Tag: performance

Everything is real. There is no audience.



Contrary to annual fundraising-letter wisdom, I do not believe that music is a universal language. The immense variety of musical styles, systems, and genres performed around the world challenge our belief in a universal aesthetic. Do you immediately understand the use of Indian ragas? If you really stop to think about it, do you truly understand the complexity of Brian Ferneyhough’s music?

Music is a learned language, and it is a language that even as composers and musicians we must continue learning in order to stay literate. Even within the European “art” music tradition, can each music student write a fugue for transposing instruments? Furthermore, performing is a learned behavior. The understanding of music written and performed is not gifted to us at birth—otherwise music schools would have a much harder time collecting tuition!
Many in our community might argue, “Even if I don’t understand how to write a fugue, it doesn’t mean that I don’t understand music.” That is where we are making the distinction. Music performance isn’t just for those who understand the mechanics of music composition. Music and performance are relational. The fact is not that one understands the music but rather that one understands how the sounds heard, or produced, or written relate back to us. Music professionals are called to know more and that is why we endeavor to understand more of the language. Why is the sound organized in that fashion? Why does that chord make me feel that way? Performance is for all of us because it is generative not only for our own human capabilities but for our cultural system.

In my series of posts so far, I have argued that music performance is entirely for the performer and then alternately for the audience. What if music performance isn’t an either/or situation but really a both/and? It is both for the performer and the audience. In fact, it is larger than both because it is for the composer, the performer, and the audience member alike. Here’s the best part: the “and.” The act of performance is a special kind of social action—even at its most basic levels.
As Shakespeare’s famous line reminds us, we each have a part to play. When, at the end of a performance the conductor turns to the audience to gush, “You’ve been really great tonight!” I think we’ve all rolled our eyes at some point thinking, “Really?” Yes. You were there. You showed up. You actively listened and thus participated in this dialogue between musician and listener—a dialogue that is an inextricable aspect of the musical performance. You played your part.

The art object by itself is neither art nor non-art: it becomes one or the other only because of the attitudes and feelings of human beings towards it. Art lives in men and women… the processes of sharing become as crucial to the semiotics of music as the sonic product.
—from Music, Culture, and Experience: Selected Papers of John Blacking

We each have a reason for going to a performance. The terror of classical music marketers everywhere is that more audience members forget why they go to these performances in the face of all of their other options. It is true that some people go to a performance quite literally just to be seen. But we must consider the multitude of other reasons. Composers go to hear their musical ideas come to life. Musicians perform on stage to realize the fullest expression of their craft. Listeners go for escapism, for education, and possibly even for epiphany. The fact remains that each person in the performance space has a personal reason to be there. The very reason that performance is both/and instead of either/or is because we are all there to play our own parts.
Finally, there is no truer act of civil society than for all of the parties involved to voluntarily show up to a concert hall and exchange in ideas that are broader than the facts and figures of commerce. Music expresses the experience of individuals in society. Yes, there are examples of music performance bringing about social change. But, on an even more basic level, the act of presenting an idea through the arts that is being actively considered by another listening human is extremely valuable. At a time when polite discourse seems threatened at every turn, musical performance is an event wherein conflicting ideas can be corporately considered. Musical performance is an opportunity for each of us to further shape our own ideas and the society in which we live.

It was absolutely reductive to think of music being solely either for the performer or for the audience. This is a both/and situation because we all get something different out of it. We are all there to play our own parts: performer, listener, and composer. The essential thought of this argument is that there should never be two groups: the music-makers and the listeners. There are simply participants in the musical performance. Everything is real. There is no audience.

There Is No Right Experience

String Quartet

“All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.”
—David Bowie, album notes, 1995

A few weeks ago I was discussing an idea for an interactive piece with a friend. The idea involved the audience making decisions about what the musicians would play next, a sort of musical “choose your own adventure.” He was intrigued, and enthusiastic, but ultimately the conversation turned to whether that was “it”—whether creative staging and presentation were the things that would come to define music for our generation. I don’t think they are because I believe the thing that defines our current musical era is that no one thing can possibly define it.

Berating the traditional ritual of classical concerts is very much in vogue today. In a recent BBC interview, composer Jonny Greenwood spoke about how the “reverence and silence with which most classical concerts are done now” has squeezed the excitement out of the musical experience. And while their music itself tends to hold up (and even succeed wildly), groups like LA’s wild Up and The Industry have built reputations largely on their breaking of—or willful, useful, and joyous ignorance of—classical boundaries.

I love creative concerts like this, be they Gnarwhallaby playing contemporary repertoire in bathrooms during parties or the elaborately choreographed, intensely personal experience of Chris Cerrone’s Invisible Cities at Union Station. The question that such events beg, however, is whether the concerts distract from the music.
While my friend, on the other hand, is happy to encourage creativity, he enjoys the traditional silence of the concert hall where you’re inherently assigned the role of listener. You know when the concert starts because the conductor walks out. You know when it ends because the performers bow. You know who the performers are, because (if you’re me) they’re probably dressed classier than you. Because everything is set, you can just sit back and focus completely on the music. There are no wild costumes or lighting or dancing or clinking drinks and clapping between (or—GASP—during!) movements to consider, just what’s being played.

Let’s call these two modes of presenting music the “traditional” and the “alternative,” and skip the discussion on how the “alternative” is actually the norm in most musical traditions outside of Western classical music. Music, for the most part, doesn’t compete with other music for an audience. Attending an alternative concert one night doesn’t stop you from attending a traditional one the next in the way that, say, buying an iPhone would stop most people from buying a Galaxy. An unplanned tangent: the elite of the tech world often have both anyway, so why don’t we who consider ourselves informed, perhaps even elite, concertgoers seem excited to take advantage of both models? We don’t have to pick a side.

Chris Cerrone’s <em>Invisible Cities</em> at Union Station

Chris Cerrone’s Invisible Cities at Union Station

Moving on, it’s clear that the concert experience affects a listener/receiver’s experience of the music, sometimes greatly. To use the Invisible Cities example again (sorry Chris, it’s an easy target for this discussion), did I hear the opera that Chris Cerrone committed to the page, or experience director Yuval Sharon’s interpretation of it? And how does Yuval’s presentation affect the work? In this case, I’m pretty sure I really, really like the music Chris wrote, but I’m not sure how much of it I heard clearly while my attention was on the dancers and the setting. The question that such an issue brings up then, in my mind, is “what is the work?” What, as an artist, am I creating? If I’m making something, shouldn’t I be clear on what that something is?
There are two answers here. One (the one that follows from Cage’s thinking, which I’m a fan of) is that the work is whatever the listener decides it is, whether consciously or unconsciously. In this case, to me, Invisible Cities is the amazing collaboration that happened at Union Station. To Yuval, it might be the score he started from. To someone purchasing the recording (which is out this week), the audio coming through their speakers is likely the work. Although the recording comes in a lovely boxed set with postcards from the opera’s setting…surely that must be considered as well. All of this leads us to being able to say that each receiver’s definition and conception of the work will be unique. And that’s awesome. That’s part of why I love experiencing art almost as much as I love making it—because experiencing it is a form of making it, via what happens in your own head as you receive it. Take that, fourth wall.

The other answer, and one I sometimes lean on for my own internal life-narrative as a composer, is that the work is what the creator intends the work to be. There may be a greater work that comes out of collaboration, presentation, reinterpretation, and so forth, but the work that I made is whole when I take my hands off of it and send it out into the world, and anything that happens to it after that is an often-positive transformation. The logical conclusion of this is that, before the 1890s, the work (from a composer’s point of view) was the score and performance. Since we now have this whole “recorded medium” thing, I believe that my work, if it happens live, is the score along with any performance coaching or performing that I’ve been involved in, and if it happens on record, everything included in the package—the mix, the album art, potentially even the performances. Obviously there are collaborators every step of the way, but when someone asks me what I’ve made, handing them a CD feels like a good answer.
Of course, that person’s speakers and room will have something to contribute, be it additional reverb or some lovely (or not very lovely) distortion. So we’re back to answer one.
It’s possible that this belief—that the listener controls the work—is the reason I enjoy writing “choose your own adventure” pieces, or works with open scoring or that are extremely open to interpretation. I’m making the relationship between art and receiver explicit. Sometimes I have something incredibly clear to say with my art. Then I use traditional, precise notation. Sometimes I have an idea that I could be excited about in many forms, or am working with performers who I know will bring things to the table that I hadn’t even considered. In those cases, I largely prefer to leave things open.

Who is to say that my interpretation is best, or that a best interpretation even exists? And why should we limit ourselves, as composers, performers, or listeners, to just one option? We’re the creative ones, right?

This is one of the rare cases where I’m excited that there’s no good answer. It means that you and I are both free to make our own.


Nick Norton
Nick Norton is a composer and guitarist from Los Angeles. He grew up playing in rock bands and formally studied composition in college at UC San Diego, then at L’ecole Normale de Musique de Paris, then in graduate school at King’s College, London, and UC Santa Barbara—and in a whole bunch of garages, studios, apartments, backyards, beaches, mountains, bars, libraries, clubs, restaurants, and deserts. The LA Times describes his music as crazy, and NewMusicBox referred to his pieces as “visceral sonic haiku” after a show in New York. Nick really liked that description. Recent projects include a commission for guitar and electronics from Worldwide Guitar Connections, new works for Gnarwhallaby and Synchromy, an orchestral arrangement of Brahms’s complete Piano Quintet in F Minor, and an album and singles with his band, Better Looking People With Superior Ideas.

The T.A.R.D.I.S. of Opulence

Lincoln Center

Every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom / Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room. We don’t care; we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.—Lorde, “Royals

Lorde gets that, despite our most vivid imaginative efforts, most of us “will never be royals.” Her 2013 hit anthem (written by the artist and Joel Little) speaks to a public whose music represents a distant life of luxury and apathy, a public that uses its cultural products as a way to envision economic escape.

I’d like to ask to what degree those of us who participate as audience members in other registers of American culture are encouraged to use our musical experiences to imagine ourselves as royalty of a different era.
Unlike Lorde, I’m less concerned with how “every song” conjures this imaginative exercise and more concerned with the role of venues in this conjuring. While we hear music in a variety of contexts, live presentation continues to affect our experience of music and—even more so—of communities and their collective culture. When we listen together, the space in which we convene affects our impression not only of the sound but of ourselves.

I suspect that readers experience musical liveness most often by purchasing tickets to events wherein they sit or stand as a group for two to three hours focused on a sonic focal point.(Don’t worry: I will address other contexts for listening in later posts.)
This kind of event has its roots in court spectacle. The earliest public concerts were presented in spaces which were themselves established as cosmopolitan translations of royal theaters—in Paris, Berlin, London, New York, Boston, and the rest. One of Liszt’s notable early concerts in 1838, for instance, was at La Scala in Milan, a place built to accommodate its royal patrons and originally called “Regio Ducal Teatro alla Scala” (The Royal Ducal Theater [at the site of the former church, Sancta Maria della] Scala), and whose red and gold sparkling interior is now a yardstick for modern nostalgic opulence. Going back further, Paris’s first concert series, the Concert spirituel (1725-1790), was presented at the Opéra, a court-turned-public space originally built for lavish royal entertainment in the city. Though it burnt down later in the century, we can presume that its shimmering decor and lush furnishings rivaled the best of Versailles. According to one contemporary observer, it was “one of the most royal and commodious” venues in France.

The list (and a more complex history) could go on. Nearly every European and American city of note in the 19th century built such a theater. Why? Many reasons: inter-city competition, demonstration of wealth and prosperity, investment in municipal and cultural infrastructure, a desire to capitalize on the affluence generated by new industries, and a push to support the booming noisily-wrapped-candy industry. (Almost) all of these can be boiled down to this: in the same way that court concerts and theatrical events served a dual purpose of entertainment and self-aggrandizement, reflecting the wealth and grandeur of the sponsor back to her and out to her peers and rivals,these new spaces for public concerts provided a space for music while simultaneously connecting their audiences to the imagined luxury of the past. They were designed to augment their public’s sense of self-worth, historically and financially.

Recall the crystal chandeliers, lush carpets, and enormous Chagalls of Lincoln Center. Its fountain seems lifted from Versailles. Or picture the Kennedy Center’s mid-century monumental marriage of marble modernism with the ceilings of an airplane hanger. I know that these iconic places are merely one type—one extreme type—of venue for musical entertainment. But these are the public icons for the arts, places we have all been (or at least can recognize)—places that, no matter whether we believe in their viability and worth or not, we hope to attend at least once in our lives as a kind of rite of passage into a community of listeners and patrons.
Add to that experience of wealth and grandeur the fact that most music we hear in these venues is old—beyond ancient, in the parlance of 18th-century citizens, for whom music from a previous a generation had the stink of Camembert gone bad—and you’ve got quite a potent cocktail: music that transports us to the past in a vessel that communicates how rich we should like to be when we get there.

Taken as a whole, these kinds of events are to music what the big white wedding is to love and commitment: whether you participate or not, the dress, décor, and behavior of that kind of event are the standards for public expression in our cultural imagination. For merely the price of a concert ticket, you can spend two hours feeling like you really are that prosperous and enlightened. Instead of driving a Cadillac in your dreams, you’re sponsoring your own orchestra.

What is gained and lost in each of these kinds of spaces? What kinds of musics are designed for an experience outside of the T.A.R.D.I.S. of opulence? Is there even a way to listen to this music collectively without being transported to a different time and place—and class? In the next posts, I’ll explore a wider variety of spaces, some at the opposite end of the spectrum—think CCR’s “Down on the Corner” rather than Lorde’s “Royals”—the music of those spaces, and their effect on our economic self-conception as audience members. Some musical experiences are presented as fleeting, others as permanent, some as intimate, others as grandiose. The underlying goal is to take as many contexts for listening as seriously as possible, including those not designed for serious listening.


Emily H. Green

Emily H. Green is an assistant professor of musicology at George Mason University. Her thoughts on the social function of music and its print culture appear in a number of places, including most recently as a short story here. She is also active as a performer on historical and modern keyboards.

Music and The Body

Costello performing Aperghis in Montréal

Costello performing Aperghis in Montréal, January of 2013. Photo by Fredrik Gran.

Take a deep breath in.  Breathe out.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been given these directions in a musical score.

It’s a reminder.  It’s the composer’s way of saying, “Don’t forget, my friend, you are a body.”

People should start saying, instead of “I want to be somebody,” simply, “I want to be a body.”

I think embodiment is profoundly important to music.  One of the seminal books to my artistic practice was David Borgo’s writing on embodiment in Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age.  He speaks of the “embodied mind”—this notion nearly drove me into the field of musicology, and away from the realm of performance.  I was ready to give up embodiment in practice for embodiment through the mind.  A demented notion, I know.

Although I’m sure I would be happy either way, I’m thrilled that instrumental performance is my primary professional activity.
I began serious piano study as a practical necessity—and in a sense, a rite of passage—to becoming a composer.  Most music schools, even if you intended to major in something else, required an entrance audition on an instrument.

In undergrad, I quickly realized that I cared more for doers than for thinkers.  Thought is beautiful and powerful, but only in its implicit relationship to action.  I believed (and still do) that written and spoken thought is only re-actionary, and can never usurp the action to which it refers. To pay tribute to the late, brilliant Colombian writer, Gabriel García Márquez, “Lo único mejor que la música es hablar de música.” (“The only thing better than music is to talk about music.”) I couldn’t disagree more with this sentiment.

These are the terms under which I have become involved in theatrical repertoire on the contemporary music scene.  I have become a self-proclaimed “speaking pianist”—a pianist who, in addition to playing the instrument, recites text and embodies characters at the piano—and have commissioned and performed works for the body and voice, even, at times, entirely away from the piano.

(This is not to say that I am the only “oddball” on this front—and far from the best!—as contemporary music in the U.S. can only be characterized by exceptions to the rule.  Notables in this arena that come to mind are the NYC-based collective ThingNY and Aiyun Huang in Montréal.)

In recital, I find myself wanting to speak off-the-cuff to the audience.  To me, the entire tradition of an untouchable, superhuman performer is antiquated.  As soon as I take that initial bow to that willing, clapping, smiling audience, I think to myself, “I owe at least this to them—to present myself as a person.”

What does this have to do with The Body? The body, and the use of it, in this particular setting, is the only way to dismantle those lofty ideals of immortality created by superhuman virtuosity.  The body is our reminder—to both performer and audience alike—of mortality.

I play arguably the easiest musical instrument upon which to produce complex sound—the piano.  Packed with centuries of innovation, the modern concert grand is the Frankenstein of the concert hall; it is a cumulative technological invention of which to be very proud.  Kudos to those working hard there.

However, this technician’s pride should never override our will to seek out the instrument’s visceral qualities.  The ghost in the machine is not a ghost at all—rather, a living, breathing, speaking, moving person.

Superhuman strength is a man-made creation—a form of machinery.

As a speaking pianist, I have, on several occasions, turned 90 degrees to the right, to face the audience directly.  I am always thrilled by this moment.  The action swiftly effaces my noble pianist profile—the Romantic façade of a hero.  No longer is one staring at another, but rather, we are now looking at one other.  I occasionally see sheepishness in the faces (does that make me a shepherd?), exhibiting an awkwardness you may feel when your eyes accidentally meet those of a stranger you had been watching without their knowledge.

The most fundamental aspect of classical music performance practice is voyeurism.  The audience may stare upon the performer, and the performer must act as if they are unaware, looking either at their instrument, at their sheet music, at the conductor, at other instrumentalists, or the least-but-still-acceptable choice, playing with their eyes closed—essentially, anything but the eyes of the audience. Turning to the audience changes everything—it shifts the experience from voyeuristic to collaborative. And what a glorious shift that is.

Nobuyuki Tsujii

Pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii.
(Credit: Wikipedia, Wikicommons)

Let me shift your attention to Nobuyuki Tsuji, the 2009 Gold Medalist of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.  A blind musician, Tsujii often “looks” directly to the audience, as if reaching out in a deeply vulnerable way.  The theatrical effect is quite tangible in his performance of Chopin’s Berceuse.

An audience can be nothing but voyeuristic when watching Tsujii perform.  His condition awarded him the ability to look wherever he pleases without reprimand.
For me, I go to live concerts to directly interact.  If I feel like not interacting with other bodies, I’ll stay at home and listen to a recording.  (Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that either.)  The use of the body in a concert setting offers an accessible and dynamic alternative to the long-standing performer-as-deity ideal.  I’m not interested in watching a superhuman compete in a human challenge.  No one likes a rigged game.


The most outstanding theatrical performances are those that embody, not those that transcend.  In theatre, super-human actors are useless.  What makes them any more valuable in music?  The purest musical virtuosity convinces us that even the most physically transcendent feats are commonplace and human.  The etymology of “virtuoso” suggests excellence and mastery, not deification.  Descriptors like “god-like” and “superhuman” are hyperbolic.

The in-the-moment magic is what I crave as a spectator, not the aforementioned descriptors.  As performers, we should do our best to preserve that aspect, and to preserve it virtuosically.   The Body—and with it, the visual, the theatrical, and the voice—is essential to my artistic practice as a musician.  The Body is all we’ve got and embodiment is all we can do, and no composition or performance in the world can transcend this.

Join me next week as I write to you a third time, using body parts to discuss body parts: Music and The Heart.

A Wholly Factual Account of a Failed Attempt to Transcend Gender Through Electroacoustic Musical Theatre

I was excited to see that Alex Temple’s blog post, “I’m a Trans Composer. What the hell does that mean?” was reposted here at NewMusicBox. I think it’s a great article, dense with ideas—each paragraph could easily be expanded into a full article itself. And even though I’m not transgendered myself, I found a lot in Alex’s words to relate to and identify with. This part, in particular, might apply to nearly every composer who has commented on NewMusicBox:

Even though, objectively speaking, I’m an insider in the classical music world—I’ve been studying it formally since I was a kid, and I’ve been in academia for ten years—I always wind up feeling like an outsider, no matter what city or scene or university department I’m in.

For Alex, being an outsider is connected to her identification with being genderqueer, and there’s certainly a kind of metaphorical resonance between the two. And while you certainly don’t need to be genderqueer to feel like an outsider, feeling that way can give you a certain sympathetic resonance with other kinds of outsiders. At least, I’d like to think so.

Maybe this is one reason why I’ve felt a recurring need to explore or investigate issues related to gender through music. But it’s a puzzling thing. At times gender and music seem to have nothing to do with each other, while at other times they seem inseparable. Vocal music, in particular, seems inextricably bound to gender, as the history of gender-swapped roles in opera makes apparent. (Pop music, too—The Magnetic Fields’s Stephin Merritt makes gender ambiguity a near-ubiquitous trope in his music.) This is a tradition I’ve participated in from time to time. When determining roles for my opera Light and Power, librettist Jillian Burcar and I agreed that it made sense to cast Nikola Tesla as a soprano, to highlight some of his androgynous qualities and his self-professed celibacy.

Other times, my attempts to experiment with gender through music have not gone so well. When writing my piece Concerto for Mannequin Head, I was thinking a great deal about the disembodied nature of electronic music. With most live music, even if you don’t know much about musical performance, you can discern certain things about how the music is created just by watching someone perform. Electronics, on the other hand, are often a black box. There may be no easily discernible visible difference between someone playing back a recording and someone doing extremely detailed, virtuosic live performance. This is even leaving out the issue of what kind of preparations the performer has done before the performance. The synesthetic connection between the visual display of skill and the resulting sound is essentially severed. You can look at this as a problem or an opportunity. The opportunity is that this black box can be filled with essentially anything you can dream up. It is a great chance, in particular, for theatre—but theatre is a wholly different art form from music, with its own set of skills and conventions, as I learned the hard way.

My solution to the electronic music problem in Concerto for Mannequin Head was to employ a sort of intentionally shabby (is it too pretentious to call it Brechtian?) theatricality that asks the audience to suspend their disbelief in the face of a transparent fiction. The conceit that the audience is asked to buy into is that an onstage mannequin head is singing to them. Meanwhile, backstage the real performer (in this case me) sings into electronics that modulate and distort the human voice, rendering it ambiguously gendered (and dubiously human). During the cadenza, the mannequin head “malfunctions” and the human performer must come onstage to “fix” it.

In its first performance I thought the piece worked pretty well, with its campy humor and elements of surprise. The next time I performed it, however, I did not have a mannequin head handy, so I asked another composer if she would like to play the part of Mannequin Head, and she agreed. I was not at all prepared for how this would dramatically change the character and meaning of the piece. When the soloist was a genderless inanimate object, it could be a kind of stylized, androgynous projection of myself. But by changing that into an unambiguously gendered human being, suddenly the piece was less about identity and technology and more about power and control. During the performance, I started to feel profoundly uncomfortable in a creepy, Pygmalionesque way.

The lesson I learned (other than that I should probably leave theatre to the theatre kids) is that while music itself isn’t inherently gendered, gender can have a huge impact on how music is perceived and interpreted. I have also become more suspicious of claims that music can transcend gender in some way. I do think that it still has the power to say interesting things about gender, though!

New England’s Prospect: Babylon Revisited

The Great Gatsby

Ryan Turner leads the orchestra and chorus of Emmanuel Music in The Great Gatsby, featuring Gordon Gietz as Gatsby.
Photo by Hilary Scott.

His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was….

American operas, apparently, can have the second acts American lives cannot. The concert performance, at Tanglewood on July 11, of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby—after the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who famously hypothesized that particular limitation of biographical dramaturgy—was a bid for redemption. The program notes (and pre-concert discussion) were less about the piece than its time in the wilderness, from its lukewarm reception at its 1999 Metropolitan Opera premiere, through various salvage operations, small and large (a set of songs, a set of piano etudes, a suite, a chamber-sized version) to this full-orchestra reprise—itself a reprise, the chorus and orchestra of Emmanuel Music and the cast repeating their performance from May. The concert was presented as an opportunity for vindication, a chance to replace that original reception with something more generous, a chance to “fix everything just the way it was before,” as the protagonist put it. The opportunity was taken: a large and enthusiastic crowd saved its biggest ovation for Harbison himself.

That The Great Gatsby still doesn’t come off as an effective piece of music theater seemed beside the point. So it might be worth asking in what guise the piece might work, what it might be, what people might hear it to be—or want it to be.

* * *

The performance, to be sure, was enviable. Conductor Ryan Turner drew out the score’s depth and sway; the orchestra gave everything a patina of assurance. The singers were similarly fine. This was musical boosterism of a high level, musicians determined to present the piece in the best possible light.

In such an accomplished realization, and in a concert performance, one alternate way to hear The Great Gatsby emerged, and that is as a three-hour tone poem of Gatsbyian moods, with an obbligato layer of singing. Three hours is a lot, but the orchestral writing is frequently marvelous, a perpetually fluid swirl of plush fabric. The shading can be subtle and exquisite. Towards the beginning, an interlude transitions the scenery from the opening—Nick Carraway (David Kravitz) visiting his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Devon Guthrie), her hulking husband Tom (Alex Richardson), and her friend, the professional golfer Jordan Baker (Krista River)—to the Valley of Ashes, the industrial wasteland that is home to Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Katherine Growdon). Harbison takes the bass clarinet from the previous scene and sharpens it into a more mechanical clarinet-marimba combination; high strings, previously providing an upper overtone to the singers’ brief litany of Gatsby’s name, suddenly get an ominous cushion of horns and a brittle piano-and-harp ictus. Later, for the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, Harbison pulls out a terrific orchestral shimmer of radiant cool—fluttering winds, hollow brass, washes of glissandi. Harbison is a composer for whom the orchestra seems a natural habitat.

Ryan Turner, with soloists Devon Guthrie (as Daisy) and Gordon Gietz (as Gatsby) during the Emmanuel Music performance of The Great Gatsby. (Photo by Hilary Scott.)

Ryan Turner, with soloists Devon Guthrie (as Daisy) and Gordon Gietz (as Gatsby) during the Emmanuel Music performance of The Great Gatsby. (Photo by Hilary Scott.)

But the result is that the orchestra drives the piece, not the voices. In a few places this is effective—instances of civility and strained politeness that can’t quite escape the roiling instrumental tension. In other places, it ties the drama down. This becomes especially apparent when Harbison is emulating 1920s pop, which he does with a stage band and a cornucopia of authenticity—banjo, choked crash cymbals, and a megaphone-wielding singer (Charles Blandy), arranged with uncanny precision—while adding just enough sophistication to make his compositional touch apparent. Again and again, though, as that music drifts into the orchestra, the characters are left to fit their lines to this material, settling into the trompe-l’oeil like some sort of musical Tetris. As Myrtle and Tom are going about their adulterous fencing, for instance, the orchestra’s simulation of pop radio is so exact that it becomes a distraction—or keeps their interaction too light and trivial to make the escalation to violence convincing. When Nick and Jordan are setting the scene for Gatsby’s entrance, they seem trapped in the party’s dance music, to the point that their own characters are effaced.

Harbison’s text-setting is largely syllabic and beholden to speech rhythms—clear and natural, but rarely letting the singing take flight. In his program note, Harbison remembers Sarah Billinghurst, the Met’s Artistic Administrator at the time of the commissioning of Gatsby, telling the composer, “It is my job to prevent you from becoming the librettist of this opera.” One wishes she had been more diligent. Harbison hits all the novel’s marks—the mystery surrounding Gatsby (Gordon Gietz); his yearning for Daisy; the affair between Tom and Myrtle, with Myrtle’s husband (David Cushing) lurking in the background; Gatsby’s parties; Gatsby’s underworld partner, Meyer Wolfshiem (James Maddalena), sidling in and out; the observers, Nick and Jordan, observing—but the whole thing unfolds less as a drama than a slightly perfunctory tour of Fitzgerald’s landmarks. The libretto is, often, its own synopsis. (This reaches a kind of absurd apotheosis at the beginning of the second act, when the chorus is so busy singing about how rumors are spreading about Gatsby that they largely fail to spread any actual rumors). The opera is not so much concerned with telling us the story as assuring us that it knows that story well enough to tell it.

The problem is not that the libretto is clunky—plenty of operas have thrived on even clunkier libretti—but that there is a mismatch between the blunt exposition of so much of the text and the expansive, emotional musical style Harbison pursues throughout the piece. If there were a Nobel prize for music, one that worked like the awards for the sciences—for innovation and discovery—some composer would probably win one for coming up with an effective modern version of recitative. The Great Gatsby, certainly, could use some of that explanatory speed. Opting for the modern perpetual-arioso mode of operatic composition, Harbison gets stuck treating plot-heavy dialogue at a deliberate tempo better suited to freeze-frame emotional peaks. Slowed down to a lyrical crawl, the prosaic nature of the text becomes a liability.

Harbison defaults to Fitzgerald’s language in a way that gives some scenes a pageant-like feel—and frustrates operatic energies. The novel’s more famous phrases duly appear, but stick out as quotes among the surrounding abbreviation. (Harbison’s deference to the novel is especially apparent in comparison with Baz Luhrmann’s movie version that came out this spring. Harbison has Gatsby fade in, his small talk with Nick about the war veneered into the middle of another ’20s-pop recreation. Luhrmann skips all that in favor of an extravagant reveal, Gatsby filling the screen, lovingly lit, with a backdrop of fireworks and the slightly anachronistic climax of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue blazing forth. Ridiculous? Absolutely. But also more effectively operatic than anything in the opera version.) Nick’s final peroration—the orgiastic green light, the boats against the current—is justly famous, but setting it word-for-word, as Harbison does, is to deprive opera of its own chance at storytelling. One suspects that a Puccini or a Strauss would have sent Nick on his way, given us and the orchestra one last flash of the green light, and rang down the curtain.

* * *

Cast of The Great Gatsby

The cast of The Great Gatsby bows following their performance. (Photo by Hilary Scott.)

But there is still another way of listening to the piece, one I actually found the most interesting. One can hear The Great Gatsby as an attempt at the Great American Opera—and, crucially, an attempt that is not only a) fully aware of its own status as such an attempt, but also b) fully aware that the category is largely nonexistent. Think about some of the more plausible candidates for the Great American Opera: Susannah, or Vanessa, or Einstein on the Beach, or Nixon in China, or (my own vote) Bernstein’s Mass. There are other candidates, certainly, but even that little gathering is indicative of a category either so wide open as to defy usefulness, or based solely on a kind of epic quirkiness.

Harbison has done something a little different, though—he’s fashioned a convincing simulation of what an ideal Great American Opera might have sounded like to someone who, at some time in the past, might have cared about such a thing. The overall sound: tonal but brawny with dissonance, muscular yet lyrical. The use of an American vernacular: those lovingly exact pop tunes, given the structural prominence of Bach chorales. The source material, classic literature honored with a fidelity to please a high-school English teacher. Through this lens, The Great Gatsby becomes something intriguing: a consistent evocation of an imaginary art form, complete with flaws. Maybe that’s what the audience was applauding, sensing the audacity of a truly grand-scale bluff.

Harbison’s idea of the Great American Opera is, essentially, modeled after Verdi. The party scenes owe a debt to the last act of La Traviata; perhaps Harbison’s decision to write Tom Buchanan, essentially the opera’s heavy, for a tenor voice is an emulation of the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto (which would make Nick, a baritone, an appropriately jester-like figure). But Verdi would gut-renovate his sources until he had a vehicle for lapidary musical characterization. The Great Gatsby doesn’t come close to such a ruthless translation of the novel’s delicate style.

There are a couple places in the score where we get a glimpse of the terms on which the opera might have worked: the duet between Gatsby and Daisy at the end of the first act; and the second scene of the second act, with all the main characters gathered at the Buchanans’ house and wilting in the heat. The characters are suddenly in the sharpest focus, paradoxically supported by the most impressionistic passages in the piece, both scenes suffused with a transparent, luminous haze of orchestration. And, significantly, both scenes are among the opera’s least-plotted. In those passages, one got the sense that simply situating the characters among a loose string of symbolic images—the parties, the car, the eyes on Dr. Eckleburg’s billboard, the green light—might be more than enough to hold up a Gatsby opera. Gatsby’s frangibility, his airy tragedy, is of a piece with the most elliptical, dream-like qualities of American life and American celebrity: all charged snapshots and everyday epiphanies, the ephemeral and inconsequential turned into the everlasting and paramount.

Late in his short life, Fitzgerald, who was in the habit of sending his daughter letters of advice, informed her that “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” The Great Gatsby, the opera, making sure that the pipes are free of leaves, ends up draining the pool—but not before, for at least a couple of brief moments, casting off the novel’s reputation and diving into the deep end.

Artful Deception

Sometimes I like to think of musicians as stage magicians. There is a kind of artful deception that’s a part of performance, but it’s rarely acknowledged and often downplayed, especially in the concert music world. I mean this in a literal sense—e.g. the rock star moves or Liberacean flourishes that are decried as flashy or ridiculous—but also in a more abstract sense. There is never perfect communication between artist and audience, so there must always be a disconnection between how the trick looks (or sounds) and how the trick is actually done.

This is most painfully obvious to me when I am working with live electronics. The laptop is a black box. Sounds mysteriously emanate from it, but the means of their production are obscured. If performance didn’t require magic, this would actually be a huge boon to musicians and listeners alike. Finally, we can dispense with superfluous showmanship and focus on the substance of the music! But in real life, the effect is curiously the opposite. If anything, electronic performers are more exposed than their acoustic counterparts because they cannot easily demonstrate their methods. Attempts to make the black box a little more transparent, like live coding or gesture following, to name a couple, aren’t terribly convincing on their own. Instead performers must rely on affective tactics (i.e. schticks) like stoic immobility, or the enthusiastic headbob, or various fader manipulation shenanigans.

Maybe my anxiety about this kind of performance is partly what’s kept me focused more on electroacoustic music (and lately I’m especially aware of how quaint “electroacoustic” sounds as a genre descriptor). With live acoustic instruments as the focus, I am free to be invisible, a presence felt but not known. I don’t think of myself as a performer when I run electronics for these pieces, though I am undeniably performing. Instead I feel more like a technician or a midwife, guiding the music into being.

But maybe this feeling is obsolete, a throwback to a time when people were more naturally suspicious or scornful of electronics. Something substantial has happened in the last 5-10 years, and all of a sudden everyone knows that any kind of live music can be faked. In theory this is kind of scary, but in practice it gives us an enormous amount of freedom: all people expect is a good show.

The Role of Analysis

Yesterday, a friend and colleague posed the following question to a group of composers: “How important do you feel analysis of your work is for its performance?” As someone who has given this issue a great deal of thought, I was happy to weigh in with my opinions; I’m hoping that NewMusicBox readers might have different takes on this issue and will share their thoughts in the comments section.

Personally, I believe that analysis is essential in that it helps performers to differentiate between essential compositional details and those areas where they can take liberties. I want each person who takes the time to engage with my works to forge their own path through the music and to create a unique interpretation. The challenge is that music notation can be an insufficient guide in directing them towards the aspects of the score that lend themselves to subtle deviations from the notes on the page. For example, some microtonal areas of my pieces must be exactly tuned in order to create a specific harmony with its subtle colorations, while I design other similarly notated passages in order to express a deviation from the equal tempered norm without expecting that the resulting harmonies will be precisely realized. Generally, a cursory analysis of the speed of the gestures along with their relative frequency and relationship to the surrounding material suffices to help distinguish between gestures that require exactitude from those that allow for more variance.

I also am wholly convinced of the stupidity of composers when it comes to our own works. When we create new pieces, we need to focus on microscopic details as we select the little black dots that best convey our grand emotional aspirations. This myopic approach ideally allows us to construct compositions in which all parts relate beautifully to the whole while expressing something greater than the sum of these constituent elements. No matter how carefully we consider all of the specific components of our compositions, once these little worlds leave our desks other people will invariably discover relationships that had eluded our initial understanding. In less successful works, our carefully hidden ciphers will be orphaned by a lack of interest in unveiling their underlying design. In more successful works, the efficacy of the whole will far surpass the sum of the systems on which it is based. In either instance, the ability of the final product to convey its own message functionally obliterates the intent of the composer. The music speaks for itself.

To me, the best collaborations are with those performers who learn enough about my music to create their own unique interpretation. As I compose a new work, I generally hold a single performance in my head, and I hope that the premiere will convey that vision. After the premiere, I hope that performers will be able to express their own thoughts about the piece, within the framework of my composition. I treasure those moments when I feel that a work that I created can be a vehicle for communicating someone else’s inner life. I believe that effective analysis is the best path for determining how best to remain true to the composition itself while creating a new work of art through each performance.

In Defense of Extended Techniques

I guess extended techniques have kind of a bad reputation these days. They don’t make a piece better, the argument goes. Instead they distract from other, more important musical parameters like melody and harmony. They’re a crutch that composers fall back on when they’re out of ideas. There are some good reasons to feel this way–especially in the context of student works. When composers are in an exploratory phase and are trying out new things, extended techniques can fall flat. But I don’t see a problem with this as long as the student learns from this experience and is able to discern which uses are expressive and which are superfluous.

So I’d like to mount a defense of sorts of extended techniques. Since the field is so broad, I’ll just focus on a few examples from one instrument: the vibraphone.

In George Crumb’s Madrigals, Book I, for soprano, vibraphone, and contrabass, the percussionist creates vibraphone harmonics, plays the instrument with fingernails, and even hits the strings of the contrabass with mallets. Extended techniques are such a natural part of Crumb’s language that it’s hard for me to imagine his music without them. Certainly it would not have the same lonely, ethereal, otherworldly quality. Playing the bass with mallets comes close to silliness perhaps–the bassist alone could probably create a near-identical sound–but in the context of Crumb’s obsession with ritual and spatial relationships, it makes perfect sense.

Christopher Deane’s Mourning Dove Sonnet comes dangerously close to being one of those student extended-technique-omnibus pieces, but the pitch bending trick here isn’t just a facile gimmick. It’s inextricably connected to the lilting mourning dove motive which is threaded throughout the entire piece, and the other techniques, including bowing and harmonics, play an effective supporting role.

On the other end of the density spectrum, Sonic System Laboratory prepares two vibraphones with mechanical devices that generate a non-stop flurry of sound. Sure, there’s not much here in terms of melody or harmony to contend with, but focusing too much on that would be missing the point. The incredible variety and fluidity of timbral transformations rivals that of a much larger ensemble or a purely electronic piece, and is more than enough to sustain interest.

Samuel Carl Adams’s Tension Study No. 1 is perhaps a hybrid of these two approaches. As the piece begins, timbre and atmosphere seem to be the central concerns, with sparse guitar and vibraphone chords occasionally punctuated by other percussion hits. But as the piece unfolds, large-scale harmonic relationships reveal themselves in a methodical fashion that draws you through the silences. Like Crumb’s music, this piece would be far less interesting without the extended techniques, such as the ubiquitous pitch bending that often connects one idea to the next.

Finally, I can’t help but note that “extended technique” is a fluid and elusive term anyway, and with the success of these pieces, it seems possible, likely even, that in five to ten years everything I’ve mentioned here will be considered standard technique, and this article will be obsolete.

That Which Cannot Be Avoided

“[B]y playing loud, fast music, patrons talked less, consumed more and left quickly […] When the bar’s music was 72 decibels, people ordered an average of 2.6 drinks and took 14.5 minutes to finish one. But when the volume was turned up to 88 decibels, customers ordered an average of 3.4 drinks and took 11.5 minutes to finish each one.”

—Cara Buckley, “Working or Playing Indoors, New Yorkers Face an Unabated RoarNew York Times, July 19, 2012.

Everyone knows that there are few things that I enjoy more than subjecting myself to a new experience, particularly a music-related one. I use the word “subjecting” with intent here, but also somewhat carefully since I know that for some people it will seem like a strange word choice.

As I’ve stated before, for me, listening is an act of submission; it’s about tuning myself out in order to experience something else on its own terms to the best of my ability. So that means turning off my own conversation. (As a blabbermouth child, this was a painfully difficult lesson for me to learn, but I eventually did and I’m troubled that some people nowadays seem to think this is not a skill everyone necessarily needs to acquire. I think not being able to stop talking bodes ill for a democratic society.) Perhaps as importantly, it means turning off my own inner thoughts. (This is still a struggle for the very reasons that one commenter opined about last week; I’ve constantly got my own music running through my head, especially when I’m in the middle of a composition.) More important than either, I think, is turning off your preconceptions and the inevitable judgments they induce. So often I find I’m not really listening to something if I carry any preconceived baggage about what it is, could be, or should be. Rather, I’m listening to myself. I still don’t think I’m always able to effectively channel out these preconceptions as much as I want to; it’s a lifelong project.

All that said, I want to make it clear that this “act of submission” cannot be a selfless one; it requires a desire to do so. Listening is ultimately an act of willful submission. It’s voluntary; if it’s involuntary, it doesn’t really work. I also realize that music surrounds us in so many contexts that it is impossible to pay undivided attention to all of it.

Case in point, the other night my wife Trudy and I were eating in one of the restaurants in our neighborhood. There was a live musician there. This is something I’m extremely in favor of as a matter of principle—any opportunity for people to be able to express themselves in a creative way and, one would, hope be remunerated for their efforts, is an inherently good thing. And I was happy to listen to him, to a point (not my ideal focused listening, since I wanted to engage in some dinner conversation and of course needed to communicate with waiters, etc., during the performer’s set). We sat as far away from him as we possibly could so as not to disturb him. As luck had it, however, I couldn’t possibly have disturbed him because he was so heavily amplified that I was barely able to hear myself speak, so I know he couldn’t possibly have heard me. When he was done with his set, the pre-recorded background music was cranked up even louder than he was. Not only was I unable to hear myself talk; I really couldn’t hear myself think, either. Yet, surprisingly, despite my total immersion (albeit unwillingly) in the music emanating from that restaurant, I can’t remember anything I heard that night. This is ambient music with a vengeance—foregrounded ambience. Its goal is not to get you to pay attention to it, but for you not to be able to pay attention to anything else. Much as I love the food at this place, I’m not eager to return.

According to the New York Times report I cited at the onset of these paragraphs, many bars, restaurants, and clothing stores maintain speaker volumes that are louder than power mowers or oncoming trains. It is potentially causing irreversible hearing loss to the people who work in these environments and can cause collateral damage to patrons. I’m also concerned that it is also reducing our ability to actually listen in a meaningful way.