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 Latest

Paucity of posts does not mean lack of content. Solo parenting for a month meant I only got out to one concert, but it was notable, and I still produced a good amount of work, here’s where to find it:

  • At the New York Classical Review, read my preview of The Death of Klinghoffer and my review of opening night
  • I published the first of what I hope to be more articles at New Music Box: “The Know-Nothings of Jazz” is a look at just how it is that any reputable place would publish the kind of unbelievably ignorant drivel about jazz that we’ve been subjected to this past summer
  • The October issue of The Brooklyn Rail is out, and our podcast is up, and it may be our very best: great conversations and music with Michael Vincent Waller, Ken Thomson, Carlos Hernandez of Ava Luna, and Steve Dalachinksy

Ditto

I say “yes” to these sentiments from my colleague Christian Carey over at Sequenza21. He's responding to a strange article in the New York Times about John Adams' new saxophone concerto. But the piece actually turned out to be a chance for Adams to moan about an unnamed but obvious successful young composer and for Will Robin to, strangely, marvel at this exotic instrument, the saxophone.

I wonder what has Adams so piqued? Why begrudge someone else's success? What he says is not criticism, it's just complaint, and considering how lazy his recent pieces Absolute Jest and The Gospel According to the Other Mary are, it's unjustified. As for Robin, he seems to be suffering from an academic environment that just doesn't see the history it hasn't enshrined – the saxophone has been around classical music since it was invented, and it's prevalent in contemporary music, and if the criteria is concerto form, then “Facades,” anyone?

And, as a saxophonist, I want to point out that the horn is, in Steve Lacy's words, an “interval machine,” so writing music that calls for rapid leaps across the instrument's range is absolutely idiomatic. Any good orchestration book will tell you this, but so will taking to a player, or listening to some records. Perhaps the music library is thin on Lacy, or the music of Meyer Kupferman.

 

The Dude Ambles By

John Adams, *City Noir,* Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustav Mahler, *Symphony No. 9,* Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall:

  • March 27, 2013; John Adams, The Gostpel According to the Other Mary
  • March 28, 2013; Claude Vivier, Zipangu, Claude Debussy, La Mer, Igor Stravinsky, The Firebird

It’s not that I believed the hype about Gustavo Dudamel, it’s that I figured that anyone who had gone so far, so fast, had some real promise, some unpolished talent that the LA Philharmonic saw and wanted to have for themselves as it grew, like what the Washington Nationals see in Bryce Harper. Harper was spectacular at times during his rookie season, and less than ordinary at other times, but the former meant that there might be more often in the future. I assumed that was the case with Dudamel, and now that I’ve heard him on a handful of recordings and seen him lead the LA Phil at Lincoln Center in an intriguing program of Stravinsky, Debussy, CLaude Vivier and John Adams, I realize that, as the saying goes, I’ve made an ass of myself.

VLA 10049 byMathewImaging 12965Dudamel’s new Mahler 9 recording is superficial and schematic. He handles the musical traffic skillfully and the LA Phil is playing at a high technical level, but those qualities amount to watching a machine run, the music-making doesn’t seem to have any particular ideas or to be done for a particular reason, other than habit. The opening bars are perfunctory, there is no musical statement made with the stumbling rhythm, no tension, and so the two-note descending string line, which is a musical manifestation of the exhalation of acceptance that begins life’s final journey, is totally flat — it’s one of the key moments of the symphony! After that, there’s no feeling that one phrase leads to another, that the point of Mahler’s writing out the notes was to get the musicians to go from the beginning to the end. Everything is episodic, with one phrase and section clipped to the next. Mahler organized the work, but Dudamel seems to find it arbitrary. I have no idea what he thinks about the music, intellectually or emotionally, because he doesn’t lead it as if he was thinking of anything.

This was a strength with *The Firebird* because it’s an episodic piece, the short sections juxtaposed for dramatic and narrative purpose, and so his ability to handle textures, dynamics and rhythms is important. The audience broke into spontaneous and deserved applause after a breathtaking “Infernal Dance.” *The Firebird* almost plays itself, though. *La Mer* doesn’t, and this was the first performance of this beautiful, profound, involving masterpiece I had ever heard that was so … indifferent. Conductors like Charles Dutoit, Michael Tilson Thomas and David Robertson give you their understanding of the music’s colors, drama and important structural innovations, but Dudamel offered no ideas. It was pleasant enough in a boring way and completely forgettable and meaningless.

For the afficianando, the draw of this program was Claude Vivier’s *Zipangu*. Vivier’s music seems to be undergoing a slow and very welcome rediscovery, in no small part due to the promotion of his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes. He was a pioneer of the spectral movement and easily the most accessible and powerful proponent of the style, fixing magical sonorities to gracefully strong structures. Vivier wasn’t just exploring the possibilites of microtones and diaphanous harmonies, but expressing ideas through them. Dudamel marked each moment of the piece with an excessively vertical attention, getting the notes write and missing the point that they existed in the context of others. The latter pieces confirmed to me the impression this opening work left, which is that he is didactically focussed on making sure each moment is technically right and has no idea why each moment matters.

It’s a sad change from the Salonen years. Under him, the LA Philharmonic was frequently a rough ensemble, but they played with ideas and a tremendous commitment. There was a performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 7 that almost set my hair on fire, and while that may not be every person’s idea of how the music should go, it was an idea, it was something! The excessive palaver of the Dudamel style turns art into baubles for the bourgeoisie to collect as signifiers of their cultural prestige. It’s awful.

His lack of personal art leaves me at a loss to judge the qualities of John Adams’ *The Gospel According to the Other Mary*. It’s an Easter companion to his brilliant Christmas oratorio, *El Nino*, and not nearly as accomplished. The libretto, put together with Peter Sellars, is ungainly and drives the structure, which has a first half malformed by an endless scene involving Lazarus’ death and resurrection. Once that passes, everything starts to move. But nothing much moves for the character of Mary Magdalene, who steadily laments and regrets throughout, and at times the music goes for effect rather than meaning, eviscerating Adams’ strength as a composer. Taken together with his awful copy and paste pastiche of Beethoven, *Absolute Jest*, I think he is cursed with being too busy as a composer, and is taking shortcuts. But perhaps there is more to the music than Dudamel can give it, which I feel is also true for *City Noir*, which does everything that Adams does well: it’s smart, irreverent, sincere and even a little hip, but the one performance available is unfulfilling.

Dudamel has a jejune touch, and it effects the music he leads. Considering the clamor that greets him when he steps out onto stage, the yelling and cheering, and that he’s got a long contract, that seems to be what audiences and trustees want. It’s classical music as upper-class lifestyle accessory, and that’s nothing new of course. Nonetheless, I hate it.




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Maverick Media

American Mavericks is in full swing here in New York City. I have some mixed feelings about Monday’s San Francisco Symphony concert — I’m not sure what John Adams was thinking when he made Absolute Jest, and it’s hard to square Jessye Norman’s substantial career with a performance of John Cage’s Song Books — the audiences have come out, and the orchestra continues to impress me as the finest in the country. The precision, blend and weight of their sound in Ameriques was astonishing. The Tuesday program was one of the great events of the year, with Carl Ruggle’s Sun-Treader, Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra and Henry Brant’s orchestration of Ives’ Concord Sonata. From weighty, dissonant Neo-Romanticism to spacious, still, delicate pointillism and the polyphonic riot of Ives, played with such musical expression — there’s no other orchestra that can do this. Top flight groups like this play the classics beautifully, but Tilson Thomas, his imagination, curiosity and his knowledge and understanding of the range of musical concepts means that a program like this not only works, but astonishes. Sun-Treader is a great work, and has been recorded exactly two times, both under this conductor’s baton. This group also made a tremendous recording the of Ives last year, and I have never heard a finer performance of the Feldman piece, with Emmanuel Ax at the keyboard, hauntingly shadowed by Robin Sutherland. When an orchestra can play the quietest sounds with a exactitude of attack and pitch and fullness of sound like this, the silent spaces in between grow broader, deeper, more profound. Rare playing and a truly rare program, all of us in the hall may never hear these pieces again in concert.

San Francisco is one of the pioneers in matching their content (their programming and playing) with digital media (their own record label, the Keeping Score program), and this festival has lots of extras for those who can attend and even for those who can’t. Go to Q2 for archived audio, check out the above documentary or one about MTT’s grandparents, who were leaders in Yiddish theater, and, if you’re patient, wait a few months, because the orchestral concerts are being recorded for release on the SFS Media label, meaning brilliant, beautiful discs of Adams, Ruggles, Cowell and more.

San Francisco Symphony, Adams: Harmonielehre, Short Ride in a Fast Machine

In 1996, I went to a San Francisco Symphony concert with a good friend. The program was generally typical of orchestra concerts around the world; an overture, a concerto, intermission, a symphony. In the details, however, lay the brilliance of Michael Tilson Thomas’ musicianship, attitude and salesmanship (a vtial talent for a music director): Rossini’s “Overture to Semiramide;” the Haydn Cello Concerto in D, played by Lynn Harrell; and John Adams’ Harmonielehre. Before the music began I overheard peope in the seats behind us talking about the music, expressing their unfamiliarity with Adams and wondering why the modern piece was placed after intermission, when surely many people would leave so they wouldn’t have to endure a piece younger than they were.

The music on the first half was despatched with verve and charm, and the curious couple behind us decided to stay for the whole show. They had no idea what they were in store for. This was a tremendous performance of a great piece of music, and from the very first, crushing E minor chord, the orchestra played with ferocious intensity. The ovation at the end was one of the most passionate I’ve witnessed, and Adams came out for four standing ovations. Leaving the hall, the same couple talked excitedly about how that was the greatest concert they had ever seen. I don’t doubt it.

Harmonielehre is a standard of the orchestral repertoire, and a masterpiece. The San Francisco Symphony commissioned it, premiered it and made the first recording, and excellent one that has not been equalled by performances led by Simon Rattle and David Robertson. It was surpassed that night, though, and that night has now been surpassed by a new release from the Symphony’s own label, live performances of the symphony and the fanfare “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” recorded in Davies Symphony Hall in December 2010 and September 2011.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=thbicibl-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=B0074B2MV8The composition speaks for itself. It’s an important work, one that found a way to combine Minimalist process with Romantic resolution and express itself with immediate, and profound, emotional and intellectual power. It belongs explicitly inside the history of western classical music, with its bits of Mahler and Sibelius, but it’s not stodgy, and even though it’s a generation old it sounds new every time because it updates the past and shows a new way forward, but there’s nothing off-putting or forbidding about it, in the clichéd manner that had the patrons wary about what to expect. One of Adams’ finest qualities is that he wears his intellectual and learning lightly. It’s always in the context of his pieces, but he communicates that substance with such direct and sincere power that anyone and everyone can accept what they’re hearing without feeling alienated or patronized.

The playing and communication of MTT and the orchestra on this recording are of the highest level. I write this in Brooklyn, and from the East Coast perspective, with maybe one visit a year and a slow trickle of recordings on their own label, it’s easy to overlook that this continues to be the finest orchestra in the country. They play with the utmost refinement, flexibility and musicality, and bear the conductor’s personal stamp of color and power. They’ve already produced the finest Mahler cycle on record and a series of astonishingly accomplished CDs in tandem with their excellent Keeping Score series. In the SACD format, their recordings are the finest engineered classical discs I have ever heard; the sound has weight, resonance yet sacrifices no detail, and the placement of the audio field puts the listener at and slightly above the podium, and at volume that is exciting. The music-making on this disc is forceful, sweeping, joyful. Harmonielehre is deep, humane music, matched here by the visceral and empathic playing. This will be one of the finest releases of 2012. Adams’ composition is an essential part of any music library, and now this is the essential recording of it.

October Light Playlist

Wolfgang Mitterer, Music for Checking e-mails

Alvin Lucier, Almost New York; There are some lovely drone/tuning pieces on here from Lucier. “Twonings” sets cello against piano, the stringed instrument at times matching the piano note while at others the cellist plays a sharp or flat microtone, setting up Lucier’s characteristic sonic beating. Having two live musicians playing, rather than one against an oscillator, adds both extra tension and expressive beauty.

Tom Hamilton, Off-Hour Wait State; Ever wait for the subway at 4:00am? A classic, mesmerizing.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=thbicibl-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=B00002R0NC

Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th Century; Is it a classic punk rock album, a classic of rock improvisation, or a classic set of 20th century experimental music? Yes to all, and one of The Big City’s Essential recordings.

Stay Awake and September Songs; two of producer Hal Willner’s finest collections, the first interpretations of songs from Disney movies, the second some exceptionally fine ‘covers’ of some of Kurt Weill’s greatest songs, like “Youkali Tango” and “Lost in the Stars.” This in honor of Robert Wilson’s production of The Threepenny Opera, which I’ll be seeing tonight. Stay Awake, with it’s humor, intelligence and beautiful narrative, is another Essential recording.http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=thbicibl-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=B000002GFM

London Chamber Orchestra, Minimalist; this collection has gone through several releases, and even if you know the music is worthwhile for the exceptional performances.

London Gabrieli Brass Ensemble, From the Steeples to the Mountains