Someone should write a piece about Dad Noises. Example:
Someone should write a piece about Dad Noises. Example:
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.
I love summer. I was on the beach yesterday, and it was beautiful, sunny, breezy. After the beach, I went home and watched a few auditions for an upcoming project on Skype. Skype auditions! I was relaxed at home in my chair, in front of my computer, the summer breeze was blowing through the window. I didn’t have to go anywhere, I felt wonderfully lazy, and it was great.
Summer! It’s evening as I write this, and outside, there are two comfortable chairs on the front porch, there is a hammock on the roof deck, there is fresh mint growing in a planter for making a pitcher of lemonade, or mojitos. This mint is growing so aggressively that I feel forced to make a cocktail out of it, for the sake of the other herbs. These are the things that are calling to me.
And reading. In summer, it’s the best.
Have you read …
…Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis? This is one of the few truly funny novels. Funny like A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s about this guy who is handed a pamphlet which contains the Secrets of Atlantis. Or maybe they’re just scribbles and triangles. The guy, Jimmerson, believes that with this information, he’s ready to start a religion. One sect spins off into another, they gather new eccentric members: dandies, con-men, large men with pulsating mustaches, and no women, really. They perform rituals, they argue, they split up, they write nasty pamphlets about each other, they go to a mobile home compound in Texas for an exciting finale. Portis wrote True Grit, and has a way with words, particularly descriptions of strange people and strange things that are strangely familiar.
… Stoner by John Williams? No, not that John Williams. No, not that kind of Stoner. Stoner is a farmer’s son from Missouri who falls in love with literature, becomes a college professor, and has a fairly disappointing life. He marries the wrong woman, gets embroiled in English Department politics, never really amounts to much. But he’s a kind of hero. The story of Stoner’s life is told at a brisk pace, hitting the various low points (and a high point or two) chapter by chapter. Again, like Portis, the sentences are beautiful, the descriptions are unblinking, stark, but somehow poetic. The situations are gripping and almost unbearably frustrating. The novel is inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time. The author described it as “an escape into reality,” and it is, a most surprising and touching kind of escapism.
I really loved those two books. Right now I’m reading The Information by James Glieck, which is a history of information. Talking Drums, Telegraphs, Dictionaries, The Internet, and more. It looks at the world from a new angle, and fills me with wonder every time I pick it up. He’s also a great writer, and I’m reading it slowly … using it as training for a concert coming up next season with scientists from the Institute for Quantum Computing. I’m expanding my brain with this one.
Along with Glieck, I’ll be reading a few beach novels, Scando-Crime, probably. I can’t get enough of that stuff. The cultures are so organized that the murders seem especially gruesome. Kind of like when an Alien pops out of someone in a clean, sanitary operating room.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
This week I conduct Carmina Burana with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. It’s the big closing to our season! It’s epic, it will have the Grand Philharmonic choir, three great Canadian soloists, and more! It will sell a lot of tickets, people will dig it. There’s just one problem.
I kind of detest Carmina Burana.
How can I explain this? Let’s just say I look at this piece the way Werner Herzog looks at a shark attack.
I find this piece kind of “eroticizes” and makes pretty some nasty things that we human animals do. I’m not even going to get into the fact that this piece was written in 1930′s Germany (whoops, I just did). Now that may not really be fair. A lot of art eroticizes violence and makes it pretty, and I like quite a bit of it. Maybe I personally can deal with it in the movies (Quentin Tarantino, etc.) but get a little queasy when it gets mixed up with orchestras. Maybe orchestras are my mental and moral territory for the higher aspirations of humanity. Maybe it’s my problem. But the fact remains: Carmina Burana rubs me the wrong way. It’s creeps me out.
All of this however, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t conduct it or program it. Whether I like it or not, this piece gets my mind and emotions going. In fact, in all of my years watching concerts and being behind the scenes, I’ve found that sometimes artists do the worst performances of the the music they care about the most. They overthink and get lost in the details. On the other hand, when a performer has an ambivalent relationship with a work, truly fascinating things can happen in the performance.
So what am I going to do with Carmina Burana? First, I’m going pair it with a piece of music that also has a lot of banging and clanging, but celebrates PEACE and BEAUTY (Colin McPhee’s Tabuh-Tabuhan).
Second, I’m gonna go really primal with the Orff. And my hope is that it will creep you out too.