11.12.09

EC101

Today is Elliott Carter's 101st birthday. To commemorate this day and what this composer's music has meant to me, here's a link back to a series of posts I wrote last year on the occasion of the composer's 100th.

15.11.09

In the long run,

we're all dead. (John Maynard Keynes)

But for some of us, our music will live on. Norman Lebrecht wants to know whose music (of composers living today) will be played 50 years from now. There have been responses at Mr. Lebreacht's blog and from other bloggers. If you are surprised that the leading vote getters are of a more-or-less minimalist/not-Modern bent, you haven't been reading about concert/non-pop music on the Interweb very much. In addition, this result shows one inevitable result of predictions--that what is happening now will continue indefinitely, and that the predictor's values/tastes will be confirmed.

With that in mind, I'd like to add two predictions of my own to this little exercise.

The first, and I'm damn confident of this one, is that some composer who dies 49 years from now will have a pretty good year, performance-wise, 50 years from now.

The second is that John Mackey's music will still be performed in 2059. Mr. Mackey writes very solid and very educational music for winds and percussion (mostly). I've heard a good bit of it, and it mostly works. I think band (for lack of a better term, and I don't think we really need a better term) music is an increasingly important part of the art's future (especially in the US), and Mr. Mackey's is as good as there is.

18.10.09

End of an Era

In a way.

The development of the concert music blogosphere can be dated from when Alex Ross began blogging at The Rest is Noise back before the internet cooled. Now Alex has effectively closed TRiN and opened a new blog, Unquiet Thoughts, under the auspices of The New Yorker, for which Alex is the concert music critic.

I wish Alex well in his new corporate digs and I look forward to his blog posts, articles, and books, and I remember the words of Jean de La Fontaine: "People who make no noise are dangerous."

16.9.09

Lindberg Live

I don't know what it's like in the rest of the country, but the sound on the PBS broadcast of the New York Phil's opening concert here is awful--it's weak and full of pops.

On first hearing, Magnus Lindberg's EXPO does what its composer says it's meant to do--shows off the orchestra and set the stage for the remainder of a concert and a season.

8.9.09

Hello, It's Me

I've thought about us for a long, long time.

I've not posted in a while because I've been immersed in my Percussion Concerto. More on that soon.

Regular (or at least more regular) posting will begin again soon.

22.6.09

In C and Me

Sony Classical (in conjunction with Carnegie Hall) has released the original recording of Terry Riley’s epochal In C (1964, open instrumentation) in a digitally remastered version on compact disc (Sony 88697 45368 2). Countless musicians and artists, myself included, of all stripes have talked and written about In C, most often focusing on its liberating power.

A good deal of the talk about In C and its liberating power centers on how it and its popular and critical reception provided a new tonal alternative to an “hegemony” of pantonal and serial music in the prestigious music schools of the Northeastern United States. Enough testimony of this regional atmosphere exists to take it seriously and to understand how Riley would have been received by those looking for something different.

But in most of the country the atmosphere was very different—the majority of composers in and out of the academy (and concert programs) wrote tonal music of one kind or another. Even so, the appearance of In C had a similar liberating impact outside the major music centers as it did inside.

I had first been exposed to pantonal music in the summer of 1970, after a youth of listening to The Beatles and playing trombone in junior high band in North Carolina. The first pantonal works I heard and/or played, by composers like Lucas Foss, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Georgy Ligeti, Witold Lutoslawski, Iannis Xenakis, and Karlheinz Stockhausen were all over the pantonal map, style wise. I started writing music in the fall of 1972, and I feel confident that my exposure to In C, which came shortly thereafter, was in an eclectic context not dominated by any one style, tonal or otherwise.

I’m pretty sure, then, that In C’s tonal pitch vocabulary doesn’t account for the feeling of freedom, of something new, of liberation that I got from it on first hearing, and that I still get now when I hear this original recording, either on vinyl or on the new CD release. What does account for its effect is, I think, how the music is freed from the constraints one normally finds in tonal music. The pulse is still there; boy is it ever, but gone are phrases, meter, development, and all the other trappings of tonal music, the music I had grown up with. It was with In C that I learned that there was more to emancipation than dissonance. That compositional and performance freedom could be found anywhere, by many, varied means.

One last thought, on this recording in particular. It may be because this recording is how I learned In C, but it remains the only one so far that communicates the deeply innovative, at times transgressive nature of Riley’s masterpiece. More recent recordings have, to my ear, emphasized the one-from-many nature of the music. By this I mean the sound is very clean, with a shiny Kronosified gleam to the surface; that the meaning resides in the completely blended sound of the surface itself. In these performances I get the feeling that every note counts for what it adds to the overall texture. In contrast, the original recording is rough sounding, like a community of many individuals, where every instrument is clearly heard, and the meaning comes from the gathering of expressive individuals.

26.5.09

Twitterpated

In response to this post by the always thought-provoking Daniel Wolf, I've begun a set of prose scores called twitterpieces. They will appear at my Twitter page, www.twitter.com/stevehicken. Everything you need to perform them will be included in the tweet. The first will appear shortly after this is posted.

20.4.09

Steve Reich

Congratulations to Steve Reich, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Mr. Reich won for his Double Sextet. His music was extremely important to my development as a composer, performer, writer, and listener. Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ, Drumming, and Come Out (among others) were in heavy heavy rotation on the turntable when I was an undergraduate, I return to these pieces a lot and always come away refreshed.

13.2.09

Gloria Cheng, piano

LUTOSŁAWSKI: Sonata; STUCKY: Four Album Leaves, Three Little Variation Pieces for David; SALONEN: YTA II, Three Preludes, Dichotomie. Gloria Cheng, piano. Telarc 80712. 72 minutes.

I'm a little late to the party on this, but I wanted to put in a good word for Gloria Cheng's disc of piano music by Witold Lutosławski, Steve Stucky, and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Lutosławski's Sonata is a very early work, written in 1934 when the composer was only 21. The Sonata is a very skillfully composed, melodically rich piece in the Bartók-influenced style that marked Lutosławski's music until his encounter with John Cage. Some of the composer's musical trademarks are already present here: bright, ringing sonorities, free-flowing melodic expression, and rhythmic flexibility. Cheng's reading emphasizes these elements and reveals the Sonata as an important step in its composer's development and a worthy piece in its own right.

The character piece collections by Stucky and Salonen that make up the bulk of the program carry a debt to the mature Lutosławski. The Stucky I have heard has frequently reminded me of Lutosławski and the juxtaposition here underlines the similarities. I don't know Salonen's music nearly as well as I do Stucky's or Lutosławski's, but these pieces sound like they are descended from Lutosławski as well. They are well-written, idiomatic, and expressive.

It may be that Cheng's performances emphasize those elements that all of these pieces share, or it may be that I'm prone to hear similarities due to their appearing on disc together. In any case, Cheng's sensitive, probing, and exciting playing make this disc a rewarding experience, and fully deserving of the praise it has received.

28.1.09

Free Music!

Alex Ross, writing in the 2 February 2009 issue of The New Yorker:

The image of the classical concert hall as a playground for the rich is planted deep in the cultural psyche. When Hollywood filmmakers set a scene at the symphony, twits in evening wear fill the frame, their jaws tight and their noses held high. The monocle returns to fashion for the first time since the death of Erich von Stroheim. One day, an intrepid art director will come to a concert and discover that the classical audience is well populated by schoolteachers, proofreaders, students, retirees, and others with no entry in the Social Register. They can afford to attend because classical events aren’t nearly as expensive as most people assume, especially in comparison with the extravagant pricing schemes for élite pop acts.

Here in Tallahassee, there is an incredible amount of good concert music-making available for free or close to it. This is true of any city, regardless of size, that is home to a college or university with a major music school.

There is far more inexpensive to attend music here than there was in the far-more-populated Research Triangle area of North Carolina when I lived there. Even so, I'd be surprised if there wasn't at least a handful of free or near-free concerts every week of the academic year/music season.

To be sure, the music-making at a music school is not going to be world-class, though doctoral performance recitals can be very good indeed. At traditional music schools (like Florida State) the programming tends to be onthe conservative, standard repertoire side, though less so than when I was a student.

Most of the over 450 concerts given at Florida State every year are free, but the publicity for these concerts and recitals would require a serious upgrade to be graded "poor".* Part of a music school's responsibility these days is to teach students how to market themselves and the music they perform, using the new media that are very likely familiar to these students in their personal lives. In addition to teaching these ideas and techniques, the schools should model more aggressive marketing strategies for their students. Concert music is, as Alex Ross demonstrates in his article, generally less expensive to hear in performance than the more popular mainstream genres, but we have to let people know it's here. How else will potential audiences become actual audiences?


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*A particular bugaboo for me is that it is extremelt difficult (damn near impossible, in fact) to find out in advance of a concert exactly what music is being performed. The fact that an event is a flute recital will draw flute fans. If it was publicized that the program includes Density 21.5, the Varèse fans would be there, too.

26.1.09

21.1.09

Best

A. C. Douglas writes that he had a hopeful dream in which Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man (brass and percussion, 1942) preceded the palying of "Hail to the Chief" at President Obama's inauguration. (I like "Ruffles and Flourishes" so I was happy; the less said about John Williams' contribution to the proceedings, the better.)

ACD mentions in passing that the Fanfare is the "best thing [Copland] ever wrote". This comment made me think about the idea of a composer (or any other artist) having a "best" best work. How do you determine what is best? What are the criteria?

Is a composer's most perfectly-realized work the same as his or her best? I consider Igor Stravinsky's In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (tenor, string quartet, four trombones, 1954, lasting about 7 minutes) as close to a perfect work of art as I've ever encountered, but it's not my favorite Stravinsky, nor would I consider it his "best" piece (I don't think I would, anyway). Maybe scale or ambition plays into it--a piece has to have a certain "heft" to it to be a composer's "best". I don't know.

Listing

Listen has been included on a list of the "Top 100 Musicology Blogs" at Distance Learning Net, which seems to be a clearinghouse for distance learning programs.

I'm pleased to be included in such august company. I want to caution anybody visiting this blog while doing research, or for any other reason for that matter, not to take what is posted here as gospel. What's here is mostly my opinion, and should be taken as such, regardless of the urbanity, felicity, and eloquence in which said opinions are couched.