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Latest Posts

Love and Cow Bells
Sorceress of the New Piano
Well, That Was Fun
Naxos Dreaming
Reich@70: Let the Celebrations Begin
The Bi-Coastal Jefferson Friedman
Violins Invade Indianapolis
John Cage (born Los Angeles, 5 September 1912; died New York, 12 August 1992).
The People United Will Never Be Divided
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Saturday, January 14, 2006
"Essence of Ligeti" Opening Night at CMS

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is presenting a small festival now through January 17th called �The Essence of Ligeti.� Last night�s concert featured the great man�s �Old Hungarian Ballroom Dances,� Chamber Concerto, �Mysteries of the Macabre,� �Hamburg Concerto,� and �Aventures, Nouvelles Aventures� � all in their CMS debuts. The house was packed by a mostly white-haired crowd, and, from the sound of the applause, a good time was had by all, myself included.

Ligeti�s �Ballroom Dances,� from 1949, is actually an arrangement for flute, clarinet, and strings of traditional Hungarian works. In his program notes, Ligeti jokes how he �became famous for writing a piece that was not my own composition,� and, indeed, this bubbly, frothy work helped establish the young composer�s reputation. Things got down to business, however, with the Chamber Concerto. For me, last night was a wonderful reencounter with this exuberant, sophisticated piece I was obsessed with years ago. Reinbert de Leeuw and the CMS musicians rendered the work with vividness and passion, and I heard more lyricism in this performance than in the Ensemble Modern recording I own. There in the music were the inarticulate, suffering masses, the hazy hallucinations of fantasy, the stiff and wild dance of everyday life. Things continued at a similarly high level with �Mysteries of the Macabre.� Featuring a show-stopping, �ber-virtuosic performance by the leather-clad and spot-lit soprano Barbara Hannigan, �Macabre� was on fire from beat one. The music�s jagged syncopated rhythms contrasted nicely with the more liquid Chamber Concerto, and Ligeti�s crazy side, for a furious eight minutes, held center stage.

The second half began with the program�s most recent work, the �Hamburg Concerto,� which was completed in 2002. Scored for solo horn, two basset horns, four natural horns, and chamber orchestra, �Hamburg� proved the most mellow and introspective composition of the evening. The phrasing lacks the energy of the Chamber Concerto, and, overall, the music is flatter and more diffident than most of the Ligeti I�m used to. Yet beauty and novelty are nonetheless everywhere to be found, particularly in the watery �Mixtur� of the fourth movement, and the flutter-tongue �Hymnus� that ends the piece. Ligeti�s inimitably wacky and wonderful �Aventures, Nouvelles Aventures� concluded the program. This silly, maniacal work, featuring three singers who sing on nonsense syllables, teeters on the edge of incomprehension. Over the course of its twenty minutes one realizes that, unlike many composers, Ligeti has the capacity to mock himself, to not take himself seriously: the singers make fun of the instrumental lines, and a pissed-off percussionist rips and breaks things throughout. Standing in the center of this musical circus was De Leeuw � tall, hunched, intellectual � a character himself, a naive but exacting traffic-cop, with his head in the clouds and his left hand insistent on holding the silences as long as they could stretch. The patient audience awarded every final slackening of his arms warmly, and let us hope all these works become mainstays of CMS programming.
Bach and Bird

The word of the day, boys and girls, is B-A-C-H. Or, wait, maybe it's S-A-X-O-P-H-O-N-E. Composer/saxophonist Alan Theisen reports that the USM Sax-Chamber Orchestra, of which he is member, has just wrapped a new recording of works by Bach which will be released by Romeo Records sometime in May...I just got in the mail a couple of weeks ago a splendid CD called J.S. Bach for Saxophone featuring Michael Ibrahim with the Players Chamber Ensemble.

Meanwhile, saxophonist Brian Sacawa reviews a Marin Alsop concert in Baltimore featuring Christopher Rouse's one-movement Symphony No. 1 which (pay attention now) is organized around the pitches B-A-C-H.

What a fabulous world we live in.

Now Playing: Capital M Ian Moss and the lads rethink rock. Edgar Winter meets Steve Reich. My new favorite recording.
The Blogger Gang

Alex and Drew and I had a great time at the Chamber Music America this morning. Our session on blogging got a large and interactive crowd of really nice folks. Alex and Drew were great and Frank Oteri was there and helped us out a bit. It was a lot of fun. I hope they invite us back. (The picture is bit blurred but you get the idea.)
Oed' und leer das Meer

This morning on NPR's Morning Edition I heard a review of the new movie "Tristan & Isolde." No, it's not a film version of the Wagner opera, but a Hollywood retelling of the classic tale. The reviewer described it as "a pleasantly old-fashioned epic romance" -- not great, but good enough to be fun. I think I'll steer clear, and somebody should make sure that A.C. Douglas is kept away from sharp objects for a little while.

In other NPR news, I just discovered that on January 1st our friend Alex Ross spent some time talking about classical music for Weekend Edition. The money quote: "Composers have blogs where you can listen to their music and read them have arguments with each other. . ." That's us!
A Blogging We Will Go

Off to the Chamber Music America conference where Alex Shapiro, Drew McManus and I are doing a panel on blogging. Talk amongst yourselves for awhile.
As Others See You

A Monk's Music Musings writes: "I finally figured out why - to me - Sequenza 21 sucks." Come on, Monkster. Tell us what you really think.

I see the Monk is getting an average of 21 readers a day so I shouldn't be helping him out (and that unreadable white on black motif is especially unforgiveable) but, hey, he didn't trash me...just the rest of you guys.
Just Because It's June in Buffalo

This seems a particularly good day to report that this year's June in Buffalo, a composers festival and conference started by Morton Feldman back in 1975, will take place this year from June 5-10, 2006 at the University at Buffalo. See program. The event offers an intensive schedule of seminars, lectures, master classes with selected faculty composers, panel discussions, professional presentations, participant forums and open rehearsals as well as
afternoon workshops and evening concerts open to the general public and critics.

Here are the composers featured in the 1975 June in Buffalo festival. Who can name them?
Morty Rules

January 12, 1926 - September 3, 1987

Update: Jay C. Batzner reports that we have another birthday boy; on this day in 1997 the HAL 9000 computer was first booted at the University of Illinois. He thinks Feldman would have approved...William Grim has a bunch of terrific new CD reviews...Lawrence Dillon has a premiere coming up tomorrow night and he's worried that he's going to make an ass of himself. Couldn't happen to any of us, of course.

Now Playing: Morton Feldman, Crippled Symmetry, California Ear Unit, Bridge Records BCD9092

Another Update: Jacob Sudol has some reflections on Feldman's influence on his own work and Mark Berry highlights the Naxos release of the Group for Contemporary Music's recording of String Quartet No. 1
Let the Celebration Begin

Tomorrow would have been Morton Feldman's 80th birthday but David Toub has started the celebration early...Jacob Sudol is back from the Grand Canyon and has some terrific pictures.

Now Playing: Unforgettable, Merle Haggard. Hey, if Willie can do standards, why not.
Mea Culpa, Mama Mia

About a month ago, we did a post about Glimmerglass Opera having reportedly asked Stephen Hartke, and librettist, Philip Littell, to take the word "whore" out of the title of their new opera for fear of offending patrons. The initial report of this event came from Daniel Wakin in the New York Times and we merely passed it on with our usual smartass, moderately uninformed embellishments. I have just learned that Hartke (who, by the way, is one of my favorite working composers) took umbrage at the post and left a rebuttal at the original. Since Hartke's response is now buried in the archives and not easily found, I have copied it and am reposting it here:

Behold the power of the press to completely distort a story when a reporter has a particular point of view and wants to project it upon the situation that he is covering.

There was NO censorship involved in the decision that Philip Littell and I took to change the title of our opera. The fact is, I never liked that title -- not because of the word "whore", but because it gives too much away about what one ought to think about the main character. My working title for the piece had been for a long time, "The Refugees," but most people found that it conjured up associations for them with third-world refugees -- our story takes place in France in 1871 -- and could be misleading. We then toyed with about twenty or more other titles and were still never completely satisfied. "Boule de Suif, or, The Good Whore" was the best we could come up with prior to the initial press release announcing the project, and the real problem proved later to be that some people had trouble figuring out the pronounciation of the word 'suif'. So, when Glimmerglass asked us to reconsider the title, I was more than glad to have a chance to revisit a question that had never been completely settled to my satisfaction. This, therefore, was in no way "artistic pandering" as so many of you, thanks to Mr. Wakins' skewed reportage, have chosen so quickly to judge it. Indeed, it was quite the contrary: a case of revisiting an artistic question in order to find the right match between the title and the work itself.

Revision and rethinking are intrinsic parts of the artistic process, and the only reason that this was turned into a little pseudo-scandal was because that was the way the reporter wanted to see it. The opera deals just as frankly with its subject material as the original Maupassant story, and then some -- come see it this summer and find out for yourselves -- don't let the newpaper reporters tell you what to think.

Stephen Hartke

My sincere apologies to Hartke and Littell if I have compounded an erroneous report. We like contemporary composers around here.
Message From Taruskin

In which the eminent musicologist Richard Taruskin takes exception to a review in Tempo by our regular contributor Rodney Lister. Stout heart, lads...Jay C. Batzner comes to praise Michael Stern, the new director of the Kansas City Symphony, for programming contemporary music...Tom Myron has some New Year's resolutions.

Update: Just noticed that Steve Smith has a swell piece on our amigo Corey Dargel.
Welcome One and All

Drew McManus, Alex Shapiro and I are doing a session on blogging Friday morning (Yep. Friday, the 13th) at the Chamber Music America Conference here in New York. Drew has all the exciting details at his splendid blog, Adaptistration, today. Check it out and come see us Friday if you're attending the conference.

David Toub has a new look at a couple of older John Cage releases from our friends at Ogreogress Productions...Note to CD reviewers: time to pick up the pace.
Art, High and Low: Sorry, But We Are Not Accepting Any New Members At This Time

As the major gift-giving holidays recede into memory, and the world begins to mentally jot down ideas for next year's wishlist, one question looms large for arts-minded people across the country: Where are the High Art video games? Okay, maybe I'm the only one asking that question, but I'm serious about the question.

I don't buy into the High Art/Low Art distinction, philosophically speaking, but enough people do that it has meaning as a sociological demarcation, and most artistic disciplines have both High and Low forms. We all know that the category of "High Art" includes things like Beethoven and Boulez, Shakespeare and Mamet, Dickens and Pynchon, etc. And "Low Art" includes things like the Rolling Stones, The Sopranos, Dan Brown, etc. As with the categories �bald� and �not bald,� there is no precise boundary between these categories, but sociologically speaking the two categories really do exist.

Interestingly, in addition to the difficult-to-articulate elements that differentiate the actual art in each category, the infrastructures supporting High and Low Art are very different: Low Art tends to be governed by traditional market forces, whereas High Art tends to be cushioned from the brutality of market forces by the charitable support of individuals and organizations. How many rock bands file for nonprofit status, appoint a board of directors, and solicit charitable contributions? How many classical ensembles do? I know less about the differences between the infrastructures of High and Low filmmaking, publishing, playwriting, painting, sculpture, and so on, but certainly the High visual arts are disproportionately supported by the nonprofit museum industry, many foreign governments provide funding for films. High Art practitioners often hold academic jobs, and most works of High Art are made on commission or with no expectation of remuneration rather than with a view to sales revenue.

According to Wikipedia, "in the United States, video game sales have exceeded the movies' total box office revenue each year since about 1996," (although the article goes on to note that "the movie studios trounce the video game publishers when the movies' 'ancillary revenue' is counted, meaning sales of DVDs, sales to foreign distributors, and sales to cable TV, satellite TV, and broadcast television networks.") But even though the game design artform is huge, and as I mentioned almost every major category of art has both a High and Low version -- music, drama, film, painting, sculpture, novels, poetry, dance -- there does not seem to be a High Art version of the computer game industry. I am not aware of any game design companies with Nonprofit status (except a few that make education and training games), or who run a fundraising operation that solicits charitable gifts. Training in game design and production, to the extent that it is formalized, is primarily offered by technical and professional schools, not by traditional art schools. Most universities don�t even have a game design curriculum in their fine or liberal arts departments, and shipping a great game probably won't get you tenure in those departments. Journalism that draws a distinction between "arts" and "entertainment" reviews computer games in the "entertainment" section. None of those by itself necessarily implies that there's no High Art gaming community (film schools tend to be more professional than academic, too, for example, but there is a High Art film community) but that we see all of them together makes a strong case.

So why? Does surrendering control to a gamer rather than retaining it for the author undermine the possibility of High Art? Probably not, since the plot and dialogue and characters and world physics and mythology and many other things are still entirely controlled by the design team. And a Beethoven piano sonata doesn't stop being High Art when it's performed by an amateur, so surely having amateurs "perform" games wouldn't prevent games from being High Art. Are they too fun, or fun-oriented? This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, but seems bogus. High Art is fun too, for the people who like it -- more fun than Low Art for certain snobs -- and the makers of High Art are trying to please some audience or another. And it's not that enjoyment of games is even of a different type than appreciation of High Art -- there's beauty in the imagery, sound, and design; intellectual stimulation from the puzzles; conceptual satisfaction from the conceptual design: in other words both High and Low Art provide both visceral and intellectual stimulation. There's no reason inherent to the nature of computer games that they can't be High Art. And there are a few games that seem like they could even be classified as High Art Games if the category existed: I never played Myst, but everybody I ask about this subject proposes it as a candidate for High Art status. More recently, Katamari Damacy could well be seen as a work of postmodern conceptualist art. I don't accept that the actual differences between works of High and Low Art are anything more than superficial, but I happen to like the superficial features of "High" art and think there's a lot of potential for really interesting games that bear superficialities analogous to those which demarcate other disciplines of "High" art.

Ultimately, I think the reason for the lack of a High Art game industry is that our culture is no longer capable of creating new High Art disciplines because most of the culture doesn't believe in High Art, or at least is not invested in its importance. Film made it in under the wire because it's conceptually similar enough to stage drama that the High Culture Gatekeepers were willing to let it in when films began to be made that were more superficially similar to High Drama than Low Drama. But film is new enough that the industry has not been able to build up the kind of massive non-profit infrastructure that music, drama, dance, and the other older visual arts have -- there simply aren't enough donors who think film is important enough to fund it at the level needed to support an infrastructure of non-profit studios and distribution mechanisms. It's no accident that the European film industry is stranger and more �artsy� than the American industry: European governments fund the arts more robustly, and so European art film doesn't have to put together as much private money -- plus the Europeans are motivated to fund High Art film as a way of promoting the idea of European cultural superiority over Hollywood and American culture. Comic books, on the other hand, have not arrived. The "graphic novel" has been accepted by some parts of the culture, but as a sort of popular and chic Low Art ("chic" here meaning "considered sophisticated by pop-culture elitists" -- not being an elitist myself I am reluctant to actually use the term �sophisticated� here). Comic book art has been shown in museums a few times, although one gets the sense that those exhibits are intended as fund-raisers to support the "real" High Art mission. It's also true that both of my Low-Art-Only examples -- computer games and comics -- are perceived at "for kids" even though the stereotype is invalid, but another of the forces at work is the fact that popular culture is largely composed of and defined by "youth culture," or rather by cultural elements identified as "youth culture" how ever inaccurately. On a more cynical note, there's an incentive for the existing High Art community to keep computer games and comic books out -- the pool of available philanthropic support is already too small without diluting it by adding another artform that needs support. And, as has been demonstrated with the comic book art exhibits at museums and orchestra concerts like the LA Phil's "Music from Final Fantasy," High Art venues presenting what I've just dubbed "Chic Low Art" can be a highly lucrative proposition. It's not Low-art-in-a-High-art-venue, but as the originator of the Museum Blockbuster phenomenon, the "Treasures Of Tutankhamun" exhibit is illustrative. The exhibit started at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1976 and then toured other museums until 1978, bringing over 800,000 people to the Met in its 117 day stay. Last month (on December 15, 2005, to be precise) a new tour of the King Tut artifacts was launched, and this time it's a purely commercial venture: the museums are essentially serving as a venue for a show produced by Anschutz Entertainment Group and the Egyptian Government. It's expected to draw more than 3 million visitors at $30 per ticket. Ensuring that the High-art-esqe areas of those disciplines which have no High Art establishment remain in the "Popular Chic Low Art" category creates a new revenue stream for High Art � the Chic Low Art remains commercially viable but has enough High Art credibility that High Art organizations can get away with presenting it and reap the financial rewards. I will be surprised if computer game music concerts don't become more common, and if museums don't start putting together computer game art exhibits. I don't think I have a problem with this likelyhood, or a problem with the new King Tut exhibit, but many people have been and will be appalled, and will denounce the "selling out" and "cheapening" of the High Arts and the High Art community.

Also worth noting is the apparent sociological connection between a discipline bearing the "High Art" label and the existence of a High-Art-style infrastructure. For example, all Rock and Roll is "Low Art" but some of the less mainstream genres have more superficialities and underlying philosophical motivations in common with High Art than with Low Art. It would make sense, maybe even more sense than the current system, to have High Art rock music and Low Art rock music, and a High Art classical music and a Low Art classical music (the "Low" classical music being film score and crossover acts). And I suspect that if the rock music that is currently Popular Chic Low Art had a High-Art-style infrastructure it would be classified as High Art. If, to use examples to represent larger phenomena, Radiohead were a 501(c)(3), and ran an annual fund, and Brian Eno had a faculty position at Harvard, and Carnegie Hall curated rock concerts funded by philanthropic grants, and bands with less commercial success than Radiohead were spared day-jobs because they could get commissions from foundations and be hired into faculty positions, our cultural schema would include "High Art" rock. But for the reasons I've already stated, this will never come to pass.

So is it necessarily bad news that our culture is incapable of establishing a new High Art community? Yes and no. It's not necessarily bad news for the established disciplines -- the infrastructure already exists, and not being able to build a new one for a new discipline does not necessarily mean that the existing ones are sick: Microsoft and Apple have a monopoly on the computer operating system industry because no operating system can be widely successful unless everybody switches at once, and engineering a marketing campaign capable of generating the new user group would be inconceivable, (Linux has a small but growing user base, but that base is a small group of elite users, and it's a free product) but the fact that the emergence of a major new OS is virtually impossible is not an indication that Microsoft or Apple are in trouble. On the other hand, the lack of a sufficient financial base to launch a new High Art is directly related to the insufficient funding for the existing branches, which is pretty clearly a real problem. That lack of funding, of course, comes directly from the fact that the culture believes in the High/Low distinction but doesn�t value the arts categorized as �High� enough to adequately support the infrastructure. The absence of a High Art computer game culture is a symptom of the same problems plaguing the existing High Art communities.

I suppose if we ever did manage to create a High Art computer game industry we wouldn�t be allowed to call them �computer games.� How about �computer experiences�. . . No, wait, that�s a terrible idea. Anyway, maybe it�s a pipe dream, but wouldn�t it be great?
Mr. Kovich, White Courtesy Phone, Please

Charles Ward has an inspiring feature in the Houston Chronicle about American composer Pierre Jalbert's new piece Big Sky, commissioned by the Houston Symphony and set for its Houston premiere next week and Carnegie Hall bow on January 24. The rest of the program includes pieces by Mozart and somebody named "Shosta Kovich."

Lawrence Dillon is pleased as punch to be the featured American composer in the current issue of Chamber Music magazine, with a splendid feature by the indispensible Kyle Gann.

Couple of great discussions going in the Composers Forum. New contributor Roger Bourland comes out for Rufus Wainwright and nearly new contributor Daniel Gillam ponders life beyond New York.


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