End of the Year

The High Hat year-in-review supplement is up. It contains the usual smart and funny writing on movies, music, television, and culture. After some thought on the year in music, I decided not submit a piece, because I thought it would largely be a repeition of the trends I noted last year. I'll have a couple of things to say about the year alittle later, though.


Stockhausen and The End

Tom Service of The Guardian has compiled memories of the late Karlheinz Stockhausen from people associated with the composer in one way or another. The last line of the article is from a reminiscence of Barbican artistic director Graham Sheffield: In a way, his death marks the end of 20th-century music.

That struck me as having a lot of truth in it. Now I see that it struck Alex Ross more or less the same way:

The last line of the piece is absolutely right: the twentieth century, the epoch of vastly ambitious, at times megalomaniac musical conceptions, which really began with the late works of Wagner, is indeed over. But its echoes reverberate all around us. What next?*

What next, indeed. To that question I would add this: If Stockhausen's death signals the end of 20th century music, when did (or when will) the 21st century start?

*NOTE: What next? is the title of Elliott Carter's only opera, which ended a succesful run in New York Tuesday, the composer's 99th birthday.


Carter at 99

I'm a big fan of the music of Elliott Carter, as regular readers of this blog surely know. Today is his 99th birthday, and in honor of this remarkable occasion, here's a list of 18 pieces (18 is the number of distinct attacks in a 7:6:5:4 cross-rhythm) that exemplify different qualities of the composer's art.

Sonata for Cello and Piano
Piano Sonata
String Quartet 1
String Quartet 5
Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano, with 2 Chamber Orchestras
Three Occasions for Orchestra
Concerto for Orchestra
A Mirror on Which to Dwell
Boston Concerto
Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei
What Next?
Duo for Violin and Piano
Clarinet Concerto
Au Quai
Enchanted Preludes
Oboe Quartet
Piano Quintet
In Sleep, In Thunder


Karlheinz Stockhausen, 1928-2007

As most of you who read concert music blogs probably know by now, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen has died. He was the first important lving composer whose music I got to know and love during my formative years. I'll have more to say about him later. For now, I leave it to Alex Ross, who gets it:

At his greatest, in works such as Gruppen, Kontakte, and Momente, Stockhausen released sounds of mind-opening and mind-bending power. Exerting an influence that extended from the recondite circles of the postwar avant-garde to the Beatles and Björk he was, for all his bewildering eccentricities, a giant of late-twentieth-century music.


STOCKHAUSEN: Gruppen, Punkte. WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Peter Eötvös, Arturo Tamayo, Jacques Mercier, Wolfgang Lischke.


CD Review, Sequenza21.


Peter Lieberson

I want to echo Alex Ross' congratulations to Peter Lieberson on the occasion of his winning the University of Louisville's Grawemeyer Award in Music. He won the prestigious honor for his Neruda Songs, written for his wife, the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. I've listened to the piece several times, and I can say that it is fully deserving of the prize.


What's a Reviewer To Do?

Here is a comment posted in response to my review of the Florida State University production of La Bohème:

Dear Steve,

Thank you for your review of La Boheme. I attended the same opening night performance and agree it was a splendid show. I hope your positive review contributed to the packed house on closing night that I attended as well.

However, I cannot believe your comment about the orchestra "... at its best..." Dough Fisher is a fabulous and experienced conductor but that orchestra was not following him in Act II (one of the most difficult acts of rubato in the repertoire). It was sloppy at best.

It would help raise the level of artistic product if the only music critic in Tallahassee would raise the bar in reviews and call it like it is.

Does the Tallahassee Democrat just want flowery positive reviews? (we are so great Tallahassee?)

Charles Witmer
Director of Music
Grace Lutheran Church
M.M. The University of Michigan
First, let me say that no one at the Tallahassee Democrat has ever tried to influence the content of my reviews. Never.

Second, I missed the details Mr. Witmer describes. I don't know the opera, so I just missed them.

I want to address the issues brought up by Mr. Witmer's closing parenthetical: "[W]e are so great Tallahassee?" I see the job of the provincial music critic as somewhat different from a metropolitan or national writer. (Believe me, despite the presence of FSU's outstanding College of Music, Tallahassee is provincial. Motto--Tallahassee: 250 miles from anywhere!)

Performances of local artists are the bread and butter of my beat. That's how the paper wants it, and I think that's how it should be as well. Part of my job is, I believe, to help shape the musical culture here, by reviewing local artists and institutions. This is done through praise and pointed, targeted criticism.

It's tempting for a small-town critic to overpraise visiting artists because we don't want to scare them off, and local artists because it's personal. In addition, a particularly pernicious aspect of the small-town syndrome is the subtle lowering of standards. We don't get many world class performers here, though recently the Artist Series has brought in some very good string quartets. (FSU has no faculty quartet!) The ear gradually, imperceptively, involuntarily, and inevitably begins to adjust and to lower standards. Recordings do not help, because a recording just isn't the same as a performance.

I don't think the answer is to point out in every review that we are not seeing the Met or hearing the Boston Symphony, but it may be a good idea to include a periodic reminder.

What do you all think?



Lamentations and rending of garments have accompanied observations about how concert music radio stations have taken to playing movements from pieces rather than the entire composition. This morning on my drive to work, I heard part of the Scherzo from Anton Bruckner's Fifth Symphony. Not the whole thing, just part of it.

I look forward to the day when they play the second theme from the first movement of Beethoven's Second Symphony.


5x5 (Updated)

1) What five operas would you most like to see performed?

2) What five pieces would you most like to hear performed?

3) What five living performers would you most like to meet?

4) What five living composers would you most like to meet?

5) What five living musicians (composers, performers, writers, scholars, etc) would you most like to play three-on-three basketball with/against?

Post your answers in comments or on your blogs. Thanks. I'll post mine later.

2 Nov: My answers are in the comments.



The Florida State University Percussion Ensemble played a concert last evening to kick off a brief tour that will culminate in a performance at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention this Friday in Columbus, Ohio.

My personal and working relationship with the Ensemble's Director, John Parks, keeps me from writing real reviews of his work, but I can say with all honesty that if you dig percussion (and who doesn't?) you should hear them on this tour:

29 Oct: McEachern High School, Atlanta, GA;
30 Oct: Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond; and
2 Nov: PASIC, Columbus, OH.

The program includes, among other pieces, Edgard Varese's epoch-making Ionisation, which the Ensemble gave a powerful performance here last night. The concert also includes pieces by Clif Walker, Rüdiger Pawassar, Pietro Mascagni (yes, you read that right), Astor Piazzolla, and David Skidmore.

Skidmore's From In Contact (2007) was commissioned by the Ensemble, and is notable because it is a very good piece and because it confirms a trend that Alex Ross noted nearly three years ago--a turning away from the relatively simple surfaces/designs and overt pop references of the music of composers who came of age in the 1960s and 70s (in other words, my generation) and an opening up to include a wider array of materials, especially in terms of harmony and rhythm. I was glad to hear such a piece by a young composer (Skidmore was born in 1982) and to hear that it was very good, and well received by the audience.

Check 'em out if you can.


Stephen Robinson, guitar. Review, Tallahassee (FL) Democrat, 29 October 2007.


Taruskin and Katz

As many of you know by now, Richard Taruskin has published a lengthy essay-review of three new books on music in The New Republic. ACD has the particulars here, along with a representative quote. I admit to being surprised that ACD didn't castigate Mr. Taruskin for a good number of his ideas--I think he would have called me an "idiot" had I written some of it.

I haven't digested all of Mr. Taruskin's food for thought, but it is definitely worth a read.

Ivan Katz, writing in The Huffington Post, calls for a revolution in concert program notes. I completely agree. He rightly bemoans the credential lists that routinely pass for artist profiles, as well as fatuous descriptions of musical phenomenon. Others have written about this problem before, maybe somebody will take notes (as it were) and do something about it.

[Edited on 8 Mar 14 for spelling and usage.]


Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry?

The new issue of The High Hat is out, and in addition to literate and insightful articles on a wide variety of cultural and social topics, also contains three things I wrote; an article on place in American music, a review of Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise, and an interview with Mr. Ross.


The Faces on the Stage

Allan Kozinn reviews a concert by the Juilliard String Quartet, joined by clarinetist Charles Neidich, playing music by Wolfganag Mozart, Ralph Shapey (premiere), Elliott Carter, and Johannes Brahms.

A correspondent notes (after reading the review and seeing the photo that accompanies it):

Call me a grump, but 5 old white guys playing old/dead white guys’ music doesn’t thrill me so much. (Quoted with permission)

This is an interesting observation, and brings up an important issue in opening up our music to broader audiences. I do think that it is more a matter of presentation than of substance, and I think my correspondent would agree:

On the flip side, a woman’s presence doesn’t make it automatically better.

I don't think I've been to a concert recently where the faces on the stage were as old and as white and as male as this one. In fact, the only pictures like this one I've seen recently were a George Bush bill-signing and a GOP presidential debate, but at least Neidich and the Juilliards had musical instruments in their hands.

It's a complicated issue. Elliott Carter is quite old, but he wasn't at the time he wrote his Second Quartet, and the Juilliard Quartet was present at its creation, so there is a connection to youth in their performance. Ralph Shapey was old when he wrote 2 for 5, but the piece itself is young. Mozart never was old, but he was white and he is long dead. Brahms was near the end of his life when he wrote the Clarinet Quintet, but it is precisely that work's autumnal glow that we cherish.

The point is not about eliminating DWMs from the culture, or even old ones (pop would thin out pretty damn fast, no?), or about criticizing the Juilliard Quartet; it's about providing as many ways into concert music for people without experience in it. People notice the make-up of ensembles and programs, and it's not limited to "PC"-types and liberals: My correspondent is a political and social conservative.



Sportswriter King Kaufman, in Salon:

The Red Sox win and the continuation of the ALCS should go a long way toward preventing total sports-media saturation coverage of the Joe Torre story in New York, though they'll have their hands full on that score. Torre turned down the Yankees' offer of a one-year contract with a big cut in his base salary but incentives that could have paid him more than he made this year if the 2008 Yankees reached the World Series.

That ends by far the longest, most stable and most successful managerial era of the Steinbrenner era for the Yankees, and it probably would have totally overshadowed the ALCS if the Red Sox hadn't been playing. As it is, ESPN is playing it cool, though it has commissioned Philip Glass to write an opera about Torre's contract negotiation that will debut Sunday afternoon.


Here and There

Alex Ross has a good overview of concert music's web presence here. And speaking of Mr. Ross, today is publication day for his first book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. I'll have a review of the book and an interview with the author, at a time and place to be announced.

And speaking of people named "Alex", I've been listening to Alex Shapiro's new CD, Notes from the Kelp, also released today. I like this CD very much. Ms. Shapiro handles a wide variety of instruments and idioms with style and expression. My favorite piece so far is Current Events, for string quintet (adding a viola to the traditional quartet). The piece is well-written for the instruments, expressive, and compelling. Ms. Shapiro's music stakes out so much musical territory that I am sure just about everyone will find somethng to like on the program.

I don't usually do politics here, but this post by Phil Nugent, who contributes to The High Hat and elsewhere, is as cogent a staement about where we are as anything I've read recently.


And so it begins

Many if not most of us in the concert music blogosphere having been awaiting the publication of The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross's book on 20th century music. The first review is out, and there is commentary on that review.

The review is by Adam Kirsch of The New York Sun. It's a positive review, but it reperents a misreading of some of what Mr. Ross has to say about the last third or so of the century. (I'll have a review of the book later this month.)

What I wanted to point to here, though, is a reaction to that review. Eugene David, who bills himself as "The One-Minute Pundit" has castigated Mr. Ross, saying that he is, in the book, a critic who "won't get mad when anger is justified". This is based not on the book, but on Mr. Kirsch's review. Telephone game to ensue, no doubt.

At any rate, I look forward to many discussions of this book. I only hope they are largely based on what is actually in the book.

UPDATE: I note the appearance this morning of Terry Teachout's review in Commentary magazine. This is one I have looked forward to, given that they have some important overlaps in aesthetics while having serious disagreements about politics. It doesn't disappoint.

Also, congratulations to Mr. Teachout on his impending marriage. I can say with some authority that he has a lot to look forward to; my 30th anniversary is next week.


Three Years

This is the 315th post on this blog, which I started three years ago today. Thanks, again, for reading and commenting.


News from New York

Alex Ross reports that he has received the first finished copy of his forthcoming The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. I wonder if Penelope will review it.

Alex also reports that Gerard Mortier's first season (2009-10) as general manager of the New York City Opera will include productions of The Rake's Progress (Stravinsky), Einstein on the Beach (Glass), Nixon in China (Adams), Saint Francois d'Assise (Messiaen), and Death in Venice (Britten). To say that this is exciting is an understatement of operatic proportions.

[Lisa Hirsch posts about her reservations about the Messiaen, but also about her willingness to give it another chance.]


Greatly Exaggerated

Critic and editor Phil Freeman writes in today's Los Angeles Times that, far from this being an era of songs and playlists:

Albums are more contemplative, presuming and demanding both commitment and patience on the listener's part. But for those of us who love the idea of being permitted into an artist's world for an hour or so, that's how it should be -- and these are good times.

Mr. Freeman cites trends he has noticed, including downloading of albums as a prelude to puchasing the whole rather than a means to pick out individual songs, as reasons to be optimistic about the continuing availability of hour-long visits to an "artist's world".

The pressures/incentives to view music, both popular and concert, as background and/or soundtracks-of-my-life are great. Many concert music radio strations are no help, either, with their constant recycling of a few "hits" and their seeming inability to play a symphony.

However, the trends Mr. Freeman notes, as well, as the sales figures Alex Ross has pointed out from time to time, are reasons for optimism.


Waves; Fields or Spheres

In my post last week on blogospheric discussions of the future of concert music, I made this statement:

Most important, from my particular perspective, a thousand compositional flowers continue to bloom, despite ongoing style wars offensives from all points on the stylistic continuum.
We often think of style as a continuum, with x kind of music on one end and not x on the other. As a corollary to this, we tend to think of stylistic change (not of individuals over the course of a career, but in the larger, historical sense) as pendulum, swinging back and forth between the extremes.

I've been thinking lately of waves. Waves of sound defining musical structure or as musical events punctuating the discourse. It occurred to me that maybe that's how style and styles have developed in history, and that the impetus for these waves comes in the dichotomy of simplicity/complexity. One can easily find points in music history where the prevailing style or styles had become, to some ears, as complex as could be sustained. Or more than could be sustained: Just as simplicity too often devolves into simple-mindedness, complexity too often becomes mere complicatedness.

The wave crashes. Underneath, new simplicities are created, which then are developed until they are part of a wave, which crashes, and the process starts over again. There are times like our own when there are multiple waves, washing over each other so that no one wave dominates the shore. It's tempting to fix other dichotomies (consonance/dissonance or homophony/polyphony) to the wave idea, but history is more complex than that. The wave of late romanticism that crashed around the turn of the 20th century was fiercely chromatic, but the simplifying wave that began underneath was not purely diatonic, as one might think. Pantonalism came about as part of the simplifying movement of the time, in reaction to the crashing of the wave, may seem counterintuitive to those who think that simple always means diatonic or tonal.

I like the wave metaphor for the historical process of stylistic development. The idea of a continuum is equally inadequate for stylistic description, too. Its two dimensions are fatally inadequate for the task. I'm thinking of fields or spheres. What do you think?


Quiz Bang

Matthew Guerrieri posts another of his infamous quizzes. He's obviously amassing a database. To what end, we'll probably never know.

1. What's the best quotation of a piece of music within another piece of music?

Best? Beats me. My favorite is the trombone solo quoting Handel's "Joy to the World" at the end of the third movement of Charles Ives's Symphony 4.

2. Name the best classical crossover album ever made.


3. Great piece with a terrible title.

I'm going to have to pass on this one for now. It requires some thought.

4. If you had to choose: Benjamin Britten or Michael Tippett?


5. Who's your favorite spouse of a composer/performer? (Besides your own.)

Mrs. Gesualdo

6. Terrible piece with a great title.

Contra mortum et tempus, Rochberg.

7. What's the best use of a classical warhorse in a Hollywood movie?

Das Rheingold Prelude in The New World.

8. Name the worst classical crossover album ever made.

Kiri does something or other.

9. If you had to choose: Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye?

Marvin Gaye

10. Name a creative type in a non-musical medium who would have been a great composer.

Georg Cantor

Blogging Composers

Added to the blogroll:

Matthew Whitall

Miquel Frasconi


Taste, etc.

In a comment on my post about John Adams's Doctor Atomic Symphony, A. C. Douglas quoted from the post:

As always, my reaction to him says more about me than it does the music.

His comment: "Maybe not."

I believe I understand what he is getting at with this, but I was very careful in how I worded my response to Mr. Adams's music. When I said "it doesn't speak to me", I meant that and nothing more. I didn't state an opinion of the quality and/or value of his music because I've never studied it enough to feel qualified to render one. I was released from my duties as a columnist for the American Record Guide for similar ideas about how new music could be reviewed.

I didn't get Brahms until graduate school, and now he's one of my favorites. I didn't get Mozart until even more recently. But even before then, I had studied enough of their music to know better than to say that my dislike said anything meaningful about the music itself, but might reveal something about me. I've not had any experiences since then to change that fundamental idea. An up or down evaluation of a work of art or an artist tells me next to nothing about the art or artist, but it does tell me something about the evaluator. Enough of these data points from a critic/observer and I can get a pretty good idea about how their tastes may or may not align with mine.

Naturally, when the criticism goes beyond an overall evaluation, the criticism can tell me something about the work or artist in question. But most of the time, I learn more about the writer--and that's not necessarily bad, as I've indicated. When I have an opinion on something, I'll try to state it clearly and with backing arguments.

When I merely like something or don't especially like it, I'll say that, too.

John Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007)

I listened to the streaming audio of Tuesday evening's premiere of John Adams's Doctor Atomic Symphony, part of a Proms concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mr. Adams. The program began with a flabby and indifferent account of Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid, and continued with a performance of Mr. Adams's Century Rolls, for piano and orchestra, with Olli Mustonen as soloist. Mr. Mustonen was an able soloist and the accompaniment was crisp and precise.

The main event of the concert was, of course, the premiere. I have to say again, for the record, that I don't get John Adams's music. It doesn't speak to me. There are moments in almost every piece of his that I've heard (and I've probably given him more chances than any other composer) that resonate, but they are far and few between (as Stevie Wonder put it), and not big enough to make a whole movement or composition work for me. This was true of the new Symphony--there's an extended passage in the first movement that is reminiscent of the last movement of the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements, but not as telling, and the trumpet solo near the end is very fine.

Many people whose ears I respect continue to sing the praises of John Adams, and I'll still listen to him. As always, my reaction to him says more about me than it does the music.

[Edited on 8 Mar 14 for spelling and usage.]


Topic A

The concert music blogosphere continues to be focused on the ongoing discussion of what is roundly called the "decline" of concert music. (In fact, one could argue that this issue is the reason the concert music blogosphere is as robust as it is.) Here are some links to recent posts on the subject, mostly from familiar players in the discussion (a tip of the fedora to Lisa Hirsch):

Matthew Guerrieri
Marc Geelhoed
A. C. Douglas
Alex from Wellsung
Greg Sandow

It's not clear to me that concert music is in "decline" in any meaningful sense of the word. There is today more of the music available in more formats than ever before and some musical institutions are reporting record ticket sales for the coming season, even while others report lower sales. Most important, from my particular perspective, a thousand compositional flowers continue to bloom, despite ongoing style wars offensives from all points on the stylistic continuum.

If "decline" or even "death" is not the issue, what is?

In the (increasingly distant) past, concert music held a place at the center of intellectual/cultural life in the West. That is no longer the case, and hasn't been for a very long time, probably since the West nearly obliterated itself in the Second World War. In fact, as Alex Ross masterfully demonstrates in his forthcoming The Rest is Noise, the centrality of concert music (especially opera) to the Nazi horror triggered a cultural backlash that continues today. From the other end of the political spectrum came stylistic requirements imposed on composers under penalty of ostracism, disappearance, and sometimes death. No such political strictures exist today, in part because music just isn't that important to the powers that be, though one could say that the part of the Composers' Union in the propaganda machineis now played by the Academy of Country Music and Clear Channel radio.

So it seems to me that the discussion is really about the place of concert music in our cultural and intellectual life is and what it should, or rather could be. I don't know the answers, but I do think it's an important conversation.


Bang the Drum Slowly

Inside the mind of a working musician:

I gave John Parks (for whom I am writing a concerto) a copy of the recent Pierre Boulez recording of the Mahler 2 the other evening. Here are some of his comments (from e-mail, published with his permission):

. . . listening to the Mahler right now. It's a shame that the percussion section really didn't think out their sounds. The cymbal playing makes me angry.

After I asked for specifics about the cymbals comment:

European orchestras typically use very old cymbals; usually what we call "Old K" Zildjian cymbals (pre-WWII), and there aren't tons of these instruments left because of the war and the collateral damage of bombing the opera and concert halls. Very dark sounds, which I really like and are totally appropriate for Mahler. In this recording, there's no blossom or body to any of the cymbal sounds, so the cadences don't really have the color, shimmer, and "arrival" that I think appropriate. When I hear cymbals, I want to hear Michael Bookspan with Philly. Anything else is just noise.

Zildjian has, in the past years, rededicated themselves to making new instruments that sound like these old ones-I have several pairs and love them.

Europeans are known for great timpani sounds, but some "schools" over there do not concentrate on the other instruments with the same degree of seriousness. [T]he way the cymbals are being played [in this recording] never allows them to blossom or open up.

"The cymbal playing makes me angry" is my new all-purpose rallying cry.

Here and There

Additions to the blogroll:

Intermezzo, a blog about music in London.

flyover, a group blog about arts journalism in the provinces.


ACD clarifies his view of recordings, and in no uncertain terms.

Matthew Guerrieri has an excellent post on the recurring discussion of the "death" of concert music.


Open Question

To ACD--

Since you don't have comments, I'll here. Are you saying that listening to concert music on iPods or via mp3s on computer is worse than not listening to it at all?


Perplexed in the Provinces


Langsam, Wozzeck! Laaaaaangsam!

What major work of Alban Berg are you!?!?!

You are Berg's masterful first opera, "Wozzeck", op. 7, a tragic and expressionistic tale of a soldier who goes mad and kills his mistress due to the lack of power and wealth. Society done did him wrong.You are compassionate, emotional and righteous. And a tad sentimental (for good reasons).
Take this quiz!

Quizilla |

| Make A Quiz | More Quizzes | Grab Code

Thanks, and a tip of the retrograde to Alex Ross.



String quartets (both the genre and the medium) are an obsession of mine, yet I never fail to be surprised and struck by the power of a really good performance of a really good quartet, given the right piece at the right time. So it was this morning when, in the normal course of my work day as I play discs mostly on a whim, I listened to the Juilliar Quartet's recording of the two Quartets of Leoš Janáček and the Lyric Suite of Alban Berg. The raw intimacy of all of three of these works is given full-throated expression by the Juilliards, with their often edgy sound especially appropriate in Janáček's sometimes rusticated soundworld.

Other listening:

Lee Hyla: Trans, Bass Clarinet Concerto, Violin Concerto. Tim Smith, bass clarinet; Laura Frautschi, violin; Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose.

Bohuslav Martinů: Symphonies 2 and 4; Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra/Arthur Fagen.


MySpace, Listening

I've set up a page at myspace.com. There's not much there yet (Episodes in Anticipation cranks up as the page comes up), but check it out via the link on the right hand side of this page.

Recent Listening:

Luciano Berio, Sinfonia; both the Boulez and Eotvos recordings.

Elliott Carter, Concerto for Orchestra; Leonard Bernstein/NYPO.

Jean Sibelius, Symphony 4; Osmo Vanska/Lahti Symphony.

Carl Nielsen, Symphony 4; Osmo Vanska/BBC Scottish Symphony.

Johannes Brahms, Symphony 4 (nothing intentional about all these Fourths, that I'm aware of); Karajan/Berlin.

Igor Stravinsky, Symphonies of Wind Instruments; Salonen/London Sinfonietta.

Gyorgy Ligeti, Piano Music; Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

Maurice Ravel, Boléro, Ma Mère L'Oye (complete ballet), Rapsodie espagnole, Une Barque sur l'océan, Alborada del Gracioso; Boulez/BerlinPO.

Beatles, Rubber Soul and Revolver.

Steely Dan, Gaucho.

Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life.


Additions and Workshop (IX)

A couple of additions to the blogroll:

Jeff Low, who's posting about some obscure operas being staged in Germany.

William Zick, whose AfriClassical blog is a companion site to AfriClassical.com, which treats of the "African heritage in classical music".

Work on my Percussion Concerto proceeds. I'm working on a marimba heavy section of the second (of two) movements, for those keeping score (I kill myself sometimes) at home. Fall 2008 premiere is likely.



Site Meter just registered the 50,000th visitor to listen. I want to thank everybody who's clicked in and I hope you will continue to do so.

On to 51,000!


Happy Fourth!

Last year's holiday listening.

listen's first July 4th listening list, from 2005.

Here's this year's July 4th list, focusing on America as place:

Aaron Copland, Music for a Great City
Elliott Carter, A Symphony of Three Orchestras
Charles Ives, Three Places in New England
John Adams, El Dorado
Leonard Bernstein, On the Town
Alex Shapiro, Desert Waves
Steve Reich, Vermont Counterpoint

Bonus Tracks (long distance dedication to "GWB in Washington"):

Peter Maxwell Davies, Eight Songs for a Mad King
Stevie Wonder, "You Haven't Done Nothing"



Alex Ross links to his new article in the New Yorker, a chapter (on Sibelius) from his forthcoming The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. The chapter gives us a sense of Sibelius' accomplishment, a feeling for what his music actually sounds like and how it works, and its place in our current musical life:

“A symphony is not just a composition in the ordinary sense of the word,” Sibelius wrote in 1910. “It is more a confession of faith at different stages of one’s life.” If the Fourth is a confession, its composer might have been on the verge of suicide. Yet, like so many Romantics before him, Sibelius took a perverse pleasure in surrendering to melancholy, and finding joy in darkness. “Joyful and sorrowful,” he wrote in his diary. In his next symphony, he set himself the goal of bringing to the surface the joy inherent in creation.

This chapter (as well as the table of contents which Mr. Ross gives us in this post) points to a challenging and provocative read when the book appears in October.

Beverly Sills

The great soprano, administrator, and ambassador for the arts Beverly Sills has died. Here is a fine obituary by Anthony Tommasini:

In a conversation with a Times reporter in 2005, reflecting on her challenging life and triumphant career, Ms. Sills said, “Man plans and God laughs.” She added: “I have often said I’ve never considered myself a happy woman. How could I, with all that’s happened to me. But I’m a cheerful woman. Work kept me going.”


Criticism Criticism

What are the purposes of criticism?

I wrestle with this question quite a bit in my roles as a critic, a composer, and as a consumer of criticism. When I read criticism, especially of the daily newspaper or weekly magazine sort, I want to know what the event (or movie or book, etc.) was like—how the art in question came off, what the artists may have been trying to do, and the like.

I return to certain critics again and again more because they are fine writers whose prose is a joy to read. Alex Ross is a current example; he is a fine stylist, despite his excessive love for the music of John Adams. Jack Kroll (of Newsweek) was a delightful film critic, whether I agreed with him or not. His opinions were often thought-provoking and always well put.

I bring all of this up as prelude to a couple of reviews of the same event: the world premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Terra Memoria by the Emerson String Quartet this past Sunday at Carnegie Hall. I’ve indicated before that I’m a big fan of Ms. Saariaho’s music, and that undoubtedly colors my reading of these excerpts.

Let’s go to the tape. Bernard Holland of the New York Times (18 June 2007):

No rough sounds for Ms. Saariaho’s “Terra Memoria,” commissioned by Carnegie Hall and having its first performance here. Ms. Saariaho’s elegant music begins and ends in whispery near-silence. Her care for the sound properties of instruments is a double gift to listeners. The overlapping conversations between voices are received as counterpoint, and yet the assembled sounds create a single cloudlike sonority. Most of the piece sings in a pervasive tenor-to-treble range reminiscent of Ravel or Fauré. The more Ms. Saariaho engages the past, the more original her music becomes.
And Ben Finane of the Newark Star-Ledger (19 June 2007):

The Emerson's final concert of the series, delivered to a packed hall, featured a world premiere by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, bookended by two late Beethoven quartets. This work, "Terra Memoria," is only the second string quartet by the 54-year-old Saariaho.

The premiere of "Terra Memoria" began softly, with low and high strings establishing the peaks and pits of the landscape that was to unfold. Languid motives gradually developed and expanded, sliding up and down the register, advancing and receding within the aural spectrum. The schema of the piece, which was simply to explore a sliding wash of color, made for music that was vociferous and angst-ridden, but also cold, clinical and removed.

Dedicated by the composer "for those departed," the work clearly has an element of lament and nostalgia, but there is no catharsis here. The only brightness in the premiere arrived in the form of Saariaho's vivid pink scarf, which came into view when the composer emerged from the audience and made her way to the stage to exchange bisou bisou (kisses in French, Saariaho lives in Paris now) with the members of the Emerson -- 12 in all for four bewildered players.
Mr. Holland is not what I would call a friend of Modernism, but that does not prevent him from writing a very clear and perceptive description of the piece and of Ms. Saariaho’s compositional evolution. In a few short sentences and telling phrases (“whispery near-silence”), he gives us an impression of the experience and is able to place the piece, (sonically and historically) for the reader. I don’t know for certain whether he liked it or not (that’s not the point), but there is no doubt that Mr. Holland listened, heard, and articulated a musical experience.

Mr. Finane, on the other hand, is all over the place. I’m pretty sure he didn’t like the piece, but I can’t be certain he engaged with it. Some of the adjectives he threw out (“angst-ridden”, “calculated”) seem contradictory, which can be an effective means of communicating an impression, but it doesn’t work that way here, for me.

Mr. Finane falls into the trap of claiming to know the composer’s intentions (“[t]he schema of the piece, which was simply to explore a sliding wash of color . . .”) while criticizing the piece for not having different aims (“but there is no catharsis here”). When a critic does this he is substituting a sort of Platonic ideal of the piece (based on his own private standards) for the piece itself, which is found to be lacking.

I’ll admit to piling on Bernard Holland when I think he is wrong or, more importantly, wrong-headed. But in this case, his piece is a very good example of how good criticism can be done. Especially in contrast.

My Desk, 20 June 2007



Elaine Fine has posted a story about composer invisibility that will will set off pangs of recognition in most of us. It's an odd but common phenomenon that is manifest in a number of ways. I've been to many new music festival events where the performers failed to acknowledge the composer (and they had to have known the composer was there because the composer had coached them prior to the performance), and read numerous stories on new operas where the composer's name was buried in the story if s/he was even mentioned at all.

Art without artists!


On Difficulty

Poet Robert Pinsky writes in Slate about the "stupid and defeatist idea that poetry, especially modern or contemporary poetry, ought to be less 'difficult'". I don't know about "stupid and defeatist", but there's no question but that the idea that poetry (and the other arts) should be easier to apprehend than it is.

Mr. Pinsky goes on to quote and explicate a number of poems from all periods that have difficulty as their subject matter. That's all well and good, as far as it goes. He says that there is intrinsic value in difficulty:

Difficulty, after all, is one of life's essential pleasures: music, athletics, dance thrill us partly because they engage great difficulties. Epics and tragedies, no less than action movies and mysteries, portray an individual's struggle with some great difficulty. In his difficult and entertaining work Ulysses, James Joyce recounts the challenges engaged by the persistent, thwarted hero Leopold and the ambitious, narcissistic hero Stephen. Golf and video games, for certain demographic categories, provide inexhaustible, readily available sources of difficulty.

Oddly, the poems Mr. Pinsky explicates (by Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and listen favorite Wallace Stevens, among others) aren't especially difficult to understand, which I think undercuts his thesis as I understand it--that difficult art gives pleasure directly because of that difficulty, not in spite of it.

That's not to say that difficulty is inherently a good thing in art, any more than simplicity is an inherent good thing. There are those who would argue both sides of that, as well as their corollaries, that difficulty and simplicity are inherently bad artistic qualities. This is the basis of the Style Wars.

Since music is inherently abstract and poetry is not, the issue of difficulty in music requires a different approach. One parallel does exist, though, in the virtuoso composition, be it a concerto or unaccompanied work. There, difficulty of execution is definitely one of the subjects of the piece.

Pieces of music that pose difficulty of apprehension are a different kettle of fish, and you will often read commentary along the lines of the point-of-view derided by Randall Jarrell, as quoted by Mr. Pinsky:

When a person says accusingly that he can't understand Eliot, his tone implies that most of his happiest hours are spent at the fireside among worn copies of the Agamemnon, Phèdre, and the Symbolic Books of William Blake.

I think Jarrell's tone is unnecessarily snotty, with its implication that anyone who decries Eliot is an utter philistine, but there is a point there. Many people who decry certain what they call excess difficulty in music draw the line at the most "difficult" music that they dig, and say "This far; no further". (It's different when composers do it, because attacking music that's different from yours is a time-honored defense mechanism.) For some, Beethoven is the limit in difficulties, for some, it's Wagner. For some, it's Dylan.

To my ears, music is "difficult" when the ambiguities in the musical discourse exceed what I have learned to process or are of a different nature altogether from what I am accustomed to. When the ambiguities are overcome, the music is assimilated and is no longer difficult, at least not in the same way.

When a critical mass in difficulty is reached, a significant number of composers begin a simplifying movement, and the process starts anew. We can see that happening in recent times, with the rise of aggressively simple (not simplistic or simple-minded, to be sure) tonal music in response to the ambiguities of various schools of High Modernism and Postmodernism in the 50s through the 70s of the century just past. And we are now seeing rising complexity in music that derives from those schools (postminimalism and metametrical msuic, e.g.). And then it will star all over again.

Daniel Wolf has some related posts here and here, and Kyle Gann here.


FSU Percussion Tour

The Florida State University Chamber Percussion Ensemble, under the direction of John W. Parks IV, is giving a performance at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York City this coming Friday, 4 May 2007, at 8pm.

DISCLAIMER: I am proud to consider John Parks a friend and colleague. I am writing a concerto for him, and consider him an artist of the highest caliber. I want to be upfront about that.

The Ensemble will play music by David Skidmore, Blake Tyson, Andrew Thomas, Bob Becker, and Minoru Miki on the program, which they previewed here in Tallahassee last night. Post-minimalism carried the day in just about all of the pieces, and its influence could be heard throughout the program.

The performances were really good--intense, tight, and expressive. The Ensemble will be stopping along the way to New York to paly the program:

April 29, The University of Georgia (Athens) School of Music , 8pm
April 30, Furman University (Greenville, SC), Daniel Recital Hall, 8pm
May 1, Spring Arts Festival, Kimbrell-Warlick Fine Arts Center (Gastonia, NC), 7:30pm
May 2, The University of Virginia (Charlottesville) School of Music, 8pm

If you have the opportunity to hear them, go. You won't be sorry if you do.


Tristan Does New York

What do A. C. Douglas and Savanna Samson have in common? A love of Wagner, of course!

Ms. Samson is interviewed as part of WNYC radio's multimedia "Tristan Mysteries" project, a web and radio enterprise timed (it runs from 28 April to 5 May) to coincide with the Lincoln Center presentation of the Los Angeles Philharmonic performing the Peter Sellars/Bill Viola/Esa-Pekka Salonen Tristan Project.

(Alex Ross vividly reviewed a Paris performance here.)

"Tristan Mysteries" includes an interview with composer/writer Danny Felsenfeld, among others. An overview can be found here.

Tristan und Isolde was the first opera I ever saw. It was at the Met in January 1975, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting. I had studied the "Prelude and Liebestod" in school, but had not heard the rest of the opera. It was an overwelming experience, and perhaps the fastest five hours of my life.

If you build it . . . (I)

A reader writes:

What determines the formal structure in 20th century music? It seems that much of the music written in the early decades of the 20th century would lack structure (so it sounds to me)... Any thoughts?

I'll deal with this in some detail soon, but I want to open the question up to anybody who cares to take a shot at it, either in the comments or from their own podium.

I think that musical structure is, regardless of style, a very useful illusion. Wallace Stevens built an entire poetics around the idea that the human mind has such a "rage for order" that we will impose order, or "structure", even where there is no inherent order:

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Composers place "jars" in their music as ways for listeners to create/perceive and order to the music they are hearing. Performers can differ as to where in the piece the jars are located, and through accents of various kinds point them out to the listener.

We think of structure in functionally tonal music as a result of the deployment of changes and different melodies in time, to create a convincing musical argument. How is structure created or implied or facilitated in music that is not functionally tonal? Conversely, given our rage to order, is unstructured music even possible?


The great Russian cellist, conductor, and artistic rights champion Mstislav Rostropovich has died.

Allan Kozinn's New York Times obituary includes this:

As a cellist, Mr. Rostropovich played a vast repertory that included works written for him by some of the greatest composers of the 20th century. Among them were Shostakovich Cello Concertos, Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto, Cello Sonata and Symphony-Concerto, Britten’s Sonata, Cello Symphony and three Suites. He also played the premieres of solo works by Walton, Auric, Kabalevsky and Misaskovsky, and concertos by Lutoslawski, Panufnik, Messiaen, Schnittke, Henri Dutilleux, Arvo Pärt, Krzysztof Penderecki, Lukas Foss and Giya Kancheli.

As if that list wasn't amazing enough, for its variety as well as its length, there's this:

Mr. Rostropovich always said that one of the principal lures of the podium was that the orchestral repertory seemed so vast when compared with the cello repertory. But he did not confine himself to the established classics. He commissioned regularly, and led the premieres of more than 50 works. Two of the pieces written for him during his National Symphony years — Stephen Albert’s “Riverrun” Symphony and Morton Gould’s “Stringmusic” — won Pulitzer Prizes. Leonard Bernstein, Jacob Druckman, Richard Wernick, Gunther Schuller and Ezra Laderman were among the other composers who wrote for him, or whose works had their world premieres under his baton.

He will be missed, but his artistic legacy remains as comfort, inspiration, and living memorial.


Future: Tense

The debate about the future of our music continues apace.

With friends like Gene Weingarten, who needs enemies? The condescending tone of Mr. Weingarten's article about Joshua Bell playing in a Washington (DC) subway station, has drawn notice elsewhere in the popular press and in the political blogosphere. I'm not sure concert music's worst enemy could have put together a more embarrassing and guaranteed-to-blow-up-in-everbody's-face cock-up if they had tried.

[Side note from the Pedagogy Department here at listen101: Mr. Bell oversells the Bach "Chaconne" here:

not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It's a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.
I can tell you from painful experience that that is a set-up for a tepid response, even though it's true. Tell them it's got some great moments, show them how to follow it, and make sure they know it's long.]

And speaking of pompous, Norman Lebrecht doesn't even have the whatever to name ALEX ROSS by name when attempting to refute ALEX ROSS' very fine post on the sale of recording of concert music. Mr. Lebrecht seems to equate the world of concert music with big recording companies, which equation doesn't add up, as ALEX ROSS demonstrates. Also, be sure to read ALEX ROSS' survey of the New York music scene here.

Finally, Helen Radice offers her always-more-than-two-farthings-worth:

Some people may be more fufilled by literature, galleries, the theatre, football, or even by what I believe is called 'popular music'. But there remain many people throughout the world passionately in love with 'classical music' (if so it must be called). Like any other major art form, it - recorded or otherwise - is not fucking dying. It is evolving, like anything else alive. It may be there is less of a market for more CDs of 'The Four Seasons', but there now exist 435 recordings of this piece, and even a seminal pop album like The Bends only comes out the once, give or take some re-mixes.

Read the whole enlightening thing here.


Arts Funding

The Tallahassee (FL) Democrat published a piece by a local political columnist this past Thursday, which piece called for the elimination of public funding for the arts.

My response is here. There's a lot more to say on this topic, and I hope at least some of you will say what you have to say in comments.



According to Maynard Solomon (my memory may be less than perfect on this, and any corrections would be more than welcome) about 400 people heard the three premiere performances of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto 24, in c minor (K. 491, 1786). The fame and reputation of the concerto and its composer has grown exponentially since that beginning. Of course, Mozart was, well, Mozart, and times are different, but I wonder if there isn’t an encouraging lesson to be found here.

Among these 400 there must have been other musicians of the professional or amateur variety. Musicians who talked about the piece, obtained a copy of the score, and learned it. More important, there must have been people in the audience who heard the piece and were struck or moved by it, and proceeded to talk about it with others, people who weren’t in the audience for the premiere.

Mozart’s time was a before mass markets and mass media, obviously. Just as obviously, our time is an age of mass media and related markets:

We live in a society that observes very much the mass reactions, and is all about markets, including in music. I think our responsibility is to work against that, to have a taste for adventure, to be courageous enough to go forward into the emptiness, to open new doors, and then be followed—or not—by our audiences. --Pierre-Laurent Aimard, quoted by Jeremy Eichler in the Boston Globe, 25 March 2007

I think Mozart’s experience and Aimard’s comments point us to a new approach, one that is rooted, in part, in the long tail theory and in compound interest. Concert music is a niche market, very small and diminishing, or slowly growing, depending on who you read and on their agenda. The new and emerging technologies of internet distribution and electronic “rendering” of scores in recordings that are very close to performance quality enables composers to find their 400. If they are like the audience Mozart had you may see interest in your work grow. It’s a long, agonizing process, but if you can get 400 people to “go forward into the emptiness” with you, it will be worth it in the long run.


The Best Disinfectant

Stirling Newberry, posting at the Agonist, asks bloggers to remove On an Overgrown Path from our blogrolls because of this post, which links to an article in the American Spectator on affirmative action in orchestras. Mr. Newberry believes that the linking of the article is an indication of "soft bigotry" on the part of Pliable, the Path blogger.

The article is indeed a fetid pile of half-truths, unsupported assertions, condescension, frat-boy style bigotry, and false concern. (I say "false concern" becuase in the world dreamed of by the editors and writers of that magazine, there would be no elite orchestras, because they wouldn't be able to make it in that market-driven pit.) However, I won't remove the blog from my roll because I believe that we do better in fighting for what we believe in when those we opposed are exposed to the light of day. I don't know if that was Pliable's point in linking to the article, because he doesn't comment on it.

And that brings me to the action that I will take in response to this. I frequently post links to other sites, be they blogs, magazines, etc., and offer them without comment. In the future I will endeavor not to do that.


Oh, why not?

Matthew Guerrieri's Proustian quiz:

1. Name an opera you love for the libretto, even though you don't particularly like the music.

Stephen Paulus' The Postman Always Rings Twice.

2. Name a piece you wish Glenn Gould had played.

Basic Training, Lee Hyla.

3. If you had to choose: Charles Ives or Carl Ruggles?

Ives, but I love Ruggles' Sun-Treader.

4. Name a piece you're glad Glenn Gould never played.

Trois Gymnopédies, Erik Satie.

5. What's your favorite unlikely solo passage in the repertoire?

The piccolo solo that ends Carter's Symphonia.

6. What's a Euro-trash high-concept opera production you'd love to see? (No Mortier-haters get to duck this one, either—be creative.)

Parsifal in Vegas.

7. Name an instance of non-standard concert dress you wish you hadn't seen.

Pass; we don't get much of that around here. One I'm glad I did see was Dr. John Boda wearing a scarlet tux to play on my doctoral recital.

8. What aging rock-and-roll star do you wish had tried composing large-scale chorus and orchestra works instead of Paul McCartney?

Ugh. Jeez. Hell, I don't know. Crap. The guy that sang for the Ides of March, I guess.

9. If you had to choose: Carl Nielsen or Jean Sibelius?

The Finn.

10. If it was scientifically proven that Beethoven's 9th Symphony caused irreversible brain damage, would you still listen to it?

It doesn't?


The Times Are Never So Bad (II) (Updated)

Stirling Newberry has another essay up at The Agonist, the subject of which is the response of the arts to the events of the last five years. Needless to say, he finds the response inadequate, to say the least. However, there is hope, if not for redemption, at least for realization and rebuilding.

The first comment is very good.

Update: Mr. Newberry puts his music where his mouth is, with a video based on the last three minutes of the second movement ("There Must Be Peace") of his C Major Piano Sonata (Ares), from a soon-to-be-released CD. I'm agnostic on the idea of attaching images to concert music, but it is certainly one way to to provide entrée into the music.



Stirling Newberry posts on the "liberation of classical music" over at The Agonist. The questions that Stirling raises in this piece are not new; in fact, raising them again and again in new contexts seems to be an important part of his work. They are worth asking and worth thinking about.


Class Divide

Daniel Wolf wants to start a campaign to get publishers to make study scores available on the web for free. That's a very good idea. An indication that publishers would not be the only roadblock to this open source conception of music comes in this article (from The New York Sun) by Fred Kirshnit (h/t to Robert Gable):

Copyright and royalties are a major issue as well. Mr. [John] Corigliano recalled encountering a student in Beijing who is writing her thesis on his Symphony No. 2, a work neither published nor commercially recorded. She possessed on her computer not only the score to the piece, but a pirated recording as well.

I'm assuming here that Mr. Corigliano was not celebrating this as a triumph of the internet's ability to spread our music all over the world, and if I'm wrong about that I'd love to be informed about it. (I'm less thrilled about a pirated recording, but I don't know the specific circumstances of that, either.)

My point in quoting this is to say that there is a class divide between the haves of the composition world, represented by Mr. Corigliano, and those of us who struggled to be heard and studied. Mr. Wolf's idea, even if it were to be implemented on a modest scale, would be a step in the direction of getting more of us studied, played, and heard.


Catching Up

The American Music Center has launched Counterstream Radio, billed as a "showcase for new music by United States composers". Check it out.

I want to echo Daniel Wolf's call for music publishers to make study scores available for downloading over the internet at no charge. Mr. Wolf makes a convincing case that any hit the publishers might take on sales of these scores (which wouldn't be all that much) would be made up for in the increased performances and the related performance and mechanical reproduction fees. A few of my scores are posted (in pdf form) at my Classical Lounge page. I'm working on ways to get more of them out there, and am interested in hearing from composers and performers about what works from their repective perspectives.

Not un-related to this is Mr. Wolf's earlier call for those of us with an interest of one kind or another in new concert music to increase the web presence of ourselves and our music:

After having spent too much of the past two weeks monitoring activity in the online new music blogs and fora, I've come to the conclusion that one problem is that we, as a community, are generating simply too little heat: too little new of interest in the way of sounds, scores, or ideas, and too little controversy or passion, and even too little in the way of intellectual challenges. But most of all, through the underwhelmingly small amount of material we present to the world, we're simply giving out the impression that nothing is really happening in little Newmusicville. At this point in time, a new music equivalent of the "Instapundit" could probably get by with a bi-weekly post delivered by burro.
Matthew Guerrieri posts a thoughtful, evocative response to an essay on the atmosphere at performances of concert music by Erika Lange, a student of Greg Sandow. Ms. Lange's essay includes a number of extra-musical suggestions for "add[ing] some spice" to concert music events, including lighting effects, attire, etc. Mr Guerrieri sums up his disagreement:

. . . I finally figured out that it's not about being knocked out of my chair, it's about being able to aurally go up to the music and engage it actively, openly, maybe even foolishly. The more that classical music borrows from popular music, the more the artistic content is skewed in a pop direction: towards sensation and away from contemplation, and more crucially, towards expectation and away from exploration. The most important music is the music we don't yet know that we want. Structuring the presentation along popular lines makes it that much more unlikely that we'll ever find it.

I come upon performers blogs less frequently than I do composers' or crtics' blogs, but when I do I always learn alot about performers' all-important perspective. So it is with soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird's blog. In this post, she links to a discussion by baritone Thomas Meglioranza about the process he goes through to learn complex and/or pantonal pieces. Note the comment by a listener to the effect that this kind of inside knowledge is valuable to his experience with music.

Adam Baratz has a quote from Jon Brion (composer of some of my favorite film scores):

The truth of the matter is, most rock bands are classical musicians and they don’t know it. Because it’s "This song starts with this drumbeat, at this time; halfway through, the guitar comes in, playing this part, with all down strokes on the fifth, with a clean sound; at this point you turn on your distortion and you play the barre chord, and then it’s muted at this point . . ." And every time they play the song, it’s the same thing. That’s classical music!

Actually, it's my experience that there is far more of this particular form of anality in the rock/pop world than there is in concert music. Stories of rock/pop performers wanting the concert to sound just like the record are legion, while it is very rare for (especially experienced) concert music performers not to try new things during a performance, even if they've played a piece hundreds of times.

The Standing Room offers this observation:

Snobbishness is not the opposite of ignorance; in fact, I would argue that they share space on the same side of the coin.

Finally, if you are thinking of getting me a gift, I'd really like to have this.

Borodin Quartet

Review, Tallahassee (FL) Democrat, 12 March 2007.


Workshop (VIII)

At the risk of giving A. C. Douglas the vapors, I want to talk a little bit about my working methods on the percussion concerto I'm writing for John Parks.

The piece is cast in three movements, with the second movement constituting an interruption of the first and third. I find myself approaching II very differently from I/III. II is a slow movement in which I'm "building" the percussion part as I write the band part--the solo part is growing as the piece grows. On the other hand, in I/III, which is mostly fast music of one kind or another, I find myself writing the percussion part first, and following 20 measures or so with the band, so the percussion line is like a spinal cord, holding up the whole thing.

The three movements share a common harmonic basis, which I'm not inclined to discuss at this time.


Walkin', Miles Davis All Stars
"Someone to Love", Fountains of Wayne


Record Year

Brendan I. Koerner of Slate magazine has posted an article trumpeting the recent announcement that sales of "classical" recordings increased more than any other genre in 2006. Mr. Koerner emphasizes the contribution of "crossover classical" recordings to this occurrence, and Alex Ross convincingly questions that conclusion.

The rumors of concert music's death remain exaggerated.


High Hat 8

Just in time for the holiday: The new issues of The High Hat is up. There's a special section on "First Loves" (my article on the trombone is here) as well as the usual commentary on culture pop and non-pop (my piece on Terry Riley's In C is here). Enjoy!



Tallahassee Symphony review, Tallahassee (FL) Democrat, 12 Feb 2007.

Kyle Gann has posted a thought-provoking keynote address he delivered to a new music group in Canada.

Galen Brown reviews a new release of music by Lee Hyla.


Beethoven, String Quartet in F, Op. 135; Guarneri Quartet.
Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments; London Sinfonietta/Salonen.
Hyla: Orchestral Music; BMOP.
Gershwins: Songs; Ella Fitzgerald.



Context is everything.

No one likes for their words to be removed from their context and their meaning changed. Statements taken out of context can be twisted so that they appear to mean the opposite of the speaker's intention, or at least in conflict with the speaker's beliefs.

As much as we often want to say we hear pieces of music on their own terms, it is all but impossible to listen to music without putting it in a context of some kind, be it an aesthetic, historical, or social context, or some combination of those. (As an aside, I don't think it would be especially desirable to be able to experience works of art in such a vacuum, but that's a different post.)

What might it mean for a piece of music to be taken "out of context"? What does "context" even mean in this, well, context? If the groundwork has been laid for a piece in a new or locally-unfamiliar style, then the piece has a context in which to be heard. Even if a piece is radically new, the presence in a culture of other artifacts related to the radical piece provides a context for an audience's understanding.

A piece can be played, of course, even if there is no such context, but I have my doubts as to whether it can really be heard as music. The syntax, materials, structure, everything about the piece may be incomprehensible to the audience, even the performers. It's very important, then, for composers, performers, and presenters to help create an infrastructure for their art. Only then can a context for this art be assured and perception made possible.


Around the 'sphere

Daniel Wolf has Anton Webern's back here, Marc Geelhoed a deliciously evil review here, and I review a disc by eighth blackbird here.

And a happy 70th to Phil Glass!


Words of Caution

Clement Greenberg:

One cannot condemn tendencies in art; one can only condemn works of art. To be categorically against a current art tendency or style means, in effect, to pronounce on works of art not yet created and not yet seen. It means inquiring into the motives of artists instead of into results. Yet we all know — or are supposed to know — that results are all that count in art.

These words should give pause to anyone contemplating engaging in Style Wars criticism. (h/t to Leonard Pierce)


Electric Now

Stirling Newberry has written a telling introduction to George Crumb's Black Angels and posted it on the Crooks and Liars blog. Crooks and Liars is a center-left political blog that chronicles the top down media's treatment of politics. I've posted about my mixed feelings concerning political posting on cultural blogs, but I think posting on political blogs about cultural matters and artifacts is a spectacular idea, especially when the two realms meet as they do in Black Angels.

I also want to add my conratulations to Alex Ross for completing his book on 20th century music. It appears, though, that the critics are already being catty.


Lee Hyla

Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe writes about Lee Hyla (registration may be required to get theough the whole article).

Here's my take on Mr. Hyla, from The High Hat.