Archive for the “Performance” Category

[Note: Philip Fried is a composer mentioned before on S21; I've known him forever as a long-time commenter over at NewMusicBox, and as composer-in-residence for Minnesota's Opera Bob. Phil had a bit of a brain-worm spinning around in his head, and asked if he could share this thought over here at our forum.]

Bear with me. Stockhausen created an opera, part of which requires an instrumental performance in moving helicopters.  I saw this on video. John Cage creates a work where the player doesn’t ‘play’ in the traditional musical sense, but turns a page in time. (It would be easy to say that this is simply a theater piece for a musician to perform, Mr. Cage was a theater composer after all.)  Recent European music plays a lot with timbral similarity and disparity.  In the vocal realm an opera can have editorial that can’t be perceived from hearing the work. Sound artists create works that are site specific.

These works have a similarity; in effect they are creating new instruments. That is, the instruments are not playing music so much as the “music” creates a singular and unique instrument. Sometimes it’s a disposable, one-performance-only work. Other times it’s features are reusable. The laptop is not the instrument itself, rather it is part of a larger exploration of time, space, and event. A part of many.

A performance in a moving helicopter implies that the moving space itself is part of a site specific instrument. Is the video a useful recreation or not?

Naturally all musical ensembles and performing abilities — chamber music, grand opera, solo piano, recital — have their particular time and place to perform. Then where and in what context might beginners, advanced, students and professionals in these different styles perform?  Strictly speaking these rules are no longer the case. The space can become part of the work.

An orchestra has long been considered an instrument with many performers; so too are bands and many other instrumental configurations. The creation of “super instruments” — that is, joining several similar or different acoustic/electric instruments into a single formation or unit that act as one instrument (that is mostly rhythmic or gestural unison) — is quite popular especially in Europe, combining an instrument with a voice or voices, or electronics as a single formation. Or the melody, the obbligato, and the accompaniment act as one multifarious singularity. All kinds of composers and sound artists are creating sounds and music that explore and develop these new solo and multi-player instruments.

It seems to me that post-modernism is focused on music that creates new instruments, rather than in modernism which used instruments to create new music. If that makes any sense… Thoughts?

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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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Accessible Contemporary Music is a non-profit group out of Chicago. Their goal?

It is our artistic mission to promote the performance and understanding of contemporary music, especially the music of living composers. We have as our target audience both those already acquainted with contemporary music and those who may not even realize that there are people still composing concert music today.

To that end they run a very nice concert series, all kinds of classes and workshops, and what I want to tell you about, namely the Weekly Reading series beginning again this November:

Weekly Readings was begun in the 2004-2005 season to address the growing number of composers who find themselves without available professionals to read and perform their music. Each week members of ACM and professional guest musicians from the Chicago area meet and conduct a prepared reading of a different new piece of music by a living composer who has submitted a piece to us specifically for this project.

Not only does the piece get read and performed at the series, each piece will also receive consideration for a future ACM concert. And for $10 they can get you a CD of the reading, too. Follow the link for the complete description and guidelines.

Seems to me that this is a great idea, and a real boon for a lot of composers out there without players at your beck & call. Writing music is fine, but the reality of what you’re writing doesn’t happen until you actually hear those dots, blobs and scratches in the hands of real performers. Kudos to ACM!

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With JiB’s annual weeklong festival about halfway through already, I thought I’d suggest the festival as a topic of conversation on the composer’s forum. Who’s been to June in Buffalo and would like to share some memorable experiences?

 Here’s one I posted on my blog ( earlier this week:


June in Buffalo Memory: Pinch hitter


In 1999, I was invited to June in Buffalo for a second time. My string quartet was slated for premiere by the Cassatt Quartet: an excellent opportunity for a composer at any age, but particularly exciting for a young pup still in grad school!

The piece mixed aspects of 12-tone writing with swing-era jazz, and finding the correct balance between these two different demeanors was a tricky compositional and interpretive challenge.

Fortunately, the Cassatt members were very generous with their time. I met with them in New York City to rehearse the quartet, and things went quite well.

But when I arrived in Buffalo, I learned that their cellist had fallen ill and wouldn’t be able to play on the concert; the festival’s opener. While having any ensemble member cancel is concerning, it was particularly worrisome that the cellist was unavailable. I’d written the quartet in such a way that the cello served as the de facto “˜rhythm section’ of the piece, frequently articulating the pulse with walking bass lines.

But into the breach stepped Christopher Finckel; an excellent new music player who was also playing at the festival. Chris learned, rehearsed, and performed the quartet in one day. His pinch-hitting rescued the concert and earned a young composer’s lasting gratitude.


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Being myself a composer who’s worked a LOT with dancers, I can say that there’s not much more synergistic a musical experience. While the communication can sometimes be strange and strained, with mutual openess and patience all of that gives way to a work where both arts can penetrate and change the other in remarkable and surprising ways.

Composer Chris Becker (whose wonderful CD Saints and Devils got a lot of play on my stereo last year) is right now collaborating with choreographer Sasha Soreff on a piece for an upcoming performance in late June. As he works through it, Chris is going to try to blog a bit about the whole process. It promises to be an informative read, so check in there regularly.

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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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A few days ago in the Guardian, our latest young-wunderkind export Nico Muhly (sorry Nico, I wasn’t being mean, really!) jotted down a few thoughts on the current state of ‘crossover’ between classical and pop (serious crossover, that is; Yannis and Bocellis need not apply). It’s a good read, with a number of relevant observations. One in particular struck me, and I quote:

Everybody knows Prince’s song Kiss. I once heard him perform it with just an acoustic guitar sitting on an office chair in the middle of Madison Square Garden in New York City; the core nugget of the song remained the same, while the arrangement changed entirely. This is the wonderful flexibility built into popular music; in classical, you can’t randomly decide to change up your set at the last minute and do Die Schöne Müllerin with Thomas Quasthoff accompanying himself on the autoharp.

Traditionally, I think it would be safe to say that the best kind of old-fashioned pop song is one that can bear the weight of infinite variations; you can imagine songs such as Like a Virgin or Kiss or Jolene working themselves out in a variety of situations. This is built into the genre inasmuch as the recording is one type of documentation of the art and the live performance another. I would then argue that the inverse is true of 20th- and 21st-century classical music (let’s leave the older ones out of it for the time being): you like to think that something like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring banks on its specific details (that pair of tuned antique cymbals in the Augurs of Spring), just as something like Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians works because of the perfect combination of this many marimbas and that many pianos.

The intersection between the two genres is coming from artists who want to have it both ways, but who don’t talk about it.


In the 19th and early-20th century, it was pretty standard procedure for composers to learn about cutting-edge works at the piano, regardless of the actual instruments the score called for. I happen to love hearing the two-piano rehearsal version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (the dissonances take on a extra weight that’s missing in the orchestration), and have even enjoyed a couple nice rock-band performances (Fireworks comes to mind). But since the 1960s there’s a whole raft of stuff that calls for ‘this sound, and this sound only’. Original scores tended to become almost sacrosanct objects. There is another crowd, though, that all along has purposely kept their scores more open to timbral variation.

So, just wondering which side of the fence you all have been coming down on lately; if you stick pretty close to one side or the other, or do a little climbing over now and then?

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