Overwhelmed after rehearsing the late Steve Martland’sCrossing 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.
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 when we talk about classical music in forums such as these, it’s most often “big picture” stuff: the future of orchestras – is classical music dead – how do we change etc.
But for me it seems that what moves things forward are specific moments, and points of contact with the art itself. I collected a few I experienced from the past few months. I don’t think it’s business as usual out there, at least where I’m traveling.
Here they are:
A young clarinetist tries to tell a large audience what it feels like to be an outsider. Short of breath, he almost gives in to nerves and panic. Then he takes a deep breath, and just plays.
A famous orchestra drives into the suburbs in search of new a audience, and finds one.
A violinist creates an 80 minute program of Beethoven and Cage, interspersed with narratives about communication, blindness, and deafness.
An audience of 4th to 8th graders learns that Stalin killed millions of people. They listen to Shostakovich differently.
A stage director learns to let the music speak for itself. “We need to pull back and give the music space to be what it is,” he says.
An audience cheers when the orchestra reaches C Major in the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
A harp string spontaneously snaps during ppp cluster chords in a Henry Cowell orchestra piece.
An orchestra presents a concert about music and quantum physics while the city hosts an NRA convention with 75,000 attendees.
A Canadian immigration officer learns that symphony tickets are actually affordable.
Two orchestras premiere a piece on the same weekend. The composer hops on a plane and gets to hear both performances.
A young CEO gets excited about supporting an orchestra’s education projects. He grew up in a steel town and listened to his father’s 78’s of Enrico Caruso. His life changed.
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.
Hey, it’s 2013! The last few months had more than a few highlights. Lots of music by composers who are currently alive and lots of messing around with concert formats by me and others. Some examples:
KWS Intersections – we played Penelope by Sarah Kirkland Snyder, and sung by Shara Worden. What a piece! It’s about mental illness, war, loss, alienation, hope, anger, redemption … you know, the BIG STUFF. It seamlessly combines rock and classical idioms into a piece with real emotional depth. Every orchestra should play this piece right now.
concert:nova Cincinnati – HK Grubers Frankenstein!!, Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony, Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 1 in the abandoned Emery Theatre, with a side cabaret performance at a supper club, and freaky slides commissioned especially for the concert. Awesome.
Chicago Symphony MusicNOW – Mason Bates and Anna Clyne have tweaked and finally perfected how they present music in this series. Specific lighting, stage moves, ambient music between pieces, video program notes and interviews (even when the composers are present), all make the music come alive in the frankly too-big Harris Theater. Bravo to the Chicago Symphony for investing in music and stagecraft.
River Oaks Chamber Orchestra – Alecia Lawyer and Co. in Houston start their concerts 6pm, with no intermission, and provide childcare! Yes, uncompromising artistry (my soloist was Paul Jacobs) can be combined with family-friendly accessibility. I’ve never seen anything like this. Maybe the most innovative orchestra in America.
KWS Mahler 5 – we put together spoken introduction to the piece with video and excerpts that made up the entire 20-min first half of the concert. It was all done completely in-house, lowest possible budget using Prezi presentation software. It was good! We didn’t say “we can’t do this, it’s too expensive.” We made it work.
NYC Ballet Nutcracker – Nothing new here. This has been the same since Balanchine created it in the 1950’s. But ritual can be good, and it’s important to remember if you’re going to change something, you’ve got to make it better.
Cincinnati Music Hall has a “paranormal” section in its Wikipedia entry. Built in 1876 over what was previously an orphanage, a lunatic asylum, and a paupers’ cemetery, I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said this place has a certain … vibe. Even the skeptics here seem to acknowledge that weird happenings are more likely than not. “I’ve never seen anything personally,” they say, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw that little boy running around here at some point.” As I go to rehearsal, riding up strange dark escalators (which seem incongruous in such an old, Gothic building), I feel like I’m in the right place for a performance of Maria de Buenos Aires.
As I’ve mentioned before in this space, I’m into the idea of the performing artist as conjurer. We’re obsessed with the ghosts of composers and old styles of music. As we open our books and play or sing the notes written by dead people, unspoken energy is passed among the musicians and the spirit of the composer is brought back to life in real time, ritualistically. And we all know that feeling, when the performance is really good: it’s uncanny. This conjuring that we attempt in music is an old idea, much older than the music itself. Do I believe in ghosts and spirits? Maybe … but I do believe in the conjuring energy.
Maria de Buenos Aires is all about this. In fact, the tango itself is a spirit here, a beautiful woman who walks the streets, is born, killed, and reborn. She causes people to fall in love, to rape and murder, to create, to destroy. She shakes people out of indifference into a heightened, sensual, primal state. In other words, she’s hot. Of course, this is the spirit of the tango itself. We all know the rhythm – it’s hot as well. But what astonishes me about tango is the minor-key energy that gives the rhythm its color. You could call it dark eroticism, but there’s more to it than that. It’s a mournfulness, a sense that it’s already over while it’s happening, that it’s an echo. This is what makes the tango one of the most haunted forms of music I know. When we do enter the rare major-key zones of the opera, they’re jarring. It doesn’t feel quite right, and as a listener one feels a bit like a vampire cast out into the sun. This also happens to Maria’s shadow as she’s exiled to walk the streets during the day, seeking protection in the shadows of the trees and chimneys.
The eroticism, darkness, mournfulness, and nostalgia of the tango create a unique conjuring power: they irresistibly turn the performers AND listeners into … creatures of the night.
It’s a special kind of fun to be one of the conjurers of this energy. I’m glad we’re performing this opera in the ballroom of a haunted hall, and I’m relieved that there’s no matinée, so when we all walk out of the hall, it won’t be into the light, but into the night and its mysteries.
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.
Folks I’m in EL PASO, TEJAS this week. I Can See Mexico From My House! Or out my hotel window. I’m having a great time here, partly because I’m getting to conduct a piece I really love that never gets done, and that’s Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, the so called “Espansiva.” What a piece! I know people like No. 4 and No. 5, and they are more ambitious and serious perhaps, but I’ve always thought of Nielsen as a humorous composer, at least that’s the part I like the most about him. In this piece, he’s like a Nordic Haydn on Steroids, starting off with an amazing Eroica joke, playing ridiculous games with keys, backwards phrasing, odd orchestration, surprise singers, and folksy dances. In the last movement you can feel this kind of Nordic Step Dancing going on for sure. The orchestra is rising to the challenge and digging the music as far as I can tell. Maybe because it was below zero (F) in El Paso last week and now they can relate to the Idea of North.
I’m also looking forward to some desert hikes, Mexican food, and some Old West. Someone even told me they have great vintage typography(!) here, so I’ll keep an eye out for that (Actually, I’m watching the Helvetica movie on my iPad every night before I go to sleep. It’s really interesting but I can’t actually stay awake for too long watching it. It is, after all, about a font. There’s only so much one can do.)
Also, have you been checking out the latest Twitter conversation about orchestral programming? It’s called “Dead White Guys.” (#DWG), which is what we play a lot.
I chimed in a few times. The thing is, when we play concerts of living white guys, or dead other kinds of people, we get our most passionate audiences I think. They’re just small audiences. The question is, how do orchestras define success? If an orchestra wants to “grow” an audience, doesn’t that naturally imply that one starts small? At the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony we’re so lucky to have a space for small audiences (the Conrad Centre), so the small-audience concerts feel great. It’s from there that we can begin to grow.
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.