Thursday, June 30, 2011


The long space in between my last post and this one was due to a two-week music camp--I think that's a pretty good excuse. Thanks for reading!

           When I was little I had a habit. I would become familiar with a room, and in my head I would figure out two ways of looking at that room. My dining room, for example, had two walls that met at an enclosed corner, where the table was, while the rest of the room opened up to the kitchen and different areas of the house. I could think of that room from the corner out, where it would seem very inviting and lively, or I could think of it from a perspective aimed towards the corner, where it then transformed into a sort of desolate meeting place. I had these two perspectives archived in my head, and I practiced bringing either out and viewing the world through that lens for a little while. Becoming familiar with exercises in perspectivism was probably a good thing, because now I can’t meander through any type of philosophical writings without coming across the topic. Nietzsche, Pirsig, Lao-tzu, Plato… pretty much everyone has an opinion, or a perspective, on perspective.
                Now, art is of course an exercise in perspective. Each kind of art demonstrates the creator’s point of view. Even if we are talking Cage-esque chance music compositions, they still show us the inner workings of the composer’s mind just by existing through the doings of that composer. The works of artists, when examined, usually have two or more layers of perspective: the immediate visual, and the metaphorical, or meaning of the piece. For example, by sculpting Cloud Gate for the Chicago Millennium Park, Anish Kapoor showed his artistic perspective by creating something large, seamless, and reflective, and also created a piece that allowed the viewer to see his/her surroundings in a different way. A viewer of Cloud Gate not only sees into Kapoor's personal artistic perspective, but sees the scene they are already a part of in a new, panoramic way.
                Photography and music are two great examples of art that show multiple layers of perspective at once. Photography, like many other art forms, shows literal and metaphorical perspective by giving a viewer something to look at and something to think about at the same time. Music gives a listener direct sounds that reflect a composer’s artistic style while compiling into a full idea, often metaphorical as well. Here's a photographic example: 

On the left is a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, and on the right is a photograph by Willy Ronis. Both artists were French and lived in the same time period for almost the same amount of time. Both artists photographed singular subjects placed in the middle of the frame. Both figures are in pedestrian areas, surrounded by buildings, windows, and vertical objects. These similar photographers were neck-in-neck in one of the layers of perspective: both wanted to capture the solidarity of the two men in their actions, and both men are in motion. However, in the second layer of perspective, Cartier-Bresson decided to capture a man in the rain, with his coat drawn over his head protectively. While the other man obviously has a job to do, Cartier-Bresson's seems almost lost and destination-less, despite the fact that he is walking. Ronis's man has a task, as suggested by the window, and the sun and his shadow almost give him a more concrete existence. 

A musical example of these layers is evident in the two pieces “Three Places in New England” by Charles Ives and “My Father Knew Charles Ives” by John Adams. Ives’s symphonic work is a portrait of three different places in New England (Boston Common; Redding, Connecticut; Stockbridge) and is meant to place the listener in these three different places. Ives’s music is American at heart, and “Three Places” includes many homegrown melodies weaved in while adding in the occasional modern blurb. Each movement includes those early 20th century Gershwin, jazzy vibes that we connect with black and white movies and solitary, smoky walks down alleyways. The first movement, The "St.-Gaudens" in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment), is inspired by an American Civil War monument and was nicknamed the “Black March” by Ives. The movement uses many civil war songs as well as mellow, slow moods to depict the long march it mimics. The music in this movement effectively depicts images of soldiers and brooding vibes without using typical America war sounds like snares or cymbals. The second movement, Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut, is matched with a scenario from Ives:
“Once upon a '4 July,' some time ago, so the story goes, a child went here on a picnic, held under the auspices of the first Church and the Village Cornet Band. Wandering away from the rest of the children past the camp ground into the woods, he hopes to catch a glimpse of some of the old soldiers. As he rests on the hillside of laurels and hickories the tunes of the band and the songs of the children grow fainter and fainter; --when-"mirabile dictu"--over the trees on the crest of the hill he sees a tall woman standing. She reminds him of a picture he has of the Goddess Liberty, --but the face is sorrowful--she is pleading with the soldiers not to forget their "cause" and the great sacrifices they have made for it. But they march out of camp with fife and drum to a popular tune of the day. Suddenly, a new national note is heard. Putnam is coming over the hills from the center,-the soldiers turn back and cheer. --The little boy awakes, he hears the children's songs and runs down past the monument to "listen to the band" and join in the games and dances.”
The lively but almost unsettling movement matches this scenario well. The third movement, The Housatonic at Stockbridge, is based on a walk Ives had near the Housatonic River with his wife. “We walked in the meadows along the river, and heard the distant singing from the church across the river. The mist had not entirely left the river bed, and the colors, the running water, the banks and elm trees were something that one would always remember,” wrote Ives. The music in this movement is what one would expect with words like these; it’s flowing, impressionistic, and at a walking pace. At the end it becomes frantic and fortissimo then jumps right back to its serene self. It is obvious that Ives’s goal with the piece is to pull out images and specific sights more than any other method of perception.

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                 Adams’ piece, “My Father Knew Charles Ives,” is a dedication to Ives himself as well as a sort of autobiographical work. Adams grew up in rural New England, and his piece has been thought of as “Three More Places in New England.” While the four movements are assigned to places, they are much vaguer than Ives’s and have a higher percentage of emotion-evoking music than image-evoking music, like Ives’s does. Habits of day-to-day life in New England arise, and we feel more a part of the scene than just an onlooker. The first movement, Concord, begins with a far-off trumpet in a calm landscape and effectively gives the mood of morning in New England. However, it eventually opens up into a forward pushing march with a tuba line that takes the music away from typical march sounds. The second movement, The Lake, is subdued and desolate in a comforting way and reminds me of the movement Mother of the Man from Adams’s “Naïve and Sentimental Music.” In the third movement, The Mountain, Adams focuses on not a specific place but on motives in New England and details the vibes felt around these areas. In his program notes for the piece, Adams says, “Over a landscape of undulating harmonic regions, much more Adamsian than Ivesian, the upward movement forges ahead until suddenly and without warning the summit has been gained.” The Mountain isn’t just an image, but a journey.
                Both composers, Ives and Adams, chose to focus on their homes for these large scale pieces. Both are quintessential American composers writing music about a quintessential American region. They’re perspectives for the type of music they were going to write was parallel. However, the second layer of perspective was different for either composer. Ives chose to stick to image-based emotions. His three movements depict very specific places and situations in New England and the music is what one would expect for the three areas. Adams chose to pick vaguer areas and evoke the emotions that he associated with those places as he grew up. Instead of looking at a detailed painting of an area, like we feel when listening to “Three Places,” listening to “My Father Knew Charles Ives” is like sitting in the middle of these ambiguous places with our eyes closed, or half open. The trees and rocks aren’t handed to us visually, but we know where we are, and we know how it feels to be there. All art, whether it is obvious or not, almost always has multiple layers of perspective. Both methods chosen by these two composers are points of view, and there are endless layers to choose from. And it might be impossible to choose incorrectly.

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Saturday, June 11, 2011

When Dedication Transforms Us

                We all know the feeling—something daunting stands in our path, and we just want to be past it or to shy away. Most of us know that feeling of giving up, too. We might feel momentary relief from avoiding whatever that task is, but that is only temporary. Most likely, we will look back on it in the future and wish we had accomplished it. But when we look at that frightening duty straight in the face and decide that we are going to make it, it’s a whole different story. Often success stories inspire us to take on future challenges with identical gusto. Like a domino effect, it’s almost impossible for an accomplished task not to inspire others. The New England Conservatory’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (YPO) certainly knows this feeling of dedication. And their audiences, and I, know the feeling of inspiration.
                This coming week, starting June 14th, the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra is going on tour to Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s death. Not only will the orchestra, which is comprised of musicians aged 12-18, perform at the Musikverein in Vienna, the Dvořák Hall in Prague, the Smetana Open Air Festival, and the Jihlava Mahler Festival, but they will play music that isn’t normally paired with youth orchestras—Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 in D Major, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 (played by piano wunderkind George Li), Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra (played by Johan Ellsworth, the principal cellist of the YPO), Dvořák’s New World Symphony, and Ravel’s La Valse. Sounds difficult, right? But what might not be evident at first glance is that when musicians are dedicated, no matter their age, there isn’t much that can stand in their way.
                Benjamin Zander has been the conductor of the Youth Philharmonic for 38 years and has led the orchestra on 15 international tours. Zander is thought of as a renowned Mahler interpreter, having recorded seven of the composer’s symphonies. He has focused on the composer with the Boston Philharmonic, the orchestra that he has also been conducting for 32 years. Among the many inspiring aspects of the YPO, Zander is certainly key among them.  Because of his commitment, the musicians are motivated to dedicate themselves to the music, to their peers, and to themselves. In a recent video advertising the tour of the YPO and showing footage of rehearsals, musicians of the orchestra said of Zander, “he’s a great guy, we love him,” and “he makes the whole orchestra really excited about what we’re playing.” In recent “white sheets,” or reflections that the YPO musicians write after rehearsals, students said things like, “I barely noticed the time passing as we played, I was focused on only that single moment in time, of how my part fit into this incredible thing that is Mahler 9,” and “…this piece means not one thing to me, but everything. The whole world. Not just death, but life. Not just darkness, but also love.”

The NEC Youth Philharmonic Orchestra at Jordan Hall 

I had the privilege of talking with Zander about the upcoming tour, Mahler’s music, and his conducting and teaching values.
“The difference between Mahler and other symphonies is just the sheer complexity,” Zander said, “the subject matter is so overwhelmingly deep and challenging.” According to Zander, no other youth orchestra has ever played Mahler’s ninth symphony. However, he was confident that the YPO could pull it off.  “One of the characteristics of a leader is not to doubt the people he is leading. My dream is to do the Mahler ninth, and I simply don’t allow myself to question [my students],” he said.  
                This faith has certainly paid off. Youth orchestras typically aren’t thought of as some of the best ensembles out there. “It’s very rare that a youth orchestra plays like this one… A youth orchestra of this age, there just aren’t any that play at this level. When you hear one that does, you quickly change your mind,” Zander said. The YPO has most definitely changed the mind of many listeners. In a recent Boston Globe review of the orchestra’s kickoff concert on June 3rd, Jeremy Eichler wrote, “Of course you could feel that sense of stretching — the piece challenges even professional ensembles — but what was notable was how much worked so well.” On the music blog and virtual journal the Boston Musical Intelligencer, critic Geoffrey Wieting wrote, “The YPO compellingly depicted strife large and small, from declarations of war down to malicious susurrations.”

Benjamin Zander

 I was not able to attend the concert, but I did get to listen to the recording. The YPO has recordings of many of their performances on InstantEncore, including La Valse, the New World Symphony, and the Variations on a Rococo Theme, the other piece played during the kickoff concert. Jonah Ellsworth’s mastery of this Tchaikovsky cello piece was clearly shown with his ease of movement; on the second variation, he seemed to be presenting the emotions of the piece as though he was relaying a story, and on the fourth variation, the almost voice-like inflections of the cello came out with the suspended, short glissandos and lightning-fast swells of tremolo. The fifth variation was one of the most impressive because of its infectious, lower register chords that are spread out like butter, while the seventh variation closed off the piece energetically and memorably. While all the recordings on the YPO’s page are more than worth listening to, it was the Mahler that got me excited.
                Almost every musician, whether it’s an eight year old pianist or an experienced, professional violinist, has been told to play beyond the black and white notes on the page. However, Mahler’s Symphony No. 9  goes a bit further. The notes on the page only begin to suggest the emotion that can be pulled out of the piece, and each note is metaphorically significant to that time in Mahler’s life. The Ninth was Mahler’s last completed composition and serves as a farewell to the world as well as a reflection of the atmosphere of those last years. As a composer, Mahler was stuck in the middle of two periods in musical history—the dissipating world of expressive Romanticism, and the emerging methods of the Second Viennese school (Schoenberg, Webern, Berg) that suggested the movement of music to more cerebral realms. This struggle is evident in the first movement, with the pushing and pulling of these two forces presented in opposing passages that represent these different worlds. The second movement can be seen as a whole metaphor in and of itself. The movement is written as a Viennese dance called a Ländler, but is shaky, unstable, and distorted into an almost unrecognizable version of the traditional dance. Occasional fragments of the original theme surface, but it’s often overtaken by an almost sinister guide. According to Zander, this movement is meant “to convey the feeling that the splendor and warmth of traditional Vienna have vanished, that only their shadow remains.” Zander said of the symphony, "If I only had to conduct one piece of music before I died, the Mahler 9 would be it."  
Not only does Mahler’s symphony demand the ability to play emotionally beyond the written notes, but it demands an understanding of all the musical metaphors present. The YPO understands.  They played further than the score, but they played even further than the music itself. Their tone as an orchestra was full and rich, and their confidence was evident in their sound as well as their entrances and layering. The attacks of the separate parts were assured, such as in the third movement, which tips its hat to Baroque moods with ubiquitous counterpoint. Each line of the orchestra, from the trumpets to the determined strings, was confident in its duty; like a spider web, each strand is crucial to the construction of the symphony, and the YPO kept it gleaming and certain. Some of the most breathtaking parts of the Mahler Ninth are the translucent areas where the curtain of sound is thin. In the massive , heart-wrenching fourth movement, this happens multiple times—the bassoon solo, the French horn solo that soars over the hushed orchestra, and, especially, when the violins are hanging by a thread on a high-register melody while the cellos and basses lurk behind them. These are delicate areas, and they were played with care. The YPO was able to understand the layers of the symphony while staying true to its intricacy. “One of the problems with a modern interpretation of Mahler is that the great orchestras are so familiar with it, and they find it easier to play; they forget its complexity,” said Zander. The YPO didn’t only make me live inside Mahler’s music, but in Mahler’s concluding life.
When listening to the YPO’s recordings, I didn’t feel as though I was listening to a youth orchestra. However, it wasn’t that I pictured an adult orchestra playing the pieces—it was that the YPO sounded capable and determined, two adjectives that are often associated with older ensembles. Age often obscures success, and the YPO was able to transcend that and make me think only of the music that they performed. Though it sounds simple, for a youth orchestra it’s one of the most difficult tasks to make an audience forget that they are a youth orchestra and to just become source of music. "Music  is really a mysterious force, and we don’t really know how it works, but it transforms people, and the audience was transformed on that night," said Zander of the concert on June 3rd. 
 Hitting the right notes, shaping phrases expressively, creating perfect moments of silence—these are certainly things that make music sound great. But something that isn’t as measurable, but is certainly evident, is dedication. Zander believes this dedication begins with teaching. He said, “One of the things I do is I give all my kids an A in the first month of the year. They’re all A students. I teach the person who they see as the person they want to be." Here’s one of the areas where dedication morphs into inspiration.
Then it got me thinking; dedication comes in threads. Mahler was loyal to his craft, and out of it came music that not only brings tears to the eyes of listeners a century later but serves as a mirror into his inner workings. Through composers’ commitment, conductors are inspired. Conductors of orchestras must be devoted to the music they choose to work on, such as Zander’s dedication to Mahler. “I’ve had a lifetime of thinking about this music and I come home to my youth orchestra and bring home all that I’ve learned and discovered about this piece,” he said. Conductors must also be committed to the process of leading—Zander said, “It takes 30 years to build an orchestra like this. We’ve been on 15 international tours. This is the culmination.”
Musicians’ dedication fuels their inspiration to perform. In turn, listeners are inspired by them, and so on. It may be easy to give up on things and to turn our backs on daunting tasks. But, if we’re lucky, we can get picked up on one of these threads. “Let’s not kids ourselves—it’s not magic,” says Zander of the music he conducts. And he’s right; it’s simply hard work. But if we just close our eyes, it can certainly feel like magic. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer

                There are specific times when I wish I had a teleporter/something that travels at the speed of light. A lot of the time these moments come along when I’m running late or when I’m feeling especially lazy. But the majority of the time, it’s when I want to be in multiple places at once. Technically that would be impossible, but I would definitely get close. One of those times is definitely right around now—summer music festival season.
                This year, the lineups for the standout festivals around the country (and world) are worthy of this said machine. From California to New York to Salzburg, conductors like Esa-Pekka Salonen, Lorin Maazel, and Alan Gilbert will lead ensembles such as the Vienna Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, and the New York Philharmonic. Music by HK Gruber, John Cage, Bruckner, Alban Berg, Peter Brook, and many, many others will fill the stages. The festivals that are available this year bring together these great performers and music seamlessly. Instead of jumping from venue to venue, atmosphere to atmosphere, steady streams of performances are what make these festivals some of the most exciting classical events of the year.

Ojai stage--photo by Peter Jackson 
                The west half of the US is bursting with summer music festivals that, judging by the programs, all are worth visiting. The Colorado Music Festival (June 25-August 5) at the Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder is studded with classical stars, such as the soprano Kelley O’Connor and violinists Henning Kraggerud and James Ehnes, as well as jazz icons like Marcus Roberts and Chris and Dave Brubeck. Patrick Zimmerli, the jazz-classical hybrid composer, will have his “Festival Overture,” commissioned by the CMF, premiered. Marcel Tyberg's (1893-1944) completion of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony 67 years after its completion will be performed. The Brubecks will also hear their work, “Ansel Adams: America,” the one movement symphonic tribute to the photographer, performed at the festival. Also in Colorado is the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival (June 26-August 3) in Vail Valley. Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott is the artistic director of the festival for the first time this year, and three resident orchestras are taking the stage: the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Gabriel Kahane, the New York-ian composer/singer-songwriter (his piece “Craigslistlieder” is for sure worth a listen, as are many others) is the composer-in-residence. The festival is organized into ten different themes, some of them being “Beethoven: Architect of Humanity,” “Golden Twilight: The Music of Mahler,” and “Big Music for Little Bands.” Further west is the Ojai Music Festival (June 9-12) in Ojai, California. Though the festival is short compared to others, it packs a lot into one weekend. The soprano Dawn Upshaw is the director of the festival for its 65th season, and she’s brought along the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Peter Sellars, the percussion group red fish blue fish, and many other performers. Maria Schneider will perform works TBA with her orchestra, and her commissioned piece, “Winter Morning Walks,” will be premiered by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Upshaw, and conductor Richard Tognetti (the ACO and Tognetti will perform works by other composers throughout the weekend, including Crumb, Webern, Scelsi, Bach, and Tognetti himself). George Crumb’s “The Winds of Destiny,” from his American Songbook IV, will be premiered as a staged work staged by Peter Sellars.

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Lincoln Center--photo by Nils Olander
                The east half of the US is also going to be seeing some wonderful festivals this summer. The Lincoln Center Festival (July 5-August 14) is the first of two festivals at Lincoln Center (the second  is the Mostly Mozart festival) and features theater, music, dance, opera, and visual art. Directed by Nigel Redden, the festival focuses on innovative programs and bringing unique works to viewers. This year, the premiere of Peter Brook’s direction of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” is at the front of the program. Brook has changed the story and moved around the music to create a modern, youthful version of the classic; because of this new version, the LCF performance is being called "A Magic Flute." Another part of the festival that is sure to draw large audiences is the Cleveland Orchestra’s “Bruckner: (R)evolution.” The orchestra’s program will include symphonies by Bruckner.  As conductor Franz Welser-Möst “freshly reimagines” Bruckner’s music, he will be “illuminating” it with works by John Adams. The Royal Danish Orchestra will perform, as will Tom Zé. Poul Ruders’s opera, “Selma Jezková,” based on Lars Von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark, will also have its North American premiere.

Alice Busch Opera Theater--photo by dragonflyajt
      The Glimmerglass Festival (July 2-August 23) will also be held in New York but will have a much less metropolitan feel than the LCF.  “Carmen,” “Medea,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “A Blizzard On Marblehead Neck,” and “Later the Same Evening” will be performed throughout the two months at Glimmerglass’ Alice Busch Opera Theater. “A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck” was composed by Jeanine Tesori as her first operatic composition. The work will be premiered at Glimmerglass and is about an episode in the playwright Eugene O’Neill’s life. “Later the Same Evening,” composed by John Musto, is a one-act opera that was inspired by five Edward Hopper paintings. If you live, or are visiting, Illinois, you’ll want to check out the Ravinia Festival (July 27-August 19) in Highland Park. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s summer residency is having its 75th anniversary, and they’re bringing in James Conlon as the music director. He will conclude a Mahler Cycle with “Das klagende Lied” and will also present Puccini’s “Tosca.” Lang Lang and André Watts will be featured in performances of Liszt, to commemorate his bicentennial, as well as works by Berlioz, Wagner, and Brahms. The CSO will perform Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and the score to “The Lord of the Rings—The Fellowship of the Ring.” A commission from Nico Muhly for the 5 Browns and commissions from Rufus Wainwright will also be performed.

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The epic proportions of the Proms--photo by Yuichi 

Cloud Tower at Grafenegg--photo by Richard Shaw
                But the majority of concert goers don’t live in America. The lineup of festivals from Europe is equally astounding and worth looking at. The Grafenegg Festival (August 19-September 7) in Austria is presented at the Grafenegg Castle and grounds. The Tonkünstler Orchestra will be the orchestra-in-residence, and The Paris Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw, Pittsburgh Symphony (with Anne-Sophie Mutter, who was the NYPhil’s artist-in-residence this season), Israel Philharmonic, Seoul Philharmonic, and Philadelphia Orchestra (with Janine Jansen) will be the other featured ensembles with Rudolf Buchbinder as the artistic director. HK Gruber will be the festivals composer-in-residence, lead the three-day composer-conductor workshop “Ink Still Wet,” and have his “Northwind Pictures” premiered. Another Austrian festival, the Salzburg Festival (July 27-August 30), is characterized in Gramophone Magazine as “the Big One—the festival to which most other European festivals aspire…” The festival this year will include conductors Riccardo Muti, Christian Thielemann, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Ingo Metzmacher, Pierre Boulez, Gustavo Dudamel, Daniel Barenboim, and Sir Simon Rattle (that’s pretty dang superstar). Verdi’s “Macbeth,” Strauss’s “Die Frau Ohne Schatten,” Janáček’s “The Makropulos Affair,” Stravinsky's "Le Rossingnol," Tchaikovsky's "Iolanta," and Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Don Giovanni,” and “Cosi fan tutte” (the three operas in which Mozart collaborated with Lorenzo Da Ponte) will be the chosen works for the operatic section of the festival. The music program “The Fifth Continent” will include Nono’s “Prometeo,” Cage’s “Ryoanji,” Salvatore Sciarrino’s “Macbeth,” and Feldman’s “Neither.” Mahler symphonies and songs will also be performed. The resident Vienna Philharmonic will perform along with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, and others. And, of course, we can’t forget the (BBC) Proms (July 16-September 11). Since the Proms, which is a collection of daily classical concerts (over 70) in London’s Royal Albert Hall, are so immense and jam-packed with countless performers and orchestras, it’s almost impossible to overview them—definitely go to the Prom website to see what interests you if you are able to attend. A few concerts that look exciting to me are Prom 5 (Messiaen, Dusapin, Beethoven), Prom 30 (Gabriel Prokofiev), Prom 34 (Bridge, Holt, Dupré, Saint-Saëns), Prom 36 (Reich), Prom 43 (Copland, Bax, Barber, Bartók, Prokofiev), and Proms Saturday Matinee 4 (Tippett, Tavener, Gubaidulina)—though, if the opportunity to attend every single one arose, I would take it in a second.
                  Whew. Writing that was a workout, and all of that music is happening in the expanse of around four months. As concert goers or even just music lovers, it’s common to feel a disconnect from one concert to the next—new venues, new performers, new cities, new atmospheres—and that’s the beauty of these ubiquitous summer music festivals across the globe. Not only do they present us with astounding music from amazing performers, but they do it in a setting where we feel like we are part of a singular train of thought. Mozart and Cage might be performed in the same week, but because they are part of a consistent community of performances, we are reminded that music, at its core, isn’t political or segregated or controversial; it’s just sound that enters our body, technically. But if all of this can come out of simple sound waves, there must be something else to it—something that we might not be able to figure out, but something that we can definitely feel. But, just in case, maybe I should look into this teleporter. For research, of course.  

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chamber(ed) Music

                I looked up the word “chamber” on trusty ol’ Having faith in my cluttered pool of accumulated definitions, I expected to find exactly what I was looking for. However, as dictionaries usually are, the descriptions were quite technical with total abandonment of emotion (“a room in a palace or official residence”). Usually, when I imagine a chamber, I think of something more intimate and necessary, like a lung, a chest of old items, a cello—or, appropriately, chamber music. I don’t have to go to to know what the definition of “chamber music” is, but I also think the genre it makes us often think of isn’t the only type of music the name can be connected to. We think of sound waves as concepts that move outward, like a shout or a radio wave being broadcasted to millions. But we also all know that not all emotions are meant to be broadcasted—I bet the majority of feelings reside in the inner walls of our bodies. So, if music, in many cases, is the equivalent to emotion, it most certainly can be trapped inside something too—a chamber? Now, the type of music I’m thinking of isn’t played out of speakers enclosed in a box or anything like that; but there’s almost this other realm of aural expression that implodes on itself. Whether this music is an impression of a literal chamber, a metaphorical chamber, or is something we ourselves can place inside our own chambers of thought and reception, it all is empathetic—it makes us place ourselves inside of the cavity it builds instead of building the cavity around us. This act is difficult, but the act of building the chamber is, too.

                The first piece that got me thinking of this concept was Missy Mazzoli’s “Cathedral City,” performed by her five-person, all-female classical band Victoire. This piece eases into the area of “Neochamber music” gently by presenting a literal depiction of a chamber. When I think of a chamber, as stated before, it seems like a special place filled with emotions and preserved feelings. Cathedrals are filled with scripture, songs, reverberations, and beliefs. The piece begins with timbres one would not be surprised to hear coming out of a church. However, this feeling only lasts purely for a few seconds as it is quickly accompanied by a rattling twitch and occasional electronic bleeps. Then, in come all the musicians, playing what can be classified as neither classical nor alternative music singlehandedly, but more like somewhere in between.   There is a light beat backing the ensemble and electronics, and its muffled nature sounds like a heartbeat. The other internal sounds (the almost back-of-the-brain vocals, the ambiguous recording of a speaking voice, the everlasting, light, cymbal-like touches, the phantom noises…) centralize the piece somewhere inside the listener, making us feel like a box where all these sounds can explode safely, leaving all the outside objects untouched. “Cathedral City” does in fact have fugue elements, but the whole tone of the piece doesn’t clue the listener into that fact upfront. Mazzoli’s piece almost stops time.


             While Mazzoli’s piece relates to a chamber not only emotionally, but architecturally, the next piece I found to be similar to these types of works was Sarah Kirkland Snider’s piece “I Died of Waiting.” The piece comes from a song cycle called Penelope (inspired by the music theater piece by the same name) composed by Snider, inspired by Homer’s epic The Odyssey. Along with Snider’s music (which was played by the chamber orchestra Signal and conducted by Brad Lubman), the vocals were written by playwright McLaughlin and sung by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond. Penelope is unlike anything heard before. It’s a story, a reflection, and a collection of wonderful, unique music. The music of Penelope fits in with these thoughts of “chamber” music because of the emotions behind the story. Penelope, Odysseus’s wife in The Odyssey, was left behind at her home, waiting for her husband to return from his voyage, for 20 years. During all that time, she was kept in her palace, staying loyal to her husband. While the music theater piece written by McLaughlin and Snider follows a different plot, the themes are the same. The music reflects emotions of loneliness, abandonment, and struggle. While the pieces with Worden’s voice are haunting and very well worth listening to, the piece “I Died of Waiting,” the one that I felt fit into this category best, has no vocals and is very short (about 1:15). In the background are incredibly far-off shouts of despair, barely heard, and weaved inside of the mainly string instrument work are sentimental sounds, like the creaking of an old tree, the crackling of a fire, and seagulls. The first half of the piece is dominated by lonely strokes of the upper register string instruments accompanied by a three-note pizzicato plug by the cello. Eventually, all the pre-recorded sounds fade out for a few seconds while the strings collect into a moody, heart-wrenching chord, and the piece is carried out by electronics. The title and overall emotion of the piece are extremely introverted. By taking sounds from the outside world that remind the title character of her loved one and placing them in this thought-piece, it makes “I Died of Waiting” like a memory by itself—certainly something that would reside in a chamber.

                The final piece of captured music is by an ambient duo titled itsnotyouitsme (spaces and capitals purposefully omitted), made up of Caleb Burhans (violinist) and Grey McMurray (guitarist). Ambient music is a genre that can be formed to any emotion—because it is so malleable to begin with, any piece of ambient music can be placed inside of the body or extremely far away from the body. Technically, a listener could completely disagree with my opinion, but I believe that the duo’s track “we are the sons of our fathers” is one that resonates more on the inside, in the chambers of the body, in all the dark and empty spaces. The tones are so subtle and suppressed during the attacks, but then are let loose; it’s like the tones are condensed and placed in a chamber, only to grow once enclosed. Or, maybe more visually, like crumpling up a piece of paper and having it slowly open up like a flower. itsnotyouitsme does a great job of keeping their tracks open to interpretation while having definite views of where their music is going. I bet if you dictionary-ed “chamber music,” itsnotyouitsme would not come up. But are they a different kind?
                Sound waves are produced often with the purpose of traveling somewhere outside of the source. We have microphones, speakers, amplifiers; all the gear that makes sure we are heard. But sometimes, it’s best if we just stay inside ourselves for a little while. Our body itself is a chamber, and we have many chambers inside that chamber: our brain, our lungs, our hearts, and others. “Chamber music” as a common genre is something almost every major composer has written for. But maybe it’s “chambered” music that is another type. The type that doesn’t need to go anywhere. The type that is comfortable where it was conceived.