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Sufjan Stevens: Fourth of July

My good friend Sonya Belaya wrote a really beautiful guest post about today’s song:

Sufjan Stevens’ seventh album “Carrie and Lowell” reveals the possibility of turning darkness into something honest and powerful. These eleven laments seek to find answers during a very private struggle for Sufjan— reflecting on life, death, and finding God after the death of his mother who abandoned him. Sufjan quietly retreated to find these answers in simple orchestrations and haunting poetry that dive into a place of unapologetic grief. There is something very powerful about an artist who has found success on a mainstream level and releases music stripped bare. This shows the world that there is necessity in such vulnerability. To be this vulnerable is to know we are alive.

The sixth song in this cycle, “Fourth of July”, is a reflection on the night his mother died. Sufjan quietly cries and croons his love for the woman who bore him, the woman who weaved in and out of his life until her death. The words feel close, **like a private conversation occurring with the listener eavesdropping. He calls her many tender names: “dragonfly”, “star in the sky”, “my little Versailles”. These words are weighted, full of nostalgia and regret; realizations of how small we are in death. “Tell me what did you learn from the Tillamook Burn? or the Fourth of July?” He poses a question without answer. Life is utter destruction and infinite joy.

John Cage: The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs

I remember meeting Justine Aronson in a cafe in midtown and immediately inviting her to a party at my house that night. She’s just that kind of person. Turns out she’s a great singer too, and will sing half our show with NYFOS.

I really adore this little John Cage song, “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs.” It’s a setting of Joyce’s Ulysses and goes against every kind of traditional text setting I can think of -— it sort of deals with Joyce words but not really, it’s just cycles through the same pitches over and over again. And yet it works — the almost Virgil Thomson-like plainness of the music lets me soak up the text and the inherent musicality in the words (I was once told if you don’t understand Joyce, read it aloud).

Jacob Cooper: “Unspun” from Silver Threads

Jacob Cooper is a fellow member of Sleeping Giant, my composers’ collective. I was really hoping to get his music on the show, but alas nothing quite fit. So I’m featuring this really beautiful song of his. Unlike Bon Iver, the voice is not transformed. Instead a lost sample of La bohème is transformed into a pulsing and repeated chord. The text itself is beautiful (by Dora Malech) and was commissioned by Cooper in a reaction to a poem by Basho—unifying the entire song cycle.

“Unspun” by Jacob Cooper from Silver Threads

Read more about the song and its construction here.

Get the album here from Nonesuch.

Kanye West: Blood on the Leaves

I love Kanye. I also love “I love Kanye“. Lots of folks can’t stand him but something I fundamentally love about him is his blatant appropriation/re-adaptation of older materials. In “Blood on the Leaves” he pulls one of the most audacious moves I can think of — sampling the very famous recording of Nina Simone singing Billie Holiday’s “Strange fruit” and combines it with TNGHT’s “R U Ready“.

It’s a a miracle it works. God knows how, but Kanye’s voracious curiosity and blending is something I really love about a lot of the music on the show. It’s also Ted Hearne’s favorite Kanye song.

Kanye West – Blood on the Leaves


Bon Iver: 715 – CR∑∑KS

If there’s two things I love in music, it’s weird sounds, and beautiful harmonies; and the power of what happens when they’re mixed together.  “715 – CR∑∑KS” is a perfect example of both. Throwing his voice into a vocoder, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver transforms his voice into a virtual choir, but not without the artifacted nature of these vocal transformations revealing the fundamental fragility of the intentions of its protagonist.

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