Introducing: Nadia Sirota (and the chance to win a free album!)

Ed. note: If you missed our first post earlier this week on New Amsterdam Records, be sure to check it out here. Part 2 in the mini-series, on Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, can be found this-a-way. Today, we continue with Part 3 by introducing you to another of New Amsterdam's exciting, new artists, Nadia Sirota.

If you live in NYC, or listen to WNYC online, and you are, like me, a night owl who loves to listen to the radio, you probably already know violist Nadia Sirota. She co-hosts Overnight Music, the midnight show on 93.9 FM. While she'll often play new recordings of big, famous symphonies, the best part of the show is when she promotes up-and-comers on the scene, local musicians like those we've been talking about this week in connection with New Amsterdam Records.

Sirota, herself, has a new album out on the label, First Things First, featuring new music by composers Nico Muhly, Marcos Balter, and Judd Greenstein, New Amsterdam co-founder.

Nadia18_3.jpgSirota commissioned nearly all the pieces on the album, including this cool track called entitled "Etude 1A" (there's a second, similar piece later on the CD entitled "Etude "¨1"). For these two pieces (an etude is traditionally a lesson piece, or a study piece) Sirota commissioned composer Nico Muhly. You can't help but hear the Philip Glass influence in"¨ these lovely little pieces, which shouldn't come as a surprise, as Muhly's day job is assisting Glass full-time (one of Muhly's jobs is "¨to feed Glass's manuscripts into a computer program that plays the scores back to the composer).

If you're wondering how she got the viola to sound like an organ, she didn't. That's a computerized organ accompanying her."¨"¨"¨

[Read on for more track excerpts and a short Q&A with Sirota where she unearths the origins of all those nasty viola jokes. Also, be sure to check out our contest at the end of the interview for your chance to win a copy of First Things First.]

While the majority of the tracks on First Things First feature Sirota alone, or with one other instrument, there is one larger work on the album, written by Greenstein, a piece for string quartet called "The Night Gatherers," featuring the Chiara String Quartet.

Pretty Romantic, with a capital R, eh? That's another thing that's so compelling about this debut CD: there's a little bit of everything, in a great, Post-Modern sort of way. Be sure to pick up a copy through New Amsterdam's site, or try for your chance to win a free copy below, after the interview.

Q&A with Nadia Sirota

DI: Talk a little bit about how your relationship with New Amsterdam Records came about and what the process of putting out your first CD with them was like.

NS: I've been thinking of putting a record out on New Amsterdam since the label was founded, a couple years ago, I think, by a few wonderful composers. One of them, Judd Greenstein, I had worked with extensively, and, in fact, is the composer of two of the pieces on this record. Judd and I met at an idyllic music festival in the berkshires in 2004. There were a lot of bourbon-inflected commissions and general contemplations about the classical music infrastructure as it stood. That kind of thing. When I heard about this label, it seemed like the perfect home for the sort of record I wanted to make. New Amsterdam is unique in that it's kind of a cooperative label. It offers the musician pretty complete artistic control and a lot of handy artist services, in addition to a lovely stable of label-mates. The handoff is that the projects are a bit more DIY than they might be on, say, Deutche Grammaphone, or whatever. What's great about that is that I really feel like I poured a ton of me into this album.

DI: What's the best part about having your own radio show?

NS: All the crazy programming I can dream up!

DI: What's the worst part?

NS: Scheduling. Free landing in music is a puzzle. Fitting in radio is a puzzle. I dig it, though!

DI: Some of our readers may know this already, but violists have their own immense category of jokes made about them, a tradition that's existed for decades. What do you know about the origin of this tradition? How does it make you feel when you hear a viola joke? What's the best viola joke you've ever heard?

NS: So yeah. Back in the day, the story goes, the majority of violists were violinists who'd been politely asked to consider another profession. The resulting violists were somewhat less than stellar. Viola jokes inevitably emerged. Most of them are punny, cheap, lewd, that kinda thing. But come to think about it, that's sort of how Jokes go. I'm happy to hear new ones! As for "the best I've ever heard," I don't think any of them really deserve a superlative in print, but here are couple of prime examples of the genre:

How do you know when the stage is level? The violist is drooling out of both sides of his mouth.

What's the difference between a violist an a prostitute? A prostitute knows more positions.


We're giving away a copy of First Things First to one, lucky, random winner. To qualify, you must leave a comment below telling us what your favorite orchestral instrument is, and why. No brownie points if your answer is the viola!

Check out past On Music posts here.

5 Legendary Keyboards (and the Songs They Made Famous)

[This post was originally published on August 4th, 2008]

These days, there's no distinguishing one keyboard from the next because all they really do is act as computer trigger devices. But in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even the early 90s, keyboards and their manufacturers were known for signature sounds. Here are five of my favorites:

1. The Mellotron

Though not nearly as famous as the others on this little list, the Mellotron is perhaps the coolest keyboard ever invented. Like our modern-day keyboard controllers that trigger computer samples, the Mellotron was really nothing more than a sample trigger-er, too. But because it was invented in the early 60s, the samples were actual tape loops! By depressing a key, a keyboardist was putting a tape of, say, a choir, or a violin section into motion on that particular pitch. So each of the 35 keys had its own, distinct, 8-second tape loop ready to play in the belly of the keyboard. Mellotrons never really caught on, though, because they were a) always breaking down, and b) the tapes, just like cassette tapes, lost their edge over time. Imagine playing an 8-second cassette tape over and over in a loop for hours on end. Think about how quickly scratches and hiss would take over.

But it was and still is one of the most musical of all early keyboards. Its sound is unmistakable, heard here on the two very famous excerpts below.

"Strawberry Fields Forever" by the Beatles. (The opening flute quartet is classic Mellotron at its best.)

"Nights in White Satin" by the Moody Blues. (Those lush strings aren't real! Well, technically they are, but as sampled and played back on the Mellotron.)

Be sure to check out "And You and I" by Yes, as well as "The Rain Song" by Led Zeppelin for more great Mellotron.

2. The Hammond Organ

HammondB3.jpgOriginally intended for churches, the Hammond line of organs, invented by Laurens Hammond in 1934 and manufactured by his Hammond Organ Company, became very popular in the 60s and 70s with rock and blues bands, especially the Hammond B3, pictured here. Whether you know the Hammond or not, you definitely know its legendary sound. Check out the examples I've picked here and revel in that "a-ha moment."

"Amsterdam," by Coldplay "“ One of my favorite songs by Coldplay. Listen how the Hammond coming in under the piano just opens the whole song up and takes it to another level.

Ah, yes: "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum. Can you imagine how different the song would feel if the chord progression and tune were plucked out on, say, a piano?

The Hammond completely defines this great Steve Winwood song, "Gimme Some Lovin":

3. The Minimoog

Minimoog.JPGA lot has been written about Bob Moog and his Moog Music empire. One cool fact, which often gets forgotten, is that the Minimoog is actually monophonic, which means it can only play one note at a time. You can't even play a simple C major chord on the Minimoog, let alone accompany yourself with the left hand plucking out a bass line on the lower part of the 44-key synth. It's also one of the first keyboards to feature the now ubiquitous modulation and pitch-bend wheels.

One of my favorite examples of the classic Minimoog is the following solo in Pink Floyd's song "Shine on You Crazy Diamond."

4. The Synclavier

synclavier.jpgAlong with the Fairlight synthesizer, the Synclavier, made by New England Digital in 1975, was one of the very first keyboards that allowed musicians to sample sounds and store them in on-board computers. In fact, if you're an old fart like me, you might remember Stevie Wonder showing off this very sampling ability on his Synclavier in an episode of The Cosby Show (the one where the kids get into a car accident with him).

One really amazing thing about the Synclavier, other than its ability to sample the human voice or anything within a microphone's range, was its amazingly high sticker price. Costing upwards of a quarter of a million dollars (much less than the price of my parent's 3-bedroom apartment in Center City Philadelphia purchased around the same time), some Synclaviers even fetched closer to half-a-million.

Other noteworthy facts about the Synclavier: It was created at Dartmouth College by the team of: Sydney Alonso, who developed the hardware designs, Cameron Jones, who developed the software, and Dartmouth faculty member and composer Jon Appleton, a musical advisor to the project.
Other than the Cosby episode, which I can't find on YouTube, if you'd like to hear the Synclavier in action, check out one of the most famous samples in music history below (the gong at the beginning of "Beat It," by Michael Jackson):

5. The Fender Rhodes

rhodes.jpgAll I have to say is: the theme song from Taxi, and you should instantly know the sound of the Fender Rhodes. Ubiquitous throughout the 70s and 80s in dozens of maudlin ballads (which we'll sample momentarily), the Rhodes is named for its inventor, Harold Rhodes, who was a piano teacher before joining the Army Air Corps during WWII. It was there that he was asked to provide musical therapy, bedside, for the wounded and wound up inventing a small keyboard using aluminum pipes from the wings of B-17 bombers.

The pipes created such a pleasing sound, and Rhodes' therapy sessions became so well-known, he received the Medal of Honor after the war. Soon he was manufacturing a larger version, and, over time, new, improved versions. Eventually, the Rhodes was bought out by Fender, which is why people forever call it the Fender Rhodes.

In addition to the below clips, the Rhodes can be heard up and down Chick Corea's Light as a Feather, Miles Davis' In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, as well as on most of Weather Report's albums and Herbie Hancock's, too. It was a jazz-fusion staple for a couple decades there.

"Just the Way You Are" by Billy Joel

"Angela (Theme from 'Taxi')" by Bob James

Ed note: The gorgeous Stevie Wonder keyboard pic (on the homepage) is by Al Satterwhite, via kalamu.

Check out past On Music posts here >>

Shazam, Shlemiel, Shlimazel

I've used Shazam on and off over the years to I.D. songs I either forgot the names of or just never knew. But the real test of any music recognition software is whether or not it can tell me what's playing on a classical music station. This is where you really need the app to come through because, let's face it, it could be 30 minutes or more before the piece ends and the radio announcer comes back on to tell you. Sadly, every time I've tried, the app has come up empty. I've even tested it with well-known pieces, like Barber's Adagio for Strings. Instead of coming back with at least "The theme from Platoon," Shazam says the piece is "unrecognized." What would Samuel Barber say?

Deciphering classical music presents a lot of challenges. For starters, recordings are indistinguishable when you're talking about a 12-second sample size. For example, there are more than 200 recordings of Beethoven's 5th Symphony! Not quite like learning the beat of a B52s song, is it?

Tempi vary wildly from recording to recording and, as I understand it, it's the tempo/beat mapping that Shazam is really working off of. But technology will improve, rest assured. The Shazams of the future will surely be able to not only distinguish between Mozart's Requiem and Berlioz's Requiem, but the hundreds of recordings of each. Until then, well, I guess the beat goes on...

Have any funny or interesting experiences with music recognition software? Let us know in the comments below.

Check out all the ON MUSIC posts here.


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