Thursday, August 18, 2011


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

Admit it, you've probably seen worse

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

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Urban Orchestra

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

A psychedelic shot of the BPhil

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

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

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

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Listening to Illumination

                “…everything is illuminated in the light of the past. It is always along the side of us, on the inside, looking out.”

                On one of those nights that closes a day of doing absolutely nothing, I took advantage of our valuable three month preview of HBO. I’m currently reading The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, and, coincidentally, the movie version of her husband Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Everything is Illuminated was on. No, no, I haven’t read the book. Yes, yes, I know I should. And I will. But this movie, while not necessarily staying entirely true to the book, is one of those instances where it has made its own impact. It definitely did on me.

                The story is about a young man named Jonathan Safran Foer who goes to the Ukraine to find a woman named Augustine who saved his grandfather in the war. He is a collector, but not of bottle caps, stamps, or the like—he collects everyday objects that have to do with his family and ancestors. Glasses, photographs, letters, dentures—anything that is slightly significant to him he seals up in a plastic Ziploc bag and tacks onto his wall next to the relative’s name and photograph. He sets out on his journey, and guiding him is a young Ukrainian man, Alex, and his grandfather (and his grandfather’s deranged “seeing eye” dog named Sammy Davis Jr., Jr., though he isn’t really blind). Along the way, the viewer is clued into the fact that the grandfather was almost killed in World War II and saw many of his friends and family die. Flashes of these memories occur throughout the movieFinally, the band arrives at their destination, a place called Trachimbrod. The woman they meet there is also like Jonathan—she collects the objects people buried at the river of the village and stores them in boxes around her house. She lives among these memories like they are living, breathing people. The woman (who—in the movie—is Augustine’s sister), takes the men to the site where many men were killed during the war. When Jonathan leaves the Ukraine, Alex sends him a copy of his account of the “rigid” search along with a letter that includes the above quote.
                I hope I haven’t lost you in my painfully-shortened synopsis. The point is, I completely agree with this quote, and I think it explains the reasons for many different things. Each small moment in our lives becomes a memory that could eventually become a major part in our existence. Whether we know it or not, the smallest memories, like the sand Jonathan collected in a Ziploc bag from the river bank in “Everything is Illuminated,” can represent something larger. Technically, every single thing we experience becomes a memory. Therefore, each sound we hear becomes a memory. Sometimes, sounds themselves are memories. But other times, sounds merely contribute to memories and can trigger the remembering of an event or image. For example, as I was writing notes on this subject after the movie, I muted the TV. Because of that absence of sound, I was more focused in my thoughts, so my memory of that moment will be more attentive.  Because I happened to mute the TV during commercials, maybe I don’t know about the latest bathroom cleaner or brand of crackers. See? That small change in the sound around me changed my life. Yes, it was insignificant. No, that moment most likely will not influence what college I go to or who I marry. But it happened because of sound.
                Now, music, one could say, is the highest level of sound. It’s purposefully created and is usually willed to happen. We all know that music affects us in different ways, and I bet it makes us look at the world differently in the future. But I think Alex puts it best: “…everything is illuminated in the light of the past.” If, ultimately, everything we experience becomes a memory, music could be called an intended memory maker. A composer might not sit down at the piano thinking “I’m going to make a memory right now,” but that is at the end of the day what they are doing.
                When I was around 4 years old, I watched a VHS tape called “My Many Colored Days,” based off of Dr. Seuss’s book of the same name. The video was one of the first computer animated movies I had ever seen. It follows the book, which is about a boy describing how colors fit his certain moods on specific days, with music composed by Richard Einhorn and performed by the Minnesota Orchestra. Not only did the movie tap into a child’s different emotions paired with sound, but it showed many clips of the orchestra and individual instruments.  The memorable pieces are paired up with images of shining brass of the horns, a celesta, oboes, and many others. I’ve been wondering about it for a while now, but I do think that, in this case, everything I love now is illuminated by the past. If I had not watched that video, sure, I could definitely still be into classical music today. But seeing an orchestra in action, seeing the nuts and bolts of the process along with the aural results, definitely could have planted a seed.
                 Isn’t this what all music does? Each piece we hear as a listener creates an instant memory that lives along side of us for the rest of our lives. Sometimes, memories like this are never recycled. But the majority of the time, the music we have heard aides us in choosing what recordings to buy, what concerts to go to, or possibly what instrument to learn or to compose for.
                Maybe this is one of the things that make music so valuable. Sure, we can dance to music. The cultural accompaniments to music are invigorating. Music creates jobs. Music allows for unimaginable creativity. These are all true and important. But, maybe, behind all those other reasons, is an archive filing those sounds you’re heard in that Haydn piano sonata last night, waiting to use them again to influence your later life. And, the good part is, we don’t have to use Ziploc bags. 

Store those memories
photo by Michael Flick