Archive for July, 2005

In a flash, I saw an image on the side of a bus… an oversized reproduction of Michelangelo’s scene where God reaches to Man by the tip of the finger, but God’s arm was replaced by a hairy ape’s arm. I associated this message the with the religious myth of creation where God created the world in seven days (actually six, since he had the brilliant idea to take day off from such a magnificent task). This image challenges the myth by its reference to the Ape, which is, by theory of evolution, our ancestor, and I took it as an omen.

From the early days of Pythagoras, a relationship was established between the cosmic universe and the basic tones that constitute a scale. In search of the ‘music of the spheres’, Renaissance and post-renaissance alchemists and mathematicians, precursors of modern science, among which Robert Fludd, Newton and Kepler, explored the relationships between the ‘heavenly bodies’ and sound waves. Contemporary mathematician Hans Cousto determined the pitch corresponding to the earth (it actually has not one but three sounds, the yearly rotation, the daily rotation and the axis rotation) and the other planets and satellites we know. The music of the spheres is not a fanciful concept but rather the old-fashioned name of a powerful tool for understanding the universe. To many, it is a timeless source of inspiration.

Music as it relates to sound waves is currently used as a scientific model for understanding the universe. A recent article in Scientific American by Glenn D. Starkman and Dominik J. Schwartz (August 2005) discusses the CMB radiation model for studying the conditions of the early universe, by reading energy density fluctuations closely resembling sound waves. The article is called Is the Universe Out of Tune… it explains how some ‘wrong notes’ appeared in the in the cosmic symphony model, prompting scientists to explore further. The universe could very well be microtonal…

The very next day after the omen on the side of the bus, a CD came in the mail: Charles Ives’ Universe Symphony realized by Johnny Reinhard and the American Festival of Microtonal Music Orchestra. I know Johnny personally and am not in a position to review the CD. However, I happen to know its history. In June 1996, I was at Alice Tully Hall for the premiere, sitting in a box with Bobby Buecker, Maude Boltz and other artists from the Soho underground, spellbound and listening for every note. Andrew Bolotowsky headed the large flute section. Johnny Reinhard conducted, along with an assistant conductor to handle the simultaneous different tempos or other complexities required by this piece. Johnny spent years studying Ives’ manuscripts to compile this microtonal realization. The impression I got from this performance was unforgettable. Ives’ piece is a unique combination of harmonious and chaotic, in no particular style, and even so, never difficult on the ear.

The CD, released by Stereo Society, is not a recording of the live performance, but a high-quality studio recording. Why it took ten years for this unique tribute to Ives to become accessible to all is more complex than I can describe here.

The inspiration for the work is undeniably the music of the cosmos as it entered into being, according to the movement titles: Fragment: Earth Alone; Pulse Of The Cosmos; Wide Valleys And Clouds; Birth Of The Oceans; Earth And The Firmament; And Lo, Now It Is Night; Earth Is Of The Heavens. Ives wrote this piece at the end of his life, and never actually got to ‘finish’ it, but fortunately for us, he left detailed sketches. Therefore, realizing these sketches is somewhat of a composition itself, requiring many decisions the composer left to the performer, which is no different than how Cage and many contemporary downtown composers work with performers.

You can obtain this instant library item at www.stereosociety.com. For further information about the piece, please contact Johnny Reinhard directly at afmmjr@aol.com.

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Elimination is very popular right now, in the media, as well as in real life. A large number of the popular television shows focus on the process of elimination of a set of candidates, a set of Donald Trump potential employees, a set of aspiring singers auditioning for the top spot, a set of so-called ‘survivors’ whose game is to decide every so often on who will be eliminated. Other popular television shows focus on crime, starting with the eliminated victim, and continue on to how to eliminate the perpetrator from society.

The elimination rituals are unforgiving. Whoever is best at following a set of rules and at getting rid of the competition by whatever means wins. They reflects the realms that are most valued in our society: the world of sports competition and the world of business competition. Whether these should be applied to the arts and entertainment however, is questionable. Over-emphasizing competition caters to negative feelings of selfishness, jealousy and greed. It does not offer an ideal or ethic, but only the survival of the fittest. The elimination rituals are a throw back to primitive human sacrifice.

In real life, the elimination ritual is part of a workplace where a good job performance is no guarantee of continued employment, where chaotic decisions and irrational situations brought about by abuse of power or hostile take-overs are the rule rather than the exception.

For composers, the elimination takes place at every funding organization, based on cronyism, politics, or narrow focus. Eliminated from the world of commissions, the shrinking job market also eliminates us because of prohibitive requirements or various forms of unrecognized discrimination.

I wonder whether the war has something to do with it. After all, wars are a process of elimination. But right here, in America, there is another war: the war against culture. I live with the sense that my very survival as a human being is threatened, not to mention my creative survival as a composer. When I came to New York in the early seventies with one suitcase and $50 in my pocket, I though I found the cultural Mecca of the time. Unfortunately, from the mid-eighties to the present, the culture has continually declined. I have made my home here, and I am not about to go back to Europe – I could only go through this kind of drastic change once in my lifetime. And here I stay, watching us, the creators, being slowly eliminated in this giant but apocryphal cultural genocide.

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This is the dead time of summer, and there are not too many concert invitations coming to my mail box, but I found one interesting postcard. It is a sepia tone in shades of light brown, a collage of seven ‘slices’ of photographs in which a real life character and a billboard ad coexist. In the first slice, a graphical representation of evolution from primate to man is juxtaposed with a studious-looking young man walking. The second slice features a famous model showing leg, larger than life, presiding over a car passing by. The third slice shows a giant–sized, attractive and extremely young model spreading her legs over a guy walking in the other direction, his back to the picture. The fourth slice shows an giant model showing both breasts and legs, towering over the street which I assume is Times Square, because the ‘42nd Street cowboy’ is featured – a street performer clad only in his cowboy boots, hat and underwear. The fifth slice shows a huge, fully-dressed male model, while a pregnant woman walks carrying a package. The sixth ad shows a man in a suit and hat walking, with an ad showing a sports figure in the background. The seventh ad shows a close-up of a model’s face and hand, about twenty times the size of a walking figure carrying an umbrella.

This is the work of artist Wouter Deruytter, showing at the Chelsea Art Museum from July 28 through September 24 (556 West 22nd St, Tues-Sat, 12-6PM), www.wouterderuytter.com.

This is the first time I encountered the work of this artist, and I find it inspiring for many reasons.
A relationship is presented between the virtual reality of advertising, a fantasy world of oversized sex and power, and the everyday reality of the common citizen, in all cases, shown totally unconcerned by the advertising messages. This approach does not exactly mirror our reality, but refracts it from a creative and critical viewpoint. The complex relation to how advertising may or may not affect the population may be over-simplified, with a rather optimistic attitude saying, “I don’t care how large and appealing you may be, I am not even looking at you because you are just a pretty picture and I have more important things to do.”

Questioning advertising from a political viewpoint seems obvious and has been done many times before, but I find it refreshing that someone is still showing interest for this subject. How does this apply to the music world? What would be the musical equivalent of this piece of work? Juxtaposing fragments of jingles along with street noise and possibly a thematic rendition of the character? A sound environment, with dancers unconcerned with the sound, working against it? An orchestral piece using a series of overblown clichés interspersed with humdrum leitmotivs?

How do you feel about writing jingles? Is there something profoundly immoral in contributing to the greed-driven marketing of consumer products? Or does it really matter at all, as Deruytter is showing, since people aren’t really influenced by advertising any longer. It also depends on what is being advertised. I recognized Philip Glass’ style in the commercial for the Tribeca Film Festival. This seems worthy enough. Although, it could have been a clever imitation, as he is probably one of the most plagiarized composers. If placed in a situation of sponsorship, what would you advertise? Yamaha? Steinway? Nike? Is this kind of collusion and inescapable element of commercial success?

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I realize that some of us are concerned that classical music is becoming a subculture. Jazz is already a subculture. So is punk music. So is everything else. The market has become a ‘niche’ market. There is nothing wrong with being a subculture in a society where people will pay $100 to go to a ball game without batting an eyelash but will hesitate to spend $15 on a ticket to a concert. Any form of high art is on its way to being a subculture, in a society that glorifies the ‘dumb American’, and where the role models for the kids growing up are sports stars or rappers. And within the subculture of classical music, there are so many sub-subcultures and so many rival tribal groups. Being a subculture within a subculture is a result of policies that are largely out of our control. We have to learn to live with it, and blogging, far from being a self-indulgent exercise, is one of the few avenues we have left.

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How can we escape the constant pressure to market ourselves?

We are subjected to the business model of the creator selling their wares, like craftspeople in a flea market – having our wares displayed on the internet as virtual reality, if not in real life.

The selling drive is more worrisome when it takes over the way music is presented. Everything is viewed in terms of sales potential. Club owners are only concerned about how many people you will ‘draw’. As a result, acts having the largest number of available friends willing to spend money on drinks and going out, will get the most exposure. As for orchestras and large organizations, they are primarily concerned with keeping their subscribers, and it drives them towards a conservative approach. But marketing a program should be the work of advertisers. Let them do their job, and let us do ours… separately!

The moment that a concern with sales or generally with the effect a piece of music will potentially have, a form of corruption sets in. It can be very subtle, and even affect the way a project is presented or re-designed for a particular target. I am still calling this compromise.

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