1. It's a concert week, and the orchestral piece on the program is one of the most fascinating musical performances I've ever witnesses: Tan Dun's Water Concerto. Tan is best known to most audiences as the composer of the music for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but he's mostly famous for exploring unusual musical territory, and this is no exception. It's a concerto for percussion soloist and orchestra, and the soloist plays water instruments. Two large bowls of water, struck with the hands and a variety of objects; gongs struck in and out of the water to change the pitch; urns filled with water and played with a bow and sticks; hollow tubes placed in the water and struck with a paddle. It's almost impossible to describe; I've been trying to think of how since I first watched it during Thursday's dress rehearsal. It really must be seen to be understood. I was able to find the following video, which is unfortunately pretty poor quality, and it doesn't really encompass the entire scope of the experience, but it's better than my description or a recording would be. I really recommend you see it if you ever get the chance. Unfortunately, the recommendation comes a little late for the locals; the last show is tonight, 8pm at Stanford.
It's not just the water, either. The winds and brass play empty mouthpieces and hit the open ends of their instruments; the strings tap the body of the instruments and hit the strings. Tan stretches the potential of all the instruments in the orchestral, and even the concept of music itself. But unlike most experimental music, I found it very listenable. I may even pick up a recording, if I can find a good one.
2. One thing a concert week is good for is catching up on all the podcasts that pile up on my iPod as I drive to Stanford and back. Last night, I was listening to an older This American Life. It's actually several years old, but this particular rebroadcast was from a couple weeks ago. One segment particularly caught my attention: an attempt to scientifically create the song that the most people would find appealing. Two artists and a musician surveyed hundreds of people to find out what they liked in their music, and they recorded a song that used as many of those elements as possible. The result was just about the blandest pop song you could imagine -- not offensive, but not really art either. At the same time, they also wrote a song that incorporated the most disliked elements, and came up with a 20-minute fusion of opera, rap, children singing, holiday music, bagpipes and accordions, and commercial jingles -- and that's just the tip of the iceberg. You can read more about the project here; Wired Magazine provides streaming audio. Maybe it just appeals to my sense of the absurd, but something about an opera singer rapping about cowboy life while accordions and tubas oompa along in the background had me laughing so hard that I cried. And some passages, again to my surprise, I found unexpectedly musical. I'd certainly rather listen to this than the forgettable "most wanted" pop tune. Is it art? Is it music? Either way.