I talked to Mariel a couple weeks ago and have just published our conversation as the latest episode of my audio web-series/podcast, “We Are Not Beethoven” on Washington Public Radio. As you’ll hear, Mariel is as charming and articulate an advocate for contemporary music and composers and there is, and there are several fascinating conceptual topics related to the creation and design of Nonextraneous Sounds that are definitely worth your time to explore.
If you’re free this Sunday, go see Symphony Z, Danielle Eva Schwob and Tania Stavreva at Dixon Place. Or, if you’re curious about the musical stylings of William Zuckerman, look for Music In Pluralism on Spotify, Amazon and CD Baby.
I’m pleased to announced that I have begun producing episodes of a new music show/podcast called “We Are Not Beethoven”. This is my contribution to NPR music critic Tom Manoff’s new venture, a start-up public radio network called Washington Public Radio.
The goal of “We Are Not Beethoven” is to talk about music like no other music show: evening the playing field of listening to and talking about music by humanizing composers and musicians, disregarding genres and categories, focusing heavily on listening, and confronting the barriers of entry that discourage people from exploring new kinds of music.
You can find a link to the first episode here, and below is a video preview of what I talk about in the first episode:
On June 10th, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston will host two performances of Klytemnestra, a chamber opera starring and conceived by soprano Misha Penton and scored by celebrated Houston-area composer/conductor Dominick DiOrio. Klytemnestra premiered in April 2011, selling out Houston’s Divergence Vocal Theater and drawing high praise from CultureMap Houston’s Joel Luks. As Ms. Penton described to me, Klytemnestra’s return to the stage is, “sleeker, redesigned, [and] semi-staged”, using the paintings of the Museum of Fine Arts’ Gallery 214 as backdrops for the production.
The work’s creative team remains the same as in its first iteration, with pianist Kyle Evans and violist Meredith Harris bringing Mr. DiOrio’s score to life and Shelley Auer’s narration and Megan Booker’s choreography augmenting Ms. Penton’s unrelenting dramatic presence. Videos from the 2011 performance – the “Overture”, and the “Weaving Area” – demonstrate the ominous clarity of Mr. DiOrio’s score, along with Ms. Penton’s world-class abilities as both an actress and a vocalist. Above all, these tidbits of Klytemenestra impress upon the viewer the great depth of meaning inherit in the work’s message – an incredible achievement given the production’s limited resources. Ms. Penton further elucidated the work’s symbolism in an e-mail:
Each of the five scenes of the opera is an internal, psycho-emotional narrative of the conflicted, grieved and complex Greek heroine. Composer, Dominick DiOrio has set my words to music, and they wriggle from inky scribbles on a page into the soaring vocal embodiment of, arguably, the most influential and subversive Greek Heroine in all of the Greek plays: Klytemnestra. She stands against the polis, against the emerging male-ordered, linear, dualistic state; against the forming patriarchy that will define our culture (for women and men) for thousands of years after her time. She possesses the inherent potential of subversive expressivity in body, voice and word, and thus the power to entirely restructure the male paradigm of society. Her murder of Agamemnon is a symbolic rejection of Order and an embrace of Chaos – a metaphoric release from the confining limitation of societal acquiescence to power-over.
Soprano Misha Penton as Klytemnestra
To me, the operative theme emerging from Ms. Penton’s summary is ‘subversion’ – in fact, the opera’s subtitle is: The Original Subversive Female. As evidenced by her 2011 interview with Sequenz21’s Chris Becker, Ms. Penton does not isolate fracturing political/social/economic paradigms to her operatic depictions of ancient Greek heroines. Rather, Klytemnestra is an example of Ms. Penton’s innovative approach to opera and being an opera singer.
As she told Chris, she sees projects like Klytemnestra as part of a larger trend in smaller opera companies to have singers involved in the creative process of a production, contemporary or otherwise. Beyond this, I imagine the subject matter of this most recent endeavor is an allegory for Ms. Penton’s admitted skepticism towards the conventional institutions of American music such as non-profits and traditional opera companies. Just as the Klytemnestra of legend assaulted the “Order” around her, so does the opera bearing her name challenge the way contemporary musicians and presenting organizations bring music to their audiences.
Those of you in the Houston area can see Klytemnestra this coming Sunday, June 10th, at 2 and 5 PM in Gallery 214 (Beck Building) of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Soprano Misha Penton stars in the title role, and will sing her own libretto set by composer Dominick DiOrio. Her on-stage collaborators will be dancer and choreographer Megan Booker, violist Meredith Harries, pianist Kyle Evans and narrator Shelley Auer. For more information, please visit the MFAH’s website.
Garrett Schumann is a composer and music journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. To hear Garrett’s music and read more of his ‘Observations’ on contemporary music in America, visit his website: garrettschumann.com
(from Left to Right) Line Upon Line Percussion's Matt Teodori, Cullen Faulk and Adam Bedell
This coming Friday, May 4, marks the beginning of Austin-based percussion trio Line Up Line’s Xenakis festival, dubbed “Perspective: Xenakis” (go here for ticketing information). While most fans of 20th/21st-century music have come to know Xenakis’ music as a staple of the percussion repertoire, the program for “Perspective: Xenakis” is surprisingly broad, featuring, among other chamber pieces, a complete performance of Xenakis’ string quartets by the renowned JACK Quartet.
I caught up with Matt Teodori, one of Line Upon Line’s founding members, and dug a little deeper into how this festival came about. As he explained to me, the impetus behind their programming began by looking at Xenakis’ entire chamber output and locating different paths the composer pursued in his career. Line Upon Line wanted to illustrate these paths as best as they could, and designed the festival’s three evenings of performances to account for the remarkable sonic diversity Xenakis’ output. According to Mr. Theodori, involving the JACK Quartet was, “a no-brainer”, because their reputation performing Xenakis’ music is, “extraordinary”, and the works they bring to the table enable Line Upon Line to showcase a wider range of Xenakis’ oeuvre than otherwise possible.
In addition to this weekend’s concerts, Line Upon Line is providing a couple non-musical experiences for concertgoers who are interested in learning more about Xenakis’ life and personality. Prior to each performance, the Line Upon Line is presenting the BBC’s 1991 documentary Something Rich and Strange: The Life and Music of Iannis Xenakis; and, following the concerts, Xenakis scholars Nouritza Matossian and Benoît Gibson will join that night’s performers in an open conversation with audience members. These opportunities are meant to, “illuminate [Xenakis] as a man and composer”, and should be a worthwhile supplement to the festival’s musical offerings.
Friday and Saturday’s evening concerts begin at 7:30 PM, with Saturday’s afternoon performance running from 1-2 PM. For those who are interested, the documentary runs about 50 minutes and is shown one hour before each concert. The events are housed at Austin’s Floating Box House, St. Elias Eastern Orthodox Church and Angelou residence, respectively. The first two performances feature the members of Line Upon Line Percussion, with the JACK Quartet closing the festival on Saturday evening with a presentation of Xenakis’ complete quartets.
Fast Forward Austin directors (from left to right): Ian Dicke, Robert Honstein and Steven Snowden
The 2012 Fast Forward Austin contemporary music festival begins its 8-hour marathon of performances this afternoon at Austin, Texas’ versatile ND-501 studios. This year’s event, the second installment of the Fast Forward Austin (FFA) idea, features performances by local and nationally-acclaimed performers including renowned pianist Vicky Chow and Graham Reynolds, considered, “Austin’s own new music wizard”. Today’s musical menu features established names from the last few decades of new music – David Lang, Louis Andriessen and Iannis Xenakis – alongside brand new works by up-and-coming composers – Shawn Allison, David Biedenbender and Christopher Cerrone – culled from the festival’s 2011-12 call-for-scores.
Last Thursday, I caught up with Fast Forward Austin’s founders, composers Ian Dicke, Steven Snowden and Robert Honstein, and learned, among other things, that a series of “satellite events” have led to tomorrow afternoon’s marathon performance. These appearances, designed both to promote this year’s festival and strengthen the collaborations on display this afternoon, began with a performance of Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night last December. Austin is the second city Mr. Snowden has successfully introduced to Unsilent Night, a staple of New York’s experimental music circles for two decades, and the event represented more than just a way to draw advanced attention to tomorrow’s marathon string of concerts.
The kind of community involvement manifest in the Unsilent Night performance lies at the heart of Fast Forward Austin’s goals. As Mr. Honstein told me in our chat Thursday evening, “first and foremost, we’re a local festival.” In addition to featuring Austin-based musicians, FFA has a tradition of supporting local, musically oriented charities. Last year, the festival donated all its proceeds to Anthropos Arts, a non-profit organization that provides free music lessons to economically disadvantaged young people in East Austin. This year, FFA has partnered with Austin SoundWaves, a local iteration of the famed “El Sistema” initiative. SoundWaves will receive a portion of FFA’s proceeds and some of the children served by the charity will participate in a performance with Graham Reynolds. Beyond philanthropy, FFA’s founders see this kind of outreach as a way to build an audience. Mr. Dicke, in particular, emphasized the potential for young people to enjoy and be inspired by contemporary music, suggesting opportunities, like those fostered by both Fast Forward Austin festivals, could be benefit all American composers in the long-term, were they to be replicated across the country.
As Fast Forward Austin has grown since last year, its founders have worked to expand the festival’s presence on a regional and national level. This broader scope is no better represented than by FFA’s collaboration with renowned pianist and Bang-On-A-Can All-Star Vicky Chow, who will be performing this afternoon. As Mr. Dicke and Mr. Honstein explained, they’ve been cultivating a relationship with Ms. Chow for some time. Both of them met her at different festivals, and then last year, when the Bang-On-A-Can All-Stars came to Austin, Mr. Snowden and Mr. Dicke showed Ms. Chow around town and convinced her to work participate in this year’s festival. The connection between Vicky Chow and Fast Forward Austin is reciprocal – Fast Forward Austin held a preview show in New York this February as part of Ms. Chow’s Contagious Sounds series. Much like the Unsilent Night event, this performance was simultaneously a promotional tool for today’s marathon of performances and a way to foster a deeper bond with a community – the contemporary music community in New York.
In December 2010, as I was still adjusting to the climate change between Houston, Texas and Ann Arbor, Michigan, I heard a piece that has stuck with me ever since. I wrote about it here, along with two others, and called this particular work, which was performed with video and dance, “the most well executed student production of ANY KIND I have seen.” This piece is Music in Pluralism by William Zuckerman, a former University of Michigan composition student who is currently freelancing in New York.
On April 11th at 8 PM, in the Kaufman Center’s Merkin Hall, Music and Pluralism comes to life as part of the opening performance of the 2012 Tribeca New Music Festival. The event is also functioning as a CD release party for a recording of Music Pluralism William has worked on for over two years. Moreover, the April 11th concert is the debut of Mr. Zuckerman’s hand-picked ensemble, “Symphony Z”. I caught up with William and asked him a few questions about Music and Pluralism, Symphony Z and his life as a freelance composer; but, before I get to his eloquent responses, I want to set the stage for what Music in Pluralism has to offer its audience.
In the piece, William handles immense proportions with the deftness far beyond his years, and ties together a diverse cadre of musical influences – everything from Pop Rock to Bach’s Passacaglia in C Minor! – with the compelling and cogent force of his artistic vision. David Bloom, the charismatic busybody behind the group Contemporaneous (who share the stage with Symphony Z on April 11), conducts Symphony Z, and is similarly impressed with Music in Pluralism’s scope, eclecticism and coherence. He told me in an e-mail, “[i]t’s [Music in Pluralism’s] coexistence of unity and variety that makes the piece so compelling.”
When I got the CD of Music in Pluralism in the mail, I must admit I was a little apprehensive. Part of what moved me so much about its December 2010 performance was how beautifully William and his collaborators mixed the media of dance, music and video of the course of the work’s 45-minute duration. Obviously, the audio version lacks these non-musical elements, and I was concerned their profundity may have skewed my initial feelings about William’s music. As I will espouse more verbosely in an upcoming review of the Music in Pluralism CD: I am happy to report the piece stands – more effusively, triumphs – on its own.
Immeasurable credit is due the Symphony and MTT for the sheer audacity of their programming and the high level of their performances. The music they shared with us energized Ann Arbor’s concertgoers to a level I’d never before witnessed, and I believe all those who attended feel indebted to the University Musical Society for bringing this once-in-a-generation event to our Midwestern haven.
In the mold of the 17 American composers featured on the tour, the Symphony’s four concerts were blisteringly unapologetic and daring – almost to a fault, in fact. Personally, the composers who shined the most in my ears were (in alphabetical order) Mason Bates, Henry Cowell, Lukas Foss, Meredith Monk and Carl Ruggles, but there was lots of music to go around for every concertgoer’s taste. I was heretofore uninitiated to the work of these last three composers, and, thanks to their pieces Echoi, Realm Variations and Sun-Treader (respectively), I am determined to listen to Mr. Foss, Ms. Monk and Mr. Ruggles’ music more regularly.
Before last week I was also rather unfamiliar with Mason Bates’ work, but my encounter with him, and his new choir/organ/electronics piece Mass Transmission, could not have been more impressive. Mr. Bates is, obviously, one of the most successful living composers in America, but this fact only makes his unfailingly down-to-earth character more endearing. He was very candid when he presented to us students, opening his chat by declaring his near indifference for being dubbed a “Maverick”, and later revealing his desire to achieve more lyricism in his music – something he excels at in Mass Transmission.
The Festival also gave me an opportunity to meet another top-flight American musician: renowned pianist Jeremy Denk. Charming, witty and articulate, Mr. Denk is as gifted a performer as he is a wordsmith, crafting two spectacular performances, and one stellar presentation to the UM Composition Department, while he was in Ann Arbor. Last Thursday night, Mr. Denk brought Henry Cowell’s Piano Concerto to life, and, yesterday afternoon, took part in performing Lukas Foss’ raucous and virtuosic Echoi – a work he sarcastically described in his master class as, “the hardest piece ever written”.
Ann Arbor is one of three stops in the Symphony’s centennial tour (the others being Chicago and New York), and their residency coincides with the University of Michigan’s second annual American Orchestras Summit, which features presentations by composers, musicologists and leaders in the world of American orchestras.
Sam Richards, a colleague of mine in the Michigan composition department is covering the Summit, and will be live-blogging during its presentations over the next three days. Additionally, I will live-tweet the presentations, performances and the conversations the students here have planned with Mason Bates and Jeremy Denk.
Superficially, one of the most inflammatory aspects of this story is the fact that Mr. Golijov is an incredibly famous composer and Mr. Ward-Bergeman is not well known. But, what is being overlooked is that the piece Mr. Golijov produced isn’t very good. In my opinion, Sidereus does not fulfill a level of imagination and perspicacity concomitant to the rest of Mr. Golijov’s output. People are saying the orchestras who commissioned Sidereus didn’t get what they paid for because Mr. Golijov borrowed from Mr. Ward-Bergeman. This isn’t true: the orchestras who commissioned Mr. Golijov didn’t get what they paid for because he didn’t write a good piece.
With this said, we shouldn’t dwell on why Sidereus misses the mark – Mr. Golijov is neither the first nor last great composer to put together a stinker. More important is examining the situation that led him to work at a level below his typical creativity. To this day, we know Mr. Golijov struggles with deadlines, and we also know he often juggles multiple projects at once. To my eyes, it is clear what happened: Mr. Golijov felt overwhelmed by his commitments and needed the help of Mr. Ward-Bergeman’s piece to fulfill an obligation.
Succumbing to pressure like this isn’t damnable – though, the disingenuous communications regarding Mr. Golijov’s lifting of Barbeich are quite problematic, as I will discuss later. However, other composers have done similar things with impunity, whether that means orchestrating one piece into another, or – in the case of Matthias Pintscher’s orchestra piece Toward Osiris – fulfilling one commission by throwing together sketches of a different, ongoing project. If we want to be constructive, instances like Sidereus should not indict the composers involved, but, instead, should operate as indicators of broader problems inherent to the system that produces these large commissions.