A case against the 60 minute concert

My last two posts have dealt with my experience during the Berlin Seminar 2014 held by the German Fulbright Commission and open to Fulbrighters throughout Europe. These topics should interest the music community because 1) the group involved are the demographic that the populist movement is after-- 22-30, young professional or pre-professional, educated, open to new experiences, and worldly, all while still encasing a huge difference in socio-economic backgrounds, race, nationality, and just about any other background criteria you could add together; and 2) all the posts directly deal with problems proposed by various critics in recent years, from programming to style of concert experience to marketing.

This post is a bit different, as it recounts more recent experiences and thoughts, most notably the idea of the 60 minute concert.

A recent post on Greg Sandow's blog by Julia Villagra discusses how she attracts audiences to her concert/dinner series Tertulia. The series is fairly successful in NYC, filling an interesting niche as far as dinner entertainment. She's also far from the first person I've heard doing this--I have a very good friend, David Whitwell, who has also organized quite a few similar events in NYC, often with free improv groups.

First, I'd like to applaud Julia and Tertulia for running a successful program in NYC. It's not easy, and it's obvious a huge amount of work has been done. However, a few things bothered me in the post, namely when talking about the programming of the evenings.

Tertulia is intentionally cozy and intimate, with no stage to elevate the performers above the audience. Audience members in the front are seated just far enough away from the musicians to prevent a renegade bow from striking someone’s knee. The distance between artist and audience is gone, and a palpable energy fills the room.

Small concert settings are fantastic--the connection with the audience is palpable, something that's difficult to achieve with audience members sitting in nose-bleed seats needing binoculars to see the stage. However, there are a number of practical issues with these set-ups that critics seem to not address.

I've been attending a week long festival run by the Kunglinga Musikhogskolan (Royal College of Music), where I'm visiting on my Fulbright. The series is their annual student composition festival, and thanks to partnerships with a few organizations in town, the concerts don't all happen on campus. I attended a few at a local, and well established, new music organizations site, Fylkingen. The space is fairly small, allowing for around 60-100 chairs to be set-up, depending on the size of the ensemble The room is flat, and chairs get placed as close to the group as possible. Since many performances include electronics, space is reserved for the mixing console, and areas are often taken up by multiple projectors. I only have one major issue with the place:

The lack of a stage.

There's always talk about how a stage removes the performers from the audience, how it places some sort of barrier between everyone. And yet no one complains at pop concerts about the stage. The barrier is often much more physical there, especially for major bands. It's not just a rise and where the seats are, but a series of guards behind bike-rack barricades, purposefully separating the audience from the stars. And yet no critics of popular music strike against the stage.

The reason I dislike experiencing concerts in a flat room is from a purely practical sense--I can't see the band. Unless you're in the first couple rows, no matter how the seating is arranged, there's a head in the way. You turn this way and that, and yet I still can't see everyone. Judging from the picture in attached to the article, I can see the same thing--people at the end of the long table craning their necks more, people in the round tables on the right looking around people. For me as an audience member this is a huge turn-off. It makes for quite an uncomfortable experience (and remember, we hear music with not only our ears, but our eyes).

Beyond the sight-line issue, there are other practical issues about these sorts of space, ranging from acoustics to availability of a piano. These issues do not mean that a concert series cannot be successful. On the contrary, many great series are set-up in this fashion. However, if we're going to report on how these things work, we should put in all considerations, including how the space dictates the programming (no works for extended techniques or prepared piano when there's no grand piano available, for instance).
I recognize that traditionalists may be slower to embrace the Tertulia approach; we present only 60 to 75 minutes of music compared to a more standard 90 to 120 minutes, and have made intermissions a more substantial and deliberate part of the concert experience.

This is such an odd statement to me. First off, the idea of the 90-120 minutes of music concert experience vs. the 60-75 minutes of music. I've been organizing concerts on and off for longer than Tertulia has been around, and the 60-75 minute recital was the norm then for a chamber performance. It was a norm as an undergrad planning performances, it was the norm when planning HS concerts as part of my secondary instrumental methods class (or even shorter, depending on skill and such), the norm when I planned my senior recital (way back in '06!), the norm when I helped plan concerts with our short-lived group in NYC, dfe (though we went past 60 minutes, but split it up with more breaks), and the norm running concerts at UMKC. 60 minutes of music became 90 minutes of program with the changes of personnel, breaks, etc. The only groups going over the 60-75 minute mark were symphonies, and hardly even then! Most symphonies I've attended in the last few years have done the same, usually settling in around the 75 minutes of music. I recently attended Bruckner's 8th Symphony here in Stockholm. Depending on conductor, this piece runs from about 75-85 minutes...and it was the only piece on the entire concert. I left feeling a bit sad--it was an afternoon concert and I could have gone for another few pieces, with a 20-30 minute intermission for drinks in the middle!

I had the same complaints from people at the Berlin Seminar--they wanted more music! The program ran about an hour. And now I'm going to say something that some may find contentious--young people want long concerts.

Have you been to local pop show? How do those evening usually go down? 2-3 bands play. In a 3 band set-up, the opener plays a short set, maybe 25-30 minutes. Then there's a 15-20 minute break for turnover where everyone heads to the bar (first band included). The next band plays a full set, roughly 45 minutes (or the average length of a record). Then there's another break, sometimes longer because the main act has more happening. Finally, the main group comes on. This group plays at least a full set. There are plenty of instances of fans being angry when a band plays less than what is expected. Jack White played a 55 minute set and fans were enraged. I won't go into all the many different expectations different audiences have, but if we're going to talk about engaging a young audience, let's talk about what young audiences want in more concrete terms.

They want an evening out. If they're going to a concert, they want an experience. This has been tossed around by lots of people. But what's that experience? Is it to sit through 60-75 minutes of music with 2 or 3 breaks for food service then a longer, nice dining experience afterwards? For some, most definitely. For others, they want what they actually get at a club: 2-3 groups, each playing sets of music, chances to socialized before, during breaks, and after, and the feeling that everyone involved gave their all in the performances. They don't want Scott Stapp coming onstage drunk and falling over. And they don't want to be babied with a little music that "might be challenging." If they are there for a concert, they are there for a concert! Give it to them! This is something Fylkingen often does very well: several sets in an evening, giving me an entire night's worth of enjoyment. Compare that to my sadness today when Pierrot Lunaire ended, and I realized "that's it for the concert..." I love Pierrot Lunaire, but to have my experience end after 45 minutes on a Saturday afternoon, I felt a little dazed and lost...
For example, clapping is encouraged between movements. Or if a piece is long, lasting 35 minutes or so, I will program only part of it, maybe a movement or two, a choice I sometimes make to keep the evening balanced (and to minimize fidgeting).
Man, I'd sure love to get beyond this clapping between movements talk. It happens. It happened during Bruckner's 8th in Stockholm (along with even longer coughing, to which Alan Gilbert turned around and smiled, giving the audience a nice chuckle). It happened at Les Troyens after a few particularly juicy arias. It happens quite often. And who usually poo-poos the clapping? Not the conductors or the performers, who are usually gracious. No, it's the audience. To take a phrase from libertarian thought: One person's freedom ends where another person's begins. Some people are for clapping, some are not. I don't much care. Neither do most young people. Can we drop this now?

The bigger thing is that last statement "if a piece is long, lasting 35 minutes or so, I will only program part of it...and to minimize fidgeting."

That is the definition of pandering. This approach is saying "Hey, the audience really can't deal with a 35 minute piece. I mean, 35 minutes, that's like, nearly an act of a play. Or maybe the introductory act of a full length film. And, I mean, seriously, it's Beethoven, that's over most people's heads...it makes them uncomfortable. So why put them through that difficulty?"

Taking movements of a longer piece to balance an evening can work. Many multi-movement works are conceived of as wholes, but at the same time have enough separate character to work on their own. Deciding to play a single movement from a larger work because of programming considerations is fine. Deciding to do it because your performers can only handle parts of the piece is also fine, for pedagogical reasons. We went over that pretty extensively when I learned about planning concerts. Younger groups play shorter concerts because their stamina isn't high yet. More advanced groups may be ready for parts of a Beethoven symphony, but the scherzo is a bit too fast and difficult for them. Or the group may be missing a crucial solo instrument (say, an English Horn), and so they cut a movement. These are major programming considerations.

To limit fidgeting should never, ever, be a consideration.

Finally, the idea of cost/benefit. The price of arts concerts is on the rise, as are concert prices everywhere. Major pop tour prices have risen with the cost of transportation, the rising cost of local labor, and tons of other factors. Many tours offer tickets ranging from a few hundred dollars to lawn seats or general admission in the $30-40 range. Ever since I was 14 I've gone to these large concerts--I was at the first OzzFest, tearing up sod and getting contact highs (which for me is dangerous since I'm allergic to pot...so not only did I tear up sod, I also threw up on it). Once inside at, say, the last major tour I hit, Rockstar's Mayhem Tour, you're treated to a day of music. The upcoming Mayhem tour features 19 bands over 4 stages  with seemingly perennial headliner Avenged Sevenfold, Korn, Cannibal Corpse, and a host of other groups. Korn played Kansas City last year, and tickets ran $75 at the small theater--small theater, high demand, high price. Mayhem Tour as it rolls through Indianapolis/Noblesville has lawn tickets at $38.50 up to The Pit tickets (front row center mosh pit) for $250. And, of course, the venue makes a fair bit from drink and food sales, while bands make some extra scratch at merch tents. Festivals also usually have various vendors set-up. I remember a festival that came through Camden, NJ when I lived out East working for Concert Quality Sound--The Download Festival hosted by Seagate Technology. The headliners were The Killers, which I got to hear and see their soundcheck after I set-up a Seagate tent featuring the Frag Dolls. While bands were doing soundchecks, I was setting up a tent with a ton of PS3s, HDMI splitters, several plasma screens, and a basic sound system.

This is one of my favourite memories of working for CQS, because when I got to meet and play against the Frag Dolls. Honestly, I don't know who was on the team at the time, because I had lost track of professional gaming by this point. But staying and playing a few games of Rainbow Six Vegas 2, and getting all the way up to 2nd during one match is quite a highlight. Along with the group saying "Wait, who is that in second?!?", me timidly raising my hand, and then the joint scream of "SOUND GUY!!!" Sound guy had game, once...

But this is what the young crowd expects. They expect that for their price of admission they're going to get more than 60-75 minutes of music. For $100, I better get a nice meal, with a glass of the house red on the house, and the ability to buy more glasses at a reasonable rate (I'd guess $7-10 a glass). And I want more than 60 minutes of music.

Critics and pundits keep talking about drawing in young people, but seem to completely ignore the culture we've been brought up in. The club scene isn't just getting drinks, it's having an entire evening in a club, music for 3-4 hours, drinks flowing all night. It's getting dressed up to hit the club--you don't show up to, say, The Pool After Dark at Harrah's in jeans and a tee-shirt. You'd get turned away immediately (well, unless they're designer fitted jeans). When I discussed Metal or New Music Concert I bring up the fact that almost all these experiences have dress codes, whether written like at Harrah's or unwritten like the metal scene in Stockholm. And people learn these codes quickly if they want to fit in. And just like you'd never catch me at The Pool, you'd probably never catch me at Tertulia--for $100 for dinner and a concert, I expect something pretty spectacular. Blame that on my humble Midwest roots.

This turned into a bit more of an angry rant than I had intended. I am truly happy that Tertulia is doing well, and that Julie et al have found their niche. But if we're going to put up these groups as examples, we have to be willing to be critical. Tertulia would never fly in Indianapolis, Kansas City, any most Midwest towns. I'd guess it'd struggle a bit in Chicago, but could find an audience. It'd probably do well in Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Other Eastern towns like Philly or Baltimore it may work in, but it would depend on getting the right clientele in early--the groups are there, but they're not as abundant as in NYC.

Cost/benefit changes with location. In Indianapolis, for that $100 price tag is incredibly different than in NYC or Stockholm, Sweden. It's incredibly important to remember those local differences--again something that seems glossed over in many conversations.

And it's time we stopped lowering expectations of the concert and give people what they want--more music, a memorable experience, and something worth coming back for. Read Jon Silpayamanant's blog about his series to see what people in Indianapolis/Louisville expect. Man, a show at a restaurant/bar lasting that long...If there's hookah involved, I'm beyond sold. I'd end up dropping $100 on dolma, shisha, wine, and tips for the band.

That's what my friends expect going to a concert--an all day/night affair worth putting on clean clothes, and maybe shining up my boots...

N'ah, I'll wear the Vans.


In Defense of A Giant Horses Head

What follows is my second post from my recent excursion to Germany for the Fulbright Berlin Seminar 2014. Hop back one post to see the introduction about the seminar, who was there, and one of my first experiences.

This time, I'm fast forwarding to my last full day in Berlin. I had decided early in the week that I had to catch some sort of major concert there--Berliner Philharmoniker, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Staatsoper (Berlin State Opera), Komische Oper, or any of the huge assortment of chamber concerts happening in town. As luck would have it, Deutsche Oper had Les Troyens in rep that Sunday. What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon and evening than with 4 hours of opera spread over a 5 hour evening?

First off, the ticket experience. Traveling with only my old phone (turned tiny tablet since I can't use it for phone calls), I had to go to the ticket counter. I assumed if I showed up about an hour and a half before, it'd be open, and I'd splurge and buy a nice ticket. Tickets range from 29€ to roughly 100€. I wasn't going to splurge on a 100€ ticket, but I figured I could find something in the middle.

Instead, I arrived to find the office still closed and a line forming. The line seemed to be composed mainly of people my age or younger, or much older individuals. My guess was that the younger group were all students and the older group was probably picking up will call.

The offices opened promptly 1 hour before the show, and it seemed my guess were mostly correct. Most of the older audiences members scrambled through the line quickly, while the younger members were pulling out cash. Being the introverted person I generally am, rather than strike up a conversation with any of the nearby young students, I just listened a bit to what was happening around me, and took a chance on student rush tickets. 12.50€, cash, only available day of, an hour before the show.

My experiences with student rush tickets have been varied. When I went to the Indianapolis Symphony as an undergrad, and student rush tickets were inexpensive ($10), but they weren't guaranteed seating. This meant that we had to wait in the lobby till the last second, then go through and see if there were open seats. Sometimes during the large crowds, I even missed the first piece, having to look for a seat during the break between the first two pieces. Other times it meant getting a fantastic seat in an expensive section--I remember wanting to sit fairly close for a concert with Bruckner's 4th Symphony so I could see Mario Venzaga conduct, as well as see more individual members of the orchestra. It paid off, and I sat in what was probably one of the more expensive seats in the house. Student rush tickets at the NY Phil are similarly priced (I think they were $20, but the site now says $13.50), are reserved seating, but only in the least desirable section. But, generally, I'm ok with having a cheap seat when I'm paying cheap money.

At the Kunglinga Filharmonikerna, students just get 10% off the ticket price. Considering the relatively low price of tickets (the most expensive ticket runs around 345SEK, which is only about $54), I generally "splurge", buy an orchestra level or 1st balcony ticket for 290SEK after the rebate. And as I've blogged before, this group is top notch. I recently saw them perform Bruckner's 8th Symphony with Alan Gilbert directing, and they blew me away. At this point I'd take them over the NY Phil, especially since I'm paying a fraction of the price.

Ticket prices are, of course, an apples to oranges comparison. In Sweden and Germany, the opera, orchestra, and other cultural institutions are heavily state subsidized. This helps keep ticket prices low. The differences between the groups are incredibly striking. But it's not the price of the ticket that I'm interested in, it's how the students are treated.

In Indy, it was a "here ya go, fill in where you can!" experience. Not bad, and for a 20 year old heading to the symphony, perfectly fine. For the NY Phil, I ended up paying full price for tickets rather than student tickets--even though I paid 10x more per ticket, I didn't feel like sitting in the rear of the 3rd balcony, especially to hear one of my favourite pieces. In Sweden, the tickets are generally inexpensive enough that shaving the 10% off doesn't matter too much, but it will buy me a coffee before or after the concert (yes, a latte will run you anywhere from 25-40SEK, or roughly $3.75-6.25...around Konserhuset, expect the higher amounts). In Berlin, I wasn't sure what to expect.

I was handed a ticket with an assigned seat. I checked the ticket--Did that say Parkett (or orchestra level)? Huh, that's odd. Wait, row 3? Seat 34? Hold on...that sound like front row, just off center...

Sure enough, that's where I was sitting. According to their website, these were normally 92€ seats. Why was I handed a 92€ seat for 12.50€?

The answer was obvious when I started to look around, and saw the balconies filling. This seat was the simply an empty seat an hour before show time. I looked around and saw quite a few of the students I was in line with entering the same section. Dressed in our khakis or jeans with a button down shirt, or a pair of dress pants and a dressy top for the ladies, we sat next to older, possibly more distinguished people with their suit coats and dresses. The room felt a bit chilly to me, so I left my hoody on...and no one batted an eye. But enough about the amazing surprise that was my student rush ticket. This post is about a giant horses head.


The quickest summary of Les Troyens is to simply state it is Virgil's Aeneid.  It starts around the time of the Trojan Horse and ends with Aeneas leaving Carthage for Italy, causing Dido to commit suicide and swear revenge--so it covers roughly the first four books of the Aeneid.

Much of the talk lately is on chamber performances, how to make leaner (and meaner) productions, bringing music out of the concert halls and to the people. These are all admirable pursuits, and while there are plenty of issues I have with this movement, I stand in common with them in regards to the basic idea that the largest companies need to change. The how is an area of which I debate.

Aristotle listed six areas that should be included in theatrical productions. These six things were hammered into my brain during my year of playwriting courses.

  • Character Delineation
  • Ideas or Themes
  • Action, the order of events
  • Speech, dialogue (projection and the words themselves)
  • Sound (all the other sounds used. Remember, Greek plays often had singing and instruments)
  • Spectacle, or everything you see. 
Which one of those is most difficult with a smaller budgeted opera production?

The first three are a major part of the writing of the opera, though things can be accentuated in the production. Speech is in the writing and in the training of the performers. Sound, in opera, is the pit, the singing, and any other sound cues used throughout. It's a focal point for operas. And finally spectacle, the feast for the eyes.

I've worked on several small budgeted opera productions. I begged and borrowed materials for the presentation of Opera Shorts in 2009. We did rear projection for scenery, and used a couple neutral painted flats for walls when we needed to hide entrances and exits. The costumers did a great job of finding items for incredibly cheap, and all the performers pitched in with whatever they had. It was very piecemeal. For the production at the wine bar, it was paired down to only the necessities--meaning only the costumes and the main props. We even had to use a keyboard rather than a piano (luckily there weren't any extended techniques for the piano...). 

In 2013 with Black House, we had much the same. The limited budget allowed our fabulous designer to come up with some nice budget costumes, find key pieces of scenery and props, and the performers were able to make a pittance on the performances. The performances were good, the audience loved them, but...

There wasn't a giant horse head descending from the ceiling. 

When we talk about making smaller, leaner productions, it's those horse heads that will go missing. It's the explosions from the Michael Bay movie--not every movie needs gratuitous explosions, but some movies do. What if there were no more explosions because "explosions are expensive"?

Costumes, sets, props--these seem like superfluous things. But it's what happens when you go to a production with all those elements that's truly amazing.

It's the looks of shock when the horse head descended from the ceiling in Les Troyens. It was the similar look of shock when a set piece started to raise on one side, moving thanks to a chain motor and hinges, dancers strapped onto the set and kicking at Greek warriors. It's the thin silken material separating Dido and Anna during their first duet, before Anna finally finds a way through the delicate barrier to her sister. It's the matching costumes for 50+ chorus members in Carthage, the bloody statuesque body of Hector repeating "Italy, Italy, Italy!" 

Yes, Les Troyens can be done without these elements, just as the Met productions of Das Rheingold could be done without the interesting effects at the beginning of the opera to simulate being underwater. The opulent production of Mephistofele by San Francisco Opera could be done without the multi-story set for the chorus at the beginning, nor the giant telescope in Faust's room. But, in all of those productions, those visual elements brought a life to the story that a smaller production cannot. 

I've written two operas to date, and both have been written and designed with a small theater in mind. The props are few, set pieces even fewer--a counter, a park bench, a cake, a bejeweled coffee carafe, two similarly ornate mugs, street clothes, basic robes. One has three vocal parts, all female, one has two parts, one male and one female. One is piano only, the other string trio w/ simple stereo playback of files. I'm not afraid for the durability of these productions.

I'm worried about how the current opinions in music will effect the Les Troyens and Das Rheingolds of the world. I'm afraid for the loss of spectacle as operations at large companies shrink.

Because, let's be honest, the feast for the eyes is important in opera. There are some that claim that opera should be music first, music second, music third, and most everything else somewhere after, but that seems to move contrary to how opera has developed over the years. The original intention was to create a large, unified art form. Wagner codified that idea further, and without great librettists and strong stories, many of the operas we love would not have continued popularity. Yes, La Boheme's story is a bit on the trite side, and seems truncated. It's a limitation of the form, as singing anything takes longer than speaking it. However, it is still an engaging story...And it's the story that by Henri Murger, La Vie de Bohème that has captured the minds of audiences, and led to Rent and Moulin Rouge, a work of much loved theater, and an over the top visual spectacle of a movie. 

It's important to remember that opera is theater, a particular brand of theater, with it's own complex history, movements, styles, and considerations. However, it is still (usually) theater. There are, of course, examples of abstract operas, but no matter how abstract, there is still a story to be told. One that pops into my mind is XXX_Live_Nude_Girls by Jennifer Walshe, a work for 2 female singers, 2 puppeteers, camera operators, projection, and small ensemble. The work contains no spoken or sung words, only vocalizations. The action is done with dolls, shot by cameras, and projected live. It is meant as a live performance, and it's one that has some inherent costs attached to it (professional camera, video switching, and projection isn't super cheap--I should know, I did that for a living for a while). The story is abstracted due to the lack of words and human interaction. However, it is full of powerful imagery--a feast for the eyes. In a way, the eyes become the most important part of the performance. Without them, the abstract vocalizations wouldn't have the same level of meaning, but those throaty, gurgling cries mean much more when a doll is chased through a house and jumps out a window, or is date raped by another doll (yes, it is very much mature content). 

So, yes, let's talk about all the wonderful ways we can create small productions that are engaging. But let's not lose sight of the giant horse head, and the value of large companies.

Final note--"club nights" seem to be popping up a lot, with drink and food available at concert series, sometimes live-cast into a more relaxed club room. First off, I'm confused by the idea that offering alcohol and food was new to large productions. It seems fairly ubiquitous. Second off, the live-cast into an adjoining club room is a neat idea, but there's a fair amount of infrastructure (multiple cameras, high quality audio and visual feeds, not to mention the type of food and drink expected) that goes along with these experiences. Offering the same wine as always, and finger foods won't cut it. Maybe more of these culture types should hit the real clubs and see what table service is like. Yeah yeah, I know, it's not my scene either, but I've worked in enough clubs to know.

And I saw an interesting version of this at the Deutsche Oper. At the adjoining cafe during the 45 minute break, I saw people in full costume walking around outside and inside. It appears that chorus members were also doubling as wait-staff, in full costume. And it appeared several conversations were started up during my time "doing research" (ok, eavesdropping and spying). I've argued for more personal contact between audience and performers, and this seemed to be an interesting example. Too bad  I was just visiting so I couldn't pursue this line of thought easily. 


500 People Were Forced Into a Classical Concert

A couple weeks ago, I had the privilege to attend the Berlin Seminar, a conference hosted by the German Fulbright Commission bringing together outgoing German Fulbrighters with current US Fulbrighters in Europe. While the majority of people at the conference were based in Germany, the crowd also hosted the entire Swedish Commission and Fulbrighters from the UK, Spain, France, Turkey, Ireland, Netherlands, Hungary, and many more countries. The Fulbrighters were a mixture of graduate students (meaning those that have finished a bachelors degree--not necessarily in a graduate program) and ETA's (English Teaching Assistants). 

I provide this background to give an idea of with whom I spent the week: a number ranging from 2 or 3 of us wandering Berlin to 500 packed in a recital hall. The majority were young (I was one of the older attendees at 29), educated, and socially conscious. The group was culturally and socially diverse, though a quick look through stats would definitely show certain predominance in race and socio-economic backgrounds. Still, the US Fulbrighters were from all over the US, and while there could still be considered an easy majority, a great many different backgrounds came into play.

We could break down the demographic w/o bearings on race or specific socio-economic numbers (to which I don't have access) as 22-29, equally distributed male/female (by observation), educated, and socially and culturally aware (based on anecdotal evidence).

What follows is the first in a series of posts (labeled "Berlin Seminar" in the labels section--which I'm abusing less and less as time goes on). These posts attempt to look at cultural differences in Sweden, Germany, and the US in regards to music. They will look explore not only perception of the different groups involved, but also marketing, state sponsorship, and a bit about the idea of cultural heritage.


The opening ceremony for the Berlin Seminar occurred the evening of the first day of the conference. We'd already had a chance to meet other Fulbrighters, a breakout session where groups discussed various issues. Mine started out as a conversation about Berlin theater, and it very quickly degraded into a talk about finances. It was not a discussion I had wished to have at the conference, or at least at 11am the first day of the conference. Still, I took the time to discuss some of my observations regarding the corporate culture of the large American institutions, and the growing issue of sustainability, and how that idea is approached from what is, increasingly, one of two viewpoints. I won't recount that discussion, as there will be a posting about it later by the official secretary of the group. Instead, know that my conference started out with more sighs than I'd normally like to begin a morning.

One issue I brought up was the idea of marketing--we talk about the desired audience, but we never really pin down who it is beyond "young." We never really discuss sustainable ideas for bringing in this audience, instead focusing on initiatives that are short-term ideas. "Let's do one concert like this..." is not a long-term option, and if only done once doesn't give a good idea the merit of an idea. My assertion has been that the problem isn't really young people--they're open minded and willing to show up. It's a matter of 1) cost 2) knowledge and 3) availability.

The opening ceremony was a combination of short talks--all ranging from 10-15 minutes in length--and a concert. It was if they accepted that the attention span of young people would only hold for a short time. The concert itself was under an hour, with a variety of works. All in all, the entire program didn't even span 2 hours, which got the crowd out to the important part; socializing, drinking, and since it is Germany, smoking (Note: smoking is much more prevalent in Germany, with each shop having a wide variety of rolling tobacco available at even the smallest bodega. This is unimportant to some, but for me at the moment, it was a stark contrast to Sweden).

I sat in a section with people I did not know, beyond a few I had seen in the morning session. And unsurprising considering where I chose to sit, I saw a fair number of people who had introduced themselves as doing research in music. We all made for the middle of the concert hall, as a general guess at how most recital halls act would dictate.

The concert was as follows:

Sonata II from Sonate concertate in still moderno Libro II--Dario Castello (1590-1658)
Division on Vestiva i Colli--Francesco Rognoni (1570-1626)
--Elicia Silversteen (BM Colburn Conservatory of Music, pursuing masters in Amsterdam)--Baroque Violin
--Jacob Street (MA Oberlin, currently in Lübeck)--harpsichord

Deep River--arr. Moses Hogan (1957-2003)
The Little Horses--Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
--Derrell Acon (DMA candidate Cincinnati Conservatory, MM CCM, BM and BA Lawrence U)--Bass
--Joseph Nyckel (Northwestern, U of Illinois, Hackschule fur Musik in Freiburg)--Piano

Karakurenai--Andy Akiho (1979)
Lizard and Riding the Tiger from Wind-Rose-Wood-Cuts--Baláza Juhász (1980)
--David Degge (Performance--Peabody, Music Education--Abilene Christian University)--Percussion (Marimba)
So, a fair smattering--Baroque violin sonatas, contemporary marimba, and traditional style vocal pieces. No Romantic or Classical repertoire, and no pieces really outside the Western styles, though there were small flavours in Karakurenai and Wind-Rose-Wood-Cuts. I wouldn't consider either of those pieces more related to a regional style, more the watered down globalized, borrowed style, where small elements are added to what is basically a Western aesthetic.

The concert was quite good. All the performers were masterful. Silversteen and Street performed well together, communicated directly, and gave a strong performance. One bit that struck me was Silversteen employing some half-step non-diatonic trills. For many performers, that'd fall outside the generalized notion of Baroque ornamentation--most ornaments are meant to be performed diatonically. However, I enjoyed the aural effect--it gave the pieces more of a folk flair, making the embellishments actually draw even closer to the original note. As to their authenticity, I have no idea, but considering this is Silversteen and Street's main area of study, I'll accept it as an interesting, unique, and engaging choice.

Acon's velvety bass voice was clear and beautiful, though it at times felt lost in the hall. It was a large hall at the Universität der Kümste, and the acoustics were a bit on the dry side. Still, I greatly enjoyed the performance, as Acon and Nykiel did a good job using a wide dynamic range, and gave each piece suitable solemnity or flair when needed. The Little Horses gave Acon and Nykiel a fine vehicle to show the wide range of style, from patter to an almost mournful lullaby.

The final pieces performed by Degge were virtuosic in nature, though in very different ways. Karakurenai features an ostinato in one hand with a difficult polyrhythmic melody in the other. And it never lets up until the very end, when the hands gradually shift phase into the same tempo. When the melody started up, every in my section all groaned a little--not in a bad way, but in a "Oh, this feels uncomfortable." When Degge was able to keep the ostinato rolling along and keep the polyrhythm rolling along in its own time, the section gave short gasps and subtle shifts. It's a difficult feet to keep your hands separated so completely for roughly 4 minutes. The other piece was less striking to me, more about the speed at which Degge could run up and down the keyboard--the sort of virtuosity I've grown accustomed to seeing. Musically, Wind-Rose-Wood-Cut was straight forward, tonal in nature, and nice, but nothing that struck me as interesting.

Enough of the short critique: what happened after is of far more importance. The demographic has been explained, the concert has been described. Now for the important part--the reaction.

One critique against classical music is that it doesn't reach a younger generation, that groups must resort to gimmicks or unique settings to draw a crowd. And then, hopefully, once the unsuspecting audience has arrived, the music will draw them in deeper. However, nothing was more traditional than this set-up. We were in a large concert hall. Everyone was more or less required to wear some sort of dress casual (which, for all those saying people don't want to dress up, I'd remind them that 1) tuxes are NOT required for attendance and I rarely if ever see them and 2) young people LOVE a good excuse to get dressed up--like, say, going to a club...which for all those unaccustomed to club life should find out usually includes some sort of "dressy" attire, or at least not dirty jeans and a tee-shirt. And who was the ONE person that complained and wore something more relaxed? You guess it...).

The concert performance was straight-forward: performers entered, played pieces, people clapped between movements and no one cared (again, a misconception--I see this regularly and few people give the stink eye. Maybe only at the NY Phil...so, perhaps, we should stop comparing the world to them?). Everything stank of traditionalism, except for perhaps the demographic of the crowd.

And did the crowd ever love it! The clapping was enthusiastic. Approaching performers afterwards was almost difficult, as it seems they attracted quite the posse. Everyone I spoke to said they loved the music, were impressed by the virtuosity of all the performers (I heard "That percussionist is a badass" more than once), the beauty and lyricism of Acon's voice, and the overall excitement from the pieces themselves. The more wine that flowed, the more people opened up about how they loved the experience, and wanted to go to more concerts.

This was a crowd that wants to be included, a crowd that is open to a wide variety of experiences. These are the cultural omnivores I read about in Jon Silpayamanant's blog. On his blog, he mentions a study that one reason for the decline in the arts is the decline of the cultural omnivore. But this seems to make an assumption about taste creation--that it is an inherent trait, rather than a learned trait. However, taste is developed through experience, and cultural omnivores are created by having a wide variety of experiences. So, if cultural omnivores are dying, it's because we, as a society, are killing them. I do not think this is true.

Instead, I think it's a question of marketing and availability. As I said, this concert was compulsory. However, not one person was complaining going into the concert. There was mostly curiosity. I fielded questions about the pieces, however I only knew the vocal works. I gave some learned guesses on the Baroque pieces and didn't even hazard a guess on the marimba works. Most people I spoke to simply stated "I'd love to go to more concerts, but I don't even know they're happening," or "I loved going to the symphony, but they just raised ticket prices, so I'm not sure I'll still be able to afford the tickets." These are simple problems.

No one complained about getting dressed up (besides me...), no one complained we were sitting in a concert hall, no one took issue with any of the traditional elements. Of course, they did have drinking to look forward to after the show, and were able to engage first hand with the musicians, two major differences than most large concert venues (but not so different than many chamber concerts I've attended).

So, let's look at a few facts:

  • One demographic groups want to reach is the 18-35 age range. That is the only stated demographic. This is far too broad to address in any efficient or sustainable fashion.
  • a smaller demographic, 22-29, educated, male and female, bi-national (US and German), large differences in background, but with the shared background of being Fulbright grantees (either currently or heading to the US) were curious and then excited by the concert.
  • This smaller demographic complained of lack of marketing, availability, and pricing. There were no complaints about traditional structures when I asked. Most were open and interested in the experience
  • The newer works brought more enthusiasm from the crowd, but almost everyone seemed wowed by the virtuousity of the performers.
  • The concert length was not discussed directly, though a fair number of people I spoke to said "Fewer talks, more music!" Considering later in the week we all attended a 3 hour dance party without batting an eye, and then many went off to clubs afterwards, concert length really shouldn't be an issue (though regular breaks for a cigarette are helpful).
  • People enjoyed being able to approach performers afterwards.
These facts, to me, are of importance, even if they are anecdotal in nature. They're important because 

  1. I took the time to identify a focused demographic. If you talk to anyone in business or marketing, it's about creating a focused group to approach, not a wide audience. Each initiative/advertisement/pitch has to be more individually tailored
  2. Specifics questions about performance are addressed to a group that is not self-referential. By this I mean I wasn't talking just to people who identified as musicians, artists, or a part of the music industry...quite a few weren't regular concert attendees (though it was great to speak to so many people who had been involved in music and the arts for a long while, and it still holds importance in their lives. Maybe that should be another avenue to really discuss?).
  3. People were far more concerned with the music than anything else, and made that known from the beginning of the conversations.
These are just a few points I found from opening night. Later, I'll write about how people reacted to my project in casual conversation, my trip to the Deutsche Opera Berlin and their amazing performance of Les Troyens, and some thoughts about cultural advertisement I noticed in Berlin, as well as possibly discussing funding differences and issues between the disparate methods of the US vs. Germany and Sweden. 


Music, Mathematics, and Logic

And, no, not the DAW.

For the past week, I've been working on learning LilyPond and Frescobaldi. LilyPond is text-based music engraving software. Frescobaldi is a front-end interface that helps speed things along, with quick insertion, a code snippet repository built in, auto-fill typing, and a preview window that links to your code. Incredibly handy for spotting errors.

LilyPond is entirely programmed in C++, so it constitutes the second time I've learned a C-style environment (The first being CSound, which is C). It was not the first time I've delved into learning a C++ environment, as I had attempted to learn the basics of C++ several years ago. I also had attempted to learn LilyPond several years ago, and gave up after a couple weeks of banging my head on the desk.

It's amazing what a couple of years can do. The LilyPond has been greatly improved, and Frescobaldi improves my workflow. There are still some nit-picky things I don't like about the formatting before tweaks, but they're not a big deal--straight out of the box, LilyPond can create a usable, and relatively aesthetically pleasing score.

All this is lead up to the real issue at hand--Music, Mathematics, Logic, and computer programming


A conversation popped up on my Facebook feed a few days ago regarding the importance of learning mathematics, from algebra through calculus, in HS. The question was posed "How many of you use algebra, geometry, trig, or calculus in your day to day lives, or in your professions?" The string of answers came in, ranging from "Never, it's pointless," to "Use algebra regularly, but there are a lot of programs that handle the math for you."

Here are my answers:

as a matter of fact, yeah, most every day while I'm attempting to do programming. having not taken calculus at any point, I'm really far behind in a ton of ways. I'm struggling horribly making command protocols because I don't have the math background needed.
It is definitely worth taking, because it allows you to pursue sciences. Definitely tell every younger person I know to load up on math. It doesn't hurt to learn it, and if you don't, you are limited by what you can later achieve. I seriously kick myself every day for thinking that as a musician I'd never need math. But you never know what life brings you, so it's best to be prepared. 
14 y/o me never would have believed 30 y/o me that I'd spend 8+ hours a day learning a programming language. Never would have believed I'd write my own (unsophisticated) program for generating music. 
It's worth it in so many areas--don't limit your future because it may not be used. Because if you don't have it, you'll definitely never use it.

And later:

I think treating education as a "learn only what you have to know to do X" instead of "learn all that you can so that you can do whatever you may pursue in the future" is dangerous ground. It assumes we know exactly what we'll be doing the rest of our lives, and limits us to that one early decision. It's harder to do when you're older, if the opportunity arises. And, if something doesn't work out, and you need to change paths, having a wider base of knowledge to draw from really helps facilitate that change.

There's a huge amount of truth in my statement that 14 y/o John never would have believed 30 y/o me about what I'd need to know. I've done some posts chronicling my HS, undergraduate, and graduate career, with tidbits of advice. I've grown a bit as a human since those posts (and definitely as a writer), and there are a few things that I've come to understand.

First, that 14 y/o John had no real idea what was best for future John. He thought he did, and so did all the people giving me advice. But, in the end, no one is clairvoyant, no one could see that I'd spend a week of my time learning C++ to do musical engraving. 14 y/o me would never have been able to fathom writing a solo cello piece, let alone being fed-up with how slow and bulky engraving is in Finale and Sibelius. He never would have understood when I learned how to engrave in Inkscape because notation software handles proportional notation horribly--especially if you're using ruler measurements not note-spacing (this should happen in 1.7mm as compared to this should happen every X amount of notes).

17 y/o John had petitioned his HS to allow him to take a compute programming course at a neighboring HS. They offered a C++ course, and he was very interested in getting into programming. He'd been an avid gamer (and I still am), and he felt like learning how to program might be a good step in that direction. His petition was rejected, and he took a course on "Business Computer Applications," which taught him little he didn't know--the introduction to Access was helpful, but the other 3/4 of the class--Word, Excel, and building a Geocities site--he already knew how to do (spoiler, I had a Geocities site before that class, and ended up having two! That's right, I had 2 Geocities sites!).

But before that, HS John was making mistakes. He had decided to take jazz band, band, and even choir instead of math courses. He never took anything beyond Algebra 2 as a sophomore. He was on the path to take Calc as a senior, but decided that "as a musician, I would never need this."

He was wrong.

In undergrad, as a music education major, there is not much wiggle room in the curriculum. The basic music curriculum is fairly open ended, but any and all free time is taken by the music education curriculum. Unlike in HS, where I felt 14 y/o John made mistakes, 18 y/o John didn't make any mistakes in his curriculum choices. There is no regret about taking conducting II, all the instrumental methods courses, or even the three 300 level lit courses 21 y/o John took in a desperate panic to graduate with a general music degree.

But still 21 y/o John had no idea what 29 y/o John would be doing.

My masters was much the same as undergraduate. Perhaps the one course 24 y/o John should have taken is the post-tonal theory course instead of the easier 20th century performance practice course. But even that course was great, as I got to work with  fantastic performer and scholar Douglas Hedwig. I learned PureData, tried learning CSound on my own (and failed), and started to see the deficits from my early educational mistakes.Still 24 y/o John only had an inkling where 30 y/o John was heading.

Flash forward, 28 y/o John is working on an interactive installation. He sees a major flaw in his plans--he lacks the skills to get the separate computer programs talking to each other. He scours the internet, finds bits of advice, but most of it is far beyond his understanding. His grasp of Java is weak (and it still is), and even though the programs have similarities, he's just not able to figure things out. The biggest sticking point? The underlying math, logic, and programming skills

Flash forward, 29 y/o John is trying to create a program for algorithmically generating music. It's something he's been intrigued by since 20 y/o John had met David Cope. 20 y/o John could grasp, conceptually, what Cope was doing, but had no idea how it worked. He filed it away for future reference. 24 y/o John had dabbled, and realized he had no requisite skills.

29 y/o John found himself locked in a lab while on a Fulbright, fighting the issue that he wanted music to be generated in real time during his dissertation. He wanted the computer to play an integral role to the development of his opera.

29 y/o John made the realization that 27 y/o John had a feeling about, 24 y/o John had an inkling, 21 y/o John had a small clue, 17 y/o John had a dream about, and 14 y/o John had absolutely no idea existed in the world--that without higher mathematics, his ability to program control into his patches was doomed.

So, 29 y/o John learned what he could. He read up on Markov chains, different processes for generating large amounts of data based on constraints, math, math, math.

He threw his mouse more than once. There was a couple months where he subsisted mainly on coffee, cigarettes, and bourbon. But he learned...

Just not enough.

Now I sit here plugging away at LilyPond. It's much easier than when I was teaching myself HTML and CSS at 17, then again in undergrad. It was easier than learning Pd in class during my masters. It's easier then when I tried to learn CSound, LilyPond, and Processing on my own, and failed at each. Each language builds off the last. Each bit of mathematics I learn for a project, builds and builds...but I still have no real understanding of calculus, or how to model higher mathematical functions. When I look at complex answers for fixing spacing in LilyPond, I blanch. No, it'll be easier for me to fix as an SVG. When I still think about creating a program to generate music notation in real-time, my heart races, and my thought is "Must.Find.Programmer..." (this is no longer a part of my dissertation, as it has evolved in a different way since those thoughts).

All this comes back to what 14 y/o John thought was going to be best for me. He was wrong. As are most HS students. Even those with the best intentions are often wrong. I've learned that the only thing I know for certain is that I have little idea what my future self may need to complete any given task.

So I offer this advice--do not choose an educational path because you think you want to do "X" for your entire life. In HS, push yourself and take the advanced courses. It's not to say that all the playing and singing didn't help prepare me to be a musicians, but in my choice to specialize early, I've come to realize that I succeeded in specializing--almost too well.

If you have the chance to learn something, learn it. Learn algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. Learn programming languages and mathematical logic. Learn to sing, dance, play instruments, paint, carpentry, plumbing, circuits, and electricity. Make your choices to learn one of the other when you have to, but do it for the right reasons. And never choose not to learn something because you don't think it will be valuable.

That was the real choice I made--not to learn to play jazz, or to learn to sing in a group. My choice was I did not think calculus, statistics, or any other math was going to be valuable. That may seem like a semantic difference, but it's really not. I made the wrong choice because my reasoning was wrong, not because math is more important than jazz band or choir.

Never miss a chance to learn--it's those missed opportunities that will haunt you later.


Crossing genres and a definition of a dirty word

There's been much talk of pop styled musical groups lately. There's a contingent in the classical world that calls for classical groups to meet audiences half-way, and that the best way to do so is to embrace popular music in classical concerts.

There are others that claim that such attempts are nothing but pandering to commercial interests. That this type of programming accepts a viewpoint that classical music institutions and smaller groups should be tied, first and foremost, to commercial interests.

Of course, the truth of the matter is that there is no one answer to this dilemma. Performing popular music, be it transcriptions, arrangements, or original tunes in popular styles is not a new idea; nor is it likely to be the savior of classical music that certain pundits assume. It is also not outright pandering, nor specifically bowing to commercial interests.

A series of problems lie at the heart of this (continuous) disagreement. First is a philosophical issue--what is the purpose of the institution or group? Is the chief purpose of the group entertainment, educational, promotion of the arts, or some other idea? The answer for performing organizations, or course, is the promotion of the arts.

Which comes to another question: what arts are being promoted, and how best to promote them? For a symphonic group, the general mission is to play concerts at a high caliber. What is on the concerts is a matter of discussion.

In deciding programming, there are many issues to weigh, including past seasons, areas of expertise of the performers involved, a general aesthetic mission, and what best serves the public (which is decided, in part, by feedback from the public). Every group has its own character, from symphonies that focus on Classical and Romantic area rep, to new music ensembles focusing only on the most recent compositions from a few different styles, to a gospel choir performing modern and traditional spirituals, hymns, and anthems.

Many of these groups are tied to specific geographic regions. The New York Philharmonic serves, first and foremost, New York City. newEar new music ensemble serves Kansas City, MO. The Indianapolis Children's Chorus serves Indianapolis, IN, and San Francisco Opera serves San Francisco, CA. Groups when they reach a certain size and have accumulated enough cultural capital can begin exerting influence in wider and wider circles.

For groups focusing on performance, this means that they can add more concerts to the schedule, tour, record CDs (and publish themselves, or work with a record label), create spin-off groups (say, a section forming a small chamber ensemble under the banner of the large ensemble. This is fairly common in large symphonies) or expand into other areas of need, such as focusing on educational outreach. For educationally focused groups (such as youth symphonies or choruses), this could mean creating more groups, bringing in more teachers to help run sectionals, expand into after school programs, or expand performance opportunities through recordings and tours.

But first and foremost, the main mission of the group should be the focus: in this case, I will limit it to just groups focusing on the promotion of the arts through musical performance.

Discussions have arisen on what is the product of a group. It seems odd to ask this for a performing group, however in the pop world, the paradigm has been shifting. In the age before recorded media, the live performance was the product. In the age just prior to the rise of recorded media, the beginning of the radio age, the live performance was still a main factor. There were radio and television symphonies in place all over the world, from the BBC Orchestra to the NBC Orchestra (under the baton of Arturo Toscanini). For pop groups, the recorded media quickly became the main product--it is easier and more cost effective to produce a large amount of recordings and sell them for personal use than to undertake a tour. Radio proliferated the songs, home audiences rushed out to buy records, and the rise of the record company and popular music in the 20th century begins to take firm hold.

Of course the most early adopters of the technology were arts groups. One of the earliest recordings on an Edison Phonograph that has been preserved to this day is Johannes Brahms playing Brahms. Radio and TV Orchestras gave regular concerts over the air, and opera singers, such as Enrico Caruso, were recorded and pushed out as the must have items of the time. It was a time that held culture in high esteem for being culture. The goal for Grammophone was, of course, commercial at heart, but there was also a moral belief that the highest quality and caliber of music should be represented. This early 20th century period was marked by the writings of philosophers and critics dating back to the 19th century--in particular Schopenhauer who praised music as being the highest art form (but not all music), Eduard Hanslick and his formalist push (backing Brahms and attacking Wagner and other artists that sought to connect music to outside forces), and Theodore Adorno (who's critical theory is still approached today, and again touts the superiority of high art over all other art forms, even specifically attacking "Jazz," though at this time it is thought that the term is synonymous with all popular music, swing being the most popular at the time of his writings). The Romantic ideals of music pushed into music theory as well, where a certain German nationalist named Heinrich Schenker put forth a musical theory of linear (contrapuntal) analysis that, as a theory, works well for some specific style periods. Along with the useful theoretical end, Schenker attached large amounts of philosophy pushing nationalistic ideals, most importantly the superiority of German musical writing.

Nationalism in general was a major movement in the Romantic era. Countries throughout Europe were rebelling against what was seen as cultural imperialism in music--German music being placed on the highest place, and all other music being inferior to it. This manifested itself in many countries, notably Sweden (an early adopter due to the efforts of Gustav III, a ruler who was not known for his strength, so he made up for it with wanton flourishes of power. The bonus was the creation of the state opera, state symphony, and various other arts enterprises in Sweden), England (whose identity became more coalesced in the 20th century with Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams), Scotland (who was seeking not only their individual identity apart from Germany, but also apart from England), France (who was often at odds with Germany, and now focused on the creation of original forms, such as the French Grand Opera), and many more. However, culture in America was tied heavily to who immigrated to America. Recently founded in comparison to these movements, America had to struggle with national identity on a more base level, and cultural capital was not the highest priority. This may be linked to groups such as the Puritans who did not believe in the use of music for recreation, only for services, or Calvinists, who had similar views, but were a bit more lenient on the recreational use of music, but a bit more strict on what music could be performed in church (monophony only--meaning everyone singing the melody together. Instruments were also frowned upon). And, of course as time has gone on, there have been more forms of music in America, from the minstrelsy shows of the 19th century (where many of the American folk songs, such as "O Susannah" originate--for a look at the times, check out the later verses. There's a lot of stereotypical imagery which showed the lack of understanding of the culture). This leads to the rise of Burlesque, the creation of American theater (with musicals owing much to signspiel traditions of Germany, and the light comic operas of the English, especially Gilbert and Sullivan).

Why cover these trends? Because they are important to understanding how performing groups came to be in the United States. Symphonies were often led by European conductors, and filled with European musicians. American musicians traveled to Europe to study, with notable exceptions (such as Charles Ives, who had a fiercely nationalistic view, and was a misogynist, which explains why he discusses Europeans in derogatory effeminate terms--this is not to detract from his music, to put in slight perspective why he took the path he did. Other nationalistic composers also created national trends based on misguided personal ideals. It doesn't injure their music, but it's important to keep a perspective on why these trends started. Reactionary, and political...but that was a past post. Let's at least be honest about where the trends begin).

There has also been a huge amount of cross pollination between musical styles from time immemorial. From Machaut and Dufay writing popular songs and including them in their masses; to madrigals inhabiting a space somewhere between folk music and liturgical anthems; on to the use of folk music in the nationalistic works of Sweden, Scotland, and England; Barok and Kodaly recording folk songs, and using the material (directly and indirectly in their music); to the rise of film music with Korngold and Bernard Herrmann's memorable scores; jazz composers and orchestras recreating pieces in a new light, or fusing traditions into new pieces (Duke Ellington is a master of this with a great example being his Nutcracker Suite); dance bands develop into funk, go go, and disco, all which originally included acoustic instruments as well as the rising electric guitar, electric bass, and synthesizers; and we would be remiss to include the great Herbie Hancock's work in fusion, reaching out to artists of all walks starting in the 70s: all of this to illustrate a single point--the idea of fusing genres, even in the orchestral world, is not new. How many rock/orchestral concerts can be pointed out in the last 40 years? I personally own Metallica's S&M , which dates from 1999...And yet, somehow that collaboration concert didn't lead to more amazing things with the San Francisco Orchestra. Metallica fans did not rush out and buy the great SFO recordings. Or what about Portishead's concert and recording "Live at Roseland" with members of the NY Phil? Did this collaboration bring more people to the NY Phil?

I made the claim earlier that there is no correct answer to the issues that face orchestras. I do, however, have a strong opinion of what can help a great many of them--a return to their original purpose of serving a local community. Orchestras exist for their live performances, not their recordings, live streams, or televised appearances. Media is a way of reaching a wider crowd, but is that crowd who is really being "served" by the organization? If I buy a CD of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it is a one off deal. I may purchase another, if I happen to like their recording of a certain piece. I did buy their recording of Ives' 4th Symphony. Did that one time sale bring me to the concert?

No, because I live nowhere near Chicago. At the time, I lived in Kansas City.

Did buying that recording get me to go to the Kansas City Symphony?

No, because that recording is not the KCS.

Connecting with a local audience comes down to knowing your local audience. This doesn't mean following national metrics, or even sending out a questionnaire to your season ticket holders. This means talking to people--talking to people after concerts, during intermission, and outside the concerts during community events. It means talking to people who aren't your largest donors, but people who would gladly go to a few concerts, when time and funds permit...and if the programming is interesting.

It means connecting with local musicians. Many orchestras do a good job going to local colleges and playing concerts. Some offer side-by-sides. Orchestral musicians often teach at local universities (I had the fortune to take lessons with a principal player). And yet there's still a divide. Composers, both young and old feel left out of the equation. Performers know only one or two members of the orchestra, but don't resonate nor understand the group as a whole. And the public faces, the musical directors, often hold themselves aloof from the community--and those that make themselves known are beloved (take Bernstein, Osma Vaska, Michael Tilson Thomas, just to name a few).

But pandering is not the way. Ah, there it is, the dirty word that pundits on one side scream "Listening to your audience is not pandering!" while the other side retaliates "Playing anything but the greatest works is pandering!"

There's a simple definition to "what is pandering?" The basic definition is to gratify or indulge an immoral desire or taste. With a symphony then, what is pandering?

Creating a concert season that abandons your mission.

If your mission is to "promote the arts through orchestral concerts to the local populace," then the question becomes "Is playing a bunch of pop arrangements to draw in a wider crowd pandering?" The deeper questions are "Does pop music need promotion?" and "Is the purpose of the orchestra to sell tickets?" Another way to phrase it is "Are orchestras solely for entertainment?" And this leads to the question "Are masterpieces, Romantic and Classical era pieces, and large symphonic works entertaining?"

And this reaches a final question of taste, which is something that all too often pundits on both sides seem to ignore. Not everyone likes classical music. Not everyone who likes classical music likes Classical era music. Someone may love Schubert but hate Bruckner. They may love Penderecki but despise Brahms. They may love Nickelback, Pentatonix, and Lindsay Stirling, but hate Shostacovich.

Does this mean that the answer to the question becomes "The metric says the most people like Lindsay Stirling. We can sell out concerts if we bring her in."?

Does this mean that this serves the community?

Or is it entertainment, a way to sell tickets, a necessary evil, or a brand new way of expressing ourselves that should replace the old?

For me, this is where the arts stand. They don't stand at a point of answer, they stand at a point of questions. To answer the questions, each group must discuss them, openly; board, management, and players. Groups must be willing to experiment within what they feel is the purpose of their group. And be ready to say "no, this is not what we stand for as an organization."

So, let's open the dialogue--here and all over. What is the purpose of a non-profit performing group? What are the necessary "evils" (or giving of concerts outside what the group would consider the mission)? How broad is the mission? Are all music forms to "equal" in representation? Do some groups need more or less representation? And how do we connect with a local audience without giving up our moral standing (as it relates to the mission of the group)?

Thoughts, ideas, comments?


Music as Politics

The connections between music and politics are making waves. In a time of much turmoil in the world, there are those in the music world that demand musicians take political stances. There are also those that believe music stands apart, as a message of peace, love, and hope, and should not enter specifically into politics.

Recently, this has come to the fore with the conflicts in Venezuela. A concert was given by the Youth Orchestra of Lara on February 12th, the same day that violent protests erupted. Gustavo Dudamel conducted the ensemble, and his decision to do so has caused heavy discussions in musical circles. Dudamel has been asked in an open letter by Gabriela Montero to stand with the Venezuelan people against the current regime. Dudamel responded that the concert was about "peace, love, and unity," and that the commemoration of February 12th as the beginning of the National Network of Youth and Children's Orchestras was not about supporting a regime, but about supporting those ideas.

I leave the debate on the political implications to those with a finer knowledge of political science than myself. There are those that would say not protesting means tacit agreement, that silence is the same as agreeing. I have a feeling certain artists, including those that have lived through major persecution, would disagree. My thoughts turn to Shostakovich and Prokofiev, who lived in a time when Stalin threatened their very lives if they wrote pieces deemed improper. In Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise, Ross spends an entire chapter on discussing the difficulties in creating music behind the iron curtain, and discusses how Prokofiev had friends in the theater and music world disappearing around him, and he feared for his very life. And yet Gabriel Prokofiev, in his incredibly skewed look at contemporary music, seemed to ignore those constraints placed upon his grandfather, and focused on all the beautiful, "traditional" music that Sergei Prokofiev created. Gabriel also ignored the amount of innovation that Sergei attempted to put in his compositions while working under serious constraints. 

 Many different examples of the coincidence of music and politics are available throughout history. Jennie Wood wrote a brief article outlining three different examples following the imprisonment of members of Pussy Riot--Verdi's Nabucco, the rise of punk music in politics in America and the creation of Rock the Vote, and the group Rage Against the Machine. These are just three examples, one from the Romantic period, and two from modern perspectives, of musicians using their art for political ends. Matthew Shaftel makes strong arguments throughout his paper on Stephen Foster, showing the changes Foster made over time as he became more aware of the horrors of slavery. His style changed from one of Irish/Anglo influenced songs performed in black-face, to more traditional minstrelsy songs, to more culturally aware music, and finally to the later period of anti-slavery songs. Another great American folk musician, sadly recently deceased, Pete Seeger, wrote many political songs, starting with his involvement with the Young Communist League, to anti-WWII songs, Vietnam protest songs, and continued activism through his entire life.

As art music musicians, there's sometimes a Romantic ideal that we should hold ourselves aloof from these conflicts, that somehow our music serves a higher purpose above such base political leanings. However, this ignores important aspects of who we are as humans. All our actions are defined by our experiences, past, present, and future. Our experiences are in part dictated by the society and environment in which we are a direct part. For me to claim my music has nothing to do with society is to say that I have nothing to do with society. At Opera Veritatis, Joseph Jones talks about the effects of musical snobbery. He points to the usual suspects, including conventions like concert halls, clapping, talking, etc. To me these arguments are base, nothing more than symptoms of Jones' first statements--classical musicians holding themselves aloof from society. Jones goes on to defend some ideas of snobbery, and shows the double edged sword that is the attack on the establishment--ideas I agree with. The concert hall isn't the problem. Neither is the idea of quiet during the music. The problem is instead linked to a perception, a preconception about classical music. It's an idea, held generally by society, that classical musician are not a part of society, but held above it. Some classical musicians believe this. Some believe that this is caused directly by the music, specifically by difficult, complex, atonal works. I could not disagree more. It's about this poisonous perception held by society, and perpetuated by the fear mongers. "Classical music is dying!" is the rallying cry for changing the music, but not the perception.

We are all linked to society, which is linked to political ideas and our environment. When Valery Gergiev and Anna Netrebko spoke on being Putin supporters, connections were made to specific policies of Putin's regime. Writer's asked Netrebko and co. to publicly state their ideas on those various policies, in particular Putin's deplorable positions on homosexuality. Gidon Kremer, Daniel Barenboim, and Martha Agerich performed a concert in protest of Putin, and those that showed support for him. There was a call to boycott the Metropolitan Opera's production of Eugene Onegin because of the participation of Gergiev and Netrebko. There was an online petition to dedicate the opening to the LGBT community. The Met of course stated that because their ideals are artistic, they wouldn't make political statements. Never mind the connections between the plot of Eugene Onegin and Tchaikovsky's own life, especially his homosexuality and all the possible dire repercussions his personal life could have had on his public life. Tatyana, a young woman, meets Eugene Onegin and falls madly in love. She writes a letter to him, and he comes to her and tells her he's a man that cannot easily love, he can only offer brotherly affection in return, and that Tatyana should not be so open about her feelings. Is Tchaikovsky Tatyana, wanting to scream his love only to be admonished? Or is he Onegin, pressing his male lovers that they cannot be together because of societal constraints?

So never mind that, when the opera is taken in context of the composer and the time it was written, that it has political ideals attached to it. Never mind that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual and could not even begin to have even fulfilling private relationships for fear of the repercussions. By keeping to this Romantic ideal, holding classical music aloof, we lose possible interpretations of a work that can add depth.


My own music is marked by the influence of society and my views of the world around me. Whether or not I am seeking to make a direct political statement, which I often do, or whether I am writing a piece of "absolute music," from a completely formalist approach, my experiences influence the work. Every piece of music I hear, every article, scholarly journal, book, or blog I read, and every movie, tv show, cartoon, or live stream influences me, and therefore my music.

Yesterday, Independence Square in Kyiv was attacked by police and pro-government forces. There had been a long standing protest in the square, led by Euromnaida, formed by the minority coalition of the government. The original conflict was between a pro-EU stance vs. a pro-Russia stance, an economic fight over which trade union to join. However, as time went on, it became more apparent that the fight had become about general rights, freedom, and a group of people feeling their voices and views were not being heard. What started as peaceful protests grew in size. The Ukrainian government's ties to Russia were strengthened, and the actions of the government and police are undoubtedly being, at the very least, influenced by Putin's ideas, if not Putin's regime. Police cracked down on the protests, leading to violence from the protesters (though there is, of course, debate on who started the violence). All this exploded yesterday as the protesters refused to leave the square, military forces began throwing incendiaries into the tents, lighting many on fire, and police and pro-government thugs moved into the square. There have been multiple deaths, mainly in the protesters, and also major targeting of journalists, even those outside the direct conflict. Security operations have begun cracking down all over the Ukraine (in Ukrainian, so you'll have to translate). I watched the live feed as the crackdown happened, horrified by what I saw. Just before the crackdown began, Ukrainian clergy sung a chant of peace. There are various songs written for, adapted, and used by the Euromaidan movement.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies stated
A composer’s job is to bear witness...their contact with music has made them react, think, and development them with a potential which is something much much greater than becoming a mere consumer. In this respect serious music of all kinds is dangerous. It persuades people to not be a mere consumer. And therefore under present circumstances, it must be castrated, it if isn’t already tending that way.-- LINK
This is a view I hold to as well. Music, as all art, exists not in isolation, but as a series of mirrors. The quote adapted from Shakespeare is that "Art holds a mirror to nature." The real quote is from Hamlet, spoken by Hamlet to the troupe about to perform the play in front of his step-father. The purpose of the play was to get his uncle/step-father to react, to prove that he had, in fact, killed his father and usurped the throne:
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature:
for any thing so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and
Joseph Campbell expounds on the quote in his book The Power of Myth:
Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature. And that’s what it is. The nature is your nature, and all of these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you. When your mind is trapped by the image out there so that you never make the reference to yourself, you have misread the image.

The inner world is the world of your requirements and your energies and your structure and your possibilities that meets the outer world. And the outer world is the field of your incarnation. That’s where you are. You’ve got to keep both going. As Novalis said, 'The seat of the soul is there where the inner and outer worlds meet.--Power of Myth, pg. 68
And that  is the truth of the matter. Art exists as not a single mirror to nature, but as a series of mirrors, reflecting the creator, society, the observer, the observers view of society, and on and on through various repetitions, recursions, refraction, and rarefaction.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies stated in the above linked talk that his Third String Quartet (in the Naxos Series) directly shows his rage toward the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He himself was in the forefront of protests in London, leading the march. A political stance by a sometimes controversial composer, a man who anecdotes say was eating a swan when the messengers from the Queen came to tell him he had been placed as The Queen's Composer (eating swan is illegal in England, as they are owned by the crown).

Are these political and social actions those of a man sitting in an Ivory Tower, working on music that is apart from society? Or is the music just what Davies proposes at the end of his talk: dangerous. Dangerous to the established commercial enterprises, dangerous because difficult music requires thought, and thought is exactly what some people do not want from the masses.


In Seth Godin's manifesto on education in America, Stop Stealing Dreams, he breaks down the history of the American school system well, dating from Horace Mann going to Prussia and adapting the system, and the idea that commercial enterprises were all for the common school because it taught (teaches) students to listen and respond to orders. The same can be said in the hierarchical structures of the large performing bodies--orchestras, bands, and choirs essentially must work together and under a unified artistic vision, normally the conductor's, to create a piece. As such musicians are taught to follow orders in those situations. At the same time, musicians are constantly asked to flex their muscles, make creative interpretations, and pursue their own artistic merits. This manifests itself particularly in chamber and solo performance. Music all at once serves the grand purpose--teaching students to follow orders--and fights against it, giving autonomy and creativity to the students. Because instrumental music is not as straight-forward as a pop song in its interpretation, it also does the same for the audience--following directions in the formal aspects of the experience in the concert hall, but stimulating the brain to make its own cognitive and artistic leaps, sometimes with guidance provided by a talk or program notes, sometimes without it.

Therefore, the very creation of classical music is, in some fashion, political. It functions outside commercial norms, and can be seen as dangerous to some schools of thought on the purpose of education, and the freedom of society. It also functions within the framework, particularly in the 6th-12th grade setting in America where the majority of music education is in large groups led by a single conductor. Students learn to work together and function as a societal subgroup, but ownership of the interpretation is normally reserved for the conductor--thus a struggle between an idealized socialistic interpretation (workers joining together for a common goal) vs. the capitalistic ideal of ownership (only one person can "own" the interpretation for the group--the "workers," in this case the musicians, do not define the interpretation). Even in solo and chamber interpretations, young students can fall into the habit of copying a recording, taking someone else's interpretation of the music rather than their own. How many young trombonists grow up thinking the proper interpretation of the Grondahl Concerto is the one performed by Christian Lindberg? Fights erupt over the definitive recording of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas--is it Schnabel, Barenboim, or Brendel?

Or, is the best interpretation your own?


Popular music and politics can be traced through so many avenues. Some have been mentioned above--minstrelsy and folk movements in Stephen Foster and Pete Seeger; the punk movement; and Pussy Riot. The metal genres of Scandinavia also have a rich political history, most famously coming to the fore in the black metal scene in Norway. There are numerous documentaries of the groups involved--specifically Burzum and Mayhem. This documentary on Burzum is one of my favourites as it shows how the music itself, which was grounded basically in a youth culture, lashing out against societal norms by using the most shocking lyrics and imagery possible, got turned into a mass media frenzy on Satanism and destruction. It also documents the influence of one person, Varge Vikernes, and how he was able to influence fans, and even cause a string of copy-cat church burnings by people that were not truly Satanists, and only fans of Burzum because of the anti-establishment stances.

When I pitched by Fulbright, I went in knowing these facts, but I had a major question--was it really the influence of just a couple people that changed the history of metal in Norway? Sweden didn't have the same outbreak of violence. Remember, first, that this happened before the internet information age--bands became well known in their small scene through the trading of demo tapes, fanzines, and local music stores and clubs. Burzum was known in Sweden, but not embraced the same way, while Swedish groups such as At The Gates, In Flames, and Meshuggah were formed in the late 80s and early 90s, and had more popularity in Sweden. Norwegian and Swedish groups could trace common ancestry, to the English group Venom, the Swedish group Bathory, and of course to early metal group such as Black Sabbath. The lyric characteristics are similar, focusing on occult and Satanic imagery, death, pestilence, and metaphors for what the groups saw as corrupt groups (often Christianity, the government, and commercial society).

Yet Sweden kept it all in their music. My interview with Anders Björler was particularly enlightening. As a member of At The Gates, an early Swedish Death Metal group, he had been a part of the scene from the beginning. He spoke with some disdain about Varge Vikernes, and viewed the outward show of violence toward society as deplorable. As I've gone to shows, and met more death metal musicians here in Stockholm, I see the same ideas. There's an angst, an anti-establishment feeling, and yet the shows are full of happiness, head banging, and some of the best mosh-pit etiquette I've ever seen. There's a respect for each other, a communal experience of an obvious niche crowd, somewhat alienated from society, that warms my heart. The concerts remind me so much of classical concerts, with their specific traditions, rules, behaviors, and even dress. Metal musicians are also snobs, able to rattle off band after band, since songs from local groups I've never encountered, and even give the oddly dressed fellow a bit of a sideways glance--I don't own the standard accoutrement of metal, the leather jacket with band patches, the chains, or the the tight pants, so I go to concerts in my standard dress of jeans, a tshirt, and a plain hoody. I do, however, have the obligatory long hair and beard.

And yet, after just a couple concerts, I started having conversations with audience members. They're a welcoming group, understanding that if you've wandered into the club, and you're obviously paying attention to the music, drinking, and enjoying yourself, than you are one of them. There is, after all, nothing wrong with a bit of elitism. When I ask questions about metal, they assume I know the history, that if they reference Bathory, I will know the reference. Or when various audience members in the know start calling for covers of obscure songs by bands I've never heard of, that I'll accept that cover as readily as I'd accept a new song. The traditions can be a barrier, but only to those that are afraid of different traditions, refuse traditions, refuse change, and generally refuse to be met on any ground but their own.

The music is politically charged, the musicians have their own opinions, spouting what commercial companies and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies would both term as "dangerous" music; music that doesn't fit within the societal norms. Even if the lyrics weren't anti-establishment, it'd be inherently political by standing musically apart from what is deemed acceptable by society. Even through inaction, a group is political, just by creating music that is individualistic.


By now, I hope all of you reading this post have seen my viewpoint on music and politics as being linked, in the same way that all people are included in society, even if that inclusion is by exclusion. A stance is a stance; for, against, abstaining, redirecting, true, or false.

And, perhaps one of the biggest problems we're having in classical music today is that we try, try ever so hard, to not have a stance, to remain aloof, to take this Romantic ideal that we are somehow above society. This is not reflected in the music. It is only somewhat reflected in the traditions--I do not hold to beliefs that a raised stage is a physical symbol of a separation between performers and audience. It is a practical matter of sight lines. I do not believe that the idea of having a traditional garb to go to the symphony is the issue, though the social contexts of that garb being of the upper class is a problem. I do take issue with the perception that one must dress a certain way to attend any event--I've been to the NY Phil in a tux, and to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in a t-shirt. I still don't own a band t-shirt nor a leather jacket, yet still go to metal shows.

Are we going to let common (mis)conceptions rule our decisions to change tradition? Or, perhaps, we could instead fight against the (mis)conception? Or is it just easier to change ourselves to what society thinks it wants, than to provide society what we believe it needs?

I asked the same question in regards to post-secondary education. The troubles I see in academia--bloating of administration; loss of full-time positions; the push for low-paid, part-time, unprotected workers (adjuncts) to take over teaching--as symptoms of a fundamental switch in the philosophy of post-secondary education. The students are now consumers, which means they dictate what is being provided. A student survey can get an adjunct fired, even if the student lied on the survey. University sanctioned social events demand more money the expanding classrooms. Larger classes are ok, as long as there is more study space for students to socialize.

What is the purpose, then, of post-secondary education?

And do the consumers know what they're buying?

Curators serve a valuable purpose in examining not just what the target group may want, but also providing what the curator believes needs to be included. Professors and administrators are curators in academia--but, to my mind, only one of those two groups is actively curating; the other is pandering, hoping to stay relevant with the new, hip generation, by giving them what they want. It's a symptom of another deep issue; the commercialization of education. When education becomes not about the mission, but about money, the where does the mission fall?

So, two questions: what is the mission?; and how does the mission related to the current commercialized environment?

These two questions are also important in classical musical establishments.


Those two questions are inherently political. As soon as we delve into the domain of human values, we move directly into politics. Political parties are manifestations of the ideals of various groups. In a democracy, these groups vie for power based on popular opinion. In the American two party system, we see groups moving back and forth, pandering to different bases, changing their views, and telling people what they want to here. In Kansas, a recent bill was pushed that would have enabled discrimination of public and private services to homosexual couples by people who held a religious belief against homosexuality. The bill, of course, stalled and was thrown out. It was not written by anyone in Kansas, but by a think-tank group that is proposing similar bills all over the US. Even if the bill would have been enacted, it never would have stood against an appeal, as similar cases have lost throughout the US. But, by proposing the vote, certain politicians from conservative areas have solidified their standing with their conservative constituents. They fought the good fight, and lost. This is the essence of pandering--the officials didn't know what was in it before sending it off, they didn't really care, all they cared about was the fact that they knew it would please a base group, which would lead to re-election, and continuing to have their place of power.


Classical music, and its representative organizations, are inherently political. This is because the music is tied to society, affects specific individuals, who place the music within their own frame of context, influenced by their knowledge and past experiences, and then experience the music as a personal event based upon their own ideas, ideals, and morals. The same is true of groups--whether or not the Met dedicated their opening to the LGBT community or not, or even if they had refused to answer, their reaction would have been political in nature. Their answer as it stands, is political in nature--by saying you're not political, you're taking a political stance.

Saying you're outside society, does not mean that you are.

And, perhaps, that leads to some of the deepest issues some classical music groups are having. I've said often and repeatedly that I write music based in society. I've stated that my audience, the final critic of my piece, is me. That is 100% true. As I write music, I can only hope to show myself in my music, my place in society, and the ideas I wish to expound upon. By focusing on the Other, an outside personage, I can only hope to portray a partial picture--complete understanding of another person is something that is nearly impossible.

But even though my work is mediated always through myself, it does not mean that I somehow hold it outside society. My music is inherently a part of society because I am a part of society. My music is inherently political because I have specific ideals and morals that can enter my work either consciously or subconsciously. I am not the titular anti-protaganist in [Untitled] at the beginning, saying my music is about nothing. I'm the composer who, by the end, has realized that even by striving to be absolute, he is influenced by his environment, surroundings, and society. Just because I do not set out to write a piece of music that has a distinct story, does not mean the music will not tell a story.

Because, for each individual, the music will have a slightly different meaning, as understood through their experiences and knowledge.

That is my ultimate philosophy on music-there is no inherent story in instrumental music, but something constructed through experiences, some shared throughout societies (local and global), traditions, and personal ideals. All music can be political, all arts groups are political, and the greatest transgression we're making isn't in the music itself, but in the preconception that, somehow, the arts are outside society. It's not the concert that alienates people, it's our own minds.