Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Certain Dark Things

I mentioned in my Music Notes column last Sunday (Sept. 27) in the Asbury Park Press that the Monmouth Symphony Orchestra is performing my short piece Certain Dark Things on their concert at the Count Basie Theatre 3 p.m. Sunday Oct. 18. The piece was originally written as a piano solo dedicated to my wife, Lauren and orchestrated a couple years later.

The title comes from the Sonnet 17 of Pablo Neruda. Lauren had given me the poem as a gift a few years ago. I have tried several times to set it to music, failing each time, mostly because I can't come up with an accompaniment that satisfies the warm spiritual and sexual turbulence of this poem. The melody is easy and I have half a dozen different solutions sketched out. But the harmony and the underlying rhythms … that's another matter.

I don't love you as if you were the salt-rose, topaz
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:
I love you as certain dark things are loved,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that doesn't bloom and carries
hidden within itself the light of those flowers,
and thanks to your love, darkly in my body
lives the dense fragrance that rises from the earth.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you simply, without problems or pride:
I love you in this way because I don't know any other way of loving
but this, in which there is no I or you,
so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand,
so intimate that when I fall asleep it is your eyes that close.

Is there codependency there? Yeh, probably. But who cares? In the moment of its expression, what is captured is the overpowering sweetness and despair of love mutual and complete, yet antagonized by outside forces, the honking traffic of mundanity. The lovers here are pressed together "between the shadow and the soul" like flower petals in a book and their devotion, their allegiance, their tryst, is apparent to no one but themselves. Something in that image is so sad, so ecstatic and so perfect. It is the final union, the perfect transcendence of Otherness that rejects bright daylight joy and the spark of individuality and yearning. It closes the circle as near to God as we can get.

Certain Dark Things, then, is my instrumental answer to the problem, an attempt to capture some small aspect of the poem in sound without the direct explication of words. I don't attempt a broader spiritual or theological meaning. Just using the poem as inspiration for an emotional state that is carried through here. Another day, the music inspired by the same source could be quite different. But today, it is thus.


James Levine's Carnegie Hall Performance

Carnegie Hall just announced a few minute ago that James Levine is scheduled to undergo immediate surgery for a herniated spinal disc. As a result, the program for the upcoming opening night gala featuring the Boston Symphony Orchestra concert has been changed. The new conductor has yet to be confirmed but should be identified publicly soon. The new program will be Berlioz's "Le Carnaval romain," Op. 9, Chopin's Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21 with pianist Evgeny Kissin, the New York Premiere of John Williams "On Willows and Birches," for harp and orchestra featuring harpist Ann Hobson Pilot, and Debussy's "La mer."

The concert is 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 1 in Stern Auditorium. For further ticket information, contact CarnegieCharge at 212-247-7800.

Hopefully Levine's recovery will be swift and complete.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Music's Power

Music says something about our connection to Creation in a way that language can't--beyond the morality, politics, opposites that define the terms of language. Music reveals our connection to every thing, everywhere. The appearance of language, scientists tell us, is at least coincident with music in human evolution and most likely music even predates language. And in nearly every extant primitive human society, music serves some powerful magical or religious function. Music is the ultimate church.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

NYC Symphony Chorus

The New York City Symphony Chorus (aka SymphoNYChorus), performs at 7 p.m. tonight at Trinity Church, 503 Asbury Avenue in Asbury Park. The 30-plus member chorus and orchestra perform Gospel, spirituals, contemporary Christian music and old favorites. The event is free, with donations collected at the door. For more information visit the Trinity website or call (732) 775-5084.

At this writing, I know precious little about the choir. If I can find out more before the performance, I'll post again.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Newman-Oltman Duo

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to hear the Raritan River Music Festival, now celebrating its 20th year. Sadly, I haven't been able to get back to hear more since then, but its reputation continues to grow. Back then I also had the joy of interviewing the founders of the festival, guitarists Michael Newman and Laura Oltman. A couple and performing duo, they are charming hosts and tasteful, highly skilled musicians.

Recently I got an email from them announcing that their 2009 CD with the Daedalus Quartet, "Music from Raritan River," has received two Grammy nominations. Since founding the festival in 1989, the duo has commissioned a boatload of new music, including four works included on this recording.

The CD, released on the independent MSR Classics label, includes:
• Dušan Bogdanović (b.1955)--SEVDALINKA (1999)
• Lowell Liebermann (b.1961)--NOCTURNE-FANTASY, OPUS 69 (2000)
• Roberto Sierra (b.1953)--THREE HUNGARIAN TRIBUTES (1996)
• Augusta Read Thomas (b.1964)--memory:SWELLS (2005)
• Michael Karmon (b.1969)--CAUGHT IN THE HEADLIGHTS (2003)
• Rami Vamos (b.1976) & Randall Avers (b.1974)--THREE SONGS FOR TWELVE STRINGS (1997)

Hopefully I'll be able to offer a proper review of the CD soon. In the meantime, snippets of tracks are available on the label's website.


Friday, September 18, 2009

Justice for Jazz Artists

A group called Justice for Jazz Artists is holding a rally 2 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 29, at Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South at West 4th St., New York City. The group, founded in 2006, is petitioning clubs to help provide retirement benefits for working musicians. According to the group's recent email:

We successfully lobbied for a tax break that would go to jazz musicians' retirement payments, at no cost to the clubs; and yet none of the top NYC jazz clubs will even discuss the issue with us -- these clubs include the Village Vanguard, the Jazz Standard, the Iridium, Birdland, the Blue Note, Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, Smoke and (le) Poisson Rouge.

We're holding this rally to put public pressure on the clubs, so that they do the right thing. After the rally, we will march to the clubs and deliver our petition with 1500 signatures of professional musicians, demanding that the clubs direct the forgiven tax dollars to musicians' pension payments -- a tax break that we lobbied for, and the clubs are now enjoying.

The website provides more helpful background on this issue. Anyone interested in attending is encouraged to RSVP at purgood2@comcast.net and sign a petition available on the site www.justiceforjazzartists.org. Musicians are encouraged to bring their instruments. Call (212) 245-4802 ext. 185 for more information.


"Music and Human Experience"

Teaching a Fall semester Freshman Seminar at The College of New Jersey on the topic of "Music & Environment." I've noticed, of course, that there's relatively very little scholarly writing on this topic, despite the fact that every writer on music at some time or another points out the love of Nature (with a capital N) exhibited by musicians of all cultures through the ages and to a lesser extent the relationship of a composers' environments to the work they create.

The only actual textbook I've found specifically on this subject is called Music and Human Experience, by Arthur Komar, and was published in 1980. The book attempts a standard survey-of-music curriculum from the perspective of music's functions within society. It's a fascinating approach and handy to have. But it is also hopelessly out of date from a teaching perspective, pointing out just how much our culture has changed in the last few decades.

Given the book's raison d'etre as a substitute for standard intro to music literature texts, its emphasis on Western musical canon and standard repertoire is somewhat understandable. Within that scope, Komar strikes a nice balance of informative and entertaining, perfect for the lay reader. But it's been a long time now since educators have allowed themselves to talk exclusively about the music of Europe in such a course. In that respect, the book simply represents the dead end of an era.

Funniest of all in light of contemporary standards is the unit "The Music of Lands and Peoples" which deals exclusively with nationalist-inspired composers, from Mussorgsky to Copland. Just passing remarks on Bartok and little discussion of the growing ethnomusicology research, let alone its ethical quandaries. No mention of world music influences. No mention at all of African American music or its influences on European repertoire apart from Milhaud's use of jazz and one or two other such. No mention at all of women composers. No mention of environmentalism or soundscapes. No acknowledgement of the power of popular music (barely even a reference to the Beatles).

Even by the standards of the day, the absence of any discussion on minimalism is glaring. The style was still evolving and at the time amounted to an open sore on the body of traditional classical music scholarship. Funny, that so often what we can't see or can't tolerate in the present becomes the central element in our recounting of history.

I would say the '80s were the cutoff point for this particular group of offenses. By the mid-'90s, every music department was at least encouraging scholarship in these overlooked areas--perhaps "overlooked" is too soft. "Ignored" would might be the more correct word. A 1983 article on the absence of women composers in contemporary textbooks uses the diplomatic phrase "benign neglect."

No matter how you look at it, it's hard to believe that such a complete shift in scholarly expectation and emphasis, one that is now so widely accepted, could have occurred so recently.

I've got Komar's book on reserve for my students (that is, they can read it but do not have to buy it). Along with the valid scholarship it presents and its attempt to tie together music with other aspects of life, it offers a time-capsule glimpse of the wildly shifting sands of cultural definition and the simple, yet glaring mistakes that await us in our research.