|Numinous The Music of Joseph C. Phillips Jr.
The Numinosum Blog
Monday night September 12th, I attended the CD release concert of cellist and vocalist Jody Redhage's newly released recording of minutiae and memory (New Amsterdam Records NWAM031) at DROM on Avenue A on the Lower East Side. Jody is a "cello emeritus" with Numinous, having been in a number of performances over the years as well as on the Vipassana recording. Her emeritus status comes as she has been increasingly in demand and out of town, for example, playing with Grammy-winner Esperanza Spalding on her world tour. But I digress, so seeing how back in 2008 I was at Jody's All Summer in a Day CD release concert at the old Galapagos Art Space, I believe (which happened to be one of the first release and public shows of New Amsterdam Records), it seemed fitting to hear how Jody's stirring mix of cello and voice has developed since that earlier recording.
The night opened, not with Jody, but with Corey Dargel and Cornelius Dufallo and a set of art pop songs for voice and violin. If you don't know Corey's music, you probably should check out this feature in the New York Times earlier this year. Going in, I was a bit skeptical about how intriguing voice and violin really could be. But with Cornelius doing a great job of electronically looping various motifs/riffs and then subsequently playing other figures over them/with them, as well as Corey's always compelling and droll words and vocal delivery, I felt the instrumentation complemented the compositions wonderfully and provided a smooth transition into Jody's solo set.
Just after intermission, as Jody was setting up music on her stand, the house music died out and clearly something quite different started to play over the PA. The audience did get quieter, although I think everyone was trying to figure what was going on. Some were kind of listening and others continued with their intermission activities. Once the piece was over however, Jody mentioned that it was Anna Clyne's "paint box" from of minutiae and memory that was played as a sort of prequel to the live performance. Jody proceeded to perform all the compositions from the new recording although not in album order. All of the pieces fit in a more somber, contemplative emotional zone and I could clearly see how some kind of visuals or lighting design coupled with the compositions would make for an even more powerful performance experience (maybe something similar to Maya Beiser's World to Come). As it was, I enjoyed most of the music and Jody's playing was passionate, heartfelt, and well-done. As she mentioned at the end of the show, all of the pieces on the new album spoke to her strongly and that love came through beautifully in her playing and singing.
Some compositions featured Jody's signature (singing while playing the cello) and a few pieces were just for cello alone or cello with electronic backing tracks. At the halfway mark of the concert I thought my favorite piece was going to end up being Missy Mazzoli's "A Thousand Tongues." I'm a fan of Missy's work (her group Victorie's album Cathedral City is one I get continual listening pleasure from) and love how she subtly mixes electronic textures in acoustic environments in many of her compositions and this piece was no exception. This quote from composer Sarah Kirkland Snider sums up what I like about Missy's work in general and "A Thousand Tongues" specifically:
[Missy's music] inhabits a weird emotional space that's dark and anxious…. there are so many odd notes and clashing chords…. there isn't a lot of traditional goal-directed motion, but rather this feeling of a pot forever on the boil — yet you're left feeling like you've gone somewhere.
While I enjoyed "A Thousand Tongues" thoroughly, it was a later piece, "Static Line" by Wil Smith, that ended as my favorite of the night. From an opening with drone-like sliding figures that evoked a similar sonic world of Michael Harrison's just intonation drones to a later motivic sensibility that vaguely reminded me of South Indian classical vocal writing to a beautifully elegiac melodic build-up toward the end, I was completely engaged in "Static Line" and look forward to exploring it, as well as all the other compositions, in more depth on the actual recording.
(photo credit: Joseph C. Phillips Jr.)
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 8:00 AM
The past two years I have posted about my experience on September 11, 2001 and the subsequent composition, The Spell of a Vanishing Loveliness, that came from that experience. Recently there was that big (in the new music community at least) controversy of the cover of the new Steve Reich recording of his composition WTC 9/11 which showed a slightly darken image of one of the planes about to strike one of the towers; such was the uproar that Nonesuch Records decided to remove the image from the recording. Despite some beautiful and powerful moments (the sections with the singing of the Psalms and Exodus were especially riveting), overall I was not particularly moved by WTC 9/11 when I heard the NYC premiere at Carnegie Hall on April 30th. Some of the reasons for my ambivalence can be read in some of my tweets after the Reich cover photo went live:
C'mon @NonesuchRecords, yes we know the @stevereich piece is about Sept. 11 don't hit us over the head with "9/11!" sanctification #subtlety 20 Jul
I wasn't thrilled w/"WTC 9/11" when heard @carnegiehall, because, for me, it represented precisely what having that photo on the cover means 20 Jul
not against Sept. 11 pieces per se just when they draw too much attention as 9/11! pieces (ala Rudy "noun, verb, 9/11" Giuliani)#endofrant 20 Jul
As far as my response, The Spell of a Vanishing Loveliness is not about September 11 but rather a reflection of the reality that even in horrific experiences, there can be found beauty and knowing this is a part of being human. With all of the events and artistic responses set for the 10th anniversary, I think it is good to remember that there is a difference between "9/11" and "September 11": one reflects simple binary thoughts ("good vs. bad", "right vs. wrong", etc.) and often jingoism and the other speaks of universal complexity and subtlety of emotion and feelings. This September 11th I'm wishing for more of the later in the artistic responses than the former. To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm in the movie Jurassic Park, I hope artists thought not only of whether they could respond to September 11, but to think if they honestly should.
Here is my story:
It has been 8 years since the events of September 11, 2001 and recently I've been thinking about John Adams's, and subsequently my own, musical response to that day. John Adams in an interview originally posted on the New York Philharmonic website (and now on his site), talks about his trepidations when asked to write a work, On the Transmigration of Souls, to have been performed almost exactly one year after the attacks of 9/11:
"I didn’t require any time at all to decide whether or not to do it. I knew immediately that I very much wanted to do this piece–in fact I needed to do it. Even though I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of a shape the music would take, I knew that the labor and the immersion that would be required of me would help answer questions and uncertainties with my own feelings about the event. I was probably no different from most Americans in not knowing how to cope with the enormous complexities suddenly thrust upon us. Being given the opportunity to make a work of art that would speak directly to people’s emotions allowed me not only to come to grips personally with all that had happened, but also gave me a chance to give something to others."
I started the composer group Pulse in May 2004 with an initial meeting of six other like-minded composers. From this initial fellowship gathering, all through that summer and fall, we worked on organizing our premiere performance to be that December. For that first performance, I knew I wanted my piece to be based on 9/11, but was unsure of what direction to take. Like John Adams stated, it felt too big and too raw an event to process my feelings enough in order to create something decent let alone meaningful. After a few sketches and false starts, which looking back now, tried to do and say too much, I decided that the best way for me to approach the composition was to reflect on my own experiences that day. To create something with simple and direct expression that did not tackle 9/11 directly, but tangentially; something not exactly programmatic but still able to convey the story of an unexpected pulchritudinous moment that day.
I was in Brooklyn at the time of the attacks, substitute teaching a high school math class at the Brooklyn International School, in a building next to and overlooking the Manhattan Bridge. I first noticed something was wrong when I casually looked out the window to see the usual bustling rush-hour car traffic flowing over the bridge was non-existent. Someone eventually came to the classroom I was in and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Many of the students became visibly upset. I looked out the window again and where just a few minutes before no one or thing was coming over the bridge, now the bridge was beginning to fill with people streaming from Manhattan eastward across the roadway. The first tower had fallen before I had a chance, during my prep period, to run out onto the bridge toward Manhattan (just before the police stopped anyone from traveling westward) to see what was happening for myself. I reached the center of the bridge and could see the top of the second tower in flames. Less than a minute later the second tower, hauntingly silent and seemly in slow motion, imploded upon itself with audible gasps and cries of horror from the crowd which turned to look.
After retuning to the school, you can imagine that it was difficult to focus for the remainder of the school day. With people passing in front of the school, it was a constant reminder of the enormity of that morning's events. The fear and confusion was particularly palatable in the students. As the news coverage slowly uncovered the terrorist plot, this being a high school of all recent immigrants (many of whom were Muslim and wore Islamic veils and scarfs), it was hard not to control my own fears of what would happened to the students when school let out and they would have to pass through the crowd on their way to the subway. Despite the police presence, would they be blamed and suffer verbal or physical abuse from the understandably bewildered and upset crowd coming over the bridge? At the end of the day, many of the teachers, myself included, decided to walk with some of the students to the subway to make sure they were ok leaving the school.
Later in the early evening with two other friends, I was on a townhouse roof in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn surveying the entire lower Manhattan cityscape. I watched as a distant flickering mass seemed to be coming closer toward us from the World Trade Center site. At first it looked like a swarm of white butterflies, glittering in the evening sun, but as it got closer we realized that it was paper rising with the heat from the site and floating toward us from lower Manhattan. An immensely beautiful and ethereal sight, none of us spoke as the swarm came directly over us with some of the many pages from law books and computer printouts fluttering above and some landing all around the roof. We watched as the swarm passed over us and quietly continued farther into Brooklyn. No more than five minutes, this small and ephemeral moment, still resonated with me all those years and when I was ready, found outlet in my composition.
The Spell of a Vanishing Loveliness premiered at the inaugural concert of Pulse on December 1, 2004. The performance featured Amy Cervini (vocals), Sebastian Noelle (guitar), Jody Redhage (violoncello), Diana Herold (vibraphone), with me conducting. It was one of those moving performances where everyone in the audience and the musicians (including myself) were wrapped inside an all-encompassing bubble of the moment. After the piece ended and we were changing over to the next composer, Jody remarked "Did you feel that?" and indeed, the air seemed charged with something tangible and indescribable during and just after the performance (I realized had goosebumps during the end of the piece as the vibraphone and guitar drifted into their final nothingness). There was something magical, real, and true about the performance with the events of 9/11 only three years removed and still so close to people's emotions. It remains one of my most special musical memories so far in New York.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 9:00 AM
Last night on the date for observing Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth, I attended a music festival that seemed to resonate Dr. King's dream of integration: an integration where all music is valid as inspiration ("that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight") and can combine to form something different. Yesterday was the kick-off Marathon to the Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin Hall and I was there for all 7.5 hours of it! In general I LOVED the Marathon and think the concept of the Festival is just the thing I've always been looking for and interested in: musically and aesthetically. So with Steve Smith doing a nice write-up on the Marathon in the NY Times, I thought in this season of awards and Top Ten Lists instead of a straight run-down of yesterday's performances, I'd give you my real-time Twitter thoughts and then a little commentary which includes some love...and a little pain:
Most Fascinating Piece:
-Julius Eastman "Stay on It" performed by Ne(x)tworks
repeating groove & electronics w/echos of new music godfather Reich, probably a prelude of music to come #ecstaticmusic 17 Jan
interesting to hear many of the music currents swirling in 1973, and made more popular by others, come together in an intriguing and unique way.Also nice to have an African-American composer featured (the only one among composers or performers), especially on MLK day--would love to see more of it and other brown faces in the composers, performers and audiences on other new music (non-jazz) concerts (we are out there).
Piece(s) I wish I had written:
-Judd Greenstein "City Boy" performed by NOW Ensemble
-Jefferson Friedman "String Quartet No. 3" performed by Chiara String Quartet
Friedman and @juddgreenstein definitely mining the same "new beauty" some of us youngsters are trying out these days #ecstaticmusic 17 Jan
both pieces were beautiful and lyrical and intense in different but altogether very satisfying ways: Judd's was rhythmically driving and melodically active, while Jefferson's was more of a explorative emotional journey. Both ensembles seemed truly committed to the music.
Group I wish I was a member of:
love lrg table full of percussion that So Percussion is standing around, heads bowed, like T-day (or Seder...this is Merkin) #ecstaticmusic
banging on cool stuff and looking good doing it...nuff said!
Piece(s) that cause the most intense "WTF is this?" moments from me:
-Michael Gordon "Industry" performed by Ashley Bathgate
-Gabriel Kahane "Neurotic and Lonely" from Craig's List Lieder
"Industry" was another well-received piece; w/hammer blows, growing noise & distortion, thought it was "Eruption" #vanhalan #ecstaticmusic 17 Jan
best shoes and sock combination award of the evening goes to Gabriel Kahane #ecstaticmusic 17 Jan
still trying to process what I heard here...
Borderline pretentious moment or (this is certainly cool kid music moment):
-Timo Andres performing his piano piece "Everything is an Onion"
Timo Andres is playing his piece from an iPad #21stcentury #ecstaticmusic 17 Jan
I thought it was cool and probably would have done it too, but it also was a little show-offy...kind of like just having an iPad...
Borderline too smart for the crowd (or perhaps, knowing the crowd, just right):
-John Mattias/Adrian Corker/Andrew Prior
matthias/corker/prior from England is up (violin/singing, piano, laptop with neuro-sampling technology?) #ecstaticmusic 17 Jan
brooding moor-ish landscapes and fog enveloped seascapes are perfect images for matthias/corker/prior #ecstaticmusic 17 Jan
it was a really Sigur Ros-like slow mood throughout (I do like Sigur Ros though); lyrics were hard to understand (some sound issues on various artists throughout the day); and even though they are from England, seemed a little TOO Brooklyn indie cool for me. But some of the sounds were lovely...
Most Inspiring Moment:
-Face the Music Quartet performing
"Volcano" very exciting and energetic...a crowd pleaser! #ecstaticmusic 17 Jan
said this when Face the Music played my piece last year, I wish I had something like the group when I was young #WIN #ecstaticmusic 17 Jan
Christine Southworth's "Volcano"-some sound balance issues with electric quartet & piano; kids seem to enjoy playing it #ecstaticmusic 17 Jan
Face the Music quartet did a lovely job w/ textural challenges of @missymazzoli's "Death Valley Junction" & they pull it off #ecstaticmusic 17 Jan
the new music future looks bright with the youngsters coming up...
-realizing Merkin Hall doesn't allow food in the theatre
during this break, advice for @merkinhall & next @ecstaticmusic festival: allow food in theater #hungrybutdontwanttoloseseat #ecstaticmusic 17 Jan
a call went out for open seats, seems like there is a line waiting to get in. #hopinggingeraltoidsholdmetodinner #ecstaticmusic 17 Jan
understand the rule, bad for those of us people "in it to win" all-day Marathoners.
Most Fantabulous, Fun non-musical Moment(s):
-Getting Q2 button
-Niceness of Ecstatic Music staff to help a brotha out with some chocolate
-Kaufman center director recognized me, due to my Face the Music connections, and escorted me to VIP room to increase my blood sugar levels with wine, cheese, and crackers
-trying to parse Corey Dargel's lyrics
-watching Missy Mazzoli and Lorna Krier of Victoire, with their hand gestures during their final song with Buke & Gass
For more on the Festival, you can read my coverage of the Marathon a twww.twitter.com/numinousmusic or just search #ecstasticmusic on Twitter.
(photo credit: taken by me before the Merkin police crackdown)
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 11:55 PM
LABELS: OPINION, PERFORMANCE REVIEW
On Sunday I went to the Bang on a Can Marathon at the World Financial Center's Winter Garden atrium. It was a great time and I met many old friends and made some new ones. I was not a Marathon 'warrior' as I was only at the Winter Garden for the first 7 of the 13 hours, but you can read reviews from some of those that were "in it to win": Steve Smith's piece at the New York Times, Seth Colter Walls for Capital NY, George Grella at The Big City, and the New Jersey Star-Ledger. This being the 21st century and all, an unofficial Twitterati (including me!) could be seen typing away on laptops, Blackberries, and iPhones giving witty and sometimes insightful real-time commentary on the music and the happenings.
As Greg Sandow pointed out, the idea of the Marathon and why you hear the wide variety of music you hear at a typical Marathon, can be answered by this question in the BOAC program, a mission statement of sorts, from the founders Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe:
"So where can you go to find music from across the many many adventurous, sub-mainstream, less commercial genres? Innovative musics that could easily be filtered and heard only separate from each other but actually have more in common than you could ever imagine once the categories are removed?"
Of course this is the 'thing' now, this crossing of genres; the blurring of lines of demarcation between one style or another. Some are now declaring, "Hey don't call me classical (or jazz or whatever), I listen to Prince and Dirty Projectors and Jay-Z and Bill Monroe and John Coltrane and sure John Adams too and it's all in my music, ain't I cool!" This self-consciousness about 'crossing genres' is actually not how I defined our age of mixed music. As I defined it, mixed music is a true integration of all of those influences from pop, rock, jazz, classical, etc. into something that is all of those influences yet completely different. Like in cooking, it's not always what ingredients you use for a recipe (although the quality of those ingredients is another story), but how you use them that is the difference between a surfeiting meal or a sublime one. Mixed music is not a style per se but rather a mode of expression that organically reflects a true philosophy or world view about music.
Now I say all of this because the Bang on a Can Marathon featured many works that I found satiating and certainly fitting my mixed music definition. And even those that didn't, I found engaging and enjoyable. The highlights for me of my 7 hour musical sitz were: Quartet New Generation, a recorder collective from Germany who brought virtuosic intensity to some rather large recorders; composer Moritz Eggert, who looks a bit like Peter Lorre but whose great piano playing was like someone at a Metallica concert (especially loved the Hämmerklavier III: One Man Band, with its (literal) grooving piano banging); Face the Music's spirited performance of Graham Fitkin's Mesh; Steve Coleman's piece Formation-Lunar Eclipse, which I'm still trying to figure out what it was (it was that good and that unclassifiable); Evan Ziporyn's Tire Fire performed by his Gamelan Galak Tika, featured some grooving and clanging rhythms by the gamelan with beautiful soundscapes from the added electric guitar, electric bass, and keyboard; and the last piece I heard, Fausto Romitelli's Professor Bad Trip performed by the Talea Ensemble, with its wonderfully wild and evocative dissonances and frenetic counterpoint, lived up to its title.
So to sum up the evening: Bang on a Can Marathon and mixed music, WIN!
(photo credit (from top to bottom): JACK Quartet performing Tetras by Iannis Xenakis; Gamelan Galak Tika; Moritz Eggert; Kambar Kalendarov and Kutman Sultanbekov from Kyrgyzstan; John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble; Quartet New Generation with Mortiz Eggert; Steve Coleman and Jonathan Finlayson (trpt), David Millares (piano);
all photos taken June 27, 2010 by Joseph C. Phillips Jr.)
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 9:47 AM
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
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
This past Wednesday night, December 9th, I went to hear composer/saxophonist Matana Roberts perform her COIN COIN project at the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn. The project is wonderfully hard to classify, as it is a fountainhead drawing from multiple streams of influences, but Matana describes it as,
"...a large scale 12 segmented sound narrative about my family history [called COIN COIN]. Through research, interviews and loads of family help, I have been able to explore stories, folklore, and mystery surrounding my ancestral history going back to about 1704, covering at least 3 continents, spanning a ridiculous cross section of cultures..."
Coin-Coin was a legendary figure in some mid-18th and 19th century southern African-American lore, but she was a real person: Marie Thérèse Metoyer, a women (and possible ancestor of Matana) born a slave in Louisiana but through various circumstances, became a free women who ended up a successful landowner, slave-owner, and businesswoman at a time when most blacks (men and especially women) were illiterate, uneducated, and poor. Matana maintains a blog, In the Midst of Memory detailing her thought process on different subjects dealing with developingCOIN COIN and you can find out more there, as well as links to interviews discussing the project.
On Wednesday night as I listened, I was reminded of a surface tonal connection between COIN COINand Cormac McCarthy's The Road (which I read a couple of years ago and saw the movie over Thanksgiving weekend). Both have a topical seriousness and desolation in which laughter, joy, or hope seemly is an ancient legend people only could vaguely comprehend. Of course this is to be expected dealing with the horrors and terrors both are dealing with. However after thinking about it more, The Road comparison is only partly accurate and COIN COIN, underneath the surface, probably has more cultural resonance with some other books I've read: The Known World by Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison's Beloved or A mercy, and Jeffrey Lent's In the Fall. Those powerful and solemn books deal with issues in and around slavery and illuminates the psychic and psychological toll inflicted on all involved and all who survive (both black and white). Each book has a surface theme one could describe, as one character in In the Fall says, "Mostly, people are cruel, given the chance." Now I do believe everyone, given the right circumstances, has the capacity to live up to such a negative statement, however I don't subscribe to that pessimistic view in the reality of day-to-day. I am an optimist but with such depravity in history, it does make one empathetic to the felo-de-se of some who are oppressed and who lack opportunity through no fault of their own. Yet, despite that stream of anguish, one comes away from each book (well, at least me), not with lack of hope or with despair, but with an astonishment at how one can go on and how one does go on when faced with such abjection. How much would you cost? is one of the questions Matana asks in COIN COIN and which I believe she means what is one's own value as a person (both the literal monetary question referenced in slavery but also solipsistically as who one is) but I think another way to think of it is, what would you do or what would you be, placed in a similar horrific situation or circumstance? Would you have the same desire to survive, to continue? Would you degenerate to cruelty and self-destruction or as The Kid says in the movie The Road, would you still be a "good guy?"
Leonard Bernstein said it well in his fifth Harvard University Norton Lecture from the early 1970s, The Twentieth Century Crisis,
"Why are we still here, struggling to go on? We are now face to face with the truly Ultimate Ambiguity which is the human spirit. This is the most fascinating ambiguity of all: that as each of us grows up, the mark of our maturity is that we accept our mortality; and yet we persist in our search for immortality. We may believe it's all transient, even that it's all over; yet we believe a future. We believe. We emerge from a cinema after three hours of the most abject degeneracy in a film such as La Dolce Vita, and we emerge on wings, from the sheer creativity of it; we can fly on, to a future. And the same is true after witnessing the hopelessness of Godot in the theater, or after the aggressive violence of The Rite of Spring in the concert hall...There must be something in us, and in me, that makes me want to continue; and to teach is to believe in continuing. To share with you critical feelings about the past, to try to describe and assess the present--these actions by their very nature imply a firm belief in a future."
Now while I positively enjoyed both COIN COIN and The Road, I didn't feel like I 'flew away' after reading or after seeing it. However, I did feel that desire of humanity to survive, to live, to keep moving on. COIN COIN struck me as sonic consonance of the themes and feelings to be found in books like The Known World. The compositions were often structured improvisations mixed with definite written sections for the ensemble. Sometimes during the performance there was a box passed between the musicians, with color-coded beads inside, which corresponded to color-codes on the musician's parts and determined how they navigated the written music (Nate Chinen, who conducted a post-concert talk with Matana, has some photos of Matana's music here). The music flowed seamlessly from piece to piece for about an hour and a half and was a polyglot of stylistic diversity. Sections of contemporary classical gestures mingled with free jazz, spoken word, and modal jazz (a la mid-1960s John Coltrane, think the Impulse albums Crescent or Coltrane and you get an idea), performed by a wonderful ensemble (Gabriel Gurrerio (piano) and Daniel Levin (cello) stood out, but also featured were Jessica Pavone (viola), Keith Witty (bass), and Tomas Fujiwara (drums)) lead by Matana's sinewy alto saxophone playing and sometimes her speaking, singing, scat-rapping, and on three occasions, issuing a primal, tortured scream, which seemed to emerge from the depths of the spirits of all of her black ancestors. A powerful accompaniment and counterpoint to the music were video projections by Daniel Givens early in the evening but especially later when photos from Matana's family lineage, dating from the late 1800's onward, were shown behind the band. Like most African-Americans today, Matana's family comes in many different hues and shades of black, brown, and white. Seeing the photos of marriages, parties, school photos, celebrations, one had a pride and joy at seeing middle-class African-Americans in the early 20th century, so often seen by history in such stereotypical distress and poverty, being depicted in all manner of complexity in life: with dreams, and loves, and desires, and faults just like anyone else. Of course watching the photos, I couldn't help thinking about my own family history and how I fit into it as well as the larger African-American tapestry, even though that tapestry is only one part of many elements defining who I am. And I think this is one thing that is intriguing and universal about COIN COIN, no matter your 'race': through Matana's exploration of her own history, it helps open up your awareness to connections to your own family past and to one's inner self reflection of what that means to who you are.
Seeing such an unclassifiable project, one that mixed dramaturgy, sociological and anthropological research and study, performance art, and jazz, one could trace influence to some past projects from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), of which Matana, from her own admission is a tangential member (if Chicago's Second City is the incubator of much of American comedy today, then AACM has to be some kind of equivalent for the downtown music scene all over the globe). But Matana's work is singular in its own ambition and powerfully thought-provoking in its scope. I, for one, am happy to know of her work and that she addresses such a subject with clarity, questioning insight and vision and I look forward to seeing COIN COIN develop in the future. It is a project which should be seen and heard and discussed by many more.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 1:00 PM
It's time again for the next Composer Salon on Tuesday December 8, 2009 from 7 pm to around 9 pm at the Brooklyn Lyceum (227 4th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn). 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 #3:
“What makes the history of music, or of any art, particularly troublesome is that what is most exceptional, not what is most usual, has often the greatest claim on our interest. Even within the work of one artist, it is not his usual procedure that characterizes his personal ‘style’, but his greatest and most individual success.”—Charles Rosen, The Classical Style
On November 19th, I attended the 21cLiederabend concert at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn's fashionable neighborhood of DUMBO. The performance, co-produced by Galapagos, VisionIntoArt, Opera on Tap, and Beth Morrison Projects, was billed as "a multimedia performance featuring vocal works by some of New York's rising young stars of post-classical composition." Composers Caleb Burhans, Leah Coloff, Corey Dargel, Osvaldo Golijov, Judd Greenstein, Ted Hearne, David T. Little, Missy Mazzoli, Nico Muhly, Milica Paranosic, Kamala Sankaram, and Paola Prestini all had pieces performed and while I enjoyed most of the compositions (some quite a lot: Greenstein's "Hillula", Golijov's "Lua Descolorida", and Mazzoli's "Song from the Uproar" were three of my favorites) at some point during the show, as I listened to the works brimming with compelling ideas and sounds, I began to wonder what music historians will make of our age.
Almost all of the compositions had a seriousness purpose, to be expected from the erudite and aware composers. Happily, for me anyway, while there wasn't any real stylistic unity between the compositions, there were a few things in common. One was that each composition seemed to be intent on working a 'new beauty' aesthetic: generally euphonic sounds (even the dissonances) with a more contemplative (not necessarily slow) musical tone. Second was that all of the pieces seemed to be what I call, mixed music: music that goes beyond the rigid definitions of a singular genre to organically fuse multiple styles into something completely different (think how children of mixed race couples are neither one yet both of the races of their parents). For example, the compositions at Galapagos were clearly influenced in form, instrumentation, and rhythmic and harmonic adventurousness by classical music but also included elements from other more popular musical forms and cultural sensibilities (whether pop, rock, hip-hop, etc.). Other terms for this type of composition in the classical world are alt-classical or post-classical, but I think my term mixed musicbest describes this trend in music because it can reflect many different hybrids of styles: from the jazz world (groups such as the Bad Plus and Darcy Argue's Secret Society mixing the jazz and rock/alternative worlds; Robert Glasper's work with Q-Tip, Kanye West, Mos Def, and Maxwell or Roy Hargrove playing with D'angelo or most of MeShell Ndegeocello's output all working the jazz and creative black popular music angle (sometimes with a decidedly Prince-ian eclecticism and élan); contemporary classical and pop or electronica (Nico Muhly or the new In C Remixed recording) or my own compositions with Numinous, which fuses elements from contemporary classical and jazz to other more popular forms). While there is much fundamentalism and narrow-mindedness in values and taste in today's society, which is often defended in the most obstreperous manner leading to more and more ossification of those values and tastes (think of the political climate in the US and you get what I'm saying), I could argue that this entire generation or era is one of mixed sensibilities: racially, financially, temporally, and culturally. Even though I'm not one for labels since they usually only hint at something and are partially accurate at best, I do understand in the 'real world' that they are necessary so the term mixed music seems an appropriate one to describe much of the music of our time, at least in much of the creative artistic music with its heterodox movement toward a 'beyond-genre-ness'. But there is a danger with no overarching stylistic unity or this blending of styles and influences to center or ground a composer, similar to what Leonard Bernstein discussed about music's meaning and intelligibility in his Norton Lecture "The Delights and Dangers of Ambiguity": what makes a composer's voice consistent and understandable from piece to piece? At the 21cLiederabend concert I was reminded of Wassily Kandinsky’s discussion of Pablo Picasso's style in his Über das Geistige in der Kunst (Of Concerning the Spiritual in Art). Speaking of Picasso he writes:
“Tossed hither and thither by the need for self-expression, Picasso hurries from one manner to another. At times a great gulf appears between consecutive manners, because Picasso leaps boldly and is found continually by his bewildered crowd of followers standing at a point very different from that at which they saw him last. No sooner do they think that they have reached him again than he has changed once more.”
With all of the stylistic borrowing, how do you make something that isn't pastiche? What filament runs through someone like Picasso to make it Picasso? I mean Steve Reich sounds like Steve Reich. John Adams, John Adams. Philip Glass, Glass. Charlie Parker. Bird (well, I guess you could say Sonny Stitt also sounds similar to Bird, but that's another discussion; on the Jazz Loft Project Episode #10 listen to pianist Paul Bley talking about finding one's own sound after Charlie Parker died). But listening to the composer's compositions on November 19th, what thread runs through their works? Besides their names on the scores, what makes a piece by Missy Mazzoli, Missy Mazzoli's? Nico Muhly, Nico Muhly's? Joe Phillips, mine? And, of those on the Galapagos concert, asking the question Norman Lebrecht asked in his recent poll of composers we'll still be listening to 50 years from now, whose sound and music will we be hearing from 50 years from now? 100 years? 10 years? Does it really matter? To relate to the Charles Rosen quote above, is all of this stylistic borrowing and the music that encompasses it, what is 'exceptional' in our age or usual? Years from now, what will mark people's interest in the music of now?
So here are a few thought-provoking statements and fodder for discussion relating to style and the freedoms (and limitations) in our mixed musicera:
I. Arnold Schoenberg writes in his Die Musik,
“Every combination of notes, every advance is possible, but I am beginning to feel that there are also definite rules and conditions which incline me to the use of this or that dissonance.”
What are the rules now? Is it rules or just taste? Whose taste dictates what is 'good'?
II. Jazz composer, pianist, and AACM founding father Muhal Richard Abrams tells Francis Davis in a February 1991 article,
“In the beginning, jazz was an abstract process. It wasn’t any particular style yet. It sounded like whatever the musician wanted it to sound like. It stood for the freedom to experiment, the excitement of things never quite coming out the same.”
Do you feel jazz has moved away from the inclusive origins Abrams talks about? Is that spirit and 'freedom to experiment' alive in today’s jazz? How do you balance experimentation with standard practice in your own music? If it sounds like 'whatever you want it to sound like' why identify yourself as a 'jazz' composer? a classical composer? a pop musician? etc.
III. Composer Daniel Lentz says,
“style is really just learning how to repeat yourself, sometimes endlessly. If you keep changing your language and what you do, which is a very noble thing to do, nobody will know who you are?”
Do you agree with this statement or not? Thinking about the Kandinsky quote on Picasso, do you strive for a “coherence or singularity” in your musical language or is your language "tossed hither and dither"? What characteristics would define your own personal style?
IV. Morton Feldman writes in his essay "The Anxiety of Art",
“The painter achieves mastery by allowing what he is doing to be itself. In a way he must step aside in order to be in control. The composer is just learning to do this. He is just beginning to learn that controls can be thought of as nothing more than accepted practice.”
Is control nothing more than “accepted practice”? How do you control and manage the flow and freedom of ideas during the composing process? How does this relate to the Daniel Lentz quote above?
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 at the very least adding your thoughts in the comments. Hope to see you on December 8th!
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 5:19 PM
Completing my Mostly Mozart Festival John Adams double play on Monday night was an all-Adams chamber music program at Alice Tully Hall's Starr Theater. The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) performed Shaker Loops (the septet version), Gnarly Buttons with guest clarinetist Michael Collins, and Son of Chamber Symphony all conducted by John Adams.
Unlike Sunday's performance of the John Adams opera, A Flowering Tree, the crowd at the ICE concert was slightly younger, definitely hipper (or maybe more stylish is a better description) and only marginally more diverse. And again unlike Sunday, there were a sprinkling of empty seats throughout the hall, although for all intents and purposes, it was quite full.
Shaker Loops, one of Adams' early works (and probably the one to jump start his fame) bounded open at a brisk pace, with both Adams and the strings, energetically shaking and looping throughout. Watching Adams bouncing along with the music, mimicking the forceful unison rhythmic passages, and giving spirited emotional directives with his conducting, made me wonder how much fun he must be having directing his music. Especially with this piece which has much youthful extroverted brio and elan, although echos of Adams to come are also present: energetic minimalistic cells; bubbling harmonic and rhythmic tension contrasted with a lovely slower and more static section; a general sense of optimism and hope.
Gnarly Buttons was next up and while I have heard this piece a few times on CD, listening on Monday night brought me a new found insight and admiration. The first movement, "The Perilous Shore", started with a plaintive solo clarinet melody moving into something that resembled a distilled Irish reel or jig. With the jagged lines and counterpoint and the sound color of the ensemble, "The Perilous Stone", and Gnarly Buttons in general, did bear some resemblance to Stravinsky's L'Historie-Octet-Les Noces period of the 1920's. The second movement, "Hoedown (Mad Cow)", was a sort of refracted cakewalk with jaunty syncopation and lively spirit as well as a few humorous moments (including a 'cow moo' sample from one of the keyboards). The ending of the movement was luminous with Michael Collins singing clarinet melody over calm balalaika-like mandolin strumming. The third movement, "Put Your Loving Arms Around Me", reminded me, especially with the open pulsation and flute melody and guitar figures, much of Naive and Sentimental Music and later of Harmonielehre with its harmonic changes and overall blending of more 'romantic' and minimalism gestures. The movement's end with an elegiac and prayer like tone, with the clarinet hovering on top of stillness, was beautifully rendered by Michael Collins and ICE.
After intermission and before the start of the second half, John Adams came out and spoke to the crowd. With a wry sense of humor, he informed us about the 'oedipal' problems of the printed program which had listed the titles of the upcoming Son of Chamber Symphony with the names of the progenitor Chamber Symphony. Then, giving the downbeat he and ICE were off into the first groove of the opening movement, with melodic lines flying around the stage like Olympic gymnasts. The second movement featured beautiful long-lined Adams' hyper-melodies' while the final movement had the energy of Shaker Loops but the texture and interlocking rhythms of Chamber Symphony. Overall, I found the Son a worthy off-spring of the Father. I overheard a number of people around me during the four! standing ovations say that that was their favorite piece of the night.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 11:35 PM
Last night I went to a performance of the latest opera of John Adams, A Flowering Tree. Based on a 2000 year old South Indian folk tale, this performance was a part of Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival and featured singers Sanford Sylvan, Jessica Rivera, and Russell Thomas, the Orchestra of St. Luke's, a trio of Javanese dancers, and the ScholaCantorum de Venezuela directed by Maria Guinand. And you may ask, what does composer John Adams, Javanese dancers, a ancient Indian folk tale, and a choir from Venezuela and often singing in Spanish, have to do with Mozart? Well, after earlier this year reading John Adams' autobiography Hallelujah Junction (and also retold by director Peter Sellars in a post-performance discussion) the story was that Peter Sellars was asked in 2006 to direct the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. And when Peter asked John if he could write something for the Festival, John replied, "I want to do Magic Flute!". And with that, the seed that was later to become A Flowering Tree was planted.
John Adams wrote in the program of last night's performance:
Mozart was my first composer. His clarinet concerto was the first serious work I mastered as a performer. The three late symphonies, his string quintets, and almost all of his piano concertos were, and continue to be, canonical items for my musical imagination. When I first began to struggle with tonal harmony my teacher gave me a full score of Don Giovanni and told me to memorize not only the arias and ensembles but even the recitatives. A biography of Mozart provided the launch pad for my life as a composer. Decades later Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), his Enlightenment statement about youth, initiation, and the dawning of moral awareness, provided the model for my own opera A Flowering Tree.
In the opening, a storyteller (Sanford Sylvan) introduces a Prince (Russell Thomas) and Kumudha (Jessica Rivera), a poor young women who "magically morphs into a tree, undergoing myriad transformations, to help her poor family." Also on stage for most of the opera were the three Javanese dancers (Rusini Sidi, Eko Supriyanto, and Astri Kusuma Wardani) who were non-singing avatars of Kumudha, the mother/sister, and later the Prince. This parallel action, while far from being a jejune distraction was actually quite effective and moving: the dancers, as the singers were singing, could actually show the interior emotions of the characters in ways words couldn't.
The entire first act was devoted to Kumudha and how through the act of transformation, the sale of flowers gathered from her tree form helped her family. The Prince, who was an aimless sort, one day by chance spiedKumudha transforming and goes to his father and says of Kumudha, "She troubles me, she troubles me". And the father brings her to the palace to become the Prince's wife. However the Prince really wants her to transform into the tree ("your gift belongs to me") and after she agrees to show him, she returns back to human form and they make love for the first time among the fragrant petals of Kumudha.
Of course this being opera, there has to be conflict! The second Act while starting off with the happy couple in the palace slowly mutates to a scene with the jealous and envious sister of the Prince, 'tricking' Kumudha while the Prince is away, into performing her gift. And while in mid-change during the transformation ritual, the sister and a group of friends break branches and tear off flowers from Kumudha's treeself, leaving her unable to return to a wholly human form. Now somewhere between human and tree, this grotesque stump crawls away ("like a worm"), ashamed and dishonored. The Prince upon his return searches for his wife to no avail. So he forsakes all his princely riches and wanders the country as an ascetic. At the end they find each other and when he realizes that stump is his wife, he performs the magic ritual to return her to beauty and human form once again.
How to describe such a magical performance and work? First, rarely do I sit so close (I was in the first row, about 10 feet directly behind John Adams as he was conducting-the orchestra was on-stage with the singers, choir, and dancers). It brought another level of excitement to see and feel the reactions of all the performers so intimately. There were many gorgeous and wonderful moments in the opera: the incredibly fluid dancing by the Javanese dancers (imagine a blend of graceful Tai Chi and Bollywood-esquemovement); the choir's first entrance (accompanied by lovely orchestration and harmonic motion) which was so quietly angelic and ethereal one would have thought the heavens were opening up and welcoming you; the wonderful "Flowers, Flowers, Lovely Flowers!" also sung by the choir during Kumudha's first transformation in the first Act (brought to mind the echos of ecstasy found in "Wild Nights" from Adams's Harmonium); the end of the first Act when the Kumudha performs the Flowering Tree transformation for her new husband and they embrace as if meeting for the last time; the singing of the Prince throughout, whose forceful and ringing voice was often stirring and moving; a virtuosic violin interlude in Act 1; the gorgeously intertwined duet in the second Act between the lovers; the "Monkey Chant" of the second Act; the glowing harmonic and rhythmic build-up of tension and awakening, mirrored in the lighting which changed from darkness to a beautific golden orange, all climaxing in a glorious unison pitch as the Prince completes transformation of the stump back into a human during the final moments of the opera.
As an aside one of the first things I noticed just as the opera started was the choir. Seated around the perimeter of the opera set, they were all dressed in colorful saris and kurtas (even John Adams had a colorful green vest). And when they came onto the set, one was struck by how attractive and beautifully diverse they were. All sizes, hues and colors and all very dynamic and engaging when they sang. Particularly there was one female singer in a blue sari (see below photo), whose attentiveness to watching John Adams conducting was as a lover to her partner, and while all of the choir to varying degrees were emotive, this one young women was quite mesmerizing (actually talking with my friend afterwards, I found he was thinking the same thing throughout the opera!). Truly they were the "Greek choir" that not only commented on the action, they were a part of it (for example, they were the friends beckoning Kumudha to transform). And whenever they sang or were on stage, these were some of my favorites parts of the opera, both theatrically (for example, the opening hand gestures of an upturned cupped hand 'popping' open to the sky like a flower bud was evocative) and musically (some of the most inventive and beguiling music was during the choruses).
During the opera it was interesting to hear how echos of past John Adams (from Harmonium to El Nino) as well as influences from Steve Reich to more ethnic musics, all were woven together in a subtle language that was decidedly John Adams. And the post-performance discussion with Peter Sellars and Maria Guinard was informative; hearing Peter Sellars speak about art and creativity and democracy was very inspiring.
I really wished I could have seen A Flowering Tree again immediately after because there was so much richness and life and beauty there, it was difficult to take all in on one viewing. I must say it all was very inspiring to me to see such creativity and imagination which wasn't afraid to touch on both the sorrows and joys of life. It was a 'thinking space' or "a repose in a world often filled with horrors and terrors" that offered its own poignant, challenging, and unflinching mediation into the redemptive and restorative power of love.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 10:00 AM
Last night I had an old home visit of sorts: I attended the 21st Annual BMI Jazz Composers Workshop concert at Christ and St. Stephen's Church in Manhattan. Under the watchful eyes and careful ears of Jim McNeely, Mike Abene, and Mike Holobor, the Jazz Composers Workshop is an incubator for many creative big band and large ensemble jazz composers who go on after being in the Workshop to form and lead their own ensembles. Composers such as (and sorry to those friends I missed) Rufus Reid, Sherisse Rogers, JC Sanford, Ed Neumeister, Darcy James Argue, Asuka Kakitani, Jeff Fairbanks, Jamie Begian, Anita Brown, and (humbly including) myself all have passed through the doors of BMI's 57th Street headquarters.
The BMI Workshop is what initially brought me to New York City in the first place and I am always grateful to Jim and Burt Korall, the spiritual forefather of the workshop, for taking a chance on someone who, inspired and encouraged by Maria Schneider, decided to leave his previous life and move to NYC in hopes of trying to "make it" as a composer. I met many of my Numinous musicians as well as all of the Pulse composers at BMI and while I never considered (or consider) myself a "jazz composer" I nonetheless learnt much not only from Jim, Mike Abene, and before his death in 2001, Manny Albam, but from the other composers, musicians and special guest lecturers such as Maria and Gil Goldstein that all are a part of the BMI "Family".
The concert opened with a heartfelt tribute from Jim McNeely for Gerry Niewood, who was a frequent member of the BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra and was one of those that died on Continental Flight 3407 outside Buffalo. Jim's words touched on the warmth of Gerry's character ("a truly nice guy") and his considerable musical ability and talent. The concert was dedicated to Gerry's memory.
Billed as premiering the "best of the best" jazz compositions created during the past year in the workshop, the compositions generally featured an eclectic overview of contemporary big band jazz language. As to be expected, no piece was totally straight-ahead although some did reference swing or bebop while others clearly showed the influence of Maria, Jim, or Bob Brookmeyer's music. My favorite piece of the night (and the one I found the most intriguing and unique) was Sara Jacovino's "Mental Block" with a lovely repeated circular opening piano figure that moved seamlessly into a pulsing cross-stick groove under a slowly floating melody eventually leading to a soprano sax solo from Marc Phanuef and later a guitar solo from Sebastian Noelle. Overall, there was a wonderful and natural rising emergence to the piece that kept me engaged throughout and wondering what idea was coming next. "Mental Block" was voted by a three judge panel (Rufus Reid, Darcy James Argue, and Dennis Mackrel) as the winner of the BMI/Charlie Parker Composition Competition and Sara received the $3000 Manny Albam Commission for a new piece to be premiered at 2010's concert.
The other compositions I found musically stimulating were: Noriaki Mori's "Rainy Song", a Competition nominee, opened with more dissonant and elusive winds which gave way to an uptempo groove with slight echo's of Maria Schneider's "Coming About" (especially in it's soaring emotional uplift and energetic tenor sax solo of Ben Kono) before succumbing to a slower wind chorale postlude; another Competition nominee, Tom Goehring's "I'm Not Sayin', (I'm Just Sayin')" with it's spidery up-tempo bebop-ish figures that jitterily traveled back and forth between instruments; and "Mulberry Street" from Jeff Fairbanks, the 2008 winner of the Charlie Parker Competition and Manny Albam Commission in an ambitious suite that mixed traditional Chinese gongs and musical gestures with more jazz-like passages.
All of the other compositions did have something I found notable and distinguished, even if I didn't always connect with the piece as a whole: Ann Belmont's "When the Stars Come Out" had a 1960's bachelor-pad loungy bossa nova feel; the percolating groove based on a Uruguayan rhythm called a candombe in Emilio Solla's "Llegara, Llegara, Llegara"; the playful opening and later funky grooves of "Change of Season" by Idah Santhaus (who seemed to have the most friends in the audience judging from the reaction after his piece); the quiet, slow atmosphere and more orchestral counterpoint of Brett Gold's "Diminished Waltz and Fantasia"; and the episodic "Poem" by Michele Caniato.
The compositions were generally conducted effectively by each composer and performed with usual professionalism and musicality by the BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra: Marc Phanuef, Rob Wilkerson, Ben Kono, Rob Middleton, Kenny Berger (reeds); Jon Owens, John Eckert, Steve Smyth, Jim O'Connor (trumpets); Tim Sessions, Pete McGuiness, JC Sanford, Jennifer Wharton (trombones); Sebastian Noelle (guitar); Deanna Witkowski (piano); David Ambrosio (bass); Bryson Kern (drums); and Diana Herold (vibraphone on Ann Belmont's piece only).
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 10:53 AM
This past week I actually had some free time (which has been rare as of late) so I got out of the house and went into the musical world of NYC to hear and see some performances.
First, this past Wednesday night (June 17) I saw the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra at the Brooklyn Lyceum. Asuka formerly co-lead a big band with bassist-composer (and sometimes Numinous member) Noriko Ueda and this gig was the debut of a group under her own name. The ensemble featured many veterans of New York's big band and small group jazz scene such as Jon Gordon (Maria Schneider, Vanguard Orchestra), Scott Wendholt (Carnegie Hall big band, Bob Mintzer, Vanguard), JC Sanford (Sound Assembly, John Hollenbeck, BMI Jazz Orchestra). After hearing the eleven compositions from Asuka on Wednesday, I'm starting to get a sense of what makes up her musical DNA: flowing and delineated melodic figures and motifs, a warm harmonic palette, an orchestral sweep with sometimes extended formal excursions, and generally a tonal framework of 'light' or consonance (although this can be spiked with subtle dissonances). During the break between sets, I heard one musician say that Asuka's music has a "Kenny Wheeler-ness" to it and I would agree that there are times one is reminded of his melancholy and lovely music (not to mention Maria Schneider's music- alas what modern big band composer doesn't owe at least a small debut to her influence) but Asuka's own distinct voice and style came through clearly in: Re: I'll Remember You, featuring Jason Rigby on tenor sax, had a slow, slithery groove and an organic build-up; Hermine's Song which had wonderful moments of orchestral color, with Ryan Keberle's intense trombone solo over a more modal background; Island in the Stream with the weaving keyboard figures and 70's Miles Davis vibe; and the somberly beautiful Dark Paintings, one part of a forthcoming suite inspired by painter Mark Rothko featuring JC Sanford's questioning trombone solo. I'm looking forward to hearing more from Asuka and her band in the future.
On Thursday June 18th I had two engagements to attend. First, I went to Greenwich Village to the Hebrew Union College to see a screening of the film, A Year with Take Dance by Damian Eckstein. The film, a winner of the Best Dance Documentary at the 2009 New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, follows choreographer Takehiro Ueyama and his company through a complete year's worth of events from performances atPS/21 in Chatham, New York, Central Park's Summerstage, and Columbia University's Miller Theatre to the many rehearsals and parties post and between performances.Také, a former dancer with Paul Taylor, began his own company about four years ago and seeing the full scope and development of Také's work since being on his own was quite interesting and impressive. With an opening shot of different dancers' feet, the film went on in basically a one-camera, gorilla style to explore how a "pick-up company" like Také's struggles to put together a season of inspired and dynamic dancing in New York City. The ample clips and excerpts from various performances of Také's such as One, set to the music of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, Linked, danced to the song The First Circle by Pat Metheny (one of my personal favorites of Také's), or Love Stories, with music by Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova, Sigeru Umebayashi, and Yann Tiersen and inspired by René Magritte's mysterious painting The Lovers detailed the incredible virtuosity of Také's vision. I'm hoping the film will expose that vision to more and more people.
After the screening of the documentary I headed a few blocks west to the Cornelia Street Cafe where friend Brenda Earle was performing. Brenda is one of the pianists on my Vipassana CD and is a "four position" player: pianist, singer, composer, and arranger. This concert was a celebration of her new CD release, Songs for a New Day. Now, I am no fan of much of what passes today as jazz singing. I'm more engaged by vocalists who are musicians (someone like Kate McGarry), who take chances with repertoire, who can sing but more importantly know when NOT to sing- in short, I'm not really interested in so-called "jazz singers" (I guess a good analogy would be in films- the difference between an actor (i.e. Cate Blanchett, Laura Linney) and a star or celebrity (Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton)). So I was excited to hear Brenda because she certainly fits the bill of musician. Being an attractive blonde, a casual comparison calls to mind Diana Krall (Mrs. Elvis Costello or is he Mr. Diana Krall?) however I find that Brenda's piano playing is more assertive and demonstrative, and while her voice doesn't have the single-malt whisky silkiness of Diana Krall's, it is an equally tasty and fine California (or Canadian) Pinot Noir. One thing immediately noticeable at the concert was, while there was definite professionalism, there was also a sense of fun and joy often missing in many jazz performances. Not only is Brenda quite quick-witted and shares funny asides between songs, but it is readily apparent that her band (Jesse Lewis - guitar, Ike Sturm - bass, Jared Schonig - drums, and special guest cellist (and Numinous member) Lauren Riley-Rigby) enjoy playing with her. The personal and musical rapport was evident throughout the show, especially on some of my favorites of the night: her spirited cover of Marc Anthony's Valió la Pena (sung in Spanish, thanks to coaching, as Brenda tells it, from her Puerto Rican neighbor); Happening her "hit song, even if no one else calls it that" with its joyous tone and savory guitar solo from Jesse Lewis; the summer night ballad In Love; and "T.V. theme-ish" Song for a New Day. Overall, Brenda's songs often provoke delicate thoughts with repeated themes of longing, doubt, and desire ("does he wonder? does he worry? does he see right through you?", "she brushes past him at the end of a long day", "I can't believe this is happening to me", "the night has cast a magic spell") but also of hope, with their stories of human connections we all crave.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 6:54 AM
Tonight I went to a performance on New York City's annual music on Hudson festival, River to River. The concert was Poetic City, a celebration of Poets House with Poetry and Music of Meredith Monk, featuring interpretations of Meredith's music by Vijay Iyer, Don Byron, and Pulse collaborator, singer Joy Askew in addition to poetry readings from Jane Hirshfield, Major Jackson, Ed Sanders, and Brenda Shaughnessy. Meredith, who we were told was originally to be at the concert, actually did not attend because of the flu.
While I have known of Meredith Monk's music for years and saw her perform Dolmen Music at the 25th anniversary concert of the Kitchen in 2004 (and have the Dolmen Music ECM recording from the 70s), sitting at this concert I realized that I know the things I know until I find out about the things I don't know; hearing the different interpretations of her vast output was a wonderful experience, although some versions worked better than others.
The concert started off with Vijay Iyer performing Meredith's Gotham Lullaby (from the aforementioned Dolmen Music CD). While there were sound mixing issues (which unfortunately plagued every musical act), the reading was generally good, with some interesting live vocal processing by singer Latasha Natasha Diggs (whom Vijay worked with on his incredible 2004 In What Language CD). Of all of the members of the band (which did perform well, although I thought the drums in the first two songs weren't really necessary-although this had more to do with the kind of music performed than anything Marcus Gilmore did on drums), I was more intrigued by what Latasha was doing. In the third and final song that Vijay did, Latasha's vaguely Eastern European vocal effects (both processed and not) were quite interesting on top of the cross-rhythms that Vijay and Marcus were laying down.
Next were readings by the above poets, mostly reading their own works. Major Jackson read a few poems including a brand new one called Why I write Poetry which was funny and evocative ("because I have not thanked enough", "vision of trees comes to the wise women", "the moon is my jury", "I've been on a steady diet of words since I was 3"). I also enjoyed his next poem which was either a Gwendolyn Brooks poem or inspired by her (couldn't quite tell exactly from his intro to the poem). Brenda Shaughnessy was up next and began with some random thoughts before someone in the audience shouted "What's your name" and she was back on task, which was to read her poems which were a mixture of profane words and mundane and simple imagery. While not unpleasant (she did have a few phrases from poems including "your dreams are stolen" which I enjoyed), I was not moved by her poetry like I was by the next poet: Jane Hirshefield. Her poems resonated with me immediately with their beautiful and elegant phrasing and tone. The Poet was a lovely and melancholy reverie on an unknown poet tolling away in her home writing poetry that the narrator "won't know about but needs". She also read a lovely new poem (never read aloud before that moment or so she said) based on the sciences, 1st Light to Sirius; one poem (which was my favorite of the night) about certainty and being in the moment like "the cat whose every cell is waiting"; French Horn and The Bell Zygmunt, which was written in honor of a famed poets wife. I will be making her poems more known to me in the future. Ed Sanders was the last poet to read and read his English translation from the Greek of a Sappho poem, although he did include a brief reading of the poem in the original ancient Greek accompanying himself on some kind of lute.
Next came the reason I actually knew about the concert, singer Joy Askew. Joy sang and played piano with Robert DiPietro, Rob Jost and Steve Elliott as part of her band. Mostly she sang items from Meredith's non-lyrical side, starting off with a dreamy, California dirge-like version of Gotham Lullaby. Joy's singing had a sort of Middle East sounding flavor to it which was interesting over the smooth guitar sound. Change (from Meredith's album Key) was the next song. Joy mentioned to the audience that she had only taken the first two lines of Meredith's composition and used them as a template for creating a completely new song. Joy created wonderful layers of herself singing with a vocal effects pedal over the slide guitar and herself on piano. The last composition Joy performed was Panda Chant II from Meredith's 1987 album Do You Be. Joy again created a layer of vocals mixed with her playing hand drum. After her singing (chanting), the song broke out into a 'slow bar-band blues' which, with a slight interlude that brought back the opening, moved nicely into a slow rock anthem building on the word, "panda". It was great to see Joy rocking out, although again the terrible sound mixing did not do her any favors.
The poets returned to read short poems (except Ed Sanders who sang his poem) with only a phrase from Major Jackson ("liquid timepieces") being the only thing to stand out for me during this reading session.
Don Byron, including a great band (with sometime Numinous bassist, Kermit Driscoll), came on last and with his opening tune seemed to clear the lawn (actually people were leaving before this but the pace seemed to quicken as they started to play). It featured two bass clarinets, electric bass, and drums performing abstract, jagged, percolating rhythms always in a state of becoming and free-jazz solos from the bass clarinets. While I found it musically stimulating, I don't think it was necessarily a good opening number. The group kept on the vibe for the next tune, but the final composition featured sinewy, weaving melody lines from the two clarinets on top of a mid-70s Miles blowout groove with both clarinet producing dynamic and stirring solos; a good way to end his set and the concert.
Overall it was a fun concert with some good performances, despite the sound issues and I'm glad to have heard more of Meredith Monk's music as well as learnt about The Poets House and the poetry of Jane Hirshfield.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 10:36 PM
Tonight I attended a benefit concert by Simone Dinnerstein as part of the PS 321 Neighborhood Concerts in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She performed Johannes Brahms' Intermezzo in A Major (one of my favorite pieces of Brahms), Philip Lasser's Twelve Variations on a Chorale by J.S. Bach, and J.S. Bach's French Suite No. 5 in G major.
All of the pieces were performed beautifully. The Brahms had an easy melodic warmth and expressivity. In the Lasser I believe it was Variation 9 with it's repetitive phrases that I was attracted to the most, although Variation 11 (which is a variation on the variations) was fun to try and follow the mists of earlier variations (the composer was in the audience and I got to meet after the concert). Listening to Simone perform French Suite I was reminded of Bach's title page of his Klavierübung where he states his goal is to stimulate the mind and refresh the spirit. I certainly felt both mentally stimulated and spiritually refreshed during Simone's reading. Following the various strands of Bach's melodies, particularly the left hand motion, made me wonder how Bach was able to create such beauty with just two simple lines weaving around each other. I told Simone after the concert...I'll be checking out more Bach!
After the concert, Simone announced the start of the PS 321 Neighborhood Concert Series with all proceeds benefiting the PS 321 PTA (certainly needed with all of the state budget cuts looming). All the artists are friends or collaborators of Simone's and sounds quite exciting for Brooklyn. One of the artists she announced, Face the Music, will be performing on the series in the spring of 2010 and have commissioned me to write a work for them! They are middle school aged students from the Special Music School in Manhattan and I'm really excited to work with them (and their director Jenny Undercofler) as I heard a broadcast of them performing Phil Kline's Exquisite Corpses for mixed ensemble and tape for the opening of WNYC's Greene Concert Space on April 30th and was quite impressed. This was one of those commissions I didn't know about until Simone contacted me about it earlier in the week (always like surprises like that!). She was performing at the Greene Space opening too and heard Face the Music perform also and asked Jenny Undercofler if they would be a part of the Neighborhood series and suggested that I might write a piece for them. I'm very honored that Simone thought of me for the commission and that Face the Music said yes; looking forward to it.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 9:25 PM
To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.