Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Music and Human Identity

I just listened to this radio broadcast via a link on the KUT website.

The recording is a fascinating article on the success of a guitar class in a juvenile correctional facility. Music, it seems, has the power to heighten an individual's sense of self-control and self-worth. One of the interviewees even says, playing the guitar allows these kids to discover something about who they are.

This fits in with the findings the students in my class, Music and the Natural World, keep stumbling onto: music acts as bonding agent and, in helping define us within a group, also reinforces and strengthens our identity as individuals. This appears to be a trait of humanity, not just classical music, not just our culture, not just the Western world.

I just touched on this same subject in a column I wrote yesterday for the Asbury Park Press, appearing this Sunday. By way of acknowledging Christmas, Hannukah and the New Years holidays, I point out this role of music in expressing the spiritual and physical bonds we share as humans.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dream, Dream, Dream

Note: This is a post written June 1, that, for some reason, I didn't publish. Just found it among my notes.

Falling asleep, I have some great dreams. Things become associated with other things, qualities from one item of my life become part another, forming monstrous complexes of identities.

RED, photo by JeftyYesterday's involved the hollow sound of octaves in an atonal texture. They stick out like a sore thumb--like parallels in tonal 4-part harmony. The same effect. Without proper planning in a free atonal environment, nasty octaves invariably appear, like ants at a picnic.

And there they were, in my dream, octaves everywhere. Each pair of octaves were also the wheels of race cars and comparative rates in dollar amounts for some service which I don't now recall. Difficult, all these, trying to move one pitch of each octave to get a more pleasing interval while not creating another octave, not wrecking the speeding car and still getting the best deal for my money. Very complicated.

In all seriousness, though, this psychological experience is where the origin of musical expression is located for me: the in-between world where borders become blurry, where meanings bleed into one another. As a college student, I would often fall asleep listening to music (usually Josquin) and as I nodded off, I would be aware that the music had become blended into speech patterns and characters stored somewhere in my head, an expression of the internal drama of relationships--the incredibly minute details that we pick up from one another and amass into our understanding of one another. I would hear the music--see the music, experience the music--as a rendering of real human interaction, including dialog and physical activity. My two greatest preoccupations of those days--music and social relationships--would become the same thing.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Lennon Anniversary

Today is the anniversary of John Lennon's death. My blog entry from last year talks about my memories of that day and is titled Lennon Assassinated.

Also, if you're interested, you can now find a long excerpt from my article analyzing his "Revolution 9," from the Beatles White Album, at my page on www.academia.edu. The complete article is available through Perspectives of New Music (46/2, 2008).

For a quick taste of Lennon's genius, I would recommend "Julia," another "White Album" Lennon song, written about his mother -- the mother who first left him while he was still a child, to be raised by an aunt; and the mother who, after returning, died in a car accident when he was still a teen. His son Julian is named after her.

The song contains the most poetic use of a single-note melody I've ever heard. I love how strained, intimate and dark those openings words feel: "Half of what I say is meaningless/but I say it just to reach you, Julia ...." He sustains that chant on a single note until the last syllables of her name, when, as if moved out of himself by the memory, the melody suddenly starts to flower. In the break, the flowering becomes a lyrical moment among the best in any Beatles song. The contrast is heartbreaking.

Yes, we could talk about the confusion of his love for Yoko and his longing for his mother, a tension evident in the lyrics to this song. But for me, that only adds to the poignancy.

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Island of Dr. Bjork

Bjork’s album Biolphilia is one of the most interesting recordings I’ve heard in a long, long time. I presented it to my Music and the Natural World class at The College of New Jersey today, emphasizing its theme, repeated at every level of structure, of viewing the natural world on its own terms -- a poet’s view through the lens of science.

Like most people, I’ve been casually aware of Bjork and her music since Debut, released in 1993. Her last album, Volta, was one that I bought, largely on the strength of its single, “Earth Intruders.” On that album, she was reaching for a unified artistic vision, connecting the sound world of the various tunes with similar instrumentation, including horns of various types: boat recorded on the water and chorused French horns. The theme of the album is sociological, a musical and poetic study of humans.

But though ambitious, Volta didn’t reach me. Some of the effects, including the boat horns, seemed a little clumsy. Likewise a few of the songs, notably the duet with Antony Hegarty, “Dull Flame of Desire”. It all sounded somewhat cobbled together, directed but uneven.

Biophilia is equally ambitiuous. I’ve listened to it probably a dozen times now and have grown more enamored with each pass. Using inventive choirs, organs, harps and invented instruments, Bjork sustains a consistent musical texture, a clean line from beginning to end. The songs all share a dark, moody quality, with a main improvisatory vocal melody. The rest of the music is structured around that, in highly complex, transparent arrangements that are always surprising. Standard song formulas emerge, but the surface textures float free of the ground, like sacred chant. There are a few awkward musical moments, as in the arbitrary addition of a “drum and bass” style coda in “Crystalline.” But more often the juxtapositions grow organically into a cultivated flow, a single garden, lush and lovely.

Each song takes an element of nature imagery as its starting point, interpreting it poetically with connections that are highly personal and sometimes difficult to follow: “Thunderbolt” somehow inspires her to think of “arpeggios”; “Virus” veers into a verse on gunpowder.

>.View her video of "Moon" on her YouTube channel:

But despite that (or because of it) the poetry is gripping. In “Virus,” she compares the invasive role of a bug or a parasite to an obsessed lover, turning it over and examining it as a scientist, for its beauty, without denying its horror. “Thunderbolt” sets fear and a yearning for enlightenment in opposition as she questions the motivation for “craving miracles.” “Moon” startles as a prayerful ceremony of rebirth, as she celebrates her psyche washed, clean and reawakened.

The words could be completely satisfying and engaging read as poetry. Sung -- with odd offbeat accents that underscore their nonhuman content -- they gain emotional power. But no matter what, they remain anchored in the “biophilia” theme. Bending all to that end, on “Dark Matter,” she abandons words altogether, using her voice and her choir of closely harmonized womens’ voices to sing nonsense syllables, echoing the mystery to physicists of the dark matter presence in our physical world.

The invented instruments – a combination of celeste and gamelan, called a gameleste, on “Virus”; a Tesla coil rigged to sound a bass line on “Thunderbolt” – add to the sense of intimate human exploration of the mysteries of the world. Each offers a new perspective on the well-established laws of the acoustic physical universe.

All this says nothing of the marketing galaxy that accompanies Biophilia. In addition to the customary tour, CD and promotional videos, there are apps associated with the songs for the iPod, iPad and iPhone.

While extending the artistic ambition outlined on Volta, Biophilia is everything Volta is not: a deep artistic achievement, completely satisfying.

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Songbook From the Mayflower, 1620

Mayflower passenger William Brewster had a small library of hundreds of books, among them a 1599 book of psalm settings, “The Psalmes of David” by a popular composer of the day, Richard Allison.

Like the pop songbooks of today, Alison’s songbook allowed the performers a great deal of freedom. The music could be sung as solos, or in unison groups. It could be turned into four-part harmony or the parts could be played on any of the common instruments of the day: “lute, orpharyon, cittern, or bass violl, severally or altogether.” These instrumental arrangements could be done with or without a voice singing.

Then, as now, this type of flexibility for performances was imperative for the songbook to have wide currency. For musical performances, it was a do-it-yourself age. Local talent at all levels of accomplishment needed to be able to easily work up a performance from a page or two of notes. If it wasn’t easy – forget it.

Marketing being in its crude infancy, all of the bullet-point features of Allison’s songbook are stated, and restated, in the expansive title – a full paragraph long. Among these features, the title tells us, the volume was augmented “With tenne short Tunnes in the end, to which, for the most part all the Psalmes may usually be sung …. ” That is, you can take the words of any psalm and put them to the music of any of these 10 tunes. If one doesn’t work, try another. The tunes themselves, he adds, “are of mean skill” (they’re easy, in other words) “and whose leysure least serveth to practice” (you don’t even have to work at them, they’re so easy).

Not easy enough for Americans, as it turned out. Allison’s book wasn’t as popular here as it had been in Europe.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

State Theatre Offers Student Discounts

The State Theatre, 15 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, Tuesday announced it is offering $8 tickets for students to many of its classical music events, including major orchestra performances and the film presentations of opera performances.

Called the Students Meet The Arts program, the discount is funded by the Frank and Lydia Bergen Foundation and is good for the whole season.

Upcoming events that are available for students at the $8 price including the Hamburg Symphony, conducted by Jeffrey Tate, in performances of Vaughn Williams, Brahms and Beethoven 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18; the St. Petersburg State Orchestra led by Roman Leontiev with Alexandre Pirojenko as piano soloist in work by Ravel, Chopin and Prokofiev 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 12; and the Dresden Philharmonic led by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos with Gautier Capuçon, as cello soloist 8 p.m. Friday, March 9 in performances of Carl Maria von Weber, Dvorak and Beethoven.

The discount also applies to the performance of “Cinderella” by the Moscow Festival Ballet in April and the performances of ballet and opera on film, including tonight’s (Nov. 16) screening of Verdi’s “Aida” and the Dec. 8 showing, live from Teatro alla Scala in Milan, of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” with Daniel Barenboim conducting and Anna Netrebko and Bryn Terfel in the leads.

For tickets or more information, call the State Theatre ticket office at 732-246-7469, or visit www.StateTheatreNJ.org.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011


Spent a good part of today screening and discussing aspects of “Koyaanisqatsi” with the two sections of my freshman seminar, “Music and the Natural World.” This unit of the course is dealing with the rise and influence of environmentalism and “Koyaanisqatsi,” a 1983 film without dialog and with music by Philip Glass, is the perfect foil for class discussion. In fact, it invites a good deal more intelligent conversation than a great many other environmentally inspired works – composers like John Luther Adams (who I love) have made careers of linking music and nature in beautiful, intelligent ways. But with its inherently conflicted intent – part radical engagement and part Buddhist detachment – “Koyaanisqatsi” is tense, mesmerizing and philosophically resonant.

With much of the footage dating from the 1970s, it is surprising how contemporary the movie still feels. We note the old look of Times Square, the leisure suits and the clunky-looking cars (why don’t they come in those colors anymore?) only tangentially. In the main, neither the images nor the music have lost any of their force. The film is no more dated than is “The Rite of Spring.”

On the surface is a glib comment on the destructive nature of technology and human society. But the film’s director, Godfrey Reggio, finds himself embracing the machines and the humans who built them in all their ugliness and majesty. A witty transition into the human traffic sequences pauses on the façade of the corporate headquarters of a company called Microdata: The next scenes show humans themselves as microdata, streaming over the planet along paths of their own creation, like termites. Earlier scenes of a Twinkie factory are answered later by a shot from a camera on the conveyor belt, from the perspective of one of the Twinkies, as we head into a section dominated by lightspeed images of people in machines: We, the creators, have become the products.

Glass’ music is rarely dramatic in the Romantic sense of the word, instead accompanying the breakneck scenes with a cool-headed transparency, even as the tempo ratchets to match the superhuman pace of the visuals. Exciting because the images are exciting -- because we find them exciting -- the music drapes and does not flatter or judge.

What Reggio sees, and what Glass’ music perfectly captures, is the serene indifference of the universe, the gorgeous, unmoved natural world that serves as a backdrop and contrast for our descent into technological madness, our exotic, ongoing, unthinking metamorphosis into some future, unrecognizable machine. The haggard, contorted and notably self-satisfied human faces, shown in painfully long portraits that break up the high-speed action, tell a story more complex than can be told in words – a story of grasping at love, of devotion to emotional amputation, of the rationalization of our living death, our imprisonment in society’s high-priced, hurtling, hot rod hearse.

Should be required viewing in any media class.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

MSO Play Ewazen, Berlioz

The Monmouth Symphony Orchestra Sunday, Oct. 30, at the Count Basie Theater offered the world premiere of a work inspired by nature, by composer Eric Ewazen (b.1954) along with a dark work of Romantic fantasy, the “Symphonie fantastique” of Hector Berlioz.

Based on the Baroque form of a concerto grosso, Ewazen’s “Cascadian Concerto” featured the five members of the Monmouth Winds as the concertino group of soloists, Jenny Cline, flute, Nicholas Gatto, oboe, Cathy Adamo, clarinet Richard Sachs, horn, and Kitty Flakker, bassoon. While there was some solo work within the group, notably for horn and bassoon, for the most part Ewazen treats the ensemble as a single entity, playing a light counterpoint against the fuller sound of the main orchestra.

The music here is very old-fashioned and, at the same time, completely engaging. The work was inspired by the vistas of the Pacific Northwest, and I found myself listening to it as a part of a tradition that includes Smetana’s Moldau or Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite. The language speaks very strongly of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, and as a reference to those older models, it fares very well.

The orchestration in particular is highly polished, making it an excellent pairing with the master orchestrator, Berlioz. The third movement seemed to offer the greatest challenges to the ensemble in that respect and came across a bit awkwardly. But in the others the entire group played with a confidence usually reserved for much more well-known literature. The balance among the soloists and between soloists and orchestra, was exceptional and the technical abilities of the soloist group were evenly matched.

The Berlioz is a strange, visionary piece of music. In the opening three movements, the composer is maudlin as he attempts to get over a lost love. The final two on the hand are great fun: here the narrative breaks any hold on reality and the composer envisions himself walking to his death on a gallows and, in the finale, a macabre dance at a witches sabbath. The transformation of a deep love into a grotesque cartoon is Berlioz way of ripping apart his obsession, neutralizing it.

As the Cascadian Concerto looks back, the Symphonie fantasique looks forward. It’s language and adherence to a psychological drama is unprecedented outside of opera halls and the rigorous sentimentality is unprecedented just about anywhere. A friend of Schumann and Liszt, Berlioz was working toward a musical future where music’s ability to express the internal dramas of the soul was evident.

As one writer of his obituary noted disapprovingly, “the ghastly parodies which Berlioz produced in his infernal pictures may be said to be beyond the safety-line.” Yet it is precisely those moments, when Berlioz is beyond the safety line, that are most interesting and most gripping to audiences today.

The orchestra had moments of difficulty with some of the Symphonie, but much of the entire work, the final two movements in particular, was completely convincing. Throughout the evening, Roy Gussman led the ensemble confidently and with a clear and compelling interpretation.

Subscriptions to the remaining three concerts in the MSO’s season are available by downloading a form available on the group’s website, www.monmouthsymphony.org.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

String Quartets

I have string quartets on my mind these days. One old, one new. And I'm searching for ensembles to perform them. I have mentioned this on Facebook, but haven't written of it here.

In 1991, I wrote a String Quartet in three movements, partly as a reaction to the first Gulf War. I remember being fascinated by the media coverage. This was the first time we had such a clear view of an actual war in action and I was disturbed by all of the implications -- the technological voyeurism, the detachment with which we could observe the ugliness from the comfort of our living rooms. I was overwhelmed by the idea that here was a president I didn't vote for, enacting a war I didn't support, and that war machine rolling out before my eyes on my TV screen. I could watch, but I was powerless to do much else. And there, on my TV, were Americans talking about enduring that fighting for me. They were risking their lives believing they were protecting all of us back home. Every day feeling in turmoil, trying to go about the rest of my rather mundane life. To get it off my chest, I wrote a SQ. Atonal, highly dissonant -- a style inherited from my teachers, but the dissonance was even more pronounced. I liked that thorniness. Still do, although I don't write like that anymore.

The result is a somewhat disturbing score, attractive in its own dark way, and emotionally very heavy. I made a few half-hearted efforts to have it performed and then put it on a shelf and forgot about it.

Earlier this year, I revisited that score and discovered, by coincidence, that it had been 20 years, almost to the day. I had forgotten. I went through it in detail, editing and rewriting to make it more self-consistent and re-copying using notation software (the original was in pencil). I found I was overall very pleased with it -- nice to have written something 20 years ago and still be happy with it.

Then I started a new one. I'm just about done with the first part and have ideas for the remainder. I like where its headed. The music of the completed movement (the opening) has a bagatelle quality -- a lot of playful ideas and no ponderous message. My sense now is to keep that through four or five more short movements. I have a structure in mind, but that's more subject to change than in some of my other works. We'll see.

So I'm contacting ensembles, one by one, and anybody I know who is connected to ensembles, in the hopes of finding someone willing to perform the first one and at least take a look at the second. If necessary I'll hire an ensemble myself at some point, though I can hardly afford it.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 from the International Space Station

These were taken by the sole American on board the International Space Station, Frank Culbertson.

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9/11 Music Marathons

Listening to Marvin Rosen's 9/11 marathon on WPRB. He's playing 24 hours of music inspired by the attacks of 9/11, without commentary. Letting the music do the talking.

I missed the first 17 hours, being absorbed in 1.Dr. Who, 2. Sleeping, 3., watching and listening to the memorials broadcast on TV and 4. baking goodies for the necessary sugar uplift later in the day.

But now I'm tuned in and digging it. On Facebook, people have been posting music like crazy the last week in "Postminimalist, Totalist, etc." group. Hoping to listen to some of that later.

Also going on today is the "Music After" Marathon, containing performances involving dozens, if not hundreds, of musicians and composers who have some connection to downtown New York City. I wrote about this for the Asbury Park Press a couple weeks ago. Unfortunately, the Press isn't consistent about archiving my columns online, so I can't find a link to it anywhere. But you can read about it on Christian Carey's blog for Sequenza21. The performance started this morning (at the time of the first plane strike of the WTC) and continues until at least midnight at Joyce SoHo, 155 Mercer Street, Manhattan.

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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Lymon Legacy

Had a great time last night at Asbury Park's The Showroom where I was part of a panel discussion about Frankie Lymon, R&B, teenagers and Asbury Park. The topic was loose, but everybody seemed to hit on the same points, centering around the social changes that were happening in the 1960s and how we -- as kids and as a city -- and the music we listened to, all seemed bound up with them.

Tony Pellegrosi and Lorraine Stone were on hand and contributed very interesting stuff. Lorraine's long list of girl groups was very funny and eye-opening at the same time. My role was to generalize (it's what I do best) about the power of music to focus the social needs of the era and its younger generation. And of course to represent the Black Box as a producer of its Music of Invention series.

We also heard some great young, local talent, including singer Kimberly Puryear, guitarist/songwriter Mikey Butler and rapper Little Pop (a devout and cool young man whose "Pop" stands for "Prince of Peace"). Helen Chantal Pike organized the event and acted as a moderator, keeping the whole discussion focused. A wonderful evening.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Trills in Bach B-Minor Fugue

This article deals with one detail of the interpretation of the B-Minor Fugue by J.S. Bach from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Anyone not interested in either Bach or piano playing might feel compelled to skip this whole thing. I won't be offended if you do.

As a little update to my earlier post on this fugue, Learning the B-Minor, I am pleased to say I've actually learned it. I've been playing it fairly confidently, with the prelude, for a few months now, but I'm still in the process of memorizing and trying out possible interpretations. In particular, the trills are still giving me some trouble.

Only one trill is actually indicated in the score: a half-note trill in the third measure, at the end of the first entrance of the subject. In my Peters Urtext edition, the trill ends with two grace notes. By implication, that same trill (and arguably the same grace notes) should be played at the same spot in the subject wherever it occurs, heightening the subject's recognizability and preserving its character. But that simple goal gets mighty tricky, mighty fast.

In a couple places no trill is possible--there's simply too much going on and too few fingers to play it. In four cases, the trilled note is harmonized by one or two sustained notes in the same hand, making a trill difficult but not impossible. In two of those four cases, and in one other place, the trilled note doesn't resolve down but is tied across the bar, making the ending of the trill necessarily different than all the other instances.

The rule of thumb in cases like this is to look for what is consistently possible. But in this case, no solution was going to work in all instances.

I decided to do a simple survey of performances available on YouTube to see how others players handled it. I really thought there would be one agreed upon standard with a few variations, depending on the player and the instrument. So wrong! The variety of interpretations is stunning. Here are a few. These don't constitute my recommendations necessarily, as you can probably tell by my comments. They're just a random collection of performances that were available for free online:

  • Ashkenzy's approach is the most logical. He makes a couple small changes in the trill (starting on the main note, not the upper note as I was taught, and excluding any grace notes at the end). He then uses this same trill at every possible place except the notes that are tied and the two places where the note is harmonized as a three-note chord in the same hand.

  • A German pianist named Friedrich Gulda is the most ambitious, using the trill (again starting on the main note) in every possible place, including the tied notes--even the terrifying (to me) trill between the 4th and 5th fingers in bar 15. He even throws in a few more decorative trills here and there, particularly on held notes. His trills are undoubtedly impressive, but in general, his interpretation strives for glory through crescendo and comes across as merely abrasive.

  • Pianist Joanna MacGregor uses only the clearest opportunities for trills, excluding all the trouble spots I mentioned above. She also has a dramatic shift in dynamics between the statements of the angular subject and the mellow, more melodic episodes. The effect is as if a person struggling with some inner demon occasionally stops to listen to the voices in the next room. Her approach is interesting, but strikes me as an exaggerated interpretation.

  • Harpsichordist Kenneth Gilbert includes the most obvious trills during the exposition and skipping the trouble spots, before abandoning the trills altogether. In the last half of the piece, the only trill he includes is one of the tied notes. It's interesting to hear the difference in pitch. The lower tuning of Gilbert's harpsichord (and Belder's, below) is probably the more historically accurate, compared to the standard pitch of modern piano tuning. This clip includes both the Prelude and the Fugue; the fugue starts at 4:17.

  • Pianist Bernard Roberts plays all the trills, without exception, including one of the impossible ones, which he makes possible by truncating it. (Oddly, he includes the grace-note finish in each trill, even in the cases of the tied notes.) His trills are strictly 32nd notes, slower than the others on this list.

  • Glenn Gould's version is, of course, completely whacked. First, he plays the fugue at a lightning tempo, staccato, in defiance of all logic and Bach's own tempo marking. Given that, it's still interesting to note that he takes all the possible trills except one, altering the final notes as needed to execute the tied versions.

  • Harsichordist Pieter-Jan Belder, in a 2008 recording, takes what is possibly the most radical approach: he plays the first trill, the one that's notated, and that's it. It's surprising how popular this reading of the score is, particularly with pianists. To find it with a harpsichordist is even more remarkable. It must be added however that Belder's interpretation is really beautiful. Along with Ashkenazy's, it's my favorite of this group. Further, Bach was known to have bridled at performers who took liberties with the ornaments in his scores, so there is adequate historical defense for this purist interpretation. (Belder's tuning is about a half-step lower than standard, but still noticeably higher than Gilbert's.)

And in the end, the result of my survey probably could have been predicted at the outset: It's up to each performer to decide for themselves. This flexibility only highlights the beauty of this music. Played with skill and conviction, nothing you can do can mar that.

Unless you're Glenn Gould, in which case, Bach and I both forgive you.

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Monday, July 4, 2011

American Tune as Hymn

Worth mentioning for America's Independence Day is Paul Simon's American Tune. This one has always been a favorite of mine, but lately I've been thinking about it more. Written over three decades ago, there probably isn't a better anthem for the state of U.S. society at present.

A lot has been written about it, including an interesting post by culture blogger ChimesFreedom.com. The author there notes that the melody used by Simon is a reworked version of a chorale tune used by J.S. Bach in the St. Matthew Passion, the same tune that became the basis for the hymn, "O Sacred Head Now Wounded." That author adds a bit more detail about the melody's origins. I discovered the connection completely by accident while playing through some of the Bach chorales at the piano. And that started me thinking more deeply about "American Tune."

Simon's use of the melody here lends the song the character of a hymn, reinforced by chord changes on every note--the style of a traditional four-part hymn setting. The lyrics at first sound almost conversational--personal, confessional and melancholy like many of Simon's songs. But the musical underpinning keeps our attention focused, waiting for the song's larger intentions to unfold. In the way that a hymn's lyrics serve at once as a simple testament and as a metaphor for an entire system of belief, the music from the outset leads us to expect this song to have a greater significance.

Where the first verse is strictly personal, the second verse extends the perception of hardship to his friends: "I don't know a soul who's not been battered, I don't have a friend who feels at ease … etc." The lyrics of the next section, the break, are ironic, both wistful and playful--the singer pictures himself dying, smiling at himself, moving on. But then, almost as an afterthought, he throws in that he sees "the Statue of Liberty, sailing away to sea."

In the final verse we see that that potent image is the very heart of the song's intent: We are a great society that is losing its focus, that has lost its way. "We come in the ship they call the Mayflower, we come in the ship that sailed the Moon, we come in the ages' most uncertain hour, and sing an American Tune, but its all right, its all right, you can't be forever blessed." The last lines put the song back again into personal territory and add a hint of fatalism, "tomorrow's going to be another working day, and I'm trying to get some rest."

While it doesn't bear out in all hymns, the extension from the personal to the general is itself a hallmark of hymnody. "Amazing Grace" for instance turns the experience of one sinner's conversion, the first-person singular, to a lesson for all of us, the first-personal plural, in the last verse.

"A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" speaks first of God as a protector against earthly enemies and mortal ills; the second verse invokes Jesus and posits him as a power beyond the force of time; a third verse sees God as a protector against Satan and demons; and the final verse envisions God as a power greater than any other in the spiritual realm. In the final lines of "A Mighty Fortress," "the body they may kill/ God's truth abideth still/ his glory is forever," we see the same trick that Simon uses: returning at the end to the personal imagery of the opening to anchor the now generalized message firmly within the experience of the individual.

Thus even if we ignore the longing for eternal rest implied by "I'm just trying to get some rest," the structure of "American Tune" is convincing as a hymn, a weary critique from the same Christian belief system that has always been used to support our flawed sense of nationhood.

None of this necessarily makes this a good song--many others have retooled classical melodies, for instance, with far less impact. What makes this a good song is the complex, intuitive geometry of language and musical elements--a puzzle consistently mastered by only the finest songwriters. However, details like this, when they work, make a good song even better.

While the ChimesFreedom.com writer chooses a video clip of Simon and Garfunkel live in Central Park in 1981, I prefer Simon's solo version from 1975, below.

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Fourth of July and Hendrix

On this Fourth of July, I'm noting that my posts about Jimi Hendrix's 1969 "Star-Spangled Banner" performance at Woodstock remain some of the most popular on this blog. The main blog entry in the series is the analysis of the peformance, as filmed by Martin Scorcese in his documentary, Woodstock. Unfortunately, the clip I had snagged from YouTube has been taken down for copyright infringement. Plenty of YouTubers have posted this same clip elsewhere, so rather than replace it, I'll just let the readers look it up for themselves. (A Google search of Jimi Hendrix National Anthem Woodstock usually produces the item.)

While you're at it, you might want to check out this brief clip of Hendrix talking to Dick Cavett about the "Star Spangled Banner" performance.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Garden State Phil.'s July 4th Party

The Garden State Philharmonic will be performing a free Fourth of July celebration concert, Celebrate America!, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 2, at the Ocean County Library, 101 Washington St., Toms River. Expect light classics and patriotic music.

The concert is outdoors, so bring a lawn chair or blanket. The group will have simple snacks and beverages for sale and the proceeds go to support the orchestra, but it's perfectly OK to bring your own picnic baskets. Many people do.

For more information contact the ensemble at (732) 255-0460 or email info@gardenstatephilharmonic.org.

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Friday, May 27, 2011

Locrian Chamber Players

The Locrian Chamber Players performs a program of music written during the last 10 years at 8 p.m. Thursday, June 2, at Riverside Church, 10th Floor Performance Space, Riverside Church, 91 Claremont Avenue, New York City. The ensemble's makeup has always been flexible from concert to concert, allowing it to perform a wide range of repertoire while maintaining a core of regular players.

The group was formed in 1995 and is dedicated to performing only music of recent vintage, by artists ranging from the well-known to the totally obscure. This program features a string quartet and piano. Performers are Calvin Wiersma and Conrad Harris, violins, Daniel Panner, viola, Greg Hesselink, cello, and Jonathan Faiman, piano. The program:
John Adams's String Quartet; Eleanor Cory's Conversation; Reiko Füting's Kaddish--The Art of Losing; Raul Quines' Sketches, and Robert Cohen's Midnight Girl
Both Sketches and Midnight Girl are world premieres. A reception will follow the concert.

For more information, call (914) 923-5511 or email info@locrian.org.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Keeping It Real

Soon this morning, I'll get started on some spring cleaning. The big wood porch is the first job--what a mess! A full winter's worth of crap and construction debris. But while I'm waiting for my final round of coffee and toast, I wanted to offer some of what's on my mind these days, what I'm wrestling with in music composition.

In my teenage years and through my 20s and 30s, I wrote songs. At first these vacillated between really elaborate, epic productions that could never be fully realized, more like operas really, and simple two or three chord songs for guitar. In my 20s I toyed with writing a pop album, but after years of work on it, I was dissatisfied. I felt like I had sacrificed my original musical goals for the remote possibility of commercial success and wound up feeling like a fool as a result.

From that point on, I consciously started writing extremely simple songs for guitar and voice--numbers intended only for myself to perform and that would satisfy me as my primary audience. In a quick informal inventory recently, I found I can recall the names of over 30 of these--finished songs that I'm proud of and like to sing--and there may be a dozen others that I'm forgetting. All of them were recorded on cassette tape with the lyrics written in steno pads. They're all stored now on a shelf in my studio.

I occasionally played these songs for others and people liked them, but I never really tried to "work up an act" or perform them regularly. The point of them was not just to refine my art but also to come closer to what I thought of as the kernel of the musical experience--a music therapy, if you will, a magical music that emanates from the core of a human being and enlarges that person's experience of himself and the world.

That experience remains a challenge for me in my concert music compositions, as I am constantly seeking that same vitality, the visceral, elemental, magical expression.

In 2008 and '09, I found myself, by accident really, returning to songwriting for what became the album Three Rooms. The delight, the sense of satisfaction in writing those songs was amazing. It was like finding something you had thought was lost years ago--or more, like suddenly regaining the use of a limb that had withered.

This morning, I'm thinking about how many famous composers from history seem to begin their careers very close to notions of music as song and as virtuoso display, but later move more toward music as architecture--and by that I mean to imply not just structure, but totality, a music designed to be lived in and explored. Bach and Beethoven come to mind, but also Mozart, Schoenberg, Webern … . I see Eliot Carter's shift to abstract music in his 40s as a feature of this same phenomenon, the mature pursuit of a greater music. The composers involved in this journey who have not left behind the elemental power of song are often the most admired.

So that is my ongoing challenge: to find the music in my lungs, in my body, and to expand that way of being into the very fabric of the universe, to enlarge my own sense of the human experience. And to keep that sense of vitality and renewal in the act of music composition.

Coffee's ready and I'm done with my toast.

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Philadelphia Orchestra

Today, I am distracted by the recent news from the Philadelphia Orchestra. Friday night they were deciding whether to declare bankruptcy. This morning I'm reading the board has now voted to take that step.

It is interesting to note the orchestra will list assets in excess of three times its liabilities. Meaning that it doesn't have to declare bankruptcy at this moment. It has the means to continue to meet its obligations. Quotes from the board seem to indicate that the filing would be preemptive, an attempt to prevent the orchestra from having to shut down completely at some point in the future. Concerts will continue as normal for the remainder of the season at least.

All five musicians on the 75-member board voted against filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In fact, the musicians of the orchestra may yet succeed in blocking the filing. The underlying assumption here is that at least one of the goals of bankruptcy will be to reopen negotiations with the musicians, and ultimately to reimburse them less for their participation. The uncertain future is causing some to think of leaving the ensemble.

Meanwhile, the Honolulu Symphony declared bankruptcy and ceased operations in 2009. However recent talks have produced a new organization, the Symphony Exploratory Committee, with a much smaller budget. Musicians who had been employed by the orchestra will return, at roughly the same amount of money they were making two years ago (a paltry salary). Musicians will not be paid extra for some publicity appearances on radio, and probably there are other small concessions. But most of the cost savings comes from paring down administrative costs. Not from increased revenue projections.

These are troubling times for classical music and for orchestras in particular. As old funding mechanisms fail, new ones are not being put in place and the lessons of reinvention are learned over and over, by each group in turn, the hard way.

The question on many musicians' minds is, how could the communities these orchestras serve allow this to happen? How could Philadelphia, for instance, allow one of the world's leading orchestras, one of the greatest sources of pride for one of the world's greatest cities, to come to this juncture? The Philadelphia Orchestra posted this explanation on its website:

... a decline in ticket revenues, decreased donations, eroding endowment income, pension obligations, contractual agreements, and operational costs. Our beloved musicians made multiple generous concessions during the collective bargaining negotiations. Our Board donated more than $9.5 million above and beyond annual giving. And our professional staff was both reduced and agreed to pay cuts. These proactive and important steps were simply not enough to solve all of the issues we face.

The letter goes on to say that the board has a strategy for righting its finances, but does not outline specifics.

Some musicians (not associated with the orchestra) are pointing to the Philadelphia Orchestra's investment in its new home, The Kimmel Center, as a large mistake. The Academy of Music, which the group still owns, is a somewhat rickety, historic building with steep stairs. Not big, not showy, but still relatively comfortable, with warm, wonderful acoustics. However, given the fact that so many other orchestras are currently failing, and given the reasons the orchestra's board cites above, it would appear that there are deeper issues at work.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Jazz in Orchestral Programming

Symphony orchestra music directors need to program work by some of the great African American jazz composers. I can't think of one instance recently where this has happened. And it is necessary. The classical tradition, over the last 100 years, has moved slowly from exploiting jazz while mocking it as a vulgar "folk" idiom--mining its appeal and techniques while keeping it at arm's length--to a grudging admission that jazz might actually be an essential element in the evolution of the classical tradition in the 20th Century. Jazz at Lincoln Center brings the styles of jazz permanently into the Mecca of U.S. classical music, the same center where the Metropolitan Opera and Juilliard School are housed.

But JALC, as important as it is, does not undo the century-long hostility that kept jazz (with rare exceptions) out of the classical concert halls. In an important way, JALC is just the last bastion of the "other music" mentality. In the same way that Black History Month distracts attention from the absence of black history that should be taught in our schools year round, Jazz at Lincoln Center presents the entire jazz tradition as a self-contained museum exhibit, allowing its importance to be acknowledged while still isolating it from the main body of performable concert music.
There are some things about jazz that are different. But not as many as leaders in the classical world like to believe. Jazz and classical are part of the same tradition, the dance hall and the club, the chamber music salon and the concert hall. The same audiences heard all of it, often entertained by the same musicians merely dressed differently. The repertoire moves easily from one to the other. We just haven't gotten to the point of seeing that yet.

Orchestra works by jazz composers represent an obvious opportunity to enrich the symphonic canon and begin to bridge the unnatural gap between these two vital repertoires. We could begin with James P. Johnson's "Victory Stride" or Duke Ellington's "Black, Brown and Beige". Then we could investigate the possibility that many other jazz composers have written for orchestra and we just don't know about their work. I suspect that we'll find that many homes and many library archives contain important scores that deserve to be heard. Probably we'll even find great composers whose names are unknown in both the jazz and the classical worlds.

The worst that could happen is we end up with only a handful of works that we can add to the list of classical pieces that get recycled each season. That would still be progress.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Robotica at The Flea

Being a fan of both experimental music and robots, I am of course a huge fan of LEMUR, the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots.

This clip shows experimental musician/composer Dafna Naphtali performing with the robots of the LEMUR, including the (should-be) famous GuitarBot (were I a Transformer, my alter-ego would be GuitarBot).

Area residents may remember Dafna from her appearances at the Black Box of Asbury Park's Music of Invention, which I produced from 2004 to 2009. She will be premiering her piece, "Robotica" with the LEMUR robots 3 p.m. Saturday at Tribeca's Flea Theater, 41 White St. (btwn Broadway and Church), New York City, as part of the Music with a View Festival.

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Shamie Royston Trio at Makeda

The Shamie Royston Trio appears tonight, 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. at the Ethiopian restaurant Makeda, 338 George St., New Brunswick. Royston is a pianist and composer and will be playing with her regular band, featuring Ivan Taylor on bass and Chris Brown, drums. Joining them will be Curtis Taylor on trumpet and Royston's little sister, Tia Fuller, sax.

Fuller has been on the national stage since joining Beyonce as part of her all-female touring ensemble and appears on the DVD The Beyonce Experience. Royston is the pianist on Fuller's latest solo recording, Decisive Steps on the Mack Avenue label.

Admission to Makeda is free with a $5 minimum. For more information call 732-640-0021.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

NJSO "Best Of Spanish Flair"

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s “Best of Spanish
Flair” program last night at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank featured the evergreen Concierto de Aranjuez of Joaquin Rodrigo in its entirery, surrounded by a collection of mostly well-known but also some less familiar works.

The Gershwin Cuban Overture was a bit of a suprise. Less popular by far than his orchestra touchstones Rhapsody in Blue and American in Paris, Cuban Overture bubbles with the hip-shaking rhythms of Cuban nightclubs of the 1930s, with signature bongos, maracas and claves in the percussion section. Like all of Gershwin’s music, the overture bubbles like an unstoppable, sexy diletante--a romantic, evocative poetry from a high-priced hotel barstool. It is well-crafted, effective entertainment by a born entertainer.

Another less-known piece was living Mexican composer Arturo Marquez’s Danzon No. 2. Written in 1994, the music sounds as if it could have been written in Gershwin’s lifetime, full of the same gushing sweep of folk-inspired melody. The rhythms were more unusual and compelling--a more personal view of Mexican folk style than Gershwin or Copland could achieve. But the piece itself has an easy structure designed to be downed in one gulp.

These two, plus Manuel da Falla’s “Miller’s Dance” from The Three-Cornered Hat and Copland’s El Salon Mexico. It was a pleasure to hear the consistent tangle of Latin dance rythms articulated for such a good long stretch in an orchstra concert, rather than just as single character work. In all three, the orchestra played with suitable energy and enthusiasm, but the diamnd-tipped precision needed to carry off the polyrhythms, particularly in the counterpoint of the Gershwin and Copland, was somewhat lacking. The combined effect made me think that there should be more bands specializing in this repertoire.

But the Aranjuez was the real jewel of the evening and here the orchestra was at its best. Oren Fader was the perfect soloist--steeped in the complexities of new music, he threw light on both the technical and the expressive, showing the strength and dignity in both, and turning what could easly have been a run-of-the-mill event into something captivating and exquisite.

Sadly, I had to leave before I could hear the Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Capriccio espagnole that concluded the concert. I’m sure it was my loss. Throughout, guest conductor Thomas Wilkins was a relaxed, charming host, telling stories, chatting with children in the front row (noticeably few children in attendance--few enough of anyone under the age of 50 in fact) and putting the program selections into context.

The "Best of Spanish Flair" will be repeated at bergenPAC in Englewood this afternoon at 3 p.m. For more information visit the NJSO website.

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Handel, Countertenor, Period Instruments

The Musica Raritana Period Instriument Orchestra performs 8 p.m. Friday March 25 at Nicholas Music Center in the Rutgers Mason Gross School of the Arts, George St., New Brunswick, in arias for castrato voice by George Frideric Handel and Nicola Porpora. The soloist will be British countertenor Mark Chambers. Check out his MySpace page and listen to him sing Vaughan Williams' "Silent Noon."

In addition to recordings and worldwide concertizing, Chambers has the odd distinction of having appeared in the soundtrack of episodes of "Dr. Who", the legendary and long-running time-travel TV show on the BBC.

Along with him as soloists will be Mason Gross students Sungji Kim, soprano, and Andrew Stuckey, baritone. Tickets are $15, $10 for students, by calling 732-932-7511 or visiting www.masongross.rutgers.edu.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

NJSO, Best Of ...

This weekend, in performances around the state, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra is offering one of their "Best of … " programs, featuring descriptions and other narration accompanying shorter excerpts from the classical repertoire in a one-hour concert. I'm not a huge fan of these, but that's partly I already know something about the repertoire and the history, so a string of excerpts and short descriptions is going to be kinda boring. The group does manage to throw in at least a couple of moments of less familiar repertoire, and the ensemble's playing is always first-rate, so if I do go it won't be a total loss.

When these programs began last season, I wrote that it was too much Discovery Channel and not enough traditional concert experience. I stand by that, but I have to admit that there is a real benefit to the Discovery Channel approach. For someone who doesn't know the repertoire but is interested, these kinds of events might be far more interesting than a standard concert. You get a sample of a variety of music, along with entertaining narration giving you some context to help grok the music's significance.

And that's exactly what these programs are designed to do: to introduce the casual listener to the rich repertoire, to dress the music in a way that shows off its sexy curves. The gamble is that once you're smitten, you come back for more as a regular subscriber.

This weekend's program is "Best of Spanish Flair", and includes selections from George Gershwin's Cuban Overture, Manuel de Falla's The Three-Cornered Hat Suite No. 2, Aaron Copland's El Salón México, living Mexican composer Arturo Marquez's Danzón No. 2, Georges Bizet's Carmen, Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol. Thomas Wilkins (pictured) conducts and Oren Fader (well-known from the guitar-duo-based new music ensemble Cygnus) will be the guitar soloist.

The concert happens at 7:30 p.m. at the War Memorial theater in Trenton tonight, March 18; at 7:30 p.m. at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank tomorrow, March 19; and at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 20 at the bergenPAC in Englewood. Tickets range from $18 to $57. To purchase, and for more information, check out the orchestra's website or call 1-800-ALLEGRO.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Serkin, Abbado, BSO at NJPAC

The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs 8 p.m. tomorrow night, Friday, March 18, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark. Sadly, James Levine will not be conducting, as he retired from the orchestra for health reasons earlier this month. But the substitute is Roberto Abbado and the program is a pretty exciting one: Bartok's Concerto No. 3 with Peter Serkin as soloist, Haydn's Symphony No. 93 and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. All of these pieces are heard regularly in orchestra concerts--the Beethoven is, of course, overplayed. But the combination, with Serkin and Abbado, should make for a great evening.

Abbado, by the way, is the nephew of Claudio Abbado, the famous conductor, but by now has his own long international career with top orchestras. Interesting to note the pairing of this conductor with Peter Serkin, who has also stood throughout his career in the shadow of his father, the great pianist Rudolf Serkin. But amounts to little more than an interesting coincidence. The concert will be splendid without any more thought to Claudio or Rudolf.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Jam Night at Chico's House of Jazz

As every Wednesday, tonight (Wednesday, March 16), is the "Wednesday Night Jazz Jam Session" at Chico's House of Jazz, 631 Lake Ave., Asbury Park. The host Jeff Levine, is joined by club owner Chico Rouse on drums, Tommy Labella on sax, and Jon Herington on guitar. Open to all talented jazz musicians. You can email Chico Rouse at chico@chicohouseofjazz.com or call 732-774-5299.

Opening last year, Chico's has filled an important void left when El Lobo Negro closed in 2006, offering a venue not just for jazz artists, but for local talent. El Lobo was an art gallery and frame shop that hosted live jazz by local artists on Friday nights. The atmosphere there was like family, with home-cooked food served up buffet style and lots of small-town conversation among folks that had known each other for years and sometimes all their lives. It was part jazz club, part church picnic, part living room for its warm, generous and gregarious owners, John Brown and Doris Spinks.

In those days El Lobo was the only storefront noisy and lit on a Friday night in Asbury Park's downtown and an instant camaraderie existed between everyone who ventured down there. The scene at Chico's is livelier, more consistent, with more people than El Lobo's little space could have possibly held. A more appropriate club for the area's renewed vitality. Chico's may never feel quite like home the way El Lobo did. But so it goes.

Musicians and music lovers, head over to Chico's. Have fun and help that place remain a permanent fixture in the downtown.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The And of One: The Parent Influence

Today, March 15, is the birthday of my mother, who died almost 30 years ago. This post from 2009 talks about how my parents played a role in the music I like and compose. Now seemed a good time to re-post.

The And of One: The Parent Influence: "There have been a couple kind of creepy coincidences in my life where my love of music and my parents are concerned. OK, more than a couple,..."

Fasola, the Original Article

Artist and historian Linda Griggs happened on my writing about the Sacred Harp tradition and wrote a note to say that 2 p.m. this Saturday, March 19, there will be a singing at Convention Hall in Asbury Park as part of festivities surrounding the Smithsonian Institution's "New Harmonies" exhibit. Sacred Harp is the title of one of the most popular songbooks in the tradition known as "shape-note" or "fasola," a widely practiced amateur congregational singing. The songbook has been in continuous publication since 1844 and many of its songs originated in earlier published volumes. The singing is free and anybody can join in to try it out.

Griggs researched an article that was published in the Asbury Park Press. She found that the writers behind one of the original fasola songbooks were most likely from New Jersey--Hopewell, specifically. The style, she writes,
was nearly wiped out in the north by the mid 1800's
by Lowell Mason and the "Better Music" movement. It persisted in both
White and Black churches in the South and is one of the roots of
bluegrass and country. Johnny Cash, the Louvin Brothers and Hank
Williams all sang Sacred Harp.
Lowell Mason, whose family owned a piano-selling business, was interested in promoting a stricter European style music education and degraded the amateur singing as "buckwheat notes." But the tradition survived and as Southerners moved North to factory jobs in the 20th Century, they brought the shape-note singing back with them. Sacred Harp sings could still be found in New Jersey into the 1970s. The 1990s saw a revival of interest in the style and there are now regular Sacred Harp singings in Montclair and Princeton.

The Smithsonian's "New Harmonies" is on display at the Asbury Park Public Library, 500 First Ave., through April 17 and features photos, videos and memorabilia related to American roots music.

Griggs, who has a studio on the Lower East Side in New York City, is a fascinating character with her hands in many different historical and artistic projects. Her own artwork makes use of texts, drawn directly onto the canvas.. The style seems inspired both by common artwork of early 20th Century rural America and by "outsider art" which often deals in simple expressions of mystical experience.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Upcoming Garden State Philharmonic Concerts

In a solution to some scheduling concerns at the newspaper, my column for next Sunday's Asbury Park Press already appears online. In there I mention Anthony LaGruth will lead the Garden State Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra in a performance of Mendelssohn's monumental oratorio, Elijah, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 26 at Christ Episcopal Church, Toms River.

Prior to that concert, the Garden State Philharmonic will perform a very different program at its home venue, The Strand Theater in Lakewood. At 8 p.m. Saturday, March 19, the group performs a set they've called "Escuche!" (Spanish for "Listen!"). The evening will feature Spanish and Spanish-inspired pieces: Joaquin Rodrigo's guitar concerto Fantasia para un gentilhombre, Manuel de Falla's El Amor Brujo, and a New Jersey premiere by Gene Gutche, Bongo Divertimento (1961). Gutche was born in Berlin in 1907 and lived most of his life in the U.S., in Minnesota. He died in 2000.

"It's a bongo concerto, really," LaGruth said. "I discovered it relatively accidentally, going through some old scores. I took a look at it and thought it was quite charming and fun and I thought the audience would get a kick out of it."

In addition to the odd idea of a bongo as concerto soloist, the work has a theatrical side, he said, with instructions for the soloist's movements. The soloist here will be Adrienne Ostrander, the orchestra's principal percussionist. For the Rodrigo, the guitar soloist will be Giacomo LaVita.

"The program combines some familiar some not so familiar," LaGruth said, pointing out that the de Falla in particular--with its famous Ritual Fire Dance--is a crowd pleaser and the Fantasia is well known. The premiere adds a tickle of contrast and curiosity.

"I thought it was an interesting juxtaposition of the guitar in front of the orchestra and the bongos in front of the orchestra."

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ernst (Erno) von Dohnanyi

My Music Notes column in the Asbury Park Press today talks about the upcoming performances of music by Ernst von Dohnanyi by the Monmouth Symphony Orchestra, led by Assistant Conductor Lucian Rinando, pictured at right. Appearing as soloist in the Dohnanyi "Konzertstucke" for cello and orchestra will be his partner, Sam Magill. I had a lovely interview with them last week at America's Cup here in Asbury Park and some of that conversation made it into the article.

In addition to his influential conducting and enduring compositions, Dohnanyi was one of the century's great pianists. You can find a few recordings on YouTube, including this tantalizing excerpt from a performance of Beethoven's Op. 31, purportedly from 1959, the year before he died. At that point, Dohnanyi was 82 years old and performing in front of an audience. Yet you can hear a fire and a surety of interpretation in his playing that electrifies.

As Sam put it during our conversation, "You just don't hear about him in the same breath as Rachmaninoff." Yet according to the scholarly encyclopedia, Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Dohnanyi once performed all of Beethoven's piano works in a single season, and also did the same with the Mozart piano concertos. Brahms and the great pianist Josef Hoffman were both admirers.

Gossip, politics and musical fashion united to help stymie what should have been an ever-more brilliant career.


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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Princeton Pro Musica: Duruflé Requiem

The Princeton Pro Musica, a community choir based in the university town, will be presenting the Requiem of Maurice Duruflé along with Alfred Schnittke's Requiem, 8 p.m. Saturday, March 12 at the University Chapel on Princeton University campus.

Soloists will be Ronald George Baltimore, Marjorie Morse Bell, Monique Cellemme, Claudia Classon, and Libby Crowley. The group will be conducted by director Frances Slade. Tickets are $25, $35 and $45 and can be ordered through the group's website, www.princetonpromusica.org.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

WPU New Music Concert

Attended the William Paterson New Music Series concert last night to hear Peter Jarvis play the premiere of my piece, Charms and Chasms. The program was a tribute to the late genius composer and theorist Milton Babbitt who died last month. Works by David Saperstein, George Perle, Arthur Krieger, Tobias Picker and David Sanford were played, along with a couple of short pieces by Babbitt.

The music represented a wide range of approaches, representing not Babbitt's style but the scope of his interests and legacy. All of it was of an extremely high quality, from the brutish Krieger piece, Strike Zone, for drum set and computer, commissioned and performed by Peter, to the quiet lyricism of the piano solo by Picker, played by Carl Patrick Bolleia. Peter was also involved in the two Babbitt pieces, Homily for solo snare drum, which he commissioned and has performed many times, and the delightful 15-second celeste solo, Composition for One Instrument and Ben, which I hope to write more about at some point. I as understand it, Peter had learned of the existence of this score, which had existed only in manuscript, almost by accident and was instrumental in getting it copied, published and performed.

The biggest applause was for Peter's composition, Drumming for Milton, a work for drum kit augmented by temple blocks, premiered by longtime New Jersey Percussion Ensemble member Paul Carroll. A blend of Babbitt-esque rhythmic counterpoint and Keith Moon-style tom work, Drumming just smokes and Carroll did a great job with it.

I'm honored to have had my own piece in the mix. Peter also commissioned this work, performed it himself and did a terrific job, catching the air of ritual and the blend of percussiveness and lyricism I was looking for. I just loved seeing all that metal swinging around in the stage lights during the livelier sections. If a recording or video turns up, I will surely post it.

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Monday, March 7, 2011

Adjunct Professor of Music

Many of the readers of this blog do at least some adjunct or part-time teaching work. Some of you, like me, get most of our income from teaching. I highly recommend you read this article in the American Federation of Teachers publication On Campus. This relatively short article cites research to be published later this year in American Behavioral Scientist on the practices surrounding adjunct teaching in Pennsylvania.

Nothing here will come as a shock to those of us who are teaching college presently, except perhaps that we in New Jersey are not alone in being exploited, asked to subsist on poverty-level pay and still deliver the same quality of educational experience as our full-time colleagues. But it is important that the issue is labeled, scrutinized and discussed.

For those of you who do not know, the term "adjunct" means a teacher who is hired on a per-class basis. Since these workers are not full-time employees they are often not entitled to any benefits and are paid less for the same work as a salaried professor. They are restricted from teaching more than a certain number of hours at any one institution and so have to cobble together a living between a number of institutions, driving hours each week and overscheduling themselves to compensate for lower pay. Of necessity, this results in weaker class preparation that could impact students' learning. This problem is often made worse by a lack of out-of-class support for the students in classes taught by adjuncts. The adjuncts don't have a presence on campus outside of class and aren't paid to be there, so the students often don't have the opportunity for one-on-one meetings.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of ths second-class-professor syndrome is that most full-time faculty seem aware of the problem, even sympathetic, yet silent on the issue, uncertain of any avenue through which to convey their concerns to college administrators. This underscores the degree to which many professionals have accepted this intellectually and morally indefensible practice, even as more full-time lines are discontinued in favor of part-time and adjunct staff.

As the AFT article implies, the problem is particularly severe in community colleges. These colleges simply would not exist in their present form without relying heavily on highly qualified adjuncts--many of whom hold doctorate degrees and are successful in their area of research--who are paid ridiculously low wages. The assumption is that the community college students will accept a backdoor education and a large pool of committed educators will continue to be available, ready to work for peanuts.

In short, the system is broken and needs to be repaired. A lot of committed professionals and eager, dedicated students are suffering under the current conditions.

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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Charms & Chasms Premiere

I'm headed up to William Paterson Monday to hear Peter Jarvis perform my Charms and Chasms for multi-percussion. Peter is one of the best players in the state, a fine conductor and a great supporter of new music. I'm always grateful for the opportunity to have him or his ensemble, the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble, perform anything of mine.

Peter asked me for a non-pitched, multi-percussion piece for one player in 2009, but I couldn't get a handle on what I wanted. I had an idea to use a set of cymbals and gongs, but I couldn't get any farther than that.

I think what finally tipped the bucket for me was lecturing about John Cage in my class "Music and the Natural World," discussing his conviction, borrowed from Indian philosophy, that the purpose of music was "to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences". Cage used both strict processes and randomness to create musical experiences that often have the sense of having been written by no one, but just having emerged, at his command, out of the natural order, the sounds all around us.

I was thinking a lot about that notion when I started composing this piece. I finished it in January of 2010. The final setup does use mostly cymbals and gongs, with one floor tom thrown in. I put the cymbals into a particular order physically around the player and then used a simple integer series (2-1-3-1-3-2-1) to choose which cymbal to strike at any moment, leading off with steady quarter-note strikes for a sense of ritual, a slow, steady motion through space.

The integer series also guides the phrase structure, which is comprised of measures of 7 beats each. So, after a short introduction on the tom, the first phrase is two 7-beat measures, the second is one, the third is three, etc. There are five sections; each complete section is roughly 13 measures (the sum of the integers in the series) and features some new way of interpreting the series to create surface detail. In section 2, for instance, I add grace notes onto select notes in each measure and the number of grace notes for each note follow the series (2 grace notes, 1 grace note, 3 grace notes, etc.)

The final score is more complicated than this short description, but you get the idea. I was using that little number series to create strict parameters within which I could make musical decisions. There's quite a lot of freedom within this structure--more than you would expect. My hope is, in the setting up of this score and this musical experience, in the ritual of choosing sounds, I was following Cage's advice--opening myself and my music up to divine influences, opening up the act of composition to the order-within-chaos and the chaos-within-order that are the voice of the universe.

Peter premieres this piece on a program that includes music of his, along with work by Milton Babbitt, David Saperstein, George Perle, George Walker and David Sampson. The concert is 7:30 p.m. at Shea Center Auditorium, 300 Pompton Road, Wayne.

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Friday, March 4, 2011

'Street Fighting Man'

The Rolling Stones' song, "Street Fighting Man" came up again on Facebook lately. It makes sense. Given the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and the political demonstrations in cities in the U.S., the atmosphere has suddenly become charged with the rarified air of protest.

And "Street Fighting Man" is a great song. With a driving beat and the opening line, "Everywhere I hear the sound of marching charging feet/cause summer's here and the time is right for fighting in the street"--the song appears a perfect soundtrack for upheaval. The wild melody of that line even has a chanting, marching contour--up, down, up, down, up, down, up, down ….

Jagger had participated in protest marches against the Vietnam War prior to writing the song, and the lyrics reflect the intensity of those events. In 1968, when the song appeared, it was touted by the New Left as a political anthem. I came across these articles a few years ago while I was doing research for my article on John Lennon's "Revolution 9" (published by the subscriber-only Perspectives of New Music in Volume 46 No. 2). Lennon's song, "Revolution" (the basis for the sound collage "Revolution 9") had gotten slammed by the editors of the Black Dwarf, a group that included the now-famous leftist author Tariq Ali. (A prominent activist in the youth movement of the time, Ali, in his memoir of the period, recounts publishing the lyrics to "Street Fighting Man" in the Black Dwarf after the song had been banned from the British radio.) The BD editors held up "Street Fightin' Man" as a proper anthem for the movement, while labeling Lennon's as a cop-out, feeding into the Establishment's desire for compromise and incremental change. In an open letter to Lennon criticizing "Revolution", they said:
In order to change the world we've got to understand what's wrong with the world. And then, destroy it. Ruthlessly. . . . There is no such thing as a polite revolution.

Lennon's position was more complex than that--more complex than a pop song could express and more complex than he could really articulate at the time. But his critics were right: the message of "Revolution", on its own, is relatively simplistic and appears to be saying "revolution doesn't change anything, so why don't we just all sit down and have a nice cup of tea?" In interviews and in the dense sound collage, "Revolution 9", Lennon got more to the heart of the issue--he didn't trust revolutions and mass movements--didn't trust any authority at all, in fact, least of all the authority of a mass movement--to come up with a better society than the faulty one we already had. In a public letter replying to the editors, he said:
I'll tell you what's wrong with the world -- people, so do you want to destroy them? Ruthlessly? Until we change your/our heads -- there's no chance. Tell me of one successful revolution. Who fucked up Communism . . . ? Sick Heads and nothing else. Do you think all the enemy wear capitalist badges so that you can shoot them?

He wanted change, and wanted desperately to be a part of the change. But he didn't see how rioting in the streets was going to effect constructive change. He thought a movement to change people's understanding of who they were, to convince them of their power as individuals, would be more useful. It was a thoughtful view of a complex, volatile situation. As such, it didn't really please anyone. It certainly did not represent the message of the New Left.

Looking a little more closely at "Street Fighting Man" though--the song the Black Dwarf editors preferred--we find the message is not entirely as simple as it appears. The singer is in character, sympathetic, nonjudgmental. Jagger's lyrics and voice are full of unfocused rage, not cries for political justice. He's all about tearing down the kings, but has no care for why or what the result will be. Meanwhile the chorus ("what can a poor boy do/except to sing for a rock 'n' roll band/'cause in sleepy London Town there's just no place for a street fighting man") seems to be saying, "I feel like raising a little hell, but nobody else really seems interested in smashing windows with me. So I'll go onstage and yell there."

This is the nihilist, punk viewpoint, ready to join the crowd to smash down the buildings, with no plan to rebuild. It was a widespread sentiment and the very thing Lennon was afraid of. The speaker isn't interested in marching in the streets out of some political motivation or a class-based frustration or the dream of a better society, but just because he sees the violence happening elsewhere--he feels it in his blood--and he wants to be part of it.

Revolution is exciting. "Street Fighting Man" captures that excitement--the thrill of the human stampede, of the battle against the police, the storming of the Bastille--without any clear political position.
Hey! said my name is called Disturbance
I shout I scream I kill the king I rail at all his servants

Ironically, by choosing not violence but "singing in a rock 'n' roll band", any political position that could be read into the song is mollified into something that works within the system. "I want to participate, I want to protest," it appears to say, "but instead of doing it alone I'll just use the means that I have at my disposal." With that, the singer finds himself more or less in Lennon's corner.

That same corner, in fact, is where the Stones as a group always find themselves. The band has a career-long aversion to mixing politics into their music. They view themselves and their role more purely as entertainers--they channel the energy of the crowd into the act.

You can read comments by Jagger about this song in Jann Wenner's 1995 interview in the Rolling Stone. He speaks of it as a visceral reaction to the situation in the U.S. and France, comparing it to his quiet life in London. He mentions the Vietnam War and the protests to end it, the threat to the French government. He doesn't talk about the song as a personal political statement.

And in my opinion, it just isn't one. Jagger, always a clear-eyed chronicler of the hypocrisies of human society, was doing what he always does and just putting out there what he saw: This is part of who we are right now; this is what we do. Channeling the power of that observation into entertainment.

In the Wenner interview, published some 15 years ago now, he questions whether the song could ever be relevant outside of the context of 1968. For better or worse (or more likely, both), history seems to be proving him wrong about that.

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Carey on Levine Resigning from BSO

Please check out Christian Carey's article on the sad news of James Levine's decision to resign from the Boston Symphony Orchestra position. Christian's an excellent writer and he's followed Levine's tenure at the BSO more closely than I have. Here's the link:

Christian Carey: File Under at Sequenza21.

I know that Levine commissioned a number of symphonies from Charles Wuorinen, an important teacher of mine at Rutgers, a stalwart serialist and a terrific composer. That alone has kept Levine's estimation high in my book.

Levine intends to keep his other job at the Met. His career over recent years has been plagued with illnesses and many thought he might step down from both posts before now.

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Plainfield Symphony and Prodigy

I wrote in Music Notes about the Plainfield Symphony's upcoming concert featuring 11-year-old pianist Seth Blumer. Just a reminder that that concert is this Saturday, March 5, at 8 p.m., at Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church, 716 Watchung Ave., Plainfield. The program includes Seth performing J.S. Bach's Piano Concerto in D-minor, plus the orchestra performing Rossini's overture to La Gazza Ladra and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4.

Tickets are $45, $25 and $15 for seniors/students. Children 12 and under are free. Tickets can be purchased online at www.plainfieldsymphony.org. For more information, call 908-561-5140.

The photo above is Seth and his teacher, Svitlana Fiorito.

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