A Playlist for Christmas

A Playlist for Christmas

Another holiday season is upon us, and with that comes a wealth of season-appropriate music. (Some good and some not so good. Here’s looking at you, Bob Dylan, and your Christmas album. Yikes.) The sacred realm, in particular, contains an absolute treasure trove of works that honor and celebrate the birth of Jesus. So much of this music has played an indispensable role in my life, and the season is not complete until I’ve given at least one listen to John Adams’s El Niño and Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, to name just two pieces.

To celebrate this time of year, me and my good friend/fellow music nerd, Geoff Nelson, have culled together a playlist that journeys through the story of Christmas, beginning with the longings of Advent and ending with hope for the new year. As with our Holy Week playlist this past March, our selections encompass a broad spectrum of styles and sounds, often wandering between them in unique and surprising ways. (Who knew that Palestrina and The Oh Hellos actually work really well together?) The playlist can also be approached in different ways. Since it is 31 tracks long, it can either be used as a sort of musical “Advent calendar” (i.e., listening to one track each day throughout the 31 days of December), or it can be consumed in a single sitting.

No matter how you approach it—and no matter your faith background—we sincerely hope that our musical selections will inspire reflection, hope, and joy as the world celebrates this holiday season.

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Beethoven or Bot? – Evaluating an AI’s Completion of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony

Beethoven or Bot? – Evaluating an AI’s Completion of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony

Although most of the hubbub surrounding Beethoven’s 250th birthday has subsided, a few bits of the celebration have lingered into 2021 as concert halls worldwide open up once again. However, one recent Beethoven item has raised many eyebrows in the music world. Back in September, the news broke that a team of computer specialists and music scholars had “completed” Beethoven’s unfinished Tenth Symphony using AI technology and scant scraps that Beethoven left behind upon his death in 1827. Dubbed “Beethoven X: The AI Project,” it was also announced that recording of the results—played by a live orchestra—would be released the following month. Like many, I was skeptical. This just seemed like another lame excuse for more Beethoven deification, one that would take the focus away from issues that are currently more pressing, like promoting diversity and equity in classical music.

Still, I was curious what the results would sound like. So, I recently met over Zoom with my friend Tanner Cassidy—a PhD candidate in music theory at UC Santa Barbara—to listen to it and share our impressions. (There may have been a smidge of alcohol involved as well… *wink*) Below are excerpts from our discussion, which have been edited for length and clarity. What did we think? Does a computer have the potential to live up to Beethoven or is this something best left in the trash bin? Let’s find out…


Kevin McBrien (KM): So about a year or two ago, this German telecommunications company [Telekom]—with AI specialists and music scholars—was like, “Hey, let’s take these incomplete sketches of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony and feed it into an AI program and see what happens.” And this is the resulting piece that came out of it. There was this musicologist—Barry Cooper—who reconstructed the first movement in the 80s and that’s been recorded and released as kind of a hypothetical Beethoven 10. And this one, apparently, is just the third and fourth movements.

The musicologist Barry Cooper realized the first movement of Beethoven’s Tenth in the 80s, which was subsequently recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra.

Tanner Cassidy (TC): So there’s no second movement that exists?

KM: I guess not, or there’s not enough to go off of.

TC: I actually have some experience with AI-generated music. An undergrad friend of mine was writing bebop-based algorithmic composition, where he fed it Charlie Parker licks, and then he had me play what the computer spit out, which was just nonsense. AI has really struggled with rhythm, so I’m really curious to see what rhythm sounds like.

KM: Yeah, I heard a snippet of it on an NPR story, and it’s weird. So, I’m also curious to listen to the whole thing.

TC: Well, I’ll mute my audio, and then we can listen to this.


[We listen to the third movement.]

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Reflections on the Aspen Music Festival and School’s 2021 Season

Reflections on the Aspen Music Festival and School’s 2021 Season

As Joni Mitchell so aptly put it in her 1970 song “Big Yellow Taxi,” you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. If the pandemic (and the year 2020 in general) taught us anything, it’s that very lesson. Though the year was abysmal for numerous reasons, for many people—myself included—the gradual cancelation and ultimate absence of live music was one of the more disappointing casualties of that raging dumpster fire. As the months dragged by, I couldn’t wait to sit in a darkened concert hall once again and even surmised what the experience might look like in a post-COVID world.

The cover of our 2021 program book. The lovely artwork is by the Aspen-based artist Isa Catto.

Although we’re not in a post-COVID world quite yet, live music has once again become a reality. (At least, for now… PLEASE get vaccinated, people!!!) Because of this, I recently had the opportunity to spend a third summer working as the Assistant Program Book Editor at the Aspen Music Festival and School. While program book and various other work responsibilities took up a sizable portion of time—i.e., lots of proofreading—I was still able to attend several concerts during the Festival’s eight-week season. This was, in a word, wonderful. After spending well over a year getting my music fix from live streams and Spotify, it was so, so refreshing to hear in-person concerts again (and in the gorgeous mountaintop setting of Aspen at that). Though concert protocols looked a bit different than normal years—mask-wearing, distanced seating, etc.—it was nonetheless a memorable summer filled with some incredible performances.

I’ve always wanted to do some sort of post-season wrap-up of my summers at the Festival, but the looming responsibilities of grad school always (rudely) got in the way. Well, since I’m now solely writing my dissertation—not that this isn’t a looming responsibility in itself!—and don’t have to worry about classes, I thought this would be the perfect year to compile some thoughts on Aspen’s 2021 season. That said, here are a few of my favorite concerts and performance highlights from the summer:

Favorite discovery: Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s String Quartet in E-flat major

While the music of Felix Mendelssohn is justly celebrated, it has too often eclipsed the output of his just-as-talented sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. This is slowly starting to change, though, as musicians begin to grant Hensel a rightful place in the spotlight. One such case occurred at a recital presented this summer by the Pacifica Quartet. Alongside quartets by Florence Price and Sergei Prokofiev (both marvelous works), the program featured Hensel’s sole String Quartet in E-flat. I only became aware of Hensel’s output several years ago, but this piece eluded my radar for some reason. Hearing it for the first time at this concert was a delicious surprise—it’s a brilliant work packed with craft, lush beauty, and charming wit. My favorite moment: in the second movement, Hensel throws in a short fugato as if to say to her nineteenth-century haters, “Oh, so you think women composers can’t write counterpoint? Well, how does it feel to be wrong?” (There’s also a fiendishly difficult cello part in this movement that actually made me chuckle out loud.) A truly wonderful discovery.

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