Archive for November, 2006

I’ve written, and others have written, often about the challenges of a life in the arts. There are definitely undeniable pleasures, though.

Last Monday I had a few hours to kill before the premiere of Singing silver, so I headed up to MoMA.

In recent years, I have stopped Doing Museums and focused on Doing Art instead. In order to Do Art, I approach museums as if they were concerts: I pick about a half dozen works to spend a total of two hours enjoying. Each piece gets my undivided attention for anywhere from six to sixty minutes.

Undivided is an exaggeration, of course, because the mind is a lively thing. But I do focus intently on the work at hand, waiting until I have a nuanced understanding of its composition before I look at the placard telling me who made it, what it is called and how much it cost. This sidebar information is interesting, but all of it is peripheral, meaning none of it is a substitute for the actual artistic experience. And yet, how easy it is to race through a museum, spending more time reading the signs next to the paintings than reading the paintings themselves.

So now I look the way I listen to music — noting correspondences, variations, intensities, conflicts, etc., as they arise over time. I don’t have much of a vocabulary for the visual arts: my responses are largely pre- and post-verbal. (On the other hand, I have an excellent vocabulary for music, but I can’t say it’s always of much use to me as a listener.)

At MoMA, there were six works, in six different rooms, that got my full attention. Each one showed an intelligence I’m not accustomed to acknowledging in inanimate objects. Over the course of our encounters, each one revealed a multiplicity of perspectives, a greater density of thought than I could have gathered in a shorter time. And when I left, after two hours, I had more to occupy my mind than I could ever find in the most conscientious catalogue.

As I noted above, I stopped Doing Museums a few years ago – actually about ten years ago, when I read Jeanette Winterson’s essay “Art Objects.” I would love to quote the entire essay, because it is full of felicitous observations, but it’s about 20 pages long, so here is just one sample:

“Long looking at paintings is equivalent to being dropped into a foreign city, where gradually, out of desire and despair, a few key words, then a little syntax make a clearing in the silence. Art, all art, not just painting, is a foreign city, and we deceive ourselves when we think it familiar. No-one is surprised to find that a foreign city follows its own customs and speaks its own language. Only a boor would ignore both and blame his defaulting on the place. Every day this happens to the artist and the art.”

To which I can only add that it’s amazing what you can learn when you assume a work of art is smarter than you are.

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According to the Times, there were about two thousand empty seats when the Knicks played in Madison Square Garden on Monday night. I’m attributing their poor attendance to the great turnout we had in Elebash Hall for the first Sequenza21 concert. I hope all the other composers are as happy with their share of the box office take as I am.

I’ve noted this before, and I’ve been surprised that more people don’t agree with me: some pieces are more vivid in live performance, others work better on recording. I don’t see this as a positive or a negative either way, just as a fact. I always decide at the outset when a piece I am working on will be better served in one medium than the other.

I decided early on that Singing silver, with its mix of amplified and acoustic elements, would fare a bit better on recording than live, and composed it accordingly. Not to say it can’t be performed live – after all, I just performed it — but the intimacy of a recording will bring all of the details home in a way that is very difficult to match on stage. I’ve scheduled two more performances of the piece, but its ultimate destiny is on a set of speakers.

Why, if I’m planning to have a piece exist primarily through recording, do I schedule live performances? Because live performances give me the opportunity to reach a complete understanding of the piece, without which a recording is bound to sound a bit sterile. I wish I could explain it more clearly than that, but I don’t think I can, at least not yet.

Ironically, the pieces of mine that get the most live performances are often the ones that fare better on recording. Performers hear a recording of something that sounds fantastic and decide to program it, ending up a bit disappointed by the results on stage. Conversely, I have pieces that don’t get performed much even though they are really killer in a live performance, simply because people can’t fully grasp their impact through sample recordings. I’m having a harder and harder time finding people who will actually look at a score and make decisions about how a piece is going to sound. Everyone seems to want a recording, and nobody is giving enough attention to the disparity between the experience of listening to a recording and the experience of attending a concert.

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Some final, random thoughts as I prepare to head to NYC on Sunday to rehearse and perform Singing silver with ICE:
  • I initially had misgivings about being included in this concert, but now I’m glad I’m doing it. It’s good to take myself out of my comfort zone now and then, and there are a lot of things about this program that are a bit off-road for me. However it goes, I will know a few things I didn’t know before, and that makes me happy.
  • How will I like working with the ICE musicians? I’ve never met them, and I’m unaccustomed to performing with strangers. Here’s hoping we are able to hit it off quickly. I had initially booked them for a residency here at the NC School of the Arts, based on some recommendations from people whose opinion I respect. Then this concert came up and I thought As Long As I’m Already Negotiating With Them, Why Not Perform With Them?
  • I’m relying heavily on the skills of the sound technician, another collaborator I haven’t yet met – and I won’t meet him until 75 minutes before the performance. This is very amusing to me, because I’m usually pretty cautious, not to say anal, about these things. How clearly will I be able to convey to him the sound I am looking for? The risk, of course, is unintelligibility, which would be a shame. And I’ll be up on stage, not really knowing what the audience is hearing.
  • The piece is scored for soprano, horn, cello, guitar and narrator. Narrator! I hate calling myself that – it’s not like I’m going to tell the story of Babar the Elephant or something. But what else is there? Reciter? Reader? Lame. The way I use my voice to interact with the music is – well, I haven’t come up with a word to describe it.
  • How will I handle meeting all of the other Sequenza21 composers for the first time? I’m not a person who can rely on being socially graceful in unfamiliar circumstances – sometimes I’m fine, but sometimes my toes reach back to tickle my tonsils. The social aspects of this profession are tricky — we’re all very sensitive creatures.
  • I love this piece. Will anyone else like it?
  • Will Jerry bring his cat?

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Our Composition Department had the amazing Taimur Sullivan in the house this past week.

Taimur is best known as the baritone saxophonist for the Prism Quartet, but he’s all over the new music map, having played with Ensemble 21, Ensemble Sospeso, Fireworks Ensemble, Glass Farm Ensemble, Nex(t)works, Washington Square Contemporary Music Society, Composers Concordance, and League of Composers/ISCM, to name a few.

On Friday he was a guest of our Composition Seminar, using spectralist composer Philippe Hurel’s Op Cit to demonstrate extended saxophone techniques. Despite enough multiphonics, bent pitches, slap tongues, subtones and sung notes to please any technique extender, the part of the piece that really got me was the demonic, rapid-fire, single-tongued staccato passage Taimur produced on low Bb at the end of the third movement. It was so clean and powerful, evidence of truly awesome technical skills.

He then gave our students a professional primer on getting their music out there, the dos and don’ts of convincing people to play your music, which, of course, is always helpful. He told an amusing story of calling Milton Babbitt up at midnight to ask him to write a violin and sax duo – which certainly got Milton’s attention.

He followed the seminar with a concert (joined by pianist Allison Gagnon) on Tuesday that was just outstanding. The first half was all French, the second half all American.

The whole program was strong, but the best piece in my book was Fernande Decruck’s Sonata. Does anybody know anything about this woman? The four-movement piece, which seems to have been written in Paris around the outset of the Nazi occupation, is fashioned exquisitely – every phrase seems just right, yet completely fresh. It was everything that French Post-Romanticism wanted to be, but seldom was. I’d love to hear more of her work.

After John Anthony Lennon’s lovely Distances Within Me and John Harbison’s pleasantly quirky San Antonio, Taimur concluded the program with his own adaptation of Eric Dolphy’s version of God Bless the Child, the wonderful song that Billie Holiday co-wrote with Arthur Herzog. Describing this version as “part Baroque, part cubist and part bebop,” he launched into a rendition that was all of the above and more, capping it off with the most beautiful playing of a terrific evening.

I’d recommend a double-dose of Taimur Sullivan to anyone.

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Sometimes the world is surprisingly wonderful.Attending as many concerts as I do, I’ve made the casual acquaintance of a local couple, I’d say a few years younger than I, who, it turns out, host occasional chamber concerts in their lovely Victorian home. They invited me to one the other evening.

The notion of hosting chamber concerts in a drawing room can evoke all sorts of images, positive and negative, but I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I found.

The featured performers were the excellent Jonathan Bagg, violist of the Ciompi Quartet, along with Boston-based pianist and Ives scholar Donald Berman. The program included a world premiere, two other pieces from the last ten years, and a set of studies by Charles Ives, one of which was a premiere of sorts.

The audience, about forty people packed into the main room and the two adjoining rooms (listening through the open French doors), was made up of music lovers – as far as I could ascertain, there were only four musicians, including myself.

At the conclusion of the concert, our hostess got up and reminded us of the story of the boy who was told by his emperor to bring him something completely original, something nobody had ever seen before, to which the boy responded by bringing an egg. As the emperor and his court gathered round, the egg hatched, and there it was: something nobody had seen before. “I hope you can all feel that same wonderment this evening, having just heard a piece of music that has never been heard before,” she concluded.

With all the new works I’ve heard in my lifetime, it was truly refreshing and delightful to hear someone with that kind of enthusiasm over a premiere.

The piece in question was by Stephen Jaffe, who, among other things, teaches down the road at Duke University. Four Pieces Quasi Sonata is a fifteen-minutish work, with the form of each movement emerging gracefully from a Classical antecedent without falling into cliché. Jaffe’s language — pointillistic at times, at other times merging viola tone with chiming harmonics inside the piano – combined the instruments’ strengths beautifully. I particularly liked the pensive third movement, a quiet viola cadenza framed by elusive piano chords.

The other two new works were Arthur Levering’s gorgeous Tesserae from 2003 and one of Takemitsu’s last works, A Bird Came Down the Walk, after a poem by Emily Dickinson. The latter was haunting, enigmatic and gently shocking.

Again, one of the Ives studies was a premiere of sorts: Berman has transcribed a recorded improvisation Ives made some 70 years ago. Although Berman has recorded his transcription, the disk is not due out until next year, and we got the first live performance of a surprisingly coherent and unsurprisingly pesky little piece on a very sensitive 8-foot Blüthner piano.

Afterwards, I found myself chatting with a military judge, who told me he had tried very hard to love Ives all his life, but he always ended up disappointed. “Amazing, wonderful ideas,” he said, “but somehow there are very few really transcendent works, from beginning to end.” Agree or not, I was taken aback to find someone outside of the profession with such a nuanced response to Ives’s music. He also talked about how much he appreciates program notes, because he not only wants to enjoy music, he wants to learn something new with each piece.

I gradually discovered that this aesthetic energy was common to everyone in the room, with ages ranging evenly from 30s to 80s, from all walks of life. The whole experience was really inspiring, and it confirmed my oft-repeated credo: I have no interest in large numbers of listeners — I just want listeners who really listen.

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One of the mantras I find over and over on the web is Get Music Out Of The Stuffy Concert Halls And Into Alternative Venues.

I understand where this sentiment is coming from, but I have a contra-indicative anecdote.

One of my grad students did his undergraduate work at a school that focuses on preparing students for success in the commercial field. He attended a concert here in our Watson Hall for the first time last week. He was blown away by the experience of sitting in a venue in which hundreds of people were focused entirely on the music. After playing jazz and rock in clubs, bars, etc., he had become used to hearing the end of everything he played merge into the ambient noise of the setting. Sometimes the audience noise was a little more than ambient, and the music was drowned out entirely.

At the concert here, he was completely floored to see all of these people sitting in stunned silence at the conclusion of a piece, followed by enthusiastic ovations. It was his first experience with a Classical concert audience, and he was hooked.

We have to keep in mind that concert halls are built for the enjoyment of music, as opposed to other venues with other priorities. There is something to be said for an environment that supports listening to music in all of its detail and all of its glory.

And is it just me, or has anyone else ever been to a club that was stuffy and pretentious?

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I had a dream last night I was contacting ICM, one of the top artist management firms, and the logo on their website said, “Less Entertainment — More Fun.” And I thought, Yes, that’s what I need.Unfortunately, when I clicked on the link in the website, I woke up — and the world was as it is.

But the idea of seeking Fun as opposed to Entertainment stayed with me.

A lot of what I’m told is entertaining – Hollywood blockbusters, elimination games, red-carpet interviews – I find terribly dull. But the slow movement of the Debussy quartet that Mirò Quartet played the other night as an encore? Sheer Fun.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a diatribe about Art vs. Entertainment. Those are two overlapping regions on the same continuum; it’s often difficult – and pointless – to distinguish between them.

But just as there is much Art that doesn’t live up to its lofty billing, there is a ton of Entertainment that only makes the world a more disspiriting place to live in.

And neither Art nor Entertainment has a monopoly on Fun.

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