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.

A little about me

My photo
Chapel Hill, NC, United States

Blog Archive


Art (27) Birthday (3) Book Review (4) Boston (39) CD Review (2) Celebrations (10) Concert Review (39) Dreams (4) Education (5) Employment (11) Factoid (26) Family (28) Flashback (40) Flying (6) Food (22) Friends (8) Fun (14) Health (3) Holland (5) Movies (9) Music (261) Nature (12) NY (8) Obit (8) Poetry (6) Random thoughts (99) Science (12) Sports (6) Tech (34) Travel (27) Weird stuff (28) Woodwind Quintet (1)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Disney: the Opera

Bloomberg broke the news with the headline:

Mickey Mouse Faces Music as Glass Inspired by Disney

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

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

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

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


Composer as Superhero

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

Introducing Wunderkid Little Amadeus...

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

Enter the villians...

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Information Asymmetry

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

It's a fascinating concept.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great Thanksgiving!



Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Lack of Passion

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

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

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

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


The Village Store Verbatim

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

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

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

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

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

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



Monday, November 23, 2009

Boston Music Viva: Elixirs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Co-opetition an interesting word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Music by Hayg Boyadjian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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



Tuesday, November 17, 2009


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

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

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

The answer was simple, "with pencils."


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


Monday, November 16, 2009

Hip Hop Academe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Sunday, November 15, 2009

Danger looms, Fear, Catastrophe

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, November 13, 2009

Beantown in Cultural Decline

Recently I have begun to question why I still live in Boston. Beantown was once a city overflowing with cultural exuberance.

Historically, public television and radio had been active in producing and broadcasting musical events. WGBH radio once had experimental programs such as "The Composer Show" hosted by Peter Homans and produced by Wesley Horner. That program featured one or two emerging Boston-based composers every week. WGHB television routinely broadcast "Evening at Symphony" which frequently presented to the public BSO concerts, including countless contemporary works and new music premieres.

The Boston Globe (and even the Boston Herald) were once consistent and dedicated beacons of intelligent musical criticism and publicity. I waited every week for the Thursday "Calendar Section" with its' comprehensive listing of concerts, lectures, and cultural events. It was the primary way that a small but dedicated community of interested musicians and contemporary music advocates kept in touch.

And for me, Boston has always been home to three FM radio stations which included classical music programing on the public airwaves: WGBH, Harvard's WHRB, and the commercial radio station WCRB. While WGBH and WHRB were not exclusively a classical music station, WCRB provided classical music 7x24, albeit with a commercial accent. Even Boston University's WBUR would occasionally provide a little classical music programming.

For what feels like the majority of my adult life, WGHB and WCRB radio were the places I'd spend a many Friday afternoon or Saturday evening listening to live performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. If I couldn't catch the Friday afternoon live broadcast on WGBH, at least I could hear the Saturday evening performance on WCRB. These have been a major public service, and have allowed me to listen to the important new works that the orchestra has premiered in Boston and at Tanglewood over the past decades.

On December 1st, WGBH Boston will cease its' classical music operation. The not-for-profit broadcast organization has purchased WCRB and will take over their classical music venue. It seems to be all about economics. Many long-term staff members have been let go - including announcer and "DJ" Richard Knisely who has been a WGBH stable for 20 years.

It's unclear what this will mean in practical terms for the public, but for sure it will result in a net decrease in the aggregate number of hours of classical music air-time in the Boston-metro area. We will be going from three stations to two. While I suspect that live broadcasts of the Boston Symphony concerts will continue, I fear that the luxury of hearing both the Friday and Saturday concerts will cease to be an option.

As Boston matures and develops into an world-class city, it seems that access to its' home-grown cultural richness is in serious decline. The wonderful local resources that attracted me to this city some 35 years ago are rapidly vanishing before our eyes.


Monday, November 9, 2009

ISS versus Hubble

Perhaps you've been wondering how Jim weighs in on NASA's expenditures. Everyone should have an opinion about this, even modernist composers such as myself.

Construction on the International Space Station (ISS) began in 1998, and is expected to be completed in 2011 when the remaining Space Shuttles will be forced into retirement. The purpose of the ISS is to serve as a long-term research laboratory in space, but the projected life-expectancy of this project is not very long. By some accounts it will be retired in 2015 by crashing it into the ocean (remember Skylab?).

Researchers on the ISS perform experiments in biology, physics, astronomy, and meteorology that require a microgravity environment. But when you think about it, many of these experiments could probably be done less expensively on the "vomit comet" or other platforms. While there are many benefits derived from building and maintaining such a major installation with international support, the tangible scientific take aways come at a steep cost. Some have estimated that the ISS will cost up to a 100 billion dollars. That's $100,000,000,000.00

In contrast, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has been in orbit since April of 1990. It has performed as an amazing tool in the field of astronomy - changing what we know about the universe. Hubble was not inexpensive. It has cost around $10 billion dollars to design, build, launch, and maintain. It's most recent (and final) upgrade cost just over $1 billion.

In the end I think we will learn much more from Hubble than from the ISS. The ISS will end up costing ten times what Hubble has, but with fewer benefits.

A billion here, a billion there. Pretty soon we're talking about real money.



Have you ever wondered if it is possible to bake a loaf of bread in a microwave oven?

I've researched this question on the Internet, and the experts say that bread can be baked in a microwave, however...

- Microwaves cook from the center outwards, so you should gradually decrease the power in stages.

- Do not knead the dough. If you do it will not rise.

- Make sure your bread is completely enveloped in wet paper towels or it will dry out and taste like cardboard.

- Take care when you remove the wet towels from your loaf after it is cooked, since it will be very hot.

Bon Appétit!

X Prize Competition

For those of you with a little extra time on your hands, you might want to consider competing in the Archon Genomics X PRIZE Competition. It carries a whopping 10 million dollar prize.

It's pretty simple...

All you have to do is figure out a way to make personalized human gene sequencing readily affordable. If you can do it for under $10,000 in 10 days or less, the prize money is yours. It can be done today, but cost millions.

I predict that before long each of us will be walking around with a USB flash memory storage device containing a record of our individual genetic footprint. Armed with that vital information, doctor's appointments will probably go from 5-minutes (currently) to about 25 seconds.



Sunday, November 8, 2009

José Benitez Sánchez exhibit

On Saturday I attended an exhibit and concert at the Modestino Gallery in Cambridge to celebrate the life and work of visionary Huichol yarn artist José Benitez Sánchez (1938-2009). The event was curated by Stephen Aldrich.

The Huichol people live in the isolated mountain-range and canyons of the state of Nayarit, Mexico. Because of the local geography, the Huichol were largely able to resist the influence of the Spanish conquest. Their nature-based religion and shamanic traditions have remained intact for centuries.

José Benitez Sánchez was celebrated shaman and artist since the early 1970s with an international reputation. He was also a leader and advocate for the Huichol people and culture. The artist and shaman passed away on July 2nd, 2009.

Traditional Huichol yarn art is vivid and complex. José Benitez Sánchez was a master of visual story-telling and artistic expression. The works are filled with detail which invite the viewer to get up close learn more. The photo on the right is a small detail from a 2 1/2" x 4"yarn painting created by Benitez in the Spring of 1979.

A concert of contemporary musical improvisation for the gallery event was provided by Dave Braynt and friends (Dave Bryant – keyboards, Jeff Song – cello and kayagum, John Voigt – bass, Curt Newton – percussion, and Eric Rosenthal – percussion). Some of the musicians had prepared for the concert by viewing the art and listening to traditional Huichol music. This preparation clearly provided inspiration and artistic stimulus. For the occasion, they chose to feature trans-cultural acoustic instruments that were "close to the earth."

The result was a unique musical expression that functioned both as a personal reaction to the art and as a fitting tribute to the late artist. Their sound-painting existed in the moment and seemed to draw upon the glow and reflections of the pieces in the gallery surrounding them. Their music was respectful, multi-cultural, and indefinable - but perfectly fitting and appropriate for the occasion.

The musicians and audience alike discovered a common synergy between the shamanic yarn-art and reflective music, which revealed itself in an open discussion afterward. Bassist John Voigt led the discussion by asking the audience, "which painting was I thinking about?"

At the reception after the concert, people gathered to share stories about the artist and reflect upon his life, Huichol culture, and exhibited work. Several people had known the artist personally, and have been long-time advocates of his craft.

The photo on the right is another detail from a José Benitez Sánchez yarn painting dating from 1985 (photo by Paté Poste, Boston). However, this is art work that must be viewed in person, since the penetrating color, complex texture, compositional totality, and rich detail only come across only when you stand before them.


Dante Alighieri: Superhero

Dante Alighieri (c.1265 – 1321) is known by many simply as il Poeta (the Poet). His "Divina Commedia" is considered to be one of the greatest works of world literature.
A statue of his likeness stands in the Piazza di Santa Croce in his home city of Florence (right).

Now il Poeta is set for a hi-tech makeover. On February 9th, 2010 Electronic Arts (EA) will release "Dante's Inferno" - an interactive video game for the PS3, XBox360, and PSP gaming platforms.

EA's website explains the transformation...

"Inspired by the real Dante Alighieri, but adapted for a new generation and a new medium, the hero of the game is a soldier who defies death and fights for love against impossible odds. The Italian mercenary Dante returns home from the wars to find that his beloved Beatrice has been murdered, and her soul pulled down into Hell by a dark force. He gives chase, and vows to get her back. For weapons, he wields Death's soul-reaping scythe, and commands holy powers of the cross, given to him by Beatrice."

Apparently, gamers will be able to select from a menu of Nine Rings of Hell to confront evil and fight bad guys. The nine circles are: Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Avarice (or "Greed"), Wrath and Sloth (or "Anger"), Heresy, Violence, Fraud, and Treason. Sounds like lots of fun.

After EA releases Inferno early next year, I wonder if Purgatorio and Paradiso video games will follow.

Having seen Gustave Doré and Salvador Dalí's powerful artistic visions inspired by Dante's masterpiece, I suspect that Electronic Arts has a hard act to follow. I wish them luck, but fear that their main character - superhero Dante - will exude more brawn than brain. Oh yeah, Virgil is a wimp.



Friday, November 6, 2009

Cry Melodies

We've long know about the cultural divide between French and German music. It's one of the great aesthetic confrontations of music history, and the conflict continues today.

Now, researchers at the University of Würzburg in Germany have made an interesting discovery - and it involves (of all things) screaming babies.

What they found is that French babies had a tendency to cry "with a rising melody contour." In direct contrast, German babies cried with falling melodic contours in their vocalizations. These differences in pitch inflection mirror the pitch characteristics of the native language, which presumably was learned by the newborn prenatally.

Does this new scientific evidence lend support to our perception of stylistic differences between say Schoenberg and Debussy? I can think of numerous melodic phrases in Schoenberg that end in a descending stepwise motion. Likewise, Debussy's melodic lines often soar in a decisively upward direction.

The differences between Arnold's schrei-melodie, and Claude's mélodie de cri go well beyond an adult preference for Wiener Schnitzel or Quiche Lorraine. It's potentially something that we mastered in the womb.

The bottom line? Your musical preferences may have been set in place months before you were born.

Now, that's something to cry out about.



Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Music Industrial Complex

Believe it or not, music fuels the economy - even in nasty recessions like the one we are currently experiencing.

Generally, I would not consider composers to be on the list of high-wage earners or among those at the top income bracket, but there is a Trickle-down effect from the works that they create. It's a larger economy that you might think. I'd go so far as to coin the term "Music Industrial Complex."

Does this make any sense? How can it be that I have never earned a single penny in a four-decade career of composing, but consider myself to be a tiny cog within the larger economic machinery of a highly profitable global business? Here's an example....

In 2006 I composed a piano piece for the occasion of Milton Babbitt's 90th Birthday. It was titled BoogieWoogie . Although the work has never been performed, a score and mp3 recording of a midi version have been available on my personal webpage for some time. From what I can gather, my piece has become a popular download item - particularly in China where thousands of consumers have found it via the search engine and mp3 music service Baidu. It was downloaded 5,613 times in the month of October. Recently I discovered that my Boogie Woogie is for sale as a Ringtone. I'm not sure what kind of revenue this piece is generating, but I'm glad that someone is enjoying the music and making a profit.

I've blogged before about what musicians and composers earn in the United States...

It's pretty obvious that the revenue-generating side of the business is not on the creative end. Composers are stuck over on the "overhead" side of the accounting ledger. But clearly, someone is making money.

On October 28th, the New York Times published an article about the salaries earned by the stage crew at Carnegie Hall. These are the people who work hard behind the curtains to make sure the concerts go on without a glitch. The are carpenters, electricians, and stagehands. Classical music satirist PDQ Bach has poked fun at these lovable characters, who obsess about their well-defined task of setting up music stands and insuring that the program starts on time. But the job is real, and it turns out to pay pretty well.

The Properties Manager at Carnegie Hall earned $422,599 base pay, with an additional $107,445 in benefits and deferred compensation during the 2007-08 season. The building's electrician earned $327,257 base pay, and $76,459 in additional benefits. Not bad at all.

Their salaries are higher than what the average stagehand earns up the street at Avery Fisher and Alice Tully halls at Lincoln Center. According to the NY Times, those stagehands earn $290,000 per year.

The chief executive and artistic director at Carnegie Hall is not concerned about the high salary expense. He believes he is getting value for the dollar. His own salary and benefits were $946,581 for the 2007-08 season.

It's the Trickle-down effect. Composers write the music, and that act ultimately feeds product to the Music Industrial Complex, which intern fuels the general economy. There is a viable and strong market for music. No government bailouts were needed in the music biz. There were people who were quite willing to pay $154 dollars last season for the privilege of sitting in a subsidized seat at Carnegie Hall to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiere William Bolcom's Symphony No. 8 for chorus and orchestra.

Tickle-down is how the economic system works. Living in NY is expensive, and professionals working behind the scenes on stage crews deserve to earn a fair wage. But let's not forget that composers are professionals too. They create the product that musicians rely on. Music inspires the public to open their wallets and fork over excessive amounts of hard earned cash.

The Music Industrial Complex would wither to nothing if composers disappeared from the equation. Therefore, I declare November to be "Hug a Composer" month.



Monday, November 2, 2009

Total Recall

I watch the CSPAN channel. I especially like viewing the lectures and interviews with authors on the program Book TV.

Yesterday Book TV featured Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell speaking at the Computer History Museum in California. Their book is titled Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution will Change Everything!

E-memory (in contrast to bio-memory) involves the large-scale digitization of an individuals life experience. The authors on-going project is to record and archive their personalized e-memories and maintain them in a huge database indexed with as many data points as possible. Their goal is to study the issues surrounding how this information can be stored, organized, structured, and accessed - as well as to research the tangible benefits and outcomes.

Working under the auspices of Microsoft, Bell and Gemmell have experimented with E-memories since 1998, and learned legions in the process. The technology of using computer memory to record every detail about a person's life has improved greatly in recent years. It is fair to say that in the very near future average people will be able to digitally preserve all of their experiences and easily recall them whenever they wish - at will. It's really just an iPhone upgrade away.

Gordon Bell was head of Engineering at Digital Equipment Corp, and now is a principle researcher at Microsoft. He's written several books, including High Tech Ventures: The Guide for Entrepreneurial Success and Computer Structures: Readings and Examples. His associate, Jim Gemmell, is also a senior researcher at Microsoft (fun job if you can get it).

Both men wear equipment such as BodyBuggs, GPS receivers, digital video cameras, assorted recording instrumentation, and customized portable computers to store and catalogue their every move and bodily function. This is a 7 days per week, 24 hours per day, ongoing project. Steps have been taken to insure their privacy, but data security is clearly one of the probing questions that still needs to be addressed.

On the face of it, this over abundance of self-documentation seems intimidating and rather pointless. But it turns out that many interesting events in life happen unplanned and unexpectedly. In hindsight one can never predict what will happen or what information you would want to recall in the future. Therefore, by recording everything in your life, from youth through old age, you and your ancestors will always have access to a detailed and precise permanent record of any event.

How would all of this information be organized? It turns out that most of information is unstructured data - utility bills, phone conversations, spontaneous walks in the park, and a stream of email messages and web pages visited. The researchers refer to their individual data stores as "life-bits." All of their personal data, collected in real time, can be time-stamped and cross-linked to specific locations via GPS coordinates.

By creating links between all our their daily telephone and computer-based interactions (e.g. scheduling, communications, documents, web-browsing, video records, etc), a life-story emerges. Spikes and patterns appear in histograms, such as when important life events occurred. Aside from the practical matter of having documentation of everything, interesting trends emerge.

Gordon Bell, acting as a guinea pig for this on-going human experiment, has had all of his "legacy" photos and documents scanned. He has little or no paper in his life, but stores his life-bits on a really huge hard drive at his office at Microsoft (which is fully-networked and backed up). Bell has converted his entire life-history, in all aspects, into binary numbers. He estimated that it requires only about 200 data types, much of which are self-defining and self-archiving. He looks forward to the day when he gets his utility bill electronically in XML format, so that it will not have to be scanned and into his personal data store.

Once can foresee the day when every person on the planet will be assigned an IP v6 address which will be their life-time identifying number. No more social security numbers. No more alphabetical names to fuss over, just a logical address somewhere in the ether of the digital cloud.

What's an example of how this information might be used? Well, perhaps someday you would want to view a video of Grandpa catching the big fish he often told the story about, and while you were at it, check out what he had for lunch on that day and listen to the conversation he had with his fishing pals.
It turns out that bio-memory is pretty good at indexing all of our life experiences via the dimensions of geographic location and date-time stamp.

Although structured data and tags can also be superimposed on the raw information to provide additional categories of classification, it tuns out that the human memory most often refers to these two basic and fundamental search algorithms for data retrieval.

Think of life-bits as a vast repository of your personal data, from your first dirty diaper right right up to your final breaths - and it will include all of the messy details in between. Retrieving information from it would be like "googling yourself" on steroids.

At first I was put off by the concept. Why would I, or anyone else be so interested in my boring life? But when you hear about some of the practical applications that potentially stem from implementing this technology, then you begin to see the potential.

For example, my son is about to embark an a very expensive college education. He may end up spending up to $200,000 at a 4-year private institution. It is known that the human mind can only absorb and record a small fraction what we hear in classroom lectures. Not only that, over time the long-term retention of memory drops off significantly. Wouldn't it be nice if my son could have a permanent record of his entire college experience along with searchable and retrievable records of the people he met and spoke with at college? Not only would it be very useful information to reattain throughout life, but perhaps it could also be re-sold to another person seeking a college education - but at a hefty discount (say 50% off the brink-and-mortar price). It would create an entire new market in second-hand college educations.

Health monitoring is another interesting application. BodyBuggs and devices such as Bluetooth-enable scales are on the market already. These devices monitor our vital signs - from heart rate to blood pressure, to changes in BMI and body weight over time. Having a long-term history of our physical profile can aid medical practitioners in the diagnosis and treatment of ailments. The data can be graphed and presented to your medical team. It could aid medical research.

Looking back at my own life, I've gone to a lot of concerts in the past 40 years or so, and my bio-memory of them is beginning to fade. I have saved the concert programs from just about everyone of those concerts, and I store them in boxes located in my basement. It takes up lots of space. It would be nice to have a more permanent and easily accessible digital record of what transpired within the walls of those concert halls across the world.

Copyright issues aside, I can bring my Samson Zoom H2 digital audio recorder along to a concert today. It will allow me to make CD-quality recordings right onto flash memory. But that technology was not available in the 70s and 80s. If it had been, I would have used it. All of the concerts I've attended over the decades would have been indexed by date and geographic location. The concert programs would be scanned directly into my personalized life-bits database and cross-referenced against the corresponding audio recordings for future reference.

The future is here, but unfortunately I have to rely on my decaying bio-memory to recall most of the past. I hope that my neural-memory index doesn't get corrupted, since I don't have a bio-backup. Future generations may be more fortunate thanks to the emergence of e-memory technology and data warehousing.




"Look mom and dad, I can fly!"