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A funny thing happened last night during the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s performance of 200 Motels. The audience turned on itself.

Before the show, the chorus warmed up the crowd with some catcalls, and that prompted the room to loosen up. The vibe was fun. The orchestra did a wave. The audience hooted and hollered like they were at the Fillmore. During an awkward silence, some brave soul chanced a “Freebird!” shout, and was lucky to get hearty laughs instead of groans.

It seemed like a loose crowd, that was in the mood for a fun show. From my vantage point, the audience was dominated by old Zappa fans. (A very nice old man in my section was cheerily wearing a bright yellow Wazoo helmet.) But it seems there’s some kind of critical mass that just can’t be escaped at an orchestra concert. Before long, concert etiquette killed the mood.

The concertmaster drunkenly stumbled onstage with his bow tie on his head and his shirt untucked. It was a cute gesture, but it signified a lot of what was to come, which was a serious orchestra trying way too hard to have fun. Esa-Pekka came onstage to a rock star’s ovation, but he simply mounted the podium and got down to business. The rambunctious crowd almost completely settled down by the time the Overture was finished.

A few hearty folks kept up the rowdy atmosphere during the opening numbers. They’d whistle and shout out one-liners in response to jokes in the show. Unfortunately for them, by the time Lonesome Cowboy Burt had left the stage, the rest of the audience had fully reverted back to reactionary classical concert mode. From that point on, the groundlings were shushed mercilessly. One poor fellow, who just did not want to settle down, kept doing his best to stay in rock ‘n roll mode. His neighbors nearly had him ejected. After several minutes of prudish hissing and reprimands to “Be quiet!!”, the guy gave up and behaved for the rest of the show.

The shift in behavior was a drag for the performers as well. The built-in gags that were designed to elicit audience participation later in the show fell flat. Everyone sat in their seats like they were watching a concert version of an opera, instead of the Zappa show they paid to see. Maybe if the LA Phil had let us take beers inside the hall, left the doors open, and let the musicians wear street clothes, the audience wouldn’t have reverted to “square” behavior. Odds are that it would have happened anyway. There just doesn’t seem to be any way around it, no matter how primed an audience is to have fun at a classical concert.

As for the show itself, it was a muddle. That’s the nature of 200 Motels, and I hope no one was expecting something else. The only real frustration was that the vocal mics were so incompetently mixed to an ear-splitting level. There was no blend between the orchestra and the soloists. They might as well have been in two different rooms. That disparity rendered Zappa’s orchestra score (the ostensible reason that we were all there) an afterthought, which is unfortunate given all its charms. For my money, the most arresting sonorities were the stacks of woodwinds during the masturbation scene.


Comments Comments Off on “200 Motels”, but no room for the rowdy…

1. Dump raw sewage into the Hudson
2. Let currents take it round Manhattan
3. Inhale.

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The Microscores Project…what would you do?

Okay, you get as long as you want to write the piece, but it can only last 30″. That’s the concept behind the Microscores Project, which started at CalArts and has performed all over the place.

Over the years, they’ve garnered some fascinating pieces by folks like Harold Budd and Pauline Oliveros (who wrote hers on a plane). Just before he died, James Tenney wrote them a gorgeous bagatelle.

As part of their appearance at ARTSaha! 2008, the Microscores Project are putting out a call for new music. Anyone can send them a score for violin and cello that lasts 30″, and they will select several for performance in Omaha on September 11. Submissions will also be fodder for future Microscores shows.

The full details of the call for microscores are here. Perhaps some quick-witted commenters will leave their own microscores below!

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Iron Composer OmahaThis year’s Iron Composer Omaha competition is open nationally to people between the ages of 18-26. First prize is $500 and loads of bragging rights.

Because we were focusing ARTSaha! 2007 on Futurism, we settled on the main motif of The Jetsons theme song as the secret ingredient. The five finalists had five hours to write a piece for woodwind quintet based on that four-note cell.

The secret ingredient could be anything from a narrative outline, to a poem, a chord sequence, or even a found object.

Our chairman last year was Hal France, longtime conductor of Opera Omaha. If you were the chairman of this year’s competition, what secret ingredient would you choose?

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What will music sound like in 50 years?

What will your music sound like in 5 years?

Back in 1994, these composers weighed in on what music would be like in 150 years: Milton Babbitt Pierre Boulez Harrison Birtwistle Brian Ferneyhough Steve Reich Franco Donatoni Louis Andriessen

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ARTSaha! 2007 LogoANALOG arts ensemble has just announced its instant composition contest, Iron Composer Omaha.

Five finalists will be selected to compete. At noon on September 11, we’ll unveil the instrumentation that they’ll be writing for and a secret ingredient. We’ve announced that the ingredient ‘could be any kind of musical raw material, such as a chord progression or a found object’. 

If you were playing the role of the Chairman, what secret ingredient would you choose?

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Sometime, not too long ago, I seem to remember a discussion of the definition of spectral music running in the comment section. The latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine includes an interview with composer Joshua Fineberg, who gives it a go:

We are creatures that are tremendously sensitive to timbre because the vowels of language depend on timbral perception, as does our auditory scene analysis. The fact that we are relatively less good at identifying things like pitches and intervals is part of why for a long time they were interesting.

Joshua Fineberg

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In an indulgent little piece in today’s NY Sun, Fred Kirshnit reorders the historical construct of the Big Five as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, LA, Chicago, Boston. His thoughs on the NY Phil: 

Not even the best orchestra on the plaza.


Limiting our discussion to the modern era, the local Phil has been deficient for a long time. A pedestrian string sound, a tendency to lose intonation as a piece drags along, an inconsistent trumpet section, and a sometimes frightful set of French horns are just background for an ensemble that often seems to have little investment in its own performances. Add to the ensemble’s frustrating nonchalance a conductor in Lorin Maazel who simply cannot leave a piece alone and the net result is often blaring, leadfooted, and embarrassing. The worst part may be that, on certain evenings, they can still conjure a decent performance. At Avery Fisher, it often seems that attitude is more critical than aptitude.

Well, at least he got some things right.

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There seemed to be an universal agreement with Soho the Dog when he posted his famous 8 sentences, but on half of them, he was either being way too literal or just wrong.  

“Jazz is America’s classical music.”
Yeah sure, Johns Adams & Corigliano and their peers are this continent’s contributions to the field of classical music, but this, dear fellow, is what we call a metaphor. In this case, it applies to the fact that jazz is an aesthetic that is entirely unique and has risen to the serious-minded plateau of traditional classical music. Why is that so hard?

“Mozart and Beethoven were the popular music of their time.”
There is no 200-year-old equivalent of Justin Timberlake. The pop star is a 20th century creation of a nascent mass media. These composers were, by any measure, more important to their contemporary cultural life than anything that exists today in the classical community. The estimates are that somewhere between 20 and 30,000 people flocked to Beethoven’s funeral. Franz Stober even painted the thing:

Lady Di, sure. But can you imagine people turning out like this when Philip Glass checks out?

“Orchestras need to do away with tuxedos because they’re stuffy and outdated.”
Not to mention that they’re utterly absurd. Orchestras started wearing this crap because that’s what the audience wore (There’s a lovely scene in the old movie ‘Tales of Manhattan’ that perfectly illustrates the sartorial peer pressure which gave rise to this tradition). But when do you ever see an audience in white tie these days? In what universe does it make sense for an orchestra to continue to dress this way?

“Composers today only write music for other composers.”
An absurd generalization, of course, but it does put its thumb on the fundamental issue that arises out of classical music being so cloistered: there is no general audience for new classical music in America.

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