What if a pop singer suddenly stopped mid-beat and explained precisely which notes she had just sung, and why they sound good? Perhaps you don’t need to know why a hit song works, but one man’s exuberant commentary could prove you’ve never listened–really listened–to even the most familiar tunes. Rob Kapilow has been classical music’s ambassador for nearly two decades, and he’s game to take on all genres—jazz, rap, country–even the Kojo theme song.
Composer, conductor, commentator. Author, "What Makes it Great: Short Masterpieces, Great Composers (Wiley, 2011)
Videos: Inside The Studio
Composer, conductor and commentator Robert Kapilow breaks down the musical elements and ideas behind the Kojo Show theme song, spotlighting what makes it a great piece. Kapilow credits composer Igor Stravinsky with saying that all composition comes down to a balance between unity and variety. “Too much repetition leads to boredom, but too much variety leads to chaos. And this theme is a perfect balance of unity and variety,” Kapilow added. All great art at some point undermines the very world it has created, and Kapilow says the theme accomplishes this task.
Kapilow identifies what makes several well-known song introductions so great. Kapilow reviewed “Symphony No. 5” by Beethoven, Eminem’s “Sing For The Moment,” Handel’s “Messiah” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by The Beatles. He says anything that’s considered great art changes our sense of what’s possible in the universe.
The Kojo Nnamdi Show Theme Song: What Makes It Great?
Rob Kapilow deconstructs the Kojo Show theme song, describing it as a fantastic journey. He highlights the burst of attention-grabbing saxophone notes at the beginning, its incredibly fast notes throughout and an almost free rhythm as the song sizzles to its end.
Music That Makes You Go ‘Hmmmm’
Kapilow explores the idea of “things that make you go hmmmm,” which he describes as musical experiences that resonate with you and make you listen actively.
Green Eggs And Ham, An Opera###
Kapilow composed a musical score based on the classic children’s book by Dr. Seuss, “Green Eggs and Ham.”
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. What if a pop singer suddenly stopped mid-beat and explained precisely which notes she had just sung and why they sounded good? Perhaps you don't need someone to explain to you why a hit song works. But one man is out to show that you've never listened, really listened, to even the most famous familiar toons.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIRob Kapilow has been classical music's most enthusiastic ambassador for nearly two decades. His "What Makes it Great" presentations bring new appreciation to skeptics and aficionados alike. He's even written an opera for the Dr. Seuss classic "Green Eggs and Ham" and he's game to take on all genres, jazz, rap, country, even "The Kojo Show" theme song.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIRob Kapilow joins us in the studio. He's an award-winning composer, conductor and commentator. He's the author most recently of "What Makes it Great: Short Masterpieces, Great Composers." He presents his "What Makes it Great" musical performance series around the country and it was featured on NPR for a decade. He's certainly been with us before and he's, I'm certainly happy to see him again. Rob Kapilow, good to see you.
MR. ROB KAPILOWI'm thrilled to be back.
NNAMDIGlad you could join us again. You presented a performance last night for the Washington Performance Arts Society of Dvorak's American Quartet. For those who aren't familiar with your "What Makes it Great" programs, can you give us an idea of what people came to hear last night?
KAPILOWWell, sure. I mean, basically what I try to do is take a piece that you may or may not have heard for the first time but sort of get people get inside it, to really hear it. you know, for me the whole idea of "What Makes it Great" really sort of started, I was very lucky to get my first job when I was 23 as the conductor of the Yale Symphony.
KAPILOWYou know, there I was 23, had my own orchestra, you know, waving my arms in front of all these great pieces but I also got an offer at the same time to conduct on Broadway. And so for a foolish three months I tried to both jobs at the same time, you know, and I would conduct Beethoven during the day, take the train down to Broadway at night and conduct this Tony Award-winning musical. You know, the one they made that awful movie of "Nine."
KAPILOWAnyway, you know, the thing that really struck me was, on Broadway audiences got it. I mean, whatever you think about that music it was a language that people spoke. But then I would go back and do these Beethoven pieces and there was just not that sense of like an audience getting it. and sort of drove me nuts because I knew there was all this great stuff but it was just floating by. So what "What Makes it Great" is all about is doing exactly that. stopping the piece and saying, listen to this fantastic thing here. So I'll tell you one example. Dvorak opens with this great melody for the viola.
KAPILOWSimple melody like that. it goes by in three seconds, most people don't hear it. but so what I do is I sort of rewrite it like a worse composer do and I have the audience sing a bad version of the opening measure like this. La, la, la, la, audience sings out in radio land. But then he syncopates at the beginning and puts a dot in the middle and it becomes la, la, la, la. And suddenly you actually hear it for the first time. it's not just...
KAPILOWBut it's this great syncopation, la, la, la, la. Then it's not this...
KAPILOWAnd then I have them sing this really bad version of the next measure.
KAPILOWBut he writes...
KAPILOW...and then this huge sweep.
KAPILOWAnd suddenly a melody that just sort of went by that we hadn't really paid attention to comes alive and you realize all the fantastic little details that are the difference between ordinary and great.
NNAMDIWe're already getting calls for Rob Kapilow but if you'd like to call the number's 800-433-8850, if you have questions. What song has the most powerful opening that you know? 800-433-8850, you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow. A lot of people feel intimidated by classical music. They feel they don't have the vocabulary or expertise to understand it. But you surprise people by showing them that that's not absolutely necessary.
KAPILOWYes, you know, it's really interesting. When I first started doing "What Makes it Great" on the radio, on NPR, I had just finished being a Yale professor. I thankfully no longer teach anywhere. But, you know, I went in and we would start explaining them and what they would do is every time I would use a word that they thought the regular radio audience wouldn't understand, they would hold up a sign and said, "No."
KAPILOWAnd it would take me, like at the beginning, like an hour to a five minute show because you're filled with all this vocabulary that you think is necessary. But the one thing I really learned from radio is, you can explain all of this without using a single technical term. You don't have to know French wines, (word?) numbers.
KAPILOWIt's actually incredibly gettable stuff and it's a question of learning how to listen, which mostly is really, you know, my first book is called, "All You Have to Do is Listen." And that's really what it's about but you do have to listen, you know, whether it's "The Kojo Nnamdi" theme song or anything else. It has nothing to do with technical vocabulary. Anyone can hear it and that's really what all my stuff is about, just getting you to listen to what's right in front of your nose.
NNAMDIWe'll get to "The Kojo Nnamdi" theme song later but you remind me about something I often tell people when after immediately after I tell them I'm a talk show host. I say, "But most of what I do is listen."
KAPILOWAbsolutely and that's the thing, people are not used to really paying attention. You know, so much information comes at us every five seconds from so many different platforms that we're really not used to listening and paying attention. And that's really the glorious thing about this.
NNAMDIYou incur something called active listening. Can you talk about that?
KAPILOWAbsolutely. You know, there's a wonderful set of lectures on literature that Nabokov did when he taught at Cornell and he has a great introduction where he talks about what does it mean to be a good reader. And he says a good reader of a book is an active reader. It's someone who talks back to the book, it's somebody who underlines, writes notes in the margins, folds down pages, you know, all the things you got in trouble for doing when you were a kid.
KAPILOWBut he says that's what a good reader is, it's someone who has a conversation with a book and that's what I think is the same thing for a piece of music. I want to have a conversation with it. How does it go where it goes? Could it have been done differently? When we were just changing that melody around we were having that same kind of conversation with a piece of music that he's talking bout in a conversation with a book.
KAPILOWIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Rob Kapilow. He's an award-winning composer, conductor and commentator. Author most recently of "What Makes it Great: Short Masterpieces, Great Composers." Rob Kapilow joins us in studio. You can call us at 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. and join the conversation there. And you approach is not just for those new to a piece of music. You can listen to music that you've been listening to for a while in this way.
KAPILOWWell, you know, I think one of the things, and you know this is a radio host and if there are psychiatrists out there I'm sure you know it as well, you know, whether you've heard something a million times or you're new, that doesn't mean you actually hear it. You know, one of the interesting things is what do we actually hear in what's in front of our nose?
KAPILOWYou know, I had an interesting experience, I was doing a "What Makes it Great" program two weeks with the Toronto Symphony, on Mozart's "Jupiter Symphony." This is a piece that they have played a million times and at the end of it the orchestra came up to me and they said, "You know, we've been playing this for year but we didn't hear that either."
KAPILOWAnd often times, you know, the things we know the best are the things we hear the least. Whether that's your wife, whether that's your kid, but you know, you hearing doesn't mean that you're actually, there's a real difference between what I call listening and hearing. You know, things go by but do you actually listen which requires a kind of attention to it. so I think whether a first time listener of you've heard it a million times, that doesn't mean you're actually hearing what's there.
NNAMDIWell, speaking of a million times, for those who listen to this show and maybe even for those who host it, here's a tune familiar to all of us. can you give a sense of what you're hearing while we listen to this.
NNAMDIOkay, you've had me listen to that more carefully than I have ever listened to it before. Tell me something.
KAPILOWWell, you know, I think that is a fantastic theme song and I had not heard it before. at first of all, I'm struck, you know, how something begins. You know, Puccini says beginnings are everything. And, you know, if you think about it it's really true. Whether it's a book, first line, you know, this was the worst of times, this was the best of times." You know, grabbing someone's attention has always been important but it's never been more important than now. You know, when I made my first CD, you know, the producer said, "The first 40 seconds are all that matters." it's what grabs your attention and what's so great about this theme song is there a barrage of notes from the saxophone right at the beginning. Fast notes that start off the beat.
KAPILOWNow then here's what's great. He could've continued with all fast notes like this.
KAPILOWBut instead there's a great syncopation at the end.
KAPILOWAnd that dot, dot, dot is what makes the idea so wonderful at the end. You got that great syncopation...
KAPILOW...then you'll hear there's a crescendo on that note. It gets louder with anticipation. Then there are two drum clicks, bonk, bonk. He could've done four drum clicks bonk, bonk, bonk, bonk. You would've already changed the station. you know, just two drum clicks, bonk, bonk, then we start with an idea which really is the Kojo version of…
KAPILOWIt's a motive, it's an idea.
KAPILOWCatchy, it's a short one but it's the syncopations. It could've been...
KAPILOWNo one would've listened but it's the syncopation...
KAPILOW...there on the offbeat. Then there's a little fill after it.
KAPILOWThen we come back to the motive.
KAPILOWRepetition is what let's you know that's important. Now, he could've repeated the fill...
KAPILOW...but he changes it. This time it's…
KAPILOWYou'll hear the third time it's different.
KAPILOWYou know, Stravinsky said something really powerful which is about music but it's really about life. He said that, "All composition," and you could read all life, "comes down to a balance between unity and variety." Too much repetition leads to boredom but too much variety leads to chaos. And this tune is a perfect balance of unity and variety. Every other measure is the idea.
KAPILOWBut then there's variety.
KAPILOWNow, then we've had enough of that. if we did it one more time it would be intolerable so you go on to a B section, new idea.
KAPILOWYou do it only twice though, we've already gotten used to it.
KAPILOWWe come back to home.
KAPILOWWe do it one more time.
KAPILOWAnd now this is what's so great about the theme song. You think that you know what the world of this piece is about, short little ideas, ba, ba, babba, ba, ba, baba. But all great art at some point undermines the very world it's created. and now all of a sudden you've got a huge melodic line. We've never had a melody and it sweeps up higher and higher.
KAPILOWThis big melody, higher and higher to this climax. Now, then everyone in the world, whether you know it or not wants to hear that. but we don't get that note, it goes...
KAPILOWChange of chord and then we're so excited by this climax we have almost like (word?) free cadenza for the saxophone almost not in rhythm.
KAPILOWBut then we come back home and, you know, there's a wonderful quote from T.S. Elliot and he says, "We shall never cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to come back to the place we started and know that place for the first time." so we come back to the opening thing we started the whole journey with.
KAPILOWBut now no fill. That bar, when there's no fill, what you'll hear is, if you listen closely now. You have to have good speakers. If you'll listen you'll hear the bass go...
KAPILOWAnd it goes baaaam and you can hear him slide his finger down in the pause. If you l listen closely, you'll hear the high hat. Sticks on a high hat going (makes noise) but it's different fill. We repeat it one more time.
KAPILOWIt's always been short but how do we end the piece?
KAPILOWYou sustain the note and if you'll listen closely there's a little shake at the end that fades away. a fantastic theme song.
NNAMDIA Lenny Williams composition that Kojo Nnamdi participated in producing but here you've said that all music has a narrative?
NNAMDIWhen you encourage people to discover the narrative in any piece of music, people may think that means the lyrics, but the narrative is in the music too.
KAPILOWIt's a story told in notes. In other words, what we just said that was a musical narrative of an idea.
KAPILOWA fill. It's a story, but it's being told in notes. You know, it's not the story that you invent in your mind. You know, you can also create pictures and stories, you know. I saw a girl out on the veranda. But I'm saying that each musical story is a story told in notes and that's what you have there. That story of home, away, back to home, developing a motive, that's the musical story I'm interested in.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 if you have questions for Rob Kapilow. Is there a genre of music you think could use an ambassador, 800-433-8850. Let's start with Rich in Arnold, Md. Rich, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICHYeah, how you doing, Kojo?
NNAMDII'm doing well.
RICHYeah, can you hear me?
RICHYeah, you're -- can you hear me?
NNAMDIVery well, Rich.
RICHOkay, very good. Well, one of my pet peeves is about classical radio play lists.
RICHOf all European bias I find them dull, boring and predictable. I've actually went online and I viewed a 24-hour playlist for one of your local FM stations. There was not one American composer in the entire playlist.
MR. ROBERT KAPILOWYou mean they didn't have me on there? I can't believe it.
NNAMDIThey didn't have Rob Kapilow?
KAPILOWThey didn't have Green Eggs and Ham?
NNAMDIDo we have just a bias, Rob?
KAPILOWWell, I do think so but, you know, let me just give it a tilt that's interesting. Yes, there's no doubt that we think of it as the music of dead white males, mostly European white males. But I will say that behind that is a yearning that makes sense to me. You know, one of the things that's interesting is that music requires memory in a way.
KAPILOWYou know, if you make a television show, everyone who creates a television show or a film assumes that an audience will remember what happened in minute one of that television show in minute 45 . You know, if the witness testimony says something in minute one and it turns out in minute 45 they were lying, everybody remembers what was going on.
KAPILOWNow the truth is music is the same way but, you know, in a classical piece often times remembering what happened in minute one in minute ten is a long harder to remember than it is in a television plot. So I think one of the reasons why audiences like to hear the same pieces over and over again is it allows them to own the piece. You know, Aaron Copeland says in his book, you know, what to listen for in music, that you don't own a piece of music until you can sing it through in your head.
KAPILOWNow with a pop song, first of all, they're short, there's a lot of repetition built into the song. You hear the idea, you hear it again, you hear it again so by the time you've heard it once you can already remember it or own it. Then you hear it on the radio over and over again so you can literally sing every lyric. And in fact I guarantee you if you know the pop songs of your youth you can sing every lyric and every fill. Well, to do that in classical music is much harder.
KAPILOWSo one of the reasons playlists -- to get back to your complaint -- often have the same pieces are people are dying to own those pieces in the same way that they own pop music. Now that doesn't account for the bias of European but I just think the desire to hear the same Beethoven symphony over and over again is a kind of desire on the part of the audience to own those pieces like the pop pieces of their youth.
NNAMDIAnd, Rich, thank you very much for your call. We've got to take a short break. If you've called stay on the line, we will be back. The number is 800-433-8850. Do you find classical music accessible? Why or why not? Send us a Tweet at kojoshow or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Rob Kapilow. He's an award-winning composer, conductor and commentator and author most recently of "What Makes it Great: Short Masterpieces, Great Composers." He presents his "What Makes it Great musical performance series around the country and it was featured on NPR for a decade. Classical music typically requires more patience than a hit pop song but many of the same elements are there if you listen to them.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Bill in Washington who said, "I'm looking forward to today's program on music. Rob's books and website look like great resources for learning to listen to classical music. Can Rob suggest similar kinds of materials for pop music in the U.S. or other countries, world music for example?"
KAPILOWWell, first of all, I think music is music. You know, one of the things -- you know, there's a famous quote from Duke Ellington, there's only two kinds of music, good music and the other kind, you know. And I have really found -- it's funny, you know, I did this program last night for Washington Performing Arts and somebody asked me that same question though, could you do the same kind of thing for, you know, gospel music? Could you do it for Gregorian Chant? In fact, challenge me.
KAPILOWAnd what I have found is music is music. And what I said to him is, you know, though there's differences of vocabulary, there's differences of modes of expression, fundamentally how a musical idea is developed is really not so different, whether it's gospel music -- I did a program -- you speak of world music. They have a festival in New York at Lincoln Center called the White Light Festival. It's sort of spiritual music that you hear before the white light. And they asked me to do a world music "What Makes it Great" last year and they said could I do something on Javanese gamelan music.
KAPILOWNow I had never heard it in my life but I have -- you know, you have to plan a year-and-a-half -- I said yes. So I said, I can only do this if I join a gamelan group. So I joined an ensemble in New York and I went to rehearsals for a year every week. Now for about four months the music sounded chaotic to me. It sounded like Chinese opera to me. But, you know, after four months I got it. And, you know, you get what's an idea, what's good, what's bad. And I find in all kinds of music you can do it with any kind of music.
KAPILOWIn fact, my next book is going to be about American popular song because I started doing stuff with Gershwin, with, you know, Cole Porter, with music like that. I've done an Ellington "What Makes it Great" on Such Sweet Thunder that we're actually talking about maybe doing here in Washington. You know, whether it's rap music -- I mean, whatever it is I think there's good music and then there's the other kind. And how music ticks is not fundamentally different in any of the genres.
NNAMDIOne of the things you hope to do with "What Makes it Great" is to reach those who don't like classical music or think that they don't like classical music. Why do you suppose some people react so negatively to classical music?
KAPILOWWell, think of it -- well, first of all, there's a tremendous amount of trappings around classical music that have nothing to do with the music itself, like what you wear, like not clapping after a piece -- you know, after a movement, which by the way Beethoven and Mozart would've been horrified if you didn't clap after every movement. They would've considered themselves a complete failure. That's a complete modern invention. In fact, you know, mostly pieces were encored movement by movement. And how did you get something encored? Because people clapped.
KAPILOWWhen Beethoven writes a letter saying the second movement was encored it's because people clapped wildly. There's a whole sort of culture of, you know, appropriateness and how you dress and what you wear and, you know, what you responds is okay. And I think that has nothing to do with this music. This music was ordinary everyday music. It was about the here and now and it was as unbuttoned down as any other kind of music. So I think it's the trappings around it and the sort of culture that surrounded it rather than the music itself.
KAPILOWIt's my deepest belief that everyone in the world loves classical music, only rarely have they ever heard it. But I mean, really heard it.
NNAMDIWe'll get to that in a second, but onto the telephones. Her is Mark in Howard County, Md. Mark, your turn.
MARKYes. Well, I was taken by your comment when you talked about having to conduct a classical piece and then do a showcase or vice versa. It reminded me of...
NNAMDITwo jobs, same thing.
MARKIt reminded me of Leonard Bernstein and the crossover there, educating young people in music, which he did -- was really world class in that. And two, doing Broadway, doing classical pieces and his relationship with Aaron Copeland, which I think there's a whole other story to talk about Aaron Copeland and being able to tell a story through music. So I'll leave it at that.
KAPILOWHe was my biggest influence. And in fact, you know, in our house when I grew up there was only one photograph in the entire house that my mother put up and it was Leonard Bernstein. He was her hero. I mean, being him was the only thing that I ever could possibly have wanted to be. I mean, you know, to her there was him and then there was the rest of the universe. He was her guy. And also I think what I love is he was Lenny. He wasn't maestro.
KAPILOWAnd, you know, I have insisted since the first, every orchestra calls me Rob. The minute they start rehearsing and go maestro, I said, no Rob. You know, and I think that's who he was. And in fact, I write an enormous amount of music for kids explaining it all grew out of Bernstein, Broadway. I mean, he was my, you know, my basic mentor in a certain way growing up just because he vastly expanded the sense of what it meant to be a musician. All the -- you know, one of the things that I thought was really great that I got from Bernstein is that the kind of boundaries we make between kinds of music are artificial. They don't help -- to me there's just music.
KAPILOWWhen I grew up I played in a rock band, I played jazz piano, I played Beethoven. And when I was ten I didn't know that they were not only different worlds but like you weren't even supposed to like the people who were in the other world. And certainly you couldn't dress the same. To me it was just all music and I think that was one of Bernstein's greatest gifts. He embodied the idea that all music is music.
NNAMDIOnto the telephone. Mark, thank you very much for your call. Here is now Max in Arlington, Va. Max, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAXHi. My sort of questions regarding one of the previous callers said something about bias toward European music in classical playlists. And I was wondering if you could comment on sort of -- my thought about that is there's such a disparity and sort of disconnect between when music stops belonging to another culture and starts becoming American music. Because that really didn't develop until sort of the 1870s. That's a separate sort of music in and of itself. And I was wondering if you could comment on that.
KAPILOWAbsolutely. You know, one of the things that's really interesting is, you know, during Beethoven Mozart's day the only interest was in new music. I mean, the idea of actually wanting to listen to old music would've been inconceivable. In a way for them it was like rock music today. I mean, rock music or pop music today is really about today. Now, one of the things that's been interesting is even in our lifetime, Kojo, we've seen developing the idea of classical rock.
KAPILOWI mean, when rock started it only had a present. There was no past. And one of the things that I think was so exciting about it and so scary to parents of teenagers was they were listening to a music with no past. And they were literally inventing its story day by day. That's what classical music was like in Mozart's day. People were only interested in the new piece, the new song on the radio. And the idea that somebody would listen to Bach's music. Who was interested in old music?
KAPILOWWhat's interesting is the very same thing that happened to classical music, it only developed a history in the 19th century. The first concerts that had old music were only in the 19th century. And then gradually like when Brahms came in the idea of a concert including old music became the thing. That's what's actually happening. There's not a museum of rock and roll. I mean, if you think about that we have watched a form have its classic narrative to it. And that's what happens to it. And I think that's really the trouble is classical music became about the past and now there are classic rock stations that only play old rock music as opposed to the present.
KAPILOWAnd what the reason why we don't have American music is classical music is no longer really about the present tense. If it were acknowledging its present tense, it's really alive in America much more than it is in Europe, or at least as alive, with minimalists, with John Adams, with Steve Wright, with Philip Glass. But it's not really music about the present tense. And I think that's more important than anything else, whether it be European or American, that it be about the present tense. No art form can survive unless it includes its past but also its present.
KAPILOWRock music has its classic rock stations but there's also what's happening today.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Max. And speaking of the past, openings are important and we're going to listen to a few great song openings. We'll start with Beethoven's Fifth as song openings go.
KAPILOWYou know, what's so interesting about that is one of the things I often say is that great music -- and this is one of the big differences between most pop music, not all, but most pop music and classical music, great music is really, I often say, about becoming and not being. And what I mean by that is it's not so much about what an idea is when you first hear it, what it is being. It's about what it can become over the course of a piece of music.
KAPILOWIn and of itself is not so great. What's great is what happens to it as the piece progresses. And this is when we talked about narrative. In and of itself that would not be famous. Now what happens, which is interesting, is what is that idea? It's three repeated notes...
KAPILOWAnd a leap down. Then you do the same thing, but you start it lower.
KAPILOWThree repeated notes and a leap down. Now that already tells us that the idea can happen on any note, but it's always going to be, we think, three repeated notes and a leap down. Then three repeated notes -- but now we don't have any chords underneath it.
KAPILOWNow you don't realize it, but that could either be this...
KAPILOW...a major chord or...
KAPILOW...a minor chord. And it will change over the course of the piece. Now we've heard it so many times. we don't realize there's a question implied. But what's really interesting is after we go...
KAPILOW...unison, then we do it again.
KAPILOWNow we go...
KAPILOWWe put a chord under it. That's a development. But now we go...
KAPILOWStill three repeated notes, but a leap down. but a different one. But everything is that idea.
KAPILOWThree repeated, three repeated. Then we do it here...
KAPILOWThree repeated and...
KAPILOWAlways three repeated. But not if our idea's ba-ba-ba-bam, what if we add one more note and we make it ba-ba-ba-ba-ba?
KAPILOWNow wait a minute, that's its upside down.
KAPILOWSee we're already developing, ba-ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba-ba. Now we take ba-ba-ba-bam, add one note, we make it ba-ba-ba-ba-ba. And how do we finish the sentence? Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, add one more. Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, so already we've told a story, a narrative in words from four notes ba-ba-ba-bam, add one more, ba-ba-ba-bam-bam, add one more, ba-ba-ba-bam-bam-bam. And if we had a five-hour radio show, that's only the first three steps of a 20-part story, all based on that idea.
KAPILOWBut once again, what makes it a great beginning is not what it is, but what it can become. And that's what makes the piece great. Now what it is at the beginning, but the story it tells over time. It's like it's not the first date, it's the woman you marry. It's what you discover after years and years and years. So it's a long story. It's not just the beginning.
NNAMDIMoving to another genre, if you will, Eminem's "Sing For the Moment."
NNAMDIWhat am I hearing?
KAPILOWWell, one of the things I think that's really interesting about that is, first of all, it's a testament to the all pervasiveness of a pop culture. In other words, in a way, what that reminds me of is I did a program at the National Gallery of Canada. Now this sounds like it's not related to this, but it really is and it was called "Ave Maria." And what I did was I took three -- Ave Maria's a Gregorian Chant, an old chant from the 13th century and I took three different setting of the same Gregorian Chant. One from the original chant, one by Palestrina then, you know, move forward to Victoria all the way up to Stravinsky.
KAPILOWAnd I paired them with three paintings of the Virgin Mary from very different periods of time. And one of the things that's interesting is because everybody knows Bible stories in those days, this sort of universal terms of reference were Bible stories. Everybody could do a different version of the Virgin Mary because everybody knew all the other versions of the Virgin Mary.
KAPILOWWhat's cool about Eminem is this is a takeoff on Aerosmith. This is the exact same opening of the Aerosmith and it's in fact in the exact same key, the exact same chords, the whole exact same progression. And the entire song is like a gloss of an old Virgin Mary. And I think that's what's so interesting because that has not become the cultural reference that everyone knows. It's replaced the Bible. You know what I'm saying? And that's what I love about it. It's a very simple beginning. You hear chords you anticipate, but as you're hearing it, you're hearing it and a comment on the older piece. And in fact, the whole song is a remix in a wonderful way.
KAPILOWAnd what's also wonderful about that is there are different ways of passing down and making a tradition live. You know, in classical music we have a thick score, it exists. Now I may play a Beethoven symphony today, but I'm going to play the same notes. But what pop music says, like jazz which is great, is a score lives by being retold in our voice. So Eminem has Aerosmith live on by retelling it with new words. The same message, but told in his vocabulary. That's what's cool to me about that opening.
NNAMDIAnother opening, that of Handel's "Messiah."
NNAMDIWhat am I hearing there?
KAPILOWYou know, fantastic. One of the things though, and we keep coming back to the same point, is the things we hear the most are often the things we hear the least. I mean, there's probably no one on the planet who has not heard that either on the radio, in a supermarket aisle, in an elevator. I mean, it's a cell phone ringtone but again it's the people we know the best who we often don't listen to anymore. I mean, that is a fantastic beginning, just those first four notes.
KAPILOWLet me write a bad version. He could've written Hallelujah. No one would've cared. Four even notes, Hallelujah. Let me make it a little more exciting. Let me speed up the last two notes, Hallelujah. Now that's already better. But what really makes it great is that first note, which is long, not (singing) Hallelujah, but (singing) Hallelujah. And it's that swell on that first long note, which is what makes it so ecstatic.
KAPILOWYou hear the note, you're excited. (singing) Ha-le-lu-jah. Then sing fast notes. And again, what makes that so great is that in a way it encapsulates the whole meaning of the text. What is "Hallelujah" about? We're ecstatic, and it's that one note that grows, and then the fast notes, Ha-le-lu-jah, which is what makes that opening so great. It encapsulates the text, it tells the text's story in its very notes itself.
NNAMDIWell, as we are shifting genres, we go to yet another. The Beatles, "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" opening.
NNAMDIOur engineer Tobey Schreiner is having way too much fun. What do we hear here?
KAPILOWWell, you know, I think one of the things that's great, you know, about everything is that every art form is really based on audiences expectations. You know, in a way every piece of art, whether it's a piece of music, whether it's high art, low art, contains in its notes or in its words or in its paint if it's a painting, a belief about who it's audience is, what they're capable of following, and what they bring in with them as a set of expectations. Whenever you start a Broadway show or you start a play, people have an expectation as to what they're going to hear, how long it's going to be, what kind of sounds are going to be there.
KAPILOWAnd what's so brilliant about that "Sergeant Pepper's," when that begins, no one in the world had ever heard a rock album begin with a sound like that. You know, there are certain few pieces which just completely change what is possible in the universe, and hearing those sounds from outside the world of rock, and then having, you know, a guitar come in afterwards totally changes the whole frame of reference of what could be on an album, and that album completely changed our sense of what's possible in a piece.
KAPILOWHow long it could be, what kinds of sounds. You know, the orchestra tuning up, you know, in the middle of it. All of a sudden anything was possible and it wasn't a small genre only of electric guitars and a drummer and three guys playing guitars. Suddenly any sound in the universe was possible. So all of a sudden we're on the edge of our seats with a whole different expectation of what our would can do, and that's what anything that's great art does. It changes our sense of what's possible, whether it's a Shakespeare play, whether it's "Sergeant Pepper," whether it's Eminem, whether it's "Hallelujah." It changes our sense of what's possible in the universe.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back -- we've been listening to other people's compositions. When we come back, we'll be listening to a Rob Kapilow composition and inviting your calls, 800-433-8850. If you have called, stay on the line. We have a bunch of emails too. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can send us a tweet @kojoshow. Is there a genre of music you think could also use an ambassador? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Rob Kapilow. He is an award-winning composer, conductor, and commentator. He is the author most recently of "What Makes it Great: Short Masterpieces, Great Composers." He presents his "What Makes it Great" musical performance series around the country. It was featured on NPR for a decade. I said we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850, so I'd better take one. Here's Bill in Baltimore, Md. Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLHi folks. How are you today? I just wanted to relate a situation that occurred to me when I was in college. In between classes, an old German fellow who was a pianist, and a pretty good one from what everybody said, he had a course that was given, I actually took it later, on how good melodies relate to mathematics. And he said the most remarkable or memorable melodies are pure math. And he had a whole course on -- of course, I'm not a mathematician. I'm not a musician either.
BILLBut it really -- when he said it, it seemed to make sense. And I went in his course every day, it was only once a week, and it was only an hour at a time. It was kind of light learning. But the guy really -- of course, I'm sure he learned music -- he could -- the old way, instead of chords as people more or less are taught today. Any comment on that?
KAPILOWSure. Well, one of the things I think that's really important, and this is not only true about music, but it's true about everything about life. So much has to do with patterns and change of patterns, you know. So much of great music has to do with expectation and surprise. And, you know, when you create patterns, just like in math, you have an expectation that a pattern is going to continue. And, you know, one of the simplest techniques that we use in music is what's called a sequence, which means repeating an idea several times, but starting on a different note.
KAPILOWYou all know "Autumn Leaves." We have an idea...
KAPILOWWe then do the idea lower.
KAPILOWWe do it lower again.
KAPILOWWe do it again.
KAPILOWThen in case you missed it, we do it again.
KAPILOWBut what makes it great is we think we're going to do one more, but now it changes.
KAPILOWThe only one that isn't the pattern.
KAPILOWNow, in a way that's about pattern, pattern, pattern, create expectation, expectation, expectation. But then it's about surprise. And I think that's where the math leaves off. The math gives you the pattern and expectation, but what makes it human, and what makes it a discovery is the moment where it breaks pattern. So it is about math, but in the end it's about what unpredictable mathematically as well.
KAPILOWSo it's the surprise and the flaw in the pattern. But without the pattern, you wouldn't have the glorious surprise and not a pattern.
NNAMDIBill, thank you very much for your call. We got a tweet from Matt who said, Rob Kapilow just made me fall in love with "The Kojo Show" theme song. Well, if you think he's good with somebody else's compositions, you should know that Rob Kapilow was commissioned to compose a symphony to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. Let's hear a little bit from that symphony. It's called Chrysopylae.
NNAMDIWhat were we listening to?
KAPILOWWell, actually, you know, it's really interesting. You got an assignment, write a piece for the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. What does that mean? You know, I actually several years ago worked with you on a project similar to this...
NNAMDISure did for D.C.
KAPILOW...for Washington D.C. monuments, you know. And when I write, you know, mostly we have this image of a classical composer going off in the woods, you know, preferably in Vienna, you know, communing with his muse, you know, not shaving for six months, you know, and then emerging with his masterpiece. But, you know, the way I write is just the opposite. So for me, I didn't know what the 75th anniversary meant, so I went out and I talked to people all over San Francisco from all walks of life.
KAPILOWFrom kids, senior citizens who had been alive when the bridge was first opened. I spent six hours on the bridge with the actual workers themselves talking to them about the bridge, and one of the most poignant conversations that I had was with families of suicide victims, you know, because that is a huge part of the bridge's history, and the people were upset thinking I shouldn't include that in a celebratory piece. I felt that that was part of the bridge. I mean, it is the largest suicide site in the world.
KAPILOWAnd so I talked to these families, and they were gracious enough to share with me their teenagers suicide notes. So the third movement of this piece -- now, it's not all about that, but the third movement of this piece, all the texts come from suicide notes of teenagers that were given to me as part of the kind of the focus groups that I talked to. So those words, here's where I go, was a suicide note left. There's a whole section in that movement called "I am Broken. I Think I Am Broken," you know, which was really powerful.
KAPILOWAll I ever wanted was to come home. And, you know, setting those was really a wonderful experience. And what was so wonderful was I got involved with all these families who became a part of the piece. Fifty of them came to the premier and I met with them afterwards at the intermission, and there was -- they were crying. They said, we haven't had any closure before this moment about our kid's suicide. So feeling that a piece of music could be part of a kind of closure for these people, that's what that was.
KAPILOWThere was one other wonderful thing. Though it goes through some of these harsh times, I felt I didn't want to leave the piece like that. I didn't want to leave it with only those notes. So it came to me just when I was in Washington. I was doing a "What Makes it Great" program on the Mozart Requiem at the Kennedy Center, and I was conducting it. And the thought came to me, this is what they need. The beautiful first words, you know, was a requiem, you know, may they rest in peace.
KAPILOWAnd so I actually finished that section with the words of the requiem, may they rest in peace, and that -- actually, if you had listened more, finishes with that. And one other beautiful thing that I was able to add, you know, I started with this piece as an orchestra chorus piece, but then I asked people -- I would go around and I'd say, we all know what the bridge looks like. What do you think it sounds like? Give me a sound associated -- now, if I were to ask you, Kojo, what sound do you think of when you think of the Golden Gate Bridge?
NNAMDISomething deep and resonant.
KAPILOWHmm. Like the sound of the cables.
NNAMDILike the sound of?
KAPILOWThe cables maybe?
KAPILOWYou know, people had all sorts of suggestions like birds, the sound of the wind, and what really happened though, I had no intention, was the sounds really sparked interest. So I decided to ask Fred Newman, who is the sound effects guy from…
NNAMDIWho's been a guest on this broadcast.
KAPILOW...from Prairie Home Companion, and he became my collaborator. And so I wrote a piece for orchestra chorus and real world sound. And he had added all these sounds into the piece, and at the top of the climax of that requiem, he has this beautiful sound of birds being released.
NNAMDII think we have a little bit of that that we might be able to play for you.
KAPILOWYou might have it. Anyway, it's a little later on.
NNAMDIHere it is.
KAPILOWThat's Mr. Strauss, the only extant interview left in the world of the person who built the Golden Gate Bridge. We found it in a North Carolina archive. So the piece opened in the dark with his ghost voice from the past, the one recorded interview we still have.
NNAMDII'm glad you said that because you incorporated elements one would not think go into a symphony. Talk a little bit about how you use, like that historical recording, the sound of wind, foghorns, even construction equipment.
KAPILOWYes. In fact, you know, we found all sorts of things. In fact, the foghorns actually became of the big -- I was sailing under the bridge, and there was this foghorn that went (makes noise) and this interval and poignant. And suddenly the idea hit me, that's what we should have in the suicide section because there's a moment when the chorus goes (singing) broken, and they literally slide between the two pitches of the mid-span foghorns, and to me, is symbolizes the whole sadness of the fall. It references the fall, but not in an obvious way.
KAPILOWAnd those foghorn pitches became part of it. Here's a more fun one. I discovered that there was an official song of the opening day of the bridge, an absolutely horrible song called, "There's a Silver Moon Over the Golden Gate." Here was the original version of it.
NNAMDIHe's playing this off of his iPad, y'all.
KAPILOWYeah. This is off my iPad. This was the original version.
KAPILOWNow, what I did was I thought, how could I symbolize opening day? So I turned it into an up tempo swing version, the exact same melody, and I turned it into this.
NNAMDIThat I can take.
KAPILOWBut also, you know, I decided to take other things, you know. At first we thought, well, where should you start a piece about the Golden Gate Bridge. You should you start at 1937 when it opened. But I did research, and I discovered that, you know, originally it was Indian land. So I actually decided to find Indians who were still representatives of those tribes. I brought their words in, and the first words that you actually hear are Native American words.
KAPILOWThey actually open the piece. So the idea was to bring in a much larger sense of this bridge, and the reason it's "Chrysopylae" as a piece was -- that was the original name. I used to think that the Golden Gate was the name of the bridge, but it actually refers to just the passage, and it came from the explorer Fremont who called it "Chrysopylae," which meant a golden passageway. And I just thought that's such a beautiful image.
NNAMDIIt is. Your latest book, "What Makes a Great Short Masterpiece is Great Composers" is published in standard format.
NNAMDIBut there's also an enhanced version available. Can you tell us about that?
KAPILOWYes. It was the first book -- first enhanced music book for the iPad. And, you know, it really grew out of our entire conversation. My goal, and I hope this came across today, is to make this stuff gettable for everyone, you know, whether it be symphony by engaging an entire city and the creation of it. Whether it be a classical piece by explaining it on what makes it great. Whether it be kids in music by setting "Green Eggs and Ham," the first Seuss book to be allowed to be turned into a piece of music.
KAPILOWMy goal is to make this stuff gettable. Now, people ask me to write a book but, you know, for 200 years, why do it. Because if you can't hear the music, you can't explain it. But I heard about this thing called the iPad that was being invented. And when I was writing the book it hadn't come out yet, but I thought, what about a possibility. Because the problem in a book is if you write musical notation, 99 percent of the world can't read that musical notation and so you're not writing it for them. But if you don't, you're stuck talking generally.
KAPILOWAnd as I tried to get across today, it's about these details. But then I heard about this so I said to my publisher, let's do this new book, but let's have an iPad version so people could hear all the musical examples.
NNAMDISo what does he do? He calls up Apple.
KAPILOWYeah. They wouldn't do it. So I called up Apple. I found the email address of the head of iTunes, and I said, I don't know if you've ever heard of me, and I don't know if this is even technically possible, because it had just come out, and I said, but I'd love to write a book with music where people could hear the musical examples, and not only hear them, but watch the music scroll by in real time with a scroll bar as the music plays. Is this possible? I didn't really think he would answer me at all.
KAPILOWNext day he says, I don't know if we can do it, but it sounds really cool. I'm going to ask my team. I'll get back to you. I was thrilled. I wrote to my publisher, sent them the email. I was happy already. A week later he comes back and he says, let's try it. I think we can do it. And I said to him, how is this possible? I've been working on this for two years. How is it in a week you decided, and he said, oh, we have a standard policy at Apple. Every idea has to come to a yes or no in a week.
NNAMDIAnd in one week...
KAPILOWAnd in one week -- so we worked it out. I got him in touch with a student and we worked out this. So if you actually buy the enhanced version on the iPad, you just touch the musical notation, it explodes to full screen. Not only do you hear it, but it scrolls in real time with a scroll bar, so you know exactly where you are in the music. The comments are on the music. It's like I'm talking you through it right there on the iPad.
NNAMDIAnd you can have it on your iPad. The book is called "What Makes a Great Short Masterpiece is Great Composers." Finally, we got this email from Elizabeth in Alexandria. "Please tell Rob that one of my favorite concerts ever in New York City was in 2002, and Rob picked apart Leonard Bernstein's "Westside Story" with several Broadway singers. It was fascinating to hear the history of how 'Westside Story' was created, as well as the edits Bernstein went through to arrive at his masterpiece. Thanks for making classical music so approachable for everyone."
NNAMDIIt's what Rob Kapilow does. He's an award-winning composer, conductor, and commentator. He presents his "What Makes it Great" musical performance series around the country and it was featured on NPR for a decade. Rob Kapilow, always a pleasure.
KAPILOWThanks so much for having me. I love being here.
NNAMDIThank you for joining us, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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