What I appreciate about Varèse is obviously his freedom in choosing timbre. He, along with Henry Cowell, has very greatly contributed to getting us used to the idea of a limitless tonal universe. No matter how refined Schoenberg's timbres may be, they hardly ever get away from the number twelve . . . While with Varèse, whatever his 'organizational' notions may have been, you feel that everything is possible.
Nevertheless, there is still in Varèse a prejudice towards controlling sounds or noises. He tries to bend sounds to his will, to his imagination. And that is what very quickly bothered us. We knew that he wouldn't let sounds be entirely free. What we were looking for was in a way more humble: sounds, quite simply. Sounds, pure and simple.
Another U.S. orchestra has shut down, meaning we've lost FOUR this season: Honolulu, New Mexico, Syracuse, and now Bellevue (WA). As well, Louisville and Philadelphia have filed for bankruptcy protection. Lebrecht gives the story here.
As regular readers of this site know, our position is that the basic problem remains relatively uncomplicated to understand: the potential American listeners that orchestras need to reach simply are not interested in what they are offering. It could be different specific things: programming, modes of presentation, ticket prices, competition, etc., but it seems that many American orchestras somehow think that if they can just preserve what audience they have through the recession or whatever, things will spring back to normal eventually. This does not acknowledge that the larger culture has changed and is changing in fundamental ways to which artists must adapt if their work is to resonate with listeners.
Matthew Guerrieri recaps the Rethink Music conference at the Berklee College of Music (via NewMusicBox). The conference aimed to bring together "all sides and viewpoints on the subjects of creativity, commerce, and policy to engage in critical dialogue examining the business and rights challenges facing the music industry." But, as Guerrieri writes, the viewpoints of emerging artists and established players on those subjects couldn't be more divergent.
[T]here was, for example, Del Bryant, the president and CEO of BMI, opining on Tuesday morning that "giving things away for free" was "not building the business," while the Canadian band Metric and their voluble manager, Matt Drouin, related on Tuesday afternoon how they built their business by giving things away for free. There was Cary Sherman, president of the RIAA, insisting that lawsuits against file-sharing end users had "clearly [indicated] to the public at large what was legal and what was not," a day after the singer/songwriter Bleu had matter-of-factly said, "I don't think there's any way to go back to monetizing music."
Eli Pariser's great TED Talk about the dangers of internet "filter bubbles" got me thinking about what other types of filters shape my worldview. I realized that in addition to the algorithmic ones that Pariser is concerned about, there are also filters I've unintentionally created myself.
When I looked at the RSS feeds I subscribe to I realized that almost every blog or webpage belongs to someone squarely in the classical music world, someone who is either part of a large, traditional institution, or dependent on one. I thought about some of these folks and wondered what they filter out. For instance, if you only read Greg Sandow you'd think that nearly all orchestras are going out of business. If you only read Alex Ross, on the other hand, you'd think that classical music concerts are the coolest, hippest things in the world. If you only read Proper Discord you would probably think that all arts administrators are idiots.
But enough of the contemporary musical scene; it is well known. More important is to determine what are the problems confronting the contemporary mushroom. To begin with, I propose that it should be determined which sounds further the growth of which mushrooms; whether these latter, indeed, make sounds of their own; whether the gills of certain mushrooms are employed by appropriately small-winged insects for the production of pizzicati and the tubes of the Boleti by minute burrowing ones as wind instruments; whether the spores, which in size and shape are extraordinarily various, and in number countless, do not on dropping to the earth produce gamelan-like sonorities; and finally, whether all this enterprising activity which I suspect delicately exists, could not, through technological means, be brought, amplified and magnified, into our theaters with the net result of making our entertainments more interesting.
from Music Lovers' Field Companion, 1954
Last weekend the Wordless Music Orchestra gave the US premiere of Jonny Greenwood's Doghouse for orchestra and string trio. Also on the program was Philip Glass' Symphony No. 4 "Heroes" and Gyorgi Ligeti's Chamber Concerto for 13 Instruments. I'd pay money to hear that. Here are live recordings from the show.
Philip Glass - Symphony No 4. "Heroes"
Gyorgi Ligeti - Chamber Concerto for 13 Instruments
Jonny Greenwood - Doghouse
In 1994 Congress, following the latest round of GATT talks, voted to remove thousands of works, including musical scores, from the public domain. The rationale was that U.S. copyright laws would now be comparable to those in Europe - at that time many musical scores that were in the public domain in the U.S. were still under copyright in their home country - and this new parity would help protect the rights of U.S. composers, authors, and publishers abroad. If you've ever stumbled across an old set of parts for a Shostakovich or Prokofiev symphony in your school's library and wondered why that piece is rental-only today, this is the reason why.
A case challenging Congress' right to remove works from the public domain is now on its way to the Supreme Court. The plaintiff, conductor Lawrence Golan. The Chronicle of Higher Ed tells the story of Golan's journey from a conductor stymied, as many of us are, by the high costs of copyrighted works, to a reluctant advocate for the protection of the public domain.
The less ego you have, the more influence you have as a conductor. And the result is that you can concentrate on the only things that really matter: the music and the people who are playing it. You are of no account whatever. But if you can help people to feel free to play as well as they can, that's as good as it gets.
Astute observations from conductor Sir Colin Davis. I've always enjoyed his readings of the Sibelius symphonies, No. 7 in particular, and his recording of the epic Elgar Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn is wonderful as well. You can read more from and about Sir Colin here and here. Photo by Jennifer Taylor.
At all costs inspiration
must be avoided which is to say
act in such a way that inspiration
doesn't come up as an alternative
but exists eternally.
from 45' For A Speaker
A new study says yes:
New research shows that musicians' brains are highly developed in a way that makes the musicians alert, interested in learning, disposed to see the whole picture, calm, and playful. The same traits have previously been found among world-class athletes, top-level managers, and individuals who practice transcendental meditation.
[Those with high mind-brain development, such as musicians] have well-coordinated frontal lobes. Our frontal lobes are what we use for higher brain functions, such as planning and logical thinking.... Yet another EEG measure shows that individuals with high mind brain development use their brain resources economically. They are alert and ready for action when it is functional to be so, but they are relaxed and adopt a wait-and-see attitude when that is functional.
Musicians also exhibit higher levels of moral reasoning and have more peak experiences. Fascinating stuff.
NPR had a succinct history of the MP3 a while back. It was an interesting read, and this is what fascinated me the most.
The story of how the [MP3] technology was hijacked and adapted for widespread consumers contains not only the roots of the war that the music industry would later wage over the tiny, compressed, user-friendly files, but also echoes of some of the very ideas that war was fought over: intellectual property, copyright, technology, theft, control and the free distribution of ideas and products that had taken years to realize.
What's notable and disturbing is that Brandenburg and his colleagues were ultimately unable to assert their intellectual property rights once someone copied and distributed their proprietary software used to encode MP3 files. This problem - "the free distribution of ideas and products that had taken years to realize" - made me think of composers and their music, and this post from John Mackey's blog in particular. While John's post deals with unlicensed performances, it still made me wonder what technologies have the potential to impact the classical music world the way the MP3 impacted the recording industry.
Rhythm is not arithmetic.
from 45' For A Speaker
Fantastic interview with conductor Michael Morgan in which he talks about what it really takes for an orchestra to become an integral part of its community. Here are some of my favorite quotes. It's a GREAT read and I highly recommend you check it out.
I think that everyone should be shooting for the widest possible range of things that a symphony orchestra can credibly do. And the members of the symphony orchestra can do all those things; you just have to see how far you can expand your audience — you don’t want toleave your audience behind, either.
If you want more: Rye Whiskey will rock your socks off.
In case you missed it, here is Proper Discord's contribution to Drew McManus's Take a Friend to the Orchestra project. He shares his experiences attending orchestral concerts with non-musicians, and the results are pretty much what you would expect. If the show was good, his guests enjoyed it; if it wasn't, they didn't.
PD explodes (IMHO) the argument that suggests that audience members have to have technical musical knowledge to enjoy musical structures like sonata form. His guests either liked the show or they didn't, and didn't need a technical explanation to justify their reaction. It's like eating out, PD says:
When you’re sitting in a restaurant and your food shows up cold, you don’t care why it wasn’t cooked properly. You just wanted it warm.
Bernard Holland pithily dissects the two basic sets of problems facing American orchestras, in a very perceptive article from 2003:
The free-enterprise system, which worked so admirably to bring the American city its new wealth, transferred poorly to the performing arts. [...] With good management, it is supposed, money and listeners will come rolling in -- again, a symptom masquerading as a cause. Orchestras are not sick because they have bad management. They have bad management because they are sick. Failing industries do not attract top employees.
[...] As for disappearing audiences, no amount of managing will solve that one. Classical music has only itself to blame. It has indulged the creation of a narcissistic avant-garde speaking in languages that repel the average committed listener in even our most sophisticated American cities.
[...] Fleeing audiences are one more symptom, the cause being a public art that has been abandoned by its avant-garde and uses up its given natural resources with profligacy. Audiences are not to blame. They are smarter than Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt want to think they are.
Definitely worth a read and some reflection....
So Terry Teachout wrote a kind-of-controversial article that ran in the Wall Street Journal today, rounding up some of the recent terrible news in the American performing arts world and making a comment about those problems--and he almost, but not quite, says what those problems are really about. After detailing some sobering recent news, including the Philadelphia Orchestra (!) filing for bankruptcy last week, Teachout observes:
What's the problem? In the immortal (if apocryphal) words of Sam Goldwyn, "If nobody wants to see your picture, there's nothing you can do to stop them." Corollary: If nobody can afford a ticket to your show, there's nothing you can do to make them buy one. When money is tight and ticket prices keep climbing, playgoers and opera buffs will respond by staying home. Moreover, the high-culture business models of the past don't work anymore.
In that quote he almost clearly sees the fundamental problem that American performing arts organizations face, but then sort of willfully ignores it and talks about business models. He is right that ticket prices are generally way too high and that most of the business models of large performing arts organizations are no longer working and need to be fundamentally reconsidered, particularly with regard to negotiations between labor and management.
But the real truth is in that Goldwyn quote: more and more, people are simply not interested in the products offered by large performing arts organizations. They aren't buying tickets because they do not value what is on offer, and are choosing to spend their entertainment dollars elsewhere. (If ticket prices are way too expensive, how do successful professional sports franchises continue to sell so many high dollar season tickets? People will find a way to pay for experiences they value.)
This seems to be the real, potential core problem that no one wants to say out loud or discuss openly: the possibility that the kind of musical experience that symphony orchestras and opera companies currently offer appeals to too few Americans to sustain the institutions that present them. The gap between what classical musicians do and what American listeners seek may have simply grown too wide to bridge in any sustainable way with current practices.
...at a poetry slam, talking about Beethoven:
The Berlin Philharmonic's truly outstanding Digital Concert Hall offers up a gem, free of charge: a command performance for Her Majesty Queen Beatrix by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Mariss Jansons with Janine Jansen, violin. Sooooo good. And FREE. Get it here.
(Program: Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and Brahms Symphony No. 4. Like spending time with old friends.)
Good stuff from Q2 and NPR: a crowd-sourced list of favorite composers under the age of 40.
I'd bet each of the composers on that list has his/her own website with music on it...I'm just saying....
i think one of the things that distinguishes music from the other arts is that music often requires other people the performance of music is a public occasion or a social occasion this brings it about that the performance of a piece of music can be a metaphor of society of how we want society to be though we are not now living in a society which we consider good we could make a piece of music in which we would be willing to live
from I-VI (Cage's Charles Elliot Norton lectures at Harvard in 1988-89)
Recent research out of Vanderbilt University, published in the journal Brain and Cognition:
Supporting what many of us who are not musically talented have often felt, new research reveals that trained musicians really do think differently than the rest of us. Vanderbilt University psychologists have found that professionally trained musicians more effectively use a creative technique called divergent thinking, and also use both the left and the right sides of their frontal cortex more heavily than the average person.
Some interesting conclusions, read about the research here.
Listening Room is as simple as it sounds: create a room, have your friends join you, and anyone can play music from their computer for all to hear. Plus, chat. Completely awesome.
A fascinating short talk from Prof. Philip Zimbardo on how fundamental our perception of time is to much of our lives:
Excerpt from a fantastic masterclass by pianist Andreas Schiff: "I don't know of any piece that has a layer of false tradition like this one."
Suddenly our hostess confronted us. “I’m so sorry, Dr. Einstein,” she said with an icy glare at me, “that you missed so much of the performance.”
Einstein and I came hastily to our feet. “I am sorry, too,” he said. “My young friend here and I, however, were engaged in the greatest activity of which man is capable.”
She looked puzzled. “Really?” she said. “And what is that?”
Einstein smiled and put his arm across my shoulders. And he uttered ten words that - for at least one person who is in his endless debt - are his epitaph:
“Opening up yet another fragment of the frontier of beauty.”
A great story from Jerome Weidman about how Albert Einstein taught him to hear Bach.
I recently discovered a terrific blog, Proper Discord: Trouble With Classical Music, and wanted to pass the link along. Great stuff.
The perenniel topic of "what's WRONG with classical music??" surfaces again in a thoughtful blog post over at 3QuarksDaily. I agree and disagree with much of what Colin Eatock mentions in that piece (and am frustrated by some of the common misperceptions perpetuated in it), but it's excellent discussion fodder and it generated a fairly interesting conversation in this thread over on Metafilter. Food for thought.
Alex Ross hits another one out of the park (at least that's my opinion about 1/3 of the way through, and I don't see things falling off) with his new book Listen To This. What's really fantastic about the book, aside from all of the great specifics, is the general philosophical approach to musical art that Ross takes in his commentary, explanation, discovery, etc.--he simply loves music, all of it, and makes no a priori distinctions about what can or can't be good.
Excellent overview from the New Yorker here.
There is even a FREE online audio guide on his website.
Read this, soon.
Percussion music is revolution. Sound and rhythm have too long been submissive to the restrictions of nineteenth-century music. Today we are fighting for their emancipation. Tomorrow, with electronic music in our ears, we will hear freedom.
I've linked to a great John Waters interview Big Think previously, and as I perused the site after that post I discovered that it is an absolute El Dorado of interesting people and ideas. Here are some that I found especially engrossing.
You can scroll through the list of contributors here.
I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom. For this purpose I have recently moved to the country. Much of my time is spent poring over "field companions" on fungi. These I obtain at half price in second-hand bookshops, which latter are in some rare cases next door to shops selling dog-eared sheets of music, such an occurrence being greeted by me as irrefutable evidence that I am on the right track.
John Waters speaks brilliantly about contemporary art and morality. NSFW language at the end.
"... most people have great contempt about contemporary art and I find that hilarious because I did a piece, it said "contemporary art hates you." And it does hate them because you can’t see it. You don’t know the magic trick; you haven’t learned the vocabulary, you haven’t learned the special way of seeing something that changes it. And that is like joining a biker gang; that is."
My wife and I had a conversation about this statement, and she felt that is was a bit unfair. She feels that while many people may feel that contemporary art is couched in a language they don't understand, most artists aren't looking to deliberately mock or confuse their audience. Rather, it is often self-imposed barriers to the perception of contemporary art that gets in the way.
The ending really rocks.
Click here for more ocarina madness
"A little over ten years ago I acted as music editor for a magazine called Possibilities. Only one issue of this magazine appeared. However: in it, four American composers (Virgil Thomson, Edgar Varese, Ben Weber, and Alexi Haieff) answered questions put to them by twenty other composers. My question to Varese concerned his views of the future of music. His answer was that neither the past nor the future interested him; that his concern was with the present.
From History of Experimental Music in the United States, 1959
A brief, but interesting and thought-provoking take on Inspiration v. Creativity from designer Owen Shifflett (via DesignTaxi), about how the ease of the former - to take what others have done and use it as a basis for our own work - might be impairing out ability to create genuinely new things and ideas.
"There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot. For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music."
Excerpt from an address given at the MTNA convention in 1957.
Those of you who know me know that, for the time being, I am not earning my living as a conductor, thanks in part to California's woeful state budget. I have strong, contradictory opinions about my situation - but not the state budget, which is simply fracked - and perhaps I'll express those later. In the mean time I've decided to delve into the wonderfully contrarian mind of John Cage (the Terry Gilliam of American composers). Cage was the ultimate (inside) outsider, and as I am now on the outside as well, I figure it is high time I tackle the esoteric tomes that have been waiting patiently in my library since being purchased at Half Priced Books, oh so many years ago.
So here it is, your John Cage Quote of the Day.
So it was that I gave about 1949 my Lecture on Nothing at the Artists' Club on Eighth Street in New York City (the artists' club started by Robert Motherwell, which predated the popular one associated with Philip Pavia, Bill de Kooning, et. al.). This Lecture on Nothing was written in the same rhythmic structure I employed at the time in my musical compositions (Sonatas and Interludes, Three Dances, etc.). One of the structural divisions was the repetition, some fourteen times, of a single page in which occurred the refrain, "If anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep." Jeanne Reynal, I remember, stood up part way through, screamed, and then said, while I continued speaking, "John, I dearly love you, but I can't bear another minute." she then walked out. Later, during the question period, I gave one of six previously prepared answers regardless of the question asked. This was a reflection of my engagement in Zen.
From the Foreword to Silence; Lectures and Writings of John Cage
Joel Puckett is a friend who happens to be a very gifted composer, who also writes and teaches about other people's music wonderfully. Recently he was asked to write a guest piece for the Baltimore Sun about a recent Christopher Rouse work, and it perfectly captures that sense of discovery and delightful surprise one can have hearing new musical works for the first time. The whole very perceptive article is here--best bit:
As we walked down 65th street, we were collectively inspired by Rouse's willingness to push his expression. It would be very easy for him to sit back and write the same piece over and over for the rest of his life. Not that any of us were surprised that he is still a growing and restless artist, it was just dazzling to come face to face with such powerful evidence.
And don't take my word for it that Joel is a terrific composer--here he is working with the U.S. Marine Band (one of the great concert ensembles in the world, truly), in a rehearsal of his piece It Perched for Vespers Nine:
A few days ago my good friend Sebastian Vera, who is an outstanding trombonist and member of the Guidonian Hand, emailed me recounting his experiences at the NYPhil's recent all-Varèse concert. In particular, he was struck by conductor Alan Gilbert's program note, and felt it played a big role in the concert's success. Here's a quote from the email.
I love it because he does such a wonderful and succinct job of describing to this audience, who a good number of them most likely had never heard Varèse, let alone enjoyed him, how to appreciate this music. I feel like in these short paragraphs he really disarmed the reader quite well to have an open mind without offending them or speaking from the ivory tower or even overloading them with too much information. The best part of the whole night for me was the fact that after the final piece Ameriques was played(which they played incredibly), it was honestly one of the most enthusiastic audience responses I have ever seen at the Phil.