Thursday, September 26, 2013

Such is Jazz.....

Greetings! Since you are all just beginning your dialog about the future of music I won’t be the one to spoil it for you - This is a fantastic class! I wanted to share a little blurb about an experience I had the other day and hopefully give you some perspective on this whole situation of the Future of music.

About two weeks ago I briefly overheard a conversation between a student and an Administrator of Longy about learning music. The student was very worried about learning jazz and the administrator said seriously, “Don’t worry! It’s only for a semester. It’s not like you’ll make a career with jazz. Who’d every want to do something so horrible?” Besides being somewhat counter-intuitive to what they are asking you to do at Longy, this statement is precisely why the future of music is so bleak for so many around here. Today, doing one thing well is just not enough. A musician must be able to multi-task and be multi-talented. A Classical Conservatory can’t give you everything you need to make it as a musician in this day and age. Graduating with a Masters degree will not make a student a professional and today, more so than ever, it’s on the student to bridge the gap between the two. 

Such is jazz. Knowing jazz and studying jazz will not make one a jazz musician. There is a huge gap between what you learn about jazz and how you use it. The 21st-century shows that it’s no longer an art form; it’s a way of looking at things. The gap I just mentioned; that’s expression. Today’s culture is so reliant on expression and the popular music today reflects that, as simple as it may seem (man, what does that tell you?). The majority of music you hear at Longy was the “popular” brand in a time long passed and its performers the most famous musicians of that time. What is the most popular music, who are the most famous musicians today and why are they famous? It’s because they make their art relatable. 

Your job, as a musician in 2013, is to make your art speak and be relevant in todays popular culture. If someone in your audience is not understanding what you’re doing then it’s your fault, not theirs. As a veteran of the stage and the road I can promise you that it’s just not enough to “know”. You need to have skills in many areas/styles of music and be versatile enough to get the job done. Unfortunately, 99% of you will never be good enough to do it on your own the rest of your lives. The sooner you realize that, and start embracing other areas of music, the sooner you can get to work and not be a close-minded administrator. Just be a musician. Not a jazz musician and not a classical musician. Just a Musician.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Minnesota Orchestra Musicians Gone Rogue

Today the Minnesota Orchestra, which has been working through contract talks and a lockout for months now, have not made visible progress even as their September 30 deadline creeps closer.

The musicians of the orchestra, allowed management's most recent offer to expire on Monday without any response. It appears that the musicians are no longer willing to negotiate with their own organization, which is refusing to ask for donations this year. Management says that continuing to ask for supplementary funds during contract years is only prolonging the larger problem.

But the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra may have a good reason for being picky about their offers. The musicians have created their own organization, rehearsing independently and putting on a Fall concert series. They appeal to the public to continue paying their way through tickets and donations. They have picketed at Symphony events. They even have a Facebook page, which serves both to advertise their upcoming Fall concerts and to ask for donations. The musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra are doing everything in their power to inform the public about the ongoing fight, and they appear to anticipate success in their endeavors. Could this be why they are reluctant to accept management's contract offers? With their own ticketed concert series in the works, they are not under threat of unemployment.

I am interested to see how this all works out. If the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra can put on their own concerts without salary from management or even an official concert venue, can other failing orchestras also do this? Do symphonies really need to be so institutionalized, or can such a large group of musicians manage themselves? Chamber musicians do this for a living. They handle their own advertising and income. Can this concept be expanded to cover a whole orchestra? I know that I would feel better about paying for an orchestra ticket if I knew that all of my money would pay the musicians directly. In fact, I think holding concerts in public places instead of in a fancy concert hall provides far greater public access to classical music in general. Good luck, Minnesota Orchestra Musicians.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

John Adams

This past Friday, the U.S. premier of John Adams’s Saxophone Concerto was performed by saxophonist Tim McAllister and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.  The world premiere took place with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra last month.  In an article published by the New York Times before the Baltimore concert, titled Classical Saxophone, an Outlier, Is Anointed by John Adams Concerto, Mr. Adams and Mr. McAllister discuss the piece.  McAllister says, “This is some of the hardest music I’ve ever played”, due to the fast passagework, large leaps, and polyrhythmic structures.  Mr. Adams has always loved the saxophone and the way it overlaps jazz and classical genres, so he has previously written for the instrument in his symphonic work, City Noir and his opera, Nixon in China.  In the article, Adams wonders why there are so few saxophone concertos.  The saxophone concertos that do exist are not regularly performed, and Adams does not consider them to be as great as, for example, a Mozart Clarinet Concerto. 

I agree with Mr. Adams that the saxophone concerto is a great idea.  The blend of the saxophone and string sounds allows for many rich and interesting timbres.  I wonder if expanding the use of the saxophone in orchestral music would help bridge the gap between “classical” and other styles.  Other than piano, guitar, drums, and bass, the saxophone is possibly the most commonly used instrument in popular music.  Famous artists such as Dave Mathews and Bruce Springsteen have incorporated it into most of their well-known songs.  Even amongst conservatory-trained musicians, there is somewhat of a divide between jazz/funk and classical styles.  Pieces such as Adams’s Saxophone Concerto that combine many elements from different musical genres, could appeal to a much broader audience than many works currently in the standard orchestral repertoire. 

Mr. Adams does go a little too far though in talking about the current state of music, saying that we are in a time of low culture where “absolute mediocrity” could go on and on for generations.  He stated:

"We seem to have gone from the era of fearsome dissonance and complexity – from the period of high modernism and Babbitt and Carter – and gone to suddenly these just extremely simplistic, user-friendly, lightweight, sort of music lite.  People are winning Pulitzer Prizes writing this stuff now."

I have to disagree with him here.  One of the pieces I’ve listened to most frequently in the last several months is the most recent Pulitzer Prize winner, Partita for 8 Voices by Caroline Shaw.  Every time I listen to it I hear something new, and I am intrigued by the beautiful harmonies contrasted with unexpected pitches, sounds, and spoken words.  This piece is complex on several different levels, and unfortunately, I don’t think it would be considered user-friendly or easily accessible to an audience made up of the general public.  Although other recent Pulitzer Prize winners such as Steve Reich and David Lang use minimalistic techniques in many of their compositions, I would not categorize their music as simplistic or user-friendly either.  I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Adams’s music as well, and I believe that it is the individual styles of these and many more composers that are allowing us to maintain a period of high culture in music. 

Perceiving the Arts

Recently, at a reinstillation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's European paintings collection, works of Orlande de Lassus, Couperin, and Monteverdi could be heard amongst attendees while strolling from painting to painting. The music not only offered an evening of entertainment, itself, but added to the cultural worldview that existed when many of the paintings were created.
In the words of Zachary Woolfe, New York Times music critic, "These works [of Dario Castello, Giovanni Battista Fontana and Johann Kaspar Kerll] turn on a dime: slow lines of aching lyricism tumble into joyous movement. I was facing Luca Giordano's "Annunciation" as I listened, and I’d rarely seen that same mixture of lyricism and movement more clearly."

I'll be honest, after reading the NYT article, I responded somewhat negatively: Won't music take away from the art, itself? People will remember a painting based off of what they hear, rather than what they see, won't they? Doesn't this defeat the purpose of visual art? However, after consideration, I do believe, as Woolfe pointed out, that fully realizing one aspect of a work can be aided by another work, or even another art form. This power of association is how the human brain seems to work, anyway. 

The Met's example of mixing different art forms to more successfully perceive a work of art is something that is not foreign to Longy students. In the Teaching Artist's Program, our primary goal is to understand what an "artistic experience" is composed of and how we, as musicians, can allow non-musicians to experience our art more fully. During the semester, we dissect a work of art in order to see the individual elements that create the whole. In doing so, we are able to interpret the art more completely and personally -- something that Metropolitan Museum attendees seemed to experience. By the end of the semester, each of us designs our own curriculum meant to engage members of the Cambridge/Boston community in an artistic experience. It is with this cumulative project that we seek to further our art form and inspire others to enjoy classical music just as much as we do.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Classical music training for everyone

A young Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti wishes that schools in Britain would teach classical music for every single student as a part of the curriculum. In an article on The Independent newspaper’s website (, she claims that the studying and listening of complex works of music would help young people understand humanity, and more specifically, our expression and growth as people.

If classical music at some point used to belong to the general school education, nowadays it is taken off the curriculum apparently due to its status of seriousness. There is an expectation in the school world that music classes should be fun, something lighter to do on the side of other, more serious subjects. Classical music is obviously not perceived as something light and fun, so its’ room in the curriculum is often drastically narrow.
Benedetti is not saying classical music could not be fun, but rather asking, since when did everything have to be fun? In addition to the enjoyment, the studying of classical music provides possibilities for historical exploring of many kinds. She is sorry for the educators not realizing its potential.

It would be extremely interesting to see how this change in education would change the students, and the position of classical music in a society. Benedetti’s wish goes well with the thought that one needs to be educated in order to really understand the classical music. To make the training a part of the regular curriculum, the inferior status of music in the subject hierarchy would have to be transformed, and have it be treated as seriously as history or math. Change is typically unwelcome, but I hope there would be enough belief from the authorities in discovering and utilizing that said potential. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Arguments between a musician and non-musician brings light to our dilemma

One of the biggest dilemmas all musicians agree on is that the art of classical music is dying.  We see it in the schools that cut funding on the arts first, and the major American orchestras going bankrupt.  The reasons are all very complicated, which is why one cannot offer one simple solution.  Musicians know why the arts are important, but what matters at large are those that are not in the world of classical music.

Mark Oppenheimer writes an incredibly provocative article, Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument.  Oppenheimer compares taking violin and ballet lessons to that of folding origami or auto mechanics.  He describes it as a "pointless activity," similar to that of watching Dazed and Confused multiple times.  He suggests more practical instruments, such as the guitar, over the violin.  He mentions the huge population that have taken lessons on a musical instrument, but have not touched it since, nor benefited from learning an instrument.  He brings up these people who do not necessarily listen to classical music because they have had said training.

Paul Berman offers a comedic rebuttal in his article, Parents Should Force Their Kids to Take Music Lessons.  Berman has a flowery description of how classical music is "bigger" than the other types of music.  He says the music brings you back to the great music of the nineteenth, eighteenth, and seventeenth century.  The vibrations we perform in the music are the same vibrations the composers heard years and years ago.  He compares music to a spiritual experience.  Interestingly, he states that "classical music is not an exclusive club," and ends in saying, "I do not know what it is to be a person without access to that tradition, and I can only picture a lack of access as a kind of poverty."

Lastly, Oppenheimer writes another article titled I Have Nothing Against Classical Music-But That's Exactly My Point.  He apologizes and mentions his respect for classical musicians and ballet dancers.  He explains guitar being a better choice than violin, though violin has a richer culture and repertoire, being easier.  Children should access instruments that are easier, especially with violin being "less relevant" to our lives.  He mentions musical lessons no longer being necessary in 2013, because we are no longer trying to establish an upper middle class culture.

I think the argument between the "musician" and the "non-musician" is an important topic.  However, the writers are short-sighted on both sides.  Neither are able to see the point of the other person, though they are respectful to each other.  There are some questions to be answered in these arguments:
  • Should children learn the arts?  Why is it relevant?
  • Is Classical music accessible to everyone?  Is it an "exclusive club?"
I believe Oppenheimer fails to see the real point of music besides its "practicality."  Choosing guitar over violin because it is easier and more relevant is hardly a reason.  Shall we teach children to make decisions based on what is easier?  What is his judgment on what is more practical?  His example of playing guitar at summer camp hardly seems to be a good enough reason.  In many ways, an instrument is simply a vessel to music.  Yes, most of us prefer certain instruments, but an oboist is not a lesser musician than a cellist.  I would go so far as to say that the challenge is what brings musicians back to lessons constantly.  In a talk with Eric Booth on Teaching Artistry, he describes art as our capacity to expand the sense of the possible.  This art then becomes of value to us, and we learn from it, building character from it.  The character Eric Booth describes is a yearning.

This brings up the problem with Berman's argument.  I wholeheartedly agree that classical music is not part of an exclusive club.  However, in his article, he somehow makes it seem that way by saying that classical music is "bigger" than the other types of music, and especially in his last statement of someone without access to the tradition with "a kind of poverty."  Many classical musicians do come off as "snobby" to other people.  As mentioned in Highbrow/Lowbrow by Lawrence Levine, we have brought up the tradition to be another world, too high class to be understood by other people.  Even I had this notion until very recently, after realizing that every person has access to this exclusive club.  For example, the biggest argument against the practicality of music is El Sistema.  Their ideals of creating a better citizen and connecting children to music has worked better than anyone can imagine.  I doubt the people in Venezuela are thinking about the practicality of spending hours and hours in orchestra rehearsals.

I agree with many of the points Berman brings up, but the delivery is flawed.  He brings up a good point in comparison with music and spirituality. Eric Booth draws the same connection by saying music, education, and spirituality go hand in hand.  If we can tap into the interest of non-musicians with the spirituality we feel, then perhaps the arts will continue to grow beyond our expectations.  I offer some solutions that may help:

  • Stop making classical music seem like a different world, an exclusive club, or a higher class activity.
  • Stop having the belief that we are better than other musicians and/or non-musicians, and that we understand the music because we are better.
  • Encourage the people not in our world to be in our world, and believe it to be possible.
  • Bring up reasons for why the arts are important by letting them experience it.  Experiences are more powerful than words.
  • Instead of being infuriated with articles written by people like Oppenheimer, see it as a way to look into their side and how/why they view classical music the way they do.
Links to the articles:
Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument
Parents Absolutely Should Force Their Kids to Take Music Lessons
I Have Nothing Against Classical Music—But That's Exactly My Point

The Disservice of the Divide

I’ve said, in a previous post, that I feel new art music would benefit from not calling itself “classical.”  I’d also like to suggest that it should go beyond just dropping the boundaries of that title and actually partner with other music that has existed in different spheres.  Even using the term “art music”, as I just have, may prove problematic.  My main goal in using that word is simply to distinguish music in which the creative process is not shaped by, or dedicated to predicted financial results.  I know that plenty of “classical music” has historically been very guided by this commercial concern.  Still, this is the very loose and general way that I’m using the term “art music” for the purposes of this post.  One major reason I'm writing this post is that there is too much of link between the term "art music" and the music of the western concert music, or "classical," tradition.  Plenty of other music deserves to be called art.  But then again, putting less importance in these terms probably serves my purposes better anyway.

Now, more to the point, the body of contemporary music that gets called “classical” is extremely diverse.  The same is true of the music that doesn’t receive the “classical label.  The truth is that there is plenty of compatibility between much of the material in these two camps.  Certainly there is some music that is squarely in the exclusively commercial realm and some that is only going to appeal to listeners with a very intellectual approach.  But there is also plenty of middle ground and/or overlap.  It seems very feasible, at least to me, that Bjork, for example, could perform in a show that featured contemporary music from composers who have come out of the academic world.  And why couldn’t Steve Reich or Philip Glass’ music sit next to Radiohead, Sigur Ros, or Boards of Canada.

What are the biggest walls separating composers & performers, who have studied in the western classical tradition within a college, from those artists who are known, or are becoming known, on the “popular” or “indie” scene?  Perhaps, in some cases, it is less about aesthetics of the actual material, less about any level of value or substance, and more about background, approach, and stereotype.

For those of us who are approaching our musical careers by building a foundation of academic training, I think it behooves us to really take a good look and see if there are artists out there in whose work we find value, but who are pursuing their careers through different avenues -through the standard avenues of popular music (clubs, touring, record labels, etc).  We should support these artists, take them seriously, and reach out to partner with them, whether by creative collaboration or just performing on the same bill.

What I would most like to do with this post, however, is to introduce an artist whose work I really admire and who is operating, at least so far as I know, in the non-academic and non-classical world.  His name is Morgan Sorne.  His band is called Sorne.

I won’t say too much about the sound of his music.  You can check that out for yourself.  Something interesting to know ahead of time, though, is that all the songs are from the point of view of characters in a story he has developed.  The story is also fleshed out in illustrations and videos he has made.  I find all of the work to be of high quality.  On the bandcamp website you can hear all of his released songs, but his main website is a better way to get a sense of the whole artistic project.  I really recommend looking into his work.  

As a composer I make the music that I hope people will listen to because I believe that when my vision comes to fruition, it can do good for others.  I have a similar feeling about the work of Morgan Sorne, who is ahead of me in the realization of his vision.  I hope that people will listen to Sorne’s music, check out his art, and partake of his gifts.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Success in Los Angeles

Despite the ominous atmosphere currently surrounding struggling musical institutions like the New York Opera Company, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Minnesota Orchestra, some major symphonies’ profits are soaring upward. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is one of these, with reports stating that a new contract will lift players’ wages by one percent every year. In addition, starting this week the minimum yearly salary for players will be upwards of $150,000.

So what is the LA Phil doing differently than other less fortunate institutions? Are they putting on all of the right concerts and attracting the best guest artists? Although their opening Gala concert includes a performance by Yo-Yo Ma, the rest of their 2013 program does not seem to contain any unusual repertoire for a typical symphony season.  

Are the residents of Los Angeles more enthusiastic about their symphony? Does it have to do with the culture of the city? Is it the shiny, famously modern venue? Maybe, but in New York, the arts and culture capital of the United States, a revered opera company is floundering. LA is not a small town by any means, but maybe citizens of the gargantuan city of New York have different ideas about the importance of musical institutions.  

On a more serious note, will this popularity last given the situations of other major orchestras in the US? Is the Los Angeles Philharmonic riding a bubble that will soon pop at the barest hint of another economic disaster? Or have they managed to find the secret to attracting audiences and donors year after year? Either way, this year the steps of the Walt Disney Concert Hall are destined once again to be filled with concertgoers, tourists and wedding parties just as it has in years past.

The preservation of music

In addition to our class discussion, I wanted to expose another point of view to the future of classical music. This perspective is given by a person of perhaps somewhat critical position in shaping the future, composer Kaija Saariho. A blog maintained by Teosto (the Finnish copyright organization for composers, lyricists, arrangers and music publishers) features a speech by Saariaho after receiving the prestigious Polar Music Prize on August 27. In her speech, the successful contemporary composer expresses her concerns of the preservation of art music:

“The Polar Music Prize is especially remarkable because it’s given to two different musicians, the message being: all music is important.
Music has the infinite capability to vary and find its place in all human societies. Let us treasure this variety, but not by measuring the value by economic profit - the most valuable things do not have a price tag.
Humans have destroyed many species, as well as many languages and cultures. I hope that new, inventive and unexpected art music will not disappear because of commercial formatting and narrow minds.
Today we celebrate musical creation, and I dedicate my prize to futures of music that will conscious of history and rich in innovations.”

Agreeing with the threat of commercialism is surely common for most of us. As the world through globalization is becoming more and more homogeneous, making effort to preserving all music is more important than ever. The history shows us that some of the pieces we consider the greatest today were not appreciated at the time of their making. Therefore, we should indeed treasure even the less commercially profitable music, and guarantee its passing to the next generation. Because they may be the ones who can identify, “understand”, and take that music as their own, and discover new additions to the gallery of masterpieces.

A Step in the Right Direction

The article titled Vancouver Opera goes from red to black in two years caught my attention because it is refreshingly contrary to many other recent headlines regarding opera companies and orchestras.  Two years ago, the Vancouver Opera was over $831,000 in debt.  Today, they have a surplus of over $169,000.  This is really great news.  After hearing about the New York City Opera’s financial situation, it is encouraging to know that there are still people who want to go to the opera.  Maybe there is hope for the New York City Opera after all (of course their debt is significantly larger than the one Vancouver overcame). 

How did Vancouver do this?  First of all, they worked extremely hard to get connected with people.  They received almost $2 million in gifts from individuals.  Again, this is really encouraging.  People do still care about classical music.  It isn’t just about listening to the music, either.  The people making these donations must understand, value, and support the art of a live performance.  I hope these supporters continue to enjoy the opera and the symphony, and I hope they are able to share a love of classical music with those around them. 

The other thing that Vancouver did was consider their programs much more carefully, which is the only part of this story that is somewhat concerning to me.  One of the reasons the organization ran into trouble during the 2010-2011 season, according to the general director, was that they performed “Nixon in China”.  Their first step in bouncing back during the 2011-2012 season was performing “West Side Story”, to which they sold a record number of tickets.  Now, I appreciate a good performance of  “West Side Story” as much as anybody, but I also appreciate “Nixon in China”.   It is disappointing to me that a great work such as this must be avoided in order to keep the necessary support of the audience.  Other well-attended operas in Vancouver were “La Bohème” and “The Pirates of Penzance”.  These are great works as well, and I’m glad people still want to see them.  I just hope that someone will figure out a way to incorporate some contemporary music into a successful season.  There are many contemporary pieces which at least deserve the chance to stand the test of time.