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art begins

We know that humans began making art about 50,000 years ago. Bones and tusks were made into carvings, with no practical purpose.  Something happened in the development of the human brain that compelled us to do this.

But what? What compelled us to carve what we saw into a mammoth tusk? Were we now conscious, needing to find our place in the world? Did we feel a sense of separation and loss from the natural world surrounding us? Is all art the result of leaving the Garden of Eden?

 

Sibelius 7 (2)

In twenty minutes, this symphony holds up a mirror to us, shows us how our life will unfold, because we, too, are creatures of nature, and cannot escape its plans for us. The silence after the last moment of music, and what it portends, is as significant as the symphony itself. Sibelius drops us into silence almost without warning, and forces us to look directly into the darkness. It’s a moment of terrifying beauty.

dark don

I wondered this week about a dark Don Quixote: someone whose mind is muddled, whose head is swirling not with books of chivalry and heroism, but rather with endless, rapid flow of cable news; someone who charges ahead on an undefined quest, driven by the illusion of who knows what; someone who flies through the air, and wears a distorted costume of industry and virility, the uniform of “a man who gets things done.” He tilts at windmills, but in this story the windmills are real giants, real armies.

kinds of expanses

These days, I dive deeper into Wallace Stevens every morning. This morning it’s “The Poet of Geneva,” an old professor who stands at foot of the Pacific and is rattled by its “long-rolling opulent cataracts.” They create an “unburgherly apocalypse” in his mind.

I wonder how Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Mann, and other professors from Europe, newly arrived in Los Angeles, felt looking out onto the same expanse.

Lake Geneva seemed calm and majestic. It was heavenly, when I stood before it for the first time last summer: the perfect marriage of sky, earth, and water.

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But the Pacific is everything to me –  wild, cold, rough, beautiful, dangerous. And it stretches to infinity.

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Steve Martland

Overwhelmed after rehearsing the late Steve Martland’s Crossing the Border this afternoon with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. This is work of righteous anger by a composer too little known in the United States.

His music is, in his own words, “a weapon against despair.”

To perform Crossing the Border is like going to battle as a member of a spiritual army. It has the fervor and ecstatic quality of William Blake, the artist he reveres. Like Blake, Martland’s music marries Heaven and Hell. It is as work of sublime beatific violence, mercilessly slaying the ugly, the petty, the illiberal, the myopic, the ungenerous.

Have a listen. Learn more about him.

Sibelius 7 (1)

After working on this today I felt like I had to lie down: the same feeling after learning or experiencing something that cuts to the quick. This symphony is a window to how life has gone, is going, will go. It gets sadder. It doesn’t end well at all, yet it feels right.

What’s Up?

 

I’ve spent the week hiking every morning, rehearsing every night. Music in the mountains is an old idea, but a good one. On these hikes, I’ve been thinking about the urge to go up, why we want to keep climbing. I’ve been noticing the water streaming down from somewhere high, how it roars at one moment and is still the next. All these hikes struck me as a metaphor for what we do as artists. Always pushing up, trying to be better, looking for the source of the flowing water, looking for the still moment at the summit, the secret vista waiting at the top.  And then we turn around and go back down. We can’t stay there forever, but we’ll climb there again.

 

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That Crazy Week of New Music in San Francisco

 

Leaving chilly Chicago this afternoon for a week to remember in San Francisco. There’s a huge density of new music in SF coming up:

Tonight, Philip Glass Etudes at Davies with the composer, Timo Andres, Maki Namekawa.

Thomas Adès conducts the San Francisco Symphony with Dawn Upshaw and Kirill Gerstein in subscription concerts, featuring In Seven Days.

The new SoundBox venue is curated by me and Nathaniel Stookey this weekend. The program, called “Farther Out,”  features music by Terry Riley, Nat himself, Lisa Bielawa, Oliver DiCiccio, and a big world premiere by Nicole Lizée.

The venerable Other Minds  festival celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend featuring music by Lou Harrision, Charles Amirkhanian, Miya Masaoka, Peter Sculthorpe, Maja Ratkje & Frode Haltli.

I’m going to be in SoundBox for a lot of the week so I’m sorry I can’t catch everything, but I’m very happy to be part of the music coming out of SF this week!

 

Writers on Music

This week in Kitchener-Waterloo we’re performing a concert that I’ve been thinking about for years. It’s called “Writers on Music,” part of our Intersections series. As many of you know, the premise of Intersections is to combine orchestral music with other disciplines, and that we have done! From food, to neuroscience, to yoga, to quantum physics, the we’ve found a way to broaden the conceptual canvas of orchestral music, and connect it to the world of ideas.

The writers and music idea is an obvious fit, but it’s taken years to actually make it happen. I have no idea why I hadn’t asked Words Worth books (a fantastic bookstore in Uptown Waterloo) about collaborating before. But finally, I did. They helped find the authors (both Canadian), who had written novels with a “musical atmosphere.” They selected Wayne Grady, and his novel Emancipation Day. It’s about racial identity, “passing,” and family dynamics. Its soundtrack is jazz of the dance-club variety. Next was Miriam Toews, and her novel All My Puny Sorrows. Her book is about a concert pianist who is plagued by depression and thoughts of suicide, and her family members who are trying to pull her back into life.

Once the books were chosen, I realized that there was a challenge with creating the program itself. One novel features jazz, but we’re not a jazz orchestra; the other features piano music, and we are not a piano. I thought it was essential to feature this music in the program, because it’s the soundtrack for the novels, but there was more to do. The solution I came up with was to turn the tables halfway through each interview. We’ll have music respond to words, by playing jazz and Rachmaninov piano music; the authors will briefly read from their novels; I’ll interview the authors. But then the the tables will turn, and the authors themselves will have to respond to music they hear. I sent both Wayne and Miriam “unmarked music” by living composers. Knowing nothing about what they are hearing except the sounds themselves, their assignment was to write a response to what they heard. Luckily, both authors were game. I can’t wait to hear their responses.

Why did I do this? Because I like the crosscurrents of music and words, and the way the direction of the concert unexpectedly turns. I like how it feels, at least in my head. I also thought that it would inspire the audience as well. So many audience members are at a loss for words when describing the music they hear (or so they tell me). That’s a good thing of course, because the best music should go beyond words, and hit expressive points that are difficult to describe, but easy to feel. On the other hand, I think having a writer respond to music in public will resonate with an audience that has been listening “passively.” It will encourage discussion – one idea will lead to another – there may even be arguments!

Through this, I want to remind the audience that great music is not meant to be listened to passively. Actually, it requires our greatest attention – an energy similar to, say, reading a novel. My dream audience would be like a giant book club: social, argumentative, committed, engaged with the work and with each other. This week, we’re going to try to make this happen.

Expanding

So excited about These New Puritans new live record out today! It’s called Expanded and you can get it: digital, CD, Vinyl. I’m conducting. I was asked to be a part of the project late in the game last year, and I’m so glad I was able to make it. This group is not as well known in North America as they should be, but I think they will be. Jack Barnett crafts dreamlike songs and sounds, orchestrating everything. What I really like about this music, live and recorded, is the precision of the sounds chosen. Even though there’s a 35-piece orchestra, Synergy Vocals, a band, a magnetic resonator piano, and electronics, there is so much intention in the use of sound and space, with a visual aesthetic to match. I think the concert and recording went somewhere new. I hope you’ll take a listen, and it’s also very interesting to compare this to the studio album, Field of Reeds

 

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