Thursday, April 1, 2010
Volume 17, Number 4
Is Space the Final Frontier in Elliott Carter's 21st-Century Orchestral Music? / Chip Michael
Budget Wozzeck Bargain / Mark Alburger
Chronicle of February 2010
Comment / The Accidental Music Lesson / Michael Gordon
Illustration / Elliott Carter - Birthday Flourish (1988)
Harriet March Page
Patti Noel Deuter
INFORMATION FOR SUBSCRIBERS
21ST-CENTURY MUSIC is published monthly by 21ST-CENTURY MUSIC, P.O. Box 2842, San Anselmo, CA 94960. ISSN 1534-3219.
Subscription rates in the U.S. are $96.00 per year; subscribers elsewhere should add $48.00 for postage. Single copies of the current volume and back issues are $12.00. Large back orders must be ordered by volume and be pre-paid. Please allow one month for receipt of first issue. Domestic claims for non-receipt of issues should be made within 90 days of the month of publication, overseas claims within 180 days. Thereafter, the regular back issue rate will be charged for replacement. Overseas delivery is not guaranteed. Send orders to 21ST-CENTURY MUSIC, P.O. Box 2842, San Anselmo, CA 94960. email: email@example.com.
Typeset in Times New Roman. Copyright 2010 by 21ST-CENTURY MUSIC. This journal is printed on recycled paper. Copyright notice: Authorization to photocopy items for internal or personal use is granted by 21ST-CENTURY MUSIC.
The Journal is also online at 21st-centurymusic.com and 21st-centurymusic.blogspot.com
INFORMATION FOR CONTRIBUTORS
21ST-CENTURY MUSIC invites pertinent contributions in analysis, composition, criticism, interdisciplinary studies, musicology, and performance practice; and welcomes reviews of books, concerts, music, recordings, and videos. The journal also seeks items of interest for its calendar, chronicle, comment, communications, opportunities, publications, recordings, and videos sections. Copy should be double-spaced on 8 1/2 x 11 -inch paper, with ample margins. Authors are encouraged to submit via e-mail.
Prospective contributors should consult The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), in addition to back issues of this journal. Copy should be sent to 21ST-CENTURY MUSIC, P.O. Box 2842, San Anselmo, CA 94960. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Materials for review may be sent to the same address.
INFORMATION FOR ADVERTISERS
Send all inquiries to 21ST-CENTURY MUSIC, P.O. Box 2842, San Anselmo, CA 94960. e-mail: email@example.com.
Elliott Carter recently celebrated his 100th birthday with lots of fanfare, feted for his music. Throughout his long life, Carter’s musical style defies classification, avoiding distinct association with any of the numerous of styles of music of the twentieth century. His early works were hardly ground-breaking; he was considered more of a “Harvard Composer” with obvious technical skill but reserved passion. However, Carter’s Cello Sonata (1948) established a middle period in his musical style, with “a new emotional intensity and breadth, giving it an epic quality.” With the Concerto for Orchestra (1974), Carter’s late period music obtained a density through poly-rhythmic structure and large chords creating a complex sound uniquely his own. This musical style would serve him through to the end of the Twentieth century. Continuing to defy convention by composing daily even in his advancing years, Elliott Carter is adding yet another dimension to his music. As he continues to develop as a composer, so does the density of his music, only now, in perhaps his “less-is-more” period, his music is moving toward space –seeking clarity.
The density of Carter’s late music style has been criticized and considered inaccessible; the sheer complexity of the rhythms and harmonic structure is perhaps too difficult to comprehend on first listening. However, those who love his music find it both a challenge and emotionally fulfilling. During a conversation with Chenoa Anderson, a performer of new music, she said the following about performing Carter’s music, “It's very logical music, but I think it's full of deep feeling also - much like J.S. Bach. There's an inevitability in what Carter sets in motion, and it's very satisfying when it reaches its conclusion.” Music is more than just an experience for the performer. If the audience fails to appreciate the music, there is little chance of the music gaining wide acceptance.
At the dawn of the Twenty-first century Carter’s music takes on a new dimension: less is more. In his dissertation on Carter’s Fifth String Quarter (1995), J. Aylward writes, “Certainly, while many portions of Carter’s late output contain densely layered music, reveling in contrapuntal texture just as abundantly as his earlier work, there is a tendency towards a thinning of texture in a number of the late pieces.”
Conductor Daniel Barenboim, for whom Carter’s Soundings (2005) was written, has this to say about Carter’s latest music:
I think Elliott has evolved really a new style that is in many ways directly related to what he wrote before but it is wonderfully distilled. It is what I always enjoyed in Elliott’s music was its innate complexity… [Elliott] has managed I think in the last 20 or 25 years I don’t know how much, not to lose any of the complexity but to distill its very essence.
With this distillation, Carter has achieved a new clarity and an accessibility not found in his twentieth century compositions. Through the exploration of his recent orchestral works Soundings, Dialogues (2005) and Horn Concerto (2007), I will show how Carter has begun to explore space within his orchestral music.
Elliott Carter writes a great deal about his music during the compositional process. The density of his Concerto for Orchestra was a result of his treating “the orchestra as a crowd of individuals, each having his own personal expression and coordinating in a less stereotyped way than is usually done in orchestral writing.” He goes on to say, “On a technical level, I was interested in investigating the possibilities of all the thirty-eight five-note and seven-note chords, and joining those of the most extreme dissonance with those of the blandest consonance.” Part of this need for density was to insure the music obtained its potential for expression.
…any music that is reducible to a few easily imitated tricks fails to achieve the full potential of musical expression. Music has to have the complexity of natural phenomena… And it has to be as intellectually challenging as the best poetry or philosophy.
Robert Thomas describes Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra as,
…formal polyphony. Four movements – Allegro, Presto volando, Maestoso, Allegro agitato – each with its own color, character and mode of transformation, are fragmented and superimposed. Fragmented restatements of each group’s material are never literal repetitions, but always transformations. Thus, in one work can be heard simultaneously formal superimposition, cross-cut collage, and a variational design.
Ostensibly, Concerto for Orchestra is a collection of elements intricately and simultaneously moving and shaping the piece: the very definition of complex.
Throughout Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra there is a density of sound. Although the opening of the piece is played pianissimo for the most part, there are still a large number of voices; the strings divide not only into 1st and 2nd violins, but nine desks for the 1st violins, three desks for the 2nd violins, three desks for violas, five desks for cellos and four desks for double basses, all playing their own parts. Even when there are homophonic movements, there remains a layered texture to the music to create a sense of sound mass. Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra is somewhat similar to Ligeti’s Atmospheres or Xenakis’ Metastasis, because the complexity of sound makes it difficult to cut through and capture individual moments or elements.
Part of the density of Carter’s music comes from the harmonic structure, which uses three-, four-, five- and seven-note chords. He also divides the ensemble in a unique way in Concerto for Orchestra, creating four groups defined by their tessitura rather than by the organic family. By crowding notes in the same tessitura together, he creates cluster chords which make isolating individual notes, or even tonal centers, difficult. Even in his Fifth String Quartet, a nearly twenty-first century piece, “Carter encourages the listener to cross-reference the individual traits in rhythm and pitches that repeat, transform, clash and combine to create ‘many layered contrasts of character—hence of theme or motive, rhythm, and styles of playing’ that weave in and out of the stream of motifs.” Anthony Tommasini, a reviewer for the New York Times, wrote in a recent review, “Mr. Carter's "Triple Duo" (1982), which came next, was a reminder of the unabashed complexity of his music from the 1970s and '80s.”
Carter, however, does not necessarily feel his music is complex.
I'm not sure it's really complex,…Contrapuntal music, which I'm most interested in, has many lines come together. What you're hearing you shouldn't be analyzing in detail. But you should be hearing the total effect. It's not that different from classics like Mozart, where sometimes they're just running around on chords or scales. I'm after the total effect, a nice thick sound with harmonic quality.
While he may not have felt his music written prior to this century was complex, there is definitely a sense of density to the music that makes it difficult to comprehend on first hearing.
As Carter composes in the twenty-first century, his music takes on a sense of space it lacked before. Individual lines, solo sections and slow moving chords can be heard, all designed to allow the listener to get a sense of clarity in the music. Examining three of Carter’s most recent orchestra pieces will show how Carter utilizes this new found space to create music which is more accessible.
Dialogues opens with solo English Horn (Figure 1). At the piano’s entrance, while there is more than one line of music and the pace of the notes is somewhat frantic, the texture is still sparse (Figure 2), with separate entrances for each note. The texture heard are two- and three-note chords alternating with single notes. Even when there are orchestral moments during the piano interludes (mm.35, 36 & 38), these are only moments in the music and not create the density that might be expected in a twentieth century Carter orchestral score.
Figure 1 Elliott Carter, Dialogues, mm.1-8
Figure 2 Elliott Carter, Dialogues, mm.24-26
At bar 51, there is solo English Horn again, but only for a few bars, when it is joined by a bassoon. Here the counterpoint is interwoven so that the instruments are playing solo lines alternating with each other in one super-solo line of music (Figure 3). Beginning at bar 109, there is a fuller orchestrated, denser homophonic section, but that is 3’15” into the work (Figure 4). Because of doubling, there are only three- and four-note chords, not the five- and seven-note chords of the Concerto for Orchestra.
Figure 3 Elliott Carter, Dialogues, mm.51-56
Figure 4 Elliott Carter, Dialogues, mm.109-111
At bar 120 (Meno mosso), the denser chords Carter used in previous compositions are heard. However, the chords are alternating sustained pitches between the piano and the orchestra. While the chords are six- and seven-note chords, the sustained pitches give them a chance to breathe creating the sensation of space in the music (Figure 5).
Figure 5 Elliott Carter, Dialogues, mm.1117-122
At bar 184, there is another section where the piano has a fairly active part accented by brass hits. With both hands in the piano part staying within the confines of the treble clef, the effect is a shimmering sound, so the brass hits provide the interest to the section. There is room between the hits to allow for openness.
It is only toward the end (mm.308-324) that we get any tutti-like ensemble is achieved (Figure 6). Even then, it is not denser than the Boston Concerto (2002), written only three years previously. In Dialogues, there is a fair amount of homophonic writing with only moments of contrapuntal texture. This allows the movement of the melodic line to be heard even amid the dense chords. While the Boston Concerto is a much denser score overall, it too has numerous places where the music is given freedom to be heard which place it among Carter’s less-is-more period.
Figure 6 Elliott Carter, Dialogues, mm.308-311
Dialogues achieves a sense of space throughout the work. In a review of a performance at Tanglewood, Jeremy Eichler wrote, “[Dialogues] seems to breathe the distinct air of Carter 's most recent ‘late-late’ period, in which he has been writing music of more grace and transparency.” It is this transparency which enhances the accessibility of Carter’s recent musical output.
Written for Daniel Barenboim to both conduct and play the piano, Soundings was designed never to have the two together allowing Barenboim to do both. Accordingly, there is an innate sense of space as he shifts between the two functions. Beyond the shifting functions, there is additional space in the overall score. After the initial piano opening there is primarily homophonic writing in the strings. Overtop forte shimmering chords in the woodwinds along with specific trills, alternate directions to create a sonic presence. Later, as the piano holds a sustained chord at bar 34, the oboe, bassoon and French horn enter as a trio. Initially pitting four against five in Carter’s typical polyrhythmic style, this slowly shifts to become interplay between the oboe and bassoon, each one occupying its own space with the French horn acting as accompaniment (Figure 7).
Figure 7 Elliott Carter, Soundings, mm.33-37
As the piece moves slightly faster at bar 48, soft sustained chords begin, allowing the listener a chance to hear density, complexity, and rich sonority. Even the faster sections (Figure 8) are played homophonically, avoiding the complexity of rhythm and harmony at odds with each other.
Figure 8 Elliott Carter, Soundings, mm.47-50
Even as the chords reach fortissimo at bar 56, there is still time to understand what is heard. At bar 102, the listener is treated to three piccolos over two sustained violins; the piccolo lines begin almost as if only one piccolo is playing (Figure 9).
Although this is followed by the trio of piccolos playing together, it is this initial “solo” expression that creates the space in preparation for the complexity that follows.
Figure 9 Elliott Carter, Soundings, mm.102-104
The music becomes tranquil at bar 119 with the upper strings playing in their higher registers. There is dense chordal and polyphonic movement, but it shifts slowly enough for each shift to be heard, registered, and appreciated before the next one occurs. This slow movement creates space indicative of Carter’s twenty-first century music (Figure 10).
Figure 10 Elliott Carter, Soundings, mm.117-120
This is an excellent description of how Carter isolates pitches in Soundings:
Carter’s Soundings not only carries a verbal dedication to Daniel Barenboim but refers to him in the framing piano solos by employing his initials D and Bb as a musical monogram. The very first piano solo opens with these two pitches, and the monogram appears no less clearly in the transition to the final passage. Here we can see mm.142-146 from the passage in Carter’s still precise, if occasionally slightly shaky, hand. In m. 144 the piano responds unexpectedly to the preceding massive tutti chord with a staccato D, followed after a gentler and shorter woodwind chord by an equally isolated Bb.
Carter himself described the piece, “…this diaphanous, airily orchestrated ten-minute composition is sort of concerto grosso whose string ritornellos (occasionally augmented to an orchestral tutti) alternate with episodes dominated by solo players.”
The diaphanous or transparent textures and solo episodes of Soundings create music easy to grasp on first hearing.
Written for and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Horn Concerto begins with a similar sound to the Concerto for Orchestra. Much of the orchestra plays at pianissimo allowing the horn in its lower register to still cut through even the more dense orchestrated sections. After a frenetic percussion and orchestral climax (bar 65), the horn has a lovely section accompanied by muted sustained notes in the brass (Figure 11).
Figure 11 Elliott Carter, Horn Concerto, mm. 68-72
There is a bombastic five-bar orchestral section at bar 103, to which the horn responds with a more energetic section, accented by percussion and isolated woodwinds (mm.108-126). The accents in percussion are just that, not sustained cacophony or density of sound, as in the opening of this concerto.
When the full orchestra is heard at bar 135, the sustained notes create a sense of rest in the music as the color shifts from winds and strings to just strings, and then to just winds in a slow decrescendo (Figure 12).
Figure 12 Elliott Carter, Horn Concerto, mm.125-142
Even the strings are given space to allow their melodic line to be heard. At bar 213, the 1st violins play in unison. Even though there are lower strings beneath them, the violin line is strong and soaring to cut clearly through and be heard. The violin line is isolated in its tessitura (Figure 13).
Figure 13 Elliott Carter, Horn Concerto, mm.213-216
As when earlier in the piece, a slow solo horn section is accompanied by muted brass, at bar 274 the horn is accompanied by soft strings and brushes on a gong. Once again, the effect is to isolate the horn and create space to allow the music to be heard (Figure 14).
Figure 14 Elliott Carter, Horn Concerto, mm.273-280
Allowing the lyrical line to be heard is important to the success of the Horn Concerto. Allan Kozinn wrote, “When everything goes right, hornists can work miracles. You need only have heard James Sommerville, the Boston Symphony's principal hornist, play Elliott Carter's Horn Concerto at Tanglewood a few weeks ago to know how chromatic (and lyrical) a horn line can be.” Not only is this a piece appealing to virtuoso performers, but it strikes a chord with the audience, as well.
While only select sections of Elliott Carter’s recent orchestral works are highlighted, there are numerous other moments in all of these works which create a sense of transparency in the music. It is this new-found space that makes Carter’s twenty-first century orchestral pieces more accessible. There have always been fans of his music, but perhaps now he will truly become a popular composer, whose music has appeal with more than just performers.
In a conversation with Frank Oteri, Elliott Carter had this to say about his current attitudes toward composition, “I feel I gradually exhausted the adventurous quality of some of those big complicated pieces that I’ve written. I am finding adventure in writing pieces that show the individual players more clearly.”
It is this clarity that is significant in Elliott Carter’s twenty-first century orchestral music. All the other elements Carter is famous for and still present: poly-rhythms, dense five- and seven-note chords, and intense counterpoint. However, Carter now allows the listener into his music like never before; various elements at work can be heard and enjoyed each in its own way. Carter’s music is now “wonderfully distilled,” while eminently complex, it offers space around the various elements to allow them to veritably shine.
Alban Berg's Wozzeck (1922) is a huge work calling for 17 woodwinds, 13 brass, a large percussion section, 50-60 strings, onstage military and tavern music, and a small ensemble reflecting the instrumentation of Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony. So, when the Ensemble Parallele announced its intentions to present the West Coast premiere of John Rhea's 21-piece orchestration of this seminal atonal operatic masterpiece, one could only think "stripped down" and "Berg on a budget."
But what was presented at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Gardens on January 30, however, turned out to be a gripping retelling of this classic, in a full-bodied manner that rarely reflected any sort of artistic compromise whatsoever.
Everything in life is a trade-off, of course. For a big performance of Wozzeck, a big theatre is needed, with much of the audience at a distance remote from the action. At Yerba Buena's 757-seat Novellus, viewer-listeners had the opera in their faces and ears. And what faces, voices, and sounds! Beginning with John Duykers, as the Captain, simultaneously projected behind the performers as if from a 1920's newsreel. Both Duykers and Philip Skinner (the Doctor) were in danger of stealing the show whenever they appeared, such with their stage presence and vocal prowess. Not to be outdone, nevertheless, were Bojan Knezevic and Patricia Green as leading man and lady (Marie). Knezevic brought pathos and power to his interpretation of this demanding role, while Green provided a lyrical lilt to her lovely Lullaby in Act I, evolving into the torment and terror of ensuing scenes.
Other supporting cast members included the menacing and commanding AJ Gleukert (the Drum Major), sympathetic and shining J. Raymond Meyers (Andres), and the lovely and strident (as called for in the role of Margaret) Erin Neff. First and Second Apprentices John Bischoff and Torleff Borstling took their turns at the comic and soulful, in counterpoint to Michael Desnoyer's brief electrifying cameo as the Madman. San Rafael fifth-grader Kai Nau made for an affecting Child, but where were his playmates in the final scene? Offstage adults, evidently.
A trumpet here, and piano there -- apart from a few obvious instrumental question marks, Rhea's practical re-orchestration kept the power of the original, and kept his relatively small orchestra quite busy over the course of the intermissionless evening, sparklingly and darkly interpreted by conductor Nicole Paiement, in an arresting staging by Brian Staufenbeil. Imaginative set and lighting from Matthew Antaky worked in, shall we say, parallel with Austin Forbond's engaging cinematic imagery. The final scenes brought it all together musically and visually, as Wozzeck drowned in a pond of smoky dry ice against visions of his filmic demise (couldn't help but think of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Frodo in the brief underwater scene): the summation of his life in the instrumentally brilliant final interlude (which serves as a kind of reverse prelude) mirroring the "life flashes before the eyes" of death.
Pretty great evening. Good to be alive. Appreciate it while you can -- Wozzeck, and everything else.
Looking at the stern, noble portrait of Herb Bielawa that graced the program his 80th-Birthday Composition Concert at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley (not the one above -- still searching for a jpg of the cover), one realizes that this friendly and magnanimous gentleman has become a grand old man of Bay-Area contemporary music.
The celebration presentation on February 7 brought a plethora of performers to honor this talented composer, beginning with the Villa Sinfonia Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Roy Oakley, in Bielawa's classic, prize-winning Essay (1958). Hardly a dry academic affair, the music percolated with passion in soulful string writing that kept listeners on the edge of their seats.
This was resonantly and humorously followed by Slide Show, for the trumpeter and two trombonists of the Brassworks Trio (Frank Beau Davis, Don W. Howe, and Christopher Vincenti), where the notes often went one way, while the trombone slides another, in a choreographic tour-de-force that was fun to listen to, too. Sitting on the Beach featured Monique Cooper sitting on the bench of the piano, delivering soulful sounds and a spoken soliloquy of Ogden Nash.
Sojourner Songs upped the vocal ante in a lovely suite of poems by John Gracen Brown, delivered thoughtfully by the San Francisco Choral Artists, under the direction of Magen Solomon. Odyssey brought the composer's organist wife, Sandra Soderlund, to the manual in uncompromising clashes that paid homage to the wilder side of Olivier Messiaen's output.
The evening concluded in the world premiere of Double Think, delivered committedly from the Pierrot ensemble Sounds New (Deborah Schmidt, Richard Mathias, Brooke Aird, Cathy Allen, and Miles Graber), substituting harpsichord for piano, and supplemented by the dulcet tones of soprano Anna Carol Dudley. The text, by Jeannie Pool, proved even more witty in the realization, and a good time was had by all.
Pit Stop Players. Thalia Theater, Symphony Space, New York, NY. "Concept counts for a lot these days, and Joshua Rosenblum, a composer, conductor and pianist, has an interesting one. Having spent much of his career conducting Broadway and Off Broadway shows, Mr. Rosenblum knew that some of the pit musicians he worked with were first-rate performers with an interest in new music. He gathered 10 of them — a string quartet, with clarinet, trumpet, horn, piano, bass and percussion — named them the Pit Stop Players and led them in a debut concert . . . . Perhaps because it was meant to be an introduction, the program was devoted mostly to excerpts rather than complete works. That had the virtue of showing the ensemble in a wide range of styles, but it also turned the program into a grab bag of incomplete thoughts. William Bolcom, for example, was represented by the third movement of his Violin Sonata No. 2, which Robin Zeh . . . played with enough flair that you wished that you could have heard the whole work. The Ariel movement of Paul Moravec’s Tempest Fantasy, for violin, clarinet, cello and piano, left a listener feeling similarly shortchanged, given the sprightliness and precision of the performance. On the other hand, two movements from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time had such a light-spirited, superficial reading that a full traversal would not have been advisable. The excerpting worked better in Morton Gould’s Benny’s Gig, a set of short, jazzy character pieces written for Benny Goodman. Four of the eight vignettes were scattered through the program as interludes -- or palate cleansers, as Mr. Rosenblum put it in his amusing between-works commentary -- in spirited readings by Ed Matthew, the clarinetist, and Jeff Carney, the bassist. Mr. Rosenblum’s own chamber arrangement of the Allegretto from Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 also worked well as a stand-alone piece. . . . The program also included the premiere of Michael Starobin’s Dream Dream Confronting, a score in a hybrid classical and theater style in which dark, Debussian string writing is juxtaposed with assertive brass fanfares and attractively melodic pitched percussion lines. . . . The attraction of Mr. Rosenblum’s jazz-tinged Who Knows? Maybe is in the interplay between the clarinet and trumpet lines and the fluid percussion writing. But the work’s episodic qualities undoubtedly served it better in it is earlier incarnation, as a ballet score, than in this chamber version. Mr. Rosenblum closed the program with his own freewheeling arrangement of Danny Elfman’s Tales From the Crypt theme music" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 2/2/10].
Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Levine, in Elliott Carter’s Dialogues. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "A not quite piano concerto from 2003, the 14-minute [Carter] piece offers a steady roil of angular, darting piano figures and orchestral retorts. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the soloist, played with his customary flair and precision, making the most of Mr. Carter’s athletic runs and melancholy melodic strains. Robert Sheena handled the important English horn part with refinement. And the applause that greeted the work intensified appreciably when Mr. Carter, now 101, walked down the aisle to share in the ovation. The orchestra’s playing reached its zenith during a Ravel second half: small wonder, given this orchestra’s historic association with French repertory, which it has clearly taken care to maintain. Mr. Aimard returned for a brilliantly detailed, spirited rendition of the crafty, eloquent Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. . . [T]he Suite No. 2 from that Daphnis et Chloé, with splendid work from the principal flutist, Elizabeth Rowe, provided a positively rapturous conclusion" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 2/1/10].
Unsound Festival. David Rubenstein Atrium, New York, NY. "The . . . Festival . . . claims a shrewdly amorphous domain: a zone in a virtual Europe (including Eastern Europe and Scandinavia) where electronics; arty, multimedia experiments; chamber-music meticulousness; punk impulses; and D.J. dance beats may all appear amid clouds of noise. Founded in Krakow, Poland, in 2003, Unsound started its first New York festival -- 11 days of events in Manhattan and Brooklyn, with a schedule (at unsound.pl/en) that includes concerts, films, panel discussions and D.J. parties -- with a free event at Lincoln Center . . . . It was a double bill of collaborations, with laptops aplenty: electronic music by Vladislav Delay (from Finland, living in Germany) with video by Lillevan (from Finland), followed by Solid State Transmitters, in which the Polish quartet Kwartludium (violin, clarinet, piano, percussion) and the German electronica musician Sebastian Meissner played highly transformed versions of songs from the catalog of the American punk and post-punk label SST. Both pairings reached for the rhapsodic and immersive, the stimulating haze. The SST songs were distantly derived from the originals, and remapped with Minimalist and post-Minimalist designs: drones, patterns, sustained swells, almost as if the presumed source material were an excuse for the kinds of sounds the group wanted to make anyway. The picked guitar line of Black Flag’s I Can See You, which had already hinted at an étude, was transferred to violin and looped into an elaborate canon. The guitar chords played at a fluctuating tempo in Blind Idiot God’s Rollercoaster were transferred to piano, turning them almost impressionistic, with Mr. Meissner’s electronics opening up echoey chasms below them, giving way to a simmering stasis of violin, clarinet and vibraphone. And the waltzing melody of The Main by Grant Hart became a high, eerie violin line over shimmering harplike sounds, then had an infusion of Latin percussion. It was convincing on its own terms, even if the SST originators might have rolled their eyes. From the European perspective, perhaps, behind the punk combativeness there was also a reverie waiting to emerge. The collaboration by Vladislav Delay and Lillevan, a shared improvisation, was simultaneously lush and bleak, enveloping the room with ominous implications. Like many electronica composers, Vladislav Delay has other aliases -- Uusitalo, Luomo, Conoco, Sistol -- including the one he used; he was born Sasu Ripatti. From his laptop came chords, mostly minor ones, wafting up like billows of fog. Within them were stop-start bass tones and ominous, interruptive sounds: gunfire, echoes, the scrape of a handheld microphone over his table full of cables and gadgets. A beat, more like a trudge than a dance, arrived and vanished at will; there were passages of little more than a low but insistent hum, or of ticking, staticky rhythm. It was a soundscape of looming cataclysm, and it paced Lillevan’s video projections (from his laptop) of rippling clouds and water, strobing vertical streaks, moving blobs like animated Rorschach blots and twinkling, pelting rain. Lillevan used monochrome, mostly gray or black on white, with pulsating red spheres — blood corpuscles? — when he showed a human silhouette. During a final crescendo, a vertical downpour filled the screen, growing denser up to a final whiteout of apocalypse or redemption. It was an exemplar of this festival’s aesthetic: high-tech, allusive and not to be pinned down" [Jon Pareles, The New York Times, 2/4/10].
In a way, this is a tale of two cities.
This past November I went to my hometown, Miami Beach, for a performance by the New World Symphony of my orchestral work, “Gotham,” a three-movement symphony that takes the city of New York as its subject. It is part of an ongoing project of “film symphonies” that I am creating with filmmaker Bill Morrison to capture the aura of cities.
My family moved to Miami Beach from Nicaragua when I was eight years old. I grew up not far from the art deco building on Lincoln Road that houses the N.W.S. Back then, Miami didn’t have much to offer a culture-starved teenager and at age 17 I left, eventually ending up in New York City. I’ve been returning to Miami Beach regularly to visit family and I’ve seen the city’s deteriorating Art Deco buildings transform into the ultra-hip South Beach of today.
Along with the rise of South Beach came the birth of the New World Symphony, an orchestral training academy founded by Michael Tilson Thomas that has turned the area into a Mecca for young classical musicians. This trip home for me was a bit surreal — returning after more than 30 years for my first professional date, and returning as a composer.
When the N.W.S. discovered that I was from Miami Beach they asked if I would speak to students at Miami Beach High — my alma mater. This got me thinking about my high school music teachers. I was amazed to see that the popular guitar teacher, Doug Burris, was still teaching there. I had the chance to chat with him and we spoke about the school’s former orchestra director James McCall. When I was in 11th grade I had nervously asked Mr. McCall if I could write for our high school orchestra. He turned to me and said, “You’re not only going to write for the orchestra, I want you to conduct it as well.” And I did. It was a fabulous opportunity for me.
Visiting Beach High and thinking of Mr. McCall started me thinking about the other music teachers who impacted my life in ways they never knew.
Florence Kutzen, my piano teacher, endured countless unprepared lessons. At age 10 I started distracting her from my lack of preparedness by showing her piano pieces that I had composed. It worked.
Once, at my last piano lesson before heading off for vacation, I asked Mrs. Kutzen what her plans were for the summer. Her reply: “Michael, musicians don’t take vacations.” I filed this line away in a special part of my brain, an informal collection of “accidental music lessons.” My interpretation of Mrs. Kutzen’s words has changed through the years, like a Talmudic discourse that is argued from different points of view:
1. Musicians just don’t ever feel quite right going an extended period of time without playing their instrument.
2. Music isn’t a job that you punch in and out of. It’s an obsession, a calling and your purpose in life.
3. Musicians don’t make a lot of money and you’re not going to be able to afford a vacation anyway.
With my compositions encouraged by Mrs. Kutzen and Mr. McCall, I asked my parents to help me find a composition teacher. Through a family friend they found the composer Francis Simon, who seized the moment in my very first lesson and “performed” John Cage’s 4’33”. I was stunned. I had started lessons with Mr. Simon for practical advice — like how to write correctly for the oboe. I didn’t realize at the time that my music teachers had opinions.
These accidental lessons weren’t the lessons I’d thought I was supposed to be learning, but they might have been the most important ones.
After I left Beach High I forgot all about the symphony orchestra. My compositions became focused on smaller, amplified groups devoted exclusively to playing newly written music, and I swore off the symphony orchestra as an out-of-date, past-its-prime mode of musical expression. But in 1999 I was encouraged by John Adams to write a piece for orchestra. That concert, which Adams conducted, included the premiere of his score for the Peter Martins ballet “Naive and Sentimental Music,” Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony, and my own new work, “Sunshine of Your Love.” The mysterious power and beauty of the orchestra spoke to me. I was hooked.
At Beach High I stood in the auditorium with 800 or so restless teenagers, talking about the upcoming performance with the New World Symphony. At the Q & A one teenager stood up and said, “Your music doesn’t sound classical at all.” He compared my music to both heavy metal and film music and called it “experimental.” That made me smile. For most people, “classical” is the musical equivalent of Shakespearean English. It’s wonderful to see “Hamlet” but no one wants text their friends in 16th-century lingo. As a composer today I have always felt that my music has to have meaning in the vernacular.
I was also happy because I thought that for this student and those who came to hear “Gotham,” maybe hearing my music, and its connection to “classical music” was one of those accidental lessons.
The New World Symphony performed “Gotham” along with music written by my longtime friends and colleagues David Lang and Evan Ziporyn. When I was growing up I couldn’t have possibly imagined that a concert like this would ever take place in Miami Beach and that I would be part of it. A few blocks away and 35 years ago I was dreaming of being a composer. James McCall, Florence Kutzen and Francis Simon were preparing me for a musical life. Those preparations, both intended and accidental, set me on the path that lead me to New York and then, eventually, back to Miami Beach. And so here I was, suddenly, in the city of my youth, a homecoming of sorts, presenting a work about the city I have now made my home. It was a rare moment for these worlds, past and present, to collide.
[New York Times / Opinionator / The Score, 1/25/10]
Stewart Copeland. Strange Things Happen. HarperStudio / HarperCollins Publishers. "[T]he Police have become the first band (as far as I can determine) in which every member has written an autobiography. That could theoretically make for some fascinating compare-and-contrast, he-said-he-said versions of a notoriously contentious group’s history -- if, that is, Copeland, like Sting before him, spent any time at all talking about his tenure in one of the most popular bands ever. Strange Things Happen is just slightly more generous on the Police years than was Sting’s Broken Music, which dismissed the band in a single page. Copeland devotes 10 skimpy, highly impressionistic pages to the years between 1976 and 1984, at which time the trio became the biggest band in the world. (The guitarist Andy Summers was more expansive about the glory days in his endearing One Train Later.) Almost as much attention is devoted, for no clear reason, to a single show in which he sat in with middling alt-rockers Incubus, or an incomprehensible MTV event for which he accompanied the Foo Fighters. Above and beyond the Police, Stewart Copeland has had a pretty wild life. He was raised in the Middle East, the son of a C.I.A. operative. He was something of a pioneer in the pop exploration of world music, recording with African musicians well before Paul Simon made his Graceland trek. He has worked on various documentary films and is an accomplished polo player. In Strange Things Happen, though, he glosses through these events at such high speed that at best, we get a wisecrack or a flip observation ('my daddy used to conduct his nefarious manipulation of local potentates with cocktail parties at our modest Ottoman palace'), but no real sense of what any of it means to him. His family, in particular, remains an enigma -- what are his actual thoughts about his father’s profession, beyond the exotic pedigree it bestowed on him? The book settles down in its final section, which covers the Police’s lengthy 2007-8 reunion tour. This is rich territory, since the always fraught relationships between the three musicians remained tense, and the motivation for a megatour, without even the excuse of some new music, is a bit suspect. After decades apart, they had come to appreciate the magic of their combination, but had become even more different as people. The scale and machinery of the concert industry (and the ticket prices) had grown exponentially, making the logistics of touring both better organized and far more elaborate. Copeland and Summers maintained a steady peace, as long as they stayed in their own lanes. But Sting, even more emboldened by his success as a solo act in the intervening years, is presented as an arrogant musical tyrant. The squabbling built to a moment in which the drummer finally said to the singer-bass player that only 'my high esteem for you has kept my hands from your throat, my ax from your handsome brow' (whether this is Copeland’s actual speaking voice or just his authorial voice is not clear, but you get the idea). For a reunion that was essentially a big-ticket nostalgia act, the passions of the Police still ran high -- and maybe a full book devoted to this curious era would have made for a better, and a more honest, story than Strange Things Happen" [Alan Light, The New York Times, 1/29/10].