Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Where have I been?

Well, first, here.
And then here.
And then, and still, here.

So it's been almost two months since I've updated; to keep track of what's going on, I would recommend taking a look at the twitter feed on the right.  For the near future, my blogging will be almost entirely devoted to Reflections on the Rite, the blog I'm running in conjunction with UNC and Carolina Performing Arts' The Rite of Spring at 100, a project celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the premiere of The Rite of Spring.  So apologies for all those seeking trenchant Seated Ovation words of wisdom.  I'm not sure what form this blog will take over the next year but I'll try to write here occasionally.  I'm in Year Two of the Ph.D. program now, which is the craziest.  To be brief: seminars on music and technology, Mozart opera, and literary modernism; a gigantic Rite of Spring conference; qualifying exams; a paper to present at SAM; a master's thesis on Pleyel's influence on American hymnody in the early 19th century; and some other stuff I'm forgetting about.

And if  you'd like to write a guest post about The Rite of Spring, email me! william l robin at gmail.

Monday, July 2, 2012

a brief update

Yes, I know, it's been five weeks.  Month-plus hiatuses were not really supposed to ever be a part of this blog -- there were the good old days when I'd have three or four posts a week, and I had hoped to keep the thing going with new content on a weekly basis at the very least. However, life has conspired against me, and here we are, in early July, with nary a word since late May (devoting time to thinking of oh-so-clever Tweets hasn't helped much, either).

If you'll recall, from all those weeks ago, I was anticipating a trip to Vienna, and then another to D.C.  Well, both happened, and we are happily settled, with kitties intact -- despite a few rocky moments -- in Capitol Hill.  I have finished two weeks of work at the Library of Congress -- more on that in a bit -- and am looking forward to spending six more weeks here before heading back to Graduate School Year Two in August.

So, Vienna: pretty cool.  I had no idea exactly how the Schoenberg Institute would work -- this is only the Arnold Schoenberg Center's second iteration of a summer academy -- but was extremely pleasantly surprised to find out that it would work out awesome.  The Center were amazing hosts, and for two weeks us four UNC students took in the sights and sounds of the city, worked with composers and musicologists from China and Russia, and at the end of it presented papers based on some of the research we did in the Center's archives.  If you're in Vienna, even if you're not a twelve-tone fan, I can't recommend more strongly to visit the Center -- it's an amazing facility, complete with museum, gift-shop (I am now the proud owner of a copy of a deck of playing cards painted by Schoenberg, as well as about 8 Schoenberg magnets, some buttons, and 2 t-shirts), archive, and very friendly people.

Concert-wise, we saw about the best you can see.  One actual Vienna Philharmonic concert -- a sturdy though sometimes under-powered Gurre-Lieder under the direction of Zubin Mehta -- as well as one Vienna Phil almost-concert dress rehearsal of their echt-schmaltz outdoor palace summerfest, complete with every kind of kitsch you can imagine, andDudamel leading the proceedings.  The orchestra didn't entrance me in either performance the way I had hoped, but I also kind of expected that; a few moments were astonishing, but I'll stick with my Berlin Phil, thank you.  I also heard the Concentus Musicus Wien with Harnoncourt and Buchbinder doing some Mozart -- Buchbinder never quite clicked with the ensemble, and the Musikverein wasn't really the right venue, but the concert was enjoyable besides.  The Wiener Festwochen, the giant early-summer cultural festival, was in full swing, and I was super-underwhelmed by Luca Francesconi's Quartett, a new, blandly-scored opera which felt like an amalgam of all the cliches of chamber-opera Regietheater I saw last year in Berlin.  I had my hopes up for a nutso La Fura dels Baus staging, but it was fairly mundane -- a giant box suspended above the stage, with projections layered on top.  I want some 3D and crazy cranes, damn it!

Fortunately, Lachenmann saved the day.  Hearing the composer himself as the speaker in his ...Zwei Gefuhle was an unforgettable experience (twice!), and there were also excellent renditions of his Serynade and Dal niente.  

If this all sounds like very superficial analysis, my apologies -- I had no intentions of doing my usual reviewing business, and kind of just took things in as they were.  After all, I was there on business.  My business was talking about Arnold Schoenberg's Theme and Variations op. 43, his only work for concert band.  Take a listen, if you're not familiar with it:

(And then go buy this recording, because it's great, and Go U Northwestern)

As a child and teenager growing up in Vienna, Schoenberg actually had some of his earliest important musical experiences at the Prater Park, hearing military bands which played there.  The Vienna Phil wasn't cheap, and didn't play very often, and Schoenberg probably heard Wagner and Beethoven first via the conducting of band leaders like Karl Komzak and Carl Michel Ziehrer (both of whom are actually buried right near Beethoven in Vienna's Zentralfriedhof, pointing to their significance in Austrian musical life despite their complete absence in most discussions of it).  In my paper, I drew connections between these early experiences hearing military bands and Schoenberg's return to the band form in 1942, with the Theme and Variations -- connections he himself acknowledged but with which scholars have not yet fully engaged.

So that was Vienna, and now I'm in D.C.  As a Pruett Fellow, I split my time at the Library of Congress between doing processing work for the music division and pursuing my own research.  We have just finished processing the Arthur Laurents collection (you should probably know his name; in case you don't, he wrote the book for West Side Story, among many many other things), and we've begun sorting through the musical manuscripts of Wanda Landowska -- it's been a fascinating process.  My own research involves wrapping up some aspects of my Connotations study, and getting more hymnals and such for my Pleyel project (read more about those here).  Concert-wise, I've heard New Lights, an interesting attempt at inventive programming by the National Orchestral Institute, as well as a spectacularly engaging showing of the 1923 silent film The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with excellent live accompaniment of music from the period in which the film takes place (courtesy of the Hesperus enesmble).  Thus, the greatness of Machaut and Dufay, a bit of Hildegard, and a mix of popular tunes -- they used the L'homme arme for one of the big battle scenes, probably the only time I'll actually hear that tune outside of one of its myriad mass settings (Anne has more).

That's about it for now.  Unfortunately, I can't promise much more soon -- I have a number of large projects going, and you probably won't get to see any of them until late July, but keep your eyes peeled. And keep tabs on UNC/Carolina Performing Arts' Rite of Spring at 100 project.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Music and war have a weird relationship.  Our histories of art -- certainly those of art in the twentieth century -- often rotate around massive conflicts.  Political events have always helped divide up our centuries into periods; art historians and musicologists like to think of the French Revolution as a nice way to tie up the short eighteenth century and begin the long nineteenth, which itself concludes with World War I.  This doesn't always work out -- there are artistic "events" which are entirely independent from political ones, and sometimes the track of music history doesn't run on the same rails as the the track of political history.

But the last hundred-plus years of music have been inextricably shaped by our two World Wars and the Cold War .  We orient ourselves around pre-WWI modernism and post-WWI modernism, interwar Neue Sachlichkeit, post-war Zero Hour music, Cold War formalism.  Rightfully so: these conflicts weighed enormously on composers, because they actually participated in them.  The Second Viennese School were involved, in one form or another, in fighting World War I -- Berg's experiences gave birth to Wozzeck.  The second World War was even more tumultuous -- we had the patriotic-ish music on this side of the ocean from the likes of Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, and even John Cage, but also the scarring experiences which shaped the early lives of Zimmermann, Xenakis, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Takemitsu, and many others.  To participate in music, before the 1970s, almost guaranteed that one had participated in war.*

That is very, very far from the case today.  I am not aware of any composers today who have served in the military (please let me know if you do Edit: in the comments, Arlene and Larry Dunn have kindly pointed out two musicians, Billy Bang and Lawrence Morris, who both served in Vietnam.  Alex has also smartly mentioned that Israeli composers such as Avner Dorman would have served military duty; he also points to two recent American soldiers, Jason Sagebiel and Daniel Todd Currie, both of whom are composers).  The only way war shapes today's musical lives is in its absence -- American art which engages with the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan deals primarily with the gulf between contemporary life in the U.S. and the conflicts we are fighting overseas.  In an effort to shake the public, or at least draw greater awareness to the thousands of troops we have stationed in the Middle East while we attempt to cut taxes, artists dramatize the absence of war in our lives.  Unaffected by the immediacy of conflict, we focus on its absence.

Thus, tonight and tomorrow night's Theatre of War, a multimedia event organized by Chicago's Spektral Quartet.

 As a friend of members of the quartet, I won't promise any journalistic objectivity in writing this preview -- it's a shout-out for a very well-deserving project.  Theatre of War (get your tickets here) promises to engage the eyes, ears, and mind in the wake of the NATO summit.  There will be films by Richard Mosse, the staging of a short story by Virginia Konchan, poetry by Wislawa Szymborska, and George Crumb's Black Angels along with Drew Baker's Stress Position.

Black Angels is a classic of the quartet repertoire, and certainly doesn't need any more ink spilled about it.  Stress Position, though, is intriguing.  (Here's an informative interview with Baker.)  It is a piano piece which dramatizes torture in a powerful way -- the pianist is subjected to a kind of physical distress, forced to bang on the farthest ends of the piano, while the audience watches.  It is a powerful, triple metaphor: a pianist subjected to the whims of an autocratic composer, commenting on the conventional performer/composer relationships of the classical tradition; an individual subjected to the aspects of musical torture, a recent and disgusting phenomenon; and a complacent public watching silently, mimicking our own removal from our government's actions abroad.  Baker, powerfully, gradually transforms the work into one in which the torture is impossible to ignore -- the audience cannot escape the message, and must undergoe mild "torture" elements (the piano is gradually amplified, the lights cut out towards the end), a very literal wake-up call even if it gives only a hint of what prisoners might have experienced at places like Guantanamo Bay.  The discomfort caused by a mere ten minutes of a mildly oppressive theatrical experience leaves one with the intense guilt and awareness that it is much worse elsewhere.  The actual music is reminiscent of Stockhausen's Klavierstuck IX, completing the metaphor of the dominating composer by referencing one of history's most autocratic composers.

(An excerpt, courtesy of my former aural skills TA Jonathan Katz, with pages turned by UNC's own Lee Weisert)

In the final moments of the 1965 premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten -- an arch-dramatization of the effects that military presence can have on civilian life -- after the main character had been raped and abandoned as a beggar in the streets, prerecorded screams blared through the Cologne State Opera house, and the house spotlights were lowered onto the stage and shined in the eyes of the audience.  The screams were meant to evoke those of the victims of Hiroshima, the stage lights to imitate the effect of watching the atomic bomb explode.  The message was not felt -- newspapers in following days shouted of the scandal caused by the audience's moment of blindness, but no one realized it was supposed to be an atomic explosion.  An attempt at literal political commentary at the end of a mostly-allegorical opera failed.

A similar thing happened when I saw John Adams' Doctor Atomic at the Chicago Lyric Opera in 2007.  Peter Sellars had spoken about not wanting to stage the atomic explosion itself but instead, after a nearly hour-long countdown, have the audience realize that they themselves were, in fact, the bomb.  We heard, as in Die Soldaten, a musique concrete assortment of noises, with a Japanese woman calling out for water -- Hiroshima re-staged.  But leaving the opera house, I heard no one discussing the political ramifications of the work, the idea that "we" might be the bomb, or anything having to do with issues of nuclear disarmament today; people talked about the music, the libretto, the success of the work as theater.  If there was a political intent here, it didn't seem to have any political effect.

What the Spektral Quartet is offering in Theatre of War, and what Baker projects in Stress Position, is a message that cannot be ignored.  It is not necessarily a message promoting one view over another, but it cannot help but incite debate.  They invite the audience to stick around for discussion after the performance, and hopefully new ideas will be formed, or old convictions brought back to the fore.  Some people complain that art shouldn't be too overtly political or literal, that we have to seek out change through universal, sometimes fuzzy ideals -- Alle Menschen werden Bruder and the like -- and that's fine some of the time.  But I'm also happy to see that there is musical work which will directly address the times we live in, and the things we spend most of our days ignoring.  Beethoven's Ninth won't remind you that there are men and women dying overseas for reasons that aren't always entirely clear, or just; Theatre of War will.

*Caveat: if one was male.

Monday, May 21, 2012

let's talk about music (part 3)

Sorry for the delay! Things needed to be attended to, and thought about deeply (or so I will claim).  If you will recall, last week we spoke about Silfra and The Bright Motion -- two new releases of almost brand-new music, one batch composed by the performers of the album, the other composed for the performer of the album.  Here we're going to talk about a third release with some new music, but also old music, newly interpreted.

Album No. 3: So Percussion - The Cage Bootlegs

Performance practice is a looming issue in all music, from your HIPster period instrument folks to your Mozart cadenza obsessors to your aria aficionados.  It's less talked about with contemporary music, but it's hugely fascinating.  What happens to Music for 18 Musicians or In C in the generational shift from the performers in Steve Reich & Musicians or Terry Riley and crew to Bang on a Can to Alarm Will Sound? Quantifying that shift is difficult, but it's present, and it shapes how those pieces influence later musicy.  Like me, you may have "learned" In C via Bang on a Can and then been a bit surprised by the more hippy-dippy original recording.

And those are the easy cases.  The much, much more difficult ones are with composers like John Cage, and trying to figure out what the hell to do with his vast, complex musical output, not to mention reckoning with the multitudes of written and spoken words, the performances by his collaborators or himself, the Happenings, and everything else.

Warning: moderately nonsensical analogy about comic books and John Cage ahead. Feel free to skip the next three paragraphs if you want.

I heard a paper given at a conference several months back titled "John Cage's Multiverse."  It was referring specifically to Cage's relationship to the philosophy of William James, but I couldn't help but think of the multiverse with which many nerdier people are more familiar -- that of DC comics.  The multiverse is a set of parallel earths/universes which occasionally come crashing together in massive year-long crossover "events" (I'm not sure if it still exists in DC's ever-relaunching recent history).  The thing is with crossovers is that DC always has to negotiate who gets thrown into its "expanded universe."  Obviously Superman is going to play a role in defeating the Threat-of-the-Galaxy villain, but what about some random Gotham-based police officer who's part of an ongoing prestige comic that only rarely interacts with the big superhero guns? Does every single character that's part of DC's line of a bajillion different comics need to come together ? Does everyone need to exist in DC's "universe"?

This brings us to the idea of "Cagean," one of those name-based adjectives that gets tossed around more than any other in the music world. (Did you eat ice cream while listening to Beethoven? Cagean. Did you listen to your ipod while going to the bathroom? Cagean.)  The thing with Cage is that we can essentially place his entire compositional output under the label "Cagean" (which basically means, at this point, anything) and consider it all as part of the Cage universe, in which everything is an indetermined Happening, a chapter in Silence.  The Cage Bootlegs is essentially a Cagean approach to Cage, subsuming a large slice of his percussion music, as well as music by other composers, within a project in which elements of production, marketing, and packaging all taken on Cage aspects as well.  This wasn't necessarily the case in the past.  Yes, a Cage performance was always Cagean, but all those Wergo and Mode recordings were about as prosaic-looking as any other new music release.

But are all Cage pieces actually "Cagean"?  Just as we might not necessarily need to see every DC character fighting the Anti-Monitor, do we need everything Cage wrote -- even the essentially conventionally-notated, normal pieces like the Third Construction -- thrown into Cage's multiverse?  On The Cage Bootlegs' CD sampler, the So players speak from Cage's Lecture on Something on top of the Third Construction, essentially transforming a "normal" piece into a "Happening" piece.  There's nothing necessarily wrong or "inauthentic" about this, but I'm not sure if every Cage piece actually makes a whole lot of sense placed into what we think of as "Cagean" today. However, The Cage Bootlegs makes a very compelling case of creating a narrative out of this notion, and these spoken excerpts help form the idea of the album as a complete experience (more on that later).

For those of you who skipped those three paragraphs, congratulations! Let's move on.

The Cage Bootlegs (hereafter, Bootlegs) contains, essentially, four things: a record sleeve with an awesome, handmade Rauschenberg-style collage, a completely blank LP (a perhaps overstated 4'33" reference), a CD "sampler" with tracks apparently chosen by the I Ching, and a download card which grants access to recordings of various live shows on So Percussion's Cage tour which included in March.

Funnily enough, I initially made the mistake of what a lot of this post will be about.  I listened to the sampler as an album, getting to know the recordings without realizing that they were actually random snippets and excerpts instead of full pieces.  I mistook a part for the whole, granting a traditional listening experience to only one component of a very non-traditional album.

I soon rectified my mistake by listening to the sampler in tandem with various downloads of live performances.  My sampler recordings all came from a UC Davis concert last October (not sure if it's different for everyone), and the downloads come from various tour stops across the country.  Much of the music that can be downloaded but didn't show up on the sampler -- like Cage's Child of Trees, performed on a cactus -- doesn't quite work with an audio-only recording.  But that's part of what's so fascinating about the album; the musicians create a kind of experience where one feels like one is part of an ongoing project, only living a sliver of what is actually going on (unfortunately, coming to writing about it rather late, everything has already "happened").

So what of the actual music? We get a nice mix of Cage and Cage-inspired.  My sampler began with five minutes of So's recording of Credo in US, a WW2-era work which samples radio and records, appropriating recorded elements of patriotism and classicism (Cage suggests "Dvorak, Beethoven, Sibelius or Shostakovich" for sections of it).  Our "classic" here is the gunmetal opening of Bon Jovi's Shot Through the Heart --  perhaps the best way to start a Cage album, ever -- which then launches into polyrhythmic percussion goodness.  Later we get snippets of sardonic piano tango and bits of the Star Spangled Banner.  Checking in on the online edition, the samples are even better -- The National's Fake Empire and Radiohead make it onto one version.  Our US is very different from Cage's, and the ensemble has an interesting idea of what "Dvorak, Beethoven, Sibelius or Shostakovich" might be today.>

As far as "real" Cage goes, the sampler also included a stunningly precise excerpt of the Third Construction -- pretty much the Brahms Violin Concerto of the percussion repertoire (I like to think of the conch shell towards the end as the percussionist mating call) -- as well as part of the subdued Percussion Quartet, and most of Imaginary Landscape No. 1.  The latter is one of the earliest electro-acoustic pieces, and sounds something like an apocalyptic hearing test.  Today, the mixture of phonographs, prepared piano, and cymbals has a wonderfully dated sound, with the high electronic pitches sounding particularly nostalgic.

Then we get the Cagean Cage, and the Cage-derived.  So Percussion has created a "Simultaneous Cage Pieces" work, which layers together three pieces (Inlets, 0'00", Duet for Cymbal) and the lecture 45' for a speaker (which can be found in Silence).  It's an fun conflation of sounds, with lovely little Cage aphorisms ("The best thing to do about counterpoint is what Schoenberg did: Teach it"), muted cymbal hits, and random bits of electronic-y fuzz.  Jason Treuting, one of So's Percussionists, also contributes his 24 x 24, a riff on the Third Construction, with more readings from the Lecture on Something.  This is a particularly intriguing piece, because it introduces drones, which aren't exactly Cage's thing, and that if anything recalled Riley and Young -- a piano occasionally chimes Cs in the back.  It's Cage refracted through the minimalism he helped inspire.

The Cage-inspired, but not necessarily Cage-derived, new pieces come from Cenk Ergun, Dan Deacon, and Matmos.  Matmos' Needles is a fun little series of Reichian clinking patterns which, as it turns out, were produced from an amplified cactus (unlike Cage's cactus piece, this one works pretty well without the visuals).

I enjoyed Ergun's Use, whose score can be seen here.  Written for percussionists, a string player, and "1 wild card performer," it involves each performer playing a series of succeding events -- friction, pattern, pulse, solo, etc.  In the sampler, this includes complicated polyrhythms produced by hollow cans or perhaps drums, whirring noises, whistling, and snatches of viola melody which float in and out.  More intrigugingly, an online recording from a Stanford performance includes violist Beth Myers tuning and warming up her instrument while anarchic percussion rages beneath.  Deacon's Bottles, a 25-minute piece from which the sampler only includes a single minute (I listened to the whole thing online) probably works better as a live visual experience.  The So musicians play simple drumming patterns on bottles while the 45' For a Speaker is read; we later hear a strangely jangly, electric/electronic instrument (guitar?), noise, the sound of the bottles slowly emptying and, towards the end, the keens of the conch shell from the Third Construction.

On the sampler, at least, Cage's written word plays as important a role as the music; pretty much every piece includes a speaker (the same one on the whole album, though I'm not sure who it is) reading various lectures by the composer.  It's occasionally distracting, but mostly it provides an aura of authenticity and an overarching narrative to the experience, as if Cage were watching over the performers' shoulders and approving of the absurdity.

So, what are our big ideas about this album and what it means for new music?  Here are two slightly fuzzy ones which can apply to Silfra and The Bright Motion as well:

The Album as Experience
Again, nothing new here.  Every album is an experience beyond the merely auditory.  Back in the day, the physicality of the LP format, with its liner notes actually on the sleeve, the weight and size of the album, made it a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, a fully-conceived piece of art on multiple levels.  Today, we have the gamut of album experiences, from barebones digital downloads (that's not to say all downloads are barebones!) to those LP + CD + online access + bumper sticker + many-other-things deluxe editions.

The Bootlegs, besides offering a sly commentary on the return of the LP format, is more than just the limited edition series of goodies and extras.  This is an album not only to be experienced as a physical object, with its intriguing handmade cover art, but also as an ongoing and almost participatory experience -- one can continuously check the website, download new recordings from the ensemble's tour, and compare concert to concert (though this ongoing aspect is now, unfortunately, concluded).  The album is a way of charting the journey of the performers, tagging along digitally on their tour.  The problem here, which I'll talk about in the next section as well, is forming a narrative.  The Bootlegs grant me access to multiple downloadable versions of each piece alongside my sampler  -- there is no studio product here, no one single "thing" that the album is.  It's difficult to sit down and hear So Percussion's Cage, in this state, because there are many conflicting things to pick through.

If this were Beethoven, this would be a problem.  We would want a single product, our performer(s) to have focused his or her energy and produced One Grand Statement.  With Cage, it's actually not -- this ongoing approach matches perfectly with the master of anti-narrativity.  The album as indeterminate experience isn't what we got during Cage's lifetime, but it makes sense.

The album today can exist in tandem with a website -- like Silfra's -- which hopefully goes beyond marketing to provide the listener (or perhaps I should say user?) with an interactive and potentially participatory experience .  Musicians and composers are increasingly opening up their works to remixes, mashups, and visual re-interpretations (see: Son Lux).  This is, if anything, a multimedia extension of classical music's necessity of constant reinterpretation.  It's a good thing!

Dealing with the Archive

This is a new problem, and problem might be the word here.  There is an exhausting amount of new music being constantly released, and forming a narrative -- beyond that of this particular Cage album -- can be exhausting.  I can sit down and check out various live recordings on the Bootlegs website, but I would honestly rather hear those concerts in person.  There is now what is essentially an infinite amount of space out there for music (I guess there always was, but now it's infinite space + instant access).  Pretty much every major New York concert that I'm interested in is being live-streamed and archived by WQXR or Q2 (you can experience all of Spring For Music vicariously). and the Digital Concert Hall offer amazing streaming concerts; every weekend Parterre compiles the many operas being live webcast, often with video; every concert Ionarts mentions is one I want to listen to.  Without basically any effort, one can rip many of these streams and end up with lots of gigabites of concerts to listen to at some point in the future, alongside the many studio and live albums constantly being released.  With Bandcamp, new releases from labels like New Amsterdam can be streamed before purchasing for free.

I don't know if there is any one point in history where there is "more" or "less" music out there, and I have no idea how one would quantify such a thing.  But it's a bit exhausting to have an album which isn't a fixed entity alongside all these other streaming things, alongside all these real, conventional "fixed" albums.  I'm not sure if I will return to any of the online So material after this review, and that has nothing to do with quality -- there's just so much out there.

So how does one create this kind of open album experience while negotiating with the fact that The Archive is already so vast?  The release purports to be an ongoing series of bootlegs, and that's a particularly interesting metaphor for what we're talking about.  With the recent wave of specifically-produced albums, as I talked about earlier, via labels like Bedroom Community, we have an instance where the album is a musical work and the performance is another musical work, or a live realization of the album.  Here, there's no one musical work off of which the other is based -- you have a series of indeterminate pieces, each of which is different in every performance, brought together into -- well, bootlegs is the right word.

It's almost an acknowledgement of (or metaphor for) the way contemporary music is increasingly produced today, as series of of performance to performance rather than single monumental work to single monumental work.  So instead of spending two years writing a single piece which attempts to invent an entirely new musical language (this might be called the PhD approach), a composer will spend two years writing a ton of pieces, collaborating, doing some string arrangements for a band, performing her own music and that of others.  It's scrappier, and may result in fewer Teutonically Great works, but more very, very good and well-crafted music (and more concert experiences and opportunities to hear new music).  Our archive grows, and we may lose sight of the Grand Narrative, but what we've gained in immediacy for the music world today may be more important, even if we can't see the forest for the trees.


That's it for the album series.  Check back in a couple days for....WAR! And music! And the Spektral Quartet's promising new project.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

let's talk about music (part 2)

You can stream all of Michael Mizrahi's The Bright Motion herdane.

Michael Mizrahi is the resident pianist of the NOW Ensemble, a chamber group I've been following ever since I got completely hooked on Judd Greenstein's Folk Music a few years back.  Later this month, Mizrahi will release his first solo album, The Bright Motionon New Amsterdam, the label run by Greenstein, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and William Brittelle.  Like many of New Amsterdam's releases, this is very much an "in-house" affair -- NOW also records for New Amsterdam, and the album features works by Greenstein, Brittelle, NOW co-founder Patrick Burke, and NOW guitarist Mark Dancigers.  This musical not-quite-nepotism also takes place on most Bedroom Community releases.  I suppose you could look down on it as insularity, but I prefer to see a benefit in collaborators working repeatedly in the same circles.  As I mentioned in my last post, I think it is fruitful to continue pursuing collaborative relationships over time, even if it might mean that a certain aesthetic similarity can sink in.

We'll talk a bit about what that similarity might be later. For now, the music: it's great. (Hint: I'm only going to be talking about albums that I like this week.)  Dancigers' The Bright Motion -- specifically, the first movement, written several years after the second movement -- is easily the best piece on the album. (Listen here.)

It opens with a series of hazy arpeggios, a Debussyian filagree, articulated with breathtaking clarity by Mizrahi.  A chorale-like melody soon enters on top of the filagree; it quickly fades away into the arpeggiated mist, but returns with greater force, in a powerfully pianistic middle section.  It's the kind of arch-Romantic structure -- big-boned melody supported by rich arpeggios -- that is just one of the best ways to use a piano.  It reminds me of this:

And this:

Those are two very different composers who know exactly what the piano is about.  It's always refreshing to hear a pianistic moment like this, a reminder that, despite the fact that the instrument can and has been used for just about everything, there are still composers who can summon forth that old 1895-y full-bloodedness and pull it off.

The movement seems about to conclude where it began -- the wafting, subsiding filagree gestures return -- but then entirely new material emerges, a series of paired phrases providing a calming denouement.  The filagree makes one final, brief appearance, and quickly dies away, making for an almost seamless segue into the second movement (the "original" Bright Motion), a slightly less compelling but equally beautiful piece, again rife with moments of arpeggios rippling off of thick melodies.

Judd Greenstein's First Ballade and Patrick Burke's Unravel are tied for my second-favorite works on the album.  Unravel features an incessantly recurring three-note motive, which constantly "unravels," unspooling into longer and longer phrases before snapping back into its original form.  Jazzy, low bouncing figures take over, setting up a conflict between registers.  Eventually, the original motive returns in heavenly hyper-major mode, a Beethovenian gesture of triumph in non-Beethovian musical language.  Mizrahi brings to the work a lilting clarity -- a touch reminiscent of Bill Evans -- elucidating Burke's dense textures.

Greenstein's piece is a great match-up of lyric impulse and rhythmic drive, a mixture which really highlights Mizrahi's strengths.  There is a groove underlying the beginning section, but listening to Mizrahi's playing, one doesn't really feel that the rhythm is pushing it incessantly forward, Bang on a Can-style.  In the classic Bang on a Can, hard-driving grooves, individual rhythm units feel deliberately, aggressively metric.  Here, the "units" are phrases which breathe and deserve the rubato Mizrahi gives them (Greenstein cites Chopin as an big influence on the piece).  By the halfway point, these phrases become cascading series of Chopinesque arpeggios, making clear that the piece is less about groove than, well, ballade.  There's a story here.

Ryan Brown's Pieces for Solo Piano is a set of four curious miniatures which exclusively employ the higher registers of the instrument.  This particular range meshes neatly with Mizrahi's delicate technique, and allows for a very tactile experience -- you can hear the keys chiming out each high note.  Several moments feel just like William Duckworth's Time Curve Preludes -- that mix of quasi-minimalism, Satie, blues, and processes at work (the second movement, Buckle, feels particularly Time Curve-esque).  The final movement, Shoestring, is perhaps the most intriguing.  It spins out a simple two-note gesture in the piano's stratosphere over two minutes.  At the very end, though, Mizrahi sounds a single low note -- the only thing below middle C in the entire piece.  It's an obvious but intriguing, Haydnesque gesture -- is Brown telling us that the whole piece was a joke, a gimmick? Is he reminding us of the artificiality of the concept of writing for only a third of an instrument's range? Or simply telling us that the piano can do much more than what it just did?

I didn't really get into William Brittelle's Computer Wave, which had the postminimal rhythmic intensity of the rest of the album but lacked the poetry and breadth of the other works.  John Mayrose's Faux Patterns is dreamy, and Mizrahi's playing made the pedaled dissonances feel particularly mysterious, but the piece never grabbed me.

So what does this album tell us about contemporary music?  In the last post, I mentioned place and production.  These are important to this album, but don't come to the fore as obviously as they do on Silfra.  So here are two other interesting aspects that are particularly felt on The Bright Motion, and have implications for much other new music:

Personal Collaboration:
Collaboration is a very big thing right now, which I'm increasingly obsessed with.  It's not anything new, of course, but some things have changed in significant ways.  One, I think, is the degree of personal connections which are present, and even dramatized, in contemporary collaborations.  Mizrahi writes in his liner notes for the album:

"Several composers told me they composed with my hands, my sound, and my approach to the keyboard in mind, and I communicated frequently with all the composers throughout the process of learning, performing, and recording their music."

Having written about this idea in my undergrad thesis (yes, I get to mention it again) with regards to Muhly's Keep in Touch and The Only Tune -- two works which utilize Muhly's close collaborators but also dramatize aspects of the friendship between them -- I'm very conscious of what statements like this mean.  It may not necessarily be anything new that a composer would write for a performer's specific musical personality, and tie their music to their relationship with their collaborator -- one can assume this was happening with Britten and Pears -- but the openness with which it is discussed is striking.

Last year, I heard Ken Ueno lecture about his music and discuss Talus, written for his friend, the violist Wendy Richman.  Ueno based the piece's harmonies on a spectrogram analysis of an X-ray of Richman's shattered ankle, which she broke at a rehearsal in 2006.  This is co-biographical music, where the performer's life, not just his or her musical skill set, becomes ingrained within the work itself.

The implications of this are fascinating.  Would a performer that is not the original be missing a "secret" aspect of the music without having lived the experiences it describes?  (If it's not your broken leg in the score, does that shape how your play the piece?) If Yefim Bronfman played Dancigers' The Bright Motion, would an essentially personal quality of the music  -- the hands, the sound, or the approach -- be lost?  Certainly all the pieces on this album can be performed by pianists that aren't Mizrahi  (unlike, say, The Only Tune, which pretty much requires Sam Amidon).  What would be lost, though, and what might be gained?

This is really, really hard to quantify or even qualify.  There is a certain open emotional quality present on this album, and in much new music.  Isaac Shankler mentioned this as a characteristic of *blankity-blankity*-classical in a recent NMB post, and I think he is on to something. This pervasive emotional state -- somewhere between optimism and ecstasy -- is why I misinterpreted the title of the Ecstatic Music festival a while back.  I do think that much music by composers like Muhly, Greenstein, Missy Mazzoli, Dancigers, as well as bands like Sigur Rós/Jónsi, has this hard-to-name quality.  It is both an emotional aspect of the music as well as a way of dealing with musical time -- to quote the title of one of Greenstein's pieces, a Being There essence of musical presence.  I think it has to do with a mixture of postminimalism and Romanticism, staking out a place between the abstraction of the former and the personal implications of the latter.  I still haven't figured out exactly what the musical qualities of this "brightness/presentness" are, but it's what allows me to hear Hahn/Hauschka and think immediately of I Drink the Air Before Me or Jonsi's Go or Dancigers' The Bright Motion (it can't just be an Icelandic thing).  I'm going to write myself in circles if I keep talking about this, since I haven't quite figured it out yet, but I will keep it in mind, and I hope you will too.

Next up: So Percussion and Cage.

Monday, May 14, 2012

let's talk about music (part 1)

After reading this, and voicing my thoughts on Twitter, I thought I finally had to do it: write a blog post about *redacted*-classical.  I even started writing it! Then I got super confused, slightly angry, and very tired.  So I decided to do something else.

I rarely review albums here -- I don't consider it too fair for me to write them up, since I don't listen to everything that's coming out and feel more comfortable in general talking about the live experience.  However, I've gotten a bunch of great albums lately, and in lieu of talking about some giant, amorphous musical scene which has been defined by a ridiculous set of terms, I'm going to talk about three albums, and what each one might suggest for contemporary music.  I'll talk a bit about each album individually and discusses characteristics of it which I think are indicative of (but certainly not unique to) how composed/classical/new music is being made in our time.  Without further ado:

Album Number 1: Hahn/Hauschka - Silfra

You can listen to it on NPR for free here.

There is something somewhat extraordinary about this album -- actually, there's something somewhat extraordinary about the direction Hilary Hahn has taken in recent years.  A press release plopped into my inbox several months ago mentioning the upcoming release of Silfra.  It was the first I had heard of the collaboration between Hahn and Hauschka, a German prepared-piano virtuoso (this was, admittedly, the first I had heard of him as well).  Hahn has been pushing into relatively unexplored territory for a former child prodigy -- I suppose it got started (or at least publicly acknowledged) with the 2008 recording of the Schoenberg concerto, but that didn't particularly impress me as a unusual act unto itself (neither did last year's Ives album).  But then there was the Encores project, the composition contest, and now this.  It's not like famous virtuosi haven't devoted themselves to fostering new music in the past (Maurizio Pollini and Pierre Laurent-Aimard are two good examples), but it seems to happen less often in America, and rarely with such fascinating eclecticism.

And rarely does a violinist who has been releasing albums of concertos and sonatas nearly every consecutive year since she was a teenager dive into improvisation.  I'm not sure what exactly motivated this.  Two lengthy essays outline the history of the H&H relationship (totally what I'm calling this now, since the bagel joint is defunct), but it's hard to get at exactly what drove Hahn in particular.  It's actually always hard to get at exactly what's driving Hahn, from the quirky YouTube videos to Happy Birthday Ives to the slightly hare-brained ideas turned into quasi-institutions.

But what about the music? It succeeds! Maybe not beyond-your-wildest-dreams succeeds, but it is a very impressive freshman effort for a collaborative idea that seems to be new to both musicians.  The album, though divided into individual tracks/pieces which don't flow into each other, feels like an organic whole. This has its up and its downs.  There is really only one kind of "mood," if that's the right word, for the fifty minutes of music -- a kind of perpetual vacillation between ecstatic and melancholic -- and the drama comes from shifting variations of that interplay, rather than abrupt changes of style or emotion.

The musical language resembles a languid postminimalism, with short, repeated violin patterns hovering over open drones and crunching prepared piano sounds.  It actually reminded me more than anything of the music of Valgeir Sigurðsson, who produced the album (more on that later).  The energy of tracks like Bounce Bounce comes out of a very loose, un-mathematical version of minimalism, with Reichian patterns, multiple violins superimposed over each other, and an appealing jangliness which evokes In C -- the see-sawing fragments which the violin plays aren't far from the 53 cells of Riley's masterpiece.

Hahn's contribution to the album is a particularly interesting way to watch the transformation from classical virtuoso to quasi-composer take place.  The improvisation itself is fairly "rudimentary" -- she's not exactly reading chord changes or doing Braxton-style free jazz.  But it's compelling in its own right, mostly due to Hahn's musicality -- she delivers each gesture with refinement and purpose.  Krakow, a conventional duet of unprepared piano and violin, is a lovely Satie-like miniature, which benefits hugely from Hahn's presence.  We hear a series of snapshots of a "Romantic violin melody" -- like soundtrack outtakes from a movie about shtetls in Eastern Europe -- layered on top each other, fading in and out.  Hahn delivers these drooping turns and cadential figures with the same grace you'd hear in a recording of Faure sonatas.

What Hauschka offers is fascinating, too -- especially if you listen before watching any videos of how he works.  With piano layered atop prepared piano crunches and buzzes and what sound like modified pedals, I was under the impression I was hearing multi-tracking.  But look at this!

It's a completely fascinating version of polyphony, with different registers taking on not only different sound qualities but different emotional spheres.  Godot, the album's longest and most delicate track, has all kinds of sounds I had no idea a prepared piano could make -- subdued hammer-pounding effects, spectral ratcheting -- which layer into terrifying moments that feel less mechanical than natural.  What's most impressive is how the effects coalesce -- about nine minutes in, the various registers of piano notes and effects become a haunting progression of noise as harmony.

The collaboration works well -- the voices blend together naturally (so much so that occasionally it's hard to tell what is violin and what is piano string), and you get the sense of kindred musical spirits.  My only gripe is that it feels like a lot of the same.  As an album experience, this works pretty well; but by about 2/3rds through, individual tracks tend to run together.  One hopes this is the start of something, not just a single product in itself -- collaboration needs to build over time, and one-offs can be fascinating, but dialogues built over years can be even more artistically fruitful.

Anyway, what does this tell us about new music today? Two things that I'll talk about (and then more later this week):

As I said earlier, this sounds like a Valgeir Sigurðsson album -- it's not entirely clear how much of a compositional role Sigurðsson actually played in the making of Silfra, but I can't help but think it was a major one.  It's also not entirely clear exactly how the process of improvisation then production worked -- remember, Hahn's violin is often layered atop Hahn's violin multiple times, so someone is doing this editing, and it's not clear if it's Hauschka or Sigurðsson or Hahn.  It seems to me that Sigurðsson is really a strong presence on the album, and a lot of the musical elements point straight back to an album that's very close to my heart -- Nico Muhly's Speaks Volumes, which I increasingly think was a pioneering record back in 2006 (maybe that's just because I wrote my undergrad thesis on it, I don't know).  

The conventional role of a classical album is to mimic the live concert experience -- to construct a space that would allow one to pretend that he was hearing an orchestra or string quartet in an actual hall.  Most pop works a bit differently -- since the '70s, at least, it's about creating an entirely imaginary listening space, independent of the "reality" of the concert.  That's what Speaks Volumes did as well, and deliberately so -- even the pieces without electronics included the sounds of musicians breathing and noticable close-micing.  One can hear the presence of Sigurðsson's Greenhouse Studios on the album (more on that idea, too, in a bit).  In Muhly's Keep in TouchSigurðsson recorded Nadia Sirota trying out all kinds of funny little sounds on her viola, which he mixed into the piece's electronic backing track.  That seems to be what's going on in Silfra, too -- re-interpreting the physical sounds of the violin and prepared piano and transforming them into musique concrete elements.

I know they're going to be touring this thing, and I wonder how that's going to work -- the layering doesn't exactly accomodate for a live experience with just acoustic instruments.  In this instance, as well as pretty much every album that Bedroom Community has released, the album becomes the work, a self-standing piece of music, often before the concert experience has even take place -- it's almost like a score, in a way, the blueprint of the music from which a live performance will extract one particular rendition.  The producer takes on the role of co-composer.  This isn't necessarily new -- the great producers of olde like Walter Legge at EMI created Wagnerian opera which existed only on record -- and electronic music has long invented experiences which cannot be re-created live. But this idea of transforming chamber music -- which is really what Silfra is -- into an imagined, recorded experience, rather than a mimesis of a live one, is impressively new.

Greenhouse Studios is only fifteen years old, but as far as I'm concerned it already has a myth surrounding it.  The fact that there is a sound common to all of Bedroom Community albums as well as Silfra testifies not only to Sigurdsson's importance as a producer but also to the fact of his studio as a place in which collaboration takes place.

We tend to think of music-making today as being removed from place, that the Internet today has replaced the need for art existing physical locations.  (Certainly that's the vibe that people gave in the Spring for Music contest.)  I would argue that perhaps the opposite has happened, that as music has taken on its own life in the electronic ether, place becomes almost more important.  There's a reason that people seem fixated on Brooklyn as the source of some new musical movement; there's a reason that installation art has seen a surge; there's a reason Make Music New York has grown in popularity, that we have The Party and Inuksuit.

Hahn and Hauschka collaborated online before meeting in Iceland, exchanging recordings and creating improvisatory ideas via the Internet.  But for the Hahn and Hauschka arrival in the studio, they apparently attempted to start from scratch, "forgetting" what they had learned (this is a theme among recent collaborators), with Iceland's mountainous landscape out the window.  Though collaboration takes place online, the physical space becomes a kind of muse, unique merely for the fact that it exists in real life.  Silfra is the place where the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia meet -- as the collaborators have attested, Iceland itself permeates the music-making.

Iceland has, in recent years, become a wellspring for musical inspiration -- even Robert Lepage seems to think the tectonic plates are the place to find Wagner's Ring.  Perhaps it's our new, more politically correct Orient, but I think it may have to do just as much with the inspiration of the actual people on the ground -- the Sigurðssons and Jónsis -- as the myths which lurk beneath them.  How much is Valgeir Sigurðsson defining the sound of not just Icelandic music, but the sound of Iceland itself?  Is he tapping into some tradition that goes back to the Vikings, or is the myth being re-created and reenforced with each new gorgeous soundscape?  Those are questions for which I don't have answers.

Let's meet back later this week, for discussions of Michael Mizrahi's The Bright Motion and So Percussion's The Cage Bootlegs.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

for the birth of a child

In 1944, Schoenberg wrote a short canon in honor of the birth of Richard Rodzinski, son of the famous conductor Arthur Rodzinski.  The text is priceless:

I am almost sure, when your nurse will change your diapers,
  she will not sing you one of my George Songs,
nor of my Second String Quartet;
  but perhaps she stills you:
Sleep, Richard, Sleep! Your father loves you!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

year 1: almost done

It may seem strange to be coming to the end of the school year in April, but that's the way it is over here.  What with my earlier promises to give you all an insider's view into graduate school, I thought I might at least let you know what I worked on this semester, in case you might be interested.  But first, important business:

1. Thank you all for voting in the Spring for Music contest.  We almost won!  Hopefully some people reading this have newly discovered the blog from the contest.  Many of the contestants have completely awesome blogs, and it was disappointing to see some of my favorites weeded out when they should have easily taken the cake.  Major kudos to Neo Antennae, one of the finalists, whose blog I didn't know and who is apparently only sixteen!  If I could write that well when I was in high school, I would be some Alex Ross-Justin Davidson-Michael Kimmelman critic fusion-monster by now.

2. Do you live in the Triangle area? Do you know what that is? If you do, will you be there this coming Monday, or the Sunday after that? If not, would you be willing to?

Either way, you should come to: New Music Raleigh!  At CAM Raleigh and Motorco!  I'm playing sax (for the first real gig since, well, I graduated in 2010) on Louis Andriessen's Worker's Union, David Stock's Keep the Change, and, in the second show, the premiere of Duke composer David Kirkland Garner's the machine without horses.  The rest of the crew will also provide Judd Greenstein's Be There, Scott Lindroth's Bell Plates, and John Supko's Into the Night.  Details for both shows here.

3. This is going to be awesome, trust me.  Get ready.

And moving on:

My two big projects this semester brought me to opposite ends of the American musical spectrum: sacred music circa 1790-1844, and secular music circa 1950-1963.  I've never really thought of myself as an "Americanist," but that's certainly the direction I'm headed in.  One came out of an awesome seminar on Copland: an examination of the context of, and circumstances behind, the premiere of his Connotations at the opening of Philharmonic Hall, and Lincoln Center, in '61.  Let's take a listen:

Not exactly Appalachian Spring, right?  So why be so audacious to an audience which included Jackie Kennedy, the Secretary of State, the UN Secretary General, Henry Cowell, Isaac Stern, and a slew of Vanderbilts and Rockefellers?  I wish I had some footage from the CBS live broadcast (it's housed at the Paley Center), where you get to see Jackie chatting up Bernstein and Copland at intermission.  It's a fascinating historical moment, and I was surprised to see no one had written a dissertation about it already.

Anyway, the case I made in the paper basically boiled down to: Copland expressed much concern about orchestral programming in several lectures/essays in the 1950s, and writing a deliberately hostile, serial piece for a New York Philharmonic gala audience was an attempt to advocate for the programming of more difficult music.  Basically, he was doing what I whine about all the time on this blog, but in musical form.  Here's what he said about NY Phil programming in 1956:

"Under such conditions we composers are strongly tempted to ask: What are you doing to our audiences?  Frankly, we have very little confidence when we bring our pieces before such audiences.  Often we sense that the audience that listens to us is not the right audience for our music.  Why?  Because they have not been musically nurtured and fed properly, with a resultant vitamin lack of musical understanding."

What's the solution?

"Every concert should deliberately have an element challenging to an audience, so as to counteract conventional attitudes in music response."

So that's what Connotations is about -- Copland was dismayed by  major American orchestras abandoning younger composers, and by younger composers thus abandoning the orchestra (and the broader public).  In staking out a claim for a style of music popular among his contemporaries and younger colleagues -- serialism was, in many different forms, omnipresent in the late '50s/early '60s -- Copland hoped to incite change.  Unfortunately, it didn't really work (the change, that is; I think the piece itself is pretty great).

And, paper no. 2:

This one's a bit harder to explain.  I initially launched an independent study on The Sacred Harp, a tunebook I've written about here in the past, and in an attempt to find a way "in" to a book which contains over five hundred pieces of music, I decided to focus on two oddities.  Pleyel's Hymn (First) and Pleyel's Hymn (Second) are the only two tunes in the Sacred Harp with the same name; the only two which have a composer's name in their title; the only tunes by Ignce Pleyel, a pupil of Haydn who was actually the most popular European composer in America in the late 18th century; and the only instance of more than 1 tune by a non-American composer in the Sacred Harp, a notoriously American musical tradition.

And that's not all!  I ended up tracing the origins of both Pleyel's Hymns -- they were transformed in Britain from instrumental works into hymn melodies in the 1790s (by composers who were not Pleyel), made their way over to America in the first decade of the 1800s, and slowly weavedthrough traditional hymnals before arriving in the shape-note tradition in editions of The Easy Instructor in the 1810s.  They go through many of the major shape-note tunebooks before finally arriving in the first edition of The Sacred Harp together in 1844.  It's a complicated, twisted history, which I'm not going to get into here.  

The gist of the paper has to do with American conceptions of European psalmody, and how Pleyel's hymns intersect with a big shift in American sacred music in the early 19th century -- the "Ancient Music" movement -- where reformers attempted to eradicate the nativist musical tradition derived from Billings and replace it with simpler (perhaps "blander"), classic European hymns.  Pleyel became a kind of weapon in this reform movement. 

Here's Pleyel's Hymn (originally Pleyel's First; there's some confusion in the recent Sacred Harp revision)

And Pleyel's Second (here incorrectly called the First)

Fairly simple tunes, and very conventional harmonic writing, compared to other Sacred Harp fare:

What's really interesting is that it then hung on into The Sacred Harp, which we usually think of as the quintessential Southern, American tunebook.  That both tunes endured through numerous revisions of The Sacred Harp, and are still in the latest 1991 edition, confound some of our notions about the American exceptionalism of the shape-note tradition.  It's a really complicated story, and one that I'll delve into more in a Master's Thesis next year.


Following a pretty busy school year, I've actually got a pretty busy summer.  At the end of May, I'm off to Vienna for two weeks for the Arnold Schoenberg Center's Summer Academy, with lectures, archival work, concerts, and hopefully hanging with composer-in-residence Helmut Lachenmann.  I'll be giving a paper there (which I'll be writing in the coming weeks) on Schoenberg's band Variations. Many thanks to UNC's music department and graduate school for assisting with funding.

Then we're off to Washington D.C. for eight weeks. I am very fortunate and grateful to have received the music department's Pruett Fellowship, which allows for two months of research and work at the Library of Congress.  I'll be splitting my time between working for the library's special collections and doing my own research -- continuing both the Copland and Pleyel projects.  I'm looking forward to checking out the D.C. musical scene for the first time, and meeting up with all those cool bloggers.

Hopefully this will lead to more frequent blogging -- we shall see.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

What is it, Lassie? Did The Arts fall down a well?

As you all probably know, the contest has ended -- thanks so much for voting!

*This is the final entry in the Spring for Music Blogging Fest. If you like what you see, please vote here.*
"Save the arts? Really? Why do so many people think the arts need saving?
Do we need to save the arts, and if so, what does 'saving' them mean?"

There are three questions here, so let’s address them one by one.

Question No. 1: Why do so many people think the arts need saving?

The “Arts-In-Danger” shtick is a catch-all for a whole slew of problems, from the defunding of education programs to the bankruptcy of the Philadelphia Orchestra to the dangers of pop culture to the avant-garde’s alienation of the broader public. I’m going to speak mostly about classical music here, because 1) it’s what I know and 2) it’s what people are often talking about when they’re having these discussions.

Those who preach The Danger seriously fall into two camps: the sky-is-falling folks like Norman Lebrecht, whose style of apocalyptic tabloid journalism works perfectly with the idea that classical music dies a bit more every week; and people like Greg Sandow, whose attempts to make classical music “relevant” end up taking an extremely narrow view of what art can be in order to find ways in which it can be fixed.

Both branches of this unholy non-alliance miss the point. One ossifies the art form into a kernel of itself, romanticizing a small period of music to encompass the whole thing (the death of a subsection of the recording industry = the death of classical music) and wrapping it up in shouting, Daily Mail-style declinist oratory. The other indicts an entire history and culture of listening because it doesn’t conform to today’s pop culture, blaming classical music itself for its problems. (Like when he claims that the classical music’s irrelevance originated in the 18th century, even though it was perhaps the most relevant form of art in the 19th.)

But is anything actually dying? When we talk about saving, we’re usually talking about one specific thing: the institutions. Carnegie Hall, Deutsche Grammophon, your local orchestra and opera house, if you still have one. The Detroit Symphony clawed its way out of oblivion last year; Opera Boston is over. But if the Louisville Symphony dies, art doesn’t die, right?

Question No. 2: Do we need to save the arts…

So, let’s talk about this need for saving. The arts aren’t about to fall down a well, or get hunted to extinction by Japanese fishermen, or end up in any other situation in which they might require saving. The phrase itself is disingenuous: it’s talking about one specific kind of art in one specific kind of place. A single example never represents the whole – that Joshua Bell subway debacle, to which I refuse to link, only proved that people sometimes need to get to work.

Preservation isn’t exactly a streak that runs deep in our history. Sometimes we preserve; sometimes we don’t. Today, we are shocked to find that tens of civilizations layered their own buildings right on top of Roman ruins. How could you destroy such a monumental chapter in world history to build your houses? But they did. (Take a class on pre-1700 music and you’ll find out just how many manuscripts of masterpieces were copied over with accounting records.) And sometimes, in excavating straight to the Roman “originals,” we risk destroying other parts of our past, digging for one “authentic” truth while ignoring the others. (Try digging through this craziness.)

Mozart and Haydn weren’t classical until long after their deaths. Let’s not forget what Tinctoris said: “There is no composition written over forty years ago which is thought by the learned as worthy of performance.” The musical repertory is a nineteenth-century invention, codified in the twentieth. Go back to the American classical scene in the 1800s, and you’ll find a listening culture that resembles the circus more than it does the symphony – as Daniel Cavicchi writes in a new study, “Leopold de Meyer played fantasies for the left hand while he ate vanilla ice-cream with his right; Wehli played a military piece; when he wished to imitate the cannons, he sat down on the keys in the lowest bass.”

“Saving” can be stultifying, even dangerous. We can end up freezing things in time instead of allowing them to grow. Certainly this happened with the orchestral tradition. Constructing a canon made sense: it justified the orchestra’s existence as a keeper and reviver of historical treasures, guaranteeing its importance.

Now, though, it traps us. In “classicizing” a large swath of our musical heritage, we cut it off from today’s present and the past’s present, cauterizing it from interacting with important components in our society – the very components it interacted with before it became “classical.” Music that was once political, was once humorous, was once dangerous, is now only contemplated; all secular music, no matter how bawdy or irreverent, becomes sacred. A friend of mine was recently shushed for laughing during a Haydn symphony; evidently, the lady next to him felt a sense of superiority about what she was listening to without even realizing that it was a joke.

We could try to “save” some things, not let them “die out.” That might also mean not letting them change, not letting them grow, not letting them morph into more effective, more purposeful, more useful. The separation of the composer and performer was an historical aberration, one we are correcting today. Blow up the opera houses, in the words of '60s-era Boulez, and the ones that replace them might be better suited to the 21st century.

But; and this is a very big BUT: death isn’t always a good thing. The circle of life isn’t the best metaphor for a commerce-driven cultural market, where corporate tycoons can complain that the Grammys are out of touch because the competitor that sold the most albums didn’t take home the prize. Blow up the opera houses, and there is a very good chance that we won't build new ones.

Pure cultural Darwinism—orchestras as for-profit corporations, competing for funds—could give us more cost-efficient, driven, relevance-minded institutions. It might also give us no orchestras at all, if they cannot afford to employ musicians for forty-week seasons and pay for large concert halls. I’m all in favor of a future model of non-classical, touring chamber ensembles that provide a variety of music in a variety of concert settings. But then how will we hear our Mahler? There is about ninety years of music—stretching from Beethoven’s Ninth to Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder—which demands the orchestra that we have constructed for it today (a similar situation exists for 19th century opera; it’s not easy to do without a big house). Yes, a pick-up group can make its way through Beethoven 9, but I’m not sure if I’d want to hear a “Resurrection” Symphony done by freelancers.

And that ninety-year span is a period that we cannot forsake. If we lose Mahler, we endanger erasing a vital part of our cultural memory, a sublime piece of fin de siècle artistic truth. This music is like the Passions, or the story of Passover: we need to tell these stories, relive these stories. Yes, those stories have changed remarkably over the years; but listen to Mengelberg and then listen to Boulez, and you'll realize that Mahler has too. Every couple years, wherever you may live, there should be an opportunity for you to hear this:

Or this:

Question No. 3: …what does "saving" them mean?"

This is the really tough one, and the one that I had to hash out in a long discussion with @haliefrancesca. We want to save the arts; but we don’t want to be elitist, and the ones that need “saving” are the ones which are usually acquired tastes. We want to preserve our great cultural institutions; but we don’t want to artificially respirate things many people don’t like or care about. If the public doesn’t care about classical music, why should we agonize over saving it? And how should we save it without forcing it on people, or re-packaging it as something it’s not?

The answer – or at least my/haliefrancesca’s answer – is the too-obvious one: education. We need better arts education so badly. I’m not even talking about making sure every kid knows how to read music or can name four great Renaissance painters. (Though: a couple months ago I heard a college student--at a good college--ask if it was Picasso or Shakespeare who painted the Mona Lisa.) I’m talking about fostering a sense of artistic experience, giving people hands-on connections to all of music history, local and global – Bach and pipa and Josquin and Ives and Coltrane and Björk and shape-notes. Actually, Björk’s model is a great one: hands-on musical education via iPads and composing, cutting to the heart of the creative experience instead of teaching note-reading and Minuet in G.

And we need to continue to foster that education—without moralizing or dumbing down (that’s the tricky part)—until kids reach the age of independent cultural consumption (it’s earlier every year). We need to train our country to be educated consumers of culture, just how we need to train our country to be educated consumers of food or gasoline.

That is not about forcing them towards a classical path: we need to show everyone all the options, so that when it comes time to make that decision, and find that passion, they make it knowing what choices are available. Democracy is great; we should all be able to vote. But it would be even better if everyone knew why he or she was voting, and what the implications were. Same goes for the arts. If everyone understands what’s going on in all facets of the arts, then we won’t need to artificially revive symphony orchestras or museums – people will go to them, I guarantee it. This looks like a good move; El Sistema is also a great idea.

Today, the problem isn’t that nobody cares about classical music. It’s that many people aren’t even given the choice to care about classical music. So let’s tell them all about it, and find out what they think.


Edit: People have requested the return of Coco and Igor. As a strict populist, I can only satisfy their demands.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

art for all, but none for art

*This is an entry in the semifinals of the Spring for Music Arts Blogger Face-Off. I strongly encourage you to follow this link and vote for Seated Ovation on the right. Thanks!*

Many countries have ministries of culture. Does America need a Secretary
of Culture or Secretary of the Arts? Why or why not?

In theory: absolutely.

Igor volunteers for the position.

I can’t think of anything better, and less controversial, than appointing a Secretary of the Arts.

Imagine a world where the Bang on a Can All-Stars play every year at the White House; where Richard Serra gives lectures at the House of Representatives; where the Wooster Group stages a reenactment of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the steps of the Capitol Building every July 4th.

Appointing a Cabinet-level position for the arts would demonstrate an astounding level of government commitment. Certainly its creation would mean that it had to be both effective and ambitious in its early years, funding projects across the cultural spectrum with a vast budget, adding a Composer Laureate, Artist Laureate, and Director Laureate to our measly Poet Laureate. Orchestras would have the financial backbone to experiment to a degree previously unprecedented; opera houses across the country could integrate new works into their repertory.

In a decade, we would be Europe, a cultural paradise, with Regietheater and new music festivals in every city. I witnessed a subsidized culture last year in Germany, and it is an experience not to be forgotten. The State Opera of Cologne mounted the premiere of Stockhausen’s Sonntag, constructing two theaters within a massive convention center. Eighteen state museums in Berlin alone covered all of the arts, over and over – an entire, gigantic museum devoted to post-war art alone. A new-music festival spread fifty pieces over twenty-five well-attended events, only ten of which were written before 2000 (11 world premieres, 10 German premieres, 8 festival commissions) One time I saw the President at Fidelio; the Prime Minister trekked out to the middle of nowhere for the opening of an Anselm Kiefer exhibit of cows. When the Queen of the Netherlands came to town, her entourage included the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

I’m not one of those people who think Europe is the be-all-and-end-all, and a lot of their cultural presence has little or nothing to do with state support. Britain is in a quagmire with regards to government arts funding, and budgets are being cut all over the continent. But an American Arts Czar (Czart?) would be awesome. Really, look at all those departments. Surely we’ve got room for some arts.

And surely we need a Secretary. To have someone with the clout of a Cabinet minister fighting for the NEA, unveiling new initiatives with not only a massive budget but also the public eye, would do a great service to art. The symbolism of the position would send a strong message to American artists that the country cared about what they were doing.

Certainly there was a time in our history when the government paid a bit more attention to the arts, and it wasn’t all that long ago. As Alex Ross recently noted, Harry Truman, who spearheaded the initial idea for the construction of the Kennedy Center, brought scores with him when he attended classical performances. A big portion of the Cold War was about cultural prestige, and that included funding, propagandizing, and proselytizing for American art. It didn’t always happen stateside: we tended to focus on Europe, funding the Darmstadt Summer Courses and Congress for Cultural Freedom to promote anti-Soviet aesthetics. But the Lincoln Center complex itself is a testament to our government’s commitment to the arts in a culture war, a set of living monuments to a society that spent millions on classical music.

But we are living a different kind of culture war today, and it’s not the kind that ends up with $142 million for Lincoln Center. So,

In practice:

Coco says no.

I can’t think of anything worse, and more controversial, than appointing a Secretary of Culture.

It was just a year ago that a certain Study Committee attempted to defund the National Endowment for the Arts entirely. Mitt Romney is campaigning with the promise of cutting the NEA, along with public broadcasting and the NEH. The real battles between legislature and the NEA took place in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but it’s still bundled together with NPR as an enemy of the American people.

Any attempt to create a position at the level of Secretary of Arts/Culture would be a political debacle. Let’s say we somehow actually get the position approved (can you imagine the nightmare of congressional hearings?), and The Secretary drafts an agenda of goals: revitalizing the Kennedy Center; funding an exhibition of American multicultural art which would tour the country and the globe (remember when we used to have arts ambassadors?); appointing a composer laureate; pushing for better arts education in the schools. Pretty modest, right?

Cultural warriors take to their radio shows:

“Obama is trying to force-feed us liberal propaganda paintings.”

“Walt Whitman was a socialist fascist.”

“Liberals want to give $500 million of your tax money to mime troupes and artists who paint with their feces.”

“Composer laureate Steve Reich: more like Third Reich.”

“You know who else was a painter?”

We couldn’t even get America’s nicest rapper to read poetry at the White House without stirring up crazy.

The problem isn’t that we shouldn’t be having a productive national debate about what the arts mean in American culture – the problem is that we can’t have a productive national debate about anything right now, least of all something as complex as art. If it’s hard to argue for throwing money at universal health care, it’s going to be much, much harder to argue for throwing money at a 75-year-old man who likes the marimba. Take a look at this article. It’s absolutely crazy, and it’s probably one of the more in-depth, thoughtful responses to a controversial issue in the arts. Take a complicated subject like that to television, and you’re screwed. (Remember Glenn Beck, art critic?)

Let’s say, hypothetically, the Czart manages to convince the country that Steve Reich, Richard Serra, and Peter Sellars aren’t political liabilities. Then you’ll still have to reckon with the changes of elitism—why is my tax money going to something that most Americans can’t even understand?

There aren’t too many President Bartlets hanging around Washington these days. And there are many, many Governor Ritchies.

It’s not that I’m nostalgic for the past, either – that came with its own set of complications. The construction of Lincoln Center, our cultural mecca, bulldozed seventeen blocks of ethnic neighborhoods and drove 7,000 families out of tenement housing.

And I don’t mean to suggest that just because we might lose a battle, we shouldn’t fight it. If we conceded to conservative ideas about what to spend money on, there wouldn’t be an NEA, Planned Parenthood, or oops I forgot the third one. In theory, we shouldn’t have to fight for the arts – they seem like the least controversial thing in the world. But the reality of today’s toxic political climate is that those things that seem beyond controversy – birth control, UNESCO -- are the ones that we have to spend much too much time fighting for.

Right now, an Arts Secretary would be useless, and thus not necessary. Maybe we would end up with someone with a lot of political clout, but I’m guessing as soon as the entire Fox News crew came running after our Czart, he/she wouldn’t stand a chance (remember this?). Secretary after Secretary would be forced to resign under pressure from various non-existent “scandals.” The attention given to artists wouldn’t be the kind they wanted – suddenly people who had been successful for decades would find themselves “controversial” in the eyes of America.

There are other ways for the government to fund the arts. But, at least right now, a position on the public scale of a Secretary would be a waste of time. I would love to see the Obamas take on the arts a bit more than they have – things looked promising with Karaoke Simple Gifts Inauguration, and they’ve hosted some cultural events, but I want a bit more ambition (they’re trying to raise the NEA budget, but not by very much).

Oddly enough, the best shot at more governmental support for music might be…*dun dun dun* President Newt.

Believe it or not, but Callista Gingrich is a pianist, French horn player* and singer—she majored in music at Luther College in Iowa—and as first lady, would make music education a top priority. So there you have it: vote Newt, and we’ll get not only a colony on the moon, but Space Arts Ambassadors to spread the Maple Leaf Rag around the galaxy.

In conclusion: Yes, we need one. It’s a battle we should fight. But for now, let’s see if we can fix the other parts of our government before adding new ones, and quietly double the budget of the NEA every year.

And, rub my belly.

*Someone please watch that video and explain to me where she gets that syllable accent on French horn, I have never heard that before.