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Image by wwarby on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.

Image by wwarby on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

Composer Nolan Stoltz and New Music Hartford are running an interesting project in early August, which they are calling 60/60:  At 3:00 PM (EDT) on August 2nd, instrumentation for a call for scores will be announced at www.nolanstolz.com/nmh.html.  The deadline for submission is one hour later–interested composers have 60 minutes to compose a piece for the presented instrumentation, which will then be considered for inclusion on a concert on August 30, 2009 at 3PM at Art Space, (555 Asylum Avenue in Hartford, CT).  Each selected piece will be rehearsed for 60 minutes.

There are of course some interesting strategic considerations.  Do you come up with a plan ahead of time, with structure and some ideas already sketched out and then work the details out when you have the instrumentation, or do you start from scratch at 3:01 PM?  How do you deal with the rehearsal limit?  Will you need to write easier music than usual?  Will composers who usually write really hard music be at a disadvantage?  Or do you usually not get much more than 60 minutes anyway, so it’s not an issue?  How long will your piece be?  If you’re running out of composing time will you have to end it prematurely?  And what about notation–do you budget time for cleaning up your notation or just compose up to the last minute and hope it’s legible?  Will composers who work directly in Finale and Sibelius have an advantage?  Might you compose directly into a notation package even though you usually don’t?

But what I’m especially interested in is the idea that with such a short timeframe, many composers will be leaning heavily on instinct and basic technique rather than more time-consuming intellectualized approaches.  Many of these pieces are basically going to be first-draft brain-dumps, which will give the audience a relatively unmediated glimpse into the purely musical mind of the composer.  At the same time, adversity often leads to innovation, so some composers may find themselves in new territory.  Those are exciting possibilities.

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Mantra Percussion has a gig this Tusday in Manhattan–at 8pm at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church (619 Lexington Ave @ 54th).  It sounds like a promising program, with new piece by Eric Km Clark, Aaron Siegel, and Craig Woodward, and a new arrangement of David Lang’s “Little Eye.”  Mantra member Mike McCurdy (how’s that for alliteration?) helpfully put together some audio notes on the program, which you can hear here:

David Lang, Little Eye: http://homepage.mac.com/mccurdymike/Sites/mantra/lang.mp3
Eric Km Clark, Deprivation Music #7: http://homepage.mac.com/mccurdymike/Sites/mantra/clark.mp3
Aaron Siegel, Our Reluctance is Overstated: http://homepage.mac.com/mccurdymike/Sites/mantra/siegel.mp3

Enjoy!

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Two weeks ago at the First Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn Heights, 25 different organizations in New York’s new music scene assembled for a the first annual New Music Bake Sale; an event that was a cross between a music festival and a the vendor fair at a conference.  I mean that second part in only the best possible sense–in fact the sense of community created by the setup was the best part of the whole event.  Each of the ten ensembles that performed, and fifteen other groups, all had tables lining the main room and the entry area, where they gave out promotional materials, sold baked goods and CDs, collected names for mailing lists, and in some cases bought names for mailing lists with the enticement of baked goods in exchange.  The modestly sized space was packed throughout the evening, and the participants and audience members were like a who’s-who of the 20-and 30-something music scene.  (Our old friend Ian Moss was even there.)  Everyone milled around, listening to the music and hanging out, and it felt more like a genuine community event than anything I’ve been to in New York except for Bang On A Can.

The performances by So Percussion, itsnotyouitsme, Lisa Moore and Martin Bresnick, Lukas Ligeti, Newspeak, ACME, JACK Quartet, Dither, Loadbang, and Ensemble de Sade were all excellent (okay, I missed a couple of them, but I have no reason to suspect that the ones I missed were any less good than the ones I saw).  Highlights included David T. Little’s “Sweet Light Crude,” performed by Newspeak, an epic guitar quartet rockout by Lainie Fefferman, performed by Dither, the brilliantly simultaneously creepy and funny “The Exaltation of Grace Budd” by Matt Marks, performed by Ensemble de Sade (“You clap when we tell you to clap”), and So Percussion’s pieces which featured audience participation, conceptual an performance art elements, and a fascinating blurring of the boundaries of what was part of the piece and what wasn’t.

Organized by Newspeak and Ensemble de Sade, this was the first of what should become an annual event.  It’s hard to know for certain where it will go from here, but the concept is brilliant, the execution was spot-on, and we may well have witnessed the birth of a critical New York institution.

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I’ve known Terry Riley‘s seminal Minimalist piece In C for a while, and last fall I even produced a performance of it as part of the M50 concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of Minimalism, but I left Carnegie Hall on Friday Night feeling that I hadn’t really understood the piece until then.  That’s how remarkable the concert was.

David Harrington, of the Kronos Quartet, was asked to curate this performance in celebration of the 45th anniversary of In C, and he assembled an enormous, star-studded cast, playing just about every instrument you can think of and several that you probably can’t.  Riley was there, playing a giant Korg Triton keyboard, So Percussion was positioned on a dais at the back of the stage where they beat out The Pulse on a wide variety of instruments and added considerable rhythmic flair, members of the GVSU New Music Ensemble (which made a name for themselves a couple of years ago with their performance of Music for 18 Musicians) were there, members of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, the recorder-playing Quartet New Generation, Philip Glass was tucked away in a corner, Osvaldo Golijov and Morton Subotnick and Wu Man were up there somewhere, conductor Dennis Russell Davies served as “flight pattern coordinator,” periodically emerging and suggesting to the ensemble that it was time to move in some direction or other.  In total there were at least 60 people on stage, and I assume that the people whose names I didn’t recognize were as big in their areas as the ones I did recognize. Read the rest of this entry »

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People have been wondering for years when Steve Reich would finally be given a Pulitzer prize.  He has been a finalist three times (for You Are (Variations) in 2005, for Cello Counterpoint in 2004 , and for Three Tales in 2003) and this year he finally won.  The piece is Double Sextet, and it was premiered March 26, 2008 in Richmond, VA.  The New York premiere was on April 17th.

Here’s a video of Eighth Blackbird in a recording session for the piece:

YouTube Preview Image

The jury for the music Pulitzer this year was John Schaefer (WNYC), Dwight Andrews (Emory University) Justin Davidson (New York Magazine), Anthony Davis (University of California-San Diego), and David Lang, (Bang on a Can).  David was, of course, last year’s winner.

Update: Oops, Jerry beat me too this by 10 minutes.  I’ll leave this up anyway, since it’s got details and video.

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The spring festivals are underway; here are three you should know about.

1)  In Boston, the new Beeline Festival (curated by Evan Ziporyn and Christine Southworth) continues tonight with performances by Ensemble Robot and The Loud Objects.  The final concert will be Sunday, with performances by Gamelan Galak Tika and Dewa Ketut Alit.  With Beeline it seems that Boston finally has a new music festival with more of a Downtown slant.

2)  Tonight in Brooklyn, the first annual New Music Bake Sale runs from 7PM to midnight, featuring music from So Percussion, Lisa Moore & Martin Bresnick, Lukas Ligeti, Newspeak, ACME, JACK Quartet, Dither, loadbang, and Ensemble de Sade.  Plus, the event really is a bake sale — the ensembles performing and more than a dozen other groups and organizations will be selling goodies from their bake sale tables to raise money for their future activities.

3Bang On A Can just announced this year’s Marathon for May 31st, which will once again be held at the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center in Lower Manhattan and will kick off the River To River Festival.  Twelve hours of music, from noon to midnight.  I’ll just quote the press release: “Music by: Andy Akiho, Gavin Bryars, Jeppe Just Christensen, Eric km Clark, Joe Cutler, Moritz Eggert, Bill Frisell, Michael Gordon, Ted Hearne, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, Phil Kline, David Lang, Steve Martland, Matthew McBane, Meredith Monk, Anders Nordentoft, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Howard Skempton, Kevin Volans, Julia Wolfe, Evan Ziporyn, AND MORE.  Performances by: Ars Nova Copenhagen, Athelas Sinfonietta, Bang on a Can All-Stars, DITHER, Ethel, Bill Frisell, Brooklyn Rider, Build, Shiau-uen Ding, Henry Grimes & Andrew Cyrille, Paul Hillier Lionheart, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Ken Thomson’s 9-headed Saxophone Monster, Smith Quartet, Signal, Sandeep Das, Tortoise, Victoire, Wu Man, Your Bad Self, AND MORE.”

3a)  Also, it’s not a festival per se, but there’s a major performance of Terry Riley’s “In C” at Carnegie Hall on Friday, April 24th.  I’ll be covering it, so watch this space.

3b)  And speaking of Christine Southworth (co-curator of the Beeline Festival), almost a year ago she released a CD called “ZAP!” I specifically asked her to send me a copy so I could review it, and it’s really good, but I never actually wrote the review.  Check it out here.  There’s even a video of a live show which includes live performance on the Van de Graff Generator at the Boston Museum of Science.

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I went to several concerts in early March; I’ve been lazy about reviewing them but they deserve mention. So here are three quick reviews in one:

March 1, 2009: Donald Berman at Le Poisson Rouge

Berman (at left) is a terrific pianist, and this was overall a very solid program. There were several works by Mark Wingate, all of which were good–they sometimes got a bit generic, but much of the time were fresh and interesting. Wingate’s tape piece Welcome to Medicare is brilliant. He took recordings of Medicare’s already fairly byzantine automated telephone system, then re-cut and processed it to make a sort of bureaucratic limbo where the recorded voices aren’t helpful at all and seem to mock and toy with you in song. Some nice pieces by Eric Moe, including an odd experiment where the piano part plays along with a very generic and cheesy drum machine. Moe was apparently challenging himself to see if he could make it work, and he succeeded, although honestly the piece probably would have been better without the drum machine, with a less cheesy drum machine, or with a live drummer. Eric Chaselow‘s Due (Cinta)mani was a very tightly constructed piece for piano and tape which reminded me of a modernized Davidovsky Synchronism. David Rakowski‘s two offerings were gorgeous, especially Chase for piano and celeste, which featured delicate lines following each other around on the two keyboards.

March 8, 2009: “Live in the Limo”

This was an interesting experiment on the relationship between the audience and the performers and the nature of the performance space. As part of New York’s Armory Show, the AC Institute presented a set of 30-minute concerts inside a limosine. On March 8, there were six excursions featuring a piece by Joseph Di Ponio, performed by Laura Barger (toy piano) and Benjamin Robison (violin). The piece consisted of a stack of cards with instructions and musical materials, and the audience was to pass the cards forward to the musicians in what ever order they wanted. It was a cute idea, and the music was quite nice (although as with any piece like this it was hard to tell how much of that was the composer and how much was the improvisational ability of the performers.

Unfortunately, effect of the music and the experiment of the venue were seriously undermined by the activities of the artist who rode along. I didn’t catch her name, but she handed out daisies and made all of the eight or so audience members play “he love me, he loves me not” as a group. It wasn’t a very interesting, and I was so distracted by keeping track of whose turn it was and whether we were on “he loves me” or “he loves me not” that I couldn’t pay proper attention to the music, and certainly couldn’t tell what effect the open form and the random order of the cards was. I passed my card forward when I had a free moment, rather than when I thought it might be an interesting time to do it, and I suspect the other audience members did the same. The point of the cards was to enhance the interactivity of the relationship between the musicians and the audience, but the artist was hogging so much attention that I didn’t feel connected with the performers at all.

I feel bad for the performers and especially for the composer, who had clearly put some thought and effort into taking advantage of the nature of the venue, and I would really like to have the experience again without the distractions.

March 10, 2009: Sequitur at Merkin Concert Hall

The New York based chamber group Sequitur has a good reputation, but I had never heard them before. They lived up to the reputation. The music on this program wasn’t easy (the first piece only had eight musicians, but they brought in hotshot contemporary music conductor Brad Lubman anyway) and the performances were all excellent. The theme of the concert was music for chamber ensemble and voices, and soprano Tony Arnold and mezzos Rachel Calloway and Abigail Fischer carried each of the pieces off with panache. The program consisted of three pieces: Comala Suite no. 2 by Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon (text excerpted from Mexican author Juan Preciado’s novel Pedro Paramo), The Cinnamon Peeler by Donald Crockett (poem by Michael Ondaatje), and New Andean Songs by Gabriela Lena Frank (text assembled from anonymous and indigenous Peruvian poems). All of the pieces were good, and all had some wonderful sections, but unfortunately all of them were also a bit too long and felt padded with filler. It’s too bad, because each of the pieces is a few judicious cuts away from superb.

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The NEA has announced its plans for the funding it got in the stimulus bill, and the elligibility guidelines make a lot of sense.  Back in early February when the bill was going through congress I expressed concern about whether the NEA would use the funding in a deliberately stimulative way, and, as the Magic 8 Ball would say, “signs point to yes.”

According to the NEA website:

Projects are limited to:

  • Salary support, full or partial, for one or more positions that are critical to an organization’s artistic mission and that are in jeopardy or have been eliminated as a result of the current economic climate.

And/or

  • Fees for previously engaged artists and/or contractual personnel to maintain or expand the period during which such persons would be engaged.

All applicants must have received NEA support in the past four years, and according to the FAQ that limitation is aimed at reducing the difficulty of administering the grants–previous recipients have already been vetted and have demonstrated both artistic merit and the ability to follow the rules,  and already represent a broad range of arts, sizes, and locations.  Plus, to be effective the funding needs to be disbursed quickly, and working from a preexisting pool of applicants will expedite the process.

This strategy makes a lot of sense.  Focusing on existing jobs that are in danger ensures that the money will be genuinely stimulative, and job preservation turns out to be more valuable than job creation.  Here’s Ezra Klein on the subject:

On this, the economic literature is clear: A terminated worker’s next job generally offers lower pay, lower benefit levels, and lower status. He’s also less productive for the company: He doesn’t always know the sector as well and there’s a learning curve at any new place of employment. Meanwhile, keeping a company solvent through a hard few years is rather less expensive than inducing enough demand to create a whole new set of companies.

Many non-profit arts organizations have already been hit hard by the economic meltdown.  The Detroit Institute of Arts, for instance, is laying off 20% of its staff.  The Miami City Ballet has cut 15% of its dancers.  The Los Angeles Opera has laid off 17% of its staff.  Each of those articles lists more cuts to other organizations as well, and that was just a sampling of what I found in about five minutes of searching.  Here’s hoping the NEA stimulus can help mitigate the disaster.

The application deadline is 11:59 p.m., Eastern Time, on April 2, 2009.

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The festivities continue at the newly reopened Alice Tully Hall tonight, with a concert they’re calling “New York, New Music, New Hall.” The evening gets underway with a preshow at 5:30 in the outer lobby where ETHEL will play a piece called Space by Phil Kline.  The sold-out main event starts at 7:00 and features a smorgasbord of performances by Alarm Will Sound, the Bang On A Can All-Stars (with special guest Glenn Kotche of Wilco), and Steve Reich and Musicians with Synergy Vocals.  AWS is playing music by Derek Bermel, Oscar Bianchi, and Caleb Burhans.  The All-Stars are playing music by Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Glenn Kotche.  Steve Reich and his posse are doing Music for 18 Musicians.

I asked a couple of the composers to tell me something interesting about their new pieces.

David Lang says:

My piece tonight – SUNRAY – came out of a giant case of writers block. Every summer, Bang on a Can runs a music institute at Mass MoCA in the Berkshires, and we teach there and hang out and write music and work with students from around the globe.  I was supposed to make a new piece for the Bang on a Can All-Stars and I didn’t know what to write, and there was a rush on – it was supposed to be a surprise present for my dad on his 80th birthday, so I had to be on time and do a good job. The pressure was on.  Everyday, I would just stare out of my apartment window, trying to think of something worthy to do but nothing seemed to work. The apartment was next to a dry cleaners – the store was called SUN CLEANERS and their sign had these stark, intertwined rays of the sun shooting out, in bright red and yellow, and I would just stare endlessly at it, trying to think about music. Feeling ever more miserable with my deadline fast approaching I just looked up and thought – write what you know.  And so I did.

David is a modest guy and a great composer, and I have to admire his willingness to admit, on the record, to the banality of the compositional process.  I haven’t heard the piece, but past experience tells me to expect good things.

Caleb Burhans says:

Let’s see. I was commissioned by Lincoln center to write this this past summer for aws. I finished “oh ye of little faith… (do you know where your children are?)” at the end of august. I had the advantage of knowing what else would be on our program so i composed the piece trying to show off the groups strenghths which were not featured in the other works. The title is a reflection on having sung too many weelkes and morely madrigals (more or less) and the subtitle comes from “it’s 10pm…” and also the idea of “children” of god. The piece is for a pretty standard chamber orchestra with the exception of flugelhorn in place of trumpet and the addition of e. guitar & e. bass.

Caleb is playing guitar.  The piece is being premiered tonight, but I was lucky enough to hear a preview (special thanks to the Nabi Gallery, which made it possible) and I can tell you that it is breathtakingly beautiful.

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The LA Times had an encouraging piece a few days ago about the Obama family’s interest in the non-pop arts (thanks to Alex Ross for the link).  Apparently the Obamas recently attended an Alvin Ailey performance at the Kennedy Center, and the First Family has a long history of participation in, and patronage of, dance, classical music, museums, etc.  The article, however, is chock full of some appaling elitism.  Let’s take a look.
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