. Interchanging Idioms: September 2008

Monday, September 29, 2008

Never enough time

The holiday is almost over and I didn't make it to San Francisco to see any of the opera offerings. *sigh* The one I wanted to see the most, "The Bonesetter's Daughter, was sold out on the only night I could make it. We tried to free up a night to see the Verdi, but schedules just didn't allow.

I was going to work on the Violin Concerto this trip as well and other than a few hours on the flight over this didn't happen either. What I did get to do was talk to a number of people about current and potential future music projects, so I guess I did get some networking in. This wasn't really on my agenda, but I suppose, if I'm gonna be serious about working in the industry it sort of always needs to be.

Anyway, I'm preparing for the 14 flight home and should be back to regular posting in a couple of days. Sorry for the lack of recently - but I have been on holiday - and, as you can see by the picture, I was pre-occupied.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Music from Different Traditions

There is an article by Marijke Rowland in the Modesto Bee which is a conversation with Branford Marsalis. Much of the dialog is devoted to the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos and the influence of Brasilian music on his classical compositions. Branford brings up an interesting point: we often think of Russian composers influenced by peasant music as classical. Bartók, Dvořák and Kodály were influenced by Eastern European traditional music, as Elgar and Vaughn-Williams were by English folk music. Heitor had grown up with Samba music which had a huge influence on his music

This article made me think about my own influences. I grew up playing trombone in a variety of big bands, playing everything from classical Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller to more recent composers like Chic Corea and Chuck Mangione. In concert band and orchestra we played other "classics" from Beethoven to Bernstein. We didn't play any of the more "radical" composers, like Schoenberg or Messian, but then again, I grew up in the mid-west and "radical" is not something that goes over well in that area.

My education here in Edinburgh did a wonderful job of exposing me to these more radical composers, as well as a number of even more obscure forms of music (Luc Ferrari is one that comes to mind). The result? I'm not sure yet. Rhythm is certainly a huge aspect of my music (as I posted here), but so is the repetitive nature of minimalism, although I don't think anything I write could really be classified as minimalist. Perhaps you could call it post-minimalist and perhaps there will be new "box" for it at some point in the future. For now, it's an amalgamation of several styles and yet firmly classical.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Opera Rock - rather than Rock Opera

Numerous groups have taken Mozart and Beethoven and "rocked" the house, using the music of these (and many other) classical music composers and turning them into screaming Rock tunes, with driving beats, amazing effects and state of the art electronics. When I was growing up the Electric Light Orchestra was just one of these groups. Now a number of string quartets are doing the same thing (see posts about the Electric String Quartet or Bond).

It seems the East Village Opera Company is taking "Bach, Handel, Verdi and others as a launching point to re-imagine these arias as rock epics," according to David Burger from the Salt Lake City Tribune. Their site (linked above) has several video examples which ends up sounding more like Queen than opera (or maybe Queen is really just the first versions of opera gone rock). I can't say as I think they've hit the mark with the transition - but I like the start.

With our own opera, "It Must Be Fate", in progress there is a real desire to head in the direction of Opera with a rock feel or a more modern edge. I need to learn more about the effects and electronics side of this music medium, and how to effectively combine them with the operatic tradition, but I am really glad to hear there are more artists moving in this direction.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Teach the young music

Teaching music in schools is not a new concept. When I was growing up in Denver, there was an after school program in elementary school and both a jazz band and concert band in middle school (jr high school) and high school. But by the time my kids were in high school the band was an after school program with nothing for the younger kids (unless parents wanted to send their kids to private lessons). The US was in an age of "why pay for arts education, when kids should be learning the three R's 'read, riting and rithmatic'" (mis-spellings intensional).

It seems it wasn't only the US. Julian Lloyd Webber speaks about the same thing happening in the UK during the 1990's. He also speaks about how the trends is shifting back toward music education. With the success of Venezuela's El Sistema, and China's own music for everyone programme (albeit their focus is to promote a more stable politic base) it's not surprising the world is taking a look at musical education in the school again. What surprises me is that we ever felt it was a good idea to get rid of it in the first place.

Pam Link created Camp Crescendo during the 1990's in Oregon and Idaho to augment the music programs disappearing in those states. New York City had their InnerSchools Orchestra in the same era which taught inner-city kids music, with great success. Yet, both of these programme were started because the state funded music education was failing.

I suppose you could argue, "why should the state provide something when obviously other successful programs can fill the gap?" Well, because they don't fill the gap. They are isolated programs in only a few areas, while the rest of the nation is neglected. What I believe is that every student should have a chance to learn music, and they will all be better students (in other subjects) for having learned music. Creating better overall students is a benefit to society in the long run. So, I guess I'm not thinking so much about the impact on the budget today, but the impact on society tomorrow (a much more important impact, in my opinion).

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Juggling Composition Time

I am not yet an established composer, so I have to continue to work my day job. Philip Glass worked his “day job” for years even after the success of “Einstein on the Beach.” Esa-Pekka Salonen was more fortunate having to juggle conducting with composing and yet, has stepped down from the LA Philharmonic to allow himself more time to compose. This sort of struggle to find time to compose is nothing new. Mendelssohn struggled with composing verses conducting for much of his life (although he tended to favour the podium to the pen).

Most of the time, I compose in the evening. If I can get a little composition work done each day to keep up the habit of writing, I find the discipline helps keep the writing successful. This does, however, impact my evenings. Fortunately, I opted to have a family early. My kids are grown, so if I spend my evenings composing, the time is not taken away from spending time with my children as they grow. Of course, I still end up taking time away from my wife, but as she is a writing partner (currently working on an opera together), she understands the need to spend some time each night writing (she does it too with her own pursuits as a novelist).

The most difficult aspect of writing in this way is following the muse of the moment. In order to ensure I have something to work on each evening, I tend to maintain a list of projects I need to finish, so I end up with deadlines constantly appearing on the horizon. When I was studying at university, I had composition deadlines, but writing at the time was very much moving where the mood took me, as opposed to writing for specific projects. If I worked on one piece and it wasn’t going well, I could always just write something else. Now, my projects are taking on a much more business trend. Film makers want their films done in time to make their screenings or festivals. Commissions (yes, I have started getting a few – not enough for me to quit my day job, but every little bit helps), also have a deadline, although they tend to be a bit further out. Still, the expectation of seeing progress on each project is still there, so each night I sit in front of the computer, or at the piano hoping to make some progress.

For me, the writing comes in waves. Some days are good; some are not so much, although, I have learned to make some progress every day. It takes discipline to sit down and write every evening, and to know when one project is not going well, to be able to turn to another one that might be better. Having multiple projects going at any one time is also a key for me to keep being productive. If one piece isn’t working, another one might. The only problem with multiple projects is that they tend to get into crunch mode at the same time. My wife, Eddie, tends to thrive really well with this sort of looming deadline, and truly some of my best writing happens the closer the project is to the drop dead date.

What I try and accomplish is keeping just enough projects in the hopper to keep busy and yet with enough staggered due dates to not let anything drop between the cracks. The more I write the faster the process becomes, and the better able I am to make deadlines. I don’t know that I’ve missed anything to date, and hope to keep that record intact. However, it does take a bit of juggling to keep a sense of sanity. But then again, maybe sanity is over-rated – and the very idea of trying to compose for a living means I’ve crossed that line already.

Right now I am on holiday in the US (hoping to catch a performance of "The Bonesetter's Daughter" in San Francisco), but working on:
"It Must Be Fate" - an opera with my wife Eddie
"Violin Concerto No 1" - for Tristan Gurney
Film Trailer music - for J.Shaamal

oh, and applying for Master's programs in a half dozen universities, which is surprisingly a fairly time consuming task.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Bringing New Music to Opera

Many links are to YouTube videos to give you an idea as to the sound of each opera

Philip Glass brought minimalism (and rock undertones) to opera with “Einstein on the Beach.” John Adams brought electronic music to opera with “Nixon in China.” Glass continued with his trademark sound with “Satyagraha” while Adams goes even further into the electronic world with “Doctor Atomic.” These were both composers who changed the sound of opera through the 80’s to the present. So what are they up to now? Glass has a new opera based on the novel written by Nobel Prize winner, JM Coetzee, “Waiting for the Barbarians” which is a leaner, slimmed down style from his previous works and yet still is firmly in his style. Adams also has a new work, “The Flowering Tree” which is heavily influenced by Mozart.

Other operas are appearing around the world, also bring a new sound the stage. Howard Shore, best know for his sweeping orchestral scores of the “Lord of the Ring” films, attempted to bring a blend of atonalism and 50’s music to “The Fly”. Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn were influenced by Chinese music as well as their own pop roots in their creation of “Monkey: Journey to the West.” Stewart Wallace was also influenced by Chinese percussion music, and his own rock background to bring an American Chinese feeling to “The Bonesetter's Daughter.” Several times on this blog I’ve talked about the need for opera, and classical music, to take influences from modern music forms and it seems I am not the only own looking for this trend. Opera is flourishing with new life, new operas and new sounds. Although Anne Midgette feels much of this new sounds has yet to really understand what it is to be opera, the reviews that many of these performance are getting seem to suggest that some of them succeeding.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

More Bones to pick in San Francisco

It's getting lots of press, and that's a good thing. But this means it's sold out, which I'd like to say is a good thing except that I can't get tickets!!! Well, I could get a random seat here or there, but since I'd prefer to sit with my wife it looks as though we may have to call the box off on the day and pray there are late returns. *sigh*

But this post isn't just about my attempt to get tickets too late. On the San Francisco Sentinel, the blog about arts in San Fran, Seán Martinfield raves about how wonderful the opera is, "Last Saturday night at the War Memorial Opera House, following a two hour and forty minute multi-zoned pursuit, THE BONESETTER’S DAUGHTER was cited for slamming the world of opera into a brand new era. With music of the spheres by STEWART WALLACE and a multi-faceted libretto by author AMY TAN"

more photos by Terrence McCarthy

Richard Bammer, of The Reporter (Vacaville California paper), also speaks highly of it, "Wallace's new opus, a solid -- and somewhat surprising -- contribution to an ever-evolving 400-year-old art form."

New Five:15 - Opera in Scotland

Scottish Opera is taking a new approach to creating new opera - Five:15, that is to say, five opera's each 15 minutes in length. Last year their pilot program was a huge success and produced some wonderful pieces. I am looking forward to their plans this year.

They announced the collaborators for this year (performances next February) with some amazing names on the list. No, I name isn't one of them. However, considering I am still relatively unknown as a composer, I'm not even sure I made it on to their list of potentials. Looking at the bios for the people they did select (see link above) I'm pretty sure I wasn't on any list.

Well, there's always next year.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

New Sounds in San Francisco Opera???

photo by Terrence McCarthy
Zheng Cao, left, and Qian Yi in the San Francisco Opera production of "The Bonesetter's Daughter."

The Bonesetter’s Daughter opened in San Francisco this weekend and the reviews are out. Unfortunately, they are not as glowing as I’d hoped. The libretto by Amy Tan (based on her novel of the same name), is centred on three women, blending American and Chinese cultures. The collaboration between Tan and the music by Stewart Wallace. Stewart traveled to China on several occasions to learn about Chinese music incorporating a variety of percussion into the final score and creating a "wail of authentic Chinese trumpeting and the sizzle of exotic percussion." according to Alan Rich of Bloomberg.com.

Mark Swed, a Times music critic, was complimentary of Wallace's music saying, "The sounds of Chinese opera pervade the entire work. Except in minor instances, the Chinese characters are portrayed by Chinese singers, and the swooping character of their native music frequently infects their vocal lines. Wallace plays the same magical musical trick on the instrumental side. His lean, simple and direct style allows him to comfortably mingle Asian techniques with Minimalism, swinging pop and a considerable amount of sweeping Straussian vocal writing for the three women." While Mr Swed describes it as "essentially conventional Western opera," in the end he said, "there is a lot to like here, especially in a score with so much exotic ear candy."

Joshua Kosman, the Chronicle Music Critic, very much liked the opera. "With its restless energy and its canny melding of Chinese and American artistic traditions, 'Bonesetter' is a far cry from many an operatic premiere."

Anthony Tommasini of the New York Herald Tribune writes, "the vocal lines meander and the orchestra gets stuck in repetitive eight-note ostinato patterns, with thick-layered sustained harmonies quivering above. What was surely intended to be a haunting scene comes across as amorphous." Mr Tommasini goes on to say, "by immersing himself in Chinese music, he seems to have given a fresh, pungent jolt to his musical voice." While Mr Tommasini comments that the audience gave the writers and cast a prolonged applause, he feels it doesn't quite live up to its potential.

Richard Scheinin of the San Jose Mercury News thinks, "The score has compelling moments, but — dare I say it? — where's the melody? This is opera, after all. Speech-song (it spools on and on here) and innovation are fine, but when this production has come and gone, which musical moments will stay branded in our brains? When the opera is released on CD, which tracks will we immediately want to hear and hear again? Not many, I suspect."

Alan Rich liked some of the score, but not others. "East and West do not quite meet, and too much of Wallace's score is, once again, merely the work of a clever New York- oriented manipulator. There are a few moments that grab the attention -- particularly the music for a ghostlike character, Precious Auntie, who delivers her imprecations suspended high above the stage, trailing her silken rags in a colorful cascade." Overall he felt the music was "tedious."

The Chinese-born director and choreographer Chen Shi-Zheng, who previously directed the Manchester International Festival premiere of "Monkey: Journey to the West," creates an array of Chinese acrobats, much like in "Monkey", but not all reviewers felt he succeeded. Mark Swed comments, "Chen's production is elaborate. It includes a superfluous troupe of flying Chinese acrobats, superfluous filmed projections and special effects."

All of the reviewers were luke warm in their glow about the productions, speaking highly about some parts while feeling other aspects let them down. Perhaps it was not enough money (as Mr Swed suspected), perhaps it was a bold attempt at blending Chinese and American culture (but not bold enough as Mr Tommasini surmised), or perhaps it was like Mr Scheinin thinks, "the music doesn't stick to the ribs."

I am traveling out to San Francisco this week and will attend the production myself. One, because, even after all of what these reviewers have said, the overall feeling is that this is a good attempt, and perhaps after a first run it will come into it's own. And two, all of the reviewers enjoyed the production. Perhaps they felt it could have been (should have been) more, but that doesn't take away from their obvious appreciation for what they did see. So, while it may not be perfect out of the gate, it is well worth going to see. This is new opera and perhaps is a glimpse at what more is to come.

Taking the "Airs" out of Classical Music

One of the thing people claim about Classical Music is that it is elitist. Well, Andrew Druckenbrod of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a humourous article on enjoying a night at the symphony.

Symphony prep 101: Nothing to fear at classical concerts

Monday, September 15, 2008

It's no longer the fat lady singing...

Appearance verses voice in the world of opera. The Independent weighs in on the topic with an article about the recent trend of opera to go with more svelte singers.

Their list includes the slender Marina Poplavskaya,
the sultry Danielle de Niese,
the hunky Jonas Kaufmann,
the seductive Anna Netrebko,
and the sexy Erwin Schrott. Fortunately these vocalists are not just eye candy, but they can also hit the back of the house. As a theatre goer, I’m glad to see the visual part of the role is being considered and yet concern for the music is also still a strong consideration. The look of opera is changing, but the music is still important.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Learning about other composers

I like learning about other composers, particularly living composers. It’s rather like getting a sense about what the current trends are in classical music from the people writing in the industry. Several composers and I have started exchanging emails (on a not so regular basis) along with score snippets and comments of said snippets. But some composers are a bit beyond me to feel comfortable just dropping them an email. So, I rather depend on other ways to learn about the processes these composers go through when composing music.

Philip Glass is releasing a book, ‘Glass Box: a Nonesuch Retrospective' is to be released on 22 September. I’ve put it on my birthday wish list, for any of you who might want to get me something for my forty-sixth birthday (10 October). Fiona Sturges, of The Independent gives a good preview of the book.

It’s interesting the number of people Mr Glass has collaborated with. He’s worked with other famous writers as well as big name pop composers (David Bowie). He has also written in a number of different forms, from opera to symphony, song cycle to film. Wikipedia has a pretty fair sized article on Mr Glass, but I’ll be interested to see how much it changes with the publication of this book.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Conducting your own music

There is a lot to be said for conducting your own works. For me, this has a lot more to do with the learning process than getting the music performed correctly. Any number of great conductors can read a score and pull out nuances of the music the composer may or may not have realised existed. But by getting to rehearse the music, going over the various elements of the music in preparation for a concert, I gained a different perspective of the music.

Prior to the first rehearsal of my Symphony No 1, preparing for the performance in June 2008, prior to preparation of the conducting score, I had to create the parts for performance. A full symphony (50 mins of music) with triple winds is a huge task. There are details in the various parts that aren’t necessarily included in the score. If a clarinet shifts from Bb to Ab or Eb, I had to make sure the transposition was done correctly, even though the score was concert pitch. Horns don’t typically like sharps (strings do), so there was adjusting of keys that didn’t necessarily coincide with the key of the score, but made the parts easier for the horn players to read. Then I wanted to make sure the parts didn’t have difficult (or impossible) page turns (Violin II part has 40+ pages). Some of this is accomplished with modern software (I used Sibelius ver 4), but software only goes so far and so, as the composer, I had to make numerous adjustment for each part. The list goes on, and with each adjustment came an in-depth view of the music I’d not seen during the composition. I didn’t make any sweeping changes to the music, but there were subtle bits that needed done to make the parts more readable.

Once the orchestra had their parts, I started marking the score. It was an amateur orchestra so I wanted to make sure I could prepare for all the various entrances of the musician. My music tends to be fairly complex, so giving a cue to everyone wasn’t possible; however, I could do sections or groups. Again, this made me look at the score in a very different way. When composing I don’t tend to think, “How long as the oboe player been resting?” Rather, I tend to think, “Now would be a good time to have the oboe sound,” regardless of the last time the oboe sound was present. In marking the score I became intimately aware of what the players would need in terms of conducting.

Prior to rehearsals, I also started working with the score and a midi realisation of the music to practice bringing in the various cues, all the while keeping the tempo. This was probably the most educational. The 2nd movement has a very fast tempo toward the end. There is a long section where every bar is counted in one as opposed to every beat of the 3/4. The pulse of the music was correct, but indistinguishable from one bar to the next. This created an impossible situation to let the players know where we were if anyone got lost. Since I was working with an amateur orchestra, I knew this section was going to be problematic. The music needed to be written in 6/8 or perhaps 12/8 to keep the same pulse, but allow for more clarity from the conductor. However, I’d already produced the parts, so I couldn’t re-write the time signature. It meant I had to do an outstanding job on the podium. There were several of these issues with the music, so future compositions will get a quick conducting review before finalising anything (particularly the parts).

The rehearsals brought to light even more aspects of my music I had noticed before. Some of the string writing is possible, but difficult, particularly over long stretches. Reminder accidentals aren’t something I particularly expect in music, but including them (which I hadn’t) would have avoided confusion and certainly some intonation issues. Subtle orchestrations were also seemingly lost in the translation from score to performance. This may not be the case with a professional orchestra, but thinking about the medium, performing in a large hall, the attempt to create a shimmering effect by alternating the same note from the E to the A string doesn’t really work when the brass are blaring away.

I tend to write driving music. There are a number of different styles of music from slushy to shimmering, from laid back to driven. The symphony definitely has a preponderance of driving moments, sections where the orchestra needs to be directly on the beat if not just slightly before it. A lot of this feeling has to do with the syncopated and off beat rhythms I tend to use (much like Leonard Bernstein). As a conductor I am going to need to spend more time in rehearsals getting the feeling of pushing forward rather than relaxing back.

Overall, the music holds together better than I expected. As a new composer, I am still in the insecure age of my career when I doubt if I've done something (anything) right. Sure, I have a midi realisation, but this doesn’t really reflect what live musicians actually sound like (not without a great deal of futzing - which I didn't do to the midi realisation). So, during rehearsals, I was pleasantly surprised to actually hear the themes and layers I'd wanted coming out of the orchestra.

Ultimately, music is all about getting to the performance. Rehearsing for the first concert of my first symphony opened up my eyes to a variety of different view points of the music I hadn’t realised before. I look at music in a very different way now, picking up nuances of the parts, pulse and orchestration, and not just my own compositions, but the music of other composers as well.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Woody Allen branches out and blooms with Puccini opera

Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

Woody Allen directed the Puccini romantic comedy of "Gianni Schicchi" for LA Opera, which opened this last weekend. The reviews of his first attempt at opera are glowing, smelling sweet even though Allan himself felt he was probably not the best choice for director.

Alan Rich, from Bloomberg writes: "With his biggest hit in years, ``Vicky Cristina Barcelona,'' in theaters now, Allen drew the crowds and if ``Gianni Schicchi'' came across at times like a signature Woody Allen farce-comedy -- recalling the glorious clutter of ``Bullets Over Broadway,'' say -- there was more than enough strength in Puccini's wonderful score to withstand the challenge."
Ronald Blum of the Associated Press said "More than most opera directors, Woody Allen pays attention to the small details that make a performance take off."
Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times wrote "a production of genius."
Anne Midgette of the Washington Post was the most unfavorable with, "the biggest problem is that they are so in awe of the medium that they resort to stock "operatic" gestures and tropes they would never use in a film."

Well, it seems the weekend was not a complete loss for Opera in LA.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Classical Music Downloads in the UK

Always willing to promote the listening of Classical Music, I'm pleased with the news today of a new website for Classical Music lovers: Passionato

You can listen to 60-second sample before you decide to purchase.

The music is catalogued by Composer, Artist, Genre or Labels. I found it interesting their banner ad is from Naxos... There is also a blog which has a few articles worth a glance as well.


It seems like this site was a good idea and yet is having teething problems.

Tom Service, at the Guardian, is a Mac user and not have much joy with his downloads (as per his article). However, he speaks highly of it, so there's hope.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Improvising New Classical Music

Maya Homburger: baroque violin
Barry Guy: double-bass

Several months ago I wrote a couple of posts about incorporating improvised music into Classical music, Bringing Clasical Music into a Modern Age and Blending Expressions - Jazz and Classical Music. Incorporating improvisation into Classical music isn't strictly what these posts were about, but it certainly is an element.

Yesterday, at the Globe and Mail, Tamara Bernstein did a review of the opening of Toronto's Music Gallery. Ms Bernstein speaks highly of both the concert and the concept of the performers using

improvisation in the music to create a delightful evening. The music performed was from Heinrich Biber (1644-1704) and therefore 16th century music, but the performance, with improvisation felt fresh and alive.

Perhaps the most telling comment of the entire article is, "I am convinced that if “classical” music is to survive as a vital art form, its students need once again to be trained to improvise, both in Biber's language, and in musical languages of our time." I couldn't agree more.

Shore flounders in "The Fly"

I was thinking that the original reviews of "The Fly" and the comments about his music might just be growing pains. That, once it had spent some time in Paris the music would have settled in and reviewers of the LA production might be glowing about it. But, sadly, this is not the case.

Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times writes, "But despite the inventive staging and all-out efforts of an admirable cast — especially the courageous performance of the Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch as Seth Brundle, the obsessed scientist who morphs into the hideous creature he calls Brundlefly — “The Fly” is a ponderous and enervating opera, and the problem is Mr. Shore’s music."
Ronald Blum
of the Associate Press writes, "The music is accessible, melodic and lush, with pulsating chords and strings that shimmer eerily. But the arias fail to soar, with little differentiation in the music that accompanies them. When Veronica sings her big second-act aria "The dream began," in which she imagines giving birth to Brundle's child, it ends abruptly on a note that doesn't seem to really conclude it. Moments that are dramatic aren't reinforced sufficiently musically. Shore seems more comfortable with orchestral writing than composing for voice."
Robert Evertt-Green of the Globe and Mail writes, "...a muddled concept (put into words by librettist David Henry Hwang) and a balked score by Howard Shore have left this Fly buzzing pointlessly against the pane."

Mark Swed of the LA Times is more supporting writing, "Shore scored that second "Fly" effectively, even operatically. So I am at a loss to understand why "The Fly" has turned out so dreary, despite the inclusion of sex, nudity, puppetry and athleticism.
"The short orchestral prelude begins promisingly enough with swooping repeated figures in the orchestra reminiscent of early Janácek, setting an ominous mood. There is a quick change into something more generically ominous. But after that, for more than two hours, there is little variety, little change.
"The vocal writing is generally flat and conversational. Phrases often repeat; though slightly varied, they are predictable. Sexual passion and insect angst inspire similar music. So too do dorky scientists partying and toughs in a pool hall. Thick textures, thick chords and dark colors (from low strings, brass and timpani) pervade."

Timothy Mangan of the Orange County Register was not near so nice, "Howard Shore's "The Fly," which was given its U.S. premiere Sunday afternoon courtesy of Los Angeles Opera, is the worst opera I've ever seen."

Perhaps it's a shame to be so relentlessly hard on Mr Shore. He is a serious composer with numerous positive works to his credit (3 Oscars with 49 other wins and 36 nominations). Undoutably he will eventually be lauded for his work - but probably not for this one. This is, after all, his first opera. He could have done worse than premiering in Paris on his first go 'round. Like with the movie, Mr Shore left room in the opera for a sequel, but I suspect (after all of the reviews) it won't be Mr Shore (if anyone) who takes up the task.

Working in the Music Industry

There is an interview in The Guardian with Bryn Terfel, an amazing opera baritone from Wales. In it he makes some interesting points about the life of an artist, particularly one at his level of international fame. Several times he remarks on missing his family, or trading time with them for time on the road. He missed the birth of his first two children and feels the worst comment said about him was when he cancelled a performance to be with his son after an accident.

Obviously family is important to Bryn. Hilary Hahn doesn't have a family (that I'm aware of) but she remarks about the difficulties of being on the road, away from home and friends. Willie Nelson sang about getting "On the Road Again" and certainly there is a love of the life of performing too. Bryn says the positives well outweigh the negatives. But they are still there.

Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

I guess I'm feeling fortunate. Should life turn for me and I end up achieving anything remotely close to the success of Bryn, Hilary or Willie, I have already raised my kids and my wife (life partner/soul mate/co-worker) is willing (and able) to galavant about the world with me. So, I guess all I need to do now is become successful. ;-)

Bringing Opera to the People

There is a lot of great opera being performed, but often it goes unnoticed by the masses. Opera is often considered too high brow for the common man. Well, there are a number of projects trying to change this impression.

First of all there is Opera in the Park, in San Francisco. This has been going on for 35 years so it's nothing new. But they have upwards of 20,000 people silenced, listening to arias. What a great way to expose the beauty of opera to a broad audience. You can watch a video of some of it here.

Another recent attempt at exposing the masses to Opera is the BBC's Maestro. This is actually a "game show" of sorts, where contestants via for a final prize of conducting the BBC Orchestra at the Proms Concert (quite a prize!). While they contestants have learned to conducts several forms of classical style music, this week they tackled opera arias. Not only do we get to hear the BBC orchestra, but we also get to hear some lovely moments by soloists Alfie Boe and Rebecca Evans. Even with amateur conductors the performances are well worth listening to. The above link is to the BBC iplayer and should still be viewable until the 10th of September.

Then there are the new operas coming out which have audience appeal. "The Fly" just opening at LA Opera. William Friedkin and Woody Allen join forces in Puccini's "Il Trittico", currently on the boards as well in LA. "Wrath", based on Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath", composed by Ricky Ian Gordon with libretto by Michael Korie is coming to Opera Pacific in January. The "Bonesetter's Daughter" is premiering in San Francisco next weekend. Michigan Opera Theatre will present "Margaret Garner" in October, an opera by Richard Danielpour which premiered in Detroit in 2005. Dallas Opera brought back The Who's "Tommy" last week at the Dallas Center Theatre. Then there is the Met's broadcasts of their performances in cinemas around the world. London's Royal Opera House is attempting to follow suit with their own broadcasts this year.

It's a great time for opera, both new works and established masterpieces. For more news and tidbits about what's going on in the opera world check out Opera Chic.

Update:London's Royal Opera House also gave tickets away to first timers in a drawing held by the newspaper, The Sun. What's most interesting about this is The Sun is famed for displaying topless women on page 3 so the clientele is necessarily the typical opera high brow. By reading the article by Farah Nayeri it seems the people who won tickets certainly fit that description. Are the converts? It seems so.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Broadening Opera's Appeal

Anne Midgette, of the Washington Post, writes in some depth about what's right and wrong with opera today. She ponders what's missing in moderns opera as she examines a variety of pieces.

Early on in the article she writes modern opera has "a sense of slight awkwardness with the medium, an uncertainty about just what an opera wants to be, and therefore a sense of, well, geekiness." I couldn't agree more. About Michael Nyman's "Love Counts" Ms Midgette goes on to say "...there is nothing gritty or true-life about the long swatches of expository text, which are not at all dramatic, or the way that the characters sing them. Opera is about emotion; this piece, despite its rather melodramatic aspects, ends up being about avoiding emotion, working out ideas rather than actually giving them dramatic expression."

Other elements of opera Ms Midgette feels are problematic are: opera's emotional exposure verging on parody, few composers working with theatrical people (or too closely and creating something comical, rather than operatic). But ultimately what she gets to is the need for opera to have appeal.

Yes, opera, like all art forms, but appeal to it's audience. Understand who your audience is and try to reach them in ways they find appealing. With our own opera, we are looking at the groups between the ages of 20 and 50. That may seem a bit broad, but they are the television/cinema generation - the people who are the prime candidates for spending money on live theater (or opera). Successfully get that audience and we'll have a successful opera.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

More Reasons Why Classical Music Should Appeal to the Young

A recent study by Heriot-Watt University in Scotland suggests classical music listeners and heavy metal fans share vital character traits. According to the Daily Dispatch Online, Heavy Metal fans and Classical Music fans are the same across cultural lines in all aspects except age.

The study was looking for characteristics of music lovers and found that across cultural lines, lovers of a typical type of music tended to be similar. Professor Adrian North suggests heavy metal and classical fans are united by a shared "love of the grandiose", which means that a Metal fan is more likely to also listen to Mahler than to Garth Brooks.

The BBC goes more in-depth into the some of the research findings.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Applications for Masters studies

It's that time of year - when all the Universities and Conservatories start accepting applications for the Fall 2009 term. And so I've started applying.

So far there are 5 on my list of hopefuls, but I'm always willing to consider arguments for adding another place to the list.

Right now applications are in process for: in no particular order
    >The Juilliard School
    >Manhattan School of Music
    >Eastman School of Music
    >New England Conservatory
    >Yale School of Music

If you're an instructor at one of these institutions, I would like to hear from you in regards to why you might recommend your establishment rather than one of the others.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

New Operas on the US West Coast

"The Fly" is about to open in LA and there is a great deal of press being generated for its debut. Thomas Rogers from The Salon talks to Howard Shore about a variety of topics (mostly just to plug the opera, but comes up with some interesting comments).

Shore talks about how "The Fly" is revitalizing opera. He doesn't feel he is alone in this revitalization citing the broadcasts by the Met and other new operas being produced. He also feels the music needs to be brought into a modern era. However, at one point he feels it will always be there and then says there is a need to keep it alive, but then, such discrepancies happen with live interviews.

There are also comments (in the interview) about character and the importance for the composer to really understand the characters in order to generate a full evening of music. Speaking about the music, Shore talks about wanting to keep the story set in the 1950's utilizing music from the era, with influences from Africa and the Caribbean.

Listen to the whole interview here.

Another opera is looking to premiere in San Francisco, the "Bonesetter's Daughter". Amy Tan's converted her semi-autobiographical novel into a libretto working with composer Stewart Wallace who is incorporating Chinese style music, blending Eastern and Western styles much like the story incorporates Eastern and Western thoughts.

I've not read "Bonesetter's Daughter" or any of Ms Tan's books, but she certainly has achieved popularity with novels like "The Joy Luck Club" (which she helped convert to film), a character examination of what it is to be born in America to Chinese parents. A big part of the story for her is the characters of LuLing and her daughter Ruth, not strictly autobiographical, but certainly drawing on her own experiences.

Chen Shi-Zheng who directs this production, also directed "Monkey: Journey to the West" so I suspect we'll see more blends of East and West in the opera world in the future.

More on San Francisco Opera's production here.

Reading Music - a response to Julian Lloyd Webber

Julian Lloyd Webber writes in the Telegraph about the need for music students to learn to read music. One of his arguments is that a thousand years of music would be lost if it hadn't been written down - and that makes sense.

However, in a modern world we have more ways than traditional paper and pencil to notate music. Musical Instrument Digital Interface (or MIDI) manages midi devices to create music and doesn't need the little black notes on paper; it's all done through electronics. Manipulating these midi devices likewise doesn't need some who understands the little black notes to be able to create music. All they need is to understand how to work a good midi program. Reason, by the PropellerHeads, is a piece of midi software that doesn't use standard notation to create music, and it's a versatile enough program to produce music of a quality to play on the radio. Cakewalk's Sonar (my personal favorite) is part recording software and part music generating software. Again, there is no need to generate little black notes, although Cakewalk can translate what you've created into something that looks vaguely like standard notation.

A good portion of the music played on the radio today is created by people who are not using music notation to create it. While many record producers can read music, much of their job is understanding the sound created and not they are not concerned about notes on the page. Hip Hop, Urban and House Music artists tend to use re-mixing of samples to create their music, which isn't coming from music notation, but rather from the actual sounds. It is possible to create music without notation and it is possible to record it for future generations without committing it to notes on paper. So, learning notation isn't necessary to learn music.

On the other hand, a great way to learn music is to study how other people have created music. As Julian says, there is a vast history of music written down which is the basis of much of what we enjoy today. While it's possible to listen to Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No 1, there is a great deal to be learned from looking at the music, seeing the nuances of the score that just aren't graspable (not by me, anyway) by listening to it.

So, should we have to learn to read music? I guess it depends on what we expect to be the end result. If it's for a degree in music, then yes, I would have to say reading music at some level is necessary, as a degree suggests you have a understanding of music beyond listening. But reading music doesn't make you a musician and not reading it shouldn't preclude you. In terms of Julian's suggestion that reading music is like learning the ABC's, I can't agree. A novelist can't write a book without learning his ABC's, but there a numerous musicians who can compose with notation.

That being said, I feel musicians should still want to learn to read music, and not reading it isn't something to be proud of. It just isn't a requirement (in my opinion).

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Performance Review: Dorian Gray

Last Saturday we had the good fortune to attend the matinee performance of New Adventure's (Matthew Bourne's) Dorian Gray which premiered at this year's Edinburgh International Festival. I should preface this with the note that I am a Matthew Bourne fan. I have enjoyed his Car Man, Nutcracker!, and Edward Scissorhands immensely, and my family also has seen Play Without Words, which they say was fabulous. I am also a huge fan of Oscar Wilde - The Portrait of Dorian Gray is one of my all time favorite works so, naturally, I had high expectations of this production. For the most part it lived up to them.

Mr Bourne has chosen to update the story, placing it in the present and drawing on the 'culture of celebrity' to highlight Dorian's narcissistic nature. This works extremely well and contributes mightily to the communication of the story's themes of 'the monster within'. It also makes the story extremely relevant and commanding. This is no 'Mr Darcy Behaving Badly'!

Matthew Bourne has achieved exactly the approach that we are often rabbiting on about here at Interchanging Idioms - the work is fresh, alive and contemporary. Although there is much to be enjoyed by dance aficionados, even a young person who had never been to the theatre would have found something to relate to in this production. I can see in the future that people might be saying Dorian Gray brought a fresh young audience to dance.

Bourne achieves this in three main areas - the set/costume design, the dance styles and expressions, and the music. The set is structured around an ingenious turntable that allows for remarkably fast scene changes and some interesting choreographic 'reveals'. You often watch a character exit the centre doors only to have the turntable rotate so that you can watch them enter the party. The effect becomes very cinematic at points - the turning set effects the eyes in the same way a dissolve does on film. The colour scheme of set and costumes is very chromatic - most characters are in black and/or white, Dorian (naturally) in gray. The curtain is open throughout, and when I first saw the set I thought we might be in for a very bleak evening, or at the least that the design might mimic that in Nutcracker!, (monotone at the beginning, bursting into colour for the fantasy sequences). Instead, Set Costume Designer Lez Brotherston (a long time Matthew Bourne collaborator) delivers a black and white photograph brought to life with all the depth and clarity of film. The final visual element is added with projections of fashion photographs against the back wall. The stunning set piece 'Basil Shoots Dorian' ingeniously uses the camera shutter sound and flashing pictures of the exact pose happening in the dance - we are at war with ourselves, wishing to watch the dancers in the flesh but our eyes are irresistibly drawn to the larger-than life portraits that are flashing up. This scene is the perfect embodiment of the conflict of celebrity - which is more interesting, the person, or the image we have of that person? This is powerful stuff, and 4 days later I am still pondering it!

The dance moves Matthew Bourne uses have always drawn liberally from non-balletic forms and in this Dorian is no different. The dancers used elements of Hip Hop and Urban freely mixed with modern, jazz and traditional ballet. More so than in any production to date the individual dancers had an opportunity to shine - this is partly due to the modern story, but also due to very individual approach the dancers have taken to their characters. Of particular note was Richard Winsor as Dorian and Aaron Sillis as Basil who danced stunning pas de deux and convinced us all over again of the strength and beauty of the male form. It is also a credit to the passion in these two men, that the 'love' scenes were never awkward or contrived, but happened naturally and with a large measure of chemistry.

The music was unfortunately the weak part of the entire production. Overall it was serviceable, at times it was strong, but there were only one or two 'incredible' moments, and in a production the was filled with those moments in the dance and design the lack of incredible music was noticed. In the first act the music was very uneven. The funky beats of Basil's World played very well, but there was a sense of uncertainty moving into the next scene. Basil Shoots Dorian was propelled by the shutter clicks, but a clunky change of music (to coincide with the stage business of Basil changing a CD in his studio) seemed ill-timed and the heavy metal sound of the second theme had the effect of dissolving the tension that had been built through the scene. The music of the second act was stronger and more cohesive and beginning with Celebrity the themes dovetailed into each other building on our sense of impending doom as Dorian cycled out of control. The only false note here was in On the Prowl as the music returned to the off-footed discomfort of the first act. The musicians were of excellent quality and the music was well played and mixed.

All in all, this was an excellent production that I believe will become a classic. Matthew Bourne was quoted in the programme as saying '

We are in a society in which people are obsessed by youth and maintaining the appearance of youth for as long as possible. Dorian's wish to stay young for ever seems to be the dream of many people today... there is a point though, when this obsession can turn grotesque and unnatural.'
By mining that seam of the grotesque, Matthew Bourne has created a Dorian Gray that is a beautiful dream.

Getting New Classical Music Heard

Earlier I wrote about Kenneth Fuchs, a modern classical music composer, and the struggles he has getting his music heard.

William Weir, of the Chicago Tribute has written about Mr Fuchs again, with more information on his struggles. Mr Weir mentions after writing a piece, there is a great deal more work to be done - so much so it's almost a full time job. A number of interesting ideas are presented on other avenues people use to get their works heard, but it all boils down to this - getting one's music played is the composer's responsibility.

That said, there are a dozen symphony orchestras currently looking at my first symphony and a half dozen quartets looking at my string quartet music. This doesn't mean I'll get played, but so far the responses have been mostly positive if not yet ready to make a commitment.

Steve Heitzeg, an Emmy Award winner, has composed a new piece, Songs without Borders. It will be performed by the Daedalus Quartet at the 19 August ceremony at UN Headquarters in New York. Writing music for a topical issues is another way to get new music performed.

Megan O'Neil of the Metro Times writes about New Music Detroit and their upcoming concert of Strange Beautiful Music II on September 6th. So, one suggestion is for composers to find a group or a festival dedicated to new works.

It's not necessarily a new piece, but Bernstein's Mass is going to be performed by Marin Alsop for Carnegie Hall's ninetieth-birthday tribute to the late master. Composer Nico Muhly has this to say about this piece. By posting this article I'm not sure whether I am suggesting that if you die a great composer your works will get played, or whether writing on a variety of topics relating to music (and getting those writings read) is another way to get your name (and potentially your music) known.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Classical Punk or A Dolls House Rocks

Back in June Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls performed with the Boston Pops at EdgeFest. There is a video of the performance here. The best part of this performance is the crowd. The Dresden Dolls are a local favourite in Boston so many of the people in the crowd were fans of Ms Palmer and probably had never set foot inside Symphony Hall before.

Yea!!! Getting people into a concert hall to see that orchestral music isn't boring or stuffy

The next best thing is the idea of a symphony playing music other than the classics... Ok, this is nothing new for the Boston Pops, whose primary function is to do just that, play music other than the classics. Or perhaps better put, they play classical music of a different sort - pop!

In other news, the BBC is attempting to bring Classical music to a broader audience with a variety of "talent" contests. At first there was Operatunity, a programme which pitted opera singers against each other with the winner shooting to stardom and performing all over the place. Now, they have a programme called Maestro, which is getting a bunch of non-classically trained people and get them to become a conductor. Alex James, the bassist from Blur, is competing and continually commenting on how much he like classical music. Not only the show popular (thereby presenting classical music to a broad audience), but it's getting someone famous in the pop world glowing about classical music.

Monday, September 1, 2008

"A child of our time" felt tired

On Saturday, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus (Christopher Bell as chorus master) performed Michael Tippett's "A Child of our Time" at Edinburgh's Usher Hall as part of the Edinburgh Internation Festival. I found it odd the festival chose to perform a piece by a British composer using American folk music, conducted by a Russian. Much of this years festival music and performers were from Eastern Europe, so the choice in conductor was not so strange. However, the choice of music didn't seem to fit.

Mr Rozhdestvensky did not seem to struggle with the music, the tempo or any technical aspect of the piece. However, the orchestra played with a lack of enthusiasm that made me feel as if they were bored with the music, perhaps with the festival. The music needed to have a passion, a punch to it. Only on a couple of occasions was this passion evident. Most of the time the players seemed to be just going through the motions. Could this be attributed to Mr Rozhdestvensky, who also seemed to be going about the paces, but not really giving the performance any more than absolutely necessary? Numerous points during the performance, the orchestra overwhelmed the vocalists. Part of this was the orchestration, but certainly the conductor has to know when to allow the orchestra to play out and when to hold them back. The BBC Scottish Symphony displayed a range of dynamics, but not necessarily always at the right time, and certainly not with the finesse necessary for a festival performance.

Fortunately, this is not true of every one on stage. The vocalists were excellent. Nicole Cabell, a soprano from the US, did a fabulous job of interpreting the music, giving it a sense of soul and passion it desperately needed. Jane Irwin, mezzo-soprano, was not as strong vocally struggling to be heard at a couple point in her rendition of "Man has measured the heavens with a telescope" but shined when it came to "Pity breaks open the heart." John Mark Ainsley, tenor, gave a lovely performance of "I have no money for my bread" but suffered with an orchestration that seemed to pit the orchestra against the tenor. John Tomlinson, bass, was perhaps my favorite with a clarity and power unmatched by anyone on stage. His voice cut through at every moment with diction to make what he sang not only powerful, but understandable.

The Edinburgh Festival Chorus are in a class of their own, however. The depth of emotion they achieved, with clarity and feeling that any chorus would be envious of. Christopher Bell has a reputation for getting the most out of his performers and this chorus only added to his list of credits.

In the end, the evening was enjoyable. While I was not impressed with the orchestra, the chorus and vocalists more than made up for it. Over all I'd rate the performance three out of five stars. The subject matter of this piece should have left me exhausted, it didn't. It did, however, feel as though rehearsing this piece exhausted the orchestra.

Understanding Idioms

There is a point where a composer needs to understand the music they use to compose a piece. When Brahms wrote his Hungarian Dances he understood the folk music he was emulating. Dvorák not only understood the Slavonic folk music used version of Slavonic Dances, he also understood the music idioms Brahms was using so Dvorák music creates a comparible, compatible set. Bartók used Eastern European folk music as inspiration as well, but with a much different effect on the music. Still, the underlying understanding of the folk music is appearant. Michael Tippet was a fan of gospel music, negro spirituals and jazz, feeling these idioms would replace European folk music as the inspiration for future generations of composers. While I agree, I am not convinced Tippet truely understands the idioms of these forms of American folk music.

On Saturday, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus performed Tippet's "A Child of our Time." The piece is an oratorio based around the events of Herschel Grynszpan's shooting of a German diplomat in Paris, 1938. This act created the impetus German needed for Kristallnacht, which ultimately lead to the holocaust. Much of the music is based on Negro Spirituals. While some of the music is directly referenced, with hymns like "Steal awa, steal away, steal away to Jesus", "Nobody knows the Trouble I see" and "Go down, Moses", other original pieces of music are done to retain the flavor of the spirituals. The Tenor's aria "I have no money for my bread" is one example.

As a collective whole, Tippet manages to keep the piece together with a consistent sound. Unfortunately, Tippet opted to directly utilize some Negro Spirituals without really understanding the idiom, rearranging the spirituals to fit his over all piece but not retaining their unique flavor and yet not venturing far enough away to be something unique. He therefore fell into a trap of creating something that doesn't quite sound like Negro Spirituals and yet, doesn't sound like something else either.

The stresses in gospel music can't be defined as coming on the up beat or the down beat, or the even beats or odd. The stresses in gospel music tend to flow, both with the words and with the underlying rhythms. It is the mutating stresses that give gospel music some of it's unique character, and what makes some hymns gospel music and other's simply not. When a gospel hymn is performed with stresses in the wrong places, the music feels more ridgid than it should. Even if the stresses are in the right places, but not done with either a slight hesitation or anticipation (again, depending on the situation) the music feels clumbsy or stiff.

The performance on Saturday night had very much this kind of feeling. The solo vocal work by Nicole Cabell (soprano) and John Tomlinson (bass) were amazing with some exceptional moments by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus (Christopher Bell as chorus master). But overall the piece failed to bring to life the feelings of Negro Spirituals or of gospel music. Perhaps the best example of this lack of understanding of the idiom is in the piece "Nobody knows the trouble I see." The words of the original are used, but the rhythm is changed. The original had a swing feel, but in Tippet's version the rhythm is straight. You could suggest it was the performance and not the music that changed the rhythm, except that the rhythm of the trombones accompanying the chorus forces the music into a straight rhythmic pattern. It felt as if it wanted to be gospel music and just don't know how to get there.

The difficulty with writing in any particular style is understanding the nuances of the idiom. When we're asked to write a Haydn or Mozart pastiche, a solid understanding of their music is necessary. Fortunately there is a great deal of study of their styles of music, so understanding it in an analytical way is possible. Much of American folk music is done by the "feel" of the music. The indepth study of it hasn't happen yet (to my knowledge). So, in order to really write in this style, composers need to almost grow up with the music, so the writing of it is as much internal as it is technical. Michael Tippet obviously had a real love for the style. What he didn't have is a real understanding of the idioms.