Tag: concert presentation

Daniel Wohl: The Seamless Ideal

Daniel Wohl

Composers often pick up nearly unshakable identifiers in the press that follow them like a tagline. For Daniel Wohl, that call-out has been praise for the remarkably seamless integration of the acoustic and electronic timbres that thread his compositions. It’s a talent that generated significant buzz after the 2013 release of his album Corps Exquis, and it’s a modifier that will likely only cling more tightly in the wake of his full-length follow-up Holographic.

Which is all well and good since it is remarkable. Wohl says that while some artists make use of placing these sounds in opposition, they’re all just sounds to his ear, without distinction. It’s a way of working that comes naturally and simply offers him an enhanced palette that he finds more engaging.

“I feel like a lot of things are born out of being dissatisfied with something,” Wohl acknowledges, further explaining that electronics make acoustic instrumentation more exciting to him, while instrumentalists add vital energy, especially in live performance situations. “And so why not [use all of them]? You can do all of that today, so it doesn’t make sense for me to have arbitrary distinctions between the two.”

In an age of boundary dismantling, this sounds entirely sensible, but the distinctions he makes between live and recorded performance is equally compelling. Taking the album version of Holographic as an example, several of the works were created independently for live performance. These and the other pieces included on the disc were later recorded by a range of (often their commissioning) ensembles—Iktus Percussion, Mivos Quartet, Bang on a Can All-Stars, Olga Bell and Caroline Shaw, and Mantra Percussion. (Lucky Dragons even pops up with a writing credit on the closing track.)

Holographic is an album and live performance co-commissioned by Baryshnikov Arts Center, MASS MoCA, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The album was released by New Amsterdam Records.

“When I’m writing commissioned works, I definitely think about the album as well,” Wohl admits. “I think the album is a great way to bring it all together,” allowing each work to have a longer and more polished life and to be heard by a much larger group of people. “For me that feels like a very comfortable place for what I’m doing because the studio becomes an instrument and you can really fine tune. I don’t always have the luxury of recording, but it’s great when it works and makes sense.”

The recording for Holographic wrapped last September, but the work was not yet finished. Wohl arranged the music to suit a touring ensemble (after stops in New York, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Minnesota, one show remains on February 27 in Los Angeles) consisting of percussion trio and string quartet, plus Wohl himself holding down the electronics. During a weeklong residency at MassMOCA in early January, Wohl further refined the performance with the live players and added the final essential element—a visual accompaniment special to the live presentation created by Daniel Schwarz.

While Wohl considers the album complete without the video work, he finds that the live performance is enhanced to the point that “I don’t think I would do it without the video.”

Even for the well initiated, laptops in performance can seem an enigma. Here, Wohl and Schwarz sit together within reach of the other performers on stage, Wohl’s MIDI designed to communicate with Schwarz’s visual software. In terms of content, the setups mirror each other in a sense—some of the material pre-rendered and some of it mixed live, allowing in-the-moment control over movement, shading, dynamics, and other effects.

It leaves Wohl the room to be involved enough in the performance to feel like he’s another performer on stage playing his part. “Definitely not as much as a violin,” he’s quick to point out, “but certainly I feel like I’m having an impact on the way the strings are reacting to the electronics.”

Still, why leave room for mistakes?

“I don’t really have a conceptual problem with someone who presses play, but I like to be entertained while I’m doing it so I leave as much as I can handle to the live process. But someone could probably handle more than I can, and other people just want to sit back and enjoy the performance themselves.”

On reflection, Wohl’s most distinctive skill may be his knack for balance even more than blending, the music swinging across a wide range of timbres that can carry a piece without slipping the noose of his control.

Born and raised in Paris (his father hailed from Los Angeles, if you’re wondering where his accent is hiding), then educated at Bard College, University of Michigan, and Yale, Wohl recently made the jump from New York to LA, for “no real good reason except that I wanted a little bit more space and better weather,” he jokes. But on a more serious note, he underlines that commonality of being moved around by the economics of being an artist—the seemingly straightforward yet complex equation involved in securing the time and space to create new work.

“People ask your reasons why you’re making things, and sometimes you have some and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it’s really simply, ‘I’m making something,’ and your intuitive, creative approach is all it’s about.”

It’s something that makes him self-conscious at times, but he suggests that perhaps artists are simply searching for some sort of ideal. “Sometimes we get close to it and sometimes we fall short, but we’re all looking for this idealized version of what this music could be.”

Part of that ideal for Wohl is in that mix of acoustic and electronic sounds, which he feels reflects a broader cultural conversation. “We’re looking for something that’s interfacing with technology but just stays human—doesn’t lose the flaws and what makes us interesting.

“That’s an ideal we’re looking for in our computers, but also in the music we’re making.”

Curation is Not a Form of Marketing

Since my first post in this series last week, I’ve been happily engaged in a number of discussions about the topic of curation and its role and/or use in new music. Opinions have ranged from people pouring out stories of their pursuit of these same ideals, to those voicing profound disagreement with the idea of any curation at all. What has most struck me about these many discussions is that the responses generally started from the unstated premise that the composer is the “artist” in this question of curation.[1] Even players, such as bass clarinetist Heather Roche, took this vantage point:

“This is fantastic. Curation = amazing. I love this idea of just “making artists’ dreams come true” as a curative principle (would absolutely be my approach, and perhaps with the competition it was my approach!). I approve of any encouragement that gets more musicians and festival directors, etc. to understand more about curation as a way to stop themselves from this principle of starting with a “theme” and then building a whole program around it. Themes are bad, people. Stay away from themes. Don’t do themes.”

It’s wonderful when players’ dreams include commissioning and collaborating with composers. It is equally vitally important to our art form, though, that any discussion about curation articulates the fact that performers are more than blank walls upon which masterworks are hung. Many of the most innovative minds in our field belong to performers, and the vibrancy of our art form consistently relies on their passion and precision. So when I say that I want new music curators concerned with “making the dreams of artists come true,” I mean something both wider and deeper than better programmed concerts with more opportunities for today’s composers.

Photo of a man sitting and playing a violin as audience members seated around the room listen.

What’s going on here? (All photos by Aaron Holloway-Nahum.)

In the same way that a museum’s curator can help a museum to reimagine its role and resources, we need people who find purpose in helping performers do the same. It’s no surprise that the International Contemporary Ensemble came up many times in my curatorial discussions this week, but more often than not this represented the limited viewpoint of the players being involved in choosing the music they play and running the ensemble itself. This is not the true curatorial accomplishment of ICE, and it is not where the most exciting opportunities for further innovation lay. ICE’s insight was that a flexible community of musicians could provide new, surprising, and exciting responses to the increasingly diverse questions about performance in our time. Their success should suggest to us that there exists an array of rewarding innovations to the concept of an ensemble, and indeed to performance itself. Curatorial thinking is vital to ongoing innovation in areas like this, and we are particularly in need of curators who encourage redefinitions of historically fixed ensembles such as the string quartet and orchestra.

A number of people, however, responded to my first post by pointing out that I had avoided the question of quality when it comes to asking these questions.

A screenshot from Facebook with a picture of Nick Sherrard and his quote which reads: “Interesting piece. You don’t make any quality judgements about the curators in that piece. It’s interesting that whilst ‘everyone is now a curator’ the professional (in the sense of paid) curatorial class have been encouraged into more and more specialized training. The result is a kind of middle management of taste making. To take it out of music for a second, we’ve seen so many new visual art galleries open in the UK in the last decade but there are few with a surprising curatorial vision. We’re at a point at which we need to celebrate provocative, remarkable, offensive, divisive curatorship. There isn’t enough of it about.”

Or, as a senior colleague commented:

Those who chose concert programmes and curate festivals etc. are often strikingly proud of their musical ignorance and lack of professional training in any musical field. Their choices are usually determined by such unartistic criteria as the amount of publicity this or that artist has already gotten and is therefore likely to get them. Or else a certain musical project will be chosen because it looks more publicity-friendly as it handles supposedly controversial subject matter…New music has remained refreshing, even internationally, precisely because it has not been dominated by the unmusical criteria of such so-called ‘middle men’…

Quality is a problem we all face, and new music is not served by a culture which consistently mislabels other practices as “curation” and then abandons the deeper and wider questions of curatorial practice to middle men and marketing departments.

One area where a higher quality of curatorial thought is required for new music is the growing practice of presenting new music in unusual venues. With the current rush toward “accessibility,” the fallacy here occurs when music intended for—and best served by—the focused attention of the concert hall, is parachuted verbatim into a venue with an entirely different culture and acoustic.

While more people might see it, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica would not have the same force as a piece of street graffiti as it does when presented in a gallery. Artworks are not disconnected from the space and context they are presented in, and nobody has a fulfilling experience (and nobody is converted to loving our music) if the music needs something (silence, a certain acoustic setup, the ability to focus) that the venue cannot provide. Similarly, we fail at any true development of our culture or outreach if a venue is calling out for new types of performance—and new possibilities for music itself—while we insist on the conventions of the concert hall.

A wide angle photo of Primrose Hill showing an open field with trees and lights in the background and city buildings in the distance.

Primrose Hill

It is also a missed opportunity. Take, as one alternative example, the London Contemporary Orchestra’s Imagined Occasions series from 2013. In the second of these concerts, the audience gathered at London’s Primrose Hill at sunset to hear Claude Vivier’s Zipangu. Following this, the audience walked from Primrose Hill to the Roundhouse while listening to Edmund Finnis’s Colour Field Painting, an electroacoustic “walking piece” that was especially commissioned for the event. Then, in the (somewhat) more conventional concert space of The Roundhouse, the audience sat and listened to four movements from Stockhausen’s KLANG – Die 24 Stunden des Tages as Conrad Shawcross’s Timepiece wove patterns of light above players dressed all in white.

There are other exciting and successful examples of this, but our current practice is still dominated by thoughtless parachutism[3]. Reimagining the concert experience in ways that fuse technology, movement, and space requires insightful curatorial thought, which is not a question of accessibility or marketing.

Our use of technology is another area where new music particularly needs our curatorial thought to grow to maturity. In my nightmares, we are headed toward a place where the greatest utilization of virtual reality in music will be the opportunity to attend Berlin Philharmonic performances of Beethoven in our living rooms. This is overstated (and life could be worse), but looking at the vast array of online and digital art being created, one can only lament the dearth of vibrant innovation we have had in this space so far.

Again, there are bright spots. This very week the London Sinfonietta and Kingston University launched an online platform called “co-curate” with the aim of inviting audiences to inspire and make contemporary art. Their first project will see members of the public respond to the brief “beauty in imperfection” prompt by uploading their own sounds, words, and still and moving images, which will then be gathered by composer Samantha Fernando into a multimedia performance in the Asylum Chapel.

There are some possible misnomers in how this website is titled. Uploading files is not “co-curating” a piece, it is contributing to a composition (if your files are selected). The artist doing the selecting (in this case Samantha herself) is not “co-curating” this piece, she is composing it.[2]

It is important to maintain that these are not the acts of curation, here, because what this platform is doing is using technology to reimagine what it might mean to be an audience, and what the relationship between an audience and composer can be. That is an interesting piece of curatorial practice and thought. We need curators to ask these questions in profound ways, so that profound answers can be brought to bear on our practice as performers and ensembles. The questions: “What work do you want to make that you can’t under current conditions?” and “What is it we need to change or accomplish so that these things can be attempted?” are not marketing decisions disguised as programming: they get at the heart of what it means to be an artist of our time.


1. In these next two essays there’s a lot of discussion about people playing different roles in new music. For the purpose of clarity, here I refer to composers as those writing instructions for performance (in any form/variety), and performers as those who execute those instructions. Composers and performers are grouped together under the term “musicians”, while the audience, is anyone who is observing these performances, both digitally and in-the-flesh. An individual can play more than one of these roles, but for the purpose of clarity I am treating the roles themselves as distinct.

2. Sifting through an array of possible inspirations while selecting some and discarding others, is an activity familiar to most composers.

3. The aforementioned practice of parachuting down to a (supposedly) unlikely or ‘new’ venue and playing repertoire there regardless of its best context.

Primrose Hill at Sunrise.

Primrose Hill at Sunrise.

Art in the Age: Going for (more than) a Song

While it’s relatively easy to debunk the tired jeremiad about the death of classical music, we’ve admittedly had a rough go of it lately.  Yes, several orchestras have teetered at the edge of bankruptcy after years of bad labor/management relations and prolonged strikes and lockouts.  Yes, record sales are down.  Turnout for live classical performances is down as well.  Audiences, simply put, are not willing to pay as much, if anything, for music anymore.  This has rendered recordings as largely obsolete commodities and transformed them into little more than a necessary (and expensive) calling card for professional musicians and a souvenir for audiences of favorite live concerts.

We, therefore, have to view concert presentations as much more than just about music.  We need to make them into unique events in order to attract audiences to the concert hall and generate sales for recordings that will remind them of this unique experience.  The definition of an event will vary based on many factors, largely related to the resources available to performing organizations, presenters, and individuals.  Whether it is through the use of lighting or video projections, choreography, or unusual staging, presenters and performers no longer have the option of trusting the music—however innovative or unusual—to be the sole draw for their audience.  Ignoring factors as simple as the pacing of a concert or the way one addresses the audience on stage can destroy a performance.  I’ve attended concerts by some extraordinary virtuosos who, nevertheless, approached the audience with deer-in-headlights trepidation and appeared amateurish in the process, making for a less than enjoyable concert experience.

Claire Chase performing Philip Glass's Piece in the Shape of a Square

Claire Chase performing Philip Glass’s Piece in the Shape of a Square
Photo by Marc Perlish

By contrast, a recital by the MacArthur fellowship-winning flutist and founding artistic director of ICE, Claire Chase, which I (full disclosure) hosted on my series at the Atlas Performing Arts Center last fall, was a veritable master class in how to keep an audience riveted.  Once upon a time, a recital by a flute virtuoso would entail a program of works for flute accompanied by piano (perhaps one or two short pieces for solo flute thrown in there, for variety), performed by players wearing tuxedos or ball gowns on a fully lit stage.  There would be a great deal of formality and ceremony, with the performers entering from the wings to rapturous applause, bowing, tuning their instruments, and—finally—performing.  As one piece would end, another set of bows, perhaps an exit and a new entrance, the process repeated several times until intermission, after which it would be repeated again until the end of the evening.

Claire’s performance, instead, was a veritable recreation of her 2013 album Density. It began with a darkened stage and electronic music which served as an introduction to Claire, who, after the two minutes of sound sculpture finished, burst onto the stage performing Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint.  She moved seamlessly to and from different points, picking up various flutes strategically placed on the stage and only once—for Philip Glass’s Piece in the Shape of a Square—used printed music (which was, appropriately, arranged in the form of a square, thus becoming a conceptual part of the performance).  It was a simple and relatively inexpensive affair, requiring only a single performer on stage and an engineer working the combined sound and light board at the back of the house, but the results were exhilarating, a marked contrast to more traditional approaches in which talking to the audience is considered “edgy.”

It is a contradiction of these times that, while record sales and attendance at concerts appears to be down, the number of people pursuing careers as professional musicians seems to be rising.  What does this say about the apparent death of classical music? I’d wager that it means the rumors of our art form’s death are greatly exaggerated.  The truth remains, however, that it is increasingly difficult to forge a life in music in this day and age.  This is where a wider view of Adam Sliwinski’s “mutual benefit balance” which I proposed in my last article could come in handy.  A view of the network that extends beyond the 1:1 ratio of the composer-performer relationship, extending, through social and traditional media platforms as well as good, old-fashioned interpersonal relationships, to presenters, venues, social institutions, and fellow composers.  This, in my experience, is not only helpful in forging career longevity, it will extend our music’s societal impact as well.

At her commencement speech to the graduating class of Northwestern University last summer, Claire said, “(w)hether we like it or not, the calling of our generation is not to occupy positions created for us.  Our calling is to create positions for ourselves and others, to improvise and blow the ceiling off of anything resembling a limitation.  In a word, our calling is to be entrepreneurs.  Classical music isn’t dying–it’s just now being born.”[1]  She is right: we can no longer count on others to give us jobs in the arts.  We must create these opportunities for ourselves!  This spirit has certainly driven me and my work in Washington over the last ten years, and it drives a number of other younger musicians in a way that suggests not an art form that is moribund or sickly—and not necessarily one just being born, either—but a thriving, energized field where possibilities are limited only by a musician’s imagination.

1. Quoted in Jesse Rosen’s “Provocative Choices for Orchestras,” The Huffington Post, June 27, 2013, accessed January 24, 2014.

Listening to the Unknown

A couple months ago I wrote about the first meeting of the Society of Experimental Musicians organized by James Klopfleisch. I thoroughly enjoyed that event, so I was thrilled when James invited me to present my music at last Sunday’s meeting. It gave me the chance to try an experiment of my own that I’ve been meaning to do for some time.

If you’ve read a few of my posts you may have noticed a common refrain of “context matters.” That is, the environment in which you hear a piece of music, and the background you bring going into it, can have as much or more impact on your listening experience than the music itself. I’ve been harping on this for a while, to the point where I wonder if it’s getting tiresome, but it’s been a big part of how I think about music and how I make music. So I decided I would test out this hypothesis in a live setting and see if my cherished beliefs would hold true.

So without telling anyone why, I split the audience into two groups and sent one group off to another room with Daniel Corral (composer, multi-instrumentalist, friend). Daniel gave a short lecture on a topic of his choosing while I talked about one of my compositions, a Steve Reich/Tay Zonday homage for accordion and electronics called Chocolate Phase. When we were finished with our lectures the groups reconvened to listen to the piece. Essentially, one half of the audience had inside information, while the other half went in cold. I was curious to find out if and how this would affect their appreciation and understanding of the piece (or lack thereof).

The results were surprising to me in a very interesting way. While many in the group that heard Daniel’s lecture didn’t know the reference points that the piece was based on, this didn’t seem to prevent them from enjoying it. In fact, it almost seemed like too much understanding might have been a limiting factor for people’s enjoyment. Those who didn’t hear me explain my piece talked about experiencing it in a visceral, physical way, while those who did hear my explanation were a little more circumspect and used more intellectual language in their descriptions.

In other words, context matters, but not necessarily in the way that I expected. I tend to assume that more knowledge allows you to get more out of a work of art, and it didn’t occur to me that this knowledge could actually be a barrier. In retrospect this should have been obvious–I think we’re all familiar with the experience of getting bored with a piece of music, perhaps because we know it too well. Mystery can be an important ingredient in conjuring up music’s more magical properties.

Granted, my experiment was very informal and the evidence extremely anecdotal. Many other factors could have affected the way the audience perceived the piece, like the content of Daniel’s lecture (which I’m told involved a recitation of a found text dealing with nuclear war and monkeys). Something else I didn’t account for is movement–for the half that left the room, the kinesthetic aspect of walking somewhere and back again may have influenced them physiologically in a way that changed their listening. Nonetheless, I’m excited by the content of these results, and eager to try an experiment like this again!

Context Matters

If there’s one thing this century has taught us about new music, it’s that context matters. As concert musicians discover new kinds of venues (bars, galleries, coffee shops, coat rooms, etc.) and new forms, these efforts reinvent and reshape the concert ritual—with varying degrees of success. New Lens Concerts, a concert series directed by Juhi Bansal and Garrett Shatzer, did something very interesting last Sunday night at the Colburn School’s Thayer Hall when they deliberately omitted all titles and composer names from their programs. By subtracting a great deal of expected context, they asked us to invent our own, inviting us to let go of our preconceived notions about composers new and old, or so the theory goes.

This is a great idea. Concertgoers inevitably bring a lot of baggage to every show (everything from “I hate modern music” to “pre-1950 composers are boring”), and the prospect of leaving that mental weight behind and just listening is a thrilling one. In practice, this turns into a kind of guessing game. For me it was not unlike turning on the radio in the middle of a very exciting piece of music and thinking, “I like this. What the heck is this?” This alone creates a kind of suspense that captures the attention. The pristine virtuosity of the performances by violinist Pasha Tseitlin and pianist Nicolas Gerpe, collectively known as the Panic Duo, enhanced this impression.

This is not to say that the performance was entirely contextless. Tseitlin and Gerpe spoke a little bit before each piece, discussing the composers’ inspirations and influences (while assiduously avoiding identifying information). This was highly effective at drawing thematic connections between pieces from disparate eras and aesthetics. On the first half of the concert, Alyssa Weinberg’s Four Stanzas, an homage to Debussy, felt like a natural follow-up to Paul Moravec’s Ariel Fantasy. On the second half, Jocelyn Morlock’s Phobos and Deimos seemed to share a cosmology with George Crumb’s Four Nocturnes (Night Music II). In between, Luciano Berio’s lush Luftklavier served as a kind of palette cleanser to open the second half, but the real centerpieces were two movements from Karol Symanowski’s Mythes and Ernst Bloch’s Poeme Mystique, which closed out the first and second halves, respectively. Bloch’s thoroughly romantic work, composed in 1925, stood out a little in this setting, perhaps unfavorably so, but Szymanowski’s pieces, written four years before, were strikingly radiant. More than anything else on the program, they seemed caught between the modern and pre-modern musical worlds, with thorny, strident clusters giving way to decadent, Scriabinesque textures. In that sense, it was a highly effective manifesto for New Lens Concerts as a whole, in its mission to connect new music to its history.

As if to drive this point home, after the concert we were finally provided with programs with complete information, bringing the narrative full circle. Context lost, and context restored!
New Lens Concert program


As I write this, the Olympic closing ceremonies are concluding. I adore these sorts of grand spectacles, which seem to evoke the spirit of the early Soviet productions that I used to read about in my theater theory classes (and which defied any true visual realization in my youthful imagination). Each Olympic host nation tries to outdo the previous presentations in a sort of creative arms race that has reached recent culminating points in the precision of the Beijing games and in the whimsy of this London edition. I eagerly anticipate watching what the organizers in Rio de Janeiro will unveil in 2016 as I’m sure the show will reach yet another apex of sound and color.

Rock shows have enjoyed an increase in production values that mirror the trends in these athletic ceremonies. Once considered the province of only the most accomplished acts playing the largest stadiums, giant video screens offering closed circuit broadcasts of the on-stage proceedings are now considered de rigueur for most acts. Elaborate multi-million-dollar modular sets provide grandiose backdrops that dwarf the performers and can travel from city to city as part of a world tour. As we buy our tickets, we have come to expect that the arena rock experience will include theatrical staging that will augment the musical performance itself.

These giant productions have led to the new phenomenon that for me greatly detracts from the concert-going experience: that of pre-programming most of the actual music for the show into offstage computers. Of course, live musical acts have long incorporated performers who were hidden from the audience (including most famously Ian Stewart, a keyboardist who was one of the original members of the Rolling Stones and who played with them for decades, but who was relegated to an offstage station for most of that time since their manager Andrew Loog Oldham thought that Stewart didn’t look like a rock star). New technical capabilities allow performers to use computers to standardize the quality of the show as it travels from place to place, adding pre-recorded sound filed into the audio feed so the onstage performers provide a small fraction of the actual concert sound. Sometimes the audience doesn’t notice this enhanced sound as it can blend seamlessly into the onstage proceedings, allowing for a small ensemble to create orchestrated textures and to reproduce the production values associated with their studio albums as they move from venue to venue.

When the ratio between live and pre-programmed music shades towards the latter, I believe that this creates a serious problem. Sometimes the live performance can feel as if a karaoke singer has been pulled out of the local bar and shoved onstage. Even worse is when they are visibly lip synching, or when the onstage musicians play air guitar as they clearly can’t hear themselves over the computerized din surrounding them.

I think an opportunity has arisen for acoustic musicians— especially those who perform chamber music—to fill the void created by the computerization of the pop music spectacle. In unamplified concerts, listeners understand the direct correlation between the physical movements of the people onstage and the sound they hear. They can feel a direct human link to the overall proceedings, without any dilution created by the involvement of disembodied machines. Surely there is an audience that craves the sort of purity of expression that arises from this unadulterated experience.

While I adore a grand spectacle, I also cherish small statements. Both paths can lead towards transcendent experiences, but only if we understand which way is more appropriate for our artistic ideas. When we attempt to create a giant tree from the seeds of small flowers, or vice versa, we lose an opportunity for beauty. I’m eagerly anticipating the Super Bowl halftime show and the next Olympic ceremonies, but in the meantime I also will appreciate the quiet statements from local chamber halls.

Changing the Concert Ritual

A couple months ago Richard Dare wrote an article for The Huffington Post called “The Awfulness of Classical Music” in which he delineates a bunch of off-putting things about what I like to call “the concert ritual”—that is, all the stuff that happens at a concert outside of the music itself. I see articles like this crop up from time to time, usually with the implication that if only we were to change these extramusical factors, people would find classical music much more approachable, less stuffy, and less forbidding. But the concert ritual didn’t come out of a vacuum, and there are actually some good reasons for aspects of this ritual that still apply today. Enforced silence lets the audience concentrate on hearing the music. No clapping between movements allows the audience to perceive a piece as an unbroken whole. In and of themselves, there’s nothing wrong with these things.

No, my main issue with the traditional concert ritual is not that it’s intimidating, necessarily, but that it’s based on an unspoken and faulty assumption. The trappings of the concert hall are meant to let us hear the music free from distraction: As if the music itself could be abstracted from its time and place. As if we could present the music in an environment where other, more worldly concerns won’t cloud our perception, judgment, or enjoyment. As if we could remove the music from all context and level the playing field, so to speak. But if this were the case, if this were possible, why have the musicians dress up? Why not play in the dark all the time? Why have a concert hall at all?

wild Up performing ... For La Monte Young

wild Up performing … For La Monte Young on Saturday, June 21, 2012
Photo by Amanda Colligan

The fact is that this century-long campaign to make music abstract and contextless is a context, and it doesn’t always serve the music in the ways that it intends to. The many recent and often slightly clumsy attempts to come up with new contexts for this music are a testament to this fact. The problem with some of the these attempts is that little thought, if any, is given to the reasons behind various musical rituals, replacing concert music customs with rock music customs for no particular reason. If we put classical music in a bar instead of a concert hall without changing anything else about its framing or presentation, what should we expect? Bemusement from bar regulars and slight frustration from music fans about the ambient noise level, most likely.

I can think of several groups that do successfully alter the concert ritual by thinking carefully about the changes they make—eighth blackbird’s elaborate, choreographed stagings come to mind. But the alterations don’t have to be complicated, because even the smallest changes can have big consequences. Having just performed with wild Up for the first time on Saturday, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way they reframe certain seemingly obligatory aspects of the concert experience.

For example, wild Up doesn’t hand out concert programs. Instead they put all the basic information—titles, concert order, and who plays what—on a big banner with stenciled lettering. That’s it. There are no program notes, which flies in the face of the conventional wisdom of almost every composition teacher I’ve had! Program notes, the dogma goes, give the listener an important window into the composer’s thoughts. But too often at a concert I’ve found myself reading when I’m supposed to be listening. Instead of a window into the music, it becomes something that takes me out of the music.

The lack of a complete program also causes another important change—it means that the conductor and performers have to talk directly to the audience, like Leonard Bernstein did. It creates a valuable rapport, and the sparseness of program information allows for a little surprise about what’s going to happen.

This sense of surprise is an excellent reason to make more radical changes to the concert ritual, or even come up with new rituals entirely. Perhaps the most bizarre moment during Saturday’s concert for me was participating in a Fluxus-inspired tribute to La Monte Young that involved launching ping pong balls into the audience. The audience wasn’t prepared for this in any way, and from my perspective I wasn’t prepared for the reaction of sheer delight from the audience. Inventing new rituals is risky, to be sure, but I hope that we can allow some room for this experimentation and risk. In the end, I think the rewards will be well worth it.

New England’s Prospect: Space Is the Place

The Vela Molecular Cloud Ridge - Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

The Vela Molecular Cloud Ridge – Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

One of the most unexpectedly enjoyable things about Gérard Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Étoile is that the composer let the universe groove harder than the music. That suits the ecologically saturated air of the rustic hamlet of Putney, Vermont, where Grisey’s astronomical rumination had a rare performance on May 25, courtesy of Yellow Barn, the music festival and summer school that, after four decades, remains happily ensconced there. Both the piece and the place find gratification in the seeming middle of nowhere.

Pulsars were the inspiration for Grisey’s hour-long opus, those strange, super-dense objects left after a star goes supernova, the remains becoming a spinning beacon of powerful radio signals; the very sounds of those signals are woven into the piece as the cosmological accomplices of the six percussionist performers. The work’s celestial context was also the point around which orbited a week of community activities; Seth Knopp, Yellow Barn’s artistic director, brought astronomer Tom Geballe from the Gemini Observatory to give talks to Putney residents and students at the Greenwood School, where the performance also took place.

The background was interesting, but the performance was the thing. Yellow Barn has a program of artistic residencies, bringing musicians up to Putney during the non-summer months to pursue projects on a total immersion basis. Percussionists Greg Beyer and Doug Perkins, Yellow Barn alumni both, brought four younger percussionists with them (James Beauton, Amy Garapic, Jeff Stern, and Mari Yoshinaga); while Geballe primed the populace, the six drummers spent a week preparing for Grisey’s one-of-a-kind space opera.

Le Noir de l’Étoile is just the type of piece made for such a residency: big, challenging, logistically elaborate (it was composed for Le Percussions de Strasbourg, famous stockpilers of exotic instruments), best suited to a context where it can reign as the event that it is. The premiere put the six percussionists outdoors, on large platforms, in a ring surrounding the audience. That was the plan in Putney as well, but persistent forecasts of thunderstorms necessitated a move indoors—thunderstorms that never, in fact, materialized (New England Weather Forecasts: Utterly Useless Since 1620™). Still, the Greenwood School gymnasium, though more stuffy and less comfortable than a patch of Vermont lawn (those in the audience inclined to experience the music’s full grooviness sat on floor mats, the smell and grit of which provided instant transportation back to grade-school gym class), was not an altogether bad substitute, making for a more close-up, visceral experience of Grisey’s spatial effects.

Grisey had moved past spectralism by 1989, when he started composing Le Noir d’Étoile, but the music is still saturated with vibrations and series and cycles. The physical nature of pulsars—unimaginably heavy neutron stars, spinning around at unimaginably fast rates, radio signals pouring out of their poles like cosmic lighthouses—is always being reflected in some aspect of the score. Spin is important: most sections build up to an effect of a particular type of sound—bass thwacks, wood blocks, snare rolls—being transferred from percussionist to percussionist, swirling around the audience within. (At one point, the sound of snares spin in one direction, while the sound of gongs spin in the opposite direction, a terrific musical trick.) The signal rates of two particular pulsars, the Vela pulsar (an 11-pulse-per-second hi-hat) and 0329+54 (an 84 beats-per-minute bass drum) keys the rhythmic vocabulary.

But the point of the piece is not to imitate the pulsars—it’s to accompany them. The electronic recordings of both pulsars’ signals are framed like featured players. The percussionists might introduce both the slow and fast rates right at the beginning of the score, but they turn the ratios into waves of sound, amorphous and free-form; when the sound of the Vela pulsar enters, it turns the abstraction into a rave, holding the stage for a long, driving, blazingly metronomic solo. The sound of 0329+54 is delayed even longer, and set up even more palpably, with, of all things, a six-person-strong drumroll, the better to set off its insistent gravity. (In the original performance, 0329+54’s part was actually transmitted live, via a nearby observatory.)

It really is operatic in effect, a showcase for two cosmic prime donne. In fact, Le Noir de l’Étoile is a concentrated dose of Grisey’s customary dramaturgy. The composer might have insisted that music’s true concern should be “sound not theatre,” but few composers of the past quarter-century had Grisey’s knack for showcasing his sounds with such theatrical flair. In a sense, Grisey was forever a gimmicky composer; but the gimmicks are so good, so conceptually apposite, so perfectly suited to the sonic surroundings, that it transcends the epithet. Le Noir de l’Étoile touches on it all: Grisey’s ringmaster-like sense of physical space; his way with a programmatic framework; his Chekovian guns carefully introduced in the first act and going off in the third; his penchant for putting individual sounds and instruments in the spotlight—both acoustically and, on occasion, quite literally. I’m tempted to describe the very Grisey-like coup de théâtre at the end of Le Noir de l’Étoile, but I think I will leave it as a surprise for those who might not yet have experienced the piece. It is another bit of musical shtick, but perfect, in its way, and a punctuation that this particular performance, extroverted and accomplished in equal turn, more than earned.

Introducing the performance, and wryly acknowledging the bait-and-switch weather conditions, Knopp noted in passing that “we’re still hoping for rain”—but the skies remained stubbornly clear, and one exited the gymnasium to a black sky, dotted with stars, each one at some stage of its own life cycle, thermonuclear furnaces at mind-bendingly far remove. Grisey’s rendition brings that life cycle up close, the afterlife of stars channeled into a churning spectacle. There is a memento mori aspect to Le Noir de l’Étoile, not inappropriate for a Memorial Day weekend; after the introduction of the sound of 0329+54, especially, the six percussionists blanket the soundscape with a fine powder of cymbal rolls and wire brushes. Remember you are cosmic dust, and to cosmic dust you shall return. But the whirling snare rolls eventually return—Grisey, the master showman, always knows his best effects—and the piece ends in thrilling rather than melancholic fashion. The life cycle of another person can be as practically distant to us as that of a star; that is, until they suddenly intersect. Le Noir d’Étoile opens out the spark of contact.

House Music

More and more often, musicians find that the typical career paths they assumed they would follow are closed to them. As regional orchestras go bankrupt or de-unionize and as schools of music turn away from full-time faculty with benefit packages towards contract faculty hired at miniscule pay without any additional support, those people who want to continue performing or composing need to create their own opportunities. Patrons with impressive supplies of willpower, vision, and energy who want to hear excellent music in their communities but who have limited access to the monetary resources necessary to prop up existing institutions realize that they must act if they want to preserve their favored art. While many people despair in the face of this rapidly changing paradigm, others take action. One of the most creative responses to these shifts in the musical landscape has been a renewed interest in house concerts and salon series.

In Baltimore, these independent venues have been cropping up throughout the city. A generous local resident with a nice piano and highly sophisticated palates for both art song and culinary adventure invites singers, including many students and alumni of the Peabody Conservatory, to give dinner recitals in his home. Megan Ihnen, a recent Peabody alumna, founded the Federal Hill Parlor Series in order to bring music and art events into her historic neighborhood, a place better known for its bars and restaurants than for its culture. Many larger buildings in the areas surrounding downtown have been converted into artist collectives with studio spaces, galleries, recording venues, and large open areas for readings and musical performances.

Andrea Clearfield, photgraph by John Hayes

Andrea Clearfield, hosting her Salon. Photograph by John Hayes.

Currently in its 25th anniversary season, the venerable Salon run by the Philadelphia-based composer Andrea Clearfield—who writes beautiful music and who has one of the most open sets of ears and generous souls of anyone I know—can serve as an paragon of all the elements necessary for a spectacularly successful house series. On the last Sunday of each month during the regular concert season, Andrea welcomes about 70 guests into her downtown loft home in order to enjoy music, dance, visual performance art, sound poetry, and any other type of presentation that can fit into the ten-minute slots and onto her living room stage.

I’ve had the great pleasure of performing as part of the Philadelphia Salon on four different occasions, and have heard musical styles including classical piano, song, and chamber music, several different styles of jazz, experimental improvisation, acoustic folk, traditional Turkish song, Argentinian tango/blues hybrid, and klezmer. Andrea creates new sonic confluences as the audience drifts through these seemingly disparate musical sounds, with the juxtapositions serving to open our ears to new experiences. The overall effect of hearing so many different genres of music in such a short time is to create an atmosphere that celebrates the possibility of finding beauty in all types of sonic expression.

The other reason why I keep returning to Andrea’s Salon is because of the audience she draws. Guests arrive expecting a variety of musical experiences, hoping to hear a variety of sounds. The vast majority of her patrons appear willing to explore any avenue that appears in an artist’s dreams, disregarding aesthetic boundaries while embracing the heartfelt expressiveness they hear in each presentation. The lack of any separation between the performance space and the seating area (along with the fact that the audience sits on the floor instead of in elevated chairs) allows for an immediacy of experience, a sense of firm contact between the people sharing the evening.

While the house concert cannot replace formal professional venues, these DIY presentations can fill a void in our communities. I heartily recommend supporting your local organizations. If you don’t have any concerts in your area that inspire you, I suggest presenting them yourself. And if you’re ever in Philadelphia on the last Sunday of a month, you should check out their Salon.

Be Our Guest!

If you were to measure contemporary music as a socially constitutive quantity, what units would you use? The most obvious unit might be the piece (pc.)—as in, composer x produced y pc. of music over the past year, our national GDP of contemporary music is such and such thousand pc., and so on. But in the absence of performances, how useful is it, really, to know how many pieces are being written? That might be very informative vis à vis the practice of Western composition, but it doesn’t necessarily speak to the volume of contemporary music in production: For that, we’d need another unit—the concert.

The field of performance history is based on this very notion: To know how many, when, where, by whom, and for whom concerts are produced is to know a great deal about the social shape of contemporary music in a particular historical and geographic context. Concerts are where written music becomes music, period; they’re where listeners’ subjectivities can finally regard the objects we devise for them, objects which come to seem almost like subjects themselves. In short, written music is vivified into aesthetic experience by concerts and by concerts only. All of this goes without saying.

Conversely, if you’re in a position to decide when, where, by whom, and for whom a concert might be presented, you hold a great deal of power. You can make it easy or difficult for people to get to. You can make it at the same time as other things (other concerts, appointment TV viewing, Gophers hockey) or not at the same time as those things. You can facilitate dialogue between the musicians and the audience during the concert or prohibit it. You can decide what the space looks like. You can decide how large an audience you want to be able to accommodate. You can, in effect, decide how the people who spend their evening with you will spend their evening (or whatever time of day it is), and by extension you can exert some measure of influence over whether they’ll come back next time.

There is, in other words, no excuse to be careless with concerts—no excuse for unthoughtful programming, no excuse for allowing people to be noisy outside, no excuse for doing anything less than your utmost to make the concert experience competitive with anything else someone might be filling one’s night with. There are plenty of ways to do it right and plenty of ways to do it wrong. Musicians are accustomed to keeping their eyes on the prize—namely, a great performance—but it’s easy to forget that the prize, for the audience, is not having wasted one’s time.