Tag: venue

Space Matters: A Call for Community Action

Microphone on stage

Microphone on stage

Carnegie Hall. Covent Garden. The Louvre. Yankee Stadium. Notre Dame Cathedral. No doubt, venue matters. Watching baseball in Yankee Stadium is a completely different experience compared to watching a game at the local high school. A concert in Disney Hall is a different experience than at the downtown proscenium theater. Hearing a rock band in an arena is different than at the club down the street.

For thousands of years, we have built grand structures to honor what we deem most important—the temples of Greece, the Roman coliseum, the capitol building, and the concert hall. We have been consuming music in opulent European-style churches, gilded halls, and luxurious salons for hundreds of years. These settings lift up and support a musical art form built upon the shoulders of wealthy aristocrats and the social elite. These locations helped to elevate the music of the Western art tradition.

But times have changed. Symphonies now struggle to pack houses as their core demographic yearning for Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms has aged. Subsequent generations of symphony goers raised on electrified music are accustomed to the related changes in music venues—from huge sports arenas to intimate jazz clubs. In recent years, we have witnessed musicians producing concerts in even more nontraditional spaces—from suburban living rooms to dance studios. An even younger audience is increasingly more accustomed to an internet experience, and we’ve already seen live webcasting become a part of our space equation.

This quest for new spaces is valid and important but is not without challenge. The biggest obstacle for new music is the price tag. Traditional halls are extremely expensive to rent and often come with a high degree of associated labor expenses and financial risk. The typical individual composer, performer, or small organization has an uphill battle in finding traditional spaces that are affordable and available. Many of us also want to find spaces that are flexible and where a sense of intimacy can be created. To find this, we often look at multi-purpose venues that are not necessarily designed for acoustic music. This can create a wonderful atmosphere and intimacy with the performers but can be challenging when it comes to acoustic quality, location familiarity, and the need for additional equipment (lighting, pianos, percussion loading). We are also often competing for access with other groups such as the theater companies and dance troupes that typically use these spaces. Still others are crossing genre lines and performing in traditional jazz and rock venues to mixed results.

I have been getting the message for quite some time now that the new, adventurous, artistic music of today needs a new kind of concert hall that can lift up the sounds, honor the audience experience in the artistic process, and frame the work of a community of fearless music makers.   The bottom line: we need more dedicated spaces for music of the 21st century.

Nationally we are seeing this need met with a couple of different models. Venues like Le Poisson Rouge, Redcat, and National Sawdust are unique, dedicated music spaces outfitted with the latest technology that are hip, fun, and quality places to listen. But these are rare and special places. Privately owned venues provide an enterprising option for access to music but most need to make sure that the financial bottom line is always the first consideration. All too often, clubs are unwilling to take chances on new or developing shows, and we need more spaces to create access for all artists.

The artist consortium models like iBeam (Brooklyn), The Center for New Music (San Francisco), and Exapno (Brooklyn) are brilliant models that provide access to rehearsal and performance spaces, share resources, and build audiences using their collective power. Across the country we can work together to create more venues that honor the music and help audiences engage. Even now I am involved with creating a much needed physical space here in Seattle and know that much work lies ahead. Ultimately, the difficulty of pulling off this model is why it will be hard to scale this nationally—creating partnerships, finding adequate physical space, the time equity required, and the financial risk are just some of the barriers.

Every once in a while, we get a developer with vision (and often a financial incentive) to build into their plans a public performance space. The Seattle area has had several developers independently commit to taking this on and they have brought us 12th Ave Arts and Resonance Hall at Soma Towers. While these spaces are much appreciated, they are still not enough to impact the whole city, and there are few cities in the world that are experiencing the level of rapid growth and development that Seattle is. What more developers need is an incentive and a mandate.

Nationally, 28 of our state government’s have a Percent for Art program that funds public art at a percentage of the total cost for all new federal building projects. Many municipalities also have city ordinances that require new buildings to spend a percentage (usually around 1%) on art for the public benefit. We must work together as advocates to demonstrate the importance of contemporary performing space as well and find a way to sell the need for such support to a larger public.

Our formal symphony venues will continue to honor the standard Western European repertoire of the past, but we have grown beyond the 19th century-style hall. Our cities are changing rapidly and it’s time to pick up the cutting-edge contemporary performance space as a platform to honor the values of our society in the same way we continue to fund libraries in a digital age. With our collective action, I think it is easily within our grasp to begin to create a new kind of concert hall for the 21st century—bringing in new audiences, inspiring new generations through art and music, and building stronger communities. This is doable. This is my call to action.

New Music and Globalization 4: Archipelagos

Norway islets

Photo by Sigfrid Lundberg, via Flickr.

In this series of posts, I have considered various models of globalization and how they might have influenced, or be read in, the aesthetics and techniques of various contemporary music practices. Having considered hybridization, networks, and flow, I would like to finish in more speculative territory, inspired by the late post-colonial theorist Édouard Glissant.

Born in Martinique in 1928, Glissant was one of the most important and original of Caribbean thinkers. (He died in 2011.) Drawing on the legacy of slavery, the experience of colonialism, and the geography of the Caribbean, he developed a theory of globality that not only celebrated diversity, but also emphasized the inevitable and desirable opacity of human and community interactions. Globality, in Glissant’s terms, was the contemporary experience of the world as “both multiple and single,” distinct from globalization, which he described as “uniformity from below,” driven by “multinationals, standardization, [and] the unchecked ultra-liberalism of world markets.”[1] Such a world prefers unpredictable heterogeneity to homogenizing synthesis.

Glissant refers to the Caribbean archipelago, a melting pot of local cultures within a wider shared identity, as a model for understanding this new global reality. The concept of the archipelago has subsequently been taken up within the visual arts to describe the phenomenon of works or exhibitions that exceed the bounds of a singular presentation. Tim Griffin, art critic and executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen, gives the example of Molly Nesbit, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Utopia Station.[2] Although originating at the Venice Biennale, where it was first shown in 2003, Utopia Station also consisted of interlinked yet isolated presentations that took place around the world and over subsequent years. It is an example, too, of the nomadic practices I mentioned in my previous post—the idea of the archipelago is closely tied to the idea of mobility. Comprised of such numerous iterations, each of them only partial, it was unlikely that any individual (other than the artists themselves) would ever experience the complete Utopia Station, giving the whole a structure comprised of isolated fragments that are not designed to form a complete whole. This, the artists suggest, reflects Glissant’s concept of globality not as a unifying force, but as a marker of plurality and difference that resists standardization and homogenization.

As well as plurality, then, the archipelago concept refers to a world that is too large and too multiple to be comprehended in its entirety. The idea suits the biennial and exhibition structures of the visual arts well, yet a trend within music in the late 20th and early 21st centuries towards works that are similarly large and/or multi-part in scale and form suggests that some of the same concepts are spilling over.[3] Robert Ashley’s operatic cycles (the only comparison in terms of scale I know of to Stockhausen’s much more commonly discussed LICHT cycle) are an example. The seven parts of Perfect Lives—themselves part of a trilogy of opera cycles that also includes the trilogy Atalanta, and the tetralogy Now Eleanor’s Idea—are structured somewhat like an archipelago in that each is self-contained, but also relates to a larger whole. When the New York City-based performance collective Varispeed gave site-specific restagings of Perfect Lives in Brooklyn and Manhattan in 2011, they highlighted this dimension of the work. The cycle’s fundamental unity as a series of TV broadcasts was broken by relocating each episode to a different site around New York, with the associated ruptures in continuity, audience, and so on.[4]

Varispeed’s Perfect Lives adaptation connects its multiple sites along a linear—even narrative—trajectory. As with Utopia Station, the expectation is that few audience members will follow that path from beginning to end, but this does not affect the coherence of the work. Craig Shepard’s On Foot takes the same principle, but puts the journey closer to the heart of the conception. Between July 17 and August 17, 2005, Shepard hiked across Switzerland, walking for between two and nine hours a day for a total of 250 miles. Each day he wrote a new piece, which he performed outdoors at 6 p.m. wherever he was on a pocket trumpet he carried throughout the journey. Shepard’s walk was a wholly personal, private one: there is no expectation with a work like this of any continuous audience, even between two consecutive days’ pieces. In this way the world of the work is even more internally fragmented, even as its form as a journey from point A to point B is entirely coherent.[5]

Seth Kim Cohen’s Brevity is a Sol Le Witt (2007) takes the union of time and space one step further. It is described by the composer as “possibly the longest composition ever written for continuous performance by live players.”[6] During a concert, one member of the ensemble must play a single note of their devising. This note is then “transcribed” by another player according to a structured form. A postcard description is also sent to the composer. For the next concert, the previous player of the single note becomes the transcriber, and someone else plays a single note. This process continues until 99 notes have been performed and transcribed. For the 100th concert the transcriptions are to be distributed among the players and then played simultaneously. Built into this fantastically rich concept is a conflation of space and time (as the 99 geographically and temporally distinct notes are compressed into a single performance event) and an acknowledgement of the impossibility of truly knowing the experiences of others through the bureaucratic yet inherently imperfect transcription process. It stands therefore as an ideal, if somewhat abstracted, representation of Glissant’s concept.

Seth Kim Cohen’s Brevity is a Sol Le Witt (2007)

Seth Kim Cohen’s Brevity is a Sol Le Witt (2007): form for transcription.

Lisa Bielawa’s two Airfield Broadcasts work more like geographical archipelagos, with things happening in the same moment but dispersed spatially. The two pieces were written for disused airfields that are now public parks: Tempelhof in Berlin, the site of the Berlin airlift; and Crissy airfield in San Francisco. Each used hundreds of musicians, who moved around the spaces—both of them very large—according to Bielawa’s compositional plan, grouping and re-grouping as subsidiary ensembles throughout the course of the work. Both pieces used audibility, spatial distance, and ensemble coordination as parameters, elements that Bielawa has explored before in smaller site-specific works such as The Right Weather (2003–4), for members of the American Composers Orchestra distributed around Zankel Hall in New York, and Chance Encounter (2007), for 12 musicians in “a transient public space.”

In one section of Tempelhof Broadcast, for example, two groups of ensembles are arranged such that the ensembles within each group can hear one another, but far enough apart that they can’t hear the other group. From onsite experiments Bielawa calculated this distance to be about 250 meters, although this varied depending on the prevailing wind direction and whether the instrumental sounds were high or low. Both parameters extended into her compositional design. Each ensemble group had a lead ensemble, which gave audible cues for when the other ensembles should enter with their material (assigned from a list of possibilities according to the players’ proficiency). Although the two ensemble groups could not hear each other, anyone standing between them could listen to their antiphony, uncoordinated between the two groups. This is where a final ensemble stood, a group of trumpets, which gave a signal to both group leaders for the end of this section. Space, therefore, directly influenced temporal form.[7]

In between such sections, the hundreds of musicians followed Bielawa’s carefully pre-planned choreography, gradually spreading further apart and finally leaving Tempelhof park altogether and continuing to play in the surrounding streets. As they did so, the aural unity of the work gradually dissolved. The composer suggested at the time that one way to listen to the work would be to take to a bike and cycle around the park, like many of its day-to-day users, either following a single ensemble or sampling several in sequence.

Bielawa’s movement plan

Bielawa’s movement plan: Each dot is an ensemble, color coded by type. Screenshot from “Tempelhof Broadcast Animation.”

In all of these examples, our experience of contemporary globality is figured through the balance of the work’s internal heterogeneity and overall wholeness, the relationship between multiplicity and singularity, the diagonal intersection of time and space, and the state of continuous transition between spaces. Few such works can be experienced in their entirety, but that is partly the point; they act as a corrective to our uniquely modern assumption that—given advances in travel, communications, and media technology—we can know the whole world.

[1] Édouard Glissant, trans. J. Michael Dash, untitled fragment, part of Les périphériques vous parlent, available at http://www.pointdironie.com/in/31/english/edouard.swf; this quotation at http://www.pointdironie.com/in/31/french/anglais.html. Quoted in Tim Griffin, “Worlds Apart: Contemporary Art, Globalization, and the Rise of Biennials,” Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, ed. Alexander Dumbadze and Suzanne Hudson (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), p. 11.

[2] Griffin, “Worlds Apart,” pp. 11–13.

[3] It may also be found in architecture, in Rem Koolhaas’s notion of “bigness”.

[4] Varispeed’s performances are detailed in Gelsey Bell, “The Story of the Huge Face of an Arrangement: Varispeed’s Adaptation of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives,” Tempo, no.268 (2014), pp. 6–19.

[5] Shepard revived the idea for On Foot: Brooklyn in 2012. Here, however, the walks took place weekly between February and May, and Shepard invited others to walk with him. The relationship between space, time, and reception is therefore different in this case.

[6] See: http://www.kim-cohen.com/projects/brevity_home.html.

[7] Bielawa explains this section in a short video produced as part of the supporting documentation for Tempelhof Broadcast: http://vimeo.com/57372658.

The Audience: More Than Money and Applause

Paulnack quote
I don’t want to go it alone. Do you? As I described in my column last week, I prepare for my performances by focusing on serving the music in a pure way instead of worrying how the audience will respond and if they will like me enough. But then, I hit the stage with a stark realization—of course I want to be liked. We are relational. Performance is relational. My performance is incomplete without the audience. You’re about to read the most important advice I’ve received about performing: It’s not about you. It’s about the audience.

If our venues are empty we have failed.

The truth is that I didn’t work myself through two expensive degrees to play to empty rooms and wrap myself in a blanket of integrity. I understand that part of my profession is not just mastering technique, but mastering the art of translating those human emotions and grand ideas that are easily overwhelmed by music that can be obscure, esoteric, and–let’s be honest–sometimes bizarre. As much as we, in the solitary spaces of our practice rooms, can throw ourselves into a piece, we must remember that if the performance hall is as empty as that practice space then we have clearly not achieved connection with our audience. That is our responsibility.

Our audience deserves our respect.

In my experience as a reviewer, one of the biggest mistakes that performers and presenters can make is not respecting their audience. They make it a show all about themselves instead of seeing themselves as a vehicle of interpretation. The new music audience is a highly sophisticated, highly educated community of people who have devoted themselves enough to our field to learn our conventions and who have taken time out of their own work, home, and family schedules to drive to venues that can be as small and out of the way as they can be crowded and grand. Regardless of how harried their day has been, how difficult parking always is, even if they arrive late, or cough during the ppp sub ponticello section, each person attends hoping to experience music as a profound connection to themselves, their past, to an idea, to emotions that are timeless and universal. As a performer, it is our responsibility to trigger that experience. This is why musical performance is and always has been for the audience.
They want experiences that only we can provide them. Tickets sales reflect how popular we and/or the repertoire are, and how well we market our mission for the event. Audience attendance goes beyond applause, gratitude, and money. Performances are not for the audience solely because they pay for tickets. It would still be for the audience if the monetary obligations were fulfilled by other means.

Financial accessibility is not the same as emotional accessibility.

In the current climate of worrying about declining ticket sales, board meetings are rife with the weary cliché that begins “if we just lower ticket prices…” and usually ends with a complaint about the decay of American culture. Wake up. Our audiences don’t need to be lured with free candy to come eat their vegetables. Frankly, if that’s your approach to programming, you’re doing it wrong.
Although certain concert events with their $100+ tickets can definitely be prohibitively expensive for many, the average classical contemporary prices of $10 to $25 are hardly bank-breakers. As I overheard one audience member laughing after a self-indulgent yet totally wooden and robotic show, “I wouldn’t come back for that if they were passing out $100 bills and a pedicure.” Although our community should make our art as accessible as possible, we must remember that being accessible isn’t limited to being financially accessible.

Performance is a holistic experience.

Yes, I know, you didn’t go to Oberlin to calculate wine-per-guest and you didn’t mortgage your life in student loans to worry about how long a bathroom line at intermission will last. But you know what? A little knowledge of catering and adequate restrooms could improve your performance, however, because your audience will be in a position to be more receptive. We want our music to resonate through and reach deeply into the hearts of the audience members, but first we have to make sure that they are well cared for.

We want to focus on our art, of course, and so when it’s possible performers need to know that we can count on the concert organizers.   We need to ask questions and make sure that our audience is being respected by the venue, and request the help of people who we know are good and not work with people we know are bad. And, when you are in charge of the overall performance, you must think about all of these elements. There needs to be some measure of self-regulation in our community and we cannot simply overlook the enjoyment of the audience because we are too busy with the notes and rhythms.
Even though the audience might be uncomfortable because of somebody’s else’s incompetence, we are the ones they are connecting with, we are the ones they are trusting, and we are the ones who they will associate with their bad time. Therefore, it is imperative to think through audience experience from start to finish, which includes the logistical details along with the musical ones.

Next time you attend performances at your favorite venues, seek out things to complain about. Think about the physical amount of space between the performers and the audience. Is that optimal? Think about the heat or air conditioning. Think about the bar. Think about ticket and bathroom lines. Make a mental list of the times that you didn’t feel embraced by the whole venue. Try and remember every criticism and every little remark you hear around you. Put that into your audience experience homework. Then, try opening your next performance by saying, “I made this for you.” How does that change your connection with the audience?

We are servants to the audience; not slaves to their judgments.

Finally, we are performing a service for our audiences. In a recent conversation with devoted new music patrons Larry and Arlene Dunn, Arlene said, “What I think is really important is to get audience members invested. If they’re feeling intellectually invested, emotionally invested, and aesthetically invested, they’re going to be monetarily invested.” The Dunns repeated emphatically that audience members don’t ask or want you to mold yourself to fit what you imagine they might want, that the audience is often more excited by what challenges them than by what they expect or think they want going into a performance. Music patrons—especially new music patrons—understand that they are sometimes going to hear music they don’t like, but they don’t want you to stop doing it—in fact, often quite the opposite. These performances offer your audiences the chance to discover, to become more educated, to have a deeper emotional experience, to transcend everyday existence.

There is a tremendous space to make your interpretation all about you, but that space exists after we have considered with care and generosity the needs of the audience.

Musical performance is for the audience because it is something they need. They seek out these experiences and pay for it with their own earned income. We, as musicians, come to the stage with a performance ready-made for their attention. We are responsible not only to the art but to our audience and their experience. The audience is not only the ticket buyer but a cherished receiver. They are the ultimate beneficiaries of the performance.

Music in a Time of Snapchat: Ephemeral Contexts


Photo by Damien D. via Flickr

Early in the evenin’ just about supper time
Over by the courthouse they’re starting to unwind.
Four kids on the corner trying to bring you up.
Willy picks a tune out and he blows it on the harp.
Down on the corner, out in the street
Willy and the poor boys are playin’.
Bring a nickel, tap your feet.
—“Down on the Corner,” John Fogerty

If Lorde wants us to recognize our desire to be royalty, John Fogerty, I think it’s fair to say, engages with the image of the wandering everyman. Not only is the music of “Willy and the poor boys” the cheapest kind of music to consume—later in the song he refers to paying pennies, which even in 1969 would have been a bargain—but it’s happening outside, at the most ephemeral kind of venue. You don’t wear your ball gown to hear music on the street, and you certainly don’t need to shut up to listen. You don’t get a ticket, and that nickel’s going in a hat.

And yet how many of our listening experiences are truly ephemeral? Is Fogerty’s vision a rare bird in the current musical landscape? Let’s examine disposable music and its settings more closely.
ephemeral music settings
So many fun venues, so many question marks. I consider settings to be ephemeral if they allow for a flexible set-up, places where the experience is changeable, both from day to day and within a given performance. The music may or may not be made in the same area of the room—if there is a room—for every group, and the audience is free to circulate around the space and to talk, sometimes oriented towards the music and sometimes not. These spaces are often functional, the music often occasional.
Weddings might be easy to overlook as musical events, despite the fact that almost every individual who considers herself a musician has played at least one. (In fact, I’d venture to guess that many people earn more from weddings than from new music gigs.) A wedding is one of the few types of events everyone encounters that regularly involves live music, whether it’s the typical Wagner and Mendelssohn (a compositional odd couple if there ever was one) or adaptations of Harry Potter and Star Wars themes. (Yes, I’ve really experienced that.)

So, weddings are ephemeral musical occasions (despite the swarm of cameras aiming to capture the experience for posterity). The other ephemeral spaces might be the most obvious examples, and yet are problematic on close inspection. As far as the listening experience is concerned, places like bars and fairs have the distinct advantage that a spectator can go to the bathroom instead of being confined to her seat while someone wails for four hours about magic jewelry. The current paragon for the ephemeral and everyday is perhaps Le Poisson Rouge, a space in New York City that uniquely embodies flexibility both in its physical layout and in its offerings.

But again, as with the monumental, I’m not confident about most examples of this lower right category. Bars are typically not all that flexible; LPR is the exception. Partly because of how bars are constructed, there’s usually a designated performance and seating area. It can take a large capital investment to create a flexible set-up; at most bars, you’re happy if you encounter a Manhattan bathroom’s worth of performance space. Moreover, I suspect that what many hope to hear at bar concerts is the next big thing; they want to get in on the ground floor of a lasting, valuable, potentially monumental trend. Either that or they want to drink.

Whether an outgrowth of Romanticism or changes in dominant musical venues themselves (from sacred to secular, first of all), attentive, “philosophical” listening reigns hegemonic in the popular conception of musical listening. These ephemeral spaces are not only flexible in their use of space and freedom for the audience; they redefine listening itself. One can still have a valuable musical experience, these venues suggest, while ordering a drink, chewing an hors d’oeuvre, or making conversation. Ironically, listeners in these contexts have just as much in common with pre-19th-century listeners as those in some monumental contexts discussed before: they experience music, like Beethoven’s Serenade or Mozart’s divertimenti—or even operas and masses—as occasional ornament. We often forget, when we bring such works into the concert hall, how fundamentally occasional they were.
It’s possible, then, that the reason why ephemeral spaces are difficult to pinpoint is that they are spaces largely without repertoire. Some of the music originally written to be read (rather than performed) in flexible spaces—Lieder, 18th- and early 19th-century chamber music, a great deal of keyboard music—has disappeared. (When was the last time you heard early Mozart violin sonatas or Zumsteeg songs other than on recordings?) Other repertoire of these spaces has been stolen by the monumental, transplanted to larger, more formal arenas.

While it might not be immediately clear what music, aside from that of Willy’s band and similar, works in a place where your audience might not pay full attention, a number of groups and associated composers have, whether consciously or not, begun to fill this gap. This is a list that many of us know: first, Bang on a Can, then the NOW Ensemble, Victoire, and others.
It’s fair to say that we yearn for more opportunities to enjoy music in these less formal spaces—the critical attention that these groups have gotten implies that kind of yearning at least to me. In order to create these opportunities, we may need to become more comfortable with the non-serious listening associated with those places. Give out crinkly candies at the door, with stern reminders about “no shushing” during the performance. We might just be thanked for our heedless hearing with a more vibrant musical landscape.

Monumental Listening

Truth be told, many people are turned off by opera houses and orchestra halls—or if not turned off, then shut out. These places are expensive to attend, and their formality can seem forbidding. The previous post discussed venues for musical entertainment in the abstract, as if grand municipal spaces set the standards to which all performers and audiences aspire. They don’t, at least not consistently for a whole population of listeners.

As promised, in this post I want to deal with contrasting sorts of venues and their economic and cultural implications. As many of us might intuitively recognize, there are several types of opposites to this kind of space. One venue might be lavish but intimate and differently arranged for every performance, for instance, while another might be large and informal. I suggest that we consider the attributes of spaces along several axes: monumental/ ephemeral, large/intimate, and lavish/everyday. As I’m a fan of a well-placed chart, here is one. I’ll stick to monumental settings in this post and talk about the four parallel categories of changeable settings later.
monumental settings
The venues listed here are ones that, by virtue of the types of institutions they are, lend a sense of longevity and worth to the music played there. When art museums and galleries host concerts, for instance, the spectator confronts ample opportunities for cultural connection between art forms—which may explain why such places are so popular among audiences—and thereby accepts visual analogues to the music she hears; she may indeed find herself encouraged to envision that music similarly framed and immortalized in the imaginary halls of musical works. (A valid question here is: what of sound art in these spaces? That kind of presentation has a ephemeral quality that I’ll address next time.)

One question I have, and that I think is worth considering particularly with regard to the performance of contemporary music: is it possible to communicate this sense of permanent value outside of a lavish setting? Is lavishness one of the chief preconditions for our enshrinement of cultural objects?

Let me answer that question by explaining (and perhaps questioning) the right-hand column. Parades are fairly straightforward to explain in this context. They are obviously commemorative, organized but informal gatherings that pull the music played there into a function that is simultaneously fleeting and monumental. You may not experience that combination of marching steps and John Williams/Carly Rae Jepsen medley ever again, but it sure captured the spirit of Thanksgiving, particularly when followed by the floating Snoopy.
The placement of amphitheaters here is more problematic. As we use them today, they immortalize works and cultural events perhaps even more vigorously than orchestra halls.While the programming for Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion resembles that of its indoor equivalent for the Chicago Symphony down the street,it also demonstrates the space’s role as a gathering place to celebrate historical grandeur—like fireworks and the “1812” Overture on July 4—as well as municipal milestones, like the Blackhawks’ NHL championship last year or, years ago, an entire childhood’s worth of Bulls’ wins. (I can only imagine how the space would be put to use should the Cubs ever break their losing streak. An event like the Messiah sing-along but with Mahler 2?)

But it’s arguable how truly everyday these outdoor arenas are. Functionally, as public, bucolic gathering places, their most obvious ancestors are London’s 18th-century pleasure gardens at Vauxhall or Ranelagh, which boasted one of the largest and earliest indoor amphitheaters. Though the crowds here were typically economically mixed, if we can trust iconographic evidence, the gardens themselves represented municipal economic vitality in much the same way as Chicago’s Millennium Park does today, with its Frank Geary-designed articulation of theurban picturesque. (Vauxhall also boasted a marble statue of Handel, one of the earliest public commemorations of a composer.) Despite the absence of chandeliers and plush carpets, this kind of space, I would argue, seems designed for a similar audience as orchestra halls. I also presume that it’s not the least lavish kind of place we could imagine. Venues with mundane architecture and modest views, like fairs and temporary festivals, attract equally large crowds but rarely serve to commemorate in quite the same way.

Rotunda at Ranleigh T Bowles 1754

“Rotunda at Ranleigh T Bowles 1754.” Licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Aside from amphitheaters and parades, there aren’t many even marginally everyday performance spaces that monumentalize works, particularly in the small scale. The only possibility is the home, as it hosts music-learners’ efforts to participate in hallmarks of Western music.I myself remember feeling a measure of accomplishment when I got to play “piano classics” both for myself and for my family. Theodor Adorno, in 1933, saw in the domestic performance of four-hand piano music a kind of intimate monumentality, in which “many a work, which in their orchestral grandiosity ring out in vain under many exertions, reveal themselves only to the timid gesture of memory [i.e., four-hand performance], which shares with them the secret of participating as a humane human in the life of society.”

I created the chart above in order to capture the varied opportunities for confronting monumentality in music. My goal was not only to encourage us to be aware of the cultural undercurrents communicated to us by various venues, but to take all venues equally seriously as places to listen collectively. It turns out that “the appearance of theatricality,” as Alexander Rehding might call it, is so crucial to the performance of cultural permanence that a certain manifestation of largess and wealth is a notable precondition for the communication of monumentality. Surely that precondition excludes populations of listeners.
What, then, are the contexts for more disposable musical experiences? Are they any more or less inclusive? To be continued…

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.

Lisa Bielawa: Fire Starter

At the composer’s home in New York City
November 18, 2013—2 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation and text condensed and edited by Molly Sheridan

It’s difficult to stand anywhere near composer and vocalist Lisa Bielawa and not feel energized by proximity. Her dynamic personality fires up a room, making it easy to see how, just a few weeks prior to our meet up for the interview posted below, she rallied hundreds of musicians for the performance of her massive outdoor work Crissy Broadcast on a repurposed airfield in San Francisco.

Raised in the Bay Area, Bielawa has recently returned to her hometown to serve as the artistic director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, an ensemble she herself was once a member of as a young artist. Yet as a touring performer (in addition to her compositional activities, she has sung with the Philip Glass Ensemble since 1992), she began a kind of nomadic existence that continues to carry her from city to city. New York has been her primary address as an adult, but her music has also led to long stints in places such as Boston, where she was in residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project for three years; Berlin, where she mounted the first of the Airfield Broadcasts; and Rome where she was a fellow at the American Academy and produced a performance of a previous outdoor work, Chance Encounter, along the banks of the Tiber River.

An extrovert to the core, Bielawa acknowledges that her highly social nature has taken her in some specific directions both as a composer and as a musical citizen. Community building and close collaboration with performing artists is often central to her compositional process. In 1996 she co-founded MATA, a festival which allows young composers to celebrate other young composers outside of a competitive context. Yet the flip side of this outward focus is a deep love for language and careful reading that led her towards a bachelor’s degree in literature from Yale University and now continues to fuel her artistic output.
While there may be some unusual twists to her career trajectory and the scope and scale of her music, Bielawa is quick to point out that her path should not been interpreted as a rejection of traditional concert presentation or compositional education. She is focused on broadening the reach of new music, not completely rerouting it. And in the course of so doing, she is able to allow the sparks and energy of her ideas to fly.


Molly Sheridan: You began your career in a sense as a young singer with the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and now you’ve come full circle by returning to serve as the organization’s artistic director. As you listen to the students and reflect back on your own time there as a young performer, how much have things changed—both musically and culturally?
Lisa Bielawa: Before I actually, officially took over my position as the artistic director, the girls came to Berlin to participate in [my work] Tempelhof Broadcast. One of the reasons I got back in touch with them in the first place was that I was working on the project and wanted them to be a part of it. So that discussion started before any discussions about the new position began. I had been in West Berlin on tour with the chorus when I was a girl. It was the first time that I had ever left the country—I was 14 or something—and I remember thinking, “Wow, I really like being on the road!” Of course, apparently I really do like being on the road, because I’ve been on the road ever since.
It was really amazing to see the girls in Berlin and remember what it was like for me to travel with this group—making music with people and understanding that making music at a high level was one of the things that makes travel meaningful. That cultural exchange through music is something that especially young people are hungry for. I think the ambassadorial role that musicians have in the world is incredibly important—just listening and making sound for each other, creating work for each other and with each other across cultures. The world is much more interconnected than it was when I was in the Girls Chorus. Now you’ve got girls from San Francisco meeting host families in Berlin, and they’re still texting each other. But there’s no replacement for actually making music together physically and in community. There are many wonderful uses of social media and interconnectivity online, but music reminds us that engaging with each other face-to-face in space and in real time is irreplaceable. That’s what music making is.
MS: Your own compositional roots are also partially connected to the Girls Chorus in a special way.
LB: For a lot of girls who come through the San Francisco Girls Chorus, that’s where they start their music education. That wasn’t the case for me. I started my music education at home and, at the age of three, in the Suzuki violin program. I had musician parents, so the chorus is not where I got the beginning of my musical education. I got something really important that’s different from that, which is I individuated at the Girls Chorus.
At home, everyone was a composer. When my brother and I were little, we would write music at the piano, just sort of playing at what dad does. You know what that’s like—you play at what your parents do. So I had written music already when I got to the Girls Chorus, but I had experiences there which were my own. I’d come home to the dinner table, and I had had an experience with Brahms or something. It was the first time that I ended up having individual musical experiences that were emotional for me, and that started to build my own sense of what I wanted to hear and why that was. I started writing music that my friends and I could sing. Elizabeth Appling, who was the founder and the artistic director at that time, really fostered that. She saw that I was doing this with my friends and she started to program my music on our actual concerts. She had me conducting my own work at Davies Symphony Hall during the holiday concerts, and it was really the first time that I saw myself as a musician, the way that someone might see someone from the outside. I got a chance to have a witness outside of my family. That showed me that I was an individual artist, and that I had something to offer that was mine. So that was a really important training point for me.

Early compositional efforts

Early work composed at 4 or 5 years of age.

Then I went to Yale, and my very first commission was from the Girls Chorus. My second commission was from the Girls Chorus. That kind of training-wheel support went on. So it’s very meaningful to have it come back around now.
MS: I know that your actual degree from Yale was in literature. That might have been just a formality or perhaps not, but student composers often have a vision of how their education has to go. So when it goes somewhere different, I think it’s worth exploring the impact—both in terms of the big ideas and the practical skills.
LB: One of the things that I’ve actually started to say when I talk to people about this is that I really don’t want to be the poster child for DIY. I’m trained. I came from a family where there was formal training available at home. I trained on the violin. I trained on the piano. I trained vocally. I learned to read music in my mother’s church choir before I even read English. I did composition workshops at the summer music festivals in San Francisco. So to some degree, that means that I had already created a little body of work before I went to college.
My intention at Yale was to major in music and something else. The only thing you needed to do to take advanced classes in music at Yale was to be advanced enough in music to take them. I studied composition there and had private teachers as an undergraduate. I did all that stuff. However, I had gotten very interested in literature in high school, and here I was in the school of Harold Bloom! There was this incredible energy in the air, and all of the boys I had crushes on were literature majors. I was so turned on by the exchange of ideas that I felt you could have as a literature major. But what I discovered was that it was a very competitive major, and you couldn’t get into any of those classes if you were not a major. Plus, if you said you were a double major, then you were deemed not serious enough. In order to take advanced classes in literature and music, I had to major in literature.
So that’s the answer. I think there was a lot of pressure the entire time I was at Yale to major in music. I’m sure I probably fulfilled the major, but I just didn’t declare it. I think it was the right choice for me because I really got so much out of my studies in literature that wouldn’t have been open to me if I hadn’t declared that.
MS: Was that the end of your formal training then?
LB: Yes, it was. I moved to New York two weeks after [graduating from] Yale, and my intention was pretty vague. I had a friend who had graduated a couple of years before me who seemed to be getting some commissions in London. I was sleeping on sofas and basically trying to scrape together enough money to go to London or apply to graduate schools in something. I didn’t know what yet.
I knew I had musical skills, but when I was at Yale, I auditioned for voice lessons and didn’t get accepted. It’s a big opera school, and I didn’t have a big old opera voice. I had a different kind of voice. So I came to New York not really believing that I was a composer necessarily, and not really believing that I was a singer necessarily, but doing both well enough and in ways that were useful enough that I was making a living somehow, here and there, with also some administrative jobs and things like that. Then, through a series of flukes, I got the job with the Philip Glass Ensemble. I was 22 years old, and that totally changed my whole life.
MS: But it doesn’t sound like you were necessarily ready for that life.
LB: I had no idea. I didn’t have any indication from anyone else around me that I was a soloist. In fact, when I first got the job, they were just desperate to have somebody, and they probably would have hired someone more experienced with a more trained voice than mine if they had been able to. But who’s going to be available for a five-and-a-half-week tour in three weeks, except for someone who’s starving and 22?
So, I was really lucky in that I auditioned into that job on sight reading and rhythmic musicianship and the skill set that I had as a basic musician. As a singer, they weren’t so sure about me. And they shouldn’t have been. I was no great shakes as a singer yet. Once I got over the headiness of the first tour, I came to understand—and it was not very easy for me—that I had to get my act together. I had to get formal vocal training, which I basically had never had, or I was not going to keep my job. So I wasn’t an official member of the Philip Glass Ensemble until almost two years after I had started touring. They were actually looking at several people, and I was basically a sub until I could improve my abilities as a singer. It was a very difficult time, and expensive, too. It meant that my standard of living didn’t go up that much. I was getting platinum-style voice lessons and eating canned beans for dinner for the first year or so because I was just trying to catch up.
MS: But in the midst of all that high-pressure catching up and then the ongoing touring with Philip Glass, you still kept the composing going, too.
LB: That’s true, but again, taking myself seriously as a composer and/or as a singer? I knew that I was a musician, but it wasn’t clear to me, or basically anybody around me really, what I was. My brother, who’s 20 months older than I am, was at that time getting his doctorate in composition, and so my family was focused on my brother as a composer. Suddenly then we were kind of focused on me as a singer, but we were all a little surprised, I think. I had sung some of my father’s music as a soloist and when I was in the San Francisco Girls Chorus I got a few solos, but I was not one of the prized soloists in the group. I wasn’t really sure what I was.

Lisa Bielawa at Crissy Broadcast

A singer, a composer, and definitely a leader.
Photo by James Block

I was writing music, but I didn’t think of myself as a composer necessarily until somewhere in my 20s. I wrote a piece for the San Francisco Girls Chorus that won the highest ASCAP young composer award and that completely took me by surprise. I had some people take me aside and say, “Look, maybe you’re a composer.” I just didn’t really understand yet—possibly because it was an over-populated environment. My family was over-populated with musicians, then I went into a school that was over-populated, and then I came to New York and was just trying to figure out how to be useful to make a living. I was always writing music, but it seemed like it was always the wrong kind of music. When I was at Yale, I was writing choral music, and I was writing cabaret songs, and I was writing arrangements of jazz standards for a cappella groups; I wasn’t writing serious music. So I just assumed that that meant I wasn’t a composer.
MS: Do you think not having a structured undergraduate music education, for all the reasons you outlined above, might have contributed to this in a certain way—as in, rather than your path in music being set out for you in clear formal terms, it was all on you to self-direct?
LB: It was all on me. But when I did study composition privately as an undergrad, I wasn’t really a very easy student. The irony is that now I feel very passionate about mentoring younger people. I love teaching, especially teenage composers. I’ve sort of specialized in that, but not because I had such a satisfying experience as a student. I was proud, and I was really independent-minded. I didn’t respond so well to somebody trying to guide me. I just didn’t.
MS: You said you like mentoring teenagers. It’s funny: You weren’t an easy student, and now you specialize in teaching perhaps the most challenging demographic.
LB: Well, teenagers are cool. Grad students are great, too, but they’re really colleagues already. They already have an ideological direction that they’re going in. You’re either going to feed into that ideological direction because you share that, or you’re going to butt up against it, and then you’re going to have to be arguing with your students.
I find that with teenagers, they’re all over the place. They’re discovering that they’re composers. They’re coming up with all these ideas, and they’ve got this fountain of musical energy. They’re complicated because their egos are also developing alongside their abilities in ways that they get ahead of themselves, or they’re super insecure, but there’s something about that sloppiness and about the fact that there’s personal development happening at the same time as musical development that I feel really prepared to deal with. I was writing music that young, too, and I remember what it was like to be trying to figure out who I was as a person at the same time that I was trying to figure out who I was as a musician. It was really an important part of my struggle. And I envied kids who were already cellists by the time they were 16 or who knew they were composers when they entered grad school. I didn’t have that luxury.
MS: You spoke some about how your voice wasn’t the right fit for Yale. A lot of your pieces have a soprano vocalist, but I was surprised to find out that those weren’t necessarily supposed to be sung by you. You were actually writing for a voice much different from your own.
LB: That’s true, although I will say that this spring I had two commissions, both of them European. One of them was for the Academic Male Choir of Helsinki. They wanted me as soprano soloist with this group—fifty men and me—and bass drum of course, because why not. Then there’s the piece for Radio France, which is for myself and chamber ensemble. I now feel ready and totally happy for that to happen. I know how to sing well enough so that I can actually find it interesting enough to write for myself.
First of all, the reason I got into vocal music was really more because of my relationship to language. It had very little to do with the fact that I was a singer. I was a singer because I had played all these instruments, but I didn’t have enough money to buy them. Your voice is free, and I had to make a living. How I became a professional singer was almost accidental and the kind of singing that I was doing—not just for Philip but for Toby Twining, who actually hired me even before Philip Glass did—my music is not like that, and I don’t use the voice that way so much in my own music. So I wasn’t really the right soloist for my music anyway. I wouldn’t have hired myself.
I’m also a collaborator. I just love to have the creative process be about getting to know others. That process is less interesting for me if it’s just me getting to know me some more. Though this last year, it’s been fun because I am finally finding things in my own voice. Something about being in my 40s, it’s like my voice is mature now. There are things it can do that are cool, that I’ve worked my whole life to figure out. I feel like I won’t have that forever, so it’s interesting to celebrate that. But my interest in writing vocal music had very little to do with being a singer. It had mostly to do with being close to language.
MS: We actually spoke at some length about your relationship to language almost a decade ago, just before the American Composers Orchestra premiered The Right Weather. Clearly you still take this aspect of your work very seriously. So why use music and not words exclusively in your creative expression?
LB: I love writing, but I also think one of the things that I love about writing is that it’s not my profession. So it’s a creative thing that I can deepen and that I can get better at, but I can also get away from it for a while and it doesn’t cause any anxiety. It’s nice to have an area that I’m deeply informed about, that I care deeply about, that’s not professionalized—because I have a lot of different areas of my life that are professionalized.
Then there’s also the fact that when I’m deeply moved by something that I read, usually my response is a musical one. So there’s something that happens that’s organic. I read on the sofa in the morning; if something is so beautiful to me that it makes me feel a certain way, that has to be resolved by sitting at the piano. That’s a way of working that when I have to start cranking out music and I’m on the road in practice rooms in universities, or writing music in hotels or on planes, I don’t always have that luxury—that deep cycle that involves contemplation, reading, responding to reading, and then composing. But if I don’t have that cycle every once in a while, then I lose my artistic ground.

Bielawa's Steinway

Bielawa’s Steinway

MS: That seems like a constant through the years with you. You drill down into text. This is not a surface feature—you began learning Russian to compare Pushkin translations! So what does that end up doing to the music in concrete terms?
LB: Making it possible? I remember when I was writing The Right Weather, and I was thinking, “God, I’m such a loser. I’m supposed to be writing for orchestra and there’s no language in this. I don’t know if I can write music if I don’t have language that I’m setting.” And then I thought, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe I am a loser; maybe I’m not a loser. But just because there are no voices singing here doesn’t mean that this is not connected to language.” I could either look at that as a crutch, or I could see myself in it and realize that that’s what it is. Some composers respond to nature. Some of them respond to paintings. Some of them respond to a number of things. It’s just the thing that hits me the most deeply and the most consistently. The place where I can find the most depth in myself is as a reader. So it helps me get to the place where I want to be when I’m writing music.
MS: You touched on collaboration and the importance of that in your work. I was thinking about this particularly as I was listening to your two-CD set In medias res, and I thought it might be good to talk specifically about your relationship with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in this regard.
LB: The truth is I was actually quite scared of what my job was going to be in Boston, because the expectation was that I was going to be there for three years and was going to write these massive orchestral works. There was still a part of me that was like, am I a composer? Not for lack of ideas, but just something about the way I saw myself—or didn’t, or others did or didn’t. Who knows? Maybe it’s left over from the early years when I first came to New York. But I had people around me who had faith in me and who really wanted to see this happen, namely Gil Rose, who really believed in my music and felt that this would be an opportunity for me.
I wanted to make sure that I could keep myself on a schedule so that the piece that I wrote at the end of my residency, In medias res, would fulfill the potential of that. In order to do that, I decided that I would write these short, three- to five-minute Synopses—short pieces for solo members of the orchestra—and that I would write each of them during a week that I was in residence. Composers in residence seldom actually compose in residence, but I was going to write pieces when I was in Boston.
Of course, it was a pleasure, but it did force me to have a regular diet of engagement with the individual musicians for whom I was writing this much larger piece over a long period of time. And it meant that I was actually tilling the soil—not that I know anything about farming, but I was keeping that whole area of my mind and these relationships really fertile for the whole time. So when I was writing the big piece finally, which took me around seven months, I was informed by these 15 shorter pieces that I had written for the individual members of the orchestra.
That personalized it, and that was really helpful for me. Collaboration for me means that you’re beholding the amazingness of some other person and what they can do. Then I’m using my own abilities as a composer to make that shine or to engage with it. That’s a really great way to know people in the world, right? It deepened my connections with the musicians that I was working with, which heightened community in the orchestra itself. And it brought a sense of process to the audience there that was seeing these pieces unfold. So those are the kinds of ideas that I’ve designed for myself along the way—to keep myself on a schedule, but also to enhance community and therefore make composing less lonely and bring the vitality of interaction into the process in as many ways as possible. It’s helpful to me because I’m social and composing is not that social. I’m not really temperamentally cut out for this work, unless I can make it a little more social for myself.

Lisa Bielawa at Crissy Broadcast

Bielawa greeting musicians at Crissy Broadcast
Photo by James Block

MS: Those Synopses then later ended up influencing a piece you did for a dance work, correct? And there are other examples of you developing ideas through multiple works. I thought that was really interesting: it wasn’t that all of your work was a piece of some single uber-arc, but each piece wasn’t always completely self-contained either. Would you speak some about what you hunt for and gain through that kind of occasional revisiting?
LB: I often think that it takes more than one piece to work through an idea. Individual compositions can get burdened down if you try to make them completely saturate or satiate one idea world in one piece. So I like to take the pressure off individual pieces. What if I had been working on one of the Synopses, let’s say, and the purpose at that point was for me to learn as much as possible about the harp and write something amazing for the solo harpist, right? But then later on, some of the material that I developed could, if the piece had gone a different way, maybe have been something really interesting to explore in relation to the human body through dance. I mean, I could just start over every time, and sometimes I do. It’s interesting looking back at pieces—did this come out of the germ of some other piece, or is this a whole new thing just by itself.
But generally what I find with shorter pieces is that I don’t actually feel very comfortable in small forms. I’m a large-scale person. So the only way that I can fulfill those kinds of commissions is to, at least in my own mind, embed them in some larger journey. Then it also ends up creating relationships that mean that those other pieces come along later. Some of these solo instrumentalists that I wrote the Synopses for were actually then the soloists in the dance piece. So it also brings the possibility of deepening those relationships and bringing them further. Many of the musicians that I’ve worked with I’ve written multiple pieces for in some guise or other. Look at Colin Jacobson, who’s been in, what, like nine or something? But they’re all different—just him, or sometimes there’s a whole orchestra, his string quartet. Sometimes I pair him with somebody like Carla Kihlstedt. And those relationships, as they deepen, I think that they really open me up, too, and help me find things through that trust that I would not otherwise find.
MS: What attracts you to the large-scale format with such intensity?
LB: I think it’s just a suitability thing—it’s my temperament. I admire Chopin enormously for the way that he was able to find a whole world in the solo piano works. He’s not here to answer, but we could ask ourselves, why didn’t he have a whole lifetime of writing symphonies or operas? He didn’t. This is what he wrote. It’s inconvenient for me sometimes that I end up wanting to write pieces for hundreds of musicians on an abandoned airfield. But it’s even more inconvenient to try to fit into certain assigned ways of making work that don’t fit. So I’ve accepted that I have to make it work for myself and the best way for me to do that is to go ahead and see things in terms of the larger picture and in terms of broader strokes—whether or not an individual performance or composition is seen that way. I need to see it that way in order to make it work for me and in order to make the best work I can.
MS: Before we get into those big airfield pieces and the musical communities you encourage through those, I want to take a step back. Because in a sense I see things such as the founding of MATA, which takes us all the way back to 1996, as another aspect of this big and social piece of your artistic life.
LB: Yeah, MATA. I really felt a need for it when we started it. I felt that there were all of these contexts in which I was coming into contact with my peers, but every time we came into contact with each other we were actually competing. I’d see so and so because we were two of the four finalists of the such and such thing. We would each have a piece read, and then one of us would win. Yeah, we would have fun and there would be a party, but underneath it all was the knowledge that somebody from on high was going to choose one of us.
There is this sort of protracted adolescence for composers: you get all your graduate degrees, and then you go to summer programs and you study with so and so. That’s another place where you can meet your peers, right? You’re all 31-year-old students of so and so, in like, Europe somewhere. And there may be value to that, too. I participated in both of those kinds of things and had some positive experiences. But why not support each other by having a festival where we all encounter each other’s music, and nobody was going to come and decide or teach. We don’t have to agree. You don’t have to like everything. Nobody’s the winner. I think that was a really driving motivation for me.
And that’s one of the reasons that, as I was nearing 40, I was feeling like I was not immersed enough and my ear was not to the ground as much as it needed to be to be MATA’s artistic director any more. All of a sudden, I was going to become the person on high who was choosing the commissionees for the festival. It was starting to turn into the thing that we were trying to be other than. So I’m still on the board and I’m very committed, but I cycled out and wanted to get younger people in charge. And we’ve really managed to do that, and I’m really super proud of that.
MS: So you shook things up some with MATA, but pieces such as Chance Encounter also gently stretch conventional ideas about how things are done. I love the degree that the venue is woven into the work itself, from finding the text to presenting the piece. But when you take your work out of the concert hall, how does it change the goals and impact of what you make? The loss of control seems like it becomes part of the point of the piece.
LB: Yeah, it’s funny. It’s like talking about the fact that I never got degrees in music. It doesn’t make me an anti-degrees-in-music person. I have nothing against the concert hall. I find myself so often in environments where people really want the fact that I do these public space works—which I’m very passionate about—to mean that I’m against the concert hall. That’s not true—I love the concert hall! These pieces are an affirmation; they are not a rejection. And that’s really, really important to me. I still have more to affirm outside the concert hall. They come out of the fact that I’m a very urban person. I think in my life I’ve been healed by city life. If I’ve gone through difficult times in my life, one of the things that I always know I can do to fall in love with humanity again is to just walk around the city. I’ve had this experience in San Francisco where I grew up, in New Haven where I was in school, in New York, where I’ve lived my whole adult life. Boston, Berlin, all the cities where I immersed myself.
That’s another thing besides reading and besides collaboration: urban life. That’s super important and inspiring to me. There are certain ideas that I have that make the most sense right there in the cradle of active urban life because that’s where my head is. Chance Encounter actually has Susan Narucki singing things that we overheard, so in order to write the piece, she and I had to immerse ourselves by eavesdropping on people for 14 months to collect all these things. There’s no better way to fall in love with humanity than to just go around the world and eavesdrop. So tender, the moments you hear.
Susan Narucki and I did a performance together of Birtwistle’s The Woman and the Hare. I feel like The Woman and the Hare is one of these pieces that if you were to stumble on it, just in the hall of your local community center, it would be a really arresting experience. She and I were talking afterwards, and she said, “I wish there were some way we could make work like this in an environment where people could just encounter it.” So it really came about as a collaborative light bulb. We thought we should make a piece that’s intended to be performed that way. It was only later as I was working on it that I decided to use overheard things. The idea was to have the kind of experience you have with concert works that I love, but to provide that outside in public space. And I’m not done with that.

Souvenir chair from Chance Encounters

Souvenir chair from Chance Encounter

MS: You can’t really speak for the audience, but was the experience that you anticipated having ultimately the experience that you had when listening to the performance in this setting?
LB: I actually have to take the fifth because I have no idea. I have performed Chance Encounter, but my preferred role in the performance of these large-scale public space pieces is to just be like anybody and walk around. I like to put myself at a distance from everybody and feel myself in space. I like to change the arc of my own experience by moving towards or away from certain groups. And I notice that other people do that, too.
I certainly noticed that with Crissy Broadcast in San Francisco. There’s an overhead time-lapse video. There are the groups of musicians that stay together, but in the middle, there was just this constant latticework of people moving around. I heard responses from people that they were having this kind of awareness of being in a space where they were also integrating the sound of traffic and the dogs, and that’s part of it. The music has to sit comfortably in an environment where other sounds are also there. It has to feel mostly successful like that.
So I seem to be getting somewhere with it. I like working in that way. I feel like my experience of it has been sometimes different from what I imagined, but in a positive way. Or other times, it’s not what I thought and I was disappointed. But maybe I would go to the next performance, and the wind changes and then it’s what I hoped, or maybe it’s just that I was not standing in the right place; someone else had the experience that I had designed and imagined for myself.
MS: I guess that’s my question: how much can you even anticipate when you’re working on a scale like this and in an outdoor venue? There are so many wild cards. In some ways, maybe it’s not even possible.
LB: It’s absolutely not possible, but it’s not possible in any music. This is not the exception; this is just the obviation. I’ve heard from some people that they felt that by listening to these pieces, the Airfield pieces for example, that it brought them in touch with that existential thing: I’m always only me, and I’m always hearing what I’m hearing. Even though you’re out in public space, the experience of these pieces is one that’s very private and sometimes quite lonely. You realize that you’re an audience of one inside your own head, and that’s the human condition.
You were asking about the control that I think I have, or can have. There’s a lot of control going on in these pieces. It has to do with the fact that I’m dealing with amateurs and students. It has to be a safe performance environment for hundreds of people. I’m asking them to do some crazy things out there and it’s outside the box for everybody. It’s outside the box for the professionals! So contrary to what it may feel like when you’re out there in it, the listeners hopefully feel an amazing openness. But the actual compositional process has an enormous amount of control of material. If I set up a situation where this group is playing this or that, and there are some choices being made—aleatoric sections where maybe cues are being given from one group to another—I do actually try to imagine every possible way those things could work out using a kind of lay person’s game theory. I do try to imagine every possible outcome of every decision that I’ve allowed people to make in each section, and I have to be O.K. with the sonic result of every possible combination of decisions. If seven out of the nine decisions are going to be really cool, and two of them are going to sound really stupid, then I change the whole game. So there’s a lot of control.
MS: Even The Right Weather at Zankel Hall back in 2004 had you walking through the space and timing out planned musician movement, but I saw the charts you made for the Airfield pieces and this is a whole other level. How did you even begin structurally to make this work?
LB: Chance Encounter is a piece for one soprano and chamber orchestra in two different groups. So in that piece, I was able to experiment with what it means to have groups that are far enough away from each other that they can’t possibly be expected to play together, but they can respond to each other. I got the chance in five cities to experiment with different air densities and different winds, and to experiment with what kinds of sounds and what kinds of cues carried across space. So that was really important, because once I started bringing in more than just two groups, then at least I had that experience with communication between musicians across distances out in the real world—how to make rules, how much to tell them, how little to tell them.
When I started putting together Tempelhof Broadcast, the very first thing I did was work with The Knights again. They wanted me to write a piece for this concert that they did at Central Park in 2011. It coincided with my communications with the Berlin Parks Department, such that I realized that if The Knights were into it, I could use this commission to start working on some ideas, not about distance and space, like I did in Chance Encounter, but to work on some free, aleatoric decision making—large groups of musicians playing things that cue each other in such a way that there is no conductor. It’s 40 musicians or so, and it was a chance for me to experiment with some of these game structures where groups of musicians are communicating with other groups of musicians across the stage. So there were these intermediate steps.
With the Tempelhof Broadcast, frankly everything you do, you can’t really hide. You rehearse [on the field] and you’ve kind of done the piece, right? So in September of 2012, which was eight months before the premiere, we tried some of the sections with 50 musicians out on the field, and it was a way for me again to start experimenting with these large distances and these materials. So I gave myself a lot of experimental stages with this. By the time I got to between 230 and 250 musicians there, I was working with around six to eight different groupings; whereas in San Francisco for the Crissy Broadcast, I had 14 groups and 800 people. It’s like a balloon [being inflated] before the Thanksgiving Day parade gradually becoming Snoopy. It took, like, three and a half years for this balloon to fill. All along the way, I had to design the balloon with no air in it. So it was back and forth between an experiential and a conceptual process involving acoustic research that I did and collected from both parks departments. I took an alto saxophone and a pair of crash cymbals out on the runways and walked around with a pedometer learning about what carried. It was just a long and deep process, and that’s my favorite kind of process. So that graph [you asked about] was maybe the third or fourth solution that I found to write down the material that I had already been developing for months or years. I was just finding a way to represent it to myself, because a score was not going to work, and I finally found this way to use a multi-colored graph. It was in my hand the whole time; I had it in my hand for two months.

Charting out Crissy Broadcast

Charting out Crissy Broadcast

MS: Artistically, what is the point of 800 people on an airfield?
LB: It’s an acoustic decision. The artistic decision is the airfield. Eight hundred people is a pragmatic solution that has to do with no amplification. No amplification is an artistic idea that has to do with the fact that sound comes from a certain place. If you want to experience a space, one of the ways that you feel yourself in the space is if you hear the sounds coming from where they’re coming from. You hear a dog bark; it’s far away. It’s over there. If you heard that dog bark through quadraphonic speakers all over, then you’re no longer in a field. If I want to write music that celebrates a certain space, which I’m interested in, then the way to do that is to articulate the space honestly without manipulating it through amplification. Amplification is a way to erase a space and place another sonic space on top of it in such a way that you no longer feel the space.
So, in order to have an acoustic rendering of a space with human beings, you need hundreds of them. But the great thing about hundreds of them, which is an acoustic necessity, is that it happily brings in a whole other thing that I’ve become passionate about, which is celebrating the whole musical life of an urban area and shining light on all these other corners. Look what this middle school band director has been doing with so little funding for all these years with these amazing kids in the public school system! Check out this chorus that is organized through the Community Music Center in San Francisco of people from the various elder care centers! They have a chorus. That’s so cool. Turns out it was too cold out there for them to be there for my piece, but it’s really awesome.
That was something that was really effective in San Francisco. These hundreds of people—most of them middle school and high school kids—they encountered each other in this project and they were calling out to each other on a field, playing these signals to each other across space. There’s something very beautiful about it, and they really embraced it.
MS: So the piece had to be composed to suit amateur and student musicians?
LB: If you’re outside on a field, you have mezzo-forte and above available to you. The material has got to be declamatory. I wanted it to be joyful. There were some yearning moments, but I wanted declamatory, joyful, bold-colored shapes because that’s what works out there. And you know what? Middle school bands can play that. So can professionals. Everyone can play those things. I don’t need 800 super advanced contemporary music technicians to play this piece. Sometimes I do need them. I love virtuosity. This piece is not about virtuosity. This piece is about something else.
The fact that the model itself can be inclusive of performers at any level then touches something else that’s important to me, which is community. I need 800 people because it’s an airfield, and they can be at any level because the kind of material I need to write, many levels of musicians can in fact achieve together. And so it ends up being a natural fit.
MS: Are you satiated yet on these big pieces, or is this becoming something of a calling card?
LB: Steve Schick was my right-hand man out there in San Francisco. We were joking and he said, “After this, are you going to write a string quartet?” I don’t know! I’m of two minds. I absolutely love working on this project, but I don’t want it to be the only kind of thing I’m going to do for the rest of my life. I also really loved writing the Synopses, and I think those are good pieces. There’s an intimacy that I also need in my work that I may need to cycle back around to soon. But that doesn’t mean I’d be abandoning this forever either. I think the fact that my work sometimes goes in this direction where I’m interested in engaging community in these larger, bolder shapes out in these spaces, that’s a certain direction in my work, but it’s not the only direction. So I don’t think I’ll ever abandon it. I also think, God, are you kidding? If there are other airfields that are now public parks that have city agencies and music communities around them that want to do this, I am so game!

Lisa Bielawa at Crissy Broadcast

Bielawa in the thick of it at Crissy Broadcast
Photo by James Block

MS: Hopefully those airfields exist in a country where you already speak the local language.
LB: So I don’t have to keep learning languages. That’s so right.
MS: I am interested in how deeply passionate you are about community building. You yourself have lived in so many communities in sort of semi-longterm situations in the sense that you go in, deeply connect and make some precision drills, but then when the work is done, you move on.
LB: There’s a really specific thing that happens at the end of the Airfield Broadcasts. The groups go away from the center. By the end in San Francisco, there were 14 groups all around the perimeter of the park, and so the ones over here couldn’t even hear the ones over here. It was just too far away. And then in Berlin it was two, and in San Francisco there were three meeting points where these groups come together. There’s a small group of people that starts playing this little dancing phrase. They start playing that, and then most of the other groups around them join in with them—I wrote them all different parts that all go together, no matter when you enter—so there’s this big party that happens. In San Francisco, it’s like 200 people all doing that. Then some other group, like the Berkeley High School Band or something, shows up and plays something else completely unrelated and interrupts them. And they all stop.
But what you didn’t realize was that while this whole big party was going on, the original people who started playing that little dance-y thing, they snuck away. When the interrupters come and they all stop, [this small group] starts doing it again somewhere else and then they all go over there. This is happening in three separate places on the field inaudibly far from each other. This is exactly, I think, the poetry. There’s something so beautiful about that.
But that’s also kind of what I do, too. I want to go somewhere and I start a party. I get the party going. Then, when the party is at its fullest, I like to sneak away and start another party somewhere else. I wrote it into the piece, and I didn’t even realize I did that. I don’t know why that is. Leaving a party at its height—that’s heartbreakingly beautiful—and then you go somewhere else. That’s my role. I start fires, you know, and then I leave.

Invisible Cities: Choose Your Own Opera

Christopher Cerrone’s Invisible Cities
There’s something about Italo Calvino’s novels that makes them seem inherently musical. Maybe it’s the omnipresent interaction between precise mathematical structure and human intuition that recurs again and again in his writing. Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which finds Marco Polo narrating his travels to Kublai Khan, has a prescribed combinatorial chapter structure that dictates what kind of cities Polo describes and when, but the content of those chapters is so imaginative, so free. The structure becomes a kind of window frame that both enables and restricts what we see.

At LA’s Union Station last Sunday, November 17, I saw composer Christopher Cerrone’s opera based on Calvino’s novel, also called Invisible Cities. Wisely, Cerrone doesn’t copy the book’s structure, instead focusing on five particular cities. But as produced by the opera company The Industry and directed by Yuval Sharon, the event brilliantly captured both the ephemerality and rigor of Calvino’s writing. The Industry first grabbed people’s attention last year with a production of Anne LeBaron’s Crescent City, which featured a sprawling set composed of individual parts designed by different artists. Invisible Cities managed to be at once more extravagant and subtle, with the audience listening to the live performance on wireless headphones while wandering freely through an actual, historically scenic train station. The singers and dancers moved through the station too, with varying degrees of conspicuousness.

More production videos available here.

This means that anyone who saw the opera had a unique, unrepeatable experience—or, in Sharon’s words, everyone had a “front row seat.” But the fragmentary nature of this experience that makes it so compelling also makes it difficult to review. I can’t really evaluate the whole opera; I can only evaluate my experience of it.

Thankfully Cerrone’s music provides a powerful throughline for the entire duration. Less overtly dramatic than a typical opera score, there is an undercurrent of placidity to his music even at its most frantic and furious. It mirrors the benignly distant character of Calvino’s writing, unmoved by or removed from the cities’ inhabitants in a way, a kind of storm’s eye, an observer in a world of actors.

As the opera progressed, I felt unsure if I was an observer or an actor myself. After a brief instrumental overture, we wandered into a courtyard where a woman in white holding a large, shallow bowl sang long, lyrical lines. Crossing through the station into another courtyard, we came upon a stoic man in a wheelchair. While he wasn’t singing at the time, he was clearly part of the production. But this line was not always clear. When we re-entered the station, there were several audience members clustered around some chairs where two men were sitting. One looked bewildered, while one was sleeping or pretending to sleep. We had clearly just missed something, but what?

After that we found the bar, which became our stationary vantage point for much of the opera. We saw businessmen on smartphones moving in lockstep, dancers in military uniforms, and some kind of confrontation between the man in the wheelchair and a man in Italian Renaissance garb. As we watched, the man in the wheelchair stood, unsteadily, leaning on a cane.
Finally we returned to the ticket booth area where we began. Most of the audience seemed to be clustered here now, mesmerized by a line of dancers on the counter. A man emerged from the crowd that I recognized as the man in the wheelchair, but he was walking now, and dressed in resplendent robes. It was Kublai Khan. I prepared to follow him to his next destination but the music ended, and the opera was over.

I was left with an immediate desire to see the opera again, but unfortunately, appropriately, this was the final performance in a two-month run.

I should mention that on Sunday, the opera was preceded by a special performance of Cerrone’s Memory Palace, a work for percussion and electronics performed by Ian David Rosenbaum. Based on sounds from Cerrone’s childhood, the piece has a remarkable economy of materials, with subtle variations of a haunting motive threaded through five movements lasting 25 minutes. Rosenbaum’s performance was exceedingly sensitive to these subtleties. The piece was performed in commemoration of translator William Weaver, who brought most of Calvino’s novels to the English-speaking world.

#Yeezus: Lessons in Contemporary Performance from the Stadium Set

Late one recent mid-October evening, Kanye West walked out on stage in Seattle to kick off his Yeezus tour in a jewel-encrusted Maison Martin Margiela mask reminiscent of artist Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skulls. Death-obsessed Hirst says he created those glittery skulls because he was making art from what was around him, and perhaps one could be pushed towards similar conclusions here: that money is Kanye’s medium. However, the nearly three-hour-long show was not a referendum on narcissistic bedazzled-navel navel-gazing. Instead it was a massive interdisciplinary art, music, and sound event produced on a scale large enough to successfully fill an arena.

Kanye’s elusive and shadowy creative agency DONDA designed the elaborate set—a 50-foot, multi-tiered mountain with an even bigger rotating projection screen behind it, a runway with extensive futuristic laser possibilities, and a moving triangular mountain-extension stage in the middle of the arena. If you look through the hashtag #yeezus or #yeezustour right now on Instagram, you might think to yourself, “Dude, this is hella Wagner,” and you’d be right—the main set designer for Kanye’s tours and concerts is Es Devlin, who has designed sets for dozens of operas, mainly in Europe, including a production of Wagner’s Parsifal. At the time of this writing, I have been unable to confirm that Ms. Devlin worked with DONDA on the Yeezus tour, but her influence and direction is surely present given her extensive history with Kanye in the past. Beyond the physical set itself, the massive projection screen was its own lively being. At times it became the moving and occasionally apocalyptic sky behind the mountain, at other times there was live video processing going on that was projected onto the screen—two different videographers capturing Kanye’s face enshrouded in another of the jeweled masks, then someone manipulating the image and projecting it onto the screen above. And still other times there were video works pointing to themes of racism, institutionalized violence, and the oppression of minorities via imagery such as the human back in a vulnerable position or vicious barking dogs. And, often enough these images and events were peppered with feedback-inflected, noisy drones, recordings of “Indian pow-wows” from old films re-appropriated to make a beat-driven commentary on racism, spoken word interludes over resounding choruses, or sounds of electronically manipulated orchestral instruments that bring to mind Olivia Block’s latest project. Signature Kanye West beats seamlessly strung it all together.

Most reviews of this opening Yeezus show in Seattle, like this one in Rolling Stone, note the cadre of women wearing bodysuits and imply that this is surely an example of just how narcissistic this rich black rapper is. In fact, the body suits seemed not to be designed with hyper-sexuality in mind, but highlighted the human figure, often in zombie-like gray tones. West has collaborated with performance artist Vanessa Beecroft a number of times over the last few years—at listening parties in L.A. and also for his epic 35-minute video for Runaway. And, indeed, Beecroft was not only the choreographer, but also the artistic director for the show. Throughout the performance, the dancers interacted with both the mountain and Kanye, created a series of shifting shapes and textures, and at one point mimed a Catholic-inspired priestly procession. They also appeared to act out other scenes seemingly drawn from the history of performance art such as Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy.

As the show progressed, Kanye moved through a series of other masks and a number of costume changes, and a slightly abstract storyline slowly unfolded. Kanye as a black Jesus (a.k.a. Yeezus), the rise and fall and struggle of this character as he moves through a shamanistic vision-quest and eventually, in a bizarre and hilarious Christian passion play-like event, confronts Jesus, who emerges from the giant mountain in a stream of light and smoke. While there had been costume changes leading up to this moment, the intentionality seemed to shift at this point. There was a huge robe and white face mask that made Kanye appear alternately like a scarecrow and like a depiction of a dying Jesus or disciple in a Raphael painting. When meeting “White Jesus,” Yeezus wore an elaborate, Arab-inspired blue tunic echoing the Nation of Islam’s Tribe of Shabazz and Black Power—a leader with a new vision splitting with the past and pointing to a new way forward.

All in all, this was a massive undertaking, and to imagine the manpower and money that will be required in order for Kanye and DONDA to take this show on tour is mind-boggling. So it would be easy to write this off as being something unattainable for anyone outside of pop royalty. Yet, this is clearly an excellent example of what is possible when it comes to art and the general public. There I was in an arena filled with 15,000 people—people on their feet in awe of experimental performance art, music and highly sophisticated video pieces.

The internet has produced a seemingly endless supply of blog posts heralding the “death” of classical music, while others have suggested that shoveling heaps of violinists into bars to perform might redeem a too-formal concert music in the eyes of the public. There have even been curiously racist musings suggesting that the color of one’s skin dictates how we perceive time, and that this could be the key to getting Mozart and communities of color together in the same room. However, this post is not meant to suggest a new way forward with the same old ideas, but to suggest that the way forward is a full-on bear hug with interesting and challenging new ideas, and that people of all races and ages yearn for this, whether or not they say it in the same way we do.
Perhaps we just need to admit to ourselves that people like to be challenged, that people want to dive into wild and contemporary imagery and messages, but that our success in that mission may not come from our own backyard. I was fortunate enough to experience something intense, interesting, challenging, interdisciplinary, and yet totally accessible. Part of what is so striking about the Yeezus tour is that this is supposedly low art, but it’s woven seamlessly into so-called high art on a massive scale, and it’s actually really difficult to tease apart where one discipline ends and another begins. Things are getting messy, and that’s ok! All different aspects the show are free of their respective dogmas through new combinations with different disciplines and a well-balanced group of collaborators. And, all these collaborations are celebrated and are made interactive because, as Laurie Anderson notes and the 300,000-strong #yeezus hashtag demonstrates, we are the media now, and so even the audience is incorporated into the performance as an analytical and reflective machine—the performance continuing on as people see it from different angles and perspectives in videos and photographs and sharing of content. Success like this is possible for new music, too, but doing that may have to start with us putting down our instruments and seeing what’s happening in the rest of the world.

SoundSpace: Graphic Notation

I used to have an Australian roommate. He was a former journalist who had lived and worked in Beijing for a number of years, and he regularly spent time writing Chinese characters to keep in shape. One day I saw him working and said, “John, I don’t know how you can possibly read that.” He paused, smiled, and grabbed a blank sheet of paper. He wrote out a rudimentary staff, clef, and several notes and said, “I don’t know how you can read that, mate.”

How do we go from squiggles to speech, from scribbles to sound? For those unfamiliar with the concept of “graphic notation,” it’s worth noting that anytime you see someone looking at a sheet of paper while they toot their horn, they are looking at graphic notation. If you are reading this, you are looking at graphic notation. However, if I asked you to read the text below, what would you say? (Assuming you don’t read Chinese, of course.)
Chinese character sample
You might take your pre-existing understanding of written language and apply it to what’s  above in order to make some sense of it. I think that the first character looks a bit like a “P” or a “B” and the second looks like an “H” or an “A,” and if I was asked to “speak” these I’d go in that direction. Those two Chinese characters actually connote courage, but since I have no experience in that or any other Asian language, I can only rely on my background. Now what if you saw this?
Squiggle: Graphic Score
Now we are in a somewhat different world. This is not derived from an actual language, but we use the same set of tools to break it down and make sense of it. Musicians trained in the Western music tradition use a particular type of notation which is standardized (for the most part) the world over. What happens when they are asked to play from a page of notation that is not standard? How do they approach the squiggles? Curator Steve Parker’s latest installment in his SoundSpace series at the Blanton Museum featured several hours of folks doing just that.

James Fei performs his <i>Standing Waves and Viscous Loss </i> Photo by Steve Sachse

James Fei performs his Standing Waves and Viscous Loss
Photo by Steve Sachse

Inevitably upon entering the Blanton Museum’s cavernous Rapoport Atrium one’s gaze turns upwards, and James Fei’s Standing Waves and Viscous Loss added to this sense of grandeur and direction. A braying, squealing affair for sopranino saxophone, this brash overture to the proceedings began near the terminus of the stairway, with Fei eventually moving in small circles and turning to face one way, then another, to fill every nook and cranny with sound. Following this declamatory introduction was a duet of sorts with soprano Kate Bass performing Hildegard Von Bingen’s Spiritus Sanctus Vivificans Vita from the upper level of Rapoport while visual artist Caroline Wright sketched on four large canvases in the center of the lower level.

Visual Artist Caroline Wright Photo by Steve Sachse

Visual Artist Caroline Wright
Photo by Steve Sachse

The exchange between the artists drew the audience’s attention up and down between the levels until Thom Echols began a performance of Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise on modular synthesizer and guitar in the Schweitzer Gallery, a few turns down the hall from the upper level of Rapoport. This overlapping was otherworldly, unusual, and completely intentional, and signaled the beginning of the bulk of the day’s performances. Part of what makes SoundSpace compelling is the placement of different simultaneous performances in various galleries around the museum. This both breaks up the linearity of a typical concert and gives a bit of agency to the audience in that they can choose where they want to go and what they want to see and hear at a given time. Of course, part of this festival-like presentation is that you are unlikely to hear everything and often come upon a performance at the halfway mark or just at the finish. The printed programs are detailed and allow you to find specific works and performers, but I personally find it most satisfying to simply wander from gallery to gallery, which is how I like to experience museums anyway.

Tom Echols performs Cornelius Cardew’s <i>Treatise</i> Photo by Steve Sachse

Tom Echols performs Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise
Photo by Steve Sachse

Other highlights were James Syler’s 3×3 Fanfares performed by the New Music Ensemble from the University of Texas at San Antonio. A mixed chamber ensemble with electric guitar, violin, flute, trumpets, horns, bass trombone, and percussion was situated around the perimeter of the large rectangular Huntington Gallery. My impression of the piece (I came in as it was being performed, somewhere in the middle) was that of arrival, as though the work was one huge, sustained tonic. This is not to say it was without tension. In fact, it was like holding one facial expression very intently for a period and observing the slightest of changes that occur. A few galleries over, Jim Altieri’s Seismicity, derived from seismograph readings and rendered by trombone quartet was by and large a gentle rise and fall, the trombones placed in four corners of the gallery and following the contours of the readings before them.

From Jim Altieri’s Seismicity

From Jim Altieri’s Seismicity

The final work of the day fell in line with previous epic, single-instrument SoundSpace offerings such as Henry Brant’s Orbits. Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 19 was directed by James Fei, along with conductors Chris Prosser, Ben Stonaker, and Stefan Sanders, and featured players from all over Texas performing the work written for “100 Tubas.” Writing about what it sounded like as the performers entered Rapoport auditorium (playing tubas, euphoniums, sousaphones, and all manner of serious low brass) is an exercise in creative analogy. Among the labored metaphors that littered my notes were: Offstage B-2 Bombers, The Biggest Harley Ever, Like Some Terrible, Ominous Marching Band [1], and Epic Halloween Soundtrack. It was a huge sound, an enveloping sound that not only eventually filled the formidable room but threatened to escape it. This sense of scale was amplified by the fact that the direction from which one hundred pedal tones is coming is tricky to pinpoint, so you’re sort of swallowed up by this big ominous sound.

James Fei conducts Anthony Braxton’s <i>Composition No. 19</i> Photo by Steve Sachse

James Fei conducts Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 19
Photo by Steve Sachse

Once assembled in rows on the ground floor, the mass of tubas initially headed by Fei split into three groups headed by Prosser, Stonaker, and Sanders. The groups faced in different directions and spent several minutes trading fours, each guided by their conductor who gave hand signals indicating what to play. Low growls, sub-tones, and the occasional squeal emanated from each of the groups, and after about ten minutes the conductors and their charges slowly but surely made their way outside followed by the audience in an uncanny Pied Piper impression [2]. Outside, the work truly took shape in the large courtyard. Over the next half hour the groups moved around the large outdoor space, finally finding a venue that matched their size and sound. The large, slow, thick harmonies were occasionally interrupted by sharp interjections as ensemble mixed with audience, and when the final chord died it was replaced by applause as loud as the work itself, if not quite as long.

The work mimicked the events of the entire day. Not simply because it was a day of pieces utilizing graphic notation, but because it was presented such that one could have a shared experience and a personal one, evident as each member of the audience chose how and where to watch and listen. Of course, one can have a shared/personal experience while seated in the concert hall as well, but your ability to control your destiny is modest, and this is where the SoundSpace concept really shines. This installment was particularly compelling as that individuality was expanded from the audience to encompass the performers as well, whose personalities could shine through the unconventional scores before them. To be sure, the various notation systems on display were as different as the composers who used them, but they have in common the function of drawing from their readers a personal and individual touch. While this holds true with conventional notation as well, the degree to which performers may shape the music is attenuated and two performances will likely be more similar than not. What makes graphic notation so interesting is that it lays bare the truth behind conventional notation, music and otherwise, which is that it’s all open for interpretation. The reality of cooperation between the composer and performer is amplified and, in the case of the SoundSpace audience, we’re all better for it.

1. “Godzilla” terrible, not “awful” terrible.” See #’s 1 and 2, not 3. And yes, that one was a simile.

2. It also had a bit of a “breaking the fourth wall” vibe, like when the cowboys burst in on The French Mistake at the end of Blazing Saddles except without all the fighting and top hats. I think it was the sheer scale of the thing…so many tubas.