Tag: Boston

Different Cities Different Voices – Boston

Landscape of downtown Boston

For our latest edition of Different Cities Different Voices, a series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators, we are putting the spotlight on Boston. The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.

  • This Small Town-Big City has more arts and culture nonprofits per capita than New York City. More than 1,500 orgs ranging from the niche and widely varied to storied and well endowed

    Ashleigh Gordon (photo by Daniel Callahan)
    Ashleigh Gordon
  • On the contemporary front alone, we are home to over 40 ensembles with a mission that specifically includes new music!

    Oliver Caplan
    Oliver Caplan
  • I haven't been a part of any other community to compare it to, and I don't really feel the need. It's a collegial community, and so many of us perform together in various different ensembles. There's always someone you know on the gig. It's almost like one big shifting ensemble.

    Aliana_de_la_Guardia
    Aliana De La Guardia
  • I find that Boston’s artistic community encourages the experimentation, research-based practice, and site-specific work that I have been drawn to.

    Neil Leonard
    Neil Leonard
  • Because Boston is, in some ways, a huge college town, there is a constantly changing flow of creatives running through its neighborhoods.

    Madison Simpson
    Madison Simpson
Ashleigh Gordon surrounded by trees.

Ashleigh Gordon (photo by Daniel Callahan)

Ashleigh Gordon

I came to Boston in 2006, doe-eyed, impressionable, and excited to start my Masters in Viola at the New England Conservatory. While I was initially attracted to the city’s quaint charm, its throughline to key people, places, and moments in history have kept me here so long. There’s no shortage of museums to get lost in, stories to recount, and histories to explore and draw inspiration from. Plenty to feed my curiosity (which is a happy coincidence as it also feeds my creativity as a performer and artistic director).

Boston also introduced me to my good friend, NEC classmate, and composer/social justice artist Anthony R. Green. As two Black, twenty-somethings interested in new music/chamber music — and who just so happened to be alphabetical neighbors come graduation time — our paths were destined to cross. With an abundance of youthful energy, collective passion, and mutual interest in exploring culture and history, we created Castle of our Skins, a concert and education series dedicated to celebrating Black artistry. A decade later, I still get to feed my curiosity and explore culture as the organization’s Artistic/Executive Director and violist.

This Small Town-Big City has more arts and culture nonprofits per capita than New York City. More than 1,500 orgs ranging from the niche and widely varied to storied and well endowed. There’s seemingly a group for just about anything and an audience to follow it. While saturated to the point of being overcrowded (especially as it relates to dollars…), Boston has a way of making room for new ideas and voices, something Anthony and I were fortunate for ten years ago when we had an idea. You can hear one of those new ideas and up-and-coming voices below.

Like in any long-term relationship, Boston and I have had plenty of “love-to-hate” you moments over the nearly two decades of knowing each other! But Boston came through to support its creative workers over these pandemic years and continues to do so. While an arduous time filled with great uncertainty and responsibility as a non-profit leader, it also proved to be a creativity-inducing period filled with experimentation, due in no small part to the support I received from Boston and beyond. It still makes space for the interesting and new while keeping its sense of history – the good, bad, and complicated – in the forefront.

Music tracks
Anthony R. Green: On Top of a Frosted Hill
performed by Ashleigh Gordon (viola) and Joy Cline Phinney (piano)

Nebulous String Quartet featuring Kely Pinheiro: Berklee Two Track I Gratitude


Oliver Caplan

An outside photo of a group of musicians with various instruments with composer Oliver Caplan standing in the middle.

Oliver Caplan (standing in the center) with the musicians of Juventas.

I moved to Boston in 2004 for my graduate studies at the Boston Conservatory. Immediately, I fell in love with the city’s sense of place, a dynamic convergence of old and new. This is mirrored in Boston’s vibrant music scene, which is known for its unique strengths in both early and contemporary music. I suspect that Boston has the most classical music per capita of any U.S. city (using “classical” in the broadest sense of the word). On the contemporary front alone, we are home to over 40 ensembles with a mission that specifically includes new music!

Navigating Juventas through the pandemic has been challenging, but also thrilling. Our ensemble members share a deep conviction that it is essential to keep making music to help our community cope through this difficult time. In March 2020, during the initial lockdown, we quickly launched “Stay Home with Juventas,” a weekly solo concert, live-streamed from musicians’ homes. Most of us had never live-streamed anything before. Later that spring, in June 2020, we were one of the first ensembles in the world to reunite musicians in the same room for a live-streamed chamber concert. Our 2020-21 season was entirely virtual, broadcast from a recording studio in Boston, with CD quality audio and high definition video feeds from six cameras. Even though it was super scary, we kept the performances 100% live to maintain the special thrill and audience connection of live performance. While constantly adapting, we found silver linings. One of our live-stream concerts was viewed by over 7,000 people, an audience that was previously unimaginable for our small organization. In June 2021, eager to welcome back an in-person audience, we designed “Music in Bloom,” an outdoor performance experience at the New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill. Over 1,000 people joined us in-person for a program of contemporary music by composers that are not broadly known to the general populace. We are bringing “Music in Bloom” back for a third year in 2023. Behind these successes has been an incredible amount of un-glamorous grunt work by our team. There was a point in the pandemic when we had trouble finding a space that would let us in to rehearse. We ended up rehearsing in an unheated church, musicians bundled up in long underwear, our pianist Julia working on an extremely out-of-tune piano. This is how much everyone cared.

With my own composing, one of the deepest disappointments was the necessary postponement of a 2020 program of my choral music, a special collaboration between Juventas and the New Hampshire Master Chorale. I had just finished several new works for the occasion and found myself waiting years to hear them. But I funneled my energy into recording a new album, Watershed, with chamber music inspired by favorite walks in nature. And that choral concert is now finally happening this fall, October 29, at Tuft’s Granoff Music Center in Medford, MA; and October 30 at the Colonial Theater in Laconia, NH!

My first work sample is a live performance of Watershed, Movement II “Calm,” the title work on my new album. I wrote this piece during the pandemic as an homage to the Mystic River, a place where I find solace and inspiration.

Nick Southwick, flute
Wolcott Humphrey, clarinet
Anne Howarth, horn
Minjin Chung, cello
Julia Scott Carey, piano

My second offering is an excerpt of Michael Gandolfi’s Line Drawings, performed live by Juventas in September 2019. Michael is a backbone of the Boston music scene, and one of my very favorite composers.

Wolcott Humphrey, clarinet
Olga Patramanska-Bell, violin
Julia Carey, piano


Aliana de la Guardia

Aliana de la Guardia

Aliana De La Guardia

Boston and I chose each other. I went there for school and that’s where my closest collaborations formed. It was the exact right place for me during my young adulthood and I received the kind of mentorship I needed to become who I am as an artist. I live outside the city now, but still consider myself a Boston-based artist. I return there often to present and perform new work.

Boston is my community, so of course I’m going to be partial. I haven’t been a part of any other community to compare it to, and I don’t really feel the need. It’s a collegial community, and so many of us perform together in various different ensembles. There’s always someone you know on the gig. It’s almost like one big shifting ensemble.

For Guerilla Opera, the pandemic was problematic, but we were inventive in our own way. We’re not the type of group that presents aria concerts or song recitals. Everything is about new and experimental work development and driving those works toward a fully designed, fully theatrical performance. So we experimented with works that were smaller in scale, with one two and three performers total. We experimented with film and video projects. We re-ran past productions and introduced a whole body of repertoire to new audiences. We experimented with online programming, including a performance series, streaming programs pairing short works together, virtual meet-ups, creative workshops for artists, and we were quite busy. Every month we had at least one event to bring our community together, and that is what it was really about for us -bringing the community together.

Music Recommendations:

Scene 1 from Marti Epstein’s Rumpelstiltskin (Guerilla Opera’s January 2022 Release)

Hannah Selin: Mid-Day featuring soprano Stephanie Lamprea


Neil Leonard playing a saxophone.

Neil Leonard

Neil Leonard

I came to Boston to study at New England Conservatory.  But my journey to Boston opened so many new doors for me.  While I love the saxophone and actively play solo and ensemble concerts, my first job out of school was at an art school.  While working in the computer arts lab at Massachusetts College of Art, I became involved in transdisciplinary art, and the early development of electronic music education in the age affordable computers. Being at an art college led to me creating music for multimedia collaborations with Tony Oursler, Magdalena Campos, and Sam Durant. I produced a concert by George Lewis and participated in studio visits with John Cage. At the same time, I spent weekend nights at Wally’s Cafe in Roxbury, where I played with Greg Osby, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Terence Blanchard. Within a few years, I developed a practice as a transdisciplinary artist, and it was my work in electronic music and multimedia installation that brought me to Berklee College of Music, where I have been a professor for 30 years, and the Artistic Director of the Berklee Interdisciplinary Art Institute.

Boston is home to a unique community of musicians, artists, curators and researchers, who come from all over the world, to work in colleges and universities in the area. A steady flow of fantastic guest lecturers and artists provides me with the opportunity to experience new art works and talk with compelling creators constantly.  Through collaborations from Boston I have worked in more than a dozen countries around the world, where I have played saxophone, composed music, and presented interdisciplinary work.  Recently, Fujiko Nakaya, a Japanese artist known for her fog sculptures, and member of the influential Experiments in Art and Technology group, heard my concert Sounding the Cloud with Scanner and Steven Vitiello, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. She asked me to make the quadraphonic sound composition Lavender Ruins, for her 12-week, outdoor fog sculpture, at the ruins of Frederic Law Olmstead’s athletic pavilion where Duke Ellington gave annual free concerts. Right before the pandemic, Williams College Museum of Art invited me to create Sonance for the Precession, a sound installation that was situated on top of Hopkins Observatory, the nation’s oldest extant observatory, and provided a context to reflect on how Hindu and Greek theories of astronomy and acoustics developed through intercultural exchange. I find that Boston’s artistic community encourages the experimentation, research-based practice, and site-specific work that I have been drawn to.

Some of the best young artists in the world come to develop their practice here, particularly those interested in contemporary music and art. I enjoy helping students, contributing to this critical stage of their growth and having them become colleagues after they leave. About twelve years ago, Berklee asked me to be the founding artistic director the college’s Interdisciplinary Arts Institute. Last fall, my students performed with the Harvard New Music. Later the same semester, my students collaborated in premiering original works made in collaboration with students at MIT’s Opera of the Future lab. The same semester, Miguel Cardona, the U.S. Secretary of Education visited our seminar and observed a student performance. Boston has been an excellent location for helping students learn to build cultural connections between artists from diverse communities and artistic backgrounds.

The post-Covid era presents a unique opportunity for work within the arts that can support local, national and global healing. My professional practice began with the intention of collaborating with artists from around the world, and across all artistic practices. Boston is a good base to pursue this work and involve young people in process of celebrating our shared humanity through the arts.

Here’s a recording of the recent sound installation of mine at Williams College that I mentioned…

Dave Bryant: “Lime Pickle” from Night Visitors


Madison Simpson

Madison Simpson

Madison Simpson

Boston holds a lot of history for me – I was born here, and spent most of my childhood driving back and forth from New Hampshire visiting extended family. During my teenage years, I saw many concerts in Boston, and when it was time to pick a college I looked primarily in and around the city. Although I initially moved back to Boston for school and expected to move elsewhere after I completed my degree, the incredible DIY music scene here is what has made me stay.

Because Boston is, in some ways, a huge college town, there is a constantly changing flow of creatives running through its neighborhoods. My friends and I joke about the “Allston to Brooklyn pipeline”, as many of our musical collaborators have moved from the popular Boston artist’s neighborhood to NYC postgrad. However, even with these constant changeovers, there is an incredibly strong group of people dedicated to making Boston’s music and art scene great. We have independent record labels such as Disposable America, art and culture publications like Boston Hassle and Allston Pudding, and a thriving house show scene that encompasses mostly the Allston/Brighton neighborhoods but extends into Jamaica Plain and Dorchester. I’ve been very fortunate to have toured now along the east coast, out into the Midwest, and along the coast of California, and I can confidently say that Boston has one of the strongest DIY scenes in the country. I believe so deeply in this community and I’m so excited to continue to watch it grow post-pandemic.

I’m very lucky to be in two amazing bands: Sweet Petunia, my folk duo with collaborator Mairead Guy, and a rock band called Winkler. Both bands have seen great success in the DIY scene, and I’ve met many amazing people through each that I’m so happy to call my friends. With Sweet Petunia, one challenge has been carving out a space in a community that is mostly indie rock-centric. Amazingly, though, we have met a lot of people who have taken a chance on us and therefore we’ve played some really interesting, genre-diverse bills over the years. During Covid, both of my bands had members move back home to be with family, and therefore another one of the biggest challenges we faced was continuing to write and collaborate with each other long distance. The third largest problem that we have currently in Boston is a lack of small, traditional venues. With the closing of Great Scott during Covid, we lost one of the most important small venues our city had to offer. Although there are many DIY venues to play, options above that for a band that has begun to grow in following are slim. That has begun to change, though, due to the efforts of promoters like Once and Alex Pickert of Get to the Gig Boston. I believe with time we will continue to grow this aspect of our community! I’m excited to continue to live and work in Boston and to see how our DIY community continues to strengthen.

A track featuring me: “Early Morning Blues” by Sweet Petunia

A track from a local favorite: “Villain of my Mind” by Clay Aching

Homage to Captain Swing

SwingletterA Swing letter addressed to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge: “The college that thou holdest shall be fired very shortly.”

The letters began arriving in the early autumn of 1830, addressed to magistrates, landlords, clergy across rural England:

Sir, take notice that we send you word that your threshing machine shall be burnt to ashes before the month end

Sir, This is to acquaint you that if your thrashing machines are not destroyed by you directly we shall commence our labours

Sir, Your name is down amongst the Black hearts in the Black Book and this is to advise you and the like of you, who are Parson Justasses, to make your wills

The threats all carried the same signature: Captain Swing, a supposed rebel leader, the name calling to mind a pair of macabrely mirrored rhythms: the sweep of the arm in the manual threshing of wheat—the loosening of the grain from the surrounding chaff—and the slow pendulation of a hanged body. Revenge for thee is on the wing from thy determined Captain Swing.

He wasn’t real. Captain Swing was a fiction, a symbol, a conveniently adopted veil of anonymity. He became a metaphor, an embodiment of the frustrations of England’s farm-laborers and rural poor. In 1830, that frustration boiled over, and protests swept across the English countryside. As part of their protests, the Swing rioters extended the Luddite tradition of machine-breaking, destroying the threshing machines that were stealing their livelihood. Their demands were simple: higher wages and an end to rural unemployment. They were reacting to the Industrial Revolution—but, the threshing machines notwithstanding, not so much the advent of mechanization as the change in identity, the way industrialization eroded a robust system of rural relationships and rhythms to a single, stark transaction: employer and employed, owner and tenant, capital and labor, haves and have-nots.

No one knows who invented Captain Swing. But the mascot was an unwitting and curious bit of prescience.

feature 58-38Bandleader and crimefighter Swing Sisson encounters a critic in Feature Comics #58 (July 1942).

On the cusp of a new academic year, Robert Blocker, dean of the Yale School of Music, offered a resolution destined, perhaps, to become a standard of its kind. Defending (in The New York Times) his institution’s decision to suspend the activities of its jazz ensemble (and its general de-emphasis of jazz in the curriculum), Blocker appealed to categorization:

Our mission is real clear…. We train people in the Western canon and in new music.

This intimation of musical haves and have-nots—placing jazz outside the vale of a posited Western canon of great works, then and now—is dumb in its own way (Alex Ross and Michael Lewanski were quick to point out how and why). It is also wrong on a deeper and more historically populous level. Both Ross and Lewanski make the eminently correct assertion that a curriculum without jazz is poor training indeed for the wonderfully kleptomaniacal repertoire of classical music. But, even beyond that, to promulgate a canon that does not change and expand its parameters in response to performed reality is, I think, missing the point of music, and missing it badly.

The notion that jazz is some kind of outside force attempting to breach Fortress Classical is not new. Take Deems Taylor, for instance—composer, critic, narrator of Fantasia, well-known classical music personality of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. In his book The Well-Tempered Listener, Taylor examined the practice of “swinging the classics,” making jazz band versions of classical chestnuts. This sort of thing had apparently exercised enough indignation that the president of the Bach Society of New Jersey, Taylor reported, sent a letter to the FCC proposing penalties for radio stations that broadcast such numbers. Taylor gave that suggestion a sympathetic shrug:

If you’re going to suspend the license of a broadcasting station for permitting Bach to be played in swing time, what are you going to do to a station for permitting swing music to be played at all? (You might offer the owner of the station his choice of either listening to nothing but swing for, say, twelve hours, or else spending a month in jail.) You can’t legislate against bad taste.

Taylor’s solution was musical rope-a-dope, completely certain that the unaltered classical repertoire would win out. “I believe in letting people hear these swing monstrosities because I believe that it’s the best method of getting rid of them,” he concluded. “A real work of art is a good deal tougher than we assume that it is.”

Connoisseurs may also recall last year’s anti-jazz contretemps, culminating with composer-activist John Halle’s broadside against the current state of jazz vis-à-vis progressive politics, which, on its surface, avoided the high-low divide that Taylor repointed and Blocker tripped over. (Halle’s thesis: “It’s been years since jazz had any claim to a counter-cultural, outsider, adversarial status, or communicated a revolutionary or even mildly reformist mindset.”) But at the core of Halle’s article was a related view of score and performance, revealed when he took tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson to task for performing and recording an instrumental version of the old standard “Without a Song”—the original lyrics of which are redolent with, as Halle puts it, “vile Jim Crow racism” (“A darky’s born/ but he’s no good no how / without a song”)—at nearly the same time Henderson was, elsewhere in his music, acknowledging and endorsing the Black Power movement of the 1960s. (“A nadir of obliviousness,” Halle concluded.)

What Blocker’s comment, Taylor’s bravado, and Halle’s litmus test all share is the assumption of a kind of one-way street between intent and performance. Halle’s implication is that, no matter Henderson’s intention, the performance is politically regressive because of the original lyrics—to echo Taylor, even a poor work of art, it seems, is a good deal tougher than we assume that it is. Taylor’s confidence that the score can survive any amount of stylistic contamination nevertheless insinuates that performance, the real-world, real-time expression of style, is ultimately secondary. Blocker’s mission statement implicitly posits a musical regime setting the verities of the written-down, published, and academically vetted canon against the presumably more relativistic and transient pleasures of a performed vernacular.

The supposition throughout is that the composer’s (or lyricist’s) intent remains paramount, that even a thoroughly transformative performance is still just a reiteration of that intent.  There is another possibility, though: the possibility that, the performance can offset the composer’s intent, simply by virtue of who is doing the performing—and how.

There is also the possibility that this is, in fact, one of music’s highest virtues.

* * *

Here’s an interesting thing. Take two weights, connect them with a string, then run the string over a pulley, like this—

atwood1

You can intuitively guess what will happen: if both weights have the same mass, they’ll just hang there, but if one has more mass, it’ll pull the other through the pulley. This seems trivial, but it’s not, not entirely—which is why the Rev. George Atwood, a tutor at Cambridge’s Trinity College, invented this apparatus in the late 1700s, the better to teach principles of classical mechanics. Playing around with Atwood’s machine, students could measure and learn about rates of acceleration, string tension, inertial forces, and the like. One thing that you can determine with Atwood’s machine is that, in the case of unequal masses (and assuming the pulleys are frictionless), the acceleration on both weights is constant and uniform. In other words, if the masses are equal, the system is at equilibrium, but if the masses are unequal, it’s a runaway system, the weights flying through the pulley, ever faster, until they run out of string or vertical space.

But if you take the two weights, run the string over two pulleys, and start the smaller weight swinging back and forth, like this—

atwood2

—some unexpected things start to happen. The swinging weight, via centrifugal force—more pedantically, via the apparent force that results from interpreting a rotating reference frame as an inertial frame—counteracts some of the gravitational pull on the larger mass. Which means that the Swinging Atwood’s Machine (as it was dubbed by Nicholas Tufillaro, the physicist who first started playing around with such systems back in the 1980s) can end up doing some very counterintuitive things. Even if the masses are unequal, the system can still reach an equilibrium, the smaller mass locking into periodic and sometimes seriously funky orbits:

TufillaroFig4(From Nicholas B. Tufillaro, Tyler A. Abbott, and David J. Griffiths, “Swinging Atwood’s Machine,” Am. J. Phys. 52 (10), October 1984)

To summarize: if you have two unequal masses that are inextricably bound to each other, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the larger mass always dominates the system. The smaller can still counterbalance the larger. It just needs to swing.

* * *

LennysMahler6Leonard Bernstein’s score of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, from the New York Philharmonic’s digital archives.

It’s only a metaphor, of course. Then again, most writing and talking about music ends up, before too long, at metaphors. “Swing” itself, musically speaking, is a pretty vague concept. It has to do with rhythm, but it has to do with so much more than rhythm: it considers the flow of musical experience through the lenses of momentum and vitality. In its most poetic sense, the metaphor is ecumenical. Those old “Mahler Grooves” bumper stickers could be at once a cheeky incongruity and a recognition that, in its own way, and in a good performance, Mahler could indeed groove, that the symphonies could swing in the grandest sense. But even in the term’s more technical sense—that calibration of the ratio between stressed and unstressed notes—“swing” hearkens all the way back to the old Baroque inégale: a variance, a perturbation, an inequality, turned into a dance of emphasis and de-emphasis that pulls the music forward.

All performance is a matter of emphasis and de-emphasis; it is, on one level, about choice. And, thanks to music’s singular strangeness—grammar and eloquence forever in search of content and meaning—that choice can extend far beyond technical choices on the part of the musicians. Take the case of classical music’s great Beleth, Richard Wagner, who embodied the human possibilities of greatness and ugliness to an exceptionally intense degree. Because his medium was music, performing and listening to Wagner’s work is an opportunity to choose the greatness over the ugliness.

This is, incidentally, what Blocker gets so wrong about the canon. To use it as a dividing line is a diminishing choice, segregating musics that might otherwise yield energetic synergy. The better choice is to view the idea of a canon as an opportunity for expansion and addition—to decide that the classics not only can survive being swung, but, in the larger sense, can positively thrive on it.

From an optimistic vantage, this ongoing process of choice might be thought of as practice, training players and audience to imagine a better world, the better to achieve it. A pessimist could point out (quite rightly) that such training is taking an awfully long time to translate into concrete change.

Captain Swing, in the long run, could not prevent industrialization and capitalism from diminishing and dehumanizing the English rural poor. But the imaginary Captain Swing and his very real foot-soldiers still offer warning and inspiration. The canon, after all, is a threshing floor, separating musical wheat from chaff. The question is whether the canon is to be winnowed by hand, as it were—by individual performers, individual choices collectively shaping repertoire and style—or by machine: by institutions, by factories of learning and production. A top-down segregation of the canon recapitulates what the Swing rioters foresaw: it makes the relationship between the performer and the repertoire excessively transactional, limited in dimension and devoid of ownership.

The steady advance of technology and prosperity in certain places, among certain classes, can make us forget that all of us, rich and poor, fortunate and unfortunate, live in a machine. Its gears are money and power. Inequality, greed, racism, misogyny, discrimination all remain institutionalized and persistent. The music this article has been talking about—jazz and classical—is, culturally speaking, on the margins, however luxurious; maybe to expect these musics, old or new, to alter the fabric of society, however incrementally, is excessively idealistic. (Confession: in that regard, I am an idealist.) But just in their performance, in jazz’s constant reinvention and classical’s constant re-creation, they mount a defense. In swinging, they swing the machine. They mitigate their lesser mass. They, perhaps, prevent the whole system from running away to a catastrophic end. Or, at least, they keep us from being pulled helplessly through the machine.

*Homepage featured image courtesy Petras Gagilas via Flickr

From Groupmuse to the BSO: Show-hopping in Boston

wjr-bso-pic1

If you come to Boston to see only one orchestra, you’ll come for the Boston Symphony. The BSO is as much a part of Boston’s identity as the Red Sox, lobster rolls, and organized crime.

The orchestra operates out of Symphony Hall near downtown, and on nights when the fluorescent “BSO” sign lights up, the people flock to it.

Right now Boston classical fans are very high on new BSO music director Andris Nelsons. Given the right timeline, the right money, and the desire, Nelsons could be on pace for city legend status like Russell or Bird, Ted Williams or Bobby Orr. L.A. has Gustavo Dudamel; Boston now has Andris Nelsons.

The BSO can be pricey, but the orchestra makes exceptions for younger people, and so for only $20 each my friend and I got into a show. We weaved our way through the patrons, ushers, and classical nerds and found our seats. My friend was put on immediate warning by the woman next to him: his leg was too far to the right. Noted. People were swarming. The official capacity of Symphony Hall is 2,625. This show wasn’t a sellout, but it was close.

wjr-bso-pic2

They played a world premiere organ concerto by Michael Gandolfi and Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Afterwards the crowd roared. Even after a long stint wedged into cramped chairs (think economy-class plane seats) everyone was ecstatic. That triumph carried over into the lobby and out to the street as brave patrons played Frogger with Massachusetts Avenue traffic.

wjr-bso-pic3

There will always be a need for this dressed-up symphony experience, but that’s just the beginning of the story in Boston. Outside the walls of Symphony Hall, an impressive and diverse classical scene has shaped up on its own.

The city can only stamp its name on one orchestra, and that deal was done in 1881. But other organizations—orchestras, chamber groups—are doing Boston proud, taking risks and reinventing the audience experience. The product being cooked up in these rogue classical laboratories is flooding the streets. There’s never been a better time to be a classical fan.

*It’s hard to get an accurate count of the orchestras and chamber groups in metro Boston since many fly under the radar. Some habitually shift personnel, others work intermittently.

You can start with mainstays like the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and the wildly popular Video Game Orchestra. Other groups are in a building-and-expansion phase. The Boston New Music Initiative prizes works by living composers. Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston is a self-governed freelance collective. A Far Cry is an edgy ensemble with peerless talent and ambitious programming.

When you add in pick-up orchestras, and informal and invite-only arrangements, you begin to get a sense of the city’s appetite for classical music.

It adds up. A 2014 ArtsBoston report estimated the city’s annual arts spending—spread across music, ballet, museums, and theater—was $1.4 billion. Two key factors make that possible.

The first is the willingness of the audience to pony up. Attendees spent $450 million beyond admission price at museums and shows. The second factor as it relates to classical music is the talent pipeline. The area is home to top-flight schools like New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, and the Berklee College of Music. The city is flush with talent. Orchestras hire young guns with musical chops for days. Students, in turn, get on-the-job mentoring.

I decided to see firsthand how it all worked. I dropped in on a show where ace percussionists tackled brand-new music; a choral concert where the music was served with a side of social justice; and a house show where the Bach and the PBR flowed like water.

*Tuesday, April 7, 2015. 8:00 p.m.

NEC Percussion Ensemble

Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory

Price: Free

New England Conservatory is housed just a block from Symphony Hall. It’s backed up against the Orange Line train tracks, and sits so close to the adjacent YMCA you might assume they’re housed in the same building.

wjr-nec-pic1

On this rainy night—we had over nine feet of snow this winter; rain will never again faze us—a hundred people settled into wooden, leather-backed chairs in Jordan Hall to hear the NEC Percussion Ensemble.

We started with a flourish: the first movement from Nebojsa Zivkovic’s Trio per Uno. The piece was unrelenting, the playing inspired.

https://www.instagram.com/p/1MkEH-wfXL/

Next was Steve Reich’s Six Marimbas. The performers were gleeful and reckless. (Were they shooting 5-hour ENERGY backstage? Only the stagehands could say for sure.) Reich’s music can sink even steely performers, but these players barely broke a sweat.

The focal point of the night was composer Larry Wallach’s Winter Music. It was a world premiere, and there was a lot to like:

  • Percussionists wearing telemarketer headsets.
  • A multitude of percussive goodies deployed across the stage.
  • A conductor wearing a suit with a Tracy McGrady thing going on (an undeniable joy—this summer’s hottest look).
  • Two players upstage on accordion and celeste, never looking away from the conductor.

Wallach evokes the long slog of winter with uneasy patter, interspersed with moments of space and calm. In the second movement Wallach had players hoarsely whisper lines into the aforementioned headsets from Wallace Stevens’s famous poem “The Snowman.” (“One must have a mind of winter/ to regard the frost and the boughs/ of the pine-trees crusted with snow.”)

wjr-nec-pic2

In the third movement Winter Music found its groove with banging unison parts. When the players clanged to a finish there were woops, hollers, and applause. That was just the end of the first half.

By the end of the night we’d heard an impressive program highlighted by a world premiere. The show was driven by young talent with an appetite for tricky music, and an impulse to get it note-perfect.  It was free, and exciting, and there would be more shows like it before the week was out.

*Saturday, April 11, 2015. 8:00 p.m.

Boston Conservatory Women’s Chorus, Boston City Singers

“The Bard Sings”

Seully Hall, Boston Conservatory

Price: Free

wjr-chorus-1

Like many cities, Boston has a diversity problem in its classical scene. There are too few people of color in orchestras, especially considering Boston is a majority-minority city. The problem isn’t just racial or ethnic underrepresentation, but social, economic, and geographic divisions, too. So it was a little shocking to see that problem addressed, at least in part, at a show I went to at the Boston Conservatory.

https://www.instagram.com/p/1W7DsxQfSV/

This Boston Conservatory Women’s Chorus emanated pure power, and you would’ve gotten your wig blown back sitting in the first few rows. The concert’s premise was the intersection of Shakespeare’s written word with music written about the Bard himself. So we heard James MacMillan’s Sonnet, Amy Beach’s Three Shakespeare Choruses, as well as Brahms’s Vier Gesänge with harp and double-barrel French horns.

But the swerve came when the BCWC exited mid-set. Co-conductor Daniel Mahoney told the crowd that groups like his needed to get out of their “ivory towers” and work outside the conservatory walls. Mahoney said BCWC had much to learn from up-and-coming outfits. With that he yielded the stage to the Boston City Singers.

wjr-chorus-2

The City Singers were young and fearless, and their mission statement—“training and inspiring the musician…to support personal development, celebrate diversity, and foster good will”—reads like a blueprint for Boston’s future arts scene. They did a traditional Maori song, and “Gloria” from György Orbán’s Mass No. 6. They even did show tunes. It was bizarre and glorious.

Boston is a city of tradition. There is a deep vein of historical religiousness that carries through to the present. We’ve still got “blue laws” on the books to ensure Bostonians’ moral compasses point true North.

But there’s an equal measure of revolutionary spirit here. Phony or not, we’re all a little taken with the original rebels, those 18th-century punks that talked a good game about liberty and freedom.

For a minute I saw both sides at once. I’ve never been to a show where the conductor questioned his group’s own mission. It was scripted, of course, but there was thunderous applause for the Boston City Singers, the BCWC, and the change they foretold. Music schools are churning out exceptional performers, but it doesn’t mean much if the music can’t escape those hallowed halls. Tonight it did. And some new ideas snuck back in, too.

*Friday, April 10, 2015. 8:30 p.m.

Groupmuse/Boston Young Composers Ensemble

“Bach, Bates, and Birds”

Price: Free ($10 donation)

wjr-groupmuse-1

This show arguably said the most about where Boston’s classical and new music scene is headed. Music schools are hotbeds for experimentation, but outfits like Groupmuse take this proposition to a whole other place.

Groupmuse is a Boston startup that pairs generous house- and apartment-dwellers with musicians looking to play intimate shows. The premise completely deflates the typical, uber-formal classical music concert.

The musicians get an opportunity to play for beer-drinking, toe-tapping, head-nodding living-room audiences. As a fan—no matter what level—you can link up with no-frills classical music seven nights a week without putting a hurt on your wallet. It feels a bit like speed-dating, but no one wears name tags.

I rolled up on this Groupmuse drinking Arnold Palmers in honor of the Masters, which was in progress.

wjr-groupmuse-2

As I parked at the top of a hill I saw a young-ish man walk by staring hard into his cell phone. Without looking up he took a decisive 90-degree turn and continued on. Navigating by phone. Bingo. Partygoer.

The thing about Groupmuse is that you’re inviting yourself into a stranger’s domestic situation for a house party. You’re in a room with a small cadre of people. There are Solo cups filled with mystery liquids, jury-rigged seats, and people who are painfully kind. It’s jarring the first time around.

There wasn’t much pre-show chatter here, just handshakes and smiles. Someone talked about how Andris Nelsons looks off-balance conducting. He added: “I like him a lot.” The musicians—violin, cello, clarinet, flute, some of them members of the Boston Young Composers Ensemble—took their seats in the living room.

They played movements from Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, and we clapped between each (a Groupmuse directive). Then they took on Mason Bates’s The Life of Birds. You could tell they’d performed it before, handling tricky ensemble passages with ease. Toward the end the bench I sat on got a little uncomfortable, but the music didn’t.

wjr-groupmuse-3

As an encore an audience member grabbed his sax and performed a piece by Ian Dicke called Straphanger. It was angular, multi-metered, metallic, and hard. A different kind of encore, but it worked—like playing Gary Numan songs to achieve peak pre-bedtime chill.

It’s been said Groupmuse is like Airbnb for classical house shows, and I think that’s a good characterization. What the setting lacks in opulence (this being a normal apartment like yours or mine) it makes up for in comfort, atmosphere, and alcohol.

Every attendee I talked to was a musician. (One was an assistant to the great Gunther Schuller.) Maybe Groupmuse hasn’t caught on with less-adventurous folks. But it will. For the price of a donation and some socializing, it’s a seductive classical fix.

wjr-groupmuse-4

Taken as a whole, these shows don’t constitute musical upheaval. They don’t foretell the demise of the BSO or any establishment-type groups that still serve a vital purpose—entertaining high volumes of people.

What they do show us is that Boston is serious about its music and willing to get behind wild new ideas. Not every group is destined for all-time greatness. Some fail. That’s the nature of the beast.

But we’re a city with a mean classical habit, and on any given night you can luck into cool chamber music showcases or solo recitals, most of which are—crucially—inexpensive. The groups come and go, but the audiences hang on, and they’re ready for the next show.

***roseliep

Will Roseliep is a producer for Boston Public Radio, and media director for the Cambridge Philharmonic. He’s the author of The Libertine’s Guide to the Classical Music Revolution. He hosts the Classical Dark Arts podcast, and writes the weekly Classical Dark Arts newsletter.

Boston: Passports and Layovers from Lorelei and Roomful of Teeth

Logan International Airport in Boston.

Logan International Airport in Boston. (Via.)

If the only thing you ever saw of Boston was Logan International Airport, first of all, my deepest sympathies and, second, your idea of the city might very well be populated only by minutemen, the Red Sox, lobsters, and Cheers. Every city with an airport, I think, has an airport version of itself, based on the cultural shorthand of the souvenir stand. Airport versions of cities are not wrong, exactly, just disorientingly oblique to the people who actually live in those cities. But the airport version of Boston isn’t for me; it’s for tourists. It’s for people who have never seen the place before. It’s like a bullet-point outline to be (hopefully) filled in somewhat over the course of a visit. I’m probably too embedded and too oblivious to accurately judge the usefulness of the airport version of Boston. But I could imagine that it would provide as good a toehold as anything. (A couple years ago, I visited Barcelona for the first time. The airport version of Barcelona was Gaudí, Messi, and ham—in retrospect, a reasonably efficient triangulation.)

I sometimes wonder if, several decades from now, people will look back on the current era of new music and characterize it in terms not far removed from tourism. Because if there’s one thing common to the various kinds of music going under the new music banner right now (and a lot of music beyond that), it’s the pursuit and/or assertion of an aura of authenticity. Traditions, styles, vernaculars—so many new pieces I hear these days pledge allegiance to some form of authenticity, some repertoire, some community. A lot of times, such pieces are the result of a deep engagement with the cited style on the part of composer and performer; a lot of times, it’s simply an expression of momentary curiosity. But much of the listener’s intended satisfaction is to come from the feeling that the experience has been both unfamiliar and authentic. In other words: the ideal tourist experience. Which means that the real version and the airport version might, in fact, be equally effective.

***

On November 2, in the cool, enveloping reverberation of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, the Lorelei Ensemble, artistic director Beth Willer’s eight-voice all-female choral group, presented a program called “Reconstructed: The New Americana,” venturing in and around an increasingly popular ethnomusicological destination: shape-note singing. The concert sent postcards from the style’s antecedents—colonial hymnody (via its most idiosyncratically great practitioner, William Billings) and folk music—while also placing it in new, modern galleries: four world premieres were interspersed with contemporary additions to the shape-note repertoire.

Early American hymnody and shape-note singing might be two of the most quintessentially American musics there are, in that they live at a nexus of American anxiety—the disconnect between the way the country ought to be and the way that it actually is. Both were aspirational forms, specifically designed to be specifically American, and both were, in turn, often rejected as being too provincial and unpolished. You only really get a sense of this stew of influence and counter-influence in the context of its relatives: the more buttoned-down, reactionary New England hymnody of the later 18th century, African-American gospel, Gilded Age grandeur, maybe even modern Christian rock-pop, a continuous negotiation between exaltation and populism.
All by itself, though, and in Lorelei’s unfailingly, uncannily pure and precise voices, the style found itself at another intersection: the shared Apollonian streak in the early music and modernist strains of classical music. It was certainly something common to the four commissioned works (the commissions supported—full disclosure—by NewMusicUSA). All of them, for all their variety, were dedicated to the not-inconsiderable pleasure of close-packed straight-tone harmonies, soaring echoes, and perfect intervals sung with overtone-sparking exactness. That melange of very old and very new was layered throughout the concert, even in interludes—flutist Ashley Addington and violinist Shaw Pong Liu improvising the familiar strains of “Amazing Grace” into sometimes surprisingly loose translations.

Scott Ordway’s North Woods, interpreting the Maine landscape through the lens of the ancient Roman historian Tacitus’s imaginary descriptions of northern Europe, made use of the most immediate sensation of the choir’s phenomenal purity: clean clarity as cold as ice. But the piece also hinted at the change from wild to civilized, from frontier to familiar destination. With Addington’s piccolo glinting off the music like lens flare, the opening movements were built on a foundation of fast, quasi-aletoric chanting, the ground continually slippery and shifting. By the end, though, the boundaries had been set down: as the first movement’s text circled back (“The nights are dark; the earth casts only a low shadow”), the music coalesced into a kind of domesticated part-song, as if the place itself had finally been fully marked off and mapped.

Joshua Shank’s Saro arranged variants of an old folk song into a quiet allegory of barriers and discrimination. The music, too, took on a notable echo of modern production. Starting out in familiar territory—a poignant solo encased in open intervals and diatonic suspensions—the harmonies gradually blurred into one another, the melody itself detached and slowed down into pure sonority, real-time digital stretching realized in analog form. With Shaw Pong’s violin hovering like a ghostly narrator, the piece felt both contained and unsettled. Mary Montgomery Koppel’s Nokomis’ Fall also used an instrumental anchor—Addington again, this time on bass flute—adding both texture and anchor to her twisty harmonies. Setting a passage from Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, Koppel emphasized the twice-told ritual aspect of the story with unabashed text-painting; when Nokomis (Hiawatha’s grandmother) finally is plunged from the moon to the earth like a meteor, Koppel laced the scene with a simple, descending whole-tone scale in the flute, obvious and ingenious at the same time.

The most ambitious of the new works was Joshua Bornfield’s Reconstruction, a five-movement a cappella “mass” replacing the rite with 19th-century hymns from the shape-note lineage. (The movements were spread throughout the concert.) The treatment was equally ambitious: “Crowns (Mercy Seat)” turned into a polytonal, polyrhythmic contest between sopranos and mezzos; “Wrath (Battle Hymn of the Republic/John Brown’s Body)” and “Brother, Sister, Mourner (Amazing Grace)” re-energizing their familiar sources with busy Ivesian collages; “Farewell (Long Time Travelin’)” a tide of continuous, exotic reharmonization; and the finale, “Salvation (Song to the Lamb)” dense with melismatic decoration and closing on an open-ended, clustered “Amen.” It was a challenging score, superbly sung, hinting at hidden complexities even beyond its mercurial surface.

The newer shape-note hymns—all from within the past 20 years—pushed boundaries in a more casual, unassuming manner. Dana Maiben’s “Vermont” mixed a bluegrass-like melody with harmonies echoing the great 20th-century Anglican composers, major 2nds and 9ths in luxurious sequences. Adam Jacob Simon’s “Inman” gently hovered between natural minor and relative major, a swirl confined but unresolved. Moira Smiley’s “Utopia” was the most reminiscent of William Billings, a bricolage of modal collisions. The Billings selections (“Africa” and “Taunton”) were themselves transformed, the translation into upper voices revealing Dowland-like strains among his dizzyingly individual counterpoint. Even the most familiar attractions can seem new, if you happen to visit at just the right time.

***

Tourism was all over Roomful of Teeth’s November 21 concert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Kresge Hall. The group itself is the musical equivalent of a compulsive traveler, always adding new and farther-afield techniques and traditions to its toolbox. The appearance was the culmination of that ever-more common form of musical furlough, an academic residency. But the bulk of the program—two premieres, both by MIT composers—were works and music about tourism, in both the symbolic and literal sense.

The first half was Elena Ruehr’s one-act, a cappella opera Cassandra in the Temples, to a libretto by Gretchen E. Henderson. It was presented in an oratorio format; Ruehr, introducing the piece, indicated an eagerness to see it staged. Depending on the director, such staging would either be a trial or a delight: the libretto is more provocative than narrative, more about mood than story. Henderson’s poetry is jammed with wordplay and device, full of near-homonyms and compounding linguistic echoes in a way somewhere between Gertrude Stein and Van Dyke Parks. (Much of it hinges on the text’s visual appearance on the page, which unusually elaborate supertitles attempted to convey.) There is a framework, one centered around tourism: a modern visitor approaches the grave of Cassandra, the legendary Greek prophetess, the visit igniting a parallel retelling of Cassandra’s own crucial visit to the temple where snakes licked her ears, providing her with her gift and curse. Apollo makes an appearance, as does Laocoön and Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, but everything passes as shadows behind the scrim of language.

Ruehr’s music is luminous, constantly musicalizing the sounds of speech in creative, even cheeky ways. A chorus of whispers, like brushed cymbals; sea serpents and snakes sized up in voiced sibilants; Cassandra and Clytemnestra, trapped in their fates, the harmonies sloughing downward along the flat side of the circle of fifths. The score makes good use of Roomful of Teeth’s ability to switch styles on the fly, from throat-singing drones to seething dissonance. (My favorite was Cassandra’s rejection of Apollo—in Henderson’s version, a single “no” slithering down the page—set as sunny, strident ’60s pop, a girl knowing all too well whether or not he’ll still love her tomorrow.) I still can’t imagine exactly how it would be staged, but an abstract Cassandra in the Temples was still plenty diverting, in every sense of the word.

The other premiere, Borderland—a collaborative piece by Christine Southworth and Evan Ziporyn—also began with tourism, in its most nightmarish form. The subject is the conflict in the Ukraine, but half of the piece, its first two movements, viewed it from the vantage—first from the air, then from the ground—of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, shot down over the country on July 17. A Facebook post, in Dutch, by a boarding passenger was combined with a tweet, in Malaysian, from the airline announcing the disaster, into a staccato weave of open- and closed-mouth sounds—shock and stoicism, perhaps. Then intercepted communications (referencing the weapon used to down the place) between the rebels on the ground and their Russian contact became a tangram of short, repeated fragments, busy, circling crosstalk, anchored around the phrase “А куда нам” (Where are we?). The last two movements turned to Ukranian poetry, by Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, and Bekir Çoban-Zade, set with overtones of birdsong, chirping and chattering behind longer, keening lines. The textual sense was that of an eternal nature regarding passing humanity, the point of calamity giving way to a kind of persistent sadness in the land itself.

The musical setting made use of both minimalistic mosaics of motives and vocal extremes: the Shevchenko poem, for instance, alternated between very low and very high, around an accompanying middle ground, and the last movement, too, placed the texts in (perhaps intentionally) vowel-distorting ranges. For both Cassandra and Borderland, the group used sheet music while its director, Brad Wells, conducted, which actually amplified more than alleviated cautious singing. The concert’s closing three works, by contrast, were Roomful of Teeth standards, performed from memory: Judd Greenstein’s Run Away, gorgeous, simple yet shifty pop harmonies filtered for maximum warmth; Wells’s Otherwise, an exercise in pushing vocal sounds to margins both rich and strident; and the “Allemande” from Caroline Shaw’s Partita, goofy and joyous—and still, I think, the single best demonstration of what the group can do, an extensive tour of the surroundings with an indefatigably, generously, genuinely enthusiastic guide.

***

In The Wicked + The Divine, the ongoing comic book series by writer Kieron Gillan and artist Jamie McKelvie, Cassandra is a journalist, casting questions and camera at the gods-reincarnated-as-pop-stars that are the book’s central mythological conceit. At the outset, the shallowness with which the celebrities inhabit their supposed divine roles fuels Cassandra’s skepticism into flame. “You know what I see?” she snaps. “Kids posturing with a Wikipedia summary’s understanding of myth.”

She’s wrong; they really are gods, with all the attendant powers and arrogance. But she’s also right; they are kids, become gods, with a very incomplete sense of who those gods are or what it all might mean. They are, in essence, existential tourists, trying on the airport version of a divine identity with the hopes that their visit will invest that identity with nuance and depth. And besides: it doesn’t matter. They are still worshipped. Their performances still matter. As the comic’s main, human character responds to one such performance: “I don’t understand a word she’s saying. Nobody does. All we know is that it means everything.” The great advantage musical tourism has over its physical counterpart might be that the terminal can be just as inspiring as the countryside.

Boston: A Fight for Love and Glory—Pipeline! at 25

Kudgel, at The Middle East Downstairs, Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 4, 2014.

Kudgel, at The Middle East Downstairs, Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 4, 2014.

Some rituals are abiding. Boxers touch gloves prior to the start of a bout. Dogs turn around before they lie down. And bands, at some point before they stop playing, direct your attention to the merchandise table.
Near the end of Crazy Alice’s set at The Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge on October 4—the band’s first performance in over a decade—the reflex kicked in. “If you guys want any Crazy Alice CDs,” lead singer Jeff Ahearn announced, “come over to my house, we’ll go down to the basement.” He grinned. “I got a shitload of ‘em.”

* * *

This fall, Pipeline!, the local rock-punk-indie showcase that airs weekly on WMBR, MIT’s student-run radio station, is offering a series of opportunities to rummage through old boxes of Boston rock and roll. The program’s playlists and in-studio live sets have long refracted a kind of Platonic ideal of college radio alt-rock through the transient prism of local bands. To celebrate its 25th anniversary, Bob Dubrow (host from 1993 until 2003) has organized no fewer than thirteen shows, a pageant history of the city’s underground rock scene. The most prominent feature of the shows—reunions, dozens of long-defunct local bands getting back together for one more blast—is a testament both to Pipeline’s years of advocacy and, in a more ironic way, to rock and roll’s penchant for attritional Darwinian churn.

The number of shows, and their organization, also demonstrates another rock penchant, categorical subdivision. Choose your stomping ground: mine was the October 4 show, circling (with a couple of outliers) the twin poles of post-punk and hard rock. Much of it was its own form of historically informed performance, a snapshot of a particular early-’90s aesthetic. Interestingly, I might instead have sampled the present: also that day, the Boston Music Awards were presenting a day-long event called “Sound of Our Town,” at a relatively new place (The Lawn on D, a prefab public green in Boston’s self-proclaimed Innovation District) and featuring a cross-section of current stars: Speedy Ortiz, Dutch ReBelle, Eli “Paperboy” Reed. Instead, my love of antiquity won out. But it did raise the question: what, exactly, does this town sound like?

This Pipeline show was heavy on the aforesaid reunions: not just Crazy Alice, but also noisy pioneers Kudgel, alt-fuzz purveyors Bulkhead, the pop-metal stylings of Orangutang. To close the evening, Nat Freedberg (better known around town as Lord Bendover, the rococo front man of novelty-rock act The Upper Crust) reassembled The Clamdiggers, his early, surreal surf-rock project. (To my everlasting sorrow, I am sure, I had to miss Orangutang and The Clamdiggers; Saturdays are work nights for me.)
Thus the subdivision contained further subdivisions. Crazy Alice’s punk-tinged power chords, tight, chugging, and chiming with distortion, was followed by Quintaine Americana: high-proof, southern-tinged heavy hard rock, lead singer Rob Dixon delivering gothic vignettes in a penetrating, snarling drawl. Kudgel was perhaps the most anticipated blast from the past, and a blast it was: gleeful, grinding howls of pop-punk—the so-called “chimp rock” that, along with fellow Boston band The Swirlies, the group invented. Singer/guitarist Mark Erdody hunched over his stand mic (a tortuous posture first adopted, according to Erdody, so he could sing and keep his eyes on the fretboard at the same time) and laced each number’s sing-song shouting with a childlike delight in the profane.

The minimalistic new music/jazz fusion of Birdsongs of the Mesozoic was the evening’s biggest contrast, quieter, precise, carefully arranged (everyone used music), intricately cool. Addressing the audience a little later, Dubrow acknowledged that the group was included as “a palate cleanser.” Still, the ensemble could claim appropriate lineage, having been started, many iterations ago, by Mission of Burma founder Roger Miller (not in attendance) and his one-time Moving Parts bandmate Erik Lindgren (still manning one of the two keyboards). And the group paid homage in their own way, at one point mashing up ex-Velvet Underground local hero Willie “Loco” Alexander’s “Basket Case” with the “Spring Rounds” from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Bulkhead, a quartet that ventured near alt-pop stardom in the ’90s, was a louder form of cool: a haze of feedback-laden hooks, lead singer Peter Ryan spinning out wordy rambles of lyrics.

If it wasn’t quite Boston rock royalty, it was at least a slice of the aristocracy, the landed gentry, as it were. But, even at that, there wasn’t much of a common, distinctive sound among the groups. Maybe there is no real sound of the town. Maybe the sound of Boston—a port town, after all—is the sound of whatever comes ashore that week, year, decade. Still, there was something of a shared quality. I will say this: Boston loves its exemplars—those acts that either are so singular as to make (and, sometimes, break) the mold, or that so fully embody a sound, or a genre, or an attitude, as to aspire to a kind of universal standard. On the former side was Kudgel’s self-proclaimed, happily confrontational chimp rock, or Birdsongs of the Mesozoic—classical, rock, and jazz thrown into a diner milkshake machine. On the latter was Crazy Alice, Quintaine Americana, and Bulkhead—pop-punk, southern rock, and left-end-of-the-dial alternative, respectively, all served neat.

* * *

For me, the concert was a pleasantly odd bit of temporal dislocation. I moved to Boston in 1994, in time to dive into the particular scene the evening’s bands largely evoked—hardcore and its similarly loud discontents, holding court at the Rathskeller or Harpers Ferry, those lost, louche temples of disorder. But 1994 was also right around when Kudgel broke up, and Bulkhead broke up, and Orangutang broke up. (Crazy Alice held on for a few more years.) So the experience was less nostalgic and more like opening up a time capsule. For sure, though, nostalgia was a big part of the evening. For once, a rock club audience actually skewed my age, or even a little older. Graying hair—or no hair—held sway on stage. A lot of the shout-outs were to the deceased. But there was no sentimentality; these were once and future punks, not inclined to go quietly, preferring to mosh against the dying of the light. Kudgel had spent one chorus hammering away at Willard Motley’s old mantra of hedonism: “Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse.” Most of the performers still seemed to be aiming for best-two-out-of-three.

If there was an honored ghost for the evening, it was Billy Ruane, the late, legend-in-his-own-time promoter, The Middle East’s longtime booking guru, a mad dervish of enthusiasm and a nucleation point for so much of the city’s rock-and-roll fizz over the past three decades. Every band offered posthumous fealty. A highlight of Birdsongs of the Mesozoic’s set was saxophonist Ken Field’s “Ruane,” a funky, unpredictable box of musical knives. Kudgel brought out their own icon: an old bass drum head, mounted on a stand and emblazoned with the words “Thank God for Billy Ruane.” It remained on stage for the rest of the evening.

If it made the whole experience feel a little bit like an Irish wake—for a colleague, for a period, for a scene—well, there are plenty of things worse than a good Irish wake. And besides: isn’t literature’s most famous Irish wake also an avant-garde expression of eternal renewal? Riverrun, past Harpers and the Rat, from swerve of railyard to Back of Bay: the Pipeline still flows.

Sounds Heard: The Things We Did [This] Summer

My vote for song of the summer (at least for this morning) comes courtesy of Boston-based pop omnivores Pulitzer Prize Fighter and their first single since their late-2012 EP, All Sweetness and Light. “Movies” ticks off all the boxes for a good summer song: a relentless hook, genial amounts of volume, sing-along lyrics proclaiming the merits of shrugging off thoughts of mortality by just doing stuff, a low-key, meandering haze of disposable leisure. Not least, it packages up some nice musical nostalgia, be it a sunny ’70s squall of parallel-harmony guitars, a cool, noir-ish pour of muted trumpet, or the comforting psychedelic worry of a fully diminished seventh chord. (Listen carefully, at the dominant pause just before the end of the bridge, and you can hear a lovely, chromatically descending keyboard decoration buried in the mix like some unexploded ordnance from the British Invasion.)


Summer music, for me anyway, tends to rise and fall on its leveraging of nostalgia, even more so now that actual summer vacation time is an increasingly distant memory. I’m already nostalgic for the beginning of this summer, when a lazy, sun-dappled respite was still a naïve possibility rather than an unattainable grail. In that spirit, here’s a handful of more recent local releases of varying retro commitment and/or critique.
BMOP Spratlan cover
Lewis Spratlan: Apollo and Daphne Variations; A Summer’s DayConcerto for Saxophone and Orchestra
Eliot Gattegno, saxophones
Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose, conductor
(BMOP/sound 1035)
Buy now:


Excerpt from Lewis Spratlan’s A Summer’s Day


Spratlan’s musical version of A Summer’s Day (2008), commissioned and premiered by BMOP, has the instant nostalgia of a strongly evoked, specific time and place. His “Pre-Dawn Nightmare” includes fragments of the theme song to The Sopranos; “At the Computer” evokes the sounds of an already-obsolete desktop machine. And the connective tissue of the piece, the folk-like tune presented at the outset (“Hymn to the Summer Solstice”), is a memory of summer romanticized into an abstraction. But the tune is repeatedly interrupted and contradicted; and Spratlan is more interested in reversing the usual polarity of such tone poems, taking trompe-l’oeil musical literalisms (and some flat-out literalisms, as with the rhythmically dribbled ball in “Pick-up Basketball Game at the Park”) and working them into a fluid, chromatic musical texture until they turn back into pure sound. (BMOP’s stylistic facility is a boon here, shifting effortlessly between limpid lushness and a more incisive, new music briskness.)
The Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra (well-assayed, on both soprano and tenor instruments, by saxophonist Eliot Gattegno) and the Apollo and Daphne Variations do something similar with nostalgic styles, the inevitable jazz references in the former, a deliberately Schumann-esque Romanticism in the latter. Three very different pieces, but all engaged in a rich dance between the memory of something, the actuality of the thing being remembered, and the persistent present that the memory can’t quite mask.
Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol: Whatsnext
(Dünya)


Buy now:
Download from Bandcamp


To be sure, only a couple of tracks on Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol’s big-band album, released this spring, directly traffic in nostalgia, and the nostalgia is pretty specific: “Kozan March” convincingly reimagines a Cypriot folk song as a Neal-Hefti-ish workout; “Gone Crazy: a Noir Fantasy” tosses out handfuls of noir signifiers, with some sirens and police whistles to boot. But much of the fizz of the album—which alternates between a 17-piece traditional band and a 13-piece ensemble that includes traditional Turkish instruments—is Sanlıkol’s use of various vintage sounds, from an eerily formal harpsichord on “Better Stay Home” to the pastoral warblings of a Turkish ney on “The Blue Soul of Turkoromero” to a pellucidly primeval analog synth lead on “N.O.H.A.”
And, anyway, Whatsnext is just superb summer music. Sanlıkol—Turkish-born, Berklee- and NEC-educated—slips Turkish sounds and ideas into a polished, modern big-band idiom with wrinkle-free ease. Relaxed and cool, it turns out, is a universal, cross-cultural virtue.
Neil Cicierega: Mouth Silence
Buy now:
Download available from the artist for a donation.


A good mash-up is a double-shot of impressive cleverness, making two disparate pieces of music play nice with one other. A great mash-up uses that superimposition to tap into some deep commonality across the genre spectrum. Somerville-based Neil Cicierega, though, has devoted 2014 to a style of mash-up even more outlandishly transcendent, as if tapping into a conspiracy theory explaining some alternate history of pop culture.

Like this spring’s Mouth Sounds Mouth Silence makes esoteric use of deliberately banal material, a churn of nostalgia refashioned into something resembling the soundtrack to a Hanna-Barbera adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel. Mouth Sounds— while positing the formerly annoyingly ubiquitous Smashmouth hit “All-Star” as the hidden key to four decades of pop-music history—repeatedly dredged up musical madeleines from the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, only to immediately undercut and profane them. Mouth Silence goes one step further, wreaking havoc on numerous songs that themselves capitalize on nostalgia in one way or another: “Crocodile Rock,” “Born to Run,” “Wonderwall.” REM’s “End of the World” and Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” end up in a Street Fighter match of boomer timelines; the good old dark days of Pokémon panic are re-animated into a golem-like stand-in for every fleetingly misunderstood fad. Cicierega’s mischief is so deep that even the moments that don’t quite mesh feel more like elusive clues for any would-be cultural Dale Cooper. And the 24:03 mark? We all go a little mad sometimes.
bso chamber players 1964 cover bso chamber players 1968 cover
Boston Symphony Chamber Players
Music by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Copland, Fine, Carter, and Piston (1964)
Music by Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, Poulenc, Colgrass, Villa-Lobos, Haieff, and Barber (1968)

(BSO Classics)
Buy now:
Download directly from the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Back in April, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, the BSO began re-releasing re-mastered editions of four recordings the group made for RCA in the 1960s. The bulk of the repertoire is Austro-Germanic bread and butter: Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart. But the recordings also included some then-contemporary repertoire, and the result is some prime Boston-School neo-classicism, in rich, time-capsule performances. On the first set, Aaron Copland’s Vitebsk gets a sharp, grim reading; Walter Piston’s 1946 Divertimento is vigorous fun. One of the century’s more notable collection of principal winds—including flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer and oboist Ralph Gomberg—takes on Elliott Carter’s 1948 Wind Quintet. The best is an exhilarating, athletic account of Irving Fine’s 1957 Fantasia for String Trio, with violinist Joseph Silverstein, violist Burton Fine, and cellist Jules Eskin (today the group’s sole remaining founding member).
Excerpt from Irving Fine’s Fantasia for String Trio


The second re-issue includes Gomberg and Sherman Walt on Alexei Haieff’s lean, light Three Bagatelles for oboe and bassoon, along with Burton Fine and Vic Firth on Michael Colgrass’s Variations for Four Drums and Viola. As a bonus, there is a previously unreleased live recording of Samuel Barber’s Summer Music, a truly excellent performance, as bright and cool and languid as a gin and tonic on the lawn.

Tanglewood: Sessions and Lessons on Successful Composition

Stefan Asbury leading the TMCO in Roger Sessions Concerto for Orchestra. Photo by Hilary Scott

Stefan Asbury leading the TMCO in Roger Sessions Concerto for Orchestra. Photo by Hilary Scott

It is essential that the company be a big one
It should be at least big enough
So that nobody knows exactly
What anyone else is doing

—Frank Loesser, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Monday of last week I was at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall, sitting in front of a chatty old lady. (The first rule of Tanglewood: you will always be sitting in front of a chatty old lady.) This was the final concert of the Festival of Contemporary Music (which I reviewed for the Boston Globe), and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and conductor Stefan Asbury kicked off the program with an old-school favorite of mine: Roger Sessions’s Concerto for Orchestra.

It was not a favorite of the lady behind me. This, in and of itself, is not that surprising. It was a great performance, but Sessions is an acquired taste (one that I am happy to have acquired). But it was the way she talked about it that caught my ear. “It’s not successful,” she kept saying, all through the changeover to the next piece. “It’s not a successful piece of music.”

I’ve probably heard (and used) a similar construction dozens of times, but she was so fixed on that terminology that it just started to sound weirder and weirder. It wasn’t successful. It’s an unsuccessful piece.
What does that even mean?

***

It was pretty clear what it meant in this specific case. She didn’t like it. She just wanted a more objective-sounding way of saying that. For all the criticism of the avant-garde modernist habit of deflecting personal responsibility by reference to some realm of impersonal, the-music-goes-where-it-has-to-go autonomy—here’s a handy example—it’s worth noting that the avant-garde’s discontents do the exact same thing. It’s the style that’s bankrupt; it’s the music that’s unsuccessful. (It’s not me; it’s you.)
So: is this piece successful? From a professional standpoint, Sessions’s Concerto was, in fact, a huge success. It was commissioned and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It got great reviews. The BSO recorded it, and the recording got great reviews. It won the Pulitzer Prize. But those are, perhaps, merely career-based externalities, and the buzzwordiness of that phrase is some indication that inherent musical quality is not its inevitable companion. These are the sort of markers that are easiest to dismiss (up to a point: everybody hates the Pulitzer Prize until one of their favorite composers wins the thing).

I think (I hope) I’ve been a little more specific with “successful” and “unsuccessful” when writing or talking about music, measuring it against some given goal: either a composer’s-note mission statement for the piece, or some sort of dramatic necessity, or some trajectory that the music seems to be implying so strongly that to abandon it would be perverse. But a lot of times, I am left in the dark as to those goals. When it comes to, say, a major work by an 85-year-old Roger Sessions, I tend to assume that the composer knew what he was doing, that what we’re hearing is what he intended us to hear. Not being exactly what one wants to hear seems like a pretty thin rationale for judging whether a piece of music succeeds or doesn’t.

The consensus of the group behind me seemed to be that the Concerto wasn’t flashy enough, that it didn’t justify its massive ensemble and its title with sufficient musical fireworks. To be fair, Sessions doesn’t have the generous glitter of that other BSO commission, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra—if that’s your benchmark, then the piece is going to seem unsuccessful. The question—an old one—is whether or not the listener has some responsibility to try and meet the music on its own terms.
My favorite part of the Sessions Concerto is about a third of the way through (starting at measure 126, if you’re the type to have a score lying around). The winds start to melt away, a couple of the horns fizz up their section with a few measures of stopped notes, and then a Largo section begins with about 45 seconds of nothing but the brass softly winding around each other then suddenly erupting into a brief flame. It’s like musical lava. I could pat myself on the back for enjoying what Sessions is doing at this moment, for getting it, but that’s false, too—the piece isn’t successful just because it’s unwittingly pandering to what I like any more than it’s unsuccessful for not pandering to someone else’s preferences. Still, I think there’s something valuable in getting out of your own way as a listener. I take the Concerto’s Gordon-Willis-photographs-the-Second-Viennese-School sound as something Sessions intended, and find that there’s a lot of beauty in that sound.

While I was out at Tanglewood, I gave a lecture to the Boston University Tanglewood Institute students about their following-weekend orchestra concert, which included Sibelius’s Pohjola’s Daughter and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade. While doing research for the talk, I ran across Rimsky-Korsakov’s wonderfully dry reaction (as reported by Stravinsky) to hearing Sibelius’s Second Symphony for the first time: “Well, I suppose that is also possible.” I decided to make it my mantra for the Festival, a little amulet of equanimity—the music might be good, it might be bad, but before anything, it is what it is, independent of what I wish it was. I still didn’t like every piece on the Festival. But I probably enjoyed the possibilities more than I might have otherwise.

***

Not long ago, I had a dream, part of which involved a fictional piece of music. (Another part involved Monty Python’s Flying Circus being filmed in northern New England, thanks, somehow, to an unsettled border dispute with Canada. Have at it, Jungians.) I don’t remember the (also fictional) composer or title, but I do remember that a recording and score of the piece came packaged with a very Jack Kirby-ish comic book, all far-out, cosmic pop mythology. The music itself was electronic, analog-synthesized nasality and ping, garnished with fashionable atonal and aleatoric features, but on a foundation that had the comfortable structure of a Hollywood soundtrack. The final section of the piece was a setting of a passage from some medieval, Vico-like bit of mysticism, the portentous narration filtered through some early version of a vocoder.

It was, in other words, just about the most late-’60s-America artifact one could possibly imagine. And that’s how it was perceived in the dream world, too. Everyone I was hanging out with in the dream—musicians all—knew the piece; it was one of those grad-school cult pieces, not part of the standard repertoire, but common knowledge among current and former composition students, say. In the dream, a lot of my friends were kind of rolling their eyes at the piece, at its cheesiness, its datedness, its lack of restraint. But that was just why I liked it, the fact that it was so over-saturated with its own zeitgeist.

I woke up and wondered how much American history you could map out this way—with pieces from the classical repertoire that were so much of their own time that they never really escaped it, either aesthetically or, in performance-frequency terms, literally. I didn’t get very far, to be honest. But I did realize one thing: any piece that fit these criteria was, by definition, on some level, unsuccessful.
But, as with that dream-world piece, that tends to have a lot to do with why I like them. The two strongest candidates I came up with—Marc Blitzstein’s Airborne Symphony for the 1940s and Philip Glass’s Songs from Liquid Days for the 1980s—are both pieces that I love. They’re also both pieces that, from one angle, are flawed and dated. But, from another angle, they’re pieces that bring to the fore ideas and aspects of music that more conventionally successful pieces never do.

Songs from Liquid Days is particularly rich in this regard. For those who might have missed it (still reeling, perhaps, from Boy George’s appearance on The A-Team), Songs from Liquid Days was a 1986 album for which Glass set texts by various pop/art-pop artists (Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson) then recruited a bunch of different pop artists (Janice Pendarvis, longtime Rolling Stones backup Bernard Fowler, Linda Ronstadt, The Roches) to sing the results. If that sounds like a mish-mash, well, it is. And my first reaction to something like “Changing Opinion,” the opening track—both when I first heard it and when I recently pulled the album out again—was that all those different contributions, all those agendas, pulled the piece in too many contrary directions.

Which is exactly what I found most compelling about it the second and third times around. Each of the components—the Wagnerian harmonies, the R&B vocals, the nouvelle vague realism/surrealism of the lyrics—is thrown back on itself by the others, until it’s concentrated and pure. The stylistic essences are amplified by the sheer incompatibility. Even its period-piece-ness is profound, tapping into aspects of the era that tend to get sanded away by the retro-culture industry. (“Liquid Days (Part I),” with The Roches warbling in close harmony, nails the antiseptic nostalgia that saturated the ’80s better than any other piece I can think of.)

Is that what the piece set out to do? Nevertheless, it’s what the piece does. Or (to exorcise that autonomous musical realm) it’s what I think it does. And I think it’s pretty successful at it.

***

sessions concerto title
A lot of people, I suppose, would call Sessions’s Concerto for Orchestra a period piece. I can hear something of that. I hear a particular, post war wing of the new-music establishment. I hear its late-’70s, early-’80s twilight. I hear the pre-World War II Vienna from which Sessions drew so much inspiration. But I also hear the years right around 1990—when I first got to know the piece in college. I listened to a lot of postwar atonal modernism in college. I listened to a lot of everything in college, mainly because I didn’t know a lot of it, and mainly because my musical taste was unformed enough that piling in additional, sometimes contradictory evidentiary material was still easy and fun, like filling a library rather than culling it.

Sessions’s Concerto was commissioned for the BSO’s centennial. He had also been commissioned for the BSO’s 75th anniversary, writing his Third Symphony—a big-canvas culmination of his first explorations of serialist techniques. Cyrus Durgin, then the critic for the Boston Globe, was, it is fair to say, dismayed by Sessions’s Third:

What, then, are we to think? Is this music or not? Time will tell, of course, and all writers about art have been proved wrong at one time or another. But this morning is now, and I will say I do not believe it is music, or if it is, here is music of a curiously masochistic and perverse variety. (“Sessions’ New Third Symphony,” Daily Boston Globe, December 7, 1957)

Give Durgin a little credit—he doesn’t make any pretense of lofty objectivity. This is what he thinks, at this particular time. But deciding whether or not something is a piece of music—that is some prime old-school criticism right there. In a post-tonal, post-serialist, post-Cagean, post-minimalist, post-modern atmosphere, that kind of statement has ceased to be useful, or even meaningful. Child of Tree might not be your cup of tea, but if John Cage, as disciplined a musician as there ever was, hears music in the prick of cactus needles, are you going to tell him he’s wrong? But I think that some people miss that sense of certainty. And I think that’s where a lot of that “successful/unsuccessful” type of critical terminology can start to creep in. I’ll confess: I miss it every once in a while, too.

One’s relationship with music is built up brick by brick, piece by piece, concert by concert, judgment by judgment. I like new music, which probably means that I have a higher tolerance than most for constantly demolishing and renovating that house of taste—which I sometimes think might be more of a sign of immaturity than anything: an 8-year-old’s glee at getting to pick up a sledgehammer and bash in the drywall of my own opinions.

Still, sometimes you just want to sit in your house. I sense this most when I go to a concert when I’m in a bad mood. (This is one consequence of our societal norm of putting concerts in the evening: you can fit in an entire crappy day before the first downbeat.) If I’m there in some professional capacity, that means extra work: talking myself into the possibility of an unexpected epiphany, tasking myself with finding some bit of the music worth praising, obsessively applying Cage’s prescription for boredom (“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen.”) to keep from completely retreating into a daydream. My job is to recognize that I’m in a bad mood and filter it out; to suppose that whatever I’m hearing is, also, possible.

And then, often times, the concert filters it out for me, and I find that my bad mood has dissipated. How do I know? I find that I’m suddenly more alert. I’m more expectant. I’m more in the present. In short: I’m ready to be proven wrong. And I can’t wait.
Success.

Boston: SICPP’s Love and Geometry

A cynocephalus, from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493).

A cynocephalus, from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493).

It was an angle of birds
directed toward
that latitude of iron and snow
advancing
relentlessly
along their rectilinear road:
with the devouring rectitude
of an evident arrow,
the airborne numbers voyaging
to procreate, formed
from imperative love and geometry.

—Pablo Neruda, “Migración”

I tend to assume that every concert, whether by conscious design or not, contains a coherent narrative of some kind. It might not be the most defensible assumption, but it is useful, to me at least; it gets me into a mode of listening that’s a little more engaged than it might otherwise be. That doesn’t mean the narrative is always plain, though. On paper, the June 17 concert presented by the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP, known to the faithful as “Sick Puppy”), part of the institute’s annual week of new music training, festivities, and shenanigans, made some piece-to-piece local connections but seemed more miscellaneous on a global scale. In performance, though, a theme kept peeking around the edges, hovering peripherally, receding but then coming back into view. It took me a while to get a sense of it; I’m still not sure I got it. But it concerned two concepts that I have long been obsessed with, and that have been more and more salient in recent times: civilization and citizenship.

* * *

Citizenship of a musical kind was prominent. SICPP director Stephen Drury led off with a trio of piano solo works—big and fingerbusting, all past and future beneficiaries of Drury’s committed advocacy. And the concert was SICPP’s most full-fledged (though, sadly, unplanned) memorial to Lee Hyla, who had been scheduled to be the institute’s composer-in-residence. Roger Reynolds stepped in after Hyla fell ill, and programs later in the week featured much of Reynolds’s music, but this concert was Hyla’s—three pieces interspersed with other music that, directly and indirectly, provided comment and complement.
Hyla’s art was that of a model musical citizen who, nonetheless, maintained a wary distance from the more civilized—or civilizing—aspects of music. The raison d’être of Basic Training is a celebration of citizenship: Drury asked Hyla to write it as a tribute to Drury’s teacher, Margaret Ott. The piece itself, though, is a furious, sometimes funny, but ultimately equivocal portrayal of civilization’s progress. From a single-note, deliberately clunky opening (“Neanderthal-like,” according to Hyla’s program note), the piece acquires and deploys increasingly frenetic technique—it’s learning, WarGames-style. (My favorite aspect was how Hyla’s facility with complicated, off-kilter rhythms recreates the kind of distortions that happen when you can almost play something, hesitations and tumbles turning into their own determined groove.) The music consumes itself in virtuosity, then melts into a simpler, orderly, triadic coda; but the triad is minor, and the return of that single opening note, now rounded and polished into a beautiful object, is suffused with melancholy.

Basic Training constructs a culture; John Zorn’s Carny pulverizes it. It is Zorn in his full-on, Carl-Stalling-cartoon-collage mode: not so much a piece as a hundred different pieces run together for maximum slapstick contrast. Quotations abound in motion-blurred plenitude; stylistic signifiers come and go with near-subliminal swiftness. Carny is one of Drury’s specialties (he was one of its dedicatees), and the initial effect was simple astonishment at his fierce precision and energy. But the single performer and instrument, perhaps, gives Carny, for all its information overload, a kind of narrative unity: a montage-based secret history of civilized culture. The piece delights in exposing just how thin the line is that separates comforting dichotomies: tonal and atonal, old and new, high and low—and, finally, comedy and horror. Carny is funny until it’s not, the nonstop cartoon violence turning suspiciously lifelike.

Zorn reaches his coda by way of an outburst of clusters that Drury has called a “nuclear holocaust…. Are we now paying dearly for the previous fun and games?” Drury provided one possible answer by making a segue directly from Zorn’s fade-out ending into Frederic Rzewski’s version of the anti-war spiritual “Down By the Riverside” from his North American Ballads. Rzewski portrays that most crucial responsibility of citizenship—righteous protest—as invitingly easy, then perhaps too easy, then hard-won and triumphant, but then, as the music dwindles away, exhausting as well. That, in turn, gave Hyla’s We Speak Etruscan the air of a cautionary tale. The title of Hyla’s 1994 duo for bass clarinet (Rane Moore) and baritone saxophone (Philipp Staeudlin) references a lost civilization and language; in this context, the music’s truly impressive channeling of the instruments’ capacity for guttural honking sounded like an apocalyptic klaxon, a drive-by warning to turn around before it’s too late. As with Basic Training, the tone was primarily funky and fiery, but shaded by passages of lyricism shot through with minor-mode regret. Part and parcel of the civilizing impulse, Hyla seemed to say, is a wistful nostalgia for anarchic wildness.

* * *

If the first half was all about civilization and its discontents, the concert’s second half opened in back-to-the-land fashion—or, maybe, under-the-land. Chaya Czernowin’s Wintersongs IV: Wounds/Mistletoe (a world premiere) was positively tectonic, slow-shifting, granitic textures heavy with friction. The 17-player ensemble (conducted by Drury) was pitched toward registral extremes, all low growls and high whines, with microtonal abrasions and lots of white noise: snares, cymbals, breath sounds from the winds and brass. Not all of Czernowin’s effects came off—having all the wind players whisper over the mouths of plastic and glass bottles, for instance, was a provocative visual but proved barely audible. But the piece arrived at some great, punishingly bright, skull-rattling sonorities. Like magma, Wintersongs IV moved slow but, eventually, burned hot.

Hyla’s Migración, one of his last pieces (it was premiered in February by the SICPP-affiliated Callithumpian Consort), seemed appropriately airy by comparison. The text is a long Pablo Neruda poem considering natural cycles, winter and spring, life and death. But a tension between the individual and the collective is ever-present. The migrating birds of the title are considered as a machine, a product of technology: “a squadron of feathers, / an ocean liner / fluttering in the air.” The “transparent ship / constructs unity from many wings.” Neruda’s “multiplied hungry heart,” in Hyla’s setting, becomes something like a crowd of strangers on the same ferry.

A mezzo-soprano (Thea Lobo) sings (and, at one point speaks) the text in an equable but relentlessly declamatory style, the nine-player ensemble (conducted, again, by Drury) quilting an accompaniment out of instrumental aphorisms. Neruda’s conflation of evolved and constructed has a timbral echo, an often-yoked trio of piano, harp, and cimbalom, feathery and discrete at the same time, a quiet purr of rivets. The trajectory of Migración felt less conventionally expressive than meditatively compulsory: a reflective commute rather than an adventurous voyage.

Like many a commute, Migración led into a teeming urban grid, Charles Ives’s Set for Theatre Orchestra, with even the ensemble arranged on stage as if by zoning committee: percussion on the north side, timpani on the south side, winds and strings ensconced on the east and west sides, the piano centrally parked. The middle movement, “In the Inn,” was saturated with volatile ragtime, anticipating and recapitulating that thread from Hyla and Zorn and Rzewski. And the third movement, “In the Night,” with the sound of extra instruments drifting in from offstage suburbs, was gorgeous. But it was the opening movement that resonated most with the second half’s town-and-country unease, and the program as a whole: “In the Cage,” brooding, stalking, its leopard in the zoo pacing its pen, and the boy outside wondering as to the nature and benefit of the civilizing bars.

* * *

Pablo Neruda himself had an attitude toward citizenship and civilization similar to Hyla’s, an acute sense of the gap between an artist’s individuality and an artistic movement within society. In a 1971 interview with Canadian radio, Neruda denied that he was a political poet:

I am the poet of the moon, I am the poet of the flowers, I am the poet of love. Meaning I have a very old conception of poetry, which does not contradict the possibility that I have written, and that I continue to write, poems that are dedicated to the development of society and to the power of progress and of peace.

In the end, the thread tying together the concert was that the music never contradicted the possibility, either. Civilization was regarded with skepticism, but still engaged with it energetically and even exultantly; the citizenship on display was constantly reaching out, expanding the network, reweaving the web. The evening’s music squared the circle of the contemporary avant-garde, how the often grim nature of the modern condition can yield such exuberant art, how encyclopedic determinations of style and craft can create the freest expression. The concert postulated its own conclusion—civilization is technique; citizenship is love.

Boston: Bromp Treb Busts the Matrix

Bromp Treb (Neil Young Cloaca) at Café Fixe, June 10, 2014. Photo by Susanna Bolle.

Bromp Treb (Neil Young Cloaca) at Café Fixe, June 10, 2014. Photo by Susanna Bolle.

The pre-concert chatter for Bromp Treb’s June 10 show at Brookline’s Café Fixe (another in the ever-copacetic coffeehouse performance series presented by Non-Event) was all about the crowd—more specifically, the lack thereof. Even given the post-commencement dissipation of the Boston area’s academic population, attendance was looking disappointingly lean. So Neil Young Cloaca, filmmaker and noisemaker, member of the Northampton-based noise quintet Fat Worm of Error, and the one-man band that is Bromp Treb, took his microphone outside and engaged in a little old-fashioned one-on-one promotion. His one successful negotiation—convincing a couple to take a flyer with the promise that they would only have to pay the $5 cover if they stayed for longer than five minutes—was pumped through the speakers inside, becoming the prelude to his set.

In retrospect, it was the perfect introduction. Cloaca, a once and occasional concert promoter himself, is an irrepressible showman. Bromp Treb is an opportunity for him to apply that carnival-barker enthusiasm to a table full of mismatched gear: effects pedals, mixers, a sampler, electronic drum pads, roto-tom, and cowbell. Contact microphones and bouquets of wire; bits of alligator-clipped metal. An electrified tin can. A brillo pad. Cloaca treats all this stuff as a source of caprice, admitting to one audience member that the configuration of the equipment is always changing. More than once during the sound check, Cloaca let out a delighted giggle at some unexpected sound.

The performance proper began with electronic sirens and stuttering static. Some irregular, repeated subbass growls set up a couple of agogo-bell-heavy percussion loops, sliced into each other with cowbell punctuation: an atom-smashed Carnival. The line between patch and glitch was obscured; overmodulated short-circuit pops were turned, via reverb, into makeshift percussion, Cloaca’s own voice was filtered and delayed into an asynchronous house of acoustic mirrors. Throughout, Cloaca’s performing persona was on hyperactive, spasmodic display, pirouetting, pouncing, gyrating, jerking, a cross between a malfunctioning Mick Jagger and a Beckett-like post-apocalyptic last man. During one long, sparse section, Cloaca circled the table, triggering highly distorted samples while playing up theatrical befuddlement, as if he was trying to decipher a recalcitrant machine—or defuse an eccentric bomb.

Much of the sound of Bromp Treb can be heard as either a critique or a celebration of the questionable level of control we have over our own gadgets: Cloaca’s weave of cables and equipment is one designed to exacerbate rather than minimize the instability of any such network. The brush of a live wire against a powered jack; the crackle and heavy breathing of radio frequency interference; the gasoline-and-matches feedback possibilities of too many microphones and criss-crossed inputs—Bromp Treb rushes in where conventional audio engineers would prefer not to tread. At several points, Cloaca simply lifted up a corner of the table and then dropped it back down, the set-up’s fragility yielding an amplified squeal and squelch. It is the sound of the technological web breaking down, failing, consuming itself and us.
The flailing is partly an illusion, especially from the musical end: the sounds might surprise, but Cloaca knows what he’s doing, shaping long arcs and judicious transitions from texture to texture. After some mid-set banter, Cloaca geared back up for another number, this one more noisy and busy than the first: cartoon-worthy sampled drum hits, off-balance, looped beats cutting in and out like intermittent radio signals, a final crescendo into an unorthodox, whooping rave. But the theatrical narrative was similar to the first half: someone discovering, commandeering, gradually losing control of, and finally seeming to merge with a cache of computer-age detritus.

What is most notable about Bromp Treb is how cheerful Cloaca manages to make all this, especially in comparison with the often clinical aura surrounding so much electronic music performance. There is, to be sure, a streak of anxiety in Cloaca’s theater, an acknowledgement, maybe, of the fact that it has become well-nigh impossible for us to extricate ourselves from our self-created technological realm. To use the appropriate reference: we have created a monster, more accurately, a horde of monsters, colonizing every aspect of day-to-day life. But with over-the-top physicality and deliberate unpredictability, Bromp Treb holds out hope that the monsters might end up as warped and goofy as we are: temperamental, volatile, unfathomable, but genially willing dance partners. It is the most optimistic electronic racket you’re likely to hear.

Oh, and that couple Cloaca coaxed in off the street? They paid the cover.

Let’s Get American About Our Music

Grunge ripped paper USA flag pattern
Back in April, an assortment of Cleveland-area composers banded together to register their outrage (via an open letter in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer) over the pronounced lack of American composers on the Cleveland Orchestra’s upcoming season programming. Following that, there was a detailed and articulate discussion on New York’s WQXR in which Naomi Lewin hosted headlining letter writer Keith Fitch along with New Music USA President Ed Harsh and forward-thinking Seattle Symphony Executive Director Simon Woods. There are multiple overlapping issues at stake here (now that American concert music can officially claim more than one century to its credit, all American music isn’t new music), but at the heart of this latest chapter of classical music brow-furrowing is the now familiar specter of the floundering major symphony orchestra that has long shadowed our culture pages and news feeds. Painting a picture of the precariously preserved edifice of the symphony à laDorian Gray has served its purposes, stirring up the perpetual debate over society, art, and relevance. But I would suggest that new music proponents are uniquely qualified to stop worrying about the Major Symphony Orchestra in favor of much more productive—and yes, more American—channels.

An easily made but generalized across-the-pond comparison casts us in an unfavorable light. European orchestras take a marked pride in their national tradition (e.g.: Sibelius in Finland; Britten, Tippett, and Vaughan Williams in the U.K.) that is notably absent in America. Are we being unpatriotic? We’re a comparatively adolescent country, and the American intelligentsia has been known to sustain a certain cultural inferiority complex. Yet we acknowledge that America is a place with possibilities that can’t be found in the old world. And what could be more old world than rigid hierarchies? The Cleveland Orchestra makes the news, in part, because it’s one of the original “Big Five.” (To the best of my ascertainment, the jury is currently out on the number of qualifying orchestras in today’s Big club, but Cleveland still holds a place of seniority.) The financial health and adaptability of our major orchestras are convenient barometers of the health of the classical music scene in this country because these institutions are our most observably active ties to the Western music tradition. Similarly, the attainment of major orchestra jobs can function as that rare quantifiable yardstick of professional success in a statistically slippery biz, the outcome of which spells number-crunched woe for music degree earners.

A brief detour into the territory of full disclosure: I gave up my vague conservatory-period goal of winning an orchestra audition pretty fast, after a number of audition failures compounded the frustratingly passive on-the-job experience of a section violist. Why obsess over how your Don Juan will be judged when there is so much more music to discover and create? So now I find myself—among other things—preparing for projects such as an alto trumpet and viola duo (my duo partner, the trumpeter/composer Jason Huffman, being the only person I know who embraces such a gloriously unwieldy combination) with the equally unwieldy organization I helped to shape, Boston’s Equilibrium Concert Series, as well as serving as writer/editor/marketing associate/all-around helper for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and attempting to explain all sorts of music in my own freelance program notes. Incidentally, I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading NewMusicBox Regional Editor Matthew Guerrieri’s take on Equilibrium and also his account of January’s BMOP concert. (The opening of the latter contains an especially witty commentary on the moldering-symphony-orchestra debate.)

So what’s an “orchestra project”? I’m not 100% sure myself, but I think I’m justified in asserting that the name accurately implies a sort of perpetual question mark, and definitely describes the open-ended repertoire list that is the group’s mission. “Orchestra Project” sounds strange because orchestras aren’t supposed to be works in progress—they’re supposed to be edifices, anchors, rooted in distinguished tradition and endowed in perpetuity. All this, while being simultaneously adventurous and discerning enough to select the finest candidates to continue the genre with equal respect to its European origins and current polyglot context. Add to this the responsibility of wooing the skeptical, culturally endangered modern masses, and no wonder we’re seeing the orchestral psyche’s equivalent of a mental breakdown all over the country.

Clearly, these are far-flung demands that no major orchestra would realistically hold itself to. Consider the risks that an established, pedigreed orchestra would undergo in pursuing a substantial palette of new music programming: It might captivate some yet bore other camps of audience members with diverse programming choices (and scare some off entirely with the uncertainty). It might go without the honor of occupying a front-and-center position in its home city, since new music isn’t hugely popular with the mainstream concertgoing public. It might give up the security that would allow it the luxury of drawing candidates from far and wide for an opening and then rejecting all of them. That’s a lot of uncertainty to try to mix into a basically predictable tradition.

But you don’t have to shift your gaze very far to get away from the “what ifs” and watch these kinds of uncertainties play themselves out elsewhere. BMOP programs a ton of music that’s either new, American, or both, and still rakes in accolades. Yes, the orchestra is untenured and the programming is erratic, but it gives very little cause to grouch about staying inside the box, from any perspective. As it happens, BMOP’s most recent concert was not a dashing statement of the avant-garde; it was about as infused with Americana as it gets, with three fairly conservative mid-century composers with admirable chops and legacies. For those interested in pedagogical family trees, Irving Fine, Harold Shapero, and Arthur Berger are three of our own Bostonian branches. They wrote music that managed to be erudite, rigorous, whimsical (Fine mined Alice in Wonderland decades before David Del Tredici), and joyfully heady in a way that only an orchestra can deliver. It’s demonstratively different fare from the premieres that comprised January’s concert and that generally pepper BMOP’s seasons, but that’s the thing about the new music/American music call to arms: a whole orchestra and years of programming are needed to offer anything even beginning to resemble a full picture. And a riotous body of repertoire can perhaps only be done justice through equally intrepid judgment calls; here’s where someone like Gil Rose can achieve the sort of self-motivated passionate leadership made possible through exhaustive knowledge of every aspect of the organization—how many conductors can claim that kind of commitment? If major orchestras are quite possibly not the best equipped to handle this unruly and momentous task, why not consider them as accessories to the act of new music-making rather than responsible parties?

OK, so I just held up one kooky orchestra zealously devoted to a far-flung repertoire. What else is in the American orchestral rep diet? Here’s something from a different sphere of my local orchestral life: a couple weeks ago I had a wonderful time hearing my colleagues’ wildly (and deservedly) buzzed-about chamber orchestra A Far Cry in the Gardner Museum’s sleek new Calderwood Hall in a program that—although conceived around an entirely different concept—was four-fifths American music: Charles Ives and Ingram Marshall, plus two commissions—from toy piano maven Phyllis Chen and local mad genius Ethan Wood. (Mendelssohn popped up too, not entirely incongruously.) AFC is young, idealistically cooperative, comparatively broke, and ambitious, sustaining itself in large part upon its popularity; yet this sort of programming is a key part of their hipness. What could be more American than a democratic orchestra with the popular vote, playing American music? But let’s get back to the traditional symphony orchestra. So how about another local group (established 1976), the New England Philharmonic? Their last concert, a pretty par-for-the-course program, featured Gunther Schuller, David Rakowski, and Roy Harris along with a Prokofiev symphony. NEP is a non-professional group so, no, you won’t see their passionate contract negotiations in the news. But “community orchestra” is more than a euphemism for “unpaid.” NEP literally maintains quite a large community of composers who interact with the orchestra to bring their music to the stage, along with not only audience members who want to hear the music, but musicians who choose to devote their limited hours of music-making to its execution.

Yes, I seem to be proving that I live in a bubble of culture blessed with a saturation of musical adventurers. But while there are piles of ASCAP Adventurous Programming Award plaques sitting around the BMOP office, a survey of ASCAP’s past and current awardees presents a wealth of competitors from cities large and small from every corner of the country. BMOP shares John S. Edwards laureate status with the American Composers Orchestra as well as Alabama, Albany, Cabrillo, Minnesota, South Dakota…the lists go on to include orchestras of lofty and lowly stature, student orchestras and regional orchestras, as well as the occasional heavy hitter. And going back to my own circle of acquaintanceship: if I also follow my colleagues’ entrepreneurial exploits in Chicago, Atlanta, and the San Francisco Bay Area, it seems facile to place too much credence in my own bubble.
Oh, yes, I haven’t mentioned my city’s own bona-fide prestigious Symphony Orchestra. I could talk about how the performances of work by Marc Neikrug, Osvaldo Golijov, and Bernard Rands I’ve seen this season at the BSO were received with sincere ovations, or about how I’m looking forward to Tanglewood’s 2014 Festival of Contemporary Music (for which I’ll be contributing some program annotations). I think the BSO is totally great. But my musical life is far-reaching enough that I’d really rather talk about other things. Do we really have to worry about whether symphony orchestras are doing their job as the headlining ambassadors of music and culture? The ambassadoring act isn’t what it used to be. We’re not going to go back to the days of Leonard Bernstein broadcasts (that’s why they’re being marketed as “historic broadcasts”), but there are more people than ever out there committed to getting new music into the world.

I’d love to direct anyone seeking any closing samples of composerly wisdom back a few decades, to this 1988 interview with Harold Shapero. Much of it still seems pretty timely (and being a wise-ass never goes out of style). One of the things he says is, “That’s one of the advantages of wonderful America. You have unequalled opportunity, but it’s just curious.” We might just still live in a place of curious opportunity, or at least opportunity for the curious.

Without a doubt, major orchestras have a cultural job to do, and there will be more soul-searching, reinvention, and growing pains in that corner as the 21st century marches on. But it’s time for new music advocates to stop standing on the sidelines and wringing their hands. Please, let’s be Americans and ditch the elitism and figure out how to make our music happen wherever it’s welcome.

***

Zoe Kemmerling. Photo by Kait Moreno.

Zoe Kemmerling. Photo by Kait Moreno.

Zoe Kemmerling is a native Californian who is pursuing an eclectic musical career as a violist, Baroque violinist, writer, and administrator in Boston. She is an enthusiastic performer of contemporary chamber music, violist in the period-instrument Emergence Quartet, and freelance provider of witty and insightful program notes, as well as past Executive Director of Equilibrium Concert Series and present Publications Associate at the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.