|Numinous The Music of Joseph C. Phillips Jr.|
The Numinosum Blog
Just when you think things are going your way and there is some positive momentum, the universe decides that things can't be TOO easy for you.
I am reminded of a story told in Zen master Steve Hagen's wonderful book, Buddhism, Plain and Simple (one of the clearest and cleanest introductions to what Buddhism is, and is not, that I've read). The story is about a wise Chinese farmer whose horse ran off. When [the farmer's] neighbor came to console him the farmer said, "Who knows what's good or bad?" When his horse returned the next day with a herd of horses following her, the foolish neighbor came to congratulate him on his good fortune. "Who knows what's good or bad?" said the farmer. Then, when the farmer's son broke his leg trying to ride one of the new horses, the foolish neighbor came to console him again.
"Who knows what's good or bad?" said the farmer. When the army passed through, conscripting men for war, they passed over the farmer's son because of his broken leg. When the foolish man came to congratulate the farmer that his son would be spared, again the farmer said, "Who knows what's good or bad?"
And thus the story continues.
For every time I just barely catch the subway train before the doors close, are those numerous other times when I'm waiting on the platform for 20 minutes because of some train delay. Of course, with my bike I don't ride the subway much anymore, but I think you get the idea. Lately I've been trying to remember, as master Hagen explains it, "Good and bad aren't absolutes. They are beliefs, judgments, ideas based on limited knowledge as well as on the inclinations of our minds." So one goal I have is continually to see things less about being 'the glass half full' or 'the glass as half empty' (if there is even a glass, which is a whole other philosophical kōan I'm not tackling here), but rather thankful that there IS a glass and there is something in it.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 7:50 AM
Speaking of singing as I did in my last post this afternoon, I just came across these videos of composer Eric Whitacre's virtual choir. An interesting concept where 100-150 people record themselves singing individual parts to one of Whitacre's compositions and then the separate videos are digitally spliced together to create one choir, singing together. He writes on his blog about the genesis behind the idea as well as the technical issues in getting multiple YouTubers to sound like one ensemble.
Seeing all of those little windows of people from around the world singing his certainly pleasant composition Lux Aurumque in a virtual space is definitely striking and somehow touching and beautiful. While this seems like an extension of the YouTube Orchestra and definitely a cool, fun idea, somehow this crowd sourcing one's band, where you don't have any true interaction between members of the virtual group, feels a little detached to me. It seems to go against the social and communal aspects and meanings of music (musicking) that have been and continue to be a part of many world-wide culture's music making. While going against tradition and looking for new, creative ways to produce one's music is always good, maybe this is no different than Conlon Nancarrow creating piano rolls to perform his music without performers or the singular hip-hop musician/producer/auteur creating every detail of an album on their computer without another person. Or no different than sitting down with a CD or mp3 and the 'virtual-ness' of an ensemble or group, receiving the music rather than being a part of it. Maybe the virtual choir is a symptom of the times.
Perhaps the next step is to have Eric Whitacre conduct live in front of an audience, while the multiple screens of YouTubers singing are streamed live, with the audio and video mixed together and shown in a club or concert hall in real time. Technical issues aside, that would be a way to create some kind of interaction between participants. Now having heard the virtual group though, I would be interested to hear live versions of Lux Aurumque and Sleep. I do wonder what my reaction would be?
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 6:32 PM
Last night, March 26th, I attended the New England Conservatory's Vocal Showcase at Joe's Pub. This was part of NEC's week-long celebration, Hot and Cool-40 years of Jazz at NEC. Now while I did not attend NEC, I was interested in this particular concert because it featured so many incredible singers I work with. Two-thirds of the featured singers on the Joe's Pub concert (Amy Cervini, Sara Serpa, Jo Lawry, Sofia Rei Koutsovitis) also sing with Numinous. In addition, with other fabulous NEC singing alums and Numinous singers such as Monika Heidemann, Wendy Gilles (both of whom attended the concert but did not sing on the concert) and Julie Hardy as well as another NEC alum and Numinous member, Carmen Staaf, rounding out the piano chair for the night, frankly, I probably should have been on the NEC guest list!
Anyway, why do many of the singers I use come from NEC? Well, besides being wonderful musicians and composers with distinct styles and characters of their own, one hint to the answer to that question is certainly who they studied with: Dominique Eade. The jazz vocal guru at NEC since 1984 as well as a private teacher in New York City, she has also taught and mentored Luciana Souza, Kate McGarry, Roberta Gambarini and many of jazz's most dynamic singers. Ms. Eade showed she is an assured and impressive talent-deserving-wider-attention herself with a performance of two songs at the end of the evening. First was her own composition, "Chasing the Setting Sun" which was an a cappella, mostly wordless improvisatorial tour-de-force that was 'Bobby McFerrin meets Meredith Monk'-like in its rhythmic and percussive sounds that vertiginously tumbled through the space and had the entire audience enraptured. Second was her quiet reading of the standard, "Body and Soul" which mostly showcased the subtle talents of the rhythm section, all alums of NEC as well: the aforementioned Carmen Staaf on piano, Jorge Roeder on bass, and Richie Barshay on drums. Ms. Eade's singing was supple, powerful, and wonderful and one could tell right from the first sounds from her mouth, that she is no typical 'jazz' singer. All sorts of music informs her distinct style and I think this would definitely make an impression on anyone that studies with her. As Amy said from stage during one of the breaks between singers, "you can probably hear a little bit of Dominique in every singer tonight." And while each of the former students are coming from different perspectives and backgrounds, this statement became readily apparent as you listened to each sing.
The night opened in an almost familial tone as David "Mark Murphy" Devoe (the nickname stems from a statement he made on stage), a doctoral candidate at NEC, singing a mostly straight-ahead tune and displaying some nice scat chops. Sara Serpa then sang a beautiful original composition, "Space" which had a lovely compositional arc and featured Sara's sinuously melodic and soaring wordless improvisation. Amy Cervini was next with a pitch-perfect and fun rendition of Nellie McKay's "I Wanna Get Married." All of 8-months pregnant and singing lyrics such as, "I need to cook meals/I want to pack you little lunches/for my Brady Bunches/then read Danielle Steele," Amy interpreted the song with a savory amount of tongue-and-cheek humor and earnest wistfulness. Sofia Rei Koutsovitis sang a song in Spanish which utilized vocal electronic delay and live sampling of her own voice to set-up a weaving pattern of voices which was an effective and sometimes almost ghostly result. Patrice Williamson came on next to sing "Close Your Eyes," the most straight-ahead tune of the evening. Here she let loose with some fine scat singing and the rhythm section was able to stretch their own swinging muscles. Jo Lawry, another doctoral candidate who is temporarily putting off the degree to tour with Sting (yes, THAT Sting) this summer, came on with her harmonium and tastefully sang the lovely composition "Palhaço." Portuguese for 'clown,' the song was originally a solo guitar piece that Jo wrote lyrics to by the unheralded (sadly in the US, that is) composer and guitarist from Brazil, Egberto Gismonti. Then David, Sara, Amy, Sofia, Patrice, and Jo all filled the stage to perform an original composition by Dominique Eade. The song both opened and ended with more choral-like a cappella sections, however the middle section was where the meat was, so to speak: a faintly Middle Eastern-like groove established by overlapping little motifs in the voices as well as hand claps and hand percussion, all laid the rhythmic foundation for each singer to individually improvise over. Here each singer's approach and personality came through in their solos; some more deliciously tonally exploratory and melodic (Jo, Sara) or more extrovertedly joyous (Sofia, Amy) or more jazzy-like (Patrice, David), and was a great lead-in for Dominique Eade's previously mentioned two songs that closed the evening.
The advertising tag-line to the NEC's Jazz at 40 celebration is "Don't stay home" and with last night's showcase concert at Joe's Pub, I'm glad I didn't.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 3:08 PM
While I have been in bands since I was well under 5 feet tall, I've never actually attended band camp (although I was a worker at a DCI camp during one summer week in college but that's another story!). Despite this obvious deficit of culture, I have managed to soldier on in my musical life. Not so the vast majority of people who after years in band during their 'wonder years', no longer have any connection to such formative musical experiences. Sure you can go to almost any school district in the United States and if the music program hasn't been cut, you'll find many wonderful student, university, and community bands. And you CAN get your band fix that way. But really, how often do you get to hear an actual PROFESSIONAL wind ensemble perform!? If you live in Dallas, with the Dallas Wind Symphony, or in Tokyo, with the Tokyo Kosei Wind Symphony,ok, you might have some chance, but in New York City? Fuggedaboutit! ...until now!
Come out nextWednesday, March 31st to hear the New York City area's own home-grown wind ensemble, the Gotham Wind Symphony perform. Under the direction of Mike Christianson, the GWS features many of New York City's most talented and versatile musicians, including some Numinous members. The concert will take place at the Brooklyn Lyceum (227 4th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn; literally above the M, R subway train stop), with two sets at 8:00pm and 9:30pm ($10).
The program Mike has put together for the show will include:
Thad Jones- Northwest Suite
Joseph Haydn- Divertimento #1
Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.- The Gates of the Wonder-World Open
Gustav Holst- Second Suite for Military Band in F
John Hollenbeck- eternal interlude
Frederick Delibes/Gil Evans- Maids of Cadiz
Percy Grainger- Molly On The Shore
Astor Piazolla/James Chirillo- Pulsacion #1
John Philip Sousa- Glory of the Yankee Navy
Regular readers might notice that the piece of mine the GWS is performing is the NYC premiere of the same composition commissioned for and premiered at the University of Maryland last year in celebration of their 100 years of band.
With some of the famous band conductors living long lives (William Revelli-92 years; Frederick Fennell-90 years), it proves that listening to band music can prolong your life. So come out next Wednesday March 31st to the Brooklyn Lyceum and extend your life by a few hours; you won't regret it...
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 8:55 PM
Wow, this recent article from The Nation, retweeted around the Twitterverse, about the undercaste of African-Americans created by the drug 'war,' brought up many thoughts. For example: Instead of attacking real issues and problems and the subsequent hard and messy work it takes to solve them, we, as a society, often grapple with the appearance of progress, the appearance of doing the right thing. What happened to "ask not what your country can do for you?" To hard work? To sacrifice? To compromise and that good ole fashion kindergarten value: sharing? To a sense of respect, of self and of the other? To a sense of 'us' not a mantra of 'whatever I can get for me and mines?' While there is much anger and distrust and despair, there is still also so much beauty and goodness and hope too. Although it is hard not to wonder that, with respect to Malcolm X's memorable line in Spike Lee's eponymous film, America is one of the best ideas humans ever had; intolerance ruined it.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 6:04 PM
The next Composer Salon is on Monday March 15th, 2010 from 7 pm to around 9 pm at the Brooklyn Lyceum (227 4th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn). And the price is right: FREE! The Lyceum is literally above the Union Street M, R Train stop in Brooklyn. The Lyceum does have various inexpensive libations including different beers, wine and other non-alcoholic beverages, as well as coffee and baked goods. If you are a composer/musician in New York City area, regardless of genre, style, or inclination, I hope you can come out, meet some new and old faces behind the blogs and comments and listen or join the discussion, which often branches out from the original topic (at the end of this post are links to previous Salon topics as well as an article on NPR's A Blog Supreme about a recent Salon-don't worry, this next one will be a bit warmer than the last!).
Salon Topic #5:
"Music is the universal language of mankind."-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
What is communicating meaning in music? Is music's meaning defined by how it is used, borrowing an idea of Ludwig Wittgenstein? Music in a film, is film music; if it is played at Birdland or the Village Vanguard, it is jazz; if the New York Philharmonic plays it, it must be classical, etc. Or does music mean little more than sounds in time, as Igor Stravinsky writes in his An Autobiography,
"I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc….Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence."
For that matter what do the labeling of music convey and mean? When someone says 'classical music' or 'jazz' (or 'anti-jazz') or alternative, what does that even mean? While many of today's composers and musicians eschew labels and genres, many others often proudly define themselves by choice: jazz composer, classical musician, rock band, rapper, etc. And when they don't define their music explicitly, their associations often betray their proclivities. Isn't one of the first questions a musician is asked when introduced to a non-musician is, well what kind of music do you write/play? Doesn't that answer affect what someone thinks about your music (and you)? Once someone knows what kind of music you write/play, accurately or not, they feel they understand it (you) and they know what it (you) means. So what does labeling one's self mean to one's music? If "music is music," as Alban Berg said to George Gershwin when Mr. 'Fascinating Rhythm' was hesitant to play piano for Mr. 'Wozzeck' on their first meeting, then why self-select a genre?
Many a sensitive and creative artist wants to communicate and connect with the public. Which often translates into conveying a particular meaning to our work (whether we make that meaning explicit or not). However what happens when the listener (consumer) takes another meaning away from our work? Is this valid? Should we clarify to the public our objectives toward what the work means so as not to be misunderstood? Or should we just write and play, and let the meaning come what may. After-all, as T.S. Eliot said, “Great art can communicate before it is understood.”
I. What does music mean? This evocative question was the title of Leonard Bernstein’s first televised New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert in the late 1950’s. Fifteen years after that first concert, the third of Bernstein’s six Norton Lectures at Harvard University asked this same question. Brilliantly comparing the musical language to some of the ideas of linguistic theory, specifically Noam Chomsky’s universal and transformational grammar, Bernstein says,
“Music has intrinsic meanings of its own, which are not to be confused with specific feelings or moods, and certainly not with pictorial impressions and stories. These intrinsic musical meanings are generated by a constant stream of [musical, extrinsic, and analogical] metaphors…” While not quite as rigid as Igor Stravinsky’s famous saying that music has no meaning (“music’s exclusive function is to structure the flow of time and to keep order in it”), Bernstein’s definition is similar to Aaron Copland’s position in What to Listen For in Music,
“all music has an expressive power… all music has a certain meaning behind the notes… [the music] may even express a state of meaning for which there exists no adequate word in any language.”
What does music express to you? What particular musical metaphors do you use to help the listener hear what you are trying to say in your compositions? What sparks the genesis of a composition for you-is it purely manipulating musical ideas, concrete extra-musical associations, and/or metaphorical expression? All of the above?
II. Music, like language, is about and has always been about communication. From the performer/creator, some meaning and/or expression is transferred to the listener through, what 19th century music critic Eduard Hanslick calls “sonorous forms in motion”. Often what is transferred to the listener is not particularly definable or if it is, it is often not particularly what the performer/creator had in mind while creating the work. In the wonderful book (which I've recommended before) New Voices-American Composers Talk about their Music (Amadeus Press, 1995) Laurie Anderson speaking about communicating ideas to her audience says,
“…to me the richer the image is, the better. By richer I mean clearer. It has no obstructions, it gets right across and people can understand it…I’ve chosen to be an artist and half of that, at least is in the communication of it.”
She goes on later in the interview to say,
“And I feel that the work has really succeeded when somebody says, ‘I saw or heard your piece and I got so many ideas from it’. Then they tell me what the ideas were, and they’ve nothing to do with what I was doing. That suggests to me that the piece was rich enough for them to take something from it and do what they wanted.”
How do you insure that your compositions are clear to you? To the listener? If you feel your compositions present understandable ideas/feelings/expressions, is it successful if it conveys to the listener ideas/feelings/expressions entirely different from your original intent? Is this important to you?
If you are a composer or musician or music lover in the New York City area, consider coming down to the Lyceum and joining the discussion, or if you don't live in New York or can't make it, adding your thoughts in the comments. Hope to see you on March 15th!
Previous Composer Salons
Composer Salon #1: The Audience
Composer Salon #2: Future Past Present
Composer Salon #3: Mixed Music-Stylistic Freedom in the 'aughts
Composer Salon #4: Inspiration
(also here's a NPR A Blog Supreme article about the Salon)
(Photo credits: public domain image from the cover of the newspaper The Mascot from http://www.kimballtrombone.com/)
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 8:18 PM
I just came across this brief interview of one of my favorite composers Arvo Pärt, conducted by one of my favorite musicians, Björk. Hearing Pärt, with his halting English, give a tiny insight into his thoughts on music was serenely fascinating. But one lingering question: is it just me or at times does it sound like Björk could have come from Glasgow? Seriously, nonetheless worth checking it out for the Pärt fan. BTW, the title refers to a question of Björk's around 3:30 in the video. Pärt's answer is both kind, serious, and illuminating).
Choice Pärt quotes from the video:
"You can kill people with sound...and if you can kill, maybe there is the sound that is the opposite of killing."
"In art, everything is possible, but everything [what is made] is not necessary."
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 5:53 PM
All we care about is runway models, Cadillacs, and liquor bottles,
Give me something I wanna be
Retro glamour, Hollywood
Yes, we live for the Fame,
Doin' it for the fame.
-The Lady Gaga of Germanotta
Well just got the official word, that we are going to the Apollo! As I mentioned in a previous post in January, our PS 321 Faculty Band auditioned for our shot of teacherdom glory at the New York Department of Education's Talent Night at the historic Apollo Theater. And, we made it! Wednesday June 2, 2010 at 7:30pm is showtime; where we will have 3 minutes on the legendary stage to get our collective groove on. So mark those calenders now...more details to follow.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 7:43 PM
Last week I got word that the Delirious Dance Company just received a 2010 Live Music for Dance grant for the new project To Begin the World Over Again that I'm collaborating on with their founder and choreographer Edisa Weeks. This highly competitive grant is sponsored by the American Music Center and helps dance companies to "meet the costs of hiring musicians for live accompaniment of dance performances and for commissioning composers to create new works for dance." Both Edisa and I are extremely excited and honored to have been awarded the grant and look forward to sharing a glimpse of the project in June when Delirious Dance and Numinous perform one section from the piece at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. The entire evening-length project, based on the writings of Thomas Paine, is slanted for a Spring 2011 premiere.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 8:40 PM
Yesterday, in anticipation of today's snowmageddon here in NYC possibly closing many facilities, I went to New York Public Library's main Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue to do some music research. And in my searching I unexpectedly came across a concert announcement/poster from 1794. I thought it was so interesting how different advertising was back in the day (and how much was the same), I wrote down the entire text from the poster. Here's what it said:
Mr. and Mrs. Solomon
Vocal performers from the Southward, having performed their CONCERTS in South-Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Boston, Portsmouth, and Salem, with great applause, have now the honour of waiting on the Ladies and Gentlemen of Newburyport, for the purpose of performing them an amusement worthy the patronage of the Public.
This Evening (Tuesday) April 22.
OF VOCAL AND INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC
will be held at the UNION HALL, consisting of
RECENT and FASHIONABLE SONGS and DUETS,
Interspersed with the
RECITATION of Several PIECES, PROSAICS in VERSE
From the most celebrated AUTHORS and the SONGS connected with them.
The concert to be divided into three parts, at the end of the first Part of the
concert will be delivered a
in three parts called the
By Mr. Redfield, Miss Brown
Mr. Solomon and Mrs. Solomon,
The Favourite Song of the "[can't read the word] Headed Plough Boy" by Mrs. Solomon,
The much admired Air, "The [can't read the word] of Richmond-Hill" by Miss Brown
A favourite Scotch Song, called "Bonny ?em of Aberdeen" by Mrs. Solomon
The much admired Song of Heaving the Anchor, Short, called "Hoe Heo."By Mr. Solomom
At the end of the third part of the Concert will be delivered a
With original songs and Duets, called
THOMAS and SALLY.
By Mr. Redfield, Mr. Solomon,
and Mrs. Solomon.
The favouite [sic] Duet of "The Rose Tree" By Miss Brown.
Dibdin's Favourite Song of the "Greenwich Performer or the Disabled Tar."By Mr. Solomon.
TICKETS at 3 (some symbol I didn't recognize) each for Ladies and Gentlemen, and Children under 12 years of age 1/6, may be had at the place of performance, and at the Star Printing-Office. Doors to be opened at 6 o'clock, and the Curtain to rise at 7.
Greg Sandow and his readers are trying to work on solutions to classical music's "concert problem". Well, this poster points a way 'back to the future': more MORAL LECTRES with the original songs! That'll get all of the cool kids back into the hall. Seriously, just reading the poster made me wonder who Mr. and Mrs. Solomon were, how they were able to produce such events up and down the East Coast, and what it would have been like to be at one of their concerts. I would have loved to have been there to hear the PROVOK'D HUSBAND or REFORM'D WIFE. Actually scratch that, I probably would not have been allowed in the town, let alone the concert but I still wonder what it would have been like nonetheless.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 3:49 PM
Although New York City was saved the brunt of Saturday's snowpocalyspe that our southern I-95 corridor neighbors Philadelphia and Washington D.C. received, we did get some. And braving the snowy and strangely peaceful roads of Brooklyn yesterday morning, I rode my trusty bicycle to Edward R. Murrow High School for an audition. American Idol? Nope. Some reality TV show about teaching? No way. This was an audition for the first annual New York City Department of Education sponsored Amateur Night at the Apollo! Yes, THE Apollo Theater in Harlem! Yes, THEShowtime at the Apollo Apollo that I used to watch on late-night TV back when I was a young lad...and still had and wanted a TV. Here's the announcement from the DOE's site:
The Office of Arts and Special Projects in partnership with the Apollo Theater is pleased to announce the first NYCDOE Amateur Night at the Apollo to be held on June 2, 2010 at the world famous Apollo Theater to highlight the extraordinary talents of our teachers. Auditions for individual or group acts in dance, vocal and instrumental music, spoken word and comedy are scheduled for three consecutive Saturdays at sites in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn.
And all you had to be was:
1. A current New York City Department of Education public school teacher
2. A legal resident of the United States
3. Available on the performance date, June 2, 2010.
Check, check, and check! So Saturday morning with some of my colleagues at PS 321 in Brooklyn (John Allgood, kindergarten teacher; Bill Fulbrecht, kindergarten teacher; Elizabeth Heiser, 2nd grade teacher; Adam Lane, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade music teacher; Frank McGarry, 1st and 2nd grade music teacher), we headed deep into Brooklyn to audition for a shot on the Apollo Theater stage; for our chance at immortality in the annals of New York City teacher lore. Now this was not some group we threw together at the last minute to do the audition. We've been playing and performing for a number of years now and actually have done a few gigs. Our repertoire usually consists of old folk, rock, and bluegrass tunes and my role is as clarinet and (sometimes) saxophone player and percussionist. It is great fun and a chance for me to be in the band performing the music instead of in my other musical life, of composing and conducting (although that is great fun as well, just a different experience). So for our audition we performed the song "Glendale Train", and things went pretty well. While there were a few judges and one did offer a suggestion after the performance, there was no Simon or Paula critique of our "NYC Teacher Idol" worthiness. Below is a version of "Glendale Train" performed by another ensemble. And while our arrangement is different, our group instrumentally looks much like the group in the video. But of course, I think we sound better! I mean, clarinet and shaker adds so much more to the song...
Seeing as we sometimes play some of his songs in the 321 Band, a nice serendipitous moment after the audition was later that evening my wife and I passed legend Pete Seeger (moving quite well for 90!) and his wife and grandson on the streets of upstate Beacon, New York. So that's a good sign...right? Anyway, don't know if we are onto Harlem, but I'll keep you posted...
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 4:55 PM
Monday night, February 1st is the 6th anniversary of Janet Jackson's infamous breastcapade in Super Bowl 38. It is also the next Composer Salon from 7pm to 9pm at the Brooklyn Lyceum (227 4th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn: literally above the Union Street M, R stop). While I can't promise there will be any wardrobe malfunctions, there certainly will be good discussion of the topic, Inspiration. Hope to see some of you on Monday.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 7:51 AM
I mentioned in the last Notes from the Teaching Field (November 2009) that I was a high school music director many moons ago and I do plan on writing about some of those adventures later in the year but for now I want to talk about my musical adventures with the kindergarteners. I do find it interesting, after a years long hiatus between my teaching high school band/International Baccalaureate music and today, that now I'm in the position of teaching young kids. REALLY young. Never during my teacher training in college did I ever envision myself as teaching the 'little people' since singing children's songs, dancing, and snack time were worlds I could never really imagined myself in. In fact, when I was a substitute teacher the one grade I never really looked forward to, was...yes, you guessed, kindergarten. Partly it was because I just had no real experience with them and didn't know what to do. I mean handling high school banders surreptitiously stealing into each others hotel rooms after hours on band trips or a cheerleader confiding to me about her 'mistake' the previous night, while no cakewalk, were things I could understand and relate to. But an air infused with flatulence and pee or knowing what to do when one kid cries because another kid breathes on them! Argh! What are you supposed to do with that! Well, now that I'm a seasoned kindergartenologist, I just find it a wonderful circumstance of life that now not only do I teach 4-, 5-, and 6-year olds, but that I find myself thinking why would anyone want to teach any other age?
So what is kindergarten music and what do I do each day with my 4 classes (of approximately 23 kids in each class) for 53 minutes a class? There are 10 kindergarten classes this year and since I do not have a classroom of my own, I travel between each classroom for music (and math games). My lessons are different depending on where we are in the year and while I'm not including everything I do, generally the structure of my time with the kids breaks down something like this:
1. Greeting and overview of the day's lessons
Usually here is where I find out who has a wiggly tooth, whose birthday is coming up, who has to go to the bathroom (or get water), or what they did over the weekend at their country/weekend house. Oh and yes, I do eventually get to say a little something about the upcoming lesson...
2. Sing a song, demonstrate instruments, kids composing their own music and/or playing instruments and/or conducting
This is where the sneaky learning of musical concepts comes in. While I'm not a big singer, I do introduce some songs that teach various musical concepts like soft, loud, fast, slow (these concepts are also covered when the kids learn how to conduct). I just bought two songbooks because one thing I want to do more with the kids this year is to sing more 'contemporary' songs, not just 'children's songs.' (just saw an article about Yo Gabba Gabba, which sounds like the kind of hip thing I'm looking for).
Over the year I do talk about and personally demonstrate each instrument family (those college instrument methods classes come in handy!) and depending on the instrument, the kids get a chance to either press/move the keys, valves, or slide while I play or they get to bang, shake, or rattle it themselves. Also I do teach them the basics of what a conductor does, including showing them a rudimentary conducting pattern (a 'V' or an 'U' since they are easy for most to do) with each student getting to conduct a band (with a REAL baton!) playing different percussion instruments. The students love being in control of the sounds the other students make and have a great time taking turns being the maestro.
Around January or so, I introduce music notation. I came up with a system to get them to learn music notation starting off with using 'X' for play and 'O' for rest. I came up with those because by January most kids are able to write those letters fairly easily. Gradually over the subsequent weeks, I ween the kids off the 'baby-stuff' X's and O's and into 'real' music notes and rests. By the time we get to our mid-Winter break in February, most of the kid's handwriting has improved enough that they are able to draw reasonable facsimiles of quarter, half and whole notes and rests. In fact a few years ago when part of my assignment, along with kindergarten music, was to teach a music class of pre-kindergarten and a class of the self-contained special education kids (for those of you not up on your teacher lingo, it is a small class of students with physical and emotional challenges such as down syndrome), I used a modified version of the 'X' and 'O' lesson which worked quite well and the students were able to not only write their own music but to perform it as well. I also have found that this system of reading and writing notes, reinforces basic concepts the classroom teachers introduce in reading and writing (starting from left to right, sequencing, moving the eye along the page to follow the words, etc.) Of course, not every kid gets it, but most seem to understand the idea. And from talking to the first grade music teacher, they seem to retain some inklings of what I teach them once they reach first grade.
3. Movement: usually singing and dancing to songs from Philadelphia Chickens.
This great book and CD by Sandra Boynton features fun and silly songs sung by people such as Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, and the Bacon Brothers. I have made up some movement/dance to go along with whatever song we do and the kids LOVE doing the moves and singing the songs. So far this year we've done "Philadelphia Chickens", "Be like a Duck", "Cows", and "Pig Island" (one of my personal favorites). Later in the year we'll do "Pajama Time", "Snoozers", "Dinosaur, Dinosaur", and "Jump Rope Jive".
Be Like a Duck music video from Sandra Boynton on Vimeo.
4. Reading a music related story.
I always try to read a story having to deal with music although it is sometimes difficult to find good books dealing with music that work well for a group, over the years I have a number that work well. Some of the many books I have and use during the year are (left to right, vertically top to bottom in the photo): Opera Cat by Tess Weaver and Andrea Wesson, Horace and Morris Join the Chorus (but What about Dolores?) by James Howe and Amy Walrod, Mama Don't Allow by Thacher Hurd,Drummer Hoff by Barbara Emberley, Doddle Flute by Daniel Pinkwater,Mr. Putter and Tabby Toot the Horn by Cynthia Rylant and Arthur Howard, John Philip Duck by Patricia Polacco, and Music over Manhattan by Mark Karlins.
5. Goodbye song
Generally most students are excited for music and of course when it is time for me to go, I can't give them back to their classroom teachers all filled up with the fun from their musical 'sugar rush'. So I almost always end with a 'quiet' goodbye song which we all sing and clap to. The song I use is called First Cryand comes from a wonderful CD collection called Welcoming Children into the World. I heard about this CD many years ago while listening to PRI's Sound and Spirit one day on WNYC radio. The CD is a beautiful and diverse collection of songs about bringing new life into the world. From "Nursery Rhyme" sung by the Baka Forest people to "Hey, Pretty Baby (Who's My Pretty Baby)" sung by Woody Guthrie to "C'est La Vie" sung by Henri Dikongué to a wonderful adoption song sung by John McCutcheon "Happy Adoption Day", Welcoming Children into the World are mostly songs that are NOT 'children's songs', but songs that kids would certainly like. "First Cry" is sung in Navajo by Navajo songwriter Sharon Burch and the main refrain means "The baby is crying!"
For me the whole idea of kindergarten music really is to have fun (and we do!) but also begin to introduce basic musical terms and concepts. And if they do learn those terms and concepts, that is great; if they don't, that is fine too as long as they remember music as being fun and interesting. One evening I told my wife that teaching kindergarten, with the constant attention needed of me, is like being on stage for 6-7 hours straight, every day. This is in no way to suggest that teaching is all an act (although any teacher would probably admit that some dramaturgical skills are necessary and even required). I think of my teaching self as just a different part of who I am. After teaching kindergarten music for a number of years now, frankly one thing that is amazing to see is just how much they improve over the course of the year. Sometimes it is quite dramatic to see a girl who is completely uncoordinated in September or a boy who barely spoke those first weeks, really coming into their own by June. And this is one of the joys of teaching the little ones.
Another joy can be related in the following story:
A few weeks ago on a very cold day the kids couldn't go outside for recess. On those days, the 250 kindergarterners go to the auditorium to watch a movie. Well since it was my prep period, I was on my way to the computer lab and was just passing through the auditorium as students were gathering and beginning to sit down to watch. Almost immediately frantic waving of arms and trying to get my attention began to billow through a small section. However within seconds, like a flash forest fire, the entire auditorium was ablaze in the wildly enthusiastic chant, "Joe, Joe, Joe..." At that moment I felt what it must be like to be center court at Madison Square Garden during a Knicks game (well, at least back in the days of the 'good' Knicks of the Willis Reed-Walt Frazier-Bill Bradley 70s or the Patrick Ewing-John Starks-Charles Oakley 90s). Anyway, here's what I said on Facebook about it all:
I was very tired at the end of the day when this happened, but indeed I must say that it made me smile and think that that is how everyone should end their work day!
Stay tuned for another installment of Notes from the Teaching Field!
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 8:01 AM
Somehow I missed last week's Stanley Fish New York Times discussion of Barbara Herrnstein Smith's recently published Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion. From the reading the discussion and today's rebuttal and clarification from Mrs. Smith, it sounds like an insightful book filled with arguments about the role of both in our lives (and a book I plan to order and read, so maybe I'll have my own review later in the year). Actually reading the discussions made me wonder, what could be accomplished if our politicians took equal care to reason with such clarity and honesty?
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 8:17 PM
Whether the inmates who can't afford bail are guilty or not and whether or not corporations and unions truly have a inalienable, First Amendment right to spend whatever they want to influence elections or peddle influence regardless of the resultant effect, my question is what is happening to America's basic common sense, compassion, fairness and humanity?
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 8:16 AM
The next Composer Salon is on Monday February 1, 2010 from 7 pm to around 9 pm at the Brooklyn Lyceum (227 4th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn). And the price is right for our troubled economic times: FREE! The Lyceum is literally above the Union Street M, R Train stop in Brooklyn. The Lyceum does have various inexpensive libations including different beers, wine and other non-alcoholic beverages, as well as coffee and baked goods. If you are a composer/musician in New York City area, regardless of genre, style, or inclination, I hope you can come out, meet some new and old faces behind the blogs and comments and listen or join the discussion.
Salon Topic #4:
“You need a certain dose of inspiration, a ray from on high, that is not in ourselves, in order to do beautiful things….”—Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo
“Basically, music is not about technique, it’s about spirit.”—Terry Riley
As some of you know in June 2010, I'll be premiering one section of a new collaborative project based upon the writings of Thomas Paine, To Begin the World Over Again with Numinous, dance choreographer Edisa Weeks, and her company Delirious Dances. The full project will take place in the spring of 2011. In my research and reading for the project, I read David McCollough's wonderful book 1776, a riveting account of that pivotal year in American's revolution against England. And while the book only talks about or mentions Thomas Paine briefly, both occasions were stirring. One was an account of the retreat of the American troops from New York City to New Jersey and the famous crossing of the Delaware River. Thomas Paine, who as an aide to General Greene, was among the retreating troops. Inspired by the American's incredible resolve and determination against frigid weather and a seemly invincible opponent, Thomas Paine began writing the words which eventually became his American Crisis. Whose famous words, "these are the times that try men's soul's" echo the graveness of the times then and have been appropriated by many since then. The other account in 1776 was an aside about how Common Sense, which was published on January 9th, 1776 (not the 10th as is commonly thought), was read to the soldiers of the fledgling colonial army and how the moving words of Common Sense changed the conflict in the minds of those soldiers (as well as in the mind of General Washington) from a struggle against the meddlesome but generally welcomed rule of a benevolent crown to a war for freedom and independence against a foreign invader. I thought about how the words of Thomas Paine inspired the Revolution and recently it got me think more generally about inspiration itself.
Last week, I, along with my Pulse colleagues Darcy James Argue and JC Sanford, were a part of the Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT) where we were commissioned by founder Dave Douglas to write 'arrangements' of Ornette Coleman tunes. Before our concert was a performance of composer Charles Wuorinen's brass music. At the conclusion of the Wuorinen concert, I was talking with a fellow composer who remarked, something to the effect of how they were "amazed at what different music is in people's heads." This was not meant as a direct criticism of the Wuorinen music we just heard, but rather a general wonderment at how different people hear different things and how that manifests itself in sound and music. Certainly Charles Wuorinen's soon to be completed opera Brokeback Mountain will sound completely different than Gustavo Santaolalla's score to the movie? And what a different creation is the movie when compared to the Annie Proulx's short story? How does the same short story inspire such different outcomes? What inspires someone to compose the way they do? I also thought about the great music Darcy, JC and myself came up with in reimagining Ornette Coleman's music into something new. What inspired us to hear Coleman's music in such a way that, while certainly referencing Coleman, sounded less like Coleman and more like Darcy, JC, and me? It is really fascinating to contemplate (well, at least to me anyway) and I thought the idea of inspiration might be an interesting discussion for others in the Composer Salon as well.
I. German poet Rainer Maria Rilke said,
“always at the commencement of work that first innocence must be reachieved, you must return to that unsophisticated spot where the angel discovered you when he brought you the first binding message.”
How do you approach the start of a new composition? What inspires you to begin a composition? Is it purely the working out of musical material, an extra-musical association, or a combination that inspires the beginning of a work?
II. Composer George Crumb states that in composing
“there’s always a balance between the technical and the intuitive aspects. With all the early composers, all the composers we love, there was always this balance between the two things…that’s what all music reflects.”
How do you reconcile and balance the two forces? Do you really need to?
III. Composer Alvin Lucier, in his essay The Tools of My Trade, speaks of a temptation, when first conceiving a piece, “towards greater complexity” in his principal musical idea, but eventually reducing the idea to its’ minimum. This idea of reducing ideas to only their barest essence (and the difficulties inherent in that) is also spoken about by Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Mark Rothko and many other artists, writers, musicians (as well as philosophers and theologians). Do you fight the temptation of “greater complexity” in your own music? How do you do it? What ways/techniques help you achieve the 'right' way to convey your musical idea(s) in your composition? When do you know if it is 'right'?
If you are a composer or musician or music lover in the New York City area, consider coming down to the Lyceum and joining the discussion, or if you don't live in New York or can't make it, adding your thoughts in the comments. Hope to see you on February 1st!
Previous Composer Salons
Composer Salon #1: The Audience
Composer Salon #2: Future Past Present
Composer Salon #3: Mixed Music-Stylistic Freedom in the 'aughts
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 12:02 AM
This afternoon I attend the second in pianist Simone Dinnerstein's Neighborhood Concert Series at P.S. 321 in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. The concert featured Simone performing along with violinists Caleb Burhans and Yuki Numata, violist Nadia Sirota, and cellist Clarice Jensen of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME).
After a brief introduction from Simone, the concert began with the first two movements from Jefferson Friedman's String Quartet No. 3 written in 2005. Overall the work took various inspirational musical references and melded them into a cohesive and enjoyable whole. At times I was reminded of Henryk Górecki as the music took some prayerful, almost Eastern European-like reposes, at other times, as the strings were beautifully stretching into the upper registers, the music was reminiscent of Aaron Jay Kernis's string quartet, Musica Celestis. However, with its rhythmic twists and turns, the general atmosphere of the Quartet had a Bartok-ian perfume to it without being fully derivative (a tough trick to pull off successfully, which the piece did wonderfully). There were a number of interesting effects, some I'm planning to appropriate someday: the sul ponticello passages in the cello and viola which came out almost as an electric guitar distortion-like sound or the moment in the second movement where all the strings were arhythmically playing sliding high harmonics which slowly evolved into a more rhythmic passage.
Next were the third ("The Blue Room") and fourth ("Tarantella") movements from Phil Kline's quartet The Blue Room and Other Stories. Originally written in 2002 for the string quartet Ethel performing with electronic live sampling pedals, the work was arranged in 2009 to be performed by a conventional string quartet. "The Blue Room" opened evocatively with a couple of strings playing a sul tasto, quietly undulating minimalistic eighth note figure while a melodic fragment sang above it. This little musical gesture, which briefly happened again later in the movement, was one of my favorite moments of the entire concert. The movement continued in a lovely melodic and singing way and after a brief pause lead into the fourth movement, which began with a loping, galloping rhythmic pad and a reaching violin melody and continued with a more frenzied and exciting pace until the end.
For the final two pieces of the concert, Simone joined ACME in delightful readings of the first movement of Antonin Dvorak's Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81 and J.S. Bach's Keyboard Concerto in F minor (which Simone will also be performing with ACME on January 30th as part of Columbia University's Miller Theatre's all-Bach Concert). The Dvorak was performed with the lovely melancholic, Brahms-like winter-fireplace-hearth warmth that music requires while the Bach was clearly delineated with beautifully dispassionate passion. And the Bach's famous second movement, with its beautiful piano melody in an almost duet with the cello bass line, was another of my favorite moments from the concert.
As I've mentioned in previous posts, all of the artist on the series are donating their time and efforts in order for all of the proceeds to benefit P.S. 321. And if the size and attentiveness of the audience is any indication (the auditorium was completely full with a number of people standing along the back wall), then the Neighborhood Series is a much needed and quite successful outlet for world class quality classical chamber music in Brooklyn and if you haven't checked it out yet, you are missing something wonderful.
Remaining schedule for Simone Dinnerstein's Neighborhood Concert Series
(all performed in PS 321's auditorium-180 7th Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11215)
February 4th, 2010:
The Chiara String Quartet
April 15th, 2010:
Face the Music,
featuring premiere of the composition,
by Joseph C. Phillips Jr.
(commissioned by Simone Dinnerstein and the Neighborhood Concert Series)
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 10:01 PM
Next week on January 14th at 9pm, three composers from Pulse (myself, Darcy James Argue, and JC Sanford) will be featured on a concert at the Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT) at the Abrons Art Center 466 Grand Street in New York City. Tickets can be purchased at the FONT website or at the door.
The Festival of New Trumpet Music, which was co-founded by the great trumpeter/composer Dave Douglas, actually begins the night before on January 13th with a tribute and benefit celebrating the life and career of famed trumpeter Wilmer Wise. Wilmer has lead a diverse and interesting career, straddling the worlds of jazz, contemporary classical, and Broadway. Working with such musical illuminati as Steve Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, and Leopold Stokowski among many others, he was often one of the few (if most of the time, the only) African-American musician in many of the ensembles and symphony orchestras he performed in during the 1960s and 1970s.
The January 14th concert is really in three parts: At 6:30pm Anti-Social Music, Inc. presents a series of world premieres; at 7:30pm is a performance of the brass music by the incredible composer Charles Wuorinen performed by the New York Trumpet Ensemble and the Urban Brass Quintet, which will be conducted by the composer himself; then at 9pm Wilmer Wise reprises his role as trumpet soloist in Ornette Coleman's rarely performed chamber work, The Sacred Mind of Johnny Dolphin. Wilmer performed on the premiere in 1984 and trumpeter Lew Soloff played on the last known performance at Carnegie Hall in 1987. Both Wilmer and Lew will be tag-teaming the solo trumpet part in The Sacred Mind of Johnny Dolphin for the January 14th concert. Also featured will be Gerald Cleaver (drums), Warren Smith (percussion), Meg Okura and Scott Tixier (violins), Judith Insell (viola), and Will Martina (cello). To round out the 9pm part of the concert, Dave Douglas commissioned three composers from Pulse (myself, Darcy James Argue, and JC Sanford) to arrange some of Ornette Coleman's music for the ensemble with soloists Lew Soloff and Taylor Ho Bynum.
The composition I wrote, featuring both Lew and Taylor, is called "Memory of Red Orange Laid out in Still Waves" and is a transmutation and refraction of the beautiful "Kathelin Gray" from the Ornette Coleman/Pat Metheny 1986 album Song X. My title comes from a line in Edward P. Jones's sobering book, The Known World which, while a work of fiction, was based upon the true incidents of African-Americans owning slaves during the 19th century. Darcy's arrangement, featuring Taylor as soloist, is the opening theme from Ornette's Skies of America from the 1972 orchestral album of the same name, while JC with Lew, will tackle "Peace" from the vestigial 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come in his composition, the eponymously titled "Lew's Peace".
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 7:51 AM
Last night I went to see director James Cameron's Avatar. I did enjoyed the film and its vertiginous use of CGI technological advancements in telling a basic (and often quite predictable, although not unenjoyable) story. And since seeing the film I have had subsequent continued contemplation of the movie's ecological message, with the obvious corollary to our own world. Despite my pleasure at the world James Cameron and crew placed on the screen, there was one aspect of the film which left me a bit disappointed: the music.
James Horner, the composer of the score to Avatar, has worked with James Cameron on a few previous films such as Aliens and of course Titanic (THE-GREAT-EST-MO-VIE-E-VER-MADE!) and he has a controversial reputation in film music circles as a recycler of his own themes and motifs as well as some say a, ahem, 'borrower', of themes and motifs from other composers (in Avatar, I notice a few obvious moments of recycled Horner, such as a snare motif borrowed from 1986's Aliens which in itself, was also used in 1982's Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan). Avatar's music is generally pleasant and serves the film's visuals passably as the sound world James Horner creates certainly having elements from what we've come to expect from blockbuster film music. For example, rousing and rhythmic battle scene music to accompany the hordes of CGI warriors (with a parallel to Howard Shore's score to The Lord of the Rings), an exotic sounding choir matched with ethnic percussion (similar to Ennio Morricone's music to The Mission, with nods to Horner's own Titanic), and the requisite 'hit song' during the closing credits and which, not always but often, seem out of place and jarring, as it did in Avatar (think the song at the end of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or "My Heart Will Go On" at the end of THE-GREAT-EST-MO-VIE-E-VER-MADE). But in many ways the music is an antipode to the visual technological innovations.
Why do directors, who claim to be breaking boundaries in their films, fall back on using standard movie music memes? In Avatar, sadly there is no musicological equivalent for the stunning visual world saturated with beautiful dendrological, entomological, botanical, zoological, and geological interest and imagination (most things are based on recognizable earthly models such as a glowing forest floor, the 'helicopter' lizard, the white butterfly-like seed from the sacred tree which looked like a cross between a jellyfish and a dandelion seed head, and the Hallelujah Mountains (which all during the film I was speculating on how they would be able to float, perhaps some kind of terrestrial variation on Lagrangian points)). And while there is not much source music in the movie (music that emerges from a source in and from the world on-screen, as opposed to the music score, which is strictly outside it), the few times there were, particularly a scene toward the end where the entire Na'vi tribe chants, musically it was fairly straight-forward and plain. Now this is not to say the music doesn't help the visual images, but if James Cameron's team were able to create such a visually striking alien people, with their own legends and spoken language which was commissioned for the film, why couldn't there also be some hint of an equally imaginative, forward-sounding music, if not in the score at least in those moments in the film when the aliens are actually singing? Maybe I'm a bit unfair since my criticism stems from what James Horner (and James Cameron) did NOT do and what the music is NOT. After all Star Wars was looking back, not forward with its pseudo-Wagnerian romanticism including its one source material moment, the Cantina Band and its galactic-steel-drum electro-swing. However, where John Williams created a great and memorable score for Star Wars which was in the vanguard of helping popularize a return to big, sweeping 'operatic' orchestral music in movies (after a decline in the 1960s and early 1970s due to more pop music being used), James Horner only creates a decent, functional, and prosaic score. And for a film as 'next generation' as the moving-graphic-novel Avatar, that is disappointing.
(Photos from the official Avatar website)
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 11:15 PM
To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.