Thursday, February 24, 2011

Tune-In, Hahn-Bin

                “How is that appealing to you?”
                Unfortunately, this question is not an unfamiliar sentence that my ears, and the ears other young classical lovers, have heard. In fact, I heard this sentence last week. When my “classical friends,” for lack of a better term, and I get excited about, say, a concert or recording, we are often met with slightly uninterested eyes. Also unfortunately, I’ve gotten used to it.
                It’s no secret that classical music is thought of as the “dying genre” to some, the type that will slowly crash and burn not unlike disco. As the stereotypical age of classical music lovers goes up, the interest of novice young listeners goes down. It’s most likely not an uncommon thought from non-listeners that we are hanging on by the last thread. But we all know we are not—one just has to take a closer look.
                I was alerted to a somewhat-new-to-the-scene violinist from a recent post by Elaine Fine on her blog Musical Assumptions. Hahn-Bin, a 22-year-old Korean violinist, is making quite a splash in the recent classical world—his clothing is far more avant-garde than the music he can be heard playing (sometimes it is parallel). Contrary to the mood of that last sentence, I have absolutely nothing against the way he dresses. If it doesn’t affect his playing, what’s the problem? And his clothes are quite interesting and not too over-the-top. There are no, at least from what I’ve seen, architectural features that jut out of his jackets to bump the front-row audience members in the face. “Fashion teaches spiritual lessons. It has taught me who I am and showed me what I didn’t know about myself,” Hahn-Bin was quoted saying in a New York Times article by Alex Hawgood. He obviously has talent—he has studied with Itzhak Perlman, went to Julliard, won the Young Concert Artists award in 2009, and was accepted into the Korean National University of Arts Preliminary School at the age of nine. Like I said, I have no problem with the way he dresses—but I do have a small one with another quote in the NYT article.

                “‘The classical-music world needs to be shaken up a little bit,’ said Vicki Margulies, artist manager for Young Concert Artists Inc., which selected Hahn-Bin to perform at the Morgan. ‘And he’s the one to do it,’” read the NYT article.
                While the second half of the quote could quite possibly be true to some extent, the first half left me staring disappointedly at the text.
                 This ideal is identical to what peers of mine believe—that classical music is old fashioned and out-of-date, something for the tech-savvy millenniums to laugh and shake their heads at. So many people think that just because “silver” might be the average hair color at a symphony concert, the genre is outdated. But this is simply not true. One of the most talked about events in recent modern music history was the Tune-In Music Festival held at the Park Avenue Armory, an enormous industrial-shed-turned-performance-space that reminded me immensely of a Claude Monet painting (to be safe, I'll link it). During the festival, Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” the contrapuntally energetic masterpiece, the Haas-Fowler-Yoon collaboration “Arco,” the powerFUL and powerLESS groupings, and the critically acclaimed ensemble eighth blackbird (capital letters purposefully omitted) were featured. Also featured was the premiere of John Luther Adams’s work “Inuksuit,” the 85 minute piece for 72 percussionists. After watching a few videos and reading a few recollections, the event seemed unmatchable and entirely desirable (I’m not sure exactly what I would have given to go, but it would have been a lot). Alex Ross on his blog The Rest Is Noise even wrote, “John Luther Adams's Inuksuit at the Armory was about as heavily videographed as an Animal Collective show,” and I imagine, while much more subtle, some of the emotions could have been similar. This event was incredibly modern—in a rustic and raw space, premiering a large, expansive, and no-doubt ingenious work, featuring the most inventive ensembles at the moment—how much more “shaken up” can you get? The Tune-In is not the only one of its kind, and there will be more to come, I am sure.

The Armory

eighth blackbird
John Luther Adams

                The point is, clothing is not going to “shake up the classical-music world.” Whether a performer wears Martin Margiela boots or not, the quality of the music is not going to change. Though it may entice a Lady Gaga fan here and there, if the person isn’t truly interested in the music, they won’t stick around for long. Things like the Tune-In are the events that will change the course of the music industry—creative and talented musicians and composers coming together into one festival open to the public for multiple days, playing carefully mapped-out percussion for 85 minutes, allowing spectators to stand closely around—not a mohawk or  a little extra eyeliner. The intimacy of the Tune-In and the pure energy that surely was emitted from it is what entices true listeners and the people who are going to matter to the survival of classical music. It didn’t need to hide behind an avant-garde wardrobe. Hahn-Bin may be talented, and his clothes may be interesting, but they are two completely different qualities, and I hope that supporters of him can see that it is his musicianship that matters, not how high his heels or how low his necklines are. After all, it’s called “music,” right? Last time I checked, it wasn’t called “image.” And that’s why I listen. Not to appeal to my friends who don’t understand, but for myself. And I certainly don’t have a mohawk. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Beyond the Wabbit

      Possibly one of the most common illnesses of all time, it has affected everyone. Its epidemic spreads like wildfire, and once you catch it, it is almost impossible to get rid of. There’s no way to protect yourself—you’re as good as defenseless. But don’t worry; it’s not the black plague or a new breed of swine flu. It’s just a catchy tune. 

               I suppose TV commercial jingles or the songs that invade us over the radio, television, internet, and other media sources are the most common pieces of music that our brains latch onto. But for those of us who spend time listening to classical, hasn’t everyone gotten a passage stuck in their head? Whether it’s a rhythm, solo, or theme, hardly an hour goes by where I’m not snapping, whistling, or tapping my fingers. This phenomenon is such a daily occurrence, not many of us stop and think about exactly why these specific passages occupy our trains of thought. Perhaps it’s just because they sound the “prettiest” compared to the rest of the piece, or maybe it’s the line in the work that protrudes the most. There are many melodic lines that we listen to that certainly are “pretty,” but there are millions of note progressions that rarely, if never, become stuck in our heads.  When we can only rely on instruments and not on clever lyrics or cartoon images associated with melodies, we have to dig a little deeper. 
                Tchaikovsky is arguably one of the masters of themes. His “Romeo and Juliet Overture” Love Theme is frequently (very, very frequently) used as a blurb of classical music in pop culture. If one were to go up to someone living under a rock, chances are they would have heard this theme. Despite its overuse in everyday life, the passage is heart-wrenching and beautiful. But why did this specific melody become stuck in so many people’s heads that it has been used to the extent it has? The answer, in my opinion, lies in one note—a G sharp (the theme is transposed many times; this specific example is just one of them). We’ve all heard this note countless numbers of times, but in the context of the love theme it is what creates the inescapable catchiness.  

In the cave (R&J)

Pyotr Ilyich 

              The theme centers around the A major scale; it simply makes a melody out of the notes and outlines chords. Yes, G sharp is in the A major scale, but the act of starting the Love Theme on the note right before the root of the chords is what has caught the ears of millions. If one were to remove the G sharp at the beginning, the theme would still certainly be beautiful—but it would also remove the slight suspense that causes the listener (if truly listened to) to lean forward and close their eyes before the triumphant A is sounded, along with the cymbals. It leaves one hanging by a thread for just a little while, enough to convince the listener of the immense emotions piled onto the phrase. Without that one G sharp, the seemingly meager note in comparison with the entire overture, the Love Theme we have all come to know like a brother would lose a large amount of its effect.

Wagner + Elmer 
                If we take another theme—the one from Richard Wagner’s “Walkürenritt or Ritt der Walküren” (Ride of the Valkyries) from his opera Die Walküre, we can dig beneath its storm-like trombones and sweeping string undulations and find the source of its catchiness. Besides “Kill da wabbit, kill da wabit…,” how did this theme find its way into pop culture? Yes, it of course has to do with Wagner’s genius and the overall timbres in the piece, but looking at the theme itself I suspect the smartly-placed intervals are what subconsciously pull us in. The theme begins with a perfect fourth; this interval is, on its own, tonally pleasing and a favorite of the early, conservative composers. Of course, in the Wagnerian context, it sounds ominous, but when stripped down the interval is thought of as pleasant. However, this fourth is followed by three groups of minor thirds, an interval often associated (in its pure form) with sadness and malaise. The juxtaposition of these two intervals play off each other perfectly; the classic-ness of the fourth with the tang of the minor third is unexpected, yet they balance each other perfectly. Even though these two intervals fit in with the violent emotions of the “Ride,” if looked at immaculately, the themes catchiness can (to some degree) be diagnosed.

Valkyrie theme
                  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely not saying all themes’ catchiness can only be credited by their relation to theory—without Tchaikovsky’s gift of natural melody and heart-wrenching sound qualities, his Love Theme from the “Romeo and Juliet Overture” would be significantly duller. Without Wagner’s stormy string sweeps and quiet yet effective timbres, his “Ride of the Valkyries” theme would be just another military-sounding passage. But, next time you find yourself whistling one of your favorite melodies, take a moment to think—was it the "wabbit," that stuck it in your head, or something more methodical?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Translation: from "the" to "music" and back

                The first word of this sentence was “the.” Well, yes, of course it was, you’re thinking. It seems like the obvious choice for a sentence of that sort, right? But the thing is, I thought about that sentence, that one sentence, for a while before I thought of where this post would take me. If I hadn’t, this could have started out very differently. When I was thinking about it, I could see where this bit of writing would go vaguely but wholly—like a panorama shot of a landscape, I could get the general sense of the words I would spend the next few moments writing. But now I sit here, with my fingers placed over ASDF, JKL;, and I have to stop and think before the next sentence is written. That’s how brains, at least my brain, work. Although the word “the” was already in my mind, this paragraph was not written start-to-finish nonstop. The idea is there—now all I have to do is shape it.
                This process, I have come to realize, is almost identical to music composition. We hear pieces everyday, but rarely do we think of the first action taken by the composer to come to the finish line, the performance-ready piece. Did they just simply begin to write, or did they spend months in solitude, mulling over the notes to come? This process is one I've begun to discover in myself, even if it's only to the smallest degree. 
                Ever since the realistic idea of “Elena composing” came into focus, my mind has been overflowing with ideas for symphonic and chamber works. I was looking out the window of a plane yesterday when a metaphorical idea for a three-movement symphony suddenly appeared clearly before my eyes—I had to pull out a notebook and feverishly write it down—, and now it’s all I can think about. This was one of the most exciting moments in my recent life of thoughts. It opened a large, very heavy door in my brain to a wave of creativity that I didn’t know I had any access to. The skill I need to improve on now is the action of pen-to-paper; translating these ideas into legible languages. It’s a skill I’ve learned in other mediums, like the one that these words fit into, but it will take a bit of time before I’m fluent in idea-to-note translation.
            I was never one of those children who had their path set for them when they were born. My parents didn't permanently tattoo the word "Musician" on my forehead when I was young, and in someways I'm glad for this. It allowed me to find my way through the thickets; after initial impetus, I was able to begin my own passions with little to no help from anyone else. I've weaved my way through multiple paths (pianist, critic, chef, artist...), but recently have only been able to concentrate on the language of music itself. 
Growing up I always thought composing was for the prodigies, the ones who could compose multiple-exposition fugues in their sleep. The effect was not unlike the one I got from watching Olympic gymnastics (I’m one of the least flexible people you will meet). But this stereotype was broken when I began to immerse myself in the (accessible) world of modern music and learn of composers from all walks of life. It shattered when I printed out pages of blank sheet music, disintegrated when my French horn quartet grew from two notes to seven pages. No, I’m certainly no "composer" yet. I don’t have piles of work to show people, ready for musicians to pick up and sight read, and I’m haven’t touched, say, 99% of musical forms. But the point is I’m no longer a bystander. My sketches of themes and passages are multiplying daily, and all I want to read about is counterpoint. These ideas are simmering in the depths of my consciousness. I can feel them coming to a boil. Today I spent almost an hour working solely on four measures of a viola/cello duet… I could literally feel the wheels turning in my head, and I didn’t care if it was at an abnormally slow pace. It filled a formerly-empty space in me that I was dying to occupy.
                This is why music is better than any medicine. Whether it applies to a world-renowned, 6-hour-a-day practicing virtuoso or a child from a small town, it invades and changes us like food coloring in water.  So, I know I am nowhere near calling myself an “official” composer, because that title brings to mind the position that I am not at yet. But I, and hopefully many others, am certainly composing things—and it’s not necessarily always music. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Waltz for Deb(ussy)

Long gown: check
Perfectly rehearsed fingers: check
Flawless posture: check

Long gown: check
Perfectly rehearsed fingers: check
Flawless posture: check 

Ok, here's something a little different. 

Long gown: ...
Perfectly rehearsed fingers: for most of the piece
Flawless posture: not quite 

                I suppose there are definitely a lot of stereo types and strict classifications to certain types of music. Though we know not to judge a book by its cover, if someone came out on the stage at Carnegie Hall in a trucker hat and cutoff jeans, would one expect him to play as well as someone who came out in a tuxedo? The trucker might be a world-renowned pianist, but it’s almost impossible not to listen with our eyes first. But on the other hand, would you be surprised to see Richter climb into an eighteen-wheeler all decked out in concert wear? Yes, you most likely said.
                So these first two videos and the third seem pretty different (in terms of piano music) in appearance, right? Classical played by two female concert pianists, and Bill Evans, the legendary and immensely talented jazz pianist and his trio. “Sophisticated” concert pianists aren’t expected to pull tissues out of their coats before beginning, and Evans wouldn’t be anticipated to lift his hands after phrases in a flamboyant fashion.  Talents like these, though both commended, aren’t thought of as ones that should be mixed often. Solely classically trained pianists aren't expected to be seen at jazz clubs. Unfortunately, performers usually stay in their place. But Debussy and Evans’ (and other jazz musicians’) music couldn’t be more similar.

                Bill Evans was born in 1929 and grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, playing classical piano, flute, and violin. He often played in jazz ensembles when he was young and went to Southeastern Louisiana University on a music scholarship (where he played Beethoven’s third piano concerto).  Evans has played with Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Oliver Nelson. He started his trio in the 60s with the original members Scott LaFarlo and Paul Motian. Claude Debussy was born in 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France but moved to Paris when he was five. Debussy went to the Paris Conservatoire and later won the Prix de Rome in 1884 (which Ravel would go on to enter five times but never win).  Although their backgrounds are so dissimilar, they both had rocky, and in Evans’ case, tragic, personal lives. Like I wrote about before, Debussy wasn’t exactly the most faithful companion. His daughter also died when she was very young. Evans was addicted to heroin and cocaine (he once played a show without his right hand—it was dead from the drugs, but no one noticed he was only using his left).  He also had hepatitis and died due to many different causes including a bleeding ulcer.

Debussy and Claude-Emma 
                But the most important similarity between the two was their use of impressionistic, jazzy chords. Debussy is thought of as the father of subdued and layered musical imagery, using multitudes of B flat augmented add nines and E flat minor sevens and A major half-diminished chords and who knows what else. These combinations of notes sound natural and native to Debussy’s writing style. When listening to Debussy’s piano music, the words “bright” and “energetic” don’t often come to mind. His frequent whole tone scales give his pieces alien-like timbres that coincide perfectly with these muddled jazz chords. His piano music is the type that causes those bluesy and subtle brow crinkles and head cocks that are so often only associated with jazz. Debussy clearly influenced the jazz musicians that soon came after him.
                Bill Evans is one of the many that was influenced by Debussy, but his similarities are a bit more evident that the others. While a lot of jazz consistently has upbeat snares and colorful trumpet wails, a lot of Evans’ popular music is relaxing and centers more on immersing chords instead of melodic trickles (but his music still has these). His tunes are more introverted, and it suits him.
                I recently picked up “Reflet dans L’eau” by Debussy to start looking at and found a passage that was so jazzy I almost had to ignore the sixteenth-note indication and play it as half notes.

                If jazzy sounds can do this to us, how could Debussy (or Evans) resist? 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

I Move According to the Book

“Personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures.
-F. Scott Fitzgerald
Body language is more than just a movement of a joint, more than mass moving through air. When subtle, gestures can mean the difference between comfort and anxiety, between pleasantness and joy, or between friends and enemies. The raise of an eyebrow can change the whole climate of a conversation. Body language is something born from society; it’s different in each country, and a certain gesticulation can be offensive in some social circles and complimentary in others. On the other hand, it’s a universal language in some cases. A handshake can represent a curve in history.

The handshake felt around the world
Nixon in China, the political opera by John Adams, 24 years after its premier has finally occupied the stage of The Metropolitan Opera in the past week. Largely anticipated, the opera is can be easily named one of the most influential and groundbreaking operas of the 20th century. Its political nature is raw without being kitsch—something that took two full years of composing and staging to achieve. It would have been easy to let the opera fall into the deep pit of frivolous pop culture, but John Adams, the librettist Alice Goodman, and the stage director Peter Sellars carefully stepped over it and made a symbolic and thought-provoking masterpiece.  

Peter Sellars and John Adams (Francois Mori) 
Today I sat in a dark theater as the filmed version of the opera was broadcast live to my city. After watching the movie “Carlos” yesterday, the five-and-a-half hour portrait of the Venezuelan terrorist, I wasn’t sure how I would fare sitting in another theater for four hours. But that all melted away as soon as Adams walked out into the pit. That action made me shiver, not unlike the effect Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (the second movement especially) gives me. Nixon in China is an opera dependant on the three main creators, Adams, Goodman, and Peter Sellars, the stage director, and the six main characters, Richard Nixon, Pat Nixon, Chairman Mao, Chiang Ch’ing, Chou En-lai, and Henry Kissinger. Of course the music, with specific cultural touches for each character, drives the opera, and the libretto’s poetic couplets are unexpected yet stunning. But an even more delicate aspect to the opera is the subtle gestures in all of these components. They’re sometimes barely seen, but when noticed they’ll make you raise your own eyebrows just a little.

Janis Kelly and James Maddalena 
The first subtle gesture in the opera isn't actually physical, but musical. Nixon in China begins with a bold rising of the curtain to a stage full of people dressed in typical 60s wear of Chinese citizens. They have resilient but somewhat defeated expressions for minutes on end as the strings climb their way up the A natural minor scale before the chorus begins to sing the Red Army’s “The Three Main Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention,” and then the line “The people are the heroes now, Behemoth pulls the peasant’s plow.” This scale is minor, so one would expect it to be more sinister than its major sibling, but this scale has no accidentals (in a sense) and is suspenseful without being upfront about its balefulness. Natural minor scales are incredibly foreshadowing, for they don’t conform to the harmonic minor scales that reach our ears’ tonal expectations. This first gesture puts Nixon in China exactly where Adams, Goodman, and Sellars wanted it—digging beneath the media’s mask of politics to the, well, natural elements.

Photograph of President and Mrs. Richard Nixon Touring the Great Wall of China
...Nixons in China
During Richard’s “News” aria, before the first line (“Your flight was smooth, I hope”) one of the most meaningful gestures in recent history presents itself. When the Nixons finally step on Chinese soil off Air Force One, Chou En-lai presents his hand to Richard, a Western custom that he seems to have rehearsed. Their handshake lasts for about 10 straight seconds, much longer than an average, comfortable one. The whole stage freezes as the handshake is in-action, and a single triangle note from the orchestra detaches the two. After, Richard brings the aria full swing with (along with many other handshakes):

“When I shook hands with Chou En-lai
on this bare field outside Peking
just now, the world was listening.
Though we spoke quietly
the eyes and ears of history
caught every gesture
and every word, transforming us
as we, transfixed, made history.
Our shaking hands
were shaping time. Each moment stands
out sharp and clear.

The handshake not only symbolizes the temporary stall of political strife but the beginning of a new era.
Another significant gesture is during the banquet scene, held in the Great Hall of the People. As Chou En-lai toasts to America and their values, the seemingly hundreds of people on stage gradually begin to simultaneously toast to the Nixons and the American/Chinese kindling friendship. A few scenes before, when Nixon, Mao, En-lai, and Kissinger were all discussing politics (or in Mao’s case, philosophy), they all come to one of the few universally understood statements, that they all side with the right side of politics. “Right” in this case is used in both meanings of the word, meaning conservative and (in their minds) correct. During the banquet scene, everyone turns to the audience while singing “Gam bei,” Chinese for “cheers.” The whole cast is holding their little glass in their right hand—except for Chou En-lai, who holds it in his left.  Personally, I’ve had a hard time deciphering this gesture, but it definitely seems significant especially after the second scene. The audience gets a sense that Chou En-lai is the wisest of the main characters, with more insight than his boss and comrades. Chou En-lai, however, also is foreshadowed to die soon after the opera ends (of pancreatic cancer that was never treated). Perhaps En-lai is able to see both sides of everything and is the only one with an outlook on things other than politics. He is the only one to ask in the last scene (I Am Old and I Cannot Sleep), “How much of what we did was good?”

Of course there are thousands of other miniscule gestures in Adams, Goodman, and Sellar’s opera Nixon in China that I am not going to write about in detail. Chiang Ch’ing’s “I am the Wife of Mao Tse-tung” aria is terrifying in a sense and enlightens the “brainwashed” effect everyone seemed to have. The placement of Pat Nixon’s aria “This is Prophetic!” sung immediately before Chiang Ch’ing’s ballet performance (“The Red Detachment of Women”) shows the extreme differences between American and Communist values. The two women could not seem more different (and they are very different), but their positions are identical. Pat is dependent on Richard. Richard’s power is what gives her meaning; she grew up in a poor family and rose to fame and fortune. Her support of Richard’s occupation is what defines her. Chiang Ch’ing is the unseen body of the Cultural Revolution of the time. Her brain is a product of Mao and Communism, but she in turn is the arms and legs of Mao (who no longer has use of his limbs). She was a movie actress before she met Mao, and politics is what makes her, her. Chiang Ch’ing’s most famous line, “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung” is as true as it gets—that is the exact, and the only, thing she is.

A gesture, whether musical or physical, can make an opera. No matter if the person in row Z can see it; it still bends the path towards the ultimate goal of the work. John Adams, Alice Goodman, and Peter Sellar’s opera Nixon in China has a plethora of these subtle yet powerful gestures, but so do many other productions. Just keep your eyes open. It has a kind of mystery.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Primitive Praxis

Recently the New York Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic, two of the most media-followed orchestras in the United States, released their programs for the 2011-2012 seasons. Both include the superstar performers Joshua Bell and Lang Lang. The NYP is also including the violinist Gil Shaham, the cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and the pianist Yuja Wang, and the pianist Evgeny Kissin. They both are including Emanuel Ax, and the LAP also has Hillary Hahn on its list. Great conductors will be showcased as well, such as Esa Pekka-Salonen, Christoph Eschenbach, Sir Simon Rattle, and Lorin Maazel. John Adams (the composer-in-residence of the LAP) will premiere his oratorio “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” Magnus Lindberg’s “Feria” will be performed by the NYP, as well as Thomas Adés’s “Polaris” and other modern works. Seems like everyone is included, right? Think again.
New York Philharmonic
Where are the women? Except for one woman composer in one of the LAP’s “Green Umbrella” concerts, (Zosha di Castri), all the featured modern composers are men. I’ve never considered myself a true feminist, but I certainly stand up for women’s rights. As mentioned and discussed in the Sequenza 21 article by Christian Carey and the NewMusicBox article by Alexandra Gardner, there are no women composers in either of these upcoming programs. “So what?” you might say. Well, a lot.

Sofia Gubaidulina
Even less women composers emerged from the 19th century. Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, and Louise Ferranc were some of the only women composers to gain respect after their lives in the 1800s. Clara Schumann wrote, “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose — there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?” Although she was an immensely respectable pianist, the times she lived in suppressed her composer’s talent. Of Farrenc, François-Joseph Fétis said, If the composer is unknown, the audience remains unreceptive, and the publishers, especially in France, close their ears anyway when someone offers them a halfway decent work...Such were the obstacles that Madame Farrenc met along the way and which caused her to despair.” Farrenc’s works are a great representation of the classical period and stand along the men of the century’s compositions. Fanny Mendelssohn published some of her works under her brother’s (Felix) name. These words are explained by the times, but why are women today not represented well?

Louise Farrenc 
Sure, some people could say that the neglect of women composers is sexist, but I don’t think that’s the reason. Our culture for the most part, and especially the arts community, is accepting of many different kinds of people and wouldn’t purposefully discriminate against a minority. From what I can observe, the problem seems to stem from habits. I looked up the ages of the composers having premieres in the NYP and LAP this season. Seventy-five percent of them grew up from the 50s-early 70s. This age seems to be the median for most composers commissioned from major orchestras. People of this age have a respectable amount of works, experience, and a large amount of musical knowledge. While women weren’t banned from power while growing up in these decades, they certainly weren’t encouraged by their mothers (especially in traditional neighborhoods) to aspire for independent and powerful jobs such as composers. Men on the other hand, were. Therefore, while not illegal, women were less likely to pursue a career in composition than men. That leaves the extreme majority of composers from this era male. So it’s not the orchestras’ fault, but, in a way, time’s.
Young women composers (Tansy Davies, Emily Hall, and Zoe Keating) are now surfacing, however. I predict in a decade or two, a woman composer will be difficult not to find on a program. I certainly hope so, however. If not, though, I hope us girls who aspire for careers in music other than performance can obtain motivation from our outnumbered state.

(Despite this, the orchestras' programs look great. NYP programLAP program.)

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Eternal Silence of Infinite Space

The great world or universe; the universe considered as a whole (opposed to microcosm).

Trust me—I know how hackneyed it is to start something out with a definition. But don’t worry, this shouldn’t turn out like the stale political speeches that usually do.
           But this peculiar noun has a meaning, one that applies directly to an equally peculiar work.
George Crumb, the odd technique-driven, avant-garde composer from Virginia, is known for his unusual timbres and pieces for prepared/amplified instruments. He has won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his piece “Echoes of Time and the River.” Crumb certainly has a specific aesthetic that follows his pieces, and his brainchild in the world of piano is “Makrokosmos,” specifically "Makrokosmos, Volume I" (macrocosms in German).
George Crumb

        Hm, you think, that title sounds familiar. Perhaps you have heard this mind-boggling body of works before, or maybe you have heard Béla Bartók’s pieces “Mikrokosmos” for piano, the work that inspired Crumb's title. The group of works is no ordinary repertoire member, however. “Makrokosmos, Vol. I” calls for string-plucking, whistling, shouting and moaning, and an unexpected cameo from Chopin.
       The work is subtitled “Twelve Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac” after Crumb’s mission to align each of the 12 pieces with the signs of the zodiac.  Along with being influenced by Bartók, Crumb attributes some of the inspiration to Claude Debussy as well—Debussy composed “24 Preludes,” and Crumb (after completing the second volume of “Makrokosmos”) composed 24 “fantasy-pieces.” The German words "Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere Erde aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit. Wir alle fallen. Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält" ("And in the nights the heavy earth is falling from all the stars down into loneliness. We are all falling. And yet there is One who holds this falling endlessly gently in his hands"), written by Rilke, are said to have kept emerging in Crumb's mind, manipulating these compositions.
One of the best recordings of “Makrokosmos, Vol. I” is by Margaret Leng Tan, the Singaporean toy-pianist who worked with John Cage for 11 years. Her playing is consistent in emotion, and she is able to phrase the plucking of a piano string beautifully, something that one wouldn’t normally describe with that adjective. She plays the traditional-technique passages with a pianistic touch—quietly but with waves of energy and anticipation. The diminished triads and arpeggios glimmer in her hands even when they are made of immediately unrecognizable chords. She willingly utters, shouts, and moans the taciturn vocal components, holding the “s’s” devilishly.
Margaret Leng Tan
“Makrokosmos, Vol. I” is organized into three parts, which are then divided into four pieces. The first piece of “Makrokosmos, Vol. I,” “Primeval Sounds (Genesis I),” begins with dribbles of painfully low combinations of notes, a sort of modest segue to the celestial and amorphous sounds to come. The second piece, “Proteus,” begins with Crumb-ized virtuosic-like playing, with fast trembling passages. The beginning of part two begins with Leng Tan shouting "Christe!" and playing the prepared piano (which I assume has a piece of metal on the upper register strings)—it rattles and vibrates after the notes are struck.  Also in part two, Crumb titles one of the pieces “Music of Shadows (for Aeolian Harp),” not actually played by Aeolian harp, but mostly on the strings of the piano. Crumb also pays homage to Chopin’s “Fantasie-Impromptu,” his popular piano piece, by including exact copies of passages from this piece in his part three piece, “Dream Images (Love-Death Music).” It combines this unexpected, harmonious component with classic Crumb, alien-esque parts seamlessly.

“Makrokosmos, Vol. I” also has a detective element to it. When the scores themselves of the last pieces of each part are combine, they make symbols, such as a cross or a spiral.
Crumb set out to expand the technical range of one of the most widely played instruments, the piano, and he certainly accomplished it. But he also accomplished the revolution of the “piano piece” itself—the music doesn’t have to be a straight staff, and it’s alright for the scores to create shapes. Shouting gibberish is okay, and it’s allowed for one work to have a collective of 13 titles.
Like Pascal said and George Crumb was inspired by, "The eternal silence of infinite space terrifies me.” But it fascinates me, too.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

All work and no play makes... a lot of great music

                It’s the movie genre that 84% of U.S. citizens say they love. It’s the type that’s on the constant rise of production. It’s the type of film your parents cringe at but brings in billions of dollars a year. And it’s the genre that subconsciously feeds movie-goers great modern music.
            Horror movies, specifically psychological thrillers, are notorious for ominous foreshadowing, hallucinations, bad weather, and amazing cinematography. But what the average movie-goer might not realized is that the soundtracks of these enticing pictures include some of the best film music, whether it is written specifically for the movie or a compilation of different artists. Many emotions of modern music are dark, eerie, or supernatural, and these coincide perfectly with psychological thrillers.
 I was listening to Pandora recently after typing in “artists similar to Olivier Messiaen,” and as soon as Krzysztof Penderecki’s “The Dream of Jacob” began to play I immediately thought of Shutter Island, a recent psychological thriller directed by Martin Scorsese that used another Penderecki piece, his third symphony. The clarinets playing their ominous B-flats triggered such a sensory memory that it brought new meaning to the piece that I hadn’t uncovered before. “Jacob woke from his sleep and said: Truly the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it," Genesis 28:16 reads. After connecting the movie genre and the piece, this phrase suddenly sounds much more ghostly. The piece abruptly became not only a sound-canyon of dissonance, but one with meaning and images.
Krzysztof Penderecki
 This piece is used in Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, a beacon in horror films and, in my opinion, the holder of one of the creepiest soundtracks of the 20th century. Kubrick’s movie puts Penderecki to great use, using 7 of his compositions. Penderecki’s unharmonious voice mirrors Kubrick’s, and King’s, haunting images perfectly. What else could accompany gallons of blood pouring out of an elevator? Penderecki’s “Polymorphia” (forgive me if I’m wrong) plays during one of the most suspenseful scenes in the film, when Danny is being chased by his father in the hedge maze. The Shining includes Penderecki’s “Kanon for 52 string orchestra and tape,” which was also used in The Exorcist. The film also utilizes György Ligeti’s “Lontano,” and Berlioz's "Symphony Fantastique." The Shining, as well as other psychological thrillers, has gained cult followings and has gained these composers much traffic.

Ligeti is a larger part of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which could be called a psychological thriller to some extent. 2001 has many of Ligeti’s microphony pieces (“Lux Aeterna,” “Requiem,” “Aventures”) that leave you shivering and twitching in your seat. Seeing 2001 for the first time is something you won’t soon forget—I was about 8, sitting on my grandfather’s old carpet, staring at the screen with confusion and amazement. This emotion, though obviously brought upon by the mind-twisting ideas and images of Kubrick’s film and Clarke’s novel, also has to be attributed to Ligeti (as well as the Strauss’s).
The eerie monolith/space-mansion scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey
Darren Aronofsky, arguably the master of recent psychological thrillers, also utilizes great music in his films.  From p to Requiem for a Dream to the more recent Black Swan all have soundtracks that fit their specific personality—for p, it’s electronic and frantic, for Requiem for a Dream, desperate and tragic, and for Black Swan scurrying and almost itchy, for lack of a better word. What Aronofsky’s films do better than anyone else’s is intrigue the average viewer to go after the music once the movie is over; I have seen multiple cover’s of Clint Mansell’s “Lux Aeterna,” even one done by an accordion duet. Mansell also composed the soundtrack to p. Aronofsky’s films also use amazing performers, such as the Kronos Quartet.

Modern music is often criticized for being confusing and remote. But the uncomfortable aspect of some modern composers is perfect for psychological thrillers, as that emotion saturates these films. From Scorsese to Kubrick to Aronofsky, films of this genre open up different meaning to these pieces. To someone who might not understand or feel entirely relaxed listening to Penderecki’s dissonant pieces, after seeing these movies, now they are what Jack Torrence’s mind is filled with instead a bunch of notes.
Heeerrrrrre’s Ligeti! 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Symphony in Magenta

Turn on your stereo/mp3 player/radio/computer.
Close your eyes.
Turn on Philip Glass’s “Metamorphosis 1.”
What do you see?
Mixed Media-Representational-Synesthesia
Painting by Steve Kilbey
I suppose some responses would be “Kafka,” or “water,” maybe even intangible things like “changes” and “existentialism.” But for people with synesthesia, waves of purple might invade their sight if told to listen to Glass’s compositions, or anything else, for that matter.
"A painting of Tchaikovsky"
“Synesthesia,” or the more European spelling “synaesthesia,” from the ancient Greek words syn, meaning “together,” and aisthēsis, meaning “sensation,” is a neurological condition where sensory pathways are connected to each other. For example, someone with synesthesia, or a synesthete, might uncontrollably see letters as colors, or certain linguistic sounds might leave tastes in their mouth. A synesthete might even assign specific personalities to months or days of the year. Synesthesia is entirely involuntary, often hereditary, and can occupy one’s life. No two synesthetes see the same. 
I began becoming interested in synesthesia after reading Oliver Sacks’s book Musicophilia. Sacks, a neurologist, psychiatrist, and music lover, writes of cases he was involved in with anomalies who respond neurologically to music—Alzheimer’s and music, amnesia and music, musical therapy—the book is loaded with stories like these, including stories of synesthesia. Another of Sacks’s books even inspired Michael Nyman’s opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
Synesthesia-inspired artwork by Stanton Macdonald Wright

Synesthesia is a common inspiration for artwork, but it has also had its say in music over the years. Olivier Messiaen was a synesthete, and his condition deeply influenced his music. Messiaen even described one of his chords in color: “Blue-violet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold, red, ruby, and stars of mauve, black and white. Blue-violet is dominant.” Messiaen’s music is influenced by middle-eastern color too, which can be seen in his “Quartet for the End of Time.” Synesthesia most likely would have been an advantage in composing, being able to create lush sounds with golds or greens, but also a disadvantage to being a member of the music community. If Messiaen were to listen to the music of his peers, like Boulez or Stravinsky, he might cringe in discomfort if the notes didn’t line up with his acceptable colors.
A strong member of the pantheon of 20th century jazz musicians, Duke Ellington, was also a synesthete. “I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors that you do, but I see them in textures. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin,” Ellington said once. Jazz, with all its textures and layers, is the perfect canvas to cover.

Leonard Bernstein had synesthesia as well. “Like when we sang the "oo"-sound like an organ, I immediately saw the color blue, and when we did the humming it seemed darker and warmer, like a sort of red. And when we did "takata", I always see fiery orange for this brass sound. I don't know if you see colors when you hear music, but lots of people do. I know I always do. So with all these millions of colors to choose from, the composer really has a tough job,” said Bernstein.  Other apparent synesthetes were György Ligeti, Franz Liszt, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Jean Sibelius.  
Even though synesthesia is a clear condition that is specific to the people who have it, I hypothesize that we all have a tinge of synesthesia here and there. It may not be protruding, but when I listen to minimalist music, white and blue come to mind. When I listen to Beethoven, red is the main tint. I’m no synesthete like Messiaen or Ellington, but it’s difficult not to be flooded by all different kinds of emotions and sights when listening to music.
Turn on your stereo/mp3 player/radio/computer.
Close your eyes.
Turn on Philip Glass’s “Metamorphosis 1.”
What do you see?