Friday, March 30, 2012

My Mavericks

There comes a time when you're studying for a test on World War I, and you're making a list with bullet points on Microsoft Word, and you get to the sixth indented roman numeral and you realize you have to stop. So this is happening.

WQXR's Q2 has been having musicians and composers create "Maverick Mixtapes" in honor of the San Francisco Symphony's "American Mavericks" concert series (I left San Francisco 4 days before this festival started... don't we all hate time and obligations sometimes?). Shara Worden, Dan Deacon, Owen Pallet, and many others have created wonderful mixtapes including pieces from composers they believe to exemplify an American Maverick.

I'm going to post my own Maverick Mixtape, even though I'm no professional composer. This is why I love the internet (less self-centered posts will be coming, including the response to the Great Arts Blogger Challenge's second prompt and a review of a couple concerts from the John Donald Robb Composers' Symposium).

John Luther Adams: In the White Silence

John Luther Adams is perhps the composer who pulls off "nature inspiration" better than anyone. While this 75 minute piece would not fit in a radio program (and I probably wouldn't start with it, realistically), we're going to break some broadcasting rules here. "In The White Silence" is meditative yet active, and achieves stillness without monotony. While listening to this piece, the translucent, glassy, colorful appearance of tissue paper comes to mind (that seems more romantic than it sounds). The constant changes of texture are subtle, and it transports you to Alaska-like landscapes without even knowing Adams's connection to the state.

Henrey Cowell: Tiger

For some reason, this piece is so... tigery? I wondery why. Cowell's solo piano works are so strange, and yet they stand out from all the other strange, dissonant pieces.  William Blake's "The Tyger," the poem the piece was based on, creates a sinister yet magical feel that is perfectly reflected in this piece.

David Lang: this was written by hand

Lang's entire album this was written by hand gives the piano those bare, watery pieces it needs. It's incredibly difficult to pull off successful simplicity like Lang does with "this was written by hand" (the piece, as well as all the others on the album). "this was written by hand" has contemporary fugue spurts that are beautifully melancholy. They cascade into satisfying pauses and uneven dribbles.

Steve Reich: Double Sextet

This piece is a force of nature. I heard it performed live recently, and it captures attention through out the entire duration. The rolling piano pulses grip the listener from the middle, and the the heart-wrenching breaks from this pulse are insane. This is probably one of the most satisfying pieces to listen to. That feeling of leaning into the sound is frequent.

Timothy Andres: Bathtub Shrine

Andres (photo by Jonathan Waiter)

"Bathtub Shrine" is, to put it generically, gorgeous. From the crying strings at the beginning to the low, phantomy transitions, Andres creates clouds of sound that is addicting (I've probably listened to the YSO play this more than 10 times while doing homework). The painting of sounds is seamless. Andres, on his website, says "Bathtub Shrine" has the effect of "a giant bathroom." That's some pretty awesome and literal description right there.

Nico Muhly: It Goes Without Saying


I'm not really sure why this piece is so maverick-y, but it just IS, MAN. The thoughtful, suspenful, singular  clarinet notes at the beginning of Muhly's "It Goes Without Saying" make the piece seem incredibly human. They dance around the harmonium, and their clicks give it a feeling of language, of communication.

Roshanne Etezady: Inkling

This piece is so perfect, it's my ringtone. Etezady's piece for saxophone quartet redefines the instrument. Instead of relying on its ability to cry out and be jazzy, Etezady uses the instruments for their tone and their ability to create a quartet with inseperable components. It's soft, pulsing, and perfectly formed.

Jonny Greenwood: Popcorn Superhet Receiver

The family of constant dissonant pieces don't necessarily hold a special place in my heart, but Greenwood's piece definitely does. It moves with purpose and direction, and the chords at the beginning give the piece character instead of chaos. Oh, there is definitely some chaos, but it feels controlled and reliable, like the purposeful destruction of a building. Plus, I have a weird crush on Jonny.  

Feldman: Rothko Chapel

Feldman's "Rothko Chapel," with its strange instrumentation and sometimes-terrifying drones, is incredibly maverick-y. Rothko's paintings and the space of the chapel can be felt in the canyons of sound the piece create. Feldman, in my opinion, is the most successful composer of music like this--you can be captivated by a single sound for 5 minutes and not even know why.

Aphex Twin: Jynweythek

I KNOW APHEX TWIN/RICHARD JAMES IS NOT AMERICAN. I just have to put this on here. I'm sorry.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Great Arts Blogger Challenge - Capitalization Without Representation

Dear awesome people who read my blog: 
For the next couple of weeks (hopefully), I will be participating in the Spring for Music Festival's Great Arts Blogger Challenge. To start, I had to respond to the following prompt. This post and my blog will be linked on their website, I will be placed in their blog bracket, and voting will begin Monday. If I get enough votes, I'll move on, get another prompt, and repeat this process, hopefully the maximum amount of times. If I win, I get some green as well as tickets to the Spring for Music Festival in New York City at Carnegie Hall. I wrote about this festival last year, and just the thought of this makes me overly excited--BUT, just the chance to have my work seen by a diverse group of people is exciting as well! If I advance, I hope you (regular readers of my blog) will make like reality show viewers and vote for me. Tell you friends and neighbors. Thanks guys. 


photo by kaysha on Flickr
New York (see the difference?)

 New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America. Is it still? If not, where?

            As a teenager in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a city widely spread out along a valley of desert, hundreds of miles from any major city, I’m immersed in a general mood of disdain for my surroundings. Some remarks I here almost daily are:
            “There’s nothing to do here!”
            “I hate New Mexico”
            “Why don’t we have an American Apparel?”
            “I don’t even like green chile.”
Naturally, many eyes of Albuquerque citizens look east toward New York City, for obvious reasons. In every aspect of culture, the Big Apple is the hub. Fashion, food, theater, movies, etc.; everything seems to be in the upper right-hand corner of the country. For a while, I believed this too. I convinced myself that the reason for my inevitable uncoolness was because of my separation from this city, one that holds a similar feeling to Dorothy’s Oz for many people.
            This feeling only worsened as I became more obsessed with contemporary classical music. The bios of most major composers said “currently lives in New York,” and most studied at Julliard, other New York schools, or Yale, a couple of hours away. Most of the members of ensembles such as the NOW Ensemble, Bang on a Can, So Percussion, and JACK Quartet reside in New York. Venues and festivals such as (le) Poisson Rouge, the SONiC Fesival, the Ecstatic Music Festival, and the MATA Festival are held in the city. I honestly could go on and on, but you get the point—on paper and in person, New York still seems like the culture capital of the country.
            But, when naming the capital of something, it is important to realize what that “something” is. What is culture?
            My best friend,, says culture is:




1.the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.

So, culture is based on the overall feeling of a place. When I hear “culture capital,” it makes it sound like culture is a commodity, something you can buy in bulk at Costco. For New York to be the true capitol in this sense, it would have to embody all of America, right? And while NYC comes very close, it’s truly impossible for a culture capital to exist. This may seem cynical, but it’s empowering when realized.

Every city, town, or village has a culture. This is inescapable—if humans inhabit a place, they affect the overall feel of the community with their personalities, their businesses, their food, their opinions, etc. Even the smallest town in, say, Arkansas, has a culture. Maybe there’s a band in that town that plays at a bar every week. Everyone knows their songs and can sing along—this contributes to the culture of that town, and will make it different from any other city in Arkansas.

For a more personal example, I’ll use Albuquerque.

A couple of months ago, a classical music organization called Chatter had a concert. Chatter puts on concerts every Sunday morning, and about twice a month at night. I’ve been volunteering with this organization since 2009, and it’s probably the most important thing in my life. Through it, I’ve met friends and musicians, and I’ve learned about a world of music that I wouldn’t have without it.

This particular night was a focus on Native American composers. I was taking tickets for it, and I noticed many of the audience members were Native American. A man who sat beside me told me how he read about the concert in a local arts newspaper called the Alibi. I could tell he was new to contemporary music, but he was excited and clapped enthusiastically between each movement, something that probably wouldn’t happen at a concert in New York. The coffee that was being served was from a company called Fat Boy Coffee, based in the mountains just east of the venue.

The music started with a piece for timpani called “Taloa’ Hiloha,” or “Thunder Song” by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. It was booming, rhythmic, and infectious. Next we heard “Katcina Danses” for cello and piano by the legendary composer Louis W. Ballard. Ballard’s name isn’t plastered over New York-based websites, but he has won numerous awards and has been an incredibly influential Native American composer.

We then heard a piece by Celeste Lansing, a 16-year-old Native composer from Utah. A while back, I got to interview her and write about her music. Finally, we heard a world premiere of a piece by Raven Chacon, an experimental composer and Albuquerquean. His piece was echo-y and reminded me of a more organic, weathered version of many famous indeterminate composers’ pieces.

I look back on this concert now and realize how incredibly Southwestern it was. When I say “Southwestern,” I don’t mean it in the way gift shops would (turquoise, tribal designs, or cacti dotting a flat plain of desert). I supposed you had to be there to get the real feeling.

With location and community-specific culture like this, it’s impossible for there to be one place that can be the capital of it all. The U.S. has around 25,000 “places,” (whatever that means). Each inevitably has its own culture, including New York. New York definitely has a lot of “culture,” in terms of the arts, diversity, and personality (much of which I’m jealous of), but that’s what makes it specifically New York and nothing else.


I walked outside after the concert in Albuquerque was over. The door to the venue faces the Sandia Mountains. The radio towers at the top of the peaks gave off sprinkles of light, and the dry cold of December had brought patches of snow only to the tops of the peaks.

You couldn’t get that anywhere else. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

You Have 11 Days! (PARMA Student Composer Competition)

             In 11 days, the submission period of the 2012 PARMA Student Composer Competition closes. This is definitely an opportunity worth taking!
            The competition, which is the first in a series of annual competitions for student composers, is sponsored by PARMA Recordings (the parent of Navona, Ravello, and Big Round Records) based in New England. Ten winners will be selected, and the grand prize winner will have their piece recorded by PARMA, put in the 2012 PARMA Anthology Of Music: Student Edition, and distributed through Naxos. This is a chance for a large audience to hear your work—Naxos is the industry leader. Most of the CDs on my shelf have the blue pillars of the logo on the back cover.
            Here are the guidelines:                                                 
·         Composer must be enrolled in a composition program or studying   privately with a professional composer
·         Composer must be 30 years of age or younger
·         Piece must be written for up to five performers
·         Piece must be ten minutes or less in duration
To enter, fill out the submission form and send in a PDF of the score with an MP3 or MIDI recording. One work per composer, please. 
Good luck to all of you who submit! I hope to be listening to your pieces soon. 

Brooklyn Rider: Seven Steps


            Whether conscious or not, it is difficult not to prepare for the music you are about to hear. You might be in an audience or listening to music on your iPod, but chances are your eyes will try to find the name of the upcoming piece. If you just heard a piece from the 20th century, seeing Brahms’s or Schumann’s name will most likely cause an involuntary shift in perspective.
            So when I listened to Christopher Tignor’s piece “Together Into This Unknowable Night,” composed in 2008, transition to Beethoven’s monumental String Quartet No. 14 opus131 naturally and without a change in perspective (or look at the back of the CD, for that matter), I knew the quartet and album they came from were special.
            The quartet is Brooklyn Rider, and the CD is their recently released album Seven Steps. The unforgettable group from New York, composed of Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen on violin, Nicholas Cords on viola, and Eric Jacobsen on cello, definitely lets the concept of “variety” run through their veins: not only do their albums include selections from different times and genres, but they’re as collaborative and creative as they are interpretive—they work with other musicians, Colin Jacobsen often writes music for the quartet, and Seven Steps’s title track is the group’s first collaborative composition. 
            Brooklyn Rider’s Seven Steps uses Beethoven’s showstopper as just that—but instead of the contemporary pieces simply filling space, they work with the colossal piece. The number seven figuratively appears in multiple forms throughout the CD. The Beethoven quartet is seven movements, “Seven Steps” is divided into seven parts, and the number seven relates not only to Beethoven’s later life, but life in general (Buddha allegedly took seven steps at birth). 
            It’s rare when the programming of a body of work contributes almost as much as the music itself, and this aspect of Seven Steps is a sort of lesson. Sounds don’t have to be labeled as “old” or “new” and heard as such. Brooklyn Rider reminded me that when music is being played, it’s always in the moment, no matter what century it was created in. Maybe this seems obvious, but in a forward-thinking and trend-obsessed world, it is often forgotten. Seven Steps engulfs the listener in the music and pure fun of listening to it. The labels we have been trained to remember and assign melt away.  

Brooklyn Rider, being cool
            The bulk of the album is Beethoven’s opus 131. The piece is known for its enormity (in both size and importance), but Brooklyn Rider’s successful interpretation is sincere and approachable. The piece's movements range from a melancholy fugue to a high energy scherzo with a theme difficult to stop humming after a listen. The sounds that wriggle into the deepest parts of the brain put the listener inside the work, deep inside the conversational movements. Brooklyn Rider’s attitude pairs well with this. While listening to the quartet, you can almost see their eyebrows rising and their moving shoulders interacting with each other. This approach is refreshing--you feel like a part of the action instead of an onlooker. However, there are moments, such as the calm, descending transitions in the second movement, when the organic feel of Brooklyn Rider sounds odd with the tight and particular structure of Beethoven. There are phrases that sound too casual, too linearly thought out.
            The CD starts with the title track, “Seven Steps.” It’s not surprising the piece was composed by Brooklyn Rider—the immediate folk influences, the suspenseful bow bounces, and the overarching sense of collaboration make you grin and brace yourself for what's coming next.  It’s incredibly easy to listen to, probably because it was partially improvised. While the different sections have widely different themes and flavors, none adhere to a certain “genre,” and it becomes its own type of music. “Seven Steps” is like a person, quaint in some ways, intense in others, with countless personality traits.
            “Together Into This Unknowable Night” by Christopher Tignor, the second track on Seven Steps, brings the quartet into a cloud of similarly-moving lines. The sounds, metallic and adventurous to calm and melancholy, are backed up by distant electronics and voices. While each instrument is recognizable and can be separated in the listener’s head, the piece feels much larger. The emotion produced cannot be taken in one dose. There is not much variance in the structure of the strings, and this can get redundant if you try to focus on the quartet separate from the meditative nature of the entire work. The section that causes a gaping mouth (in the good way) is the last few minutes, when the strings are exhaling, dissolving into the distance, and the recorded voices echo in the distance. The piece is human, but also celestial.
            Music never goes unlabeled, and these groupings often cause perspectives to change when listening to pieces from different genres or time periods. By doing this, we restrict sounds from living with each other and from mingling the “old” with the “new.” Brooklyn Rider’s CD Seven Steps breaks these culture and time barriers by giving us a collection of music that not only is performed exquisitely and is exhilarating to listen to, but redefines the aspects of periods. Sure, Beethoven’s opus 131 is a colossal, classical period work, but it blends instinctively with contemporary pieces. Brooklyn Rider may be creating the new attitude and role of today’s string quartet, but they’re also showing us how to simply listen, without presumption.  

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

--- -- - --, --- -- - --, --- -- - --, --- -- - --

Stevie (by me)

          "I discovered that the most interesting music of all was made by simply lining the loops in unison, and letting them slowly shift out of phase with other."
-Steve Reich

          This exemplifies what I love about Steve Reich. In a world where people want to control everything and anticipate every event, Reich allows his music to follow the flow of nature (even when he's using electronic sounds!). Perhaps this is why, when listening to his music, we feel at our most vulnerable and pure. Our bodies inevitably pulse with the music because it hits at the very core of ourselves. It lifts our mind from the self-created responsibilities of being on top of everything, of mentally being in control of each aspect of our lives. His harmonies and rhythms follow a path that is sometimes predictable, but the naturalness of them give us the choice of simply following them--instead of deciding to listen, it's our natural response. 

          Happy 75th year, Steve!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Starry Borrower

I should add that, two days after I posted the original below, The New York Times came out with an article about the "Sidereus" scandal, complete with comments from both Golijov and Ward-Bergeman. You can reach the article here:
Ward-Bergeman's comments on the second page are especially thought-provoking, and definitely make me think about the "scandal" in its entirety again. I still stand by my opinions, but I think this other perspective is necessary to get the full picture. 

             I suppose I'm a little late on the bandwagon on this one, but, hey... isn't Golijov sometimes?  
             By now, almost every large classical website has been plastered with the music of Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov; however, unless there is a Golijov fan page I am unaware of, all of the mentionings of the composer have been about his commissioned orchestral work “Sidereus” and its undeniable similarity, or perhaps its identicalness, to Michael Ward-Bergeman’s piece “Barbeich” for hyper-accordion.
            A couple of weeks ago, the Eugene Symphony performed Golijov’s “Sidereus.” The piece, which was co-commissioned by 36 orchestras in honor of Henry Fogel (the former head of the League of American Orchestras), is a work around 10 minutes for orchestra that has a strong backbone of brass and intricate string melodies. The problem is, these melodies, or rather the majority of the idea of the piece, are nowhere near original. Truthfully, it is difficult to find material in the work that is.

Golijov above, below Ward-Bergeman


            Golijov has borrowed and collaborated from other composers and musicians before, such as in his 2001 piece "La Pasión según San Marcos." He has a reputation of being late with commissions or turning in pieces that are shorter than expected, and his recent (but not finished) string quartet "Kohelet" is surfacing concerns. Critic Tom Manoff and trumpeter Brian McWhorter were the two listeners in the audience of the Eugene Symphony that realized the parallels between "Sidereus" and "Barbeich" (Manoff had remastered a recording of “Barbeich” in his studio).
            “Barbeich” is a haunting, layered work about four minutes long. Pulsing chords and bass notes, ones that are rich and harmonically satisfying, back up a pulsing melody of a descending D natural minor scale. These components are joined by other symmetric layers and a floating melody.  “Sidereus” sounds like an elongated arrangement of “Barbeich” for orchestra, with smoother passages and some plays off Ward-Bergeman’s original piece (the first two minutes are comprised of original-seeming billows and mood-building sounds).  Alex Ross wrote in his piece for the New Yorker Culture Desk:
For example, the sixteen-bar passage that the trumpet plays starting at bar 65 of “Barbeich” is duplicated in almost every detail in the piccolo trumpet and trumpet parts starting at bar 166 of “Sidereus,” with various doublings elsewhere in the orchestra. 
              While law suits initially come to mind, Golijov used the music with permission from Ward-Bergeman, a long-time collaborator. Ward-Bergeman said in an email to Manoff, I wanted to confirm that Osvaldo and I came to an agreement regarding the use of Barbeich for Sidereus. The terms were clearly understood, and we were both happy to agree.”
            Many writers are debating whether or not this is plagiarism—blatantly using the melodies, harmonies, and tempos of another work while the composer of that other work is aware and alright with it. Dictionary-wise and moral-wise, the answer is shaky. While Golijov certainly did not deny the collaboration between him and Ward-Bergeman, he also does not publically attribute the composer as a major factor. The byline on the Eugene Symphony website says, simply, “Golijov.”

Watch this video from the awesomeness of Sound Notion
            Because the legal matters of the “Sidereus” case are not pursuable, the question of ethics arises. What is the limit of borrowing? Are pieces bound to complete originality (and is this even possible?)? Golijov has a reputation of borrowing ideas from other composers, so the “Sidereus” scandal, while more shocking and undisguised, is not surprising.
            The issue seems to focus more on attribution and credit than the action. If Ward-Bergeman already wrote the outline, essentially, for “Sidereus,” why is Golijov being commissioned and paid? Music that comes without pure creation is music that already lives in the cloud of potentiality from the previous work.  Undeniably, melodies and ideas will be directly quoted. For example, John Mackey publically based a melody from his orchestral work “Aurora Awakes” on a U2 song. The difference is, Mackey took his piece in a different direction than the original pieces he borrowed from; he can still be credited with creating the vast majority of his work.
            Then again, does pure originality truly exist? While Golijov might have based his piece on Ward-Bergeman’s, almost all pieces in the history of music can be compared to others, whether that means the atmosphere, melodies, structure, or other aspects.
            Here are some comparisons of pieces that are considered acceptable:
  1. The beginning of Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” and Adams’s “Century Rolls.”
  2. Nico Muhly’s “Mothertongue, Pt. 1: Archive” and the Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach.”
  3. Hanz Zimmer’s manipulation of Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” for his “Inception” score.
  4. The multiple structural parallels in Debussy’s String Quartet in G, Op. 10 and Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major.
  5. The melody in Liszt’s “Totentanz” and the last movement of Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique,” both quoting the ancient Gregorian chant “Dies Irae.”
And countless, countless others (most of these happen deep within pairs of Classical and Romantic symphonies).
            Influence is unavoidable and often subconscious. Each note we hear we’ve heard before, and each sentence of music could have already been played, either in a previous piece or coincidentally pounded out by a small child on the piano. However, this is not discouraging. Composers have an unfathomable amount of previous work to build on and redefine. Music comes from the minds of humans who all live in the same world, and the potential of all future music lives in that world, among us. Perhaps a lawn mower will start, and someone walking by will place crescendo in the snare of their upcoming piece. A historical event could produce a dense feeling that is let out through a piano.           
            However, despite this leeway with borrowing, attributing “Sidereus” to Golijov still makes me raise my eyebrows in a doubtful way. I’m not one to decide what is ethical, but Golijov is still on thin ice, ice that has to strengthen before his new violin concerto will be played by the Berlin Philharmonic in April. Let’s hope we are not reminded of the “Sidereus” instant, or, perhaps I should say, of another piece.