Friday, October 26, 2007

Hat's Off New York

New York Magazine has been writing profiles of "serious" music composers with a slant toward the popular side of the musical coin. Two of the most recent ones are Sufjan Stevens crossing over from pop and Nico Muhly (a Philip Glass' protege) While some could quip about this it doesn't change that fact that they are covering serious-go-to-a-concert-hall-sit-still-and-listen-intently music.

And who wouldn't want to hear music by these guys working in this exciting time of anything goes music for classical forces. Musicians are uniquely qualified to play more and more types of music than ever before with all of them having grown up with just about whatever they wanted to hear at their fingertips. There is no lack of composers who do many different styles of "serious" music coming at it from both sides.

There seems to be less of a sense of emulation at work in the music of younger composers. There is a great sense of craft in the music of Nico Muhly who I must shamelessly plug as being one of John Schaefer's selections for his New Sounds Live series at Merkin Concert Hall. Having to arrange music for a pop star on the fly is no easy task and many people who have done this in the past rarely were taken seriously. Having worked for Bjork (among others) must have been a rather expansive experience as her musical ideas are no less august works of a serious nature.

I'm so happy to see that music is still well on the move toward the center. I still admit my love for the thorny, intricate works of those who do it well but that's a bit further around the bend for many listeners. Let's have singing, dancing, spoken word, multi-media art performances that actually refer to our human condition today. This is how we get the really great older stuff in front of the crowd and we know there's plenty of that. The composers that New York will (hopefully) continue to profile are excellent jump-off points for bringing in future fans of the new thing. We didn't all think that onions were the best thing to eat when younger and uninitiated. Let the initiations begin!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Good Fight

I attended a concert at Manhattan School of Music last evening which showcased the faculty of the new music program there. It was an evening of excellent programming and performances. What struck me most as I sat there enjoying hearing many old friends was the typical feeling of "wow, we're all grown up now" but I also thought how lucky these young musicians are to have such fine examples to emulate. When I was in school you had to go a little farther away from school to hear this kind of music.

All of the music was handled with style and grace by the now yeoman members of the faculty for new music that Patti Monson surrounds her students with. The performance all had a sparkle to them in that they were played with a real care and love for the language they were speaking. Navigating through the scores of some very different composers as a listener was easier than I thought it would be from just looking at the score. The placement of pieces worked well together and gave the evening a nice shape.

I could get into the whole rant of cloistered music in the ivory tower etc. but MSM is doing a service to these kids by showing them the people who make sacrifices to follow the dream of playing the music they love. They are also offering these concerts for free which allows for the experimentation I want to keep my eye on.

Having your own new music ensemble is a business venture but it rarely supports its musicians on its own. Many of the performers also teach which can be one of the inevitabilities of a career in music but some are supplementing in other ways which is another reality to be exhibited. Some are playing on Broadway or have other jobs. In short, few of them are making music solely on their own terms. I hope that is something the students soak in as they get into the market themselves.

The music played was Wuorinen (Trombone Trio); Shapey (Movement of Varied Moments for Two); Tenney (Beast); Ades (Sonata da Caccia); Turnage (Two Baudelaire Songs); Lowenstern (Hum). There was also a special secret premiere of a new solo vocal work by Elliott Carter (also on Baudelaire) expertly sung by Lucy Shelton.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Music as Soundtrack

I guess this is kind of a rant.

Music seems to be more and more the soundtrack to people's personal journies through the world. It allows them a detachment in that is often valuable in situations when you don't want to engage with society at large. Very often this can be annoying as I've found on the Greenway here in NYC as I dodge joggers, walkers, and other cyclists who have no problem taking their detached selves into the world as I ride my bike to work. This is less of a problem when simply walking around but when in an area where you have to share space such as a sidewalk next to the river it presents potentially dangerous problems.

Having said that I also feel that the musical experience has lost its social appeal. People insulate themselves with their mp3 players and have the magical ability to create their own personal soundtracks to accompany whatever they are doing. While this is great it seems to go against the idea that music has a use. It brings people together. I guess listening to your own music could lead to that and I certainly don't think people should start carrying boom boxes around but I still love it when I can strike up a conversation on a train or elsewhere. Shared experiences have special appeal. I find myself trying to look over peoples shoulders or listening very carefully to know what they are listening to in secret hopes that it will be something I know too.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Sound Off

I keep hearing more and more how people are getting their music from download services and not buying cds anymore. I am not one of this crowd. Even though I can admit to the amount of clutter in my life due to cds and albums (yes I'm that old) stacked up in multiple places throughout the house. I just can't seem to let go of the feeling of the "get". Bringing the record home like when I was 14 and bought Zep's In Through The Out Door (see, told you I was old) or wouldn't allow myself to listen to the New York Phil's recording of The Planets (Bernstein, 73) until I had read the liner notes.

Somehow the experience seems inauthentic to me if not accompanied by something I can hold. Am I alone in this feeling? There is a pride of ownership not to mention a question of fidelity of sound. The mp3's that I download-primarily from emusic-are a thumbnail to me and live happily on my mp3 player. I do find myself hooking the mp3 player up to my stereo when I want someone to hear a track I haven't gone out to buy yet.

I know as a performer that having music on your website or myspace page is helpful for people to check out what you do but I wouldn't dream of putting entire tracks online given all of the blood sweat and tears that went into the production of a quality recording, not to mention the cost.

I know that artists today are still spending time putting together track lists for flow etc. to make the listening experience the best that they can. I remember being a bit miffed at Prince's decision to make the entirety of Lovesexy one track until I heard it. I for one am completely content with the old paradigm of hearing singles on the radio or my own mix tape, cd, mp3, etc. However most mix tapes I make come about after having listened to all of the music on that particular offering. I will admit that the radio is on at home far less than when I was a boy and part of me misses that. I can see the internet possibly replacing radio but sometimes it's still nice to have someone program the listening experience for you rather than just randomly poking around listening to lower quality sound bytes.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Tilting Forward

One of the beautiful things about blogs is the ease with which you can shamelessly promote something. In this case it's a bit on the benign side since the performances have all past but here goes.

I have had a band called Tilt Brass ( which has been together for a few years now. We originally built the group with half being jazz musicians and the other half "legit" but with some background in improvisation. We tend toward process pieces in the vein of Rzewski, Wolff, Brown and the like in addition to some more straight ahead stuff but staying away from the Rebirth/Dirty Dozen thing. From the beginning we had members of the group interested in writing and arranging for the ensemble. We performed around town, out at Barbes, Bowery Poetry Club, Joe's Pub, etc.

It used to be thought that there was this great divide between the jazz and legit music worlds. It's not particularly true in all cases as evidenced by Tilt's ability to perform the music of Dave Ballou, Anthony Coleman, Nate Wooley, Curtis Hasselbring, Charles Waters, and Taylor Ho Bynum. Each of these charts came with its own unique set of circumstances to navigate. The collective amount of experience really made for the ease of producing this show.

Another big surprise for me was the level of quality that these pieces were written at. I as the conductor/traffic cop was feeling some pressure about how to manage a relatively short amount of rehearsal time into something productive for the digestion of all this new music. It could'nt have been simpler and here's why:

This approach to music with many different types of musicians finding common ground goes much further than any crossover label that could be applied to it. It also puts us in good post-modern company as we bash through some barriers that some still jealously guard.

Those who do things in a very particular way are play with forms that will always be cherished. The new way seems to be to mix things up and show off what you can do. I will always be psyched to here Dr. Michael White or the Guarneri show us how the classics are done but will also always be fantasizing about what Dr. White's turn-on-a-dime precise band would sound like playing something else.

So give me your distended/extended blues forms, 7/8 alternating with 9/16 passages in all their microtuned splendor as well as anything else you can think of. I welcome it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


This is the beginning of Around The Bend, a blog about the music I love and why. Upon arrival in NYC back in 1987 I immediately gravitated to the wilder side with an interest in how things work that still fascinates me today.

Novel sounds still grab me as well as novel approaches compositionally. I question what it is that draws me to the new and novel. I can only think that it is because I was encouraged to listen to everything I could for my instrument as a kid and that translated to everything else over time. This makes me think that we need a new approach to getting the audience into the hall. Themed concerts, celebrity buy-ins and the like are beginning to be explored to some success. It is necessary for the audience to be interested enough to talk about the experience to others in a compelling way.

The musical experience is always being recreated by musicians. Their specific reinvention of the sounds in real time rely on their own collective (or solo) interpretation of the composer no matter what the style. Composers in turn have to start from somewhere and almost all musical styles have accepted ways of fashioning pieces that will bear that style's name. This is changing as younger composers in the jazz and so-called classical fields pick and choose from their favorites all over the world, not just building on what's come before. This is a great entry into the musical process for many. If you like Radiohead, then you should like a group who plays their music or something like it.

The concert experience as museum piece is fine as far as that goes. However, without engaging the "luxe crowd" (that generally shows up to the millionth performance of Death and the Maiden) with the music of today, we will continue to see a shrinking audience at that demographic. Putting old an new together can only work if programmed with care. Many young groups today are doing just that with great success. Others simply use some piece of music or style from the past and make that their own.

Any way you look at it music is moving around the bend.