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risk

This week’s concerts were full of adventure and risk. I went in with that intention, sharing one of my favorite Nikolaus Harnoncourt quotes in rehearsal:

“To be beautiful, music must operate on the outer fringes of catastrophe.”

It was fortuitous that Ben Beilman joined us this week with the same agenda. His clear priority, above all, was to express something dark, deep, and transcendent. It’s rare to feel that kind of daring in a concerto performance.

That sense of risk, adventure, is what makes all the difference.

 

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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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Remake/Remodel

I’ve been … revamped!

Very excited about launching the revamped edwinoutwater.com today!  There are some great new features that will allow me to be able to share what I’m up to …

I have a lot of very interesting stuff coming up in the next few months, and I’m glad I’ll be able to communicate more about this through the site.

Firstly, the 03. Projects page has been added.  It has a list of all the non-traditional concerts I’ve put together over the years, including videos, nice quotes from composers and all sorts of other stuff.  I get asked all the time about these concerts and the main work of this revamp was collecting them in one place so they can be seen at-a-glance.

Secondly, the 05. Media page has a bunch of added videos.  I seem to be making a video a week, and I’ve collected some of my favorites on this page.  Especially proud of the Satie video that leads off, ” A Musician’s Day.”

I want to thank Mat Dunlap for the remake, and also Hoon Lee who designed this website many years ago.  Mat’s redesign stays true to Hoon’s original and enduring vision of the site. I don’t think Hoon is doing much web design these days … he’s too busy kicking ass these days as Job on Cinemax’s Banshee.  Also thanks to my team at 21C Media for looking after all of this.

Also, I have now found a use for the awesome t-shirt on the front page!

And, finally, the website revamp made me think of this song.

 

What Just Happened

It’s been a particularly fun 2012 so far … at the KWS, Prokofiev 5 and Brahms Violin concerto with Vadim Gluzman, who is the best; an all-Zappa concert with concert:nova in Cincinnati; 7 hours on Radio Wales in one day with the BBC NOW; the complete Mother Goose at New World; and back at the KWS, more Mother Goose, Bolero, a Nico Muhly commission and premiere, and Jason Vieaux, who is great, playing Rodrigo.

But can we talk about Ravel for just a minute? There was a lot of discussion this week about Mother Goose. It was nice to know that other people besides me think that the last movement of Mother Goose is the best thing ever. It completely changed my life the first time I heard it. It raised the bar for what music can do. What’s great about it? The sustained, tender and beautiful sound throughout, the Bach-worthy voice leading, the mix of joy, nostalgia and regret, the yearning solos in the violin and viola, the countdown in the 2nd horn and harp leading to the final climax, the extra, transcendent moment at the end when the percusion stops and the strings and winds play on, unwilling to let go. Is there a better three minutes of orchestral music?

After Mother Goose, we played Nico’s piece, which was great. If you didn’t get to hear it in Seattle, Winnipeg, or here in KW, I hope you can hear it soon. It’s called So Far So Good. Nico and I did a bunch of talks together around the concerts and one thing really struck me in particular. Talking about his connection to liturgical music and how it plays out in his own work, Nico described the music really being about a series of small changes alluding to something greater and unspecific. In religious terms, some greater mystery. I think this piece did that very well. It left me with a certain feeling and many players in the orchestra felt the same — it left us with something to contemplate. I also appreciate the opportunites in Nico’s music to be expressive. There’s weight and meaning to each pitch, and that’s what we’ve worked so hard to bring out as musicians — to make the music speak.

Speaking of greater mysteries, this coming week is our collaboration with the Institute for Quantum computing on our Intersections Series. More about that soon, but this project was two years in the making and I’m excited about it. What I can tell you right now is that there is Mozart, Webern, Ives, Cage, Brant, and Xenakis involved.

Timbre

Interesting ARTICLE by Tom Service in the Guardian today about Pierre Boulez.  Including this quote:

“That’s the central achievement of Boulez’s music. Like no one else has managed to do in music before, he has turned timbre – the texture and grain of the way instruments sound, and the special, surreal possibilities of electronic music – into a carrier of feeling and emotion. Previously, western music was all about pitch, rhythm, and harmony: the traditional routes to creating musical expression. Boulez adds another dimension to what music can do, and his works open up a new way of hearing. If you surrender yourself to his music, you can’t help but be intoxicated by its sonic fantasy  … “

I wonder if this is a new way of hearing at all.  It got me thinking about my work with DANIEL LEVITIN last year on our BEETHOVEN AND YOUR BRAIN. I think one of the most interesting things I got out of working with someone who is interested in the science of listening was learning how important timbre actually is.  It’s the first thing we respond to as listeners, before rhythm, melody and harmony. It is, in fact, our most primal reaction to music.  I think musicologists made western music “about” pitch, rhythm and harmony because that’s how most music is intellectually put together (this is true of Boulez’s music as well).  Timbre is the elephant in the room.  No one writes or even really talks about it, but it’s pervasive and it’s the way music hits listeners at the outset.

I think Boulez’s music, and other similar music, does focus us on timbre by eliminating most possibilities of expectation or pattern recognition as far as rhythm, melody, harmony.  It makes the experience of listening similar to walking through an unknown and beautiful space, and being acutely aware of every sound, twitter, drop of water, rustling leaf.  It might be a new way of hearing, but it’s also an ancient one.

Whirling

I think of programming the same way a composer or poet might think of creating something. It’s about setting up expectations and either satisfying or subverting them. This can be done on a single program, or over a season, or over a number of seasons. One must always keep in mind that an audience member is coming to a concert expecting something. My job is to begin at this point of expectation, and take the audience member somewhere else.

In orchestras our great Advantage and also our great Albatross is tradition. It’s twelve hundred years of music, and the rituals that go along with it. We can gnash our teeth at how conservative things are and fight against it, or have fun with tradition and play with it.

What’s fun, and more than fun, is where these subversive moves can take us. For instance, last week at the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony we premiered a piece by the Canadian composer Brian Current called Whirling Dervish. Some intense music was played while the Canadian Whirling Dervish Raqib Brian Burke performed the ritual in front of the orchestra. If you haven’t seen it, the ritual looks like this.

At the end of the piece (after twenty minutes or so) Raqib suddenly stops whirling, and lies down on the floor. His assistant covers him with a blanket for a long moment, and then the two of them exit the stage walking backward, facing the audience. Then the orchestra and I leave the stage. We asked the audience not to applaud, just to be silent, and go to the lobby for intermission. It was profound, that silence, in all sorts of ways. What was amazing to me was the way one ritual (Whirling) respectfully subverted another (Orchestra Concert Etiquette).

Talking with Raqib after the performances brought the experience to another level altogether. Raqib talked about how the Whirling ceremony opened the door to another liminal reality and “summoned the ancestors.” Isn’t that really what we do in classical music concerts? In a concert that’s really great, don’t we feel Mozart, or Ives, or Mahler in the room? Isn’t this really why we play these great pieces over and over again? Isn’t one definition of a revolution that it begins and ends in the same place? We’re back where we started but things have changed.

On Dan Deacon

The KW Symphony and I did a concert a few weeks ago with
Dan Deacon. Here’s a little bit about the process:

Working with Dan Deacon was a blast of chaotic, creative, mischievous energy.  He’s interested in new sounds and new experiences, in creating the childlike sense of wonder and joy when you experience something for the first time.  That’s the game underlying a lot of “experimental” or “avant-garde” music: the joy of discovery.  I think when people are put off by new sounds it’s because they’re no longer in touch with their inner child.

During this collaboration Dan was discovering something himself, something very old: the symphony orchestra and all its rules, traditions and rank and regimentation.  It was hilarious and kind of terrifying watching Dan rediscover orchestras (“I haven’t written for humans in years!” he told me).  I can only imagine how feverishly he worked trying to create these scores. The process he went through to notate orchestral sounds was beyond complicated. Despite all of his hard work, the project had to be saved by me, the library and production staff, and our stalwart copyist, Trevor Wagler, in the weeks and days before the first rehearsal. Many protocols were broken!  

But who cares?  I loved that we were teaming up to make something work, instead of getting together and complaining about it!  In the end, the music was all Dan’s.  I wanted to work with Dan because I believe that he’s onto something as a musician.  I think he appreciates orchestras for what they can do. I think he’s got great ears and a strong sense of composition in the long form.  And, most importantly, he really knows how to reach people with his music, how to make them feel the joy of discovery.  The orchestra world could really use him. And now we’ve got him.  Here’s to more new sounds and experiences!  

Beethoven & Your Brain Workshop

Daniel Levitin and I have been meeting in various locations these past few weeks putting our Intersections show together. It’s called “Beethoven & Your Brain.” (See it in October in Kitchener-Waterloo or Koerner Hall in Toronto) It’s basically one of many possible ways to look carefully at this great composer’s music and how it works. What we’re finding is that when you look at the effect Beethoven’s music has on us from a biological/neurological/primal level, music becomes less of a “thing” and more of a “process.” And that really, you don’t need to be an expert to experience this music in a profound way.

One of our first exercises was that we sat across from each other at a table and wrote 10-minute blurbs on what we knew about. I wrote about “Beethoven” and Daniel wrote about “Brain.” It’s interesting to see where our ideas intersect. Here are the blurbs.

BEETHOVEN

What’s great about LvB?

I think it’s extraordinary the way LvB grabs the listener with his music. There’s a sense of profound emotion, human drama — even to the point of violence — in his music. Somehow when you listen to a work like the Fifth Symphony you immediately know that the emotional stakes are very high. He does this by creating a sense of momentum and turbulence in his music that can still shake up audiences hundreds of years later. There are so many kinds of music in life that one might call “polite:” music that soothes us and makes us comfortable and happy. But Beethoven’s music is not polite; it is full of fervent questioning and takes nothing for granted. He stretches form, structure, and even sound to the absolute limit. So if you know a lot about classical music you get the sense that he almost wants to destroy it. If you don’t know about classical music, you still get the sense of drama and urgency through its sheer physicality.

Take the beginning of the Fifth Symphony for instance. Though we all know how it goes, those first few notes retain their ability to shock. That’s because Beethoven writes an indeterminate hold – a fermata – on the fourth note of his famous statement. How long this note should be held is left to the conductor. There are many other such moments in the piece. But underlying it all is a tremendous pulse and groove that counteracts the instability. It is Beethoven’s ability to balance the predictable and the unstable in just the right way that makes him great.

When I conduct Beethoven’s music, more than any other composer’s, it is as if I can feel his spirit reaching out to me. Though we know that he had a difficult, irascible personality, he craves an intimate connection with his listeners through his music. He felt that his deafness prevented him from being him from being intimate with others. Yet for one hundred and fifty years he has made profound connections with countless listeners. It’s uncanny, like this poem by Keats.

This Living Hand

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.

BRAIN

Expectation

Expectation is everything in music. The brain is a giant prediction device. Whether we realize it or not – whether we’re aware of it or not – it’s working hard to figure out what’s going to happen next. There’s an obvious evolutionary/adaptive advantage to this – if a lion is in the area, you need to be able to accurately predict which direction he’s headed. If a potential mate is looking at you a certain way, you have to know whether this means “come hither” or “get lost” (or “not now – my boyfriend is watching, but come back later”). In music, we hear a few notes and our brains are already trying to figure out what’s going to come next.
A “good” piece of music rewards those expectations by meeting them at least some of the time, but also violates them sometimes in interesting ways. Why? If the music meets all of your expectations, and does exactly what you think it will, it’s boring. We reject as too simple, like “Barney the dinosaur” music.” If it never meets your expectations, never conforms to your predictions, it’s frustrating because you have no frame of reference, no grounding; you’re disoriented. So the job of the composer is to hit that sweet spot, to meet your expectations some of the time, and violate your expectations in interesting ways the rest of the time. When the composer gets that balance just right, you end up liking the piece. And if the composer can complete a musical phrase in a way that sounds better to you than anything you could ever have ever imagined – well, then he’s got you and that’s a piece of music you can enjoy for the rest of your life.
Another aspect to expectation has to do with momentum. Skillful composers set up expectations and momentum, making you want to hear more.

©2010 Daniel J Levitin

Pagan Child brings hope for the future!

This pretty much says it all. I believe this is the son of my friend and colleague Larry Loh!  Please please please do not miss the end. No conductor has ever dared to end the Rite this way, but it’s so … right!

Most Performed!

This put a smile on my face!

It appears that The Composer is Dead is the 5th most performed piece written in the 21st century! This from Norman Lebrecht’s BLOG.

[Full disclosure: I premiered and recorded the piece]

I’m not surprised actually. Here’s why I think certain new works get performed a lot:

1. They’re good.

2. They’re not expensive to perform (esp. w/r/t extra musicians).

3. The are unique.

4. Audiences like them.

I don’t know if that’s the right order at all, but this might be a good guideline if you want to write a piece that’s going to be played.