Wednesday, November 30, 2005


In this household, ChamberMusic (a publication of Chamber Music America) usually gets little more than a quick skim before meeting its end in the recycling bin. This morning, however, the magazine awaited me and my coffee, having been strategically placed just to the left of the laptop and opened to two important pages. The December issue presents Peter Garland in the American Composer column, and the thoughtful survey, written by Kyle Gann, makes a case for the music's simplicity and considers why Garland is so underappreciated.
It is no secret how much modern music is kept alive today by performers proud of their ability to negotiate its daunting complexities. These people will see little opportunity for self-validation on Garland's pages.
Ah, yes. Penasco Blanco, for piano and vibraphone, is one of my favorite pieces and exhibits all the Garland qualities, including widely spaced, triadic harmonies, seemingly aimless phrases, and almost laughably elementary rhythmic configurations--quarters, eighths, and a few tied notes, all at a modest tempo. But notice I said, 'almost.' Simplicity requires its own peculiar virtuosity, and I once realized this--yikes--in the midst of performing the work. With Garland, the performer has to learn to "sell" space, not notes,

Give Peter a listen:
Love Songs: featuring William Winant, the Abel-Steinberg-Winant trio, and others; 2005 (Tzadik, 8012)
Another Sunrise: featuring Aki Takahashi; (Mode 110)
Nana + Victorio: William Winant, percussion, Julie Steinberg, piano; 1993 (Avant, 012)

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Monday, November 28, 2005

Questioning the Composer

from a letter to mon ami...
Do you ever exorcise through composing? Can you get rid of old boyfriends, compose away their ghosts? Can composing make sense of the awful separating of stuff: was this your book, or is it mine? can I take the whisk? what about the moka pot? Is composing a way of "working out" your life? Or is it something more serious, a furrowed-brow deliberation on "widely relevant" issues? Is the front page of the Times your fodder? Or is composing purely fun, like taking a walk to the rose garden or eating a fine meal? I imagine many composers compose with intention, wanting to prophesy please. To please an audience, a critic, a mother, a that composing?

In the end, I do not think I care too much for intentional composers. My mantle only has room for those who compose because it spills out of these wildly nonsensical words spilling out of me to you. Are you that kind of composer? Are you?

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

A Feast of Words, in Song (part 1)

Composers who choose to write for voice are (tsk, tsk) like children who take seconds before finishing their first helpings. Unless content with pure vocal sounds (and the brilliant Ms. Monk comes to mind), the choral composer must consider a text, often poetic, in addition to writing melody and harmony. Pitch, rhythm, tone and timbre, in combination with words that are, essentially, already music, become a full feast of musical materials, one in which choral, opera, and musical theatre composers love to indulge. (And in the world of music, it goes without saying: abandon all manners at the door. Please, please, be impolite!) Sensitivity to the relationship between text and music is an important compositional strategy, however, particularly when the words are culled from the rich canon of American poetry. Are the words and music equals, or is one subservient to the other? Over the duration of a piece, can that relationship be turned upside down, around, and back again? With so many considerations, the compositional plate is in danger of looking a little bit like...soup.

Volti inaugurated their twenty-seventh season with a Thanksgiving feast of words in song, with five contemporary choral works that drew from a pantheon of American poets, including Rita Dove, e e cummings, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Alvin Singleton's "Gospel" was a perfect introit. The singers worked its madrigal style to full advantage, soaring through the phrases with an exhuberance that completely captured the tone of Dove's poem: "ride joy until / it cracks like an egg." When the brief work came to an end, I couldn't imagine needing anything more. I wanted to stand, applaud, and go out into the world--just so sated.

Wayne Peterson's An e e cummings Triptych was the only piece on the program more than ten years old, and its happy-go-lucky "60s harmonies" mirror the lighthearted joy that characterizes much of e e cummings' poetry. Setting e e, however, is such a huge risk. There is depth and richness even in lines that leap popularly off the page, and a reader savors such lines again and again: "as red as terror and as green as fate, / greyly shall fail and dully disappear--" A reader cannot help but make their own music for these words, and that very personal and intimate activity is what turns cummings' playful arrangements of words into something a little more sophisticated. Musical settings, whether solo or choral, tend to infringe on one's imagined poetic music: even if I get beyond the momentary distractions of an interesting harmony or pretty melody, the sung words--the ones I want to savor in my own way--tend to race by or, worse, end up a mushily enunciated. My criticisms are not aimed at Volti's performance at all; rather, their excellent qualities of ensemble and blend, tuning and musicality, allowed my mind to focus straight away on these more compositional issues.

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Wishes & Gifts

The holidays bring wishes...and also a couple of musical gifts.

Brundibar & Comedy on the Bridge
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2015 Addison Street
through December 28, 2005
Tickets are awfully pricey, and yet, I am moved by the story.

Mark Morris' The Hard Nut
UCBerkeley -- Zellerbach Hall
December 9 - 18, 2005
I'm dreaming of a white christmas...courtesy of the just-prior-to-intermission snowflakes. Absolutely awesome.

Oakland Ballet's Nutcracker
The Paramount Theatre
2025 Broadway, Oakland
December 16 - 21, 2005
Nothing used to signify the holidays more than waking on christmas eve morning and heading down to the Paramount to play class for the dancers before their matinee performance. This year's schedule is radically different; sadly, there seem to be no performances on, or anywhere near, the 24th.

VOCI Women's Vocal Ensemble
Psalms and Canticles of Praise and Comfort
December 9 - 10, 2005

Mission Dolores Basilica Choir
Candlelight Christmas Concert
Sunday December 18, 2005, 7pm
3321 16th Street, San Francisco
Hey! Who's that girl in the upper left hand corner blatantly defying concert dress code?!? I wonder...

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Enter: the Architect

I met Frank Lloyd Wright on the Zabar's condiment aisle. Our paths converged in the way that hand meets hand in a mirror. At exactly the same speed and similarly cuffed at the wrist in black, our outstretched fingers curled toward and around one particular bottle of specialty vinegar from Jerez. At this juncture, all motion ceased simultaneously, and then, still along the parallel plane, our hands withdrew quickly away from each other.

[exclaiming in surprise]: Mr. Wright!

WRIGHT: [arches an eyebrow, politely]

[continuing]: I've just spent the afternoon in one of your buildings...the Guggenheim...looking at art, of course. [babbling, uncharacteristically] There's a great exhibit right now, so well-conceived and informative, very poignant. It traces a path [gracefully drawing an upwards spiral with one finger] through Russian art history.

WRIGHT: [arches the other eyebrow to match the first, then relaxes all the muscles at once. His face lacks expression, but his eyes occasionally dart to the bottle of vinegar.]

[trying to sound more esoteric, perhaps wanting to impress]: Your museum is a ruckblick. I mean, it allows one to "look back." I can't imagine being an artist and having to put on a show there-- [making an absurd face and leaning in confidentially] Hanging square paintings in a round space? You're so mean! --but I love how the space invites the viewer to keep glancing backwards. So Brahmsian, like that movement in the third piano sonata. [humming softly]

WRIGHT: [blanches, noticeably]

[rolling eyes]: yeah, yeah, yeah. Brahms is so out of favor these days, isn't he, and "developing variation" is practically a dirty word. But [with one hand fluttering skyward] who cares? Today, I couldn't help but hear the opening of that movement, how it [humming a pretty descending pattern, briefly] strolls slowly along and then stops, punctuated by a triplet figure in the bass: [singing, with chin comically tucked in, very low--too low--and jabbing a finger towards Wright who recoils in perfect rhythmic unison] pa-pa-pa pum! Brahms looks back at the second movement and sees something familiar; the descending thirds, now so staid and cautious, were once yearning and surging more hopefully. In RUSSIA! (the exhibit) I found myself stopping and looking back, sizing up the progression of themes and styles. Whether in fancy, royal portraiture or more common scenes of life and work, the Russian painters go straight to the soul, letting a facial expression speak of politics and social hierarchies. As the viewer, you will not forget the emphasis on the people, on their lives, situations, and emotions; the curvature of the building demands a constant over-the-shoulder glance and bridges century to century. That, to me, is very much like a musical variation that proceeds ahead, not so much forward and away, but back 'round [again drawing a spiral, whimsically with one finger] its point of origin. Very musical, Mr. Wright, very musical.

WRIGHT: [reaches deliberately for the bottle of vinegar but then hesitates]

Ah! You want your sherry vinegar--such an underrated kitchen essential--and here I am talking your ear off...

WRIGHT [coolly interrupting and looking farther down the aisle]: I think, my dear, I just need some [his tone changes, with some sense of foreboding] salt.

[curtain, immediately]

And so we spoke of architecture and music, of art and backwards glances. We introduced Brahms to Russia [the spine tingles] and parted ways over the finest sherry vinegar. Only in New York City.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Scene Change: Taking Flight

You called me last night on the telephone
And I was glad to hear from you 'cause I was all alone
You said, "It's snowing, it's snowing! God, I hate this weather."
Now I walk through blizzards just to get us back together

We met in the springtime at a rock-and-roll show
It was on the Bowery when it was time to go
We kissed on the subway in the middle of the night
I held your hand, you held mine, it was the best night of my life.

'Cause everyone's your friend in New York City
And everything looks beautiful when you're young and pretty
The streets are paved with diamonds and there's just so much to see
But the best thing about New York City is you and me

new york

Statue of Liberty, Staten Island Ferry, Co-op City, Katz's and Tiffany's
Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge, The Empire State where Dylan lived
Coney Island and Times Square, Rockefeller Center
Wish I was there

You wrote me a letter just the other day
Said, "Springtime is coming soon so why don't you come to stay."
I packed my stuff, got on the bus, I can't believe it's true
I'm three days from New York City and I'm three days from you

'Cause everyone's my friend in New York City
And everything looks beautiful when you're young and pretty
The streets are paved with diamonds and there's just so much to see
But the best thing about New York City is you and me.

--New York City (They Might Be Giants version)

Photo by Urs Blickenstorfer

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Becoming Real

What is Real?

Concerts here and concerts there. From the opera to the theatre and back again. Midway through the fall artistic season, everything begins to blur together. The performances still excite and the resultant ideas still flourish, but lately it all seems like a bit of a slosh through the autumnal mire. Oh, it's beautiful, well-performed, artistic mire, but I, for one, have reached a point where I need a fresh perspective, an emphatic raison d'etre. What distinguishes this or that production; what elevates one performance from another? What's really at work? Where's its heart? What makes it all Real?
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once... It takes a long time."
Ouch. The thought ran through my head a few weeks ago when I heard Dawn Upshaw perform at Stanford. Ouch. Are technical difficulties the growing pains of the twenty-first century classical musician? Maybe the old formalities--the performer hushed and composed and in their mental "space" from the instance the lights go up--need a transformation. Be a little rock star, saunter casually onstage, do a line check (yes, even if you did one an hour ago in the run-through) and fiddle with the knobs on the monitors until everyone is set. It's ok, really. In a piece such as Ayre, the voice has to have proper technical assistance if it's going to be electronically mixed and layered against the instrumental ensemble. Ms. Upshaw handled the break in the performance with absolute grace and later joked about the appropriateness of getting "wired" just before the song, "Tancas serradas a muru." She channeled her emotions into the fierce guttural vocalising and cursed everyone in the room, essentially slinging the audience right back into Golijov's musical world.

The song cycle is very much a whole, and as such, forces the singer (and the listener) to "become real" through the entirety of its performance. (This is why the technical interruption so annoyed me.) Sweet folklike simplicity leads to a growling accusatory chant and returns to soothing lullaby. The tenth song, "Yah, annah emtza'cha," is desperate in its plea: spoken text and intense hypnotic chanting represent the present and past, and the re-recorded vocal layerings help create a delicate and disembodied musical rhapsody. But the presence of a very proper, English speaking "other" jerks the listener from a Sephardic and Arab Spain of long ago. In this moment, Golijov exiles everyone--singer and listener, poetic characters and historic peoples. We're cast adrift, confused, and it is painful...but Real. Like the children's story, however, the trials of becoming real make the ending--a typically odd-metered, traditional Sephardic tune--all the more poignant.

Even in the hands of the outstanding Ms. Upshaw and a fiery band of talented musicians (including, at this performance, eighth blackbird), Ayre is a complicated piece to pull off in live performance: the concert version needs one more virtuoso, a musically sensitive and technically savvy sound engineer. I attended the concert with the keen-eared M.C- who concurred that (at least for now) the piece works better in its recorded form. The snags of the live performance, however, reminded me of the Rabbit in the children's story; eyes get plucked out and hair is rubbed off, but in the end, the experience through the piece is visceral and edgy, beautiful and sweet. That's Real enough for me. At the end of the concert, however, in the midst of enthusiastic applause, I overheard an appraisal of a different sort. "Yes, yes, Dawn Upshaw is brilliant...wonderful. She could have had such a career." Then the tone of voice changed, just enough so that I could hear his odd regretful smile and the shake of his head. "But," he sighed, "she chooses to do things... like this." What did the Skin Horse tell the Rabbit? Ah yes, sometimes there are "people who don't understand."

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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Sworn Truth

I promise to tell the whole truth, and thus will admit that I have not gone as low as I'll probably ever go. Recently, however, I was asked (at the last minute, of course) to accompany a well-intentioned but still very amateur chanteuse at a birthday/anniversary party. She sang a Shania Twain song to her husband (and the dozen or so invited guests). On arriving at the party, I was ushered into the kitchen (so as not to raise any suspicions--accompanists must be heard, never seen) and offered a glass of champagne. How considerate, I thought, just as the glass was whisked from my hand. (!) Sorry, the hostess explained, there were not quite enough champagne glasses to go round. (I mentioned that the song was a Shania Twain pop hit, didn't I? Ugh.) After the lovely performance (followed by an impromptu, on-demand "happy birthday") I dashed into the kitchen to grab my jacket and, feeling wholly justified, snatched a handful of proscuitto-wrapped, goat cheese stuffed figs off a silver tray near the door. The hostess' husband gave me a dirty, withering look. I felt no guilt. No guilt whatsoever. (We will not speak of the pitiful compensation.)

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