Friday, February 27, 2009

Books before Movies

I've always been the one who had to read the book before the movie. Now I notice more and more that big book stores are pushing the books before the films. Witness all the adds in tandem with the release of Watchmen (which I'm reading right now).

My question is why don't people look at the score before they go to a concert. Oh, I know that the answer will be that the "layman" can't understand a score of music. I propose with all this interactive internet niftiness proliferating that someone (maybe me) create a little program where people can look at the contours of a piece of music in time that would indicate things like pitch and rhythmic dissonance/assonance on a time line so that the layperson can get a feel for why a score looks the way that it does with the music right there to refer to. No classes necessary, the site could have a score following tool that shows the rhythmic, pitch, and maybe even timbre lines below the actual score so that plain old folks can start to see what they're getting into and start to recognize the profile of a piece that they may enjoy.

Let's demistify the creative process and let some of those people who we all know can handle but have been lead to feel stupid because reading "music is so hard and specialized". If reading music is so hard then how come people of all ages master it daily? People feel empowered in situations where there is a familiar element. This is why recognizable characters comfort us when doing something recognizable and surprise when they step out of line. It's all sonata allegro baby........except when it's not.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Sharing Knowledge

As a follow-up to the “More You Know” blog of last week I’ve decided to take my own advice and put up links to more information on concerts on the Merkin Concert Hall website. The first concert up is the iO Quartet’s brilliant programming suggested by Helmut Lachenmann to go around his string quartet Grido. Simply go to and click on more info in the box where you see iO Quartet's concert.

As a performing presenter I often find myself assuming that the audience will be as excited about a performance because of all the amazing details in the works; performer’s particular affinity for a composer or work; culture or period in which a work was written; politics of the time a work was written; etc.; now they will be able to gain some of that knowledge from the presenter before the concert. I firmly believe that this approach will enhance people’s enjoyment of the program and I hope that it may even sway some folks looking for something to do to take a shot at some serious music.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

iO's Innovation

The iO Quartet concert is a series of scenes for string quartet that all challenged the genre at each respective time of publication. That all of these pieces were coming from a decidedly avant-garde slant is a testament to the idea that experimentation with musical form and content can lead to new and wonderful places. Each of these pieces switches gears in novel ways throughout the unfolding of the material. The iO’s tell me that this programming was suggested to them by the composer Helmut Lachenmann ,which speaks to my favorite kind of programming wherein the living composer helps to “curate” the concert; this adds a healthy dose of context, if not influence, to the proceedings.

The context comes from the history of different composers in different times choosing to experiment with the “normal” ways of composing music. Beethoven was already musing on unconventional structures and surprising harmonic shifts for his day. Schubert’s approach was to cast a single voice over layers of shifting texture and gesture, resulting in rapid changes in a “story” we’re being told without words, an excellent entre-act to what unfolds in the first half. I’ve often thought of Webern’s music as a privileged peek into another kind of communication at once very expressive and intimate. His ideas flow in a way that makes perfect sense within itself but comes across to the audience as a private game observed through a kaleidoscope. Lachenmann’s titanic Grido is an essay in ever-shifting textures that hang together with signposts of pulsing and twittering machines that enter briefly to then change the entire landscape again.

Programming thematically allows the audience in on several levels, giving them entre into the composer’s thoughts about the writing of the piece. It’s all dialogue in good music of any stripe, so to hear how these dialogues are set up and then dealt with is the key to becoming a good listener of art music, or any other for that matter. Very often the music that appeals first to our senses is that which is familiar to our ears either because of its popularity or because it’s made up of recognizable rhythms, harmonic progressions and melodies.

In the first half of the program on February 10 we begin with work in the realm of familiarity that then stretches into more experimentation, fragmentation and poetic license with form. The string quartet is put through its paces making sounds in the usual way but with unusual forms. With these ideas thoroughly worked out in the first half, we then have the privilege of hearing the Beethoven with fresh ears. He begins with a muscular opening figure, then shifts gears many times as if to show as many facets of the jewel as possible before giving us a fog-lifting ending accomplished through a surprising shift to F Major, which ends the concert in the tonal way that it began. The beauty and impetuosity of Beethoven’s writing in this short, potent masterpiece cannot be understated; it is a sly work of organizational genius. To have been written when it was took the conviction of a master artist at work with the raw materials of a chamber ensemble that has gone on to reign supreme in the art of chamber music.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The More You Know

I've found throughout my life that I'm the guy who has to know everything possible about whatever it is I'm doing. When I was a kid it was an obsession with the cars that my dad liked. We would go to car shows and collect any information possible about makes, models, etc. I would then go home and research everything I could about the cars and spit it back to Dad until he wanted to strangle me. There's a kid in my neighborhood who does the same thing with sports stats. This behavior is not uncommon with pop culture. Witness the several points of access to pop music stars for example with their own webpage, myspace, facebook, fan sites, etc. People in the Kiss Army wouldn't be caught dead not knowing everything about releases, lyrics, and other trivia regarding them.

We really haven't seen much of this go on in the music world of late with the possible exception of Pavarotti and his ilk but you have to back to Liszt and Paganini to find the iconic status and encyclopedic knowledge of a "classical" artist. So, being an afficionado of new music (after learning all of the brass instruments as a youth; all I could about swimming; cooking) seemed very natural to me after developing my car obsession. Maybe it's just the type of person I am but wouldn't it be nice if we could cultivate this kind of acquisitiveness amongst the youth today. They certainly have more information at their fingertips than I ever did. Imagine my parents deep discussion about me after asking for The Grove Dictionary as a senior in high school!

Perhaps the problem is the glut of information that can be found online that has lead to the demise of the poor travelling encyclopedia salesmen-or any other for that matter-that my mom would patiently listen to before sending away (we bought our encyclopediae from the super market because it came with cheap china or something. I fear that younger people today are so overloaded with media that it's difficult for them to even find things that might really enhance their lives in meaningful ways. OK, that's pretty dramatic but there's a lot to be said for exposing young people to art before their openness to the world around them gets closed off by habits formed at a young age.

The idea of educating yourself on something that's supposed to be entertaining is often a sticking point with those not familiar with it. It's analagous to having a painting that isn't figurative turning off someone with no exposure to it. We humans are not big fans of surprise. But if this appetite can be developed by gently leading people to information that they might use to educate themselves just a little bit before showing up to a program that has other pieces that point to elements shared, there can be success for the lay listener. I've done my level best to encourage artists I present to show their music in context alongside other composer's works that have something in common with each other. I then write about it myself and try to give links to books, cds, etc. so that people may be able to know something about what they are going to hear in my hall. If they're leaving the house for one piece on the program, they might as well learn as much about the rest......if they feel like it.

I'm just getting together all of these resources for our new website at Merkin Concert Hall . Hopefully we will attract some adventurous people we can turn into adventurous listeners.

Musically Speaking Blog: What’s Shakin’ in January?

What’s shakin’ in January? Plenty! Merkin Concert Hall’s Musically Speaking series continues with Chamber Jazz offering us yet another in a season of premieres by composers at work in the many diverse areas of musical utterance available to us here in the Big Apple. Midwest meets Mideast on January 10th when Ryan Cohan hits town from Chicago with his award-winning band, featuring music from his latest effort, One Sky, while Omer Avital takes the stage with his Omer Avital Ensemble. He’ll give us the world premiere of Song of a Land: Middle Eastern Afro-Jewish Music written for his hybrid ensemble of 12 musicians ranging from a string quartet to an Israeli pianist, Turkish clarinetist, Israeli saxophone, trumpet players and the maestro on the bass. Omer has been a guest at Merkin these past two seasons with appearances in the trios of Aaron Goldberg and Omer Klein in September of this year, a performance that included another world premiere.

We’ll end the month of January with Joel Harrison, featuring the great Oliver Lake and super-cellist Wendy Sutter among others. Wendy will give us the world premiere of Joel’s Sonata for Solo Cello, which is part of her amassing of solo cello literature kicked off most recently by her premiere and recording of Philip Glass’s Songs and Poems for Solo Cello.
Oliver Lake will join Joel’s ensemble for his award-winning commission from the Doris Duke Foundation of Vox Americana with another ensemble firmly rooted in the chamber jazz begun by the likes of Gil Evans, Gunther Schuller, Jimmy Giuffre, Andrew Hill and many others who followed. This medium gets taken one step further with our own Special Music School Chorus taking part in this multi-movement work exploring extended composition in an improvisational setting. Joel has also made a very special set of arrangements of the music of Paul Motian that will also feature Oliver’s inimitable sax artistry along with guitarist Liberty Ellman and an all-star cast of string greats.

Musically Speaking Blog: Jazz Crossing Cultures - Ryan Cohan & Omer Avital

What holds together the music in the first concert Merkin Concert Hall produces in 2009? Togetherness, camaraderie and working together multi-culturally to make the world a better place through music—specifically jazz music. While jazz is most often referred to as America’s art form, many of today’s very exciting interpreters and composers are from other cultures and bring their talents and ethnic music from home to bear on the forms inherent in jazz music.
Pianist/composer Ryan Cohan takes a philosophical approach in his suite One Sky and casts it for a straight-ahead combo playing music with some of the tightest piano playing you’re going to hear coming out of Chicago. While Ryan draws inspiration from a metaphysical realm, Omer’s music is produced by life in a metaphysical realm with a hybrid approach in his Song of a Land, subtitled A Middle Eastern Afro-Jewish Musical Suite. What I’m trying to say here is that they both take the same approach vis a vis “tradition”; it’s simply that they cut their material from a different cloth. Omer uses Israeli folk music, North African Andalusian music, Arabic music, etc., and Ryan writes music from a decidedly swing aesthetic.

What holds all this together? We have certainly had elements brought to bear on the musical language since the beginnings of jazz, but more and more we are finding direct references to other cultures coming from the musicians’ personal experience. This isn’t Philip Glass or the Beatles discovering Ravi Shankar and putting some of it in their songs; it’s someone who grew up within the tradition using folk music that is a part of their identity. This is not me claiming that Omer and Ryan have written music that trots out pieces recognizable by title. Rather, it’s me reveling in the fact that the music they produce is informed by personal experience, which is the spark that gives improvised music the hope of direct connection to an audience.

Ryan’s music captures the imagination through the door of philosophy offering us his personal view of just being in this world. Omer uses music from his past to show us where he’s been and where he’s headed at the same time. Both of them are leading jazz music to a new tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Eliott Carter's First Hundred Years

I particularly like the title above because at 99 Elliott Carter doesn’t seem to be slowing down. In fact, he has written more and varied works (an opera, more symphonic works, etc.). There is an embarrassment of riches in his output for winds. His chamber music has been where most all of his watershed works have come from and the opportunity for Elliott’s orchestration to really shine comes from the unusual combinations of wind music to be heard throughout his career. From the charming and slightly challenging Quintet for Winds (1948) we hear a young voice aligning himself with what’s come before by marrying elements of both American and European sensibilities. This was de rigeur for much of the new American composers; especially those who studied abroad in Nadia Boulanger’s Paris studio (Carter, Copland, Thomson, and many others). The forms are classical for the most part with a nod to American popular dance music in the rondo that is the last movement.

From there he seems to move into new territory almost immediately by tackling the exact problem that every composer faces when writing for the wind quintet, how to orchestrate it so that it doesn’t sound like the hot mess that many wind quintets turn out to be. Elliott deftly uses the character of each instrument to play not just a dramatic role but also a defining characteristic of the texture. Indeed the Eight Etudes and a Fantasy (1950) written just two years later goes off in search of novel combinations in an almost experimental (yet thoroughly enjoyable) piece that stand up as a dramatic statement leading to the fantasy which sums up all that has come before it. As you will see below, in a five year period three composers with very singular voices brought their first wind quintets to light using elements from the past but definitely looking toward the future. In each case the composer traveled much further afield in the second work adopting what was the beginning of their signature styles. Berio is the exception to this; he was translating a larger element of his music to a smaller ensemble to great effect.

It’s interesting to note that Gyorgy Ligeti who also defined his style well early on with nods to his own country’s music took up the same experiment as his second wind quintet Zehn Stucke (1968). This opus also came after a setting of some of his serial tinged but folk inspired piano experiments for quintet entitled Six Bagatelles (1953). While stylistically on different sides of the aisle these two composers were obviously wise enough to reach into the wind quintets bag of tricks. Luciano Berio is worth mentioning here as well given his two enormous accomplishments in the quintet literature again kick started by the use of folk elements and novel scoring. Berio’s first work for wind quintet entitled Opus Number Zoo (1951)also reworks earlier music of the composer’s modified from some popular and folk elements as well; while the music is more clear cut, the dramatic role used by Berio was to give different players part of a spoken text that passes through the ensemble. He then moved on to something completely novel for the wind quintet, but all his own compositionally, with Ricorrenze (1987).

Each of the three composers then went on to explore their own peculiar approaches to harmony, each with fascinating and rich careers. Never quite far enough away from a pitch center, Elliott’s music tickles the ear with a variety of texture immediately thrown into relief by the use of near misses in the rhythmic layout of each piece. This creates a tension that draws the listener into a microcosm of sounds held together by an interlocking but off-kilter forward motion. Another comparison to Ligeti is the pervasive use of melody as a sort of “cantus firmus” that slowly makes its presence felt steadily throughout his works. This is demonstrated well in his several works for solo instruments. Even in the very recent Catenaires (2006) what looks like and etude with a steady stream of fast notes belies a melody made up of the accents and various attacks that stick out of the continuous onslaught of information.

The Quintet for Piano and Winds (1991) is as serene a statement of continuous motion as I have ever heard. The piece moves forward with a controlled urgency and grace that rarely seems harried in its movement to the inevitable finish. There is a sense that you have walked in on the middle of a conversation that’s been going on for quite some time. Like his friend Milton Babbitt, Elliott pursues every possible combination of the ensemble while keeping each instrument in its rhythmic and intervallic role. These two definitions of each character makes them placeholders in the continuum and stakes out a piece of your hearing whether you are aware of the theory behind what’s going on or not. The horn just keeps coming at you with minor thirds and seconds in values of five and it serves only to further underline the rightness of that part in the flow. The piano serves as both catalyst and commentator in the proceedings prodding the poets forward and underlining their vehemence while also providing support in repose, etc..

The wind quintet is alive and well in the hands of the New York Woodwind Quintet. Perhaps it’s an ensemble that will continue to inspire composers with its many combinations of sounds to be explored. In the current trend of making big statements with small means it certainly has much to offer.