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Clouds, Radiance, Sweetness, Gold, & Fire

a collaboration with sculptor Liviu Mocan for ArtPrize 2010

During the early years of ArtPrize, there was no place for musical entries. My friend Liviu Mocan and I tried to break new ground by staging a large performance in front of the Gerald Ford Museum, but in spite of many attempts to engage the interest of ArtPrize officials, local arts organizations, and the West Michigan media, we ended up having a delightful, but publicly-sequestered celebration on a warm Sunday afternoon, 


This performance brings together members of the high school percussion ensemble "Strike," directed by Don Raaymakers, plus brass players from Western Michigan University, and the Calvin College Alumni Orchestra. Each ensemble rehearsed separately before coming together for one 45-minute rehearsal on-site the day of the performance. 

Brahms One: Historical Remix


Although the idea of a “remix” seems a modern phenomenon, the practice of reusing musical compositions--in whole or in part--traces back to medieval times, where pre-existing melodies were reworked to accommodate new texts for new situations. Recent remixes loop dance beats from a pre-existing recording to create a longer, hipper version. Most of the music in “Brahms One (Historical Remix)” however, is performed live. Another difference is that this piece has an ear toward history: it weaves together some of Brahms’ musical influences, romantic turmoil, intellectual aspirations, and lasting legacy (which, as it happens, shows up in unexpected places). Simply put, the piece considers some of the various issues and events that shape the ways in which early 21st century people might hear Brahms’ First Symphony.


This work is in four main sections, and follow the Symphony’s four movements. The movements are played with no breaks.


I.  “Forging Out, Trudging Onward”
(with homage to Beethoven’s intimidating legacy)
After Beethoven, no composer until Brahms felt worthy of taking on the symphonic form, and even Brahms waited until later in his career. The Remix opens with a somewhat nightmarish introduction made of bits of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, presented in reverse order. In this perspective, the ponderous opening of Brahms’ First feels especially Atlas-like. The rest of the movement employs a method that might be considered “hyper-Brahmsian.” So many of Brahms’ melodies recombine and reconfigure small motives to make longer, braided lines. This remix re-braids the braids.
II.  “Brahms the Romantic”
Good, though not airtight evidence suggests that as a very young man, Brahms was employed as a barroom pianist in establishments of questionable repute. As evidence, one musicologist has noticed that certain peculiar aspects of Brahms’ life parallel behaviors exhibited by victims of sexual abuse. One such aspect is his lifelong crush on his friend Clara Schumann (ever-faithful wife of Robert), a composer herself. This movement weaves together elements from the second movement of Brahms’ First Symphony, his “Liebeslieder Waltzes” (which happen to sound an awful lot like barroom songs) and a Clara Schumann song about infatuation. Here’s a translation of the portion of the text included in this remix.


I know not what it means that I feel so sad;

A tale from old times will not leave my mind.

The air is cool, it is getting dark and peacefully

    flows the Rhine.

The mountain peak sparkles in the evening


The most beautiful maiden sits up there,


Her golden jewels flash, she combs her golden hair.

She combs it with a golden comb and sings a song

    all the while;

it has a wondrous, powerful melody. 

                                                  – Heinrich Heine


III. “Brahms the Progressive”
(Arnold Schoenberg, with homage to Brahms)
A critic in Brahms’ day had this to say: “I am an admirer of Wagner the progressive, and of Brahms the academian, the classicist.” Several decades later, Arnold Schoenberg wrote an essay attacking this comparison by arguing that Brahms was both musically progressive and intellectually rigorous. The fun part here was to make the themes from Brahms third movement (the lightest music in a very serious symphony) more complex without ruining their character. Not surprisingly, the very progressive composer Arnold Schoenberg was more often serious than light, represented here by the lilting quote from the opening of his “Piano Concerto.” If listeners have a hard time telling where this quote actually begins, it only serves to prove George Solti’s notion that the best interpretations of Schoenberg play it exactly as if it were Brahms.


IV. “Brahms & Beyond”
Fast forward about a hundred years, and we find Brahms’ influence on musicians from any number of genres. How do we know? Sometimes they’ll say something that shows great respect for him, other times we may actually hear traces reminiscent of his motivic regurgitation, harmonic density, or rhythmic breadth. While driving home late one night this spring, Fuentes thought he heard a few such DNA strands in the playing of jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. A google search the next day confirmed the link: Mehldau considers himself a student of Brahms, and aside from embodying his musical processes (he’s admitted to unconsciously quoting Brahms in his improvisations), has even written articles on him. With this in mind, Dice began listening to Mehldau’s work to find a piece that might forge a suitable link to Brahms’ First Symphony. Turns out that Mehldau’s cover of “Paranoid Alien” by Radiohead has a spectacular rhythm track that, surprisingly, fits many of Brahms themes like a well-tailored space suit.


Many thanks to Robert Nordling and the Calvin College Orchestra for commissioning this piece, and to my student Evan Dice, who was eager to help with this project. Evan took responsibility to edit and integrate the pre-recorded parts in movements I and IV, as well as composing the very effective “live-looped” sections in both those movements.

Performances by Calvin College Capella,
Alumni Choir, and Gospel Choir

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