Friday, December 23, 2011

Susanna Phillips: Paysages

I’m pretty sure French vocal music wouldn’t be considered the type of music one would blast in one’s car.  Well, I was. Until I listened to, and most definitely blasted in my car, Susanna Phillips’s debut solo album Paysages.
Easily one of the best solo vocal albums of the year, Paysages gives the listener more than a collection of songs; within it is music so purely fluid, breathtaking, and surreal that a listen is more of a journey to a separate world than an addition to an existing one. Phillips has included three composers on the album: Debussy, Fauré, and Messiaen. While all three are French, lived in similar time periods, and use comparable sounds occasionally, each composer brings out a different perspective in their choice of texts and music, and Phillips takes advantage of this. She is able to take each song, which posses unique destinations and atmospheres, and create a true collection, something that is varying but connected.
The first six tracks on the album are Debussy’s “Ariettes oubliées,” or “forgotten songs,” composed between 1885 and 1887. The song cycle is said to have marked Debussy’s evolution from a more traditional composer to one of his own style. Like many of Debussy’s pieces for voice, the vocal lines are natural and feel as if they permanently reside along with the clouds of ambiguous sound the piano creates. The poetry for this collection, by Paul Verlaine, reaches insightful observations through painting-like images (“It weeps in my heart like the rain over the village. What is this exhaustion that penetrates my heart?”).
Phillips latches on to Debussy’s liquid phrases and seems effortless from the moment she allows her voice to flow out to the last trickles of sound. “C’est l’extase,” the first track on the album, is a wandering yet determined. Included are sounds ranging from calm phrases to cries that curve like feathers in air.  In contrast, “Chevaux de Bois” is like a train on a track with its steady pace and subtle sforzandos.  Myra Huang, Phillips’s accompanist, handles the piano parts perfectly as well. Because of Debussy’s finesse with the instrument, the piano parts are pieces in and of themselves (such as the arpeggios in “Green”). However, with the balance that Huang offers, they allow the voice to be in the appropriate position at each moment.
Messiaen’s “Poémes pour Mi,” with their more dissonant, east-of-France-inspired sounds, show both the musical atmosphere in France after Debussy (though it originally was not accepted fully) and Phillips’s ability to make their slightly unsettling timbres beautiful in their own way. The vocals of Messiaen (written by the composer himself for his first wife, nicknamed “Mi”) are more introverted than Debussy’s and Fauré’s choice of poetry. The music reflects this; the dissonance of the piano and the repetitive tones of the voice seem more like a conversation with oneself than a presentation to another. “Paysage” begins with a ghost-like flutter and includes murmurs of rain-like piano. “Epouvante” is sly and angry. The piano is mushy and assertive, and Phillips’s cries and partially-a cappella statements are chilling. Along with Phillips, Huang gives Messiaen’s pieces the creepy, echo filled accompaniment they need. Because Fauré and Debussy’s songs have generally more soft and delicate sounds, “Poémes pour Mi” give the album just the right amount of angst.
Rounding out the broad representation of French composers on Paysages is Fauré, the composer who resided in the transition from Romanticism to the 20th century’s modernism. The four songs by Fauré on the album aren’t a cycle, but give the listener a sense of his finesse with voice and Phillips’s ability to stand out in these iconic French songs.  The poetry from Charles Jean Grandmougin and Romain Bussine is gorgeous and subtle (Reading Grandmougin’s words from “Adieu” is definitely a bonus of the album). “Les Roses d’Ispahan” has a piano part that is almost a perfect blend of Schumann-like Romanticism and glassy impressionism. The classic melody of “Nell” gives Phillips’s the opportunity to take her voice in multiple directions and in a conversational, natural style. “Après un rêve” pairs a simple, solid piano accompaniment with heart-wrenching vocals.
“Adieu,” the last track on the album, is delicate and discusses how everything is subject to change. In it, Grandmougin’s words are (in English), “But alas! The longest of loves are cut short!” I’d like to think that Grandmougin writes about Phillips’s and Paysages–it’s an album that, no matter how long it could go on, can only have one downfall—the moment it stops. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Bow is Mightier than the Bill

                The whole orchestra froze. The conductor’s arms flew into the air and stopped like they had lost their ability to budge.  The sound, a single wave made up of around 100 separate voices, slammed into the walls and the audience’s faces, creating a resonance that vibrated everywhere. The cloud of clapping began to trickle in, starting at the balcony and moving down. Some thought the movement was over and were prepared to give their thanks and turn their backs as they filed down the steps. But the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 5th wasn’t over, and it flooded our ears again. They quickly and gratefully drew their hands apart, trying to cover up the sound that had already been leaked. We were thankful we weren’t at that moment yet.
                I smiled to myself as I gazed upon the New Mexico Philharmonic as this happened, because the musicians know what this feels like. As a group of people that turned out to be an unstoppable force, they emerged from the depths of a supposed ending with a proclamation of endurance.  And it sounded pretty awesome, too.

                Saturday night, the New Mexico Philharmonic (NMPhil), along with conductor Robert Tweten and mezzo soprano Kirsten Lear, gave their inaugural concert in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Just six months ago, the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra (NMSO) filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy, ending their 79th season short and leaving many without jobs, Albuquerque without a symphony, and countless with an empty space in their ears and hearts. However, the large majority of the musicians from the NMSO came together out of the ashes to create the next chapter in organized New Mexico classical music. Out came the NMPhil, an isomer of the NMSO and an orchestra that can hopefully find an adequate space in the state’s blueprint to reside in for as long as possible.
                The NMSO’s major downfall was their massive debt due to many different aspects of performing—renting Popejoy Hall, paying musicians, various bills, or buying music all created a large amount of money due that the symphony simply didn’t have. Many have criticized the disjunction between the board and the musicians as well; however, only those involved know the truth. The NMPhil needs to check for any loose screws early in the process to try to avoid problems like the NMSO faced early this year, and I suspect they’re doing so—the sponsor list is strong, and the board is made up of musicians as well as others. In a place like New Mexico where loyalty is needed due to cities that are spread apart and a smaller community of frequent audience members, orchestras are difficult organizations to keep alive in recessions. I have a feeling the NMPhil can do it.

Kirsten Lear

Robert Tweten
                The opening program was one that few would be disappointed with—Copland’s “Rodeo” and “Old American Songs,” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Copland is a composer that never fails to induce high-fives/instant ticket buying when put on a program, and he didn’t fail for me this time, either. Though the mix of Copland and Tchaikovsky seem a bit strange, they melded together better than I expected through their saturations of sound. The Americana, train-track sounds of “Rodeo” followed by the homey, folk pieces of “Old American Songs” provided a pleasant segue into the rich per aspera a astrada-ness (add a new descriptive noun to the dictionary, please) of the Tchaikovsky symphony. Like the NMPhil itself, the Tchaikovsky starts out in E minor with the main theme taking on a funeral-march attitude—this, in a super-analytical world, could be seen as the ending of the NMSO. However, through the 4 movements, it moves into E major, ending triumphantly, like the NMPhil has.  Just as the audience expected from their beloved musicians, the pieces were played solidly and fully embraced the individual emotions of each one.  “Rodeo” is a piece that can be easily rushed or lack of structure—the NMPhil offered a tight, spirited version that allowed all the excerpts (especially “Hoe Down”) to be all they could be. Kirsten Tear allowed “Old American Songs” to have the slight ridiculousness that they need to; and trust me, this is a good thing. Her tone never became ridiculous itself, quite the opposite, but her playfulness created the atmosphere that the piece benefits from. The Tchaikovsky was played with a passion that was not only given through the musician’s talent, but possibly could have been subconsciously attained through the piece’s aural journey, ultimate achievement through conflict. Tweten became an instant-love between my friend and I. Not only was his shiny, bouncing hair a large plus, but his movements were avid without drawing the attention away from the music.
                Having a symphony in a city is like having a piece of furniture in the living room of that city. No, the furniture might not contribute to the structure of the house and mortgage loans aren’t given out to buy it, but it’s a necessary item. No living room stands bare with simply a rug or a painting on the wall. Each person needs somewhere to cozy up, to remember what it’s like to live in that city. For me, the NMPhil fills the space of Albuquerque that I needed occupied. I have many other outlets for music in New Mexico that make my life wonderful, but having a large, official ensemble in reach is comforting. The audience of the NMPhil might have clapped at the wrong time during the music, but what matters is that there was something to clap for. And when the clapping came at the “correct” time, there was a whole lot of it. 


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Fractals, Feldman, and Flabbergastation

If you were to write “Morton Feldman” right next to "zn+1 = zn2 + c” on a piece of paper, the amount of confused looks you would get would probably be… a lot. According to society, zn+1 = zn2 + c is simply an equation, something incomparable to an artist—but in that equation lies the tangible way of expressing the source, or representation, or one of the most celebrated things in math and nature. If we could reduce Feldman and zn+1 = zn2 + c down to just their meanings in the world of creation, we might have something pretty similar. And in that world, it doesn’t really matter if you’re made up of a full head of slicked back, dark hair or a handful of symbols. 
A couple of weeks ago I got to hear Feldman’s “Clarinet and String Quartet” live at the Church of Beethoven. Not only was that one of the only concerts where it seemed perfectly appropriate to lay down on the floor in a sort of zoned-out, meditative state, but it was the first concert in a while where the explanation of the piece stayed with me as much as the piece itself. The emcee/clarinetist of the piece, James Shields, told the audience about a theory he had on Feldman’s work; if a phrase of music, such as Mozart, was stretched out to reach 40 minutes, maybe we would have a Feldman piece.  

That brought up the idea in me of something seemingly opposite to music—fractals. I wouldn’t doubt that everyone had a phase in middle/high school math where fractals were a small obsession (at least I’m hoping that’s not just me…). If not, a fractal is “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole.” zn+1 = zn2 + c  is an equation that describes a large amount of the Mandelbrot set, one of the most famous fractals. Basically, fractals are these things: 

Julia set
Some other set

Mandelbrot set
Fractals aren’t just an idea in the world of graph paper and computer programs, either. Like the Fibonacci sequence, fractals are found in nature, such as in ferns, snowflakes, rivers, and romanesco broccoli.  If something has a self-similar structure, it’s an approximate fractal. That’s the most important thing about fractals that relates them to sound—when magnified, their sequence keeps repeating, expanding, and becoming even more intricate. Fractals themselves are an eerie idea—mathematicians discover them just as celestial bodies thousands of light-years away are found. The Mandelbrot set was first discovered and mapped out in small asterisks like a surfacing underwater creature. 

First picture of the Mandelbrot set

Romanesco broccoli... delicious and mathematically trippy
Morton Feldman and his music, on the ostensibly other hand, are not extraterrestrial-looking shapes on computer screens. But, if looked at with the lens of the theory offered at the concert, Feldman’s pieces could be similar to fractals. While Feldman’s music is part of the indeterminacy movement and fractals are specified to the max, what makes the music of composers like Feldman mind-boggling is their ability to be received in an infinite amount of ways. The theory allows Feldman’s music, and all music in general, to be seen as a medium that is made up of only itself, which, for all we know, is pretty true. This means that, like fractals, music could be self-repeating, and all we hear is its manifestation in certain sizes. Perhaps each symphony is made out of little symphonies, and each note in that symphony is a collection of an infinite amount of compositions. Let’s take, for instance, Feldman’s “Clarinet and String Quartet” to think about.  
In this piece, the string quartet creates a cloud of indecipherable eeriness while the clarinet lurks in the background with a simple chromatic melody: B, C, A, B flat. The melody is stretched and snapped, rarely played the same way twice. While the clarinet continues this, the string quartet changes from echo-filled to sinister and back again. Throughout the entire piece, the clarinet stays as the holder of order. Its repeated notes and different chromatic melodic cells lead the strings like a magnet staying attached to another through a surface.   The music doesn’t seem to follow any set path, but instead wanders through the dark, encountering miniscule areas of action. 
Like the way objects look under microscopes, Feldman’s “Clarinet and String Quartet” is murky and slow moving. If we, as listeners, can let the music take on a life of its own and completely abandon any specified meanings assigned to the piece by Feldman or others, we can put it in the position of a microscope image—if a phrase of Mozart was stretched out to its limits, maybe we would find little pieces of Feldman, Cage, or Wolff inside, like the alternate universes that were found in space by Dave in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Even though this might seem like a dubious prospect, fractals have technically existed since the dawn of time—it just took sophisticated mathematicians to surface them from the depths of the math world. And even though these mathematicians found the shapes of fractals such as the Mandelbrot set, if they never thought of going further into those shapes, we wouldn’t know about their self-repeating aspects. We can certainly slow down phrases of classical music, but, like a microscope, maybe there is a certain setting that exposes these alternate dimensions of sound that we haven’t found yet. 
Then again, maybe there’s not. Maybe Mozart slowed down sounds like 5 minute-long chords that we’re all familiar with. But the point is this: music can take different forms and identities, from classical to chamber pop to indeterminate, but it’s a medium that has no real physical substance when stripped down to its core meaning. Music isn’t tangible matter that we can stain, put on a slide, and take apart. All we know is that it is made up of itself—kind of like a fractal, no? Maybe, inside of itself, music is made up of separate little compositions that lurk inside of the microscopic nooks and crannies of other compositions. Or, maybe that 80 minute Mahler symphony is a large scale version of the little sounds that make up each vibration that comes out of a cello. Music is mind boggling. And I don’t think asterisks will ever be able to map out something like it. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sequenza21 reviews

If my posting seems a little infrequent, it's because I'm writing occasional CD reviews for the blog Sequenza21, and very excited to be doing so! If you're an avid Elena fan (I'm hoping that succeeded in coming off as sarcastic), check out the CD review page every once in a while for my posts (most recent = Peter Garland). BUT, the blog posts will still be just as frequent as I can make them. Thanks for reading my publicity post/probably-not-necessary disclaimer.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Breaking the Silence

“Music means everything to me; it’s the only thing that I know that can break the silence,” said Celeste Lansing.
John Cage, a scientist, or the inventor of earplugs might argue that silence doesn’t exist. But for Lansing, sounds, or the absence of them, are more than just measurable waves. As a result, silence is much more of a force than its dictionary definition gives it credit for. And music is much more than merely something to fill the air.
Lansing is a 16-year-old composer from Montezuma Creek, Utah. Lansing didn’t start composing for performance until she was a freshman in high school; now, on November 18, her string quartet “Pink Thunder” will be played by members of the New Mexico new music group Chatter as a part of the “New Work-Old Traditions: Pushing the Boundaries of Classical Music” concert focusing on Native American composers.

Along with Lansing’s piece, music will be played by other Native American composers: Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate, Louis W. Ballard, and New Mexico native Raven Chacon. Tate’s “Taloa’Hiloah” or “Thunder Song” for timpani is on the program. “Kachina Dances” for cello and piano by the legendary Ballard will be played as well.
Chacon is a local artist and musician who often experiments with noise music, and he will be premiering his piece “Biyán” for violin, cello, flute, clarinet, and percussion commissioned by Ensemble Music New Mexico. 

Celeste Lansing


Listeners might have their own preconceived notions about what Native American music is like. But to a composer, heritage can inspire many aspects of music, from the specific instrumentation to the sources of the rhythms.
“My Native American heritage inspires my music the most because everything I do, hear, or see I can make music with! It surprised me because most of the rhythms I have in my pieces were inspired from tapping a pencil, how the trees moved, or hearing an odd sound in the hallway or at home,” said Lansing.
Lansing’s “Pink Thunder” for string quartet was her first project with the Native American Composers Apprenticeship Program. Lansing had the opportunity to have ETHEL, the superstar contemporary string quartet, play her piece at their annual music festival at the Grand Canyon.
I got to hear “Pink Thunder” a few months ago when Church of Beethoven, a branch of Ensemble Music New Mexico, played it on a Sunday morning.
The piece is like a nugget of bundled brainwaves—ranging from quasi-Xenakis to a serene, almost lonely melody that flows from one instrument to the next, the piece is filled with a range of inspiration that bind together through calm, settled moments. The piece reaches a climactic pile of glissandos, but the piece is so clear and decisive that they never become trying. 
“I got the inspired by from listening to a lot of METALLICA, mostly songs from the Black Album! I loved how they used the double foot pedals and they had that dark, heavy, and mysterious sound,” Lansing wrote in an email. “I came up with the cello part first and then worked around it. I used the piano to make up rhythms, sounds, etc. Before I knew it, it sounded like thunder.”
Descriptions like this make me eager to hear next generation’s composers’ music. Knowing of inspiration coming from organic, real areas creates music that soaks into the brain as easy as water into a sponge, or like natural food to the body. Lansing told me of a piece she wrote and dedicated to her art and basketball teacher Michael V. Porter/Cheii Porter. “Cheii” means grandpa in Navajo.  
“He got sick during the summer, and he really moved me while I was writing; this was the first piece that I actually wrote and incorporated what I was feeling at the time. I’ve never done that before. He always told me to finish strong so I twisted it and named the piece ‘Worth Finishing.’”
Here’s a place where the name of the November 18 concert comes in—“New Work-Old Traditions.” Lansing’s work, as well as Chacon’s, Tate’s, and Ballard’s, is contemporary. But in a world where new pieces of music get churned out and released almost every minute online, it’s nice to be able to look at pieces like “Pink Thunder” or “Worth Finishing” and see the places they came from, places that everyone can understand.
Lansing has heard “Pink Thunder” played twice, both by ETHEL, but she is excited about it being performed by Chatter.
“The people that will be there that night will get a little taste of what Celeste has to bring to the table.”

Thursday, October 13, 2011

SONiC Boom

            I was talking to someone over Facebook a while ago when they sent me a video. It was called “Epic Rap Battles of History.” Expecting to see some sort of weird, cell phone-filmed video, I reluctantly clicked on it. Suddenly, a guy dressed up as Beethoven was being filmed by a high quality camera, rapping against some other guy dressed up as Justin Beiber. Oh god.
            This story technically doesn’t directly have to do with anything I’m about to talk about, but it illustrates an important idea—even in a world where the only classical music stars recognized by the general public seem to be violinists with excessive make up or child prodigies seen on the Today Show, “the composer” is a valid pop culture figure. Whether they show up in 1 million-hit YouTube videos or on shirts with a picture of Beethoven DJ-ing that say “Old School Beats,” composers from this era have become images reproduced by millions. “Where is this now?” we might ask ourselves. However, this era where “the composer” is as eminent as the classics are now might be recycling itself. Maybe in a few years, tee-shirts will be screen printed with pictures of Muhly or Luther Adams, saying something like “I <3’d ‘Inuksuit’ Before It Was Cool”.

            This observation is the central thought to the SONiC Festival, a festival of 21st century music happening from October 14-22 in various locations around New York. Co-curated by composer Derek Bermel and pianist Stephen Gosling, the festival is focusing on over 100 composers under 40 years old (like the Q2/NPR list).  This festival is possibly the most chock filled with ensembles, composers, and artists that dictate the current classical music industry than any other event in recent years. It’s like Coachella for modern music—minus the central location, hundred degree weather, and tent camping. But it’s only like that in appearance—while Coachella is a showcase, a sort of “here’s what we’ve done,” SONiC is a display that is meant to be a lifting-off point. It’s more of a “here’s what we’re becoming.” It’s uncontrollably exciting.  
“Emerging composers today have much greater access to different traditions and influences, and we are celebrating that by not restricting the music we present to any one style, movement, or agenda. We want to bring more public awareness to the many directions contemporary music is moving in, and to show everyone that ‘the composer’ is alive and thriving,” Bermel said on SONiC’s website. Other popular festivals, such as MATA and Spring for Music, focus on the specific aspects of contemporary music (commissioning young composers and orchestra programming, respectively), but SONiC is aiming to be a “big umbrella” of a festival—a variety of events that celebrate a wide range of composers and ensembles. Composers and pieces that will be played range from the iconic pieces of the past few years (Judd Greenstein, “Change,” performed by the NOW Ensemble, Aaron Cassidy, “Second String Quartet,” performed by the JACK Quartet) to works from Brazil being premiered in the US. The second half of the festival includes afterhours concerts, showcasing some of the best contemporary music in the world in quirky settings at dark, buzzing hours. 
Along with contemporary music being played at SONiC, the festival is encouraging contemporary methods of listening and audience-member-being. The festival is integrating three different “projects” into the mix of music that involve audience members in much more interesting ways than, say, a Q&A. The project called “Re:Sound” allows audience members to vote on pieces they would like to hear again through phones or online, and Q2 will broadcast them. “UrbanRemix” is a project that almost commissions the audience itself—SONiC-goers are encouraged to record sounds they hear to, from, and around the festival, go online, and create a mix. These mixes will be showcased on the second to last night of the festival. “Thicket:Sonic” isn’t really a project, but an App. While sort of ambiguous, the website’s description (“a mobile audiovisual world of texture, movement, line and tone that is part art piece, part toy, part wind chime, and part spierweb.”) is ridiculously intriguing.

JACK Quartet/photo by Stephen Poff
A general theme that runs through the programming of the entire festival is the destruction of the term “genre” and the restrictions that come with that term. Contemporary music, especially in the last year or so, has been evolving into something that is difficult to classify (I feel almost awkward typing “classical” when talking about it). Chamber-pop, electronic, minimalist, “new synthesist…” these terms have been used as labels, but it’s becoming almost impossible to label everything accurately. Violins and soundboards are frequently on stage together. SONiC is demonstrating this idea in multiple concerts. The first concert on Oct. 14 features the American Composers Orchestra. In the concert is a piece by Alex Temple, who describes his music as “somewhere between Surrealism and Pop Art,” for soprano, orchestra, and electronics. There’s a piece called “Flowing Water Study II for Orchestra & Video” by Wang Lu. These defy genres in themselves. During the concert featuring the JACK Quartet (Oct. 15), the quartet will play just before an electric guitar quartet. I have a feeling it will seem completely normal.
It’s not often that history seems as if it is being written right in front of you. When it does happen, it’s exhilarating. The SONiC festival itself might not become a chapter in a music history book, but it symbolizes the shifting of a time period, the flip of a page from the music of years past. “The composer” is usually thought of as a pop culture symbol with billowing white hair and a quill pen, but recent times suggest otherwise. And as I sit here, writing this, watching the video on SONiC’s webpage, and I see my hands start to shake with excitement, I know this means something (and I don’t even live in New York). SONiC will surely be a whirlwind of in-the-moment sounds as well as a telescope into the future. And by god, if they’re selling tee shirts, someone please get me one. 

Watch this video if you want to buzz with excitement: 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Or Just After

Just like the Hubble Telescope can now see the universe around 200 million years after it was created, almost any given major cultural trend or event can be seen duplicated years after. In reality, overwhelmingly powerful telescopes certainly aren’t needed to see these reoccurrences. After a while, it’s easy to get tired of the sequence, especially when these identical ideas are thought of as new and cutting edge. There are always exceptions to the dry cycle; or, rather, occurrences that take the cycle itself and shape it into something completely different.
One of these occurrences appears on a CD released September 13th called “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg” performed by the pianist Lara Downes. Not only is this collection of music a gorgeous album of piano playing, but it’s also a significant reinvention of one of most classic and respected anthologies of piano pieces. The “Goldberg Variations” themselves, especially Gould’s multiple renditions of them, stand on some of the highest pedestals in the gigantic museum of musical legends. So, logically, one would either have to blow Gould out of the water or make something magnificent and different in order to stand out among the height of these pedestals. Lara Downes, with the help of 13 others, has done that.             
Gould himself

The Aria itself

            “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg” is a set of new pieces inspired by the aria of the Goldbergs, the piece that is the subject of the original variations themselves. Thirteen composers were commissioned to write these solo piano works by the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in 2004, where they were originally played by the pianist Gilbert Kalish. From baroque tinged to unmistakably Chopin to fugal, the variations on the Goldbergs take the listener’s lens on the iconic pieces and throw it into an entirely different realm.

            The project was inspired by the poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens, a minimalist and mind-blowing portrait of perspective. The fifth stanza of that poem includes the basic idea of the “13 Ways” project:
            I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Instead of taking the aria itself and simply placing it in a different genre’s template, the composers took those inflections and innuendos and created pieces that reflected them in unique lights.
            Remember the game “telephone?” One person would think of a phrase, they would whisper it to the person next to them, and it would go along a line of people. The last person it reached would have to repeat the phrase, but it often got morphed during the passing into something that still adheres to the original phrase but has its own meaning and mood. Well, the results of these 13 composers feels similar to that, only the composers weren’t oblivious to the starting point. They were, in fact, the opposite of oblivious.
            On one side of the spectrum, there are the composers that stayed with the general baroque feeling of the Goldbergs. Fred Lerdahl’s “Chasing Goldberg” uses the original melody of the aria and places it inside an energetic form—it jumps around the piano like releasing 100 bouncy balls into a racquetball court. Jennifer Higdon’s “The Gilmore Variation” feels like a loosened yet alert and playful version of Bach, but inserted are several unique transitions that one probably wouldn’t encounter in Bach’s time. One can feel the influence of the aria’s melody, but Higdon’s melody goes off on its own as well.
            Then there are the pieces that move a little further on the genre spectrum. Bright Sheng, the Chinese-American composer, wrote a piece in fugal form, unlike the aria, which is a sarabande. The piece, appropriately called “Variation Fugato,” begins seeping with tension, hanging only on singular outlines of fifths that begin to intertwine with other voices and eventually resolve. C. Curtis Smith’s “Rube Goldberg Variation” (who doesn’t love a little wordplay?) moves further off the aria scale as well. The moods in Curtis Smith’s piece are dark, Edgar Allen Poe-esque, and definitely don’t sound like the aria—at first. However, when in succession with all these other lens-bending works, the innuendos and inflections are visible.

C. Curtis Smith
            There are too many variations on the Variations to mention at length, though all of them contribute to the experience of listening to the recording. Derek Bermel’s “Kontraphunktus,” besides being labeled with the best tongue-in-cheek title on the album, is a piece constantly searching for a landing spot, but seems to be frantically looking the entire time in dissonant ways. Both Fred Hersch’s “Melancholy Minuet” and David del Tredici’s “My Goldberg” give neo-romanticism looks on the project. William Bolcom’s “Yet Another Goldberg Variation” is all for the left hand. And yet, they all still seem to at least be looking up at the Goldbergs like children, because they are, in a sense.
            Downes’s playing on the recording is perfect for a recording of this type. She has a personal connection with the Goldbergs; she was “a little girl in my father’s big chair, listening to Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldbergs, wondering at the twists and turns of Bach’s creation and Gould’s imagination.” Her emphases in each piece seem just right—they’re not too pronounced and overzealous, something that shouldn’t happen when tipping the hat to Bach, but shape the pieces in a ways that brings them full circle. Her skills were certainly tested; from Lerdahl’s staccato to Dave Brubeck’s jazzy “Chorale” (a piece Downes’s added to the recording, along with another Foss piece and the “Sarabande” from Bach’s French Suite V), she adapts and also keeps a centered pace throughout.
            Some people, after hearing about the “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg” project, might say superior things like “nothing will ever compare to Gould” or “you can’t mess with the classics.” But Downes and these 13 (plus one) composers didn’t try to recreate Bach’s original “Goldberg Variations.” They didn’t use the Hubble Telescope and copy the image. They studied it, saw how it evolved, and shifted their perspective.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A River Runs Through It

All beauteous things for which we live
By laws of time and space decay.
But O, the very reason why
I clasp them, is because they die.

                   -William Johnson Cory 

            Something so puzzling about the humans is that we often become limited by the things that are meant to surround and live among us peacefully. Time and space—two things that Einstein calls “modes by which we think and not by which we live”—can take control of our lives, and they are concepts that can be altered and forgotten. Therefore, when these influential and sometimes overbearing notions can be taken out of the perspective they are usually experienced in and focused on, awakening experiences can occur.
            One of the modern world’s oldest juxtapositions has to be between the metropolitan world and the rural wilderness. Both of these realities were the inspiration for two recent musical creations. And while these two events seem incredibly different, both deal with concepts that are present in both of these contrasting realms—time and space.
            On Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of this past week, conductor Steve Schick, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), the choral group Crossing, and the percussion ensemble red fish blue fish presented composer James Dillon “Nine Rivers,” the music cycle, or what Dillon calls “musical tropes.” The body of work is for ensembles as varied as solo percussion to chorus. Dillon is a British composer who specializes in works for large ensembles and forces of sound. “Nine Rivers” is a cycle of nine pieces that last about three and a half hours together, and was performed at Columbia University’s Miller 
Theater, a space known for presenting contemporary music.

2011-12 Opening Night Preview: James Dillon's Nine Rivers from Miller Theatre on Vimeo.
How epic is that beginning.

ICE/ photo by Liz Linder
            “Nine Rivers” is, according to Schick, a “notion on the passing of time.” The piece is all one collective idea, but employs some of the most various sounds to express that one idea. The saying, “You can never step in the same river twice” from Heraclitus is connected to the aesthetic of the piece. Schick also said, “A river is something which is always there and never exactly the same from one second to another.” Time can also be described this way—it is always present, but it is indefinable as an object because it isn’t something concrete. Music is something that passes through time, but one could also look at music as an infinite collection of moments.
            In the same city, but on a highly different end of the musical performance spectrum, Arvo Pärt teamed up with the Oslo architecture firm Snøhetta to create the second edition, in Manhattan, of stillspotting nyc, an installation project that aims to create events and mechanisms that offer pause from the restlessness of New York (a very different version of this concept went up in Brooklyn, and the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island are in the future). stillspotting nyc is a product of the Guggenheim Museum’s Architecture and Urban Studies programming (along with other programs), and began when students from Columbia studied the variation of noise around New York using records of noise complaints. They even created an interactive map.  
For the second installment of the program’s two-year run, titled “To a Great City,” the architects of Snøhetta chose a series of places around Manhattan that “embody the concept of a central musical tone and extend the perception of sound into the realm of space,” the website described. Using weather balloons to alter the rooms’ acoustics and amount of occupied space, recordings of Pärt’s music play in the spaces as the patrons walk around. The idea is to recalibrate the senses and to notice how the space and sound interact. It also acts as a refuge from the city, being a paradise of controlled stillness.

Manhattan and its newest stillspots
Like “Nine Rivers,” “To a Great City” explores the fundamentals of an idea is almost too familiar to understand. The relationship of space and sound, while seemingly definable by physical standards, is an incredibly abstract idea. Spaces can affect that sound that is inside them, and sounds can affect those spaces. But because we as a species are unable to be void of space, as we ourselves occupy and are filled with space, it’s almost supernatural to study the concept on its own.
I know, I know, it’s a cliché example, but John Cage’s 4’33” is another way that sound, or the absence of controlled sound, forces us to explore what is around us. The piece is measured in human time, and the piece also demands that the listeners examine the space in which the expected music would reside with a refined eye. Like the ideas in “Nine Rivers,” the silence is never the same even though it exists. Like “To a Great City,” the space has been molded by the absence of sound and the little bits of sound that are constantly filling it at the same time.
How is it that the things that dictate our lives the most we don’t even understand? Well, I think this is good, in a way. If we became too knowledgeable of our surroundings, we might lose the sense of mystery that life has. Sometimes, moments like James Dillon’s “Nine Rivers” and stillspotting nyc/Arvo Pärt/Snøhetta’s “To a Great City” allow us to think about them more carefully. But, it took me about six seconds to write this sentence. And I don’t think I’ll ever know what that really means. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Balancing, blending, and controlling thin air

                As I sit in my room, surrounded by binders filled with handouts on the Renaissance, scribbled notes on geometry, a biology textbook, and dressed in a volleyball shirt I was too lazy to change out of, I remember how important balance is. Blogging in the summer and spring, when my afterschool life isn’t occupied by a sport, is a frequent thing. I’m grateful for this. Now, it’s definitely more difficult to find an adequate gap of time to update. We’re truly living in the 21st century when an article posted a month ago seems severely in the past.
                Balance, in society, is often sought through the different aspects of life. We go to school, we have jobs, we play sports, we have friends and family, we have hobbies and the things that keep us going. Often, we are encouraged to separate these. We don’t have work interfering with family, we don’t have our hobbies interfering with work. There are definitely moments where we have to combine the aspects of our life, but that usually doesn’t happen—we have certain realms that we reside in, and those stay separate a lot of the time. But a different, and often very refreshing, thing about music is the singular aspects of a piece all have to be merged into one collective idea. Sure, we can feel relief when we organize things into different categories. But sometimes, when I’m sitting at the piano, figuring out how to merge the notes on the page with the overwhelming story of the piece, it’s revitalizing.
                I’m currently learning Ravel’s “Alborada del Gracioso,” and it’s obvious where the separate “subjects” come in. I have to learn the notes. I have to work on the accents. I have to work on the overall playfulness of the piece. In a separate realm, I have to see how Ravel meant for “Alborada” to fit into the rest of “Miroirs” and how the first note will relate with the last. But, unlike a lot of society demands, music is a time when it’s imperative to mix different worlds into one cohesive thing. I’m not only practicing a part to make my skills better, or to gain a better understanding of the piece. Without the one part I could be practicing at any given time, the piece would not be itself. This vast dependency on each musical characteristic of a piece makes the result—the entire, working piece—seem like magic, only we know exactly what’s going on. A piece of music and life might not be the exact same thing (that could be debatable), but having control over the balance of an infinite number of small nuances is a triumphant feeling.
                The perspective on the cohesiveness of music can be shifted as well. When we play music, or even just listen to it, there is a sense that it has a mind of its own, that it resides in the air around us and is simply lifted to recognizable registers by the artists. This feeling also requires a sort of balance and blending. To see some pieces of music in this way, one has to feel a sense of balance with the sound. When music seems to exist naturally, that’s when separate worlds that humans are involved in disappear, in a sense.
                Tomorrow, I’ll go to school. Then I’ll go to volleyball practice. I’ll come home, do some homework, and maybe go out with friends. In society, those are all different worlds that we have been taught to separate in our brains and not intersect. But perhaps I’ll come home and play some Ravel. The markings that he made on the page will show me how to intersect all the worlds that he has created with his piece. And, if I can let these worlds meet, the sound waves that Ravel set out into the world will surface, partially from my fingers, partially from thin air. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Echo, bleeps, distorting, editing, resampling, blanking… though that collection of words might sound like selections from a tech-jargon dictionary, they might be more prevalent in your everyday world than you might think. Turn on the radio, and you’ll probably be exposed to almost every single one blasting through your car speakers. These words aren’t just a part of modern music, but methods of censorship. Since I can remember, the music industry has had to deal with the censoring of music. Yes, the genres of hip hop and pop probably deal with the silent breaks in their tracks more than others. But, I bet not many people would realize that every genre has some censorship—even classical.
                Two major events of censorship/debated censorship happened in the classical world recently, however, both do not include any of the immediately-though-of methods that have to do with aural offenses. Leave it to the music industry to spark arguments over image! At a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert about two weeks ago, the talented Chinese pianist Yuja Wang played Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Sounds like a perfectly normal concert, right? Well, not exactly. Wang sported an orange dress that looked, from the pictures, to be about as tight and short as the volleyball uniforms at my school. She could definitely pull the dress off, but her choice of attire sparked somewhat of an uproar, with opinions spewing left and right and sounding closer to a People magazine critique than I’ve ever heard a classical review come to. Reviews from Mark Swed of the LATimes, Anne Midgette of The Washington Post, and Amanda Ameer of the blog Life’s a Pitch have had the most popular opinions so far. In another nook of the classical world, a different type of censorship happened, one that was actually carried out instead of just suggested. Steve Reich, still in his 75th birthday year, is set to release his album for the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, “WTC 9/11.” The Kronos Quartet already premiered the music on the album in March, which is said to be incredibly mournful and heart-wrenching, but the album was set to be released Sept. 6. However, Reich and Nonesuch Records decided to put a photo by Masatomo Kuriya, depicting the north tower smoking and the second plane just before impact with the south tower, on the cover. Due to criticism that the image was offensive and/or tacky, Reich said in a statement made on the Nonesuch website that the image will be changed and the release date will be moved to Sept. 20. Comments on the original press release of the album artwork said things like, “On one level it's pitifully ham-fisted, on another despicably exploitive” and “You can't be serious Mr. Reich… It is truly vile.”

Admit it, you've probably seen worse

                Though it would seem logical to think that censorship exists more today than it has before due to the heightened use of often-censored vocabulary and images in pop culture, there has been censorship going on in the music industry for a long time. Richard Wagner, one of the most prolific operatic composers of all time, is rarely played in Israel because of his anti-Semitic beliefs. Russian composers and performers in the 40s often had their music or playing banned because of political tensions. Shostakovich was one of these composers, whose operas like “The Nose” and “Lady Macbeth and the Pravda” were criticized by Stalinists and Stalin himself (who stormed out of the Bolshoi Theatre during “LMatP”). Because of these simmering opinions, Shostakovich decided to postpone the premiere of his Fourth Symphony (one that includes many western-inspired elements) until after Stalin’s death. Shostakovich, in a sense, censored himself because he feared for the safety of himself and his family. Around 1935, the Soviet Union created the “Composers’ Union” which isolated Soviet composers and made sure that few outside influences made it into their scores. The “Composers’ Union” was like an organization dedicated to censoring everything before it actually had to be censored.

                Now, of course, there is certainly a large difference in censorship from, say, a mother covering her daughter’s eyes from an excessively short dress and a group of Soviets keeping an eye on their composers. But all the different types of censoring that goes on in the classical music world has to do with one issue: that the masses, or the authoritative people, have the power to decide what we should see and hear. After all, we are, in the end, just listening to music. Should we fully eliminate images or influences that are offensive to some? In my opinion, Yuja Wang’s dress should be overlooked. Walk on to the red carpet, and you’ll probably see dresses of a similar length and size in every direction. However, because the classical music scene is more used to a conservative view, controversy is created when an outfit like Wang’s is worn. It’s like adding salt to ice cream as opposed to mashed potatoes. The salt is the same ingredient in both foods, but because we are more familiar with salty potatoes and not salty ice cream, the salt would make much more of an impact in the dessert. However, the Reich cover poses more of a curveball. In a perfect world, album artwork should not change our ways of listening to music. On the other hand, should a CD cover be censored/changed if it will end up distracting from the music? Steve Reich certainly was living in downtown Manhattan during Sept. 11 2001, and he still chose to use Masatomo Kuriya’s photo on the cover of “WTC 9/11.” However, there are people who probably lived in California at the time who would’ve chosen differently. There will never be the same opinion in every listener, so Reich had to change the artwork to let the music shine through and, maybe ultimately, to sell records.
                If you were to turn on your local hip hop station, chances are you would hear an uncharacteristic blank or echo in the music due to censorship. If you were to watch an R-rated movie on TV, you would most likely be spared from the especially R-rated parts through editing. We are exposed to censorship in modern pop culture every day, and even the world of classical music experiences it. From short dresses to Stalinists and from anti-Semitism to a photo of a disaster, what we wear and what we see will still be controversial in a culture spawned from sound. That’s just the consequence of living in a world full of different opinions. But, I suppose, it’s those different opinions that create the art in the first place. Could we call that a virtuous and vicious cycle? 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Urban Orchestra

                There are always those months associated with certain events. For the Pulitzer Prizes, April is the month of anticipation. In the world of fashion, September is “the January in fashion.” Theater fans sit at their television screens excitedly in June for the Tonys. And for the classical music world, this time of eagerness (while there is no official month) is often around February or March. Why? This is the month that symphonies, orchestras, and philharmonics often announce their upcoming seasons. Press notices for “immediate release” are emailed and published to everyone. There are opinions, judgments, and ticket reserving. The Brooklyn Philharmonic, one of the most respected orchestras in the country, announced their 2011-2012 season around a week ago. I opened the press release wondering why it was published much later than many others. Then I began to read. And, honestly, with music this exciting in the BPhil’s future, who cares when programs are usually announced.
                The most likely reason for the later-than-usual announcement is the appointment of a new music director in January (in fact, its pretty impressive that the program is as amazing as it is in such a short amount of time!). The Brooklyn Philharmonic orchestra appointed Alan Pierson, the 36-year-old conductor of Alarm Will Sound and Crash Ensemble, as the orchestra’s music director this past January, living up to its “hipper-than-hip image!” according to Alex Ambrose of WQXR. Pierson precedes the names of Theodore Eisfeld, the orchestra’s inaugural conductor, Theodore Thomas, Siegfried Landau (who started to give the orchestra a contemporary direction), the composer Lukas Foss, Dennis Russell Davies, Robert Spano, and Michael Christie. Many critics have been elated over the choice of Pierson, saying that he will live up to the image of Brooklyn itself, the needs of the orchestra, and the needs of the community. In a few different news articles in January, Jack Rainy, the orchestra’s board president, was quoted as saying, “Brooklyn is the coolest place on the planet for music, and Alan knows that. Landing on him was a dream.” The Brooklyn Philharmonic in past years has been in trouble—so much, in fact, that they cancelled the main part of their 2009-2010 season. Like so many orchestras around the country, this can come like a death sentence. However, many have faith in Pierson. I may not live in Brooklyn or anywhere near, but I somehow have faith as well.

A psychedelic shot of the BPhil

Alan Pierson. How hip!
                On the press release for the upcoming season, the BPhil calls themselves the “urban orchestra.” While lots of ensembles around the country are now floating on the “contemporary” wave, the BPhil seems to be one of the few orchestras that is trying to be a contemporary ensemble and to adapt to the current times, not just play contemporary music. The BPhil’s 2011-2012 program seems to focus on three areas that secure their name as the “urban orchestra”: the music they are playing, the areas that they are playing in, and the ways that the specific music and the communities relate. The orchestra is playing their season in three different neighborhoods around the city; Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brighton Beach, and downtown Brooklyn. In each community, the orchestra is giving an orchestra concert, a chamber concert (with readings from authors), and a family event, ranging from cartoon drawing to shape note singing. The BPhil is obviously putting effort into becoming an orchestra that adapts to the changing times. Instead of playing in the same venues with the same mix of people, the ensemble is reaching out to the people that it needs—it audiences—and involving them in the process of art instead of just the results. Along with this crucial step, they are also introducing great contemporary music.
                After two preview concerts in October, the BPhil begins their season in Brighton Beach, a neighborhood in Brooklyn that was named “Little Odessa” a long time ago because of many of the residents being from Ukraine. Russian animation is one of the focuses of the Brighton Beach concerts, and local Russian artists and the Soviet animation studio Soyuzmultfilm are helping the BPhil present old and new Russian cartoons. The orchestra will be playing scores by Shostakovich and Vyacheslav Artyomov while actors voice the parts of the characters. By teaming up with artists and focusing on different types of expression, the BPhil is transcending the typical view of classical music—pretentious and stuffy. That’s one of the things a contemporary ensemble should do, in my opinion. The Brighton Beach chamber concert is titled “Sergei Dovlatov: Notes of Freedom in Brooklyn” and centers in on some of the favorite music and stories of the author Sergei Dovlatov. Music by Schnittke, Pärt, Shostakovich, and Gubaidulina (one of the most respected female composers of the 20th/21st centuries) will be played.  For the family part of the Brighton Beach stopover, children and their families are invited to “Cartooning & Music Making,” where music and art teachers will read stories, draw cartoons, and compose music inspired by folktales with them. Then, a quartet from the BPhil musicians will play the children’s compositions. Actually, can I sign up for this? Right now?

an old shot of Brooklyn
                Then comes the Downtown Brooklyn series. Inspired by Francis Guy’s painting “Winter Scene in Brooklyn,” the works in the program all have some type of connection to Brooklyn itself. Brooklyn residents, such as David T. Little and Sarah Kirkland Snider, are the focused composers. And, as if the concert couldn’t get more Brooklyny, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus will be joining the BPhil. Beethoven’s “Scherzo” from his third symphony will be played, as well as Britten’s “Carry Her Over the Water” and G.F. Bristow’s “Nocturno” from his Symphony in F# minor, op. 26. Sarah Kirkland Snider, the composer of the song cycle “Penelope” and other amazing works,” will be premiering a new choral work commissioned by the BYC. David T. Little’s Winter Scene will be premiered as well, a piece co-commissioned by the BPhil and the BYC. Also, the mostly-indie artist Sufjan Stevens will have the sixth movement of his symphonic work (“Isorhythmic Night Dance With Interchanges”), The B.Q.E., which was premiered by BAM for their Next Wave Festival. The work is a “symphonic and cinematic exploration of New York City’s infamous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway” and has a film by Stevens playing while the orchestra provides the soundtrack. Downtown Brooklyn’s chamber concert will feature the writer Phillip Lopate and the music of American classics like Gershwin and Copland. For the family workshop, Winter Scene will be the subject of a shape note singalong with the BPhil.

Mos Def--photo by Scott Sanders
                And finally, Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy) will be the last neighborhood for the BPhil. Mos Def, an acclaimed hip hop and spoken word artist (Def Poetry), is from Bed-Stuy and will be joining the BPhil along with singer Leslie Uggams to form a program like no other—one that combines original Beethoven, remixed Beethoven, songs by Cole Porter and others, and songs performed by Mos Def. For the Beethoven Remix Project, composers from anywhere were invited to remix the finale of his Eroica symphony. The winner’s remix will be played. In the Bed-Stuy series, the BPhil isn’t just playing contemporary, but they are encouraging the creation of new from old, and the extraction of what is already new from the old. For the chamber concert in Bed-Stuy, the poet Tyehimba Jess will partner with the BPhil to present “Spirituals, Rags, and Strings in Brooklyn” with the music of Dvořák and H.T. Burleigh. The family workshop is titled “Emcee Me” (I need to sign up for this also…), and features the Readnex Poetry Squad for a workshop in hip hop and spoken word poetry.
                The players of the Brooklyn Philharmonic might not be decked out in Gaga-wear like violinist Hahn-Bin. They might not all be in their 20s like superstar Lang Lang. And no, they might not get their program out during the usual time that other orchestras do (though I doubt anyone actually cares). But they are certainly one of the most contemporary, full-sized orchestras that I know of in the US. Not only are they playing music by current composers like Sarah Kirkland Snider and David T. Little, but they are reaching out to the specific neighborhoods that they surround. Back in “the day,” whenever that exact day was, classical music was one of the most popular genres. All the bourgeois went to fancy premieres, and going to the opera or the symphony was the ultimate outing. Now, realistically, it is not like this. Symphonies around the world struggle with their budgets and audience attendance. Though it is unfortunate, the BPhil, I think, has a large chance of surviving with the route they are taking. Reaching out to the community, involving listeners in workshops, encouraging composition—this is what a truly modern ensemble has to do. If every city in the world had opportunities like the BPhil is offering, we might all be writing string quartets in our rooms at night. Or practicing slam poetry.