Sunday, September 30, 2012

Experience As Art

In Music: A Very Short Introduction, Nicholas Cook argues that Popular music as opposed to Art or Classical music is associated with authenticity by society at large. For example, Rock musicians write and perform their own music; music which includes contemporary references, acts as a response to current events, and brings with it a perpetual freshness, a renewing relevance. Classical music, in contrast, is by no means fresh. Most of its visionaries are long dead and the environment to which the composers were responding is literally ancient history! However, I would venture to say that assessment of Classical music depends on how you define it. For those of us who perform Classical music, its value, its magnitude, and its potential ability to move and inspire are proven discoveries of our experiences. However, Classical concert goers don’t seem to be sharing those same experiences. The proof is in the deterioration of audience attendance. The reason for this is our perspective as a society on the experience of listening to Classical music. Audience members enter a concert hall expecting exposure to “Art” and they find that they do not share the performers experience of “Art,” or the critics experience of “Art,” or the 19th-century romantics experience of “Art.” Many of them experience frustration, confusion, boredom, anger, impatience, blissful aloofness, occasional bouts of frivolous joy, daydreaming, and an endless variety of other unprescribed sensations. The audience member knows that these are not the experiences they are supposed to have. Therefore, they feel that their experience is inauthentic and they close to the idea of Classical music. Frustration, confusion, boredom, anger, impatience, blissful aloofness, and occasional bouts of frivolous joy and daydreaming...what a symphony! In a certain sense, every concert is a production of mass composition with components of combined unique feelings, ideas, memories, and inspirations. No two concerts are alike, no two reactions are alike. It is the experience of the music that is the Art not the musical works themselves. “...if musical works are not experiences but merely their surrogates, so to speak, then the same might be said of the contents of any other museum: paintings, for instance, are bought and sold (and insured and stolen) as physical objects, but we go to the gallery to look at them not for themselves, but for the experiences we can derive from them- and there are as many ways in which they can be experienced as there are people experiencing them.” (1) This change in focus from the stage to the audience is not an original idea. In fact there are a great deal of experimental “modern” composers (mostly from the 1950s’ and 1960s’) that depend on authentic, unedited, momentary feedback for their work to exist. For example, American composer John Cage composed a piece in 1952 untitled Four Minutes, thirty-three seconds which consists of the sounds in the environment that the listener hears while it is performed. These sounds can be the listeners own breathing, own heartbeat. The piece may also consist entirely of silence. Minimalist composers like Philip Glass (although now he would prefer to be referred to as a composer of ‘music with repetitive structures’), frequently premiered music seemly static in nature, sometimes with use of only one pitch. However, the true impact of the piece is entirely depended on the constantly shifting perception of the listener. Perhaps at first the listener is engaged, then the experience turns to that of annoyance, later still the experience become that of irritability, followed by unbearable torture. Perhaps, a different listener on a different day in a different environment finds himself gently guided into a profoundly peaceful meditation. All these separate works of Art are perpetuated by the same medium! One might make the case that audience attendance at performances of the aforementioned composers works is just as pitiful as the audience attendance of the great historic masters. I am not in denial of that. In fact, I believe that these modern experimental and conceptual composers are failing in the same way as the performers. The idea is effective, in theory, but the application is incomplete. Audience members are leaving “new music” concerts with the same response, “I didn’t get it.” The composer is setting up a work dependent on experience, he is making the audience part of the production, but who is the listener? Who is benefiting from the experience? Very often, the only person moved by meaning of the composition is the composer himself. The key to audience experience is making the audience member feel welcome to embrace his own experience. It is perfectly natural to feel frustrated or bored; in fact, it is a beautiful thing! If music is a reflection of current society, we need to work with all of it: short attention span, perpetual multi-tasking, and all! In a country of free speech where we are told we can be anything we want to be, where people are competitive, opinionated, where the expectations are high and the possibilities are limitless, musicians have an infinite palette of experiences from which to create something meaningful and they shouldn’t be afraid of negative feedback. Not all Art is beautiful. Not all Art feels good. But all Art expresses an authentic relationship between the creator and his audience. (1) Cook, Nicholas. Music: A Very Short Introduction. (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 71.

To Read or Not To Read..

            I always fight a mini-battle with Franz Liszt in the months leading to a performance. Why Franz, why your self-anointing obsession with memorized performances? Couldn’t you foresee the unimaginable complexity of the compositions that followed your own? This was particularly pungent last year as I attempted to master John Harbison’s Mirabai Songs, a feat of which I’m proud, but not without immense mental and emotional scarring. I ended up performing them without music, but such a task would have been preposterous to ask of my pianist.
            This past Friday at Longy’s Septemberfest concert “La Muse en Voyage”, I pondered the question of memorization in the concert world, particularly in light of the double standard in regards to 20th and 21st century music. And by intermission, I had resolved my complicated battle with Mr. Liszt: he was right. Musicians owe it to themselves, the music, and the audience to perform sans score. While my own experience performing the Mirabai Songs drove home the immensity of this task, and almost rendered memorization arbitrary, disingenuous and at the expense of accurate musicality, the concert on Friday allowed me to evaluate this idea from the objective audience’s point of view.
Cook’s Music: A Very Short Introduction discusses the musical hierarchy that ranks, from low to high, audience, performer, composer; the notion of authenticity; and also the symbolism of music notation. All of these topics came to mind when violinist Jesse Mills and pianist Rieko Aizawa took the stage in Pickman with Lukas Foss’ Three American Pieces (1944). Before any notes sounded, upon seeing the score on Mr. Mills’ music stand, I (as objective audience member) knew this music was not his own. It came from an external source, and he was merely relaying this information to the eager audiences. Following this realization, I felt myself at the bottom of the pit: not only was the performer subordinate to this piece of paper, but I was beyond subordinate to the performer. His elevated location on stage and the stifling silence of the concert hall inundated me with my own ineptitude – it was as if the setting was yelling to us all, “YOU are too dumb to read this piece of paper, so this nice man on stage is going to read it for you, and you have to shut up while he’s doing it.”
I stifled a hearty laugh at the absurdity of the situation. As Mr. Mills and Ms. Aizawa played (wonderfully, I stress), I longed to appreciate a greater authenticity from their performance. If they had been without music – as is the case with most performances of 17th-19th century compositions – I would have been infinitely more engaged, as if his astounding harmonics and seamless communication with Ms. Aizawa were improvisations, reflections, musings on the moment itself. This is an experience I relish in chamber music concerts – a memorized Brahms sonata is one of the most mutually (between composer, audience, and performer) expressive experiences one can have. And, luckily for the recital singer, custom asks that we perform hands-free; Ryan Turner’s performance on Friday is evidence of the gripping hold a liberated singer can cast over an audience. I have had this same experience of expressive “unity”, and usually an even stronger one, at non-classical or atypical classical performances – the most powerful were my favorite band, the Tuareg desert rock group Tinariwen, and Yo-Yo Ma’s most recent project, the Goat Rodeo Sessions, a bluegrass-classical crossover group including Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan, and Chris Thile. What do all of these situations have in common? I don’t have to see the music. I’m sure that in the case of Tinariwen, there was no written music; and in the Goat Rodeo Sessions’ case, the anecdote (according to Mr. Ma) is that he and Meyer learned from score, Duncan and Thile by ear. But in the end, it was certainly of utmost unimportance to the audience.
But as soon as that pesky piece of paper shows up, a flimsy barrier gels in front of the audience. It makes me wonder how far behind the concert world is behind the world of theater, of TV – do actors perform with scripts? No, because otherwise we wouldn’t believe a single utterance of their character. Why do our television networks go through the hassle of creating cue cards? So we can believe our news anchors, our comedians, our sitcoms. So we have an element of authenticity. Why are politicians coached to either memorize their speeches, or look imperceptibly at their podium? So we believe they are speaking directly to us, responding to our presence. Why doesn’t the musician have this same responsibility?
Cook says “the idea that the performer’s role is to reproduce what the composer has created builds an authoritarian power structure into musical culture, whether expressed in the relationship between composer and performer or in relationships between performers … especially between the conductor (who acts as the composer’s representative) and the rank and file orchestral players” (26). Never is this more obvious than when there is a physical object – a proclamation of authority, if you will – proving to the audience that they are incapable of understanding this musical idea without aid. Is there some sort of twisted joy that we, classical artists, marginalized members of society, feel from showing this to the audience? Is this the only aspect preventing us from obtaining the authenticity that blesses rock musicians, who appear to be effusively improvisatory in every performance?
Using our scores is a disservice to all, no matter the century of the composition. As cook says again, “the essential note-to-note structure is only part of the music. For between and around these notes, so to speak, lies a vast domain of interpretive possibility” (64). In a word, authenticity. Mr. Mills and Ms. Aizawa showed this exquisitely in their performance, but, in a sense, it didn’t matter. I didn’t want to attribute it to them. I wanted to attribute it to the composer, because I saw his paper, and that made me, to put it simply, mad.
So, what do I do? No more battles with Franz, for certain, just private battles with composers for making life hard. I will do everything in my power to memorize everything I sing. As a composer, I will always encourage my players (if I’m lucky enough to coach them) to memorize; and if they lose a few notes in the process, I probably won’t care.

Music played well, played boring

First of all- hello to everyone! You probably noticed that I am not in the FCM class this semester (or just figured that my attendance record is awful). I was in the class last year and I thought I'd drop back in for another post.

A couple weeks ago the New York Times published this article ("Rite of Spring" Cools into Rite of Passage) by musicology heavyweight Richard Taruskin.  The article, to be perfectly honest, is a bit rambling at times, one of the many "100th Anniversary of Le Sacre" articles we will see over the course of the next year or so.  However, the central point expressed in the title is an interesting example of how musical meaning can change over time.  Most of us are probably aware of the work's controversial beginnings and its current acceptance as a 20th century "masterwork," but Taruskin points out an interesting change in how the work was performed over time.  The work is, of course, very difficult to perform, and early orchestral attempts were rather rocky (Taruskin points to a 1940 New York Philharmonic recording with Stravinsky directing).  Taruskin suggests, with due credit to Matthew McDonald, that this is, in fact, the point - the rocky writing was intended to evoke the wild and primitive sacrifice.  The current polished "Olympic" performances of the work, by extension, may be missing what was important about the writing.

The idea of musical meaning changing with time and tradition is not unfamiliar to Taruskin's work.  He has similarly written about Bach's cantatas and their rabid Lutheranism, a trait which is usually underplayed in current usage, in favor of a more secular understanding of Bach.  For example, the more popular cantata selections have pastoral themes like "Sleepers Awake" or "Sheep May Safely Graze", as opposed to "Be silent, reeling reason!", in which true faith shouts down rational thought. In both his writing on Bach and Stravinsky, Taruskin's general tone suggests that we have destroyed the vitality of the classical canon by making everything very safe for everyone.  In trying to please everyone, we have made boring music that really pleases no one.  Perhaps a better future of classical music for Taruskin would involve performances that are exciting, if a bit rough around the edges, that do not shy away from the horrifying matter-of-factness of the sacrifice in "The Rite," or our modern discomfort with the death-obsessed Lutheranism of Bach's time.  Taruskin would seem to espouse a variation on Nicholas Cook's "niche" theory, which holds that classical music is far from dead, it just doesn't command universal appeal.  As far as niche music genres go, classical music is one of the more successful and lasting examples.  Taruskin would add that we shouldn't dumb things down to reach hypothetical "average" listeners.

While Taruskin's writing style doesn't dumb things down, it also involve plenty of gratuitous attacks that don't do very much to encourage anyone.  Apparently nobody really plays classical music correctly.  While early 20th century orchestras are softly chastised for their poor technique playing the Rite and Stravinsky is called a poor conductor, they come across as the winners. Current orchestras and conservatory students are criticized for participating in the "decathalon" approach to the piece; Najinksy's choreography is blasted (a little swiftly and unfairly, in my opinion); the Soviet changed-ending version comes off looking ridiculous; the Joffrey Ballet reconstruction of the original choreography injects the piece with sentimentality; Benjamin Zander and Robert Craft's piano version is dehumanized.

While Taruskin's points are well-founded, if we eliminated all performers who could not meet his standards, classical music would be reduced from a "niche" to simply "Richard Taruskin."

Musical Snobbery and another "Fifty Shades"

Earlier this semester, I wrote a blog post in which I explained how EMI Classics was releasing an album of music inspired by the novel Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. The album was released on September 11th of this year. 

I have previously addressed my issues with the concept of this album. I am still not pleased with the music of Bach and other composers being attached to such a contentious book. At the same time, I applaud the endeavor to expose new listeners to classical music. One of the most scandalized pieces on the album is Thomas Tallis’ Spem In Alium. This fantastic work has reportedly been associated with the graphic sex scenes in the novel. 

It was discussed previously that we are possibly giving EMI too much credit. Perhaps they are trying to make a quick profit. Perhaps they really want to further the future of classical music. I suppose we can only wait and see. 

We don't have to wait very long. To follow up from my previous post on this subject, I have bitter-sweet news to share. At its release, the new album debuted at #1 on the Billboard Classical chart and at #22 on the Billboard Top 200. It has since dropped in its standings on the charts, but this is still an impressive accomplishment. I cannot find any reports of the financial success of the album thus far, but I surmise it has raked in quite a profit for EMI. Despite my earlier misgivings (which haven't changed), I am glad to know that classical music is finding its way into mainstream considerations. I might not approve of the vehicle, but it appears that this album might sincerely introduce new audiences to our musical art form, and at the same time provide a financial boost for EMI. If you are interested in the album itself, or the tracks on it, you can visit the iTunes store

What does this mean for classical music? 

I think it is time for us as musicians to reconsider ways we promote our music. Are we willing to just sit back and wait for dirty novels to be the medium through which our art form is expanded? We need to actively take part in the promotion of our music. In our technologically advanced world we have innumerable resources through which we can publicize our craft. With everything from social media to printed materials and periodicals, we have little excuse for not getting the word out. 

Besides, classical music isn't dying. As Cook has pointed out in Music: a Very Short Introduction, our problem, and crisis, lies in how we think about classical music (50). I think we can even go a step further and simultaneously reexamine our musical conceit as well. It is no secret that many classical musicians can be snobs. From our rigid concert rules and inflated self-importance, our attitudes chase away audiences more often than our complicated musical works. Some of the pieces on Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album, are serious musical compositions of which the average reader would not have a developed knowledge. I'm thinking particularly of Spem In Alium by Tallis. Yet, the album is selling considerably well, but concert halls are still empty. If this album really generates the new audiences we hope it will, then we might see a change. However, I think we need to forego our vanity and remember that classical music is for everyone to enjoy, regardless of their choice in literature. 

Cook, Nicholas. Music: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Classical Music and Poverty

I was inspired after reading about a recent concert in Central Park which brought attention to poverty. Rock musicians have been at the forefront of issue-based concerts for the past few decades. They have put themselves on the line by associating with specific causes. The fact that some of them are a part of concerts like the one in New York is admirable.

Where are classical musicians? Why are we not a part of this equation? And if we are, why is it that hardly any attention is brought to it? These are important questions to consider when we brainstorm ways to thrive as musicians in the 21st century. It makes sense to bring together indie-rock bands and indie-classical groups in an awareness-based concert. Think about the possibility of a concert with acts like the Kronos Quartet, Asphalt Orchestra, Brian Eno, eighth blackbird, and other new music stars sharing the stage with Grizzly Bear, The Black Keys, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and other Indie-Rock stars. Such a show would bring together an eclectic mix of fans with fairly similar ideals. While such a combination would in no way end poverty overnight, it would certainly change the flavor of the conversation.

I can guarantee that history has seen its fair share of awareness concerts featuring classical music. Why not return to this and bring art music from the stage to the people? The modern hierarchy of classical music seems as removed from extreme poverty and other related issues as possible. This doesn't mean that the musicians or patrons are though. A great example of musicians taking on this challenge was mentioned by Peter in his recent post. This shows that classical music does have the ability to help others in a meaningful way.  Judging by El Sistema and other models, classical music has the power to reach poverty-stricken youth on a deep level and change their lives. This should inspire individual musicians to do so at every opportunity possible, whether it's through a symphony orchestra, string quartet, or solo recital. Because of our unique roles as performers, we should be striving to be agents of change in the world.

Hard Work and a Pioneering Attitude: A brief story of King Orchid

     This past Thursday I was on hand for the release of King Orchid's second record "For Battle". For those of you who don't know King Orchid is a local rock duo consisting of guitar and drums and they use a uniquely original idea of layering sound to craft their highly complex and progressive music. The essence of the band is not so much in play right now so much as it's spirit. Like all endeavors in music this one started with an idea. Two people who wanted to work together got together and played around with their different ideas and struggled to find a balance between their full-time jobs, second jobs and sleep schedule. They practiced late, woke up early, went to jobs they hate (and still hate) and struggled to make a lasting relationship. So far this is the usual story of any band starting out, but here is where they are different: they have succeeded.
     King Orchid consists of Zack Fierman on drums and Doug Wortman on guitar. Both are classmates of mine from the trenches of Berklee College of Music between 2006-2008. The trenches is what we always referred to as the basement of the 150 Mass Ave. building where students did most of their practicing. Now most people are aware of Berklee, but few can understand the atmosphere it creates and the work ethic it inspires. Right now it's 11:52am on sunday. Starting at 12pm there will be 59 practice rooms at Berklee that will be booked solid in 2-hr increments until 2am tomorrow morning. Do the math and that leaves you with at least 7 different bands in each room with a total of 413 groups (give or take a few)  that will potentially rehearse today at Berklee. With an average of 3-4 people per group that means that 1200-1650 people will be rehearsing new music and trying to get something started. This does not include faculty and staff rehearsals and it does not include individual practice rooms. This is only the sunday schedule.
     The atmosphere that surrounded us, and still does, was thick. It was extremely competitive and a bit vicious at times. 300 or so bands were fighting for the right to play anywhere they could on any given night. There aren't even 300 venues in Boston that foster new local music so the battle to find a place to play your music is tough. Hence King Orchids new record "For Battle".
     This is very much a record written on experiences. The first record was fun, but they had no idea what it would take to get that record promoted and to get people to appreciate their music. For a year they couldn't even find a gig outside of Greater Boston. In year two they were able to break in to newer markets like New York and Philly. Year three took them to Ohio, SXSW and New Orleans. Now in year four they are taking each of those major cities and playing them all in two-and-a-half weeks.
     The music they play couldn't be farther from our more modern classical music, but that isn't the point. It's what you need to do these days to succeed. Whether its rock, pop, jazz, classical or something in between the pioneering spirit should be the same. If there is one thing I learned from my time as a student, and now as an employee, of Berklee it's that there is absolutely no substitution for live performances. Performing live consistently sharpens your senses and hones your craft to a level that just can't be reached with practice or rehearsing. Classical musicians need to adopt this mentality and embrace it. I know most would love to play 3-4 nights a week, but some don't see how that is possible. Find some people you like, learn some music and find a place to play it. Then find a second and a third. Learn more music and repeat. Finding venues is tough, but not impossible. Forget money for now. You're not going to make money performing right away. Accept that and you might find yourself willing to do more and go farther than you originally thought.
     King Orchid is the story of an endless struggle to balance a career with your own art. At times the lows are so low you want to give up, but the highs are so high you just can't come down. Either way you have to keep working towards your goal. To quote the late Henry Gaffney, "Hard work and a pioneering attitude are all you need. Everything else works itself out. If it doesn't work out you're not working hard enough."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why Don't We Clap Between Movements?

I was performing Dvorak's eighth symphony with the Brockton Symphony Orchestra last May. In the midst of the first movement, at the grand structural downbeat and resolution to G major, I heard a lone pair of hands and a resounding shout of approval from the audience for a few short seconds before the individual swallowed his cheer and stayed his hands. I caught myself thinking "This guy must not go to formal concerts very often." I can only imagine his sensation of confusion in the moment when he applauded and cheered only to find that a) the music was still going on and b) clapping between the movements of a symphony is frowned upon.

It's strange that performers of Western art music expect so much from their audiences. We expect them to be silent during the performance, to deactivate their phones, to wait for the entire piece of music to conclude prior to applauding, and, in certain cases, even to dress nicely for the event. It's as if we expect our audiences to  earn the right to hear us perform, beyond paying the price of admission. Meanwhile, today's average rock concert has enough trouble preventing its attendees from using illegal drugs during the performance.

This past thursday night, I attended a concert given by Caracas Brass of the Simon Bolivar Symphony in Venezuela. Behind me sat an older gentleman, most likely in his seventies or eighties, who also must not go to formal concerts very often. His cell phone went off at one point, he and his wife talked to each other during several of the pieces, and he was among the most enthusiastic to clap between the movements of a piece. As I sat in front of him in silent protest, I realized that he and the other inter-movement clappers that accompanied him were exactly what the world of Western art music needs. As musicians, should we not be elated to know that many members of our audience are attending a concert of classical music for the first time? Should not our attitude toward these individuals be warm and welcoming, rather than staunch and disapproving?

The aural evidence I gathered from the evening suggested that the man sitting behind me fully enjoyed the music. Who are we to impose standards as to how he expresses his enjoyment? I've often wondered if the man who clapped in the middle of Dvorak's eighth is likely to attend many more orchestral concerts. Would he learn and adopt the standards that modern musicians set for their audiences, or would he, as I imagine many have, decide that the modern formal concert hall has too many rules, and that its patrons are too exclusive?

I believe that the inaccessibility of the concert hall is a real problem for classical music in today's world. The same people who would pay to go see The Lord of the Rings in a movie theater and listen to Howard Shore's orchestral score would not pay to go see Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, despite arguably significant similarities all around. I refuse to believe that the average American simply doesn't have the ear for classical music. I believe instead that classical musicians are simply too proud to reach out to their audiences and provide them with the product they want.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Julian Lloyd Webber joins pleas for music to survive Gove's exam shake-up

Leading musicians warns new proposals mean many children will 'never touch an instrument'
Vanessa Thorpe
The Observer, Saturday 22 September 2012

This article describes and expresses sad feeling on the condition in which the public school system of U.K. is no longer available to provide the education for young musicians. If somebody wants to study an instrument, they should go to professional music school. This issue gives us serious messages to our future music, especially about music education.

While reading this article, I try to compare it to the situation of South Korea as well as the United States. In S. Korea, the statue of Music in public school is a risky position. Music, art, and other art/music related classes have been drastically decreased. In some extreme cases, some schools omit those classes from their curricular. Of course, it has conventionally known that schools put more effort on intellectually fundamental classes such as language, math, and science. This circumstance tells us two important points. First, by taking the opportunity of educating the artistic classes from students, the next generation may be numbed about the musical and aesthetic beauty surrounding us. Second, those who have musical and artistic talent lose many more chances to teach students. The student may think that music and art are not valued because those classes are not offered at schools.

Once I came to the U.S., I initially thought that the circumstance would be much different than that in S. Korea. after reading this article and contemplate the situation of the US, however, I come to realize that the situation is not much different in these days regardless of the boundary of country.

Music develops the artistic ways to see and understand the world. Without even offering a single chance to know music and art in the public school, the students have to find a specialized music institute to learn those attributes. This situation will produce a wider gap between the wealthy and the poor, even about discovering the musical talent, which is perceived as “neutrally given”. It might be a disaster for generations to come.

Too complex for you

Last night I attended the Boston Baroque's concert at Longy, a performance of a work in progress by the ensemble's director Martin Pearlman. The work, entitled "Finnigan's Wake: An Operoar," was not Baroque in the slightest (as Pearlman made sure to tell the audience before the concert began, in case there was some sort of miscommunication about the program's contents).

The concert was oddly structured: First, there was about 20 minutes of introductory remarks and a brief overview of the piece's conception and construction. Next, the piece was performed (about 30 minutes in duration). After intermission, a discussion was held in which audience members were invited to ask questions and comment on the piece, and afterwards, the 30 minute work was performed again. By the time the discussion had ended and the piece was underway for the second time, roughly 2/3 of the audience had left. Which got me thinking about structuring concert programs--how does one arm an audience with enough knowledge about a piece to facilitate active listening, yet not too much as to detract from the music itself? Of course, this answer will be different depending on the audience and the music being performed. In the case of yesterday evening, Mr. Pearlman apparently felt that no single written or verbal method was enough to prepare the audience to engage with his piece--only after he performed it for them a second time would they be able to "get" it. This struck me as pretentious, to say the least; then again, the type of audience that Boston Baroque attracts isn't likely to encounter much in the way of contemporary classical music (or at least not the kind of music found in the "Operoar"). Perhaps it was his way of orienting his audience with this potentially unfamiliar style.

Throughout his remarks, Mr. Pearlman kept referring to his work as "complex" and "multilayered." While it is true that the source material (James Joyce's "Finnigan's Wake") is extremely complex, I felt the piece itself wasn't as unwieldy as he made it seem. This may be a function of personal biases I have towards new music, but several sections were downright conventional in terms of harmony/gesture to my ear. This got me thinking on a different topic--the extent to which a composer's descriptions and explanations of his/her work actually match reality. It's an easy pitfall to get into--musically realizing a non-musical conception can be very challenging and it's not always easy to step back and take an objective view of one's art. I thought Pearlman's generalization served to further condescend to his audience and distance himself from them and their ability to comprehend such a "complicated" work. Apparently, 2/3 of the audience felt the same way (or else didn't fancy hearing the exact same 30 minute piece again).

Perhaps this concert structure was an experiment, and has no bearing on the way Mr. Pearlman or Boston Baroque normally conduct concerts. But as such, I considered it a failure. At no point did I feel fully engaged with the music--it's the same effect that Cook talks about where the author of a work is hierarchically placed above the consumer due to the ways in which authority is transferred. It was essentially a classical industrial economy of production, distribution and consumption on a micro scale at work in the concert hall last night.

Pop or Not

    I came across an article in the New Yorker that I found rather pertinent to our class discussions.  The article, by Peter Schjeldahl, is entitled Going Pop and refers to the current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Andy Warhol and the influence he has had over the next generations of artists.  Schjeldahl talks of Warhol’s legacy as the “reduction of art’s once sacred aura to a cult of the obvious.”  I couldn’t help but think back to Levine’s Highbrow, Lowbrow, and think that music is not so different from any other art form.  It is fascinating when an artist emerges into the world because he has heralded in a new era, a new way to look at things or has pushed beyond the boundaries of his time, because it is often because of these artists that we begin to ask ourselves questions and are no longer satisfied with the status quo.  Levine talked about the ever-growing gap between high music and what the masses wanted.  Warhol helped to break down these gaps.  He presaged the collapse of “elite culture into mass culture, of creativity into commerce, and, with a metaphysical shudder, of reality into appearances of reality.”  His famous Campbell’s soup cans broke down the barriers and most importantly made everyone think about what is “high” art and what is “pop” art.  The similarities between Warhol’s own life path and that of classical music are numerous, and the paradoxes are still present in both realms.  For instance, the exhibit at the Met includes the works of sixty artists who were strongly influenced by Warhol, yet these artists are all “museum-certified,” says Scjedldahl.  It seems to me that “museum-certified” means that these sixty artists are not only famous in their own right, but also that they qualify to belong to “high” art, which of course, undermines the purpose of Warhol’s work.  Interestingly, however, if Warhol had not made it into the Met, then the cultural elite would never have been faced with the question of elite art versus pop art.  We can draw similarities from this in music, of course, as we have seen over the last few weeks, but the most important thing to remember is that music does not stand alone, visual art does not stand alone, and neither does social history.  To me, it is crucial to the development of music that it remain anchored in the flow of history and cultural waves so that it may always be pertinent to our world. 

My experience with Einstein on the Beach

The reason I am not sleeping at 5:30 in the morning is because I have a conglomerate of minimalist melodies and rhythms stuck in my head. The source? Einstein on the Beach restaged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I returned a few hours ago from one of the most incredible art experiences of my life. This re-staging of this 1976 work was equally mind blowing and inspiring. Here is a great link which can give you an idea of what the work is about. 

As a huge fan of minimalism in the arts, Einstein truly is the pinnacle achievement in my mind. I don't think there has been another work on this large of a scale since. It is awesome that three great visionaries of our time Lucinda Childs, Robert Wilson, and Philip Glass collaborated to create this work and have done so for subsequent re-stagings. 

Being at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for this event was quite ideal. The acoustics were excellent and the seats were comfortable (with a great view from the balcony). This all helped me focus throughout the four and a half hour opera. The audience is invited to come and go as they please because there are no intermissions but I decided to stick it out and sit through the entire affair. 

I met up with five other friends arriving from various places who had also devoted the whole day to soaking in this monumental opera. Being around them only inspired me more. The experience of seeing dancers, singers, musicians, and actors combining their talents in the difficult realm of minimalist performance art is one that I'll never forget and I'm sure everyone there felt the same way. The result of this combination is an entrancing fascination with the human possibilities in art. I highly encourage everyone to experiment with minimalist music because it can positively change your outlook on life. 

Classical-Pop Mashups

      Over the weekend, I read an article on NPR Music commenting on the recent choir and orchestra arrangement of pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen's ubiquitous "Call Me Maybe." It's a delightful arrangement, to be sure, turning what (to me) had been an annoying pop song into an--well, an equally as annoying song, but funnier to hear and watch. The YouTube video of the classical arrangement has become a hit since its original posting on September 11; it's achieved over 2 million views in just two weeks.

      There's something of a fascination, I've found, in combining classical instruments and performance techniques with popular songs. It can often be funny--this video certainly made me laugh, and I have in the past simultaneously laughed at and lamented the strange use of violins in the original version of the pop song. This combination can also be intriguing to both listener and observer: I personally know quite a few people who enjoy arrangements of Coldplay or Lady Gaga by the Vitamin String Quartet, though these same people are unlikely to listen, voluntarily, to a classical piece written for string quartet.

      Though, I must confess: lovely as string quartets can be, I don't particularly jump at the chance to listen to them in my free time, either, unless it's a piece I am already familiar with and enjoy. As a vocalist, I tend to listen to vocal music more often than anything else (as far as classical listening goes). I certainly can't speak for all vocalists, but that is my personal trend.

     This does bring me to an interesting point--people listen to what they know. I understand vocal music, so despite years of school and learning to appreciate and love other forms of classical music, I still tend to listen to vocal music. Many people I know understand popular music as a whole, or specifically certain subsets of popular (as opposed to classical--not necessarily widely popular among the public) music, and so that is what they listen to. Arrangements by the Vitamin String Quartet are popular because they add a classical-instrument spin on already known and understandable music. "Call Me Maybe", for choir and orchestra, is popular because it adds the same spin, and consequently allows the listener to either enjoy it for what it is, have a laugh at the twist on a popular song, or feel superior about their knowledge of "real" (classical) music and how it shouldn't at all be combined with pop music (a stance I staunchly disagree with).

     Obviously, and as many of you have already said, more needs to be done to bring classical music into the popular consciousness if we want it to survive. If it were a type of music people could easily understand, having grown up with it--as it often was before the end of the nineteenth century--then it's likely the general population of the US would have a much greater interest in it. As it stands, it seems to me that classical-pop mashups can do a good job of introducing some of the sounds of classical music in a way that's enjoyable to an ear that isn't used to it. It certainly contributed to my own eventual love of classical pieces and desire to perform them, and it could do the same for others.

CSO Strike

At this point, I am sure that most students, teachers, performers, and enthusiasts of classical music are aware of the current strike set by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The strike is due to a lack of contract as well as the possibility of pay cuts, etc. With that said, the CSO canceled its Saturday concert due to the aforementioned conditions.

As someone who hopes to some day make it in the orchestral world, it is certainly disheartening to hear of the recent strike. It is nothing new to hear that professional orchestras are no longer the prime form of entertainment for most of society, or that the average age of the orchestra concert-goer is certainly not in the 20's or 30's. Nevertheless, I was under the impression that the local symphony was still an integral part of culture in that area. This can be said to an even greater extent with a top-tier symphony such as the CSO. It seems that the reason the pay cuts are in question is due to a lack of financial resources to continue to pay the musicians at the rate at which they are currently employed.

The question now arises, however. What does the future hold in store for the symphony orchestra? What does it hold for the generation of solid conservatory students just getting out of school and looking for orchestral work all the while paying off student loans? While, everyone knows that finding a job with a big name orchestra is an extremely competitive field, how much worse is the lack of funding going to make it for young musicians looking for a job?

I believe that the problem, while not easily solved, is an age gap issue. After playing in the orchestra of  a light opera company for the past two summers, I was quick to notice that the average audience member's age was well over the age of 50. While it may be true that the light and comic opera genre does not go hand and hand with other classical genres, I have noticed this trend of older concert goers in other venues such as orchestra and chamber ensemble concerts. Often times, the concert goers are frequently the same people, season ticket members and/or patrons of the group for many years. I see this as a potential problem.

The problem within the problem, in addition, is that the young concert goer, in most circumstances, does not have the funds to afford tickets at full price considering that the majority are students. It is true, that big orchestras, such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra offer student tickets at highly discounted price (via the College Card). I believe, however, that these kind of resources are not advertised enough. In a city such as Chicago or Boston, where young musicians are plenty (especially Boston with amount of high level music schools in the area), I believe that there is a lot of potential for an orchestra to increase its popularity via the young people. By continuing to exploit technological resources such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, the orchestras can market to younger people, in turn increasing their popularity.

Though there is a long road ahead of us classical musicians, I believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel, despite the recent strike of the CSO. Let us keep our fingers crossed that this too passes over, and, as young musicians, let us play in an active part in keeping the symphony orchestra a thriving and essential part of our culture.

A Livid Argument against the Bastien Piano Method

"Miss Kaley, why is the camel wearing a turban, and why is he riding a magic carpet?"

I grimaced a bit. Really? I am preparing this six-year-old for a life of musical pioneering, and this is the kind of question I have to answer in music lessons?

 "I don't know, John. I think because this song is about a Persian market, and, well, apparently there are both turbans and camels in or around a Persian market." He looked confused. "And magic carpets do not exist."

"Why is there a magic carpet if they don’t exist? Why is this song Persian? What's Persian?"

Oy. Is there any way I can answer this question without encouraging him to eternally associate the complex, artistically magnificent, ancient culture of Persia with camels, turbans, and magic carpets? And how do I justify a displeasing tune with a flatted second that is both difficult for him to play and sounds like death on an equally tempered keyboard? Neither of these things are AT ALL like Persian music, and I’m sure that James Bastien didn’t intend for it to be authentic. So I struggle, because, I believe it’s a positive situation for the child to be asking about other cultures, but the music in the Bastien method that encourages these questions is so terribly written, simplistic, and offensively illustrated that it reminds of a 19th century child learning about African-American culture from any one of Eurocentric, misguided avenues. (I should mention that dumbed-down versions of racist Stephen Foster tunes, such as “Old Black Joe,” with extremely unpleasant, racially stereotyped drawings appear in the earlier editions of the Bastien method).

John fidgets, inventing some story about the camel and the magic carpet. I am selectively listening (as usual with six-year-olds). He asks again what Persian means. “Persia is a part of the middle east, now including Iran and Iraq. Persian music often uses scales and sounds that we don’t have on the piano, but in this song, the composer tried to make it sound Persian by adding a D-flat in C-position! What do you think of the sound?”

John huffs. “I think it sounds BAD!”

Well, there you have it. It DOES sound bad. In fact, flatted seconds are no more a characteristic of Persian music as they are of late Schoenberg; sure, they appear, but they aren’t definitive. So what we have from Mr. Bastien is a lazy musical forgery. See the piece below:

I have witnessed many of my students struggle with pieces like this and others in the Bastien method. Each student proclaimed wildly that the music sounded terrible and they had no motivation to practice. Sadly, I’m sure if I played little John a piece from one of my favorite albums, Faryad by the Masters of Persian Music, he would be enthralled at the beauty and skill of the performers and their content; but, to play, he gets nothing more than a dumbed-down, insensitive noodling around C-position with an added “weird note.”

This and similar events occurred about a year ago, and this was the time I pledged to do away with all James Bastien materials, and move exclusively to my own methods or the Piano Adventures method by Nancy and Randall Faber, which I will defend in detail.  Because children absorb their early musical influences like a starving sponge, paralleling the path of language acquisition. A child who is exposed to native Spanish speaking at an early age may not retain fluency in the language, but will almost definitely retain the ability to recall Spanish phrases and, most importantly, will retain a superior accent.  Music is the same: by exposing our children to different musical languages at this young age, they will exhibit more musical flexibility later on. It is important to expose children to authentic musical content and not forgery; and equally important to expose them to authentic musical context and not arbitrary cartoons. This is essential for the future of our art, as we need to train open-minded, genre-crossing composers and performers. Most teachers today will defend this ideology – but they must be active with it, purchasing method books or “going rogue” in a way that honors the idea. Method books are much, much, much more influential than we expect. It is a child’s first exposure to self-created musical expression and organization.

Let’s examine some Bastien material in detail. In the Level 1 Piano book, there are 41 short pieces. Only one – “Fiesta” – exhibits an inkling of syncopation:

Problems abounding; an anthropologist’s nightmare. We have the Spanish guitar dressed like a Mexican Mariachi player, wearing a sombrero and playing maracas. He is playing alongside a Spanish Flamenco dancer, complete with skirt, shoes, and castanets. Immediately, some form of arbitrary, lazy cultural grouping. Will this child ask about this picture? Most definitely, because of its colors and prominence. The teacher then has the responsibility to explain that Mexico and Spain are actually completely different places with completely different musical cultures, but in this song, they’ve been smushed together, presumably because they share a common language, but most likely because James Bastien thought American students didn’t need to distinguish one way or the other. (Lack of distinction between Latin Ameican and Spanish culture is a lingering problem in American youth). Musical analysis shows the use of triple meter and an unaccented downbeat, which can be common to both styles; diatonic harmony with a prominent dominant seven, evoking the Mariachi; and the flatted second (apparently Bastien’s preferred and only method of evoking an alternate tonal system), which is typical to Flamenco music in this case. Also typical to Flamenco is the ending exclamation “Ole!” The most unsettling thing, however, is the conscious choice to illustrate the two styles at once in the cartoon, showing a complete indifference on the part of the publishers as to whether or not the child deserves accurate musical and cultural knowledge.

Similarly, of the 41 pieces, only one utilizes non-diatonic harmony (“Morning Prelude,” an exercise in smearing notes together with the pedal). I have taught from all four levels of the Bastien books; each level contains the same pathetic ratio of square rhythm to syncopation, diatonic harmony to modal.

I say this not only for the sake of disparaging Bastien for a job poorly done, but because Faber and Faber’s Piano Adventures series is an infinitely better way of introducing children to authentic sounds. There is no reason to choose Bastien over Faber in today’s world, yet so many teachers do. This example from the Level 1 Piano Adventures: Performance book shows an interesting modal melody with odd phrase lengths:

Not only is the melody satisfying to play on its own, but, conscious of the need for musical satisfaction in the young player, the Fabers have provided a harmonically and rhythmically rich duet part for the teacher. In my experience, duets at this young age are incredibly inspiring to young children; they begin to learn essential “chamber music skillz” (my term for starting and finishing together without counting), and are also treated to a satisfying aural experience. Bastien offers no duets in any level. Further, this piece provides an interesting and relevant fact at the top, putting this authentic melody in historical and cultural context. Upon discussing this with the teacher, the student now has an understanding that music is not just notes to be read, but rather a vessel of cultural meaning.

Essentially, I find the selection of proper method books incredibly important based on my personal experiences as a young student and, now, as a teacher. Raised on Piano Adventures, I can recall vividly the satisfaction of learning “Erie Canal,” “Summer Blues,” “Malaguena,” and “Song of Kilimanjaro.” I credit my affinity for blues scales and Flamenco rhythms entirely to the piano method books of my youth: I came from a completely non-musical American family, and had no predetermined preference for certain scales or rhythms. But thanks to my teacher’s chosen method, non-Western sounds rest inside a deep part of my heart and my brain, cultivated from age three, now ready to be expressed and interpreted in combination with my classical training. The Fabers – trained composers and performers - have continually expressed the importance of multi-cultural pedagogy, particularly after the adoption of their Mandarin daughter, who is now the inspiration for several new pedagogical pieces utilizing Mandarin musical characteristics.

Since this incident with young John and “Persian Market,” I have switched my entire studio, regardless of level, over to Piano Adventures. The results have blown my mind. I now have students learning difficult pieces in two weeks; who practice daily, simply because they love their new songs; and who beg to play duets over and over again for the satisfaction of hearing a complete musical piece. They crave knowledge about their music’s origins; I regularly assign research projects, which entail looking up facts about their piece’s style and origins. Some of them even compose now, overwhelmed with the rich musical vocabulary they’ve acquired. This is a stark contrast from confused questions about weird cartoons, unpleasant and misplaced accidentals, and struggling with practicing because the pieces “just don’t sound right.” Bastien’s pieces are arbitrarily composed, with no inherent musical meaning to encourage the child along a path to expression. The typical American child sincerely comes from a musical melting pot – they are hearing new languages, new ideas, new tunes every day.  Musical inspiration can only come from harnessing their inherent, beautiful, American affinity for multiculturalism. Take advantage: choose Piano Adventures over Bastien!

Oh, before I forget, here is a really, really, really racist piece in the Bastien book, Indian Life, which I think should be boycotted and taken off all websites and shelves:


Bastien, James. Bastien Piano BasicsLevel 1. San Diego, CA: Neil A. Kjos Music Company, 1985.

Faber, Nancy and Randall. Piano Adventures: The Basic Piano MethodLevel 1. Vol. Second Edition. Faber Piano Adventures, Hal Leonard, 1996.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Time To Adapt

I asked my roommate Ben to tell me the first thing that came to his mind when I said "Classical Music". His response was, in order: old, white, european, elitist. After a quick laugh I began to ponder this response. It is not so different from what many individuals alive in the 21st century might say. I can't say that I totally disagree, but I asked why he felt this way. "... because every time I've seen classical music performed live I'm expected to dress nice and not clap till the end. How am I supposed to know when it ends? It's not always when the music stops. I always end up waiting for other people to clap. That's the only way I know it's safe. Then if you do clap when you're not supposed to everyone looks at you with the evil eye like you're rude and obnoxious."

The simplistic analysis aside, my roommate does seem to have a point. Perhaps we need to revert back to our readings in "Highbrow/Lowbrow". Once upon a time concert audiences applauded and thoroughly showed their appreciation for the music. These days I have to agree with Benjamin. We need to show more appreciation for our performers and our genre. Why do we have to adhere to every tradition laid before us? Perhaps it's time to move into the 21st century and simply adapt.

Having performed extensively in both contemporary music and classical music I have to say that  performing classical music does bring forth a level certain of stress. I've been in hundreds of weddings, countless parties, bars and clubs, hotels and even a couple funerals, I have to say that classical music exudes the most pressure. For me, personally, it is the formality of it all. The concert attire, the bowing, the all-eyes-on-you waiting to see your every move. To a point I can agree that there should be some tradition evident in our performances, but we need to encourage our audiences, and our peers, to be more engaging. We must try to get rid of this holier-than-thou impression that people have of us and make it more fun. In the 21st century everything is changing. Constant change is not formal. If the idealistic approach to classical music doesn't change we will get left behind like everything else in this small world. We must remember that our ability to perform classical music doesn't make us better than everyone else and that success is not a derivative of talent. We have a responsibility to bring our "classical music" to a wider audience in a more accessible, relaxed format. Perhaps we should start with changing the term "classical music"

Classical Musicians Are Selling Themselves Short!

Lately, it has become trendy for the Classical Musician to bait his audience with what he thinks they might be enticed to bite. He is wearing a pair of ripped jeans intentionally to trick his audience into believing that he is down to earth; his program is themed in easily digestible chunks which in reality, form very loose associations among his pieces, if any at all exist; prior to the concert, the classical musician embarks on a long winded stream of consciousness, mentioning vague bullet points about the composer's life that have no real baring on the potential impact this piece could have on this audience; worse yet, he proceeds on to the obligatory rounds at the reception but when an audience member says with enthusiasm, "Wow, that song was really impressive!," the Classical Musician smugly brushes it off with a casual "thank you, I appreciate you coming out." Why aren't we engaging? Why don't we ask the audience member, "What about it did you enjoy? What did you identify with?" It has been argued that Classical musicians do have the audience in mind; an audience who happen not to know the Wikipedia version of Beethoven's life story, an audience whose unfamiliarity with the original reception of Stravinsky's Right of Spring. necessitates that the story be told, again and again! -No! It need not be told. The original reception is not why that conductor chose to spend a year of his life studying the score. Those arbitrary facts are not what led thousands of music students to spend hours and hours in the practice room. Performers are given a unique opportunity to connect with people today. I am glad that it has become popular to give a talk before a concert but what are we choosing to talk about? Birthday and death days? A History lesson? "Do you here this pretty tune? It shows up in all these places! Isn't that cool?" No, it's not cool. It's irrelevant. Classical music is not dead; if it was, conservatories would be mixing bowls full of firey, workaholics, chasing lives of poverty! But when given the opportunity to share our passion, most of us don't; we share birthdays. Who proved that your average audience member is not capable of appreciating great music for the same reason those that are entitled to call themselves "musicians," might? Sure, we are losing our audience due to a pretentious image that is decades old; but, do we really have to dumb things down for people? Can't we just bring the authenticity back into the concert hall? Let's talk about our love, our dreams, our dramas; that's what this music is about! I believe that if we trusted the audience enough to open up to them we wouldn't have to waste out time with music appreciation courses (with a negative connotation of the high school, cut budget variety) prior to our concerts. Let's talk about what was happening in our lives not the composer's that inspired the piece as they heard it. Let's break down the barrier at the reception by sharing in the audience member's enthusiasm rather than using the exclamation as an opportunity for self-validation. Classical music is still relevant through the real experiences of the performer; and, passion is contagious!

Music and Politics

Do not let the title of this post fool you. I have no intention of dissecting the current political race in our country. I have learned that such discussions polarize people and lead to an overall bad experience.

On September 23, 1997, U2 performed a concert in war-torn Sarajevo. I recently read an article that talks about the 15-year anniversary of that event which occurs today. I think we all are aware of, or have seen, U2’s (particularly Bono’s) humanitarian aid over the years. This has not prevented some snide criticisms in the past. Despite these misgivings, I personally applaud the group for what they have done to encourage people with music. 

In connection with this moving event in 1997, Bono made a statement that struck me as worth contemplating.

"If there's any message, it's a simple one, a banal one...It's that music is beyond politics." - Bono
Music is beyond politics?
That certainly makes for a powerful statement, but is Bono right?
We have the tendency to call the music the universal language. We fail to realize that not all music is universal. A Haydn symphony does not speak to Amazonian natives in the same way it does to us. Every culture has it’s own unique musical flavor and tradition that has been developed and practiced by its peoples for ages. In this sense we might say that the idea of music is universal.
The concert given by U2 was not meant to introduce their music to a new audience. The people knew who they were and knew their music. In that concert, U2 attempted to return normalcy to the lives of the devastated Bosnians. They demonstrated the ability to lift people’s spirits with music, but did they transcend politics?
Can music transcend politics?
In dealing with politics we hardly think of unity, harmony, or solidarity. All of these are crucial in the pursuit of musical excellence. Politics in today’s world puts a nasty taste in our mouths and does little to put us at ease. 
I find it hard to substantiate Bono’s claim. In the circumstances surrounding his visit to Bosnia, he was not on a political mission. He was there to encourage the impoverished people through music. However, the concert was attended by people of all backgrounds, including many involved in both sides of the conflict. My issue is the ephemeral aspect of the peace provided. Yes, music can bring hurt and warring peoples together, but does it really solve anything? Once the music is done, what has changed to really heal the political scars? 
Not to instigate, but think of our own country. Yes, a Democrat and a Republican may agree on their love of the music of Bach, but the two still disagree when the Bach cantata is over on the hot-button issues.
I certainly believe in the power of music to unify, but it appears that the delicate peace is often short-lived. In 1997, the conflict in Bosnia was not yet finished, and tensions exist even today. My fear is that music only provides a temporary distraction from the actual problem occurring in politics, the problem of actually accomplishing some semblance of unity. If music is really beyond politics, it is only a temporary elevation. Until a sure political footing is reached, even music will suffer. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Audience Exists!

While attending the Venezuelan Music concert last night in Pickman Hall, I had a revelation. Rather, a couple synapses in my brain made an important connection for the first time. Instead of handing out program notes, the performers chatted with the audience. They would share information before each piece, explaining what region certain rhythms or dances were from, personal anecdotes, or facts about the composers. It was a refreshing change to the concert atmosphere, especially since the music already made me want to get up and dance instead of sitting in my seat as a vapid audience member. Many of the barriers between the audience and the performers were reduced. Pretty soon, people were clapping after a great solo, laughing, and even bopping along in their seats. Having the performers share their stories and the origins of the pieces helped me appreciate and enjoy the music a lot more than if they had just played straight through the program. It added a dimension to the concert, especially since we were able to learn about the performers themselves.

About halfway through, a synapse fired and I was reminded of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra’s pre-concert talks. When the SSO was still around (they unfortunately had to file for bankruptcy in April 2011 and haven’t been around on an official level since) the conductor, Daniel Hege, would hold pre-concert talks, where anyone with a ticket could come a little early to the concert and participate in an informal chat about the evening’s program. He would discuss the composer’s background, thematic material to listen for (with demonstrations at a piano), compositional techniques and historical background. He would then answer any questions the audience had, and there usually were quite a few. It was a wonderful way to acknowledge the audience, have a conversation with them and at the same time inform them about the music they were about to hear. This was much more relevant and interactive than program notes. The community loved it and would say so, frequently. The music became more accessible and enjoyable to those without a “highbrow” musical background.

I then realized how wonderful this conversational approach towards the audience really is. It’s also a step in the right direction to broaden the audience of classical music. It’s obviously not a cure-all, but recognizing the audience actually exists and eliminating the wall between the performers and the audience is a definite step forward. I wonder how many people would feel less intimidated by classical music if all concerts had this conversational approach. It’s certainly something we should all keep in mind as we go out and perform in the world at large.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Some thoughts on Live Stream quality of our school

Some thoughts on Live Stream quality of our school
In these days, we can virtually participate in concerts and performances that occur in remote locations, even overseas. The benefits of these phenomena would be able to spread and share our music to those who want to listen to. Every one can perform and play some instruments to the certain levels without financial investment. And the level of performing varies depending ones talent. At the same time, we, as musicians, invest huge amount of money to enhance the quality of our performances by acquiring a degree(s) at Longy School of Music.In other words, people can reach higher level of musical ability (either performance or knowledge) by being exposed to higher quality of music as well as teaching.
These contradictory cases reveal the fact that it is important not only offer free live concerts but also need to invest the sound equipment for higherquality. Few years ago, our school started system for live stream. Especially, our school has excellent Hall but the sound system is not good. When we watch the concerts on the web, the watching experience is worse. If one wants to listen to music through the live stream system, that person may predetermine the quality of our hall without actual presence here.
Somebody may argue that it is enough our condition. However my idea is different. If it ispossible to upgrade our system, the web audience would feel more comfortable and enjoy the concerts that our school broadcast. Not only that, we could enhance the music quality of our neighboring community by providing high quality of music.
Thank you for reading

The Palmer Situation

Some of you may have read or heard about rock musician Amanda Palmer, and her decision to recruit instrumentalists for her current tour with the promise of beer, hugs, and high-fives. The announcement caused an uproar from the professional music community, who in no uncertain terms demanded that she pay her backup musicians. That New York Times article can be seen here.
A response article appeared the next day in the LA Times, here, which poses the argument that within the indie/avant-garde rock scenes, choosing to crowdsource musicians can be an aesthetic decision rather than a financial one. However, in a world in which most musicians live in abject poverty, it is important to take into consideration the motivation that goes into a decision like this. It's not an uncommon occurrence for performers to undercut their backing musicians--or so I've been told. Of course, the action has to be spun in such a way that it doesn't appear as though people are taking advantage of their performers. Ms. Palmer's justification for asking for volunteer horn and strings players is that individuals ultimately decide how they choose to share their time and talent. In a lot of ways, she's exactly right--we put a value on our craft (or we agree to some external value). But professional musicians depend on the precedents of others in determining their wages, and when people are taking gigs for free, the value for a musician's time is in danger of decreasing.
The flip side of this argument is that a musician's choice to take a free gig only affects other musicians if they are not offering something a buyer wants at a price they will pay. With such aesthetic diversity among people who freelance in music, hypothetically there will always be a gig for a performer who is proficient enough in the style of music they are asked to perform. "Proficient enough" is becoming commonplace, though--because amateurs are all too willing to do the work for free that professionals used to charge for, it is imperative that professionals constantly work to redefine the nature of "proficient".

I hope this debate isn't too rehashed, and that my post sparks some additional discussion about the ways we as musicians value our talent and time.