. Interchanging Idioms: December 2008

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Year in Review

This year has been very successful in terms of this blog. I've read a great deal from the internet, the library and beyond, listened to numerous artists I didn't know existed and revisited a number of works I previously enjoyed rekindling my enthusiasm for them and posted about much of what I've learned along the way.

News(86) and Opera(71) are my biggest topics, but since a lot of what I was writing about was news of the day, I'm not surprised that one tops the list. Opera is very near and dear to me, so again, not a surprise it came in at number two. Reviews(67) are kinda like news. Composition(65) came in number fourth; again no surprise as I am a composer, so of course composition would be a topic I return to often.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me is the 7000+ readers so far this year, 1000+ of those in December. I'm averaging over 50 readers a day, with numerous days seeing over 100 visitors to the site - most of those from the US (also a good sign). So, in all a very good year. I learned lots, and hopefully so did many of you.

2009 is likely to be a year of significant change for me, as I hope to move back to the US, begin my Masters studies and get my first composition performed professionally (in the US). All of these and many more changes will be documented here as I learn and grow, discover, explore and experience the ever changing landscape of Classical Music.

Friday, December 19, 2008

New Music: Blending styles, audiences and technologies

Allan Kozinn of the New York Times wrote an article, "For New Music, Cross-Pollination and Big Crowds" which is about "young composers who are equally at home in classical music, rock, jazz and world music and whose work speaks to audiences with similarly unbounded interests." This is the same sort of sentiment I've often touted on this blog, new music needs to look at those composers who are blending styles of rock and jazz into classical mediums, pulling rhythms or flavors from world music and elements from minimalism or atonality into something new, fresh and listenable. That last bit is probably most key, the music is enjoyable to listen to.

In another article from the New York Times, this one by Anthony Tommasini, "Classical Music That Dared to Be Different" it speaks about pieces performed this year that broke boundaries. One of the most prominent in my opinion was the internet broadcast of the New York Philharmonic's performance in North Korea. "Along with millions around the world, I watched the concert streamed live over the PBS Web site at 4 a.m. New York time. (The concert was later televised in an evening broadcast.) Somehow, sitting at my desktop computer and seeing the Philharmonic play live in North Korea, where the Internet is banned, seemed tangible evidence of barriers falling."

Add to that the simulcast performances of operas from New York, London, Berlin into film houses everywhere and we begin to see how technology is spreading the wealth of classical music to areas that previously only longed for it. These new mediums are also creating new revenue streams for classical performers.

What all this means is classical music is far from dead. There is a new explosion of talent, technique and technology that is exploring new worlds of music and exposing new people it.

Broadway: "Rock of Ages"

I'm not a fan of musicals made from a collection of songs with a loose storyline putting it all together. But I do like entertainment, of all sorts. Perhaps it's just that I'm not a fan or ABBA music, which is why I never found the attraction to "Mamma Mia" - and yet, I really love the music of Journey, Bon Jovi, Styx, Reo Speedwagon, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Poison, Asia, Whitesnake... It was a great time for me and some really great music. So, to hear the musical "Rock of Ages" is finally making it's way to Broadway with rights to the film already secured by New Line Cinema has me pretty excited.

The review of the Off Broadway production are promising with the Associated Press, "a nonstop party laden with sexy choreography, energetic performances and an on stage band that totally rocks the house." The Star Ledger proclaims, "tons of retro fun for anybody loving those bygone times of big hair and even bigger power chords," while The New York Post says, "ROCK OF AGES does for '80s rock what 'Mamma Mia!' did for ABBA."

"Rock of Ages" will transfer to Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th Street, and open on Tuesday, April 7, 2009. Previews begin on Friday, March 20, 2009.

That said, I'm not sure why there is a Broadway show and not just a concert. Do we feel we need a story to keep us entertained for 2+ hours? I used to go to concerts and listen to music for that long and more and thoroughly enjoy myself. Part of me wonders if sitting in a sit in an theatre isn't going to feel a bit strange, because part of me is going to want to be jumping up and down dancing to the music. Maybe when we were younger, filling the concert audiences, we were willing to stand about, dancing and doing what have you, but now that we're older we feel the need to relax in a cushioned seat. Geee, I hope I'm not that old yet.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Call for Scores: Get your music reviewed

This Call for Scores is not so much a contest as a review of works by current composers. As a composer, I enjoy looking at the works of other composers, so I will be using this to learn about what other composers are doing as well as honing my music analysis skills. The other intent is to provide public exposure to works that have yet to be performed and yet are of a quality to warrant attention.

As the Internet can be a great source of disseminating information, the reviews of the best works will be posted here, with samples of the scores and music in order to give quality works a chance to be heard. Not all scores received will necessarily get a public review, as each review will be returned to the person submitting the score for approval. If the person submitting the score does not want their review posted on this blog, it will not be posted.


    To post reviews of quality scores to allow wider exposure to music which might otherwise be unknown to the general public.


  • Scores are to be submitted in PDF form to: Chip Michael
  • Links to mp3 files must accompany the scores. The mp3 files can be midi realisations, but midi files will not be accepted.
  • Programme notes and composers biography should be included, but not necessary.
  • Only one score per composers, please.


    Each score will be given a preliminary reviewed/critique direct to the person submitting the score. A rating of 1-5 stars will be given in each of the following categories:
    • Quality of Score - is the manuscript presentable and in a professional format
    • Quality of Concept - is the music appropriate for the instrumentation
    • Quality of Design - is the form of the piece clear and effective
    • Overall rating
    Comments will be given in each category as to the reason for the rating to assist the composure on re-writes or future edits.

    If the score receives an Overall rating of 4 or more, the person submitting the score will have the right to have the review, and portions of the score published on this blog for other readers. The complete score will NOT be made available, nor will access to the mp3 files, as the composer will retain full rights to their work.

Update: "Three Decembers"

Not all reviewers gave the new opera "Three Decembers" a luke warm reception. Eman Isadiar of the Epoch Times said,

"Heggie’s music is richly textured and primarily tonal with occasional forays into far-off, sophisticated harmonies. While innovative and moving, Jake Heggie’s music alone is not why Three Decembers is a remarkable contemporary opera, nor is the brilliance of Frederica von Stade as its central figure. Even a fine librettist such as Gene Scheer with his heart-piercing words cannot be credited as the opera’s single most important component, nor can the poignant storyline of the original play by Terrence McNally.

"It is when all of the above line up in perfect order—much like a rare astronomical convergence—that a great work of art is born. Ladies and gentlemen, Three Decembers is that work of art."

However, Jason Victor Serinus from the Bay Area Reporter was not as favorable. He really wanted to love it. The first third of the article is all about how much this opera had going for it. But in the end he said,

"The problem, I regret to say, lay squarely with music and libretto. A host of operas have managed to transcend handicapped librettos by dint of music too ravishing to be ignored – Il Trovatore and scores of baroque masterpieces come to mind. But Heggie's music is not that. Rather than seizing the heart, as he did so well in Dead Man Walking, Heggie chose to write music whose inner tension rarely if ever reflected the heart-tugging dramas of its protagonists. Mother Madeleine may have spent four decades constructing an outward persona that would hide a horrible tragedy, and Charlie may have spent well over 10 years living with a beloved struggling with, then dying of AIDS, but Heggie chose to connect these situations with music that too often had the ambling gait of a Vince Guaraldi score for a Peanuts cartoon.

"...here's hoping that Heggie and Scheer refine and deepen the work before its next production. It ought to evoke raves rather than shrugs."

Since there are more performances in other locations, I agree with Mr Serinus, a bit more work and there may yet be hope for more rave reviews.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Academy Awards: Eligible Songs

This is NOT the list of songs nominated, but rather the list of songs OPEN for nomination. Eleven songs from High School Musical, but only three from "Repo!" For a film that is suppose to have the most songs ever in a film, it doesn't have many eligible.

The full list of eligible songs, listed alphabetically by film, is below.

    “By the Boab Tree” from “Australia”
    “Barking at the Moon” from “Bolt”
    “I Thought I Lost You” from “Bolt”
    “Once in a Lifetime” from “Cadillac Records”
    “The Call” from “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”
    “It Ain’t Right” from “Dark Streets”
    “Too Much Juice” from “Dark Streets”
    “Dracula’s Lament” from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”
    “Drive” from “Fuel”
    “Gran Torino” from “Gran Torino”
    “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” from “Hamlet 2”
    “The Boys Are Back” from “High School Musical 3: Senior Year”
    “Can I Have This Dance” from “High School Musical 3: Senior Year”
    “High School Musical” from “High School Musical 3: Senior Year”
    “I Want It All” from “High School Musical 3: Senior Year”
    “Just Getting Started” from “High School Musical 3: Senior Year”
    “Just Wanna Be with You” from “High School Musical 3: Senior Year”
    “A Night to Remember” from “High School Musical 3: Senior Year”
    “Now or Never” from “High School Musical 3: Senior Year”
    “Right Here Right Now” from “High School Musical 3: Senior Year”
    “Scream” from “High School Musical 3: Senior Year”
    “Walk Away” from “High School Musical 3: Senior Year”
    “Di Notte” from “The Lodger”
    “The Traveling Song” from “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa”
    “The Story” from “My Blueberry Nights”
    “The Code of Life” from “My Dream”
    “In Rodanthe” from “Nights in Rodanthe”
    “Nothing but the Truth” from “Nothing but the Truth”
    “Djoyigbe” from “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”
    “Waterline” from “Pride and Glory”
    “Another Way to Die” from “Quantum of Solace”
    “Up to Our Nex” from “Rachel Getting Married”
    “Chase the Morning” from “Repo! The Genetic Opera”
    “Chromaggia” from “Repo! The Genetic Opera”
    “Zydrate Anatomy” from “Repo! The Genetic Opera”
    “Broken and Bent” from “Role Models”
    “Code of Silence” from “Save Me”
    “Jai Ho” from “Slumdog Millionaire”
    “O Saya” from “Slumdog Millionaire”
    “Little Person” from “Synecdoche, New York”
    “Right to Dream” from “Tennessee”
    “Forever” from “They Killed Sister Dorothy”
    “Trouble the Water” from “Trouble the Water”
    “Down to Earth” from “WALL-E”
    “The Little Things” from “Wanted”
    “Count on Me” from “The Women”
    “The Wrestler” from “The Wrestler”
    “Sweet Ballad” from “Yes Man”
    “Yes Man” from “Yes Man”

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Oscar Composers: Their thoughts

Clockwise from top: Danny Elfman, A.R. Rahman, Howard Shore, Alexandre Desplat and Jan Kaczmarek (Photo by Dan Busta/DanBusta.com)

An interesting article/interview with five leading Hollywood composers was published by the Hollywood Reporter. Kevin Cassidy sat down with A.R. Rahman (Fox Searchlight's "Slumdog Millionaire"), Howard Shore (Miramax's "Doubt"), Danny Elfman (Focus Features' "Milk"), Alexandre Desplat (Paramount's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") and Jan Kaczmarek (Overture's "The Visitor").

One of the first questions was about a film or music that influences their work. It is interesting hearing Danny Elfman speak about Bernard Herrmann as an influence. I know the film he mentions "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951) and while it's a classic film, since Elfman is my age it seem odd that it's an older film that he stated as his influence. Certainly, John Williams was the composer of choice during my childhood, what with "Jaws", "Close Encounters", "Star Wars", "Superman" (the list goes on). Williams really brought music back to the forefront of importance in film and made orchestral scores the norm, not the exception.

The question about re-doing a previous work better seems a bit odd. As a composer, certainly previous works are always works that could be "in progress" but at some point you have to put the work done, move on to the next project. Perhaps the good thing about film is the deadline; it has to be completed to be released and so, there comes a point where the music is done whether it's done or not. I re-opened the first movement of my Symphony No 1 the other day because the opening section has always bothered me and I think I found a way to fix it. However, that said, I am avoiding a major re-working of it, because I could spend my life trying to write the perfect symphony and never get anything else done.

Their comments about whether they feel composing is work and I resonate most with Shore's response, "Well ... no. It's part of you. At a certain point it feels like breathing. It's just a part of your life." However, Desplat said, "There is always a scene in a movie, when you look at the architecture of the movie, you think, "This will be hard" or, "This will be a piece of cake." You know where you will have your struggles. There are moments that will be technically more difficult and emotionally more difficult. You know you will have to spend more time on certain scenes." The hard moments can feel like work, but are still very enjoyable, enjoying the work, the challenge and the composition.

Rahman makes a great comment about temp music, "(Directors) have temp music from CDs and they get used to it, and then they expect you to reproduce it." I really struggle with this because student directors will choose their favorite bands to use a temp tracks and expect me to reproduce the bands sound. Then, if I do happen to accomplish this, because I haven't added lyrics (not for background music anyway), it still doesn't have the same effect and the directors send me back to the drawing board. Ugh!

Rahman makes another good comment about the use of melodies in modern films, "I am so much in love with scores that have great melodies, but nowadays if you have a great melody they say, 'Oh, it's distracting from my film.'" Man, have I heard that before! Young directors are particularly moving away from melody and themes to bizarre sounds and random noise.

Kaczmarek and Elfman speak about satisfaction. Kaczmarek said, "It's always a desire to touch the impossible, without naming it. This can be a movie or it can be a piece of work unrelated to film. But I'm still hungry for some experience, which I believe is ahead of me. It's like what Alexandre said, that we should look forward. No matter how satisfied or happy I was with my last piece I still desire the unknown." Elfmans says much the same thing only more concrete, "I don't think I've come anywhere close to anything that has made me happy. I'm still looking for my 'Lawrence of Arabia.' I want my 'Godfather.' I want my 'Citizen Kane.'" Striving for something new, something better is part of the compositional process. No matter how good a work is while I'm working on it, I will always strive to make the next one better.

The discussion of money is interesting, as Shore is arguing that music is getting constantly cut to make room for other aspects of the film and yet his counterparts seem to feel better music happens on the smaller budget films. I can't say as I've experienced this as there are only a few projects where I've been paid and so ALL of my films have been low budget. I also don't think paying a composers $100's of thousands of dollars for a score is necessary either. While I highly respect John Williams, I feel he is paid too much. (just my opinion).

The article ends talking about the worst aspect of film composing, deadlines. They all hate them and yet Shore uses the same approach I do, "You keep the pencil moving." During those times when ideas don't seem to be coming, the key is to keep writing, even if it isn't very good. Bang on the piano (not literally). Listen to other unfinished bits, ideas or sketches that have never seen the light of day yet. My continueing to push forward eventually the music starts to flow again and some of the bits that don't work now might be bits you will use later. Some of it is crap - but there is always going to be a certain amount of that. Keep writing and it will come.

Monday, December 15, 2008

New Opera: "Later the Same Evening"

Edward Hopper’s paintings have been transformed into a new one-act opera, "Later the Same Evening." Images of loneliness and solitude are brought to live by a score by John Musto, receiving its New York premiere last week at the Manhattan School of Music.

According to Vivien Schweitzer of the New York Times, "Mr. Musto’s musical-theater-like score, which features recurring marimba riffs, chromatic interludes, fugal passages and hints of blues and jazz..." Again the lines between opera and musical theater blur.

photo by Carol Rosegg

New Opera: "The Making of Americans"

Perhaps a bit out of the way of main stream premieres, "The Making of Americans" saw its debut at the McGuire Theater in Minneapolis last weekend. The Star Tribune posted a review of the performance.

Adapted by director Jay Scheib from Gertrude Stein's novel of the same name, "Americans" has commendable music by composer Anthony Gatto. His score is alternately playful and lush, with both plinks and plonks as well as flourishes that suggest Verdi and Puccini. It is rendered with technical precision and spirit by an orchestra made up of the members of Jack Quartet and the new-music ensemble Zeitgeist.

While Rohan Preston seemed to like the music, it was less kind to the libretto, 'In the last scene of the opera "The Making of Americans," Tanya Selvaratnam, who plays sometime narrator Mary Maxworthing, intones: "Repeating is the whole of living." She then echoes the same sentence, with slight variation, ad nauseam, while a stage full of singers provides an aural backdrop for her words and a chorus of movers tries to look interesting.

'In the end, "Americans" may have been more successful if adapter Scheib did not exhibit such reverential fidelity to Stein's text, which is often incantatory but vague. The show includes passages like this, delivered by Selvaratnam: "There are families and some of them have some children and some of them are dead and some of them are not dead then and the father is dead then and the mother is almost dead then and the mother is living quite a long time longer then."'

There is one comment to the review and they were even less thrilled with the performance. They couldn't understand what was being said most of the time, there was no libretto in the program and no subtitles available. If the libretto was as obtuse as Rohan Preston remarks then perhaps this one is due for a re-write.

Update: "Repo: The Genetic Opera"

It still hasn't arrived in the UK, but obviously the press machine for this film is working overtime. Yet another review appeared today, this time by William David Lee of DVDTown.com. I don't know whether this means the film is being released onto DVD before it makes a world tour, and if so, it doesn't bode well for the quality.

"Repo!" holds the record for the most songs in one film at 64. Not all the numbers could be considered full-fledged songs. A few are essentially bits of conversation sung. None of the songs are really all that memorable other than the ones previously mentioned. A lot of the music is just disharmonious noise on top of noise.

Again, not a favorable review. Although perhaps the worst comment was meant as a compliment, "The production design looks remarkably good for a low-budget film."

Recording Live Concerts

Recording a live concert is always problematic. Where do the microphones/cameras go and how does that affect the audience during the performance? There is also the issue of overdubs and retakes. Audiences have come to expect pristine recordings from classical ensembles, and this is because in the studio mistakes can be corrected by re-recording sections or even individual notes, or using electronics to adjust the end result. However, for budding performers (or composers) getting a concert recording my be the only option as studios and musicians can be cost prohibitive.

There is an article on Livemint.com about a small studio dedicated to recording Carnatic music live. One of the aspects it talks about is just this concept of cost verses getting the recording out to the public to be heard. One of the engineers, Charubala Natarajan says, There are really so many artistes out there, who are so good, but they aren’t being released commercially." The problem is cost of getting a recording done.

This made me think about my own recording concert last June, which had both audio and video recorded. Initially, there was some arguments about where the microphones were to be placed, trying to juggle between a good recording and a good concert. My concert manager won and while the recording is good, it's not as good as it would have been with a more intrusive microphone setup. The video was done with two cameras in the balcony, one used for zoomed in closeups and another for the overall stage. Since the video has yet to be edited, I have no idea how this one turned out.

Because some of the performers were professional I could not take the recording to market. Listening to it, I'm not sure I would anway. It does make for a good demo CD, which is really what I wanted anyway. However, for other artists, the need to be able to "sell" their works is one way to increase their revenue stream. When all the artists involved start asking for their "cut", it makes it difficult for emerging artists to get anything for their troubles.

Then there is the internet. I mentioned yesterday "Leave me Alone!" is a new opera that will live broadcast on 31st of January. Certainly, this broadcast will be available in the future, initially, for free download, but then potentially for nominal charge to help defray the costs. YouTube is a great example of a way artists are using the internet to gain exposure, but these videos still need recording. The London Symphony Orchestra with Valery Gergiev conducting are presenting the entire cycle of Mahler symphonies available on the internet. The beauty of this is not only getting to hear these amazing works, but also getting a chance to see Gergiev in action. But this is the London Symphony, so they have a budget for this sort of project.

There is also the need for the performer to hear the concert after it's done, for self critique. During the performance in June my mind was on so many things I couldn't get good grasp of what the sound was actually like. The recording has provided me with endless details of things I can fix for future compositions and concerts. The video will likely do the same, particularly since I conducted the concert. It would be nice to see how effecting the conducting was verses the sound created (not to mention to use as a demo of my conducting).

Ultimately, what the industry needs is a company that can record concerts live, do a reasonable job and for a nominal cost. If, for example, concert halls provided a live recording option as part of their "service" for renting the hall, even if the included recording was done with only a few microphones, one engineer and minimal (read: no) setup, I think more and more artists would opt for this.

New Opera: "Three Decembers"

"Three Decembers", a new chamber opera by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, opened a three-performance run on Thursday in UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. This is the second opera by this pair, the first "Dead Man Walking" (2000) received rave reviews. Their most recent venture isn't doing as well.

Jeff Dunn, from San Francisco's Classical Voice says, "I longed for some decent melody. Almost all the melodic elements are merely accompaniment figures to pleasing though unmemorable arioso vocal lines. The only melody of significance, a cross between Faure’s Pavane and Pachelbel’s Canon, leaves little for the audience to whistle home about. This is a shame, because the libretto offers several opportunities for music to push rather than coddle its performers."

Josh Kosman, of the San Francisco Chronical, enjoyed the music but not the libretto, "Most striking is his (Heggie's) command of the rhythms of spoken English, and his ability to maneuver them deftly into the textures of the music. The vocal lines shift repeatedly from two beats to three and back again, always responding with winning ease to the demands of the text. And when he has the freedom to indulge his gift - as in a fizzy, funny waltz number about Maddy's obsession with shoes - the results are delightful. But Heggie's music can only go so far before it comes smack up against the bathos and dullness of the overall theatrical conception."

Sue Gilmore of the Contra Costa Times had this to say, "there is nothing of the grand sweep and scope of opera about it — no overtures, no arias, no spectacle. This is musical theater plain and simple, with librettist Gene Scheer's sung dialogue, almost always one note per syllable, dominating. In fact the orchestra, an 11-member ensemble that includes both Heggie and conductor Patrick Summers on separate pianos, plays right up there on stage with the three singers, Broadway style." While she later mentions liking the music, "Heggie's music, tuneful and pleasant, was quite clearly deployed in great service to the three voices," it didn't hit the mark the way she felt it should to really hold interest.

The concept of the opera is a glimpse at a mother-son relationship at 10 year intervals. Bernard Slade wrote "Same Time Next Year" which deals with a couple meeting every 10 years to have a one night stand. While it saw success both as a play and a movie, it's never been a story I thought did well. The characters are too distant in time segments for us to really get to know them and what we end up with is glimpses or shadows of a moment in time. Interesting concept, but not something that works theatrically.

New Opera: "Leave Me Alone!"

Two Cleveland natives have written a new opera, Leave Me Alone! which premieres Saturday, January 31, 2009, at 8 p.m. in Finney Chapel (Cleveland). The performance will also be streamed live to an international audience online at www.LeaveMeAloneOpera.com. Iconic underground comic book author Harvey Pekar wrote the libretto for jazz saxophonist Dan Plonsey.

The live Internet performance of this opera has me most intrigued. "Doctor Horrible" was an Internet broadcast of a musical (in three episodes) that was a cult hit, but part of that is due to Josh Weeden, who has a huge following from his "Buffy the Vampire" and "Serenity" ("Fire Fly") series'. If this opera can achieve the same kind of notoriety, than composers may get the opportunity to present new works without the long protracted process required by opera houses today. So, mark the date on your calendar and listen in (or if you're anywhere near Cleveland, go to see if live!).

The concept of the music sounds interesting. This from the website, "my music comes about as an accretion of bits of mis-remembered music from around the world, organized according to: the modernist principle of the organic; the post-modern recognition that everything goes with everything else; and the post-post-modern rejection of things clever, overworked and cynical, opting instead for simple presentation of beauties both mysterious and obvious. In concrete terms, this means working with a small ensemble of multi-instrumentalists, chosen more for their personal qualities as for instrumental abilities. The music features meandering melodies, accompaniments, and bass lines which each pull in different and unexpected directions, reasonably and unreasonably." It will be interesting to hear if the vocalists perform the music in a more operatic (bel canto) style, or whether they are more jazz vocalists in performance.

Memorable-Complex music

In the previous post I comment on the need for Contemporary Classical music to incorporate memorable melodies. However, this doesn't mean the melodies need to be boring - and the key to keeping them from being boring is how they develop.

Classical Indian music is based on ragas (motives or melodies). However, a piece of music can last for hours with a skilled musician subtly developing the raga from one to state to another. If the raga (or melody) never changed, it wouldn't be long before the piece would become monotonous and boring. However, because the raga is changing, developing, moving as the piece progresses, there is a sense of interest in the music - and yet, the melody (raga) is still the key element to the music.

In an article by Anil Srinivasan of The Indian Times, he discusses the use of classical Indian music in films. "Film songs, especially the melody-intensive ones, have a pleasing effect on the ear (karnatak). These numbers usually have a classical base, employing ragas effec-tively in a manner that makes you move to the lyric. The lyrics themselves are usually simple and effective, and manage to communicate effortlessly. In so doing, they place the listener in a soft spot a room where the story, the melody behind it, the harmony that underpins it and the rhythm that conveys its intensity all come together."

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony has one of the simplest motives, and yet it is constant developing throughout the piece. Understanding the development of the motive (melody or raga) is critical for writing Contemporary Classical Music. Schoenberg focuses on this in his book "Fundamentals of Music Composition", still one of the best books on the subject ever written.

Does Good Music have a catchy tune?

There is a lot of discussion as to what makes good music? Does good music have a catchy tune, or does a catchy tune make it boring and therefore excludes it from being good music? In a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal by Daniel J. Levitin, he discusses Christmas music and the nature of catchy tunes on our psyche. While his focus is the repetitive, boring nature of memorable Christmas tune, he also brings up interesting points about what makes tunes memorable and how we react to them.

"The fact that music does get stuck in our heads -- the Germans call these Ohrwurms, or "ear worms" -- is a key to understanding how human nature evolved. Evolution selected music as an information-bearing medium precisely because it has this stick-in-your-head quality; all of us are descended from ancestors who used music to encapsulate important information... Early Homo sapiens realized that setting words to music made it easier to remember them; the internal constraints of music, the accent structure and meter, not to mention poetic elements such as alliteration and rhyme, made it more difficult to forget the words."

So, tunes with words need to be memorable to make the words more memorable. I wonder how many opera composers consider this when writing an aria? Some of the most popular arias have wonderfully memorable tunes. We may or may not remember the words, but the memorability of the music leaves an impression and so (words or not) we do remember the essence of the piece, and so the composer has succeeded.

"When we like a piece of music, it has to balance predictability with surprise, familiarity with novelty. Our brains become bored if we know exactly what is coming next, and frustrated if we have no idea where the song is taking us. Songs that are immediately appealing are not typically those that contain the most surprise. We like them at first and then grow tired of them."

I'm not sure I agree with Mr Levitin on this point. I think perhaps the simplified versions of memorable melodies have simplified harmonies and little to surprise us, but that is because our brains have simplified the original, in order to commit to memory. "Twinkle Twinkle little star" and "Clair de lune" are a couple of good examples. "Twinkle Twinkle little star" is based on a French folk tune, "Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman" but was used by Mozart in his variations. Numerous words have been set to this little tune, which is partly why we know it so well. But if the melody is so boring, why did Mozart write a set of variations for it? "Clair de lune" is the third movement of the Suite Bergamasque by Debussy. Children all over the world learn a simplified version of this piece when learning piano. The melody is lovely, and very memorable. However, the original composition is anything be simply and boring.

"Holiday mall music is irritating because the sort of music that appeals to people of disparate backgrounds and ages is going to tend to be harmonically unsurprising."

Perhaps the problem with holiday mall music is they have taken lovely music and turned to the most generic forms possible to please the largest number of shoppers. Better to offend no one and yet bore everyone, than excite a few and irritate others (although I disagree with this concept). This is not because holiday music is boring, but that so many artists have taken these lovely pieces of music and distilled them down to their simplest parts, recording it and dumped in on to the market in order to reap the profits made by holiday albums. I heard a version of Handel's "Messiah" which was just a short section of the well know "Wonderful, Councilor, All Mighty King, Prince of Peace" and the vocalist completely ripped the soul out of the piece by simplifying it for solo voice and piano. I recognised the piece from the first 2 bars of music and cringed all the way through. Handel's music is wonderful, but simplified lack the depth that makes the piece wonderful.

On the other hand, some Christmas music is simple from the get go. "White Christmas" is considered the most popular Christmas song ever, and Irving Berlin's most revenue generating tune he wrote. It is simplicity to the core. Song writers joke that it only takes one Christmas song hit to be made for life. In order to have a hit Christmas song it has to be memorable, a tune people are going to get stuck in their heads, year after year.

Yet the sentiment needs to match music. "Percy the Puny Poinsetta" is a lovely little tune, and it speaks of how a tiny poinsetta finds love too. Why is this song not huge on the Christmas charts? Because it's corny from the outset. We understand the concept, but the tune makes the corny lyric even cornier (if that's possible).

"Percy the puny poinsettia
Is hanging his bloom in dismay
If they had just kept him wetta
He'd be a houseplant today"

This sort of doggeral verse is perfect for the smaltzy music. But smaltzy music isn't something we opt to listen to over and over again. It's fun occasionally, but by it's very nature it pokes fun at simplistic music by going overboard in this direction - and therefore quickly becomes boring.

Memorable music tends to be simple, but good music (which is also memorable) needs to have depth. Returning to Mr Levitin's essay:

"Another study by the researchers in 2002 played different styles of music -- classical and popular -- and found that restaurant patrons spent on average 10% more per meal when classical music was playing, and more on after-dinner coffee. The classical music created an air of sophistication, reflected in the more sophisticated (higher priced) entrées chosen by the diners."

Classical music creates an air of sophistication, and yet how much of classical music is memorable? The great pieces certainly are. Practically every child can sing the four core notes to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Yet, how many children have been exposed to the complete work? Studies show children who are exposed to Classical Music at an early age (sometimes called the Mozart Effect) do better in school. This has to do with way the brain processes the difference between the simple melody and the more complex harmonic progression of the sophisticated piece. The key to good music is then to combine a catchy tune with depth to create memorable music that is also sophisticated.

However, in this modern age of iPods and mall music, we are saturated with music constantly. One of the problems with boring holiday music is the inability to escape from it when out shopping during the holidays. My wife has programmed her iPod with 12 dozen of our favorite Christmas albums to play at work, while my work has started providing a Christmas mix to the cafeteria's sound system. The recording of music has made access to music limitless and yet also near constant in our world. Only One hundred years ago, music for most people was only accessible live. Holiday music was only heard in Church or by street corner choirs. Tunes needed to be more memorable, because there was longer between hearings. Now the music is constantly playing, even though there is more various types of music to be heard, radio stations tend to cycle through the popular top 10 (or top 40) songs of the week and malls put music on loops. As a shopper you may only hear the loop once in a two hour period, but as an employee of the mall, by the time Christmas arrives, you'll have heard the loop hundreds of times. No matter how great the music is, constantly put on repeat and anything will get boring.

That said people who love Anton Webbern's music say it is an acquired taste. If you listen to it enough you begin to enjoy it. Perhaps there is something to be said for that concept, if you can stomach listening to music over and over again, your brain simplifies elements of it and commits it to memory. So, even the most complex harmonies (such as Webbern's 12-tone music) can become memorized (and perhaps enjoyable - although I doubt I personally will ever get there).

Where does this leave Contemporary Classical Music? Should we be striving for a memorable melody and complex harmonies, or because of the repetition factor, should we completely ignore memorable melodies knowing that with repetition anything is memorable? The problem with this second option is getting music performed enough to get to that memorable/enjoyable stage. The bulk of society still thrives on simplified melodies and easy harmonies, even if they think the complex stuff is more sophisticated.

Contemporary Composers need to find that blend, of sophistication and memorability. Seldom do composers get recording contracts for new works before they've been performed. Therefore, in order to get to the point where the music can be heard again and again (complements of the recording) the piece needs to enjoyable enough on the first hearing to encourage a second hearing. The first hearing of a piece needs to be memorable enough that the audience leaves the concert hall humming one (or more) of the tunes and yet, interesting enough to allow for discoveries to happen during the second, third and fourth hearings.

"Songs that are immediately appealing are not typically those that contain the most surprise. We like them at first and then grow tired of them. Conversely, the music that can provide a lifetime of listening pleasure -- whether it's Bruckner 1 or Zeppelin II -- often requires several listenings to reveal its nuances. And the best music offers surprises with each new listening."

Update: Christmas Music

Not surprised, but here is another list of suggested listenings for the Christmas Season by Sarah Bryan Miller of SLT today. From her list I was most interested in the recording of "Amahl and the Night Visitors" by the Nashville Symphony Chorus and Orchestra. I love this opera by Gian Carlo Menotti, and the fact there is a bonus track makes it all that more enticing.

Jeremy Eichler's list isn't a Christmas album list, but a list of what you might want for Christmas. An interesting note is the Hilary Hahn's Schoenberg and Sibelius Violin Concertos (Deutsche Grammophon), which is the second list to include this album and of the Grammy Best Classical Album nominees, the only one listed. Lully: Psyché is included in Eichler's list and nominated for Best Opera Recording. Mr Eichler must like violin concertos too as three of his ten choices are violin concertos.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Strauss' "Intermezzo": a look at Modern Marriage

Vienna recently presented a new production of Strauss' "Intermezzo." George Jahn of the Associated Press, wrote a review discussing the contemporary feeling to an opera written over a hundred years ago. "...for today's audiences, the story line is a treat, because it is a true slice of life from the composer's marriage to soprano Pauline de Ahna, a drama queen who — at least to outsiders — appeared to make Strauss' life a living hell. Contemporaries describe her as demanding, unfair, ill-mannered and materialistic, ready to scold and belittle her husband at a moment's notice. But for the easygoing Strauss, she appeared to be just right."

Manuel Brug from Welt Online felt the relatively unknown Swiss singer Carola Glazier was able to radiate the humour and nuances of the role of the wife, Christine, whose part needs to be "A bizarre woman with a very good soul, within reason she needs to be incomprehensible, moody, churlish and and nevertheless pleasant," as described by Hofmannsthal. Wilhelm Sinkovicz of Die Press.com wrote, "the composer was a theatrically practical man, enough to consolidate the miniature drama in music refined to be a genuine work of art." His comments about Ms Glazier, "Carola Glazier stands out in the monster role courageously while simultaneously differentiating between the irreproachably cleanly articulating first rage outbreak to the conciliatory final."

While the production gets luke warm reviews, it's nice to see an unknown receiving high praise for a role that sometimes is seen as shrewish and cardboard. Obviously in the right hands (voice) the wife is much more. Richard Strauss loved his wife and felt she had depth. The role of Christine is similar and gives us a good look at marriage, not just a hundred years ago, but of relationships today, with all the nuances and subtlties that make up the complex human interaction we call marriage.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Creating a Composition Environment with a Community

An article in the Missourian by Ricky O'Bannon talks about how David Ackerman and Jeanne Sinquefield hope to make Missouri a cultural hub for music composition. While they understand they may not become a Paris, Vienna or New York City overnight, they want to encourage composers to start thinking of Columbia Missouri as place where composition in encouraged and flourishes. I sincerely hope they succeed.

Of the numerous ideas and plans in progress, so far they are encouraging MU students to write new works and promoting performances of these works by the MU students and faculty. The idea is to eventually create ensembles dedicated to just performing new works. All of these are very worthwhile projects and should be encouraged at all universities across the US (correction, world).

However, becoming a hub for new compositions requires a collection of like minded composers, new composers, looking to create something new, different, looking at music in a different way. And then having a group (ensemble) who can perform those works, explore these "new" sounds and really get the essence of these new compositions to the public. In many regards it sounds like Ackerman and Sinquefield are doing just this. The question is whether they have the one elements that is hard to qualify, difficult to create and impossible to generate something new without it - radical thinking.

In Paris after world war I Les Six was created to perform new music in a world void of music due to the war. Part of the success of Les Six was due to marketing. Part of it was due to a void in the music world. But some part was due to Paris already being a cultural hub, so the concept of new music coming out of Paris was nothing new. Berlioz and Debussy were practically household names by the time Les Six started and Stravinsky moved to Paris specifically to explore new music prior to World War I - so there was already a culture of new music by the time the group formed.

Prior to the 20th century the model for new compositions was primarily patrons. Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky are all composers listed in the article and all composers whose music survived to a large extent due to patrons, people who paid large sums of money for the music to be written. That model has changed. While there are still individuals (like Sinquefield) who donate money toward new compositions, much of the money is now coming from corporations. Like sports teams that sell their uniforms or stadiums to major corporations in exchange for the corporations pasting their name on the said uniform or stadium. This is where much of the new money is coming from. Unfortunately, unless there is a lot of money to generate a lot of activity, there isn't likely to be any significant change in where new music is generated.

New York City is still the classical music center for the US because of the large numbers of musical instititutions centered in or around New York, because of the large number of venues and organizations performing music and because of the large amount of money behind these elements due to the large amount of money in New York City. Chicago and LA have done reasonable jobs at denting this music base, by creating new concepts and styles of music. Other cities, like San Francisco, are generating new works for specific organizations (San Francisco Opera has sponsored a number of new operas in the last 10 years), while others strive to promote the success of individual groups (New Orleans continues to be the hub for new jazz artists).

It's difficult at best to foresee what the future art is going to be, and harder still to "create" it. New music won't happen without people promoting it, so in that regard my hat is off to David Ackerman and Jeanne Sinquefield and their quest to become a new music hub. However, new music is more than just getting one university involved.

If I can offer my 2 cents - create a series of call for scores, that accept music from around the world. Then have major orchestras and ensembles come to perform these pieces. Create a festival that is filled with new music, lots of new music, much like the Cabrillo New Music Festival or MATA Festival. These are examples where new music is flourishing and are models to emulate. The more of these festivals there are, the more likelihood one is going to emerge as the place for new music.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas Music

Anyone who knows me knows the largest portion of my CD collection is of Christmas music. Every year my wife, son or daughter purchases a new album or two to add to the collection. To date my favorite is Vanessa Williams' Star Bright. However, this year I was gifted with A Charlie Brown's Christmas by Vince Guaraldi, destined to be a classic.

There are LOTS more recordings out there and John Fleming, the Times Performing Critic has produced a collection of some of his recommendations.

Saving Money or Shooting ourselves in the Foot

Miami Ballet is turning to recorded music for the second half of their season to save money. Yet, university programs, such as Boston University, are turning out some truly top rate classical musicians.

I have applied to several places to continue my education in music composition(Juilliard and Yale - with strong consideration given to Manhattan School of Music and the Eastman Conservatory). The purpose is to ultimately work in the field, to compose music for a living. While I may turn to teaching future students, the goal is to make my living through the music I write, whether it be for film, opera, ballet, orchestral or chamber performances. In order for me to succeed, I need performers who are willing to perform this music. For that to happen these performers need to be able to live, to work, to earn money as musicians. And one way for them to do that is to play in ensembles (orchestras) that provide live music for performances, like ballet.

Broadway musicians shut down a number of musicals with a strike back in 2003. Much of their complaint was the minimum number of musicians to constitute an orchestra; producers wanted the minimum to be 7, which means many of them would be replaced with pre-recorded samples played on a keyboard. While the new minimum would have been great for keyboard players, it would have put a lot of musicians out of work.

Denver Colorado used to have a World Class Orchestra. I remember concerts in the parks as a highlight of my childhood. However, the orchestra went bankrupt; it couldn't afford to operate. Colorado has an orchestra now, sort of what came out of the mess that was the Denvery Symphony Orchestra. But rumors are it isn't as good, and more stretched as the expecations are the orchestra needs to travel more than just serve the Denver Metropolitan area.

If we continue to push the "poor economy" button and axe music, musical performances and the use of musicians we will force more of the students we have studying music to choose other courses. This means the number of students we have to choose from for future orchestras will be less, and ultimately more difficult to get quality performances in anywhere but the most populace areas. New York won't suffer, as a cultural Mecca, it will always be a draw for world class musicians. But places like Miami or Denver (let alone the smaller communities around the world) will begin to be drained for quality musicians as they'll go where the money is. With fewer musicians competing for jobs, the musicians in the more remote regions will move to the bigger cities.

The future is bright - or it can be. There is a lot of new music to be had, new works composed, new musicians coming up through the ranks. But we, as a society, need to want these musicians, need to demand they be present during performances. Yes, I enjoy listening to recorded music, but it can't replace the effect a live performance has. Keep musicians working; our future depends on it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Creating New Markets

It seems Classical Music is growing in popularity in Kenya according to Cathy Majtenyi of Voice of America News. With the explosion of classical music in China and Venezuela, it only seems natural to explore the African continent to find new listeners.

The key is not just utilizing the internet to reach a broader based of listeners, but to educate the young. According to the above article, much of the growing popularity in Kenya has to do with teaching the youth of Kenya to play instruments. While this program isn't really comparible to il Sistema in Venezuela, it does show how teaching youth can translate into listeners as adults.

We, as the Classical Music establishment, need to focus more of our attention on getting youth around the world educated in music. It only helps to secure our own future.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Update: Grammy Nominations

After several lengthy discussions it seems as if I may have been a bit hasty with my impression of Walden's symphony. Sound bites are hardly enough to really hear a piece, and on a review of the sound bites there are elements which are well crafted, so I need to reserve further judgment until I can hear the whole piece.

That said, it is a GOOD thing that a film composer is being given a nod as a classical composer AND that a new work is in the awards for Grammy Classical Performances. Both of these bode well for the future of classical music... so for nothing else, THANK YOU, Chris Walden for providing a piece worthy of this sort of recognition - paving the way for the rest of us.

Grammy Nominations

Classical Music doesn't get a lot of press out of the Grammy's. You never see a classical artist leading the list for most nominations. However, it is worth noting the artists up for best classical album this year.

If you've not listened to these albums, you really need to. The music is amazing, the performances are first rate and how the Grammy's are going to choose between them is beyond me. Part of me is rooting for Hilary, but when I listened to the Weill or the "Maria" I was stunned at how beautiful the albums were. It really is an amazing collection of music.

Interesting to note, the Denver Post listed their 10 Classical Albums that mattered in 2008 and the only Grammy nominee on the list is Hilary Hahn.

In the category of Best Orchestral Performance the nominees are:

    D'Indy: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1 Rumon Gamba, conductor (Iceland Symphony Orchestra) [Chandos]
    Glazunov: Symphony No. 6, La Mer, Introduction And Dance From Salome José Serebrier, conductor (Royal Scottish National Orchestra) [Warner Classics & Jazz]
    Prokofiev: Scythian Suite, Op. 20 Alan Gilbert, conductor (Chicago Symphony Orchestra) Track from: Traditions And Transformations: Sounds Of Silk Road Chicago [CSO Resound]
    Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 Bernard Haitink, conductor (Chicago Symphony Orchestra) [CSO Resound]
    Walden, Chris: Symphony No. 1, The Four Elements Chris Walden, conductor (Hollywood Studio Symphony Orchestra) [Origin Classical]

I'm not as impressed with this selection, but that could be the music and not the performance. I really enjoy the Walden Symphony No. 1, but it's not of the class (IMHO) of the other pieces. The music is lovely neo-romantic music with occasional jazz influences, but not strickingly new music. In many respects the music is very similar to my own symphony, some nice melodies, some interesting elements, but not really new. But it's a first symphony.

If my comments sounds slightly like sour grapes (Chris Walden got nominated for a Grammy with his first symphony; I'm still working on getting noticed), I hope not. His symphony is better than mine, musically - and certainly his recording is. It's not that his music isn't good, it is, it's interesting and very enjoyable to listen to. It just doesn't push the bounds of music that I think a new work should. Regardless, this is a huge honor for Chris and I wish him all the best.

Best Opera Recording
    Dun, Tan: The First Emperor
    Tan Dun, conductor; Michelle DeYoung, Plácido Domingo, Elizabeth Futral, Paul Groves, Wu Hsing-Kuo & Hao Jiang Tian; Jay David Saks, producer (The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; The Metropolitan Opera Chorus) [EMI Classics]
    Lully: Psyché
    Paul O´Dette & Stephen Stubbs, conductors; Colin Balzer, Karina Gauvin, Carolyn Sampson & Aaron Sheehan; Renate Wolter-Seevers, producer (Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra; Boston Early Music Festival Chorus) [CPO]
    Monteverdi: L'Orfeo
    Rinaldo Alessandrini, conductor; Sara Mingardo, Monica Piccinini, Anna Simboli & Furio Zanasi; Jean-Pierre Loisil, producer (Concerto Italiano) [Naive Classique]
    Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin
    Valery Gergiev, conductor; Renée Fleming, Dmitri Hvorostovsky & Ramón Vargas; Jay David Saks, producer (The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; The Metropolitan Opera Chorus) [Decca]
    Weill: Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny
    James Conlon, conductor; Anthony Dean Griffey, Patti LuPone & Audra McDonald; Fred Vogler, producer (Donnie Ray Albert, John Easterlin, Steven Humes, Mel Ulrich & Robert Wörle; Los Angeles Opera Orchestra; Los Angeles Opera Chorus) [EuroArts]

The only recording of these I have listened to is Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny work, and it is also the only one also up for Best Classical Album which bodes well for it winning this category (if not also Best Classical Album). However, that said, I really love the operas Eugene Onegin and L'Orfeo so again I am torn as to who I would like to see win.

New Tricks for Old Music

Photo by Mitch Jenkins
The Emerson String Quartet is a very successful group, performing over 80 concerts a year and producing over 40 CD's of music. As a performer, the concerts aren't enough to pay the bills, so selling CD's is a necessary addition to helping the ends meet. With all the glamour and publicity the pop groups get, classical musicians have to find new and unique ways to get their music heard and their CD's sold. Slinky silk dresses works for some, but since the Emerson String Quartet is an all male group - putting them in slinky dresses probably wouldn't help sales much.

So, they've opted for other means. One such is to include a bonus track which is only available via iTunes (ah, the power of the download market). They have also leveraged YouTube with a number of videos available. Perhaps my favourite is the multi-video collect of the recording of the Mendelssohn Octet. The artistry in recording the eight parts with four musicians is fascinating, let along a wonderful recording of the work.

Yes, these are world class musicians, having earned 8 Grammy's and numerous other awards, they are at the top of their field. However, the "tricks" they're using can be used by other classical artists to get their music out to the public (and ultimately make a living). Perhaps if more quartets put tracks up on iTunes for download only, or more musicians linked their recordings with YouTube videos they'd find a wider audience. Classical music is far from dead; it's just buried under all the hype of pop music. Get through the hype and it's still going strong. Now we just need to hype it a bit to get it even stronger.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Christmas Cheer in Classical Music

I love Christmas. For me it is a season of hope and joy, and although there may be lots of reasons to not be cheerful this year (what with the economy, constant war and strife around the world...) the message of Christmas is one of hope. So, when I think of Christmas music I tend to turn to pieces like Vivaldi's Gloria or Corelli's Concerto grosso in G minor (Christmas Concerto). These are (IMHO) the epitomi of hope and joy and it is impossible (for me) to listen to the music and not smile from ear to ear.

I am also a fan of John Adams, with a healthy respect for his music from his Violin Concerto to Doctor Atomic. However...

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra will present Adams's "El Niño (A Nativity Oratorio)" on the 13th & 14th of December. Not knowing this piece I went to have a listen (compliments of Amazon). The initial piece I sing of a Maiden has some really interesting rhythms, and very much in the Adam's minimalist style. As the oratorio progressed I felt a theme creeping in, or perhaps, just 3 notes, over and over and OVER again. I do not have a score, so I can only rely on my ear, but from that vantage point (which is the vantage point I believe all music should be understood), these three notes become a monotony, a drone and anything but joyful. By the end I felt as if any hope had been sucked out of me and I was left numb. This is not the feeling I expected (or wanted) from a Christmas oratorio.

In the review by Allan Ulrich, San Francisco's Chronicle Music Critic based on the January 2001 performance, he mentions, "What is good about 'El Nino' is haunting." Good description of it (although I should point out, Ulrich very much enjoyed this aspect of the music and the review is very favorable). Mark Swed, the New York Times Critic said of the same performance, "there is also a musical freshness to 'El Niño'--its tunes are catchier, its rhythms spikier, its exuberance more thrilling, its complexities more integrated than anything that has preceded it." I can't say as I felt that. The rhythms are wonderful and musically there is a great deal of passion, but again, not the type I would expect from the Christmas story.

Both of these reviews and several other glowing ones can be found in an archive here. Perhaps if they're archived together I might expect them all to be favorable (and they are). One last comment by Georgia Rowe continues the praise with "perhaps that's the whole point of 'El Niño.' In the 21st century, Adams seems to suggest, miracles may happen where we least expect them." Maybe I missed the miracle, maybe, only getting a few samples of the music rather than listening to the entire piece.

Should I get the chance to see a performance of 'El Niño' in the future I will go. John Adams is a major composer worth giving more than a passing glance at his music and the effect of the performance. However, on first listening, it wasn't the Christmas spirit I heard.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Violin, Emotion, Romantic, Melodies and Massenet

In the New York Times today there is an article about Jules Massenet's opera “Thaïs” opening on Monday. Peter G. Davis, the author of the article, starts by saying, this new production "will rekindle arguments over Massenet’s artistic worth and whether he has anything useful to say to contemporary audiences."

Search of YouTube for Massenet's Meditation, which is from this opera, and you'll find dozens of violinists who have recorded this piece. I'm not talking CD or vinyl, which may be been recorded years ago and just re-released, but YouTube videos which means the artists are current (last 3 years). Listening to the "Meditation" (again) and I wonder why there was every a question, I wonder how Massenet ever fell out of popularity.

The above article talks about the journey of "Thais" as an opera, falling out of favor and the slow journey back. In part the fall was perhaps due to Massenet's own life and controversy, and in part to the fall of romantic music out of favor by those who yearned for some thing new. The journey back is aided by the revisit of the story, which is rather odd for opera, because opera prior to the 20th century didn't need a decent story to survive, but rather demanded more of the music.

So, I decided to listen to a recording of the opera. Dynamic released a recording of the Venice Opera performing the work in 2004. Even without the visuals (although it is also available on DVD) or the libretto, the music is wonderful, soaring, elegant, emotional and extremely moving. Perhaps this is just because I'm a romantic at heart. Maybe those who feel his music is outdated are those who feel romanticism is the cause for the grief of two world wars and therefore turned to more analytical styles of music - feel Massenet has no place in a modern world (looking to avoid emotion).

Well, all things are cyclical. As the Classical (nationalist) composers gave way to Romantic (universal) composers in the last of the 1800's, so are the serialist/modernist composers giving way to post-modern music. And eventually, we will give way to the next generation who take what we've done and build on it or abandon it, but either way change it toward their tastes.

Thinking about older composers of the classical vein I turn to Vivaldi, who many feel is either overly slushy or overly repetitive - writing one concerto 300 times. Listening to a program on the BBC, Vivaldi's Women (compliments of iPlayer) I marveled at the beauty of his "Gloria", which is (IMHO) one of the most beautiful religious pieces ever written, and then at the technical demand in some of Vivaldi's violin cadenza's. What struck me most was how very classical the music was and yet, held much of the technique of modern violin concerto cadenza's - rapid fluid note movement, double (triple and quadruple) stops, large interval leaps and movement of the hand positions requiring precision by the performer. Perhaps, Paganini's or Schoenberg's music are more technically demanding, but they are not more elegant.

This brought me to think about Stravinsky, a 20th century composer, post Romantic and yet he composed in many different music styles. His "Le sacre du printemps" (1911) (Rite of Spring) is seen as one of his early amazing works. It is! and yet, what about it is so amazing? The music is bi-tonal, with chords built using the keys of both E and E-flat, but there was nothing necessarily new about that in 1910. Charles Ives had been writing polytonal music for nearly 15 years. Mozart wrote "Ein musikalischer Spass" in 1787 which is bi-tonal, so, while it was not common, it wasn't new. What is really amazing about the "Le sacre du printemps" is the rhythm - driving and primal. There are elements of harmonic language which is unlike other music of the era, and that is what influenced composers like Darius Milhaud, Béla Bartók and Aaron Copland who all site "Le sacre du printemps" as influential in their composing.

Listening to Milhaud's "Overture Mediterraneenne for Orchestra, Op. 330" (1953) by the Louisville Orchestra it's easy to hear the influence of Stravinsky. Yet listen to "Kentuckiana" on the same album and you'd think you were listening to Copland's "Appalachian Spring" written 10 years prior - they are that similar in style. Copland's music is less obviously influenced by Stravinsky in terms of bi-tonality, but his intricate poly-rhythms are definitely influenced by Stravinsky. Bartók's style is the most unique of the three Stravinsky influenced composers and yet Bartók's early works are the most like Stravinsky's. His "The Miraculous Mandarin Sz. 73, Op. 19" (1918) has much more the influence of the driving rhythm of Stravinsky, although the tonality is similar too. It is, like "Le sacre du printemps", a ballet, so rhythm is important.

Where is all this talk of Massenet, Vivaldi and Stravinsky going? In really great music, music lifts the soul (or for you non-religious - stirs the heart), there is an element of elegance, and one of passion. Stravinsky's music is elegant and very passionate. The subtleties he uses to accomplish what he does are so sublime, you have to dig deep into the score to understand them. It isn't just bi-tonality or rhythm, but the subtle shift in these elements that makes his music work. Vivaldi's music seems effortless, as if there was no other way to play it, every note feels as if that was the only note that could possibly have come next. Massenet's music, albeit the least known in our modern world, is just as elegant. His melodies soar or ache depending on the need of the moment. Many of his melodies are familiar to us even if we don't know they are his. The beauty of them goes beyond just being part of an opera and becomes something external - because we have so internalized it.

I have heard very few modern pieces that strive for this elegance, the beauty of melody and subtlety of harmony that makes the music more than just a piece we hear in concert, but something that lives inside of us after we have left the concert hall. It is this that makes the music great. With my own violin concerto I hope to achieve some of this elegance, a melody, a harmony, a rhythm that lives outside the performance and inside the listener.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Sound of a Silent Film: Music by Matalon

Composing for film is a relatively new art form. The Argentinian composer Matalon has taken to turning this artform to older silent films which were originally designed to be watch with music, albeit there used to be an organist playing along with the film live. His latest project has been Fritz Lang's 1927 silent film Metropolis, the forerunner to all science fiction films and still one of the great films of all time. According to MetroActive, Metropolis with the Santa Rosa Symphony will show this Saturday (Dec. 6) at 8pm at Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University, California.

There is a nice quote in the article. Matalon said in an interview, "There are few reference points when you're writing film music. If you're doing an opera, you'll end up thinking of how operas have been written for four centuries, but in film composing there are very few traditions. Silent-film accompaniments were usually improvised, not counting the work by Shostakovich and Prokofiev. There was a score written for Metropolis [by Gottfried Huppertz], but it seemed to me that it was romantic music that could have been used anywhere."

By writing new compositions to these silent films, Matalon is not only getting to explore a complete concert score, but really delve into the art of communicating with music. Film images have a certain impact, but music can highlight or alter the impact of the images. Modern films (talkies) also have dialog, which alter the impact of the images. Yes, Metropolis has dialog, but screens with text are not the same as voices with inflections. Silent film rely much more on the music and as such the music has a much greater impact.

Matalon is also bring forward a film into the present, or perhaps the future. Metropolis is about a futuristic city, so the sound-scape he can use, particularly with all the advances in electronic, can really extend that sense of future to the film; take it out of a old fashioned silent film with stilted romantic organ music, to music of today, cutting edge (oh, dare I say, perhaps even atonal?). This of the difference between the television show Star Trek and the films. Although one major difference was advancements in special effects, another advance was the sound of the effect, tricorders, phasers, shields. All these sounds (and the music that played beneath them) were more modern sounding and thereby hold a greater sense of being futuristic. Matalon has that same chance now with Metropolis.

I won't be in Stanford this weekend, so I won't get to see it. Hopefully someone who reads this will be and can report back on the evening.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Paucity of Words

Recently I had a chance to review the libretto for the Opera Dr. Atomic. I can't say I am impressed. In fact, most of the lyrics sound like pish….

This one for example –

[Voice 1] Well how do you feel?
[Voice 2] Well, pretty excited.

Did the composer just need one more syllable? Even stilted use of a word would be better. (Now? Pretty excited. or I'm pretty excited. or even a verbalization would have sounded more natural - hmm... pretty excited.)

But things get WORSE with this one…

... only my fingers in your hair, only, my eyes splitting the skull to tickle your brain with love ...

You have got to be kidding me! How could you sing a line like this with a straight face? How could you listen to it and not want to burst out laughing?

Or this sparkling example of hackneyed romance:

If you could know all that I see!
all that I feel!
all that I hear in your hair!

Does the character have synesthesia?

These lyrics sound like they were written for a Saturday Night Live sketch that is a parody of Opera. I can just see Will Farrell emoting the hell out of them.

Asking several people why they don't like opera, one of the primary reasons I hear again and again it that it is so fake. Dr Atomic certainly won't reassure the punters on that account. Opera is the whole package - words and music - and a slavish devotion to the music, that raises it above the words in value just leads to this sort of ridiculous clap-trap being pawned off as high art.

I like the music of Dr. Atomic - I just wish I could listen to it without those irritating words. I will never be able to watch a live performance of it, I will end up screaming at the stage - "How could you ever be smart enough to develop the A Bomb.. you can barely string a sentence together!" Librettists have an obligation to do better.

If your character is smart, give them smart words to say.
If your character is witty then write witty lyrics.
If your character is awkward and geeky in love and says he wants to split her skull and tickle her brain - then she'd better damned well giggle at him - she would in real life!

I realize that historically very few librettos are literary works of art, it is not really the nature of the beast. But modern taste has diverged and things now veer towards two ends of the spectrum - gritty realism or high camp. Dr Atomic has a serious subject, and the music certainly fits in the gritty realism category - so why did the libretto go for high camp?

Downloading Classical Music

In the news yesterday, it seems the Boston Symphony Orchestra is creating a site where users can download recordings by this orchestra - in an attempt to make up for the lack of a record contract. The article goes on to say both the New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestra already have their own sites. BSO has been on iTunes, but there is little revenue in that (at least not for BSO - Apple is making a killing), so they are creating their own site.

A bit more research and I find that classical music downloads sites are exploding everywhere. Here are just a few:

Again, this is just scratching the surface. What it does show is there is not only a market for classical music but potentially real choices for both artists and consumers. Since most of these sites also recommend other albums/songs/tracks to download with every selection the idea of new music or little known pieces getting a chance to be heard is even greater than waiting for an audience to appear at the concert hall or take a chance in purchasing a CD. I suspect we'll see an explosion of new composers' works on the market in the years to come (of which I will be one!). Ultimately this will create an explosion in where classical music goes as an art form as well.

Exciting news all the way 'round.

A nice music blog, albeit very few entries

http://classicalmusicblog.com/ is a nice little blog with three articles, one on Beethoven's "moonlight Sonata", one on Phrygian progression and one on Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840) Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 6 (with a nice review of Hilary Hahn's performance of it). It's just a shame Roni hasn't posted more.

Roni Alec Liebenson is a composer who studied for his MA at Academy of Gnesin in Moscow (at least he started his studies in 2000, according to his website). Based on "What I Am Working On", his compositional style is very classical in nature with a heavy influence by Mozart (with notations of 'alla Mozart' or 'Classsique' on his works page).

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

New Composer: Domenic Di Cello - Out of Castles

Out of Castles was an album by Domenic DiCello released in 2006, so it isn't necessarily new, but I just discovered a review of it on top40-charts.com in their classical section calling it "Modern Day Classical Music With Flavor." To call it music with flavor is like saying a new vanilla ice cream is modern food with flavor. Yes, it's all original music by Domenic DiCello, and it is lovely, but it's hardly anything new and exciting.

Before I get too overly harsh with my own review, I should say top40-charts thought "there's something exciting coming out of Albuquerque, New Mexico." Quoted in this review are the comments by Terah Tucker, "From the first few notes of the first song on the album, I was sold. Domenic not only composes beautiful music, his execution of the pieces is superb. His technical ability is amazing, and the feeling he brings to each performance is truly a joy to listen to. Every song has it's own personality, and there's not one on this album that I don't like."

The music is lovely, and very much like so much of the music written by Windhamhill Records or any of the other slushy neo-romantic composers out there writing "easy listening" classical music. There is some pretty fair piano technique in some of the pieces, but nothing so bold as even Liszt might demand, certainly not that of Chopin, even though some of the pieces bear a striking resemblance to Di Cello's predecessors.

Yes, it's nice music. I wouldn't object to this playing as background music at a nice restaurant (certainly better music than most piped in music). But I wouldn't put this album on at home if I was in a serious listening mood, wanting to listen to music for the sole reason of listening to the music. It is background music, as beautiful as it is.

Some of you might be thinking "Hey, you complain about 'new' music being atonal and non-musical and then a composer comes along and writes tonal music and you still complain? What gives?" Yes, my tastes don't run toward the atonal, but there is a way to write interesting, challenging music that is still tonal. In my article about blending pop and classical music the artists are a good example of doing just that, writing challenging music that is still very tonal. The very next article, "Why does new music have to be non-musical" I reference a performance of a Penderecki which also achieves new music while still remaining tonal. Those are just two examples written recently.

I enjoy vanilla ice cream, and often I prefer vanilla to some of the fancier flavors available from Ben and Jerry's or Hagindaz. But pretty much every major grocery store chain has their own flavor of vanilla ice cream, so a new version isn't a major revelation. Out of Castles is "nice" music and that's about all that should be said of it.

Brett Dean wins Grawemeyer music prize

The Grawemeyer Awards announced yesterday "The Lost Art of Letter Writing", a four movement violin concerto by Australian composer Brett Dean, won the 2009 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition.

“It’s a wonderful solo vehicle that also contains terrific writing for orchestra,” said Marc Satterwhite, a UofL music professor who directs the award. “The piece combines the brilliant surface one might expect from a Romantic era violin concerto with enormous emotional range and depth.”

Each movement in the half-hour concerto begins with an excerpt from a 19th-century letter, with a violin evoking the mood of each letter as it plays the alternate roles of writer and recipient. Authors of the letters include composers Johannes Brahms and Hugo Wolf, artist Vincent Van Gogh and Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.

You can listen to a sample of it here, by Frank Peter Zimmermann and the Münchner Philharmoniker. Dean conducted and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam accompanied when the piece premiered in 2007 in Cologne.

Previously, I reviewed the Scottish Premiered of Dean's Pastoral Symphony and didn't give it very high marks. I have not heard other works from Mr Dean, so don't feel qualified to comment on his style. There is no doubt the music is challenging for the performers. Both his award winning violin concerto and his symphony require virtuoso performances by the orchestra, and probably fairly demanding on the conductors as well.

As with the Pastoral Symphony, there is liberal use of sliding (glissandi) between notes for the strings. The solo violin does a fair amount of double stopped glissandi in the brief segment available on the internet. While I find the technique interesting, it seems bit overdone for me, returning to the styles of Iannis Xenakis. The entire excerpt had that sort of influence. Since Brett Dean is an accomplished viola player, performing with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for 15 years, his string writing must certainly be exceptional, extremely technical and yet organic for the instrument. I could not hear the letter it was referring to, nor the entire work, it's really hard to judge the piece as a whole. For what it's worth, the judges obviously felt the piece has merit and so congratulations to Brett Dean for this award.

Update: China and Classical Music

It seems to be the topic of the moment. Rod Dreher weighs on the same thing I talked about yesterday, the Future of Classical Music.

YouTube: Classical Music Explosion

The internet has been good to Classical music, create a new source for sales, downloading classical music has actually helped CD sales as well. Now, YouTube joins the fight to keep Classical music in the forefront with a competition to discover new classical musicians. According to the BBC, YouTube is running a contest revolving around a piece - commissioned by You Tube - scored by classical composer Tan Dun.

WebUser is calling it an online orchestra, as "YouTube is calling on musicians to submit audition videos as it starts to build the world's first online orchestra. The winners, who will be chosen by the YouTube community, will be flown to Carnegie Hall in New York to play at a three-day classical music summit."

The New York Times is covering this event as well with "The project, called the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (www.youtube.com/symphony), was announced on Monday in London and New York. Boiled down, it has two essential parts. The composer Tan Dun has written a four-minute piece for orchestra. YouTube users are invited to download the individual parts for their instruments from the score, record themselves performing the music, then upload their renditions. After the entrants are judged, a mash-up of all the winning parts will be created for a final YouTube version of the piece.

"In the project’s other prong, musicians will upload auditions from a prescribed list — for trumpeters, for example, an excerpt from the Haydn Concerto — for judging by a jury that Google says will include musicians from major orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony. Entrants have until Jan. 28 to upload their videos.The panel picks a short list of finalists, and YouTube users, “American Idol”-style, choose the winners, who are flown to Carnegie Hall in April for a concert conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, the music director of the San Francisco Symphony. Google will arrange for visas and pay costs."

So, all you budding classical musicians, get your computers out and start practicing. This could be your chance.

What does this really mean to the classical world? Well, I expect we'll not only see more online competitions this way, it the exposure of classical music to the internet savey younger generation means, in addition to pop music and the vast expanse of music videos for pop artists, there will be an explosion of classical music and experimental music appearing on the internet.

Ultimately, the way we perceive music (not just the listening, but where, how and what we listen to) will be shaped by how available the music is in video format. Where MTV killed the radio star by creating a whole new medium with which a generation judged their favorite music, the internet will do the same generating interest in musical forms outside the current main stream (radio, television[video] and record[CD] sales) and yet, by virtue of the internet, main stream will become what can be downloaded in all it's variations. MTV made it practically necessary for an artist to create a music video if the artist wanted their song to climb up the charts. Now, the internet will be the next vehicle required to vault songs (of all sorts) to the top of the charts. The very nature of the internet, anyone can upload anything, means all sorts of new music will become available and it won't just be the record companies who determine what we see/hear and therefore what we like.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The future of Classical Music: China or Venezuela

Nearly every week there is an article about Gustavo Dudamel, which eventually leads back to Venezuela's il Sistema, the programme devoted to teaching young kids to play classical music rather than belong to gangs and such. Today, there was an interesting article in Asia Times by Spengler about China and how much it is spending to raise a nation of classical musicians. 'Thirty-six million Chinese children study piano today, compared to only 6 million in the United States,' is just one of the many tidbits from this article.

It goes on to talk about how influential music is in other disciplines, like medicine and law. There are bit tossed in about how studying music raised the IQ level of children, and how much Chinese parents are willing to sacrifice inorder for their kids to get a musical education. All of this culminating what will someday be a musical force, with more and more musicians reaching virtuoso calibre from Chinese origin.

And yet, right now, most of these students ultimately come to the US to finalize their studies. The best music schools in the world (according to the article) reside in the US. But how long will this last?

Hollywood still dominates the movie industry, but more and more top qualities movies are being made on foreign shores. Bollywood and Hong Kong films are producing films that occasionally are top money earners, above Hollywood films. The computer industry is still dominated by Silicon Valley, but most of the computer parts and much of the programming, technical support and brain trust is now over seas (in India and China). Add to the economic growth of China (compared to the coming recession in the US) and eventually China will be not just a world power because it has 1/3 of the world population, but because that population will be where all the big thinking is done.

Music education is only one aspect of the growing problem. But continuing to short change music education, funneling money away from schools because of budget problems (or desire to wage a war) will ultimately lead to more budget problems as we'll be more and more dependant on Asia, not just for raw goods and electronic gadgets, but for our artists as well.

Opera Humor: Priceless videos of those who think they can sing

I didn't find these videos. Opera Chic found a couple of priceless videos. Here's one of Katherine Jenkins. And here is one of Cecilia Bartoli - oh, and a dog. Thanks, Opera Chic

Marketing Music: Where do we draw the line

Musicians need to be able to make a living and in order to do so we need to be able to sell tickets. Symphony orchestras are painfully aware of their success of failure dependent on how full their halls are during performances. While ticket sales do not make the lion share of their balance sheet, sponsors, patrons and angels are not likely to fund an orchestra that only half fills auditoriums. So, music is looking at new ways in which to market old music.

At Boston.com Jeremy Eichler wrote an article about the Russian Composer, Gennady Rozhdestvensky (pictured left), who pulled out of conducting four concerts for the Boston Symphony Orchestra because he was not properly listed in the marketing material. 'Rozhdestvensky discovered that his name had been omitted altogether from a list of "Distinguished Conductors" in the BSO's season brochure. He was also upset that the week's cello soloist, Lynn Harrell, had been featured in a large photo and given top billing on a concert poster, while his name appeared only in the concert details.'

The article goes on in great detail about the problems in this particular case of trying to sell tickets using a name (Lynn Harrell pictured right) that the audience might know (at a glance) over someone who might be a greater figure in the world of music, but doesn't sell tickets. Part of the problem is not so much what the marketing department for the BSO did, but on the publicist for Rozhdestvensky.

Doing a quick scan in the press (not including the article I've already sited or others on the same topic), here is what Google News found:

    Gennady Rozhdestvensky
      Radio Prague, Czech Republic - Nov 14, 2008
      Independent, UK - Nov 12, 2008
      Worthing Today, UK - Nov 9, 2008
      guardian.co.uk, UK - Nov 8, 2008
    Lynn Harrell
      Daily News Tribune, MA - Nov 21, 2008
      The Patriot Ledger, MA - Nov 20, 2008
      MetroWest Daily News, MA - Nov 19, 2008
      Lincoln Journal, MA - Nov 14, 2008
      Santa Maria Times, CA - Nov 14, 2008
      Lompoc Record, CA - Nov 14, 2008
      KSEE, CA - Nov 13, 2008
      The Plain Dealer - Cleveland.com, OH - Nov 11, 2008
      Alexandria Town Talk, LA - Nov 9, 2008

Call me crazy, but Mr Harrell has more than twice as many articles in the press and all of them in the US (many in Massachusetts) than Mr Rozhdestvensky. While I am not a fan of marketing types, I think they made the only 'business' decision they could. While I am not a fan of using flesh to sell records, I've posted a number of articles on how much the industry is doing that too... because at the end of the day, if you don't sell tickets (or records) you can't keep doing what we all want to do, that is - make music.

Perhaps the best thing Mr Rozhdestvensky could do for his image in the public eye was to walk out of the concerts. At least in doing so he garnered himself a dozen or so articles in the press. Perhaps it's not in the best light, but getting his face out there is better than being invisible. So, to help his cause, I have posted his picture and a bit about the situation. I don't think he was justified in walking out (I would love to have the opportunity to conduct the BSO - hint, hint). However, if marketing is all about getting your name in the press and his name wasn't getting in the press... he did the right thing - but then, so did the BSO marketing team.