Wednesday, December 1, 2010

21ST-CENTURY MUSIC / December 2010


21ST
CENTURY
MUSIC


December 2010

Volume 17, Number 12


An Interview with Mark Zaki / Tom Moore

Chronicle of October 2010

Films


Illustration / Ryuichi Sakamoto


Editorial Staff

Mark Alburger

EDITOR-PUBLISHER

Harriet March Page
ASSOCIATE EDITOR

Patti Noel Deuter
ASSISTANT EDITOR

Erling Wold
WEBMASTER

Alexis Alrich
Katherine Buono
Ken Bullock
A.J. Churchill
David Cleary
Jeff Dunn
Phillip George
Elliot Harmon
Brian Holmes
Jeff Kaliss
John Lane
Arel Lucas
Michael McDonagh
Chip Michael
Tom Moore
William Rowland
Andrew Shapiro
CORRESPONDENTS


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An Interview with Mark Zaki / Tom Moore


Composer Mark Zaki has been involved in a wide range of musical activities, including extensive work as a baroque violinist in early music ensembles playing period instruments, working with MIDI violin, electronic music, as well as music for film soundtracks, and playing lead guitar in a rock band. He grew up in New Jersey, and is presently professor of music at Rutgers-Camden. We spoke by Skype on February 11, 2010.

MOORE: What was your exposure to music as a child?

ZAKI: I was drawn to music from a very early age, and I recall wanting to play the trumpet, if for no other reason than that it was loud and shiny. My dad, who was in academia, was at the University of Minnesota when I was young, but he had done some post-graduate work in Germany. He was staying with a family there, and the parents – this was post-war – had three kids, and every morning he would wake up and they would be practicing Mozart piano trios. One played the piano, one the violin, and one the cello. And so he probably thought “my kid’s going to do that too, when I have one.” I wanted to play the trumpet, and he handed me a violin when I was about four or five. It was something that I took to very quickly. I must have been good at it then, though I can’t really remember. I advanced fairly quickly. That could have been good, and could have been bad. I always played concertmaster throughout my early schooling, but at the same time I didn’t get a lot of attention.

MOORE: It was accepted that you would be at the top.

ZAKI: Yes, and because of that I was pretty much left to my own devices. When I was fifteen I started teaching myself how to play guitar, since that was what one did in high school. I was also very interested in electronic music, and the progressive rock of the day. I always liked to play with the basic synthesizers they had at school. I decided I wanted to be a musician by the time I got to college. I went to Rutgers, and there was some parental pressure to have a “practical” degree of some kind, and at the time the only area where you could have a double degree at Rutgers was electrical engineering – a dual BS/BA. I thought that was great, I could do electrical engineering and music, but the electrical engineering people were not too amused. I finished the music degree, and continued to have the electronics in the back of my mind. I did a fairly traditional violin program – I went through college, and got into Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers and eventually did my MA and DMA. At about the time I was doing the DMA, Zeta had come out with their MIDI violin – I took to that, and the next thing I knew I was at Princeton.

MOORE: If we can rewind a bit, did your father have some interest in music?

ZAKI: He played the violin – I have pictures of him holding it badly. He was someone who loved all things German – especially music - Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. He didn’t quite understand it I think, but he went out of his way to find it, and he wanted to give that appreciation to me too.

MOORE: Where was he from?

ZAKI: Egypt. He was a physician, and taught pathology at the University of Minnesota. He was an amateur on the music side.

MOORE: That’s not an uncommon connection – people in medicine are frequently musical.

ZAKI: He was at the American University in Cairo, which probably was very Western culturally. Your typical Egyptian in the 1930s probably wouldn’t have gravitated toward German classical music. He was exposed to it fairly early.

MOORE: What was his religious background?

ZAKI: He was Coptic, which as you know is a minority there.

MOORE: This may have facilitated his going to the United States?

ZAKI: Possibly. It made it easier for him to go to Germany, where he did his post-doctoral work. His mentor in Germany ultimately wanted to take him to the University of Minnesota, and apparently the Egyptian government wouldn’t let him leave, for a number of reasons. He worked out some kind of agreement that he would participate in a United Nations nuclear commission, and so he was able to go the United States. He met my mom at the University of Minnesota. Later he moved into industry, and was doing research at Bristol Myers in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. I was probably ten or so when we moved to New Jersey.

MOORE: Everyone in New Jersey is from somewhere else.

ZAKI: And they all work either in finance or big pharma.

MOORE: What town did you grow up in?

ZAKI: East Brunswick.

MOORE: You were playing violin and classical music in the schools, and you were also playing guitar. Did you have a garage band?

ZAKI: Sort of. You get together and start jamming with friends, and then you think “I can write my own tunes, too” and you see who you can impress. I didn’t really start playing in bands until I got to college, when there were more opportunities to play at parties and so forth, and to meet people with similar interests. I played in a couple of short-lived, professional bands, did the Jersey Shore thing, played at clubs when they still had live music in New Brunswick. That scene is long-gone now. I didn’t play in bands for that long – about four or five years at the most, enough to know that it was probably not what I wanted to do. I was more interested in the recording side, and had more fun the few times that one band I was in actually tried to record. One summer I saved up all my money to buy a porta-studio – a little multi-track cassette player, and spent all my time figuring out how to break it.

MOORE: What genres of music were you playing with these bands?

ZAKI: Because it was commercially-oriented, the flavor of the day was new-wave, the post-punk era – the Cars, the Clash, some things by the Rolling Stones – typical garage-band stuff. Our purpose was to go to a bar and make the cash registers ring, so you wanted to keep people in there, and get people to dance. It was pretty much whatever was top-40 in the early eighties.

MOORE: Did you play lead?

ZAKI: It was known to happen.

TM: This was while you were in college, and at the same time you started to play early music on period instruments. How did you get involved with that?

ZAKI: The Mason Gross School had started their graduate music program at about the time that I graduated from undergraduate school, and I was recruited to come back – they needed violin students. I went back for my masters’. At the time, the teacher they had was Rafael Druian, who was teaching at Boston University at the time, and who had been the concertmaster at the New York Philharmonic under Boulez for a little while. Most people remember him as the concertmaster for the Cleveland Orchestra in the 1960s. I was playing Bach for him, and there was something that I wasn’t getting right for the Juilliard/Curtis crowd – that 19th-century romanticized tradition – and he said “I think you are hearing this differently – you need to listen to a Baroque violinist play this. You are trying to do something that isn’t quite working for this instrument.” At the time I didn’t know quite what he meant, but he pointed me toward Sergiu Luca, who had that big “period-instrument” recording of the Bach sonatas. The library had it, and I remembering listening to it, and thinking “Yeah, that’s it.” About four or five years later I met Ben Hudson, who was concertmaster for just about everything in New York at that time (in the late 80’s), who said “you need to get a baroque violin.” He got me hooked up, and I got an instrument. He had been playing in all the baroque groups in New York, and got me on some lists, and one thing led to another. A lot of it was on-the-job training. I took to it because it was a sound that was satisfying, something that I intuitively feeling or hearing, and it made sense with the music. As a modern player I have never been a big fan of that “turbo” vibrato sound, you know that continuous wobble – there was something about it that seemed artificial to me. And if you play with no vibrato on a modern instrument, it somehow comes off as the wrong accent, especially if you are schooled in that big romantic tradition. When you have a less complex tone, and the articulation and affect and rhetoric all come from different places than how fast you can shake your left hand – it really makes sense with the early music.

MOORE: It’s interesting that there are so many people who end up doing contemporary music, or period instrument performance. Vocalists who may not have a big romantic wobble, but sing baroque cantatas or contemporary music.

ZAKI: I think that’s true. You do find people from the early music scene who also do contemporary music. My sense is that in a strange sort of way, contemporary music is more of a creative act than a re-creative act, and baroque music is similar because you don’t have the established conventions that you do for the traditional repertoire. That sort of creative activity appeals to a particular type of artist.

MOORE: In both early music and contemporary music you are exploring unknown territory.

ZAKI: I think that’s a large part of it. To my ears, when you hear a baroque group from Europe, a baroque group from New York, and a baroque group from the West Coast, you can hear very different things, whereas if you hear the Grosse Fuge played by different groups, it won’t be exactly the same either, but the stylistic playing field is a little smaller – the parameters get tighter.

MOORE: Your MA and DMA at Rutgers were in performance. How did you start moving in the direction of composition?

ZAKI: I had always been composing, and even in high school had been writing some preliminary piano pieces. I wasn’t drilling down compositionally, but I did like the idea of constructing something. It was a way of building something. I had always done it, and then when I was at Rutgers Charles Wuorinen was there, and I studied composition formally with him. I had studied earlier, but he was the first high-level teacher that I had, and I spent two or three years with him while I was in grad school. That was my first exposure to a more rigorous approach to composition.

MOORE: What was his pedagogy like? What did you work on?

ZAKI: He initially let me do my own exploring. It was a matter of learning how to use the materials, and this whole process of being a composer, sitting down, establishing a work flow. He expected me to bring in something every week, but as far as what it was, he wasn’t too dogmatic in the beginning – Charles has a reputation for being opinionated, shall we say. That came later. He began to reel me in – “an octave doesn’t really work here, because…” and he would go into a the types of things you’d see in his book [Simple Composition], and started pulling me in that direction. As a teacher he was very strong – the rigor was there, which is not something that I can say that I have always had with other teachers. But then composition is a tricky thing to teach.

MOORE: Are there pieces in your catalog from that period?

ZAKI: There are a few. Another teacher used to say that that we have to write a piece so that we can write the next piece, and a lot of the pieces from that time I see as formative. I have actually gone back and revisited them for their potential. I have done some electronic pieces based on some techniques which didn’t work so well in those early pieces, but which were more successful when I had better command of what I was trying to do. Electronics, for me, seems to lend a better palate for working with that material – the serial, timepoint things that Charles had been doing. The line between pitch and noise has become blurred – noise has become part of the musical fabric – and when you start moving away from pitch, one of the first questions you start asking yourself as a composer of electronic music is how do you know what happens next. The hierarchy changes. I find that timepoint structures can be valuable for setting up your logic, your history of events, your chain of events….

MOORE: Were you working with electronic media at this point, or was it notes on paper?

ZAKI: At the time I was working with Charles, Zeta had just come out with the MIDI violin. I remember the ad that I saw very clearly – I think it was in Electronic Musician – and it said it something like “now violinists can enter the world of synthesis – you can play any sound you want from a violin.” The promise was that in using this violin controller you did not have to change your technique as a violinist, and yet you could use it as the front end for a synthesizer of some sort – you could play a drum kit from your violin. That’s a nice thing to think about, I suppose, but in reality it didn’t really work so well for me. There’s something about the way that the physical, mechanical driver for the bow works, that doesn’t translate well to electronic or other kinds of sounds. Take a percussion sound for example. The sound is very discrete, you run out of sound, and what happens to the rest of the bow stroke? I was exploring that, and we didn’t have a dissertation for the DMA, but had to do a series of lecture-recitals. For one of the lecture-recitals I wrote a piece for MIDI violin, which was one of my first electronic pieces, and delivered a paper about it. Coming from a background as a violinist, that is what I knew. It was hard, initially, for me to separate myself from the violin paradigm, and I was trying to map that onto, or force it onto, an electronic world. I think that I cured myself of that fairly quickly.

MOORE: How did you decide to go to Princeton for the Ph.D?

ZAKI: I had actually applied for a job at Princeton. They were looking for a studio person, someone with an electronic music background, but who also had to have experience in composition and performance. I had applied and nothing came of it. I had started doing concerts in which I would play baroque violin, and modern violin and MIDI violin – it was a good way to shop a program around, because people would be interested in the differences between the instruments, and at the time it was something new. I started bumping up against the fact that the electronic music didn’t really fit in a traditional classical concert setting. I didn’t know how to proceed with my own music in that context. I met someone who had just graduated from Princeton, who said “You really should meet Steve Mackey – he plays the guitar, he has done stuff with the Kronos Quartet – he might be an interesting person for you to talk to.” I called up Steve, and said that I was interested in discussing all this with him. He told me to call up the office, make an appointment, and we’ll have coffee. I showed up on the appointed day, and somehow the perception was that I was interested in grad school, when all I really wanted to do was talk to Steve about this electric violin business. I looked at the list of people that I was supposed to meet that day, and I had interviews with Claudio [Spies] and [Peter] Westergaard – everybody was on the list. Gyula Csapo was there at the time…. I met the whole faculty, everybody except Milton [Babbitt]. I had only wanted fifteen minutes with Steve, but they had the whole day planned for me, and I thought, “this is interesting. Let’s see what happens. I have a whole day of one-on-one conversations with this amazing faculty. Let’s see what they have to say.” So I went through it, and didn’t mention that I wasn’t intentionally there as a potential grad student. I probably shouldn’t say this, because now they’ll take my degree away…. I ended up meeting Steve at the end of the day, and he sat down and said “I know you!” and I said “OK”, and he said

“You applied for that job last year.”

“Alright… So I’m curious then, tell me how did I fail with the job?”

“Well, you didn’t have a degree in composition, but we thought you had an interesting resume. We actually kicked it around for a while. Would you ever consider a place like Princeton for a composition degree?”

“Well, I just finished a doctoral degree in violin performance. I’m not sure that’s what I want to do right now.”

He started to tell me more about the program, and it got me thinking. The next thing I know I asked when the application deadline was. He said “I think it’s tomorrow”, so I ran over to the registrar’s office, got an application, filled it out, turned it in and stuck it on my mental back burner. They probably get about two hundred applications, and accept four to six, so I had thought “right, like I am really going to get this….” But then I realized that since they had kicked my job application around, maybe I had a chance. That was in November, and in April I got a call from Paul Lansky saying that they wanted to offer me a spot. That’s the long version. I didn’t have my sights set on Princeton, but in retrospect it is what I should have been doing rather than going to Mason Gross. It was definitely more in line with my interests.

MOORE: You are another one of those persons who sit between the carbon and silicon parts of the Princeton department. Were you more on the silicon side?

ZAKI: I tried to be. The high-level computer stuff was really new to me. Princeton in those days was focused on the NeXT platform, and I found it to be a little intimidating. Paul Lansky put me at ease. He said “Look, if you plug it in, it’s electroacoustic music. We count that as silicon. Don’t feel like you have to change your spots. These are your strengths – let’s see what we can build.” One of the nice things about that department is that they really give you a place to try things and fall down. You can go out on a limb and see what works. The electric violin pieces that I did at that time were largely hardware, without a lot of computer involvement. I did some computer pieces, but they were tape pieces. That was my introduction to acousmatic music and musique concrete. To me at the time that was fairly separate. Speculum Musicae came in and I wrote a trio for them, the Nash Ensemble of London came and I wrote a piece for them, but there were no electronics involved. Since I’m a violinist, I tend to write pieces that I can use, and most of them have an electronic component of some sort. That being said, I just finished a string quartet this summer that I didn’t picture myself playing in.

MOORE: Could you talk a little about the style of the works that you wrote for Speculum and the Nash Ensemble?

ZAKI: That’s a long time ago. The Speculum piece was a string trio for violin, viola and cello. Back then my immersion into electronic music, because it was new, really colored the way I was writing for instruments as well. I was bumping up against the notion that I have these sounds, so what do I do with these sounds, how do I organize these sounds – I can’t think about these in terms of traditional pitch structures, on the electronic side of things – and what I found myself doing was working with images. This is a picture of a triangle spinning through space – how do I represent that with sound? So when I went back to write these carbon-based pieces, protein-based pieces, I was bringing that imagery back. In a way, it was intuitive – I would come up with a phrase, and think, that reminds me of some kind of image, and vice versa. I wasn’t being strict about using a certain design or technique. It was more like meeting somebody and letting them reveal themselves to you – working with the material, sculpting it, perhaps. I would say that it was largely intuitive. It was a reflection of working with sound from the first time and separating it from the whole pitch idea. That’s changed over the years. The Nash piece I remember more clearly than the trio, only because I was starting to get more interested in film music at that time. It was my idea of what would happen if I were to make a “sound movie”, and edit it. I had an image of a TV show, with multiple points of view of something, with fast cuts. How do you represent time within the conventions of film, where you might have a crossfade to imply that time has past? How do you do that in an acoustical way? That’s what I recall about that piece. I was trying out things.

MOORE: Any other recollections about Princeton?

ZAKI: I came out of a DMA program at Rutgers which was quite traditional in the conservatory sense – you had to produce your Beethoven sonata and your concerto, and you had to do in the way that everyone has done it for the last hundred years. I chafed at that system, which was another reason that I was drawn to Baroque music – there was no one saying “this is how you have to do it, because my teacher did it that way”. On the composition side you have to make your own rules. The thing that I liked about Princeton was not only that you had to create your own logic, you had to defend it as well. Sure, you had a space to fall down, but they made a point of having you justify your approach, and why you did it, of making you think about what you were doing and clearly articulating your reasons for doing so. Coming out of a conservatory background, I found that very liberating. I wish I could go back and do those four years over again, because I would be better equipped to do it now, but at the time it was the best thing I ever did, because I had had my head screwed on so tightly by the conservatory routine and the way they did things, their way of perpetuating nineteenth-century performance tradition, that I was stuck, and I think that Princeton unstuck me. That’s the one thing that I really took away. I also think when people get into Princeton, there’s a moment where they wonder “why am I here?” I certainly did. “Why am I rubbing shoulders with these people who are all better composers than I am?” Princeton looks for an interesting mix – “who can we throw into the pot? Let’s see what happens if we put these people in the same kettle.” And they think, “how can we help this person get a leg up? We see potential.” In that respect, Princeton was very helpful to me. I also had already started to take an interest in film music – my cousin was a film student at Boston University. He called me and said, “I need to do my thesis project. Would you like to do the music?” I had never done anything like that before, but I was very intrigued. I was learning on the job again. As luck would have it, Paul Chihara came to give a colloquium in my last year at Princeton. So I had this short student film that he spent a great deal of time on, ripping it apart, frame-by-frame. It was like accelerated film school. I still think back to that and how much I learned. We got finished, and Paul said “You know how to compose for film. Let’s talk about how to get you a job doing that.” It wasn’t long after that I was moving to California.

MOORE: Your next stop was Los Angeles?

ZAKI: That was the plan after graduation, but I took a detour. I was in San Francisco for one year, at San Francisco State with Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez. He was a year ahead of me at Princeton, and they needed a sabbatical replacement at SF State – one of the faculty was on leave for the year, and he called me and said, “I hear you are coming to California. Do you want to make a detour for a year?” I thought it would be a good idea to have a job when I got to California, because I had been planning to pick up, go and just see what happened. When the position there ended, I just got in the car and went down to LA, met up with Chihara again, and he hired me to do a few things, which is how I got started there.

MOORE: How long were you in southern California?

ZAKI: That was in 1996, 1997 – almost eight years.

MOORE: You must have been leaving behind a lot of things that you had been doing, such as baroque violin.

ZAKI: No, not really. There were a couple of early music groups in LA. I was quite bi-coastal, because I continued to play a lot in New York. There were people in New York who didn’t realize that I had moved to California, because they kept seeing me all the time. I had gone out to California to do film music, and a few eyebrows went up among the Princeton crowd, who thought maybe I had lost my bearings in going from that world to a commercial world – they were wondering what was up with that. Certain academics do tend to look down on film music. But I had a background playing rock, and had commercial experience then. I don’t always make a distinction between different kinds of musics. For me it just makes for a bigger playground. There were a number of things that were appealing to me about film music. I had always wanted to write an opera, but there are all kinds of issues – the investment of time, and if you are lucky to get it mounted, and have it performed, then what happens when it’s over? It’s done and it sits on the shelf. At least with film you have a record. Film music allows you to take on characters as a composer. If I write a C major chord in a piece of film music, none of the film people would have anything to say – but they probably would say something at Princeton if it were in a concert piece. If I wanted to get out my guitar and do a blues thing, I could actually do it if the film called for it. You don’t get criticized for those kinds of things in film, so in a way it allows you to do different things. It’s a very valuable exercise for a composer when you have an input that you have to support. It can move you out of your comfort zone, which I think is a good thing. In a funny way film music allowed me to put a lot of my hats on one head. I did an independent feature film that was a psycho-thriller based on a Shakespearean legend, and I was able to bring in some baroque things. I wrote a whole set of cues that were based on a Purcell bass line from a fantasy that I knew. It worked really well. The electronic and tech side was front and center, and it opened a lot of doors for me.

MOORE: Is your film music available for listening outside the films?

ZAKI: I have film cues that would lend themselves as material for a concert piece. The tricky thing about film cues is that the form is bound by the film, so if the cue is seventeen seconds that is all you have. But I could certainly take that and develop it into bigger pieces. I have done a variety of types of films, and some of the psychological dramas allowed me to pull in highly dissonant things that worked quite well.

MOORE: So much of contemporary concert music ends up representing problematical psychological states. You are now at Rutgers Camden. How long have you been there?

ZAKI: I joined the faculty of Fine Arts in 2008. They are looking to start a MFA in digital arts, and they had a need for someone who does electronic music but also had an interest in film and acoustic composition as well. My role so far has been building the studio and laying the groundwork for the composition and tech curriculum. My Baroque side gets utilized as well since Julianne Baird is there, so that’s a nice complement.

MOORE: Those who have not lived in New Jersey may not be familiar with Camden and how close it is to Philadelphia. Do you see yourself having connections with the musical institutions across the river?

ZAKI: Some, and I’m sure that will grow more in time. I have connections with Maurice Wright at Temple, and an electroacoustic colleague of mine, Joo Won Park, teaches at Community College of Philadelphia. He came over to Rutgers Camden recently and gave a great lecture-demonstration on SuperCollider, the real-time algorithmic composition and audio synthesis environment. The Fine Arts department is separate from the music school, which is at the Rutgers New Brunswick campus, but Camden is in a nice place to be – there is a robust animation program already in place, and we have visual arts, we have theater, and we have electronic music now – we have the ingredients for an intermedia degree which seems to be very popular at the moment. We are very well positioned to really do something with it.

MOORE: Could you talk about a recent piece or upcoming project?

ZAKI: One thing that I am coming back to is using the violin as the front end for a performance network. Given the state of the MIDI violin back then, it had lost its appeal for me, and I had put it away for a while, but now with the way that software is developing – things like Ableton Live, for example – and the whole portability and ease of being able to perform with things now, I am really coming back to using the violin with electronics as a performance vehicle for me, and I have written a couple pieces which I have been taking around. I am going to be performing at the biennial arts and technology symposium at Connecticut College, and I recently played at SEAMUS, and at the Third Practice Festival of Electro-Acoustic Music. I am encouraged that things I was trying to do fifteen years ago are more easily accessible now. I am looking at different ways bring my violin performance back into the mix. One of the things that I found frustrating in the past was that the performance control wasn’t there. With the MIDI violin, there wasn’t a one-to-one correspondence between your gesture and the sound. Now you can create things in Max that can listen to the acoustic violin, and actually respond, much quicker, much faster, and with a higher degree of resolution, so there is a lot more that you can do to extend the capabilities of the instrument. That’s what I am looking at. The other area I am working in right now came out of my interest in film music. I’ve been exploring visual music and composing with computer-generated imagery or animation. Those are a little more time-intensive, and I am bumping up against not having a background as a visual artist. But I have four or five large-scale videos now that have gotten out there – that’s another avenue that I am interested in.

Chronicle of October 2010


October 18

Ryuichi Sakamoto. Skirball Center for the Performing Art, New York University, New York, NY. "Can a concert be too beautiful for comfort? The question seemed pertinent for a long stretch of a rare local performance by Ryuichi Sakamoto. . . . Sakamoto, 58, is a figure whose renown encompasses a plethora of disparate activities. Apart from being a skillful keyboardist, he is a pop-culture hero in his native Japan, a composer of film scores and symphonic works, a record producer and entrepreneur, an actor and, most recently, an environmental activist. Elements from all those roles surfaced in one way or another during Mr. Sakamoto’s concert, part of an eco-friendly American tour. Much of the material came from his new Decca album, a repackaging of two of his recent discs: Playing the Piano, a collection of solo reveries, and Out of Noise, a grittier project involving dissonance, environmental ambience and contributions from other performers, including the English viol consort Fretwork and the Austrian electronic musician Christian Fennesz. Mr. Sakamoto opened his concert with music from Out of Noise, the desolate electro-acoustic rumble of Glacier emanating from loudspeakers even before he took the stage. Slipping on in nearly complete darkness, Mr. Sakamoto reached into one of the two grand pianos on the stage, plucking and scraping the strings as hazy video images shifted and wobbled on a screen overhead. Arched low over the keyboard, with curtains of white hair framing his still-boyish face, Mr. Sakamoto offered four further selections from that album. The grainy burr of recorded viols gave Still Life an air of melancholy. Elsewhere the piano drifted in amniotic electronic washes, at times conjuring the mesmerizing collaborations of Brian Eno and Harold Budd from the 1980's. But when Mr. Sakamoto shifted his attention to material from Playing the Piano, rich ambiguity ceded to consonance and simplicity.



Radically stripped-down versions of familiar themes from his scores for the movies The Sheltering Sky and



The Last Emperor mingled with similarly streamlined versions of songs from Smoochy, a bossa-nova-inspired album from 1997. All this was undeniably beautiful: Mr. Sakamoto has a deft touch and a knack for memorable melodies. At its best, the music found common ground among Chopin, Satie, Bill Evans, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Still, too many limpid ballads and twinkling, twirling miniatures in sequence became soporific. In jazzier compositions you longed for an improviser’s spontaneity and development rather than a decorousness better suited to a fern-throttled piano bar. This was clearly a minority view: hearty responses from a capacity audience compelled three encores. During spirited versions of Behind the Mask and Happy End, songs by Mr. Sakamoto’s seminal 1980s electro-pop trio, Yellow Magic Orchestra, a long-dormant second piano came to life, offering accompaniment programmed beforehand. And one admirer’s satisfied sigh sounded out through a ripple of applause that greeted the twinkling opening figures of Mr. Sakamoto’s most beguiling creation, his theme for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 10/19/10].



October 21

Baracka Flacka Flames / James Davis's Head of the State splaced on YouTube. "'I’m the head of the state!' President Obama shouts, with a blend of jubilation and indignation on his face. Except that’s not exactly what he says -- the sentence is spiked with an expletive and a racial epithet. And, of course, it’s not Mr. Obama, but an extremely convincing impersonator, James Davis, performing as Baracka Flacka Flames in a video called Head of the State. . . . . The clip, which has been viewed more than million times since Thursday, is a spoof of the bombastic Hard in Da Paint, the recent hit by the rowdy Atlanta rapper Waka Flocka Flame" [Jon Caramanica, The New York Times, 10/25/10].




[Matthias Pintscher, discussing his Songs from Solomon's Garden]

Composer Portraits: Matthias Pintscher. Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York, NY. "Matthias Pintscher’s music whispers far more often than it shouts. But when this imaginative 39-year-old German composer and conductor wants an ensemble to produce a big sound, he is not shy about asking its percussionists to supply a generous helping of thunder, sometimes supported by full-throttle, harmonically dense contributions from the brasses and woodwinds. . . . [T]he four pieces on the program conveyed a sense of the extremes at which he works, as well as the peculiar sensibility that drives his music. What appears to interest him most is texture, but as soon as he finds an alluring one -- it could be a delicate, repeated arpeggio, sparkling softly at the top of the keyboard, or the blend of an airy flute, a not-quite-on-the-note violin tremolando and metallic percussion -- he has it morph into something else. The most ambitious score here was Sonic Eclipse (2010), a three-movement work built around a fascinating structural notion. The first two movements -- celestial object I and celestial object II -- are essentially brief concertos, the first for trumpet, the second for horn. In the finale, occultation, elements of the first two movements are overlaid -- an idea suggested by the mechanics of a solar eclipse. The result is a colorful, energetic movement in which the trumpet and horn lines are alternately independent and interlocking. The mostly introspective trumpet writing, played with nuanced virtuosity by Gareth Flowers, begins with a toneless figure -- air blown through the instrument, with a rhythmic undercurrent created by depressing the valves -- and includes muted passagework that toward the end explodes into a rhapsodic solo. The French horn part in celestial object II, more assertive from the start, explores the instrument’s full range, from growling bass notes to more ecstatic high pitches. David Byrd-Marrow’s tour of the line’s intricacies and quick figuration was stunning and assured. But if the trumpet and horn lines naturally commanded the attention, it was not because the orchestral scoring, with its continuous, otherworldly texture shifting, lacked attractions of its own. Mr. Pintscher drew a vivid performance from the expert musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble. He also led the group, with the flexible soprano Tony Arnold, in a twilight’s song (1997), a fluid E. E. Cummings setting. Mr. Pintscher’s vocal writing is wedded to the poetry’s spirit, if not its surface. In a twilight’s song, that meant plenty of octave leaping to capture the stark emotionality that underlies Cummings’s meditative verses. His setting of an Octavio Paz poem, Un despertar (An awakening), from 2008, is more subdued, and was performed gracefully by Evan Hughes, a bass-baritone with a light, appealing timbre, and Cory Smythe, the pianist who also played on a clear day (2004), the gentle, soft-edged piano work that opened the program" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 10/24/10].



[Dmitri Shostakovich - String Quartet No. 3: III, performed by the Emerson Quartet]

October 26

Pacifica Quartet. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. "[[T]his group has a passion for completeness: its New York performances in recent years have included a Beethoven cycle (in 2007) and the five Elliott Carter quartets (in 2002 and 2008). And now that the introductions are out of the way, it is returning to the immersive programming it prefers. This season is devoted to Shostakovich’s 15 quartets . . . . The first installment of the Shostakovich cycle . . . was a reminder of the quirks that have become the Pacifica Quartet’s signature sound. Mainly, these musicians -- Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violinists; Masumi Per Rostad, violist; and Brandon Vamos, cellist -- seem drawn to extremes. The restraint and precision they bring to quiet passages can sound antiseptic at times, as if unity of gesture were an absolute value to be achieved, even if it means putting the music’s emotional core at arm’s length. Yet when a score requires more vivid expressivity -- pathos, anger, terror, melancholy -- they produce a sound that can sing exquisitely or throttle you with its grittiness and energy. Shostakovich demands that full range in his quartets. If his symphonies can seem to be ambiguous public declarations that toe the Soviet line, sometimes with hidden, contradictory subtexts, his quartets are a more intimate diary of the soul. The Quartet No. 1 in C was composed in 1938, after his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had been denounced as 'formalist,' but also after he had reclaimed his reputation with the Fifth Symphony. He treads lightly at first: the opening Moderato is a sweet, graceful Neo-Classical movement that darkens only slightly. The key to the work is its second movement, another Moderato, with its plaintive solo viola opening, played with exquisite warmth here by Mr. Rostad. Shostakovich repeats this telling juxtaposition with the graceful, scherzolike third movement and the fast, angrily brusque finale. He is more unbuttoned in the Quartet No. 2 in A, a 1944 work steeped in the pain of wartime that includes a harrowing, nondancelike Waltz movement, as well as an Adagio built around mournful, chromatic themes in a Jewish folk style. Here the focus is as much on solo playing as on ensemble heft: the heart of the Adagio is a series of soulful violin solos that Ms. Ganatra performed with wrenching intensity and bittersweet tone, and the variations in the finale give each player a moment in the spotlight. The Pacifica began the second half with a leap to the Quartet No. 7 in F Sharp Minor, a short, dark work with a smoldering Allegro finale, and ended the concert with the monumental Quartet No. 3 in F, Shostakovich’s five-movement reflection on World War II. As always, the group was at its best when Shostakovich’s scoring was either assertively brash (in the Allegro non troppo, which represents the invasion of Russia) or irresistibly plangent (in the Adagio, which mourns the dead) and less striking in the comparatively bright outer movements. But the focus and passion of the performance as a whole left you eager to hear what they will do with the 11 remaining works" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 10/26/10].



October 27

New York City Opera presents Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place. New York State Theater, New York, NY. "City Opera’s vibrant new production of Leonard Bernstein’s only full-length opera. . . . Introduced in 1983 at the Houston Grand Opera, A Quiet Place was met with vehemently negative reviews. A thoroughly revised version fared somewhat better in subsequent stagings. Still, the opera has languished since and had never been tried out in New York, Bernstein’s adopted hometown. Mr. Steel believed in the piece and found an ally in the director Christopher Alden . . . [who] has now brought theatrical magic to his contemporary staging . . . . The cast is terrific. Jayce Ogren, a young American conductor . . . had an impressive City Opera debut, drawing a pulsing, sensitive and brilliant account of this stylistically far-ranging score from the orchestra. The lingering criticism of “A Quiet Place” is that the piece is an awkward hybrid both musically and dramatically. This reflects the general criticism of Bernstein as a composer: that his head was so full of all kinds of music he could not find his own voice. The structure of the opera is inevitable, given its genesis. Bernstein’s first idea was to compose an operatic sequel to Trouble in Tahiti, his bleakly comic, jazzy one-act opera from 1952, with his own libretto. As originally conceived, the sequel, with a libretto by the director Stephen Wadsworth, showed what happened in later years to the sorry suburban family from the early work: the self-absorbed businessman Sam and his alcohol-dependent wife, Dinah. In A Quiet Place we meet Dede, the couple’s flighty daughter, and Junior, their mentally troubled gay son, as well as Fran├žois, Dede’s husband and also (formerly or currently, we are not sure) Junior’s lover. After the failure of the Houston premiere, Bernstein and Mr. Wadsworth were persuaded to adapt A Quiet Place into a three-act work that incorporates Trouble in Tahiti as flashbacks in the second act. The musical mixing, however, seemed a hodgepodge to many. But these days we are more accustomed to composers who juxtapose styles and draw from all idioms. Think of William Bolcom, John Adams, and Osvaldo Golijov. In this production, A Quiet Place came across throughout as pure Bernstein. You hear his acute ear finding the right notes to make some piercing harmony. Mahlerian blasts are fractured with jagged, jazzy riffs. For someone who polemically criticized 12-tone music, Bernstein found his own way to fashion atonal elements to his own ends. And, of course, the bits of pop songs and jazz, like the swing trio that serves as a Greek chorus in the Trouble in Tahiti scenes, come through with authenticity. The orchestral prelude to Act III, with its layered chromatic counterpoint and yearning melodic lines, is Bernstein at his most sublime. The problem is not the hybrid score but the dramatic pacing. There are some captivating arias and monologues in this work, but Bernstein milks them for too long. At more than three hours (with two intermissions) A Quiet Place is not that oversized for an opera. Still, it feels stretched out. The back-and-forth dramatic quality of A Quiet Place is made much less problematic thanks to Mr. Alden’s production, which has an integrated flow and consistently dark tone. It opens at a funeral parlor where guests, many of them jaded, are dealing with Dinah’s death from an auto accident (perhaps a suicide). . . . Mr. Alden draws nuanced performances from this gifted cast. . . . During the prolonged ovations, when Mr. Wadsworth . . . took a bow, he made a moving gesture with his arm as if to embrace his missing colleague. If only Bernstein could have been there to see the reaction to his opera" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 10/28/20].



October 28

Opening of Lincoln Center's White Light Festival, with Meredith Monk. David Rubenstein Atrium, New York, NY. When Meredith Monk performed her Click Song No. 1 on Thursday, it sounded as if she was accompanied by an array of percussion. But she was alone onstage as she offered a taste of her remarkable extended vocal technique, a petite figure framed by an enormous bright blue screen that changed colors throughout the program. . . . Ms. Monk, a singer, composer, dancer, choreographer, director and filmmaker, has been creating multidisciplinary works since the 1960's, when she developed her distinctive form of singing. Cries, clucks and noises that might evoke exotic birdcalls unfold over humming and chanting. With this unusual vocalizing, Ms. Monk, her trademark braids flowing down her back, seemed an apt choice to open the festival. Ms. Monk, a Buddhist with a stage presence that ranges from serene to charmingly girlish, calls her voice her “soul’s messenger”; that was also the title of her program, which included works from the last four decades, performed solo or with members of her vocal ensemble. The pieces for unaccompanied voices were the highlights, beginning with Monk solos. Ms. Monk was joined by the mezzo-soprano Katie Geissinger for several unaccompanied duo selections, including the remarkable Hocket. The two women stood facing each other, a stream of sounds juggled between them like balls until it was hard to tell whose mouth was producing which sound. The works for voice and piano were less striking, largely because the piano writing, which veered toward New Age, brought Ms. Monk’s otherworldly vocalizing down to earth. In Madwoman’s Vision, which she sang while accompanying herself at the piano, the simple piano chords seemed prosaic as she unleashed an avalanche of sounds, ranging from high-pitched utterances to grumbly lows and noises that suggested an alien animal caught in a trap. The electronic keyboard (which Ms. Monk referred to as a “period instrument from 1982”) better suited her songs. She ended the program with ensemble works -- with Ms. Geissinger; Allison Sniffin, a soprano; and Bohdan Hilash, a clarinetist -- that again illustrated her distinctive sound world" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 10/29/10].

An Evening with Christine Brewer. David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY. "[A] 70-minute program of arias, songs and orchestral pieces . . . was a welcome opportunity to hear this elusive dramatic soprano, one of the best in the business. George Manahan conducted the City Opera Orchestra, which played on the renovated theater’s new elevated pit. Ms. Brewer’s big, sumptuous voice is ideally suited to the Wagner and Strauss repertory. At 55, she is in her prime and sounding glorious. Yet she has chosen, it would seem, to maintain the freshness of her voice by limiting her appearances, especially in staged productions. Her Metropolitan Opera career consists so far of two performances in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos in 2003. To open the program, Ms. Brewer gave a vocally blazing yet lyrically sensual performance of In questa reggia from Puccini’s Turandot. The voices of many dramatic sopranos come girded in steel. Ms. Brewer is the uncommon singer of her vocal type whose voice can slice through a thick orchestra while still sounding lustrous, and it was thrilling to hear her as the icy, avenging Princess Turandot. Mr. Manahan then conducted the orchestra in Courtly Dances from Britten’s opera Gloriana, about Queen Elizabeth I. But it was frustrating to know that Ms. Brewer, who sang Elizabeth formidably in a 2005 production of the work with the Opera Theater of St. Louis, was sitting backstage when she could have been singing an excerpt from the opera. . . . Brewer concluded the program with stylish and bluesy accounts of musical theater songs by Arlen and Kern. Arlen’s I Had Myself a True Love and Kern’s Bill (from Show Boat) were especially beguiling. Ms. Brewer, who spoke warmly to the audience about the songs, used a hand-held microphone (though not held too close) for the Kern numbers, which allowed her to scale down her voice and make the words count. As an encore, she sang a comic Victor Herbert song, Art Is Calling for Me, putting an impish spin on the first lines of the chorus: 'I long to be a prima donna, donna, donna,/ I long to shine upon the stage'" [Anthony Tommasini, 10/10/29].



[Dan Deacon - Of the Mountains (Moogfest, October 29)]

October 29

Moogfest. Ashville, NC. Through November 2. "Mark Mothersbaugh, the keyboardist and singer of Devo, reminisced . . . about visiting the R. A. Moog Company’s synthesizer factory in Buffalo some time in 1971 or 1972. 'It was like heaven,' he said. He was onstage here at Moogfest, a three-day festival with more than 60 acts -- bands and disc jockeys, theremin soloists and professed synthesizer geeks -- to celebrate the Moog synthesizer, an instrument that transformed music by giving composers countless new sounds. At the factory, Mr. Mothersbaugh said, he saw shelves holding rows of Minimoogs, the pioneering, suitcase-size synthesizer that was introduced in 1970 and made electronic music portable. It was, he declared, 'the most futuristic thing I’d ever seen.' That future was four decades ago, before digital synthesizers, laptop computers and smartphones put the tools for electronic music on desks and in pockets. Moog Music, as the company was renamed, is now in Asheville, in the mountains of western North Carolina where Robert Moog (pronounced to rhyme with 'rogue'), the inventor behind the synthesizer, lived from 1978 until his death, in 2005. The nonprofit Bob Moog Foundation is raising money to build a 'Moogseum' here based around Mr. Moog’s extensive archives, and it presented daytime panel discussions on the history of the synthesizer, featuring Mr. Moog’s collaborators and resurrecting some of his early equipment. A display case at the Orange Peel, a club commandeered by Moogfest, held a Minimoogseum: a history of the Minimoog and a playable theremin. The festival drew 7,000 to 7,500 people a day and offered five stages at places in downtown Asheville that ranged from clubs to arenas. Visitors saw many Moogs, recent and antique, come and go. But Moogs were not mandatory for acts wanting a festival booking. 'It’s a thread, it’s not a box,' said Ashley Capps, whose company, AC Entertainment, produced Moogfest. Matmos, an electronic duo whose brilliant set built terse loops into overarching, evolving structures -- largely meditative, occasionally wry -- confessed that it was using Roland synthesizers. There were also Korgs, Yamahas, Nords and plenty of unassuming laptops, many of them loaded with Moog samples, in a lineup oriented toward the electronic and the experimental. Moogfest included rock (Massive Attack, Sleigh Bells, Caribou, Jonsi, MGMT, Thievery Corporation); pop (Hot Chip); funk (Disco Biscuits); hip-hop (Big Boi, El-P); and electronica both abstract and aimed at the dance floor (Four Tet, Pretty Lights, Bonobo, Jon Hopkins, Dan Deacon, Marty Party). Mr. Moog’s original 1964 synthesizer -- he called it the Abominatron -- was bulky, balky and sometimes unpredictable. It was analog, not digital, creating sounds by sending a continuous electronic signal to a speaker, not a stream of numbers through a converter. To analog devotees that continuous signal is intrinsically superior to digital music, which reproduces sound with tens of thousands of samples per second, which means tens of thousands of infinitesimal gaps between them. Analog sound, said Amos Gaynes, Moog Music’s applications engineer, has infinite resolution, 'down to the granular level at which reality is perceived.' The first commercial Moog synthesizers could play only one note at a time, not always in tune. Early synthesizer users had no preset sounds to fall back on: they plugged in patch cords, turned knobs and experimented. A musician could create a sound, but the synthesizer had no memory; once the sound was changed, it was gone, possibly forever. Heat and humidity also affected the instrument. When digital synthesizers arrived, in the 1980's, sales and prices plunged for those primitive analog synthesizers. They seemed destined for obsolescence. But not so fast. From their sometimes-unstable oscillators, filters and amplifiers, Moogs and other analog synthesizers produced sounds that more reliable digital synthesizers would not: buzzes, swoops, whooshes, scrapes, gurgles, screeches, burps, crackles and countless other onomatopoeia-worthy noises. Interactions among the waveforms that were generated by the oscillators, and modulated by waveforms from other oscillators, or from a noise generator, were often untamed. Turning a knob or wiggling a wheel on the Minimoog could radically change a timbre in mid-note, making it feel more handmade, less synthetic. Analog sounds are a funky corrective to sterile digital tones; colliding waveforms make a beautiful noise. Moogfest was a festival of strange sounds and monumental beats, of drones and loops, and of synthetic tones that grew to feel natural. For extra oddity a good part of the audience wore Halloween costumes all weekend. Neon Indian’s wistful pop marches emerged from thickets of staticky synthesizer noise and disappeared back into them. Panda Bear, from Animal Collective, sang high, chantlike melodies over unswerving synthesizer and guitar drones in what came to sound like cries from the heart. Omar Souleyman, from Syria, sang heartily about love and street life over booming 4/4 drumbeats, while his keyboardist simulated traditional Middle Eastern instruments on two synthesizers. Emeralds played one continuous, very gradually unfolding song, with Moog sounds rippling and percolating through it. From their laptops and mixers, disc jockey-producers dispensed reveries and onslaughts. Saturn Never Sleeps, the duo of King Britt and Rucyl (both working mixers) backed Rucyl’s airy, echoing voice with fits and starts of percussion and a bass undertow. Mimosa played quick-change remixes, switching from verse to verse among harsh drumbeats, quasi-classical strings, even a little ragtime. Ikonika played a magnificently aggressive set of revved-up hyperdub, a blitz of drumbeats. Moogfest even included unsynthesized music, in two sets of lapidary, elegant pop by Clare and the Reasons, who played Clare Muldaur Manchon’s songs and then backed up the elusive songwriter (and Beach Boys collaborator in the 1960's) Van Dyke Parks. For younger bands analog synthesizers are a means to summon and twist nostalgia. Moog sounds are inseparable from some of the most influential music of the 1970s: new wave, synth-pop, funk. Gerald Casale of Devo said in an interview that in Devo’s music 'we called the Moog a poison gas vapor,' adding, 'It was allowed to come in and swirl around and interject rude and random things that didn’t fit a rock ’n’ roll lexicon. We were hoping for that.' At Moogfest, Devo was given the Moog Innovator award -- and a new Minimoog Voyager XL, which combines analog modules with some digital conveniences. But Devo could not perform, because three days before the festival its guitarist, Bob Mothersbaugh (Mark’s brother) severely injured his hand. The Octopus Project -- an Austin, Tex., band that infuses its rock with Minimalist patterns and features a theremin -- learned two Devo songs on the way to Moogfest and backed up Mark Mothersbaugh and Mr. Casale. The original Minimoog benefited not only from its portability but also from a design flaw. Bill Hemsath, who was Moog’s chief engineer and the main inventor of the Minimoog, revealed that some specifications for the Minimoog’s filter section were incorrect, overdriving it by about 15 decibels. 'Nobody caught it, and it went into production,' Mr. Hemsath said, adding that it gave the Minimoog a ferocious bass sound musicians soon exploited. The synthesizer bass lines that pumped through 1970's funk -- and have been recycled by hip-hop ' were spearheaded by the keyboardist Bernie Worrell in Parliament’s 1977 song Flash Light using three connected Minimoogs; he has also received a Moog Award. Mr. Worrell performed at Moogfest with Headtronics, a trio with drumbeats and vinyl scratching from DJ Spooky and Freekbass on bass; he poked and teased at the melodies, making his Minimoog cackle and whoosh. 'It’s a dinosaur, but you still can’t beat that sound,' he said in an interview. The comeback of analog synthesis has been accelerated by software that simulates the interactions of the old oscillators, filters and amplifiers. Instead of pampering some aging (and increasingly expensive) equipment, computer users can, if they wish, turn an infinite number of virtual knobs and plug in an infinite number of virtual patch cords — and then, if they wish, output the digitally generated voltage through analog components. Moog Music recently released an iPhone app, Filtatron, that looks like classic Moog modules and creates similar sounds. “This is actually the best time in human history to be into analog synthesis,” said Mr. Gaynes, the applications engineer. At Moogfest what once seemed primitive was claiming its own future" [John Pareles, The New York Times, 11/1/10].

Films



Owsley Brown III and Jerome Hiler. Music Makes a City. "[An] enlightening documentary about how Louisville, Kentucky, became a locus for contemporary music in the mid-20th century. In striking synchronicity, a mayor, a conductor and a robust postwar generation of composers intersected to make the city a hub for visionary composition. Louisville had been battered by a flood and the Depression when Robert Whitney, a young Chicago conductor, arrived in 1937 to build what became theLouisville Orchestra. When it hit financial trouble, Charles Farnsley, the mayor and a be- liever in the Confucian notion that high culture attracts wealth and power, boldly proposed commissioning works from modern composers while honor- ing the traditional repertory. Their efforts drew local and international acclaim. By 1953, with a major Rockefeller Foun- dation grant, the orchestra was bringing in 46 originals a year, by the likes of Ned Rorem and Elliott Carter (both articulate on camera), and had its own record label, First Edition. At its peak, luminaries like Martha Graham and Shostakovich came to its stage. When it hit financial trouble, Charles Farnsley, the mayor and a be- liever in the Confucian notion that high culture attracts wealth and power, boldly proposed commissioning works from modern composers while honoring the traditional repertory.Their efforts drew local and international acclaim. By 1953, with a major Rockefeller Foun- dation grant, the orchestra was bringing in 46 originals a year, by the likes of Ned Rorem and Elliott Carter (both articulate on camera), and had its own record label, First Edition. At its peak, luminaries like Martha Graham and Shostakovich came to its stage. Aesthetic trends -- the battle between Neo-Classicists and the atonalists, for example -- are addressed, but the music is given ample room to speak for itself, in lyrical landscape mon- tages. Viewers unfamiliar with artists like Lukas Foss and Gunther Schuller will find themselves agreeably challenged. And stirred. The personalities here are as noteworthy as the soundtrack. Whitney was a tireless leader. The charismatic Farnsley, an intellectual with a populist style, after a term as a congressman (where he helped create the National Endowment for the Arts and was a proud signer of the Voting Rights Act), retired from politics to host an overnight classical-music radio program in Louisville" [Andy Webster, The New York times, 9/17/10].



Ngawang Choephel. Tibet in Song. "Ngawang Choephel, a Tibetan musicologist who was imprisoned by the Chinese for more than six years, would have had a compelling film had he simply stuck to his own remarkable story. But his documentary, Tibet in Song, is doubly powerful because he also weaves in the overall history of Tibet’s struggle, a primer on the Chinese government’s campaign to muzzle Tibetan culture and vignettes from other Tibetans who resisted. Mr. Choephel left Tibet with his mother in the years after the Chinese invasion of 1950, growing up in India, where other refugees implanted in him a love of traditional Tibetan songs. He returned to Tibet in the 1990's to try to capture this musical history on tape, but the Chinese had a head start of several decades. 'The first music I heard was Chinese Communist propaganda and Chinese pop songs,' he recalls of his arrival in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital. 'It was an unexpected, alien sound and seemed to be following me wherever I went.' He had better luck finding traditional singers in the countryside, but he was only partway into his recording efforts when he was arrested and jailed as a spy in 1995. One of the more touching aspects of this film is his account of his mother’s tireless campaign to have him freed, which finally paid off in 2002. Persistence, it seems, runs in the family" [Neil Genzlinger, The New York Times, 9/23/10].

Monday, November 1, 2010

21ST-CENTURY MUSIC / November 2010


21ST
CENTURY
MUSIC


November 2010

Volume 17, Number 11


An Interview with Kamran Ince / Tom Moore

Potential Hum-Drum Hums / Mark Alburger

Chronicle of September 2010

Film


Illustration / Merzbow


Editorial Staff

Mark Alburger
EDITOR-PUBLISHER

Harriet March Page
ASSOCIATE EDITOR

Patti Noel Deuter
ASSISTANT EDITOR

Erling Wold
WEBMASTER

Alexis Alrich
Katherine Buono
Ken Bullock
A.J. Churchill
David Cleary
Jeff Dunn
Phillip George
Elliot Harmon
Brian Holmes
Jeff Kaliss
John Lane
Arel Lucas
Michael McDonagh
Chip Michael
Tom Moore
William Rowland
Andrew Shapiro
CORRESPONDENTS


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An Interview with Kamran Ince / Tom Moore


Composer Kamran Ince straddles two worlds both imaginatively (as a child of a bicontinental couple, he was born in Montana, and grew up in Ankara) and literally, with simultaneous faculty appointments in the USA and Turkey. He has had a stream of recent releases on Naxos, including his Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Symphonies, and the Concerto for Orchestra, Turkish Instruments, and Voices. We spoke by Skype on March 22, 2010.

MOORE: Was there music in your family while you were growing up? Were there uncles and aunts who were musical?

INCE: My father loved music, almost too much. When he was twelve, he wanted to go into music, but there is a conservatory system in Turkey, and at age twelve it was already too late for him. He was a very creative guy, and was constantly listening to classical music, and would take me to concerts when I was a little kid, although I would sleep through most of them. My mother had a beautiful voice. She sang with the St. Olaf Choir, but did not continue singing after that. Beyond that, my Turkish grandfather used to play the tambur, a sort of lute with a long body (I am half-Turkish, half-American). While I was in elementary school I played with mandolin a little. My father saw this, and before you know it I was taking the entrance exams to the conservatory. Most kids there don’t have any musical background, so they give a very extensive ear test, and look at your fingers, your mouth, your height, and decide what instrument you will play. They told me that I would play cello. And they were right -- cello was the correct instrument for me. So I started on the cello, and was doing very advanced solfege at the Conservatory. We had a family friend who was one of the foremost composers in Turkey at the time, although he was not really well-known outside the country -- Ilhan Baran. He would come three or four nights a week for dinner at our house, and would give me assignments to write. I would write them, and it ended up being that I would write a little piece for the cello almost every day of the week. I couldn’t go out and play until I had finished that.

MOORE: How old were you at the time?

INCE: I was eleven. As I continued writing, piano began to be important, and so I began to play the piano as well. Four or five years later, it became way too much to have to practice cello, practice piano, write, do harmony and solfege exercises, so at age sixteen or seventeen, while I was studying with another composer, Muammer Sun, he moved to Izmir, and I thought that it would be a good idea to go to Izmir with him. When I did that, I stopped studying cello. It was a move that allowed me to find myself, to realize what it was that I really wanted to do, what my passion was. So I was in Izmir for three years. This was in the late seventies to around 1980. Turkey in general was a closed country until 1980 -- the most modern things that we were hearing were Shostakovich symphonies, Orff’s Carmina Burana -- things like that -- we thought that that was modern music. There was also a nationalist movement in music that went on much longer than in places like Eastern Europe. There was a group called the Turkish Five, including Ahmet Adnan Saygun, who joined Bartok when he came to Turkey to record folk music. The nationalist movement was still dominant, and ultimately I think that they did more damage than good, which is a controversial statement in Turkey. And so you were expected to use Turkish folk elements. I was doing that, but half-heartedly. I was hearing different things, and after I had been in Izmir for a couple of years I decided that it would be really good to go to the U.S., which was a part of me anyway, and was a big melting pot, a place to clear my mind and make a new beginning, get rid of the baggage of nothing but Mozart and Beethoven and all that stuff. I went to Oberlin, which somehow was the only place that my parents knew about. At that time it was still coming out of the mentality of the sixties, in the middle of cornfields, in the middle of nowhere, but with a very intellectual atmosphere. I would get up every morning, before breakfast, and compose for two hours, because I felt that breakfast would take the blood away from my brain, and went wild! I started writing more abstract music, experimenting, doing Elliott-Carteresque things, assigning different characters to different instruments... and during all this one thing that became obvious was my love for contrast. At first, extreme contrasts, coexisting -- when you are feeling one thing, you are able to feel at the same time the very opposite. The differences between Turkey and the United States were much more marked at that time -- they are much less so now. The biculturalness, the bilingualness that I have came out in the music with this affinity for extreme contrasts. Oberlin was a very good place, and the faculty members were not out in the world -- they were more isolated, doing abstract things. It was a great place to be intellectual. In addition to the contrasts, I began to create lines with a twisted modality that is kind of playful but with something weird about it. Then I went to Eastman, and when I got to Eastman, it was wow! A totally different world, totally professional -- New Romanticism was going on. After two years of experimenting, I started working with some minimalist techniques in the background, in the accompaniment, and the contrasts are still there, but start to be smoothed out. The modal lines become more concrete and recognizable. My first big breakthrough was my Concerto for Piano and Orchestra [Naxos 8.572554] from 1984, a romantic piano concerto, but with blocks which mix elements of noise with romantic sections, romantic sections with minimalist background, wild melodies on top - really, really bold. I just recorded it -- I played it and it will come out on Naxos. I will have four Naxos CD's in the next two years. I sent it around, and got a call from the New York Philharmonic. Some people there looking at it thought that it was a really good piece. One of them was David Alan Miller, who said, “would you like to do a New York Youth Symphony commission?” I did that next, which was another breakthrough. I got on the map in New York, with reviews in the New Yorker and elsewhere. I continued working with stylistically different blocks, that want each other and long for each other. In these blocks, any can be an upbeat or a downbeat. You are in one, and you are happy there, but still you want to go to the next one. The next milestone was going to Rome, with the Rome prize, which was actually a very difficult experience for me, with a third culture. Where did this third culture come from? I was already dealing with being from two cultures. Living in Rome is great, the food is great, the first four months are great, because you are a sort of tourist -- but living there, it is a museum city. At the same time, I started to go to Turkey a lot, and when I would go to Turkey, go to the archeological sites, and when I was in Istanbul, go to Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque... the effect of all this, of Rome, of looking out at the rooftops, with all these incredible domes, these incredible structures of Christianity, and going to Istanbul, and seeing these incredible structures of Christianity and Islam -- it was slowly doing something in me. The result was that in 1992 I wrote a piece called Domes [Naxos 8.557588] for orchestra. I was searching for something higher, above -- it has these descending lines, that go up and descend again, searching. With this piece a very important spiritual side of me started to be expressed. With that spiritual side I wrote another piece called Arches for chamber ensembles. At the same time these pieces may have contrasting sections within that are extrovert, in-your-face, that recall my earlier works, sections that continue to exist, but alongside the spiritual side. With all of this, I wrote my Symphony No. 2 ("Fall of Constantinople") [Naxos 8.572554], which was commissioned by David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony, who asked for a work with some kind of Turkish subject. I wanted it to be something international as well, so I thought of the fall of Constantinople, which is weird, since it is something that happened five hundred years ago. What it represented to me was what I am, and what Turkey is -- a meeting of the east and the west, and the contrast of the two. In Istanbul you have all these different ethnic groups -- Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Turks -- you name it. In that work for the first time I used some “Turkish effects” that I wrote. I don’t use anything concrete, like a Turkish tune. What I looked into extensively was the Byzantine side of the story, and Byzantine music. In listening to Byzantine music I realized that Ottoman court music was an exact continuation of Byzantine music, something I had not known until then. It was amazing for me. The next thing I wrote was the Symphony No. 3 ("Siege of Vienna") [Naxos 557588]. For the previous symphony, the Turks were victorious, but here it was the West, since the Turks were unable to take Vienna. That offered other musical opportunities. After that I started to incorporate in my works this spiritual side, and an extrovert, percussive side, but I also started to use voices without text as instruments, as well as alternative instruments. I started by using electric guitar and bass guitar, and then went on to use ethnic Turkish instruments in ensembles and in orchestras as well. I use them for what they can do. Looking back, an important work is the Concerto for Orchestra, Turkish Instruments, and Voices [Naxos 572554], which I wrote in 2002. I use the zurna -- double-reed instruments, but so loud that you can’t even hear a bass drum when they are playing. I also used kemancheh, and the ney -- very difficult to play, but beautiful. Two years ago I wrote a piece called Dreamlines, for the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Chamber of Architects in which I am really thinking about Ottoman court music. Another one is Strange Stone [Naxos 9.70011], which was written for Relache in Philadelphia. The latest that is along these lines is a piano quartet called Far Variations, which is being premiered the 31st of this month [March 2010]. There’s a recent piece which is close to the genre of ambient music called Music for a Lost Earth [Naxos 9.70141]. And I am working on an opera right now called Judgment of Midas, also bringing together the elements of East and West. The story is that of the contest between Pan and Apollo. Apollo does high music, the gods’ music; Pan does street music, popular music. Which is better? That is the question of the opera. But of course there is no right answer to that question. I use Turkish instruments, and it is framed by a modern element -- two American tourists go to Turkey -- the woman is a pop diva, and the man is a formalist composer. They hear about an intact mosaic where the Lydian ruins are, and they want to see it, because it depicts this musical contest. They are there, and all of a sudden the girl finds herself in the middle of the contest. It turns out that the tour guide is Midas! The musical contest gives me the opportunity to play with the contrasts between the two kinds of music. Midas likes Pan’s music, but declared by the mountain god Tmolus the music of the gods is really the winner, Midas has a fit, Apollo gets mad and gives him donkey ears. At first he is very embarrassed, but it is an amazing experience with these bigger ears because he is hearing like he has never heard before. He can hear, and we can hear, the electricity in the air, the turning of the earth. At the end, there is no right answer – it is not what you listen to, but how you listen to it. That’s for 2012-2013. The Australians have a big project for the commemoration of the war of Gallipoli, with various composers writing different portions. I will be writing a part of that.

MOORE: Since you mentioned cultural differences, perhaps you could say a little about Turkish culture, and how it differs from American culture.

INCE: It’s not just the culture, but the feel of the country. Turkey is like the old "Wild, Wild, West." It’s kind of wild; it’s tense. I don’t think people are ultimately all that different. Turkey is much more into family and family ties. It’s more chaotic there -- you have a greater contrast in people’s existences, since the distribution of wealth is different. In the urban areas people are Muslims in the same way that Italian are Catholics. It’s a very modern, urban kind of life. If you go to the villages life is much more conservative -- people marry much earlier, they look different, they dress in more traditional clothing. Five times a day you will hear the call to prayer. In the old days, in the United States, you probably heard church bells, which you don’t hear anymore. But there you do hear the call to prayer. It’s a life that’s on the edge, people have less security, people live more for today -- traffic is much more chaotic. There is indigenous music throughout the country. You have the Black Sea, the Balkan, East, which becomes Caucasian, the Southeast, the Aegean, Central Anatolia -- the food from all these places is different. It’s an earthquake zone, so the topography is wild, with mountains and hills. And in the old days, the contrasts were much greater. I was born in America, in Montana, but I went to Turkey when I was seven. When I returned to the USA, when I was 20, I went directly to Los Angeles, and at that time, the differences were so big.

MOORE: Where was your father from?

INCE: He grew up in Ankara, the capital, which is organized. Istanbul is wild, wild, wild -- like New York, with more wild. I go there, and half of my time is spent figuring when I can go to avoid the traffic. Because what happened to the Ottoman Empire, and how it ended, there was a big denial of the cultures of the East. I grew up with this, and of course it was very artificial. It wasn’t right. Even today there is a type of music in Turkey called arabesk, which is influenced by Arabic music, and all the intellectuals put it down. Five million people love this stuff, and there are some incredible effects in it. There is a lot of dogmatic thinking in Turkey: this is one of the biggest differences. “It has to be this way, it has to be that way. You can’t do this, you can’t do that.” It’s changing a lot, but I grew up with that big time when I was in Turkey. In the U.S., you can listen to what you want to, do what you want to do, become a member of the Communist Party -- whatever. In Turkey, there are sides, and very strong sides. All the feelings are very strong. I can’t say of any music that it is bad -- there may be two or three measures that are incredible, but this sort of categorization does not only belong to culture in Turkey, but can be found in everything -- politics, religion -- with the division between secular and more religious people. Life in America is more unified, more peaceful, more comfortable. I was talking with a friend recently about the differences between Turkey and Greece. In some ways they are very similar, but Greece is very quiet, doesn’t have much population, whereas Turkey has this amazing chaotic energy. You can realize the wildest ideas in Turkey, but the simplest things are very difficult to do. For instance, Istanbul Technical University commissioned me to write a piece for their 225th anniversary. I was talking to the president of the university about musical education in Turkey, and said, yes, there is graduate education in music in Turkey, but only on paper, nothing of real quality. And she said, “well, what would have to be done?” And I explained. And a month later she came to me and said “Would you like to do this?” “What do you mean?” “Establish a school.” “Six years from now?” “No, next year.” My American friends said it’s crazy, it’s impossible, you can’t do it. But she said, no, if we wait five years, we will simply wait five years, and do it then. And that’s how everything is done. And we did it. It was successful, we have huge private donations... you can’t do something like that in the United States. And in Turkey you can have a soccer team commissioning a symphony. That doesn’t happen here in the U.S.A.. On the other hand, to pay your overdue telephone bill -- that’s very difficult.

MOORE: Is there a particular style of Turkish folk music that particularly appeals to you?

INCE: No, it’s really the essence of them all. For instance, three years ago the Netherlands Wind Ensemble came to Turkey with the Queen for a state visit, and I had worked with them before. They asked for an arrangement of a Turkish folk tune. I found a website with tens of thousands of folk songs from all the parts of Turkey, and I thought that most creative ones came from central Anatolia, but I also liked the music from the Black Sea, and the Balkans, and what the Gypsies (who are called Romans in Turkey) do. The slow dance from the Aegean, in 9/4... I like them all. I arranged something that was more Balkan, actually. I love all of that, plus the court music, which in Turkey is simply called classical music, with a history of composers since the 17th and 18th Centuries. One of the important ones is Dede Effendi [Hammamizade ─░smail Dede Efendi (1778-1846)]. I have been listening to a lot of his music, because there may be a project where we will play a piece of his for a traditional group, I will write a piece for orchestra and the traditional group, and we will go back and forth.

MOORE: It sounds like from what you are describing that the wealth of musical possibilities would be far larger in Turkey than in the United States.

INCE: I don’t know... What is very rich in the United States is current popular music, and you also have folk traditions, and jazz. Turkey and its mixtures, and the United States, with its mixtures -- there are some similarities there. Turkey is now becoming very popular with Americans -- I don’t know whether that has to do with the similarities.

MOORE: A question about style: you studied at Oberlin, and then at Eastman. Perhaps you were in a good place as someone from where the environment was one of conservative nationalism to go to someplace where the language was that of the New Romanticism.

INCE: Yes, perhaps in a way. What was going on in Turkey was nowhere close to New Romanticism.

MOORE: But also nowhere close to total serialism.

INCE: I doodled with all of that at Oberlin, experimenting, going really wild. Oberlin was a great place to go, and after that Eastman was a very good place to go. And going to Rome brought me closer to Turkey. The places that I have been worked very well for my development.

MOORE: You have also been fortunate to have been able to write frequently for large ensembles, in contrast to many contemporary composers whose work is usually heard with chamber ensembles.

INCE: Absolutely. I am at home being an orchestral composer, a chamber or large ensemble composer. I am pleased to have had these opportunities.

Potential Humdrum Hums / Mark Alburger


Richard Strauss, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ludwig van Beethoven. Not exactly headliners to light my new-music fire, as we settled down to potential sonambulance for the opening of the Marin Symphony at Veterans Memorial Auditorium. But, then again, in their respective days, these guys did not make their money by putting their audiences to sleep. And on October 3 -- anywhere from roughly 60 to 180 years after said composers' respective deaths -- conductor Alasdair Neal, piano soloist Joyce Yang, and the gang proved that dead men can still dance, in a persuasive and mostly-professional program that stirred hearts and heads.

"Dead Can Dance" was not inappropriate for Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Introduction and 24 Variations), since Rachmaninoff partly based his arguably-most-wonderful-of-his compositions not only on the Faustian virtuoso violinist Niccolo but also the notorious Thomas of Celano "Dies Irae" ("Day of Wrath") medieval sequence. Keyboardist Yang put her all into this fiery and voluptuous music, highlighting the notion that, contrary to even the composer's (and certainly his critics') perception, this is not particularly unprogressive music. While solidly rooted in the romantic tradition, there is no way this can really be perceived as a merely 19th-century (rather than 20th) endeavor -- in a heightened, self-concious neoromanticism that is over-the-top lush, surreal, skeletal, and even jazzy through its various incarnations. Pianist, director, and orchestra made the most of every moment.

And Strauss. Again, a self-aware, coyly manipulative con where the composer seems at once hip and square. Strauss's anachronistic waltzes are, as in Maurice Ravel, too good to be true, and archly erotic. The Marin Symphony shined in sumptuous strings and holistic horn playing that healed what ailed ye.

OK, so that was a little much. But so is the music.

And what can be said of Beethoven? The Sympony No. 5 is a defining cliche of classical music, its place on the cusp of romanticism unquestioned. But what is old now was new then in so many ways, and Neal captured some of that excitement, where an exposition must be repeated, a trombone must be wailed, and a piccolo must piercing over the top of the texture. This was early 19th-century head-banging music, and even the old (but living) guys in this current audience responded with their own rhythmic shakings of the arms and tapping of the toes.

It was surprisingly refreshing and exciting.