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.