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an ocean

There’s an ocean of consciousness inside each of us, and it’s an ocean of solutions. When you dive into that ocean, that consciousness, you enliven it.  You don’t dive for specific solutions; you dive to enliven that ocean of consciousness. Then your intuition knows and you have a way of solving those problems –  David Lynch

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.


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


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.

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.




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




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.

New Season

So we did a concert just the way I like it last week. The first half was Beethoven Consecration of the House Overture (yes it IS a good piece) and Symphony No. 1. Then instead of doing the next curtain call, I sent out our guest cabaret performer ISENGART to announce the second half: Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins (with Measha Bruegguergosman who was a-maz-ing). He urged the audience to have a stiff drink at intermission so that they would “come back nice and tight.” Another suggestion: “If you see something you like in the lobby, give it a little pinch …” In the second half, before Seven Deadly Sins, he sang a couple of Kurt Weill songs including Mack The Knife, to kind of set things up. These little cues from Isengart really made this thing work. We didn’t need a four camera crew, just a little creativity and willing artists. It also confirms my suspicion that playing with the “concert format” is the way to go. We need to do more of this. I think we need a new slogan along the lines of Michael Pollan’s “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” Something like … “Play Real Music. Update The Format. Don’t Be Boring.” By the way, Isengart has another persona I would like to share called the FOOD COMMANDER. CLICK THE LINK. REALLY.

Also would you like to know about the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony’s new season? Watch the video below … We’ve got a concert about quantum physics, a Nico Muhly premiere, two Liszt concertos in one concert, a concerto by Nicky Lizée based on the music of Rush, you know … the usual.

Holiday Dispatch

Happy Holidays!  It’s really cold!  I can’t get my car out of the driveway because it’s too icy (I bought the car in San Francisco, not knowing I was destined to move to colder climes, so it’s NOT MY FAULT).

Despite the cold, I’m really in the holiday spirit and listening to a lot of XMAS music.  I’m most excited about Annie Lennox.  I mean, check this out!

Right?  Weirdly intense and freaky … but fun!  Annie L is one of the singers who can, on specific songs, make me cry in 30 seconds.  Also: k.d. lang, Stevie Wonder “Blame It On The Sun” got me all misty on an airplane last week.

That airplane embarked from Miami, I think, where I got to conduct the New World Symphony and hear the orchestra sound check their amazing new hall.  Stay tuned . It really is unlike any concert space I have ever seen.  Yes, it’s Frank Gehry etc., but what excites me is how MODULAR it is!  4 small stages around the audience!  Seats that fold up!  Lots of video cameras and walls/screens for projection!  The future is now!  This may help Classical Music!

Finally, this passage, by James Wood, from the New Yorker, dated November 29, 2010.  It’s about how he wanted to be a rock star but had to learn Classical Music instead.

“Nowadays, I see schoolkids bustling along the sidewalk, their large instrument cases strapped to them like coffins, and I know the weight of their obedience.  Happy obedience too: that cello or French horn brings lasting joy, and a repertoire more demanding and subtle than rock music’s.  But fuck the laudable ideologies, as Roth’s Mickey Sabbath puts it: subtlety is not freedom, and it is rebellious freedom that one wants, and, most of the time, only rock can deliver it.  And sometimes one despises oneself, in near-middle age, for being so good.”

Despite his many thoughtful qualifying statements, I smell a Grinch.  What professor Wood became after his oppressed childhood was neither a Classical nor Rock musician, but a Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard.  That title would be enough to make anyone grumpy, so I’ll forgive him. I think I can say with some authority that one can find rebellious freedom in Classical music.  I’ve conducted Mahler symphonies and performed with Al Jourgensen playing “She’s So Heavy.” (things were smashed).  And as a musician I’ve learned not to denigrate  one type of music in favor of another, because I know how much work it takes to be any kind of musician, especially a good one. It’s something that people who talk about music can’t seem to figure out: it’s all good.  So, prof. Wood, turn on some Andriessen for the holidays, and you’ll feel much better.

Listen: Eat!

Reader, I am about to leave for a tech rehearsal for our Music & Food concert tonight at the KW Symphony. We’ll be playing the music, and my favorite (or favourite, since I’m in Canada) local restaurant, Nick & Nat’s Uptown 21 will be doing the food! Btw. Nick and Nat, great theme music on your website. Anyway, I’ve never heard of anyone doing a concert like this, so I’m xcited!!!

There might be standing room for tonight; there are a few tickets available for Friday.  Get them at www.kwsymphony.ca.

What’s on the (musical) menu?

Raymond Scott: Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals
Per Nørgard: Pastorale from Babette’s Feast
Shostakovich: Tahiti Trot (Tea for Two)
Vaughan-Williams: “March Past of the Kitchen Utensils” from The Wasps
John Estacio: “The Harversters” from A Farmer’s Symphony


Cole Porter arr. E. Outwater: “The Tale of the Oyster”
Lee Hoiby: Bon Apetit
Strawberry Alarm Clock arr. Nicole Lizée: Incense and Peppermint

What food will be served:  Well that’s a surprise!

By the way — did you know that orchestras basically started as accompaniments to Grand Feasts.  For real! I read this in the scholarly tome The Birth of the Orchestra. You can read about it through the link on page 41!

Check out this feast for the archbishop of Milan in 1529 for instance …

1st course:

Food: Sea bream, boiled sturgeon in garlic sauce, pike entrails fried w/ oranges, cinnamon, and sugar.

Music: 3 trombones & 3 cornets

2nd course:

Food: Cream-filled French Pastries, artichokes, olives, fermented apples, oyster pies

Music :3 flutes, 3 bagpipes, 1 violone.

17th Course:

Food: Candied Orange & Lemon Rinds, Ices, Nougat w/ mounds of cinnamon, pine nuts, pistachios, melon seeds

Music: 6 singers, 6 viols, lira, 3 flutes, kit fiddle (sordina), trombone, lute, zittern, 2 keyboards.

New Season!

Wow! It’s snowy in Canada right now! Which is good for me because I need to stay inside and work work work. The thing I love about cold weather is that it gives me a great excuse to stay in and read & study and look out at the snow falling. I couldn’t be happier doing this, and though I miss California, pondering music while the snow falls is a real bonus.

Today I’m between concerts — doing some serious studying in the next few days — preparing for our Music & Food concert next week and then in a few weeks a rather daunting program of Barber 1st Symphony, Adams Dr. Atomic Symphony, and the Unsuk Chin Piano Concerto w/ BBC Wales followed by a few days in London.

This week is a concert of music I totally love. I can get bored with the overture, concerto, symphony concert format and like to explore different ways of presenting music to the people. It’s Italian music this week, starting with Monteverdi in 1610 and going all the way through Nino Rota, with Verdi, Rossini, and Vivaldi on the way. The KWS is switching on a dime from Baroque, to Classical, to Grand Opera to lush film music, and I’m quite impressed with that. I don’t believe that an orchestra should have a SOUND. I think it should have many, depending on what we’re playing. That doesn’t mean that an orchestra might not become known for a certain sound, because every orchestra (and artist) does some things better than others, so that’s what they become known for.

What strikes me about Italian music conducting this concert with such a huge timeline is the exquisite coloration of melody. Like the florid violin and trumpet duets in Monteverdi, or the simultaneous melodic arco/pizz in the Vivaldi or the cello ensemble that opens the William Tell Overture, or the absolutely perfect and noble combination of solo cello/bassoon/bass clarinet in Verdi’s Ballet Music from Macbeth. And then within these colors, there are other colors as certain notes open up and shine, while others are dark and smoky, all done without calling too much attention to itself. Is there anything more beautiful than music like this?

Ok — now for some ANNOUNCEMENTS! We have a new season coming up at the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony and we’ve just released all the info!

You can find out about it HERE!

We’ve got some amazing soloists like James Ehenes, Measha Breuggergosman, Alban Gerhardt, and Kirill Gerstein.

Our Intersections series features three people named Dan! Daniel Levitin, who will be creating a show with me called Beethoven & Your Brain, Daniel Handler who is narrating HK Gruber’s Frankenstein!! and curating the concert, and Dan Deacon, who is driving a bus full of Baltimore people up here to create an electronic/orchestra Cage/Ives/etc. influenced extravaganza! Read about it right HERE.

My only regret about next season is that we couldn’t get this guy: