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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.



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.


Intersections – and how it changed everything

This week at the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony we celebrate the first 5 years of our Intersections series.  It all started when I got the job there.  I wanted to find a place for artists who didn’t fit into a particular musical category — people like violinist/fiddler Gilles Apap, composer/DJ Mason Bates, Western/Indian musician Suba Sankaran and others.  But it quickly became a home for people who wanted to try something with orchestra: saxophonists, scientists, chefs, yogis, videographers, you name it.  It became a place where an orchestra can do anything, and by my estimation, one of the coolest, riskiest endeavors attempted by any orchestra in North America.

From the beginning, people took notice.  A lot of our shows were played at Koerner Hall in Toronto, thanks to the good faith and adventurous spirit of Mervon Mehta.  I’ll never forget when our music/neuroscience show with Daniel Levitin, Beethoven and Your Brain, sold out there a week in advance.  It made me feel like this itch I had to put orchestra in different “frames” also was there in our audience.  It confirmed my belief that orchestra don’t exist in a vacuum, but in the world of thought, emotion, and ideas.  I’m excited that our collaboration with the Institute for Quantum Computing, Quantum: Music at the Frontier of Science also has legs.  We performed it at the opening of their new Quantum Nano Centre, for the Banff Forum, and will bring it to the Indianapolis Symphony this spring, with more performances to come.

Intersections has also had an effect on my career beyond KW.  It seems like more and more, the programs I’m asked to conduct include living composers and programs that go beyond the normal “safe” boundaries.  This is perfectly fine with me. Like any conductor I spend most of my time studying Beethoven and Brahms, and carrying on the great tradition associated with these composers and work. But being able to put them in a new context is a way to give them new life for new audiences.  It’s great to be gaining the trust of other orchestras and being able to expand the work I started in KW in places like San Francisco, North Carolina, Indianapolis, and elsewhere.

Some of my favorite souvenirs of this process are our commissions.  Invariably, they’re from unusual people or crazy pieces from established composers.  Our first commission was by Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, and his For Heart, Breath, and Orchestra was on our first CD.  It was weird and touching, with the musicians playing off of Richie’s music but also relying on their own breath and heartbeats (they wore stethoscopes).  We followed with two orchestral commissions by the amazing Dan Deacon, who writes hyperfun-nerdgasm dance music, but also is linked to the American Experimental tradition, from Nancarrow to Cage to Zappa.  It was a huge stretch for him to translate his ideas to orchestra, and included an apology to our librarian in a program note, but it moved him forward as a musician and blew our audience’s mind.  Nicole Lizée is one of Canada’s most exciting composers, and it was fun to give her a space to write something wild.  The result was 2012: Concerto for Power Trio and Orchestra (Fantasia on Themes by Rush). I mean, how Canadian is that?  Nicky describes the music as “Melting Rush,” which about sums it up.  But it also pushed music forward, with the most difficult and stunning drumset notation I have ever seen (played by the remarkable Ben Reimer), and virtuosic combinations of guitar, bass, drums, and orchestra that I had never heard before.

To celebrate this series, we’re playing the Dan Deacon and Lizée/Rush pieces again this week, along with music of Bryce Dessner and Andrew Creegan, Thursday and Friday at the Conrad Centre for the Performing Arts in KW, and Saturday at Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto.  Come and hear this!  Dan, Nicky, and Andy Creegan will be there! This is an orchestra putting itself out there and trying something new, in a way that so many are afraid to.  So be here. Walk, bike, drive, fly.  Celebrate Intersections with us!


Summer UPDATE!

After a mad few weeks, I’m at home again, getting ready for the fall season.

A few things:

Recently: I conducted Prokofiev’s 4th Symphony a few weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about it. It was music that Prokofiev thought was so nice that he wrote it thrice. First as the Ballet The Prodigal Son, then as a Symphony in the 30’s and then again as a Symphony in 1947. In the second version of the symphony he amped it up, adding linking motivic material and expanding almost all parts. I can see why he loved the music so much. The material is optimistic and sunny and witty, and incredibly creative in its orchestration. Every instrument reaches into an extended range to great effect, creating this expanded sound universe, whose extended tentacles caress you, drawing you in. Alien and sexy! The second movement is especially beautiful tracing the Prodigal Son’s return and reconciliation, with a full-on C Major romantic melody. I love this symphony! Check it out.

Summer Reading: Just finished The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson: an epic, harrowing, Dickensian novel set in North Korea (?!). I’m also going to read Anna Karenina and Andrew Sean Greer’s The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, and I’m sure some music books. Oh I also read a JACK REACHER book.

Coming Up: I think the biggest, weirdest project coming up is a soon-to-be announced concert with an orchestra about music and DRUGS, basically. More in this space soon. Also very excited about bringing our Nicole Lizée and Dan Deacon commissions from the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony to Koerner Hall. This may become our next recording.

Also conducting Tchaikovky’s 6th Symphony for the first time. That’s a biggie. AND: Cowell’s 4th and Synchrony & Lou Harrison’s Second Symphony with BBC Wales, Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, Ligeti, and Dvorak with the San Francisco Symphony, a very interesting and cool concert with Chicago Symphony MusicNOW, the KWS Quantum Physics Show goes to the Indianapolis Symphony and more. It will all be up soon on the schedule page.

Been there, done that

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.

To an audience

The KW Symphony asked me to write a note to our audience for our upcoming Mahler 5 concert. Here’s what I wrote:

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in California, kids riding bikes outside the house, waves breaking on the beach, but there I am again, holed up in my room, listening to the music of Gustav Mahler. I don’t know what this says about me and the kind of teenager I was, but it does say a lot about the power of Mahler’s music. I remember hearing it for the very first time, and how it seemed to encompass a vast psychological space. How time seemed to completely stop, or speed up. How I was carried along by the music as if I were on a raft floating down a wide, turbulent river. The overwhelming emotion of the music captivated me. The tears, suffering and transcendence contained in these symphonies hinted at joy and heartbreak I had yet to experience. In these symphonies, I felt an uncanny power: the sounds themselves made me vibrate like a tuning fork with unexperienced emotion. My own nascent feelings and perceptions were amplified through Mahler, and left me breathless, tearful, elated.

Years later I feel the same power. But now, Mahler seems now to amplify emotions I experienced in the past. Certain passages bring back memories of people who have come and gone in life, delicate memories of childhood, rage which burned out long ago, the dizziness of unrequited love. In his symphonies, Mahler lays out a vast world of sound, memory and emotion, and inevitably we find ourselves somewhere on his map. As public and grand as his works are, they are also shockingly intimate. They speak to our inner life, our hidden feelings and perceptions. By amplifying these feelings Mahler reminds us all how much our lives actually matter, right now.

So here you are, in the audience, about to hear Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. You’ve reached the end of the day, you’re relaxing in your seat. But soon there will be a trumpet call, and then … cataclysm! Mahler’s world is about to crash down on you. You’ll hear sound of an entire orchestra baring their souls and then you’ll begin your journey. First, an epic lament and then the search for meaning, following a winding path of grief, rage, confusion, childhood memories, love, and giddiness, disappointment, and joy, all expressed through pure sound. At times you will feel lost, at other times you will hear things that hit home. You will feel your own life amplified by Mahler’s music, as if this composer has somehow read your mind, and your heart.

So here we go. The concert is about to begin. Thank you for being here. Now, get ready.

A letter from Rousseau


April 1st, 1910

Dear Monsieur,

I reply immediately to your friendly letter in order to explain the motive for the location of the sofa in question.  This woman sleeping on this sofa dreams that she is transported into the middle of this forest, hearing the notes of the charmer’s pipe.  This gives the motive for the sofa being in the picture.  I thank you for your kind appreciation, and if I have kept my naïveté, it is because M. Gérôme, who was a professor at the Beaux-Arts, as well as M. Clément, director of the Beaux-Arts at the Ecole de Lyon, always told me to keep it.  You will no longer find that amazing in the future.  And I have been told before that I was not of this century.  I will not now be able to change my manner which I have acquired by stubborn application, believe me.  I finish my note by thanking you in advance for the article you will write on me and pray you to accept my deepest sentiments, as well as a good cordial handshake.

Henri Rousseau,


2 bis, rue Perrel (14e)


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.


Think of Mozart as a comedy writer. Yes, he wrote some drama too, but overall, not that much. If you look through his work, you’ll find a G minor symphony or string quintet here and there, or a D minor piano concerto, but the rest is pretty Major key, pretty sunny. Of the operas, a few are serious, like Idomeneo, La Clemenza di Tito, and a bit of Don Giovanni, but mostly it’s a lot of situation comedies, mistaken identities, costumes, goofy bird catchers, right? The strange thing is, we take Mozart very seriously for someone who wrote mostly comedy. Few comedy writers in any genre are so revered. We might think of Haydn in terms of comedy — but Mozart?

There are two reasons for this. One is that beauty and perfection are the things that strike us first in Mozart’s music. This is true especially now, hundreds of years later, that the subversive elements in his music have lost some of their social and sonic impact. In terms of beauty, Mozart’s music is unmatched: the perfect melodies, the flawless structure, the warm, singing timbre of everything he wrote. Music is the most sensual of the arts, and the pure, miraculous beauty of his work casts a spell on us, and that spell can sometimes hide its other qualities.

We also tend to forget Mozart that worked in comedy because he used it for such serious purposes. The power of comedy is that it disarms and equalizes. When we laugh, we are outside of ourselves. Father and child, king and peasant, friend and enemy can be united, even just for a moment, with laughter. Mozart knew this about comedy and used it expertly. Think of his operas: they entertain and play over a period of hours, but we all remember those moments when, out of nowhere, he suddenly lands the sucker punch and we’re knocked out! Our hearts pound, and tears well up when we hear the Count’s pleading apology to the Countess at the end of Le nozze di Figaro, or when we hear the trio at the beginning of Così fan tutte that seems to bid farewell to honesty itself. Mozart uses comedy to get our guard down before he hits us with the real stuff. And when these moments do come, they are moments of truth and humanity, moments so strong that they break social and family conventions. In one instance, a philandering husband apologizes to his wife; in another, a young woman breaks free of her screaming, oppressive mother. In Mozart, maximum truth equals maximum beauty, and these moments of truth can be found throughout his works, whether they have words or not.

Hours of elegant farce, leading to a few big moments. It feels familiar. Mozart’s music is a metaphor for our lives. After all, if we add up the minutes of how we live, how many of them are truly serious? Don’t we spend most of our time making elegant, pleasant, witty maneuvers that allow us to get through the day unscathed, and allow to coexist peacefully with our fellow humans? And when the big moments of truth do arrive in our lives, don’t they seem to come out of nowhere, to knock us out, to change us, in an instant, forever?

Xenakis on Computing

Xenakis kind of describes what’s happening in our concerts this weekend:

“With the aid of electronic computers, the composer becomes a sort of pilot. He presses the buttons, introduces coordinates, and supervises the controls of a cosmic vessel sailing in the space of sound, across sonic constellations and galaxies that he could formerly glimpse only as a distant dream. Now he can explore them at his ease seated in an armchair.”