Archive for the “Concerts” Category

The Value of Reviews

And I mean reviews, plural.

In the past two weeks, I’ve thought about the merits in reviews while I experienced two sets of fresh reviews in wildly contrasted subject areas (none of these has anything to do with my own work). One set is from the world of video games – in which I’m a total outsider; the other straddles various art forms – something more my terrain. In no instance was I actually attending any of art events being discussed, nor, clearly, playing the game. But after reading a spectrum of reviews, in both cases I was able to glean specific insights concerning the particular item(s) under examination and the precise frame of reference adopted by individual reviewers. And both sets of reviews in fact cope with the biggest of themes in any creation.

What started me reading the game reviews was the release on several platforms of a new game designed by my son, Mike Zaimont. (“Mike Z” is a well-known tournament player in a number of fighting games.) His game, Skullgirls, was developed over quite a few years after a lot of thought about improvements that could be made to the fighting genre; he designed a completely new fighting engine for the new game and is project lead. The game looks good, too ; it has an all-female cast so far, and a retro-noir plus animé look created by Alex Ahad. Skullgirls developed quite a fan base in the two-years period as it was introduced player-by-player at game conventions, and it has been greeted warmly by the gaming community in the US upon release on April 10th. (Europe and Australia release was just two days ago, and it’s being translated into a number of languages.) Having sold more than 50,000 copies in its first two weeks of limited availability, Skullgirls is a hit; the team is back in place developing new chapters, new characters and other expansions.

I read many reviews in English, two in French, and watched an hour-long video review in German. A fair number are lengthy: they analyze every aspect, and are very specific on Skullgirls’ virtues plus certainly noting exactly requested adjustments. Even as a complete outsider — and someone who doesn’t own a game console of any kind, and who doesn’t know gaming terminology — by reading the assessments and thereby seeing the game reflected in comparative terms, I’m able to gain an appreciation of its character, its substance, its innovations and what the many reviewers believe it adds to the universe of fighting games. Over time in my reading I not only saw consensus appearing as to a general verdict but also gleaned an understanding of what gaming I itself means to those who are dedicated gamers.
These reviews were not just armament assembled solely in order to render a particular verdict – they were actually testaments to a passion for the world of gaming, and to loyalties and allegiances, along with a genuine quest for the new and the better that struck me notably. I came away with an enhanced regard for the evident emotion, immediate connection, and commitment of so many in the gaming world.

During this same period I also read two arts articles by our local Arizona Republic’s good arts critic, Richard Nilsen. (He’d effective in our locale because he often takes pains to bring a non-expert reader into the artistic conversation by relating arts event to frames of reference for a reader’s more usual experiences. ) The first arts piece was a long assessment/appreciation of Jackson Pollock and what Pollock brought to the invigoration of American painting and to the mid-century US art world in large. The second piece was his review of the Phoenix Symphony’s mid-April concert, which contained a recent work by an American composer the reviewer pretty much dismissed.
In pulling back from these two dissimilar arts articles I was struck most by what the reviewer revealed about himself: the values in the realized work and in the premises behind the creations that he most prizes, no matter the medium.

The Pollock overview closes with a reminder that “the older artists had a “heroic” vision of art, always moving forward to some difficult and ultimate target. “ This the reviewer contrasts with Pop Art’s pull-back from the heroic as well as the smaller goals for art in our own day. The assessment closes: “And in our age of diminished expectations, perhaps it might be good to recognize the heroic ambitions of Pollock and his buddies. They really intended to change the world. Our ambitions today seem just a bit puny in comparison.”

The Symphony review describes the newer composition as “full of New Age sounds and well-worn harmonies … [it] seems like the work of a well-behaved “A” student in class, who can give back perfectly to the teacher what [was] learned but has no actual insights to impart. The music is pleasant , but forgettable.” According to the review, the program “needed saving.” And indeed, the evening was saved by the concluding Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Heroism ( of a sort ) wins the day.

What do I come away with from these two sets of reviews? The huge contrast between a perceived distance that may have grown up between us and “Art” – engendering admiration, yes, along perhaps with a prevailing reverence for art as artifact – and the passionate engagement with, and enthusiasm for games evidenced in the gaming community.
I see that gaming world inhabitants believe they can have a say in the direction the gaming world will take – and that they applaud gaming enterprises which take chances. But arts acolytes may not understand they can have the same say – and an atmosphere of reverence rather than enthusiasm — which cultivates a tilt towards the backward glance — need not be the norm,.
When was it that music ceded the heroic stance to videogaming? If this is NOT true — Amen to that! — let’s realign the perspective, and get back into the mix.

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Just
finishing  up a week-long residency in
Minnesota, with activities primarily centered in the Bands program at the
University of Minnesota School of Music.


Rehearsals
have been ongoing for two  good-size  pieces, one for symphonic band and the other
for large wind ensemble.

 

In
early March the Symphonic Band, led by Jerry Luckhardt, will perform “Israeli
Rhapsody”.  It was commissioned by the
Kaplan Foundation in 2007 and has been already perform by collegiate
honor/all-state bands in  Virginia
and  Minnesota.

 

Tomorrow
night, Feb. 9th,  brings the
regional premiere of  CONCERTO for Piano
and Wind Orchestra ‘Solar Traveller’.   
Piano soloist  Timothy Lovelace
will be partnered by the legendary Craig Kirchhoff  directing the University of Minnesota  Wind Ensemble. 

       The preliminaries included separate
seminars for the graduate Conductors, 
this evening’s  lecture for the
Composition program,  and  a Thursday morning  session for the Piano Division  centered on the CONCERTO.  

 

      Minnesota Public Radio has posted a
segment of an interview on the piece I did with classical director Steve
Staruch; this includes  excerpts from the
piece as well as the interview in streamed form,  along with other info on the piece and the
regional premiere.       (
Accessed at  classicalmpr.org )

 

~~   The weather in Minneapolis this last week
has been a perfect incarnation of

         “Minnesota Nice!”

   

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Side-note on Style

Our local Maricopa Music Circle is now planning its Winter Recital. One of the pieces violinist Zhenenyeva Ehrbright and I plan to perform is a Nocturne by Medtner. Meeting his Three Nocturnes was a total treat for me – he is the real deal.
Pianists are the ones who may know Nicolay Medtner the best. His many solo Sonatas and the Concerti are legendary for pianists who care to go just one step past the tried and true. (This was his own instrument, after all, and he writes for it so the music will always sound and also feel right under the hand.) But he’s in the shadows to the public at large, bearing the ‘stigma’ of forever being thought unfashionable. (A bit like Dukas – also an educator as well as composer, and tireless editor of his own music.)
He’s a transitional figure in Russian music (dying in England in the 1950s – !), who sounds at times hints at the harmonic formulations of Scriabin or Rachmaninoff, with touches of Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky. But the music has soul, and an abundance of elegance and thought in the crafting, so that its shapes beautifully fulfill the length of their statement – they never natter, prolong, or bore. That’s an accomplishment.
I’m positive we pay too much attention to the “fashionable-ness” of any artwork. – If a piece or a picture is quite au courant, that seems to go a long way in how we evaluate it. Being on a current wavelength can in the moment make up for a work’s actually being thin, or rather uninspired, or just plain poor.
But the test of time is significant. Magnificent art is, in part, art that is durable. It speaks meaningfully to different audiences over various eras. The further away from the composer’s lifetime we are, the truer the test of the music: It then becomes possible to consider the work primarily on its own terms, on its individual premise, divorced from any fashion of the moment.

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Taking a Flyer

I’m experimenting with a trial balloon in crowd sourcing.
UnitedStatesArtists.org has now listed a project involving one development stage for my new big piece: Pure, Cool (Water) – Symphony No. 4.

Why this project?
It’s a piece close to my own heart – five movements for large orchestra, c. 33 minutes long – the newest piece aligning my continuing fascination with phenomena of the natural world with a family focus of long standing centered on environmental preservation: enhancing water quality control and preserving this crucial natural resource.

Equally important to the project coming forward in this way is the truth that artists can get typed.
Demand doesn’t always subsume to our creative visions for the future:
Commissions frequently are based upon an acquaintanceship with a composer’s existing music, primarily the works for a particular medium. Commissioners don’t always track the trend of a composer’s fresh imagining, nor perhaps be quite ready to support a brand-new vision; and it’s especially difficult if the new piece is in a medium for which the composer has written relatively little so far. Since my chamber music and solo pieces are better known than the orchestra works, the current Symphony seems an intriguing, and honest, way to try out a relatively new method for garnering support.
(Plus: If this support does materialize, the contributions from orchestra co-commissioners can be kept to a modest level, resulting in greater number of performances right off the bat, across the country.)

Why this method?

I often whisper in the ear of musicians about to go onstage with their first performance of a work of mine “Take the Dare!”
– With the new Symphony, I’m taking my own advice.

Why this portal?

Unlike other portals, USArtists Projects sets a relatively high bar for vetting the artists they invite in – a credential already in place such as a Guggenheim, or Bush Foundation Fellowship. In addition, they include a fair number of foundations among long term participants. And the project presentations themselves are elaborate, involving video, audio, images and plenty of text.

The project is titled Developing the Full Score of “Pure, Cool (Water)” Symphony.
It will run for one-and-a-half months and can be viewed under my name at unitedstatesartistsprojects.org.

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Hearing Fast = Shallow Content [?]
first of two posts

A week ago Friday I attended a concert at Arizona State University. (The program closed with a super-hot performance of my sax quartet, Parallel Play – I couldn’t ask for a better delivery!)

What stuck out from the program at large, though, was that the music by the younger composers programmed seemed built according to pretty different expectations of just what audience members were meant to get from their listening experience:

Acceptance that this hearing would in all likelihood be their one-and-only encounter with this piece – and therefore the music’s goals / contents / ambitions needed to abide by reduced dimensionality so that everything possible to glean would be doable in one pass through the piece.

Because I operate from a very different premise, I was struck by the thinness of content – by and large – in the works built accordingly. And their markedly slow harmonic rhythm. And their relatively shorter length.

Don’t get me wrong: There were striking sonorities and hooks aplenty – but they were primarily found in the very opening bars where they serve to capture the ear, and set up the listening presumption that some variation on the first material might occur – but also that that’s all there would be /could be. It makes for a tidy presentation, but (for me) is a curiously lifeless way to sustain originality in any artistic statement.

– Sure, we want the basic materials of a piece actively refreshed to our ear from time to time; that’s what Recaps (and Developments) are for. (Not to mention the essence of fugue.) Affirmation and confirmation are for sure important signals in crafting comprehensible forms.

But, by the same token, shouldn’t there be the delight of un-expected discoveries, un-anticipated adventuring in the music? If not these, then how can a piece be memorable? — something savored so much in retrospect that – like a good book – you just have to seek it out for repeated encounters.

Six years back I participated in a panel discussion with 2 other composers of wind ensemble music, and the youngest guy there confided to the room that he builds his movements by the following formula:
Present three distinguishable bits, then toss them about for the movement’s length. Is this today’s industry standard??

~~

Shana tovah ! to everyone.

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Music Maker JLZ 26

A recent NewMusicBox column was titled “Changing Tastes” ( Feb. 22, 2011). In it David Smooke discusses, with some wonder, the fact that his musical tastes have changed over ten years.

I certainly agree with one of his observations : “The works that really get my brain buzzing [now] don’t always work in one hearing…. Their elusive logic excites me.” What’s most meaningful here is an underlying acceptance that we’ll want to hear the piece more than once.

This chimes with what Leo Kraft has said many times — that what we get from a first hearing basically is that something in the music calls us back to want to hear it again. The music might delight, irritate, mystify or confuse in a way we find intriguing, but overall it has to have an impact, inviting us back to hear it again.   What music shouldn’t ever do is be so boring, so transparent — or signal so constantly about what we’re about to hear that we know too well what will come next — that it leaves us afterward saying “So what?” That’s death for art.

We have no control over the life circumstances of the people listening to our music. We can’t prescribe how folks take in — process, comprehend – what we put forth. All we can do is remain true to the internal prompts that keep our music vital: that it be fresh in concept and intriguing in its clothing out, that it warrant its length ( short or long), and that it offer something to savor through repeat hearings (and in multiple performances).

[ Recently I heard from a performer who was readying a Naxos disc of my music for next year, that the reason he chose one of these pieces was because it mystified yet interested him when he heard someone else play it – he just had to put it through the rehearsal-performance crucible himself in order to find out what makes it tick. ]

Yes, our age demands lots of product. And some of it is intended to have a shelf-life as brief as a quart of milk’s. But if the intention behind what we do is to make something more durable, then we’ve got to do precisely that – honestly.

============
From Richard Nilsen’s Feb. 27th AZ Republic review of an Arizona MusicFest concert ( Arutunian trumpet concerto, M. Bates “Desert Transport”, Rachmaninoff Symphony #2). His says of one work: “Completely competent, even magnificent in its craftsmanship, but we’ve heard this music before in other contexts. Is that enough to make it musically satisfying?”
But of the Rach: “It was music to break your heart…. When it’s over you come away knowing you’ve been through an experience… of deep, profound emotion.   Competence cannot do that.”

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September 1, 2009

With “BEASTS”, the newest movement recently posted, I’ve been musing on a particular side-note to this summer ‘experiment’ . http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nr6XFT6z1Fo

We started the series because I was annoyed to see some recordings/performances of selected pieces of mine get co-opted for YouTube presentations I considered to be lame, or — in one case – a copyright infringement as regards the art work.

Because I cannot endorse composing originally for a royalty-free medium, my project’s premise is to use only single movements from larger works, and only music from already-issued LP/CDs, with consent obtained ahead of time from the conductors and publishers.

The response from many (around the world) has been to correspond privately with me about the music – music which they are first encountering via the videos, years after the recordings were issued: Source recordings for these videos appeared first in 1979, 1995, 1998, and 2007. And three of the four movements have been available on the Internet — for free — for at least 2 years

We consider the series is successful on its own terms – for example, Texas Public Radio’s Classical Blog has linked to two of the movements . This suggests the timeliness for a discussion now on the reach, and clout, of this type of communications channel.

Composers should look to develop professional guidelines for projects like these that can serve as targeted conduits to a different, broader audience.

BEASTS

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The phenomenally gifted Harlem Quartet  offered the first three performances of  my new  String Quartet –  eight, seven and six days ago back East  (Cornell, Eastman, Syracuse).   I was able to be present only for the very first performance and without question  believe it to be  the best world premiere  to date of  any of my works. Yes, the audience response was prolonged and effusive – but  what  most touched me was the superb close attention to – and love of – my notes on the part of this great quartet.   This was the real deal:   They absolutely the music, and made it their own.    I was personally sure about this piece  once I had wrestled it into final form on the page –  but now, thanks to HQ,  anyone can hear it  just the way  I imagined it would sound.  Hats off to Ilmar, Melissa, Miguel and Desmond! 

Ed. Note:  The Harlem Quartet will be appearing at Carnegie Hall this Tuesday night, September 25, as part of the Sphinx Laureates Concert.

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Coming up this weekend is the premiere of my new String Quartet – The Figure, performed by the excellent Harlem Quartet.  ( 9/ 15 – Syracuse University,   9/16– Eastman ,  9/17 – Cornell) 

The 16-minute Quartet was composed in January and February, during  which time I felt almost as if  I was working in a trance:  the materials grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.    It is traditional in no way  –  not in its forms, nor  its sounds nor  its character.   It’s cast in 2 movements,  but only as I was about half-way through the second did the a title  suggest itself.   (Playing on the fact that the term “figure” is  meaningful in visual arts and literature, as well as in music.)

Everything in the Quartet derives from the materials of its tripartite figure.   And since these are revealed differently in the two movements – obscured in the first;  in the second initially outlined harshly, but then interrupted  increasingly by a softened, melodic version of  itself –   I  titled each movement accordingly:   1 -  In Shadow ,    2 – In Bright Light.
 
Overall  the Quartet is  dramatic in its character, but woven in its form.  It changes on a dime from inward to outward musics,  from  romantic sweep to  angular exclamation –   at one point  (at the height of  Shadow’s  central sprint),  I ask the players to stamp their feet,  several times,   for unison emphasis – and the movements  interrelate .    Example:  There’s a shard which appears only once in the first movement that  in the second becomes  seriously meaningful.

The Harlem Quartet is very interested in the piece, and we’ve already had some spirited rehearsals (by electronic means); we meet in person at Syracuse on Friday.

[Five other of my works will also be done at Syracuse across  the two  Saturday concerts. ]

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During September and October  in addition to first  performances of  three brand-new pieces there’ll be a  sort-of first performance of a fourth.  This  ‘sort-of’ premiere  (at Syracuse University, September 15th 8:00 PM)  is of my Serenade  for Violin and Organ. 
        
At times composers can’t accurately predict  what will spark performer interest.  I know it’s a surprise to me  sometimes: More than once when I’ve written a piece just for myself to play that  caught on with other pianists,  developing  a hardy  after-life.  

Serenade was composed in one day in March of 2006, originally for piano.  A  close relative’s serious illness had me brooding, so I sat down to write music  she would enjoy hearing.   She loves the kind of lush jazz chords typical of ‘40s big-bands, so I began with the same major-7th chord as  David Raksin used in  “Laura”  and progressed from there in  sustained quiet affect.    The resulting  five-minute movement is something of a lone-wolf  — it stays  in one meter throughout with a  circular melody that never resolves;  and  the music begins and ends almost without definition.  Because  its background rhythm is a consistent  slow syncopation, I included it on the Prestidigitations CD as  coda.

When the Syracuse concert came up,  the organ professor wanted to play, so I  suggested he adapt Serenade ( a melody with  worked-out harmonic support ) and sent along the music.   He really liked it and slated the transcribed version for the mid-September concert (I’ll be there).

The music is mine, but this version is his.  Vested interest is spread, and anticipated pleasure in the offering is shared.  (A report on the transcription  will follow later this month.) 

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