Ideas Feed

What's wrong with classical music, part 8 billion and oh hell I lost count....

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.

More from Big Think

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.

  • Penn Jilette - "I want to live in a world of a market place of ideas where everyone is busted on their bullshit all the time, because I think that is the way we get to truth."
  • Pierre-Laurent Aimard - "Every experiment becomes a part of your life."
  • Chuck Close - "There is no better time to make painting than when everyone thinks it's dead."
  • Steven Pinker - "There are certain realms in which a measure of irrationality and lack of control can actually work to your advantage."

You can scroll through the list of contributors here.

"And that is like joining a biker gang; that is."

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.

Continue reading ""And that is like joining a biker gang; that is."" »

John Cage Quote of the Day

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

Why band music matters

From Steve Layton at the always excellent Sequenza 21, a great essay about the modern American wind band and its (earned but unrecognized) place in concert musical life, in the form of a review of several recordings.  A taste:

I had a teacher who once said that the sound of a symphony orchestra was one of the great achievements of Western civilization. Whether that’s true or not is open for debate, but there seems to be no question that the survival of orchestras in small to medium markets in the United States is in doubt. There are also artistic questions about the viability of the model that makes a symphony orchestra the center of a town’s musical life. Wind music, whose players are more plentiful than string players, and whose audiences tend to be more open to new music and new artistic situations, can assume a more central role than it has in most places now.

All of the pieces are in place, then, for bands to play an important role in the revitalization (or continued growth, depending on how you see the current situation) of concert music in the United States. What may be needed are artists, presenters, and patrons with the will and the imagination to re-invent musical life in their cities and towns.

Hard to love

An exchange from the last episode of Bill Moyers Journal.

BARRY LOPEZ: [Y]ou know, you can turn on the television and see people who claim expertise that they don't possess. And I say that, because the kind of expertise we need is not a facile grasp of policy, but a love of humanity. That's what we need. 

BILL MOYERS: But some people are hard to love. 

BARRY LOPEZ: Humanity. And, you know, what Charles Taylor or Idi Amin did, or Hitler or Stalin or any of these reprehensible human beings. What they did is-- we should condemn. Humanity is also Michelangelo. Or humanity is also Darwin. Humanity is Epictetus or anybody that you want to pull out of the fabric. I mean, if you have the Bach cello suites in your head at the same moment that you're looking at a gas chamber at Auschwitz. Then to me you've got some hope of being fully aware of what it is that we're enmeshed in. 

BILL MOYERS: Well, this, of course, is the puzzle, isn't it? I mean, in that quote, high civilization of Germany at the time. The generals walked in the garden, listening to Bach and Beethoven, while a mile away, the gas chambers were working overtime. 

BARRY LOPEZ: There was no capacity to imagine their own humanity was being destroyed there. The way in which they were ethically compromised by what they were doing. What I hope that I'm saying is that there is in the interior of those six cello suites that Bach wrote. An homage to a quality that is apparent to a Western imagination about beautiful proportion and rhythm; increment and spatial volume . . . There's something captured in them. And that is the fuel that you use to open yourself up to everything else, even those things that break your heart. You have to see into the whole. 

"It seems the wind ensemble’s image needs a makeover."

From Listen magazine, an excellent article on the creative surge happening in the wind band world: Beyond the Halftime Show: The American wind ensemble is quietly building a canon.

As the article quotes John Corigliano:

The repertoire of band music is largely contemporary. As a result, the audiences expect and look forward to new works. Listening in an environment largely ignored by the press, they learn to trust their own ears and respond directly to what they hear. Most important of all, concert bands devote large amounts of rehearsal time over a period of weeks — not days — to learning thoroughly the most challenging of scores.

So the appeal to composers is obvious.  If the medium continues to be more and more appealing to composers, well...where the composers go, so goes the musical culture.

(You can download Corigliano's absolutely fantastic symphony for band, Circus Maximus, here.  And it's only eight bucks.)

LA Phil announces new season, continues to be awesome

The Los Angeles Philharmonic just announced their 2010-2011 season, and it demonstrates again why we think the LA Phil is one of the most vibrant arts organizations around.  They deftly honor the old while championing the new, with a very wide embrace. 

Not convinced to go look?  What if I told you that their slate of commissions and premieres includes: Adès, Turnage, Lindberg, Marsalis, Salonen, Barry, Golijov, Mackey, Gubaidulina, Lieberson and Górecki?  Most major orchestras may have one or two commissions or premieres per season--the LA Phil has 19 premieres (including 12 commissions and 9 world premieres) planned for 2010-2011.

Just the ways that they present the season speaks volumes: a print brochure with PDF version on the website of course, but also informal videos of Gustavo Dudamel and Deborah Borda (President & CEO) talking about the upcoming season, as well separate videos of John Adams (Creative Chair), Herbie Hancock (Creative Chair for Jazz), and Thomas Adès (Aspects of Adès Festival Director) all talking about their contributions to the season.  Check it out here.

(I didn't think I'd find myself saying this, but I hope to be in LA more often in the future.  I want to hear some of these concerts!)

More on interpretation

I've been thinking about interpretation on and off since this previous post on the subject, and Allan Kozinn's New York Times essay, in which he compares Schoenberg performances by Boulez and Barenboim, has provided more food for thought.

But what was particularly striking was that the two conductors took interpretive approaches to Schoenberg that were poles apart: Mr. Boulez’s readings prized delicacy and transparency; Mr. Barenboim’s, raw power and heft. Both were highly personalized approaches, though you could argue that Mr. Boulez, by clarifying Schoenberg’s scoring details and structure, was offering something close to a literalist view, and that Mr. Barenboim, by magnifying the vigor he found in the music, was bending the music more overtly to his will.

This reminded me of a quote from Serge Koussevitzky, who felt that even performances that attempted to follow the score to the letter were influenced by the personality of the interpreter, sort of like the same beam of light passing through prisms of different shapes and sizes.

Continue reading "More on interpretation" »

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.

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" »

Arts training improves attention and cognition: new empirical evidence

A very readable summary of some very interesting new research:

If there were a surefire way to improve your brain, would you try it? Judging by the abundance of products, programs and pills that claim to offer “cognitive enhancement,” many people are lining up for just such quick brain fixes. Recent research offers a possibility with much better, science-based support: that focused training in any of the arts—such as music, dance or theater—strengthens the brain’s attention system, which in turn can improve cognition more generally.

Michael Posner and Brenda Patoine, authors of the study, are finding clear causal links between arts training and increased cognitive ability!

Jonah Lehrer (my absolute favorite science journalist, and one of my favorite writers about anything, really) comments and elaborates on the importance of arts education:

That's why the research cited above is so important: it helps us appreciate the "soft" skills that we tend to neglect.

But I think that even this clinical evaluation of arts education misses an important benefit: self-expression. I shudder to think that second graders, at least in most schools, are never taught the value of putting their mind on the page. They are drilled in spelling, phonetics and arithmetic (the NCLB school day must be so tedious), and yet nobody ever shows them how to take their thoughts and feelings and translate them into a paragraph or a painting. We assume that creativity will take care of itself, that the imagination doesn't need to be nurtured. But that's false. Creativity, like every cognitive skill, takes practice; expressing oneself well is never easy.

"The idea for the Music Animation Machine started with a hallucination ..."

The Music Animation Machine is a tool for visualizing music.

"Music moves, and can be understood just by listening. But a conventional musical score stands still, and can be understood only after years of training. The Music Animation Machine bridges this gap, with a score that moves -- and can be understood just by watching."

Continue reading ""The idea for the Music Animation Machine started with a hallucination ..."" »

Virtual cool

The British music site Dilettante is hosting a Virtual Composer-In-Residence competition. 

The aim, they say, is to redefine the composer-in-residence for the digital age. He or she will win a modest prize of £1000, and a year-long residency on the website, allowing them to engage with web-site members through a Composer’s Corner blog, a podcast series, online forums, and masterclasses. It will culminate in 2010 a live event with a performance of a new work.

You can read the article from which the above quote is excerpted here, and hear music and interviews from the three finalists here.  While the Virtual-Composer-in-Residence is a cool idea, especially the interactive elements of the residency, as  Stuart and I continued to peruse Dilettante it became clear that the site, despite its revolutionary claims, still exists squarely within the framework of the "classical music world," as evinced by the preponderance of content generated by the marketing departments of large, traditional institutions like orchestras, artist management firms, and record labels (Lorin Maazel's "blog" for example).

Continue reading "Virtual cool" »

Critical Thinking & Technology in the Arts

Greetings everyone!  It's great to be here and I look forward to regular contributions to the greatness that is the Loose Filter Project.  Much thanks to Stu and Dustin for the invitation. Feel free to reach me via twitter (millerasbill) or via email.

In starting a new position at Texas Tech University, I've been seeking ways to engage my students in a more significant and meaningful way.  Rehearsals go by too quickly and there often isn't time or means to delve deeply into the music itself: compositional techniques employed, critical thinking about the piece itself or the wide ranging musicological connections of a composer or specific piece, etc.  These aspects of the music aren't merely academic--understanding these aspects is fundamental for the future performers and educators I'm helping to train.

Continue reading "Critical Thinking & Technology in the Arts" »

Challenging a ubiquitous framing: The Merchants of Cool

Though it's not a new documentary, The Merchants of Cool is now available in its entirety, FREE, online from PBS.  Resonating well beyond the initial Frontline reportage, PBS has built a terrific site around the ideas and issues presented in the doc--from PBS:

They spend their days sifting through reams of market research data. They conduct endless surveys and focus groups. They comb the streets, the schools, and the malls, hot on the trail of the "next big thing" that will snare the attention of their prey--a market segment worth an estimated $150 billion a year.

They are the merchants of cool: creators and sellers of popular culture who have made teenagers the hottest consumer demographic in America. But are they simply reflecting teen desires or have they begun to manufacture those desires in a bid to secure this lucrative market? And have they gone too far in their attempts to reach the hearts--and wallets--of America's youth?

Continue reading "Challenging a ubiquitous framing: The Merchants of Cool" »

joe's last (re)mix: free score & parts + an awesome remix/composition contest!

The Loose Filter Project's newest endeavor is up, please check it out: joe's last (re)mix.  Featuring the groundbreaking work for band, joe's last mix by Tanner Menard, you can download a FREE score (and parts!), recordings, participate in a remix composition contest, and find out more about this terrific piece.  Details on the contest here, and the main page is here.

Tip jar music: make more money by letting customers name their price?

2D BOY, makers of the excellent game World of Goo, decided--after seeing ridiculously high rates of piracy of their game--to let customers decide how much they would pay for it instead of fixing a price.  One week later they had made $100,000--a year after the game's release. 

Even more interesting, they published the results of this experiment on their blog, with a complete summary of the data hereThis follows on the heels of Radiohead's wildly successful similar experiment in 2007 with their album In Rainbows, a practice informally known as tip jar music.

The success of these experiments bodes well for a future where artists can share their work freely and still make a living at it. 


American music is different

From 1997, a terrific interview with the brilliant Richard Crawford, musicologist extraordinaire.  Though the questions are often loaded with the kind of bias we deplore here at LF, it's always enlightening to hear Crawford discuss his ideas about music in the United States.

I am particularly enamored of his conceptualization of American music-making as happening in three spheres:  the classical, which seeks transcendence; the popular, which seeks accessibility in the present day; and the traditional (or folk), which seeks continuity, a maintenance of tradition.  And of course, the undeniable conclusion: "For me, it's been the popular sphere and its need to appeal to a present-day audience that has defined the center of American musical life." 

Regardless of whether that thought comforts or terrifies you, he is among our most cogent and lucid scholars of American music.  His significant work is America's Musical Life: A History, of course highly recommended.

What the flow of time implies about the universe

A short, clear conversation with Caltech physicist Sean M. Carroll, about what he thinks the forward flow of time implies about the nature of the universe.  A sample:

Our experience of time depends upon the growth of entropy. You can't imagine a person looking around and saying, "Time is flowing in the wrong direction," because your sense of time is due to entropy increasing. . . . This feeling that we're moving through time has to do with the fact that as we live, we feed on entropy. . . . Time exists without entropy, but entropy is what gives time its special character.

(Of course, I keep posting these interesting science tidbits because I've found that being a musician makes me curious about the world and everything in it.  I hope you enjoy them.)

Nurturing creativity

Another excellent TED talk, this one on nurturing creativity:

Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses -- and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person "being" a genius, all of us "have" a genius. It's a funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk.

Recommended conceptual-shift reading for musicians

The Institute of Musical Perception is the online home of Marianne Ploger and Keith Hill's work in musical perception.  Both are extremely brilliant musicians, and I can attest first-hand to the transformative nature of Marianne's teaching, having studied with her for two years.

I recommend just reading through the site when you have time, but definitely read their main essay The Craft of Musical Communication.  As they say about the essay:

As you read the two sections of our essay make sure you read them in order from the first to the last. Each section builds on and depends on the one previous. It is jam packed with ideas that may be challenging to wade through, but we can assure you, you won't find the effort unrewarded.

Part one is here, part two is here.  If you find something else particularly interesting, please share in the comments.

Also, Ploger's personal site is here.  I heartily encourage any performer to read her Causes of Error article.  Great stuff.

Reimagining the format, alt-classical musicians are going mainstream

From Anne Midgette, an excellent article in today's Washington Post:

Once upon a time, young conservatory musicians wanted to grow up to play as soloists with major orchestras. Today, many of them are forming bands instead.

The ensembles of the new alt-classical world are poised somewhere within the Venn-diagram intersection of traditional classical music and contemporary culture. It's hard to define exactly what kind of music they play.

Of course, this is the kind of thing that the Loose Filter Project is all about, and it's exciting to see more and more musical artists forging their own creative paths.  My only complaint is the term "alt-classical."  Aside from sounding stupid, it's industry, genre-based nomenclature, and so I reject it etymologically as well.

I think it's just the new face of concert music, it in many ways is orthogonal to the industry of "classical music," and thus isn't some kind of alternative sub-genre.  It's a whole new thing, because what ensembles like those discussed in the article are doing isn't just changing the mode of presentation of the music, or even just combining highly eclectic programming with new modes; they are changing the music itself, because of cross-pollination, fusion, improvisation, and the like.

This is the new face of concert music.

(hat tip to Miller for the link!)

It's changing more than just the mode of presentation

Perceptive (as usual) comment from Greg Sandow, on how embracing new technologies and means of reaching audiences will also change the culture of arts institutions:

That's how, increasingly, we decide on purchases, by reading user reviews of products we're considering. And that, says the Times, is how students are deciding where to go to college.

What does this mean for classical music?

It means that you can't use new technologies -- or at least not use them to their full potential -- without embracing the new culture.

You can't do what you want by doing something else

An excellent message for creative workers:

There are lots of people who wanted to do one thing but then got "practical" and did something else first. The idea was that they'd be successful and sock away money doing the practical thing, and after that they could go back to the thing they loved. Bronson was sure that, among the hundreds of people that he interviewed, someone would actually have been successful with this strategy. It sounds so reasonable, after all.

But he encountered exactly zero people who pulled it off. Everyone who tried got sucked into the "practical" career and were never able to extract themselves from it. Too comfortable, too many expectations from friends and family, too easy just to keep doing what you're doing.

Oliver Sacks on music and the brain

Six questions for Oliver Sacks about music and the brain.  Best bit:

An interesting corollary is that our exposure to different types of music, and hence our musical literacy, has certainly expanded, but perhaps at a cost. As Daniel Levitin has pointed out, passive listening has largely replaced active music-making. Now that we can listen to anything we like on our iPods, we have less motivation to go to concerts or churches or synagogues, less occasion to sing together. This is unfortunate, because music-making engages much more of our brains than simply listening.

Be sure to check his latest, Musicophilia, if you haven't already.  (That's an Amazon link that also has a few good short videos with Sacks, talking about--you guessed it--music and the brain.)

Hilary Hahn gets it

If we've said once we've said it a thousand times.  By changing elements of the traditional concert experience you change audience expectations by letting them know - even before the music's started - that their preconceived notions don't apply.  When audiences are freed from their expectations and preconceived notions they are freed to experience the music in a deeper way.  In this 2008 blog post Hilary Hahn accurately describes this from an artist's point of view, and articulates why the term 'crossover' really doesn't apply.  Here's a quote.

The latest collaborative trends incorporate little of the crossover inclinations of the past. The label "crossover" refers to mixed genres: classical plus bluegrass, rock plus classical, or plugged-in, amped-up, alternatively decorated versions of standards, to name a few.  Those experiments are now considered old hat, and much of the controversy surrounding them has died down as they have established themselves in the mainstream public's awareness. Recent developments, on the other hand, are neither mainstream nor genre-driven; instead, they are organized by the artists themselves and favor pursuits that show each participant at his or her perceived strength. If anything is mixed in such projects, it is the best qualities of the performers. Through those elements, the audience is led full circle to the initial source of inspiration: the art itself.

 Yes!  If you're going to go through the trouble of smashing your audience's preconceived notions you had better take advantage of it and hit them with some awesome music.  An example of the artist-driven collaborations Hahn is referring to would be her concerts with singer/songwriter Josh Ritter.  The concerts were most like a double bill, with each of them doing their own thing and collaborating on just a few pieces.  You can read about their collaboration here and here (w/ audio)

35,000 Years!

OK, this is kind of a lame post, only a link to this single NY Times article, which is about the stone age flutes that have been excavated and reconstructed from sites in Germany.  BUT, the flutes are at least 35,000 years old, and were found near sculpture as well.

"Music and sculpture — expressions of artistic creativity, it seems — were emerging in tandem among some of the first modern humans when they began spreading through Europe or soon thereafter."

Think about that--human beings (and possibly Neanderthals, this was from an approximately 10,000-year period of co-existence), while living in caves and hunting daily for food, not only took the time to carve flutes, but had to figure out how to make a flute in the first place.  That's no mean feat, and to me demonstrates that making music, having music in your life, is something very basic and intrinsic to human beings.  I also imagine that with a fire or two going, the acoustics and lights in those caves got pretty cool at night.

(Worth noting that the flute in the article was found a few feet away from this buxom sculpture--looks like sex & music have been connected for a long, long time.)