Refocusing the discussion on Sustainability.

This is the third post in a little series looking at some hot button topics in music these days. The first was an introduction. The second was an attempt to get us past the knee jerk reaction of "how different the arts are today," especially in regards to "full-time musicians" and "entrepreneurs." This focuses instead on sustainability.

One reason this all got started was an argument I had with a former professor about the idea of sustainability. Honestly, I'm sick of seeing the work "sustainable" tossed in with the arts. I'm kind of tired of the idea that orchestras exist to make "hand over fist" large sums of money. Why? Because orchestras don't exist to make money. Orchestras, and the arts in general, are not commercial. What's that mean?

It means that their purpose--their reason for being, is not to make money. Yes, professional musicians can and should be able to make a living performing and creating art. But that's not the same thing. It has to do with a philosophy, an attitude.

I've been recently working my way through the blog (and journal articles) of Jeff Todd Titon. His writings on sustainability, from a cultural, ecological, and financial standpoints are worth perusing. I bring him up because of a series he did back in March entitled "Music is not a cultural asset." In part 1, Titon gives background information, and in part 2 he takes apart David Throsby's arguments about the economics of cultural policy.

I'll let Titon's writings speak for themselves. I agree with most of his points, and definitely see how being tied to corporate structures, and treating music as an asset to be traded in a commodity exchange can cause major issues.. From a more specific standpoint, look at all the popular artists that get discussed as "selling out."

The phrase "selling out" is entirely tied to the idea of commodifying music. An artist creates a piece of work and said work is not "profitable." Let's say, for instance, this is a punk group that is about as hardcore as it gets--screaming, heavily distorted guitars, political statements, everything that is "in your face." They get produced by an independent label, or self-produce, and do alright. An exec from a large label says "we're interested in you, but, you'll have to tone it down one notch. Then you'll go platinum." It's the difference between making a great product, and making a product solely to fit the marketing consensus.

There is a deep philosophical difference between the two issues, the idea of creating a product for it's intrinsic value and finding an audience (or user of the product), and creating a product for the sole purpose of making money, cutting out innovation when needed, and giving users only what metrics define as being "profitable." Companies focused solely on "profitability" often aren't sustainable--look at the bank collapses caused by poor lending practices (which were highly profitable at the time), or companies that find it more profitable to shut down a manufacturing wing because it wasn't making enough money, only to see huge public backlash, and even worse profit margins. Removing the human element, and focusing on "profit" are bad combinations in the corporate world (just ask Hostess), but even worse in the arts.

I've digressed a bit, but here's the main point for me, as an artist--it's about a philosophy and an attitude. Financial sustainability does not cross my mind as I'm working on a piece. It's value as a commodity never crosses my mind. Even similar questions such as "will enough people like this piece?" don't really cross my mind--I accepted many years ago that some people will love my music, others will hate it, and a great many will be indifferent. This is true with all art, no matter if it's folk, popular, or "high." What is on my mind is "how do I create a work that is meaningful to myself, does something that interests me (and thereby, hopefully, others like me), and has some sort of deeper 'universal' quality which is translatable." Granted, that last bit doesn't go into my musical thinking often, but it is a part of what I do as I'm writing (this blog, a research paper, or even another play). Music is, in a way, universal, as well as deeply societally defined...I tend to be more experimental than worry about the tropes, but I have been studying music and cognition a great deal, hoping to unearth something useful (this is, of course, a different topic altogether, so I'll just leave it on this side-street for later examination).

It's this philosophy that's important. Almost all music organizations promote this in their mission statements (except for, maybe, Minnesota Orchestra's old mission statement...oy...). Simple statements like "Great performances for greater audiences" (Kansas City Symphony--though the "we have to make money!" creeps in their statement as well), "To perform, present, and promote music in its many varied forms at the highest level of excellence to a large and diverse audience" (Los Angeles Phil Association), or an even more specific one from the NY Phil:

The mission of the New York Philharmonic is to support, maintain, and operate an internationally pre-eminent symphony orchestra in New York; to maintain and foster an interest in and enjoyment of music; to encourage composition of symphonic music; and to instill in its community, and the nation at large, an interest in symphonic music by providing local concerts, domestic and international tours, education programs, media broadcasts, and recordings. 

And now for a local group, newEar from Kansas City, MO:

newEar contemporary music ensemble dedicates itself to commissioning and performing music of our time and providing listeners with unique and stimulating musical experiences that are rooted in artistic excellence and enhanced by education opportunities.

All these groups are financially sustainable with their current ideas. Looking at their programs also gives a nice idea of what happens when groups focus first on the artistic output, and further down about the financial sustainability. The LA Phil has the Green Umbrella music series--a home for new and experimental works. It's been around for quite a while, and Esa-Pekka Salonen fought hard to keep it running during tough financial times. And what you get is reviews like this, as well as a thriving musical culture always looking forward while still performing "the greatest hits" of past generations.

In summation, it's all about attitude. If an artistic endeavor, orchestra, chamber group, art studio, etc is approached from "how do we make enough money to stay open," what invariably follows is stagnation, conservative programming, and, unfortunately, a loss of money. Sustainability is a quick way to fall away from innovation, away from the Green Umbrella series', and toward a commodification of the art form.

Because if art is simply commodity, just a product meant to be traded with some sort of societally defined financial value, and some harder to define cultural value, then it will cease to evolve. Just like if Steve Jobs thought "I need to think of a product people will want," vs. "I need to think of something that people don't know they want." One statement is innovative, the other not.

And innovation breeds sustainability--by providing new ideas and products that people didn't know they would want, or even need, you can change the world. There's a very old adage "you have to spend money to make money." This is doubly true in innovation, because it won't always work. But if you take a conservative stance, it will, inevitably, not be sustainable. Remember, even though NYCO went under, it wasn't because of their new works. Anna Nicole was, after all, nearly sold out before it even opened. It wasn't the new works that killed NYCO, it was mismanagement (such as going dark for a season, which is a quick killer!).

After all, Beethoven is wonderful, but putting a Beethoven symphony, which the metrics would say sell out every time they are played, is a bad idea. Hyperbole, of course, but the sentiment is similar--"playing it safe" doesn't create a sustainable program. It just puts everything on life support, limping along for a year or two longer...


A Question As Old As Time

How do we make a living as musicians? Jon Silpayamanant poses the question "What is a 'full-time musician' anyway?" after reading a little blog skimmed from an innocent Quora question "What Kind of Stress do Full-Time Composers Experience." The writer, Andrew Watts, focused on stresses that, to me, were pretty generic--nothing he wrote isn't experienced in many other jobs. I came up with my own list, which I'll post later, but let's just say that my answers fed less into stereotypes ("why don't people understand me or my music?") and more into realities unique to the situation.

But that's not the point of this post. This relates to another series I started last week with a question posed to everyone in this discussion of current trends in post-secondary music education: what do those two words being tossed around so carelessly actually mean. You know the two; entrepreneurship and sustainability.

This post is about the first, and ties directly into the idea of a "full-time musician."

Over at Mae Mai, Jon's blog, I wrote the following long answer, copied here for ease. 

Some of the interesting questions I think also need approached include: Is this really a new problem? What have musicians done historically "to make ends meet" while still feeling artistically fulfilled? What do universities need to adopt to help musicians succeed at their chosen endeavors?

One argument I've seen (and that I'm prone to as well) has to do with the challenges of the literature. For instance, let's say you wanted to have an Apocalyptica type career. All the cellist in the group (not sure about the drummer) are classically trained first. Having been to their shows, I can say pretty confidently that their arrangements and originals aren't going to match the level of difficulty of, say, Shosti's cello concerto No. 1. From a performance standpoint, then, do we teach the most technically difficult literature, or what the students want to learn? Or vice versa?

Or is the answer, as it so often lays, in the middle (sometimes I sound like a centrist. I'm really not)? I think the programs like Alternate Strings are fantastic, and it should be part of a universities job to get students to experience as many different styles as possible. With our good ole alma mater, this doesn't just me "world," "pop," or "outsider" styles, but also modern styles (as I said before, we didn't even have a new music group when I was in school, something that at the time I didn't think was odd, but now after 7 more years in academia, I can see makes absolutely no sense). 

I think the idea of a "full-time musician" or "composer" is definitely misleading. There are very few times, historically, when musicians can claim to have a single job. Bach wrote music, was the organist, and taught lessons. Mozart performed extensively, conducted his own operas, taught lessons (rather poorly and infrequently) while begging for money from his father between commissions. Haydn was under the employ of the Esterhauzy's, composed, led the orchestra, and taught lessons. Beethoven (more in his youth), performed extensively, was a concert promoter (he staged many works by Mozart and Haydn), and taught lessons. 
The question is are university preparing us even for these "traditional" roles? 

 I think these are pretty important questions to think about. What has a "full-time musician" ever just had a single job? In all of the historical study we go through as classical musicians, not until the 19th century do we even start to see musicians really making it in one specific job. Listz, after all, was a performer and composer, as adept at improvisation and on the fly transcriptions as he was orchestrating (ok, that's debatable, but I think he was a fine orchestrator. Maybe not on the level of his improvisation though). Paganini wrote etudes (which sell quite well). Brahms led a girls choir.

What am I getting at? Historically, there weren't many people doing just "one job" as a musician. There were few "full-time composers," and that's a trend that remains to this day. Those that are the closest are film composers, for instance Hans Zimmer...Of course, Zimmer is as adept in a studio as he is in front of music (maybe more so, considering he reportedly used over 1000 tracks in Cubase for Inception). John Williams also tours as a conductor...Well, seems I'm blowing holes in that idea.

It's important to realize that musicians have always had multifarious roles. The roles haven't really changed, but the implementation has. Even the more "traditional" full time roles, such as orchestral performer, have become just one of several performance jobs (orchestra, and if it's not a major one, two or more orchestras, chamber groups, teaching). On top of that, the rise of technology makes it easier for groups to disperse their work, which has led to a huge growth in the recording industry, outside the major companies. Small studios are popping up everywhere, and recording programs are becoming big money-makers for universities.

Every musician is now able to put up a website relatively pain-free thanks to engines such as Wordpress. Music can be shared via Soundcloud, Bandcamp, YouTube, and Vimeo. Technology is everywhere, aiding young musicians in creating their own personalized careers. And, yet, are we always taught these skills?

Writing music is way many have expanded their roles, be it in the "classical" world or any other. And yet there are schools that don't teach composition to everyone outside of basic part-writing exercises. There are reasons the Beatles sold billions while Chumbawumba was a one-hit wonder, just as there's something to learn from Monteverdi, Telemann, Boccherini, and Bruckner, names that were important in their day, and in some circles forgotten (Singers remember their Monteverdi, but can all instrumentalists say the same? What of Telemann outside flute players, and trombonists looking to steal some more literature? Boccherini outside string players? And Bruckner as anything other than a footnote to Wagner, and the "loser" of the battle with Brahms? and what of Gin Blossoms, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Dishwalla vs. Nirvana?). There are skills involved, as well as innovation.

I, again, have no answers, just some food for thought. We first need to divorce ourselves from the idea that we are facing a unique problem. There's nothing unique about being an entrepreneur as a musician. It's a tale as old as time. But we do need to see how the industry has changed, and make an active effort to help teach students the skills needed.

I will say that I fall into the trap talking about the "degradation of composition" very quickly. However, I feel my arguments usually have to do with a combination of craft and aesthetics--there are lots of lazy, unskilled composers. And there is music I do not like. I do not like a great deal of post-minimalist music these days. Most of it just sounds incredibly uninnovative, rehashing the same ideas as the "greats." However, I can still appreciate excellent craft when I hear it. It's when I'm presented with art that isn't crafted well, without thought or care, that I have an issue.

It's like the scene in (Untitled) when they go to the studio of the bright new artist, and one of the pieces is a sticky note on a wall. Another is a blinking light-bulb. It was hailed as "innovative and different." But, just like with entrepreneurship, this is just a collective forgetting of history. Is a sticky note innovative post Duchamp?

That's the other big side of being an entrepreneur--being innovative. Black House and the Kansas City Electronic Music and Arts Alliance did that when we presented six brand new chamber operas, all with electronic components. Was a night of chamber operas new? No--I was a part of Remarkable Theater Brigades first run of Opera Shorts back in '09, a series that's a mainstay at Carnegie Hall now. Were the operas all groundbreaking in their music? Mine definitely wasn't.

But, for where we were (Kansas City), this hadn't been done. Producing new operas was a rare thing. And producing operas with electronics is still very niche within niche within niche. For our place, in our time, it was innovative. It sold out. The same types of experiences can be produced anywhere, but ardent artists.

But that night couldn't have been pulled off without supreme talent and practice--we had musicians that, mostly, had advanced degrees and lots of work in the area, musicians that had experience in pits, playing new music, singing large scale operatic roles, designing and costuming operas, and directing. We had a large cohort of people working to create as professional an experience as possible. If the quality had been poor, it would not have "succeeded" just because it was innovative.

It's all about that balance--what do musicians need to know to succeed as an independent musician as far as business sense, marketing, etc., and what do they need to succeed as far as skills as a musician? The best musicians sell some records, but not the most. Innovative musicians that lack skills sell some records, but not the most.

Then there's Radiohead, who is considered innovative in the pop world (arguable, of course), and have great skills as musicians, amazing marketing skills, and know how to work the business end. Or Phillip Glass. or Yo Yo Ma.

So, colleges, ask the question: how do we balance all these skills in a single degree? And can we?

Yo Yo Ma and Radiohead (formed in 1985...think about that) were not made overnight, or even after 4 years. And while students should have the skills to start on a career after undergrad, to expect a 4 year degree to prepare you to be an entrepreneur is fallacy.

However, we can do a much better job.


Fulbright Update

Being on this grant has kicked in my "I deserve to be here!" self-advocacy gene into overdrive. Being surrounded by so many talented and brilliant scientists, sociologists and political scientists, and artists can give a guy a bit of a complex.

Some parts of this proposal are going amazingly--namely the music side. It's astounding what setting aside huge amounts of time can do for your artistic output! The interviewing side started out seemingly strong, disappeared, and I'm now starting on what was my "original plan" of finding the underground scene, talking people up, and getting ingratiated into the scene. Had to recalibrate my expectations after the start.

As for musically, I'm on the final page of drawing notation for a commission--I used this commission to work on all the skills I'll need to finish my dissertation, namely algorithmic composition, stochastic control processes, graphic and proportional notation, and translating all my crazy handwritten stuff more directly into a digital score than what Sibelius was ever able to produce. The big things for me were the programming and drawing program use--my control programming has always been shit, with most of my good programming coming in the way of synth building for performance (so putting all the controls for someone else to use, not developing several patches of "if this happens, do these things). As for using a drawing program, well...it's all still really blocky looking, but it's leagues better than it was on my earlier scores where I would do it in Sibelius, export a graphic, import it into another program, resize oddly, etc...It was inefficient and of not great quality. Now I just need to work on making my drawn scores look less blocky, and more fluid. Since I'm not an artist by trade, this will be a huge difficulty...

But with the commission almost finished, thought I'd post this: quick hit list of what I've accomplished in 2 months here

1) realized how difficult it is to get interviews, even from people saying "yeah, totally!"
2) worked heavily on my control programming skills in Pd and Max
3) honed my skills in Inkscape
4) Found a free program that creates VPNs so I can direct connect with people on other computers wherever they might be
5) found a crazy sci-fi epic poem/opera that it seems like every Swedish composer knows about, but no one has ever seen since its premiere. It's entitled Aniara, and I'll be dissecting this bad boy during my time here for sure! And doing my damnedest to stage a US production someday.
6) mastered an album
7) Listened all the way through November twice over a 2 day period. Great album R. Andrew Lee, Irritable Hedgehog, and all the amazing people involved.
8 ) listened to far more contemporary music than I ever did "in school," so much so that I gave up keeping track when I almost finished my fourth page of listing research materials
9) wrote 10 minutes of music, 20 pages on the libretto, and who knows how many pages in blogposts (that are relevant if for no other reason they allow me to gather my own thoughts).
10) watched several documentaries on Scandinavian heavy metal
12) have gone to more live shows that I didn't work in some capacity than I had in the past year
13) Eaten a whole lot of pizza
14) Pulled stops on an organ built in 1728! And explained a bit of the inner workings of organs to scientists who asked difficult technical questions.
15) Applied for a bunch of jobs, because this Fulbright, sadly, doesn't last forever...
16) Read Formalized Music by Xenakis, stole his ideas, and incorporated them into a piece that he would undoubtedly have disapproved of greatly.


Badminton with Words

There are two words being bandied about a great deal in the classical music community these days: entrepreneurship and sustainability. Neither one are new concepts, with bloggers and modern writers tackling the issue for the past few years. Even more importantly, both have been vitally important portions of music from the beginning of time, and are inexorably linked to creative fields.

However, in the last couple years, we've seen a veritable boom in thinking about these two concepts. Part of it comes out from studies, including National Endowment for the Arts surveys on public participation, studies showing what many musicians have anecdotally known for years: that classical music audiences are older than they were. We've also seen a lot of reactionary material on rethinking degrees and recitals. My own alma mater, DePauw University, just got a 15 million dollar gift to revise their curriculum for musicians of the 21st century. With the failing of two major institutions, the general orchestral crisis with striking symphonies, ailing endowments, and reactions that range from conservative programming, to kitsch and pop driven programming, some national (and international) ire, and tons of local support, everyone has appeared to give their two cents on the subject.

Some people are reactionary (myself included), others have been at the fore in the years preceding the current financial issues. Greg Sandow has done a good job showing trends that may lead to understanding where the failings began with his timeline of the crisis. Jon Silpayamanant's blog has shown how some studies and ideas are red herrings, and his bibliographic timelines are great resources in studying 20th century (and sometimes into the 19th century) trends. And, of course, there's Drew McManus and many more that have graced my own blog over the past year. Maybe someone should put together a large repository of links just to people working on the subject? Not me, not today at least.

For my part, I'm done being reactionary at the moment. Time for some "innovation," if you will. But this innovation isn't about tossing my ideas on "how to fix the problem." Instead, it's going to be innovation on thinking about the problem. And by innovation, I mean changing my own stance and thinking creatively, not necessarily coming up with new ideas.

So, as with any good story, a good place to start is at the beginning. In the beginning of this blog, there were two words: entrepreneurship and sustainability. What do these terms mean? First, let's talk about entrepreneurship. What is an entrepreneur? A simple economic definition is "one who starts and runs a business or businesses." But is that really all an entrepreneur is? Other key components listed in various sites are "leadership, initiative, and innovation." From a business standpoint, this could mean someone inventing a new device, or upgrading a past one, and selling it in their own business--highly touted entrepreneurs (and venture capitalists) include Elon Musk of Tesla and Space X; Henry Ford and the auto industry; Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in computing; and many more. Entrepreneurs are separate from researchers who may be incredibly innovative, be major leaders, and even have large amounts of initiative by the simple economic situation--a researcher or scientist may not take the step to start their own business.

So, what is an entrepreneur in the arts? The main focus I've seen is on how artists can make a living. This may include innovation, but mostly innovation from an "economic" standpoint--how do we market better, how do we utilize social media, what do we teach students so they can make a living post graduation? There's also a bit of focus on collaboration, mainly with other artists, as a way to create something "sustainable:" the idea that by working together in collectives, we may have a better chance to make enough money to live.

Then there is sustainability. This is a loaded term with at least two separate, equally talked about areas of study; economic sustainability and ecological sustainability. Prior to the current crisis, there was a lot of blogging and talk about sustainability in ethnomusicology groups. Jeff Todd Titon is a name that pops up a lot in modern research of cultural sustainability, which looks at a combination of economic and ecological sustainability of the arts--mainly of folk traditions.

What I see in modern conversations about sustainability is entirely economical; not cultural, not ecological, purely economical. How do we make enough money? What is enough money? Fundraising ideas? For me the biggest tell of the shift in thinking was in the Minnesota Orchestra mission statement:
The Minnesota Orchestral Association inspires, educates and serves our community through internationally recognized performances of exceptional music delivered within a sustainable financial structure.

That's all well and good, but notice it doesn't actually mention orchestral music, and says quite firmly "within a sustainable financial structure."

Now, I'm not knocking either idea. Entrepreneurship and sustainability are both important to music. However, it's important to think about how semantics can prime a situation. When someone says "sustainability" the current in many brains right now means "sustainable financial structure." When we hear about sustainable financial structure, what comes to mind? Well, if you read the news in the US, it's something that's a highly polarized issue that gets tossed into two broad categories: out of control spending by a large government; and not enough spending by the government to help push economic recovery.

Dichotomy, it's the essence of the human mind. As my playwriting teacher once told me: keep everything to dualistic choices, they're easier for everyone to understand (My edit: mainly in a limited time).

What I'd like to push for is more options and ideas on the subject. My gut reaction is that the conversations about sustainability and entrepreneurship are actually being hampered by the words themselves. We've reached a point where specific meanings of coalesced and we're being split into camps. This is decidedly uncreative, and unbecoming of artists. Really, a field that prides itself on diversity, on proliferating new ideas, we're letting a couple common definitions cloud our judgement? Perhaps it's time to remove the language itself from the equation. So, I'll do my best to avoid those terms, and find terms more specific to the situation.

The second issue I'm seeing, past the semantic, is that of historical context. For many, this crisis is seen as completely unique, something that has never happened before. Have there been no crises in "classical music" before? I can think of several--the move from a patron based system to an independent system (pushed by Beethoven but adopted by many in 19th century Romantic view. And, of course, it's not like patronage actually ended, but the move from a court position to an independent position caused all sorts of interesting battles). Do we forget the troubles and trials of Mozart, who attempted the lifestyle before Beethoven and didn't do such a great job? Or how hard Beethoven fought for his share of the pie? And how, moving into the 20th century, patronage didn't go away, but shifted, from nobles in the 18th century, to orchestras, opera houses, and the state in the 19th century, to academia starting in the late 19th century into the 20th century as support from the state dwindled. This is just one instance where a historical perspective could be very helpful: how did the arts change during these major changes in economic, social, and political change? We see countries moving from monarchies to democracies (or to more heavily structured parliamentary systems), the industrial revolution changing economics on a huge scale (much like the information and electronics age are changing economics, especially rapidly in the rise of digital media and online retailers), and social movements in creating the middle class, the ending of slavery, serfdom, and other forms of indentured servitude, and an increase in freedoms for people through the 20th century. How has art and music transformed during these time periods?

In other words, why are so many people attempting to reinvent the wheel? Why are so many of us (including myself) being reactionary? and even deeper, why are we looking for roots to the problems?

Which is my third issue: we need to identify roots of problems and not just treat symptoms. There are organizations and individuals looking at these problems: Jon Silpayamanant is going in this direction; the NEA published a report on how technology influences arts participation, a study I'm currently working my way through and considering deeply. But many of us (myself again included), haven't always been looking for the root of problems. We've found problems, for instance, the aging audience. However, why is the audience aging? There has been some recent work looking into this, from raising ticket prices to outreach to the distancing from the public. I've posited a few in my posts recently as well.

But now's the time to stop positing and actually investigate and find out why. Time to do studies and see which of these many factors are actually influencing people in specific communities and nation-wide. Before we start leaping into making curriculums (even though I agree we need to create new curriculums in colleges at all levels), we need to identify the root of the problem. Otherwise our changes are nothing more than band-aids tossed on a tumor.

There is a third word bandied about as well: collaboration. It is, also, misused, I think, and in need of some semantic repair. But, at the moment, I think I'll stop and collect my thoughts again--this has been sitting for a few weeks as I worked through my thoughts.

Because it's time we stopped being purely reactionary. There's a time and place for it, but, when we are faced with deep problems, problems of a financial, philosophical (both as far as the place of the arts in society, as well as the roles of various agencies in the arts), political, social, and ecological. Actually, I could sum up by saying let's look at the deep problems of the arts and the world, but that is all at once too broad, too prosaic, and too philosophical.

Instead, let's simply take a breath and act like artists: ask a question, work through that question creatively from many angles, find a deeper, more important question, and come up with several hundred possible ideas to try, then try them, one by one, in various scenarios. Let's step back from the answering phase we seem to be at, and move back to questioning.

Mainly, now that we've identified problems let's ask "What is the root of the problem?"


David Byrne, Cultural Centers, and Creativity

In the past week, David Byrne has published two editorials, one on how the 1% is stifling creativity in NYC, the other on how streaming radio could spell the end of creativity. And, as always, I masochistically scrolled through the comments section, running salt over the opened wounds from Byrnes pointed words.

I lived in NYC briefly, most of the time, for about a year. I went to school in Brooklyn, traveled back and forth between NYC and my apartment in South Jersey (Little Egg Harbor, a beautiful place). Byrnes says NYC smells like sex. The commentators were more correct: it smells of urine and sewage. The city is much safer--by the time I lived there in '08, my neighborhood of Crow Heights wasn't so bad. My neighbors were friendly, if a bit reserved with me; different cultural backgrounds can create quite a barrier.

My brief stay there showed two different cities: there's the one Byrne describes, mostly found in Manhattan, but also moving into Brooklyn as well; and then there was the underground, where living, working artists still eked out an existence playing shows and showing art at dingy venues. Sometimes, it was right under the nose the Elite, such as shows at the Yippie Gallery (oh, what a show we had there), or they were further out in Brooklyn. Williamsburg was becoming an in-between zone, where hipsters, creators, experimentalists, and nouveau riche were hanging out at new niche restaurants then some moving onto clubs and bars around the area.

These were the people not associated with "a scene." NYC has their scenes, the Downtown scene, which isn't what it used to be, the Midtown scene with their post-minimalist functions and cross-over acts, and the Uptown scene, with their new experimentalism, avant-garde, and sometime dense and/or meaningless works. (Untitled) encapsulated so much of what I remember in NYC, making great satire of what I felt in my brief stay. Granted, if you don't know the NY scenes, you may not find humor in all the moments.

I was not a part of any of these scenes. Brooklyn College doesn't have the clout of a Julliard, Columbia, Yale, or CUNY Grad. We weren't from out-of-town coming into Mid-town to play concerts with Bang on a Can, nor putting on motion capture suits and using them to trigger electronics (though at least two of us were dying to try). Further out from the center, we experimented, played, found our voices, and had a lot of fun. And, possibly, drank a bit too much.

Rent was high, food was affordable, as long as you didn't want to eat like kings every night, and we got could afford booze and cigarettes. We eked by because we were academics. Loans, grants, and fellowships sustained us. I had a job elsewhere that could pay well enough to subsidize the living, with a little help from loans. If we weren't attached to academia, it would have been entirely different. I actually blogged about my experiences long ago, discussing my masters and moving to Kansas City

Let's just say, many things fell apart in '09 causing me to leave the East Coast. I never really fit into the NY scene(s). I didn't really fit well in NYC at all. My swan song was done at a vocal arts camp run by Remarkable Theater Brigade in July 2009. I wasn't going to come up for the show but decided last minute "why not?" I drove, trained, and subwayed to a performance of I Do Good at Grammar. And the piece, to me, was the perfect way to go out, my own little jab at how serious NYC seems to be, even in the crowds more focused on popular music.

This video was not from that performance, but a more recent version hosted by KcEMA with Brad Van Wick doing a bang up job.

The point was, I left NYC. It was supposed to be the Mecca of the arts, a place where I'd learn and grow, go to concerts, meet people. I found the concerts too expensive to frequent, the underground scene not so inviting to an outsider like me, and the huge amount of time to create my own niche infuriating. It may be the largest city in the US, but it also has one of the densest populations of artists, all fighting over the same little pieces of the pie. I was happy to leave, to head someplace where I could make my own way. Thankfully, as I left, I realized just how decentralized the arts were becoming in the US.

My journey took me to Indianapolis which also didn't vibe--their art scene was too new and lacking an infrastructure and support for art music. It's much more of a folk/Indie/singer-songwriter town. And that's fine, but it meant, again, a huge amount of work I'd have to do to create my scene...which when you're working 40 hours a week at a music store is pretty damn hard.

So, it was, to Kansas City for my doctorate. It was a desperate move, but one that worked out in the long-term. Kansas City was like Indy, but further a long. The art scene had started growing about 5 or 6 years before I got there, so I entered just as it started a booming age. Artists and composers collaborated, little art galleries were popping up everywhere, jazz was everyone. For the first time in four years, I found a group I could play regularly with, Black House Collective. Professionally, my career started to take off. And I still went to NYC for performances--it was easy thanks to non-stop flights via Delta airlines. In just five hours, I could be possibly be from my apartment to the rehearsal space in NYC (time-change not added).

The scene is bustling in Kansas City, as it is in places like Austin, New Orleans, Fort Worth, Greensboro, and tons of other places. Flights make it easy to move around, and if you've got friends all over, or can split hotels between lots of people, you can move from city to city. The last few years I've traveled more than anywhere else.

The arts are becoming decentralized, which I think is a wondrous thing. However, I'm the first to admit that, sadly, my life is tied up in the 1%. Or, really, the 5%, that slightly larger upper bracket. You see, as a non-mainstream artist, I will never sell enough records or make enough in royalties to make a living. It doesn't matter if I live in NYC or Kansas City (where $600/month gets me a 2 bedroom apartment in a nice neighborhood). My dozen performances a year don't make bank--and let me tell you that in the grand scheme of art music, a dozen performances isn't terrible--I have many friends who do far fewer performances, and are lucky to get one or two self-created performances a year.

Without non-profits, grants, and academia, I wouldn't be able to have a living. Byrne nods to this, that he has friends who teach, who have other jobs. That is a way of life for artists now, and it's not a good way to create.

One commentator said "Good, maybe the arts will go back to being a hobby" (paraphrased). I sincerely hope he was being sarcastic. I did that for a while. The first year I worked for a production company, the first year of my masters I could even argue was more of a hobby. My short stay in Indianapolis as I searched for a job, then finally found one. Art was a back-seat, something I practiced when I had time and when my mind and body felt up to it.

During the year before my masters and 6 months after, I produced 0 works.

During my masters my first semester, I produced 2 works, neither one of high quality. It wasn't until I got into my second year, rented a place in NYC, and really studied nearly full time that I started to make any strides in the quality and quantity of my work.

That's the kicker--artists need time to create. We don't just need time to practice, or a concerted hour that we assign for "writing music." If you haven't watched John Cleese's talk on creativity, do it. One thing he talks about is the "open" and "closed" mode. The closed mode is what we can think of when we're focused at work. Open mode is the curious, creative, and interesting mode.

And later Cleese talks about five ways to get into the open mode. These five things are space, time, time, confidence, and humor.

Create a specific space, a specific amount of time set aside, play with the problem over time, have the confidence to take a crazy chance, and humor.

All five of those things are difficult when you're working a 9-5 job. You spend all day in the closed mode, then you come home and have all sorts of life things to finish--shopping, cooking, family time, phone calls, bills, etc. Suddenly, it's late at night, and you just can't set aside the time. Throw in the anxiety created by creation, the fear of losing what little piece of the world we have for the slim chance of making a change that probably won't have good fiscal outcomes, and therefore be "meaningless" (at least in the current societal view of life being defined by capital expenditure).

So, the idea of being a creative "tourist," or someone that does it in his/her spare time defines that the person must have lots of spare time, an environment free of extreme anxiety, and free from so many life's difficulties.

It's difficult to put that time in. For many working class individuals, this means taking the "easy way" out because then we get to create, and it's done, and we can enjoy it on some level. But it doesn't always create the most compelling art. The same thing happens in a commercial environment. We have deadlines, stresses outside artistic nature (if we don't sell enough albums, we're screwed), and people telling us about the content we need to create.

We're told to be entrepreneurs, start our own groups, put out CDs, but also go to school, submit to competitions, play as much as possible, write as much and as quickly as possible.

At the end of the day, there's hardly time to breathe, let alone actually create. There's a difference between creation and working. We can work at music, stay in the closed mode, and pump out notation. It's not the same as creating. For that, to really come up with novel solutions to a problem, we need time.

This year, I'm on a Fulbright. For the first time in my life, I'm able to focus on research I want to do, and music I want to create. My days are programmed the way I want them. I write emails, make phone calls, try and get the interview thing happening. And I write music.

Since I've been here, I've worked on 2 pieces; my opera and a commission for trombone and percussion. In both, I'm examining all sorts of methods that I've never had a chance to examine. I'm getting to play with ideas. What's this led me to?

My trombone and percussion piece was, originally, going to be pretty straight forward. Then I decided to do a graphic score because I wanted to play with a much more flexible idea of rhythm and pitch. I generated random tables.

I didn't like the end result. It was the first idea, and it wasn't doing what I wanted. I took time to think about it.

Then, I created a computer program based upon probability--the highest chances go to "stepwise" motion in rhythm, meter, and pitch. Decisions are made contrapuntally. It took me three days of 8-10 hours a day to write that program (and it's still buggy and not perfect).

As I was hand-writing my score, I realized this was going to be a huge pain for distribution. I needed to find a large format scanner (ah, how I missed UMKC at that moment), and I'd have to do a "good" copy, in pen, on expensive paper, that'd be perfect. Be thankful none of you have read my hand-written scores. So, deciding that was a horrid idea, I set out to do it in Inkscape (since I don't own Illustrator).

I spent four days figuring out a template: sizes, staff spacings, finding a good music font, testing combinations, etc. At the end of the fourth day, I had one hand-written page done. It took lots of problem solving. huge amounts of problem solving.

These are all things that I could not have done without time...without time where I could work in the open mode, playing with problems, and testing solutions, and in the closed mode, focusing on implementing ideas of long periods of time.

It was not the work of a hobbyist. If I tried to do this as a hobby, it'd be well into next year before the piece was finished. Actually, the piece as it stands wouldn't exist, because I never would have even attempted to do something this "complicated."

So, David Byrne is right, in a sense. He rallies against the idea that hardship breeds creativity and I agree with him. Hardship breeds inactivity. Have you tried writing a piece of music when all you've had to eat was a single serving of Ramen around 3pm, and that's all you're going to eat today? Or painting in a loft without heat? It's been shown in studies that poverty and hardship affects students; it's not much of a leap to say that these issues aren't just for students, but for all people affected by poverty.

I don't bemoan that the nouveau riche don't all understand the idea of social giving. But, unlike the commentator who talked about a "return of music as hobby" who lacked the historical understanding of music and the output of "music as hobby," and the stagnation that comes with the lack of creativity caused by the loss of the setting to be creative.

And I also think that the decentralization is great for the arts. The arts are major job creators, community supporters, and provide amazing opportunities for people of all backgrounds. Having the wealth of creativity spread around the world is a great thing. The problems of NYC in its commodification of art to placate a certain sector and keep donations rolling in is a sad problem. And with the major image problems facing orchestras and art music in general, any other issue can be catastrophic for a local scene.

But, in a way, NYC's loss is everyone else's game. As NYC loses artistic residents to burgeoning new scenes like KC, Austin, New Orleans (is it really "new?" Same with KC. Jazz was kind of a big deal), and other large scenes going strong such as San Francisco, LA, and Chicago, won't these other places be bolstered?

And does Byrne really think NYC's art scene will crumble? No, the allure of that city is too strong, the culture too deeply grounded. It may stagnate as certain turnovers occur, large institutions take on conservative or popular streaks to stay running, but that underground scene, the smaller clubs, venues, and galleries, will always carry on. Even if artists have to move further into the reaches of Brooklyn, Queens, and maybe even the Bronx. They'll still band together and make meaningful art. Outsiders like me will still fly in for the occasional performance, either of a commission or at a festival.

But NYC will carry on, in one form or another. I know too many people fighting to keep the scene alive, fighting for their piece of NYC. The 1% aren't going to find a way to buy out the arts--if anything, the arts will probably find a new way to subvert the 1% out of a nice share of money to put on a display attacking the 1%.


Opera as Theater--design cannot defeat music

But, boy, did it try.

I attended Parsifal at the Royal Opera in Stockholm on Tuesday evening. I prepared myself for the long haul--a roughly 4.5 hour opera with two 35 minute breaks, by reading the libretto and bookmarking a couple translations on my phone, to check during intermissions if needed. I also ate a tasty burrito at a local Chipotle-esque chain called Zocalo.

My decision to attend was simple: 50% off student tickets and the study of live opera. Writing an opera is half of my Fulbright, and Wagner's operas, in particular, make use of folk and traditional stories often times to espouse his personal political and social ideas.

Christof Loy's version of Parsifal offers a similar tract, placing Loy's own visions onto Wagner's masterpiece. If you're unfamiliar with the story of Parsifal, read here. Loy's version is fairly different, so having a relationship with the original plot may be helpful.

Reviews of Loy's production have all been stellar. Here are a couple examples. One thing you'll notice is that the two reviews had different impressions of the theme of Loy's Parsifal. Both seem to focus on positive aspects of how Loy's theme was played out on stage.

Personally, I had issues with several of the characterizations. My issue didn't come from the performance, nor from the continuity of the theme. I didn't read any reviews before going, so my judgements were my own. My issue had to do with a disconnect between Loy's telling and Wagner's story. To put it bluntly, the words did not match the action.

Parsifal was sung in German with Swedish super-titles. My German is weak, and my Swedish even worse, hence me reading the libretto and having it handy. From the outset, I was confused regarding the choice with Amfortas. Oh, there's no denying who Amfortas is supposed to be: he is portrayed as the forsaken savior, crown of thorns and all. It was his actions that didn't seem to fit the dialogue at times.

In the opening scene, Wagner's Parsifal has Amfortas arrive via processional, carried on a litter by his knights. Loy has Amfortas stumbling in, terrified, injured, barely functioning. The squires on stage look at him in complete disrespect, one even with obvious hate. Loy was beating me over the head--Amfortas is the forsake savior. I get it. But...why's he so pathetic? And why does everyone hate him?

Amfortas enters, and, later, hears that Kundry has found balsam for his wound. His lines: You, Kundry? Do I owe you my thanks again, you restless, timorous maid? Well then! I'll try the balsam now, and thank you for your trouble. (from http://www.monsalvat.no/trans1.htm)

In Loy's version, Amfortas sings these lines laying on the ground, weeping, reaching for Kundry, wanting to touch her, be with her. Kundry, in Wagner's version, is possibly a witch, the temptress, but also the redeemed whore, Mary Magdalene. When she is with the nights, she is paying her penance.

In Loy's version, she is the temptress, who as much reviles herself as relishes the role. She seems to have no control over all men fawning over her and falling for her. And all men DO fall for her in this version--Amfortas, who it later comes out was tempted by Kundry and that's why he is injured and lost the spear, wants nothing more to love her. Of course, in Wagner's version, he has no idea it was Kundry that seduced him and made him lose the spear. Gurnemanz is likewise tempted, regularly by Kundry...and in fact he is afraid to even touch her in Act III when he's supposed to be reviving her. Loy's version of revival is Gurnemanz singing from across the stage at Kundry, before coming near her at the end, taking her hand, and promptly falling into a deep longing for her.

So, thematically, what do we have so far? Amfortas as the frail, weak man, searching for redemption that is not his to attain.

Kundry as the free sexual spirit, and the temptation of all men through this? That men are weak of the flesh and women have infinite power over them, even when they don't want to power?

Ok...I can rectify those with the dialogue, though it makes Amfortas an incredibly weak character. His raging scene, excellently choreographed and designed in the second half of Act I, lays somewhat impotent. To me, he has no choices--he'll keep performing his duty because, while he rails against it and only wishes to die, he's too scared, too weak, of even death to possibly not hold on to this little thing.

The disdain shown to him by the knights and squires also caused me issues. Where did this come from? Why do they hate him so? Is Loy really just being this obvious that Amfortas is the forsaken Savior?

Enter Parsifal. For the most part, he is played close to Wagner's character, but in Act II, we see another moment where the words and the actions seem to be at odds. Or, at least, the interpretation of the words seems confusing to me at best. In "traditional" versions, Parsifal enters the garden after defeating Klingsor's knights, and sees a large amount of beautiful women. The lines to begin:

Chorus:Woe! You there! O woe! What is the cause of this distress? Cursed, cursed shall you be! Parsifal jumps down into the garden. Ah! Bold one!
Maiden Group 1:You dare to approach?
Maiden Group 2:Why did you strike down our beloveds?
Parsifal:You lovely children, should I not have fought them? They barred the way to you, pretty ones.

Now there are lots of ways to do a line reading of the above. Parsifal has entered, he needs to get through these ladies now that he's gotten through the knights. He can do the above lines as a sort of "Hey ladies, you're looking good...if you let me through, I'll come back and take you to a nice steak dinner." Parsifal can play the ladies man.

Parsifal could play it sardonically and sarcastically: "Yeah, I killed the knights to get to you. Now move your asses."

The action plays out to the point where Parsifal continues, "Never before have I seen such a handsome race: if I call you fair, don't you think I am right?">

and then

First Maidens: You struck down our playmates
 All Maidens: Who will we play with now?
Parsifal: I will, gladly!
Remember, Parsifal is supposed to be the "anointed fool." He doesn't know what's happening half the time. From the text, what would your reading be?

Loy's reading is that Parsifal starts out sarcastic, then tries to fight all the ladies, then finally flees until Kundry appears.

This is one possible reading--that everything is turned into sarcasm, that the flower maidens are more than just simple maidens, but horrible seductresses meant to turn Parsifal from his path to the spear. That Parsifal, in his combination of innocence and anger, chooses to flee rather than kill these evil sirens. Possibly.

But that's not what came across to me--what came across is action that didn't fit the words, line readings that seemed inconsistent.

The end, to me, was trite, unoriginal, and tossed in as an extra theme. Throughout the entire opera, the idea that "this is a story, a thing happening in the past" was beaten into me. From the book Gurnemanz is borderline obsessed with, to the lady in 20th century garb entering in every Act at some point, and even the stage direction. The blocking, to put it simply, was about creating pictures, images. This first happens before there's any dialogue: the squires enter, one by one, take a specific place, and pose, statuesque, for at least a minute or two. Then, one by one, they move, and take a new pose.

This happens, continuously, through every scene. That is the entire style of blocking--move one at a time, everyone in position? Great, now, PICTURE! and now one at a time move.

The style of blocking is obviously meant to make a connection to the idea of paintings, of history and stories told in other mediums. In the first Act as Gurnemanz tells the squires the story of Amfortas, a picture is revealed. One review comments that it looks like Monet, but I didn't see the connection to Monet. It appeared more like Arthur Hacker's The Temptation of Percival (which makes sense, considering Parsifal = Percival).

After 4.5 hours of seeing this type of group blocking, I was actually annoyed. When there were two, three, or four characters on stage, the direction was magnificent! Act II between Kundry and Parsifal is beautifully done. Act I during Amfortas' railing against his duties was also fantastic. But add a chorus, and, look out for monotonous movement.

Yes, it ties into an overarching theme...but...

The musical finale is played as the back wall opens revealing a present day library. The same modern garbed woman takes Gurnemanz's book, hands it to another associate to be filed.

I actually groaned. This, this is what Parsifal has been leading toward? Amfortas is on the ground upfront playing in his father's ashes (btw, his father dies in this version), completely unredeemed. Humanity is still as frail as its ever been. And the rest of the troupe wanders into the library, looking amazed, as patrons, slowly mill (entering one at a time, though moving more fluidly now, as they aren't in the book). To me, this is so blatant that it's almost Absurdist. The final moments something is revealed.

And I honestly have no idea what. You see, it was placed at the furthest back point, and all the way up top. The front curtain was raised and lowered to various heights to create depth (great idea), and at this point was about 3/4 up...From the front row of the top balcony, I COULDN'T SEE THE BIG REVEAL!!!

This is one of the biggest blunders I've ever seen in a production. You lead up to a point, all the patrons in the library have stopped milling and are pointing and staring. And at least 1/4 of your audience can't see what's happening. Just because I could only afford a 150SEK seat doesn't mean I shouldn't get to see your big reveal.

This was either a) a mistake by the person operating the front curtain. If it had been all the way up, I would have been able to see it or b) a massive design mistake where no one bothered to check from the balcony.

Loy's production suffers major problems from my perspective. First off, it lacks all subtlety. Let's be honest: Wagner is not going to help you with subtlety nor with blocking. He has large blocks of stand and sing "I'm going to tell you a story now." That's one of the challenges of Wagner. He's blatant in lot of his imagery, such as Kundry anointing the feet of Parsifal when he returns: Yes, that's Mary Magdalene anointing Jesus' feet. He has his subtle moments, but those mostly come from when Wagner has mixed his original texts together, when Christianity meets old Germanic and Norse stories and you have to decide which meaning you'd like to take.

The design choices, to me, feel tacked on. They're not from the story, they're in lieu of the story. Wagner is incredibly direct, even blunt, with what his story is. There are multiple interpretations. But I just can't see where Loy's incredibly blunt statement of "This is a parable. I shall make this apparent that it's a story, but just because it's a story, doesn't mean you can't learn something. See, it's a library, because someone was reading the story, and look, the painting from the first act (I found that out by reading reviews. Lame)" is rectified in the story. It's added to the story, an outside idea forced on top.

And for me, that idea didn't work. I prefer theater that is organic, that comes first from the story, and is then brought out.

That is my problem with this production: so much of it comes not from Wagner, it comes from Loy. In fact, there's very little of Wagner's story. Oh, there are Wagner's words and Wagner's music, but not his story. This is Loy's story. Which, when the actions and characterizations don't match the words, then Loy's story can't work very well.

All the negative out of the way, the performance itself was spectacular! Ola Eliasson as Amfortas, Christof Fischesser as Gurnemanz, Michael Weinus as Parsifal, Martin Winkler as Klingsor, and Katarina Dalayman as Kundry were all spectacular. The chorus numbers were powerful, the flower maidens were all strong in their more soloistic moments.

Major hats off to Christof Fischesser, whose powerful bass voice was absolutely stunning. Not only was the singing technically perfect and musically satisfying, it was delivered with apparent ease and conviction. It allowed Fischesser to performer subtle and complex vocalizations, adding a layer of nuance to Gurnemanz character that was incredibly enjoyable.

The same can be said for Katarina Dalayman. This was especially apparent during her long scene with Weinus during Act II. Weinus has a strong voice, but needs to ground himself to really belt the difficult Wagnerian tenor role. This led to moments of action, then standing, then action. Wagner is unforgiving of his tenors, so this is not meant as negative criticism. Dalayman added nuance to the scene, being able to perform her lines in a variety of positions, sitting, lounging, reaching, and seducing all the while singing in a full, rich tone.

The orchestra matched the musical superiority on stage. Wonderful playing and musical direction. When a trained musician can count on his hands the tiny mistakes, then a group has performed amazingly. The loud sections of the orchestra were huge, nearly deafening (in a good way), and the more subtle sections were nuanced and immaculate. So far I've heard orchestral playing three times in Sweden, and all three times have ranked in the top 10 orchestral performances of my life. Amazing musicianship.

And this isn't to say that all the design choices were poor. I absolutely loved the choice of Kundry being in all black. This, to me, made a connection between Kundry and mourning, her dislike of her "role" and her fervent wish for redemption. The scenic design, other than the finale, was amazing. The front was designed as an all wood enclosure, first as a Gurnemanz cottage, then fancied up a bit for Klingsor's castle. The back wall of the wooden structure opened to a full, raked, and beautifully designed perspective of, first the chapel at Amfortas' castle, the garden of Klingsor's castle, and the library. The use of the sets caused movements from intimate (with a small cast, such as Kundry and Parsifal in Act II, or Gurnemanz and the squires in Act I) to claustrophobic (Amfortas being berated and attacked by his knights in Act III--a Loy construction). Amfortas' castle was open and spacious, while Klingsor's was enclosed and dark. Great scenic comparisons.

Klingsor's castle was perfect, the entire scene and idea. Placing Klingsor as aristocracy vs. the workingman garb of the Knights showed differentiation. His obvious control of the girls, dressed as ballerinas and other performers, as well as having spare chairs from the opera house made a "subtle" statement about the arts becoming controlled by money and being useless entertainment. But it was done in a way that didn't hinder the story in any fashion, in fact, added a layer of subtlety that gave me nice pleasure, a moment of "Here's the plot, here's Klingsor and he's an ass, and...wait, is that? Oh, it is! Nice..." This subtlety was lacking in most of the other scenes.

The lighting designed was equally masterful. It was, for the most part, utilitarian and sparse, but perfect. Windows would be opened to shine light across the stage, and the shadows cast became as interactive and important as the characters themselves.

One note on props: characters seemed to become attached to a single prop: Gurnemanz with the book, Amfortas first with the Grail, then with his father's ashes in an urn. This causes the props to have power. The power of the book becomes apparent at the end (or earlier for some). The power of the Grail is, actually, ignored. It is often placed on the floor, or on a bench, and the chorus moves around it, ignoring it. It's an odd sequence to see everyone reverential to an object, then put it on the floor, and almost kick it over. This was an interesting artistic statement. The same thing happens with Titurel's ashes: Amfortas fumbles them in the quarrel with his knights, breaking the urn and spilling them on the floor. Amfortas goes to wallow in them...moments afterwards the chorus is walking through them, kneeling in them, and ignoring them.

The statement, to me, seemed clear: what we revere in an object is only a personal affectation, fleeting in the moment. Or, perhaps, it is meant to personify the chorus, a group that is actively betraying their one time savior, now fallen--how easily they discard the past and ignored it's ramifications. Of course, all the while, they're telling Amfortas to uncover the Grail and perform the sacrament, even as they ignore the Grail itself. Always this double sided nature to Loy's direction which just added frustration to my experience--not because I "didn't get it" but because it was continuously at odds.

Finally, a moment of amazing direction, and which set-up my expectations for the show, which were then sadly not fulfilled. During the first Act, Gurnemanz talks of the past, of Titurel passing kingship to Amfortas, and Amfortas' quest. The squires move closer, and start to be swayed by the story. The movements become somewhat seductive. Two female squires/flower maidens move down stage, one brushing the others hair. All the other squires inch toward Gurnemanz. As Gurnemanz reaches the point of describing Klingsor's castle, the girl down center rips open her shirt, now topless, moving sensually. The other two female squires have reached Gurnemanz, seductively touching his leg and chest. The males move toward the downstage girl and toward Gurnemanz.

Quickly, Gurnemanz ends the tale. The squires, in a daze, replace their clothing, move away, and seem confused.

This was absolutely fantastic. If Loy was going for "the power of a story and history to affect the present," this scene showed it perfectly. It also shows the frailty of the human spirit, that at any moment we can be swayed, changed, and coerced away from our own ideas and beliefs. It was powerful, subtle, but not so subtle that I think it was lost on the audience.

If Loy had continued in this vein, and not gotten even more blunt, prosaic, and banal, the production would have been a complete success. Instead, I was left with absolutely loving the music, appreciating an amazing performance, and wondering where the nuance and cohesiveness of theater had gone.


Swedish Adventures 3: Stockholm Syndrome (and how I'm learning outside academia)

In Swedish Adventure 2, I went to a Kunglinga Filharmonikerna concert, and was blown away. That blog post, and subsequent discussion on Fb with lots of friends is really generating a huge amount of ideas. I think they're really productive ideas, and I'll be blogging about them as time goes on.

In Swedish Adventure 1, I went to a Kaija Saariaho concert, and got to experience live music I had only ever heard on recording. And I learned a lot about myself and Saariaho's music in that one concert.

This post is actual a series of (mis)adventures I've had recently while navigating this pseudo-post-academic life while still doing academic research and trying to still have a professional life.

(Mis)Adventure 1: Printing.

Stockholm is, for the most part, more expensive than most areas in the US, with prices on goods honestly passing what I used to paying in NYC. Some items, like cigarettes, are comparable or even a bit cheaper than NYC, but otherwise, things like food, clothing, etc are more expensive. And, no, I haven't picked up smoking again. On average, I think I pay around 25-50% more for items. It's workable.

But yesterday was a first. In my trying to stay professional and somewhat autonomous, I went to a print shop to print scores. This is a normal activity for me, and one that is, honestly, very costly...especially outside the confines of having a laser printer handy. So, off to the print shop.

The order, for me, was fairly small. Two scores, one 18 front & back pages, one 8 front & back pages. A whopping 26 pages. I needed 3 copies of each, all spiral bound. OK, so, 78 pages front & back, 6 binds. In the US, I'd be looking at dropping something in the $40 range at a Fedex Office, with a large amount of that going to the binding. To lessen the price, I often source my own paper, which drops the printing price in half.

The print shop in Stockholm? 800 SEK. That's about $120. And, at Fedex, this would be done in 15 minutes, here "maybe tomorrow, but probably Monday."

Now, part of this is that I went to a more "local" shop. I've done that in KC and paid a bit more as well, mainly to support the local stores. But not 3 times as much. Needless to say, I called this one in to the US.

(Mis)Adventure 2: Phone calls

I have a Swedish phone number. I don't remember this number, ever, so I carry the simcard card around with the number on it.

I don't use this phone every day. But I use it regularly. It has 2 purposes: to talk to my adviser.

And to call contacts in Stockholm about interviews.

This has been easily the most frustrating experience of my life. The initial people I spoke to were incredibly helpful, and in short order, I had names of all sorts of people. My name was being floated around metal circles, and people were passing along phone numbers.

The crazy part is the phone numbers aren't to local bands, they're to much more famous musicians. That's awesome.

And frustrating.

You see, these famous guys are incredibly busy. I called one guy a couple days after I got his number, and we set up a rough idea of when we'd do an interview.

That was three weeks ago, and still nothing. Haven't even been able to get him on the phone since. And I try to be respectful (I've only called once this week), because I know he's busy (might be in the studio right now), but it's frustrating to be so close!

This has happened a few times now. My best bet is an email with "I'll be in town at X time, stay in touch, and let's get together then."

So while all the help I'm getting is awesome, and everyone I've spoken to is really nice and supportive, the final step is difficult. I know major musicians can get really busy, and it's not like I'm from Rolling Stone calling for an interview.

And I'm positive, eventually, I'll get together with everyone. Just have to be patient. And accept that I do have a long time to get these interviews, after all. I should take a point from all those musicians books and just work harder on my own stuff, and relax.

(Mis)Adventure 3: Working.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about how I've tried to make a concrete schedule for myself in hopes of getting more work done. I haven't always done a great job with it...mainly because I've been waking up later each day and staying up accordingly. And it's getting dark super early, which just drains my energy quickly. But, I try to at least get myself in a rhythm and work for a solid 8 hours a day.

And I try to breakup where I work. I just got a library card for the Musik/Teater Biblioteket and plan on making use of their facilities AND their massive stacks. The downside to the Musik Biblioteket is the same as UMKC: they have almost all the books in storage, and have to retrieve them. Now, there's a big difference between the sizes of libraries: UMKC has a huge, 5 story building, that's in the process of being expanded with more classrooms, and was expanded for the RooBot. They say they don't have enough room for the books in any other fashion but...

To put it in perspective, the Musik Biblioteket takes up half a floor of a somewhat narrow building. What's out are reference books, and, wow, do they have an impressive reference section. They REALLY don't have room for their books...and several thousand orchestral scores. Oh man, I can't wait to start browsing their catalogue.

Of course, this comes with the normal difficulties. Everything is an online search. I have to know exactly what I want before even looking. No "happy accidents" of seeing all the scores around the one I want, or all the similar books right in front of me. No flipping through the first few pages to see if I really want the book. There's work involved to grab the book from downstairs--manpower is wasted if I don't actually want a book.

It's a form of research that I honestly don't like. I enjoy perusing stacks and finding what I need, thumbing through books and putting them back rather than asking for 20 books, having someone go get said 20 books, and sitting at a table for 45 minutes just to return 15 of them. I actually feel bad making someone have to do that. Seems wasteful.

And the language. Their search is, of course, in Swedish. And I found out that the Swedish have their own filing system! I probably shouldn't have been surprised. In a way, I'm somewhat happy now that the books are in a separate housing area. If they had been in stacks, I would have probably freaked out not knowing where anything is. LOL. So much for memorizing portions of the LC system!

Then there's taking work with you. How many of you work in multiple locations? How many have you forgotten key items and you don't realize until you arrive?

In some cases, this is a disaster. Showing up to an IATSE lighting call without a wrench means you could be fired for the day. Showing up to a meeting without key documents could spell major trouble as well.

Luckily, this isn't life or death for me. If I leave something at home, I'm not going to get fired. I still can't work, but it's "easy" enough to go home and either work from there, or travel back and forth. I don't normally travel back and forth: when it's an hour each way, you get really tired of that quickly.

I did this yesterday. I planned to hit the Musik Biblioteket, get a card, then either work there or head to KMH. I decided to head to KMH to try programming some stuff in Max 6 that I had done in Pd, then work on writing music. When I got to KMH, I worked a couple hours fumbling through programming (with lots of screaming, cursing, and general anger) before throwing my hands up at my astounding lack of vocabulary (considering I've been using these programs for 6 years), and turned to write music. I pulled out my paper, pencils, eraser, and...

Shit...no ruler. No ruler when you're doing a proportional piece with very specific measurings down in millimeters.

With a sign of frustration, I through everything in my backpack and went home.

And bought a pizza.

Because after calling people in the afternoon and getting no answer, being told scores were going to cost me $120, a library catalogue in a language I am still struggling to learn, programming making me want to pull my hair out, and then forgetting something as mundane and important (oxymoron?) as a ruler, I couldn't handle even the idea of cooking.

So I bought an expensive specialty pizza with oxfile (beef filet), bacon, kebabkött (gyro meat), kronärtskocka (artichoke hearts), and lök (onions). It was delicious. And I drank a Guiness, because Swedish beer kind of sucks (it's all PBR tasting lager).


Thus ends my day of (mis)adventures. The struggles of working outside a university are showing. I don't think I could afford to be an independent composer here. Of course, the best part is I have an independent state run library for resources, so score study wouldn't be an issue. Same with studio time thanks to EMS.

Ok, maybe I could be an independent composer here, as long as I was able to find a cheap printing option, learned the language, and practiced more patience.



Retrospective 2: In the spirit of compromise

Today has been a doozy of a day. At Midnight EST, the US Federal Government shutdown. In Minnesota, Osmo Vänskä resigned after management canceled the Carnegie Hall concerts. Adding insult to injury, with the lockout continuing in Minnesota and no end in sight, Aaron Jay Kernis resigned as head of the Composers' Institute, a major initiative for young orchestral composers run in conjunction with the Minnesota Symphony. And the NYC Opera has canceled the rest of their season and plan on filling of bankruptcy.

All these situations are difficult. At least two really stem from incredibly stubborn groups that just refuse to work in any sort of meaningful fashion with their counterparts. Instead of being two sides of a discussion, people have turned this situation into life-or-death, adversarial, war-like situations. What should be about fostering a compromise for what's best for the entire group by bringing together multiple view-points have become "showdowns at the OK Coral (Chorale?)." 

If you've read this blog, you know I take a very firm stance on most issues. I attempt to formulate these stances by doing at least some research, finding out what's happening, and weighing different opinions against my own personal experiences. Sometimes my own personal experience outweighs opinions, and sometimes my view is swayed in the middle of writing a post.

This is a post where my views were swayed.

I started out writing a post in one vein, and, there's a chance that will come back. But, right now, I look at these situations, and realize that for all my pigheadedness (something I have in spades), I do want to find answers that will work for as many people as possible, across a wide variety of situations.

What does this mean in music?

I'm going to approach this from a few angles, looking at some common perceptions of classical music from both listeners, classical musicians, and myself, and brainstorming ways that these issues may be rectified across the three views. These are, of course, based on wide-generalities, and must be changed in the real world. 

1) Programming:

In a perfect world, I'd love for a significant amount of recent works and 20th century works. Every orchestra should commission at least 1 work a year, and devout at least 25% of the programming to new works. By new works, I'll give some leeway and say anything post WWII. I'd really like there to be an emphasis on American music and music of composers from as wide of backgrounds as possible. This isn't from a "we have to include everyone" idea, but because composers from different backgrounds produce wildly different and engaging music inspired by their background.

I am not taking a Wuorinen viewpoint--25% "masterworks," 25% "20th century works," 25% "living composers known works," and 25% "the untried." While that would be interesting, and in some quarters a dedication to new music, as well as to various outreach and funding possibilities have led to success. But, let's be honest, what happens in LA would not fly in, say, Indianapolis. And what happens in NYC wouldn't work in Atlanta.

So, looking from a few viewpoints, what would be a good breakdown for programming? Where do pops orchestras fit in?

First, I honestly think core programming of Common Practice Period works should be high. I really do love Beethoven, Bruckner, Haydn, Bach, and many others. I think orchestras should look for new and interesting works from that period--and one area I think that needs improved on the most is in concertos. It's always disconcerting to see the same violin concerto programmed multiple years in a row. Yes, the choice is up to the soloist, but wouldn't it be great, in the spirit of compromise, for the soloist and the orchestra to really talk? I'm sure Hilary Hahn would play something other than the Sibelius if you said "Uh, Ms. Hahn, we've done the Sibelius three years in a row...do you have any other concertos? The Tchaikovsky maybe? Haven't done that in years!" It'd still fit the bill of a "standard rep" concerto, but it'd be different. And, of course, the soloist would still have final say.

I do think a larger portion of subscription concerts (non-pops) should be newer works. At this point, I'd say that most orchestras, as best, give 25% over to new works, with maybe a commission every year. I'd love to see every orchestra really give 25% and at least one, if not two commissions a year. At least one work per concert (roughly) would be great--that'd normally fill out to something more like 33% of total works, but not total time. Most of those would undoubtedly be openers, 10-15 minute works.

As for pops concerts, I actually don't have an issue with pops concerts at all, as long as they aren't done at the expense of subscription concerts. And I think cross-over collaborations can actually be really fruitful musical endeavors. Philip Kennicott would hate me for this, but, a piece of me actually enjoyed this piece:

This of course may not fit many orchestras, or their setup...But I can't help but remember the excitement I heard out of Indy with Time for Three, pairing up to play classical works and some more pop style arrangements with the orchestra. Crossing the lines, combining ideas, and being adventuresome can produce good programs.

It won't always work. Not everyone piece will be a winner. But, if we never try, and never move forward, the programs will get really stale as well. And just because one work didn't go well, doesn't mean others won't.

So, there ya go--I'm not against the masterworks, but I do want more effort given to newer works.

2) Attitude
I've touched on this before--how people view the orchestra makes a difference. The physical interaction of the group does change the experience for audience members. What's this have to do with attitude?

I want, one, orchestra performers to always perform like they love the music. Even if they don't like the music, play like you love it. Give it that feeling. I want musicians to be engaged, lively, concentrate, smile, and worry less about being "proper" and more about playing.

I want the orchestra to not care if someone enthusiastically claps between movements. And I want the rest of the audience not to jump down that person's fault. One man, Richard Dare, wrote an article over a year ago talking about how he felt stifled at a concert hall. He wanted to clap, laugh, scream, etc.

As someone that goes to popular concerts, jazz concerts, and "somber, reverential" classical concerts, I can understand. All these concerts have different social graces--you don't usually see too many rock concerts where everyone sits quietly, nor do you see jazz concerts where everyone is singing the tune. And, I think, allowing for good-natured feedback in a live performance is great. Clapping between movements? Well, it can slow things down considerably, but on the other hand, showing that immediate appreciation is also great. As a musician, it's always great when someone claps for me--in a jazz tune, ending a solo (especially one I didn't do so hot on), and hearing applause actually gives me some energy. I'm not a fan of applause after my solo in Bolero, but after a beautiful movement of a symphony? sure.

I mean, is that really all that more "disruptive" than the huge amount of somewhat forced coughing and sneezing?

So, musicians, love what you do every minute. Don't act like you hate something, even if you do--welcome to being a professional. Enter into every piece looking for positives, ways to create beautiful music, and with an open mind. And audience, show appreciation at "appropriate" times, not while music is playing, and everyone else should be supportive and happy someone liked it enough to clap loudly at the end of a movement.

And, if you need to laugh, give an appreciative "yeah!" for a wonderfully nailed solo, or tap your foot, go for it...just do it quietly. Sit next to me the next time I'm at an orchestra concert--you'll see me do all these things, in as surreptitiously a manner as possible. And when I get annoyed looks, I laugh a bit more, because I know the "decorum" of the classical concert all too well.

3) Outreach

First off, let's face a few facts. 1) the age of the audience has gone up steadily. 2) The cause of this is many fold--click on the link in the previous portion. 3) we're tempted, as musicians, to find quick answers. I often hear "it's the fault of education," "the music isn't relevant," "kids aren't into live concerts." Well, all those things could be to blame. So could the "we do it to ourselves," the "Ivory Tower" idea. 4) music education is a varied issue, ranging from topics covered, to time in the classroom, to style of teaching. 5) cultural shifts have changed how we consume media

So, to me, this is where outreach comes in. First, I want to turn music education and outreach away from the one that is most often pushed: performance. There are lots of initiatives that are important here that should have focuses, for sure: youth symphonies, instrument donations, free lessons and sectionals, free after school programs (such as El Sistema). These are great, and I'm definitely not calling for a "rob Peter to pay Paul" mentality with these suggestions.

I think orchestras, new music ensembles, actually every performing group in any area, should do more outreach for listening.

I don't mean free concerts. Free concerts are nice, but I'm thinking more...

Lecture recitals.

Oh yes, those things so many have done in their doctorates. A small group, maybe playing chamber and solo works, go to schools. They present to, hopefully, to groups smaller than everyone in the school. In the presentation, hopefully running about 50 minutes, musicians talk not about the technical bits of music, nor about how to get a career in music, but about listening to music. I mean presentations like this one by Benjamin Zander. And many of you know this little outtake of Bobby McFerrin

Now, the bit with McFerrin does have performance, but not in the way I was talking--it's not about making performers, it's about connecting an audience with music.

This is something many classically trained musicians want to do. Heck, it's why many of us got into this--I know it's why I'm here.

Audience members respond well to the "pre-concert" talks, many show up, want to hear more about the music. It creates a more rich listening experience when they hear musicians talk passionately about the music. Why is it always in the concert hall? Why aren't there more talks out in the public?

One guess is because, in some places, they tried, a couple times. And not many people showed up. Any new event takes time to build. So, these new outreach programs may not pay dividends in the near future--but it'll matter when those 12 year old kids that you reached with a couple outreach lecture recitals become 29 year olds with jobs and want to support the orchestra that came to them with outreach lecture/concerts.

And keep up all the rest of the outreach as well--everything plays a big part. And if more of the small groups would band together, more of these outreach opportunities could occur as well. It'd be great if members from lots of different groups got together and formed an "outreach coalition," in the spirit of compromise.

I do have another whole blog being prepped on outreach ideas for musicians of all walks, so stay tuned.

and finally:

4) Get over the fear of the new

Ok, this one isn't just going to be about compromise, about looking at lots of viewpoints and offering what I think are constructive views.

This one is personal.

Everyone involved: be willing to evolve.

A friend of mine posted a question that led to a lot of this thinking, and one point at the end struck me: How do we incorporate more meaningful new music into our models while not condemning the standard rep?

One word sticks out and makes me think. The question itself is important: how do we incorporate new music into the standard rep? What types of pieces? In what ways, context, etc? I've covered that already.

But it's another word: meaningful.

What is meaningful new music? How do we categorize it? Is it technically well constructed new music? Is it new music an audience will like? Is it new music that the orchestral musicians like? Is it socially and culturally relevant new music?

But, for me, this takes a different tone. Whenever I see meaningful, and in retrospect, use meaningful, it has a connotation of distrust. It says "I'm not sure I find this thing of equal importance to my current mindset." Like I said, I see this in myself as much as I do others. But it's an important idea to think about. How attached are we all to our current modes of thinking? Our current whims? Our current philosophies?

When I see the strikes in Minnesota, I see two groups that are stuck in their philosophies. One is a set of bankers masquerading as non-profit board-members, trying to cut from the largest profit differential, salaries, to make more money for the stake-holders...in this case, the endowment I guess. And I see musicians saying "the old ways are fine--we'll take a bit of a pay cut, but don't change what we do." Now, don't mistake this; I am firmly on the side of the musicians and think the management has acted atrociously. However, I think a lot of these questions come from a "new vs. old" dilemma. And I'm tired of "versus." I really do want cooperation and collaboration.

So, everyone, be ready to try new things. Because, let's be honest, a lot of the old systems are failing. I'm not sure they were ever designed to work all that well in the first place, and with the cultural, social, and economic shifts in America, old paradigms are going to have to fall away.

This doesn't mean getting rid of the masterworks. And it doesn't mean embracing only the newest fads.

But it does mean keeping an open mind and talking.

So, everyone, weigh in. Where can we start at building a new image for orchestras, and for classical music? What sort of image do you see?

For me, I see an image that retains its virtues, but isn't afraid to evolve through the cooperation of everyone involved: the audience, management, musicians, and guys like me, new music composers who love academia.