Just before intermission of the opening concert of the Beyond Cage Festival on October 22, I pulled out my iPhone to see if the Giants were beating the Cardinals for the National League Pennant, and was disoriented to see that it was 9:49pm. It seemed like there must have been a massive network malfunction, because the extraordinary performance of Atlas Ecpliticalis with Winter Music that I and the rest of the audience had fervently applauded could not possibly have gone on for an hour and forty-five minutes. The duration had felt assuredly like a leisurely performance of an early Romantic symphony, say the Beethoven Pastorale, something that was stimulating and enveloping but that never demanded a hint of endurance from the ear or mind.
But it was so, Petr Kotik had just led the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble, with Joe Kubera and Ursula Oppens simultaneously playing Winter Music, in almost two hours of some of the most resolutely avant-garde music, and the listening experience was such that the sensation of time was lost completely inside the performance. The extraordinary became the unbelievable.
Kotik had already presented this piece twenty years ago, in a historic concert that became a memorial to the recently deceased composer. And he and the ensemble have recorded it twice, on a recently reissued Wergo album and a great and unfortunately out of print Asphodel release, and these are not only the two finest recordings of Atlas but also two of the finest recordings of Cage’s music available. But the concert exceeded these, reflecting the understanding of such a profound work of art that can only come through time spent examining and thinking about it.
“You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”
– Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan
For the past several election cycles, a cottage industry of fact-checkers emerges from their pumpkin patches each fall to assess the credibility of candidates’ claims. One of most-quoted of these, FactCheck.org, is affiliated with my alma mater. These groups’ findings are not only cited by the media but are also used by partisans of both Presidential candidates. And while neither the press nor the candidates are free to plagiarize the articles produced by fact-checkers, the facts themselves are fair game.
In fact (sorry), it seems fact-checkers have themselves become the story. Yesterday, CBS Sunday Morning dedicated an entire segment to the role of fact checkers. It seems these trufflers of truth have become pawns in the political chess game of electoral politics, with each campaign’s spinmeisters trying to use the checkers to “king” their candidate by persuading the voters that their opinions are facts. In keeping with the non-partisan nature of my posts and this forum, I’ll not comment on which candidate appears to have racked up the most misdemeanors from the fact checkers – but I do have my own opinion!
As it turns out, the late Senator Moynihan is absolutely right from a copyright perspective. Section 102 of the Copyright Act not only states what is subject to copyright, including various forms of musical works and sound recordings, but also sets out many things that are not subject to copyright protection. For example, there is no copyright protection available for any “idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.” And while the statute’s list doesn’t explicitly include facts, the FAQ on the Copyright Office’s web site does state that “[c]opyright does not protect facts…” More importantly, the Supreme Court has said that facts are not copyrightable.
Facts are either ideas or concepts (e.g., 1+1=2) or discoveries (e.g., it’s a fact that the earth revolves around the sun). So, the candidates and their minions, along with the media and everyone else can freely use the findings of fact-checkers as to what a particular candidate said or didn’t say and whether his proposals are better than the other guy’s. As I said in my last post, as with fair use, the exclusion of facts, concepts, discoveries and ideas — as opposed to the individual expression of them, reinforces our First Amendment freedom of speech as nobody can monopolize an idea.
These concepts apply not only to political discourse, but to musical expression, as well. Section 102 states that copyright applies to “original works of authorship.” It is the individual expression of an idea or concept, not the concept itself, that is subject to copyright protection. So, what does this mean in a musical context? Imagine if C.P.E. Bach had been able to get a copyright in sonata form. Or if Bach and Vivaldi had sued each other over the exclusive right to use a circle of fifths?
It would be absurd to think that Jerome Kern couldn’t use that chord progression in “All The Things You Are.” Structural forms (such as a 32-bar AABA song or a 12-bar blues) and chord progressions are among the things that are generally considered to be non-copyrightable concepts or ideas. You’d probably be justified in having the opinion that they’re musical “facts.” Just think of the all the songs and standards written on “blues” or “rhythm” changes. Or consider the thousands of symphonies, concertos and sonatas that use sonata form. Steve Reich has copyrights in his works, “Piano Phase” and “Violin Phase” but he can’t prevent another composer from utilizing phasing techniques in their own works. The same principle would apply to performance techniques: there’s no copyright for wind players playing double stops or practicing circular breathing.
So, feel free to marshal as many facts as you can to support your opinion as to which candidate “won” tonight’s final Presidential debate. Or write and perform a new work on the topic using whatever forms and techniques you like. I only ask that you not post any politically-oriented comments in response to this piece. That said, your opinions as to copyright and music are most welcome, either here or at my web site.
The Dutch composer/performer/poet Samuel Vriezen and I go waaay back on the web, to a time when musicians found each other and some musical conversation on the old Usenet newsgroups. In the dozen-plus years since that time, I’ve watched Samuel be pretty darn active on all kinds of fronts: producing concerts, composing a wonderful body of music, writing and translating poetry… He’s even been invited over this way to the U.S. a few times for presentations of his work.
Samuel’s own musical inclinations have evolved since his time in university, but for a long while now what really interests him is how to set up relatively “simple” musical parameters, that become very “unsimple” and rich through both their process of unfolding, and the performers interaction with those processes and each other.
Given that predilection, I suppose it was almost fated for Samuel to be drawn to the music of Tom Johnson. One of the American composers closely associated with New York Minimalism in the heady 70s and 80s (and well-known at the time as music critic for the Village Voice), Johnson left the U.S. to settle in Paris in the mid-80s, where he’s been ever since. Unlike the ever-more-elaborate, eclectic and programmatic direction his then-compatriots Reich and Glass have traveled, Johnson has remained pretty much focused on exploring purely musical processes; simple “germ” ideas that are rigorously followed, yet result in surprisingly rich music. One such piece is Johnson’s very long 1986 piano work The Chord Catalogue. Johnson simply asked “What would it sound like to play all the chords possible in a single octave?” …Of which there turns out to be 8178 of them! needless to say, though the concept is extremely simple the execution by a pianist is tremendously difficult.
Which brings us back to Samuel Vriezen. Samuel some years ago became so intrigued with the work, that he knew he had to learn and present it himself. And learn and present it he has, many times, to very enthusiastic audiences. His involvement with the piece has even led Samuel to compose some excellent new works, that riff on the same kind of idea that Johnson had.
The reason I’ve been telling you all this? because Samuel has decided that the time has come to get this piece and his performance down on CD, and to do that he’s decided to ask all of us new-music-lovers out there to help raise the money to make that CD a reality. Using the crowd-funding site Indiegogo, Samuel has in rather short order already drummed up over half his $8,000 goal; I think there are a lot of people out there who know this will be one great CD. So click those links I just gave you, head to the Indiegogo site, and let Samuel himself tell you about the piece, his passion, and the project. Besides making this wonderful CD a reality, your donation can score you some really nice perks (see the right side bar for a description). To quote Rosie the Riveter, WE CAN DO IT!
We’re approaching the heart of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 30th annual Next Wave Festival, and one of it’s more unique offerings is right around the corner. This Thursday through Saturday, composer Joe C. Phillips, Jr. will lead his ensemble, Numinous, in the premiere performances of his newly composed score for Ernst Lubitsch’s long-lost silent film, The Loves of Pharaoh.
I think the project presents a fascinating challenge for a composer – how do you respect the history of an artifact like The Loves of Pharaoh, while still expressing your 21st-century artistic perspective? I won’t speculate on how Mr. Phillips addressed this scenario because I don’t have to.
This weekend I tracked down Numinous’ fearless leader and asked him about his mindset while scoring Lubitsch’s historic film:
Since the film was released in 1922, obviously there has been much development in musical language and technique, and it felt right to reflect that in the new score. Not in a self-conscious, “look at how modern and cool I am” way but rather as a natural extension of my own musical thinking and expression. Like all composers, my musical language is a product of sieving influences and thoughts into one unique voice and in [Pharaoh], I believe you’ll hear this. There are echoes of my past work but also new, formerly latent, ideas come to the fore and more fully explored in this score. And this idea to explore newer territory in music, to bring the film into modern times so to speak, was one of the reason Joseph Melillo was looking for a new score for the screening.
Mr. Phillips is very excited for this week’s performances, and feels very grateful for his association with BAM, who he describes as being, “incredibly supportive throughout the development of the project.” Straddling the Next Wave Festival’s film and music programs, I have the feeling The Loves of Pharaoh will be a major stand out even against the ridiculously vibrant mixture of genres and disciplines on the slate at BAM this Fall.
Long a fixture here at S21 until just a few years ago, composer David Salvage has been busy teaching at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. Back in 2010 he conceived the idea of keeping his compositional chops up by starting an open-ended series of piano pieces, called Albumleaves. At the same time David started a blog as an integral part to showcase them, in which each new piece features not only the score but a recorded performance as well. The series is now pushing 90 pieces (!), and some of them have just come out on a recording on the Navona label. It’s an elegant, smartly realized project, and I asked David to give a little recap and backgroud on how it came to be, and what it’s meant to him:
I wanted to write a lot of music; I wanted to play the piano more. And I wanted to write a blog. I figured out how to put these desires together in January 2010, when the idea occurred to me to start a blog that would consist of posts that would be musical instead of verbal, and that would nonetheless reflect the offhand, freewheeling, and autobiographical character of conventional blogs. And now that I had a piano in my home for the first time in twelve years, I was especially fired up to get the project going. The next month, I came up with the title Albumleaves, and, in late March, I began composing the “leaves,” as I thought I’d nickname the posts.
I thought that in order to maintain the blog-like nature of the site the posts would have to be written quickly and manifest a high degree of musical variety. Initially, my goal was to write three leaves every two weeks. While I was only able to maintain this rate for a month or two, the pace of composition remains rapid: in the 139 weeks since beginning Albumleaves, I have completed 89 leaves, which is more than one leaf every two weeks (and there is both an 81a and 81b). As for musical variety, click here, here, and here to hear for yourself. By maintaining variety, the blog remains casual, surprising, and attractive to listeners—and full of fresh challenges for me.
The original vision for the site always went beyond original composition. Since 2010, I’ve been posting recordings of music by other composers—like Federico Mompou—and quotations about music by authors like E.M. Cioran. More recently, I’ve started excerpting from free improvisations that I record and posting them as improvisation fragments.
Over time, I’ve grown more confident about the project’s integrity. Since I listen to such a wide variety of classical music (from Notre Dame organum to twentieth-century atonality with few gaps in between), I’m not concerned by my reluctance to develop a personal style of composition. Writing good pieces is challenge enough for me at the moment; if they do not synthesize their disparate influences into a unique musical voice, I’m not going to worry about it. Nor do I worry anymore about inconsistency of quality: even the greatest composers (and authors and painters and everyone else) produced works of varying quality. And I don’t see how writing quickly or slowly has anything to do with consistency: some of the strongest leaves were written in two hours; some of the weakest took weeks. (And even though it took him much less time to write, Brahms’s second symphony is just as good as his first.) For now, the quality of my playing troubles me more than the quality of my composing: I admit to posting a few sloppy recordings. (Here’s one.) But hopefully the music always comes through anyway.
I am proud of the nine lucky leaves that made it to market on the new CD Lock and Key; they are representative of the site, and I thank Navona Records for their enthusiasm and interest. I also would like to thank the 2,404 unique visitors from 75 countries who have visited the site to listen—though surely it’s not for purely musical reasons that the most popular leaf remains “Manatee.” Happy listening, everyone, and see you at Albumleaf 100!
The scuttlebutt around Columbia University’s new senior composer hire seems to be true. As Alex Ross reported on The Rest is Noiseyesterday, Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haaswill be joining Columbia’s faculty sometime during the 2012-’13 academic year, replacing Tristan Murail, One revels in the possibilities, not only for graduate students in composition, but for the rest of us too; we’ll likely get to hear some terrific programs during his time stateside!
Our friend Thomas Bjørnseth has some terrific musical selections by Haas on his Atonality.Netwebsite, and The Wellesz Theatre is streaming Haas’s 2011 opera Bluthaus in its entirety via YouTube (embed below).
After a long gestation, which included multiple workshops that presented excerpts of the work in progress, this weekend David T. Little’sDog Days will be given its premiere as a full length opera. It is being presented at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey on September 29th through October 7th. Despite all the myriad details to which he’s had to attend in the rehearsals leading up to the performances, David was kind enough to consent to an interview about the bringing this long term project to fruition and some of his other current activities.
Sequenza21: When did you first become aware of the short story on which Dog Days is based? Why did you think it would be a good subject for your first full length opera?
I first encountered the story Dog Days in the film adaptation by Ellie Lee. (The original story is by Judy Budnitz.) I was living in Ann Arbor at the time, and had gotten into the habit if composing each morning with the TV on in the distant background. It would usually start with the previous night’s Daily Show; then, I’d switch to IFC. On one particular day, IFC was showing a shorts program. I happened to look up at a certain moment, and catch a glimpse of Spencer Beglarian (late brother of Eve) playing Prince, the man in a dog suit. I immediately thought: “what the hell” and couldn’t look away, almost obsessively watching the entire film. I filed this piece away, thinking of it as a work I really liked, by an artist I respected, and then sort of moved on with my day. I wrote a song some time later, called “After a Film by Ellie Lee,” about the landscape of Dog Days–and even got to meet Ellie in 2003–but never really thought of making it an opera.
Then in 2008, Dawn Upshaw contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in writing something dramatic–a scena, or opera excerpt–for the Dawn Upshaw/Osvaldo Golijov Workshop at Carnegie Hall. I of course said yes–because that’s what you say to Dawn Upshaw!–and began looking for a libretto. I had written the libretto for Soldier Songs myself, but those were all monologues. This piece was to have characters who needed to have actual dialogue, which I didn’t feel I could handle that as a writer. So I approached Royce Vavrek, who I’d met maybe six months earlier after an American Lyric Theater performance, and we started talking about ideas.
After looking through a number of options, we kept coming back to Dog Days as a piece that just made sense. It was dark, but with these wonderful moments of light. It got into very serious issues–the animal/human divide, issues of choice and consequence, questions of how we treat the least fortunate among us–but without being heavy handed about it. It felt like the perfect story to use for our first adaptation, and it’s proven to be an incredibly rewarding text to write with. (Plus, it had the right number of characters to match the singers we’d been assigned!) We approached Judy Budnitz for permission, she granted it, and we got started. (Judy, by the way, is a really terrific author and unique storyteller. If people don’t know her work, I hope they will check it out.)
What’s been changed or added since presenting scenes of Dog Days at Carnegie Hall?
We added a whole lot! The Zankel presentation was only about 20 minutes, and when we did it at Vox (2010) we had about 30 minutes, having written the aria “Mirror Mirror” for one of American Opera Projects’ Opera Grows in Brooklyn programs in the summer of 2009. But the piece now lasts about 2 hours and 15 minutes with the intermission, so it has more than doubled since those early presentations. Also, a number of the voice types changed. I mentioned that we were assigned the singers for the Carnegie Workshop. We loved all of them, but, as we worked on the libretto, came to feel that some of the voice types weren’t right for whom the characters were becoming. For example, Howard–the father–started off as a tenor, but is now a baritone. So in addition to the new music, we also had a lot of rewrites to the old music. Even after the workshop in April, we continued to rewrite, and have continued to tweak throughout the rehearsal process. We added a character who was not present in the original version (though is present in the story): the Captain, a military officer played by Cherry Duke who brings the two sons back from mischief, and tries to make a devil’s deal with Howard. This aria was written maybe eight months ago.
The last big thing was that we finally have a dog man, played by the amazing John Kelly. In the Carnegie Hall performance, Prince was just not there–since it is not a sung role–so all the singers were singing to an invisible man. That’s changed in the stage version. Works much better now! Read the rest of this entry »
If you were having a conversation with fellow music lovers about the great American composers, Carl Ruggles would not be the first person to come to mind. The “Great American Composer” honor is most often bestowed upon Copland, Ives, or even depending on the company you are with, Bernstein.
Courtesy of SONY Music & Other Minds Records
This is not to say, however, that a popularity contest equates to greatness. An equally adept and creative composer, Carl Ruggles produced a small yet intriguing output of pieces for a variety of ensemble types. It is only fair, then, that when recording the complete works of a lesser known composer such as Ruggles, top-tier musicians should be brought in to lead the process. This recording does not disappoint, and the Buffalo Philharmonic, under the leadership of Michael Tilson Thomas, have produced an earnest and committed recording of Ruggles’ entire catalogue.
For the past seven years, Baltimore and Peabody-Institute-based composer (and friend of S21) Judah Adashi has been enlightening Mobtown’s ears by runningthe Evolution Contemporary Music Series. Praised by Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun for having “elevated and enriched Baltimore’s new music scene enormously,” and by the Baltimore City Paper as “superb…not the same-old, same-old,” the series has presented or premiered works by over 75 living composers, performed by acclaimed musicians from Baltimore and beyond.
Events regularly include pre-concert conversations with performers, composers, critics and scholars; featured guests have included Marin Alsop (music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra); composers Kevin Puts and Christopher Rouse; and music critics Tim Page (Washington Post) and Alex Ross (New Yorker).
The upcoming 2012-13 season looks especially nice; there are four concerts, each focused on a single cream-of-the-crop composer: Kaija Saariaho (Oct. 30), György Kurtág (Feb. 5), Missy Mazzoli (Mar. 5), and John Luther Adams (May 7).
But of course this stuff doesn’t happen with just a bit of can-do spirit, magic elbow-grease, and pixie dust; venues, compensation, equipment, logistics, rehearsals, backstage Pabst and Beer-Nuts all take a significant chunk of change. And that’s where you come in: this time out they’re using the power of crowd-sourced backing via Kickstarter to help them meet those bills. So far over 80 good folk just like you have pitched in, and their $8,000 goal is over halfway there. That’s phenomenal, but there’s only a week to go and every dollar you might be able to drop in the pot can make an enormous difference. As reward for your generosity, Backers will receive anything from your name immortalized on their website ($5), all the way up to personally signed writings of John L. Adams, free passes to further seasons, even a personal two-piano recital! ($750-1,000).
So if you at all can, why don’t you drop by their Kickstarter page, lay a few bucks down in support of the music you love, and get the warm fuzzies knowing you did your bit to make some beautiful music bloom in Baltimore?