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January 2009
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Must watch TED talk by Jose Abreu

From those awesome folks at TED:

Jose Antonio Abreu is the charismatic founder of a youth orchestra system that has transformed thousands of kids' lives in Venezuela. Here he shares his amazing story and unveils a TED Prize wish that could have a big impact in the US and beyond.

It's a very moving talk, definitely worth the 16 minutes to watch.  Abreu says many significant things directly, but this really struck me:

"The huge spiritual world that music produces in itself, which also lies within itself, ends up overcoming material poverty.  From the minute a child is taught to play a musical instrument, he is no longer poor."

Messiaen and the birds

Of course, Olivier Messiaen wrote a couple of major works for winds and percussion, and one of them, Oiseaux Exotiques, showcases one of the building blocks of his compositional work: bird song. 

From the Philharmonia Orchestra, Birdsong in Messiaen.

Messiaen himself speaking about birds: Part 1.  Part 2.

A live performance of this virtuosic and wild work, played by the Juilliard Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall, David Robertson, conductor and Eric Huebner, piano: Part 1.  Part 2

(Also, Pierre Boulez conducting with Pierre-Laurent Aimard on piano:  Part 1.  Part 2.)

Discovering Messiaen

Many of you may already know and love the music of Olivier Messiaen, but if not I thought I'd put up a brief introduction to this composer's amazing work and unique compositional voice.  I also thought I'd exploit Youtube a little bit, to show far-ranging the site's content is.

A terrific short introduction to Turangalîla-Symphonie from the Philharmonia of London, discussing the premiere of this magnificent, gargantuan blast of ecstasy-through-music:

More background: Esa-Pekka Salonen discusses Messiaen.

Messiaen himself discussing Debussy and color to a class gathered around the piano.

A fun short video of Messiaen pondering choices of organ stops before commencing an improvisation.

And finally, some performances of the first half of Turangalîla-Symphonie (couldn't find all of I guess this post points up shortcomings of Youtube, too!).  It's a mix of different performances, but all of them give a real sense of the riveting immensity of this piece:

Movement I: Introduction.  National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (!) conducted by Andrew Davis.

Mvt. II: Chant d'amour 1.  Symphony Orchestra della Scala, Riccardo Chailly, conductor.

Mvt. III: Turangalîla 1.  Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, Myung-Whun Chung, conductor.

Mvt. IV: Chant d'amour 2.  Part 1.  Part 2.  Chailly and Thibaudet again.

Mvt. V: Joie du sang des etoiles.  Davis and the youths again.  (This movement is EPIC--if you only watch one clip, make it this one.  But you should watch them all.)

I thought about including all sorts of other information and discussion, but this music especially needs to speak for itself--his voice is so unique and unexpected, you really have to just listen to it first.  If it grabs you, well, you're online: follow your curiosity!

Dr. Who with Tesla coils

Ah, the infinite variety of music: the Dr. Who theme song performed by ArcAttack!, a music ensemble with two engineers and two performers playing DJ-based electronic music using big Tesla coils, complete with arcing electricity, as part of the sound.  Sweet.

More on ArcAttack! here.

Adams on Doctor Atomic and stuff

A terrific piece in the New Statesman, an interview with John Adams about his latest opera Doctor Atomic (2005).  Adams is as usual extremely perceptive and articulate.  He discusses his latest works and a new project, and comments more generally on the state of culture in the United States as he sees it:

I ask him what he feels about becoming a sort of American national treasure - their composer laureate, as it were, perhaps occupying the space that Aaron Copland filled a generation ago. "I would say you have to understand that in America classical music, and in particular, contemporary classical music, means nothing to 99.9 per cent of the population.

"This country treats popular culture as something hallowed. Even intellectuals in the universities believe that popular culture is perhaps the greatest achievement in American life, so to be trying to create works of art that are part of the canon of classical music requires an almost foolish sense of idealism. So when I'm asked what it's like to be famous I can only say that I'm very well known in this zip code here between Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Centre.

The mass of American cultural life, most easily sampled by watching our horrible television, is profoundly middlebrow. One reason the Obama inauguration was so exciting for me was that the last thing a billion people saw before the oath was a violin, a cello, a piano and a clarinet [playing Air and Simple Gifts, by the film composer John Williams]. That would have been unthinkable even in Bill Clinton's time, because there is great value given to anti-intellectualism here. If you run for office you dumb yourself down. We're a country that produces great composers, great novelists and great painters and in many ways still leads the world in culture and achievement (computer science, for instance), but being an American is really an exercise in cognitive dissonance.

I agree with some of that, especially his assessment of the shockingly anti-intellectual stance of many Americans (Susan Jacoby wrote a great book about this).  But the dismissal of an entire medium like television smacks of an unsavory elitism too, because there actually is great television.  Yes, most television is terrible, sometimes embarrassing even (Wife Swap? really?), but most of everything in any medium is terrible.  That's why the good stuff is so special, why we remember the Beethovens and not the Cherubinis, and why one is considered to have discernment when you can tell the difference.  

What I suspect Adams is really decrying is a tremendous lack of discernment in American culture, such that we simply wish to be amused, regardless of how.  Considering the source of that would, in my estimation, be more fruitful than blanket condemnation of an entire medium or culture.  I also think it's worth considering the shift in American culture to a much more affective stance, where feelings and passions hold sway in discourse and decisions rather than reasons and deliberation.  Just watch the "news" or listen to talk radio, our whole culture is feelings, feelings, feelings, all the time (especially fear, we can't seem to get enough of that).

I also think that most Americans don't much care about classical music because for so long classical musicians in America have simply refused to engage with the culture in any meaningful way--Adams himself has been the subject of harsh treatment from a judgmental classical music establishment.  Too much judgment both ways, in my opinion, I think we should all chill and enjoy whatever is good in whatever form it takes.  Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to watch some Futurama right after I finish listening to this Golijov opera.

Anyway, it's a good read featuring a truly great composer.

The all-consuming internet!!

An excellent new essay by Cory Doctorow (of Boing Boing of course) is up at Internet Evolution: Media-Morphosis: How the Internet Will Devour, Transform, or Destroy Your Favorite Medium.  

From the introduction:

Let me start by saying that I like newspapers. And let me say further that, no matter how much I like them, they just might not have a future.

The Internet chews up media and spits them out again. Sometimes they get more robust. Sometimes they get more profitable. Sometimes they die.

It's a scary thought, especially if you're personally attached to an old medium like movies, books, records, or newspapers.

But just because an industry is socially worthy, it doesn't follow that it is commercially viable. Today, besides newspapers, three other media are thrashing over their futures in a networked world, and as with newspapers, the rhetoric is mostly of the nonproductive "But I like it!" and "It's good for society!" variety, with not enough thought given to whether these media are commercially viable in the Internet age.

The essay discusses newspapers, big-budget movies, music, and books.  His comments on music are pithy, but I should note that the effects of the internet on live music-making are only tangentially mentioned, given the business focus of the piece.  While Doctorow correctly observes that the internet can help significantly as an economic driver (the more people download your music freely, the more likely they are to want to pay to hear you play live), that's just the tip of the iceberg.  

Artists are only beginning to explore the internet as a creative medium, especially the most unprecedented aspect: that it is so suffused and intertwined with real life.  With interactivity, communication, sharing, migration of ideas from one space to the other, etc.,  I think it really is a whole new dimension for creative work and engagement with one another, and we're in the relative stone age.*  

More on this idea later, I need to let it percolate a little.  But the essay is a good, quick, thought-provoking read, go check it out.

*- (well, maybe early neolithic if I consider the analogy a little more...)

What IS music, anyway?

From the terrific Philosophy Talk by Ken Taylor and John Perry of Stanford University, a very interesting and thought-provoking podcast featuring Peter Kivy:  The Philosophy of Music.  A description from the site:

Most people enjoy music daily and have strong listening preferences.  Music – along with love – is often thought of as a universal language.  But what makes a collection of sounds a piece of music as opposed to just noise?  Can music teach us anything?  And is the value of music objective?  This program explores what philosophy has to tell us about music – and vice versa.

An extended, thorough conversation at just under 55 minutes, the podcast is as usual entertaining and accessible, and an interesting survey of these fundamental questions.  Available for listening or download here.

Fighting for crumbs

A good NYT article on how the $50 million for the NEA in the stimulus package was, astonishingly, saved: Saving Federal Arts Funds: Selling Culture as an Economic Force.

While that's terrific, $50 million is only a tiny sliver of the total package, and look at the strength of influence and persuasion that had to be brought to bear to get even that.  This reminds me why one of my central artistic convictions is to engage with the culture I live in, and the people actually in it--not some idealized version I'd like to see, etc.  

It baffles me that so many people don't see how suffused with art their everyday lives are, that art is far from some liberal, elite, effete, condescending foolishness that practical people don't need to concern themselves with.  It is an important way that we share our experiences of the world with one another, it helps us develop and sustain community and empathy, it makes life more vibrant and enjoyable, etc. etc.  To those who pay attention, art is clearly important even without the powerfully persuasive quantitative arguments used to sway our congressional representatives.  I am astonished that we even have to say so, and dumbfounded that people had to argue so strenuously for crumbs.  But I am grateful for their efforts--read the article to know whom to credit.

Put art works back in stimulus plan

Agnes Gund, David Lang, and Nell Breyer speak up.  The numbers from the 1935 WPA Federal Art Project:

Under the Art Project, an estimated 2,500 murals for hospitals, schools and municipal buildings, 17,744 sculptures, 108,099 easel paintings and 240,000 prints were produced, many in turn, loaned to schools, libraries, galleries, and other institutions. Under the Music Project, orchestras, chamber, choral and opera groups, military, concert and dance bands offered over 5,000 performances before some three million people each week. Under the Theater Project over 1,200 plays were produced, introducing 100 new playwrights. Under the Writer's Project writers provided research, writing and editorial services to government agencies, produced 3.5 million copies of 800 titles, the historic American Guide Series -- comprehensive guidebooks for every state, Alaska, Guam, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C and some of the most important oral history archives and American folklore collections we have to date.

Thinking for yourself, truly

One of the most difficult, consistent challenges I encounter day-to-day is thinking for myself.  I mean truly thinking for myself, without being swayed by pre-thought media opinions, or biases of all kinds, or prejudices, or beliefs, or etc.  I find this classic article, The Revolutionary Pleasure of Thinking For Yourself, a terrific read and great help in this regard.

As a bonus, from Carl Sagan, the Baloney Detection Kit.

Another bit of evidence of a fundamental paradigm shift

Citizen journalism, via Twitter, at work.  First-hand pictures from rescue of US Airways flight #1549 (the one that crashed in the Hudson).  This information and these images were circulating long before any official media presence.

More instances: Twitter from someone on the plane that crashed in Colorado recently.  More here.  Twitter and Flickr used to break news in recent Mumbai attacks.