Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The art of making art

As a composer, I often struggle with questions pertaining to purpose and meaning in the music that I write. A normal internal dialogue: "Why put an A here--why not A-flat?" This particular example occurs very frequently in my music, as I usually write with out the use of keys or triadic functional harmony. A more complex issue might be something relating to the proportion of the music. "If I have 2 minutes of fast, active textures, am I providing enough balance with this slow section? How many more measures do I need here?" Perhaps the most challenging thing I face is how the music I write is being perceived. When one spends so much time singularly fleshing out one's artistic vision, taking a step back and evaluating with an objective eye is difficult. For instance, I'm always worried that the music I write is going to be too predictable--and for me, once the audience starts to be able to predict what is coming next, that's when boredom sets in and you've lost them. So naturally, I make my music entirely too unpredictable and it becomes that dreaded word that no artist wants to use to describe their creative process: random.

Of course, these problems of audience perception aren't exactly paramount right now at this point in my life: being in grad school, I will always have an outlet for my work. Even if I write a terrible piece, I'm not going to suffer bad reviews or a lack of future commissions. But Longy is preparing us to become professional musicians, and these things become magnified once we leave school--audience reception, lining up commissions, networking with other performers and composers. Every detail plays a part in the creation of successful work, not the least of which is whether that note ought to have been an A-flat after all.


Throughout this class, we've been talking about classical music’s identity in today’s world, and have often discussed the matter as though we are the only ones going through this process of trying to keep ‘our’ music alive and pertinent.  This past week however, I came across an article in the New York Times that has made me realize that we are not alone in our doubts and fears that our music may be in danger of surviving.  The article, written by James McKinley jr. is entitled Billboard’s Changes to Charts Draw Fire.  Billboard has long been responsible for providing music charts and rankings of which songs are no. 1, top 10, etc.  A few weeks ago however, it totally changed the way it makes those decisions.  Whereas in the past it had relied heavily on radio stations and the number of times a song was played, it is now making its selections based on the number of digital sales and online streams that a song gets.  While this may be a more valid way to choose a number 1 hit, it is creating a very different result from what radios choose as their number 1 songs.  One of the main reasons for this difference is that radios usually keep their songs within one genre.  You have the R&B music station, or the classic rock, or country, etc.  However, online results don't take particular genres into account.  As a result, some of the songs that are making it to the top of the charts are upsetting purists who don't believe these songs deserve to be there.  For instance, Psy's "Gangnam Style" song has "been the No.1 song on the new Rap Songs chart for the last three weeks, even though Psy does not rap on the track and most American hip-hop radio stations have yet to embrace him as a bona fide rapper."  Similar issues are coming up in the Hot Country Songs Chart, as well as the R&B-Hip Hop Songs Chart.  Pop-infused songs are generally what are making it to the No. 1 spot, upsetting the purists of any given genre.  I find this really interesting because this may be the first time that so many different styles of music are experiencing what classical music has faced for years.  As classical musicians, we've been talking about the possibilities of crossover for a long time, and we already have examples of how this can work.  Yet the question always remains: what are we willing to give up in order to secure a spot in the mainstream, and in order to ensure that classical music will still be heard?  Well, it seems that Billboard's decision to rate songs based on online success and activity is creating these same problems for many different artists.  Billboard's decision effectively "means that traditional country artists, whose songs are played only on country stations, will be pushed down deeper into the charts, while pop-oriented stars... crowd the Top 10.  Labels in turn are likely to encourage artists to make country records with a pop flavor."  So, is music losing all hope of individuality?  
It seems that all musical styles are undergoing a sort of transition period, where the only winner is Pop, which is often just a mish-mosh of a variety of different styles.  Just as Hewett talks about the idea that classical music must be “all-embracing,” it seems that Billboard is opting for the same goal.  The fear is that in doing so, different genres will lose their identity, or at the very least, will disappear under the impenetrable pile of pop songs that will continue to get the greatest online hits.  Kyle Coroneos, who according to the New York Times article writes a blog for the Saving Country Music site, says: "I have a theory all the genres of music are coagulating into one big monogenre, and this emphasizes that."  Perhaps this is an opportunity for classical music to regain center stage.  As pop music melds into one messy 'monogenre,' classical music can regain its stance as an exciting, living and breathing art form, offering authenticity to a public tired of listening to the same thing over and over.

Concert on Sunday

Sunday, our school had a concert using fortepiano by Dudas. After the concert, he gave me a chance to play fortepiano. It was great experience because I have never played fortepiano as real.

I think people have learned and developed their skills through their history. It means the form of the piano nowadays has also been developed from the fortepiano. If they did not have idea about new piano, perhaps we cannot hear various sounds from the piano. We could just listen to music limited piano sound style.

I was thinking about confortable from player’s perspective. Here are the distinctions between the piano and the fortepiano First, a sustain pedal of fortepiano is located below keyboard which can be used with knees, whereas the sustain pedal of piano is located under the piano so that players can access it using their right foot. Second, the piano has soft-pedal, but fortepiano don’t have a pedal for attenuating the sound. Instead, it has long pins on the hammer for the same function. The third point is strings for key. One key mostly has three strings on the piano, but one key has one or two strings on the fortepiano. Last, white keys that we know for piano are black keys at fortepiano.

When I saw fortepiano, I compared the history of the piano instrument especially between piano and fortepiano.

Sunday, October 28, 7pmEdward M. Pickman Concert Hall
Faculty Artist Recital
Libor Dudas, fortepiano
Works by Haydn, Clementi, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Monday, October 29, 2012

LongyLab and thoughts on classical sound

On Sunday, I attended the Longy Laboratory concert at the Lily Pad at 3pm. Unfortunately I wasn't able to stay for the entirety of the concert (such is a busy music student's life), but I did get to hear four fantastic pieces: "Meditations", by Jeremy Van Buskirk; and "Decay and Decadence", "Roger Come!", and "I Burn in the Sun" by Paul Sayed. Each of these was an electronic piece.

It certainly got me thinking about the parameters of new and electronic music; it's not something I listen to often, though I throughly enjoyed Sunday. At this concert, I heard undulating electronic sounds and altered bits of noise, all performed live, while watching what seemed to be a mutated projection of stars on the wall ("Meditations"); I heard experimental piano sounds from a set of speakers controlled by a midi controller, followed seamlessly by more electronic sounds ("Decay and Decadence" and "Roger Come!"); I heard a steady beat and edited voices projected in rhythm over it and a humorous Chopin etude interjection ("I Burn in the Sun"). It was all very entertaining and fascinating to me, but by the time I left I realized that I didn't have much of a frame of reference for this type of music. As you can see above, I struggle with simply trying to describe what I heard!

Experimental music like this seems to fall into the realm of classical music, and electronic music certainly does as well--however, I've noticed that people tend to think of it as almost painfully new and avant-garde, though it isn't quite so new a concept any longer. We've grown accustomed to electronic sounds in popular music; have our classical ears not caught up with us?

What makes music classical, anyway?

Architecture and Music

David Byrne has a great TED Talk about how architecture helped music to evolve. He traces music from its early church venues through today's pop music stadiums discussing what kind of music functions best in each place and how the music evolved to fit those spaces. I encourage all to give it a watch. After going showing the transition music made from gothic cathedrals to smaller spaces with less reverb allowing Mozart to compose more "intricate and frilly" music, he shows a picture of La Scala, in Milan. He then explains how the audience would shout to each other, gossip, eat, drink and be merry during opera performances, demanding immediate encores of arias they loved. Next, he shows a picture of Carnegie Hall, and addresses the shift from a rowdy audience to a submissive and quiet one. As the performance halls changed, it led to the capability of ensembles to play dynamically, since they no longer needed to compete with a rowdy audience, and so the Romantic symphony orchestra began to thrive as the audience remained in silence. He finishes up with a few more examples of how pop music is composed for large stadium concerts and mp3 players, again, both of which affect how the music is written.

This idea, of music being composed for a specific space, whether intentionally or not, could be instrumental in the future. Instead of writing pieces that perpetuate the traditional concert hall schema, pieces could be composed for new spaces, or even in ways that re-imagine the traditional hall. John Cage does this with some of his pieces, but I think the key is to ensure it creates a meaningful and relatable experience for the audiences of today. I'd be curious to see if anyone knows of this being done now, and I'd also like to ask the composers out there if specific venues inform their composition process, and to what degree. It would also be an interesting project to collaborate with architects to create new spaces or edit old ones to give new music its ideal acoustic environment. To me, the relationship should be symbiotic, in a sense. As new spaces are created, music evolves to fill those spaces, and as musical ideas evolve, the spaces should evolve to fit those ideas.

MAM Concert on Saturday

I attended the MAM concert at Longy on Saturday night and was amazed by the wonderful music on stage. The first half of the program consisted of solo piano music by Dave Bryant and Deborah Beers (who played her own world premiere). It was hard to distinguish a genre for these pieces which probably led me to enjoy them more. There were moments of tonality and atonality as well as jumping rhythms and spacey harmonies. The second part of the program involved Dave Bryant performing with his ensemble. First, he played a few pieces with upright bass. There was a wonderful mixture of improvisation and composed elements. Next, they were joined by drums, saxophone, cello, and percussion for the final two pieces. As with the earlier pieces, these felt genreless. I loved the ability of these musicians to listen to each other and react in a spontaneous and effective way. They brought together parts of different genres to create a unique aural experience. I strongly encourage performers to experiment with mixing genres or just creating music that is meaningful in spite of a genre label. This concert would have probably been labeled as Jazz to many people, but to me it was just enjoyable music.

List of Performers:
Dave Bryant, piano
Jacob William, bass
Junko Fujiwara, cello
Chris Bowman, percussion
Tom Hall, tenor saxophone
Eric Rosenthal, drums
Deborah Beers, piano

The Standing Ovation

Last Friday night, I had the pleasure of premiering Daniela DeMatos' Psalm 51 with the Longy Conservatory Orchestra. It was a wonderful experience working closely with the composer during rehearsals, and then later seeing the audience at Sanders Hall get up on their feet to applaud DeMatos following the premier.

Friday Night's LCO concert was not, however, the only standing ovation I witnessed from the stage during the past week. On Tuesday, I performed with a trombone choir in West Bridgewater, and yesterday afternoon, I performed with the Brckton Symphony Orchestra in Easton. The audiences at each of these events stood up to applaud the performers following the show, despite what I would consider to be a great disparity in performance quality. When I think back on the various concerts in which I have performed in the last few years, the audience has given a standing ovation to nearly every one.

It seems that the standing ovation has become an expectation of audiences, almost as if remaining seated following a performance were a sign of disrespect. As Amy Stumpfl writes in "The Tenneseean" earlier this year, "...to me, the standing ovation should be spontaneous — a genuinely emotional response that practically lifts you out of your seat. It is something to be earned, not automatically expected." In her interview with Belmont University's Bill Feehely, Feehely states "I think audiences are beginning to lose their sense of what’s really special."

Friday night's premier of DeMatos' Psalm 51 was clearly a special moment. The audience was so affected by the piece that, following the last note, they sat in stunned silence for a number of seconds before the applause began. It was as though the room held its breath waiting for more. While I do not mean to suggest that yesterdays BrSO performance did not warrant the audience's appreciation, I believe that overuse of the standing ovation deprives audiences of the tools necessary to commemorate what they feel is exceptional.

The titles of new works: inviting or deterring?

So, this rift we are reading, writing, talking about: how enjoyable it is to inquire upon its origins in our harmonic languages, in our audience etiquette, in our ticket prices, in our concert hall lighting, in our notation. All valid and integral, and the importance of each variant depends on the people in the conversation. After last night, however, I'd like to offer up another item of discussion that became blatantly obvious as I sat, in the ornate, intimate recital room of Boston's Goethe-Institut (itself laden with social connotations, although perhaps only to the obsessed), thumbing through my program of the Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble's 10th Annual Young Composer's Concert. What we title our compositions has an extraordinary effect on the widening rift.

The whole of the evening was lusciously tied to our readings and class discussions - from the pre-concert talk, the concept of which is odd to an outsider, and asserts the evening's identity as a forum for intellectual and philosophical discovery, to the post-concert reception, replete with high-end cheese and salted caramels. But because it was a "young" composer's concert - the works programmed were either commissions or premieres by composers at the cusp of their professional careers throughout the US - there was an element of, "please save us from our fate - what can you offer?" But despite the potentially haughty vibe, there in the ostentatious, moulded and sensually lit corner of the Germanically decorated Goethe-Institut, I found the discussion absolutely engaging and relevant to any human, classically oriented or not. My favorite question posed to the composers: "how do you explain your career to your family members at the Thanksgiving table?" One responded that he simply told them he wrote music for the concert hall, an answer to which two or three of the others responded enthusiastically, saying they would repeat that answer. One of the composers (who's piece ultimately resonated with me the most) said that he would never tell his family such a thing, because it wasn't necessarily true, since he was struggling with finding a path for his electric guitar and Gamelan passions into his work. It seemed as if every answer reached a certainty with one composer, only to be entirely rejected and replaced with an opposite certainty from another.

This philosophy can be explored in one idea, not new to our time, rooted in the Beethovenian and Brahmsian fascination with absolute music: how we title our compositions. The title of a work of art is our invitation to enjoy it. But I fear that, today, the title of a work of art is a method of deterring the non-curious or the literal. Personally, I wrestle with titles - how many times have I over-considered my audience when building a title? If I know that a piece I'm writing will be presented to a group of Boston elite-intellectual composers, I would be lying if I didn't admit to a subconscious force pushing me towards an enigmatic, seemingly non-musical, thesaurus-y title, which in its best form is one or two bizarre syllables. Such a title suggests familiarity with the inhuman, non-social aspect of intellectual "art" music. It removes us from social and personal resonance, instead grouping our music with mathematical theories, scientific concepts; it, in essence, teaches the audience something, placing the composer in an even more authoritarian light. We expect the music to be non-social, inhuman, dry, overstimulating, dissonant. A brilliant example of this is Joseph Tydings Mannarino's piece Petrichor, which had its world premiere at last night's concert. The lengthy (albeit engaging) program note begins with a definition, etymological background, and cultural implication of this word, the very nature of which assumes the audience is unfamiliar. In a sense, the piece depends on the audience's new acquisition of this word. The absorption of the word becomes a part of the musical experience. Every other work on the program contained similar elements of linguistic imperialism, which was fascinating considering the stylistic differences among the works: the first was Shadow by Wang Jie, which also included an explanation and justification for the title in the program note; the second was Narrow Apogee by James Borchers, which included no explanation or definition in the program note for the title, a rather haughty move on the part of the composer, who, either depends on the audience knowing what an "apogee" is or assumes they will discover the definition through the work; third was Geometries by Roger Zare, with movements "Fractals" and "Tangents", this one obviously depending on the audiences general relationship with mathematics; Conveyance by Carolyn O'brien, a stunning piece, whose title becomes at once superficial and profound, considering one purpose of art is to convey, yet the actual idea conveyed is ultimately up to the audience; and Alter Ego by James VanHassel, who was the young man wrestling with electric guitars and Gamelans in the pre-concert talk. This piece had the most relevant and universally engaging title, in my opinion, as the piece was an exploration of two musical forces - one dense, lengthy, harmonic and minimalist, the other angled, rushed, chaotic, "modern." The piece presented two opposing and current musical philosophies - the lush/pleasant/emotive/harmonic and the engineered/angular/dissonant/academic. The concept of alter ego abounds in this work and, from what I gathered, in the identity of the composer and others like him.

For me as composer and performer of new music, I understand these titles, I find them humorous and interesting, judging by my above analysis and overall engagement in the idea. But my life is an endless conversation with non-musician friends and family members who scoff at such things; the concept is not limited to contemporary concert music, as I've had many a loved one be bored or confused by a work titled Sonata No. X in W Major. My young students are reliably confused when I assign them their first Mozart piece - "what's it called?" Me: "Um, Sonata K. 333 in B-flat Major." Confusion ensues. What's it about? Why did he name it that? Why is he so boring? The task of getting a child interested in classical piano pieces is a rather important one, and much of it has to do with titling. Thankfully for Debussy and Schumann there are always tasty nuggets of program music; and for my voice students, I relish in the opportunity to assign songs with colorful, folksy, poetic titles, regardless of the era of composition. It seems that instrumental chamber, orchestral and solo instrumental music experience the worst of the titling conundrum.

Last night, I realized that, no matter what harmonic language or aesthetic philosophy is expounded by a work, its title will ultimately color my perception of it as pretentious or inviting. The reverse is true as well. If I heard a dissonant, twelve-tone piece for computer and bagpipe entitled The Story of the Mouse and the Hippopotamus I would be likely be much more engaged than I would be in a neo-romantic piece for piano, voice, and cello entitled Matrices. (Side-note: I will now attempt to write both of these pieces.) Upon considering all of this in light of Healing the Rift and Cook's philosophies, I became grounded and convinced in my own philosophy as performer and composer: as soon as music becomes divorced from its social, cathartic, inviting function, it struggles to be music. Of course this is a commonly held and widely disputed philosophy, perhaps the central discussion of our musical time, but to me it is blatantly obvious. Despite my above consideration of the narrative title becoming the dissonant piece and the pretentious title becoming the consonant piece, it appears that in todays world, the opposite is the norm - pieces that are sonically "difficult" for most audiences will bear the more distant titles, and pieces that are more universally received (i.e., across genres and venues) tend to have more inviting titles. We must never forget that many people - in fact, I would argue, most people - are not interested in attending a difficult lecture when engaging in a musical event with others. Music has the responsibility to be communal, cathartic. Otherwise, in my philosophy, it becomes performance art. Still art - still valid and important - but not essentially music. How we deal with this in concert programming, in listening, in outreach, I have no idea. But our composers could start by considering their titles as an invitation rather than a declaration.

For now, I'm reflecting on some of my titles - perhaps the most controversial is Cluster@#$@ for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. I don't particularly like this instrumentation and, to be honest, I don't particularly like my piece, but it is certainly a clusterfuck, and it certainly received some laughs and quizzical looks when it was played in the final round of the Radius competition last year. I chose this title because I was subconsciously upset with the instrumentation and, maybe, the idea of a competition. For the most part, I've tried to title my works sensitively; the most difficult piece of mine to title was a string quartet chamber ballet I wrote last year with a choreographer. She had a beautiful narrative, and the work I created was one of which I am very proud. Consonant, cathartic, like a warm hug, but modern in parts and ultimately catered well to the idea of choreography and physical gesture. But what to call it? The title conundrum is rampant in the dance world, and luckily the choreographer and I share similar principles when it comes to invitation or exclusion. We settled on Eva and Emmy, since the story was about two characters, Eva and Emmy. I do fear, however, that this work receives skeptical looks, simply by its femininity, its simple title, its inherently emotional character, when examined by the fancy composers that judge summer program applications and competition submissions. Most of my other works include inviting but somewhat enigmatic titles; and some were even composed based on the concept of a title itself, such as my latest work Red, White, and Black, which is a song cycle examining the social and racial situation of the United States. I will continue to contemplate this notion as I compose, and even as I select works to perform in vocal recital.

If you make it to the end of this post, I would love to hear some stand-out titles of works you've heard, written, or performed, recently or in the past!!

On Updated Musical Contexts

In a recent article published in ARTnews, "Old Masters of Our Domain," Robin Cembalest points out modern artists are making works by the old great masters relevant again: "Contemporary artists, quoting Old Masters is still an exercise, diversion, rite of passage, and vehicle for social and political commentary–showing that the great tradition of European painting still has its pull (or at least its uses) among the new avant-garde."(1) Among her examples is a conceptual artist named Braco Dimitrijevic, an artist whose philosophy revolves around the concept of 'post-history', "which he defines in his 1976 book, Tractatus Post Historicus, as the coexistence of differing values and multiple individual truths. In 1976, Dimitrijević initiated his series Triptychos Post Historicus, where original paintings by artists like Kandinsky, Mondrian, Picasso, Monet and Manet are presented alongside ordinary objects and fruit. Introducing organic matter into a museum setting, the artist juxtaposes the sacred (high art and the museum), and the secular (simple fruits of nature and objects of daily life and work). In so doing, he subverts traditional art-historical contexts and values, transforming one's perception of the art work and the language used to describe it."(2)

What would it mean to subvert traditional musical contexts and values to reflect the contexts and values of today? It would mean significantly updating our current performance practices to incorporate modern urban soundscapes.  Specifically, that might entail an allowance or even an encouragement of monotonous downbeats (a reflection of our current pop culture) or playing a piece from the classical canon using the sounds of a modern synthesizer;  juxtaposing the powerful arrangements of notes by the masters with the intensely familiar sounds of our everyday life.

Our current limitations as performers in terms of performance practice became obvious to me in the midst of preparing Chopin's F-minor fantasy for a masterclass.  I have been spending hours focused on carrying through one limitless line throughout the piece, seamless, growing and changing.  This intent is supported by traditional concepts of taste and technique focused on self-restraint, delaying the climax.  Unfortunately for the romantic sentimentality, we are living in a world where expressions are blunt and brutal.  No one is concerned about "airing their dirty laundry" as they once were.  Now we live in a society where divorces are posted on Facebook. We are less well-mannered, less prim and proper and much more apt to say what is on our minds.  Our poor and repressed are no longer filed away, unseen and unheard.  The performer is no longer necessarily male or solely an attraction for high society.  In my case, the performer is a single woman, a student trying to get by in a city hundreds of miles away from her family.  Sometimes I want to hear the Chopin fantasy played with reckless abandon, in an excruciatingly slow tempo, something that doesn't move (the way my progress sometimes doesn't seem to), in not so beautiful a timbre.  The seriousness of the fantasy can no longer be thoroughly  perceived by a modern audience when played on so beautiful an instrument.  The sound of moving traffic is more serious.  Perhaps we should accept cruder, less perfect interpretations into our concert halls.  

1. http://www.artnews.com/2012/10/10/contemporary-artists-redo-old-master/


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Playing With Your Food

Our mothers always said, "don't play with your food," but some people never listened. So what happens when musicians play with their food?

Well, as it turns out, you get an orchestra.

After hearing the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, all I can say is that music can be anything. The members of this ensemble have made a career out of making music where most people only see food. The innovations of this ensemble call to our attention some of the ideas that John Cage introduced us to in music. Music can be found everywhere and anywhere. Just as Cage heard music in the traffic of the city, the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra finds music in the produce we consume every day.

I applaud the creativity of this orchestra. They provide a fresh outlook on music performance, and challenge the preconceptions we harbor about what constitutes a concert. What the orchestra does is completely unpretentious. I have never had the privilege to attend a live concert given by the VVG, but unlike most symphonies, there is an air of musical openness about them.

Sadly, the orchestra hasn't toured the United States since 2010, and is not planning another U.S. tour any time soon. The group has been together since 1998 and is still touring Europe and giving regular concerts (when the vegetables are in season). I am impressed that they have turned a seemingly crazy idea in a viable, money-making career. I think it is safe to say that they will never be called starving artists. Given their successes, I wonder what future there is for non-traditional ensembles. We have had previous posts about Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir and the Dr. Who Fan Orchestra. These projects have both been very successful and produced some inspiring musical content. I think we are beginning to see a further expansion of the art form as we explore new ways to make music and money. Who knows what types of venues await us. If instruments can be made from bell peppers and carrots, we can only guess what sort of ensembles will emerge in the years to come and how we will be a part of it.

New York's "Camerata" Group Helps Foster Classical Music Growth

I recently came across an article detailing Richard Owen, the musical director and entrepreneurial mastermind behind the New York based group Camerata. This group gives 6 to 10 annual concerts covering repertoire from the baroque to modern period. The group's aim is to instill classical music as a vital part of New York's, more importantly, the US's culture. Moreover, the group also exists to counter the ongoing financial cuts in the arts field by providing opportunities for young musicians.

What struck me about this article was the fact that Richard Owen also worked at a bank. He is able to use his skills as not only a musician, but also as a business person, to make classical music relevant to today's society. This reminds me of a post that Joanne had written earlier this year, referencing an article that Michelle Jones, a violinist, had written regarding the future of classical musicians. Ms. Jones suggests that conservatory and other music students should also have to double major in business during school, so that they understand how to make a living as a musician. I will say that I disagree with this statement because, in my opinion, having music students major in another field spreads them out too thin into an already rigorous schedule, giving them even less time to practice their instruments. (I believe that conservatory students should spend as little time in the classroom as possible and that the bulk of their work should go to practicing and performing; however, I digress from the main point) Nevertheless, I believe that Ms. Jones does make a valid point that the business side of music is not given enough attention. Furthermore, I feel that there should be more opportunities in the music field for students with business degrees. It will be an added bonus if said business students were avid supporters of the classical music field.

I think the Camerata are moving in the right direction, sending a message that music is vital to our cultural identity. In addition, the Camerata make it an aim to provide young musicians with ample opportunities to make a living performing in a time when even the big orchestras are making big financial cuts. This sparks hope for young musicians, especially those on the brink of entering the job market.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Lap Dancing: Who Gets To Define Art?

     A very controversial ruling was just handed out from the New York State Court of Appeals saying that Pole Dancing and Lap Dancing are not forms of art and therefore taxable. Before your heads go spinning you should read this article. This was not a landslide decision like some might believe it to be and it raises a more pertinent question of what art really is and who gets to define it. The court ruled in a 4-3 decision saying that "women gyrating on a pole to music, however artistic or athletic their practiced moves are, was also not a qualifying performance".
     I guess the first thing we need to do is define what dance is. Wikipedia defines dance as such: 

"Dance is a type of art that generally involves movement of the body, usually rhythmic and to music, performed in many different cultures and used as a form of expressionsocial interaction and exercise or presented in a spiritual or performance setting"

The other term that got thrown around in this decision was "choreography" which was defined as "the art of designing sequences of movements in which motion, form, or both are specified". 

     The deciding judges viewed lap dance as a form of "lowbrow art" such as baseball or the circus. What they didn't do was clearly define what highbrow art is. Instead they created a situation where the term "highbrow" was only applied to a specific type of dance: Ballet. However; the dissenting judges raised other great questions when saying that the state regulations on dance are not specific to types. Naturally one must assume they include all forms of dance and choreography. Also you need to consider the term "dancer" as referring to someone who dances. Considering the official definition of "dance" one must assume that anyone who engages in the art of dancing is a dancer and therefore an artist. Though the judges all agreed on this, the deciding judges still deemed lap dancing a lowbrow form of dance because "they don't promote culture in a community the way ballet or other artistic endeavors do" and are therefore taxable. 
     You could make an argument to which cultural classification lap dancing belongs to. The mother or father of three might tell you that there is no place for adult entertainment in their town. That this specific type of entertainment is extremely tasteless and cheap. However; look at the price of Ballet. If you want to sit up close to the Boston Ballet you're going to lose about $140 per person. Compare that to the person at the strip bar who drops $30-$40 every 15 minutes to have a man or woman perform a private dance in a private room for their own entertainment. It's about the same when you look at the cost. Obviously "class" and "taste" have nothing to do with the cost of art. It seems to be more about the publics perception of art that determines if it's highbrow or lowbrow, yet in the end that is only an opinion. 

So I do believe this is the part where you need to ask yourself. Are men or women who perform choreographed dance moves for money artists? 

Who are you to decide that?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Perceiving the World Through Sound and Finding Ourselves In It

Back in the days of Bach, music lessons were taught daily from father to son.  I doubt this task was a choice left up to the children and I doubt it was optional.  It was simply a way a of life.  Children knew what was expected of them;  they worked hard and they listened carefully. There was plenty of time spent in the silence of a pre-industrial world; silence which bore the fruit of creativity. Hours of contemplation, practice, and play became an endless world of discovery about nature and about the self. 

Today, it is a known fact that creativity is endangered.  Children are conditioned to give the "correct" answer to a given question in schools, rather than encouraged to expand their mind to the possible ways of experiencing the world.  Individuality is sacrificed in favor of working toward a general standard.  These days, I don't think it is common for a child to "pretend" a sauce pan is a crown or to make a fishing pole out of a string tied to a stick.  There are too many available toys already made.  Children never have to use their abstract thinking.

What are we loosing when we surrender our individuality, our sensitivity to the world,  our abstract thinking, our creativity and our playfulness? We loose a deeper connection to ourselves, empathy for our fellow man, and a magnitude of beauty that our world has to offer. Music is a creation of the active, abstract mind.  It is a realm where the spirit can roam and expand into any form.  It is a means of growth and a means of therapy.  It is not hard to understand why children today have less discipline and generally less interest in everything including classical music yet I think it is urgent that we engage them anyway.  As performers, as pedagogues, and as teaching artists, we may not be in demand among the youth like any other consumerist product of the 21st century but we are among the few that have the power to turn these children into open vessels, sensitive to interesting noise, the stillness of silence; vacuums which can then be filled by all the complicated expressions of a child getting to know himself.

Through Longy school of Music's experiencial education program.  I had the opportunity to work directly with a class of urban teenagers at one of the city's Boy's and Girl's club locations in Everett, M.A.. This group of teenagers met after school every day to play beats and sing the lyrics to their favorite songs.  My goal was to expose them to some music they had maybe never heard before and challenge them to find themselves in it.

During the first session I asked each teenager to pick a beat but to refrain from sharing the lyrics or the title of the song.  Instead, I asked each to walk out to the beat in a manner that reflected the meaning of the lyrics.  Each experimented with weight, tempo, facial expression, use of space, and a variety of other subtle expressions in order to represent the mood, the character, and the energy behind the music.  I asked those in the audience: What is this song about? Who is the singer? Tell me more about her.Upon second performance of each song, I asked the teenagers to include the lyrics but to put just as much expression into their body language, their facial expression, and the way they move. It was clear that the teenagers had made the  discovery that  human and emotional qualities  can be found in the abstract sounds that surround the lyrics in their song; that words are not always necessary to express something.

During the second session, I shared a bit of myself.  I performed Liszt's concert paraphrase of Verdi's opera Rigoletto. I told them, "This piece is actually a showy version of an opera piece.  The music is from a place in the opera that includes four different characters all expressing different emotions at the same time. What can you tell me about the characters? What can you tell me about the dialogue?" The teenagers's feedback proved that they were really exploring the sounds within the music, the dynamic shifts, the differences in texture, among many other characteristics. Then I shared the libretto and talked about the active dynamics as if we were gossiping about people we knew.  I also played Prokofiev's third piano sonata and asked the same questions.  Of course, the sonata does not have lyrics or a story written into the score; yet every performer creates one.  I was impressed with how much detail the teenagers came up with to describe the sonata.  "This was my story and I was the main character," I told them.  "However, all the stories and characters that you came up with are just as correct; they are expressions of you!"

During the third and final session, I created a workshop in composition. "Think back to last week and the experience that you had listening to the  Prokofiev sonata.  Everyone get out a notebook and write down a list of feelings, emotions, characters and/or scenarios that came up last week. Let's talk about what specific things you heard that gave you those impressions, and why. As we crudely work through the score, notice what elements you are the most swayed by; is it the underlying rhythm?  Tempo? Melodic Contour?  Volume? The Physical way that I approached the section? The thickness of the section?" The teenagers worked for twenty minutes on these ideas.  All were engaged. I led them toward a musical expression of themselves and their own stories:

"Think about the tempo and rhythm.  We talked about the emotional qualities that rhythm and tempo can have.  Think back to the entrance walk that I had you experiment with during our first session.  You agreed that the slower walk showed more cool confidence.  A faster tempo had a lot of you thinking about drama and action.   Give me some descriptive words to describe your rhythm and tempo."

"Think about your melodic line.  Remember when we were analyzing some songs in the first session and we decided that melodic lines that twist and turn are reminiscent of wailing or crying? Remind yourself what kind of melodic line you would here from someone cool and collected. “ Give me some descriptive words to describe you melodic line."

"Now, finally put some words to the musical excerpt that you just created.  Allow the words to guided by the emotions in the music.  Take note of what affect reversing this approach has on your outcome? How much more affective is your music?' Do you feel that may be able to rely on the words less to explain the whole story? Maybe you don't even need many words at all?”

The musical and personal results of this workshop inspired me.  I made friends through the process; in fact, many of them requested to attend my recital. As performers, pedagogues, and teaching artists, we have to teach the language of music.  We must encourage a relationship between engaged listening and active creativity because the world is just as beautiful and interesting as it ever was.  It is the bridge between the sound world and the self that needs to be repaired.  Unfortunately, we are dealing with a society where sounds abound as a constant drone and individuals stop listening.  Once we succeed in getting their attention however, we also must help them find themselves in the sound.  After all, isn't that how we all got seduced by this profession?


Questions for Dean Chin:

1) What role do you think future ethnomusicologists have in future compositions? What role do you think they have in targeting today's multicultural audience?

2) Since it is impossible to perform a truly authentic historical performance, how much freedom do you believe the modern performer has to express his or her unique influences, soundscapes,  life experiences, exposure to other genre, etc. within his or her performance of Classical works?

3) Do you believe that the classical performer has any values that he has a responsibility to preserve as times and tastes continue to change?

Play This Shape

Play this shape.

*          *              *
''''''       ''''''''       ''''''''

What did it sound like? Why?

The second question is a critical aspect of making a lasting connection with listeners when playing graphically notated music. Even if your answer is "I don't know" or "I started playing it without really thinking" there is something to be said about your choices or lack thereof. The reasons why people play graphic notation in unique ways are fascinating. In my experience, audiences are genuinely excited by performers who provide a thoughtful, honest description of their performance choices.

A friend of mine wrote a graphically notated piece (a complex series of shapes and lines) for me and another bass player to perform back to back in a program. We decided to explore the possibilities of perception.  The other bass player received the work a week in advance and made several notes about his choices for performing. He performed the piece for the audience and answered questions while I sat with my ears plugged in an adjacent room. I then walked to the performing space and was handed the piece for the first time just before I played it. This allowed for a completely different perspective of the work both in respects to who was performing and the amount of preparation time. Our interpretations were completely different which led to wonderful discussions among everyone present.

This is not to say that all graphic notation is solely based on performer choices and freedoms. Many compositions in this style are specific about rhythm, pitch, dynamics, timbre, etc. In those cases, graphic notation serves the purpose of demonstrating exactly what a performer should do when playing a piece. The graphic element of the composition is often used to fill a void left by traditional notation. This type of notation is certainly useful but it is less romantic to talk about.

Onto the romantic part...

Let's be free from stems and note heads  Let's play rectangles, triangles, photographs, paintings, nature, or even actual people. Who is to stop a performer from 'playing' the audience? Think of all the inspiration that comes from curious people. When we talk about the future of classical music we need to be considering every facet of composition as well. Playing music that is graphically notated can be fulfilling and even liberating. I highly recommend it to anyone that is curious.

One final thought:
What is the limit of graphic notation?


Playing Classical Music in Non-Standard Venues

I was surfing the web for recent news in the classical music world when I came across this interesting article of how classical music groups in the Baltimore area are performing their music in non-standard venues such as bars, public parks, open houses, and other areas. I found the article very intriguing as I saw the immediate potential of this for classical musicians.

A striking part of the article that I read mentioned a musician that stated that the raised stage of the standard concert hall places musicians on a different level than the audience. He goes on to say that when classical musicians play in venues in which they are close to the audience and the stage is not raised, the artist is taken off the "pedestal" and is consequently made more accessible to the average concert goer.

This reminds me of one of my most memorable moments from my undergraduate music career, when I performed in an art gallery. The College of Wooster was known for its undergraduate research program in which seniors take on an independent study project and work throughout their senior year on the said project. At the end of the year, the seniors present their research on a certain day. As a performance major, my senior thesis just involved preparing to give a senior recital. Being that I was one of the only senior music performance majors at the school, I was asked to play a piece from my program (a duet with a violinist) at the school's art gallery while the art majors presented their senior projects.

This memory not only resonated with me because of the great acoustics of the gallery, but also because I was able to perform for a more diverse crowd. I feel that this performance also was able to give proper representation to the music department, more importantly classical music as a whole.  In addition, I felt a strong sense of freedom with the audience, as this was distinctly not a music hall.  This could further lead to more performances of its kind.

This article gives me hope for classical musicians; it proves that there are more venues to play at than the "hall".  I for one would enjoy going to a bar and seeing a performance of Ravel's string quartet. Although it would be difficult to change the perception of classical music as a sacred art only performed in a concert hall, I believe that with time we can change that image. As with a multitude of things, this change will have to start with the generation. But honestly, who doesn't want to see a live performance of a Mahler symphony at a local pub?

Should Classical Music be "Cool"

Bridget Jones recently wrote an article for stuff.co.nz entitled "How to Make Classical Music Cool?" In the article, she discussed the recent trend in New Zealand regarding orchestras and their inclusion of popular music into the repertoire. Before her substantial list of recent mash-ups involving orchestras and popular musicians, she apologizes to all those who may be offended by the wording of her headline. She writes "Sorry, that's a question that might be slightly offensive to some people - I mean, a: who says it's not already cool? And b: who says it has to be (or wants to be) cool?" This is a question that has been at the heart of our course discussion as well as one of Dean Chin's talking points two weeks ago. Do we, as classical musicians, want to be "cool" and play for thousands of screaming fans?

Answering that question demands that we take a philosophical stance on the role of music in today's culture. To answer "no" would be to say that classical music should be content with its current relatively small but devoted audience. It would be to say that a mass of adoring fans somehow cheapens the art form. It would be to perpetuate the negative stereotypes of pretense and inhospitality surrounding the theater of classical music. My personal answer to the aforementioned question is a resounding "yes". The average music listener in this country has the ear for classical music. We see the proof of that year after year when we go to the movie theater and hear the music of Michael Giacchino or Alan Silvestri in dolby surround sound. John Williams, one of the most prolific and accomplished classical composers of our time, has been nominated for 47 Academy Awards. Classical music can extend its reach and influence upon society if it decides to swallow its pride to younger audiences. That is precisely the phenomenon that Jones describes in her article, and in my mind, it requires no apology.

To get orchestras out of their financial mess, all sides must accept the new realities

By Eric Nilsson
October 17, 2012

 This article illustrates the crisis on labor issue of musicians, and the writer offers some practical solutions from his point of view.
The brief answer to the problem is about the money by promoting the donation from the society.

 In fact, promoting donation or charity requires enormous effort and makes people confront some critical problems to do fundraising in these days. In recent years, the economy goes to the worse direction and many people suffer from the financial difficulty. This condition makes people thinking the positive reaction (i.e., any form of benefit) from their action. When people are asked about the donation, they might expect some benefit. For example, when a music institution sends a letter of fundraising, the recipients of the letter might find a music event that is exclusively for the donators. I do not think that this way of thinking is not right, but the financial difficulty makes people to think in this way.
For the continuous development of music, the institutions as well as the society generously support the musicians or musical talents within the people. This is also true for the continual existence of orchestra groups that undergo the financial problems. 


Question for Dean Chin
1.  What is the expectation of doing Celebrity series? What is the actual outcome of the past events?
2.  I am personally curious about how Dean Chin has prepared the future through his entire life.
3.  Who was a mentor who has been strongly impacted in your life and what was the influence of that individual?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Thoughts on Social Function

While reading the Hewett text this week, I was struck by the idea of music being an authentic expression of whatever social situation was at hand.1 As he traced the evolution of music from its role in the early church to the conception of a formal concert, it got me wondering about the social function of classical music today. Some of us have already discussed how classical music can function as a force for social change, but I'm curious how it functions in a broader social sense.

At work last Saturday, I overheard a customer chatting with her friend about this horrible concert her father dragged her to at Symphony Hall. She said it was the "Military band President thingy" which I was able to translate as 'The President's Own' U.S. Marine Band. She said it was the most boring thing ever, and that they ended up leaving at intermission. Apparently she then thanked her father for taking her out to another of one of his stupid ideas that always end up as epic fails. Funny, because earlier that morning I saw a number of my friends who went to the same concert rave about how wonderful it was.  Obviously, for this girl, this concert was not her idea of a social function, or even a function worthy of her time. Had it been Lady GaGa or Katy Perry, I bet she would have thought her dad was the best ever.

If we are going to make an effort to expand the audience for classical music, I think we need to focus on how concerts are percieved and how they function as a social scene. Like Hewett said, once music became mobile, music became seperate from its original social situation, and instead became the social situation itself.2 But how social are concerts, really? Yes, there is the potential dinner before or after, the opportunity for socializing at intermission, and the proverbial night cap before heading home, but none of that happens when the music is being performed. Compared to a pop or rock concert, where during the entire performance you're probably singing your lungs out along with the performers, dancing with friends, and perhaps having a drink, classical concerts aren't very social at all. Especially to the people who are not classically inclined.

I don't have an answer to this dilemma, but I think the mobility of music today can help the situation. It's now possible to listen to almost any piece of music anywhere you are in the world. What motivates people to listen to what they choose to listen to? Taste, popularity of the band, emotional connection; the list goes on and on. Fortunately, making classical music more relevant and creating more connections to the emotions of people who may not principally listen to classical music through meduims such as the companion CD to Fifty Shades of Grey is a wonderful beginning. The more people hear the music and have the chance to make a connection to it, the better. Then, the social function of a classical music concert becomes more relevant. It needs to work from both ends though. As we try and get our music out to more people, we also have to work on re-thinking the fundamentals of the concert experience so that we can reach out to the audience that is hopefully, trying to reach out to us.

1 Hewett, Ivan, Music Healing the Rift (New York: Continuum, 2003), 12
2 Hewitt, 15

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Music and Mental Health

I have never been much of an animal activist, but this article I read certainly made a very good case for the better treatment of animals in regards to music. 

The article summarizes a recent study at Colorado State University in which dogs were subjected to various musical genres. The point was to monitor and assess the relaxation of the dogs while hearing music and thereby provide better care facilities for the animals. In a controlled setting, the dogs were observed while they listened to classical music, rock music, modified classical music, and silence. The study found that the subjects were considerably more relaxed when listening to classical music or the modified classical music. Rock music made the animals agitated and restless. The conclusions were based on the animal's observable movements and vocalizations during musical exposure.

I found this study intriguing for several reasons. It is interesting for the ways it promotes better treatment for animals and how it implies that music is a special force for mental well-being. I would be curious to hear someone from the Dalcroze department remark on this fact. Given their focus on mind, body, and movement, they could provide some fascinating insight into the claims of this study. I do wish the study had been a bit more extensive. Having been limited to just dogs, I do find the credibility of the study a bit far-fetched. Besides, other, similar studies have come to different conclusions. One study even goes as far as to say that human music is uncomfortable for our pets and other animal species. This affects my confidence in the believability of this relaxation study. The results are not particularly definitive and could be easily refuted given other, larger bodies of evidence. Also, while rock music isn't characteristically relaxing, I am not happy that it has been automatically assumed to be the antithesis to classical music. 

However, I do think we agree that music, of all types, is a viable tool for relaxation. I myself often relax with a good Brahms symphony when I'm stressed. I will also unwind while listening to a Queen album if I feel so inclined. If music can relax a dog, it definitely has an influence on our own mental health. The extent of that influence is as varied and unique as the number of people who listen to music. Every individual perceives a different energy or catharsis within a musical work, regardless of the genre or your species. 

Obama + Musicians = Good, happy, fun times

Unfortunately, it's time to get political. 

I have heard too many an artist quip and complain that they are "apathetic" when it comes to politics. Yes, our political system is corrupt in many ways. Yes, the Electoral College is a joke. Yes, campaign financing is horrific. And yes, it is absurd to have a two-party system in such a vast, diverse nation. But you know what? There are candidates to vote for. And the outcome will affect your life. You cannot afford to be "above" it, because "above" could mean "below," in the sense that your apathy has forced the votes of people with questionable self-interest to win the election, gain power, and take over forces that could ultimately force you into poverty, joblessness, or ex-patriat-ism.

In a sense, the apathetic artist, particularly in the case of classical music and art, contributes to the growing sense of irrelevancy and elitism that has been the main focus of this blog. Sorry, folks - if you are a self-employed artist, and you get cancer without health insurance, and you have elected a candidate who opposes current health reforms, and don't have upwards of $200,000 to pay for treatment, the heroism of a Beethoven symphony isn't going to do anything for you, except maybe raise your spirits while you wither away. You have a body just like everyone else, and you, as a likely self-employed, debt-ridden, grant-writing member of the community, benefit from the common good. Artists: your well-being, employability, your financial future, and, ultimately, the health of music in this nation, depend in many ways on the policy and culture set forth by the candidates you elect.

I'm sure you all know or can guess that I am a fervent Obama fanatic, but, I'd like to just lay down some issues for you if you happen to be undecided. I am not going to even attempt to rid myself of bias, but that's because these issues have truly affected me on a personal level - and I expect that we share this in common.  Upon perusing the internet, I haven't found many voter's resources that cater to the artist, as we are such a small but vulnerable component of the population. I hope this article can, at the very least, help you realize the importance of your vote for whoever and whatever candidates, and inspire you to be involved with policy-making and discussion on any greater level.

Some issues artist-voters should consider:

National Endowment for the Arts

The most obvious is funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Now, I have engaged in many a firey conversation with fellow artists on the relevancy of this organization in today's world, with Kickstarter and Indiegogo providing immense amounts of funding for various organizations. But, the fact remains that, if we have a governmental institution that supports the arts and is well-respected and well-funded, we are a step closer to disseminating a cultural belief in the importance of the arts throughout the nation. It is true that governmental agencies, while often inefficient, have a symbolic affect on the populace, and if we eliminate any national recognition that arts are an important part of our moral and social lives, we risk communicating this to our vulnerable cultural identity. Moreover, if governmental grants and other programs provide yet another avenue for independant artists and organizations to seek funding, then we are well off! Kickstarter, Indiegogo, state and federal grant programs must all coexist for us to have an inspiring, multi-faceted future. Young children and teenagers will be more drawn to a career in the arts that offers the stable edifice of governmental support - imagine the fear a teenager off to college would face if she knew that her only prospects of funding were Kickstarter and Indiegogo! Without a reputation, it's nearly impossible to make a decent living off of these resources. But the NEA funds organizations, which in turn give us jobs. We cannot afford to lose the NEA. You don't have to use it, but it needs to exist.

Presidential candidates' positions on the NEA

Barack Obama: supports increased funding to the NEA. Cuts occurred in 2009 as part of a drastic across-the-board cut for all government spending, but his 2013 budget includes very hopeful allegations towards the arts. More here, here (PLEASE READ THIS ONE!!!!), and here.

Quotes: "..We have to remember that our strength as a people runs deeper than our military might; it runs deeper than our GDP -- it's also about our values and our ideals that each generation is called to uphold, and that each artist helps us better understand.

And it's also about the capacity of the arts and the humanities to connect us to one another. In a nation as big as ours, as diverse as ours, as full as debate and consternation as it sometimes is, what the people we honor here today remind us of is that kernel of ourselves that connects to everyone else and allows us to get out of ourselves, to see through somebody else's eyes, to step in their shoes. And what more vital ingredient is there for our democracy than that?" - Barack Obama, awarding the 2010 National
Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal (full transcript here

Mitt Romney: supports cutting the NEA drastically and even gutting it entirely, as well as education and other programs that feed into the arts (you probably heard him hate all over Big Bird). During his tenure as governor of Masschusetts, Romney attempted to drastically cut arts funding, but was unsuccessful due to congress. Romney is not alone in this, as the general GOP platform doesn't support spending in much other than defense and corporate bailouts. Importantly, gutting the NEA and other programs, while it would save a few pennies, doesn't even touch balancing the budget, and in a sense this becomes a cut for principle rather than for effective policy and growth. More here and here, and in this hugely important post about Romney's tenure as governer, and how he tried to cut the Massachusetts Cultural Council grants which enable many of us at Longy to do what we do.

Quotes: "Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own." Mitt Romney, in an interview. 

And just for fun, a quote from our ol' friend Sarah "Winkin' Countrypants" Palin: "NPR, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, all those kind of frivolous things that government shouldn't be in the business of funding with tax dollars -- those should all be on the chopping block as we talk about the $14-trillion debt that we're going to hand to our kids and our grandkids. Yes, those are the type of things that for more than one reason need to be cut." - Don't you just LOVE her??

Education and Student Loans

Look, we're all probably in some form of student loan debt, and many of us likely discovered our passion for music though a publicly funded in-school arts education program. These issues go hand in hand: it is in their best interest for artists to support candidates who provide more funding for education, which has several results. First of all, more allocation to education funds nationally can help lower tuition and provide grants and scholarships for students in all fields, particularly the arts. Secondly, more funding towards public education means schools have greater means to include arts in their curriculum; exposing children at young ages means more people interested in arts as a career, more cultural support for the arts, and, surprise, more jobs for those of us who are already trained and working in the arts world. I can't imagine why you would vote for a candidate who wants this all privatized and at the whim of a billionaire's pocket, but, that's an option if for some twisted reason this appeals to you. And, lastly, since so many of us are already in debt, we need a candidate who will help us find solutions to pay off our loans in a way that corresponds with our income, and also who keeps interest rates from rising. To go along with this, the jobs from aforementioned education funding will help us pay off our debt in a more timely matter. (And maybe a few NEA grants, at that).

Presidential candidates positions on student loans and education funding

Barack Obama: in 2012, kept student loan interest rates from rising; capped student loan repayments at 10% of income; growth in Pell Grants; eliminated No Child Left Behind; supports states' individual initiative in educational policies; seeks to tighten federal oversight of tuition for for-profit institutions; proposes to invest in community colleges that train students for specific jobs, enhancing job growth; opposes voucher programs and public tax money used for private schools;  I could go on forever. 

Mitt Romney: thinks the federal government should have little to do with k-12 education excepting cases for disabled and and poor students; proposes to restructure Pell Grants, making them rarer and only allocating to the most disadvantaged of students; would attempt to eliminate regulation on student loan lenders, believing the private sector is better equipped to handle loan situations (which is clearly terrifying); agreed with Obama to keep student loan interest rates down; wanted to ban bilingual education as governor of MA (legislation did not pass); wanted to require the parents in the lowest-performing schools to attend parenting classes while they put their children in full-day kindergarten (appalling, also did not pass). Overall, Romney is a little ambiguous on education (what a surprise), but his emphasis on letting the private sector "take care of it" should be a note of caution for all of us - when banks are involved, this is a very unsafe route. Obama's proven record and enthusiasm for education is, perhaps, a more solid route for the voter to follow.

A good article here that pits issues of both candidates side-to-side.


If you are an artist, health insurance is a tricky, soft issue. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, many artists are self-employed, which often means they are either paying out of pocket for their own insurance, or simply do not have it. Even in my fervent support of Obama, I am appalled at the United States' general inability to pass universal health care: I'm sure there is a link somewhere where someone has proved that universal healthcare is tied to healthy artistic cultures, because when you have poor, self-employed people who are often suffering mentally and physically from their very occupation (tendinitis? laryngitis? performance anxiety?), draining their finances on doctor's visits cannot be particularly healthy to the economy or the well-being of art in that nation. Because of the national attention given to Obamacare, I probably don't need to outline all the points of why it benefits you as an artist; and also, you live in Massachusetts, and our healthcare system was the model for Obamacare. Ironically, of course, because it was the very Governor Romney who instigated it, and now he thinks it's bad news. Another reason to be wary of his ways. 

Presidential candidates' positions on healthcare

Barack Obama: developed and passed Obamacare, or, the Affordable Care Act, which was upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional and a "tax." As I'm sure you know, ACA allows people with pre-existing conditions to get health insurance; prevents women from paying more on health insurance simply due to their gender; health insurance is more affordable to those who have to purchase it, of particular interest to us; young people are allowed to stay on parents insurance until age 26, particularly helpful for young artists; medicaid expansion; cuts the deficit; more and more and more and more. Read more simply on its Wiki or here, a site outlining myths and facts about Obamacare.

Mitt Romney: vows to appeal Obamacare for unknown reasons if he's elected, most likely because of principle that the government should take the backseat to the private sector. So, this is where "principle" becomes really harmful and irrelevant. Keep in mind that opposition to Obamacare was people saying that they did not want to be told to have healthcare. Just ponder that for a moment. The GOP thinks that millions should be without care simply because.... they don't want to be told that. As an artist, you need a healthcare safety net: please consider this. Read Mitt Romney's position on Obamacare here; of course, like everything else, he has a variety of responses, most of them to the tune of "Uhh, Government should not do stuff... and I'm better than you so you should listen." We can be assured that he would allocate more power to the private sector which, as usual for artists, does more harm than good.

Global Reputation

Something we don't often think about: the arts is an international career. In order for meaningful, relevant art to be created, cultures must mix, relationships must be positive. We need a candidate who promotes a positive image of American culture abroad, in order for artists to be drawn to work with us; we need cultures from the developing world to look upon our leader with an inspired attitude, to see our leader as someone that understands recognizes and cares for their plight. We, as artists, also need to be able to obtain visas, to travel to any country of our choice, without disdain and fear thrown upon us at customs. My family endured countless fees and impasses traveling through Europe and Latin America during the Bush years - it was unreal; many of these fees were instigated simply because of Bush's reputation. Artists cannot afford this socially, artistically, and financially. We cannot go back to that - and the global perception of Obama is, already, clearly a more positive situation than the perception of Romney, which failed miserably during his many Olympic gaffes in London. 

Please vote. Please prove to your non-artist peers and your culture as a whole that we are relevant members of society, and please help prove to your government that we have a voice and a purpose in our nation than must be recognized and support but all possible forces. The future of classical music will go nowhere if the future of art is outsourced to countries with better funding. We have too great of a thing going on here in the good ol' U S of A to slash it entirely. 

So, that's my two cents. You might not agree with me, but, in four years, please don't make me say I told you so.

Oh, also: if you are a woman, artist or not, keep in mind that Romney sees you as a resume in a binder, and Paul Ryan sees you as a baby-incubator.

(Couldn't help myself).

The New Classical Era?

     Having lived in Chicago for about ten years of my life, I try to keep up with the various things that are going on there, so when I saw an article in the New Yorker by Alex Ross about the Chicago Symphony’s opening night at Carnegie Hall, I immediately read it, curious to see what sort of review the concert had gotten.  It has only been three years since Riccardo Muti has been directing the CSO, and some of that time has been a little shaky.  The first year wasn’t as great a success as expected because of Muti’s health problems, which prevented him from directing a number of concerts.  And, as we know, the last few weeks have been tumultuous due to a short-lived strike in the orchestra.  There were questions about whether the CSO would be able to pull off Carnegie Hall’s opening night in New York, but thankfully, I am proud to say that according to several reviews, the orchestra gave a beautiful performance, a good sign for the collaborative future of the CSO and Maestro Muti.  
    More than just a great performance, Muti’s repertoire choices bring up some interesting ideas.  Instead of playing the current popular choices such as Beethoven or Mozart, Muti decided to perform Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” Ottorino Respighi’s  “Feste Romane,” Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor, and Mason Bates’ (one of the CSO’s composers in residence) “Energy Symphony.”  Accordingly, Alex Ross titled his article about the concert “Back in Style.”  According to Ross, it seems that different historical periods value, or at the very least, put more emphasis, on certain composers.  The resulting effect is that the same composers and the same works are performed repeatedly by different orchestras all around the world.  Unsurprisingly, this can make classical music feel dated.  As musicians trying to find our footing in a world that has already been labeled as passĂ©, it is probably not in our best interest to limit ourselves to the most “well-known” and readily-accepted group of composers.  In an informal talk with the Maestro, Ross reports that Muti chose these works in part out of nostalgia: “This fantastic symphony by Franck... was played everywhere when I was young... Then, suddenly, it vanished.  Why is this?”  Indeed, that is an interesting question.  Of course, there will always be prevailing trends, and many composers have only truly been discovered post mortem, only to be brought back to life with a surge of excitement and sense of discovery.  Bach, for instance, was venerated as an organist during his lifetime, but it was only after his death that people began to see the genius of his writing.  Perhaps Muti’s choices will have a similar effect on Cesar Franck for instance, whose works, aside from the violin sonata, one rarely hears of.  Muti’s program made me realize that one of the ways in which to keep classical music fresh and pertinent is to showcase its range.  Programmation is just as important as the level of performance, the decision (or not) to play in more approachable venues, the consideration of audience participation, and countless other details which we have talked about over the course of the semester.  Furthermore, Muti did not only revive old “standards,” he also promoted the performance of contemporary works.  The Chicago Symphony has two composers in residence, Anna Clyne and Mason Bates, both hand picked by Maestro Muti, who has shown that he is not afraid to showcase these two young talents by bringing their works on tour and performing them alongside the classics.  
    Perhaps strangely, I have never really thought of the issue of programming as having a direct impact on our audiences.  However, the more I think about it, the more I believe that it is an aspect which we can control as musicians and performers, and one that may have a much bigger impact than we think.  I know that one of the “tricks” often used by concert organizers is to insert a new work into a program otherwise filled with Beethoven or Mahler, so that concert goers end up experiencing something like swallowing a pill by coating it in ice cream.  Yet, Muti’s “magnificent performance,” (quote from John Von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune) was programmed in such a way that everything felt new.  In our society of pluralism where anything goes, why are we limiting ourselves to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms?  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want these guys to disappear, but I think it would be interesting to see them share the stage more frequently with a diverse assortment of their contemporaries, predecessors and descendants.