Roi Reviews

by danielgoode

Thumbnail Review Submission in Open Space: About the Roi Reviews
January 26, 2012 at 12:06 PM

I’ve called these thumbnail reviews, the “Roi Reviews” for the editor-in-chief, Micheline Roi, of the Canadian publications, Musicworks. For this magazine with accompanying cassette or CD, in existence since the ’70’s, I wrote some important articles over the years about my work and other American composers, plus some reviews of interesting New York festival selections. Recently, I failed to interest the new editor in my work, wondered why they wouldn’t want a “boots on the ground” experienced writer like myself to continue to tell them interesting things from our “cultural capital,” and in a rather melodramatic flourish, I decided to “go out” with a bang by writing these short, pungent, somewhat personal short pieces in a white heat immediately after the events I attended. I emailed the result to the editor, but, as expected, never heard back from her. Some of the broader, more culturally relevant pieces were published on the blog of Jeffrey Goldfarb of the Political Science Department at the New School for Social Research, a friend. —Daniel Goode

Bells and Cells in Tully Hall Atrium
February 24, 2011 12:08:47 AM EST

It can’t be the first audience-does-cell phones in a high art chamber music event, but was my first, and it’s got to be one of the best. Nathan Davis, the new percussionist/ composer with ICE, was commissioned to compose for the recently opened atrium on street level at Lincoln Center—a glassy, high-frequency resonant, flashy, bar-friendly entrance to the concert hall. On entering we were each given a a card saying “Please unsilence your phone. When you hear bells, dial the number on the reverse and enter any one of the access codes…” Circulating the space was like being in a forest of chirping industrial insects. It reminded me of those burbling short wave radio sounds that accompanied global communications before the internet and cell phones. With flute, piccolo, clarinet, 12 spatially traveling players of crotales and triangles, the composer above us on a glassed in balcony adding more percussion and a huge gong agung—it was a lovely twenty-five minutes. Cap your ear and you got another, filtered composition. Walking among the speakerphones, I greet a friend, listen to what her cell is broadcasting, drink a coffee…..

Buckner’s, the Only “inter-racial” New Music Audience
March 11, 2011 9:57:52 PM EST

That’s because, since he came to NY from SF (Arch Records was his great new music label in SF), he started performing (baritone), commissioning and premiering Black artists from the AACM (George Lewis just did that big book on them, “A Power Greater Than Itself”—hope Musicworks reviewed it). They came and so did their audience. Unique in NY. Roscoe Mitchell, the talented wind player/composer was represented from that original AACM group at Buckner’s Interpretations Series, March 10th. Peter Garland, Michael Byron, and Fred Ho were the others on the program. Joseph Kubera pianoed. Sold out house in Soho. Tom Buckner is the “George Soros” of new music. He puts his money where his mouth is: into progressive causes. More power to them both. All the pieces were interesting, urgent vocal/instrumental essays. Peter Kotik’s Buckminster Fuller/Gertrude Stein setting was from 1971. Peter Garland’s “Smokey the Bear Sutra” setting of Gary Snyder was from 2007, clangorous, conch shells, bass drum, singer, marimba, smokin’ in a minimalist way of layering. Michael Byron’s Anne Tardos setting (“Pure of Heart”) was brand new.

Notice there were no women composers on the program. There were a couple in the audience. It’s still a mystery why that bulge of women composers that came in the ’70’s seems to have disappeared into business as usual. Something to explore. Maybe it’s less true in Canada then the U.S.—hot from NY

Byron and Polansky, Maximalist Piano Music at Interpretations in Soho
March 17, 2011 11:51:10 PM EDT

Maybe it is or is not Kyle Gann’s definition of maximalist. But intensity of piano composition, played brilliantly by Kubera and Nonken, could qualify. Both composers winged into the air as Minimalism was fading into the sunset while flaccid Post Modernism rose in the East. They each took some major ideas from high minimalism: Polansky is one of the most versatile algorithmic composers, often using his own software inventions. Byron started out with some idiosyncratic “spacey” non-pulse related clouds of sounds and has become a rigorous modal moto perpetuo composer of a non-down beat variety. In fact in both Larry Polansky’s Three Pieces for Two Pianos and Michael Byron’s Book of Horizons (for piano solo) met in a kindred world of non-pulsed, two (or more in Polansky)-part counterpoint, rhapsodic, stretching toward but never reaching a cadential moment. They’ve been friends since they met in Toronto in the mid-1970’s. Christian Wolff’s Exercise 20 (Acres of Clams) was also played brilliantly by Nonkin and Kubera. Piano in a world of Internet and virtuality? Think again about what’s important. The object, the piano object, the former center of classical music composition, is back, never left, always inspiring new work. Larry links up to Jim Tenney. Michael seems sui generis to me, but at one time was part of the California minimalist scene, as was Peter Garland and a host of others, a master of it was Harold Budd. Sunset seems a fitting atmospheric, a tonal, sometimes romantic use of harmony put in new repetitive structures, not at all formalist, as was Steve Reich. And on and on. Try an adjective, or an analytic: “not-New York.” That was then.

Goebbels (H.) Does Gertrude (S.) at the New Tully Hall this Eve
March 19, 2011 1:40:25 AM EDT

Estonian conductor Anu Tali’s platinum ponytail over her musician’s-black uniform beating a metronomic 4/4: was mesmerizing. Heiner G. said in an interview that he knows he’ll always be confused with Joseph G., Hitler’s minister of propaganda. So he’s inoculated himself from this by setting passionate cantorial singing, sampled in his Sampler Suite, from Surrogate Cities. It began with a lighting blast on a male bass drum player smacking the instrument, two handed, with giant switches. It did take the breath away. Was the piece, as a whole, brilliant imagination or crap with brilliant lighting?… He “micromanages” the lighting according to one orchestra member. The whole stage dramatically changes its illumination at apt musical moments. In the Stein piece, it is in the score that the downstage part of the orchestra is all women (dressed in solid colors), who recite on mic and also play the orchestral instruments, while at the back are the men players dressed in black, who never recite. Stein’s World War II text, “Wars I have seen” was Goebbels 2007 hommage to her 1943 observations of everyday life in her adopted France. A friend in the audience, a holocaust survivor, was revolted by Stein’s line that “you could always get butter.” He said butter was unobtainable, and he only tasted peanut butter after the war. He fried it with an egg; called Stein “superficial.” I suggested that maybe in southern France she had a neighbor with a cow. Butter was next door. Spectacular playing by the London Sinfonietta, and a newer ensemble, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The latter (women) did the Stein aided by the men from the Sinfonietta. Not like American, Canadian, or even most European music said another friend. Orchestra as theater. Not since Fellini’s hilarious, “Orchestra Rehearsal.” But Goebbels is suitably serious, even “Germanic.” And NOT boring. Interesting that both orchestras were 20th Century versions of the 16th-17 century “broken consort.” (Approx. one of each instrument.) The festival of the new hall ends, demonstrates that the social redesign of this high-art temple is successful: the new Tully Hall is fun for mingling, and for listening to music. Some eating and drinking too. Thumbnail review. Spring means music overload.

Roi Reviews: more H. Goebbels
March 19, 2011 10:50:53 PM EDT

3/18/11 Tully performance
Orchestra qua Theater. But why? It is (they’re) the medium, not the message. I have a feeling that he’s spinning his wheels waiting for a suitable text or libretto to come along. His wheels are well oiled. The Surrogate Cities raised that question most. But in the G. Stein, it was so over-the-top all the time. But the Stein is so intentionally flat. A mismatch spiritually. Still, along with cantorial music samples, he is associating himself with Jews, and with lesbians. Well inoculated. I thank him for that.

He doesn’t need more than an acoustically thin “broken consort” (or the Schoenberg kammersymphonie/radio orchestra) sized orchestra because he adds a mesmerizing layer of sampled invariably THICK drone-ish, or rhythmic texture which distances and interprets the chamber orchestra’s sounds. These drones and samples become electronic hooks themselves—that’s possible now, ever since techno, and before that, electronic music and radio. H.G. has beautiful white hair and a large frame dressed in musician’s black. I complimented him on giving new life to the “broken consort” (he even had a theorbo in the mix). At first he looked puzzled, but then got it, and thanked me for coming.

The chamber orchestra is being re-contextualized with lighting and concrete sounds. And you hear right away not to focus on the instrumental orchestration, melody, etc. But what are all the bells and whistles focusing you on? They were beautiful bells and whistles. The new Tully sound system and lighting were spectacular. So resources count. At times I thought of it as an “uptown Richard Foreman.” Instead of a mad cacophony of actual bells and whistles in Foreman, we had smooth, elegant textures of fabulous instrumentalists doing difficult imaginative music. Flashing lights and breathtaking cuts.

Music for Merce CD Party
March 22, 2011 6:40:25 PM EDT

10 disks from New World Records of composers for the Cunningham Dance Co. In the audience or on stage were those still alive. Wonderful artists. To single out is to ignore. 2 concerts-worth. Kosugi’s incredibly intense mouth sounds, hand filtered, and later an ear-splitting oscillator piece that was thrilling, if dangerous. Gordon Mumma’s elegant short piano pieces, he played beautifully, presided professorially, dressed the part. Christian Wolff, calm and steady at the piano. (We were told that he composed his first piece for the Company when he was 18). A beautiful sax sound from Matana Roberts, not part of the cohort on the disks. Only criticism, is that all the original pieces were composed for dance. Only one film clip was shown, at the head, but the electric nature of the music and image when combined really eclipsed the rest of day and evening concerts as experience, though not as to accomplishment.

Monodramas @ NYC Opera, 4/8/11
April 9, 2011 11:03:36 AM EDT

Zorn, Schoenberg, Feldman (interesting that all three are Jewish). I hope the NYC Opera prospers in its Lincoln Center home, refurbished courtesy of David H. Koch, billionaire buster of Wisconsin unions. In every way, the “David H. Koch Theater” is just as ugly as its former, named New York State Theater, but he gave it an extra aisle in the orchestra. These are not really operas, but female vocal one-act arias. Big trouble in directorial concept: gratuitous staging and choreography—the wheels grinding away with shiny descending cubes, ascending bodies, comic-book balloon flats for elaborate projections (Zorn opera), but without binding force on the music. Zorn’s La Machine De L’Etre, an hommage to Artaud, sounded like the early non-triadic score of Schoenberg’s. Amazing how in 1909 during Mahler’s last symphonic composing, Schoenberg had a whole vocabulary of orchestrated, free and easy colorful non-tonalism. Feldman’s 1976, minimalist Neither, setting a Beckett text, sung on high notes by Cyndia Sieden was also over-staged, tainting the music with its pretentious stage-craft. Funny how Feldman ended up being more of a committed minimalist than those famous brand-makers we all know so well.

Standing on the subway platform, I heard a sound reminiscent of the high, heterophonic, bell-like string tones towards the end of the final piece: the Feldman. What was it? Oh, yes, the sound of each individual subway rider as the turnstile acknowledges their card swipe. Doppler effects bringing microtonal resonances to our ears.

Thumbnail review.

Christian Marclay
April 17, 2011 12:57:29 PM EDT

Zaidie Smith’s luminous review in a recent NY Review of Books of his apparently amazing 24-hour film, The Clock (which I missed) didn’t make one very important distinction. In showing clips of films with the narrative moment fixed on the clock time shown, Marclay must of course erase the critical tension imparted to that film-moment by its maker. But that’s why we can call Christian Marclay “post-modern.” According to the reviewer, however, there was a huge increase in audience excitement as The Clock approached the film’s midnight hour. Thumbnail review of a review.

Another Listen? for Mahler Messiaen
April 28, 2011 2:44:57 PM EDT

NY Phil. sounded ravishing in the Mahler 5th. In such HD liveness, it’s overwhelming, though the last, the 5th movement is superfluous. Olivier M. is the most “mahlerian” of modern French composers, but Couleurs de la cité is not one of those scores. Piano with clarinets, brass, percussion (with very fast 4-player mallet unisons!) is cluster-heterophony, and is mostly high frequency, though the 2 tuned gongs are midrange and ho-hum, and two tamtams for noise a la Varese, also ho-hum. Intimate, still in an orchestral setting even when loud. Emanuel Ax: pf. Was the downstage clarinetist playing a D- or C-Clarinet? And besides tubular bells and gongs, what was the third percussionist playing? And if Alan Gilbert had conducted this open dress rehearsal straight through, what satisfying? gestalt would have emerged of the Couleurs. I’m arguing for my going back for a performance tomorrow, because sometimes after a musical even I’m all questions and few answers. Another reason: I’ll get choked-up now and then during the 4 Mahler movements, but that’s an expectation, not a certainty. Ax playing Debussy Estampes for piano alone? is this a programmed encore? Questions, kvetches, or kvestions?

Peter Garland, Solo Piano @ the Stone
May 12, 2011 10:45:22 PM EDT

Last night, two sets, all his music but for Terry Jennings’ “Winter Sun” (1966), and Michael Byron’s “Song of the Lifting Up of the Head” (1972). Peter, anti-establishment from a very establishment Maine family, transposed to Cal Arts in 1971, was part of the important Southern California minimalist school, mentored by Harold Budd, so gracefully and fully a minimalist himself. David Mahler, Tom Nixon, Jim Fox were some of the others, as a group more “minimalist” —if that has meaning—than anyone else except, arguably, La Monte Young or Philip Corner on the East Coast. Probably “more minimalist” doesn’t have much meaning, let’s scratch it. The Stone is a hard-to-cool, windowless storefront tucked into corner of the Lower East Side, paid for by John Zorn, and curated by a constantly changing bunch. This month it’s been Steve Peters. Next monty it’s Paul Tai of New World Records. Garland was also important in the 70’s and 80’s for his periodical, “Soundings” (subsidized by philanthropist, Betty Freeman) which published a host of important compositions and composers (full disclosure: one piece of mine was published there). With Byron’s “Pieces,” and the trail-blazing 60’s “Source,” these must be remembered as the era of hard-copy, beautifully looking bound objects, continuing a small but crucial tradition going back to Cowell’s “New Music Editions” of the 30’s. Remember these hand-held, caressable things, oh, you Internet mavens of the 21st Century! Unrepeatable, unscanable. So the music was uncompromising, beautiful, simple, resonant, even redolent of a time of ideological fresh air blowing out the dust of a tired Modernism. In the third movement of four commissioned by Sarah Cahill, titled as a whole “After the Wars” (2007-08), Peter hid the attacks of the melody note under a full chord, building up long phrases of such timbrally unique “after-tones”—soft, little magic lights-in-sound, an antidote to the car horns, the drunken catcalls, bangings of all kinds which leak into the avant sound world of the Stone. Thumbnail review.

All the Sopranos were Beautiful, Even the Male Soprano
May 16, 2011 12:44:28 AM EDT

All the sopranos were beautiful, even the male soprano—though he was grayer than the blonds and brunettes. Well, beauty is still the currency. But besides, he had an exquisite falsetto and though less used, a nice tenor. His name was Eric Brenner. And he wasn’t the only male soprano of the evening. But, to what end? VOX Contemporary Opera Lab didn’t tell me the answer to that. The opera excerpted was “Blood Rose” by Hannah Lash, a dialogue between Beauty and the Beast. The NY City Opera Orchestra at Le Poisson Rouge was a string quartet plus some stuff, and they swung! That was number two of the evening. What of the final opera excerpted, “Three Weeks” by Yoav Gal (Haifa, Brooklyn), in Hebrew and Latin, about the destruction of the Second Temple. I have no idea why a composer would write for an American audience in Latin and Hebrew, with no subtitles and only a garbled, but friendly explanation of the plot by the composer beforehand: A distancing device that worked like an unwanted charm. The small orchestra made some very beautiful sounds: three (usually) muted trombones, contrabass, piano and some sampled string-like timbres. The audience was multi-generational, cool, and eager. The bar flowed, the noisy fans white-noised. I couldn’t help this thought: while Stephen Sondheim writes real operas that touch, move, and athletically cover the waterfront, here at VOX we are constantly reminded that opera is high art, ART, opera tradition, vocal posturing from perfectly trained, excellent musicians. To what end? I wish I knew. Still, I wasn’t bored. And where do they get their ideas, their plots, these composers and librettists? The most commissioned librettist of series, Royce Vavrek told the audience: “from Wikipedia! ” Maybe I’ll boot that up later tonight. Thumbnail review.

We’ve Been Demoted
June 16, 2011 2:15:40 PM EDT

The Stone is a cramped, windowless, airless, former storefront on a Lower Eastside corner without public transit nearby, secured for the new music community by composer/entrepreneur, John Zorn. A piano (not always in top order), a polite young man to take your ten dollars, some unidentified jazz greats and others in 60 black and white photos on one wall, a john through the stage area, a committed audience of friends and associates of the artists, and recently: notice of some concerts by the New Yorker, the NYTimes, and, I’ve been told, the Village Voice. The composer or performer does their own publicity with no mailing list from the Stone—though its website has the full schedule. The composer/performer takes the entire gate, which at ten dollars a pop multiplied by the randomness of attendance scarcely helps the composer/performer hire associate musicians, pay cartage, transportation or any of the usual New York costs for what one needs to put on a show.

Ah, remember those romantic former industrial spaces called lofts with their various but always capacious acoustics and interesting visual aspects? Remember how you could set up the seating from floor, cushion, or chair in interesting ways that made the space lively and part of the performance itself? Remember that some lofts were already galleries with an infrastructure suitable for concert use? And a mailing list of significant lovers of the arts? Or just lovers! Remember that one of these spaces was called “the Kitchen” on the second floor at 484 Broome Street, with poetic noises outside of trucks over potholes and over metal plates covering potholes? And with not only an elaborate printed schedule, press releases and printed programs and bios, but also a budget with money for yourself and to hire a reasonable number of other performers? And a recording engineer with a tape for YOU at the end of the run, which might be more than one day. And even sometimes a New York Times reviewer officially slumming; certainly a fabulous reviewer from the Village Voice (no longer such a reviewer, even online).

And the music at the Stone? First rate, which only proves my point: We’ve been demoted. Thumbnail review.

We’ve Been Demoted, Part 2
June 22, 2011 12:03:28 PM EDT

I don’t blame John [Zorn re: The Stone]. Also, the current curators are certainly well-meaning, and I understand that New World [Records] did some actual promotion, which is what is necessary to get beyond the composer-only-fueled concert. I don’t even feel my usual righteous indignation. More in sorrow. Larry [Polansky] noted the undeniable fact that there is a raft of new music chamber groups out of various schools and conservatories, made up of crack performers, getting big coverage and big bucks relative to us. The nub of it is that we all BECAME new music performers to get our own music out, while also expressing our interest and passion for new music and our composer friends’ work. Now that the virtuosi are taking up new music and are such good practitioners of it, our down-home DIY style is pushed into limbo. But just having done a Sound/Text program upstate twice this weekend with the DownTown Ensemble, I know that SO percussion or ICE or ACE or whatever—they would never do such a weird mixture of things, one of which was erotic verging on porno text by Richard Kostelanetz requiring no standard virtuoso instrumental techniques but rather speaking sensitivities and some clever well-motivated playing, would certainly never be chosen as a repertory number by any of these crack groups. Bill [Hellermann] made that general point. And Anne Tardos’s quirky, odd, non-virtuoso songs for voice and two instruments: they’d never do that either. Nor Jackson Mac Low, nor Daniel Goode’s text, “Misdirection of the Eye” about Wisconsin politics with free imrpov using “On, Wisconsin.” So composer-driven groups are still important counterweights to virtuoso performer driven groups. And we’re still poorly funded. It’s that awful circus virtuosity problem in music culture since forever.

On, Composers, On, Composers, fight fight fight fight fight!. I felt I was attacking my very “base” when I wrote that humble report on the current Stone series. Felt guilty, but it was as plain as the nose on our new music faces—what I noticed. Thumbnail review. [A reply to composer, David Mahler]

We’ve Been Demoted, Part 3
Kamala, Miguel, David – NYC
July 27, 2011 1:58:59 PM EDT

You got a “sweet” if you guessed the Indian actors, the cartoon themes (“I’m showing my age”), or the video games (“I played when I was eight”) in Kamala Sankaram’s absolutely winning suite of pieces premiered at the Stone on the hot night of July 26th. Great playing by her band of two saxes, electric guitar, with her singing and playing accordion; wonderful laptop electronics in each one. Noise, pitch, harmony, vocal brio were in satisfying combinations. Interesting too. Then a new song on “Crest Gel” toothpaste commercial (“showing my age again”—’30’s-something, shouted the guitarist), and a (“nerdy” she called it) chamber song using vowel extraction from a Cage text. And finally an entrancing short ensemble riff on material from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” spaghetti western. It was new music with connecting narratives to charm a jet-lagged jaundiced New Yorker in a humid room kind of unreachable by public transit. And even with a starred recommendation from Time Out New York, only a small and enthusiastic audience, probably from Kamala’s address book, not TONY. So my point again. Demoted, having to pay the four players from a total gate that couldn’t have been more than $250. Wonderful work, poorly compensated. Our heroic selves repeated. Brava! Bravi!

To while-away the hour plus before the Miguel Frasconi and David First collaborative concert, well, the loud bars in the neighborhood are ubiquitous. Their set at 10 PM for an audience of ten, was absolutely jet-lag proof hypnotic drone music on rubbed glass (Miguel) and laptop electronics (David). The resultant pulse modulations started by matching frequency of the oh thank you, thank you, Loud Fan behind my left ear! Followed-on soon by a harmonizing third below, and so on into deep noggin space. Ann, next to me, with the same jet lag, lapsed in and out of consciousness most happily (our bodies cried out it was 3 AM).

Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen at NY Phil Concert, 6/24/11
June 25, 2011 1:26:16 AM EDT

Do you ever long to edit someone’s work to save what is fabulous and make disappear what, well…what stinks? Just read on. But first: a piece of schlock was added to Janacek’s opera by director Douglas Fitch, and—unaccountably—by that very in-choreographer, Karole Armitage: little diaphanous wings pasted onto scampering children, fox tails onto grown singers, archaic titles like “Forester” instead of woodsman or hunter or farmer, or anything of that ilk. Cutsey-poo, sentimental animal stuff that adults think children like. But there was a critical blowback from all this onto the music itself, forcing one to peer into Janacek’s overuse of whole-tone scales and their augmented chords as holding patterns between segments of ravishing, ecstatic music of his late years, with orchestrations to tear you apart with beauty. His pre-Minimalist repeating, sequencing, spiraling patterns of melody, rhythm, chords, counterpoints with their gritty, off-kilter modelings of Czech folk music, oh yes, that’s all in there in the manner of his late string quartets and the blazing Sinfonietta. If only I could have done some on-the-spot excision. That’s a funny composer-fantasy I’ve been having. Or you could try to justify those holding patterns as recitative, or even as Janacek’s functional substitute for sprechstimme. Dream on! You’d have to be him to do the re-stitching of the good parts. And you’d have to go in there again to re-write the prosaic and clunky English translation. It’s an early 1920’s libretto by the composer with some odd feminist moments between the Vixen and the other barnyard animals. Maybe it’s better in Czech. In the last act Janacek has the cunning Vixen shot dead. Well why not? Isn’t the Vixen that other species of female: lower class/gypsy/family-destroyer/composer-temptress? the OTHER!—with that kind of thing, scarcely disguised as a “folk tale” re-written to still be a folk-tale about a femme fatale. For Americans there is also an echo of Bambi—a terrible mash-up to dwell upon. I remember her death as being heartbreaking, musically. And then after that, life just continues on with the usual banalities. But I didn’t stay to re-experience those moments. I left at intermission. Thumbnail review.

Against Clichés about Mahler’s Music
July 2, 2011 4:01:06 PM EDT

Why should we care? Because some of us love the music. Some of us even commit that chauvinist crime of saying: “He’s the greatest Jewish composer” as if there were a contest out there. (He was reviled with anti-semitism in Vienna during his lifetime, especially around his directorship of the Vienna Court Opera). But two of the most progressive conductor’s, Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas (both Jewish), both of whom regarded Mahler as central to their lives, are just full of the usual clichés about him. Oh, like: that those wonderful and suggestive, disintegrating endings to his final works are “about death” or about his death. Well, maybe they are, but HE never said that. The latest slew of these interpretations came in a visually elegant public television program conceived by Tilson Thomas called “Keeping Score.” I won’t list instances here, maybe some other time. Actually the best one-liners came from the first clarinetist, Corey Bell, of the SF Symphony (featured in the film). He spoke about the “skin-of-your-teeth tonalities” in the Scherzo of the 7th Symphony, and of the “corners to hide out in.” Thomas does get off one perceptive analysis: tracing the use of the musical “turn” from Mahler’s first work, “Songs of a Wayfarer” to the final movements of his last two completed works. And the importance of the tone, A, in that early work and then in the climax of the first movement of his 10th Symphony.

A final shot of Thomas at Mahler’s grave in Grinzing, a suburb of Vienna, shows without comment, stones placed in the traditional Jewish manner on top of the Mahler’s gravestone. His remains were not allowed to be buried in the same cemetery as Beethoven and Schubert. “Those who love me will find me” he said. Thumbnail review.

Heretical Musicology
July 4, 2011 12:54:17 PM EDT

The omniscient narrator goes inside saxophonist Lester Young, and Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday, and other great jazz musicians, and tells us their experiences as if they were having them right then. And not only their musical experiences. That’s what happens when you open Geoff Dyer’s 1996 “But Beautiful [A Book About Jazz].” The back cover says it’s to be filed on the “MUSIC” shelf. What can you call it: anti-musicology? Fictional musicology? Keith Jarrett says its the only book about jazz that he recommends to friends. And it draws you in like any wonderful fiction—while you ponder: “did this really happen? did he/she really say or feel this?” I call this the “Lawrence of Arabia syndrome” because I first started asking myself that stupid but unavoidable question after seeing David Lean’s exciting, grandiose film about explorer/writer, T.E. Lawrence. Especially after he was tortured.

So Dyer stands musicology on its head as was said of Marx about Hegel, and Einstein about Newton. But let’s call his strategy an ‘informed poetics.’ Fine to name it, but to my mind he takes a heroic risk to put his subjective narration up with all the well-known ones already out there. He succeeds, I think because he deals with a probabilistic world of weather, landscape, roads, cities, drugs and their effects—these universals in any historical picture of jazz, and then we hope and trust in him to add the specifics of these real people, and their relations to the events, in an informed and astute way. Whomever thinks he hasn’t done so, speak up, but with the evidence, please!

I see the same impetus as Dyer’s in Ken Russell’s series of films about famous composers, Liszt, Mahler, Delius, etc. And there’s an interesting parallel in Thomas Mann’s “Dr. Faustus” with its “cover” of Schoenberg as Adrian Leverkühn. Here names are changed, but intellectual history is reported and interpreted.

I’m musing a bit… The Dyer technique could be used to flesh out that mysterious “walk in the woods”—as performance artist, Chris Mann calls it—in which Mahler had a four-hour walking psychoanalysis with Freud around the Netherlands city of Leiden. Freud was on vacation, and Mahler with his marriage breaking up, his health going, his world disappearing, went to him obviously in desperation after first canceling several appointments for the session. Some protegés of Freud tried to find out from him decades later what transpired between the two of them, but little seems to be reliably reported. Rather, projection by current writers about the historic meeting is obvious. But it’s not a conscious literary strategy as is Dyer’s. It’s half-way to Dyer, thus inept. We’ll never know what was said. We’ll have to make it up!

Thumbnail review. July 4th.

Heretical Musicology, Part 2

I was quoting Keith Jarrett in Part 1 about Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful [A book About Jazz], and marveling at how Dyer uses the omniscient narrator to tell what goes on inside the heads of Lester Young, Duke Ellington, and many more.

And now, reeking from the descriptions of the vomit, blood, glass-in-the-mouth life of saxophonist, Art Pepper, a heroin addict, I have to say: The book is something of a death trip. Not to lessen its impact, just to say this in order to balance my head-in-the-clouds omission of the horrors Dyer paints. The long boring road trips Duke and his musicians had to take, the airless hotel rooms. And for many the drugs and more drugs, the crashes, the rehab, the jails. The jazz creators didn’t get their kicks from their urgent urges of playing creatively (which gives our kicks as listeners). Their nirvana came from the absolute pleasure of heroin or some other cocktail of heaven-on-earth.

It was pointed out to me that Geoff Dyer, the travel writer, is interested in the journeys, on all levels, of his jazz heroes. Later in book he drops his invisible narrator role and lectures us a bit on how the nightly stresses of improvisational creativity had a cost to mind and body. The whole period caught fire fast, leaving lots of burn-out and destruction among the artists who made the revolution in jazz happen. And then its over. What happens after is endless re-enactments of that music.

Mavericks?—Still? – Review of a Flyer
February 25, 2012 5:04 PM EST

“American Mavericks” series. The usual suspects: Ives, Ruggles, Cage, Feldman, etc. plus whichever young(er) ones can be wedged in between those. So, then who are the un-mavericks? Copland? Or just other American composers not considered important nowadays, like Howard Hanson? I think “mavericks” are the American composers. I’ll be a little snarky and question John Adams as a “maverick.” LIke him or not (I like Shaker Loops), he seems more of a Copland/Hanson mix than a Cage/Ives kind of person.

“Who Changed Music Forever.” Well, not a claim I’d want to make about (again: like ’em or not) Mason Bates, David Del Tredici, Elliot Sharp, Jennifer Higdon, Missy Mazzoli. Martin Bresnick. Granted, maverick is a marketing term, and it’s been around for a long time to rope a bunch of composers together without otherwise branding them. But that was then (decade or so ago)… Ho hum now. And finally, every festival is political in that after the banner of great masters passes, others will be chosen by someone to fill in the ranks behind. The choosers are key to understanding this.

Thumbnail review of the brochure for Michael Tilson Thomas’s “American Mavericks,” March, 2012, New York.

Ashley at Roulette: What’s an opera and why do we care?
April 26th, 20012

Robert Ashley says in a video on line that Broadway musicals are too musically symmetrical, are only in 4/4 or 3/4, and don’t deal with the rich language of diphthongs found in the English language. He’s being interviewed about his new opera—his term—The Old Man Lives in Concrete, currently at Roulette. But what he said could be about any of his recent music theater works, written for and performed by his trusted band of vocalists: Joan LaBarbara, Jacqueline Humbert, Sam Ashley (yes, it’s his son), and Tom Buckner. Besides the text (he calls it a libretto), the program credits him with composing the “electronic orchestra.” Tom Hamilton composed “Orchestra frames for the four singers,” and did the “Mixing and live electronics.” I’m tip-toeing carefully around these credits, because, in a certain sense, Bob Ashley, hasn’t composed a note, and yet, it’s all because of him. I’m struck primarily that the five monologues (he’s the fifth, “Bob (Observer)” never relate to each other, and unlike in earlier works, similar in style and forces, there are no longer the exquisitely timed choral ensembles of these five musician-actors. I miss those chanted, spoken choruses because they made for the ‘togetherness’ I think of as being an essence of opera. And they were wonders of ensemble performance.

Elaborate, eloquent…but still: talking heads, these monologues. And yet, not talking to each other. Could other monologues by Ashley be substituted without changing the nature of the work? Would “Bob (Observer)” then have to have other observations? When is a libretto a collage? I think in this case. John Cage’s Europera is an in-your-face collage of all things European and operatic. But Ashley has always been different from Cage in my mind. His texts, taken singly, are stories, told in the first person. They seem to be different characters with different energies and texture. But they are not part of one overall story. Some synergy is lost by this, and the whole tended to lose me. Is Bob Ashley now a composer of texts in which the music kind of goes on anyway? He’s made a music machine that spins out his ruminative sentences. That should be a real accomplishment. But:

Suddenly, I wanted something more: the very subtle (or was it my imagined ‘more’?) way that certain pitch inflections of a reciter seemed to appear in the electronic mix accompanying them—spoke to me, but, I thought: why not more of this, it would be beautiful, engaging. One wants to fall in love at the opera. Or at least hear some singing. I felt impatient with the restraint expressed in the music. I wanted a re-write so that these fabulously expressive performers would stand up, go out in front of their desks and stand lights, and then belt out something together…or even not together!

I saw the first half of the show, and wandered out into the rich, damp Spring of seedy, Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, wondering what an opera is and why I care.

Re: Musicworks Coverage of Philip Glass
May 4, 2012 6:41 PM EDT

Good to hear from you, Micheline. We should talk some time about what’s happening in New York. Actually, I’m not sure “what’s happening in NY.” I try, but come up with issues, venues, and generations, and of course, economics just as often as a name or a piece of music I like or don’t like. I’ll never forget hearing Phil Glass’s Music in 12 Parts (one or two of them) in his Bleecker St. loft, with the four loud speakers at the four corners, the listeners in a circle next, and the musicians, mostly, but not all amplified, in the center of that circle. Must have been early 70’s. So, everything’s good about that Phil Glass, and really nothing bad at all. It’s just that the brand, Phil Glass or another brand, is what rules new classical music. I have a problem with this! Because of what that means in practice. And the cover of the Musicworks with that familiar brand, in face form, well: is he going to be like Elliott Carter?—every 5 years (Carter’s about 103) it’s time for another round of THE birthday festival. That jumped out at me while I was writing to the circulation department with which I’ve had some lively correspondence now and then. I decided because of that “threat” (the 5-year festival threat), that I would only celebrate my prime number birthdays. Next one’s 79. This does not a brand make!

Anyway, thank you for taking the time to write.

Regarding Below

Dear Daniel,

I received your e-mail concerning our choice to cover Philip Glass from our Operation and Circulation Manager, Andrea Warren.

As you know, we endeavour to cover Canadian and international artists at various points in the development of their crafts.
Last issue we made the decision to cover Glass in light of the major remounting of Einstein on the Beach—a seminal piece in 20th-century opera.

We regularly cover U.S. and international artists both known and well known between our covers.

Recent profiles include:
Nico Muhly (U.S.)
Clint Conley (U.S.)
STEIM and Michel Waisvisz (The Netherlands)
Tristan Perich (U.S.)
Miquel Azguime and Casa da Musica (Portugal)
Jörg Piringer (Austria)
Nadine Byrne, Mattias Petersson, and Henrik Rylander (Sweden)
Elodie Lauten (U.S.)
Yannis Kyriakides (The Netherlands/Cyprus)
Avatar Orchestra Metaverse (worldwide/internet)

We hope that this puts our recent coverage of Philip Glass in context of what we do.


Micheline Roi
Editor, Musicworks Magazine

Phenomenological Approach to Elliott Carter’s Music
May 11, 2012 12:39:53 PM EDT

Steven Beck performed the complete solo piano music of Carter this May 5th at the New Spectrum Foundation on 23rd Street, NYC. It was about an hour and a half of very technically demanding music which he played with panache and complete conviction. He was a pleasure.

The music was either soft-ish, loud, or very loud. It was either very fast or slow. You could cut a swatch of it at any time from his continuing career (he’s 103) and it would sort of sound the same—similar. (I’ve thought that of Philip Glass, too, on the other end of the spectrum of style). Punkt. Period. That’s all. Nothing more to say. Nada.

Well, there’s a little more: Most of the music makes an auditory impression of cantus fermi. There is a long, accented series of tones, “elaborated on” by very fast sprinkles of notes in between and around. Both layers are non-tonal. It’s amazing how few gestures he uses, but also, how tedious to hear them over and over again.

I am, admittedly, looking through blurry glasses which can only discern general shapes and qualities. I’m not sure I want to focus in.

It’s catty, but fun to say that Carter’s Little [Liver] Pills must work, because the family invention has given their composer-son a century plus of life and creativity. Thumbnail review.

Why was Roy Harris Plowed Under?
July 2, 2012 6:46:34 PM EDT

Probably because in the post-war years and the stultifying ’50’s that followed, no one wanted to hear even the best Americanist anymore. It was time for the “international school” and all that we now think of as the 12-tone Mafia. But Harris was the best of that large bunch of ’30’s-’50’s American “nationalists.” A lousy way to dismiss them, to call them that… Certainly he’s the only one (besides Ives—but how differently!) who seriously advanced the art of the symphony. Let’s forget Copland, Hansen, Schuman, Bernstein (as symphonist), Berger, early Carter, and just so many more. It’s not that he had no champions. Bernstein did his Third Symphony often, and Koussevitzky commissioned and premiered several symphonies.

But then: a desert. I tried iTunes, to no avail. Now we have a stunning recording (2008) of Harrs’s 5th and 6th symphonies by Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Glowing!

Harris has so few proponents in the new music world, that I might be the only one besides Kyle Gann. We had a mini-bonding experience over Harris not long ago. But it’s hard to get through to him now, what with blogging, that noise-medium.

Right off, let’s say Harris is “our Bruckner:” Grandeur, wide-angle scope, a limited palette, recycling of ideas and processes from work to work, abstract, but exciting, catchy tunes that are asymmetrical, but occasionally veer towards folky and spicy without sounding like kitsch. No pandering to unmotivated big climaxes. Fabulous chorale harmonies. Unpredictable phrase structures. Fragments that come from nowhere, that then seem “inevitable.” Sudden endings. And something really special I just noticed during my first listen to the Alsop recording: such thrilling orchestral cross-cutting, using the different choirs to interrupt each other, and yet build to a larger whole. Last time I noticed this phenomenon was in the unfinished latter movements of Mahler’s 10th Symphony. Totally different kind of material, different intent, different poetics. Still, it’s rare in linear, tonal modernism to hear cross-cutting outside of film music or in John Zorn’s cartoon-influenced scores.

And there’s an oblique connection to “process music.” More needs to be said about this. And also about his harmonic language which uses endless variations on the “Justin Morgan progression:” as in C-major to C#-minor. These and other progressions are his substitute for tonic-dominant.

One caveat: he wrote 16 symphonies. I’m not sure what happened after his 7th. I’m not sure I want to know.

Thumbnail review.

Letter to an Opera Singer
July 21, 2012 11:30:45 AM EDT

Dear Kamala,

This letter about the 19th Century opera voice, is not about you, since you have at least two voices, if not three (counting your “Balkan voice”), but you and others may be able to help me with my problem.

I just finished listening to the live radio broadcast of the 3rd Act of Janacek’s fabulous “The Makropulos Case” at the Met. It has an almost deadpan libretto about an incredible (and hence impossible) situation, but still, it’s naturalist theater that requires naturalist acting from the singers. That’s a problem of a different kind I’ll leave alone for now. So, without checking, I think there are tenor, baritone, bass baritone singers in key roles. And the soprano heroine, Emilia Marty, sung by Karita Mattila, the great Finnish singer.

First the music: harmonic richness made of classical and folk elements shining through a prism of pungent orchestration. And the cut-cut lyricism: these phrases interrupted but longing for completion. Lyric montage? Yes, something like that. And modulated often with rhythmic ostinati. Or the rhythms take over. Take you over. You get it! Expression-modernism.

So this is captivating. Then an operatic voice chimes in. Mattila was the most acceptable. Her bell-like tones pleasured you so you could forget the operatic grit, which is the part of the territory I abhor. The music is now all but spoiled by those male voices, floppy-vibrato-ing all over the scale. Straining and pushing those tones to “expressive” extremes. Here is where I rebel. We are no longer in the 19th Century, and Janacek and others would be much better served if singers tried something different. First of all: curb that vibrato. Not that it has to disappear. It just has to be put back in its box and used as was originally intended as an ornament similar to the trill—in key moments, but not continuously. Well that’s the beginning. Go back to the straight voice and then start to re-inflect it from a fresh perspective. How would that sound? I don’t know, but I’m sure it would make a better mix with the sound of his orchestra, a sound which is honed to beautiful edges, and not at all like the traditional operatic voice.

Thumbnail review: May 5th, 2012.

Universe Symphony: metaphorical music?
July 26, 2012 4:00:26 PM EDT

Now we’re talking! It used to be called program music. I’m thinking metaphor.

Mahler wisely declined the term of program music for his symphonies. Strauss didn’t. I’m sure Ives didn’t care a fig what one called his programmatically titled orchestral works like “The Housatonic at Stockbridge.” The Universe Symphony could be called the program of Everything. Or nothing in particular. Still it’s a metaphor for Everything (or nothing in particular).

The highly committed Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero, on May 12th at Carnegie Hall, performed Larry Austin’s 20-year project of finishing and realizing Ives’s Universe Symphony. This “program” is so all-inclusive as to be a non-program. (Most of my favorite music is in this category.) It can put us all back into the silly arguments between Hanslick (“The Beautiful in Music”) and Wagner and others. I always sided with Hanslick’s, but continued to listen to Wagner with amazement. Or with complete delight to Kleinsinger’s “Tuby the Tuba” and Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”

To me it’s clear that if you need to interpose a program in order to groove on the music, the music has failed. So program music as a genre cannot be taken seriously. But we’ve all taken Ives monumental conceptual symphony work very seriously, in that there are at least two realizations. (Johnny Reinhart’s is the other one I know).

As to other metaphorical music, we listen and respond to the music as music, but take the programmatic titles as handy monikers, epiphenomena if you like, to spice up our memories of the work, or simply to communicate in short-hand about it to others. The “Tragic” Overture (by Brahms). OK, I’ll give it some picture or interpretation. It might color my memory, or help my memory with some particular theme.

But Ives clearly DID mean to represent the infinity and grandeur of the universal processes we call “The Universe.” He worked on it for over forty years. That, and Larry Austin’s twenty years on it show huge commitments.

(The other two works on the Nashville Symphony evening paled and annoyed: Terry Riley’s “The Palmian Chord Ryddle for six-string electric violin (performed by Tracy Silverman) and orchestra, and Percy Grainger’s “imaginary ballet” music, “The Warriors,”)

What stands out in both Reinhart’s and Austin’s realizations of the Ives, is the opening percussion (plus piccolo) ensemble of 20 independent pulses going for a long time, and sharing a downbeat every eight seconds: “The Life Pulse.” It’s thrilling, and interesting, and does kind of feel like an aspect of infinity, or the vastness of vibration. The dense and dissonant string sound which follows is thick and impenetrable in a succulent sort of way. I don’t have a strong feeling or tactile memory of other parts of the piece, other than a generally positive one.

So the Grainger and Riley pieces were washouts. Terry can write for orchestra, but he doesn’t seem like an orchestral composer. His piece was a diffuse journey about ethnic influences: music about other music. Metaphorical. Grainger’s piece, dedicated to Delius (!) was a bombastic bomb with lots and lots of xylophonists and a big bang at the end. His “Greek heroes,” “Zulus,” “Vikings,” “lovemakers,” “fighting men” claimed not to be program music. Sagging metaphors to me. What’s a well-meaning, politically correct orchestra to do?

Thumbnail review. A review about everything and nothing in particular is a nice place to end or pause in a cycle of twenty-eight pieces.

July 26th, 2012

SON!C – get it! “Sounds of a new century” (where everyone is under 40). Great
theme: youth, always a winner. October 14-22nd, 2011 with something like 14 concerts and over a hundred composers (all young!). Otto Luening used to say that when he started out, a young composer was someone in his (yes “his”) 50’s. Otto was young in his 70’s). So are we going backwards or forwards, please?

Four young men in black, the Jack (quartet), from Eastman to NY, play best: XenAK (-is). “Did all they played sound like XenAK? —what a CRACK!” “Can’t be XenAK if it’s him we lack.” Alex Mincek’s was my favorite of lack-XenAK. Or was it grey not black wore by the Jack? Too dark to read their names (even in the light I couldn’t find their names, much less their aims). But a friendly, humble virtuosity was on offer, fine! But then, betrayed by the sound engineers: how perverse that only their loudest sounds got amplified. The soft, wispy sul ponticellos and harmonics shifted the aural perspective back to them on stage, then a loud sound, and you were looking, once more, at the loudspeaker to their left. Ouch. Said a musician in the audience to me: “they play so many more notes per… than…[blah, blah, something or other], with not a bit of sweat on them.” Could this be the aesthetic aim of “a new century?”

Some nice choral music followed the Jack. Beautiful performances by the New York Virtuoso Singers conducted by Harold Rosenbaum. In one piece the sopranos and the basses were at the back of the stage, left and right, while the altos and tenors were front center. Nice idea, but why not go further, like Meredith Monk and actually have them change places at different times, even sing while moving.

Douglas Repetto’s robots let down colored three-dimensional looking tubes while several members of Talea, performed a graphic score by Victor Adan. Did the music control the robots? No way to know from the program notes. The final effect was like the drip paintings of abstract colorist, Morris Louis, though less messy.

Thumbnail review.

SONiC Festival: Does “uptown” and “downtown” still exist as a stylistic?

Any large curatorial slice of the total pie is always going to be criticized in some aspect or other. Since I only went to two events, I can’t really be a good outside observer. Alex Ross (who reviewed the festival in the New Yorker) may have, or maybe I was the one who noticed that the choices seemed conservative. As if, even through the eclectic and catholic largeness of the field which obscures the “uptown-downtown” stylistic divide of the past, still the music was very much a front and center stand up and wow-em chamber music. The odd, the spiritually quiet, the non-virtuosic and contemplative kind of music, the contextually different, the political, were all categories I thought were missing. That’s what made me feel that the divide between “uptown” and “downtown” still exists. And EVERYTHING is now amplified (a horrible contemporary performance practice steam-rollered by Bang On A Can—when they did my 15-person Tunnel-Funnel, I insisted on all-acoustic, and darned if it didn’t sound “too soft” because our ears had been pinned back by all the previous amplified chamber music). Thumbnail review.

Monk Congratulations!
October 14, 2012 11:39:45 PM EDT

Wow, Christian, I was blown away by your Monk interpretation and playing. And Greg’s too. He’s such a creative drummer! It was such a breath of fresh air to hear something that feels musically akin to what Monk does in composition. He’s really the only one I ever want to hear improvising on his tunes.

So you’ve made an intervention. No matter how brilliant the other side-men’s playing is—was—it’s always seemed business as usual compared to Monk’s minimalist use of his own motifs. He couldn’t leave it just to the changes. He does the material.

And I loved your “dry” playing. That also is what I love about Monk doing himself. But your interpretations were also lush in harmonic ideas, and textures. And never gooey.

Also, your medley’s of more than one tune, your intros and outros. Totally convincing and groovy.

I’ve been doing a little “instant criticism,” called Thumb-Nail Reviews. I’d like to add this letter. It just goes to a few people as an email, some of whom you know, like Larry. Hope that’s OK.

Thumbnail review.

Greg Campbell and Christian Asplund, collectively AC/GC will perform all 70 or so compositions by Thelonious Monk to celebrate his 95th birthday on 10 October, joined by special guest performers. Interpretations of these sublime/inscrutable compositions will run the gamut from inside out, familiar to unexpected. At Spectrum, 12 Ludlow Street in Manhattan.

The Rite Resists Dance: thumbnail review
March 11, 2013 10:45:30 PM EDT

How can the most famous dance score of the 20th Century, The Rite of Spring, resist choreography? It does, easily. I watched a solo pianist, Neil Alexander play his arrangement of the score on an amplified upright piano at the corner of the stage of the Alvin Ailey Theater in New York (thank you Citigroup!) while a dance troupe (Jonathan Riedel Dance Theater) did a lot of things with seven dancers, one, a man with a vicious looking stage knife or alternatively a German cross as pendant. A lot happened.

With all this action going on, my eyes and ears were still glued to the music Sometimes the amplified sound distorted. Mostly it sounded as familiar as a Brahms lullaby. It was just lovely piano music, not spectacle, or dissonant blockbuster. (I remember an L.A Philharmonic performance of it at the Disney auditorium where I was seated behind the stage, almost falling into the brass section as I swooned to their hypnotic choiring.) This was not like that. It was more like delicate Chopin traceries with occasional big bangs. Wonderful bangs, still 100 years later! And the gorgeous achingly beautiful slow dance in Eb-minor-ish: “Spring Rounds.” I could listen to that section over and over again. Maybe I’ll make that happen.

It’s been going around during this 100th anniversary of its premiere, that the booing and hissing in Paris was to Nijinsky’s choreography, not Igor’s music. How would we know? Maybe I need to see a few more dance versions before I proclaim that the score will always resist its dance interpretation—because of the mind-numbing stupidity of a “pagan ritual” with female sacrifice as its coup de grace.

It’s dumb 19th Century imaginary “anthropology,” romantic primitivism put out, I think, to rationalize the great innovative break that Stravinsky made, and foisted on a conservative culture. Perhaps that insufferable pagan ritual context was the reason the Riedel interpretation overlayed it with another story, the program notes told me, from a 13th Century Swedish folktale. Relief! when the dance ended with an embrace instead of a sacrifice. I predict that only a miracle will find a dance that matches the music and satisfies all senses.

Thumbnail review for March 9th 2013.

Folk Bass Amped Up
April 29, 2013 10:14:03 AM EDT

Two Macedonian/roma bands played at Le Poisson Rouge last night, sponsored by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, and each over emphasized their bass instruments to the detriment of the intricate lovingly played treble lines. The opening band was twice diaspora, first a younger generation, now American, then leaving New York for Pennsylvania. Their synth was their bass, pounding the lower end like a rock band’s guitar section. Their clarinet/saxophone duo strained beautifully against their own bass lines. But I was exhausted on their behalf.

The main event was the brass band, Koçani Orkestar with a solo clarinet/sax, accordionist, male vocalist, and the traditional Balkan tupan/bass-drum. The whole lower end of three euphoniums and tuba were amplified. I’m not sure if the three trumpets were also, but it didn’t matter: the floor shook with amplified tuba.

I noticed this because I’m a long-time amateur folk dancer, and have heard and danced to scores of traditional Balkan folk bands. I was struck last night, as I often am by the way the amplification of non-electronic instruments is used: to theatricalize some aspect of the playing by making it “larger than life.” There are new music groups, too, that do this with acoustic instruments! About this—another time.

The evening opened with a fast-paced workshop led by a well-known New York folk-dance instructor, to teach some circle-dance steps to the audience so they could more authentically dance to the music. He used his forty-five minutes to teach four different dances with some very difficult style added in—more difficult for me, because thinking I was at a bar, I already had my drink in hand while negotiating grape-vine steps and other hops and skips.

What was strangely unanticipated by the dance instructor: this was a Roma or Gypsy brass band, scorchingly hot, with fast-double-triple tongued melodic and accompaniment figures, trance-inducing, totally ecstatic music that roused the audience as I’ve hardly ever seen. Money was pasted to the players’ foreheads, bundles of dollars thrown in the air, spontaneous movement by almost all in the room. Yet hardly any authentic Balkan circle dancing emerged from this appreciative crowd, many of whom I’ve seen for years at folk-dance evenings. Why? Well, the non-Roma folk culture is the source of the circle-dance as I understand it. This was music and dance that transcended those local customs, referencing, but not limited by that repertoire, trying and reaching a more universal idea of ecstasis through music and movement.

And finally the over-amplified bass line was over. How? The audience would not let them go, so the whole band, minus the accordion, left their amplified stage positions, and wandered, as they would at home, among the audience, playing and collecting ever more tips, surrounded by mesmerized, happy people. Now the balance of high and low instruments was perfect, and perfectly memorable.

Thumbnail review. April 28th.

Mahagonny Timely, Packs a Big Bang
April 29, 2013 12:51:54 PM EDT

The Manhattan School of Music just finished a brilliant run of the Kurt Weill-Bertold Brecht, 1927 opera, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. Because largely of a NYTimes review, the last performance was mobbed at the former home of the Juilliard campus in Morningside Heights—a kind of old-fashioned infrastructure, worn, homey, but not technically up to legible super-titles in its Borden auditorium.

The Brecht homilies like “As you make your bed, you must lie in it,” the Weill melodic templates over and over, the needling orchestra textures with saxes in the mix, the big choral outbursts about eating, loving (sex), no help for anybody—all of this adds up to putting a nail in the coffin of neo-liberalism, capitalist triumphalism, and just plain developer-ized mega cities. Coming during our second-biggest depression, it was mythic and moving, sitting there in the audience. I don’t remember feeling this so profoundly when I first saw it in a Met production years ago.

So, the singers and orchestra were all students, and all terrific. We’re so lucky to have these young, almost-professionals in our midst. The problem still is with so much opera, the lumpishness and lack of movement in the bodies of fine singers. Choreographers know so much more about this than opera directors, so it seems: how to make those bodies “talk” whether singing or just “being” on stage. The constant ebb and flow of small ensembles and large panoramas was inelegant, probably part of the complex, many-times revised original by Brecht-Weill. The production needed both small and large movement concepts. Then there’s the matter of our visual culture: quick-cutting from the movies doesn’t work with the staging of real bodies. Sometimes the new tradition of filming operas for one-time presentation in movie theaters does some of what we want from opera. But it doesn’t solve live opera. I’m waiting and hoping.

Thumbnail review. April 29th.

The Cradle Will Rock: Blitzstein’s 1937 “play in music”
July 15, 2013 6:37:28 PM EDT

His tight-fisted, angry, union-loving, anti-capitalist, anti-militarist singspiel had a four-day run at the New York City Center, ending last night. Marvelous music with acid chamber-music textures from the pit orchestra (on stage for this concert performance). Thrillingly seamless transitions between speech and song. The whole ninety minutes, without intermission, flowed like a dream.

Most of us “know” Marc Blitzstein for his translation of the Brecht-Weil “Three-Penny Opera,” still the one most used in English (and I think the best, with lines like “Let’s all go barmy, and join the army…we chop ’em to bits because we like our hamburgers rawwww”)

I had one guilty reservation about the music—guilty because it was so good, why would one complain! As I listened to the lovingly embodied (but not over-used) Kurt Weil harmonic influence, it dawned on me that I was missing the “big numbers” like the “Moon of Alabama” in Weil’s Mahagonny, or all those wonderful songs in “The Three-Penny Opera.” I kept waiting, but the stirring, combative finale (the cradle not only will rock, but COME DOWN!) came and went without that swoon of pleasure and relief-in-song that opera can provide—especially after long swathes of satiric or bitter political rhetoric set elegantly in a through-composed style. My hunch is that Blitzstein’s musical persona is too tightly wound for the expansive lyricism of Kurt Weil, to name only one of many “numbers” opera composers. But moving, exciting music it is, fresh, sassy and as brilliant as you could want. I’m so glad I went to hear it on a hot, humid summer night in New York.

And what of the politics? During the depression, the industrial unions had a physical place in the plants that they no longer have: a strike was a dramatic disturbance of a whole complex community of working and living. No longer true in dematerialized, yes deracinated global capitalism. Where do you go to protest? The internet! If you believe, as I do, that unionization is the only countervailing force to “wild, savage capitalism” (of which Pope John Paul told us to beware)—well nothing has changed since the ’30’s. And that, like it or not, is what Marx would say, and he’d be right. Blitzstein’s target: the evil monster steel-plant owner, “Mr Mister” is harder to find now, harder to organize against, harder to know even what the tools we are to array against today’s Mr. Misters.

And that leaves activist composers scratching our collective heads, while muttering or loudly intoning: “Capitalism, capitalism.” We wonder as we wander out under the stars, what the hell to do!