Archive for June, 2006

The New York Harp Trio is giving a free performance onThursday 29th June (7:30 PM) at the Turtle Bay Music School (52nd St. between 2nd and 3rd Aves). The young trio consists of harpist Bridget Kibbey, violist Peter Bucknell, and flutist Anna Povich de Mayor. They will perform works by Debussy, Piazzolla, Takemitsu and also some new material including a piece by Roumi Petrova, a woman composer from Bulgaria, and a world premiere from Rob Paterson. More information at: newyorkharptrio.com

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Guided by William Duckworth’s excellent Virtual Music – How the Web Got Wired for Sound, I actually took the time to explore some of the sites and sounds that are currently happening in web-based music.

In my search, the DJ DangerMouse phenomenon stood out: DangerMouse, who likes to appear in a pink fuzzy costume, had the nerve to remix the Beatles with a rapper without any permission and release the result on the internet. The product was wildly successful. After being sued by the recording industry, he has now achieved major status as an award-winning producer, as witnessed by the New York Times article published last week.

We must face the reality that a new leading edge in music is expressing itself on the internet. This means discarding many of the values that we once held dear:
1.Sound quality,‘good sound’ and acoustics in general are completely irrelevant to the medium. 2.Originality of creation of the material is also irrelevant, as people feel free to borrow, steal, share, and collage over any existing material from any source. 3. Individual ownership of a musical composition is becoming obsolete, as people often team up, as scientists would, or reuse material created by others, crediting them – as the Plunderphonics guy whose iconoclastic mixing combinations broke new grounds in the field of creative recycling.

Why don’t you and I do more with internet-based music? Because solving technical problems can get in the way of the creative process, as opposed to encouraging it. Many savvy computer users, still concerned with avoiding viruses, are not so keen on downloading some buggy unknown piece of soft-who knows where… Also, the delay effect – the fact that a signal once transmitted long distance comes back with a delay or ‘latency’, as demonstrated by Pauline Oliveros who actually took the trouble, with a couple of technicians, to send a signal to the Moon and back, finding that the sound delay was about 1.8 seconds – which is, from a musical standpoint, a very, very long delay. Some of the more successful web pieces have actually used latency as a parameter. I look forward to a time when this open jamming process can actually occur painlessly and we can all partake in the emergence of this new form.

I can’t help thinking of this as a ‘revenge of the nerds’: the computer tekkies who used to work behind the scene are now at the forefront of what’s happening, because they are the ones who can make it work.

In this new conceptual music medium, form appears to be more important than content: a piece is not appreciated for its sound or its author’s style, but for its cleverness or freshness, possibly its humor or generally the ideas it offers or simply the fact that it happened despite a technically challenging environment. It is process-oriented composition, music of the mind, music that makes you feel smart (could make you smart as well, as it is by no means facile). Also much appreciated is the interactivity component: the sharing attitude and the collective creative process – but again this may change as the technology advances. One thing we can count on is the constant evolution of the technology. In fact, this conceptual web music may be a historic phenomenon that will be over soon or the budding stage of a huge new trend, technology-driven music-making.

This approach takes after John Cage’s attitude of non-judgmental openness to any attempt to silence that becomes sound, but one must also keep in mind that Tod Machover’s interactive sound environment the Brain Opera – a 3 million dollar mammoth endeavor- was handled like a scientific research project. It could easily be considered the most successful large-scale music project of the 90s, with a world tour starting with Lincoln Center, and now permanently installed in Vienna.

I see a parallel between the reign of the serialists and their followers and the new unexpected reign on the web of post-Cageans experimentalists. It’s funny, though, I always thought that despite his mathematical approach, Schoenberg always managed to make a piece ‘sound good’ so to speak, and not be a bother to listen to. Same with Cage: somehow he made all his ‘musical’ pieces rather pleasant to listen to. But for their followers, those of Schoenberg (who as you know, happened to be Cage’s official composition teacher) and those of Cage, it is not always true. Maybe they take the method – or the lack of it – to the letter? Who knows. For music to sound good seems ‘démodé’ to the new avant-garde, just no longer a valid parameter of composition.

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I happened to watch a DVD of Verdi’s Don Carlos, a French production with superb voices and subdued staging (no garish costumes here…) and up close on the screen, the hyper-acting and extreme emotional expression meant for the stage got me thinking. The operatic language manipulation actually helped: even though the libretto was in French, which is my mother tongue, I was unable to follow the lyrics without subtitles, and this actually made it easier to listen to because I followed the music rather than the story. Opera singers go for sound effect rather than accuracy of pronunciation, and the old-fashioned plots consequently become somewhat irrelevant and only serve as vehicle for those magnificent voices.

Indeed, the Western tradition of vocal performance is powerful, even to someone like me who loves Chinese opera and Noh theater. A heroic premise is required to launch the voice into grand mode, and in our world, what’s heroic? The operatic form was created as entertainment for the European aristocracy that supported it. As a consequence, its stories revolve around values such as honor, pride, obedience and social status versus motives such as passion, anger, jealousy, revenge, cruelty. Some operas were downright political (Da Ponte for Mozart, Tosca, Fidelio) and they survive as such. But many humorless librettos border on the ridiculous, unlike Shakespearean theater which is actually existential – Hamlet still qualifies as a skull-loving punk. Grand opera was already out of date nearly a century ago, when the Marx Brothers released A Night at the Opera. I observe television commercials as a barometer of mass-media propaganda, and I noticed one recently featuring a fat lady on a balcony holding a high note, outlasted by… a pink piece of gum.

Between the heroic and the ridiculous, what is the place of grand opera in our modern sensibility? Strong emotion itself seems out of date. Emotion belongs with shrinks. It is something nasty, something that makes you dysfunctional, inefficient, disabled. As perceived in the mass media, our society is sentimental, not emotional. People will cry over a cat who saved its young from a fire (from a story on the news), but crimes of passion are in the realm of psychiatric evaluation. In our highly policed society, the heroes are the detectives, the crime scene investigators, the scientists, the doctors, rational-minded people who keep their emotions in check – not the people who commit violent crimes. The problem is, how does ‘just the facts Maam’ translate into heroic delivery?

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This came as a shocking revelation: are American composers being outsourced? As I perused the Metropolitan Opera’s upcoming season, I was excited to find out they are presenting at least one new opera: The First Emperor, by Tan Dun, staged by China’s leading film director Zhang Yimou with libretto by national book award winner Ha Jin. Let’s face it: many of leading opera/musical theater composers are Asian-born males, such as Tan Dun, Bright Sheng and Fred Ho.

For some years now, observing the programming of the Lincoln Center Festival and Brooklyn Academy of music, I noticed that most of the work presented is ‘outsourced’ from various parts of the world. Whereas the availability of worldwide culture is a progressive value, the neglect of American culture – the result of 20 years of inadequate support and even censoring national policies – is beginning to take its toll. It is no surprise that the stronger works emerge from civilizations where the arts are still considered valuable.

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Some people choose to spend time in a Zen monastery for a few days to refresh themselves. They get up at 4AM, drink green tea, practice Za Zen for two hours, have oatmeal, go back to Za Zen for another few hours, take a walk in the garden, have vegetarian food, more practice (by that time the knees really hurt), go to bed around 8PM to do the same the next day and the day after that. Well, I treated myself to a self-made seven-day retreat in my own home. What exactly is a retreat? It is a mental withdrawal from one’s self, especially from far-reaching preoccupations of any sort, a ‘be here and now’ exercise, usually performed in a quiet atmosphere with semi-ascetic choices such as drinking water – flavored OK and not eating much. As my friend Doc Martin (not a medical doctor merely an unemployed PhD) always says, one must think very hard but not too much!

The first day of the retreat was spent in a cleansing mode using mantra repetition to tame the thought processes. The following day was easier- suddenly most creative blocks were removed and I found that I was able to pick up forgotten sketches and make something out of them, once the daily business was out of the way.

During my mental retreat, as I limited my TV watching to a minimum, I was somehow more aware of some shockingly incorrect television commercials, such as the one advertising “fine wine, fine art, fine women” (sic) or the one where the African American conga player is outperformed by some dude in a grape costume while barely nubile girls dance around in their underwear. On the news, a political shift is in the making – a mere 32% polled support current policies now, mostly because of rising gas prices and interest rates. A comforting thought.

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