Category: Columns

Getting Beyond Criticizing the Critics

There’s a lot being made on Sequenza21 right now about the first-ever Classical Music Critics Survey released by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University on May 16. The hefty 54-page PDF certainly contains its share of thistles for contemporary American music aficionados: e.g. the average critic devotes only 20% of his or her time—well, 74% his—to the music of our time; not a single American composer made the list of top 20 favorite historical composers; more American critics think the center of the scene is in Europe rather than America; less than half those surveyed were familiar with the music of Henry Brant, etc; I could go on all afternoon.

Yet in all the fervor of dissecting the minutiae of this survey, no one criticizing the critics has remarked how timely such a survey is at this juncture in our field and in our society at large.

Later this week, the Omni Los Angeles Hotel will be the host of the first-ever National Arts Critics Conference. Angelinos might want to start getting their picket signs ready! Although, seriously, this first-ever coming together of journalists who cover the visual arts, drama, dance, and music (classical as well as jazz) beats promises to be a major event in the world of arts coverage and something we should all be excited about.

I’ve long been one the first ones to criticize the critics. My antipathy with the word “critic” and in fact the very essence of criticism I’ve already addressed ad nauseam. Yet I’ve continued to be involved with the Music Critics Association of North America. After serving on their Board of Directors for 2 years, I’m actually still a card-carrying member of the organization. (They actually issue cards.) Despite our seeming irreconcilabilities (isn’t opinion what criticism is about anyway), the ability for people with differing opinions to talk to each other is extremely valuable and something we are losing sight of more and more in our society overall. In an era when a major TV news program and a major national magazine both recant stories they’ve run that are supposed to be journalism, is there even a place for editorial writing anymore?

All the more reason for journalists to rally together, especially those of us who cover frequently marginalized realms such as the arts. The opportunity to share widely divergent opinions should be even richer through the addition of perspectives from other artistic disciplines. In our age of over-specialization, niche marketing, and web surfing only on topics of predetermined personal significance, there is a dangerous tendency to become too insular and to overlook solutions we haven’t already figured out. That’s one of the many reasons I’m heading to L.A. this week even further charged as a result of the NAJP survey and my reactions to it.

How Old is Young?

At a showcase of new opera and music theater last night, prosaically titled On The Edge!, a cross-section of new pieces and works-in-progress were presented by American Opera Projects, Center for Contemporary Opera, Encompass New Opera Theatre, and Music-Theater Group. Master of ceremonies Janet Coleman capably underscored the excitement of the evening, and for a moment she seemed caught up in the imminent edginess about to take place on stage, promising the audience “brand new, original music theater composed by really brilliant, young composers.”

Her statement proved to be no hyperbole as far as the music was concerned. Most of the work that evening was indeed brilliant. My pet peeve is that word young, because as it turned out, there was quite a lot of grey hair on stage during the pre-performance banter between the creators and Coleman. Fact is, the four composers featured range in age from 37 to 72, hardly young in my book. Maybe the Y word accidentally slipped out with the avalanche of new, original, and brilliant—some of the most popular buzzwords of contemporary classical music.

If you think about it, the fossil fuel of classical music and opera—the pieces that audiences keep coming back to hear over and over again—were composed by an impish Austrian who died at the ripe age of 36. Did Mozart set some sort of precedent for youth worship? Considering that most grant and commissioning opportunities these days are only available to composers under the age of 35, it seems a clear line can be drawn between young and old. But then again, mature work is sometimes created in youth, and elder composers are often praised for works exhibiting youthful energy.

And with today’s popular music created and consumed by a dominantly tween demographic, it seems the concert hall crowed is left pining for a similar fountain of youth. Somehow the sum of these bizarre contradictions still allows us to label middle-aged or just outright old composers as young. It makes no sense to me. I mean, how old is young anyway?

Better Than Billy Joel?

Perhaps the most interesting “news” item I’ve read all month is the story of “Piano Man” who, since being in the custody of a British mental ward for the past six weeks, has not spoken a single word but has composed music on manuscript paper, played the piano for several hours without stop, and has made an extremely well-crafted pencil drawing of a grand piano.

Either this is all an extremely brilliant PR stunt, worthy of a George Antheil or John Cage or one of their latter-day accolades like Paris-based American pianist Guy Livingston, or it is further proof that music transcends language. I just hope someone in the ward has the smarts to record one of his performances, although anyone attempting such a venture might be scared off by possible patient’s rights lawsuits which are an even bigger legal Tower of Babel than today’s intellectual property battles.

Is MIDI evil?

The march of technology may be unstoppable, but does it ever feel like it’s veering off in a potentially dangerous direction? I bring this up because we’ve been talking a lot lately about MIDI around the office—its artistic merits and economic impact. Few want to give a breathing musician’s job to a machine just because the theater has been arm wrestled by capitalism into economic subservience, but could the Virtual Orchestra be a legitimate musical instrument that by rights should be available to a composer without the 802 running interference? If we give into the machine, how long before we’ll be forced to accept it as a more permanent replacement for human talent, its economic advantages making it “good enough”?

I was forced to ask myself some of these questions again when word came through about Notion, a new notation software package offering playback capabilities that feature the London Symphony Orchestra. The composition program was developed by the Greensboro (NC) company VirtuosoWorks. There’s a little movie you can watch and some sound samples to listen to on the site. It’s difficult from the quick tour to determine just how far and how hard you can push the software, but even using the talents of the LSO and the engineers at Abbey Road Studios, it’s still a cheap imitation of an orchestra to my ears. But if you’re a composer on the verge of completing a new symphony, perhaps the instant gratification is worth that price.

Everything is Marketing: Selling Classical to Kids

Put a reporter in the lobby of your Symphony Hall asking why the kids just aren’t into classical music these days, and the top answers are likely to be some variation on two themes: the undeniable power of pop culture and the removal of music programs in the public schools.

The Sphinx Organization has launched a new website, Sphinx Kids, to address the latter. Targeted at the pre-junior high set, site visitors can explore a gallery of cartoon-illustrated “famous” composers from Bach to Libby Larsen and then click through to short bios and sound samples. Students too old for kiddie games will find more detailed biographies of select minority composers such as Florence Price and Ulysses Kay. Sphinx is all about encouraging diversity in classical music, and this site delivers a refreshing perspective on the field by highlighting a number of composers who would normally be overlooked when introducing children to “classical” music. Cage, Copland, Joan Tower, Shulamit Ran, and many more pleasantly surprising (and still living!) composers were picked to have a portrait included on the site.

On the “if you can’t beat ’em” front, the Minnesota Orchestra has put out the call for young classical music performers from across the state for a Minnesota Idol” competition and concert. Six finalists will be selected from June auditions to perform with the orchestra at a “Sommerfest Family Concert on July 31. A panel of musicians will provide onstage comments and audience members will then vote for their favorite. Recalling my own days as a child performer, I hope for everyone’s sake there’s no Simon on this jury to rip the small protégés down to size. And can you already see the spin-off (and the $500 application fee, they keep rights to the compositions of course) for an American Composer Idol version? My gut says appropriating reality T.V. concepts are one pop culture trend we should cross the street to avoid. But maybe I’m missing something.

Séances and Telepresence Coming Soon to a Concert Hall Near You

Despite all ethical misgivings, stem cell research and cloning technologies are incessantly advancing. Sometimes this forward-march penetrates some unlikely enclaves that lie well beyond the laboratory. Guess what, looks like the realm of musical performance is next in line to wrestle with the moral dilemmas surrounding scientific advancement in overdrive. Sure, all areas of the music industry have grappled with the impact of recording technologies and file sharing, but the ramifications of “is it live, or is it Memorex?” are about to be stepped up big time.

On May 19th concertgoers in Raleigh, North Carolina will be treated to a recital by pianist Mei-Ting Sun featuring some special guests from beyond the grave: Glenn Gould and Alfred Cortot. Brought to you by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild and the good folks at Zenph StudiosTM—the masterminds behind this first public demonstration—the concert unveils a new evolution in recording technology. Zenph StudiosTM bills itself as one of the world’s most advanced music research facilities, and according to their website they have solved the “holy grail problem in music research…using modern computer techniques, such as those applied to tournament-level chess-playing programs or used to decode the human genome.” Basically, the company’s Software for High-Definition MusicTM claims to decode sound recordings, capturing the original keystrokes and pedal movements—every gestural micropressure intact—down to the millisecond.

Actually, this performance-cloning device sounds really cool. If allowed to fall into the hands of certain creative artists, some beautiful monsters might be unleashed! By the way, it won’t be all tales from the crypt at the BTI Center for the Performing Arts on the 19th. There is some contemporary music on the program: a set of preludes by composer and Mannes College professor Robert Cuckson will also be performed. Wonder if they can get Horowitz to play ’em?

Another Glass Palace

The other day, our former Associate Editor Amanda MacBlane sent me an amazing link to the Glass Engine. Click on the link to install the app (don’t worry, it’s not a virus) and you too can listen to just about anything ever recorded in the Glass canon. Really. You can even choose a piece according to its level of joy, sorrow, intensity, and density. Even though it feels kinda like something out of Logan’s Run, it might prove to be a whole new way to interface with contemporary music. But what excited me most about it is that you can actually hear a few things here that you can’t yet hear anywhere else, like Glass’s Metropolitan Opera-commissioned take on Christopher Columbus and his legacy, The Voyage, which is supposedly being released really soon, but not soon enough!

Welcome to NewMusicBox 2.0

So, what’s going on here, you might find yourself asking at this point. What’s all this COVER, MATTER, RADAR and CHATTER? What happened to “In The First Person”? What happened to “Hymn & Fuguing Tune”? What did Hymn & Fuguing Tune mean anyway?

For the past year, we’ve been recreating NewMusicBox from the bottom to the top, making it more intuitive and easier to navigate and giving it a structure that will allow us to update information everywhere on the site more frequently: weekly, daily, hourly! So forget about sleeping…

In the section called COVER, we’ll be “covering” (pun intended) key figures and issues in new American music, much as we had done in the past with our In The First Person conversations but taking fuller advantage of our multi-media resources to include concert and rehearsal footage, where possible, and other perspectives, to give greater dimensionality to what we’re covering than just talking heads. There will be a new one of these every month and it will be prominently featured on our cover, get it?

MATTER will contain all kinds of text-based pieces that in the past had populated many different sections of NewMusicBox, the kind of stuff that non-virtual magazines still call printed matter. We will be featuring in-depth analysis articles, along the lines of our one-time “In The Third Person” HyperHistories, as well as our more opinion-oriented Views columns, practical advice ToolBox columns, and the book excerpt and interview feature, InPrint. New material will be added to Matter on a weekly basis, so you’ll have to keep coming back if you want to stay current.

In fact, if you really want to stay current, you’ll have to come back daily to keep up with our new RADAR section which will offer insider reports about new music goings-on all over the country. With this new section, we really hope to fulfill our promise to build and sustain a national community for new music. Also, every day we’ll be featuring a snippet from a recording of new music that’s come to our attention.

What you’re wandering around in right now is CHATTER, which in old NewMusicBox speak is somewhere north of “In The Second Person” and east of “LeadSheet.” It’s somewhat akin to a blog, but hopefully not as self-indulgent, and not quite an unmoderated Forum—we’ll gladly print your comments if they are civil and relevant but the anonymous off-topic rants have worn out their welcome. CHATTER will give us an opportunity to share our thoughts with each other as they happen and promises to be lively and full of debate.

So, if we were a piece of software we’d be saying “Welcome to NewMusicBox 2.0.” We hope you’ll find our new format as inviting and as intriguing as we do. Come back often and tell us what you think!