September of His Years

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80 is going to be a very good year for Steve Reich (born October 3, 1936). There are concerts around the world celebrating his achievements, and he will be a prominent, season long presence here in New York City.

You can read my reviews of two recent concerts, and looking closely ahead:

  • October 25: Ensemble Signal is back at Miller Theatre for one of their 6 p.m., free Pop-Up Concerts, playing Cello Counterpoint, NY Counterpoint, and the early, experimental Pendulum Music.
  • October 29: At Juilliard, Jeffrey Milarsky conducts the AXIOM ensemble in early and recent pieces, including the gorgeous Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ, and City Life, which increasingly builds an importance equal to Music for 18 Musicians.
  • November 1: In Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, ICE, So Percussion, Synergy Vocals, and conductor David Robertson will play Quartet, the video opera Three Tales, and the world premiere of Pulse. It’s worth noting here that Reich continues to put make outstanding new pieces that are moving his style forward into new areas of harmony, rhythm, and form.
  • December 10: National Sawdust and the World Music Institute are presenting a concert with Ghanaian master drummer Gideon Alorwoyie and Mantra Percussion, playing traditional music and excerpts from Drumming.

And if you can’t wait, or you can’t make it, order yourself Steve Reich: The ECM Recordings, a neat little box to be released September 30 that collects the first recording of Music for 18 Musicians, probably the single most important record of the last 50 years, along with everything else ECM released (which includes Octet, which Reich later revised into Eight Lines). Consider this an essential part of your music library.

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Critic's Choice

Bora Yoon’s Sunken Cathedral is my Critic’s Choice this week at the New York Classical Review. The word on tickets is that there are very few left, so if you’re interested, order them now.

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For background, listen to our talk with her on the Dec-Jan Rail Tracks Podcast. And pick up her CD, one of the best of 2014.

How Composers Learn, Part 2

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

They read, and they write, and not music. They read books about all sorts of things other than music. They gather material, experience, knowledge, ideas. They react to these things. And they write.

Composers are, generally, excellent prose writers. This isn’t a surprise when one considers that the way to learn to write well is to read and write – read good writing, and write and rewrite your own. Composers already work towards clarity and precision in a difficult and abstract language, so writing in their own vernacular usually comes fluidly. The goal in both music and prose is clarity and precision of expression, exactitude. Composers get a lot of practice at that, moving slowly from incoherence to coherence, which is both a short-term and a long-term project. The latter covers a career, and former projects such as this, where I write in main part to bring out and stitch together some coherent voices from the riot going on in my mind.

And that’s the fundamental issue; how are ideas made to cohere, particularly complex ideas, because music, even at its seeming simplest, is a language of complexity. And nothing is more complex, not a novel, not computer code, not a credit default swap, than an opera. So John Adams has produced a great opera and a great book.

The striving for coherence also means exploring the way get from here to there, no matter how short the journey may be. For myself, and this post, the journey begins during the live HD broadcast of Dr. Atomic, last Saturday. After seeing the premiere in San Francisco, a dress rehearsal last month and now this broadcast, I am confident of my knowledge and memory of the work (this was also the first Met HD broadcast I’ve seen, and it was a great experience – excellent sound, interesting and intimate backstage views, documentary material added for the movie theater audiences. While I don’t know how well a spectacle like Aida would come across, the ability to experience Dr. Atomic close-up gave emphasis to how fine the production was, and also the overall excellence of the cast).

I was impressed with many things during this performance, beyond the almost overwhelming emotional impact the opera has. There is something powerfully exciting in being a living witness to a work that will last in the literature, and to seeing true, long-term greatness develop in an artist. Adams has gone from being an interesting associate of the American Minimalist style, to a developing Neo-Romantic composer, to a fine American contemporary composer, to a truly great national and international artist who has subtly but effectively pioneered ways to make music fresh in the 21st century. How this all happens is a mystery in some ways, but clear too. While his memoir cannot describe how his craft improves through work, it can describe how his ideas and style change, both serendipitously and willfully. He is asking important, coherent questions about the American experience, as he alluded to in a backstage interview with Susan Graham; he sees the important questions of today as being about politics, terrorism and science. I don’t think he’s wrong.

Like learning to write by reading great writers, Adams has also learned to make a new style by synthesizing those of other composers. It’s not copying or stealing, it’s more like reverse-engineering, taking something apart to see how it works and putting it back together to see if you can make your own version. This is one of the features of Dr. Atomic, which creates the musical drama through standard means – particular phrases that are matched to characters and dramatic moments – and by conveying different styles for different dramatic purposes, very much in the Romantic operatic style and especially taking after the methods of Berg. All this synthesis mates the means of other composers with Adams himself to produce something new; the bustle of activity around the Trinity project comes by way of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, intimate moments between Oppenheimer and Kitty are in the manner of Ravel’s Daphnis et Cloe, while a great deal of the slow rise in tension in the second act comes from lessons Adams has learned from his own music, especially Shaker Loops and his underrated El Dorado.

If composers learn by reading and writing, and writing conveys a sense of thought and knowledge, what to make of the contrast with people who are, astonishingly, paid to write? What to make of this:

I like Sarah Palin, and I’ve heartily enjoyed her arrival on the national stage. As a career classroom teacher, I can see how smart she is — and quite frankly, I think the people who don’t see it are the stupid ones, wrapped in the fuzzy mummy-gauze of their own worn-out partisan dogma. So she doesn’t speak the King’s English — big whoop! There is a powerful clarity of consciousness in her eyes. She uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist.

I make it out as someone who knows nothing about music, and can’t think or write coherently. So, no surprise that it’s by Camille Paglia. I read Sexual Personae oh those many years ago, and was struck immediately then, as now, by how she knows nothing at all about music. I don’t mean facts and figures, I mean she can’t listen, she can’t hear it. In that book, she belabored her point by claiming that jazz musicians didn’t dig Debussy because it’s too feminine, which means she’s never heard La Mer or Maiden Voyage. And now this latest drivel. I would say there is a fundamental difference between Sarah Palin and Charlie Parker, and it has to do with intelligence. Parker’s “jumps, breaks and rippling momentum” are impeccably clear and coherent, even at the superhuman speed of his thoughts, even when he was fucked up, which was frequently. My partisan dogma is that I work with language, and like to see it used coherently to convey meaning. Sarah Palin speaks in gibberish, almost randomly tossing out words. She literally makes no sense – I have no idea what she thinks because she cannot say anything that has meaning, so she practically is not thinking anything at all. But that’s okay with political writers like Paglia, or Palin’s sponsor Bill Kristol, another example of how lack of ideas and convictions leads to incoherence. I usually cannot understand what he is trying to say, although it frequently appears to be completely wrong. How’s that new century going, Bill? Strange how this incoherence leads to professional gigs, especially now that I’m unemployed again, and still trying to write whatever I write – essays, music, code – better and better. But then I come from the arts where, like science, bad ideas are left to die, while in politics, we are cursed with them seemingly forever.

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The Janus-Faced Week

The year turns within the week, and at the New York Classical Review, Eric Simpson and I look back on the year it was in live music, and I look ahead with the January calendar. I’ll be covering the Hear and Now Festival, the Prototype Festival, Ekmeles, and concerts from the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony, and a few more.

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December Early Listings

The Brooklyn Rail has a double issue for December and January, and will be out later in the month (the staff, guest editor and I are scrambling to finish up a deep joint inteview with Henry Threadgill and Jason Moran), so our listings will be delayed until then. But for early December, highly selective and recommended events, look no further:

 

  • December 4 & 5: Henry Threadgill’s Zooid at Roulette. As Henry described to me, this is a series of related pieces heard over the course of two nights, what he calls, for lack of a better term, concertos. Thursday starts with guitar, which is then interwoven into the remaning pieces, followed by music that features trombone/tuba, and then drums and percussion and cello Friday night. I would call these Concerto Grossos, especially from such a contemporary master of counterpoint.

  • December 3 – 7: Meredith Monk’s On Behalf of Nature at BAM. We are just at the beginning of a year celebrating the unique work of Meredith Monk, and this is one of the big events, the local premiere of her new music theater piece. Recordings cannot convey the physical life that her music and stage works convey, she must be seen and heard in person. This is the ideal opportunity.

  • December 4 & 6: ((audience)) presents Paralektronica at the New School. A performing symposium, and a great value ($5 Thursday, free Saturday), with the subject “electricity and paranoia, radio and Theremin.” Who could resist? Not to mention you will hear ideas and music from Felix Kubin, conversation with the brilliant art historian Branden Joseph, a performance from Chris Mann (and if you’ve never seen what he does, you need to), and a blindfold sound walk around the Village.
  • December 6: David Fiuczynski’s Planet Microjam at Shapeshifter Lab. Marked as one of our Undiscovered Lands in the October Brooklyn Rail, the Fuze brings his microtonal jazz/funk/prog project to Brooklyn, with the very special company of Matt Garrison and Jack DeJohnette. Man. 

* December 7: NEC Presents the Music of John Zorn at The Stone. If you missed Cobra in November, and didn’t happen to be in Boston earlier in the fall, come to this extended concert surveying the enduring, vital accomplishments of Zorn. His name speaks for itself, but the chances to hear his music directly are not all that common in New York. Here’s one. 

Dancing About Architecture

Because us writers rarely get to re-use others’ best lines …

I recommend you check out an event next Tuesday, November 25, produced by the Center for Architecture/The Institute for Performance Sculpture, Inc:

“Eploring the Hidden Music” has music from the first ever collaboration of composer (and architect) Christopher Janney and bassist/producer Bill Laswell.

Janney makes interactive sound and light installations, and the event will feature his music and installations, including real time visual music peformance and an interactive light installtion.

Here’s a sample of something you might see:

Peforming will be Trilok Gurtu, Sheila E, Dave Revels, Lynn Mabry and DJ Adam Gibbons. Choreography is from Sara Rudner.  $25 gets you into the Gramercy Theatre for this,