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December 2009
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Good Programs: Pianos at Le Poisson Rouge

Two piano recitals this January at Le Poisson Rouge caught my eye the other day.  On one, Tamara Stefanovich performs Bartok, Carter, Ligeti, and Rachmaninoff.

  • Bartok - 14 Bagatelles
  • Carter - Matribute
  • Carter - Catenaires
  • Rachmaninoff/Ligeti - 12 Etudes (presumably some from each composer)

My first thought was, "Oh man, how lush and epic is Rachmaninoff going to sound next to Carter and Ligeti?" I've always felt that programs that pair the well-known with the new and/or unknown are a great way to give an audiences a fresh perspective on familiar works.  The other program features Taka Kigawa.

  • Debussy - Preludes, Book II
  • Ferneyhough - Lemma-Icon-Epigram
  • Dai Fujikura - Joule (audio clip here)
  • Stravinsky - Three Movements from Petroushka

There's a nice symmetry in the way the two outer pieces (veritable war horses in this context) surround music that is considerably more dense and formidable.  By putting the more demanding pieces in the middle you 1) allow the audience to settle in before hitting them with the heavy artillery and 2) give them a chance decompress afterwards with the final piece.  That's not to say that Debussy and Stravinsky pieces are fluff - far from it! On any other program they might be the gnarly stuff, just not on this one.  It's all about how the pieces relate to one another.

Ultimately, what attracted me to these programs is that even though both include composers I don't particularly care for, I still want to hear them because I'm curious about how the pieces will sound in relation to one another.  How will Carter sound next to Bartok?  How will Stravinsky sound after Ferneyhough?  Will Rachnaninoff really sound fresh and new?  I don't know for sure, but I'd pay $15 to find out.

American Eclectic, or why I conduct mostly bands

Peter sent this link with a suggestion to post and, as usual, he's right--this is a great piece from the Savvy Musician called "The Most Viable Instrumentation."  Cutler's point is simple, that many concert music ensembles make the mistake of identifying and marketing themselves almost solely based on instrumentation:

Unless the demand for your traditional ensemble far outpaces supply (highly unlikely), or your wild configuration is fascinating and newsworthy in itself...don’t build a marketing plan around your instrument(s) alone. Much of the time, you may even want to de-emphasize this element.  Focus instead on the unique talents of players, unusual programming, and other creative aspects of the show.  Sell your story.  Sell your message. Sell your theme.  Sell your charm. 

What's shocking about this advice is how revolutionary it sounds in our current state of concert music ossification.  Regular readers of the LF Project know how heartily we endorse this perspective, and not just concerning marketing or presentation--for too long, musicians have allowed a priori sorts of ideas like standard instrumentation guide the artistic process in some very fundamental ways, causing many to make unexamined assumptions that place real, major constraints on their music-making.

For instance, we often start with assumptions and questions like:


Continue reading "American Eclectic, or why I conduct mostly bands" »

Great art needs a great audience

Poet Patrick Gillespie makes an impassioned argument ("Let Poetry Die") against institutional benevolence sustaining poetry, and his comments and insights hold true to a great degree for concert music as well.  He perceptively notes that the audience for great art is actually part of great art:

Monroe’s stance excluded the general public from the evolution of art, but as Walt Whitman wrote, great poetry isn’t possible without a great audience, and if the audience is excluded from the development of a given art form, then it will no longer reflect the audience’s own innate greatness. And that is precisely what has happened. The general public no longer turns to contemporary poetry because it ceases to find itself, its greatness, reflected in that poetry. The general public has been excluded.

He comes to a fairly strong conclusion along the way:

The best thing that could happen to poetry is to drive it out of the universities with burning pitch forks. Starve the lavish grants. Strangle them all in a barrel of water. Cast them out. The current culture, in which poetry is written for and supported by poets has created a kind of state-sanctioned poetry that  resists innovation. When and if poetry is ever made to answer to the broader public, then we may begin to see some great poetry again – the greatness that is the collaboration between audience and artist.

While I think that great music has certainly been composed in the past 60 years, I also believe we have lost much because of a commitment to narrow, self-reinforced artistic perspectives that in many ways disrespect the audience.  And how long has it been since American concert music could credibly be described as a "collaboration between audience and artist"?  Ever?  Gillespie's whole essay is here.

The everlasting blockbuster: why Michael Bay would beat Beethoven in a cage match

An excellent recent essay from The Economist, "A World of Hits," explores how the ever-increasing world of choice brought by the internet has given blockbuster hits, those cultural juggernauts so many discerning audience members loathe, more cultural and financial dominance, not less:

In “Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour”, William McPhee noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type. (Many other studies have since reached the same conclusion.) A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read “The Lost Symbol”, by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.

This explains why bestselling books, or blockbuster films, occasionally seem to grow not just more quickly than products which are merely very popular, but also in a wholly different way. As a media product moves from the pool of frequent consumers into the ocean of occasional consumers, the prevailing attitude to it—what Hollywood folk call word of mouth—can become less critical. The hit is carried along by a wave of ill-informed goodwill.

This is a problem.  As the essay further explains, it used to be that companies could make money on more obscure cultural offerings because there were fewer choices and something a little more narrow in appeal and/or risky in subject matter would be guaranteed at least a fair-sized--and therefore profitable--audience.  Not so much anymore.  It raises a specific possibility of how all of the creative freedom brought by the internet could be substantially harmful to creative work of substance.  It's excellent food for thought, read it here.

Loving audio: the Third Coast International Audio Festival

The Third Coast International Audio Festival (TCIAF) is an annual and 0n-going celebration of the best documentary and feature work produced worldwide for radio and the internet.  From the site:

TCIAF was created by Chicago Public Radio in 2000 to support producers and other artists creating audio documentary and feature work of all styles and to bring this fresh and vital work to audiences throughout the world.

There are some really, really fantastic audio programs here, lots to listen to--I recommend starting with their most recent broadcasts or their audio library.  Enjoy.

Good Programs: DJ Shadow and Frank Zappa in Alabama

The Alabama Symphony Orchestra is presenting some really cool concerts as part of their Symphony 7: The Classical Edge series, a series that "crosses the boundaries of classical and forges into jazz and rock genres." Starting at 7 p.m. instead of 8 p.m., the Symphony 7 concerts are shorter than subscription concerts and feature pre- and post-concert gatherings.

The first program I dig is conducted by Michael Morgan.

  • Adams - Lollapalooza
  • De Ritis - Devolution: a Concerto for DJ and Symphony Orchestra

The driving pulse, energy, and rhythmic sophistication and sleights-of-hand that drive the short Adams opener are also the hallmarks of any DJ worth his salt, so it's an ideal setup for the De Ritis, which in turn references works by Beethoven and Ravel.  Here's how it works (from the program notes).

The DJ’s “part” consists of a series of cues directing the DJ when to enter and exit, general indications of dynamics, and a short series of instructions concerning mood and texture using words such as “ambient”, “beat-driven”, “atmospheric”, “trip hop” or “chaotic.” For the source material of his real-time remixes, DJ Spooky will be using samples (small digital audio files) of musical ideas that I have created for Devolution, as well as some samples of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and Ravel’s Bolero. In addition, DJ Spooky is free to use additional source material as he sees fit. 

Your can read the full program note, listen to audio clips, and download a PDF of the full score here. Another cool program features the music of Frank Zappa, Edgar Varese, who was one of FZ's compositional heroes, and Paul Lansky, who is currently in residence with the ASO.  The concert features So Percussion and is curated by Lansky.

  • Lansky - Ride
  • Varese - Ionisation
  • Lansky - Threads
  • Lansky - Pattern's Patterns
  • Varese - Hyperprisim
  • Zappa - Bebop Tango
  • Zappa - G-Spot Tornado

That's a pretty serious program.  I don't know Lansky's music that well, but the few pieces I've heard, including Threads, contrasts nicely with the bracing textures, rhythms, and sonorities of the other two composers.  I also feel that placing Varese and Zappa on the same program works because it highlights both their similarities and their differences.  The more you listen to Zappa's concert music the more you realize (as many do, but those who are only familiar with his rock persona might not) that he was completely serious about these compositions.  He was not simply aping the characteristics of European Modernism, nor did he ignore his rock music, but managed to combine the two in a completely original way.

Kudos for Justin Brown for creating such an open, exciting atmosphere in Alabama.

Art of work

Alain de Botton is concerned that the activity that occupies most of our waking moments - work - is being ignored by our artists.

We need an art that can proclaim the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace and, not least, its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, along with love, despite current economic mayhem, with the principal source of life's meaning.

It seems to me that TV workplace sitcoms have fulfilled that function for some time, though perhaps not on the level to which de Botton aspires.  He hopes other art forms will rise (or sink, depending of your view of the function of art) to the occasion. 

One can hope for a day when photographs of electricity conductors might hang over dining tables and when someone might write a libretto for an opera set in the sales office of a packaging firm.

What will the music of work sound like?  Antheil, maybe?

Good Programs: Old bottles, new wine

Welcome to the inaugural installment of Good Programs, a new series that will single out well-conceived concert programs and offer a bit of commentary as to why we think they work so well.  

As you know, we at the Loose Filter Project strongly believe that the concert experience is the way in which we as musicians interact with the world, and that the music performed, more than any other aspect of the concert experience, is the single most important aspect of the concert experience for the listener.  While other elements (atmosphere, performance space) are also important in creating a new context for a concert, it is the music itself that ultimately must speak to the listener, and the pieces performed - how they react to one another, and the context that they create - determines the message.  That message should be that the music you're hearing is exciting and vital.

Continue reading "Good Programs: Old bottles, new wine" »

Net neutrality is important to you

In a recent NewMusicBox post composer Alex Shapiro reminds us why net neutrality is such a vital issue, and why it is of particular importance to musicians who share and sell self-created content - scores, recordings, video - online as a means of making a living and advancing careers.  Here's the crux of it.

 [O]ur ability to share our creations around the world lies in our access to the necessary portal.  This is why net neutrality - the term for an open internet that is not owned,controlled, or censored by any corporation - is crucial to artists.

Continue reading "Net neutrality is important to you" »

The interpretation of interpretation

I found Byron Janis' commentary on musical interpretation fascinating, and also encouraging, in a way.  As a conductor I feel tremendous responsibility to get the music right and honor the composer, but oftentimes for me the "score is a sacred document" philosophy can be paralyzing, especially with the great works in the orchestral canon.  Often I'll agonize over a transition or tempo change in a Classical or Romantic era symphony, resorting to complex calculations to determine phantom quantum-level tempo relationships, and in doing so loose all touch with my instincts and common sense.  So it takes a bit of the pressure off to learn that our great composers have taken a more relaxed approach to performing their own music.