21.12.05

Four Play

Four jobs you've had in your life: Ladies' wear stock clerk; library technical assistant; grantswriter; teacher

Four movies you could watch over and over: The Searchers, Nashville, Godfather II, Chinatown

Four places you've lived: Poughkeepsie, Ithaca, Durham, Iowa Citry

Four TV shows you love to watch: Scrubs, Law & Order (mothership), Boomtown, 24

Four places you've been on vacation: Atlanta, Tampa, Chicago, New York

Four websites you visit daily: All of the sites on the blogroll plus dailykos, bopnews, Salon, Slate

Four of your favorite foods: fresh pasta with marinara sauce and cheese, various Indian dishes, black beans and rice, salad

Four places you'd rather be: Atlanta, New York, Italy, France

13.12.05

Storms

[Up front disclaimer: I've known Stirling Newberry for nearly ten years of internet discussion and arguement. It's impossible for me to hear his music without my experience of him affecting my perceptions, and I wouldn't want to hear it that way.]

_________________________

Political activism and music are among the passions/obsessions of Stirling Newberry's life. These obsessions come together in the two string quartets recorded on In The Year of Storms.

The two quartets on this disc, (No. 7 in Eb, Op. 35, and No. 8 in B, Op. 36) were written in response to the storm season of 2005 and its aftermath, both political and human. A combination of grief, anger, and longing suffuse the music of both quartets.

Mr. Newberry's music is tonal/modal in both forward and backwards senses. The works are governed by large-scale harmonic and melodic ideas while at the same time there is often a hint (or more) of the minimalist project underlying the surface. And it's a compelling surface. Mr. Newberry's melodies are memorable enough to carry the musical weight they are given in these pieces, though they aren't tunes you'll whistle afterwards (for the most part). His admiration (obsession, really) for Beethoven is reflected in his melodies, which are almost always ripe for contrapuntal treatment.

The composer's brand of post-modernism comes out in his stylistic references. The opening of the first movement of Quartet 7, for example, recalls the opening of Beethoven’s Ninth and a later movement includes the Dies Irae as a theme. Mr. Newberry is also fluent in many popular styles of the past and present and deploys them with ease.

I can recommend this disc without serious reservation. It brings up important issues about the nature of performance (and what constitutes a musical work) and the distribution of concert music, which I will discuss later.

11.12.05

Happy Birthday, Chronometros

My work was submitted under the pseudonym of Chronometros . . .

--Elliott Carter in his entry in the 25th Anniversary Report of the Harvard Class of 1930, referring to his First Quartet and its entry in a composition competition.

Carter goes on, quoting a letter he received after the Quartet won the competition:

I don't know if Feldbusch, the 'cellist of the Liege Quartet, has written you, but if not, here's his story, which may please you. He and Koch, the leader, detested the quartet all through rehearsals and the first performance. The eve of the final desicion, the judges listened to tape recordings and for the first time F and K were able to listen, not play. They were overwelmed, and F, a big hulk of an extrovert, not at all given to romanticism, I assure you, said he found himself on the verge of tears, and K also was moved. Meeting an old friend the day of the final concert, F insisted he come, deliberately telling him he must hear Chronometros, a terrible work, nonsensical, no rhyme or reason. Now the old friend was a coal miner, a guy who went down in the pits at the age of fourteen and has done nothing else in his life, is now forty-five, and goes once a year or so to the opera for Manon or Carmen. He came to the concert and the next day looked up F, threatened to bash his nose in, called him every dirty name in the Walloon vocabulary, said F knew nothing about music and deserved to hear nothing better than Manon or Carmen if he couldn't understand Chronometros. Says he: "This is the first time I have felt in music that a man was talking to me like a man; the guy who wrote that understands the fear I experience when I get down into a new mine not sure whether or not it is going to cave in on me; he's got guts and muscle, and he digs in his music like I dig in hard rock; he sweats like I do, he's a worker like I am; and you, Feldbusch, you're nothing but a goddamned fool of a musician if you can't understand that."


Other Carter posts at listen.:

Carter in Atlanta

More on Carter in Atlanta

Birthday

1.12.05

A Different Perspective

This column by Chadwick Jenkins, from the PopMatters 'zine, is the first in a series of pieces on why "classical" music should matter to consumers of popular culture. I look forward to the rest of the series. It has the makings of an important contribution to the ongoing discussion of the place of concert music in postcontemporary life.

30.11.05

Counter Culture

I quite agree with Alex Ross when he says:

I'll repeat my outré contention that classical music, for all its elite trappings, is actually a radical, disruptive force in American culture, whereas most popular culture, for all its rebellious trappings, is intensely conservative.

I'll only add that it's been true for a very long time.

29.11.05

Elsewhere

Around the 'sphere:

Terry Teachout has some thoughful observations about the nature of criticism and its relation to art. Of particluar interest to me, as both critic and composer, are his musings on what it means and whether or not it's important for critics to be "right" about the work they criticize.

The Blogger Known as Pliable posts a fascinating, informative, and link-rich piece about the development and testing of the atomic bomb. Plenty to hold us until the recording of Doctor Atomic comes out.

Daniel Felsenfeld responds to an article in the Wall Street Journal about audiences and orchestras embracing new music that throws off the yoke of serialist oppression. Mr. Felsenfeld points out that this "might have been something worth noting were this, say, 1952". He also quotes composer Daniel Kellogg as saying he writes music that "he wants to hear," and that the article frames this as "novel". Mr. Felsenfeld sighs:

I do not come down on either side of this argument because frankly I think it is an old and dead struggle. These are no longer the sides any more than the Yankees and the Confederates. We hear daily of the "problems" in classical music, and if we are ever to take a step to solving them we have to address the issues of our own time (even if we do not like our own time) rather than a more simplistic contrempts of a vanished world. The implication--that serial music and its descendants rules the roost while there is a new generation trying to upturn it by returning to the old ways--is a quaint and lovely notion that might have been riveting half a century ago but in 2005 it is laughably far from true...though I, like Mr. Russell, [the author of the Journal article] wish these were the only problems we faced. Our world would be a better place were this true.


Finally, Heather Heise asks questions of composers. My answers, for the record: No; no; no; yes, I have two; sure, why not; no; yes and no; no; no; not for me; yes, though it's more an "ooze" than a "spill"; yes.

24.11.05

Thanksgiving

I want to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving Day. I hope it is going well.

22.11.05

Frontier

Stirling Newberry's article on Jeff Harrington is important for several reasons. First, it's good to see a composer get some pub in a non-traditional place.

More importantly, the piece is among the first, to my knowledge, to take as a subject the relationship betweens a composer's work and his relationship to the internet. The internet (and digitality as a whole) will be, for a while at least, the best way for a composer (and other artists, too) to get their work before the public. It's good to see someone attempt a beginning of an analysis.

17.11.05

Books

As should be clear, I like lists. Lists of essential pieces, lists of music for holidays, whatever. Here’s another one: my thirty favorite books on concert music (as of today). The criteria could neither be simpler nor as unassailable: they have to be on concert music and I have to like them. No more meaning should be ascribed to the order of the list than to the list itself.

The Classical Style; Charles Rosen
Silence; John Cage
Instrumentation; Andrew Stiller
Essays Before a Sonata; Charles Ives
The Time of Music; Jonathan Kramer
Arnold Schoenberg; Charles Rosen
Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds; Alan Edwards and Elliott Carter
The Music of John Cage; James Pritchett
The Music of Elliott Carter (Second Edition); David Schiff
Simple Composition; Charles Wuorinen
Give My Regards to Eighth Street; Morton Feldman
A Generative Theory of Tonal Music; Fred Lehrdahl and Ray Jackendoff
Music in Theory and Practice; Bruce Benward and Marilyn Saker
Computer Music; Charles Dodge
Emotion and Meaning in Music; Leonard B. Meyer
Compendium of Modern Instrumental Techniques; Gardner Read
The Musical Experience of Performer, Composer, Listener; Roger Sessions
The Beethoven Quartets; Joseph Kerman
Writings About Music; Steve Reich
Harmony; Walter Piston
The Technique of Orchestration; Kent Kennan
Counterpoint; Kent Kennan
Harmony Book; Elliott Carter
A Practical Approach to Sixteenth-Century Counterpoint; Robert Gauldin
Music Notation; Gardner Read
The Acoustical Foundations of Music; John Backus
Poetics of Music; Igor Stravinsky
Form in Tonal Music; Douglass Green
For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet; Rebecca Rischin
Gustav Mahler; Bruno Walter

15.11.05

Blogroll

The blogroll at right has two new listings: Deceptively Simple, the blog of Chicago music journalist Marc Geelhoed, and Felsenmusic, the blog of composer Daniel Felsenfeld.

EDITED 15 Nov to reflect the correct spelling of Mr. Felsenfeld's name.

14.11.05

Da-Da-dadada.

Start spreading the news! listen. is listed in this week's Big Apple Blog Festival. Should I tell them?

Critics and Critics

Ken Nielsen, commenting at Jessica Duchen's blog, observes:

Tis very useful to get such from someone whose taste I understand, even if I don't always share it.

This is the best reason to read criticism (in the "review" or "notice" sense) that I can think of. The more you read a given critic, the more you understand where she or he is coming from, in terms of aesthetics, tastes, and standards. It makes the expenditure of your cultural currency less of a crap shoot.

Example: I've read enough of Alex Ross' criticism to factor his views into the equation, even when I don't agree with them, which is true at least occasionally. His writing about John Adams hasn't convinced me, but it reminds me that Mr. Adams is there and that serious people take him seriously. His new review of music by Giacinto Scelsi, when taken along side other readings, seals the deal.

You can learn as much or more by reading critics you rarely agree with, too. The point is, that if the critic has a staked out, complex, and nuanced aethetic positon, it is easier to locate yourself in relation to that position and use the criticism to inform your own experience.

11.11.05

Holiday Listening

I want to give warmest wishes and thanks to veterans on this day. Here's a brief list of music appropriate to the day. My criteria were: 1) some relation to the first World War, 2) something about a soldier's life, and/or 3) music about peace (in light of the original intent of the holiday).

Benjamin Britten, War Requiem
John Adams, The Wound Dresser
Vincent Persichetti, A Lincoln Address
Terry Riley, Salome Dances for Peace
Elliott Carter, Adagio tenebroso, from Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei
Charles Ives, Three Songs of the War
Igor Stravinsky, l'Histoire du soldat

Please remember the sacrifice of soldiers and their families, and work for peace so that sacrifice can be more rare.

8.11.05

Tables Turned

Lisa Hirsch has written an article about how concert music critics prepare for concerts. It's very well done and the information in it tracks with my experience. The short answer to how a critic prepares for a concert is this: It depends. It depends on the program, the performers, the occasion--the variables are numerous. I'm finding my preparations for the current Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra season of music director auditions unique, in that the music is, for the most part, the Warhorses of the Apocalypse. I know most of the music fairly to very well, so I am able to concentrate on the various parts of the conductors' work.

I enjoy reviewing new music the most, though that has its own pitfalls. The greatest of which, in my experience, is not knowing for certain whether the performance of a new work has been a good one. And what does good mean in that situation? Accurate? Putting "more" into the piece than the composer meant so as to make it a better piece than the score? You might be surprised how often this happens when the composer is present at some rehearsals, especially if the composer is young and/or inexperienced.

At any rate, thanks to Ms. Hirsch for an interesting discussion.

6.11.05

Susannah and George

Review.

Also, this interview with playwright and blogger George Hunka offers a fascinating glimpse inside the world of theater. George's comments on the relationship between playwright, director, and actors illustrate a creative collaboration that is very similar to preparing the first performance of a new piece.

31.10.05

Here and There

Alex Ross points us to the New York music scene blog of Steve Smith. I have added it to the blogroll. It is a style wars-free zone, so far.

Greg Sandow posted the first installment of his book on the future of concert musc today. The issues he brings up will be familiar to his readers, as well as to readers of this and other music blogs and publications. I find these questions particularly interesting and in need of answers:

Are performances of classical music very interesting, these days? Are they creative? Surprising? Individual? Why all the emphasis—in program notes, for instance, or music education—on scholarship, history, and technical analysis? If all this is changing (which it is), is it changing fast enough? And what’s our relation—all of us in the classical music world—to contemporary culture? Theater companies do plays by living playwrights; classical musicians, in striking contrast, play music from the past. And, sure, there’s more new classical music played now than there was 10 years ago, but how much of it sounds new? How much of it sounds like the world outside the concert hall, the world we really live in?


I look forward to Greg's exploration of these and other questions.

30.10.05

Workshop (V)

I finished a short piece for oboe solo, called Night Music, this weekend. As usual, a score is available in Finale format (*.mus) for those interested. A PDF version may be available later this week.

The opera is trying to get attention, but there are a couple of other pieces in front of it. More on those later.

This coming weekend in reviewing: 50th anniversary production of Tallahassee resident Carlisle Floyd's Susannah at the Florida State Opera. More about that as the week progresses.

20.10.05

11.10.05

To Ayre is Human

GOLIJOV: Ayre; BERIO: Folk Songs. Dawn Upshaw, s; Andalucian Dogs; Ensemble. DG B0004782. 62 minutes.

First, up front: Dawn Upshaw is a force of nature. Her performances on both Osvaldo Golijov's Ayre (2004) and Luciano Berio's Folk Songs (1964) are nothing short of spectacular. Her voice is warm and rich, her phrasing expressive, and she has a strong sense of style that comes into play in both of these pieces.

Ayre is a cycle of recreations/arrangements of traditional songs from Arab, Jewish, and Christian cultures. Golijov weaves the differences between the cultures in a form of counterpoint, where slight changes is harmony or melody shift cultural gears. The result is an amalgamation that Alex Ross calls "a new beast, of bastard parentage and glorious plumage" that should appeal to pop and concert music fans alike. To my ears, the piece is a little long at 40 minutes, but it works very well if I listen to it a song or two at a time. Some of the rapid sections sound a little like Tears of Joy era Don Ellis, without the metric complexities. Ayre is a worthy composition; it makes me want to hear more Golijov and to revisit his Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, which I reviewed in my days as a style warrior at ARG.

Berio's Folk Songs are also recreations/arrangements (Golijov wrote Ayre as a companion piece). Berio's work is subtle and spare, and never gets in the way of the melodies or the texts. Again, Ms. Upshaw gives a very fine performance, one that does honor to Berio and to the legendary Cathy Berberian, for whom they were written.

Alex mentions the excellent sound on this disc. It has an immediacy that is unusual in concert music performances. I hope we hear more like it in the furure.

Finally, the notes (by Ara Guzelimian) are excellent--no tedious lists of commissioning bodies and performance organizations. The biographical details given are only those that have some resonance to the art at hand. Otherwise, they do what notes should, in my opinion, do. They provide several entry points into the music.

Workshop (IV) and Miscellany

I've completed the second-and-God-as-my-witness-final draft of A Certain Light, for brass quintet. If anyone is interested in playing it or punishing their students with it, let me know. The opera is still on the backburner. I'm going through a change. It's really more of an approach change than a style change. And it's very much related to EiG and opera in general. More later.

I've added Andrea Burnsworth to the 'blogroll. Please give her a read.

The New York Times has an article on Van Gogh's drawings. He called drawing "the root of everything". What is the root of everything for composers? Performers?

4.10.05

Stuff

Review: Jupiter String Quartet.

Stirling Newberry begins a series of posts taking the uptown/downtown model out for a spin. He finds it inadequate to even begin to describe the current situation.

Stirling also has kind words to say about one of me pieces. The post includes a link to a streaming performance.

Radiation Sickness: I'm sure I'll eventually get to see/hear Doctor Atomic, the new opera by John Adams that was premiered on Saturday. In fact, given the hype/attention (take your pick) paid to it in the music press, I was surprised not to see a recording of it at my local Borders on Sunday morning. I do look forward to it, but I must say that every new piece of his gets this treatment (to an extent) and is written about by the best writers in the business, and is so pre-sold that his music is always a disappointment to me when I finally get to hear it. The ideas behind the compositions seem somehow bigger than the resulting music can deal with.

Another good young writer waxes eloquently about Mr. Adams, but if I had a dollar for every time in the last 35 years I've read that a composer "doesn't shy away from an occasional tonal center" I could get my own hype machine.

28.9.05

Today in History

1850 - The United States Congress outlaws flogging.

1892 - A football game was played in Mansfield, PA. The game, between Mansfield State Normal School and Wyoming Seminary, was the first one in the U.S. to be played at night.

1939 - The final broadcast of The Fleischmann Hour was heard on radio. The star of the show, Rudee Vallee, wrapped things up after a decade of entertaining radio. The Fleischmann Hour was sponsored by Fleischmann’s Yeast.

1944 - First TV Musical comedy (The Boys from Boise) .

1954 - George Harrison Shull dies. An American botanist, he is frequently called the 'father of hybrid corn.'

1955 - “The following program is brought to you in living color on NBC.” The World Series was seen in all its colorful glory for the first time this day. The New York Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the first game, 6-5.

1963 - Giuseppe Cantarella roller-skates a record 41.5 kph for 440 yds.

1968 - Alberto Giolani of Italy roller skates record 23.133 miles in 1 hour. Naomi Watts born.

2002 - Edwina Currie reveals she had love affair with John Major.

2004 - listen. established.

25.9.05

I Am Spartacus!

Not Spartacus? Wozzeck? Oh.

[A tip of the fedora to Alex for the link.]

EDIT: I imagine a "Which Vivaldi Concerto are you?" quiz would be most entertaining.

20.9.05

Selling

Slate magazine has an article by Seth Stevenson on a TV commercial that features Paul McCartney (Did you guys know he was in a band before Wings?). I have no opinion one way or the other about pop stars selling their images and/or music to commercial interests for use in advertising campaigns. But this sentence from the article seems to me to directly address those of us in the concert music world who are concerned about the future of our art:

[C]an we really consider it selling out when what you crave above all else is to put your new art in front of your audience?

What should we be doing in this regard? What would be too much?

19.9.05

Review

Here's my review of the opening concert of the Tallahassee (FL) Symphony Orchestra season.

Also, I've added Michael Kaulkin's composer's 'blog to the blogroll. As of this writing, his top post is about composing and sketching on computer.

14.9.05

Workshop (III)

I mentioned before that I was revising my brass quintet piece. It's a fairly substantial rewrite. I had already put the score into Finale, so I'm working from that "copy". It's interesting--this is the first time I've revised a piece (this much) that was already in Finale, and I've found myself actually composing directly into Finale. I know that many (most?) do that, but it's new for me. I don't know if I'll do that from scratch or for a piece for a larger ensemble (one where all the instruments don't fit on the screen at once), but I like doing it this way so far.

Search

The 2005-2006 season of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra opens this weekend with a concert of music by North and South American composers. This season will be an “audition season”: The Orchestra is seeking a new Music Director and the six concerts of the season will serve as auditions for the finalists.

I’ve been told by Board members that my reviews will be read as part of the process. This is a new responsibility, one that I don’t take lightly. Anybody have any suggestions on how to approach the season?

12.9.05

Because the Stakes Are So Small

In a couple of provocative posts, Kyle Gann discusses the state of composition teaching in present day America. I can't speak to the accuracy of his description, as I have no institutional affiliation, but I am reminded of the central point of art critic Dave Hickey's essay "The Heresy of the Zone Defense", in which he describes the inevitable process through which freedom becomes obligation. In other words, in the likely-pretty-near-future, young composers will seek out mentors and complain to them of being unable to write the kind of music they wish to write--and that music will be not be tonal. This kind of hegemony is, it would seem, unescapabale.

But what I really find interesting and valuable is this:

I’ll allow any kind of music I know how to criticize, and if I can’t criticize it, I’ll send them to someone else.

That strikes me as both artistically and educationally sound.

NOTE: I wish that this post had a included a page number from Silence. My memory is that the answer "To thicken the plot" is given to the question "Given that God is good, why did he put evil in the world?"

7.9.05

The List

My list of 101 essential pieces of 20th centruy concert music has undergone some changes since the last time I posted it. Here it is, in its current final state, subject, as always, to change:

Adams, John: Violin Concerto
Barber, Samuel: Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Barber, Samuel: Piano Sonata
Bartok, Bela: Concerto for Orchestra
Bartok, Bela: String Quartet 4
Berg, Alban: Violin Concerto
Berg, Alban: Wozzeck
Berio, Luciano: Sinfonia
Bernstein, Leonard: Suite from On the Waterfront
Bolcom, William: Songs of Innocence and Experience
Boulez, Pierre: Repons
Bridge, Frank: Piano Trio 2
Britten, Benjamin: Peter Grimes
Britten, Benjamin: War Requiem
Busoni, Ferrucio: Piano Concerto
Cage, John: 4'33"
Cage, John: Sonatas and Interludes
Carter, Elliott: String Quartet 5
Carter, Elliott: Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei
Copland, Aaron: Billy the Kid
Copland, Aaron: Piano Variations
Corigliano, John: Violin Sonata
Crawford, Ruth: Quartet
Crumb, George: Black Angels
Daugherty, Michael: Metropolis Symphony
Debussy, Claude: La Mer
Debussy, Claude: Sonata for flute, viola, and harp
Durufle, Maurice: Requiem
Elgar, Edward: Cello Concerto
de Falla, Manuel: Nights in the Gardens of Spain
Feldman, Morton: Rothko Chapel
Gershwin, George: Porgy and Bess
Gershwin, George: Rhapsody in Blue
Glass, Philip: Einstein on the Beach
Granados, Ernesto: Goyescas
Gubaidulina, Sofia: Offertorium
Harris, Roy: Symphony 3
Henze, Hans Werner: The Bassarids
Hindemith, Paul: Six Chansons
Hindemith, Paul: Symphonic Metamophoses on a Theme by Weber
Holst, Gustav: The Planets
Honneger, Arthur: Pacific 231
Hyla, Lee: We Speak Etruscan
Ives, Charles: The Unanswered Question
Janacek, Leos: The Makropulos Case
Janacek, Leos: Quartet 2
Korngold, Erich von: Violin Concerto
Ligeti, Gyorgy: Etudes
Ligeti, Gyorgy: Le Grand Macabre
Lutoslawski, Witold: Symphony 3
Mahler, Gustav: Das Lied von Der Erde
Mahler, Gustav: Symphony 6
Martin, Frank: Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments
Martinu, Bohuslav: Symphony 2
Menotti, Gian Carlo: The Medium
Messiaen, Olivier: Quatour pour la fin du temps
Messiaen, Olivier: Turangalilia-Symphonie
Milhaud, Darius: La Creation du Monde
Nielsen, Carl: Symphony 4
Orff, Carl: Carmina Burana
Part, Arvo: Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Johannem
Penderecki, Krzysztof: Threnody
Poulenc, Francois: Dialogues du Carmelites
Prokofiev, Sergei: Sonata 7
Prokofiev, Sergei: Violin Concerto 2
Puccini, Giacomo: Madama Butterfly
Rachmaninoff, Sergei: Piano Concerto 2
Rautavaara, Einojuhani: Symphony 7
Ravel, Maurice: Bolero
Ravel, Maurice: Piano Concerto in G
Reich, Steve: Come Out
Respighi, Ottorino: Pines of Rome
Riley, Terry: In C
Rochberg, George: Quartet 3
Rodrigo, Joaquin: Concierto de Aranjuez
Rzewski, Frederic: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!
Saariaho, Kaija: Nymphea (Jardin secret III)
Satie, Erik: Parade
Schnittke, Alfred: Concerto Grosso 1
Schoenberg, Arnold: Pierrot Lunaire
Scriabin, Alexander: Poeme d'Ecstases
Scriabin, Alexander: Sonata 9
Shostakovich, Dmitri: String Quartet 8
Shostakovich, Dmitri: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Sibelius, Jean: Symphony 4
Sibelius, Jean: Violin Concerto
Stockhausen, Karlheinz: Gesang der Junglinde
Strauss, Richard: Salome
Strauss, Richard: Four Last Songs
Stravinsky, Igor: Le Sacre du Printemps
Stravinsky, Igor: Symphony of Psalms
Szymanowski, Karol: King Roger
Thomson, Virgil: Four Saints in Three Acts
Tippett, Michael: King Priam
Varese, Edgard: Ionisation
Vaughan Williams, Ralph: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Walton, William: Viola Concerto
Webern, Anton: Six Bagatelles, op. 9
Weill, Kurt: Seven Deadly Sins
Weir, Judith: A Night at the Chinese Opera
Xenakis, Iannis: Pithoprakta

6.9.05

Workshop (II)

I've been pondering several comments about A Certain Light, the piece for brass quintet I thought I had finished a few weeks ago. I'm doing extensive revisions, using the same material as before, only from a very different perspective. It will be recognizable as the same piece, only a few feet off the ground.

For what it's worth, I think Pervasive Zeppelins would make a fine title for a piece.

Changes

I've added Cathey Fuller's Fullermusic to the 'blogroll and deleted Mark Dancigers' and Martin Suckling's 'blog, which has fallen into desuetude. I'll replace it if they star posting again.

I've replaced Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos with his Salome on the 101 list.

23.8.05

This and That

A reader sent me a copy of this CD, by Duo 46. The duo consists of violinist Beth Ilana Schneider and guitarist Matt Gould. All of the music on this album (by Anthony Joseph Lanman, Daniel Adams, Paul Richards, Kristi McGarity, Richard P. Schaefer, Pierre Jalbert, Joshua Penman, Neil Flory, Russell Sarre, and Stacy Garrop) was commissioned by the Duo. The program explores a great deal of the textural possibility (but hardly all of it) presented by this challenging medium. The pieces are exceptionally well-played and recorded. Buy it, and the Duo can commission more music!

I've added Rob Witts' Musicircus to the blogroll. For two reasons: He has the good taste to post about Richard Powers, one of my favorite writers, and the bad judgement to list me as one of his "Daily Readings".

Kyle Gann rhapsodizes about finally getting to hear a performance of Roy Harris' Third Symphony (scroll about 5/8 of the way down). In a later post, about the need for different kinds of singers for different kinds of operas (a point I heartily agree with), Mr. Gann perorates thusly:

Maybe they'll appear when classical music finally dies, which classical musicians keep promising me is about to happen, so I keep waiting for the final announcement. It's been dying longer than friggin' Generalissimo Franco.

It would have been bitterly ironic had the hoped-for demise (accent on the first syllable, ala Ward Bond) occured before Mr. Gann got to hear the Harris.

22.8.05

New Directions in Lounge Music

I went to lunch last Friday with some new colleaques. The restaurant had a grand piano that was outfitted with a device (several generations [technologically speaking] old) that sent MIDI signals to the piano, causing it to play standards and pop songs. For minutes at a time, however, the device would malfunction and send out MIDI signals that would play isolated chords (triads up through 9th chords) and brief (two- or three-notes) melodic fragments with long, pregnant pauses between them. I dropped a chip into the tip jar and wondered how much it got per Gig.

9.8.05

The Times Are Never So Bad

Two recent posts highlight some issues that are central to artistic experience in today's world.

Greg Sandow rebuts the canard that young people have a shorter attention span than earlier generations. Greg mentions activity after activity associated with young people that require intense concentration for long periods of time. He goes on to attribute the aesthetic trends that some point to when leveling the short-attention-span charge--quick cutting in film and video, especially--to a desire for complexity, due to the ability to process more information, faster. I tend to agree with Greg, in part, but I would point out that more information doesn't necessarily lead to more complexity. And both of these desires may be in play here. (Alex Ross gently bemoaned the desire of some younger composers for more complexity not too long ago in a post that pre-echoes some of Greg's points.)

I think the kind of complexity that Greg notes may have more to do with an aesthetic that I have felt in the air for a few years than with a desire for complexity, per se. I call it the aesthetic of co-incidence, and I've seen and felt in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love), the television series Boomtown, and in the novels of Richard Powers (especially Gain and Plowing the Dark). All of these treat coincidence as thematic material, and have coincidences that would be eye-roll inducing in other contexts. The techniques used in these works--radical tone shifts, changes of cinematography, multiple points-view, and changes of voice and tone--all provide the layering necessary for this aesthetic of co-incidence to work. And they can be very complex.

The other post is an excellent one by George Hunka on his struggles with one of Schoenberg's piano pieces. Read the whole thing, of course, but the part most relevant to our discussion is this:

As I mentioned in an earlier post (and with the nagging feeling I'm beating a dead horse), the piece I'm working on is scarcely a minute long, but so far I've heard it (in both my own dreadful rendition and those of other pianists) a hundred times, at least. As Beethoven and Wagner reshaped the course of music, their more daring compositions waited for years to be recognized; now the Choral Symphony and the Tristan love-death motif are as familiar and listenable to many of us as old show tunes, even if only as an element of a movie score. As we heard them over and over again, as their innovations trickled down to more popular and less rarefied forms of music, they became a part of the culture–not offensive or challenging to the ears any more, even boring to some. Considering the disapprobation that still attaches to the work of Schönberg and the Second Viennese School generally nearly a century or so following its composition, I wonder how much of this is attributable to the fragmentation of our leisure time.
I think he's right about the fragmentation of leisure time, though that doesn't square with certain points Greg made about the willingness of people to spend hours learning the complexities of video games or to spend hours getting a sound just right on a recording. Still.

There's something to this, and it may be, as George suggests, related to the strangeness of Schoenberg's idiom, despite the fact that it is nearly a century old. It is interesting to note that in an age when people will gladly sit through multiple viewings/hearings of Tolkien and/or Wagner, the blazing intensity of these short pieces by Schoenberg (and others like them) remains problematic.

3.8.05

Workshop (I)

Everything is Green is simmering on the back burner for the moment, while I take care of some other projects that keep insisting on attention. I just finished a short piece for brass quintet called A Certain Light. The title comes from the remarkable Chapter VI of Kate Chopin's The Awakening.

Let the trumpets sound! But not too loudly.

Miscellany

I've been asked to post a link to the allClassicHall classical music forum. If it proves to be substantive, I'll link it in the "Links and Resources" on the main page here.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson provides an introduction to Frederic Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated here. There's a link for just about every section of the piece.

I'm cleaning up the blogroll a bit by removing the links to individual Sequenza21 composer/bloggers. The growing list of composers blogging at S21 can be found on the magazine's homepage, or at the S21 Composer's Forum, which will remain in the blogroll.

21.7.05

Cornicello

I've added Anthony Cornicello's 'blog to the 'blogroll. I knew Anthony back when he was an undergraduate. Kids!

20.7.05

Search and Celebration

I was looking through William W. Austin's Music in the 20th Century: From Debussy through Stravinsky (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966) and I came across this passage regarding Bela Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion and Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta (p.323):

The differences between the two great works with percussion are as remarkable as the similarities. The Music for Strings is like a search, poignant and thorough; the Sonata for Two Pianos is like a celebration, festive, mysterious at times, playful often, and gloriously affirmative.

It seems as if we must categorize works of art, since there are two types of people, those who divide the world into two types of people and those who--well, you know the rest. As readers of this and other blogs know, the concert music world is full of conversations and controversies centered on divisions of musical repertoires based on such characteristics as style, compositional techniques, and even whether pieces are "simple" or "complex".

None of these categorizations really gets at the reasons we write, play, or listen to music and truth be told, they are often as not used to deny intellectual and artistic space to the music of the "other side" of the categorization and its supporters.

Of course, few pieces will fit simpy or wholly into either the "search" or "celebration" category. Even so, it seems to me that the ideas behind these categories could, with some expansion and explication, prove useful in probing the connections between pieces that seem on the surface to be unrelated. This would be far more beneficial to our art than spending our energy on pointing out differences that are more superficial than they are substantive.

8.7.05

Teaching/Learning

Corey Dargel posts about trying to find new ways to teach theory, if teach it we must. And we must, otherwise we're limited by habit.

Kyle Gann responds with an excellent idea--teach acoustics first. More specifically, the acoustics of interval. All pitched music, whatever tuning system or style, is based, at least in part, on interval (the "distance" between two notes). So, if you teach interval first, you can go in most any direction you want or need.

4.7.05

Happy Fourth!

Some music for the day:

John Cage: Apartment House 1776
Charles Ives: The Fourth of July
John Adams: Short Ride on a Fast Machine
Duke Ellington: "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue"
George & Ira Gershwin: "They All Laughed"
Elliott Carter: A Celebration of Some 150x150 Notes
Terry Riley: In C
Steve Reich: Clapping Music
Milton Babbitt: Whirled Series

1.7.05

Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city

Kyle Gann directs us to an article by Jennifer Higdon on her early experiences with the music and ideas of John Cage. He describes it as "the frankest admission and most thoughtful self-analysis I've ever seen of why an Uptown composer doesn't like (some) Downtown music".

Hmmm. The thing is, I don't consider Cage to be a downtown composer. Mr. Gann's own definition of downtown music is helpful, but it's more indicative of what downtown isn't rather than what it is, as he himself suggests. I don't consider Morton Feldman downtown, either. Much of Stockhausen fits Mr. Gann's definition better than Feldman or as well as Cage, for that matter.

Everything's waiting for you.

22.6.05

Denk

A. C. Douglas points to this exquisite post by pianist and latest Blogroll inductee Jeremy Denk.

Mr. Denk's post includes some telling analytical comments about the ending of Elliott Carter's Piano Sonata (1945-46). I've commented in the past about the value of analysis for performers and listeners alike, and I wonder what Mr. Douglas, who is less amenable to analytical commentary, thinks of Mr. Denk's analysis.

One more thing. I wonder how the piece of the score included (via photograph) in the post got that way. We're left with a mystery: Does the pedal ever get released?

21.6.05

Traditional Musician

The Boston Globe has an interesting article on pianist/composer Frederic Rzewski.

Note the tension between Mr. Rzewski's institutional acceptance (he's being feted by the New England Conservatory) and his wry attitude towards the state of such institutions. It's a good, if uncomfortable, position for an artist to be in. I think the way the artist handles it will go a long way towards determining the quality of the work after the acceptance. That is, does the artist get comfortable (or worse) or does s/he take it in stride and continue making the art they would have made without the institutional imprimatur?

20.6.05

Changes and Stuff

I've added Frederic Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated! to the 101 list. It replaces Rachmaninoff's Paganini Rhapsody.

I've added Alan Thiesen to the Blogroll. His post on Elliott Carter is a winner. Speaking of the Blogroll, has anybody heard anything from Mark Dancigers and/or Martin Suckling lately?

Alex Ross on film music in general and Philip Glass in particular.

Interesting article from the Chronicle of Higher Education on giving up an academic career not because you can't get a job, but because the students you train won't be able to get one.

Kyle Gann waxes eloquent on composers' politics and personality. The last sentence is very fine:

When we love the music and are disappointed in the musician, we can only tolerantly shake our heads and wonder at what fallible vessels the Spirit of Music embraces to express itself through.
Have you read Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men? You should.

8.6.05

Ludwig van Narcissus

Dylan Evans, writing in the Guardian, tells us that Beethoven was a "narcissistic hooligan", concerned only about himself when he wrote his music of "morbid self-obsession ", that by the late quartets and the Ninth became "simply a vehicle for a self-indulgent display of bizarre mood swings and personal difficulties". Mr. Evans would have preferred the composer to recognize what his predecessors had, that "musical beauty was based on a mysterious connection between sound and mathematics, and that this provided music with an objective goal, something that transcended the individual composer's idiosyncrasies and aspired to the universal", and eschew the explorations that led to music that embodied an "inward-directed, narcissistic focus on the composer himself and his own tortured soul".

It was simply beyond the pale for Beethoven to believe that as a composer he should have written what he imagined, felt, and heard. Selfish bastard. He should have written for the sensibilities of Dylan Evans.

2.6.05

Screed

I was going to post a sarcastic response to Miles Hoffman's article here, but the piece doesn't deserve even that. It is full of inaccuracies, as the comments after the article indicate. The inaccuracies are so extensive that it is clear that Mr. Hoffman is either spectacularly unqualified to write on the subject or he is engaged in culture war propaganda. In either case, shame on him, and shame on the Wilson Quarterly for publishing it.

29.5.05

Opera Review

The following is reprinted from the Tallahassee Democrat, 29 May 2005, with permission.

Summer, in the world of concert music and opera, is usually a time of lighter, "pops"-oriented fare and a relaxed atmosphere. At institutions with large and prominent opera programs, such as Florida State University, the summer is also the time for directing students to stage productions of one-act operas as part of their academic programs. Because these projects are often the first time these students are in charge of a full production, the operas mounted and the productions themselves frequently are at least a little outside the mainstream.

This was the case at FSU's double bill of Leonard Bernstein's domestic dramedy Trouble in Tahiti and Luigi Dallapiccola's totalitarian nightmare The Prisoner on Friday and Saturday evenings at Opperman Music Hall. The operas were chosen by the directors, Tracie Pope (Tahiti) and Tal Shahar (Prisoner), independently, but the evening as a whole provided an unsettling view of two very different, and very modern, ways of being trapped.

Sam (Evan Jones) and Dinah (Melissa Vitrella) are no longer communicating. In an attempt to avoid their problems, they decide at the end of the opera to go see the new film, Trouble in Tahiti, which Dinah already saw that afternoon. A trio (Christopher Diaz, Lisa Kotara, and David Margulis) comments on their life like a chorus in a Greek tragedy.

Ms. Pope's staging was inventive and engaging, though I found the mugging of the stagehands as they moved the scenery superfluous and distracting. An instrumental trio (Music Director Elizabeth Blood, piano, Sergio Acerb, bass, and Dave Cochran, percussion) provided lively accompaniment. Krista A. Franco's scenery rendered the '50s suburban milieu subtly and directly. All of the singers were in fine voice, and they handled Ms. Pope's blocking and Marko Westwood's choreography with style.

While Sam and Dinah's marriage leaves them feeling trapped, the incarceration of the unnamed protagonist of Dallapiccola's Prisoner is quite literal. His predicament is rendered concrete and personal in the composer's searing Modern, lyrical score. Ms. Shahar's production eschews specifics as to time and place, so the Prisoner's plight is universal. Ian Zywica's abstract scenic and lighting design was uncomfortably claustrophobic and transgressive. At times the light's shone at the audience, and felt as if you were under the gaze of the Inquisitor yourself.

Ms. Shahar's staging was lean and minimal, letting the music and the singers speak for themselves, for the most part. A Dancer (Terence Duncan) was a distraction, though he danced well. Lara Billings delivered a heartbreaking performance as the Prisoner's Mother and Aaron Beck was all false hope and bureaucratic emptiness as the Jailer/Inquisitor. Music Director Eric Schnobrick conducted a taut, well-paced performance, with FSU Professor Douglas Fisher and Ms. Blood on piano and a fine chorus in the pit.

Scott MacLeod dominated the proceedings as the Prisoner. He communicated anguish, fear, and exhaustion in his voice and in the demanding physicality of the role. It was a challenging role in a challenging opera. The Prisoner is not easy in any sense of the word, and the prolonged ovation by the audience was gratifying on many levels.

24.5.05

Addition

I've added the fine On An Overgrown Path to the blogroll. Dig especially the list of concert music web resources down the right side of the home page.

20.5.05

Goings On

Charles Downey, of the always interesting ionarts, has posted lots of valuable information on Leos Janacek's Makropoulos Affair (a 101 piece)and the composer's other operas. This quote, from an interview with soprano Anja Silja, is particularly telling with regard to shaping a character and a performance:

When I began singing it 35 years ago, I thought that Emilia Marty was a capricious, heartless diva. With time, I realized that she was instead a hypersensitive artist, a wounded woman, who has lived too long fearing death. The events of my own life obliged me to see things as they are. When you get older, you lose your friends, your loves. I know of what I speak: in 1966 and 1967, I lived through the loss of two men I loved, the director Wieland Wagner and the conductor André Cluytens. Emilia Marty became the identifying role of my life.


I hope you have been following the excellent series of posts by Drew McManus and his collaborators on the Take a Friend to Orchestra month project. There are no orchestra concerts in Tallahassee this month, but I do intend to take some friends to the FSU Opera production of Dallapiccola's Prisoner and Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti next weekend.

19.5.05

Critical Convictions

Terry Teachout and George Hunka have posts up about their own critical biases and prejudices. Readers of this 'blog and of my High Hat articles will not be surprised to learn that I would tend to find more of Mr. Hunka's views generally more amenable than those of Mr. Teachout.

In addition, Mr. Teachout's tend to lean quite a bit more to the prescriptive than do Mr. Hunka's. I wonder if that is at least in part due to Mr. Hunka's status as an artist/critic, while Mr. Teachout lacks the "/" and the different slant* it confers.


*As it were.

18.5.05

Everything is Green (IV)

I'm well into the second (of three) scenes of Everything is Green. The action is simple--a couple, in their kitchen in the morning, argue about something the man believes the woman has done, and which she denies. This scene plays out three times, each time at greater length and in greater detail than before, but with no greater communication between the characters.

The music forms the background for this domestic inaction, rather than amplifying or "commenting" on it. Each scene has a different textural basis and rhythmic profile, but is based on similar harmonic material. The two singers share some melodic materials (but not at the same time or even in the same scene) and rhythmic characteristics, but generally speaking, their music remains as separate as they seem to be.

I also have three other pieces going, at various early stages, and I'll probably write about them as they progress.

2.5.05

Review: Tallahassee 101

The following was published in the Tallahassee Democrat, 2 May 2005. It is reprinted here by permission.

Two things were abundantly clear at the final concert of the 2004-2005 season of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, which was also David Hoose's final appearance as the orchestra's music director.

The first of these was that one of the motivating factors in the music of the early 20th century was a desire among composers to free themselves of what they saw as the strictures of Germanic Romanticism and to establish musical identities for themselves and their countries.

The concert opened with a delightful performance of French composer Erik Satie's buoyantly absurdist ballet, Parade (1917). The score of Parade anticipates many of the innovations of the century, including minimalism, "moment form" (pieces made up of musical moments that could come in any order without changing the substance of the piece), the use of popular idioms in concert music and the use of extra-musical sound effects (a gun and a typewriter, among others).

Hoose and the orchestra reveled in the piece's eccentricities without resorting to exaggeration or slapstick.

Mark Rohr's program note quotes another Frenchman, Maurice Ravel: "The music of a concerto should, in my opinion, be lighthearted and brilliant, and not aim for profundity or dramatic effects." Ravel's Piano Concerto In G Major (1931) avoids Germanic "profundity" but does not avoid drama. Florida State University faculty member James Nalley joined the orchestra for a lively reading of the concerto. Hoose and the orchestra provided nimble and colorful accompaniment. Nalley's playing was stylish and clean, if a little heavy at times in the lyrical slow movement.

Continuing discussion in the concert-music world centers on ways to increase audiences, especially among younger people. Many people, and not just the young, find the atmosphere at concerts artificial and stuffy. The first movement of the Ravel concerto ends with a flourish that seems designed to elicit applause from the audience. The silence with which we now treat such moments seemed extremely artificial to this audience member.

Late in life, Claude Debussy followed his signature with the phrase "Musician of France." His Prelude a 'L'Apres-midi d'un Faune' ("Prelude to 'The Afternoon of a Faun'," 1894) went a long way toward establishing a French sound in concert music that echoes in today's music.

I've commented before that because of the presence of FSU faculty members in the principal chairs in the TSO, repertoire can be played here that generally can't be heard from the local orchestra in most cities the size of Tallahassee. Prelude, with its lush solos from several instruments, is one of those pieces. Eva Amsler gave a warm and expressive reading of the iconic opening flute solo, and clarinetist Frank Kowalsky, bassoonist Jeffrey Keesecker, oboist Eric Ohlsson, harpist Mary Brigid Roman, hornist David Cripps and concertmistress Karen Clarke acquitted themselves admirably in solos and exposed passages.

Italian composer Ottorino Respighi was very conscious of expressing his national identity in his music, especially in the Roman trilogy, of which Pini di Roma ("The Pines of Rome," 1924) is the most popular. Saturday evening's performance was bright and exciting.

Respighi's particular genius was in his orchestration, and the gripping finale of this work, "The Pines of the Appian Way," gets its power from the way the composer layers the motives so the volume grows through the addition of instruments. Hoose and the orchestra exhibited great control throughout, saving the biggest sound for the end. The large closing-night audience responded with a lengthy and boisterous ovation.

The other thing alluded to above is that Hoose leaves the TSO and its audience in very good shape for whoever takes up the baton after next season's year of audition concerts. And you can't ask much more of a music director's leave-taking than that.

28.4.05

Tallahassee 101

The 2004-2005 season of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra concludes tomorrow evening with a program replete with rich 101 goodness. Eric Satie's Parade, Ottorino Respighi's Pini di Roma, and the G Major Piano Concerto of Maurice Ravel constitute the 101 portion of the program, which is filled out with Claude Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune. Would it have killed them to play La Mer?

The concert also marks the end of David Hoose's tenure as TSO Music Director. Mr. Hoose leaves the Orchestra in good musical shape, as I hope is clear from the reviews of this season's concerts.

Next season will be an audition season, as the Orchestra searches for Mr. Hoose's replacement. Six concerts, six different conductors. What's a critic to do?

Piano Tech

I had the pleasure to attend an open house at the new Piano Technology Lab at the College of Music at Florida State University. The Lab is home to FSU's recently implemented Master of Arts in Piano Technology program. This program is the only one of its kind in the United States. There are trade programs leading to a certificate in Boston and at the University of Western Ontario. Through a partnership agreement, Western Ontario students are able to complete their training in the FSU program. Program director Anne Garee said they have received inquiries from several institutions regarding hiring the program's graduates, of which there are two so far.

Most of the clinical work in the program will be on the College's dozens of practice, classroom, and concert insturments. The first graduating class got to work on a 1927 Mason & Hamlin instrument that was part of a significant donation that helped to get the program off the ground. It will be returned to the donor and used in a Tallahassee performance venue. Ms. Garee said that the instrument represented a unique opportunity for the students because of its high quality. The piano had a warm and rich tone when I heard it played at the open house. Debussy and Feldman (for example) would sound wonderful on this instrument.

The Lab itself was fascinating--parts and tools everywhere and in order. There were various kinds of actions out on workbenches so visitors (and students, of course) could see how the many parts worked together. I asked Ms. Garee what role (if any) electronic technology plays in the process. She said they use computers mostly to generate charts and graphs for use in the diagnosis and measurement of problems with the action. These meaurements represent the biggest step in piano technology in over 100 years. But the real work remains in the hands and in the ear.

25.4.05

Review: Hamelin

Review of Marc-Andre Hamelin's Tallahassee recital, from the Tallahassee Democrat, 25 April 2005. Reprinted with permission.

Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin is world-renowned for his thoughtful and sometimes unusual programming as much as for his prodigious technique and deeply musical playing.

All of these attributes and many more were in evidence throughout Hamelin's season-ending Artist Series recital Sunday afternoon at Florida State University's Ruby Diamond Auditorium.

The program consisted of music by the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz. After a virtuosic performance of Navarra (left by the composer in fragment form and completed by the eclectic American composer William Bolcom), Hamelin launched into a performance of the composer's masterpiece, Iberia (composed between 1906 and 1909).

Iberia consists of four books of three character pieces (compositions of medium length that usually maintain one or two moods, tempos, or textures throughout) each. Albeniz structured each book of pieces to make it a complete musical statement. Hamelin's performance order, the first and fourth books followed by an intermission, then books two and three, was designed to convey a larger sense of a whole musical statement, and he was largely successful, hindered only by the consistency in Albeniz' materials and style.

Hamelin's playing was ideally suited to the mercurial changes in these pieces. His technique truly is amazing. He seemed to glide over the difficulties served up in these pieces, which are rightly considered among the most difficult in the literature.

What struck me about the performance, though, was the incredible beauty and sensitivity Hamelin drew from the piano in the soft and lyrical passages in the piece. This sensitivity to nuance undoubtedly led Hamelin to underline the many unusual syntactical, melodic, and harmonic features of Iberia, but not so much that the larger picture was lost.

The pianist was brought back to the stage for an encore of Claude Debussy's Reflets dans l'eau (Reflections in the water), which Hamelin described as a "change of pace." Indeed, the languid splashes of color in the French master's piece were a contrast to the energetic drive of most of Iberia, but they were as well suited to Hamelin's playing.

21.4.05

Confectionary Potentate

With all of the discussion of the new pope and his views on everything under the sun, including music, I just thought I'd put in a good word for my favorite ruler:

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Wallace Stevens

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

14.4.05

Style and Performance

I wanted to write a post on style and performance, and then I remembered the following review from the November/December 2000 American Record Guide. In re-reading it, I can see the beginnings of some of the ideas I explored in the unpublished piece on criticism I wrote for ARG as well as the genesis of the 101 project. Here it is, with some changes.

DAVIDOVSKY: Selections
New York New Music Ensemble; Speculum Musicae; Susan Narucki, s; Peggy Pearson, ob; Bayla Keyes, v; Mary Ruth Ray, va; Rhonda Rider, vc; David Starobin, gt
Bridge 9097 (Koch) 67 minutes

If musical modernism (I mean “modernism” with a capital “M”, but I’m not going to capitalize it) was a failure, as many would have us believe, who is to blame? Is it composers for writing music “people” can’t understand (though many people can and do understand it, whatever that means, if anything), or for getting too far “out in front” of audiences, performers, and (especially?) critics, or for merely not being Beethoven or Tchaikovsky?

Before assigning blame if blame must be assigned, the “failure” of modernism should be defined, rather than merely asserted. Many writers and others point to the small audience for modernist music as a sign of its artistic failure: If it was any good, people would want to hear it, so the familiar argument goes. This kind of market theory of artistic value puts our music on a slippery slope, as classical music as a whole is not terribly popular with a large, general public. And besides that, I remain unconvinced that audiences for modernist music are necessarily small when compared with other art music audiences.

Proponents of modernism often claimed that once their music was heard enough, the public would follow, even to the point of Webern’s famous declaration that one day his music would be “sung in the streets”. This has not come to pass, as readers of ARG well know. There are now regular performances of the central composers and works of the modernist movement, so it would seem that if mere exposure to the music was to convert the public, it would have been converted by now.

What if those who claimed that composers were too far ahead of performers were right, but that as the gap between composers’ conceptions and performers’ ability to realize them shrank, the public would begin to find connections with the music?

Happily, there is anecdotal evidence that this phenomenon may be taking hold. Recent concerts featuring the music of Elliott Carter have drawn large crowds and the attention of the world press, and England’s Proms series continue to include major modernist pieces and play to big crowds.

The new disc of chamber music by Argentina-born Mario Davidovsky represents another aspect of this nascent trend. Here we have difficult, uncompromising music played with care, understanding, and most importantly, expression.

Modernism, it is clear at this late date, was not as absorbed with “obliterating” the past as it often seemed, or even as many of its practitioners declared. The kinds of performances on this disc show that there is a clear connection with the past in this music. The performers, including members of Speculum Musicae and the New York New Music Ensemble, as well as soloists and members of other ensembles, shape his sometimes lyrical, sometimes angular phrases as though they were as easy and direct as phrases by Mozart, Wagner, or Chopin.

Each piece on the program has its moments, at least. Flashbacks (1995) is a colorful and evocative work scored for Pierrot* ensemble plus percussion. Lyrical lines stand beside dramatic, angular gestures in this piece, as they do in Festino (1994), for guitar, viola , cello, and percussion. The 1983 song cycle Romancero (if the poet is credited in the notes, I missed it) too combines long lines with sharply-etched instrumental gestures. The Quartetto 2 (1996) for oboe and string trio is reminiscent of the Carter Oboe Concerto in the playfulness and serious lightness of the oboe line against a sterner accompaniment. Peggy Pearson captures the spirit wonderfully.

Davidovsky is probably best known for the Synchronisms series in which instrumentalists, usually soloists, though some of the pieces have ensembles, play with and against pre-recorded electronic tapes. David Starobin, one of the foremost interpreters of contemporary guitar music, gives a powerful performance of Synchronisms No. 10 (1992). Part of the tension and drama in this piece lies in the fact that the guitar has a full four and a half minutes of virtuoso music before the tape ever enters. As in all of the pieces in the series, the implacability of the tape set against the expressively flexibility of the instrumental music provides contrast and drama.

Much of Davidovsky’s music has the surface volatility associated with modernism, to be sure. This volatility comes to the fore through much of the course of the String Trio (1982). Longer lines and delicate harmonics mediate the volatility, making the piece an expressive study in contrast.

What this disc embodies, then, is a new approach to the performance of modernist music. In the past, the “strangeness” or “otherness” of the music was emphasized in performance, to the detriment of the traditional musical values given equal status here. The dialogue between the past and the present was/is an integral part of the modernist movement.

These performers make a strong case for Davidovsky’s music, as does Bridge, with its excellent sound. That is all any composer can ask for, and the least they should be able to expect.



*Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) is scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, in addition to voice. This combination became semi-standard (often including percussion) in the 20th century, because of the wide range of timbres available with a small number of players.

6.4.05

Sax, but no violins

I've added saxophonist Brian Sacawa's new 'blog to the 'blogroll. Give him a read. Or a reed.

4.4.05

Influences

A number of composers around the 'blogosphere are responding to Lawrence Dillon's question: What pieces from the 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s have changed the way composers think about composing?

I don't know what pieces may or may not have changed the way composers composed, but I do have some idea for myself of the pieces that changed how I heard/studied/experienced/composed/performed music. The pieces came to mind based on when I heard/performed/studied them, rather than when they were written. Here then are lists from the '60s and '70s (as Rodney Lister suggests, it is somewhat harder to think of these kinds of pieces from the '80s and '90s).

'60s:

Ligeti: Atmospheres, Lux Aeterna

'70s:

Stockhausen: Hymnen, Stimmung
Feldman: False Relationships and the Extended Ending, The viola in my life, Rothko Chapel
Ligeti: Volumina
Carter: Concerto for Orchestra, String Quartet 3
Lutoslawski: Livre pour orchestre, String Quartet
Cage: 4'33"
Satie: Pages mystique
Ives: Symphony 4
Beethoven: Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130
Webern: Sechs Stucke, Op.6
Berg: Wozzeck
Riley: In C
Reich: Clapping Music, Drumming, Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ
Berio: Sinfonia, Sequenza V

O Brother

I wrote my Six Landscapes for solo clarinet after Wallace Stevens as a belated NNth birthday present for my brother, Les Hicken, Director of Bands at Furman University. Les premiered the pieces last week at a faculty chamber music concert. He did a wonderful job, giving a sensitive and expressive performance of pieces that were “kicking [his] butt” earlier in the week.

This kind of music isn’t really his thing: He’s a late romantic early modernist kind of musician. But the pieces were inspired in part by a very good performance he gave of the Stravinsky Three Pieces back in the mid 70s. What stayed with me from that performance was his control of dynamics and ability to shade timbre.

We view quite a few musical issues differently, though our taste overlaps a lot. Whenever we are able to get together we have wonderful listening/discussion sessions. At any rate, I wanted to take this opportunity to say how proud I am to be his younger brother.

27.3.05

Florida State Opera: Werther

The following is reprinted with permission from the Tallahassee (FL) Democrat, 27 March 2005.

Sumptuous music, colorful costumes, striking scenery, outsized emotions, and some really fine singing. All of these and more are on tap in the Florida State Opera’s production of Jules Massenet’s Werther running this weekend and next at Florida State University’s Opperman Music Hall.

Massenet’s 1892 drama is an adaptation of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, one of the founding documents of Romanticism. The production team (stage director Matthew Lata, scenic and lighting designer Peter Dean Buck, costume designer Colleen Muscha, and wig and makeup designer Kathy Waszkelewisz) made the telling decision to set the action in the 1840’s, when the ideas in Goethe’s story (written during the Enlightenment and in part in reaction to it) had reached their full flower in the culture.

Mr. Buck’s sets and lighting were evocative, and his use of the vertical space over the small Opperman stage created a sense of openness that would not have been possible otherwise. Ms. Muscha’s striking costumes and Ms. Waszkelewisz’ wigs and makeup lent an air of authenticity to the proceedings.

As usual, Mr. Lata (of the FSU opera faculty) moves his characters around the stage with a balance of natural action and theatricality. There is always something to look at in this production.

And then there is the music. Director of Opera Activities Douglas Fisher led a very good student orchestra in a performance that gave voice to the full-throated late Romanticism of the score while maintaining a pace that kept the action moving along. Orchestral intonation and ensemble quality were solid.

Tenor Daniel Gerdes was a compelling Werther. His big, clear voice and expressive phrasing communicated the anguish of the doomed young man.

Melissa Garvey was a sweet-voiced and sympathetic Charlotte, and Lianne Coble was touching as a bystander to the tragedy.

Evan Jones brought a considerable amount of sympathy to the dramatically thankless but musically rewarding role of Charlotte’s husband, Albert. Michael Peters (The Bailiff), Michael Hix (Johann), Oliver Mercer (Schmidt), Amanda Matson (Katchen), and Brent Arnold (Bruhlmann) contributed to the production’s quality in small roles. A well rehearsed and dramatically mischievous children’s chorus added a light touch and poignancy at the drama’s end.

The Florida State Opera will undoubtedly continue, with this production, to add to its growing reputation as one of the finest college opera programs in the country.

24.3.05

St. Lawrence String Quartet

The following is reprinted with permission from the Tallahassee (FL) Democrat, 24 March 2005. Additions in brackets.

The 2004-2005 season of the Artist Series continued on Tuesday evening [22 March] with a riveting performance by the St. Lawrence String Quartet at Florida State University’s Rudy Diamond Auditorium.

Franz Joseph Haydn may not have invented the String Quartet as both genre and medium, but he was present at the creation. The Quartet (Geoff Nuttall and Barry Shiffman, violins, Lesley Roberstson, viola, and Christopher Costanza, cello) opened with an inspired performance of the Viennese master’s Quartet in E-flat, Op. 33, No. 2, “The Joke”.

The first movement was given with just the right balance of lilt and drive, aided by the group’s flexible tempos. This movement gave early indication of what would become clear was the Quartet’s modus operandi: performance as listening. They played every movement of every piece on the program as if deeply listening to the music, as a process of discovery. A good example of this was how they would linger over certain dissonances in this first movement before moving on to their resolution.

The E-flat Quartet has the nickname “Joke” because of the haltingly humorous way the piece ends. The St. Lawrence had set up the joke throughout their performance by emphasizing the silences that dot the piece’s surface. They were rewarded for their efforts by appreciative laughter and sustained applause.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets stand as one of the great quartet cycles in history. The composer explores every aspect of his musical language and expressive terrain in these focused and intense works. The Seventh Quartet (f#-minor, Op. 108), is an essay in irony and quiet despair. The reading by the St. Lawrence was marked by great ensemble playing, and a strong sense of style, astringent and close to the vest necessary and expansive and open when called for.

The program proper closed with a taut and gripping performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Quartet in E-flat, Op. 127. This Quartet is the first of a group of five quartets Beethoven composed near the end of life, and they stand as among the most personal musical documents we have. In these works, which are both concentrated in their expression and expansive in how this expression is played out, the composer grapples with ideas and issues that are truly beyond words.

Of special note in this reading were the timbral intensity maintained virtually throughout, the excellent ensemble dynamics, and the beautifully lyrical transitions of the second, theme and variations, movement.

The Quartet returned to the stage after an enthusiastic ovation. Calling it “sherbet after that heavy meal”, Mr. Nuttall announced the Scherzo of Maurice Ravel’s Quartet as an encore. The St. Lawrence played it with flair and joy, in a ravishingly sensual reading.

[The St. Lawrence String Quartet is the Quartet-in-Residence at Stanford University. FSU, can we get one?]

23.3.05

Zwolf at the Door

(Blame him for the title. He started it.)

Alex picks up on Kyle Gann's questionable use of the word "infertile" and gives examples of the special kind of fertility in 12-tone technique. Here's another, a very pregnant and powerful row that my teacher, William Hibbard, used a lot (starting on C in this rendering):

C F G A# D D# G# A C# E F# B

One particularly interesting feature of this row (among many) is how it can be used to change the level of dissonance (melodically and harmonically) over the course of a phrase or even on higher structural levels.

22.3.05

1x2x2x3

Kyle Gann has posted an excellent and thoughtful piece about 12-tone technique, 12-tone music, serialism, teaching, and history. So has Tim Rutherford-Johnson.

It's hard for me to imagine someone designing a compostition curriculum without teaching the basics of 12-tone technique. The more tools you have in your box, the more likely you are to be able to make what you want to make.

And for me, 12-tonery is a constellation of techniques that can be used in combination with others. The music I am writing now doesn't directly use any of those techniques, but the influence is there in many indirect ways. I can't think of any great music that has been written since the propagation of the ideas that isn't influenced by them in some way.

21.3.05

Music of Laughter and Forgetting

I find the current production of Style Wars!, now playing at Composer's Forum and in its permanent run in Kyle Gann's blog (We are at war with serialism. We have always been at war with serialism.) desultory, tired, and sad.

But the worst of it is Mr. Gann's approving posting of this note from composer Art Jarvinen (whose music I like quite a bit):

I used to cover 12 tone basics in my Introduction To Composition class until a couple years ago. I realized that most of the students hate the music, don't like the technique for its own sake, didn't seem to get much out of the homework assignment, and generally find it all completely irrelevant to their own musical lives. Since I can say almost the same things for myself (with certain notable exceptions) and realized years ago that that stuff is basically dead in the water, I replaced it with another, much more amusing, topic: Plunderphonics.

Besides the inmates-running-the-asylum aspect of this move, 12-tone technique is kind of important, and 12-tonery is a precursor of minimalism in some substantive and important ways. But mainly I just want to let Mr. Jarvinen and others of like mind to know that, when they decide to remove 12-tone scores from the library, they can send them to me rather than go to the trouble of burning them.

First name o' Word. Last name o' Smith.

Call him Smitty. Alex Ross shows once again how it is done in this fine review from the New Yorker. His disappointment in one work and pleasure in another are palpable. But I come not to praise Alex, but to quote him. Among the felicitous turns of phrase, delicious puns, and just plain old damn good sentences are:

sonic thunder

hypnotically wayward narratives that reel from antic joy to frozen despair

. . . his 1998 maiden effort, “Little Women,”

The orchestral writing is often little more—or nothing less—than a play of light around the voices.

Rule Britannia

The following is reprinted with permission from the Tallahassee (FL) Democrat, 21 March 2005. Additions and corrections are in brackets.

It is a musical mystery: England produced no [concert music] composers of international renown between the death of Henry Purcell in 1695 and the emergence of Edward Elgar in the 1890s. There are undoubtedly many good reasons for this dearth, but the resurgence that began with Elgar has continued to this day.

The third concert of the Masterworks series of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra consisted of pieces by three of England's greatest 20th-century composers: William Walton, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

[Music] Director David Hoose and the orchestra began Saturday evening's concert with a spirited performance of Walton's coronation march, Crown Imperial. The orchestra's playing was crisp and lively, and Hoose's reading was well-paced and regal, with clearly etched phrases.

Britten's Peter Grimes is one of the towers of the operatic repertoire and the Four Sea Interludes the composer extracted from it are among his most popular and characteristic orchestral pieces.

The orchestra dove into the difficult work and delivered a taut and expressive performance. It was well-received by the audience, a testament to how far the orchestra has come under Hoose's leadership.

The orchestra is playing at, perhaps, its highest level ever, and the exciting programming of recent seasons is providing musical experiences that are rare in cities the size of Tallahassee.

The second half of the program was given over to a gripping reading of Vaughan Williams' strange and wonderful Sinfonia Antarctica, his seventh symphony. The Sinfonia was put together by the composer from music he had written for a film about the doomed Antarctic voyage of Robert Scott.

The Sinfonia is cast in five movements, each of which was accompanied by one or more quotations, either from Scott's journals or from literature. These quotations were provided to the audience or read by a narrator, Michael Richey in this performance.

I think the use of a narrator is essential to a good performance of this work because the descriptive texts act as a bridge from the music to the narrative. And this was a very fine performance, indeed.

The orchestra, with the help of wordless vocalises by soprano Cicily Nall and the FSU Women's Glee Club, brought out the awe and terror in this powerful piece.

[The dying away of the last chord was augmented by our old friend, the cell phone. Unless it was a reference to the famous last entry in Scott’s journal, "Can you hear me now?"]

15.3.05

Poetry

"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it, and that is poetry." So said John Cage, and I'm using that as my official reason for not posting anything of late.

I've added In the Wings, a blog from an Oakland pianist with the improbable name "Heather", to the blogroll. Give it a read.

1.3.05

Everything is Green (III)

I've finished a short prelude and am now into Scene I. I've changed the way I work a bit in response to how it has gone so far. In the past I've worked over passages to death before moving on, but what I'm doing with this piece is noting problems and planning to revise the passages in question in light of the piece as a whole after a first draft is finished.

I'm not sure how interesting it is to readers to see this stuff, or how much good it does me to post it, but I can rest easy in the knowledge that when A. C. Douglas writes that Everything is Green, if it is to be produced at all, could only be fully realized as an underwater pornographic Noh puppet show, he will have source material to refer to.

25.2.05

Review: David Guerrier/Steven Beck

The following is reprinted, with permission, from the Tallahassee Democrat (25 February 2005). The portions in brackets did not appear in the original.

The Artist Series continued Sunday with a recital by trumpeter David Guerrier and pianist Steven Beck at Florida A&M University's Lee Hall.

The performance began with a stately reading of Arthur Honnegar's Intrada. Clarity of sound in all registers, ease of technique and a fine grasp of style marked Guerrier's playing in this piece - and throughout the concert. [I can’t say for certain if Intrada was originally written for trumpet or if it was an arrangement, because the "program notes" included no information about any of the music, only exhaustive listing of the credentials of the performers, as if the recital was an interview for a position. I’d rather be given an indication of why a composer wrote a certain piece, what to listen for in the piece, or why the performers were moved to perform it than to read a mind-numbing list of orchestras performed with, etc. ]

Paul Hindemith wrote sonatas for virtually every instrument and the sonatas for winds, in particular, are at the center of the repertoire. The piano is an equal partner in these works, and the Trumpet Sonata is no exception. Beck's performance of the difficult piano part was as effortless, clean and musical as was Guerrier's trumpet playing. Their phrasing and sense of ensemble - an essential element in a performance of this piece - were excellent.

This sense of musical partnership was taken a step further when Beck took the stage alone for a rhythmically charged performance of J.S. Bach's Italian Concerto (BWV 971). The individual contrapuntal lines were clearly articulated, as were the important structural points of the piece.

Guerrier returned for an exciting traversal of Kent Kennan's Sonata for Trumpet and Piano. The influence of Hindemith was clear and seemed, appropriately, to guide the performers' interpretation of the piece. The last movement expands the style with rhythms and melodic gestures that carry a distinctively American feeling, and the performers went where the music took them.

The second half of the concert began with performances by the winners of the Artist Series Trumpet Competition - Jessica Striano, Ashton Kimbrough and Danielle Aiken - accompanied by Beck.

Beck delivered fluid and idiomatic readings of the Berceuse (op. 57) and the first Scherzo (in B minor, op. 20) of Frederic Chopin. The Berceuse gave him his only real opportunity of the afternoon to show his lyrical side, and he responded with musicality. The virtuoso demands of the Scherzo were well in his reach, as well.

The dry, sardonic wit and rhythmic edge of the Gavotte de concert of Heinrich Sutermeister provided the musical highlight of the afternoon. Gurrier and Beck played the piece with a coolness that was wholly appropriate and expressive.

The recital closed with a strong performance of the Concerto in B-flat, by Alexander Arutiunian. It was a work of conventional virtuosity, with occasional lyrical pretensions.

[An unnamed encore was similar in style, and similarly well played.]

24.2.05

Transparency

I started this post a while back, during the last "simplicity/complexity" blogotempest. I put it on hold because it became clear that the simplicity/complexity axis is really beside the point. More to the point, then, is comprehensibility, which I think is different from that old bugaboo "accessibility". For my purposes here then, "comprehensibility" results when a composer's language is the right one to say whatever it is that is being said in the music. That is, when the means go with the ends, or at the very least when the difference in means and ends results in frisson rather than friction.

Steve Reich, in his 1968 essay "Music as a Gradual Process" declared:

I am interested in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music.

Mr. Reich's great early works, like Clapping Music, Come Out, and It's Gonna Rain exemplify this desire in telling and expressive ways. The means (slowly phase shifting phrases) and the poetic ends are inseparable.

What results is, I think, a kind of transparency wherein the expressive intent of the composer comes through regardless of the means employed, be they complex and/or simple. One is tempted to think of this as a matter of texture--the thinner the texture, the more transparent the music. There's a relationship there, but counter-examples spring immediately to mind, like Feldman's For Samuel Beckett, Reich's Come Out (especially near the end), and the micro-polyphony of Ligeti's Atmospheres.

Complex works can be transparent, as well. Carter's Fifth Quartet, for instance, Boulez' Repons, and the late Beethoven quartets, to name a few examples.

Just as complexity for its own sake can easily lose its transparency and become mere complication, so too can simplicity become simple-mindedness and the transparency turn into nothingness.

17.2.05

Obomobo

I've added oboist Patricia Mitchell to the blogroll. Appropriately for today, her top post (as of this typing) is about applause. So, give her a big listen. welcome!

14.2.05

Review: Beethoven, Schwantner, Elgar

The following is reprinted from the Tallahassee Democrat (14 February 2005), with permission.

The Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra continued its 2004-2005 Masterworks season with a program of music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Joseph Schwantner, and Edward Elgar Saturday evening (12 February) at Florida State University’s Ruby Diamond Auditorium.

TSO Music Director David Hoose led the Orchestra in a strong performance of Beethoven’s "Pastorale" Symphony (No. 6 in F, Op. 68, 1808) to open the concert. The Sixth is a generally more relaxed piece than most of the composer’s other symphonies, as is indicated by the subtitle. This more "relaxed" nature is reflected in the form—there are five movements instead of the usual four, for example.

The Orchestra’s principal woodwinds (flutist Eve Amsler, oboist Eric Ohlsson, clarinetist Frank Kowalsky, and bassoonist Jeff Keesecker) and principal horn player David Cripps played their many prominent solos with skill and style. The Orchestra’s string sections were in fine form throughout the evening, playing with a warm and at times luxurious sound, and a strong sense of ensemble. Mr. Hoose was in fine form as well, shaping phrases with a light hand that allowed the players room for expression.

The best concertos provide a showcase for a virtuoso performer through a substantive musical argument. The worst ones provide neither. Schwantner’s Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra (1994) falls somewhere in between these two extremes.

Two of the biggest trends in mainstream American composition in the past twenty-five years are minimalism (wherein pieces are made from the repetition of clearly etched musical lines; cf. Philip Glass) and eclecticism (wherein pieces are made by drawing from a variety of musical styles and, in the most successful examples, integrated by the personality of the composer; cf. Leonard Bernstein). Schwantner partakes of both of these approaches and combines them in a way that leaves the listener with nothing to chew on. The patterns that are repeated (ala minimalism) don’t move against each other in the telling way they do in the best examples of the style. His eclecticism is twice removed: that is, he borrows from borrowers, so that any personality disappears.

On the other hand, the writing for the percussion solo is spectacular, and FSU professor John Parks was more than up to the task. He played a large array of pitched and unpitched instruments with flair and virtuosity. Schwantner’s writing for the unpitched instruments (drums, etc.) was far better than for the mallets and Mr. Parks brought out everything there was in the part, and more. In addition to his extraordinary playing he has a commanding stage presence that won over the audience as well as the Orchestra. He deserved the raucous and prolonged ovation he received from the large audience.

The concert closed with a sprightly reading of Elgar’s quirky and jovial Cockaigne (In London Town) Overture (Op. 40, 1901). Mr. Hoose and the Orchestra emphasized the modern urbanity of this short work, with its dense counterpoint and wealth of melodic materials.