Tag: children

Chicago: Relearning to Listen–New Piano Music for Children

Joann Cho

Joann Cho

For her most recent commissioning project, composer and pianist Joann Cho invited a large group of composers to write a solo piano piece for her. The restrictions for the commissions were fairly simple: each piece needed to be between one and three minutes long, and use the keys of the piano rather than the inside. Most importantly, Cho asked the composers to compose their piece “for children.” The resulting volume of seventeen pieces — called Elaeth Songs in honor of Cho’s infant son -– will have its premiere this Friday at the Chicago Cultural Center. Appropriately, Elaeth Songs will be presented by the Chicago Cultural Center’s Juicebox series, which has the unusual mission of presenting cutting-edge contemporary art in a toddler-friendly setting.

When I heard about Cho’s project, I was moved by the idea of commemorating the birth of a child with a set of commissions. I thought about Bartok’s beautiful set of pedagogical piano pieces for children, Mikrokosmos, and the many other ways that music for children has manifested itself in our art form. I chatted with Cho from the Oak Park home she shares with baby Elaeth and her husband, composer Jonathon Kirk. She was making final preparations for the performance and looking forward to the September release of the Elaeth Songs recording.

How did you initially frame this call for children’s pieces, and how did the composers respond?

I asked composers who had strong compositional identities, many of whom I knew personally. Although at first the project was a little amorphous, when I presented the idea to the composers, they were all very receptive. The restriction of writing for children is a fun idea. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything — you don’t have to change the way you’d compose a piece of music. Some people did [alter their usual language], and some people didn’t. Everyone took something slightly different away from what I asked them to do.

Could you highlight some of the pieces, perhaps ones that had a particularly interesting take on this prompt?

Although I asked for solo piano pieces only, I did have one composer ignore me. And it’s beautiful! The Belgian composer Thomas Smetryns has written a piece that is accompanied by a recording of Swiss cowbells. He wrote a piece that is completely open notation. He’s creating timbres on the piano that are bell-like, combined with the bells of the recording.

My advisor and main teacher at UC-Santa Barbara, Clarence Barlow, wrote me a piece that’s probably one of the more unique pieces in the bunch. Clarence loves to use extramusical ideas, and since Elaeth is half Korean, he started with four traditional folk tunes for children — “Rockabye Baby,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and two traditional Korean children’s tunes. He ends up creating two hybrid melodies throughout, combining the American and the Korean folk tunes. You get this sense throughout the piece where you recognize small motives and phrases from your childhood — you have this strange experience listening to it, exactly because of the juxtaposition.

I understand that Elaeth’s father, Jonathon Kirk, and his grandmother, Linda Kirk, wrote pieces for the collection!

Yes! And Jonathon wrote his piece, Fireflies, before I even prompted him. We were listening to one of Bach’s chorale preludes in the nursery, and Elaeth fell asleep. It’s this beautiful, slow, stately melody. Jonathon was listening to it — and falling asleep himself — and he got the inspiration to use this melody as a basis for his piece. It’s sort of structured like a theme and variations — he has one part in the style of Ligeti, once with a jazz harmonic progression. He places the melody in eight or so different contexts, with these nice transitions between each iteration of the melody.
Elaeth was born into a family and a world of composersI love the fact that I can include works by Elaeth’s closest family members. Jonathon and I are both musicians — we both started out as performers and began composing, we met in music school — so it’s a natural progression for Jonathon to have written a piece for him.

What a lovely family moment to have as a jumping-off point for a piece.

Anytime something like that would happen, we’d have to write it down for the scrapbook. It’s still like that. It’s amazing with a baby how you really notice those moments of calm and quiet. The moment they fall asleep, you finally see things, and you wake up for the first time — you notice.

The concept of time as a series of moments seems particularly important in a set of miniatures – and also in the experience of parenthood.

One thing that I have learned is that I really value time — my time with Elaeth, and also my time alone. All these little ways of compartmentalizing time in my life are really different than before he arrived, and I think doing a project like this also really reminded me that music is something that can transcend that feeling of having less time or more time. You can experience music apart from time.

Did the prompt to write children’s music seem to bring out anything special from the composers you chose?

I think it forced the composers to reflect on their own artistic and creative ideas in a way they hadn’t thought about in a while. Instead of trying to do something new, a lot of them reached into their previous experience. They imagined what they’d want to listen to in its purest form, from a child’s perspective. I don’t see any techniques here that are trying to be something they’re not. The composers worked with elements like harmony and rhythm — these things that we often overly complicate – in a pure and basic way. It reminded me of how children experience harmony and rhythm and form.
Every single piece that I received is completely unique. I was shocked at the diversity of the pieces I received. Even looking at the lullabies – I got several — each one is completely different from the last. These composers, who have established their careers, style, and sound, still have the ability to write a piece, listen to it, and experience the music exactly the way music is experienced by children.

What was the process of preparing these pieces like?

It felt like I was learning how to listen to myself play again for the first time. It was a rediscovery of using my ears to discern how I wanted to play some of these pieces. I was not practicing based on conveying a performance, but with a lot more thoughtful reflection on the music itself.
I was playing a lot for Elaeth — he’s amazing; he responds to all kinds of music — but it’s hilarious because sometimes I’ll play a lullaby. Scott Scharf wrote me this high, ethereal, floaty lullaby and Elaeth started dancing and screaming to it. You never know what kind of effect this type of music will have. I’m not necessarily running the pieces by him, but they were meant to be listened to by him.

Right! How do you imagine this collection, which is kind of a gift to him as well as to yourself, landing with him when he’s old enough to understand?

Actually, my plan is to do this again several more times — not necessarily with the same prompt, but to work with other chamber ensembles and continue to write new music for children. My biggest goal with this project, and doing another volume, would be to allow listeners of new music to be introduced to it without the idea of having to analyze the music. To sort of learn a perspective — not to be afraid of it because it’s in the contemporary classical idiom.

It sounds like your vision for this project expands well beyond what it means for your own family.

I’ve always wanted to include more people in the world where I studied music. I was so inspired at Northwestern when I took my first experimental music class, when we learned about content, and techniques, and zooming in. The course prioritized not only things that were new and edgy and avant-garde, but also an idea of inclusiveness. I’m not saying all contemporary music has to be accessible, or like mainstream popular music. But the first step towards getting to know something is lots of exposure.

Teaching at a community college, I notice now that students are only exposed to what they choose to get exposed to. And people like me are responsible for being advocates. To be exclusive as a contemporary musician or composer seems to me very much against the ideals of the whole reason why we got into it. The idea of including children, including newcomers to this music, is an important concept that’s close to my heart.

Sounds Heard (Historical Edition): Henry Brant—Young People’s Records

In Montreal during the First World War years there were various kinds of music. The place where my family was living was out in the sticks and it didn’t even have sidewalks. It had houses that sort of stood in mud flats. Across the field was a military school; they blew their bugle calls morning and night. I couldn’t have been very old because I was in a baby carriage bundled up and I was put on the porch. I remember seeing the sun go down. Nobody told me this stuff. I told the adults. I heard the bugle calls. I looked forward to them every day.
—Henry Brant, 2002

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This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer Henry Brant. There was something invigorating about the diversity of Brant’s careers: the teenaged acolyte of Charles Ives and Henry Cowell; the expert professional arranger and orchestrator for radio and film; the omnivorous devotee of musical styles both esoteric and popular; the merry, prolific guru of spatial music. But there is one other corner of his catalog that doesn’t get mentioned much: his music for children. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Brant wrote three original scores for records produced by Young People’s Records and its successor, the Children’s Record Guild. (He also arranged music for releases by singer and educator Charity Bailey, and probably had some part in the music for what was one of the Guild’s more beloved records, an adaptation of Ruth Krauss’s book The Carrot Seed.)

Young People’s Records was the brainchild of Horace Grenell, a Juilliard-educated pianist, record producer, and entrepreneur in New York. Grenell’s musical efforts were wide-ranging and restless. He was, for a time, chairman of the music department at Sarah Lawrence College; he had a stint conducting the leftist, pro-union Jefferson School choir; he was connected to the folk revival of the 1940s, alongside such figures as Pete Seeger and Tom Glazer.
The Children's Record Guild
By the late 1940s, most of the major record labels had jumped on the children’s record bandwagon—”kidisks,” in trade parlance—some of them backed by serious talent. (Composers Paul Creston and Alec Wilder, for instance, wrote scores for children’s records; Capitol Records released a series of such records with music by the noted bandleader Billy May, the best being the ingenious Rusty in Orchestraville.) But the Young People’s Records label was unusual. They operated under a subscription model, mailing subscribers a new record every month, an innovation in the recording industry; by the early 1950s, according to one report, the number of subscribers exceeded a million. The records Grenell produced were sophisticated and progressive. In 1947, YPR recorded Jazz Band, putting jazz on the same music-appreciation footing as classical, and recruiting Teddy Wilson’s quintet (with Buck Clayton on trumpet) to provide the music. Seeger and, especially, Glazer would feature on numerous YPR releases. Folksinger and broadcaster Oscar Brand recorded a series of folksong collections. Walter Hendl—then the associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic—led samplers of music by Stravinsky and Copland. YPR got Groucho Marx into the studio for an anti-bullying tale called The Funniest Song in the World. At its height, Young People’s Records was turning out, in the best sense of the word, some of the hippest children’s records ever made.

Brant’s first YPR effort was based on his prowess on the tin whistle, a skill that landed him occasional performing work in radio and film. Penny Whistle, based on a story by Erick Berry and narrated by legendary voice-over artist Norman Rose, tells the tale of a child who can only play one note on that instrument; his mother sends him out of the house to play, and each of his encounters with a variety of sounds along his way—a truck horn, a bullfrog, a cricket, etc.—adds another note to his repertoire, until he has an entire diatonic scale, which he proudly demonstrates to his mother. “After that,” Rose adds, “he found a big string of new notes, and played all kinds of tunes on his penny whistle”—a cue for Brant to do a little showing off:

Penny Whistle is charming, in its bare-bones way. Brant’s other two YPR projects were more elaborate. Kitchen Music spends its first side talking kids through the construction of a few homemade instruments: how to tune water glasses and pop bottles, how to make a tin-can string bass. Flip the record over, and there’s a mini-suite by Brant that wrings a lot more music out of household artifacts than might be expected. (This was right up Brant’s alley; he had, as a child, written some of his first music for such DIY instruments and had revisited the idea in his Music for a Five and Dime Store, which surrounded a piano and violin with a small clutch of percussive cutlery and glass.) A nifty, bouncy “March” is followed by “Swinging,” which puts some vaguely modernist chromatic parallel harmonies into waltz time. The finale, “Jumping,” puts Brant’s bright jazzy sense on display:

The dish rack qualities of Kitchen Music may have inspired Brant’s third album. The Lonesome House was conceived by Douglas Moore, the opera composer whose greatest hit, The Ballad of Baby Doe, was still several years in the future. (Moore had been associated with YPR from its earliest days; his children’s opera treatments of Puss in Boots and The Emperor’s New Clothes, for instance, were both YPR commissions.) Moore wrote the libretto with Brant in mind as the composer; the story wonders what a house does when its inhabitants are away, along the way encouraging a Cagean appreciation of everyday sounds—a dripping faucet, a hissing radiator, a squeaky shutter. The brilliance of Brant’s score is that none of these are illustrated with standard sound effects. Rather, Brant deploys a pair of flutes, a pair of double basses, and a pair of pianists—armed with a full array of preparations, inside-the-piano glissandi and pizzicato, and buzzing, scraping bass strings—to provide evocative imitations. Like Kitchen Music, the music coalesces on the second side, as the house puts on a concert for itself:

The Lonesome House was ultimately issued by the Children’s Record Guild, a label Grenell developed for Greystone Press (a direct marketing publishing company) after a falling out with the ownership of the Young People’s Records. In the meantime, YPR had become ensnared in one of America’s great this-is-why-we-can’t-have-nice-cultural-things spasms, the Red Scare of the late ’40s and early ’50s. As early as 1947, Walter S. Steele, anti-communist publisher and pundit, was telling the House Un-American Activities Committee that the label was “exploited by the Communists.” By 1948, the California Senate Fact-Finding Committee On Un-American Activities was calling YPR a Communist front organization—”The Communist Party does not overlook the indoctrination of children. The Communist book stores recently have been handing out folders advertising Young People’s Records”—which was enough to land it on the HUAC Guide to Subversive Organizations three years later. Red Channels, the infamous one-stop-shopping blacklist of entertainment professionals published by the newsletter Counterattack in 1950, included a host of names common to YPR credits: Grenell, Seeger, Glazer, Brand. (They were in good musical company: Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Aaron Copland, and Artie Shaw were also listed in Red Channels.)

With libraries and schools boycotting the McCarthy-bruised YPR, the company soon recombined with its successor, CRG. Most of the YPR records were re-issued by CRG, but a few—including Kitchen Music—were not. (David Bonner, whose book Revolutionizing Children’s Records is the standard history of the YPR/CRG enterprise, speculates that the master recordings had deteriorated too much in the interim.) That’s probably why Brant published the score to Kitchen Music. But the others remain unpublished, the recordings long out of print.

The Lonesome House, especially, seems unjustly forgotten. It’s one of the few children’s records that not only understands a child’s point of view, but actually privileges it over that of adults—Brant’s avant-garde extended-technique enthusiasm is childlike not in the adult-vantage, simplistic way, but in the complex, intricate, far-out fashion of actual childhood imagination. “Awaken your child to music,” the YPR logo suggested. Brant was an ideal alarm clock, himself always happy to discover a new musical day.
Thanks to David Bonner, Peter Muldavin, and Kathy Wilkowski for help with this article.

New Music for New Ears

Our bows hovered in stillness for as long as the ethereal, haunting feeling of Marcos Balter’s Vision Mantra lingered in the air.  Slowly lowering our arms, the audience began to applaud, and then—the moment of truth—we broke down that fourth wall that formalizes the relationship between listeners and performers and asked the audience what they heard in Balter’s piece.  At first, no one spoke.  My body tensed as I thought, Oh no, they didn’t get it.  And then, with a confident air of nonchalance, a three year old in the second row raised her hand.  “Bumblebees!” she announced.  “Yes!!” we agreed.  We had joked in rehearsal about how the piece, with its pianissimo tremolos, did indeed resemble some sort of insect mating call.  A few seconds later, a parent in the back tentatively spoke up.  “Yellowstone,”  she volunteered, explaining that her family had gone on vacation there a few years ago and the sounds in the piece reminded her of the beauty of the national park.  Now that the ice was broken, kids and parents alike became more and more eager to share what they heard.  “Wind chimes!” offered a nine year old.  All the adults in the room oohed and aahed in agreement.  After the concert, we asked several kids what their favorite piece was.  Out of Haydn, Borodin, and Balter, all chose Balter.  Note to self, we all thought, we should always program new music on kiddie concerts

A performance of Marcos Balter’s Vision Mantra

A performance of Marcos Balter’s Vision Mantra

I have often noticed that kids have a greater attention span and much more curiosity about classical music than adults give them credit for.  Performing this outreach concert at the Music Institute of Chicago not only confirmed my hunch, it also convinced me that children are incredibly open-minded and receptive to challenging music, not just the fluff on the “Mozart for Kids” CDs (What’s that?  It will raise my child’s IQ??  I must buy it!).  Furthermore, a child’s interest in a particular kind of music can influence their parents’ perspective.  If that three year old, sitting on her papa’s lap, hadn’t made it known that she knew exactly what kinds of sounds Marcos Balter had been envisioning in his piece, the other adults in the room may not have thought up their own imaginative responses.  In this case, the children inspired their parents to look at the concert experience in a more creative way, as opposed to the stiff and formal way adults have been programmed to think of classical concerts.

It’s exactly these thoughts that the City of Chicago’s recently appointed deputy commissioner for arts programming also seems to share.  Angel Ysaguirre, formerly the director of Boeing’s global community investing, joined the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events just about a year ago, and is the driving force behind a new series at the Chicago Cultural Center.  The Cultural Center already presents a multitude of free concerts for the public several days a week.  Come February, they will begin offering a new series with a somewhat unprecedented concept.  Its target audience is—wait for it—toddlers.  And the gist of the so-called Juicebox series is to present high-quality avant-garde arts programming of all kinds—new music (both contemporary classical and jazz), theater and puppetry, and modern dance.  Starting February 1, and continuing every two weeks at 10 a.m. on Fridays, the performance space under the Cultural Center’s beautiful Tiffany Dome will be transformed into, well, something that probably will resemble a preschool classroom.  Kids will be invited to sit, lay on the floor, or, according to the folks from the Cultural Center, “roaming around the room is totally cool with us.”  With snacks and juiceboxes on hand, they will have the opportunity to experience an art form that most parents would never think to introduce their kids to because they assume it’s just too difficult to understand.  Parents and grandparents will be encouraged to bring their toddlers, and preschools will be invited to bring in entire classrooms.  Lucky for me, I’ll have the honor of observing the small listeners from a very special perspective when my quartet performs on the series next month.

The way Ysaguirre sees it, children don’t really develop their own preferences for art and music until after they turn 8 or 9, and at that point, their tastes are shaped by their surroundings and social environment.  For instance, if eight-year-old Mary’s older sister is always blasting the Jonas Brothers from her room and their parents think classical music is boring, Mary will probably develop a taste for pop music and have no interest in ever going to a symphony concert.  This concept is reflected in several research studies, all based on David Hargreaves’s “open-earedness” theory.  Hargreaves’s hypothesis—and the conclusions of most of these studies—states that the younger a child is, the more open-minded she is to unfamiliar music.  Furthermore, if children are not exposed to unfamiliar music early in life, they are significantly less likely to respond positively to it the older they become.  The age that their open-earedness disappears seems to be, at latest, nine years old.  Ysaguirre’s hope is that by offering the Juicebox concerts, he can help shape kids’ preferences and give them a taste for new music, a taste that they will not lose because they were exposed to it during a crucial time in their development.  Ysaguirre has witnessed for himself that, contrary to popular belief, kids actually enjoy listening to highly complex music just as much as simple music.  Besides, avant-garde music, theater, and dance are adventurous, just like kids are.  And unlike adults, kids are content to let the experience of a piece of music or dance wash over them, thinking about how it makes them feel, rather than searching for narrative or meaning within the work.

Miss “Bumblebees!” checks out the cello at an instrument petting zoo after the show.

Miss “Bumblebees!” checks out the cello at an instrument petting zoo after the show.

This idea that young children enjoy complex music is something I also heard from Germany-based clarinetist Sacha Rattle, who performed in an avant-garde production of Little Red Riding Hood set to music by Georges Aphergis through National Theater Mannheim’s Children’s Opera.  When four and five year olds were asked what they thought of the production, their reactions were overwhelmingly positive.  In fact, they didn’t even seem to notice the fact that the music was microtonal; they were mostly just psyched about how loud it was.  One child even likened the production to The Magic Flute, which he had seen the week before and had enjoyed just as much.  The difference in open-mindedness was huge, however, when older kids came to the theater.  The fifteen year olds, in particular, couldn’t stand the production.  According to Rattle, the story was too childish for them but the humor was too complex, and they despised Aphergis’s music.  One group even jeered that the musicians must not know how to play their instruments.  Rattle said that, more than anything, the whole experience taught him about people’s perception of new music, and more importantly, “how it should be, and could be perceived.”
As music and arts programs continually seem to be cut from school curriculums, it becomes ever more important to make sure that kids are exposed to the arts so that they remain as open-minded at fifteen as they were at five.  While the Tubby the Tuba CD is certainly one tool when it comes to teaching kids about classical music, could it be that we’re underestimating children?  When we assume they wouldn’t like or understand a challenging piece of music, we don’t even give them a chance.  As Angel Ysaguirre told me, investing in the contemporary version of an art form is what keeps the arts exciting and relevant.  Likewise, investing in new music is a way of perpetuating classical music in general.  This being the case, why on earth wouldn’t we want to expose kids to new, exciting, adventurous forms of art, while they’re just starting to develop their own tastes and perceptions?

When Ysaguirre shared with me a bit about his own introduction to classical music, I learned that it wasn’t Brahms or Beethoven that first drew his attention, it was a performance of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha.  He is well aware that for him, new music was an introduction to classical music as a whole, and it is this experience that he is hoping to invoke in the young children that attend a Juicebox performance.  One of his main priorities is to provide the highest quality programming by bringing in the best artists in Chicago.  The lineup this spring will include free performances by the Spektral Quartet, Chicago Q Ensemble, RE|Dance, Jim Gailloretto’s Jazz String Quintet, Jeff Parker, and Jason Adasiewicz with Frank Rosaly, among others.  And beginning in April, Juicebox will expand from the Cultural Center to partner with the Chicago Park District in providing additional avant-garde performances in unlikely locations around many Chicago neighborhoods.

Just as I was thrilled by the realization that the kids at my outreach concert had fallen for the sounds of Marcos Balter, I can hardly wait to see the reactions of the toddlers who come to the Juicebox Series at the Chicago Cultural Center.  At the very least, the series will expose children and their parents to some crazy and exciting performances in a uniquely kid-friendly setting.  At most, the Juicebox series has the potential to turn a few of today’s toddlers into tomorrow’s contemporary art patrons.  Who knows, this might just be the first step towards creating a generation of young people who recognize the importance of keeping the arts alive and relevant, and who will one day grow up to become the new music advocates of the future.


Sara Sitzer

Sara Sitzer
Photo by Julisa Fusté

Sara Sitzer is a freelance cellist in Chicago. A member of string quartet Chicago Q Ensemble and the Elgin Symphony, she also performs regularly with the Milwaukee Symphony and the Firebird Chamber Orchestra in Miami. Sitzer is founding artistic director of the Gesher Music Festival of Emerging Artists in St. Louis.
She holds performance degrees from the University of Wisconsin and Boston University, and completed a three-year fellowship with the New World Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.