Archive for the “Classical Music” Category

We’re at t-minus three weeks from the first rehearsal for De Materie with Great Noise Ensemble. It’s been a little bit of a mad scramble since the Washington Post featured our October 24 performance in their Fall Arts Guide almost two weeks ago, which reminded us of the reality of this project and how widely anticipated it is in the Washington scene. This sense of mad scramble was especially accentuated by the recent discovery that our usual rehearsal space at the Catholic University of America would be unavailable thanks to their fall opera production going up during the same week that we’ll be rehearsing De Materie. No big deal, really. It’s all part of guerrilla music making. The problem isn’t so much the need to find any space, since we’ve been there before, but, rather, the sheer size of this ensemble.
Great Noise Ensemble’s core instrumentation is usually about 18-20 members. De Materie not only requires two more vocal soloists than we have in our core, but also an eight member chorus and an instrumental ensemble of 50 people. That’s meant recruiting a total of 42 more musicians than we usually perform with. Add to that the amount of equipment utilized: three marimbas, glockenspiel, two vibraphones, two drum sets, eight boo-bams, snare drum, two bass drums, lion’s roar, large rattle, three large cowbells, two large wooden crates with sheet metal nailed on the inside, two sets of tom-toms, chimes, bell tree, guiro, slapstick, two bell plates and metal “junk” percussion (which could conceivably include a kitchen sink)…and that’s just the percussion! We need to find a space that can fit all of that, along with the performers required to play all of those instruments, the personnel and their instruments in the “traditional” line up, and three pianos (two grands and an upright), two synthesizers, harp, two electric guitars and an electric bass and their amplifiers (oh yeah, and we have to amplify the singers, so there are those amplifiers and microphones to fit).

Whew! I’m tired just writing all of that!

In all seriousness and honesty, this process has not been nearly as painful or difficult as I just made it sound. Actually, it really has not been difficult at all, thanks to all of the people working behind the scenes to make this event (and it is an event) possible: from GNE principal percussionist Chris DeChiara, to our Executive Director, Alan Michels and our Managing Director, Katherine Kellert, to the staff at the music department of the National Gallery of Art, led by Stephen Ackert, and Stephen C. Stone and Steve Gorbos at the Peabody Institute and the Catholic University of America, respectively. Hardest working of all, perhaps, has been Annelisa Guries, GNE’s Personnel Manager. Hers has been the job of finding the forty extra players that we needed for this concert. She has excelled at that responsibility.

Up next (I hope): a rehearsal report!

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Very nice article in today’s NYT online on 12-tone music by Anthony Tommasini. The point of the article is that 12-tone music isn’t dead, but is merely part of the musical richness that is new music, to the point that people like us can choose from whatever musical techniques we want, taking a little bit of this and that, etc.

I think he’s correct. Having been a “12-tone composer” many years ago, I was turned off by the rigidity of the system, just as I was turned off by the rigidity of tonality. But I still like to listen to a lot of 12-tone music. And rows do at times creep into my more recent music, even though it’s in another galaxy in terms of its distance from dodecaphonism. Indeed, I think that’s one of the great things about our current situation—we can pick and choose what we want to do, and not be servants of any particular movement, be it serialism, the new romanticism, postminimalism, minimalism, indeterminacy…whatever.

Incidentally, Tomassini has a nice video clip of him explaining all this. He’s a pretty good pianist, and I like his short excerpts from Schoenberg’s opuses 11 and 25.

So is 12-tone music dead? Is that question even meaningful? Should we care?

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I just took a satirical whack at this elsewhere but couldn’t resist briefly pointing it out here where someone might read and enjoy it. Thanks to’s classical music feed I found a UPI story about J.S. Bach’s failure to make it into the top 30 of Classic FM’s top-300 poll. Here are the choice quotes:

The 18th-century German baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach failed to place any of his music in the Top 30 favorites of 67,328 listeners who voted in Classic FM’s 11th annual poll….

I love the way they put it–”Bach failed to place any of his music…” You can imagine how the failure just killed the poor guy. For some reason it makes me think of the philosopher’s soccer game from Monty Python.

Darren Henley of Classic FM, said Bach’s music just wasn’t catchy enough.

“He’s the fifth most popular composer overall, with 10 works in our Top 300, but he maybe hasn’t got any of those seminal works that people are passionate about,” Henley said….

The number one was Vaughn Williams’s Lark Ascending.

Somehow, for me at least, the utter banality of it puts the Joshua Bell story in perspective (and I mean this story in particular, though the poll itself is plenty stupid). The way it comes up on adds another layer of absurdity. They have those ads that pop up when the mouse passes over certain phrases, like “Violin Concerto” (“Compare and Save at”). Isn’t this one of the signs of the apocalypse?

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A while back on NPR, I heard Scott Simon interview Marin Alsop about Mahler’s Fifth. Simon kicked it off with a nice quote from Mahler about how a symphony should be like a whole world, then there was this exchange:

SS: …but when Mahler introduced [his Fifth] to the world in 1904, conducting the symphony himself, he apparently was disappointed with its reception. He’s reported to have said, “nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance fifty years after my death.”… [the music swells, then he introduces Marin Alsop]… Thanks very much for being back with us.
MA: Great to be here, Scott.
SS: And were those words born of great self-knowledge, did it take fifty years for audiences to appreciate this?
MA: Well, that’s tremendously insightful. A good friend of mine, John Corigliano, always says a composer’s work really can’t be judged while he’s still alive, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that.

Though it could be that Alsop was misrepresenting him, the implication is that, by “judged,” Corigliano meant “understood”–composers aren’t understood until they’re dead. And you can’t be appreciated if you aren’t understood. So there it is–death as the ultimate career move.

OK, there was a pattern in the 19th century of the major figures being maybe a generation ahead of their audience–I can see how Mahler might have expected the same thing, and it’s fun to think about how that fifty-year-late premier would have actually gone over. But it’s really just a matter of time. The dying part is a romance that comes from the ones who were tragically cut short in their prime. Van Gogh is the ne plus ultra, but there’s also poor Schubert, and Mozart, sort of, and a few others. It’s great 19th-century mythification, but these day? Are we still expecting big collective ah-ha moments in the 21st century, when audiences finally really get Ligeti, or Reich, or Babbitt, or Corigliano?

I don’t exactly have my finger on the pulse, so I’m wondering. Does anyone else find it, let’s say, over-dramatic for a living composer to be thinking in terms like this? And bizarre for a sophisticated classical music person to take it seriously? Even in a general-public discussion of Mahler it seems like a very tired cliche, doesn’t it? I have a few more thoughts about it on my blog, but I’m still curious to hear other reactions.

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In the January 6th Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout raised a couple interesting points about “intellectual property”. One point especially has some direct bearing on composers and performances of their work:

Last month a London judge awarded 40% of the copyright of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” to Matthew Fisher, the group’s ex-organist. Mr. Fisher, who had asked for 50%, doesn’t claim to have written the song, but he did write the Bach-like organ countermelody heard on the group’s 1967 recording of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which sold 10 million copies. Judge William Blackburne called the countermelody “a distinctive and significant contribution to the overall composition and, quite obviously, the product of skill and labor on the part of the person who created it.”


…anyone familiar with Procol Harum’s recording would be likely to agree that Mr. Fisher’s countermelody is an integral part of the song.

Here’s the problem: Where do you draw the line separating creative performance from actual authorship? Yes, Phil Woods’s coruscating alto saxophone solo on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” is one of that song’s most memorable features — but does that fact entitle Mr. Woods to a share of the royalties that are paid to Mr. Joel for having written the song?

And, a few more questions:

1) In works with indeterminate or improvisatory elements, could the performer begin to claim some share of actual authorship royalties for their realization of your piece?

2) Could another performer be found guilty of infringement, if their own performance was deemed somehow too similar to a previous performer’s realization of your piece?

3) If yes, and taking the issue to its logical extreme, might the interpretation of even a “fully-notated” (bearing in mind that there’s in reality no such thing) piece of yours be deemed the performers “property”? That they could end up “owning” that little attack, portamento or ritard?

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Dear Jerry ,

I want to bring your attention the documentary on Beethoven’s Ninth that I am working on (called Following The Ninth: In The Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony, and ask for your suggestions. I’ve shot close to 50 hours of tape, but the film is really just beginning, thus I am looking for more stories about the Ninth. You can read about the project at What I’m hoping to find here in this discussion forum are new stories that I might follow, develop, as the film proceeds. As of today, I will be filming in Japan, where the Ninth (Daiku) is performed by hundreds of variously sized orchestras, sometimes with choruses of 5000 people or more. I will also be going to Chile and other countries in South America, where a version of the “Ode to Joy” was sung as a song of resistance and hope by those living under military dictatorships.

I would also like to have some of your filmed stories and reflections on the Ninth on my website. That could be arranged in various ways, to be determined if you have an interest. I’m trying to bring the power and passion of one of the greatest works of art ever done to a broader public, and the best way to do that, I think, is through people’s stories, stories from those who are deeply in love with Beethoven’s music. Please write if you have any questions.

Kerry Candaele
Venice, CA


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AC Douglas of “Sounds & Fury” is on a roll with three painfully elitist postings all in one day.  It’s been too long since I last debunked him, so let’s take a gander at all three.

1. “The iPod Sensibility Enters The Concert Hall”

Cal Performances, an arts presenter in Berleley, CA, is installing and state-of-the-art amplification system in Zellerbach Hall, which is designed to compensate for the hall’s shortcomings and enable “a uniformly excellent acoustic environment for its wide range of recitals, chamber music, symphonic music, opera, theater, dance, world music and the rest.”  ACD calls this “another victory for pop culture” and “repulsive.”  First, I don’t see what this has to do with “the iPod Sensibility” aside from the fact that both use electricity.  Second, pop culture has nothing to do with it – they’re not talking about replacing classical repertoire with Justin Timberlake.  They’re not even using it to generate a “pop” sound, but rather to make a wider variety of ensembles sound natural in one space to compensate for the fact that concert halls are emphatically one-size-fits-some.  If you’re a sticker for Historically Informed Performance (HIP), the electroacoustic reinforcement isn’t for you – but neither are modern instruments (including steel strings on your violins), or modern concert halls.  Chamber music is called that for a reason, so if you play, say, a Mozart string quartet in, say, Disney Hall, you’re already miles away from historical accuracy, and the amount of reverberation might make the music sound significantly worse than it would in a salon.  Furthermore, the study of concert hall acoustics only got seriously underway in the 20th Century, so modern halls sound better than most of their pre-modern counterparts.  Why is making halls sound better with electronics any different from making them sound better with architecture?  If your goal is HIP, then do what you have to do.  If your goal is to make music sound as good as possible in the space available, electronic reinforcement is a very useful tool.

2.  “Déjà vu All Over Again”

ACD wonders why Alex Ross’s witty mock-analysis of the feline minimalism video reminds him of “any number of “˜rock critics’ (absurd concept!) waxing eloquent in technically detailed, highfalutin “˜elitist’ language over the latest piece of same-as-the-gazillion-pieces-before-it rock crap with the same earnestness as if it were some recently discovered piece by Bach or Mozart or Beethoven or any other of the pantheon of immortals.”  Sigh.  The reason, Mr. D., is that you believe these analyses are only appropriate for “serious” (i.e. classical) music.  Sophisticated analysis sounds silly when applied to things that lack sophistication, and you perceive rock music as similarly insignificant to the katzemusik.  I don’t mind ignorance about rock music, or dislike of rock music for superficial reasons.  Heck, I dislike both Country music and Debussy for superficial reasons (La Pickup Truck Engloutie).  I mind the presumption that ignorance yields valid analyses.  If it all sounds the same to you, that should be your first clue that you aren’t qualified to pass meaningful judgment on it.  Furthermore, I have yet to hear a persuasive argument that classical music is inherently superior to popular music.  I hereby renew the challenge.

3.  “Gee, What A Surprise II”

The study by British scientists Adrian North and David Hargreaves of the correlation between musical taste and other biographical attributes has been mentioned by many people, and ACD now chimes in with a quote noting the correlation between classical music fandom and higher level of education, higher income, and higher consumption of current affairs magazines.  His only comment is “duh,” and it’s true that these results are pretty unsurprising.  Based on his usual attitudes, however, I suspect he means something like “classical music, due to its inherent superiority, appeals more to people who are smart because they’re smart enough to appreciate it, and smart people generally get more education, earn more money, and read current events magazines.”  Maybe I’m wrong about ACD, and sincere apologies if that is the case, but even if I am wrong this analysis deserves debunking as a public service.  Reports of this sort demand great care in the  attribution of causality.  What’s really happening is that taste is very malleable, and is largely determined by socialization.  A major component of our musical taste is our associations of musical style with social groups, so we should be unsurprised to find musical taste correlating with social and economic groupings.  Classical music’s alignment is a product of cultural history, not of the intelligence levels of the current members of the group.

On the other hand, he’s completely right in this analysis of Harry Potter, he has a beautiful prose style, and he obviously like Wagner, so Sounds & Fury isn’t a complete waste of bandwidth.

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Few composers make the editorial page of the New York Times and Steve Reich is one of them.  Among other nice things, the Times said this

Ascribing the universal appeal of Mr. Reich’s music only to its driving rhythms is simplistic. Deep knowledge of counterpoint, harmony, history, narrative drama and an unerring instinct for beauty are everywhere in his work. But most of us are not musical experts. And rhythm is a language humans grasp from birth.

For those of us raised on beat-heavy pop, rhythm and blues, and rock, Mr. Reich’s infectiously rhythmic music was a path into “serious music,” a realm that might have once felt closed. Among Mr. Reich’s legions of fans must be many a rock, funk or hard-core devotee who came upon works like “Drumming,” or “Music for 18 Musicians” “” two of his best known and most hypnotic percussion epics “” and found themselves somehow changed.


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Is classical music too pretentious? Is that perception off base to begin with? Do you have any personal experiences with pretentious behavior inside the world of classical music?  Drew McManus asks the questions in an article in Partial Observor.

Elsewhere, but not unrelated, Randy Nordchow confesses to have abandoned “ironic-superficial-complexity with a conceptual bent and a little dark humor thrown in” in favor of the New Romantic.

Not to mention Tom Myron’s “lovely” Violin Concerto.

Que pasa?

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Thought you might find this interesting…got this from Randolph Peters on the Finalelist. Absolutely incredible how much of this was done by hand.

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