Let’s get serious

When hearing the term “Bay Area Music” you might be likely to think of Santana, Michael Franti, Counting Crows, Green Day, Doobie Brothers. Fun tunes, groovy bands.

This week, we take a look at some more “serious” music from the Bay Area.

We start with East Bay resident (and East Coast emigrant) John Adams, perhaps the pre-eminent contemporary classical composer in the Bay Area, best known for revitalizing modern opera with his work “Nixon in China.” Adam’s featured piece this week is “Phrygian Gates,” one of his very earliest compositions. Its title is a play on words, but not of the kingdom of Phrygia from Greek mythology (think Midas who turned things to gold).

It is instead a twist on what are known as modes in music, and the piece bounces between the Phrygian and Lydian degrees of scale. “Gates” in this context, is a reference to a term used in early electronic synthesizers (signifying on/off) that seems quite quaint now.

Next up is Carla Bley, who like Adams, is revered. Born in Oakland, Bley might have passed Adams on his journey west as she traveled east. She makes her home in upstate New York. But hey, she still qualifies as a Bay Area citizen since her musical education began at home in the East Bay.

Bley’s piece is the “Hotel Overture” to her jazz opera “Escalator Over the Hill.” This ambitious opus is to jazz and opera as important as “Nixon in China.”

Bley, by the way, just turned 81 this month. And another fun fact: she is married to the renowned bassist Steve Swallow. They have toured together as a duet for years.

We bounce back to the “classical” world — sort of — with Darius Milhaud. The French composer moved to Oakland to teach at Mills College in 1941. Before arriving, however, he toured New York and specifically Harlem, where he became enamored of jazz. Somewhere along the way, he also took a liking to Brazilian samba music, which you can hear in the third movement of this work titled “Scaramouche.”

Dave Brubeck probably needs little introduction. The Concord, CA native was the biggest jazz star of his generation and made this American musical genre something of a household name with his platinum-selling work “Time Out.”

We hear “Blue Rondo a la Turk” from this album. Blue Rondo is in 9/8 time. And, in fact, all the compositions on Time Out are in unusual time signatures. (Perhaps the best known is “Take Five.”) Brubeck was a student of Milhaud’s so we come full circle back from the classical world to the jazz world.

And finally, we hear from Lady Gaga.

Wait, you say, Lady Gaga is hardly in the realm of these composers and she is a New Yorker through and through. All very true. But what we have here is the Friction Quartet, a contemporary group with ties to the Bay Area, treating us to their take on Lady Gaga’s pop tune “Bad Romance.”

The four players in Friction are all graduates of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and are keen to use their talents to create a type of music alchemy, converting any composition — pop, rock or otherwise — into an arrangement more reminiscent of Ravel than America’s Top 40.

So there you have it. It may be “serious music,” but it sure is a lot of fun to hear, and you can do so by clicking on the playlist here.


Let’s get serious was originally published in BayAreaMusician on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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