Tag: Mozart

Austin: Mozart Requiem–Undead

Requiem WEB
I’m a bit OCD about arriving on time. My wife is laid back about these things, but I just can’t be late. Can’t. Be. Late. So even though I arrived a good fifteen minutes prior to the scheduled downbeat of Mozart Requiem: Undead, when I came upon a line of about 100 people I got nervous. I thought, “I knew I should have gotten here when the doors opened an hour before the show, but we’re at the French Legation Museum…How many people could possibly show up?”
Built in 1840, the French Legation Museum is a sprawling outdoor affair featuring some of the oldest surviving structures in town, and it’s surrounded by huge lawns and six-foot stone walls. The place is so big nobody’s filling it up, especially with concert music.

As I shifted from one foot to the other, I noticed that several people around me had the same worried look, and soon a guy walked past saying, “We’re not getting in. They are contacting the Fire Marshall to see if more people can be allowed in, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.” I poked my head over the wall and saw this:
French Legation WEB
You know how it is when you’re trying to take a picture of something huge and the photo just can’t do it justice? See above. You can see a bit of the orchestra and maybe ¼ of the main lawn. On a Wednesday. After seeing that, I knew something had to be done. Suffice it to say I finagled my way in to see what was happening on the other side of that wall.


Mozart Requiem: Undead is the brainchild of Graham Reynolds, Peter Stopchinski, and Brent Baldwin. The trio commissioned Glenn Kotche, Caroline Shaw, DJ Spooky, Adrian Quesada, Kate Moore, Todd Reynolds, Petra Hayden, and Justin Sherburn to “finish” the Requiem based on a computer analysis of the original manuscript that “definitively separated out what Mozart had written.” The composers were asked to keep the original vocal parts intact, but otherwise all bets were off. Of course, putting this all together requires a marshalling of considerable musical forces. Reynolds and Stopchinski’s Golden Hornet Project was joined by Baldwin’s Texas Choral Consort, Texas Performing Arts, Fusebox Festival, and Convergence Vocal Ensemble to put on the event. Presented as the kickoff for the 2014 Fusebox Festival, the performance featured over 200 artists (including the chorus, full orchestra, rhythm section, and electronics).

Twelve movements and ten composers—in addition to the commissions, Reynolds and Stopchinski took a few movements—make for a very full plate, and the arrangements ranged from full re-imaginings to more subtle alterations. Todd Reynolds “Dies Irae” was one of the former, with whispers building to shouts and a smattering of hi-hat on half-time drums. Pizzicato strings held the power of the work in check for a time, but the chorus would not be denied, belting out the lines until the final moment when they all fell down. Which they did (all fall down, that is). Glenn Kotche’s “Rex Tremendae” came in like a lamb with marimba, crotales, and shaker, the drum kit entering as Rex along with big choir roars before the whole thing drifted away in the wind. Stopchinski’s “Lacrimosa” had a Middle-Eastern flavor and featured violin soloist Roberto Riggio performing twists and turns over drones accompanied by strings and organ. DJ Spooky laid some beats over “Hostias” while Justin Sherburn (of Okkervil River) and Adrian Quesada brought a rock vibe to the proceedings. It was the loosening of an already colorful tie when Quesada and his band took the stage, strapped on their guitars, and began doling out the power chords to a wildly diverse festival crowd, complete with little kids doing cartwheels in front of the stage.

Many in the new music community are preoccupied with broadening the audience by changing venue and ceremony, and at times it seems a bit forced, like parents trying to be cool. When Golden Hornet Project puts a show together, there’s never any of that “Try it, you’ll like it!” earnest convincing going on, they just lay it out there and see what happens. The confidence that comes from curating hundreds of events in many shapes and sizes really shows when you see them pull off something this big. From the diversity and geographic range of the composers to the breadth and depth of performers to the ginormous attendance, the whole thing stood as an example of what you should do if you’re trying to reach a wider crowd.

And what a crowd it was. Seeing people of all stripes enjoying adult beverages while kicking back on blankets before an outdoor orchestra is one well-worn thing, but seeing them on a Wednesday afternoon in the middle of a school/work week attending a concert featuring a single tune is another. Granted, the Requiem is a big old piece, but still. Graham, dressed in a suit and ten gallon hat, and Peter in a tux with tails provided just enough funky formality while Brent Baldwin ran the whole thing like a champ. Notable also in this endeavor is that the whole thing was free. This year’s Fusebox Festival, once a ticketed affair, is now accessible to all. As board member Joe Randel explained, “We felt that making the festival entirely free was important in order to facilitate the discovery of new work for the audience, but that was just part of our goal. There is a common misconception that if people buy tickets to a performance, they’re “covering the tab,” so to speak. In reality, the box office receipts rarely cover the cost of presenting this kind of work, and they don’t even begin to recognize the artist’s costs associated with creating the work, so we hoped to stimulate a broader conversation about the reality of those costs.”

Free concerts combining hundreds of artists in town with some of the best composers from Austin and across the country? I want to have that conversation every day.

Listening Does Much More Than Make You Smarter

Mozart and Vivaldi

Some scientists claim that listening to them makes you smarter. But whether or not they’re right, listening does much more.

“[D]uring passive listening to Mozart music, firing patterns within the brain are similar to those related to higher-order cognitive functions. Indeed, functional magnetic imaging studies concur and have demonstrated that exposure to the Mozart Sonata or other musical pieces with similar qualities … can give rise to activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, occipital cortex, and cerebellum. Similarly, parietal areas (e.g., bilateral superior parietal lobules) are activated during music exposure with these putatively being involved in selective attention processes … [M]usic has the ability to influence, prime, facilitate, or transfer to nonmusic domains and brain functioning. This is hardly surprising given that music (including passive listening to music) involves the engagement of numerous cognitive functions.”

—Leigh M. Riby, “The Joys of Spring: Changes in Mental Alertness and Brain Function.” Experimental Psychology: Volume 60, Number 2 / 2013.
Was even Mozart wrong? Is there something in the nature of the works of the classical concert repertory that makes the acts of performing and listening to them under any circumstances go counter to the way I believe human relationships should be? … I think I have to answer yes.”
—Christopher Small, Musicking, p.220

Since I finished reading Christopher Small’s book Musicking last week, I’ve still been trying to come to terms with the author’s extremely damning conclusions about classical music and how we are expected to listen to it. While much of what Small wrote resonated with me in a very profound way, I believe that his assumption about so-called passive listening being an unhealthy socialization model is completely misguided. This is why…

I was raised by a family that wasn’t particularly good at listening to one another. My mother and her sisters would constantly get into petty disagreements with one another that turned into all-out wars in which they refused to speak to one another. Sometimes this went on for weeks. Thinking about this in hindsight, it seemed quite often that they would talk over each other throughout their arguments, making it clearly impossible for them to fully comprehend what the other was saying, and as a result they misinterpreted the level of the disagreement and things would then escalate based on their mutually incorrect assumptions.
It was often a difficult environment in which to grow up, and luckily there were upright pianos in their homes, albeit ones that were usually terribly out of tune. I think I started playing the piano not so much in order to be listened to, something I intuited would be next to impossible, but as a way to drown out the other sounds. I was a rather harsh key banger—I popped a couple of strings every year as a result of the brutal force with which I attacked the instrument. To this day, I have a hard time playing gently.

The idea that music was something that people could listen to without any other sonic intrusion was completely alien to me. My family would put on records from time to time but always talked over them. The first concerts of so-called classical music I attended were the free outdoor concerts in Central Park where musicians would play to picnickers who chatted throughout and sometimes even added to the sonic environment by turning on a radio they had brought along with them—the ‘70s were not called the “Me Generation” for naught.

A few years later I started going to Broadway shows. Balcony seats were only $12, twice the cost of a movie at the time, but Broadway audiences were much better behaved. They actually sat and didn’t talk throughout the show. (The audience was rarely silent when I went to the movies.) At some point, shortly after that, I was given a free ticket to a concert at Carnegie Hall. I remember sitting there by myself totally bored yet somehow utterly fascinated to see people sitting quietly to listen to music without words. What were these sounds communicating to them?

I made it a point to figure it out and in so doing, worlds opened up to me. I started reading books, which was something I was never able to stay focused on enough to be able to do before I started attentively listening to music. I went on to be the first person in my family ever to attend college. The so-called passive mode of experiencing information—music, books, theatre, film (eventually), visual art, lectures—enabled me to pay attention to others and offered me world views that can span any place or any time. All of this would have been completely out of reach to me otherwise. For this reason, one of Small’s observations is particularly irritating to me…

“[T]hose constructor toys we call musical scores can provide a wide range of models … [n]evertheless, the kind of story we can make up from them is constrained by the limits of the style. … The densely packed and highly purposeful sequence of events with which they present us cannot allow us to use them to model the conceptual universe of a poor black woman in the United States or that of a Zen Buddhist or that of a Tibetan peasant or that of a Spanish Gypsy.” —Small, ibid, p. 217

While it took decades for the music of Beethoven to actually speak to me (which is why I think that new music should be the focal point of all concerts and not just an occasional add-on to otherwise standard repertory programming), learning how to listen enabled just about anyone’s music to speak to me (from Memphis Minnie to the Gyuto Monks to Manitas de Plata, to cite representatives from communities that Small feels classical music excludes). I firmly believe that learning how to listen can do the same for almost anyone else. Small argues that music is a more healthy experience when it is integrated alongside other activities as it is in many of the world’s cultures. But I would argue that there is much to be gained by giving the music of these other cultures the same respect we accord classical music by listening to it with the same level of attentiveness.

A recent psychological study explored the consequences of exposure to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the subsequent cognitive behaviors of seventeen participants. The data revealed that the most familiar and uplifting musical material enhanced participants’ mental alertness. This is something of a refutation of the recent studies that have been challenging the claims that Mozart makes you smarter. So now tons of NPR-listening parents will probably go out and get Vivaldi recordings for their children to listen to. However, this seems almost as wrong-headed as Christopher Small’s conclusions. It’s really not about whether a certain piece of music has the “it” ingredient that will improve someone’s mental faculties. Rather, listening in and of itself improves those faculties, and it also does a whole lot much more—it makes us better people.

Composing As Self-Discovery

Beethoven Sketch

This past week, I’ve been listening to some old favorites by Mozart and Beethoven and also looking at the composers’ own sketches whenever possible. Sketches in a composer’s hand are always revealing, and it’s difficult to give either composer’s sketches a cursory glance without being struck by how deeply each composer’s sketching habits express their own musical personalities. Beethoven’s sketches are full of inserts, cross-outs, and rewrites, and usually scribed with a thick, almost gouging pen stroke that reeks of creative effort; Mozart’s manuscripts (which are so complete they can rarely be called “sketches”) were penned quickly, almost breezily, with comparatively few changes other than filling in more supporting voices.

When I compare these two approaches, it’s difficult not to arrive at the impression that Mozart was recording something already (or mostly) formed in his inner ear, while for Beethoven composing was an often laborious process of figuring something out.

The Mozartean process of recording or transmitting idea (and of being open to the dictates of the subconscious) certainly has its advantages—especially if the composer is working within a received stylistic tradition (as Mozart, for all his wonderful wit and inventiveness, largely was). For those who seek to express themselves by pushing the boundaries of tradition, or who aim to discover uncharted territory far removed from tradition, it is often necessary to sketch and rework, as a more vigorously active participant. Most composers, I suspect, combine these different attitudes in all kinds of t ways, although just as Mozart and Beethoven we all have our predilections.

In today’s composing world, I hear an echo of the Mozartean attitude– though often without Mozart’s characteristic humor and child-like naturalness—in the ways that we tend to teach music composition. Despite the healthy stylistic openness that I’ve been happy to discover in today’s institutions of higher learning, the way that one is “supposed to” compose usually revolves around some variation of: “Figure out what you want to do first, then do it”, which indicates a profound separation between the conception of a work and its realization—composing as recording the results of already-worked-out parameters. This way of composing is often explicitly extolled (along the lines of “you have to know what you’re doing first before you can do it!”), and implicitly privileged in countless preconcert talks, college symposia, and lessons, in which the composer of the moment explains his or her intentions, following which the composition in question is judged on how well it “succeeded” at realizing these intentions.

This can be a useful approach, and I have no problem with it per se. But by over-emphasizing a way of composing that privileges faithful representation of mental constructs, I wonder if we’re failing to point out that composing can also be a process of discovery, experimentation, and play unrelated to prior planning (and resistant to critiques that rely on intention). While composing can be a way to transmit something that we already hold as essential, it can also be a process by which we come to understand our own thoughts and feelings.