Anonymous yet personal, this Blog chronicles
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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Important Panel Discussion

Last month I blogged about the upcoming changes on classical radio in the Boston-area market.

Most of my dire predictions about the merger of WGHB and WCRB radio - and then some - have come true. On December 1st, 2009 the surviving station (WCRB) has cut the Friday afternoon live-broadcasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The programming has become less adventurous, and at least during the day has an easy listening "tracks to relax" feel. I actually heard them play Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D the other day. You can't get any more kitschy than that.

The hybrid commercial-public station seems to embody the worst of both worlds, with never-ending fund-raising AND blatant commercials (under the guise of "a message from our corporate sponsor").

What I didn't predict or foresee were the technical issues of broadcast signal-strength that have all but blacked out access to classical music for many former WGBH listeners. Fortunately, from my geographic location in the State, I can receive the signal well enough. However, WCRB appears to have some major issues with their transmission equipment. The other evening it inexplicably dropped off the air for a period of about 20 minutes. There was no explanation.

Now, the small but dedicated Boston-area classical music listening public is expressing their outrage. The fire of discontent is being fueled by The Boston Musical Intelligencer (found online at ). The Intelligencer is an independent and professionally run music blog about activities in the vibrant musical culture in and around the Boston area. The Boston Globe has also recently published a story about this on-going controversy.

Last evening I received the following email from a third party announcing a public forum organized and sponsored by The Boston Musical Intelligencer under the title of :


It will be in the form of a panel discussion held at Old South Church in Copley Square on Tuesday, January 5 at 6:00 PM.

I quote from the email:

Recent articles in the Boston Musical Intelligencer and elsewhere evoked widespread dismay over the changes in WGBH and WCRB programming and the lack of signal strength from the recently-designated station for classical music, WCRB. Come hear what the experts think, ask your questions and have your say.

The panel discussion moderator will be William M. Bulger (formerly President of the Massachusetts Senate, president of University of Massachusetts, and trustee of the Boston Public Library and Boston Symphony Orchestra. He also is the brother of Mafia boss on the loose"Whitey Bulger").

The panelists will include Richard Dyer (former classical music critic of the Boston Globe), Christopher Lydon (broadcast journalist on WBUR and WGBH), Dave MacNeill (announcer & former general manager of WCRB) and John Voci (general manager of WGBH radio).

Boston Musical Intelligencer reviewers Mark DeVoto (a composer and musicologist), John W. Ehrlich, Brian Jones, Peter Van Zandt Lane, and Tom Schnauber have been vocal on this subject and may be on hand.

What are the Issues on the meeting agenda to be discussed?

· Friday afternoon broadcasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra are cancelled.

· In Boston's Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and areas south of Boston, listeners are unable to receive a clear signal from "all-classical" WCRB.

· Much of the music on WCRB is programed by a Minneapolis syndicate.

· Area listeners have lost fifty hours a week of quality classical music.

· Do we really need more talk radio and duplicative NPR programming?

· Are WGBH contributors pleased with the changes?

· Are WCRB listeners pleased?

· Will the administration at WGBH reconsider?

While I don't expect the meeting to result in a Boston Tea Party, there is a discernible mummer of outrage in the normally acquiescent local classical music scene.

But I've been through all of this before. The trend that Public Radio has taken in recent years to become more populist has inevitable consequences. Even though the WGBH charter is "not-for-profit" - they act and function like any large corporate entity. They are profit-driven.

While members of the classical music sub-culture in Boston are expressing their outrage, the feeling of being in the minority is something I've long grown use to. As a producer, participant, and follower of so-called "modern classical" I'm already a victim of circumstances. Before WGBH ended their classical music programming, I rarely heard interesting contemporary classical music programming on their airwaves. I'd have to listen to countless hours of standard fare to finally hear a new work that I was interested in. Out of 100 hours of programming, perhaps I'd hear 15-minutes of really interesting and relevant new music.

When one of Boston's greatest composers died (Pulitzer-Prize winning composer Donald Martino), WGBH hardly acknowledged the fact. My understanding is that they only played a short recording of one of his very early clarinet and piano works. Their response wasn't in concordance with the true sentiments of the classical music community, let alone the values of new music enthusiasts such as myself.

I've long grown accustomed to living in a cultural ghetto. The new music ghetto is a sub-genre that acquires its classification as a fringe subgroup under the marginally larger (but declining) classical music ghetto. As the larger system collapses under the weight of commercialism, so too will the new music scene suffer. New music interests are generally parasitic, and their biological host (mainstream classical music) is gravely ill.

The good news is that living in a micro-subculture has always been challenging - to say the least. You can't destroy something that hardly exists in the first place. The new music community is, and always will be, a small but zealous minority. We don't need "all-classical" radio to find our sustenance.

Perhaps I'm a Nihilist, but news of the demise of WGBH classical music radio is a symptom, not the disease itself. While WCRB is better than nothing, it can't be much worse than the inept programming that came before.

WGBH did not pay enough attention to local composers, and I had long abandoned them as a source for my musical fix. While WCRB is currently featuring inspirational sound-bytes about music from composers such as Andy Vores and Michael Gandolfi, the gesture is directed more toward fund-raising than as an act of sincere musical discussion and engagement.

WCRB, the remaining station should put their programming where their mouth is, and broadcast more than a smattering of adventurous and challenging new music. When that happens, I'll consider becoming a supporter.


Starving Artists Group

Visual Art in the 21st century has gotten pretty weird.

Some people have lost the ability to distinguish between "original oil paintings" and mass-produced kitsch.

Every year around this time I see glitzy TV commercials announcing the arrival of the Starving Artists Group, Inc. - a Houston, Texas-based organization that travels from city to city selling their wares at suburban hotels. The Starving Artist Group is alleged to be a shady organization run by a husband and wife-team with questionable business practices.

These modern-day traveling carpetbaggers were exposed by the investigative work conducted by the folks over at Fine Art Registry dot com. It's a good read.

Here is a short quote from their blog:

When this fly-by-night outfit comes to town, it bombards local television stations with slick ads offering "original oil paintings" for $59.00 and less, and cheap frames manufactured in Mexico. I've checked the Texas corporation records and this company IS NOT IN GOOD STANDING.

My repulsion is not that someone would profit from selling garbage. We have all seen tacky imported merchandise for sale at the shopping mall. After all, this is America, and people sell and buy garbage everyday. Consuming garbage has long been an established American pastime. If someone is stupid enough to think they are purchasing an actual 24 x 36" landscape painting for $59, then what's wrong with that? All con artists know that there is a buyer for every seller, and there will always be suckers among us with money to spend.

It's also an example of marketplace capitalism at work when "garbage" is sold like a commodity out of the dark back rooms of a chain hotel for less than shopping mall prices. After all, if your are going to purchase garbage, why pay more?

But is it an honest transaction? And, what does it say about the general public's notion of art?

Perhaps the thing that disturbs me the most is the advertised premise that the product is in fact "art." How can that be disputed? The law appears to be on their side. The company probably pays their lawyers far more than their "artists."

Although it may be legal, it seems to me that the local media TV advertisement is exploitative and distasteful on several levels...

For starters, Starving Artist Group is probably exploitative of the creators of their product - and they make no bones about it. The so-called artists are undoubtedly slaving away in sub-standard factory conditions for pennies per day somewhere in the the third world. It would not surprise me to find that the "Starving Artists" are in fact child labor - exploited and indeed starving.

I have a dire image in my head of the actual assembly line where the mass-produced paintings are passed down from station to station along a chain of unhappy workers. It's most likely an efficient manufacturing process where each color is applied by a different painter. Working in teams, a large painting that goes to market in the US for $59 can probably be produced in less time than a pair of sneakers. It's a calculated repetitive paint-by-numbers process without a stitch of creativity involved. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the brand of paint they use in the factory is toxic to both humans and house pets.

The most disheartening aspect of the larger story is that there are actually hordes of starving artists living amongst us who are deserving of attention and recognition. They would be glad to sell their paintings, or even give them away to interested connoisseurs. For them, the concept of the Starving Artist Road Show must a major insult - a slap in the face.

Support your local artists, and stay away from scams like this. Please!


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Late Bloomers

"Why do we equate genius with precocity?"

In his recent collection of previously published essays from the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell investigated this topic in "Late Bloomers." His essay was inspired by a book by David W. Galenson titled "Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity."

Galenson, an economist with a passion for art, spent ten years crunching the numbers and quantifying the relative success of established artists in different phases of their careers. What resulted was something approaching a unified theory of art and an objectification of the creative modes of engagement. He believes that artists/creators fall into two main camps: Conceptual and Experimental.

Along the way Galenson debunks the theory that suggests different types of artists produce their best work in a defined age period: e.g. poets and mathematicians when very young, philosophers when they are much older.

For Galenson, Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne are poster children for his theory. Picasso was the quintessential prodigy. He had a clear vision of his work early on, and pursued his art with energy and un-waving confidence.

Cézanne on the other hand was the classic late bloomer. He spent his entire life developing his technique. It finally came together near the end.

To investigate Galenson's theory, Malcolm Gladwell visits two well-established American writers (Ben Fountain and Jonathan Safran Foer) to investigate this theory, observe their personalities, and to see how they live. What he found was quite revealing.

One of the traits of the Conceptual type is a high degree of energy. They typically achieve greatness and success early in life. These individuals are not as dependent on background research or investigation for their work. Their relationship to their art is visceral, spontaneous, and immediate. They work quickly, with the fire of inspiration and discovery. According to Gladwell, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer is such an individual, and he falls into the Conceptual type classification.

The other genus of creativity is the Experimental artist. These individuals obsess about their work, do extensive research, continually hone their skills, and agonize about every step along the way. They tend to have a long trajectory - often revising their previous efforts and building upon them. They view art as an extensive life-long process that unfolds over many decades of exploration and laborious experimentation. Late bloomers are perfectionists.

While Gladwell does not explore artists working in the field of music, my mind naturally wandered into the domain of musical composition. How would the two definitions of creative type (Conceptual or Experimental) fare when applied to composers?

I do believe that the craft of musical composition is somewhat unique compared to many other disciplines. It seems like visual artists, writers, mathematicians and scientists peak early. And yes, while there is a list of child prodigies and precocious composers throughout history, many composers remain active well into their golden years.

Recently composer Elliott Carter celebrated his 101st birthday, and many people (but not all) believe that he has done his best work late in life. The same case could be made for Verdi, Strauss, Sessions, Boulez, Messiaen, etc (you can add your own favorites to this list). But it's not simply a matter of age, or the ability to attain it with enough sound mind to be rational and productive.

Malcolm Gladwell has a deep appreciation for both types of creative artists. The end-of-the-day results from either camp are formative. Yet I detect a sense of sympathy, respect, and awe regarding the struggles of the Experimental type of artist. They have more hurdles to hop over. Author Ben Fountain quit his job as a real-estate attorney in Dallas to pursue writing. It took him 18 years before he had his first breakthrough while his wife supported him. Being a late-bloomer has its consequences.

The Experimental artist, writer, or composer is an accidental miracle of sorts. If it were not for the blessing and protection of generous patrons and supporters (implicit or explicit), we'd never experience their work. For them to evolve to the stage where they can finally produce mature fruit, someone along the way bought them lunch, paid for an exhibition, or stood by their side. Late bloomers are not late starters, inherently lazy, or hopelessly inefficient. They just take longer to get the job done.

Fortunately, the results are well worth the wait.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

'Tis the Season sell CDs

It's been a long time since classical musicians and opera singers have attained Mega-Superstar status in the eye of the general public. For this type of musician, it seems as if the very highest level of fame and notoriety has been reserved for only a hand full of greats (such as Caruso).

However, this year I have noticed a concerted effort by the recording companies to market their classical artists a more aggressively way - perhaps out of sheer desperation. For example, I've seen prominent television commercials promoting hefty CD box sets of music performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Joshua Bell. It's not everyday that one sees a spiffy Yo-Yo Ma TV commercial. Then again, his new box set of 90 CDs lists for $789.98. That's more than I paid for my first car!

Perhaps it is the Holiday Season that prompts the mainstream broadcast networks let a classical artist onto their set. High Holidays = High Culture.

Such was the case last evening when two-time Grammy winner Renée Fleming appeared live from LA on (of all places) The Late Late Show with Craig Furguson.

Clearly, her label Decca had arranged for Ms. Fleming to appear on the air to sell her new CD titled Verismo. The CD was released in September, and has already been a commercial success by classical music standards. Her new recording features a collection of rarely heard Italian arias with the Orchestra Giuseppe Verdi di Milano conducted by Marco Armiliato.

Renée Fleming is no stranger to the wider media. She has represented Rolex and launched her own line of fragrance, "La Voce by Renée Fleming." Her brand well-placed.

So it is natural that I stayed up past my usual bed time to hear one of America's great opera singers on television. Her latest CD is an interesting compilation that celebrates the composers of the "Verismo" style.

Verismo refers to a post-Romantic Italian operatic tradition. It is associated with Italian composers such as Giacomo Puccini, but its practitioners were greatly influenced by the work of Richard Wagner. Verismo advocates naturalism and realism on the stage as well as in the music. The score is written to reflect the scenery, action, or a character’s feelings, but arias are not tailored to wow the audience with catchy melodies or vocal gymnastics.

How often do we have the opportunity to hear one of these musical rarities, such as an aria by Umberto Giordano, on late night TV?

Umberto Giordano (1867 - 1948) was from Southern Italy and one of the great practitioners of the Verismo style. His opera Siberia had been a success. It is set in Russia during the first half of the 19th century. After the opera's New York première, it was suggested that the plot was based on Tolstoy's novel Resurrection.

The world-première of Siberia took place on December 19th, 1903 at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. The composer revised it in 1927. Little did he know that his music would later be featured on the Late Late Show with Criag Furguson.

The "Monday night run-up to Xmas Show" began in typical form. Furguson's monologue was on the edgy side. Apparently a member of the audience had just vomited in the studio before the program went on the air, and Furguson was a warehouse full of vomit jokes. Furguson rambled on insanely about a number of vomit-related topics, and then told a story about how he had pizza cravings when he was on heroin. He managed to slip in a joke about his penis before the first commercial break.

Then it was time for the glamorous Ms. Fleming to perform. Ferguson held up her CD for the camera, and said "Verismo is Italian for Alcohol Poisoning."

She looked a little out of place in her elegant low-cut black evening gown standing before a blood-thirsty, ill-mannered audience that had just been pumped up on raunchy jokes and metaphors about vomit. But the show must go on, and it did with Giordano's beautiful aria Nel So Amore from the opera Siberia...

After the performance the network immediately cut to commercials - including one with the following catchy jingle:

Nicorette - Makes quitting suck less


Monday, December 21, 2009

Irving Berlin

The song "White Christmas" is running through my head.

It was written by Irving Berlin, who is one of my de facto heroes. One of the local PBS stations rebroadcast the first segment of a two-part series about the composer titled "Irving Berlin’s America." It was Ben Wattenberg's informative weekly show Think Tank.

The discussion about Berlin's limitations as a musician and how he was able to work with his musical secretaries to transcribe hundreds of hit songs was fascinating. He'd start with the lyrics and melody. At some stage in the game one of his musical secretaries would sit at the piano and try-out a series of possible chords. Berlin - a perfectionist - would eventually weigh in on the one chord that he liked. It was a laborious process, but in time Berlin became "the wunderkind of Tin Pan Alley." He was a spectacular financial success too. His theatre still stands in Times Square today.

Another interesting fact is how Berlin tailored his songs specifically for certain singers, such as Fred Astaire. Astaire had about a one-octave range. Yet he could make something of a song. Cole Porter, Berlin, and the Gershwins all considered Astaire "a composer's singer" - but one octave is a pretty serious limitation to work with. In the song "Cheek to Cheek" from the movie Top Hat (1935) with Ginger Rogers, Berlin exploited Astaire's limited vocal range, making him "really reach" for his upper notes...

(The melodic range in this song is actually well over an octave, reaching down to the lower pitches at the end of the melody. Notice the word-painting on the text "highest peak")

It was Berlin ritual to write a complete song every day. He did not believe in inspiration, but thought his success was just a matter of hard and diligent work.

The PBS TV program featured:

Philip Furia, professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and author of "Irving Berlin, a Life in Song"

Robert Kimball, co-editor with Linda Emmet of "The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin" and

Linda Emmet, the second of Irving Berlin’s three daughters, and co-editor of "The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin"



Where Pärt and I Part

The Estonian mystic minimalist composer Arvo Pärt (b.1935) is having an Orgy.

On December 19th and 20th Harvard's WHRB radio 95.3 FM presented a two-day marathon featuring 19 hours of Pärt's recorded music.

I can't say that I listened from beginning to end, but I did tune in to hear a sampling of his work distributed throughout his long and still active career. The first piece in the Orgy [a registered Trademark of Harvard University] was Pärt's Opus 1 Sonatina from 1958. The Orgy concluded with Pärt's Symphony No. 4 performed in concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall earlier this year - a work that signaled the composer's return to the symphonic form. Pärt's 3rd Symphony was written some 37 years earlier, and while not yet available on CD, can be obtained as an iTunes download.

In the United States we have been aware of Pärt's compositions since about the mid-1980s when the jazz and new music label ECM Records released some of his works. He has steadily grown in popularity.

To be honest, his music never caught my fancy. From the beginning it seemed completely antithetical to my musical interests. His music is painstakingly slow, repetitive, sparsely orchestrated, soft, built entirely on a static single mode or scale, and relentlessly periodic. My preferences in musical expression are just the opposite. I have a penchant for fast, frenetic, densely orchestrated, pitch-rich, aperiodic, abrasive, loud, grab-you-by-the-balls high-octane music. Frankly, Pärt's brand of modernism (or mystic minimalism as they say) - pretty as it can be on the surface - ain't my cup of tea.

Granted, if musical success can be measured by the number of commercial recordings or making it to WHRB's Orgy list, then Pärt's notion of music is a hands-down winner and my preference for musical discourse is dead as a door nail. My hat is off to you Mr. Pärt. But this is where we Part.

Listening to Cantus In Memoriam for Benjamin Britten for string orchestra and bell (1977) makes my skin itch. The entire piece is based on a series of temporally shifted lines descending along adjacent tones of the Aeolian mode. Sure, if played in tune and by good musicians, this can produce a lush and pretty sound. But is it music? The thought crossed my mind that I could write out something quite similar with my music notation software (using the cut and paste function) in less than an hour. By contrast, I have spent up to a year and a half writing a single piece of my own music. I don't want to equate time spent composing with artistic value, but jeez, something that simplistic in my view is the definition of pure boredom. Perhaps listeners latch onto the purity of the idea, but I just can't ignore the boredom aspect it.

Call me a dinosaur, but I think listeners should be presented with a wealth of aural excitement for their entertainment dollar (figuratively speaking). What Pärt offers is a sparse and immobile sonic backdrop for listeners to zone-out. Music should assault you rather than facilitate or encourage passive daydreaming. The contemporary musical aesthetic that I subscribe to says that listeners need to be emotionally and intellectually engaged, challenged, and confronted. If a composer uses his or her art as a form of meditative prayer or devotion, that's fine, but it should be a private matter. I'm a stanch advocate of secular "headache music" (as some have described it).

Another series of works by Pärt that drives me up the wall is from the Fratres collection. Fratres I (1977, revised 1983) is for string quartet. It was orchestrated in 1980 by the composer for string orchestra and percussion. [This version I heard performed a number of times by the Amsterdam Symfonietta when they were on tour in the United States. My brother-in law is a cellist]. Pärt also created a solo violin version (Fratres II) and a version for cello ensemble (Fratres III). In my view, one version of Fratres is more than enough. The music just does nothing for me.

Clearly Pärt does not have to defend his music to me or anyone else. He has become very successful. In fact, a symposium on the composer will soon be held at Boston University titled "Arvo Pärt and Contemporary Spirituality Conference." It's scheduled for March 25, 26 and 27, 2010.

"...the conference will examine Pärt’s music using and developing cross-disciplinary methodologies drawing on media studies, theological studies and different analytical approaches to music. By working on issues of interpretation it endeavors to bridge the traditional gap between scholars and performers, and it directly addresses the largest group of people who come across Pärt’s music: the audience."



Friday, December 18, 2009

twitter invite

Hi, James

yokoono has requested to follow your tweets on Twitter!

A little information about Yoko Ono:
I love dancing. I think it's better to dance than to march through life.


1074 tweets


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Henry Brant

The Canadian-born American composer Henry Brant (1913-2008) was a maverick who worked well within the constraints of practical practicality. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2002.

I recently came across a review of his 25-minute piece Orbits: A Spatial Symphonic Ritual (1979) in the NY Times (6/2/2009). The work is scored for 80 trombones, soprano, and organ. It had been premiered at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco, but the East coast performance must have been a sensation. Two performances took place in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum for a select audience limited to 300 people each. The trombonists stood lined up on the spiraling walkways encircling the rotunda below. Each of the 80 dispersed brass players faced down to the audience and conductor. The texturing, cascading chords, and antiphonal effects must have been spectacular.

The part of the review that caught my attention was not about the "spacial" elements of the work that Brant became so famous for, but the polystylistic nature of his work. Brant was quoted to have written that music composed in a single style could not evoke the "stresses, layered insanities and mulidirectional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit."

Polystylistic? Hum. I've never given it much conscious thought. While at times I have veered into digressions of classic jazz from the primary perspective of a post-Schoenbergian atonal framework in my own music, I've always regarded the melding of opposing styles to be a tricky business. I've got an old school bias that says that works should be unified, fully-integrated, and organic at all levels. Somehow jumping around between cultural constructs or otherwise self-contained musical languages seems a bit like channel surfing on cable TV. Flipping suddenly between CNN and "I Love Lucy" does create a jolt, but does it contribute to the overall form and expression of the work in a meaningful and artistic way? I'm unsure, but willing to see if it can be done both tastefully and in holistic fashion (e.g. Luciano Berio's orchestral work Symphonia is one possible example of successful "polystylism").

By the way, Brant's orchestration text book Textures & Timbres has been published. It is the result of his lifelong work as a conductor, composer, and teacher. He worked on it from the 1940s up his death in 2008. Early on Brant found employment in commercial radio and orchestrated numerous films for Hollywood. Later he taught orchestration classes at Juilliard.

I never met Brant, but my wife Willemien did. On June 16th, 1984 she participated in his work Mass in Gregorian Chant for Multiple Flutes performing with hundreds of flutists situated in tour boats moving up and down the canals of Amsterdam. It was part of an entire week of Brant's music performed at the annual Holland Festival.



Monday, December 14, 2009

Some thoughts on hearing

Neural Science may someday develop to the point where they will explain why we listen to music. But for now, the subject of how we listen to music is complex enough.

Although there is a theory that plants like to groove to Rock music, our fellow mammals don't seem to care for it. A neural scientist at NY University said, "...if you give monkeys a choice between music and silence, they choose silence pretty strongly."

Yet every human culture studied exhibits music in some form. It seems to have always been that way. An artifact of a 43,ooo to 82,ooo-year Neanderthal bone flute was excavated recently from the cave of our distant ancestor in Germany. It's tuned for "Do-Re-Mi."

Here are a few curious facts...

Humans come with eyelids which allow us to voluntarily shut out what we see. Why didn't we evolve with ear flaps? It would be nice to turn off an annoying sound - or a bad piece of music. (Those of us with hearing-aids thankfully have volume controls).

Of all our senses, hearing seems to be the most supercharged. We hear in the equivalent of a 60" LCD flat-panel HDTV with 1080p resolution in 3D. Compared to vision, hearing can differentiate between discrete temporal events much more accurately than the human eye. A percussionist playing on a snare drum can easily tap out a repetitive pattern of twenty beats per second. We will hear each tap on the drum as an individual event in time. But when twenty successive images are presented to the eye, we see it as a movie. The brain connects the images, unifies them, and interprets the string of visual events quite differently.

This means that music can potentially express ideas and relationships that the visual arts can not. Works that push the envelope of aural perception - such as Milton Babbitt's solo snare drum piece of 1987 - "Homily" - explore rhythm to the max. The ear is faster than the eye, and when the message includes stimuli from both senses, the ear usually wins.

But just how does the brain resolve conflicts between the senses? There is at least one example where visual cues override aural input. If you watch a film where someone on the screen mouths the word "bah" while the soundtrack plays the sound of "dah," your brain will perceive the word as "bah." However, when we are confronted with other contradicting pieces of information, such as rapid flashes of light and the sound of quickfire beeps, our brains usually defer to our ears for accuracy.

The complexity of the ear-eye relationship in music is quite pronounced for the orchestral conductor. The conductor has an almost impossible task to stand before a hundred or so musicians who sit at varying degrees of distance from one another and relay a series of variable beats to them on a rather precise time-grid. Orchestral musicians all see the conductor from a different perspective, and hear the flow of the music in differing degrees of delay because of the room acoustics. They have to meld together both visual and aural information in the context of the written music sitting before them on the music stand.

For the conductor, something as simple as communicating a downbeat is fraught with complexity. The exact start-time with which s musical event begins and how it will ultimately sound has many variables. Unlike an oscillator, musical instruments don't have two states: ON or OFF. The complex and important micro-events that occur within the short attack of a single note exists well within the human perception of time.

Individually and collectively the complex acoustical soup of these events are channeled through the front-end processing of the listeners' middle and inner ear. The information is ultimately parsed, processed and interpreted by the amazing audio engineering burned into our brains.

Generally speaking, we find pleasure with what we hear. Talented and trained musicians and conductors have honed their visual-aural communication skills to maximize results and minimize collective error. Exactitude and clarity is the name of the game.

Composers often have to delegate the details of implementation of their works to conductors and musicians, but are well aware of the complexities of aural perception and the limits of human performance. It's long been known that we can hear far faster than we can physically perform.

As a consequence, some composers have ventured into the world of electronic music to exploit the full capacity of the impressive engineering of the human hearing mechanism. Computer-generated music can (and often does) move at a dizzying pace, and often outstrips even the most agile of musicians who perform on acoustic instruments. Perceptually, we can process music at a very rapid rate - taking in events far quicker than anyone can physically produce them. Some composers (such as Babbitt) have skillfully explored this rich territory of sound, and pushed both our hearing and what can be considered valid musical content right up to the limits of human perception.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Form and Function in Mozart

Last evening, as pain shot down my arm from a chronic slipped disk in my neck, I attempted to play through some Mozart sonatas on my beat up and out-of-tune piano.

Mozart's piano sonatas are old friends. They were pieces I worked on as an undergrad when I switched my principle instrument from guitar to piano. My old and tattered score is marked up with cryptic notations from countless analysis classes - including a memorable one with Andrew Imbrie at Brandeis regarding the B-flat major Sonata #13 (K. 333). I also remember an eye-opening analysis by Donald Martino of the Sonata #4 (K. 282) in E-flat major (hint: the first subject starts in measure three after an introduction).

The wide gulf between the sound I hear in my head, and what I can produce on the keyboard is at times frustrating. But it can often be enlightening. My mind wanders and I make interesting discoveries when fingering the notes that I wouldn't think about otherwise.

For example, the issue of deciding how to select a group of notes to phrase together as a unit is rather complex. It's not simply a matter of reading a phrase mark placed over a group of dots on the page. The true musical idea should emerge from the sound of music itself, and this information is not explicitly notated in the score.

How should a musician psychically divine musical phrases? Shouldn't the performer act like a sponge and receive information directly from the structure of the musical work? Often musicians proactively pencil in their markings based on long-held preconceived notions and externally acquired ideas. They assert themselves into music rather than let the music lead them. They seek to control it rather than be controlled by it.

This led me to an idea (which is probably not original): A performer should take some time to open up, become a neutral observer, and mechanically process the notes in the score in robotic fashion and without input or emotion. By playing through a group of notes on the page, the musical phrase should emerge, reveal itself, and become obvious.

Although the structure of the phrase is dependant on many factors such as pitch, harmony, melodic contour, and rhythm, the intention should be clear by listening carefully. I've learned that good composers are not ambiguous about this. The information held within the notes on the page will speak for themselves if we let them.

The notion that music "needs" a layer of interpretation is a fallacy. The music, if allowed to express itself, is the interpretation.

Well-constructed quality music is surprisingly durable and resilient to performer-induced distortions. For example, a former German Professor of mine was an amateur violist. He would perform in the university orchestra and really struggled to just play the notes. The orchestra was a far cry from performing at a professional level, but they attempted to play masterworks from the great orchestral repertory: symphonies by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

The Vienna-born Professor (now deceased) confided in me that he couldn't actually play the notes, but that somehow the composer's ideas came through and were communicated despite this limitation. For some, it was a bad performance. But perhaps others were able to hear beyond the imperfections of the surface sound and take in the ideas that were implicit in the composer's musical structure.

I never forgot that.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Disney: the Opera

Bloomberg broke the news with the headline:

Mickey Mouse Faces Music as Glass Inspired by Disney

The next opera by Philip Glass will be based on the life of Walt Disney. It's scheduled to debut at Madrid's Teatro Real in 2012.

Glass is no stranger to successful stage works based on historical figures such as Einstein and Mohandas Gandhi. Glass once quipped that he's written so many operas that he's lost count.

The new Disney opera will explore what Glass calls "a parallel universe which everyone knows about, even though it doesn't exist."

It would be nice to have Phillip Glass' publicist and access to his parallel universe.


Composer as Superhero

Mighty Mouse beware! There is a new cartoon Superhero on the scene.

Introducing Wunderkid Little Amadeus...

The cartoon is set in a time when the aspiring composer is not yet eight, but already a rising Rockstar in 18th century Salzburg. The precocious boy is a tad arrogant, and has an incurable craving for anything sweet. He also gets into all sorts of trouble and loves to play clever pranks. His father tries to keep him him in check.

Enter the villians...

To keep things exciting, the young Mozart has a formative adversary named Lorenzo Devilius. Devilius is a self-serving jealous Italian bureaucrat working for the Archbishop. Devilius got his position by faking a reference letter. A clueless rat named Monti assists Devilius in his attempts to sabotoage Mozart's budding career.

Amadeus somehow "manages to free himself from any situation no matter how difficult, so that in the end Devilius, his greatest adversary, always draws the short straw."

The adventure of the young composer Superhero in Salzburg is Germany's answer to Superman and Mighty Mouse. Produced in Hamburg by GATEWAY4M, Wunderkid Little Amadeus is syndicated to television networks around the world.

I caught Amadeus, Devilius, and Monti the rat on RI PBS and viewed Episode 112 where Mozart single-handedly breaks down social barriers by performing for the masses beside lowly street musicians.

Composer as Superhero. Now, that's a refreshing concept.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Information Asymmetry

After my morning cup of high-octane Starbucks French roast, the term Information Asymmetry popped into my brain. The idea wont leave me in peace or let me free until I blog about it.

It's a fascinating concept.

The notion of Information Asymmetry has been applied in many areas of study and is particularly helpful in economics. It immediately conjures up examples of corrupt CEOs such as the fat-cats from AIG and Bear Stearns who personally cashed in on hundreds of millions of dollars in stock while they publicly encouraged others in the public to buy it. It's not a purely theoretical concept. For many former employees and investors who suffered, it's as real as the loss of food on the table, a secure retirement, or even a safe home to live in.

Of course I internally parse of all of these theories and concepts in musical terms. What does Information Asymmetry mean in the world of music composition? I'm not original in this regard. In the 1960s and beyond music theorists and composers attempted to apply the rules of Information Theory to music. The late David Lewin wrote articles on it, and I once heard a string quartet of his that was performed at Harvard's Sanders Theatre in Cambridge for a Fromm contemporary music event. From what I recall, the computer-assisted composition was written utilizing rules Information Theory as an underline theoretical construct (and the piece was a bore).

I'm much more simplistic than that. I want to know "what does a theory do for me, and can I readily hear or apply the results?" It's gotta be tangible and have some verifiable practical use.

I think we can agree the information flow is from composer to performer to audience. The audience has both the advantage and disadvantage of being at one end of the food chain. They receive the final product, but don't know the specifics about how the sausage was made. They weren't there when the composer was constructing it, and didn't hear what transpired at the rehearsals.

Other dynamics such as informative or misleading program notes, music reviews, and prior hearings of the work all play a significant role in our perception. Music is a very complex form of communication and the cultural norms are beyond the scope of this blog and my ability to discuss it. My brain hurts just thinking about it.

What I will say is that examples of Information Asymmetry in music seem to exist. I've exploited it myself.

In 1999 I composed a set of three pieces for piano (it was among my last 20th century works). The second piece in the set is a very slow Adagio, which is very soft, tranquil, relaxing, and peaceful in nature. When it was first performed in March of 2004 by pianist/composer John McDonald, I sat in the audience both listening to my work and observing the audience.

I knew something that the audience did not. About two minutes into the soft and relaxing music of the second movement, there is a fortissimo violent attack with both hands on the keyboard intended to shock. It's entirely musically appropriate, and the gesture interjects a new and contrasting element of sound into the piece.

Sitting there in the audience, I knew it was coming and felt a little uneasy about the uninitiated and what they were about to be subjected to. No one had heard this work before, and I hadn't mentioned the big surprise in the program notes since it would "spoil" the grand effect.

In a sense this shock and awe event is a prime example of an Information Asymmetry situation. Just myself and the pianist had access to the information, while the audience did not. It's an age-old technique, and Haydn's "Surprise Symphony" (#94) is but one noteworthy example of its' wide-spread application.

It was with mixed feelings that I observed one listener sitting before me jump with shock as John McDonald attacked the piano without warning. It later occurred to me that I could have inadvertently induced cardiac arrest (Perhaps my next blog post will be about the need for malpractice insurance policies for composers).

It begs the question, what does the audience actually need to know about a piece? How much information should be supplied prior-to or during the performance, and when does knowing the facts become counter-objective to the composer's basic intention. Are we going overboard with an emphasis on pre-concert talks, projected super-titles of the text in translation, and expert analysis by concert reviewers?

There is also the problem of information-overload, which may be one of the contributing factors to why complex music has fallen out of favor in recent times. Western classical music is built on a philosophy of permanence. Its' information is notated, documented, analysed, and recorded to the nth degree for the posterity of time. By allowing the musical-information of the "classics" to be ever-present, it loses spontaneity and valuable element of surprise. As great as the Beethoven symphonies are, I will never be able to experience them for the first time ever again. True, I will find new things, but the initial first-date is history.

Another example of blatant Information Asymmetry in a musical composition comes to mind when I think of Elliott Carter's "Night Fantasies" (1980). It's an extremely rich piano piece filled with inspiring musical ideas. For the most part Elliott Carter has been very reluctant to talk about the theoretical aspects of his music. He has coyly discouraged experts in the field from publishing these details.

I recall when Carter played a recording of his "Night Fantasies" before it had been released to the public in the summer of 1981 at the Yale Norfolk Summer School. It was at a seminar for composers, and I asked some pointed technical questions about his new work, which he characteristically choose to avoid. Is that Information Asymmetry?

Subsequently Carter's "Night Fantasies" have made the rounds and been well-accepted by the public. Carter's own program notes for the work state his motivations and intentions about writing it - emphasising the influence of the great 19th century composers on his piano writing and a case of insomnia. Yet, under the hood (so to speak) it is clear that much more is at work in this piece, and it's not as simple as Carter has led us to believe from his program notes.

Many years after my first encounter hearing "Night Fantasies" while having the composer before me to inquire about the work, I discovered a wonderful theoretical article by John F. Link about the underline construction and system behind Carter's piano piece. It was new "information" that not only improved what I know about the work, but informed my hearing of the music beyond what my little ears could take in on their own.

Information Asymmetry is at play here. Carter's program notes intended for the general public may be superficially true, but clearly avoid the meat and potatoes of his true compositional objective. In a way, his program notes verge on disinformation to the hard-core serious listener. As a composer he has access to some really cool toys in his sandbox that he's not telling us about. He's in control of the information at all levels.

Unlike insider-trading in the stock market, insider-composing in the music biz is fair and acceptable practice. The audience does not always need to know the the bare-bones mechanics of the underline intent. After all, the concert audience has paid for a magic show and wants to be entertained. Not all magicians share their tricks. That would "spoil" the show.

The next time you go to a concert, read a review, or read the composer's program notes, be aware that manipulation is at play. Conscious of the process or not, the information you take in in various forms will impact your experience of the music. This is just the way it is.

As a listener you are on the short side of the stick in the relationship between information-provider and information-recipient (The performer is sort of a middle man and co-conspirator).

It's an imbalance of information. But it's a justifiable asymmetry.

Have a great Thanksgiving!



Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Lack of Passion

What happens when musicians loose the ability to grasp the music they are performing, or never attain an understanding it in the first place? It's a controversial and thorny issue. To put it another way, what is the obligation of a musician to perform music that they don't care for or like?

Audiences encounter this all the time. Often you will hear a performance of a work where the artist is just not into it, lacks passion, and ultimately falls short of communicating the essence of the piece. The notes might be reasonably accurate, but the phrasing and expression is awkward, off the mark, and just plain inappropriate for the music. Unsympathetic performances are off-balance and boring, since a lack of interest and understanding just can't be hidden under the rug or ignored.

Take Arnold Schoenberg's Fantasie Op.47 as performed by Glenn Gould (1932-1982) and Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999). Gould was a fanatic supporter of Schoenberg and his music. Menuhin apparently didn't care for it. Together they worked on and performed this work, and in the conversation before the piece (video number one below) you can hear the musicians in conflict and disagreement about the music.

Menuhin was not exactly a champion of new music, even though he had commissioned and performed the Béla Bartók Solo Sonata. But you can hear from his performance (in the second video below) that he is very ambivalent about the music. While Gould plays from memory, Menuhin has his face in the score. This lack of passion can't be hidden in Menuhin's adequate but very uninspiring performance of the Fantasie.


The Village Store Verbatim

This past Saturday afternoon I was at home randomly flipping through the hundreds of channels on the cable box and hit upon something interesting on New Hampshire Public Television (NHPTV). It was some kind of musical stage performance, and it drew me in. I didn't recognise the music. Some of it was based on American vernacular music such as the Blues. Some of it was reminiscent of Kurt Weill. The lyrics were rather unusual. It appeared to be a performance taking place in an actual country store.

Suddenly the camera panned over to the conductor, who I immediately recognised as one of my composer colleagues from graduate school at Brandeis: Larry Siegel.

Since 1987 Larry has made his home in Monadnock Region of south-western New Hampshire. He is a composer, conductor, and Director of Tricinium Limited - a 501(c)(3) organization.

The television broadcast was of his stage work The Village Store Verbatim. It is an ingenious "folk" opera constructed from content recorded from real-life conversations in a public settings. In this case it was the country store in the small town of Westmoreland, NH. From what I've learned, the work was written in the early 1990s and produced as four Episodes for NHPTV which aired around the nation. In 1998 it was re-staged by the UNH Opera Workshop under the direction of David Ripley.

The idea of documenting ordinary public dialogue, and transforming it into musical theatre is apparently a concept that has wings. The "Verbatim Project" has been applied to other communities - including the Town of Peterborough, NH. There is precedence for this. I've heard that Peterborough was also the source of inspiration for Thornton Wilder's classic play "My Town" and the subsequent 1940 movie based on it.

Siegel's Village Store Verbatim will be rebroadcast on NHPTV next month (December 9, 21, and 22).



Monday, November 23, 2009

Boston Music Viva: Elixirs

On Friday November 2oth, the Boston Musica Viva led by Richard Pittman did their thing at Tsai Performance Center at Boston University. BMV is in the second inning of their 41st season.

The eclectic concert, branded "Elixirs," featured works by Schwantner, Rakowski, Arrell, Ives, and Hoffer.

As a long-time follower of Boston's oldest running new music ensemble, I'm always impressed with their professionalism. While the musicians have changed over the years, their Music Director has kept an even keel and consistent mantra through the decades.

One of the interesting aspects of BMV is that they adopt a work by a composer, and keep it in their repertory. Once they take it on, it's likely to get recorded and performed regularly.

Such is the case with Joseph Schwantner's 1974 composition Elixir - which opened the concert. Believe it or not, I was in attendance the BMV performance of Elixir in 1974 and heard Pittman conduct the piece at the Longy School of Music. The flute soloist at that time was Fenwick Smith - in the days when he had a long pony tail - but before he left BMV to join the Boston Symphony, and before he retired from the Boston Symphony. In short, it was a long, long time ago!

In some way it is curious that Pittman would resurrect this 35-year old piece. It's not as if Schwantner's Elixir is a bona fide 20th century music classic. It's musical language and techniques sound pretty dated to our 21st-century ears. Before performing Elixir, Pittman ran the audience through an educational show-and-tell demo session highlighting selected passages from the work. It was intended to elucidate elements of the composer's intended structure and compositional ideas. I suppose that all music is "new music" in a sense (even Brahms), but I have to wonder why a very "accessible" work such as Elixir - written 35 years ago - still requires verbal program notes to explain it.

Looking at the average age of the audience, I wondered about how many people in attendance to hear BMV that night had also been at the 1974 concert along with me. It begs the question, is BMP perpetuating a brand of "new music" that is inherently retro? Is BMV becoming the Lawrence Welk equivalent of a new music ensemble by allowing its' long-time followers to re-live their youthful avant garde experiences?

Five Street Songs by Charles Ives in a cute arrangement by Pittman was also on the program. I recall hearing these arrangements at a BMV concert just a few seasons back. It's a crowd-pleaser, whit lots of theatrics and vaudevillian panache. I'm afraid to say that it would be a big hit if performed at the local senior center. Mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal sang beautifully, but given the orchestration and poor acoustics of Tsai Performance Center, it was difficult to hear her. I think her voice should have been amplified. Why not? Pop vocalists do that all the time.

Another aspect of BMVs programming that is quint and familiar is organization's leaning toward gimmicky works. For example the Schwanter utilizes the sound of multiple tuned crystal glasses played by the musicians. There seems to be a preference for pieces which have entertainment value beyond the pure and native abstract construction of the music.

After decades of attending BMV's concerts, I've also noticed a tendency to have the same composers commissioned and performed over and over, and over again. This is not necessarily a bad thing if the composer is of merit, but after 35 or so years I'd like to hear a broader spectrum of talent.

One of the newish works on Friday's program was NARCISSUS/echo (2006) by Chris Arrell. It was a Boston premiere. NARCISSUS/echo is a short piece that provides an interesting perspective on music composition. The work seems to be informed by minimalist concepts of time and motion. The ensemble explores notes that are often fixed in register and pitch, but which evolve methodically from section to section. The instrumentation and tone color change frequently, but the harmony is fairly static and the surface rhythm regular.

I found myself wanting many more notes, thicker textures, harsh dissonance, complex poly-rhythms, clusters, and loud and violent attacks. I paid $30 bucks to hear a new music concert, and gosh darn it, I expect a night of good'ol 20th century anxiety-prone mod-music in exchange for my hard-earned discretionary spend'in money.

Fortunately I got my value for the dollar with a new piece by David Rakowski: Mikronomicon (2009). It was a world premiere, commissioned by BMV, and featured pianist-extraordinaire Geoffrey Burleson. Composed specifically for Burleson, the mcro-concerto is somewhat of a departure for Rakowski. It's a rather mellow work that verges on big band-era jazz. In three movements, it covers a spectrum of gestures and cool licks that allow the soloist stand out like a rockstar.

The first movement was unabashedly funky, and begins with a neat tune in the piano. It reminded me a bit of the driving rhythmic yet sparse theme music for the TV program "Charlie Rose." The theme comes back at the end of the movement - transposed a half step higher and without the piano.

The slow second movement of Mikronomicon was perhaps more characteristic of (in the words of the composer) "angry modern music." It features a duet of dueling melodicas played by the piano soloist and percussionist. An "unyielding" two-note ostinato (F-E flat) is sounded 99 times in succession, but with different orchestrations and harmonic contexts. The composer explained that had dreamt these notes, but later realized that it was a chickadee's bird call. He felt obligated to include it in the piece. The ostinato functions as a middle-voice range pedal point. The composer revels in it, exploring the many possibilities implied by the self-limiting restriction.

Mikronomicon's third and final movement returns back firmly to the funky sound-world of movment one, then morphs into toe-tapping cafe music, and finally ends with a wild extravaganza of a finish that made everyone in the audience grin and clap enthusiastically.

Now a hugely successful composer in his early 50s, Rakowski is comfortable in his position. He keeps finding ways to write new and interesting pieces, even though he has already composed at least five works for this standard collection of instruments (known in the biz as the "Pierrot ensemble"). In a phone interview last Friday with David Weininger of the Boston Globe (11/20/2009), Rakowski said, "I really didn't want to write this piece because I'm tired of the 'Pierrot' ensemble... ...and in order to make it interesting for me I had to come up with something weird."

Weird of not, Mikronomicon is a new and enjoyable piece - but not your average new music fare.

The concert ended with a mandatory encore. Richard Pittman said that they were going to play it "if you like it or not." Fortunately I liked it. The piece was Blues from A Boston Cinderella (200) by Bernard Hoffer. Hoffer made the trip all the way up from NY to hear his tiny piece. It was cool cafe music with bongos and Gershwin-like clarinet glissandi. Well done, but it could have been a tune performed on the old Lawrence Welk family variety TV show.

The BMV concert was pretty well attended, and the crowd included many notable composers (Beth Weimann, Peter Child, John Harbison, Yehudi Weiner). I sat next to composer Shirish Korde whom I've known for 36 years. I noticed in the BMV program booklet that his opera Phoolan Devi: The Bandit Queen will be performed by BMV in April of 2010. Shirish thanked me for reminding him about it, since he still needs to compose the music.

After the concert everyone convened in the lobby for an assortment of elixirs: cookies, hot apple cider, and rich chocolate brownies that were to die for.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Co-opetition an interesting word.

It's long been a manta of hi-tech enterprise and a risky business strategy that enables cooperative competition between forces that would otherwise be rivals. In practice, companies that might ordinarily compete in one space, opt to join forces in another area to combat (or even conquer) a mutual threat.

As a classic example, long-time rivals Microsoft and Novell have partnered to morph Open Source implementations the Linux operating system into a commercial for-profit enterprise platform that will go a long way to secure their respective corporate business models and strategic objectives. As far back as the early 1990s, Novell's CEO Ray Noorda was a champion of the co-opetition concept. Noorda was instrumental in making deals and decisions that embodied this business philosophy, and as history has shown, not all of his deals and alliances succeeded.

"Your enemy's enemy is your friend" as a concept is a universal strategy as old as time. It's been around longer than Harvard Business School. Yesterday I began to wonder how the co-opetition paradigm might be a modified variation on this idea and relate to new music and the work of composers: "Your enemy's enemy is your mutual enemy."

Concert and recording promoters, music critics, and musicologists love to create labels and invent controversy to sell books, newspapers, and tickets. They look for differences, and fuel the fire of public opinion as if art was a form of warfare, but without the bloodshed. I've seen scholarly articles with provocative titles such as "Fighting with Words: American Composers' Commentary on their Work." That evokes the image of the American composer as "Rambo."

While it true that an adversarial form of discourse about music can and does exist in our culture, the fact is that composers often consciously or unconsciously employ the co-opetition paradigm. They are creatures of survival and all too aware that their entire species is gravely endangered. While some individuals strive for alpha-composer status, the collective good of the troupe outweighs the harm invoked by internal squabbles or petty competition for limited and diminishing resources. At least publicly, in the name of diversity composers tend to tolerate each other's work and support ideas other than their own.

Here is a striking example of composer co-opetition...

In the early 1970s a concert promoter programmed works by John Cage (photo left) and Charles Wuorinen (photo right). These composers have very different approaches to music and are heavily invested in their musical systems. In some way - at least in the 70s - these two composers embodied musical aesthetics that were symbolically representative of two big "isms" that were diametrically opposed: Serialism and Aleatory. To maximally contrast, highlight, and enhance the schism of theoretical approaches, the promoter scheduled a panel discussion before the concert between the two "opposing" composers.

The event had all of the trappings of a heavyweight prize fight for the world title. A critic from the New York Times was on hand to record the inevitable fireworks. The audience waited with baited breath in anticipation of the verbal battle that had been expected to ensue. After all, how could two strong-willed composers passionate about their work not lunge at each other like gladiators with swords fighting gallantly in support of their individual musical Crusade? American composers are mavericks... right?

The panel discussion turned out to be a spectacular dud. Cage and Wuorinen skillfully resisted the wholesale branding, characterization, and simplistic stereotyping posed by the discussion moderator (a prominent newspaper music reviewer). To the disappointment of the audience, the composers were not even slightly antagonistic toward one another. In fact, John and Charles acted rather friendly toward one another. Truth be it known, the two men probably have much in common. In fact, as the "odd couple" they gained control of the dialogue and firmly wrestled the topic away from the disappointed moderator.

At a meta-level, the public spectacle was a memorable example of composer co-opetition. These two talented composers strategically decided to support each other's ideas and work, although in reality they hold strongly opposing beliefs.

What's the take away here? Let me propose some helpful rules of engagement...

1) Never trust what a promoter, music critic, or musicologist says or writes about music. They distort reality and lie for notoriety and/or financial profit.

2) Never trust what a composer says or writes about their own music. They distort reality and lie in the interest of self-preservation (and more rarely notoriety and/or financial profit).

3) Never trust what a composer says or writes about another composers' music. They are probably engaging in co-opetition.


Music by Hayg Boyadjian

On Monday evening November 16th, composer Hayg Boyadjian was celebrated in a concert of his work in his home town of Lexington MA. Born in Paris, France in 1938, Boyadjian immigrated first to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and then to the United States. Not surprisingly, his works have been performed throughout the world.

Besides his formative accomplishments as a composer, Boyadjian writes prose about music, has published his own poetry, and from what I've seen on his web page is a visual artist of considerable talent.

The concert "Music by Hayg Boyadjian" was originally billed to feature several high-profile Boston Symphony Orchestra alumni, but for various reasons those musicians had to postpone. At the last minute Boyadjian substituted other works from his extensive catalogue, and the show went on.

Beginning with Nocturne Number 1 for solo violoncello, cellist Jing Li found the essence of the piece by drawing out the long and dark sonorities of her cello. The piece begins in the low register with a motive of a rising sixth. The interval permeates the dialogue and gradually builds up with intensity and ultimately soars to a lyrical - yet gripping - climax.

The central work of the evening was the first complete performance of all 13 pieces in a cycle of piano movements titled Odessas. Boyadjian had written these pieces over the course of many years as a series of birthday gifts for his grand daughter. The sheet music for each Odessa is published with an associated creative drawing by the composer. Despite the deceptively simple individual titles of the 13 pieces (e.g. A Clown, My Dolls, My Birdie, Adieu Princess), the arch of these these works profile a composer who engages in a wide diversity of musical expression. The works progress as if they were each considered in the context of their place in the ultimate large-scale form.

Behind the child-friendly titles and sometimes audience-friendly harmonic language of the music, Odessas contains a surprising amount of complexity and darkness. True, humorous and happy moments are abound, but not all of the music is light and happy-go-lucky. After hearing the entire cycle performed as a coherent 45-minute collection, one can hear the depth and breath of Boyadjian's 13 year-long vision. Pianist and fellow composer John MacDonald - a long time champion of Boyadjian's work - was musically decisive and articulate in his rendering of these pieces. He performed both on the keys and inside the piano, and MacDonald's art of theatrical timing is uncanny.

I had heard the first half Boyadjian's Odessa piano cycle performed at Tufts University many years ago by Lexington-based pianist Paul Carlson (who was in the audience for this concert). It was good to hear that the complete cycle is soon to be released on CD. But this will be it. The composer had decided to cap his piano collection at number 13, admitting to the audience that "13 is his lucky number."

The concert concluded with Boyadjian's De Profundis - three songs on German text for soprano and piano on texts by Georg Trakl and Rainer Maria Rilke (De Profundis, Menschheit, Der Tod des Dichters). The Germanic poetry clearly inspired the composer to write some moody expressionistic music. In his verbal program notes before the concert, Boyadjian revealed that his wife is a native German speaker, and that was one of his reasons for selecting these poems.

Musically, the songs were full of allusions to tonal and modal harmony. But the reminiscent harmonic landscape supports finely-crafted chromatic melodic lines phrased ever so carefully by the composer to draw us into each stanza of the poetry. Boyadjian uniquely meshes both minor and major modes in a rare kind of synthesized harmonic unity that clearly defines his voice.

Soprano Jodi Hitzhusen and pianist Karen Sauer filled the room with their lush and calming sound in the songs. In addition to being a fabulous singer, Hitzhusen is a commissioned composer, pianist, ethnomusicologist, and a practicing West African hand drummer. She communicated these songs with uncommon intensity, often staring down individuals in the cozy-sized audience with her glaring eyes. The piano part of these songs is not mere accompaniment, but quite often in the musical foreground of the musical dialogue. Sauer and Hitzhusen interacted like musicians who have played chamber music together for a life-time. They were well-prepared.

After the concert the composer, his family, and the musicians met with the public at a handsome reception in the adjoining meeting room of the First Parish Church in Lexington. The event drew out the "Who's Who" of the North-West suburban contemporary music scene. I spotted composers Pasquale Tassone and Pamala Marshall, just to name a few. Noted harpist and Lexington resident Virgina Crumb was on hand as well.

The only downside to the evening was a distracting ticking sound emitting from an antique clock at the rear of the church sanctuary. The clock was given to the church by the residents of the "upper village" in 1869. It's appears to run about 28 minutes slow.

Minor annoyances aside, the historic First Parish-Unitarian Church on Lexington Green is an architectural gem (their minister was an instigator of the American revolution). The overall the ambiance, modern grand piano, and acoustic of the hall are rather good.

Given that several new music concerts had been scheduled for the same evening in Boston, the size of the audience was pretty solid.

The good turn out lends support to my theory that there is strong local support for home-grown composers.




- It is estimated that 62 Lego bricks exist for every person on the planet.

- Since 1958, over 400 billion Lego bricks have been produced.

- During the Great Recession of 2008-09, Lego has seen a resurgence of sales in the United States market.



Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Here is a story comparing how things were done at the Russian Federal Space Agency verses NASA....

NASA was spending millions of dollars to solve the ball-point pen problem. Pens don't work well in space. They leak, and the need gravity to push the ink down to the tip. It was an aggravating technical problem, and the best NASA engineers couldn't figure out how to solve it. During the cold war they puzzled, "How is it that the Russian's could make it work when NASA could not?"

After the cold war ended and communication between the Soviet Union and the USA improved, there was free scientific dialog between the two space agencies. The American scientists asked their Russian counterparts, "how do you write in space?"

The answer was simple, "with pencils."


The above story is a good one, but it is an urban myth. Currently a "Zero Gravity Pen" is available from the Fisher Space Pen Company. It uses pressurized ink cartridges. The hi-tech pen was developed independently of NASA with 11 million R&D dollars by inventor Paul C. Fisher. Today Fisher sells different models of his hi-tech zero gravity pens to both the Russian and American space agencies. The Russian Space program ordered 100 Fisher Space pens for the Soyuz mission in 1969. You can purchase a consumer version of these pens online for $25 or less.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Hip Hop Academe

Aspects of Hip Hop culture has long been a popular dissertation topic for doctoral candidates at the university. Academics like to climb down into the trenches and analyse new and emerging musical trends and patterns. It's a great source of unexplored raw material for contemporary musicologists.

Now Hip Hop music is finding its way into the formal classrooms of traditional conservatory programs. The once radical art form is becoming institutionalized, codified, and presumably formalized into mainstream text-books. Hip Hop music can be studied for college credit, and is approved for Title IV funding from Federally guaranteed financial-aid programs. The antiestablishmentarianism of Rap is history as the academe fully embraces the Hip Hop genre.

The McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Minnesota is now the first school in the nation to offer an accredited diploma program with a focus on the performance of Hip Hop music. It's the brainchild of their college President, Harry Chalmiers (who happens to be a former classmate of mine at Berklee and the New England Conservatory).

Chalmiers recently held a press conference for CNN and made the point, "This is a very important art form that is not going away." Chalmiers then went on to stress...

There are people who might say, 'If you have hip hop in a college, isn't that almost a contradiction in terms? It's a street music, it grew up in the neighborhoods, how can you have it in the college?'

When we look at hip hop closely, we see that we can study its impact on people's lives, on society. Where does this music come from? When it's angry, when it's sometimes vicious, vile or rude, why is that? What are people trying to say? These are important questions to ask.

I have to give credit to Harry - my old classmate - for keeping up with the times and staying current. Back in the days of our undergraduate and graduate training as composers, we explored a very different world of music. I recall Harry's excitement after hearing Spanish guitar master Andrés Segovia (right) perform at Boston's Symphony Hall. Harry once also confided in me how a a particular recording Schubert's piano sonatas transformed his musical thinking.

Now, three and a half decades later, Harry is leaving me in the dust with his ambitious foray into the cutting-edge of sound. I'm a classicist at heart - a hopelessly traditional musician with old fashioned values and archaic musical aesthetics.

I guess I would not be well equipped to teach music in academia today. I wouldn't know where to begin when it comes to explaining, performing, or analysing the structure, form, and functional mechanics of these new art forms. It's new music for a new generation, one that I regrettably don't belong to.



Sunday, November 15, 2009

Danger looms, Fear, Catastrophe

No, that's not the title of the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but it could be.

Those gloomy subtitles refer to the expressionistic moods Arnold Schoenberg set to music in his Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene (or “Music to a film scene”). The film was imaginary, but we get the idea from the music alone.

I just attended the Saturday evening November 7th Berliner Philharmoniker "Digital Concert Hall" performance over the Internet. The work was conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

The all-Schoenberg program then continued with Erwartung featuring dramatic soprano Evelyn Herlitzius (right). Erwartung (or "Expectation") is a dark poem about a young woman who, lost in the woods, finds a dead body and discovers to her horror that it is her lover.

The concert ended with the more accessible Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor by Johannes Brahms (orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg).

Three cheers to all of the performers for a providing splendid evening of Schoenberg!