Mind the gap: exploring great music in the middle

Re: Matt's recent post about the repertoire of the Metropolitan Opera over the past century

For a while now, Matt and I have been talking about and exploring what a truly American opera company might look like, and what its repertoire might be. It's a fascinating question, and for me the answers are strongly influenced by examples like the Modernist populist composers, whose work was both substantial and accessible, subtly-crafted yet firmly populist in origin and/or appeal. Examples would include Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, or Leonard Bernstein. (Kyle Gann wrote a great post about a largely unknown but terrific American composer cut from this cloth, Marc Blitzstein, the only composer to study with both Boulanger and Schoenberg.)

The schism between American opera and popular culture was driven to a great degree by repertoire choices. But it was also driven by rejection or avoidance of, e.g., inventions and outcomes of industrialization, like technology or socio-political shifts in the early 20th century. Specific examples include something as prosaic as the microphone (which, ironically, made possible the very first ever radio broadcast ever which was a performance of the Metropolitan Opera in 1910) or the massive cultural influence of pervasive electronic media, led by the radio (invading American homes since around 1920), and the democratization of culture it enabled.

Continue reading "Mind the gap: exploring great music in the middle" »

The decline of opera's cultural relevancy in pictures

A brilliant collection of data from performances over the last 100 years at The Metropolitan Opera  demonstrates the decline in cultural relevancy in opera in the United States (illustrating patterns found throughout large, influential performing arts organizations in the U.S. more generally).

A few highlights:

1.  Median year of composition of works performed in 1910: 1870.

2.  Median year of composition of works performed in 2014: 1870. No change in 104 years.

3.  In 1910, 50% of all operas performed at The Met had been composed within the past 25 years.  As perspective, to match that today, half of current programming would be composed since 1989 (the actual portion today is less than 5%).

4.  In 1910, 80% of all operas performed at The Met had been composed within the past 50 years. Today, that means that most of their repertoire would be composed since 1964 (the actual current portion is also less than 5%).

5.  The Met has only ever produced a single opera by a female composer. It was in 1903.

If there was ever any doubt that opera as currently practiced is an inherently European art form that never evolved within American culture, check out the graph showing the percentage of American composers featured at The Met over the last 100 years. Or any of the other graphs, it's very sobering data, and our thanks to Suby Raman for putting it together.

It's not too hard to figure out why more people in the U.S. don't go to the opera.

"These Hopeful Machines" - a compelling look at the evolution of electronic music

From Radio New Zealand is These Hopeful Machines: "a six-part series in which James Gardner traces a personal path through the evolving world of electronic music – and meets some of the people who made it happen."

There is some great stuff in each episode, with lots and lots of music:

  • 2: Raindrops In The Sun - New musics rise from the secret projects and surplus junk of World War II.
  • 3: Fag ends and lollipops - Luciano Berio, Bruno Maderna, Italian Radio (Cary, Zinovieff, and Moog), and the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
  • 4: I was Born to Synthesize - Early development of analogue synthesizers and their rapid spread through experimental composition, popular music, sound effects and advertising, and more.
  • 6: A Dance To The Music of Time - Synthesizer bands of the 70s via hip hop and electronic dance music; laptops and the democratization of music production; what's next?

Don't miss the links, bibliography, and playlists toward the bottom of each episode's page. Really great, comprehensive resources.

Going to the orchestra will help get you laid?

According to Ben Folds, orchestral music is a great aphrodisiac. Which I don't disagree with, but the article also has a more salient point: community engagement by meeting listeners where they are culturally has been a boon for the St. Louis Symphony:

[S]ince launching its Live at Powell Hall series -- a collection of performances that focus on music icons, current entertainers and scores from film and television -- and other special initiatives in 2008, the St. Louis Symphony has seen significant growth in ticket revenue, from $4.84 million in 2008 to $6.57 million in 2013, with more than 39,000 new ticket buyers.

The article also gives some detail on Folds' new piano concerto, his first concert work in a very successful musical career that has thus far only covered the popular realm.

Battling Artistic Entitlement

As the General and Artistic Director of a small regional opera company in Modesto, CA, I have watched the situation with San Diego Opera unfold with a combination of amazement and bitterness.  I am amazed that a company that presents four productions annually with a $15 million budget and no debt would close down voluntarily, and I am bitter at the thought of the work our company could do for our community with a tiny fraction of that annual budget.  But this decision, made at the urging of their senior management, has helped bring into focus something I think has been a widespread problem for some time now, one which harms the sustainability of many performing arts organizations:

Artistic Entitlement.

Continue reading "Battling Artistic Entitlement" »

California Symphony's support for American composers runs deep

The East Bay based California Symphony just announced its 2014-2017 Young American Composer in Residence program, open to all American composers under 40. YACR is a pretty remarkable initiative that remains somewhat under the radar, especially given the the press that similar programs receive. Some of the notable features include multiple commissions, paid travel and copyist expenses, and recorded rehearsals of in-progress works.

The California Symphony, founded in 1986, has a well-established history of promoting young composers, something newly minted Music Director Donato Cabrera plans on continuing. "I certainly want to continue the tradition of performing works by living American composers," Cabrera said in a recent interview with San Francisco Classical Voice. "Aside from the California Symphony’s tradition of promoting composers who have become well-known — Chris Theofanidis, Mason Bates — there are many composers I went to school with who have gone on to major careers — Nico Muhly, for example. The California Symphony has a great openness to living composers, and I want to celebrate that."

One of the things that sets this residency apart is that because of its extened length, composers and players have the opportunity to really get to know one another as they work together from season to season. At a recent rehearsal several orchestra members greeted and chatted with current composer in residence D. J. Sparr prior to reading through the first section of his new work Dreams of the Old Believers. Sparr is in the third and final year of his residency but his first encounter with YACR was back in 1997 when his college roommate Kevin Puts was in the program. “I saw what a great opportunity it was to be able to work with the orchestra in the reading sessions, where you really get a chance to fine-tune your craft and ideas so that in the future your works can go into intense rehearsals and come off with as much polish as possible.


Continue reading "California Symphony's support for American composers runs deep" »

Blow it up, start again

I stole the title of this post from composer  Jonathan Newman. It's the name of a swaggering barn-burner of a piece with a great, one-sentence program note.

If the system isn't working anymore, then do what Guy Fawkes tried and go anarchist: Blow it all up, and start again.

That title was the first thing that popped into my head when I read this opinion piece in the Star-Tribune. In it arts consultant Lawrence Perelman lays out a drastic and brilliant course of action for the Minnesota Orchestra musicians.

Follow Maestro Vänskä’s lead and resign from the Minnesota Orchestra Association. Immediately announce the creation of the Minnesota Symphony, a self-governing orchestra modeled on the Vienna Philharmonic. Find a charitable organization to give temporary use of its tax status (while you establish a new nonprofit) so you can receive donations from foundations and corporations and from your audience. Govern yourselves, and assign responsibilities to yourselves. Make history by setting an example for other orchestras to follow, and end the labor-management paradigm that leads to these kinds of disputes.

Now there's a thought. Maybe some of the orchestra's younger members took one of those entrepreneurship classes in conservatory that everyone's talking about now!


The Sound Design of Star Wars

To say the original Star Wars (that is, Episode IV: A New Hope) is iconic is to say that the sky is blue.  But as a kid swept up by its bold newness, two things always really captivated me most: the stellar (ha!) soundtrack by John Williams and the vivid sound world created by legendary sound designer Ben Burtt.

FilmSound, a site "dedicated the art of film sound design and film sound theory," features this great page on Burtt's work in the original film. Check it out.

(Seriously, have you never wondered how, exactly, that great blaster sound was made in 1977? Or that TIE Fighter screech?)

Visualizing music: animations can help us hear better

I love the current trend of music animations.  We posted the superlative Rite of Spring animation below, but this simple one I especially love, because it not only helps the aural patterns make more sense (we are visually dominant in our perceptions, after all), but reveals a little bit of the actual compositional process, too.

Anyone who has studied tonal counterpoint knows that the all-time undisputed master craftsman is J. S. Bach, and The Musical Offering (BWV 1079) is a pretty clear example why.  Here its most essential idea is presented in way that helps one hear and understand the nature of a so-called 'crab canon':

Now here is the music in context--try and notice if the little animation above helped you better hear the process Bach is putting the thematic material through:

Canon 1 a2 (Canon Cancricans)

(played by the superb Ensemble Sonnerie)

Pretty neat, right?  A few more interesting animations below the break:


Continue reading "Visualizing music: animations can help us hear better" »

Postcard pieces

The London Sinfonietta had a composition contest recently, except that each piece had to fit on the back of a postcard.  Seriously.  And the results are are fantastic.  From their blog:

On Sunday, 15 September, the London Sinfonietta will be performing a selection of composer James Tenney’s Postal Pieces as part of Kings Place Festival.

Inspired by Tenney’s innovative work, we held an open call asking for compositions written on the back of a postcard and the response was phenomenal. A total of 355 RSVP compositions from 170 composers were sent in from 20 countries on 5 continents.
Also be sure to check out the brochure for their new season.  So much good programming and terrific, innovative presentation modes.  "This is not a museum" indeed.

To commemorate the Rite centennial, the most effective and beautiful music animation I've seen

So Igor Stravinsky's inimitable The Rite of Spring was famously premiered to some discontent 100 years ago today.  For  me, like so many other musicians, it is a work that is absolutely seminal.  In tribute and to facilitate more vivid listening, here it is animated in extraordinary fashion.

(And don't forget that other new music riot 100 years ago last March...probably more deserved, honestly.  Expressionism can be some provocative stuff.)

Part 1:


Part 2:


"Does it smell like a dance party in here?"

The Living Frobius Octet - an unholy combination of the Living Earth Show, Mobius Trio, and Friction Quartet - capped off the Hot Air New Music Festival with a fantastic, beer-fueled show at the Hotel Utah Saloon, which has to be the tinest venue in the world to still have a balcony. The concert featured works by Adrian Knight, Brendon Randall-Myers, Aaron Jay Kernis, Danny Clay, and Nick Benavides.


Continue reading ""Does it smell like a dance party in here?"" »

The audience is driving now

If anyone needed a clear, message-on-the-mountain kind of symbol for how fundamentally the creation, consumption, sharing, and general experience and means of culture have radically changed (and continue to change), here it is: 

A Kickstarter page to make a movie version of TV show Veronica Mars (which ended its TV run in 2007) raised its goal of TWO MILLION DOLLARS in less than a day.  So now not only is the movie that fans want definitely getting made, it still has four weeks to raise even more money to increase production quality significantly.

Think about that: fans are willing to fund on a large scale the creation of work they love, and we now have easy mechanisms for allowing them to do so.  The corporate and institutional hierarchies that have controlled the creation and dissemination of creative work for decades are being fundamentally, radically disempowered.  The implications are staggering.

So the LA Phil 2013-14 season is pretty awesome...

...like, refreshingly great and focused on modern and contemporary music.  You must check out the full season here.  Just a quick tally of the highlights:

  • 13 commissioned works
  • 11 world premieres
  • 4 U.S. premieres
  • 4 West Coast premieres
  • Revival of the Minimalist Jukebox Festival (including a new Death of Klinghoffer)
  • Salonen conducting Zappa

A little bit of commentary on this delightfully present- and forward-looking programming here, here, and here.  It almost makes me wish I lived in Los Angeles.

13 commissioned works, 11 world premieres, four U.S. premieres and four West Coast premieres during the season. Among the world premieres will be Frank Zappa's "200 Motels," a multidisciplinary work featuring 15 soloists, dancers, a rock band and symphony orchestra, and never performed in its entirety. Conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen will lead the performance on the 10th anniversary date, Oct. 23. - See more at: http://www.ocregister.com/entertainment/orchestra-497337-dudamel-new.html#sthash.bsQtHrS9.dpuf

Good Programs: Anna Clyne and Brahms

In an profile with San Francisco Classical Voice long-time Bay Area conductor Alasdair Neale was asked about a program he conducted with the Marin Symphony that paired Brahms' A German Requirem with Anna Clyne's Within Her Arms. Here's the exchange.

SFCV: How do you program your season? You tend to pair warhorses with new works in interesting ways. Your April program features the Brahms Requiem and a 21st-century work, Within Her Arms, by British composer Anna Clyne.

Neale: Musically, the two are separated by 150 years. What they have in common is both works were written in response to the composer’s mother’s death. They have this DNA connection. Both deal with the notion of consolation in the face of grief. Anna Clyne’s piece was written around 2006. It’s for a small string ensemble, so it’s quite different from the Brahms, which is a massive piece for chorus and large orchestra. It’s low-key and understated.

Continue reading "Good Programs: Anna Clyne and Brahms" »

Running a marathon in jeans

Another great idea from Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. They've partnered with the Parsons School of Design to help design concert atire that is tailored to the needs of performers. Concert attire is still such an loaded issue for many musicians so it makes great sense to seek outside perspectives by teaming up with people who 1) are pursuing design studies and 2) not too emotionally invensted in what orchestral musicians wear on stage. This quote from the article sums it up nicely.

"Classical musicians are still wearing garments that were designed before the advent of all kinds of textiles and technologies,” said Joel Towers, the executive dean of Parsons, who attended the presentation. “You wouldn’t expect an Olympic-quality athlete to go trying to run the 100 meters in a pair of jeans. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Conducting as expressive collaboration: two of the best

At the beginning of each fall semester in my introductory conducting course, we spend some time exploring and discussing what the act of conducting is--what it's about, how that's accomplished--in a fundamental sense.  This involves several components like critical/comparative listening, body awareness exercises, expressive movement improvisation, and watching video.

I use video examples to show how conducting can be a whole-body, expressive act in collaboration with an ensemble of musicians, and that really exciting music-making can be the result (and that this idea is a fairly recent evolution of the conductor's role, as historical footage we view clearly demonstrates).

Two of my favorite examples each year continue to be Carlos Kleiber and Simon Rattle.  Both are conductors with tremendous energy and charisma, who use their whole bodies extremely vividly and acheive remarkable engagement with their ensembles.

Continue reading "Conducting as expressive collaboration: two of the best" »

Gone fishing

Hey folks, creating mind-blowing new paradigms is hard work so we're taking some time off from posting to recharge. In the meantime you can search the archives, catagories, and Best of LFP for some summertime stimulation.


Playing the room

Well, this looks cool. More via Hypebot.

Bach Goes Open-Source With A Little Help From Some Fans

I wrote about this project - a crowd-funded edition of Bach's Goldberg Variations - a few months ago. Glad to see it's a success.



You have to hand it to good old J.S. Bach for the latest project taken up in his name: a successful campaign to open-source and app-ify one of his most beloved works, The Goldberg Variations.

via www.hypebot.com

John Adams on Nixon, opera, new projects

The San Francisco Opera is mounting their first-ever production of Nixon in China this month and the Mercury News just published a great interview of Adam's by music critic Richard Scheinin. In it Adams talks a lot about Nixon and opera, working with Peter Sellars, and how he's been searching for a subject for a new opera for the past several years. It's a great read; here's a photo from the SF Opera dress rehearsal and an excerpt.


Adams: You know, I conducted "Nixon" at the Met last year, and in many ways really became re-acquainted with it. And I just love the libretto. I love every moment in it. I can't believe there are still people who complain about it being arch or dense or incomprehensible. I think it's just fantastic. Alice caught the tone of the Chinese and the official Communist utterances. She caught the Middle-American tone of the U.S. politicians.

Continue reading "John Adams on Nixon, opera, new projects" »


My review of the recent all-Harrison show at BAM/PFA is up at NewMusicBox, and there are some extra tidbits about the performance of a long-lost piano piece and Old Granddad, the gamelan used in the performance. Special thanks to pianist Sarah Cahill and Dr. Leta Miller of UCSC for their help.

It was a great concert and all of Lou's works were wonderfully performed, but the most amazing - AMAZING - thing for me was how unbelieveably fantastic the gamelan sounded. The recordings I've heard don't even come close to capturing the ravishing tone colors that Lou and Bill's handmade instruments produce. Perhaps it was the just intonation tuning combined with a particularly live space, but they had a depth and resonance that I have rarely experienced (think Vienna-Phil-strings special). If you have the oppurtunity to hear Old Granddad live I can't recommend enough that you do so. It will change your ears.


NewMusicBox article.

My new article for NewMusicBox - Great Expectations: The Challenge of New Music in New Spaces - is up. Please feel free to share your thoughts and critiques because I think this is a really interesting discussion. I only wish more bookers had responded to interview requests so that I could have provided a more comprehensive picture of this issue from their perspective.

Luggage Store Gallery


Berkeley Symphony's Rad-Trad New Season

The Berkeley Symphony Orchestra announced its 2012-2013 season yesterday and it's both radical and traditional. It's rad in the sense that the four subscription concerts are pretty cool combinations of composers - Dylan Mattingly, Ligeti, Schumann, for example - and each one contains a world premiere commission. Traditional in that three of the four follow (but tweak) the overture-concerto-symphony format. Instead of standard openers, new works and Ives' The Unanswered Question (the anti-overture) kick things off. On the fourth concert, a new Stuckey song cycle is followed by Bruckner 4; the short/long formula you often see with hour+ long works.

I think these programs are really exciting, mainly because of the groups of composers, but also because of the daring concerti - mad props there. By using the traditional overture-concerto-symphony format Music Director Joana Carneiro seems to be hedging her bets, shrewdly creating a lot of buzz with commissions, but not tweaking the concert experience too much. Three out of the four concerts are anchored by 19th-century Germanic standard rep, after all, and the Rachmaninoff is hardly a risky choice either. It would be nice to see the new works be the big ones on the program. Even so, it's exciting stuff.

London's Orchestra Of the Age of Enlightenment Puts Fans Center Stage

London's Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has a history of featuring orchestra members in promo campaigns to emphasize that "not all orchestras are the same." This year they decided to feature members of their audience with "strong looks" to point out that not all audiences are the same either. The resulting digital brochure and related videos are available online with more publicity to follow for this innovative orchestra.

via www.hypebot.com

Some pretty savvy marketing from the OAE.

Local programming for the national spotlight

In Thomas Deneuville's review of the Brooklyn Phil's recent Brooklyn Village he asks "At which point does deserved pride turn into navel gazing?" I also have mixed feelings about this program. On one hand I think it's the kind of innovative, community-specific programming that every orchestra should engage in, but on the other it seems a bit too contrived, too twee - a program too self conscious in its all-encompassing coolness and eclecticism. It's a small quibble, though. On the whole I think Pierson is creating really innovative programs.

Unlike Deneuville, I am not concerned with the Brooklyn Phil becoming less global. I think very few ensembles can and should be global ones for the simple reason that national or global trends might not be best for audiences in your hometown. The Oakland East Bay Symphony's programming is a prime example of this. Like the Brooklyn Phil they are reaching out to the many cultural groups that live here, but on the other hand they're certainly not performing Kreayshawn transcriptions. 

So many ideas to choose from

I read some interesting articles this week about musical entrepreneurship and wanted to share them. I don't think any of them are going to blow your mind, but they do contain good ideas and moreover seem to represent the profusion of creative thinking about funding and promotion occurring in much of the music biz.

Not All Musicians Are Entrepreneurs, But Successful And Professional Ones Are - some interesting thoughts on approaching the musician/fan relationship.

Top 5 Signs Pop Music Looks Like Classical - Not every item on this list works, but it does point out how enterprising musicians are using small-scale patronage instead of large record contracts to fund albums. For 20 bucks anyone can be a Rasumovsky, sort of. I previously wrote about this here.

From Dive Bars To The Daughtry Tour: How Mike Sanchez Is Using New Media To Realize His Dream - Sanchez uses some ingenious social media strategies to make a name for himself and build a fan base. 

As you may have noticed, two of these posts are from the excellent site Hypebot.

Pulp Fiction in chronological order and the inevitable majority of remix culture

Something I've wanted to see for years, Pulp Fiction in chronological order:


Plus, a very interesting thought about the inevitably rising majority of remix culture:

"For most people, sharing and remixing with attribution and no commercial intent is instinctually a-okay..... What happens when — and this is inevitable — a generation completely comfortable with remix culture becomes a majority of the electorate, instead of the fringe youth?"

Temescal noir

Mason Bates performs his very cool piece The B-Sides with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

I left my quarter tone marimba in San Francisco

A few months ago I was fortunate enough to be asked to write an article for NewMusicBox about the SF new music scene. For the next few weeks I dutifly pounded the pavement (and Bay Bridge), met a lot of very cool folks, and heard some fantastic new music. The article, published last week (link below), centered around the remarkable Magik*Magik Orchestra, then branched out from there in a 6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon kind of way to explore the musical endeavors of several young musicians. It's a snapshop of a very cool scene.

Shake It To the Ground: SF Musicians Re-envision Classic(al) Career Paths

Special thanks goes out to Annie Phillips, who put me in contact with many of the musicians interviewed, and to Magik*Magik, Nonsemble 6, and the guys at The Living Earth Show for allowing me to attend their rehearsals.


The Living Earth Show in their fuzzy-walled rehearsal cave.


Yes, Jesus Loves Me - Free Ives Download

UPDATE: Well, the free download is no longer available, but you can hear Hilary performing some of the tunes found in the sonatas, as well as some Bach, courtesy of NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts.

Hilary Hahn on Tiny Desk

NYC's Q2 is commemorating Ives' birthday by offering a free download - today only! - of Hilary Hahn and Valentina Lisitsa's recording of Ives' Violin Sonata No. 4 'Children's Day at Camp Meeting. Great performance.


Brooklyn Phil Fall Preview

UPDATE: the audio is off the air, unfortunately. Mos Def's performance of Rzewski's Coming Together, was really something. Here's a different recording of the piece.

Frederic Rzewski - Coming Together

In case you missed it, here's the Brooklyn Phil's Fall Preview Concert featuring music by Mos Def, Frederic Rzewski, Lev Zhurbin, David T. Little and Corey Dargel. It's only up for a few more days.


OPERA REMIX is here! Tonight!

Tonight at the State Theater in Modesto, California: Opera Remix, from Townsend Opera.  You can read all about it on the Remix webpage, but this event is a major foray into the real world for the Loose Filter philosophy (disclosure: I'm Creative Consultant for this project with the opera company...so any similarities are not coincidental at all).

Here's a clip from the reading rehearsal last night with orchestra only, playing Jonathan Newman's setting of Here Comes the Sun:


Enjoy a couple more rehearsal clips here (of Summertime and Baba O'Riley) from a playlist that includes gems from Mozart, Puccini, Gershwin, Led Zeppelin, Chicago, Pink Floyd, and more.  Keep an eye on the Opera Remix website if this catches your interest, there will be much more video of the event itself posted there soon!

I'll also soon be posting here, in installments, a user-friendly version of the research paper that started things rolling on this extremely innovative project from a wonderful regional opera company.  Stay tuned.