Archive for December, 2005

Glancing over a neighboring New York Post on the bus, I was shocked to read that a new law forbids anyone under the age of 21 to buy spray paint…and markers! This is the first I have heard about it, and forgive me if I am less than informed. I thought that street graffiti were akin to a radical, anarchistic form of art that bred the like of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. In my neighborhood, they actually enhance the grimness of the grey metal storefronts. Is this another ‘let them jews wear a yellow star’ thing? Or a simple case of ‘duh’?

There are two issues here:

One, are graffiti markings vandalism or art? Don’t they provide a much-needed form of self-expression in an unforgiving modern metropolis, as well as street entertainment for the passers-by? Isn’t this new law another restriction to freedom of expression? When I first came to New York, one of the attractions of the city was this wild form of art which I had never seen before in my native, uptight and bourgeois Paris.

And two, even if one considers graffiti as a negative, are teenagers under 21 in general really responsible for graffiti? Isn’t it more likely that graffiti art is created by gang artists who actually plan and execute this as a work of art? And that if they want to obtain spray paint, they will – even if it is illegal.

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Real hush-hush, as there are no announcements for this anywhere that I have seen, St Marks Church is having its annual all-night benefit marathon this coming Sunday, the first of the year, featuring poetry and music by a large number of individuals and groups including Patti Smith and Philip Glass… and an Arthur Russell tribute and band reunion with Steven Hall, Peter Zummo, Mustafa Ahmed, Ernie Brooks and yours truly plus new recruit Jonathan Hirschman (10PM or thereabout, Second Avenue and 10th Street, $8 admission)

On Thursday, January 5, we may bring on the new year with an unusual string event at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia (Symphony Space) on January 5, 2006… at 7:30PM (careful it’s early). The Ying string quartet will perform some yin and some yang, i.e. a selection of pieces for traditional strings and electronically-enhanced strings. The program was curated by Tod Machover, and will include a 15-minute premiere by him, entitled “…but not simpler…” after the famous statement by Einstein: One should always make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Food for thought.

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If the Chinese year starting at the end of January 2006 is the Year of the Dog, 2005 was a dog of a year for music. Beset by war, rising prices and catastrophes from tsunamis to hurricanes, people’s money went to charities or other more necessary expenses. Annual CD sales in 2005, according to a Nielsen statistic shown in the Wall Street Journal, are lower than they were in 1995. This includes all musical styles and digital downloads. Obviously, people have figured out how to get their music for free. I haven’t bought a CD myself in years, and I may listen to music on the internet, but as a rule, I do not download. I use the public libraries to get access to books and CDs. Actually, one of my proudest contributions to society is donating my own CDs and videotapes in large quantities to libraries. Should we complain about piracy or accept the fact that CDs have become more like works of art to be collected.

My musical year 2005 centered around two college productions, one opera and one orchestral premiere, none of which were in New York, and a CD release of piano soundtracks on 4-Tay. I had to turn down a venue because I was too busy looking for a job… and still looking.

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Four jobs I’ve had: piano player, French instructor, translator, desktop publisher
Four movies I like: (all European) Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Godard’s La Chinoise, Tous les Matins du Monde, Farinelli
Four places I’ve lived: Paris, London, New York, New Mexico
One TV show I love to watch: Monk
Favorite vacation: allergic to vacations
Four websites I visit frequently: sequenza21, artsjournal, newmusicbox, ascap
Four of my favorite foods: vegetable juice, carrots, anything whole wheat, chocolate
One place I’d rather be: in eternal bliss

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Despite the transportation strike, the show will go on as planned – and even better: no admission!
Tuesday, December 20 at 8PM
PAULA COOPER GALLERY
521 W. 21 Street (upstairs)

S.E.M. Ensemble
Petr Kotik, Director, Flutist
Gayla Morgan, Soprano
Steven Fox, Tenor
Conrad Harris, Violin

Program:
Sam Hillmer …what won’t come… for 9 instruments (Premiere)
Antonio Vivaldi Concerto II Opus X for flute, strings & harpsichord
Iannis Xenakis Mikka and Mikka ³S² for solo violin
Petr Kotik Spheres & Attraction for voices, strings, and percussion
(Premiere)

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Last Monday night I was at Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy at the Met. Whenever I go to the opera, it is like a performance for me. I have to take a nap in the afternoon, fuss with finding someone to go with me (no matter how liberated I may be as a woman, I still don’t enjoy going out alone), have a full but light meal beforehand, and only then am I ready to properly take in the 3-hour musical venue.

By some fluke, I ended up with an orchestra seat, and the local crop of mink coats was contrasted by my inexpensive, but politically correcter faux-mink lined jean jacket, which I actually had to wrap around myself, as it was a bit drafty. Nevertheless, and despite the mousseux at intermission, I was able to stay awake through the entire opera and listen up to the very last note, which was, unexpectedly, a clever unison very much like an electronic tone, so as to suggest the current of the electric chair.

It was a plentiful and cheerful audience for a tragedy… An ambitious young man (Clyde) is torn between a relationship with a working girl (Roberta) and a new love interest (Sondra) in a higher social circle. When Roberta becomes pregnant, she begs him to marry her. He is hesitant, and they argue on a boat. She falls off, but he doesn’t try to rescue her. From this treatment of the story, I was left wondering whether the young man was actually guilty of premeditated crime or if the event could have been an accident – Clyde’s possible innocence adds another dramatic dimension to the opera. We are becoming more and more immune to tragedy and crime, both from real life experience and from film and television. After the tenth time you watch a corpse being dissected, the whole process becomes a ‘been there done that’, and I believe our sensitivity to violence and emotion is eroding. And apparently, there was nothing to make anyone cry at American Tragedy, which may be for the best.

The reason I am paying so much attention to this piece is that it was a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, and, according to the composer, “the most fulfilling experience of [his] composing life”, dedicated to his mother and father. Note that it took between 1996 and 2005 for the work to come to completion, partly due to some difficulties in obtaining the rights to the book by Theodore Dreiser.

The performance was flawless, with a notable highlight from Elvira Griffiths: an exquisite two-octave jump at the end of the second act. The staging was the most successful I have seen to-date at the Met. I can see the good work of dramaturge Francesca Zambello, combined with tasteful, modern sets by Adrianne Lobel, lighting by James Ingalls and choreography by Doug Varone. The set was based on grid of very large squares that glided sideways to open, revealing a new scene, and sometimes two simultaneous scenes on two different levels – making the spectator ubiquitous, able to look at two events at the same time in two different locations. This is a novel style of staging – I have only seen this done with film, like a split screen showing several different scenes simultaneously. This was very effective when showing Clyde with Sondra (rich girl) and Roberta (poor girl) on another level. The boat scene was done in silhouette high up on the stage and it unexpectedly showed Roberta drowning at a lower level. The staging didn’t rely on antique furniture and realistic sets, it was appropriately contemporary. The period costumes on the other hand were fanciful – I wonder when someone will be allowed a monochromatic color scheme for costumes at the Met – the sponsors might object: “can’t they afford different colors?” As it is, the female costumes are unavoidably varied in color as in classic Hollywood 1950s musicals, like one blue, one pink, one orange, one green. But within this framework, there was obviously as effort made towards subtler effects. At the end, the performers ran towards the front of the stage to take a bow, which may have been a bit too chipper after the execution scene, but indicated their level of enthusiasm for the piece.This new opera actually worked very well for the Met. It was received with warmth and excitement, and I hope that the Met will commission new works more often.

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Flutist Andrew Bolotowsky, son of the illustrious painter by the same name, is a unique character. His musical interests are basically the same as mine: an eccentric mix of Baroque passion, microtonal experimentation and eclectic modernism. For Bolotowsky, playing the flute is art. He could never be happy with the routine work of an orchestra player. He is by essence a shining soloist, with a unique control of tonal color. He has been extensively recorded on labels Orion, Opus I, Station Hill, Golden Age Records, New Wilderness Cassettes, Frog Peak, 4Tay, Sonic Muse, XI, Stereo Society, C.R.I., Newport Classic and Quill Classics. It’s not often that a musician can premiere with equal ease a Dave Brubeck, an Alan Hovhaness, and a Meyer Kupferman. Bolotowsky is also very open to interpreting music by women, and has worked with Beth Anderson, Lenore Van Stein and Judith St Croix. He loves it when people write stuff for him so there is your cue, my fellow composers. You won’t be disappointed. He has already premiered over 100 new works, many of which written for him…Merry Christmas!

The New York Flute Club is having an event this coming Sunday, December 18, at 5:30PM, featuring Andrew Bolotowsky and another Baroque flute luminary, Sandra Miller, a virtuoso of the Baroque flauto traverso and founding member of Concert Royal. The program will take place at the Yamaha Piano Salon, 689 Fifth Avenue (entrance on 54th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues), tickets $10 at the door, and will feature Baroque as well as contemporary music.

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The S.E.M. Ensemble, led by Petr Kotik, will perform its annual concert at Paul Cooper Gallery on December 20 at 8PM. (Please note that the concert will take place at the upstairs space at 521 West 21, not in the ground floor gallery.) The program features a Vivaldi concerto, a premiere by Sam Hillner, a Xenakis violin piece and Petr Kotik’s own Spheres and Attraction, with text by R. Buckminster Fuller – inventor, architect, engineer, mathematician, poet and cosmologist who said in 1980: “For the first time in history it is now possible to take care of everybody at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. Only ten years ago the ‘more with less’ technology reached the point where this could be done. All humanity now has the option to become enduringly successful.” This optimism matches that of philosopher and sociologist Herbert Marcuse, who, in his 1964 popular work One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society envisioned reduced work time and increased leisure for the industrial society in the future. And I guess at that time, things looked kind of good… little did either of them know of the negative effects of global economy.

EL: What is your interest in R. Buckminster Fuller, and how did this new piece of yours take shape?

PK: Towards the end of 1971, Julius Eastman became the core member of the S.E.M. Ensemble. I was composing a piece for the group, There Is Singularly Nothing and I was faced for the first time with the task of composing for voice (I have not stopped composing for the voice since). In 1971, it was very fashionable to use the voice without words as a coloring device. I hated that, so the first order of business was to find the text. I chose Gertrude Stein, and continued to work with Stein’s texts until 1978. At that time I became more and more concerned with the text’s content (my interest in Stein was mainly the form, the language, the rhythm, etc.) and since, at that time I practically read nothing other than Buckminster Fuller, the choice was a given. In 1981 Fuller visited Buffalo to give a commencement speech at the university. I attended the ceremony and was so impressed with the speech that I got the recording, transcribed it and sent it to Fuller with a request for permission to use it in my new piece. Fuller edited the text and sent it back with his permission. In fact, he gave me a blank permission to use any of his texts in any way I saw fit. Last summer, in thinking about our Christmas concert at the Paula Cooper Gallery, I came up with the idea to revive this old piece (The title of the 1981 composition is Commencement, for two voices, and it is about two and half hours long). Commencement was last performed in 1982, in Buffalo and NYC, and I have not seen the score since.
I remembered ideas from it but had long forgotten that they were a part of that particular text. After looking through Commencement, I decided to create a new piece by editing the already composed part for voices, and adding a string quartet and percussion. In my estimate the new composition, Spheres & Attraction will be about 1 hour long.

Why I am interested in Fuller’s texts is a hard question to answer. It is difficult to justify or explain a decision based on intuition and other non-rational considerations. I could only say, without being presumptuous that, to some extent, Fuller’s way of thinking corresponds to my own and his intellectual brilliance has always been a great source of inspiration for me. Fuller, without being a revolutionary, always based all his conclusions on his own thinking, paying no attention to the accepted conventions. His ideas have always been derived from his own experiences, rather than beliefs. This aspect of his approach, especially, corresponds to the way I proceed with my own way of looking at things (which may be the reason why, on occasion, some people get so irritated with me).

EL: You have presented a number of European and American women composers on your program with S.E.M. Can you summarize this experience?

PK: My programming is never done from an ideological or social point of view, and the inclusion of women composers has been based on the merit of the music, not on gender. It is true in our world that female artists are somewhat handicapped by gender. I myself find such handicaps in general not overly tragic, and in some way even beneficial. All my life I have been under one handicap or another, especially after arriving in the U.S. at the age of 27 without speaking English, without having any influential friends, or attending schools which would have given me access to environment of similarly interested people. My handicap itself meant working harder than my colleagues, which in turn resulted in my being more productive than some of them.
I have observed the same in the case of my wife, the curator Charlotta Kotik. So there are no absolute negatives or absolute positives.

There is another aspect that I would like to mention. It has to do with my own personal delight in proving conventional beliefs wrong (applying this attitude to my own person I can tell you that it also gives me great satisfaction to prove myself wrong). I like to present women composers who defy the conventional wisdom (or the conventional stupidity) of not being ‘up to it’.

EL: I agree with you that programming should not be gender-based. In fact, I have sometimes had second thoughts about participating in a women-only program. But what I am doing here in Music Underground is evaluating whether women’s music is given a fair share of programming. Many programs do not present women’s music at all. Yours on the other hand has been supportive of women’s music, and for the right reasons: not because they are women but because certain works interested you, regardless of gender. Do you plan to present any music by women in 2006?

PK: We have not yet fully finalized our upcoming season’s program, but it is most likely that, among the composers we program in our season, there will be women composers as well. At the moment, we have plans for pieces by Maria de Alvear and Olga Neuwirth.

EL: What was your experience in Europe like in the past couple of years? Do you find that you can do more in Europe than in New York?

PK: We are living in this wretched time of rational thinking run amok. I sometimes find it depressing, losing much hope that I will ever live to see it changed. The situation in Europe is somewhat different than the one in New York. Each carries its own problems and difficulties. At the moment I can neither see myself living full time in Europe nor here in New York. Years ago, my friend Frederic Rzewski suggested that the best place for all of us would be to live in Iceland, to be as close to Europe as to the US, now I think Mongolia might be better.

EL: Lithuania might be the ticket. Frank Oteri had a wonderful production there last summer. Apparently the president himself is a music aficionado.

Following is a list of the pieces by women composers presented by S.E.M. Ensemble in the past few years.
1992-95 – Alison Knowles: Nivea Cream Piece; Anne Tardos: Among Men
1995-96 – Martha Mooke: Raindance, Winds of Arden, Off Limits, News, Dream Catcher, Wreckless; Pauline Oliveros: Pauline’s Solo
1996-97 – Annea Lockwood: Shapeshifter; Maria de Alvear: World; Pauline Oliveros: From Unknown Silences
Marilys Ernst: Mirror/Wedding; Yoko Ono: Wall Piece for Orchestra, Sky Piece for Jesus Christ
1998-99 – Akemi Naito: An Island in the Moon; Anne Tardos/Jackson Mac Low: For Dick Higgins; Meiko Shiomi: Music for Disappearing Face
2
000-01 – Rain Worthington: January, Yet Still Night; E
lodie Lauten: Symphony 2001: Frances White: Singing Bridge
2002-03: Elisabeth-Claude J. de la Guerre: Triosonata in D Major, Triosonata in G Minor: Maria de Alvear: As Far As We Know; Sabrina Schroeder: Simple Machines; Olga Neuwirth: Locus…Dublure…Solus 2004-05 – Annea Lockwood: Luminesence: Olga Neuwirth: Anaptyxis

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John Cage’s 4’33 remains a much talked-about, but misunderstood piece. Some people see it as a joke. My Italian friend Renzo Pognant told me about a performance of 4′33 in Torino, where the audience literally went crazy when nothing was being played – there was a riot in the theater. Some think, in a rather scholarly fashion, that it relates to silence, a known Cage interest. But what the piece accomplishes is actually much deeper and more radical. It questions the formality of performance in Western music. In many other cultures, music happens in real life, not on stage. Maybe 4’33 is all of the above, but I would hate to see that last aspect ignored. Why do I think of 4’33 now? Because we need revolutionary works. Because there is a judge who sentences minor offenders to weird and unusual punishments like sleeping in a park. Because we could soon be going back 50 years in the women’s right to choose.

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