One Big Breath And A Blazing Guitar: 2019's Best Moments In Music

Jan 2, 2020
Originally published on January 2, 2020 12:41 pm

Adrianne Lenker is the guitarist and singer for the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based rock band Big Thief. Cecilia Bartoli is the Italian opera singer who thrives on neglected repertoire from the 18th century. The two women might seem like strange bedfellows, but they come together in our series titled "highly specific superlatives," a kind of drilling down to some of the finest and most precise moments in the arts in 2019.

Bartoli wins the award for best and most beautiful single breath of singing, while Lenker wins for best guitar solo, as NPR Music's Tom Huizenga and Marissa Lorusso explain to All Things Considered host Ailsa Chang.

Bartoli's Big Breath

Tom Huizenga: It's tough for people like you and me to simply hold our breath for 30 seconds, much less sing as beautifully as Bartoli does for nearly that long. It's extraordinary how she floats the musical line, like a multi-colored ribbon of sound for a full 28 seconds without taking a breath.

Her exquisite shaping of the unbroken musical line is as smooth and flowing as a Bernini sculpture. She even throws in lovely little trills three-quarters of the way through.

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The music is by Nicola Porpora, from the aria "La festa d'Imeneo" written in 1736 for the famous castrato singer named Farinelli, the rock star of his day. I'm always amazed at what the human voice can do in this highly trained state. Opera singers are the triathletes of the vocal world, having to project even the barest thread of tone way back to the balcony without a microphone and above an orchestra. That's why I love opera.

Lenker's Gritty Guitar

Marissa Lorusso: I'm not usually the kind of person who spends all year keeping an ear out for the best guitar solo. I feel like there can often be kind of showy maleness to guitar solos that aren't really my speed. But the way Adrianne Lenker plays just blows me away.

The song "Not" starts with a really insistent churning feel. And when she's singing, she's tracing the outline of the absence of something. A lot of the lyrics start with the phrase, "It's not." Then about halfway through the song, it cracks open into a huge guitar solo.

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The Bartoli – Lenker Connection

"Adrianne Lenker is a trained guitarist," Lorusso says. "She studied at Berklee College of Music and you can hear that she has that kind of technical guitar ability but she wants you to feel what she is feeling when she plays that solo. I think it's the same in the [Bartoli] piece. It's not just this incredible, virtuosic skill, but she's really communicating a depth of emotional feeling in her performance."

"I just love setting these two seemingly disparate pieces of music cheek by jowl, with Lenker killing that solo with all its steel and grime," Huizenga says. "And then Bartoli with this pillowy soft, unbroken line of florid music. I think they're both really shredding in their own singular way. And at the very least, they're providing a moment of awesomeness that can only make you smile — and that is what music does at its best."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Most end-of-year music lists are about best albums or best songs, but we wanted to go a bit deeper than that, a bit more specific. This week we've been asking our arts and culture staffers to bring us their highly specific superlatives - today, music with Marissa Lorusso and Tom Huizenga from NPR Music.

Hey, guys.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Hey. Nice to be here.

MARISSA LORUSSO, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: All right. So Tom, I want to start with you.

HUIZENGA: OK.

CHANG: What highly specific music category have you chosen?

HUIZENGA: OK. Mine is most beautiful and best use of a single breath.

CHANG: (Laughter) What does that mean?

HUIZENGA: Well, you're going to find out in just a minute. And the award goes to Cecilia Bartoli. She's an Italian mezzo soprano opera singer. And listen; you should try this after we get off the air. Hold your breath for 30 seconds. It's tough enough to do that.

CHANG: Yeah.

HUIZENGA: But to sing like Cecilia Bartoli does for nearly 30 seconds is just extraordinary. So what you should listen to is how she floats this musical line. It's, like, this single multi-colored ribbon of sound for 28 seconds.

CHANG: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF CECILIA BARTOLI PERFORMANCE OF FARINELLI'S "PORPORA: LA FESTA D'IMENEO - VAGHI AMORI, GRAZIE AMATE")

CECILIA BARTOLI: (Singing in Italian).

HUIZENGA: Yes.

CHANG: Oh, my God.

LORUSSO: That is amazing.

CHANG: It is. I'm not someone who listens to a lot of opera. What was it about that moment that, for even opera lovers, was, like, next-level?

HUIZENGA: Well, OK. It's the breath control for sure. It's just amazing that she can do that for 28 seconds. But it's the exquisite shaping of the line. It's just amazing. It's like a Bernini sculpture. And we should say what the music is. It's an aria, or a portion of the aria called "La Festa D'Imeneo."

(SOUNDBITE OF CECILIA BARTOLI PERFORMANCE OF FARINELLI'S "PORPORA: LA FESTA D'IMENEO - VAGHI AMORI, GRAZIE AMATE")

BARTOLI: (Singing in Italian).

HUIZENGA: Opera singers are really, like, the triathletes of the vocal world. They've got to project even the barest thread of tone way up to the rafters over an orchestra without a microphone. That's why I love opera.

CHANG: I mean, what we do for a living - like, talking on mic...

HUIZENGA: Right.

CHANG: ...Is nothing compared to that.

LORUSSO: Yeah. I don't think I could talk for 28 seconds, never mind do the trills and all of those notes. Incredible.

CHANG: Marissa, what is your best-of category?

LORUSSO: So my best-of category is best guitar solo, and it goes to a song called "Not" by the band Big Thief.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOT")

BIG THIEF: (Singing) It's not the energy reeling, nor the lines in your face, nor the clouds on the ceiling, nor the clouds in space.

LORUSSO: It comes from an album called "Two Hands." "Two Hands" came out in October. It's actually Big Thief's second amazing album of 2019. This band is just totally on fire right now. OK, so let's actually get to the guitar solo.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIG THIEF SONG, "NOT")

CHANG: I love it. What was it about this guitar solo that just struck you?

LORUSSO: So I'm not usually the kind of person who, like, spends all year keeping an ear out for the best guitar solo. I feel like there can often be kind of, like, a showy maleness to guitar solos...

CHANG: Oh, yeah.

LORUSSO: ...That aren't really my speed. But Adrianne Lenker - the way that she plays just totally blows me away. And the thing about "Not" is that it starts with that really, like, insistent, churning feel. And then about halfway through the song, it kind of cracks open into this huge guitar solo. It's explosive. It's cathartic. It goes on for minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIG THIEF SONG, "NOT")

LORUSSO: And it was just exactly the kind of thing that I wanted to listen to this year.

CHANG: I can't help but notice when I'm listening to you guys talk about your best picks for this year that there are some parallels, right? Like, we're talking about two women at the top of their games.

HUIZENGA: Well, I just love setting these two, like, seemingly disparate pieces of music cheek by jowl with - Adrianne Lenker's killing that solo with all its grit and steel and grime.

CHANG: Yeah.

HUIZENGA: And then Cecilia Bartoli with this pillowy, soft, unbroken line of beautiful music - but, you know, they're both really shredding in their own singular ways.

LORUSSO: Totally.

CHANG: (Laughter) I love that.

HUIZENGA: And they are - you know, at the very least, they're providing, really, a moment of awesomeness that can only make you smile. And that's what music does at its best.

LORUSSO: I think, too - you know, Adrianne Lenker is a technically trained guitarist. She studied at Berkeley School of Music. And you can hear that she has that kind of technical guitar ability, but she wants you to feel what she is feeling when she plays that solo. And I think it's the same in the piece of music that you chose, Tom. It's not just this incredible virtuosic skill, but she's really communicating a depth of emotional feeling in her performance.

HUIZENGA: Exactly.

CHANG: There's both discipline and emotion.

HUIZENGA: Yes.

CHANG: That is Marissa Lorusso and Tom Huizenga of NPR Music. Thanks to both of you for bringing us your highly specific superlatives.

HUIZENGA: Thanks for having us.

LORUSSO: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND NOMADEN SONG, "SNOWFLAKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.