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

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Putting a positive spin on new music

The 2009-2010 Boston Symphony Orchestra season brochure arrived in the mail today.

It is the usual glossy booklet complete with good information about the up-coming season.

A couple of things struck me about it.

First, to attend the entire season of Saturday evening concerts sitting in the best seats will cost you $2,725. Wow!

Second, the number of premieres of new works is less than in previous seasons under Maestro Levine, although there are some good works to watch for. Pieces by Peter Leiberson, John Harbison, Augusta Read Thomas, John Williams, and three works by Elliott Carter figure prominently in the season.

And finally, it's very subtle, but the BSO marketing department seems to downplay new music in their brochure. For example, they avoid adjectives such as edgy, avant garde, cutting-edge, or ground breaking in the descriptions of modern works. Rather, their adjectives are carefully selected to quell apprehension about new music, to pacify and alleviate fear. It's written defensively, with contemporary-music-phobes as their target audience.

Elliott Carter is a "...venerable American composer..."

"Pierre-Laurent Aimard performs the scintillating Dialogues for piano and orchestra by Carter..."

"...Hilary Hahn in Prokofiev's lively Violin Concerto No. 1..."

"Ligeti's early folk-inspired and Bartók-like Concert Românesc..."

"Shostakovich's playful Piano Concerto No. 1"

The brochure is plastered with photos of smiling young soloists - such as Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, Grazia Doronzio, and the 21 year-old French pianist Lise del la Salle. Although Elliott Carter is having three works performed throughout the season, the 100-year old composers' mugshot does not appear anywhere. In fact, not a single photo of any of the composers featured this coming season is revealed.

The BSO marketing department seems to believe that faces of composers don't sell tickets, otherwise they would be out front and center. It also seems that of the 21st and 20th century pieces that were selected for performance, the vast majority of them are paired with a prestigious soloist. The idea must be that a customer who harbors a dislike for contemporary or modern music might still buy a ticket if there is a well-known soloist involved.

Compare the BSO with other major American orchestras, such as the New York Philharmonic. New York just appointed Magnus Lindberg to a two-year stint as Composer-in-Residence. NY has a long-standing tradition of systematically involving composers in the activities and promotion of their orchestra.

Perhaps I'm just paranoid, but it does seem like contemporary composers, at least in relation to the BSO, are marginalized.


Monday, June 29, 2009

Reflections on the King of Pop

Everyone is talking about it. It's an obsession, and although I would like to think otherwise, I'm not immune to the mass hysteria of the moment.

Aside from a faded memory of the cute little boy who appeared with his brothers on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1970, the work of MJ is not part of my mental repertory of music.

People consider my ignorance about pop culture a little odd. This includes old friends. To them I'm like a bubble boy who never was exposed to the germs of ordinary life. To a certain extent that is true, and they are correct.

While I had a perfectly normal upbringing through high school and was exposed to - and a practitioner of - all of the standard Rock hits of the time, once I began to study music seriously I had to make some choices. For better or worse I chose to filter out the pop culture of music for a few decades, and consciously avoided it in my daily life. I did not have a TV from 1973 to 1986. The brain can only hold so much. Time is a limited commodity. You can't do it all.

In a sense I was playing catch-up, since my upbringing did not expose me to as much classical music as I would have liked. My lack of experience was painfully evident when I heard the recording of a major work by Luciano Berio around 1973. The third movement of his Symphonia - a major work composed in 1968 for the New York Philharmonic and the Swingle Singers - is a case in point. Berio's five movement work is for eight amplified voices and orchestra, and in the third movement it employs a collage technique where the composer assembles his score from various orchestral works of note. Fragments of masterworks by Bach, Brahms, Ravel, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Berg, and Webern can be heard throughout the quickly alternating texture. But the glue that holds Berio's movement together is the Scherzo from Mahler's Second Symphony. I was very impressed with Berio's piece, but felt that I wasn't getting it in the proper context. The music was mostly new to me, and I was hearing many of the historical quotes for the first time.

After that experience, I erected a cultural bubble where I was able to concentrate and focus on a narrower range of music. It takes time, but I believe I eventually got to a point where I could claim to know the musical language of Mozart and Haydn's day on its own terms. I can follow sonata form, and have as my personal mental playlist the major pieces of the classical and romantic-era repertory.

At the New England Conservatory I sang in the chorus, and we performed Mahler's great Second Symphony with the Boston Symphony under the baton of Claudio Abbado. I was closing the gap in my musical training, and could not have done so without going into a self-imposed cultural retreat. At least at that time, one felt as if a composer had a legacy to grasp on to, and an implied obligation to continue it. Haydn inspired Beethoven who inspired Brahms who inspired Schoenberg who inspired my teachers, and they inspired me. MJ did not fit into the equation.

In 1981 I received fellowship to attend the Yale Summer School of Music in Norfolk Connecticut. The composition seminar was led by Jacob Druckman, but visiting composers included Earle Brown, Elliott Carter, and Betsy Jolas. My fellow colleagues from this renowned music institute have mostly achieved significant success in the field of music, but I wont elaborate on that now. However, one of my salient memories from our intense discussions at Yale Norfolk was the reaction I got from Jacob Druckman when I described my initial experience of hearing Berio's Symphonia. I explained how I had done things backward, confessing that I had heard Mahler's Second Symphony first via the modernist lens of Berio in Symphonia. Only years later did I get to know the work in its original form as composed by Mahler. Druckman seemed shocked and disturbed by my candid confession. My distorted and non-sequential version of music history seemed to irk him to no end.

I had succeeded pretty well in holding the world of pop culture at bay. A few decades had passed without any exposure to the germs of TV sitcoms of the 70s or 80s. I avoided mainstream movies like the plague. Only circumstantially had I heard about a tend in popular music and dance called Disco, but I had no first hand experience of it. I think it involves something with colored lights reflecting off of a rotating ball covered with small mirrors.

All of this sequestering has consequences. I had become a social misfit in the broader community of life. Classical music nerds are a minority. Avant garde music nerds are even more of an obscure sub-genre. But it was a choice I and my equally nerdy classmates made to focus on the music we were involved with. I can truly say that the highly constrained musical world that I and a few colleagues chose to live in self-sustained us for years. We lived, ate, drank, and breathed the air of 12-tone partitions. The complex music of Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, and Elliott Carter was the staple of our daily diet.

Eventually, all bubbles burst. For me it was in 1983 in a circular looking building without windows in Pompano Beach, Florida. It was constructed in aluminum to look like a large flying saucer, and as far as I knew it was ready to blast off for Mars at any moment. The venue was known as Starship Odyssey, and was situated near a strip mall on North Federal Highway at the corner of Sample. I was visiting my brother Ricky, and he took me one night to the saucer inspired arcade-bar-disco for local entertainment. I remember sitting alone, alienated, drinking a beer, and looking at the large projection screen looping MTV videos. Then, it came on, the 14-minute MJ Thriller video. It was about as surrealistic as life can get without taking drugs.

You can imagine my culture shock as I experienced MJ's hit video for the first time. The musical language I had learned in graduate school didn't prepare me for this. It was raw, dark, and completely new. The loud and pounding periodic rhythms were antithetical to the pulseless rhythmic time-scapes that I was more accustomed to in the music of Ligeti, Stockhausen, and Nono. The vibrant dance in the video could not be ignored. It was violent, contorted, and bizarre. The stage set, costumes, and storyline were strange to me too. I had never seen a music video before, and was not at all prepared for the visceral impact of a $500 thousand dollar Hollywood production carefully synchronized to music complete with special effects.

I had a lot of soul-searching to to after that night. What had happened to the cute little boy singing with the Jackson Five on the Ed Sullivan Show? He looked very different. Why were dancing zombies the latest craze? What did all of this have to do with me, and what were the ramifications for the music I wanted to write?

One of the important lessons that I've learned from that night is that pop culture quickly evolves and that nothing stays the same. I also learned that music can exist in parallel universes, and which universe(s) we choose to live in determines not only our fate, but our immediate surroundings.

I was never able to reenter into the world of popular music. Too much had changed and evolved in the years that I was away. Nor could I regress back to the past (as a few of my colleagues did), and pull an electric guitar out of the closet and wail. That form of music no longer interested me. I remember when Elvis died, when Hendrix died, as well as when Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and assorted members of the Beatles died. I lived that music when it was happening, but now it is all but a faded memory of a time long gone.


The flying saucer-shaped building in Florida was later renovated into a strip club and renamed Dollhouse III. It was run by a fast talking playboy allegedly associated with the mafia who parlayed his business education at Syracuse and Cornell into a million-dollar empire of upscale adult entertainment clubs.

For a number of years MJ, The King of Pop, continued to perform in concert and released numerous hits and music videos. He make a fortune, but his life spiraled downward like a lead balloon - ultimately ending abruptly in tragedy.

Jim found employment outside of the music biz (at least until about a year ago), but continued to compose his avant garde works in the vacuum of near-total isolation. He doesn't keep up with the latest trends in pop music, and can't dance.


Sunday, June 28, 2009

Concert Review: Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra

Needing a psychological break from the non-stop 24-hour news coverage on TV about the death of the King of Pop, I took an excursion into Harvard Square on Saturday evening to listen to some good music.

It was just one of the many free concerts the Boston area. There are literally more musical events scheduled each week than I can take find the time to get to. Boston is great in this regard. Music is everywhere, and you don't need to spend big bucks to experience it.

The free public concert was by PACO, or the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra from the San Francisco Bay Area. Founded in 1966, it is an institution for young string players on the West Coast. Since 2002 it has been led by conductor and violist Benjamin Simon (shown right).

PACO actually consists of five ensembles of various ages, but what we heard last night was an elite group of approximately 34 musicians. They formed a string orchestra of 10 first violins, 8 seconds, 7 violas, 7 cellos, and 2 double basses.

The ensemble is on an impressive 2009 East Coast tour. After their performance at Harvard's Sanders Theatre, they head south for concerts at Yale in New Haven (Sunday), Alice Tully Hall in NY (Tuesday), and then to Baltimore (Friday).

Each year, PACO commissions and performs the work of a composer 21 years old or younger with a $500 grant. Composer Stephen Feigenbaum (a former student of Boston's Michael Gandolfi) had was the recipient of this award, and his work Monsoon Season was presented on the 2009 PACO tour.

The big draw for this concert was the acclaimed cello soloist Matt Haimovitz. Born in Israel in 1971, Haimovitz made his debut in 1984 at the age of 13 as a soloist with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic. Currently he teaches cello at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montréal, Quebec. Described as a Maximalist, he selects his music from a broad spectrum of musical styles, and has performed in diverse venues ranging from the rock'n roll club T.T. The Bear's Place in Boston's Central Square, to the elite Celebrity Series at Boston Symphony Hall. Haimovitz is an alumnus of the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra (PACO).

Although he studied formally at Juilliard, Princeton, and Harvard, the classically-trained cellist is comfortable improving with musical artists such as jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, DJ Olive, and Constantinople (a Middle Eastern ensemble). He even performs Led Zeppelin tunes, and once took "Machine Gun" (a protest song by Jimi Hendrix from 1979 - a year before Haimovitz was born) on tour to pubs across the nation. Haimovitz also captured the public's imagination with his solo cello transcription of Jimi Hendrix's screaming version of the "The Star-Spangled Banner" - although I don't think he has set his expensive cello on fire.

Haimovitz is a new music champion too, and has performed works by Luciano Berio, George Crumb, Sebastien Currier, Mario Davidovsky, Henri Dutilleux, Osvaldo Golijov, John Harbison, Hans Werner Henze, Aaron Jay Kernis, Tod Machover, Steven Mackey, Paul Moravec, George Perle, Lewis Spratlan, Robert Stern, Augusta Read Thomas, and Toby Twining - just to name a few.

He's worked on some innovate projects, such as Tod Machover's Vinyl Cello for amplified solo cello, DJ, Hyperbow, and interactive audience. Composer Machover, a cellist himself, is associated with MIT's aclaimed Media Lab and has invented hyper-instruments of various types. The Hyperbow was designed by his team as a kind of musical equivalent to a Nintendo Wii controller.

Although Haimovitz has been an exclusive artist with Deutsche Grammophon for ten years and recorded with them extensively, in 2000 he co-founded (with composer Luna Pearl Woolf) the indie label Oxingale Records. The company gets its name from a quote by Voltaire, "Sir, you make me believe in miracles; you know how to turn an ox into a nightingale."

Never having heard him perform live before, this was a concert that I was looking forward to hearing. His reputation precedes him.

Haimovitz appeared in two works with PACO. The first was "Max's Moon" by Luna Pearl Woolf (b. 1973). The composer is in fact married to Matt Haimovitz.

The composer's two movement work was written in 2007 just before the birth of their child, and arranged for string orchestra by the composer in 2009. It is inspired by two well-known children's stories "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Goodnight Moon."

I haven't heard any of her music until now. She has been commissioned and performed by cellists Haimovitz and Fred Sherry, flutist Eugenia Zukerman., and others.

She finds interesting projects and just as interesting titles for her works: such as "Dr. Watson and the Dark Lady of DNA" and "After the Wave" - which was an orchestral response to the 2004 tsunami devastation. "I am a fish" is a work scored for soprano and string quartet that was premiered at New York's Alice Tully Hall.

The composer studied composition with Mario Davidovsky, Augusta Read Thomas and Lewis Spratlan and graduated from Harvard University (where her cellist husband also studied). Her Masters degree is from Smith College.

Currently, Woolf and Haimovitz are involved with a cross-over venue in Montréal called ex-Centris. Woolf is the producer/artistic director and Haimovitz curates classical performances for them. It's intended to be a space that holds up to 300 people where you can listen to A-list performers play a Brahms Piano Quintet while sipping on glass of wine or a cocktail.

Luna Pearl Woolf's two-movement piece for PACO was at once modern and unpretentious (not that the two are mutually exclusive). The solo cello part is laden with ample melodic lines that dip and dive across the entire range of the instrument. At times the soloist plays in duets or trios with members of the string orchestra, and interacts with them equally in direct dialogue. Predictably, the soloist oft soars with melodic ease over the impressionistic back drop of darkly hued strings.

The string writing is impressive, and the cello soloist displayed his formative technique in executing double stops, harmonics, and glissandi. It's a tricky combination to write for, since the solo cello is at risk for being subsumed by the larger string ensemble. Woolf found ingenious ways to keep the solo verses ensemble writing transparent through careful techniques of orchestration. She may have picked up some useful compositional tips directly or indirectly from her teachers - including Mario Davidovsky.

But Woolf's music is not at all like Davidovsky's. She is more of a new age impressionist than an edgy modernist. The music is hard to define, and does not fall into any clear category. It's hard to tell from this work alone, but she is clearly a composer of talent and ability. I'm curious and would like to hear more.

After the Luna Pearl Woolf work, Haimovitz performed with PACO the cello concerto Schubert never actually composed.

The Arpeggione Sonata was written during a period when Schubert was suffering from the late stages of syphilis and was lapsing into deep states of depression. It was originally written for an instrument called the arpreggione and was scored with accompaniment by the forte-piano.

The six-stringed arpeggione (shown in photo on the right) was one of the instruments that did not survive natural selection. It's sort of a hybrid between cello and guitar. Schubert was the only composer to write anything significant for it. Today his piece is transcribed for either cello or viola, but also exists in various other interesting versions.

Haimovitz and PACO performed a transcription of Schubert's little heard Arpeggione Sonata for solo cello and string orchestra by Heinrich Klug - first cello with the Munich Philharmonic.

Klug's solo cello and string orchestra version of this work is wonderful. It captures the song-like spirit of Schubert's music, while almost creating the impression of a cello concertino. While there are no sweeping cadenzas, I do feel as if I've heard a performance of a recently discovered cello concerto by Schubert, and I was impressed.

Haimovitz played the Schubert from memory, and I was able to hear the musicality that has projected him to success. He is very expressive in his playing and finds wonderful tone color in his instrument.

PACO was well-received during the Cambridge stop of their East Coast tour. Before the chamber orchestra started, conductor Benjamin Simon had mentioned the obvious Harvard connections with the evenings' program (Haimovitz and Pearl-Woolf had both studied there). He then added that he had studied "down the pike at a school in New Haven" - thus fueling (in good humor) the age-old Harvard-Yale rivalry. The audience was bustling with hundreds of young people enrolled at Harvard Summer School who were excited by the music and quite at home in the Harry Potter-like appearance of Sanders Theatre. The historic auditorium could easily be a set for the next blockbuster movie in the series. I haven't been at Sanders for a long time, but it brought back fond memories of hearing the Harvard Chamber Orchestra in many concerts there led by Leon Kirchner.

I left at the intermission to avoid the Josef Suk Serenade for String Orchestra, Op. 6, which had a consumer warning in the program notes. It said that the middle section of the second movement is "in the dreadful (for string players) key of G-flat, displaying either Suk's inexperience or daring." String players prefer sharps rather than flats. I don't know why, but I didn't want to find out.

Harvard Square on a summer's night is a cozy place. Before heading home I stopped off for a nostalgic visit to the Harvard Bookstore and then for a quick snack at Pinocchio's Pizza. Pinocchio's thick-sliced Sicilian pizza is just as good as it was 3o-something years ago. It's still a bargain at the current price of $2.45. A generous-sized slice is smothered in fresh vegetables, and the crust is just perfect.



Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Music Instinct: Science and Song

Last evening I watched a new PBS documentary produced by WNET in NY titled The Music Instinct: Science and Song. It was directed by Elena Mannes and produced by Margaret Smilow.

The 2-hour program attempted to explore a very wide spectrum of cutting-edge research projects now underway in neuroscience. Brain scientists, experimental psychologists, cultural anthropologists, and interdisciplinary academics from all corners of the earth are searching the same answer. They're on a quest to quantify and explain why humans appear to be universally hard-wired for the capacity of music. Music has historically been considered an evolutionarily-useless instinct, a fluke of nature, and of little practical value for survival of the species.

The program, designed primarily for mass-entertainment, meshed experts from two worlds together: Musicians and Scientists. It throws a wide net, and covers a tremendous amount of territory. Intended as a broad initial survey, the documentary does not attempt to delve deeply into any one type of music or scientific speciality, but circles the globe in rhapsodic form looking for relevant clues.

The troupe of musicians included jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin (co-host), cellist Yo-Yo Ma, English singer Jarvis Cocker, deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie, conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim, new music composer-violinist Daniel Bernard Romain., and an ethnologically diverse cast of singers, dancers, and court jesters. We were even transported to observe as a fly on the wall a high-fidelity listening test conducted on remote Cameroonian tribesmen. The test was devised to learn if they experience a poorly played stereo-typed version of Western classical piano music as we do: happy, sad, or frightening (as if music only had three dimensions).

The scientists were represented by the other co-host, Daniel Levitin ("This Is Your Brain on Music"). He was joined and supported by Dr. Oliver Sacks ("Musicophilia"), David Rothenberg, ornithologist Ofer Tchernichovski, Stephen Mithen, music therapists who treat premature babies, and a cast of experts with fMRI machines. EEGs, in utero microphones, and cool looking Macbooks.

What were some of the significant, but tentative "conclusions" and ground breaking theories drawn from this hi-tech state-of-the-art inter-disciplinary televised investigation?

Here is my Top-Ten list:

1) Lullabies share characteristics around the world.

2) Minor chords are perceived as "sad."

3) Major chords are perceived as "happy."

4) Babies prefer consonant music to dissonant.

5) Syncopation is a form of surprise.

6) Humans are not unique: Cockatoos can grove to the rhythm of the Backstreet Boys. Humpback whales and birds sing songs (although they haven't made it to American Idol, yet).

7) Certain intervals, such as the octave, perfect fifth, and thirds, appear to be universal, and the physical vibrations of the overtone series provide the basis for this psychological preference.

8) Vibrations are everywhere in the universe, and recently a black hole was determined to be sounding in B-flat, 37 octaves below what humans can hear. (I'm not sure what this has to do with anything other than it makes for good TV and gives the computer graphics department something to work on).

9) Music has been observed to fire synapses and increase blood flows in many areas of the brain: some primitive, some uniquely human.

10) Elgar sounds English. Debussy sounds French.

This is hardly groundbreaking news. I think most of us already knew this intuitively. I'm even a little concerned that some academics could misread this embryonic empirical evidence, and jump to broad conclusions about the value of music in our current culture. For example, does it give them justification to proclaim dissonance a "bad" thing. I hope not, otherwise I'll be out of business pronto, or banned by the experts (although this may have already happened).

The 64 thousand dollar question is, why have humans evolved with music hard-wired into their grey matter?

On the scientific side, Harvard's Steven Pinker was a lone dissenting voice in the TV program. He argues with healthy skepticism that music is a co-opted adaptation -meaning that music is an unintended by-product of a primary evolutionary trait: that of language. Once humans acquired language, they learned how to utilize the infrastructure of their neural network to create music purely for the fun of it. Pinker refers to music as “Auditory Cheesecake." It's yummy, but not essential to our evolution. It does not help us to survive (unless you happen to be a professional working musician). It's a point of view that I tend to agree with. There is just not a lot of evidence to the contrary, even with all of the recent research now underway.

From the chorus of experts on the music side of the aisle, an ethno-musicologist from Harvard warned against making too many assumptions about the universality of music. Perhaps the octave is a universal, but that's about all. I tend to agree with this perspective too.

I continue to keep an open mind on this subject. Believe it or not, I've puzzled over this probing question for at least 30 years. Why is it that music, which is so ubiquitous in world culture, has so little practical value or functionality? It makes no evolutionary sense. For example, is the latest mega-pop icon, by virtue of his or her acclaimed singing and dancing skills, uniquely positioned in evolution? I think it's cheesecake.

Science still has a long way to go before it can make substantive claims about music. They are just scratching at the surface of a very complex and rich art form. Musical expression and the rich body of ideas and emotions that have come to be associated with it will not be easily analysed or catalogued. It's not impossible, but we are at a very early state in their research and investigation.

It was mentioned in the program that the "science of mind" has become the "science of minds." Humans, like ants, form a large and complex social network. Music could be the one of the glues that hold this network together, although that theory too remains to be proven. We have long assumed that music has societal binding capabilities. This is not news, and at some level if there is a clear chemical or neurological basis to explain it, that's not going to be much of a surprise to musicians who practice everyday the black art of their chosen trade.

It was also postulated that music has been around from the beginning. It is perhaps as old as language, although we may never be able to answer which came first: language or music. However, given the great span of human evolution throughout time, it is quite possible that music and the brain co-evolved over the ages to become the messy, but culturally important cheesecake that it is today.




Kodachrome film is about to be discontinued. But who invented it?

Kodachrome color film was invented by two musicians: Leopold Godowsky, Jr. (1900-1983) and Leopold Damrosch Mannes (1899-1964). The Patent Number that made them rich is 1,997,493.

Leopold Godowsky, Jr.
was an accomplished professional violinist who played first violinist with the both the Los Angeles and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras. His father, Leopold Godowsky, was one of the great pianists and composers of the early 20th century. Leopold Godowsky Jr. married Frances Gershwin. Frances, the kid sister of George and Ira, was a singer and fine musician in her own right.

Leopold Damrosch Mannes
was a pianist-composer (yep, that's not a typo, he was a composer!). He studied music at Juilliard and at Harvard under a Pulitzer Music Scholarship. In 1926 was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to study music composition in Italy.

Mannes' father was concertmaster of the New York Symphony (which later morphed into the NY Philharmonic). It was conducted by Walter Damrosch. Leopold married the Maestro's pianist sister, Clara Damrosch (1870-1948), and together they concertized throughout the world as a violin and piano duo.

After Leopold Mannes retired from Kodak, he served as president of the Mannes College of Music, which had been founded by his parents in 1916. He continued to perform as a pianist and composed several musical works (which like Kodachrome film, are now lost to history). Mannes served as a judge for music competitions, including the inaugural Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

The Godowsky and Mannes Archives are currently held in the collection of Thurman F. Naylor, in Chestnut Hill, MA.

Now, that was a Kodak moment.

It begs another question, why is Leopold no longer a popular children's name?



Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What do these composers have in common?

John Adams, Samuel Adler, T. J. Anderson, Dominick Argento, Milton Babbitt, Leslie Bassett, Robert Beaser, Jack Beeson, William Bolcom, Martin Bresnick, Elliott Carter, Wen-chung Chou, Ornette Coleman, John Corigliano, George Crumb, Mario Davidovsky, David Del Tredici, Carlisle Floyd, Philip Glass, John Harbison, Stephen Hartke, Karel Husa, Betsy Jolas, Leon Kirchner, Ezra Laderman, Peter Lieberson, Shulamit Ran, Bernard Rands, Steve Reich, Ned Rorem, Christopher Rouse, Frederic Rzewski, Gunther Schuller, Joseph Schwantner, Stephen Sondheim, Steven Stucky, Augusta Read Thomas, Francis Thorne, Joan Tower, George Walker, Robert Ward, Olly Wilson, Charles Wuorinen, Yehudi Wyner, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.


No, their music is not very similar.

These 45 living composers are current members (or "Academicians") of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. They form an elite group of shakers and movers in American concert music. Once appointed, they hold this distinguished post for life.

The only way to become a member of the club is to be nominated and elected into it by other Academicians. It's a self-sustaining system where since 1898, new members continually replace the ones who pass away.

The Academy's composer-members who have died in recent years include Miriam Gideon, Norman Dello Joio, Henry Brant, Donald Martino, George Perle, Francis Thorne, and Andrew Imbrie. The average age of current Academicians is probably around 78. I've heard that some of the members who attend the meetings need to be accompanied by their private nurse.

Membership for all disciplines is limited by the Academy to exactly 250 members. Besides composers, membership includes architects, artists, and writers. Once elected, there are no dues. Annual dinner meetings are held at their classy Beaux Arts campus on Broadway at West 155th Street in upper Manhattan. In addition to the prestige and honor of becoming a member, professional networking opportunities are abound.

The Academy confers annual cash awards ranging from $5000 to $75,000 to external recipients who are are selected by committees drawn from the Academy’s roster. Members of the society recommend and decide how to allocate those generous funds, and it is typically awarded to their students.

I don't know if members of the Academy consider themselves Illuminati, but there certainly is an air of secrecy around the society's behind-closed-door activities. The organization is a mega-center of influence and power, even though the general public is barely aware of its' existence. It's a little like the mysterious Trilateral Commission or the secret society at Yale known as Skull and Bones. Membership is by invitation only, but once your in, you're "in."

I've often wondered what goes on behind those closed doors. What deals are made? How do those strong personalities get along with one another? How do they decide the future of American art, music, architecture, and literature with their vote of approval or disapproval? It's ripe with potential source material for a Dan Brown style novel. The backdrop of the Academy could provide a basis for a complex plot involving conspiracy theories, politics, and intrigue. The action-movie version of this bizarre scenario runs rampant in my imagination.



Tuesday, June 23, 2009

You can't get blood out of a turnip

The battle lines were drawn.

On one side of the Federal court room sat a team of corporate attorneys representing the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). All four of the major recording companies (aka the "Copyright Cartel") were represented by the RIAA: Warner Music Group Corp., Vivendi SA's Universal Music Group, EMI Group PLC and Sony Corp.'s Sony Music Entertainment. The team of corporate lawyers were in hot pursuit of a modern-day pirate, and they had the blood of revenge in their sights.

On the other side of the court room sat Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a 32 year-old single mom with four children. She works for an Indian tribe in Minnesota.

The Federal court was in session regarding Ms. Thomas-Rasset who was cited for willful infringement of the recording industry's copyrights by posting the music on the popular file-sharing site Kazaa. She was specifically charged on illegally downloading 24 songs.

On Thursday June 18th the federal court found Thomas-Rasset guilty of illegally downloading music from the Internet and fined her $1.9 million dollars. That's $80,000 per song for 24 songs. (although RIAA claims to have found over 1, 700 songs on her computer hard drive back in 2005)

After the court hearing Thomas-Rasset protested defiantly: "There's no way they're ever going to get that. You can't get blood out of a turnip."

You might think that I'm on the side of the corporate suits, that as a musician and composer that I would subscribe lock-stock-and-barrel to the concept of copyright protection for music and recordings in its current form. But I'm not sure that I do. After all, copyright is a Western invention, and large parts of the world (India, China, Russia, etc.), don't play by our rules anyway. Frankly, I don't see that it is easy or rational to assign long-term ownership to musical ideas, and then put in place a Baroque infrastructure to track usage and charge money for accessing it. Do we want our courts making decisions on matters of musical originality, and who heard what when and where? Music is a reusable commodity, not unlike software that makes the rounds in the not-for-profit Open Source software development movement. It's ubiquitous, like breathing air.

It's not that I'm against professional musicians and composers earning income for their honest work, but I have to wonder if Mafia tactics are the best way to achieve that result. After all, isn't the ultimate goal to make a wide-variety music available to people on a broad basis, and then let the public decide what is sustainable, interesting, and worthy of our attention? The broad public space where this Darwin-like weeding-out process occurs should be just that: public.

The industry that has evolved around commercial music has always subscribed to faulty and corrupt business models. They would like to call the shots, and let recording executives determine what music gets recorded and distributed. That has been true regardless of the media and distribution channels employed - be it phonograph records, CDs, or online digital downloads via the Internet. It is a system that does not favor minority viewpoints and niche communities.

I am beginning to see small cracks in the current system, and the commercial recording industry is running scared. Frankly, I am not loosing any sleep over Ms. Thomas-Rasset in Minnesota illegally downloading"Let's Wait Awhile" by Janet Jackson, or the song "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls. I could care less.

And it does not scare me that my music will be ripped off by "pirates." Although I have never earned a penny from my music, every month more than 1,800 people in China download my recordings for free using the music sharing site Baidu. I'm happy about that. I want my music to be heard. I didn't write it so that the record executive could make big bucks, not that they would want it since it clearly has no viability as a mass-market commercial product. The copyright law does not serve me or put food on the table. It is an archaic and obsolete system instituted long ago to control the flow of information and public art in ways that were never intended.

I don't have any easy solutions, but the public is clamoring for change. For example what if a site like iTunes adopted a free-market model, not unlike eBay, where people could bid on streaming music they wanted to hear in real-time and the price was market-driven and variable? We need to think outside of the boom-box, and beyond the iPod.

Perhaps it is time to de-criminalize listening to music, and look for other ways to compensate our artists. After all, to quote Jammie Thomas-Rasset, "You can't get blood out of a turnip."



Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Little Poland

My first and only visit to Little Poland was in 1981. I believe it was in the Fall.

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Let me explain.

During my musical studies at the New England Conservatory (or NEC) in the late 1970s, I made friends with some fellow students who were quite outstanding composers in the making. It was a good time, and throughout my two years of graduate studies I connected with certain individuals who would become long-term colleagues.

Two of the leaders of the pack happened to be of Polish descent and shared similar names: David Rakowski and David Kowalski.

<---(left is David Rakowski at Princteton in 1980)

(right is David Kowalski in a recent photo)--->

While they had entirely different personalities (as evident in the photos), both of the Davids were driven to compose music, excellent musicians, and very prodigious. I would not be surprised to discover that they composed more music in a year than I have in my entire career.

The two Davids were destined for graduate school after completing their studies at NEC. David Rakowski (who was at NEC as an undergraduate) was easily accepted into Juilliard and Princeton. He aspired to study with Milton Babbitt who taught at both institutions, but ended up selecting Princeton. (Richard Danielpour, another NEC colleague who was soon to become famous, choose Juilliard).

As things would turn out, David Kowalski went to Princeton as well after earning his second Masters degree at NEC.

The connection between NEC and Princeton was longstanding and strong. The two Davids were joined at Princeton by another ex-NEC undergraduate composer, Jody Rockmaker. Former NEC graduates, Conrad Pope and Mathew Rosenblum had preceded all of them. The Princeton music department had a formative contingent of NEC alumni composers, and they liked what they received.

I was not technically part of this Princeton circle, but took advantage of an opportunity to stay in the Boston area. I attended Brandeis for graduate work under full scholarship.

The two Davids moved into with grad students to a large house near the campus. The residence took on the nickname "Little Poland.”

It was in the Fall of 1981 when I finally made a trip down from Boston on the train to visit my old friends, and contrast the educational setting of their prestigious ivy-league university against what Brandeis had to offer.

Before I recall some of my memories about my visit there, I should mention a bit about the status and reputation that department. For many decades the Princeton music department held the reputation of being the epicenter of new musical thought in new music composition and theory. It was a 12-tone Mecca, and chock full of brilliant theorists and musicians. At the center of the cyclone was Milton Babbitt, who had found synergy between the arcane disciplines of abstract mathematics and musical composition. Babbitt's presence and instruction from the 1950s through to recent times made a significant impact on several generations of American composers and theorists.

In fact, all of our teachers at NEC (Cogan, Ceely, Martino, Heiss) had studied at Princeton with Babbitt and his great teacher Roger Sessions. Babbitt's circle of influence was widespread, trans-generational, and profound. It is said that the Princeton math department presented Babbitt with a PhD degree in mathematics for his groundbreaking work in set theory. Yet, "Milton" would hang out with students and chat endlessly about sports and Broadway musicals over a beer.

I knew that my trip to Little Poland would be an adventure. I had met Milton Babbitt earlier that summer when I attended his master class at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. I was blown away by his uncanny grasp about music, and had heard so many indirect stories about him from his former students (who were my teachers).

Little Poland was a average-size, somewhat dingy house with a dark living room and dinning area. At first appearance, it was a rather ordinary student dig, scant in decorations and without much aesthetic appeal. I think I may have slept on the downstairs couch, or on the floor. It didn't matter.

I soon learned that Little Poland was a virtual Times Square of musical activity and intellectual fervor. An endless stream of graduate students would come and go, and both senior and junior music department faculty members would drop by just to hang out.

I did sit in a few classes and lessons thanks to David Rakowski. Everything was very open, congenial, and intense. Attending classes at Princeton is completely optional. Some students preferred to do their work completely independently, while others preferred to revel in the interaction of faculty and colleagues. I sat in on an analysis class with Professor Joseph Dubiel. Near the end of the class in response to a question about linguistics and music, joked that the only place where research in that area was being conducted was at a little college in Waltham, MA (i.e. Brandeis). I got his joke, since Brandeis professors Allan Keiler and Ray Jackendoff were (and remain) well known in this somewhat obscure field of music theory - although they worked completely independently from one another and on different theoretical tracks.

I also sat in on the weekly composer seminar, and heard recordings of several new works by Princeton composers that had been performed in the preceding summer. One work for soprano and chamber orchestra had been performed at the Composers Conference, which was then held in Vermont.

I met composer/theorist Paul Lansky, who was the computer music expert. Princeton was always a leader in electronic and computer music, and Lansky found a way to make the big digital machine sound musical. He had just released a recording on CRI of music based on his wife's voice, which I found very compelling. I mentioned his new book 12-Tone Tonality, which he had co-authored with George Perle, but he seemed uninterested in talking about it. It was clear to me that Lansky was going in new directions, and 12-tone, serial music, and set music was beginning to bore him.

Years later I'd meet Paul Lansky again at Brandeis. He was contracted to consult with the Department regarding future composition faculty appointments. In those days, composers were in demand by academia, and moved from institution to institution in a grand game of musical chairs. Lansky led a meeting with myself and several other graduate students, and asked us for our input and ideas concerning interesting composers who would potentially make a good addition as faculty to the Brandeis music department. Peter Lieberson was in the room, and he got embarrassed when I suggested his name as rising composer to pursue. Lansky nodded and made note of my suggestion. Later that year I had found out that Lieberson had received inquiries from Princeton regarding an interest in having him join their faculty, but ultimately Peter took a position at Harvard. It turns out that another colleague of mine at Brandeis, Steve Mackey, was hired to teach at Princeton - but that is another long an interesting story.

During my Little Poland grand tour, I sat in with David Rakowski for his "private" lesson with Milton Babbitt in a small dark practice room in the basement of the music department building. As I recall, David was working on a very complex and dense work for violin and piano. Babbitt would look at the score, and then mumble, "David, could you play me the chord in measure 72." David would bang out the mountain of notes at the piano, and Milton would ask about the octaves submerged within the thick chord. It led to a discussion about use of octaves - which can have structural significance, or be utilized for acoustical reasons, tone color, or orchestration. It was an interesting discussion, and I had problems keeping myself in check. I wanted to interject my own opinion into the mix, but in the end kept my mouth shut and simply observed.

Back at Little Poland, I took a look in the communal refrigerator. Food was scarce, but beer was plentiful. The early 1980s was the golden age of boutique beer and micro breweries. I gather that Milton Babbitt, in addition to his proclivity in math and music, is also a formative beer connoisseur (or beerologist). Following in his lead, Princeton graduate students took up the study of beer in a serious way, researching and discovering obscure breweries across the world to sample and analyze. Everyone seemed to know which IPAs Milton preferred, and his recommendation about beer went a long way.

In the dinning room was a small table with a computer terminal. It was a monochrome VT-100 or similar vintage hardware, and it had a connection back to the Princeton University mainframe. I think that this dumb terminal may have required an acoustic coupler for the telephone hand piece. It was manually attached for analog modem communications at 1200 baud. David Kowalski recalls “…if someone accidentally picked up the extension, that almost always dropped your connection! And yet we felt like we were at the cutting edge of tech because we could work from home.”

Composer Claudio Spies (b. 1925) dropped by Little Poland for a beer and access to the computer terminal. He sat down in front of the keyboard and screen and typed in the digits of a hexachord. After hitting , the screen displayed an ordered row along with set partitions. The computer program written by Dan Starr and called TTSL (Twelve Tone System Library). I’m told that a few years later some of the subroutines found their way (with Dan's permission & blessing) into the computer-program part of David Kowalski’s doctoral dissertation. Dan Starr was one of Princeton's distinguished graduates and author of several notable articles in Perspectives of New Music.

Professor Spies would read the numbers (0-11) on the terminal screen, and whistle the associated tone row. Then he'd take a sip of his beer and utter approval or disapproval regarding the musical value of the computed results . Spies had studied and taught in Boston, and had many connections with Brandeis faculty. He had in fact studied with Irving Fine and Harold Shapero, and knew my teacher Marty Boykan from his tenure at Harvard in the early 1950s. He commented to me that Marty made a big splash at Harvard by performing all of Schoenberg's piano works. He said that "it was just unheard of in those days." Spies has been labeled by historians as a member of a group known as "The Boston School. " He also had a close relationship with Igor Stravinsky and Nadia Boulanger.

At that moment I proposed to Professor Spies that the composition departments of Brandeis and Princeton begin a concert exchange program. It would be an opportunity for composers from both institutions to hear what each other is working on. His reaction was muted and vague. He replied that Princeton Music Department is relatively poor, and does not have the same generous endowments that Brandeis is blessed with. He nixed my idea solely on monetary grounds.

Near the end of my whirlwind visit to Little Poland, I had a long discussion with Dan Starr. Dan was one of the regular hangouts at the house, and seemed to have a lot of spare time on his hands. Although he had already obtained his PhD from Princeton, he enjoyed the company of composers and liked to talk about investments and politics. He suggested that I borrow as much as I could in student loans, and invest those dollars in Microsoft stock. Had I listened to his advice, I would be independently wealthy today. He also went on, and on, and on about the evils of Totalitarianism, and showed me articles from Readers' Digest about the evil Soviet Empire. I played him a recording of my solo violin work, and he seemed bored. I got the impression that he was burned out with 12-tone music theory, and searching for a new science or religion to grasp on to.

At that moment the door bell rang. It was Portia Sonnenfeld. She was a conductor that I had met at Dartington in Devonshire England in the summer 1980. (I had also met a young flutist named Willemien at the music camp that summer who was drafted by Sonnenfeld to play timpani in the Dartington symphony orchestra. Years later Willemen and I would get married). Sonnenfeld, a cellist, was well-known in Princeton. In 1980 she founded The Little Orchestra of New Jersey which would soon become the Princeton Symphony Orchestra.

Dan Starr, Portia Sonnenfeld, and myself talked for a while in the dark, musty living room. Dan was very talkative. The conversation ended when Portia turned to me and asked if I would be interested in coming to her music class a Princeton High School the following day as a guest composer! I took her up on this offer, and spoke to her class the following morning. It was a blast. I regret to say that I did not stay in touch with Ms. Sonnenfeld, and just recently learned of her untimely death in 1986. I also just learned via the web that Portia Sonnenfeld was the mother-in-law of Obama's Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner (small world).

The unsanctioned and unofficial Little Poland Princeton-Brandeis Composer Exchange Program (LPPBCEP) did continue, albeit briefly. The following Spring, David Rakowski was invited by me to play recordings of his music for students and faculty at an informal colloquium at Brandeis. He received a pretty good turn out and a warm welcome. Little did we know that "Davey" would end up as a tenured senior professor at Brandeis in the years to follow.

Perhaps LPPBCEP provided the all-important initial introduction to the Brandeis faculty, and enabled an early connection that would ultimately lead to his being hired. He has subsequently had a fruitful academic career at that little school in Waltham where he can be found today.

Another inter-campus music department encounter occurred in 1985, when a new music ensemble comprised of Princeton-based musicians/composers was contracted to perform a concert at Brandeis' Slosberg Hall. The musicians included Beth Weimann (a Princeton composer and future significant-other of David Rakowski), and the late, great lyric soprano Michelle Disco (1956-1994). Michelle was married to David Kowalski. On that program I recall that they performed works by Milton Babbitt (“My Ends are my Beginning” for solo clarinets), and Conrad Pope (a Princeton Alum and Brandeis Associate Professor). In addition British composer/pianist Martin Butler played one of his works. Michelle Disco sang David Kowalski’s soprano and tape piece, "Echoes." The performances and music were excellent, and we were all very impressed.

I remain in touch with Dr. Rakowski (a.k.a. Davey), and recently reestablished contact with Dr. Kowalski via the LinkedIn social networking site. Kowalski, like myself, found post-university employment in the Information Technology industry, but continues to be active as a composer. There is no crime in working outside of academia.

David Kowalski sent me CDs of his music, and I really had a great time listening to them. He writes in a diversity of musical styles - from Princeton-School serialism to Progressive Rock. I can clearly hear that his music has developed vastly since the already impressive pieces I got to know at NEC in the late 1970s. David Kowalski is a composer who does not shun complexity, yet he is always willing to experiment and try something that has never been done before. He thrives on unusual combinations of instruments, and extended instrumental techniques.

I'll never forget my excursion to Little Poland.

What a trip.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Mersenne Prime

For you math geeks, a new Mersenne prime number has been discovered.

Someday it will come in handy, perhaps in communicating with Extraterrestrial life through the SETI project.

Don't forget to phone home...



Pulling the plug on tradition

It's all on the auction block: including 59 animated figurines meticulously dressed in 19th century winter garb. These melancholic mechanical actors saw it coming years ago, and today they are officially orphans up for sale to the highest bidder. Most likely these souls will be separated from one another - fabricated brothers, sisters, parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents - and scattered across the land, or in some cases, landfills.

It all began sometime in the 1940s, when the Jordan Marsh Department Store on Summer Street in Boston began a window display to drum up seasonal business. Over the years, droves of families made the trip annually downtown to see the display which relayed an idealized version of history about Xmas in America. It was an age-old Boston tradition, as were the yummy cakes sold at the Jordan Marsh Bakery (their Boston cream pie was to die for).

Times changed. Jordan Marsh decided to close the exhibit in 1972. The holiday display was brought back by popular demand in 1990 (I remember seeing it then). Following a corporate takeover, Macy's replaced Jordan Marsh in 1998 and axed it.

Enter Mayor Menino to save the day... The refugees of The Enchanted Village were relocated to a tent city on the grounds of City Hall. At first the public came, but it wasn't the quite the same. The enthusiastic crowds soon dwindled to a mere trickle, and the large diorama ultimately had to be warehoused in moth balls.

The display had not modernized, or changed with the times. It was the same every year and grew dusty, decrepit, and old. Children, staring at the creepy looking mechanical mannequins, began to question their parents and grandparents,"why are you bringing me here?" It was a question they ignored, and could not answer for themselves.

Tradition will only remain a tradition in the long-run if younger generations adapt it as their own. They need to take ownership. What we call tradition needs to innovate, evolve, and change if it is to survive the technological onslaught of mass-media and easy-access to information. The "content" of the Enchanted Village was not sustainable, in part because it was not relevant or politically correct. The whole concept did not evolve, and was about two centuries behind the times.

Of course I always view news items about societal change in the context of musical culture. Could it be that another long-standing local tradition - The Boston Symphony Orchestra - will be the next Enchanted Village? If General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and the newspapers are failing, are symphony orchestras not far behind? From what I can gather, these organizations are all under significant financial duress.

As long as tradition and culture are linked to the hard cash of economic viability, there will always be a risk that someday the bottom will fall out. Nothing is permanent, indispensable, or stays the same indefinitely. We can't assume that things will remain unchanged over the large arch of cultural evolution, even if it firmly establishes itself for a generation or two.

The instigators of cultural change are many. The dynamics include technological innovation, demographic shifts, the requisite of economic viability, and an incessant need for change itself.

Given the persistence and magnitude of these irreversible trends, there will be many traditions and cultural organizations forced to the brink of obsolescence or beyond. They must respond, adapt, and innovate quickly before it's too late.

Traditions survive because of public commitment, continued interest, and a willful infusion of discretionary funds from the household budget. The public is the driving force, and in effect votes for the traditions they want to keep. Mayor Thomas Menino can't save us.

But it's OK to be sentimental about the past, even though there is general consensus that the time has come to pull the plug on The Enchanted Village. Let's not loose sight of where we have come form, where we are going, and which traditions are worth preserving. I'd hate to see it all sold off the the highest bidder or end up in the landfill.




Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Generative Musicology

As a long-time observer of musical trends, I've seen first-hand how established musical institutions - such as the symphony orchestra -have attempted to hold their ground against a steady but persistent onslaught of disruptive attacks from alternative modes of cultural engagement.

Orchestras get attacked from all sides. They operate under an old school brick and mortar business model, and like the failing news print business, function with the overhead of high operating and personnel costs. Their base audience of wealthy old people, tend to die off rather than expand. The new generation of active concert goers seems less interested in rehearing the great orchestral war horses and more interested in new and alternative musical experiences.

The avant garde has all but abandoned hope of performance by mainstream musical venues, and have setup shop in more intimate spaces: including the museums, cafes, and Internet. But they have never gained enough wide-spread support to grown into anything other than a fragmented specialist's ghetto.

However, there is a vibrant a counter-cultural cultural current that has truly resulted in cracks in the foundation of Boston's Symphony Hall. The Early Music crowd has attained gravitational strength, and a sizable economy of musical commerce now revolves around this maturing star. Every other June the Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) runs a marathon concert series, including an opera or two, public lectures/master classes, and a trade show. It's evolved into a significant music festival. The Boston Herald described it as "the early-music equivalent of the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Stanley Cup and the NBA playoffs all rolled into one.”

I'm a little jealous about the BEMF. A while back an attempt was made (by composer Charles Fussell?) to mount a similar music venue dedicated to contemporary music. It would have been called the Boston New Music Festival (BNMF) and been scheduled on alternate, even-numbered, years so as not to compete head-on with the BEMF. Not surprisingly, finding sponsorship proved next to impossible, and the project never got legs. The last major International new music event that I can recall Boston hosting was the ISCM New Music Days in 1975. Gunther Schuller was instrumental in forging that large and successful series, but nothing on that scale has occurred in Beantown since.

This spring Boston is especially buzzing with people from all over the world who have traveled to Boston for the BEMF. While the organizers have scaled back slightly in measured response to the current economic climate, there does not appear to be a significant decline in the core business of Early Music. People just like it, and are willing to vote with their time and dollars to support what I like to call "new" old music.

As a practicing and still breathing 21st century composer, I follow all of this musical excitement with great interest and a bit of scepticism. Art music has always been obsessed with performing the works of dead composers, and Early Music advocates continue this morbid practice with a semblance of glee. But the demand for discovering and rediscovering so called old music seems almost insatiable. Musicologists have been at work overtime scouring dusty archives in search of works that eager early music ensembles are begging to bring to light. It's as if there were a hot market today for new works by long forgotten composers. Deep down, everyone wants to hear something new, even if it's not.

The public's thirst for "New Early Music" is so strong, that some musicologists have begun to synthesize their own versions of it. To me this comes across as a little forced. Is the need for original music so great that musicologists need to invent it in the laboratory? It reminds me of a dynamic in the socio-medical realm. Since there are not enough organ-donors to go around, we have to make do with mechanical hearts and kidneys because of unequal levels between supply and demand.

I think there is peril in creating "historic" music willy-nilly (even if it is well-constructed and historically informed) simply to fulfill the insatiable expectations of a public thirsty for a particular breed of music? The creation of an artificial musical entity reminds me of the ethical questions raised in Mary Shelley's famous novel about the creation of life: Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein created a monster who was assembled from the body parts of previously living humans, and it got out of control.

The music in question, which I read about but did not hear, was an extended work based on a biblical story by 16th-century poet Marko Marulić. The original poem had no surviving music, but Croatian musicologist and singer Katarina Livljanić devised her own musical setting based on various chant sources. The Biblical Story from Renaissance Croatia was turned into a theatre work and code named the"Judith Project." It was premiered at the Ambronay Festival in 2006. Livljanić directed her group Ensemble Dialogos in a performance of this work last night. The review of the Tuesday evening concert by Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe (6/10/09) ended with the following observation: Ultimately, it is an exercise in a kind of generative musicology at its best, using scholarly tools to plumb the distant past with the goal of imaginatively "reconstructing" a new work that, at least in this form, never existed.

My intention here is not to bash Early Music ensembles, talented musicologists, or the acclaimed Boston Early Music Festival and its population of dedicated and ardent followers. Clearly they have carved out their personal and unique musical space, and I admittedly breathe the air of an an entirely different atmosphere. I think we can co-exist. Both New Music and Early Music, as musical sub-cultures, have more in common than in opposition. Perhaps there is even an area of commonality and overlap. Neither faction has easy access to corporate sponsors who would more readily support mainstream organizations - such as a major symphony orchestra.

But it does perk my interest to read that 21st century composers have to compete for the public's attention against composers who never actually existed. The entire concept of Generative Musicology frightens me. The message that it sends is something like: "If you don't care listening to what the contemporary composers have to say, then you can listen to synthesized versions of whatever historical music appeals to you." Thus, a new market has been born, that of mass-produced musical replicas and cheap imitations.

It reminds me a bit of the fashion-trend to go retro. Retailers such as Restoration Hardware offer convincing look-a-like lamps and chairs that at first glance appear to be exactly what our grandparents had - only mass-produced inexpensively in China. It's an interesting phenomenon when our appreciation and fascination with the past is elevated to this new level. It recreates reality anew, like a Hollywood stage set. As with our experience with historic music, it provides an element of fantasy, escape, and intrigue. Perhaps this wholesale embrace of past culture is symptomatic of a benign defense mechanism created to accommodate our general distaste for modernism.

To some extent we have seen this same phenomenon in the genre of pop music, where "retro" performers recreate the feeling and nostalgic memory of a type of music that existed in a long-gone musical era. These artists may or may not perform the actual historic works of the period. Groups like Pink Martini have created a niche by composing brand-new songs that sound like the good old"classics." This is entirely different concept than keeping the musical past alive. It is a "Back-to-the-Future" version of musical engagement, and as with any form of time travel, it comes with risks. One should be careful not to disrupt the forces of nature by distorting the present from creating new musical artifacts of the past. If we do so, it should come with a disclaimer. Let's call a spade a spade. Works of this type should be thought of as new, and presented in a context in which we can more fully appreciate it for what it really is: Contemporary Music.



Thursday, June 4, 2009

Long awaited recording

Back in July of 2008 I blogged about my recording session with the QX String Quartet.

These fine musicians recorded my 25 year-old, four-movement piece last year. This week I finally got to hear the first edit.

It sounds really good (if I don't mind saying so), and after a few minor changes it will be ready for distribution.

Ahhhhh, how will it be released you ask?

I donno.

It's not long enough for an entire CD of my music, and I'm not sure how to market the recording to potential record companies (e.g. New World, Albany, etc). I gather that it's the composers' responsibility to raise the money - one way or another - to pay for the production and reproduction costs. And that could be a hefty sum. I've already paid the musicians and recording engineer out of pocket.

I'm also tempted to think outside of the box here, since record companies that sell CDs are quickly going the way of the dinosaur. Standard audio CDs are about to become as retro as phonograph records. Maybe iTunes is the future. Who knows? Steve Jobs, are you reading this? And then there is always self-production and distribution on Amazon, CD Baby, or on my website.

I think I'd like to have the glamour and fun of a CD release party without the risk of investing personally in an expensive, but commercially disastrous product. I'm torn.

If anybody has any ideas about how to distribute my String Quartet (1984), please let me know. It's a cool piece, well played, and deserving of a commercial release. Suggestions and ideas from potential new music patrons, media outlets, and/or recording company executives and producers are welcome.


Advice for aspiring composers?

Where else but on YouTube can you find career counseling advice for young aspiring composers?

Hooray for the comments by Jody Rockmaker - a composer who teaches at Arizona State! (We were fellow classmates at NEC).

John Corigliano ends the video with dire speculation about the demise of the musical genre of modern concert music. He is not overstating the case, and by some accounts we are already beyond the tipping point.

Well, plumbing has been, and always will be, a good career.


Delusional Disorder: Grandiose Type

According to Psych Central dot com....

Delusional Disorder " characterized by the presence of non-bizarre delusions which have persisted for at least one month. Non-bizarre delusions typically are beliefs of something occurring in a person's life which is not out of the realm of possibility."

"People who have this disorder generally don't experience a marked impairment in their daily functioning in a social, occupational or other important setting. Outward behavior is not noticeably bizarre or objectively characterized as out-of-the-ordinary."

The impairment is often accompanied by a predominant delusional theme (or type).
The Grandiose Type is associated with "delusions of inflated worth, power, knowledge, identity, or special relationship to a deity or famous person."

The man who calls himself Clark Rockefeller and is currently on trial in Boston on kidnapping charges is an example of someone who has been diagnosed by the expert witnesses hired by his defence team as Delusional - Grandiose Type. He takes narcissism to a new level. "Rockefeller" claimed to have worked for the Trilateral Commission. He took blame for the collapse of the Asian financial markets. He even claimed to have ended seven years as mute child with the word "woofness." In reality, his name is Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, although he does not remember having grown up in Germany where investigators say he is from.

But what about artists, musicians, and composers, such as the late Karlheinz Stockhausen?

According an article from 2005 in The Guardian, Stockhausen "claimed to come from a planet orbiting the star Sirius, and that he was put on earth to give voice to a cosmic music that will change the world."

By some accounts, a number of well-known, late, great American composers would have been diagnosed as delusional: Feldman, Cage, Cowell, Harrison, Partch, Moon Dog.

Without embarrassing anyone in my circle, I can attest that I know a surprising number of composers who deep down feel that they have a unique musical connection with God or Nature, and that their music is somehow channelled from a higher power.

What should we conclude from this?

Public beware! Composers are by definition delusional. They are prone to believe that they have the magical power create art through a unique connection with the supernatural.

Jeez, Clark Rockefeller even looks like a composer. He's got thick glasses and the scruffy unshaven Bohemian artist look down pat. The guy even speaks with an affected accent to draw attention to his self-importance and presents an aura of cool, calm, and collected confidence. He is also a control freak. All of these traits are virtually a prerequisite for any successful composer and/or conductor. I even read in a news report that as a child, "Clark" exhibited an early interest in music, but was discouraged to pursue the profession by his father.

I have to confess that if I didn't exhibit some of the symptoms of being delusional, I would probably not be writing music. Frankly, these days there is not enough basis in reality to support the notion of the Great American composer in any context.

It's a metaphysical conundrum.


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Summer Reading

No, I'm not planning to read "War and Peace."

I tend to like to read musical scores. I have found myself engulfed in playing through the complete 32 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven - a monumental collection of amazing music in two thick and densely notated volumes. It's daunting project. There are hundreds of pages of score to process, and more often than not they are blackened with notes.

Beethoven is the Ur-Klassischer Komponist, a "heavy" by all standards of artistic measurement, and his piano sonatas represent in microcosm the composers' expansive musical development dating from 1795 through to 1822. Taken together, the Piano Sonatas tell a story of personal transformation - from the early influence of Haydn and Mozart to works that are experimental, revolutionary, and which transport us to another world.

As a amateur pianist, I have long pecked away at the easier works. As a composer, I have studied a number of individual sonatas with the scrutiny of analytical eyes and ears, but I have never dedicated a few months to getting intoxicated on the totality of the Piano Sonatas. I'm actually much more familiar with Beethoven's complete String Quartets and Symphonies. His Piano Sonatas have always been a significant intellectual and technical challenge, even for those who have no inclination, pretence, or motivation to perform them publicly.

Reading through the collection (I'm now well into volume II), I find myself literally sucked in by the narrative of the music. Sitting for hours at the piano, I'm simply compelled to keep playing late into the night because I've got to see what happens after the the page turn. As I immerse myself in the music, patterns are beginning to emerge: such as his penchant for the sub-mediant. However, fundamentally each piece is vastly different, and the range of expression within a work can be anywhere for meditative to outright violent. The ingenious modulation schemes alone is enough to keep a listener engaged and on the edge of their seats.

The music is larger than any one individual, performer, or even the great composer himself. The works are iconic, yet very often private and self-reflective in nature. Reading sequentially through the 32 Sonatas is challenging technically (even in slow motion), but the music takes you on an emotional roller coaster, and stretches the brain in ways that you didn't realize it could be stretched.

I'm not sure that I could ever do Beethoven justice in my cursory summer survey of his seminal and groundbreaking piano works, but this is the summer to do it. It's Beethoven or bust, since I'm not getting any younger, and in my view one has not lived life fully unless they have experienced Beethoven's complete piano sonatas from the vantage point of the piano keyboard.

The notes not only sound great, but the lines and chords are perfectly spaced in register to resonate nicely on the forte-piano (or in my case, an out-of-tune spinet). It's often highly dense music, but very precisely composed and always very clear in intention. At times, as I struggle with the visual, physical, and mental mechanics of sight-reading the notes, my fingers will mysteriously find their way to the right keys - almost as if guided by the music itself. Beethoven's musical textures - while intricate and sometimes very challenging to perform by the best of professionals - fit ever so nicely into the hands. It simply "feels" good to play his chords as they are spaced. They are more often than not ergonomic and physical. Even the trills.

I've got my work cut out for me. At some point I think I'm going to cheat and listen to the entire collection as played by someone who actually knows how to play the piano. But for now, I'm in Beethoven-heaven, pretending to recreate the pathos, monumental sound, and formative musical statement that these works have come to represent. I'm either naïve or stupid, but it's great summer reading and I wouldn't trade it for an airport novel.