. Interchanging Idioms: November 2008

Friday, November 28, 2008

Update: Current Virtuoso Violinists

I'm not sure this list will ever be complete, but I will endeavor to continue to update when I find a violinist worthy to be called Virtuoso and performing on the world stage.

Sarah Chang (pictured) is a Korean-American violinist, born in Philadelphia to Korean parents, she recorded her first album at 9. While I find her playing a bit overly sentimental, the pieces I've heard her play are Dvorák and Sibelius which both tend to the sentimental category, so I don't think what I've seen is representative of her ability. She's certainly won plenty of awards. Here she is playing Dvorák's Violin Concerto.

Anne Akiko Meyers (pictured) performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at age 11. (good grief, all these child prodigies). Her debut album was of the Samuel Barber and Max Bruch concertos, not a small feat. Here she is playing the first part of the Barber Violin Concerto.

Realizing my list is dominated by women I thought I should include some men of note. Jiafeng Chen is Chinese, but moved to England in 2004 to study at the Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester. He recently performed Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in Wales, but I don't have any samples of his performances.

James Ehnes (pictured) is a Canadian violinist who was the 2002 Young Artist of the Year at the Cannes Classical Awards. His crisp style of attacking the notes with clarity is evident in this clip of Wieniawski Etude-Caprice Op. 18 No. 4. He has released 20 albums since the turn of the century.

Midori Gotō is a Japanese violist who performed paganini's 24 Caprices at age 7. 1986 would come her now legendary performance at Tanglewood. An astonishing success, she broke the E-string on her violin twice; She thus had to borrow violins from the concertmaster and associate concertmaster in order to finish the piece and had Leonard Bernstein, the conductor, kneeling before her in awe. Here is Midori playing Tchaikovski's Violin Concerto.

Catherine Manoukian (pictured) is Canadian, but also has Armenian, Russian, German, and Japanese origins. She won grand prize at the Canadian Music Competition at the age of twelve. This video clip gives a nice close up of her finger work, although it devolves into more about her than the music.

For anyone who thinks classical music is dead, here is a list of these and many other classical violinists performing about the world - JUST violinists. With this many current and emerging violinists obviously there is still a desire to play and hear classical music. Listening to the various artists has been a real joy (and I'm no where near a quarter the way through).

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Hilary Hahn: An interview

If you've not been to Hilary's website, she writes travel updates, which gives some insight into the performer. However, SFist has an interview which also gives another aspect to the performer's personality. You can also see her answer some questions on her YouTube channel.

Updates: Composers and Violinists


Richard Termine for The New York Times

In a couple of previous posts I mentioned conductor Lorin Maazel violinist Julia Fischer (albeit in separate posts). Vivien Schweitzer of the New York Times gives a review of their joint perfomance on Tuesday.

The review speaks highly of Ms Fischer, "(she) plays with a remarkably sweet tone (evoking melting caramel perhaps) and long, refined phrases that have an operatic quality to them. She played the Mozart with expressive introspection in the Adagio and plenty of spirit in the Gypsy-tinged Rondo. Mozart did not write a cadenza for this concerto, so Ms. Fischer wrote her own, a highly effective piece featuring a dialogue between the upper and lower strings."

Although the review was not skathing for Mr Maazel, it did say, "Mr. Maazel doesn’t seem to have been particularly influenced by historically informed Baroque styles...Mr. Maazel effectively conveyed the stately dignity of this work (despite a few unstately horn blunders), which more closely resembles Bach’s earlier orchestral suites than the later “Brandenburg” Concertos. But for ears attuned to the leaner, crisper and more buoyant sound now associated with Bach, the performance sometimes sounded stodgy."

Yet again an example where the conductor plays an important role. While the performer does a wonderful job, the performance was not as sparkling as it could have been. Looking at the picture above it seems one was excited to be there, the other would rather be somewhere else.

The Power of the Conductor

Several months ago I had the great pleasure of conducting the premiere performance of my 'Symphony No 1, Figuratively Speaking.' The performance was well received even if the recording of it shows the performance to be lukewarm at best. You might think, as composer, that I'd know the work better than anyone else - and, as a new work, you're probably right. No matter how well I knew the piece, I was still amazed at how much I learned about the music during the process of rehearsing/conducting it, so the conductor obviously has a different vantage point of the music than the composer. Some of the players in the orchestra gave me glowing marks for my performance - and yet, I am still an amateur conductor and (IMHO) the performance showed it.

The Edinburgh Symphony Orchestra has performed numerous other concerts, tackling some very difficult music. Not all the concerts are amazing, but certainly the orchestra, for being a subscription ensemble, can be proud of the performances they give. They do an admirable job, and with a good conductor they do even better. Under the current musical direction of Gerard Doherty the performances continue to be strong, reliably competent, something the orchestra should take pride in.

In a performance of 'a child of our time' last August by the BBC Scottish Symphony and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky gave a tired performance. Another Edinburgh Festival Performance, "The Enchanted Wanderer" as performed by Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra under the baton of Valery Gergiev was better, but still lacked that amazing quality we hope to experience in a professional concert. Both of these performances had moments, but both also had problems, problems I feel could have been corrected by the conductor. Both of these conductors have other concerts which have achieved that sense of amazing, so it was possible; it just didn't happen on the nights I attended.

The conductor Seiji Ozawa (pictured) recently conducted a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” by the Metropolitan Opera. Anthony Tommasini was not impressed with the vocalists (one had a cold, another was too loud and one was lacking emotion). He wa however very impressed with Ozawa's conducting, 'the greatness of Tchaikovsky’s 1890 opera, adapted from a Pushkin short story, came through vividly. Much of the credit goes to the conductor Seiji Ozawa. Mr. Ozawa drew a splendid performance of “The Queen of Spades” from the Met Orchestra, richly colored yet clear-textured, urgent yet pliant, expressive without being sentimental.'

Looking back at BBC's Maestro where some non-musicians got the chance to learn conducting and actually conduct the BBC Orchestra, there was an dramatic difference between the various conductors and corresponding performances of the orchestra. This was particularly illuminating because the orchestra was the same for each performance and yet, the disparity between quality of the performance was noticeable. As the weeks progress and the conductors learned more about the craft, the performances also grew in quality.

I will take conducting classes as part of my Masters studies because this is an aspect I want to know more about - the way a conductor communicates with an ensemble and how that communication reflects the music on the written page. It is not enough to just put black spots on a white page; as a composers I must also be aware as to how those spots translate into music and the endless range of possibilities a conductor might bring to them. The better I know this, the better I will be able to write music that even amateur conductors will be able to have a solid performance. My symphony's performance last June was solid, competitent. Part of that was due to the orchestra, part of that was due to the conducting and part of that was due to the music. Eventually I will conduct professional orchestras; when I do the music and conducting needs to step up to the task as well.

Broadening Horizons in Music & Art

There seems to be a theme to today's posts, broadening horizons. Reading the news today I came across an article by Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times about the conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim. While the article is interesting in terms of illuminating who Mr Barenboim is, what Mr Barenboim says about modern musicians was far more poignant.

    “Rubinstein read Cervantes in Spanish, Dostoyevsky in Russian, Voltaire in French,” Mr. Barenboim said. “Music has become specialized today. There used to be a different notion of musical culture. I believe that Furtwängler genuinely felt — maybe he was naïve, but he felt that he personally could save German culture from the Nazis. He wrote about the introduction to Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony in relation to the Greek idea of chaos and catharsis. How many musicians think that way today?

    “A century ago the same people who knew Schoenberg’s music knew Kandinsky’s art. There was no separation. Rubinstein used to say that at the turn of the century 25 percent of the audience played the music he was playing, and 70 years later 25 people in the audience owned his records. The responsibility is ours. It’s not the fault of technology. The person who wants to listen actively will get more out of the music than the person who just sits there waiting to be inspired.”

There are some important points to take out of these comments:

  • Musicians should not be so specialized as to ignore other elements of music/art.
  • Inspiration comes from active participation; musicians need to participate in society as much as they do with their music.

    The article also talks about expanding horizons with a tribute to Pierre Boulez in Mr Barenboim's book, 'Mr. Boulez dismissed Bruckner’s music during the 1970s, then a decade later, showing “his greatness and intelligence,” embraced Bruckner.' Boulez, one of the harshest critics of 'tonal/neo-romanitic' music learning to love Bruckner, a late romantic composer, whose complex harmonies are still very tonal, very neo-romantic.

    Yet again we return to needing to embrace more than just a limited view of music. We can't say only classical music is intelligent (pop music is dumb), we can't say only atonal or non-romantic music is new and explorational and the way forward is to blend different styles of music with different elements of art/culture/life. Educational institutions are necessary for the study of music, but they need to ensure they are not contributing to the isolation of music, rather the exploration and inclusion of all aspects of society into it. Should I be accepted into a Masters course somewhere next fall, I fully intent to take with my what I have learned from Scotland/Europe, from my study of non-romantic music, from my time in California, from Wyoming, from conversations with friends and trips to art galaries, time spent on subways or watching sunsets. All of this should be part of my music and my music should, in some way, reflect it all back. The violin concerto I am currently working on has this (IMHO)... so 'watch this space.'

  • Why does new music have to be non-musical?

    Ok, calling new music non-musical is not really fair, there are musical elements to the most atonal pieces by Webern, clustered conglomerations of Lutosławski, or the intense complexity of Ferneyhough. And (truly) I admire all of these composers...

    However, I do find it interesting that some composers and critics find music that doesn't push these kinds of boundries, that somehow 'returns' to tonal roots to be slushy neo-romantic and therefore tired and boring. Stravinsky, one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century explored numerous different styles and yet it was his neo-romanitic period which was contains his largest output. Messian explored a number of different styles as well, but felt his one serial piece was a failure (I agree) and eventually moved back to a more tonal style (although to call it neo-romantic is pushing the definition).

    Krzysztof Penderecki, who wrote "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima" (1960), a thoroughly modern piece of music, has also explored neo-romanitic styles. In a recent performance by the cellist Alisa Weilerstein (pictured) at Avery Fisher Hall in New York with with the New York Philharmonic, led by Lorin Maazel, Penderecki's Second Cello Concerto(1982) shows Romanticism and traditional orchestral forms can still be modern, while including elements of Mr Penderecki's own style.

    Vivien Schweitzer gives a review of the performance saying, "The mood of this searingly emotional concerto is mostly dark and frenzied, veering between mild anxiety and enveloping despair. At one point in the score — which is full of chromatic passages, rhythmically complex dialogue between soloist and ensemble, and weeping cello melodies — the violins buzz like disgruntled bees over a solitary low drone from the cello. The darkness is penetrated from time to time by almost incongruously jovial percussion outbursts and lyrical cello interludes, which Ms. Weilerstein played with passionate commitment. Mr. Maazel aptly illuminated Mr. Penderecki’s varied sonic landscapes."

    Music can be musical, tonal, romantic and still be modern, intense and dramatic. Even the composers mentioned above wrote pieces that have romantic/tonal tendancies, even though these pieces are the ones they are perhaps most remembered for (Ferneyhough is still writing so perhaps the jury is still out as to how he will be remembered). So, just because a piece of modern music has elements which are common to Mozart, Mendelssohn or Mahler doesn't mean it isn't good, interesting, worthwhile music. Here's a cheer to the tonal composers, may they continue to expand our definition of what possible and yet still musical.

    Blending Pop and Classical: a way forward

    If Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, considers pop music the dumbing down of our youth, then he really needs to take in more concerts like the one held at the MATA Festival. Founded in 1996 by Philip Glass, Eleonor Sandresky, and Lisa Bielawa, MATA presents pieces by young composers on a week-long festival, held each spring in New York City. The result is a blend of pop, classical, fusion, rock, electronica... et al.

    Allan Kozinn of the New York Times goes indepth in reviewing a recent performance by violist Nadia Sirota and the guitarist Andrew McKenna Lee. The festival is so successful this performance was actually an interval performance, one done outwith the festival's normal schedule and speaks of the popularity, the demand for this sort of concert. 'Mr Lee closed the program with “Sunrise From the Bottom of the Sea” (2005), an effects-heavy electric guitar work that paid homage to Jimi Hendrix, with passing nods to Jimmy Page and in a series of glittering trilled passages, Steve Hillage.'

    Maybe, Mr Johnson, you just don't know Pop music, which is how you can be so disparaging of it. But the above artists honored in "Sunrise From the Bottom of the Sea" are(wer) all POP musicians and all virtuoso artists in their own right. If, perhaps London were to take a page from New York, and actually create a Classical Festival that explored new music by new composers they might find new music that blends the best of both worlds - and a new way forward.

    Wednesday, November 26, 2008

    Comparing Violinists

    I'm not sure such a comparison by a composer is a wise decision (because performers are the people who ultimately perform our music and comparing performers means one tends to be favored and so the other may feel slighted and 'less inclined' to perform comparing composer's works). But that said, this blog is all about discussing what comes to mind - and reviewing the various violin music I've heard recently it only seems natural a comparison of the performers styles would happen. So, here I go....


    Hilary Hahn has several glowing comments from me about her playing. I've listened to most of what she has recorded and find her style fresh and energetic. She likes to attack pieces and plays some of the fast sections faster than her contemporaries. This is not done at the sake of clarity, because during the Szymanowski the clarity of notes is always present, and yet the notes seems to fly at inhuman speed. Although, I think her rendition of Korngold's Violin Concerto is perhaps my favorite. Hilary is still learning/growing as a violinist, so I am eager to hear what she can do in three to four years.


    Anne-Sophie Mutter is an older violinist from Germany. I am not as familiar with her so my comments need to be taken with a grain of salt. I've just finished listening to her recording of Bach's Violin Concertos conducted by Valery Gergiev. There is vitality and pathos in this recording. It was on the top of the classical charts for five weeks with good reason. Anne-Sophie is extremely accurate, but also extremely passionate with performing. Looking at her rendition of Korngold's Violin Concerto 1st movement shows this passion in all its glory.


    Joshua Bell seems to be the reigning darling, although I'm not sure either Hilary or Anne-Sophie would agree. However, in a clip working with Gustavo Dudamel the passion in both conductor and violinist is off the chart - and this is a rehearsal... Is Joshua the best violinist? I think at this level of performance there are nuances that differ from performance to performance, from performer to performer - but to actually say one is better than another is impossible for me to say. Just watching (listening) to any of them is a thrill.



    Just a note, recordings of any of these artists would be welcome as Christmas gifts...


    Addendum

    Perhaps I should include notes about some of the younger violinists out there. At the age of 25, Julia Fischer is reputed to be at the top of her profession, the youngest ever recipient of Gramophone’s “Artist of the Year” and that was two years ago. Since her debut album in 2002, she has released 9 more. Here she is playing Paganini's 16 Caprice.

    Nicola Benedetti won "The Young Musician of the Year 2004" at age 16. Four years later and she has 3 albums out. Nicola is the only one of this group I've heard perform live and while her performance was stunning, her rendition of Tchiakovsky's Violin Concerto was not quite what I'd expected (not sure I knew what to expect). That said, she has poise, skill and time all in her favour. Here she is playing Szymanowski 4th Violin Concerto.

    Timing is everything - and I just missed the boat

    Hilary Hahn is one of my favourite performers. While I've not actually seen her in a live performance, I have listened to most of her albums and find her approach to playing violin concertos (even those I'm not particularly fond of) passing wonderful. It only become more frustrating that I've not had the chance to take in a live concert yet.

    When she was in the UK earlier this year, I wasn't able to attend as I was in San Francisco. I was just back in the US again last week, but arrived back to the UK on Monday and guess what... Hilary is in San Fran this week!!! Not sure if I can make the premiere of her concert in Indianapolis next February to hear the premiere of Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto, but I think I'll start looking at tickets...

    Tuesday, November 25, 2008

    “Dumbing Down” the Music Scene: Classical vs Pop

    In an article posted by Fiona Hamilton on The TimesOnline it seems, "Boris Johnson yesterday criticised the “dumbing down” of culture for young people, saying that they should be targeted with opera and ballet as well as hip-hop music and movies." When I first read this I thought, "Great! He's equating hip-hop and movies with opera and ballet," but sadly this is not the case.

    It seems what Mr Johnson is asking for is the arts world to not always target the younger audience with use of hip-hop music and movies, but to try and enrich their lives with opera and ballet. While his program in London will try and get more instruments into the hands of the young (pale in comparison to il Sistema program in Venezuela), Mr Johnson seems to feel hip-hop is somehow less an art form, or that movies aren't as cultural as ballet.

    Yes, there are some great works of art in opera and ballet. I am a huge fan of both. But to consider hip-hop less an art is to not understand the craft that goes into it. To suggest that operas written with hip-hop music, or movies with urban dance are somehow artistically less than a classical ballet is failing to see the artistry in urban dance.

    I am not a dancer, but I know dancers. And they speak of the difficulty in switching the placement of their weight between dance of classical ballet and urban. They say urban dance is no less difficult, but difficult in a much different way. I am not a hip-hop composer, but I can admire the craft hip-hop composers/producers go through to create their music. It has all the elements of truly developed music, even if the harmonic progression is limited to 3 chords (and even that is not always true).

    I think, rather than say London, as the City of Culture, needs to encourage more opera and ballet aimed at it's youth, the establishment needs to start looking at how culturally diverse and exciting hip-hop and movies can be in terms of creating new and interesting art. Yes, get the youth involved!!! But don't discount their music; it's better than you give it credit.

    Richard Hickox dies in Cardiff

    Richard Hickox, 60, died from a suspected heart attack in a Cardiff hotel. He had just finished a recording for Chandos of Holst's Choral Symphony. He was scheduled to conduct a new production of Vaughan Williams' Riders to the Sea in November 2008.

    Hickox was contracted as Opera Australia's music director through 2012 and appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2002 Queen's Birthday Honours. His recording repertoire concentrated on British music, in which he made a number of recording premieres for Chandos Records. In 1997 he won the Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording for his recording of Britten’s Peter Grimes. He was also President of the Elgar Society.

    Broadway Musicals

    What Musicals are playing on Broadway this year:

    "13" A young man tries to fit in. A new musical with a score by Jason Robert Brown. Bernard B. Jacobs. This was on a limited run of only 105 performances. Closing in January.

    "Avenue Q" Love blossoms among the 20-something set — a group that includes puppets — in this very funny, adult musical comedy. Winner of the 2004 Tony Award for best musical.

    "Billy Elliot" A young man in Britain's bleak coal country yearns to dance. A musical based on the hit film.

    "Chicago" This Kander and Ebb-Bob Fosse creation is Broadway's longest running musical revival and deservedly so.

    "Grease" A revival of the venerable musical celebrating 1950s high school and featuring stars chosen during the recent NBC television reality series.

    "Gypsy" A powerhouse Patti LuPone stars as the mother of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee in a revival of one of the greatest of all Broadway musicals.

    "Hairspray" The cult John Waters movie set in 1960s Baltimore has been turned into a hilarious, tuneful musical. And Harvey Fierstein is now back in the cast. Closing in January.

    "In the Heights" The lively off-Broadway musical about Latino residents in an area of upper Manhattan called Washington Heights moves to Broadway. Winner of the 2008 Tony Award for best musical.

    "Jersey Boys" The musical story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Winner of four 2006 Tonys including best musical.

    "Mamma Mia!" The London musical sensation featuring the pop songs of ABBA makes it to Broadway. Die-hard ABBA fans will like it best.

    "Mary Poppins" The world's most famous nanny comes to the stage after her great success as a P.L. Travers book and a Disney movie.

    "Monty Python's Spamalot" A musical inspired by that demented film comedy "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Winner of the 2005 Tony Award for best musical. Closing in January

    "Pal Joey" Young Chicago hustler meets older female socialite. A Roundabout Theatre Company revival of the 1940 Rodgers and Hart musical. The cast includes Stockard Channing, Martha Plimpton and, in the title role, Christian Hoff.

    "Shrek The Musical" DreamWorks cinematic green ogre makes it to the stage in this show based on the movie and the William Steig book.

    "South Pacific" Kelli O'Hara is nurse Nellie Forbush and Paulo Szot is French plantation owner Emile de Becque in a revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical based on one of the short stories in James A. Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific."

    "Spring Awakening" A striking rock musical based on Frank Wedekind's classic drama about a dozen young people discovering their sexual identities. Music by Duncan Sheik. Book and lyrics by Steven Sater. Winner of four 2007 Tonys including best musical. Closing in January.

    "The Lion King" Director Julie Taymor is a modern-day Merlin, creating a stage version of the Disney animated hit that makes you truly believe in the magic of theater.

    "The Little Mermaid" Disney's stage version of its popular animated film about a sea maiden who longs to live on land.

    "The Phantom of the Opera" The one with the chandelier. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about a deformed composer who haunts the Paris Opera House is the prime, Grade A example of big Brit musical excess. But all the lavishness does have a purpose in Harold Prince's intelligent production, now the longest-running show in Broadway history.

    "White Christmas" A stage version of the classic Irving Berlin movie musical.

    "Wicked" An ambitious, wildly popular musical about the witches in "The Wizard of Oz" as young women. Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire.

    "Young Frankenstein" Mel Brooks transfers his comedic monster mash of a movie from screen to stage — only with more song and dance. Closing in January.

    Disney is doing well with 2 musicals (although you could consider "Mary Poppins" a Disney one as well), so Dreamworks joined in the fray and put up "Shrek the Musical." Mel Brooks did well with "The Producers," but his "Young Frankenstein" didn't fair as well. Revivals are also doing well with "Chicago", "Grease", "Gypsy", "Pal Joey", and "South Pacific." And for some reason "Phantom" is still playing strong.

    Winning best musical doesn't mean forever. Both the 2005 and 2007 winners of best musical are closing in January, "Monty Python's Spamalot" and "Spring Awakening." Although, "Hairspray", winner in 2003, "Avenue Q", winner in 2004, and "Jersey Boys", winner in 2006, are still going strong. "Lion King" (1999) and "The Phantom of the Opera" (1988) are the only other previous winners still playing.

    Analysis of other Violin Concertos

    I was traveling this last weekend, and while traveling I took the time to further analyse some violin concertos from other composers. The process I used in the analysis really has three steps.
        Review the score (without listening)
        Review the score (while listening)
        Indepth elemental analysis of the score

    The first step, reviewing the score without music is to try and identify, motivic elements, reoccuring themes and gesturers and a sense of style used by the composer. The second step is to reaffirm my initial thought on how some of the elements sound, but to also gain a sense of placement of elements with accompaniment. It's one thing to look at a score, but when listening other aspects come leaping out which aren't necessarily obvious in the score, although it's important to determine if these leap out because of the written music or whether the performer took liberties highlighting something that isn't there in the original. The final step is to try and create an overall arch to the various elements, find out how they all fit together in terms of the whole. This process helps me really understand what makes (or breaks) a piece - and gives me ideas that I can incorporate into my own music.

    Well, this weekend I reviewed Walton and Elgar (op 91). Perhaps the first thoughts that came to mind while looking at the score is the understanding why these are not performed with much regularity now. Both composers then to be a bit overly romantic in their writing, lush runs and sweeping harmonies filled out with strings. Granted, this is the age in which these composers were writing (although Walton's concerto was written in 1941, which could have been more avant-gard except it was in England which seemed to be lost in the romantic era for longer than the rest of Europe). Both concertos have some demanding elements for the soloist, but neither compare to the Tchaikoffsky or Shostakovich concertos in terms of complexity. The runs are fairly simple and very tonal. While there are double stops, there are only a few that really demand a stretch for the soloist and generally time is given to accomodate the demand.

    There are some interesting harmonics in the Elgar, harmonic doublestops which might make this piece more interesting to attempt. However, in listening to the piece, I didn't find the harmonics to necessarily stand out as all that interesting or effective. This could be a recording issue, but I'm not sure it is. The placement of the harmonics with the accompaniment doesn't allow for them to be isolated, so we don't really hear the effects - and that's unfortunate.

    Walton's concerto is particularly slushy in the recording. The sweeping strings are right out of the mid 30's hollywood sound. The piece could have been performed as background music to any number of films from the 1930's. Again, no surprise considering the time frame the music was written, however it doesn't tend to provide the kind of music that current performers are looking to perform.

    I haven't started the final stage of the review process, but initial glances in the first two steps give me the impression the use of themes and motives are pretty transparent. Beethoven, in his later works, got fairly ingenious with the use of motives and how they developed, but in the violin concertos of Elgar and Walton I don't feel that is going to be the case.

    Tuesday, November 18, 2008

    Flamboyant Conductors of Classical Music

    Why is it conducting tutors demand it be done is a stayed manner, flowing lines with the hands, but the body for the most part is to be quiet, while the most sought after conductors flail about the stage, stirring emotions in audience and performers alike?

    Martin Steinberg for Associated Press talks the styles of two of the worlds top conductors. Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic in a commemoration of the 65th anniversary of Bernstein's first major triumph was described as, "Jumping and with big sweeping gestures, Gilbert ratcheted up the tension to near frenzy. He stabbed the air with his baton during its percussive punches, and when the music got suddenly quiet, he collapsed into a crouch. By the end, his dark straight hair was spiking above his forehead."

    In the description of Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel led the Israel Philharmonic in two works by Bernstein Martin Steinberg says, Dudamel's "long curly locks bouncing as he pirouetted on the podium. He danced his way through jazzy sections." Later in the concert, "Dudamel led a galloping account of the work (Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony), one of the war horses of the repertoire. He wielded the baton as if it were a matador's sword. At times it was hidden behind his tails, moving slightly as he conducted with his head and shoulders. His dance steps teased the bull into submission. At the rousing conclusion, the audience howled in delight and jumped out of their seats."

    Both of these accounts are pure showmanship. These are conductors that not only get the most out of their orchestras, but also put on a great show for the audience, and the audience responds. When I was conducting the premier of my Symphony No 1, a request was made that I make my movements smaller, less was better. "Let the music have the emotion, not the conducting" was a comment I remember. When it came time to take the stage I didn't follow this advice. Perhaps the orchestra struggled to follow me and my flamboyant nature - and if that's the case, then I failed as a conductor (as leading the orchestra has to be the first task). However, the performance was more than just music; a orchestra performance is just that, a performance and the conductor is the focal point of this performance for the audience.

    Thinking back to the Maestro competition on the BBC, where a group of semi-famous non-musicians were taken through the steps to become conductors, in a pseudo competition format - the finalist getting to conduct the BBC Orchestra at the Proms. Many of these people were taught to be expressive, to give more to the orchestra than just the downbeat. So, perhaps it isn't all conducting tutelage, just those I've had experience with. Or perhaps it's just amateur conductors that ought to be reserved, get them to transmit the beat with some fluidity before bringing in the flamboyancy. Well, I don't intend to be an amateur conductor...

    Monday, November 17, 2008

    Animals, music and the mind

    According to James Randerson of the Guardian, "researchers have discovered that playing classical music to the animals reduces abnormal behaviours such as swaying, pacing and trunk tossing, although they said elephants don't seem to have a favourite composer." The point of the study was to improve the mental state of the animals in captivity. Mr Randerson's article goes on to site several other studies which offer suggestions that animals may be soothed by classical music but irritated by Heavy Metal.

    Ok, link this to the recent bits I've been reading out of Oliver Sacks Musicophilia regarding the portion of the human brain that deals specifically with music. It seems there is an element of the brain that not only deals with music, but can become significantly larger (more developed) in professional musicians. This leads me to believe we are inherently pre-disposed to music and (without considering religious connotations, Sacks is a self proclaimed Atheistic Jew) it seems physically affected by music in more than just our mood.

    I am not a doctor, let alone a neurosurgeon, so I don't know if the areas of the brain that are affected by music in humans are core elements to the brains of other animals - areas like, the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain, or the auditory cortex. It seems, according to David Field, zoological director of London and Whipsnade zoos, "Elephants are incredibly sensitive beasts. Their appreciation of noise communication is far beyond our hearing range. They communicate in deep infrasonic vibrations." So, it is reasonable to suppose they may be predisposed to music at some level.

    I also find it interesting these studies tend to use composers like Beethoven and Mozart as their basis for Classical music. What would be the effect if they played something like Webern, Schoenberg, Babbitt, Boulez or any of the more "radical" classical musicians; the ones that much of the modern audience has yet to appreciate. If we find animals do not much care for this avant-gard type music, perhaps we can summarize that maybe (just maybe) this music is less 'musical' than these composers would like us to believe - because our baser animal side of our brains just don't connect with it.

    On the other hand, we could also suggest the avant-gard music is perhaps more elevated than what 'animals' can appreciate, thus separating ourselves from the animal kingdom, by virtue of our appreciation of a 'higher form' of music. But doesn't that smack of the divine creation of man, which might open a whole religious debate arguing for a number of composers who are also self-proclaimed atheists???

    A Different Sense of Rhythm

    Rhythms are one of the hallmarks of my music and yet one of the items that most people listening to my music struggle with. Needless to say, this is constant source of frustration for me, for while I hear the interlocking rhythms with ease and tend to thrill to the more elaborate form, most people who listen to it tend to comment at the endless cacophony of it.

    Well, reading further into Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks it seems "Eric Hannon and Sandra Trehub have reported, infants at six months can readily detect all rhythmic variations, but by twelve months their range has narrowed, albeit sharpened. Adults find it harder still to perceived 'foreign' rhythmic distinctions." So, the rhythms I was exposed to as a child may have been more intricate and of a foreign nature to what most of my listeners are used to.

    Like Bernstein and his use of latin rhythms in West Side Story, I enjoy Latin rhythms. However, I also resonate with Chic Corea and Dave Brubeck, whose jazz tends to use irregular meter. The result tends to be something with vague Latin rhythms, but extensive use of irregular meter with heavy jazz inflections. The violin concerto I'm currently working on right now is a good example. On page 8 of the score of the third movement you see a section at rehearsal mark 'D' that begins in 7/8. There are three bars of 7/8 and then a bar of 4/4, and then back to 7/8. This creates a section of 29 beats (a prime number). It could be written one bar of 4/4, one bar of 3/4 one bar of 4/4 and one bar of 7/8, which is somewhat closer to the stresses in the melodic line. However, all the accompaniment parts are based closer to the 7/8 bars and so, for conducting and keeping the ensemble together, it is better to write it as I have it. But, this isn't the feel of the rhythm. The musicians are going to struggle with how to place the beats and maintain unity. Yet, the music has a laid back feel.

    The rhythms are overlapping. The three lower strings are accenting the 3rd beat of first and third bars and the 1st beat of the second bar (although the accent of the double basses is more in it's absence than the notes it plays). This is one rhythm. The Violin I part has a very different rhythm and is repetitive throughout the section. The solo violin accents with the lower strings for the first three bars and then follows the accents of the Violin I in the 4/4 bar (joined by the cellos and double basses). As we get to the end of the page the solo violin begins to break from the other rhythms and creates a third.

    This is page 8 of the score and so we have had time to be exposed to both the rhythms of the lower strings and then to the rhythm of Violin I. The development into the third rhythm is well into the piece (2'07"). However, because the first two rhythms are fairly relentless, although not continuous up to this point, there is a feeling of being beaten into submission (or at least that's what some of my listeners feel). They find the piece doesn't tend to hold their interest, perhaps because the the syncopated rhythms are pretty much a constant, even though changing from one to another in the first two minutes and then coinciding when I introduce a third rhythm to the mix.

    The question I have to ask myself now is, "Am I introducing the rhythm at a slow enough rate to eventually allow the audience to grasp what's going on, or do I need to adjust what I'm doing in order to better allow the current audience to appreciate the music?" If I lighten the rhythms to better match the current audience expectations, am I not sacrificing what it is that makes my music mine? And yet, if I don't, is it possible that my music will never be appreciated for the complexity of rhythms?

    I am not the kind of compose that feels the audience needs to just listen to the music enough and eventually they will come to appreciate what I've done. Yet, there is the desire to stay true to my own 'inner voice.' Fortunately, not everyone finds the rhythms too intense (or too monotonous). If I can just find a professional who wants to champion my stuff, get it out into the mainstream to be heard, maybe I won't have to struggle with this question anymore.


    I should point out the rhythmic intensity of my music is in no way as complex as that of acid jazz, which has a fairly loyal following. Part of the incitement of acid jazz is the virtuosity of the players, yet I would submit the music also sounds intense. It seems the goal would be to create something that is at one level simplistic and yet virtuosic, easy to listen to (which admittedly mine is not) and yet difficult to master (I think I'm getting close on that account).

    Thursday, November 13, 2008

    Types of Classical Music Composers

    When I was studying music at the bachelors level, I spent a fair amount of time studying different styles of composers and their music. It fascinated me how the various romantic composers could create such very different sounds using much the same techniques. And yet, there were some composers who individually had a unique sound and yet could be 'lumped' together into a school of sound, a style of composition. Schubert, Schumann and Brahms were all romantic composers and yet have 'German' similarities in their music that are less similar to the French sound of Debussy or Ravel, the Russian sound of Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff, or the English sound of Vaughn-Williams or Elgar.

    Later in my studies, when I was no longer studying specific composers, but studying the ways to analyze music, it occurred to me, much of the reason some composers shared a 'sound' was due to the way these composers approached composition. Schoenberg in his Fundamentals of Music Composition elaborated the way composers of the German/Austrian heritage thought about music, the way the approached composition. Many of Schoenberg's examples are of Beethoven's music. The approach focuses on the use of motives and the ways these motives develop. So, at least for the Germanic composers, there was a way of approaching composition that was very analytical.

    I also am an amateur linguist. When I was in high school I spent three years learning German. Then, some 8 years later, compliments of the US military, I learned Korean. My father loves language and passed that passion on to me, although I do not have the educated background he does (he earned a PhD in English). One of the most interesting aspects about language is the way a language shapes the way people think. Germans tend to be very analytical, Italians and Spanish very emotional, and English speakers tend to be more expressive than either and yet not as analytical or emotional as the others. This is a gross oversimplification, but the base concept is that the mental state of the people is greatly affected by the language they learn to speak.

    If this is the case, then so too must the way we learn music (and the language we speak) affect the way we compose. During my fourth year analysis class, I thrilled to learn about Schoenberg's method of analysis, and conversely the Viennese method of composition, the development of the motive. However, no matter how much I love it, and mentally try to incorporate this style into my compositional habits, I find there is a pull to allow an emotional steering of the music - a need for expression. Stravinsky said in his Poetics of Music, "Beethoven amassed a patrimony of music that seems to be solely the result of obstinate labor. Bellini inherited melody without having even so much as asked for it, as if Heaven had said to him, 'I shall give you the one thing Beethoven lacks.'" Beethoven's music is engineered, where Bellini's music comes from the heart.

    All of this comes to the forefront while I am reading the book Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, the man who wrote Awakingings. The book discusses the way music and the brain interact. So far I am only in Chapter 7, Sense and Sensibility (with two more posts simmering on thoughts brought up by earlier chapters). Chapter 7 discusses the range of musical abilities and the manifestations of these talents not owing to upbringing so much as genetics, not everyone is musical even if they come from a musical family - and musical talents differ, some having skill but no innate understanding of what makes music music, while others understand music, but have no ability to create it. I am constantly trying to discern what my sense of music is; how much of it is inbred (genetic) and how much is cultural. For that portion which is cultural, how much can I expand and influence it?

    Where am I in this process? Obviously I have some ability to create music technically (although I still struggle with the basics of playing the piano). I compose music at what some consider to be an extremely prolific rate. However, there are aspects of music that I adore and yet fail to incorporate into my own musical lexicon - urban music is just one example. Perhaps this failure is due to exposure; I did not have exposure to urban music during my formative years where the very nature of it could be internalized.

    My mother tongue is English and yet culturally American. Can the culture of the United States be dramatically different than that of Brittan, so that, while they share a common language, the musical influence is dramatically different? The jazz in the US is vastly different than the jazz in the UK, which is different than the jazz in France of Finland. Minimalism made much deeper roots in the US than it did in Europe and nearly all the New Complexity composers are English (even though Ferneyhough now teaches in the US). Some of my History of Music studies suggested the effects of WWII on Europe played a greater role in shaping the direction of music away from romanticism, into atonality, serialism and beyond. But is that effect still driving music in a different direction? Schoenberg said there is no new music, only music that is built on what came before. So, the effects of WWII on music must still be affecting Europe, if only with the knock on effect.

    My upbringing makes me gravitate toward Copeland, Bernstein, Glass and Adams. But my education in the UK has taught be an appreciation of Webern, Messian and Ferneyhough (even if I don't thrill to their music like some of my fellow students). Perhaps the European elements of musical culture will never become fully ingrained in my compositional techniques, but I hope my culture has broadened with my time here. I may not be able to engineer music to the level of Beethoven, but I can (and do) apply some of Schoenberg's principles when crafting a piece, even if I also let the melody sweep me in new directions that have little or nothing to do with the motive.

    Stravinsky was Russian who studied in France and eventually traveled to the US. His music, of perhaps anyone in the 20th century is the most diverse and least prone to categorization with any specific culture (although he certainly has periods in his writing). I hope, my time here in Europe affords me that same diversity. It would be nice if the music I write has a voice that is not distinctly either American or European, but something new. Ultimately posterity will judge what affect this has all had on me and my music.

    Playing a Violin Concerto

    I am not a violinist. I've seen the violin played. I've even held one and scraped the bow across the strings, but I'm not a violinist in any stretch of the imagination. So, when I took to writing a violin concerto I leaned on a couple of good friends who play the instrument extremely well. IMHO composers have to do this in order to make the music truly organic for the instrument.

    That said, I had my first positive review of the first movement yesterday. Considering Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major a 10 in terms of difficulty, my own composition comes in at 7, which is right where I'd hoped it would be - tough but not impossible (not that Tchaikovsky's is impossible). My first movement cadenza has a number of double stops, only one is potentially an extreme challenge and that mostly due to the speed of the music. It's all possible, which is a good sign, and yet fairly difficult.


    As for performing the Tchaikovsky, the Silicon Valley Symphony has young Maestro Michael Gibson (12 years old) playing the solo violin part in their "Prodigy & Pops" concert November 15th. I've heard Nicola Benedetti and Tasmin Little both perform this piece live and to think of a 12-year-old playing it just seems amazing. Michael has a promising career ahead of him.

    Judith lngolfsson recently released a recording with the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra. David Kim, renowned violinist and concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra will be performing it this weekend, with the Long Island Philharmonic.

    Also in the Long Island Philharmonic concert will be Billy Joel's "Elegy: The Great Peconic," a short orchestral work composed as a tribute to the baymen of Peconic Bay as they struggled with declining oyster and clam yields. The piece was written 10 years ago and is English neo-romantic in style.

    I was amazed to find Hilary Hahn, one of my favorite violinists, has yet to record Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. Odd, considering she's played concertos by Beethoven, Schoenberg, Sibelius, Pagannini, Spohr, Elgar, Bach, Shostakovich, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Barber and Meyer. However, it is part of her current tour. Maybe I need to write and ask if she'll consider mine....

    Wednesday, November 12, 2008

    Opera Update: For You - blog review

    Previously I referenced some reviews about the new opera composed by Michael Berkeley with a libretto Ian McEwan. Here is another review, from the blogsphere.

    In the Dark was not particularly favourable with the music, "In the opening scene the composer Charles Frieth is taking a rehearsal, with him on stage conducting the orchestra in the pit. The tuning-up sounds are carefully scored - quite a challenge for a composer, I think - and it’s a very clever opening. This idea comes back whenever there’s a particularly manic episode (usually involving the deranged Polish maid Maria), the apparent cacophony from the orchestra mirroring psychological disorder on stage. That works well too, at least the first time. But this device is used so often that it begins to irritate."

    Old Opinion, but relevant ideas

    I hate saying this opinion written by Glenn Branca for the New York Times is old, since it was published in April 2007, but in internet/blog terms, that's ancient history. However, discovering it for the first time today, I felt compelled to answer her 25 questions.

    If you're reading this post, tag, you're it and I'll expect either your own 25 answers or a response to mine forthcoming.

    1. Should a modern composer be judged against only the very best works of the past?

    No, not against only the very best works. However, there is something to suggest a basis for criteria be setup using pieces of the past to determine quality in the future. For myself, my Symphony No 1 is not Beethoven, although I personally consider it in the realm of the first from either Ives or Shostakovich in terms of quality writing. Neither of their first symphonies are considered their best and I hope my first is not by best. Their first symphonies show talent and I believe that's what mine does, hope for the future.

    2. Can there be truly objective criteria for judging a work of art?

    No, judging by its very nature is not objective, but subjective.

    3. If a composer can write one or two or more great works of music why cannot all of his or her works be great?

    A good understanding of the artistic process is necessary here. Just because an artist had a good idea and was able to execute it well, doesn't mean the next idea will spark the same "flow" of creative juices. Try as they might, the artist is at the mercy of the Muse and while a loving god, she is fickle, not prone to giving her gifts lightly or frequently to the same person. Any artist who can "create" quality works time and time again is (IMHO) not so much creating art, but having discovered some process with which they can "churn" out artwork. Thomas Kinkade is raved about, and he definitely has a style of painting. However, to call all of his paintings great art is deminishing the real works of thousands of other artists who struggle to "create" something new.

    4. Why does the contemporary musical establishment remain so conservative when all other fields of the arts embrace new ideas?

    If what you mean is Broadway or the WestEnd, they are businesses, not artists. They are there to make money and conservative approaches to art are what investors want. That isn't to say that occasionally an artist will get funding and make a fortune. But people with lots of money wanting to make more rarely want to try something new, when there is something tried waiting to be done.

    5. Should a composer, if confronted with a choice, write for the musicians who will play a piece or write for the audience who will hear it?

    There needs to be a mixture of these decisions. Some music can be both, yet sometimes it's worth not thinking about the audience when composing music - in the quest for finding a new sound, something that hasn't been done before. If it's not been done, there is no way to know if the audience will take to it, so it has to be composed without their consideration. And yet, I feel ultimately the audience is who the music is for. A style of music that isn't appreaciated is not worth doing again (and again, and again) trying to force the audience to accept it. That form of music composition is just arrogant.

    6. When is an audience big enough to satisfy a composer or a musician? 100? 1000? 10,000? 100,000? 1,000,000? 100,000,000?

    I would have said 1... Certainly some of my music is written with only one person in mind. If anyone else ever hears it, so much the better. However, if you can suggest a way to get 1M people listening to my music, I'm all ears.

    7. Is the symphony orchestra still relevant or is it just a museum?

    We have not even begun to tap all the tonal qualities of the symphony orchestra. And why can't the orchestra grow and change? Any reason there can't be a orchestra with banjos and harmonicas (my wife's idea)? We've added all sorts of other instruments over the years (to include electric guitars).

    8. Is micro-tonality a viable compositional tool or a burned out modernist concept?

    It really depends on what the piece is. I've heard some music where micro-tonality was used for a large ensemble and I don't really find the nuances (or the skill of the players, and these were professionals) to the point it is possible to hear what's going on when 12 string players are all attempting to find a quarter tone. It's hard enough getting 12 string players to play in tune if they're all in unison. That said, there are some really beautiful pieces that use micro-tones - and I certainly don't think we've explored the depth of possibility yet. Perhaps, with electronics we can overcome the need for live musicians and the limitations of our humanity - and then we can really hear some amazing works come from this tool.

    9. In an orchestra of 80 to 100 musicians does the use of improvisation make any sense?

    No, not in my opinion. The reason improvisation works with a small ensemble is that most of the ensemble is limited to a very narrow scope of options. By limiting their scope, the "lead musician" can then fill in lots of extra parts and still have it all fit together. If you get 80 musicians improvising, and all 80 decide at the same moment to play a note outside the norm (which what improvising is all about), suddenly the piece is headed in an entirely different direction. Keep improvising to small groups. Make classical musicians in large groups explore it (in smaller groups), but don't try and get 80-100 people all doing it succesfully.

    10. What is the dichotomy between dissonance and tonality and where should the line be drawn?

    I don't know. I haven't found the line yet. I still compose primarily tonaly, but really enjoy the sound of dissonance and some of my music gets pretty far afield before coming back... so, I don't know.

    11. Can the music that sooths the savage beast be savage?

    Carl Orff's Carmina Burana is a lovely piece that is very savage and yet, I don't know anyone who listens to it without feeling some sense of release.

    12. Should a composer speak with the voice of his or her own time?

    Unless a composer is writing pastiche of some other time, I don't think a composer can write anything but of their own time. Perhaps their time is not the same as yours, but they are writing music based on their experiences to date. We are venturing into Kant or Hume territory here.

    13. If there’s already so much good music to listen to what’s the point of more composers writing more music?

    because we're not done. There is so much more to say, and life, society, music is constantly evolving, which means we need new music to keep pace with the rest of our world. IMHO I don't feel modern orchestras perform enough new works, propelling the artform forward - that spoken as a composer who would like to have my works performed.

    14. If Bach were alive today would he be writing in the baroque style?

    No, he would be writing jazz, possibly big band jazz, a style that saw it's hay-day some years ago (Bach was accused of being behind the times during his lifetime) - but it certainly wouldn't be baroque.

    15. Must all modern composers reject the past, a la John Cage or Milton Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?”

    Not all modern composers reject the past - and in all actuality, that sentiment is pretty well past as well. Glass and Adams are not of the Cage/Babbitt mold, certainly.

    16. Is the symphony an antiquated idea or is it, like the novel in literature, still a viable long form of music?

    Well, since I just finished writing a symphony last year, I can't really say yes to this can I? Actually, like the novel, it is still evolving, but unlike literature, society seems to think music needs to completely re-invent itself every so often. New novels are written and no one thinks they need to completely forget the English language to be good, so why is there some desire to throw out all the quality music of years past just to create something new?

    17. Can harmony be non-linear?

    Yes, Debussy did it all the time and yet, once you've heard his music you can't imagine it any other way.

    18. Was Cage’s “4:33” a good piece of music?

    Yes, conceptually. Silence is also music, so in this case "4:33" works. But you can't write another piece like it, or it's just pastiche.

    19. Artists are expected to accept criticism, should critics be expected to accept it as well?

    Don't they? With the internet, comments are nearly universally available. I don't know how well critics accept these comments (or if they even read them), but then again, I don't know how well some artists accept comments by critics either... criticism is hard to take.

    20. Sometimes I’m tempted to talk about the role that corporate culture plays in the sale and distribution of illegal drugs throughout the United States and the world, and that the opium crop in Afghanistan has increased by 86 percent since the American occupation, and the fact that there are 126,000 civilian contractors in Iraq, but what does this have to do with music?

    Music is not always political, but it can be and occasionally should be. Whether you agree with Valery Gergiev's concert in South Ossetia just after the Russian "invasion" is irrelevant to the statement Gergiev was trying to make and make it through music. Politics are not new to music and music should not try and avoid them. Music doesn't always have to be political, but occasionally it is a good thing.

    21. Can the orchestra be replaced by increasingly sophisticated computer-sampling programs and recording techniques, at least as far as recordings are concerned?

    It is being replaced. Most of the music you hear in film is done with a mixture of a small group of musicians and computer programmed music. There are still nuances a live musician can do that computers don't seem yet to accurately emulate, but computers (and their programmers) are getting better. Add to that, many nuances computers can do with sound that before electronics were just not possible and I think we'll find there will be a greater marriage of the two in years to come, not a replacing of either.

    22. When a visual artist can sell a one-of-a-kind work for hundreds of thousands of dollars and anyone on the internet can have a composer’s work for nothing, how is a composer going to survive?
    And does it matter?

    Well, a visual artist can sell that work for mucho money and yet a digital picture can be found within hours on the internet. If a composer is putting his/her work on the internet for nothing, perhaps it is to gain exposure (at least, that's what I'm trying to do). Eventually, the goal is to have someone want to purchase a "new" piece of music and pay a lot of money for it. Now, once the music is written and performed, other's may download it off YouTube, but that doesn't change the original purchase (or purpose). Can we survive? We are, perhaps working in other jobs while we compose, but that is still survival. Does it matter? Well, yes, I would love to get paid for writing a new piece of music, but I'm not going to begrudge another artist their due for getting paid for their work.

    23. Should composers try to reflect in their music the truth of their natures and the visions of their dreams whether or not this music appeals to a wide audience?

    Not all music is programmatic, i.e., music that tries to reflect anything other than music. Beethoven wrote a great deal of this kind of music. We call his "Moonlight Sonata" that because of music critic Ludwig Rellstab, not because Beethoven called it that (or even thought it was his influence in writing the piece).
    That said, IF a composer is going to try and reflect something in their music, they ought to be true to their inner-self. Write the music you enjoy. If you do that right, other's will enjoy it too.

    24. Why are advances in science and technology not paralleled by advances in music theory and compositional technique?

    Who says they're not? Music has been exploring the use of technology, along with the concept of sound for over 100 years (if not long before). There's a school in Paris devoted to just this with Luc Ferrari and the originators of musique concrète. We just don't hear a lot about it in mainstream music. However, most of the effects used in a Britney Spears album can be directly traced back to the discoveries of these pioneers in sound. If you really listen to a lot of Urban music, what the artists are doing with the manipulation of sound is truely amazing - and compositional technique of the first magnatude.

    25. Post-Post Minimalism? Since Minimalism and Post-Minimalism we’ve seen a short-lived Neo-Romanticism, mainly based on misguided attempts to return to a 19th century tonality, then an improv scene which had little or nothing to do with composition, then a hodge-podge of styles: a little old “new music,” a little “60’s sound colorism”, then an eclectic pomo stew of jazz, rock and classical, then a little retro-chic Renaissance … even tonal 12-tonalism. And now in Germany some “conceptual” re-readings of Wagner. What have I left out? Where’s the music?

    Wow, where's the urban, pop, grunge, electro-accoustic... There is a lot of music out there. I don't think we're seen a "new" form pop up in a few years (really since Minimalism) - but we are just beginning to see a lot of urban artists exploring the classical world. With their knowledge of effect and sound manipulation, add some classical training and I think we'll see a new explosion of something yet discovered. I won't be one of these new composers, as Urban was not my upbringing. But, mark my words (or maybe Bernsteins), something's coming, something good.

    Your Turn...

    Classical goes High Tech

    It's nothing new to hear all about the new special effects for a major rock concert. U2 was filmed (in 3D) and the concert was over the top in terms of lights, effects, video and the like - and for what - music. Opera has a tradition for incorporation new effects techniques, from way back when and Weber wrote Der Freischütz incorporating demons from Hell to accompany his diminish seven chords.

    Well, another satanist story, Faust, hit The Met this week and, according to David Patrick Stearns of Philly.com, "The stage was loaded with technology that's not unusual in France but is just now finding its way into U.S. opera houses." Earlier this year, The Fly opened in Paris with huge special effects, and then there was Robert Lepage's The Rake's Progress which was transferred to the early days of Hollywood and incorporated video screens and elaborate effects to set the scene. Doctor Atomic was also at The Met last month with less of the high tech splendor, but still managing projections and unique lighting effects to thrill the audiences.


    Andre Rieu and his supporting cast charm the masses. Picture: Jon Hargest

    Not that I'm trying to equate Andre Rieu with Satan or even one who has sold his soul to the devil, but there is a similarity in the Faust production and the Australian concert tour of the Dutch Violinist. Moving to the concert hall (read: converted Docklands stadium in Australia), Andre Rieu will take to the stage amid a flurry of effects that make U2's concert seem perfectly boring. According to Geoff Strong of The Age, the crew are going to "smother that grass with thousands of aluminium plates. Simultaneously, in front of the stadium's functional western end (and raise) a life-size replica of the front section of Vienna's Schoenbrunn Palace. Two fountains are now being tested in what would have been the forward pockets, and both sides of the palace front will feature ice rinks totalling 600 square metres. It is a 700-tonne stage set worth close to $6 million and so big that it took 220 shipping containers to bring it from Holland. Putting it together has taken more than a week, with the construction workforce peaking last Saturday at 350, about 200 of them specialists from Europe."

    Luke Dennehy of the HeraldSun reports, "(Rieu) brought along a small town with him to put the stage and show together -- 500 people in total. The Viennese palace theme includes a 600m ice rink and the staging is so heavy the underground car park had to be reinforced. His crew is working around the clock to get the stage set. Each show in Australia costs $5.6 million to stage."

    Perhaps there is a common theme here. In opera we see lavish production that deal with demons from hell, or at least those who are possessed by demons (one turns into a fly and the other is just a rake beyond all proportion). Maybe Rieu hasn't sold his soul, but he's certainly pulling in the crowds. Whether it's the music or the effects, or a combination of both, it seems to be working. The performances for all are near sellouts.

    Arjuna's Dilemma: opera reviews


    Ruby Washington/The New York Times
    Tony Boutté as the title character in Douglas J. Cuomo’s new opera “Arjuna’s Dilemma,” which is having its premiere in Brooklyn.

    The modern landscape of music is filled with composers looking for new things. We've stepped squentially beyond the atonal world of Schoenberg, meditated our way through minimalism and been thoroughly confused with new complexity. Composers from Debussy on have looked toward other cultures to bring new ideas to music. Tan Dun's The First Emperor brings his Chinese heritage along with his education in European music to further blur the music landscape, while composers like Damon Albarn (Monkey King: Journey to the West) and Stewart Wallace (Bonesetter's Daughter) explore music in opera from the other side. Bollywood is encroaching into mainstream film world and now Douglas Cuomo, the composer of the jazzy Sex-in-the-City theme, has come up with a new opera which blends the Indian and Western music (particularly jazz), Arjuna's Dilemma, based on Bhagavad Gita.

    As previously reviewed, I liked the music, but that was just listening to snippets from bits available on the net. Now that it's open it seems the general sentiment is warm if not overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Anthony Tommasini, from the New York Times, feels "The score boldly blends those Indian sources with diverse contemporary music idioms and hints of jazz. There is a risk in drawing from disparate musical styles, and stretches of the piece fall into a stylistic nowhere land. Still, Mr. Cuomo’s enthusiasm for the music that inspired him is so palpable that the score’s flat spots hardly matter." Further on in his review Mr Tommasini comments, "There are touches of Philip Glass in the choral writing, especially when the women latch onto a phrase and repeat words obsessively. I liked the score best when Mr. Cuomo pushed the complexity to extremes, piling up Arjuna’s solos, choral counterpoint and instrumental textures to create haunting, astringent, multilayered music, with cluster chords in the electric keyboard and spiraling flights in the strings and winds."

    Justin Davidson of New York Magazine was not as enthusiastic saying "The result... is a pile of half-realized good ideas. The god Krishna takes many forms, and Cuomo multiplies his voice into a farrago of manifestations: Indian singing by the marvelous Humayun Khan, a five-woman choir, the screechy falsetto and silent writhing of performance artist John Kelly, the muscular filigree of Bob Franceschini’s tenor sax, and the eloquent drumming of tabla player Badal Roy. Each gets a crack at persuading the hesitant Arjuna to go into battle, and each is separately compelling, but the stilted sequence of solos has the feel of a cross-cultural variety show."

    While the reviewers don't necessarily agree in the success of the music, the audience seemed to enjoy it, "the audience that gave an ardent ovation on Wednesday" when Mr Tommasini saw the performance. Perhaps the most surprising is the lack of other reviews for a noted composer and a new work premiering in New York. Maybe it's not the met, but only a half dozen composers (Tan Dun is among them) get their first operas premiered at that level. Still, it's a good piece and worthy of recognition. The Fly and Repo: the Genetic Opera are getting far more press and their music isn't nearly as good.

    Tuesday, November 11, 2008

    It Must Be Fate - the opera preview performance

    By popular demand I am posting the opera portion of the concert last June. This is very much a work in progress, so what you're hearing is a concert performance (piano/vocal) of the first half in a rough cut. We've already determined this portion of the opera needs some changes, but we were eager to get audience reaction. Now you too can add your comments to the music.

    The mp3's were created at a fairly low level to try and keep the size manageable. However, due to the length, they are still fairly big. My apologies it took so long to get this posted, but I am still trying to get the video of the concert finalized so portions of it can be posted on YouTube.

    Enjoy, and feel free to comment. A synopsis of the opera can be found here. No, I'm not going to post the libretto.

    Sunday, November 9, 2008

    New Clarinet Sonata

    In my travels (mostly via email) I've been fortunate to meet a number of other composers and artists, some who read my blog, other's whose blogs I read. Occasionally, I get the thrill of see a work in progress which eventually becomes a published piece.

    Noah Potter is just one of those people who I've communicated with - and he's just published a Clarinet Sonata. I am proud to say I heard portions of it prior to publication. Although I doubt I had any influence on the piece, it is nice to feel as though I was there at the beginning, or at least before it was finished.

    You can hear some of Noah's other music on his website: http://www.noahpotter.com/

    Or, you listen to the Clarinet Sonata (and order a copy) at the BRS website.

    Congratulations, Noah!

    Politics and Music

    Let's talk politics for a moment - and not the politics of the US Presidential election, but that on the other side of the world, South Ossetia, Georgia and Russia. In August Valery Gergiev was about to conduct at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre with the Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra when Russia sent troops into South Ossetia to "repel" the army of Georgia. So, he opted to conduct a performance of Prokofiev's Semyon Kotko Act 3 on August 22nd, only days after the conflict began. Ever since, he's been criticize for using music with a political agenda, but, as I posted on August 23rd, music with a political agenda is nothing new, particularly for Russians (although Mr Gerviev considers himself Ossetian).

    The politics continue with an article in the New York Times, by Daniel J. Wakin. Valery Gergiev defends his actions and the accusations he was motivated by a close relation with Vladimir Putin (Gregiev say, "The two men are friendly but not friends"). Why is the article in the New York Times now? Because Greviev is performing more of Prokofiev's music at the Lincoln Center (New York), and then returns in March with the London Symphony Orchestra and more Prokofiev music. He's keeping himself in the spotlight, and the result is so are the events in South Ossetia.

    Perhaps it is unfortunate there are not a few great composers (or even one) from central Africa, where illustrious conductors could opt to perform some of these African pieces and bring the attention of war, strife and struggles for humanity can be brought to the forefront. It seems, while the situation in South Ossetia certainly cost the lives on many, it is pale in comparison with the genocide of Rwanda, Ethiopia and what is currently happening in the Congo.

    This is not typically a political blog, but in a modern world we can not afford to isolate ourselves from the politics. As musicians, we have an obligation to get involved, to use our influence to bring issues to the attention of the media, and thereby the public. So, in some small way, I hope this blog achieves some of that same effect.

    Friday, November 7, 2008

    Repo raked over the coals

    Wow, not everyone likes Repo: the Genetic Opera. I would normally just post an update as an addendum to a previous post, but these are so scathing I thought they deserved their own space - not everyone hated it.

    MTV:
    Thirty years after "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," there's nothing shocking about the third-hand decadence on display here. What really startles are some of the unexpected performers lunging around in the murk. What could Sorvino have been thinking as he blustered through the din, trailed by a long gray ponytail, belting out lyrics like "Maggots, vermin — you want the world for nothing!" And how did actual singer Sarah Brightman — Andrew Lloyd Webber's onetime wife and muse — feel about being tricked out as some sort of pop-eyed Elvira puppet? The songs aren't uniformly dreadful — one of them, "Seventeen," is a lively arena-punk anthem that Vega delivers with near Avril Lavigne-level energy — but the tunes are largely formless, and many of the lyrics have the flat quality of words that should have been simply spoken, not sung. ("Didn't I tell you not to go out?" Wallace bellows at his sheltered daughter, in response to which she warbles, "You did! You did!") The picture runs just 98 minutes, but it already feels too long three-quarters of the way in. It feels unnecessary from the beginning.
    LA Times: Mark Olsen

    The film is bad -- not good-bad, tacky-bad or fun-bad, just plain awful and nearly unwatchable. "Repo" has feet of lead, with none of the frenetic grace or swooping lyricism that make a musical film, well, musical.

    The score is mostly a tuneless, fake-industrial throb, without a catchy hum-ability. At times it seems as if "Repo" is some sort of parody of old-world Italian filmmaking, with all the singing post-recorded (and often drenched in reverb), so mouths and the sounds emitting from them are disconcertingly dislocated.

    NY Times: Nathan Lee
    But when you live by the song, you die by the song. A few catchy melodies, some clever lyrics or even a sense that the score wasn’t just one long, unmodulated track might have energized this singularly inert tale of a young girl (Alexa Vega) seeking answers to the nature of her peculiar genetic disease.
    USAToday: Claudia Puig

    ...viewers must slog through a sappy conclusion, accosted by some of the most banal songs imaginable. Repo! might have been an SNL or MADtv skit, but as a movie, it should be repossessed by its financiers.

    Reuters: Frank Scheck
    The sung-through musical score somehow manages to contain not a single memorable song, though the performers give it their undeniable all.
    IfMagazine: Abbie Bernstein
    The songs are musically somewhere between garage metal and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE pop, and lyrically on the Tim Rice expository side. Plot points are sung in language that often is more on-the-nose than poetic. However, the vocal prowess of most of the cast is such that the score incorporates honest-to-goodness operatic flourishes, particularly in Brightman’s numbers.

    Brightman: New Directions or New Marketing

    Sarah Brightman is the popular UK diva who's been around since late 70's singing songs of sweetness and light. Made internationally famous by marrying Andrew Lloyd Webber during her time performing Cats, she has released numerous albums as part of the Pop gone Opera vocalists Andrea Bocelli or Charlotte Church (not to be confused with Opera gone pop artist like Katherine Jenkins or Lesley Garrett).

    It's been a busy year for Sarah, what with two new albums and a role in a film (Repo: the Genetic Opera). With all this activity (and her age, she's 48 this year, so catching up with Madonna) the question begs, is this new stuff new, has Sarah done a 'Madonna' and reinvented herself? or is this just more of the same with a fresh coat of paint?


    Repo: the Genetic Opera is a far cry from her time in Cats or Phantom of the Opera all though the voice is recognisable as Sarah. It's also possible to play snatches of the new opera opposite bits of Phantom and confuse which piece you're listening to, the styles are that similar. The latest is a gothic/comic/gore film, while the other is... a gothic,horror film with bits of comedy. I think if Lloyd had been a comic book fan we might have seen even more similarities between the two projects.

    The albums, Winter Symphony and Symphony are likely to do very well in sales. Winter Symphony is a Christmas album (which always does well at this time of year) and yet has a darkness to it, with the lush orchestration we've come to expect from Sarah's accompaniment. Symphony is new material for Sarah (although not all new material) and (surprise) she gets to duet with Andrea Bocelli in a version of 'Canto Della Terra.'

    The music is lovely, charming, sweet with a sense of tragic melencolia as fits the heroine of Phantom. Sarah's face is lovely, charming, sweet, while the art work for the albums give us a hint of the tragedy hiding just under the surface. If you are in the need for something to lighten the mood, and yet feel reflective, you won't go wrong with these albums (I'm not sure Repo will lighten the mood much, but for not at all Sarah's fault). However, although I'm a huge fan of Christmas music, I doubt Winter Symphony will make it on my list and I already have a lovely version of Andrea singing 'Canto Della Terra'.

    Modern Classical Music: What is it?

    Photo is from the blog on hughsung.com, an interesting blog with lots of tidbits about music.

    Robert Knox of the Boston Globe wrote an article about an upcoming concert series by the South Shore Conservatory of Music. The article opens talking about how 'Classical musicians are often reluctant to program contemporary classical music because audiences tend to think that "contemporary" is a synonym for "difficult."' When he says difficult, does he mean difficult to listen to, difficult to perform or just hard to swallow that it is actually music?

    Mr Knox goes on to define difficult saying, 'While modern music can be "can be perceived as difficult" - harder on the ears, that is, than the well-loved Romantic music of the 19th century and the classical harmonies of earlier periods.' It's the harder on the ears that stands out. Certainly much of Anton Webern's later 12-tone pieces are a struggle for audiences as the harmonic progression is different that the music of even the late Romantics like Gustav Mahler or Claude Debussy (both who tend to go pretty far afield from standard romantic chord progressions). Cage, Boulez and Babbitt all have music which is fascinating on an intellectual level (from a musicologists point of view) but audiences struggle with listening to them for long periods of time (without having the urge to do bodily harm to themselves or the rest of humanity). Moving forward to current composers like those of the new complexity, Ferneyhough, Cox and Dillon really push the bounds of both the listener and the performer to new understandings in what we think of as music. While my own personal tastes tend to only really enjoy this later group of composrs, all of the above listed are examples of how modern composers have given the modern audience that concept contemporary classical music is difficult.

    The problem with contemporary classical music is the desire to please both an intellectual audience, the musicologists who feel if the music isn't complex, unique striving for something that hasn't been said before in new and interesting (angular) ways it isn't challenging enough, and the lay audience who really just attend concerts to relax and enjoy (and aren't fussed about being intellectually challenged). Babbitt didn't care if the masses enjoyed his music. Schoenberg went so far as to dismiss the masses as if to suggest if the masses enjoyed it perhaps the music wasn't challenging enough. Too often composers get lost in this attitude and what results is complex contemporary music that pleases such a small audience it runs of risk of being lost, and never being recognised (and thus has no value).

    Beth MacLeod is quoted in Mr Knoxes article suggesting the decision process for the new concert series programme, "We made the decision not to program anything too difficult." The contemporary composer they've opted to go with is Peter Lieberson, a 2008 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for his Neruda Songs. Listening to these as performed by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Mr Lieberson's wife who died from cancer and for whom these songs were written), the music is filled with lyrical love, lush chords and classical sounding harmonic progressions. It is obvious why these songs fall in the category of not too difficult and yet, in yet in terms of performance, there is plenty of room to explore a range of emotions allowing the performer to shine.

    So, what makes Mr Lieberson's music Contemporary Classical (other than being recently composed in a classical manner) if it's not difficult to listen to? Well, it is interesting to note Peter studied with Milton Babbit and sites jazz and minimalism as influences. There are elements in his music of sharp-angled atonality, yet with rich romantic melodies. The key to writing contemporary music is to keep enough of the familiar (romantic melodies) and yet bring modern elements to play to engage the modern music critic.

    Mr Lieberson was featured in a Composer Portraits concert at the Miller Theater (New York) in September which was reviewed by Allan Kozinn. Mr Kozinn speaking about "Mr. Lieberson’s ideas about style were developed and sharply focused at that early point in his career." In another piece, "the Concerto for Four Groups of Instruments (1973), the four groups — woodwinds; violins and viola; harp and piano; cello and bass — interact in a lively sequence of dialogues, the discussion occurring among the groups rather than within them. Sometimes several groups play at once, though not necessarily with a commonality of purpose. What results is a continuously shifting, entirely engaging stream of timbres and mutating themes." Obviously Mr Lierberson has a sense of what makes beautiful music and yet is able to incorporate modern elements to remain attractive for even the intellectual listener.


    I just missed the Composer Portraits concert at the Miller Theater (New York) on Nov. 5. Although it was devoted to Milton Babbit, so maybe I didn't miss it after all.