Photo by David Regen

Below is information about a spectacular performance installation in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.  An interview with Amir Khosrowpour, one of the participating pianists, will be forthcoming.

Performance 9: Allora & Calzadilla
at The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street New York, NY 10019
The Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium, second floor
December 8, 2010 – January 10, 2011

Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on Ode to Joy, No. 1, modified Bechstein piano, 40 x 65 x 84 5/8 inches.

For the ninth installment of the Performance Exhibition Series, the artists Jennifer Allora (b. 1974) and Guillermo Calzadilla (b. 1971) present Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on Ode to Joy for a Prepared Piano (2008). For this piece, the artists carved a hole in the center of a grand piano, through which a pianist plays the famous Fourth Movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, usually referred to as “Ode to Joy.” The performer leans over the keyboard and plays upside down and backwards, while moving with the piano across the vast atrium. The result is a structurally incomplete version of the ode—the hole in the piano renders two octaves inoperative—that fundamentally transforms both the player/instrument dynamic and the signature melody, underlining the contradictions and ambiguities of a song that has long been invoked as a symbol of humanist values and national pride.

Organized by Klaus Biesenbach, MoMA Chief Curator at Large and Director, MoMA PS1; and Jenny Schlenzka, Assistant Curator for Performance, Department of Media and Performance Art.

Performances take place hourly, starting at 11:30 a.m., every day the museum is open.

Here are articles from the NYTimes, and NYC Culture, as well as a NYTimes Video.

Happy Holidays!

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This is remarkably relevant to Armando’s piece below about jobs – STRONGLY recommend everyone looks at that and the thoughtful comments.

I found the transcript of British music critic Tom Service’s October 23 lecture at Scotland’s Sound! Festival, and pondering over it has kept me up for about three hours now; the clock is still running.

He talks about the desperate situation facing new music, how it is still trapped in the grips of modernism and how the future must be written outside the conventional pathways of the last 50 or 60 years. You tell me, but isn’t it kind of obvious that a young composer shouldn’t model him or herself after a 70, 80 or 100 (I get you can guess that one…) year-old composer?

The piece is a fun read thanks to Service’s witty and glib writing, but I think his revelatory “prognosis” is a little late to the party. Maybe I live in a vacuum, but most of the composers around me embrace the notion of being self-promotional, working closely with talented performers who advocate their work (assuming they can find them) and writing the music THEY want to write without much consideration for precedents. I think Service is echoing trends that are already well at hand in the United States (I mean, Bang-On-A-Can pretty much epitomizes what he thinks composers should do), but please let me know if the bleary eyes of my late-night reading made me miss the point.

Hoping for a good discussion!

- Garrett

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I’ve been thinking, lately, about the career expectations for composers in general and the state of the academic job market for composers in particular. When I started down this road some 21 years ago I had the expectation, like many of us did (and many, like my students, still do), that I would settle into a comfortable if not always lucrative teaching career as a primary source of income to support my “research” (I always feel funny calling creative work “research,” so I have to use quotation marks, even if ironic ones). I held this expectation for the entirety of my four years as an undergraduate and six years as a graduate student and valiantly (and unsuccessfully) dipped my feet into the job pool in 1999 (not too unsuccessfully, though: I did make one short list, much to my delight). In 2002, having completed my doctorate and finished a year as an adjunct I took a job as a Visiting Assistant Professor and moved my family to the Pacific northwest for a year, expecting this to be the typical first step towards a tenure track university position.

Well, as the man said, life is what happens when you’re making other plans. Almost ten years later and I still have not found a tenure track job. I spent three years outside of academia entirely, then landed a visiting position in upstate New York which lasted two years and, while it boosted my resume (I’ve made more short lists and gotten more interviews since) it still did not lead to a full time position. I’ve been lucky enough to find a fulfilling, well-paying and relatively stable (at least for the time being) adjunct position at a prestigious conservatory, though, which has allowed me to pursue professional opportunities that I might not have had the opportunity to pursue had I been in a tenure-track position from the beginning. A number of my friends haven’t been so lucky, however, and continue to struggle to make a life in music or give up entirely and move on to other, less punishing professions. Others have managed to piece together careers either through sheer luck and perseverance while precariously balancing a number of part-time jobs to help support their careers. This has led to an unusual, perhaps unique situation in our field over the past decade in creating almost an entire generation where a great number of the most prominent young practitioners of our craft are not associated with a particular university.

I’m lucky. I have a job, and a pretty good one, all things considered. I’ve also been able to forge a career, however modest, as a composer and have the majority of my music performed, and very well at that. But in teaching at a conservatory I come across students who still expect to find a university position and make their way as composers that way at a time when universities are cutting programs and consolidating others into sometimes bizarre combinations (good luck finding that one composer who can also teach ear training, run the electronic music lab, teach applied tuba and manage the school’s underwater Tai-Chi Renaissance Shawm Consort!). I can’t help but feel like we’re doing them a disservice if we don’t at least hint at how difficult a life they are headed into. Thankfully, a number of university programs are requiring “business of music” type courses that teach survival strategies and alternative approaches to generating a musical career, but I still get nervous knowing how difficult landing a teaching job (even for rising superstars with every award and fellowship in the planet, as it turns out) can be.

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I’m not sure how many of you have seen Justin Davidson’s article in New York Magazine listed his top ten classical music concerts of the year (8 of them featured music from the 20th or 21st centuries!!).

Because Mr. Davidson only writes about concerts in New York, I am curious about other people’s favorite concerts from this year.

This year I’ve only really gone to concerts in Ann Arbor, so mine are pretty lame:

Michigan Symphony Band, October 1

The second Student Composer’s Concert, November 15

Please share your favorites no matter what they are!

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The Composer’s Experience

As a 2010 recipient of the Aaron Copland Award, I have the honor and priveldge of inhabiting Aaron Copland’s former New York residence, in Cortlandt Manor, NY. Surrounded by Copland’s scores, recordings, and memorabilia, I am beginning to get a sense of the man – the person behind the historical figure. Among his many personal items, which are on display throughout the house, is a series of four handwritten pages, numbered sequentially, titled: The Composer’s Experience. I am told by the administrative assistant in the next building that they are lecture notes, from a series of talks Copland gave in the 1960‘s. Protected under glass in the living room, one has difficulty reading the faded penmanship, but through concentrated effort, the majority can be deciphered. At the top of the first page are several statements that outline the opening of his lesson. One in particular caught my attention:

What it feels like to be a serious composer, especially in an industrial community like America.

Page 1 of Copland's notes (used with permission of the Copland House)

The statement is one that I believe many American composers have struggled with at one time or another. How do we as artists express ourselves in a community which has very little tradition in a mechanico-scientific age, particularly when compared to the rich traditions of Europe.1 Although I believe that the tenor of today is no longer considered “industrial” per se, it is an age of technology, which contains therein the same societal predispositions as those during Copland’s early – mid career. Our culture is one that focuses, primarily, on “industry.” We owe a lot to industry of course, for without it, our country would not be where it is today; however, there must also be room in every society for the arts, and the irrevocable connection with the creative artist. Copland felt, and I agree, that there is an absolute need to produce creative artists as they give substance and meaning to ‘la condition humaine.’ 2

Copland believed that the dilemma of the composer, as indicated in his notes, is that the average citizen has no real concept of creative activity, and that this was evidenced in the fact that American culture placed emphasis on the possession and reproduction of the finest.3 Of course, “the finest reproduction” is also synonymous with “the best copy.” Furthermore, one can extrapolate from that statement that the average citizen has/had little interest in the creative individual.

Faced with this knowledge, how do we emerge as artists in an environment that perpetuates sameness, and a lack of interest in artistry? – Where the vast majority of people would rather listen to Brittany Spears’ latest rearrangement of her previous album (a rearrangement itself), than to invoke the ability to actively listen, and in turn, find something truly profound and meaningful in the work of Copland’s so-called serious artist?

My own experience proves that even in a non-artistic environment the drive towards cultural expression is strong.4

Page 2 of Copland's notes. (Used with the permission of the Copland House)

What Copland suggests is, that if one struggles hard, and long enough, the drive, and need, to find the truth – defined as the undeniable, distinctive, inner voice of the creative individual – in one’s art, outweighs the prevailing societal mentality. For Copland, he was attempting to define what American music was, during a time, when there really was no musical identity for America, in particular when compared to the long history and traditions found in Europe, and as seen from the larger, global musical community, as evidenced below.

a)The trend towards Europe
b) The trend towards originality
c) The preoccupation with Americanism
1)  America as seen from Europe
2) Previous attempts at Americanism in music 5

Today, we have the luxury of clarifying our musical personas because of what Copland, and others, did to define the “American style” of what he called serious music. The irony is that while we now have the luxury of openly creating our own musical identity, we grapple with a community that cares mostly for conformity. Alex Ross recently wrote an article entitled: Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music? The article can be read here:

Ross highlights some recent proponents of modern classical music who have met with an interested and mostly enthusiastic public. Perhaps we are on the verge of the next big evolution in American serious music (however we define that term), and perhaps soon, we will see a more edified public, a more willing and open-minded audience.

It is likewise reassuring to see the malagrugrous endeavors of one who helped to define an era of music, and to know that perhaps our own equally demanding efforts are not in vain. I will leave you with one final quote, from Copland’s Autobiography, which rests on the shelf in his former studio:

The fact is that the creative artist is a kind of gambler, since there are no guarantees of success. Yet, every true artist has a sense of the importance of his or her own contribution, if only because the artist knows in his deepest innards that only the individual can conceive what he or she alone can create…

…the truth is out there.

1. Outline, page 1.

2. Page 1.

3. Page 1.

4. Outline, page 2.

5. Page 2.

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Hey all,

I don’t know how many of you have read Alex Ross’ new piece in the Guardian. It is a candid and, to my eyes, successful exploration of why Americans dislike new music when they otherwise accept contemporary art forms with pleasure.

Check out the article here.

I found it comforting, in a way, to have such a well-established and trusted music writer advocate unpretentiously the worth of new music.

I hope others enjoy.

- Garrett

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Friday night I attended a Contact! series concert presented by ensembles of the New York Philharmonic in Symphony Space. The program consisted of a world premiere by Magnus Lindberg, the Marie-Josee Kravis Composer-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic, and Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil by Gerard Grisey. I was completely encouraged by the event.

The Contact! series was devised as a way for audiences to connect with composers and music of our time, and is precisely the type of event that contemporary music needs. Hosted by WNYC’s John Schaefer, the concert began with an informal discussion of Lindberg’s new work, Souvenir, and how the work was related to the music of Grisey. Lindberg stated that primarily his piece was inspired by the compositional philosophy of Grisey’s so-called spectralism, a self-imposed label by Grisey, which he later lamented.

Souvenir, atypical of Lindberg’s output in that the work consists of three movements, rather than a one-movement sectional form, was presented flawlessly. Written for a full orchestral complement, one instrument per part (except for two horns), the work was a dazzling display of an affluent orchestrational technique, save for a few moments where the strings were drowned out by the winds, brass, and percussion. The work exhibited a vast palate of color, as one expects in Lindberg’s music, and clear architectonic pillars, reached mellifluously through linear melodic cells which culminated in constellations of sound. My one regret is that the piece lacked the feral vibrance that his earlier music so eloquently maintained, although there is no doubt that Souvenir was still a clear statement in Lindberg’s unique compositional voice.

The second half of the program was a presentation of Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil. Gilbert gave a very frank description of the piece: There are moments that are quite boring, but these moments are important because they allow the climactic gestures more space, more room to breathe. I found this a refreshing and honest description, particularly coming from a conductor, whose concerns are usually politically driven toward “pleasing the crowd.” It was further evidence of a desire to “teach” and “connect” with the audience on a musical, and yet less formalistic, level. There were no apologies, and no unnecessary compositional descriptions. Gilbert made a point of stating that Grisey’s compositional system was as unimportant as Mozart’s. It was a simple dialogue which resulted in the following outcomes: (1) Here is the piece.  (2) Here are some elements which you may find interesting.  (3) Don’t bore yourself with the details, and simply allow yourself to experience the work. The listeners were encouraged to meet the music on the terms of the individual composition. The performance was superb, and Barbara Hannigan is an absolutely amazing soprano and musician.

In my opinion, this concert is a perfect example of why contemporary music needs to be heard live. Yes, recordings are great, and once a friend told me that: “a performance doesn’t matter – it comes and just as quickly, is gone. A good recording is most important.” While I agree that a great recording is a wonderful way to preserve a performance, and is great to use for festival applications, etc., it is not a substitute for the living organism that is a live musical performance. Connecting with audiences is of the utmost importance; And I do not mean that one must prescribe to a particular aesthetic to connect, but rather one must physically connect with audiences. In the concert halls of Europe during the classical era, and the salons of the Romantic era, the composers were present – and the audience was not primarily an audience of other composers. It was an audience of people; curious and active listeners. For me the proof that “contact” had been made were statements made by the audience attendees sitting to my immediate left and right. The lady on my left, who was clearly around when the Declaration of Independence was signed, looked at me after the Grisey and said: “I really want to hear that again. In a better space, like Carnegie Hall.” The young lady to my right, who is also the director of the Japanese Culture Center in NY, and was not a trained musician stated: “Wow! I have never heard anything like that. It was incredible!”

Too often, listeners complain of bad encounters with new music because they go into a concert with a certain expectation. I often encourage listeners to attend concerts of new music with open ears – “Don’t expect anything. Keep your mind open to the possibility that you may hear something outside of the realm of your normal perspective. Then, active listening can occur.” This is precisely the atmosphere of the Contact! series.

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I have never run a marathon. I’m not exactly built to run marathons. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the importance of exercise, or that I don’t partake in it (although I often have to force myself to do it), but it’s just not something I’m made for. So when I use running a marathon as an analogy for conducting De Materie I am not exactly speaking from experience. I do imagine, however, that this is what running a marathong must be like…if a marathon started with a 3 mile sprint. This is a HARD piece, particularly the first movement, which Louis himself admits is problematic. The bulk of the difficulties, however, are not technical but about endurance. 100 minutes of intense music takes a lot out of one.

This is the toughest thing I’ve ever done as a conductor, and I’m loving every minute of it. I can understand now why people actually run marathons. There is something intensely satisfying about being in the middle of a huge project and seeing it to completion. As rehearsals progress I find myself actually thinking ahead to the next BIG project (up until now I’ve been thinking that Great Noise Ensemble’s 2011-12 season would be smaller and more intimate. Now I’m thinking that we need another really big, buzz-worthy production to follow this one; although I suppose I should wait until after Sunday, and how it goes, to make that decision). It’s a little crazy, a bit punishing, but intensely satisfying.

Last night I picked Louis Andriessen up at the airport and went on to dinner with him, Great Noise’s Executive Director and my department chair at Peabody. A splendid time was had by all. Louis continues to live up to his reputation for gracefulness and generosity, and thanked us and congratulated us for taking on what is, apparently, a very rare project. Tonight will be the first rehearsal at which he will be in attendance, and, needless to say, I’m a bit nervous. But, as the finish line to this marathon comes closer in sight, I can’t help but feel both relief and a pinge of sadness (I anticipate a feeling to overtake me Sunday night similar to that of the last day of summer camp).

SO…if you’re in the vicinity of Washington, D.C. (or not; this is a RARE complete performance of De Materie, after all) come check us out Sunday at 6:30 at the National Gallery of Art. A splendid time is guaranteed for all!

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Magnus Lindberg’s important early opus Kraft received its long-belated NY premiere this past week. While the requirements for the piece itself – a large orchestra, massive percussion section, antiphonal spatializing, electronics, amplification, and several soloists – are daunting enough to make the piece a logistically challenging one to present, Lindberg goes still further to personalize its requirements. He stipulates that the percussion section use found materials from a local junkyard in their performance of the work, thereby locating each performance and making it a site-specific entity.

Here’s a video of the NYPO’s percussionists going on a scavenger hunt with Lindberg in preparation for the NY performances of Kraft.

This type of piece personalization makes each orchestra’s rendering of the work a unique experience; but it’s also curtailed the number of organizations who have, to date, presented Kraft.

Kraft, and other pieces with daunting requirements, raise certain aesthetic questions for composers. Is it important for each performance of a new piece to have a sense of personalization? Should composers strive to think big, even if it means that they’ll get less performances as a result? Or is a more portable and utilitarian view preferable?

Of course, one can make strong a case for both options and many variations in between. Lindberg himself has composed works which are far more easily programmed than Kraft!

But the piece does throw down a gauntlet. Composers: are you willing to wait years for performances of your music if that’s what making highly personal work requires? Or do you prefer getting your music out into the world right away and thus favor more practical solutions?

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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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