Anonymous yet personal, this Blog chronicles
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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Microsoft Songsmith

My brother Larry forwarded this YouTube about a new Microsoft product called Songsmith. It automatically adds accompaniment to a vocal track, so it appears that my days as a composer are numbered....

I'm glad that Microsoft incorporated a "happy" slider into the application. Contemporary music needs a happy slider.


Martino's Triple Concerto

This past weekend, the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University presented “The Fromm Players” two diverse programs bound together under a central theme: “The New Soloist – Individual and Ensemble Virtuosity En Masse.”

This year the “Fromm Players” took the form of The Manhattan Sinfonietta, a chamber orchestra from New York City, comprised of more than 30 musicians and soloists who eat complex contemporary works for breakfast, and several its musicians appeared as soloists in featured works. The chamber orchestra is based at Columbia University where they hold a residency. Jeffrey Milarsky, conductor and music director of the Manhattan Sinfonietta, is a contemporary music specialist, percussionist, and was recently appointed as a conducting instructor at Juilliard. The concerts were free to the public (sponsored by the Fromm Music Foundation) and it gave us an opportunity to hear a total of ten works - including several world premieres.

Each of the two concerts (on 2/20 and 2/21) ended with a significant 20th century work by a major composer. Friday’s concert was topped of with “points on the curve to find” (1974) by Luciano Berio. Saturday’s concert concluded the series (which was curated by Harvard Professor Hans Tutschku) with the virtuosic Triple Concerto (1977) by Donald Martino (1931 - 2005).

Before the concerts got underway, Professor Tutschku spoke briefly to the audience. He advised us that Harvard, like most institutions of higher learning in these difficult economic times, is looking for ways to save money. (Harvard's huge endowment is down by about 30%). As a cost cutting measure, Harvard will no longer mail concert announcements by US postal service. Audience members were advised to fill out email address forms included in their program booklets if they wanted to be informed about future Harvard concerts electronically. Given the cost of contracting three dozen musicians from NY for two days worth of two concerts, I suspect that reducing spending on postage will not have a major impact on the deficit.

My interest in these concerts was primarily in one work: Martino’s Triple Concerto for clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet with a chamber ensemble of 16 players. It’s a work that I have many personal and professional associations with, but I also believe it to be among the most important pieces written in the last half of the 20th century. Before discussing the performance by the Manhattan Sinfonietta, let me provide some background history about Martino and his great Triple Concerto.

When I had arrived back in Boston in 1978 to study composition at the New England Conservatory, I knew that I wanted to study with Donald Martino. I had heard his Pulitzer Prize-winning composition Notturno five years earlier when it was premiered by Speculum Musicae at Alice Tully Hall in NY. Over those years I continued to follow performances of Martino’s music, and kept up with his work in general. When I enrolled at NEC for a Master’s program, composition students were required to specifically make a request for a teacher during a group meeting at the beginning of the academic year. Martino, looking very sun tanned, had just returned from a year-long sabbatical off. I would later find out that the work he composed during his sabbatical was the Triple Concerto. Somehow he found time for his other great obsession – tennis - and was able to soak up some of Florida’s rays too.

The new crop of composition students at NEC met with their department chair, Martino, in the Keller Room. Martino asked us to jot down our preferences for a composition teacher explaining that not everyone would be able to get their first choice since faculty only had a limited number of open slots. It was recommended that we list three names. Although there were in fact many good composers on the faculty to study with, many wanted to work with Martino because of his reputation. Given my determination to study with Martino, I wrote my three names on the request form:

1) Donald Martino
2) Donald Martino
3) Donald Martino

Fortunately, my request was granted.

A friend and current Martino student at NEC had advised me to take advantage of the option of traveling out to Martino’s house for lessons, since Martino often used the resources of his studio to exemplify things that came up in the lessons. I took that advice.

The first few weeks of our hour-long lessons were a little uneasy. Both teacher and student were learning about each other, and there were actually some tense moments that in retrospect I blame myself for. I was trying to prove myself, but Martino skillfully made me realize the I still had much to learn. He demanded that his students take writing music very seriously, and bring a substantial amount of work each week to their lesson. Meeting that quota was often a challenge for myself and some of my colleagues.

My lesson was at the end of his teaching day, and the student who was scheduled for lessons directly before me was an upperclassmen named Matthew. Matthew was (and is) an exceptional composer. He was accepted into the PhD program at Princeton, and had won awards for his music. As Matt packed up his stuff after his lesson with Martino, I could see that he had been “beaten up” so to speak. I got the impression that Matt had not written enough notes over the past weeks, and Martino was not cutting him any slack whatsoever. As a result, I made sure that I brought a constant flow of work to my lessons, even if it wasn’t any good, so that we’d have something to talk about.

Martino would look at our music at the piano, and occasionally tap out a chord, and ask questions about it. If you wrote for clarinet, he’d mentally do the fingering in his head to see how playable it was. If it involved strings, he reach over for his “string-o-graph” to verify the reach, etc.

I once brought some old pieces to my lesson, and he looked at my rather complex String Trio and asked if I had experience playing chamber music myself. My reply was to hem and haw. He said I would benefit from working with musicians to get a work such as this performed, and I later realized that my early String Trio is a virtual mine-field of technical impossibilities (the work has never been performed).

At one point during our lessons that first year we had a discussion concerning the role of self-analysis that some composers opt undertake while writing their own compositions. This included the use of statistical note-counting (Iannis Xenakis had just given a lecture at MIT that we both attended). To demonstrate his point, Martino stepped over to a file cabinet in the adjoining room of his basement, and within seconds located a large, fat folder with penciled figures and notes he had recorded regarding an extended section of his recently completed Triple Concerto. He had gone through the score, and note-counted every pitch class within every register for bulk of an entire movement of the lengthy work. He knew not only the number of times every pitch occurred, but in which octave it occurred, and had a summary of the results. His findings were mapped out into a statistical readout, and he could demonstrate to me the statistical bell-curve of pitch-class attacks from high to low in his music and clearly point out the pitch-register symmetry. In the end, it many have been simply a way to avoid an unbalanced or awkward distribution of notes across registers. After conducting his post-compositional analysis, Martino could confidently show me that the central register of the movement took the brunt of attacks (unlike say Milton Babbitt who more typically uses an equal distribution of notes across the entire register of instruments).

After explaining to me his analytical chart of the Triple Concerto, Martino added that his analysis was merely something he choose to do as background work and should be considered optional – implying that it has only limited value as a compositional-analytical exercise. His chart or technique was not intended for public consumption – even for future publication in an academic journal – but it was something he did just to learn more about the piece he was working on and as a way to maintain his personal focus on the work-in-progress. In lessons Martino preferred to emphasize the fundamental and critical elements of the act of writing music over the tangential and superficial hub-bub prevalent in the late 1970s, including (but not limited to) the excesses of the Princetonian-brand of serialism.

I was impressed by this and other painstaking and laborious efforts Martino undertook as sideline excursions in the overall execution of his Triple Concerto project. This was just one example, but it was typical of the intense thought he gave to writing music and the ways in which he thought a piece should be assembled from the ground up. He worked from a master-plan, a one-page chart indicating the work’s over-arching form, with indications about how various sections of the work would progress and contrast. This was all linked and associated with to his personalized (buy highly refined) system of pitch organization.

I soon learned that Martino hardly slept, worked harder than anyone else in the business, but despite his genius, was an approachable average guy. With all of his years of experience, he had found for himself an innovative solution to any technical, practical, philosophical, or musical challenge that a composer could face. He had little patience for indecision, ambivalence, or hesitation. All problems could be solved, and I’d bring in a new crop of them every week for us to discuss. You name it, Martino had “been there, and done that” and he was willing to share all of his knowledge with you. It was an amazing time for me, and I learned legions about music and what I had to work on to improve my craft.

To any question I would raise, Martino would have a well thought out and convincing solution on hand, and he was very persuasive in making his case with concrete examples that were usually drawn from his own music but which also included pieces from his teachers and the standard repertory. He was detailed-oriented beyond belief, highly logical, and organized pretty much everything in his life to the hilt.

During this time he was also launching his new publishing company named Dantalian after a devil. One Saturday afternoon he invited his students over for what was billed as a “Stuffathon.” I got to meet an array of Martino disciples at that event, including Peter Homans, Conrad Pope, and others. It was also typical of Martino to think about things on multiple levels. Little did I realize that there were multi-meanings of “Suffathon.” After we stuffed envelopes with publishing brochures, we were invited to eat until we were stuffed. It was like that in lessons too. A comment that may have appeared to be a simple observation about my music during the lesson, would come back at me as an echo days or weeks later as having a larger dimension and broader meaning. His words would resonate with me long after they were spoken, and I still hear his good advise in my head today.

Soon after the Dantalian Stuffathon, his Triple Concerto was premiered in NY by The Group for Contemporary Music (Harvey Solberger, conductor, Anand Devendra, Dennis Smylie, Leslie Thimmig, clarinet). I did not attend that performance, but after a lesson at his house he offered to play me the tape of the concert. I put on headphones, and followed along from the full-size ozalid conductor’s score. The music was beautifully copied, and the score complex. This piece was once described by composer (and fellow Martino student) Peter Lieberson as music written by a composer who just drank 400 cups of coffee. It has slow music, but is often very fast, very dense, and virtuosic for the soloists and ensemble. It calls for a trio of soloists that form a “super clarinet” comprised of Bb clarinet, Bass clarinet, and the rarely heard Contra-bass clarinet. It’s quite an unusual combination.

As I experienced the Triple Concerto for the first time (a lot to take in), I could see Martino out of the corner of my eye listening to his music on the speakers. He did a little composers’ dance along with the music, and I think he played “air-clarinet” as well. After the final gestures of the piece sounded, I took off the headphones and felt as if I had just returned from a trip to another planet. My first word was “wow.” I felt like my world had changed forever.

The summer after my first year at New England Conservatory, Martino called me and asked if I would be interested in making a piano reduction of the Triple Concerto for publication. He would do the copy work, but I’d reduce the orchestra to a “playable” version for piano, so that soloists could have something to rehearse with. I hesitated. It would be difficult. Martino had confidence in me, but I just didn’t feel like I could comfortably deliver at the level he would expect. He was after all, a perfectionist. Martino found someone else to do the work, and later confided in me that he had to “redo” much of it. That’s pretty much what I would have expected to happen in my case.

It’s hard to describe the magnitude of the impact that the Triple Concerto had on my generation of composers. Not only do my colleagues consider this to be a major piece, but it put Martino on the map with his peers, his colleagues, and generally in the world of clarinetists. The piece is dedicated to Milton Babbitt for the occasion of his 60th birthday (who like Martino, is a former clarinetist), and has a Bebop jazz sensibility to it.

The following year, the buzz created by the NY premiere of the Triple Concerto and the recording on Nonesuch created additional interest. A conductor at the New England Conservatory, took the piece under his wing, and decided to conduct a performance of it using the original soloists, but with NEC students in the orchestra. The soloists came to the college, gave a colloquium along with Martino. It gave me the opportunity to hear the piece in rehearsal and up close. One of the things Martino discussed in the colloquium was the different personalities of the soloists. He described the characteristics of each clarinet part, and I recall that the music written for the solo Bb Clarinet music was intended to convey a conservative rigidity. That characterization did not go over well with Anand Devendra, who saw the part as more fluid.

As part of the Triple Concerto colloquium at NEC, Martino handed out a one-page chart showing the formal sections of the piece, the set types he used, how they are partitioned by solo instrument, and a Schenker-like graph indicating the pitch flow in register. Here is a scan of that page:

The Bb Clarinet does not exploit the upper-most register, but the Contra-bass and Bass Clarinets get up there, sometimes requiring special fingerings. The Bass Clarinet has extended passages going up to Bb3.

I remember sitting in Brown Hall, watching Martino view the score as the musicians rehearsed. He would occasionally have emotional outbursts when something went wrong, and say things that are not suitable to repeat on a family-oriented blog such as this one. After one such verbal expression of displeasure, Conrad Pope and I looked at each other and laughed nervously. During the break, I asked the soloists if they wanted anything from McDonald’s across the street, and Les Thimmig (a composer as well as an amazing performer on the Contrabass clarinet), took me up on the offer. I came back with a large Styrofoam cup of McCoffee, and more than enough packets of artificial cream and sugar. He was very appreciative, and the caffeine pepped him up for the remainder of the rehearsal.

The performance of the Triple Concerto by the New England Conservatory students was excellent, and it proved that the piece could be performed outside the realm of just a few NY new music specialists. Martino, accepted a position at Brandeis University that was formerly held by his friend and colleague Seymour Schifrin, who had just passed away. It would begin immediately - the academic year beginning in 1980 - and I was encouraged to apply and continue my studies with him there. Martino, myself, and another student composer from Venezuela named Alvero Cordero made the trek over to Brandeis from NEC, and found it to be of an entirely different culture.

Occasionally I would house sit for Don and Lora Martino as they took a break from the harsh New England winters with a trip to warmer climates. I loved living in the Martino's house, and would secretly pretend to be Don. I’d play on his beautiful ebony Steinway grand piano, and look at all the fascinating photos and memorabilia in his studio. It was also the head office of Dantalian, his now flourishing publishing company, and the phone would ring with questions and requests. Many of the calls were from composer colleagues, such as Gunther Schuller or Robert DiDomenica with administrative business to discuss, but occasionally a member of the Juilliard String Quartet (Sam Rhodes), or pianist Russell Sherman would ring up with news of a performance or premiere.

I recall fielding an international telephone call from an administrator at the Holland festival who wanted to arrange for rental parts of the Triple Concerto. It was a performance being organized by Harry Sparnaay, a Dutch bass clarinetist and conductor from the Sweelinck Conservatorium in Amsterdam who Martino knew well. Sparnaay had been to New England Conservatory in 1979 and presented a concert of new works (which included Time and Motion Study No. 1 by Brian Ferneyhough). However, Martino did not travel to Europe to hear his Triple Concerto at the Holland Festival. He always took a practical view of his professional life, and if he wasn’t going to receive payment for his travel expenses, it did not make sound economic sense for him to travel to Europe.

In another Triple Concerto-related story, I remember having dinner at the home of Bob and Jonatha Ceely with another composer friend, Maria Neiderberger. Boston composer John Huggler (1928-1993), a professor from UMass Boston, was an invited guest, but he arrived very late. When he finally appeared, he apologized explaining that he had been listening to the “superclarinet” cadenza from Martino’s Triple Concerto over and over again. That’s why he was late. The piece held (and continues to hold) a spell over all of us.

In the spring of 1983, Jacob Druckman, composer-in-residence of the New York Philharmonic, curated a 15-day festival at Lincoln Center. It was a broad-based exploration of diverse styles of contemporary music somewhat arbitrarily marketed to the public as examples of the “New Romanticism.” Martino’s Triple Concerto was programed, and I travelled to NY to attend the concert (and pre-concert discussion) with some friends. During the panel discussion, Martino said that he did not regard his music as a “new” Romanticism, since he had always been writing a form of music that he believed expressed those ideals. The performance by was well executed, but it was hard to hear all of the detail in the large space and poor acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall. Not everyone liked it. One critic who summarized the entire 15-day event, placed Martino’s Triple Concerto at the head of a list of “intolerable” works. He went on to add that the brainy composer “knew too much” and that his concerto was “the epitome of bad academic modernist composing.” His rant continued with, “Some pieces die; this one was never alive.” The reviewer then admonished the audience for enthusiastically applauding the work. Such began a wave of bad press directed at Martino from a small number of influential NY-based critics.

I would not hear the Triple Concerto live again until it was performed at Harvard’s Paine Hall as a major work in a two-concert birthday celebration of Martino’s 70th birthday (ca 2001). That performance featured a new generation of soloists, but included some of the original student performers from the 1979 performance at the New England Conservatory. Pianist Leslie Amper, currently a well-known musician and teacher in the Boston area, led a discussion with the composer prior to the performance. She began by speaking of her experience as a student learning this difficult work, and how it has grown easier to play over the years. She raised the question of Martino’s exacting notation, and expressed her opinion that it is actually liberating rather than restrictive. Martino replied that his experience with musicians was that they look for more guidance and direction rather than less.

Martino’s original liner notes for the Triple Concerto Nonesuch phonograph record cover are as follows:

After some months of unproductive effort and frustration, I realized that I was being hindered by a conception of the work which prescribed, if not a full orchestra, at least a substantial string section. Since it was impractical to enlarge the ensemble (The Group for Contemporary Music), I decided to enlarge the soloist. Only then did the drama of the work reveal itself to me and its execution became clear. My plan was to transform the three separate clarinets into "Superclarinet," a six octave gargantuan who would use the concerto as a world in which to romp and play with the superfriends.

One of my most prized possessions is an original manuscript copy of the first page of the second movement of the Triple Concerto (from bar 279 to 291). It’s the beginning of a theme and variations. Martino worked in pencil and would constantly revise the music as he composed. Unlike Beethoven's sketches, there is no remaining record of a sequence of progressive intermediate steps. Martino’s first draft was largely erased and then written-over, only to be erased and written-over again many times over. The paper is worn, dense, and full of terse indications and markings. In it he indicates set forms along with many detalis about orchestration and performance. Here is photograph of the page, but it is very difficult to make out the details...

The performance of the Triple Concerto by the Manhattan Sinfonietta at Harvard on Saturday night was excellent. It was the forth live-performance of that work that I've heard so far. They made the music sound natural and easy to play. The soloists - Michael Norsworthy, Gilad Harel, and Bohdan Hilash - performed Martino's complex music with expression and confidence.

After all, the piece is 32 years old, and we have all had time to grow with it.

Many former Martino students were in Paine Hall (ie. Peter Homans and Michael Weinstein), and this created a supportive community spirit. It brought back many fond memories of my studies with Don.

We learned from Lora Martino that there had just been a flood in the Dantalian basement - Martino's old studio where I had my lessons. A frozen pipe had burst, and water was discharged a foot deep. Many of Martino's manuscripts, inventory, scores, and personal records were damaged. Fortunately, the music will survive.


Monday, February 23, 2009

The BSO 2009-10 season

Highlights of the he 2009-10 Boston Symphony Orchestra season were announced last week at a press conference in Boston.

James Levine will conduct premieres of works by Peter Lieberson, John Harbison, Elliott Carter, and John Williams. Additionally, American premieres of works by Augusta Read Thomas (led by Ludovic Morlot) and by Scottish composer James MacMillan (led by Sir Colin Davis) will round out the season.

The John Williams work titled "On Willows and Birches" will spotlight longtime BSO harpist Ann Hobson Pilot (who will retire in August 2009).

"Dialogues" by Elliott Carter will be performed by pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard in January of 2010, and during the next month the BSO's own Elizabeth Rowe will be the soloist in the American premiere of Carter's "Flute Concerto."

The Peter Lieberson premiere (March 25-30, 2010) will be a work titled "Farewell Songs" for baritone and orchestra, featuring Gerald Finley.

Levine's season will end with a premiere (April 9-11) of John Harbison's "Double Concerto" for violin and cello, featuring soloists Mira Wang and Jan Vogler.


Lulin - the green comet

Today at 10:43 PM EST comet Lulin (鹿林) will streak by the earth. It will be within 38 million miles (0.41 AU) – 160 times farther than the moon. It is expected to be visible to the naked eye. Discovered only a year ago by a Chinese teenager, the comet gains its green color from poisonous cyanogen and diatomic carbon gases in its atmosphere.

While planets in our system circle the sun counter-clockwise, Lulin circles clockwise. This makes the comet appear that the tail is in front (or backwards) as it approaches the earth.

Lulin came from the outskirts of our solar system from 18 trillion miles away. After it passes by earth, it will leave our solar system never to return again.

The comet was discovered one summer afternoon in July 2007, when Quanzhi Ye, a 19 year-old student of meteorology at China's Sun Yat-sen University, looked at a photo that had been taken just nights before by Taiwanese astronomer Chi Sheng Lin at the Lulin Observatory of Taiwan.

In celebration of this one-of-a-kind celestial event, I have named the middle movement of my Chamber Symphony Lulin.



The Gershwin Prize

The Library of Congress has long been a sponsor of contemporary music, and through the auspices of several patrons such as the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation, composers of concert music have found much needed financial support for their projects. The list of composers who have received funding is impressive. The Foundation’s website contains an impressive roster of past recipients:

But for reasons that are not entirely clear, the Directors of the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation and the Library of Congress have suspended the commissioning program for 2009 while they conduct a comprehensive review of the Foundation's activities. Who knows where this will lead.

While composers and performance organizations are required to make a formal application for the Koussevitzky award, a new program for the commissioning of contemporary concert music at the Library of Congress selects composers to be commissioned outright. Two years ago the Gershwin Prize was created by the Library of Congress “to honor artists whose creative output transcends distinctions between musical styles and idioms, bringing diverse listeners together, and fostering mutual understanding and appreciation” and in 2007 Paul Simon, received the first Gershwin Prize.

Tonight, the Library of Congress will premiere a new classical work by Stevie Wonder. The 58 year old composer will hear the first performance of his chamber orchestra work in an invitation-only concert at the library's Coolidge Auditorium. The 20 minute concerto is titled "Sketches of Life" and scored for a combination of instruments: two pianos (with Wonder performing on one of them while doubling on the chromatic harmonica), harp, percussion, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, and a string section comprised of six violins, two violas, two cellos, and two contra-bass.
"Stevie Wonder has been very engaged, very excited about this work," said Susan H. Vita, chief of the Library of Congress Music Division which commissioned the piece in conjunction with the awarding of the prize.

The work was written over the years 1976-94, and is said to be influenced by not only pop music, but Mozart and Dvořák. His piece was described as "a sprawling, magnificent hybrid pop-classical concerto."

We offer our congratulations to both Paul and Stevie, and welcome them into the competitive “dog-eat-dog” world of contemporary chamber music. It’s clear that the public has supported their musical activities over the past decades. Now they are officially contributors to the ever expanding repertory of contemporary American concert music, and we welcome them into the big tent. One would hope that the public attention that your work brings to the fore will advance the cause of modern chamber music for all.

2/27/09 Update: Link to the review in the Washington Times:


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Schoenberg tops the charts

It amazes me, and it still seems unbelievable on many levels, but Arnold Schoenberg's Violin Concerto Op. 36 - perhaps the composer's most complex and thorniest composition - has made it into the mainstream of musical culture.

This month violinist Hilary Hahn won the Grammy Award for "Best Instrumental Soloist Performance with Orchestra" for her new CD of Schoenberg's work (Deutsche Grammophon - 477 734). The recording was also nominated for "Best Classical Album" and it debuted at #1 on Billboard's "classical traditional" chart. Hilary Hahn solos with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, and all deserve a good round of applause for championing a work that conventional wisdom would say has "no commercial potential." Yet the sceptics were proven wrong on this this one, and Uncle Arnold is vindicated!

On Hahn's website (and YouTube) are some interesting videos related to this groundbreaking CD.

In the following video, Randy Schoenberg (grandson of the composer) asks the young violinist the same questions that Arnold Schoenberg had originally asked of Louis Krasner: the Russian-born American violinist who commissioned and premiered the concerto. (A little factoid is that Krasner was once a professor of music at Syracuse University, and coached a young clarinetist by the name of Donald Martino in chamber music).

If you didn't catch it at the end of the video, Hahn says, "Perhaps he [Schoenberg] will come back and do something on YouTube."

Although I did not know Louis Krasner very well, he was a great musician, teacher, and mentor at New England Conservatory. He was a major supporter of new music and of Boston-area composers. Until his death in 1995 at the age of 91, I would see him often at concerts, and we'd talk about his experience premiering pieces by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern (he knew them all).

I sure that Krasner would be very happy with Hahn's performance and her success with the piece.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

"Scenic" New England

Photo of White River Junction, Vermont.
(population 2569)
Home of the China Moon Buffet Restaurant
and the annual American Legion Gun Show


Just say NO to muzak

I’ve always been interested in the limits of music.

I’m speaking here not of the parameters of what music can do as limited by human perception and imagination in the realms of performance and composition (although that is a fascinating subject), but of the social implications of sharing a musical experience in the context of a commonly held public space.

Put more simply, to what extent do our freedoms and liberties apply to the production of music in a public space, and do we have individual rights to accept or decline being exposed to it?

For me, it is an issue that is just as important as the debate about public smoking. Over the years I’ve become somewhat radicalized over the issue, which falls under the large umbrella of noise pollution. While the health risks may not be as blatant and demonstrable as second-hand smoke, I argue that everyone has a fundamental right to silence. Admittedly with all of the problems in the world it’s a hard argument to wage. This never has been a pressing legal, cultural, or health-related issue for most people.

Many people have acquired an ability to filter out the ambient “background” music. And in the process they have developed an ability to numb themselves to music generally. This devaluation of the musical experience is the sad byproduct of a culture that ironically prides itself on the artistic value of school music programs and the like. There are even possibly a few people who may prefer their lives filled with the constant drone of background music, since they have an apparent psychological difficulty dealing with the natural state of silence.

As someone who grew up as a member of the Muzak Generation, I’m keenly aware of my surroundings and the way in which music has been co-opted by some to control the behaviors of the masses. From the 1950s on, Muzak has been piped into elevators, doctors offices, and shopping malls all across America. One can seamlessly travel from public venue to public venue, and receive a continuous feed of carefully programmed music beamed in to a ceiling speaker close to you. It’s an amazing technological achievement. The canned music is carefully designed to be nondescript, generic and aesthetically vague – a form of audio wallpaper acceptable to the majority. The music is not outstanding enough to garner our attention, yet pleasant enough to soothe and relax our subconscious mind. It makes you happy, as if to say “go ahead, buy that sweeter,” even though you have a closet full of them.

Muzak is said to be a psychological science, and is deliberately pre-programmed in timed waves (called Stimulus Progression" in their jargon) to induce workplace productivity and consumer confidence. When our blood sugar level lowers in mid-morning, up-tempo “peppy” music is methodically introduced into the intravenous tubes of our collective audio channel with predictable results: Happy people purchase more product, and happy workers are more productive. The service fills a void and was created as a relief to modern-age industrial boredom. Muzak creates an endless variety of music programming from their catalogue of over 2.6 million songs. That's quite a playlist, and to their credit, musicians and licencing organizations were paid for their services.

The modern social discomfort of being trapped in a crowded elevator with a random selection of strangers silently gazing in the direction of the door is said to be minimized if “elevator” music is introduced into the equation. Airlines pipe a form of Muzak into the cabin before takeoff to calm the nerves of “white knuckle" passengers or those who suffer from claustrophobia. Doctors, often running late on their appointments, pipe music into their waiting rooms to pacify potentially bored or angry patients.

Of course using music to control behavior and emotion – even inspire patriotism or rally the troops - is not a new invention. That’s what music was invented to do. But from the mid-twentieth century on it became a much more subtle social science. The Soviets used it as a technique of control in their factories. Americans have used it to further Capitalism, and I think have done so shamelessly. Muzak has been adapted wholesale by our society without the benefit of wide-scale debate, discussion, or an in-depth discussion of our personal rights. There has been no consideration about its’ potential invasion of our privacy, and little or no regard has been paid to the impact of long-term psychological and health consequences.

My disdain for Muzak (and its imitators) exists on several levels. Let me list seven reasons why I am against it:

1) It’s not music. It’s a cheep imitation of music. Their arrangements of rock and pop tunes are cheesy, cynical, and often musically incompetent.

2) There is a sub-group of people, particularly musicians, who can not mentally “turn off” or ignore the music. Contrary to Muzak's intention, members of this group find their product very distracting and annoying. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried sitting at a restaurant with musician friends, and been unable to hold a normal conversation. If you are trained to listen to music and be sensitive to the subtleties of the art, it is not possible to disregard what you are hearing. My musically inclined friends and myself are programmed to listen for harmony, line, pitch intonation, timbre, and the structure of musical design over time. If any of those basic parameters are poorly executed, it makes our hair stand up. As a result, we all keep a mental list of public restaurants and venues where ambient musical sound is either non-existent or minimal. When possible, we demand to speak to the manager and lodge a request to turn off the music. Our petitions for silence are predictably ignored, and we are more oft than not viewed as weirdo’s or eccentrics.

3) Over many years of pervasive exposure, people have grown accustomed to the concept of “background music.” It’s perverted our lifestyle to the point where people now routinely put on soft background music – even at home. How many times have you attended a party when there was music playing, but no one actually listened to it? Background music is evil because it creates bad listening habits which ultimately devalue what deserves to be regarded as “foreground” music. Perhaps the shrinking audience for concerts of “foreground” music is the direct result of an over-indulgence in the consumption of “background” music.

4) Nose Pollution. There is just too much sound everywhere. We’re going deaf. Never-ending and relentless sound is physically damaging the neurons in our ears.

5) I don’t like mind control. I don’t want to be forced to hear “peppy” music when I’m tired. I don’t want to hear songs that enhance my seasonal depression while simultaneously inducing a feeling of consumer-guilt. These days, the subliminal musical message “It’s Christmas, you need to buy presents for your family” seems to begin as early as October.

6) While some people find a degree of comfort in the idea that we are listening to the same music as 100 million other people, I’m kind of creeped out by that concept. That their musical selections are chosen by committee centrally, and then piped in to public spaces all around the country at more or less the same time is symbolic nod, if not a characteristic trait, of Totalitarianism. It’s Big Brother and 1984. We can probably assume that Muzak has its own internal board of cultural “sensors” who review musical tracks for their appropriateness and positive social function. Of course nothing radical, evolutionary, or musically thought-provoking would be allowed to pass their filter. No wonder the Taliban bans music altogether. It’s social impact can be significant.

7) It’s a matter of control. Just as some people are very particular and concerned about what they eat, I am equally particular about what I hear. I don’t want to be bombarded all day long with music that I did not choose to listen to.

My radicalization about Muzak began many years ago when I was working a summer job as a dishwasher at Brigham’s – a now defunct local chain of ice cream and sandwich shops in the Boston area. The branch that I worked at was adjacent to Symphony Hall. I fantasized that the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s then music director, Seiji Ozawa, would one day pop in for a banana-strawberry frappe, with extra whipped cream. We’d strike up a conversation about contemporary music, and of course Ozawa would learn that I was a composer. He would commission me to write a new piece for his orchestra, it would be a big success, and my days of dish washing would be history. It’s a composer’s version of the potent Cinderella myth. This is how I justified my working as a dishwasher at Brigham’s.

The reality of the restaurant business was a little different. For one thing, I learned that fast food patrons don’t clean the majority of the food off of their plates. I’d estimate that most of Brigham’s customers who ordered a burger and fries poured far too much ketchup on their dish, leaving most of it, and the greasy fries, behind. I saw a lot of half-eaten food discarded during my shift. It added up to a lot of filthy plates during my two-month tenure in that venerable position.

I also narrowly averted being held up at gun point at that job. One Thursday evening, which was my night off to compose the great American symphony, the dishwasher who took out the trash at the end of the evening was greeted by an armed robber who was patiently waiting for him. My dish-washer colleague was forced to return back into the Brigham’s as a hostage with a gun pointed at his head. The M.O.D. that evening gave the robber what he wanted, a few hundred dollars in hard-earned hamburger money, and nobody got shot.

My digression about Brigham’s is not totally unrelated to the subject at hand. The stress of the situation radicalized me. Throughout all of this drama was Muzak. It’s played day and night, piped in from a receiver mounted in the back room. Happy music played even when people were depressed, angry, breaking dishes, or complaining about the inadequate or rude service. To pass the time, I would listen to Muzak analytically and try to decipher it’s secret codes and surreptitious meanings. How were they pacing the tracks, adjusting tempos, and programming just the right amount of interest without creating too much attention? It’s does seem to have an internal-logic of its’ own.

One morning, feeling like an anarchist, I did something counter-cultural. I went over to the Muzak receiver and when no one was looking, turned the volume all the way off. To me the silence was surreal. It’s actually hard to imagine a bustling fast-food chain without it. But for several hours no one seemed to notice that they were being deprived of their auditory security blanket. My subversive act as an anti-Muzak-terrorist went unnoticed. Neither the staff nor the customers took notice.

My great social experiment was eventually found out. The Brigham’s District Manager paid a visit later that morning, and demanded action. Along with a request that I clean the employee bathroom before the health inspector arrived, he matter-of-fact insisted that the Muzak system be turned back up again to its’ appropriate level of volume. I have no idea if sales of junk food were positively or negatively correlated to my passive-aggressive act, but the entire incident planted a seed of discontent in my mind regarding the subject of corporate mind control via music, noise pollution, and the politics of public sound: who makes it, who is forced to listen to it, and who controls it?

For me, the answer is clear. As comedian Lily Tomlin once said: "I worry that the person who thought up Muzak may be thinking up something else."

Perhaps they are not content just controlling what we listen to. Maybe they'd like control over our eyeballs too.

On February 17th, 2009, Muzak, based in Fort Mill, S.C., issued a press release with news about a brand new product:

Muzak, a leading provider of media solutions and sensory branding for businesses, is proud to announce Visual Solutions, its new digital signage product offering. By leveraging well-established national distribution
capabilities and “best-in-class” partners, Muzak will deliver compelling, affordable visual merchandising solutions to clients of any size throughout the US. Visual Solutions will be offered to Muzak clients as part of the brand's comprehensive media suite or tailored as a custom content service, allowing clients to fully control their branding, messaging and customer programs.

Oddly enough, on the exact same day, the company filed for a Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in a bid to restructure its crushing debt load in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington, Delaware. It listed roughly $475 million in combined debt to its lenders and bond holders.

It’s not often that we stand up and cheer when a company files for Chapter 11. But in this case I’m glad.

Last night David Letterman joked that "of course Muzak is going out of business. They can't even spell." He went on to plead against a government bailout of Muzak, citing Obama's campaign pledge to end torture.


Honk if Brahms blows you away

My friend Laura, a regular and faithful reader of this Blog, emailed me this photo. It's of an actual bumper sticker that appears to be intended for classical music nerds.

Bumper stickers, along with T-Shirts, are how people communicated before the Al Gore invented the Internet.

In this case, they got it all wrong. It's like comparing apples and oranges.

Why would anyone want to contrast the Brahms Piano Concerto #1 Op. 15 with the 6th Branderberg Concerto of J.S. Bach (BWV 1046)?

Different era. Different kind of music. Different musical conceptions. Different musical language. Different musical vision.

But the erroneous idea of comparing such disparate forms of musical composition reminds me of a story...

Leonard Bernstein was a guest on a popular TV talk program produced by PBS called Agronsky & Company in the early 1970s. The host, Martin Agronsky, was a respected journalist but not an expert in the arts. Bernstein was a big name, and Agronsky was glad to have such a noted celebrity on his TV show.

At one point Martin Agronsky naively asked Bernstein, "how come there are no good composers living today?" You could see Bernstein become agitated. In those days everyone smoked on TV talk shows, and Lenny took an extra puff before releasing his venom.

"Of course there are great composers today!" exclaimed Bernstein. "I think the Copland Piano Sonata is a better piece than the Brahms Piano Sonata."

Agronsky looked shell-shocked. Clearly he hadn't heard either work. What was he to say now? Feeling trapped and in a corner, Agronsky quickly changed the subject to something he felt more comfortable with.

For the remainder of the interview Bernstein grew more and more annoyed.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Bonnie the Whistling Orangutan



Whistling Orangutan at National Zoo wins MacArthur Genius Award


The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has announced that a 32-year-old orangutan living at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. has been selected for a fellowship, or "genius" award, for her unique musical abilities. The half million dollar fellowship is awarded annually to US Citizens or residents, of any age and working in any field, who show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work. The fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential.

A spokesperson for the foundation said, "We had to bend the rules a little in this case, since Bonnie is technically not a person, but everything else is in order."

The musical orangutan has been attracting much attention as a composer of serious note, and her first works have already earned critical acclaim. The NY Times has described Bonnie's whistling as "...primitive, earthy, haunting, and a total rejection of post-modernist aesthetics." The New Yorker writes that Bonnie's tunes are "...a breath of fresh air, simply spellbinding."

Bonnie seems to be taking her new-found fame in stride. While grazing over a light lunch comprised of fruit and leaves from her home at the National Zoo, she gave us a sample of her next magnum opus...

Her works are minimalistic (involving just one or two pitches), and explore the sonic qualities of her breathy, low-resonant whistling tone.

"I go ape over this music" said a professor at Princeton University. "It opens up completely new and uncharted territory of musical exploration that we as humans have hitherto not been privileged to experience. It's the most significant event in modern music since the discovery of humpback whale song in the early 7o's."

The MacArthur Foundation could not be reached for comment, but the early indications are that future foundation grants in the arts will be presented to other species in the animal kingdom. For example, several elephants residing in American zoos are under consideration for genius awards in the visual arts. Their work in acrylics is considered to be state-of-the-art and at the "cutting edge" of contemporary visual design. A spokesperson at the auction house Sotheby's (who did not want to be identified by name) said, "Animal art, of all kinds, is really hot right now."


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What Composers Dream About

Igor Stravinsky allegedly told the following story about the genesis of his 1922 “Octet” to his assistant, composer/conductor Robert Craft...

The octet began with a dream. I found myself (in my dream state) in a small room surrounded by a small number of instrumentalists who were playing some very agreeable music. I did not recognize the music they played, and I could not recall any of it the next day, but I do remember my curiosity (in the dream) to know how many musicians played. I remember that after I had counted them to the number eight, I looked again and saw that they were playing bassoons, trombones, trumpets, a flute and a clarinet. I awoke from this little dream concert in a state of delight, and the next morning, I began to compose the Octet, a piece I had not so much as thought of the day before. The Octet was quickly composed.

Though technically not a dream, Arnold Schoenberg experienced what must be termed an “out of body” experience after a heart attack in 1945 at the age of 71. Lying on the hospital operating room table, through the white light he saw himself hovering in space looking down at his own body. During this experience he heard what was to become the soft mercurial music that would ultimately find it's way into the beautiful coda of this last completed work: the String Trio, op. 45. It is said that the form of the String Trio revolves around “program music” stemming from his near-fatal heart attack and recovery experience.

The subject of dreams came up last evening when I ran into composer/musicologist Mark Devoto during an intermission at a concert in Boston. Devoto and I had been chatting with 89 year-old Harold Shapero after the premiere of an arrangement of his famous 1941 String Quartet for Saxophone Quartet. We talked about health-related issues, including PSA levels, blood pressure medication, and prostate health. Harold, who had been good friends with Stravinsky, then turned the discussion to dreams and relayed a disturbing one that he had experienced the night before...

Harold Shapero had dreamed that he was in a car being driven somewhere near his home. At some point the driver just slumped over and died from an apparent cardiac arrest. He felt helpless to do anything.

After hearing that story, Devoto relayed to me a couple of dreams that the late composer/musicologist George Perle had shared with him. Devoto knew Perle well, since both are well-known as musicologists and as leading scholars on the work of Alban Berg.

Perle: background and dream #1)
Perle was one of the few researchers to have seen the manuscript to the third act of Berg’s opera Lulu before Universal Editions published it. He wrote many letters to Alfred Kalmus of UE suggesting that it be released, since it was fundamentally complete except for the details of orchestration (lacking after bar 268 of Act III, Scene 1). Berg’s widow Helena, was Executor of the Berg Estate and had requested that UE not publish Act III. She had once asked Arnold Schoenberg if he would complete the orchestration, but the ailing composer declined that task after looking at the sketches. As a result Helena was steadfast in her belief that it could not be reconstructed from her husband’s existing manuscripts. However, the publisher secretly arranged with composer by Friedrich Cerha to orchestrate the third act for performance after Helena died, but kept it under tightly under wraps until she passed away. The terms of the Berg Estate would allow UE more latitude to ultimately publish the score in a form that they wished. After Helena died in 1976, and the third act was published and premiered in 1979 by Pierre Boulez: nearly forty-four years after Berg's death.

Perle’s dream is that he climbed up the stairs into the dark attic of a dirty garret. It looked very much like the set in the last scene of the opera Lulu, where the heroine, now living in poverty and working as a prostitute in London, would be brutally murdered by Jack the Ripper.

Perle looks over and sees an old, pale-faced man sitting in a chair. It’s Alban Berg himself, and he is alive. Perle approaches the venerable composer, and exclaims, “Alban, you are alive. Now you can prove to the world that Act III of your opera Lulu is complete enough to publish!”

Berg looks Perle directly in the eye and replies, “What third act? There is no third act!”

Perle: background and dream #2)
Perle had been a visiting composer at Tanglewood for a number summers, including a year that Donald Martino also shared that same distinction. Perle was assigned a student that he couldn't easily relate to. She kept bringing in graphical scores written in non-traditional notation. He was accustomed to looking at pitches, notes, and just didn’t know how to comment on or analytically approach such vaguely notated music. He mentioned to the young composer that perhaps they should both get some copies of the great works of Schoenberg and Berg, and study the works of those great masters together. At this point the young composer burst into tears and said, “you don’t understand me!”

Soon after this event, Perle received a reprimanding phone call from the Tanglewood Music Festival director, Gunther Schuller. Schuller expressed grave concern about the delicate situation, and reminded Perle that this particular student had paid a lot of money to study with him at Tanglewood.

That night Perle had a dream that he was walking down the main drag in Lenox, the cozy New England town where Tanglewood is situated. He saw a station wagon drive up. It was driven by Don Martino, and filled to the brim with happy composition students. Martino gets out of the car, and goes into a nearby shop. He immediately comes out with a large bag of marbles, and hands one to each of his composition students.

That story reminds me of a dream the well-known Swiss composer Ernst Bloch (right) is said to have had. As all things are related, Bloch’s dream was relayed to me by composer Don Martino in his composition seminar at the New England Conservatory in 1978. Bloch was the teacher of Martino's teacher: Roger Sessions (left). The story of Bloch's dream may have passed down to us first through Sessions, and then by Martino.

In his dream, Bloch climbs up a tall, treacherous mountain and approaches the top. He sees Beethoven sitting at the its pinnacle. Beethoven, looking like a majestic king, looks over at Bloch, greets him, and then speaks in his deep voice, “Ernst, come join me at the top of the mountain.”

Martino (left) did a great job telling the story, and I can still hear his deep voice, fake German accent, and see his facial expression as he imitated Beethoven welcoming Bloch to the top of the mountain. Martino even looked a little like Beethoven, and this eerie resemblance struck me again when I visited his home basement studio not long after he passed away. You can find it in his study, on the shelf behind the piano - a plaster mask of his face made by a friend of the family. It was made toward the end of his life. At first, I thought it was a replica of the famous Beethoven death mask (right), but I had to ask his wife Lora about the details, and learned that it was in fact of a life mask of Don .

The Beethoven-Martino relationship existed on many levels. Martino was of course deeply impressed with Beethoven’s music, particularly the “Spring” Sonata for Violin and Piano Op. 24 and late works, such as the Piano Sonata Op. 109. He yielded an old reel-to-reel tape from his personal collection of a performance by a somewhat obscure pianist named Ernst Levy, who gave what he considered a transcending interpretation Op. 109 at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium during the 1950s. Levy was then a was a member of the MIT music faculty.

Martino would often sing, hammer out themes on the piano, and quote Beethoven’s music in class and during lessons. He elucidated to the students in the composition seminar Beethoven’s working method, and tracked the composer’s tedious sketching process in stages from mere human doodles to the attainment of musical perfection and artistic enlightenment. It’s all documented in the composer’s telling sketch books.

It’s not surprising that my composition seminar with Martino at NEC covered a wide-range of Beethoven-related topics. Aside from dream interpretation, there was a paranormal Beethoven moment worth mentioning. We got off on a discussion about an item of mail that Martino received from a total stranger. Someone, claiming to be a professional psychic, had sent him a letter and cassette tape. It contained what she said was a recently composed piece by Beethoven. The psychic indicated that Beethoven had transmitted the music to her via radio waves. She would tune her FM radio in-between stations, and listen to the static while in a state of trance. Emerging out of the static she was able to perceive and capture a fleeting image of Beethoven’s ethereal music. Our class listened very intently to the recording. What we heard was a noisy snippet of an orchestral piece lasting only a few seconds long. But it sounded “mysterious” and nobody in the class could identify the origin. The general consensus was that the music, which was quite reminiscent of the musical impressionist Frederic Delius, was not something we’d imagine Beethoven composing – even with the benefit of the latest and greatest compositional tools and aesthetics of the late 20th century. Somehow Beethoven and the whole-tone scale just don’t go together.

My final example of dreaming music relates to a story about Gunther Schuller. One of the anecdotes told in Don Martino’s composition seminar was about a trip the both of them took to Munich in the 1960s. Schuller was engaged to conduct Martino’s large orchestral work Mosaic, and the two of them sat together on an overnight flight to Germany. During the long trip, Schuller (who has spoken about receiving ideas for his works from dreams), sat in his seat half-asleep and fatigued from his legendary work-a-holic schedule. According to Martino, Schuller kept a large manuscript score for an opera in front of him. He would wake up for a minute, write down a note, and then fall back asleep. This asleep-awake one note at time compositional process went on for the duration of the flight.

Perhaps we should pay more attention to our dreams.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Remembrance: Perle and Foss

2009 has gotten off to a bad start for those who follow contemporary music.

Within the span of just 10 days, two of America’s leading composers passed away. George Perle died a the age of 93 on January 23rd, and Lukas Foss succumbed to Parkinson’s disease at the age of 86 on February 1st.

It’s hard to compare the two composers, other to observe that they were highly regarded masters in their field and influenced many younger composers such as myself. They both had exemplary careers in music, and their life-work stands on its own solidly as a now-permanent record of their dedication and talent.

I have no intention to write or re-write their obituaries, but I do have a couple of personal anecdotes regarding the two men.

George Perle (born in Bayonne, NJ, May 6, 1915) was a recipient of many honors, including a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. He attended DePaul University in Chicago and later went on to study private with Ernst Krenek. After serving in WW II, Perle studied musicology at New York University and his PhD thesis became his first book: “Serial Composition and Atonality.” It would be followed by a more theoretical (but less useful) book on musical set theory titled “Twelve-Tone Tonality.” He was also an expert on the music of Alban Berg, and is two books on that composers' operas are equally insightful. All of his books are required reading for any wannabee composer. Perle was Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York.

He composed a respectable amount of music, and I’ve heard a good amount of it at Tanglewood and elsewhere. His two piano concertos are fine works, almost Mozart-like in their precision and expression. Perle was a craftsman.

While I never studied with Perle, he was certainly one of those towering figures that everyone knew about. I remember seeing him at the historic American première of the complete opera Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera where he scripted program notes and was a musicological consultant.

When Gunther Schuller miraculously mounted the ISCM “World Music Days” in Boston in 1976 – a week-long conference and love-fest of International Contemporary Music - Perle was selected as one of the composers to represent the US. It was at that festival on October 29th that I first heard Perle's Six Études for Piano (1973-76). The 10 minute work was stunning, and it was superbly performed at New England Conservatory’s Jordon Hall by pianist Morey Ritt. It an impressive performance in many regards. For one thing, the pianist cut her finger on the keyboard, but undeterred, she continued to perform until the completion of the ferocious sixth Étude. I was sitting close enough to see her red blood spew out all over the white keys of the Steinway grand, and it became sort of a horror show to watch as ever more notes on the keyboard became smeared with it. Ritt’s performance of Perle’s set of Études will forever be burned into my mind. For me, that image stands out as a metaphor for the struggle of contemporary music.

A few years back, Perle gave an extensive lecture at Brandeis about the recently discovered “secret vocal part” in Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite. It was supported by live examples performed by the Lydian String Quartet and a soprano (whom I don’t remember). His lecture was exciting, and his familiarity with the music, the biographical context, and its analytical interpretation was impressive. Perle had been preoccupied with Berg's string quartet since 1937, and you could sense his excitement. It was Perle who in 1977 discovered annotations for the hidden vocal line, a secret love song to his mistress Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, cryptically notated in a study score given to her by the composer.

After the lecture I went up to meet Perle in person. He gladly signed my copy of the new UE Perle-Edition of the Lyric Suite vocal score. I mentioned that I had also listened to his recent CD of orchestral music, and enjoyed his music. He was quite flattered, and very appreciative of the attention. I was glad to have met him.


Now about Foss...

Lukas Foss, a German émigré, fled to Paris when the Nazis came to power in 1933. He enrolled at the Conservatoire and studied piano with Lazare Lévy, flute with Louis Moyse, composition with Noël Gallon and orchestration with Felix Wolfes.

His career in American came to the fore in 1953 when he succeeded Arnold Schoenberg as the head of the composition department at the University of California at Los Angeles. As someone who wrote all kinds of music, from electronic to minimalist, he drew much attention (and some criticism).

I have a vivid memory the Bernstein recording of is classic 1960 work Time Cycle. (I still have the LP). It is a four-movement piece on vocal settings of texts by Auden, Housman, Kafka and Nietzsche, and exists in both chamber or orchestral versions. The recording features him as a performer with his Improvisation Chamber Ensemble, a new music improv group that was formed in 1957. I heard Time Cycle not too long ago at Tanglewood. It may be one of his best known works - along with the wild and crazy “Baroque Variations.”

Although Foss commuted to Boston from NY to teach at Boston University in recent years, I never met him around town. But I do remember him from my stint in NY in the early 1970s at at time when he took over the Brooklyn Philharmonia and turned it into a “real” orchestra.

There was a panel discussion at Juilliard one evening, and it included a “Who’s Who” of American composition, including: Aaron Copland, Peter Mennin, Roy Harris, and of course Lukas Foss. Foss was clearly the hyper-active child on the panel, and spoke with great energy and excitement about the state of the music world as it existed at that time. He mentioned that his father was a philosopher, and it was clear to me that he inherited some of those genes. Aaron Copland, was very quiet, and would occasionally look over at Foss in disbelief at some of his statements. For example Foss declared that the future of music would be transformed by the introduction of wind instrument mutiphonics. He proclaimed that all composers would be writing pieces that utilize these new “chords.” Copland winced. Foss then spoke about his colleague Copland saying, “nobody can make a C major chord sound the way that Aaron does.” Of course he was right, but I don’t think that Copland took it as a complement, since he was known to have a streak of paranoia and a degree of insecurity about the substantive value of his increasingly populist music. (Once by chance, I had the good fortune to ride into Manhattan on the NY Central train line with Aaron Copland. He enjoyed talking shop with young composers).

I don’t remember if Foss’ wife Cornelia was present at the Juilliard lecture or not. Just two years ago she revealed that she left Lukas in 1967 for Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, taking her two children with her to Toronto. Their affair lasted until 1972, when she ultimately returned to Lukas right around the time of the Juilliard lecture. But she stayed with him up until is death and had stated to the press for the obituary that her husband had been working until about a year and a half ago, until his Parkinson's made it too difficult to compose.

Foss was one of the few celebrity American composers. His conducting activities probably contributed to his notoriety, but he was a good pianist too. I recall seeing him on The Dick Cavett Show, where he dashed over to the piano at the end of the show to play the flashy keyboard solo from the Allegro of Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto. Here is a YouTube of Glenn Gould playing the same work (Foss played it at a faster tempo):

Matthew Guerrieri, a correspondent in the Boston Globe for musical events, had studied with Foss as a composition student at Boston University in the late 1990s. He wrote a very eloquent remembrance of his teacher that was published in the Globe on February 7, 2009 as follows:
Other links:


Thursday, February 5, 2009

Gunther Schuller premiere

Howard Gardner, a distinguished professor at the Harvard School of Education, proposed a theory of multiple intelligences in 1983, and it includes a category for “Musical Intelligence.” It is believed that people in this league exhibit a greater sensitivity to sounds, rhythms, tones, and music. An article in Wikipedia observes that these individuals have a good sense of pitch – perhaps even absolute pitch. They are able to sing, play musical instruments, and compose music. The online encyclopedia goes on to state: “Careers that suit those with this intelligence include instrumentalists, singers, conductors, disc-jockeys, and composers.”


Let me propose another definition for this learning style. It’s simple…

Musical Intelligence = Gunther Schuller

All-around musician Gunther Schuller (b. 1925 in NYC) is clearly a poster-child for Gardner’s theory of musical intelligence. At age 5 Schuller sat in the bath tub with his rubber ducky and sang the overture to Tannhauser from start to finish. At age 11 in he composed a piece for everyone in his family to play. It was a 30 measure mini-concerto that featured his younger brother Edgar on his new toy Xylophone. His first work also had a part for flute (played by himself), piano (for his mother), and violin (for his father). Dad, a German immigrant, was a member of the NY Philharmonic.

By age 15 Schuller abandoned the flute in favor of the more difficult French horn, and in 1943 played it professionally with the American Ballet Theatre. He was appointed to the position of principal hornist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at the age of 17, but soon dropped out of high school. In 1945 he returned to NYC as a member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and remained in that position for 14 years. Schuller was a stand partner with my cousin Louis. You can read about him in my previous post: “My cousin Louis.”

Interested in everything musical, Schuller through himself into performing, composing, conducting. He moonlighted as a sideman for Miles Davis and other jazz greats while playing under the directorship of Auturo Toscanini and others as his “day job.”

While I had known about Schuller as a youngster from his recordings and radio broadcasts about modern music on the NY alternative FM station WBAI, I became better acquainted with his work after I came to Boston in 1973. At that time Schuller was President of the New England Conservatory, and had justifiably earned world-acclaim as a conductor, new music specialist, educator, author of several hefty books about music, scholar, and composer of distinction. He rode a wave of success from his Grammy-award winning recordings where he conducted the nationally acclaimed NEC “Ragtime Ensemble” in arrangements of Scott Joplin. Schuller’s influence at Tanglewood, through his own music publishing and recording business (GM Recordings), and connections with the shakers and movers of the musical establishment could make or break careers. He often would conduct and promote works by his composition students, many of which have gone on to have notable careers or be appointed to prestigious university jobs.

Schuller is also said to have one of the best “ears” in the business, and few can claim to know the orchestra with his depth of understanding. Although he has struggled with his limited eyesight (having lost an eye in his youth in an unfortunate accident involving a Christmas present wrapped with wire), his degraded vision has not slowed him down one iota.

As a self-admitted workaholic who is usually engulfed on at least five projects at once, Schuller has composed nearly 200 works to date. The commissions keep rolling in. The majority of his works are orchestral and rather significant in scope. He’s won all of the prestigious awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 and a “genius” award from the MacArthur Foundation. Simply put, Gunther Schuller is the epitome of “musical intelligence.”

It was not surprising that James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra would turn to Schuller to commission a work for the 125th anniversary of the orchestra. A Massachusetts Cultural Council grant was obtained, and Schuller began work on his BSO piece. His new 25-minute composition for large orchestra was written in breath-taking speed – in roughly 20 to 30 hours – less than a work week for most of us mere mortals. He titled it “Where the Word Ends” to indicate that music can add meaning beyond the point where verbal communication becomes ineffective. I find this concept insightful, since it acknowledges that music is at some level indescribable and impossible to articulate, yet informative and with purpose. Even the best attempts to analyse or describe a work of music is destined to come up short. It would be like reading about the taste of an exquisite dish without ever tasting it in real life. Words help, but nothing can substitute for the direct culinary experience.

Schuller’s work was completed on time for performance in 2006-07 season, but it became clear to Levine that it was more than the BSO could take it on as originally planned in that concert season. James Levine waited for the right moment, and ultimately rescheduled the world premiere of “Where the Word Ends” for last evening – a season later.

Given the importance of the Schuller premiere, this concert has been on my list of essential events to attend ever since it was announced years ago. As always, I gained access into last night’s concert with affordable “Rush Tickets” (see my previous posts about this). Unfortunately, in Boston in February, this involves brazing sub-zero weather and standing in the cold for an hour of two outside of Symphony Hall. I was in line with other not-so-well-healed music enthusiasts, many of which were also there to hear the Schuller. The wind-chill was torturous, but I dutifully held my place in line and thought about the delayed gratification of the musical payoff later that evening. Being situated near the front of the queue, I thought I’d have some options regarding seat selection as had been the case in the past. However, the ticket agent at the window scoffed at my request for a “jump seat” in the second balcony. He sternly said there were only front row seats, and passed the ticket to me without discussion or debate. Another rush ticket patron with more experienced than I said that the BSO management has recently been making the house look fuller by placing the rush ticket people conspicuously in the empty seats of the front rows. For $9, one does not expect to receive the best seats in the house, but I was mildly disappointed to be situated so damn close to the orchestra: seat OR-D-28 to be precise. I’m generally not a whiner, but the subtleties of orchestral balance are hard to hear when your are virtually sitting within the orchestra. Sitting right upon the stage, the ambient sound in Symphony Hall comes at you from behind with a vengeance. It’s an almost disconcerting affect – but one that surely represents what the musicians themselves experience as they go about the job of making music in a big room on a stage filled to the brim with an army of musical colleagues.

But sitting in the first row does give one a unique perspective regarding the symphonic concert experience. For example I was situated directly before the third desk of the first violins, and could observe them with microscopic clarity from six feet away. It was more intimate that I would have preferred, but I learned more about how orchestral musicians behave under bright lights and in the claustrophobic and tense work environment they routinely operate in. There is nervous chatter, petty gossip, and cross-instrumental bickering in between the rendering of profound musical works, and the musicians exhibit a broad range of human emotion and non-verbal interaction with their co-workers – including but not limited to the esteemed Maestro himself. As expected, the conductor, soloist, and musicians sweat profusely, and the thought occurred to me that industrial-strength deodorant must be a stable among professional orchestral musicians. Along with their requisite instrument and black formal wear, the tools of the trade probably include clinical-strength antiperspirants and perhaps even prescription drugs (beta blockers for example are sometimes used to calm the nerves).

It could be my imagination, but I had more than one uncomfortable exchange of eye-contact with a few of the violinists directly before me. They appeared to be simultaneously wired and helplessly bored. It’s a state of mind not unlike flight attendants who maintain calm as they hand out pillows, but under the surface know that the plane could end up in the Hudson at any moment. Aside from listening to the great music, it was equally entertaining to watch the violinists effortlessly flip the pages of their music. They skillfully navigated and caressed the time yellowed pages on the stand with fragile violin bows crafted out of Brazilian pernambuco. The bows functioned like robotic extensions of the violinist’s physical appendages, and these expensive pointed sticks were manipulated with the precession of chop sticks. It’s not a perfect system, at one point in last evenings’ performance two pages were turned instead of one, but the recovery was swift and inconsequential. It’s no wonder that these wonderful musicians occasionally glance out at the faces of members of the audience and wonder if we are aliens from another planet. They may indeed feel like humans on display in the inter-galactic zoo. Playing in an orchestra must be a strange way to make a living.

The soloist last evening was the Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli who began the concert with two rarely heard Mozart arias from act III of the opera Idomeneo. Frittoli had stayed over from last week when she sang in a concert performance Simon Boccanegra with the BSO. She is a good soprano, but her voice is neither memorable or distinctive. She didn’t perform the arias from memory, and often had her eyes buried in a copy of the printed score. From my unusually close vantage point, I couldn’t help by notice that she has a good dentist too.

But I get ahead of myself. Before the concert got underway, Robert Kirzinger presented his regular 6:45 PM pre-concert talk. He had expected Gunther Schuller to join him at 7 PM, and had to improvise verbally when the composer did not show at the appointed time. At 7:15 the 83 year old Schuller barged through the stage doors and literally ran up to the front of the stage. He put down his canvas bag and, noticeably out of breath, greeted the enthusiastic audience. Schuller was probably running late from a previous appointment, perhaps a three-star rated dinner with Jimmy Levine.

Kirzinger and Schuller seemed in sync. They had apparently done a dog and pony show for a high school audience earlier in the day, and I got the impression that the level of the public discussion remained about the same. Schuller explained to the crowd how the violin has a different timbre than the oboe. Kirzinger previously mentioned that he had confessed to the high school audience that Schuller – who is entirely self-taught - dropped out of school to follow his dreams. I’m sure the word “dropout” was NOT the message that the teachers had wanted to deliver to their classes. Outreach programs are often a source of bread-and-butter for arts organizations, who often apply for easy-to-justify government grants based on educating our culturally deprived (yet highly impressionable) youth. However, the ugly wrinkles of truth are often hard to accept: Hey kids, want to become a famous composer like Gunther Schuller? Then drop out of school and pursue your dreams.

Schuller talked about his interest in visual arts, and mentioned that as a child he produced a good number of paintings. “Everyone assumed that I would become a visual artist.” His pieces often refer to works of art, such as by the abstract painter Paul Klee in his "Klee Studies" performed last season. He spoke of his wealth of experience as an orchestral musician, and mentioned that he prided himself on being able to change the color of his French horn to match the characteristics of the composer he was performing. For example, Wagner calls for a “blood rich purple color” and Mozart needs something lighter and brighter in hue. He railed against what he observed as the “store-bought sound” of some current orchestral musicians. They are a new breed who choose to assert their unique but personally-branded instrumental tone against what he considers to be better musical instincts. (Schuller once described to me the tone color produced by my cousin Louis on his French horn. He remembered it going back more than 60 years. You can read more about Louis in a previous blog post: )

In the short time allotted, Schuller talked about the genesis of his new work. He seems to have drawn upon his entire life-experience to create “Where the Word Ends” (2007). The piece derives inspiration from musical works he studied and performed over his formative years, including works by the modernists of his time: Debussy, Ravel, Delius, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Szymanowski, and Reger. He also greatly admires two composers that he feels were the most important musical figures of the 20th century: Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Schuller said that for many people the jury is still out on Schoenberg, but that Stravinsky is now universally acknowledged as a major force in the history of music.

“Where the Word Ends” is written for a BIG orchestra. By my standards it is a HUMONGOUS orchestra. If there are any recession-related cutbacks in staffing at the BSO, it was not evident on the stage last night. The battery of regular BSO players were heavily fortified with additional musicians: all of which I’m sure were well-compensated members of local musician’s union (AFM Local 9-535). In addition to a large divisi string section, the score calls for four flutes, three oboes, English horn, two clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contra-bassoon, four French horns, FOUR WAGNER TUBAs, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba, five percussionists, timpani, piano, celesta, and two harps. The quartet of Wagner tubas is an unusual supplement to the standard orchestral fare, and their warm sound did in fact add to the rich texture of his piece. The now-archaic instrument is a genetic cross between the French horn and tuba, and the sound of its’ baritone-register gives new meaning to the 1970’s buzz-word “mellow.”

Although it did not seem like a full house Thursday night at Symphony Hall for the premiere, I did spot a few Boston-area composers – including Yehudi Wyner perched in the first balcony. I sat next to Elliott Schwartz during the pre-concert talk, and chatted with him and his delightful wife. Most of the Boston-area new music cognoscenti will probably come to hear Schuller’s piece on Friday or Saturday evening when the BSO has ironed out the rough edges of this difficult work. I’ll be at home listening to WCRB on the radio Saturday evening for a second hearing.

NYC is still the de facto center of the artistic universe, and when Levine and the BSO take Schuller’s work to Carnegie Hall for a performance on Monday, New Yorkers will have their opportunity to hear the music. We’ll have to see what the NY Times writes about it, since it seems as if they uniformly label any new music coming from Boston as old-fashioned academic dribble. But I wont pre-judge what they will write, since Schuller immigrated to Boston (actually Newton) many years ago from New York, but his NY connection may in fact transcend the provincial Boston-composer stereotype that has stuck like a bad odor to the rest of us practicing composers who reside in the cold North.

Now comes the part of the “review” where I should proclaim to characterize Gunther’s complex 25-minute piece. There is something disingenuous about writing a review of a piece of music titled “Where the Word Ends.” It’s contradictory. If words could suffice, then why would we need to hear the music? If words worked, you would just need to read my review and not bother to hear the music.

There is a theory that concert reviews spare the reader from inconveniencing themselves from actually attending concerts themselves, and believe it or not, I see the value in this philosophy. Who wants to stand out in the freezing cold waiting for rush tickets when you can easily go online and visit to get the inside scoop? Well my friends, I hate to disappoint you, but the reality is that if you want to experience “Where the Word Ends” you will have to listen to it yourself – somehow, somewhere, someday. Beyond a cursory description, I can’t verbalize what the piece is about. That’s why I never finished the written analytic portion of my doctoral dissertation. Words are simply impotent when used to describe the intricacies of a musical work. They can only come up short.

That said, I will share with you just a couple of personal observations that are probably more of an indication of my musical bias than of anything Maestro Schuller intentionally crafted.

The opening of the piece is very quiet. It begins slowly (quarter = 56) and the first little twitter we hear (depending on how close you are sitting) is a very soft E to D-sharp trill in the second violins. Over this background chatter, four muted violins play a fast septuplet arpeggio (C-Db-Ab-Db-C-Db-Ab). This little figural scale passage becomes a “viral” motto that we will hear throughout the first movement of this work. The figure appears throughout the string section in increasing frequency, and spreads like a virus amongst the musicians over the next 30 seconds or so. The shimmering effect begins to vaguely imply an overall background harmony of supporting the notes derived from the opening gesture. Soon the celli and basses enter with a motto molded from this musical clay as a more explicit melodic statement. The pitch process behind all of this musical inventiveness is Schuller’s “magic” row at work. He has used the same 12-tone row for virtually all of his compositions, and “Where the Word Ends” is no exception. The shape and design of the Lento movement is Wagnerian in design. It grows slowly, increases in volume and texture, and ultimately results in a big orgasm at a place that Schuller marked in the score as the “Grand Convulsion.” It’s a musical climax that precedes the next major section of the work, the Adagio.

The odd thing about the design of this Lento movement is that its sonic emergence out of nowhere resembles something Schuller described at Harvard’s memorial service for Donald Martino. He began his remembrance of Martino that sad Sunday afternoon by talking about a dream he had the night before. Schuller said that Martino had written an orchestral piece that began with soft, imperceptible sounds, but grew slowly and had a crescendo. To my mind, that is not necessarily a piece that Martino would compose, but that dream may have been Schuller’s inspiration for the beginning of “Where the Word Ends.” Could we perhaps credit Martino for inspiring his colleague Schuller from the afterlife? Who knows.

I found the Adagio section to be the best music in the piece. It has some really beautiful melodic material. Levine really took pleasure in bringing out the lush velvety sound of the orchestra in this section, and we hear some great jazz-formulated harmonies and Gil Evans-inspired cluster chords at this spot. The trombone has a great solo, and he bends the notes with his side to create sensuous “blue notes.” The quartet of Wagner tubas were in their essence and added additional warmth to this already sizzling music. It’s strange, but the jazz chords I heard seemed to come more from Alban Berg than Miles Davies. It’s as if Schuller was expressing modern orchestral music with elements of a jazz syntax, but with a pronounced German accent. (He is fluent in German, but does not speak in English with any accent at all).

All good Adagios come to and end, and this one was no exception. But when we listen to music, the audience is actively involved processing the musical flow and narrative in real time. I kept wondering, how is he going to end this? Where are we going?

Schuller’s solution to this question in this piece is a Scherzo section. Scherzo’s are by nature rather diabolical, and this is no exception. Naughty things happen in the percussion, brass, and winds. It’s as if Stravinsky and Varese had returned to Symphony Hall with a vengeance. We hear lots of pounding, and some brutal glissandi in the trombones.

The final section of the work, the Allegro vivace, moves the piece into high gear. We hear lots of scalar passages. I watched as the music flew by on the 3rd desk of the first violin section. There were many pages of staffs blackened with notes. Sometimes a phrase that would be played by the first violin stand (to my right) would be echoed immediately by the 7th violin stand (to my left). It created a very interesting spacial effect that I had not expected. Of course the piece gets very loud, and ends with a bang. I did find my concentration beginning to wane, and I looked back at the audience to observe if others were also reaching their limit. I did sense that a few audience members were showing signs of fatigue, and the number of random coughs in Symphony Hall were beginning to escalate.

But all in all this premiere met and exceeded my expectations. We’ll have to see if “Where the Word Ends” finds performances with other orchestras. It’s a difficult piece, and the size of the orchestral forces will make it more expensive to mount in difficult economic times. Schuller is fortunate to have many commissions on his plate, and to my knowledge all of his works have been performed at least once. But very few orchestras want to perform a new work if it is not a commission and/or a world premiere. Even Schuller suffers from a poverty of 2nd or 3rd performances of his orchestral music. That’s just the way that it is.

During the intermission I overheard two composers excitedly discussing the piece. One said, “you never know what to expect from Gunther. His works are always different.”

That’s true. Schuller’s music is always new, original, and stylistically diverse. That makes it even more exciting. I did have an opportunity to shake the composer’s hand and congratulate him on his success during the intermission.

The program ended with the Brahms Second Symphony Op. 73. It was a spirited performance, and Levine led the orchestra with great physical energy. The opening was very pretty and Levine gave the first violins an inspired cue for their thematic entrance. It’s a special moment in the music where a statement of the meandering tune (doubled in the violas) begins every so quietly on the note E in the first violins. It’s marked with the dynamic piano and expressively marked with the indication dolce. The expression on Levine’s face was one of ecstacy as he pulled the sound out of the air with his hands. Whether the emotion was genuine or simply contrived as a mechanism to coax the desired sound from the violin section does not matter. The violins responded appropriately and attacked the note with perfect precision and Brahmsian grace– thus making the entrance a special event. Oddly enough, when the exposition section of the movement was repeated, Levine didn’t even look over at the violin section to oversee the event. Musically, it was no longer a first entrance. The first violin section had already conceived and delivered their first-born, therefore playing the passage again in the repeat of the exposition while still beautiful, was merely routine and matter of fact. Little details like this keep my interest in the music that I know well, since the uniqueness of events, and their framing and interpretation within the overall context of the piece often play out in ways that amaze and surprise me.

I had to wonder if Levine was nervous conducting the Brahms with Schuller sitting in the audience. Schuller published a large 570 page monograph about conducting titled "The Complete Conductor." In the book the rails against conductors who do not pay close attention to the composer's intensions as notated in the score. Schuller's book has extensive chapters on the Brahms 1st and 4th Symphonies, but I'm sure Schuller has his own ideas about how the 2nd Symphony should (and should not) be conducted. I would have liked to be a fly on the wall to hear Schuller and Levine talk shop.

So ends another day in the simple life of a simple concert goer. I’m back at working on my own piece – a three movement Chamber Symphony. It’s not at all like Schuller’s composition, but it will be in three movements and about a half hour long. Writing this “review” has been a way for me to clear my mind of the wonderful piece by Schuller, and focus again on my own muse. My internal voice is easily distracted by hearing the work of others, but hearing the music of our time is a responsibility that comes with the territory. It’s part of the job, if you can call it that.