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Our friend Marvin Rosen will be hosting the Brooklyn-based trio Janus on his “Classical Discoveries” radio program tomorrow (Wednesday) morning from 9:30 to 11:00 AM. If you don’t live near Princeton, NJ, or if you’re like me and you only consume actual radio waves when you’re in the car, you should be able to catch the show streaming live at the WPRB website.

Janus was formed by flutist Amanda Baker, violist Beth Meyers, and harpist Nuiko Wadden in 2002, and since then they have been rapidly expanding the flute/viola/harp trio repertoire.  Their debut album i am not drops today, and features music by Jason Treuting, Caleb Burhans, Angélica Negrón, Anna Clyne, Cameron Britt, and Ryan Brown.  It’s out on New Amsterdam Records, which as always has streaming audio for you here.  I’m listening to Caleb’s piece “Keymaster” as I type this: something is beautifully turbulent in paradise.

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When I was a kid, my family did a lot of hiking and camping, and on those trips at mealtime or for a cup of tea during a rest my dad would do the cooking.  He would break out a little camp stove, fill a pot with water, and turn on the gas, igniting it with a match.  The gas would ignite with a whoosh, and then the sound would settle into a steady white-noise hiss.  The noise was loud enough to drown out little sounds like trees shifting in the breeze and the buzz of a nearby fly, but not loud enough to be a distraction, and after a few minutes it would fade into the background and I would forget about it.  After a while the cooking would be done and my dad would turn off the stove, which would quickly sputter into silence.  You’ve probably had the same experience–the motor in your refrigerator stops its faint purring, or the air conditioner’s automatic shutoff kicks in, and the sudden change takes you from not listening to a sound that was there to listening to its absence.

A few days ago I was doing some research in an archive of old periodicals, and I stumbled across a fascinating passage from a 1920 edition of the British Journal of Psychology.  The paper, written by E.M. Smith and F.C. Bartlett, is entitled “On Listening to Sounds of Weak Intensity,” and concerns an experiment in which subjects were asked to listen to sounds at very low volume.  The authors describe a phenomenon also discussed by earlier researchers which they call “Positive Silence.”  This is a silence which is “very clearly distinguished from that accompanying the mere absence of sound.”  In these experiments, positive silence was experienced by subjects when they could not hear a test sound and were confident that the reason was that no sound was playing, but not when they heard no sound but thought that it was possible that the sound was just beyond their perception.

Other researchers before Smith and Bartlett had apparently run experiments more closely related to the experience of the camp stove or refrigerator or air conditioner shutting off: “Titchener has attempted definite experiments on the positive character of silence by subjecting observers for thirty seconds or more to the noise of machinery in his laboratory workshop.  At the end of the set period, the noise was cut off as abruptly as possible.  Various organic and kinaesthetic sensations were reported, and silence was experience as ‘something else than sound or the cessation of sound.'”

And Smith and Barlett offer this quote, which appears in a book called Men in Battle by Andreas Latzko, from a solider who had returned home from the trenches of the first World War: “There is nothing but a glorious quiet that you can listen to as to a piece of music!  The first few nights I kept my ears cocked for the quiet, the way you try to catch a tune at a distance. . . it was so delightful to listen to no sound.”

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The consistently thought-provoking Kyle Gann has a complaint: “I think young composers might want to think about diversifying the composers they base their styles on beyond John Coolidge Adams.”   He gets a lot more promotional CDs than I do from record labels and young composers hoping to lure him out of music-critic retirement to provide that coveted Kyle Gann pull-quote for their bios.  (Can I do the heist-movie thing and say they want to get him out of retirement for “one last score”?  Too late, I already did.)  As I said, I don’t get the same recordings that Kyle gets, but let’s take him at his word and stipulate that an awful lot of the postminimalist composers out there–especially the more successful ones–are writing warmed-over John Adams.  I like John Adams as much as the next guy, and I’ve written my share of ersatz Adams, but too many composers hewing too closely to a single model could be cause for concern.  When I followed up with Kyle over e-mail, he did say that “a lot of young composers I know don’t sound like Adams at all, but they’re by far the less successful ones,” so what we’re seeing may be more of a skew in economic outcomes than a skew in total underlying populations, but that skew would also be troubling.

I wonder if part of what we’re seeing here is the wages of the stylistic tunnel-vision of the music higher-education system.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Kyle Gann reports that more than twice as many students have signed up for his 12-tone Analysis seminar than for his Beethoven class, and then in the comments he expresses concern that some of those students may think the course is a 12-Step program.

Coincidentally, our crack musicological research team has recently uncovered the following from Serious Composers Anonymous:

A Method Of Ensuring the Supremacy of German Music for the Next Hundred Years Using Twelve Steps Related Only To Each Other

1. We admitted we were powerless over free atonality, and that our compositions had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Method greater than our own intuition could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our music over to the care of The Twelve Tone Method as we understand it.

4. Made a searching and fearless inventory of the ways in which our music does not live up to the Great German Tradition.

5. Admitted to our professors, to ourselves, and to another Serious Composer the exact nature of our compositional failings.

6. Were entirely ready to have The Method remove all these defects of aesthetic.

7. Humbly asked The Method to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all twelve pitches in the octave, and became willing to treat them all as equals.

9. Made direct amends to dissonant intervals which we had heretofore enslaved with outdated rules of resolution to consonance.

10. Continued to strive to write music that is technically complex and antithetical to popularity, and when we discovered that we had written something pretty promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through practice and analysis to improve our appreciation of and facility with The Method as we understand it, praying only for knowledge of combinatoriality and the power to employ it effectively.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to those useless composers who have not yet come to feel the necessity of the dodecaphonic language, and to practice these principles in all our musical affairs whether the audience likes it or not.

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1. Kyle Gann recently posted Carolyn Yarnell’s piano piece The Same Sky on his blog. (Click here and scroll down for the link to the recording) He calls it “one of the most fantastic keyboard works anyone’s written in the last 20 years” and I have to agree.  Kathleen Supové is the pianist, and she tears it up.

2. Swedish electronic rock duo The Knife was commissioned by a Danish performance company called Hotel Pro Forma to write an opera about Charles Darwin. The result, which was premiered in Copenhagen in September 2009, is called Tomorrow in a Year, and based on the material available on the web it looks extraordinary. Here’s The Knife’s Olof Dreijer talking about the project on the band’s website: “At first it was very difficult as we really didn’t know anything about opera. We’d never been to one. I didn’t even know what the word libretto meant. But after some studying, and just getting used to opera’s essence of pretentious and dramatic gestures, I found that there is a lot to learn and play with. In fact, our ignorance gave us a positive respectless approach to making opera. It took me about a year to become emotionally moved by an opera singer and now I really do. I really like the basic theatrical values of opera and the easy way it brings forward a narrative. We’ve approached this before in The Knife but never in such a clear way.”

Here’s “The Coloring of Pigeons:”

Colouring of Pigeons by The Knife

An album of music from the opera is slated for release on March 1st, 2010. I don’t see anything about plans to bring the production to the United States, but a guy can hope.

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Last night on The Colbert Report, Steven Colbert brought in Philip Glass to assist him in a parody of. . . Philip Glass.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
We Are at War – Philip Glass
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Economy

It’s clearly a spoof of Einstein on the Beach–or “Einstein on the Beeyotch,” as Colbert says at the end of the show when he thanks Glass and mentions the recently released recording of Glass’s A Toltec Symphony.  Colbert is one of the most knowledgeable television hosts on the air when it comes to contemporary classical music–and he expects his audience to get the joke.  (He’s also on the advisory board for New York’s Symphony Space, although not necessarily for music, since they also present film, theatre, dance, and literature.)  Yet one question remains: How can Colbert present Downtown music from a studio in Midtown?  Pick a side, Colbert–we’re at war!

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SyzygyIn a city like New York, with so many first-rate musicians moving to town every year to try to “make it,” promising new chamber ensembles spring up all the time, and I think this is a great thing.  One of 2009’s most promising new groups was the Syzygy New Music Collective, which gave their debut concert at St. Anthony of Padua church, in the West Village, on December 4th.

Founded by Jessica Salzinski and Danielle Schwob, two composers who recently graduated from NYU, Syzygy is dedicating itself to the presentation of music by young and emerging composers, and indeed most of the music on the concert was by composers I hadn’t heard of.  After the concert I overheard them encouraging some composers from the audience to send them scores and recordings, and their website includes detailed information on sending submissions.

The concert was very enjoyable.  All of the performances were solid, and I liked most of the pieces.  The reverberant acoustics of the church served some pieces better than others, but that’s a pretty common problem. The acoustics were especially well suited for Angelica Negron‘s meditative “Technicolor” for harp and electronics.  Conrad Winslow‘s chilled-out (or did it only seem that way because of the space?) “Slippery Music” did a remarkably good job of integration live acoustic instruments and an electronic tape part.  Noam Feingold‘s violin/cello duet “A Knife in the Water” meandered attractively across its modernist landscape.  Jessica Salzinski‘s impressive “Piano Sonata No. 1” was a bit muddied by the acoustics, but it came across well anyway.  The usually sweet sound of flute, harp, and vibraphone was somehow given a satisfyingly dark or even slightly ominous edge in Danielle Schwob‘s “Shiver.”  And Syzygy cunningly programmed a lovely Nico Muhly piece at the end of the concert.

I say “cunningly” because they attracted an impressively large audience for a first ever performance by a new-music group.  Part of that may have been the appeal of the Muhly name.  But I don’t want to diminish the other strategies they employed.  First, to fund the concert they raised money through kickstarter.  They then leveraged all of the other social media tools at their disposal, and it all worked.  This marketing savvy is in some ways the most promising thing about the group.  It’s one thing to put together a good ensemble and program and deliver a strong concert, but to stand out requires a business savvy that evidence suggests Syzygy posesses.

Syzygy’s next performance will be April 22nd, at the Nabi Gallery on West 25th street.

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I hesitate to repost Bach-Santathis again, but I find that the links that Google turns up are mostly dead, and some of you seem to like it.  So, with best wishes for a happy holdiay season, and without further ado, I give you:

A Visit From J.S. Bach

By Galen H. Brown,
(With apologies to Henry Livingston, Jr.)

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the city
The critics were trying their best to be witty;
They printed their lists of the past year’s best fare,
In hopes that their trendy young readers would care;
But the readers were nestled all snug in their beds,
While vacuous pop idols danced in their heads;
And the Maestro in PJs, and I in my drawers,
Had just settled in to examine some scores,
When out on the lawn, such cacaphonous sound,
I sprang from my desk thinking Zorn was in town. Read the rest of this entry »

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Amanda Palmer (photo by Martin Foster)
Amanda Palmer (photo by Martin Foster)

Amanda Palmer is a bona fide rock star.  She first made her name as half of The Dresden Dolls, and has since struck out on her own with a solo album called “Who Killed Amanda Palmer.”  In June of 2008 she teamed up with the Boston Pops for two nights, and this December they’re doing it again for a New Year’s Eve concert.  Amanda has also been pioneering new models of how the rock music industry can work (staying in nearly constant contact with her fans via Twitter plays a key role), and I wanted to see if that ingenuity could be translated into advice for the classical scene.  I interviewed her by phone last week, and we talked about the upcoming Pops show, her musical background and training, and her impressions of the classical music industry:

Part 1:

Part 2:
Amanda is performing in Singapore right now, and when she returns she has a series of shows along the Eastern Seaboard which culminate with the Pops concert on December 31.
P.S. Here’s the link to the Shadowbox repertoire discussionAmanda mentions.

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Last Friday I finally made it down to the new DUMBO location of Galapagos Art Space to see the release party/performance of Mikel Rouse’s haunting new album Gravity Radio. But let’s back up for a moment before we get to Rouse.

DUMBO, for you non-New Yorkers, is one of the myriad New York City neighborhood abbreviations, like SoHo (South of Houston) or Tribeca (triangle below Canal), and it stands for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass,” which is to say it’s in Brooklyn in the area just south of the Manhattan Bridge. It was one of the first places in Brooklyn that artists moved to find illegal loft space in the 70s after they got priced out of lower Manhattan. (The name “DUMBO” is actually an interesting piece of failed culture jamming–residents hoped that by coining such an unappealing name they could stave off developers.)

Galapagos Art Space is a mixed-genre performance space which used to be in Williamsburg, but when the rent in Williamsburg got too high they worked out a deal that has landed them in a converted industrial space in DUMBO which they were able to entirely remodel to fit their needs and aesthetic. In front of the stage, suspended a few inches above a shallow black reflecting pool and connected by bridges, is a set of circular seating pods with room for several small tables and chairs each.  A balcony with additional seating rings the room and provides space for the sound booth.  The whole place is done up in red and black and chrome, set against the bare concrete walls of the building.  It’s truly a beautiful space.  Galapagos has a new booker, and I’m told that they are going to be increasing their classical fare–they’re already hosting the New Amsterdam Records concert series Archipelago (the next show in that series will be this Friday at 7:30pm with vocal group Roomful of Teeth and percussion/flute duo Due East.)  To give a sense of how diverse the offerings at Galapagos are, in just the next week they will also be presenting Argentinian music by Emilio Teubal & Fernando Otero, punk/cabaret by Barbez, some sort of music/dance extravaganza called “Out Through Her,”  the Main Squeeze accordion orchestra, a production of Hamlet, a burlesque show, Jenny Rocha and her Painted Ladies (which apparently involves music, dance, physical comedy, and theatre), a variety show, and the American Modern Ensemble.  Perhaps “diverse” is an overstatement, but that programming certainly covers a lot of the territory of the hipster art universe, and that was just one week of shows.

Galapagos Art Space

Galapagos Art Space

That programming potpourri brings us nicely back to Mikel Rouse, whose album Gravity Radio may at first glance seem like a straight-up rock record, but which has deep roots in the classical music and theater traditions as well.  Mikel himself is clearly comfortable in the netherworld between pop and classical, moving effortlessly more into one area and then into the other.  In 1978 his band Tirez Tirez opened for the Talking Heads in Kansas City; in New York in the 80s when postminimalism’s highly rhythmically and structurally complex offshoot Totalism was emerging, Rouse was at the center of the movement along with composers like Kyle Gann and Michael Gordon.  In 1984 he wrote a 12-tone piece called Quick Thrust for a rock quartet, which features dizzying polymeters that somehow seem tightly controlled and completely haywire at the same time.  Mikel’s rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic instincts all seem grounded in rock, but he tends to deploy those materials much more like a classical composer than like a popular song writer.

Take “Black Cracker,” which is track three on Gravity Radio.  First, almost all popular music in 4/4 time has four-bar phrases, but for Rouse’s lyric that fourth bar is unnecessary and he leaves it out.  The whole song is perfectly seamless, and yet because every cycle is one bar shorter than you expect the whole thing feels constantly off-kilter.  Then part way through he cuts the tempo of the descending hook “When I’m bored I can’t be bored with you/When I’m blown I can’t be blown in two” by half. After establishing the half-tempo version he brings back the full-tempo version over top of it, making the chorus into a prolation canon.  That half-speed hook then becomes background for the next verse.  Later an ascending scale adds yet another counterpoint to the mixture, and the whole thing fits together like a puzzle.

The danger of emphasizing these elements of complexity, of course, is the risk of sending the message that complexity is inherently virtuous, or that the complexity in this music somehow “elevates” it above other less complex popular music.  Writing in Gramophone, Ken Smith once said that Rouse’s music is evidence that “pop music can sustain serious interest with the right person at the helm”–the implication that most pop music can’t “sustain serious interest” is the kind of thing that tells me the writer doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  The complexity in Gravity Radio is interesting and enjoyable, and connects the music to the classical tradition, but ultimately the music has to stand or fall on its surface qualities, and in this case it stands tall.  I’ll take a well-crafted Britney Spears tune over a tortured post-serialist brain-dump by a composer who cares more about combinatoriality than musicality any day of the week, and while I haven’t asked him I suspect Mikel Rouse would feel the same way.

If it sounds like I’m avoiding telling you what Gravity Radio is, exactly, the truth is I’m not sure what to call it.  It’s part song-cycle, part concept album, part theater piece.   It’s a series of thematically and musically related, country-inflected, infectiously memorable rock songs of ambiguous but evocative lyrical content, connected by interludes of spoken recitation of news headlines and fragments of lyrics from the songs delivered in an astonishing newscaster-kunst voice by Veanne Cox.  It has something to do with superconductors and gravity waves.  It’s abstract and catchy and deep.  It’s 52 minutes and 14 seconds long.

The beauty of the internet is that I can just tell you to go here to listen to portions of it and read Mikel Rouse’s description and the lyrics.

The performance at Galapagos was a stripped down version with just guitar,  string quartet (members of ACME), Mikel singing, Veanne reciting, and some background sound effects.   It worked well even in that format, and the absence of drums and other rock elements showcased how deeply integrated the string arrangements are into the composition.  The band fought a little against the acoustics of the space, which had a tendency to muddy up the sound, but overall the performance was tight and intense.  Rouse modestly sat among the ensemble rather than standing front and center like a rock frontman.  The headlines in the news recitations were updated with recent news, as they will be for each leg of the international tour that begins in January.

Gravity Radio ends with one last set of news reports from which I draw one final observation: Almost any statement is improved by the addition of the phrase “Chuck Norris wins.”

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