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Last Wednesday, February 28, I had the pleasure of seeing two superb up-and-coming chamber ensembles on a double bill at Music On MacDougal in downtown Manhattan. 
Moet TrioThe Moët Trio (Yuri Namkung, violin; Yves Dharamraj, cello; Michael Mizrahi, piano) had the first half of the program, and they opened with John Zorn’s Amour fou.  The Zorn was a surprisingly modernist piece for a composer who is known as a pivotal figure in the downtown scene, and while I can’t say I liked it I definitly respected it.  It was one of those pieces where every note was exactly the right note for what the piece was trying to do, from the scraping harmonics of the opening theme to the moments of wildness that occasionaly break out of the otherwise fairly chilled out atmosphere.  Next was Richard Danielpour’s A Child’s Relquary, which was omposed in response to the death of conductor Carl St. Clair’s 18 month old son in 1999.  The piece is romantic and lyrical–cinematic at times–and even in the context of a trio Danielpour’s mastery of orchestration is plainly evident.
Attacca QuartetAfter a brief intermission, the Attacca Quartet (Amy Schroeder, violin; Keiko Tokunaga, violin; Gillian Gallagher, viola; Andrew Yes, cello) launched into Gyorgy Ligeti’s String Qurtet No. 1, “Metamorphoses Nocturnes.”  As with so much Ligeti, the piece starts out in a nice yet seemingly unremarkable way–chromatic lines over a drifting, slithering accompaniment.  But Ligeti has a better intuitive sense of effective overall dramatic structure than just about anybody in the business, and that opening music evolves and builds, growing in intensity, and by the time the athletic second theme arrives about a minute and a half in everything makes sense.  Those opening moments turn out to be critical to the overall architecture of the piece.  After the Ligeti, which was the highlight of the evening, Attacca offered an excellent rendition of the String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 by some guy named Claude Debussy.  But that dude bought the farm way back in 1918, so I feel no obligation to talk about his piece.
Both groups played wonderfully throughout, and I look forward to hearing them again sometime soon.  The next Music On MacDougal concert is this Wednesday, February 25, and features David T. Little’s Newspeak ensemble.

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Yesterday I got an e-mail from a PR person at The Rebel Media Group.  One of her clients, John Wesley Harding, has a new album and it’s being promoted with a somewhat unorthodox tiered pricing scheme which ranges from CD plus download plus live disc for $15.98 to a package which includes the aforementioned plus a bunch more swag plus the artist coming to your house and putting on a show for you and your friends, all for $5,000.  BoingBoing posted about it, and The Rebel Group’s Stef Shapira sent me a brief personal e-mail with that link and the observation that I might be interested talking about the marketing strategy at S21.  John Wesley Harding isn’t a classical musician–he seems to be doing a sort of folky inde alt rock thing that frankly I’m not really into (but you might be, it’s just not my scene), so why am I even posting about him?  This story illustrates three different but related marketing/pr issues which the enterprising classical composer or performer or industry type should think about.

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Photo by JacobEnos, via Flickr.  Some Rights Reserved through Creative Commons license.If you’ve been following the stimulus bill, you probably know two things: It includes $50 million for the NEA, and on Tuesday the Senate Democrats announced that they don’t have the votes to pass it and they’re looking a ways to cut it down.  John Gizzi at the conservative publication Human Events reported tuesday that, in a press conference on Monday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs indicated that cutting the NEA funding was not likely.  I’m not sure about Gizzi’s interpretation of Gibbs’s statements, but as they say: interesting if true.

Also on Tuesday, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) took a bold stand against rotating pastel lights when he offered an amendment which would prohibit stimulus spending in a variety of cultural areas:

“None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, arts center, or highway beautification project, including renovation, remodeling, construction, salaries, furniture, zero-gravity chairs, big screen televisions, beautification, rotating pastel lights, and dry heat saunas.”
Page S1462 of the Senate Congressional Record

The big question, of course, is whether $50 Million to the NEA for economic stimulus is a good idea or not.

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Check out this video from the 2008 Comedy Festival Gala in Melbourne.  Make sure you watch all the way to the end of the bit, where it goes all “I Am Sitting In A Room.”


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Corey Dargel’s remarkable “theatrical song cycle” Removable Parts is being reprised at the HERE Arts Center.  The run started yesterday and goes through Sunday (Jan 7-11).  The show, which is performed by Corey Dargel (voice) and Kathleen Supové (piano), is a sort of cabaret show about Body Integrity Identity Disorder which, in a strange and wonderful way, ends up dealing with questions of love, the self, and of what “normal” really means.  I saw and reviewed the show when it was premiered in September 2007, and I loved it.

The Removable Parts website has audio and video samples.

UPDATE: Corey is offering a 20% ticket discount to Sequenza21 readers.  See the comments.

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Interesting piece by Martin Kettle in Friday’s Guardian, but one very strange line: “The musical establishment may continue to agonise over the important question of whether a bad man can produce a great piece of work. . .”  Are there really people who ask that question, or is it simply a rhetorical flourish?  My sense has always been that Carmina Burana is loved by audiences but doesn’t get a lot of respect from the establishment, but that the reasons are musical rather than based on Orff’s politics.  Would we think any more of Wagner’s music if he hadn’t been a raging antisemite?  If we found out tomorrow that Beethoven was secretly an axe-murdering serial killer and that the “Immortal Beloved” was, say, Voldemort, would we think any less highly of the Grosse Fugue?  I doubt it.

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I first wrote and posted this two years ago, but maybe it will lighten the mood as everybody in the Northeast freaks out about their travel plans and the current and impending meteorological conditions.  Stay safe out there.

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.
I rushed to the window, allegro con brio,
Tore open the shutters — I just had to see!  Oh,
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what should my wondering eyes linger over,
But an old harpsichord and eight ghostly composers,
With an old kappelmeister conducting the flock –
I knew in a moment it had to be Bach.
More rapid than Valkyries, onward they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
“Now, Mozart! now, Lassus! now, Schoenberg and Dvorak!
On, Cage! on Beethoven! on, Haydn and Bartok!
To the dominant seven! To suspended six-four!
Now dash away! dash away! appoggiatur’!”
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So off to a new key they all modulated,
For Bach would leave no variation unstated.
A caseura, and then on the roof could be heard
A cadence resolved with a picardy third.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney old J.S. Bach came with a bound.
He was dressed up for Weimar in 1710
And his fingers were stained with the ink from his pen;
An un-finished score could be seen to protrude
From his pocket — the title said “Die Kunst der Fugue.”
His eyes—how they twinkled with genius – none finer!
He did, after all, write the Mass in B Minor.
His mouth was a droll as a tonicization,
His wig was a white as unspoiled glaciation;
He carried a record of naughty and niceness –
That list was as long as the Bach Werke Verzeichnis!
His belly looked like it could use a supporter
And shook when he laughed, like a Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte.
He was chubby and plump, a well tempered old master,
And I laughed when I saw him, then wished I’d thought faster;
A wink, and a line from a two-part invention,
Soon showed me that I should feel no apprehension;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to composing,
A Musical Offering – it looked quite imposing,
Then humming some bars from the St. Matthew Passion,
He rose up the chimney in a glorious fashion;
He sprang to the keys, raised his hands to the sky
And away they all flew, at Allegro Assai,
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”

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Such is my devotion to you, dear reader, that last Wednesday in spite of a bad cold I went to the latest installment of the Music On MacDougal series at the Players Theatre in downtown Manhattan.  Music on MacDougal, as you may recall, is the concert series that S21 helped kick off with our M50 concert celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Minimalism.  Wednesday’s bill was split between Mantra Percussion and the Talea Ensemble [Talea shown above, in a recent performance of Daniel Iglesia‘s Contrapositive Antidote; how cool is it to get to wear 3D glasses while playing? -ed.].

Mantra opened with the always mesmerizing “Music for Pieces of Wood” by Steve Reich, and then moved on to a new piece by Kyle Hillbrand called “Aether.”  “Aether” was a surprisingly and refreshingly low-key piece–quiet, subtle, lovely, featuring a lot of very effective unison between the two players.  Mantra closed with Iannis Xenakis’s 1978 rock-out “Peaux.”  Some enterprising person has posted the performance on YouTube, although for obvious reasons this video doesn’t come close to capturing the intensity of the live experience.  Mantra is one of the co-commissioning ensembles for a new Michael Gordon piece to be premiered in December 2009, and has a CD coming out on Innova next month.

Talea’s repertoire was mostly too Uptown for my taste, but the performances were excellent and it’s great that Music on MacDougal is programming such a wide range of styles.  Talea has only been around since early 2007, but they already have a very full concert schedule and they’re especially dedicated to championing new and recent work by lesser-known composers, so keep an eye out for this group.  For me, the most interesting piece on the Talea program was Alexandre Lunsqui‘s “Ruptura(s),” written in 2004 for vibraphone and piano, which featured sharp jumps between different demented (in that good way) grooves.

The next Music On MacDougal show will be Likeness to Lilly on January 28th.

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Composer, artist, Fluxus member, Scratch Orchestra member, John Cage associate, and chemist George Brecht died in a nursing home in Cologne, Germany, on Friday, December 5th.  Brecht, who was born George MacDiarmid but took Bertolt Brecht’s name in homage,  was one of the most significant and influential avant garde artists of the 1960s.  The title of this post refers to a document (page 17 of the linked PDF file) Brecht wrote for Fluxus in 1969 in which he proposes “moving landmasses over the surface of the earth” using conveyances such as icebergs or massive amounts of styrofoam, since his made-up company feels that it will be “technologically realizable within ten years.”

In searching the web for information on Brecht I also discovered that project.arnolfini, an online division of the British Arnolfini museum, is organizing a worldwide performance of Brecht’s “Motor Vehicle Sundown (Event)” at sundown (in your own location) on January 10, 2009.  The event was planned prior to Brecht’s death, and I assume it will take on something of a memorial quality now.

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Those of you who were at the first Sequenza21 concert two years ago may remember that pianist Hugh Sung played my piece Systems of Preference or Restraint.  What you may not have noticed was the technology he used to do it.  That technology is now considerably more accessible to the average performer, and I encourage you to keep reading after the cut. Read the rest of this entry »

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