Retrospective 1: The Perception of Orchestral Performances

Related to my last post, an old friend of mine said on Facebook

While I have enjoyed reading them, there is a tenor in your posts that doesn't quite resonate with me as a fellow musician. I respect the authority and learned nature of your analyses, but the over-arching, general conclusions you come to don't accurately reflect my own experiences. Of course, I understand that one must generate their own conclusions mostly derived from their own experiences, but I felt compelled to write you that my conclusions of the state of western/classical music is not the same as yours, probably because my experiences have most likely been different than yours. Your opinions on the role of new music in comparison with the standard repertoire, how symphony models should function given their challenges, and defining what those challenges actually are differ from my own. I just wanted to write to you that all the ailments you feel the current model(s) have, remember the sample size is probably larger than one initially realizes. What happens in one city, in one orchestra, in one country, doesn't necessarily provide an ample basis to summarize the status of all models.

And, on this, I 100% agreed with him. If more than 100% were possible, I'd be that. The generalization of an entire model based on one, or even a few orchestras in cities in a single country is not enough to generalize about all of music.

I also have a very specific viewpoint on orchestral music and performance, from why I don't write symphonies, to why I enjoy certain performances over other performances.

What I thought I'd do for a few blog posts is start looking into some of the "whys." I asked "why" so many composers and young musicians jumped all over John Adams. Now it's time to ask why in regards to my own thought processes.

First off, why am I putting this on the internet and not just in a journal under my bed? Because I, foolishly perhaps, believe that my words can have an effect on the world--especially the immediate world that surrounds me. People I know, people I interact with, and, to a lesser extent, "friends of friends." Perhaps my own views are mirrored in others, and this process will help others. Or, perhaps, but offering a better understanding of my viewpoints, those with differing views can begin to see where I'm coming from.

So, let's begin with the post that began this process--my perception about orchestral performance. Let's think of sample size first and put in a few conditionals. Condition 1: Recordings don't count. Going to a concert, playing in a concert, and listening to a recording all different activities. Recordings are a medium change, and therefore reference an event. This causes a loss of "energy," if you will. This is like in an internal combustion engine, when gas, oxygen, and spark collide, potential energy of the gas and oxygen mix is released as kinetic energy. This change of form causes a loss of energy, in this case as heat. It's not a perfect system.

I've talked about all this before, a long time ago.

The next thing to examine is I'm going to ignore times when I was in the orchestra. This takes out a fairly significant amount of my time around orchestras. But, I think it's important to analyze this from a particular point of view: the audience.

Now, I'm not one to say "play only music the audiences wants to hear," nor to say "write music for the masses." In fact, I think it's quite the opposite--part of the orchestras job is to challenge audiences. This isn't just with the music that is played, but in the actual style of performance.

That being said, an audience can tell pretty immediately if a group is enjoying themselves. They can tell when there is energy within the ensemble. Music performance has a way of transmitting the performers feelings, be it about the piece, the conductor, his/her stand-mate, or any other event in the performer's life. It's been said "Performers are naked on stage." This is true, whether you're a soloist or last chair in a section of a Mahler sized orchestra.

If we take that is true, that the audience can tell the emotions of the performer, how then do I go to concerts and not feel moved. Do the performers dislike the music? This happens sometimes. I've been to a premiere of a new work where it was obvious the players didn't like the music. Since I knew several members of the orchestra, I was able to ask them about the piece, and most showed general disdain for it. And, honestly, I could tell.

Part of this could be because I'm a trained musician. Articulations seemed just a bit sluggish. There wasn't the same amount of control in the playing--I wouldn't go so far as the say careless. I've never been to a professional orchestra concert that was "bad." But beyond the playing being a little lackluster, it was the movements, the facial expressions, the body language. There was a fair amount of concentration--the piece called for measure by measure accelerandos, done as accelerandos. The rhythms were pounding, repetitive, and dissonant. And the orchestra showed all of that. I could tell they thought this mode of writing the piece wasn't effective, as it seemed like they were only giving 85% of their concentration toward lining up those accelerandos. Articulations weren't quite lining up.

I didn't like the piece. This was before I was really getting into composition, but I had always loved "new music." And this piece didn't jive with me. As a composer now, remembering how the piece was written, yes, obviously, it was constructed poorly. Doing a rhythmic accelerando is much easier for the orchestra to read, line up, and concentrate on. But, part of the job of the performer is to sell any piece.

This reminds me of jazz band in college. I remember one rehearsal where various players kept flubbing notes (myself included). And most of us made faces. We knew we had missed it. And we choreographed that. Our director got on us immediately after he cut us off. "What are you doing?" he asked. "The audience may not know you missed the note. But even if they did notice, they're not going to care all that much unless your body screams 'I missed a note. I suck.' Then they will care and remember that missed note."

But this little tidbit goes both ways, I think. Almost every musician is told some form of the above: be stoic, be composed, don't show that you messed up. However, this can be taken too far.

I've been to orchestra concerts where it seemed like the entire orchestra was made of statues. Barely any movement, barely even a cracked smile. It seemed like the only things moving on the string players were their arms. All the brass had proper posture, brought their horns up, and played cleanly. When not playing, they were still, eyes forward.

I felt a sense of disconnect. Are these people? Are they enjoying themselves? They were performing the music wonderfully. Very clean, beautiful dynamic range, wonderful balance, nearly perfect intonation. But I wasn't drawn in. I felt like I was listening to a recording. Or starting at a painting. The only person moving was the conductor, and while he was entertaining, it still seemed odd.

I'm then reminded of a small local "pops" orchestra. I went to their concert because Nitzan Haroz was playing the Grondahl concerto, and then some jazz arrangements with the group. Nitzan is a beast of a player, the Grondahl has a special place in my heart (as it does for all sorts of trombone players...often as their first "real" concerto), and I hadn't been to an orchestra concert for about a year at this point.

These were not completely "amateur" players by any stretch. But there was a great contrast between them and the orchestra mentioned above. They moved with the music, section leaders brought in groups (possibly because they had to lead more), they were active on stage. Nothing flashy, not running around or anything like that, but active. Nitzan was also active as a soloist: he bent his knees, leaned back, swayed lightly with the music, seemed to go up on tiptoes as a rising quiet line went up, then let himself down as the line moved back down. It reminded me a great deal of my own playing, which people always commented was "lively and engaging."

I was drawn into Nitzan's playing, and I was drawn into the performance.

The last example I'll give is one I've mentioned before...though I now can't find it. I heard the Kansas City Symphony sparingly during my time in KC. By then my prejudices as a composer, the petty little "You won't deal with me as a composer, so why should I deal with you as an audience member?" It is petty. I fully admit that. It got worse after meeting their composer in residence...but that's a different story.

Anyway, I did go to the orchestral readings of UMKC composers works when I could. I referenced one earlier. One of the things I always remember from these readings is a certain violinist. She's much older than most in the group--she'd definitely be qualified as a "little old lady." I remember the moment the group of composers joked about her. I didn't join in the joking, but I'll admit to chuckling. Again, bad show on my part.

But then, she showed every single one of us kids how wrong we were. As we watched the group, the conductor was doing mainly straight patterns and light cuing. These were reading after all, so it gets much more difficult to "get into" the music at this point. Hence why I'm not talking about the whole orchestra--the situation is very different.

But this violinist was engaged every single moment. Our group couldn't help but move our eyes to her. She moved toward the edge of her seat as passages got louder. She seemed to draw back slightly with diminuendos. When she dug in with her bow for a hearty passage, we could all tell. Nothing she did made the music seem "difficult," like it was a strain. In fact, her engagement made the music seem easy--if she could react this way in a "reading," then think about what would happen during a well rehearsed performance.

The Kansas City Symphony has always set somewhere in the middle for me as far as orchestra responsiveness. They never seem disengaged or irate about playing a piece (well, a little with one piece I can think of...), but they were slightly reserved.

Reserved is a style of orchestral playing. Maybe it can be traced to the same time period as getting the strings to match bowings. Maybe it comes from an idea that "we need to stay out of the way as performers so the music can speak for itself." But, for me, as an audience member, I feel much more engaged when an orchestra as also acts engaged.

The final example I'll give is Bruckner's 4th Symphony with the ISO, Mario Venzaga conducting. If you've never seen Venzaga conduct, then you're missing out. Talk about a lively conductor. And his interpretations of Bruckner are always a joy to hear. And this performance was no exception. When Venzaga turned to the cellos, and gave a "stirring the pot" type gesture, hand low, swirling in a circle, the cellos responded immediately with their swirling line, giving a little bit of an accent on the beginning of each small repetition. They seemed to move forward slightly in their seats, and engage. The whole section knew this was an important part that Venzaga wanted pulled out, and they responded. These types of little moments happened frequently during the performance.

And, in my youthful exuberance (I think I was...19 or 20 at the time?), I leapt to my feet and gave a rousing standing O, including yells of "BRAVO!" Seriously, me, of all people...the guy that hardly gives a standing O these days. Heh.

As a performer, I can say that I was partially trained to "tone it down." Knowing my personality, I'm sure I was closer to Liberace than Nitzan Haroz with my body movements. There IS a limit of course. But audiences respond to that type of physical energy.

This doesn't mean the performers of the orchestras I've been to weren't amazing. The NY Phil was an amazing experience. The ISO and KCS never once sounded "bad" or put on a concert so poorly that I wanted my money back. Far from it. But what makes a performance great?

I think this connection, the performers showing they're connected with the music, the conductor, and each other, only helps to connect the audience with the performance. This doesn't mean go "Liberace" (for me, a newer case would Lang Lang...as my brother pointed out when I sent him a video of Lang Lang "He even dresses like Liberace!"). But it does mean don't be afraid to show emotion, move to the music, make eye contact across the ensemble when needed, and appear to be present.

Appearance is part of the game. And it may be one reason why people are being drawn to groups like eighth blackbird, who don't go to Liberace levels, but always show physical energy in performance. But then, chamber music is a different game, and one where energy is more prevalent.

And I'm not saying we should go back to "everyone bows non-uniformly" nor to "everyone where whatever they want to wear." But the appearance of being engaged, the physical energy and joy shown by the performers translates to the audience. And that is incredibly important to remember.

Please, audience members, conductors, performers, composers, EVERYONE, chime in! What draws you into a performance? Do the physical actions of the performers make a difference? Let's have a dialogue!


Swedish Adventures 2--I went to the symphony

In Swedish Adventure #1, I went to a night of Kaija Saariaho's chamber music. Saariaho is a current Polar Prize laureate, and the concert was the kick off of her year. In my second major Swedish adventure, I headed out to hear the Kungliga Filharmonickerna (Royal Philharmonic).

This was a spur of the moment decision. I was online chatting with a friend about all the tears being spilled over John Adams. Over the course of the conversation, I was contemplating how I should spend the evening, or weekend. I needed to get out and be disconnected from the internet for a while. The topic started with "should I buy some hockey tickets" to "wonder where I can go to a metal show tonight" and finally to "Well, lemme check the konserthuset website and see if there are any interesting concerts."

And there was a concert starting at 7pm that evening. Tickets aren't expensive, and with a student discount, I can actually splurge every so often for "nice" seats. The concert itself didn't have anything on it that astounded me. George Enescu's Suite No. 2, Beethoven's 4th Piano Sonata with Leif Ove Andsnes as soloist, and Nielsen Symphony No. 2. My interest was somewhat piqued with Nielsen--I've never actually heard any of his symphonies live.

So, spur of the moment, I said goodbye to my friend, threw on a dress shirt and khakis (changing from the jeans with the hole in the knee, and a somewhat ratty white tee), and flew out the door. Luck had me arriving at the bus-stop just as a bus rolled up. This is somewhat of a miracle. I've actually never ridden the bus from my apartment to the subway. It stops infrequently, and I'm too impatient to just wait 10 minutes...especially since it's a 15 minute walk.

On the bus I leapt (which, btw, my browser is saying isn't a word. Made me doubt myself and look it up. Chrome, you're wrong). No, I actually did leap onto the bus, as I had to sprint the last half block to catch the bus. The public transit in Stockholm really is fantastic (AND CLEAN!). But enough about travel.

So, here I am, last minute decision to go to a concert. I purchase a nice ticket, but not "amazing." Floor level, slightly to the right of center, just back from the "middle" row. The hall is beautiful, the seats are comfortable, and I'm surrounded by strangers all coming to hear the orchestra. My first thought is "wow, there's a goodly number of people around my age. That's awesome. Wonder how many are here for the soloist?" It wasn't sold out, but had a good sized audience, definitely respectable.

The piece was Enescu's Suite No. 2. It is just as Enescu always is: an pseudo neo-classicist, basic developmental techniques, lots of repetition of themes, and Romantic orchestration. I've heard Enescu live before, and it's surprising how homogeneous is style is. But I didn't really come for the Enescu. That being said, I don't write off music just because I didn't come for it.

During the first movement, I stated to notice things about the orchestra. There was a lot of eye contact between principals. The principals were cuing in their sections, turning slightly and bringing them in. The players were moving, really moving with the music. I swear the viola section was going to jump out of their chairs.

Later in the Enescu, there was a duet between the principal cello and violin. They played it like chamber music. The moved together, were almost staring each other down. The principal violist was smiling the whole time. I noticed some second violins, especially toward the rear chairs, really getting into the fast and loud moments. It seemed like everyone leaned back a little bit when they got quieter.

The orchestra was active. They were engaged. By the time the piece was in the final movement, they had me. Here I was enjoying a piece of music I don't particularly like because the orchestra, almost every member I could see, was engaged and enjoying themselves. They were having fun playing.

The Beethoven was the same. It was obvious Andsnes loves the piece. There were no flowery movements like you'd see from Lang Lang (or Liberace Jr.). But he moved. When the orchestra took up a phrase, it was obvious they had been paying attention to how Andsnes just played it. During a cadenza, I looked around the orchestra. There were first violins and cellos toward the back leaning slightly so they could see Andsnes better. The first stand violins were smiling. The associate principle second violinist was swaying lightly to the music. I couldn't quite tell, but I thought her eyes were closed, just soaking in the music. They were enjoying listening to the soloist, but still more than present enough in their own music to nail their next entrance.

The Nielsen was a joy. This was the piece I was looking forward to, and now I was wondering how they would handle it. It's a large piece. It's loud sections should dwarf Enescu and Beethoven. It's quiets should be sublime. This may have been the one weakness of the group, or perhaps of the hall: the loud sections did not ring out, they were not giant masses of sound. The orchestra was playing with all their might coordinated, but it still felt chamber like. For sheer power, they didn't compare to a NY Phil blasting Bruckner 7. But the players were obviously playing with all their heart.

I walked away feeling invigorated. I'll be honest, there have been few orchestral performances that really drew me into the action. NY Phil and Bruckner 7 was great--I love that piece, so a good performance will always draw me in. But it's what happened during the pieces I don't love that impressed me.

I pulled up a recording of Enescu Suite No. 2 from Naxos today, just to make sure my brain wasn't faulty. It didn't impress me. It's a lively piece at times, but everything seemed very formulaic and conservative. And his "fake endings" didn't add any suspense. Instead, it seemed like he had finished talking, then had one more sentence that was of no importance tacked on. It was alright to listen to the recording, but not something I'd search out.

And that's when I made the final decision: I will go to another Kungliga Filharmonikerna concert. If they wow me with their intensity and connection to the music again, I'll know that what happened was not a fluke.

This seems like a group the genuinely loves to play music. And because of that, for the first time in quite a long time, I really enjoyed going to a symphony. I would go to a concert by the Kungliga Filharmonikerna of music I don't like. I'd go to an all Mozart concert. Why?

Because I think they'll draw me into the performance. And if they can do that, then I'll undoubtedly hear things in Mozart that I've never heard. I'll hear Mozart the way Mozart should be heard.

No other symphony has made me feel this way. The only other orchestral experience I've had that's really similar happened while playing trombone at DePauw. We did a concert on a "short turnaround," only four weeks. So, Prof. Smith pulled out Dvorak Symphony 7 since he assumed lots of string players would know it. He was right. And during that performance, I saw him slowly light up as the group really played well together. So many people knew the music. When I got my cue for the trombone melody at the end, he was flushed, and instead of the direct, somewhat reserved cue I usually got from him, I got a huge sweep of the arm and Prof Smith rising almost to his tip-toes.

I nailed that entrance. I nailed my line. I felt the energy.

Last night, with Kungliga Filharmonikerna, I felt that energy in the audience. And that is a fantastic feeling, and something missing from many performances these days.


A well-known person said something...

generalized, narrow-minded, and a little bit "curmudgeon-esque." Shocker, I know!

The person in question is one John Adams. No, not the US's 2nd President, though I'm sure he said plenty of "curmudgeon-ey" statements as well. No, the composer. He's known for many things:

Post-minimalist large scale works:


And high school marching shows (Skip to 1:15 to get to Short Ride in a Fast Machine). 

Oh Texas marching bands and their John Adams. Actually, I saw this at least five or six times during my marching career (5 as a marcher, 2 as an instructor). And it's an arrangement. Sorry, bit of false advertising.

So that's the music of John Adams. Why did I bother posting that? I know most people hitting this blog undoubtedly know his music. It's all for context though. Keep those pieces in mind, or hop back to the top when you need a reminder. I'll be breaking down all sorts of points as we go though this...

What did John Adams say that blew up my Facebook feed, and probably blew up the bloggosphere as well It was around 11pm here, so I didn't do the blog, nor did I run down the rabbit hole last night.

He said this:

   “We seem to have gone from the era of fearsome dissonance and complexity — from the period of high modernism and Babbitt and Carter — and gone to suddenly these just extremely simplistic, user-friendly, lightweight, sort of music lite,” he said. “People are winning Pulitzer Prizes writing this stuff now.”
   Acknowledging with a laugh that he might sound like a curmudgeon, he added, “If you read a lot of history, which I do, you see that civilizations produce periods of high culture, and then they can fall into periods of absolute mediocrity that can go on for generation after generation.”
   On the subject of commercialism and marketing in new music, Mr. Adams said, “What I’m concerned with is people that are 20, 30 years younger than me are sort of writing down to a cultural level that’s very, very vacuous and very superficial.”

This statement is tossed in at the end of a press-release about his new saxophone concerto. Seems a question was posed about Adams' use of bop and jazz influences, and then Adams went on a little rant about the fad of using popular music.

I saw three responses to this: first was "Yay, new saxophone piece by John Adams!" and the statement was ignored; second a "He's kind of got a point. And, man, burn on the Pulitzer when JOHN ADAMS says the music is simplistic, user-friendly, etc."; and third was this long rant, which I'm attributing to the person that I saw as the poster that got shared, Darcy James Argue:

Dear John Adams,
     You are awesome at composing. You've written several works that have become pillars of the late 20th/early 21st century canon. Whenever you premiere a new piece, it's an Event. Your style is hugely influential. Basically everyone out there tries to orchestrate like you. There are maybe, like, two other living composers more famous than you. I think it's safe to say you've MADE IT.
     I also understand that it was hard for you when you were first coming up. Lots of mean old composers talked all kinds of smack about your music. They said it was boring and insubstantial and pandering and commercial and derivative and unserious. And that stung. I get it. It really sucks to hear people say that about your music, especially when it's coming from Established Famous Composers. And even moreso when those Established Famous Composers are just mouthing off without having listened carefully, because they are so stuck in their own little bubbles that they are unable to approach the music of anyone younger than themselves with anything other than reflexive, unconsidered disdain.
     But you SHOWED THOSE ASSHOLES. You shrugged off their bullying and just kept doing your thing, and now you're rich and famous and all the important people agree you are awesome at composing. You are ON TOP.
     So why do you still feel the need to inflict the exact same hazing on younger composers that you received when you were coming up?
     Seriously, here are the words you've been throwing around as blanket descriptors of the music of composers "20, 30 years younger" than you (by the way, you are 66 so that means you are describing the music of composers who are roughly between the ages of 36-46, and I just want to remind you that you wrote "Shaker Loops" when you were 31):
"extremely simplistic" "user-friendly" "lightweight" "sort of music lite" "absolute mediocrity" "very, very vacuous and very superficial”
     Has it occurred to you that these are precisely the words that all those Established Famous Composers used to describe your own music in the early years of your career? It seems impossible that this would escape your notice. But it also seems like maybe you don't realize that this is what everyone else is thinking whenever you use these kinds of epithets to insult the work of younger composers. Which it seems like you're doing with some regularity, of late.
     Have you seen Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused? It seems like it's possible you've maybe seen that movie — unlike some of the mean old composers who used to rag on you, you've never been one to reflexively turn your nose up at ALL popular culture. I mean, the name of your blog is a Buffy reference! And Dazed and Confused is actually a really good movie. There's like a Criterion Collection edition and everything!
     Anyway: you know how, in the opening sequence of that movie, all of the high school seniors get all excited about the merciless ritual hazing they are about to inflict on the incoming freshman class? And as you watch them paddle the crap out of the boys and force the girls to "fry like bacon, you little freshman piggies," you realize that a big part of the reason why everyone's so excited about bullying these younger kids is that they, too, were hazed mercilessly as incoming freshmen? And even now, the wounds are still so fresh, so raw, that they can't wait for the opportunity to dish out that kind of punishment on someone else, as if doing so might somehow heal their own psychic trauma?
     What is your reaction when you watch these scenes? "This tradition is awesome"? "Hazing builds character!"? "Vicious circles are good for everyone"?
     Seriously, John Adams. Seriously. You are a brilliant composer and an incredibly smart and perceptive and sensitive individual. Why do you persist in acting like the high school bully who can't wait to dish out some of the abuse he was once on the receiving end of?

A lot of people rallied to this blog length post, saying "yeah, screw John Adams." My reaction was "Wow, someone really has thin skin and identifies exactly with the music he perceives John Adams is talking about."

Later on his feed, Argue linked a quite infamous article about Charles Wuorinen. I'm happy he did, because it saved me the trouble of finding it. I had every intention of including it in this blog. In it Wuorinen goes after the Pulitzer winner of that year, David Lang, as well as tons of other people. And Lang's response is equally wonderful.

Ok, I really hope you skimmed those articles. Why? Because, let's be honest, Adams' generalized, narrow minded, quick jab pales in comparison to the methodical attack by Charles Wuorinen. I've blogged about Wuorinen before, and, yes, he is abrasive, direct, and opinionated. I heard him talk 25 years after that infamous argument, and his complaints are the same.

And Wuorinen has a point.

So does Lang.

So does Adams.

Argue as well, but it gets muddled badly by a horrible comparison.

He equates flippant remarks as the same as hazing. Even compares it to Dazed and Confused.

Alright, let's give a quick summary of Dazed and Confused for everyone out there--as summary that includes the actions perpetrated, not a watered down "they were mean too" viewpoint.

End of school year, Juniors become Seniors, 8th graders become Frosh. The "tradition" is for Seniors to haze the new Frosh. For the men, this is mainly paddling, getting a few "good licks," a bruised backside, and then, if you're lucky, a beer or an invite to a party. For the ladies, it involves rolling on the ground "frying like piggies," lots of getting screamed at, having various food thrown on them, and finally taken through a car-wash. And, again, if you're "cool" enough, you may get to go to the party later.

In other words, direct physical and verbal abuse by the "gatekeepers" as a trial for incoming people to pass. If you pass, you're in.

John Adams remarks don't hurt me. They're hardly abusive. In fact, they're pretty impotent. They come off as someone that "doesn't like the music of kids today." I shrugged, laughed a bit, and then remembered all the music I've heard that does fit that exact specification, and think "well, he kind of has a point, mainly about going for appeal over art." And I started to recall a rant he did on masterclasses. Again, my friends (or friends of friends) are awesome, read my mind as I slept, and posted the exact blog post I was thinking of.

I remember reading that and thinking "Yeah, he's right, these are some broad trends. And they are problems...but not of just the upcoming generation, but of all young composers across time."

See, that's the kicker, isn't it? Historical context. And I don't mean historical context in the "Doesn't John Adams remember when he was picked on?" sort of way. I mean long term.

Let's take the inclusion of popular music, transformation of art forms, cross-fertilization, etc. Let's go old, let's say...13th and 14th century? We had a couple musical cultures in the West we know of pretty well: Troubadours, Trouveres, and their line; and the music of the Catholic church. Some composers did both, and did both awesomely. Guillaume de Machaut comes to mind. Machaut is amazing. A bit later (15th  to early 16th century) we get this Josquin de Prez cat, who is also amazing. Two composers straddling the "popular" and "serious" traditions. And they borrowed from both sides. L'homme arme masses anyone? Using popular tunes as the cantus firmus, the vocal line that is the basis of a piece?

Let's fast forward to the 17th or 18th century. Let's pick a guy at random...I heard someone say J.S. Bach. Sure, let's take an easy one.

Bach is known for being pretty much all around awesome. He wrote cantatas, Baroque concertos, keyboard works, all sorts of stuff. I can think of two great examples of "pop turned art" : for subject matter, the Coffee Cantata. (Which, yes, if you're JUST getting the reference of my opera to this, you're a bit late to the show. It's a reference I refused to point out because I thought SOMEONE would put it together...).

Sorry, didn't grab one with English, but this performance is kind of amazing...

Then let's hope over to something else...Suites.

I LOVE Bach's French Suites. During slow times, I would just sit and practice them for hours. Bach twists fingers, has wonderful passages, and is so damn musical. Sitting there coming up with multiple interpretations is one of my favourite past-times. I've always had a soft spot for Glenn Gould's interpretations, if for no other reason than he's not afraid to interpret them

This can keep going ad infinitum. From, say, Dvorak using a furiant in a symphony to, I dunno, me incorporating funk into a sinfonietta piece.

BUT, is this what Adams is talking about? Is it just the use of pop as starting point? What is he getting at really?

I think his comments in the blog post about masterclasses reveal it more. He's seen many young composers not understand minimalism and post-minimalism. As he said, an ostinato does not make a minimalist piece.

I joked with a friend slightly on Fb about the irony of the statement. Argue did that as well in his "look what people called your music!" But, I joked with a bit of knowledge, whereas I think Argue was just being defensive.

I said "the next time a marching band performs Short Ride in a Fast Machine, the world may implode from the irony." To which my friend replied "If irony could do that, Brooklyn would be a black hole."

It's a joke. A very generalized joke. I lived in Brooklyn. Rather than being hurt, I said "I remember the first time I drank a PBR in Brooklyn...I felt like I had to scream 'I'm not being ironic! I'm poor and out of whiskey!' "

Again, generalized statement. A joke. Are you offended? Do you think I'm talking about you, specifically?

Here's the thing: Adams has a point. The point is horribly articulated in a few short toss off sentences. The point is hit home a bit more in his blogpost. This is a trend. And here's where I'm having problems with people's reactions.

Does everyone remember Daniel Asia's article attacking John Cage? I blogged about that as well. Same sort of thing, isn't it? Here's an influential composer that severely dislikes an entire style of music. A broad trend. I pointed out my main problem: that I hope he's more open minded with his students, and encourages them to explore lots of different avenues. Turns out, he does.

And I've spoken to many students about the general issues--formal, structural, historical context and understanding of a style (the "I'm writing this kind of piece but it's definitely not that kind of piece and here's why"), directionality (does this go anywhere? is there forward motion? backwards looking motion? Static? Stasis? What do those different energies accomplish?), and all sorts of compositional problems. Guess what, these are common for all composers throughout the ages. Adams seems to insinuate it's special for this time, but it's not really. We just hear more of the bad stuff (more opportunities for performance, recordings for everyone, all posted online, hell, even sold!).

John Adams is not a "gatekeeper to cool" though. If he doesn't like my music, it will probably have little bearing on my life outside anything he judges. Alright, fine...guess what, every composer/judge/conductor/performer has these exact feelings about SOME type of music. Some only like the latest strain of mid-town post-minimalism. Others really only like the music of Brian Ferneyhough, and would like nothing more than to do concerts of only Ferneyhough, Helmut Lachenmann, and their ilk. This has been the way of the world since the inception of time.

People have opinions. Some of them are over-generalized such as "I dislike all rock music." They are entitled to their opinions. If you want to change their mind, the best approach isn't "Now you've hurt my feelings because I play in a rock band! Be more supportive!" The approach I've found that works is finding out what they like, thinking of something that relates to it, and then leading them through experience to a new realization. Like what?

Ok, say someone says they hate rock music. So you ask "what music do you like?"


"do you like the Eagles?"

"Dunno them."

"They're from the 80s. They're more like Garth Brooks than Dolly Parton though. Do you like Garth Brooks?"


"Alright, here, let's listen to some. What do you think?"

"Pretty good."

"How about some Lynyrd Skynyrd?"

"Sweet home alabama! love it!"

"Ok, Z. Z. Top?"

See what happens, slowly but surely, you introduce more "related" material.

Or, you look at someones past comments. Does John Adams hate all new music? Is it all vapid? His blog says otherwise, as he praises inventive uses of forms, interesting music, etc. Even music that uses popular themes.

So, what's he on about then?

Stagnation. Lack of individual voice. Lack of experimentalism and forward movement in the vocation. What John Adams perceives is that there is a large amount of people in the younger generation just copying: copying him, copying David Lang, or Brian Ferneyhough, or Lachenmann.

Derivative works.

Derivative works that are being watered down, because while we feel like we SHOULD write like David Lang or John Adams, we don't quite have the skills to orchestrate as well. Or we don't have the deep understanding of the process and through put into minimalism and post-minimalism. We hear In C and think "Oh, I can just write a bunch of fragments and toss them up there!" Or we work on an "invention in the style of Bach" and don't modulate even a quarter as much as Bach did...In fact, we forget those pesky sharp 4s to tonicize the dominant. All those problems I listed earlier, all those skills not yet developed.

And, time for honesty everyone, many composers will never master those skills. I may never master them. I certainly haven't yet. I've gotten enough criticism in the past year that many composers would just walk away. Yehudi Wyner really didn't like my opera. And ya know what? I thanked him for not liking it, for challenging me, for making us talk about all the issues. Because there are major issues with it. Oh man, are there issues. There are formal issues, counterpoint issues, libretto issues...Take that direct criticism and fix it.

What about John Adams indirect criticism? If you were really hurt by it, maybe you should ask why. Is it because you think older composers should be "father figures" and encourage us to do our best? Is it because you love and respect John Adams music, and to hear him disparage any music offends you? Is it because you identify with the music he's pointing out and say "fuck you!"? Or is it because you just fit in the age bracket, and you wonder what beef he has with late 20s to early 40s composers? 

Me, I looked at it, laughed a bit, and shrugged it off. I didn't even care until everyone started taking sides. Then I started asking "why is everyone getting worked up? Why are people taking sides?"

I'm not sure I found answers in this...

But, I did prove that Adams comments lack historical conviction. At the same time, there is validity. All those composers I linked to above did something to their music--they weren't all "complex" in the vein of, say, Babbitt or Wuorinen. But they did treat the material with a great deal of thought, great craftsmanship, and care. The same cannot be said of all music being written today. Or all music written at any point in history. (BTW, I'm not including myself in that praise. Need to revise that piece as well).

So, here's my advice: shrug off Adams comments. Work hard on your music. Write music you love. If John Adams doesn't like it, who cares? Will you miss out on a few awards? Maybe, but, again, who cares?

If you create great art, with strong craftsmanship, extreme care, and the knowledge of past and current trends, then you've created a great piece. Will it last forever? Maybe, maybe not. There's a lot of luck involved. Even composers that were well known in their time don't always stand the test of time (Telemann anyone?).

So, don't be sensitive about your art. Be strong. Don't call people bully's because they disagree with what you do. Strongly disagree even. Why? Because it cheapens the idea of bullying. A general "I think this stuff sucks" is not the same as "You suck" which is not the same as "You suck go kill yourself" which is not the same as "You suck go kill yourself n'ah I'll just beat the hell outta you now" which is not the same as "I'm going to kill you because of "X" arbitrary reason." Though, I'm guessing, the person wouldn't use the word arbitrary.

To recap: Yes, Adams comments were very general, narrow-minded, and kind of ignorant. Because of that, they shouldn't be taken as a big sore, but ignored. Or simply asked "could you be more specific." Being outraged over a generalization is as ridiculous as the generalization. So is equating it to hazing. Or Hitler. No one said Hitler, but it was about time he got brought into this hyperbole. Adams view may lack historical context in one sense, but he's far too intelligent to not know everything I mentioned, and explain how those still "pushed the envelope." And, maybe, we should look into our own feelings, and figure out why we had the reaction we did.

And, maybe, just maybe, take the attitude of John Adams that Argue pointed out...And show John Adams that his words are too general, and that there is exciting new music happening. I'm guessing he'll agree.

Who knows, maybe he'll like your piece. And then you may have a commission from the MET.***

***commission not guaranteed. This is hypothetical. Better put that, or someone will call me on it later.


Make your own schedule

I arrived in Sweden just shy of 4 weeks ago. The first week was, more or less, a wash. I was a little ill when I arrived, probably some bad food while traveling. Then it took me a while to get used to the time change.

But things are finally rolling. I've got all the access stuff now, spent some time in the studio at KMH, and a little time at EMS. Have to make a call today to setup a time for my first interview. And I've been doing all sorts of writing, composing, and listening.

One of the hardest things in this situation is to come up with your own schedule. I've been released into the wild, provided a stipend, and told "do your project however you'd like." There's no school, no specific job, not even the standard freelancer setup, which creates its own (sort of) routine of applying for jobs and living off Ramen, with spurts of extreme activity.

No, I'm just sitting here, now, with no set agenda for the day, just need to call someone back. And the only reason I have to do that is because we arranged this last week, when I called at an arbitrary time.

So, what HAVE I been doing then? How do I get anything done? For those that know me, you probably know I like some semblance of structure and regularity, with enough variances to make life "interesting." When left to my own devices (like over the summer with nothing pressing, just "waiting till I left") I'll play read, play video games, watch videos, TV, or the occasional movie, and use as little energy as possible. When faced with a few months, that can be alright...especially after incredibly hectic schedules before Freelancers and teachers, you know what I'm talking about. Work 9 months at a grueling pace, you need that month or two off to just recharge.

When faced with a year, and a nebulous project and far off deadlines, I had to change my "normal living." It was time to make a schedule.

People have asked me what I do day to day. So, here it is, in all its "glory."

Morning- Read, write, and listen. I often start with blogs and news; mostly music and arts related, with the occasional political bit. I'll write a blog post, or work on the libretto to my opera, or write music...sometimes I flit between them, working for an hour or two on one activity then switching. Other times, one activity encompasses my entire morning/early afternoon. I also do my food shopping in the morning, to avoid crowds.

Afternoon- Lunch, catch up on life stuff, make phone calls/contacts, and switch activities. This is when I usually do laundry, clean up my room, or if I have an errand in the city, head out.  Most of my contacts for my project expressed more availability in the mid-afternoons, so that's when I focus on that stuff. On days when I don't need to do any of that, I switch activities. If I spent the morning reading arts news and blogs, I'll switch to writing music. Or if I wrote on my libretto all morning in silence, I'll pull up my ever increasing list of pieces to study, and listen away, jotting notes. Whatever it is, I try to keep a solid focus on working till at least 5 or 6 every day. Blog posts also usually go live in the afternoon--I usually write them in the morning, save them, and come back and read them before posting.

Evening- No working. Seriously. I'll allow things into early evening--I worked until about 7pm yesterday--but I try to just cut it off. I usually practice my Swedish in the evening using Rosetta Stone. I'll pull out a more leisurely reading material, or something light that "could" be research, but probably not. Right now I'm devouring various folk and fairy tales from around the world, as well as reading Formalize Music by Xennakis and The Soundscape by R. Murray Shafer. The last two aren't really about my "research" and I enjoy them too much to be considered "work." I'll also watch videos/TV, or play video games. If I've been active all day, I'm usually dead by 11pm.

Also, sometimes, I do get sudden spurts to work in the evenings. If they come, I don't fight them, unless it's right after dinner. My mind really does need regular breaks. Most of the work I do when I "power through" something is utter rubbish and I just have to redo it in the morning.

That being said, I have had all sorts of little projects to go with my big project. It's hard to see a goal that's either checked once a year (dissertation) or twice a year (Fulbright). But I've got a commission I need to finish ASAP, just finished mastering a forthcoming jazz album, and, of course, job searching and apps. Yes, jobs are already being posted for next fall.

So, my schedule isn't that formally structured. It's not "MWF from 7-9 read arts news and blogs. 9-10 blog. 11-1 compose. 1 lunch..." and so on. I leave it somewhat loose. But I do force myself to work, listen, and study in the mornings, switch it up in the afternoons, then relax in the evening.

And, if something gets off, like this morning and working, then things get shoved around. I'll work this afternoon for longer. But today was an odd exception--woke up at 5am and couldn't get back to sleep. The level of groggy at 5am after 5 hours of sleep was...insurmountable. I actually laid in bed TRYING to sleep until almost 8. Seriously. I'd lay for 20 minutes, grab my phone and read a blog, try to go back to sleep for 30 minutes, read a political article...ugh.

Also, a few people I've been talking to asked what I've been "studying" during my study time. So, below, in all it's glory, is a list of all the pieces/albums I've been studying, as well as some articles and books. The reading list, btw, doesn't include all the blogs, news, etc that I read. Just the more "academic." And there's a bunch missing, because I'm waiting to reveal my first interview to the entire public...though I'm guessing a fair number of you have heard already.

So, what have I learned? I definitely need this structure, as do many people. But the situation just doesn't warrant complete formal structure. I can't "force" myself to write when I really don't want to...I just get distracted, write half a page, watch a youtube video, read what I wrote and realize it sucks, blah blah blah. But, if I get myself working on something, reading and listening being easier than composing or writing, I can usually get my mind into doing the more creative aspects. When in this situation, it really does behoove you to get into some sort of routine, even if it's flexible and modular (MODULARITY FTW!)

Alan Hovhaness
Symphony 60
Aaron Jay Kernis
Symphony of Waves
Poul Ruders
Poul Ruders
Allen Shaw
Piano Sonata 1
Anders Nilsson
Anders Nilsson
String, Oboe, Elec
William Bolcom
Symphony 4
Donald Erb
Rainbow Snake
Trombone, Perc
Allan Schindler
Eternal Winter
Trombone, Elec
Michael Davis
Mission Red (BAD BAD BAD!!!!)
Trombone, Elec
Vinko Globokar
Engel der Gerschichte (The Angel of History): I. Zerfall
Donad Erb
and then toward the end
Trombone, Elec
Nick Omiccioli
Per Norgard
Symphony 7
Per Norgard
Symphony 3
Luigi Nono
Lontananza nostalgica utopica future
Violin, Elec
Shulamit Ran
Alvin Lucier
Trombone, Piano
Alvin Lucier
Wind Shadows
Trombone, Oscillator
Donald H. White
Sonata for Trombone and Piano
Trombone, Piano
Walter Ross
Concerto for Trombone
Trombone, Orchestra
Robert Erickson
Ellen Taafe Zwilich
Symphony No. 1
Anders Nordentoft
On This Planet
Naxos Video
Joan Tower
Tres Lent
Cello, Piano
Ellen Taafe Zwilich
Symphony No. 2
Joan Tower
Gunther Schuller
Fantasia (or Fantasy)
Heritage (full album)
Sergei Prokofiev
Symphony 3
John Adams
On the Transmigration of Soulds
James Tenney
Spectrum 1
Lejaren Hiller
String Quartet No. 6
String Quartet
Lejaren Hiller
Computer Cantata
Chamber, Voice, Electronics
Lejaren Hiller
Portfolio for Diverse Performers
Chamber, Voice, Electronics
Iannis Xenakis
Iannis Xenakis
Krux II
Doom Metal
Children of Bodom
Something Wild (full album)
Doom Metal
George Walker
Foil for Orchestra
George Walker
Variations for Orchestra
Jim Mobberley
In Flames
Left Hand Path

Tony Kushner
Angels in America Pt. 2: Perestroika
David Ryan and Helmutt Lachenmann
Composer in Interview: Helmutt Lachenmann
Article, Interview
R. Murray Schafer
The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World
Iannis Xenakis
Formalized Music
Fred Lerdahl
Interview on composerconversations.com