Archive for the “Contemporary Classical Music” Category

With most musicians the obsession of Brian Eno tends toward the analogy of driving on the highway: anyone driving faster than me is insane, and anyone going slower than me is an idiot.  I’ve done more than my share of eye-rolling as it seems nearly any musician will pledge some allegiance to ‘Brain One’ no matter how tenuous the connection, yet it is undeniable how pervasive an effect Eno has had on the world.  From his early work with Roxy Music, then moving on into a solo career where he largely created the ambient movement (along with significant contributions to progressive rock and world music) we could stop there and have a significant figure to consider. Then of course we would be leaving out, world-renowned producer, visual artist, writer, and visionary thinker who helps found organizations like The Long Now Foundation. Author David Sheppard acknowledges that on the highway of Brian Eno, he drives in the unrestricted lane of the autobahn. I drive pretty fast myself, so I was quite excited to encounter this book.

The biography of a renaissance man (truly an apt description here) must be one of the harder tasks in telling the story of a life.  There are so many avenues to walk down it would be easy to lose focus. Sheppard starts off, “You couldn’t make him up.  Or at least if you did no one would quite believe you.”  The density of Eno’s multi-varied accomplishments is something that Sheppard is acutely aware of and are enumerated with humor and appropriate awe in his opening chapter.  Indeed there are so many facets to Eno that Sheppard could only hope to build a frame around him and “try to fit a skyscraper into a suitcase.”  Nonetheless with this book we are treated to a wonderful framing of an inconceivably accomplished life.

Of course this biography is destined to be incomplete as Brian Eno is alive and well (61 today), but we are left with a detailed tent pole chronology that gives us an excellent portrait of the man up to very recent history (Spring 2008).  While the opening chapters provide a warmly detailed account of Sheppard’s interest in Eno as well as the years of his upbringing, the bulk of the book deals (understandably) with his professional life.  There is a dizzying plethora of material on Eno as so many love to explore every inch of his output.  Certainly this is in no small part due to Eno’s enthusiasms for being interviewed and giving talks, but Sheppard has been exceptionally detailed in finding choice interviews and quotes from Eno’s many collaborators.  Beyond that, he had the handy cooperation of Eno himself and his wife Anthea to provide new and revealing detail.  While Sheppard is clearly a fan’s fan, he manages to temper the honorifics and hyperbole with a critical eye to give us much better than what could have been a gushing tome.

While Eno’s published diary gives us a personal insight and Eric Tamm’s book gave us a detailed musicology, Sheppard’s biography fills a much needed space in providing a fabulous and engrossing bridge between the two.  He gracefully merges groundbreaking collaborations, ideas, and music with an intimate portrait that is equally fascinating.

On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno” by David Sheppard, 2008, hardcover: 480 pages, $18.45 on Amazon, ISBN 978-1-55652-942-9.

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Peter Gillette is studying trumpet — and of course all manner of other things seriously musical — over in Iowa City. Like so many of us he also keeps a blog, and I just couldn’t help passing along a link to his wonderful little post, “A Brief, Entirely Clear Thought Upon Reading Milton Babbitt“. An excerpt:

This evening, was read by me, which is to say having been read as one reads if read one must call it (that is, that which must be read or has been itself read) several articles by””or, rather, at the limits, if a name apply it we must, Milton Babbitt; eminent theorist insofar as theory itself ascribes eminence, ascribed insofar as ascription can itself be ascertained through paragraphs of two or more sentences at once, it can be said, resembling this one it can be said at its own very limit, both within and beyond that which is under and about (as far as we may be certain enough to say)…

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washington composers forum websiteEven though I’m down in Houston now, I still get my regular monthly email update from the Washington Composers Forum.

Christopher Shanin has put quite a bit of effort into both the site, and keeping it full of current and interesting news. And just as important, he truly works to create regular and real-life opportunities for local composers to share their music and ideas, with both themselves and the public.

Of course there’s the more general American Composers Forum, which is an umbrella linking forums in places like Atlanta, Philadelphia, D.C., etc.; and the even more broad American Music Center and the Society of Composers Incorporated. But I’d like to hear from you, about whatever similar, specifically local organizations are at work in your own piece of turf ( I know, I know, I could look them all up on Google; but I’ve got a life, too, and don’t see why we can’t pick all your brains a bit).

Who’s doing what in your town? Are they active, sporadic, or comatose? Promote calls for scores and concerts, just hang out for an occasional chat, or exist pretty much in name only?  Tell me all in the comments — and link ‘em if you got ‘em…

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Having just viewed from only slightly afar (my television) the Latin Grammys held this year here in Houston, I thought I’d conterbalance the crushing Juanes domination by mentioning that there was also a Grammy for Best Classical Contemporary Composition buried down in there somewhere. For both sentimental and musical reasons I was rooting for Jorge Liderman‘s Barcelonazo, but the awards held true to form and picked a tremendously “pleasant” piece by the Costa Rican composer Carlos José Castro. I’ve managed to dig up links to a snatch (or more) of all the nominated pieces, though how long the links keep working is anyone’s guess:

Barcelonazo – Jorge Liderman, composer (Jorge Liderman) / Track from: Barcelonazo

Concierto Del Sol (Winner)– Carlos José Castro, composer (Orquesta Filarmónica De Costa Rica) / Track from: Orquesta Filarmónica De Costa Rica

Non Divisi – Roberto Valera, composer (Camerata Romeu) / Track from: Non Divisi

Tahhiyya Li Ossoulina – Sérgio Assad, composer (Sérgio y Odair Assad) / Track from: Jardim Abandonado

Variación Del Recuerdo – Aurelio De La Vega, composer (The North/South Chamber Orchestra) / Track from: Remembrances-Recuerdos

So you all can be the judge…

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I just finished reading Molly Sheridan’s interview with David Morneau, who spent the past year writing a 60-second piece every day, over at New Music Box. With Morneau’s project, 60×60 (which Morneau sites as his inspiration), and the Microscore Project, music of extremely short duration seems to be all the rage these days. Are we seeing the rise of the miniature as a new net-fueled genre? Any veterans of composing mini-music or attending the relevant concerts care to contribute lessons learned?

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The science journal Nature has been working its way through a nine-part series of essays on Science and Music. Not all are online or free yet, but you can currently read Phillip Ball’s and David Huron’s contributions on the site.

Huron provides provides an important — though to many of us not very surprising — reminder that the worldwide musical landscape is nearing the completion of “The Great Flattening”; soon, there won’t be anyone making anything that doesn’t have the Western musical tradition either at its heart, or as its wrapper:

Last year I joined an expedition of biologists to the remote Javari region of the Amazon. The biologists were censusing the wildlife. I was interested in the people. We encountered subsistence hunter-farmers with transistor radios. Even in the western Amazon, people listen to Funk Carioca and Christina Aguilera.

Linguists know how fast languages disappear. Musical cultures may be an order of magnitude more fragile. It will be many centuries before the whole world speaks Mandarin. Meanwhile Western music has swept the globe faster than aspirin. Robust musical cultures remain in China, India, Indonesia and the Arab world, but even in these regions, most people are thoroughly acquainted with Western music through film and television. Less robust musical cultures are disappearing rapidly or are showing deep infiltration by Western musical foundations. Many have already disappeared. There remain only a few isolated pockets, such as the highlands of Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya.

Regrettably, most cognitive scientists are ill-equipped to do remote field work, and few ethnomusicologists know how to do an experiment. This situation must change rapidly if we are to have much hope of glimpsing the range of possible musical minds. We have perhaps just a decade or so before everyone on the planet has been brought up with Western music or its derivatives.

Of course the plea for keeping all this diversity alive and thriving is right, good, noble… but it’s just not going to happen. There’s always something in the call to “preserve your culture” (whoever the “you” may be), that has its own tinge of a kind of reverse-imperialism. On the one hand, the old-school thought was “here, ditch all that silly crap you’ve been doing for generations, and we’ll teach you the only true civilization”; while the other asks people to not join up, stay fat and happy (or skinny and miserable, as the case may be) and and just keep doing what you’ve always been doing over there in your own little world. And through all of this noble theoretical bickering, the people just do what they think they want to do… I’m not making any plea myself, just saying “get ready”. Sure, there’ll always be different styles of music, but only one foundation: that of the West. Everything else will just be interior decoration.

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“Eh? Speak up, I can’t hear you…” The problem? Hearing loss from too-loud music. The culprit? Composers! All our fortissimos are endangering the very people we rely on to make our music. From a recent St. Louis Dispatch story:

Seated in front of the percussion section, and subjected to “ferocious” sound, [bass clarinetist James] Meyer worried about the effects on his hearing. He did research at the library and talked with people at 17 different orchestras around the country about their setups. He drew diagrams. He took readings of decibel levels. “The threshold of pain is (about) 118 decibels. I took a lot of readings (on stage) over that.” [....] Many contemporary works rely heavily on percussion and high volume, notes [percussionist Rich] O’Donnell. The orchestra played a lot of them during the Leonard Slatkin years, in particular. “I think there are a lot of composers who have trouble writing a soft piece,” O’Donnell said. Conductors can be prickly, too. O’Donnell recalls bringing up noise issues at a meeting with Slatkin and getting a glare: “He said, ‘Are you trying to limit my artistic expression?’”

While we may side with Slatkin and pooh-pooh this as over-worried hype, better think again if you’re hoping to have that European performance; As the NYT reported recently, workplace noise-protection regulations there now apply to symphony orchestras just as much as to factories:

They had rehearsed the piece only once, but already the musicians at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra were suffering. Their ears were ringing. Heads throbbed. Tests showed that the average noise level in the orchestra during the piece, “State of Siege,” by the composer Dror Feiler, was 97.4 decibels, just below the level of a pneumatic drill and a violation of new European noise-at-work limits. Playing more softly or wearing noise-muffling headphones were rejected as unworkable. So instead of having its world premiere on April 4, the piece was dropped. “I had no choice,” said Trygve Nordwall, the orchestra’s manager. “The decision was not made artistically; it was made for the protection of the players.”

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A few nicely surprising identifications, but if the combined brainpower of the S21 crowd only recognized two-thirds of the 36 faces, seems — what with the long, cold and snowy holidays coming up — a little catching up on any of these diverse and worthwhile composers would be time well-spent:

1. Maryanne Amacher  2. Gerald Barry  3. Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

4. David Behrman  5. Earle Brown  6. Allison Cameron

7. Maria de Alvear  8. Francis Dhomont  9. Allain Gaussin

10. Francisco Guerrero-Marin  11. Kamran Ince  12. Iván Naranjo

13. Alphonse Izzo  14. Monique Jean  15. Camille Kerger

16. Christina Kubisch  17. Paul Lansky  18. Mario Lavista

19. Daniel Lentz  20. Stanley Lunetta  21. Marc Mellits

22. Gilberto Mendes  23. John Howell Morrison  24. Gráinne Mulvey

25. Sarah Peebles  26. Christopher Penrose  27. Eliane Radigue

28. John Rea  29. Marga Richter  30. Linda Catlin Smith

31. Yasunao Tone  32. Lois V. Vierk  33. María Cecilia Villanueva

34. Claude Vivier  35. James Wood  36. Isang Yun

Why these, here and now? Just as with the monoliths, as soon as you dig them up and fly to Jupiter, they’re not nearly as exciting… I happen to have a folder with all kinds of composer portraits, that I attach to the I.D. tags of MP3s in my collection. I like to put a face on the person behind the piece, to take a little time to not just know the music but the living, breathing person as well. These were just a few, chosen almost at random, of the folks I listen to with some regularity, and don’t see why you shouldn’t too.

As to the fabulous 4-CD prize, technically Kyle Gann got the most, but that’s almost too easy for our resident vetran of the trenches. David Toub wins in the creatively weird category, hands down!… But the real award should end up with John “Sparky” Prokop, for getting almost as many as Mr. Gann, and showing a certain depth and breadth in who he was able to pick out. So Sparky, head to my website and find the email address at the bottom of most any page, send me a little note & I’ll be sending YOU a Cage-feast for your holiday repast.

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ArtikulationWhile I’m on my Ligeti mini-memoriam kick, and apropos of nothing in particular, I want to offer this video from YouTube.

In the 1970′s, Rainer Wehinger created a visual listening score to accompany Ligeti’s 1958 electronic piece Artikulation; our YouTube poster kindly synched this score up to the recording, so you can follow this elegant little graphic essay pretty easily in time to the music. (I can’t seem to embed YouTube videos in the forum, so just click on the image to view.)

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Sidney Chen over at the blog The Standing Room had a link to a blog entry by Michael Hovnanian, Bassist with the Chicago Symphony. Titled “More Clearing of the Inbox“, he tries to address a reader’s question:

I would be so curious to hear more from your insider’s perspective as a player about what makes some modern pieces distasteful. Is it gratuitous dissonance, technical demands on the performers, what?”

Part of his reply: “There are so many ways players hate modern music it is impossible to discuss them all. As an aside, one of the most surprising things to me entering this profession was the discovery that orchestra musicians might be even more conservative than their audience when it comes to new music.

Take a good read at Michael’s own blog, but I’ll give the gist of his observations:

1) “For many players and audience members alike, the concert hall has become a mausoleum where only the most esteemed corpses are allowed to rest.

2) “…atonality is probably the most criticized element of modern works, whether or not they are familiar.

3) “…simply lack of craft. Ungainly or unplayable instrumental parts are sure to raise musician hackles. Poor orchestration is another but related complaint. Dense, muddy, over-scored orchestrations seem to be the norm for a lot of the newly commissioned works we see.

4) “Works that utilize musicians like robots are especially distasteful [...] Often, it seems as if a new work was written on a synthesizer and might be best also played by one.

5) “…the feeling by some players that they can’t use their music training or instincts, the musical language is somehow unintelligible, leaving them bewildered, clueless and demoralized when facing a new work.

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