Category: Articles

How does the venue and the audience affect the music you play? Nick Didkovsky

Nick Didkovsky
Photo by Pamela Farland

The venues I perform in do not affect the set list I put together for my band, Doctor Nerve. I usually do that on the train on the way to the venue. If we make last minute changes, it’s usually due to a management request like, “We’d prefer two sets instead of one, so we can sell drinks.” As for the performance itself, it can be pushed a number of directions based on a lot of environmental factors, including the space itself. We played under the Brooklyn Bridge, in the anchorage spaces there, for example. Acoustically it was a disaster, but musically it was extremely inspiring. I think I react more to the vibe of a place than the acoustics.

Audience reaction is definitely an influence on how we play. A polite, quiet audience, for example, is not a neutral audience; it can be detrimental to the energy on stage. It’s best when the audience is working as hard as we are to make the event happen. Especially when we improvise, the audience can be very present in the performance.

Recording is a radically different experience than performing live. The realtime experience is necessarily different than an experience where you have non-time-based control over content. The music we make in 60 minutes on stage takes exactly 60 minutes. The same amount of music made in the studio can take hours, days, weeks…

The biggest problem I have with concert halls is looking off the stage at the audience, and my eyes have to cross a vast gulf before I can barely make out shadowy faces in the distance. That’s not a lot of fun. With the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet, at one point I suggested we turn the house lights up for the second set. Audience loved it. Everyone had a much better time. We play for people, not shadows.

How does the venue and the audience affect the music you play? Oliver Lake

Oliver Lake
Photo by Chris Drukker

It’s very difficult to describe the effect that different venues have on my performances. Certain audiences have different energies. Often the audience becomes a part of the performance and that can affect the performance in different ways. The more intimate, the better.

I primarily play for myself and hope that the audience loves it. It is very difficult to second guess an audience. The main thing is that I play honestly and from my heart, and I feel that the audience will recognize this, regardless of who they are.

Do you play differently in the studio vs. a live performance? I try not to play differently for studio recordings and live audiences, but the environment does have an effect on the playing. I prefer to play in an intimate setting with many people. (This is not easily done, but this is the ideal setting.) My main goal is honest communication. I hope to accomplish this regardless of the environment.

How does the venue and the audience affect the music you play? Mary LaRose

Mary LaRose
Photo by Ron Schwerin

Of course, I am affected by my listeners, but the band always depends on each other first for being it’s own audience, and then from there it goes out to involve. Different venues create unique situations in music. Performing in the studio is unnatural since music is meant to be received at a given moment. To preserve the spontaneity of my sessions, I did minimal overdubs and fixes, though it is very tempting to want to make a “perfect recording”. On live gigs, the music evolves naturally and as it becomes more integrated into the band, it changes – I always like where it goes more and love how it keeps taking on new directions.

“Does place make the space?” I say, it pushes and pulls it into different and interesting shapes.

How does the venue and the audience affect the music you play? Fred Hersch

Fred Hersch
Photo by Hollister Dru Breslin

When I play solo, I prefer a concert hall (non sound system!). Since I don’t have other musicians to interact with (and since my programs are largely improvised), the three things that affect my performance the most are (in order of importance):

  1. the piano itself (the tone of the instrument and feel of the action)
  2. the acoustics (I react to the acoustics and “use the hall”–or be done in by them)
  3. the audience (yes, love from across the footlights is a good thing…)

In other words…dead piano and dead acoustics = I’m toast! I always prefer to control bright pianos and bright acoustics rather than trying to “get blood out of a stone” in a dead situation…except….

When i’m playing with a rhythm section. Concert hall stages can be very difficult if a presenter doesn’t provide a shell for us to play in (i.e. create a more intimate space on the stage for us so we can play “chamber music style” to each other) – and if we have to be dependent on stage monitors to hear each other (which also means being dependent on a sound system and a sympathetic, intelligent and competent sound engineer). So for a trio situation, I prefer a club or a more controlled acoustic environment (that’s not to say totally dead either).

  • solo piano: Jordan Hall, Boston; Herbst Theatre, San Francisco
  • jazz trio: Village Vanguard, NYC; Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, Half Moon Bay CA
  • favorite all-around concert hall: Town Hall, NYC (stage sound is great, isn’t too deep or high so the sound really gets out into the audience instead of swimming around on stage, great sight lines for audience)

To conclude: the venue makes a difference. Some places just seem to have “the vibe” and have more inherent music-making possibilities than others…

How does the venue and the audience affect the music you play?

Kitty Brazelton Kitty Brazelton
“…I may start with the same message but I don’t say it the same – to different people or in different environments…”
Nick Didkovsky Nick Didkovsky
“…It’s best when the audience is working as hard as we are to make the event happen…”
Oliver Lake Oliver Lake
“…The main thing is that I play honestly and from my heart, and I feel that the audience will recognize this, regardless of who they are…”
Mary LaRose Mary LaRose
“…Different venues create unique situations in music…”
Fred Hersch Fred Hersch
“When I play solo, I prefer a concert hall…”

How did your education shape your attitudes about music? Jonathan Sheffer, Composer; Founder, Conductor and Artistic Director of the Eos Orchestra

Jonathan Sheffer
Photo by Stephanie Berger

My musical education began at the Westport School of Music, where as a preschooler I was taught the basics of major and minor scales, and began piano lessons. I recall we were rewarded often with candy. The next most important influence in my musical education was the Bernstein Young People’s Concerts. Only now do I realize how much I took from those programs, which opened a window to a much larger world.

Also I recall a school trip to a Saturday matinee of Carmen at the Met. I misbehaved and had to be put out in the hall.

Nonetheless, my training was lovingly supervised by public school teachers and private teachers, such as Frank Brieff on viola. These things remain in my memory, and in my music-making.

How did your education shape your attitudes about music?

Annie Gosfield Annie Gosfield
“I was taught the importance of creativity and individual expression early in life…”
Jonathan Sheffer Jonathan Sheffer
Founder, Conductor and Artistic Director of the Eos Orchestra
“My musical education began at the Westport School of Music, where as a preschooler I was taught the basics of major and minor scales…”
Amy Rhodes Amy Rhodes
Director of Artist Management, Fine Arts Management
“…At college, I learned about music, not in the classroom, but in the dormitory…”
Elliott Sharp Elliott Sharp
“…Occasional music classes during my first college attempt only cemented my bad feelings towards a stilted and stifling approach to music…”
Joshua Cody Joshua Cody
Composer and Director of the Sospeso Ensemble
“…I’ll always feel uneducated-learning is an ongoing process…”

Education and New American Music

Frank J. Oteri,
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

Ten years ago I was a high school teacher in the New York City Public School System and since then, I have often described that experience as “my version of time in the peace corps.” It was simultaneously life affirming and extraordinarily frustrating. It was life affirming, because like few activities in today’s world, through teaching you can actually see first hand how you make a difference in others lives. Frustrating because you realize there is so much that needs to be done that no individual can ever accomplish.

People have said the classroom is a microcosm of society so many times that it has become a cliché. But like most clichés, the message rings true and is all too often ignored. Just as ignorance is blamed for many of the problems in the world today, the charge of ignorance is also frequently evoked to explain the problems facing the development of audience for classical music and new American music in particular. People looking at the crises facing the world today might counter that the cause of new American music is ultimately a low priority, but an appreciation and involvement in the music of our time and place can be an excellent way to channel a variety of important intellectual and social skills that can advance citizenship and a sense of purpose.

That is why we have decided to devote the December issue of NewMusicBox to education and new American music. We went to the home of Maxine Greene, one of the world’s most important proponents of arts in education, and were joined there by Hollis Headrick, Executive Director of the Center for Arts in Education, Polly Kahn, Director of Education for the New York Philharmonic, and Richard Kessler, Executive Director of the American Music Center to talk about how arts education can be better served by new American music and how new American music can be better served by arts education. We’ve asked Stefan Weisman to compile a “hyper-history” of the treatment of new American music in the nation’s top music conservatories. We’ve asked Jonathan Sheffer, Annie Gosfield, Elliott Sharp, Joshua Cody and Amy Rhodes how their educations effected their attitudes about music, and we’d like to know what you think about students learning to read and perform music in school.

Arts in education is also in the news this month with the release of an extensive report presents groundbreaking evidence of the impact of arts on learning. Sadly, however, the top news items this month are the deaths of three important American composers: Paul Bowles, Lester Bowie and Robert Linn. I count myself lucky to have met Paul Bowles in Tangier last year. To honor his memory, we have included the transcript of our brief meeting along with RealAudio samples of his timeless music. Of course, there are also RealAudio samples on all the recordings featured in this month’s SoundTracks. And, since it is December, we’d like to know what your favorite recordings of new American music were for this past year. But, of course, the music is ongoing, as you’ll see from our plethora of concert listings.

Making Conservatories Less Conservative

Stefan Weisman
photo by Ezra Weisman

As the new century rapidly approaches, it has become almost cliché to look back and evaluate the last one-hundred years from every conceivable angle. Yet, for American concert music this turn of the calendar is genuinely significant. Early in this century, when Juilliard was founded, the notion of an American college dedicated to teaching only music was truly novel. There is no question that the 20th Century is when great American conservatories emerged and created top-notch performers equal to any in the world. This is also the century when the music of American composers finally matured. But, these same conservatories often trained composers quite apart from their performer colleagues. Student composers, particularly in the last half of the century, practiced the daring and radical experimentation that characterizes 20th Century music, while as a whole the conservatories seemed designed to produce instrumentalists specialized in the standard pieces of the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras. Instrumental professors taught music that they themselves had learned as students, and they perpetuated this cycle. Even today, this schism between student composers and student performers still exists in many schools.

Whether one ascribes to the belief that “new music” is dying or just recently emerging from hibernation, the shocking fact is that in just over a month the term “20th Century music” will no longer be synonymous with “new music.” So, performers and concert-goers who cannot move beyond Arnold Schoenberg, who died in 1951, have some catching up to do. When I spoke with noted author, critic and composer, Kyle Gann (Oberlin, ’77), he said he was appalled that when modern music is taught, most music schools emphasize the “official” contemporary repertoire, such as Boulez or Stockhausen, while important younger composers are too often ignored.

So, what is the state of new American music at conservatories and colleges around the country? I examined a dozen music schools, making an effort to look at those of all complexions and sizes, and from all areas of the country. Everyone with whom I spoke acknowledges that to perpetuate an enduring art, it is vital for each generation to add its own unique contributions. Still, the levels to which schools take contemporary music seriously varies. Some schools – the University of California at San Diego, New England Conservatory, and Oberlin, for examples – seem to have a mandate to teach music by living composers. Other schools also have an exemplary record, such as Yale and the University of Michigan. However, what is probably more typical of the treatment that new music receives at many universities is the Hartt School, a part of the University of Hartford. While Hartt does have several good outlets for its student and faculty composers, generally it does not seem to make new music a high priority. The shortfalls of the Indiana School of Music at the University of Indiana in Bloomington are even more disappointing because they have available such vast resources. Some schools make up for a lack of emphasis on composition with special projects. For example, Florida State University, which is strong primarily in the field of music education, has a Biennial Festival of New Music. Many conservatories acknowledge that their primary mission is to aid students in the development of their technique, and to teach performers the standard repertoire. For example, at Juilliard and the San Francisco Conservatory, students’ primary interest is not new music. Nevertheless, Juilliard has the annual Focus! Festival, an important outlet for modern music in New York City, and the San Francisco Conservatory has the New Music Ensemble, which under its dynamic new director, Nicole Paiement, seems destined to become an important contribution to the contemporary music scene on the West Coast. Even a conservative conservatory like Curtis genuinely appears to be supportive of their composition students and faculty. Best of all, are schools like Eastman that react to the shrinking interest in classical music by teaching students ways to reach out to the local community, educate and build new audiences for classical and modern music.

The brains of the next millennium’s musicians, composers and concert-goers are now developing in children across the country. However, American public schools are generally indifferent to the state of music. Most states have little or no graduation requirements for music in the public schools. (See the Music Educators National Conference’s website) Many schools no longer teach music at all. If children are exposed to even the basic musical concepts and skills, or to the most elementary musical history, they are lucky. The greatest American composers, such as Charles Ives and John Cage, are most likely unfamiliar names to young Americans, and important living composers are even less known. So, when high school graduates who are lucky enough to be exposed to classical music, decide to enter conservatories and universities, it is not uncommon for them to have been raised on a staple of dead Europeans. Of course, they may have also played the music of American composers, but probably less often. It is unlikely that they have ever performed the music of a living, breathing composer. Because it will not happen in public schools, conservatories and universities around the country are the places where advocates for new American music must be created.


How did your education shape your attitudes about music? Annie Gosfield, Composer

Annie Gosfield
Photo by Nola Lopez

I was taught the importance of creativity and individual expression early in life at a progressive elementary school that had classes for children in music and theater improvisation. As a teenager, private study with jazz pianist Bernard Peiffer taught me to bring my own interpretation to any music that I played. College not only provided me with a traditional musical education where I was able to develop necessary compositional skills, but also placed me in a more conservative environment, which gave me a healthy urge to rebel and seek my own sources of musical education outside of the constraints of traditional academia. The most critical moments of my musical education took place not only in the classroom, but in seedy clubs, concert halls, recording studios, and my own home.