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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Monday, June 29, 2009

Ideas

Alex Ross came back to New Haven! It was part of this Arts & Ideas Festival they've got goin' on here; he came & gave his spiel-with-music, and everybody was there. The lecture-hall was packed with festivalgoing bluehairs, hipsterish music-lovers, and of course the mainstays of New Haven's new-music scene: Ingram Marshall! Jack Vees! Timothy Andres! We all went up and said hi to him after, and even mobbed with admirers he was very very nice. The lecture itself was an entertaining defense of twentieth-century music, not a bad thing to drag a loved one to should Ross make a stop in your town, and he totally said my name! and also big-upped Eduard Tubin, whose birthday it was. Anyway, I got to write the preview for the local paper, but as you can see there was barely room to say anything beyond "Hey you guys should go to this." So below is the full transcript of our email interview, complete with fawning and redundant questions. I made just a couple notes, too.

So what's going to happen at this talk, in your words? It's titled "Listening to the Twentieth Century"—also the subtitle of your book. How does the lecture complement Noise? What has the audience response been at lectures like this? Has it been different from what you expected? Crazy things are going to happen at this talk. It's going to be total insanity. Prepare to be astounded, disgusted, and transfigured. Well, in fact, no. What I'm going to do is off an audio-enhanced overview of the twentieth century and also a little memoir of my own progress as a listener, going from Brahms to Berg to Xenakis to Cecil Taylor to Sonic Youth and on from there. A number of times I've given a more formal lecture in which I've tried to sum up the entire century in about an hour, à la Lenscrafters, but when I'm pressed for time it sometimes devolves into a dizzying barrage of names and soundbites. This will be more leisurely. I've had a nice response from lectures in the past. The audience is usually a mix of connoisseurs who already know a lot about the subject and people who are coming to it for the first time, and I always enjoy trying to find the middle ground between them—as I do every time I write for the New Yorker. I thought it was interesting that you subtitled the book, "Listening to the Twentieth Century Music." It's catchier, obviously, but it also suggests something a bit more personal than a conventional history. What were your intentions in writing the book? What do you hope people take away from it? Yes, it was a conscious choice to give the book a more oblique title. It's mostly about classical music, but with a few extended detours into jazz and rock. So I didn't want to limit it by calling it a purely classical-music book. If I'd called it a history of music in general, that would have been deceptive as well. And I wanted to get across the idea that I wasn't writing only about music but also about the wider culture, about politics and social changes and technological transformations. The idea was that by following the lives of certain composers you would experience the century itself in a different way. Yes, it's quite a personal endeavor. There's no authorial first person between the Preface and the Acknowledgments, but everything is colored by my own experiences and passions. If feel it re-creates the journey I took when I was in college, when I started out as someone who thought music ended with Mahler and wound up with a far wider musical horizon. My main hope is that readers will take the same kind of journey themselves, whether they were classical nuts who haven't yet developed a taste for modern music or pop listeners who are curious about noise on the classical end. The response to your book has been huge, and overwhelmingly positive. In what ways were you surprised by its reception? Were there any aspects of the public or critical response that disappointed you? In the months leading up to publication I was in huge suspense. Of course I feared that a bunch of weighty people would dismiss the book out of hand—how dare this little upstart journalist presume to write about Schoenberg! But even more I feared that it would disappear without a trace, lost amid the thousands of good books that come out every season. Sure I dreamed idly that it would become a titanic bestseller, but my practical hope was for a less than total disappointment. So, yeah, I was really stunned by the fact that so many people seemed to pick up the book and actually read it. The New York Times Book Review made a big difference by sending the signal that it wasn't a specialist work. I've been particularly amazed by the response in the UK, where few people read the New Yorker and I was an unknown. It would be very churlish of me to complain about any aspect of the reception! Negative criticism of the book seems to have focused not on what it says, but what is missing from the text—but I also remember that you blogged about the agonizing process of whittling the book down to publishable size. What was the hardest to cut? Is there anything you wish you'd left in, or added? I expected that criticism and tried to defuse it by declaring in the Preface that the book was in no way intended to be comprehensive and that a lot of great music was left out. Decisions about what to include were not made on the basis of merit; I wasn't trying to form a supreme canon. Instead, I found that certain composers lent themselves better than others to the kinds of stories I wanted to tell—music colliding with history, composers interacting with popular music, composers debating the future of the art, music as a religious or spiritual medium, and so on. And I really needed to avoid bombarding the average reader with too many names. I really regret cutting the sections on Vaughan Williams and Galina Ustvolskaya, among others. But I did the best I could.
Aside: Wow! When I got to that part, I felt a little twinge, imagining the parallel universe where there was room to give Galina Ustvolskaya a section to herself. And the more I thought about it, the more obsessed I became! Two of the big Noise narratives are about the liberation struggles of Oppressed Minorities: practically a whole chapter is devoted to America's failure to produce/nurture/support a great African American composer in its concert halls, and the emergence of the openly gay composer is such a prominent theme (Benjamin Britten, of course, gets his own chapter) that when Ross compares extremely out sex-and-power philosopher Michel Foucault to the rather less open Pierre Boulez with the remark, "What drove Boulez's own rage for order remains unknown," one might be forgiven for choking just a little on one's coffee, because OFF THE RECORD, oh honey. (Happy Pride.) But the story of women's lib, arguably the single most important such movement in the past hundred years, is treated almost quietly by comparison, which in the context of a book like this seems a little odd—so in that parallel universe where Galina Ustvolskaya gets her own nice, long section, one imagines that this must have been redressed somewhat? Unfortunately, parallel-universe The Rest Is Noise is also 1600 pages long, and only twenty-three people have read it. So I guess we're better off. Wait, I forget what I was talking about. Okay back to the interview.
And finally, some questions about actual music: Are there any composers or performers whose work you feel is especially underrated or otherwise due for reappraisal? I think of you as a very optimistic critic: you get to write about the things you love. Are there any trends in music that you find worrying? In music criticism? Carl Nielsen is one of the great unsung composers of the twentieth century. Ralph Shapey is the great, gritty American modernist who always gets overlooked (yes, in my book too). Among contemporary composers, John Luther Adams, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Stephen Hartke, Guo Wenjing, and New Haven's Ingram Marshall deserve to be much better known.
HOLLER AT ME. Have I not said "Hartke"? Did I not, JUST NOW, say "Ingram Marshall"?? YOU'RE WELCOME, people.
I remain optimistic about ye olde classical, although the economic situation is obviously going to put some big-budget organizations in jeopardy. It's possible we could have a sort of end-Cretaceous event where a bunch of dinosaurs disappear but smaller groups thrive. The trend in music criticism, alas, has been toward extinction—not because of the so-called death of classical music but because of the crisis in traditional media. The Internet is trying to take up the slack, with mixed success. I do see some discouraging trends in Internet music writing and in newspapers that try to sound "bloggy." On your blog you recently took note of this annoying kind of piece in which someone blurts out an outrageous statement along the lines of "Bach couldn't compose a decent fugue to save his life!" Plus he was a homophobe!" And a lot of people jump in and say, "No, Bach was the best! And he loved the gays!" And that goes on until the next made-up controversy erupts." The real gift of the medium is in letting you go infinitely deep into some weird topic, with no fretful editor telling you to keep it simple or brief. I love it when Jeremy Denk writes 8000 words about an ornament in the Goldberg Variations and then somehow connects it to an episode of Make Me a Supermodel. That's something totally new in the history of dancing about architecture.
The End. Note to self: do most people who interview people for a living make such great interview subjects? Look into this.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

I'll Bet He Does

The August '09 Allegro Classics distribution catalog scores the ultimate endorsement.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Another Joke

Q: Why did Poulenc go to Morocco? A: Sextuorism.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Ojai Diaries: Part Four

V. The best of David Rakowski's four (out of how many?) Etudes on the Ojai program was "Schnozzage," which you'll recall from our earlier post on the subject as the ideal blend of solemn counterpoint and comic spectacle, and Amy Briggs certainly earned her laughs and applause. Andrew McCann and eighth blackbird's Matt Albert also earned a few chuckles with Stephen Hartke's violin duet, Oh Them Rats Is Mean in My Kitchen. Oh Them Rats Is Mean in My Kitchen is divided into four movements— I. Oh II. Them Rats III. Is Mean IV. In My Kitchen —which gives you some idea of the piece's sense of humor, but not much idea of how blasted good it is, so you can imagine my surprise at first hearing the piece, back in my college days, and discovering it to be a substantial musical achievement. It's an exploration of classic blues through classical music, but so was Tall P by Pete Rose, from the QNG set, and as we have established, that piece was kinda gay. The difference is that Hartke manages to go beyond those blues gestures composers keep reheating, and instead dug deep into some of those techniques that make historical blues recordings so weird and thrilling—the vivid, disorienting asynchrony, the elaborately ornamented heterophony. The fiddlers dug into the score and came out with a great show. A man sitting behind me said, "I've got to find out if this Stephen Hartke wrote any piano music." A pianist, evidently. Yes, he did! His first sonata came out on the CRI label back when there was a CRI label, on Vicki Ray's From the Left Edge, with one of the composers' names misspelled on the back. (QUALITY.) Now it's out on New World. I wonder if they fixed the typo. Sounder by Nathan Davis (who had played Cage's in Third Construction earlier in the day), composed for 8bb, percussion and Trimpin instrument, (TRIMPINSTRUMENT?), was actually a little of a disappointment. Libbey Park hosted a number of installations by Trimpin (TRIMPINSTALLATIONS?), the most dramatic of which was the Sheng High. An enormous water-organ, the Sheng High operated on sort of a player-piano or music-box (or barrel-organ) principle, only instead of using clockworks to read a rotating paper roll, it used electronic eyes to read a graphic score made out of strips of mirror on a giant revolving disc. In Sounder, Trimpin's Percussion Tree, literally a tree hung with cymbals, wooden shoes, and toy pianos, was less dazzling in action: I found myself wishing the Trimpster had wired everything with LEDs or something in addition to the mechanical beaters, so that the audience could make out which instrument was playing when from the other side of the theater. The instrument looked good, and it sounded good, but without that essential corporeal dimension connecting the image to the sound, I almost might as well have been listening to a sampler for much of the work. Davis's writing, though full of rhythmic interest, didn't quite sustain itself as much beyond a showpiece for the cybernetic ensemble. Okay I get to review one more piece and then I am FREE. Workers' Union by Louis Andriessen is probably one of his best-known works, for any number of loud instruments, written in rhythmic unison (occasionally divisi à 2) with only the contour of the "melody" notated—the exact pitches are left up to the performer. Now, "political" music is a funny thing—Andriessen's Marxist ideology paints him into a corner this article (by a Greg) articulates in a very interesting way. Andriessen's a Marxist, so he wants to cast off decadent bourgeois concert-hall culture in favor of brash, vernacular idioms, but on the other hand he doesn't want to embrace popular/commercial culture. So he troubles his clear forms and pulses with épater-le-bourgeois dissonance, intensity and duration (Worker's Unionis about a quarter-hour of loud, dissonant clusters, if you're doing it right):

At the risk of overstating the case, if Andriessen’s rigor saved minimalism from its experimental roots, his dissonance pulled minimalism back from the threat of popular accessibility. ...While Andriessen’s dissonance might lose him an 'easy listening' audience, it gains him a high-art cachet according to a value system hardly less puritanical.
A healthy dose of stick, in other words, to go with that delicious carrot. Well if you know me, you know I love stick, so I was actually a little ruffled to see 8bb adapt Worker's Union with a pinch of dramatic license (I demand to be punished!): They started out with just the core sextet, and then introduced additional players one by one, until everyone who had played at the entire festival was onstage banging their instruments as hard as they could, down to ululating Lucy Shelton and kinnnnndof cute percussionist Ian Fry wailin' on electric bass. But the playing was insanely tight, and the performance conceit was the logical extension of the festival ethos one of the blackbirds articulated in an article I've suddenly forgotten (REMIND ME IN COMMENTS PLS)—that all the players could me imagined as making up a sort of hyper-eighth-blackbird, a fully modular group of groups, each one passionate and precise and fearless. Maybe I can't remember where I read this because I made it up, and they didn't say anything of the sort, but let's pretend. Did I say "tight" already? Or "precise"? How about "passionate," then. I did? Okay good, because all in all, this was an incredibly solid performance, noisy and raucous but with terrific ensemble. During one passage they all sang their parts WHILE playing them, and at various moments near the climax, you'd hear 'em go "YEAH!" or "UNGH!" like they were jamming. I just listened to the Bang on a Can recording of this piece again, and my heart broke a little with the realization that the 8bb All-Stars rendition was so much more perfect but I'll never get to re-listen. I didn't get a chance to say good-bye to anybody after—apologies, all—my flight was taking off at midnight, so it was straight to LAX (to stand in a long pointless security line) as soon as the applause died down. Redeye to La Guardia, then an afternoon with a friend in Harlem, then the train home. Returning finally from the station, I walked past Furio from The Sopranos, standing outside a charity event at Goodfellas, our neighborhood mafia theme restaurant! (I don't know what that means, other than that our neighborhood has a very high guido density.) And then joyful reunion with roommates and cat, and then THE END. Roll Credits.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Hello Goodbye

Hey, look! Elfin young composer Trevor Gureckis, who has worked with fellow elfin young composer Nico Muhly, as well as wise old elf-king Philip Glass, in the ancient mythical land of Dunvagen, has a very short new soundtrack out on Glass's Orange Mountain label, via iTunes (here). In the interest of context, here's the film, entitled Les Adieux. How's your French?You can also download sheet music for one of the tracks here, at Gureckis's website.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Ojai Diaries: Part Three

IV. Fact: Stephen Hartke won the marathon. I got to know his music when I was an undergrad and he a professor at the University of Southern California (FIGHT ON), and so my roommate Chris studied with him for a little while, and I was dazzled by his jagged, yet straightforward, yet stylish scores (Hartke's, that is. Chris's were not that jagged). I'll get to his other big piece, Oh Them Rats Is Mean in My Kitchen, in just a bit; meanwhile, Meanwhile was a perfect, perfect exploitation of everything 8th Blackbird does well. Built around the Matt "the Duv" Duvall's brilliant percussion chops—it was, as a number of pieces on the marathon program seemed to be, substantially gamelan-inspired—it gave the players a chance to switch instruments, switch positions onstage, work out complex rhythms, and indulge in some nitty-gritty contrapuntal writing. There was no wasted business. I mentioned lunch with the Mac in a previous entry; over his vej-mex entree, he said something I thought was pretty interesting about 8bb's programming: their first priority, he said, is "craft." Which I guess seems obvious, because not many people when you ask that question are going to answer, "We're really interested in playing a lot of sloppy crap." But at Ojai at least, it seemed to be coded with a few surprisingly conservative connotations. Well, maybe not too surprising, since they're a "Pierrot Plus" ensemble, that the definition of "craft" isn't too far from something Schoenberg might have approved of: dense textures; complex, oft-dissonant harmonies; & when the cultural vernacular crept in, it tended to be the sort of rarified vernacular that informs Pierrot and Tin Hat both. And Steven Mackey! Speaking of rarified vernacular. I am predisposed to dislike the music of Steven Mackey for reasons I am not entirely able to justify. Maybe it's purely a generational thing—the way he heard electric guitars played when he was a teenager had deemed "pretentious" by the time I was a teenager, and so I'm doomed to have my enjoyment of his guitar-playing and -writing tainted by an irrational and faddish distaste. Or maybe it's something more substantial than that—maybe I wish he were bold enough to sever his guitar performance from the performance practices of its native vernacular, the NEARRR, NEARRR, NEARRR note-sculpting of the 70s rock guitar solo. (Is that, in fact, a more substantial complaint? Not sure.) All of this aside, Heavy Light, for solo Steven Mackey (guitarring and stomping pedals), is a thoughtfully constructed piece with a few really stirring moments—that crazy barred theme that kept recurring over the speeding ostinato!—composed with real, yes, craft, and performed, like everything at the festival, with real virtuosity. Tin Hat singer/fiddler Carla Kihlstedt's was the most grueling set. Not just grueling for her, who simultaneously played a gutsy violin part, sang her heart out, AND grew a human infant within her womb (LET'S SEE TODD REYNOLDS DO THAT)—the set also dragged a bit; there weren't any printed copies of the texts (by Kafka), so first Lisa Bielawa gave a spoken introduction to the piece, and then Kihlstedt gave a spoken introduction to the piece, and then she spoke the text to each song before she sang it, even though a combination of clear miking and amazing diction made it possible to hear each word pretty clearly (from where I was sitting). Just for sheer wows, it might have been the performance of the day, and the musical writing was idiomatic, complex AND true to the text, but all the talking, combined with the limited range of available colors (one violin, one voice), combined with the fact that the descending sun was, during this piece, shining DIRECTLY INTO MY EYES, made the cycle seem extremely long. I've never been a great fan of John Cage's Construction No. 3. It's just never come together for me as a musical experience the way my favorite Cage does. But it's the bread & butter, yea the rice & beans of the percussion quartet, and it is a lot of fun to hear. It is a FIESTA. And the drummers who presented it (Greg Beyer, Nathan Davis, Todd Meehan, Doug Perkins—you might remember the Meehan/Perkins duo as ex-So Percussionists) were first-rate chamber musicians, pleasin' the crowd with high-energy, absolutely synchronized playing. Copious applause. More soon.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Ojai Diaries: Part Two

Brother Dave and I missed the 11pm set by recorder quartet QNG; we were eager to return to the motel and get some important drinking done. I had been making a halfhearted effort to talk Dave into Music for 18 Musicians the next morning (he is not a Reich fan), but when the sun actually returned I said blahhhh and rolled back over. A favorite piece, and almost always worth seeing live, but not, today, worth subjecting a reluctant sibling to an hour of pulses AND, yknow, getting out of bed. We went for a walk on Ventura Beach instead. We stumbled, almost literally, upon not one but two rotting seal carcasses! One was headless. We also went to see Drag Me to Hell, which was hugely entertaining, even though I guessed the final plot twist a mile away. (SPOILER: Somebody gets dragged to Hell.) Somewhere in there I also posted my update on the previous day's concerts, even though the Good Nite Inn of Camarillo did not manage to get our $5 in-room WiFi working (did they try switching it off and then on again? That ALWAYS works), so I had to run down and post from the lobby, which had a Free WiFi Hotspot also. After all that, lunch and some shopping, it was time for the MARATHON CONCERT FINALE. I wore a special New Music outfit, which consisted of relish-stained khakis plus my GAP t-shirt with Chuck Close's pointillist Philip Glass portrait on it worn under a semi-transparent white dress shirt, so that my midsection gave the fascinating illusion of being haunted by the ghostly apparition of Philip Glass. Did you see me there? Who were you? I think Sidney Chen (of Standing Room fame) and I spotted each other, but I am basing this entirely on this person's resemblance to M. C-'s South Park avatar, since I have never met him, and I was so anxious of saying ARE YOU M. C-? and its turning out not to have been him that I did not approach him and instead just leered weirdly, from a distance, in much the same fashion as how that baby with the unibrow eyeballs Maggie Simpson on The Simpsons. Sorry about that. Our seats this time around were much closer, which was a plus—more live sound in our ears—and we were on the keyboard side. Also, our seats had cushions on them now. People, if you go to Ojai, CUSHION YOUR ASSES, I cannot stress that enough. Those benches are BEASTLY. We were probably warned of this on some portion of the festival website that I was too lazy to read. One thing I did miss about our new seats was the awesome folks that had been sitting next to us. Right, right next to us on Saturday was an attractive middle-aged couple who, by the time I saw them again Sunday afternoon, seemed to have attended every event of the festival so far; the husband was, like me, a religious reader of the Denkalog, and was rightly proud to have contributed this highly amusing objet. (Rereading it now, I see that I was moved to comment on that same post!) There was another lady right there who knew some of my faculty from 'SC, and another who told me something fascinating about Frank Gehry, which I've promptly forgotten, and so on. One lady thanked me for "bringing positive energy." This is what I'm talking about when I tell you that this Ojai crowd is fricken awesome. Also? There was some music. III. Double Sextet was FIERCE. This performance of the dodectet version of topped the NYC gig I saw for precision and intensity. I think they sold Dave on Reich, honestly. I keep telling everybody it's one of Steve Reich's best new pieces, and 100% deserving of its Pulitzer Prize, but NOBODY BELIEVES ME. Please believe me, kids. Then Jeremy Denk and Lucy Shelton went through a bunch of Stravinsky songs, whose Russian somehow issued from Shelton's lips as naturally as Pierrot's German did. Her voice was a bit worn in spots, like your favorite coat, and I worried about whether certain notes were even getting picked up by the mike, but there was no questioning the warmth and authority of her interpretation. The next tune, a Lee Hyla duet for bari sax and bass clarinet (We Speak Etruscan), wanted more authority—the Mac played what seemed to be an atrociously difficult part with the stamina and dexterity of an athlete, but I wished he could have brought the part the same degree of assured style that he brought to the less virtuosic repertoire. Okay, I mean, whatever: it was dazzling just to see him and Jeremy Ruthrauff skronk their way through the bebop-damaged daredevilry. It is probably around this point that I should mention that Maccaferri looked GREAT this summer. Better than I remembered. I melted. (Call me.) Then QNG took the stage—they turned out to be a quartet of attractive Dutch women, well made-up, who wore matching black babydoll tees with their ensemble's acronym on the front and their own group photo on the back. The first piece in their set, by Victor Ekimovskij, was conceptually simple and wholly pleasurable—it put me in mind of Larry Polansky's four-part canons. All four players played the same, highly repetitive material one after the other, on soprano recorders, from four positions surrounding the audience on the benches. The parts kept pace with each other, but didn't seem to be synchronized to a common pulse, and the delight stemmed from hearing the texture of the piece change gradually, one voice at a time, as each of the players moved on to the next transformation of the material. The sweet tootling of the recorders in the open air also recalled, of course, the singing of happy little birds (the piece was called Kites Flying). Afterwards, a more traditional seating arrangement for the more traditional recorder-quartet fare, the famous In Nomine of John Taverner (John Taverner is the dead, great one; John Tavener is the alive, but only occasionally satisfying one), and then finally another recent piece, Tall P by Pete Rose (whose name must invite even more confusion and/or dumb jokes than poor John Tavener's). Tall P wasn't a stupid piece, not at all, but I took an instant dislike to its campy jazz references, for the most part overly familiar elements like a heavyhanded walking bass and a 12-bar blues form. "Encore!" shouted one of my neighbors, when it was over. "Encore!" But I thought we'd just heard the encore: the piece didn't, say, invite the audience to probe into its structure or harmonies, it was a vehicle for the awesome virtuosity of the performers, who bent their blue notes with a facility that almost made me dizzy. Their ensemble was bewitching. I kicked myself for missing their Paul Moravec the night before. And then, the intermission. More soon.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Ojai Diaries: Part One

So here's what happened: My brother had a piece premiered by the orchestra we were in in high school, the wonderful Claremont Young Musicians Orchestra, so my dad offered to fly me out to hear it. (You can hear it here; didn't they do a great job??) Well so, then I got a twitter from Ojai saying I should come out for for the festival, and so yeah, why not come out to CA for two weeks instead of one? Well, while I might've been happy to spend the whole four days listening to new music and stalking bearinetists, my brother was pretty much up for just two days of Ojaiing—but long story short, here I am, at a motel in Camarillo, embloggening yesterday morning's performance by Jeremy Denk. "God, that lady looked so familiar," my brother said after we picked up our tickets from the (extremely helpful) box office staff; well, then he realized that the same lady who was doing their Twitter feed and working in their box office had also been in his 20th-century opera class in grad school, so when we ran in to her again he got to freak her the heck out by remembering her from a music theory seminar they'd taken together on the East Coast like a decade ago. I saw hardly anybody I recognized: the Mac (of course) and his fellow blackbirds, the Meehan/Perkins duo (was very sorry to miss their performance Thursday), new-music publicist extraordinaire Stephen Swartz, Donald Crockett (one of bro's old teachers), and sitting not too far away from us, Frank Gehry! I asked him to sign a sheet of titanium for us. Ha ha ha ha, I've been making that joke all day. The crowd was surprisingly old for a new music festival; I'm used to the Brooklyn Vegan-looking crowd at the Bang on a Can marathon. It's nice to have a reminder once in a while that old people can be AWESOME. Those are the subscribers! said the Mac over Mexican. You know how "subscribers" is usually code for everything that's wrong with a musical institution? ("Oh, we can't do a new opera every season, the subscribers would flip.") Well let's us new music people put our ageism on dry ice for one minute and take a look at this fantastic Ojai crowd. Hip, adventurous, good-looking, gray. ANYWAY.

I. Jeremy Denk. It's crazy, I subscribe to his blog's RSS feed, so I can tell you all about the repertoire he plays, I can tell you what he reads and what he thinks about, but I've never actually heard him play! Well, hell of an introduction: Ives Sonata No. 1 and the Goldberg Variations, in that order. Oddly, I've never heard the Goldberg Variations in person, either, even though I have listened to an absurd number of different interpretations on disc. It was intense—a piece you can really get lost in, and I did. Afterwards, I could barely speak, like when you spend the whole day at home alone, and then when the phone finally rings you've forgotten how to make the words that go after hello. The amphitheater acoustic wasn't the friendliest for pieces this dense—following one of the inner voices in the Goldberg, I lost it in the sonic fog; somewhere behind us, a murder of very vocal crows cawed through the Ives—but the weather was cool, the air was fresh, and when the spell of a slow variation was broken by the shout of a distant child, it was accidentally sublime. So, how was Denk's Bach? The technique was stunning. A friend of mine is fond of quoting: "Dude, if you're gonna play the Goldberg Variations, you gotta bring your A-game," and, yeah. There were a few missed notes in the passages that really demand to be played on two harpsichord manuals, preferably by some kind of three-armed mutant, but that was about it. Interpretation: with counterpoint this lively, and character-pieces this full of—well—character, it seems silly to quibble, but I crave a darker, more pensive 32, and Denk was all extrovert, his Goldbergs wide open and brightly illuminated. And the Ives? I'll admit it: remember how I said, we've all got great composers we don't like? Mine's Ives.

His avant-gardisms have always struck me as bratty; his Americanisms have lately reminded me of the things I hate about Connecticut. But Denk revealed an Ives above all that—a wiser and more sensitive voice. I left the concert craving a second hearing. (Who's recorded this piece? Must check ArkivMusic as soon as I get to some WiFi.)

II. "What did you think?" brother Dave said after that evening's performance of Quasi Sinfonia by David Gordon, for eighth blackbird plus additional players. "I'm glad he wrote that instead of going on a shooting spree," I said. I kid! But it was pretty intense. It started off with the ensemble's polyrhythmically multilayered imitation of a convoy of car alarms, then pushed relentlessly forward through four movements, all of them focused on the texturally dense exploration of obsessively limited materials. I was pleased. I think I have to go hear more D.M. Gordon now. So. "I've heard three pieces today, and I think that's the third one to include a super-gnarly hymntune quodlibet," I said.

"Yeah, well, I don't think we're gonna go four for four," said Dave. That would be correct. Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire is plenty gnarly, but decidedly profane: alas, A.S. forgot to bring the hymntunes. And between Elyssa Dole's dancing, Mark Dechiazza's stark, mock-somber staging, and Lucy Shelton's sultry vocal performance, I felt like a character watching a concert within an Almodóvar movie. The dancing was elegant. The moving—I sometimes felt that the blackbirds projected too much stage presence; the less they "performed," the more convincing they were. The Duv, there being no drummin' in Pierrot, did put on an impressive dumbshow—his face was compelling, and I was very fond of a bit of business he did with his bowtie.

But the playing was incredibly tight. The amplification on the fiddle was a little high, but the blend was excellent, and every individual performance was stellar as well. Musically, there was nothing lacking: Schoenberg's most oblique lines sang out all limpid and expressive, somehow without diminishing their mystery. It was utterly involving. Can I also mention that just the fact of a Pierrot Lunaire under the stars, complete with chirping frogs, was pretty excellent? Yeah, I'm going to give my thumbs-up. More soon.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Piano Concerto No. 1 ("Play Him Off")

Clicking here will make you immensely happy. (I wish I could find footage of this piece without people speaking over it. It looks pretty great.)

Friday, June 5, 2009

Twitter Twitter Tweet Twitter Twitter Tweet, Twitter Twitter Tweet Twitter Twitter Tweet

Steve Reich's MySpace has been PIMPED by the addition of a TWITTER CONTEST WIDGET to promote the premiere of his new piece, 2x5, opening for Kraftwerk in Manchester, UK on July 2. Here's how the contest works: First, follow Steve Reich's Twitter feed. Well, it's not really Steve Reich's Twitter feed, it's Fake Steve Reich's Twitter feed, but he's relinquished it, but it's been resurrected by Boosey & Hawkes for this concert, so maybe think of it as ZOMBIE FAKE STEVE REICH'S Twitter feed. Anyway twice next week, Zombie Fake Steve Reich will twitter five prompts (2x5, GET IT???). Respond to all ten prompts and you'll be entered to win two seats at the sold-out concert, a dinner at The Market, and two nights at the Radisson. No airfare, but still this is a great contest for people who live in England or own a dirigible. (Please note that a dirigible has just been added to my Amazon wishlist.) So, fun! Hop to it.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Look Can We Just Be Done With This Already

Okay I'm not going to name names. But I've complained about this before, and still you persist: why do people think that their pose of being bored by the great composers is so very interesting to the rest of us? It's bad enough when you can at least say, "I alone am the little boy who sees that the emperor has got no clothes on!" in reference to some little-noticed (or, in most cases, imagined) blemishes in the corpus of some universally revered titan of music. Great, fine, you're a contrarian, you know more than the rest of us, congrats and welcome to your senior year of high school. But the worst is the people who think it's so fascinating to take down a composer with a diss that is, itself, a total cliché. NEWS FLASH: TCHAIKOVSKY'S MUSIC IS OFTEN SENTIMENTAL AND/OR DAINTY. Yeah, so? That doesn't mean that his music it can't also be profoundly rewarding. MENDELSSOHN'S MUSIC IS SUPERFICIAL. Okay first of all not only is that untrue, not only didn't you make it up, but that was made up by some really creepy people with a really big ax (labeled "JEW") to grind. Are you really trying to tell me that Evgeny Onegin is not worth my time? Are you seriously trying to come out hard against the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto? And if we cannot grow up here, people, it would be great if we could at least stop borrowing our talking points from the Nazis. A disproportionate number of the composers it seems so fashionable to dismiss are Jewish or Slavic or otherwise less-than-sufficiently Nordic, or they are being slammed for allowing themselves to be perceived as effeminate. Okay, that's not cool or rebellious or anti-establishment. That's schoolyard-style bullying. Other composers dissed in actual print lately: Handel. Saint-Saëns. I guess Handel I can understand, if you're in England, where they like to pretend he's English and cannot get enough of him, although you are still just wrong. (I hope my Handel-h8in' roommate is reading this and laughing.) But Saint-Saëns? Are you really trying to discourage performances of Saint-Saëns? Saint-Saëns, considering the breadth of his body of work, is an absurdly under-performed composer. Didn't he write like thirteen operas? Have you heard even three of them in your life? I fail to see the point of sniping at that poor dead French faggot. We can do better. Let's show a little brains and a little courage and save our ammunition for the really stupid, ugly music all around us.

Banged

Via Sequenza21: Wow, this was unnecessary. Huffington Post guy didn't like the Bang on a Can Marathon, apparently? Well I guess the good parts were good but the bad parts were TERRIBLE? Well actually he only names one bad part from the entire 12-hour marathon of free music but apparently it was UNSPEAKABLY AWFUL? Dude, get thee over thyself. Fortunately one Rob Deemer calls bullshit in a snappy comment that begins

First off, kudos to you for bringing a friend to such a festival - more folks should do so. However, I can't tell whether or not you brought her to introduce her to music she hadn't heard before or to give you an excuse to unload some snark.
and then just gets better.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Norman Invasion

Ooh check it out! Andrew Norman, that up-'n'-comin' young composer I'm creepily obsessed with, has been shoved onto the internet by fellow up-'n'-comin' young composer Timothy Andres, who designed his webpage and took that picture there. Go! There will be blog updates soon, I gather, but for now start with the music page. Excellent.