Tag: place

New Music and Place: Creating Community

An invisible thread ties people together—by profession, by socio-economics, by ideology, by ethnicity, by gender, by interests, and by place. This could all be stratified further. Even within music, we tend to align by instrument family and/or by genre. We co-exist along many of these threads. The threads wound together create community.

Physical communities are shaped by the ecosystems in which they grow into existence. Our landscape shapes our perception of the world, and thereby our culture. The infrastructure and architecture reflects the environment, climate, and the people who have built lives in a place over time. Local museums overflow with objects of our collective past redefined as shared identity. The community thread connects us with a common understanding, language (lingo), memories, and shared experiences. It is this shared sense of place that is fostering the creation of new works that evoke the complex landscapes, histories, and cultural heritage of ensembles and their communities.

For many in the Southwest, lack of water is the pervasive reality. In January 2016, the Downey Symphony Orchestra premiered To Dust, a water war requiem for string orchestra and multimedia created by composer Bryan Curt Kostors. The piece shares the story of the decimation of the 110-square-mile Owens Valley Lake, northeast of Los Angeles. In 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed, diverting the water to the growing city. Today the lake is nearly dry, and its remaining sediment creates one of the highest levels of toxic pollution in the country.

In Georgia, composer Steven Landis composed Thronateeska for the 50th anniversary of the state’s Albany Symphony. The Flint River is a vital artery in western Georgia. Premiered in February 2015, Landis had percussionists use actual pieces of flint rhythmically to symbolize historic Creek people chipping away at the rock to create tools.

Some may argue that place-based music written in the present can “color the complexion of places,” but we can be richer for it. Since places, like music, are dynamic, they continually transition and are experienced over time. New associations and memories can broaden our perceived definition of place and spark imagination and new ways of seeing—and hearing. Donald Rosenberg writes “in commissioning portraits of their regions, orchestras are…exploring topics vital to their communities.”

Communities are also re-exploring their past and commemorating milestones through new music. To recognize Boise Idaho’s 150th Anniversary in 2013, the Philharmonic commissioned Idaho composer Jim Cockey to write Sacred Land: A Tribute to the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. The Dallas Symphony looked to composer Steven Stucky and librettist Gene Scheer to commemorate Lyndon Johnson’s birth 100 years before. In September 2008, the DSO premiered August 4, 1964 focusing on one of the most controversial days in Johnson’s presidency.

Most exciting is to see how the various community threads are weaving fresh patterns into our places. New music is being created that connects with our cultural heritage and reflects the cultural diversity within our communities. In central Illinois, the Heritage Ensemble brings the rich musical literature of the African American experience to a wider audience. The Seattle Symphony works to build cultural understanding through the creation of new music with local tribal nations through the Native Lands Project.

Thai born composer Narong Prangcharoen, a resident composer at the Pacific Symphony, researched Orange County, California, for a year to compose Beyond Land and Ocean. While he explored, talked to residents, and listened to the sounds of the waves, Disneyland, and mission San Juan Capistrano and nearly 60 other locations, the Pacific Symphony sought contributions from the public, who sent in personal stories, images, recordings, and other artifacts. Prangcharoen describes the work, premiered in September 2015, as a celebration of diversity and how that diversity somehow unites us.”

Likewise, composer Tod Machover immersed himself in the city of Detroit beginning in 2014. Integrating sounds of its industrial, social, and cultural history, he also collected conversations with people across all walks of life. Many are integrated into the performance of Symphony in D on stage. Speaking about the piece, Machover said, “having a project that is a kind of forum for people to be able to express themselves and to meet each other is wonderful. It can’t possibly be the ultimate story of Detroit, but it will allow people to rally around a narrative of their city.”

Previously, I stated that composing about place and its engagement with geographic, cultural, and human history advocates on several levels. Specifically music that we create about, for, and with a community can itself act as an advocate for these places. By integrating the thread of community, new music can advocate within places as well, to the people who live here and share an understanding of the place they call home.

Music and The Number Four

The number 4

The Number Four in a gray cloud.

This article is about The Number Four—the conclusion to a three-part message.
That’s right—my message had only three parts—Place, The Body, and The Heart.
Music and Place is about place, Music and The Body is about the body, and Music and The Heart is about the heart.  Each article progresses.
These articles are a progression inasmuch as form is visible.
The first article, Music and Place, ended with the line, “…finds form, loses it, finds form, loses it…”  Each article found its form then lost it, found its form, then lost it…  When form is lost, progression is broken.  One can still progress, if the finding and breaking of form becomes the progression.
The three previous articles’ ability to take shape is highly contingent upon how you see clouds.  Do you see black-and-white?  Do you see gray? Do you only see silver lining? Are you color blind like me?

A group of three neatly present a beginning, middle and end.  The first was an introduction, the second had plenty of meat, and the third tried to make sense of it all.

But what do you do with Four?  Two beginnings? Two middles? Two ends?  All we can be sure of is a beginning.
Here in The Number Four, my form is finally lost, not to be re-found.
Nevertheless, I will try.  Here are a few new beginnings:
How do you define locality when you nebulously float from one place to the next?
How do you embody in-the-moment magic?
How does one take form while staying true to the heart?

I think this Number Four is an ending to three beginnings, and three new beginnings to one ending.
The ultimate is always the least formed, the most becoming.
I have poured a great deal of energy into the way I write about music, as I have similarly done for the way I compose and play music itself.  As these writing choices come to focus here at the NewMusicBox, I am discovering that it is not so much a matter of finding (or re-finding) the right note, the right chord, the right word.  Rather, a note, a chord, a word, then another, then another, until you are out of space.
I’m afraid I’m almost out of space.  And i

n the first article I wrote, “I’m afraid it has begun.”

Writing is scary.

Although I’m almost out of space, I will say this: For both musical and literary composition, the work will shine through if it is deeply meaningful to the author or performer.  I hope it is clear that this is all deeply meaningful to me.

And, I’ll say yet one more thing:  I’ve thoroughly appreciated the opportunity to contribute to NewMusicBox for the month of May.  I hope my words have meant something to my fellow musicians and music appreciators here in the U.S.  I’ve had such a pleasure sharing my thoughts with you, and am thankful for the personal growth this process has afforded me.  Special thanks to the editors, writers, and readers of NMBx that keep this platform dynamic and relevant.

Music and Place

I began drafting this as I flew in the air between Boston and Chicago.
What a nice thought that is.  This was written from neither here nor there.  The air between Place One and Place Two is the locality in itself.  To be in One, the Other, Both, Neither.  What a nice thought.

We tend to deal, especially in discourse, in duality.  But perhaps that’s not the way to go.
There is no “yin,” no “yang.”  Just a conglomerate “yyianngg.”  If black-and-white and white-and-black are fused, then what color are we left with? Gray?

Music and Place

Yin yang = yyianngg?

This gray area is the area I occupy, in the air between one home and another, one residence and another, one affiliation, one identity, one tax code, and another.  This is also the color and area I occupy as a discourse-eur in music.  Gray, gray, gray.  In the air and gray.

As the brilliant pianist Glenn Gould once said, “For every silver lining, there is a cloud.”  There’s nothing wrong with clouds—they’re really quite wonderful things.

So, as we speak, I’m watching the identity of a cloud lose its form, its very nature.  Even a cloud can grow further nebulous.  Even the obscure obscures further still.

Am I nebulous to you? Every sentence felt sunny and crisp to write.  So how is it I am not clear? Antoine de Saint-Exupéry says it well: “Le langage est source de malentendus.” (“Language is the source of misunderstanding.”)  Misunderstanding starts with language, and I’m afraid it has begun.

A cloudy sky

A cloudy sky in my hometown of Chicago, in the neighborhood where I grew up.

So, here I am, in the air, in the midst of an ever-more-obscure, wet, rainy cloud, writing to you about Music and Place.  What is the music in what I say?  I am a musician, and that is the music in what I say. I write to you as a musician, in a musical way, and so music, music, music, is in what I say.

This is about Music and Place as much as Gray is about Black and White.
My personal history tells me Place is disappearing.  I am half Irish and half Chinese.  I speak neither Chinese nor Gaelic, and I have never been to Ireland or China.  I must wonder: What makes me a part of a culture—the sound of my name, my lingual abilities, the shape of my eyes? All seem like convoluted tools of measurement.  Yet they are the tools we use at the borders of our countries.  They are the tools we use to grant or refuse residency or citizenship.

Same goes for our locally subsidized arts agencies.  Grant eligibility requirements trace along those same cultural borders.  For every gray cloud, there is a Black-and-White lining.
If I was offered Irish and Chinese citizenship today, I would not accept, not for personal reasons, but rather, out of disrespect for the nationalistic platform of the offer.  What right do I have to Chinese or Irish government funds?

I have a friend who learned to play certain tuplets in Holland, and so he counts them in Dutch.
I learned harmony from a Russian teacher with a textbook in Russian.
I matured as a musician in the anomalous, bilingual city of Montréal.
I have been deeply moved by musicians from all over the world.
Perhaps the Irish and Chinese ought to subsidize my endeavors.

It seems there are two ways to negotiate our complex, diverse, and global web of music-making: Either jockey the heck out of everything, as if it is all free gain, or retreat to the rooted, familial plane, and herd with your local community.
A long while back, I wrote a post on my blog entitled “Light enough to be swayed, deep enough to be rooted.” These words take new meaning here.  Locality, as a musician in the U.S., is exactly this.  Like a pianist playing counterpoint, the opposites must be balanced—a harmonious inner locality must find resolution in oneself.  I read once in a composer biography that one builds a home wherever one may happen to be, not in the place, but in the music itself.  (I can’t remember from which composer’s biography I read it—does its location really matter?); I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment.  I float around my own atmosphere—my home in music—neither here nor there, from neither here nor there, in a colorful, gray cloud that finds form, loses it, finds form, loses it…


Andy Costello

Andy Costello

Andy Costello is a concert pianist, composer, writer of words, and reciter of texts. He was a visiting artist with the Boston Conservatory for 2013-2014, and is the founding pianist and director of the newly formed Morton Feldman Chamber Players. Costello frequently performs in Montreal, Chicago, New York, and Boston. He currently lives in Chicago, working as a freelance accompanist and piano teacher.