Friday, May 27, 2011

Moving: In Which Direction?

Correction: Though Julius Rudel did conduct at the NYCOpera since it's   beginnings, the official first conductor was Laszlo Halasz.

It’s like the Yankees for baseball or the Louvre for art: when one thinks of opera in America, the Metropolitan Opera, I bet you, is on the top of the list of thought-of companies. We see commercials on TV for the latest broadcast of the Met’s most recent show in your city. The Met has its own opera house in the center of Lincoln Center for all to see (The Metropolitan Opera House). But what some people might not know is that the New York City Opera, thought of as the “people’s opera” opposed to the Met, is just a short walk away from the opera house, also in Lincoln Center, but in the David H. Koch Theater. The City Opera’s goals as a company are to make opera affordable and accessible for the common public and to keep their repertory innovative and forward-looking. The classic New York opera and the people’s opera right next to each other—seems nice, right? But, as of this month, the City Opera has proposed a move out of Lincoln Center and into smaller venues around the city. To some, this seems like an ominous action.

David H. Koch Theater - photo by Thomas Recke 

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Lincoln Center - photo by Robert Mintzes

 The City Opera has taken residence in Lincoln Center since 1966, but recent budget concerns have pushed the officials to bail out. While poor acoustics in the theater have been a catalyst for talks of relocation in the past (and the theater was newly renovated), the recent decision is more of a result of financial troubles; the company pays around four and a half million dollars a year to rent out the theater. Along with the move, the company will cut its budget and end the contracts of some staff and musicians. In an article by Daniel J. Wakin of the New York Times, Julius Rudel, a former conductor at City Opera, said, “It would in essence be the end of the New York City Opera as we know it and love it.” Not only will the change remove the company from the theater that has been its home for more than 50 years, but it will complicate matters for performances—the company’s five-performance season is coming up in five months, and scrambling to find new venues with workable schedules and accommodations will surely be difficult and maybe even impossible.
The venues in question themselves are numerous and certainly different. The Brooklyn Academy of Music, or BAM, the “preeminent progressive performing and cinema arts center of the twenty-first century,” is an option that could be considered, as are the City Center, the Drill Hall in Park Avenue Armory, or possibly the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts of NYU.

BAM - photo by Barry Yanowitz 
And, as of May 26th, the City Opera Union filed a labor complaint due to the move. The American Guild of Musical Artists claimed that the move would leave artists in the dark and also accused the company with not telling its members the amount of weeks the next season would be.
So, why is this happening, especially in New York? This past season of the Opera included Séance on a Wet Afternoon, the opera by the Wicked composer Steven Schwartz which received bad reviews for its City Opera performance, A Quiet Place, the acclaimed last stage work by Bernstein, Intermezzo, the collection of vignettes by Strauss, The Elixir of Love, and still includes a concert version of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha set to be performed at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In a recent WQXR podcast, City Opera was said to seem like it did not have a definite vision for the season—it wasn't balanced with standard repertory and contemporary repertory, but also wasn’t strictly contemporary. The topic of contemporary performances also came up in the podcast and how the relationship of the Met and City Opera factors in with modern works (Nico Muhly’s new opera, Two Boys, is being performed at the Met in two seasons).  All the featured speakers on the podcast (Anne Midgette, the critic for the Washington Post, Amy Burton, a soprano who has sung with the City Opera, and Willem Brans, the vice-president of the Arts Consulting group) felt that all opera companies should try to include modern repertory.

But, perhaps this move isn’t such a bad thing. With a clean slate, the City Opera can reinstate and define their reputation as the “people’s opera.” With separate, independent venues, these operas can be much more accessible and probably more affordable. Plus, is it such a bad thing to break up the concentration of arts at Lincoln Center? To spread the arts around New York City could be nurturing and possibly create new companies and organizations.
Whatever ends up happening, all I hope is that the City Opera can thrive. While the Metropolitan Opera is the iconic American opera company, we need somebody to look out for the more casual opera-goers. We need the roe alongside the caviar, the buffalo burger as well as the all-beef. Hopefully the company can get on its feet again, because there is no such thing as too much opera. For me, at least. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Reflections in the Water

                Today was the day when I lugged an extra-large trash bag full of miscellaneous books, papers, clothing, and other items home from school. Normally, this event might seem a little strange, but not at this time of year. This ritual signifies the approaching date of summer vacation—or the ending of my first year of high school. Soon, 3:30 pm won’t feel like the end of the day, and 11 am will feel more like the beginning.  My mind is in the conclusion realm, and that got me thinking—since there are no government-official summer breaks in the lives of composers, when does this emotion enter music? Seasons are an extremely common inspiration for scores, but these mostly signify the beginnings of periods or simply illustrate the pinnacle of the sentiments of those times. So what about the ultimate conclusion, death? The approaching of death or the feeling of winding down is most certainly a dense and enveloping emotion—how could it not seep through the minds of composers’ into their scores? Surely a writer of music could not predict the closing of their life, but, after looking at the last compositions of prolific composers, it seems almost inevitable that feelings parallel to the environment of composers’ last years are present in their final works. From the difficult, deaf last years of Beethoven to the seemingly calm and recent years that capped off the influential life of Milton Babbitt, the last pieces of composers can be seen as mirrors into the atmospheres of their conclusions.

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sketches of the Grosse Fuge, arranged for four hands on the piano
                Perhaps one of the most well known specific traits of a composer, Beethoven’s deafness and illnesses consumed his later life and composing. Through his late period of composition, Beethoven suffered from many illnesses—some reports claimed he had syphilis, infectious hepatitis, cirrhosis, and even lead poisoning that damaged his liver (although this could have been from alcohol). Alongside these diseases, Beethoven, as we all know, suffered from deafness. This condition, while one that he was able to cope with somewhat, depressed Beethoven and severely affected his mental state and method of composition. While not much of Beethoven’s life was top-notch, these last few years were certainly no conclusion anyone would want (although reports of his actual death sound like a 40s horror film—clap of thunder, fist in the air…). Beethoven’s final composition, finished in 1827, was the revised final movement of his String Quartet No. 13 (Op. 130/133). Originally, the quartet finished with the somewhat legendary Große Fuge (Grosse Fuge, Grand Fugue), but after terrible, confused reception of the original movement, Beethoven’s publisher urged him to change it. The movement that Beethoven replaced the Große with is in B flat major and is beautiful, with its theme of the ascending key scale, but is quite standard (until the climbing and slightly dissonant hacking away at the strings about half way through). It’s cheerful and ends in a triumphant, resolved B flat chord (orthographically appropriate), and at first listen seems opposite to the emotions Beethoven’s death were filled with. However, the situation the movement was born out of certainly parallel’s his last years. The Große Fuge is most likely Beethoven’s most technically difficult and complex pieces of music and is highly commended now—Stravinsky said that it is “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” However, its reception when it premiered was the opposite. Critics during the 19th century called it “a confusion of Babel,” “incomprehensible, like Chinese,” and “repellent.” At the premiere, after the other movements of the string quartet were encored and the Große was not, Beethoven was reported to have said, “And why didn’t they encore the Fuge? That alone should have been repeated!” Therefore, the replacement was most likely written out of resentment; though it’s aural emotions in and of themselves are cheerful, the emotions encircling them were most likely not.

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Kamila and Otto

                But not all deaths by sickness are surrounded by years of suffering. Leoš Janáček, the Czechoslovakian modern composer, also has an interesting last work, his String Quartet No. 2, alternatively titled “Intimate Letters” composed in early 1928 and premiered in September of that year, one month after his death. Janáček lived a work-filled but successful life, being critically acclaimed during and after his years. Like Antonín Dvořák, another Czech composer, Janáček was very influenced by folk music, and it is evident in his interesting, unique music. Throughout his later life, Janáček developed a relationship with Kamila Stösslová, a woman whom he met in 1917. She was married, 38 years younger than him, and already had a son (Otto). Kamila was the main love interest of Janáček for the rest of his life. He became slightly obsessed with Kamila, exchanging over 700 letters with her and placing her in many of his operas. However, he never fathered a child with her and never married her. Just from knowing those facts, one can see that the relationship would have been straining for ol’ Leoš—he had her in his reach, but never quite could call her his. In August of 1928, he went on a trip with Kamila but caught pneumonia and died. His last piece was the string quartet. The piece is meant to illustrate the hundreds of letters sent between the two and is divided into four movements. The piece is passionate and fervent in many parts, but also has tinges of melancholy and subtle hints of anger. The viola, meant to personify Kamila, is the protruding instrument of the quartet and cries out sometimes in deep, resonating, lament-like solos. It is the ultimate mix of emotions—the third movement ends in murky strokes while the fourth picks up with upbeat rhythms that suggest happiness but have slightly dissonant and odd tones. The years around his death were the years approaching Janáček’s and Kamila’s 10th “anniversary…” they must have been love-filled, confusing, heart-wrenching times, like the piece suggests.

Milton doin' his thing

                And then there are the composers who die seemingly in peace. Milton Babbitt, the influential 20th/21st century composer, died in January of this year at the age of 94. Babbitt’s life was also successful, with him winning many awards, studying and teaching at Princeton, and influencing a generation. I love lots of Babbitt’s titles, such as “The Joy of More Sextet,” “Who Cares If You Listen?” and “My Ends Are My Beginnings.” Living to such a great age and accomplishing so much, one can make assumptions that the last years of Milton Babbitt’s life were peaceful (though I can never be sure). His last piece is titled “An Encore” for violin and piano. I cannot find a recording anywhere, but I don’t think I necessarily need one to make my point. Though the piece is most likely, well, Babbittish, the title itself alludes to a perfect ending to a large body of work. It caps off his massive repertoire like snow on a mountain and makes one smile just looking at the title.
                Almost all classical pieces are influenced by some kind of emotion. In fact, I think it’s physically impossible not to feel emotion when composing. This equation is also true for the last years and last compositions of composers. Beethoven, whose last years were difficult and ill-filled, most likely had an angering experience with his revision of his String Quartet No. 13. Janáček’s last years were still filled with Kamila, the woman he never truly had, and his last composition, “Intimate Letters” for string quartet, is filled with mixed, passionate, moody emotions. And Milton Babbitt, the legend who passed just this year, composed a perfect last piece, “An Encore.” These may be coincidences, but I also think that’s physically impossible. You can't look into a pool of water and not see your reflection. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

It's not water, but...

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?”

Chuckle, chuckle, right? That’s how I reacted when I first heard these words spoken by David Foster Wallace in his speech This Is Water given at Kenyon College in 2005. At first it sounds like the type of joke that would be told at a dinner party of intellectuals. But then, after letting this idea marinate in my brain for a while, it seems sort of dark, sad, and revealing. Do we really know what we are living in? Well, I suppose our air is comprised of 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen (and 1% “other stuff”), but do we really understand our surroundings? How can we comprehend what our world is if we only can see through our first hand perspective? We all know that life isn’t just direct visuals and experiences. In the same speech, Foster Wallace also says, “Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.”
I recently did a presentation for school on Wallace Steven’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and themed it on perspective—so, not only does this quote exemplify what I’ve been thinking about for a while exclusively, but it outlines how we all think most of the time. And guess what? Foster Wallace’s speech can be applied to music (and I have my teacher to thank for showing me this speech and starting this comparison). On paper, music seems like it falls into the same category as every other thought we have—since it comes from one (in most cases) composers’ point of view, isn’t it just as self-centered as all other products of humans’ minds? Can music really help us know what we are living in or let us know what the hell this water is? Yes, and here’s the exception: music isn’t like any other art form—it’s not always the same. Unlike, say, a painting or sculpture, it changes every time it is performed and is guaranteed to be perceived differently to every single listener, every single time. Music is one of the escapes from this perspective tunnel vision, because not only does it demand a different perspective every time, but it demands that we understand this concept.

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Foster Wallace, photo by Steve Rhodes 

I was listening to Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 yesterday (definitely in the symphony kind of mood). The massive work is around 90 minutes, divided into 9 parts, and is also called the “Resurrection.” However, after the first part (Allegro maestoso) was over, I thought the resurrection had already taken place. The rise and fall of the emotion in the first section is similar to what I would think of as a musical resurrection, with the cellos making triumphant strides against the tremolo of the nervous violins, climaxing, and then relaxing to a confident yet calm closure. Of course, I knew that I still had 8 more parts to go. My perspective was changed by Mahler’s notes, but also simply by the length of the piece. It was impossible for me to be the center of the perception of the piece because Mahler had composed it, Zubin Mehta had conducted it, and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra had performed it, inevitably different from all the other times they had rehearsed it. But, the next time I listen to the piece, I’ll think of it differently because of my past experiences with it.
One of the many ideas that Foster Wallace presents is that a liberal arts education is often thought to “teach you how to think.” He plays around with this idea, and I thought, if music is an escape from these self-centered default settings, does music teach you how to think as well? In a sense, yes. Not only does it improve our brains technically, but it can almost be like a perspective exercise. It’s not possible to know exactly what a composer was thinking at every moment of the composition of a piece—we have to fill in the blanks of the inception, the duration, and the closing of every note, and we always will know that we will never be right. I think it’s almost an unspoken rule that music touches us all in different ways; if we all know this, we all must recognize that the person sitting next to us in a venue might be getting a completely different emotion from a piece or maybe even the same emotion as us. If we know these things, our tunnel vision can be widened and allow us to see in a more three dimensional way. Music isn’t water, but I guess we could call it a glass that the water resides in. I’m still asking myself the same question the young fish asked themselves, but I think when we listen to music we at least know how to approach the question and how to grasp it comfortably.                                                         

The speech is too complex for me to convey in around 800 words, so... 

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sounding Together

                Sure, I might not have wrinkles yet and my joints are still pretty flexible, but there are definitely disadvantages to being young in the 21st century. For one thing, I don’t really know what it’s like to not be able to Google something. Second, I can’t ever say things like, “Those 80s were pretty crazy.” But another reason why my youth is a drawback is a reason I can probably share with people who I don’t share these other two reasons with. Though I can instantly access the newest modern pieces of music through a few clicks of the keyboard, I will probably never have the experience of wearing a ball gown, getting in a horse-drawn carriage, and riding to the premiere of the symphony of the latest, famous composer like they (most likely) would back in teh 19th century. Symphonies, if one were to look back on a timeline of musical history, are benchmarks of aural progression through the times. Mozart’s 40th, Beethoven’s 5th, Dvorak’s 9th, Shostakovich’s 5th, Mahler’s 2nd… these are all protruding figures in the landscape behind us. However, despite the absence of petticoats in my closet, the premieres I will go to in my lifetime will probably have the same emotions that premieres of symphonies had in previous centuries—and it’s not just because of the change in wardrobe and customs—but the change in the art of the symphony itself.

The hair that's full of secrets

                The now-annual Spring for Music festival was held last week, with concerts held almost every night from May 6th to May 14th.  The festival is a place for orchestras to showcase their talent and inventiveness and was held at Carnegie Hall. The S4M’s mission statement is: “Spring for Music provides an idealized laboratory, free of the normal marketing and financial constraints, for an orchestra to be truly creative with programs that are interesting, provocative and stimulating, and that reflect its beliefs, its standards, and vision.” The orchestras that were featured in the 2011 festival were the Albany Symphony, the Dallas Symphony, the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, the Oregon Symphony, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Toledo Symphony. The performances ranged from Beethoven to Stucky, from Gabrieli to Vaughan Williams, and from Britten to Adams. While the programs were infested with modern music and inventive choices, almost all of the orchestras played a symphony. In fact, the Orchetre Sympohnique de Montreal played seven symphonies during their program, the one that led the festival to an end.
OSdM, photo by Felix Broede 

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Practice, practice, practice (photo by Martin Dürrschnabel)
                The entire Spring for Music festival is something that hasn’t been done before on the same scale. It inspired me and made me want to live in New York or have my own private jet really bad. But what really got me thinking was the program of the Montreal orchestra led by Kent Nagano. He themed it to describe the evolution of the symphony—in fact, the title of his program was “Evolution of the Symphony.” Weird. In his program were symphonies, some for orchestra and some for sections, by Gabrieli, Bach, Webern, Stravinsky, and Beethoven. But, contrary to what his title might suggest, he did not perform them in chronological order. Nagano chose to separate the large orchestral works with sinfonias by Bach played by Angela Hewitt on the piano. Gabrieli’s piece was Sacrae Symphoniae for brass and demonstrates the beginnings of the form in the Renaissance. Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21, the raw and almost conversational-between-notes piece, and Stravisnky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, the triumphant yet slightly unsettling work, represented the early 20th century influences on the form while Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, one of the most iconic symphonies of all time, closed out the program. It was definitely risky, but it paid off. Tweets from the concert said things like “Fascinating programming tonight from the Montreal Symphony…”  (Fred Child of APM Classical) and “the lack of lobby space turns into a seriously interesting health and safety issue when the place is as full as Carnegie is tonight” (kacareton). With this challenging and dense program, Nagano asked the questions (interviewed by WQXR), “Why is a symphony relevant for today? Or is it relevant for today in the 21st century? What exactly would be the role of classical music in the future? Is it simply a group or genre of music only for an elite, selected, educated, sophisticated audience? Or is it something that’s much more meaningful to the general population?”  In the same WQXR interview, Nagano said that he chose these specific works because they shy away from our stereotypical idea of a symphony. Though the first question I quoted was meant to inquire about the organization “symphony,” it made me think of why a piece symphony would be relevant today. As new CDs and albums are released, it seems as though intricacies of contemporary music are being focused on instead of the grandness of Romantic or early 20th century music. Instead of composers announcing the premiere of their newest symphony, it seems more common to hear about the release of chamber works, contemporary operas, or one movement orchestral tone poems. Is the art of the symphony as a work dying out? I rarely hear word of a modern symphony about to be premiered by a popular composer. The term is nowhere near dead, but, unlike the towering masterpieces that the members of the pantheon of symphonists composed, the walls of the intangible Modern Music Hall of Fame aren’t covered in symphonies. However, I say no—maybe we’ll just have to change the term.
                A symphony is defined as an orchestral work most often written in the sonata principal. Because the word “symphony” (which comes from “syn,” together, and “phone,” sounding) is such a broad term, it was often used in the pre-Baroque ages as a label for many different types of musical composition. But that changed around the 18th century. While the symphony began as a three movement medium, Mozart and Haydn began to add a fourth movement in the middle which quickly became the norm. Beethoven made the symphony the grand mass that it is today, giving the world nine symphonies (he couldn’t beat Mozart by the around 40 point lead he had on Ludwig), and practically every single one is now a classic repertoire member. Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique  was groundbreaking, as were Tchaikovsky’s and Dvořák’s. Gustav Mahler brought the art into the 20th century strongly, composing almost 10 symphonies (one even needs around 1000 performers). Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, and Nielsen were brought into the mix soon after. The symphony isn’t only a form though—it represents a great achievement in music; one expects to hear impressive and striking sounds when going to a performance of a symphony.

Webern, Composers Illustrated

                If these great, massive works that now bombard the programs of orchestras everywhere happened only a handful of decades ago, why are the releases that make up most of the hype in the classical world today (in America, at least) not symphonies? While there are most definitely modern symphonies that are called symphonies, such as ones by Christopher Rouse, John Corigliano, or Aaron Jay Kernis, we often don’t hear of symphonic premieres that meet the statures of the ones decades ago. Perhaps this has to do with the downsizing of classical audiences anyway, but operatic premieres often are sold out and modern chamber music/solo piece premieres in big cities draw large crowds, especially premieres of well-known composers. But don’t lose faith—we are nowhere near losing the art form that spawned from the symphony. That’s just the whole point of it; the forms that are being practiced today are kin to the symphony, but can’t be classified as such. Sure, some of it has to do with composer’s brainchild has changed. Sometimes we are going to large scale symphony premieres, but we just don’t know it.

                Examples of these symphony-esque art forms are all around us. One of John (Coolige) Adam’s most famous works, Harmonielehre, is quite similar to a symphony. While it is not classified as one, the piece shares many similarities with the form we have come to know. It’s divided into three movements (unnamed, “The Anfortas Wound,” and “Meister Eckhardt and Quackie”) that follow a similar mood progression that symphonies do. Naïve and Sentimental Music is Adam’s real, official, categorized symphonic work (while the classification of Harmonielehre is a bit iffy). However, when I listen to N&S, I don’t think “Oh, just off to listen to that Adam’s symphony.” When I’m listening to that piece, I’m listening to Naïve and Sentimental Music and nothing else. Another orchestral form that parallels symphonies is the tone poem. Famous tone poems from centuries past include Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, Liszt’s (who created the term) Totentanz, and Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. The tone poem is a wide concept—it’s usually in one movement (sometimes close to or longer than symphonies themselves) and is inspired by another work of art or life. There are countless modern tone poems and similar art forms, such as Georg Friedrich Haas’s In Vain, the 75 minute piece for 24 musicians that is chilling, watercolor infested, and hypnotizing (it’s not exactly a tone poem, but it’s pretty much the same thing). Other works of similar style include Milton Babbitt’s Relata I&2, Iannis Xenakis’s Metastasis, and John Luther Adam’s In the White Silence.
                Now, when I think about it, I listen to a lot more symphonies than I realize. No, maybe Haydn and Mozart wouldn’t open up their silk-covered arms to the pieces that have spawned form their creations, but hopefully they would be able to see the timeline. Perhaps modern composers have strayed away from the traditional symphony form just to break away from the mold set in stone. Maybe composers feel bored by the limits of a four movement symphony and can feel freer inside a one movement landscape. But, looking back on Kent Nagano’s questions he posed in the WQXR interview, perhaps composers today are just keeping things relevant. To an audience member not familiar with classical music, a one movement canvas is a lot more approachable than a daunting, Beethoven-esque symphony. Though they may be similar in length, tone poems are easier to become familiar with. Also, the beginnings of centuries are always transition periods, and we are definitely transitioning. To what, I don’t know, but it’s like gardening in one large bed versus four smaller ones—a composer has more space and chances to find where they are trying to go inside a musical form that isn’t restricted by men who lived centuries ago. Tone poems and modified symphonic forms are more cultivating environments for musical modes and ideas still in the works. The composers today are taking care of the grandchildren that will grow up to change the world tomorrow. Should their daycare be the most nurturing place we can find?
                I don’t own ball gowns that women wore in the 19th century, and I probably never will own any (apart from the costume-end of my closet). But I can still go to premieres, and they might be symphonic ones to. The program might not give that away, but I know that somewhere those other three movements are looking down, proud. Maybe. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Equations in the Sky

"The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid."
-J.D. Salinger, “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”

                I can’t really think of anything more ready to be turned into a metaphor than clouds; they morph, change colors, precipitate, evaporate, are sometimes present and are sometimes not, cover things, reveal things… but they’re also one of the most timeless concepts. Happiness can fall into this category as well. While intangible, it’s a notion that’s pliable, like clouds are both physically and theoretically. There are certainly emotions that can get on our nerves—dramatic tendencies, anxiety, coldness—but happiness is not one of these. Clouds will always hover above our heads, and our heads will never grow tired of happiness. Or joy, for that matter.
                 The modern media has turned happiness into a neon collage of smiley faces, flowers, and rainbows. While these things can certainly make us happy (or nauseous), they do not, at least to me, represent the pure emotion of happiness. My mind definitely does not conjure up images of bright yellow and whatever else is often plastered on mock-60s tee shirts when I am truly happy. Happiness is much more subdued and warm and often feels you’re sitting at the bottom of a pool—you’ll eventually have to come up for air, but in the moment it’s serene. The emotion itself is incredibly difficult to shape artistically. It’s different for everyone and is incredibly complex, almost too complex for an accurate representation. However, Jón Þór Birgisson and Alex Somers have done a pretty good job.

                Jón , also known as Jónsi, is a modern Icelandic musical legend. Not only is he part of the post-rock band Sigur Rós, but he also has a solo project and was featured on the Q2/NPR 100 Composers Under 40 list. He even invented a language, Hopelandic (better get on that, Rosetta Stone). It’s a common mistake to assume that non-classical musicians aren’t composers, but they most definitely are, and Jónsi is a perfect example. Alex Somers is his boyfriend, and together they make up the ambient, electronic duo Jónsi & Alex. Their debut album, titled Riceboy Sleeps, even reached number 1 on Billboard’s Top New Age Albums list. The nine pieces on the album evoke a sense of innocence while hinting to the fact that they are actually very wise. Almost all of the pieces are around eight minutes long and are separate safaris in and of themselves, including tranquil swells from choirs, epiphany-like walls of sound, and nostalgic, ambiguous recorded sounds. “All the Big Trees,” “Indian Summer” (which I heard on Q2 a little while ago), and “Boy 1904,” which includes audio of the last castrato, are three amazing tracks, but it’s like picking gold coins out of a gold bowl.
                I went on a walk today equipped with a camera and the J&A track “Happiness,” the first one on the album. As I mentioned before, weather is often like happiness and is unpredictable but incredible when it happens at the right time in the right form. I’m incredibly lucky to live somewhere where the skies are like watercolor paintings almost every day, and was luckier still today when Georgia O’Keefe decided to take the paintbrush for a while. “Happiness” is my favorite piece on the J&A album, not only for its overall emotion, but how that emotion is transferred to different areas of the object. The way I hear it, there are three different dimensions of the pieces: the source, the deliverers, and the receivers. The source can be viewed as either the minds of Jónsi and Alex or the attacks of the tide-like notes in the beginning of the piece. They crescendo and reverberate slightly, flying around the head of the listener like a strong gust of wind or a far-off idea. Every once in a while there’s a section of twitchiness that fits in perfectly. The deliverers are the notes that sit below these protruding figures; like a tunnel, they are the inner walls while the source is the tangible thing that travels along inside. They do not present themselves like the sources do, but instead they float alongside like remora fish on sharks. The receivers, in this piece of music, are the strings that start to surface towards the middle of the piece and fade out at the end. They absorb all that the sources have created and the deliverers have… delievered.
                During my walk, I found that the clouds imitated this process. 




Saturday, May 7, 2011

I'm Just a Groupie

One of the most surprising things a parent can reveal to a child is what they were like when they were teenagers. “When I was your age” is probably one of the most common prepositional phrases a teenager will hear from their parents, and it’s often met with expressions of annoyance when it has to do with the criticism of technology or attitudes. One of the few times when it is met with excitement, however, is when the old band tee shirts are pulled out. Cult followings of the Grateful Dead do not surprise teenagers of the new millennium. Mp3 players seemingly stocked with jazz or soft rock actually containing mass amounts of The Who, The Doors, or CCR don’t tend to alarm us. The 60s and 70s were dominated by incredible fame of bands, but singular artists seem own the music industry today. Almost every song on Billboard’s Hot 100 is by a recording artist, not a band. Fame in the classical realm, looking from the outside at least, is lead by soloists as well. Hillary Hahn, Lang Lang, Joshua Bell—these are all names that seem to be the face of classical music to the rest of the world. However, there is a shift going on. Let’s prepare for digging out a new type of band tee shirt from the closet in a few decades.
                I know I’ve said this before, but classical music scene today isn’t stuffy and boring. If one were to compile the amount of new music performances going on across the country on a calendar, they wouldn’t even be able to fit a quarter of them on each little square of a day. Popularity and youth of modern music is steadily increasing, and, to some extent, so is celebrity. And no, I’m not talking about those flashy superstar virtuosos. I’m talking about bands. Yep. Classical music bands.
                Lots of these “bands” don’t call themselves “bands,” and they don’t have battered tour buses or crowds of screaming groupies. But every day I hear about a new, cleverly named ensemble that is playing in a modest venue and all I can think of is the word “band.” Many of these groups emerge from music colleges bringing together talented musician friends. They can rise from the depths of grungy dorm-room playing and be found at Le Poisson Rouge down the line. As modern music organizations, composers, and venues strive to appeal to a younger audience, swarms of young musicians band together to receive their efforts. Not only does this give modern composers a stable outlet for their works, but it gives listeners groups to latch onto. Instead of swiping our hands out in the dark looking for the newest compositions, we can follow these groups and form those emotional connections that fans and bands do so well.

                NOW Ensemble is one of the groups I’ve been reading a lot about recently. Formed in 2002, the group consists of graduates of the Yale School of Music. Not only does it include a concrete set of musicians (clarinet, piano, electric guitar, flute, double bass), but also two resident composers and a mix of students from both Yale and Julliard.  Their recently released album, “Awake,” has been mentioned a few times on the blog Sequenza 21. Jerry Bowles, a writer for S21, has classified music coming from composers that ensembles such as NOW play as “New Synthetists,” referring to the newly-heard, subtle hybrids of classical and rock, pop, or other genres. His blog post has certainly acquired quite a few comments and remarks on the topic of music happening now, including subjects such as the “New York School,” what to call this movement of music that seems to be emerging, and how it should be received, but that’s certainly another post altogether (and, would you look at that? The editor of S21, Steve Layton, even mentioned the topic of classical “bands” a few dozen comments down!). NOW even has a wonderful music video for Judd Greenstein's piece "Change." The video is called Plan of the City and is directed by Joshua Frankel. 

                Sō Percussion is another band-like group that has been on the scene for a while. It is composed of percussion students from, no way, Yale as well. Sō has been together for 12 years now, and they certainly show it. The ensemble plays drum sets, steel drums, cymbals, jugs of water, cacti—pretty much anything they can get their hands on—and makes it sound like an instrument you would expect to see on the percussion table at the back of an orchestra. Sō is signed to Cantaloupe Records and has played in venues such as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. What really makes Sō seem like a band is their sense of informality. Their center picture on their website is the four members (Adam Sliwinski, Eric Beach, Jason Treuting, and Josh Quillen) with the cactus. One of their featured videos includes all the members sitting down with conch shells miming the trumpet calls of a recorded piece. They play the likes of Lang, Xenakis, Cage, Mackey, and Reich as well as other commissioned composers, but do it with the attitude opposite of the stereotypical classical performer.

photo by Luke Ratray

                eighth blackbird, whom I have mentioned before, is a group of former students from Oberlin College. The group (the intentionally non-capitalized one) is almost impossible to avoid when reading about modern festivals or concerts. Pieces from composers across the spectrum have been written for them, even a concerto for their ensemble by Jennifer Higdon called “On a Wire.” eighth blackbird is often at the center of initiating/organizing/playing in festivals and marathons such as the Tune-In festival and Tully Scope festival. And, guess what? They even have 8BB tee shirts, totes, thongs, and boxers. Imagine your teenage kid pulling that out of your closet.

                And then, of course, there’s the mouth of the rolling river, Bang on a Can. BoaC is a band, more of an organization, which plays, promotes, composes, and showcases new music. BoaC began in 1987 with three composers: David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon (guess where they went to school!). Since then, the almost-society has morphed from “three young composers in a lower Manhattan coffee shop” to one of the most legendary modern ensembles playing today. The large group consists of BoaC “All Stars,” Ashley Bathgate, Robert Black, Vicky Chow, David Cossin, Mark Stewart, and Evan Ziporyn but collaborates with an endless amount of other composers and performers. BoaC’s website reads, “There were a lot of separate little scenes. The academics, the minimalists, the rockers, the improvisers, the eggheads, the folklorists, the meditaters, the symphonists—musicians in each category had some place to go. The problem was, if you didn’t fit squarely into one of the categories you were out of luck. Michael, David and Julie decided to create a scene of their own.” BoaC is most famous for their Marathons, long, informal performances of different works by varying composers. The first Marathon was on Mother’s Day in 1987; it was 12 hours and was played in a SoHo art gallery. 28 composers were presented, most of them being “young, genre-defying, unknown and emerging composers.” Now, BoaC can be seen at Le Poisson Rouge regularly. Their calendar is packed with performances across the world, and the three composers are also the parents of Cantaloupe Records. The group plays music varying in style and overall emotion, but BoaC seems to create a continuum, like a band or artist doing covers of different groups.
                So, what’s the point of creating these new “bands?” Why, seemingly all of a sudden, is there a plethora of music students coming together to create the new, better-than-ever version of string quartets? If we follow some of the opinions set out in the Sequenza 21 article, it’s because pure entertainment and the arts are merging—these bands give more of a sense of entertainment and celebrity than a random handful of musicians do. The NOW Ensemble, Sō Percussion, eighth blackbird, Bang on a Can, and many others are taking the reins of the modern classical music scene and guiding the way composers work. Venues like Le Poisson Rouge are creating a more intimate and personal experience for classical listeners. The 70s don’t seem to be coming back, and I’m not necessarily seeing a revolution of band-tee-shirt-resurrections, but customs always seem to come around again in one way or another. The classical music world needs experiences like the ones these bands can give. Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry—these might be the artists whose tee shirts are accumulating in the majority of modern concert goers’ closets today, but I wouldn't be surprised if years from now, a shirt with the symbols “8BB” or “Sō” is dug out of a parent’s closet, only to be presented to the child with the phrase, “When I was your age…”

P.S. Other "bands" to check out include: Ethel, JACK Quartet, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, PRISM Saxophone Quartet, Momenta Quartet... 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

NMSO follow-up

       I wrote a while ago about the unfortunate decision of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra to file for chapter 7 bankruptcy, along with mentioning the chapter 11 filing of the Philadelphia Orchestra as well as debt in many other organizations. Though the opinion of audience members, staff, listeners, and supporters is incredibly important, I think listening to a musician's point of view is the most fulfilling in these hard times.

       I received an email from Carol Swift-Matton, the Assistant Principal Second Violinist of the NMSO as well as a violinist of the Santa Fe Symphony, with a piece she had written about the demise. I hope that, with posting this, the viewpoints of musicians can be heard; they are the ones that are most severely affected by these bankruptcies. Here is her piece: 

Goodbye, NMSO
I am Carol Swift-Matton, NMSO violinist. Or should I say former NMSO violinist? Or violinist of the former NMSO? In case anyone is wondering how the NMSO musicians are faring, I can only speak for myself: the demise of the NMSO has broken my heart. What a joy these past 22 years with that orchestra have been for me! I had the privilege of working with NMSO’s wonderful music directors Neil Stulberg, David Lockington and of course the incomparable Guillermo Figueroa, as well as countless talented and inspiring guest conductors. As well, I have been fortunate to make music with colleagues of the highest caliber, who I also count as my friends. For me, the benefits haven’t just come musically; you see, the first concert I played with the NMSO was in October of 1989, a Pops concert with the legendary Henry Mancini. At rehearsal break the second day, I met a handsome and charming Frenchman who played bass in the orchestra, and then found  I could see him very well from my vantage point in the violin section. One thing led to another and next thing you know, we were married--20 years ago in May--and now have two beautiful daughters. So you see I owe quite a lot to the NMSO.
Yes, I can still make music, I can still play my violin, and I am exploring various ways to help keep the wolf from our door.  But the special magic that was THAT orchestra, with Maestro Figueroa at the helm, will never exist again. For that I am very sad.
Good-bye, NMSO. And thank you.

Monday, May 2, 2011


If you went into the room of someone who had a terrible temper after they encountered something that made them irritated, you might find a ripped up piece of paper, maybe even a torn pillow or shirt, and some objects would probably be strewn across the floor. However, if you went into the room of a low tempered person like me, you might find, well, not much. So when I found pink sugar on my floor from biting the heads off my Peeps a bit too violently after reading the following, I knew I was a little irritated. At first.
                In a world where tangible (to some degree) media is slowly falling into the quick sand pit that is online, it is incredibly reassuring to know that newspapers, magazines, and radio stations can survive by compromising and not conforming. And, in a world where these forces are even more unbalanced in classical music, it’s even more reassuring to know that it is happening. WQXR, New York City’s classical station, is arguably one of the best classical music radio stations, and I’m not even in the range to listen to them. One can simply go to their website and listen to the programs as they were online, such as Hammered!, Exploring Music, or Nadia Sirota’s (who, for the record, I want to be, minus the viola and too-bad-ass-for-Elena haircut). Q2 is WQXR’s “listener-supported, New York-based internet stream devoted to the music of living composers,” and is a plethora of articles and comment streams of the unadulterated classical scene in the Mecca of America.

Wuddup Escher? 
                Knowing how un-surpassingly awesome WQXR is (and I’m still a novice to the station), I was surprised when I was alerted to a certain WQXR blog post via Facebook. The post is titled “Are Contemporary Composers Just Spinning Their Musical Wheels?” Immediately I clicked on it, and over the past week it has been in the back of my head, simmering. At first, the blog entry made me annoyed; I shook my head at the computer screen and made a few “psh” noises. However, once I read the 20+ comments, from others and the author herself, my mind opened and saw that her piece was merely a quick portrait of a common thought.
                The article is by Midge Woolsey, a WQXR host and performer, choreographer, and director. The second paragraph is dominated by the following words, the theme of the piece:

“Is it important to keep creating new music? After all, there’s a lot of old music out there – centuries and centuries of it, in fact – so why not work on making good with that and forget about creating anything new? Is there really new breath to breathe into the art of music or are today's composers just spinning their musical wheels?”

Many examples that counter this argument come to mind immediately after reading. The first event that popped into my head was the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. In the book Secret Lives of Great Composers, Elizabeth Lunday writes, “Conductor Pierre Monteux reported he wanted to run out of the room the first time Stravinsky played The Rite of Spring on piano for him…[at the premiere] People started hissing, then booing, then shouting, screaming, and fighting… The police had to be called.”  However, if one were today to hear Stravinsky’s masterpiece, the theater would likely be quiet or accompanied by subtle noises of amazement. This is how things, not just music, work. The Grapes of Wrath was poorly received when it was first published. Leonard Bernstein’s father pressured him to give up music when he was young. The list of underdogs that eventually came out on top is endless—if we followed what Woolsey is proposing, how would anything be accomplished? Most likely, we would still be hearing harpsichords and lyres (minus the fact that we still do hear harpsichords, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).


                Woolsey also writes a contradictory statement—“As I was prepping my radio show this morning, I noticed a quote from Pierre Boulez about Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. He said ‘the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music’ citing the creation of the piece as a pivotal moment in the history of music. That pivotal moment in history of music took place 107 years ago.” But, if Debussy had been “making good with” the old music, Boulez wouldn’t have this piece of music to refer to. Debussy had to look forward and, to some degree, not look back. The reason we love old music is because it includes masterpieces that during their time were new and fresh. Whether they were liked or not, those pieces are able to be latched on to now because they didn’t follow an equation created years before them. In Debussy’s time, “old music” referred to possibly Beethoven or Handel, but Woolsey is now saying that “old music” is Debussy. Seems paradoxical to you? Well, me too.
                However, Woolsey presents an idea that is difficult to prevent from entering the fissures of our music-soaked minds. We all love the likes of Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and Beethoven—why not keep creating this music that we don’t mind, in fact, love, submerging our ears in? Because that’s what makes it special, at least to me; to know that I am listening to music that has been residing on sheets of paper for hundreds of years makes it seem more special and wise, like owning a home run ball hit by Babe Ruth verses Ichiro or stepping into the house of Elvis versus watching an episode of MTV’s “Cribs.” Modern music is sometimes loved the moment the notes fly off the page and sometimes is met with scrunched faces. Either way, the timeline of music needs to be consistently built, not stopped in its tracks. If we created music that was identical in form and emotion to pieces written centuries ago, that style would lose its intimacy an importance in our archives of art. More importantly, we wouldn't have anything to refer to in the future. 
We love this music because we can look back on it and see where we came from, like gazing upon our parents or grandparents. We cannot plant seeds and expect them to grow immediately into towering oaks—we have to let them grow and watch them do it. When we look into forest composed of hundred-year-old trees, they stick out and mesmerize us with their stature; however, what we don’t necessarily spend all our time looking at are the saplings, the trees that reach our waists and look up at their ancestors with the same amazement. These saplings are watered and place in the sunlight, but never catch our eyes until our great-grandchildren walk through the same forests. So, why not just cultivate the already magnificent trees? They will inevitably be over-watered, under-watered, and lose their luster. Bark will fall off, leaves will be lost, and roots will be, well, uprooted. What we need to do is place our attention on these saplings and let them grow on their own—without that small, seemingly incomparable sprout, the trees we love don’t exist. by Jason Scragz