Archive for March, 2010

In the mid-20th century, the composer was still a rare individual with very specialized knowledge, skills and years of training, making complicated mathematical statements that were hard on the ear. Composers were still considered as a kind of mysterious and elusive lot… mostly male in gender, as that occupation had not been open to women, with a few exceptions.

Now at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, not only women composers (who have emerged in large numbers in the latter part of the 20th century), but just about everyone can be a composer right at home with a computer. Styles are so numerous that it is difficult to even draw up a list. There is at this point in time an explosion of musical styles that reflect different social environments, histories, geographies, ethnicities, coming together as a global culture, and as far as I am concerned they are all valid, from the street to the Metropolitan Opera.

Composing is demystified. It is not the pride and privilege of an elite. Everyone can afford access to music composition and production tools – some like GarageBand are readily available free with every Mac computer. This program offers a very intuitive interface and a series of musical loops that can be arranged and manipulated into songs. Like a child’s construction set, it comes in pieces to rearrange. And everyone has the opportunity to get into the game of songwriting and composing. Even the tone deaf could do it.

It is interesting that while music is widely distributed through free or low-cost downloads, therefore becoming accessible to millions of people, the general interest for music has expanded considerably. And in typical 21st century fashion, people want to “interact” with the music;  they want to create it themselves and make use of the tools that are available – hundreds of affordable software packages (Logic, Reason, Cubase, Digital Performer, Ableton, Kontakt, and many more) teach everything from songwriting to composing to sound manipulation to music production, while notation software (Finale, Sibelius) can display a score from a performance on a midi keyboard without anyone sitting down to write it. The new DAW (digital audio workstation) software is forgiving for those who do not have much keyboarding technique. With Reason, for instance, you can actually pencil in your notes – they appear as little rectangles. Which means you can create something using a visual interface without having to play an instrument and without knowledge of traditional music notation. I think this is a break-through in terms of creativity.

I am particularly sensitive to this turn of events because of my current teaching job at New York City College of Technology where I introduce both musicians and non-musicians to the creation of music on the computer. Some non-musicians are thrilled that they actually can enjoy the type of self-expression that is afforded by their own music. Some students tell me that they dreamed about making music but felt inadequate because they did not have training on an instrument. It’s been a long time since schools offered music classes, and a lot of people miss them.

When I went to elementary school I had weekly music classes and choir practice as part of the regular curriculum; we  had public performances where the school children sang and played the recorder. In high school I remember performing in the chorus of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, again part of the high school program. I know… it was in Europe. But that early education may have had a powerful impact on my desire to make music.

Now the education in America is science and technology oriented. It is therefore not surprising that music creativity is finding some new outlets with technology and computers. Even cell phone ring tones make a statement about a favorite piece or can be easily created by the users themselves. Music still is a very important part of our lives… it just comes through different channels.

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New York is teeming with various benefits for Haiti – famous models, even Iggy Pop get involved in supporting this worthy cause… Gerald Hammill of Other Music has curated a benefit even.  Funds will go to Doctors Without Borders and also support a special mission to Haiti. The fest is taking place at Public Assembly in Williamsburg (70 North 6th) starting at 8 PM.

This is an especially momentous event for me as I will have the chance to premiere a new set of French tangos with Jonathan Hirschman on guitar. I am playing the tangos on synthesizer some on a sparkling piano sound and some very much like a bandoneon. Some may wonder why I am seemingly suddenly doing tango… Actually I have a long history with tango: my first tango was prompted by a friend in Paris, painter Robert Malaval who simply asked me to “write him a tango”. And so I did, even though I was in the throes of my punk days back then, hair pink or shaved, using early synths and dysfunctional TVs in my performances. But I loved tango music and I did write the piece but it was not performed at the time. When Malaval died (shot himself) about ten years later I remembered the piece and started playing it in his memory.  An instrumental version was published by Tellus as a cassette along with tangos by David Garland, Zeena Parkins and other composers on the scene.  I also recorded a version with a vocal in French. But this remained in the drawer for some 20 years until it was unearthed by Unseen Worlds to be included in the Piano Works Revisited 2-CD set they just released.  Last year I performed this tango at Issue Project Room and several of my artists friends said “we want more tangos”…

The Tango set is part of a series of charity events that will take place in March and April as Jonathan and I volunteer in several Lower East Side Nursing Homes. We will also perform at Lafayette Bar & Grill on Saturday, March 27 at 8PM, a fundraiser for Lower East Side Performing Arts to support new venues for artists downtown.

Coming back to Arms Around  Haiti, not only will I perform the new Tangos composed in Paris this winter but I will also perform with Arthur’s Landing, along with old members of the Arthur Russell group and some of my oldest friends including Steven Hall (voice, guitar) Peter Zummo (trombone)  Mustafa Ahmed (percussion) Bill Ruyle, (drums) John Scherman (guitar), Joyce Bowden (voice) an Ernie Brooks (bass). We have been recording an album together this winter for Strut and I have really enjoyed the band and found the Arthur Russell material refreshing after years of working in strictly classical music, although there are classical elements in this essentially crossover music that weaves many styles in a unique way.

To sing or not to sing… definitely an issue for me, as I got tired of being pushed into a more ‘feminine’ singing role by males so I focused more on the keyboards and composing rather than the singing.  Early on I was a songwriter and singing came with the territory.  I had some opera training and later on Indian music training with LaMonte Young, Marian Zazeela and Pandit Pran Nath at the DIA Foundation and Akhmal Parwez at NYU – a lot of Indian music singing!  But as soon as I realized that I could use my voice to compose and have others sing, I was fulfilled.  I do enjoy singing on occasion, even if I don’t practise it very much. I can also do extended techniques – for which I do not have a lot of use these days…

But now that the Arthur Russell material is coming back, I am prompted to reconnect with vocals….and last Thursday I performed Arthur Russell’s “Go Bang” with Peter Gordon and members of Arthur’s Landing at Santos… funny that  I was never credited for my performance on the original version of Go Bang, given that I was then unknown, but you can definitely recognize my voice on certain sections of the Dinosaur L recording posted on Youtube. Conversely, in Arthur Russell’s “Miracle”  my involvement was acknowledged not only as a singer and keyboardist but as a co-writer. The tune was renamed “In The Light of The Miracle” by the record label Point because there were too many other songs named “Miracle” that were already published….but the tune was originally known to us creators as “Miracle” and I always found the other title fuddy-duddy. This is why I  renamed the new version of Miracle that I have been recording “Miracle 2″ and if there still are too many songs named Miracle 2 then it  could very well be “Miracle 2 U”!

So… do not miss this opportunity to catch up with us as performances like this are few and far between… If you need directions or map I have one posted on the web site:


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