.”

Staff & Community Picks: July 29

A weekly rundown of the music our staff and listeners are loving lately! Are you interested in contributing some thoughts on your favorite new music albums? Drop us a line!

the_little_death_album_cover_1-1Religion + hormones + hip hop beats = nihilist pop opera.  The Little Death Vol. 1 is boppy, fun & sentimental.  Strong vocals from Mellissa Hughes and Matt Marks’ twisted take on the traditional “boy meets girl” story make this one of my favorite CDs in our music library.  I dare you not to dance to “I Don’t Have Any Fun.” – by Rachele Hales




71GJwJ+HBtL._SY355_If you enjoy Spanish and Latin American music, you’ll find a lot to love in “Andalusian Fantasy,” a collection of pieces written and performed by pianist Lionel Sainsbury. The compositions embrace the darker, more romantic side of traditional Latin music, incorporating a pleasantly crunchy chord just seldom enough to keep things melodic overall. Imagine if tango, Debussy, and Gershwin all met in one album, and you’ll get a sense for Sainsbury’s music. – by Jill Kimball


homepage_large.e22fb394I’ve been a huge Arcade Fire fan for years, and I was completely awestruck when this album came out.  The whole idea behind the works on this album – letting the human body dictate the tempi, is one of the most revolutionary concepts I’ve encountered in new music.  I can’t really think of many albums that represent Second Inversion SO WELL – the composer/genre/artist crossover, the musicians on the album – yMusic, Kronos Quartet, Nadia Sirota, Nico Muhly, Aaron and Bryce Dessner – all are revolutionaries in the new music world and helping to create music that completely breaks the mold of classical, despite the instruments they’re playing. – by Maggie Stapleton

ALBUM REVIEW: “Dreams and Prayers” by A Far Cry

by Jill Kimball

A Far Cry

A Far Cry.

When really, really good musicians get together to play music, something magical happens. Some of the best performances in history have been called divine or heavenly. No matter their faith (or lack thereof), those who appreciate music can agree there’s something otherworldly about an amazing performance or recording.

“We’re kind of scrubbing on our instruments, and what somehow comes out of that physical act is something spiritual or transcendent, ” says Miki-Sophia Cloud, a violinist with the self-conducted chamber orchestra A Far Cry. “The history of spiritual mysticism [is] about connecting the physical and the spiritual, which is such a theme in music as well.”

In observing the connection between mysticism and music, the members of A Far Cry had a great idea. They decided to make an album called Dreams & Prayers, a unique collection of music that explores the relationship of spirituality and sound. It begins with Hildegard of Bingen, fast-forwards to the present day, backtracks to 1994, and then concludes at the bedside of a newly-healed Ludwig van Beethoven. Four works, three faith traditions, and 1,000 years comprise this stunning, exhilarating, and (dare I say it?) transcendent album.

The disc gets is name from its focal work, Osvaldo Golijov‘s The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Golijov originally composed the piece for klezmer clarinet and string quartet–more specifically, for the Kronos Quartet–and has now written an arrangement specifically for A Far Cry to premiere. What’s especially exciting about this recording is that the klezmer clarinetist is David Krakauer, the very same musician who played the premiere with Kronos.

The whole piece is inspired by the writings and teachings of Isaac the Blind, a Jewish mystic who lived in 12th and 13th century Provence. Its three movements are inspired by the three historical Jewish languages: Aramaic, Yiddish and Hebrew. The kind of transcendence explored here is more ecstatic and lively than it is dreamy or serene: you get the sense that Krakauer and the Criers just let go and played with abandon, reveling in the piece’s driving dance rhythms, lush orchestration and utter chaos.

With this 33-minute tornado at the center of Dreams & Prayers, it’s easy to forget there’s another world premiere on the CD: Mehmet Ali Sanlikol‘s Vecd, commissioned by the ensemble. Vecd, in Arabic, “refers to a state of rapture or ecstasy,” according to the composer; the piece is a musical evocation of the kind of spiritual ecstasy Sufi whirling dervishes try to achieve in formal religious ceremonies. Almost everyone will find this piece aesthetically appealing, even if they don’t make the religious connection. It begins with just a few musicians playing soft, meditative sustained notes. Then, a dramatic melody swoops in. Over the course of a few minutes, it gains in speed and volume until the piece reaches its whirling climax. The sound gradually slows and fades until, as in the beginning, only a few musicians remain.

My absolute favorite part about Dreams & Prayers is its opening track, an original arrangement of the chant O ignis spiritus paracliti by the incomparable Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard isn’t famous just because she was one of history’s first female composers. She’s famous because she was a composer, writer, philosopher, theologian, scientist, mystic, and Benedictine abbess…simultaneously. And her music was like nothing anyone had heard before: her chants were more expressive, complex and artistic than any of those composed before and even during her lifetime. It’s such a pleasure to hear her haunting chant arranged so simply on this disc: no extraneous notes or harmonies, just one pure melodic line played in perfectly-imperfect unison by the violinists of A Far Cry. Despite its simplicity, it’s not background music: this track deserves your undivided attention.

A close second favorite is the album’s heart-wrenching conclusion, the third movement from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15. At first it seemed strange for A Far Cry to include something so comparatively conventional, but then I read T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on the piece:

“I find it quite inexhaustible to study. There is a sort of heavenly or at least more than human gaiety about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.”

History tells us T.S. Eliot was on the nose about this piece: Beethoven likely wrote it following his recovery from an abdominal illness. In the original manuscript, he describes the third movement as a “Holy song of Thanksgiving to a convalescent of the Deity.”  It’s an ode to the emotional healing power of music, further proof that we turn to music for a respite from all forms of pain. One last time, A Far Cry connects the physical with the spiritual in their impeccable yet sensitive performance of this movement.

Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, Dreams & Prayers is available to buy through the ensemble’s own label, Crier Records, here.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Richard Reed Parry’s “Music for Heart and Breath”

by Maggie Stapleton


As a gigantic Arcade Fire fan, my heart grew 10 sizes when I found out about Richard Reed Parry’s Music for Heart and Breath, an album of original compositions.  When I actually heard the music and learned about the inspiration for the pieces, I was knocked over like I haven’t been in the longest time.

The musical conceptualization of this album comes from the heart – literally.  Each of the six pieces requires involuntarily moving organs of the body to dictate the tempi and rhythms.   How, you may wonder, does one determine those speeds?

Paging Doctor Beat.  We’ll need your stethoscopes.

Each musician is instructed to play with a stethoscope (and consequently, at a soft dynamic level) in order to be exactly in sync with his or her own heartbeat.  The variety in ebb and flow between the players’ pulses creates a pointillistic effect – in many instances on the album is like that of a relaxing rainfall – that will undoubtedly never sound exactly the same in two different instances.

In fact, the nature of the performance situation can impart serious variation on the length of the piece.  Rehearsals take significantly more time than performances.  “Interruptions,” took 25 minutes to rehearse the first time, and only 19 minutes to perform.  Thanks, adrenaline!

The album journeys between instrumentation varieties and sizes and features an all-star cast of musicians: yMusic, Kronos Quartet, Nico Muhly, Nadia Sirota, and Bryce & Aaron Dessner.  The smallest group is a duet; the largest a 14-member chamber orchestra, with sizes in between to keep depth of sound and dynamic range at varying levels.

(music streaming for this album is no longer available)

While Parry doesn’t have formal training in classical music, he comes from a family of musicians and  enjoys music from Machaut to Debussy to Ligety to Reich.  Influences from all of those composers are hinted at here and there throughout the disc.  Parry presents himself as an extremely well-rounded musician and a revolutionary way of conceiving time and imparting creative innovation into the realm of music performed on orchestral instruments.

I think Parry sums it up best with this lovely phrase, “I think there’s something quite beautiful about the idea of trying to literally play your heart out.”

You can purchase this album at Deutsche GrammaphonAmazon, or iTunes.