Sunday, February 26, 2012

Left Brain / Reich Brain

           “Feeling” certainly seems like a verb that is constantly practiced. In fact, this might be proven to be true. However, with common means of communication, it is truly rare when the essence of how we feel is described. There are words to label how we feel, such as “sad” or “excited” or “pleasant.” But a feeling is always something unique, and these constants of identification are yet another way to bring attention to only what is immediately going on around us. With words, it’s often impossible to describe exactly how we feel.
            Feelings, despite their complexity, can be realized through simple methods, and one of them has proven to be Steve Reich. Still celebrating his 75th birthday year (his birthday was in October of 2011), Chatter 20|21, a branch of New Mexico’s concert collective Chatter, will be a perfect area to find true feeling at their Reich retrospective concert titled “Left Brain / Reich Brain” on March 3rd.

Left Brain Reich Brain
I want this as a tattoo, please
Steve with the signature hat

            Reich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning piece “Double Sextet,” as well as “Clapping Music” and his revolutionary string quartet “Different Trains” will be played at the Chatter 20|21 concert. Chatter, which in and of itself is an organization rich in passion and dedication to its audiences, has been building up to the concert with small performances of Reich pieces, such as “Marimba (Piano) Phase” and “Vermont Counterpoint” (future dates of Reich performances by Chatter are March 11 and May 20).
             Reich’s music is the repertoire almost every musician points to when the topics “minimalist” or “20th and 21st century in general” are brought up. Centering on heavy pulses and simple yet mind-blowing shifts in large groups of instruments, Reich is arguably America’s greatest living composers and one of the greatest of all time. What makes him so great? Well, it’s hard to describe, and there’s where the trouble with language comes in again. Perhaps that’s why Reich chose music.
            Unlike the sweeping, plot-like melodies of Romantic and Classical pieces or the sometimes disconcerting sounds of the Second Viennese School, Reich’s music is incredibly simple in form. However, Reich accomplishes more than many regarded composers before him did. Through his meditative and naturally harmonic sounds, Reich digs deep into the mind listeners and releases the tangled mess of senses, memories, and stories. What emerges when listening to his music is a balanced, clear mind that allows one full access to their subconscious self. What surrealist painters tried to reach through scattered, subjective object collages, Reich achieves through long periods of pulsing and perfectly placed tension and resolution points.
            “Double Sextet,” written in 2007 and commissioned by the ensemble eighth blackbird (capitals purposefully omitted), is a work in three movements for violin, cello, flute, clarinet, and vibraphone.  Each movement in the piece includes four harmonic sections in the keys of D, F, A flat, and B. The first movement, “Fast,” starts with a locomotive beat from the vibraphone and piano and long sweeps from the other instruments. In this movement, the vibraphone and piano establish themselves as mother and father presences in the piece. The pulses in “Slow” are more subtle and less like roads and more like fences. The third movement, a second “Fast,” has a beat that brings one’s heart level up—it’s inspirational and confident. The bass notes of the piano morph it from a valley to a precipice. The piece plays with the natural human response of leaning towards sound; that moment when a close-in-pitch note is added to a chord and instantly the eyebrows of the listener crinkle together.

            “Different Trains” is one of Reich’s landmark pieces (and won him a Grammy). The piece is based on the sounds and meanings of trains during World War II. When Reich wrote the piece, he traveled from New York to Los Angeles frequently to visit his parents during the war. He realized that if he were in Europe at the same time, because he is a Jew, he might have been riding Holocaust trains. The pulsing of the strings is undeniably train-like, and looped tape of interview excerpts from various people in Europe and the US before, during, and after the war (the movements are consequently titled “America-Before the War,” “Europe-During the War” and “After the War”). Each melody in the movements, usually a small fragment from one of the instruments, is derived from the pitch of the voices in the interviews. The combination of man and machine is primitive and revealing. The sounds work together, and yet the allusions to the war create realizations that counter these aural acceptances.

            These pieces, with their simplicity and consistency, strip away the ever-changing plot lines and melodies of pieces of previous centuries, leaving only the natural responses. Because the constant pulsing of notes doesn’t leave much room for storytelling, the listener strays away from creating images or other related thoughts. Through Reich’s methods, “feeling” as a verb can be truly practiced and recognized. My personal example is with “After the War.” For me, the sounds from that movement create the pure feeling of resolution and yet knowing there is a long way to go. Words can’t adequately describe the feeling, and the only image I can think of would be standing on a road that goes further than the eye can see. But with the sound, the feeling itself is created.
            Storytelling is a common template of music because it’s comfortable—we are guided through the way we are supposed to feel when we listen. However, the separation of true feeling and the world that sometimes covers it up is an experience that everyone needs, and listening to Reich is a way to do that (among the thousands of other things his music can do to you). Chatter 20|21, along with including some of my favorite musicians, will surly bring all the passion of Reich that he deserves in his 75th year of life. I can feel it. 

Chatter A Chamber ensemble

Colbert's obviously not happy with his fellow Steven (only watch the beginning)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Large Problem that One Blog Post Cannot Fully Encompass (but I tried)

The Problem              
I remember driving in my car once and having a stack of classical CDs that I’d been wanting to listen to, but in that moment, I really wanted to listen to Pearl Jam. I ended up listening to them, belting all the lines of “Even Flow,” but for a second, I felt a tinge of guilt for choosing rock over classical. Immediately this feeling passed, and I scoffed at the idea of one genre being the one I “should have” listened to.
            This feeling must have come from somewhere, however, and I think almost every classical musician can agree where: the stereotypical bashing on pop, rock, hip-hop, and many other genres from classically trained musicians. This arcane opinion is, well, arcane, but despite all the genre-mixing in the last couple of years and the obvious talent of many non-classical musicians, there are still people who believe all pop music is evil.
            (DISCLAIMER: I have a couple of friends who I recently bantered with about some indie musicians—this does not count as “all pop music.”).
            Now, don’t get me wrong—there are definitely artists who gain success simply out of dying their blue hair, speaking party-oriented word over and over (and over) again, or playing G, D, E minor, and C on their guitars. But finding quality, complex music in non-classical genres is about as easy as playing this four-chord music.
            Many aspects of incredible, popular music are easily heard. Part of the problem, I think, is the will to listen.

The Example
            A couple of weeks ago, I saw Genghis Barbie in concert. The French horn quartet from New York City plays arrangements of classic pop songs from the past decades, ranging from Queen to Toto. All of the members are masters of the instrument and have 26 combined years of conservatory training, but the word “pop” still causes people to say things like “Sorry ladies; all flash, no substance” or “the horn will never be a disco/party instrument!” in comments under their videos. The reason I can speculate that it is only the word “pop” that’s doing this is, well… just have a listen:
Though Seal might is classified under R&B, his music is still in the popular genre. Inside of his song is the guide for this arrangement, one that wanders, resolves, and still has the infectious quality of an R&B song. At their concert, Genghis Barbie played Queen, Lady Gaga, Toto, Leonard Cohen, and Sisqo. But they also played Schumann’s “Ausgewählte,” and it blended in with the rest of the program seamlessly. I wasn’t pulled into a different world of sound; in fact, it was almost indistinguishable from the other pieces.
            Despite the obvious talent of both Genghis Barbie itself, the arrangers, and some of the artists they play arrangement of, they still receive comments like the ones above. Some of them have to do with the clothes they wear (but who wouldn’t want an excuse to wear orange spandex? Really?), but many have to do with the conversion of an instrument so comfortable in the concert hall to one that emits melodies people hear on the radio.

The Reason for the Problem
            “Quality” as an independent entity is one of the most abstract ideas. The definition of “quality” for purely classical or pop musicians is very different. Oftentimes, a classical performer is dubbed as a quality performer if they have good technique. The ability to rip through arpeggios and effortlessly land on the resolving note is something that would constitute someone as a “good” musician. Of course, there are countless other factors to the quality of a classical musician, but the aspects seem much more definable because of two distinct reasons:
1) Classical music focuses on the abilities of the instrument or performer, even if this means the voice.
2) It is most common for a musician to either be the composer or the performer at one specific time, not both.
These factors put more focus on the actual playing itself and the specific roles of the people involved, making the “quality,” we like to believe, easier to detect. If quality is easier to detect, shouldn’t classical music be of higher quality because we are able to weed out the low quality music? Well…
            However, pop music (encompassing all non-classical genres) seems to measure quality in a different way. Quality is more subjective for pop music because:
1) The vocals, one of the largest pillars of pop music, are more conversational and emotion inducing through describing situations (rather than through poetry or the specific tones of the voice)
2) The music of pop music (stereotypically) is meant to create an atmosphere rather than be the direct guide through the story, as in classical.
Therefore, the determination of quality is more up to the individual—this makes deciding who is a good musician more difficult (unless we follow the criteria more often followed in classical). As a result, pop music is more easily insulted and harder to defend. A pop musician could use one chord progression throughout an entire song, but the song could be called great because of the successful construction of passion. Does this make the song bad? Certainly not. Does it make it good? Who knows?
The Solution, or Rather What Everyone Should Realize
Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which you should read if you truly want to find a way to understand quality for yourself), wrote something that, if understood, could make everyone’s mind open to all music:
“Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions.
If everyone removed their prior perception of quality, or even their judgments of pop or classical music, the true essence of all music could be brought out. Quality will always be impossible to define wholly. Sometimes, pop musicians will be virtuosos at their craft, and sometimes contemporary classical music will call for one, continuous note from a performer.
The 21st century is the prime time for genre crossing as well. As Stephen Gosling and John Schaefer said in the SONICFestival’s video, composers of “classical” (those quotes don’t prove my point enough) music are incorporating Indie music vibes, Indie musicians are using orchestral, complicated arrangements, rappers are performing with philharmonics, and some of the most popular artists out there (Adele, anyone?) are remarkably talented. The point is, there is simply no way of determining whether or not a genre is good or bad, and most definitely no way of knowing that a song is bad because of the genre it has been assigned to.

America, Your Moment of Zen
Maybe this is all happening to us (again, Pirsig):
“It is a puzzling thing. The truth knocks on the door and you say, "Go away, I'm looking for the truth," and so it goes away. Puzzling.”

And Finally, Some Suggestions for Good, Popular Music

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Dear Philip Glass, 

First of all, happy birthday week, and I wanted to say a couple of things to you. Thank you for making me a more patient person, one who can now go into that moment of purgatory between consciousness and the dreamworld when listening to music that is not only yours, but Reich's, Adams's, Andres's, and many others. Thank you for composing a piece that I can play at the piano when I'm feeling too busy or unfocused and automatically calm down. Thank you for giving the world a movie that I could watch with my dad when I was 10 and realize that movies didn't have to center on interactions between humans. Thanks for making "classical" music something that everyone loves, even if just a little. And thank you for making sound the simple thing that it is, in the most beautiful way possible. 


drawing of philip (by me)