On Experimentalism, pt. 2

In my first post on experimentalism, I examined some issues with the current though process starting to grab hold in academia. At the top of the list was the idea of job preparation and a leaning toward finding answers to classical music's image problems by borrowing from popular music. I argued that this mode of thinking would lead to a stagnation of musical culture, as well as stunt the overall musical growth of students. This week, I look at two ideas of being experimental; the personal level and the universal level.

The personal level is accepting a mode of thinking and acting that revolves around experimentation. This means actively studying new techniques and ideas, being open to ideas from all areas, and entering with a sort of scientific mind-set.

What do I mean by a scientific mind-set? Think of doing experiments in a lab. If a young chemistry student sits down to do his/her first experiment, there are a few things that happen. First the teacher (or adult supervisor) helps the student learn the proper safety procedures and the use of the various equipment needed for the experiment. It wouldn't do much good for a student to start a distillation procedure, but not know how to set-up the Bunsen burner, or connect the glass piping together. After that, students are given the basic instructions on how to proceed. They are not told of exactly what awaits at the end, but instead sent off to do the experiment, write down observations, do calculations as needed, and find an answer.

This is how I approach writing music. Before I write a piece, I set out to learn any techniques needed, in at least a general way. As the piece evolves, I may find I need to work harder on one aspect, take some time to study a certain type of notation, or play around with one small idea for a while to learn it's inner workings. This reminds me of an experiment I did in chemistry long ago when we were doing a distillation experiment. I followed the directions properly for the set-up, but it still took a little fiddling to find the right setting on the burner that would be hot enough but not too hot (and thereby uncontrollable), as well as having to make sure some of the linking in the tubing where completely secure.

I don't start with an ending in mind, instead a general direction or idea. Maybe I want to explore spectralism as a pitch structure, but due to the make-up of the commissioning group, I can't keep the timbre possibilities exact, not can I use the type of rhythmic language usually associated with the movement. So, I explore, play around, find different ways to play with the basic pitch material and overall sonic image from the recording. And out comes a piece that seems more like a funk piece than spectral piece.

I am a composer that is endlessly experimenting. My time in college has been to learn and try as many different types of writing music as I could. This gave some of my teachers fits, as I'd ask about some obscure style of writing music. Other teachers loved my sense of experimentation, always interested to see what would come next--maybe an hour long randomly generated electronic piece, or a fluxus style improvisation piece with trash cans. Recently I've written an algorithmic compositionTDRM, for trombone and percussion. This work is also proportionally notated, meaning that standard rhythms have been removed, instead a general sense of speed is given for the piece, and the rhythms are interpreted by the performers by the proximity of note-heads. There are also graphic representations, extended techniques, and a kazoo. 
 None of the techniques in this piece are brand new--I've invented nothing. The experiment in this case is a personal one. I had never written my own software for determining composition, nor done an entirely proportionally notated score. I had to learn new software, new techniques in software I was already familiar with, and change my entire mode of thinking in the creation of this piece. The experience of the piece will be noticeably different in each performance, and the end results musically would easily be considered to be avant-garde. It most certainly does not fit in with any pervading opinion of music, be it the academic mindset or the populist mindset. The piece is experiment, which may completely fail.

My dissertation is an opera with an original libretto. It has many traditional elements--it is pseudo-through composed, in the sense that the arias don't happen expressly as "stop and sing," but are inherent to the action of the drama. The writing within the opera may be a tick lower on the experimental spectrum than most of my works, but that is due to a different consideration. No, not the consideration of will it be popular, nor accepting that opera houses mostly stage Romantic works, so I should play to that audience. Instead it's due to a musical and dramatic choice that is somewhat unique.

Most operas are written in one main style. Specific styles may change, the inclusion of a dance movement, or a more Romantic turn for a love aria. However, when one listens to a Mozart opera, it is definitely Mozart. The unifying style of an opera by John Adams goes a bit further, with a minimalist attitude permeating the entire score. If the opera is a bel canto opera, all the singers will perform in that style. If it's more of a musical theater style, all performers will perform that style.

My opera takes the dramatic idea of characterization to the music. Characters speak with distinct voices in plays. Dialogue is written to differentiate the characters from one another. However, it seems that most music is written in a more homogeneous style. Yes, the voice types will differ, and the best opera composers used pitch and rhythm cleverly to delineate characters. I'm taking a more novel approach of each character operating in a particular style--this means that the punk singer will not be singing bel canto, but screaming, and the music backing him will be a punk band. Another singer is a sprechstimme role in the style of Brecht/Weill, and so the music is reflected accordingly. When singers of different styles take a duet or trio, elements of their styles are intertwined into a single style, or are overridden by a pervading style--however all the singers remain true to their voices, creating a clash of styles more like one would encounter in a normal conversation.

Will this work? Honestly, I have my doubts. There's usually a good reason why certain things have happened a certain way over time. However, I'm taking the chance to experiment, to try an idea that is, at least new to me. If I was worried about performability, perceived popular opinion, or economics, this project would never exist. How can I make money on a full scale opera, being worked on at the moment with no opera company partner? How can I write music that is outside the perceived popular opinion? And where will I find a punk singer that's willing to scream on stage for an opera?

All good questions, and things I will deal with after the work is completed. I can pitch the project to companies, now as I'm working, and later after it's finished, or find a way to finance and produce the work myself. I never worry about perceived popular opinion, but it is interesting to note that every single person I've described this project to thinks it's a fantastic idea--from the musical idea, to the original story, to the interweaving of folk tales and current politics, to the influence of death metal. And you'd be amazed how many popular performers were in drama club in HS, and wouldn't mind doing another musical, especially if it's doing what they already do.  

All this ties into the idea of experiential learning, that humans can learn to do something through active experimentation. What happens when experimentation is removed, and instead replaced with an economic rationale for learning? It's actually been shown in a couple articles that money is not the best motivator. Instead, internal motivation for creation should be used for motivating young musicians. Furthermore, education should be used to broaden a students understanding, not force a narrow viewpoint. Even in specialized courses, the goal is to challenge students, not to give them basic tools and shoo them out the door. We'll end up with generations of young people unable to reason their way out of a problem, only apply pre-determined formulas. I've seen this first hand from a specific trade school churning out graduates in audio production. Most of the students I've met come out with an understanding of exactly what they were shown, and nothing else. There are a few outstanding students I've met that had a firmer grasp of fundamentals and theoretical ideas, allowing them to apply their training to other similar devices...but only a few.

All of these ideas tie to the idea of personal experimentation. I am under no illusion that my music is somehow transcendentally unique. Instead I work in small increments, learning new skills, new ideas, and testing my own boundaries. All the while I'm learning the breadth of music available, and seeing where I fit within the grand traditions.

Experimentalism in a universal sense is moving outside those student experiments. You've been working on ideas, ideas that for all your hard research you have yet to find paralleled elsewhere. Perhaps it's a new tuning system, or a the use of a newly created instrument. This is the universal experimentalism. It's what happens when a person follows a long stream of "what if"s until it reaches a point where no one has explored before. This is what leads to great leaps in technology and art.

It's what happened when multitrack recorders started hitting the circuit. The idea of multitrack recording (or recording more than 1 channel at a time. This includes stereo recording) is ubiquitous now, but it wasn't widely available until the early 1960s. The first commercial machines were made in the late '50s by Ampex, with the first one sold to Les Paul. And without Les Paul, Ampex may never have even made the technology, as his continuous tinkering and experimentation led to several different multitrack recording set-ups prior to Ampex selling him the 8-track machine. By the late 70s, multitrack had taken over.

It's what happens when Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly take an early mono recorder out and start recording folk songs. Alan Lomax did the same thing, collecting American folk songs, but did so in a way to preserve the tradition. Bartok took the folk songs, and used their raw nature to create classical music. Even this idea was far from new, with the use of folk and popular songs as starting points for art music dating back to the beginning of art music (see fact #7). But it was the way in which Bartok used the folk songs, keeping the complexities and nuances of the untrained singers, not shying away from free rhythms and complex meters as needed. It was keeping the pitch material closer to the original, instead of shoving it into an already accepted Western scale.

It's an experimental nature that leads to something new to the entire form, not just to a single person. It's that leap in understanding. It's the same leap made by Pierre Schaefer  in using recorded sounds to create music, something that is now common in popular and art mediums. It's those leaps that can be lost when we turn music education into a job preparation kit, especially focusing on ideas that are popular over personal exploration and development.

It's that constant search for bettering oneself. Some people refer to this as "finding your voice." I dislike that phrase because it points to an end point, that all this work leads to one single outcome; your voice, your one unified style in which every piece shall be written. I wonder what Stravinsky would think of this idea as he switched styles throughout his life. Or Penderecki, who after writing complex pieces with large amounts of extended techniques, switched to a more Romantic style. Did they never find their voices? Or do we consider their last pieces the culmination, that this is what the journey was all about. Has Penderecki, who still lives and writes music, found his voice in his latest choral works?

Or is there no one voice, and he's moved continuously in development, accepting and rejecting his own ideas. Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshmia is a highly experimental piece composed in 1960. Penderecki explored many extended techniques, percussive hitting of the body of the string instruments, and new notations. He has since left this style, with the anecdote being that he "has written all that can be written in this language." Is this type of language a dead end then? Are there no more experiments, just rearrangements of the same twelve tones?

I argue against this approach, the linear idea of a start and a finish. I believe any use of music education that becomes that sort of end-product focused can lead to a disaster. Of course there are markers we can use. A performer can and should be able to play all major and minor scales over the entire extent of the instrument. This can be graded for accuracy, and the next step of technique can be attained. A composer can and should learn to write a fugue, following very specific rules. The adherence to these rules can and should be graded for accuracy. The same can be said for learning counterpoint rules, all the extended techniques available for each instrument, basic instrumentation, form, different ways of generating musical structures, and on and on. The more knowledge one has, even if not actively engaging in it's use, will change the way one thinks about a passage...and all of a sudden, completely unbidden, a passage turns into a perfect serialist fugue, without the aid of a matrix.

Experimentalism in music is needed at all levels. It is through this experimentation, the pushing of new ideas, that music can grow. It is not through touting all ideas as new ideas. Research is integral to this approach. A young chemist doing a simple experiment, say, heating mercury thiocyanate in a place no one has thought to in a while, say, in a large quantity in a park, doesn't run out and say "I have created something entirely new! A wonderful form of chemistry called 'live interactive park chemistry!' " It's still the same experiment. And, more than likely someone has done it...and gotten the fine associated with creating noxious fumes in a public place.

In closing, it's important to remember that without experimentalism, there is no development in music. By making music into a vocational schooling meant to pump out musicians that can trumpet the latest fad in music, but without the skills to reach new conclusions will only hurt music in the long run. It will create a generation of followers, musicians that think they're developing new ideas when in reality just putting a slightly different paint job on the same idea.


On experimentalism

In the current push of critiquing music, a few views have become old stand-bys:
  1. All music must be immediately relevant to a mythic, all encompassing audience. Most classical music, either from the past or currently written does not fit this mold
  2. The number one way to prove the relevancy and quality of a work is to show that it sells well. This means high ticket and record sales. To this end, it is obvious that classical music should adopt popular music models.
  3. Music education at the post-secondary level should be to prepare musicians for the business end of music, to train musicians to make a living in the arts after graduation. This ties directly into point 2, as the types of music studied, styles of courses, and various grading mechanism should be tied to economic success. 
  4. Differing views from the populist model are considered traditional, and the main reason people are against this model is due to their conservative streak. It's a new way of thinking, and therefore the more conservative minded are against it.
  5. We should exemplify organizations that have succeeded in creating money and popularity without criticizing their stance, or without researching and considering all of the pros and cons of those positions. Most importantly, it should be known that what works for one organization will work for all organizations, regardless of locale, clientele, or any other factors. 
  6. Experimental (read not traditional nor pop influence fusion), academic, post-tonal, musique concrete acoustique, spectralism, and any other movements in music function to alienate the audience, and therefore should be eschewed for styles of music more popular with the mythic audience.
These points are heavy handed reductions of the views I've been reading from critics, comments throughout the web, and conversation with musicians. Being heavy handed, they show my attitude quite clearly toward these simplified views. Let me continue to lay my hand on the table.

There's been a trend recently on this blog to explain positions that are outside the popular opinion of a small circle of respected critics. Most of these critics hail from the Eastern seaboard of the US, with a large concentration in the mid-Atlantic and NYC area. This NYC-centricity explains ideas that are most apt to that specific locale, and only describe a sub-section of all the people in the area. For every description of  dinner/concert production that has met with success, there are any number of new music groups performing difficult, interesting, and experimental works. For every pop oriented performance, there's a JACK quartet performing Helmut Lachenmann to rave reviews or Georg Friedrich Haas' tour de force String Quartet No. 3 to a packed house. This is to say that as critics try and create one image of the arts, a different image, held in a completely different dimension, seems to be moving along well. 

The populist view has a damning effect, which I attempted to articulate in part in my post on pandering. At an even earlier point, I attacked the idea of writing for an imaginary perfect audience. The rationale is simple: to write for a presumed perfect audience, a composer must be willing to move against his own ideas, and accept a cobbled-together, watered down, multiple choice test aggregate idea of what music is. This is where articles have been written specifically saying not to write or perform down to an audience. Simply put, if you're looking at the average of a wide demographic, it is easy to shoot for that average or the lower end of the average. That is, in effect, pandering: giving the audience what you think they want instead of giving the audience the highest caliber artistic experience possible. 

For composers to choose this path is their own prerogative. There are composers working in popular music genres, fusion genres, and all over that write compelling, interesting, and original music in those styles. They have an ability to find their own personal voice while navigating a narrow checklist of must haves when writing in particular genre. Not everyone can do this--not everyone can accept adding a bass drop and a dub style bass line to a pop song, even if it is in vogue. 

I'm reminded of an excellent blog-post by Alex Temple on cultural relevancy. As soon as the argument becomes about classical music being relevant, it's important to remember to ask "for whom?" Beyond that, it's important to go through what may or may not make the experience important to people. It could be the music, or the preconceptions about the music and its environment. The problem could, in fact, have nothing to do with the experience as it would happen, but the assumed ideas of people regarding the experience. 

This all bleeds into my ideas on education. I've been an active educator for quite some time, ranging from teaching private lessons and coaching ensembles at local middle school and high schools during my undergrad years, to teaching brass during marching season, to music appreciation at the college level (sometimes for high school students in special programs), and into teaching audio engineering, music technology, and composition. In Marek Poliks' ongoing series, he recently discussed how new music is academic music, and the inextricable ties between these two institutions.

It's true, new music is academic music. And the idea of new music, or perhaps we should say original music, is under attack.

Let's look first at the University system in America. There is the continued strife between "traditionalists," or those that like the idea of a broad, core curriculum (the liberal arts), and "academics" that want a curriculum with tighter specialized courses, but at the same time larger freedom for students to choose their path. There's also a trend toward looking at the economic success of alumni as a measuring stick for how well a college is doing. This can be simplified to a question: what is the purpose of higher education? Is it to learn skills to be successful in an economic sense? Is it to achieve a higher level of education, broad or specific? Is it to prepare a student for his/her chosen career path, whether or not that career path is economically viable? More and more questions arise from the simple question of "What is the purpose of higher education?"

This is hotly debated in music. DePauw University is currently changing their entire curriculum, and even though I'm an alumni, I have heard nothing regarding how it may change (nor much more than a basic survey regarding what I perceive I may have needed from the education to be successful as a musician). What I fear is a turn toward the populist economic model. David Cutler has written several articles (which I've linked before) that have some provocative ideas in them. And some of those ideas make me afraid for one of the main tenets I believe post-secondary education can provide for students:

A safe haven for experimentation.

There was a study published looking at what has been happening in popular music, specifically measuring the use of timbre, pitch, and dynamics, to see what has changed in the past 50+ years. The answers, summarized in the Smithsonian online magazine, has shown that timbre content has gone down, pitch content has gone down, and overall loudness (and compression) have gone up. Fewer pitches, fewer sounds, louder. 

There's been a similar movement in classical music. Starting after WWII, post-tonal theories were leading in new works. Serialism was still chugging along. The avant-garde was still working hard, producing works in new styles, including proportional notation, working with extended tuning systems after Harry Partch, Moving later in America, the avant-garde took a different approach, moving away from the densely packed machinations of their predecessors and into minimalism and post-minimalism. Minimalist works focused on process, a single idea taken through to it's logical conclusion (think, Clapping Music by Steve Reich or In C by Terry Riley). Or there were other takes, a more ambient, repetitive music that, occasionally, would shift slightly Post-minimalism took the idea, and toned down the nature of it. It turned, in a sense, to a modal music that was triadic in nature. What I mean is that while it took chords from tonal music, it did not adhere to the structure of tonal music. This was new to the classical music scene of the time, but it had been explored heavily, dating back to early triadic constructions (pre-Common Practice Era, or roughly 1600CE), and then again in jazz, most notably with Miles Davis' recording Kind of Blue. The first track of Kind of Blue, entitled So What typifies the idea of modal music. In this case, Davis uses only two chords, alternating between them. One could even make a claim that the jazz world predated the idea of Terry Riley's In C with Charle's Minguse's 1956 recording The Clown, especially the first track Haitian Fight Song (and further examples can be found throughout time, as ideas are recycled, altered, and gussied up for the new generation).

All this to point out that there was a reactive movement that started in the 60s and moved through the 70s and 80s in classical music away from a dense pitch construction, but retained the complexity of timbre and dynamics. The study about popular music didn't take into account rhythm, but one can see a squaring out of rhythms in classical music during this time period as well, sometimes as a mode of expression (in the harsh repetitive nature of early Philip Glass), or because of the aggregate end product was far more complex (Clapping Music and In C). At the same time, groups were experimenting in new modes of expression, including spectralism, among the many. Increases in technology made it easier for electronic music to be produced, and it was beginning to move further from the fringes of the avant-garde to a more mainstream avant-garde; away from being a sub-sub-genre, alienated even with the experimental community, to being accepted by the experimental community. But where is this incredibly abbreviated, and ham-handed history leading us?

Unlike what many populists purport, there has not been an industry wide attack on tonal, neo-Romantic, or any other type of music in academia. As aging serialist composers retired from teaching life, their students and the generation younger than them (who were still taught by the older powers), took a more holistic, inviting approach. Here's the disconnect I am seeing--not once in my lessons with composers young and old was I told not to write a certain style of music. Not once. And yet, critics seem to take a point in saying that composers are out of touch, that we force views on students like it's Darmstadt at its inception, that it's Pierre Boulez pre-correspondences with John Cage. And, in the place of serialism, they wish to raise up a new all-powerful master: music written for the imaginary perfect audience.

It will, of course, be accessible to all, unlike past music. It will follow trends in popular music. It will find ways to engage audiences in new ways, like playing in clubs or maximizing online resources.

It will be regressive, turning into a follower, not a leader. It will try to engage all people, while ignoring those already standing by its side. And it will discard all that has been for something new, because the past is over, and nothing can be learned or gained by examining it.

This is a problem. It's a problem because it takes a strong dogmatic stance, it raises one form of art over another as far as taste (not quality), and creates expectations of what artists will need without regard to the trade-offs. This is, of course, on the side of hyperbolic--I'm engaged not with the specific people involved, but with their marketed personas. What may be just another form of sensationalist media hides what could be amazing conversations with the greatest care and intent.

But it's important not to leave behind the spirit of true experimentation in all areas. And since experimental and new ideas are not immediately profitable, they come at odds with that line of thinking.

Touchscreens were patented in the US in 1967. The first commercial use of a touchscreen in a computer was in the early 1980s. They were a regular feature in certain GMC cars in the late 80s (Buicks, I believe. I have actually seen and touched one of touch screens). When was the first touchscreen phone? The early 90s with a prototype by IBM, some 10+ years before Apple's development of the iPhone. The original handheld mobile phones came out in the 1970s, and it wasn't until the 1990s that mobile phones became more widespread.

Early versions of these technologies were expensive to produce, and met with resistance from traditionally minded people. Technophobia is a normal condition brought on by rapid changes in technology--it's much easier to use what we are used to than to explore a constantly changing environment. The same is true in music.

The most well-documented and cited example may be Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. The piece was a radical departure from the norm of the time, exploring a more modal style of writing with repetitive chords, brash orchestration, (skip back to hear an explanation) and had an accompanying choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky that was as provocative as the music. And yet, 100 years after Rite of Spring premiered to riots and critical disdain, it has been embraced by the musical community as one of the greatest works of the 20th century. The acclaim came somewhat quickly, as after the dust had settled from the premiere, about a year later the concert version was meeting with more popular success. A year is a short time to wait if one writes a piece that is so provocative or experimental! But there are still many musicians who find this work to be challenging and progressive, even as it past it's 101st birthday.

What would happen to these works if they were tied perfectly to commercial success. Can we expect more composers like Stravinksy, who found collaborators with large purse strings, willing to fund the most forward thinking and experimental works? Or will we take the view of the large institutions in the US, a conservative viewpoint of Romantic repertoire being the large selling point, with the more populist pieces and well known living composers getting a small sampling of performances? Will we see another John Cage Concert for Piano, a work whose score involves as much drawing as standard notation, and each individual part can be played as a solo without the piano? And when will we see it? Will it be a Radiohead-esque experience, where the band writes the music that makes money, then turns more and more toward the experimental vibe they always wanted? Or will we, as certain composers such as John Adams claim, lead to a weakening of music by lack of forward movement?

And can something exist that walks the line between experimentation (in a personal and universal fashion) and traditionalism still be a strong piece?

In my next post, I'll talk more about my personal relationship with experimentalism, and how and where I'm seeing that spirit continue, either in small steps or giant leaps. I believe these examples will help clarify why I firmly believe that academia should not just become a way to churn out students with business sense and the ability to read market data and create a product that will sell for the radio, but to be a breeding ground for experimentalism in all its forms. This is especially true of personal experimentation, urging students to go far outside their comfort zone, examine new ideas, and work toward greater goals.


A case against the 60 minute concert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lack of a stage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

N'ah, I'll wear the Vans.


In Defense of A Giant Horses Head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


500 People Were Forced Into a Classical Concert

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The concert was as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, let's look at a few facts:

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

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