In Concert

Yesterday, I quoted Alex Ross on the value of concert attendance:

Recordings capture only a fraction of what makes classical music compelling—the social experience of listening with a crowd in real time, the physical and psychological effect of hearing natural sound reverberate in a room.

Today, Eric Alterman publishes a letter from Roger H. Werner that reads in part:

I once heard a marvelous Russian pianist play Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, music I've heard a thousand times. The people sitting next to me must have though I was crazy because the music was so beautiful it made me cry. And I recall the first time I heard the 1812 Overture live more than 20 years ago, and it's something I shall never forget. I've been to a hundred rock concerts, and while most were enjoyable, they mostly blend together and all I can recall are the awful concerts.

[If you go to the letter, make sure you click through to the letter that prompted Mr. Werner to write his.]

I'm sure many rock/pop concerts provide the kind of experiences Mr. Werner recounts here, and this is by no means an attempt to downgrade that particular communal experience. It is to point out that performances of concert music are not exercises in the celebration of the past or of the establishment/enforcement of cultural hierarchies.

At their best, performances process the expressions of one heart through the body of another into the vibrations of an instrument (or voice) that sends waves into the air, where the ears and minds of other hearts make them their own. And that is magic; living and breathing magic.


"Why should I listen to the 20th century? It was pretty loud."
--Stephen Colbert to Alex Ross, The Colbert Report, 29 January 2008.



Kyle Gann posts a fine talk on Morton Feldman he delivered last week in Seattle. I might quibble with Kyle on a few details about the atmosphere in the seventies and the meaning of Feldman's achievement for composers, but it's a compelling and well-thought-out read. Among the gems:

One of my favorite stories Feldman liked to tell was of Marcel Duchamp visiting an art class in San Francisco, where he saw a young man wildly painting away. Duchamp went over and asked, "What are you doing?" The young man said, "I don't know what the fuck I'm doing!" And Duchamp patted him on the back and said, "Keep up the good work." In music, it was Feldman, more than anyone else, who gave us permission not to know what the fuck we were doing.

Jen Carlson, of The Gothamist, interviewing Alex Ross, asks what he would recommend to a new classical music listener. Alex responds, in part:

First, go to a live concert. Recordings capture only a fraction of what makes classical music compelling—the social experience of listening with a crowd in real time, the physical and psychological effect of hearing natural sound reverberate in a room.

This advice can't be repeated enough. Alex notes that there are cheap concert tickets to be had, even in New York City. In a college town like Tallahassee, Greensboro, Iowa City, or Ithaca, there are literally hundreds of free concerts and (especially) recitals to attend.

Matthew Guerrieri meditates on the idea of composers having a "late style":

Elliott Carter, who continues to cheat the actuarial tables at the age of 99, has become a fount of energetic, bracing, quirky works that defiantly insist on being encountered on their own terms, rather than through the prism of their composer's age. It's those of us who think we have a fair amount of time left that are concerned with stage-managing our exit; closer to the deadline, it seems that the best revenge is often just to keep on keeping on.
Matthew is quite right when he argues that when he hear autumn in music, it's more us than the music itself. I'll add that that's a good general rule--when we leave the "text" of the music, usually what we say about it reveals more about us as listeners than it does about the music under discussion.


Beethoven--Quartet in a minor, Op. 132; Guarneri Quartet.

Michael Hersch--The Vanishing Pavilions; Michael Hersch, piano.

Feldman--Rothko Chapel; UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus; David Abel, viola; Karen Rosenak, celeste; William Winant, percussion.


Concert Notes

The concerts I attended this past weekend brought up several issues related to the whole future of concert music issue:

Diversity—The Calder Quartet is made up entirely of white men. They are very young, to be sure, but it was interesting that it was noteworthy that there were no women or minorities in the group. Not too long ago it would have been notable if they weren’t all white men.

Applause—The audience at the TSO concert applauded (I would say it was close to half the audience) after the first movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto. It’s not unusual for there to be applause after the first movement of a concerto, especially of there’s a virtuoso cadenza just before the end. Miriam Burns (TSO Music Director) did nothing to stop the applause, and she has in the past. The violinist (Yang Liu) acknowledged the applause with a quick nod of the head. At the Calder Quartet concert the next day, which had a group of elementary school students in attendance, there was a little applause from the kids at the end of the exposition of the first movement of the Schubert “Rosamunde”. The players continued without stopping, with the first violinist giving a bemused smile.

Outreach—The elementary school students were there as part of an outreach program. They were from a school in an underprivileged area of Tallahassee, and the Calders had visited the school during the week. The experience seemed to be a positive one for the players as well as for the children.

Program order—I’ve always believed that the most difficult or unfamiliar work on a concert should be first after intermission. This is a guideline rather than a requirement, of course. I believe it is usually the best time for an audience to dig in, as it were. That why I was a little disappointed when I saw the announced order of the Calder program: Mendelssohn-Riley-[intermission]-Schubert. I don’t know why it was changed, but the order ended up being Mendelssohn- Schubert-[intermission]-Riley. The Riley came across much better that way than it would have the other. For the record, the Sessions (Black Maskers Suite) was immediately after intermission in the TSO program, right where it belonged.

Talking to the audience—the second violinist of the Calder Quartet gave some brief introductory remarks before the performance of the Terry Riley Cadenza on the Night Plain. I thought it was very effective and gave the audience some clear idea of what to listen for. The only suggestion I would offer would be to include some examples.



I’m about halfway through Peter Gay’s Modernism: The Lure of Heresy. It is a fine book so far, full of information and insight. Gay lays out a description of how the public was viewed during the first half of the 20th century more than once. This description is from a chapter on modernist prose and poetry:

They [literary critics] saw three reading publics: by far the largest consisted of the “barbarian” masses, with no awareness of demanding fiction and inevitably content with shallow fare; the second, much smaller, though still substantial in numbers and with easy access to high culture, feeling superior to the multitudes but reluctant to spend the time and effort an avant-garde novel would exact; and finally, a small elite, an aristocracy of novel readers open to innovations and experiments. (p. 182)
The implications of this broad taxonomy are far-reaching, despite its roughness and its aggressively elitist cast, which few critics would embrace today, as least as stated here. It should be noted that the three categories outlined here do not directly map onto socio-economic groups, educational levels, or any other way of grouping people. The final, smallest group, the “elite” audience, is self-selected and potentially includes members of all demographic categories.

I want to look at these audiences from the point-of-view of a practicing artist. How do you get your work in front of members of the different groups, and get it there in a way that they can “get it”?

The smallest group, the self-selected “elite” open to “advanced” expression in art, would seem to constitute a (the?) natural audience for new music. For them, you do the best work you can and hope that they are a good faith audience whose taste hasn’t ossified.

The middle group, those “with easy access to high culture, feeling superior to the multitudes but reluctant to spend the time and effort an avant-garde novel would exact” presents specific challenges to artists. From the description you get the feeling that they like art, but that they like what they know—their adventurousness, if it’s there at all, may extend only a little bit outside their comfort zone. For them, you do the best work you can and hope that they are willing to extend their comfort zone a little to meet you.

I have to admit that the largest group, the “’barbarian’ masses” interests me the most. How could I get them interested in what I do? I tend to think that this is a, to an extent, a self-selected group as well; that, for a number of reasons, they “choose” not to have any interest in art. How to reach them? I don’t know, but again, it’s always important to do the best work you and work to put it out where people can be exposed to it.


Inspiration and Doubt

Recent posts by Lisa Hirsch and Daniel Wolf approach the work involved in composition from very different directions. In a brief meditation on the idea of "inspriation" Ms Hirsch writes

I think the idea of "inspiration" is misused and overblown in discussing most music. It's a fuzzy word, and in terms of how it gets used in marketing - not just for music - it has all sorts of spiritual overtones and suggestions that don't particularly apply to how music is composed. I also dislike the idea that composition comes primarily from "inspiration." New music comes primarily from hard work. Sure, it's easier for some composers than others; we all gape in amazement at the endless stream of great songs seemingly tossed off by Schubert, but Beethoven's sketches speak to the hard work and endless revision it took for him to compose.

Yes. We tend to equate "inspiration" and "genius" with ease, as if the artist is taking dictation. I tend to think of works and/or performances as "inspired" when everyone involved is at the top of their form (or above their own usually top) and everybody is on the same page, as in the "Midnight Train to Georgia" sequence on last week's 30 Rock.

Mr. Wolf writes, about himself as a composer,

. . . that doubt -- or at least a good, steady dose of self criticism -- is operative for me, I don't think that the notion of belief, or in this case, an absence of belief, is meaningfully opposed to doubt. Doubt, for me, is the recognition of opportunity to do something else, or to find an alternative approach, and to be open to the possibility of failure.

That openness to everything artistic--beauty, prettiness, ugliness (the opposite of the pretty, not the beautiful), success, and even failure is one attribute of an artist ready to be at the top of their game, ready to take advantage of the "opportunity to do something else" and create their best work.


Winter Album

Daniel Wolf put out a call for composers to send him short piano solos on winter themes. He has posted the pieces here. The pieces submitted cover a wide swath of today's compositional waterfront, and Mr. Wolf's own submission includes the wittily appropriate requirement that the player waer mittens to perform it. He was gracious enough to include my late (as usual) submission A Mind of Winter.

The pieces also represent a range of performer skill from amateur to very difficult, so almost any player can find something to read through. Thanks to Mr. Wolf for this project. I hope there will be many more like it.