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Open Ears

UPDATE: Esther Wheaton at OBOE COMICS, has put together a great blogroll of the event (she’s also responsible for the video below). There’s also a twitter thread if you’re interested (#openears). It’s nice to see the responses to the festival.

So the open ears festival is over, and at the last minute I was recruited to be one of the performers in Gordon Monahan’s “Speaker Swing.” It happened at the festival’s finale (in a way), Blue Dot, an all night warehouse things with the usual DJ stuff in industrial settings plus …

I did this for 25 minutes straight (I’m the guy to the left, in the red). It was tiring, but mostly on the hands and feet. You really can’t move once those things get going, or else you’ll fall right off. Especially when the strobe lights start going off. Maybe there will be some footage of that up soon …

YouTube Symphony

Ok so it happened. I conducted part of it. It was really really really fun. Here is part 1:

The responses were amazing to read …

There was a GOOD REVIEW


A blogger and “industry professional” WHO TOTALLY LOSES IT… sample quotes: “And really, I think I’ll stop now, because I’m feeling more than a little cruel right now, even though (to be perfectly honest), I’ve pulled a few punches in what I’ve just said, no matter how critical I might have seemed.” and “During intermission, I talked to some orchestra professionals I know, and none of them were happy. Two even left, one out of boredom, the other with a sense (I think it’s right to put it this way) of faint disgust.”

I love the idea of “orchestra professionals” walking out of the building with “faint disgust.” What would they do if they were “deeply disgusted” at a concert? Maybe someday all “orchestral professionals” will unite and save classical music. Oh yeah, they’re already in charge. (just kidding, some of my best friends are “orchestra professionals” haha).

So how was the MUSIC? I think generally what was written was true: not fully refined, but enthusiastic. Some of it was even quite rough at times, like the Harrison piece I conducted. But it all sounded way better than when we started it a day or two earlier. All of my colleagues who were helping to prepare this concert were impressed and moved by the process, even if it didn’t meet the highest technical standards. We all knew it wasn’t going to be perfect, and that was an unusual and liberating feeling. For those of us involved, meeting these intrepid musicians was inspiring — and it was a privilege to help them get their orchestra rolling. There was deep joy in the process.

I think that’s what we all were so excited about. It was a moment in history, a bold experiment, well-funded (for once). The fact that it came together as it did on the musical, technical (meaning stage-changes, lights, video), personal, and audience level was exhilarating. I’ve never seen an undertaking that complex come together so fast, and so well.

Finally, the orchestra itself had a special quality, different than, say, some of the other brilliant young orchestras at conservatories and music festivals around the world. It think what set these musicians apart is that they actually took the time (and had the nerve) to audition on YouTube. To me, that implies a certain sense of adventure, lack of cynicism, and desire to have fun. I wonder if I would have done it? If I hadn’t, it probably would have been for cynical reasons.

So yes I was moved, inspired, energized, and more. I’m so glad I was a part of it, even if it was far from perfect. Looking at the faces of the orchestra and my musician colleagues, I don’t think I was alone. It was fun. And in classical music, believe me, we need more fun.

It seems to me that music-making in the classical world is a struggle between joy and perfection. That’s because those rare peak performances are instances of joyous perfection (maybe that’s because Bach has been such a huge influence on all of us). But what about those moments when we don’t reach the top? They usually fall into one of two sub-categories: “rough and joyful” or “perfect and lifeless.” I’m afraid “perfect and lifeless” is the more common category of the two, because it’s safer, and implies hard work. The YouTube Symphony made a case for more “rough and joyful,” music making I think. And that’s a good thing.

PS check out Jeremy Denk’s YouTube Symphony VLOGS. They capture the vibe really well. Plus I’m in them! making quips. I’ve included part one below.


On my way to NYC for the YouTube Symphony.

As I was packing, I was listening to Radio David Byrne. There’s a lot of new, interesting stuff on, including the new Dirty Projectors album which hasn’t come out yet. (They are my favorites these days along with some others on the playlist: St. Vincent, Final Fantasy, The Bird and The Bee). What’s great is how Byrne-influenced all this music is. The Children of Byrne & Eno have grown up and continued the tradition of artsy, beautiful, witty, world-influenced, electronic music! Yay!

And I discovered a recipe for Chicken Fried Bacon.

And I’m now on twitter (eoutwater), if you’d like to keep track of me that way.

End Transmission.

Beethoven 4

What a strange and mysterious symphony. What captivates me is its use of “negative space.”

It opens in a void. All darkness and quiet, no key, no specific tonality. It’s like wandering in a dark room. How big is the room? We don’t know — we’re lost in the emptiness.

And as the symphony progresses, it always wants to return to the darkness, the negative zone of silence. It’s as if the notes of the symphony are written around a great emptiness, to show its architecture.

It’s about something other, something mysterious.

I conduct it this weekend, in misty, beautiful Victoria, BC.

The Composer is Dead … is out!

The Composer is Dead, an incredible project I did with Lemony Snicket and Nathaniel Stookey is out in stores! It’s a book with a CD of the San Francisco Symphony conducted by yours truly. I’m so so so proud of this project. Here’s a nice YouTube promo that was done. I’m even in a few shots!!

What is Intersections, anyway?

It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m decompressing. It was a busy week.

We had TIME FOR THREE here this week, who played in our Intersections series. They got a good REVIEW in our local paper, The Record. The end of the review is really funny to me though. The reviewer comments that the orchestra didn’t have enough to do during the concert:

“Perhaps this show belonged with the symphony’s Pops series (where I would probably go see Tf3 again for all the froth and fun). While applauding Outwater’s efforts to challenge the boundaries of symphonic music in this series, I vote for more intersection and less wallpaper.”

Now I happen to agree strongly with the reviewer that the orchestra didn’t do enough. It’s a problem with Time for Three … they don’t have enough charts yet. They’re working on it. Even so, I couldn’t resist bringing them to KW asap., despite the fact that the orchestra would be sitting most of the time. In an ideal situation, the orchestra should have had more to do. No doubt.

But what’s funny to me is that he’s suggesting what does and doesn’t belong in the INTERSECTIONS series, a format I INVENTED only four concerts ago! That’s kind of cool — it must mean that the four shows that we’ve done already have a common vibe …

The real intention is that INTERSECTIONS is a completely flexible format, and that includes some concerts where the orchestra plays a lot (like the electronica show earlier this year) and sometimes not so much. It’s about whatever is new, interesting. In the case of Time for Three, the music they play is an intersection: it’s impossible to categorize as bluegrass, classical, country, hip-hop, etc. That’s why I think they belong in this series.

At any rate, this particular critical response shows the human need to categorize art, which is not what art is about, ultimately. But that tension has been around since the beginning of criticism.

There were some extra events around this concert, including an apres-concert gathering at the Jane Bond in Waterloo. Good turnout of musicians, staff, and audience. And we had a party at my place earlier in the week to attract new folks to the KWS. It was a younger crowd, and they got to hear Time for Three up close. Here’s a video of them playing for the party. It was their first time as a group in Canada, but they chose the right music to impress the Canadians! Soon they’ll figure out it’s not “Tom Horton’s” and then they’ll really be in business.

Courage Under Fire

I had a great time with the Riverside County Philharmonic this weekend. Probably one of the best kept secrets in the LA area: a young, talented orchestra that loves to play, and plays WELL! I’d go back anytime. The main portion of the concert was Shostakovich 10. Many of the musicians literally had to drive through the LA fires to get to the concert, which of course fit the mood of the symphony. One of the musicians captured it on cellphone and put the video on YouTube with the terrifying 2nd movement of Shostakovich 10 in the background. These guys didn’t just play the symphony, they kind of LIVED it.

It’s Saturday morning in Los Angeles:

After some amazing Korean BBQ last night, I awake on a hot, clear day in Los Angeles:

Hundreds of homes are burning in the Valley, and in Montecito, further north (“here come those Santa Ana winds again …”)

Thousands upon thousands are protesting an absurd ballot measure at City Hall.

I’m conducting Shostakovich tonight.

LA — just like a remember it! I love it. I really do.

various gardens of thought, music, and plants

I spent (US) election night in Canada, basically by myself with a glass of wine (well, more than one). The next day I found myself being congratulated by various Canadians, not only because the guy they wanted won, but because our country had taken an enormous step into the future. It made me think a lot of America’s audacity, which can be both bad (last 8 years) and good (the election). I wonder what our future holds?

In town that week was Richard Stolzman, who played a tribute to Benny Goodman. Richard is what some of my musical friends and I would call a “spaceman.” An intrepid musical traveler who (successfully) explores the outer limits of musical phrases and colors and sound. What comes out of his horn sounds like nothing else on earth, and that’s a good thing. It was really really inspiring to work with him. His music-making immediately imprinted on my soul. What more could one ask from an artist?

Headed back to SF for two days of good food (Shanghai Dumpling King, SPQR, Suppenküche) and a short protest against the gay marriage ban (aka prop 8). Again, the Canadians reaction to that was interesting. It was basically, “What’s up with that?!” In Canada they’ve figured out that you can be “traditional,” deeply religious, and conservative AND not imprint your religious/cultural beliefs on others. Everyone gets along just fine. I think Prop. 8 is just a temporary setback.

Now I’m staying in Pasadena and got to see the Huntington Estate, which has the most beautiful and poetic gardens. It was a clear day, and the light was so beautiful, a sprinkler could be poetic.

And they had a cactus garden …

And a Japanese Garden …

These are all in the same place. Another one of those LA fantasies that really exist. It was a bit like a movie studio, because you could see where the fantasy gardens ended, and the desert climate and urban reality began. It added a whole layer of melancholy to the place, which made it even more beautiful.

Dancing w/ the stars

So I had an interesting experience on Monday:

It was a great concert for a great cause: Paul Newman’s PAINTED TURTLE camp. Lord, there we lots of actors there, reading Hemingway while the SFS and I played Copland in the background. It was interesting seeing the different approaches to acting that these guys had. Some were totally prepared and intense about their scenes (Bruce Willis was amazing); some were wingin’ it (no comment). The kind of variation possible in how an actor work is huge. It’s much different for a classical musician. We have to play all the notes live, and get them RIGHT. That being said, the amount of charisma onstage was outrageous. That’s something classical music needs more of.

Since the actors were reading, it was all about the voice. It’s amazing how iconic these voices are. Jack Nicholson really talks like that! It’s wild. He shook my hand and said “congratulations,” and it took him twice as long to say that as most normal folks. And to hear Danny DeVito say “mashed potatoes” was hilarious! I mean, who says those words better? I thought Anette Benning had an extraordinary voice as well.

A personal highlight was meeting Edward James Olmos, who did an amazing job and clearly has a big, generous heart. He’s one of my favorite actors and is amazing in Battlestar Galactica (which I love love love*). At the end of the show he was pumping his fist in the air and yelling “yeah! thank you! thank you!” It would also be cool if we did that at the end of classical shows.

*for BSG fans: he told me “the end will be very satisfying — it will feel like the journey is really over.”