Tag: New York City

April: Texas, New York, and the Oppositions

In the early evening of April 22 I sat depleted outside an apartment house in Red Hook, Brooklyn. From that stoop I could see the choices and oppositions of my life laid out like they were chalked on the sidewalk. Sometimes it feels like life is a tug of war—between east and west, life and career, social and personal, work and play, urban and rural, composer and singer-songwriter, professional and academic, serious and jocular, art and business, collaboration and solitude—and I can’t seem to choose my side.
April had been a rapid-fire reunion, a gonzo retrospective. It was like one of those broadly staged final scenes in Wes Anderson’s films where all the characters are seen together at once, their relationships’ dynamics laid bare. In just three weeks, I had visited most of my important places and seen many of my important people. I set foot in New Mexico, Colorado, and Iowa; I played shows in Chicago, Austin, New York City, and at my alma mater Illinois Wesleyan University. After April 26, I had no further gigs on my calendar. Plans, but no dates.

This happens to freelancers. We build a run of work, and then the run ends. It can be a difficult transition. I think of my days in theater, when the closing of a show would effectively disband a group of friends. At the end of each season, we were sent back to the drawing board; professionally, creatively, and socially, we had to reconstitute ourselves.

One time, during one of these reconstitution phases, a friend encouraged me with the words of his teacher: “Growing into yourself as an artist requires lots of time feeling lost.”
Here is Rebecca Solnit, the poet laureate of being lost:

That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost. The word “lost” comes from the old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army…I worry now that people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.

We disband our armies, we find ourselves alone. We find ourselves.

Many creative people experience their first disbandment, their first dramatic, forced reconstitution, when they leave school. Such was the case for me when I left Austin in 2009, after completing my master’s degree. I’ll borrow the idiom again, abused as it is, because it is so terribly precise: my two years in Texas were when I found myself. I left town as soon as I finished the degree because I felt I had to keep moving forward, but when I landed in Chicago that fall, I immediately missed Austin’s atmosphere. I have heard Austin called “the world’s largest retirement community for young people”; no similar description applies to Chicago. There are swarms of creative twenty-somethings there; most of them work from nine to five at Groupon. There is bohemian culture, but it doesn’t feel endemic. Office jobs feel endemic. Commuting feels endemic. Sleet feels endemic.

I eventually found collegiality and inspiration in Chicago’s new music community, but in late 2009 I felt a bit like the narrator of Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues,” the best song ever written about wishing one was in Austin. I walked the neighborhoods, kicked the pavement under granite skies with cold winds slipping between me and my jacket. Chicago didn’t need me. The city is a vast, fascinating patchwork of deep, disparate stories, but it’s stretched over a reservoir of such infinite sadness. It hides it well; the patchwork holds. But Austin was warmer. It felt like it had some holes, and I could find my way in.

My favorite composer these days is Morton Feldman, whose late music I find unimaginably brave. This spring, after the April fury wound down, I discovered that WQXR had posted a complete recording of the FLUX Quartet performing his String Quartet no. 2 (1983)—that’s the one that’s six hours long. As mentioned, I had no further gigs on the books, so it was time to conduct some business, and one day I dialed up the Feldman as I set to an afternoon of emails and tasks. The piece susurrated in the background, but every once in a while it leapt out and grabbed me by the spleen. It sounds like a field René Magritte might have painted, the grass glowing midafternoon green, the sky above black and starry. It’s like you’re walking a wide meadow of rolling hills, of night flowers, and occasionally you find an old wooden trap door set into the hillside. It could go anywhere. But actually you don’t open it. You keep walking the meadow instead, for hours and beautiful hours.

Feldman’s quartet lay over my emailing like so much diaphanous cloth, and in it I heard the magic of the everyday. I used to be terrified of routines, always coveting more adventure, but I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of assembling a life durable enough to make sense multiple days in a row. We don’t always see the magic in this, but as artists we simply have to trust in its presence, beneath our daily rituals, in all of our work, in the revision, the tedium, and the suspicions of futility.

I hadn’t seen much routine during April. A few weeks previous, on April 9, my bandmates and I landed in Austin a few days in advance of the Fast Forward Austin new music festival. We had a lot of rehearsing to do. We had been separated for most of the previous four months, and we were preparing two separate sets for the weekend: one with piano for Fast Forward Austin, another without piano for a bar show the previous night. A number of friends and collaborators were in town for the festival, and there were meetings and reunions to balance with our work.

Grant Wallace Band in Austin

Grant Wallace Band performing in Austin, TX.

Our subsequent New York trip, the very next weekend, was a wilder whirlwind. Ben and I landed on Friday and caught the new Anthony Braxton opera. On Saturday, Elliot Cole and I split a show at Spectrum. On Sunday Ben and I spent some time with Elliot in the studio, contributing some singing to an emergent track. On Monday we heard Bearthoven rehearse our pieces at New Amsterdam Records’ warehouse space in Red Hook, then walked to the Fairway by the water and ate grocery store sushi in the sun.

Rehearsing with Bearthoven

Rehearsing with Bearthoven at New Amsterdam Records.

That night, Ben and I heard TIGUE and So Percussion at Le Poisson Rouge. I was electrified by this show. Chris arrived from Chicago that night, and the three of us walked the streets of midtown until late, talking band talk, scheming schemes.

TIGUE performing at LPR

TIGUE performing at LPR.

Our show was the next day, at the New Amsterdam space. We found our way back to Red Hook and the apartment of Chris’s brother, Danny Fisher-Lochhead. Danny is a saxophonist and composer, and his place is just around the corner from New Amsterdam. We rehearsed, sound-checked, and returned to Danny’s place for burritos. I was so spent, I could barely socialize. This was the point when I removed myself to the stoop and admitted aloud that I felt totally empty. I was looking another reconstitution phase in the eyes. I had no home, no plan, and no way to unify the oppositions.
It hit me hard, that evening, that my work is in one place (the city) and my soul is someplace else (the west), and I don’t know what to do about it. The music in New York is so powerful, but I just don’t think I’m personally constituted to live there. In May I fled back west. Over the summer I’ll spend some time in Chicago with the band, play a few shows, and finish our album. We’ll be back in New York in early September, to play on the Resonant Bodies Festival. By then Ben will have moved to North Carolina; he recently accepted a teaching position at Appalachian State University. Chris is still working on his doctorate at Northwestern.
I used to feel, if one was very rural and ten was very urban, that I might someday be happy in some sort of three and a half. But I’ve lived one and ten in recent years, and it’s made me doubt that the middle, in America at least, can really share the benefits of either extreme. I grew up in a five-sized town and I didn’t hike mountains on my off days, nor did I have regular access to a standing, working community of world-class musicians. Subsequently I lived in Rocky Mountain National Park for four summers, then embedded in Chicago’s new music community for two years. I suspect that deepest life will always be in the ones and the tens. But I wish there were some way to live moderately.

I think again about Edward Abbey and our culture’s opposition of wilderness and civilization. The American environmental ethic has always been about extremes, about subjugating nature (see: Iowa, industrial agriculture) whenever we are not enshrining it (see: Colorado, national park system). Is there a model in which civilization and wilderness can coexist more fluidly?
The presently dominant code of wilderness travel is Leave No Trace: when passing through a wild area, one is instructed to “impact” it as little as possible. (Yes, you bury your excrement, and you also eat the nasty little food scraps from your dirty dishes rather than dispersing them on the ground or in a stream, and you find a spot for your tent where there isn’t any vegetation.) Isn’t “impact” a funny word? In environmentalism we are supposed to minimize it, in art we are supposed to maximize it. Isn’t there some way to live moderately?

A similar opposition plays between life and music. In America we have excised art from the daily flow of our lives, sequestered it to safe, respectful shrines built for its enjoyment and study (museums, concert halls, universities). We don’t play music with our kids as part of our social existence; rather, we buy them music lessons. And we are perpetually surprised to learn, to paraphrase the critic Dave Hickey, that in the special, clean spaces we set aside for culture, culture doesn’t work. Can’t life and art be hopelessly intertwined, every single day?

One and ten, life and art, work and play. Austin was all lifestyle to me, Chicago all career. The space is in New Mexico, the music is in New York. Do I have to pull myself back and forth so rapidly? It has become so exhausting. It is, to brandish the word of our era, unsustainable. Isn’t there some way to live moderately?

I think about Eric Holthaus. I don’t know if I can do this without flying, but I can try. I can try to slow down, travel with intention, stay for a while when I go, take trains instead of airplanes. Have you taken a train across the country? It’s so civil. You get treated like a human being, and no one is in a hurry: delays of multiple hours are not uncommon on long routes, and without our usual sense of entitlement toward punctuality, time takes on a different tint, and you sit and look out the window for hours as the land steadily changes and the light moves from east to west, from a glow to a blaze to a glow again before it disappears over the horizon, leaving you in limpid flowing darkness.

It’s like listening to Feldman’s second quartet. It rolls on and on.

Last August, a New Mexico friend came to visit me in Chicago. We used to work together as wilderness guides, and it was pleasantly incongruous to see him in the city. I even took him to his first new music concert. One day we went to the beach, sat and watched the waves of Lake Michigan.

“We talk about time like it’s money,” he said, his feet speckled with wet sand. “We ‘spend’ it, we ‘waste’ it. I wish we didn’t think of time as something we can gain or lose. We should just think of it as a shifting of light.”
Beach ending

On the Good and the Great—Wrapping up the NY Phil Biennial

New York Philharmonic 2014 Biennial

Christopher Rouse takes a bow after the premiere of his Fourth Symphony.
Photo by Chris Lee.

Since three nights late last week of hugely ambitious programming and concerts—the big finish of the first NY Phil Biennial—I’ve waited to let things settle for a few days in my ears and memories before trying to sum up this heady, busy, and at times even giddy festival.  As I mentioned in earlier posts on the goings-on all over New York City, I was excited by what I heard and saw: some dazzling performances of new repertoire and the galvanized atmosphere of a happening.  Professionals from as far as London and Los Angeles popped their heads in and seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as anyone else.  Holders of the Biennial Pass (a golden key to every event) began to recognize each other and band together at intermissions and at après-concert events for conversation.  Composers both young and not-so were out and about: in droves at the large concerts in Avery Fisher Hall; in trickles for other events.  And the musicians of the Philharmonic, thoroughly exhausted by a punishing schedule, still found energy to honor and even serenade their colleagues at the annual Musicians Retirement Concert and dinner last Thursday.  It’s always heartening to see great musicians speak so fondly and eloquently of each other, and with legends like principal second violin Marc Ginsberg, principal trumpet Philip Smith, and concertmaster Glenn Dicterow all saying their goodbyes to the Philharmonic this season, I was further reminded of the riches of continuity of this and other great orchestras.  A 30-plus year orchestral career is not built merely upon one’s own talent, but upon stamina, trust, and flexibility, and in truly valuing one’s colleagues.  In some way, last week’s enormous back-to-back programs of Rouse, Eötvös, Carter, Pintscher, and added Earshot (“Composer Idol”) winners Julia Adolphe, Max Grafe, and Andrew McManus, as impressive as they were, were just another challenging (and hopefully to more than a few, gratifying) week of work at the New York Philharmonic.

(From left) Christopher Rouse, Julia Adolphe, Matthias Pintscher, Peter Eötvös, Alan Gilbert, Steven Mackey, Bruce Adolphe. Photo by Chris Lee.

(From left) Christopher Rouse, Julia Adolphe, Matthias Pintscher, Peter Eötvös, Alan Gilbert, Steven Mackey, Bruce Adolphe.
Photo by Chris Lee.

Still, as exciting as it was this year, the most significant element of the biennial may be already stored away in the attics, waiting for 2016 (or ’18, or ’26) to be fully unpacked.  Its potential as a driver and supplier of new projects and new music was (understandably) only just lightly tapped this year, with most pieces being US/NYC premieres as opposed to commissions.  And yet, last week amounted to a floodgate of new music being opened: from a few new subscription-series pieces per season from major figures and some encouragement to young talent by way of CONTACT! commissions, the Philharmonic and partners performed well over 60 pieces from composers of all stages and many walks of life.  Absolutely laudable say some, foolhardy say others.  I couldn’t possibly say I enjoyed every piece.  One left me angered in concert, and a few others had me in various states of nervous discomfort.  Nothing new for me—I assume never to like or despise anything until I’ve heard it (and then maybe heard it again, and again…) but liking every piece is, for me, not the point. (I also have a strict personal policy against picking favorites in a concert, and I must say it’s improved my complexion, demeanor, and probably lengthened my life—no two composers are trying to make the same piece; judging them against each other simply makes no sense.)

Andrew McManus took a bow after the New York Philharmonic gave the World Premiere of his piece Strobe. Photo by Chris Lee.

Andrew McManus took a bow after the New York Philharmonic gave the World Premiere of his piece Strobe.
Photo by Chris Lee.

But a subtle tension begins to build when one of the world’s great orchestras and a committed presenter of “Great” music (when have you heard the perfectly good music of Louis Spohr or Eugène Bozza at Avery Fisher Hall?) says, “We’ve got it here; you be the judge of what’s good and what’s great.”  (I also hear the voices singing of the problematic aesthetics of words like great and good!—Don’t worry; I hear them!)  There are those composers and listeners, taking a generally unpopular position, who say that part of the honor of being performed by the Philharmonic was that one had to earn the privilege, or that this is the not the place to be tried in the fire.  (As someone who was tried in this fire, with one of my first major commissions from the New York Philharmonic at age 29 after a thorough vetting, I can recognize and regard the whole process as one of those defining moments of one’s musical life, although I took the responsibility of those twenty minutes of stage time as seriously as I could.  I did my absolute best to rise to the specific challenges and opportunities presented by that particular commission, and beyond that can’t assess myself in terms of great or good or bad.  For those not interested in that kind of internal and external pressure, I can’t recommend it.)  Selectivity is important, as is perspective, but I believe this floodgate can be managed to great benefit.  I know composers who rise to the challenge of a major commission each and every time, and I know many more who are still waiting for the invitation.  In the future, when the biennial provides opportunities to hear their kind, and all kinds, of vital, compelling music, I will be cheering in the aisles.

Composer Péter Eötvös and soloist Midori acknowledge the crowd after a performance of <em>DoReMi </em> for violin and orchestra.

Composer Péter Eötvös and soloist Midori acknowledge the crowd after a performance of DoReMi for violin and orchestra.
Photo by Chris Lee

If hearing three major statements (the premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Fourth Symphony, DoReMi for violin and orchestra by Péter Eötvös, and Matthias Pintscher’s cello concerto, Reflections on Narcissus, with soloists Midori and Alisa Weilerstein, respectively) was a highlight of the week for this listener, it was powerfully counterbalanced by a special event from the opening weekend—that of the Very Young Composers of the New York Philharmonic in a free a.m. concert titled The Continuum.  A mentoring program, part of the Philharmonic’s vast education conspiracy and developed by composer and former Philharmonic associate principal bassist Jon Deak, the VYC emphasizes guidance and directed enthusiasm over style-based composer training, and kids start in third grade.  The concert, a presentation of the whole range of the program, with pieces from young students through to senior teaching artists (all noted composers themselves) Richard Carrick, Daniel Felsenfeld, and David Wallace, was bound to put a smile on my dial.  When 12-and-unders Samantha Darris, Graydon Hanson, Jake O’Brien, and Elli Choi joined members of the orchestra on stage to hear their pieces, each an individual jewel, and took their triumphant bows, my mother hen’s heart leapt!  The VYC Jazz Improvisation Group (Eric Poretsky, Ethan Cohn, Jack Gulielmetti, and Nick Chomowicz, with mentor Will Healy) followed with a cool, original fill-in for the stage change, with larger statements by more young composers to keep an eye on: teens Milo Poniewozic, Julian Galesi, and recent graduate Farah Taslima, now a young mentor in the VYC program.  Lovingly shepherded by vice president of education Ted Wiprud, Deak, and his dedicated army of teaching artists, the morning program was an Instagram of this exciting moment (for each composer, and for the VYC program, to a packed house at the NY Phil Biennial) which felt more like a Polaroid, reminding me of my own excitement for music at that age.  Including these voices, and those on the Face The Music program the next day, on the biennial was one of the masterstrokes of the festival, as striking as any statement that could be made about the future.

And to the future the NY Phil Biennial will ride, after the number crunching and soul searching, and fine-tuning and finagling.  My stated goal in the first post was to hear lots of live music, which I managed to achieve in spades, and which was every bit as rejuvenating and electrifying as I’d hoped it would be.  I’m eager to know what shape the biennial will take in two years, but for now, I’ve got something more pressing on the horizon: the premiere of my own new work for Alan Gilbert and the orchestra.   Songs is paired with (actually sandwiched between) some of that Great music—Beethoven’s Second and Third Piano Concerti—this coming week in Avery Fisher Hall.  It will be time to put my music where my mouth is, but one thing has been a relief, as I have been able to content myself, so far, with working to make (not easy!) something good.  With Alan, Yefim Bronfman (the humblest man in the world), the Philharmonic and Herr B (perhaps the least humble man in history) on the program, we’ve got the great covered just plenty.

Pavillons en l’air—Bell’s Up on the NYPhil Biennial

For the inaugural NY Phil Biennial, a large initiative devoted to the newest of the new, the Philharmonic borrowed a concept that is generally associated with the visual arts: the exhibition.  When I first learned of it, at last year’s season announcement press conference along with everyone else, what resonated was the idea of the biennial, the every-two-years event that could efficiently attract a specific gravity of attention to itself and the work presented.  But as I’ve seen and heard since Thursday evening, the curators of the NY Phil Biennial have taken the concept of the exhibition into the concert hall on a more structural level.  Taking from Venice (the original contemporary art exhibition as we know it, which goes back to 1895) the organizing principal of the pavilion—a separate space with its own curator, purpose, and point of view—and applying that to this collection of events, the Philharmonic seems to have made something both looser and freer than I was probably expecting.  I tend to think of a festival as being an opportunity to focus on one or two things in particular (the 2008 Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival, devoted entirely to Carter at 100, comes quickly to mind), but in practice, and in New York City on a spring weekend, who’s to say that variety isn’t the spice of life?  The pavilions were helpful to keep in mind as I dashed across town over the last several days; from Pig Tales to Ravens to Pennsylvania miners, and from central Europe, France, the UK, and Japan, to America and back again.

Pablo Heras Casado conducts the Orchestra of St. Luke's in Circle of Influence: Pierre Boulez at Rose Theater. Photo by Chris Lee

Pablo Heras Casado conducts the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in “Circle of Influence: Pierre Boulez” at Rose Theater. Photo by Chris Lee

The pavilions concept can be terribly convincing when each curator and each artist is working within their wheelhouse.  Whether or not the chicken-and-egg question of “which came first: the repertoire or the artist?” is interesting, the result looks deliberate: New Yorkers doing what they do best.  Who better than Doug Fitch and Edouard Getaz to stage HK Gruber’s joyful, zany, and satiric cabaret opera Gloria – A Pig Tale?  (with nods to Animal Farm, Kurt Weill, and others who mastered the fine art of allegory). Who better than Pablo Heras-Casado, the music director of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and perhaps the world’s most charismatic young disciple of Pierre Boulez, to perform the music of the elder’s close circle with the former’s local band?  Bang on a Can performing Julia Wolfe; Matthias Pintscher (now living in NYC for years) conducting very recent works from Europe’s master set: these feel like obvious choices.  To me, for good reason: if this is an exhibition, why not give every piece and every note the golden, experienced care and treatment they each deserve?  Performances have been truly stellar and, in some cases, illuminating and transcendent.  This is proving to be no marathon, where participants and spectators alike must drag themselves across a finish line to the earthly comforts of burgers and booze, only to say, “I was there for it all.”  Each pavilion is an event worth seeing, and after seeing seven in the last four days, I still would recommend each one (with more detail in my next posts).

Gotham Chamber Opera in collaboration with the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College presented The Raven as part of the NY Phil Biennial. Directed by Luca Veggetti. Conducted by Neal Goren. Featuring Fredrika Brillembourg and Alessandra Ferri. Photo by Richard Termine

Gotham Chamber Opera in collaboration with the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College presented The Raven as part of the NY Phil Biennial. Directed by Luca Veggetti.
Conducted by Neal Goren. Featuring Fredrika Brillembourg and Alessandra Ferri.
Photo by Richard Termine

My friends know me as being a pretty ambivalent New Yorker (I long for the mountains and sun and the possibility of running with a dog off-leash), but a real surprise of the biennial so far was to be reminded of the cultural capital and the sheer vastness of musical resource in this city.  What a clichéd revelation to arrive at!  But concertgoers come to start asking ourselves, especially in busy months: “Am I going to this or that performance tonight?”  A designed festival schedule that allows for the possibility of going to see this and then that performance has a way of putting the variety within reach.  Saturday was my first trip to the Gerald W. Lynch Theater (all of a ten-minute walk from Avery Fisher Hall) and my first time attending the Gotham Chamber Opera, to see Toshio Hosokawa’s dreamy static/dynamic vision of Poe’s The Raven.  The intimate staging for a cast of two (one singer, one dancer) was far removed from a night at the Phil, but fit very sharply into the biennial.  It seems the trust the Philharmonic extended to its artistic partners could have reciprocal benefits: perhaps future biennial festivals will have wider cooperation, and perhaps audiences (myself included, with Gotham Chamber Opera) will find their way back across the new bridges that are built this week.

The idea of taking a dip in what goes on all over the city of New York is hugely audacious for any one organization.  Even the Met’s objective—one opera a night for most nights of the year—seems to pale in light of such a challenge.  But perhaps that will be the future of this biennial: the loose netting of an exhibition as the guiding factor in a collection of new music from groups, artists, thinkers and fans from all over the city.  Tonight, I will hear Alan Gilbert speak about his ideas with leaders from Venice, the Whitney, and the Public Theater.  For today and this year, the question remains:  “What’s the NY Phil Biennial?”  It may be premature, but perhaps we can predict its future cousin: “What’s on the NY Phil Biennial?”

Dave Malloy: Singing for His Soul (Not His Supper)

At the composer’s Brooklyn apartment
March 26, 2014—11 a.m.
Interview and video presentation edited and condensed by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Under the gaze of Broadway’s bright lights and imposing marquees, musical theater seems an especially tough game to play in New York City. Yet it also made the elaborate canvas tent erected in an empty lot on 45th Street to house the Off-Broadway production of Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 all the more magical. Here was a show that had beaten the odds without following the rules.

This was actually the show’s third location after a premiere run at Ars Nova and a transfer to the Meatpacking district. Inside, the audience got cozy around communal tables while gawking at the staged Russian cabaret setting, ordered drinks and food, and then sat center stage as the action of the show unfurled all around them. Its composer (who also played Pierre through much of the run) carried us through this story, a sliver of the weighty War and Peace, on rowdy ensemble numbers and heart-breaking sung soliloquies. The borscht was complimentary, but the critics were in love.

I actually first met Malloy not in this fantasy slice of 18th-century Russia, but in a small Ohio town sometime in the late ’90s, both of us financing our summers by playing in the pit orchestra for a production of West Side Story. It made the success he was now enjoying—including a 2013 OBIE Award, a 2013 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater, and numerous “Best of” listings—personally exciting to see. But I was also curious to find out how the Dave Malloy I had known then, who was composing complicated chamber music for small university audiences, had grown into the performer before me. Dave, still as warm and open as I remembered, told me to come on over.


Molly Sheridan: Even though you took NYC musical theater by storm with Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, you didn’t actually start out as a composer with Broadway dreams, right? I get the impression that your back story is a little more convoluted.
Dave Malloy: I definitely grew up loving musical theater and watching the old films. I remember PBS would show The Music Man twice a year during their pledge drive, so my family would all huddle in front of the TV and watch that. I even did a couple in high school, but I was in the pit orchestra being a jazz pianist. Then, when I went to college, I was a composer, so I was writing serious, academic, classical, avant-garde music. I didn’t touch theater writing in college at all—I did summer stock, but that was just a gig. But looking back on it, I now realize that some of the pieces I was doing had theatrical elements. I was writing chamber pieces that had, like, a live chess game on stage. George Crumb was a big influence for me. A lot of his pieces have these theatrical elements. I did his Voice of the Whale—the performers are all masked and there’s the blue lighting. So I was definitely writing music with theatrical things in mind, but still not thinking about musicals at all.
I didn’t really get involved in theater until I moved to San Francisco and I was working at Amoeba Music, the giant, independent music store there. A colleague had heard that I played keyboard and he needed a keyboard player for some show he was doing at a small black box theater called the Exit Theater. So he asked me to do it, I said sure. I had just moved to San Francisco, so it seemed like a good way to meet some people. And basically through that one show, I made every connection that has brought me to where I am now. From there, I met the artistic directors of Banana Bag & Bodice, who I went on to write Beowulf with. And then Beowulf was seen by the people at Ars Nova and so then Ars Nova commissioned Great Comet. So the lineage all goes back to there.
MS: I was going to ask you about that move to the West Coast and its impact on your career, because the theater you did out there felt very relationship based, almost like a family. If you had come to New York versus going to San Francisco, things might have turned out quite differently.
DM: For sure. The theater scene in New York is so much more compartmentalized in one aspect and institutionalized in another way. I hear about young musical theater composers going through these lab programs and workshop programs and going to school for it. That just wasn’t my career path at all. In San Francisco, it was basically all centered around the San Francisco Fringe Festival, which we really don’t have an equivalent of in New York. The New York Fringe is very scattered, and there’s not really a community that builds around it. The San Francisco Fringe is a very tight-knit community. Or at least it was when I was there. You would do a show, and then people would come see your show, and then they would say, “Oh, I like you. Will you do our next show?” And I would say, “Sure.” When I was starting out in theater, I basically said yes to everything—every show that was offered to me, I said, “Sure, I’ll do that.” And even though some of the shows weren’t quite in line with my aesthetic vision, I was meeting people through that and just making those kind of networking connections. But in a very informal, casual, San Francisco way.
MS: Was there a defining moment when you realized, okay, this is where I’m going to focus as a composer?
DM: There were two of those. When I started out doing theater, I started out doing mostly sound design, and I was writing music for pretty experimental theater pieces. So it was mostly soundscape, electronic stuff, or stuff on piano. Then, little by little, I would write a song. In college when I was composing music, I didn’t really write songs at all. I wrote very much, you know, serious concert music. So I just started writing more and more songs.
The first watershed moment: I was with this theater company called Ten Red Hen, and our first show together was {The 99-Cent} Miss Saigon. We had done this literally zero budget version of Miss Saigon, but very non-ironically—embracing the material and telling the story, but we had a GI Joe [toy] helicopter [for the set]. Then for our next show, the artistic director wanted to do Bible stories through clowns. We started talking more and more that I should write more songs for this, and that was kind of the first time that I said out loud, “Oh, maybe I’ll write a musical.”

Malloy as Job in Clown Bible.

Malloy as Job in Clown Bible.

So Clown Bible was my first proper musical. There had been a couple other shows which could be called musicals, but in a very downtown, experimental theater way. But this was a really proper musical. There was a big first song, and everyone had a showstopper—all that kind of stuff. Then from that, I think that led to getting commissioned to do Beowulf with Shotgun Players. And that was the first big, big show for me. So that was the watershed moment, I would say, from Clown Bible to Beowulf.
MS: You are kind of a jack of all trades: composer, performer, sound designer. I would not be at all surprised to learn you ran the copies of the program at Kinkos right before curtain.
DM: I’ve definitely done that.
MS: That might be the nature of the type of theater that you are doing—when the budget is tight, all skills are on deck. But at this point, are you ready to give some of that multi-tasking away or is it hard to let go of having a hand in so many areas?
DM: It’s been harder and harder to hold onto that. As you start working with larger institutions, the work does get more doled out. One thing I’ve been trying really hard to hold onto is just doing all my own orchestrations, because that is something that is not at all commonplace in musical theater. Pretty much everyone farms out the orchestrations, which to me as a classically trained composer is mind-boggling. I completely object to that because I grew up studying Stravinsky and Bartók, where orchestration is half the battle—that’s where all the juice is. But I think in general, I am very hands on. I run my own website, and I’m constantly talking to the PR people about copy editing things in the blurbs. It’s just my nature. A lot of it is from starting out doing really low budget theater, where yeah, everyone does pitch in. I mean, the very first shows I did, we didn’t even have designers. There were five of us who did the show, and we ran all the lighting design, and all the sound design, and the costume design—we just created it all ourselves. So even that was a shift. There’s a lighting designer. I’m like, “So you just do the lights? Oh, that’s interesting.” When I was first doing theater, I didn’t realize that that was a separate person.
MS: Have you been in a situation where you have had to fight to hold onto the orchestration yet, either because of time or who you were working with, or does the nature of the shows you’re doing mean you can still call the shots?
DM: I haven’t really had to fight, but I have had to justify it. With new commissions when people ask about orchestrations, I’ve had to explain, no, this is something I feel very strongly about. I should be doing this. I think again, because I started out doing really low budget black box theater, I’ve always thought very economically. What is the smallest number of people that I can make this amazing with? So I tend not to think about big, 40-person orchestras, just because I feel like if you can do it with 20 people, that’s more economical, and therefore, better.
MS: Speaking of economy, as you were going through that list of shows, there was Beowulf, Clown Bible, and then we have plotlines about Rasputin and taken from War and Peace. It seems like you’re really attracted to these incredibly complex plotlines.
DM: I can trace that directly to Les Miz, which I totally grew up on and to this day absolutely love and adore. That’s a pretty complicated story—multiple threads, multiple characters. Also, when I was in school, I was a composition major and an English lit major, so I was studying literature and fell in love with Russian novels early on. I do love that complexity in weaving different stories together. I also love classics, things written 200-plus years ago. There’s always that really surprising moment in reading stuff and thinking, “Oh, my god. That’s exactly a thought that I had yesterday!” Just recognizing that the classics are modern in a way.
MS: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is actually based on just a small section of War and Peace, so you could develop other chapters and make it kind of your Ring cycle, but actually you’re now on to Moby Dick. You just can’t seem to let these epics go.
DM: I think Great Comet will be a part of two separate trilogies. So one is the Russian trilogy, which will be Beardo, which was a show about Rasputin, and then Comet, and then I’m doing a show about Rachmaninoff coming up in the spring. Rachmaninoff and hypnosis and how he wrote his second piano concerto under hypnosis. So that’s the first, the Russian trilogy. But then there’s also the great, impossible uber-long novels trilogy, which will be War and Peace, Moby Dick, and Ulysses. Ulysses is way, way down the road. But I’m working on Moby Dick now. I just really love the challenge of taking some mammoth piece of literature that has a bit of a reputation for being something that’s very difficult and that a lot of people are afraid to read, or people lie about reading.
MS: How do you approach a project of such scope? Do you have a “process” or is each project somewhat unique?
DM: In adapting War and Peace, or now I’m adapting Moby Dick, I start with the original text. So starting with Tolstoy, Melville. In both cases I found the complete text online and transferred that all into a Word document and then the writing of the text becomes this gigantic editing process down to an hour or two-hour long musical.

Malloy as Pierre in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Photo by Chad Batka

Malloy as Pierre in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.
Photo by Chad Batka

Then I tend to just think a lot while walking. I take walks in the park and listen to music and just think a lot about theatrical things—what would be a cool theatrical thing to do with this section? I’m definitely thinking of the musicality and the theatricality at the same time. With Comet, it was very clear to me from the beginning that Pierre should be playing accordion, that’s the way that we’re going to know that Pierre is kind of in charge of the evening, and that ultimately it’s going to become his story because he’s the band leader and is kind of welcoming people in as the host. That’s a good example of something being both musical and theatrical. Then I’ll go to either the piano or the laptop. I tend to trade off; if I get stuck, then I move. I’m on the laptop programming beats and improvising on top of those beats, and at the piano, it’s a more traditional, looking for interesting chord changes and melodies and things like that.
MS: How do you deliver the scores to performers? Since you’re probably accommodating a variety of backgrounds and levels of training, are you giving them scores? Handing out recordings?
DM: I typically do both, and the demo always comes first, so if there’s time pressure or if I’m working with people who don’t read music then I know the demo is going be the more important thing to them. So I give a demo to them, and then eventually I’ll start writing out the music.
I definitely find writing out the music to be a bit of a tedious task because I write so improvisationally. A lot of times I’ll sing melodic lines, and then I have the hour of trying to figure out the rhythm of this one two-bar phrase. I’m finding out that I tend to actually write in a lot of polyrhythms, so I tend to write like three against two, and five against two, and seven against four, and that just like naturally comes out when I sing. But then, when I have to actually notate it, it’s quite irritating.
MS: As I was going through the tracks on your website, I definitely noticed that you’re often dancing the audience through much of these shows, to a certain extent.
DM: That kind of came about right after I moved from college to San Francisco. In college I was really absorbed in classical music and jazz and, like, ‘60s pop. And that was it. I actually didn’t know anything that was coming out at that time, so I had no idea what was going on in modern music. Then when I moved to San Francisco, I started working at this record store and just started hearing things that people were playing. That was when I finally started listening to drum and bass music, and that was the first time I heard Radiohead and things like that.
It reawakened in me that I love pop music. I love rock and roll. I love dance music. I love soul. That’s something that’s kind of missing from a lot of classical, avant-garde music—there’s no sense of beat. It’s often very sound scape-y. Here’s some orchestral colors and interesting harmonies, but there’s not that driving sense of something that you can groove to underneath it all. And so that’s when I started to get interested in ideas like, “What if you did take the harmonic language of Schoenberg, but made it dance a little?” So yeah, that’s definitely been a driving force in my music, to keep that dance beat going on.
MS: Your shows have been categorized with labels such as “rock opera” or reviewers make comments about the mayhem and the manic action. Point being, there is a lot of in-your-face energy to these productions.
DM: I think a lot of that comes from just loving the vibe of being at a rock show. And I think San Francisco has a lot to do with it because when I was in my early 20s, I was going to a lot of performances that were kind of coming out of Burning Man—these very communal performances in shitty loft spaces in the Mission, and so people were crammed together and there was very little division between performer and audience. That was something that was always very exciting to me. And I do love that sense of spectacle and the feeling of having some drinks with friends and breaking out into song. All that stuff is very important to me. I hate the experience of going to the theater and being very proper and being quiet and being in the dark. That wall that goes up is not so interesting to me. Sometimes it’s fine, but in terms of what I make, it’s not as interesting.

The audience for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is seated in the middle of the action. Photo by Chad Batka

The audience for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is seated in the middle of the action surrounding Lucas Steele.
Photo by Chad Batka

MS: You seem to devote a lot of time to sitting in the position of the hypothetical audience member. Ars Nova’s artistic director, Jason Eagan, told the Times that’s why he let you run a little wild while developing Comet, because he knew you were carefully considering that at each step.
DM: Right. That’s another theory, that you don’t worry about the audience and that the audience will come to you if it’s honest. Yeah, I totally don’t believe in that. I definitely believe I am there to entertain people. I am creating these shows so that people have a good time when they go out at night. I mean, hopefully they’re also thinking and feeling—so you’re talking about big issues and having cathartic moments. But I feel if something is just purely an intellectual exercise, to me, that’s something I listen to at home on headphones by myself. If I’m going out, I want to have a more communal experience. I’m going out into public for a reason, so I want to be engaging with those people, and that means both the performers and the rest of the audience. So I want to have experiences where I can be smiling at my neighbor and maybe clapping my hands and singing along with them in non-cheesy ways.
MS: There’s a lot of alcohol in your works, both consumed in the shows and present in the lyrics. But also sometimes the audience is served as well.
DM: The alcohol I think just goes back to that communal experience and wanting to have an experience with both the performers and the audience. Alcohol is a social lubricant; it’s why people meet in bars and go to parties and have drinks. I just love breaking that stuffy convention of what the theater is and instead making it more like a bar room, more like a beer hall. I’ve joked, too, that I need to do a show for every alcohol, so Beowulf was a mead and beer show, and then Three Pianos was red wine and Comet was vodka. So actually in the fall, I’m doing a show about bourbon, called Ghost Quartet at the Bushwick Starr, which will be kind of a ghost story involving moonshine and whisky. But yeah, then I’ll have to write a tequila show and a gin show, etcetera, etcetera.

Sharing a drink during Three Pianos. Photo by Ryan Jensen

Sharing a drink during Three Pianos, Malloy with Alec Duffy.
Photo by Ryan Jensen

MS: It’s an awesome show sponsorship opportunity, as well!
DM: Right. We hope so.
MS: Do you have a core group that you always go to when you set to work on a new show at this point—a think tank of sorts? Theater is so complicated, like opera, in that there are so many creative people at the table and those relationships can be complex and challenging, but also really inspirational.
DM: Over the years, I’ve definitely amassed a kind of collective of people that I love working with, the strongest being my director Rachel Chavkin. We are now developing four new shows together. So, she was the director on Comet and also on Three Pianos, and she and I just see so eye to eye on all of these things. And then performers, so many people came through Comet and so many of them were so amazing. So this Ghost show is all with people who are from Comet; they’re like old friends. There’s definitely a community that’s been developing, but it’s a pretty broad range of people that come in and out.
MS: Does it develop a sort of family dynamic then, and you have to go to group therapy with your disagreements?
DM: (laughs) No. I mean, honestly one of the great things about Comet, and I think this is one of the great things about Rachel, as a director, is that Comet was such a loving family. There was such an amazing vibe backstage, and there was not a lot of, or really any drama amongst the cast or amongst the crew. Rachel definitely fosters that—she thinks of her role as director as: I’m in charge of the vibe of this room. I’m in charge of how these people feel towards each other. And so making it a comfortable place for people to work and to be able to be open to each other is her mentality, which I love because I’ve worked with directors who don’t think that way. I’ve worked with directors who really just think about what’s going on on stage, and that’s all they really care about. Then you do get weirdness backstage, and you don’t get that communal sense.
MS: What are the pros and cons of you being the author of the show, but then also one of the principal performers? That seems like it might set up some challenges, a little like the boss being at the party. You’re one of the team, but you’re also running the show.
DM: I definitely try to keep a sense of humor about it. I really do value everyone’s input and feedback at all times. Because I’m not acting like a dictator, I think it tends to work. It’s difficult. If I’m in performer mode, then it’s harder for me to hear what the strings are doing. One thing that was really useful in Comet was we actually had understudies, so during rehearsal I could sit out and listen to things and put my composer hat back on and think, “Oh yeah, I really need to fix that oboe line,” which I wouldn’t necessarily have heard if I was singing at the same time. So that can be a tricky thing to balance for sure.

I think it actually drives my directors crazy, too, because it takes me a while to actually become a performer. In rehearsal, I’m typically acting more as the composer and orchestrator and co-music director in ways, so its takes me a while before I actually start acting. Acting does not really come to me naturally, so Rachel’s really good about pushing me to put all that to rest and to just become the character and do all those acting things that people talk about.
MS: I love the honesty of the resume on your website where you lay out what each show has taught you. And then the blog you kept through the early days while forming your music theater ideas—it was really insightful.
DM: So you read all of that? Or some of it? Shit. I do have this very old blog, as a part of my website. There are more contemporary posts as well, but there are definitely posts from 2004, 2005, when I was very much a young artist being very scrappy and starting out in San Francisco. I’ve looked back on some of those blog entries and some of them are quite embarrassing, and some of them are very much about being so poor and just having wild, romantic artistic visions, but not actually being able to execute them. There’s part of me that’s thought, “Oh, I should take that down. Now I’m more professional.” But then another part of me thinks, “Oh, this is actually like very honest. This was who I was and where I came from,” and I feel like that might be helpful to someone else.
There’s one particular post in there, which I remember I got a phone call from my parents about because it was about running out of money. I literally was so poor I had negative money in my bank account, and I was trying to submit a grant application and I was at the post office and I didn’t have enough money for stamps, and—yeah, it was just a fiasco. But I decided to keep it all up.
MS: Oh, I think you should! That particular post says so much.
In another post you mention getting theater critics out to your shows, but wishing music critics would come hear these pieces. Is there music that you’re not writing because of the path that you’re on now?
DM: I’m curiously not all that interested in music that exists without theater for myself. Obviously I listen to tons of music that is not theatrical at all, but when I’m writing things, I don’t have a lot of interest in just writing a stand-alone song or a symphony or something. It just isn’t where my mind goes. I feel like anything that I want to do musically, I can do it in the context of a theater piece and it will be even that much more exciting, because there’s all this other stuff going on with it.
Every now and then, I like to sit down at the piano and try to write just a love song or something, and those exercises are pretty futile. It doesn’t really work because I feel like I need to have the bigger picture in my head to make something compelling. The larger theatrical vision is what makes this exciting to watch, not just to listen to.
MS: Do those scraps of things end up in your other pieces, or do you really need the big, over-arching vision before you can begin?
DM: Sometimes interesting chord progressions or something that started out as just me fiddling around on the piano will work their way into bigger things. But I’ve never thought of a string quartet and then turned it into a piece. It’s always been the other way around. It’s very much always coming at it from the theater first.

MS: So I want to ask this question with a caveat that I read the post you wrote about making theater and making money, so don’t throw any rocks or anything. But as you well know, these questions about making experimental work while keeping the lights on in the hall are of course ongoing and worrying people in the field. Since you’ve had success in this area, how do you find that room and that confidence to be experimental inside the challenges of current economics?
DM: I guess a lot of what helps is that I’m not coming at it from an economic point at all. I’ve never written anything thinking this is how I’m going to make money; I’ve always just written things that I’ve wanted to write. Fortunately, some of those things have ended up having some kind of monetizable qualities and some of those things have turned out to be commercial in some ways. But some of them definitely have not. There are shows that I’ve written that will never transfer to an Off Broadway or Broadway run. I feel like if you’re going into it thinking, “I’m going to write a Broadway musical,” then, yeah, you might feel a lot of weight, that “it has to be this, this, and this. And it can’t be this, this, and this. If I’m going to write a Broadway musical, I’m going to make a lot of money off of it, so I need to do something that’s going to make a lot of money.” I just never think about it like that. That just happens, and has happened on a couple of pieces, fortunately, but it wasn’t the intent for writing them.
MS: Is that harder now, though, since you’ve had the success with Comet? Do you find yourself answering creative questions certain ways because of what you know now and what you’ve experienced?
DM: Whether subconsciously or not, I think all the pieces I’m working on right now, none of them could possibly be Broadway musicals. I’ve very deliberately chosen a bunch of new shows that are way more experimental and way stranger than what Comet was—probably in some senses to protect myself from attempting to write another Comet and failing. Instead, I’m attempting to write things that are the polar opposites of Comet. If I fail at those, it won’t be as bad.
MS: So you set yourself up intentionally?
DM: Well, I think I’ve not set myself up, intentionally.
MS: Well put. But you’ve removed that pressure then a little bit?
DM: Exactly. If I started adapting Anna Karenina next, that would be just such a colossal mistake, you know, because it would be too similar. So instead, I’m doing this chamber ghost story piece with just four people—that’s going to be super weird, and probably mostly in the dark.
I feel that the success of Comet has allowed me the room to be more experimental, and the room to try out things that I’ve always wanted to do because people have more trust in me now—I guess because I have a reputation from this one show. So that’s been nice. But I’ve definitely gotten calls from shows that were looking at Broadway runs and shows with big producers behind them, but none of them have been things that I’ve been very interested in. So I’ve said no to a bunch of things which could have gone on to be Broadway things, but it just felt artistically dishonest to say yes to them.
MS: That’s interesting because we began this conversation chatting about how you used to say yes to everything in order to build your career. So there’s a certain point where that switches over to actually learning to say no?
DM: Absolutely. That was a hard lesson to hear. It was only in the last few years that I have started saying no to things, just because now there are enough opportunities that I can only say yes to the things that I really, really want to do, or I can make up the things myself, instead of doing what other people are asking me to do. So that’s been a really nice shift.
MS: Are you still doing the GMAT teaching on the side?
DM: Sure am. I’m teaching this Saturday.
MS: Do they know about your double life?
DM: I try not to tell the students. Some of the other teachers have seen my shows. But yeah, I think it’s important to keep one foot in that door, you know. In case all this does fall apart, then at least I’ve got this teaching thing. I can still pay the rent.
MS: We touched on your published resume before and how you list some of the individual lessons of the productions you’ve been in, which I found really insightful, so what have some of the more formative lessons been for you as you went from saying “yes” to saying “no”?
DM: The first big thing I learned from Beowulf is always have a bass. At first I wrote Beowulf, and there was no bass. I thought the trombones would cover it, and that didn’t work at all. So we had to add a bass at the last minute.

But I have thought more about the forms of the traditional musical. That has been interesting to actually analyze that stuff and realize really good musicals typically do start with a certain kind of song that sets up where and when we are. The prologue song of Comet originally wasn’t in the show. The first song was just Pierre’s first song. Then we did two workshops with that version, and the constant piece of feedback was, “It took me awhile to figure out who everyone was.” I got so sick of that comment that I wrote the prologue out of spite. Like, fuck you, here’s everything laid out as basically as I can.

It ended up being a big hit. So that was a lesson—that these conventional Broadway musicals actually do have lessons to teach. There really is a lot of wisdom in those pieces. You can look at those structures and you can play with those forms, of course, but at the end of the day, probably Act I does want to end with everyone in a moment of jeopardy, so people are excited to come back after intermission.
MS: You once said that {The 99-cent} Miss Saigon was your favorite thing you’ve ever done. That may no longer be true, but what was it about that piece that meant so much to you at the time?
DM: What was fun about doing {The 99-cent} Miss Saigon—and I think this is a theme that’s come up through a lot of my work—is we were simultaneously completely embodying the story, and at the same time, ironically commenting on it. We are walking that really delicate balance of actually telling the story, and in some ways, slightly making fun of it, but really actually loving the story and really wanting to tell the story. That was a really important discovery. I feel like that happens in Beowulf, and that happens in Three Pianos, that happens in Great Comet—we’re loving this thing that we’re talking about, but at the same time, we’re viewing it from a contemporary point of view. It’s a little ridiculous that Sonya bursts into tears every five pages in War and Peace. That’s funny, and so we can comment on that, but at the same time, still love and treasure her as a character and treat her as a human being and not a caricature.

{The 99-Cent} Miss Saigon

{The 99-Cent} Miss Saigon

MS: I think what was fun about reading through a lot of those blog posts was that look back to when you were first getting started. You followed your own path, and you’ve produced great stories as a result of that. We’ve already established that cash and a Broadway dream are not the driving motivator for you, so what is?
DM: I think for me, creating musical theater is the closest thing I have to a spiritual practice. I think that when I’m performing something live, or even when I’m rehearsing something, or developing something, or even just sitting in the audience watching something that I’ve had a hand in, that’s the moment in my life when I experience the sublime. I experience transcending beyond worrying about rent checks and health insurance and dry cleaners and all that. I love those sublime, transcendent moments, and I find that they come to me through music and theater. They definitely come through the community, through performing with other people. Sitting at the piano by myself is nice, but it doesn’t give me the same kind of spiritual satisfaction of really communing with other people and bonding with them. That’s the thing I guess that drives me.
And it’s nice if money comes out of that, because then it allows me to live and do more of it. But at the same time, working a day job is a completely viable thing as well. It’s fine to have the two separate things: I’m going to make my money this way, and I’m going to have spiritual enlightenment this way. If they happen to end up coinciding, that’s amazing, but I don’t think that it has to.

Bang on a Can Marathon 2013 Live Blog

ng on a Can Tubas
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Ready for nine hours of new music? For those who can’t be in the crowd for the 2013 Bang on a Can Marathon in New York City on Sunday, June 16 (Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts @ Pace University), we’ve embedded intrepid NMBx columnist Rob Deemer to keep you apprised of the goings on. So get ready, get set…
12:59. One minute to go and the audience is still filing into the hall here. Christina Jensen explained that, while normally the Marathon would be held at the World Financial Center, that venue is currently under contruction. The Schimmel Center at Pace University is an excellent venue – I saw David T. Little’s performance of his Soldier’s Songs earlier this year and it works great for both acoustic & amplified genres. I’ll be curious how the traditional setting affects the feel of the Marathon throughout the day – if you have questions or comments, please leave them below! 
1:19. The Marathon kicks off with Alarm Will Sound performing “El Dude”, the first movement from Derek Bermel’s Canzonas Americanas. This is my first time hearing AWS live, so check one more item off that particular bucket list! The ensemble is tight as they maneuver through Bermel’s serpentine counterpoint and backbeats; while it doesn’t swing per se, it comes mighty close at points. The luscious harmonies are well-orchestrated throughout the ensemble and overall the performers seemed to enjoy chewing into this piece. Acoustics have always been tricky with these concerts in the past – this performance was balanced well on stage, from my bearing, but some of the strings and other instruments are being amplified while others aren’t, which makes for a slightly off-kilter experience from the audience.


Alarm Will Sound
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

1:28. Alarm Will Sound continues with a work by Minnesota-based composer Jeffrey Brooks entitled After The Treewatcher. I’m not sure if it’s the particular way this piece is textured (it’s much thicker overall than Bermel’s with synths and electric guitar prevalent throughout), but the balance issue seems to be fixed. Brooks’ work is big and brash – very tasty piece!

1:38. In a complete contrast to AWS’s two big pieces, trumpeter Peter Evans comes out to perform a solo work of his own. Performing into a microphone, the virtuosic skitterings slowly morphed into a distorted sound mass…I’m not sure what kind of electronics are being used from the back of the hall (if there’s no electronics on this, then color me gobsmacked), but the performance as whole is very effective. Whispering in jazz-tinged lines that don’t ever seem to settle in one direction or another, Evans builds into something that could only be described as an Arban etude from hell. Scary chops and supremely musical performance.
1:51. Both Bang on a Can and Alarm Will Sound have been active in cultivating emerging composer talents – BOAC with their Summer Festival at MASS MOCA and AWS at the Mizzou New Music Festival at the University of Missouri – and the next piece has connections to them both. British composer Charlie Piper has attended both festivals and wrote Zoetrope for Alarm Will Sound last year. With its emphasis on cross-rhythms, insistent pulse, and fanciful colors, this piece is definitely within the BOAC oeuvre, but Piper’s use of light textures and transparent textures makes it stand out.
1:53. Christina Jennings just handed me a URL that you’ll want to check out: www.ustream.tv/channel/littledogtv – this will be in tandem with an upcoming piece by Lukas Ligeti!
2:07. Conductor and Artistic Director Alan Pierson announced from the stage that Caleb Burhans, one of the ensemble’s core members and composer of the next piece, got into a pretty serious accident last night after AWS performed an all-Burhans concert at Le Poisson Rouge last night. With hopes that he recovers fully, they lay into Caleb’s o ye of little faith…(do you know where your children are?) with conviction. o ye… relies less on constant pulse (though it is never missing) and more on slowly-evolving chordal gestures that build to a rumbling crescendo.
2:08. UPDATE: The link above will be a livestream of the Ligeti piece in a few moments…there will be a handful of performances that will be livestreamed today. Stay tuned!
2:16. As I mentioned before, the feel of this Marathon is pretty different – not bad, just different – than the previous ones in the Financial Center. The pace seems to be much quicker between pieces and you see less of the relaxed atmosphere than in the mall-like venue across town…again, no criticism, just an observation. I’ve wondered how well these concert Marathons would connect in a more traditional, enclosed space – time will tell.
2:36. Lukas Ligeti has been exploring the music of African and incorporating its concepts into his music for quite some time now and his new work for two drumsets, Iakoni in kazonnde, is a very impressive example of this integration. Inspired by Ghanian agogo bell traditions, Ligeti pits one drumset against another with intricate cross-rhythms overlaying on top of one another. It’s not as flashy as one might expect a double drumset piece to be, but infinitely more interesting.
2:48. Proof that the rock band/chamber music combination is not just an American concept, Cabaret Contemporain seems to have picked up the idea and ran with it in their homeland of France. They’ll be starting in just a few minutes…


Cabaret Contemporain
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

3:05. Wow – wasn’t expecting that. Not sure what I was expecting, but I’m liking it nonetheless. I’ve seen BOAC have DJ’s perform during past Marathons and this performance reminded of that – except it’s a live group with keyboards, electric guitar, drumset and two upright basses (though one had to leave the stage due to technical difficulties beyond his control only to emerge minute later to the delight of the audience). Not very subtle – it wasn’t meant to be – but quite satisfying in a visceral way. Their attention to timbre, balance, and texture is pretty impressive – it’s not often you see a bass player playing beneath the bridge and a pianist playing inside the piano while a guitarist and drumset lays down a complex techno beat. If you haven’t heard of this group – now’s the time.
3:32. After the first of several pauses, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus performs two new works, the first one, Before the Words, is an a cappella work by Shara Worden (she of My Brightest Diamond). Joyous in nature, Shara’s first foray into choral repertoire is deceptively challenging for the choir, but the young singers do a wonderful job of executing the interlocking textures – kudos to the two solo singers who came out front! All of these singers seem about 12-15 in age…really glad to see composers working with younger performers in such a high-profile context.
3:40. The 45-member choir is now being joined by a string quartet and piano to perform Nico Muhly’s Respect of a Storm. This piece pushed the envelope in different directions than Worden’s and didn’t fare as well…the textures seemed blurred at times and while the string quartet didn’t get in the way, it didn’t seem necessary either. The Chorus’ performance was solid, however, and one hopes that more choirs take this group as a model for working with new literature and living composers.


NYUSTEEL w/ NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

4:10. From Michael Gordon’s comments, Kendall Williams’ Conception is the first instance of a steel band – in this case NYUSTEEL along with the NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble) – that they’ve had at a BOAC Marathon. The work combines a six-piece steel pan ensemble with a 10-piece mixed chamber ensemble and the result is quite good – I’d be curious to hear what it sounded without the amplification (which made sections almost unbearably loud from my perch in the balcony). Williams mentioned that he’s played steel pan for over 20 years and is a graduate of NYU, so he knew the group well and wrote a damn fine piece for them.
4:19. You’ll probably notice that I mention the use of pulse, repetition, ostinati, etc. a lot today…I’m gonna stay away from labels, but safe to say we are at the Bang on a Can Marathon, so there are several threads that tend to run through much of the repertoire  during the day that I’ll try to explore as we go along.
4:33. One of the  characteristics of the BOAC Marathons are their penchant for sudden stylistic “left turns”, and we’ve just took one. Yungchen Lhamo and Anton Batagov (voice & piano respectively) are performing two works (entitled White Palace and Medicine Buddha) that are much more relaxed and tranquil than anything else we’ve heard so far. Batagov’s effective accompaniment serves as an undulating foundation upon which Lhamo meanders utilizing the vocal techniques she learned in her native Tibet. It is mysterious at times, listless at others, and ethereal throughout.


Brooklyn Youth Chorus and TILT Brass
(photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

4:58. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus returns to the stage along with members of the NYC-based TILT brass ensemble for Astral Epitaphs, a work John King composed for the final performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Park Avenue Armory two years ago. From what I can tell, the work is completely aleatoric, with each instrument and the choir being picked up by microphones that are being fed into a computer and relayed back through spatial speakers throughout the room with various elctro-acoustic transformations. With an array of 45 singers in a half-circle around the stage and three trumpets and three trombones lined up in front, the work is as visually stunning as it is aurally. I can imagine this piece was scheduled before the move to the Pace Center was necessary – the effect in the Financial Center’s Winter Garden would not be quite so harsh at points and more expansive in others…but overall the impact of the piece was very strong, especially as the choir began to sing in (relative) unison at the conclusion.
5:20. In-yo-face duo Talk Normal is about half-way through their set of three pieces…I’ll talk more about the music in a sec, but I’d like to point out that we’re sitting in a 700-seat theatre and not a stadium…I have the utmost respect for viscerality in performances, but I also like my eardrums. Taking the risk of sounding like an old man – it’s a little too loud. Just a touch. UPDATE: Ok, rant over. Talk Normal was actually quite inventive in their concept – they obviously wanted to make an impact with the audience and they most certainly achieved that.


Asphalt Orchestra
(photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

5:30.  It wouldn’t be a BOAC Marathon without the Asphalt Orchestra bringing their front line attitude bear. As the only new music marching band, they really do have a vast latitude with which to push & pull their repertoire. Today they’re  playing arrangements of several Pixies tunes arranged by the members of the ensemble as a sneak peek of their concert next week at Lincoln Center. Ken Thomson in particular is on fire during this set and Ken Bentley stands out in a great way on sousaphone.
5:54. Going on five hours planted in one spot…luckily I’m being easily distracted by the beautiful solo violin performance of Monica Germino. More soon…
6:07. I’ve seen a fair helping of works for solo instrument and electronics, but Julia Wolfe’s With a blue dress on may be my new favorite…a major work for solo violin (expecting the violinist to sing) along with looping and other digital effects based off of the folk tune “Pretty Little Girl with the Blue Dress On”. Germino was awe-inspiring in her performance of the work and the sound design by Frank van der Weii was just right…definitely one of the highlights of the concert so far.
The next work is Schnee by Hans Abrahamsen performed by the Talea Ensemble…Michael Gordon just warned us that it was an hour long and suggested those of us who have been here for a while might want to use the opportunity to grab a bite. I shall do just that…


Talea Ensemble
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

7:38. Alright – just was able to grab some dinner with Alexandra Gardner, so we’re both much more with it (6 hours in one place is a long time). I’d like to take this opportunity to give special props to Thomas Deneuville, the force of nature behind the online new music magazine I Care If You Listen. This is the second year that Thomas and I have sat next to each other as we live-blogged our way through the Marathon and while I was able to offer my power strip for his equipment, he’s been nice enough to share his photos of the concert (which are much better than anything I can get with my iPhone). When you get a chance, check out ICIYL!
7:45. A newcomer on the NYC new music scene, Hotel Elefant makes their debut performance on the BOAC Marathon by performing Angélica Negrôn’s trio for flute, viola/mandolin, and harp,  Drawings for Meyoko. Audacious, since the work was composed for another not-ancient ensemble – the Janus Trio – but also because the ensemble is so much bigger than this trio. Made up of 20 performers from NYC, Hotel Elefant is one of many new groups combining strong performers with an entrepreneurial mindset. It was a pleasure for me to hear the work, since I was already familiar with it from the Janus Trio’s recording and it’s so rare that we get to hear new works performed by more than one ensemble. The three performers, Domenica Fossati (alto flute), Andie Tanning Springer (viola and mandolin), and Kathryn Andrews (harp), were equally audacious and unafraid in the face of technical difficulties when they abruptly and calmly stopped the performance because they had lost their click track. A few minutes later and the second try came across quite strongly…Negrôn’s delicate electronics and intricate writing is top-notch and the trio performed beautifully in the face of adversity.
8:12. BOAC was nice enough to bring back the French quintet Cabaret Contemporain for a second set and while I think this set is even stronger than the first one (which was pretty amazing), it’s still a little disjunct to hear a group playing music that seems to scream to be danced to in front of 600+ audience members sitting there politely. Not a criticism, but an interesting observation…not sure what to make of it.


Bang on a Can All-Stars with Shara Worden
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

8:56. Almost eight hours in and the Bang on a Can All-Stars with their newest member, Ken Thomson, on clarinet and guest vocalist Shara Worden, have taken the stage. Introducing the next work is the composer, David Lang, as he describes his process of scanning through all of Schubert’s vocal works to find instances of Death being portrayed as a sentient being speaking about the afterlife, organizing them into a sensible order and setting them for the All-Stars. As with many of Lang’s other works, each section within the work seems to have one primary mood and texture with subtle changes shifting constantly. Worden’s voice is hauntingly beautiful in this context and the timbre of her voice soon becomes necessary – even a requirement – to make the full impact of the work come through – it’s hard to imagine anyone else supplying so much character while hewing to a narrowly limited melodic range. The ensemble as a whole gels effortlessly with no one sticking out or fading into the woodwork.


Maya Beiser with the Provenance Project Band
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

9:46. After taking a quick break to wish my dad “Happy Father’s Day” (hi, Dad!), I got back in time to hear cellist Maya Beiser perform Tamar Muskal’s Mar de Leche with the Provenance Project Band. Beiser sang magnificently through Muskal’s Arab-infused melodies while her compatriots on oud and hand drums all demonstrated their mastery on their instruments throughout the work. Beiser, more than almost anyone performing today, demonstrates a persona and an energy onstage that is difficult to define but definitely becomes an important part of not only her playing but of the work itself.
10:16. Blown away by the All-Stars’ performance of Annea Lockwood’s Vortex – great to hear the new version of the group with Ken going freakin’ nuts on bass clarinet. It’s been 10 hours since I got here and as much as I want to suck the marrow out of this bone to the very end, I am cashed out. I hope you’ve enjoyed my musings throughout the day and hope you get to come experience the Marathon at some point soon yourself.

Reports of the Death of Opera Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Soldier Songs

A scene from David T. Little’s Soldier Songs. Photo by Jill Steinberg, courtesy PROTOTYPE.

Two worthy and penetrating studies of opera take as their premise the idea that the form is dead. In A History of Opera (2012), Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker declare that the genre is “a mortuary” and “a thing of the past” even as they grant that recent decades have seen “a remarkable global increase in operatic activity.” They bolster their mournful claims in part by stacking the deck, paying scant heed to works from the past half-century or so. They sum up Henze, Tippett, and Glass in about a sentence apiece, allot fewer pages to Britten’s operatic output than to Handel’s Rinaldo, and fail to mention Kaija Saariaho at all.

Then again, why kill off opera only once? Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar had upped the ante with Opera’s Second Death (2001). They argue that opera came into the world “stillborn,” “as something outdated.” The notion is tenable given the antiquarian passions that drove the Camerata de’ Bardi and the form’s other progenitors, and the themes of loss, retrospection, mourning, and (would-be) resurrection obsessively revisited in Peri’s Euridice, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and countless other operas throughout the centuries.

Žižek and Dolar propose several candidates for “the last opera,” including three monumental unfinished works: Puccini’s Turandot, Berg’s Lulu, and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. And while they, like Abbate and Parker, acknowledge that composers and wordsmiths go on writing operas, they insist that the genre remains “a huge relic” and “an enormous anachronism.”
To my mind, there are two ways to respond to the gloom that permeates A History of Opera and Opera’s Second Death. The first would be to hide the books from the artists crafting and performing new operas lest they get wise to the idea that theirs, to quote Dolar, is a “zombielike” pursuit. The second, jollier and less obscurantist, would be to invite the authors to New York to sample remarkable work of the kind that I have seen and heard in recent months. (Two birds, one stone: perhaps then Žižek really would host Saturday Night Live.) Incidentally, those imps at Britain’s Royal Opera don’t seem to believe that opera is dead. They recently commissioned four new full-length operas for the 2020 season—inspired by the writings of none other than operatic-prophet-of-doom Slavoj Žižek.
Here in New York, on an icy February night following a brutal storm, Experiments in Opera’s New Shorts program played to an overflowing house at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room. With sizzling playing by Hotel Elefant, ten new ten-minute operas, each preceded by a video interview with the composer or creative team, captivated young and old alike. (The audience ran the gamut from children to golden agers, the latter in far smaller measure than typically seen at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall.)

Abbate and Parker note that nearly all now-canonical operas were seen as “disposable” when they had their premieres, and that exorbitant costs limit the risks that today’s major companies can take with new works. At New Shorts, no-frills direction by Louisa Proske, Stewart Kramer, and David Levine made plain that effective stagings need not be elaborate or costly. (The same holds true at big houses: the Met’s spare-to-the-bone production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, to be revived in May, is one of the company’s most powerful offerings.) As for the fungibility of the New Shorts operas, only time, that most wayward of arbiters, will tell which ones have legs. Their variety and consistently high quality impressed me, though, and the audience’s enthusiasm never flagged during a program of pithy works that added up to an epic-length evening.

Verdi and Britten celebrate landmark birthdays this year, and one reason why their operas endure is because so many were based on works by major writers, including Shakespeare, Schiller, and James. Two of the most compelling New Shorts operas also draw on illustrious literary sources: Bodiless by Gabrielle Herbst and The God’s Script by Justin Tierney. The latter sheathes in fierce, gorgeously orchestrated music a dramatization of Jorge Luis Borges’s “La escritura del dios,” the story of an imprisoned Mayan priest, sung with command by Jeffrey Gavett, who seeks to decipher a divine message encoded in the spots of a jaguar he sees for only an instant each day. Just as the novella’s narrator tells of “vertigo” and a “labyrinth of dreams,” Tierney’s score circles time and again around the same intervals, its claustrophobic darkness pierced by glistening threads of violin tone or washes of flute over prickly percussion.

Bodiless is a surprising title for a work based on “deconstructed text” by the philosopher Hélène Cixous, whose most celebrated essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” extols the “luminous torrents” and “unheard-of songs” that course through women’s flesh. In her setting, Herbst spins a web of soaring phrases and ululations for three sopranos: at New Shorts performed by herself, Ariadne Greif, and Lucy Dhegrae, all wearing lacy, shredded costumes with intertwining tendrils by Zaida Adriana Goveo Balmaseda. With no discernible action or narrative trajectory, Bodiless seems more rhapsody than drama. That said, its repeated phrase “the roar of light” suggests an affinity with Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (“Wie, hör’ ich das Licht?”), an opera whose own static Handlung traces an erotic journey beyond the body, and whose love music, all echolalia and vocal arabesques, similarly eschews singularity and sense.


Mark Emerson in Aaron Siegel’s The Collector, photo courtesy Experiments in Opera.

At the opposite extreme to Bodiless is Aaron Siegel’s The Collector, a monologue performed with wry brilliance by actor Mark Emerson that layers rhythmic speech over pointillist fragments of melody in a kind of ultimate distillation of stile rappresentativo. The Collector’s colloquial tone, oblique wit, and themes of paraphilia and fixation with ephemera (postage stamps) bring to mind the loopy “pictographic ballad operas” of Ben Katchor and Mark Mulcahy, the most winsome and intelligent new operas I have encountered in the past decade. Equally droll, WOW by Joe Diebes and Christian Hawkey makes something peppy and exuberant of the superego’s implacable ostinato (“I am ashamed of”), grandly intoned by Jonathon Hampton and Devin Provenzano, juxtaposed with a litany of disgraceful things spoken by Christina Campanella. They range from the usual suspects (“my penis size”) to matters trivial (“what my phone says about me”), earnest (“my hate-filled fellow Christians”), and forthrightly human (“having my butt checked”).

The Mother

Lisa Komara in Jason Cady’s The Mother, photo courtesy Experiments in Opera.

Jason Cady, whose Happiness is The Problem has just been released by LockStep Records, figured as both composer and performer at New Shorts. Sung and acted in dazzling manner by Lisa Komara and Erin Flannery, Cady’s The Mother pairs colorful scoring, sassy rhythms, and sweetly angular melodies with a young woman’s darkest nightmare: being overtaken in art and love by her mother, who morphs by outrageous happenstance from dreary crone to musical prodigy. With Ann Heppermann, Cady also acted in Matthew Welch’s The Three Truths, a robot opera based on a Sufi parable that hints at an elemental unease with the soulless, mechanical underside of vocal virtuosity. Gavett and Anne Rhodes sang with the requisite authority, and Seth Bodie designed the spectacular costumes for Welch’s opera and The Mother.

End Times

Elisabeth Halliday in End Times by Ruby Fulton and Baynard Woods, photo courtesy Experiments in Opera.

Leaha Maria Villarreal’s A Window to a Door, austerely scored for violin, contrabass, and electronic playback, explores music at the edge of silence. Her voice delicate, her presence poignant, Meagan Brus portrayed its sole character, a young woman who is held hostage—in jail? an asylum? a prison of her own making? Set in a dystopian future of planetary meltdown, End Times by Ruby Fulton and Baynard Woods shares the off-kilter humor of The Mother and WOW and shifts between the acid musings of an “existential weather woman” and the rants of a fundamentalist reverend, trenchantly played by Elisabeth Halliday and Robert Maril. The last New Short offering, Mary Kouyoumdjian and Hannis Brown’s I am a Fish, probes quandaries of identity with wild vocal writing, admirably sung by Seth Gilman, and a roiling score shot through with the sting of the electric guitar.

Theo Bleckmann in Phil Kline's Out Cold. Photo by Rahav Segev, courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Theo Bleckmann in Phil Kline’s Out Cold. Photo by Rahav Segev, courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Beyond New Shorts, New York has teemed with vital new operas in recent months. One could argue that Out Cold, Phil Kline’s monodrama that had its world premiere last fall at BAM under the auspices of American Opera Projects, is a monument to belatedness with its nods to Sinatra and Schubert, or that those touchstones along with Theo Bleckmann’s lean tone and conversational delivery represent a repudiation of everything “operatic.” But our current thinking about opera is defective, heedless of the form’s intimate currents—Monteverdi’s Orfeo, after all, was performed in private chambers at the Duke of Mantua’s palace—and bound to bloated 19th-century paradigms. Besides, when Kline cites for his boozer’s late-night reveries the Magic Fire Music that ushers Brünnhilde to sleep in Die Walküre, does he not demonstrate the truth of Nietzsche’s claim that Wagner is “our greatest musical miniaturist”? At BAM, Bleckmann was an opera unto himself, singing, dancing, and acting with forlorn elegance and consummate artistry, and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble made bright the many bewitching hues of Kline’s poison-sweet songs.

January’s inaugural Prototype Festival, produced by Kristin Marting, Beth Morrison, and Kim Whitener, showcased five new operatic offerings, selling out many performances and garnering praise from Justin Davidson, Ronni Reich, and many others. I missed Timur and the Dime Museum but did cover David T. Little’s Soldier Songs for Time Out New York. Like the bare-bones New Shorts presentations, Yuval Sharon’s uncluttered but potent staging of Little’s 2006 opera refuted the idea that opera companies need to bust the bank in order to galvanize audiences. The unit set—a sandbox—deftly conjured up the landscape on which several recent wars unfolded, and perhaps also the puerile and foolhardy spirit in which certain leaders waged those wars. And the image of blood slowly soaking through the business suit and dress shirt worn by the soldier when he returns to civilian life remains among the most haunting I have ever witnessed in a theatre.

Prototype also gave the world stage premiere of Mohammed Fairouz’s Sumeida’s Song, already familiar thanks to its fine Bridge recording and various workshop presentations. Here, too, smart rather than pricey stagecraft carried the day. The revenge-besotted Asakir is as high-strung a leading lady as Verdi’s Azucena or Strauss’s Elektra, yet Rachel Calloway, cannily directed by David Herskovits, made her wild grandeur work in a tiny performing space. And even with the fourth wall mere feet away from most viewers, Alixa Gage’s costumes and Zane Pihlstrom’s abstract set, strands of vinyl tubing aglow with the weird colors of Lenore Doxsee’s lighting, made a credible case for Fairouz’s drama of a family and a wider world undone by violence and abiding rancor. (Gage and Pilhstrom, incidentally, were part of director Gia Forakis’s team for The Kitchen’s poetic staging of Missy Mazzoli’s Song From The Uproar: The Lives and Deaths Of Isabelle Eberhardt last spring.)

The other Prototype offerings were Paola Prestini’s Aging Musician, a work in progress that happily draws on the resplendent tones of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and Bluebeard by the Dutch collective 33 1/3. An unnerving work without live musicians and with 3-D video renderings of corpses, body parts, and other ontological terrors, Bluebeard hovers between the post-human virtual and the Lacanian Real: the material ground of existence, unutterable and horrifying, shards of which can erupt in everyday life. (Quick, someone get Žižek and Dolar on Skype!)

For a “mortuary” and a “stillborn” art form, then, opera seems to be going strong, at least in these parts. In addition to the works mentioned here, recent months have brought new operas by Philip Glass, Victoria Bond, Douglas J. Cuomo, Nolan Gasser, Matthew Harris, and Thomas Pasatieri. The coming months will also bring keenly anticipated world premieres at San Francisco Opera (Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene) and Santa Fe (Theodore Morrison’s Oscar). Glancing beyond NMBx’s purview, Operabase lists some sixty additional new operas having premieres in 2012-13, at least one of which, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, opened to glowing reviews and will tour widely. This season, New Yorkers have also had chances to take in slashingly fine Adès at New York City Opera and the Met, where Nico Muhly’s Two Boys will have its local premiere in October.
Opera, then, seems to me “not completely dead”; in fact, it seems to be doing rather well. Call off the funeral and get in line to see for yourself.


Marion Lignana Rosenberg

Marion Lignana Rosenberg. Photo by Maeghan Donohue.

Marion Lignana Rosenberg has written about music, books, and the arts for Time Out New York, WQXR, Capital New York, The Forward, The Classical Review, and other publications. She has also written program notes and essays for Kronos Quartet, The Glyndebourne Festival, and New York City Opera.

The Inside and Outside of New Music According to the Times

This past week saw two articles about contemporary concert music published in the New York Times which intended to shine light on two important evolutions within the music community. It is not often that one gets such a parallax viewpoint on the subject of new music in the mainstream media, and the opportunity allows those of us who are active in the profession not only to digest and react to what is being said but also to gain a better sense of how our world is seen from “outside the beltway,” so to speak.

The first article, “Emboldened Orchestras Are Embracing the New” by chief music critic Anthony Tommasini is written with a perspective from within the confines of the concert hall. In it, the author investigates whether or not, as he puts it, “those who have campaigned for contemporary music [can] declare victory” as audiences and ensembles seem to be gradually becoming more open to new works as well as music from the past century that until recently had been anathema to traditionalist concertgoers. Of course his findings are mixed, as one could expect from such a wide swath of institutions and genres to choose from; Tommasini outlines the sliding scale upon which the acceptance of new music is most easily gauged, with chamber ensembles on the tolerant end and opera weighing down the other, as relatively few examples of full-throated support for new works can be found on the opera stage today.

While the article effectively (albeit lightly) touches on the various aspects of contemporary music in today’s traditional music scene, it also reflects some of that scene’s intransigence when it comes to breaking through the historical and stylistic firewalls that many ensembles and audiences have constructed. That intransigence is most acute when Tommasini brings composers from the early and mid-20th century into the discussion; with examples that include Bartók and Janáček, the article does little to refute the idea that these composers can and should still be thought of as “contemporary.” The fact that very few living composers are mentioned throughout the article does little to strengthen the argument that things are looking up on the contemporary side of things. Recordings by two younger living composers are included in the online version of the article, but as they were both performed by the American Composers Orchestra, an opportunity to prove that established traditional ensembles are adding new music to their repertoires is missed.

The second article focuses on the evolutionary branch of new music that started with the Kronos Quartet, matured under Bang on a Can, and has blossomed with an ever-growing number of composers and chamber ensembles whose music and presenting style represent an intentional shift away from the traditional concert hall and the stylistic traits that are associated with that venue. Written by Allan Kozinn and entitled “Club Kids Are Storming Music Museums,” the article springboards off the museum mentality that is inherent in most traditional music organization by suggesting that this new generation of composers and performers see all of the hubbub mentioned in Tommasini’s article as “beside the point.” Looking at the various aspects of this relatively new movement, Kozinn touches on what the characteristic traits are, the musical establishment’s reaction and recent embrace of the major players, and closes with a prediction that this non-traditional approach may strengthen into its own musical lineage in the same way other popular styles grew apart from their roots rather than affect a wholesale change on concert music itself.

As with Tommasini’s work, I found it too easy to lose the forest for the trees in this article. My gut reaction when I first read it was disbelief that this trend was being presented as being something new, as many of the changes and innovations that were mentioned seemed old hat to those of us who live and breath new music. It also struck me that the overall focus was very NYC-based, which caused me to throw out an open question on Facebook asking if others could give me examples of this new trend that were happening outside of Brooklyn and Manhattan—the ensuing conversation wandered through many issues that the article raised and culminated in Kozinn himself weighing in on my assumptions and nudging me towards his initial intent of the piece, the aforementioned separation into a stand-alone musical style that is both related and distinct from classical music.

I came away from both of these articles with some observations, not about the subject matter at hand, but about myself and my own thoughts on the changes that have been swirling throughout concert music over the past several years. As with several other articles that have come forth over the past year on new music, I found myself bifurcated between elation that the subject was being covered at such a high level and dismay at both the perceived simplification and tight focus on the Big City scene (an admitted bias I have from growing up in the cornfields outside of Chicago).

Upon reflection, I am realizing that it is too easy to discount such introductory explanations. Over time articles like these will help to erode the last vestiges of conservatism that has reigned for too long in the concert hall. Similarly, it is too easy (for me, at least) to cast too wide a net when I make musical associations; I find myself clumping many composers who are associated with the New Amsterdam label, for example, when their style and language couldn’t be more different. I feel that the shift that Kozinn mentions is not based on a school of musical language as previous innovations have been, but rather a social and generational concept that is both a culmination and a rejection of years of reaction against the bitter style squabbles that occurred in the past. To this end, I hope to see more articles like Tommasini’s and Kozinn’s to further the conversation.