Archive for the “Opinion” Category

My article today in Musical America reviews the NY Philharmonic’s Contact! Concert on 12/16 at the Met Museum. While I enjoyed the music – hearing HK Gruber perform Frankenstein!! was a particular treat –  I took issue with the announcement at the event of Alan Gilbert being awarded Columbia University’s Ditson Prize, which recognizes a conductor for his advocacy for American composers. This season, the Contact! series includes only one American: Elliott Carter. It’s a far cry from their inaugural season just two years ago, when they featured Sean Shepherd, Nico Muhly, Arlene Sierra, and others. Perhaps Maestro Gilbert will take the opportunity of being acknowledged for past programming decisions to reinvest future seasons of Contact! with a commitment to emerging American composers.

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In a recent piece for Slate , musicologist Jan Swafford took readers on a little tour of contemporary music that has yielded a fair share of controversy. Mind you, that Slate is publishing a piece on contemporary concert music (or, as Swafford puts it, “contemporary ‘classical’ music, or whatever you want to call it”) for a general readership is a very good thing. But I wonder if we couldn’t do better than Mr. Swafford’s myopic, narrow-minded and patronizing article.

For the record—and right off the bat—let me state that I agree with Mr. Swafford’s ultimate message that “(t)he archetypal avant-garde sensibility was captured in the dictum ‘Make it good or make it bad, but make it new.’ I suggest that it’s time to take that attitude out behind the barn and shoot it. (Emphasis mine.) Standing in the middle of the sometimes interesting chaos and anarchy that is the scene in all the arts, I suggest in its place: Make it old or make it new, but for chrissake (sic) make it good.”

Let’s, by all means, stop worrying about categories and just care about the quality of the work presented. Categories will sort themselves out. This is something for future musicologists to do, not present ones. But Mr. Swafford spends the bulk of his article before this point doing precisely the hair splitting he is decrying (or have I missed the point? Is he really decrying the fact that none of the music he samples—save perhaps his own – is any good?).

Fine, you might say; he’s splitting hairs. Isn’t that his prerogative as a musicologist? Sure, I would say; if only he’d bothered doing more than just cursory research for examples that prove his point.

For example: in his definition of “academic brutalism” he cites an excerpt from Jefferson Friedman’s Eight Songs, a “real colonoscopy of a piece” that consists of transcriptions of songs by “the noise band Crom-Tech” which Friedman made for the Yesaroun’ Duo in 2004. On the basis of this piece alone, Mr. Swafford catalogs Friedman as an “academic brutalist.” While Friedman doesn’t appear to be associated with a university at the present time (shouldn’t an “academic” anything be involved primarily in academia?), a quick glance at Mr. Friedman’s music page on his website quickly reveals that he is far from an academic anything and not merely a “brutalist.” Sure, the particular example of Eight Songs Mr. Swafford cites is pretty brutal, but, from what I can gleam in a quick excursion into Crom-Tech’s work via YouTube, it’s a pretty faithful evocation of the original source material. Given that “aesthetic brutalists” (by way of Xenakis) “want to hurt you” one might be surprised, when one samples, say, Friedman’s 78 or his haunting (and rightly revered) String Quartet no. 2. Mr. Friedman, if anything, would fit in what Kyle Gann would call a totalist style (a problematic label as well, to be sure, but one which I increasingly find useful for music that has roots traceable to minimalism but also welcoming higher degrees of rhythmic and harmonic dissonance as well as influences from rock, pop as well as other “classical” genres), but mostly one is struck by its shear pleasantness. This is incredibly rewarding music to listen to that is far from hurtful and straying far from the pandering banality that can trap all but the most skilled composers of what Swafford calls the “new niceness” (seriously, what about the term Neo-Romanticism fails to apply here?).

I won’t even get into Swafford’s description of a “lecture by a young academic brutalist” whom he refused to name, but who has identified himself to his friends on Facebook (I’ll try to extend some respect to Mr. Swafford by continuing to keep our “young academic brutalist” anonymous in this forum, though I really hope he comes out with a more formal reply to the Slate article than a brief discussion on Facebook).

I’m writing for an audience of connoisseurs here, so it’s a little redundant of me to say that “contemporary ‘classical’ music, or whatever you want to call it” is a LOT of things far beyond the limited and limiting list of malformed categories Mr. Swafford has devised. And, to be fair to Mr. Swafford, I don’t think he’s suggesting that his list is exhaustive or representative of even a majority of the styles of concert music today. But it is disingenuous, patronizing and ridiculous to frame your explanation of the “new noises” in a tone that barely hides your contempt for this music. If this is advocacy, please, stop doing us any favors!

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photo by Keith TalleyFriend, trumpeter, Co-Artistic Director of ANALOG arts and S21 pal Joseph Drew, today on his own ANABlog space shared a few more thoughts on the economic realities of today’s orchestra. Joe had already written some about this earlier this year, but was prompted to bring it up again after spotting a post by the Music Director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, Bill Eddins, over at his own blog.

An excerpt from Joe:

Sounds like other folks are starting to wake up to the reality of the orchestral labor market. Last April, in response to the argument that salary cuts at major orchestras will prompt their members to flee to better-paying jobs, I argued: …where exactly are all these top-flight musicians going to go? To one of the other 17 full-time orchestras with a yawning budget deficit? The market for orchestral talent is hardly dynamic. There is far more supply than there is demand, and the dirty little secret is that the players aren’t what makes the orchestra great (see NY Phil: great players, underachieving ensemble). Buried in that BSO announcement last month is the fact that they are actually replacing two professional seats with amateurs from Peabody. What matters in an orchestra is who’s on the podium and who’s leading the sections. There’s plenty of room for fair to middling talent in even the great orchestras. [...] For now, I’d just point out that what you are generally seeing in Baltimore, Detroit, Philly and other orchestras in similar straits is a dim recognition on the management’s part that the party might just be over, and a determination on the players’ parts to rebuild the bubble. Given their druthers, I get the impression that both sides would be happy to return to their Quixotic days inside the bubble, and that fundamental delusion is the biggest problem facing these institutions.

And an excerpt from Bill:

Two interesting situations are developing that on the surface may not seem connected but are actually deeply related. For better or for worse. Detroit. Charleston. One’s a biggie.  The other’s a … not so biggie … though I’m sure that the musicians in Charleston who rely on those jobs to make a living would argue otherwise, and I can’t really blame them. What they have in common is that for years no one has taken adequate responsibility for the long term health of these organizations. Now they’re paying for it. [...] While the big boys were jacking up their salaries over the past 40 years, and everyone else was trying to Keep Up With The Joneses, some serious systemic imbalances got contracted into the picture. No one seemed to mind deficit after deficit after deficit. But, unfortunately for us, only the Government has license to print money. The general economy is retrenching and the orchestra business isn’t going to be far behind. The admittedly excellent orchestras like Detroit are now in the position where decades of deficit spending and endowment raiding are going to come home to roost. Whether we like to admit it or not, we musicians have been complicit in this debacle. At some point the long-term health of an organization must be more important than how much the salary will increase during the next year of the contract.

So, how long until we’re a country with maybe 1000 living-wage musicians in 10-15 orchestras in only the biggest cities, and everybody else scraping what they can from wherever; and does that mean that most folk would be fools to invest years learning instruments that so few will pay them to play?

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