Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Culture is not free...

The term "Free Culture" is new to me, but the concept is something each one of us living in contemporary society has encountered. Recently, a college student who interns at NPR indicated that of the 11,000 songs on her iTunes playlist, she has only purchased 15 CDs in her lifetime. I won't unpack this admission here because it is done so well already in this post by David Lowery. It's a thoughtful post, but it also includes some zingers:
The existential questions that your generation gets to answer are these:
Why do we value the network and hardware that delivers music but not the music itself?
Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself?
Why do we gladly give our money to some of the largest richest corporations in the world but not the companies and individuals who create and sell music?
This is a bit of hyperbole to emphasize the point. But it’s as if:
Networks: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!
Hardware: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!
Artists: 99.9 % lower middle class. Screw you, you greedy bastards!
Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!
While this is oriented to 'pop' (or 'indie') music, the implications are clear for concert music as well. Indeed, since the ceiling for commercial prospects in concert music is considerably lower than that of pop music perhaps the issue is even more important.

In a related matter, is anyone satisfied by the Spotify royalties?

Monday, June 11, 2012

San Diego New Music...

Before I forget, I should write a word or two about some other recent concerts I was able to attend, as well as a concert series that is coming soon.

My old friend and colleague David Shiveley came to town to perform a solo concert at the Space4Art. David is an amazing percussionist and is co-director of the ensemble Either/Or, based in NYC. It had been an appallingly long time since I'd been able to attend one of David's concerts, and I was really pleased that he made it so convenient as to show up in my little town to play. Understated, elegant, enigmatic, yet precise, his approach is always engaging and captivating, as is his repertoire. Among the works on his concert was Resonance Alloy, by Keeril Makan. Here's an excerpt:

The concert ended with Max Neuhaus’ Fontana Mix: Feed (after John Cage), in which David played a double set of crotales. All that metal took its toll, eventually: the enthusiastic applause that the audience gave David after the performance sounded oddly muffled, as if I had a pillow over my head.

This is not a complaint -- it was fantastic, and the aftermath was an unexpected phenomenological surprise.

On Friday I was finally able to hear Jory Herman's solo contrabass recital in which he played the first three Cello Suites by J.S. Bach. This was quite a feat, and a very interesting lesson in the bass. Jory played the first two movements at the original pitch, so he was very high on the fingerboard indeed. Yet it sounded perfectly well-suited for the instrument, and he navigated some bewildering looking fingerings impeccably. This was the third outing of Jory's recital, and I hope he has more opportunities to bring this work to a broader public.

Sunday I attended the La Jolla Symphony concert, which featured Aleck Karis playing Barber's Piano Concerto. I never quite understood why the Symphony hasn't done more concerti over the years featuring the performance faculty at UCSD. It seems as if someone has finally acknowledged a most valuable resource. Aleck's playing was as incisive and fluent as ever.

Finally, this week begins the soundON Festival of Modern music, which features the NOISE ensemble, the Formalist Quartet, and more. I'm looking forward to hearing their latest offerings. It looks as if some very full days of concerts and catching up with old friends are in store.

I recently caught up with the great Mary Oliver, who was in town to visit family. She remarked that San Diego is a good place to get some work done since one isn't likely to be too distracted by a tantalizingly full slate of must-not-miss concerts. To some degree, this is true, but lately I feel like I'm back in Boston in the early '90s.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Transcendence...(part two)

As I noted in my last post, I recently heard two concerts in which the context of a particular composition infuses the work itself with dramatic energy. While I was very familiar with the works of Luigi Nono, I have to admit to never having heard of Viktor Ullmann. Just over a week ago his chamber opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis was staged at UCSD in a production led by Susan Narucki and conducted by Steven Schick. You can read a review here.

Ullmann found himself in the periphery of Schoenberg's circle after the First World War, eventually studying with Zemlinsky, who had been Schoenberg's teacher. After a somewhat peripatetic career Ullmann had the misfortune of not leaving Europe as the Nazi regime came to power in Germany. He was first brought to the concentration camp at Terezin in 1942. Remarkably, Ullmann composed several works while he was imprisoned there, including Der Kaiser von Atlantis.

The rich cultural life within the Terezin camp was part of the propaganda machine of the Third Reich: if the Jews were making music, how savagely could they have been treated? I suppose it isn't possible to know for certain whether Ullmann knew what lay ahead, but the libretto written by his fellow prisoner Peter Klein suggests that they were fully aware of the appalling dimensions of their captors' plans. The work is a savage satire of the Reich, which was stunningly brave given the circumstances. Apparently, an S.S. officer heard part of a rehearsal and canceled the entire affair, and Ullmann was soon sent to Auschwitz and the gas chamber. Somehow, manuscripts of the opera survived.

A question loomed in my mind as I went to hear this performance, and it's one that lingers, still: is it possible to hear the work without the tragic circumstances of its author constantly framing the material? In short, the answer seemed to be "no" even though there were many compelling elements to the work (and its performance) that surely demanded one's attention and admiration. Indeed, the performers were remarkably skilled and committed. The vocal program at UCSD has grown significantly since I was a student there, as Narucki's presence has consistently drawn a cluster of talented singers into her studio. It's quite a remarkable thing to behold.

And it seems to be, in some way, a victory for humanity to have this fierce little opera in the world. It survives and the Nazis are in the dustbin of history.

I was reminded somewhat of Schoenberg's Survivor from Warsaw, a compact yet epic sort of oratorio in which a narrator gives a harrowing account of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. It often seemed to me that -- powerful as the music truly is -- the situation it invokes dwarfs the music. Invite the monster into your bedroom and he may take over. It's not a fair situation, of course: artists should be able to comment on these things, indeed they must, but direct reference to historical events will subjugate the musical materials into an accompanying role.

Ullmann's work (which, oddly, had a trumpet riff not unlike the opening gesture in Schoenberg's Survivor) was sufficiently distanced from the Holocaust because of its fictitious setting and allegorical themes. But his own personal history looms over the entire work. I am left in awe of a creative spirit able to produce incisive, poignant, provocative, and beautiful work in impossibly dire circumstances.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Transcendence... (part one)

Sometimes the context of a musical work provides so potent a dramatic force that it becomes intertwined inextricably with the work itself. When one experiences the work, then, there is an inherent challenge in considering the material and its intramusical workings independent of the extramusical framework. Somewhat strangely, I attended two performances in the past week that invoked this very issue.

I first became aware of the late Nono works "Hay que caminar" soñando and La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura in about 1993 through Gidon Kremer's recordings (published in 1992). At the time I was captivated by the extraordinary fragility and austerity of the sound worlds revealed in those works. I listened to the recordings repeatedly. They seemed to put me into a trance-like state. Over the years, I learned more about these works. They were among the last compositions Nono completed ("Hay que caminar... was, indeed, the last) before his death, in 1990. He suffered greatly from cancer in his last years, so these works were produced with what was assuredly a very real sense of The End looming ever larger.

I first saw a score to "Hay que caminar" soñando, for two violins,  at the Ricordi store in Milan, in 1994. It's a puzzling document. Like many of his later works (including La lontananza... and the string quartet Fragmente-Stille, an diotima) the published score is a reproduction of the composer's hurried manuscript: drawn in pen with bold, barely legible strokes.

When they had the money to do something about it, I expect there was some tension in the house of Ricordi regarding whether they would engrave the score so the materials would be clearer. The manuscript remains a vital and somewhat disturbing display of the composer's efforts to produce this music, which in many respects sounds like a distillation of hundreds of years of violin behaviors into aphoristic modules that fade in and out of the ether. It would be a shame to lose this.

Both of these works expand the traditional territory of the stage by placing stands around the performance space. In the duo, each performer has three stands. The performers determine the precise stand positions and the route (and order) to take during the performance. In La lontananza..., which is for violin and tape, this situation is blown up even further: there are 8-10 stand positions and 8 tape cues, and not only is the order of events up to the violinist, but the engineer is also free to play cues in any order. Indeed, both of them have the option of repeating materials and omitting others. Nono's relinquishing of control over the specific order of events in his works invites a searching spontaneity from the committed performer.

The past Saturday, János Négyesy and Päivikki Nykter played these two last works in a performance that grafted new theatrical elements onto the score. I should first note that János and Päivikki have been incredibly important people in my life, having worked on two projects with me, one of which found its way into a very nice recording project. Back in 1998 when we began working together I was very much in the thrall of these Nono works. Now I recognize a sort of fatal incompatibility between his influence and my music at the time, which I suppose can be summarized fairly simply: a young composer in good health can't fathom what an older composer experiences as he faces his death. That I'm wary of this issue now reflects my own creep into middle-agedom.

János and Päivikki approached their performances with a lightness and sense of humor that I never really imagined was possible given the circumstances of the work. Of course, playfulness is a hallmark of János and Päivikki's personalities, both on-stage and off, so this was a really interesting interaction of work and performer, and to some degree it tested the limits of Nono's score while introducing some compelling theatrical moments. This was most apparent in La lontananza..., in which János donned a jacket mid-performance (evidently to evoke a 'traveler' persona) and explored the cavernous space of Mandeville Auditorium. It was at times surreal, and often quite beautiful. Working with the director Tom Dugdale, they produced one truly sublime moment in which Negyesy stood under a cascade of falling sheets of paper -- a denouement of the 'problem' introduced in their conceit of this particular performance: János has to search the auditorium for the music he is to play.

To be sure, some of the theatrical elements interfered with the music, on two basic levels: first, the space that sometimes emerged between the listener and the performer was too great for some of the subtle musical details to speak, and second, there were several points where a light, comical theatrical moment was in direct competition with the severe delicacy of the material.

Interestingly, the theatrical conceit managed to drive a wedge between the context (Nono's illness) and the work itself, perhaps superimposing its own context. Maybe the inextricability I mentioned in the opening of this blog entry is not so inextricable, but it takes unusual measures for the wedge to occur, and one dimension must be replaced by another.

It was a fascinating experience. Make no mistake: the work can tolerate this sort of treatment. In the end, I am left with some compelling images but the music itself reverts to its original form, in all its stark beauty and with the specter of Nono's illness fully at hand.