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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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Learning the B-Minor

I began working recently on the B-minor fugue from Book I of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, the last fugue in the book and possibly the strangest. I had played through this a number of times over the years, but recently I started paying a little closer attention. The accompanying prelude caught my eye first. Beautiful and relatively easy to play, it reminds me of the writing in Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, a work that was an important influence on later composers--a simple bass line of running eighth notes and a melodic duet with chains of suspensions. Those suspensions, and the slippery harmony of final few bars of the prelude, are the only hints of what is to come in the fugue. Otherwise, this is simply a beautiful little duet.

The fugue subject uses all 12 tones of the chromatic scale. It opens and closes predictably, with the outline of a B-minor triad and a modulation to the key of the dominant, F# minor. But the stuff in between, six descending half-steps connected by wide leaps, is downright bizarre. That strangeness means the harmony implied is ambiguous, allowing Bach to try out all sorts of different approaches during the fugue. It also means the chord successions are going to be consistently unusual, making it harder to learn. In a word, it's less like a standard Baroque score and more like Schoenberg.

Right away there are also fingering challenges--the writing throughout requires odd substitutions, stretches and leaps. The subject is stated more than once woven between the pitches of the other voices--more difficult to make sound independent and clear. The range moves up to the high side of the keyboard for a very long time before bringing the left hand back to Earth. Rare treatments of dissonances are exalted; standard ones are contorted. The predictable is deliberately sidestepped.

It's as if he is trying to do everything he's always been told not to do, all in one piece, just to show that yes, it is possible and, in the right context, even musically necessary. In the finale of this collection of preludes and fugues in all keys, he's displaying a culminating mastery of fugue form with a highly chromatic subject and wildly independent lines. He is pointing to the future--if not to Schoenberg, than at least toward more sophisticated, complex chromaticism.

The fugue is long--six pages in my edition (Peters Urtext). Only the A-minor fugue in this volume is as long; all the rest are between two and four pages. It is also the only fugue in the book with a tempo marking, "Largo"--very slow. The slowness is helpful, both in playing and in listening, as it allows a better appreciation for the complexity of the music--and more time to decide which finger goes where!

Not all of the B-minor is hard to play. There are long stretches of fairly conventional fingering. But the weirdness always comes back. It's a gloriously strange piece of work and I'm eager to get the whole thing under my fingers. But it will take some time.

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*NOTE: I originally had included a passing remark in the first paragraph that implied the Stabat Mater was an influence on the WTC Book I. That's impossible since the WTC was written earlier. I realized my mistake and took the remark out.