Archive for January, 2007

Three unrelated stories gathered from various media sources…

The ‘affluenza‘ syndrome is a new term coined by psychologists to describe a state of mind frequently found in children, including the inability to delay gratification or tolerate frustration; difficulty in maintaining interest in anything requiring effort; a false sense of entitlement; and a constant preoccupation with material goods. It is no surprise in a capitalist society with fading ethical values. Actually, affluenza is pervasive syndrome, not only among children but also in adults whose boredom and materialism is not easily entertained by anything else besides buying things. This makes for the toughest audience we have for our creative pursuits – I’ll rephrase that: the second-toughest (the toughest being our own colleagues…)

Philip Glass is back at the forefront: The San Francisco Opera commissioned and will present the world premiere of his Appomattox (sounds like a medicine but it is an American civil war drama) during the 2007-08 season. His Satygraha (which was also premiered by the San Francisco Opera in 1989) is on the Metropolitan Opera’s upcoming calendar, and in a couple of months, the English National Opera will mount a production of Satygraha as well. Glass has quite a history at the Met: Einstein on the Beach was premiered in 1976 and, according to the folklore, he had to work his cab the night of the premiere and even drove a customer to Lincoln Center; by the time The Voyage (recently released on Orange Mountain Music) was commissioned in 1992, he no longer needed to drive a cab… Last but not least, Philip Glass is up for an Academy Award again with the soundtrack to the film Notes on a Scandal.

A scientist discovered that certain male sheep (rams) display a homosexual preference. This created a somewhat-misled outrage in the media, as some thought that he was developing a ‘cure’ for homosexuality, which he promptly denied. Isn’t it time to accep the Third Gender… It also made me think back about the composer who didn’t want to be called a ‘lady composer’, a story published in S21 a couple of weeks ago. I had a somewhat similar experience: once upon a time at a French-speaking Canadian broadcast, the host called me ‘compositrice’, using a feminine form that I had never heard used before, and I was really puzzled. French isn’t all that logical when it comes to gender: why is the apple (la pomme) feminine, but the bean (le haricot) masculine? On the one hand, if the French language encouraged the widespread use of ‘compositrice’, it would also acknowledge the possibility of women being composers – and historically, besides Elizabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, there aren’t too many who are remembered. On the other hand, ‘directeur’ (director) has its feminine form, ‘directrice’, but ‘professeur’ (professor) is always masculine; and so was ‘compositeur’, up until the Canadians fixed it. Just like actresses who would rather be called ‘actors’, I tend to prefer to be called ‘compositeur’ like ‘professeur’, like a simply-composer composer – with no gender attached.

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Ever since I can remember, I had a keen interest in Chinese culture: as a student I took a course on communist China and learned the basics of Mandarin Chinese at the Sorbonne; the first I Ching reading I received was “Crossing the great water”, which actually came through since I came to New York shortly after. I was by then fascinated by the I Ching and studied it, not on the basis of chance, but as an oracle and cosmological system, way before it became the focus of renewed interest in the new age era. The hexagram “Ta Ch’u” or crossing the great water, deemed to be very auspicious, is a good match to what Tan Dun has accomplished with The First Emperor: he crossed the cultural waters, just when we thought cross-over was over, to blend everything into one; as he said himself, “one plus one equals one”, meaning that in his work, there is a complete integration of Chinese and Western cultures – which also refers to the Buddhist concept of oneness. (Remember the Buddhist hot dog joke – one with everything?)

I was at the Met on January 13. The house was packed, completely sold out. Obviously the piece is major success for the Metropolitan Opera.
Placido Domingo was a powerful and intense presence as The First Emperor.
The cast delivered a solid performance.
The First Emperor is controversial – which makes it even more exciting.

Therefore, instead of reviewing the piece – it has garnered extensive coverage by now – I would rather suggest ways to understand it better. This new opera is based in part on ideas that have been tried downtown in the past ten-to-twenty years, but have never been fully acknowledged in the classical mainstream, therefore The First Emperor is breaking new ground on this particular territory. This opera also has uniquely brilliant ideas: the use of melisma in a semi-Chinese vocal style, along with the unconventional setting of English text; the gestural nature of the orchestral instrumentation, swelling along with the voices rather than accompanying them, then going into a silent pause, with greater focus on percussion and brass than strings; and in addition, the exotic tonal color of the instrumental solos/duets on Chinese instruments. No wonder Tan Dun had to conduct this piece himself. I doubt that anyone else could have done it justice. All in all, a piece that is easy for me to like… so I asked a few people around me what they thought. Most of the regular subscribers I spoke to found it interesting and enjoyable, even though it was somewhat unexpected.

In a way of comparison, what we appreciate in an Italian western is that slightly removed aspect that makes us aware of the quirks inherent to the western genre itself, which ultimately makes the Italian western more interesting. And maybe, just maybe, this cross-cultural rendition of the operatic form points to the weaknesses inherent to the form itself – the larger-than-life, almost ridiculous epic dimension necessary to launch a deployment of great vocal artistry. This may be why the piece is so controversial – beyond The First Emperor itself, it is the traditional operatic form presented at the Met that is put to the test, and this form appears to be really old all of a sudden. Given those parameters, especially the extra-large chorus to be employed, I think Tan Dun and his production team have done a great job, and he didn’t compromise his music: the anthem sung by the chorus, the “first anthem of unified China” could have been an easy-listening movie theme, but instead it was true to form, sounding like a somewhat monotonous, anticlimactic and not particularly memorable Buddhist chant – but wholly and completely, culturally correct.

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I always seem to start the year from a point of complete despair, but as Chögyam Trungpa puts it, despair is a staircase. I always found great inspiration in his books. After I read The Myth of Freedom, I never felt the same about spirituality. One must make a distinction between spirituality and religion. Strictly speaking, Buddhism is not a religion. It is a “nontheistic spiritual discipline, which does not talk in terms of worship and does not regard the world as somebody’s creation. According to the Buddhist teachings, there was no great articifer who fashioned the world. The world is created or produced and happens to be purely through our own existence. We exist; therefore, we have fashioned this particularly world.” *

As my father said, music is my religion. I find it to be a spiritual exercise similar to meditation, like a ‘meditation in action’. I am surprised that among all all our composers’ talk, we so rarely mention the more spiritual aspects of composing. After all, if there are no wordly rewards to the exercise of a musical gift, there is an inherent reward in a practice based on pure and unselfish musical thought and possibly some healing as well.

The new age is over by now, and spirituality is no longer among the ‘in’ subjects, as we are more concerned about the practical aspects of the technologies that will enable the communication of music in the future than the spiritual purpose of music. It would be nice to remember it once in a while, though.

*The Great Eastern Sun, by Chögyam Trungpa

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