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Folks: I respect you all very much. Really. But you don’t know jack about the upcoming Sequenza21 concerts. By way of fixing this (your) problem, we at the site will be offering you penetrating, deep glimpses into the inner lives of the composers and performers involved in This. The Mother Of All Concerts. The Concerts The New York Times Does Not Want You To Know About (else, why haven’t they covered it yet? Huh? Huh?).

First up: Jeremy Podgursky. Composer. (Or just a poser??? You decide.)

Did you learn anything in music school?  Or does the phrase “circle of fifths” mean nothing to you?

I learned not to throw stones in ivory towers.  I also learned that the first seventeen years of my life were lazy, unfocused, and unforgivable.  Music school taught me how to look fun in the eye and say, “bite me!”.  And what’s this “circle of fifths” stuff?  I went to music school in Louisville, KY and the only fifths we knew of were filled with bourbon.

What’s your favorite “bad” piece of music?  And briefly justify your crappy taste.

“Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler.  Either that or “November Rain” by GNR.  Bonnie Tyler’s histrionics have earned her the title of Mrs. Meatloaf.  Slash’s guitar solo out in front of the church is all-the-more stunning due to the fact that his guitar isn’t plugged in.

Your five-composition-long playlist for Schoenberg would contain:

1. Anything by Scelsi – “hey Arnold, you digging that tone center?”

2. Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich

3. Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed

4. Coptic Light by Morton Feldman

5. that “Do-Re-Mi” number from The Sound of Music

Congress calls on you to draw up a bailout plan for contemporary music!  What do you do?

First, I guess I would get my suit dry cleaned.  Second, I would burn a CD of Sousa marches in case they wanted examples of contemporary music.  Third, I would institute a draft for all performers graduating from music school to serve a four year tour-of-duty in one of many government subsidized regional orchestras and chamber groups.  These ensembles would perform and record only contemporary music five days a week, five hours a day.  LAST BUT NOT LEAST: I would insist upon the removal of Alaska from the U.S. and replace it with Iceland (sorry, but I couldn’t help myself).

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Volker Bertelmann, otherwise known as “Hauschka,” grew up in Ferndorf, a small village in southern Austria. His latest album is named after the town and features tracks which capture the light, “floating” mood of his childhood rambles through the countryside. Next week, Wordless Music hosts the beginning of Hauschka’s US tour featuring pieces from the album.

Though his childhood was filled with music from attending church and song-filled family celebrations, he left home for Cologne to study medicine. But his piano playing, his desire to compose, and an early film-score commission convinced him to quit his studies and immerse himself in multi-media projects and, eventually, pop music. (Hauschka was at one point a rapper.)

In the 1990s, as he was developing an interest in electronic music, he came upon the idea (more or less himself) of trying to simulate “electronic” sounds by placing objects inside the piano: he did not enjoy performing on a laptop, which he found rigid. What started as an attempt to create a cimbalom-like timbre by placing pins on the hammers of a piano turned into the backbone of his compositional technique. Indeed, he was preparing pianos long before a musicologist friend introduced him to the music of John Cage.

Hauschka describes his music as moving between techno-like patterns and a classical melodic lyricism. Ferndorf is dreamy and reflective, with several pieces incrementally layering melodic gestures over ostinatos. Satie is also a clear influence. After his work with Ferndorf is done, Hauschka wishes to turn to a piano-dance album and maybe even an orchestra piece. He’s also meeting with film directors who have taken an interest in his work.

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Concerning the quality of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, currently playing at the Metropolitan Opera through November 13, I am of many minds. This may be due in no small part to the opera being of many minds itself. Doctor Atomic is about as good as any opera could be given that its creators do not seem to have a cogent idea of what drama is.

At first a documentary-style perspective on the events leading to the first atomic bomb test holds sway. In the first scene, the chorus and characters sing lines containing all the poetry of a Pentagon press briefing. (Adams’s program notes describe his and Peter Sellars’s scrupulousness in basing the libretto on language from primary sources.) But after the initial oddness, one gets used to hearing the chorus describe the structure of the bomb’s core and so forth. Then scene two arrives, and we’re in Puccini-land. Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer, in the intimacy of their bedroom, rhapsodize in florid soliloquies about their infinite, cosmic love for one another. In scene three, the opera begins to hit its stride by coming to favor panoramic montages over dramatic scenes. After intermission, Act II increases this trend: characters more often speak to us (or to no one) than to each other, and we wait and wait for the bomb to drop.

With so many different dramatic angles rubbing elbows–the documentary, the lyrical, the montage (and the first two do not disappear entirely in Act II)–awkward moments abound in Doctor Atomic. The beginning of the second scene is needlessly jarring; the discussion of General Groves’s diet in scene three does not belong here; the “earth-mother” lullaby (sung by the Oppenheimers’ Native-American nanny, Pasqualita) is portentous; after an inert debate about the possibility the bomb might ignite the atmosphere, Edward Teller, one of the scientists, offers everyone sun screen.  The entire second act fails to establish a common consciousness from which characters’ lines can emerge logically: instead, these lines often sound arbitrary and pretentious.  Kitty Oppenheimer is a character almost entirely without dramatic support from her surroundings: she seems out of place, despite some ravishing music; and even Doctor Atomic himself, despite his riveting John Donne aria that closes the first act, ends up being a weak center for the action.

But in the end Doctor Atomic is saved by the sheer talent of its composer. Adams’s score is absolutely fantastic. The tonality roves from chromatic to triadic with discretion and power; Adams’s command of rhythmic contrast–especially in how well the wildly exciting concluding countdown is prepared–is masterful; the orchestration is luscious and fluent; the vocal writing maneuvers deftly between the florid and the declamatory; the strident choral writing packs a wallop, especially in the Bhagavad Gita settings in the second act. And the entire musical component of the production, already at a high level, benefits from the inspired, committed conducting of Alan Gilbert, whose approaching tenure at the New York Philharmonic must be more eagerly anticipated than ever before.

Doctor Atomic‘s flaws are serious, and the second act in particular breaks down badly. But Adams’s power is at its zenith, and one continues to look forward to his coming creations.

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Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten already!

Also: S21 concert update:  The S21 concerts in December are the 1st at Waltz–that’s a changed date, yo–and the 5th at Good Shepherd Church (152 W 66th).  On the program: Samuel Andreyev, Rusty Banks, Galen Brown, Rodney Lister, Alex Kotch, Jeremy Podgursky, me, and Samuel Vriezen.  (Hope I didn’t leave anyone out.)

Later, er, today I’m handing in the second draft of my dissertation.  It’s about Kurtag. 

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Our own Tom Myron has taken two more bold steps in Sequenza21’s irreversible march toward Complete Intergalactic Domination.

This Friday the New York Pops plays two of Tom’s Bernstein arrangements (“My New Friends” and “Spring Will Come Again”) on their Lenny 90th concert at Carnegie Hall.

Then on Saturday the Eastern Connecticut Symphony plays Tom’s Katahdin (“Greatest Mountain”) on a concert sponsored by the Mohegan Tribe. Very nice. You can download Katahdin over on Tom’s page.

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Next week those SOB’s from Lost Dog get their season off to a hooowwwling start with a program at Tenri they call “Color Wheel.” Lost Dog top dog Garth (“Arf!”) Sunderland explains:

The focus of this program is instrumental color – the astonishing variety of sounds even a single instrument can produce. Each instrument in the concert (Clarinet, ‘Cello, and Piano) will be experienced individually in the first half of the program, in virtuosic solo works which explore their unique color pallete – the ‘sound-identity’ of the instrument. In the second half, all three instruments come together to explore and experience those colors interacting with each other, in a very rare performance of Helmut Lachenmann’s timbral masterpiece, Allegro Sostenuto. 

Those first half pieces are by Ligeti, Xenakis, and Donatoni.  (Ouch-kabibble.)

The real deal takes place next Saturday night (10/25) at Tenri Cultural Institute, a joint which is finally about to live up to its middle name. There’s a preview program the night before at Waltz-Astoria. C-ya!

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In 2002, Silas Huff moved to New York City for a girl, got a day job, and, while riding the bus into Manhattan, noticed a lot of folks getting on in Astoria carrying instrument cases. A composer and conductor himself fresh from a year in Germany, Silas started approaching these Astoria musicians, and, next thing he knew, he was holding auditions for the “Astoria Symphony.”

But the symphony was actually his second ensemble.

Back in 1995, as a classical guitar major at Texas State University, he wanted to put on some new music concerts. Now, new music concerts don’t get much attention anywhere. But Silas had an idea: he’d call his ensemble the “Lost Dog” ensemble, and make a poster whereon “Lost Dog” was writ large. Who could pass up such a sign?

Add together the Astoria Symphony and the Lost Dog New Music Ensemble, throw in the Random Access Music composers collective, and you get the Astoria Music Society—an organization that, since 2002, has performed over 85 concerts featuring everything from standard orchestral repertoire to jazz.

With AMS in place, Astoria now has a classical voice to join the vibrant pop-world music scene currently filling the neighborhood’s cafes, restaurants, and other venues. While the organization’s primary function is to serve Queens, it performs in Manhattan as well. This weekend, the Astoria Symphony kicks off the season with a program featuring world premieres by Steve Horowitz and Angelica Negron. In December, AMS’s Lost Dog Ensemble plays a program featuring music by (gosh) Sequenza21 folks. Next March, AMS collaborates with the Long Island City Ballet. Go here for more.

Attendance is, shall we say, encouraged.

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Gabriel Kahane performs Thursday, 9 October with Rob Moose at the Cornelia St. Café (8:00pm, doors; 8:30 Diane Birch, opening; 9:30 Gabe). This week, Gabriel and I exchanged some e-mail Q&A. The conversation got pretty deep. –David Salvage

DS: Gabriel, I’m enjoying your album [Untitled Debut]. I’m wondering, as I listen, what non-musical sources of inspiration you might have. Like poets, artists, and so on.

GK: I think that’s a great question. There are certainly some fairly explicit literary inspirations for some of the songs on the record. “The Faithful” was written as a kind of response to Claire Messud’s novel “The Emperor’s Children,” which I think very elegantly and devastatingly deals with 9/11. “7 Middagh” was written after reading Sherill Tippins’s glorious book “February House,” which is an account of the artist commune at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights during World War II in which W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Jane and Paul Bowles were charter members. But more generally, I think I’m always looking at art of all mediums to find different approaches to achieve some kind of emotional catharsis. I try to be as emotionally direct as possible in my work without getting sentimental (I hope), and so that tends to be what I seek out in other art. Read the rest of this entry »

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Terry Jennings: I was happy to hear two short piano pieces by Jennings at the M50 concert S21 co-produced. Played with great sensitivity by Joseph Kubera, both works were spare, dissonant, and full of luxurious silences. Pianists would do well to combine these with Webern Op.27 and Schoenberg Op.19: you’d have a satisfying, chill 25 minutes of music. Now, what Jennings’s music has to do with minimalism as we know it beats me. But, whatever.

 Martin Matalon: In the mid 90s, Matalon was commissioned to write a new soundtrack for Fritz Lang’s Malthusian masterpiece, Metropolis. The Manhattan Symfonietta performance on 19 September was my first encounter with the film or the composer. Both were positive. Matalon, an Argentinian now living in Paris, has the burbly IRCAM thing down pat, and, as with Murail, I’m very impressed by the ability of contemporary French-inspired composers to cook up new tone colors. That said, Matalon’s score, which otherwise reinforces the film nicely, goes to sleep shortly after the start of the film’s “Furioso” section and remains horribly somnolent through the drowning of the workers’ city. Thankfully, things perk up again in time for the hunt for the robot Maria.

NYPhil Conductors who also Compose: The Phil played a program of Mahler 10, Maazel’s Music for Flute and Orchestra with Tenor Tuba Obligato Op. 11, Boulez’s Pli selon pli: Improvisation sur Mallarmé II (“Une dentelle s’abolit”), and Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety.” The Maazel has a fun cadenza for flute, castanets, and Indian rain tube; otherwise, it’s forgettable. Bernstein’s symphony (with pianist Joyce Yang) is good; but the whole thing sounds a bit dusty—the music screams “1940s New York!” in a way that somehow highlights how different today feels. Boulez took the prize. Pli selon pli was just beautiful—like Debussy on twelve-tones. The clear, light voice of soprano Kiera Duffy sealed the deal.

Oliver KnussenKnussen’s third symphony got a playing from the San Francisco Symphony under MTT at Carnegie Hall. First played in 1979, the work takes inspiration from the death of Ophelia. It’s about 15 minutes long, has some luscious woodwind writing, and the climactic chorale is prepared well by long, homogenous stretches of counterpoint. This is the kind of thing that should be played all the time—an approachable symphony that sounds modern. But I like my pieces a little more badly behaved: technical competence only takes you so far.

On the horizonBernard Rands at the Phil, and two geniuses, Dawn Upshaw and Alex Ross, in elevated discourse.

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It’s my pleasure to pass on a terrific piece, written for S21, by Daniel Levitin.  In addition to teaching at McGill University and being a real mensch, Levitin is the best-selling author of “This is Your Brain on Music,” which I personally recommend to all.  Below,  he gives us a look at his new book “The World in Six Songs:  How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature.”   — David Salvage

.      .      .      .      .      .

It is unlikely that either language or music were invented by a single innovator or at a single place and time; rather, they were shaped by a large number of refinements, contributed to by legions of developers over many millenia and throughout all parts of the world. And they were no doubt crafted upon structures and abilities that we already had, structures we inherited genetically from proto-humans and our non-human animal ancestors.  It’s true that human language is qualitatively different from any animal language, specifically in that it is generative (we can combine elements to create an unlimited number of utterances) and self-referential (we can use language to talk about language).  The evolution of a single brain mechanism – probably located in the pre-frontal cortex – created a common mode of thought that underlies both the development of language and of art. I describe this in my new book The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature.

One of the things that humans are good at and animals are not is encoding relations.  We can easily learn the idea of something being bigger than another.  If I ask even a five-year old to select the larger of three blocks in front of her, she will do this effortlessly.  If I then bring in a new block that is twice the size of the one she just selected, she can shift her thinking, and choose that when I reask the question.  A five-year old understands this. No dog can do this, and only some primates.  This understanding of relations turns out to be fundamental for music appreciation; it is a cornerstone of all human musical systems.  It permits us to recognize Happy Birthday as the same song regardless of what key it is sung in.  It is also the basis of composition in nearly every musical style we know of.  Take the opening to Beethoven’s Fifth.  We hear three notes of the same pitch and duration, followed by a longer note at a lower pitch.  Beethoven takes this pattern and moves it lower in the scale, so that the next four notes follow the same contour and rhythm.  Our ability to recognize that this pattern is essentially the same, even though none of the notes are the same, is relational processing. 

These modes of processing and the brain mechanisms that gave rise to them were necessary for the development of language, music, poetry, art and even science.  Music may have played an important role in allowing us to communicate before there was language, and in forming a mental exercise that was fundamental to being able to manipulate objects in the real world.  The available evidence is that music has been with our species from the very beginning, shaping social bonds, social systems, cooperative work projects, and the transmission of knowledge.  Our current love of music is deeply rooted in evolutionary biology – our brain responds favorably to music because those of our ancestors who had musical brains found themselves at a distinct survival advantage.

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