Archive for November, 2005

Originality is the art of concealing your source.

- Nadia Boulanger

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Last week, we performed Beethoven’s 9th here. Afterwards, I was talking with two choreographers – intelligent, well-educated artists, who know a whole lot more about music than I’ll ever know about dance – who expressed how exciting it was to see so many people on the stage making music together.

I feel like I’m missing the gene that finds enormous groups of musicians amazing. I have nothing against orchestras or choruses, but the sheer size of performing forces means very little to me. In many ways, a single musician – if it’s the right musician — can wield far more power over my sensibilities.

Some people are at home with enormous forces to a degree that makes it difficult for them to express themselves otherwise – John Adams, for example, from the evidence of his output, would seem to feel uninspired by the idea of writing chamber music (somebody correct me if I’m making a presumptuous leap there). Bernard Rands (I seem to be quoting him a lot lately, by some strange coincidence) told me that he found writing for string quartet much harder than writing for orchestra, because you have so few options. I must be looking at it through a very different lens, because I see limitless possibilities in a string quartet – every nuance can be rehearsed, reconsidered and refined to a degree even the best orchestras can’t approach. It’s like the difference between sculpting with metal fibers and sculpting with chunks of granite.

For me, there is a trade-off in intimacy when writing for orchestra that I accept as part of the deal. But I can’t imagine living solely on the advantages I gain for what I’ve given up.

Make no mistake, Beethoven 9 is great stuff – I have no desire to do without it. But the late quartets and sonatas absolutely kill me. I just can’t see what is more magical about a couple hundred people following somebody with a stick than a small group of musicians feeling the push and pull of an elegant phrase as one.

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Earlier, I reported that the Open Dream Ensemble was giving free performances around the region for schools that couldn’t afford to pay the $5/seat price of admission. Unfortunately, in the current economy, free is too expensive: because of soaring gas prices, some of these schools have had to cancel their field trips this fall, because they couldn’t afford to fill up the gas tanks in their buses.

So what do artists do when they can’t get the audience to come to their performance space?

Hit the classrooms, of course.

Photos below: dancers, musicians, actors and designers getting kids involved in the arts.

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We had a helluva Composition Seminar here on Friday. Students spent the last month visiting classes in other art forms – Dance, Sculpture, Film and Drama — and reported back to the rest of us about how these classes are organized. The results were provocative: I’m curious to know what S21 readers will think of them.

At the beginning of the year, students in the Dance Choreography class were given an ordinary seashell to ponder. Their first assignment was to draw it. Next they had to write a poem about it. In the third class, they were asked to create still poses that expressed something about the shell. Then they had to develop movements from the poses they had devised. These movements in turn became the themes of the dances they were going to create for the class.

(Notice that these choreographers are devising their movement “themes” without listening to a note of music.)

At that point, they were given a form, which went something like this: theme – traveling variation – climax – transition – theme – chaos – traveling recap. In the chaos part, they were required to exchange feet and hands, ie, their feet had to do whatever their hands were doing in the theme, and vice versa.

Then they were given a Bach Partita – I don’t know which one, and neither did they – to adapt their movements and form to.

Combining free-ranging whimsy and strict structure, this process struck me as odd but potentially very effective.

Next up: a pair of students gave a presentation on their visit to the Sculpture class. The first and most important thing about it, they said, was acoustical: the class took place in an immense, blaring room, and the radio was pumped up with modern punk throughout the entire session. For our composition students, the effect was completely disorienting – they couldn’t imagine having to work in that kind of chaotic atmosphere.

Everyone in the sculpture class (@20 students) was working on an identical project: trying to make something exciting but nonrepresentational using only balsa wood and paper. Unlike typical composers, students in the sculpture class shared ideas and materials freely – if someone needed an extra chunk of balsa, there was always someone nearby willing to hand some over. Again, the din was constant. The work was very physical – it was common for students’ hands to be bloodied and bandaged.

The course follows a recurring three-day process. Day One: discussion/introduction (usually involving slides) of project. Day Two: free work time. Day Three: critique from instructor and peers.

In addition, each student was required to keep a sketchbook, and fill 50 pages with sketches every term. I’m thinking of requiring this for my composition students: aimless doodling is such an important part of the creative process, and should take place daily.

The composition students made an effort to recreate the atmosphere of the sculpture class in their presentation, simultaneously speaking without any reference to one another, so we had to pick out bits and pieces of what was being said from the general chaos. It was a mini-Cage-happening in our Composition Seminar.

One of the students shared an epiphany he had about the different ways we experience different art forms: with visual arts, we usually take in the whole object first, then focus in on details, while with music we are given a series of details from which to construct a concept of the whole.

The third presentation was on a Film Editing class. This class is divided into three groups of four people each. Every weekend the groups shoot new material. During the week, each group edits its material down into a five-minute sequence. The editing process involves taking 20-30 minutes of film and cutting a sequence in which the various segments connect into a convincing narrative – even if that process requires altering the original chronology of shots.

The class sessions are organized very much like a music masterclass: each group screens its edited sequence, classmates critique the results, and then the professor gives his suggestions. In this case, though, the technology allows the professor to instantly demonstrate alternatives, eg, how about if we cut from here to here, or insert this shot, or prolong this one? A few points and clicks, and the sequence is completely changed.

The focus is on creating logic and mood with both the chronology and the pacing of the edits. The artistry comes in matching the mood of the edits to the character of the material.

The final presentation was on Drama Fundamentals – an acting class. An entire session was spent on one scene; the class was broken up into couples who had to perform this scene for their peers. Every breath, every eye flicker, every vocal inflection means something to an audience, so the actors are trained to be very aware of their bodies. The very physicality is a bit foreign to most composers: our students were given a quick lesson on how uncomfortable it can be to stare at a couple making out ten feet away from them.

Not something we are likely to try in Composition Seminar anytime soon.

But the most powerful lesson for young composers is the degree to which actors must surrender to their work – maintaining aesthetic or intellectualized distance results in a stiff performance.

All of these reports gave our students – and me – a lot to think about. In this brief summary, I have, of course, left out a lot of what was said, some of which was really compelling. I’d be curious to know if S21 readers have had similar, or dissimilar experiences involving other art forms besides music composition. Seems there’s a lot to learn from our peers in other disciplines.

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Caught two new music concerts this week. Well, actually, neither of them was billed or thought of as a new music concert, and yet both of them were.

Heard clarinetist Igor Begelman perform with his long-time collaborator Tatiana Goncharova on Saturday night. Anyone who has heard him play should now expect a long line of superlatives – there really isn’t anyone who can do more with that instrument. He is a consummate virtuoso, not just in the number of notes he can pack into one hour of music (which is more than most clarinetists play in a week) but in his ability to instantly adjust his sound and the character of his playing in response to an immense range of styles.

The concert opened with Lutoslawski’s Dance Preludes, a set of charming compositions based on Polish folk dances. I’m finding that I appreciate Lutoslawski most in his least monumental works. Another highlight was the premiere of David Winkler’s Begelmania, a virtuosic showpiece well-tailored for the instrument and the instrumentalist, including a polyphonic passage of nasty low trills pocked by pristine melody notes in the top register.

But my favorite piece of the evening was the North Carolina premiere of Alexander Krasotov’s Rhapsody on Hebrew Themes. Krasotov is a Ukrainian composer I haven’t heard before, and he seems to be ungooglable, but he’s someone I’d like to hear more of. Apparently he teaches at the Odessa Conservatory and wrote this piece around 1990. The title didn’t promise much – I can’t normally get very excited over yet another virtuosic medley – but it was potent stuff, very surprising and engrossing.

The other concert (which I had to leave at intermission to put out an administrative fire) was a performance by the NC School of the Arts Percussion Ensembles. All of the music was from the last 35 years, including two parts of a 1974 James Tenney triptych: Crystal Canon for Edgard Varese and Wake for Charles Ives. The third part of the triptych – Hocket for Henry Cowell – will be played here in February.

These pieces afford a snapshot of minimalism in the pervasive form it took in the early 1970s: composer sets a process in motion, then adopts a Voltairish perspective, standing back and watching the music unfold. It was a time when minimalism was still under the powerful influence of Cage, with his interest in limiting the composer’s impact on how the music sounds. Crystal Canon treats the main theme of Ionisation to a four-part canon for snare drums. The canonic writing is strict, the piece unfolds without any surprises, and concludes without much fanfare. The music manages, like much minimalism of the time, to be both ultra-rational and anti-intellectual.

Wake is for four toms, beginning with a very long, simple solo that is simultaneously rigid and curiously plaintive. As the other drums enter one by one, we are treated to a dirge of sorts, which is all the more solemn for being completely unembellished.

***

I’ve been struck by how much recent music I’ve been hearing live lately, so I tabulated the works that have been performed here so far this season by century, with some interesting results:

Eleven performances in five weeks: six faculty concerts, three student ensemble concerts, two guest artist concerts. The number of works per century score as follows:

18th century: 8
19th century: 9
20th century: 26
21st century: 6

The twenty-first century seems grossly over-represented, considering the other centuries were twenty times longer.

Or, another way to look at it: Smallish city, conservatory trained musicians – looks like it’s time to start complaining about the stranglehold 20th-century music has on the repertoire.

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“Elinor agreed with it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.”

– Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

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For all of you stereophonic listeners out there, you don’t know what you’re not missing.

I’m deaf in my left ear. Have been for as long as I can remember. I regard it as a social inconvenience more than a musical one – there have been times when I’ve discovered that people were upset with me because they thought I was snottily ignoring them, when I actually had no idea they were speaking to me. Might be a good idea to hang a sign from my earlobe, or better yet a tattoo that says, “meet me on the other side.”

When I was a kid, oneearedness gave me a great way to drift off during a boring class: I would put my right elbow on the desk, cover my good ear with my palm, and affect a look of deep concentration while spinning my thoughts out the window. I sometimes do the same thing in committee meetings to this day.

Biggest aggravation: someone in the room talking to me while I’m on the phone.

Us monophonics feel an instant kinship. When I first met Marcy Rosen, the cellist of the Mendelssohn String Quartet, we were attempting to have a conversation with one another while walking across a parking lot, but we kept circling each other, trying to get on our good sides, before we finally realized we were both trying to solve the same problem. We became fast confidants after that. But now, whenever we have a conversation, one of us has to walk backwards.

(When the Mendelssohn was first looking for a name for their group, one of the proposals was Four Scores and Seven Ears.)

One-eared wonders can’t locate sound. When a lot of people are talking in a large room, I have a helluva time trying to make out anything specific. I often give up and assume a vacant smile, as if I know what’s going on. I usually come across as either tremendously wise or incredibly dense.

The biggest musical problem for a solo auricle is dealing with headphones. I’ve always mistrusted them, because I know while one side is communicating just fine, the other side is just talking to a wall. So, no thanks to Walkman or Ipod – I’m not even that crazy about speakers, which have all the musical presence of a sofa. I prefer my music live.

But Henry Brant’s music? Fuggedaboutit.

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We had the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio here Saturday night playing, among other things, a piece written for them by Arvo Pärt entitled Mozart – Adagio, billed by the composer as a “commentary” on the slow movement from Mozart’s F Major Piano Sonata, K. 280. Pärt extracted some of the dissonances from Mozart’s composition and used them as framing devices for the original work. In effect, 90% of what you heard was what Mozart wrote, with a few interpolations, (using a word I hate, but it fits here) decontextualized.

I was eager to hear the result, because my experience with Pärt is two-sided, with very little in between: I find his works either intensely moving or sadly empty – which I suppose is the risk he takes in striving for utter simplicity. When it doesn’t work, there’s not much there to care about.

For me, this was a piece that fell squarely on the wrong side of the tracks. It was decomposed Mozart, except that description makes it sound a lot more interesting than it was.

The original version of Pärt’s “commentary” dates from 1992, although he’s been revising it continually ever since, even giving the musicians some new adjustments this past week. And therein lies a sad irony – 13 years spent futilely attempting to adorn a piece Mozart probably wrote between lunch and supper.

Disclaimer: I’ve written my own commentary piece on Mozart, which is called Amadeus ex machina, a distillation of the 40th symphony into a 10-minute soundbyte. You can hear an excerpt here (sorry I don’t have a soundfile of the entire piece).

So it would perfectly logical for you to conclude that I can’t hear the value of Pärt’s commentary because I’m too close to my own, which is significantly different in character and purpose.

But when you factor in Pärt’s disinclination to write a piano trio in the first place, the fact that he composed the piece more or less unwillingly, and has spent much of the ensuing years trying to rework it to his satisfaction — I think there’s good reason to believe that he’s not particularly enthused by the results either.

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