Recent Musical America reviews; Signal to Noise

I recently contributed two articles to Musical America.

My review of the League of Composers/ISCM concert at Miller Theatre can be found here.

League of Composers/ISCM Orchestra. Credit: Ron Gordon

My review of Talea/Linea at Lincoln Center can be found here.

And yes, these are available only to Musical America subscribers. But, it’s a terrific publication and they even let you try a free two-week trial to kick the tires.

A propos of the paid subscription model, the last quarterly issue of Signal to Noise Magazine has just hit the newsstands. It’s got two articles in it by yours truly, including a feature on Australian composer Andrew Ford and a review of Alex Ross’ Listen to This (I’ve also contributed several recording reviews).

I’ve been writing for Signal to Noise since 2002, and it’s hard to see it, like so many other print outlets, being forced by current economic circumstances to downsize . Its stalwart publisher/editor-in-chief Pete Gershon hopes to keep StN going as an annual, “yearbook” style publication. But the success of that venture will depend on support from labels (in the form of review materials), advertisers (in the form of … ads), and, yes, the support of readers like you. Want experimental music to still have a voice in print in the US? Then get thee to the newsstand and enjoy an issue of StN.

Read This

Book Review

Listen to This

By Alex Ross

New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 384 pp.

Published in 2007, The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross’ first book, was an engrossing and thoughtful survey of Twentieth Century music, equally useful as an introduction to neophytes and a refresher to specialists (he’s since tweaked the paperback edition to be even more comprehensive, including updated info and a “go-to” listening list). By “classical music” standards, the book was wildly successful, and Ross subsequently garnered a number of honors, including a 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award and a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship. Its follow-up, Listen to This, doesn’t limit itself to contemporary concert music. Instead, it’s a wide-ranging survey of musical topics, including portrait essays of musicians as diverse as Radiohead, Marian Anderson, Sonic Youth, and Cecil Taylor, discussions of specific musical genres, and thought pieces on the state of music education, the record industry, and cultural consumption at home and abroad.

Ross has been a music critic on the staff at the New Yorker since 1996. While most of these essays are culled from his writings there, Listen to This never strikes one merely as a “greatest hits” compilation.  Rather, the volume is structured to tease out several overarching concerns. One of them is the working musician. In one chapter, he demystifies the grueling touring schedule of chamber musicians, pointing out that even acclaimed groups such as the St. Lawrence String Quartet have to hustle to make a living in today’s economic climate. Far from being another “death of classical music story,” Ross argues for the relevancy of these touring ensembles that, despite these challenges, bring music of a very high level of artistry to locations far and wide, many of them off of the beaten path. Another topic is globalization’s affect on postmillennial music, which is explored in a particularly fascinating travel essay detailing a concert-filled trip to China and in a jaunt to Carnival in Brazil with Björk.

While there’s no mistaking Ross’ erudition, a trait that allows specialists to prefer his writings to those of some of his journalist colleagues with less musical knowledge, Listen to This is an approachable collection. One of the ways in which it speaks to a wide audience is with an eagerness to share in what Leonard Bernstein called “The Joy of Music.” Indeed, Ross is that rare writer on music who can share his enthusiasms for an artist’s work with unabashed honesty. But even when backstage with Radiohead or following Björk through the streets of Salvador, he defuses any notions of fanboy journalism – a trend that, alarmingly, has infiltrated all too many publications of late. Instead, Ross seeks to put a human face on artistic process, detailing the origins of Björk’s eclectic musical tastes and providing a foil for the singer’s exotic costumes and playful demeanor by detailing a studio session in which, while humane, she is exacting in eliciting musical details from collaborators. There’s an emotional openness, even vulnerability, which runs through a number of these essays. His eulogy of the exquisitely talented mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is one of the most affecting yet observant tributes to this recently departed artist (rereading it was made all the more poignant by the passing in April of her husband, the composer Peter Lieberson).

The state of music education is a frequent topic of discussion of late. Ross’ essay “The Crisis of Music Education” should be required reading for policy-makers, educators, and the parents of artistically motivated children alike. As one can tell by the title, it acknowledges the beleaguered state of arts and education funding; but Ross still provides several glimmers of hope for the future. He describes the unlikely and extraordinary flowering of a music program in the inner city at Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, New Jersey. Another urban success story is detailed in Providence, Rhode Island’s Community MusicWorks, a program run by the Providence String Quartet, a group of graduates from major conservatories who prefer giving back to staking a claim for fame and fortune. Ross even gets in on the education act himself: part of his book tour for Listen to This has featured a performance/discussion of bass lines throughout music history ranging from Purcellian grounds to Delta Blues walking lines: it’s also made for a cult YouTube hit, in which Ross is joined by the Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson and ex-Battles composer Tyondai Braxton.

A staff position at the New Yorker provides a platform from which can wield considerable influence. Some of the essays collected here have already had undeniable impact. Ross has done a considerable amount to raise the stock of Alaskan composer John Luther Adams, and his fascinating chapter on the composer’s works and working environments is another “must-read” excerpt. One wonders whether it’s mere coincidence that Providence String Quartet founder Sebastian Ruth received a 2010 MacArthur Fellowship. If Ross had a hand in this, more power to him: it’s nice to see a music critic on the side of the good guys!

Conversations about the “inner life” of creativity (book review)

Innerviews: Music Without Borders
(Extraordinary Conversations with Extraordinary Musicians)
by Anil Prasad
Abstract Logix Books; 315 pages, Published 2010


Anil Prasad has covered music on the internet longer than practically anyone. He started the website Innerviews in 1994, well before blogging, social media, and a host of other technological changes. The web has changed remarkably over the past sixteen years, but Innerviews has remained a consistent and engaging part of the internet’s musical life.

Prasad regularly publishes interviews with musicians from a plethora of genres: jazz, fusion, funk, prog, world music, electronica, etc. Innerviews the book collects some of his most noteworthy conversations with a diverse yet distinguished assortment of musicians.

Each chapter is devoted to a different artist (24 in all). Interviewees include Victor Wooten (who also writes the book’s foreword), John McLaughlin, David Torn, Björk, McCoy Tyner, and David Sylvian.

(True, the emphasis is on jazz, world, and popular music, but even the most classically oriented of Sequenza 21′s readers will likely find plenty here that speaks to the lives of concert music artists as well).

Prasad sets up the interviews with lengthy introductions, detailing the artists’ biographies and respective career trajectories. The interviews themselves feature discussions of creative process, musical inspirations, and approaches to performing and recording. Happily, Prasad avoids the sensational (PR-induced) talking points that are so often found in many recent “press interviews.” He instead favors affording the artists a more open-ended conversation, and the chance to  share in depth observations about the music itself.

There’s another key component of every Innerviews interview that’s worth mentioning. Prasad doesn’t shy away from the interior life of creative artists, asking each musician to describe their spiritual journey and how it relates to their musical experiences. It’s refreshing that this open-ended line of inquiry elicits such a variety of responses. It appears that, much like the panoply of musical styles referenced in Innerviews, the question of spirituality inspires in artists an abundance of creativity.

Composition Class: Books and Listening List

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 I’m teaching the composition class at Westminster Choir College for the first time this fall. The course includes all of the first-semester composition majors as well as non-majors interested in composing (or, perhaps, needing an elective).

We’re going to be using three books as texts during the term:

-                   Modal Counterpoint, in the Style of the Sixteenth Century, Ernst Krenek (Boosey).

-                   The Study of Fugue, Alfred Mann (Dover).

-                   A Basic Course in Music Composition, Ralph Shapey (Presser).

Each of these is a small primer on one of the big, central topics in the craft of composition: Sixteenth century counterpoint, fugue, and twentieth century composition approaches. I like that two of them are exercise-heavy – the Krenek and Shapey – while one includes a more historiographical approach, with plenty of examples from the literature. Each author strikes a different tone: Krenek is thorough-going, Mann authoritative and Shapey brilliantly creative, if a bit on the cranky side.

None of them are complete discussions of their respective topics. But each provides a tantalizing, instructive introduction. The three are easily portable; making them easy companions for student composers to take along to muse over on the quad, in the library, or off-campus. What’s more, the combined price tag is less than the cost of many textbooks.

Next up: the listening list. I’m very open to thoughts from Sequenza 21 contributors and readers. Which pieces do you think are essential listening and study for first-semester composers? Drop some suggestions in the comments section!

I have a feeling the toughest part of preparing the course will be winnowing this down to a manageable number of pieces!

 

Elliott Carter: the coffee-table book!

Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents, by Felix Meyer and Anne Shreffler. Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2008.
Elliott Carter turned 100 on 11 December 2008, bringing to a close a marathon year of festivals, performances, recordings, and publications celebrating his centenary. When asked about whether he enjoyed all the fuss, Carter’s stock reply was, “No one likes to be reminded of their age, but I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t happening.” And he worked for his birthday cake! Carter provided several new compositions for the festivities in 2008, including his first choral piece in over six decades, a work for percussion ensemble, and Interventions, his fourth piece for solo piano and orchestra.  
It’s probably safe to say that A Centennial Portrait is the first ‘coffee-table book’ about a modern American concert music composer. A hefty 352 pages, its presentation is exquisite; with large, readable score excerpts and composer sketches, re-typed portions of personal correspondence, handwritten missives, and telling rehearsal notes. There are also a number of engaging letters written to the composer from a veritable who’s who of 20/21 music. Sketches for compositions from throughout Carter’s career – from early works such as Minotaur and the First String Quartet to his recent Boston Concerto, Mosaic, and hot-off-the-presses Mad Regales – offer insights into the genesis and evolution of his working methods and styles. Equally tantalizing are the abandoned projects: a sonata for two pianos from the 50s; a projected second opera from 2001.
Sometimes an example does double-duty. For example, the autograph for Steep Steps, a solo bass clarinet piece written in 2002, includes a note from Carter to Virgil Blackwell, its dedicatee and a member of the composer’s inner circle: “Virgil – How about this? Elliott.”
In order to compile the volume, Felix Meyer and Anne Shreffler have done extensive research at the archives of the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, where most of Carter’s papers are kept. One might think that the sketches and biographical material of a composer whose work has received intense scrutiny might not yield too many surprises. But the authors have provided fresh material to whet the appetites of Carterians, while simultaneously creating an accessible volume that is an excellent overview of Carter’s first hundred years.
 

 

 

Top-notch Coffee Table Book

Edgard Varése: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary

Edited by Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmerman

Paul Sacher Foundation/Boydell Press

Switzerland’s Paul Sacher Foundation has some of the most extensive contemporary music archives in the world. In addition to their Carter holdings, Sacher also maintains an extensive collection of scores, writings, sketches, and the correspondence of Edgard Varése (1883-1965). Although born in France, Varése spent much of his career from 1915 onward in the United States. Not prolific in terms of number of works – one can listen to his oeuvre in a single (likely mind-blowing!) evening – he is still a legendary and innovative figure in Twentieth century music.

Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary points out Varése’s many conceptual and material contributions, both his approach to more traditional musical elements, such as pitch and rhythm, as well as his investigations of electronic music, extended orchestral resources, and sculpted texture. The volume includes analyses and discussion of many of his important works, spotlighting Poéme électronique,  an important early example of tape music, Ionisation, a watershed work for percussion ensemble, and Déserts, for winds, percussion, and tape. These are supported by beautifully reproduced examples from scores and sketches.

Varése’s influence on his contemporaries as well as the generation that succeeded him is also amply documented. A number of composers pen tributes to his work and legacy. Most affecting is Chou Wen-Chung’s chapter, “My sixteen years with Varése,” relating his time as student and assistant to the elder composer. Wen-Chung has done a great deal for Varése studies, editing a number of the composer’s works (even completing some from unfinished sketches); his contribution here is essential reading. Another strong contribution is Kyle Gann’s “Magnificent, in a Mysterious Way,” which charts Varése’s influence on American music.

Because of his celebrity and dedicated advocacy, Frank Zappa probably did more than anyone to bring Varése to the awareness of the general musical public. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that the Boydell book closes with Matthias Kassel’s appraisal of the importance of Varése’s music and aesthetics on Zappa’s rock and concert works.  

With their recent large-format Carter and Varése volumes, Boydell has raised the standard for completeness, annotation, and presentation in retrospective volumes on composers.

ABCs Updated

An Indie Rock Alphabet Book: A Paste Reader for Kids and Their Parents
By Caren Kelleher
Createspace, 62 pages
ISBN-10: 1440491321
 Indie Rock Alphabet
 According to author Caren Kelleher, “C” is for Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power. Thus An Indie Rock Alphabet Book proceeds from A to Z, name-checking indie notables in wry verse.
In a volatile publishing market, Paste is one of the few glossies that has managed to broaden its approach without diluting its quality, successfully co-opting the ‘indie smarty’ demographic without alienating the mainstream. The magazine has expanded its web presence, added occasional DVD offerings to its usual fare of cover mount CD samplers, and offered an online ‘VIP’ downloads club. Now, like Pitchfork, Paste is making a foray into book publishing.  
Mixing generous doses of insider humor with a trendy design layout, Indie Rock Alphabet is both a quick read and a fun conversation starter. Like Pitchfork 500, it is best accompanied by music – an alphabetical mixtape might be an excellent tie-on for Paste’s website. Designed as a children’s book that will also delight more chronologically advanced readers, Indie Rock Alphabet is a clever addition to Paste Magazine’s expanding list of projects.
 

Pitchfork’s Punk to Present Playlist

Pitchfork 500
 

 

 

The Pitchfork 500

Edited by Scott Plagenhoef and Ryan Schreiber

Fireside Books

ISBN: 978-1-4165-6202-3

 

Pitchfork is a long-running website and important part of the internet’s coverage of pop music – especially that of the indie persuasion. While its output has included plenty of off-the-wall writing experiments and a fair amount of glib sniping, record store owners (those that remain) and music fans alike take Pitchfork’s cast of tastemakers very seriously. Indeed, for a certain segment of the industry, a high rating on the website’s 1-10 scale (anything above an 8 is doled out abstemiously) is cause for rejoicing. In particular, several artists   of an adventurous bent – Deerhunter, Animal Collective, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era Wilco among them – have benefited from the Pitchfork’s attention.

Plagenhoef, Schreiber, and a host of contributors (most regulars for the website) share their enthusiasms with wit and frequent musical insights. The collection helps to put a number of pop styles, cultural movements, and signature artists into historical perspective while never getting weighted down in “us vs. them” hipster bluster. Indeed, the tone often hews closely to the breezy, smart, and funny prose of the website’s best reviews.

Despite ostensibly being a “best of” collection, The Pitchfork 500 features both sides of Pitchfork’s personality. Although the focus is on the songs one should seek out, there’s also a bit of trashing here and there; pp. 155′s list of career-killing songs being a signature example. Slaughtered sacred cows include latter day Liz Phair, the Beastie Boys, and Billy Corgan.

As Nick Hornby astutely pointed out in High Fidelity, one record fan’s “top 5″ list will inevitably be quickly countered by another’s rebuttal of said list. However, the chief virtue of Pitchfork 500 is not that it will settle any arguments about which songs deserve special merit – it will likely cause more disagreements than it quells – but that it is one of the best conversation starters for music geeks since Hornby’s novel. Along the way, it’s likely to give many music lovers ideas as to how they might best fill their music collection to the brim; in my estimation, a cause for celebration.

 

 

Carter book review

Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents, by Felix Meyer and Anne Shreffler. Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2008.
Elliott Carter turned 100 on 11 December 2008, bringing to a close a marathon year of festivals, performances, recordings, and publications celebrating his centenary. When asked about whether he enjoyed all the fuss, Carter’s stock reply was, “No one likes to be reminded of their age, but I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t happening.” And he worked for his birthday cake! Carter provided several new compositions for the festivities in 2008, including his first choral piece in over six decades, a work for percussion ensemble, and Interventions, his fourth piece for solo piano and orchestra.  

It’s probably safe to say that A Centennial Portrait is the first ‘coffee-table book’ about a modern American concert music composer. A hefty 352 pages, its presentation is exquisite; with large, readable score excerpts and composer sketches, re-typed portions of personal correspondence, handwritten missives, and telling rehearsal notes. There are also a number of engaging letters written to the composer from a veritable who’s who of 20/21 music. Sketches for compositions from throughout Carter’s career – from early works such as Minotaur and the First String Quartet to his recent Boston Concerto, Mosaic, and hot-off-the-presses Mad Regales – offer insights into the genesis and evolution of his working methods and styles. Equally tantalizing are the abandoned projects: a sonata for two pianos from the 50s; a projected second opera from 2001.

Sometimes an example does double-duty. For example, the autograph for Steep Steps, a solo bass clarinet piece written in 2002, includes a note from Carter to Virgil Blackwell, its dedicatee and a member of the composer’s inner circle: “Virgil – How about this? Elliott.”

In order to compile the volume, Felix Meyer and Anne Shreffler have done extensive research at the archives of the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, where most of Carter’s papers are kept. One might think that the sketches and biographical material of a composer whose work has received intense scrutiny might not yield too many surprises. But the authors have provided fresh material to whet the appetites of Carterians, while simultaneously creating an accessible volume that is an excellent overview of Carter’s first hundred years.
 

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