Anonymous yet personal, this Blog chronicles
the daily events and musings of Jim.
It provides an easy way for his friends and family to check in on him,
and serves as a online repository for his random
thoughts, kaleidoscopic flashbacks, and writings on an array of diverse topics.
“Deconstructing Jim” is simply here to
entertain you, but not intended for college credit.

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Chapel Hill, NC, United States

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Flashbacks about Jazzers

Here are two flashbacks from my youth, and they relate to the town of Irvington near where I grew up in NY in the early 1970s.

In sight of the Tappan Zee Bridge, the affluent villages of Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry, Irvington, and Tarrytown attracted the rich and famous, including some very successful jazz artists.


For example, the Danish trombonist and jazz composer Kai Winding (1922-1983) lived just up the hill from my house. My friend "Pip" happened to be his next door neighbor. You may know Winding as the composer of the hit tune "More" from the movie Mondo Cane. As a teenager, I was also impressed that his Winding's blond wife was a former Playboy pin-up model.


Other famous musicians lived in the area too, such as saxophonist Stan Getz (1927 - 1991) who made his home in the neighboring village of Irvington.

One evening, not knowing exactly where I was or how I got there, I found myself with a couple of friends visiting other teenagers from the neighboring town of Irvington. I recall sitting in a comfortable suburban living room with an assortment of kids: both girls and boys.

Feeling a combination of boredom and curiosity, I reached over to a small collection of record albums sitting in a crate beside me. I saw nothing of interest - except an album by Stan Getz. I grabbed it and enthusiastically said, "Let's play this! This is good stuff."

A young woman sitting sitting on the couch opposite me seemed very surprised, and perhaps a little suspicious. After all, we were citizens of the generation that listened to Rock. But I was rather persistent in my defence of Stan Getz, and wanting to hear the album.

Ultimately, she and her friends let the cat out of the bag. "That's my dad," she said with the ring of embarrassment you might expect from a teenage girl talking about her father.

In disbelief, I replied "Aahhh, come on! No way!"

I didn't believe her, but then she said to look at the album cover.

"That's me." she said.

Feeling like a fool, I sat on the couch looking alternately at the album cover and her face.

"Yep, that's you" I finally conceded.

It turned out that she lived next door, and we were at her friend's house. The young lady must have been Beverly Getz, or "Bev. What a coincidence!


By the way, her biological mom, Beverly Byrne, had sung with Gene Krupa band.



Drummer and bandleader Gene Krupa (1909 - 1973) lived in Yonkers and came to visit my high school a few years before he died of heart failure at the age of 64. It was part of a public awareness health program to encourage kids to stay off drugs.


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My second flashback from this era involves an encounter with yet another world-famous jazz legend.

It took place on the sprawling 63-acre estate known as Lyndhurst. Lyndhurst is situated on the border between Irvington and Tarrytown, NY. It's where the mansion of robber baron Jay Gould (1836 - 1892) was constructed (a photo of the mansion is below). Gould, one of the richest men in American history, was a American railroad developer and speculator. Lyndhurst is a designated National Trust Historic Site/Landmark, but is also a venue for public summer concerts.



I knew that on Saturday August 19th, 1972 at 6 PM at Lyndhust there would be a concert with "Duke" Ellington (1899 - 1974) and his full orchestra. It was a benefit concert for Brian Sheldrake. The concert was scheduled early so that Ellington and his band could get into NY City for their regular evening performance at the Rainbow Grill. Stan Getz and "Dizzy" Gillespie also performed (with Dave Holland playing bass in his band). My friend Barry McVinny (who played sax in my group) was working as a stage manager, and got an even close up-close view of the great musicians in action.


Although I was very interested to hear his music live, I didn't have the cash on hand to purchase a ticket. But I knew the Lyndhurst landscape pretty well, having walked up and down the adjoining NY Central railroad tracks like a hobo in training. I surmised that I could probably enter Lyndhurst from the area below the site along the Hudson from the train tracks. Once on the property, I could walk up the steeply embanked slope to where the concert would be held.

As I had schemed, I made it easily over to the tent were Ellington and his orchestra were performing without incident or arrest. But since I didn't have a ticket for a lawn chair, I just stood by myself near the stage.

Perhaps feeling empowered by the superb music, I ventured up closer to the stage close to where the "Duke" was standing (stage left). Ellington would go back and forth between playing licks on the piano and standing up. His band was essentially playing his music on autopilot.

At one point, I stood just 20 feet away from the Duke, and was oblivious to the audience. I had my arms crossed, and allowed myself to be totally engulfed by his music. But visually, I focused on Ellington.

Then suddenly the "Duke" looked directly at me. Our eyes locked in. He stared right at me for a duration that seemed like an eternity. It was if we had embraced in a kind of "Vulcan Mind Meld." Intense waves of energy shot back and forth between us, although his band and the audience were completely oblivious to it.

I clearly remember the expression on his face. He looked tired, like a man who had lived a very long life. Ellington had heavy "bags" under his eyes, but gazed at me with a youthful curiosity and wondrous sparkle. It was almost as if he knew about me, and that I was a musician. Our psychic exchange was inter-generational and inter-cultural. Most everyone else attending the concert came from a different place. To put it stereotypically, they were old, white, and extremely rich.

In 1972 Ellington knew about the revolution in music that was going on around him. Although he was immensely successful and had no lack of work, I could strangely sense his artistic and philosophical conundrum. Was this audience at Lyndhurst really his audience? Would this be his legacy? And, who the hell is that long-haired hippie teenager hanging out near the stage?

Sometimes communication is non-verbal. Music is certainly a prime example of that. But the face-to-face encounter I had with the "Duke" on August 19th, 1972 will be etched onto my brain forever.

Ellington died just short two years later. He is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery (in the Bronx) close to musicians Miles Davis, Irving Berlin, and Lionel Hampton. It is the same cemetery where robber baron Jay Gould, the former resident of Lyndhurst, was laid to rest.

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Family History

My paternal grandfather, Daniele (1864-1956), immigrated to America from the city of Cervinara, which sits in the scenic Valley of Caudina in the Province of Avelina in Southern Italy. It's not far from Naples.


Photo from Google Earth: "From the Mountains of Cervinara"

Cervinara is first mentioned in a document dating from 837 AD when it was part of a Feudal state. In 1800 the population grew to about 5,000, and in 1900 (around the time my grandfather left) Cervinara's population had risen to about 7,400.

The region functioned primarily as an agricultural economy because of the fertile soil. Cervinara is known for its' wine grapes, apples, pears, vegetables, hemp, porcini mushrooms, truffles, and chestnuts. The trees are alder, beach, poplar, and chestnut. Other industries around the turn of the century included stone and marble quarries, a coal mine, and lumber.

Beginning in 1900 a wave of modernization in and around Cervinara began. The Benevento-Napoli steam railway, an aqueduct, and a new power plant all provided basic services to the community.

Some people prospered, but a lower-class - the children of laborers and craftsmen - were drawn away by the lure of gold-paved streets in America. Four million Italians entered the United States in the decades around the turn of the century, and about a third of those settled in New York. The resulting mass-exodus of human capital created social, economic, and cultural disruption in the Campania region of Italy. The population was out of balance.

Many people from Cervinara (or "Cervinaresi") chose to emigrate to New York City, Toronto Canada, and Troy NY where they found strong support in the local communities for immigrants departing from the port of Naples and arriving continually at Ellis Island. Many of them came from the region of Campania - including the city Cervinara.

Cervinaresi in America organized into clubs and lodges to provide a cultural and linguistic connection with their homeland. In New York City, the Lodge Cervinara Caudina Valley of the Great Order of the Sons of Italy was started in 1915. A similar organization existed in Troy, NY. My grandfather Daniele was a member of the NYC Lodge.

At least one immigrant from Cervinara made a huge impact in America: Gaetano Clemente. Clemente founded the Clement Contracting Company in the Bronx, and constructed many of the roads and buildings in Manhattan. The Medical Center in Washington Heights, buildings for Columbia and Fordham Universities, as well as some roads (e.g. Casanova Street in the Bronx) were all constructed by his company. Gaetano didn't forget about his roots in Cervinara, where he had stared out in the construction trade. He returned to Cervinara, raised the funds, and constructed a grand monument in the city square. The Piazza di Cervinara memorial monument was dedicated by Gaetano in 1930.

My grandfather Daniele arrived at Ellis Island on April 13th, 1893 via the steamship Kronprinz Friedrich Wilhelm. He was single, 29 years old, and promptly took up residence in New York City. His reasons for leaving Italy were primarily to explore the New World for opportunity and a better life. There may have been some inter-personal reasons for his rapid departure, and those are details best left unspoken.


Daniele married Annina Tamarra (1874-1951), and they resided at 235 East 126th Street in Manhattan - an area of the city known for its' large Cervinaresi population. My grandmother Annina was from Solofra Italy, located a little south of Cervinara.

My grandmother Annina was very religious, and up until her final days kept in close contact with friends and family in Italy. She corresponded frequently with the Sisters of the Insigne Collegiata S. Michele Arcangelo in Solofra (Avellino), especially around the Catholic holy days. I still hold her beloved wooden Rosary beads as a memento to remember her by (photo below).




When Annina immigrated to America from Solofra, she brought with her on the ship a collection of hand-crafted copper cooking pans, and a heavy mortar and pestle made from white Italian marble. These items are still in the family and held by myself and my brother Larry.

To read more about my grandparents, check out the following blog post:


To continue with the story, my grandfather had three brothers: Pasquale, Annibale, and Raffeale.

I have no record or information about my grandfather's brother Raffaele. I think he may have enlisted in the Italian military and was a casualty of one of the many Italian conflicts.

Pasquale (b. 1862) decided to immigrate to the United States, and follow in the footsteps of his younger brother (my grandfather) Daniele. He arrived at Ellis Island from the port of Naples in 1903 at the age of 41. Pasquale was looking to make a better life, but had left his wife and an infant or two behind in Cervinara to fend for themselves.

On April 19th, 1913, Pasquale's impoverished (and probably destitute) wife Amalia Mercaldi [misspelled as Mercaldo in the passenger record] arrived from Naples on the ship Cedric and were processed at Ellis Island with her two children: 14 year-old Luigi (b.1899) and Mario (b. 1903) age 10. [The US immigration records erroneously indicate their last place of residence as "Cusinara" - which does not exist].

Amalia was born in 1861, and was already 52 years of age when she arrived at Ellis Island. There were about twenty other "Cervinaresi" accompanying them to America on that ship.

According to one account, Amalia didn't know how to locate her husband Pasquale, who had apparently abandoned his family. She enlisted the aid of an US immigration official who located Pasquale in New York. It is unclear that after 10 years apart if the family was able to reunite. But Amalia and her two children were welcomed into the larger family.

Pasquale and Amalia's oldest son altered his first name from Luigi to Louis, and rose rapidly to become one of the world's premiere French hornists. After a year performing with the Saint Louis Symphony (at age 17), he joined the NY Philharmonic in 1917, and performed over 5000 concerts with them during his incredible 45-year tenure. He retired from his position as Assistant Principal with the New York Philharmonic in 1962. His colleagues in the world-renown French horn section included the Principal James Chambers, and with horn colleagues Joseph Singer, William Namen, Mark Fisher, and beginning in 1950, Ranier "Dinny" DeIntinis.

In addition to the NY Philharmonic, Louis regularly performed before an audience of ten thousand with the Stadium Symphony Orchestra beginning with the first concert on June 23rd, 1918. The summer concerts were held at the Lewisohn Stadium at 136th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.


He kept it up well into the 1950s, and never missed a concert over all of those years. In the book "Mother is Minne" about the eccentric patron and unsalaried impresaria of the Stadium Orchestra, Minnie Guggenheimer, her daughter writes (page 85), "The same claim [about never missing a concert] is made by Louis, a dashing Neapolitan who began playing French horn in the Stadium orchestra when he was fifteen and is still blowing strong."

Louis probably retired from his orchestra positions because of the mandatory retirement age of 65. However, he remained on the faculty of the New York College of Music. His students included David Helfrich, Alyce Whitman, and Allison Feld. Louis died in 1970 in Yonkers, NY.

To learn more about Louis and see some photos, visit my blog posts about his extraordinary musician...


Pasquale and Amalia's second son Mario (no photo available) followed in his older brother Louis' footsteps by joining him as a world-class French hornist. Mario performed in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Larry Huffman, a music historian wrote to me that Mario's colleagues in the French Horn section at the MET were Silvio Cosica and Richard Moore in addition to Gunther Schuller. I met Mario when he came to visit our house in Dobbs Ferry, NY around 1976. We talked about Schuller, and he recommend that I get in touch with him.

Mario taught at the Manhattan School of Music, and at the Juilliard Preparatory Division. From his colleagues at the music schools who knew him well, Mario was said to have had an extremely high-strung and nervous personality.

Mario and his wife Olga had a daughter by the name of Linda Quinn, and three grandchildren (Gina, Samatha, and Timothy). Mario was born on January 9th 1903 in Cervinara, and died on October 7th, 1988 in White Plains, New York.

Olga was born on April 4th, 1914 and may have been a concert pianist. She died in November of 1995 in White Plains - where the family lived in an apartment at 76 Lexington Avenue (Cousins, if you read this, please get in touch!).

Little is known about what happened to my grandfather's older brother Pasquale. My grandfather and grandmother seem to have assisted his wife Amilia financially. Pasquale may have died in 1921 when Amalia was 60 years old, or perhaps he was a victim of the influenza pandemic of 1918. Perhaps Pasquale returned to Italy. A handwritten note with "legalese" absolving all debt to my grandfather was signed by Pasquale's widow - my grandfather's sister-in-law, Amalia - as follows:


Translation:

I the undersigned declare that of the outstanding accounts that existed between my deceased husband and his brother Daniele, I have been totally satisfied and nothing further is owed to me.

Amalia Mercaldi
September 3, 1921

My grandfather's brother Annibale remained in Italy. He was a musician, and moved from rural Cervinara to Naples to teach music. It's clear from these photos that Annibale was elegant and distinguished looking.





















The years that followed must have been very difficult in Italy. Two world wars intervened, and moving between the United States and Italy became difficult. At one point new US Immigration restrictions limited the flow of Italians entering into the United States. Italy too issued new requirements that Italian men needed to serve in the military, or lose their citizenship rights.

In 1946, after WWII, Annibale wrote the following letter to my grandfather offering his gratitude for the basic food rations my grandparents had mailed him. You can see from the photo below, he had aged and his hair turned white (he looks just like my Uncle Charlie in this photo). He was retired, but taught music at the Metronome Conservatory in the heart of central Naples. The private music school was founded in 1900.




Naples, 23 May 1946

My dear brother Daniele, sister-in-law and nieces (nephews). I thank you with all my heart for having exhumed a starving corpse; I have received with great pleasure your letter and the package with the wonderful macaroni, coffee, sugar, two pairs of socks and the beautiful necktie. I was also able to save all the red and white thread (used for stitching on the package), of which we have none here, I have eaten the great macaroni even, though cooked without condiments, since I have none, I have had a great cup of your coffee, I have sent you many of those blessings (intentions) that God will give you all long life; I couldn’t believe that after many, many years you have remembered me, the last heir of an unhappy family. Here we can no longer go forward; a pound of dark pasta costs 150 lire; a pound of rice, 100 lire; half a measure of oil, 50 lire; three mouthfuls of coffee 30 lire; potatoes are 30 lire per pound; I find myself disheartened. I have resumed, after many years, the music business to try and earn something. But it seems that I can do nothing (not succeed). I have a small pension from the city hall, but it is not enough for me to buy 20
0 grams of black bread a day and to eat boiled potatoes. If I could come to you (emigrate), I would do it voluntarily. I have an only son who is still a prisoner (of war) in Egypt. I am alone and discouraged and if God wishes me to live longer I must die before (his son), of starvation. I still am in good health and would like to live longer. Today I will again satisfy myself with your delicious macaroni and I am always sending you and your family blessings (of God). I beg you all to remember this poor wretch of God, don’t abandon me for who knows how things will turn out and in turn if I can be of use to you please ask and I will do anything I am able. If you write please put a (razor) blade in the envelope so I can shave, since they are not available here. In Italy, we pin our hopes on the Italian Fiorello La Guardia, (mayor of NY), who has promised that he would not let us starve.
Kisses and infinite thanks to all.

Yours for life

Annibale




It is worth clarifying that in 1946, one US dollar equaled roughly 575 Italian lire (Italy adapted the Bretton Wood System in 1949, which pegged 625 lire to one US dollar for decades). But with inflation, one US dollar in 1946 would be the equivalent of $10.91 in 2008 inflated dollars. Thus, 100 lire for a pound of rice mentioned in the letter above was equal to 17 cents (US) but in 2008 it would cost us about $1.86 today. Compare that to the wholesale price that is normally around 20 cents per pound, $1.00/lb for Supermarket, or 50 cents/lb when on sale.

Also, the mention of Fiorello H. La Gaurdia is interesting. La Guardia was a very popular Italian-American figure, and known world-wide. He was the 99th Mayor of City of New York from 1934 to 1945. But in 1946 (when Annibale's letter was written) La Guardia had left his position as Mayor to become Director General for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). Thus La Gaurdia would have been the face of international humanitarian relief efforts in war-torn Europe - including Italy - at least until his death in 1947.

That's about all I could discover about my ancestors on my own. Feel free to contact me with additional information.


I am indebted to the assistance and input from a number of people who helped me research this family history blog post:

Pasquale Tassone, a fellow Maestro concertatore and good friend, provided the Italian-English translation of the documents above.

Larry Huffman corresponded with me regarding his historical records regarding Louis and Mario. His website (www.stokowski.org) provides an amazing wealth of detailed historical information about orchestral musicians.

I also learned some important details from Italian historian and journalist, Angelo Marchese, who posted an article about Louis on a Cervinara-related website. We corresponded by email.

John A. Misso called me on his "magicJack" from Cervinara this summer. He is a liasion for ex-patriots and their descendants who emigrated from Cervinara to the US, and would like to reconnect.

I offer my appreciation to all of then for their invaluable assistance.


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San Gennaro, Patron Saint

(painting of San Gennaro above is by Girolamo Pesce)



San Gennaro is the Patron Saint of Naples, Italy. He is also the Patron Saint of my ancestral village of Cervinara in the Campania region of Italy not far from Naples. Given the proximity of both of these cities to Mount Vesuvius, this Saint has played a key role in protecting the region from a modern day cataclysmic natural disaster.

San Gennaro is also the martyred Saint of Prisoners. He was arrested by the Romans in 305 A.D. when he visited imprisoned Christian deacons. After being tortured (thrown to the lions and incinerated), the Roman's had him beheaded. A vial of his scared blood has been preserved at the Cathedral in Naples, and the blood miraculously liquefies three times a year and protects the city from calamity. The"Liquification" of his blood occurs each year on September 19th, and if it does not, people fear that something terrible is imminent: plague, war, or natural disaster.

Since 1926, a "Feast of San Gennaro" takes place every September 19th in Little Italy around Mulberry Street in lower Manhattan. The ritual of carrying a statue of San Gennaro through the streets is mirrored in NY city, Naples, and in the village of Cervinara (AV).

Here is a link to an interesting 10 minute mini-documentary video on YouTube about San Gennaro....


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NvMAD6Dgg8

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Remembering Alex Ulanowsky

I seem to be recalling a lot about my former teachers...

Alex Ulanowsky (1942 - 1993) was an cool instructor I had at the Berklee College of Music for Jazz Harmony and Ear Training. He was a very skilled jazz pianist who had toured with the Buddy Rich Band in 1973. He performed with Pat Metheny (a fellow Berklee student) and many other well-known popular music groups and singers. He was a very serious person, and appeared to be somber most of the time.

I knew that Alex was the son of Paul Ulanowsky (1908 - 1968), the great pianist who had collaborated with singers such as Lotte Lehmann. I knew about Paul Ulanowsky, since I had heard my mom's 78 rpm recordings of Lehmann and Ulanowsky performing works from the German lieder repertory.

Before my time, Paul Ulanowsky accompanied the leading instrumentalists of the classical music world - including Gregor Piatigorsky for a command performance for President and Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt at the White House. He also accompanied William Kroll, Bernhard Greenhouse, Joseph Fuchs, and renown vocalists Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, George London, Hans Hotter, Herman Prey, and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf.

So it was great to have Alex Ulanowsky (Paul Ulanowsky's son) as my instructor at Berklee. We did talk about his famous father on more than one occasion, but I don't think most people (students or faculty) had any idea who Paul Ulanowsky was.

Alex Ulanowsky began his teaching career at Berklee in 1971 and was appointed chair of the harmony department around the time that I enrolled. He held that position until 1981. Later he was promoted to head of core studies department and oversaw 90 faculty and 2,000 students. In 1983 he returned to teaching piano and jazz harmony full-time at Berklee, and authored a text titled "Harmony 4" that was published by Berklee Press. Alex was born in New York NY, graduated from St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., Dartmouth College, the New York School of Music, and Berklee College of Music.

Once in his class, I had made a comment that wasn't well conceived or thought out. I said something like, "Jazz harmony and classical harmony are different animals. They are unrelated."

Alex Ulanowsky perked up and strongly objected to my over-generalization about harmony. He had grown up playing the popular jazz standards and thought about all of this music in the context of a unified traditional harmonic structure.

After I thought about it, it does seem true that classical and popular music dating from a short period of time between the 1930s and 40s existed in worlds that were very close to one another. At that time composers did virtually share a common language and conception of musical organization. Works by Ellington, Gershwin, Stravinsky, and Ravel could be be analyzed and heard in the same context, although there were stylistic differences too.

Perhaps my narrow mindset in the early 1970s regarding jazz was influenced by the post-Bebop trend of musical aesthetics of that time. In my mind Miles Davis' album Bitches Brew was a long way from the 17th and 18th century harmonic practice of Mozart and Haydn.

Alex Ulanowsky died on Sunday February 28th, 1993 of an internal hemorrhage at his home in Concord at the age of 50. Berklee has established a Jazz Composition award in his name.

Let's listen to the great German soprano Lotte Lehmann sing Franz Schubert's "Winterreise" D. 911, No. 15 "Die Krähe" (The Crow) with Alex's dad, Paul Ulanowsky, on the piano (recorded February 26th, 1940).


Links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Ulanowsky
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Remembering Rudi van Dijk

One of the more interesting composers that I studied with at the Berklee College of Music in the early 1970s was Rudi Martinus van Dijk (1932-2003).



At that time at least, there was a lot of social interaction between the students and faculty that comprised the "traditional" composition department. As a group, we formed a small minority interest within the quickly growing college. Berklee seemed to be overrun by aspiring rock stars toting electric guitars (not that that is a bad thing), and we were just nerdy modern music composers. It is only natural that close relationships formed between our group of like-minded "serious" composers, since we didn't have a lot of support from the academic or general community.

Composer Rudi van Dijk was certainly a colorful character, and always very engaged with his students. He loved to talk over coffee and cigarettes in the student lounge about the classical music biz. He had a European and Canadian musical education, and he drew upon it often as source material for his rich and often entertaining stories about life and music.

He was born in Culemborg, the Netherlands in 1932 and studied with with Hendrik Andriessen at the Royal Conservatory of Music in The Hague. At the age of 19 when his Sonatine for piano was performed at the International Gaudeamus Music Week. He emigrated to Canada in 1953 and studied the well-known American composer Roy Harris. Later van Dijk obtained a Canadian fellowship to travel to Paris for studies with Schoenberg's disciple Max Deutsch. In the 1950s and 60s he worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) as a pianist and composer, and later did work for the BBC in London. He taught in Toronto at the Royal Conservatory of Music, at Indiana University, and then came to the Berklee College of music where I met him in 1973.

I had both classes and individual instruction with Rudi, but it was our discussion about the social context of music that have stuck with me all of these years. He was not an admirer of the radical avant garde, and his music (what little we knew of it) was modern, but rather traditional.

During a discussion we had about avant garde music, I posed the hypothetical question, "what's wrong if a piece of music upsets you, has a emotional impact and makes you angry?" His replay was, "If I step in dog crap and get angry, does that make it music?"

It was clear that Rudi was very talented, but Boston was not welcoming to his work. He was always very actively involved with musicians, doing his utmost to get his work performed - usually to no avail (at least in Boston).

Rudi did have two pieces performed in Boston on June 25th, 1975 in on a live broadcast from WGBH-FM Radio. It was a new music concert by the Annex Players (before they became Dinosaur Annex). It included his piece "Immobile Eden" for soprano, flute, and piano (with Susan Krueger, soprano and Trix Kout, flute) and "Sonata Movement" for sax and piano (with Lawrence Scripp, sax). I was invited to sit in the tiny live studio audience by my friend, composer and Annex Players co-director by Chris Yavelow. (Oddly, I recall an ancient API teletype machine sitting in the WGBH lobby, which would magically spew out terse random news items from Associated Press International).

One afternoon, after a Boston Symphony Orchestra performance featuring the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, I bumped into Rudi outside of Symphony Hall. He was waiting for Vickers, who he had known in Canada. As we spoke, Mr. Vickers arrived, and Rudi nervously introduced me to him. Then, he invited me to his house for dinner with Jon Vicker. Rudi's wife Jeanne had been at home preparing the meal, and it was waiting to be served. I declined his very kind and spontaneous invitation, but in retrospect have always wondered what that dinner would have been like should I have accepted.

Sometimes Rudi would latch onto the smallest signs of optimism, as composers often resort to in times of desperation when working in the vacuum of total isolation. Rudi pulled out a letter he had received from the Boston Symphony Orchestra management regarding the score for his piece The Shadowmaker (1978) for baritone and orchestra. The letter was terse and read, "we can not schedule your work at this time." Rudi had underlined the phrase "at this time" and verbally emphasised it to myself and my composer colleague Alvaro Cordero.

Alvaro and I glanced at each other and silently relayed between us our lack of optimism regarding Rudi's realistic prospects for a BSO performance of his work. But it was an important lesson to me, and I'll never forget it. Reality is what we make of it, and Rudi kept going, kept composing, kept submitting his pieces to musical organizations and performers, and kept himself in the saddle by whatever means of encouragement he could find. In the long run, his persistence and determination paid off.

One very personal story that Rudi shared with me was about his youth in Holland during the Nazi occupation during WWII. He observed an old woman dragging a tree branch down the street to use as firewood to heat her home in the cold winter. A young German soldier passed by, glanced at the old woman, and suddenly shot her dead with his Luger. The German soldier was unemotional, and coldly murdered her because he just felt like it. Clearly, these war experiences strongly impacted Rudi. After the war, like so many from Holland he emigrated to Canada to escape the horrific memories of the conflict.

Another interesting story Rudi told was about his freelance work as a youthful musician in Holland. As the story goes, he played a little oboe in addition to piano (his main instrument). Now and then, he would get a gig with the Concertgebow Orchestra in Amsterdam when they performed large orchestral works that required a 3rd or 4th oboe. Rudi explained that he had long stopped practicing the oboe since he was devoting the majority of this time to composition. However, during a rehearsal with the Concertgebow, it became painstaking evident that he had not practiced in a very long time, and couldn't cut the part. As a result, he was terminated. It was not a story of defeat though, since I don't know very many composers who performed with one of the world's great orchestras and lived to tell the story of being fired from it. That takes Chutzpah, and Rudi had it. It was a lesson in fortitude, survival, and a willingness to take risks and welcome challenges.

Unfortunately I did not stay in contact with Rudi after I left Berklee. In fact, I had no idea what happened to him until I looked him up online. It appears that he and his family left Boston and returned to Europe around 1985. I can understand that. Boston was not a supportive environment for him, and he was clearly not getting the recognition he deserved. After a year in Spain writing music, van Dijk became composer in residence at Dartington Hall in Devon England where his music was performed. He resided alternately in England and the Netherlands and had years of well-deserved success in his career up to his death from cancer in 2003 at the age of 71. Two CDs have recently been released of his music.

Links:
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Monday, September 21, 2009

Remembering Earl Kim

My previous post about Leon Kirchner at Harvard reminded me of an interesting story about the late Harvard composer Earl Kim.

Kim was born in California in 1920 by immigrant Korean parents. He studied at the University of California at Los Angeles, and at Harvard University. As with his professorial colleague at Harvard, Leon Kirchner, Kim's principal teachers included Arnold Schoenberg, Ernest Bloch and Roger Sessions.

Several of my teachers had Earl Kim as their professor at Princeton University in the 1950s and 60s. He was said to have been a fantastic instructor.

Kim was also a fine conductor and pianist and performed his own music as well as standard lieder repertory with sopranos Bethany Beardslee and Dawn Upshaw. I believe he conducted an opera performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute with a Harvard ensemble.

I heard Earl Kim premiere one of his elegant and intriguing theatre works with narrator/actress Irene Worth at one icy-cold Boston evening at Harvard's Loeb Theatre in 1975. It was a monologue titled "Eh Joe" based on text by the poet/dramatist Samuel Beckett. Kim's violinist wife, Martha Potter was involved in that performance, and at one point she created an interesting effect by bouncing a conductor's baton off the violin strings. It was a unique and delicate sound.

My recollection involves a transcontinental flight from Boston to Amsterdam in the late 1980s. I was flying to Holland with my wife on a vacation to see family. I recall it was a Northwest Airlines direct flight on a DC10. At one point I got up to walk back to the rest room in the center cabin. I looked over to the center isles and saw composer Earl Kim, his wife Martha Potter and their grown daughter sitting together. Professor Kim had a pad of music paper on his lap, and beside it a hand-written sheet of text. I watched him scribble notes on the page as he read through the text. It was a single vocal line of music. Kim was totally transfigured on the subject of his composing. He didn't look up or around the cabin. But he persisted working with all of the distractions around him - including some mild turbulence - even though tourist class is a less than ideal environment for composing.

I spied on Kim as he composed for as long as I could without drawing undue attention to myself. Given his deep thought and creative focus, I chose not want to interrupt his work and start up a conversation.

While waiting for my turn at the in-flight lavatory, Martha Potter and her daughter joined behind me in line for the facilities. I really should have started up a conversation with them, but just said hello and smiled choosing to remain anonymous.

After the plane landed, everyone went their own way. I suspect that the Kim's had a connecting flight to another destination since I didn't see them in Schiphol's baggage or customs areas. But I will always remember that I was privileged to watch Earl Kim in the act of composing music. Even with all of his experience, he did not compose with the ease and speed of Mozart. He struggled, erased, and revised just like the rest of us. Composing for most musicians is difficult and painstaking work.

Earl Kim died of lung cancer at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Thursday November 19th, 1998 at the age of 78. I recall that day, since I had phoned my teacher Don Martino about something routine, and he was upset and distraught over the news of his former teacher and current colleague at Harvard's passing. He told me about Kim's death and relayed the cause. Apparently, everyone at Princeton in the 50's and 60's was a compulsive chain smoker (including Martino). Even after quitting, there is still an increased risk of adverse health problems. It's hard to say, but perhaps a number of prominent composers from that generation would have survived longer if had they had not gotten addicted to nicotine.

Think of all the new pieces that might have been written.

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Remembering Leon Kirchner



Last Friday around 1:30 in the afternoon I switched on the radio. I immediately sensed that something was wrong, since my local public radio station was untypically playing a lengthy piece of modern music. I could tell that it was "Music for Cello & Orchestra" by Leon Kirchner. It was from a well-known recording on Sony by David Zinman conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra with Yo-Yo Ma as the cello soloist.



There is an unfortunate tendency in the classical radio biz to pay special attention to the work of a contemporary composer either when they have an upcoming local performance, or when they have passed away. I was not aware of any upcoming concerts in the Boston area featuring Kirchner, but I knew that he was 90 years old and had been in poor health in recent years.

After the music concluded, the radio announcer confirmed my worst fear. Leon Kirchner died the day before at the age of 90 at his home on Central Park west in Manhattan of congestive heart failure.

It was not a total shock, given his poor health. But my sense of loss was not as much for the individual as for the passing of an entire generation of composers. The number of surviving composers who studied directly with Arnold Schoenberg has diminished to a mere hand full, and the musical aesthetics of Kirchner's generation and the music they created is regrettably becoming a fading memory in 21st century musical culture.

Not everyone is familiar with the work of Leon Kirchner (1919 - 2009), but for me he was a Boston landmark - a fixture at Harvard University for 28 years where he taught music composition and conducted the Harvard Chamber Orchestra. The Harvard Chamber Orchestra concerts at Sanders Theatre were really something. His selection of works was superb, and it often included some of his own music, or a piece by one of his students at Harvard (e.g. Three Pieces for Orchestra in 1985 by the Harvard undergraduate Eric Sawyer).

Kirchner had been an influential teacher to at least two generations of composers that I know. A lot of what I learned about him was indirect information derived from a patchwork of stories told by his students. For example composers such as Ezra Sims and Bob Ceely worked with him in the 1950s at Mills College in Oakland, California (Stravinsky had recommended Kirchner for that position).

During my student years in Boston, dozens of my composer colleagues at the New England Conservatory crossed the Charles River to work with Leon Kirchner or his arch rival the late Earl Kim (also a former student of Arnold Schoenberg) for their graduate studies at Harvard.

Kirchner's composition students at Harvard included at least two prominent composers: Richard Warnick and John Adams. However, he also taught a course in analysis and performance of chamber music, and violinist Lynn Chang ('75) and cellist Yo-Yo Ma ('76) were students in his class.

John Adams wrote recently about his former teacher in his memoir "Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life." He wrote: "I began to notice that the act of composing for him was something akin to self-immolation. I got the feeling that composing was meant to be a painful activity, a ferocious wrestling match with inner demons."

Kirchner described it himself when he said, "You keep working at it [until] it becomes a thing that really grips your whole soul. And it has to in order for it to be real music."

Kirchner left behind a worthy catalog of scores, including orchestral pieces, two piano concertos, an opera, and numerous chamber works.

His String Quartet No. 3 won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1967. Oddly, this is not among his best works. It's a piece that utilizes electronic sounds created on the Buchla synthesizer. Although he had guidance and assistance from his colleague Ivan Tcherepnin (1943 - 1998) at the Harvard Electronic Music Studio, the work does not integrate the two sound worlds very well at all. Aside from some incidental electronic sounds in Kirchner's opera Lily, I don't believe he ever worked in the electronic medium again. The score for the String Quartet No. 3 was published in color, which was a a gimmicky innovation at the time.

Aside from the Pulitzer, Kirchner received all of the major awards and memberships commonly bestowed upon composers in his league: the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the New York Critics Circle, and a Naumburg Award.

It's not the awards, but his music that interests me. I am a big fan of the majority of his work, such as: The Duo for Violin and Piano (1947), the Trio for Violin Cello and Piano (1954), his Piano Sonatas, 'Flutings' from Lily (1973), Triptych (1986/88), Concerto for Violin, Cello, Ten Winds and Percussion (1960), Five Pieces for Piano (1987), and Music for 12 (1985). His earlier music has the qualities of Béla Bartók, but later there are influences of both Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

I own the score and have studied Music for 12 in detail. I play through it often and marvel at Kirchner's harmonic language. He has a way of exploiting the material of the symmetric octatonic scales without duelling too much on them. He modulates from one area to another to create the experience of harmonic motion and contrast in his work, and creates well-defined regions of associated harmonic identity. Kirchner was also skillful at composing fast and exciting music that was rich in thematic material and always expressive. His music flows, but there is evidence of a struggle within it. His pieces to some degree hint at a tormented soul.

The demons that Kirchner wrestled with when struggling to compose music were also part of his intense personality and psychological makeup. By all accounts he was a very difficult person to associate with at times, and his commanding stature induced fear in some. He was known to have had personal frictions with a few of his colleagues. But when he got behind a issue or cause that he believed in (such a supporting a student), he was a force to recon with

I really had only one substantial face-to-face encounter with Kirchner. It was at a reception at Harvard after a new music concert sometime in the 1990s. Overcoming my shyness, I walked up to the composer and struck up a conversation. I explained that I was at the world premiere of his opera Lily at Lincoln Center in New York on Thursday evening April 28th, 1977.


We spoke about the performance, and how it was poorly received in the press. He explained that the staff conductor didn't have the ability to rehearse and conduct a new contemporary work, and he had to jump in at the last minute. He didn't recall the conductors name, but I recalled that it was probably Julius Rudel, the music director of the NY City Opera at that time.


Kirchner (left) with the cast of Lily (photo, Martha Swope - NY Times)


We talked a lot about the music in his opera, and he seemed strangely puzzled that I had such a clear memory of his music since it was performed decades earlier and had not been recorded commercially. In particular I recalled the fabulous singing of the title role by Susan Belling (who by the way is the daughter of Cantor Norman Belink). Belling was just amazing in the role of Lily as she navigated Kirchner's extended Italianesque soaring coloratura passages from memory while staying rock-solid on pitch. Her sound was penetrating in the large hall of the NY State Theatre, even in the upper balcony where I was sitting in the budget seats.

I also relayed to Krichner a funny story that has to be one of the more bizarre coincidences that ever occurred to me. The night after the world premiere of Kirchner's opera Lily, the singers and musicians had a break while another opera was performed. At that time I resided in a small NY suburban town with my parents, but often visited a local bar in the neighboring village of Hastings on the Hudson. The bar was famous for their 20-cent glasses of watered down draft beer. The noise, grunge, and generally sleazy ambiance of the pick-up joint was the price one would put up with in exchange for inexpensive night of inebriation and questionable social interaction.

In the dark and sleazy bar I bumped into an acquaintance by the name of Nicholas Evans. Nick was a friend of a friend who I knew very well from High School named Laura. I knew that Nick was a bassoonist who once performed the Stravinsky Octet live on WBAI radio with new music conductor Arthur Weissberg (also a bassoonist). But during the day, Nick worked as a carpenter. Today Nick has a business where he does bassoon repair (see his link at the bottom of this post). Anyway, Nick introduced me to his lady friend sitting on the bar stool to his left, "this is Susan" he said.

It turned out that Nick's friend was Susan Belling, the soprano who I had heard sing in Kirchner's opera Lily the evening before. She was resting her voice and decompressing over a beer with her friend after her widely anticipated premiere opera performance the night before. I suppose she just wanted to get away from the intensity of the NY scene.

Belling studied at the Chatham Square Music School (1958-60), at the Manhattan School of Music (1960-63) and at the Opera Studio of the Metropolitan Opera New York (1964-67). In 1966 she won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. She sang an arrangement of Schoenberg's Second Quartet with Eric Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony. Her 1968 debut took place at the San Francisco Opera. A new music specialist, she sang the title role in the opera Melusine by Aribert Reimann with the Santa Fé Opera. I've heard her from time to time perform with new music ensembles, such as Speculum Musicae where she sang Henze ("Being Beauteous" on 1/8/76) and later the work of an emerging Boston composer by the name of John Harbison.

And here we were chugging beers in Hastings. It was bizarre, so bizarre that I later wrote a new work for soprano and bassoon and dedicated it to Susan and Nick, but I don't think they ever performed it.

Kirchner thought my story was humorous. But he looked looked at me with a puzzling glare, and started to inquire about my background, musical training, and connections. He seemed to be suspicious about my comprehensive knowledge about him, when he know nothing about me. "Who did you study with? Why have I never heard any of your music?" he asked.

The conversation and mood in the room shifted. I soon felt as if I was being interrogated by Kirchner about my political alliances and associations. To make matters worse, I could sense the ears and eyes of my former composition teacher in the room behind me tuning in to hear what Kirchner and I were talking about. There was plenty of paranoia to go around in those days, and that's just one reason why I dislike the fishbowl of academia.

In recent years Kirchner retired from Harvard and moved to New York. He would return to Boston on special occasions, such as the recent Boston Symphony Orchestra performance conducted by James Levine of his commissioned work The Forbidden. The piece is good, but it's basically an orchestration of an earlier work.

While I never warmed up to, studied with, or got to know the composer, I do have a great appreciation for the music of Leon Kirchner. His work has had an influence on mine, and I think we share many common ideas about the nature of new music and what it should sound like.

When a like-minded composer departs the earth, I can almost feel a slight tremble in the ground. It's as if I'm not confident that my colleagues and I can carry on the touch with the same confidence and ability that our predecessors were able to. We are losing our best of breed, and their shoes will be difficult fill.
Links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Kirchner

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,918881,00.html

http://www.evansbassoon.com/

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

New York Philharmonic premieres "Expo"


The New York Philharmonic under the direction of their brand new music director Alan Gilbert opened their much anticipated 2009-10 season with a stunning concert September 16th. I was not there, but caught the featured world premiere of work by Magnus Lindberg (right) on a national television broadcast the following Sunday afternoon.

New York's orchestra seems to be leading the concert programming curve this season when it comes to commissioning and performing new works.

The NY Philharmonic web site provides some background information about the pivotal role Mr. Lindberg will assume as the appointed NY Philharmonic Composer in Residence:

Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg is The Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic, a two-year appointment that begins in the 2009–10 season. As part of his appointment — which is one of Alan Gilbert’s major new initiatives as Music Director — Mr. Lindberg will write music for the Philharmonic and serve in a curatorial role for the institution. He will also be an integral part of CONTACT, the New York Philharmonic's new-music series, including curating and conducting programs.

What I find encouraging is that the 51 year-old Lindberg was commissioned to compose the all-important opening piece for the new season. That's a high profile function, which is pretty rare in the new music business.

His work Expo, composed this year, is a six or seven minute energetic fanfare full of vibrant and colorful orchestral techniques that showcase just about every section of New York's wonderful orchestra.

The work begins with the percussive sound of the whip followed by the rhythmical pulse of fast and repetitive alternating bowing from within the string section. Soon a brass chorale ensues, which is punctuated by the timpani. Colorful special effects, such as string harmonics and rapid fire bassoon riffs from alternating bassoons give way to a more lyrical arioso section played by the French horns. The wind section steps up to assume the chorale melody followed by a short cadence on well-voiced but thickly scored chords which hint at the lush Romantic harmonic language of Alban Berg.

But, Lindberg is not shy about revealing his influences. Besides Berg, once can hear the influence of Ligeti, Debussy, Ravel, and perhaps even a tinge of John Williams emerge out of the rich textures of his piece.

Expo is well orchestrated and full of interesting details that invite us to pay a return visit and hear it again. It is a fast roller coaster ride, and a trill to listen to from beginning to end. Expo is one of those works where everyone in the orchestra gets to play non stop pretty much from beginning to end (including it seems the harp, which we can't hear all the time). The musicians are called upon to dish out a lot of notes in a short time span - or to put it another way, it reflects a high "event to time ratio."

The work is full of traditional orchestral sounds and techniques, catchy lyrical tunes, pedal points, and an assortment of contrasting harmonic and melodic scales. Some of the first chair solo instrumentalists get a chance to shine: from the piccolo, to bass drum, to the tam tam. Of course there is a prominent "must have" two-handed ascending glissandi in the harp. You can't have opening night without one.

After the performance, a tuxedo clad Lindberg came to the stage to accept his round of applause. The NY audience seemed thrilled by the world premiere. Several other works by Lindberg will be heard later this season and into next.

We have to praise music director Alan Gilbert for taking the initiative of selecting, commissioning, and performing works such as Lindberg's Expo. Other American orchestras should be more courageous in their programming as well and do the same. This should be proof that new music is not the de facto box office curse it is often assumed to be. What could be more mainstream than the NY Philharmonic performing a new work during national broadcast on PBS?

I don't see any controversy here.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

The First Twitter Opera

Being first at anything seems to provide a jolt of marketing umph. It applies to sports records, technological inventions, and yes Martha, new operas.

The Royal Opera House in London has earned the dubious distinction of producing the world's first Twitter Opera. It's good PR all around, and appears to ride the wave toward more grass-roots (or astro-turf) popularism in the arts (not that I'm a snob). A spokesperson for the opera company said that they wanted "everyone to become involved with the inventiveness of opera as the ultimate form of storytelling." I would think that the world-wide publicity that this new opera has generated does not hurt their bottom line either.

To this end, the creators of "The Twitter Opera" project selected their libretto from a pool of individual 140-character Tweets submitted by the public (hey, didn't Rossini say that he could set a laundry list?). More than 900 people contributed to the libretto - one 'tweet' at a time (hey, Rome wasn't built in a day!). While many of the individual tweets have some literary merit and musical potential, together they don't appear to form much of a plot (hey, Samuel Beckett tried that too).

The final "twext" was rapidly set to music by British composer Helen Porter (b. 1963). Porter included some well-known fragments from arias by Mozart and Wagner into the final mix. "It was a very fast process," said Potter. I'm sure that Potter is a very competent composer.

Here is a preview of the world's FIRST Twitter Opera (on YouTube, of course)....



Jonathan Lennie, the classical music critic for London's Time Out thinks it's a great idea: "Opera belongs to everyone. This is good because it is experimental. It demystifies the process of creating opera."

There are plans to supply laptops to the public for tweeting during the performance in an effort to "aid the creative process" (hey, don't audiences already do that?)

While I have nothing against a little fun, and believe that artists should think outside of the box to invent new work, there is something inherently cynical about exploiting a trendy social fad for the cheep thrill of rapid (and probably short-term) artistic recognition. Call it sour grapes, but there are lots of thoughtful contemporary operas out there that currently sit on the shelf unperformed.

Increasingly, composers are being put on the spot to invent musically-unrelated circus tricks to attract the largest possible audience. They are doing anything and everything they can think of to draw attention to their music, but in the process run a risk of diminishing the value of their own creative work.

It's the mass-public that bears the brunt of blame for inciting this bad artistic behavior and egging artists on. The public wants to play along, enjoy the latest fad, revel in media-created controversy, but in general they do not want to be seriously challenged or deeply engaged. The artist has a responsibly to bring them along, even if they don't want to go.

The ethical challenge for artists is "where do you draw the line?" When does using sex on an album cover to sell CDs cross the line and become bad taste? When does succumbing to the impulsive whims of an audience turn into crude pandering for financial profit? Do we really need a new recording of the Vivaldi Four Seasons to add value to what's already been said about that work?

If I really put my mind to it, I could come up with some stupid marketing trick to draw attention to my music. I passed on wearing Red Sneakers in the 1970s for this same reason. I prefer not to joke about my work, or even risk associating a serious piece of mine with trivial fun and games. I enjoy fun and frivolity like anyone else, but I just don't want the gimmick to take center stage. We engaged in those shenanigans during the 1970s with some of the Dada-inspired antics of avant garde experimentalism, and then we moved on.

It's a delicate and narrow tightrope. There is truth to the fact that marketing yourself and your art does take on some of the characteristics of consumerism. But art should transcend the commercialism of it. Any musician with long-term staying power should consider the dangers of selling out for the quick fix of an addictive attention-grabbing promotional boost of a media-driven sugar high. It lowers the bar of excellence for all of us if the status quo degenerates into mere parlor ticks and "look-at-me" inspired gimmicks.

Let's get serious.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Karajan, Or Beauty as He Saw It

Recently PBS broadcast a HD television documentary about the great conductor Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989). Titled "Karajan, Or Beauty as I See It," it is the most recent installment in the widely acclaimed PBS Great Performances series (which, by the way features interesting introductory theme music composed by John Williams).

Von Karajan's personal history is rather controversial (you can read about it in the Wikipedia link below), but in general the documentary portrays him as a mad, controlling, blue-eyed genius who is obsessed with detail, and a tyrannical megalomaniac. Karajian was perhaps the last of the great dictators among orchestral conductors. But he was also among the most commercially successful artists in the genre of classical music, and accumulated a substantial amount of wealth from his decades of creative work.

I may have contributed to the Karajan empire in a small way. I shelled out the bulk of my modest weekly salary in the 1970s as a paint store sales clerk at Martin Paint to purchase the expensive Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft box sets of his Second Viennese School orchestral works and complete Beethoven symphonies. The Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern collection was state-of-the-art at the time. His Beethoven symphony set from the 70s became the standard by which all of my successive hearings of those works were measured against - even though the sound was far too "hefty" compared to today's historically informed preferences of performance practice.

Here is a YouTube of von Karajan conducting the Beethoven 5th Symphony in 1966.




Many moments of interest emerge from the oddly titled Karajan, Or Beauty as I See It PBS documentary, but in general it moves along as a collage of commentary, imagery, and short musical excerpts that support the general thesis of his mad genius. I found myself wanting to linger on specific musical excepts, since the audio quality was in hi-def and sounded great over my home stereo system. But the movie directors had a rich abundance of archival film, interviews, video, and recorded music to draw from, and choose to sample broadly from this vast collection of historic material. It resulted in a fragmented, kaleidoscopic, and almost surrealistic vision of von Karajan's rather bizarre life.

For example, von Karajan's counterpart in America was Leonard Bernstein. The documentary informs us about the relationship between those two great men, and at one point visually alternates between clips of their conducting the same work. Conductor Seiji Ozawa was interviewed about von Karajan and Bernstein, and indicated that he was caught in the middle between those two pivotal forces of power.

We hear interviews from a cast of past and present classical music superstars about von Karajan's strange habits, obsessions, and hobbies. I found the scene of him flying a two-engine Learjet over the snow capped Alps very telling. Karajan had a similar mindset to that of the flamboyant and competitive English industrialist Sir Richard Branson, Chairman of the 360 companies that comprise the Virgin Group - including Virgin Atlantic Airways and Virgin Records. If von Karajan were alive today, he would want to fly into space with Branson on his commercial spacecraft: Virgin Galactic. In fact, von Karajan would want his own spaceship and blast off from the grounds of his private mansion in between performances at the Vienna Opera House for a joy ride with musical friends and colleagues.

Although the triumph of von Karajan's career is impressive and not without merit, I do find the image of the classical superstar a little hard to fathom. In our present age, superstars and celebrity in the classical realm don't typically act like that. Today, von Karajan would be called into a meeting with the company Human Resources Department to address formal complaints made by psychologically abused employees working under him. You can't act like that today and get away with it, even if you are an acknowledged genius.

Links:

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/episodes/karajan-or-beauty-as-i-see-it/preview-of-karajan-or-beauty-as-i-see-it/835/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbert_von_Karajan

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IESO 2009 in Taiwan

My 17 year-old son Joseph will be missing seven days of school, but it’s all for a good cause.

He was selected as one of four student participants to represent the United States at the 2009 International Earth Science Olympiad (IESO) in Taiwan.

The conference began on September 14th and will conclude on September 22nd. High school contestants from 15 participating countries will work in teams to solve the world's environmental problems, do field science work, and experience the culture of Taiwan. Other countries participating this year include Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Nepal, Nigeria, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Thailand.



Joseph (in photo with microphone above) was selected earlier this summer by scoring amongst the top four in an exam administered at the UVM/GIV Engineering Institute held at the UVM College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences (CEMS) in Burlington Vermont. The purpose of the UMV/GIV Institute is to help students gain an understanding of how research can work to solve societal problems through creative engineering. Students focus on how technology impacts humans, do hands-on engineering projects, participate in tours and engage in presentations by professors, computer scientists and mathematicians. The award ceremony from the UMV/GIV Institute is shown in the YouTube video below...








The IESO 2009 conference in Taipei Taiwan will focus on sustainability issues such as climate change. Now in its third year, the international event has seen a sharp increase in the number of participating countries from six to 15, with the United Kingdom and Italy joining the competition for the first time. It marks the first time Taiwan has hosted the annual event aimed at enhancing young students' interest in and understanding of the natural environment, climatic changes and the relationship between humans and nature.

IESO contestants will travel to the 921 Earthquake Museum in central Taiwan's Nantou County for inspection. They will conduct field surveys in the 921 earthquake memorial park and then present their briefings to a jury of experts to vie for the "best teamwork" and "best field survey" awards. All the contestants will be taken to Taiwan's northern coastline known for its complicated geological formations.

The IESO American Team is chaperoned by Tom and Beth Tailer, co-directors of the UVM/GIV Engineering Institute. They have been providing online mentoring for Joseph and his American teammates all summer. Joseph had crammed for much of his summer vacation in preparation for the highly-competitive event, which includes team sequestering and lengthy written exams. Upon the US team’s arrival in Taipei, Beth Tailor emailed the parents indicating, “The students did a wonderful job at the opening ceremony, and their presentation and skit were well received.” She added, “The food is plentiful, and we already have many stories to tell.”

The first IESO competition was held in South Korea in 2007, followed by a second event in the Philippines the following year. This marks the first time Taiwan has hosted the annual IESO event, which is aimed at enhancing young students' interest in and understanding of the natural environment, climatic changes and the relationship between humans and nature.


The 2009 IESO will conclude on September 21st with an award presentation ceremony where it is anticipated that gifts will be given to the foreign contestants by the host country to help them better understand Taiwan's culture and lifestyle.

Here is the American team during a visit to the National Palace Museum...


Link: http://www.ieso2009.tw/home/home.htm

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Monday, September 7, 2009

Learning from UFOs

Get ready.

It's coming in February 2010.



If you can make it to the Southwest United States, there will be an interesting week-long conference about Unidentified Flying Objects (aka UFOs).

The International UFO Congress will be holding their 19th annual convention along with a UFO-related film festival. It's going to be 7 days and 8 nights of out-of-this-world adventure. The organizers expect to attract 30 enthusiastic speakers, 40 exhibitors, and perhaps a 1000 attendees from all over the world (and beyond).

Mark your calendar. It's all happening from February 21st to the 27th, 2010 in Laughlin, Nevada at the Aquarius Casino and Resort.

I think it's great. I'd love to spend my February with hip Alienologists in sunny-Nevada rather than hang with dry and boring academic Musicologists in cold and icy-Boston (The Farmer's Almanac predicts a particularly rotten Winter this year).



Perhaps I can bring my Theremin and compose/perform a new composition for the occasion: a UFO Suite, or an Area 51 Sonata. In fact, I've always been inspired by the modern musical soundtracks of 1950's era Sci-Fi movies, and this assortment of people at the UFO Congress could be a ripe, receptive, and open-minded (if not captive) audience for my odd-ball creative expression.






There probably is a large degree of similarity between experiencing alien life-forms, and listening to a brand new experimental music composition. Both experiences are forms of encounter that force carbon-based humanoids such as ourselves to think outside of the box and flex our bio-electrical brains. It forces our primitive minds to explore totally new dimensions of thought.

I don't think this analogy is a too much of a stretch. Any worthy piece of new music should result in an out-of-body experience, and any great musical work should rate as paranormal event.

Music transcends the physics of ordinary sound. It creates multi-dimensional layers of meaning that go beyond Einstein's standard space-time continuum. Music is a form of communication that humans speculate about, but don't fully understand. Music seems to work like telepathy, or time-travel, or according to the rules of fractals in chaos theory, or like the "transporter" on Star Trek.



Beam me up Scottie!




We don't know when, how, or where music started. Perhaps it was a gift from benevolent Aliens (photo above) who brought the mysterious science of music to Earth as a gift sometime near the dawn of civilization. It's time we explored music as a potential medium for inter-stellar, inter-galactic, and inter-universe communication. NASA needs to get on board pronto and learn this technology. Space shuttles are low tech, mucho expensive, and pollute the environment. Experimental music is sustainable, cutting-edge, and ethereal. I wouldn't care to venture into the event horizon of a Black Hole without my electric piano and plenty of J.S. Bach.

Biologists have long wondered why humans have the capacity for music. Could it be that we will need it someday to communicate (or jam) with our planetarily remote visitors? Is that what Arnold Schoenberg meant when he selected poetic text for his Second String Quartet (1908) that reads: "Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten" (I feel wind from other planets). This visionary text came from a poem titled "Entrückung" (Rapture) by Alien wannabe Stefan George.


I have never seen a UFO up close. Nor do I have any current or residual memories of an encounter with intelligent life from an origin other than the planet Earth (e.g. I've never met R. Buckminster Fuller in person).


But, I have met people who believe that they have had these types of encounters. These people seem to have a special gift, and I have always been a little envious of their unique experiences. The UFO Congress Convention has a forum for these people. They call it "Experiencer Sessions."


The Experiencer Sessions take place in a private room that is set aside four times during the week. It is hosted by a trained counselors who moderate and facilitate individuals who want to share their anomalous experiences. Participants are invited to come together and interact with one another, and also receive guidance and insight form the group moderator. These sessions are open to registered members of the conference, but not open to the press, and not allowed to be recorded.

That too sounds like a good model for contemporary music performance. If recordings and public ridicule were banned, more people would attend concerts. Experiencing live music would once again take on its long forgotten function as a ritual of communally-based transcendental elation. People would reclaim their in alienated rights to utilize music as a method of inter-dimensional communication within the cracks of the multi-verse. Not only would we be able to better converse with little green men, but with our human brethren as well.

If the likes of NASA and the International UFO Congress come to recognise the vital importance of music, it will create a surge of demand for the under-valued art form. Conservatories will start offering classes in "Alien Harmony." Already, some notes in standard music must be labeled as "unidentified non-harmonic tones." There will be graduate-level seminars in the music of Saturn-born space-age jazzer Sun Ra and about the music of composer Karlheinz Stockhausen who once said he came to Earth from a planet circling the star Sirius (not Modrath, Germany as previously reported).

Hey, wait a minute. Conservatories already ofter those classes. That must prove that Aliens are already among us!

And it's not just flaky musicians who are leading the charge. Miyuki Hatoyama, the wife of Japan's premier-in-waiting wrote this in her book: "While my body was asleep, I think my soul rode on a triangular-shaped UFO and went to Venus."

I rest my case.

See you at the UFO Convention.


Link:

http://ufocongress.com/



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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Factoid

They are called collective nouns: a swarm of bees, a brood of chickens, a herd of buffalo, a flock of geese.




What would you call a collection of owls?










Answer: a parliament

Link: http://www.thealmightyguru.com/Pointless/AnimalGroups.html

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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Flying Saucers


September 5th, 2009.

That was the date when the second "O" from the word Google was abducted by Aliens. Oh-no!

According to Wikipedia (my primary source of hard information) "Google issued a tweet on Twitter with the following cryptic sequence of numbers:

1.12.12 25.15.21.18 15 1.18.5 2.5.12.15.14.7 20.15 21.19

It is said to be a cipher for “all your ’O’ are belong to us.” (It's not the best grammatically, but not bad English for a space alien).


The cipher was based on a straight alpha-numeric translation:
1=a
2=b
3=c
etc.
At the same time, the www.google.com homepage graphic was updated show an UFO that is in the process of abducting the second ’O’ in Google.

Beware of flying saucers. Watch your Os today. This may go viral.

Cheerio!
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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sandcastles

It occurs to me that composing a new work of music is similar to building a large sandcastle on the beach. When one is deeply immersed in this difficult process, there are days when it feels that the construction can only be executed slowly: one grain-of-sand at a time.

It's the experience of sitting under the blazing afternoon sun, doing your best to build a grand structure that only exists somewhere in your imagination. You may have to make adjustments to your artistic plans along the line for reasons of practicality. You will probably need to rebuild exterior walls as the drying sand crumbles continuously before your eyes. With the rising tide, micro-tsunami's threaten to wash up and destroy key aspects of what you have already accomplished, but you continue to work on undeterred in search of your ultimate goal.

If you are very lucky, you stand a chance that your sandcastle will make it to completion and survive the forces of nature just long enough to be observed by a few public bystanders strolling along the beach. But you have known all along that the result is temporary and transient. For the amount of effort you have invested in the activity, the end product has little or no practical value.



So why do we build sandcastles?

I think it's the adrenaline rush we get if we succeed. A little momentary elation is worth all of the sunburn.


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